Orogeny: Split Enz, “History Never Repeats” (1981)



There are mountains that are definitely over with, stable, stolid, “landscape.” Then there are mountains that are still pushing up, busting out, new, raw; you look at them and realize no one knows what the landscape is going to be.

Melodies have these different characters too.

You might miss it sometimes because of a familiarity effect. After a million baseball games Americans have gotten thoroughly used to the upward spike of “Oh say can you see!”—just as a million European postcards have turned the Matterhorn into landscape.

But here’s a Neil Finn song that spikes upward in a way that never settles, where we always feel the insurgent thrust. (If I were allowed to use an internal metaphor also, I would say it feels like a tooth trying to pop out.)

There was a girl I used to know
She dealt my love a savage blow
I was so young, too blind to see
But an-y-way, that’s History

“History Never Repeats,” first verse

Two unusual procedures at once challenge your ability to keep track: the first three words of each line are in a triplet counter-rhythm, and some of the notes for those words are sharper than they should be. We’re headed for the tonic chord A and melody note A on “girl,” “love,” “young,” and “-way.” Accepting that the melody line starts on D and goes down from there, the three notes of the descent should be D, C-sharp, and B. Or maybe D, C, and B. But Finn sings D and then a note in between C-sharp and D—and then, maybe, C-sharp or even C, but we’ve been sufficiently weirded out by the second note that the third note sounds sharper than C-sharp, too, even though we know we’re descending.[1] In this odd descent there’s so much outlaw upwardness that the effect is – orogenic![2]  It has nothing to do with the theme of the song but everything to do with pop impudence.

Said to be one of the earliest MTV videos:


[1] The best way to play the three notes on an instrument and to write them on sheet music would be D C-sharp C, which is unusual and pretty neat. But in my ears Finn’s vocal notes won’t quite settle down on the C-sharp and C.

[2] Compare the literally upward-moving notes of “She’s got a ticket to ride, but she don’t care” and “When Black Friday comes, I’m gonna dig myself a hole”—very strong upwardness, but without the uncanny sense of disobeying a descending movement.


About Steve Smith

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

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