The Boy Hook: The Zombies, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” (1968)

Boy Soldier EnglishJuly 28 is my birthday and also the day when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, now counted as the official start of World War I. (Let’s go back in time and ask Austria-Hungary: “Would you like to start World War I?”)[1] Today is the 100th anniversary of the larger event and the 61st anniversary of the smaller one. Strange proportions.

The World War I hook is an awfully literal one. It is the image of dead soldiers hooked on barbed wire in No Man’s Land, meat in a cloud of flies.

“Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” by The Zombies uses specific imagery from trench warfare to lift up the horror and political inauthenticity of war. The word that brings it home to a diffident young male like myself in 1968, Vietnam time, is the oddly direct “boy” at the end of a stanza.

“Butcher’s Tale” second verse

And I have seen a friend of mine
Hang on the wire
Like some rag toy
Then in the heat the flies come down
And cover up the boy

Consider, in our world, the prevalence of underemployment and the politics of Kill Those Bastards. The boys are getting snagged by that combination and butchered every day.[2]

Boy soldiers Congo_______________________________________________________________

[1] See Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war and interesting related documents.

[2] For an amazing movie boy hook, see how photographs of the young Hitler arrive in the last sequence of Come and See (around 4:11) where the traumatized young Belarusian is shooting at Hitler’s portrait to try to force World War II backward to its starting point.

Posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Improvised, continued: Derek Bailey, “Moment” (2000)

Is Roy Lichtenstein a great comic strip artist? No, he’s a great avant-garde artist who uses comic strip style. This is confusing. But you need to understand this to understand why Lichtenstein is in the Museum of Modern Art.

It’s similarly confusing that there are certified Free Improvisors—people like Derek Bailey dedicated to open-minded experimentation with sound, probably filed under Jazz—who dabble in rock forms while making their stuff up.  Just to add to the confusion, we can construe the rock moments of their output as rock hooks even though their intent is not to rock. (Anyway, their project is not to rock; I suppose one can’t be sure about their momentary intent.)

Recurring to the idea of three levels of improvisation (see previous post), what level would this rock-dabbling be on? Level 2, where you choose a song structure? No, it must be Level 3, where you choose what’s going to count as music. Given how fundamentally different free improv is from any popular genre, though, I wonder if this is really a Level 4 decision between keeping your sovereignty over what counts as music and temporarily (but freely!) giving that up?

Whatever. Let’s listen to an example.

Even for Hooks purposes I wouldn’t presume to pick out a greatest anything in improv. Improv is like lovemaking; the greatness of any moment is just that it belongs to a continuum of good experiences.

But we can exhibit something that is characteristically delightful about improv, like the sudden emergence of a melodic hook or a funky groove in wild-free-noisy playing—the subject at hand. And here’s an example of that from Derek Bailey’s Mirakle album:

“Moment” (around 10:30 in the original track)

It’s especially true in improv that hooks for performers aren’t necessarily the same as hooks for listeners. For example, improvisers love it when a sound surprises or confuses them while they’re producing the music—“Is that coming from the cello or the drums?”[1] But improvisers do cherish the effective interruption of whatever sort, which is a striking event for listeners too. In the strange world of reinventing music, a rock hook can be a fine interruption.


A quite different way in which a hook can show up in improvised music is if an improviser uses a radio to bring in real-time sound. In 1966 the seminal improv group AMM listed two members playing “transistor radio,” Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, one of whom (I think probably Rowe) captured this refrain from a pop station in the midst of a 21-minute session:

AMM, “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset (LP version)” (17:17 to 17:55 in the original track)

We seem to be hearing this from miles away; we barely feel it touching the outer membrane of our improvised music cocoon. It gives us just the right faint mindfulness of the world we’re being detached from.


[1] Edwin Prévost, No Sound Is Innocent (Matching Tye: Copula, 1995), p. 19.

Posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Improvised: Jimi Hendrix, “Star Spangled Banner” (1969) and John Bonham, “Moby Dick” (1970)

Boiling bubbles copy
Improvisation is a tricky subject in hooks study because it can be taken as opposing the whole hook premise of wanting to hear a certain bit of music again and again. That’s so reifying, and tame! Improvisation is free and adventurous and has to be appreciated in the moment. The sense of it is “Oh! Look what we’ve found!” Once that’s happened, can you go back to being free and surprised that way again?

Sometimes, yes. Maybe.

Let’s be clear that we might be talking about improvisation on any of three different levels. How deep a freedom do you want? Or what combination of freedoms? (For there can be activity on any level at almost any time—or feints toward it.) Do you want it to be freshly decided (1) what one of a song’s parts is to be, like its melody? Or (2) what the song itself is to be? Or (3) what music itself is to be?

Improvisation-1 is free playing where it’s understood that we don’t know just which notes will be played or how. Freedom at this level pervades all live-performed music, even when it’s closely controlled (Charles Mingus told his band members to play every note on his score as if they had just thought of it themselves).[1] But sometimes the music is organized to highlight someone’s relatively freer playing. The variable is often the phrasing or notes of the melody. Even though we know in general which notes are likely to be heard, a great improviser-1 can give us surprising jolts. Listen to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock improvising beyond the normal bounds of a guitar solo in the instrumental break of “Purple Haze” and then playing some unexpected notes within the main theme when it returns:

“Purple Haze” improvising

At the next level, Improvisation-2 is free playing where, for the moment at least, no one knows what the song structure is. For example, a long Grateful Dead improvisation can put us in a state of relaxed expectations so that when a salient event occurs, like the intense tutti around 4:15 in the 2/27/69 “Dark Star,” we can’t say how it came about—and it has this quality every time we hear it. For a quite different level 2 experience, listen to Hendrix quickly flitting from one possible song to another in his “Woodstock Improvisation”:

“Woodstock Improvisation”

All the way down, Improvisation-3 is free playing at the level of deciding what constitutes music itself at that moment. You can’t assume there will be any familiar song structure. There will probably (though not necessarily) be unmistakeable markers of “outsideness” like atonality or suspension of regular rhythm. There may be a vivid sense of primary sound-making actions that aren’t inherently musical but are being claimed for music.[2]

I would say that Hendrix is exploring new versions of music on level 3 in the midst of his “Star Spangled Banner” improvisation, especially between 1:23 and 2:40.

Don’t settle for commentary that treats these sounds as music-painting of the Vietnam War or American social chaos, even if they are rather overwhelming in that aspect.  They are Ur-music. The best hooks for me include the passage between 2:13 and 2:25, maybe because it comes so close to a simulation of warfare. Its own swooping shape is so musically beautiful that it can be snatched from the jaws of description. This quality is wonderfully confirmed in 2:30 to 2:40.

It’s unfortunate in a way that the whole improvisation-rich Hendrix performance at Woodstock is burdened with being emblematic of the Woodstock moment in American history.[3] We use it as a reminder of “what was going on.” And Hendrix himself was not unwilling to talk about his playing as a reflection of his world.[4] But the freshness of the improvised music, heard as such, pulls it free from anything else. It’s the soundtrack primarily of itself.

I must admit that right now the temptation is very strong to conclude by loading up Hendrix’s improvisation with cultural baggage all over again. You can see it coming. “This is our democracy, this is the paradigm of public action: seeing what we can come up with! This is what it is to live in the home of the brave and the land of the free: creative adventure (as opposed to holing up with guns)!”

No, I won’t do it. Just listen to the music, as it comes pluming out of that vent in the center of being.


Improvisation on drums is an interesting test case for the three-level model. In the ordinary course of things a drummer is free to improvise like mad all the time at level 1, because the drums have their own nontonal sounds that don’t interfere with anyone else’s notes or chords. At the same time the drummer is required to maintain a song’s rhythm and tempo and hit its beats very precisely. Almost the only way to free the drummer from this slavery is to make the rest of the band stand down for a drum solo.

A drum solo in a rock context is almost sure to involve improvisation at level 2, since the drummer has been freed from playing a particular song. The drummer will compose fresh song-equivalents and show virtuosity and taste by improvising-1 in those improvisation-2 structures. It is hard to imagine entering level 3, though, because a drummer is always heard as composing with very gettable rhythm patterns. To play “outside” (or “all the way down,” using my depth metaphor) would require more weirdness of sound or use of silence than is likely to be acceptable in a rock context.

Consider the most celebrated of all drum improvisations in rock, John Bonham’s solo in “Moby Dick” in Led Zeppelin’s Royal Albert Hall concert of 1970.  It is definitely virtuosic improvisation-1 while exploring a series of fresh structures on level 2. But what do you think about level 3? How about when he comes to a profound pause at 5:12 and starts playing with his hands? Isn’t he quite radically deciding what music will be? Are such moments comparable to the most radical parts of “Star Spangled Banner”?


[1]  Review of Tijuana Moods by John Walters in The Guardian, June 14, 2001.

[2] “[Dennis Smalley in Spectromorphology points to] a primary level of sound-making gestures that are not yet musical – such as scratching at a piece of wood or rubbing two stones together. This is so tactile, so visual, and so proprioceptive – as if one’s own muscles were making the movements – that it becomes, in my view, part of a continuum of human gesture that is not limited to sound-making activities, but is defined, rather, by its quality of eliciting a spontaneous response in us in whatever sensory mode. Because these primary gestures are not specifically sonic, and to distinguish them from those that are, I shall call them non-sonic”—Tim Hodgkinson, “Does Free Improvisation Have a Future?” (2010).

[3] Al Aronowitz claimed that Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” “was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties. You finally heard what that song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.” Quoted in Charles R. Cross, Room Full of Mirrors (New York: Hyperion, 2005), p. 271.

[4] “We play it [‘Star Spangled Banner’] the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it?”—United Block Association press conference, September 3, 1969.

Posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Leapfrog Hook: Led Zeppelin, “Heartbreaker” live (1972)

Led Zeppelin 2Here’s one more post on Led Zeppelin dedicated to my Hooks colleague and keen Zeppelin analyst Andrew Goodwin (1956-2013).[1]

Music is always an expectation game. Every new event plays on what should have or could have come from every event prior.

A pleasingly brazen way to play the game is to perform a hit song, taking for granted that listeners know the words and are ready to repeat them, and then at some auspicious point sing something else, launching an extra event by leapfrogging over the song’s obedient back.

In Led Zeppelin’s 1972 Long Beach performance of “Heartbreaker,” Robert Plant starts in on “the way you call me another guy’s name when I try to make love to you,” but at “name” he uses the energy of the line’s melodic ascent to repeat that word, that high note, over and over—he can’t get past the guy’s name! and yet musically he’s leaping forward, catapulting his furious relationship with his rival over his futile attempt to make love.[2]


This makes a nice little model of the whole Led Zeppelin project as a leapfrogging of the blues.


[1] See his Hooks posts on “Black Dog” and “Whole Lotta Love.”

[2] At 1:32 on track 3, disc 1 of How The West Was Won.

Posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Outro #3: Good and Evil in the Garden of Hooks

Bruegel, Fall of the Rebel Angels detail
What does it all mean?

I don’t believe in metaphysics as a way of defining good and evil, but I do think we have a stubborn tendency to make a distinction like this:

Good = strong, shining, connecting

Evil = volatile, blind, confused, conflicted, chaotic, cutting, ripping, crying, burning, freezing, hurling, dropping . . .

Which reflects choices and conflicts we’re constantly embroiled in—the experienced reality of life. Which leads to this proposition:

Life is a mixture of good and evil (make that a loaded mixture: tending to be as good as it can be, given the bad, and as bad as it can be, given the good, depending on how you look at it, or how the dice just rolled)

And then, if we’re interested in art, a question arises about how art acts on or in this mixture, leading to a hypothesis:

Art is a conscious shaping of the life-mixture to give it, for a moment at least, an overriding good character

What do you think? Too goody-goody? I figure that if we practice art on purpose, we must be trying to improve the life-mixture. The catch, though, is that art works on life on its inside, inhabiting and wrestling with all of its elements, not simply by telling it to mind. Therefore the good vs. evil character of art is ambiguous. I know, and you may know, that the Sex Pistols are good—I hear them bring strong, shining, connecting rock ‘n’ roll moments out of craziness, perversity, contempt, etc.—but to other listeners they seem to be merely wallowing in and reinforcing those bad things.

“Anarchy In The UK”

If I find that the Sex Pistols improve the life-mixture, is that them being good or just me? Obviously it’s me. But it has to be them as well. They’re the ones making musical moments that I can experience as strong, shining and connecting; I’m not generating those good punk qualities all by myself. (I couldn’t cackle and threaten in rock time like Johnny Rotten.)

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.
            —William James[1]

Now for the sake of excitement and drama and for a moral tinge to the metaphysics, I’ll say that life isn’t just a mixture, it’s a fight, and art is one of our lucid ways of fighting.[2] On that view, could we define a hook as a sudden thrust of good? Enlarging on that: a sense of a victorious outcome in a struggle with the bad, a struggle that is always global as well as local?

We could very well define a hook purely in terms of gratification (“any discrete thing that makes you want to listen again,” I wrote in Introduction to Hooks). But I suspect that my hooks criticism has often been in this metaphysical and moral grain of good struggling with evil. The metaphysical and moral grain being what it is, what else could I do?


[1] “Is Life Worth Living?” in The Will to Believe (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 61.

[2] Simon Frith is hip to the combative side of music evaluation in Performing Rites. On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1998). My favorite fightin’ aesthetics is Jean-Paul Sartre’s What Is Literature?

Posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Connector Hook

BridgeLate have I discovered that David Bordwell proposes his own distinctive hook concept for purposes of analyzing movie continuity. A Bordwellian hook is an image or sound idea at the end of a scene that is picked up again at the start of the next scene so that the transition has logic and force. It’s a microstructural connector.

In a movie, the Bordwellian hook sustains or heightens a sense of forward progress in the story and underlines points that may or may not be important. The connectors of greatest interest are the ones that add a new element of meaning to a work—irony, for example, as in a scene transition in a Simpsons episode cited by Bordwell:  “Homer [in his living room]: ‘I predict that this is the last we’ll be hearing about prohibition.’ Cut to enraged women [in a courtroom] chanting ‘We want prohibition!’”

For a strict analogue to a Bordwellian hook in music we would need to find two adjacent events, one at the end of one section and another at the beginning of the next, which together guide the listener into new territory.

A simple example of a musical connector of this sort is in the second transition from verse to bridge in “When I’m Sixty-Four” (The Beatles, 1967). The verse and the bridge are in different keys and moods, but they’re tied together snugly by the bridge melody starting on the same note that the verse melody just ended on.

“When I’m Sixty-Four” end of second verse/chorus, start of second bridge

That is a connector, sure enough, but not yet a connector hook, in my opinion. It does structural work, and I’m sure Paul is pleased with it from a craft point of view, but it isn’t salient and enjoyable for how it does that. We must look further.

I think we do enjoy a connector hook in “The Boys Of Summer” (Don Henley, 1984). I’ll call it a 3-3-2 figure because it gets its form from a repeating three-note figure deployed against the beat like this:

  1  –  2  –  3  –  4  -
Gb –  –  F  –  – Db -

(This is an alternate way of dividing the eight 8th-notes in a four-beat measure, a 3-3-2 layered over the 2-2-2-2 of the beat.)

“The Boys Of Summer” verse, chorus, start of next verse

The 3-3-2 figure is heard from the beginning of the song in a synth voice, sounding like time speeding by in intense little cycles. It sounds good repeated with all three chords (E-flat minor, C-flat, D-flat) used in the verse. Once we’re in the chorus, this figure drops out. But then it seems to be coming back at the end—“sum – mer have” are going to be those three notes, except that the third note of the pattern, the D-flat, is sandwiched between “have,” a step lower, and the second note of “gone,” a step higher, to make an additional three-note pattern, making altogether a nice five-note knot of “summer have gone.” Then comes the Bordwellian hook, buttoning two sections together, as the original 3-3-2 figure starts the next verse.

This is good, but not amazing.

For amazing, how about this moment in “I Want A New Drug” (Huey Lewis and the News, 1984)? The verse becomes increasingly agitated and then settles down at the end, sweetened by extra voices, just before flipping over to the next verse, conveying the shift from desperately needing a drug to having the right drug kick in.

“I Want A New Drug,” second verse into instrumental bridge

More specifically, it’s the sequence from (a) really needing some drug or other to get well, to (b) having that same wild, distracting hunger to be with you, to (c) a memory or foretaste of what’s it’s uniquely, blissfully like to be alone with you. The connector is “with you.” What connector could you want more than that?

The problem is, that is the connector everyone wants. All the advertisers in the world speak of their desire to be with you. Even your bank, to whom “with you” transparently means “with your money.” So the “with you” hook could also be called The Most Commercial—precisely the conception of hooks we must keep at arm’s length. Our search for the greatest connector hook must continue.[1]

Meanwhile, I wonder why these hooks are rather hard to find. I guess it’s that we usually don’t need them to feel the unity of a song; a pop song’s normal flow of beat and harmony (actually a dense weave of microstructural connectors throughout) is plenty to keep us well-oriented, and unless we’re trying to follow a strange narrative in the lyrics we don’t face the difficulty of figuring out where we are and what’s happening that movie cuts so often pose. The musical connector hooks I’ve pointed out are nice extra touches, not bridges over chasms.


“Do you know how many times he said he’d quit?”

“No, but if you hum a few bars . . .”

Dear readers, my signing-off time has come again. A third Outro will be in the next post.


[1] Hooks rules prohibit employees of the site from designating their own work as the greatest example of anything, but I can report on my favorite connector hook to play and sing: it’s the B-flat at the end of the bridge of “Zipper Dear” (The Assemblers, 1998), a note belonging to the C-seventh chord that is held over to become a superdissonant sharp-fourth against the E chord of the verse (so that the B-flat note is transubstantiated into an A-sharp). This expresses the father’s anguish at being unable to enforce the rules of decency (B-flat “can’t be – ”) for his budding daughter (A-sharp “ – eeeeee”).

Posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intensity Ruse: Joan Osborne, “Right Hand Man” (1995)

Blast off
Music is intense—it’s an intensification of tone and felt time—but a paradox of music is that its intensity ploys generate their own defeaters. The especially pure or loud tone just is the recognized idiom of that singer or instrument—the means, no longer the end. The insistent repetition just is the beat, or the chorus that always comes after the verse. “Yeah, yeah!” is just a genre tagline.

To achieve intensity you have to defeat the defeaters. Consider the very intense “Right Hand Man” by Joan Osborne. Osborne is singing with typical soul intensity, the band is banging on the beat with typical rock intensity, the repeated phrase “right hand man” is so much at home it might as well be “yeah, yeah”—but something has been done to take the whole thing to a shocking new level of impact.

The defeater of the defeaters here is a seven-beat meter. Nobody acknowledges it, everyone keeps pushing as if every measure were 4/4, but actually every four is followed by a three, so that the backbeat alternates between coming on 2, 4, and 6 and coming on 1, 3, 5, and 7. With the backbeat marked in bold, here is the whole 14-beat cycle in the chorus:





Thus every repetition of “right hand man” is a beat earlier than expected. With no deviation at all from rocking on the beat, it feels like she’s pushing impatiently through the restraints of musical form. Thanks to this impatience the sharp edges of her vocal really cut, her repetition really amplifies what’s repeated, and her tagline becomes a shout from that ultimate libido deeper than rock or sex.[1]


[1] Another method of intensification is to add an extra beat or measure to force the listener to stew for a moment. The last beat of the seven-beat cycle in the verse of “All You You Need Is Love” is interesting because you can hear it either as a rushing ahead (3 beats instead of an expected measure of 4) or as a coy delay (3 beats instead of a sufficient 2).

Posted in Time | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment