One of my favourite scenes in the first season of David Simon’s highly regarded HBO drug drama THE WIRE comes in episode seven, when Officer Pryzbylewski and Detective Freamon act as a ‘translators’ for their fellow cops, listening to the wire taps on the drug dealing operations and repeating the barely decipherable mumblings in their more highly enunciated tones.
“Damn! How’d y’all hear it so good?” says another policeman.
Prez anwers him by reeling off:
“Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans”
“What the fuck is that?” says his colleague.
“Rolling Stones. First two lines to Brown Sugar. I bet you’ve heard that song five hundred times and never knew, right? I used to put my head to the stereo speaker and play that record over and over”.
It’s a somewhat depressing truth that to a large segment of the listening public, lyrics come a very distant second to rhythm and melody in their conscious appreciation of a pop song.
Country singer/songwriter Jack Ingram once told me he’d recently had a phone call from the subject of one of his best songs, who had just realized that the song was about them. The song was over a decade and a half old, and the person in question had only just started paying attention to the lyrics enough for this epiphany to strike them.
Elvis Costello often tells the story of a woman approaching him to thank him for writing ‘I Want You’ – one of the most romantic songs she’d ever heard. The song is a six minute forty-five second psychotic-sexual screed told from the perspective of a bitter mental patient.
Left-wing political anthems Born in the USA and Rockin’ in the Free World have both been misunderstood by audiences who miss the confronting commentary of the verses and focus on the fist-pumping sing-along choruses.
So from those last two examples, it’s clear that people do pay attention to a small section of the lyrics – the chorus – and in particular, the title.
The listener at large isn’t doing this maliciously or out of determined ignorance. You hear a song a couple of times on the radio, you can hardly be expected to have retained a dense parade of metaphors, puns and story fragments. Much easier to pick up the breezy, open repetition of a chorus.
Sydney based rock quintet The Preatures have enjoyed a meteoric jump in career status in 2013, which they began as a band with a steadily building following in the Triple J demographic driven by their dynamic live performances and well-received Shaking Hands EP. They close the year with an ARIA nomination, a high-profile arena support gig in their wake, international record deals and a buzz that has cut across the mainstream.
The impetuous for this wild year can largely be traced back to the release of Is This How You Feel?, the title track of their recent EP and breakthrough hit.
Written by band members Jack Moffitt (guitarist/producer), Luke Davison (drums/sample pad) and Tom Champion (bass/leather trousers), with lyrics primarily by frontwoman Isabella Manfredi, it has become one of the songs of 2013, enjoyed by all whose ears it falls upon. Storied US music journal Pitchfork described it as ‘a mid-tempo, feel-good, groove-based confection that explodes into one of the year’s best choruses.’ Channel V presenter Marty Smiley called it a ‘a guilt and sugar-free pop song that makes me happy every time I hear it’. A mate I ran into at the shops the other day while buying a belt described it as ‘fucking awesome’. It got played on Triple M and 2Day FM.
Why has the song managed to cut across so many different audiences? For many different reasons, but I’d argue it’s largely because of the great chorus. People appreciate Isabella’s great verse lyrics when they’ve heard the song a few times and pay enough attention to understand them, but the casual listener is nodding their head along with
Is This How You Feel?
I Wanna Know Wanna Know
Is This How You Feel?
Had the song a less effective title and chorus, perhaps it would not have burst into the world with the same impact. Crucially, it has the same title as the main line in the chorus.
Sidebar: This is an important and easy way to make your song more popular that some artists seem to willfully disdain. What’s the line in your chorus everyone will remember? That’s your song title.
Imagine if the Preatures song had been called Looking For You. That’s a line from the song, and a perfectly serviceable title. Then imagine this exchange:
‘Hey Agnetha, can you look up that new song we heard on FBI today?’
‘Sure Astrid, what was it called?’
‘Well, from the chorus, I would assume it’s called ‘Is this how you feel’?
‘Nup, not seeing anything on iTunes’.
However, since Izzy, Jack, Tom and Luke were smart enough to call the song ‘Is This How You Feel?’, the above scenario ends with Astrid and Agnetha dropping $1.69 on iTunes for the track.
This is even more crucial when the band in question is in the formative stages of their career and you can’t rely on the audience knowing who you are and hunting down the song that way. Sensible choice of title > Easy sale from listeners.
Take Baba O’Riley by The Who, the greatest single record in rock history (I trust this will be a totally uncontroversial opinion). Pete Townshend conceived the song as part of his aborted rock opera ‘Lifehouse’, intended to be a sequel to the world-eating success of ‘Tommy’. Despite containing a stack of great tunes and – amongst other things – featuring a song about the effect of the internet a good fifteen years before Al Gore invented it, the story proved way too crazy bonkers convoluted for anyone else in the band to make sense of, so a handful of the best songs were separated from the main narrative and recorded by the band. The resulting album was Who’s Next, released in 1971 to an eager public. Baba O’Riley was the first track and third single from the record, and has become a classic – and a staple of the Who’s live show.
But to this very day, even reputable journalists in major entertainment industry publications from the United States of America will often mistakenly refer to the song as Teenage Wasteland. While the song lacks a chorus, the sing-a-long part is the bridge, where composer Townshend steps to the lead vocal mic to offer his vulnerable tenor as relief from the fierce roar of Roger Daltrey:
Don’t Raise Your Eye
It’s Only A Teenage Wasteland
Not unreasonable that many listeners who heard that on the radio would assume the song is called Teenage Wasteland, especially as the words Baba O’Riley don’t actually appear anywhere in the damn song. It’s a portmanteau of Townshend’s spiritual guru Meher Baba and the influential minimalist composer Terry Riley. PT wasn’t exactly making life easy for his audience here. Thankfully, the Preatures didn’t call their hit single Radiohead BeeGees or anything suchlike.
When you’re aiming for the top of the charts, directness is a good quality to have up your sleeve. A chorus can be a great opportunity to show off your dynamics. If your verses are all tense riffs, sly grooves and frantic, hushed lyrics, a great chorus might be power chords, cymbal crashes and catchy, repeated phrases.
Keith Urban, who’s sent a number of his self-written singles to the number one spot, even breaks it down to the chord progression, noting that “a minor chord that morphed into a major chord” can provide a “sense of triumphantness”.
Depending on who you ask, Oliver’s Army is Elvis Costello’s biggest hit single. It certainly represents his biggest chart success. He wrote it on the plane back to London after seeing working class boys ‘in battle dress with automatic weapons’ in Belfast in 1978. As with many Costello compositions of the period, the verses are an elliptical blend of accusatory wordplay, casually cutting humor that makes the sentiment all the more chilling:
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger
All delivered with the Liverpudlian’s signature sly verbal dexterity. But even an artist as iconoclastic as Elvis knows to go big, clear and catchy for his chorus:
Oliver’s army is here to stay
Oliver’s army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today
I’m sure some people have been listening to that show for thirty-four years now without having a clue what it’s about, but bought the 45, bought the LP it appears on (1979’s Armed Forces) and have been singing along ever since.
If we assume that quality is a given, the more directly communicative the lyric of a song (while still remaining artful), the stronger the connection with the listener.
The Beatles early-period (the Pierre Cardin jacket years) singles are all about this type of connection. Lennon and McCartney deliberately set out to write songs that shot like arrows into the hearts of the teenage girls that dominated their fanbase. This dictated everything down to their choice of pronouns (From Me to You was an early breakthrough in this area).
The song that sent them over the top in America, shattering the transatlantic divide and signaling the first cannon fired in the British Invasion, was perhaps their most shamelessly direct an appeal to their fanbase to date – I Wanna Hold Your Hand, released fifty years ago today.
Although later their co-writing credit became merely an artifact of tradition, in 1963 the pair would write “one on one, eyeball to eyeball” (as Lennon described it), sitting opposite each other with acoustic guitars or, in this case, at the piano.
Their first excursion with the majesty of the four-track tape machine, the recording came together in a luxurious seventeen takes.
After spending most of the year pushing against a wall of unenthusiasm from Capitol Records (the Beatles US label), manager Brian Epstein finally convinced them that these crazy kids with the funny haircuts could maybe do some business Sateside, and Capitol issued I Want To Hold Your Hand with I Saw Her Standing There as the B-side.
In the first three days on sale, the single sold a quarter million copies. Capitol literally couldn’t press the records fast enough and had to outsource some of the manufacturing to Columbia and RCA. Within a few months, the song hit #1 and the Beatles went on to be the best thing that has ever happened to popular culture.
What’s the chorus to this one?
I want to hold your hand
I want to hold your hand
Or if you prefer the German language recording
Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand
Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand
I don’t get much more straightforward that, does it? Of course, even in something as seemingly simple as this, there are allusions and entendre built in. The female audience they were targeting didn’t merely want to touch finger against finger (except perhaps the pre-pubescent end of the spectrum). Their desires were far more lascivious.
But by presenting their offer in such innocent terms on record, the Beatles allowed the sexual subtext to remain just that and not frighten the horses – or parents – who had to actually purchase the records on behalf of most of their fans. It’s also a more artful way to phrase the sentiment than I Want To Sex You Now Please.
Mainly, it is the ultimate in simple choruses. The name of the song, repeated with a shifting melody of immense catchiness. It demands to be sung along to at full voice, matching the exuberance with which it is performed.
Of course, this song is thoroughly poisonous for four minutes and has no chorus at all, and it’s still pretty perfect, so feel free to ignore the preceding 1,989 words when penning your next classic rock song.