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Notes on "The Long And Winding Road"


Notes on ... Series #175 (TLAWR)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E-flat Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Bridge (Instrumental) |
                  | Verse | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Let It Be", Track 9 (Parlophone 0777-7 46447-2)
  Recorded: 26th, 31st January 1969, 1st April 1970, Abbey Road 1
UK-release: 8th May 1970 (LP "Let It Be")
US-release: 18th May 1970 (LP "Let It Be")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Macca does it again: in spite of his unabashed and sometimes even shameless sentimentality, he comes up with an affecting, durable torch song with "The Long And Winding Road". The secrets of his success are to be found in the manner in which novel approaches to form and harmonic structure underscore the emotional core of the song, and belie whatever curbside surface clichés it has which may initially turn you off.
  Next note The song appears to describe a repeatedly thwarted passion in whose ultimate fulfillment the hero maintains unshakable faith. The underlying music goes so far as to confirm such fulfillment, even though the words, if you read them carefully, indicate the outcome has not yet become an eventuality, nor may it be taken for granted. It's kind of like Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue" done up McCartney style; accent on vulnerability in place of bitter irony, no fancy tricks with timelines, and a more or less happy ending.
  Next note A thwarting of desire is suggested in the harmony by the relentlessness with which the relative minor key of c attempts to upstage and derail the true home key of Eb. Both Paul and John had played with Major/minor tonal schemes in many songs over a long period of time (for oldies sake look back to "And I Love Her" and "I'll Be Back"), but "The Long And Winding Road" is one of the most sophisticated examples of it in the songbook.
  Next note The restless discomfort that becomes a secondary infection borne of being constantly thwarted is suggested by a certain intentional blurring of the formal outlines whose clarity you otherwise come to rightfully rely upon. Note how the opening (title) phrase of the song reappers in contexts that make its formal purpose ambiguous. Is it an Intro, or the start of the Verse, or maybe even the end of the Bridge section? I'm going to "analyze" it below as the start of the Verse section, but its overriding formal ambiguity, per se, that is germane.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune covers the overall range of a ninth, but spends most of its time in a narrow range near the top of the Eb octave. As we'll see below, the Verse tune strives like hell for the high Eb, landing on it securely only at the very end of the section.
  Next note The home key is Eb Major but the Verse section has a strong undertow pulling in the direction of the relative minor key of c. By the same token, c minor is not allowed to ever become fully established in spite of its large amount of air time, because it's always served up in this song with a minor, instead, of Major V chord. Put another way, the relative minor key in this song is presented only in its "natural" (as opposed to "harmonic") flavor.
  Next note The chords that diatonically appear on the first six degrees of the Major scale are used in the song. Many examples of extended chords (i.e. ninths, elevenths, etcetera) are to be found here in consideration of the somewhat jazzy idiom in force. Perhaps the most distinctive example below is the V7/9/11 chord in measure 3 that sounds for all the world as those an A-flat triad were superimposed on top of the B-flat chord.
  Next note Keep your eye on the A-flat chord which bears the burden of pivoting between the keys of Eb and c; in some cases sounding like IV in the Major key, and in other cases sounding like VI in the minor key.


  Next note The Beatles-supplied backing track, as heard on the unadorned "Get Back" and "Anthology" versions of the song, is spare and simple, with piano, organ, bass, acoustic guitar (that's strange!), and drums.
  Next note Spector's overdub of a mini-orchestra and chorus may be overdone, but the unvarnished original recording sounds a bit underdressed in comparison. This is possibly the one and only case in which the application of Spector's heavy-handed production values was not entirely inappropriate. The song is a schmaltzy one at heart, indeed, so let's call a spade a spade. Paul would be the first to admit to his own very long term hankering to be (like) Frank Sinatra.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The Verse is an unusually generous and leisurely twenty-four measures long. The phrases are even in length but their poetic pattern is unusual; i.e. AB/CD/C'D':
       |c             |-             |Bb7/9/11      |-             |
   Eb:  vi                            V

       |Eb7           |-             |Ab            |-             |
        I (V-of-IV)                   IV

       |Ab            |g             |c             |-             |
        IV (VI-of-vi)  iii (v-of-vi)  vi

       |f7            |Bb            |Eb7           |-             |
        ii             V              I (V-of-IV)

       |Ab            |g             |c             |-             |
        IV (VI-of-vi)  iii (v-of-vi)  vi

       |f             |Bb            |Eb            |-             |
        ii             V              I

   [Figure 175.1]
  Next note The song appears to open in midstream without any introduction. Yes, the first four measures sound like a lead in to a Verse that starts in our measure 5 above, but the scanning of the lyrics argues against such an interpretation.
  Next note The identity of the Major home key is not clearly settled until the final phrase. The music never quite fully modulates to the relative minor key of c, but the latter is uncannily persistent in forestalling the E-flat from asserting its legitimate role. Trace it if you will:
  • The song starts off on a c-minor chord.
  • The E-flat chord at the start of the second phrase sounds as much like V-of-IV as it does like I.
  • The third phrase heads straight away for c-minor.
  • The fourth phrase appears to finally arrive on E-flat, but again, the latter chord is made to sound equivocally like V-of-IV.
  • The final pair of phrases is parallel to the phrase 3/4 combo, but this time the arrival on I is left unquestioned, for once.
  Next note Trace the similar story of what happens to poor Eb in the tune of this section:
  • Eb appears on the downbeat of the first measure but it sits atop a c-minor chord.
  • The tune for phrases 2/3 struggles upward from Bb only to finish the pair of phrases on C. Yes, Eb appears earlier in the phrase but in a melodically incidental, not structural, position.
  • The extent to which phrase 4 harmonically ends on Eb is weakened by the melody settling down to Bb at that point. Again, the low Eb that trails the end of the phrase is not structurally significant.
  • Phrase 5 is similar to phrase 3. The tune over reaches itself to tackle Eb from above, but yet again, the structural anchor point of the phrase turns out to be C.
  • Eb is finally allowed to assert itself at the end of phrase 6 in an extremely straightforward 6 -» 7 -» 8 melodic pattern.
  Next note Both harmony and melody fairly cry out here with a pathos of "try, try again" courage in the face of heartbreaking near misses that is almost physically palpable; like that single kiss you intend to land fervently, but which starts off with a bump of heads, then by mouths meeting way off center, until on your third try or later, you finally land a bullseye.
  Next note The rhythmic scanning of the lyrics in this Verse add an effect of their own. The words of each four measure phrase are in short bursts that land on the downbeat of the third measure. This leaves time for a long deep breath in the remainder of the phrase, as if the singer had too much pain or confusion to go on.


  Next note The Bridge contrasts with the Verse on a number of levels: a shorter eight-measure length, an AA phrasing pattern, straightforwardly "open" harmonic shape, and lyrics that fill the whole space without rhetorically long pauses:
    ----------------------- 2X ------------------------
   |Eb          |Ab          |Eb          |f     Bb    |
    I            IV           I6/3         ii    V

   [Figure 175.2]
  Next note The bridge formally elides right back into the Verse that follows it. On first encounter, you're apt to hear the "intro" phrase as still a part of the bridge.
  Next note The chord change that bridges that elision (V -» vi) is a textbook "deceptive" cadence, and this late in the song, presents yet another way in which c minor can thwart Eb.
  Next note The unvarnished recording of the song has Paul speaking-then-singing through the entirety of the second bridge. For whatever reason, Spector decided to eliminate the vocal track at this point and substitute an expansive arching line for the violin section, an effect which over the course of time has ironically come to be perceived in the public mind as one of the details that characterizes the track; as though it had been part of the songwriter's original intention.


  Next note The outro grows directly out of the end of the final verse, recapitulating the opening phrase of the song, for the first time, starting on the E-flat chord (last two measures of the verse), and closing (below) with a clear, full cadence. Picking it up at the last phrase of the verse:
   |f           |Bb          |Eb          |-           |
    ii           V            I

   |Bb7/11/13   |-           |Eb          |-           |
    V                         I

   |-           |-

   [Figure 175.3]

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Spector also does it again, shades of "Dig A Pony": unilaterally cutting some trailing seconds off end of the original recording, thereby robbing the official release of one genuinely poetic final gesture.
  Next note The source tape from 1/31/69 has a tiny piano coda played in a stage whisper just after the last of the big E-flat chord has faded away. This coda is derived from the piano part for the first two measures of the song, but played an octave higher than usual:
       |c           |f7          |
   c:   i            iv           ...

   [Figure 175.4]
  Next note Coming on the heels of what would otherwise seem to be a conclusively positive ending, the effect and implication of this open ended fragment, with its parting nod to the relative minor key, is understatedly ominous.
  Alan (082999#175)
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.