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Notes on "The Ballad Of John And Yoko"


Notes on ... Series #163 (TBOJAY)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form:         ----- 3X ------
            Intro | Verse / Refrain | Bridge |
                    ----- 2X ------
                  | Verse / Refrain | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Past Masters", Volume 2, Track 11 (Parlophone CDP 90044-2)
  Recorded: 14th April 1969, Abbey Road 3
UK-release: 30th May 1969 (A Single / "Old Brown Shoe")
US-release: 4th June 1969 (A Single / "Old Brown Shoe")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Recorded on impulse in a single session with just John and Paul on hand, and providing all the music in one way or another, this stylized blues quickie remains quite a curiosity of the Beatles catalog.
  Next note The production is a triumph of period technology. You'd never suspect only two people did it with multiple overdubs based on what you can hear. Macca on drums is a particularly pleasant surprise. Alright, so he's not up to Ringo's standards, but at risk of damning with faint praise, he surely does much better (read: steadier) than the erstwhile Mister Best.
  Next note Beyond technique, you don't need to read Lewisohn to tell with your own ears how urgent a sense of creative fun and collaborative byplay was shared by John and Paul in this April 1969 recording session, in spite of the overtly John and Yoko focus of the narrative. It forces you to question the well worn conventional wisdom that insists their musical relationship had manifestly gone bust by the previous January.
  Next note The flavor of the music is quite bluesy but the form avoids any suggestion of the twelve-bar idiom.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune is quite bluesy by virtue of the heavy use of the flat seventh and lighter use of the flat third.
  Next note The harmony is equally bluesy by virtue of the chord set being limited to ones rooted on I, IV, and V.
  Next note The I7 chord is exploited for its capability of sounding like a V-of-IV, and the V chord is frequently embellished by the simultaneous Major/minor third cross relation.


  Next note A facsimile of the session notes for this song that spells out all you need to know about who plays what is conveniently reproduced in Lewisohn's Recording Sessions, page 172.
  Next note They were never too busy to sweat the details:
  • John sings the first three Verse/Refrains single tracked by himself though with some extra reverb. Paul joins him for the final two sections; tentatively at first, in the fourth iteration (he jumps in for just the last word of each line of the verse, "bath, said, head, drag"), but sits out the refrain; then, for the grand finale, Paul sings all the way through.
  • The verses feature bluesy lead guitar licks between the phrases in left-to-right ping-pong stereo.
  • The refrains feature chromatic scale runs in the guitar. The first three follow a pattern of down, down, down, down. The last two are down, up, down, down. Don't tell me it's a coincidence.
  • The piano, which is used in quite sparingly in the rest of the song, joins in for the entirety of the final verse. Together with Paul's similar vocal, this appropriately thickens up the ensemble for the big finish.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note We get just two measures of vamping on the I chord to set the key and tempo.
  Next note Don't underestimate the extent to which the extreme brevity of this section sets a hurried (albeit "pleasantly" hurried) tone for what follows.


  Next note The verse is eight measures long, vamping on a single chord. The lyrics come in very short bursts that add up to a surprisingly large number of poetic lines for the relatively short length of the section; I'd parse it as AA/A'A'/A'', followed by the long pickup to the refrain:
       A                 A
      |E       |-       |-       |-       |
   E:  I

       A'       A'       A''         Pickup ...
      |E7      |-       |-       |-       |

   [Figure 163.1]
  Next note The tune hangs in there at a precarious part of the scale; centered on 5, but stepping down down to 3, and later jumping up to flat-7.


  Next note This section is also eight measures long. Harmonically, it starts away from I but clearly, directly converges toward it:
   |A       |-       |E       |-       |
    IV                I

   |B       |-       |E       |-       |
    V                 I

   [Figure 163.2]
  Next note You might want to parse this and what I label as the "verse" together as a single section to the extent that neither one feels quite sufficient on its own. hence my use of the label "Verse/Refrain" instead of "Verse -» Refrain".
  Next note The tune (don't forget to include the pickup) first raises the melodic ceiling up to the octave (i.e. 8), and then, by a ragged combination of skips and steps brings it all the way down to 1, which just happens to be the melodic floor of the song as well.


  Next note The bridge is a couple beats longer than eight measures long, and harmonically both starts and ends off the I chord:
   |A       |-       |-       |-       |

   |A       |-       |B       |-       | **plus 2 extra beats!

   [Figure 163.3]
  Next note The syncopated hiccup effect at the end of this section is an ear catching trick that John was fond of; see "Yer Blues" and "... Monkey" for starters; or the half measure of radio noise interpolated before the repeat of the intro in the midst of "... Walrus".
  Next note It's hard to parse by ear with 100% certainty, but I believe the exclamation of "Think!" is on the fourth beat of measure 8, with Paul's three eighths worth of drum pickup start on "One-And" in the ninth and partial measure.


  Next note The outro provides an example of the three-times-you're-out gambit based on a petit reprise of the second half of the refrain:
   |B       |-       |E       |-       |
    V                 I

   [Figure 163.4]
  Next note After the last complete refrain, the second phrase is sung one last time, followed by the final iteration for just the backing track.
  Next note Three signature details appear at the very end:
  • slow triplets in the lead guitar;
  • ending on an added sixth chord;
  • an absolutely trailing drum fill delayed past the point where you assume the track is over.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Aside from whatever Messianic connections John may have been subliminally drawing between this song and the much earlier "The Word", I cannot escape thinking that in his choice of words for this song's refrain, he was, in part, settling an old score with the press, the radio stations, and the world for the way in which he was some combination of cajoled and bullied by the press in August 1966 to somehow apologize for saying the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus".
  Next note Take a look at the film clip from the infamous press conference which has appeared in The Compleat Beatles if not The Anthology (?). Yeah, he was sorry, alright.
  Alan (030799#163)
Copyright © 1999 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.