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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/01/22
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: A Hard Day’s Night (A Chain of Flowers)

BRAIN TUBA: A Hard Day’s Night
The beginning of "A Hard Day’s Night" kicks ass. Word.
That fucking chord hangs there and then the band slams into the
verse, crackling and strangely optimistic under the story of a weary singer.
That beat between the chord and the song is filled with such ridiculous
expectation. I’m sure there’s a musical explanation for it — some weird
number appended to an E chord that explains why it makes the ear want it to
resolve somehow, perhaps some theory that Steely Dan have exploited into a
soulless series of so-called jazz harmonies. Really. I tend to prefer
the metaphorics, though. The poetics, even.
It gives the song an immediate reason for existence. There is nothing
wishy-washy about it. There is only that chord, and there is only that song
that can follow it. There is confidence, and then there is beauty. It
creates an immediate momentum in the way that a mysterious or compelling
image might begin a story. The three minute pop song provides a comfortable
forum for this. The intro suggests everything that will happen within the
confines of the song — an instantaneously compact overture burned onto the
ear’s eye.
That is precisely why the chord works perfectly as the beginning of a
Beatles’ song, but is utterly boring in the middle of a Steely Dan tune: at
the beginning of "A Hard Day’s Night" there is no choice as to the selection
of the chord. There just isn’t. The point of Steely Dan using some kinda
weird chord is because they can. They sought to open up the possibilities of
harmonic theory within pop. Or something.
It’s not so much a matter of intent as a matter of execution, though the two
are often neatly wrapped up in each other. When a musician picks up an
instrument, when a writer picks up a pen, when a painter picks up a brush,
what makes it relevant? Why does it exist? It’s a daunting question. In some
ways, it amounts to asking somebody why he gets out of bed in the morning.
The questions are analogous not because the musician needs to create or any
neo-romantic shit like that, but because, well… what if he doesn’t? Is
what he does really necessary? ***
One of my favorite records is Last Splash by the Breeders, which was
recorded in the early 1990s. It is an album of sweetly jagged surf punk.
Pop, too. Sonically, it is grounded firmly in that period. There is
something in the sound of the music on the album that is culturally (and
directly) connected to songs written and recorded by the likes of Soul
Coughing, Morphine, the Spin Doctors, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others.
There is a common sound to each of these bands, something that grounds them
confidently in a particular moment.
What is it about that sound that made it relevant? It connects to something
outside itself. Perhaps it is outside the bounds of the group: a musical
reaction to the dark angst of Nirvana (as Mike Doughty has described Soul
Coughing). Perhaps it is even outside of music: something about the
unchecked optimism in the air as Bill Clinton was sworn in after 12 years of
Reagan/Bush lunacy. Either way, there was something undeniably current about
the ascending bass intro, the lusty slide, and the distorted acoustic guitar
of "Cannonball". But what makes something sound current? Surely it
doesn’t only happen in the context of the other popular music of the day. If
that were the case, then music would be only be an endlessly
self-referential trap; though I suppose a fine case could be made for that,
I’m not feeling nearly that pessimistic this evening.
Everything is intimately connected. A recent New Yorker profile of
Frank Nuovo, the designer of sleek and chic cell phones, described his
studio: it "looks as if it might belong to a clothing designer. Drawings of
the slinkiest creations by Versace and Chanel are pinned on the wall, as are
sketches of the most outrageously futuristic-looking car, bicycles, even
Rollerblades". Current music – intentionally pop or accidentally mired in
the present epoch – is just the same. No matter the level that one is
affected at, he is completely and undeniably influenced by his surroundings.
But these are broad terms. What about when it comes time to actually
write a song? It is fairly easy to translate this concept in terms of
writing. A news story, for example, is obviously relevant. That is because
it has an occasion for existence. Things get a little more
complicated when swinging into fictional territory. What justifies the
writing of a story? Ideally, a piece of literature is kicked off with (or
has, at the center of it) an event so compelling that it’s impossible to
ignore, one which the rest of the piece works to untangle. What is a song’s
occasion for existence?
In musical terms, this might be isomorphic with tension and release, but
that is far too gimmicky (and simple) an answer. Like I said, I prefer the
poetics. I’m looking for something deeper. A great story is a great story
and, theoretically, could be told at any point in the world’s history,
simply requiring an occasion for existence, a gathering of forces that leads
inextricably to the event’s beginnings. Perhaps the surf-punk of Last
Splash (or the lush instrumentation of Pet Sounds or the glossy
anger of Nevermind) is the occasion. Essentially, that leads
to a Death of the Author type of theory of songwriting where songs become
the products of forces, not individuals.
And that, surely, is a stone bummer, because it still doesn’t explain why "A
Hard Day’s Night" is its own occasion for existence. It is not so much a
question of inspiration, as I see it, because – here – my interest lies in
the effect on the listener. If the currency and relevancy of a song’s sound
relies on its connection to the outside world, perhaps the same could be
said for the beginning of the song itself.
In Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, a ballroom dance scene is staged
in New York City’s Grand Central Station. One by one, commuters’ gaits morph
seamlessly into dances. It is a beautiful transformational effect, and one
that pulls the eye inwards. Charles Wilson Peale once said that the "learner
must be led always from familiar objects towards the unfamiliar – guided
along, as it were, a chain of flowers into
the mysteries of life."
One of my personal favorite examples of this is the introduction to The
Disco Biscuits’ Helicopters. The song begins with an exceedingly
simple pattern: a repetition of three ascending notes. Then, they speed up.
At first, it seems like an uncomplicated acceleration. As a good friend
pointed out, though: music doesn’t get faster, it gets closer together. It’s
the same amount of notes, just folded into a smaller space. The effect is
quite remarkable. In listening to music (or sound), one must filter
everything at a very high rate in order to determine what is worth paying
attention to, what is relevant.
The beginning of the "Helicopters" riff is so innocuously plain that it
seems almost easy to ignore. Once this norm is established, it is suddenly
squeezed and folded. The effect is of watching as the pedestrian next to you
suddenly breaks into a run, or a dance. A song must begin at the everyday
before shooting forth into the new realms. It must connect to the outside
world. A truly graceful song will do the same at its end, as well.
The ending of "A Hard Day’s Night" kicks ass. Word. Diamond-edged arpeggios
trickle and fall behind…
Jesse Jarnow is looking for the
next flower…

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