No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

The scream at the end – “no reply!” – is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre.

Beatles ’65 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“It was my version of “Silhouettes”: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” – John Lennon on “No Reply”

This was going to be another essay.

I had planned to write about what I am convinced is the greatest single ever released – “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.”  But that was going nowhere (though I can see what I want to say, I can’t quite seem to say it yet, which betrays a lot about my love of the Fabs) so I turn to another favorite, the opening song on both the British release Beatles for Sale or, if you were an 8th grade nerd like me, Beatles ’65.

“No Reply” opens both albums. This is one of those rare times that the British album and its American counterpart agree. That makes me very happy. Let’s leave it at that.

As John notes above, he was trying to write a song like the delightful “Silhouettes” by The Rays (and covered in a British Invasion version by Herman’s Hermits).  John’s song is a much darker version about the insecurity of someone in love.  Here’s the version that John references from the Rays from 1957:

Silhouettes

Took a walk and passed your house
Late last night
All the shades were pulled and drawn
Way down tight
From within, a dim light cast
Two silhouettes on the shade
Oh, what a lovely couple they ma-ade

Put his arms around your waist
Held you tight
Kisses I could almost taste
In the night
Wondered why I’m not the guy
Whose silhouette’s on the shade
I couldn’t hide the tears in my eye-eyes

Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Ty-oh, oh-oh
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Ty-oh, oh-oh

[Instrumental Interlude]

Lost control and rang your bell
I was sore
Let me in or else I’ll beat
Down your door
When two strangers who had been
Two silhouettes on the shade
Said to my shock
Your on the wrong blo-ock

Rushed down to your house with wings
On my feet
Loved you like I never loved
You my sweet
Vowed that you and I would be
Two silhouettes on the shade
All of our days
Two silhouettes on the sha-ade

Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Ty-oh, oh-oh
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Silhouettes (silhouettes)
Ty-oh, oh-oh
Two silhouettes on the shade
Silhouettes

“No Reply” is a much bleaker version of a lover’s realization that he has loved and lost:

No Reply

This happened once before
When I came to your door
No reply
They said it wasn’t you
But I saw you peep through your window
I saw the lie, I saw the lie
I know that you saw me
As I looked up to see your face
I tried to telephone
They said you were not home
That’s a lie
‘Cause I know where you’ve been
I saw you walk in your doorI nearly died, I nearly died
‘Cause you walked hand in hand
With another man in my placeIf I were you I’d realize that I
Love you more than any other guy
And I’ll forgive the lies that I
Heard before when you gave me no replyI’ve tried to telephone
They said you were not home
That’s a lie
‘Cause I know where you’ve been
I saw you walk in your doorI nearly died, I nearly died
‘Cause you walked hand in hand
With another man in my place

No reply, no reply

The case of mistaken identity that gives “Silhouettes” its charm isn’t present in “No Reply.” The main character’s confusion, anger, and potential heartbreak dissipate in a humorous and tender re-connection between lover  and beloved.

The main character in John’s song is confused, angry, ultimately heartbroken. John conveys that misery, confusion, and anger in the screamed “no reply!” at the song’s end.

What makes “No Reply” such a great song is that John conveys what it feels like to break up. A guy gets clues that things are not right with someone. He calls her and tries to talk, but she won’t come to the phone. He goes round to see her but she pretends not to be home though he sees her peeking from her window. He gets so distraught that he stalks her and sees her with another guy. The bridge, that begins, “If I were you…” is his irrational attempt to convince himself (since he can’t tell her) that he’s the right guy for her. But all the self-talk in the world can’t change what he saw: the woman he loves wants someone else. That screamed “no reply!” at the end is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre: she’s gone and she’s not coming back and his realization of that and the onrush of pain that ensues is conveyed in John’s powerful yawp.

While it’s not included on Beatles for Sale, there is an exceptional companion song on Beatles ’65. “I’ll Be Back” opens with the lines:

You know, if you break my heart I’ll go…but I’ll be back again….

The wistful melancholy of “I’ll Be Back” forms a nearly perfect contrast to the angry complaint of “No Reply.” Already in this early album the textures and moods that would culminate in the triumph of Rubber Soul are appearing. They were on their way….

3 comments on “No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

  1. I believe that this song (and most of John’s early songs) are about Julia (consciously or unconsciously). The great film “Nowhere Boy” really reveals how desperately conflicted John was about his mother. Not until later does John openly write about her, but the pain and deep emotion that we all feel when listening to his lead vocals and compositions from 1963 to 1965 are coming from a very deep place. JWL is the greatest singer songwriter ever. No one is his tree. Tom in Los Angeles

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