Mega Drive Vibes

Mega Drive Vibes

Today’s post analyses a composition by Tim Follin from the soundtrack of a 1994 Sega Mega Drive game, Time Trax. (I found it on this sweet playlist.) I wanted to find out how it succeeds in being so improbably funky.

Chiptune music has been rising in cultural prominence with the predictability of any nostalgic trend. A mate of mine recently put me on to the quite expensively produced Diggin’ in the Carts, series, for example. I guess what’s fun about the music, beyond just hearing things from your childhood, is the musical meaning conveyed within harsh technical limits. Somehow, cheaply synthesised noises that don’t sound at all like brass, bass guitar, a string section, or whatever, can cheekily evoke just those things. So I want to examine that dialogue across the chasm of failed simulation, where the ludicrousness of the attempt at orchestral grandeur or, in this case, funk jamming, is part of the aesthetic.

The tune (it repeats, the actual track is about 3:30 long).

You won’t remember this one from your childhood, because this game was never actually released and only a prototype of it emerged online in 2013. “The game is notable for its use of a relatively advanced sound driver designed by Dean Belfield for Follin,” segaretro.org tells us. I get the impression that this was a technical peak of sound design on the Megadrive.

Not to get too nerdy – let’s save that for later – but this style of synthesis is associated with, roughly, the 16-bit generation of consoles as opposed to earlier 8-bit. It is called frequency modulation synthesis and it tends towards a distinctive metallic, clanging, bell-like, brassy tone. (Which Tim Follin’s sound design actually disguises pretty effectively, at least until the heavy distorted riff sections.) You may also recognise the sound if you ever played MIDI files on a laptop with a cheap soundcard, like my Dell Latitude.

Let’s get to the music!

This oscilloscope view is cool. BTW, different ones on Youtube have six and five channels. I read somewhere that it was a technical achievement of Follin’s to stick to five channels so as not to have game sound effects interrupt his music. I don’t know what the sixth channel is doing here and I can’t hear any extra instrument that isn’t in the five-channel version. *shrug*

So, apart from the dinky sounds, we have a medium tempo funk-rock groove tune. The first thing I was curious about was the structure. As is typical for game soundtracks, this one is designed to loop interminably. However this isn’t really an issue either way as players were not likely to stay long on the ‘Mission Briefing’ screen where this track is played. (In this playthrough video the player spends 40 seconds.)

In any case, there’s a 90-bar structure lasting about 3 and a half minutes. The basic principle is one found in a lot of groove music – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is my canonic example – which we could call “on or off”: you’re either in the groove or getting ready to get back in.

Yellow for ‘in the groove’

Follin uses key changes to shape his track. (He mentions his “fondness for random key changes” here.) As shown above, we get the excitement of going up a b3rd, then a gradual floating down to the home key – a good scheme for a track whose opening will be heard more than its ending.

The key change is smooth on a number of counts.

The end of the brass build (that line is seen at the top left) going into the first organ solo. The double bar line marks the 1:07 section change (and key change).

Okay, the lead line doesn’t voice lead, but in general its D major pentatonic melodic/modal colour is goes strongly to G minor (i.e it’s the elemental I major to IV minor alternation that has strong gravity in both directions). The (faint) bass voice ends on a D before a strong G bassline comes in, so that works. And the inner voices have a general upwards sliding of a semitone. Nice.

There are some other nice applications of harmonic colour, suiting this rock/funk context. In the intro we get some Cs, the b6 of the key, giving a suitably earnest diatonic natural minor mood of cop show epic – after that these are thrown out in favour of minor-7th/sus-chord funk colours. There’s some strong use of the 9th, F#, in a couple of places e.g. the brass pentatonic build.

(I recognise that my names for the instrumental sounds are arbitrary. I just don’t want to put quotations around “organ” and “elec. piano” for the whole blog post. Your interpretation of what the instruments are meant to be is just as valid.)

This ambiguity of instrumental sounds is crucial for what I consider the secret sauce to this track. I’m talking about the inner voices that comp all the various organ solos and can be most clearly heard in the breakdown at 3:00. Quietly, with a warm electric piano-like sound, they add some rhythmic action that interlocks nicely with the rest, and fills out the middle part of the sonic spectrum. At the end of bars 2 and 4, every time, they feature some bluesy parallelism of a type I discussed a long time ago on this blog. A bII I movement, and next time it’s bIII IV. How does the bII I fit so smoothly in a minor key? I think it’s really a bV IV – a classic blues side-slip – in the V key!

Here is where I’d normally show a little transcription (I did attempt one bar of it above – the dotted eighths in the second bar). However, these inner voices are incredibly hard to transcribe due to two peculiarities of the medium: overtones generated by FM synthesis; and the need to swap instrument sounds mid-flow to maximise channel use.

The first issue means that, although I think only two channels are used for these inner voices, we get a fleeting impression of triads in the passing chords – I believe I can hear the thirds. This is due to the way frequency modulation synthesis works] – it adds overtones called side-bands, in various proportions, to the original fundamental. As the 3rd and 5th (actually 3rd+2 octaves and 5th+1 octave) are part of the overtone series, frequency modulation can generate a kind of major chord. So, for instance, while the most audible line in the inner voices starts b7 b7 8, or D D E at 3:00, I think this is actually the 5th and that below there’s a b3 b3 4, G G A which is the fundamental.

What makes it trickier is the fact that Follin may not be keeping the sound (or “patch” in synthesiser terminology) consistent from note to note. In the intro, we note a changing modulation on the synth stabs. And if you look at the visualisation, you’ll see that a channel may switch from brass to bass instantly (e.g. when the groove kicks in at 1:05), or whatever. (Follins mentions this as a “basic trick” here.)

So, even though with a bit of hunting around on old-school, nerdy websites I got some tools to extract MIDI data from the game files, I still can’t, after a decent effort, unambiguously notate it, because these lines might be transposed or changing timbre any time, and in any case they’re definitely using timbres with at least a strong 5th above the root.

Here are the two inner lines in MIDI in REAPER – but I still amn’t confident of what the sounded notes are!

What does all this mean musically? Just that it’s a full-sounding comping pattern with some sonic depth and mystery, and which, especially during those passing chords, is subtly but unmistakeably bluesy! Because blues uses that ambiguity between harmony and timbre all the time (so does electronic dance music, funk, jazz…), particularly for cliched parallel chord movements.

Let’s talk about the other sounds! Some commenters on Youtube have gotten into the nitty gritty of Follin’s techniques – in particular, his use of clipping/overdriving the signal to get otherwise impossible waveforms. I don’t know enough to comment there but I’ll just praise the sounds from a musical perspective and from what I can see in the visualisations.

Firstly, the very effective drum sounds are a single instrument/patch sounding at a high note for snare and a low note for kick, and a really high note for the hats. (Listen in the breakdown sections and you’ll hear the hat sound is kind of like a snare.) This is clear in the intro fill which sounds like it’s on the toms – but later those same notes function as a kick and snare in the main beat. While initially they sound more like toms than a kick or snare, in the mix they’re convincing. The beefy snare takes up some bass register quite effectively.

The distorted sounds later on, and the brass in the intro, are even less “realistic” but still sound good. I really like the bleep on beats 2 and 4 in the intro – here Follin uses a classic technique of “fake delay,” repeating the tone more quietly 3 16th notes later to give the impression of a classic tempo-synced delay effect. Then the bells/glockenspiel in the middle are a really nice timbral contrast. In fact timbral contrast is one of Follin’s main tools.

There are some cool sequencing tricks. The time feel changes from straight 16ths when it’s only hats, to swung 16ths when the groove kicks in. Also, there are some nice dynamic changes in instrumental sounds: the volume swell for the 2nd pads chord in the section starting 0:05, and the changing timbre of the synth stabs in the following section (accomplished by dialling in the degree of modulation of the carrier wave).

Of course, the centrepiece is the organ melodies. Although not very memorable as themes, they’re definitely funky, using tricks like staccato pedal tones, 32nd-note blues scale ornamentation, and (not idiomatic for organ, as I mentioned) pitchbends. As Follin says, “I also liked the playing styles used by folk musicians, all the twiddles and little arpeggios, which were again relatively easy to reproduce.” In general, these organ lines are built using rhythmic groups of 3 and either I minor pentatonic or V minor pentatonic shapes.

There’s one characteristic of the programming which is more to do with expediency – there’s a lot of reused material. The underlying drum pattern has no variations until it switches to a disco beat; the last minute is mostly just one riff in various orchestrations; and all of the organ bits use the same “answer” phrase in bars 3-4 and 7-8. As Follins recounts, these tracks were made by typing in notes in a text editor. I’d say this is why he copied and pasted a lot. It’s not a major problem functionally: the up-and-down the arc of dynamics keeps a meaningful directionality even though much of the groove stays unchanged for multiple sections. However, once you know about them, some of the 4-bar exact repeats (i.e. in the middle of the organ solo bits) become a little jarring.

This track was evidently made quickly, within the strictures of commercial production. Nonetheless it’s remarkably crafted, especially the sounds, which are not only skilfully programmed but gel together in a very fat “band sound.” And this was done without any mixing in the normal sense of applying EQ, compression, reverb. My personal yardstick is that I repeatedly found myself tapping my foot as I analysed it. No surprise that Follins states, “My own preference in my early teens (squashed by peer pressure) was for Quincy Jones.”

The actual game Time Trax, BTW, “is a straightforward platformer that sticks to the 16-bit platforming formula rather than innovate.” It’s clearly Follin’s composing work – which he says was something too nerdy and embarrassing to mention to friends and acquaintances at the time – that has kept it in the limelight. It’s nice to see that he’s only getting more recognition with the years.

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into some different territory for the blog! If you have any insights into VGM or synthesis, feel free to comment!

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Mr. P.C.

Mr. P.C.

I  transcribed this oft-played track because I was curious what notes bassist Paul Chambers plays over the long stretches of minor chords. I also wondered what he played under the rhythm section hits in the statements of the melody. I was in for a few surprises on this one! Let the analysis begin…

(You can read my transcription here.)

“Mr. P.C.” is a super common jam session tune, and in jams I’ve always heard bass players double the C Bb C hook from the melody. In this original recording, we definitely hear the piano emphasise these hits, with C- G- C- triads as correctly indicated in the New Real Book 2 chart (bars 3, 7, 11).

Real Book 2 Cropped
The commonly-used NRB2 chart

But Chambers doesn’t play the rhythm or chords – instead he walks, ending up with an Eb or an A underneath the melody’s Bb. (In fact, he walks steady quarter notes for the entire 7 minutes of the tune – no syncopations until the ending phrase. There’s a relentlessness that I admire in that musical decision.)

mr-p-c-head-tenor-bass-1-e1539017871103.png
The presentation of the head melody at the start of Mr. P.C., played by Coltrane and Chambers (piano and drums not transcribed). Note Chambers ignoring the hits in bars 3, 7, 15 and 19.

One thing that stuck out was the harmony Chambers implies with his lines. In bar 2 of every 12-bar chorus, he outlines a fast IV- V7 or II-7b5 V7 (same thing with different root note) progression. Tommy Flanagan generally plays at least the V7 of that progression also.

So, whatever about what people play in jam sessions today, the basic chord progression implied by bass and piano in the original recording is like:

mr-p-c-chords-1-e1539018056779.png
This still isn’t what the piano actually plays – Tommy Flanagan keeps up a stream of comping stabs with voice movement at the twice-a-bar rate, in the syncopated rhythmic shapes which Ethan Iverson has called “clave sentences” (referring I suppose to their dynamic balance and their ability to close off/demarcate phrases), which is the standard bop/post-bop piano sound of course.

So, the chords in the chart represent how musicians would describe the tune to each other in words, even though that description only a skeleton for the idiomatically correct performance (which involves those denser, improvised chord movements). The skeletal chord progression is what Vijay Iyer would call, quoting Paul Gilroy, a “radically unfinished form”, requiring improvisation to become complete in the moment of performance.

Anyway, I’m all out of piano knowledge, so back to Chambers’ bass-playing. Continuing a trend towards strictness and simplicity, his V7 chords are typically outlined with an unaltered triad or with this distinctive shape and its variation:

V7 Lines.png
Chambers doesn’t use altered tones on his V7 chords (even though Flanagan freely uses a #5 alteration). Chambers also doesn’t use the tritone substitution of the V7 – there are almost no Dbs in his whole performance (and those that occur are an idiomatic descent from IV-, not dominant cadences). Finally, he almost never doubles up his quarter notes, i.e. playing a tone twice in a row.

Paul Chambers is renowned to this day for his sense of swing. The jazz critic Martin Williams once wrote that “a handy explanation of ‘swing’ might be ‘any two successive notes played by Paul Chambers’. One aspect of this, which was pointed out to us in my undergrad days by bassist and educator Ronan Guilfoyle, is that Chambers often plays ahead of the beat. In Mr. P.C. this extends to actually pushing the tempo after John Coltrane’s solo finishes at 3:20. I think this was to compensate for two things: the tempo had sagged a little, and also the exit of the sax caused a drop in intensity.

This transcription (which you can read in full here) reminded me that formal exactness isn’t generally what makes improvised music great – what works in the moment and in the social reality of the band is just as important. For example Chambers’ F note in bar 85 (at the top of the form) is an odd choice, unless we note that Coltrane was wailing on an F note at that moment (1:18) and Chambers was reacting to it.

Another thing that the Williams quote indirectly points towards: “any two successive notes” in Chambers’ lines are never just “any two” notes, but follow a flawless sense of harmonic function, melody, and directionality/momentum.

The melody of the line is smooth and melodic and catchy. There’s controlled chromaticism with clear targets. (The area between the C above the staff and the F above that, in this and other performances I’ve checked out, receives quite a bit of wandering chromaticism on the G string, but I think this is a conscious tension-creating effect that perhaps exploits a potential for melodic connection with the soloist when in the bass’ medium-high register.) The technique of having the same note on beat 1 and beat 4 is often used to provide propulsion (because it makes explicit the tendency for stepwise movement of successive “beat 1s”) and gentle syncopation (it functions as a perceptual accent of beats 1 and 4). Maintaining a direction of movement is privileged, without compromising on the need for chord tones on the strong beats 1 and 3. Inversions are used to maintain smoothness. (Although deeper use of inversions is found in Chambers’ major-key performances that go through more chords and circle-of-fifths movement).

Pretty importantly, the use of that V7 chord in bar 2 of each chorus keeps things very grounded. Out of 32 choruses where bar 3 is played by the bass (leaving out 4 choruses where he stops for drum trades), Chambers plays a C root 25 times (otherwise an Eb) on beat 1 of the bar. So, the question I started out with, what does Chambers play on long stretches of minor chords, will have to wait till I finish my transcription of “So What”, the tune Chambers wrote specifically to feature long minor chords. “Mr. P.C.”, as originally played, instead uses basic cadences spelled out quite strictly, to maintain momentum bar-by-bar.

I once wrote in my practice diary about “this weird feeling that Paul Chambers is playing blues on his bass all the time, with intonation, chromatic circling, and repeated ideas.” Of course, this song is itself a blues number, but that feeling for me exudes from all of Chambers’ performances. I would describe it as a dank, slippery, urgent quality. It’s a kind of hidden blues aesthetic – the note choices are not stereotypically bluesy, but Chambers’ style feeds off aspects of blues – raw chromatic approach, chromatic fill-in patterns, and not always prioritising intonation (for example in this performance, many of the C tonic notes are flat – probably just the A string is out of tune, but if anything it fits with the feel of the performance, I think).

One thing, however, about Chambers’ playing definitely fits with an old-school or blues approach, and that is his very comfortable relationship with repetition.

A Comfortable Relationship with Repetition

The main discovery for me in this transcription was how much Chambers repeats lines. To illustrate it, I augmented my transcription with a cheery colour-coded guide to his most-used two-bar (and one single-bar) patterns. Here goes:

Mr. P.C. 1 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 2 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 3 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 4 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 5 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 6 Labelled Walkup
These are only his most common repeated figures – there are others I haven’t mapped out. We could speculate as to reasons for this high degree of repetition:

  • the tempo is too fast be constantly thinking of new lines that still function well
  • it’s a minor key which, for acoustic reasons, is harmonically weaker and therefore restricts the use of inversion and reharmonisation
  • it might have just been Chambers’ aesthetic to “play good stuff”, a phrase I heard on the bandstand from my friend and colleague, the drummer Dominic Mullan. As I understood it, to “play good stuff” is to limit one’s desire to be expressive or showy, in favour of things that you know will be effective, thus creating headspace for groove and spiritual energy.

A couple more thoughts on repetition… it seems clear that Chambers often repeats material in two consecutive choruses, i.e. reusing what was recently under his fingers. Choruses 2 and 3, or 9 and 10 demonstrate this. Also, I think when he moves away from repetition, it’s to do with interacting with the soloist. For example, the end of Coltrane’s solo (which I think is quite clearly emotionally/dynamically telegraphed) inspires Chambers to push himself – this being after all a tune that Coltrane named in dedication to Paul Chambers – so we get the beautiful little melody of bars 204-207 (3:10), with no reused material.

Mellow Melody

Another impression I’ve picked up from studying Chambers, though it would take deeper study to really demonstrate it, is that he is strongly attuned to the soloist most of the time, and this often affects his line, for example that F tone he plays with Coltrane that I mentioned earlier. (One cool, and indeed telepathic example is the spontaneous harmonised blues lick (along with the trumpet) at 2:43 in the album version of “So What”).

Nearly time to wrap up here… some quick methodological notes on the highlighted visualisation of Chambers’ repetitions… I chose 2 bars as a minimum unit because at this fairly fast tempo I think it’s the unit that Chambers is working in conceptually. Sometimes I’ve used the highlighting for repetitions that are not exact but instead diverge somewhere… I’ve made a shorter highlight (say 7 rather than 8 beats) to acknowledge this. In all cases where I used the highlighting, I believe that an overall prototype has been reused even if one note is different.

I had a last issue to discuss, but this article is already long and has also been sitting on my hard drive for too many months. But you might like to comment regarding this question: should we as players copy P.C.’s style today? (Thanks to my pal and great bass player Damian Evans for this thought.)

Not My Theory

Not My Theory

This Gang Starr classic, from 1998’s Moment Of Truth album, has a pun for a title.

If you heard the phrase before reading it, you might come away with one meaning: a reference to Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor, as laid out in the song’s chorus. “Squeeze the juice out of all the suckers with power/And pour some back out so as to water the flowers”. My blog post will look at the emergence of various further meanings from the title, to investigate if it demonstrates an African-American style of communication called Signifyin(g).

I think I first bumped into this term in Vijay Iyer’s writings. Signifyin(g) is about indirect, allusive ways of conveying meaning. Although it is “so shared in [African-American] culture as to long ago have become second nature to its users”, for non-acculturated people like me it’s hard to get a grasp on. After doing some reading about it to contribute to a paper on Ahmad Jamal I presented at the SMI/ICTM postgraduate conference this January, I noticed that “Robbin’ Hood Theory” might form a neat teachable example of Signifyin(g). All the quotes in this piece are from Ingrid Monson’s Saying Something (which is about Siginifyin(g) and similar processes in jazz music) and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifyin(g) Monkey.

“Black people frequently ‘enounce’ their sense of difference by repetition with a signal difference.” (Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, quoted by Gates)

The repetition Mitchell-Kernan mentions is the reuse of (often pop culture) material; in the Gang Starr song title, it’s the reference to the legend of Robin Hood. Pastiche, allusion, intertextuality are other terms used for this re-appropriative aspect of Signifyin(g).

cw-robin-hood-disney-1

As well as this repetition or appropriation, Signifyin(g) involves a “signal difference” which often marks out “two discursive universes” of black and white (Monson).

Robin Hood clearly belongs to a white “discursive universe” – English folk culture and mass culture, and the idea of the European middle ages. Is there a “signal difference” that marks a different, black discursive universe? Yes, of course: the use of black pronunciation and slang in “Robbin’ Hood”.

What does this do? Well, Gates also called Signifyin(g) “ironic reversal with signal difference.” Reversal means that the appropriated material – Robin Hood – is given an ironically reversed meaning. The reversal here is the switch from “Robin Hood – stealing from the rich” to “robbin’ hood[s] – stealing from the poor”, referring to economic exploitation and systematic deprivation in urban ghettos.

Now we have two disparate meanings, one marked as white by its cultural background and one as black by slang and pronunciation, and with opposed meanings. Now things get interesting…

Gates’ classic book on Signifyin(g) as a literary technique investigates the Signifyin(g) Monkey tales – a genre of black folk verse about a trickster monkey who gets into and out of trouble because of his Signifyin(g) talk. Gates discusses how Signifyin(g) involves “a measure of undecidability within the discourse, such that it must be interpreted or decoded by careful attention to its play of differences.”

The Gang Starr title is a neat example, I think, because we can see some of this play of differences. When lyricist Guru juxtaposes a bandit hero against the exploitation of ghettos, we can infer that he is making a case for “Robin Hood”-type action against rich exploiters. But because of the ambiguity and indirectness, we as listeners have to participate in constructing this meaning. (Very much comparable to how people participate in a groove by playing, vocalising, or dancing along.) We’re challenged from a number of angles by Guru’s title: it asks, do we feel similar to, sympathetic to or distanced from people who speak in slang and inhabit “hoods”? if sympathetic, how do we feel about them taking outlaw action? do we think Robin Hood and black ghetto-dwellers have a similar justification for breaking the law? if not, is it because of their different races, or because heroism is a fiction? do we enjoy the appropriation of a white culture hero to make this point?

Through challenge and an ambiguity that allows space for multiple meanings, “the hearer is thus constrained to attend to all potential meaning carrying symbolic systems in speech events–the total universe of discourse.” (Mitchell-Kernan)

That’s me done for today. You should definitely check out Ingrid Monson’s and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s books if you find this interesting. They have many more examples and quotes.

I hope to be back soon enough with another post. If it’s not some bass playing thing, maybe it will be something about the very use of the phrase “black music” (which obviously has a lot of currency on this blog), because the Jazz Studies Reading Group that I help run is reading two chapters about how music relates to identity and race. Due to the fact that, so far, I write all these blog posts based off readings and recordings rather than face-to-face interactions or interviews with black people, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to find problems with my cavalier use of the term. Anyway, we’ll also likely be reading Monson’s book in the coming months. If you’d like to come to our meetings in Dublin, email us at the address in the image.

Thanks for reading. Feedback is always much appreciated!

Poster February 2018 Tweaked

Blues To Reggae

Blues To Reggae

Today I’ll chat about Dawn Penn’s 1967 rocksteady hit “You Don’t Love Me No No No”. It was dusted off in the 90s for a career-reviving dancehall remake and more recently nabbed by Beyoncé and Rihanna. You’ve probably heard it.

I love bluesiness and that’s why I’m drawn to this track – from the opening Hendrix chords on. The bluesy sound is a clue to reggae’s hybrid emergence from networks of cultural transmission between Africa, the US, the UK and the Caribbean… and in particular its debt to US r’n’b.

Dawn Penn’s performance in this tune is supremely confident for a teenager, and her blues bends are poisonously gorgeous. The groove is pretty futuristic! Pumping bass and sparse rimclick backbeat, at around 73bpm. The spaciousness and emphasis on rhythm section is harking towards dub reggae (which hadn’t quite been invented yet).

I love the detail of Jackie Mittoo’s piano marking out bars with increasingly higher-register inversions of the tonic minor, e.g. 0:44-0:56. They fix our attention on the second half of the bar where the vocals re-enter. Speaking of which, did you notice the odd amount of bars being marked? It even trips up the bassist at 0:53. What’s up with this song structure?

Penn, in interviews, seems to dispute the songwriting credit she was forced to give to Willie Cobb and Bo Diddley due to similarities with their songs “You Don’t Love Me” (1961) and “She’s Fine, She’s Mine” (1955).

“The Bo Diddley scenario is that they had an issue with Cher with a song named [“She’s Fine, She’s Mine”]. That has nothing to do with “You Don’t Love Me, No, No, No”, you understand? …. That’s what I’m telling you, the music was new, there was no music like that before that music.” – Dawn Penn, interviewed for UnitedReggae.com

“This was the first I’d heard these records, but the royalties were split three ways and some of my payments are still held up today.” – Dawn Penn, interviewed for The Guardian

I suspect the ways blues, reggae, jazz and hip hop build new creations from endlessly reused fragments and themes, are not fairly accomadated by copyright law. It’s also entirely credible that people ripped off Penn, a female artist with little legal or management assistance. And, as I think Ethan Iverson pointed out recently, obscurity about the origin of ideas was a necessary defensive reaction against the music business for black musicians in the US, at least.

All that said, there’s clearly a musical link between Penn’s song, Diddley’s, Cobb’s and also Sonny and Cher’s 1965 rock cover. The intermediate versions between Diddley and Penn’s each added something new: Willie Cobbs came up with the use of the IV7 at the top of the form (it’s obscured in my chart, but the first 4 bars are D7), and also the juxtaposition of Diddley’s wordless wails and lyrics (which Diddley does in separate verses) to create the hook, “Aw aw aw you don’t love me”. Sonny and Cher streamlined the hook’s melody (probably to make their two-part vocal work), providing the crucial b5 to 4 slide.

Here is the bar structure of the first verse of each song/version:
Bo Diddley: (3 + 5), (4 + 5), (4 + 5)
Willie Cobbs: (4 + 5), (4 + 5), (4 + 5)
Sonny and Cher: (4 + 5), (4 + 5), (4 + 5) (I think this is the version Dawn Penn worked off… there were other similar ones in 1965 but by much more obscure bands)
Dawn Penn: (3 + 3), (3 + 4), (4 + 4)

By the way, verse 2 of Bo Diddley’s track also mixes (3 + 5) and (4 + 5), but in different order, so he wasn’t consistent. I think the (3 + 5) sounds good while his (4 + 5) sounds like an awkward hesitation, particularly with lyrics.

Why the odd numbers of bars? Bo Diddley’s blues-based song runs a 2-bar guitar riff twice (which would be expected) and then lets it resolve (not expected) before he goes to the next chord, requiring an extra bar for the resolution. 2 + 2 + 1 = a 5-bar section between all the vocal phrases. Most later versions kept this 5-bar section.

These riffs are very downhome and almost pre-harmonic – they work mostly as rhythmic shapes cycling around to the tonic note. Different notes from their basic pentatonic mode could be easily substituted without losing the driving effect, as indeed is heard in the harmonica in Diddley’s track (which plays E instead of the guitar’s G). Other classic examples of this kind of guitar riff would be “Smokestack Lightning” and “Wang Dang Doodle”.

What I think is the secret behind Penn’s song is that this guitar riff has disappeared, but is still present as an unusual negative shape, i.e. the odd 3 bars of Am before the second “No no no”. Yes, that’s now 3 rather than 5 bars, but it still gives the sensation of letting the groove go round twice and resolve before coming in with the pick-up. (The radically lower rocksteady tempo means a single bar of groove functions as a unit comparable to the 2-bar guitar riff in the other tracks). The switch to 4 bars next time increases the pleasant frustration of being stuck waiting for the pick-up, and also aligns with the 4-bar sections of the upcoming blues-type release section (bars 14-29).

Oh, I almost forgot, there’s another crucial contribution by Jackie Mittoo and that’s the unusual juxtaposition of a dominant IV chord with a minor I chord, in a blues context. I don’t know any other track that does this, but it undeniably works. The minor I chord is idiomatically appropriate for a dark reggae vibe, but the IV7 works best with the blues slide of the hook. (A contemporaneous reggae cover uses IVm if you want to compare.)

“You Don’t Love Me No No No” distills the earlier structures into a mysterious but effective form, both innovative and soaked in tradition. Penn’s lyrical edits – i.e. the substitution of “no no no” for “aw aw aw”, which she says was inspired by church music’s “yes yes yes” refrains – and her combination of the raw bluesy timbrality of the earlier r’n’b vocals with the streamlined melody of Sonny and Cher’s pop version, make for a pop classic. While also being an astounding example of what how “African-American forms were borrowed and set to work in new locations and deliberately reconstructed in novel patterns that did not respect their originators’ proprietary claims” (Paul Gilroy).

I hope to follow up ASAP with a post on imitating the transformation of ideas between versions of this song, as a composing exercise. But I won’t say anything more now to avoid what happened last time, where I wrote two articles on composing and never posted any actual work.

Hope you enjoyed the post!

Make Music For Situations

Make Music For Situations

Today’s post reflects my growing interest in popular music since reading this book. It’s also vague and idealistic, you’ve been warned. I mention economic issues but I won’t claim to have solutions.

Traditionally, musicians playing originals would make money selling records and touring. Nowadays, musicians invest in their recordings and marketing hoopla, and earn it back performing. Very many are stretched to their limit – at a conference recently I heard a PR/tour assistance professional in the trad field describe how bands are now obsessing over sleep, diet and careful living in order to keep their bodies in shape to tour constantly. Yet jazz and pop degree courses implicitly push original music, self-promoted and toured, as the default music career.

My issue is that recordings these days go into a black hole called the Facebook feed. To grow an audience, bands have to become content makers, emphasising regularity and predictability. This is not conducive to quality performances, originality, emotion or depth. It is conducive to box-ticking and nice visuals.

(Feel free to contest my narrative in the comments!) For a while, though, I’ve been thinking about a change of perspective that might illuminate ways forward.

I realised that what I love as much as “music itself” is situations where a groove and call-and-response are happening. (This article details that insight.) My change of perspective is to view ourselves as instigators and participants in these situations – even when at a remove, i.e. via recording, or sampling.

What’s interesting about this is it instantly opens up a wide purview of possible situations to target – ones that you wouldn’t think of when in the mode of “how do I promote my latest album?”

Some examples of grooving situations….

What if I wanted my music to be DJed for dancers? I’d have to investigate what nights and people are active right now, and what they’re spinning. Maybe my music would be remixed so I’d have to investigate the people who can do that. It would have to be released on vinyl of course. I could ask my vinyl DJ mates if they ever play Irish tracks in their sets.

What if I wanted people to rap over my music? Well, if it was to be sampled I’d have to think about the production quality, instrumentation and vibe of the tracks producers have already sampled. And perhaps how ephemerality, mistakes and looseness can be defining qualities of a great sample. I’d probably want to get into some of the sounds coming out right now too. If it was live, I’d have to think about working with very repetitive grooves, maybe using cues. And of course I’d need to call up my beatmaker friends and check hip hop nights and collectives to find the talent.

What if I wanted people to perform my songs at their gigs? A whole other set of challenges – catchiness, emotional power, simplicity, technical interest. Maybe I could get someone to write lyrics for me.

What if I wanted my music playing at a sweet house party? Time to explore what (say) stoners like… shivery timbres, echoes, rugged muffled grooves, vibey vocals, maybe. And just as important, to find what Youtube playlists they put on these days.

More random thoughts… what if I wanted to be blasted at loud volumes from cars? What if I wanted to be played at computer gaming sessions? What if I wanted dance teachers/classes to buy my records?

There’s one situation which is definitely grooving but which doesn’t illustrate my point: it’s musicians playing each other hip new music on car journeys or while hanging out. I love those listening sessions but, unlike my other examples, hip jazzy recorded music is the tiny market that many of us have been aiming for all along.

I used the word market there. Is my so-called “realisation” just about appealing to a market, i.e. selling out? Well, all my examples point out something that may be more important than the bare definition of market as “those who’ll buy x”. It’s community, of course. All these cases involve getting to know what’s going on and who’s who in a scene.

A related objection: aren’t these commercialised scenes of little interest to an art musician? Well, for me, deep groove and the identity-melding of call-and-response are as important as high-art ambition. (My heaven is the unification of both… I was listening to this old pop hit yesterday.) Plus, Paul Gilroy suggests that when black music culture spreads along capitalist lines of distribution, it may transcend and transform that very system. For one thing it educates and elevates its listeners to be more than atomised consumers. If I could get paid to do that kind of work, I’d be happy. (If I thought it was done well.)

This perspective isn’t incompatible with being a pure jazzer either. On-the-ball musicians in Dublin already focus on situations and community by playing regular gigs in nice venues targeted at a core of mainstream jazz fans, using Facebook as a tool not as the main goal.

My main point is that we should think of the situations where we want our music to be listened to, and try make them happen in the real world. Rather than merely force our work into the desolation of tech-corp-controlled social media. The disinterest some musicians might feel in, say, studio production or distribution channels could be alleviated by recognising a goal that these activities have in common with “pure playing” – to make people feel good together from the vibe of our music.

What do you think? Is it all pie-in-the-sky? I’ll be writing a follow-up piece real soon to talk about how the jazz jam session, reggae dance hall and hip hop cipher – all classic examples of grooving situations – specifically used competitiveness and common repertoire to nurture communities and develop styles.

See you then!

I Was A Teenaged Game Designer

I Was A Teenaged Game Designer

[Content: offensive lyrics]

The historical meaning of a subculture is continually recreated as time goes on. Unfortunately, I believe that the subversiveness and artistic value of some of my favourite game and music scenes are now being claimed by sexist and reactionary forces (associated with what we vaguely call the “alt-right”).

These game scenes now harbour tons of anti-politically-correct provocation and memes. This feed of forum posts repurposed for their humour illustrates the tone. One of the DOOM scene’s most prominent modders is under a cloud for racist jokes.

Here’s a musical example reflecting a narrow-minded take on the essence of 90s hardcore hip hop. Some cool lines in verse 3, but preceded by “You want some faggot shit dancing like a bitch”. Warm nostalgia is mixed with ideas of manhood as violent, and femininity as weak, perhaps corrupt, “America rubs its pussy to dead children”.

(By the way, I want to say that hatred and shocking violence in rap lyrics is not at all a clear-cut issue, as it comes from a long tradition of creative nihilism that has had its moments of brilliance. These lyrics in the video, though, are long on the nihilism and short on the creativity.)

The expressiveness and hard work, the fascination, the rebelliousness, the fellowship, etc. found in underground scenes, should be used for good. I think it’s on us to disentangle the good from the misguided and ignorant in our own relationships with media and cultures we love.

Today I want to see who I was when I first soaked up 90s underground culture in the form of video games. I’ll do this by analysing my creative reaction at the time – making my own games. Of course, I already know that my younger self is going to seem privileged and sheltered. More interesting will be seeing how I incorporated my interest in black music in these designs, because that gives me perspective on my present-day obsession with it. And I’ll think a bit about the worldview behind these game styles.

Into the time machine!!

Doped Quake (2001, Quake mod, Kevin Higgins & Paul Cuffe):

This crude joke mod has some interesting features as well as some super-problematic depictions. Basically, myself and a friend, aged 13-14, broke the the game’s combat in order to replace three monsters with humorously “reskinned” versions. The joke is “drug-taking” (which neither of us had any experience of at the time). The edited monsters represent a stoned ‘Nam vet, a coke-sniffing tracksuited “knacker”, and an alcoholic derelict. The “knacker” embodies my own class hatred of the time – “knacker”, for non-Irish readers, being an offensive term for both members of the Traveller minority group in Ireland, and working-class people. The other two depictions are scarcely better, although the inclusion of the ‘Nam vet shows how detached all of this was from my (Irish suburban) reality.

So, the joke is naive and the representations are horrific. But I kind of like how this was made. It’s a very cheeky appropriation of game technology which was only five years gone from the cutting edge. It throws away the ostensible whole point of the game – defeating monsters – for a joke. The new graphics are made in the most basic way, reminiscent of photoshopping a meme. (The “stoner”‘s bare chest, which represents the only significant effort in the whole enterprise, is a graphic I’d made previously to represent myself in multiplayer gaming sessions). The animations of the three figures are completely recycled from animations in the original game. The massive joint was originally a gun, the puff of smoke was a graphic I originally made to represent a bullet impact.

There’s no representation of black culture in this game but it does show a bourgeois teenager’s naive interest in subculture and subversion which has stayed with me – my MA paper in Amsterdam two years ago was called “Blues Is Subversive”.

THEGAM4.BAS (2004, text adventure, Kevin Higgins):

TheGame.png

The programmers among you can read the terrible, mostly cribbed, code of this game here. It plays out in text with no graphics, accepting commands in the form of “take plank” or “talk to man”. The writing style is copied from Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, with a hint maybe of George Orwell and Roald Dahl. The first interesting thing is the characters:

  • The love interest is a young woman who I imagined as mixed-race, although she’s not described as such.
  • There’s a touch of homophobia and classism in places e.g. this description of being beaten by builders: “you are mercilessly trounced over a period of two hours by grunting men in grubby vests with pipe-wrenches.”
  • There’s a kindly, stoned junkie who speaks in an African-American accent despite not being described as black (he’s maybe a bit of a Magical Negro, beneficent and otherworldly due to his drug use). Again, my kid’s fascination with drugs is evident.
  • Authority figures (state security official, factory owner) are evil. They can be violently killed in one-on-one fights.

I was comfortable with premeditated killings (and in the game), which are described succinctly but graphically. Interestingly, the female character is not present in any violent scenes. I had enough awareness of feminism at the time that I at least avoided a damsel-in-distress story.

There’s a sequence where a busker starts to play funk “manically”, with the music described in technical terms like “dorian mode” which I was only just learning in my bass lessons. A nearby policeman reacts to the music by putting on a black accent, upon which he is rebuked by his colleague. Black music was obviously part of my identity but still seemed offbeat and quirky, not fully compatible with white middle-class dignity.

The world of the game is a grubby dystopia with the state oppressing freedom fighter groups. I think it resonates with Liz Ryerson’s recent description of the world of 90s shooter Duke Nukem: “Because the world is broken, there’s nothing particularly comforting about occupying any of it for very long, or sad about blowing up any of it.” She also says that Duke’s enemies are “just thinly veiled stand-ins for human men. Men with power and authority.” Such men are clearly the villains of my story.

However, my fiction is not about disorienting violence and hyper-masculinity. For most of the game the player can walk in front of, and talk to, his enemies, because he doesn’t draw attention to himself. This derives from Orwell’s 1984 and also from Terry Pratchett’s Johnny series about a 12-year-old in a down-at-heel English commuter town. That is to say, it’s a British thing – and also how I navigated most interactions back then. The grubbiness of my game’s world is from Brit culture also.

Maul Ball (2004, platformer, Kevin Higgins & Stephen Roantree):

Download page

24-42_thumb

When I noticed that I didn’t have this game on my hard drive anymore, I hopped onto Google because it had ended up on freeware game sites when we released it. I was saddened to note only one search result now came up for it and that link didn’t work. Luckily, the programmer of the game, a mate of mine, uploaded it to gamedev.net, and there it still was. Phew! Cultural preservation in the digital age is no joke.

My coder friend made a very slick little game here, I just contributed to the design and made the graphics and music. What’s interesting is the suddenly up-front depiction of black culture. The hero is a black disco fan with an afro, even though this has nothing to do with the gameplay. The soundtrack is ersatz funk I made in Fruity Loops.

However, this (enthusiastic if not knowledgeable) representation of black culture is used problematically. At the time I was leaning more towards the doctrines of the “indie game” scene which, due to a laudable focus on making money, celebrates entertainment value, interesting game mechanics (I think our ball bouncing through a maze was at least a moderately interesting mechanic!) and polish. Compared to my previous subversive efforts, here I’ve washed my face and taken steps towards marketability. Check the description I wrote to entice people to play the game:

“You are disco-loving Leroy! Put on your white flares, comb your afro till it’s bigger than you and smash some zombies!”

Good marketing copy. However, it’s really appropriative, particularly the detail about the afro. Did I at the time (or do I even now) know anything about combing afros? No. Nor did I try ask anyone about it, nor did it occur to me that a black person might play the game!

As I mentioned previously, I think appropriation that attempts to, with little real engagement or study, swipe signs of identity like hairstyles, is perhaps the most egregious.

Still a pretty good game for our first attempt. I should have stuck with it and made some cash. This was a few years before indie games became massive.

Jailbreak (2005, sneak ’em up, Kevin Higgins & Stephen Roantree)

Download page

Jailbreak

This game is a good deal more sophisticated than the previous, mostly because my collaborator had more input and worked on some pretty sophisticated technology like the prison guards’ “view cones” and pathfinding, plus a scripting system to make speech bubbles pop up. The game is also better packaged with a proper installer, and it earned decent reviews for a freebie. Some of my graphics and writing are good too. I like the menu background you can glimpse below because it subverts the action-hero masculinity I was talking about before. The hero is not the big man with the gun but the thoughtful sneaker. (This was influenced by the classic games Commandos, Deus Ex and Thief 2.)

Again, it took a while to find this game online. Thank god for freegame.cz who allowed me to “stáhnout hru” without a hitch. I’m actually gonna back up this and “Maul Ball” right now.

freegame.png
Feckin’ legends

My representation of black music culture comes up a notch in this one. The soundtrack still isn’t great (I remember a schoolmate of mine telling me he had to turn it off to play the game) but it adds to the atmosphere and uses flickers of blues piano put through a dubbish delay.

However, the cool thing is that the loading screens for each level feature a quote from a song about escaping jail. (An idea stolen from Call of Duty 2.) All of the songs are in black genres, although, reflective of my musical knowledge at the time, 7/8 of the artists are white! Counteracting that, and acting as perhaps evidence for the transformative power of black music’s utopian politics, the quotes are (of course) to do with escaping to freedom. The final quote, which I chose for its emotional depth, tackles one of black music’s most powerful and pain-defying themes, clearly related to what Paul Gilroy calls “the slave sublime”:

“Lord I’ve been gone such a long time, I’ll be coming back home someday.”

So, I think that’s pretty cool.

It’s just a pity about the “pick up the soap” throwaway gag in the shower level, but it was 2005 and I was still in my all-boys secondary school (high school).

That was about the peak of my game-making career, after that I got more into music. Hope you enjoyed the trip and it made you think over your own juvenilia.

Chuck Berry, Emancipation & Problematic Art

Chuck Berry, Emancipation & Problematic Art

It’s hard to pin down what I love in Berry’s recordings. They are bluesy, for sure, but in combination with an unsubtle pop sentimentality which generally wouldn’t be my thing. They also undeniably represent a commercialisation of black aesthetics. (Whitewashing, if you like.) But there’s more to it than that.

Today I’ll quickly discuss my three favourite aspects: powerful performances in the bluesman tradition; an incredible gift for songwriting; and his recasting of black church music’s utopian politics as an emancipatory youth culture.

Performance

Check out his entrance in this 1965 TV performance:

Berry casts doubt over even his bare engagement with the situation – exactly the attitude discussed by Questlove in that article on Black Cool I’m always linking. Now check the intro to this song:

Berry’s pompous and mannered crowd talk, “And in fact, a relished memory in my mind was”, his ambiguous attitude (between mockery and reverence) towards Beethoven and indeed to his audience, his switches between impassivity and completely over-the-top moves, all tie in to complex traditions of enactment of black identity for white audiences. As in the Louis Jordan video I discussed, the star opens a space for multiple simultaneous meanings, quite possibly up to and including bitter contempt. Both performers reference racially-stereotyped symbols (Beethoven and chicken), present themselves mock-stupidly (“I love chicken”, “I ask him to forgive us”), and have a manner that is apparently friendly and explanatory yet mystifying.

Berry lengthens “Roll Over Beethoven” with extra solos and choruses. The aesthetic of “doing it”, manifesting energy and rocking the crowd, is prioritised above content or thematic development. I love the risk-taking – he even forgets the proper end line “I wanna hear it again today” in the first verse. That attitude is rare now in pop and rock.

Berry restrains his wildest dancing and guitar work until the end of this, the third song in the set. That’s good showmanship, and also I think demonstrates one of Questlove’s elements of Black Cool: unleashing hidden power – which Berry embodies generally with his switches between grotesquerie and stillness, i.e. 2:16-2:36, and dance moves that take over some limbs while others remain still.

Songwriting

Moving on. Chuck Berry’s incredible lyrics can’t be appreciated without recognising their reliance on myths. Berry connected (among other things):

  • the American dream of hard work, success and consumption,
  • conventional boy-meets-girl romance (with mild objectification of female bodies “tight dresses and lipstick”, “lookin like the cover of a twenty-dollar magazine”)
  • black music’s utopian politics (a phrase from Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic)

… into a rock’n’roll ideology of emancipated youth expressing itself and looking for romance in the countercultural forms of listening to records, going to dances and concerts, and driving fast cars.

Here’s a verse from the late-career hit “You Never Can Tell” (it comes in at 0:52), about a couple who marry real young but find happiness against the odds:

They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell”

The theme of the first two lines is individualist freedom to shape a countercultural lifestyle via consumption (“700 records”) of new technology and rhythmic music. The third and fourth lines then frame this as conventionally romantic and part of a cycle of generations.

Notice the deft loading of emotion into evocative words: “hi-fi phono” is slightly mystical jargon conveying the thrill of powerful new technology, and is also a satisfying sound that Berry stylises with a dive on “phono” resembling an exclamation of appreciation like “damn” or a whistle.

“Let it blast” hints at unleashing hidden power, transforming everyday situations, while the pitch dive on “blast” has a timbral effect again imitating appreciation (the onomatopeic slang word “phwoarr” conveys something similar) very much like “reel and rock” here. “Little records” is an affectionate phrase – the affection of obsessive “rock, rhythm and jazz” fans. Groove music’s power is conveyed by those alliterative word sounds and a descending blues melisma on “jazz”.

The third line gets me every time I hear it. It makes great use of cliches, with strong overall feeling of relaxation and cooling. “But” evokes a quietening-down after “they let it blast”. The parallelism of “sun down” and “tempo fell” invite the listener to imagine what else might be lowering or calming – the mood of the party, perhaps? This implication of a more intimate mood, and the images of “night” and “slow tempo”, suggest to me “slow dance”. “Sundown” has the implication of twilit mystery and fading warmth, and it brings us into a specific moment. “Rapid tempo of the music fell”, by starting the line with “rapid”, takes us through the cooling-down, which is also sketched by the unwinding rhythm. These ideas unite for me in an impression of cool-of-the-night sensuality and slightly illicit romance – feeling the “rapid tempo” of a dance partner’s heartbeat, perhaps.

The fourth line, zooms out of the storytelling to contrast this with the old folks’ square perspective. Berry uses this effect in many of his hits, contrasting teenage rebellion with convention: the “teacher” of “School Days“, the “back in class again” and the off-stage parents of “Sweet Sixteen“, the “jubilee” that gets all rocked up in “Rock and Roll Music“. I suspect this is derived from a technique of juxtaposing hip, black-coded viewpoints with square ones that crops up all over black music. The point is, Berry basically remoulds the opposition from “white-black” into “authority-youth”, handing over black hipness to American teenagers.

And the way in for white youth is mass-market consumption. The protagonists of “You Never Can Tell” create a hip lifestyle through their glamourised acquisitions: a nice record player and a huge record collection. This way they access the identity-forming power of black music. In the subsequent verse it’s a car that gets romanticised, a “souped-up jitney, cherry red ’53” – both the car and the record player are liberating, empowering technologies that allow free performance of one’s identity. The car motif taps into an American romance of the road trip which predates World War II and lead to publications like the Automobile Blue Book and the Negro Motorist Green Book.

So, we have consumerism, mass-market technology, black rhythmic music, the open road, boy-meets-girl and the American Dream. Berry’s ability to fluently intermingle these myths, have them resonate, and release their power in expressively-sung key phrases and words, is uncanny.

Utopianism

I believe there’s one factor that keeps these highly conventional myths and emotions from being too sentimental. It comes straight from black music. It is, I would say, a spiritual orientation towards joyful freedom, or as Paul Gilroy puts it, the politics of utopianism.

Gilroy distinguishes two strands of utopianism: the politics of fulfilment, which demands that society lives up to its own promises of equality and justice (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, spirituals e.g. “Let My People Go”, roots reggae, etc.); and the politics of transfiguration, which, within the music itself and its immediate circumstances of production and distribution, manifests new and fairer modes of friendship, happiness and solidarity between black people, and between blacks and whites – generally on a non-verbal level and in signs whose brokenness (dirty timbres, fragmentary phrasing) maintains a memory of slavery’s unsayable terror. That is, the great-feeling moments in black music invoke a utopia where all of society could feel and interact in such joyful ways.

Gilroy goes on about how these attitudes form an effective critique of capitalism and Western scientific racism, and you should read his incredible book if you’re interested. But let’s look at utopian politics in Chuck Berry’s song “Promised Land”

It’s about the centuries-old American trope of going West, which featured in previous r’n’b songs such as Route 66. Here’s the 8th verse of “Promised Land”:

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone

The song title and the first line of this verse are taken from famous spirituals. To simplify (and this is a topic I know little about), both of the original spirituals are about finding redemption in a welcoming heaven that was both the far-off opposite of the socially-unjust, uncaring and prideful world of today; and an ecstasy momentarily attainable in the grooving call-and-response and group connectedness of church music and preaching. I find those emotions incredibly appealing even as a foreign white atheist whose origins are more imperialist than oppressed (seeing as some of my ancestors worked in Dublin Castle for the British administration, and another was a mining engineer in colonies and was briefly in the French Navy).

Berry neatly channels the feeling of an approaching, inevitable freedom into the national myths of going West and making it big. So the song is not just about travelling and getting rich. It’s about finding something you and yours have a birthright to, an emancipation from misery.

The rest of the verse once again shows Berry’s skill: the affectionate addressing of the aeroplane “Cut your engines, cool your wings” conveys strong affection for the empowering new technology. Like the “sun down” line from earlier, it uses the sensation of heat. (I guess all these references to cooling off would appeal to listeners in a heaving dance!) “Let me make it to a telephone” creates a character, a drive, and a scene in seven words.

Later verses also once again use contrasting worldviews, i.e. that of the “poor boy” narrator (reminiscent of Johnny B. Goode) and the citified plane pilot, rich friends and the phone operator.

So, Berry tied together expressive singing, great phrasing, emotion-laden words and images, characterisation, national myths and black spirituality. And, I want to say, all this stuff happens concurrently, within individual syllables and yet permeating not only whole songs but his whole output. Add that to the solos, backbeats and the secret sauce of Johnnie Johnson‘s sophisticatedly rippling and tumbling blues piano lines…. No wonder this music defined America as the land of the free, shaping global youth culture for decades.

Problematic Art

I didn’t have time to research Chuck Berry’s political views on race and how it affected him and his music. So I’ll leave that massive topic. It comes up somewhat though in the last thing I want to talk about: Berry’s criminal record that shows him to have been a misogynist creep.

He went to jail in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old across state lines and having sex with her. The girl was an Apache Native American who had worked as a prostitute and who testified against Berry. Berry claimed the judge had made racist comments to turn the jury against him, and that he only wanted to give the girl a job at his racially integrated nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. (The conviction was under the Mann Act which was used against both real predators and social dissenters like polygamists and black boxer Jack Johnson.) Both his appeals failed.

Berry also had to pay out to a woman who claimed he punched her, in 1988, and to women whom he secretly videotaped going to the toilet in a restaurant he owned, in 1990. That’s pretty low!

And I heard a story recently about him inviting an underage girl he had spotted in the crowd to come backstage at one of his Irish gigs.

There’s a lot we could look at here, especially about the whole “can the artist be separated from the music” angle. But I’m bringing it up because I found it remarkable, when Berry died a few weeks ago, how hurt I was by people denigrating him on Facebook.

My point is that we identify with art and build some of our self-image on it. That feeling of hurt illuminated for me how sensible people can defend unpleasant causes if their self-image is attacked. In particular, I’m thinking about the gamergate online movement which fed into the rise of the alt-right. It came out of passionate fans feeling hurt when outsiders took the high moral ground to disparage their favourite video games as misogynist and sexist.

If I pick up that someone is saying “I don’t know much about Chuck Berry’s music but he was evil”, I don’t think that would bother me. But if I pick up “You are wrong to like Chuck Berry’s music”, even if that wasn’t the intended message, I get angry and upset.

So what do I think now about the position of those people who leapt to their keyboards after Berry died to dismiss him? Well, firstly that they probably don’t fully get what he gifted to mass culture –  all the stuff I mentioned above, as well as the raw craft and the use of transcendent myths. (His songs were justifiedly ubiquituous for decades, required learning for rock, pop and r’n’b players, especially in England.)

Secondly, that he got so far having started as a black r’n’b musician.

Finally, that I agree Chuck Berry was predatory and venal and that we should keep that in mind as we enjoy his brilliance. That way, we can evaluate his achievements, rather than just throw them away. For example, how much of Berry’s success was due to his celebration of, perhaps surrender to, consumer capitalism as an American value? Does he represent a continuation of a black tradition of subverting capitalist/white commercialised music distribution from within? What about his hewing to standard, sexist depictions of women? (Which gets kind of sinister in “Carol” when he mentions the “little cutie” who takes your hat… hatcheck girl was the job he gave his victim in the trafficking case.) Was his stage demeanour reflective of an inner anger? Etc., etc. Keep at this and you can get pretty deep…. Doesn’t the virulent misogyny of a number of my very favourite artists (say Chuck Berry, Skip James, Miles Davis) demonstrate a problematic link between patriarchy and my favourite genres? What drew me as a teenager towards such hyper-masculinised styles as country blues and funk?

All questions for another day as I’ve been writing this thing for weeks now. Please leave comments, I love that.