“I Want to Tell You”

August 26, 2013 • 8:01 am

nb: I’m getting ready go to to Poland, which involves writing two talks (Warsaw and Cracow residents, be warned) as well as doing a book, so posting this week will be largely devoid of deep thought.

I’ve finally sat down and made a list of my favorite Beatles songs that I’ve not yet put up, and there are 19 in all.  That was far more than I envisioned posting, but going through their music I found it impossible to distill the best into a week of songs. So, for better or worse, you’ll have endure one a day for nearly three more weeks.

Although I’m a big fan of the early Beatles, which is when I fell in love with them (I actually lived in Germany when they became big there, before they were popular elsewhere), I’ve found that nearly all of my favorites come from the Rubber Soul album or after. I suppose that’s when they became purely sui generis, with a style of music that, although influenced by earlier blues and rock, also had an element that was completely new.

This song, “I Want to Tell You,” is one of the two types of love songs the Beatles wrote: the soft ballads (“Yesterday,” “In My Life”, “If I Fell”) and the harder-driving amorous songs (“Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Any Time at All”).  This one fits in the second category, and appeared on “Revolver” (1966).  For reasons I don’t understand, it’s not on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 best Beatles songs. It’s dissonant but beautiful, and nobody had written anything like it before.

The song came out when I was in high school and the psychedelic era was just reaching the East Coast. Imbued with drugs, romanticism, and the sense that I was a more complex person than I really was (psychedelics will do that), I thought the lyrics really spoke to me. Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.

Wikipedia gives a bit about the song’s structure:

“I Want to Tell You” is in the key of A major. It is driven by bass fours and a catchy, persistent piano discord: a short, distinctive guitar melody opens and closes the song and recurs between verses. Harrison’s voice is supported by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in close harmony.

Like “Eight Days a Week”, the song begins with a fade-in. The vocals open (on “When I get near you” with a harmonious E-A-B-C#-E melody note progression against an A chord, but dissonance soon arises with a II7 (B7) chord pointedly mirroring the lyrics on “drag me down”. The dissonance is immediately further enhanced by the rare use of an E7♭9 chord (at 0.46-0.53 secs). This chord has been termed “one of the most legendary in the entire Beatles catalogue”. When interviewed about the “weird, jarring chord at the end of every line that mirrors the disturbed feeling of the song”, Harrison replied: “That’s an E7th with an F on top played on the piano. I’m really proud of that as I literally invented that chord. The song was about the frustration we all feel about trying to communicate certain things with just words. I realised that the chords I knew at the time just didn’t capture that feeling. I came up with this dissonant chord that really echoed that sense of frustration. John later borrowed it on I Want You (She’s So Heavy) [at] “It’s driving me mad.” Everett emphasises McCartney’s “finger-tapping impatience” on the piano (at 0.25-0.32) which is countered by the lyric “I don’t mind… I could wait forever. I’ve got time.” During the song’s ending fadeout (a reprise of the song’s guitar intro featuring a prominent group vocal harmony), McCartney makes notable use of melisma while chanting ‘I’ve got time’, revealing the song’s subtle Indian influence. Everett considers that the closing on “maybe you’ll understand” pointedly involves a descent to a “perfect authentic cadence.” Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (and later The Rutles) said the Bonzos’ first studio experience was at Abbey Road Studios while The Beatles were recording “I Want to Tell You”. Innes said he took a break in one of the studio’s hallways and heard The Beatles playing back the song, blasting it at full volume. Innes recounted that he was in a state of immense awe over the song’s beauty, and sheepishly returned to the Bonzo session, where they were recording the 1920s Vaudeville song “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies”.

47 thoughts on ““I Want to Tell You”

  1. I like “I Want To Tell You”, but it’s not a favorite. What would my 19 songs be? Probably these, in rough chronological order (and this list is drawn from their entire career, not just from Rubber Soul and after):

    All My Loving
    She Loves You
    I Want to Hold Your Hand
    If I Fell
    We Can Work It Out
    You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
    Norwegian Wood
    Eleanor Rigby
    For No One
    Hey Bulldog
    A Day in the Life
    Penny Lane
    Strawberry Fields Forever
    Fool on the Hill
    Mother Nature’s Son
    Here Comes the Sun
    Two of Us

  2. I do so love this song. George always did such interesting things with melody, harmony, and dissonance…and lyrics, too.

    I’ve read that, by the end (after “Something” was recorded), McCartney confided in John that he believed George had become a better songwriter than either of them. I don’t know if I agree with that, but he certainly was…something.

  3. My favorite Beatles song is “I Need You”, from “Help”. As far as I know it is nobody else’s favorite Beatles song. The echoey guitar gets to me every time.

    1. While “I Need You” might not be my own single favorite Beatles tune, I do think its a totally underrated gem, and one which once and for all showed George to be every bit as good as John and Paul when it came to writing songs.

  4. When in Poland make sure to eat some
    herring pickled in vinegar (śledź w occie ).
    I amused the proprietors of a Polish
    restaurant in Ann Arbor by calling it
    Polish Sushi. It is truly delicious. A
    shot of vodka to wash it down is nice too.
    My father once made me eat a lot of bread with smoked bacon, three table spoons of olive oil and about 5-6 shots of vodka all at once. An hour later he asked me if I felt anything (that is if I was drunk). When I said I felt nothing he said “That’s how you drink vodka with Russians”. Ask you hosts in Poland if this is some sort of polish youngmans Bar Mitzvah.

    1. Oh yeah. I love pickled herring! And vodka!

      But don’t miss the sausages and beer in Poland either! Yum yum!

      I loved visiting Poland — Wonderful country!

      1. Yes indeed. Other good stuff includes Bigos, otherwise known as hunters stew, full of meats and mushrooms is great too. Also the Polish cake Babka, which according to the old recipe we have requires the yolks from 24 eggs. However I prefer an old Russian recipe we got from the wife of a famous Russian oyster biologist, Viktor Loosanioff, which required the yolks of 48 eggs. When I was a child and eggs and sugar were available, I was introduced to something called Gogel Mogel. A couple of egg yolks to which two teaspoons of sugar were added, and the mixture ground against the edge of the cup until the sugar was thoroughly powdered and then the semi liquid result was eaten.

        1. Don’t forget the cake. Yeast – raised Babka, Makowiec (a kind of poppyseed cake), piernik (Gingerbread) and proper eastern european cheesecakes should all be on the list. And please send photos.

          1. Love makowiec and can get it very well made and at a good price
            in the Central market in Poulsbo, WA.
            This reminds me also of Polish stuffed cabbage (gołąbki = pigeons) and tripe
            stew (flaki) which my mother made frequently. We ate a lot of organ meats like
            kidneys, liver, tongue etc. This of course brings up my favorite pig-out,
            namely tête de veau (calf’s head), a traditional French dish. Ate it France
            at a truck stop 40 years ago in the traditional way, the whole half-head on a plate
            with appropriate spices. Now the meats are daintily cut up and arranged on the
            plate so diners are not freaked out or made to feel guilty.
            Well now that I have worked myself into a frenzy thinking
            about all this, its time to find the vodka and the Polish sausage
            hidden away somewhere in the fridge. There goes my diet!

  5. I’ve always loved HEY, You’ve got to Hide your Love Awaaaaaayyy.

    I saw Help (Aiuto) in Florence dubbed in Italian in 1966. Very bizarre. Fortunately the songs were still in English, but my American friends and I did a very strange Italian version of Eight Days a Week (Otto Giorni della Settimana – way too many syllables!)

  6. I love the song. I also love that Harrison says he “literally invented that chord”. Rock musicians can be cute that way – even brilliant ones. It is because the entire genre is so minimalist (usually major/minor chords exclusively… with the 7ths being about as far as one usually ever gets) and its practitioners so devoid of what jazzers would consider to be basic music theory, that these kinds of things get said in earnest.

    This form of dissonance comes out of the “Locrian” mode… at least that’s one way it can be conceptualized. It’s modern function only appeared in Western music in the 19th century – when people like Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Kodály, Sibelius, and others in the late Romantic period incorporated it into the flow of chord progressions – usually involving diminished chords and flowing lines over half-diminished scales.

    By the 20th century the flat-9 was already a staple in show tunes, and was pretty much standard during the swing era. — just mostly used as a transition chord, not banged on repeatedly for measures at a time. I suppose it was new… for rock.

      1. …and 11ths… and 13ths…

        By the time I was a 10th-grader, I pretty much had this stuff demystified for me by Wendy Williamson (who died back in 1988; they named an auditorium after him in Anchorage where I took lessons from him in ’79-80). All this stuff was standard notation since essentially the swing era, and Wendy gave me the rules on one sheet of paper. Those rules, easily understood on paper by this 10th-grader at a glance, provided the grist for a lifetime of conceptual work. Now approaching 50 years old, I have NEVER met a rock musician who understands the difference between 13ths and 6ths, why you normally sharp the 11 when you major the 7th, etc. It’s just not a part of the vocabulary of rock (usually). You have to get to prog rock before the musicians begin to understand that stuff.

      2. …BTW the 10th is an interval… not considered a chord by most – one doesn’t talk about sharp 10ths or flat 10ths, for example. It’s the major 3rd IN the chord, just voiced 10 steps above the tonal center in the bass. And most rock musicians don’t know the diminished chord has 4 constituent notes in it, not three (as most were brought up conceptualizing all chords as triadic-based with an optional seventh on the top if you want to get REALLY complex). So the 9 and the sus2 get frequently conflated in rock, as does the 11 and the sus4… (and 6 and 13). It’s as if the rockers haven’t learned to count past 8, either in the number of scale steps, or in the numbers of beats per measure. In reality it’s the lack of understanding that the higher numbers imply that the lower numbers be voiced below them (a 13th implies the 7th, 9th, and/or 11th — a 9th implies the existence of the 7th) that causes the confusion. So the function of a 9th is different than a sus2, and this function occurs rarely in rock — and when it does, the rocker thinks of it as a sus2 instead of a 9th… unless that rocker’s name is Walter Becker or Jeff Beck.

        Maybe having “Beck” in your name has something to do with it.

        Reminds me of a joke…
        Q: Do you know how to get a guitar player to play more quietly?
        A: Put sheet music in front of him.

        1. You can talk about major or minor 10ths. A “sharp 10th” would e harmonically be an 11th, although you might require an E-sharp (say) over a C-nat for contrapuntal reasons.

          Intervals that lie beyond the fifth and are used in a chord are best explained as having contrapuntal origins. The 9th (chord) is indeed derived from suspending the pitch that will form a 9th (interval) or 2nd with the root of the new chord. These “higher-order” chords aren’t always expressed this way (ie, a sus2 doesn’t always appear as the result of explicitly suspending one chord-member into another) in the surface-structure of the piece, but this is their conceptual origin.

        2. Right. It’s essentially not a staple of chord notation nomenclature is all… nobody talks about the even numbers… 8th chords, 12th chords, 14th chords, etc. t’would be silly. And redundant.

        3. Ha! Good joke.

          Here’s another: How many guitar players does it take to change a light bulb? 200: One the change the bulb and 199 to sit in the audience and say “I could do that!”

          Yes, most (non-classical) guitar players know very little theory. Some of my playing friends don’t even know the names of the chords they play (!!!!) and need guidance even reading a chord chart; but, boy, can they play by ear! (Which I can’t, much at all.)

          Yep, 10ths, intervals. Used a lot in popular music. (Well maybe not a lot — most popular songs (as you note, since the rock era began) are basically I, IV, V(dom7), with a few minor variations. But there is quite a bit of VI-II-V-I out there too.

          I only know a little (pocissimo, petit peu, klein bisschen) theory due to my first teacher being a MM, band arranger, and a jazz guy. He really wanted me to sight read (forget it, my brain just doesn’t work well that way, not to mention the time needed to get there) and understand theory. Being a math/science guy, the theory appealed more.

          1. Yes, and let’s not forget the I-V-VI-IV progression… 😉

            The guitar players I know here manage to get the tougher Jethro Tull (Thick as A Brick) under their fingers, totally playing by ear. The real problem, of course, is the rehearsals are less than 10% as productive as they could be, and no one remembers what was decided upon by the time the concert rolls around.

            The Beatles had no such problems with their later masterworks. Just lay a mountain of tape, and shovel it all towards Geoff Emerick and friends.

    1. I was just about to comment on Harrison’s appropriation.

      In fact, instances of V9 go all the way back to the early Baroque.

      I don’t want to get too far afield into musical esoterica, but I do want to mention that 9ths (and even 7ths) are better categorized as contrapuntal artifacts rather than discreet chords. You know what they say about “a little knowledge”…

      1. That’s right… when the way they conceptualized it was as contrapuntal lines (with that flat-9 usually resolving a half-step down to the tonic… kind of the same trick used constantly these days by jazzers, except without all the filler notes in-between — didn’t they used to draw and quarter composers in the early Baroque period for being too dissonant? 😉

        1. You jest, but it’s worth noting that there is almost no combination of intervals that you can’t find in earlier music. It’s the way with which these sometimes dissonant simultaneities were dealt that differs from modern music (among other differences, of course).

          Actually, one of the most harmonically audacious composers was Bach. Debussy (an anti-Teuton if there ever was one, which makes this all the more meaningful) said: “…if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to whom all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday…” It’s just that Bach doesn’t use dissonance without dealing with it in a satisfying way.

          1. Exactly as I was going to say. Bach, to me was the first dude who really tore the hell out of the “rules” (and established new ones in the process, effectively). What makes it even more astonishing was all that weird dissonance he was pouring out was largely (his organ stuff) meant for echoing cathedrals to be the major instrument. Truly remarkable the sea of noise that one got enveloped in way back then. He was like a late Baroque Jimi Hendrix.

          2. +1. Bach, my only god!

            If only I could play more of his stuff on my guitar! Devilish hard, most of it. But most satifying.

            I love your comment here, it’s perfect!: “Bach doesn’t use dissonance without dealing with it in a satisfying way”

    2. …Harrison says he “literally invented that chord”.

      That;s part of the charm and the genius of the Beatles. They were so unschooled as to how to play music in any proper sense that I’m sure Harrison fully believed what he was saying. There were musicians (proper musicians) and music reviewers who were consistently astounded by some of what the Beatles did. But the Beatles usually didn’t know they doing anything innovative because they didn’t know the rules.
      McCartney has commented (possibly in his autobiography, Many Years From Now, though I’m not certain) that he has always been afraid of learning how to write and play music properly – learning the rules so to speak – because he worried that this would interfere with his creative process.

      The Beatles, and many other rock musicians as well, were able to do the wonderful things they did because they didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, the rules. Not a one of them could read music, nor were they formerly trained on any of the instruments they played – Paul never received bass guitar, guitar, piano, synthesizer, or drumming instructions. He, like the other Beatles, learned on their own. No doubt they picked up some things from George Martin (who was absolutely integral to their success), but it’s not as though he taught how to play the guitar better. A couple of exceptions that come to mind are the Beatles learning a particular finger-picking style from Donovan while they were in India together (this was used extensively on the White Album – Dear Prudence is an example) and Ravi Shankar teaching George how to play the sitar.

      1. That reminds me of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull – the god of rock musicians who play flute (admittedly, he doesn’t have much competition).

        He taught himself to play the flute. When his daughter came of age and started flute lessons she pointed out how he used all the wrong fingers. Ian mended his ways and the result was “Twelve Devinities” a collection of twelve songs he wrote for the London Symphony Orchestra and in which he played a mesmerising flute (he did miss a couple of very difficult modulations, but hey)

  7. “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

    Love the way that while discussing the Beatles, it’s Dylan that you quoted.

    Interestingly, at the 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert to Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992, Dylan performed “My Back Pages” with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Roger McGuinn. And FTR, Harrison is my favorite Beatle.

  8. Now listening to the full Hard Day’s Night album on da Tube after trying to think of what some of my most memorable Beatles songs were and settling on “Things We Said Today” as a ballad of that era that really blew me away.

    The whole of side 2 of that album is pretty damn good, and the only reason I find side 1 less satisfying is that so many of its songs were overplayed on the radio.

  9. IMO, describing The Beatles as “sui generis” is highly inapt. I’ve been listening to them a bit over the last few days. In light of other WEIT posts about them, I figured I’d give them another listen and reconsider.

    To me, the most striking thing about the later Beatles albums is that they are incredibly erratic. There is no consistency of style (nor of quality). You can’t call them “sui generis” for two reasons: 1) Their reportoire is not of a kind (unique or otherwise). It’s too stylistically incoherent. 2) The one constant you might point to is pastiche. Here’s a bit of surf-rock, a bit of Indian classical, a bit of baroque, a bit of music hall, a bit of reggae, a bit of blues, etc., etc.

    The Beatles don’t sound like themselves from one song to the next, but they do sound in bits and pieces like just about everyone else.

    1. What you identify as a weakness, I identify as a strength. Far to many times, certainly not always (think The Dark Side of The Moon, even though it’s not a perfect example, but then a concept album kind of needs that stylistic similarity or the concept does’t work), an album with a consistent sound from start to finish can be quite boring. Part of the Beatles genius was being to cover so many different styles and to do them well (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and The White Album, and even Abbey Road are the best examples, even if the quality of music and production are not their best on The White Album).

      Despite their talent for variety, and the ability to oftentimes do it better than the original song styles they were inspired by, I disagree that – with the possible exception of some of George’s Indian excursions (which were still usually good songs) – the Beatles don’t sound like themselves from song to song. It’s clear that the same band is performing Eleanor Rigby, Got To Get You Into My Life, and Tomorrow Never Knows (It says so right on the backside of the album cover ; ). You state that “they do sound in bits and pieces like just about everyone else.” So who do they sound like on the three previously mentioned songs above, especially Tomorrow Never Knows? To me they sound like the Beatles. There may be prior influences (McCartney has said that Got To Get Your Into My Life was influenced, yet I know of no horn heavy Motown song that can compare with GTGYIML) but the influences are not obvious and the Beatles simply do it better.

      Additional songs that sound like no one but the Beatles:
      – Strawberry Fields Forever
      – I Am The Walrus
      – A Day In The Life
      – We Can Work It Out
      – Rain
      – Hey Jude
      – Come Together
      – Twist and Shout

      1. I don’t think “Twist and Shout” is a good example for your list given that it is a cover of a song previously recorded.

        Of course much rides on how the phrase “…that sound like no one but…” is interpreted.

        1. Twist and Shout was recorded several times before the Beatles did it. (Usually under the title, “Shake It Up Baby”)

        2. I included “Twist and Shout” only because the Beatles version is so much better than the original version that it is virtually a different song. The Beatles recorded the definitive version of this and Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” though Chuck’s version was quite good as well.

          1. Yep, three cases where the Beatles version was better than the original: Twist and Shout, Please Mr. Postman, and Rock and Roll Music.

      2. “What you identify as a weakness, I identify as a strength.”

        In the post you’re replying to, I actually did not say it was a weakness – just that it is inconsistent with a description of the band as “sui generis”. 🙂

        But, yeah, aesthetic preferences differ. Listening to a collection of mostly very short songs, jumping around constantly between moods and styles, doesn’t do it for me. I find it jarring. You’re just starting to settle into a good song and, bam, it’s over. Onward to next song, picked seemingly at random.

        Obviously quite a lot of people do find it enjoyable, but I’m not one of them. I guess I’m not easily bored.

  10. The later Beatles albums remind me very strongly of Queen in this respect. Individual songs can be spectacular, but taken as a whole it’s a mish-mash of stylistic imitations. Occasionally those imitations are extremely good–better than the originals, even–but more often they’re forgettable, obviously derivative, or just plain dreck. The result, IMO, is that The Beatles made some truly excellent songs, but generally mediocre or poor albums (for every minute of the lovely, ethereal “Michelle”, you get a corresponding minute of the dismal pseudo-country “What Goes On”). Great for a few minutes but nothing good for sustained listening.

  11. Got the Dylan quote – and if that made any kind of sense to you, you must certainly have been snacking on interesting substances 😉

  12. “…the harder-driving amorous songs (“Got to Get You Into My Life,”

    You may already know this, Jerry, but when it comes to the Beatles my pedantry knows no bounds. “Got to Get You Into My Life” is indeed a love song of sorts, but unlike the typical love song the “you” in the song does not refer to a woman. It refers to marijuana. I would say that the lyrics are a dead giveaway, but this is only true once you know it’s about pot. The real dead giveaway is Paul stating that it’s about pot in “Many Years From Now,” a book I highly recommend.

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