John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“The Fool On The Hill”

Did The Beatles write the greatest song for April Fool’s Day?

By - Apr 1st, 2016 02:25 pm
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April Fool’s Day is a time for trickery. From practical jokes to the slate of candidates duking it out on the right, it’s not hard to understand why it’s often called the cruelest month. But, tricks are not always a bad thing; ask any magician or musician.

There is an important difference, however, between the two pursuits: In magic, as soon as you reveal the trick, it loses its supernatural quality. In music, you can show the exact strings that are being pulled, clear out the smoke and do away with the mirrors, leaving every bit of the inner workings revealed, and it loses nothing. I know what The Beatles did in “The Fool On The Hill,” and it is still every bit as magical.

The easiest trick in the book also happens to be one of the best, especially in the hands of that gifted mop top, Paul McCartney. It’s one he and John Lennon employed so regularly, you would think it would have played out early. Somehow, every time they changed from major to minor tonalities in a song, it worked. Like gangbusters.

In simple terms, the verses of the song are in D major. The choruses are in D minor. This is a good song to listen to if you want to understand the difference between major and minor. Even though they are both in D, nominally, the move from major to minor and back means the key has in fact changed. Presto Change-o!

Major and minor chords evoke simple emotions. Generally, you can count on major chords to sound happy and minor ones sad. Not always true, though — Country and Klezmer music will testify to that. Beyond simple major and minor chords, there are alterations that feel more ambiguous. You can hear melancholy, wistfulness, restlessness and many others. It’s probably possible to express any feeling harmonically, and all probably have already been done. But you have to be good.

John and Paul, the main writers in the band were unschooled. So what? Irving Berlin and Erroll Garner shared their lack of literacy — somehow they created timeless melodies. To have innate musicality and such good instincts is a gift from that other place, whatever you may call it. To work it to death, the way The Fabs did, was just discipline. Too often bios get in the way of the real story, but these guys truly worked their butts off!

Fueling the collaboration was a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) rivalry between Lennon and McCartney. It was friendly competition and they cribbed each other’s notes all over the place. In this song, almost certainly a 100 percent McCartney creation, the lyrics are every bit as clever and crafted as Lennon’s, who is often given more credit in that department. This is the original version, though its paired with fun images from a recent movie.

(We start in D major)

Day after day

Alone on a hill

The man with the foolish grin

Is keeping perfectly still

But nobody wants to know him

They can see that he’s just a fool

And he never gives an answer

(Then switch to D minor)

But the fool on the hill

Sees the sun going down

And the eyes in his head

See the world spinning round

(Then back to major…)

Well on the way

Head in a cloud

The man of a thousand voices

Talking perfectly loud

But nobody ever hears him

Or the sounds he appears to make

And he never seems to notice

(Then minor…)

But the fool on the hill

Sees the sun going down

And the eyes in his head

See the world spinning round

(Major…)

And nobody seems to like him

They can tell what he wants to do

And he never shows his feelings

(Minor…)

But the fool on the hill

Sees the sun going down

And the eyes in his head

See the world spinning round

© John Lennon/Paul McCartney

Beautiful images — the lightly mystic atmosphere match the music so well. No wonder it was covered by Brazil 66, it was already halfway to Rio.

There are alternatives to conservatory training for those not lucky enough to receive it. In this case, the Malcolm Gladwell rule of 10,000 hours of practice applies when you spend countless speed-fueled nights in Hamburg nightclubs plying your trade. Then you might arrive back at whatever cheap hotel they put you in, with an after-the-gig buzz. Rather than sleep, you write a song or practice on your instrument. After six sets and who knows how many writing sessions and late night jams later, you have probably made you quota. It pays dividends later with songs like this one.

The wonder of all this trickery is that, while it hints at cheapness, the intentions behind it somehow remain noble. To provide real uplift or communicate some deep emotion is not an easy task. It requires a gift conferred at birth and a determined, almost maniacal devotion. The Beatles were rewarded with untold wealth and fame, but we didn’t do too badly ourselves; those songs also made our lives much richer.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: “The Fool On The Hill””

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Being “unschooled” musically (but self-taught and a genius!), Paul McCartney certainly did wonders with the lyrics of all of his songs (partnered by John Lennon, who also wrote self-taught songs). Intuition in terms of anything artistic is unlearnable, but these two certainly had a lot of it!

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