Herman’s Hermits: No Milk Today
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
If, as it has been said, the Ramones considered themselves to be something of a modern equivalent of Herman’s Hermits, it may well have had something to do with the song “No Milk Today.” Written by songwriting prodigy and future 10cc member Graham Gouldman, “No Milk Today” (a hit for Herman’s Hermits in late 1966) is quite possibly the most compacted structure of any song from the period.
Not that you might notice. The tune is so clever that it manages some perceptual tricks. If you are at all familiar with “No Milk Today,” you may be surprised to learn that it is comprised of sixteen sections. The structure of the song can be diagrammed as follows:
A – Solo guitar intro (0:00 – 0:07)
B – Verse 1 (0:07 – 0:14)
B – Verse 2 (0:14 – 0:21)
C – Verse extension (0:21 – 0:35)
B – Verse 3 (0:35 – 0:45)
D – Chorus (0:45 – 0:59)
B – Verse 3 repeat (0:59 – 1:06)
B – Verse 4 (1:06 – 1:13)
C – Verse extension repeat (1:13 – 1:27)
B – Verse 1 repeat (1:27 – 1:37)
D – Chorus repeat (1:37 – 1:51)
B – Verse 1 repeat (1:51 – 1:58)
B – Verse 2 repeat (1:58 – 2:05)
C – Verse extension repeat (2:05 – 2:19)
B – Verse 3 repeat (2:19 – 2:29)
D’ – First two lines of chorus repeated until fadeout (2:29 – 2:55)
Note that the verses are only seven seconds long, except when they are extended by three seconds as lead-ins to the chorus. Verse 1 and Verse 2 could be considered to be one single verse of eight, rather than four lines, but then, the two utterances of Verse 3 and the repeat of Verse 1 would have to be considered half-verses. Even if one looks at the composition this way, it is still comprised of thirteen sections, which is still utterly extraordinary for a pop song under three minutes.
I have identified the C sections of this song as “verse extensions” for lack of a better term. They are perhaps choruses in reality—or could have functioned as choruses in a less extraordinary song—but the proper chorus of the song does not actually occur until 0:45. Thus, the listener is taken on quite a ride. The song essentially kicks in with what I am calling the “verse extension,” building on the rhythmic phrasing of the verses right away, but it’s a fake-out. When the verses return, we hear only one of them this time, followed by that three-second extension that lets you know that something new is coming.
If the song had been more symmetrical here, if we heard the same two-verse structure again as we heard in the beginning followed by the song’s true chorus, it would not have been as powerful. Gouldman sneaks in a “Surrender to the Ecstasy” moment by ushering the listener straight into the tubular-bell led rapture of the chorus after only one more verse.
Notice, though, that the chorus only lasts for fourteen seconds. The extended rapture only occurs at the end when the chorus repeats unto infinity. The chorus is, however, identifiable as a transcendent moment partly because of its difference. While the verses and verse extensions have similar rhythmic phrasings in the vocal parts – such that the extensions feel like musical developments coming out of the verses – the chorus is clearly more of a separate entity. The drummer also switches to a ride cymbal beat only for the chorus (hard to make out for sure on the record, but viewable on a Youtube clip of the group playing the song live).
The chorus, however, is not so separate that it disrupts the song’s singular motion. Herman continues to break for only an eighth or a quarter note in between lines just as he does in the verses and verse extensions. The chorus is also in the same key (the parallel major of the song’s home key) as the verse extensions, so there is continuity between the fake-out chorus and the real one.
These extremely brief eighth and quarter note rests between lines occur not only within the song’s verses, verse extensions, and choruses but between these sections as well, so the song never loses inertia. Herman’s longest rest is at the end of the verses that precede the choruses. Here, a bar is shortened (from four beats to two) so that the final note of Herman’s last line does not occur on the third beat of the measure as usual, but rather on the downbeat of a new measure. Herman holds this note for approximately three beats and then rests for the last beat plus one whole additional measure before coming in with the first line of the chorus on the upbeat of its first bar. At five and a half beats moving at approximately 134 BPM, this—his longest rest of the entire song—is only about two and a half seconds!
The metric irregularity of that shortened bar is another subtlety of the song that is easily missed. A person would not necessarily notice the ambiguity of the opening seven-second solo guitar part either. The fact that two of these irregularities occur in the song, both subtle enough that the listener might not notice, adds yet more depth to the composition.
The most significant “perceptual trick” that I see with this song, however, is the fact that its extraordinary structure is so subtle that a listener easily perceives it as normal. Not only was the very elaborate nature of the composition unknown to me in listening to this song casually through the years, I was indeed surprised when timing the song to find that it was almost three minutes long. I actually suspected that it would be even shorter! (When rewinding the old cassette dub I have of the song to get to a particular part, I also found myself letting the tape rewind too far.)
It is thus in the compactness of structure and perpetual motion of this song that we perhaps see the connection to the Ramones. One might also note the lack of drum fills (apart from those on and around that transcendent chorus), and the use of a single Tommy Ramone crash cymbal whack instead.
Watch the video for “No Milk Today” here.
By: Tim Ellison
Published on: 2006-06-22
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