August 14, 2008

monkey Good morning, class; please take your seats. As your class schedule undoubtedly shows – the fact you’re here would seem to bear that out – you have elected to attend my Music 101 class this year. In case we haven’t met before, I’m Dr. Rhesus L. F. McGillicuddy, Adjunct Professor of Music at this hallowed institution.

The intent of this class is to introduce you to the joys of music and how to listen to music, so no monkeying around and pay attention! Otherwise, I’ll fail your a**es and refer you to Dr. Eli Franken’s 13-week lecture series on “The Sociological Significance of Type-Token Distinction in Advanced Astro-Metaphysics”. ‘Nuff said?

OK, let’s get started and lend me your ears. Today we’re going to discuss creative examples of song arrangements in popular music – that is, taking a fairly simple pop tune and, after starting out simply, gradually build it into a big finish, or grand finale: a grand fin, if you will. Umm…yes, Mr. Hynes?

Hynes: You mean like the way Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston used to regurgitate their hits?

NO, NO, NO! That’s exactly the wrong way of doing it! For those of you who may not know what student Hynes is talking about, there are certain entertainers out there, Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston being just two examples, who have made their livelihood off of cheesy arrangements that start somberly or wistfully with only a piano, then gradually build to a grand finale – Manilow’s “I Write The Songs” or Houston’s “The Greatest Love Of All”, for example – but these “big finishes” are artificially engineered without a whole lot of creativity involved. Listen fellas, anyone can do a grand finale simply by taking the song up a key, then slowing the tempo down in order to drown it in orchestra and echo for optimum effect. Hell, apes can do that in their sleep.

No, student Hynes, the most creative arrangements are those that take the most simple song and gradually layer instruments and voices upon that a simple foundation almost imperceptably until when the big finish hits, you wonder where the heck all that sound came from. And if you’re really, really creative, you top things off with some little flourish at the end to create a nice lingering effect.

Seeing that this is our first class, we’re going to take a very simple example – one that almost anyone should be able to learn from: Olivia Newton-John’s “Banks Of The Ohio”, an early hit for her from 1972. When it comes to simple songs, you can’t get much simpler – three verses, a chorus repeated three times; the same basic tune repeated six times. The only thing that distinguishes the chorus from the verses is the fact that its lyrics are repeated. “Banks Of The Ohio” is a traditional American folk song in the so-called tragic category; allow me to quote from its Internet Wikipedia entry:

“Banks of the Ohio'” is a nineteenth-century murder ballad, in which Willie invites his young lover for a walk during which she rejects his marriage proposal. Once they are alone on the river bank, he murders her.

The song has been recorded countless times, including by Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys (whose version, performed in 1936, appears in the soundtrack of the 1973 film Paper Moon), the Monroe Brothers, Joan Baez, Olivia Newton-John (with Mike Sammes, in 1971, her second commercial single in the United States), and Doc Watson, with slightly different lyrics when sung by a female.

This is your typical three-chord folk tune in G, C, and D7. But as you listen to the song unfold, I want you to listen for the gradual layering of instruments and voices that turns this simple folk tune into a mini-production all its own. Are you ready, class? Mr. Kowalski, pay attention!!!

Kowalski: Er, did you say something, Doc?

Perhaps class, our Mr. Kowalski needs something to wake him up. I have just the remedy. Let us hear “Banks of The Ohio” by watching a video of a very young (and very attractive) Olivia Newton-John – dressed in rather fashionable early-’70s clothes, I might add – lip-syncing to the studio version of the song. Mr. Kowalsi, turn up the volume please…

…Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it? Were you paying close attention to the music and the arrangement? I hope so. Let’s discuss.

The first verse begins quite simply: strummed acoustic guitar, plucked acoustic stand-up bass, and drums accompanying Olivia’s vocal:

[G] I asked my love to take a [D7] walk,
To take a walk, just a little [G] walk
Down beside where the waters [C] flow
Down by the [G] banks, of the [D7] Ohi [G] o.

Next we have the chorus. As I mentioned, the tune remains the same, it’s just the lyrics that are different:

Then only say that you’ll be mine
In no other arms entwine.
Down beside, where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

You will notice that for the chorus, Olivia is joined by some male harmony vocals. There’s a tenor harmony in the background, but it’s the deep bass vocal that is particularly noticeable (especially when repeating the words “where the waters flow”, and “the Ohio”). This was a technique used on two other early hits of hers, BTW – “Let Me Be There”, and “If You Love Me Let Me Know”.

Until this point, the simple instrumentation in the song has remained unchanged. Notice, however, that this changes with the second verse:

I held a knife against his breast
As into my arms he pressed,
He cried, “My love, don’t you murder me
I’m unprepared for eternity!”

Note the introduction of electric bass and Farfisa organ (a compact organ popular in the late ’60s/early ’70s) playing a low scratchy note beginning with the word “knife”. Did you notice how big and booming the bass is, and how distinct it is compared to the plucked acoustic bass heard prior to that? Listen to how the organ plays a kind of grumbling murmur whose tone changes to the guitar chords being played. This may seem quite subtle, but remember, we’re talking about simple arrangements that build gradually.

The second chorus is a repeat of the first. But notice how the organ suddenly takes on a more prominent role. Notice also that the tenor harmony vocal, barely discernable in the first chorus, has also now been brought forward. This broadens the song’s foundation, but still there remains a restrained hand at work, which serves two main purposes: 1) to hold back the tension to be released in the final verse and chorus, and 2) provide room for the additional instruments and voices that will serve as the means by which that tension is released.

At the start of the third verse, bass and drums kick the song into gear:

I wandered home between twelve and one
I cried, “My God! What have I done?
I’ve killed the only man I loved
He would not take me for his bride.”

Hear the instruments introduced? A tinkling keyboard – probably a piano and/or harpsichord – syncopates to the rhythm. Percussion, in the form of a tambourine or perhaps sleighbells, accentuates the back beat. The organ’s volume is pushed up a bit to give it a little more forceful sound. Olivia’s sweet voice also starts emoting a little bit – she’s not all over the chart like a Whitney Houston would do, but enough so that the song begins to rock a little.

Thus the stage is set for the grand finale, which takes the form of a “celestial chorus” of Olivia voices behind the final chorus:

Then only say that you’ll be mine
And in no other arms entwine.
Down beside, where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

This grand finale begins after the word “say” with an explosion of wordless harmonies piled one on top of another to create a cascading effect. There’s no additional instrumentation here – the arranger has chosen Olivia’s voice, or rather, voices, to serve as the grand finale.

But he’s not done yet: remember how I said a real creative arranger will always find a way to top a grand finale off? If you listen carefully to the last line of the final chorus, you’ll hear yet another Olivia voice – this one slightly distinct from the others and treated with echo to give it a shimmering effect. This one sings a simple “bah ba-ba ba-ba bah” after the words “of the Ohio” just before the last line is repeated, then heard again to close the song out in style.

So there you go – a simple but effective example of how even the simplest tune, with a little ingenuity and creativity, can be turned into a minor gem. And for Olivia, an early hit.

That’s it for today. Have a nice day, gentlemen. See you next time.

Awwww… who took my banana? KOWALSKI!!!!

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:38 | Comments (3)
3 Comments »
  1. I wonder if Ms. Newton-John is aware her music is being taught at esteemed academic institutions?

    This blog gets stranger every day.

    Comment by Honkytonk Ed — August 14, 2008 @ 3:05 pm


  2. A very pretty girl in that video.

    Comment by Terry — August 14, 2008 @ 5:34 pm


  3. Thanks for the comments guys. Honkytonk, I consider your commnt about the “strangeness” of this blog a compliment. The staff here at Goodboys Nation weblog tries to keep things fairly unpredictable at times.

    And you’re right Terry, that is a pretty girl in that video. 🙂

    Comment by The Great White Shank — August 14, 2008 @ 6:50 pm


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