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Notes on "You Can't Do That"

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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 "You Can't Do That"

KEY G Major


FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse -> Bridge -> Verse -> Verse (guitar solo) -> Bridge -> Verse -> Outro (w/complete ending)

General Points of Interest

Style and Form

Generally speaking, "You Can't Do That" foreshadows a heavier, harder-rocking sound for the group that would infiltrate an increasingly large portion of their repertoire over the next couple or three albums. Call it the dawn of the Later Early Period :-).

It also bears a close comparison to its companion A-side, Can't Buy Me Love. Both have the same form although the bridge of this one is closer to a "true" bridge than the refrain-like one we saw last time. Both songs also display a split stylistic personality by utilizing relatively straight blues in the verse but not at all in the bridge. The split in "You Can't Do That" runs even deeper to the extent that the verse itself is not the *pure* 12-bar blues variety seen in Can't Buy Me Love, but rather features other elements thrown into the mix.

Harmony and Melody

The G Major home key would seem like a clue to the new direction in this area, away from the erstwhile favorite choice of E Major on the first two albums, as evidenced by the four songs in G on the "A Hard Day's Night" album; in addition this one you have I Should Have Known Better, I'll Cry Instead, and of course, the title cut.

The melody of the song is quite jumpy throughout, both in terms of rhythmic syncopations and intervallic leaps. The bluesy verse uses the flat seventh scale degree (F-natural) with a traditional consistency that makes for some bracingly dissonant collisions with the F-sharp contained in the D Major chord (as in "I told you before"), but both flavors of the third (scale) degree are used (B-flat and B-natural) and this lends a colorful bi-modal tang.

The single most dissonant moments in the song come from the clash of F-naturals (the flat seventh degree) in the voice part against C Major chords in the accompaniment; viz. two places in every verse -- on the word "you" in the phrase "and leave you flat", and at the very climax, on the word "Oh!" in the phrase "Oh!, you can't do that."

The bridge makes an harmonic break with the I-IV-V blues diet of the verses by introducing additional chords and flirting briefly with a modulation toward the key of the relative minor, e. Unusually, both Major and minor flavors of the B chord appear in this section.


An ostinato figure characterized by vacillation between the Major/minor melodic third appears as a unifying device throughout much of the intro, outro, and verses; at least wherever the G Major chord is sustained for long.

The intimate direct-address of the lyrics is galvinizingly enhanced by the single-tracking of John's lead vocal, in which, if you listen for it specifically you'll note, he uses an astonishing number of varied shadings of tone.

By the same token, the backing vocal part for Paul and George, with its subtext of "whatever John says goes double for us!", runs at cross-currents to the direct-address of the lead, even while it reflects and amplifies upon the choppy angularity of the melody and the rhythm track. This is a stylistic trademark that would reappear later in songs like Help! and You're Going To Lose That Girl. At this early date, the contrast of its effect in "You Can't Do That" with the softening/smoothing-over effect in Can't Buy Me Love of Paul's being double-tracked with *no* backing vocal part is instructive.

A ruthless syncopation on the the eighth note which precedes the downbeat provides a rhythmic hook for the song. We characterized this particular choice of syncopation as "swingingly passionate" way back in the note on I Should Have Known Better (which by ironic coincidence turns out to have been recorded the same day as "You Can't Do That"), and this rhythmic figure turns out to appear on other tracks of the A Hard Day's Night album as well.

In *this* song, the syncopations are all the more wrenching because of the way that the drums painstakingly mark the spot where they take place. In the last phrase of each verse, right after the phrase "because I told you before", Ringo beats out in even eighth notes the beats of 'and-four-AND- one.' John sings the syncopated cry of "Oh!" on what I marked as 'AND' but Ringo's playing out the downbeat (i.e. 'one' ) of the next measure helps clarify to your ear what has happened. Contrast this to the raving opening of When I Get Home, where the downbeat that follows this same 'four-AND' syncopation (on the word "Woah-AHH!") is left to the imagination.

Lewisohn reports the debut appearance on this track of what would become George's familiar 12-string guitar sound of the period, as well as the inclusion of the unusual choice of cowbell and bongos in the rhythm section. My ears also hear an electric piano (or perhaps organ) doubling the ostinato figure in the opening.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough


The intro is for instruments only, providing four measures of just the 'I' chord with the ostinato figure as a constant, and the entry of the bass and percussion delayed until the third measure. Both the suspense- building use of a single chord which happens to continue well into the verse that follows, and the staggered entry of the instruments anticipate the likes of Ticket To Ride and Day Tripper

The 'four-AND' syncopation is pervasive right off the bat. Not only is it inherent in the ostinato figure, but it is also picked up by the way the rest of the ensemble enters in measure 3 with a vacuum cleaner- like zooming into the G chord from the F# below.


Harmonically, the verse is a classic twelve-bar blues frame, but the content and phrasing belies this a tad. The melody is composed straight through with little or no obvious parallelism among the phrases. The one exception here is in the way the first four measures subdivide into a little couplet ("I got something to say that might cause you pain/If I catch you talking to that boy again").

By virtue of the earlier mentioned jumpiness, there is also no overall arch or other clearly directed shape to the tune. Consequently, the climax of this section ("because I told you before ...") is ultimately motivated by rhythm and chord progression, rather than melodic contour.

The notion of a layered arrangement is carried forward in the very typical way in which the backing vocals first start in the seconed verse. In an outtake of one of their very early songs, Do You Want To Know A Secret, the Beatles would make the understandably inexperienced mistake of starting such vocals right in the first verse, but even at that stage, they were smart enough (or else had someone of greater wisdom who could advise them) to alter their strategy for the official release.

A small change in harmonic floor-plan differentiates the verses which lead to other verses from those which lead to a bridge. The former move to the V chord (D) in their last measure, while the latter sustain the old I chord.


Just as we saw in Can't Buy Me Love, the bridge here again breaks the strict mold of the blues. At the very least, the melody in this section eschews all "blue" notes in favor of a strict diet of the Major third (B-natural) and the Major seventh (F-sharp).

More substantively, we have here an eight measure section that subdivides into two roughly parallel phrases equal in length, the first of which is harmonically closed off while the second one ends wide open in order to set up the following verse. Additionally, we have an intruiging fake modulation to the key of e minor:

	|B		|e		|a 	 b	|G		|
      e: V		 i		 iv		 VI        G:ii	iii	 I

	|B		|e		|a 		|b	D	|
      e: V		 vi		 iv        G:ii		 iii	V

Though tentative and short-lived, the move toward e is immediate and impetuous. Not only does the section start right off with the B Major chord, but that syncopated D# in the tune there is just about the longest sustained note in the entire song. Despite this, the music turns tail just as quickly back to the home key by the somewhat awkward, or at best anti-textbook, root progression of ii-iii-I; the "book" would prescribe the V (D) in place of the iii.

This scrambling back to the home key so quickly after such a brief excursion connotes for me the image of someone who in full rant, rambles off onto a tangent ("And while I'm at it, another thing, ...!"), only to catch himself and get back forthwith to the immediate obsession of the moment.

In the spirit of bridge-ly contrast, the backing voices are also handled different in this section, now used for italic-like emphasis instead of the antiphonal counterpoint heard in the verses. In some spots, it's difficult to tell whether we're hearing John double-tracked here or just him and George or Paul singing together in unison.

Guitar Solo

The mood of general agitation, as well as the interjections of the backing vocalists, are continued straight into the solo, where choppy chords and tremelo bent notes prevail over any attempt at an outspun melody. For just an instant, around measure 9 of this section just as the chords change to V (D), it almost sounds as though the fragmentary riffs might be ready to coalesce into some kind of longer line, but alas, it's not meant to be, and the solo closes in the same disjointed mode in which it began.

A certain amount of screaming at the beginning of a solo section is a Beatles tradition going all the way back to I Saw Her Standing There, but John's growling gesture at the beginning of this one goes beyond mere convention, and can likely be felt in the pit of your stomach long after you might expect to have become used to it from repeated listenings.


The outro is both abrupt and brief. It is entered immediately following the end of the last verse with none of the more standard setup via a triple repeat of the last phrase. It consists of only two measures of the familiar ostinato figure scored, in complete symmetry with the song's opening, without drums, although here at the end the bass guitar is included. The lingering on the penultimate F# right at the end is a teasing surprise.

Some Final Thoughts

You'd half expect the less-than-upbeat theme and side-B status of this one to leave it stranded in the backwaters of popularity, but it actually is both a great and favorite song of its period.

It's tough, tense, and jumping out of its skin with an offbeat attitude and a matching list of colloquial phrases rarely heard if ever, in a pop song of the time; e.g. "cause you pain" (?), "leave you flat" (??), "it's a sin (???). Our hero, after all, seems rather immaturely preoccupied with what some nameless others ("everybody") must think of his relative prowess in the lovemaking department. Either they're "gree-en" with envy at his success, or else they "laugh in (his) face" when he fails.

There's no talk admission here of his feeling hurt by the actual loss of the girl's love, no mention of any pre-existing feelings; for all we know, the other guy may truly be just a platonic friend and the whole thing just some over-reaction borne of terrific insecurity. Erich ("The Art of Loving") Fromm would not have been impressed :-).

But even while it may not be pretty or noble, I think that for anyone who has ever experienced the feelings described here, even if only during a small young lapse into pimply hyperbole, this song rings unnervingly true, and there-in likely lies its popularity. What a shame they cut it from the film!

Alan ( *OR* uunet!huxley!awp)

Copyright (c) 1992 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 The content from this newsgroup is archived at, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at

. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.

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Arranged by The Beatles

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