The first time I heard this song I was fifteen, and it blew my mind. I knew a fair bit about music, even back then, but my ear wasn’t yet quick enough to follow the neat counterpoint of the cello and voice, to hear the chord changes. I was used to listening to Cream and Deep Purple, whose harmony was relatively easy to follow if you listened hard to the bass lines and recognised the familiar rock patterns of flattened sevenths, blues scales and power chords. But this song threw me. It sounded so simple, but the musical language was classical, and it was as if I’d landed in Spain with a tourist phrasebook and a stern-looking lady was telling me a story in words I couldn’t understand.
I was listening to Sergeant Pepper for the first time on one of those portable CD players that you had to hold really carefully as you walked around to stop them skipping. It was early afternoon and I was walking around North Oxford in the half hour break after lunch before I had to be back at school for lessons. I was at boarding school, where I made the most of the rare moments when I could be alone and walk around with an occasionally skippy soundtrack, pretending it was 1967 and I had just got back from the local record shop with the first pressing of the latest Beatles record.
Half way through She’s Leaving Home I turned on my heel and started jogging back to school, trying to maintain the ideal horizontal gliding motion that would keep the CD player from skipping and using my half-relaxed arm as rudimentary suspension. I made it back to my room and grabbed my guitar. With one headphone on and one off so I could hear the guitar I picked my way through the song, following the cello (and was that a double bass?!) and using the harp notes to work out the chords. It was clever – there were all sorts of moves that I hadn’t come across before – and the strings added these strange melodies that highlighted the movement of the chords and carefully reflected the tensions and emotions of the drama.
I only had time for a few listens before I had to go to double physics. I remember vividly spending the entire lesson writing out pages and pages of chord symbols, half-remembered melodies, lyrics and patterns, trying to reconstruct, decipher and understand my new favourite song.
Listening back to it now, having spent years studying the nuts and bolts of classical composition, I realise that it’s not actually that complicated. To a classical music nerd the string writing is a pretty basic pastiche, but then pop music has never aspired to be as technically complex as classical music. That’s not the point. To the untrained ear of a teenager in 1967 it sounded classical enough to be Parent Music.
There are no drums, no guitars, and the vocals are anything but rock’n’roll. It’s important that the arrangement sounds like “Parent Music”, because the song is all about parents. It’s a clever little satire of middle class parents.
Sergeant Pepper is an album of pastiches, an album that delivered a perfect example of every pop style of the day (Ballad, Vaudeville, Psychedelic, Indian-Mystic, Novelty, Faux-Classical) bookended by the nostalgic introduction of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and its “Reprise”, and with the circus-crazy intermission of “For The Benefit Of Mr Kite”. "She’s Leaving Home" is the Faux-Classical number, and its influence is huge.
Every band reaches the point when someone suggests using only strings on a song.
“You know, like She’s Leaving Home.”
It’s a reference point for great Faux-Classical arrangement, like Wichita Lineman for country ballads and Bohemian Rhapsody for pomp-rock.
George Martin created the model for good pop strings (and some timeless harp). The string parts are written around the vocals, adding punctuation, humour, pathos and support. Most string parts on pop songs these days are block chords and soaring melodies, following the Hollywood film score example of string writing, but the part writing on “She’s Leaving Home” is careful, understated and clever.
She’s Leaving Home is sung like a Radio 4 play, and the casting is perfect. Paul plays the narrator, calmly telling a story of loss and tragedy. After the first line, you can clearly hear him taking a slow, steady breath. There are no blue notes, no screams, no “wooooo”s. John gets to be the parents, delivering his lines in a listless and world-weary drawl.
That’s what parents sound like when you’re a teenager.
“What did we do that was wrong? We didn’t know it was wrong.”
We never hear the daughter. This story isn’t really about her anyway.
McCartney’s lyrics paint an instantly recognisable picture of a two up, two down house and a aspirational middle class couple who have unknowingly alienated their teenage daughter. He cleverly uses some subtle class indicators to give depth to his characters: while the narrator uses the classless term “Father”, the mother calls him “Daddy” (aspirational middle-middle to upper-middle).
The choruses show the confused desperation of a couple who didn’t have much money growing up but have worked hard to provide every chance they could for their daughter:
“We gave her everything money could buy…”, “Sacrificed all of our lives…”
There’s a tendency for everything of interest in the world to end up on the internet, if you know where to look. And while WikiLeaks has hit the news for exposing political secrets, there are all sorts of other loose, subversive groups who make it their mission to “free” information that’s being held prisoner by copyright laws and other nuisances.
Everyone knows that albums are shared over peer-to-peer networks, but did you know you can also find “multitracks”?
Multitrack tapes are usually kept very secret, and occasionally dug out for digital remastering. But sometimes they sneak out. I found tracks by The Beatles, The Stones, Queen, Marvin Gaye, Blondie, and plenty more. You have to endure a few graphic advertisements for “Russian girls who really want to chat with you now!”, but with Google and a Bittorrent client you have access to an astoundingly large chunk of our cultural history.
I got hold of the multitrack tapes for “She’s Leaving Home”, and travelled deep into the innards of the song.
I heard the string parts on their own (two tracks, presumably recorded with two microphones – one over near the violins and one near the cello and double bass, with the harp in the middle).
I heard Paul’s vocal track with no music behind it – every breath, every careful inflection, the slight strain as he holds the high notes, the concentration and control.
I heard John’s backing vocals, drenched in reverb, joined for the choruses by Paul double-tracking the high melody.
I felt the same excitement that I had when I first heard the track, the same desire to understand everything about this recording – the song, the people, the man or woman who played the cello part, the decisions that were made at every step that led to the track sounding the way it does.
If you ever feel that music isn’t magic any more, that you’ve listened to everything you have and you’re bored of it, or if you want to learn about how songs are put together and records are made, or if you just want to experience the thrill of sitting right in front of someone as they record a legendary vocal part, I recommend getting hold of the original tracks of a song you think you know well. It may well blow your mind.
The Ukulele version is sang by The Goff Sisters accompanied by their mom and dad singing the part of the parents.
Give a thought for poor Cy and Peg Goff.
Every parent knows the sweet sorrow of watching their children step into the world without their protective arm. Wondering what challenges they will have to face, knowing that Mom and Dad won’t be there to pick up the pieces.
Cy and Peg had the unique experience of seeing their lovely, fresh-faced, young daughters make their first steps outside the family home to… go on tour with Meat Loaf.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Amy and Elaine Goff have enjoyed a long and successful career as a vocal duo.
As featured vocalists, they toured nationally and internationally with several groups, including three albums and four world tours with Meat Loaf.
They have sung backgrounds on dozens of albums for well-known artists, including four gold and one platinum, and have written and/or sung on hundreds of national and international radio and television commercials.
The Goffs have produced and released three classical choral albums. Their mother Peg Goff lends her voice and her beautiful vocal arrangements to:
The Christmas Angels, (distributed by Time-Life Music)
Angel’s Sing Praises, (a collection of popular sacred hymns)
Angels Of Slumber, (a collection of lullabies from around the world).
Most recently, the Goff Sisters have joined forces with former Joe Cocker band mates, to form Cocker tribute band, Sheffield Steel.
As per David Barratt’s suggestion, She’s Leaving Home, was the first opportunity for the Goff Women to Record with their father/husband, Sy.
He was magnificent and has been an insufferable Diva ever since!