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Riddle Me When? Something.

Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Earlier in the week we posted a musical riddle by Thompson and below he explains the answer.  Check out Thompson’s other riddles here.

Riddle me when, riddle me why; can you name the song this time?
Ole blue eyes thought this was the best, even if he named the rest.
More than nothing, a quiet plateau; some friendly help, a bass concerto.
Sthā’ī-antarā gat nahi; an unknown answer to a desperate plea.

Forty years ago, the Beatles were in the process of disintegrating: John Lennon and George Harrison were 9780195333183-2performing separately from the band and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would individually begin recording material for independent release. In the past, a separate but equally new single would shortly follow a new Beatles album. The first time they had done this had established the pattern: “From Me to You” (11 April 1963) came slightly less than three weeks after their first album, Please Please Me (22 March 1963), with both reaching the top of British charts in early May.

On 26 September 1969 (and on 1 October in the US), the Beatles had released the last LP they would record together, Abbey Road (see last month’s riddle). Returning to the studio to record a separate single presented an unlikely scenario: the fab four no longer functioned as a unified entity. Consequently, on 31 October 1969 (and on 6 October in the US), Apple released George Harrison’s “Something,” with John Lennon’s “Come Together” on the flip side of the 45 rpm disk. The recordings had already appeared on Abbey Road and the choice of these two songs suggested at least a partial symbolic ostracizing of Paul McCartney, the odd-man-out in the internal group negotiations.

Ole blue eyes thought this was the best, even if he named the rest.

George Harrison in the Beatles Anthology video seems to relish the ironic humor of Frank Sinatra (ole blue eyes) declaring “Something” to be his favorite Lennon-McCartney song. After years of laboring in the shadows of two of the most successful songwriters of the sixties (if not the century), George Harrison had grown into a consummate songwriter who saw his material routinely rejected by his band mates. These rejections meant more than simple social dismissal: a song on a Beatles album meant substantial income from royalties. While Lennon and McCartney held a substantial share in their publishing entity Northern Songs (a company their manager Allen Klein would soon let escape from their grasp), Harrison had recently established Harrisongs to handle the royalties accumulating from his material. “Something” would be one of the most substantial contributors to the coffers of that company.

More than nothing, a quiet plateau; some friendly help, a bass concerto.

“Something” (definitely more than nothing) began an era (a plateau?) of successful songs by the “quiet one” (as press coverage had characterized George Harrison). Songs like “My Sweet Lord,” “Wah Wah,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” and “All Things Must Pass,” which appeared on his first post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass, displayed a songwriter-producer-musician of substantial talent. They also revealed a musician who had discovered the art cooperative and communal creation. As he had initially with the Beatles and would later with the Traveling Wilburys, Harrison had learned how to let other musicians graciously and generously contribute to his recordings. In the case of “Something,” Paul McCartney’s spectacular bass playing compliments Harrison’s singing and guitar playing such that it almost takes the center of the listening experience, much the way a concerto is meant to contrast a soloist with the rest of the ensemble.

Sthā’ī-antarā gat nahi; an unknown answer to a desperate plea.

Although Harrison had first tried his hand at pop imitations (e.g., “Don’t Bother Me”), he made his mark as a songwriter-composer with his explorations of Indian music. His sitar contribution to “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” demonstrated his interest in the textures he had heard percolating in London in 1965. “Love You To” on Revolver showed he had the ability to merge the basic ideas of the South Asian tradition into a pop format. However, after studying in India with Ravi Shankar, his contribution to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Within You without You,” revealed a masterful combination of the Hindustani tradition and British pop. Taking the core instrumental idiom that North Indian classical musicians call “gat” (consisting of contrasting sections they identify as sthā’ī and antarā), he wove them together to produce perhaps the best representation of mid-sixties Indian-western musical fusion.

However, in the post-Sgt. Pepper world, he had found his own voice (e.g., “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and, in “Something,” Harrison’s musical sophistication shone brighter than it ever had previously. In Hindi, “nahi” negates what has just come previously. Not only did he forgo use of the sthā’ī-antarā gat form, he adopted a new style of musical composition built on what he had written in the past, but that had evolved into something new.

Part of the song’s charm lies in its internal contrasts. Where the verse finds the singer obsessed with the beloved (“Something in the way she moves…”), the chorus surprisingly questions the very nature of the attraction. In response to a question that the author perhaps asks of himself (“Will your love grow?”), he responds with an expression of ignorance: he does not know the answer, a strange acknowledgement for someone who otherwise finds himself transfixed by the beauty of his lover.

Recent Comments

  1. Gordon Thompson

    Congratulations to the correct guesses. I obviously made this one too easy. Next time, I will make it more challenging. :-)

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