Notes on … Series #79 (NM)
by Alan W. Pollack
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
“Nowhere Man” remains a pioneering landmark example of what, within less than a year or so of its release, would be labeled as the “folk rock” sub-genre. Aside from the topical relevance of its lyrical theme, and in spite of the electric arrangement and pop-ish choice of chords, an ingenuously simple tune and non-syncopated beat help create a subtle fusion of styles.
The form of this song is unusually long with its three bridges and a double verse in between the first two of them. In all our studies to date I don’t believe we’ve yet seen another example with a third repeat of the bridge.
Melody and Harmony
Superficially, the melodic material of the song is straight away in the Major mode. However, one’s interest in the tune is piqued on a more subtle level by a combination of the large number of appoggiaturas, the pseudo pentatonic nature of the bridge, and the prominent role given to the flat sixth scale degree (C-natural) in the backing vocals.
The flat sixth also bears some influence on the harmony, “forcing”, as it were, the appearance of one of John’s much favored minor iv chords in the context of a Major key.
A relatively small number of chords are used throughout, most of them being simple choices to boot. Aside from the minor iv chord already mentioned, the other point of harmonic interest here is found in the unusual iii -» IV progression; uncannily, the last time we had seen it used was in (no coincidence) a song by the same composer called “I Feel Fine” (And I do :-)).
The instrumental texture is thick with the sound of electric guitars in a way that is rather anticipatory if not actually influenced by The Byrds or even The Wilburys 🙂 Paul provides an almost hyperactively arpeggiated marching bassline. And Ringo’s drumwork remains uncharacteristically undifferentiated throughout.
It is the vocals however which truly stand out in this arrangement, making it one of their more ambitious though relatively uncelebrated forays into three-part singing. The “a capella” opening itself is unprecedented (though I wonder if I’m the only one who finds that when instruments come in at the fifth measure the singers sound retrospectively as though they had been slightly off key).
Also note how the chorale-like style of the verses is modified in the bridges to a solo-plus-two-backers-doing-“lalas” (reminiscent of “You Won’t See Me“). In the current song, this switch nicely supports the change in the lyrics at the point from speaking in the third person to a direct address of the title’s typological anti-hero.
The verse is only eight measures long and is made up of three phrases, the last one of which is equal in length to the sum of the first two:
The melody of this verse makes for an ironic contrast with the hook phrase of “Norwegian Wood” that we looked at so closely last time. Although both tunes share the downward traversal of an octave as their common backbone, the manner in which the octave is filled out here is both melodically and rhythmically much plainer than the other song; even a bit simpleminded by comparison. Also worth considering is that the octave run in “Norwegian Wood” is based on the fifth scale degree whereas in our current song it is based on the tonic first degree of the scale.
I would suggest that it is this certain blandness in the tune itself which allows our hook-thirsty attention to be diverted to the little guitar riff which trails every verse section. This riff also happens to traverse a downward octave (one based on the fifth scale degree) and its rhythmic syncopation and fanfare like arpeggiation nicely contrasts with the tune and at the same time resonates with the bassline.
The guitar solo verse further develops the characteristics of this little riff and concludes with a surprising gesture in which a sudden deep descent all the way down to the low, open E string is capped off by a ringing, harmonic high E.
Because of the F# in the melody on the downbeat of measure 5, there is a part of me that might want to parse the chord in that measure as a ii6/5 instead of IV with an added sixth. It’s moot to the extent that both such chords function synonymously as subdominants.
The bridge is also eight measures in length and breaks down into a phrasing pattern similar to the verse, except that the first two short phrases here are identical, and even the longer third phrase is merely an extension of the material heard in the first two:
Appropriate bridge-like contrast is provided by a number of factors. The melodic shape of this section is arch-like for a change, and harmonically, the start of this section away from I with a big finish on V that sets up the verse which follows.
The sustaining of the A chord through measure 7 provides a subtly slow syncopation to the harmonic rhythm. To my ears, the bassline of the first bridge is played differently than the other two, creating some confusion as to whether the chord in measures 6 – 7 is actually A or f#, but both other bridges make a clear case for A.
A comparatively large amount of dissonance between melody and chords is created in this bridge by a tendency in the tune to dwell on melodic notes which more properly belong to the chord that either precedes or follows the current one. This melodic effect is so pronounced that it combines with the already mentioned syncopation in the harmonic rhythm to create the illusion of a dissonant 4-3 suspension in the backing voices at the end of this section, whereas no such suspension actually exists!
The outro contains a Beatles-trademark triple repeat of the verse’s final phrase. The guitar hook, as might be expected, is given the absolutely last word.
Paul vocally upstages the others in this coda, crying out loudly with the melodic flat 6th placed high in his range.
Some Final Thoughts
Even if the lyrics here aren’t quite the likes of Dylan (or even Barry McGuire :-)), it’s worth recalling, at the risk of sounding like it’s a case of damning with faint praise, that the mere fact of the Beatles essaying something this outspoken at this juncture of their career was historically remarkable.
For myself, there is a slightly uncomfortable preachiness about these lyrics that one tends to associate more with George than John. Even one of the more clever tag lines — “isn’t he a bit like you and me” — which in theory ought to have blunted some of the exhortatory tone with it’s well-needed dose of self-inclusive deprecation, still strikes me as a bit forced and awkward.
The title epithet, though, is, no question, still unabashedly worth the entire price of admission. If necessary, you can give it to me, straight on the shoulder; or anywhere else for that matter.
I Should’ve Known Better
I wrote: “Nowhere Man” remains a pioneering landmark example of what, within less than a year or so of its release, would be labeled as the “folk rock” sub-genre.” Whoops! I should’ve known better … I’ve already received a couple of letters in response pointing out that I’ve been discovered with my chronological pants down, so to speak.
Dylan’s electric-set-induced fiasco at the Newport Folk Festival, indeed, was during the summer of 1965. I’m doubly embarrassed to admit that I was one of his early fans that was rather disappointed in him at the time; oy! Such phenomena as the cover of his “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds were to follow very shortly if they did not acutely appear in parallel with the release of “Bringing It All Back Home”. Therefore, in truth I should alter the stance of my Note to acknowledge that while “Nowhere Man” remains an unusual stylistic venture for the Beatles per se, by itself it did not so much define the folk rock style of its time as much as stylize it.
Flame away, anyway!!
Copyright © 1993 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.