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notes on ...

Notes on "The Word"


Notes on ... Series #81 (TW)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: D Major
     Meter: 4/4
                   ----- 3X -------
      Form: Intro | Verse | Bridge | Verse | Bridge (instrumental) |
                  | Verse (partly instrumental) |
                  | Outro (Bridge) (fade-out)
        CD: "Rubber Soul", Track 6 (Parlophone CDP7 46440-2)
  Recorded: 10th November 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 3rd December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")
US-release: 6th December 1965 (LP "Rubber Soul")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "The Word" quite intriguingly (if also a bit obviously) anticipates the later and more ambitious "All You Need Is Love", and we'll have what to say about that in the final comments. However, as impressively dressed up as it is in virtuostically raucous production values, you can't fully disguise the extent to which it is based at root on very simple musical material; a kind of Middle Period analog to "Little Child".
  Next note The comparison to "Little Child", by the way, turns out to be more apt than you'd think at first blush — no snickering back there :-) If nothing else the two songs share a nod to the pure twelve-bar blues form and a correspondingly shouting R&B vocal style. Even more interesting though is the extent to which, in both songs, one has a hard time deciding what kind of labels (chosen from the routine list of "verse", "bridge", or "refrain") to place upon each of the formal sections.
  Next note There are a few relatively unique formal touches here as well: (a) what I've been referring to lately as the "flat folksy" form (with its rote sequencing of sectional pairs), (b) dissonant deployment of a static ostinato in the bridge, (c) holding back of the instrumental break until quite late in the song, and (d) allowing that break to spill over into the verse section which follows it.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note In this department the song bears a rather typical split personality. The verses are truly blue with their I, IV, V chord set, twelve-bar form, and the melodic stress on the flat third (F-natural) which creates a Major/minor conflict against the harmony. The bridges, for purposes of contrast, shift to a more modal style in which, though the melody stays with the bluesy emphasis on the flat third and seventh scale degrees, the harmony sneaks the rock-ish flat-VII chord into the lineup.
  Next note We've seen the Beatles use the flat-VII chord in several different ways in our past studies but I don't think we've yet seen to-date the specific semantic use found in this song. Here it is used as though it were the V-of-flat-III which is only unusual to the extent that the home key here is Major. If you stop to think about it, the same progression (C -» F) is very much at home in the parallel minor key of d!


  Next note For study's sake, you must listen at least once to the left and right channels of this song by themselves. No OOPSing is needed this type to forge your own pseudo-Beatleg outtakes.
  Next note I've often heard people complain about the artificiality of the stereo effects on the "Rubber Soul" album but I dare say that in this song (and least "Think For Yourself" and possibly others we'll yet come to) these effects reflect a striving to creatively exploit the medium and are, on some MacLuhan-esque level (or shall I say "MacLaughlan-esque" — that's an in joke :-)), a part of the song's message.
  Next note Paul's bassline is arranged in a layered way. The riff-like version of it on the right channel has only its syncopated accents reinforced by a second simpler bass part on the left channel. History of Orchestration buffs will recognize this kind of thing as a stock-in-trade technique of the late Romantic composers — check out the opening pages of Mahler's Second Symphony for a nifty example) — and I believe it is even in such small details of this sort that one witnesses the guiding hand of George Martin.
  Next note John and Paul sing a raunchy (in the nice sense of the word) duet for the verses. As in "Think For Yourself", these verse vocals sound as though (artificially?) double tracked with each one of the two tracks isolated to a separate stereo channel. This effect, combined with John's hoarse single-tracked bridge vocal that is isolated off to the right channel for a change, plus the harmonium solo miked loud enough to the point of distortion, gives the recording a surreal if not psychedelic stereo picture that you can "feel" in your head even without listening via earphones.
  Next note On the performance (as opposed to the strictly recording) side of the production we find some of the nicest drum fills this side of "She Said She Said", possibly the first piano parts this side of the "Help!" album, a dissonant use of the harmonium faintly reminiscent of "12-Bar Original" (recorded just the week before!), and a linear trend over the course of the song for the vocals to increase in terms of falsetto and feigned hoarse screaming.
  Next note As I said, the overall material may be simple here but by this stage of their career, it seems clear that no matter what kind of hurry they may have been in at times (in this case, racing to complete an album so that it could be in the stores in time for the all important Xmas rush) they had an autonomically embedded commitment to a certain pretty damned high level of craft and intensity.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note We get two measures of vamping on the Major/minor I chord, preceded by a two-beat piano pickup.


  Next note The verse is a standard twelve-bar blues frame:
   (X)"Say the|word ...       (X)Say the|word ...
              |D           |-           |-           |-           |

   (X) Say the|word ...      (X)Have you|heard ...
              |G           |-           |D           |-           |
               IV                        I

   (Y)    It's|so fine ...   (X)It's the|word ...
              |A           |G           |D           |-           |
               V            IV           I

   [Figure 81.1]
  Next note The tune is built out of short repetitive phrases in a pattern of XX-XX-YX. The X phrase runs up and back down a little "123-321" pattern, and even the Y phrase syncopatedly reiterates the same downward gesture in the form of "32-21". The same recurring lyrics in the last four measures of each verse lend the section a refrain-like quality.
  Next note The V -» IV segment of the frame (measures 9 - 10) is underscored by juicy appoggiaturas and an arpeggiated bassline.


  Next note The bridge is a short four measures and provides a break from the twelve-bar pattern:
   |D              |C              |F              |G              |
    I               flat-VII        flat-III        IV

   [Figure 81.2]
  Next note In addition to the implicit change of mode already discussed, the arch shape of the melody in this section, shadowing in some respect the contour of the bassline, enhances the sense of bridgely contrast.
  Next note A four-in-the-bar ostinato pattern of D -» C-» A -» C, underscored by a fuzztone guitar, pervades every measure of this section. Note how the consonant versus dissonant status of each note of the ostinato changes with respect to each chord in the series. Over the D chord, the C-natural creates a freely dissonant (non-functional) seventh chord. Over the C chord we start off with a nice "9-8" appoggiatura but are left with an implied added sixth. The F chord provides the most consonant support with the first two ostinato notes making a "6-5" appoggiatura. In contrast, the G chord makes for the most dissonant basis — with the first ostinato note a member of the chord but the other two notes making for a freely dissonant ninth/eleventh chord.
  Next note To the extent that you can talk yourself into hearing what I've called the verse as a refrain, you may find yourself starting to perceive what I'm here calling the bridge as the actual verse :-)


  Next note The form of the song's back end (starting with the instrumental bridge) is deceptively simple. The harmonium "solo" (actually a single chord sustained to the point of pleasure pain) is extended into the first two measures of the following twelve-bar verse, obscuring the formal division that occurs there. When the voices then enter in what is actually now measure 3 of the next section it strikes you at first as though it were the first measure of a new kind of section, neither verse nor bridge; but parse it out — it is measure 3 of the next verse!
  Next note The remaining ten measures of this last twelve-bar frame are based on material similar to that of the other verses but the phrase lengths and pattern are a bit different, along the lines of an XXX-Y pattern in which the ubiquitous title phrase is declaimed with the insistence of a categorical imperative:
               harmonium ------- (X)"Say|the word ...
              |D           |-           |-           |-           |

   (X) Say the|word ...       (X)Say the|word ...
              |G           |-           |D           |-           |
               IV                        I

   (Y) Say the|word -------------------- lo-ove
              |A           |G           |D           |-           |
               V            IV           I

   [Figure 81.3]
  Next note The unusually rapid fade-out occurs as the ensemble moves on to a repetition of the instrumental bridge. In context of the flat cyclical form, rave-up style, repetitious lyrics and their various associations with the likes of "12-Bar Original" and even the much later "Dig It", the ending here is suggestive of a jam-like session that could go on all night ("if it weren't so hard on my suspenders," speaking of Marx and Lennon :-)).
  Next note The final four measure phrase diagrammed above is the one place in the song where the vocal parts can be identified as clearly not automatically double tracked. While the right channel presents the descending chromatic line with which we're all familiar as the predominant part, the voices on the left channel sustain the same notes for two measures, not unlike the earlier harmonium part.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Far beyond the direct parallels with "All You Need Is Love", the lyrics of this song foreshadow to an unexpected and astonishing degree John's eventual emergence as someone attempting through his art, with an almost messianic zeal that inspired many while it made some others equally uncomfortable, to suggest, if not outright instigate, a better world order.
  Next note "In the beginning I misunderstood", we are told, but based on the assertions that now "I've got it", and "I'm here to show everybody the light" we are promised that if only you will do this mysteriously simple thing ("say / spread the word") then magically "you'll be free" and even better, "be like me." And if you're at all in doubt, then by all means at least do "give the word a chance." Indeed, not just the ideas, but some of the very turns of phrase expressed here resonate with later efforts of John's.
  Next note Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, "The Word" also contains the subliminal message that you can learn from books (both the good and bad ones). But, of course, serious fans of The Film will immediately recognize that this one idea is the result of Ringo me lad's influence :-)
  Alan (050493#81)
Copyright © 1993 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.