From Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life © 2010 by the Estate of Paul Quarrington, published by Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Paul Quarrington (1953–2010) was a musician, novelist, non-fiction writer and award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker.
I don’t suppose I’d be a songwriter today if it hadn’t been for Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Their songs appeared in my life one by one—each wondrous, almost miraculous, each announcing itself boldly as a Lennon/ McCartney composition. Lennon/McCartney, as an entity, seemed to be the most creative force ever unleashed upon the face of the earth. Of course, we eventually learned that Lennon/ McCartney didn’t really exist, that it was a label of convenience. If John wrote a song, he credited it as Lennon/McCartney. Paul did likewise. I recently heard a rumour that Sir Paul is trying to change the order of the names, to alter the designation legally to McCartney/Lennon. It might seem a bit small-minded, but I say, hey, he’s the living one, he’s survived hellish marriages and kept playing music, so he should get the credit he deserves.
I must admit I don’t have much to say about individual Lennon/McCartney songs. I enjoy “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and often introduce it into impromptu singalongs, but that’s largely so that I can shout “Hey!” at (or around) the appropriate time. (I think this also reflects my attraction to the point of view adopted by Lennon in the song, the stance of surly self-centredness.) “Here, There and Everywhere” is a very beautiful song, and it has what we might call “sophisticated chord changes,” which means that as teenagers we were baffled and unable to work them out. There is, if you’ll allow me to get technical, a modulation to the bridge in that song, and at those same singalongs, you might notice that with the words “I want her everywhere,” the bottom usually drops out of the accompaniment bag, leaving the singers crooning eerily on their own.
The assertion that pop music, rock’n’roll, is informed by a mere three chords is a myth propagated largely by non-musicians. The statement correctly points to a simplicity, an eloquence, in some of the music, but there are surprisingly few songs that the young, aspiring guitarist can actually execute with just three chords. “Summertime Blues,” that’ll work. That’s actually a song wherein knowing more than three chords might prove a detriment. And Van Morrison’s classic “Gloria” can be played with three chords, but they aren’t the usual three chords. Rock’n’roll’s three chords are the tonic, the sub-dominant, and the dominant. The sixteen-year-old Morrison was thrashing away at the tonic, the flattened seven, and the sub-dominant. “Gloria” also contains a little guitar fill that seems to follow these changes with a logic born on the fretboard. In reality, there is a fingering change that must be made. As teenagers we usually pretended that wasn’t the case, and many of us still do, just in case you’re wondering why that instrumental part always sounds like crap when your buddy plays it. As a young lad, I spent thousands and thousands of hours trying to work out changes—to “figure out the chords”—so believe me about this three-chord business. Even a seemingly simplistic ballad from the fifties—“You Send Me,” for example—has four chords.
Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” was a Gordian knot, an impenetrable puzzle. I sat in my bedroom for days on end trying to work it out, intuiting that the ability to play and sing “Yesterday” would increase my chances of getting laid. (Or getting kissed, or fondling a breast, or even remaining in reasonably close proximity to a female human being for more than a few seconds.) There are chords, as you may know, made by stopping some strings and leaving others free to vibrate. These have the pleasing name of “open chords.” Other chords—“bar chords,” we call them, although “closed chords” conveys the right impression—require that all the strings be dampened, usually by a flattened index finger. This is not the easiest skill to acquire, in terms of either dexterity or strength, because it’s hard to slam all six strings down with a single finger and still have them sound boldly. “A” is a great key, because most of the important chords (the fourth, the fifth, even the “Gloria” flattened seven) are open chords. It’s a great key on the guitar, that is; saxophonists don’t care for it. If the guitar player is playing in A, then a tenor saxophonist has to transpose (the instrument actually sounds a tone lower than the written note) to the key of B, which has five sharps. Five sharps represent a lot of cowflaps in the musical pasture, if you see what I mean. It is for this reason that the sax player is always the best musician in the band.
But, getting back to “Yesterday.” The first chord on the recording is an F, a bar chord. Some people play F in a manner necessitating that the index finger be bent at the first joint, that the thumb wrap around and stop the low bass string. As complicated as that sounds, it’s often preferable to trying to pull off the infernally difficult F bar chord.
Despite all this whining on my part, “Yesterday” is the most recorded song ever. There are something like three thousand covers. One way of explaining this is that while the song may lack “guitar logic,” it makes a lot of musical sense. Indeed, it makes so much musical sense that apparently Paul McCartney was initially unsure that he had truly composed the music. He was afraid he had inadvertently pilfered some standard.