Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes” (2015)

Contrary to most reviewers I prefer Gallagher’s first solo album. But this song’s my favourite from the new one. It’s got nice chord progressions and a tricky songform (listen to it below).

Song Structure "The Girl With X-Ray Eyes"

0:065B'Introa - amaj9/G# / a/G - D7/F# / Fmaj7 / C / E - E7
0:227AxVersea / E7 / Bb / a / G# / g / F
0:447AVerse
1:051+4+4B+B"Chorus"?E - E7
a - a/G / F / C / E
a - a/G / F / C / E7
1:345B'Re-Intro
1:497ASolo
2:127AxVerse
2:331+4+4B+B"Chorus"?
3:024B''Re-Intro = Outrolast bar missing, ends on C
Lower case "x" indicates where the title is sung.

 

Song Form

To my ears, the song doesn’t really have a verse/chorus structure. The A sections can be heard as verses and “B+B” is repeated after the verses with unchanged lyrics, which qualifies it as a chorus. But on the other hand, “B+B” doesn’t feature the song’s title, it’s not really more memorable than A, and it appears only twice. Most of all, it’s hard to decide where B begins (which would be very unusal for a chorus). The E chord played loudly by the guitars functions like a joint between the A and B sections in a way that lets A segue into B without a clear demarkation. Thus, “B+B” feels more like an extension of AA. All in all, I’d rather call these sections A and B than verse and chorus.

There are more unusual things happening: The first and last A parts end with the song title, whereas the second A doesn’t include it. Instead of a third verse that we would expect after the B+B section we get a little guitar solo over the chord progression of A (similar to Oasis’ 2008 single “I’m Outta Time”). And note the irregular lengths of A and B: 5, 7 and 9 bars are not exactly your standard section lengths.

Harmony

In the intro, a-minor would be our first choice for the song’s tonic center. But in bar four – which is a hypermetrically strong position – C-major questions a’s supremacy. The added fifth bar introduces the dominant that resolves to the tonic a-minor at the beginning of the A section. So everything should be clear.
But it isn’t. The compelling Bb-chord is definitely not part of the a-minor scale and neither are G#-major and g-minor. When a-minor reappears in bar four I don’t recognize it as the tonic and when the chromatic downward progression finally ends on F-major, this chord seems to be our new home base. Bb-major and g-minor would be part of an F-major scale, so that makes sense. How does this work theoretically? I would interpret Bb-major as a tritone substitute that leads to a-minor. It’s used as a pivot chord because it can either be seen as subV/i or simply as IV in F-major. The following G#-major is again a tritone substitute that leads to the ii-chord of the new tonic center, F-major. The modulation is not “complete” until bar 6 when b flat first appears in the sung melody (over g-minor).

aE7BbaG#gF
[in a-minor]iV7subVi
[in F-major]IViiisubViiI

 

Because of the strong dominant character of E7 a-minor is re-established as the tonic at the beginning of the B-section, and this is why I tend to hear bar 2 of the B section as the “real” beginning of this part: We’re not used to hear dominants in the first and tonics in the second bars of choruses! Just like in the intro, the parallel major chord C can be heard as challenging the tonic character of a-minor.
While E7 reaffirmes a-minor throughout the song it ceases to do so at the very end. The song started in a-minor, but it ends on C, leaving out the dominant that usually ends the B-section. Thus, we have three different tonic centers in this song.

Descening bass-lines (often chromatically) are a staple of Gallagher’s songwriting. This is surely something he took from the Beatles (“Something”, “Michelle”, “For No One”, “Any Time At All” among others. Find out more about that in Dominic Pedler’s “The Songwriting Secrets Of The Beatles” or Walter Everett’s “The Beatles as Composers”). Combining minor keys with their major parallels is also something Gallagher uses in many many songs (“I’m Outta Time”, “The Masterplan” e.g.).

In fact, “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes” is indeed quite similar to “The Masterplan” which starts off with the same chromatically descending bass-line in the same key (and begins with some studio patter just as does the song under scrutiny here). Some people are also reminded of “Stairway To Heaven” which has the same bass line, albeit harmonized in a different way:

Masterplana add9amaj9/G#a9/Gaadd9/F#aadd9/Fa add9/Da7E7
Girl WXREaamaj9/G#a/GD/F#FCE7
Stairway THaEb6/G#C/GD/F#Fmaj7a
Note: The chords in bar 2 contain mostly the same notes: (a)-c-e-g#-h

 

Bowie?

In an interview with John Schaefer for the WNYC Soundcheck podcast, Noel Gallagher mentions that “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes” is heavily influenced by early 70s David Bowie:

Schaefer: “With a song like ‘Girl With X-Ray Eyes’ I hear a kind of early 70’s Bowie. Is that… Am I hearing things?”
Gallagher: “Yeah, yeah, yeah… I was writing that song as I usually do watching TV with the sound down, not really thinking about it and… I just happened upon the chord progression and when I… I was playing it for a while and then there was a certain chord that I hit that tied it all together and I thought ‘Wow! That sounds very Bowie-esque’… and that became the starting point for it! I love that song… […] When I write a song like that I may be one of the only people in the world that will go: ‘Okay, it sounds like David Bowie… so most people will go: Okay, well let’s not make it sound like David Bowie. I’m more [who will think?]: well, let’s go make it sound so much like David Bowie that he threatens legal action. And then we’ll back it off a little bit.”
Schaefer: “So you add in some mellotron…”
Gallagher: “Yeah! And even the guitar solo! I didn’t play the guitar solo. A friend of mine played and he was saying: “What things you want?” And we listened to ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and I said ‘That kind of thing, you know.'”

What chord is he talking about? Is it the ear-catching use of bV as a tritone substitute dominant? Or is the “chord that tied it all together” the E7 that connects the A and B sections?
In an Oasis forum people mention that the song reminds them of Bowie’s “Starman” and “Space Oddity” but also of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” [???], “Hotel California”, and Duran Duran’s “Come Undone”. Are there actually any parallels that can be pinned down? I don’t hear it…

Obviously, the David Bowie association might come from the Mellotron used in “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes”. Bowie used it frequently on songs as “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, “Quicksand”, and “Ashes To Ashes” among others. Beside the Mellotron, “Space Oddity” also features a progression from a via a/G to D/F# (at “Take your protein pills…”) and the characteristic change from C to E7 (at the beginning of the chorus). Many references – but none of these songs has the weird chord changes E / Bb / a / G# / g nor the idiosyncratic song form!

Can anyone add to that? What’s so Bowie-esque about this song? Feel free to comment.

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