See, so this all-acoustic mini-melodrama of a song is how the Beatles' fourth album begins. Contrast this with "I Saw Her Standing There," "It Won't Be Long," and "A Hard Day's Night," the opening tracks on the previous three albums, and you can hear that Beatles for Sale is going to be different. The rocking sensibilities are totally there, but "No Reply" affects you differently, doesn't it? It's rock with poignancy, with something approaching a more profound agony than what we're heard before.
John wrote "No Reply" (and Paul, just SHUT UP about how you co-wrote it, okay? yeah, you guys helped each other out in these still-early days, but this song is so utterly John that I don't believe for a second your contributions were substantial) while on a vacation, and although it seems to not be about anything in particular-- though I guess it could be based loosely on one of the ten thousand women he was sleeping with-- the song is in keeping with his developing tendency to write more introspective, complex, and frankly depressing lyrics. (See also: "I'm a Loser," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," et cetera.) Here we have a guy catching a girl at her place in a clear act of betrayal (the setup has been compared to "Silhouettes," the late '50s single by the Rays-- though that song has a happy ending). While this isn't a completely unique idea in pop music, the various details here give it true emotional heft-- in lines like "they said it wasn't you" and "they said you were not home" there's this huge, apparently justified paranoia, and then the naked hurt of lines like "I know that you saw me" and "that's a lie" are just kind of gut-wrenching.
But it's not only the lyrics that jar you-- beneath the vaguely bossa nova veneer, the music is rich with syncopations and dissonances that make the song more sophisticated than the previous Beatles opening tracks. What you might notice first, though, is how prominent the acoustic guitars are. John and George are both playing, but there's not really a "lead" guitar here at all-- there's just that little strummed stuff. Paul's bass line is pretty simple too. So it's easy to hear that what Ringo is doing is cool-- this might be just me, but I think he's beating something a little different for every repeat of the verse. The syncopations are always just a little ahead or behind of what came before, and weirdly, sometimes he seems to be right on the beat. Anyway, even the drumming fades into the background behind John's gorgeous, gorgeous vocal-- double-tracked, a bit reverbed, and just as stunned and hurt as can be. (This makes the demos on Anthology 2 sound particularly strange-- they're actually cracking up all over the place. Likely high. Which is funny, but it does make it all the more awesome that John managed to sound so pitiful when he recorded the real vocal.)
Anyway, the vocals and everything else come together in the line from the verses where the meat of the song is: "I saw the LIGHT" screams John, and then later, even more gut-wrenchingly, "I nearly DIED." This bit pops out of nowhere with some heavily syncopated cymbal crashing from Ringo, more violent guitar strumming, some heavily reverbed bass piano chords courtesy of George Martin, and Paul entering with the higher harmony vocal-- and Paul's getting into it, too, totally matching John's angst level. But just as quickly, it's over, and we're back to the quieter texture. It's nuts, right? It's like the musical equivalent of bottling up pain, only to have it explode in these short weird violent bursts.
The energy from these moments gets some extended play in the middle eight. I think it was Ian MacDonald who wrote that these might be some of the most exciting bars of music in the entire Beatles catalog, and he's totally right. The weird bass piano is back-- almost unrecognizable as piano music, it sounds like a train chugging by-- and between that and the on-the-beat handclaps the movement forward here sounds freaking relentless. And the vocals, which are still carried by just John and Paul (I think), become almost unhinged. Harmonically, it's a pretty odd section too-- in the interests of not getting any geekier than I already have, I refer you to the harmonic analysis of Alan W. Pollack for more on that. But anyway, the whole feel is just crazy. I find it impossible not to love it.
I can't help feeling I've gone on quite long enough, but if you haven't listened to "No Reply" in a while, trust me that you owe it to yourself. It's a total hidden gem from an underappreciated period of the Beatles' development, and it totally, totally rules.
"No Reply," released in the U.S. side A track 1 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S. side A track 1 of Beatles '65, December 15, 1964.