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.

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 this TV performance, lest I forget how wound-up the song is:

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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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Honest: Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing” (1978)

Jazz band

“Sultans of Swing” was the breakthrough for Dire Straits’ wondrously fresh small-combo sound built around Mark Knopfler sensitively finger-picking his Strat. Weirdly, the song’s subject is a jazz band that plays “Creole music,” with horns “blowing Dixie,” not remotely like what Dire Straits play; nor do Dire Straits try to imitate them (except once in ironic counterpoint, when an expressive guitar fill follows the remark that Guitar George “doesn’t want to make [his notes] cry or sing”). The incongruity puzzles and simmers until we come to an artfully designed moment when we realize that Knopfler is respectfully saluting the Sultans, where they are musically, from where he is musically.

[1]

It’s the moment at 2:42-3:06 when Knopfler pictures some boys at the club scorning the Sultans’ Creole music: “It ain’t what they call rock ‘n’ roll.” Adding rock ‘n’ roll to our inventory of musical possibilities and the boys’ view of the pub scene to the singer’s and the Sultans’, we’ve got to admit that Knopfler is an objective witness and an honest broker.

To hear the Sultans themselves, you must seek them out, or at least not resist the lure of unexpected sounds coming from a pub on a rainy night.

Having offered their distant salute in the original release, Dire Straits can go on to be Sultans in Alchemy Live, totally cool and not comical, fueling their well-earned swagger with good feelings about the Sultans grown huge. Honesty pays.

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[1] This is a nice performance video, though synced to the original recording; the video originally dropped the verse about the boys looking for rock ‘n’ roll, but here the verse has been restored, causing a visual blank in that part.

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The Greatest/Worst “I”: John Lennon, “I Found Out” (1970)

Muddy down the drain

We already covered the “I” of “Gloria” and “Psycho Killer,” but that was in two special contexts. What about the first-person pronoun as something generally meaningful, one of our top go-to words?

Can you get excited about the “I”? Can “I”? “I” is almost nothing. It’s a device to get something going, to aim attention. It clutters essays.

Descartes put forward a great philosophical ego sum–“The proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever I assert it”–only to throw doubt on it: “but I do not sufficiently understand what this ‘I’ is”).[1] No, he didn’t.

In contemporary philosophy of mind, the self/ego/consciousness is where everything comes together–or, actually, doesn’t, but is supposed to, on behalf of whatever would be there, if things did. John Lennon wallows in the problem beautifully in The Beatles’ “Come Together.”

Post-Beatles, Lennon creates another harsh exposure of the “I” in “I Found Out.”


At the end of the track, Lennon’s delivery of “I” is collapsed into “out!” and becomes surprisingly indistinguishable from squawks of distorted guitar. The I! that finds out! is a channel for the awful stuff you’re going to find out; or a protest, anyone’s, against that stuff; or against being the subjective place where the stuff comes together, or the drain all the stuff is going down.

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[1] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy II, adapted from John Cottingham’s translation.

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Spanner in the Works: Weaves, “Scream” (2017)

6-8

The simplest polyrhythm is three over two. (Two posts ago I noted frequent use of this triplet pattern in the Smithereens’ “Listen To Me Girl.”) The time is primarily defined by a duple pattern of two, and then a threesome is dropped into the space for two, gliding waltz feel over stomping march feel.

You might think that two over three would be just as easy to play and enjoy as three over two. It is–but only if you’re adding a light, gliding two. What you almost can’t do is stomp on top of your gliding three. (Rule to live by: don’t stomp on a glide.)

This point needs to be made to appreciate the extraordinarily thick feeling of many of the measures in “Scream” by Weaves (2017). It’s like a spanner’s been thrown in the works (what happens when you “scream your name” at society, the song suggests) and yet the works keep working unstoppably. At the start the song adopts a rhythmic signature of alternating a triple feel–the double triple of a loping 6/8 meter, dumm da-dum, dumm da-dum–with harshly imposed 1-2-3-4-! measures (the 1-2- going over the first 3/8 and the 3-4- going over the second 3/8). Then panting background voices reinforce the feeling of three. From 2:22, however, you can clearly hear both patterns at the same time, the drums anchoring the three and a processed guitar insisting on the four.

After 3:00 the drums decide it would be more fun to work in four-time, but you never forget the three-time foundation. As of 3:53 the drums are back on the 6/8. At 4:20 the bass drum starts alternating between the 6/8 feel and a 1-2-3-4-! –restating the original signature. Neat!

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