What made the Beatles such an enduring icon wasn’t their cute boy looks, vocal prowess, or catchy melodies. It’s those combined with their adventurous, experimental and convergent (as in converging different genres) music. Together with producer George Martin, they wrung every drip of potential out of each song, to create albums after albums filled with memorable tunes.
First and foremost, they were gifted writers who penned tunes that sound good in any configurations/arrangements. But then there were others where arrangements gave the song such a distinct spin that you can’t think of the song without that context. “Eleanor Rigby” is one example, but another great one in this vein is “Come Together.”
It’s basically this simple bluesy ditty that ventures way off into the left field, but stuffed full of highly distinct hooks and motifs, the whole thing becomes a little symphony. Like how a classical composer composes and orchestrates the instrumentation, so did the band and the producer to create a tight 4-minute piece that you’ll never forget once you hear it.
How did they do it?
Unlike other songs in their catalog, the songwriting isn’t the most noteworthy element here.
Harmonically the song is quite traditional and predictable. The song sits most often on a sustained D minor chord, which against the chorus of Bm A G A (all chords in the key of D major) creates this smokey, jazzy, loungy feel.
Melody is quite static and untuneful (rather uninteresting if the melody was to be played instrumentally) which focuses the attention to the words and other instruments. The verse is made of a repetitive figure using F, D and C, quite expected notes over the D minor chord. The title line is a well-executed piece of triadic melody, going up from D to A then down to F#. The last note is the significant one here, because it switches the tonality from D minor to D major. The sudden big jump upward grabs listeners’ attention, as we’re used to the downward shape of the verses up to this point. And notice how perfectly the rhythm and shape of the the notes fit the phrase “come to-GEH-ther,” appropriately emphasizing the second syllable of the big word. From there the chorus line sinks downward but ends on an upward motion, ending the chorus on an uplifting and confident note, going from C to D.
That’s about the only noteworthy thing to point out about the song, it would have been a fairly ordinary song if the band stuck to more predictable arrangement. But instead the band goes to show us how the power of inventive arrangement can take even a mediocre song to quite impressive heights.
But before we look at that one observation about the lyrics — this is another of John Lennon psychedelic trips here, but I believe he always hides a deeper significance amidst scattered nonsense. On the surface you may think Lennon is telling this tattered, hippy “he” character to get it together but it’s probably the opposite. He is the one living the life he meant to live, unfettered by judgments and confinements of social norm, telling us more conventional folks to pull our pieces together. “Got to be good looking, ’cause he’s so hard to see” to me points out the blindness we get trapped in. Plain and honest truths can get obscured while we pull the insignificant pieces together to manifest acceptable lifestyle. What we can’t see are the things that we are truly yearning for.
On its own this would have been a decent song, the inventive lyrics and catchy chorus lifting it slightly above move mundane blues rock material. Then Paul and Ringo came along and transformed it into a chart-topping hit single. When a rhythm section performs memorable, inventive parts, it has the power to make ordinary song into an impactful one.
Of the two, the more unconventional and thus impressive is Ringo’s drum riff during the intro. What was he smoking when he came up with that? Not only does it perfectly complement Paul’s riff but it forms an identity of its own — if you remove everything else and just hear the drum part alone you’ll still recognize it. (check out the video below) On the surface it’s dumbfoundingly simple, almost pedestrian because he plays one piece of the drumkit at a time, but it subtly and expertly builds tension and keep audience waiting for the release/arrival of the verse section.
You can tell what a big role drums are playing here because George Martin mixed both guitar and bass to the left, letting the drums take up the whole right side on its own for much of the song. For the verses Ringo sticks to minimalist floor-tom beat, but switches to this distinct bass drum motif to fill the empty space at the end of each verse. Note how he saves the snare until the chorus — the restraint is a fine example of Ringo’s compositional thinking.
Not to be outdone, Paul’s contribution is just as important, even if it’s not quite “out there” as Ringo’s part. The bass plays the signature riff of this song, and its understated D minor figure creates an ominous atmosphere. It’s a fine study of economy, in which all frivolous notes are tossed aside to leave only the absolutely necessary ones, hitting all the sweet spots. Notice how much more melodic the bass part is compared to the guitar. I assume John Lennon brought the song in with something close to what he’s playing on the recording — and those are just as minimal but fairly traditional and predictable blues boogie-oogie parts. What lifts the song is the ingenious rhythm section.
Notice that through the first couple of verses and choruses, the arrangement has only those three parts — drums, bass and rhythm guitar. The drums and guitar act as the rhythm section here, holding down the blues shuffle groove, while the bass goes in and out with that slippery main riff. All parts are super lean and minimal, and the space between the notes create the big-ness you feel in the music. Busier, denser or more filled-out arrangements don’t necessarily make music sound big.
The chorus is the very first time the guitar and bass literally come together, and the sense of focus it creates feels refreshing in contrast to the ambiguous and scattered intro and verse sections. At the same time, Ringo finally hits his snare, and the band falling back to more tried-and-true rock figure creates the sense of arrival. That’s how you contribute to the creation of a memorable chorus from the backing band perspective.
After the second chorus, finally an additional layer is introduced in a groovy jam section — an electric piano. During this section the rest of the band fall back on a singular groove so the electric piano can take the center stage. Then the chord changes and lead guitar triumphantly makes an appearance, though it’s a fairly minimalist solo, not a blazing hot shred fest. Everybody’s in on the cool and restrained vibe here.
The additional voices drop out for the last verse and chorus, so that when they reappear for the final jam their entrance is clearly felt. Toward the end the rhythm guitar and electric piano engage in different figures while bass and drums hold down the groove, and the lead guitar injects just a few notes here and there, filling in the space around the vocal refrain.
One last creative touch we need to notice is the “shhh!” vocalization injected during intros. And another subtle touch is the “heh” we hear during the middle jam section, emphasizing the upbeats. I’m of opinion that the myriads of interesting sounds human voices can make are seldom fully utilized in rock music, but here simple gestures add freshness and intrigue to the proceedings.
Just as it was for the arrangements, restraint is also the keyword for the performance as well. Nobody hits anything hard in this song. Vocals are delivered with detached amusement, lead instruments are not busy nor harried, and absolutely no unnecessary notes are played anywhere. If you pay close attention, despite being tucked away to the left side you can tell that Paul is the leader here, spearheading this decidedly laid-back charge with his bass. Everybody in the band is following Paul.
Since the arrangement is so interesting, the production doesn’t need to get too overly creative to get the point across. The aforementioned placement of instruments (drums to the right, bass and rhythm guitar to the left) may be the only noteworthy element here. John’s lead vocal has a slapback echo that emphasizes the cool vibe. Paul’s bass is mixed to be closest to the listener, and takes up a huge space with its dark, woolly tone. The next big sound comes from the drums, and all the instruments above them — usually the more featured ones — seem to just cut through between the notes of the rhythm section. George Martin knew who had the more interesting parts and just mixed accordingly to bring them out.
So the key takeaway here are the following:
- Arrangements can take an OK song and turn it into a stellar song.
- When the rhythm section does something interesting and memorable, it makes a huge impact.
- Instruments not doubling each other, instead playing different parts can add richness and density to the song, even when each part is restrained and simple.
- Scattered-sounding arrangement of the intro + verse provides a nice contrast to traditional-and-together chorus, echoing the theme of the song
- Matching the melody to the natural rhythm and inflections of the language adds power to the key line (the chorus, the song’s punch line)
- When you cut out all the unnecessary notes, it creates a sense of big space and helps the notes being played be memorable.
I believe that the Beatles created impactful music by combining accessibility with both avant-garde experimentation and modern classical arrangements. This song is a fine example of the former. You don’t have to forego catchy melodies and memorable hooks in order to play adventurous music. In fact, while the ear-pleasing pieces draw the audience in, it’s the quirkiness and uniqueness that keep audience coming back for more. It creates the depth in music that keeps it from getting tired even after many listens.