Now watch Peter Sellers transform that same word, feeling, from something innocent into something disturbing. How does he do it?
In 1965, Peter found himself at Number 14 in the British charts with his version of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. In his original record here, there are no Shakespearian props, just the sound of Peter Sellers’ voice (and the memory of Laurence Olivier’s ) weaving the spell, with the help of George Martin‘s magic sound production dust.
Peter Sellers was a master craftsman of spoken language and a generous mimic. His version of A Hard Day’s Night tells the whole story of a relationship. Not a very healthy one. It’s interesting how, as an audience, we imagine his protagonist‘s age, character and intentions differently from the Beatles’ one, simply with a change of context, intonation and pacing. The words haven’t changed. They’ve just been shaken into new shapes.
What exactly is he doing to the language to change the picture the words paint in our minds? The Beatles made me think of fun, light-hearted romance and energy. Peter Sellers moulded the same words into something heavy and unsettling. What has he changed?
It’s comic because we know the Beatles’ original song and Laurence Olivier’s voice. The contrast is funny. But if Peter Sellers had been speaking the words as serious lines in a play, with no Beatles history, and with less of a Laurence Olivier voice, the pacing and the intonation alone would have made the words sound sinister. Would you have been happy as the woman in the song, waiting for him to come home?
Peter Sellers’ ability to create a darkly comic mirror image of the original Beatles song is an object lesson in the power and the plasticity of the language. English, spoken and sung is forged in the mouth. Every sound and every silence communicates something to the listener. As a singer, the words are your playground.
If you like a puzzle, tell me, which word has Peter Sellers discarded from the original (here) Beatles song? Why do you think he left it out? Sound, shape, cultural associations, or something else?
If English isn’t your first language – it’s worth noticing how easily Peter Sellers has turned A Hard Day’s Night from an enthusiastic young man’s song into something different and sinister. Everything he does is a calculated, conscious choice. It would be just as easy to change the feeling of a word or a song by mistake. Always check your intonation and phrasing before you sing.
The original Beatles’ version is here. What has Peter Sellers changed?
Listen to the way Peter Sellers says you. Do you imagine the you, the woman that he’s addressing, being happy with him? Do you imagine her being younger or older than him? How about the Beatles’ you? Younger or older than them? Why?
Can you hear how Peter Sellers has changed feeling you into an action, rather than the Beatles original idea of feeling as an emotion? The Beatles sing feeling you holding me tight, tight as a necklace of words of equal value. Only holding gets a little extra attention. Peter Sellers separates the line into sections: feeling you… holding me…tight…tight. That changes everything.
Between Peter Sellers and the Beatles is another possibility: feeling you holding me tight…tight – where the attention is on the tightness and enthusiasm of the hug. All possibilities are available to you. You choose the way you pace the words, and the gaps you leave between them. You paint the picture.
When you sing in English, every sound that comes out of your mouth should be a conscious choice. Peter Sellers’ menacing version of A Hard Day’s Night and the Beatles’ song of youthful energy and enthusiasm are closer to each other than you think. Over-emphasise a word or put stress in the wrong place and you will find yourself giving an unintended message to your audience. Be warned!
When you sing or speak in English, words are your raw materials. You melt them in your mouth. Like a blacksmith, you shape your raw materials as you choose, into horseshoes or handcuffs. It’s up to you. Choose well.
© Sing Better English, 2015