Little Things: Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” (1974)

squares overlapping

I had it planned: the last post before my exit (Outro #5, still coming) was to be on Little Feat, returning to the first band featured on this site. But while I was in the neighborhood of 1974 I dawdled and came upon Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. And that album hook-snagged me over and over.

In the true perverse Hooks spirit, I want to honor the most massively good track on this elegantly produced album by focusing on the tiniest thing about it. Or things, because they form a series. Here come the Little Things: the handclaps that start at 2:47.

Ronstadt’s part of the song is over at 2:27–exactly where Dee Dee Warwick’s original ends in 1963–but the band keeps going with a coda. There’s a simple pattern on the drums where the closed hi-hat notes are a joy to hear, if you can hear them. The other parts (bass, guitar, electric piano) don’t get in the way. All unwary, you’re being sensitized for an accented addition where only unaccented hi-hat notes are supposed to go. A violin note approaching from far away makes you think a real string part is going to fill the arrangement out, and indeed it will, but: tiny ambush! The capstone on the arrangement is not the strings at all but modest little handclaps on the off-beats, the “ands”: [1] AND [2] AND [3] AND [4] AND, the effect being ” -up  -up  -up  -up.” As though a separated wing of your marching band, actually the wing you yourself are now in (because of course you have joined in the clapping), has come back interleaving with the main body in a rigorously complementary yet never assimilated extra pattern of beats that chop upward as opposed to stomping down.[1]

It’s an extra to which I am fiercely attached. The claps are just strong enough to impose a viable alternate beat over the already-established beat, like laying one grill over another for a regular overlap. Thus you’re structurally guaranteed a choice of beat. Moreover, if you’ve been won over to the clapping part you are proud of your ability to stand off from the original beat. You’re cooler than you were.

Although Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” is officially a 1974 release, on youtube you can see a Midnight Special performance of December 21, 1973, where her band includes Richie Hayward of Little Feat on drums and Skunk Baxter of Steely Dan on congas. The handclaps aren’t heard there or on any of the available youtubes until 1996 in a performance at the White House–a very satisfying return.

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[1] I may be tapping into an intercultural politics in making this choice of rhythmic order. “Hornbostel [suggested controversially] in 1928 that, to the African, the upward movement of the hand in beating out a rhythm is the real ‘downbeat’, while the dropping of the hand, to make the actual sound, is the upbeat; or, in more general terms, that Africans associate downward motions with upbeats, and upward motions with downbeats: exactly the opposite of the European system. ‘Downward’ in fact includes a whole group of bodily movements: the downward motion of the drummer’s hand, handclapping, lowering of feet, and bringing the shoulders forward–all actions that African and Afro-American people like to perform on the off-beat. The whole process is a collapsing downward and inward of the body . . . It is in fact fairly easy for Europeans to acquire a feeling for these motions . . . For whatever reason, this way of operating is extremely natural to the African: even tiny children clap on the off-beat”–Peter van der Merwe, Origins of the Popular Style (Oxford U., 1989), p. 33.

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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, Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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