Sunday, September 02, 2007

Neil Shyminsky and Jason Powell Can Work It Out (Comment Pull Quote)

[Last week I had the idea to do a post every Sunday pulling a good quote from the week's worth of comments and giving it its own post. The post from a week ago today that announced that idea generated the best discussion this week, including some great stuff on Batman and criticism. But the award this week has to go to Jason and Neil on the Beatles -- which began life as an analogy for the collaboration of Morrison and Williams in Batman].

Neil said...


One of the reasons that the Beatles 'We Can Work It Out', for instance, works so well is in the bridge, where McCartney sings a high, almost manic melody and Lennon contrasts it with a low, nearly monotone, and vaguely snarling harmony. McCartney's optimism is completely undermined by Lennon's boredom, leading us to believe that McCartney's confidence in the chorus/verse is wholly unfounded.

Jason said...

I know it's a digression, and Neil sorry to disagree, but ... man, I hate that popular interpretation of "We Can Work It Out." Lennon’s section doesn’t undermine McCartney’s section. It complements it. (Sorry if that word is starting to be overused in this thread.)

To call McCartney’s section optimistic and Lennon’s section bored is to ignore the lyrical content. There’s not a lot of optimism in McCartney’s line, “There’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.” And Lennon’s section is not bored – it’s urgent. “Life is very short, and there’s no time...”

There is contrast in the music of the two different sections, and I agree that the tension between McCartney’s high-flung melody and Lennon’s dogged single-noted-ness does is part of what makes the song so engaging. But Lennon’s single-note style (which he utilizes in most of his work as a Beatle) is a result of Lennon’s songwriting style, which was to avoid extemporaneity in order to get his point across in as naturalistic a way as possible. He writes melodies that imitate the way he speaks. He sings “Life is very short” on a single note because that’s how he’d say it, not because he’s bored.

I also don’t see mania in McCartney’s bit. It sounds as controlled as any McCartney’s melodies – but that’s probably getting a bit subjective. The mistake, I think, is to see McCartney’s relentless “we can work it out” as optimism rather than an attempt to win an argument (i.e., my way is right, your way is wrong). It’s almost overbearing, in a way, and when it’s read in that light, Lennon’s text flows quite naturally from McCartney’s. If anything, the dichotomy being struck is not optimism/boredom, but rather personal/universal. (McCartney is about “my way” and “your way,” and Lennon’s is about “life.”) Lennon isn’t knocking the foundation out of McCartney’s verse/chorus – he’s providing it.

Neil said...

Jason - I don't necessarily see a contradiction in my labeling McCartney's vocal 'manic' and your calling it 'overbearing'. In fact, I think they're entirely consistent - manic and overbearing would actually serve as a perfect description of McCartney's method as a songwriter and performer with the Beatles. I also think that optimism and 'i'm right' work well with McCartney in this context. The song, reportedly, is about his relationship with Jane Asher, which was falling apart at the time. He was desperately clinging to it (while controlled, it's also near the top of McCartney's range, and 'life is very short' is very staccato, almost screamed), confident they'd figure it out, but also wanting to dictate its terms.

But I certainly have to disagree with your interpretation of Lennon's vocal. The single-note style, for one, has nothing to do with naturalism - it's because he wrote songs on his guitar, and since he wasn't a very good player he preferred progressions that required limited hand movement. But even if I were to agree that Lennon's vocal sounds like it's being spoken, anything less than McCartney's intensity provides a contrast whereby that same intensity is made to seem excessive.

I'm perhaps reading too much of their biographies into the song, but I don't think that's unfair with the Beatles. Lennon sounds bored to me because this song was written during his incredibly depressed period. He doesn't care if he wins the argument, his delivery sounds snide because 'fussing and fighting' is all he and Cynthia ever do. He's 'asking once again', but he knows it's useless - it's still incredibly intimate, not at all universal. When we read that on to McCartney's performance, we get the sense that he may be equally hopeless - but only because Lennon's there to provide the subtext.

Jason said...

“The song, reportedly, is about his relationship with Jane Asher, which was falling apart at the time. He was desperately clinging to it (while controlled, it's also near the top of McCartney's range, and 'life is very short' is very staccato, almost screamed), confident they'd figure it out, but also wanting to dictate its terms.”

Hmm. I see where your “manic” and my “overbearing” dovetail. But then, as you note above, McCartney’s mania spills over (in the form of staccato, high-pitched singing) into the bridge that you claim completely undermines it.

“But I certainly have to disagree with your interpretation of Lennon's vocal. The single-note style, for one, has nothing to do with naturalism - it's because he wrote songs on his guitar, and since he wasn't a very good player he preferred progressions that required limited hand movement.”

The phenomena of a single-note melody and an uncomplicated chord progression are not necessarily connected, and I don’t think they are in Lennon’s case. A wide, far-flung melody can be sung over a single chord. (Example: the first line of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” everything up to “many years from now” is over a single chord, for example, with the first change happening on “now” – unless I’m misremembering/mishearing). Meanwhile, the same note can be sung over complicated and rapidly changing chord progressions. (For example, the Lennon-composed “If I Fell” changes chords on almost every word, but the notes of his melody move in small increments. Also, a listen to other songs in the Beatles canon shows that even when Lennon has devised a harmony vocal on a progression built by McCartney, he still very doggedly will keep things on a single note if the progression allows it.) Melody need not be dictated by what chords can or cannot be played. The reason Lennon’s melodies are low on incident and tend to lack a lot of jumps in intervals is because Lennon sought melody in a naturalistic way, i.e, seeking out a note for the new chord that was as close as possible to the note he’d previously sung. Which is to say, he didn’t fuss over complicated melodies – life was too short. :)

“But even if I were to agree that Lennon's vocal sounds like it's being spoken, anything less than McCartney's intensity provides a contrast whereby that same intensity is made to seem excessive.”

But again, as noted above, the bridge also contains McCartney’s vocal right on top of it. If you’re arguing that “desperation” characterizes the “optimistic” verse/chorus, then doesn’t that desperation carry over into the staccato and high-pitched plaintive cry of “life is very short and there’s no tiiiime”?

“I'm perhaps reading too much of their biographies into the song, but I don't think that's unfair with the Beatles.”

I agree, perfectly fair, but at the same time ...

“He doesn't care if he wins the argument, his delivery sounds snide because 'fussing and fighting' is all he and Cynthia ever do. He's 'asking once again', but he knows it's useless”

This all seems like a lot of “reading in” to stuff that isn’t actually in the text of the song. Other than implication based on vocal tone, there’s nothing to suggest he doesn’t care, or that his “asking once again” is useless. Indeed, if he thinks it’s useless, why is he asking again? I’d say “asking again” implies the opposite, that he thinks there’s a point in asking.

“it's still incredibly intimate, not at all universal.”
If it’s all about Cynthia, then yes, it is. But I think that’s too much reading in. “Life is too short for fussing and fighting, my friend.” That’s contextualizing one argument in the frame of life in general.

“When we read that on to McCartney's performance, we get the sense that he may be equally hopeless - but only because Lennon's there to provide the subtext.”

I realize it might be hairsplitting, this argument, because I of course agree that the two sections enrich each other – I just don’t think it’s an “optimism”/”pessimism” dichotomy. It is McCartney who sings, “If we see it your way, there’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.” That – along with his worry that he might eventually not be able to “go on -- is as pessimistic as anything in Lennon’s bridge, so I can’t see how it is Lennon who is solely providing that darker angle, either as text or subtext.

(You know, it suddenly strikes me as hilarious that we’re arguing about a song that itself is about an argument. Try and see it my way, Neil! Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?)

Neil Said...

Hey Jason - great discussion. I'll make only a couple quick comments.

"Indeed, if he thinks it’s useless, why is he asking again? I’d say 'asking again' implies the opposite, that he thinks there’s a point in asking."

Because I think that Lennon is going through the motions. I don't have my copy of 'Revolution in the Head' nearby, but I seem to recall that this song was written only months after other Lennon pieces like 'Nowhere Man' and 'Norwegian Wood'. There's a certain nihilism and self-defeating angle to a lot of his lyrics at this time. Lennon hasn't quite figured out what he wants out of life just yet, and so he's asking simply because he's supposed to. And don't the lyrics admit this much? 'There's no time for fussing and fighting my friend' is contrasted with 'so i will ask you once again', as if they realize it's an inescapable trap that demands a certain performance that will never yield a desirable result.

"'Life is too short for fussing and fighting, my friend.' That’s contextualizing one argument in the frame of life in general."

Except that the Beatles, and Lennon in particular, tended to draw the great majority of their material directly from their lives. There's a personal story behind nearly everything John wrote. I would also be remiss if I didn't point out that Lennon himself would later claim that every song he wrote was about him and spoke to specifically to his own life. But he had a certain revisionary streak. :)

"(You know, it suddenly strikes me as hilarious that we’re arguing about a song that itself is about an argument. Try and see it my way, Neil! Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?)"

But if I see it your way, there's a chance that things my fall apart before too long!

And it's a song about an unending argument, no less. It's really just a metaphor for the internet, isn't it? :)

9 comments:

scott91777 said...

I always just thought it was great because it was an F'in' Beatles song... My simple explanation was always the shift to a minor chord (the same reason for the greatness of many Beatles songs) and, on this particular song, the keyboard (I'm not sure exactly what it is...a harpsichord I think)comes in or at least becomes more prevalent in those sections and it works well.
You know what contrast I've always admired? Pete Townshend's voice in contrast to Daltrey's in the Who, of course, Daltrey does most of the singing but my favorite ones are the ones where Roger does most of the vocals and Pete comes in for a line or vers or whatever (i.e. the "Don't Cry" section of "Baba O' Reilly"

Jason Powell said...

Neil wrote, "I don't have my copy of 'Revolution in the Head' nearby, but I seem to recall that this song was written only months after other Lennon pieces like 'Nowhere Man' and 'Norwegian Wood'. "

To which Jason Powell now replies ... Neil, it's probably good for me that you don't have your copy of Revolution in the Head nearby. I, as it so happens, DO have my copy nearby. I read it the other day, and WOW, did I rip off MacDonald a lot in this argument. I've read that book so many times that I've internalized a lot of MacDonald's assertions and opinions, I guess.

When I'm feeling a bit more ambitious I may quote the relevant passages on "We Can Work It Out" and you can see just how derivative I am in my arguments. Oh, the shame ...!

Ah, plagiarism. I have always thought that it's a cri-i-i-i-ime....

neilshyminsky said...

Speaking of plagiarism and 'Revolution in the Head', I'm reminded of a friend of mine who turned in a history paper on the Beatles in our last year of high school. The first six pages are riddled with red marks saying 'citation?', to which my friend replied 'but it's just stuff that i know!' He, too, had a dog-eared copy of 'Revolution in the Head' and had completely internalized many of its arguments.

An interesting tidbit about Ian MacDonald's book? Paul McCartney thinks it's crap: too much speculative conjecture and not enough history. But that's just criticism, isn't it? :)

Jason Powell said...

I've heard that thing about Paul McCartney not liking RITH. I don't know ... the book is pretty intensely researched. So much of the "conjecture" is built from actual quotes by people involved. I think maybe McCartney just resents that parts of the book paint him in a bad light.

But that's just speculation on my part. :)

neilshyminsky said...

I think the problem McCartney has is in the way that MacDonald uses that research to infer connections that are otherwise not explicit - in much the same way, I think, that I'm drawing on other aspects of their personal lives in order to make sense of the narrative of one particular song. And, of course, Paul does hate it when someone is critical about him. (Granted, MacDonald's criticism are usually ambivalent - like when he critiques McCartney for his heavy-handedness in taking control of the band around the Rubber Soul-era, but then says that this wasn't necessarily a bad thing, since McCartney was usually right in all his musical decisions.)

Jason Powell said...

"Granted, MacDonald's criticism are usually ambivalent "

Don't forget, though, about the stuff he says in the latter portion of the book, where he calls McCartney -- oh man, I'll get this quote wrong, probably -- "an egoist who frittered away the band's time and patience on sniggering nonsense like [Maxwell's Silver Hammer]." He says some pretty harsh things. He also kind of disses McCartney's entire post-Beatles career in a single sentence at one point.

By the way, Neil, I stopped in a drugstore last night to pick up a jug of milk and "We Can Work It Out" started playing over the store's radio-broadcast-whatever about 3 minutes after I walked in the door. That's got to be an omen of ... something.

neilshyminsky said...

Re: Maxwell's Silver Hammer. While it's a terrible song, it's almost as if MacDonald is trying to make McCartney break into tears spontaneously through sheer force of textual will. So, yes, there are certainly points where he is soul-destroyingly critical. But that's only because the ambivalence is an incredibly passionate one. :)

Have you followed McCartney's solo career by any chance? I was horrified when I listened to his latest album - I sincerely believe that Flaming Pie and Chaos and Creation are his best full-length efforts (though, as with all McCartney albums, they could benefit from trimming 2 or 3 filler songs) and was hugely disappointed with this latest one. The single is the best song of the lot, and this despite the fact that the lyrics are some of his weakest ever.

Jason Powell said...

"Have you followed McCartney's solo career by any chance?"

No, not really. Obviously I've heard a few songs here and there, but I've never heard anything I liked too much (this was all '70s material I'm referring to, like "Band on the Run," which I hate). Where does "Chaos and Creation" fit chronologically? I've never heard of that one.

neilshyminsky said...

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard was the album he released previous to this latest one - in 2005. Like everything Paul has done for over a decade, now, it's very nostalgic - but its best moments are as good as the best moments on Flaming Pie, I think, and probably any solo album he's done. It's also underproduced for the most part, and his willingness to leave the rough edges - especially with some of the vocals - feels much more honest than we're accustomed to from perhaps the most self-deceptive Beatle. (There are some dreadful throwaway songs, of course - avoid 'Friends To Go'- but it's mostly very strong.)

It's also consistent with the old rule that Paul produces his best stuff when he's miserable - Rubber Soul and Revolver are full of his post-Jane Asher/drug-experimentation angst, Flaming Pie was written while Linda was dying, and Chaos and Creation while his latest marriage was falling apart. (Which also prompts the interesting question - who are the songs that speak of a 'you' actually addressed to?)