I admit it. I felt a bit lazy about last week without sending along a sheet to go with the song. But there were only two chords in the song! How much can one explain about two chords? Apparently, that was a set up because this weeks song is comprised of a whopping total of one chords.
This week we arrive at #480 on Rolling Stones list of Greatest songs, Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage.” It’s the final song they put together for their Album “Ill communication.” They had the instrumental part kicking around for a while, but no lyrics or words to go with it.
The story goes that their producer and long time collaborator, Mario Caldato Jr, was constantly pushing them to get a move on and finish their work. By the end of an album’s worth of work dealing with this Adam Horovitz got the devil in him. He decided it would be funny to scream about how Mario was trying to Sabotage them by not letting them work through their creative process while Mario was standing ten feet away tracking the recording. So like the Beasties say in another shout out on the track, Root Down; “That’s a record ‘cause of Mario.”
“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 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.
I wasn’t expecting to find all that much to explore in this week’s song, “Since u Been Gone,” performed by Kelly Clarkson. It’s just a little pop song. It’s not supposed to make me wrestle with which aspect of it will be best to focus on for a lesson. It’s not supposed to have “aspects.”
I was wrong. There’s plenty to dive into. Enough that Rick Beato published a “What Make’s This Song Great,” for “Since U Been Gone” about a month ago. (And hat’s off to Rick, he transcribed the chords better than the published transcription I found). Which is all to say, don’t sleep on Kelly Clarkson, or songwriters Max Martin and Dr. Luke.
This week we arrive at #483 on Rolling Stones list of the 500 Greatest songs, White Rabbit, by Grace Slick, (performed by Jefferson Airplane). Without going through the list, I don’t know if I’d have looked at this song’s structure , and there’s a lot that’s really cool going on here.
It is inspired as much by the music of Ravel’s Bolero and Miles’s “Sketches of Spain” as by Alice in Wonderland. Musically the moves it makes be could analyzed through the lens of more classic theory, (it uses the flamenco scale which also has the scary name Phrygian dominant), or plain old Rock ’n Roll. If I were to pull it apart thoroughly, I’d probably fill five or six sheets talking about the scales and modulations.
BEAD Guides Chord Flow does a quick and dirty job of looking at relationships between its chords though. The moodiness the switching between two chords which are a fret apart on the guitar, (F# & G). The more tense rush of skipping over a chord in BEAD Guides Chord Flow rather than simply moving to a neighbor, (G to A, & C to D)
Which is all to say, as a music nerd, this was a fun song to look at.
It was about a week ago I removed my browser from my phone. (It’s an iPhone, so in reality Safari is still hiding in there somewhere).
What this means in practice, is that instead of reading political news in spare moments when boredom threatens, I read “The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles” by Dominic Pedler. If you’re willing to wade through a bit of music theory jargon, it’s a great book, which, goes through The Beatles catalog principle by principle and song by song, unpacking what’s going on in their music.
A problem is, it doesn’t seem to be in print any more. (I’m reading it through Scribd.com). But maybe your library is cool and has a copy.
This week we arrive at #485 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs list which is “Lady Marmalade” by “LaBelle.”
It’s got amazing groove, and is catchy as all get out. I spent a chunk of Tuesday morning learning the bass line on my acoustic. But the coolest part about it from my perspective is the bridge, that wanders over into E flat major. That’s the relative major not of the center chord, Gm, but its right neighbor, Cm. That’s a pretty bold move.