Welcome back to Beatles Month!
Today we’re talking with Aaron Krerowicz, who focuses specifically on the music of The Beatles. Meaning he dives deep into the lyrics, the chords, the notes used in melodies – all the stuff that musicians are perhaps most hungry to hear about but is quite rarely discussed in such a dedicated way. This was a super cool conversation.
We know you’re going to be itching for more from Aaron so you’ll be pleased to hear he’s written several short, easy-to-read books, and published a ton of bite-sized videos on the topic too which you can find at Flipside Beatles.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The special way in which the music of the Beatles is “sophisticated” – and when that all began
- How the Beatles learned from and re-imagined the music of the time to create their most remarkable songs
- And what we can learn from looking at which of the group wrote each song, and the way the music and lyrics relate.
Plus: Aaron shares a quite shocking statistic about the apparent overnight success of the Fab Four.
Aaron brings a unique perspective to analysing The Beatles and I know you’re going to enjoy this conversation just as much as we did.
You’re tuned in to Beatles Month at Musical U.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Aaron. Thank you for joining us today.
Aaron: Well, it’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
Christopher: So I have thoroughly enjoyed diving deep into your writing on the subject of The Beatles and I would love to know how you came to be such a leading expert on the topic and, in particular, if you have a musical background, yourself, as a musician, at all.
Aaron: Yeah, I get, I get that question a lot. People are usually surprised when they see me because I’m 32 years old and I look 10 years younger than that. I’ve had people mistake me for a high school student and no one expects someone of my age to be an authority on The Beatles. So I get this question almost every day and the short answer is, my dad.
My dad got me into it. My dad was born in ’53. He’s a first generation Beatles fan, so he grew up listening to The Beatles in real time. He remembers watching the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, ’64 including my grandmother’s snarky comments about we’ll never hear from this band again. This is the pinnacle. It’s all down here for The Beatles and from here and so what, so he grew up, you know, watching it play out in real time.
I, then, grew up listening to The Beatles through him because I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t know and love this music. It’s just always been there. People ask me, “When, when’s the first time you heard The Beatles?” and my honest answer is, “In utero,” because that’s, that’s, that’s it. That’s where I first heard this music and so I grew up with The Beatles, too, but of course this would have been the 90’s, well after the band had broken up. So I’m a second generation fan.
Then when I got to graduate school is when I returned to the music that I grew up with but with a lot more musically educated ears and more musically experienced ears and that experience and academic education gave me an entirely new avenue to appreciate and love this,The Beatles music, all over again and so that would have been 2008, 2009, around the time I was in grad school for music and then in 2011 I applied for and won a research grant to study the band and with that money I was able to buy somewhere in the neighborhood of 72 books, 18 CD’s, 20 DVD’s and even some old VHS tapes and all Beatles material and I was able to go through all that. The University of Hartford in Connecticut gave, essentially gave me the library funds, the university library funds to make purchases at my request and so I had to buy all this Beatles stuff now, which is now housed in the University of Hartford music library’s permanent collection.
And so I spent several years wading through all of that, reading every book I could find, every biography, every, you know, musical, you know, treatise, there are several of those out there, watching every documentary, listening to every set of interviews, just digesting all of that and it took several years to digest it all. And then, so then I started writing, I started, instead of, instead of reading what other people had written I started writing my own ideas down and my first book, called, “The Beatles and the Avant Garde,” was published in 2014 and then in 2015 I took a big leap of faith and quit all my jobs so that I could travel around doing educational presentations on The Beatles and their music throughout the United States and beyond, actually. I’ve been to Canada a couple of times, I’ve been to England a couple of years ago, as well. That was a very long-winded answer. I don’t know if that, that’s what you were going for.
Christopher: No, perfect.
Aaron: Usually I’m a literally more concise when people ask me that question.
Christopher: Not at all.
Aaron: That was a little more detailed.
Christopher: Well, I, you know, as someone who has the same origin story as you in the sense that my dad was a massive Beatles fan and I kind of inherited that from him before going on to study music, I can relate to the beginning but I envy you the end because, you know, being a professional Beatles scholar is a very cool job title, indeed, and there were a few things that I’d like to come back and pick up on. You mentioned that you, kind of, came back to The Beatles with a more trained musical ear. I wonder, could you explain a little bit, what had you learned in the interim that had changed your ear or if you could give an insight into how your ear was now hearing it differently.
Aaron: Mm-hm. Yeah, and if you’ve, if you’ve ever done a degree program, you know, at university or a conservatory, you have to take things like music theory, which is, basically, analysis of music and you have to take ear training or aural skills which is being able to recognize intervals and different chord progressions and that kind of thing. It’s all fundamental to musicianship, even outside the university. You do it, too, just much less formally.
Anyway, I took all these analysis classes and I trained my ear, I trained myself to be able to hear musical patterns and, and so taking, taking that formal training, that formal university-setting education and applying it to popular music is something that’s relatively new. There are, of course, many people who have written about pop music analytically and this goes back many decades but even when I was in grad school I had several professors who clearly looked down on popular music.
They didn’t say it in these words, but the jist was, “If you were a real musician, you would study Beethoven and Mozart and Bach, not The Beatles. This is disgusting,” and, of course, if my professors were here right now they’d be upset with me for saying that but that’s the feeling I got. They never came out and said that in those words but the feeling I got when I talked about popular music, the study of popular music, was that this is beneath us. This is not worthy of our time, of our effort. And that gave me a very strong wall to push off of and, because I, I’ve taken the complete opposite approach.
I’m now of the opinion that pop music is every bit as sophisticated and as in-depth and as rewarding as study of classical music is, so that’s what, that was the difference. When I was a little kid I didn’t know any of this. I was just listening to music and singing along and I loved doing that but as an adult I can come to this same music with a rather different approach, a more formal, a more educated and a more experienced approach to The Beatles, specifically, and to popular music in general.
Christopher: Gotcha. Well, I definitely want to come back to that point you made about it being more sophisticated than people might give it credit for but first, you mentioned there, you know, 72 books, 18 CD’s, DVD’s, VHS and, clearly there are tons of websites, as well dedicated to The Beatles. What would you say sets you apart from the average people’s fan site, if that’s not a rude question to ask.
Aaron: No, not at all. I get this question a lot too, which is, I, my back ground is as a musician, and there’s a great many Beatles experts out there who are not musicians and I don’t mean to say that in a bad way. I think the best book ever written on The Beatles is Mark Lewisohn’s “Tune In.” Mark Lewisohn is brilliant. He’s an excellent author, one of the best I’ve ever read. He’s, his work is absolutely seminal to what I do. I try to build off of Lewisohn’s work and his, like, the recording sessions and the chronology are absolutely fundamental to Beatles scholarship.
That being said, Lewisohn is more of an historian and a biographer. He deals with the who, the what, why, and where, when and how and that kind of stuff. But that, that is fascinating, but it’s not the actual music and most people, if you walk into a book store and say, you know, “Show me where the music section is,” they’ll point you to books that are biographies of Bruce Springsteen or a history of Bob Dylan or countless others. So in a general sense, music can be very, the definition of what constitutes music can be very wide. I, however, as a more academic musician, have a very literal sense, a literal definition of music and that is, it has two parts: pitch, which refers to how high or how low any given sound is and rhythm which refers to how long any given sound is.
So if something does not have pitch or rhythm then it can not be music, by the literal definition that I use. And so what I ultimately do is I look at the spectacularly sophisticated way in which The Beatles use pitch and rhythm and it can be very simple but it can also be extremely sophisticated and that’s part of the reason why it’s so endlessly compelling to study their music, because it is so complex and so carefully crafted and sophisticated.
Christopher: So let’s dwell on that for a moment, then, because I think if someone’s listening to that, imagining, you know, something like, “Twist and Shout,” or a really early Beatles number like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” maybe, they might be, you know, a bit surprised to hear you talk about sophisticated music and that the title of your book is, or your first book is “Beatles and the Avant Garde,” you know, that sounds very lofty and I think we all know, you know, the early music of the Beatles, at least much of their later stuff, can you explain why The Beatles or how The Beatles are sophisticated?
Aaron: Sure. Well, you mentioned one song, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” which has a rather interesting chord progression. So it’s in G major, so I’m just going to try this, here. Does that come through clearly?
Aaron: (Plays) All right, so, it’s a G major, to a D major, E minor, and then a B seven and it’s that last chord that’s rather unusual. Most songwriters would go, G to D, to E (minor), to C back to G. That’s one of the great cliché’s of popular music, is that particular chord progression, one to the five to the six to the four.
There are thousands of songs that use that particular pattern of chords but not The Beatles, or, rather, not in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” There are other songs where they do use that but, so, just, tweaking it, that last chord, instead of C dropping it to a B is something fresh. There are thousands of chords that use the standard progression and I don’t know of any others off the top of my head that use the same progression found in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” with what’s known as the three chord instead of the four chord, a B chord into the C chord. I don’t want to go overly technical here but that’s one instance of the early Beatles doing something surprising and something that I think the vast majority of the popular music composers of the time did not do.
Christopher: That’s super interesting. And tell me, did I just inadvertently stumble on one great example to make that point or is it something you often find in Beatles with their earlier catalog?
Aaron: I, to be honest, I find it more with the later stuff but you do find it frequently with the earlier songs, as well. That’s just the first one that came, that popped into my head. If you want to take the time, I could also show “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Christopher: For sure, yeah.
Aaron: Sure, okay. So that was in E major. you know, “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean, and the way she looked was way beyond compare,” so, here it is, so “I’ll never dance with another” then to this chord, that right there. All right, so it’s E major, “how could I dance” it’s E major first inversion, E major with a G sharp in the base, “with another” there’s your four chord, to A major.
Most composers would lead to a five chord, a B and then back to E, that sounds perfectly fine. (Plays chord progression) Right? Totally fine, but it’s not what Paul does. He goes E, E first inversion to an A to a flat six or in this case, C, back to E. So, again, it’s a, it’s another example of how they take something that’s standard and they tweak it. They kind of goose it ever so slightly and create something that is quite fresh and quite original. Again, I can’t think of any others, I’m sure there are some out there, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head
Christopher: So that was beautifully illustrated and I think a great demonstration of how The Beatles were innovating right from the beginning. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that their music fit in perfectly fine with the era, you know, if you think of someone like Carl Perkins that was of that time, The Beatles songs certainly existed alongside those and didn’t confuse the radio listeners too much. Do you think The Beatles, kind of, went off in a completely different direction right from the beginning or how did they co-exist with that musical era?
Aaron: Yeah, well, the 50’s is very much the decade of rock and roll. You have guys like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and Little Richard and Carl Perkins, like you mentioned and part of what makes Beatles study so fascinating is how they grew out of that, how they start out as a rock and roll band playing covers of guys like Elvis and Carl Perkins but then they take the music in a rather different direction.
So one of them, to stick with the Carl Perkins idea, one of his songs is “Honey, Don’t.” It came out in, I think, ’56 or 57 and The Beatles covered it in ’64 and it uses a particularly interesting set of harmony as well. So it starts on an E major chord (Plays chord) then it goes to a C major (Sings) And so that particular chord progression, E major to C major is a little bit unusual. It’s not terribly rare. There are other songs like “Take It Easy” by Buddy Holly that uses the same progression but it’s also not terribly common and so it stands out in Carl Perkins as being a bit unusual and, as a result, quite interesting.
The Beatles, then, covered Carl Perkins “Honey Don’t” and they would play it live and they recorded it but they would also use that unusual progression in their original songwriting and so the verses to “It Won’t Be Long,” feature the same chords so it’s E major, (Sings) and it’s the same, it’s the same chords, E major to C major and back again.
So is this conscious, did John Lennon sit down and say, “Hey, I’m writing this song called, ‘It Won’t Be Long’,” you know, “How should I write this? Well, there’s, remember that song, ‘Honey Don’t’ by Carl Perkins? Remember the E major to C major unusual chords? I think I’m going to use those same chords in my song.” It’s possible John was thinking that clinically but I kind of doubt it. I imagine that John is just writing what he thinks works. I don’t think he’s worried about copying Carl Perkins or anything else. He’s just, he hears these chords and he thinks, “Yeah, this is what I’m going for. This really works. I really like this.”
So to a certain extent intent is irrelevant because my job as an analyzer of music is to analyze what they did. My job is to analyze what The Beatles actually did. That is not necessarily the same thing as what they thought they were doing nor necessarily what they intended to do.
The Beatles’s repertoire is littered with examples of happy accidents, as Bob Ross might say. I’m thinking of the opening of ‘I Feel Fine,” when Paul plucks the A string, I think it is, or maybe it’s George, and it feedbacks on the amplifier and they didn’t intend to do that but when it happened, when the accident happened they were wise enough to recognize it and another one is the edit on “Revolution,” right before the dum-dah-dah-dee-dum, dee-dee-dum, dee-dee-dum, the little guitar lick, there was an editing error that added an extra couple of notes in there and that was not done on purpose but they liked it . They saw that and they thought, “Hey, this is great. This is not what we meant to do but we’re going to keep it in.” The first note of “Her Majesty” is another famous example where they, it was not originally intended that way but they decided to keep it in. So there’s many examples throughout The Beatles repertoire of things that they didn’t necessarily intend to do but that they did, anyway, and this unusual chord pattern (Plays piano) that we find in both “Honey Don’t” and “It Won’t Be Long” is one such example.
So there’s a little bit about how “it Won’t Be Long” and “Honey Don’t” are related from that E major, to the C major and back. Now, you’d be less likely to think about “Eleanor Rigby” as being inspired by Carl Perkins but as it turns out, “Rigby” is about as close as it could be, the, the chords to “Eleanor Rigby” are about as similar as they could be without being identical.
Now, in this case it’s in E minor,(Plays chords) not in E major but in E minor going to a C major and, in fact, “Rigby” only uses two chords. The entire song vacillates between E minor and C major. So “Rigby” sounds nothing like “It Won’t Be Long” or “Honey Don’t.” You would never listen to these and think, “Oh, yeah, there’s a strong connection here.” It’s only when you start analyzing and looking at the different chords and how they work and how they’re juxtaposed and how they interact within a single song that we can trace it to, we, then we can trace a song like “Rigby” back to “It Won’t Be Long” and further back to Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t”.
Christopher: Hm. So that touches a little bit on a question I was really keen to ask you because you obviously bring this very well-educated music theory perspective to the music of The Beatles and one comment I hear a lot when talking about music theory is, you know, “Music theory is unnecessary – if The Beatles could write the amazing songs they did without knowing music theory, I don’t need to learn it.” I’d love if you could speak to that a little bit and specifically, you know, I think we all accept that The Beatles did not study formal music theory in the way that a grade school student might, but what would your viewpoint be having analyzed their music and read all of these biographies? How much did The Beatles know or understand music theory, would you say?
Aaron: Not much. They never had any sort of formal musical training. They never took lessons beyond a few weeks of guitar, guitar classes, I think, when they were little but they were more or less intuitive, and that’s not to say that it’s easy for them. It takes a tremendous amount of work but they know what they’re going for, so, you know, they’re playing these chords, they’re writing these songs and they’re playing different chords and when they happen to find a chord they really like they know it. They kind of intuitively understand “That’s what I’m going for. That’s, the,” you know, “That’s the feeling,” or “That’s the sound,” or whatever it is. “That’s what I’m going for,” and so their education became encumbered when they had to play many hours a night for months on end but it wasn’t a blackboard, it wasn’t an academic formal education. It was a hands-on practical education from, I mean, to play, to entertain an audience for five or six hours a night for months on end.
Christopher: I see. Interesting. And we’ve gone quite quickly into some of the, kind of, interesting nitty-gritty of what makes particular songs so notable but if we step back from that for a moment, and I don’t want to try and put you on the spot in terms of generalizing, but is there any kind of way of explaining why The Beatles are so remarkable, given your extensive work analyzing their music? Is there any reason they stand out and have had such success and longevity compared with other groups of the era?
Aaron: Yeah, I think so. I think the single biggest reason The Beatles were so successful and remain successful half a century later is that they balance two things. One is accessibility, meaning Beatles music is very easy to like. It doesn’t take a lot of study to appreciate it. Now, as someone who has done a lot of study I think it deepens my appreciation but you don’t need, you don’t need to know that the chords of “It Won’t Be Long” are the same as Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t” in order to, you know, you can appreciate it just fine just by listening to it. You don’t have to do all the analysis but when you do, it deepens your understanding. It’s very easy to like this music. It’s very catchy, it’s very hummable, very melodic.
It gives you a more, more, a deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation for what they were able to do and when you look at how sophisticated some of their songs are and it’s kind of mind boggling how right they sound and yet at the same time it’s pretty spectacularly complex in spots. I’m thinking right now of “Here Comes the Sun,” George Harrison’s song, “Here Comes the Sun,” and I’m wondering if I can play a clip of it to illustrate the rhythmic sophistication.
All right. Here’s the bridge part. So I’m going to do a couple of things. First is, I’m just going to play a couple seconds of the clip on a, as we hear it on the record and then I’m going to go back and I’m going to play the same clip but I’m going to count aloud the meter, the rhythms.
So here it is without my counting. (Plays song) All right. So what’s going on rhythmically there? Well, we have all sorts of different meters, different groupings of beats and to illustrate, I’m going to play the same clip again but this time I’m going to count aloud the meters. (Plays song) One and two and three and four. One two, three for five six and one two three four five six, one two three four five, one and two.
So most songs are in four, one two three four, one, two three, four, the entire time. Most of The Beatles songs are in four the entire time but not “Here Comes the Sun.” “Here Comes the Sun” is spectacularly rhythmically sophisticated and so that’s an example of the sophistication that I’m talking about.
This goes way beyond what other bands of the time were doing, like the Monkees or the Beach Boys, even. I’m fond of both the Monkees and the Beach Boys but The Beatles are more sophisticated. So to get back to your question, “What makes The Beatles so great?” They balance both of those things. It’s accessible, it’s easy to like but at the same time it’s extremely sophisticated and complex and The Beatles strike that balance between those two things as well as any band I’ve ever encountered in history.
Christopher: Tremendous. That’s really well explained. I think that you’ve just managed to put into words what I always kind of vaguely and instinctively liked about The Beatles and I think you have it in a nutshell, there, that’s very good.
On that topic of longevity and, you know, outlasting, maybe, other bands from that era or having a stronger place in the cultural memory than other bands, I was thinking about this earlier this week because I thought about our interview today and I realized that you and I are maybe on the cusp of people who can totally relate to the music of the Beatles and just kind of take it for granted that they’re among the greats and their music is still amazing and relevant and maybe the following generations that I’m not sure will have that same perspective. I have no doubt they’ll come across the Beatles and get some of their songs but I feel like today’s pop music, and, you know, a lot of it is actually dance music or hip hop or electronic music, it feels to me sort of far removed from that world of even the later Beatles stuff, I find it hard to imagine that, you know, 50 years from now people will still think of The Beatles in the same way. I’d love to hear your perspective on that. Do you think they will still be not just appreciated as good for that era but actually still relevant and interesting a few generations from now?
Aaron: Yeah, I kind of have mixed feelings about that because on one hand, yes, absolutely, The Beatles are going to survive. I mean, when you look at composers of past centuries like Beethoven, part of what makes Beethoven Beethoven is that he is able to appeal to every successive generation, not just in his own time but, you know, 150 years later we’re still celebrating Beethoven and people will for as long as humans exist.
I suspect the same will be the case for The Beatles. Paul once said, I think it was in 1993, Paul said, “The way people think about Mozart today,” meaning 1993, “is how they’re going to think about the Beatles in 150 years,” and I think he’s right. Now, you also made a comment, will they be thought of in the same way, or I forget how you worded it, but will The Beatles be thought of in the same way that they are today and I don’t think they will be thought of in the same way because this decade in particular is really a golden age for The Beatles. They’re young enough to be still within living memory but they’re old enough to be taken seriously as history and plus this is, this decade is all the 50th anniversaries. The 50th anniversary of “Sergeant Pepper” was last year, the 50th anniversary of “The White Album” is this year, 2018 so this decade in particular seems to be a really good time to talk about The Beatles.
As time progresses, however, I think there will be much less emphasis on nostalgia so a lot of baby boomers have a lot of nostalgia for The Beatles and rightfully so but as the baby boomers cede to subsequent generations I think the music itself is going to become more important. The nostalgia will dwindle with time but the music itself, I think, will only continue to grow.
Christopher: Fantastic. I think it’s really interesting that you touched on Beethoven and Mozart, there. One of the questions I was keen to put to you was on the topic of talent and The Beatles and I, again, I think you have a unique perspective and I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, generally.
You know, The Beatles have often held up as one of these magical groups where they couldn’t get anything wrong and I think a lot of people imagine that they, just, kind of came out of nowhere in the 60’s, blew the world away, continued to do so for a few decades and they are inexplicably wonderful. And certainly they’re wonderful! But we’ve had some interesting conversations here on the podcast before about the amazing classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven and what might have actually been going on during their early years that led to that amazing success. I wonder if you could give any insight or thoughts on this question of “talent versus hard work or practice” or you said something interesting earlier about them “growing out” of their early essential songs and maybe that’s a good point to pick up on.
Aaron: Yeah. So, I have a program called “Before They Were Fab: The Beatles Prior to Beatlemania” and I start that program by putting to rest this myth that you’re talking about, that, you know, The Beatles are somehow magical creatures and it didn’t take them any, any, it didn’t take work for them to achieve, you know, they just, they arrive and they’re superstars and, you know, like, it’s pre-destined, like, there’s nothing that could have deterred that.
Well, I would beg to differ because if you count July 6, 1957 which is the day John and Paul met for the first time, if you count that as day one of Beatles history and if you count April 10, 1970, which is the day Paul McCartney announced The Beatles’ breakup as the last day of Beatles history then that history lasted precisely 4,661 days and, at least in the United States, we tend to think of their Ed Sullivan debut as the start of Beatlemania. ow, I know in England it’s earlier, it’s ’63 but in the States people tend to think of February 9, 1964 as the start of The Beatles. However, if you do the math The Beatles were more than 50% through their history by the time they played on Ed Sullivan. In other words, there was less than half of Beatles history to go after Ed Sullivan than there was before Ed Sullivan and so that’s, the point is, the point is that this took a long time to develop. It took a lot of work, many hours playing in Hamburg, playing hundreds, if not thousands, of gigs in England before they reached worldwide superstardom and so, you know, The Beatles prior to Beatlemania constitutes the majority of the band’s history and it helps explain their meteoric rise to superstardom in Britain in ’63 and in the United States in ’64 but it’s easy to miss that fact. It’s easy to just think of them, “Oh, they’ve arrived and they just take off, like, you know, as if it doesn’t take work,” and the simple numbers don’t bear that out. Lady Gaga once said, I’m paraphrasing Lady Gaga, she said, “It took a lifetime to become an overnight sensation,” and I think that applies to The Beatles just as much as it does to Gaga.
Christopher: I love that answer. I’ve felt that must be true but I’ve never had that detailed set of statistics and numbers and years to back it up and that’s great to have you explain it like that.
I’m not sure I could have told you that it was so striking as that, that they were halfway through their lifetime, as it were, as a musical group when they had that pivotal performance on Ed Sullivan. Amazing.
And as someone who’s studied their music from the earliest days through to the later years is it fair to say it becomes more and more sophisticated, I guess, while still retaining the accessibility you mentioned?
Aaron: I would say so. My personal favorite it “Abbey Road” in no small part because of “Here Comes the Sun” and that other clip I played a minute ago and “The White Album”, which happened to be my second favorite because it is, in my opinion, the second most sophisticated album. Now, sophisticated doesn’t necessarily mean good. I mean, I’ve, you can have sophisticated music that’s not very good to listen to. I should know, I’ve written an awful lot of it but then the opposite is equally untrue. Just because something is simple doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad but, again, The Beatles balance that. It’s accessible and it’s sophisticated in a way that few others are with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin.
Christopher: Gotcha. And you have given the whole presentations on particular songs or albums from The Beatles back catalog, which I think speaks to that level of sophistication, you know, I think it would be hard to pick a Monkees song and talk about it for 60 minutes. And you talk about “Yesterday,” about “Strawberry Fields Forever”, I think, one on the album of Sergeant Pepper’s. I wonder if you could give a glimpse to the kind of stuff you would cover in one of those presentations.
Aaron: Yeah. Absolutely. So I have a, I have an, you know, an entire 60-minute program all about the song, “Yesterday”, and it traces it from conception through the thousands of covers that have been released over the last five decades and so one of the things that I talk about is that there is a certain conflict in the lyrics of “Yesterday.” There is a, there is, you know, the singer is kind of longing for the past. “I believe in yesterday.” He’s looking not at a literal yesterday, not 24 hours ago but to a metaphorical yesterday, a simpler time in his life that has been lost, you know, a simpler, more innocent time, perhaps and he’s kind of jealous of that so there’s this kind of twinge of nostalgia.
He kind of, you know, there’s a contrast. There’s a contrast between what is real, what is reality and what the singer wishes was real and musically we find a parallel in that.
We see a certain musical conflict that parallels the lyrical conflict and it’s between the note B and B flat. So the question is, which one is it? Is it B flat or is it B natural? And if you route the, the, throughout the verses, we have that conflict.
So, for example, if we start out (Plays piano) with B natural, now, wait a minute. B flat. B flat again. Now it’s back to natural, it’s a G major chord in natural, oh, now it’s flat again. So the conflict that we see in the lyrics of “Yesterday” plays out in the music of “Yesterday” as well regarding the tone B and it’s that back and forth, you’re never sure if it’s a B natural or is it B flat that helps give the music of “Yesterday” the twinge of nostalgia for which the song is so famous.
Christopher: Gosh. I don’t think many people would have picked up on that listening to the song and I’m sure we’ve all heard it a thousand times and never appreciated that mirroring in the lyrics and the music.
Aaron: That’s what makes this kind of analysis so fascinating and rewarding is no matter how well you notice music, no matter how many books you’ve read, no matter how many times you’ve listened to the songs there is always more to find. I find new things every day and that kind of analysis gives you that deeper understanding and a greater appreciation for the vast artistry of The Beatles.
There’s another really interesting thing about “Rigby” and that is, the, that the structure of the song tells the story of the song. So there are three verses. The first verse is (Sings) “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where the wedding is done.” It’s all about the title character. The second verse, then, is about Father McKenzie, the priest and, you know, how he’s (Sings) ” writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.”
The third verse, then, this is where it gets really interesting, brings these two characters together. It’s about both Rigby and Father McKenzie but it’s too late because these two lonely characters who could have been friends in real life only meet with the title character’s death and this is what defines Rigby as a tragedy. It’s not a happy song. It’s too late by the time these two characters meet in the third verse.
Paralleling that musically, then, we have a couple of different things that are going on. One is (Plays) So in, in, in that, what I’ll call the chorus. It’s debatable but is this a refrain or a chorus? I’m just going to call it a chorus. We have two things. One is the melody (Plays) and two is the harmony down below. (Plays) When you put it together (Plays).
So we have that chorus but then we also have this refrain:(Plays) So at the end of the song, just as the characters Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie come together lyrically, so, too, that refrain and that chorus come together musically and for this I want to play the actual clip
(Plays) So we have Paul singing (Plays piano) at the same time we have Paul going (Plays) so the refrain and the chorus are heard simultaneously at the end. These two musical ideas come together just as these two characters in the lyrics come together at the end but, and this is the cherry on top, the harmony voice is now absent. We don’t get that lower. (Plays) We only get the high melody (Plays piano) and so it’s as if Eleanor Rigby’s ghost remains even though her body is gone.
Christopher: So it’s interesting that you touch on there on the interplay of music and lyrics because I think often we think about them in isolation a little bit, you know, when I’ve seen analysis of The Beatles in the past it’s often been purely in lyrical terms or purely in a music theory analytical sense. I wonder if you could speak a bit to that and the interplay beyond that example of “Yesterday.” Are there interesting things to learn about the music and lyrics of Beatles songs?
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a bit oversimplified but John tends to start with words and then adds music lyric later where Paul tends to start with music and add the words second and so with John we tend to find, in general, we tend to find very compact melodies. For example, (Sings)
Here come old flat top
He come groovin’ up slowly
He got joo joo eyeballs
He one holy roller
It’s only three notes and he spins it all out into the, to, into, essentially, the entire verse of “Come Together” because it’s not really the music itself that’s most important. Now the music is important. I’m not saying the music is unimportant, I’m just saying that the lyrics are more important. He starts with words and then makes the music fit the words and that’s part of the reason why we see such compact melodies in the songs of John Lennon. “Help” is another example. “I Am the Walrus” is another good example.
Paul, however, is the opposite and that’s part of the reason why we find such sweeping melodies in Paul’s music. It’s because the music is more important than the lyrics. Now, again, the lyrics are of course important. Nobody try and misread this that I’m saying Paul’s lyrics are unimportant. Of course they’re important. It’s just the music is more important and that’s why we get a coda like “Hey Jude” that all it is is just “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, hey Jude”. He doesn’t need, he doesn’t need lyrics that are anything other than nonsense syllables and the title lyrics. What matters there is this big, sweeping melody that spans more than an octave. John didn’t write too many melodies that spanned more than an octave the way Paul does on “Hey Jude.” So, so, again, at some oversimplification, John starts with words and adds music where Paul starts with music and adds words.
Christopher: Wow. That’s fascinating. I have to confess it was fairly late in my own Beatles fandom that I even was able to tune in my ear to which one of them was singing on any given song but I think you just hinted at why it might also be fascinating to check which of them was the primary songwriter on any given song because it sounds like they had very different characters to the way they wrote a song.
Aaron: They did, and there’s a lot of debate. I just read an article the other day about a statistics professor at Harvard who did a study. He analyzed all the melodies and chord progressions and came to the conclusion that John Lennon did write “In My Life.” Paul explained that he wrote the music and this particular professor came to the conclusion that no, Paul is wrong. He gave him a 1.8% chance of statistical probability that Paul actually wrote “In My Life” and I would have to disagree with him, because when you look at the melody it tends to be more Paul-like. So I’d be very curious to meet this probability, you know, statistics professor and really get into the nitty-gritty of “What exactly are you hearing? Because I’m hearing the same stuff, I mean, the same song and I’m coming to a very different conclusion than you are.” But I don’t know. I haven’t read the full paper. It was just a summary that I read.
Another really interesting one is “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” because that, I think, is actually an exception. That’s John writing this big sweeping melody. “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” I would tend to think that’s more Paul’s style because it’s so wide-ranging and mellifluous and melodic and yet the literature, most of the repertoire, says that that’s a John song. So don’t take it too literally. I’m not about to say it’s a 1.8% chance that I think he’s a little misguided but there remains much debate, even 50 years later, you know, who actually wrote this song and Paul’s happy to take credit for just about everything and sometimes he’s right but sometimes he’s wrong, you know, there’s that phrase, if you remember the 60’s you weren’t there. Well, Paul does not remember the 60’s.
Christopher: Gotcha. Well, you know, this being the Musicality Podcast, naturally our interest in The Beatles is particularly for all of this stuff around music theory versus instinct and songwriting and melody versus lyrics, all of those interesting inner expressive skills of music that The Beatles clearly possessed. We’ve talked a bit there about John and Paul and at the risk of neglecting poor George, you’ve actually written a book about the Beatle who’s most often neglected or underestimated, I think, Ringo Starr. Could you tell us why you thought Ringo was worthy of an entire book in himself?
Aaron: Right. Yeah. The book you’re referring to is called “Flip Side Beatles” and the idea is that you read the A side, which is a transcript of one of my presentations called “The Beatles: Band of the 60’s.” And when you’re done with the A side, you flip it over, just like a record, and then you read the B side and the B side is a transcript of a program I have called “Star Time: A Celebration of Ringo Starr.”
And I am of the opinion that Ringo is vastly underrated as a drummer and one of the best examples of that would have to be “Long, Tall Sally.” This is a Little Richard song. Little Richard did it in ’58, ’57, don’t quote me on that. I forget but when you look at how the two songs are structured, even though they’re the same song, you know, Little Richard and The Beatles both recorded “Long, Tall Sally” but The Beatles add an extra chorus at the end of the song. One, there’s one, one more chorus than what we find in the Little Richard original and I think the reason why The Beatles add that extra chorus is to let Ringo do his thing and Ringo just goes, you know, just goes bonkers on the drums in that final chorus.
So give me just a second. I’m going to find it. I’ll play the clip. So here’s the last couple of seconds, the last chorus, of The Beatles’s version of “Long, Tall Sally.” Pay close attention to Ringo’s drumming, absolutely frenetic and fantastic. (Plays end of song)
So there I think is an example of Ringo’s drumming being just, just out of this world. He’s not necessarily the flashiest drummer, he’s not necessarily the most technically gifted drummer but for what that band needed, they couldn’t have found anybody better.
Christopher: Nice, and does it go beyond his drumming at all? I think, you know, he definitely gets short credit or short shrift for his drum technique or his sophistication of drumming but what I think is really interesting about Ringo is that he did grow into a bigger role in the band here and there than just being, you know, the drummer sitting in the background.
Aaron: Yeah, I would agree. I think that is his single biggest contribution to The Beatles is not as drummer but rather his personality because he, you know, part of what makes The Beatles special is that you really have a two-headed monster in John and Paul constantly competing and by the end of the decade it’s a three-headed monster. George is very bit as competent as John and Paul is and that’s not necessarily the most stable dynamic for a band.
This is in contrast to The Rolling Stones. The Stones have a clear front man in Mick Jagger and it’s much more stable to have that single lead guy, to have your single front man as opposed to The Beatles who have two and two-three and Ringo’s personality, then, helps smooth out the problems between John and Paul and George towards the end and so he helps, he’s kind of the glue. You know, I’ve heard people describe the rhythm section as the glue to music and I would agree with that but I also think that’s true for Ringo in terms of has personality. His personality held The Beatles together in a way that I’m not sure they could have sustained for as long had they had a different drummer.
Christopher: Huh, that’s super interesting. And for anyone who’s not too familiar with the lore of The Beatles could you just explain in a nutshell what was Ringo’s personality? Like, why could he act as a counterbalance in that way?
Aaron: Yeah, well he’s, he’s very jovial. He’s, he’s very gregarious. He’s very social and he’s constantly cracking jokes and he doesn’t take himself too seriously and that’s not to say that the other Beatles do take themselves too seriously but it is to say that at times they can take themselves maybe a little too seriously. So Ringo kind of helps smooth that out. He famously replaces Pete Best as the drummer.
Pete was rather shy and rather introverted and there’s nothing wrong with being shy and introverted. I’m shy and introverted. I don’t mind at all but it’s not really what this band needed. They needed someone who was just as witty and extroverted as John, Paul and George were and someone who could match their personalities and he, Pete’s a fine drummer. He’s not a bad drummer the way a lot of people have made him out to be. I don’t think he’s a terribly great drummer but I, he didn’t, the bigger, the bigger concern is Pete really didn’t fit in with all, with the others and Ringo did and so when the opportunity comes to get rid of Pete and bring in Ringo instead, well, John, Paul and George don’t miss it.
Christopher: I see. Wonderful. So I said at the outset I have thoroughly enjoyed diving into your books and your writing, Aaron, and I think you’ve given us a glimpse in this conversation of the richness that is there to be tapped into when thinking about The Beatles in this way, not just in a biographical sense or in a very broad way of being a great musical group but really taking the time to think about, you know, who wrote the song or what is the song doing lyrically and musically or what maybe is it doing different than the genre and all those artists.
Aaron: Yeah. Right.
Christopher: I’m going to highly recommend anyone who’s enjoyed this conversation go directly to Aaron’s website, “Flip Side Beatles”, is it aaronkrerowicz.com, and we’ll have a link to that in the show notes for this episode and also, specifically, I would recommend checking out his “Beatles Minute” videos. Aaron, maybe you could just give the listener a sense of what you cover in those videos?
Aaron: Sure, yeah. I call it “The Beatles Minute” because they’re roughly 60-second video clips that I post on Youtube and on my website and each one analyzes one specific aspect, one very focused aspect of Beatles music and I think I’ve got, I don’t know, 40 or 50 of them now that I’ve done and you can find them on Youtube and my website. If you don’t want to try to spell, Krerowicz, my last name, no one gets it right anyway, just go to flipsidebeatles.com and it will take you to my website.
Christopher: Perfect. Well, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you, Aaron and I really have to hold back to not dive into every one of these topics more because I know your expertise could certainly accommodate that but I want to be respectful of your time and so I will just say a big thank you, again, for joining us today and sharing some of these insights on the podcast.
Aaron: It’s been an absolute pleasure. I can talk Beatles all day long.
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