Outro #5: What is tuning in?

radio 1

The most important thing you have done in your music listening career, besides turning out for concerts and turning on your devices, is tuning in.

Music does many catchy things to ingratiate itself. But there’s the Paradox of Ingratiation: a piece of music that is 100% agreeable, requiring no adjustment to enjoy it, actually prevents you from performing the act of tuning into it. It slides by, and you’ll never think of it as essential.

What do you do to tune in?

You might instantly catch what is thrown your way in depth (as it feels to you). “Deep greens and blues / Are the colors I choose,” yes! I thought.[1]

You might resonate increasingly with nuances that determine the rich quality of the whole experience, as in “getting” a groove.[2]

You might be examining how something that sounded questionably, possibly, occasionally promising fulfills its promise. Or you might only be curious initially, and then surprised by delight.

You might be immediately delighted but also hooked by a problem to solve. (Is that a male or female singer of “I Can See Clearly Now”? Is Spencer Dryden a rock drummer or not? How can Bill Payne play that unfunky synthesizer effectively in the live version of “Fat Man In The Bathtub”? Is this the track you would take to your desert island?)

As tuning in succeeds, you value the specificity of each thing you discover you like. Each tuning in establishes another radio station on an expanding dial. Your communication channels reach out in many directions in a brilliantly talkative universe.

You value the particular knowing of the good thing, like knowing that friend of yours with his quirky sense of humor. Indeed, your friend might be a little problematic, a little rough or uneven, so that you have to know how to take him–and likewise you might get satisfaction from figuring out how to take this music, for best results. Maybe you have to meet it halfway. Maybe it’s on the verge of too harsh or too bland and you have to tug it in the right direction.

The implicit theme through much of this is that you are capable of this discernment and problem-solving, you are the one who hosts this resonance; further, you are one of the ones with this capability and this function–you belong to the fellowship of the tunes.

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[1] James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James” (1970).

[2] Tiger C. Roholt, Groove. A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

 

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Little Things: Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” (1974)

squares overlapping

I had it planned: the last post before my exit (Outro #5, still coming) was to be on Little Feat, returning to the first band featured on this site. But while I was in the neighborhood of 1974 I dawdled and came upon Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. And that album hook-snagged me over and over.

In the true perverse Hooks spirit, I want to honor the most massively good track on this elegantly produced album by focusing on the tiniest thing about it. Or things, because they form a series. Here come the Little Things: the handclaps that start at 2:47.

Ronstadt’s part of the song is over at 2:27–exactly where Dee Dee Warwick’s original ends in 1963–but the band keeps going with a coda. There’s a simple pattern on the drums where the closed hi-hat notes are a joy to hear, if you can hear them. The other parts (bass, guitar, electric piano) don’t get in the way. All unwary, you’re being sensitized for an accented addition where only unaccented hi-hat notes are supposed to go. A violin note approaching from far away makes you think a real string part is going to fill the arrangement out, and indeed it will, but: tiny ambush! The capstone on the arrangement is not the strings at all but modest little handclaps on the off-beats, the “ands”: [1] AND [2] AND [3] AND [4] AND, the effect being ” -up  -up  -up  -up.” As though a separated wing of your marching band, actually the wing you yourself are now in (because of course you have joined in the clapping), has come back interleaving with the main body in a rigorously complementary yet never assimilated extra pattern of beats that chop upward as opposed to stomping down.

It’s an extra to which I am fiercely attached. The claps are just strong enough to impose a viable alternate beat over the already-established beat, like laying one grill over another for a regular overlap. Thus you’re structurally guaranteed a choice of beat. Moreover, if you’ve been won over to the clapping part you are proud of your ability to stand off from the original beat. You’re cooler than you were.

Although Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” is officially a 1974 release, on youtube you can see a Midnight Special performance of December 21, 1973, where her band includes Richie Hayward of Little Feat on drums and Skunk Baxter of Steely Dan on congas. The handclaps aren’t heard there or on any of the available youtubes until 1996 in a performance at the White House–a very satisfying return.

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Giving Us a Hard Time: Little Feat, “Fat Man In The Bathtub” (1973)

Twisted clock

OK, I mean this in a male sexual way: our hero in “Fat Man In The Bathtub,” Spotcheck Billy, is having a HARD TIME getting sex with Juanita. Thus we don’t experience the song as proceeding “in its own good time”; instead, it gives us a kind of hard time.

The hook that interests me is in how Billy’s discourse is arranged in musical time. How do you make the flow of the song frustrating for the audience without denying them the pleasure of rhythm?

We must consider how Little Feat is using their new asset (new on their Dixie Chicken album, heard to advantage on the song “Dixie Chicken” also) of New Orleans or “second-line” time. It’s a marvelously flexible polyrhythmic framework that builds on the two-bar pattern BUMP-bum-bum-BUM-bum-bum-BUM-bum | bum-bum-BUMP  BUMP:

1………..2……….3……….4……….       1………..2……….3………4……..
X…..x…..x…..X…..x…..x…..X…..x…..   x…..x…..X………..X……………….

Using eighth-notes as our units (marked by x), the pattern can be described by the number of eighth-notes between accents: 3-3-2 | 2-2-4.

Since the pattern is overlaid on measures of 4/4 (4 beats, 4 quarter-notes, 8 eighth-notes), we get two different feels in the package. In the first measure, the 3-3-2 is in tension with the 2-2-2-2 of regular four-beat time; in the second measure, the 2-2-4 is in tension with the first measure, from which it differs, and with its own background 2-2-2-2 by its abrupt early ending. Once you get the rhythm going you can invoke any of the reference patterns at any point; it’s easy to keep things interesting.

Now, what does “Fat Man” do? We start off in lucid New Orleans time, and the refrain melody (first heard in a purely instrumental version) fits smoothly.

Here it is with the words.

(Juan – )
X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x    |
i…..-….ta…………………………………………my….sweet…Juan -…..

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    X    X    x    x    x   |
i……..-…….ta………………………………..what are………..you……..

[note the tussle between “what” and “are” over whether that measure is going to be in the measure 1 or measure 2 mold]

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x   |
up……..to…………………………………………………..my…..Juan -……

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x   |
i  –  ta…………………………………………………………………………………

But “Fat Man” wants to tell us that Spotcheck Billy is balked, his time tied up, obstructed, jerked around. Thus when the verse arrives the New Orleans pattern is suddenly shut off and you’re asked to imagine a default 4/4 with emphasis shifting back and forth between where you would expect it (like on the 1 of the second measure of each line–“Bill,” “knees,” “hey,” “right”) and where you wouldn’t (like on the 2 of the first measure and the 3 and 4 of the second). It’s a spastic stones-in-my-passway effect.

Measure 1…………………………………..Measure 2…………………………………
1……………2*…………3…………4…………1*………..2………….3………..4…………..
X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
……………Spot – check………………….Bil – ly….got……down……..on his…

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………X…………X…………..
…………..hands……………..and……….knees………………….he……..said……..

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
………….. “Hey………………….ma-ma, hey……… let me check…..your……

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
……………..oil…………………..all………right?”………………She…….said

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
…………… “No……………………………….no…………………..hon-ey………………..

X……………x…………x…………x…………
……………..not………to…-…night.

Look down the chart and you’ll see there’s always action on 2* in Measure 1 and on 1* and 3 (and usually 4) in Measure 2. (Note that accents do not fall on that 2* and 1* in the New Orleans rhythm.) It’s actually a very regular, shapely flow–in fact, it’s close to a New Orleans phrasing that’s just been shifted over to start on 2, if you look at it like this:

[x   x ]  X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    x    x    X    x    X    x
……….”Hey………..ma  –  ma, hey…..let me check…your……

Yet that empty space or holdup in Measure 1 and the misfit with the originally set New Orleans time makes it feel chronically interrupted.

After this part the supple New Orleans pattern returns to push Billy forward:

(Come back)
X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
Monday………………………………………………………………..come back

X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
…………….Tues –  …………………………..day……………………………and

X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
then I……………………………might” ……………………………………………….

Compare the profoundly different flow of one of those songs that’s meant as a blast of male sexual confidence, “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner, 1978):

(Well, I’m)
1…………2…………3………….4………….1………….2………….3………….4………….
………….hot……blooded……………check it…and see……………………………
1…………2…………3………….4………….1………….2………….3………….4………….
……I….got…a….fe – ver…of…a….hundred and three………………………..

Rhythmically this is all about stomping in 4/4 and being on the beat as expected, or swaggering over two beats with a strong triplet (“have in mind,” “you ought – a”).

(You don’t have to)
1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
read……….my mind………………………………………………………………….to know……..what I

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
have…..in……mind……………………………………………………..Hon – ey……you….ought….-a……

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
know…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Now you

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4…………….
move……….so………….fine……………………………………………………………………………..let me

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4…………….
lay…..it……on….the…line

True, there is a delay of emphasis with the chorus lines (“hot,” “got”) starting on the 2-beat, which invites comparison with the “Fat Man” lines that start on the 2, but in “Hot Blooded” you wouldn’t call this a balky hesitation; it’s more in the nature of loading up and firing. The male is sure of success. Good for him!

Meanwhile, Spotcheck Billy is clinging to his second-line hope. It sounds like it will keep him going till Monday or Tuesday.

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In Our Own Good Time: Little Feat, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” (1974)

Mickey Mouse one man band

Something you could say generally about phrasing is that it expresses an ownership of time: good players and singers proceed in their own good time and aren’t merely hustled along by the programmed “good time” of the song’s beat that everyone counts on. They won’t be held back and they won’t be rushed.

Perhaps they want to put their own good time into a clear shape, making us wait with them for a whole measure. But then it’s no longer a “phrasing” effect, it’s a structural modification of the verse or chorus.[1]

That’s what happens in “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” at 0:47, 2:17, and 2:25. Chugging along for an extra measure just for the hell of it is a change of song structure so obvious, so gettable, that we want to let it count as our own take-a-break prerogative. It’s a full-service rest stop in the middle of the song highway. It’s Everyman’s ownership of time.

Once the unmistakable extra measure has sent its message, you can appreciate that “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” is shot through with smaller intervals for gathering yourself, cleared-out beats at :08, :11, :22, :39, :45, :53, 1:19 and so on. Typically, Little Feat is colluding with the audience on smilingly showing the song who’s boss.

Yet the song itself (and this seems a contradiction) never loses a smidgen of forward progress, for the band keeps it absolutely taut. I love watching Richie Hayward’s drumming in live performance, lest I forget how wound-up the song is:

 

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[1] It’s so common in blues songs that it can register as part of the structure rather than a modification.

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Joy: The Beatles, “Here Comes The Sun” (1969)

Tarzan & his mate 3

Easter 2018

This is a movie hook post that wants to become a music hook post.

I’m starting with an image from Tarzan and His Mate (1934), one of a number of production stills in which Maureen O’Sullivan looks very happy indeed to be with Tarzan. This image is my favorite because her happiness is so brilliant and pure, undistorted by Hollywood calculations. It doesn’t ask you to ogle; or rather what it asks you to ogle is something more stimulating than an unclad movie star in a sexually suggestive position, namely, the possibility of utterly triumphant happiness. We see the happiness in a specific relationship at a specific moment, but it seems to be shooting out like a gusher from a vast human reservoir of joy.

Disclosure: I have this taped up on the shade behind my computer. Maureen O’Sullivan is my pin-up! Not because I have reveries about her as my playmate, but because her eyes are lined up with Tarzan’s in an affirmation that goes beyond anything on the plane of “kiss me, hold me.” For her, the universe with Tarzan is just the coolest thing.

I get the feeling also that Tarzan is her delightful surprise. Not a jolt at all, but a very friendly surprise prompting a new surge of wellness, a positive “Oh really!” Really, he’s here, and–surprise in herself–she has that much energy to radiate.

Now I can make the turn to music. When I think of where the most notable surges of happiness come in pop music, I usually find an element of friendly surprise, a joltless being snuck up upon. “Here Comes the Sun” (The Beatles, 1969) is the unavoidable example and a good opportunity to give George Harrison some Hooks love.

The whole idea of it is the sun sneaking up on us, dearly familiar despite what seems a long absence. There is a musical sneaking up too. Once the refrain and “Little darling” verses have set an amiable tone, the simple but unusually long and ever more insistent “Sun, sun, sun” bridge takes us from gentle to tremendous, its nifty triplets becoming celestial orbits.

Contrast this with a ragingly joyful anthem like “Lazy Day” by Spanky and Our Gang (1967):

No sneaking up or surprise about this one. It’s celebration wall to wall.

I’m more encouraged by sneaky beauty because it comes to me as though from the great Unknown, the great Chance that something not so great could always hit me next and I might not have enough to meet it. It boosts me where I’m vulnerable. George’s understatement, “Here comes the sun, it’s all right”–so pure and so bravely strategic–sneaks into us, as the bridge does even moreso when the bridge carries the ball.

And every person sneaks into us. How could Tarzan have been foreseen or guaranteed? Or George? Or myself rising to greet him? Sun, sun, sun of man!

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Am I Early? XTC, “Earn Enough For Us” (1986)

Guest at the door

You can’t always assume you’ll be welcome if you arrive earlier than expected. In music, at least, there are some generally good ways to grab your audience by showing up early, some of which have been discussed on this site: coming in slightly early on a vocal (Aretha Franklin) or instrumental solo (B. B. King), syncopation (Suddenly, Tammy!), changing meters within a polyrhythm (Jethro Tull), surprise-starting a measure before the preceding measure ends (Beck).

XTC do the surprise-start a number of times in the songs on Skylarking, like at 0:46, 1:30, and 2:10 in “Earn Enough For Us.”

But there’s also a more radical early arrival in “Earn Enough.” If you contemplate the ringing musical strength of its suspiciously anthemic verses, you, too, may conclude that they’re not verses at all, they’re choruses; and the parts that come after the choruses are iterations not of a chorus but of a bridge. This means that the normal pop song structure has been advanced by one whole component: the chorus arrives so early there’s no time for a verse. It’s like a sonnet starting with a rhyming couplet.

If you doubt, I would point out certain respects in which the first part of “Earn Enough” isn’t like a verse:

(1) the words falling so squarely on the beats, march-like;

(2) the long notes at the beginning of the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth measures;

(3) the unusual third chord used in the fourth measure, strongly marking the halfway point of the compact cycle;

(4) the strong closing feeling in the seventh measure, announcing the end of the cycle, with

(a) the dominant major-fifth chord, and

(b) the melodic figure going up and back down from the highest note yet (“earn“), an octave above the tonic note (thus an anticipation of the tonic note)–leading oh-so-convincingly to

(5) in the eighth measure, the single, simple, final event of the tonic note on the tonic chord (“us“).

1    I’ve been praying all the
2    week through
3    At home, at work and on the
4    bus
5    I’ve been praying I can
6    keep you
7    And to earn enough for
8    us

But what does it mean to be so early with the chorus? Is it an aggression? A charming impetuosity? A feint of faux-naiveté about songwriting? (Naw!)

Whatever it is, it may cause us to question our expectation of a verse. What are verses for, anyway? On the plane of lyrics, we usually need the verses to lay out the situations that the choruses make decisive comment on. “Earn Enough” can make sense without this setup because it’s slotted in at the anticipation-of-marriage moment in Skylarking‘s life-cycle pageant. Taken by itself, it can just shoulder aside the preparatory narration because the situation is so archetypal. Let’s let the song go straight to it.

Normally it would be risky to eliminate a song’s verse because the chorus gets much of its effect from contrast with the verse. The chorus is comparatively beat-reinforcing, compact, lush, loud–you’re arriving there at the song’s heart, where blood is pumped to all the other parts. A song that’s only chorus would be intolerably repetitive (imagine if “She Loves You,” which famously starts with its chorus, only ever repeated that). “Earn Enough” goes right up to the line of too much chorus but has enough variety, thanks to its pseudo-bridge, to get away with it.

But to return to the question: what would you say it means that “Earn Enough” starts so strong and never offers the contrast of verselike sections? I say it’s a calling card: when it comes to delivering the best pop-rock hooks, XTC says, we’re as great as The Beatles.

Can you think of other songs that are deviant in this way? I thought of:
The Rolling Stones, “Time Is On My Side”
Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made To Love Her”
The Stone Poneys, “Different Drum”
Green Day, “Know Your Enemy” (someone else thought of this)

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The Combination: Baby Animals, “Painless” (1991)

Boxing combination

In the past I’ve lamented the quick passing of a moment of peak interest in a song. Like on an actual mountain peak, you have to face the fact that there’s scarcely anything there and 99% of your time is spent building up to it or dimly remembering it.

There’s an obvious amelioration of the hook lover’s predicament, though: instead of one lonely hook, there could be a predictable series of hooks one right after another, like a boxing combination–a long-lasting knockout.

The peak of “Painless” by Baby Animals is the clear-out moment in the bridge for Suze DeMarchi to yell, “And I need that like a hole in the head!” at 2:15.

The great news is that you don’t have to come down from that level anytime soon, because a supertaut funk compression of the verse riff holds you on high alert for four measures (2:17-2:26), followed by three joltingly early descending guitar notes (2:27-2:35) that push down the song’s lid until the pressure shoots it way up, vocal cry and lead guitar solo erupting together (from 2:36). We’re notified that we’ve finally gotten to the end of this extended peak by the second “I need that like a hole in the head!” at 2:49. The whole wonderful moment has lasted more than half a minute, every part of it boosting every other.

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