Coherence and other stuff
Having looked at the origins and rhythmic vagaries of one of John Lennon's weirdest songs, let's ask the fundamental songwriting question. How does a song made up of 4 unrelated bits* hang together so well?
Odd time signatures are obviously a motif, there's lots of root - fifth movement in bass, and though instruments are being added to the guitar/bass/drums backline throughout, the instrumentation is pretty static. As Shakespeare wrote “brevity is the soul of wit”**, so cramming masses of inventive music into 2:43 there's little chance of getting lost or bored. But the common ground between sections is more due to what's left out than added in.
Though sections 3 and 4 are tied together by the key word 'gun' (jumped the gun/warm gun) there are few lyrical motifs. But all the sections (apart from the first) have very few words.
Musically there is limited harmony. Apart from the first 8 bars in Em, everything is in Am or it's relative C major (which has an identical set of notes) or a modal progression rooted in A (section 2). The only chords used are Am, C, Dm, Em, F, Fm, G and their variations***.
The range of the melody is also limited. Section one is little more than a 3 note pattern (first in the key of Em then Am). Section 2 uses a minor 7 arpeggio A C E G and the last two sections use the minor pentatonic plus a second (A B C D E G).
A few songwriting tickets worth mentioning in closing
- The solo in section 2 is the vocal melody (ticket 4)
- Lennon grabs your ear with some early weirdness (ticket 61) - the surreal lyrics, 'Lennon extensions/edits' (tickets 37 and 52) and the rapid-fire succession of sections.
- The descant, i.e. the backing vocals, (ticket 58) in section 4 is nicely written (listen out for the almost inaudible bass vocal part).
- There are several uses of madrigalism (ticket 49)
- 0:26 hobnail boots - 3 stomping descending melody notes on the beat
- 0:32 hands are busy working overtime - the melody is busy
- 1:01 going down - the melody goes down
- 1:05 left uptown - the melody goes up
- 1:38 The 7th to 6th melody over the F major chord (warm gun) sounds warm and comforting.
What's not to love?
“Do do do do do do. Oh yeah” must be one of Lennon's most pointless lines ever, but doesn't stick out because it has it's own tune. And if you're wondering what that weird vocal noise is at 0:57 on the stereo version, John sang the "I need a fix" section twice, but the first was muted to make way for the fuzz guitar solo. During mixing the vocals were brought back up too early
*1 – She's not a girl. 2 – I need a fix. 3 – Mother Superior. 4 – Happiness is a warm gun
**i.e. intelligence (from Hamlet).
*** by my reckoning Am, Am7, Am6/7, A7, A5, C, C5, Dm, Dm6, Em, Emadd9, F, Fm, G and G5.