The Brilliance of John Lennon

Implied Key Changes in Chord Progressions

One of my favourite songwriting references is John Stevens’ “The Songs of John Lennon: The Beatles Years”, not only for its tracing of Lennon’s development as a songwriter but for its breadth of discussion in analysing the elements that make up a “song” as we know it in the pop and rock idioms. This is also in spite of Stevens taking liberty in attributing some ideas to Lennon that could well have been McCartney’s, a liberty that doesn’t sit well with me; and, shall we say, some florid descriptions of Lennon’s achievements within the song analyses. To an extent, it’s understandable: Lennon had an extraordinary talent that was also highly developed, on the evidence of his output with the Beatles alone. But I think that if his work is understood fully, its quality stands on its own merits; exclamations of genius deny insight, and hence have no place in an academic study. I have a similar problem with Bernstein’s recorded essay on Beethoven’s Eroica: When Bernstein claims that the symphony’s emerging ideas, no matter how surprising, appear to be the only thing that could have happened at that moment, he is speaking to Beethoven’s ability to weigh the strength of an idea – and this ability is a creative “muscle”, one that Beethoven had developed to Olympian proportions. It is the practice of refining ideas, pitting the creator against the critic, that develops this faculty: a practice I am certain Lennon also employed with frequency.

Two of the songs Stevens chose to focus on in his book are “Day Tripper” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. In “Strawberry Fields Forever” Stevens looks at the harmonic phrasing of the chorus and concludes that it starts in A mixolydian and finishes in A major, with an “exhilarating” F#7 providing a fantasy element. I wasn’t satisfied with that. In particular the F#7 includes A#, the flattened supertonic – a radical note to include, and one that the vocal melody travels to. What the hell is going on here? Is this just a clever substitution, or something else?

I started looking at the preceding and following chords to see if there was a contextual relationship:

Em7 – F#7 – D – F#7

Where would you get a D major and an F#7? B harmonic minor.

What is A mixolydian’s home key? D major.

What is D major’s relative minor key? B harmonic minor.

It fits.

Stevens also mentions that in the repeats the F#7 is reharmonised to C#dim7, and he’s missed the boat: if he had referred to it as an A#dim7, perhaps the clue would have been more obvious.

Here’s B harmonic minor’s harmonised chords:

Bm – C#m7b5 – D+ – Em  – F# – G – A#dim

With D major and F# dominant 7 usually substituted for their harmonic counterparts.

Lennon has used the D major as a “pivot chord” to move into the song’s relative minor, and again through the D major back to the mixolydian root. What is so clever about it is that the key of B minor is implied without its root ever being stated.

There are possibilities exposed by this device that here are only scratching the surface – but it takes an ambitious composer, one who is not solely chasing the “muse” of melody, to pursue it.

In “Day Tripper” Stevens looks at the harmonic phrasing of the chorus, throws several theories at it, none of which are conclusive, and leaves the matter up in the air. In addition, he analyses the verse independently and concludes that its form most closely resembles ABAC. My immediate impression of the function of the verse is as the first eight bars of a 12-bar blues form, and it was (and is) a popular songwriting trick to take a 12-bar form and mutate it, particularly at the V section of I-I-IV-I-V-I. Steely Dan’s “Bodhisattva” provides another example. But this isn’t the punchline.

Have a look at the chords in the chorus:

F#7 – F#7 – F#7 – F#7 – A7 – G#7 – C#7 – B7

This progression doesn’t occur naturally in any common scale – it’s reharmonised. Specifically, reharmonisation with dominant sevenths is a popular jazz and blues technique. So if we strip it down to the root notes to see what it looked like before it was reharmonised, we get:

F# – F# – F# – F# – A – G# – C# – B

“Day Tripper” starts in E, and these all fit in E major. To reharmonise them within E major, we get:

F#m – F#m – F#m – F#m – A – G#m – C#m – B

However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. What did we learn from “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Lennon toyed with a key change to the song’s relative minor. What if he had done this here also?

F#m – F#m – F#m – F#m – A – G#7 – C#m – B

The A major to G#7 is certainly a chord change that would be commonly found in C# minor. Lennon teases us with this change while the rest of the progression is masked with dominant seventh reharmonisations. In the end, it’s not the greatest chord progression in the world, at least not in this context. But what it shows us suggests that Lennon’s mind was at work in employing complex devices, sometimes several at once.

Reinforcing the C# key centre is the fact that the primary melody for the chorus vocal is constructed from the C# blues scale (C# E F# G G# B):

(B) She – (C#) was – (B) a – (G) day ( – F# – E – F#) – (E) trip – (F#) per

(G#) One – (F#) way – (E) tick – (F#) et – (C#) yeah

A point also missed in the text.

In a way, I envy the baby boomer generation. Classical, jazz, blues, R&B, tin pan alley, theatre, and folk were all part of the popular psyche, each with a rich history and evolution, and mostly available at the turn of a radio dial. There was a quality to the craft of each of these musical worlds that beggars most of what passes for popular music today. It might be easier to discover ideas in the internet age but it is a lot more work finding the good ideas than it used to be.

There are some clever ideas in Lennon’s writing. I’m convinced that this is one of the great ones.

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