Saturday Songwriting: Rick James, Super Freak

“I wanted to write a silly song,” is how Rick James came up with Super Freak according to Musician Magazine. He says everything else for his album “Street Songs” was done, but he felt it needed something else. 

Wanting to write a silly song is striking to me. In my experience, it seems songwriters rarely want to their songs to be silly or funny.  

They want to be taken seriously.  

In James’s case messing around created a song recognized as one of the greatest ever. That could be food for thought next time I find my muse offering  something I think is “silly,” while I’m writing.  

Anyway, this week we’ve landed at 481 on Rolling Stones list of the Greatest Songs of all time.   

The Prompt:

Here’s a link to Vincent Van Gogh‘s Art. Find out more about Van Gogh’s work here.

The Musical Idea:

A song like Rick Jame’s “Super Freak” poses some challenges to how I usually break down a song. It’s mostly a two chord vamp (Am and G), along with a killer bass line. Harmonically, that’s a not a lot to explain.

To say there’s a not a lot to explain makes it sound simple. Yet, asked to play it, I’d definitely struggle. So is it simple, or am I not as skilled as I’d like to think?  

Let’s put that aside for a moment.  

One of the coolest things about learning songs today (versus twenty years ago) is that someone has taken the time to learn almost every song I want to know something about. And that person is excited to share their knowledge on Youtube. I learned Super Freak’s bass line from a guy named Eric Blackmon. 

Then I learned an acoustic arrangement of the chords and bass from “Ten Thumbs Productions.” 

(The bass line is a wee bit off in the chorus, oh well).   

Now, back to answering what’s complicated about Super Freak, it’s the rhythm and groove. If you aren’t accustomed to playing Rick James’s funk punk syncopations it could take a while to get Super Freak under your fingers.  

No one can create a perfect facsimile of another person’s performance, and I’m not likely to write a song like Super Freak, but that’s the cool thing about learning it. It expands my toolkit. It adds depth to my musical knowledge that may never show up as obviously as a funk song—but might show up in some other way.  Maybe a song that is more simple chorally than what I’d usually do (i.e. just one or two chords), and more rhythmically complex.  

Unfamiliar with BEAD Guides Chord Flow?
Here’s an intro: BEAD GCF Intro
Here’s how it works in the Key of C: BEAD Key of C
Here’s how it maps chord substitutes: BEAD Subs

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