Chops (Piano Edition): Billy Joel, “Prelude” (1976)


By Jonathan Bellman

Particularly for those of us who play instruments, one hook before which we are powerless is The Hook On Our Own Instrument That Must Be Figured Out.  Until it is owned, it will bewitch us, and (in my experience, at least) it requires being brought to ground by ear; getting it from a music book does not produce the same satisfaction.  Just such a hook is the opening toccata-like piano figure from Billy Joel’s “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” off Turnstiles (1976): as technically challenging as anything in the Rock piano repertory, this combines a martellato (“hammered”) rapid alternation of the hands on Middle C with offbeat chords in the right hand, while the thumb is machine-gunning the C.  Above the C, the added tones are all thirds—E and G, F and A, G and B, and C and E above—and these are played in a syncopated pattern: the right hand may be thought of as a rapid sequence of eighth-notes, while the left hand (use the third finger) plays the 16th-note offbeats.  The additional pitches in the right hand hit on the 3rd and 6th 8th-notes of the first sequence followed by the first, fourth, and seventh of the second sequence; this then repeats.  So:


……..G            G            A            A            A                 B            B            E           G             G
……..E            E             F            F            F                 G            G            C           E             E
C  C  C  C   C  C   C  C  C  C  C  C  C   C  C  C  B  C   C  C  C   C  C  C   C  C  C  C  C  C   C  C
1   2   3  4   5   6   7  8   1  2   3  4   5   6   7   8  1   2   3  4   5   6  7   8   1   2  3  4   5   6   7  8

As I say, the left hand third finger plays the same middle C as the RH thumb, alternating on the offbeats.  Final touch: do it at a gazillion miles per hour.  No sweat!

A couple of thoughts about what makes this so compelling: it’s as if Billy Joel, piano man extraordinaire, is doing his own take on the toccata bit at the end of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; the motion is similar, and the patterns related.  Also, the rapid-fire repeated note contrasts with the syncopated chords that follow throughout “Prelude” to give a film-noir sensibility to the piece, as if gunfire alternates with sudden, police-photographer-type black-and-white stills of city hustlers flicking up on the screen, one after the other: a mug shot, a guy caught in the act in a police flashlight or searchlight, Mr. Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time in a pool of blood.

I wrote more at length about this on my own blog, Dial M for Musicology [see “Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken”], and offer this commentary at Steve Smith’s request.  Go listen to it, and see what I mean; if the pianists among you become obsessed until you can do it yourselves, well . . . sorry.

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Greatest Dylan Hooks


What a great day, in a categorically confusing way: a popular songwriter has won the Nobel Prize for literature!

We must pay our respects! What for you is the greatest hook in Dylan’s lyrics, and why do you pick it?

For my own answer, I swear I didn’t see this coming, but I have two finalists that both include the word “chicken.”

1. From “Tombstone Blues” (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

2. From “Lo And Behold” (The Basement Tapes, 1975 [recorded in 1967])

I come into Pittsburgh
At six-thirty flat
I found myself a vacant seat
An’ I put down my hat
“What’s the matter, Molly, dear
What’s the matter with your mound?”
“What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?
This is chicken town!”
I am citing them together in a tie because my psyche is divided between two ways of being tickled by a chicken. The chicken scores zany points in each case, but the off-the-rails arrogance of the Commander-in-Chief in lyric #1 has an eerie seriousness in it, whereas the off-the-rails bawdiness of lyric #2 is just hilarious. As for my poor psyche, it seems to want to slam the doors on both of those human extremes, the one looking up and the other down.
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Outro #4: On Paying Tribute

Persepolis tribute s
What good does it do to pay tribute? What does it accomplish to declare to the world that you see the worth of something, that you thrill to it? The question seems pressing to me after my last post, which offered no idea about rock aesthetics whatever–it merely paid tribute. Why did I post it?

Some considerations:

In a political context, paying tribute confirms someone’s superior power and legitimate privilege. By supporting a regime, you’re setting standards and committing yourself to their enforcement – a zealous, reliable agent – an angel of truth and justice. Great music is the right music. It’s top form, defining the form.[1]

In a friend-making context, paying tribute marks what you and he and she might knowingly enthuse about. It’s all about us, maybe us pitted against the benighted them. It’s a sure bet for charged-up happy talk.

Paying tribute builds up your life-portfolio by articulating a great experience (I, too, have had a great experience!), putting it up on the gallery wall.

I may be inspired to pay tribute as witness to greatness going by – “Did you see that?” It was one of those events that distinguishes existence. No one could have known beforehand how great it really is. I mustn’t be alone in realizing this.

As I write, the air is full of tributes to David Bowie who died on January 10. Bowie’s career was long and winding, but once he’s gone there’s that moment of doing a collective double-take at the whole thing: “Did you see that?” Do you realize how existence was distinguished by him?

When you pay tribute to an artist or a hook, are you actually giving anything up? We could say you’re ceding a portion of your regard to a privileged recipient. But is regard limited in that way, portioned like a pizza? Perhaps not, but the act of praising takes up time. Does praising reduce the time available for self-assertion? But praise is a kind of self-assertion.

As a loyal tribute-payer, are you refusing for a while to consider anyone or anything else, and so incurring an opportunity cost? But paying tribute to music doesn’t take much more time than just listening to music, and listening to anything–paying attention–always means not listening to everything else, for that while.

Payment is owed. Do I pay tribute as a preemptive sign of respect so that collection agents won’t come banging on my door? You see, I fear the possible consequences of not showing regard to someone who rightfully demands it. Yikes, there’s Bob Dylan! I’m intimidated by the Great. But when I pay tribute to the Comparatively Unknown, then I’m a Great-Maker on my own terms. Now (returning to my first idea) I am out in front as the collection agent, the regime enforcer, the angel of truth and justice.

We angels are legion. Why do so many of us take the trouble to write merely that X or Y is great?  A cynic might say that we’re just looking for relatively safe ways to pipe up–it’s about hearing our own voices. More positively, my suggestion is that paying tribute is another way of turning up the amps on the music. In the barbarous rock world we think that’s always worthwhile.


Let me not omit to praise an actual piece of music. What could be called the greatest tribute hook?

Rock is a seething mass of shout-outs everywhere you listen (the unhidden “influences”), often intended as such (Eric Clapton celebrating Albert King in “Strange Brew”), and sometimes made the main theme (the Beatles worship of Utopia’s Deface The Music).[2] The greatest tribute hook would be the most lovable peak moment for its own sake musically as well as for its connection with music that went before.

My chosen song is . . . can I choose one that isn’t rock at all? I want it to be “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (1970), Paul Simon’s bossa-tribute to his partner Art Garfunkel, in which we enjoy the two of them still performing together on the threshold of their breakup. (There’s even an interesting problem, if you want to get into it, about what was intended and what was understood at the time, tribute-wise, between Simon and Garfunkel.) My chosen moment is the very Art-y high note on “learned” in the double-entendre line, “I barely learned the tune”–either a dig (at Art, who has to sing Paul’s words) or a confession (by Paul about their relationship).

“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” start

And so–so long!


[1] Simon Frith notes that music critics are often on “a mission to preserve a perceived quality of sound, to save musicians from themselves, to define the ideal musical experience for listeners to measure themselves against.”Performing Rites (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1967), p. 67.

[2] I’m not even talking about sampling. An interesting case for tribute issues is The Grey Album by Danger Mouse (2004).

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Fluency: Robben Ford, “Talk To Your Daughter” (1988)

Liquid FireI’m breaking a cardinal rule for Hooks posts and writing one without any analytical idea about the track that calls forth my tribute. That’s the thing: that Robben Ford’s lead guitar licks in “Talk To My Daughter” are so deeply satisfying without having anything surprising or otherwise grabbing about them. They’re the epitome of jazzy blues fluency: fully hot (brash tone), fully liquid (big sustain), suave (every note sounding totally in place), confident (filling the opportunity space), endlessly refreshed.

This is not heaven-storming music, not to be compared with the liquid lightning I’ve heard Johnny Winter play. It’s terrestrial, it’s domestic, it’s well worked out, it’s completely in hand. If it weren’t so good I’d say it’s commercial.

I suppose its intensity owes something to its contrast with a subdued prologue:

“Talk To Your Daughter” 1

There is more of that grade-A guitar flow, much more. Here is some of the hottest stuff in the middle:

“Talk To Your Daughter” 2

It really doesn’t need elucidating at all. That’s fluency, and a rare calmness in the critic’s mind.


I’ve noticed that some of Ford’s nicest guitar work on the Talk To Your Daughter album is barely audible as the tracks fade out, so as a bonus I’m including a few of his endings giving you all the help I can with my volume knob:

“Help The Poor” end

“Born Under A Bad Sign” end

“I Got Over It” end

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Great Love, “My man”: Laura Nyro, “Tom Cat Goodby” (1969)

Laura Nyro 2

What would it be like to hear real love in music? What would declare it adequately? Would there be a sound of ecstatic transport–soaring high notes, a fluttering up and down scales, Melisma City? Or would there be a sound of tenacity, of a single note really, really meant?

I lean toward the latter ideal. The great singing of love can’t be packed into just one note, of course, since lover and beloved and and what they are going through all have to be expressed; but it may feature one note that intensely sums everything up. It should be a note of Finality, proclaiming unbreakable partnership, and of Beginning Everything.

For the greatest-loving vocal event, I nominate “my man” in Laura Nyro’s song of extravagant remonstrance, “Tom Cat Goodby” on New York Tendaberry. It’s a long song that catalogs everything wrong with a husband’s behavior: slipping out on Rosie Pearl, betraying the whole family (“What about the children?!”), sliding by on bullshit plans (“You know you’re never gonna be a movie maker/Always be a silly faker”).

It’s also an anthology of entertainments, the music always lifting Rosie’s shrill complaints to beauty. When the note that maxes out her passion comes at the end, our confidence has been won that whatever this song makes us hear, we will really want to hear.

Push has come to shove and Rosie’s planning to kill Tom–so she says. “I quit loving  you . . .” If she really quit, wouldn’t she let go? She has not let go. Loving in extremis, there is no way she is not going to claim “my man” to the end. The idea of killing him is just a symbol for the finality of her love.

Going to the country, gonna buy me land
And I’m going to the country to kill my lover man,
Gonna kill my lover, gonna kill my lover, 
Gonna kill my lover man . . .
Can I find him
Gonna kill him
My lover man
My man!

“Tom Cat Goodby” end

The singing of these last two lines manages to be both operatic (refined and attention-commanding in special occasion mode) and scrapishly soulful (tearing down decorum, blurring ethnic boundaries). It soars and swoops, but with burning insistence on one musical moment. It’s the total package.

My own gender and sexuality position has something to do with this song hitting me so hard, no doubt, but there’s a lesson about our culture in the asymmetrical opportunity a woman has to sing with ultimate seriousness about “my man.” I don’t think even “Bess, you is my woman now” comes up to this level of seriousness, and I can’t think of a “my girl” that comes anywhere close. Why is this? Is it because we take the female to be the one whose very existence establishes the Home of the love bond and who therefore fights for Home existentially, while the male is the one who might or might not decide to “stay home”?

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Creepy Love #2, “So fine”: Jefferson Airplane, “Watch Her Ride” (1967)

Arwen on horse sI knew with my last post I’d taken at least one too many swipes at love in song, and it was past time to go positive on this topic. But getting there isn’t easy: the next great trope I think of brings on the spiritual heebie-jeebies all over again. At first, the much-sung idea that the beloved is so fine sounds noble, generous, appreciative rather than possessive–but is “appreciation” of  a “fine” thing ever separate from the desire to have it?  Probably not, as the Chiffons’ unavoidable rhymes remind us:

He’s so fine
Wish he were mine
That handsome boy over there
The one with the wavy hair
I don’t know how I’m gonna do it
But I’m gonna make him mine
He’s the envy of all the girls
It’s just a matter of time

The “so fine”-loving lover is hungry to move up or exults in being on top, as in: owning a mansion, driving a Mercedes, clubbing with a classy boy/girlfriend. Envied by all. There’s a brighter Darwinian future to think of, too, hooking up with better genes (that wavy hair).[1] In fact, the last verse of “He’s So Fine” effectively lifts up the biological perspective as more important than immediate social advantages (although the usual interpretation would say the beloved’s value is “personal”):

If I were a queen
And he asked me to leave my throne
I’d do anything that he asked
Anything to make him my own
For he’s so fine

My second thought about “so fine” was that there may be redemption for it in Jefferson Airplane’s “Watch Her Ride,” where the rhyme with “fine” is “blow my mind.” You laugh, but there’s this to be said for hippie values, they’re a refreshing change from material greed and social climbing. “Watch Her Ride” certainly isn’t about upscale equestrianism. It’s not about gratifying lust, either: Paul Kantner writes and sings “Watch Her Ride” as though the dirty meaning of the title phrase never occurred to him.  It’s about a mental transfiguration.

“Watch Her Ride” start

I didn’t know you were the one for me, I couldn’t see
But you were waiting
For someone to come along to help you out and sing your song
And I was changing
All I see is you
All I feel is you for me!

And I would really like to watch you ride
And always feel you by my side
I would really like to watch you ride
All on me!

Perhaps “all on me” does refer to sexual activity. Be that as it may, let’s move on to “blow my mind.”

“Watch Her Ride” end

And my mind becomes alive with you
It’s all that I can do to sit here and let you blow my mind
Blow my mind, you’re so fine
In my mind you’re so fine

We’re out of the frying pan and into the fire, I guess, if “you’re so fine” is so closely associated with dropping a very fine tab of acid. Even apart from the acid, there’s something basely acquisitive in cherishing your beloved as a Very Fine Experience.[2]

But “Watch Her Ride” is great because it’s not complacent about the issue I’m raising. It’s not sunny. It’s in strangely combined minor chords conveying anxiety, even torment, embossed with nauseous mutations of blues licks by the lead guitar, the vocal verse lines in strained recitative. Who would ever choose such elements for a celebratory love song?[3] Listen to the chords by themselves and consider how they would affect a song’s atmosphere:

The chords of “Watch Her Ride”

In “Watch Her Ride” these chords indeed create uncertainty about how to feel. There’s enough energy in the song, enough exploratory enthusiasm, that it never resolves into a downer–but you can’t say it’s an upper either. It’s on unfamiliar terrain, and it wonders at it.


[1] It’s possible that my assumptions about wavy hair are not the same as The Chiffons’.

[2] The experientialist emphasis goes way back; compare the Fiestas’ “So Fine”:

So fine . . . 
My baby’s so doggone fine,
She loves me, come rain, come shine
Oh oh yeah so fine.
She thrills me, she thrills me
She thrills me, yeah.
My baby thrills me all the time.
She sends those chills up and down my spine.

[3] The bridge’s one chord (D) is major. But the bridge is relatively subdued, emotionally, with a lower melody.

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The Creepiest Love Trope: The Philosopher Kings, “All To Myself” (1994)

Loving eyes
This is not exactly a neglected topic, but you know how it is: you hear a song you really like and it starts you thinking again.

Concerning the nature of creepiness in love, for my opening move I’ll suggest that the two primary modes are Dependence and Domination, and that they are intertwined: obsession with Domination is a form of Dependence and infantile Dependence is a potent form of Domination.

In music we have an obvious place to start in “Every Breath You Take” by The Police (1983), a song that occasioned a major cultural event of missing the point. What Sting presented as an exposé of controlling obsession, the world embraced as classic romance—which shows that we have some pretty scary assumptions about romance.

. . . Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace
I dream at night, I can only see your face
I look around but it’s you I can’t replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying, “Baby, baby, please”
Oh, can’t you see you belong to me

How my poor heart aches with every step you take
Every move you make and every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake,
I’ll be watching you

To set things straight,[1] Sting put out another hit song two years later, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” (1985).

But I want to nominate a quite different and much less famous song, a really good creeper-out in a vein of strong Domination (that nevertheless may be finally indistinguishable from just-me-and-Mama Dependence): “All To Myself” (perfect title) by the one-album wonder of 1994, The Philosopher Kings.

I’d take away the Eiffel tower
I’d take away the port of Spain
I’ll take your yellow coat
No more romantic walks in the pouring rain

Then I’d make washboard, wind-blown
Sea-side, serenading, prep school boys disappear
That flock in the summer like gulls to the beach
And pick at your heart like the garbage on the street

I’ll take away all the things
That make you look away from me
I’d take away everything
Then I’d have you all to myself

The love song is always a con: the music knows how to make us feel good about love’s overbearing propositions. We’re beguiled with a warmly carrying groove, pretty chords, lush sonics—emotional reassurance laid on thick. Unusually, “All To Myself” commits to a funk con, not a smooth con; it goes bravely funky to try to repel the threat of nothingness in a loveworld defined by radical subtraction.[2] If there’s nothing there in the relationship except pretty chords or swelling strings and you can’t get out of it, you’ll perish from boredom even if you manage not to be melted into your lover’s psyche.

This guy who, as we’ve just seen in the lyrics, wants to deprive you of all the people and things in the world, the whole outdoors, what’s he going to provide besides the monotonous reassurance of his doting gaze? Well, there is something else: the interesting tensions of funk are ever-present in the musical current of the song underneath the gestures of devotion. At 2:43 an overt turn is made from the romantic refrain “all to myself” (complete with corny electric piano flourishes) to something much more engaging:

“All To Myself”–the turn

You may have been thinking that the song’s funk is all about the sexual stimulation that the guy intends to provide, and indeed to monopolize. But here he charmingly acknowledges that he needs a band, with other players, to be interesting enough.


[1] From Wikipedia:  “Sting later said he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it’s about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. ‘One couple told me “Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!” I thought, “Well, good luck.”‘ When asked why he appears angry in the music video Sting told BBC Radio 2, ‘I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.'”

[2] In a more appealing, healthier loveworld, the lovers enjoy their shared experience of everything around them. I take the term “loveworld” from Robert Solomon’s Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1990), which is a wonderful account, though rather neglectful of the point I am making here.

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