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

The Twist

Chubby Checker spreading the Twist

[A post for a pandemic.]

Hook experience is “infectious,” as we so often say, because musical content has easily entered your system (getting past the membranes that maintain your normal posture in your environment — your habits, your beliefs, all your inertia) and has changed the state of your system even as it is changing others around you similarly. Taken over as though by a vicious microbe, 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; this is 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.

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[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]

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[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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The Unassumer: Bobby Charles, “Small Town Talk” (1972)

In 1972, the south Louisianan Bobby Charles had come to roost in Woodstock, New York, and could draw on members of The Band and their producer John Simon to get a dry, homey, Band-like vibe on his new album. A tune he co-wrote with Rick Danko, “Small Town Talk,” takes the best possible advantage of this help to intensify a quality Charles was already loaded with – a winning unassumingness.

The whole song is an unassuming highlight, with its poky tempo and loose-knit spacious arrangement, but there’s a greatest moment in its chorus. The chorus starts at 0:54 with a G and then an A chord – the IV and V chords in the song’s key of D, setting you up for a return to D – except we go from the A not to D but to an unexpected bright B major. That is an energy gain, a point of heightened interest (a B major chord has a D-sharp in it!). But even as the B major chord boldly plays against the suppressed D chord, Charles pulls back against the bold B by continuing to sing an underwhelming A note (0:57), taking almost two beats to let the melody come up from the A to the B that the B chord wants. The A is such a missing-in-action note that you almost can’t hear it.

Charles can make this radically unassuming moment work, and not have it come off timid or clumsy, because he’s The Unassumer! We’re not disappointed, we’re tickled. There he goes!

For a sense of what would be more normal at this point in the song, hear how Rick Danko amps it up in his live performance, not changing the notes but changing the feel quite a bit:

Let us praise The Unassumer. He gets you to to slow down to listen, to lean in to get what he’s saying. He has a style you can’t change, but his confidence will never grate and his tenacity won’t cause you any problems. He just talks melodically – that is, reflectively, looking at things from this side and that – about what he sees in life without relying on a sonic wallop or a jacked-up vantage point. (On the album cover he’s sitting down with a dog.)

Is the Unassumer an Assumer after all? (Compare the Paradox of I Am Humble.) The veteran listener may say, well, this is the attention-getting, record-selling thing that Bobby Charles does. Certainly I agree it’s his appeal. But the A note under the B chord is a totally convincing Unassuming.

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Dogged Tempo: Los Lobos, “Made To Break Your Heart” (2015)

Image result for bloodhound on the trail

Here’s another track whose chief attraction is its tempo: “Made To Break Your Heart” by Los Lobos. It doesn’t plod, but it doggedly moves at a pace that is always slightly slower than you expect; and this gives it a nifty kind of grit. The slightly-slower-than-it-should-be pace is an intensity ruse.

Why would there be any expectation about the tempo, though? Is there a more oft-used tempo in the near vicinity of this track’s average of 106 beats per minute? Well, frequency of tempo use is an empirical question that has been studied at Tonal Trends. They have a graph showing the peaks and valleys in uses of tempo by 553 notable pop recordings:

The graph shows that the most popular of all tempos is 110, slightly faster than our 106, and that one of the most striking falls in usage, and thus of presumed audience (or performer) comfort, is when you start slowing down from that peak. Maybe that’s significant. (Be it noted that there are some great precedents at 106, like “Hold On I’m Coming” by Sam & Dave. 106 is not the tempo nobody loves!)

Of greater significance, I suspect, are purely internal features of the arrangement and performance.

Point #1, PERFORMANCE: This song was not recorded on a click track. The tempo varies, so that soon you feel expressive intent in it. They hold it down right at the beginning to a surprising 104 and then let it rise to around 106. Then they push it down again, then let it rise. It’s what happens with their grip while they’re trying to hold on to departed love.

Point #2, COMPOSITION: Even when the track is rolling along at 106 or 107, it has a held-back quality. Why?

Here are the notes in relation to the beats in the main riff:

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

Because of what’s happening in the second measure, especially that hurry-up note on 2-and, it’s a very jaunty pattern. If you start humming the notes and tapping the beats, taking advantage of the accent opportunities on 2-and and the last 4 thus –

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

I think you’ll find yourself speeding it up very quickly. I like it a lot at 166 bpm. For a figure that would want to go slow you’d make it, say:

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

So arguably the pattern is at the wrong tempo at 106, but we’re made to hear wrong as right in this case.

Point #3, ARRANGEMENT: the sustained guitar chords and the percussion part sell the slow tempo. They provide connective tissue through time, thanks not least to the quiet long scratch of the güiro, so that the song feels like an undulating body, a natural self-flexing, not an arbitrarily slow bap, bap, bap.

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Across the Threshold and Into the Song: It’s a Beautiful Day, “White Bird” (1969)

Image result for narthex

It’s a principle of architecture: if you’re bringing people into a special space you prepare them with a transitional space – a vestibule where they can drop their umbrellas, an air lock where you change their air, light, and sound – and then, not arbitrarily but with a correct anticipation, you let them step on in to the gallery, or the theater, or the nave.

It’s a principle of discourse, too, unless you want to start with a shock. You enfold your listener with some preliminary rustling toward your theme. This can be done aptly and seductively. There can be a moment of particular delight for the listener in making the final step from the preparation into the main event and noticing how nicely the transition works, maybe very nicely right at a boundary moment.

The same principle must apply to songs, both as unfrozen architecture (i.e. music) and as unprosaic discourse. In fact, almost every song does have an intro section, but now that the devious long introductions of Tin Pan Alley songs like “Stardust” are a thing of the past (and they were too long, in my opinion, stressful, like having to crawl through too long a tunnel to get to the cave paintings), the intro concept in a popular song usually consists only of briefly exposing some element of the song that you are going to hear again a lot, like a main riff, or a few bars of the verse or chorus chords. Sometimes a deliberate attempt is made to avoid this formula and instead generate some well-shaped suspense–but the effect may be irritation rather than intrigue if it feels like the players aren’t really committing to anything.

“White Bird” by It’s a Beautiful Day takes the unsurprising approach of playing a few opening bars in the chord of the verse, but it adds special interest with some intertwining plucked notes on guitar and violin that make as strong a figure as any hook would make in the main part of the song. Even if we don’t know the song yet we can guess that this is a treat peculiar to the intro, unlikely to be directly advertising what is to come; but it has an unusual sensibility (Eastern European influence?) that promises . . . something.

Then, just as we step over the threshold into the song, we hear the vocals begin as if we can’t quite believe they’re beginning. The effect can be attributed to a slightly quiet first note at 0:23 by both the principal voice (male) and the harmony voice (female). It’s very subtle. Nothing is wrong. The voices don’t seem uncertain. It’s more like they’re expressing reverence for what’s starting – like how your guide would be speaking to you as you stepped into the great church. It’s not something one would keep doing, and they don’t. It was just at that first moment of being in the song. And the soft “white” is exquisite in the recollection by the time you’re hearing “bird.” You weren’t just hit with the words “white bird,” you were introduced.

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The Greatest “New Orleans”: The Animals, “The House Of The Rising Sun” (1964)

Image result for new orleans sign

Some place names are fun to sing just to summon up thoughts of the place. Some are fun to sing just for the sound. Some can be potent in both ways.

I sometimes think that New Orleans suffers from being too potent as a fact or idea, causing the sound possibilities of “New Orleans” to be neglected. There are some well-loved songs like “Walking to New Orleans” that have nothing special in the pronunciation (that I’ve heard yet). So I’m on a hunt for the musically greatest utterance of “New Orleans,” taking all values into consideration.

Let’s admit right off that there are some New Orleans-affiliated personalities who give the words “New Orleans” extraordinary quality just themselves singing it, anytime, like Louis Armstrong in “Basin Street Blues” or Dr. John in “Going Back To New Orleans.” They can’t be beat.

For pure personal charm I would not put Professor Longhair in that league (tastes will differ) but I note that he has a distinctive “nyew” for “New” in “Go To The Mardis Gras.”  That’s a hook.

Is there something more song-specific?

My front runner currently is the “New Orleans” with that second-syllable diphthong in “Orleans”–“Orle-ans”– that Eric Burdon sings in the Animals’ version of “The House Of The Rising Sun.” He’s not just relaxing into a good-times concept of New Orleans, he’s looking at it more intently, from a distance, befitting the dangerousness of his subject, a young man’s “ruin” (also a vowel-twisting). The “le-ans” and the “ru-in” are analytic. Things come apart, and won’t be healed.

Eric Burdon’s “Orle-ans” sounds to me like an Englishman’s articulation, but I find it also in the chorus of “New Orleans Is A Dying Whore” by the New Orleans band Down (2002). It adds that sense of “we need to examine this,” a burst of intellectual light piercing the heavy-metal roar.

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