alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "This Boy"


Notes on ... Series #44 (TB)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: D Major
     Meter: 2/4 (6/8)
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge | Verse |
                  | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "Past Masters", Volume 1, Track 7 (Parlophone CDP 90043-2)
  Recorded: 17th October 1963, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 29th November 1963 (B Single / "I Want To Hold Your Hand")
US-release: 20th January 1964 (LP "Meet The Beatles")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "This Boy", with its tight three-part harmonies, jumping triplet rhythm, cliché chord progression, and climactic bridge section for the vocal soloist, is a stylized update of the late fifties genre sometimes described as "the slow wall climber".
  Next note The form is short, partly because of the slow tempo, but more importantly because the intense nature of the bridge argues against a repeat of that section.
  Next note Although the final verse or two of the typical Beatles' song tends to repeat the lyrics from one of the earlier verses, every verse of "This One" contains different words. The lyrics also feature "this" / "that" wordplay throughout.


  Next note The chord progression I -» vi -» ii -» V permeates the verse sections. It is remarkably similar to the I -» vi -» IV -» V cliché we saw in "Please Mister Postman". However, the use of ii here places the last three chords along the circle of fifths and on a very subtle level (try comparing the two of them, yourself) this gives the overall progression a feeling of gentle inevitability that is missing when IV is used in its place.
  Next note The prevalence of appoggiaturas in the vocal parts makes almost every chord in the song into seventh or a ninth chord, many of which are resolved though by the time they do so, it's often already the next chord. A good example of this appears at the end of the verse on the word "again". The top vocal part there pits a B -» A appoggiatura above the D chord, except that by the time the B resolves down to the A, the harmony has already moved on to a b-minor chord which now puts the same note A which would have been a consonant note in relation to the D chord into the unexpected position of being a seventh on top of the b-minor chord. This particular style of dissonance treatment conjures an aesthetic of romantic yearning, and in the realm of classical music is one of the hallmarks of such mid-late nineteenth century composers such as Wagner, Brahms et al.
  Next note Though the bridge does not make a firm modulation, it does in fact drift away from the home key just far enough to allow for a big build up on V and a pleasant sense of return at the end of it.


  Next note Along with "Yes It Is" and the much later "Because", this is one of the Beatles most ambitious forays into sustained three-part harmony. One of my favorite video clips of the group is from their February 1964 concert at the Coliseum in Washington DC at which, forced by a combination of the primitive audio equipment of those days and the pandemonium of the crowd, they perform "This Boy" with the three of them huddled uncomfortably close around a single microphone in order be able to hear themselves.
  Next note Unusual here is the manner in which the combination of the following factors creates the not-unpleasant effect of obscuring the actual "tune": the close placement of the three vocal parts in relation to each other, the relative lack of melodic individuality among the three parts, and the assignment of John (who sings what is ostensibly the main melody) to the bottom part. This also makes John's finally soaring clearly above the range of the others in the bridge section seem all the more spectacular.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro opens with three unaccompanied guitar chords, the first of which actually marks the middle of a measure, followed by an instrumental ensemble performance of our cliché chord progression. The section is an asymmetrical five and a half measures long, as though the first three chords were merely an elongated pickup to a four-measure-long intro-proper.


  Next note The verse is sixteen measures long. The backing part is built out of essentially four ostinato-like repeats of what I've dubbed the cliché progression:
      |D              |b              |e              |A      |
   D:  I               vi              ii              V

   [Figure 44.1]
  Next note Note though, that the vocal parts actually make up three phrases which are not only unequal in length, but start in a different places within the four-bar frame. The first phrase ("That boy took my love away") begins right on the downbeat of measure 1. The second phrase ("Though he'll regret it ...") begins its long anacrusis in the midst of measure 7. The third phrase ("But this boy ...") has a small pickup on the word "but", however the emphasis on the word "this" gives it the feeling of starting squarely on the downbeat of measure 11 and it ends early enough to leave measures 15 and 16 as though they were between-verse filler. Note too how the backing rhythm is momentarily silenced to good effect at the beginning of this last phrase.
  Next note The way that they manage to feature the D-Major seventh in the vocal arrangement at the beginning of the first three four-measure phrases even though the melodic context is different each time is quite ingenious. To the extent that this motif reappears in the outro, you might say that its the hook of the piece.
  Next note The last four measures of the second verse, which happens to directly precede the bridge, are modified so that instead of the usual chord progression we find the D-Major chord (I) sustained throughout, and actually modified to D7 so that its potential secondary function as the V-of-IV is brought into play by the end of the phrase.


  Next note The bridge is also sixteen measures long but is internally designed to contrast with the verse on a number of levels, not the least important of which are its division into two neat phrases of equal length and the sudden slowing of the harmonic rhythm to only one chord change every two measures:
      |G      |-      |F#     |-      |b      |-      |D      |-      |
   D:  IV              V-of-vi         vi              V-of-IV

      |G      |-      |E      |-      |A      |-      |-      |-      |
       IV              V-of-V          V

   [Figure 44.2]
  Next note The slowing of the rate of harmonic change is made ironic by the increased sense of restlessness in the sequence of chords. Note in this section the high quotient of chromatic harmony (i.e. chords not diatonically indigenous to the home key, such as "V-of ..." chords) in spite of the fact that we never actually leave the home key. In terms of word painting, I hear this gambit as illustrative of a lad who is desperately pulling out all the stops, using all the tricks he has at his disposal, ultimately to prove a relatively simple point regarding the constancy of his love.
  Next note The other obvious contrast is in the vocal arrangement of this bridge, with double-tracked John stepping in front of the backing "chorus", as it were, for his big solo. Lewisohn tantalizes us with the disclosure that early takes in the studio actually featured a guitar solo here instead!
  Next note As in the verses, the perpetual backing rhythm is briefly halted during the final two measures of this section to great dramatic effect.
  Next note Right between the very last beat of the bridge and the final verse is an obvious, ugly splice. Granted, it doesn't go "click", but this is still further proof (as if you needed it) that not too many people involved at the time could have been thinking that people would listen this closely this long after the fact.


  Next note The outro merely presents the opening hook phrase looped in alternation with a little counter melody played by the lead guitar. The latter is the only place in the song where this much prominence is given to the lead guitar and I wonder if this is partially a vestige of the bridge solo abandoned earlier.

A Final Thought

  Next note The lyrical concordance of the Beatles' songs titled "Things We Said Today" (edited by Campbell and Murphy) [**] has "This Boy" subtitled as "Ringo's Theme", which is news to me. I'll take it on faith that this correctly reflects how the song was published. But I will ask if anyone out there can answer whether the alternate title was supplied before or after the making of "A Hard Day's Night". The fact that an instrumental version of "This Boy" is used in the film as accompaniment to the long scene in which the sad and lonely one goes paradin' about town seems like just too much of a coincidence to ignore. But on the other hand, I've got just the shadow of a doubt that perhaps the movie scene was inspired by the song rather than the other way around ... just kidding.
  [** Campbell, Colin, and Allan Murphy (1980), Things We Said Today. The Complete Lyrics and a Concordance to the Beatles' Songs, 1962-1970. Ann Arbor: Pierian Press, 1980.]
  Alan (123091#44)
Copyright © 1991 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.