Frank Zappa once commented on the difference timbre makes to any melody, citing the notion of trying to play ‘Purple Haze’ on bagpipes (don’t try it — even thinking about it is bad enough). So if you take the same musical pattern and transform it with the timbres appropriate to any particular kind of music you get something very different. And very similar tunes can be disguised by very alien timbres and treatments.
Many tunes share the same rhythmic pattern even though you wouldn’t guess it when they arrive fully dressed.
I love the Band/Dylan ‘Endless Highway’ in the version on the Before the Flood album and I often find the tune of the opening lines running through my head: “Take a silver dollar, put it in your pocket / Never let it slip away”.
The tune this reminded me of was, absurdly, Perry Commo’s ‘Catch a Falling Star’:” Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket / Never let it fade away”.
Although the lyrics are similar, It was the rhythmic pattern that alerted me.
Babababa bah ba babababa bah ba babababa bah ba ba
The same pattern appears in Paul McCartney’s ‘Get Back’. There is another connection between ‘Get Back and ‘Endless Highway’, of which more later. The Perry Como seems ridiculously remote from both of these but reduce the tune to the rhythmic pattern and all three there are almost the same. This pattern seems as universal a rhythmic pattern as the playground chant Nah nah ni nah nah.
With Zappa in mind it’s obvious that ‘Get Back’ and ‘Catch a Falling Star’ have different timbres — ‘Get Back’ being a kind of retro soul, like McCartney’s earlier ‘Got to Get You Into My life’. It’s driven by a classic boogie vamp and with power chord capping at the turnaround after each verse.
The difference between them as total pieces of music is more than timbre. ‘Get Back’ and ‘Endless Highway’ are similar in this respect, being hard-driving R‘nB. The Como is an anodyne nursery rhyme tune with a banal diatonic, white-notes-on-the-piano pattern. ‘Catch a Falling Star’ starts on the 3rd note of the C scale E and it’s harmonised throughout purely with the standard C, F and G7 chords. It sounds like tinkly music box music. ‘Get Back’ by comparison starts on the 5th note G (sticking to the C scale) and uses the bluesy flattened 7th, Bb, in the melody. Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head points out that it uses fewer chords than any Beatles song since ‘Love Me Do’. ‘Endless Highway’, appropriately, has a revolving chord pattern, and like much rock music it isn’t really diatonic at all, eschewing the major key harmonic pivots and using block major chords instead. In the key of A the opening chords have an upward movement: G, D, A, E with a turnaround between verses of a passing F# to start the cycle on G again.
Could you turn ‘Catch a Falling Star’ into a country rock song just by getting the Band to play it? Would timbre be enough? Not quite; you also need to break the diatonic tyranny.
The wider musical story around ‘Endless Highway’ begins In 1968. Bob Dylan backing band, the Band, who’d been playing with Dylan since he went electric in 1966, released their first solo album, Music from Big Pink. At a time when psychedelia was becoming overblown and tired, the raw country rock galvanised rock’s aristocracy. Eric Clapton later said:
“The Band had a great effect on me. I’d never really liked country music. I always thought it was over sentimental. This is when I was into being very aggressive and playing just straight blues. Country music was just sloppy. But the Band bridged the gap. The Byrds got there quite early. But the Band gave it a bite that country music just didn’t seem to have before.”
The Beatles felt the same. The psychedelia of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’ was replaced by a more straightforward hard guitar sound: “No trickery”, said Lennon to George Martin. They jammed on ‘The Weight’, the key track from Music from Big Pink, and when they performed ‘Hey Jude’ on the David Frost Show McCartney added “take a load off fanny” in the fade out of the song.
Get Back became a signposts for musical direction. George Harrison, who later was to form the Travelling Wilburys with Dylan and Roy Orbison, was particularly keen. He wrote ‘Sour Milk Sea’ for the Liverpool singer Jackie Lomax. With Clapton on lead, ‘Sour Milk Sea’ was another back to roots anthem.
Get out of the sour milk sea
You don’t belong there
Get back to where you should be
Find out what’s going on there
Besides the released Lomax version there is a very rough Beatles demo of the track with Clapton on lead available on YouTube.
The cultural history and ramifications of the Get Back movement that began with Music from Big Pink belong to the that area of music that lies beyond timbre: deep genre, the Zeitgeist and musicians imitating, challenging, learning new tricks.
But, strip away all that, and you come to the startling similarity in formal terms of rhythmic and patterns that cut right across the conventional way in which we assign pieces of music to one category or another.