Most of us started off listening to The Beatles because we just had to (sometimes called peer pressure) and found it rather juvenile during early listens. Somewhere along the way, we discovered something profoundly deep in their music that one can’t quite grab out of thin air. Well, I think I grabbed it.
Being one of the lesser known songs by The Beatles despite being among their most experimental ones, Baby You’re a Rich Man does hit the sweet spot when you hear it running during the final scenes of The Social Network as Mark Zuckerberg sits in a vacant conference room refreshing his own brainchild for the approval of but one person – summing up almost everything the song probably tried to say.
“Keep all your money in a big brown bag, inside a zoo.”
I got the chance to sit down and cover this song a few weeks ago at a music camp. We had exactly two days to get the song down, and we did.
Like almost any either Beatles track, you know when you listen to it that Lennon could be singing in any key, but he’s going to stick around C. He does pretty much the same thing here as well – sing in the G myxolydian scale. Add a couple of notes and what do you get? C major. Yep.
Now that’s obvious more than anything right after first listen, especially with cool clavoline effects ad-libbing in the scale every now and then. So when I sat down to work on the song, I listened to it once and played it with the easiest possible chords in the world. They were the two chords I had learnt at the very beginning of my guitar training, which I have also already run you through in the blog. Yes, G and C. Oh, that’s right. The Beatles had made a two-chord song again – or so I was mistaken.
The Chords and Structure
“It’s deceptively simple.”
That phrase was repeated a million times over the course of getting to cover it over those two days. In the midst of other activities in the camp, it took all night with a pair of bad earphones to get a hang of what was happening.
Initial observations included certain additional notes on the piano, which were definitely in the same family, but added a new flavor. I scoured all over YouTube, but none of them went beyond the regular C and G triad shapes. But I have to admit, most of them, in the process of simplifying their playing, also made the track seem much more flat and hollow.
Besides, despite being just a verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus song, the Baby You’re a Rich Man has gone much beyond the repetitive pop structure. This is very clear from the structure of each verse, which in itself, follows an ABB pattern with mild (almost indiscernible) harmonic variations between the two iterations of the B.
With a great deal of help from the bassist, who was also the mentor for our little ensemble, we discovered that these harmonic flavors inside a seemingly happy and gay Beatles songs were in fact mild accentuations – suspended fourths, and sevenths. Taking a second look at the chord shapes, you might see that neither is substantially complicated than the general chord on a piano (it’s just one additional note in each case) and marginally difficult on a guitar if one isn’t familiar.
But it didn’t stop there. John does not play these new chords just at random; he chooses strategic points in the melody to throw them, adding a multitude of ways to move the existing vocal harmonies. And then, with a buzzkill that you won’t mind, McCartney kicks in on the chorus, and sings pretty much just one note.
In the midst of the chorus, the song jumps ship and grabs two notes out of the blue. This is on the bass, by the way. I’m not going to get into the details, but it would never occur in general, to check for a strange chord change, bang in the middle of a melodic hook. But there it was.
Not every chord is complete here. Firstly, not all the instruments are playing all the time. But you know what? The song is – but of course with the use of technology in multiple ways. Both Lennon and McCartney added their own bits and pieces on the piano and got them overdubbed, besides each of them double-tracking vocals. So, needless to say, there is hell a lot of harmonic movement going on. One doesn’t just see it in plain view.
Besides, it is also amazing to see the piano and bass splitting notes among themselves, with the bass note often not being the root of the chords they played. Again, these inversions, I’m sure, were pre-determined, and were probably crucial to the core of The Beatle’s song writing style.
This discovery hit hard on the importance of playing the right roles in a band and not occupying each other’s sonic space while playing. Each left the right notes to the other, hence weaving a complex chord patterns that would fall flat if even one of the instruments were taken away. This is probably the biggest musical discovery that I’d had in the past few years.
After a couple of evenings spent on rehearsals, we took on to the next big step that we had planned out – to make the song our own. This, we had done by intending to fuse Indian elements into the outro of the song. This became much longer than expected and the end result had just a third of its length containing the original song!
We had decided to make a little detour from the song during this section, and looked around for the perfect way to do it – something that was right there in front of us, basking in the glory of its catchy chorus. The chromatic Bb-B-C progression in the chorus ended up serving as a transition into a new realm of chords, extending into the Gminor scale (as opposed to rest of the song being in Gmajor). To this was added an Indian percussion as well as vocal improvisations in the key.
I, being the Radiohead fan that I am, took over creating spacy sounds with mere manipulation of the volume knob on the guitar in combination with the right kind of chords – extensions of Gminor7 and Fmajor7. We then pulled this back into a hypnotic chant of a part of the chorus, the line I think is quite the core of the song before ending it.
So we got the track down with all the transitions, twists and turns. That night we played it amongst friends and others attending the camp. You can watch it here. Would love your comments on it!
In all, I’ve learnt quite a few big lessons in music. I’m not going to write them out explicitly here, because it takes experience to get a hang of these. However, I shall list down some crazy concepts I’d had trouble wrapping my head around, and understood them here:
- Scales – of course. Though I can play them with relative ease, I usually get trapped into one of them. Here I learnt some strategic points, or exits to get in and out of scales
- Chord Inversions – Take the root note off the bass and put it somewhere high. The chord sounds different and gives a whole new vibe.
- Suspended chords and their contribution in creating ambient sonic spaces. Enough said. Read up if you’re even remotely interested in that.
- (Probably the most crucial of them all) How to dissect a song and learn it.
There is so much more that I have learnt and discovered, both about myself as well as the world of music while working on just this one song, besides the fact that The Beatles are among the greatest songwriters for a reason.
Before I close, I would like to confess that this gives me a great idea to pick up a song every now and then, dissect it and probably blog it along with a cover. But I’m not promising anything, especially with my current busy state in life, where in I’ve taken a giant U-turn from my plans as of last year.
Regardless, you will keep hearing me rambling about music and the other usual stuff.
That’s all for now.