Polythene Pam

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Cover versions and notes on "Polythene Pam".

Provenance
Written By: 
Lennon/McCartney
Year: 
1969
Primary Recording
By: 
The Beatles
On: 
Abbey Road
Lead Vocal: 
John Lennon
Cover Versions
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Image of Polythene Pam / Greasy Spine
Manufacturer: Merge Records
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Alan W. Pollack's "Notes On"

Notes on "Polythene Pam" (PP)

KEY     E Major

METER   4/4

FORM    Intro -> Verse -> Intro -> Verse -> Intro -> Outro -> (segue al subito)

GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST


Style and Form

- "Polythene Pam" (PP) maintains a relationship with its preceding (literal) brother track uncannily balanced between the forces of unity and contrast.

- The two songs are musical portraits of individuals who are blood-related but otherwise very different personality types, not to mention separate genders.

- Both songs are relatively abbreviated in terms of both form and duration. By the same token, the two of them are sequenced to create a single, unbroken and quite powerful one-two wind up punch of a lead into "... Bathroom Window".

 


Melody and Harmony

- The tune is pattering again, perhaps even more so than in MMM. Like the latter, this one provides melodic contour, such as it minimally exists, by transposing its simple downward motifs up or down the scale. In particular note the chromatic upward crawl in the 3rd phrase.

- The two songs manifest an harmonic unity of both home key and, with one exception, the same set of chords. G Major is the one chord that appears in only PP. Its more obvious label would be flat III though I believe one hears it, in this case, as making a delayed V->I like resolution to the C Major chord a measure later.

- The two songs contrast most sharply in their harmonic teliology. MMM a starts from I and opens out to V, cycling always right back to I. PP never starts on I but always converges inexorably upon it.

- Similarly the two songs handle the V chord very differently. MMM allows V to serve its traditional role of full cadence maker. PP relegates V to a supporting role (where it resolves deceptively) to flat VI; relying instead on flat VII to make cadences, either directly or by way of the double plagal chord progression.

 


Arrangement

- The PP backing track alternates between a wall of sound similar to, or compatible with that of MMM , but it provides some welcome relief using different instrumentation and stereo imaging for the recurring Intro section, and a generally higher quotient of airtime given to instrumental music minus singing. Note the special lightness added by the appearance of acoustic guitar and even the smallest amount of silence surrounding some of the chords.

- John does the lead vocal double tracked. Scat backing vocals in parallel thirds join in the third measure and stay the rest of the way through the verse.

- The two songs have contrasting backbeats, a side effect of their handling syncopation differently. MMM leaves you with the musical aftertaste of a marching cakewalk in spite of its ocassionally placing hard syncopations on the eighth note before the downbeat. PP creates a more swinging aura without as much syncopation, relying on its faster tempo, and the widespread use of the rhythmic motif that emphasizes the last three eighth notes in the first half of a 4/4 measure; what I jokingly refer to as the Beethoven 5th gambit. The only other place I can recall that motif showing up in a Beatles song, by the way, is the abandoned early version of OA909 from March '63.

SECTION-BY-SECTION WALKTHROUGH


Intro

- Lest there be any lingering doubt about it, the final D Major chord of MMM (and which could have just as easily been the first chord of PP) is found at the end of the album, just before "Her Majesty" kicks in.

- The actual splice that ties MMM and PP together is pretty darn smooth in any event, though it places that opening D Major chord (along with the other two chords in the introductory double plagal cadence) of an pedal point of E in the bass:

        ------------------------------ 2X -------------------------------
         1       2      3        4       1   &   2   &   3       4
rhythm: |Bom!           Bom!            |    Ba, Ba, Ba, Bom!           |

bass:   |E              E               |E                              |
chords: |D              A               |E                              |

E:       flat VII       IV               I

- This instrumental section alternates with two verse sections, thus appearing virtually unchanged three times over, and providing the musical basis for the extended instrumental outro.

 


Verse

- The verse is an unusual 10 measures long that you parse as a quatrain plus additional spacer phrase; AABA' + spacer. The latter stands in formal counterpoint with a tiling of musical phrases running AABCC:

        ------------------------------ 2X -------------------------------
        |D              A               |E                              |
         flat VII       IV               I

        |G                              |B                              |
         V-of-flat VI                    V

        ------------------------------ 2X -------------------------------
        |C              D               |E                              |
         flat VI        flat VII         I

- Similarly, the change of harmonic rhythm for just the middle phrase, combined with the extent to which both outer phrases converge toward I via flat VII but by different routes, creates an harmonic structure of AABA'A'.

- I'm left wondering here if the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" lyrics for the spacer phrase are an ironic tip of the hat to "She Loves You" or by this point in time just a lazy habit.

 


Outro

The outro is relatively long, accounting for as much as ~40% of the overall track length. It is 22 measures long and parses out as eight iterations of the double plagal phrase (the version with the root note of each chord in the bassline) followed by six measures of build up on just the I chord. The last four measures of the latter phrase contain a dramatic downward scale in the bassline that effectively leads right into the next track by making you hear that E Major chord pivot as V of the key of A.

  1      2      3      4      5      6      7      8      1  2  3  4  5  6
 |DA|E  DA|E  DA|E  DA|E  DA|E  DA|E  DA|E  DA|E  E |E |E |E |E |E  A
                                                       bassline:E  D  C# B   I

- A lead guitar solo kicks in during iteration 2 of the double plagal phrase and continues to the downbeat of measure 3 of the plain E Major chord. This is the same point at which John says, "Listen to that now."

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

- We have an outtake of PP from the Get Back sessions done at Apple on 1/24/69 that is only one of this song known prior to the Abbey Road sessions.

- This performance is so rough and stumbling by all involved that I'm tempted to call it more a "sketch" than a rehearsal or runthrough. John and Paul in particular seem to be having a dickens of a time keeping their signals straight with respect to either words or chord changes.

- Given that the earliest outtakes of MMM we looked at last time are dated either 1/8 or 1/14 and appear in more polished shape compared to the PP performance from the 24th of the same month, I'm willing to interpret this as supporting the theory that John really didn't have Pam at all in mind yet when he earlier referred to the Mustard man's sister as Shirley.

- This kind of speculation brings to mind the an observation often repeated by Erle Stanley Gardner's fictitous detective/lawyer, Perry Mason, with regard to circumstantial evidence. He would warn, on the one hand, about the grave danger inherent in the possible misinterpretation of such evidence. But he'd hasten to reiterate, just as quickly, that such evidence is often the best, if not only, evidence we have to go on; and that's regardless of whether you're a laywer, detective, or musicologist who follows the Beatles.

Regards,

Alan (awp@world.std.com)

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"Eh, look at that talent."                                   123199#187

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                Copyright (c) 1999 by Alan W. Pollack
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