It may have been an ode to Paul McCartney’s beloved sheepdog, but “Martha My Dear” has roots that reach to the British music hall tradition, similar to the earlier Beatles track “All Together Now.” At the same time, musicologist Alan Pollack writes in his “Notes On” series that appearances can be deceiving. “Don’t be fooled: the gracious surface charm of this song is more substantively belied by novel touches in the departments of form, phrasing and harmony than you might ever notice without a closer look,” he notes. This standout track from the Beatles’ White Album subverts the typical pop song format in structure and content, surprising the listener with audible twists and turns. Another lesser-known fact: “Martha My Dear” is essentially a McCartney solo recording, as he is joined only by classical musicians.
As McCartney told Barry Miles in Many Years from Now, the song began as a piano exercise. “It’s quite hard for me to play; it’s a two-handed thing, like a little set piece … but I wrote it as that, something a bit more complex for me to play. Then while I was blocking out words — you just mouth out sounds and some things come — I found the words ‘Martha my dear,’” McCartney said. He called the track a “fantasy song,” likening it to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in terms of made-up characters and situations. “I’m not really speaking to Martha; it’s a communication of some sort of affection but in a slightly abstract way: ‘You silly girl, look what you’ve done,’ all that sort of thing,” McCartney explained. “Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl named Martha, it’s actually a dog, and our relationship was platonic, believe me.”
Paul McCartney first purchased the Old English Sheepdog puppy in 1965, but penned the ode to his friend Martha three years later in India. Recording commenced at Trident Studios on October 4, 1968, under the direction of Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Barry Sheffield. He first laid down guide vocals and piano in one take, then overdubbed the drums for the middle section. Later in the evening, 14 session musicians added violins, violas, cellos, trumpets, flugelhorn, trombone, and tuba. Martin composed the score, working off a demo McCartney submitted. Once the musicians departed the studio, McCartney re-recorded his lead vocals, also adding handclaps. He completed “Martha My Dear” on October 5, overdubbing electric guitar and bass; mono and stereo mixes were also finished that day.
As Pollack points out in his analysis, “Martha My Dear” contains atypically longer instrumental sections in the introduction, middle break and end. The introduction lasts the length of the entire first verse, thus McCartney only sings the second verse before arriving at the initial bridge (“Hold your head up, you silly girl”). Next the instrumental section again replaces an entire verse, but is accented by handclaps. He immediately segues into the bridge, but this time omits the “Take a good look around you” section. After delivering a final verse, the strings and McCartney’s descending bass serve as the outro.
The bouncy beginning piano recalls music hall songs; McCartney had a particular fondness for this vaudeville-type entertainment, as his father Jim previously played in Jim Mac’s Band, an act that performed in music halls in the 1920s. To entertain occasionally liquor-filled crowds, singers, musicians, dancers, and comedians would develop light routines that would evoke humorous, nostalgic, romantic, and patriotic imagery. Indeed, McCartney evokes nostalgia and romance in his opening piano riffs, although he adds sophisticated chord changes at the “Remember me, Martha my love” section. Compare the intro with this 1938 performance by music hall pianist Carroll Gibbons, here playing “It’s Only You” and “The Way There” (skip to about 6:27), and note the similarities in style.
As he delivers the first verse, the strings enter the picture, with Paul McCartney affecting a slightly upper-crust accent. This technique echoes the high/low contrast that Beatles bandmate George Harrison would use in “Piggies”; in other words, McCartney sings about a dog over a dramatic classical arrangement. When the bridge occurs, brass instruments are introduced, with the tuba providing an oompah sound. This sound underscores the humor in the lyrics, evoking chuckles at his “silly girl” repetition. One can imagine music hall audiences singing and clapping along. Suddenly the mood shifts, with an electric guitar piercing through otherwise nostalgic music. “Take a good look around you,” McCartney commands, the drums and bass chugging behind.
As abruptly as it came in, the guitar rapidly departs before the next verse, the strings and brass once again taking over. After a brief reprise of the bridge (minus the “Take a good look” section), the song moves on to the final verse, which slightly echoes the first verse in content and rhyme. At the beginning, McCartney sings “Martha my dear, though I spend my days in conversation,” and “Remember me”; at the end, he slightly alters these lines. “Martha my dear, you have always been my inspiration,” he sings, pleading with her to “Be good to me.” As the descending bass and strings bring a somber end to the song, the listener thus exits this nostalgic journey. Just a few months later, the Beatles would undertake the journey once more during the Twickenham sessions.
In typical Beatles fashion, “Martha My Dear” incorporates other genres into rock, but also subverts the typical verse-chorus form. Lyrically, it encourages music hall-type singalongs yet introduces modern elements like electric guitar, which lend a distinctly rock edge. While a seemingly simple ditty, “Martha My Dear” challenges pop conventions and demonstrates a willingness to merge seemingly disparate musical forms into an instantly familiar yet fresh sound.
In the end, Paul McCartney advised not reading too much into the fun tune. “You see, I just start singing some words with a tune, you know what I mean. Mainly I’m just doing a tune and then some words come into my head, you know,” he said in a 1968 interview with Radio Luxembourg. “And these happened to be ‘Martha my dear, though I spend my days in conversation.’ So you can read anything you like into it, but really it’s just a song. It’s me singing to my dog.”
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