Coming off the lively snap of “I Saw Her Standing There”, a song with a melodramatic title like “Misery” seems almost bound to be a non-starter. And, to a certain extent, that’s true of “Misery”. It’s a pained account of love lost that heavily wallows in neediness and self-pity (“The world is treating me ba-a-ad / Misery”). Based on his lyrics, John Lennon is positively inconsolable. Oh that his dearest would undo the hurt. Though certainly not always the case, cheerless and rather dull subject matter of this kind can have a deflating effect on a song and, as follows, the listening experience.
Even so, “Misery” is a more compelling number than its drab lyric might indicate. First, there’s the backstory. As it turns out, John and Paul did not write “Misery” for the Beatles themselves. It was originally intended for a young British pop star named Helen Shapiro who was in need of potential country/western material for a future release. Shapiro, however, never recorded the song (although another British artist, Kenny Lynch, later would). Eventually, when George Martin was compiling tracks for Please Please Me, he had the Beatles record, effectively, their entire backlog of songs, one of which was “Misery”.
Side note: I’d be curious to know to what degree John and Paul consciously designed “Misery” as a song for a female performer and how the initial version and the Beatles’ own rendition may have diverged.
Within the song itself, the Beatles made several interesting decisions concerning its mechanics and structure. What stands out most is the song’s moderately crisp pace. Though “Misery” is nothing if not a bummer tune, the Beatles don’t match that feel with a plodding, despondent tempo. After the slow intro, they proceed into a steady gallop, with Ringo’s bouncy percussion as the dominant presence. Throughout, the three guitarists don’t really assert themselves but the pace remains active enough to prevent “Misery” from becoming a total mire of melancholy.
The verse/chorus pattern is also of note. “Misery’s” running time is a brief 1:50, which might reasonably suggest inadequate room for a fleshed-out structure to the song. But that’s misleading. The chorus consists of just one word, “misery”, and, furthermore, the Beatles opted to not include a guitar solo, both of which open up space. To fill that void in a not so predictable manner, John and Paul wrote two modulated verses (only slight variations of each other) to accompany the normal verses. The back-and-forth switch between normal and modulated gives the song a somewhat dynamic flow and hints at the Beatles’ desire, even at their start, to be more than paint-by-numbers songwriters who also happened to be infectious entertainers. They aspired to be serious craftsmen (though, admittedly, “Misery” is a humble offering).
The song’s single best moment, however, arrives at the 1:35 mark. It’s when John lets loose one of the most pitch-perfect and almost comically wounded moans (“oww-o-ow”) that you’ll ever hear in pop music. Few bands could prompt such pleasure with just two seconds of discardable vocal filler.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.