Steely Dan Halen

Steely Dan Halen

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I never particularly cared for this song, but it has some notable compositional elements worth looking at. The song starts off in the key of Eb, and the opening chord on the verse, when the vocal comes in, is a C minor (the relative minor in Eb). Nothing surprising here. However, Richard Marx follows this chord with an Abadd9/C, and then a Bb11. These chords are all diatonic in the key of Eb, but they're surprising to hear in a pop song like this. Going from C minor to Abadd9/C creates an opaque, enigmatic atmosphere because the bass note stays the same (we might call it a "pedal point"), while the chord takes on a suspended sound. Even though "Hold On to the Nights" is a milquetoast pop ballad, these chords actually indicate the composer has creative instincts -- and is probably pretty competent with functional harmony. A lesser songwriter might've gone to an Fmin7 for the second chord. But Marx avoids this cliche in a smart and distinctive manner. I think it's cool when a song never goes to the tonic (root) chord. As far as I can hear, Marx never plays an Eb Major chord anywhere in the song, even though that's the key center. ["Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is an exquisite example of a song that never goes to the tonic -- and it's partly this characteristic that makes it such as masterfully written song. Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" is another example of a song that never goes to the tonic; Chic's "Good Times" is yet another. "Ooh Child" by the Five Stairsteps avoids the tonic until the very end, and it feels like a huge satisfying relief when they finally get there.] To wit: in the chorus of "Hold on to the Nights," Richard Marx begins with an Eb/G chord. In other words, he uses the first inversion of an Eb Major chord. To me, this does not function as the tonic as it doesn't feel resolved or like we're "home" the way an Eb in root position would. The chord has forward momentum, leading it to the Ab (the IV chord), as though gravity was pulling it there. The walkup continues to a B7sus chord (the dominant V chord) -- which, again, has a gravitational pull that wants to resolve to the tonic (Eb Major)... but it doesn't. Instead it again goes to the Eb/G, and then repeats the cycle. I think this chord progression creates a sense of longing, because we can feel a force pulling us in a desired direction... but like a satellite orbiting the Earth, it just circles repeatedly around the tonic without ever reaching it. In the bridge of the song, Marx modulates to D minor. This is a curious choice, because D is the 7th degree of the Eb Major scale, which means its corresponding diatonic chord would be a D half-dimished (or Dmin7b5 in jazz parlance). Because of the way Marx constructed the melody leading into the bridge (implying a Bb Lydian phrase), it totally works to go to D minor. At the end of the bridge, he briefly implies a modulation back to Eb before tastefully landing on a G7/B -- suggesting we're now in D Dorian mode. This creates a marvelous lift where Marx sings the G above middle C, handing off that melodic sustain to the guitar solo (played by the inimitable Michael Landau). After the bridge, the final chorus has now settled comfortably in F Major, a whole step up from where we started. Half- or whole-step key changes have become a hackneyed musical device in pop songs, but here Marx has accomplished it seamlessly and artfully due to the clever bridge modulation. And again, I don't believe we ever hear the tonic chord in root position in the new key of F. It's solid pop composition technique, and kind of reminds me of Steve Lukather's pop-ballad writing (e.g., on Toto's "I Won't Hold You Back.") Unfortunately, like so many 80s pop tunes, Marx used that terrible Yamaha DX7 piano preset (E. Piano 1) instead of a real piano, so it sounds all plastic and jive. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate that sound? Yeah, OK. Other thoughts?
For those of you wondering how Steve Stevens got that "ray gun" effect with his guitar at the end of "Dirty Diana": back in the day he used a Lexicon PCM 41 (digital delay rackmount unit). By holding the feedback constant and changing the delay time, it causes pitch modulation. You could also hold the delay time constant (Steve often used a 400-msec delay) and vary the feedback and repeats. Later, Steve would use an actual toy ray gun on stage and hold it up to the bridge pickup on his guitar. Here's an example: https://youtu.be/yYYSyvE_iEw?t=161 Tom Scholz (from Boston) creates similar kinds of sounds using a highly customized Echoplex tape delay unit -- what he calls his "Hyperspace Pedal." You can also create similar effects using the bucket-brigade delay circuits found in Tom Scholz's Rockman delay units. Of course, now there are all sorts of hardware DSP and software DAW plugins to do it. I find all this fun and interesting... Hopefully others do too!
A few years ago, I composed the music score for a modern ballet, collaborating with John Smith (Nu Shooz founder). We released the album after the ballet's premiere. It didn't sell well, but the performance was highly successful and the dance company (BodyVox) still performs it. If you really dig Nu Shooz, like I do, you might find this interesting (and weird). Check it out. https://open.spotify.com/album/68gLqGVb70rjbSuXz5rqxB
I know a lot of people don't like Billy Joel -- and I kinda get why. But I, for one, consider him a national treasure. I think "Turnstiles," "The Stranger," and "52nd Street" are three high points in the pop music canon. Superb songwriting, stellar performance.
I agree. Van Morrison really ought to clarify who he's saying "owns the media" and who he thinks is controlling the narrative. If the people in this comments section are correct, that he's referring to "the Jews," then that is indeed troubling -- and I'll agree with the chorus of commenters here condemning him for it. In the absence of Van Morrison clarifying what he means, I don't think it's wise to simply assume he's using a dogwhistle. Antisemitism and anti-Jewish sentiment are serious problems, as we're all aware, but it does a grave disservice to the cause of justice and equity if we water down those terms by ascribing them to people not actually engaging in it. When situations of actual antisemitism arise, we will be less effective in countering it. (This has been the longstanding position of organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, and scholars who have studied the matter, like Norman Finkelstein.) If anyone can point me to past or ongoing examples of Van Morrison engaging in antisemitism or other kinds of deranged conspiracy theorizing, please do post links.
I just tried to find Van Morrison's objectionable "political history" -- including looking for examples of racism, or xenophobia, or jingoism, or sexism, or homophobia, or classism, or nationalism, or religious bigotry. I spent only about 30 minutes doing internet searches, and in that time I read his twitter feed and his web site, and perused several news stories. I didn't really find anything noteworthy -- except for his dubious views on the Covid lockdown measures. It seems his main grievance is that musicians in Ireland were not qualifying for government assistance during the lockdown, whereas workers in other fields were qualifying for assistance. He seemed to be complaining that musicians were unfairly disadvantaged during the lockdowns. So he went on a rather stupid tirade to open up live performance venues. It seems that while there was some validity to his underlying grievance, his proposed solution was dangerous and not science based. Well, that's all I was able to find. What am I missing? Why is everyone here so pissed off at Van Morrison? Yeah, his anti-Covid-lockdown thing was stupid and dangerous -- but ineffective. Is that all? There's gotta be something else I'm not seeing. Is it simply that his music, as of late, just sucks?
OK, thank you for clarifying. I was not aware of Van Morrison's political history. Wow, do I feel foolish now, having pontificated about media consolidation and corporate control (although that is indeed a terrible problem). That Van Morrison tune sounds like an uninspired "nothing" of a song, so I didn't get why people were finding it incendiary. I did a quick internet search to try to read about Van Morrison's "political history" but all I found were references to his grumpy-old-man "tinfoil rants" and his opposition to Covid lockdowns. The latter, of course, is a stupid and dangerous position, worthy of scorn -- but even then, his position is a bit vague. Why did he oppose lockdowns, and did he propose what he thought was a better solution to the public-health emergency? Can someone point me to a good resource where Van Morrison's positions are examined -- or where he states them -- clearly? I hadn't thought about this artist in years, and suddenly I'm now curious about him....
In the second sentence of my first paragraph, that's supposed to read "transnational corporations," not transitional. And somehow I managed to misspell Stereogum at the end. Ugh. :-(
I don't understand these questions, as the message seems pretty clear. Media consolidation is widely recognized as a crucial problem. A small handful of transitional corporations own all the major media outlets, which allows war profiteers, extractive industries (e.g., oil and gas), Wall Street, big pharma, the national security state, etc., to frame news stories (and exclude others) in ways that benefit them. For decades, critical thinkers including Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and Bill Moyers have been writing and speaking out about this. Why are people here acting as though this is questionable? The organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (fair.org) has been documenting this for decades -- and Jeff Cohen, who founded this organization, has written about this extensively. I don't even think it's controversial to acknowledge that when powerful institutions own a media outlets, those outlets will be highly incentivized not to issue news reports that harm the interests of the parent company -- and in fact will frame stories favorable to those corporate interests. Further, I don't think it's controversial to acknowledge that we have been lied to continuously for decades by these same media outlets. Famous examples include decades of misreporting on the so-called "War on Drugs" and the carceral system; the Gulf of Tonkin lies that led to the escalation of the American assault on Vietnam; repeated lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which has led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis (according to the Lancet study) and the displacement of tens of millions (see the Cost of War project at Brown Univ.). This list goes on, and it's a long one that continues to present day. So yes -- we're being lied to by the mass media on behalf of their owners: the weapons dealers, the oil & gas industry, Wall Street, big pharma, and other powerful interests. This is why it's so important to support independent media. I'm thankful that Stereogumm is an independent outlet.
That's right -- it's a Yamaha DX7. "Anything for You" uses the "E. PIANO 1" preset. I agree with Tom -- it's horrible. The DX7 had a mono (not stereo) output, so often we would use stereo effects on it to help bring it to life or make it more distinct. Sometimes that would be a chorus effect. In this case, it's a stereo delay. You're right that by the late 80s, there were a few different options for creating similar sounds -- like the Ensoniq ESQ1, the Roland D-50, and the Korg M1.
Hi Mark, I do have some quibbles with the music -- mostly the production. The drum programming is dynamically stiff, and that snare backbeat is atrocious. (I think the snare sound is a stock 12-bit sample from a Linn drum machine, EQ'd with a 1-kHz narrowband peak, played with a ton of EMT 250 reverb, gated to cut off the reverb tail, and then with more EMT 250 added to that gated snare. It's very 1988, and that's not a good thing.) It's a similar sound to the iconic snare backbeat of Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy." But I find the "Man in the Mirror" snare really harsh relative to the rest of the gentle production, whereas in the FYC "She Drives Me Crazy" song, the snare fits the production really well -- and it's a more dimensional, "rounded" snare sound, with an intriguing "hollow" timbre. I like the "Man in the Mirror" composition, though. It's quite simple, not groundbreaking in any way, but tasteful and appropriate. And I think the melody is really lovely. The chords in the verse "walk down" diatonically in G Major (G, Gadd2/F#, Emin7, Dsus4, Cadd9). The pre-chorus has a diatonic "walk up" (Amin7, G/B, Cadd9, Dsus), which creates a nice symmetry with the verse. The chorus has a fun surprise, when they play the A7/C# in the third cycle of the chorus melody -- invoking a gospel cadence... which creates a lift into another surprise chord, the D7#9. Here Michael sings an F in the melody (hence, the #9), momentarily giving us a "flat 7" in the key of G, which is a nice break from the standard Ionian G-Major tonality. Of course that key change into Ab is epic... but I totally understand why it bothers you. The 1/2-step-up key change really is a musical trope -- a kind of cheap gimmick designed to inject artificial excitement in the listener, rather than earning it legitimately through skillful writing. So yeah, I think I agree with you. In full disclosure: I know Siedah Garrett. I never thought much about "Man in the Mirror" until I read today's TNO column. Siedah takes pride in the song, and I don't feel it would be appropriate for me to bring up my critique, even though I'd love to get her thoughts. So it'll have to suffice for me simply to vent anonymously on this forum. :-)
I thoroughly enjoy "The Number Ones" column, even when I disagree with Tom Breihan's assessments (which is often). In this case, my thoughts completely align with his. From a music composition standpoint, "Man in the Mirror" is truly outstanding. It's beautifully constructed -- or as Tom put it, it's "spotless." However, the lyrics -- and the associated music video -- are another matter entirely. Fishhead and other others in this comments section have described "Man in the Mirror" as a "message song." But what is that message? Tom is right to question whether the song is saying anything at all. To the extent that the song has any kind of message, I would argue that it's actually a pretty insidious one. As Tom aptly points out, the song's lyrics, when coupled with the video, seem to frame the world's problems as being based in personal choices and shortcomings -- implying that we can address global problems effectively as individuals, perhaps through charity of noble deeds. In doing so, the song not only glosses over the deep systemic institutional issues at the root of the world's problems, but serves to normalize them. In essence, the song's lyrics are a perfect encapsulation of neoliberal capitalism. We're all concerned about global poverty and human suffering, climate change, impending nuclear war. But what's really causing these problems? The world view seemingly promoted in "Man in the Mirror" would have us believe that if individuals were to act less selfishly and more empathetically, we might improve matters. But this effectively distracts out attention away from the fundamental structures of the international economy and the rules that govern it. If you look into the way the system operates, it becomes clear that it's designed to facilitate siphoning wealth, cheap labor, and resources from poor countries in the Global South, to rich countries with a history of imperialism. This cannot be remedied by people changing their individual attitudes or behavior. It requires mass mobilization, functioning in an organized manner, to challenge the entrenched system of global hegemony. Renowned anthropologist and economist Jason Hickel is one of the clearest thinkers today addressing global poverty and its causes -- which are not natural, but intentionally created by the set of institutions that dictate almost every aspect of our lives. The reason around 40% of the world lives in extreme poverty is that it's a feature (not a bug) of a system that is designed to funnel immense wealth and power into a few institutional hands at the expense of everyone else -- and at the expense of a livable planet. Yet "Man in the Mirror" glibly tells us that individual self-reflection can address the deep systemic causes of "kids in the streets / with not enough to eat." In essence, I think the "message" of "Man in the Mirror" is not simply a meaningless one, but quite a dangerous one. It's a message that disarms and distracts us from looking at the systemic roots of the world's problems by telling a comforting tale of individual action or charity having a meaningful impact. I think this is harmful. Of course, it's a pop song, so can you really express anything other than vague platitudes in that format? Perhaps if the music video didn't contain random manipulative images, but rather featured footage demonstrating examples mass popular action, the "message" would have more resonance. Tom writes that "it's pure puffed-up pop-music indulgence, saying that you're changing stuff when really you’re just waving at cameras and broadcasting generalized good cheer. I hate it." As much as a really like the song from a music composition standpoint, when it comes to the lyrics and video, I hate it too. [P.S. I fully realize what I've written here is probably going to invite a huge barrage of down votes. Sometimes it's OK to be unpopular.]
Thanks! I enjoy reading Tom Breihan's column, and I especially love seeing all of your comments. It's fun to chime in, although my free time is increasingly scarce these days. I have served as a guest lecturer on music theory, music productions/recording, and film scoring at various universities (UCLA, Tufts, and others), but my main gig is composing music scores for films and producing music for other artists. But I'm happy to comment on this forum when I think I have something to contribute, and to the extent that people find it interesting.
That's great. I'll look out for it in "virtual 2002."
I agree that George Michael probably used the scale simply because he liked the sound of it. But let me offer a counterargument.... One of the ways this scale is used in bebop is over "secondary dominant" chords. If we assume "Father Figure" is in Bb (ostensibly, it is), then the dominant V chord is F. However, G7 is an example of a secondary dominant chord in the key of Bb. If we voice that chord as a G7b9, then the scale plays beautifully over that chord. Try it out, and you'll hear it. It's quite lovely. In fact, this is precisely what George Michael does at the end of the song. We hear that melodic riff using this exotic scale, and then we hear a G7b9 chord (or maybe he leaves of the G in the bass, so it's a Ab dim7 chord), which then resolves to the Bb. So clearly George (or whoever played the riff and chord) knew what they were doing. They understood the scale well enough to know how to deploy tasteful harmonic movement underneath it. This may seem convoluted, but I think it's a plausible argument that George Michael didn't merely stumble upon the scale and like the sound of it. He (or perhaps his collaborators) had a deeper appreciation for how the scale can function. What do you think? Am I stretching credulity?
Hi Link and Virgindog, I've been out of the loop for a few days (due to work deadlines). I happened to check in to today's column and saw your comments, as well as your invitation to chime in. :-) Yes -- you're correct in your description of the synth line. To reiterate what you've already said: the scale comprises the following intervals: 1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, b7. It's an unusual scale, and it's the flat-2 that makes is sound "exotic" or Middle Eastern. [If anyone here is familiar with Edward Said's concept of "Orientalism," please forgive my reductive framing.] How would we describe the scale? It can go by many different names, depending on your context. Here are a few options: (1) In traditional jazz, we might call it a dominant-flat-2-flat-6 scale. We use the word "dominant" because there's a major 3rd and a lowered 7th. (2) The "Berklee Method" (taught at the Berklee College of Music in Boston) deviates from traditional jazz, and would describe the scale as Mixolydian-flat-9-flat-13. In the context of jazz harmony, this formulation makes more sense to me. (3) In the world of concert music (sometimes referred to as "classical," although that's a misnomer), we might call this a Phrygian dominant scale, Phrygian Natural 3, or Altered Phrygian scale. While this makes sense because Phrygian is the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale, I find it a little confusing as the Phrygian mode happens to be the 3rd mode of the major scale, and thus has a minor 3rd in it... so I have recalibrate my thinking to align with the Spanish "gypsy scale" or flamenco scale to think of Phrygian dominant or Phrygian natural 3, indicating a Major 3d. (4) In the Jewish tradition, the scale is known as "Ahaha Rabbah," which means "abundant love." (5) I have a background in Indian music, and this scale is quite similar to the Bhairav raga found in Hindustani classical music -- the only difference being that the 7th degree is natural. Ravi Shankar has an important recording from 1957, "Three Classical Ragas," where he explores this mode. In Carnatic music (from South India), the Ahir Bhairav raga uses this scale but the 6th degree is natural. Bringing all this back to George Michael and "Father Figure," why do you think he used this scale? Maybe he just thought it sounded cool. Given that it's a recurring theme (the song opens and closes with it, and you hear it at least once more in the middle), maybe it has some particular significance? Thoughts?
To clarify further: the very same powerful interests who are limiting poor countries' ability to access vaccines are the ones who are organizing the "VAX LIVE" concert. If they were genuinely interested in making the vaccine available to everyone in the world, they could easily do that by foregoing the profit motive and making the vaccine IP available for poor countries to manufacture. But the Gates Foundation, pharmaceutical companies, and their lobbyists are hellbent on protecting their commercial interests... so now we have things like the VAX LIVE concert to divert attention from the actual problem -- corporate greed -- while further cementing into place the framework of vaccine apartheid. We saw the same thing in the late 1990s with AIDS drugs in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Gates, the WTO, and others tried to prevent poor countries from producing cheap generics of HIV drugs, in order to protect pharmaceutical monopolies. This is why I described VAX LIVE as a scam. It appears to be a good idea only if we tacitly accept the cruel profit-driven motives of the aforementioned powerful interests... which I do not accept.
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