SYMPOSIUM ON FOUR CHORDS
by Richard Grant
If there was a Four-Chord Hall of Fame, and I was a member of the academy, I would nominate The Creation’s “Making Time.”
The “power chords” D A G E are played in a cha-cha style like this: (D D) (A G E) rest, 2, 3, 4 (D D) (A G E), and so on. When I hear this riff, it makes me feel like British mods of the 1960′s might as well have had their own space program. (On a side note, Eddie Phillips was the first guitarist to use a violin bow to play the electric guitar.) I feel this is the un-corny diametric opposite of the “Runaround Sue” template – almost a proto “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but with even more teen spirit. Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) chose it to help articulate the spiritedly subversive teen persona of Max Fischer in the soundtrack of the Wes Anderson film “Rushmore,” which is where I first heard this song. It’s just so full of life. The chords carry the whole thing. There’s a slightly awkward chorus, but then, the riff does need a break, and anything else is going to sound klunky next to the riff, so there you go. But they believe in what they’re doing and they believe in the riff.
In contrast, Brian Jonestown Massacre sound like all they believe in is the riff on the song “Whatever Hippie Bitch” – not themselves, not the lyrics, not anything but the riff, and yet it works.
The lyrics are mostly simple rhymes using opposites (no mention of hippies or bitches) . . . “Is it good . . . is it bad . . . it’s the best thing ever had.” This would normally be a lyrical disaster, the difference here being Anton Newcombe delivers them so that, the way he earnestly crackles his way through the song, you’d think he was baring his soul. It works so well as a late nite jamm because it stylistically reinforces the idea that even if you’re only half there, there exists a certain inevitability to things, which is comforting to those incapacitated by strong drink & company. Less thinking to do. Plus, with the extra noise that usually accompanies a gathering of nocturnal merrymakers, a song’s most obvious (and not a negative obvious, but more of a big-picture obvious) parts are usually the only ones that get noticed. The $10,000 question is, what is causing this sense of inevitable propulsion? I’d say it’s those 4 chords. Just major E, G, D, A (I, III, VII, IV). Nothing special, and yet . . .
Lastly, I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I didn’t at least mention Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” a 4-chord monster (again I III VII IV, but here D F C G), spawning hit after hit by all kinds of bands.
“Fly Away” by Lenny Kravitz and “Bohemian Like You” by Dandy Warhols (Brian Jonestown Massacre’s nemesis—see “Dig!”), immediately come to mind, but they must number in the bazillions.
 The performance in the youtube is in E-flat rather than E, probably because the guitars are tuned down a half-step.
 See Triumphant Return to Four Chords: Mutemath, “Typical” (2007) on Hooks.