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 own; how Lennon and McCartney divide their creative responsiilites I have yet to discover, but it is perhaps significant that Paul is the bass guitarist of the group. It may also be significant that George Harrison's song 'Don't Bother Me' is harmonically a good deal more primitive, though it is nicely enough presented.

I suppose it is the sheer loudness of the music that appeals to Beatle admirers (there is something to be heard even through the squeals) and many parents must have cursed the electric guitar's amplification this Christmas -- how fresh and euphonious the ordinary guitars sound in the Beatles' version of 'Till There Was You' -- but parents who are still managing to survive the decibels and, after copious repetition over several months, still deriving some musical pleasure from the overhearing, do so because there is a good deal of variety -- oh, so welcome in pop music -- about what they sing.

The autocratic but not by any means ungrammatical attitude to tonality (closer to, say, Peter Maxwell Davies's carols in O Magnum Mysterium than to Gershwin or Loewe or even Lionel Bart); the exhilarating and often quasi-instrumental vocal duetting, sometimes in scat or in falsetto, behind the melodic line; the melismas with altered vowels ('I saw her yesterday-ee-ay') which have not quite become mannered, and the discreet, sometimes subtle, varieties of instrumentation -- a suspicion of piano or organ, a few bars of mouth-organ obbligato, an excursion on the claves or maraccas; the translation of African Blues or American western idioms (in 'Baby, It's You', the Magyar 8/8 metre, too) into tough, sensitive Merseyside.

These are some of the qualities that make one wonder with interest what the Beatles, and particularly Lennon and McCartney, will do next, and if America will spoil them or hold on to them, and if their next record will wear as well as the others. They have brought a distinctive and exhilarating flavour into a genre of music that was in danger of ceasing to be music at all.