One of the most gorgeous pop songs ever in its blend of dark reserve and exuberance, “Be Alone Tonight” by Raymond Jones is now buried in the soundtrack of a relatively unsuccessful Spike Lee movie, School Daze. As a professor, I’m deeply offended that a big-budget kaleidoscopic musical portrait of college life doesn’t include a single classroom scene, so for that reason I say School Daze deserves its obscurity. That said, “Be Alone Tonight” may be savored on its own terms.
The song conquers me at the start with three chords that will keep it off the radio.
The problem radiowise is that we can’t tell what the second and third chords are, thanks to a wondrous dislocation of their roots and fruits. By a “root” I mean the tonic note that tells us each chord’s position in the song’s key: a C for a C chord in C, etc. By “fruit” I mean the other notes that draw out of the root some kind of sweet or sour harmony, the way an E and G fulfill the happy major-chord promise of a root C, or an E-flat and G give you the grimmer C minor. In “Be Alone Tonight” the early roots and fruits don’t fit together as we expect, and a dark flavoring of the whole song pours out of this threat of disappointment.
Normally in popular music there’s a very strict relationship between the tonic and its harmonic complements. An interesting bass line or chord arrangement will wander away from the tonic and give you a richer, more flexible sense of your harmonic footing, but you must have been solidly introduced to the tonic first and you must be protected from confusion about it in what follows.
For someone fooling around on a keyboard or fretboard, however, one of the best and easiest ways to find new musical beauty is to break with this normal pattern. You can overlap chords—mix G major notes with F major notes—or plug in an F as tonic under a G chord or vice versa, for example. There are deceptively normalizing ways of naming these results. A G chord on top of an F root can be called an F major thirteenth; that’s tacitly filling in the A and the C of a normal F triad and then extending similar intervals on up past E to G, B, and D. If you want, you can think of this as an interesting enrichment of the F, one of those “jazz chords.” Or you can think of it as a polytonal graft of G onto F, like an orange tree on lemon rootstock. Or you can think of it as a suspenseful mixing of two chord experiences together. Here in our charmed circle of reflection you can even mix all these interpretations together.
Anyway, an E chord followed by a G major eleventh and a D major eleventh (we’ll call them) usher in “Be Alone Tonight,” landing us who knows where, followed by another three chords in the same pattern that end on a possible home base in G. (In fact, it isn’t home; we find out later that the song’s true tonic was hidden in plain sight in the initial E.) Our uncertainty about these roots prefigures the singer’s uncertainty about where she stands with her lover, of course. But the music does more than simply make us uncertain. It makes us guess a root a whole step above the root we’re actually given for that interesting number three chord, and our guess missing high makes us blue in a specific way.
I called that chord a D major eleventh, but it may actually be more illuminating to see it as an A chord that has mis-grown a D root. The A chord has a close natural relationship to the E chord that started the sequence; A is the noble fourth in the key of E, which means that E is the fifth note in the A scale, a staunch charter member of an A chord, and the next best root for an A chord after the tonic. Ending this phrase with an A chord after starting with an E chord will sound fine, and if you’re in the neighborhood, the note E will serve fine as the root for that A; we are in the neighborhood, and we’re not getting an A-root for the A, so we guess we’re supposed to be getting an E; but it’s not E, it’s a whole-step fall-off from E, a D, pulling us down. It goes “clunk” in its lowness just like the singer’s melody starts out clunking bluely on the seventh of the scale, that is, on the note that’s a whole step down from the tonic. Whoa, did that work? Every time you hear it you have to ask again, and you have to let Tisha Campbell convince you that it did. That’s how she wins and flies high.