Iconic Instants in Music

No, not Elvis gets his guitar, or Mick and Keef meet at the Dartford train station, but snippets of sound from within songs, that punters sometimes scramble to identify at quiz nights.

 

A Hard Day’s Night- the Mighty Opening Chord

 

Revealing a curious etymology, there was both a film and an album ready to go, but the Fab Four were told that it’d be incongruous for there to not also be a song.

 

With the title originating in a Ringo malapropism, Lennon composed the track in an evening, and the following day, refined the lyrics with help in a taxi on the way to the studio. The song was recorded in three hours. It starts with untouchable majesty.

 

George Harrison’s Rickenbacker generates most of the moment, but each Beatle contributes to its revered musicology. As with much art there’s a secretive, unknowable complexity behind it. Instantaneously recognisable, but also mysterious in its alchemy, one academic, Dominic Pedler, dedicates a sizable chunk of his 800-page volume, The Song Writing Secrets of The Beatles, to the chord, and lists twenty-one compositional possibilities.

 

In one theory Pedler deploys a process called a Fourier transformation: the decomposition of a sound wave into its constitute pure tones- as modelled by sine and cosine curves- to come up with a scientific solution.

 

But, for me, the tale of this thrilling chord is its cultural potent. It’s both a daring announcement and a promise. Innocent and eager, it exemplifies the Beatles’ giddily evolving confidence in both their music and social power.

 

That the guitars are slightly out of tune only magnifies the charisma, and suggests a bouncing mid-summer walk along London’s Oxford Street, in the bright, blossoming city.

 

It’s an aural intoxicant.

 

Paradise City- Whistle Blower

 

When Elvis first gyrated his hips on TV, I’m sure that in countless homes the first rock obsessions were also born. A few decades later, in the unspeakable 1980’s, a particular Guns ‘N’ Roses fan from Lafayette, Indiana- Axl Rose’s home, too- began investing time and not inconsiderable money touring the world to claim an elusive plastic whistle.

 

Of course, he’s seeking a concert souvenir: the whistle blown and nightly thrown into the crowd at the 1:21 mark of “Paradise City” from Appetite for Destruction, the album so beloved by aging leather jackets and Triple M music directors. So far, our trophy-hunter’s been unsuccessful. His cabinet remains bare.

 

In this moment, there’s juxtaposition at work as the song transitions from its opening section and momentum builds. The anthemic tropes are present, but exhilaratingly assembled: pounding drums, driving guitars, and wailing vocals married to shameless subtexts.

 

Suddenly climbing above this grind and growl is the simplest addition: a lone whistle blast that invests the song with a military discipline, demanding both band and listener focus and follow. It also evokes the urgent start to a football match when the warm-up is done, and we’re in the huddle together, and it’s just us and them.

 

It’s a riotous call to arms.

 

The Tourist- The Mourning Bell

 

Radiohead’s OK Computer is an album of luxurious, sparkling gloom, best listened to through headphones at midnight. Its themes of nagging horror and emptiness are expressed with pristine melodies that seem to bend out through a Kubrick-like universe.

 

Once described as possessing “… soaring, operatic choruses, and a towering bridge,” the record is closed by “The Tourist.” Its dramatic context is a pending car crash, and over Jonny Greenwood’s guitar Thom York pleads for the driver, possibly himself, to “slow down” and as we wince against the grim inevitability, the roaring doom, instead we hear a tiny bell. What happened? Was there even an accident? And, if yes, of what ultimate consequence?

 

Again, TS Eliot is right.

 

What does this bell denote? Some suggest it’s the ding of a microwave, that millennial symbol of mundane gnawing consumerism; for others, it conjures an ancient typewriter in a nameless attic, signalling how this musical story, and our fragile human story is indeed, finished.

 

Irrespective, it’s a sonic conclusion of poignancy and uncommon beauty, befitting the preceding 53 minutes of searing maelstrom.

 

It’s a punctuation mark, but also a prayer.

 

About Mickey Randall

Late afternoon beer, Exile on Main St playing. Sport like cricket, most types of football, golf, squash, horse racing. Travel, with Vancouver my favourite city, but there’s nowhere I’ve not happily been. Except Luton. Reading. Writing about family, sport, music, the stuff that amuses me. Conversation. Wit. Irony. McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon, Barossa shiraz, Coopers Sparkling Ale. Jazz and especially Miles Davis. Lots and lots of music. I live in Adelaide with my wife Kerry-ann and our boys Alex and Max.

Comments

  1. Some succinct insights there, Mickey. At Stereo Stories we’ve got a piece called The Perfect Chord:
    http://www.stereostories.com/the-perfect-chord-a-personal-tribute-to-the-beatles/ Cheers.

  2. Thanks for this, Mickey.
    Isn’t it interesting that when it comes to music, we all have a chord or a sound or just something that resonates. I’ve thought about these concepts over the years. As a Beatles man through and through I can certainly relate to your words regarding A Hard Day’s Night.
    For me, one of the most arresting, spine-tingling, notes in popular music is the sound of Bobby Gregg’s snare drum at the start of “Like a Rolling Stone”. It is a heralding of the tour-de-force that is to follow. And I am not even a huge Dylan fan.

  3. Music is our soul.

    Smokie – the guitar in Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” gets me every time. Sublime.

    And the first distorted and bent note that Neil Young gets from his guitar in “Bandit”. Absolutely brilliant. He is a genius.

  4. Peter_B says:

    Radio who? Guns n what? The Beatles – now you’re talking. The “Let it Be” rooftop session was the day the music died.
    I’m with you on the riff that goes straight to your heart though.
    Springsteen (or Roy Bittan’s) elegant piano rambles into Jungleland and Thunder Road.
    REM’s strumming guitar wander into Man in the Moon.
    And above all the short discordant horns then The Band’s sharp descending chords into “Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train, Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and they tore up the tracks again…….”
    Think I’ve found the carry me out song for my funeral (funny how at a certain age you stop thinking about wedding songs).

  5. Vin- Thanks for that. Chris’s story has many parallel with mine as I was also besotted by the Beatles from a young age. Even loved the cartoon series! Interesting insights into how Abbey Road’s medley evolved too.

    Thanks Smokie. I had the snare drum opening to “Like A Rolling Stone” on my shortlist, and might return to it later in another piece. However, I wanted three snippets for this post with a beginning, middle and end moment. Dylan was never going to get the gig over the Beatles, although there was a great documentary on BBC Radio 6 a while back exploring the cultural significance of Dylan’s 1965 classic.

    Dips- Neil Young could have ten moments in a similar article, split evenly with electric and acoustic riffs. “Cinnamon Girl” and “Hawks and Doves” up there for me.

    PB- Love REM and would nominate the piano part from “Nightswimming” as a track with exceptional beauty. Glad I heard it live in Hyde Park years ago. The band claim it was recorded using the same piano that provided the coda on “Layla.” This makes it a favourite set of ivories for mine.

  6. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Nice Mickey. Being a big Gunners fan I have to agree with you about the whistle. To me it symbolised ushering in a new harder paradigm of cock rock. Still reckon the opening chords of Sweet Child O’ Mine rate high in this context too.

  7. Thanks Phillip. They seemed to embody something more substantial than the “hair-metal” bands of the same era.

    One of my fondest teaching memories is looking after a music class in which a band played “Paradise City.” On the wall was a poster advertising an amp with Nigel Tufnell pointing at the volume knob, appropriately turned to 11. He’s pointing at the knob and the caption says, “Louder, init?” Prior to playing, the drummer put the whistle in his mouth, and bashed away at his kit. Post-blast he spat it across the room. I was unable to reprimand him.

  8. Alex Darling says:

    Love your writing Mickey – particularly analysing how the Beatles’ chord and whistle were portents of great musical change. I agree with Smokie RE “Like a Rolling Stone”, but I reckon there’s another noise that deserves this pedestal.

    Foxey Lady – those wobbled notes and feedback at the beginning are a statement: ‘a new age of the electric guitar is here, one of sheer dramatic noise and euphoric self-indulgence”.

  9. mickey randall says:

    Thanks Alex.

    Hendrix comes under consideration in assembling a list such as this. Was it used as a link between videos on MTV or similar? JTV? The murkiness shields the blistering clarity of what follows.

    Also contemplated were ‘Mannish Boy,’ Daltry’s scream and the recorder solo on Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Boy With The Arab Strap’ as recorders are generally under-represented, in music and life.

  10. Polythene Pam says:

    Perfect, Mickey, thank you.
    Can I add George’s backward guitar two minutes into Got To Get You Into My Life?

  11. Thanks PP. There’s dozens of worthy Beatles moments to consider. I’d also add the vocals on Carry That Weight’s out-chorus as it’s magnificent and the only time all four sang together. Additionally, Ringo’s drumming on “Here Comes The Sun” but especially at the start and the initial cymbal crash that is pure sunshine itself. George Martin deserves credit for his work on this too as the lyrics, music and production marry perfectly.

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