Andrew Ford, a composer and presenter of The Music Show on Radio National, and writer and musicologist Anni Heino vivisect most of the songs with a musician’s deep knowledge and care, parsing the tune’s grammar and architecture in an attempt to explain how it works on the mind, feet and heart. E.B. White once cautioned that you could cut up a frog or a joke to see how each works, but in the process they both die.
The authors never go quite that far. ‘‘The guitar riff is the first thing you hear in Born to Run … Harmonically, it’s a progression from the tonic E major to the subdominant A major (chord IV) … Melodically the verse consists of that same dissonant A we heard in the guitar riff …’’.
Most readers won’t understand all that. I don’t. But it’s a reminder that fine songs run on painstakingly constructed engines. A nod to the science in the art. Recognition that good songs are triumphs of design.
Ford and Heino always return us to the emotional journey of the song before long: ‘‘and here is the climax of the singer’s offer: ‘I wanna die with you, Wendy on the street tonight/ In an everlasting kiss’. It is a Wagnerian moment where Springsteen proposes nothing less than a Liebestod, a love-death – orgasm as obliteration – and it takes us to the song’s climax.’’
But this collection, including tales of composers and singers, also takes us outside the songs and reminds us what a hard life music has always been for all but the gilded few. Cliff Edwards sang When You Wish Upon a Star as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. It is the most touching of songs, his voice a haunting promise to the listener that it will be all right. But, of course, it won’t. Cliff died penniless in 1971 and his body lay unclaimed in a Hollywood morgue. Listen to Jiminy Cricket sing about your dreams coming true and think on that.
The essays also include many heterodox musical insights. This one rings loudly for those of us who’ve instinctively felt Joni Mitchell’s second-to-none bravura but lacked the chops to say why.
(Joni) Mitchell wrote melodies and chord structures that seemed infinitely elastic.
‘‘Mitchell’s great contemporaries, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, though wordsmiths first, were not above faking a line and truncating or obscuring sense to make their words fit their tunes. Mitchell, a far more sophisticated and inventive musician than either man, wrote melodies and chord structures that seemed infinitely elastic, allowing her to say exactly what she wanted.’’ Thank you.
But what will the devotees of Queen make of this? ‘‘Queen’s We Will Rock You is one of the simplest songs of the 1970s. Lasting only two minutes, it consists of three verses and three choruses accompanied by nothing but stamping and clapping, followed by 30 seconds of an apparently unrelated solo for electric guitar. That’s it. But then, after you’ve had a major international hit with a grandiloquent slab of operatic prog rock, where on earth do you go?’’.
The template that underpins the song is a ‘‘cadence call’’ sung by the US military on training runs. (‘‘I don’t know, but I’ve been told …’’) The chorus? Well, there’s a carol addressed to Christ in his cradle and its chorus is ‘‘We will rock you, rock you, rock you’’. I guess when the head-bangers who threw power salutes in the stadia of their youth to this song find out they were parroting promises to the baby Jesus like a flock of Hillsong disciples, they’ll be fighting mad.
The Song Remains The Same is an elegantly written, musically wise book in which the authors reveal, with compelling flourishes, not only the worlds embedded in their chosen songs but the worlds from which they somehow sprang.