Monday, 28 May 2012

Queen's Don't Stop Me Now

A few weeks a friend from Dunedin sent a request that I may do a little analysis of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’ I was told that renditions of this song occur most weekends at Wellington’s Cambridge Hotel, although I cannot confirm at present whether these renditions stack up in any way shape or form next to the original. I suspect the bar’s patrons may, after a few drinks, be able to match Freddie Mercury and co. for enthusiasm; whether they match him for skill is another matter entirely. What follows is an attempt to explain the musical construction of the song in terms that can be comprehended by wide audience. When I refer to musical details, I will bracket the concurrent lyrics.

‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was one of Freddie Mercury’s compositions to appear on Queen’s 1978 album Jazz. This was not one of their finest albums, if only because it lacked the consistency of top-drawer material that had marked their previous efforts, such as A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and News of the World. The album was infamously derided by Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh — he pointedly asked, “why would anyone want to indulge these creeps” and sneered that Queen may have been the world’s first “fascist” rock band (in reference to the marching pulse of ‘We Will Rock You,’ which wasn’t actually on Jazz). Well, people did indulge the creeps as the album reached no. 2 on the British charts. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ reached no. 9 on the British singles charts, but bombed in the States, just scraping into the top 87 (at 86th place). 

The song can be divided firstly into three sections: an introduction, the main body of the song, and a coda. Within these broad divisions, each section has its own phrases which are repeated. The clever aspect of this song is the way in which each phrase grows out of the previous one, usually through a common harmony that connects the two parts. It is this aspect that gives the song its fluid quality – although we can identify “Verses” or “Choruses,” the transitions between them are often smooth (compare this to, for example, ‘Save Me’).

The introduction is in F major and opens with Freddie singing a sweeping broken chord through an octave (“gon-na have my-self”). The piano accompaniment (also played by Freddie) mimics this grandiose gesture with broken chords that spread quickly from the left hand octaves (playing the bass note) to the right hand chords. Freddie’s singing is similarly dramatic on “I feel a-live…ive…ive…ive”; the melody rises again but now in syncopated rhythm and with large scoops up to the actual pitch of each syllable. The chords through this phrase are what we call diatonic – that is, they are drawn from the key of the song (as opposed to chromatic chords which are drawn from outside the home key). They progress through the three minor chords of F major – from bar 2, A minor, to D minor, to G minor – before landing on C (on “alive”), to complete the phrase. The phrase length, 5 bars, is unusual, but does not sound ungainly, possibly because the chord progression is logical and the melody line elegant.

The first and second phrases overlap on the F major chord (“and the world”) – the tonic harmony concludes the first progression and begins the second. After this bar, a flattened seventh is added to the tonic chord (F major) which sends the music towards Bb – notice the extra drive and harmonic tension on the line “is turning inside out” – before the harmony heads towards G minor. Freddie is getting all ecstatic and light-headed (hear how delicate his head-voice is on the words “floating around in ecstasy”) and then the backing vocalists punctuate his thoughts with the titular command.

“Don’t stop me now,” they sing in unison as their melody falls an octave. The piano embellishes their words by playing full chords in the same staccato (detached) rhythm. The syncopation here is very similar to the previous bar, and the octave descent is akin to Freddie’s opening melody except in the opposite direction. Furthermore, the line begins on a G minor chord, which, again, was where the previous phrase had ended. The title line is repeated and followed by the vocalists in four-part harmony (Freddie’s lead vocal plus three backing singers – Freddie, Brian and Roger). The block vocals are pretty standard fare for Queen and if you listen hard, you can pick out Roger’s note at the very top of the chord, singing a repeated C. Roger had (probably still has) a marvelous tenor voice and was able to provide these delightful flourishes on top of the vocal harmonies.

At this point, things step up a notch and the song takes off at much fast rate of knots (about 152 beats per minute). Freddie’s piano playing shifts from broken chords to percussive chords played in quavers and on the occasional offbeat. If you listen to the song without the lead vocals, you can hear quite a rough transition between speeds – Freddie must have been excited about ramping up the tempo and took off with his piano playing out of time, before settling into the groove after a bar or two.

Of the subsequent verse, there is not much to say except that it predominantly uses the same harmonic and melodic structure as the verse. Where it changes is the final segment, with the addition of the tag, “I’m gonna make a supersonic man out of you.” The bass line is a simply blues line, G-A-Bb-B-natural, to C. This is doubled by one backing vocalist (possibly Brian), while another adds a counter-melody a fifth above, and Freddie sings his melody above this. 

The title line re-enters although not as we’ve heard it before. This time the line is sung in three-part harmony with the voices ascending (again, it is an inversion of an earlier melody). The structure of the voices may sound clunky as each one jumps up a sixth; however, it contrasts with the smoother lines of Freddie’s verse melody. The original “don’t stop me now” then reappears four bars later. The chorus ends on an unusual chord (an Ab6 harmony with a Bb in the bass), which is chromatic (hence it’s special sound). This technique of using a chromatic chord to finish the chorus is not uncommon in Queen songs (‘Save Me,’ ‘You’re My Best Friend,’ ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love,’ ‘Spread Your Wings,’ etc.) and may be typical of pop songs of this era (think of Elton John’s ‘Daniel,’ or ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ or, as I discovered the other day, 10cc’s ‘The Things We Do For Love.’).

From this point, we have a repeat of the verse. This time round features my favourite point of the song. “Like an atom bomb, I’m going to woah, woah, woah, woah, woah explode,” are Freddie’s lines. The others join him on the “woahs,” although each backing vocal part is added one at a time. Thus, we hear one singer on the first “woah,” two on the next, three on the next, and so on, until Roger hits the high F on “explode.” The backing vocals don’t literally explode (as hack writers these days may be wont to say), but they are somewhat volcanic, growing out of one voice into a vibrant wall of sound. It is a nice touch; if you listen through a set of good headphones you will notice that the vocals begin in the left ear before expanding across the stereo image to fill both ears.

There is an 8-bar breakdown that follows, which may be a nod to gospel influences. The backing vocalists repeat the title line, and Freddie gives the impression of improvisatory lines above them. Freddie ushers in Brian May’s guitar solo, which is very melodic (try sing it back – it’s easy to do) and played with a little overdrive. You can also hear how he leans into the held notes of each phrase; the tone of each note comes after the beat, which may relate to Freddie’s singing style (this is a point I am investigating…).

The song then revisits the verse and chorus with frequent interjections from Brian’s guitar. Again, this is a fairly common technique in pop/rock songwriting – keep the lead guitar out until the instrumental and then have fills in the third verse. The chorus ends with our chromatic chord, this time with the backing vocalists emphasising the chord and then sliding back to F major. As this occurs, Freddie’s piano signals a shift back to the slow tempo of the introduction. The song fades out with Freddie “dah-dah-dahing” the main melody to complete the structural circle, as it were.

And thus ends ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’ I said at the start that many of the song’s features are typical of mid-period Queen, and especially Freddie’s songwriting. These include the piano foundation, which essentially is a substitute for a rhythm guitar; Freddie’s piano playing, which has a left-hand bass note or octave, and then chords in two registers (i.e. mid-range and high) in the right hand; Freddie’s vocal transitions from overly flamboyant in the introduction (lots of vibrato and scooping/bending up to the notes) to a much tighter rock vocal in the main part of the song; the wide range of diatonic harmonies and chromatic harmonies being used as embellishments; the three-part vocal harmonies; and May’s guitar style, as mentioned above.

Overall, the song probably sits in the music hall section of Queen’s repertoire. This influence is not as pronounced as on, say, ‘Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy’ (compare the piano part on this to Paul McCartney’s ‘Martha, My Dear’) or ‘Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon,’ but the piano harmonies and style seem to derive from music hall. The same can be said of Freddie’s camp (i.e. over-the-top) vocal style to open and close the song.

Despite these comments, I can’t help but feel that this is not one of Queen’s greatest songs. I think the reason for this boils down to an aspect not really analysed: the lyrics. For ultimately, the lyrics of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ are pretty trivial. This is not to say that good songs have to present some deeper meaning in their lyrics, but they lack the cheekiness that marks other Queen hits. This trait does derive from British music hall, I believe, in which songs would parody or send up certain aspects of life around them. In Queen’s case, ‘Killer Queen’ is a archetype, being a little ditty about a high class prostitute who mixes with heads-of-state. Even a song like ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ can be seen in this light; it seems to play off the rock n roll stereotype of svelte, model-like women being the objects of singers’ affections.

In a way, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ presents a pretty absurd set of lyrics, but it lacks the subtle edge that creates humour in their other songs. Perhaps the best line is “I’m a sex machine, ready to unload…” which is funny simply because there’s no attempt to disguise the sexual innuendo.

But to conclude, it is easy to see why this song has remained one of Queen’s most popular. It is upbeat, has a catchy melody, has a superb hook in the bouncy title line, and, above all, showcases the skills of a band who were near the height of their game when the song was written. If nothing else, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ gave us this video. And with that, it is now time for me to stop.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

In case you had missed it, Bruce Springsteen writes his best music against a backdrop of fear, anger and hopelessness. The sunny optimism of Working on a Dream? No thanks, I'll take the dose of despair any day. The latest edition to his discography, Wrecking Ball, is no different.

The 'story' behind the album has been well told in the last few months - the Boss is pissed off with the rich folk of America who have crushed the lives of the hard-working men and women. In a way, the album's tales complete an overarching thematic narrative. Born to Run presented us with characters who were, truth be told, trapped in a dead end. The narrators of 'Thunder Road', 'Born to Run' and going back to 'Rosalita' all saw the potential for something better ("we're pulling out of here to win," "Baby we were born to run," "And the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance"), but these songs take place in the present tense. We don't actually find out at the time if the better life materializes.
There are hints in other albums, but Wrecking Ball confirms exactly what happens. You dream your whole life of escaping but you can't and the rich man shits all over you. I'm not American, so can't really comment on the cultural ramifications of Bruce's words, but it seems pretty clear that the American Dream has become a nightmare for most of the country's inhabitants.
Critics are lauding the album - best since Tunnel of Love, most confrontational since Nebraska. In this insightful piece, Louis Masur called Wrecking Ball the most musically innovative album of Springsteen's career; he praised the constant tension between words and music as an old Springsteenian songwriting device. So it must be pretty damn good? Right?

It is. And yet, and yet...There is something about the album that doesn't quite click - that 'thing' is the music. Listening to the songs, it is easy to understand Masur's argument. We've got the jingoistic 'We Take Care of Our Own,' the romping 'Shackled and Drawn', and the melancholy 'Jack Of All Trades', each of which present alternative musical voices to the lyrics. My problem is that I don't hear the music as oppositional; rather I hear it as the stylistic culmination of a decade's work.

Going back ten or so years, The Rising seemed to mark a shift in Springsteen's idiolect (the musical characteristics of a particular artist) songs towards Celtic-folk and gospel models. String sections become more prominent ('Lonesome Days', 'Mary's Place', 'The Rising', 'Waiting on a Sunny Day'). In the same songs, the 'breakdown' section is a notable addition to the standard verse-chorus structures. Derived from gospel, the texture drops away, the harmonies alternate between the tonic chord and the subdominant (up a fourth), and sometimes there is a repeated line ("turn it up" in 'Mary's Place'; 'With these hands' in 'My City of Ruins'). Finally, Springsteen uses a full backing vocal section, which gives the impression of a gospel choir, rather than the single voices that provided harmonies in earlier songs (Thunder Road, Badlands etc.).

We shouldn't be surprised by these changes - the breakdown section is quite evident in 'Backstreets' from 25 years earlier (the repeated 'Running on the Backstreets' line over oscillating G and C major chords), and in a quite brilliant essay for American Music, Joel Dinerstein convincingly demonstrated the connections between Springsteen's performing and musical style and soul music (Vol. 25, no. 4, 2007). Through the 2000s, Springsteen explored the folk genre in even greater depth with We Shall Overcome, before returning to rock aesthetic with Magic. Nonetheless the strings are still apparent on 'Girls In Their Summer Clothes' and 'Long Walk Home' and the pentatonic folk influences audible in 'You'll Be Coming Down.'

Wrecking Ball crystallizes these influences and thus it acts as the next (final perhaps?) musical step in this stage of Springsteen's career. 'Shackled and Drawn' has a pentatonic melody played by strings, three chords (Bb, Eb and F), a gospel choir, and a final call-to-arms for "everyone to stand up and be counted tonight..."; gospel vocals mark 'Land of Hope and Dreams'; 'We Take Care Of Our Own' uses celli in the same manner as 'The Rising' and 'Lonesome Days' and features a superb breakdown section to lead into the final chorus; 'Death to my Hometown' and 'Easy Money' are straight out of Irish lands; 'You've Got It' has blues inflections in the vocal and slide guitar, but, textually, sits firmly in Springsteen's post-2000 style with its acoustic guitar foundation and ringing electric slightly in the background. Much has been made of the drum loops created by Springsteen, but the beats themselves often mirror Max Weinberg's contributions, in particular, the heavy and deliberate snare hits.
My point is that the sounds of Wrecking Ball appear as an end in itself. Above these sounds, Springsteen has placed a selection of stories.

These observations ultimately lead us to that fundamental question of what can or does music mean? I will not attempt to answer that in any detail today; suffice to say, the most convincing argument I have read is Allan Moore's on the "Persona-Environment Relation" (Music Theory Online, 2004, developed in his 2001 book Rock: The Primary Text). His method for interpretation is based on the analogy of a person's speech (i.e. the singer) and their body language (i.e. the accompanying features). He outlines a range of types of relationships: broadly, the music indicates a style (i.e no impact on the lyrics), the music negates the lyrics, and the music enhances the lyrics. Thus, a song 'means' the combination of the various strands. Moore does not equate aesthetic judgment with these categories, although my initial belief is that the good songwriters naturally gravitate towards the latter categories. It does not seem unreasonable to equate the first category with someone delivering a speech with no body movement or energy; likewise, lyrics upon which the music has no effect have, I believe, less impact.

The critics are lining up to state that the high tempo, folk songs in fact mask the dark stories told by Springsteen. Fair call. However, from the perspective of his career development, it is equally possible to hear the lyrics and music as NOT tightly married. Granted, the folk and gospel styles connote 'the people' and their struggles, so perhaps, it is like a marriage of convenience. But the level of irony that was so gloriously apparent and biting in Springsteen's earlier days is much less convincing and, dare I say, meaningful in Wrecking Ball. Even though 'Born in the U.S.A' fitted the sound of stadium rock, it's cold textures from walls of synths and snares (again from Moore - take away one drum or one keyboard and there's nothing there) created a high degree of ambiguity. 'We Take Care of Our Own', its supposed successor, makes, paradoxically, this ambiguity all to obvious.

In closing, Wrecking Ball is a fine album. It is a testament to Springsteen's skill as a songwriter and a musician that, despite my problems, his stories are vivid and his sounds are so fresh and energetic that they induce repeated listening. Dave Marsh once said that the E Street Band was the greatest rock and roll band on the planet - I don't disagree. Springsteen by himself ain't half bad either. I will predict now that he will feature on most critical outlets' "Best of" lists at the end of 2012. All this for a guy who must be close to collecting a superannuation payment. But in another context, sitting quite close in my iTunes library to Wrecking Ball are his decades-old songs; when it comes to evaluating the best Boss songs, I don't think the new material will quite make the grade.

Postscript: As an addendum to yesterday's post, I have changed my mind - Jack Of All Trades might make the cut. Here, the tension between music and lyrics works. With the slow tempo and mournful trumpet solo, there is a lack of energy. Springsteen's vocal matches this perfectly, even though the surface message is positive (I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be alright); each phrase is one bar long and there are gaps between every line; the melody arches in the middle of sections but falls away as the narrator delivers his most optimistic words. Springsteen captures the voice of someone who has slogged his guts out, but has been screwed over and now...well, maybe, he just can't be fucked anymore. Don't know what Tom Morello's guitar solo at the end adds (come on Bruce, this isn't a power ballad!), but if you turn the song off at 4'57", it's a poignant tribute to the working class.