Or, what are all those flat-sevenths doing in the Beatles' Revolver?
by Ger Tillekens
According to many pop-musicologists the flat-seventh chord, or subtonic, can be regarded as one of the marks of the Beatles' experimental period. Some of them even view the way in which the group handled this chord in their songs as one of their real musical innovations. On the Beatles' 1966 album Revolver, this chord is paired to a lavish use of quartal harmonies. Is this peculiar chord, along with the quartal harmonies, responsible for the album's meditative atmosphere? Answering this question, Ger Tillekens here takes a closer look at the flat-seventh in songs like "Taxman," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Love You To" and "Here, There, and Everywhere."
A closer look at just one chord. Revolver is the first Beatles' album showing the combined marks of the group's experimental period. The compositions exploit the sound and feel of Classical and Indian instruments, the mood of nostalgic and drowsy, psychedelic lyrics and the impact of subtle studio sound effects. In their harmonies we also find a real flood of flat-sevenths. The Revolver recording project, realized between April 1, 1966, and October 31, 1966, all in all includes sixteen songs: to the fourteen tracks on the album we have to add the songs of the double A single "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." In no less than seven out of those sixteen songs, almost half of them, the flat-seventh one way or another makes its presence heard. Four of those songs were written by Lennon, two by Harrison and, remarkably, only one by McCartney.
The flat-seventh chord, or subtonic, often is taken as one of the marks of the Beatles' experimental period (Eerola, 1998), by some even as one of the group's real musical innovations (O'Grady, 1979; 1983). On Revolver this chord appears in close connection to the Beatles' use of quartal harmonies. Does this have something to do with the album's atmosphere? Answering this question, we here will take a closer look at this particular chord. Looking at the harmonic technicalities of the Revolver compositions, we will show how the Beatles successfully put the flat-seventh chord to full use in that album: harmonically to underpin their surprising melodies, and semantically to stress the meaning of their lyrics.
An overload of chords. Now we have grown used to them, but at the time of their release the songs on Revolver evoked many startled comments. For a moment even McCartney himself seemed overcome with doubts:
"... I was in Germany on tour just before Revolver came out. I started listening to the album and I got really down because I thought the whole thing was out of tune. Everyone had to reassure me that it was all okay" (Garbarini, 1980).
So even to McCartney the songs of the album, or at least some of them, seemed out of key. It was not the first time this remark was made in respect to the Beatles' songs. Other people had said the same thing before of the group's early songs. From the start of their career the Beatles filled their songs with daring harmonic experiments and that to some people did made their songs go wrong. To Classical trained critics, the songs sounded harsh and sometimes even downright out of key. Blues-oriented critics complained that the Beatles did not apply the right blue notes. Others, however, liked the songs for that very same reason. To their ears the compositions of the Beatles, though harmonically adventurous, were also remarkably melodious.
In their own way both the critical and the affirmative responses to the Beatles' songs were right. The musical style of the Beatles was so new and unusual, that one had to get used to it. To enjoy their songs one's ears first had to learn the musical grammar and to adapt to the underlying musical structure of the harmonies. What was so special about the Beatles' harmonies? The sheer number of chords the Beatles performed in their compositions, offers a first clue for an answer to that question. Compared with the standards of earlier popular music, the Beatles' songs show far too many chords. Most simple harmonies are built upon the three basic chords: the tonic (I), the subtonic (IV) and the dominant (V).
Figure 1: Tone material of the three basic chords
The tone material of these three chords defines seven to eight notes unequivocally, starting from the root of the tonic (Figure 1). Not by accident these notes coincide with the diatonic scale. Of course, we can add chords like the subtonic (bVII) — the flat-seventh — one fourth below the root of the subdominant, or the supertonic (II) — one fifth above the root of the dominant. This, however, imports ambiguous tones in the tone material. In the key of C, for instance, the supertonic (II) adds an A — at first sight the same tone that also regularly belongs to the subdominant (IV). However, though both tones share their names, they are not exactly the same. They differ by slightly more than one tenth of a full tonal distance — to be more exact a microtonal distance of 21.5 cent. Other chords add similar "enharmonic" tones with even greater distances. On hearing these tones on well-tempered instruments a listener has to reinterpret them unconsciously, or else a composition threatens to sound out of key (Helmholtz, 1862). That's why, in the system of Western diatonic music, the tonal key is so important. It also explains why composers usually tend to keep to a small supply of chords.
The Beatles' songbook, however, is quite another story. To play a Beatles' song the right way, chances are a guitarist has to master far more than three chords. Listen for example to Revolver's fifth track, McCartney's composition "Here, There, And Everywhere." (1) The song's harmonies count up to no less than ten chords: G (I), G minor (i), A minor (ii), B-flat (bIII), B (III), C (IV), C minor (iv), D (V), E minor (vi) and F# minor (vii). To account for all these chords from a Classical perspective, we have to assume that some parts of the song modulate or shift to other keys. The home key of G Major, no doubt, dominates the intro, the verse and the coda. For the middle of the verse section, however, we have to resort to the key of the relative minor (E minor) and for the bridge section even to the keys of the parallel minor (G minor) and its relative Major (B-flat).
Diagonal substitutions. So, to analyse and explain the harmonic structure of "Here, There, And Everywhere" from a Classical perspective we have to write down at least four different keys. Seen from this perspective, the alternating sections of the song confront the listener with no less than eleven subsequent modulations, tonal oscillations or key shifts within the song's short duration of 2:26 minutes. In its harmonic complexity "Here, There, And Everywhere" is no exception in the Beatles' songbook (Riley, 1988: 55). On average the songs of their complete work have a stock of about eight to nine chords with a maximum of twenty-one for "You Never Give Me Your Money." Blurring Major and minor modes or importing new enharmonic enharmonic tones, such numbers of chords endanger the key and, moreover, unexpected chords tend to be perceived as syntactical disturbances of the musical grammar (Mulder, 2000). To denote the Beatles' extended chord material, some musicologists even speak of an "exploding functional harmony" (Johansson, 1999). In short, there is reason enough for someone to get lost in the harmonic maze of the songs. For the naïve and willing listener the harmonies, however, also possess a natural feeling preventing this from happening. Clearly, the Beatles' songs have some self-explanatory power, helping the listener to adapt to their intricate harmonic twists. If we want to explain the Beatles' songs in a musicological way, however, we are still confronted by severe problems.
Because of their harmonic peculiarities, the Beatles' songs have been called a-tonal or non-tonal. Others have said that the Beatles did retreat to premodern tonal systems, pointing at the way chords are combined in Renaissance Music according to the principle of common tones (2). In a similar way their songs have been qualified as modal — i.e. built upon a tonic with one or more related co-tonics — mostly a combination of Major and minor modes. This use of co-tonics facilitates addressing additional chords and notes. That way the Beatles' style can be seen as a return to premodern music (Mellers, 1969; 1973), or as an extension of an earlier trend in popular music (Van der Merwe, 1989). However, the Beatles' chords are not always connected by common tones, and, though the group was not averse of modulations and an intermingling of minor and Major modes, most of time their songs tend to keep to one solid tone centre.
Figure 2: The tone grid of diagonal substitution
Instead of going back in time, the Beatles rather took a step forward (Peyser, 1969). Adding up all the chords used in their songbook and relating them to a common key, some kind of system emerges (Figure 2). All possible chords are related to each other in a fixed grid, keeping to a fixed tone centre (Tillekens, 1998). Along the diagonal lines, chords are treated as substitutes for the subtonic, tonic and dominant. So in "Here, There, And Everywhere" the tonic G (I) sometimes is replaced by E minor (vi), sometimes by G minor (i) or again sometimes by B-flat (bIII). The subdominant C (IV) can be swapped for C minor (iv), A minor (ii) and even F# minor (vii). The B chord (III) in turn functions as a stand-in for the dominant D (V). In that way the principle of diagonal substitution accounts for all of the song's chords.
The Beatles developed and explored this system from the start of their career — not guided by theory, of course, but by a felt need to express themselves musically. Piecing chords together seemed their way of composing. Or, as Ian MacDonald (1994: 10) says: "In short, they had no preconceptions about the next chord, an openness which they consciously exploited (...)." With each new song and record their experiments became more daring. At first they sought some support in standard chord sequences like the chain of fifths (II-V-I) and the turn-around (I-vi-IV-V). Later on, in their songs any chord seemed fit to follow any other (Widders-Ellis and Gress, 1994), at least if the sequences could be smoothed by some good leading notes. To that end the Beatles took to exploiting the possibilities of the microtonal differences of the tones in their system more fully. They could take their pick. For their compositions the Beatles had an extended tonal array at their disposal, as the diagonal tone grid comprises twenty-four different tones.
On a modern, well-tempered instrument we find only half this amount and each tone of the chromatic scale seems to appear twice in the tone grid. Though called "enharmonic," each pair of tones differs significantly by microtonal distances. The grid itself, however, will help the listener in interpreting which tone is which. If a listener, be it unconsciously, knows the place of the accompanying chord within the grid, the tones are defined accordingly. When the tones are part of a melody line or a sung harmony, they must be sung pure. This, in turn, helps the listener to locate the chord within the grid. That is one of the reasons why the sung harmonies of the Beatles, built upon the chords they played on their guitars (Valdez, 2001), were so important. Their songlines glued the chords together by using many of these microtonal differences as leading notes.
Figure 3: The chorus of "Help!"
In the third and fourth measure of the chorus of "Help!" the Beatles, for instance, sing a D that belongs to the G chord. In the fifth measure the same note is sung, this time accompanied by the E seventh (Figure 3). Though seemingly the same, both notes differ by nearly a quarter of a tonal distance, which the Beatles knew to catch perfectly (Kramarz, 1983: 137). This mark of many Beatles' songs also explains why their compositions seem to integrate harmony and melody. The system of diagonal substitution thus accounts for most of the Beatles' chord and song characteristics. Some chords, however, ask for another explanation.
Variants of the flat-seventh. About 66 out of the 187 canonical Beatles' songs incorporate the flat-seventh chord. That is over one third of the complete corpus. The flat-seventh has its own place within the system of diagonal substitution. With the flat-submediant (bVI) and the flat-mediant (bIII) the subtonic forms a triplet of substitutions for the subdominant, the tonic and the dominant respectively. The roots of these chords are the flat-thirds of the roots of the basic chords. Because of their resemblance to similar chords in the Classical Style, these chords sometimes are called Neapolitan chords (3). However, the use of these chords in popular music probably has other origins as their roots coincide with the so-called blue notes. In the idioms of parlour music, blues and folk, these blue notes made an early entrance as accidental notes, sometimes accentuated in the melody lines, sometimes also added to the chord settings.
The blue notes are an integral part of the blues idiom, where much of their attraction lies in their variability of microtonal colours. As the tone grid indicates, the blue seventh (b7) for instance can be interpreted as the fourth of the subdominant's root, as well as the minor third of the dominant's root. To this we can add its interpretation as a perfect seventh to the tonic's root itself. These tones really do sound different as the distance between the last two variants amounts to a quarter of a whole tone step. Moreover, with their microtonal differences, each of these variants seems to accentuate a separate meaning. The first variant — sounding 3.9 cent lower than the well-tempered tone of the same name on a keyboard — transmits a feeling of distance and loss; the second one — reaching up to 17.6 cent higher than its well-tempered relative — expresses a deep felt and urgent private emotion. And, the perfect seventh — by no less than 31.2 cent lower than its keyboard equivalent — supplies the tonic with a feeling of completeness by its consonant qualities, and thereby suggests a sense of healing (Tillekens, 1998).
Unknowlingy, good blues and pop singers are able to catch these small tonal differences. next to the voice, though, a guitar is also an excellent instrument to play, or at least to hint at them. By bending the strings with their left-hand fingers on the neck of their instruments, guitarists can accentuate these different meanings. As an accidental note, sevenths can be added to every chord. Applied to the tonic, however, its semantic power seems at its strongest. That way the Beatles use it, for instance, in "I Wanna Be Your Man" where the verse centres on just this only chord, adorned with flat-sevenths. Listen for instance tot the first line of the song's lyrics: "I wanna be your lover, baby, I wanna be your man." Here the flat-seventh is emphasized in the melody line on both occurrences of the verb "be" and the first syllable of "baby." Just like in many blues songs, the seemingly sober harmony gets its thrill out of a subtle variation in "longing," "distance," and "healing."
Accidental blue notes never have disappeared from the idiom of popular music, but in time they also developed into full-blown chords. In pre-war popular music, the Neapolitan chords were approached by introducing a chain of fifths starting from the tonic and modulating to the root of the flat-third (I-IV-bVII-bIII) (Forte, 1995). Later on, in blues and folk music we find more adlib insertions. The growing popularity of the guitar furthered the use of these chords by facilitating so-called chord streams, stepwise root movement of chords. Guitarists adapted the style of ragtime and jazz to their instrument by picking a barré chord and sliding the whole hand one of more frets up or down on the neck of the guitar. The intro of Elvis Presley's "Hard Headed Woman" offers a good example (Van der Merwe, 1989: 265-266). Chord streams and incidental, isolated Neapolitan chords first made their entrance in popular music especially in the intro and the coda of songs. Later on, in the Brill Building and British appropriation of Rock and Roll, the harmonizing of the blue notes almost came to be a standard (Kramarz, 1983: 51 ff.).
Figure 4: A chord stream in "I'm Only Sleeping"
All these elements reappear in the early Beatles' songs. Stepwise diatonic or chromatic chord progressions, for instance, can be found in songs as early as "P.S. I Love You," "Ask Me Why" and "Do You Want To Know A Secret." Likewise on Revolver the refrain of Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" is built upon such a chord stream (Figure 4). Isolated, as incidental chords, Neapolitan chords show up in "I Saw Her Standing There." All this was not new within the musical idiom of popular music. The songs of Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins, for instance, predate those of the Beatles in their use of the flat-sixth. Learning from these examples and importing all the tricks and treats of Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues, the Beatles fitted them into their own overarching style. The same goes for the flat-seventh, to which the Beatles were acquainted by their cover song "A Taste of Honey." For their own songs they applied it in the intro of "Thank You Girl." The same chord also provides the powerful opening — like an exclamation mark — of "A Hard Day's Night," the verse of "I'll Be Back" and, of course, the adventurous intro of "Help!" (Figure 3), which opens with the daring sequence: ii-bVII-V-I.
On the album Help! and next on Revolver this trend of using the flat-seventh chord is extended and even more daringly applied. "Doctor Robert," also written by Lennon, for instance, opens with a four-measure vamp on the A chord, which is further sustained for no less than eight measures in the verse. This gives the listener the impression that this chord is the tonic. Afters six bars of accompaniment by the F# chord, the harmony reaches its tonic in the last measure of the verse by a sequence of E-F#-B. This last sequence only can be interpreted as IV-V-I, thus forcing the listener to interpret the A chord in retrospect as the flat-seventh. That way the flat-seventh helps to give the opening lyrics their feeling of an urging insistence, making it an uncensored utterance of deep-felt feelings. In the refrain — "Well, well, well, I'm feeling fine" — this tonal drift at last keeps to its definite tonic, turning the anxiety of the verse into a sudden calmness and thereby suggesting the soothing effects of Doctor Robert's drugs (Wagner, 2001: 95).
Harmonizing the blue notes deprives them of their ambiguity. That's one of the reasons why many of the blue notes of the Beatles and other British groups did sound wrong, or at least not flexible enough, to the ears of blues fanatics. This also goes for the chord forms, at least for the flat-sixth and the flat-third. These chords only appear as the minor thirds of the subdominant and the tonic respectively. The flat-seventh, however, also can represent another chord in the tonal grid, i.e. the fourth of the subdominant. This chord lies farther away from the tonic and so it stresses the feeling of distance and loss. This is also the preferred treatment of this chord in the idiom of folk music. In the Beatles' song repertoire this use of the flat-seventh, for instance, shows up in their ballad "Things We Said Today," where the four-bar chord sequence I-I-IV-bVII underlines the lyrics: "Someday when I'm lonely, wishing you weren't so far away."
Sometimes, as in "All My Loving," where the flat-seventh behaves like a connecting chord between the ii and V chords, the flat-seventh is more folk-oriented — accentuating the separation from a distant lover. In other instances the blues interpretation of strongly felt feelings dominates, like in "We Can Work It Out," where the opening verse starts with an alternating I-bVII sequence. To discriminate both, almost identical chords, we here shall call the first one the folk variant and the second one the blues variant. Giving them different names, however, not always will make it easier to discriminate both variants. In the songs of the Beatles the flat-seventh often will shift back and forth between its folk and blues variants.
In his analysis of the Beatles' songs Walter Everett (1999) points toward one their favourite chord progressions, the "Hey-Jude" progression (bVII-IV-I), we can hear for instance in "You Never Give Me Your Money" and, of course in the jamming phrase ("na, na, na ...") of "Hey Jude." Everett calls this sequence a "double plagal cadence," thereby suggesting that the chord equivocally is our folk variant. But in reality in "Hey Jude" it is not — at least not always — the folk variant we hear. The first time we hear the chord in this sequence it is the blues variant, with its root on the flat-third of the dominant. The second time the sequence comes around it is the folk variant. Here the Beatles make good use of the ambiguous character of this chord. In the verse of "For No One," McCartney turns the sequence just the other way around. Now it becomes: IV-bVII-I, which makes the flat-seventh into a kind of pseudo-dominant. Again, however, the chord is used ambiguously. The last two chords of this progression accompany the lyrics: "When she no longer needs you." Here we hear a subtle shift from the experience of distance of the folk variant to the deep-felt feeling of the blues variant of the flat-seventh. Clearly, its ambiguity is what makes the chord so interesting (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Shifts of the flat-seventh between the folk and blues variants
As "For No One" shows, the ambiguous character of the flat-seventh is being cleverly exploited on Revolver. This intermingling of both flat-sevenths and their meanings can also be heard on the album's first track, Harrison's "Taxman." The song's verse is built out of three parts, of which the third and last one opens with the flat-seventh. The chord is kept on for two bars, followed by one bar for the subdominant and next by two bars for the tonic: bVII-bVII-IV-I-I. Apart from its unusual five-measures length, this part of the song conforms to the blues-form. Again, both variants of the flat-seventh show up. In first bar, accompanying the lines "Cause I'm the taxman," we hear a blues flat-seventh. Next, in the second bar and underlining the phrase "Yeah, I'm the ...," the folk variant appears, creating the impression that the dreaded taxman is nearing from a distance, moving from the background to the foreground.
Quartal harmonies. The Beatles developed and explored the principle of diagonal substitution in their early songs. After their experimental period, they returned more fully to this system, as can be shown by the interplay of chords traditionally ascribed to the keys of A Major, A minor, and C Major in the "Abbey Road Medley." Many tracks on Revolver, however, show a predilection for so-called quartal harmonies, i.e. harmonies in which the key leans towards the roots of the subdominant or even the subtonic. These quartal harmonies play with horizontal movements through the harmonic grid, leaning downward to the subdominant and the subtonic — in this case our folk variant (4).
Just like the blue notes, quartal harmonies by themselves are not special for the Beatles' songs. The blues preference for the subdominant above the dominant can be interpreted as an inclination toward quartal harmonies. The same goes for the preference in Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues for the plagal cadence (IV-I). Maybe this preference even can be held responsible for the introduction of the flat-seventh chord itself (Wagner, 2001: 94). Many good Rock and Roll songs, moreover, like to blur the key, at least in the intro taking it as far as possible into the verse. These songs just start with harmonic ostinato's of two alternating chords a fifth apart, postponing the third chord which will decide the exact key as long as possible. As their covers show, the Beatles learned this trick from Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," Little Richard's performance of "Kansas City," Buddy Holly's "Words Of Love." Their first official song "Love Me Do" and later on "I Should Have Known Better" prove that the Beatles had learned this game quite as well.
As we have seen, the subtonic adds a surplus of meaning to the lyrics of popular songs. The same goes for the three basic chords. The lyrics of popular songs generally regard conversations (Tillekens, 2001). As a rule the dominant stresses the voicing of a public statement toward someone else. The subdominant underlines a retreat into thinking things over in the back of one's mind, an inner monologue. In between, the tonic accentuates the grounding of a decision. So, a long alternation of just two basic chords at the start of a song not only creates uncertainty about it being a sequence of I-V or IV-I. It also leaves it up to the listener to decide if the singer is voicing his inner thoughts or bringing them out into the open. By the way, this same chord movement also is responsible for creating the two-chord walking rhythm of many Rock and Roll songs. In "Love Me Do," for instance, it strengthens the impression of someone walking to his lover, voicing his thoughts in an inner monologue and preparing to voice his commitment to her in the open. When at last we do hear the dominant, this chord underscores that the singer at last has resolved his doubts and is ready to confess his love to his girl friend.
Quartal harmonies accentuate that the singer is biding his time — daydreaming, still being busy thinking things over and postponing final decisions — and thus offer a powerful means of accentuating the meaning of the song lyrics. They can be effectuated by different harmonic tricks. A subtler variant lies in the use of suspended chords, like those applied by Harrison in his "I Want To Tell You." Here the guitar ostinato's vary on two instances of the tonic, A7 and A7sus4, in which musicologist Alan Pollack (1995, #101), by the way, also discovers traces of an embedded "Hey Jude" progression. Quartal inclinations also show up in one of the Beatles' more adventurous modulations of which "She Said She Said," recorded in the key of B-flat, again offers a good example (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Downward modulation in the bridge of "She Said She Said"
In "She Said She Said," we find a clear modulation to Eb — the root of the subdominant (IV) — in the bridge, pivoting on the F minor chord (v). At the time this modulation was not new to the Beatles' songbook. They had performed this feat before in the middle eight of "From Me To You," and at that moment is was a real musical discovery (Kramarz, 1983: 51-53). "From Me To You" is written in the key of C and so the minor dominant is G minor. In respect to this song McCartney himself voiced it this way in an interview with Mark Lewisohn (1988: 10):
"... that middle eight was a very big departure for us. Say you're in C then go to A minor, fairly ordinary, C, change it to G. And then F, pretty ordinary, but then it goes [sings] 'I got arms' and that's a G minor. Going to G minor and a C takes you to a whole new world. It was exciting."
The new world, McCartney here is referring to, not only implies an expansion of the chord material for the composer, but also an extension of the semantic scope of the writer of the song lyrics. Turning the subdominant into the tonic can be used to signify a retreat into the inner self. Once they had discovered it, the Beatles used this harmonic manoeuvre more often. They repeated it in the middle-eight of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and as we have seen in "She Said She Said." Here it is aptly applied to signify a retreat into a memory of lost innocence, when Lennon sings: "When I was I boy, everything was right." It doesn't stop there, as the bridge of "I'm Only Sleeping" again takes this move one step further, by using the flat-seventh itself as a pivot chord to modulate and even doing it twice (5) (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Downward and upward modulations in the bridge of "I'm Only Sleeping"
With this modulation the bridge directly jumps into a deeper introspection. In the song Lennon is expressing the feeling of being half-awake, half-sleeping. Again the modulation is used for a further retreat into the inner world of reflective thought. Lennon tries to explain his mental state, assuming there is an outsider who's threatening to wake him fully. In the bridge he defines the semi-awareness of waking up to himself: "Keeping an eye on the world outside, taking my time ..." The use of the flat-seventh, with its subtle variations, as a pivot chord instead of the minor dominant, softens the transition between the song sections.
Indian inspirations. The overflow of flat-sevenths can have implications that are seemingly difficult for those unknown to the intricacies of musicology. One of those is the preference of transcribers for Mixolydian or other outlandish modes and scales. The reference to Greek musical scales of old is not as difficult as it may seem at first sight. Most of the time the qualification Mixolydian, for instance, just means that the seventh step of the Major scale is replaced by the flat-seventh. In that case using the key of the subdominant for the end of transcription facilitates the notation of songs on sheet music. The qualification Mixolydian again offers an indication for the use of quartal harmonies in a song. Many of the songs mentioned above, like "Love Me Do," fall into this category. Not all songs qualified as Mixolydian always are pure examples of this scale. Mostly this scale is applied to account for the ample use of the flat-seventh as an accidental tone. Just like the key of "Love Me Do" fluctuates between G and C, the tone centre of "She Said She Said" moves around the keys of Bb and Eb. "She Said She Said," however, can be qualified as pure Mixolydian Major, as the song's harmonies forego the use of the dominant and show a preference for the subtonic instead.
An inclination to the Dorian mode can be found in "Love You To." In this mode the third step and seventh step of the Major scale are both flattened, thus addressing two blue notes. Most Beatles' songs are not so shy as to keep to only one scale. Combinations of Mixolydian, Dorian and more common Major modes, for instance, can be found both on Revolver's "Taxman," which skips the use of the dominant and "Tomorrow Never Knows," a Lennon' composition deserving special attention, because it shows a specific use of the flat-seventh.
Figure 8: A vacillating drone in the verse of "Tomorrow Never Knows"
The key of "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a Mixolydian C, which is equivalent to F Major. The second half of virtually every verse is built out of eight measures of an alternating bVII-I sequence, which all in all is repeated seven times (Figure 8). Again the lyrics express a retreat into a distanced, deep inner feeling, the first time saying: "It is not dying." In this case it not even is the flat-seventh chord itself that is directly addressed. There is only, as Pollack (1995, #103) calls it, an "implied vacillation" toward the flat-seventh. Many songs that were recorded during the Revolver recording project, possess this drone-like — we could almost say "revolving" — quality. The effect can result out of a slowing down of the two-chord walking rhythm of an alternating tonic and the subdominant, like we hear in "Paperback Writer." It can be strengthened by treating the subdominant as a suspended chord, like we hear in the coda — right after the modulation — of "I'm Only Sleeping," as well as in the refrain of "Rain." A more powerful effect results from leaving the subdominant out and implying it by alterations of the tonic, like Harrison's guitar ostinato's do in "I Want To Tell You."
The use of these harmonic tricks turns the original walking rhythm of Rock and Roll into a more quiet rocking feeling. The negligence of the dominant takes away any sense of fulfilment and determined action. Keeping to the tonic itself and just hinting at the subdominant strengthens this effect, and, by inserting the flat-seventh instead, the walking rhythm even becomes quieter still (6). With subtle microtonal transitions, the flat-seventh is addressed in both its meanings — placing the violence of private, uncensored inner feelings themselves at a distance. This calms down the pace of revolving thoughts, leading to a feeling of detachment. Here we find a seeming paradox: the flat-seventh, though in a musicological sense a syntactical disturbance, gives the song and the phrasing of the lyrics a soothing quality, quieting the inner voice even further. It almost stops the flow of time, inherent in any music, by creating an oscillating, standing wave of deep feelings and distancing. Of course, the song effectuating this effect to the full is Harrison's "Love You To," which brings us to quite another question.
Both "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Love You To" make ample use of the sitar. This seems to imply that the growing influence of Classical Indian music promoted the use of flat-sevenths in the Beatles' songs. At that time there, certainly, was something hanging in the air. Classical Indian influences already had made themselves felt in the streams of Jazz, Folk and Classical Music from the mid-fifties on. McCartney confirms this influence in regard to the drone we hear in "Tomorrow Never Knows" (Miles, 1997: 290-291):
"This was because of our interest in Indian music. We would be sitting around and at the end of an Indian album we'd go, 'Did anyone realise they didn't change chords?' It would be like 'Shit, it was all in E! Wow, man, that is pretty far out.' So we began to sponge up a few of these nice ideas."
Here McCartney is suggesting the Indian sound of the song all came from outside influences. And, indeed, there are some strong resemblances between the musical idiom applied in many Revolver's songs and the Classical Indian Style. Apart from all the intricacies of the Indian raga as a tonal framework for composition and improvisation, Indian scales are true scales. They are built around a tonic and a perfect fifth or fourth. These tones are used to set up a drone. The other tones of the scale are variable. The tunes make subtle variations and ornamentations, often with microtonal distances. In combination with the tonic, the flat-seventh proves to be a good chord to imitate an Indian sound, at least to Western ears, as both variants of this chord offer some of the same microtonal distances that are familiar to the idiom of Indian music. So, being part and parcel of the Beatles' compositional techniques, the flat-seventh itself maybe accustomed them to the sound of Indian music. This, at least, seems to go for other British groups who imported Indian sounds into their songs at about the same time.
George Harrison came across the sitar during the takes for the film Help! in London. It would, however, not be until October 12, 1965 before the first fruits of his study of the instrument would be used in recording "Norwegian Wood." In the meantime, other British groups, also known for their use of the flat-seventh, had begun experimenting with Indian sounds (Harrison, 2001). Here the inspiration worked the other way around. It seems to be their use of the flat-seventh that accustomed and sensitised them to Indian music. As soon as they heard the sounds of Indian chants or sitars, they felt the correspondence with their own kind of music. That is how the Kinks, who had shown a predilection for the flat-seventh chord before (Fitzgerald, 2000: 69), for instance, came to the idea of imitating a sitar in their song "See My Friends." The group got the idea during a short stay in Bombay on the way back from their Australian tour. The same goes for the Yardbirds, who preceded the Kinks by a few months, when they added some Indian flavour to their song "Hearts Full Of Soul" because, as they said themselves, the riff on an earlier demo already seemed to suggest the use a sitar. Neither song used a sitar as an instrument. By a fraction the Yardbirds missed the opportunity to be the first rock group to do this. Jeff Beck performed an expert imitation of a sitar on his guitar after the hired studio musician failed to get the song lines right on his sitar. So for these groups, and probably the Beatles as well, it was something already present in their own musical idiom, which seem to ask for some Indian additions. If so, maybe the secret in the fascination of the Beatles for Indian music also lays in their adoption of the flat-seventh and a renewed perception of its ambiguity.
Stopping the flow of time. Quartal harmonies, strengthened by the use of suspended chords and flat-sevenths, dominate many of the Revolver songs. The use of flat-seventh (bVII) and the minor fifth (v) in this way meant a deviation from the preferred method of diagonal substitution and songs like these are a subcategory in the Beatles' canon. As we have seen the flat-seventh chord was there all along before Revolver. This album, however, shows their most creative use of it. The use of the inherent ambiguity of the subtonic softens the walking and dancing character of early rock music and also points the way to the adoption of Indian sounds and music. This inclination to quartal harmonies and the flat-seventh may rest on their power to suggest a peace of mind, an end to longing and a recourse to a nostalgic past.
Maybe that is the reason why McCartney initially had the impression of the album being out of tune. Clearly, he hadn't yet incorporated the extreme use of the flat-seventh, as he himself only wrote one song with this particular chord, "For No One," which at that time was rather ordinary for a Beatles' composition. Maybe, in his personal life at that time McCartney felt less need than the others of stopping the flow of time. He must have had some feel for it, however. McCartney, answered to Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" by writing "Good Day Sunshine." This song has the same horizontal movements, but inverted, directed toward the dominant and the supertonic as the pure fifth of the dominant. Consequently the song's atmosphere is more open, lending a more outward-bound feeling to the lyrics. Soon he would prove his abilities, when the Beatles gave a new interpretation of nostalgia with "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields." In the last song Lennon again plays with quartal harmonies (Thompson, 2001), in the former McCartney, showing that had acquired a taste for the new sound of the group, performs a direct pivot modulation in the transition of verse to refrain towards the key of the flat-seventh.
1. The presented chord sequences are checked against the transcriptions of Tetsuya Fujita, Yuji Hagino, Hajime Kubo and Goro Sato (Beatles, 1989) and Alan W. Pollack's "Notes on ... Series" (Pollack, 1989-2001).
2. See for this mark of Renaissance music: Bettens, 1998. Some Beatles' bootleg records, so called Beatlegs, even present the group as "The Renaissance Minstrels."
3. In what must be the first academic Ph.D. on the Beatles, Steven Porter (1979: 72) builds his case for the influence of European Western music on the style of the Beatles on their use of just these Neapolitan chords. At the end of his study he, however, has to admit that the Beatles use these chords in their own manner.
4. This same movement, by the way, is called "vertical" in respect to medieval polyphony and early music (cfr. Schulter, 1998).
5. Just like their cover song "A Taste Of Honey," both "Love You To" and "I'm Only Sleeping" are written in a minor key. Therefore, strictly speaking, the bvii should be written as the vii, as in the minor mode the flat-seventh is native to key. Here, however, we will keep to the conventions presented in the tone grid.
6. At about the same time, the Beatles slowed down the rhythmic patterns of their songs, thereby creating, as Len McCarthy (2001) argues, a new rhythmic paradigm for pop and rock music.
This article was originally published in: Russell Reising (red.), Every sound there is. The Beatles' Revolver and the transformation of Rock and Roll. Aldershot, London: Ashgate, 2002, 121-136