Homecoming Hooks: The Byrds, “Dolphin’s Smile” (1968)

Leaping dolphins

Imagine your home is on a balmy Hawaiian bay, and every time you return from a voyage you’re greeted by a pod of dolphins who course and leap alongside your boat.

The closest I’ve come to this highly desirable experience is seeing a big cockroach (periplaneta Americana) on the floor of a men’s room in the New Orleans airport. The cockroach let me know I had indeed come home to the South after living for six months in a faraway roach-free land. The cockroach was in place, and so, therefore, was I.

There are song hooks that strike you, thrill you, draw you in and fascinate you; then there are hooks that you simply hang your hat on every time you come back to a song. In a well-loved performance the lead voices, human or instrumental, have this character throughout. But there may also be specific events placed in exactly the right way so that the song brings you to them and you unconsciously say:  Yes. Thanks. Check. This may happen near the beginning of the song, checking you into your homecoming experience, or as a milepost along the way, or near the end, perhaps as a signal that the whole song is playing the role of a dolphin welcoming you to your real home. Extraordinarily, the whole second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has this character, the high notes of the string parts leaping in one way, the tympani in another, coursing note threesomes galore.

A great example of an annunciatory hook telling you, “This is starting!” is the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night”; but that chord is so powerfully inaugural that it makes me feel something wondrously new is starting every time, which isn’t exactly a homecoming. Perhaps a better example of an early homecoming hook would be the first measure-and-a-half of “Time Of The Season,” which very firmly sits us down into the car that will take us on this familiar but still spooky ride. An all-over-the-place opposite, but equally effective, would be the guitar run at the beginning of “When Doves Cry.”

Generally, homecoming hooks should be modest. Mildly distinctive drum figures or ringing chords are both perfect; both kinds are heard together in the two accents at the end of each chorus line in “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”

As you may have anticipated, I particularly want to call attention to a very nice dolphin hook that welcomes us home in “Dolphin’s Smile,” one of David Crosby’s greatest contributions to the Byrds album from which he disappeared, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (the cover photo implies that he was turned into a horse).

Notorious Byrd Brothers

In the first measures before the vocal there is an acoustic guitar lick that starts with B, the neutral second in the key of A, to gently suspend our harmonic expectations. This B-A-E figure works as a sort of underwater support for the strange vocal melody D-C sharp-G sharp (“out to SEA”), E-D-B (“for a YEAR”) that breaks the song’s/sea’s surface.

“Dolphin’s Smile”

On relistening to the Byrds track I’m always surprised to find that the homecoming hook is barely audible; it’s much more distinct in my recollection. Surely David Crosby would bring it up more, like I do, if he were playing the song solo. Those dolphins are there, in the notes.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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