Tag Archives: signifiers

Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears

No artist has control over how their music is received, and any work that catches on big will attract an audience that’s probably a good deal wider than its author intended or envisaged, and will likely include a whole swathe of people the author doesn’t really relate to all that strongly.

For proof, let’s look at Tears for Fears, at once one of pop’s most serious-minded, interior-looking groups and a shorthand for lol big 80z muzik. While I’ve known Everybody Wants to Rule the World since I was a child (and have liked the band since becoming consciously aware of who they were when Sowing the Seeds of Love came out), my response to it has changed a little over time, and I’m aware that how I take it, and what I get from it, is not the same as what someone else might.

A few years ago I watched an old mid-1990s Adam Curtis TV series called Pandora’s Box. The League of Gentlemen, an episode that dealt with economics and the dangers inherent in treating it as a science, began with some footage of (presumably real) city workers in a karaoke bar, bellowing out the chorus of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, lagers in hand. OK, so the characterisation of all city boys as beered- and/or coked-up louts entirely deaf to the subtext and irony of what they were singing was heavy handed, but it made Curtis’s point forcefully enough (and I assume from the general tenor of his lyrics that Roland Orzabal and Curtis would find a reasonable amount of political common ground). And now, of course, I can’t help but see those two beery karaoke singers whenever I hear the song. Thanks for that, Adam.

That’s the thing. Everybody Wants to Rule the World is a song so big, and so universal, that it can encompass many meanings, can mean almost anything to anyone, in fact. It can be a go-on-my-son nod of encouragement to the lairy and megalomaniacal, or a sigh of acceptance that, yes, this is how people are, and it’s confusing as hell, but we aren’t alone. It can be travestied by Lorde in her bewildering goth remake for a Hunger Games sequel, placed at the end of a mid-1980s Val Kilmer sci-fi comedy (Real Genius) about super-smart college kids destroying their tutor’s house through the ingenious use of popcorn, or simply used as an all-purpose 1980s signifier in Peter’s Friends.

The song isn’t just interesting at a textual level though. If I were a music teacher, and I almost entirely lack the theoretical knowledge to ever be one (as this next section is likely to prove), I’d pull it out to explain to students how common time and triple metre can be laid on top of each other.

The sheet music for Everybody stipulates 12/8 time at brisk 112 beats per minute. Yet what’s going on here is more subtle than that – it doesn’t really have the 1-2-3-1-2-3, 1-2-3-1-2-3 feel that 12/8 time would imply, at least not in the drums. The hi-hat part plays a shuffle (first and last beats of the triplets only), with the second beat of each triplet merely ghosted. The opening guitar riff is determinedly in triplets, but the melody of the chorus is square on-the-beat crotchets (replace the lyrics “most of freedom and of pleasure, nothing ever lasts for ever” with “one two three four, one two three four, one two three four, one two three four” to see what I mean). So there’s really three feels present at the same time, with the 4/4 shuffle coming out as the dominant feel (for me, at least – others will feel and play it differently, and if anyone versed in these things can explain it better, please do leave a comment) because the vocal melody insists on those four strong beats.

It’s a masterly piece of writing, a great arrangement and one of the finest moments of a group not short of great songs.

Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears

Not a shuffle feel in sight:

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That’s the Way Love Goes – Janet Jackson

I wasn’t a huge fan of this when it came out. Janet Jackson has never been a particularly commanding vocalist, and with That’s the Way Love Goes being sung softly against a very prominent groove, the record didn’t seem to contain much Jackson at all. I was, what, eleven at the time, without a good stereo of my own to listen to it on, so I only heard the song on little radios and in my parents’ car; with the low end being inaudible in that context, a lot of the point of the record was lost with it. And truth to tell, the song was thematically a bit adult for the 11-year-old me to really relate to.

Now, I find myself really taken with the sexy, unhurried groove. Musically, the track still contains traces of new jack swing (of which Jackson’s producers Jam and Lewis were early pioneers, along with Teddy Riley) but crossed with the more naturalistic (often sample-based) sounds of the then-infant genre of hip hop soul. The triplet swing is still hinted at, but the drum sound is more natural, more expensive-sounding, less brash, than it would have been in the late 1980s. Early NJS had used the Roland TR-808 to program complex, layered grooves that would have been very difficult if not impossible for a single human drummer to recreate. That’s the Way Love Goes samples its drums instead, from James Brown’s Papa Don’t Take No Mess, then augments them to make them bigger (the time stretched, quantised, heavily compressed and as a result somewhat shaky Brown groove is clearly audible in the mix though). It sounds more grown-up than true NJS had done; muted earth tones rather than stark primary colours.

The drums aren’t the only signifier of adult sophistication, though. The jazzy guitar, playing lead licks in parallel fourths on what sounds like a big-bodied archtop guitar (an updated Breezin’-style George Benson kind of thing) and chord voicings with 6ths and major 7ths, does much to define the mood of the record.

But ultimately, it’s Jackson’s voice – very confident and intimate, soft and gentle without leaning too heavily on the breathy half-whisper that was already a cliché in slow jams and bedroom records – that really sells it. It deservedly won her a Grammy for Best R&B Song; she’s won six Grammys in total, but That’s the Way Love Goes is the only one to win for songwriting. All things considered, it’s probably her best single, despite strong competition from her Control hits.

janet

On reverb, echo and delay as studio effects

Give someone with a practiced ear a recording and they’ll be able to date it for you pretty quickly, to within a range of two or three years probably. Fashions change in music production and mix topologies, and so any element in a record may potentially give away when it was made: a particular guitar sound, the presence of a certain bass drum sample, the sound of the snare drum (tuning, size, damping, volume), the presence of programmed sub bass; anything really.

But perhaps the quickest route to determining the date of the production will be the amount and the type of reverb or echo used.

In the very earliest days of recording, making a record meant bringing a group of musicians into a room and positioning them around a recording horn. You’d base their positions on how loud you wanted their instrument to be in the end product. If you were working in a reverberant, live-sounding room, you’d make a reverberant, live-sounding record. In a dead room, you’d make a dead-sounding record. As magnetic tape became the standard recording medium and as consoles got bigger and engineers developed ways to treat signals during mix that had been recorded without effects (‘dry’), it became possible to create unusual, even other-worldly, sound pictures that weren’t at all based on the reality of the room the music was tracked in. As often as not, the appearance of reverb in a pop record would be an illusion, separate to and grafted on to a musical performance during mixing. You could solo the vocal, play it back in a cathedral nave and record the echoey sound produced by the sound bouncing around such a large structure, and hey presto, cathedral reverb. Generally speaking, then, the performer probably did not hear the echo or reverb that appears on the record while he or she performed; it was an extra-musical event. It may have been there to add a sheen, a sense of dimensionality, to make the music ‘sound expensive’, to make the record ‘sound like a record’ (to employ a couple of studioland clichés), but like most everything else in the realm of recorded music, it was an artifice.

Engineers developed a whole gamut of such techniques in order to better serve the wishes of their artist and producer clients, but history shows that any such technique can become wildly unfashionable at a moment’s notice. The use of the gated snare (that is, gigantic reverb on a snare drum turned on and off abruptly by applying a gate to an ambient microphone) was so prevalent in the eighties that it could be counted an absolutely standard studio technique. In 1993, nothing sounded more dated than the gated snare and a record-maker employing one would likely have been laughed out of town.

Broadly speaking, in the fifties/sixties and eighties the trend was towards spacious, reverby mixes and the seventies and nineties saw a move towards tighter, drier productions. The sixties reverb sound was produced by the use of large acoustic spaces to track in, and/or the use of plate reverbs or echo chambers. The eighties’ reverb sound was more likely an effect added at mixdown by using the Lexicon 224, an early (hardware) digital reverb processor, or some other similar signal-processing device. They produce very different effects – some of the Lexicon sounds are so over the top as to be cartoonish, and over-enthusiastic engineers and producers did some terribly heavy-handed things with them.

However, even then synthetic reverb effects (that is, effects produced not by tracking in a live room, or playing back the signal in an echo chamber, or through a plate or spring unit) were not new. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, made a trademark of creating an echo effect on the vocal by multing it and running the copy though an extra tape machine, delaying the copy slightly compared to the original. This sound became synonymous with Sun Records, and with rockabilly more generally. This sound has since been endlessly copied, revived and parodied. At this very minute, somewhere in the world, someone is making a record right now with a tape-delayed vocal, and congratulating themselves for their witty and original use of this fresh and innovative production technique.

Which kind of gets me to my point. Pop started eating itself long ago and while new techniques are always being created and employed, nothing really new has happened with the use of spatial effects (that is, echo, reverb and delay) since dub. Reverb, echo and delay are now so loaded with signifiers, so weighted down with the history of record production, that if one hears a striking, prominent use of a spatial effect on a contemporary record (or a very dry record that contains almost no such processing), what one is hearing is merely a quotation or a reference from another, older – and almost certainly fresher – record. All that differs is the number of quotation marks around the effect.

Perhaps this will change. Modern pop records are so dense, so loud and compressed that things like reverb tails tend to get swallowed up by persistent, steady-state instruments such as synths and programmed bass. But rock and indie is still rife with lazy, heavy-handed and uncreative uses of echo and reverb, and personally I want to hear something more driven by personal emotional expression and less driven by the desire to do something just because Sam Phillips (or Spector, or Clearmountain) did it.

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The vast nave of Westminster Cathedral, © Mike Quinn