Two Minutes of Perfection: The Beatles’ “For No One”

By Michael W. Harris

Back when I was teaching rock history at the University of Colorado, I used to end my lecture on the Beatles with the summation that they were the most influential band in rock history. Full stop. That every artists who was serious about writing and recording pop music, regardless of how they actually felt about the Beatles, would have to at least reckon with them and form an opinion. Love them or hate them, if you were to be a serious pop artist, you had to know the Beatles to either be influenced by them or to reject them.

However, before I ever taught that lecture, I also had to form my own opinion on the group. Sure, as any musician living in a post-Beatles world, and especially as one who grew up listening to rock of the ’60s thanks to my parents, I “knew” the Beatles. I knew the big hits from their early years, knew the weird tracks from the White Album (and would also tell you that it was actually called The Beatles when I wanted to be pretentious), and listened to Sgt. Pepper’s on a semi-regular basis. I absolutely adored Abbey Road and would sing the praises of the medley that took up side two, and was divided as to the legacy of Let It Be. But I did not truly know their entire catalog and was woefully understudied when it came to any of their pre-Sgt. Pepper’s albums. I “knew” the Beatles, but I didn’t really know the Beatles.

So, when I finally set about teaching my first semester of rock history and planned to spend a week’s worth of class time on the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I faced the fact that I had to finally sit down and listen to their complete catalog. In doing so, I stumbled upon a two-minute-Mozartian-miniature of perfection. A simple, lilting, wonderfully lyric and floating tune from Revolver titled “For No One.”

It starts simply: a descending bassline and off-beat, staccato chords. It is a figure and progression so simple that even I could play it. The same pattern repeats for a second trip through the bass movement before reaching the chorus. This piano part is actually played on a clavichord, an instrument that sounds not unlike the harpsichord and was similarly popular during the baroque and classical eras. This is the main reason why this song is sometimes labeled as “Baroque Pop” and is probably why I immediately thought of Mozart the first time I heard the piece.

A bass guitar and tambourine enter during the first chorus and stay on through to the end of the song, adding subtle shading to the instrumentation. A shimmer on the already shining clear set of instruments— this is especially true for the bass guitar outlining of the clavichord’s root notes. In the second verse, though, instead of more lyrics during the second trip through the chord progression, there is a French horn solo that leads into the chorus. This is followed by a third verse that brings the song full circle by repeating the opening lines of the song during the second stanza, creating a sense of closure. However, this closure is undercut when the song ends after the final chorus on a soft half cadence. It leaves us on the dominant G chord that would normally lead into the C major of the verse, but instead leaves the song with a sense of non-resolution. The G just hangs in the air, though because of the approach from the chorus’s D minor it almost feels like closure…but not. It is a conflicted ending.

The song is truly a miniature, especially in that it does not feature the Beatles’ signature “middle-8,” more commonly called a bridge. This section would normally come in between the second and third verses and is a standard feature in so much of their music, especially of their earlier period. Instead, the French horn solo serves much the same purpose, albeit without the contrasting tonal area common of a bridge—though the chorus being in D minor as opposed to the verse’s C major has a similar feeling to a bridge’s contrasting key center. But all told, the song lasts barely two minutes, short even for pop music—the official time on my mp3 is a brisk 2:01, but in reality is it more like 1:58 by the time the last chord fades out (the remaining three seconds are padding leading into “Doctor Robert”).

But it is the melody that captured me from the beginning. It is almost a perfect arch form, starting from a G and rising up to an E before descending past the G and resting on the E below it, but in the process passing through the borrowed tone of Ab, part of a borrowed Bb major chord that helps lead into the D minor key of the song’s chorus. And it is also during the Bb chord that the bassline first moves upward in contrary motion to the melody’s descent.

The contrasting tonal areas, combined with the melody’s gentle rise and fall, gives the song a gentle, wistful feeling appropriate to the its melancholic reflection of a love that is in the process of ending. “A love that,” at least according to the singer, “should have lasted years.” And that is what this song is, a reflection on a love that is passing. The lyrics are in the present tense: “Your day breaks, your mind aches / You find that all the words of kindness linger on / When she no longer needs you.” But, while the story is being told at the time of the break-up, the narrator is thinking back upon all the moments when he should have realized what was going to happen: “And in her eyes you see nothing / No sign of love behind the tears / Cried for no one / A love that should have lasted years!”

But also notice the voice of the narrator, the use of the second person. It is only when I started digging into the lyrics that this struck me as odd. We are so used to the I or he/she/they in music. The song is either confessional or a story being told from an omniscient point of view. It is rare that the second person is used because it is literally putting the listener into the shoes of the singer/narrator. “YOUR day breaks, YOUR mind aches,” and in the chorus’ most striking line, “And in her eyes YOU see nothing.” It is putting you in that moment of realization that the relationship is over. This is not the personal questioning of “If I Fell” or even the affirmation of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” all told in the first person. It is not the third person story telling of “Eleanor Rigby” or even the mixture of I and he in “A Day in the Life.” No, this is asking the listener to be directly in the point-of-view of the singer. And how many of us can relate with some form of the sentiment of “You want her, you need her / And yet you don’t believe her when she says her love is dead / You think she needs you.” It is exactly how so many of us build up grand romantic tales in our heads only to deny the truth of reality when it conflicts with those stories.

The use of second person is usually reserved, especially today, for such storytelling as the choose-your-own-adventure books or text-based RPGs. “You stand in front of a door. To the left there is a doorbell and to your right is a rock upon which grows thick green moss. What do you do?” It certainly feels out of place in a Beatles song about a break-up.

I believe that I first heard “For No One” when I first listened through Revolver in preparing for my rock history class many years ago, though it is entirely possible that I had heard it before and forgotten. Regardless, when I heard during class prep, it struck me like a bolt from the sky. It was like hearing The Beatles again for the first time and somehow recognizing the genius of their songwriting, though not fully understanding what made it so different. Why was the first word that came to mind when I heard it “Mozartian?” Sure, the clavichord makes it sound like a Classical era work, and the gentle arc of the melody has its parallels in something as simple as Mozart’s variations on the tune “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” (aka “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”), but I think it is more than that. All the little things like the borrowed Bb chord with the Ab in the melody, the minor chorus, and lastly the French horn solo in lieu of a guitar or even piano. All of these little things accumulate over the two-minutes to build the simple perfection that I can listen to on endless repeat. A feeling justified by the dominant chord that extends into the ether at the end. You long for it to resolve or for the song to continue, possibly a yearning for that love to actually last for years.

What is perfection? Can we actually call something perfect? Would “For No One” qualify as the platonic ideal of pop songs? It breaks many conventions of them, from tonal area of the chorus to the lack of a bridge or even a guitar solo. However, that is so much a part of the Beatles’ typical approach, especially as they broke further away from the conventions of pop music that they had helped codify just a few years before when they hit the mainstream with Please Please Me.

And it goes without saying that the song, primarily, if not entirely, written by Paul McCartney, is a strong reflection of so much of his songwriting conventions. The reflections on love and longing heard in tunes like “I’ve Just Seen a Face” or “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and the more somber reflections of “Let It Be” and “Eleanor Rigby.” In many ways it is a unification of those two sides in a heartbreaking ballad wrapped within the pop-perfection of a Mozartian-miniature.

N.B.: I couldn’t find a good version of the original, but here is Paul performing it in studio long after the Beatles broke-up. It is paired here with “Eleanor Rigby” in a clip taken from the 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *