This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of “Revolver,” the greatest album by The Beatles, the greatest band of the modern era. Its best song, “For No One,” the best composition by this era’s best songwriter, Paul McCartney, is a 122-second triumph.
It starts suddenly. No instrumental introduction to get the ear ready for the melody or the mind ready for the lyrics. We awake in a flash: “Your day breaks / Your mind aches.”
It’s a not uncommon trick, this jarring start; perfect for when the writer wants to set a tone from the jump. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong uses it to establish the punk twitchiness of the melodic marvel “Basket Case.” Squeeze uses it to foreshadow the climactic theme of “Pulling Muscles (From the Shell).” Like McCartney, Kesha (!) uses it in “TiK ToK” to start the day (“Wake up in the morning / Feelin’ like P-Diddy”)&dmash;though, admittedly, to tell about a very different kind of day.
What sets “For No One” apart, though, is the sudden sorrow. The Beatles used a similar approach in Lennon’s superb “Help!” The instant exclamation “Help / I need somebody” not only distinguishes the song from the band’s first wave of amorous hits (“From Me to You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You”), it also presages two of the most desperate minutes in the band’s catalogue.
An Unusual Use of Sunshine for The Beatles
“For No One” is also unlike The Beatles’ other uses of daybreak. McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine” is cloying cheer; George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” is optimism post-hibernation; John Lennon’s “Good Morning Good Morning” is an ironic paean to suburban living. In “For No One,” morning greets grief.
Paul will never stand accused of being a great lyricist. When he tried to be profound, he was simply dreadful—the infamous “in which we live in;” the entirety of “Freedom.” But when his words were direct and sincere, he could be compelling, and his preternatural gift for music and melody could shine. The best examples are “Yesterday” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
In the former, the most covered song of all time, he fashioned an interesting harmonic structure and forlorn lyrics around a melody he, one day, apparently woke up humming. But even here, his lyrical demons lurked: he almost named the song “Scrambled Eggs.” In the latter, the verse combines the unimaginative but fertile I-vi-IV-V chord progression, the simplest four-note melody, and love-at-first-sight emoting. Remove the song’s unnecessary prelude, and you’re left with two minutes of ear-and-heart-candy extract.
Its Two Extraordinary Musical Elements
“For No One,” which recounts 24 hours of enduring love devolving into disinterest, has all the lyrical sentiment you can handle. But two extraordinary musical elements make it incomparable. It’s why even Bob Dylan would say, “I’m in awe of McCartney.”
The verse is built on a straightforward descending bass line. It’s a common pattern that can be heard in Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” Pachelbel’s Canon, and much more. Traditionally, the progression leads to the V (the G in the key of C), so it can nicely resolve back to the I.
That’s what your ear wants to hear; that’s what it’s heard a thousand times before. But in McCartney’s hands, it goes to B flat instead. It isn’t particularly harsh (it briefly sounds like the song may’ve moved to the key of F), and the resolution to C still comes next. But for that moment, in every verse, you’re reminded that something is wrong.
Expertly—astonishingly—McCartney couples this harmonic dissonance with lyrical dissonance in each instance. That is, the first lines of every verse (when the music is proceeding as our ear expects) set the stage. They are mostly emotionally neutral (“She wakes up / She makes up; She says that long ago she knew someone”). But the words leading up to then landing on the unexpected B flat, well, those bring the hammer: “Doesn’t feel she has to hurry / When she said her love is dead / Now he’s gone, she doesn’t need him.”
This is how songwriting distinguishes itself from poetry: when the music previews or belies, mutes or accentuates, or disturbs or resolves what is said. It is why, in U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” after nearly two minutes of crescendoing introduction and a bass that puts you on edge by inexplicably falling a full step below where your ear expects, the only line Bono could possibly belt out is: “I want to run / I want to hide.” It’s why, after verses of standard 12-bar blues, the unanticipated stop-time bridge of B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get” whips the crowd into a frenzy with the final couplet, “I gave you seven children / And now you want to give them back.”
So Far, No One Has Topped It
But the pièce de résistance of “For No One” comes at the 1:28 mark. Prior to the second chorus, the song, already oddly baroque with its use of a clavichord, breaks for a short French-horn solo. It’s beautiful in its own right. It doesn’t mimic the melody in any way; instead, it introduces a new one. The song then moves ahead to the second chorus and then the final verse.
In the second half of that final verse, however, the French horn returns, replaying the solo note-for-note. Amazingly, McCartney sings his melody simultaneously. For nine jaw-dropping seconds, it turns from Beatles into Bach: a clavichord, French horn, and two melodies in counterpoint. It’s as though McCartney, half-embarrassed for using a run-of-the-mill descending bass line for the spine of the song, apologizes with a mini symphony.
It is striking how seldom “For No One” has been covered, even on collections of Beatles covers. Its McCartney counterparts “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (here and here) and “Yesterday” (see here and here) have become part of the musical lexicon. When artists have tried to replicate “For No One” (e.g. Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris), they get the words right, but not much else. Like the young men of The Ataris recently trying to sing the middle-age regrets in Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” entirely too much is lost in translation.
It’s a testament to McCartney, The Beatles, “Revolver,” and “For No One” that, half a century later, they’re still our musical lingua franca.