I was fortunate enough to be in that select band of people who bought The White Album soon after it came out, never mind that I was only 14 at the time. I had grown with them through all the albums and singles up to that time. I had started to learn guitar and to read and write music, had thrilled to everything from Please Please Me to Paperback Writer, Revolver to Hey Jude, to Strawberry Fields and Pepper; had watched Magical Mystery Tour that Boxing Day, had felt the gradual isolating of them from the national consciousness and experienced The White Album as another two fingers up to everyone who wanted The Beatles to be fab and four again. So when I’m asked, what is the greatest Beatles album? I know the answer is The White Album. Of course, all those publications with their lists of the greatest albums of all time select Revolver, but that is missing something fundamental about the development of the band. If you were there, the answer is The White Album.
So, if The White Album is the greatest Beatles album and Martha My Dear is one of the great songs on that album, then we are high up the list of great Beatles songs.
I learnt how to play the opening section on piano from my best friend’s older sister. We went to an all-boys school so this was a rare, unforgettable opportunity to spend time with a girl – a girl who was older and sophisticated and otherwise unapproachable. And it is still the only piece of piano music I can really play! I learnt it by ear and by following the shapes her fingers made, but these days I love looking at what is actually going on in the music itself.
“Martha My Dear” is musically like “Yesterday” in that it begins on a chord – E-flat major, then slips down a semi-tone to D and heads off on its harmonic journey. With “Yesterday” the moves are logical, one might say classical. But with “Martha” the semitone slip initiates a journey into a realm such that by the end of the song the opening chord feels ambiguous, perhaps not the tonal centre at all.
But more than all the harmonic twists and turns, not to mention the unusual structure with its double bridge, it is that opening phrase that fascinates me. How do you count it? It’s 13 beats long, so a bar of 4 beats, then 2, then 3, then 4? Or 4/4, 5/4 and 4/4? Yet it sounds completely natural. Why does he put the word “Please”, which begins the second line of lyrics as the last word of that first phrase?
“Martha my dear, though I spend my days in conversation, Please
Martha my love etc.”
Did the tune come first, then the lyrics, not quite “right”, yet completely natural?
“Hold your head up you silly girl” – the 1st bridge journeys through piles of major ninth chords in D minor (the side slip chord has usurped the opening E-flat tonality) and fabulous melodic curves for 8 bars though you would swear it was an odd number of bars because of the vocal phrases. Then on to another new section, “Take a good look around you”, the drums kick in, the orchestra switches up a gear, vocal phrases building on each other – this is musical extravagance that you rarely find in a pop song. Then there is the instrumental repeat of the opening section led by the solo trumpet. The handclap lets you realize that you are a beat out by the end of the first phrase – if it carried on, the second phrase would be clapping on 1 and 3 like they do in Europe. So it patiently waits to align itself.
Then it’s a repeat of the first bridge with even lovelier orchestration on oboe and french horn leading via the syncopated G minor seventh arpeggio to the slightly ungainly crunch back into E-flat and a final outing for that sublime opening tune.
Listening to it again recently I was surprised to notice that McCartney sings the opening section in his corny 1920’s manner, a persona that surfaces in “When I’m Sixty-Four” and re-appears appropriately for “Honey Pie”. He seems to dip in and out of character as the song progresses. Did he imagine this too as a period piece? Some commentators see “Martha” as proof that The Beatles could “do jazz” but I disagree. This is McCartney adopting a Burt Bacharach style sophistication, yet not ever letting it sound “jazz”. Remember Lennon’s early rant that, “Jazz music is shit music and represents everything that the Beatles are against”!
“Martha My Dear” is a short movie, two characters only one of whom speaks, a roller-coaster of unspoken passion, of selfless love, a sort of “Brief Encounter” for the Sixties generation.
The “corny” voice got me thinking about Authenticity. “Martha” is a Paul McCartney and George Martin creation – the other Beatles were not involved and I imagine they were not fans of this tune. With George doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and John doing “Yer Blues” they were engaged in their own search for Authenticity and would have not approved of this kind of pastiche. Yet Authenticity in rock music can be a cover for conservatism, even for a lack of ideas.
Then I tried to think of another Lennon & McCartney tune in E-flat. There are none as far as I can remember. It is not a guitarist’s key – all your open strings are of no use to you – it’s all bar-chords and stretches. E-flat is a great key for horns though. It’s a jazz key, even a Classical key, and woodwind and brass players love it. However, D minor – the side-slip key – is very guitar friendly.
Is E-flat McCartney’s way of saying – yes this section is deliberately un-Authentic to express the formal, uptight, British way of relating to people that the Beatles were trying to throw out. The lyrics express that “Brief Encounter”-style, clipped manner and E-flat is not a Beatles key. When we hit D minor, the song comes out of pastiche and becomes real, Authentic – The Beatles. The music flies, the words say get real, embrace life and “take a little bit of what is all around you”.
So the message of the song is powerfully in the Music, in its opposition of 2 keys a semitone apart – always a very dissonant relationship. In “Yesterday” the semitone side-slip is like his world falling away from him – nothing will ever be the same and the music tries to make it whole again. All is nostalgia for a lost world. In “Martha”, the side slip is the chance to explore something new, to forget the old world – he grasps it and it takes over the song and leaves the old formal world behind. The words play with the surface of these ideas but the music expresses it in a profound way so that you feel it. With the Beatles it is always the music that holds the transformative power.
I once had dinner with Lloyd Cole and we inevitably started talking about The Beatles. We are both obsessive fans endlessly picking over the stories and searching out rare stuff. I asked him what his favourite Beatles song was.
He thought for a while and said, “Martha My Dear”.
I can understand why he would say that.
Jack Hues: Los Angeles, September 2010.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
We don’t give over the productions duties lightly here at The Beatles Complete On Ukulele. Normally we create the entire track or rework an original production in our own style. When Chris Palmaro emailed a rough version of “Martha My Dear” to us we were pleasantly humbled. There was nothing to add. Chris had said it all so very eloquently.
Chris says "My first "BIG" session was probably playing on a jingle. I was a young kid from way out on long island who up to that point was playing in bars for $50 bucks a night and all of a sudden I found myself in a room surrounded by New York’s Finest. It’s where i met people like Steve Gadd, Will Lee, David Spinozza and a host of others. It was all so exciting and humbling at the same time.
An early memory of that time was playing behind Areatha Franklin on Saturday Night Live. That night I had a major Epiphany into what it really means to be a singer. I can’t cant tell you too much about it because it’s too much to type and it’s deep.
While doing that I was working as a studio musician recording with Michael Jackson, Joan Osbourn, Marc Cohn, Yoko Ono and some others."
Despite his incredible career as a musician Palmaro’s main source of income is derived via his innate skill at Baccarat.
Since 2004 he only plays in the casinos of Macau as he is often recognized in Las Vegas by security camera and threatened by rather unpleasant types who do not like him taking an average of $500,000 a night from their tables.
It is rumored that Steve Wynn pays Palmaro $425,000 per year NOT to play in any of his casinos.
Using the mathematical skills he has learnt as a musician he has created the “Mazterx Method” of gaming that is based on algorithms he discovered while studying the intonation of Lenny Bruce’s Carnegie Hall Concert of 1960 from an original vinyl recording given to him from myself.
He has never cut me in on his winnings.