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.

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Stop, and listen

Every now and then, you hear a song that stops you in your tracks. At home, in the car, at the grocery store. Everything stops and nothing else matters except the song and where it’s going to take you. The first time I heard Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel from Montgomery,” for instance, I distinctly remember holding my breath for fear of missing a note, spellbound as lyric, melody and story wrapped itself around the heartache of an old woman.

How the hell can a person
Go to work in the morning
Come home in the evening
And have nothing to say

It’s an awesome experience made more powerful by the fact that you’ll never have it again — you only get one chance to hear a song for the first time. There’s a beautiful moment there, and just when you begin to suspect it won’t last, it’s over.

So it was when I ran across Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” in the Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me.” Bell is best known as the founder of the critically beloved but commercially underachieving Memphis band, and his mercurial nature contributed to Big Star’s brief but brilliant existence. A deeply religious but also deeply troubled man, he wandered for years in pursuit of a solo career, with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing.

“Cosmos” is a perfectly imperfect record — uneven mixing and the shaky, anguished opening vocal leave some doubt as to whether Bell will make it to the second verse. But he does, and the ensuing guitar solo is a triumphant reminder of what made Big Star Big Star. Bell’s inner conflicts play out with the alternating verses “I really/never want to see you again,” but the jangling guitar and Beatles-esque “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain bring it all back to Big Star’s power pop roots. I probably moped for a week after I watched that documentary. It was like a teenage crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Bell would die in a car accident soon after “Cosmos” was released, while former bandmate Alex Chilton would go on to explore vastly different musical directions (as he should have), bringing one of rock ‘n’ roll’s brief, beautiful, perfectly imperfect moments to an end.


Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos
I am the wind
But that don’t get you back again