John Lennon is said to have thought that “Dear Prudence” was one of his best songs. Who can argue with him? I could make a case for it as the best song by the Beatles generally, which puts it in the running for the best song by anyone ever.
The song was written about Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, who the Beatles met during their stay in India. John was concerned that she was taking her meditation practice too seriously and wanted her to hang out with the band more. For most of us, this is not a very relatable situation — John was a canny enough songwriter to make his lyrics open-ended, so they could be interpreted as referring to any shy person.
“Dear Prudence” represents one of the Beatles’ first forays into eight-track recording, which helps explain the intricacy of its arrangement. A guy named Alan Pollack wrote a very nice analysis of “Dear Prudence” as part of his exhaustive music-theoretical study of the Beatles’ entire repertoire. Pollack observes that the tune shows John borrowing characteristics of George’s style — the droning pedal tone and air of melancholy. Pollack draws a parallel between “Dear Prudence,” “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” While most Lennon tunes have an arch shape to them, “Dear Prudence” is more riff-oriented.
“Dear Prudence” has not only a static harmonic profile, but even a formally flat floorplan; a steady stream of harmonically identical verses interrupted only once at the formal mid-point by a simple bridge which, itself, is as harmonically single-minded as the rest of the song.
The impressive accomplishment is that such a satisfying build up of tension and its release is achieved in spite of all stasis… The challenge is to create a sense of build up without relying much at all on either harmony or melody. Instead, the strategy is to carefully sustain an atmosphere within which texture and dynamic crescendo are developed over the long run.
The heart of the tune is the repeating descending bassline. (For guitarists unfamiliar with slash notation, D7/C just means “play D7 with C in the bass.”)
| D | D7/C | G/B | Gm/Bb |
Alan Pollack informs us that the Beatles also used this progression in the verses of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and the chorus of “Magical Mystery Tour.” In keeping with my philosophy that there are no original ideas in music or anywhere else, I should point out that this chord progression is a well-worn blues cliche. The genius of the Beatles is to stretch it out so that each chord gets a full bar instead of just a beat or two as is common in the blues.
The most famous cover version of “Dear Prudence” is the one by Siouxsie and the Banshees. It doesn’t do much for me — it’s too stiff. I much prefer the version by the Jerry Garcia Band. Jerry plays the tune slow and contemplative, with a gospel flavor from his backup singers and organist.
Brad Mehldau recorded a pretty happening jazz version on his album Largo. The recording of Matt Chamberlain’s drums is especially nice. It was done with just two mics for a garage-y rock sound, a much less polite vibe than the jazz norm. I like the groove in Brad’s version, but he omits the B section, which is a shame.
Brad is a highly creative interpreter of other Beatles tunes too. It’s well worth checking out his versions of “She’s Leaving Home” and “Martha My Dear.”
A few other interesting covers of “Dear Prudence,” in ascending order of corniness:
My own jazz band regularly performed my arrangement of “Dear Prudence,” which combines Brad Mehldau’s spacy funk vibe with Jerry’s closer adherence to the structure of the original. We had a particularly hot New Year’s gig where we did “Dear Prudence” in the third, after-midnight set. The solo section stretched way out, a Miles Davis flavored open-ended groove on a D pedal. The band members who weren’t soloing went out into the room and danced. A good time.
Here’s a mashup of my five favorite versions of “Dear Prudence,” enjoy.