Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Perfect Rock Song?

In 1997, Radiohead released the album “OK Computer” to rave reviews amongst critics and fans alike. They have gone on the be regarded as one of the best rock bands around, blending unique soundscapes with rock sensibilities and pushing the envelope on what rock music is. They have been one of my favorite bands since I heard their 1993 release “Pablo Honey.”

Prior to the release of “OK Computer”, they had been performing live a few of the tracks that eventually found their way on that album. Two of those songs were “Lucky” and “No Surprises.” I remember watching something on MTV back in 1997 in which they were going to perform live and several other artists were being interviewed to show how excited they were to see Radiohead (at the time, remember that Radiohead weren’t nearly as big as they are now). One artist, who I can’t remember now, made a casual comment “I can’t wait to hear the song ‘Lucky’ – it’s a perfect rock song!”. Sounds like a silly exaggeration of a comment, but it got me to thinking. I’ve always loved that song, but could it be a perfect song?

The more I think about it, the more I think that it might be. When you think about a rock song and the elements that comprise it, you think of a few elements: song structure, orchestration, score (the actual notes), lyrics, dynamics, rhythms, “emotional” qualities, etc. I think “Lucky” possesses the highest order of all of these, and, therefore, if there is such a thing as a perfect song, this could be one of them. I’m not suggesting that it’s the only example (U2’s “With Or Without You”, Pink Floyd’s “Time”, and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” are other good examples), but it’s a nice song to use to think about how to dissect rock music into it’s elements.

Let’s start with the song structure. The most common structure for a rock song is simply “intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar solo, chorus, end”. That structure can be considered a “pure” one for rock and roll and is core to thousands of songs. A “perfect” rock song, then, can be viewed as one that is structurally “pure”. Looking at the structure for “Lucky”, you will see that it is as pure structurally as it gets:

[Brief intro]
Verse (“I’m on a roll…”)
Chorus (“Pull me out of the aircrash…”)
Verse (“The state has called for me by name”)
Chorus (“Pull me out of the aircrash…”)
Guitar solo/interlude
Chorus (instrumental)

Now let’s examine the orchestration. Orchestration is simply taking a look at not only which instruments are used but also how they are used and what they are doing. Rock and roll has almost always been a guitar-driven form, with guitars leading out the chords and usually driving a solo somewhere in the song. The bass usually holds down the root of the chords to anchor the song and connect the guitars and vocals to the drums. Drums, of course, drive the rhythm and is usually responsible for pushing the song forward – giving it the energy. Finally, the voice is useful for both exhibiting the main melody as well as providing texture, such as in background vocals. Because of the nature of the voice, these textures are usually naturally “airy” or “breathy” and provide natural reverb to the song.

Dissecting the track, we can see all of the above – the electric guitars work together to provide the chord structure and also the solos during the solo interlude. Take a listen firstly to the sound effects that start the song – it’s a guitar plucking the strings near the tuning pegs on an effect – very unique sound effect providing texture to the song. Also listen to the effects on each of the guitars during the choruses. One has a tremolo effect as it pulses the chorus chords, while the other guitar has a distorted “buzz-saw” effect with the main chorus riff. Likewise, during the guitar solo, the second guitar slips into a strong tremolo effect (using the wah-wah pedal) before reverting back to the distortion for the final recap of the chorus. Amazing use of sound to achieve effects. The bass, in the main sections, anchors the song throughout with its accentuation of the roots and small fills to bridge one chord to the next; it is always in sync with both the drums and the guitars. The drums start off light and vacant, but jump in for the choruses and finally drive the song to its climax coming out of the guitar solo – Phil Selway on drums provides the energy of the song. Finally, Thom Yorke provides the vocals with his own unique timbre, but you can also notice vocal accents as texture during the final chorus (listen for the “ah”’s). These vocal tracks fill in the space and create a lush final point to the overall orchestration.

The score to the song is simple and complex, while being uniquely “Radiohead”. As opposed to being the standard 1-4-5 (“Louie Louie”) or 1-5-6-4 (“With Or Without You”) progression, the chord pattern works hand in hand with the melody and contains unique twists and turns throughout. I’ll leave it to you to look up the tablature if interested, but, trust me, it’s a unique progression. On top of that, the choices of notes for the chorus between the 2 guitars, with one playing the main minor chords with the tremolo effect and the other working its way down a scale, is ideal for the purpose of the song. Finally, I believe that the main guitar riff for the interlude/solo, especially if you examine the tablature, is tremendous and like nothing I’ve ever heard – certainly the path it takes down the fretboard and then eventually back up to get back into the final chorus. It’s an amazing score.

Progressing through the attributes, let’s take a look at the lyrics. Thom has an ability to write powerful lyrics, but at times they can be very esoteric and even nonsensical. That’s part of the charm of his songwriting, but it also points to one of the differences that I see between poetry and lyrics. In poetry, you may always be looking for the right word. In lyrics, you need to couple that with the right sound. The song is about surviving an air crash and the feeling of luck and hope that may come from it. However, look at the words Thom chooses to say, most specifically the line that comes twice: “it’s going to be a glorious day”. The first time you hear it, in the first verse, it sounds fairly ordinary. However, the second time you hear it, in the second verse, Thom accents the word “glorious”, “it’s going to be a GLOR-ious day!”. Couple that with the other repeated line, “I feel my luck could change” and you get a sense of the spiritual meaning of the song, not just the contextual, story-based, meaning of the song. The great lyricists have a way of conveying both in their words.

Finally, let’s look at the dynamics of the song. The brief intro is empty and ominous, the drums slowly creeping in. The verse is slow and also quietly ominous – it’s not until the first chorus that we hear a huge swell of volume and energy. As the chorus reaches its end, it just drops out (“leave you standing on the edge…”), with the lyrics reflecting the change in dynamics. We proceed into the next verse, which is similar to the first with the exception of the vocal dynamism we discussed before in the word “glorious” (“GLOR-ious!”). Again with the swell into the second chorus, and we move into the transitional guitar solo/interlude. Dynamically, the best word I can think to describe this section is “smooth” – at least the first half of this guitar progression is very relaxed and dynamically stable, until, that is, we arrive at the dynamic climax of the song – a brief chaotic bridge into an instrumental final rendition of the chorus. By this point, emotionally, the listener is spent as we have gone through a complete set of dynamics throughout the song, now reaching the peak. The song ends with Thom reiterating the line “standing on the edge” on top of a sole guitar, and the song evaporates into nothingness, as it began. Dynamically, this song runs the gamut from emptiness to exhilaration.

We’ve dissected a rock song into several of its building blocks, and through this process I hope you agree with me as to the argument for the inclusion of the song “Lucky” into the arena of the “perfect” rock songs. If not, take another listen – it may just grow on you.

Off the album “OK Computer”

I'm on a roll,
I'm on a roll this time
I feel my luck could change.

Kill me Sarah,
kill me again with love,
It's gonna be a glorious day.

Pull me out of the aircrash,
Pull me out of the lake,
I'm your superhero,
We are standing on the edge.

The head of state has called for me by name
But I don't have time for him.
It's gonna be a glorious day!
I feel my luck could change.

Pull me out of the aircrash,
Pull me out of the lake,
I'm your superhero,
We are standing on the edge.
We are standing on the edge.


At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Dyan said...

Good post.


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