Monday, October 5, 2009

Not a Second Time

Do not judge the songs I have left until the end of the cycle, kids. I love all of these, really, including today's sleeper song "Not a Second Time." This is a song more famous for the unusual notice taken of it by William Mann, classical music critic for the London Times, than possibly anything else. Back in 1963, no actual musician or critic was taking the Beatles seriously-- it was clearly teenybopper nonsense for impressionable girls, wouldn't last the year, et cetera et cetera-- except for Mann, who not only praised the Beatles generally but singled out "Not a Second Time" for its prominent Aeolian cadence, which he compared to the finale of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. (By the way, you can read the entire article Mann wrote here.) The whole thing was kind of a riot to our lads, who had no idea what he was talking about. In his very last interview in 1980, John admitted he still didn't know what Aeolian cadences were, but that they sounded to him like exotic birds.

So there's our "Not a Second Time" fun fact, the one that most Beatles fanatics know, and it's a good one because it features the Beatles laughing at pretentious people-- who doesn't love that? Of course, the bevy of very serious Beatles criticism that has followed over the past many years has proven not only that Mann was exactly right about this being music worth talking about, but also that what the Beatles actually knew about music theory doesn't matter at all. What they did was groundbreaking, and they must have known it aurally, even if they didn't give names to their chord progressions. The kids who bought the records knew it too. Music is funny. You don't need to know a lot about music (in the old-fashioned music theory kind of way) to know when something is right or different or amazing or brand new. You just hear it. Knowing more or less about the mechanics of a piece of music might enhance your experience one way or another-- indeed, Paul McCartney has intentionally not bothered to learn to read music even now because he fears it would make him a less innovative composer-- but listening to this stuff is really all you need to do. And if you want to read what people think of it, either by people who know what they're talking about like Mann or people who are passionately faking it like me, then that's cool too.

Besides, I kind of do wish Aeolian cadences were birds, because that would be more interesting than what they actually are.

Did you hear it? All Mann is talking about, I think, is that the song closes in e minor (which is unusual, considering it started in G major) and makes its way there via something approximating a classic IV-V-i progression, albeit darkened considerably by making all those chords minor, so that it's really iv-v-i. This IS interesting, but "Aeolian" anything has little to do with it-- I feel like the Beatles do this for color and to smooth out the modulation from G, not because they're making any kind of shift into true modal territory, and using a word like that unnecessarily is only going to make people think that music critics are pretentious twits. Then again, Mann is a Times music critic, and I am a fangirl who majored in voice at a small public college before going into the book publishing business, so you can believe whom you like.

Frankly, what I find FAR more interesting than the cadence is that, like I say, the song starts in G major and ends pretty unambiguously in e minor. The Beatles love to play around with major and minor contrasts, even early in their career (we actually saw this just yesterday, for instance), but I have a feeling (without actually going back to check) that this total modulation over the course of the song is more unusual. And it kind of works for the lyrics. It's like John is getting more and more sad/angry about the breakup as he sings, and the chords reflect the darkening of his mood. But John's vocal here keeps it from getting too terribly morose-- in fact, I hear a sneer in his voice here that's downright mocking. It's all the minor chords that seem to underlie a darker, brooding feeling, but his manner as he actually sings to the girl in question is cool as can be. Love it.

The piano part here, which provides some pretty resonant bass notes as well as a glowering little solo line, works in tandem with Ringo on drums to give a percussive edginess to "Not a Second Time," which just makes it sounds that much angrier to me. And yet Ringo is also responsible for some lightening up of the mood-- his energized filled at the ends of the choruses are like little flippant grins meant to soften the blow. Don't you think? It's nice stuff from him. That's just one of the elements of "Not a Second Time" that I find rewarding on further listening. I don't know-- Mann said it awkwardly, but this song is one of the hidden album gems from the early years, in my opinion. It's like a small masterpiece of adolescent moodiness. That you can dance to.

Anyway, sorry to get a bit wonky in this post, but William Mann started it.

"Not a Second Time," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of With the Beatles, November 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 6 of Meet the Beatles!, January 20, 1964.


  1. Great post, Meg. I vaguely remember that Mann stuff when it was going down live, but it really didn't mean anything to me as a teen liking the music. I also kinda remember Leonard Bernstein coming out rather early in endorsing what the Beatles were doing musically, saying it was great stuff that translated to orchestra. Am i right in remembering this?

  2. It's true, Frank-- Bernstein dug the Beatles a lot, and said as much early on. There's some apocryphal story about him hanging out at someone's house one night and literally playing every Beatles song EVERY from memory on the piano. Or something like that. (It sounds like that would take a while to accomplish literally.) Bernstein was awesome that way, though-- a true populist, who had the good taste to call out good music wherever he heard it. (I'm pretty sure he was into Motown too.)

  3. I prefer harder rock and roll to Motown, but if you can't move your feet to Motown, you can't move your feet!