Monday, April 20, 2009

I Should Have Known Better

Rarely has a catchier song than "I Should Have Known Better" been written with fewer musical materials. The melody of this one hangs out on just a couple notes for most of the verses, and the chords are your standard pop song variety-- nothing terribly mind-blowing there. So why does it rock so hard? Actually, maybe I've begun to answer my own question.

"I Should Have Known Better" was written for A Hard Day's Night, and it appears in one of the film's best musical scenes, which is below. (The "Can't Buy Me Love" scene is the only other one that can touch it.) Note that young unknown model/actress Pattie Boyd is the only schoolgirl allowed into the intimate little Beatles cage as they play, and note too how she giggles irresistibly at about 2:23. She was not destined to be unknown for much longer.

Anyway, the scene rules for lots of cinematic reasons-- the only space the Beatles have to themselves is inside the cage where the animals on the train ride, which says heaps about the toll Beatlemania was taking on them. And of course the fact that cards turn into instruments says heaps more about their view of making music. It was quite serious, but also just so much damned fun, and of course the only escape they had from the madness around them. The prominence of Pattie Boyd in this scene is really just icing on the cake. (Note, as you watch, that your ears don't deceive you-- Paul does NOT have a vocal on this song. He's lip-syncing along, I presume, to cover the fact that John can't be singing and playing the harp at the same time, as the track would demand that he do. If they ever performed this one live, which I'm not sure they ever did, they probably would have had Paul or George sing along like this specifically to solve this problem.)

And actually, I want to talk about John's vocal here, because it's amazing. It's just him, no harmonies or much else going on, but his voice is double-tracked for most of the song, which gives it that full, rich sound that's so delightful. John, for some reason, never liked his own vocal performances (I've said it before-- he's the worst judge of his own work) and tended to prefer himself double-tracked, and on later albums when they had more time to futz around in the studio he tended to like to futz with his own voice most of all. But even around this A Hard Day's Night period you hear John double-tracked all over the place: on "A Hard Day's Night" itself, for instance, as well as "I'll Cry Instead" and "I'll Be Back" and many others that I just can't think of at the moment. But here's what really cool about "I Should Have Known Better." On the repeat of the bridge, the vocal suddenly shifts into a single tracking, which is a subtle but crucial change. It's actually still capable of giving me a shiver. It's as though John's opening himself up more, or somehow making himself vulnerable, in this small, small way that means a lot in the context of the song. Watch the film again and you'll see that he's also singing at this particular moment with the sweetest smile-- not a trace of sarcasm for once-- and it's just so moving somehow, for lack of a more accurate word. (It's no wonder Pattie can't contain her delight at this moment.) And then, cooler yet, they bring back the double-tracking just in time for the high note John hits in his falsetto, making the tone more rich and powerful at the exact second that it's most necessary. Then we're back to double-tracking for the rest of the song. This is the kind of attention to detail that really made these songs so freaking special, you know? LOVE IT.

Actually, the subtlety at work in the tracking decisions is all over this song. As I mentioned, the melody is only written on the span of a few notes. John holds his initial "I-----" for ages, then spits out a bunch of other words on just a couple of stepwise pitches. As he gets further into the verses-- "and I do-- hey hey hey-- and I do"-- he introduces each step up the scale one at a time, so gradually, and the effect is that each new small step up takes on new significance in the context of the whole song. By the time he gets to that final "do" it's almost ecstatic. The melody seems so slight and so small, but it sticks in your head like crazy, and it's so powerful in this song that John's harp line is basically just incessant noodling on it. Even George doesn't get so much a guitar solo as he gets his own iteration of the melody to play on guitar.

So there you go-- a kickass song built out of a simple melody and little else, except John's awesome vocal and harp skills. This is what the Beatles could do.

"I Should Have Known Better," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of A Hard Day's Night, July 10, 1964; in the U.S. side B track 1 of UA's A Hard Day's Night, June 26, 1964.

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