Recorded on 2nd June, 1964 in 3 takes at Abbey Road, this Paul McCartney song was written while on holiday in the Bahamas with his then girlfriend Jane Asher. “The sombre lyric – provoked by the frustrating interruptions of a relationship between two career people – matches the lowering gloom of the music”, (Ian MacDonald – Revolution in the Head) music which contains a number of prescient features.
I was listening to the mono version of the album, “A Hard Day’s Night” recently and was struck by the high number of John songs and relative lack of Paul compositions. At this time they would be working together on certain songs, but Paul’s only complete contributions around this time are “Can’t Buy Me Love” which is simply a 12-bar blues, albeit with a great melody, and “And I Love Her” which is beautiful in its way but a little mannered in its adoption of “classic” melodic shapes and “ I will love you forever darling” lyrics. With “A Hard Day’s Night” you feel this is John’s band – robust, masculine, beer-swilling, pill-popping ready to take on anybody. John was pulling out all the stops with a range of songs – “I Should Have Known Better”, “You Can’t Do That”, “I’ll Cry Instead” and the hauntingly beautiful songs “I’ll Be Back” and “If I Fell”. Then the single, ” A Hard Day’s Night” – a great song with its own set of pointers to the future and unquenchable positive energy. But for me there is an element of tin-pan alley in some of the writing – “When I Get Home” and “Tell Me Why” sound particularly contrived and John’s misogyny underwrites a lot of the ideas in the lyrics, even in the great songs.
Amongst all of this bluster, tucked away on side 2 is “Things We Said Today”. It is one of the first Beatles songs to dispense with any need for a chord “trick” of some kind to sustain momentum. Here we have an A minor chord, a proto-Pete Townshend che-ka-ching into the down-beat and a straight road rhythm above which weaves a minimal melody, repeating the same small cell of notes and rhythm to the unfolding lyrics. The words – in cold, analytical language – reflect upon the promises of faithfulness and the certainty of some kind of psychic connection during the long separations. These ideas are expressed in a very strict rhythm and narrow repeating melody so that they seem somehow distant, yet nagging – and that straight road of A minor is almost the cosmic drone, the infinite ground of Indian music and yet also the back of a Bedford Van on the endless journeys to and from London… well ok, cosmic drone is pushing it a bit – we’re rocking back and forth on Am and Em7 so it is definitely more Bedford Van. But it does convey a sense of endless traveling, a long, straight (not winding) road.
After 8 bars the harmony brightens to C major then, like a sigh, shades into C7, pulling the music back down to F then, through its own fatal logic, to B-flat. In three short moves the song is suddenly untethered from what seemed like the certainty of A minor – relentless, painful, but at least you knew where you were. Now we’re in B-flat for God’s sake – what the hell happened?? But the harmony sinks back a semitone onto A and all is back to how it was a moment ago.
This move to Bb, a semitone above A, physically close yet harmonically very distant – the flat supertonic as it is known in the trade – was revolutionary at the time – although we perhaps didn’t realize it. And you’d be hard pressed to find modern examples, although Radiohead in “Everything In It’s Right Place” and “Nude” explore that territory with consummate mastery.
A bar is knocked out of the final 4-bar phrase to emphasize the end of this section, a characteristic McCartney device to enhance this mini-verse:bridge:chorus construction that then repeats to different lyrics, but the same strict melodies.
The form of the song now requires contrast and we adjust to A major. The mood brightens, becomes a little bluesy, boozy, bragging – “Me I’m just the lucky kind” – the harmony develops a trick and strides out to B major. But the second time it tries that, some kind of gravitational pull drags it down to Bb and thence to A minor and back to the mood of doubt and pain and the long, straight road of touring, recording and separation. The dissolving of the resilient mood of this Middle 8 section, both musically through the flat supertonic and lyrically by being still mid-sentence at this crucial structural point, creates a magical moment in the song where two opposing states of mind seem to co-exist. This is songwriting craft of the highest order, the art that conceals art.
The songs allows its classic AAbAbA form to play out so we get to re-experience that amazing transition before fading out on the A minor che-ke-ching, the long, straight (not winding) road stretching off into infinity.
“Things We Said Today” is a turning point in the Beatles development, a musical and lyrical gem of authentic self expression. There is no attempt to be life-and-soul-of-the- party, no tin-pan-alley harmonic structure to underpin it, no pills, no booze. It points the way to the “realism” of “Paperback Writer”, sets the tone in its seriousness for a “Yesterday”, in its open-endedness for a “Tomorrow Never Knows”… there is no precedent for it, it just arrives.
I was watching the rockumentary about The Beatles first American Tour. There is no narrator telling you what to think, just the lads being The Fabs. Ringo laps up the attention, dresses up as a conductor on the train, even George gets involved in that. John gurns at the camera occasionally and wittily diffuses any question fired at him by members of the press. Paul looks distinctly uncomfortable most of time seemingly not quite knowing how to behave in front of the ruthlessly revealing eye of the movie camera. I think he’s trying to look arty and interesting but he’s with a traveling circus and you can only be a fool, otherwise you look like a fool. It’s his realization in amongst all that madness that they have to find an authentic mode of expression, that they have to season the clowning with irony, otherwise it will all be over, that generates “Things We Said Today”.
Jack Hues, Canterbury: October 2010.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Hailing from England, Joy Askew has played and sung with such luminary artists as Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson and Jack Bruce. She has appeared wtth David Bowie and David Byrne while promoting 2 of her own 7 CD releases as well as appearing in Laurie Andersons quintessential movie “Home Of The Brave” and for President Barack Obama. Joy is currently recording a new CD to be released next year and will be performing a concert for Art For Animals on Nov 19th with Laurie Anderson.
Joy is a keen animal activist.