The Stammering Triplets: Midnight Oil, “Only The Strong” (1982)

Rocking is your solution, whatever your problem might be. Just start up the band, or the track, and the iffiness of your conflicted, confused, and/or dull normal life will be relieved. But an individually memorable rock piece provides more than the general panacea of rocking; it shapes a specific (yet relatable) problem and welds it together with a specific rocking solution. Of course this happens all the time on the level of the lyrics—what do we ever do but talk about our problems?!—but it’s really something when it’s done in the musical structure. Like the way “Black Dog” starts and stops and tangles up the grooving of the guy who’s afflicted by his object of desire, just in its riffage.

Another great problem-and-solution shaping in a rock track, slammingly simple yet cleverly developed, is Midnight Oil’s “Only The Strong.” Enjoy this 1985 performance in Sydney harbor:

The song launches in a fairly conventional way at 0:55 after a cymbals-and-guitars prelude that only implied a pulse. Right then we hear the triplets (3 beats grouped over 2 beats of the main rhythm) that are going to be tremendous later, now sounding deceptively ordinary:  “When I’m locked in my room/ I just want to scream.” But at 1:05 everything stops. What seems to be the problem? Ah. 1:10:  “One more day of eating and sleeping.” Whose tedium is this? A prisoner? A teenager? Is that tone complaining or mocking? We stew on this for 14 seconds!

At 1:24 our patience is rewarded with a supercrisp riff, a piece of forward momentum that the singer tries to ride to some can’t-take-it-for-granted basic communicative success–“Speak/Speak to me/I’m not spoken for . . .”  At 1:53 it sounds like we’re going to a big chorus, but that was just a feint, we’re back in the same riff, starting to feel like it might be a trap . . . part of the Big Problem . . .

Until 2:12:  now we’re breaking out! And at 2:24 we get to the great stammering triplets—_When I’m  locked in my  room/ _ _ just want to  shout,” the notes registering more deeply in their dumb out-of-order insistence as the “but but but but but but” of a guy who’s not allowed to speak, until this moment when he is, and then he can’t, or not properly. And now the mixture of constraint and drive is explosive. I am jumping up and punching the air at this point, converting tension into kinetics (shouldn’t Peter Garrett do more?).

Compare the classic snare drum triplets in “I Fought The Law,” a delightful pun on the six-gun but also an eloquently clogged figure for the young loser’s frustration.

“I Fought The Law” (The Clash version)

At 2:37 “Only The Strong” slaps us with a series of short stops, each sizzling with the energy that’s been summoned, and then for the next couple of minutes it rolls on like a normal great rock song, though still flaunting its structural quirks.

All right. This song has captivated me with its problem and its solution. But now the outro starting around 4:26 raises a new problem of a different kind. Is this additional minute’s worth too gentle in spirit? Did we need to take the edge off to this extent? I’m not sure, but I’ll exercise my option to make my uncertainty part of the tension of the song. That seems fitting, since the song has already conquered.

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About Steve Smith

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

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