Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Sound production has an odd effect on us in aesthetic terms. The created sound is fully physical: it is an acoustic physical entity real here with us in the listening space. As a result, recorded sound creates a physical entity in our presence – the entity of the reproduced sound. Within this, there are qualities of the physicality of the sound that can seem to affect us bodily, not just acoustically – a bass sound can be felt in our bodies, and a sharp high sound can hurt our ears. However, recorded sound also re-creates a physical entity, resulting in a perceptual change – the entity of our listening space is re-shaped, so that we hear anew in the space. At the simplest level, we hear “as if” the recorded elements are here in our listening space. At a more complex level, our listening space takes on apparent properties that did not seem to be there before – we hear as if the space in which we are physically located has qualities which it cannot in reality have. This occurs as a result of the fact that recorded sound (like music) has a three-dimensional sculptural quality – we as physical and perceiving beings are actually located within the artwork itself (the reproduced sound); so that the “as if”-ness of the perceived re-created space is barely “as if”, because to a large extent, the space in which we are experiencing the work has in reality been changed.

Yet recorded sound is also entirely abstract, creating an alternative imaginative space - the space we perceive is in fact not real. The result may be that our small listening space may appear to become, for example, a vast stadium. At the most complex level, the relationship between us and the actual physical reproduced entity can seem to take on an entirely new nature – we are no longer hearing the sound as sound being reproduced for us by the speakers. The result may be that we feel as if we are in a new state of consciousness; or that we feel as if we are hearing something that is not sound, but something unreal, like a whispered thought, or a memory.

The physicality of recorded sound also has one further dimension – the temporal dimension, as (like music) its physical nature is also constituted by the fact that it has duration over a period of time: recorded sound is therefore not just a physical entity fixed in a single here-and-now instant. Furthermore, it changes over the time of its duration. This means our hearing of it will change over that time; the re-created space may change over that time; and our relationship to the recorded sound may change over that time.

The complexity of the re-created space thus leads to the odd experience that we fall into a new perceptual world, where at various times and in various circumstances, we can forget partially or wholly what we are hearing, and only some things become real or aware to us. We can’t take in everything that we hear; and we can’t hold in our memory everything that has been made present to us over the duration of the piece. We kind of don’t hear what there is to be heard (or part of what there is to be heard), or what is fully present there, and yet we fully do. Because the reproduced sound can have a more or less physical presence, and has a duration (and a mutability) over time, it can be more or less “present” to us, even in a single moment where it is fully upon us physically, and yet we cannot grasp everything that is being made to bear upon us. Alternatively, what is “present” to us may not be the physicality of the sound itself, but a memory, or a resonance of the sound, that is recalled or brought to bear by other elements of the recorded sound over the duration of the piece.

"Jet" is a massive thumping chunking rock of sound that rips out of the speakers. It immediately starts big, and then just pounds out at 0:27 the biggest densest block of sound for miles. The opening of “Jet” picks up on the orchestral grandiosity of the track that preceded it on Band on the Run, the album’s title track. Laden with brass, underpinned by a quasi-reggae rhythm guitar, and laid over a slow deliberate drum beat, the song lumbers into our listening space. The lumbering is partly due to the constant rhythmic tension in “Jet”, and the opening sets the scene for it: each sonic element seems to drag at the other. The thick semi-orchestral melody sits at odds with the lightness of the sound of the rhythm guitar; but the guitar itself is playing a slow semi-reggae rhythm; the plodding drum beat underneath this is nonetheless played light and sharp into the mike; and the sound of the drums themselves, though sharp and contained, fall dead as stones into the speakers. However, rather than the drums, the mix posits a dense wash as the grounding central foundational element (in the opening, the brassy orchestra, and in the main body of the song, the combination of synth and guitar), and again, this is one of the reasons why the song seems to lumber in the soundspace – these foundational elements are thick and continuous, rather than punchy and rhythmic (as would be the case if the drums were in their place), filling the space with a dense mass of sound. The denseness of the sound is compounded by the effect of the brassy orchestra spread across the soundspace (though it is predominantly centre and right), and by the fact that it lacks a distinct clarity in the mix, with the various instruments seeming to blend together, so that it is hard to distinguish exactly what instruments are being played (and in fact, there may be a lead guitar buried under this in the right speaker).

“Jet” rolls into the space, therefore, like a massive boulder, and as such, it has a flinty quality, with elements of the song seeming to strike or spark off the main mass. There are two main elements which enact this “flintiness” over the duration of the piece: the drums, and the vocals. The drums are almost the most startling thing about this recording: because they are so dry and hard, they work against almost everything that drum recording seems to have moved towards over the 70s. They are right on the speakers, rather than somewhat recessed, balanced and forming the sonic foundation for the soundspace, as is found with most other recordings of the time (compare, for instance, Pink Floyd’s “Time”, or Sweet’s “Hell Raiser”). They take up almost a kind of fourth vocal element, and in the mix seem to play almost independently of the rest of the instruments. As a result, each strike of the toms seems to strike against or into the thickness of the song’s overall sound, without seeming to impede its progress: they seem to work almost as a counter rhythm to the drone of the orchestra/synth and guitar. The other main element contributing to this flintiness is the vocals, which broadly, in our recollected perception of the song, seem to be working through an overall belting quality: that is, when thinking about or recalling the song, our perception of the vocals is that they are belted out for its duration. However, in an attentive listening to the song, it is apparent that the vocals generally sit within and at times strike off from the mass of the song, as well as against each other. It is in evidence here at the start of the song in roughly the first 25 seconds, as McCartney rhythmically vocally extemporises with verbal (“come on”) and non-verbal utterances, which are echoed by, or echo, the rhythm and lead guitars (thus almost scatting). There is a sense here that the vocals don’t have any purchase in the song’s overall weight, rather, that they are in a sense caught up in its relentless flow, and then scatter in its wake.

The rhythm guitar and the strum of the lead guitar also have a similar quality of sparks struck off rock – they scratch in the mix with a metallic edge, and sit close on the speaker, though they are not especially prominent in the mix. It’s a rough grainy sound, drawing attention to the sound’s quality, especially with its metallic mechanical edge. The “scratchiness” is further conveyed by the changing quality of the rhythm guitar in the left speaker: it seems to get scratchier, higher and thinner between each appearance of the brassy orchestra, following the strum on the lead guitar (part of this seems to be due to how the guitar is played, perhaps a result of McCartney manipulating the strings in a certain way), so that the metallic quality becomes heightened. This “sparkiness” is further heightened by the strums on the lead guitar at 0:08 and 0:19, which musically and sonically seem to fly off from the rhythm guitar. These two strums also work paradoxically like brakes on the song – they seem to sit over the top of the lumbering rhythm of the piece, almost interrupting it or distracting from it, further exacerbating (by virtue of the contrast with the rhythm) the song’s monolithic feel.

It is not just the individual instrumental and vocal elements, however, which are made to feel like they are flying off from the mass of the song. This sense of relentless flow interposed with intermittent obtrusions is conveyed by the sonic rhythm of the opening. As implied above, the intro works through two and a half sets of sonic pairs, where the brassy orchestra plays two lines, these are marked off by a single note by the orchestra immediately followed by the strum of the guitar, and then the rhythm guitar scratches its more metallic notes until the brassy orchestra returns and the sequence is repeated, with the second repeat ended after the first line of the orchestra. There is a sense here that the soundspace is “backing off” when the rhythm guitar features, so that somehow it seems to recede away from us, in a series of rhythmic pulses, with the weight of the orchestra still looming in the wings.

It is an odd sense of recession however, in two ways. Firstly, as already suggested, it does not result in a sense that the main bulk of the sound, the thickness of the orchestra, has been pushed back or repelled, because the plodding rhythm continues in the rhythm guitar. The contrast with the orchestra, and the space left by it, actually gives an overwhelming sense of its presence through absence, and it is as if its relentlessness is a silent presence weighing down the rhythm of the guitar. Secondly, the recession does not work in a strictly projected performative sense. It does not feel like the orchestra has “stepped back” in the soundspace, in a kind of Motown choreographed move, with us being made aware of the other musicians playing around them (though certainly this is probably the sonic “model” for the movement here). It does not feel this way, because the orchestra is in a way not of the rhythm guitar or the drums: the soundspace is not quite literally here a performative one, where we might feel that the overall framework is that orchestra is front of stage (from which position it might be able to “step back”), drums are centre and rhythm guitar is left. This is partly because the soundspace as a whole is not presented cleanly or distinctly: it has a somewhat muddy quality (witness the “thickness” of the orchestra itself), so that we don’t quite have a fully rounded projected image of individual instruments playing before us. It is also partly because the thickness of the orchestra seems to sit around and through the drums and the rhythm guitar, so that it doesn’t quite seem to have a positional relationship to these other instruments – the orchestra has nowhere to step back from or to in relation to these instruments. It is also partly because this thickness lacks a sense of space in it: the orchestra doesn’t seem to be located quite anywhere in an imaginary projected sense, rather, having a predominant quality of undifferentiated bulk, and of filling the space. Though in the mix it is primarily central and right, it does not feel that the orchestra is located like this in front of us as a stage presence (individual instrumentalists ranged across the stage from centre to right), so again, there is no imaginary position which the orchestra can be posited as moving into or out of. The orchestra stands as an indistinct but strong overall presence in the sound as a whole. Instead, and by contrast, when the rhythm guitar features after each series of orchestral lines, it has a faint halo of the studio about its sound: it feels like the guitar is contained within the small confines of the studio, with its sound bouncing off closed-in walls. The preciseness and physicality of the scratch of the rhythm guitar also provides a contrast with the continuity and thickness of the orchestra. This contributes to the quality of the rhythm guitar being flicked off from the main bulk of the sound, as if it is being thrown onto the walls of the studio and it is etching itself into them. The relationship here, therefore, between the rhythm guitar and orchestra, is not directly or primarily posited as a spatial performative one (rhythm guitar is “left” of the orchestra centre and right), though spatial positioning in the mix is a key determinant of the relationship; instead, the relationship is posited in terms of its sonic presence, or as a kind of sonic pulse, so that the rhythm guitar is both a kind of reprieve from and a contrast with the thickness of the orchestra, as well as being, in spatial terms, a kind of detritus, an element “left behind” by the main mass, but soon to be caught up in it again. There is an elasticity in this relationship, which is an essential factor in the quality of “presence through absence” of the orchestra: the recession to the rhythm guitar is, in metaphoric terms, like a splat of paint in the soundspace – the bulk of the orchestra lands squarely and undifferentiated forward in our hearing, but then seems to spring outwards to its edges as it ceases and is replaced by the strum of the lead guitar (like the thwack of the paint on the walls), and then by the scratching of the rhythm guitar (like the dripping of the paint down the walls).

The way in which this lack of performative congruity conveys a kind of springiness in the space, and sustains the feeling of flinty sparks struck off the main mass of the soundspace, is also demonstrated outside the passages of recession in the way the vocal extemporisations and the drums relate to the other elements here. It would seem that the containment of the rhythm guitar may well sit seamlessly with the thinness of the vocal and the “patness” of the drums in representing a rear curtain of performative elements behind the dominance of the orchestra. However, these elements do not quite work in this way. The vocal extemporisations are thinned out, with almost a radio quality to them, or a distant exteriority to them, as if they are shouts being heard through a window. They do not sit quite alongside the similarly distanced rhythm guitar. In a way, they have some congruity with the strums of the lead guitar, firstly in a musical way, because they also have the quality of being strummed or flung out, and secondly in a sonic way, because they have a kind of echoic quality; but again, they do not sit within the same space as the lead guitar, which is forward and close to the speaker, with a hint of reverb. There is actually a back-of-mind impression here that the vocals are somehow the endpoint of the strum of the guitar, as if they are the crackly tinkle at the end of the strum, or at least located at the sonic point where the strum ends, because the hint of reverb on the strum, and the strum’s sustain, seems to drift off into a slightly remote place, a place in which the vocals are located. It is as if there is a series of flicked movements of sound across the intro, first to the lead guitar strum, then to the rhythm guitar scratch, and then to the vocal extemporisations.

Similarly, the drums might be expected to be located somewhere congruent with the lead guitar, as both have a fairly clear position in the mix, and have a somewhat normalised position (drums centre, lead guitar left). But when we hear the strum of the lead guitar, we realise that the drums seem to be contained in a slight hollow at the centre of the mix (coded partly by the “patness” of their sound), slightly removed from everything else, in both a contained place, but also in a kind of non-place. It is a non-place precisely because it doesn’t seem to spread anywhere that comes close to the other elements in the mix, and because its self-containment doesn’t even seem to relate to a place or a space outside the sound of the drums themselves. It is almost as if the drums are a pebble caught up in a car tyre that can never be shaken free, but which can never be fully absorbed into the tyre either.

The net result of this is to compound the sense of the relentlessness and size of the main bulk of the song (conveyed by the orchestra and the song’s rhythm), by positing a series of more contained but relatively disparate sounds that seem to get carried along and then left behind in its wake, or lie strewn around its bulk. This “left behind” quality is key here, because it is this quality that lends both an elasticity to the sound (a kind of stretch or furtherance of the bulk of the song), and a flinty “sparkiness”, which seem to form part of the way in which we are engaged in the trajectory of the song. These qualities are further compounded by the fact that the intro (the first 27 seconds) seems to go for a bit longer than it needs to – it seems like the main body of the song should start at about 0:13. It’s not entirely clear what it is about the intro that suggests this, but certainly the first strum of the lead guitar is like an announcement into the song; and conversely, McCartney’s vocalisations suggest a purposeful attempt to drag out the intro longer than is necessary, as if he is encouraging the band to keep going with the intro.

Of course, at 0:27, the song firmly settles into its main body, with a more or less immediate musical movement that is matched by a movement into a more consistently dense block of sound. The overall effect is that the main body of the song is big in a way which one rarely ever hears - not big in a stadium sense (as with the sound of much of the contemporaneous Dark Side of the Moon or The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”), but big in that everything is just squeezed in hard and tight right in and over and under the speakers. It seems to be congruent with much glam production of the time (such as the ChinniChap productions of Suzi Quatro or Sweet), and with the production of heavy blues-oriented acts like Status Quo and AC/DC, which is generally close on the speaker, raw and even at times distorted in sound quality, punching into the speaker and relatively lacking in clarity in the mix. However, unexpectedly, it is heavier and denser than even the production of these acts, unexpected because this is the sweet pop half of the Lennon/McCartney team, and also because the denseness of the sound has a “lo-fi” quality which would seem inconsistent with the recording options available to the ex-Beatle (compare for instance the contemporaneous glam-oriented “Devil Woman” by Ringo Starr which has a much cleaner and brighter mix). Furthermore, “Jet” lacks the strictly performative representation of these acts: Vanda and Young’s production of AC/DC, for instance, though relatively lo-fi, has a performative quality (in terms of spatial placement and separation of instruments in the mix) that “Jet” does not have. A good comparison here is with “Helen Wheels” (recorded at the same time as Band On The Run, and included in some versions of the vinyl album and in the 25th Anniversary Edition of the CD), which is generally presented as being played by a full band ranged in a normative way across a putative stage in front of us, balanced in the mix to reflect a cohesive band performance.

“Jet”, by contrast, is more abstract and distorting. It is not that the sounds are so “over-recorded” that they distort in the mix; it is that what we hear distorts what we might otherwise expect to be our relationship to the music. The full-on nature of the sound assists with this sense of distortion, as it might be expected that by comparison with, for instance, the ChinniChap productions, this song would have distorted sonic elements, though there is no obvious distortion. There is a sense that the song is somehow pushing us back from the speakers, from itself, and from a normal relationship with such a song, and that everything withers and breaks down, or threatens to break down, in its path, including the sound itself. As noted (and similar to the way we might expect the intro to be performative), we also might otherwise expect the music of the main body of the song to have a performative quality, in that the spatial placement of instruments and vocals matches that of a visual image of an imaginary band performing in front of us. However, the main body of the song sits very oddly in the soundspace, if not the least because of the denseness of the keyboard and guitars. There is also a fibrous quality to the thick block of sound, a slight vibration in the guitars and brass, that seems to almost flutter in our ears (which can be heard more easily, for instance, in the passage from 0:52 to 1:03), which is possibly responsible for the sense of distortion, but which also unexpectedly draws attention to the quality (both in terms of its acoustic properties, as well as its “hi-fi”-ness) of the sound (unexpected because, on face value, because of its apparent lower fidelity, this is a work which might be seen to be content with a lower level of punctiliousness in the sound). Added to this, the shouted title line has a peculiar echoic and elevated choral quality, the impetus for which does not seem to arise automatically from the musical logic of the song or the lyrics. There is, of course, a musical imperative for the shouted line: the song is massive, and invites a massive response of any sort; but the title line is shouted by a number of voices, when up till now the vocal has been confined to McCartney alone, and which is his alone for most of the song; furthermore, as noted below, McCartney’s solo voice is produced in a somewhat squeezed way and generally not multitracked, thereby relatively diminished (rather than bulked up) in the mix. The shouted title line therefore seems to sit a bit oddly with this diminishment, as the song doesn’t seem to have been “owned” quite as communally to this point. Yet though the title line is shouted by many voices, it is also somewhat indistinct - we are unable to quite hear the final consonant, and it is not entirely clear whose or how many voices are involved; and it also seems to get lost in the mass of sound, or perhaps get lost on the air. Again, as with the subtle incongruities of the soundspace in the intro, the title line also does not quite sit in the same space as the main bulk of sound; it has an echoic quality that is slightly rounded or enclosed and extended (this quality seems to be focused on a vocal or vocals in the right speaker), partly as if it is shouted in or down or near a metal tube. Whereas the main bulk has a neutral, non-place quality (simply because it is so massive, thick and continuous), the title line is situated just away from us, just away from the bulk of the sound, directed upwards and outwards away from us, and almost in a different context of hearing, like it is a cheer at a football match, as if we are in the bottom row of seats in a stadium and the title line is shouted out above us and echoed back at us under the stadium’s curving roof. As a result of all these factors, the title line also has an exultancy which, though of the expansiveness of the song’s sound, also seems to make the song travel further than it otherwise might seem it should: “Helen Wheels”, for instance, just keeps rolling down the road; “Jet”, however, seems to keep spreading out or spinning off blindly.

As the way in which the title line works would suggest, there is a flintiness to this production which belies the denseness of the sound: an initial assessment might suggest that this denseness is unmarked – it’s a big thunderous song, so ought to be big in the mix. However, the mix is not clean or exact – the most dominant instruments, the keyboard and guitars, are thick and undifferentiated (similar to the undifferentiated quality of the brassy orchestra in the intro), so it is hard to make out exactly what instruments constitute this massive chunk of sound (the notes to the 25th Anniversary Edition suggest there is some string orchestral accompaniment in the main bulk of the song here[1], as they don’t seem to be evident elsewhere; and furthermore, by referring to “guitars”, I am indicating how difficult it is to work out exactly what sort of guitars contribute to the sound, or even whether there is something else in the mix than just keyboards or guitars). This contrasts with “Helen Wheels” where virtually every instrument, including the bass (which is often buried in a mix, to be a felt rather than a perceived presence), is distinct in the mix. There is something cataclysmic and threatening about the sound of “Jet”, precisely because it is so large and undifferentiated, which is slightly unsettling for a song whose title line is shouted like a football chant as some kind of group imprecation. Moreover, it is unusual to have such a massive, undifferentiated sound to dominate the space and be placed central – this should be McCartney’s vocals’ spot, backed by drums, with perhaps another melodic instrument interwoven with it, such as keyboard (compare, for instance, the song that follows “Jet” on the album, “Bluebird”). Such a dense mass should ordinarily be underpinning the vocals and the more melodic or harmonic elements. Once again everything in the song flies off from this mass – it is as if each extraneous element is like a piece of detritus that is caught for a second and then is flung from it. McCartney’s vocals work like this – though they are both central and positioned right and left in the mix, they have a peripheral quality, as if they are being squeezed out to the edges of the space. This is of course assisted by the way the vocals are recorded and mixed – they are somewhat thinned and sound in themselves somewhat squeezed, a quality which is easier to hear by contrast with “Bluebird”. McCartney’s vocals on “Bluebird” are relatively clear, fully formed, recorded to convey many of their subtle qualities, clearly central in the space, forward of the rest of the instruments, and lyrical in quality. By contrast with “Bluebird”, McCartney’s vocals on “Jet” generally sound like they are buried in his head, even somewhere in or behind his nose. They also have a disembodied shimmering quality, as if sitting forward of the mix in a kind of holograph in front of the other sounds, suspended in the air, sitting on the forward edge of the sound. The oddness of this is compounded by the fact that they lack the kind of fullness of presence we might otherwise expect with lead vocals: they’re almost an old-fashioned radio voice. There is also a sense that the vocals seem to be squeezed out from the grain of the song’s sound, as if they are extruded from the fuzz of the main block of sound.

The rhythm and lead (when featured, as in the bridge “Ah Mater…” and subsequent instrumental bars) guitars and drums continue to work like this too – they sound dry and parched, as if there is no room for them in the soundspace, and they are battling to make their presence felt. The synth solo also has an odd position in this song: the wasp synth used is in itself relatively thin and “dinky” compared to the guitars, and so does not quite sit congruently with the weight of the song, and of other songs of a similar size (organ or electric piano are often the electric keyboards used on other heavy rock tracks, and even the rounder clearer sounding synth on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” has an organ quality to it). Furthermore, it is still relatively unusual to have a synth instrumental solo in a pop song (even the “Time” and “Money”, the U.S. singles from Pink Floyd’s contemporaneous production opus Dark Side of the Moon, which was remarkable at the time for its use of synths, do not have synth solos), and the synth was still suffering under the burden of being seen as not a “real” instrument, so its featured presence in such a heavy full-on song is not expected, especially when it is so diminished compared to the guitars. There is a kind of concession to the style of the song in the use of the wasp synth, as it has some of the harsh buzzy qualities of a lead guitar; but it nonetheless cannot escape a quality of sounding thin or slightly ineffectual in the solo. In a way, the synth solo has similarities with the lead vocal, in that it is thin and squeezed, in a similar frequency range, with a similar radiophonic quality, and has a lightly holographic suspended feel in the mix.

The way in which the song moves from the intro into the main body also demonstrates this flinty quality. At a casual hearing, there barely seems to be any “movement” in the soundspace, in that the size and thickness of the orchestra is more or less simply replaced by the size and thickness of the electric instruments (synth and lead guitar, and whatever else is in this mix). There is of course a musical change (in rhythm and instrumentation), which is also marked overtly (by a short drum roll, a slight musical pause in proceedings under the drums, and the shouted “Jet”); but the song still sounds “big”, relatively undifferentiated and relentless in our listening space. At first hearing, there is a kind of normalisation to the space by the removal of the slightly off-centre and neutralised brass, and their replacement by a solid rock core which drives forward the conventional rock rhythm, with drums and guitars positioned conventionally in relation to this core. However, the sonic change is characterised more subtly, felt more than overtly noticed: the main sonic bulk, for instance, moves from being predominantly central and right, to being predominantly central, with bass sitting squarely central underneath it, and the shouted title line spreading upwards (and slightly left and right) above it, even though drums and rhythm guitar remain in position and do not change in quality. This change in itself has an odd “flintiness” to it. Closer listening also reveals that the title line is oddly disembodied and rises above the core (matching the disembodiment of McCartney’s lead vocal); and as noted, the drums actually don’t move anywhere, they don’t fill out, they don’t rise in size, and they retain their contained slightly vocalic quality. There is a kind of “peering through the mist” quality to this change therefore: when things appear to have become normal, they have actually become slightly phantasmic, with elements seeming to float in and out of the mist.

This kind of subtle variation over the course of the song is one of the key ways that the song leaves its mark on us as listeners, and one of the best ways to illustrate this is through the way McCartney, in subtle detail, uses and manipulates his voice over the lines: the variations of McCartney's voice build up a subtle complexity which contribute to the "bigness" of the song, with a kind of travelling over the landscape of the song through the little markers and variations of his voice. As a result, and almost confoundingly, McCartney’s voice doesn't retain a single kind of projected image of who the narrator is - it's not entirely cock rock power singing, and it's not all ironic sauciness, and it's not entirely scouse streetwise. The narrator remains somewhat elusive (which perhaps reflects the fact that the narrator is somewhat elusive even to himself: “I thought the only lonely place was on the moon”), so that we as listeners slide with the narrator through the emotions of the song.

It’s important to realise the net effect of this variation, and how this variation works. It’s not that the variation is constructing like a jigsaw a cohesive imaginary picture. The variation works in a less articulated way than that, and it is perhaps this kind of variation that illustrates how sound production works as art, or at least, one way in which it works as art. The variations are like little bits of life, little blossoms on a tree that set up a moment of pleasure in the total run of the song. Not that the song overall isn’t pleasurable; but in the arrival of each variation, there is a momentary feeling of pleasure arising from the contrast that the variation creates from the mass that surrounds it. Again, this contrast does not work as some kind of aesthetic mechanical lever, though in other situations it could; on “Jet”, the contrasts are worked subtly and almost surreptitiously, so that each moment of pleasure seems to just barely surface from the morass. They work partly through repetition as well: it is by playing the song over and over that we build up a sense of how the variations work against each other and within the context of the song, and how they actually stand up as entities in their own right. They work at times as tiny brakes on the flow of the song (such as the drawn out and slightly morose “And Jet…” lines), giving a small pleasure in twisting us away from what we are expecting; or as tactile conduits of the song (as with the continuation of this line, as it moves from the slight scouse pronunciation to an almost screamed cock rock belter in “I thought that the major/you was a little lady suffragette” in the last two manifestations). In the play of this line in itself there is a kind of pleasure, because McCartney is using the fibre of his voice to twist out the words against the grain so to speak, against what we are expecting with how the line should work. For instance, there is almost a physical palpability to the way he pronounces (with a slight accent) “And Jet”, with the sustained scouse sibilance to the final consonant in most of its iterations, and a kind of textural quality to the second vowel, a faint thickening of the vowel. It is not that he is giving the line a meaning it might not otherwise have; it is that he is articulating it with more complexity and with a flow that we might not otherwise expect (we might normally expect a line that is simply belted out in its entirety). In the repetition of the line as well within the song (rather than the effect of repeated plays of the song), there is a construction of pleasure from altered expectations: each time the line appears, it is slightly different, and different in ways that operates in a kind of conversational and cumulative way, so that even though McCartney is not predominantly speaking to the listener, it seems like there is a sense that he is, because the line changes subtly as if he is engaged with the listener in a conversation to-and-fro. (Ultimately, McCartney does address the listener, as Jet, which makes the address of the song more complex.) The line is variously:

- And Jet, I thought the major was a lady suffragette
- And Jet, I thought the major was a little lady suffragette
- And Jet, I thought that the major was a little lady suffragette
- And Jet, do you know I thought you was a little lady suffragette

It is as if McCartney is refining his sense of who the major is for a listener (or for himself); which is obviously complicated by the fact that it seems that the major becomes Jet in the end, or perhaps that McCartney is working through a fog of comprehension about who is playing what role in his mind. There is also another sort of refinement worked out in this line, though the variation in the way McCartney sings the line over the course of the song. With respect to the first part of the line, “And Jet”, each repetition (at 0:48, 1:17, 2:17, 3:16, and 3:31), and especially the final two, seems to be sung with increasing love but also increasing resignation, and an increasing sense of reflective maturity and mellowness, as if the narrator must deal with the fact that he can’t have what he obviously wants, though this is also a source of frustration for him. By contrast, with respect to the second part of the line, McCartney sings each repetition with an increasing rawness, as if in thinking about Jet’s unattainability, he is increasingly reminded of the effect she has on him, with the increasing rawness suggesting that part of this effect is sexual. This quality is also conveyed by two repetitions of part of the line (“my little lady”) after the final full repetition of the line, with a falsetto “ooh” following the second of these two partial repetitions follow further conveying the sexual dimension of this reminiscence. One of the results of this is that the narrator is given a personality which seems to extend larger than, or outside, the song: there are aspects of his personality that seem yet to be discovered, which in itself seems to draw us back to the song to discover what these aspects are. This also shades off into giving the song an overall personality: it lends a quality of desirability about the piece, of (as suggested) a knowability, which we seek to re-engage with each time we listen.

This variation of the line thus generates its own sense of small pleasure, which is aided by the conversational tone of the line, the use of the odd image of the major being a lady suffragette (generating a series of questions in the listeners mind: is this major a transvestite? Is the major a female soldier? Is “major” being used in some odd metaphorical way?), the twisted pronunciation of the words across the line, and the complication in the final repetition of the full line in Jet becoming the lady suffragette. It’s common for McCartney and Lennon to use odd phrases (often uses of nouns as epithets, such as in “I Am The Walrus”, and so on) that seem to spin out from the sense of the line, verse or song in which they sit, and here McCartney’s use of “lady suffragette” is quite contained and taut – a fleeting image that gains little explanation in the song, and as a result gains resultant pleasure in its very failure to explain itself.

The pleasure also works because of the variation’s subtlety, and this is also expressed, other than through the use of the images themselves, through the way McCartney’s voice is produced. As noted, “Jet” is produced as a massive block of pulsating sound, and McCartney’s voice is quite small or contained within this: at times it’s almost like it’s squeezed out of the sound around it, or like it is one strand in a tight rope of sound, which is barely discernible from the other strands. But it is the “barely discernible” nature of the voice that makes the variations all the more pleasurable – where we barely discern the variations as they arise from the rest of the song, like subtle changes in the grain of the sound. In a way, there is a sense of McCartney’s voice travelling on the “wind” of the song overall (though “wind” is far too airy an image to accurately capture the effect of the sound of “Jet”), being tossed in the airstream, and flicking up like a leaf as it is caught in momentary updrafts or side currents (these being the variations), but all the time drawn along with the main current. The key to the feel of the song is in that line “with the wind in your hair of a thousand laces”, because it is this image that seems to generate the whole thrust of the production of the song: the sense of directional movement (the image of the line is of someone riding a motorbike – “climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky”), that is carefree in its intent, but still controlled by many constraints – the road, the physical requirements of the bike, safety considerations. There is a “Born To Be Wild” quality to the song, without the epic wildness of that song: “Jet” is both more contained and more detached, more unreal. The odd phrases and momentary images work in this overall schema as well, like characters fleetingly passed or faces fleetingly glimpsed while on the road. Lines like “was your father as bold as the sergeant major” and “Ah Mater, want Jet to always love me…much later” seem to speak for a whole series of experiences and relationships that we have little access to, and know very little about, but which seem to represent a great deal (after all, exactly who was the sergeant major, in what way were “he” and Jet’s father bold, and what is McCartney deferring to “much later”?). The reference in the definite article of “the sergeant major” seems to point to a window through which a whole other world exists, but of which we only have the briefest glimpse. Or the wonderful line “I thought the only lonely place was on the moon”, which is stretched out for most of its length, then almost rushed off in the last four words, as if consigning a whole set of experiences to the past in one fell swoop. This line also works in an odd way: it speaks through an odd interplay of distance and proximity. The image is constructed through positioning loneliness: loneliness has a place (“on the moon”), rather than a state, it is given a specificity and a physicality; but that specificity is actually very distant (as distant as human experience can be and ever had been); and by being distant, McCartney defers its usual location; yet in reality, loneliness for McCartney (by implication) is much closer than the moon, almost as if the place of loneliness is taken up in that space between him and where he has otherwise posited for it (i.e. “on the moon”). So the energy of the image itself – the distance of the moon and the consequent distance of loneliness – becomes the space in which loneliness exists, in the gap between where it should be (in the logic of the line, the moon), and where it actually is (in the heart of the narrator). The rhymes internal to the line (“only” and “lonely”), the way in which this line is sung (the long notes on these words), and the use of long open vowels in the rhymes, further convey this energy; with the closely-positioned internal rhymes seeming to tie up the image, so that it has a tight compression that works both by making its sense less than immediately obvious (we tend to hear or feel the rhyme, rather than the full sense of the words – we hear “loneliness”, rather than much of the detail of the image), and by giving the loneliness a touch of aching inevitability. Again, this image does not work simply by means of a clearly mapped structure; it works almost by default, or in retrospect, so that what seems to be the clear intent of the image is actually only the surface under which the image actually works. And again, this is how the song works as an artistic artefact overall, by its complexities slowly rising up from the broad mass which surround them.

Overall, as noted above with reference to such lines as “I thought the only lonely place was on the moon” and “with the wind in your hair of a thousand laces”, the lyrics have an odd picturesque quality that only becomes fully apparent over successive listenings. They seem to start at a point almost before where we might expect them to, as if we have been caught in the middle of a scene whose origin we were not witness to:

“I can almost remember their funny faces
that time you told them that you were going to be marrying soon”

These lines work in an odd layered way: superficially, they are describing a scene whose full features we do not have access to. To whose “funny faces” is the narrator referring? Who is the “you” of the address (for it is not immediately obvious that the shouted “Jet” is a person, and is in fact the addressee of the song)? And to whom is the “you” getting married? It is almost as if we have accidentally stumbled across this scene. Yet the scene being described is itself only a description by the narrator, so that our relationship is in fact with the narrator and the story he is telling (rather than the scene with the “funny faces”), and what we seem to have stumbled across is half a conversation, again the full context of which we don’t have access to. Yet the compression of the lines makes these relationships intermingle in our minds, so that both seem to be working at the same time: as a result, we seem to be invited deep into this situation, while at the same time we remain somewhat removed from it. In terms of the narrative conversation, it is hard for us to know why the narrator is talking to the “you” in this way, about a subject of a somewhat personal nature, especially when we are privy to the conversation - why are we given access to this seemingly relatively personal conversation? Furthermore, the manner of relating this anecdote is slightly odd: why does the narrator only “almost” remember – if he knows the faces were “funny”, surely he can remember them? And the “that time” suggests other times that the “you” has said somewhat startling things to the “funny faces”, though we have no knowledge of these other times or sayings. As a result, we seem to be caught in a moment which is passing us by even as we are introduced into it. Successive listenings to the song don’t increase our enlightenment much: we get an understanding that there is likely to have been something romantic between the narrator and Jet, but this is not explicit, nor that the “something” is in the past: the only illuminating references are at the end of this verse: “I thought the only lonely place was on the moon”, and at the start of the third verse: “Climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky”. With relation to the first of these lines, it could equally be referring either to loneliness after separation, or loneliness as a result of unrequited love; and with relation to the second of these lines, the narrator could equally be talking about the present, but even in this, it is not clear whether the narrator is inviting Jet to re-live a past experience with him, or to leave the situation that he/she is in and experience something new. Just as with the song’s production, we are made to feel that the song is rolling almost over the top of us, and we are helplessly caught up in its wake, with barely any purchase in its bulk, and at any moment we could be flung away from it through our failure to fully grasp the situation. Yet these lines, which seem to be so carelessly flung from the song, also seem to map out the song’s overall territory or trajectory, so that, though we don’t piece the song together like a jigsaw, it starts to build up an organic fluid shape which pulls us in at the same time that we feel like we are not quite getting what the song’s shape is. In a sense, these lyrics show that the song works up an abstract bulk that has a life of its own, and in which we find a part, rather than find a way to circumscribe or contain. What compounds this for us in this opening stanza is precisely the picturesque quality of the lines: there is a vividness or liveliness to the scene depicted in this stanza, despite the lack of detail, a liveliness that is as much to do with the feelings (both within the embedded scene, and within the relationship between narrator and Jet) as with the image conveyed. This lively picturesque quality is also conveyed through the parade of characters who are only brought to our attention as labels: “your father”, “the sergeant major”, “the major”, “Mater”, as if there is a whole world of people (with concomitant relationships) which disappears behind us as we travel through the song. This world has an idiosyncratic character too, conveyed through the archaic “Mater” (perhaps an idiomatic use of the word, and therefore keying into a regionalised sense of the world) and the military “sergeant major” and “major” (whose unexplained appearance leave us wondering as to the significance of their rank and military identity within this world).

Part of the liveliness also rests in the way in which McCartney uses his voice through the first two lines of each of the verses: there is a touch of conversation in the tone of his voice, as it runs down over the melody of each line. But more than this, the texture of his voice changes too: with each line it starts out slightly strained and forced, but it eases down into mellower and warmer tones, slightly buried, by the end of each line. He also does something slightly odd with the articulation of the second line in the couplet (which he sustains over each of the verses): there is a lack of precision in the articulation of the first few words of the second line, coupled with the note of strain in his voice, so that it lends a quality of physical manipulation of his voice over the lines. This of course is partly to do with the fact that the second line in each verse feels slightly crowded syllabically: but this crowding seems to be in itself a function of the note of desperation of the song, as if the narrator is trying to squeeze in as much observation as he can without appearing overly observant, retaining a sense of relaxed cool. In keeping with the overall character of the song, there is only a hint of desperation here: the purchase, at any one point, of the details of the song in our consciousness is generally not great, with such notes working instead as subtle colours that build up over the course of the song. For instance, even the quality of the second line being somewhat crowded is only a shadow over the line, almost like an afterthought. In any case, the note of desperation seems to be in concord with the general flavour of the narrator’s attitude, one of reckless abandon (hence the “climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky”).

As suggested, this attitude of reckless abandon is characteristic of this song, inherent to its instrumentation and its production. The comparison with “Born To Be Wild” is instructive here, because “Jet”’s reckless abandon does not work in the same way as in this latter song. Steppenwolf’s version of “Born To Be Wild” is large in all its characteristics, musically, instrumentally, in its arrangement, and in its production. This song is indeed a manifestation of the lines “fire all of your guns at once and/explode into space”: the song, in its entirety, throws itself into space, with no sense of return, it lives fully in its moment of 3:30 and is gone. “Jet”, on the other hand, works so that the throwaway-ness is actually partly playful, and also partly (as noted above) has a kind of durability to it, a staying-behind quality, as if what is thrown away is like litter that remains lining our way through the course of the song, and stays with us after the song has rolled over us. One of the prime ways that this is manifest in “Jet” is the song’s glam qualities. The song is not entirely glam: it lacks the overall trash aesthetic of music such as that by Marc Bolan or Sweet, or Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust output. However, it has elements that draw on glam, loosening the thickness of the song ever so slightly, and giving a kind of aesthetic bounce or play to its relentless roll. The first way this is evident, as noted above, is in the chant-like “Jet” which repeats through the song. This echoes the playful football-chant qualities of songs like T-Rex’s “Chariot Choogle”, Sweet’s “Hell-Raiser”, or Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” – the group chant elements in these songs have a reckless play quality to them, a kind of group abandon, which is called on in the repeated title line of “Jet”. This quality is also found in other choral elements in the song, notably the “oo-oo-oo-ooh-oo-oo-ooh-oo-oo” following each “Jet” in the chorus, and to a lesser extent the intermittent choral backing vocals in the second and third verses. Another glam element is the loopiness of the repeated refrain (“Ah Mater…”), which echoes the glam of ChinniChap acts and T-Rex. This is conveyed in the slightly odd wording (the opening invocation, the use of a word – “Mater” – that has a kind of archaic quality or dialectic idiosyncrasy unusual in a pop song, and the ellipis of the “want Jet…”; compare for instance the lyrics of T-Rex’s “Telegram Sam”, or Sweet’s “The Ballroom Blitz”), and the touch of “jungle” rhythm in the drums (compare Suzi Quatro’s “Can The Can” or Sweet’s “Wig Wam Bam”, especially in the repeat of the first verse of this latter song). There is also a note of imminent (but empty) threat in the rising brass backing here, reminiscent of the ramped-up guitars of “Chariot Choogle” or the woody strings of T‑Rex’s “Children of the Revolution”. The glam elements here are at the same time fully part of the mass of the song, its massive exultant trajectory, but also slightly askew from it, as if in its relentlessness the mass of the song is spinning off small mutations, each mutation sticking with us and slightly playing with our perception of the song.

This sense of play is also evident in other ways through the song. One of these is the intermittent linguistic play in the lyrics (some examples of which are described elsewhere, such as the use of “Mater”, and the gradual changes in the repetition of the line beginning “And Jet…”). Another example is demonstrated in the title: “Jet” is a peculiar name for a woman, and it’s not entirely clear why it is chosen; however, from the logic of the lyrics, it seems that part of the reason is as a kind of expansive appellation reflecting the apparent carefree headstrong character of the addressee. Its use is also partly a function of being extracted from the word “suffragette”, which Jet turns out to be in the final lines of the song: there is a sense that Jet is independent feminism personified (and which is partly a source of the narrator’s admiration and frustration, as examined above), in name and character. Another example of this linguistic play is in the gentle referentiality in the use of “sergeant major”, which has overtones (obvious to us on analysis, though not immediately obvious in the logic of the song) of “Sgt. Pepper”. The resonance of this becomes slightly stronger with the fact that “Jet” appears on an album which in itself makes gentle references back to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, through its title and cover photo.

Another way this sense of play is evident is through another quality, already touched on, which threads through the song, and which when looked at separately seems to be slightly incongruous with the quantum of the song’s style. This is in the note of “tropicality” in the song. “Tropicality” is a slight misnomer here, as not all these playlful elements are necessarily tied to some sort of reference to “tropical” styles; but what is most important is the element of mellowness, relaxation, and sunny carelessness that acts as a fleck on the edges of this song, and which have some reference to a (westernised) view of Caribbean styles, or conjure a westernised image of a Caribbean setting. Some of these elements have already been referred to – elements such as the vocal extemporisations in the intro (“come on”), which are almost like distant shouts on a (Caribbean?) cricket pitch, the reggae-like rhythm in the intro (which is retained in the scratching of the rhythm guitar through the song), the opening out or recession of the soundspace in the intro triggered by the strum on the lead guitar (as if the space has been eased off and we are being led to look out in a relaxed fashion away from the immediate here-and-now, perhaps as if we are relaxing under shade looking off into the distance), the increasing mellowness of the first two lines of each of the verses, and the pseudo “jungle” rhythms which also figure in the glam-oriented refrain.

Other elements are a number of vocal utterances which have a slightly mellow sentimental feel. The first of these are the first three appearances of “I thought” (“…I thought the only lonely place…”, “…I thought the major was a lady suffragette” (twice)), which have an oddly attenuated semi-nasal quality, lending the words a slightly sentimental, affectionate, arch and almost self-deprecating tone. Some of these qualities are found in the first few repetitions of “And Jet”, which however have a slightly more distanced (and less self-deprecating) quality, but nonetheless retain a kind of watchful sentimentality, with a hint of mellow reflectiveness. Finally, this is also found in the “Ah Mater…” refrains, and especially in the closing words “much later”. Interestingly, these refrains also have a hint of scouse accent, plus, as a result, a slight reference to the more cutesy or saucy pop qualities of some songs by The Beatles (such as “Lovely Rita” or “Sexy Sadie”). This latter is an odd move, as it seems to slide the song ever so slightly out of orbit, and sits in distinction to both the heavy bulk of the song and the other “tropical” flecks in the song, particularly as it builds on the glam qualities of the passage, and introduces a kind of knowing wink in its touch of intertextuality. In the refrain, the song seems to momentarily begin to rise on a tide of pure lighthearted fun (rather than primarily reckless abandon): the referentiality seems to give us a glimpse of a world that lies outside of the song, almost a world that we shouldn’t be looking into, and almost consequential to this, the lyrics seem to slightly lose referentiality within the logic of the song. Though the refrain refers to Jet, it changes address; and moreover, the address is to the idiosyncratically named “Mater” (which has an obvious resonance to “major”); so that the refrain slightly confuses the song’s overall address and voice. In a way, the refrain provides a new slant on the narrator’s feelings: it more or less confirms the narrator’s love for Jet (though it still does not clarify whether this love is or was unrequited); but the playful quality of the refrain, and the nature of the address, actually simultaneously slightly shift it out of the orbit of the elusive love relationship between Jet and the narrator, so that it gains a kind of abstract universalised unreachable love song quality, along the lines of Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” (or even, perhaps, like the first half of “Lovely Rita”). There is also a cheeky sidling quality, obviously consonant with songs like “Lovely Rita”, which seem to draw in an engagement with the lines through the attraction of their idiomatic quality. This quality is a soft tint however; it does not dominate the lines; it has a kind of familiar quotidian quality, or a quality of the ordinary and everyday, of a merry life looking up from the street; but again it serves to slightly detour the song. In these lines, this everyday quality sits slightly oddly over the abstract, slightly universalised sense of the words, so that what we are left with is actually a note of colour and warmth, a kind of special glow to the refrain that causes it to sparkle just that little bit more than the surrounding mass, hooking into us with a sentimental mechanism, without it being sentimental, as if the very tip of the way in which sentiment works on us is being applied, rather than a thorough concession to sentimentality.

This note of fun with an edge of sentimentality, a kind of mellow delight, is also found in the “Caribbean” play of the opening extemporisations and the reggae guitar, which is echoed later on in the song in the second round of slightly dramatised vocal extemporisations, just prior to the third verse, where McCartney (and possibly others) says what sounds to my ears like “what you say” (plus variations), followed by a vocal trill. This sense of Caribbean fun is also demonstrated in the song’s closing brass, which has an MOR tropical beachside feel (with an obvious similarity to McCartney’s “Goodnight Tonight”), and which also carries forward more explicitly a Caribbean touch conveyed in the faint hint of ska in the brass of the intro. The closing brass is intriguing: at first thought, it is simply a mellow winding down of the song. But it sits at odds with the main attack of the song, melodically, instrumentally, and structurally: a song like this shouldn’t wind down mellowly, and in particular, it shouldn’t wind down to a point where it seems to drift off into some vision of a relaxed Caribbean setting. It seems to close off the song without really closing it off, because it leaves an unsettled feeling, as if it expresses a lack of regard for the intensity of emotions expressed through the song. It also has a decided MOR feeling, a quality of musically “copping out”. However, in a kind of odd twist, it doesn’t feel like the song has “copped out” overall: it seems to slightly twist the song, leaving a veneer over our feeling that leaves us wondering, and making us wanting to go back into the song to try to figure out how the feeling we’re left with fits in with the rest of the song. For despite this sense of “copping out”, this mellow feeling also seems to fit inherently within the logic of the song: there is a kind of inarticulate “rightness” about this ending, which leaves us reflective. The mellowness has a quality of bemusement, of fatalism and resignation, of comfort, of wonderment, and of openness, that seems to flow from the narrator’s own sense of reckless lack of purchase into his own emotions (“I thought the only lonely place was on the moon”). It illustrates that it is wrong to assume that McCartney’s leanings towards MOR (which wax and wane over the years and from song to song) are somehow a demonstration of lack of artistic resolve or strength: at its best (as here), this deference to MOR manifests an odd combination of comfort and carefree abandon, a sense of joy and wonderment spinning out from the quotidian, that simultaneously celebrates the everyday, as well as floating high above it. Perhaps the greatest example of this is in “Penny Lane”. Here in “Jet”, this momentary piece of MOR has the quality of soothing the savage breast, while seeming to slide over the world and slide over a sense of resolution to the song. It’s almost like we’ve just stepped off the juggernaut for just a moment, and in so doing, our whole outlook changes with that simple action. It represents the final act in our overall way of engaging with the song – as a whole, the song is a mass that seems present to us, but which, as we travel with it, we actually seem to continually or repeatedly “forget” in a way, as we perceive the smaller flung off bits that seem to mark the variety or change in the overall bulk, like flecks in the quartz. This close is one final way of “forgetting”, of pulling away from the song; but in so doing, we are also led to open up another process of re-engagement, by sitting in a moment of calm pleasure reflecting on the song as a whole. In this way, the song has an aching or ponderous muscularity: it does not spring off the ear, or out of the speaker; the lyrics do not spring off the page; the imagery does not grab us with the lithe muscularity of carefully constructed conceits. Instead, these elements gradually unwind out of the song, a small movement at a time, which we only catch by being continually re-engaged through these elements themselves.
[1] “Visconti scored the…strings and saxes on ‘Jet’…”, booklet in the 25th Anniversary Edition CD of Band On The Run, MPL Communications Ltd./Capitol Records Inc., 1999.

Image © 1973 MPL Communications Inc., photo by Clive Arrowsmith
Band On The Run, Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (including "Lovely Rita"), The Beatles [aka The White album] (including "Sexy Sadie"), 1967-1970 (including "Penny Lane", "I Am The Walrus") available at http://www.amazon.com/
"Jet", "Band On The Run", "Bluebird", "Helen Wheels", "Time", "Money", "Hell Raiser", "Won't Get Fooled Again", "Devil Woman", "Born To Be Wild", "Chariot Choogle", "Bennie and the Jets", "Telegram Sam", "The Ballroom Blitz", "Can The Can", "Wig Wam Bam", "Children of the Revolution", "Pretty Flamingo", "Goodnight Tonight" available at iTunes Store

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