Monday, 13 December 2010


not stuck in staccato
not pissed off with pizzicato
not constipated with syncopation
i continue to explore the beatles back catalogue of piano songs
picking up simple playing techniques en route
and feeding them into my latest batch of compositions
mid to late-period beatles songs are fertile territory
case studies in interesting harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment
while being simultaneously accessible to the humble untutored player
and of course great fun to play
i've been through a few now:
strawberry fields forever (originally played on mellotron)
a day in the life
hey jude
imagine (a lennon solo number)...
the latest is penny lane
one of the high points of the beatles' career
the woodle and i have been listening to anthology 2 a lot recently
and i am delighted to report that woodle digs the beatles
she can distinguish and name the four distinct cartoon faces
on the front cover of my philip norman shout biography
she's also curious as to which beatle is singing
though she can't yet tell the voices apart
i tend to be more of a fan of lennon songs
but around the time that penny lane was written
as lennon dozed in his lsd-inspired reverie
mccartney was really coming into his own
as writer, performer and co-producer with george martin
one of the interesting things about penny lane
is the way it's based entirely on simple 4/4 piano crotchets
despite the overlay of all sorts of fancy studio overdubs
and the application of every manner of abbey road production trickery

after labouring for a while under my own steam
trying unsuccessfully to work out the subtleties of the chords
i seek assistance by looking up a piano tutorial on youtube
as i did when i was struggling with day in the life
my pal piano john comes up trumps again
with a step by step dissection of the song
he nails the elusive major-minor chord changes
but there's a problem
although piano john is playing the song in the key you hear on the record
the chords move rapidly from b major to c sharp minor seventh
to f sharp seventh to b minor seventh and so on
hardly the most straightforward thing to play
with black notes (sharps and flats) everywhere!
and there's another problem
piano john fingers the chords with up to four or five digits on each hand
making what he's doing practically unplayable for the layman
the beatles fan in me immediately starts to think uh oh
are these really the chords a self-tutored rock and roller like mccartney
would have chosen for his latest pop number?
fortunately i have one advantage over piano john
something which helps me to compensate for my lack of technical skill
i have access to ian macdonald's revolution in the head
a volume that brilliantly documents
the ins and outs of the beatles' recording process in meticulous detail
sure enough macdonald has an important insight to offer
like many other beatles songs of the 1966-67 period
the various piano parts for penny lane were recorded in a different key
and then varispeeded to match other instruments
my guess is therefore that mccartney actually composed the song
a semi-tone higher in c major
and that his piano part was then slowed down slightly after recording
this simplifies the chord shapes a great deal
suddenly we're back in the familiar harmonic territory
of c major and g seven
as with day in the life
the other key issue seems to be what the left hand is up to
because the left hand provides the harmonic interest and rhythmic motion
day in the life taught me a basic but indispensible left-hand technique
the little finger and thumb alternate in quavers an octave apart
once i start playing i soon discover the same thing works for penny lane
with the help of a little variation in the thumb to add syncopation
and by gradually paring down piano john's elaborate chord suggestions
i start to get in touch with the essence of the song
another nice thing in common with day in the life
is the lovely descending left hand pattern
best of all is the upward surge in the chorus
at the point where it goes 'penny lane is in my ears...'
from an orthodox b flat to the same chord with an underlying low d
played by the left hand
i've no idea what chord this is
(perhaps it's a polly chord)
but it's all part of the magic
little by little
thanks to john, paul, piano john
and some perseverence
i am belatedly beginning to uncover the secrets of this new instrument as a songwriting tool

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