Geek Odyssey – Parts I and II

1. You may be thinking, hey, with this new 2-disc anthology of Bowie’s Deram years, I can get rid of that Deram Anthology that came out in 1997 (the 27-track version). First, if you are thinking of getting that 2-disc version, and you cannot find it at a friendly local record store, do not order it from US Amazon – it costs $26.99 there, whereas you can order it from British for 8.95 British pounds…even with the shipping, that’s still less. (Note: also has much better service: I ordered this Bowie collection from them the same day as two items from the US store: the Bowie album arrived today, and I’m still waiting on the order.)

Anyway, not so fast. The track listings might make you believe everything on the ’97 is on the new edition (confusingly retitled David Bowie…just like the release known in the US as Space Oddity was also retitled David Bowie: I know the original releases were both self-titled, but that’s bound to cause a bit of confusion – might if we just refer to both albums as “Bruce”?) but that’s not quite the case. First, you may have missed that the “original version” of “Space Oddity” on the ’97 anthology is not the same version as any that appear on the reissued no-longer-eponymous album. The version of “Ching-a-Ling” on the ’97 anthology is a different recording as well…and the alternate version of “When I Live My Dream” (track 26 on the ’97 anthology) is a radically different mix from any version on the new reissue. (The entire anthology is remixed, and in a few cases the sonic character is audibly different…but that’s the most dramatic case.)

So that 1997 anthology still has its uses. What should have happened (and maybe this is the long-term plan) is that since those songs are all from the Love You Till Tuesday soundtrack to an early, Kenneth Pitt promo film, perhaps that will see its own release someday…

2. This one’s been circulating around for a bit, but…a year or so ago a mathematician used a Fourier Transform (ask your mama, the math genius) on a digital recording of the famous opening chord of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” to try to solve the “mystery” of what notes are in the chord.

He comes up with some rather preposterous notions of what was played. First, the obvious facts, known for years: George Harrison’s playing an electric 12-string guitar, Lennon’s playing a 6-string acoustic (barely audible), McCartney’s playing a bass, and (whoa…super-secret mystery revealed!) George Martin chips in with a chord on the piano. The ridiculousness of Professor Brown’s approach is chiefly that rather than thinking about what he’s hearing both musically (what notes are likely to have been played?) and in terms of the actual instruments used, he uses his computer-generated results to construct a table of “notes” that he assumes were actually played. One problem with the second assumption is that he assigns those notes to instruments nearly at random (judging from the bizarre parts he assigns to Harrison, Lennon, and Martin). Another is that instruments, tuned perhaps not exactly to pitch, played together, particularly when electrically amplified, generate and emphasize overtones and harmonics that are not actually played. So the piano chord that Brown has Martin playing (you can see it in the .pdf file linked from the Wired article) is not something that a trained musician like Martin would have played in a million years, given the basic harmonic outlines of the chord Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney define collectively.

Brown has Martin playing a crazy-school chord consisting of the same D McCartney plays on his bass, the F a minor third above it…and then D two octaves above the bass note, along with a G one fourth above that, and an E (?!?) a major 6th above that. If those higher notes are present on the recording at all (the computer analysis “hears” them), they’re almost certainly harmonic artifacts of the rest of the notes actually played…not anything Martin would play on the piano. Further loony-tunes reasoning by Brown has John Lennon adding a single C, an octave above middle C: why the hell would he have done that? It makes far better sense to characterize that pitch (which I don’t actually hear) as an overtone from the three middle Cs being sounded by two of George’s twelve strings and one of Lennon’s six (the F-A-C-G chord I described at the top).

Harrison said for years that all he was doing, and all Lennon was doing, was to play an F chord on the bottom four strings with a G (two frets up) in place of the usual F (on the first fret) – and indeed, that’s what it sounds like to me, and evidence from videos of live performances suggest that that is exactly what was played. McCartney plays a D of the same pitch as an open D string, which is one key to the distinctive sound of the chord.

If you’ve been following along, we have an interesting hybrid chord. The guitarists began in F, but adding the G introduces some uncertainty. By playing a D, McCartney mixes things up further. We might say we have a Dm7 with an added 4th (or 11th), or it might be a G11 with D in the bass. Furthermore: the D in the bass and the G on top begin to suggest a chord built not from thirds but from fourths…and in fact, the C is the note one fourth above that G (transposed down an octave, to a fifth lower than the G), and the A is the note one fourth below the low D (transposed up an octave).

This article seems much more grounded in reality than Brown’s speculations…and this comment on this article relaying the Brown findings really nails it: “HandsOffMyRickenbacker” points out some salient characteristics of the Rick that Harrison played, and that the Beatles typically tuned slightly lower than A=440 (the pitch standard Brown used).

So what was George Martin playing on that piano? The article says it’s a simple three-chord note, an open-fifth G chord with a D bass. That may be…but I’m pretty sure I’m hearing the interval of a major second in the bass register on that chord. It may be an artifact…but I’m guessing Martin picked up on the “fourthness” of the combined chord the Beatles were playing…and responded with D-G-A-D (beginning in the second octave below middle C, just below the lowest note on a guitar in standard tuning). The low D is barely audible…but I’m pretty sure that’s it.



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3 responses to “Geek Odyssey – Parts I and II

  1. My sons have been playing the Beatles Rock Band game recently, and that famous opening chord is used quite a bit as players navigate from menu to menu. (My 8 year old’s favorite Beatles song is “Hey Bulldog”).

    Interesting about Amazon UK. I have been looking at the reissue of the first dEUS album. Amazon US wants $32 USD for it, but they also offer it through two UK vendors for $18 USD, with the caveat that “custom duties may be incurred”, but no explanation of same. Have you had any experience ordering that way?

  2. Yes: it’s almost invariably more expensive to order imports via US Amazon than going to the appropriate Amazon in whatever nation the item is native to. Not invariably…but if that’s, say, a German release (I know they’re Dutch, right? But I don’t think there’s a Dutch Amazon…), I’d check out the price at or whatever it is.

  3. Thanks. They be Belgian.
    Be there an

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