Ambushed by Pixies on the school run: how Pop Music works

I strongly believe that it’s perfectly healthy to get obsessed, every now and then, with a piece of pop music. It happened with Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’ (post here), it happened with The National’s ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ (post pending) and it happened last week with the Pixies’ song ‘Hey’, from their Doolittle album.

It happened like this. It was the afternoon. I’d been working at the computer at home, and it was time to collect the kids from school. (Sad to say, most of the time they go to and from school in the car. It’s a 35 minute walk, up a hill. I know, I know. I did walk to get them today.)

I got into the car, plugged in my iphone and set it to shuffle, and pressed the ignition button. “Hey! Been trying to meet you…” I turned the car and set off. It wasn’t until a minute or so into the song that I realised something was going on: I didn’t know how the song had got to where it was from where it had started. (It’s not my favourite Pixies song, far from it. If you asked me to name my top ten Pixies songs, it probably wouldn’t occur to me.)

I whacked up the volume (Dylan’s exhortation to ‘play fucking loud’ seemed entirely appropriate) and set the song back to the start. By the time we had got back to the middle of the song I was convinced not so much that it was the best thing the band had ever recorded, but that it was, effectively, the only piece of recorded music in existence. It was all here. All the history. All the possibilities of the form were there – or, if they weren’t, they were implied.

Because I had put the song on repeat, I listened to it every time that week and then this that I’ve driven the car to school to collect the kids. When they’re in the car with me, we listen to music stations of their choice. Driving back from school, in the morning, I tend to listen to the news – my mind is still in rational, morning-coffee-news radio mode. But there’s something about that mid-afternoon time, when I’ve most often been sat in front of the computer, working away at words, that this song has its magic hour. Something about the way it uses its elements – so simple, so classic – and throws them together, then twists and dismantles and degrades them.

Perhaps the reason it hit me is because it does so effectively in music (pop music) what I want to do in words. (Now that I put it like that, I remember another song that I’ve always held up as a model for my writing: ‘Seymour Stein’ by Belle & Sebastian. If I could only write something – i.e. a story, an essay – that good, I often think when I’m listening to it, then I’d be happy.)

What is it about ‘Hey’, then?

0.00 The opening unaccompanied voice: terse, aggressive. (Has a certain meaning when heard in the middle of an album. An entirely different one when you hear it the moment you sit down in your car.)

0.02 The bass line, moving at a pace that seems to insist that the listener pay attention to what it, too, is doing.

0.08 The way the voice so soon modulates, in that ‘Mm-m-m-m-mm’ into something so different: delicate, caring, inward.

0.10 The chck-a-chck guitar, a rhythm guitar figure tricked about with clipped chords. (There’s got to be terminology for this stuff, but I don’t know it.)

0.37 “If you GO…” The bark. There’s the thing about the human voice as monophonic instrument, that can only produce one sound at a time, thus the central importance of melody to music – and the transcendent beauty of vocal harmonies – but that’s not quite true. When you break a voice, like Black Francis does so often, then a double tone is achieved. In terms of the performance of the lyric, that bark contains both the menace of the opening (“Been trying to meet you”) and the compassion of the wordless “Mm-m-m-mm”. Which makes it doubly scary.

0.39 The cymbals. The drums. The build to…

0.52 The chorus. Backing vocals. Wailing falling high tones on the lead guitar. A basic setting out of the elements, together. (If this was all the song was…)

1.16-1.24 Cymbals again, tap-tapping. The bass line again. The greatness of the pop song as a form is in its structure, its insistence on going back and doing it again, doing it the same and differently. A chorus that is returned to too soon, or a bridge that is repeated too many times, can kill a great song.

1.25 The guitar solo. For some reason The Shadows spring to mind. The great instrumental history of rock and roll, before it got het up on the histrionics of the singer. This is the section that I mean to indicate when I say that a song like ‘Hey’ has the potential to tell the history of the form in the elements it selects. This, basically, is what the electric guitar does. Yes, and that too.

1.43 The squeak of a hand  sliding on the neck: the ultimate signifier of authenticity. I wonder if GarageBand or ProTools or whatever has it programmed in?

2.03 “Uh!” Oh, yes, rock and roll can do that too.

2.20-2.22 Cymbals. Listen to them.

2.23 Snare shots. That’s what a drum does. What it’s always done. What every drum, ever, is basically doing.

2.28 “This… is… the…  sound…”

2.38 Well, I’m not quite sure what it’s the sound of, but this line adequately marks the outer limits of the pop song form as medium of expression. The music, in general, is a frame, a scaffolding, upon which the lyric can sit. But the lyric is subject to the vocal, and the vocal can swamp, explode or distort the textual content, can push through it and use (use it up) it as the medium to express its meaning in other forms.

2.42 “We’re chains”/”We’re chained” (I daren’t look up the lyrics. So many songs I’ve loved over the years whose textual content has just washed over me, unheeded.) Chorus or refrain as that which is returned to. The basis of the song.

2.54 Chorus or refrain as that which is built towards. The terminus of the song.


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