The Biggest Wish: Three Dog Night, “Shambala” (1973)

PilgrimsReligious people are the biggest wishers. They wallow in it: dropping to their knees, lighting candles, pressing prayer notes into sacred crannies. It all looks pretty self-indulgent and superstitious to an outsider. Inside, though, there’s concern for propriety and good hygiene in wishing. There are structures to channel the wishing of individuals into sound statements of ideals and beneficial actions. The point is really to intend the best.

If the heart
were smart,
would win[1]

I had no agenda of believing or wishing anything that afternoon in the late 70s when I was driving across Chapel Hill and Three Dog Night’s version of “Shambala” came on the radio. I was not familiar with it. I’m sure I registered its cheesiness from the start: the overly reinforced acoustic guitar figure in a crowdpleasing I-VII-IV progression,[2] the overly emotional lyrics (“Wash away my troubles, wash away my pain”), the overly sweet high vocal notes going back over that inescapable I-VII-IV. I was totally charmed anyway. I was in Guilty Pleasure territory.

Then something additional happened.

I can tell my sister by the flowers in her eyes
On the road to Shambala
I can tell my brother by the flowers in his eyes
On the road to Shambala

Flowers in their eyes 2My tears were flowing. I had been opened up, and I had been aimed in some cardinal direction. By sheer wish I was on the main highway with my sisters and brothers! We all had flowers in our eyes! The obviousness and sweetness of the song had become a great shared single-mindedness.

I think probably every obvious, sweet pop song has this effect at some level. What takes this one past a certain threshold of heartfeltness is the symbol of a road to an oddly-yet-encouragingly named ultimate place—not “love” merely but Shambala—not where we already confusedly are but where we could one day arrive and find ourselves all sorted out.[3]

Is there another game in town?


[1] Whoops, no citation, I just made that up.

[2] Compare the bridge in “Here Comes The Sun” or “Badge.” If you picked on an acoustic guitar in the 1970s you would play a figure like this almost without thinking.

[3] On a Freudian interpretation, the oddness of the name “Shambala” makes it an apt representative for a powerful unconscious wish. This could explain my sense of getting ambushed by more emotion than I knew I had.


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.

2 Responses to The Biggest Wish: Three Dog Night, “Shambala” (1973)

  1. jonathanbellman says:

    This song is an all-time favorite of mine; it came out when I was in high school, just getting my driver’s license. You can imagine. I would put the chords differently: you say I–VII–IV, but that means IV is your tonic, your point of rest, which it isn’t. The third chord of the oscillating sequence is your point of rest. Thus: V–IV–I. The distances are the same, but the function is different. In A, which I think the tune is in, V–IV–I is E–D–A, but I–VII–IV would be A–G–D.

    By contrast, think of the opening of Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” (or about ten other such early songs): in E (I think?) he does indeed go I–IV–VII, E–A–D–A, but you always feel like coming to rest back on the E (never mind what happens at the chorus; that changes things).

    That retrogressive progression—V–IV–I, largely forbidden in Common Practice usage because the descent to the subdominant mitigates the strongly directional pull of the dominant, has many analogues in late 1960s–early 1970s pop music. So does I–VII-IV, for that matter, but not as many. The one that occurs to me at the moment is “You Can’t Stop the Music,” by the Kinks, the final number on *Soap Opera*. As if to strengthen my argument about the tonic, though, Ray and the Kinks stay on the tonic twice as long as they do the other chords…

  2. Steve Smith says:

    I can’t agree that A is the I in the Shambala verse. If it were, there’d be no sense of change of tonal center in the bridge where A becomes the I.

    I think your point about ‘point of rest’ indicates a real provocation in this song in holding A for 4 beats versus only 2 beats for E and 2 beats for D in each line of the verse. This makes us feel a fluidity in the equipoise between the three chords functioning as I-VII-IV and as V-IV-I. You’re right that “You Can’t Stop the Music,” staying twice as long on the I, is a more normal specimen of I-VII-IV.

    Also, isn’t there a sweetness in the feel of the verse D that’s specific to the I-VII relationship? Admittedly this sweetness cannot be entirely lacking in the IV, once we accept that I-VII-IV just is V-IV-I at a different angle, so to speak. Intuitively I want to say that the VII–and we’re talking about the flat-VII a whole step down from the I, not the leading tone just a half-step down–is, in contrast to the leading tone, pressed down far enough from the tonic that it beckons to us as an alternate key–an alternate key that we are not allowed to adopt, though, a sort of melancholy lost cause.

    From the mid 60s through the mid 70s there was quite a romance with I-VII-IV. “Sweet Home Alabama” is emblematic of its sufficiency. And “Sweet Home Alabama” also stays twice as long on what I call the IV (a G chord in the key of D), so presumably in this case too you would call the third chord (G) the I, not the first chord (D)?

    I googled “Sweet Home Alabama is in the key of” and found support for both interpretations–that it’s in “D mixolydian” (because of the flatted seventh in its scale, in effect marrying a G major scale to a D tonic), as I would like to say, and that it’s in G, as you might like to say. It’s commonly observed that Ed King solos in G, which in my view explains how well the soloing provides a sense of contrast despite the riff not changing.

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