The Beatles “Nowhere Man”: Arranging a Lean, Mean Impact Machine

This is the second in a series examining a song from four different dimensions: songwriting, arrangement, performance, and production.  This post focuses on the oft-overlooked aspect of music: arrangement.

In the previous post we examined how John Lennon wrote an efficient little pop gem using two well-matched chord progressions and repetitive melodies.  Once in studio with the band, they went on to capitalize on the song’s strength by developing an equally lean arrangement.

The song’s opening refrain starts out a capella, so the audience has nothing but the voices and the words to focus on.  When the band kicks in there is no big gesture drawing attention to it — it just comes in a matter-of-fact manner.  The timing of the band’s entrance, though, is a curious choice — the last phrase of the refrain.  They could have chosen to sit out the whole section and come in with the second round of that refrain.  That would have worked, too, though it has a different effect, marking more of the arrival of the next section and making it seem more dramatic.  Instead the band sneaks in rather unnoticed, so that the audience doesn’t really recognize that the very beginning was vocals only.  It’s a subtler approach which perhaps suits the mundaneness of Nowhere Man’s point of view.

The thick, perfectly-intonated three-part harmony is the center of the show here, and perhaps this is one of the best songs in their entire catalog to showcase how John, Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s voices blend to create this massive sound.  The Beatles are known for their stellar vocals but they didn’t do this sort of parallel three-part harmonies all the time.  Which is a shame, because this is truly an other-worldly sound that helps establish the legitimacy of the lyrics.  If this was a single-lead-vocal delivery the point of view would have felt more intimate, personal but also possibly self-righteous, because it would come across as one man’s opinion.  But delivered as a chorus (as in a choir) the message is much more weighty and universal, because many voices are telling the same story.

As far as what the band does, it’s a fairly straight forward affair.  The guitar is playing simple chords and Ringo Starr’s drums are very basic.  The point is that they are not muddying the picture by drawing attention to themselves.  Paul’s bass is an exception and has more authority, with steady 8th-note movement it really drives the momentum of the song.  If the bass stayed as static as the drums the song would feel more languid and have a harder time maintaining the listener attention.

The lead guitar is the only other element in the mix, creating succinct responses to the vocals’ call.  Note how uncomplicated the lead lines are, they are as hummable as the vocal melodies.  Busier lines would have felt more intrusive because the vocals themselves move at a fairly leisurely pace.

So “Nowhere Man” doesn’t feature some of more noticeable and avant-garde arrangements that the Beatles and the producer George Martin would embark on.  They knew that the star of the show was the vocal melodies, vocal harmonies and the words.  So they built everything around it to maintain the spotlight on that, and the result is a lean and tight pop gem that’ll stick to your head from the very first time you listen.  When the song itself is so good the arrangements don’t have to do the heavy-lifting.  All you have to do is to get out of the way and let the star of the show shine freely.