It's funny how visceral a connection there is between musical timbre and gutwrenching nostalgia.
Tom Jones' monster hit from 1965, "What's New, Pussycat?" which has been on constant rotation in my mental iPod recently, has this ability to transport me directly -- immediately, without any effort on my part -- to 1966, to my family's living room carpet, my six-year-old face buried in its nap as I listen intensely, the smell of sautéing garlic and onion from the kitchen suffusing the air.
I've been thinking rather hard about what exactly it is about the song's arrangement that's so compelling, and I think I've got it.
Play it along with me, won't you? (Pops.)
Harmonically, the chorus that begins the song is quite mundane, a I-IV-V in C major that's designed to be sung along to. The transition from opening chorus to the verse is also bog-standard, a dip to a D major chord that presages the G major of the verse.
(It's occurred to me now, on re-hearing it, that the song's a bit of a pastiche, intentionally corny, even in its original 1965 context -- designed to evoke the hip-ironic nostalgia that was common in pop music at the time. Perhaps this explains the lack of harmonic sophistication in the chorus -- it's trying to sound dumb.)
It's in the verse that things get interesting. The first line is harmonized with the tonic G: "Pussycat, pussycat," but "I've got flowers" is a B flat, which isn't in the home key. It's precisely that intervalic swoop -- both its harmonic surprise and the jangle-piano-and-tuba timbre -- that sends me crashing back to 1966. I don't know enough about psychoacoustics to say with any precision just why that particular chord change does this to me, but Lordy does it do it! I imagine at some future date, research scientists will isolate the Drooling-Nostalgia hormone or endorphin or whatever it is, playing Sixties pop sludge to 46-year-old men hooked up to machines to see what part of the brain lights up when that B flat chord follows that G.
This nostalgia, for you wee ones out there, is not for the Dirty-Hippie Sixties that everyone seems to think of whenever that decade is mentioned. That chord change doesn't evoke student protest or drugs or Maoist ideology; what that swoop away from the home key brings out in me is what the Sixties promised to be for progressive people who admired style and grace: The Sixties of Steve McQueen, of Audrey Hepburn, of "Blow Up," of Cilla Black and Serge Gainsbourg and sleek hair and great clothes and the utterly gorgeous reverb on Petula Clark's voice in "Downtown."
It was a world that was exploding into color -- you have to be just about exactly my age to have recognized this explosion. The first few years of my life happened in black-and-white -- television, film, print: everything was grayscale. Then, just about exactly the time Tom Jones recorded "What's New, Pussycat," everything just blossomed: Marimekko, Pop art, Expo 67, Mary Quant, the British Invasion -- color everywhere.
Jet travel. Skiing. Bitchen cars and cheap gas. Triumph motorcycles. Soldiers not yet dead in Viet Nam.
It's all in there. All of it. G to B flat.
Burt Bacharach, you magnificent bastard.
PS: Absolutely the best-ever version of "What's New Pussycat?" was done by Bobby Lightfoot's Malarians in 1985. You'll have to take my word for it, but it's true. Played without even a lick of irony. Beautiful.