I’ve been listening to Moments From This Theater: Live, a wonderful album by the great Memphis/Muscle Shoals songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. It’s just the two of them, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar and electric piano, recorded at 1998 shows in Ireland and England. They play classics including “Dark End Of The Street”, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, and “I’m Your Puppet”, which have been recorded by, among many others, The Box Tops, Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge.
I’m struck once again by how stripping away production often reveals the greatness of the song within. For example, “I’m Your Puppet”. I’d never really thought much about that song; for me it was just a piece of the oldies backgroundâ€”obviously catchy and well crafted, but fluffy.
You probably know it from recordings by James and Bobby Purify or The Box Tops, if only from elevators and shopping malls. Those artists were great singers (the Box Tops’ lead singer was Alex Chilton), but the pop production of their versions obscures the emotion in the song by exaggerating it. Listen to Penn and Oldham’s bare bones version – I’ve put it on an iTunes playlist:
What I had assumed was pop cotton candy turns out to be heart-breaking.
Listening to Penn and Oldham reminded me of an NPR interview I heard a while ago with Richard Thompson, in which he sang “Oops, I Did It Again”, better known in its version by Britney Spears. Thompson wasn’t being ironic. As he said in the interview, he’s not a Britney Spears fan, but he thinks “Oops, I Did It Again” is a very good song. He praised its “mediaeval harmonies”, for one thing, which are up his alley, as an expert on the British folk tradition (he recorded it on his album 1000 Years Of Popular Music). You can hear the interview and find a link to the full performance of the song at npr.org:
I agree that it’s a good song, and I predict that the day will come when critics will be letting us know that it’s OK to think so. That’ll be once time has made Britney’s marketing onslaught seem less threateningâ€”it’ll no doubt come to seem quaint, the way yesterday’s pop star-machinery always does. To elaborate on Thompson’s point about harmony, I admire the way the writers (Max Martin and Rami) express guilt in the verses and then sound triumphant about the same subject in the choruses. In the verses they explore dark, chromatic lines in the harmonic minor scale1, and then they burst into the relative major key in the chorus.
Here’s an excerpt from the verse, in a simple piano arrangement to highlight the melody and harmony. This is in A minor, which is Thompson’s key (Britney sings it in C# minor). The chords here are Am, E, Am, F, E. Notice how the move from F to E sounds Moorish (think of flamenco music). The lyrics are “I think I did it again/I made you believe we were more than just friends”, which carry a more complex resonance when sung by an adult:
And here’s an excerpt from the chorus. After repeating the Am, E, Am pattern of the verse, it goes to a G, which takes us out of the key. G is the dominant chord in the key of C major2. And the next chord we go to is a C, here with a suspended 4th, which sounds even more exultant. The lyrics at this point are “Oops, you think I’m in love/I’m sent from above/I’m not that innocent.” The chords sequence is Am, E, Am, G, Csus4, C, E:
There’s a lot more to be said about the song, but I’ll resist the temptation to go on and on. Let me just suggest listening again to something that you may have dismissed as junk only because of the way it was packaged.
I’d also point out the difference in sales between Penn and Oldham’s versions of their songs and the versions recorded by pop stars, and between Richard Thompson’s “Oops” and Britney Spears’ “Oops”. That difference is an index of the “value add” contributed by the pop stardom industry. By this I don’t just mean marketing hype: I think a pop performance is a multi-dimensional event, involving image, drama, sex, ritual and more, and it’s expensive to put on. The recording industry is shrinking year by year, its revenues declining after decades of expansion. If we’re moving towards a recommendation and reputation-based market, it may give a pretty good indication of the smaller scale of individual successes in the such a market. Recorded music, by itself, we don’t seem to value very highly.
1. The A harmonic minor scale (the key Richard Thompson sings “Oops” in) includes the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G#:
The chords in a key are built using only notes from that key, by stacking them in thirds. The chords based on A harmonic minor are: Am, B half-diminished, C, Dm, E(7), F and G#dim.
2. The dominant chord is based on the fifth note of the scale. In the key of C, that’s G. A dominant chord sounds like it wants to go to the tonic chord, which is based on the first note of the scale. Here the G chord leads us to a C, the tonic chord in the key of C. At the end of the chorus we end up on an E chord. That’s outside of the key of C, and is in fact the dominant chord in the key of A minor, leading us back to the home key for the next verse. When a chord outside of the key appears in a song, it’s often leading to a new key.