What Songs the Beatles Sang . . .

William Mann The Times 23 December 1963

The outstanding English composers of 1963 must seem to have been John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the talented young musicians from Liverpool whose songs have been sweeping the country since last Christmas, whether performed by their own group, the Beatles, or by the numerous other teams of English troubadours that they also supply with songs.

I am not concerned here with the social phenomenon of Beatlemania, which finds expression in handbags, balloons and other articles bearing the likenesses of the loved ones, or in the hysterical screaming of young girls whenever the Beatle Quartet performs in public, but with the musical phenomenon. For several decades, in fact since the decline of the music-hall, England has taken her popular songs from the United States, either directly or by mimicry. But the songs of Lennon and McCartney are distinctly indigenous in character, the most imaginative and inventive examples of a style that has been developing on Merseyside during the past few years. And there is a nice, rather flattering irony in the news that the Beatles have now become prime favourites in America, too.

The strength of character in pop songs seems, and quite understandably, to be determined usually by the number of compsers involved; when three or four people are required to make the original tunesmith's work publicly presentable it is unlikely to retain much individuality or to wear very well. The virtue of the Beatles' repertory is that, apparently, they do it themselves; three of the four are composers, they are versatile instrumentalists, and when they do borrow a song from another repertory, their treatment is idiosyncratic -- as when Paul McCartney sings 'Till There Was You' from The Music Man, a cool, easy, tasteful version of this ballad, quite without artificial sentimentality.

Their noisy items are the ones that arouse teenagers' excitement. Glutinous crooning is generally out of fashion these days, and even a songs about 'Misery' sounds fundamentally quite cheerful; the slow, sad song about 'This Boy', which features prominently in Beatle programmes, is expressively unusual for its lugubrious music, but harmonically it is one of their most intriguing, with its chains of pandiationic clusters, and the sentiment is acceptable because voiced cleanly and crisply. But harmonic interest is typical of their quicker songs, too, and one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of 'Not a second time' (the chord progression which ends Mahler's Song of the Earth).

Those submediant switches from C major into A flat major, and to a lesser extent mediant ones (e.g. the actave ascent in the famous 'I want to hold your hand') are a trademark of Lennon-McCartney songs -- they do not figure much in other pop repertories, or in the Beatles' arrangements of borrowed material -- and show signs of becoming a mannerism. The other trademark of their compositions is a firm and purposeful bass line with a musical life of its ow