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Notes on "The Word"
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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 Word"
KEY D Major METER 4/4 ----- 3X ------ FORM Intro -> Verse -> Bridge -> Verse -> Bridge (instrumental) -> Verse (partly instrumental) -> Outro (Bridge) (fadeout)
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
"The Word" quite intruigingly (if also a bit obviously) anticipates the later and more amibitious "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"
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 12-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.
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
In this department the song bears a rather typical split personality. The verses are truly blue with their I-IV-V chord set, 12-bar form, and the melodic stress on the flat 3rd (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 3rd and 7th scale degrees, the harmony sneaks the rock-ish flat-VII chord into the lineup.
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!
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.
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.
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 2nd 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.
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 (artifically ?) 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 psychadelic stereo picture that you can "feel" in your head even without listening via earphones.
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.
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.
We get two measures of vamping on the Major/minor I chord, preceded by a two-beat piano pickup.
The verse is a standard 12-bar blues frame:
(X)"Say the|word ... (X)Say the|word ... |D |- |- |- | I (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
The tune is built out of short repetetive 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.
The V->IV segment of the frame (mm. 9 - 10) is underscored by juicy appoggiaturas and an arpeggiated bassline.
The bridge is a short four measures and provides a break from the 12-bar pattern:
|D |C |F |G | I flat-VII flat III IV (V-of-flat-III)
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.
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) 7th chord. Over the C chord we start off with a nice 9-8 appoggiatura but are left with an implied added 6th. 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 9/11 chord.
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 :-)
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 12-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!
The remaining 10 measures of this last 12-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 |- |- |- | I (X)Say the|word ... (X)Say the|word ... |G |- |D |- | IV I (Y)Say the|word ------------------------ lo-ove |A |G |D |- | V IV I
The unusually rapid fadeout 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 :-)).
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
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.
"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.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, "The Word" also contains the subliminal message that you can learn from boooks (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 :-)
Regards, Alan (firstname.lastname@example.org) --- "They can't buy you happiness, my son." 050493#81 ---
Copyright (c) 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.
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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