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. 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 —


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.


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

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

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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 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.


[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)


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):

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:

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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Charged: The Clash, “Clampdown” (1979)


If you want militant anthem urgency, I suggest you will find your Golden Groove in The Clash’s “Clampdown” on London Calling. Compare what drummer Topper Headon does on this recording with live Clash recordings and covers, and marvel at how supremely charged this take is.

You don’t want to go faster than this (as The Clash did live). 145 BMP is exactly right, and my kinesthetic research reveals why: my hands are galvanized to clench and unclench at this speed–alternatively, my head twitches left and right–and faster is too fast for these apt responses.

You don’t want to thicken the sound (as so heavily in the Bruce Springsteen cover). The bass drum and snare are playing one of the simplest possible patterns for rock, a “march” beat, the snare hits reinforced by the bass drum and slightly colored with the hi-hat. It sounds like an essence of beat. It’s as put-your-foot-down insistent as it could be without a heavy stomping effect that would create friction: it pokes at your nerves rather than shoving them, so that they can fire back.

You want to take proper care of the urgent message lyrics, too. You don’t want to blitz them or bury them, you want to switch them along. “Get along, get along . . .”

And you don’t want to get clamped down.

Portland protest

Portland, June 4, 2020

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Infectious: The Isley Brothers, “Twist And Shout” (1962)

The Twist

Chubby Checker spreading the Twist

[Post for a pandemic.]

Hook experience is “infectious,” we so often say, because musical content can easily enter your system (getting past the membranes that sheathe your old preferences) and change your state while changing others around you similarly. Body-snatched, people start moving and speaking oddly. They gyrate, they babble nonsense. There is a craze.

The hook that most clearly displays the trespassing power, the flagrant impact, and the viral shareability of musical gesture is: well, how about “Shake it up baby!” in “Twist and Shout”?

Ronnie Isley’s vocal begins with shocking roughness, ripping past our defenses after we’ve nearly been lulled by the relatively slow groove.[1] Note that the melodic figure starts ahead of schedule, “Shake” coming on the 3-beat of the measure before we start on the tonic chord (F) with “baby.” There is pleasure in participating in this ambush. Note also that the melody plunges down home from the clarion 5th note, C, for “Shake it up ba-” down to the 3rd-2nd-1st notes A-G-F of the F chord rapidly on “-by.” Isley executes the A-G-F much better than you could, yet it’s easy to feel that you are singing the same thing. That makes two sneaky pleasures that you feel while the twisting and shouting cells are aggressively spreading through your body, unlocking your native cells to join them in this feverish new way of life.

Here is the Beatles’ version to compare, with the famous raw-throated John Lennon vocal (and he actually was sick) emulating the Isley intensity, a little more frantic:

I was part of the craze. It hit me (via the Beatles) in a soda shop in March 1964, spring break, Ft. Lauderdale, the beach, college students swarming. At the time, my music was
  . . . I can’t remember what my music was, before I got infected.


[1] The first release of “Twist and Shout” by the Top Notes (1961), produced by Phil Spector, was much faster. Co-writer Bert Berns had something else in mind and enlisted the Isley Brothers in realizing it. 

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The Direct: Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, “Solidarity” (1984) and Comet Gain, “We’re All Fucking Morons” (2019)

Image result for bull's eye

There’s a feeling like the sun has come out when someone just says it, or finally says it, that thing that maybe shouldn’t even need to be said but is one of those main things. End of blather, of levity, of tiptoeing around, of evocativeness. It’s candid unveiling, it’s target being hit; we’re centered.

The super-common directness move in song is “I love you,” but there are direct song-sayings with broader import, centering whole communities, and not just in the corny official songs of nations.

A charming moral directness makes Little Steven’s “Solidarity” (1984) a great anthem:

Everybody wants the same things don’t they
Everybody wants a happy end
They just want to see the game on Saturday
They wanna be somebody’s friend

Everybody wants to work for a living
Everybody wants to keep their children warm
Everybody just wants to be forgiven
Everyone wants shelter from the storm

Look at me I ain’t your enemy
Why can’t we walk on common ground
We don’t need to be fighting each other
What we need, what we need is solidarity

Nobody likes to ask for money
Nobody likes to play the clown
Nobody likes waiting in the long lines
Nobody likes being pushed around

Everybody wants their family protected
They only want to express themselves
Everybody wants to live forever
Everybody wants to be somebody else . . . 

Once you build up a momentum of directness, you can get an amazing effect by saying something non-obvious like “Everybody wants to be somebody else”: that’s true too! Arriving in this sequence it doesn’t feel like a poetic notion, it feels like another loud beat from Little Steven’s impatient heart.

In quite another vein of moral directness, Comet Gain’s “We’re All Fucking Morons” (2019) scolds a pub crowd:

I don’t mean to interrupt you
I see you’ve had a few
I just want to understand you
Before I go to war with you

Like why you get so scared
Of the fragile weak and weird
We’re a nation in reverse
Trapped inside your hearse

And we’re all fucking morons
Don’t you know it’s true
We’re all fucking morons
My finger’s pointing straight at you

“Fucking” is essential here. Someone might object that it’s a word in excess, a distracting deviation. But we know that the point of saying “fucking” is not to add information or cleverness but to punch straight ahead. It’s a marker that “We’re morons” really means: “We’re morons.”

There’s a train of directness a-rolling here, but interestingly there’s much about the lyric that is not straightforward. “Nation in reverse/trapped inside your hearse” is a bold poetic conceit. Shifting from “your hearse” to “we’re all morons” and back to “my finger’s pointing at you” is rhetorically twisted: Can a moron call out a moron? (Does “Takes one to know one” work with morons?) So the song really is clever; it’s cleverly using directness. Yet it directly dares you not to face up to its complaint.

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Groove Alchemy: Band of Gypsys, “Power Of Soul” (1970)

Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox, Buddy Miles

By Eric Griffin

Jimi Hendrix clearly considered “Power Of Soul” to be one of the Band of Gypsys’ signature numbers, and the four Fillmore shows heard on the Machine Gun release (2016) give us four takes to explore. In Take One, we hear a band understandably on edge and not quite able to settle into the sort of R&B groove they will eventually hit. With their leader revealing that “even Hendrix” was subject to nerves, we hear the guitarist rushing slightly ahead of his drummer and bassist. A top-down listening might give the impression that Hendrix’s R&B-oriented bandmates are unable to keep up with the god of “psychedelic rock.” What is absent from the opening set performance is precisely what had been present in the “Rainy Day” jams on Electric Ladyland—time felt so communally that the music breathes in and out with collective power, which is absolutely present in the canonical take.

Doubtless because he was accustomed to the sound of the Experience, an early Rolling Stone reviewer wrote of the 1970 Band of Gypsys album that “with just bass and drum support,” Hendrix “is able to transfuse and transfix on the strength of his guitar-work alone.” What the critic never pauses to consider is that what his Experience-tuned ears may have perceived to be “definitely disturbing and at times exceedingly pedestrian drumming” might in fact have been providing the foundation upon which the “strength” he heard in the record’s guitar-work was being raised. “Hendrix overcomes on pure tension alone,” he wrote, “as both ‘Message To Love’ and ‘Who Knows’ aptly demonstrate.”[1] 

Listening from the bottom up, from the base established by the rhythm section, I hear a very different record; for such “pure tension” as we hear in the most powerful moments of the Fillmore East performances could never be produced by the lead player alone. And in their fourth try, the Gypsys get it right. Here, much as he had in the opening measures of “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” Hendrix delivers an undistorted eight-bar intro in the Albert King mode followed by four bars that introduce the figure around which “Power Of Soul” is built. These twelve bars culminate in a one-measure rest. Well, the rest is something on the order of a measure—for in the slightly retarded moment leading up to it, and in the sustained B-flat major third that overhangs it, the players collectively feel rather more than the expected four beats. This moment at 0:17—in which the meter is not metronomically counted (like the session cats might play it) but intuitively and communally felt—opens a rift in time unheard in their three previous takes of “Power,” and it is in this temporal shift that we approach the musical sublime. For when Miles’s slightly delayed snare shots call them back in, the three Gypsys together crash into a groove within which Hendrix elevates a solo as exhilarating as any ever heard on record.

It has been said that during the second night’s performances especially, Hendrix was focused more on the record-in-the-making than on entertaining the Fillmore crowd. With apologies to those present for the “stock-still” performance, in the relaxation—or perhaps enabling fatigue—of their January 1 performance we hear in potential the kind of groove alchemy the Band of Gypsys might have realized had they been able to go forward. It is a moment of collectively realized time and timing that, if not sublime in the “boundlessly” or “absolutely great” sense that Kant understood the word, is, when viewed from the bottom, most exceptionally and undeniably bad ass. [2]


[1] Gary von Tersch’s review (5/28/70).

[2] An earlier version of this post appeared in “Hendrix from the Bottom Up,“ in Theodore G. Ammon, ed., Jimi Hendrix and Philosophy: Experience Required (Chicago: Open Court, 2017).

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