Short and sweet

“I”ll be brief,” said the guest presenter for a film screening I attended several years ago. He followed with a good 20 minutes of exposition on the topic at hand, after which he released us, exhausted, to finally enjoy the movie.

Clearly, some people have a different notion of “brief” than others. As a journalist, I understand the value of brevity in a vocation that demands it. I take great pleasure in paring four sentences down to two and dismissing five colorful but unnecessary words in favor of the essential one.

So imagine the consternation a couple weeks ago when Twitter revealed it was expanding, on a limited test basis, some users’ character limit from 140 to 280. Twitter is a favorite social media tool among journalists because it demands brevity and rewards word efficiency. You want description and clarity, but you also need to get to the point, and fast. It is a practiced art that few of us will ever master, but it’s a lot of fun to try. It forces good writers to be better and bad writers to… well, stick to Facebook.

There are greater problems in the world than Twitter’s character limit, and we’ll individually adjust if the change comes to pass (I suspect many of us will start out by voluntarily restricting ourselves to the original 140). But it’s worth entertaining a discussion on the value of brevity across the creative spectrum.

Ernest Hemingway famously challenged writers to think not only in terms of what they’re saying but what they’re not. Most of us know his famous six-word short story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), but here’s an excerpt from “The Sun Also Rises” that’s a little less provocative:

I walked away from the cafe. They were sitting at the table. I looked back at them and at the empty tables. There was a waiter sitting at one of the tables with his head in his hands.

That’s an interesting observation of a person (the waiter) we don’t encounter anywhere else in the novel. Is he distraught? Annoyed? Tired? Amid 247 pages of drunken carousing, it’s what Hemingway doesn’t say that captivates the reader.

Let’s look at pop music. In the transition from vinyl to CD (and later digital iterations), recording artists found themselves free from the constraint of five 3-to-4-minute songs, per side, offered by vinyl records (or cassette tapes). As a result, we got 70-to-80 minute CDs and now, virtually unlimited packages of official releases dressed up with alternate takes, out takes and other assorted recordings. So what’s lost? The need to curate. It’s fascinating to read about decisions that went into the production of vinyl releases, and how musicians and their labels negotiated what made the cut and what had to be left out. When artists are forced to assess and prioritize the quality of their work, you tend to get their best.

Let’s move on to cinema, where the supposed gold standard is the feature-length (90 to 120 minutes) fictional narrative. Yet recently I saw the French short film “Uncanny Valley,” set on a World War I battlefield, that was shot entirely in stop-action photography. It was an interesting, if experimental tactic that worked well for its 13:30 running time, but there’s no way it could have been sustained for an hour or two. Feature-length is not always the ideal format, yet at the Oscars or Cannes, those are the only films anyone talks about.

Let’s go back to our guest speaker. It’s a conceit in academics that more words equal more information, but anyone who has sat through their share of college lectures knows this isn’t always true. Even in politics, we’re taught that any speech of significance like the president’s State of the Union can’t be great unless it’s at least an hour long. But consider that one of the greatest political speeches in our history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, weighed in at 271 words and was delivered in less than 3 minutes. That was a man who knew how to get to the point without sacrificing eloquence.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world that equates “more” with “better.” An all-you-can-eat buffet will always turn more heads than a small plate of fine cheeses, and that view is widely shared among the arts. Still, our guest presenter’s “I’ll be brief” tells me he understood the audience expectation for his opening remarks. The next time we just need to hold him to it.

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After further review

At some point I suppose I have to reckon my lukewarm regard for The Band as a conscious and foolish decision to deprive myself of one of the endearing figures in rock music. The first step is admitting the problem; the second is taking a proactive step. So I did this week by picking up a DVD of the 1978 classic concert film “The Last Waltz,” shot at The Band’s 1976 farewell performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The movie’s mystique, carried by the premise of a beloved group calling it quits at its artistic peak, endures in critical circles as both a filmmaking and musical triumph. That it was shot by Martin Scorcese, who already owned claim to one of the best movies ever made in “Taxi Driver,” only enhanced the mystique.

Was it everything I expected? Sure, I’ll go with that. It was what it was: a finely tuned ensemble of veteran musicians commanding a wide variety of American musical styles with a loaded roster of guest players, captured in action via expert camera work. But much like 1970’s “Woodstock” (which featured a young Scorcese among its crew), it was the pieces rather than the whole that interested me. An unintended guitar lick. Singers harmonizing with careless perfection. A smile (or scowl) shared across the stage between bandmates. A moment of “I’m-too-old-for-this” candor amid the bravado of backstage interviews. These are the slices of life Scorcese captures so well.

Here then are some snippets that stood out, along with some general observations on the film:

1. Scorcese is a master. Yes, we already knew that, but his visual grasp of the concert stage is remarkable. There are a lot of moving parts during a rock show, yet the camera angles and focal points are invariably spot on.

2. A young Ray Liotta could’ve played Robbie Robertson. I kid of course — it’s a documentary, so Robbie makes the perfect Robbie. But it’s worth wondering whether Scorcese’s experience with his lead subject stuck with him when casting Liotta for 1990’s “Goodfellas.”

3. Neil Young has the goofiest grin.

4. Joni Mitchell has the cutest grin.

5. The Band’s good-guy, anti-rock star reputation was for real. It always struck me that they never seemed to have a true leader, a front man through which the group’s energy was channeled. On the stage you see it: a conspicuous absence of ego in a profession that rewards, even demands self-promotion. More amazingly, this odd humility rubs off on their musical guests, some of whom bring significant star power to the gig. One after another, top guns like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters shuffle onto the stage with shy grins, do their song with The Band, and depart with little more than a wave. No bows. No preening. No adulation. In a look-at-me business, it’s refreshing.

6. That said, I quickly got the sense that Robertson was pulling the strings. He has a low-key manner about him, but on stage and backstage, he holds the center of gravity. It turns out I was onto something — the final credits list Robertson as producer.

7. Robertson is a much better live guitarist than I’d imagined based on Band records I’ve heard.

8. Levon Helm was one of the great singing drummers of rock ‘n’ roll. Much like the Eagles’ Don Henley, Helm could rightfully have held the title of lead singer had he not been stashed behind his kit. Not that I’m blaming The Band for doing so — his drum work brings pop to the group’s somewhat slumbering vibe. But his ability to turn a lazy growl to a plaintive wail and back is a unique bonus.

9. Scorcese did humanity a favor by committing the live rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to celluloid immortality. It reminded me of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” performance in “Woodstock,” in which Stephen Stills’ spellbinding guitar work made me completely forget that I’ve never much cared for that song. Likewise, I’ve always had mixed feelings about “Dixie” and its sympathetic view towards defeated Southern rebels, but the musical mastery on display — particularly the impassioned delivery from Southerner Helm — can’t be denied.

10. If there was any truth to what I’ve read of Marvin Gaye’s legendary insecurity, he had to be chewing his nails off hearing The Band reconstruct his “Don’t Do It” into a brassy, slow-groove masterpiece. This wasn’t the studio. This was one take, on stage, and they nailed it. That band was tight.

11. Van Morrison… thud. The first blip in the film arises in his inability to read the band’s wind-down sequence to “Caravan.” After some confused warbling at the mic, Van and The Band ultimately bring it home, but the moment was there, and the show loses some of its luster.

12. Bob Dylan… double thud. Remember what I said about lack of ego and preening? Check that. For a pair of songs, along with the ensemble concert finale, Dylan jealously projects himself in front of the entire venture, and for those few minutes, I genuinely lost interest in the film. Unfortunately for Scorcese, that’s how the show ends, leaving me to disappointedly scan back through the DVD for more congenial chapters. Theatergoers in 1978 didn’t have that option.

It’s interesting that a while back I blogged, somewhat carelessly, a list of revered musical acts I’m supposed to like but don’t, and wouldn’t you know it, leading off were none other than Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Band. “The Last Waltz” shows in part why the first two earned my scorn, but I now realize The Band, mixed bag that it is for me, is better than that.

I can objectively say The Band’s greatest asset is its musical breadth. It’s difficult to place the group into an identifiable style or genre, and the guest pairings in “The Last Waltz” hammer this point home. Ostensibly a rock ‘n’ roll outfit (the movie opens with a title card stating “This film should be played loud!”), The Band effortlessly slips into blues (with Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters), yet shows itself equally comfortable doing folk rock (with Neil Young for “Helpless”), jazz (“Coyote” with Joni Mitchell) and even its own gospel-tinged “The Weight” with the Staple Singers. It may be a chameleon act of sorts, but while most chameleon acts lack a core, that’s the not case with The Band. Their feet are firmly planted in American roots rock (interesting for a group of mostly Canadians), and their catalog constitutes a road map of 20th century American music — the country, blues, jazz, gospel pieces, and the rock ‘n’ roll they comprised. Perhaps it’s their versatility that causes problems for me, but that’s my problem. “The Last Waltz” gave The Band darling status in perpetuity, and through Scorcese’s cameras, we see a band quite deserving of it.

Guitar hero

There’s a scene in the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” that goes something like this:

Campbell, the faded country-crossover musician battling Alzheimer’s disease, is in the doctor’s office for a checkup. The doctor asks him to wiggle his fingers like he’s playing the piano, to which Campbell retorts, “but I’m a guitar player.”

Somehow, through the fog of Alzheimer’s, a lucid, wise-cracking Campbell sparkles with trademark Southern sass, right down to the folksy pronunciation of “GIH-tar.” And then just as quickly, the fog returns.

It was a phenomenon with which I was familiar, having watched my father spend his final years succumbing to Alzheimer’s, only to fire the occasional spark of humor or recollection. For anyone desperately hoping to see the return of the person they knew, it’s easy to be seduced by notions of an unexplained reversal, or perhaps a miraculous misdiagnosis. But my siblings and I knew the diagnosis to be correct, and we also knew there was no reversing the course of this disease.

I was in the doctor’s office with my dad when the diagnosis came. It was matter-of-fact, even cold, considering the weight of such news. Dad took it with puzzled acceptance and his trademark good cheer. I’ll never know whether he really understood the implications. I didn’t ask. It would be devastating to process, and he could be excused for shrugging it off the way he would a poor glucose test. Shortly after the doctor’s visit, we had lunch at his favorite diner, the “dad jokes” flying fast and furious. I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but even then, he scored a couple of direct hits that had me cracking up. For a moment the old Dad sparkled, and for a moment I entertained notions of a reversal or misdiagnosis.

“I’ll Be Me” features an eerily similar doctor’s visit for Campbell, who meets the presentation of MR scans and medical mumbo jumbo with the too-eager “uh-huhs” and “oh yeahs” of a student in biology class. Like my dad, he didn’t show it, but I suspect he knew what all of it meant. And yet, he responded by launching a last hurrah tour and agreeing to have filmmakers document it. The burning question is why?

His reasons weren’t clear to me, but perhaps Campbell wanted to give Alzheimer’s a face. Not just one face, but many faces — the sufferer, his family, friends or anyone else affected by the robbing of a person’s mind in the most brutal and heartless way imaginable. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the increasing difficulties Campbell has with touring, and the accompanying headaches his family navigates in managing their erratic headliner. There are some very uncomfortable moments in “I’ll Be Me,” and I struggled with the family’s insistence on going forward with a tour that reduced this once-great performer to a lost, confused, occasionally angry high-wire circus act robbed of his most important remaining possession — his dignity. I had to take it on faith that the entire venture, while endlessly skirting disaster, was in accordance with Campbell’s wishes.

When Glen Campbell died last week at the age of 81, I immediately thought of “I’ll Be Me.” I was aware of his tremendous musical legacy, beginning with his early days as a Beach Boys fill-in before breaking through with solo hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle on My Mind.” His defining “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a radio staple during my youth, made him a bona fide pop star, but it wasn’t until later that I discovered what a marvelous GIH-tar player Campbell was. And yet, it was “I’ll Be Me” that gave real meaning to his death. I felt not only grief but relief at the peace that had finally come to him and his family.

Performing artists succeed as pop stars because of their ability to effectively convey common themes. Through their expression of universal emotions, we feel less alone, and that’s why we listen to them. Before I watched “I’ll Be Me,” I stupidly regarded our family’s experience with our dad as somehow unique, a bizarre and embarrassing dysfunction that outsiders couldn’t comprehend. The film was a revelation, and perhaps that answers the “why” that nagged me as I began to recognize so much of my father on the screen. Campbell was conveying — in fact demonstrating — an experience that’s more universal than any of us imagined, and most importantly, true to his chosen vocation, by sharing his pain and loss, he made me feel less alone in mine.

A different drum

It’s often puzzled me that I’ve never heard a decent cover version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Yes, it’s the Beatles — arguably the best recording act the world has seen, and not to be taken lightly by prospective imitators.

But like many of the Beatles’ best-covered songs (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Come and Get It”) “Helter Skelter” is written from the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll playbook. It has the horsepower that should make lesser bands sound better than they are. With its buzzsaw guitar intro, blood-curdling vocals and the refrain’s killer machine-gun riff, it’s a muscle car just begging for a worthy rock act to test drive. And many have tried. It’s not that they’re bad. They simply are missing something, and I think I’ve figured out what it is: Ringo Starr.

History has been kind in assigning proper belated recognition to Ringo Starr, but he still ranks alongside producer George Martin as an overlooked staple of the Beatles arsenal, a critical piece of their musical machinery in the vein of McCartney’s Rickenbacker bass or Abbey Road’s magical mixing board. Ringo was much more than that, and “Helter Skelter” shows why.

We only need to listen to the aforementioned pretenders who’ve come up short in taking on this formidable classic: Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Motley Crue and, yes, U2. These are no slouches. Yet each one focuses too heavily on the front end of the Beatles’ original — the guitar and vocals — while, you guessed it, overlooking Ringo Starr’s unique contribution on the rhythm side. As a result, the drummers tend to follow the frenetic pace of the song — like that muscle car, it’ll go as fast as you want it to. And that’s where the problem lies. “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to write the loudest, brashest song he could, and the guitars and his vocals do their part to make that happen. But what Ringo adds is the mayhem. He doesn’t pace the song, he bludgeons it. He smashes his way around the requisite fills, abusing his kit with such primitive fury (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) it likely got Keith Moon’s attention. And it keeps the song from gaining too much form, which is exactly the point.

It’s a lesson on how a great drummer can make a song better by working against its grain, becoming a counterbalance of sorts. On the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, Ringo takes the opposite approach. The song opens with an unfathomable soup of organ and strings before he counts in with a steady beat to provide much-needed structure under the wash of instruments and John Lennon’s lyrical stream of consciousness. Many drummers would say “this is a trippy song, I need to be trippy.” Not Ringo. He played straight man to Lennon’s clown in the same way he took a high-octane, quarter-mile McCartney rocker for a punishing off-road ride. It’s a rare talent indeed, and rare talent, especially when unrecognized, defies imitation.

Country market

One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.

Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.

In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.

Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.

Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.

It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.

 

Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.

Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.

Hitwomen

Say what you will about “token” minority appreciation months — I always seem to learn something by indulging the concept. For instance, in honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d run down a short list of the female recording artists who have expanded my musical horizons, and I found myself naming name after name after name. After name. It turns out they’re not a subset of popular music. They’re an integral part of it, pushing songs up and down the charts, innovating, regressing, occasionally blowing our minds, and yes, occasionally flopping. It occurs to me that the story of women in pop music is really just the story of pop music. They’ve been playing right along with the men, and although I didn’t know it, I’ve been listening the whole time.

As I said, whittling my favorite female artists down to a list of 10, or 50, or 100 is a ridiculous exercise. But since I want to pay tribute to women whose music means the most to me, I narrowed the field to those who wrote the music they recorded, highlighted by the one song that epitomizes their talents. Make no mistake: These are musical giants by any measure. Consider the five I’ve named here not as a listing of “best women in music,” but a sampling of the very best artists in pop music who happen to be women.

Jackie DeShannon, “When You Walk in the Room” (1963): She’s best known for recording Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” but Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Jackie DeShannon was no slouch with the pen, composing the classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and co-writing “Bette Davis Eyes,” later a chart-topping hit for singer Kim Carnes. “When You Walk in the Room” echoes many of the female-oriented hits of the early 1960s — notably the Carole King/Gerry Goffin penned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — that regarded love with a tentative shyness and anxiety of a teenager*. To cite individual lines does an injustice to the entire piece, which paints an agonizing portrait of a lovesick wallflower whose world lights up when the man of her dreams enters her room. Painfully, she keeps her distance, observing from afar what she believes is unattainable. It’s heartbreakingly sweet, an ode to teen awkwardness that presumably fades in adulthood.

*It should be noted The Searchers covered “When You Walk in the Room.” Like most great love songs, the lyrics are not specific to gender or, for that matter, sexual orientation.

Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris” (1974): I was never big on Joni Mitchell as one of the folk mothers of the ’60s, but her influence on the genre is undeniable. Her “Woodstock,” covered famously by both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, became a touchstone for a generation defined by that legendary music festival. In the 1970s, Mitchell moved toward fuller, jazz-infused instrumentation that produced such hits as “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris.” The latter recounts an excursion to Paris she made with friend David Geffen, during which the ascending record executive, accustomed to dealing with “dreamers and telephone screamers,” was able to forget his cares, if only briefly. One can imagine Geffen letting his responsibilities slide away on the Champs Elysees to the refrain of “I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide.” That Mitchell nailed him so precisely is a credit both to the depth of their relationship and her songwriting mastery.

Liz Phair, “Mesmerizing” (1993): For a few albums in the 1990s, Liz Phair was so original, so genuine and so refreshing. I’d never heard anyone like her. She talked about sex, love, relationships, marriage, divorce and children in absolute frank terms. She gave the listener unfiltered access to what was on her mind, turning from schoolgirl sweet to shockingly filthy in the same stanza. Her 1993 debut “Exile in Guyville” carries so much interesting baggage, as titles such as “F–k and Run” and “Divorce Song” indicate, but “Mesmerizing,” in which Phair lyrically empties both barrels in a blaze of defiance and hurt, showed me a new way of recording music. It’s sparse, with little more than an electric guitar, a hint of percussion and her world-weary voice. But it holds up. Phair grew more polished in follow-up albums, including the excellent “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” but slowly fizzled into obscurity the further she strayed from the cut-to-the-bone sound that made her so, well, “Mesmerizing.”

Carole King, “It’s Too Late” (1971): Carole King is a no-brainer for this list; it’s just a matter of which song to single out. Luckily, as hugely productive as her years with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were, those were collaborative efforts and don’t count here. Her extensive solo catalog doesn’t make the job a whole lot easier, but given the enormous impact of her landmark 1971 album “Tapestry,” let’s start there. Even then, with a loaded track list that includes the wrenching “So Far Away,” I basically had to flip a coin to arrive at “Too Late.” First off, I’m a sucker for major 7 chords, which she throws liberally into both songs. The tiebreaker then is the latter’s unique appraisal of why a relationship failed, best summed up in the line, “Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” Maybe it’s the female perspective. Maybe it’s just great writing. Either way, there’s a keen understanding that breakups aren’t always about what went wrong or who’s at fault. Sometimes unhappiness and foolishness just happen.

Stevie Nicks, “Silver Springs” (1977): As part of the rock ‘n’ roll soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks had a treasure trove of intraband relationships and dalliances to mine for writing material. She did not waste them, crafting soul-baring songs like “Gold Dust Woman,” “Sara” and “Landslide.” How it was that “Silver Springs” led an orphaned existence as a B-side left off the group’s 1977 “Rumours” album will forever be a mystery to me, as it’s one of her finest efforts, both as a writer and singer. Aimed squarely at bandmate and ex-lover Lindsey Buckingham, “Silver Springs” explores betrayal, musing over what could have been before devolving into the obsessive ranting of a stalker. If it’s not clear from the line, “And can you tell me was it worth it/Really I don’t want to know,” how emotionally devastated this woman is, the refrain seals it with “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me.” Nicks alternately voices pleading, scorn and finally desperation as she pledges to “follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you.” And haunt it does. It’s rare to see heartbreak so powerfully written. It’s even rarer to see it so expertly illustrated.

A change in tune

In his 2012 autobiography “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend relates a revelatory tidbit from the recording of the Who’s breakthrough hit “My Generation.” According to Townshend, the song’s multiple key changes were added at the suggestion of a producer who felt it would otherwise be too monotonous.

That’s saying something for a cut that’s 3 minutes, 18 seconds long. But it shows a canny understanding of the lightweight nature of pop/rock hooks. Good ones immediately catch the ear (and hopefully produce a sale) but often lack staying power. A key change — or in the case of “My Generation,” three key changes — can enable recording artists to extend the 10-15 second essence of their song to a marketable 2-3 minutes.

In most pop music, the general idea of a key change is to elevate emotional impact. It’s not so much a change in tone (from talking to shouting, for instance) as a change in landscape. It’s like staging the scene of a film on a busy city sidewalk, then having the actors recite the same lines in the middle of a forest. While conventional filmmakers typically don’t have that option, songwriters do. After a key change, a song will move through the same chord structure but at an altitude that sheds a different light on the vocals or instruments. Done well, it forwards a sentiment that other songwriting techniques can’t. It can convey new levels of joy — think The Carpenters’ “Close to You” — or profound sadness, as in Classics IV’s “Traces.” Either way, the effect on the listeners is liberating. The first two verses establish a set of parameters before the third shifts them to a new plane. Limits, once comfortable but quickly confining, suddenly become possibilities.

It’s a powerful songwriting tool, and the temptation to overdo it is natural. Last spring, as “research” for a feature I was writing on Barry Manilow, I listened to a dozen or so of his best-known love songs and found that every one of them employed a key change. Manilow was savvy at recognizing, like the Who, when the droning of a refrain needed a kickstart. Unlike the Who, the consistent need for that crutch did not spur Manilow into more sophisticated songwriting. It became a standard part of his playbook, and that of subsequent romance-heavy pop artists like Air Supply.

But it’s not just schmaltzy acts doing it. My Manilow experiment prompted me to monitor more broadly the music I hear at home, in the car, even at the grocery store, and it’s amazing how often key changes occur. Just last week I caught an episode of late-’70s TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and amazingly, the opening theme song climbs a half-step between the first and second of its two short verses. I have to admit, it works. And why wouldn’t it? After all, “WKRP” was a series dedicated to the classic AM radio era, an era defined by catchy pop hooks that, from “My Generation” to “Mandy,” made their way up the charts thanks to a boost up the scale.