With such a vast catalog, it’s nearly impossible to pick any one song as the quintessential Beatles tune — but “All You Need Is Love” may be a strong contender. With a playful attitude, idealistic (if tongue-in-cheek) lyrics and colorful orchestral arrangements, it has many of the characteristics that they became known for. Let’s have a look at what went into making this song such an impactful one.
On the surface, the song itself seems deceptively simple. Set in a common key of G, the song goes mostly back and forth between verse and chorus.
Surprisingly, the melodies in this song are not strong at all. Try playing the vocal melody on an instrument and you’ll realize it’s a very untuneful melody — by itself it really doesn’t hold your interest. But a key quality of untuneful melodies is that it forces the audience’s attention on words. With a bold statement like “all you need is love” anchoring the refrain, the lyrics is the star of the show here, and melody is simply a vehicle to deliver the message.
But a catchy refrain isn’t all there is to this song. A highly unusual factor, albeit not an obvious one, is the uneven meters. The song starts out with the predictable 4/4 rhythm, but at the end of some phrases it skips a beat and becomes a 3/4. There is even a 2/4 bar at the end of the choruses. It’s not something you notice if you are casually listening, but it produces a hastening feel. Even though the song has a fairly languid tempo, the song seems to move quickly and doesn’t give you time to become bored.
Harmonically the song is more complex as well, utilizing the technique of changing bass notes to add movement to static harmony throughout. The verse’s G D/F# Em is a pretty tried-and-true move, then the 3rd line goes through a longer descending pattern: Am G D/F# D/E D D/C D. So the bassline there is faithfully coming down a D Mixolydian mode. Mixolydian features the “defiant” chord of flat 7 major, the C chord in this case, which subtly sets up the heroic vibe that the chorus needs to make its bold proclamation.
The chorus, too, features a descending bass pattern — after repeating the ordinary G A D twice, it takes you on a twistier journey of G B7 Em Em/D C D.
Structure-wise, you can observe the same patterns being applied to both the verse and chorus sections. You start out with ordinary chord progressions in one key, then you insert a longer progression that transitions to a different key. The verse starts out comfortably nested in the G/Em tonality and then the 3rd line twists and turns to the true home key of D. Then the chorus starts out being in D then take a left turn to resolve in the key of G.
So the most noteworthy point from the songwriting perspective is that melody doesn’t necessary have to be the strongest part of a song. “All You Need Is Love”‘s main vehicle is its bold lyrics, and shifting tonal centers, skipped beats and walking bass line fill out the picture.
This is a really dense mix with a wealth of orchestral instruments playing both leading and supporting roles. Before we get into all that, however, imagine what it would have been if this was a stripped-down, ordinary rock band arrangement. You can get a sense of that if you focus on the left channel of the mix where most of the band is congregated. It would have come across as more casual and even trivial, not quite supplying enough gravitas to the grand statements being made here. Orchestral instruments add that weight that this message benefits from. Not that guitars and keyboards can never supply that, but orchestral instruments with their classic, time-honed timbre supply the historical anchor to legitimize the claims being made.
Because the fundamental harmony and rhythm has some complexity built into it, the backing band just sticks to holding down the fort with basics, and let the orchestral voices fill the rest out. Producer George Martin goes to town in this song, liberally deploying strings, brass and woodwinds to perform everything from reinforcing the critical bassline to providing response to a vocal’s call to adding melodic content to splashing playful chattery. There are some key punchlines that show up multiple times but none of the sections have arrangements that are repeated verbatim. When arrangements are varied this drastically from section to section, it gives a story-like quality to the song. That many changes create the risk of making the song less memorable, but the catchy (and well-repeated) chorus makes up for that.
One last notable arrangement appears at the outro, where the band speeds up. This further reinforces the theme created by the skipping of beats, where a hastening charge is injected into this otherwise leisurely song. It’s as if the band is telling you to take it easy but don’t fall asleep!
Both John and Paul are capable of building some sweeping statements with their songs, but where this song differs from other instances (“In My Life” “Let It Be”) is the playful delivery. John himself is somewhat casual and nonchalant with his lead vocal. Instead of backing up his bold words with matching delivery, he lets the weight of the message sink in on its own. Then Paul and George Martin come along with their flamboyant injections, and the song loosens up as it progresses.
To further continue the loose feel, neither the band nor the orchestra is super tight in this recording. Maybe it was hard to pull off this dense of arrangement with limited multitracking capability of the day, but especially the early part of the song where the mix is sparser, you can tell that the instruments are not well-synchronized. And the orchestra instruments aren’t arranged or mixed to come across like a big orchestra playing in a concert hall — 2-3 instruments per part reveal the small idiosyncrasies. But the biggest slop of them all is the lead guitar after the first chorus. It presents a perfectly memorable line with a stinging, biting tone, but then in the third phrase it just stumbles and drops out, and the strings have to take up the mantle and carry the scene till the verse arrives.
But the playfulness and looseness are key characteristics in this recording, because it avoids the pitfall of being too heavy-handed and serious. The fooling-around vibe makes the song accessible, which in turn makes it easy to accept the grandiose message. Being rough around the edges bring out the humanity in performance, making the sentiment delivered more relatable.
With this dense of arrangement and mix it must have been challenging to balance everything out. George Martin employs his oft-used approach of grouping instruments hard left and right, daring to be uneven but succeeding in giving enough space for the many instruments to fit in.
The lead vocal is fairly dry here without much reverb or echo, while the rest of the instruments are given some reverb. This creates the effect of the lead vocal standing in front of everyone else. The casual and personable nature of the lead vocal is enhanced with this approach — a sheen of reverb makes it sound slicker but more distant and artificial. And even the band is made to sound like it’s in a not-so-huge space, rather than a big concert hall. Even though there are many instruments here, the whole package comes across like that of a rock band a chamber ensemble situated to the left and right of you, rather than a big orchestra.
They could have easily gone over the top with this song, delivering a grand sermon with pomp and high-drama. But they balance out the big statements of the star of the show — the lyrics — by being more casual, whimsical and flamboyant. I always pay attention to how words and music fit together, but this is a great example of how being cohesive doesn’t necessarily mean the two have to deliver identical sentiments. Sometimes a heavy, bold statement is easier to take in if you just hand it off nonchalantly. (and that may apply elsewhere in life)
The other factor that really stands out to me is where the strengths of this song come from: John Lennon’s philosophical lyrics, the oft-shifting time signature, and colorful classical instruments. Not from the thing that usually has to be the strongest, the melody. I believe it was B.B. King who said there are no bad songs, just bad presentations, and I think it applies. The rawest material may not have been the strongest with this song, but they kept adding creative touches in many layers, and the result is a masterpiece, even with pretty sloppy performance. There are many ways to brew a great song, and touch audience’s heart.