The Beatles, “Not a Second Time” from With the Beatles (1963): Deep Beatles

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“Not a Second Time” may be a hidden gem off With the Beatles, but it has also become famous for two other words: “Aeolian cadence.”

The December 27, 1963 London Times review of this 1963 Beatles album praised the song in a rather flowery manner, with critic William Mann writing “harmonic interest is typical of their quicker songs, too, and one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of ‘Not a Second Time’ (the chord progression which ends Mahler’s Song of the Earth).” John Lennon later dismissed the article, stating in one of his final interviews, “To this day I don’t have any idea what [Aeolian cadences] are. They sound like exotic birds.”

The words may have been a tad over the top, but “Not a Second Time” features a stellar lead vocal from Lennon. It also foreshadows the melancholy, introspective tones the Beatles would further explore on Beatles for Sale, Help!, and Rubber Soul.

The lyrics tell the story of disillusionment and anger, a determination not to revisit a past romance. In Anthology, Lennon stated he was attempting to write a Smokey Robinson-esque song; indeed, there are similarities between chord changes and lyrics in one of Lennon’s favorite Robinson tracks: 1961’s “I’ve Been Good to You.” In addition, the piano is reminiscent of another Robinson and the Miracles track the Beatles covered: the classic “You Really Got a Hold on Me.”

Lennon brought his composition to Abbey Road Studios on September 11, 1963. In addition to producing the session, George Martin also played piano; Lennon sang lead and strummed acoustic rhythm guitar; George Harrison also contributed acoustic guitar; Paul McCartney played bass; and Ringo Starr, as usual, manned the drums. They recorded it in five takes, then completed four overdubs to add the piano and Lennon’s double-tracked lead vocal.

Musicologist Alan W. Pollack makes several key observations about the uniqueness of “Not a Second Time.” He states that the middle section (“You’re giving me the same old line”) serves as more of a refrain than a bridge; in other words, it functions as an extension of the verses rather than its own distinctive interlude. In addition, the fluctuations between G Major and E Minor emphasize the anguish the narrator is experiencing.

“The lyrics would seem on the surface to articulate a feeling of unbendable resolve not to be taken in or fooled anymore,” Pollack writes. “Yet the manner in which the resolute harmonies of G Major repeatedly give way in the refrain sections to surprising turns toward the more mournful, disappointed key of E Minor would indicate that the hero is not quite so able to follow his own best advice.”

The track begins abruptly, stumbling in as John Lennon sings “You know you made me cry / I see no use in wondrin’ why.” Starr’s steady beat comes in at the line “I cried for you,” emphasizing the drama of those words. Starr’s drumming is often used to stress important phrases, such as the fills after the first use of the title words.

George Martin’s brooding piano provides an ominous tone, suggesting that the narrator’s initial defiance may be weakening. After the solo, Lennon returns to the opening phrase, this time holding the note on “cried for you – ooh-ooh yeah.” The descending notes on “you” again infer that the protagonist is struggling with his determination to never return to his previous troubled relationship.

Another interesting aspect of Lennon’s vocal performance is through his delivery of the lines “And now you’ve changed your mind / I see no reason to change mine.” The rhythm is slightly off-kilter, the wordiness complicating the vocal performance. Lennon handles the potentially awkward melody and rhythm with apparent ease, although it would pose a challenge to any other singer.

Where does the Smokey Robinson influence occur in the song? There are several spots where the legendary singer/songwriter’s fingerprints linger. First, the moody piano section faintly recalls “You Really Got a Hold on Me” in that the instrument largely dominates both tracks, lending a melancholy air. Thematically, Robinson’s “I’ve Been Good to You” (a favorite of Lennon’s) also addresses troubled romance from the perspective of a tortured narrator.

Compare the angry opening sections of the songs:

Robinson:

Look what you’ve done
You made a fool out of someone
Who thought love was true
And found out that you we’re just having fun, oh yeah

Lennon:

You know you made me cry
I see no use in wond’rin’ why
I cried for you

Next, both narrators resolve never to surrender to their ex-lover’s temptations:

Robinson:

But there come a time
One day, one day, one day, one day, one day you gonna wake up and find
You’ll come back to me on your bending knees
And you’re gonna be crying

Lennon:

You’re giving me the same old line,
I’m wond’ring why.
You hurt me then,
you’re back again;
No, no no, not a second time!

Lennon’s vocals at the conclusion of “Not a Second Time” faintly imitate harmonies from Miracles tracks like “You Really Got a Hold on Me”; here, the narrator appears to be taking a final stand. Will he eventually surrender to his lover’s charms? That question is never quite answered; indeed, the minor keys suggest otherwise.

“Aeolian cadences” aside, the Beatles’ “Not a Second Time” stands as an example of John Lennon’s increasing experimentation in his songwriting. He plays with the typical “verse-chorus” structure, stretches his voice’s capabilities, and explores lyrical complexity. For hints of future Beatles for Sale tracks such as “No Reply,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” from Help! and even “Norwegian Wood” from Rubber Soul, one need look no further than “Not a Second Time.”


Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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  • Amy Gdala Godiva

    Great song and great review!

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