Tenacity: Marshall Crenshaw, “Little Wild One (No. 5)” (1985)

Little Wild One notes copy 2It must be one of the oldest hooks in the book:  a singer hitting the same note over and over again, establishing it as a position one can hold against all upheavals, a rock ‘midst stormy seas.  (Strong as a true melody note, moreover, not to be confused with melody avoidance as in, say, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”)

Which note?  In a rock song it’s likely to be the tonic or the blue third above, one shadowing the other.  In “Jailhouse Rock,” surely one of the canonical tenacity songs, the main note is the blue third.  In Marshall Crenshaw’s sweet “Little Wild One” it’s the tonic.  The tenacity section in “Jailhouse Rock” is the verse (or verse part A if you prefer), where the blue third is hit 29 times (I show this in caps) out of 46 melody notes.

“Jailhouse Rock”

LIT-TLE JOE WAS BLOW-in’ on the slide trom-bone
The DRUM-MER BOY FROM IL-LI-nois went crash boom BANG

In “Little Wild One” the tenacity section is the chorus, where the tonic is hit 27 times out of 41 notes—an even higher proportion.

“Little Wild One” chorus

All my li-IFE IS A HOL-LOW DIS-play
When I’m a-way FROM MY LIT-TLE WILD one

[I feel a little awkward, praising a song based on a recording the artist himself called a “botch-up job.”[1]  Well, my point is about the song, not about what Crenshaw considers the “very stiff” drum-machine treatment—and yet, doesn’t that drum part stiffen the spine of the tenacity?  I think so!]

What makes the magic is landing in this tenacity chorus after a plaintive verse in which a subdued recitative (monotonous notes of depression corresponding to the later insistent notes of determination) is followed by a melodic uplift at the end of each line—

“Little Wild One” verse + chorus

and then, inside the chorus, in the contrast between the rather whiny and stubborn lines 1 and 2 that pound on the predictable chords I and IV (E and A) and the Crenshawish styling of line 3, which uses a flat-III and then a V chord (G and B), with those tenacious melody E’s sounding over the G chord as its sixth note, a subtle pop lubrication.

I referred to a “contrast,” but I should have said “encounter”:  Marshall meets Elvis and, in his charmingly more modest yet also more sophisticated way, holds his own.


[1] Marshall Crenshaw: . . . When I started Downtown I was gonna make “Little Wild One” be the next link in the chain, that was going to be my next super single. But I just missed the mark, it’s a real botch-up job in my opinion. I finally just had to throw my hands up in the air and say, “I give up.”  I think it’s the first one of my singles that doesn’t hit the bullseye.
Goldmine: Wasn’t that song title listed on that record as “Little Wild One #5”?
MC: I started off doing it at Ben Grosse’s studio in Michigan, Pearl Sound, and I hadn’t really written the song yet, I just had the feel and the riff together. The working title was “Cast My Face In Iron.” (laughs) So I made this thing up by myself and it had a real good feel to it; I still have the track someplace. Then I wrote the words, it turned into “Little Wild One” and I think I tried to record it first with Scott Litt.  I’m not real clear about this, but I think I was also trying to record it with Don Was, all on the same piece of tape that I used at Ben Grosse’s.
So when we started to make the album for real, T-Bone Burnett and I started working on the same version of the song, but we just gave up on it because we couldn’t find a bass part to put on it that fit. And this is the most ass-backwards way to make music, but unfortunately I’ve fallen into this trap more than once. You start something and you get demo-itis and you just can’t take it to the next stage. You just have to work in a logical manner and not get caught in these mental traps. So I ended up calling it “Little Wild One #5” because that was the fifth attempt to record the song. We tried cutting it live with Jerry Marotta, but the version that ended up on the album was done with a Linn drum machine and, of course, it’s very stiff. I don’t know what happened to me, I’d just had a hard time completing things, beginning with that album.

Here’s a live performance for your antidote:


About Steve Smith

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

One Response to Tenacity: Marshall Crenshaw, “Little Wild One (No. 5)” (1985)

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Elvis Costello, “Pump It Up” hammers well on the blue third.

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