Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Beat Goes On

In 4th grade, a salesman came to our door, Apt. 22 on Hazelhurst Avenue in North Hollywood, California. He carried a small case, inside of which was an accordion. He sat me down on the couch and asked me to play, showing me the oom-pah-pah of the left hand and maneuvering my right hand to play "Down in the Valley." My mother, instantly buying in, insisted that lessons were a great idea and that the accordion was the way to go. "After all," she said, "When you grow up you'll be able to take it to parties." Who knew that the accordion would one day take on the cool vibe (think Beirut and Fleet Foxes). I did not evolve into a musician, opting instead for music as a pass-time, a passion, a constant companion, an obsession; over time, though, I've gained a working knowledge of music theory and the few remaining brain cells I nurture tend to ponder the oddities and eccentricities of modern music. Maybe I owe that to the accordion.

One such oddity is the one chord song. Despite my lack of musicianship, I do know my scales and chords on the Gibson acoustic I acquired from my stepfather, and can think back to being able to play "Horse With No Name," the first week I picked it up. Just two chords there: Em and D6/9. America's first hit was a masterpiece of laziness (this may have also inspired the insistence by many that the song was about heroin use). Lou Reed has said that, "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

But lacking harmonic variety, successful one-chord songs are forced to place their emphasis on the groove of the song, the notes and rhythm of the melody, the lyric, and the performance. There are a lot of songs that I'd arguably call almost one-chord songs: The Who’s "Magic Bus," Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born On The Bayou" and The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." I'd argue that these, in various different ways, introduce enough of the tonality of a second chord to fall outside the category. Even the Brazilian classic, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "One Note Samba" has a chord change. In rock history, there aren't many songs that truly stick to one chord, but the good ones are strong. There's a long tradition of one-chord blues songs, from Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" to "I'm A Man" by Muddy Waters.  A lot of even earlier country blues songs have only one chord, the one that comes to mind is Porkchop Willie's "Too Many Cuts."

Cole Porter
There are some pretty classic one-chord R&B songs as well, such as Aretha Franklin’s "Chain Of Fools"  and Wilson Pickett's "Land Of A Thousand Dances," and the occasional Pop song, like The Guess Who's "American Woman" or Sonny & Cher's "The Beat Goes On" (by Sonny Bono – based on Donovan’s "The Trip"). (I challenge you not to hum the bass line.)

One chord songs, of course, have something in common, simplicity. Simplicity, often in the form of repetition, is a cornerstone of songwriting, both musically and lyrically (no one ever leaves a Broadway show humming the verse). You probably don't know all the words to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," but I'll bet you know them to "Why Don't We Do it In the Road." As a teacher, not often willfully, I'm exposed to a plethora of music, most modern pop just making me sad. Today, though, in the hallway, some kids were playing Kendrick Lamar and I was struck once again with the intricacies and complexity of the production, the nuances and the inaccessibility. While ultimately sophisticated, it reeked of the same over-the-top self-indulgence that brought down late era prog - taking itself way to seriously; as if like HDTV, 1080 pixel per square inch isn't enough, so we have to have Hi Def Hi Def, making the world super real or something. In this vein, Lamar hoped to fit in every possible chord the human ear can bear.

Big Yes fan, btw, and love the complexities of Bach's inventions, but really, I lean toward Reed's sentiments: rock 'n' roll is about sex and simplicity, as is the tradition of popular music. In Plato’s Republic, he stated that "the introduction of a new kind of music can alter the character of a nation." Indeed, the modern assault upon traditional American moral values begins with the permissiveness of the Roaring 20s (just look at the lyrics of the popular 1921 song "Sheik of Araby"). In 1934, the bisexual Cole Porter (frivolous outing) introduced a popular musical and song by the title Anything Goes, an intense shift away from restrictive codes of conduct. And in 1936, Irving Berlin composed the music and lyrics for the motion picture Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in which Rogers sings, "Let Yourself Go." In the same film, Harriet Hilliard (Ozzie and Harriet's Harriet) sang a song with the following lyrics: "Get thee behind me, Satan,/ But the moon is low and I can't say 'no.'/ Someone I’m mad about is waiting in the night for me,/ Someone that I mustn’t see./ Satan, he's at my gate. Get thee behind me./ Stay where you are. It’s too late.” The message is clear – resistance to temptation is futile. Now that's rock 'n' roll: one chord and doin' it in the road. Thanks, Sonny & Cher; thanks, Irving Berlin.