Sunday, March 15, 2009

I Want to Tell You

Today is HarriSunday, and it occurs to me that I haven't yet tackled George's contributions to Revolver, all of which are substantial and interesting. He actually had three songs on that album, which was to be a career high (for a single-disc album), and rightly so, because all three not only rock but contribute something ineffable to one of the Beatles' all-time greatest albums (and my personal favorite for sure).

On its surface "I Want to Tell You" might seem to be the least interesting of George's Revolver songs: after all, "Taxman" is snide and awesome, and "Love You To" is his first truly Indian song and noteworthy just for that. "I Want to Tell You" might seem less memorable or something, but there really is tons to love here.

The lyrics here are all about the frustration of not being able to express oneself properly, and that tension is totally reflected in the music, which is practically an exercise in creating musical tension and then diffusing it. The tension is mainly in the piano line (I believe Paul is playing it), which has this absolutely relentless dotted melody under the verses. That line becomes almost maddening, in fact-- especially the bit on the first verse when George is singing "when you're here" and the piano hovers neurotically on those two pitches, a moment that recurs on each repeat of the verse. The rhythm here is hugely nerve-wracking, and the pitches aren't helping either-- they're holding their weird dissonance over the chord just long enough to make your teeth hurt. Though Ringo is drumming a pretty steady backbeat here, he's doing so with particular bombast, which somehow makes the music that much more fraught. All of this makes the moment of release-- when George sings "slip away" on the first verse-- a huge event, just amazing. The dissonance resolves back into the home key, the drums cut out and are replaced with the sweet hiss of maracas, John and Paul jump in with sublime vocals, and instead of the dotted piano rhythm, our ears turn to that guitar riff that opened the song with its groovy slow triplets. Whew.

My husband just walked into the room as I was listening to this and remarked that the piano bits of the song always puts him on edge. In fact, I was listening to the same bit several times in a row just to get a feel for it, and he had to grab his head and run out of the room. Behold: the power of dissonance!

Anyway, there are some other kind of cool elements that mark this as all George, like the drone-esque structure. The vast majority of this song happens on one chord (an A major chord, for the record), which seems to be in keeping with the drone that's central to classical Indian music. (He did this kind of thing in "If I Needed Someone" too.) And the lyrics are 100% vintage George. Poor George-- George the perennially insecure, George the self-aware, George who seemed most at home inside his own brain. I love the sentiments of the lyrics, which are totally relatable for the teenagers who still made up most of the Beatles' audience in 1966, but take on almost more meaning to grown-up awkward introverts (such as myself).

"I Want to Tell You," released in the U.K. side B track 5 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S., side B track 3 of Capitol's bastardization of Revolver, August 8, 1966.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous


  1. "I want to tell you" that i love the piano. It took confidence to put a dominant dissonant into a song, and it works. The song has personality. Ringo drums like he's trying to punish his snare. Now, it isn't my favorite song on the album, but the vocal harmonies are as you said, sublime. I love the I've Got Time ring out on the end. The song sets up nicely the upbeat number that follows on the LP. Don't you love juxtaposition? I wonder how much debate took place between the band on song order? Or did they leave that up to Mr. Martin? Do you know? Sounds like something Paul would have had opinion on, the others not so much. But, that's just me guessing.

  2. My understanding has always been that song order mattered a great deal to them, actually-- especially by the time they were doing "Revolver" and constructing entire albums as works of art, it was something they made a big deal about. And I so hear you on how this song is perfectly placed. Listen to the way "Doctor Robert" before it fades out, and then "I Want to Tell You" fades in-- it's, like, seamless! One of those perfect details.

  3. I imagine choosing song order back in the day on LPs was a lot different from the considerations that musicians go through today with CDs. On an LP you had Two Sides and thus and Open and Closing number to consider twice. On CDs the play list is one long line of songs. More flexibility and options there. But, perhaps its own set of challenges, too. All part of the creative process!