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Notes on "Birthday"
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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song
Notes on "Birthday"
KEY A Major METER 4/4 FORM Intro -> Verse -> long connector -> Bridge -> Verse (instrumental) -> short connector -> Bridge -> Verse -> Outro (w/complete ending)
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
In its White Album context of so many varied moods and styles, "Birthday" stands out as a representative example of the sort of plain old blistering Rock that The Beatles were still capable of in the heart of their so-called Late Period.
On the surface, one of the first things you notice is that this is one of the very few Len/Mac songs that is even partly in strict 12-bar blues form, though once you probe more deeply, you quickly discover that this is no mere rote revivalist knock-off.
It's really quite a thought provoking paradox: judging from the pre-historic repertoire of their Quarrymen era (see Note 197), you'd think the only thing they knew *how* to play, or perhaps *wanted* to play, were The Blues. Later as The Beatles, both at the BEEB and on their first several EMI albums, their choices for cover songs were again frequently in the 12-bar mode; "Boys", "Long Tall Sally", "Dizzy Miss Lizzie", and just about anything by Chuck Berry and Larry Williams, to name a few.
And yet, when you do a sort through the cannon of official releases looking for originals, which are at least partially built on a strict blues, form you come up amazingly short. Prior to the White Album, I could only find four examples: the verses of "Can't Buy Me Love", "You Can't Do That", "The Word", and the middle eight of "She's A Woman".
This relative dearth of twelve bar originals (pun fully intended) continues through the White Album and beyond, even though the conventional wisdom says that the last couple of albums demonstrate a conscious return to their early roots. In spite of the number of hard rock songs on those albums, you still find very few blues numbers: only "Birthday", "Yer Blues", and "For You Blue." Granted, there are many songs in the cannon that are very blues-like, (examples abound throughout, all the way from "I Saw Her Standing There" to "Ballad of John and Yoko" and "Come Together"), but if you grade them strictly, they fail to make the cut.
As an attempt to explain this paradox I would propose that as nascent artists, The Beatles not just admired their Blues predecessors but, in a burst of post-adolescent enthusiasm even sought to emulate and sometimes imitate them; e.g., listen to the Quarrymen do Elvis' "That's When Your Heartache Begins". But as they matured they likely found that, in spite of all early interest, the strict blues form was not an idiom they felt all that comfortable with in terms of self-image and expression. Interestingly, they never quite forgot or expunged the technique from their vocabulary, but it did remain for them something to be used sparingly, for special effect and exotic tang.
When you consider this elite group of the Beatles' blues songs, it's tempting to describe their style as "Neo R & B" to the extent that they manifest more of a self-conscious updated stylization of an old form and not just a nostalgic evocation of it. In spite of the presence in these songs of the 12-bar formula, in terms of arrangement, lyrics, and the choice of keys and chord progressions used in the non-blues sections, they are musically very different from the classic role models which inspired them.
We have something here that is very close to the standard two-bridge model, though it is somewhat camouflaged by the long instrumental opener, and the unusual connector sections that introduce each appearance of the bridge.
Another formalistic technique which considerably unifies the song is the consistent use of antiphony in all appearances of both verse and bridge sections, as we'll see.
But for the long connector, the lyrics of the formal sections build a close-to-perfect palindrome pattern of ABC/instrumental/CA.
The lead vocal enters well after the downbeat throughout the song. The only vocals that enter on a downbeat are the backing females in the bridges.
Melody and Harmony
The melodic content is delivered in short, repetitious, chant-like fragments. The figure used in the sung verses is notable for its emphasis on the blue 3rd and 7th scale degrees. For contrast, the instrument verse in the middle sticks more closely to the plain Major mode.
The bridge sections provide an abrupt modulation to the unusual key of flat-III (C Major).
Nonetheless, a relatively small number of chords is used, overall; the blues trio of I-IV-V of the home key (A, D, E) and the tonic/dominant IV of the bridge key (C, G).
The drumming and other special percussion effects on this song (such as maracas, tambourine, and handclaps) are worthy of special notice.
Ringo turns in an effective performance of his trademark technique of punctuating long stretches of evenly accented eight notes with complex thirty-second note snare drum fills in all the right places; typically, though not limited to the boundary lines between sections.
If you make the effort on your own to map out how the rest of the percussion effects are worked into the piece, you'll find the texture of each section of the song has been carefully and neatly planned out. The point being that even in a song like "Birthday" which we know was worked up very quickly, and where a certain informal, "come as you are" feeling permeates right to the core of the piece, *still*, nothing is left to chance. This of course is a hot button for those who like to rag on Paul for being such a control freak, but IMHO, it's this attention to detail that elevates a good rock song to the level of a gem.
In the vocal department you find multiple overdubs of Paul's voice mixed out to separate stereo channels.
The instrumental intro is twelve measures long and turns out to be a formal anticipation of the entire verse.
We lead off right from the start with the an antiphonal style that carries through to almost every section of the song. In this introductory verse, you have the bass doubled by lead guitar in the odd numbered measures alternating with parrot-like repetition by just the bass alone in the even numbered measures.
Ringo's crackling and metrically ambiguous opening drum fill starts "on 3."
This section is a standard 12-bar blues frame with all the chords appearing as dominant sevenths. If you want to get picky, it's worth pointing out that the sustaining of the V chord in measure 10 (as opposed to the more typical move to IV) is mildly unusual though not unheard of:
|A7 |- |- |- | A: I |D7 |- |A7 |- | IV I |E7 |- |A7 |- | V I
The baseline riff syncopatedly outlines the chords and is heard doubled by the lead guitar two octaves higher; e.g., |aa-c#e-gF#--e|a ...
This section appears four times in the song, and though the second and fourth repetitions with their virtually identical arrangement and lyrics are indeed quite verse-like, the first and third appearances of this section are entirely instrumental and serve the purpose of introduction and "break" section, respectively.
Antiphony to the blues baseline riff is provided by the lead vocal in the verses. In the break it is provided by a heavily processed tack piano part.
Long Connector - "Yes we're going to a party party ..."
This section is built out of two eight-measure phrases each of which is hypnotically repetitive, the end result of which is a buildup of tension that makes you want to beg your partner to tie you down if you don't get some relief very soon.
The first eight measure phrase features drums only with Macca shrieking a count-off of the measure numbers that is muffled so far in the background that it's barely audible except with earphones.
The second eight measures beats away on the V chord (E) with the vocals coming in as a slight surprise starting in the third measure.
It's tempting to ascribe the shrieking in the first phrase as just another obscure "clue" of sorts, though the little details in the way the numbers are recited over the beat definitely add to the building tension. Note for example how there is a straight-line climax which crests on "7" but is followed by an "8" that can't even wait for that number measure to begin. Similarly, during the second phrase, we have both a general crescendo as well as a quickening of the handwork in the drums.
But even more effective than the buildup per se is the way that when the climax arrives, it's a "deceptive" one; that V chord resolves not to I (A) but rather to the chord of flat-III (C); do keep your ears attuned to the way that baseline snakes its way from the sustained E down toward C during the second half of the last measure.
Bridge - "I would like you to dance -- Birthday"
The choice of C Major as the key for this bridge is not so far out as it would appear on the surface; C being the relative Major of the parallel minor of A, and it's a key relationship employed in many other songs; e.g., "You're Going To Lose That Girl." In "Birthday", it's quite a surprise nonetheless, coming as the deceptive resolution of that prolonged V chord of the preceding section. As surprises go, it's actually quite a pleasurable one at that; one which adds a bit of tonal depth perspective to the music; as though a door had opened to reveal another universe that you suspected, but were never quite certain, was there.
This section has musical ties both to the verse in terms of its use of antiphony (between Macca and the female backers) and to the preceding long connector in terms of its repetitiveness. The baseline in this section also harkens back somewhat to the riff used in the verse:
|-------- 3X ------| chords: |C |G |C |G |E |- | bassline:|C-E-F-F#-|G-F-E-D-|C-E-F-F#|G-G#-A-A#|B |E | C: I V I V A: flat-VII V6/4 V
The bass line makes its rearward approach to the note B by a clever "keep going" extension of the upward chromatic motion already in progress as part of the first half of the riff.
The arrival on the E Major chord in its second inversion feels especially euphoric and heady because we've just barely recovered our bearings from the surprise modulation to C; the passionately inarticulate noise of Macca screaming "dance" in rhythmic pattern totally at odds with the beat enhances the rush of it. For a brief instant, there's a vertigo sensation of not being sure of just where you stand key-wise from the promontory of this chord, but before you are allowed to get too unhinged over it, the bass line jumps down to place the chord in its root position, in which its function as V of the original home key becomes clear. In retrospect, it all seems like nothing to get hung about, but in the warm moment of arrival you were moved.
The appearance of the female backing voices is another small source of surprise here; after this, how could Paul have claimed to be upset two years later about Spector's adding the chorus to "Across the Universe" ? According to Lewisohn, it was an impromptu decision to recruit Yoko and Patti for their participation here; makes one wonder what the heck Linda was up to that evening :-).
There is a profound lesson to be learned about the dramatics of music when you contemplate how this shorter connecting section serves a functionally identical purpose to the earlier longer one even though it is musically so different from that first one in almost every way.
In terms of structural utility, both connectors serve the purpose of modulating from the key of A to the key of C. But look at the obvious differences between them, nonetheless:
- This one is only four measures long compared to the earlier one of sixteen.
- Here we have a return to the orchestration of the opening verse with just guitars playing plain octaves punctuated by sparse drum work, whereas earlier, we had quite a bit of drums and even vocals.
- Even the specific strategy for making the modulation is different; here, the natural minor mode of A (with its C and G naturals -- no sharps!) which is used for the guitar parts makes for a smooth and gentle transition, while earlier, the entire mood was one of climax and surprise.
In the end, it's a simple law of physics and the art of avoiding anticlimax that demands these differences. To put it rather crudely and simultaneously lift a phrase, which Maureen Cleave used to describe John (not Paul), even "a young man, famous, loaded, and waiting for something" can't reset *that* quickly. And besides, a repetition of the long connector would frankly start to chafe, whereas this quieter short one (it's the only place in the entire song where the drums stop for a few beats) provides some welcome respite.
The rest of the song follows the gesture of that second connector and provides more in the way of matched bookend ballast and balance than it does any further excitement, and leverages the end of the final verse to bind things off with a complete ending.
Any sudden disruption that might otherwise be caused by this ending is mollified nicely by two details:
- The decelerating effect of the syncopations on "four-AND" in the last few measures of the song. They don't appear anywhere else before this.
- The broken octaves on the piano which seem to psychedelically ricochet even as they fade. The net effect reminds me of the way your body is jostled when you stop the car too quickly.
Some Final Thoughts
In the final result, it's quite astounding to read in Lewisohn that this song was essentially composed by Paul, arranged, recorded and mixed in just one extended session of eleven and a half hours starting in the late afternoon of September 18, 1968 and running through the wee hours of the next morning. It's a vivid demonstration of how to live in this moment; this one.
Of course, to keep it in perspective, this song is no magnum opus; for one thing, the elements of both words and music here are quite simple, and the equally simple device of happy repetition is used effectively to expedite the cranking out of the piece. In this respect "Birthday" makes for an interesting comparison with other real stand-up quickies of theirs, such as "Little Child," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "I'm Down," and "The Ballad of John and Yoko."
But none of this diminishes in any way the incredible prowess demonstrated in this act of spontaneous effusion. Rather it is in this very spontaneity per se that I believe that the genius of Macca, circa '68 is to be encountered.
From the style of my analysis you might get the mistaken impression that I somehow imagine him walking into the studio after many hours of erudite forethought with the song all worked out in his head and a point to prove, Mozart-like.
Actually, I rather expect it to have all been quite the opposite. In this energetically vital and innovative song, I hear a composer so well primed and up to speed, so "ready to do the show right now" that the music springs right out of him without a struggle of any kind, as though it were all so casual, second nature, and obviously meant to be.
Regards, Alan (email@example.com)
Copyright (c) 2000 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.
These articles were originally posted in the News Group rec.music.beatles. The content from this newsgroup is archived at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/awp.html. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.
If you want to learn more about the musical side of song writing, chord progressions, harmony and theory through The Beatles songs (and/or The Beatles in particular), I recommend the following book:
Artist: Dominic Pedler
Arranged by The Beatles
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