The Beatles “Nowhere Man”: How to Write a Song about Insecurity

This is a first in a series examining a song from four different dimensions: songwriting, arrangement, performance, and production.

“Nowhere Man” from Rubber Soul is a brilliant little pop gem with biting commentary on humanity’s tendency to to stick to her/his comfort zones.  The impactfulness of the song is perfectly orchestrated by how lyrics and music go together.

The interesting approach right off the bat is the fact that the song starts with the chorus.  Or is a chorus?  Nomenclature is not important, but the real “hook” of the song is what starts the song, and it captivates the listener right away.

And the refrain melody is laid out quite methodically.  It’s a three-phrase melody laid out over eight-bar progression, and each phrase starts out with a jump from one chord tone up to the next chord tone, then coming down with step-wise motion.  Any jump in melody has a dramatic, attention-grabbing power, though if you do it too often it can come across jarring and mechanical. So balancing it out with smoother downward motion gives it a ‘settling’ feel.  The direction matters, too — upward builds energy, downward relaxes it.  Having the same gesture repeat three times really help the melody to stick to the listeners’ ears.

The last phrase of the refrain goes from minor ii chord to minor iv chord.  The IV chord in a major key is usually a major chord, but the minor iv is not uncommon in pop and folk music.  It gives a more fragile, sort of bittersweet vibe, whereas regular IV is assertive and strong.  This move perfectly underscores the insecurity of being a Nowhere Man.

The verse part repeats the same three-phrase, eight-bar structure of the refrain, resulting in a very stable, predictable impression, again serving the subject matter.  But the harmony there is dominated by minor chords — it goes from minor iii to major IV twice, then iii-ii-V cadence.  The minor iii is one of the lesser used chords in a major key and again it produces this melancholic vibe.  It moving to the major IV can come across as a gesture of longing, either representing that of the Nowhere Man to reclaim his power or the desire of the song’s narrator for Nowhere Man to stand up for himself.

It’s a very succinct pop tune that goes back and forth between the refrain and the verse progressions a few times, with the solo in the middle being a refrain as well.  It’s a text-book songwriting example of how to trim all the fat and craft a song with nothing but its strongest parts.

Lyrically, John Lennon avoids coming across as condemning and judgmental by inserting redeeming lines at the crucial points amidst astute and biting critique.  “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” stops us on the track while “The world is at your command” reminds us that we can reclaim our power to live the life we desire to.  He concludes the song without redemption, however, with Nowhere Man doing what he’s always done (and that fact is driven home by repeating the final line three times, each time more strongly than the time before).  One could have written a journey of transformation from Nowhere Man to Somewhere Man perhaps, but it would have been difficult to do justice to such a story in a less-than-three-minute pop song.  Instead, the song retains its tight focus as a cautionary tale to us all, delivered in a supremely sing-along-able set of melodies.

So the song works on multiple levels, from its catchy hooks to memorable lines to deeper significance.  Songs that have these layers are the ones that stand the test of time to appeal to its listeners after multiple listens.  Therein lies the Beatles’ enduring appeal, because they have the melodies that stick to your ears and deep-felt human truths that touch your heart.  It’s a supremely difficult thing to do, and no one does it better than the Fab Four.

Continued to Part 2