The two Beatles songs that started pop music’s intellectual revolution
There are many reasons why pop music took centre stage during the sixties. Admittedly, one of the largest contributing factors was the increased spending power of a brand new subculture known as ‘teenagers’. With more money than ever, teenagers were the newest spenders on the market and everybody wanted their cash, it meant investment was found for those things that teens enjoyed like new attainable motor vehicles, an increase in teen-focused films and, of course, a wealth of investment in pop music. That said, the longevity of pop music was largely down to The Beatles and the intellectualisation of their art.
When the Fab Four of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr first burst onto the scene they made records and money for their label at a furious rate. But while the songs were perfect pop fodder, they didn’t really land as an authentic piece of art and were never truly seen as such. Instead, those early songs were more keenly seen as throwaway tracks for dancehalls and teen bedrooms. That would soon all change as the band began to write songs that expressed their emotions more resolutely. Many people will point to the meeting of Bob Dylan and the following album Rubber Soul but, in fact, it arrived a lot earlier with two songs ‘It Won’t Be Long’ and ‘Not A Second Time’.
Both songs were taken from the band’s follow-up record With The Beatles and displayed not only a keen sense of wordplay and musical chops but, according to one music critic at the time, the Aeolian cadence of the song. The review, titled ‘What Songs the Beatles Sang’, is largely regarded as the first time The Beatles were considered to be more than poster boys for teen girls’ rooms. Written for The Times by William Mann, the article would go on to determine the band’s path to musical maestros, transcending pop and every other genre to be solely unique and ubiquitous with the word ‘legacy’.
“‘It Won’t Be Long’ is mine. It was my attempt at writing another single,” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980. “It never quite made it. That was the one where the guy in the London Times wrote about the ‘Aeolian cadences of the chords’ – which started the whole intellectual bit about The Beatles.” In fact, Mann was writing about ‘Not A Second Time’ when he mentioned those words but there’s a lot to be said for ‘It Won’t Be Long’ and its intellectual integrity too.
Though primarily written by Lennon, his songwriting partner McCartney certainly helped and has always shared a fondness for the song thanks to their clever wordplay, “I was doing literature at school, so I was interested in plays on words and onomatopoeia,” McCartney told Barry Miles for Many Years From Now. “John didn’t do literature but he was quite well-read, so he was interested in that kind of thing. Like the double meaning of ‘please’ in a line like ‘Please, lend a little ear to my pleas’ that we used in ‘Please Please Me’. We’d spot the double meaning.
“I think everyone did, by the way, it was not just the genius of us! In ‘It won’t be long till I belong to you’ it was that same trip,” he added. “We both liked to try and get a bit of double meaning in, so that was the high spot of writing that particular song. John mainly sang it so I expect that it was his original idea but we both sat down and wrote it together.” For this reason, and because of Lennon’s assertions of the myth, ‘It Won’t Be Long’ has often been cited as the first move into their intellectual sound.
It was, however, ‘Not A Second Time’ that was actually spoken about by Mann. He wrote: “Harmonic interest is typical of their quicker songs, too, and one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of ‘Not A Second Time’ (the chord progression which ends Mahler’s Song of the Earth).” It was a passage which would see The Beatles, and pop music along with them, finally be elevated into the sphere of ‘art’, despite no member of the band really knowing what ‘Aeolian cadences’ ever were.
“I still don’t know what it means at the end,” said Lennon in Anthology. “But it made us acceptable to the intellectuals. It worked and we were flattered. I wrote ‘Not A Second Time’ and, really, it was just chords like any other chords. To me, I was writing a Smokey Robinson or something at the time.” It was as simple as that, with Lennon even joking, “To this day I don’t have any idea what they are. They sound like exotic birds.”
It’s hard to quantify to an audience in 2020 just how landmark this review was for The Beatles. Before Mann, a respected music critic more concerned with Bach than The Beatles had written his piece for the established Times, the band were just a pop group for teens. After he had written the article they walked around with a badge of commendation and the recognition of the entire music world. Things were about to get serious and the intellectual revolution of pop had begun.