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AT THE CHIME OF A CITY CLOCK has a verse and chorus structure - the verse is in A minor and the chorus A major - both in a fairly straightforward sense. (I am going to write as if the song is played in A whereas on the record it is in Ab. The guitar shapes in the Songbook are conventional A major/minor shapes - Ab is achieved by tuning the whole guitar down a semitone. Discussing the song in Ab is much harder in making the comparison with RIVER MAN).

The switch from the minor modality in ATCOACC happens (at least initially) in a more structured and prepared fashion than is the case in RIVER MAN. ATCOACC uses a II/V progression to prepare the listener for the change. Then to rub the point home IIsus4/V immediately precedes the first line of the chorus. This is the conventional manner of establishing a new key, preparing the audience with some chords which lead naturally and conventionally into that key. Indeed if anything ATCOACC makes a real meal of this process of preparation, at least at first. RIVER MAN, on the other hand, is much more brutal - it jumps into the major without preparing the listener - and then jumps back again.


In ATCOACC the major and minor sections share an important common feature - they both involve harmonies in which there are semitone descents. The harmony of the first four bars of the verse are constructed by sustaining an A in the bass (technical term - a pedal) and slipping down two notes a fifth apart above that to make a four bar pattern:
Bar number Harmony notes
1 A C G
2 A B F#
3 A Bb F
4 A A E

This kind of side-stepping harmony features in various other songs of the 60s - Stevie Winwood's I'M A MAN, Mel Torme's COMING HOME BABY and to some extent in THINGS WE SAID TODAY ("Love is here to stay and that's enough to make you mine girl") and the Jobim hit, THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA. Some of these tunes do not actually feature the pedal drone but all feature the side-stepping harmonies. This side-stepping pattern is also a feature of the harmonically more complicated POOR BOY which holds a non-pedal note across the changing harmonies.

Similar descending harmonies are to be found in the last six bars of the first section of the tune which Miles Davis turned into a jazz classic at the end of the 50's, ON GREEN DOLPHIN ST. A performance of this tune featuring Miles, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans was available on an EP in the UK in the mid-sixties - the whole glorious performance stretched across two sides. I know this because I bought a copy myself in 1964 or 1965 and indeed ON GREEN DOLPHIN ST was the first bit of jazz that I played when I got to Cambridge in 1968 and also the first tune I played with my future friend and collaborator Steve Pheasant. We can't be sure that Nick heard the Miles EP but from what we do know about his musical tastes and interests in 1965 and 1966 it is a possibility. Incidentally it is an absolutely marvellous recording.


In ATCOACC the overall effect of this descending pattern used at the start of the verse is a feeling of moving from a lighter to a darker mood (from bar 1 to bar 4) with bars 2 and 3 increasing the tension as the discordance steps up. Bar 1 is relative harmonious while bar 4 is a perfect fifth - the simplest musical interval next to the octave and one which is normally described as "sparse" or "empty". (It is perhaps just worth mentioning in passing that La Monte Young, with whom John Cale worked prior to joining the Velvet Underground, included in his brand of minimalism music long sustained mathematically perfect fifths - intervals which are also to be found in some of Cale's viola parts of this period.). The increasing tension of the harmonies in bars 2 and 3 has a slightly Eastern flavour - possibly reminiscent of the Moorish impact on Spanish music, or indeed the absorption of some of these ideas into jazz in the early 60's. As the song unfolds the emptiness of the perfect fifth becomes more and more of an issue not least in how that interval is changed at the end of the tune.

Parallel movement of the interval of the kind that happens in ATCOACC is a cardinal sin in conventional Western harmony, by the way. Benjamin Britten, for example, would compose great chunks of music in his mind, write them down and then scour them to make sure he hadn't inadvertently included some parallel fifths.


The similarity in ATCOACC between the verse and the chorus is a matter of both using a pattern of semitone descent. In the chorus the pattern is as follows:

Bar 1 A major with an added G#
Bar 2 A major with an added G
Bar 3 A major with an added F#
Bar 4 A major with nothing added

This general feature - a major modality and a mildly chromatic descent from the leading note can be found in lots of songs. Quite an interesting example occurs in the fourth bar of the guitar riff of ONE OF THESE THINGS FIRST (the next track on BRYTER LAYTER) - although in that instance the underpinning harmonies are a bit more complex and include one of Nick's favourite devices of side-slipping major triads.

The other point key feature in the basic structure of ATCOACC is the second part of the verse which is in the relative major key . Perhaps a word of explanation is needed here. We are discussing these songs in terms of switches between (say A major and A minor) but each major and minor key has an opposite (ie minor or major) key which is it its nearest neighbour in harmonic space. The nearest neighbour from the major is found on the note a tone below the leading note:

A major - leading note G# - note a tone below that F#
So A major and F# minor are close harmonic neighbours

C major - leading note B - note a tone below A
C major and A minor are close harmonic neighbours

To summarize ATCOACC has a verse (A minor) and a chorus (A major). The verse has a first and a second section and - the first has the descending fifths - while the second is in the relative major (ie C major). In addition there is the preparation device at the end of the second part of the verse for switching from A minor to A major.


The harmonies of the second section of the verse are:

One bar of C major, one bar of F major seventh, one bar C major : half bar B minor seventh, half bar E seventh

Let's call these four bars V2 and the first four bars V1, so the complete verse is V1, V1, V2, V2 .

V2 is linked to V1 partly by the tune. The tune in the first bar of V1 is the same as the tune in the first bar of V2 - in itself quite an interesting effect. The tune starts in a pretty straightforward way - with notes A, G, A. Since the guitar is continuing to play a pedal A throughout V1, the tune is making very little demand of the underpinning harmony at this point. However by the time the harmony has switched to the relative major (C) in the first bar of V2 the situation has become more interesting - the tune is still making a big play of the note A but this note is not to be found in the underpinning C major harmony (C E G). It is floating in a rather unsupported fashion - the harmonic tension has increased - the motif of the tune has not altered, its harmonic environment has.

The note A floating over the C major chord is in fact an "added sixth" or C6 chord. Sixths have a rather specific harmonic effect - they are optimistic. Some of the power of the song MY WAY derives from the fact that it opens with a succession of upward (aspirational) leaps of a major sixth. A classic optimistic "sixth" is to be found on the final "yeah" of SHE LOVES YOU for example.

So V2 opens in a manner which is linked to V1 but where the mood has changed from descending gloom to optimism (brighter later). A mood which is consolidated in the next bar - the F major seventh - which is always a lyrical harmonic device. In this instance it provides better support to what is happening in the tune - you might almost say that the optimistic direction has been confirmed. The third and fourth bars are also forward looking - part of the preparation for the A major chorus.

At this point it is worth going back to RIVER MAN. This song covers a similar harmonic distance in three specific steps. The first chord of the the RM verse equates to most of V1, the third chord of RM is the same as the second chord of V2 and the fourth chord of RM equates to the harmony in ATCOACC's chorus. RIVER MAN is highly compressed where ATCOACC is more expansive and discursive but in a sense the outline of the journey is the same.


A map of what has been said about ATCOACC might help to summarize what has been said so far. Essentially there are 2 sections - V and C. V has two subsections - V1 and V2 - each repeated twice. C only has one but this is also repeated. V1 and C have descending lines in their structure and V2 is more optimistic preparing for the change from V to C - from minor to major.

The RM column is intened to show how RIVER MAN covers the same distance in 4 bars and the link between 3 of the 4 harmonies in RM and those of ATCOACC. The second chord of RM2 isn't placed on the analysis since it's more complicated.
RM ATCOACC Words Harmonic Mood
1 V1 A city freeze Minor
Get on your knees Increasing Tension
Pray for warmth and green More Tension
1 paper. Sparse Empty
1 V1 A city drought Minor
You're down and out Increasing Tension
See your trousers don't More Tension
1 taper. Sparse Empty
V2 Saddle up More optimistic
3 kick your feet Lyrical, supportive
Ride the range of a Signal a change
London street. Signal a change
V2 Travel to Optimism again
3 a local plane Lyrical
Turn around and come Signal a change
back again. Strong expectation of change
4 C And at the chime of a city clock Major mood shift
Put up your road block Going somewhere?
4 Hang on to your No, but it's OK
4 crown. Equanimity
4 C For a stone in a tin can Major mood again
Is wealth to the city man Sure you're not going?
4 Who leaves his armour Yes, but it's OK, really
4 down. Quite OK


Let's look in more detail at the chorus in ATCOACC. In some ways this is bland to the point of simplicity - a major triad continues throughout over which a G# falls to G to F# to nothing. It's easy to conclude there's nothing much going except the gradual dissipation of the major tonality.

It's worth noting that the first two bars parallel the harmonies of the second and third bars of George Harrion's SOMETHING - "Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover". (This is the second most recorded Beatles song after YESTERDAY). As you can see from the words which fall across the second and third bar - italicized - the harmony is about movement and attraction. George Harrison choses to dramatize this by a harmonic shift on his fourth bar ("lover") and indeed the movement intensifies as that song progresses into the fifth and subsequent bars. Nick is doing something different though in ATCOACC - perhaps one way of expressing that there is a movement towards stasis.

The third bar of C, "hang on to your", is over a A6 chord - the same species of harmony which is exemplified in the final "yeah" of SHE LOVES YOU. Having created an expectation of some sort of harmonic development in the first two bars of C, nothing happens - the A major harmony persists in a rather bland and optimistic form and then reverts to a more simple form - the fourth chord of C1 is the simplest of all. Then the whole thing happens again.

So why does the chorus sound at all interesting rather just bland or disappointing? I think the answer has got to do with the subtelty of the melody which occupies the lower part of the A major scale: A, C#, D, E, compared to the harmonic changes which are happening higher up the scale. Nick places his words and notes across the beat. Two potent notes are used - the C# which emphazises the major tonality and the D to make a contrast. In a subtle way this keeps the listeners' interest going.

Having reached the end of the verse and chorus, ATCOACC has "turned around" - this is achieved (at least in the case of moving onto the second verse) by repeating V2 (without any vocals) - confirming that within the song this element has the function of signalling change.








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