Mystery Chords and Idols


“It’s been a hard day’s night
and I been workin’ like a dog…”

You can hear the chord, of course. But can you play it? Exactly?

Many have tried, all have failed, it seems, until now:

The opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night” is also famous because, for 40 years, no one quite knew exactly what chord Harrison was playing.

Four years ago…Jason Brown of Dalhousie’s Department of Mathematics decided to try and see if he could apply a mathematical calculation known as Fourier transform to solve the Beatles’ riddle. The process allowed him to decompose the sound into its original frequencies using computer software and parse out which notes were on the record.

It worked, to a point: the frequencies he found didn’t match the known instrumentation on the song. “George played a 12-string Rickenbacker, Lennon had his six string, Paul had his bass…none of them quite fit what I found…the solution hit me: it wasn’t just those instruments. There was a piano in there as well, and that accounted for the problematic frequencies.”

Dr. Brown deduces that another George—George Martin, the Beatles producer—also played on the chord, adding a piano chord that included an F note impossible to play with the other notes on the guitar. The resulting chord was completely different than anything found in the literature about the song to date”
(H/T to Jonah)

There is a mysterious alchemy in forming a band.
Lennon-McCartney wrote great, fresh music – even when it got cynical, it was still fresh; George Harrison had a mystical bent, and Ringo, for all he is derided, was the perfect drummer for the Fab Four (think of how instinctively his heavy stomps and triplets make their solid mark, imperfect drumming perfectly suited to the band) but it has always seemed a question worth pondering, to me: would the Beatles have been anything like the phenomenon that was The Beatles, without the quiet innovations of George Martin? Martin’s contributions are largely unrealized (the calliope in “Mr. Kite” was the result of Martin’s random cuts and splices in the tape), but after the tracks were laid down, he seems to have performed a wizardry of his own.

If you’d like to try comparing the studio chord to a live strike, here you go. I don’t know if they prove anything, though, since mic set-ups, equipment, different timbres and so forth can all make subtle differences. And my goodness how young and beautiful they all were…

Opening to the film AHard Day’s Night, with the magic chord

Live performance in Paris, 1965, perhaps more notable for the audience and the spare stage

Rock and roll has changed a great deal.
The world has, too. It is very interesting, indeed, to look back at the crowds. Funnily enough, we don’t even consider their behavior odd, anymore. We’ve become very used to the idea of mere mortals screaming for, adoring and idolizing other mere mortals.

Such outpourings for a rock star – or a “rock star politician” – are not looked at as aberrant or psychologically questionably behavior, whereas the (by comparison) relatively staid cheering for a pope is looked at, by some, as embarrassing, oogedy-boogedy weirdness.

Popes, like pop-musicians and pop-politicians, are also mere mortals
– but it could be argued that their impact on the world is quite different than the impact of what Flip Wilson used to call “The Church of What’s Happening Now”. Not greater or less, but profoundly different and, for the last 40 years or so, outright contradictory.

Cheering crowds are cheering crowds – but what we’re cheering matters. Even a “rock-star pope” is “in” the culture, but not “of” the culture – and as we see here, they tend to strike a different chord, altogether.

“Praised be Jesus Christ! Dear brothers and sisters, we are still all very saddened by the death of the very dear Pope John Paul I. And now the most eminent cardinals have called a new bishop of Rome. They called him from a far-away country, … far, but always near in the communion of faith and the Christian tradition. I was afraid in receiving this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and with total trust in his Mother, the Most Holy Madonna.

“I don’t know if I can express myself well in your – in our – Italian language. But if I make a mistake, you will correct me. And so I introduce myself to you all, to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the mother of Christ and of the Church, and also to begin again on this path of history and of the Church with the help of God and with that of men.”

And too, the crowds cheering for a pope are – often as not – cheering as much for the Office as the man:

Meanwhile, can we say it: rewriting a Christmas Carol to reference Barack Obama must be a kind of idolatry. It really must be.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • driver

    I still prefer the Peter Sellers version

    [Brilliant! Edited to admit link - admin]

  • tim maguire

    The funny thing is, when I listen to the chord knowing what the secret ingredient is, the piano is obvious.

  • driver

    I never tried to play “A Hard Day’s Night” when I was in bands,so I’m not really up on that missing opening note/chord thing. George Martin was a true genius, though.

    But a huge epiphany for me was when I read an interview with Keith Richards many years ago, and all of a sudden I realized why I had never really been able to nail the Rolling Stones sound. Five strings (lose the low “E”) tuned to an open “G” chord. Lose the low E string. Then tune GDGBD. “Good Dogs, Good Boys, Dammit.” That’s how I remember it. All of a sudden “Honky Tonk Women” and “Sway” and “Midnight Rambler” and “Brown Sugar” and all the rest will become your new best friends.

    Very cool that we’re still talking about these guys. George Martin gets my vote as the “fifth Beatle.”

  • Robert_H

    Thanks for posting the Habemus Papam videos. While watching Pope Benedict’s announcement again, I just remembered that that day at work I was amazingly excited that he’d been elected Pope – and that was almost 2 years to the day before my wife and I converted.

  • PeggyR

    I for one am glad to hear you give Ringo some credit. Not everyone is so willing. While I agree with you that he was an imperfect drummer, he sure went at his drumming duties with a gusto and enthusiasm that really comes across. I could swear that its that nearly constant racket that he makes in the back there that gives those early records their liveliness and energy. Just try to imagine them without the haze of cymbals and you might be able to see what I mean.

    I bought the line on Ringo only until I actually really attentively listened to the Beatles’ records.

    Another guy who doesn’t get a lot of credit for what he does in spite of his shortcomings is Adam Clayton of U2. What he does may not be spectacular or always in time, but it is exactly right for his band. Another bass player might have missed the boat trying to show off his chops. Adam never had them and humbly accepting that, he contented himself with laying a solid bottom for the Edge to soar over.

    Complementarity results in magic not competition. I think that this is what makes all great bands great.

    [I agree with every word you have written, both about Ringo and about Adam Clayton. They're both underappreciated because they are not technically brilliant, but the fact is they're both the PERFECT guys for their respective bands. Excellent comment! (I love when people agree with me!) -admin]

  • PeggyR

    Heh Heh I knew you were a good egg, Anchoress. Now I know it since you appreciate Adam Clayton ;-) This is a sure sign of a refined and thoughtful musical sensibility in my book.

    Now that I have got me started on the subject, I just have to tell about how I “got” Adam Clayton. It happened when I was learning to play “With or Without You” on the bass. It was actually the first U2 song that I tried to play and I picked it because it seemed the easiest. Just four notes. What could be hard about it, right? But for some reason, even though I was playing the right notes as I played along with the record, I couldn’t stay in sync with the track. I was coming in either too early or too late for each measure and I couldn’t make sense of the pattern. Until one time, I just happened to just let go. Instead of focusing on what I was doing, I found myself listening to the other instruments and what they were doing and playing off them. That’s when I realized that this is what Adam was doing too and that there was a lot more to playing “just four notes” than I ever realized before.

    I learned one of the most important lessons I ever learned about music from Adam Clayton, not anyone else. I might not have got the message if I had been trying to emulate a less humble bassist.

    Need I say how this very same lesson reflected some light on his personality? My respect for him as a person and a musician only grew from that day on.

  • ejhill1925

    Mortals screaming for mortals is hardly an invention of the Rock’n’Roll generations.
    Before the Beatles, before some guy named Elvis, there was Frankie – a skinny kid from Hoboken whose appearances caused havoc all over America.

    In 1943 Time reported, “As Sinatra intoned Night-And-Day-You-Are-The-One, the juvenile assemblage squealed “Ohhhhhhh!” He aimed his light blue eyes and careless locks at a front row devotee. It was too much; she shrieked: “Frankie, you’re killing me!” An usher gently shook her; she came to for a moment, relapsed into reverie. A girl in the second row held a pair of powerful field glasses glued to her eyes. Another minced to the stage, raised herself on tiptoe and tenderly deposited a white flower at the crooner’s feet.

    The band had to play the Star-Spangled Banner to get him off the stage.”

    The London Guardian observed, “On the opening day of his engagement the crowd waiting for admission early in the morning got out of hand; shop windows were smashed, police and ambulances had to be summoned.”

    And before that there was Valentino, whose death at age 31 in 1926 triggered hysteria in both New York and Los Angeles. At his funeral mass in NYC, windows were smashed at the church by young women demanding to let in. Hundreds of thousands clogged the streets for a glimpse of his casket.

    Oh, if only it could be said that such stupidity was invented for the “Fab Four…”

  • Myssi

    I agree about Ringo. I agree about Adam Clayton. I agree about idolatry…but I thought when I heard that that we really are In the Bleak Midwinter. Myssi

  • Misogynist

    Come on, now, rewriting the lyrics of Christmas carols is nothing new or particularly idolatrous. In my day, “Joy to the World” was about a deceased teacher. The students, the song purported, prepared his head in barbecue fashion and, after questioning what to do with the body, disposed of it through a septic system.

  • jakewashere

    Misogynist: I agree that it’s not idolatrous, but maybe it’s a little immature.

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