Listening to The Beatles

Update: The video has disappeared. Here is a link to Cry Baby Cry on Spotify.

“Cry Baby Cry” from The Beatles eponymously titled album (“the white album”) is a good track for headphones. There is a lot going on in it, not least the wonderful way the it goes cry-ahy-ahy-ahy-ahy with echo at the end of the lines in the chorus. Even in the first 10 seconds, it’s magical the way guitar on the right, voice on the left and then some gorgeous noodling synth comes in the middle. It’s worth listening just for those first 10 seconds. There are birds chirping and all sorts of things. The annoying double ending has been edited off the version above but now that it’s gone I sort of miss it.

The way the different parts come in is marvellous and it then goes through all sorts of phases. Guitar plus voice, then synth, then bass drum, cymbals all coming and going, echo, etc. Most crummy songs just start with a setup and stick with it all the way through but this, although not classical music or instruments, has a lot of musical art in it. It’s a long way from skiffle.

The progress of the arrangement is approximately:
00:00-00:05: Acoustic guitar (right) + vocal (left) simultaneous start (chorus)

The chorus is always in the left ear in a sort of sly or whispered mode; “cry baby cry, make your mother sigh, she’s old enough to know better”. Thinking about it, it’s a taunt, a childish “your mother is old” jibe.

00:05: Add synth for a few seconds (middle)

00:11: The first verse starts.
The verses are all in the middle in a slightly bolder narrative voice. They are alternating with the taunting voice in the left ear, which sometimes has added faint two-part harmony over to the right middle, perhaps a metaphor for the playground gang?

00:18: Add wowy bass line (left) for a few seconds
00:27: Add piano highlighting lyric “playing piano…”
00:30: Add heavy bass drum beat – we’re now in full flow
00:41: Add high hat cymbal beat for the first time
00:45: Classic Ringo fill (he said all his contribution was in the fills)
00:50: Start of a sinister high pitched synth sound. We’re fully underway now with all the elements coming and going. There are rhythm and lead guitar parts blended as well.

01:15: The arrival of “the Duchess of Kircaldy” seems to be accompanied by something like birdsong that ends in a burbly warble. [From comments: I think the birds chirping are there because with the queen being in the parlour and the king somewhere else, what else to expect but four and twenty blackbirds.]

The sigh-like echoing of the the cry-ih-ih-ih-y is keyed to the “make your mother sigh-igh-igh-igh” as it is a kind of sighing. It seems to increase as the song goes on.

Notice how all the time there are superb dynamic changes to where there is a quieter spell and then the heavy drum beat makes the main thrust of the song come back with great energy, with a thrashing effect almost. There is also a strange slightly harsher turn of voice at the ends of the verses, a sort of wilful insistence on the narrative that adds to the effect and enhances the dialogue between the verse narrator in the middle and the taunting chorus on the left.

01:35 We’re now getting added two-part harmony vocal in the middle, an octave higher.

And so on, and it’s only 2 minutes 34 seconds long this video. There is actually a false ending to the song and it has a coda on the LP that is not on this YouTube version. There is that sense of something missing at the end of the song. However, it could be argued that it is better this way than with the somewhat annoying “Can you take me back?” little ditty that has been edited off here.

Whoever made the video adds another layer of interest by equating Mai Pang with “the friend who came to play” though the White Album was made long before John Lennon decamped to the US. John was always worrying away at his problem childhood, so I suppose that might be a starting point for working out what the hell the lyrics are about. I know he said that they just made up nonsense but he was being a little disingenuous I think. He was not one of those totally open people like McCartney who seem to have no “side” to them, Lennon was all side and everything was said for effect, I think, rather than in service to some simplistic idea of truth. No doubt I have it all wrong but luckily it is of no more consequence than a gnat’s gnibble.

The missing coda is a wistful repetition in a different but strangely backward sounding tune of “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back? Can you take me back where I came from, brother can you take me back, can you take me back? [etc.]”

Author: Stephen Moran

I was born in Dublin and made my way to London on a bike in my mid-twenties. It’s where I can still be found though ever further out, most recently as far as Harrow. I no longer own a bicycle.

4 thoughts on “Listening to The Beatles”

  1. What an extraordinary face John Lennon has! Very sharp lines of eyes, nose, mouth, his glasses ironic in their roundness. Reminds me that my little son calls glasses 'glass-eyes' at the moment, and lenses 'lennons'.I like your analysis of the song too, reminds me how much I love the Beatles. Have you seen 'Nowhere Boy' about Lennon's upbringing?


  2. I haven't seen that but I would like to. I've seen the trailer on YouTube. His appearance changed a lot from the early days when he seemed to have a slightly oriental look.


  3. I think the birds chirping are there because with the queen being in the parlour and the king somewhere else, what else to expect but four and twenty blackbirds.


  4. You're right, it did change! His face got longer – or maybe that was the effect of his long hair. I only saw Nowhere Boy because it was one of the hundreds of films to flick through on a long flight to New Zealand. Ended up watching it about four times and it didn't pall.


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