Honest: Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing” (1978)

Jazz band

“Sultans of Swing” was the breakthrough for Dire Straits’ wondrously fresh small-combo sound built around Mark Knopfler sensitively finger-picking his Strat. Weirdly, the song’s subject is a jazz band that plays “Creole music,” with horns “blowing Dixie,” not remotely like what Dire Straits play; nor do Dire Straits try to imitate them (except once in ironic counterpoint, when an expressive guitar fill follows the remark that Guitar George “doesn’t want to make [his notes] cry or sing”). The incongruity puzzles and simmers until we come to an artfully designed moment when we realize that Knopfler is respectfully saluting the Sultans, where they are musically, from where he is musically.


It’s the moment at 2:42-3:06 when Knopfler pictures some boys at the club scorning the Sultans’ Creole music: “It ain’t what they call rock ‘n’ roll.” Adding rock ‘n’ roll to our inventory of musical possibilities and the boys’ view of the pub scene to the singer’s and the Sultans’, we’ve got to admit that Knopfler is an objective witness and an honest broker.

To hear the Sultans themselves, you must seek them out, or at least not resist the lure of unexpected sounds coming from a pub on a rainy night.

Having offered their distant salute in the original release, Dire Straits can go on to be Sultans in Alchemy Live, totally cool and not comical, fueling their well-earned swagger with good feelings about the Sultans grown huge. Honesty pays.


[1] This is a nice performance video, though synced to the original recording; the video originally dropped the verse about the boys looking for rock ‘n’ roll, but here the verse has been restored, causing a visual blank in that part.

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The Greatest/Worst “I”: John Lennon, “I Found Out” (1970)

Muddy down the drain

We already covered the “I” of “Gloria” and “Psycho Killer,” but that was in two special contexts. What about the first-person pronoun as something generally meaningful, one of our top go-to words?

Can you get excited about the “I”? Can “I”? “I” is almost nothing. It’s a device to get something going, to aim attention. It clutters essays.

Descartes put forward a great philosophical ego sum–“The proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever I assert it”–only to throw doubt on it: “but I do not sufficiently understand what this ‘I’ is”).[1] No, he didn’t.

In contemporary philosophy of mind, the self/ego/consciousness is where everything comes together–or, actually, doesn’t, but is supposed to, on behalf of whatever would be there, if things did. John Lennon wallows in the problem beautifully in The Beatles’ “Come Together.”

Post-Beatles, Lennon creates another harsh exposure of the “I” in “I Found Out.”

At the end of the track, Lennon’s delivery of “I” is collapsed into “out!” and becomes surprisingly indistinguishable from squawks of distorted guitar. The I! that finds out! is a channel for the awful stuff you’re going to find out; or a protest, anyone’s, against that stuff; or against being the subjective place where the stuff comes together, or the drain all the stuff is going down.


[1] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy II, adapted from John Cottingham’s translation.

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Spanner in the Works: Weaves, “Scream” (2017)


The simplest polyrhythm is three over two. (Two posts ago I noted frequent use of this triplet pattern in the Smithereens’ “Listen To Me Girl.”) The time is primarily defined by a duple pattern of two, and then a threesome is dropped into the space for two, gliding waltz feel over stomping march feel.

You might think that two over three would be just as easy to play and enjoy as three over two. It is–but only if you’re adding a light, gliding two. What you almost can’t do is stomp on top of your gliding three. (Rule to live by: don’t stomp on a glide.)

This point needs to be made to appreciate the extraordinarily thick feeling of many of the measures in “Scream” by Weaves (2017). It’s like a spanner’s been thrown in the works (what happens when you “scream your name” at society, the song suggests) and yet the works keep working unstoppably. At the start the song adopts a rhythmic signature of alternating a triple feel–the double triple of a loping 6/8 meter, dumm da-dum, dumm da-dum–with harshly imposed 1-2-3-4-! measures (the 1-2- going over the first 3/8 and the 3-4- going over the second 3/8). Then panting background voices reinforce the feeling of three. From 2:22, however, you can clearly hear both patterns at the same time, the drums anchoring the three and a processed guitar insisting on the four.

After 3:00 the drums decide it would be more fun to work in four-time, but you never forget the three-time foundation. As of 3:53 the drums are back on the 6/8. At 4:20 the bass drum starts alternating between the 6/8 feel and a 1-2-3-4-! –restating the original signature. Neat!

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The Main Thing that Happened in Hook History in 1967

I wish there were annual conferences, or music festivals, with rival presentations on what most importantly happened in hook history in a certain year.

Since I’m conducting a festival of sorts for 1967 here in these last months of 2017, I’ll go ahead and give you my thesis for the year of wonders: the bIII [flat-third] chord became established in the rock vocabulary as the bright-eyed sibling of the bVII [flat-seventh]. As I would tell the story, the bIII note had long since become a strong melodic destination in the blues and bluesy rock — well represented by the piercing B-flat note in the key of G in the signature line of Sit-tin’ On Top Of The World” (Cream version, 0:34), with the sore-tooth feeling of pressing the major third downward or minor third upward; but in 1967 the bIII as a whole major chord became a strong harmonic destination.

You could say “Rock And Roll Woman” (Buffalo Springfield, 1967), one of the many signs of the new times, is like a blues drone in that it shuttles constantly between the I and the bIII. But “Rock And Roll Woman” feels vastly (though not totally) different than the blues. What has happened?

The possibility of going to the bIII chord was previously established in multiple contexts, I’m sure, but my own antennae pick it up in a British tradition. It’s a “Greensleeves” move (the first chord change). Like the bVII, it could register as “medieval” or “Renaissance” or “folk.” What it is emotionally, I submit, is an alternate world that we are longingly reaching for and contemplating for at least a half-measure.  There is a sad seriousness about the relationship of the beautiful alternate world to the given world of the song’s primary key. It is not the complaining or bleak joshing of the blue note.

In a “Greensleeves” experience the bIII is the sweet relative major of the primary minor key, a very natural place to go but, sadly, not to stay. In a rock song the bIII chord is brashly passionate. When you go to it from the minor I in “Somebody To Love” (Jefferson Airplane, 1967), for example–“don’t you want some-body to love / don’t you need some-body to love”–it doesn’t sound like the lovely short visit of “Greensleeves,” it furiously stakes a claim.

Now consider how the bIII chord in the chorus of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (1967) differs from the melodic bIII of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” In the chorus (first starting at 0:53) the I is reset as G-sharp major–that’s the V chord relative to the I of the verses, C-sharp. Now we go up from the G-sharp to its bIII, a B major, thus: “I’ve been waiting…,” “to be where I’m . . .,” “in the sunshine . . .” That B major chord, struck once for two beats, is brilliantly strong, a full partner to the bVII (F-sharp major) that comes next. It’s bursting with the specific poignancy of the rock bIII chord.

To elucidate this poignancy I want to argue that the rock bIII chord gets some of its effect from the actual or implied proximity of the IV chord. It can be defined as the strong-sad bVII relative to that chord (thinking of the assertive major IV as an alternate home-base I), for it is a whole step down from it. The “Greensleeves” comparison is good for pointing out the new IV-related rock meaning of bIII because “Greensleeves” not only lacks a major IV, its natural minor scale won’t allow it.[1] The major IV is the key to the different path that “Rock And Roll Woman” is on. Even though you don’t see the IV on the song’s chord sheet, notes of the major IV are heard repeatedly in the main acoustic guitar + vocal figure (“bah bah   bah bah   bah bah   rup bah bah“).

Back to the “Sunshine Of Your Love” chorus: there the brilliant B major is heard in relation to the C-sharp major above it that would be the IV of the chorus. This IV, though not actually played in the chorus, is very much in our minds because it’s the main chord of the whole song, the I of the verse. The C-sharp point of reference lets us feel the B major as the bVII relative to the I in the verse harmony while also feeling it as the bVII relative to the IV in the chorus harmony. The verse and chorus keys are joint parents of this romantic child.

In “Somebody To Love,” you first go to the bIII from the minor I, greensleevesishly, but the chord cycle in that chorus quickly brings you to the IV (“don’t you,” “wouldn’t you,“you better“) right before you next hear the bIII, and does so three times.

I hear the bIII similarly playing off the just-stated IV in this sequence at the end of “Light My Fire” (The Doors, 1967) (6:31-38):

Come on baby, light my   fire

Try to set the night on     fire

The bIII-IV relationship is leveraged insistently in “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield, 1967) in every other measure of the later verses:

What a field day for the     heat
A thousand people in the   street

Compare “remember (bIII to original I) – what the (bIII to that) – dormouse (IV) said” in “White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane, 1967) at 2:08, a high point in that track.

Along the same line, the bIII is a stepping stone between I and IV in the repeating verse pattern of “Purple Haze” (Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967) , “I Can See For Miles” (The Who, 1967), and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” and “I Am The Walrus” (The Beatles, 1967).[2] (The Stones are not yet scoring with the bIII hook in 1967.)[3]

In “Omaha” (Moby Grape, 1967), with the bIII entering at 1:17 in the instrumental bridge, the quest to establish new equivalents of bVII leads to a further drop from the bIII to its bVII (1:20), which in relation to the original I is the very strange bII (tangy!).

We enjoy the bIII as the second entry in the signature circle-of-fifths hook in “Hush” (Deep Purple, 1967) and as the fourth entry in the circle-of-fourths hook at the beginning and end of “Light My Fire.”

In “Heaven Is In Your Mind” (Traffic, 1967), notice how in the last part of the verse (first heard at 0:39), after sitting on the V for a full two measures, we go up to its relative bIII (0:47) and then immediately realize that chord’s alternate value as the song’s bVII when we take one further whole step to the original I.

That the “Heaven” sequence continues to an unusual sunny major II chord (0:53) goes to show the song’s fundamental interest in staking out multiple worlds to live in–exulting in a freedom that the blues had always been bemoaning it doesn’t have. 1967 has spoken!


A GREAT FORERUNNER.  “All Day And All Of The Night” (The Kinks, 1964) works the bIII strenuously, at first relative to the I:

not con-tent to be with you

and then in the  same pattern but centered on II:


and again, centered on the V:

Girl, I want to be with you

My 1967 argument tempts me to suppress this evidence from 1964, but I can’t deny that it’s a full-fledged rock bIII. It doesn’t sound bluesy; it sounds chord-happy. Nor is it folky; it’s electric and slamming.  I would point out, however, that there is no IV lurking about to lend the bIII that 1967 color. Rather the bIII is coloring and intensifying itself by populating the song’s harmonic space with its three variants (relative to I, to II, and to V). Compared to our other examples it’s saying “I’m no bVII to a IV chord! If you want a IV chord, I’m the IV to the bVII.”


There’s another pioneering bIII in the second chord we hear in “Got A Feelin”” (The Mamas and the Papas, 1966). It’s a beautiful major-seventh that doesn’t register as a rock chord but rather as “Broadway spice.”[4]

I’m so glad I brought this up, because “Got A Feelin'” teems with wonderful hooks–the fact that its melody uses all the notes of a scale in sequence (a device for which there ought to be a word); the gimmick of the slightly musicalized clock sound as its basic rhythm track, the very first thing you hear, surprisingly pretty; and the curiously mixed or balanced mood of the piece. Gently marched along by the clock, it never puts its weight down either on yearning for the love that should be or on scolding the spoiler. The way this song says “The joke’s on you” (1:18, 2:26) is the farthest thing from bwahaha.

Our 1967 poster song “Rock And Roll Woman” pivots between I and bIII similarly and yet totally differently, rocking it up and so getting that love-ambivalence by putting its weight down heavily in two places.


[1] Some arrangements use a minor IV, which sounds much closer to a major bVI than to a major IV.

[2] Trail blazed by “Hold On I’m Comin'” (Sam & Dave, 1966) and “Knock On Wood” (Eddie Floyd, 1966).

[3] As a reminder of where the eligible chords were before 1967, listen to the chorus of “Get Off Of My Cloud” [1965] [0:42, “you!“], which uses the minor chord of the regular third in the place where the flat-third would later be popular. The Stones would not deploy a great bIII until May 1968 in the first chorus chord of “Jumping Jack Flash.” (There’s a nice one in part B of the verse of “Paint It Black” (1966) — “I see the girls walk by” — but in contrast to all my 1967 examples it’s positioned below the bVII and is rather buried.)

[4] So says Matthew Greenwald in his Allmusic.com review.

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When Did Pat Most Get to You? The Smithereens, “Listen To Me Girl” & “I Don’t Want To Lose You” (1986)

smithereensFor Pat DiNizio (the sunglasses) 1955-2017

When did Pat most get to you? (Of course we’re talking about the band, not Pat alone.)

I bet some would answer, “The whole somber mass of Green Thoughts” (1988). I feel like that too. But for individual song highlights I go back to Especially For You (1986), and here my reach splits into two: for a lift and a ride, “Listen To Me Girl,” and for undoing my insides, “I Don’t Want To Lose You.”

“Listen To Me Girl” is all about triplets–that is, it makes extensive use of a simple polyrhythm of three notes evenly distributed across two beats. You get that triplet feeling of skating over the groove at the end of each verse line (first heard at 0:20), nicely contrasting the stiff duple rhythm that prevails elsewhere, and in one or both halves of each verse lyric (“I’ve been so” at 0:22, etc.). (Compare the verse and guitar solo of “Drown In My Own Tears” [1988] for a similarly effective use.)

The bridge (1:28) is almost all triplets:

Some – times I
won   – der  just
what    she     is      (doing)

The best thing about this triplets song is that it delivers a triplet climax at the end. Starting at 2:18, the coda is all “Listen to me girl” repeating on relatively high notes, so that skating becomes flying. The primal plea becomes exultant. That’s the hook I wish to salute.

Now “I Don’t Want To Lose You” has that boom – bop-bop groove that moves us along happily, or would if the song were simply happy, which it’s not, though it’s not unhappy either. In the primary chord pattern I – bVII – V, we begin to be colored sad by the bVII but then we’re jollied by the good old dominant V (yet with the lingering knowledge that we didn’t go straight there).

At 0:30 we shift to a gorgeous secondary chord pattern. It’s the deeper-dark bVI of our original I, followed by the bIII of our original I, followed by the IV. In their own new scheme of things these chords figure as a bIII – bVII – I, treating that last chord as a I because we land on it so firmly.

This is where my knees buckle and I intensely wonder how I am feeling. I think it’s because there’s a swirl of bittersweet harmonic information in the superimposed identities of the chords.

That’s it. What a place to be.

Just as the first song makes me admit that “Listen to me, girl” is the thing I am always most passionately ready to say“I don’t want to lose you” is the thing I am always scaredest of having to say.

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Comfortably Together: Traffic, “Heaven Is In Your Mind” (1967)

A December 1967 release:

We’re sitting in Traffic’s living room and digging how the cozy ensemble isn’t trying too hard. The track speaks to us calmly and confidently like a jewel of a demo. Jim Capaldi’s unusual yet perfectly sensible drum pattern leaves shapely spaces.[1] The voices sound slightly tamped down. And yet there’s a lot of psychedelic stereo panning going on, and the piano is heavy-reverbed on the “heaven is in your mind” part. Actually, the track is very interestingly produced, with lots of little unassignable sounds crowding in (headphone review recommended). But it never loses that comfortably-all-together quality it has established at the start.


[1] “She’s Not There” has a similarly simple and dominating drum pattern.

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The Phantom of the You: The Young Rascals, “How Can I Be Sure” (1967)

What an unexpected song!

As emblematic of the whole wonder, I admire certain unexpected low notes in the melody. They come at these places in the first verse:

Whenever I, whenever I am away from you (0:28)
I want to die, ’cause you know I want to stay with you (0:37)

And again in the second verse, setting up a special effect that will soon follow:

Whenever I, whenever I am away from you (1:03)
My alibi is telling people I don’t care for you (1:12)

The note of that you is a G, a step down from the easier choice, A. In the accompaniment we’re going back and forth here between an E-minor chord and an A major. The G note belongs to the E-minor, not the A major — that is, to the preparation for the A resolution, a step off from the A resolution itself — so even though it’s in harmony at that moment there’s something stubborn and backward about it. It’s one of the telltales of the unsure undercurrent of love.

This G has made such an impression that it haunts a later note that is fully three steps higher, the note for “who’s”:

Maybe I’m just hanging around with my head up, upside down
It’s a pity, I can’t seem to find someone who’s (1:27)
pretty and lovely as you

“Who’s” is on C (backed by an F major chord), same as the C of “(some)one,” but it would make so much sense to go down to G again (and “who’s” does rhyme with “you”)  that my ear reaches all the way down for it. I’m aided by a blurring of the C and the F-major feeling by a lower harmony-vocal E note dropping in, strange reminder of the old E-minor (and making a spooky major seventh of the F chord, potentially a major ninth including a G). I may also be loosened up by the words “I can’t seem to find someone . . .” The result, for one or more of these numerous reasons, is a definite phantom G. Now that I concentrate fifty years later on hearing what the note actually is, I’m quite surprised it’s way up there at C.

I must now try to erase that knowledge. This is not a hook for which clarity is helpful. Sorry.


On the subject of songs we never expected, what about “Piece Of My Heart,” first sprung on the world by Erma Franklin in 1967?  Here’s an impressive 1992 performance:

It starts out very calm and ordinary, doesn’t it? But since when are you allowed to ratchet up so much more intensity in the second phase of a verse? And where’s the ladder that got us up to the “Come on, come on, come on, come on”? And how can there still be room for another thrilling leap upward to “Take it!”?

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