Monday, June 29, 2009

But Someone Picked You From the Bunch/One Glance Was All it Took

Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out....

I don't think it's too early for this...

Take a listen to this (pops). It's the first thirty seconds of the Jackson Five's first single for Motown, "I Want You Back." Number One for a week in January, 1970. (Preceded in that spot by -- oy! -- "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," succeeded by The Shocking Blue's "Venus." There were giants in the earth in those days.)

It's particularly instructive to stop the clip after ten seconds, after twenty seconds, and at the end, and ask yourself, "What has happened so far?" The answer will be that after ten seconds, you've had one iteration of the verse's main instrumental motif. You've had that fabulously exciting piano crash that kicks the whole thing off, you've had nine -- count 'em nine! -- chord changes. The rhythmic pattern is immediately established: the rhythm guitar sets up its chang-ka-chang syncopation against which the bass, keyboard and lead guitar establish the chordal pattern directly on top of the beat. What an amazingly effective musical idea: Make the clanging, monotonal guitar the central syncopative device, while the rest of the band plays a slightly plodding series of notes that declare the harmonic pattern. Not a single drum has yet been heard -- only one cymbal crash -- but we're already up and dancing to this marvelously infectious and complex polyrhythm.

Between seconds 10 and 20, we get our second iteration of the motif, this time with congas, orchestra, and a third guitar adding yet more complexity to the rhythm. This sets up the beautiful explosion between seconds 20 and 30, in which the drums finally kick in, and the bass slides up an octave and plays for the first time the magnificent descending figure with which it will bolster the chorus throughout the song. (That's what your professor would call your contrapuntal motion; and like the man said, "Live it, or live with it.") Little Michael does his nearly wordless vocalization ("a-lemme-tell-ya-now" being the main concept being put forward) -- sounding improvised, but, I'm sure, the product of whole lot of thought on somebody's part. By now, if we aren't completely hooked, we never will be -- we're probably back with the "Raindrops Keep Falling" crowd.

Now, Michael Jackson, all of ten years old during its recording, had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of this stunningly terse exposition. That credit goes to The Corporation -- Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell -- and to the various musicians who played on it, most notably the stunning bassist Wilton Felder. Michael's task going in was to sing the living shit out of the lyric -- and by the end, no one will cavil when I assert that there remains neither jot nor tittle of living shit in that lyric. Talented kid, no question.

So that's that -- now take a gander at this. The first thirty seconds of "Billie Jean."

Let's try that every-ten-seconds exercise again.

0:00 - 0:10: Nothing. A drum machine and a farting synth. No motion whatsoever.

0:10 - 0:20: The same fucking nothing.

0:20 - 0:30: The nothing continues, with the addition of a four-note synth figure. A human being enters 29 seconds in, when Michael hiccups and begins the verse. The first chord change comes in at 0:37.

This shit went platinum.

Now, a lot happened between 1970's "I Want You Back" and 1983's "Billie Jean." Not only in popular musical tastes, but also in technology. MIDI. Click tracks. Drum machines. And of course, the all-important, sine qua non technology: video. YouTube has disabled embedding the Billie Jean video, but you can still watch it here. It's something of a revelation. Ah, we think. That's where those thirty seconds went. That's why the song's so spare, why so much of nothing is going on in the opening strains: The music's become subservient to the video.

Music for the eyes. Music to stare at.

The whole purpose of that utterly wonderful opening of "I Want You Back" is to reach out and grab you. It's producers knew perfectly well how their product would for the most part be consumed -- by people with better stuff to do, who have the radio on in the background as they go about their daily business. If your first couple of seconds don't contain something that makes them go woah! you may well be screwed. They're back to their work, tuning your product out. Think of how many iconic pop artifacts of the AM radio era start with a clang like that -- "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," the Byrds' chiming twelve-string confections, "A Hard Day's Night."

When you are watching TV, that's what you're doing. Watching. Attending. It matters very little that there's fuck-all going on in the first thirty seconds of the record, as long as the material onscreen tickles the audience's Entertainment Gland.

That's what we lost sight of in the Eighties -- the imperative to make interesting records that stand absolutely on their own, independent of any other medium. To serve your audience. To, yes, pander.

It's when I checked out, too -- probably not at all coincidentally -- and started investigating musics of the past: bluegrass, old country, jazz, that stuff. Haven't looked back.

Michael Jackson's death is sad in many senses of the word, but as he was the first true MTV phenomenon, I blame him in a real sense for killing my love of pop music, my interest in following what's new. That I won't forgive.

Update: Jesus Horatio Christ
Michael Jackson will live on as a 'plastinated' creature preserved by German doctor Gunther von Hagens.

Von Hagens has caused controversy with everyone from the Pope to the chief rabbi in Israel with his practice of embalming corpses with preserving polyurethane.

Yesterday, he declared: 'An agreement is in place to plastinate the King of Pop.'


blue girl said...

Great analysis, Jeddie. Sometimes I wish I could *hear* music the way you do. But, all I can do is *feel* it.

And I'm happy I got that, at least.

My son wholeheartedly agrees with you on Billie Jean and Jackson's music of the 80s.

reincheque said...

There are few pieces of pop music purer or finer than I Want You Back.

What a shame that the modern-day equivalent of that wonderful song seems to be comprised of various elements from the following list:- (a) drum machine preset A1 (b) variations of "Uh Huh"/"Yeah"/"This Is It" (c) samples of reasonably decent pieces of music from yesteryear (d) monotonous raps which barely stay in rhythm with the backing track (e) over-acrobatic female vocalisations.

Sorry, but Urban/R&B does nothing for me. Classic Motown, on the other hand...



Homefront Radio said...

A lot of great points here, Neddie.

Jeff Hanson died from falling off a ladder three weeks ago. No-one noticed. Listen to how 'Night' gradually builds - the introduction of the harmonies, and the subtle descending piano around 1:45 or so:


1983 was the summer of Talking Heads' 'Speaking In Tongues', of XTC's 'English Settlement', of REM's 'Murmur', of the Go-Betweens 'Before Hollywood', of Elvis Costello's 'Imperial Bedroom', let alone the fact that I was *still* trying to figure out Kate Bush's 'The Dreaming', and was still regularly playing The Beatles catalogue.

I was a 12 year old with an IQ of 140. I assumed that pop music was always going to be made by intelligent artists for smart and curious listeners. I was hopelessly naive.

MJ basically introduced headset-mic-requiring aerobics into popular music. He was My Sister's Thing. I heard her playing that album a lot over the period, but it completely failed to register with me.

His much-lauded videos were artistically empty. Kate Bush was making me read up on the life of Houdini, introducing me to Wilhelm Reich and scaring me with tales of Bernard Crippen. David Bowie was namedropping Friedrich Nietzsche, and, as a curious child, I was absorbing and investigating.

In later high school, the bullies who beat me up were slack-jawed by the sight of Michael Jackson turning into a Transformer, which I thought was pure children's stuff. I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys sing about Anti-Privatisation and decoding homoerotic subtext in the Smiths.

MJ only had that Ugly Culkin Kid to offer in his next video, and expected me to be impressed. Empty vessels i suppose...

Back to your point, I've been trying to find musicians to play with, but I seem to keep hitting a roadblock with the concept of trying to actively involve an audience by trying to be tight, concise and hooky. You have to grab their ear.

The Beatle's specialise in 4-bar iconic, hooky introductions, and I see no reason to not follow their example.

However, there seems to be this overlying Hipster / Pitchfork Culture going around where it's definitely uncool to try and be actively involving to an audience. You're supposed to be celebrated by just existing and if the listener doesn't get it, then they're just not smart enough.

Also, for some reason this Pitchfork mentality often seems to involve this kind of naive Americana overlay - where you pick up a banjo and use three chord harmonic structures. I've labelled this as 'Smithsonian Fauxways'. As a lover of the real thing, what's your opinion on rich white college kids pretending they're box car riders? Or are they just assuming it was good enough for Dylan?

Mike said...

Thanks, Neddie, I sure learn a lot from you.

What the composer does with the first few bars of the song being influenced by the medium is very interesting to me. I think you can see this in the shift from standards to songs playing on top 40 AM radio. I love how lots of composers, going all the way back to Stardust, did a very long intro/first verse before getting into the syncopated part of the song that people can dance to (Nat King Cole's version).

Then you have a song like "I only have eyes for you" (Flamingos version) where they blend it in. But really, it's gone from most songs played on the radio by then.

I wish I understood this stuff better, I'm going to have to do more reading/listening.

I was more bummed to hear about the passing of Sky Saxon of The Seeds, who I never really knew anything about, but I love the song Pushing Too Hard. I have been cracking up over this Casey Kasem TV show version.

Sorry if I'm too verbose, at work with a lot of time on my hands today.

Homefront Radio said...

I got into trouble for writing this on Facebook:

So, 50-year-old Michael Jackson moves into your street, except he's not famous. He's just a complete nobody - some random guy, but with the exact same plastic-surgery-horror-show face, squeaky whispered voice and jerky, crotch-grabby mannerisms that apparently makes one beloved to millions.

He makes the exact same statements about children being 'innocent' and 'beautiful'. He says he prefers them as friends, even though he's 40 years older than his ideal playmates. He decorates his backyard with toys and games for children to enjoy, and says how sharing a bed with sleeping children is a 'beautiful' thing.

He invites your child to stay over.

RobotSlave said...

While I'm sympathetic to the dismissal of pop music produced after the advent of the synthesizer (shorter: "disco sucks"), I think you're guilty of some pretty egregious cherry-picking, there, Neddie.

I dare you to listen to the entire oeuvre of Le 5 Jackson in one sitting. Go on, I'll sit here with a stopwatch and see how long you last.

In the same apples-to-apples, 95%-of-everything-is-crap vein, there are 80s MJ songs that are a lot harder to dismiss than "Billy Jean."

Ferinstance, your beloved guitar syncopation is back in "Don't Stop till you get enough", along with an amazing circular string figure, accented with brass. These and the party-noise bridge are all bog-standard Disco tropes, but you'd never notice that in your first 100 listens unless the Dance Lobe of your brain were damaged.

And "The Way You Make Me Feel", produced when MTV was at its cultural peak, with the sort of synth foundation that has aged about as well as MJ's face, is still better than, for example, every disco offering ever from the great and holy Stax Records.

The filler on those '80s MJ records, though, wow. Those tracks really do make your case, I'vegottasay.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Good job on his deconstruction of "I Want You Back" though in the end I like the song because it sounds good and makes me feel good, and I like "Billie Jean" for the same reasons. The fact that the intro to "BJ" is sparse and doesn't build to the vocal on paper may "read" well but that intro sounds and feels great to me. Not sure that the song was arranged that way deliberately for the sake of the video, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand either. If that's the case it still works on it's own merits to my ears.

I would add that someone who didn't care for "Come Together" might point out on paper that the intro is nothing more than bass, drums and guitar repeating nothing for four bars... but it would be meaningless.

For the record, I think the majority of Michael Jackson's material as a solo artist is not that great.

Neddie said...

Mike, that Nat King Cole version of "Stardust" made me cry a little bit, for a time when "sophistication" wasn't a dirty word.

Sorry if I'm too verbose, at work with a lot of time on my hands today.

At least you're at work, man. At least you're at work.

I've labelled this as 'Smithsonian Fauxways'. As a lover of the real thing, what's your opinion on rich white college kids pretending they're box car riders? Or are they just assuming it was good enough for Dylan?

Your label made me larff. This argument goes back to at least 1952, when Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk acquainted a generation completely cut off from knowledge of the 1920s hillbilly and race records by the Great Depression and WWII. Did you pick up a guitar and start singing this stuff because it's so much more real to you than "How Much is that Doggie in the Window"? Or were you, you know, forbidden by your social class from trying to emulate it? Can a White Man Sing the Blues? I don't have a pat answer for that, but some mighty fine music has come out of it.

RobotSlave: My argument really isn't that the J5 were lots better than the later MJ; I was trying to make a more general point about the records of the 60s in comparison to those of the 80s -- the attitude of performer (and especially producer) toward the audience, and how technology, particularly video, affected that attitude.

IMHO, "Can't Stop till You Get Enough" is a textbook example of the overproduction you can get when you've got more new toys than you know what to do with. Did you know "Billie Jean" was remixed NINETY-ONE TIMES before being declared ready for mastering? That's some serious Wretched Excess right there.

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Neddie said...

Yes, because garage-door opener repair was precisely the topic we were so passionately discussing...

giggles said...

Ouch!! Call me unsophisticated....

But..oh my! Homefront radio is soooooo right....... Scary! (And I had given MJ the benefit of the doubt...til now....)

cavil? my word of the day!

Thanks Neddie, I also always learn a lot from you!! (I was wondering about your employment status... bummer!)

The Viscount LaCarte said...

If Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough followed its own advice, it would have clocked in at just under 15 seconds...

blue girl said...

I'm so with you guys on "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough."

I was just watching the video and man! Enough already! lol

It should be plastinated.

J. D. said...

Sometimes unchanging can be effective. Consider another Motown classic of the early 1970s - "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." For 6 minutes, there's just one unvarying "tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a" drum pattern. There's also one of the most minimalist bass lines ever recorded, with more rests than notes. And it works! If I had been the producer on that session, I would have botched everything by asking the drummer and bass player to change it up once in a while. That single was a work of courage, in my opinion.

Kevin WOlf said...

I have to agree with the Viscount on this, since I've always found "Billie Jean" oddly compelling -- and not due to the video. (Though I remember the days when MTV showed it every 10 minutes.) I'm not even sure why; it's just insidious.

At the same time, I can't deny the overselling, overexposure, overproducing, and general crappiness of MTV and post-MTV pop. As it happened, I too was turning away from new pop at that time and moving backward, exploring "old" stuff. Buying LPs at rummage sales and raiding my parents' records. Discovering Sinatra and, of course, the old standards.

It's funny that the comments here mention a couple of my all-time favorite records -- like many of my faves they were recorded before I was born. Nat Cole's "Stardust." The Flamingos' ethereal "I Only Have Eyes For You."

Though I keep an eye on some of the new stuff coming out, and enjoy a bit of it, none of it touches me like the records mentioned above. And none of it swings, if that's a valid word in a conversation re rock, in a way that tells me there are real people behind the records -- folks with something to say, and dying to say it.

So here I am, in 2009, much more inclined to listen to, say, the spectacular jazz harmonies of the Boswell Sisters (recorded circa 1933-35) than anything recorded in the past 25 years.

Cleveland Bob said...

Well, I don't know jackshit about garage door repair, but I can spot an excellent deconstruction of the way a Motown hit works.

Thanks, as always.

cleek said...

and also, "I Want You Back" is more of a dance single than "Billie Jean", and as such, it can't afford to screw around with a long intro - people will walk off the dance floor.

Homefront Radio said...

Did you pick up a guitar and start singing this stuff because it's so much more real to you than "How Much is that Doggie in the Window"? Or were you, you know, forbidden by your social class from trying to emulate it? Can a White Man Sing the Blues? I don't have a pat answer for that, but some mighty fine music has come out of it.

This brings up the whole notion of 'authenticity' in and 'being real' in music, which is something I struggle with to understand.

Can the race or social status of the songwriter / performer really be used as any measure of authenticity?

All songs are written, refined, rehearsed and performed. All of these steps are artificial processes. Cole Porter went through these exact same steps as Muddy Waters, just in nicer surroundings. Where does the notion of 'Real' come into it, especially when a performer is singing a song for the 100th time? Are the emotions still genuine, or is what we're seeing simply a performer going through the act of re-evoking said emotions in a way that convinces the listener it's genuine?

I grew up living in State Housing, as low on the totem pole as you can go in this country. There's no authenticity in poverty and hardship, just a hell of a lot of shit that's continually dumped on you as you try not to be dragged under it. I'm still ashamed of my upbringing.

Trying to romanticize that life experience with some kind of aura of nobility can only be done from a higher status position and it always carries a overwhelming stench of patronisation: "Oh, the poor boy can play guitar. How wonderful that he could overcome such hardship".

Then when you have musicians not only idolising this romantic myth of poverty and oppression, but actively trying to emulate it, it brings up an overwhelming sense of despair that they just don't understand the reality.

You end up with stuff like this, Brown University students believing the myth and pissing on my life experience from a position of privilege.

Ironically, their music would be considered more 'authentic' than mine.

To quote a better writer than me, "Nothing Is Real". (To which, I'll naturally respond 'and nothing to get hungabout' before you do).

RobotSlave said...

Did you know "Billie Jean" was remixed NINETY-ONE TIMES before being declared ready for mastering?

Ah, but how much time did those remixes require, compared to the 8-12 remixes of a J5 track?

And furthermore, how much rehearsal time was required, respectively?

Not that I'm defending Billie Jean, mind you, I think it's vastly inferior to the '80s MJ songs I singled out for praise, and which you've decided not to weigh in on, alas.

I was pretty sure you'd be one to frown on criticism that relies on the process that results in a particular track, rather on analysis of the listener's ultimate experience, of the sounds one hears when the final work is played.

I could be just imagining it after all these years, but I had sort of a vague impression that studio musician and/or arranger virtuosity was one of the elements that Punk was supposed to usurp; why do we not revel, then, in the ascent of the sweatpanted soundboard nerd?

OK, yeah, I can see hanging on to a hatred of Steve Albini. But still, in principle, what the heck is going on there?

Bobby Lightfoot said...

aNY OF you chodes know wheres I can get my garage door fixed?

Dude I for one would give my last ii-V for new music that only sucked as hard as Billie Jeen.

That shit is like th' baroque period compared to today's Singing Anuses regaling us w/ their brilliance on OwMyBallsTube.

Fuck, I have to get back to work SAVING FUCKING MUSIC.


Fucking Steve Albini. He's like porridge. Ya hate him but he's good for you.

I want the Major Label system back. I want to know that I can GET SOMEWHERE with some cocaine bribes and some quality head.

AT this point, preservin' Michael J. will be a process of REMOVING chemicals and quality plastix.

HomefrontRadio said...

Please come back, Bobby. Your music is awesome and has influenced me greatly in terms of trying much, much harder.

I only hear the radio in the car with my partner now and then, but it's always a drum loop, one-note atonal one-note melodies and auto-tune 'singing' with the occassional sampled chorus from an older, better song. Remember in '1984', how the computers wrote the music? It's here - all artifically generated to engender no excitement or emotional response whatsoever.

Major labels are dead. The remaining major music chains officially stopped selling physical CD singles in Australia yesterday as they're no longer 'financially viable', since they were selling 300 copies a week of the number one record vs 12,000 downloads.

Apple not only killed the Video Star, but also High-Quality Audio and Dynamics. Fuck you, Steve Jobs.

Nancy said...

Really enjoyable analysis of the music, but another commenter's remark about cherry-picking was right on the money. Back in the good old days they had "I Want You Back" AND they had "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head" and Raindrops starts out about the the same as Billie Jean.

And as the Ramones taught us, there's more to good music than chord changes.

David Harmon said...

Regarding the plastination: apparently he was indeed asking about the idea a few months ago, but nope.