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

Orogeny

Orogeny

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:

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[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.

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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 Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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