The Beatles “Nowhere Man”: Let the Song Speak

This is the third and final entry in a series examining a song from four different dimensions: songwriting, arrangement, performance, and production.  This post examines the latter two.

So what do you do when you have such great material that don’t require a lot of decoration?  You get out of the way and let the strength of the song speak.  That’s how the Beatles approached the performance and production of the song “Nowhere Man.”

For performance, elsewhere in the Beatles catalog John Lennon changed his vocal delivery to have more sneery, nasal tone to emphasize sarcasm, irony and bitterness. But none of that is on display here.  Nor is it overtly sweet and affirming.  This delivery is spot-on precisely because it is not overdone.  It does take a lot of concentration to pull off a tight three-part harmony so perhaps they focused on the technicality of that instead of giving the vocals some character.  Remember, these were the days before we had many separate tracks on their recorders — these are three guys singing to a microphone together.  To have it all be perfectly in tune and in sync rhythmically for every chorus take some concentration.  And the sound of their three voices together is so massive that you just don’t need to do much else besides just getting it right.

Finally, the production also keeps it fairly tame by the Beatles standards.  The voices are on one side of the stereo field while the rest of the band is in the other, again unobstructing our “view” of the vocals.  Drums and rhythm guitar are fairly subdued in the mix, as they are just laying foundations.  Paul McCartney’s bass as the driving force is prominent.  The lead guitar is very bright and very compressed, meaning, a device was used to ensure that all the notes maintain the same volume level.  This ensures that every note of the lead guitar is heard loud and clear, which is important because there aren’t many notes in those lines.

There are many other songs in the Beatles cannon where we can discuss noteworthy performances and production touches.  Not “Nowhere Man.”  They simply chose to let the song speak for itself, with the three-part harmony and repetitive melodic figures driving the message home.  The Beatles famously played their songs with their acoustic guitar to see if the song can stand on its own, and the high quality of the songwriting is allowed to come through.  It is a sign of their maturity as artists, to know when to pull back and leave “good enough” alone.

In fact, that sense of focus is what makes this middle era of the Beatles so special.  They have moved on from doo-wop pop sound of the era to explore new territories of rock songwriting, but yet their collective chemistry and artistic indulgence haven’t spiraled out yet to create their late-career unevenness.  During this time all their songs demonstrate consistent quality and tight group sound.  I am of opinion that merging of multiple personalities, rather than just having one talent shine with the rest backing, tend to create richer, more unique music.  The sound of the collective is literally what makes up that three-part harmony.  From that perspective this middle era is the pinnacle of the Beatles’ artistry, because they were working together as a team.  They were simply peerless when they did that.