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Notes on "I Am The Walrus"
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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 the "I Am The Walrus"
KEY A Major METER 4/4 FORM Intro -> First Verse -> Second Verse -> Refrain -> First Verse Variant -> Second Verse -> Refrain Intro redux -> Refrain -> First Verse -> Second Verse -> Refrain -> Outro (fadeout)
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
Many times I've told you how wherever you find the Beatles at their most far out you also find them, under the surface, operating on their most classical instincts. So don't be fooled here: no matter what else you may respond to in this wonderfully outrageous song, you should acknowledge the extent to which it ultimately weighs in as a (granted, extremely stylized and abstract) talkin' blues number. In this regard I'm thinking not just of the patter style declamation of the words, but also of the formal use of phrases in groups of three, and the prominent exposure given to the V-IV-I progression, especially in context of a song whose harmony is otherwise quite out to lunch.
Even the two unusual formal details of this song are precedented by surprisingly early efforts by the same composer:
Verses that are followed by refrains are subtly different from those which are followed by other verses. Take a look back at "I Should Have Known Better."
- The intro reappears in the middle of the song. Look all the way back for this to "Thank You Girl," which is also bears interesting comparison to "Walrus" in terms of the pseudo bluesy bone structure.
Melody and Harmony
The song is ostensibly in the home key of A Major, but a number of harmonic factors keep you off balance and give the song what I sometimes describe as a perilously high center of gravity:
- the prominence and sense of tonal focus given to the B Major chord (V-of-V in this context) at the beginning of the intro and at the end of the Second Verse sections
- similarly, the sense of tonal arrival given to the E Major chord (V in this context) at the end of the refrain
- the use of block chords moving root-wise along the scale in all sections; especially in the outro, where its step-wise descending chord progression and a top voice which is *ascends* step-wise conjurs visions of an limitless expansion
Balanced off against these forces of tonal instability you ironically find almost equal prominence given to the very clear, very bluesy V-IV-I chord progression as I already mentioned. The tune, when it is not hammering away on a single pitch for rhetorically harranging emphasis is quite prone to bluesy licks that contain flat 3rd and 7th scale degrees; same thing for the licks played by the horns and strings.
With, perhaps, the exception of "All You Need Is Love," this is the Beatles arrangement to this point in time with the largest number of discrete, disparate elements; with signficant, complex parts for orchestra, chorus, radio program, and other sound effects, all on top of a basic rhythm track and vocal which themselves have been heavily processed.
The overall effect of the orchestration is surreal in a manner analogous to that of a colorized classic film. The overlay of orchestra and chorus underscores various details of imagery in the words and music with exaggerated gestures suggestive of some crazy cartoon soundtrack; e.g. stumbling triplets after "see how they run," the glissandi behind "crying," the laughing at the choking smokers, and the "sneiding" pigs. Glissandi, by the way, serve an almost leitmnotific role in their constannt reapparance at different places and in different speeds.
The intro features the type of staggered entrances we've seen so many times before in much more straight-laced Beatles song: with part of the backing track to start, the strings coming in second, and the full drum kit coming in last.
The feel of the backbeat is subtly modulated over the course of the song. We start off with gently rocking eighth notes (note how the cellos mimic the lead vocal's oscillation between E and D#), and end up with more of an abrasive quarter note march, with a brief hiatus in the very middle of the proceedings. This breaking of this song into two halves is less obvious than it was in "Strawberry Fields Forever" though the two songs bear an interesting comparison in this regard.
The radio broadcast seems to fit in uncannily, almost surprisingly so, given its random selection. John Cage, for whom the inclusion of such "noise" elements in his compositions was the fulfilment of a strongly felt and persistently argued Zen-like philosophy of art would not have been surprised, of course :-) Regardless of how unlikely it may be that John Lennon had read Mr. Cages books, I still find this small quote from "Silence" (p.3) quite apt to our present context:
Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.
The sparing use of the radio effect, its being saved until a full half of the song has transpired, its continued appearance in the refrain section that follows, and its then being held way back in the mix until the outro demonstrate a sophisticated command of the "less is more" aesthetic.
The intro is seven (and a half) measure long, and harmonically converges to the home key from the relatively remote starting point of V-of-V:
|B |- | A: V-of-V (4 beats in the US, and 6 beats in the UK!) topline |D# C# F# |B A D |B C|D | bassline|B A |G F |E |- | V-of-V V7 |D B|C | IV7
I prefer to not assign Roman numerals to the chords which intervene between V-of-V and V because I believe they are motivated by the persuasive downward motion of bassline and upper voice in parallel 10ths, rather than as a matter of harmonically significant root motion; yes, BTW, there's an unusual augmented triad with G in the bass. Your sense of home key is further obscured here by the bassline's usage of G and F natural, neither of which belong in the key of A Major.
In this otherwise strange musical context, you should note how the buisiness end of this intro features a rather traditional AABB phrasing in the melody.
The first verse is six measures long and consists of the two phrases of equal length. Harmonically, the section stays within the homekey but note how the latter is established without recourse to the V chord [I-IIIb-IV-I]:
I've fretted quite a bit over how to call the harmony in the
second half of measures 1 and 3. The finished recording is thickly
ambiguous with a suggestion of blurred G Major (flat VII); at least it
sounds like there are parallel fifths along this line in the bass.
When I listen to the instrumental outtake, though, I hear the A Major chord sustained all the way through in spite of the bassline move to G natural. In classical music, these G naturals in the bassline without the chord change make for a dominant seventh chord in third inversion (4/2) and would signal a move to the D Major or minor chord in first inversion; clearly, the move here to C Major is unexpected in that context.
The second time around, this verse is extended 5 measures; a gesture that, if nothing else, tends to reinforce your subliminal association of this songs with the harmonic style of the blues:
|D |- |A | IV I |E |D | V IV
The second verse is melodically similar to the first one but its harmony is modified significantly to transition from the homekey to halfway toward the V chord:
|A (G) |f# F G |A (G) | I vi flat-VI flat-VII I |F |B |- | flat-VI V-of-V
This time, I hear the chords more clearly moving in block fashion along the scale in measure 2. Both the creepy/crawly progression of f# minor -> F Major -> G Major -> A Major are as well as the tritone leap from F Major to B Major are striking. Try single that stretch of bassline if you don't believe me!
The three measure refrain provides the ultimate arrival on V, sounding almost more like a modulation to the key of V rather than a half-cadence on the V chord of homekey, A Major. In fact, I think you're starting to adjust your ears to E as the home key here just as the chord is allowed to resolve to I at the start of the next verse.
||3rd refrain, only |C |D |E ||D | flat VI of V flat VII of V V IV
The VI-VII-I chord progression here, with respect to V, nicely resonantes with the same one used in the second verse with respect to I.
The third refrain is extended one extra measure that is "unecessary" in one sense, but which importantly sets a precedent for how the outro will eventually grow out of the final refrain. You might even argue that the five-measure extension to the second repeat of the First Verse (also, with its V - IV chord progression) is an even earlier forecaster of how the world of this song will come to its end.
The radio interlude turns out to actually be 1 measure long, in tempo, if you manage to count it out, though you'd never expect it from the effect it makes.
The fact that this whole section is essentially a reprise of the intro is somewhat disguised by the momentary change in beat and the manner in which we proceed partyly instrumental only and partly with vocal added. You're also thrown off balance by the radio intrusion.
Rather than a slavish reprise of the intro, we get a two-phrase section based on a varied repeat of it:
|B A |G F |E | V-of-V V7 gli-ss-an-do |B A |G F |E F | V-of-V V flat-VI |B |- | V-of-V
The outro grows directly out of the final refrain with this passage:
...Walrus ... |E |D |C |B | V IV flat-III V-of-V
The chord progression of the outro itself is an harmonic moebius strip with scales in bassline and top voice that move in contrary motion:
top: |A |B |C |D | bassline|A |G |F |E | I flat-VII flat-VI V7 |E |F# |G |A ... |D |C |B |A ... IV9 flat-III 11 v I
The progression repeats on its eighth move so, given a pattern of 4-measure phrases, a different chord shows up at the beginning of every third phrase; the second repeat has G Major on the downbeat; the third repeat has F Major, and the whole thing conveys intimations of immortality. Beyond a point, it is the contrary motion of those two scales that drive the chord progression here, rather than any "harmonic" logic, per se.
The music and chorus quickly fade to faintness on the early side; they don't completely fade out until a few seconds before the very end, but allowing the radio program to subtly, noisily predominate through the final ~40 seconds.
Some Final Thoughts
As much as I stressed, at the beginning, how strongly grounded this song is in certain traditional values, let me turn it around on you here at the end.
I think you can as easily argue that the durable strength of this song is traceable to the fact that it is so consistently, organically offbeat, from its very surface tension down to its soulful studs.
The multi-layered details of the finished recording are surely to be savored, but the song does not at all rely on them for its essential impact. You can feel *that* in your gut just by listening to the familiar acetate outtake on which the orchestra, chorus, and radio are yet to make an appearance. Hell, you can sense it even on the less familiar "take run through of just the backing track with no guide vocal. You don't even need the words, though they sure do help :-)
One of my teachers used the metaphor of "the whole orange" for this kind of thing. You can cut into different parts and depths of it, but somehow no matter where or how you do it, you find it's all part of the same fruit.
Regards, Alan (firstname.lastname@example.org) --- "As duteous to the vices of thy mistress As badness would desire." 112596#121 ---
Copyright (c) 1996 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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