A Platonic Soul: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Our House” (1970) and “Chicago” (1971)

For his ideal society, Plato needs virtuous rulers, and these rulers must be educated so that they have stable souls. Their exposure to the arts, including music, must be carefully controlled. Most popular music is excluded.

“The man who makes the finest mixture of gymnastic with music and brings them to his soul in the most proper measure is the one of whom we would most correctly say that he is the most perfectly musical and well harmonized” (Republic 412a).[1]

For us, I suppose it’s axiomatic that all possibilities of musical experience must be explored, and that intensity of any sort (if not fatal) is worth experiencing sometimes, even often. For us, rock music stomps all over Plato’s notorious restrictions on the arts. But there is a distinct question, I would say a valid Platonic question, about the ideal “soundtrack of our lives” – the reference music, as you might call it, that would properly have a strong influence on our orientation to the best life.

There can’t be just one right reference music, because we have different basic soul needs, at least these two main ones: we need to be capable of being harmonized with our fellow beings and our circumstances fairly easily, and we need to be capable of being roused to fight when necessary. One of Plato’s ways of putting the point is to say that the rulers of his republic must be tame to their friends and hostile to their enemies, as good dogs are (375-376).

Fifty years ago, Graham Nash effectively addressed both of our soul needs in two massively popular songs: “Our House” for the harmonious and “Chicago” for the militant.

You might pick something different for your tame song or your militant song if you thought about them separately, but Nash is remarkable as a source for both kinds of song – and for producing them very similarly, as the demo of “Our House” reveals. He sat down to the piano and pumped them out in pretty much the same left hand-right hand alternation, with much the same verse-chorus shifting of gears (except that the “Our House” chorus doesn’t have the lively phase two that the “Chicago” chorus has: “It’s dying”!). “Our House” is in the key of A major, “Chicago” in A minor.[2] What is great about this, I think, is that we can feel the uniting Nashiness of the diversely pointed songs. We can hear how the two needs of the soul are being met by one stable soul.[3] Relatively stable for 1971, anyway.[4]

Which do you think matters more, the songs or the soul?

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[1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968).

[2] The demo of “Our House” is in C major–too high.

[3] The “stable soul” as a Platonic value has to be put on a different level than the utterly un-Platonic sentiments and opinions expressed in Nash’s two songs. In the Republic, private domesticity and public unruliness are banned for the guardian class.

[4] Barney Hoskyns’ take on this is much more negative:  “God knows what Neil [Young] made of ‘Our House,’ Graham Nash’s trite ditty about his Laurel Canyon love-nest: the journey from ‘Ohio’ back to ‘Our House’ seemed to sum up a general failure of nerve in the LA music scene.” Waiting for the Sun: A Rock ‘n’ Roll History of Los Angeles (Milwaukee: Backbeat Books, 2009), p. 204.

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The Greatest Rock Musical Number: Elvis Presley, “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)

I’m late to the party as usual, but can I nominate “Jailhouse Rock” for another distinction besides having the greatest first two seconds?

What impresses me about the “Jailhouse Rock” number in the context of a movie musical, the performance on a prison set, is how it captures a master metaphor of rock music, adolescent yet universal: that music beguiles the time while we’re in captivity, that life’s sweet opportunity is surrounded by life’s cruel constraint. So what’s great about music with really loud snare hits is that it’s knocking with bravado on a prison door that won’t open for us; what’s great about a stomping four-beat is that it’s making the most of a confined space in lockdown; what’s great about a vocal tenaciously wailing on the blue third note is that it’s a free roar that knows it’s stuck.

Alex Romero’s choreography is apt. Though the jailbirds have been let out of their cells, everyone hops and twists within a cell-like tight space; there’s no dreamy balletic gliding or soaring, except in Elvis’s foray over the pitiful exercise equipment.[1]

Shifty Henry said to Bugs “For Heaven’s sake
No one’s lookin’, now’s our chance to make a break”
Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said, “Nix nix
I wanna stick around awhile and get my kicks”

You see, even if we could escape our prison (the social pressure, the economic pressure, the death sentence) we wouldn’t want to! The rhythm of our prison bash is so groovy that it sways the guards’ billy clubs.

Some might prefer a more optimistic view of music’s role in our existence–that it triumphantly proves that the rope of life can be twisted at any time toward joy and enrichment rather than toward fear and frustration. I’m fine with that, even as an interpretation of “Jailhouse Rock.” Let’s think that way too.[2]

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[1] Come to think of it, isn’t this how the musicians and audience are stuck in their places in a normal show? Such a popular model of imprisonment-as-happy! Watch Prince’s exuberant club number “Baby, You’re A Star” with this idea in mind.

[2] A few more nominations:

FUNNIEST: “Dentist!,” Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

BEST PERSONATED: “Sweet Transvestite,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

MOST POSITIVE ENERGY: “Baby, I’m A Star,” Purple Rain (1984)

MOST POIGNANT: “Summer Love,” Grease (1978)

MOST INSPIRING: “Let The Sunshine In,” Hair (1969)

MOST UNEXPECTED: “You Were The Beat Of My Heart,” The Lure (2015)

and

A WEIRD 1957 COUNTERPOINT TO “JAILHOUSE ROCK”: “The Ritz Roll And Rock,” Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings (1957)

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Take Me Over: Dixie Dregs, “Punk Sandwich” (1979)

In the constant musical back-and-forth of satisfying and defying the listener’s expectations, there are moments of relatively muscular takeover where the composer/player is saying, in effect, “I’ve been carrying you where you want to go, but now I’m going to do something else.” Every explosion of virtuosity is a time of You-couldn’t-do-this. Every real solo, virtuosic or not, is a time of It’s-up-to-me. So is every inflection of funk or personal phrasing.

I got to thinking about another form of takeover while listening in my usual rapture to some Dixie Dregs numbers. It doesn’t involve special virtuosity or funk or personal style, or not in a foregrounded way. It’s in the design of the main thing we follow, the melody (always a notable strength in the Dregs version of progressive rock).[1] It’s as though when Steve Morse built the road of the melody he put some twists in it that would dizzy us slightly so that we would have an ambiguous experience of yes, we’re still following along okay, but no, we couldn’t hum this, don’t ask us to say what’s happening.

I find this dizziness delicious. It’s an appetite whetter and a curiosity provoker. Can we go through that again? Hook!

I’d like to introduce the effect with a very mild but characteristic example, and then turn to the stronger one that moved me to write. Listen to “Take It Off the Top” (What If, 1978) from 0:45 to 1:05. There’s a repeated sequence of two melodic guitar figures (doubled with violin). On the first time through (0:45 to 0:51), the first figure is a hummable normal rock lick. The second is not abnormal, but you don’t quite see it coming because the chord, or key, has changed to an unexpected major VI, i.e. from D to B. I can hum this lick too if I concentrate. On the second time through (0:58 to 1:05), however, there are multiple lines on different pitches so that you can no longer capture the first figure very well by humming – the band has taken over the melody polyphonically. Then the second figure hits three times on its first note and one note later comes right back and does it again, in a way that totally thwarts humming; to perform this, you have to pretend to be a guitarist going back and forth between alternate frettings of that note. Which means you have to concentrate in a different way.

But as an enraptured listener I’m not trying to learn the lick, I’m just dizzily going along with it, perhaps imagining a vaguely vocal djah-djah-djah on the repeated notes to add my own accents to being spun around in that place.

Even more impressive for this effect, I think, is “Punk Sandwich” (Night of the Living Dregs, 1979), in the first instance from 0:19 to 0:25. Once again a normal rock lick is followed by an anti-hummer.

Now, I’ve got my guitar on my knee and I could figure this out – in an A scale we’re going back and forth between lower E and higher D and C and . . . whoa! I don’t want to take it over myself, I just want to be taken over! The dizzy is so fine!

*

On this theme, and connected with the contributions of Malcolm Cecil (1937-2021), I like what Timothy Crouse said about the groundbreaking 1971 synthesizer album Zero Time:

“After all, a Moog theoretically can produce any sound, and produce it instantly, so that a clarinet might scale three mellow ascending notes and then on the fourth note play the sound of the sea giving up her dead. Like taking acid and discovering that your mind has the power to stop your heart, the realization that this instrument can do all sorts of things to you, now that it has you, is unsettling.” — Timothy Crouse, Rolling Stone 88 (August 5, 1971)

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[1] “Proggers . . . disdained the tune, which is the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” James Parker, “The Whitest Music Ever,” The Atlantic 320/2 (Sept. 2017) 32-34, p. 34.

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The Voice that Pops: On Stevie Wonder

Stories of Standards—The Music of Stevie Wonder - KUVO

When a voice comes out front clearly in a musical mix, it’s said to “pop.” In a pop mix you want lots of things to pop, especially lead parts. Of course, not everything can — there must be foreground-background relationships.

The popping of that which pops is itself a hook when what is popping is something you embrace.

We may hope that in heaven we’ll all pop.

By natural gift combined with intentional shaping and technical enhancement, Stevie Wonder’s voice pops more than anyone’s. Supposing I get to sing out who I am in heaven, I want to sing like — or better say, at the standard of — Mr. Wonder. (When it’s my turn? Are there turns?)

What makes Stevie Wonder’s voice so great?

The two parts of the question are (1) what would make any voice great, and (2) how Mr. Wonder is great.

As for (1), the voice needs to be strikingly different from everything else you hear, with its own timbre and unusual insistence (the attention-holding constant energy of a musical signal, reinforced in a song vocal by the maneuvers of language, boosted in a pop mix by compression), but also surprisingly compatible with everything you hear, which usually means tunefully concordant and resonant. All the energies of a Stevie Wonder vocal that are blaring out of his appropriated sector of acoustic possibility (that is, where his frequencies and amplitudes fall in relation to the other sounds, not letting any of them compete or muddy the mix) and musical possibility (where his articulations of time and harmony fall) are at the same time comfortable enough in a larger harness.

Another acoustical point is that his relatively “nasal” signature quality interestingly locates his sound production in a specific area of his body.[1] He sounds like he is making the most of a human voice-aptitude that combines an externally thin, cutting quality (yet not entirely lacking in a warm enfolding quality) with an internally closely contained booming quality (yet not at all clogged-sounding). There is a belting potential, a sense of always more that could be coming from there.

And his harmonica often has the same qualities. His harmonica parts enter musical space like his handsome brother.

As for (2) further, well, bring in some fitting adjectives to build a descriptive corral around Mr. Wonder’s unique persona, starting with these: bold yet not aggressive, and thus remarkably free of obnoxiousness; youthfully exuberant yet not childlike, and thus remarkably hard to patronize (isn’t there always something dismissive in our smiling at children?).

Similar considerations would be involved in appreciating Janis Joplin’s great voice, but her vocal quality is commanding in a vastly different way. Stevie Wonder’s sound waves are full of musical coherence, but Joplin’s voice is the next thing to noise, just possible to hear as a musical signal, and impressive for that reason. She musicalizes the scratchy, irritating quality of the squalling infant who cannot be ignored. It’s a powerfully overriding vocal quality without being a popping-out-front quality like Stevie Wonder’s. It’s a relentless interruption by a neglected victim in contrast to the confident self-projection of everyone’s favorite. The vocal personae are so strong that you have to make an effort to think of Janis Joplin as happy or Stevie Wonder as unhappy.

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[1] See Ken Tamplin on the nasal quality. Here is a comprehensive expert analysis of Stevie Wonder’s voice, amusingly reminiscent of a beer review.

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The What’s-Going-On Hook: Laura Nyro, “Save The Country” (1968)

I Never Expected to Protest the Vietnam War While on Active Duty - The New  York Times

Speaker, speaker on the wall, how could a song be the greatest of all? One can only admit humbly which song has the most profound effect upon oneself. I admit this about Laura Nyro’s “Save The Country,” which in recent years always slays me, destroys me, wrecks me (cue Tom Petty’s wonderfully straightforward “You Wreck Me”), rattles my soul, quakes my foundations. It makes me cry with hope while I look up amazed at nuclear exploding religious images of salvation. She sings of a precious king — we have a precious king? We have a dove to ride? She sings so very brightly, “We’re gonna lay that devil down!”

About that devil . . .

“Save The Country” is an inspired civic gospel song on any hearing, but for some it has extra meaning in its historical context. For Nyro wrote “Save The Country” right after Bobby Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968. She wrote it to hurl spiritual defiance at the dark powers rampaging in her world. She rose to the occasion. The song got its first recording by the end of the month.[1]

For a nice discussion of how the song unfolds read Cheryl Graham, who steered me to this compelling live performance:

There is a deep descent in the song corresponding to the deep darkness of the year of assassinations. It’s the simple structure of her going deep that wrecks me. She starts out with a cheerful upreaching melody over I and IV chords:

Come on people, come on children

and then takes us

down to the glory river,

the river being physically a low place, lower than us in its stream bed, but here a sacred source of higher life for those who will be “washed.” To register that we are in this lower but deeply promising place, the chords are now switched around — IV to I — and the melodic figure starts from four steps lower than the song’s first note (your chin dips toward your chest when you sing it):

Gonna wash you up and wash you

Now we descend to the flat-VII chord —

down

which is not just serious-lower but sad-lower. There are two beats to feel this. Then we stroll thoughtfully for a couple of measures over some transition chords —

Gonna lay the devil down

followed by a feisty modulation to the ringing V chord:

gonna lay – that – devil – down!

That’s it. I’ve been drowned and resurrected — not in a grand opera way, rather in a brisk pop-song way. Oddly, the pop assurance is part of what slays me. It’s like brave little Jack dealing with the giant.

And what of my country? What about what’s going on? 1968 was a terrible year for America by some obvious measures, but I wasn’t grown up enough to feel that; personal discoveries were crowding my radar. “Save The Country” doesn’t remind me of that country’s plight — not consciously. What it references are some concerning years that have come later, always especially the current one.

Yet the history is worth thinking about. In 1968, after Nyro had sung so impressively

in my mind I can’t study war no more

Richard Nixon was elected, promising an honorable peace in Vietnam.

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[1] The better version is on New York Tendaberry (1969).

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Here’s the Deal: Minutemen, “Maybe Partying Will Help” (1984)

How to Effectively Deal With a Car Salesman | YourMechanic Advice

It’s a song structure the Minutemen use more than once, an inversion of the normal rise of energy and tunefulness in a song’s chorus: they start all pumped up and then go quiet and draw you in with a soft-spoken refrain.

Because a certain prominent politician (whom I support) constantly says “Here’s the deal,” which defeats the focusing effect of pointing to something really decisive by saying “Here’s the deal,” I’ve been looking for an authentic “Here’s the deal” moment, and . . . (pause for effect) . . . here it is in a Minutemen refrain.

It’s such a well-known thing, the paradoxical high impact of shifting to a whisper. It’s such a good way of getting attention for whatever you’re presenting. Why is it not all over pop music? Perhaps because pop music experience is not generally a search for some decisive thing to pay attention to, but on the contrary an avoidance of any such thing? All those verse bombardments, all those buoyant choruses, all those nifty bridges a long holiday, a vast distraction.

Wait, that can’t be right. It contradicts the Hooks premise that we love moments of special interest in music. We are paying attention. We’re just not normally listening for a clear-out for a thought.

In this case, what an engaging thought in context! The words realistic, not rhythmic, but not a rhythmic stumble either. The thought meandering, conflicted, yet pointed and easily relatable. The gentle musical setting a hook in its own right.

As I look over this beautiful land
I can’t help but realize
That I am alone
Why am I able to waste my energy
To notice life being so beautiful?
Maybe partying will help

What of the people who don’t have
What I ain’t got?
Are they victims of my leisure?
To fail is to be a victim
To be a victim of my choice
Maybe partying will help

Take it lightly as satire or take it to heart — be that person or that other.

You get a high-energy reward, some swell party music, for taking in the message – a long outro (if any part of a 1:58 song can be called long) containing one of the great rock riffs, one that Jimmy Page and Jack White could fight over. It sounds archetypal, confirming that the thought at the center of the song was really at The Center, really The Deal.

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The Appropriation Hook: Paul Simon, “I Know What I Know” (1986)

General Shirinda & Gaza Sisters

In 1985 Paul Simon travelled to Johannesburg to record six tracks for his Graceland album with South African musicians. He drew criticism for breaking with the 1980s anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa, yet he was welcomed by South Africa’s black musicians union (you can read about the whole affair at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graceland_(album)). Because Simon made a point of crediting his South African collaborators, paying them well, and touring with them later, there is reason to see Graceland as a landmark of enlightened cultural politics even as the cultural appropriation debates continue to rage around it. I submit that for the listener there is a formidable appropriation hook in a song like “I Know What I Know.” The very quality that seems outrageous to a critic of cultural appropriation—the witticisms of a Manhattanite being overlaid on sounds originally designed to boost the morale of an oppressed people, sounds that the rich white man bought for his own purposes—makes for a compelling musical intrigue. The staged encounter of these vastly different elements poses questions: How does the one world of feeling play with, or off, the other? How do those blasts of unified statement in the chorus (“I know what I know   . . . We come and we go”) resolve, or get rumpled by, the uncertain ploys in the verses (“don’t I know you / from the cinematographer’s party?”; “what does that mean / I really remind you of money?”). Does the neurotic Western individual find sanity in the bosom of an African collective, or is the collective even crazier than he is? (A high point: the post-chorus whoowhoowhoowhoo by the Gaza Sisters, at 0:56, 1:33, 2:40.) In Simon’s remarkably transparent appropriation, the cultural politics issues aren’t merely held at bay, they enliven our musical experience.


CONCERT VERSION

[Originally posted in 2017 at the Millsaps Hooks Project]

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The Beatles Beatled: Utopia, “Take It Home” (1980) and The Beatles, “Paperback Writer” (1966)

Utopia - Deface The Music - Vinyl LP – RockMerch

Anyone doing an homage or parody of the Beatles needs to nail some known quality of existing Beatles songs, whereas the Beatles themselves, being great, typically sound like they’re conquering new territory. You can’t do something for the first time the second time; you can only reproduce the Beatles Beatled, not the Beatles Beatling. The very fresh “Day Tripper” (1965) by the Beatles is the model for one of the finest Beatleoid exercises, “Take It Home” by Utopia (from Deface the Music, 1980), likewise built on a two-measure guitar figure with lots of spiky syncopation in the notes. But in this unusual case, “Take It Home” captures some Beatles magic despite coming second, because the Beatles themselves did the same thing in “Paperback Writer” (1966). In imitating one great Beatles song, “Take It Home” really channels another.

The Beatles, “Day Tripper”

The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”

Utopia, “Take It Home”

[Originally posted in 2014  at the Millsaps Hooks Project]

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The Contents of Time: Free, “Don’t Say You Love Me” (1970)

Chest

For something that doesn’t exist, time plays an enormous role in our calculations. It’s because we’re always off – we won’t be able to complete an action (time is short), or keep waiting (it’s long), or meet someone (it’s missing), or we can’t remember what happened (it’s empty).

A positive time experience is la durée, something’s lastingness, an identity of the real. I look at my beloved and I think: here we still are, and what a reverberant fact is that! For the apt musical beauty of it, this is what Free could have been going for in the bridge of “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a five-measure crooning of “time” in the sad-pretty bVII chord, its gently dropping vocal melody lifted by the ascending bass line (at 3:15):

Time
Has showed me now what love is for

A word that lasts five measures can collect a lot of feelings about the water that went under the bridge. It could be the ultimate we’re-still-here statement. It could be our golden evening song as we sit side by side in our rocking chairs after dinner.

But no. This simple hook has lethal poignancy because the singer is realizing that love is not there, and that a series of life changes has brought him to the point of breaking off:

Time
Keeps telling me that I’ve got to go

What was in that time? Not a calm lasting presence, but a persistent signal of absence. Ain’t that time all over? Let that sink in for five measures.

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Infectious #2: Thunderclap Newman, “Something In The Air” (1969)

Bosch butt song

Bosch’s butt music in hell

Music is airborne, which means a lot of things.

Music makes an amazing air journey to your ears from any kind of source and it’s virtually unstoppable, because your ears (along with your nose, skin, and lungs) are already locked into the air conspiracy.

Further, music commands the whole air-environment that your ears monitor or that your ear-imagination enacts. It fills it: what is empty, as air, becomes bracingly full, as music. It animates it: what is only waiting, as air, becomes what is churning and surging.

“Air can hurt you too,” David Byrne points out in “Air” on Fear of Music (Talking Heads, 1979). He complains that it hits you in the face when you run. Well, maybe air isn’t normally hurtful . . . but it was never protecting you. It sure wasn’t going to ward off music.

Best or worst of all, air lets messages get through.

So: air is one of the main reasons you have to be ready for anything.

If I sing about desired social change, can the revolutionary image ride on the music, command the air, and flood everyone’s consciousness willy-nilly? In Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air,” Speedy Keen’s straining high vocal touchingly expresses the wish that it could be so:

Compare how The Beatles in “Revolution” (1969) are not announcing revolution but pushing back. “Revolution” blasts in your face from a megaphone, muscling through the air and negating it–this is how you ward off someone else’s music, by yelling louder–whereas Keen’s vocal sends out friendly zephyrs.

Also admirable is how “Something In The Air” doubles down on its anything-can-happen premise by yielding to a very unexpected piano part for its middle section (starting at 1:58). (Thesis: this is an intense experience of what a song’s middle section always wants to be.) The video nicely shows the rest of the musicians happily agreeing to play along with the whole new idea.

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