Thursday, October 04, 2007

You and Your Pussycat Eyes

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.


HomefrontRadio said...

I loved this song as a kid until it was ruined for me by hearing it sung repeatedly by school yard bullies to a kid in my school who had a reputation for, as it was breathlessly repeated to me, fingering cats: "What's up the pussycat? Wayne, Wayne..."

I'm fascinated with how evocative of a time and place music can be, and how shared experiences can be regardless of generation.

When you speak of your world being in black and white, that's exactly where I was in the late 70's. In a country town beyond the end of the earth with nothing but dust and dead grass and no life or possibility, then suddenly the 80's hit and it was like the world exploded into life and colour.

Singles like 'Video Killed The Radio Star', 'I Got You', 'Oliver's Army', 'Coming Up', 'Generals and Majors', 'What Will We Be Singing In The Eighties?', 'Counting The Beat'. Something new and *alive* was happening.

It didn't last, but when i listen to any of that music from about '79-'82 I still feel like anything is possible.

I've never heard a stereo system since that sounds as exciting as listening to my little portable record player on my bedroom floor, and that deliciously anticipatory crackle when you drop the needle down: Something wonderful was about to happen.

Anonymous said...

Neddie - I love these little musical daydreams you lapse into. Do it myself quite often. And thanks for the link-ups to the songs, they don't go unappreciated. I was going through a 60's-pop fake book recently and saw 'What's New Pussycat' among others that were a hoot to play again. Here's another chord progression I noticed: In 'Up, Up and Away' there's three major chords in succession (A-major, G-major, F-major) found in the song's last lines ("Balooooooon...")you will also see used quite often in the 60's. I'll find more and post them.
Sunny Jim

Satchel Pooch said...

Burt Bacharach, you magnificent bastard.

Hahahahahaha! I'd bet real money no one has ever written THAT sentence before. Brills!

Anonymous said...

simply beautiful.


all 46 year old males with a penchant to aurally define their past.

gregra&gar said...

I was neither a callow youth or dirty hippy in the days of that song, I was what later became known as yuppie banging away at career on an IBM drawing board, but we touch base on the significance of that song seeming to signify colorization of existence like no other until Sgt Pepper's came out and swirled the neat colors, and perhaps none since. Sgt Pepper's convinced me to get out of the IBM compound outside of Austin, and into town and a happily vulnerable hippy life (with baths) ever since.

Thanks, I couldn't agree more with homefrontradio's second paragraph. It was what I was gonna say when I clicked the comment button, so you got this instead.

Neddie said...

Hahahahahaha! I'd bet real money no one has ever written THAT sentence before. Brills!

Well, thanks, but in my dotage I've come to have a genuine admiration for the guy's artistry. Wow: Check this out...

"What's up the pussycat? Wayne, Wayne..."

Well that image will stay with me all week...

It interfered with my flow, so I didn't mention it in the main post, but after the B flat I talked about, it descends to a truly weird A flat ("hours to spend with you...") and stays there for eight bars, a deeply bizarre thing to do but that works brilliantly. Truly bodacious.

Thanks, I couldn't agree more with homefrontradio's second paragraph.

Me too. I think there's a clue in this: On my commute, I'll often listen to a podcast, maybe Harry Shearer or something pinko from Air America. If I lose my place in the podcast, and have to sample around to find it again, I'll find myself connecting the words with visual points on the drive: Oh, the rant on Iraq, that was Berlin Pike and Route 9... Dick Cheney, that was Evergreen Mill Road, and so on.

Feels like the same mental muscles are getting flexed.

HomefrontRadio said...

I understand you completely there. Songs tend to be ascribed both 'time' and 'place' in my mind, to the extent that 15 years later every time I drive past a certain lake on the way to Melbourne, I think "I was listening to 'Ladybird'" here.

This exterior life that songs possess is also the reason why a movie like 'Moulin Rouge' or a jukebox musical like 'We Will Rock You' or 'Mamma Mia' completely fails as a work of art to me.

Suspension of disbelief is continually broken because i'd hear Madonna and be thinking how all the girls at school used to sing 'Like A Whorebag, Fucked For The Very First Time'.

When I hear 'We Are The Champions' by Queen, i'd think how my sister and I would collapse into hysterics every time Freddie Mercury sang 'Fame and fortune and everything that goooes with it', since for my money it's still one of the most awkward, shoe-horned lines in rock history.

I think this is also why you can never make someone else realise just how great a particular song is. They simply don't have the same memories.

I also think what we hear as children explains a lot about what we like as adults. I'd point your attention to Andy Partridge's 'Young Marrieds'. Listen to the chord change under 'Tea for two until the baby wakes you back to basics'. Sound familiar?

Buck Batard said...

Color didn't come for us till later. Dad didn't get that color TV till later.

But I never will forget my mother marveling over the fact that the green shag carpet in her new home in 1970 was "cheaper than what wood floors cost". Polyurethane changed all that.

I disovered true colors a couple of years after 1970.

I reminded her of the green shag carpeting the other day when she and my sisters were trying to paint our river house wall red. Fortunately, I was able to hold onto the old original cypress in the old shack, at least for now.

Decatur Dem said...

Liked the song, loved the movie. I saw it several times in Atlanta, but when I was in Paris (1973) I encountered a theater showing it ("Quoi de neuf, Pussycat?"), in English, with French subtitles. (It's set in Paris). I could not resist.

It was Woody Allen's directorial debut, save for an episode of Hullabaloo, which I think hardly counts, does it?

Neddie said...

I'd point your attention to Andy Partridge's 'Young Marrieds'. Listen to the chord change under 'Tea for two until the baby wakes you back to basics'. Sound familiar?

Dear God, I love that song! So fuckin' world-weary... But I'd contend that that use of the same interval performs a different, more transitional role in that "Married's" harmonic argument. E's not the home key, and the G is the dominant of the "true" home key's C major. The G in "Young Marrieds" plays the same role as the D major in "What's New" -- as a harbinger of a new key, rather than the home key that's about to be departed from.

(Sorry, passersby... Musicican shop talk. Nothing to see here...)

Liked the song, loved the movie.

I've seen a who-ho-ho-hole lot of them Peter Sellers/Michael Caine/Swinging London flicks, but an honest search of the data banks does not reveal a viewing of this movie... Gonna hafta snag a copy. Would LOVE to see it.

"What's it all about, Alfie..."

Fuckin' Jane Asher has a huge role in "Alfie"...

HomefrontRadio said...

Dear God, I love that song!

It's absolutely amazing, and I can't believe it wasn't used, except there's other equally stunning ones, (such as 'Wonder Annual') lying around similarly homeless.

I can understand the function is different due to the key difference, but since the interval is the same, I still wonder if that's why you love it.

I might also point towards the interval between 'video' and 'chocolate fingers'... G to B, that's awfully close to your other Important Sixties chord change, the G to B7. (Once again, different function due to key difference but same interval).

Oh, as per the 'Day To Day' discussions, I just realised Andy begins YM on Dm, (the ii).

Kevin Wolf said...

Neddie, I am so in tune with you one this that had I your understanding of musical construction as well as your tremendous writing ability, I could have written this post. (In other words, I could not have written this post.)

I, too, remember "What's New Pussycat?" in the same way, as a tyke, hearing it around the house. Another tune that gets me the same way is The Supremes' "The Happening." I wish I could explain how and why that is. It's a different sort of tune.

M.A.Peel said...

Meowwwwww. This is the musical depiction of mod. I've got to go watch Darling . . .

HomefrontRadio said...

Not to be a linkwhore Neddie, but I thought you might be curious to hear the song this post inspired.


Whilst it's probably not the first song inspired by a Blog Post, i'd like to imagine it will be the most carefully crafted one.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Ebon Krieg said...

Thank you, thank you. I, too, loved this song as a young boy (as I have a syrupy love for any Bacharach song) but my earliest recollection of a song that carved out my appreciation for music,and a well constructed alliteration, is "Little Latin Lupe Lu," by The Kingsmen. I obsessed on this song and I have no idea to this day how or why.

You're writing is wonderful and while I lack the theoretical knowledge to grasp the mechanics of a particular song, there is a base understanding of what you are exploring. Also, I find my mind opening cupboards that have been closed for decades when I read your posts.

This article flooded my mind with a memory of my very first trip with my parents to see a movie. My father drove us to the local "Twin View drive-in to see "Mary Poppins." As this was the early part of the 1960's I believe most theaters played double-features and the intriguing and, in retrospect, most troubling aspect of this whole memory is not the memory of the movies but the choice made by the theater of the second film. "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" was the title and I remember nothing about this movie, and very little about "Mary Poppins" except flying with an umbrella and the guy from the "Dick Van Dyke Show" dancing with penguins.

I will place this memory back in the cupboard for now. Keep writing and hope you and yours are well. BTW, my favorite motorcycle of all time is either the Triumph Bonneville or the BSA 650. Thanks again for brightening my day.