Scary: The Who, “I Can See For Miles” (1967)

scary fish 2

Next in my series of fifty-years-late appreciations of music in the year of wonders, I turn to a September 1967 (U.S.) release.

Some tracks burst into your life sounding unnervingly good in a deeply unfamiliar way. (The uniqueness makes this a different phenomenon than the sounding-incredibly-good of “Bell Bottom Blues.”) You’re taken on a ride you had never come close to imagining and something of this shock stays with the experience. For me, “Purple Haze,” “Dreams,” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” are among the supreme examples.

Slowly in recent years I’ve been regaining my ability to hear a song of this order that got beaten flat by overplaying on the radio when it was first a hit, “I Can See For Miles.”

Dave Marsh said rightly that “I Can See For Miles” sounded “so big it was scary” [1]. Scary-big is certainly what The Who were after. But now we can discriminate levels of scare. There’s the bombast. There’s how scary-good it is at what it’s doing—how pure its arrangement, how bracing its playing, how fat and sharp its sounds, so different from everything else around.[2] There’s (I almost forgot!) the menace of “I can see you.” And there’s something else in the song that’s so threatening I can barely voice the thought.

“I Can See For Miles” starts as an intro, or a tease, with an even 8/8 pulse dramatically inflected with drum crescendos, and it never stops being that. Its pulse never resolves into a rock ‘n’ roll beat with accents on 2 and 4. It’s not even a rock ‘n’ roll song—it’s all portentous prelude. It implies, negatively, You must live without rock ‘n’ roll as you have known it, or positively, Here is something greater. In the parts that should finally give us the beat, right after “miles and miles and miles and miles and miles,” the drums are just texture and it’s Townsend’s upward-bending guitar notes that mark the 2 and 4 spots so that you’re not completely bereft of a rock point of reference.

And it’s long, too, with no real solos–four minutes long, in 1967! It makes sure you get the point.


[1] Dave Marsh, The Heart of Rock & Soul (New York: New American Library, 1989), p. 33.

[2] I didn’t know about “E Too D” by The Small Faces (1966).

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Too Beautiful: Small Faces, “Itchycoo Park” (1967)

The year of wonders, 1967, is well-represented on the Hooks site, but I’d like to lift up one more wonder to mark its fiftieth anniversary.

I’ve always found “Itchycoo Park” (released in August 1967) tremendous, but to protect the experience I’ve long felt I must not think about the song’s cutesy title, dodgy subject matter, and most of its words. My objections have thankfully fallen away over the years. “Bridge of Sighs” (for Cambridge) and “dreaming spires” (for Oxford) now sound like canny references to a hypocritical old cultural fascination with getting high. “Why go to learn the words of fools?” now sounds biblically grand and redeems the school/cool rhyme in the line preceding. Perhaps I still would rather not feed the ducks with a bun, but that’s a minor issue.

The song has a quiet, gorgeous heart in the second and third chords of the verse. The four-chord sequence you might first guess for this verse would be A to E to G to D (I-V-bVII-IV), but it’s A to C# minor (I-IIIm), lovely in itself,[1] for “Sighs” and “spires” for example, and then the change from C# down to G becomes a daredevil use of the weirdest of all intervals, the flatted-fifth or sharped-fourth. It’s a real plunge, not in pitch but in harmonic logic; you land, however, on a polytonal bed of roses, the A chord of the melody’s notes hovering fragrantly over the G accompaniment while a droning organ G-chord-with-A held through that measure (“I’d like to go there”) assures that you’re aiming at a real place that is lush.

The great loud hook is the surprising rightness of Steve Marriott’s soulful shouts in the chorus–an element conspicuously missing in another chord-gorgeous psychedelic hit of 1967, “Incense and Peppermints.” Ian McLagan complained later that Marriott had made “It’s all too beautiful” too perky, but perky doesn’t describe it.[2] It’s sublime. (Consider how the very phrase “too beautiful” switches the aesthetic polarity over from the congenial Beautiful to the challenging Sublime.) Thanks to the eruptive yet precisely controlled high energy of the loud vocal, there’s nothing mushy or cobwebby about this climactic experience. It touches the sky.


[1] . Two more points about the C# minor: (1) well, you generally can’t go wrong with C# minor; but in this case (2) it’s the relative minor of E major, sharing with E the notes E and G#, so the A to C# minor move is something like going up to the likely E chord (A’s “dominant”) which would normally be reached by dropping down from A–in that up, a sense of slightly questionable yet happy lift.

[2] Interview in Small Faces documentary @ 27:05.

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Chops (Piano Edition): Billy Joel, “Prelude” (1976)


By Jonathan Bellman

Particularly for those of us who play instruments, one hook before which we are powerless is The Hook On Our Own Instrument That Must Be Figured Out.  Until it is owned, it will bewitch us, and (in my experience, at least) it requires being brought to ground by ear; getting it from a music book does not produce the same satisfaction.  Just such a hook is the opening toccata-like piano figure from Billy Joel’s “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” off Turnstiles (1976): as technically challenging as anything in the Rock piano repertory, this combines a martellato (“hammered”) rapid alternation of the hands on Middle C with offbeat chords in the right hand, while the thumb is machine-gunning the C.  Above the C, the added tones are all thirds—E and G, F and A, G and B, and C and E above—and these are played in a syncopated pattern: the right hand may be thought of as a rapid sequence of eighth-notes, while the left hand (use the third finger) plays the 16th-note offbeats.  The additional pitches in the right hand hit on the 3rd and 6th 8th-notes of the first sequence followed by the first, fourth, and seventh of the second sequence; this then repeats.  So:


……..G            G            A            A            A                 B            B            E           G             G
……..E            E             F            F            F                 G            G            C           E             E
C  C  C  C   C  C   C  C  C  C  C  C  C   C  C  C  B  C   C  C  C   C  C  C   C  C  C  C  C  C   C  C
1   2   3  4   5   6   7  8   1  2   3  4   5   6   7   8  1   2   3  4   5   6  7   8   1   2  3  4   5   6   7  8

As I say, the left hand third finger plays the same middle C as the RH thumb, alternating on the offbeats.  Final touch: do it at a gazillion miles per hour.  No sweat!

A couple of thoughts about what makes this so compelling: it’s as if Billy Joel, piano man extraordinaire, is doing his own take on the toccata bit at the end of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; the motion is similar, and the patterns related.  Also, the rapid-fire repeated note contrasts with the syncopated chords that follow throughout “Prelude” to give a film-noir sensibility to the piece, as if gunfire alternates with sudden, police-photographer-type black-and-white stills of city hustlers flicking up on the screen, one after the other: a mug shot, a guy caught in the act in a police flashlight or searchlight, Mr. Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time in a pool of blood.

I wrote more at length about this on my own blog, Dial M for Musicology [see “Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken”], and offer this commentary at Steve Smith’s request.  Go listen to it, and see what I mean; if the pianists among you become obsessed until you can do it yourselves, well . . . sorry.

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Greatest Dylan Hooks


What a great day, in a categorically confusing way: a popular songwriter has won the Nobel Prize for literature!

We must pay our respects! What for you is the greatest hook in Dylan’s lyrics, and why do you pick it?

For my own answer, I swear I didn’t see this coming, but I have two finalists that both include the word “chicken.”

1. From “Tombstone Blues” (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

2. From “Lo And Behold” (The Basement Tapes, 1975 [recorded in 1967])

I come into Pittsburgh
At six-thirty flat
I found myself a vacant seat
An’ I put down my hat
“What’s the matter, Molly, dear
What’s the matter with your mound?”
“What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?
This is chicken town!”
I am citing them together in a tie because my psyche is divided between two ways of being tickled by a chicken. The chicken scores zany points in each case, but the off-the-rails arrogance of the Commander-in-Chief in lyric #1 has an eerie seriousness in it, whereas the off-the-rails bawdiness of lyric #2 is just hilarious. As for my poor psyche, it seems to want to slam the doors on both of those human extremes, the one looking up and the other down.
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Outro #4: On Paying Tribute

Persepolis tribute s
What good does it do to pay tribute? What does it accomplish to declare to the world that you see the worth of something, that you thrill to it? The question seems pressing to me after my last post, which offered no idea about rock aesthetics whatever–it merely paid tribute. Why did I post it?

Some considerations:

In a political context, paying tribute confirms someone’s superior power and legitimate privilege. By supporting a regime, you’re setting standards and committing yourself to their enforcement – a zealous, reliable agent – an angel of truth and justice. Great music is the right music. It’s top form, defining the form.[1]

In a friend-making context, paying tribute marks what you and he and she might knowingly enthuse about. It’s all about us, maybe us pitted against the benighted them. It’s a sure bet for charged-up happy talk.

Paying tribute builds up your life-portfolio by articulating a great experience (I, too, have had a great experience!), putting it up on the gallery wall.

I may be inspired to pay tribute as witness to greatness going by – “Did you see that?” It was one of those events that distinguishes existence. No one could have known beforehand how great it really is. I mustn’t be alone in realizing this.

As I write, the air is full of tributes to David Bowie who died on January 10. Bowie’s career was long and winding, but once he’s gone there’s that moment of doing a collective double-take at the whole thing: “Did you see that?” Do you realize how existence was distinguished by him?

When you pay tribute to an artist or a hook, are you actually giving anything up? We could say you’re ceding a portion of your regard to a privileged recipient. But is regard limited in that way, portioned like a pizza? Perhaps not, but the act of praising takes up time. Does praising reduce the time available for self-assertion? But praise is a kind of self-assertion.

As a loyal tribute-payer, are you refusing for a while to consider anyone or anything else, and so incurring an opportunity cost? But paying tribute to music doesn’t take much more time than just listening to music, and listening to anything–paying attention–always means not listening to everything else, for that while.

Payment is owed. Do I pay tribute as a preemptive sign of respect so that collection agents won’t come banging on my door? You see, I fear the possible consequences of not showing regard to someone who rightfully demands it. Yikes, there’s Bob Dylan! I’m intimidated by the Great. But when I pay tribute to the Comparatively Unknown, then I’m a Great-Maker on my own terms. Now (returning to my first idea) I am out in front as the collection agent, the regime enforcer, the angel of truth and justice.

We angels are legion. Why do so many of us take the trouble to write merely that X or Y is great?  A cynic might say that we’re just looking for relatively safe ways to pipe up–it’s about hearing our own voices. More positively, my suggestion is that paying tribute is another way of turning up the amps on the music. In the barbarous rock world we think that’s always worthwhile.


Let me not omit to praise an actual piece of music. What could be called the greatest tribute hook?

Rock is a seething mass of shout-outs everywhere you listen (the unhidden “influences”), often intended as such (Eric Clapton celebrating Albert King in “Strange Brew”), and sometimes made the main theme (the Beatles worship of Utopia’s Deface The Music).[2] The greatest tribute hook would be the most lovable peak moment for its own sake musically as well as for its connection with music that went before.

My chosen song is . . . can I choose one that isn’t rock at all? I want it to be “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (1970), Paul Simon’s bossa-tribute to his partner Art Garfunkel, in which we enjoy the two of them still performing together on the threshold of their breakup. (There’s even an interesting problem, if you want to get into it, about what was intended and what was understood at the time, tribute-wise, between Simon and Garfunkel.) My chosen moment is the very Art-y high note on “learned” in the double-entendre line, “I barely learned the tune”–either a dig (at Art, who has to sing Paul’s words) or a confession (by Paul about their relationship).

“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” start

And so–so long!


[1] Simon Frith notes that music critics are often on “a mission to preserve a perceived quality of sound, to save musicians from themselves, to define the ideal musical experience for listeners to measure themselves against.”Performing Rites (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1967), p. 67.

[2] I’m not even talking about sampling. An interesting case for tribute issues is The Grey Album by Danger Mouse (2004).

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Fluency: Robben Ford, “Talk To Your Daughter” (1988)

Liquid FireI’m breaking a cardinal rule for Hooks posts and writing one without any analytical idea about the track that calls forth my tribute. That’s the thing: that Robben Ford’s lead guitar licks in “Talk To My Daughter” are so deeply satisfying without having anything surprising or otherwise grabbing about them. They’re the epitome of jazzy blues fluency: fully hot (brash tone), fully liquid (big sustain), suave (every note sounding totally in place), confident (filling the opportunity space), endlessly refreshed.

This is not heaven-storming music, not to be compared with the liquid lightning I’ve heard Johnny Winter play. It’s terrestrial, it’s domestic, it’s well worked out, it’s completely in hand. If it weren’t so good I’d say it’s commercial.

I suppose its intensity owes something to its contrast with a subdued prologue:

“Talk To Your Daughter” 1

There is more of that grade-A guitar flow, much more. Here is some of the hottest stuff in the middle:

“Talk To Your Daughter” 2

It really doesn’t need elucidating at all. That’s fluency, and a rare calmness in the critic’s mind.


I’ve noticed that some of Ford’s nicest guitar work on the Talk To Your Daughter album is barely audible as the tracks fade out, so as a bonus I’m including a few of his endings giving you all the help I can with my volume knob:

“Help The Poor” end

“Born Under A Bad Sign” end

“I Got Over It” end

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Great Love, “My man”: Laura Nyro, “Tom Cat Goodby” (1969)

Laura Nyro 2

What would it be like to hear real love in music? What would declare it adequately? Would there be a sound of ecstatic transport–soaring high notes, a fluttering up and down scales, Melisma City? Or would there be a sound of tenacity, of a single note really, really meant?

I lean toward the latter ideal. The great singing of love can’t be packed into just one note, of course, since lover and beloved and and what they are going through all have to be expressed; but it may feature one note that intensely sums everything up. It should be a note of Finality, proclaiming unbreakable partnership, and of Beginning Everything.

For the greatest-loving vocal event, I nominate “my man” in Laura Nyro’s song of extravagant remonstrance, “Tom Cat Goodby” on New York Tendaberry. It’s a long song that catalogs everything wrong with a husband’s behavior: slipping out on Rosie Pearl, betraying the whole family (“What about the children?!”), sliding by on bullshit plans (“You know you’re never gonna be a movie maker/Always be a silly faker”).

It’s also an anthology of entertainments, the music always lifting Rosie’s shrill complaints to beauty. When the note that maxes out her passion comes at the end, our confidence has been won that whatever this song makes us hear, we will really want to hear.

Push has come to shove and Rosie’s planning to kill Tom–so she says. “I quit loving  you . . .” If she really quit, wouldn’t she let go? She has not let go. Loving in extremis, there is no way she is not going to claim “my man” to the end. The idea of killing him is just a symbol for the finality of her love.

Going to the country, gonna buy me land
And I’m going to the country to kill my lover man,
Gonna kill my lover, gonna kill my lover, 
Gonna kill my lover man . . .
Can I find him
Gonna kill him
My lover man
My man!

“Tom Cat Goodby” end

The singing of these last two lines manages to be both operatic (refined and attention-commanding in special occasion mode) and scrapishly soulful (tearing down decorum, blurring ethnic boundaries). It soars and swoops, but with burning insistence on one musical moment. It’s the total package.

My own gender and sexuality position has something to do with this song hitting me so hard, no doubt, but there’s a lesson about our culture in the asymmetrical opportunity a woman has to sing with ultimate seriousness about “my man.” I don’t think even “Bess, you is my woman now” comes up to this level of seriousness, and I can’t think of a “my girl” that comes anywhere close. Why is this? Is it because we take the female to be the one whose very existence establishes the Home of the love bond and who therefore fights for Home existentially, while the male is the one who might or might not decide to “stay home”?

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