Why Don’t We Do IT in the Road

<-Don’t Pass Me By – I Will->

Ian McDonald, in “Revolution in the Head”, describes “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” as a “minor relic of its long gone let-it-all-hang-out era”. Judged by the standards of our own time, the lyric is still blunt, confronting and leaves little room for ambiguity as to what “it” is.

All the songs on the White Album gain extra significance from their context in the overall sequence of songs. “Why Don’t We” probably gains most. Taken out of context, the song is a basic 12 bar blues in D. Normally Lennon and/or McCartney songs that use the 12 bar format (and they generally steered clear of it) will vary the basic chords in an interesting and subtle way. “Day Tripper” is a good example where the chords move from one to four in the usual manner:

Chord 1: Got a good reason
For taking the easy way out
Chord 4: Got a good reason
Chord 1: For taking the easy way out

So far so normal, but the chord on “(She was a) Day – – – Tripper” is a Major chord on the second step of the scale, so a chord in a new key and the beginning of a whole row of modulating chords that take you on a little journey to get you back home for the second verse, a feature that made listening to Beatles songs so exciting and fascinating.

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I follow a site called @darkmusictheory on my twitter feed. It consists of mostly young people saying “music theory is so boring I want to kill myself”. The predominating background idea is that if they understand music theory , they will then understand music and will become brilliant musicians. What could be more logical? Of course, music theory is just like learning the grammatical rules of any language. One can study French Grammar but it doesn’t mean you will be able to write like Proust, or even like a French blogger. One person wrote, “Music theory is so boring. But it is essential.” I wrote back, “Music Theory is useful, but not essential. Having a good ear is essential.” This remark generated a resounding silence…

I mention this because when I heard Beatles songs as I was growing up I had no idea about Music Theory (and of course neither did they) but I did hear that their music sounded unlike any other with a radiant, unpredictable quality that meant I never tired of listening to it. I now have a working knowledge of music theory and I find it fascinating to apply it to their work to see what is going on in the engine room so to speak, but I fortunately don’t know enough to let it interfere with my love of the music.

From a theoretical point of view, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” is as basic as you can get. An unadorned 12-bar Blues such as any bar band might play. The feature that is unusual and that strikes everyone when they first hear it is the sound of McCartney’s vocal. Having got used to him as “the cute one”, suddenly he is sounding like some crazy axeman from the backwoods. As we have observed on previous songs, he is always “in character” on The White Album, each one carefully defined. Even when he sings “Blackbird”, which is perhaps most true to his public persona, he seems to be playing an “intimate folk-rock performer”, rather than being truly himself. In “Why Don’t We” he is raucous, alpha male, Jerry Lee’s slightly less crazy cousin and like we have never heard him before.

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The story is that “Why Don’t We” was one of the last tracks to be recorded for “The Beatles” on 9th/10th October 1968. John and George were working in the cavernous Studio 2 so Paul took over intimate Studio 1and recorded the song, multi-tracking himself playing all the instruments, much as he would do on his first solo album. Indeed this song would work well on that home-grown solo record. Ringo played drums, just bass drum,snare and cymbal with no hihats. The minimalism of the drums is mirrored in the restricted piano part and the slightly out of tune electric guitar, the repetitive lyric and the sense that it is all over before it’s begun. Indeed the main function of this song is to be a developed segué, much like “Wild Honey Pie”, rather than a fully realised song. It therefore functions brilliantly in the sequence of songs on Side 2 releasing the tension that builds up in, with all due respect to Ringo, the tedium of “Don’t Pass Me By”, and then works as a foil to the naive insouciance of “I Will” where McCartney sits centre stage playing yet another carefully crafted role, one in complete contrast to the slightly scary persona we meet here.

One could see this song as Conceptual Art, as Ian McDonald suggests, the sort of thing that John was encountering and finding so liberating with Yoko. The story that, twelve years later, he still resented not being asked to play on it is credible. There is an interesting paradox that for Paul, The White Album was very much a conceptual art project, an early example of Post Modernism, with him writing and performing songs in a bewildering range of styles. For John, who was in the process of releasing himself from being a “Beatle” through his relationship with Yoko, who really understood Conceptual Art, it was a journey of intimate self discovery. The rivalry between John and Paul was probably never more intense than it was on this album. Indeed it had become a polarity, yet they still needed each other to make the creative leaps into the unknown that had propelled their career from the beginning. The sense of the White Album as their greatest achievement is largely down to this polarity between them and, with no one to guide them, the unfiltered self-expression that it allowed.

Jack Hues: 18th October 2018

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