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.


Dirty rock

Gene Simmons recently made an interesting observation comparing the appeal of his band KISS with the music he listened to growing up. At KISS shows, Simmons said he’ll see youngsters alongside their parents, and sometimes even grandparents (in makeup, no doubt). That didn’t happen in Simmons’ youth, which was the point — to go against what your parents were listening to.

Lost within the second, third and subsequent generations of rock ‘n’ roll fandom is the fact that the music was supposed to be rebellious, even dangerous, and more than anything else, upsetting to your parents. Gen Xers like me like the Beatles because our parents listened to them. Same with Millennials who swear by Green Day or other bands that predate them but to whom they were exposed growing up. Somewhere along the line it became OK to like what your parents were listening to, but in the 1950s and ’60s, that was not the case.

I’m sure it was representative of the greater social upheaval taking place at the time, but such speculation is for another discussion. It’s interesting nonetheless to revisit the early age of rock music in this context. It was a brand of music heavily influenced by blacks, and as such lent itself to a mixing of the races. That alone was enough to send a good share of middle class white parents into a tizzy. And then there was the sexuality.

That’s where it can get a bit tricky. Set aside the driving beat, Elvis’ pelvis and other ancillary effects, and just look at the lyrics. The mostly-male artists of early rock ‘n’ roll had one thing on their mind — sex, often expressed in a most lustful, depraved fashion. The squeaky-clean Beatles felt it: “She was just seventeen, if you know what I mean…” Sam Cooke did them one better with “Only Sixteen,” and Simmons’ KISS followed suit with “Christine Sixteen.” Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs” continues the madness with the refrain “Are you still in school?” Are you sensing a theme here?

Setting aside the legal troubles that following through on such impulses would bring about in today’s environment, there’s a definite fathers-lock-up-your-daughters message being broadcast. And so long as it doesn’t cross the line from suggestive to explicit (Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes” and AC/DC’s “Love Hungry Man” come to mind), that’s the right hint of danger that can appeal to many daughters and their potential Romeos.

It’s not surprising, although maybe a little eye-opening, that I count the above-listed songs among my favorites. While no one wants anybody to get hurt, there’s something seductive about flirting with the dark side, if only for 3 minutes and 15 seconds. Whether it’s challenging the social structure or shamelessly spewing teenage lust, it’s nice to be reminded occasionally that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t supposed to be safe.

Bad gets better

The 1980s’ pop cultural legacy is not a particularly strong one, with the decade seeing some of the worst music (“We Built This City”), TV (“The A-Team”) and movies (“Soul Man”) ever produced. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the ’80s rank tops in my book in the worthy category of “So Bad It’s Good” entertainment. While every era has its share of SoBIG fare, my favorites tend to originate from this artistically deprived decade.

What qualifies as SoBIG? “So Bad It’s Good” is exactly what it sounds like — entertainment (mainly films for the purposes of this discussion) that is so poorly conceived and executed that it’s actually a pleasure to watch. Don’t confuse this with the painfully bad. There’s plenty of that from any decade, but its tendency to present itself seriously is what separates it from SoBIG. SoBIG movies walk a fine line between the earnest and the ludicrous, offering a wink and a smile that not every viewer catches. Critical commentary is wasted on them, and to offer any only identifies yourself as one who didn’t “get” it. “Getting” it means both engaging and suspending critical thought in a joyous exploration of plot holes and non sequiturs before allowing yourself to go along for the ride.

Without further ado, I’ve compiled some of the necessary components to a successful SoBIG film, with cited examples taken from five of the best to come out of the ’80s:

  1. “Tango & Cash”
  2. “Roadhouse”
  3. “Footloose”
  4. “Flashdance”
  5. “Top Gun”

A ridiculous premise: I can only imagine the opening pitch to any of these films awaiting the green light from producers ending with “Hear me out.” As in: “So there’s this town that outlawed dancing. Wait, wait, hear me out…” In each case, producers did, and the result was a situation — be it an out-of-control honky tonk or a masterful criminal frame-up of rival cops — that allowed the actors to do what they do best. And what they do best is…

Action, whenever possible, substituted for plot, dialogue or character development: The first 20 minutes of “Flashdance” consist of little more than dancing. I’ll give it credit for staying true to the title, but at some point we need some background as to what’s causing all this dancing. Or do we? Though the characters’ motivations eventually reveal themselves, we find ourselves not caring too much, because…

Completely unbelievable circumstances: Jennifer Beals may be a struggling aspiring dancer, but she takes on much of that struggle in the comfort of her cavernous warehouse-style “apartment.” And speaking of those aspirations, ever been to a bar like Mawby’s, which serves up Pittsburgh blue collar burgers and brew to go with super high-concept dance performances that fall somewhere between avant garde and soft porn? And I realize it’s tough finding things to do in “Footloose’s” no-dance town, but have you ever, anywhere in America or the world, known teenagers to pass idle time playing chicken with powerful (and expensive) tractors?

Completely unbelievable behavior: Tom Cruise and his buddies down beers and shots while serenading Kelly McGillis at the local drinking establishment — hours before undergoing the tremendous physical strain of jet-powered aerobatics in a cut-throat flight school. My brother calls this phenomenon “movie drunk” (or alternately “movie stoned”): the ability to go from wasted to lucid, even insightful, in a matter of minutes. This of course defies human physiology. I find it difficult to run a coffeemaker after a night on the town, but hey, Max McGee caught the game-turning touchdown for the Green Bay Packers while nursing a wicked hangover at Super Bowl I. I suppose Top Gunners can keep their wits (and their breakfast down) while pulling several Gs in their F-14s with last night’s whiskey on their breath.

Nonsensical dialogue: Patrick Swayze tells his bouncer apprentices, “I want you to be nice… until it’s time to not be nice.” It sounds somewhat deep, perhaps cryptic, until you actually string the words together and try to make sense of them. If I’m in that room, I’m just going to nod my head and say “OK, boss.” But Jack Palance does Swayze one better in “Tango & Cash”. When Kurt Russell asks “Who the hell are you?” the legendary actor clearly establishes himself as the film’s villain with this gem: “Just think of me as someone who… doesn’t like you very much.”

A learned mentor: Swayze benefited from the wisdom, and presumably fighting knowledge, of grizzled graybeard Sam Elliott. Elliott is a Yoda of sorts, a legendary figure in bar-bouncer circles who endeavors to teach and uphold whatever the code is that bar-bouncers live by (see “completely unbelievable circumstances” if you’re struggling with this). Likewise, Beals finds inspiration for her dancing dreams in the enigmatic Hanna, whose connection to Beals is unclear and of whom we learn little other than she was an accomplished artistic dancer in the distant past. Both Elliott and Hanna die in predictable turns, allowing their proteges to first grieve, then grow in a necessary if lazy step to move the plot forward.

An evil foil: SoBIG bad guys tend to display comical levels of evil — there’s “Tango’s” over-the-top diabolical Yves Perret, embarrassingly played by Palance, while Lee Ving hams it up as “Flashdance’s” resident street thug Johnny C. Jon Lithgow shows the greatest depth as “Footloose’s” town preacher who leads the anti-dance campaign, only to “cut loose” after some soul searching. Val Kilmer delivers an “Ice”-y performance as Cruise’s nemesis in “Top Gun,” though the bad blood dissipates after the two aces make quick work of MiG fighters in the film’s closing air battle.

Absolutely terrible music: “Footloose” and “Flashdance” are ’80s pop staples, probably because of their association with the films rather than the other way around. They share many wedding playlists with “Top Gun’s” “Danger Zone,” which could have been churned out by a 1986 Coleco programmed to cram disparate hooks, power chords, drum fills and lyrics into a cohesive song. It doesn’t work. But of course that’s not the point — there’s about as much perfectionist detail paid to the music as the movies that contain them.

Predictability: What’s going to happen is never in doubt. How it happens can sometimes surprise you — Kurt Russell in drag is one I didn’t see coming — but we all know where this is heading. The good guys win, we share some laughs and, for at least 2 hours, we forget about our troubles.