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Fishin’ Blues Part 1: Musical Hooks

May 20, 2010

Carel de Moor, The Angler, c. 1700

“I’m a going fishin’, all the time,
you can go fishin’ too
You bet your life, sweet lovin’ wife
I can catch more fish than you
Many fishes bite if you got good bait
Now here’s a little something I would like to relate
Many fishes bite if ya got good bait…”

Attributed to Taj Mahal, but this version, the one I know, is a little different.

Part 1: Hooks

Photo by Mike Cline via Wikimedia commons

Long before rock and roll, songwriters and composers attached hooks to the musical lines they wrote.  Though the purpose of these hooks was to catch the ears of listeners rather than fish, they ultimately shared a goal with the fisherman – to get something to eat.  Catch the ears of listeners and you sold records and got people to come to concerts.  Catch enough and you could make a living. Musical hooks tend to be short – too long and the ear loses interest. They’re also barbed – hear a good one and you’ll want to hear it again.  The composer has caught you.

Back in the Classical day they didn’t call them hooks, but motifs. The four notes that open Beethoven’s fifth is the most famous motif. Wily cat that he was, he knew that after a few repetitions of that motif you’d be hooked.  He decided to have some fun, and spends the rest of the movement altering that riff, teasing you by disguising it in various ways, which only makes you want to hear it more.  Even after the first movement, when he’s moved on to other themes, those famous four notes keep reappearing in some form. By the end of the symphony you remember that riff, and want to hear the piece again.

The Beatles’ breakout single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” caught me. The hook is almost clinically devised. The first two lines: “Oh yeah I’ll tell you something I think you’ll understand” are sung on with a strictly stepwise melody – i.e. on adjacent tones of the E major scale.  This makes it unexceptional, lulling us as listeners, until the syllable “stand,” when two unexpected things happen.  The melody leaps, down a forth, to D#.  At the same moment the chord changes not to G# minor, which is in the scale, and thus within the range of expectation, but to G# major, which is very distant tonally.  The same melody repeats in the next two lines – though at this point we’re a little wary – but nothing can prepare us for what happens on the word “Hand,” which caps the title of the song.  The chord is again that jarring G# major, only this time the melody has leapt up a whole octave, to the G#, which also just happens to lie in the sweetest spot of Paul’s upper vocal range.  Up to that daring octave leap the whole trajectory of the melody has been down.  Here the fishing image works very well – it’s as though they let the line drift, towards the bottom, then jerked it up, and hooked us. That octave leap is an old trick, ubiquitous in Classical music, and the basis of the hook in  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The Beatles’ combining it with that unexpected G# major chord is genius.

That hook was what launched “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to number one, in turn launching the Beatles’ never equaled successes, which in turn started an explosion in record sales.

I first heard the term “hook” in the mid ‘70s as I joined the legion of desperados trying to break into the record business.  Bloated by a decade of bigger and bigger catches, it now fancied itself the record “industry.” Songs were viewed as “product.” Thinking as business men, record execs assumed that music was no different than soft drinks. If Coke had a magic formula, so did music. Discover it and they’d be rich.

The hook, which had been around forever, suddenly garnered an overabundance of attention, to the exclusion of other musical concerns. Record companies demanded hooks, and songwriters complied. They flailed away at guitars and keyboards, one fearful eye out for those record guys who held the power of life and death over their careers. What they came up with were songs whose message was no longer some tale of love and loss, but “Hey, heeeere’s the hook!” As the creative energy went into creating the hook, the rest of the songs grew emaciated, starved of meaning, harmonic interest, careful arrangements.

Odd monsters were born, almost all hook and no song, like the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way.”  We’ve enjoyed chewing on the worm of the verse for less than ten seconds before we’re impaled on that hook chorus. Perhaps this particular song can be excused on the basis of tone painting –that given the title and subject matter, it’s appropriate that the song simply can’t wait to rip its clothes off and get down to business.

Except that it’s perpetrator, Eric Carmen, proved to be a repeat offender. He went solo and proceeded to mine Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony for the hook in “Never Going to Fall in Love Again.” I found myself guiltily enjoying this song for years – loving the melody but hating it’s overbaked presentation, its attitude of “Here’s the hook! We’re shoving it down your throat!” I recently heard the source, the Rachmaninoff, where that glorious melody takes its proper place amid long minutes of development. Carmen, like a thief, had torn that all away to get to the good part. (And thief he was, though unwittingly.  He was unaware that the copyright still belonged in the hands of Rachmaninoff’s heirs, and had to fork over part of his earnings.)

I’m not suggesting that there’s any proper waiting time before getting to the hook.  Indeed, the Beatles “Eight Days a Week” starts with the hook, and it’s a fine song. So does the Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up.”  There’s genius here.   The hook is the very first chord, repeated on the words, “When I grow up,” the most dissonant chord to ever begin a pop song, made all the more jarring by the angelic voices that present it. “To be a man,” resolves that dissonance, using a descending stepwise fragment that was a kind of melodic comfort food at the time. Explicit in the music of that first line is the emotional story of the song – alternating fear of, and hope, for the future. An exuberant verse follows, but that dissonant chord hangs over the whole song, returning periodically to tell Brian Wilson’s truth – he’s got no idea what lays ahead. As we know now, of course, what lay ahead for him was madness and tragedy, which makes the song all the more poignant.

Part of what makes hooks effective is the “set-up” – the music directly preceding the hook. It makes sense to announce the hook with a rhythmic flourish, or a drum fill, or else bring the verse to a low point, or even silence, all in the service of framing, or drawing attention to the hook. In the case of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” the setup arguably acts as hook itself. Similar to “When I Grow Up,” the song finds strength in conflict – in this case that of the hope of a hopeless lover.  The soaring, practically operatic melody – incidentally written by an Italian team – is very good. And Dusty’s delivery is nothing short of devastating.  But what gets me back to that song is the moment of transition from the minor verse – hopelessness – and the very major chorus – hope itself.

Not all ‘70’s hooks were bad.  One successful device was the hook made of the marriage of melody and a rhythmic figure – not unlike Beethoven’s famous four notes.  It’s one of the things that elevates the Carpenters” “Superstar” above their other hits, almost above the kitschy miasma that clings to them. It’s another minor verse to major chorus form, with a similar story to Dusty’s hit. The rhythmic figure in the chorus, “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby” both skips like an anxious heartbeat, and repeats and repeats like an obsessive thought.

Michael McDonald’s “What a fool” had a huge influence on the pop music that followed, and deservedly so.  Here the hook is in a syncopated keyboard riff, the vocal melody playing welcome counterpoint – welcome because that device has by now become so rare in Pop music.  That keyboard is so effective because it telegraphs the uncertainty that underlies the song. You can hear echoes of that riff in many songs – recently at the gym I heard it, in Waddy Wachtel’s guitar riff on Jackson Brown’s “Somebody’s Baby.”

By the end of the ‘70s, some music lovers had had it with the record industry cynically plundering of the music of the ‘60s. They channeled their rage into the Punk movement. I shared their disgust with what the record companies had done to music, but not their solution. When they threw out the slimy bathwater – the whole glam-glitter-corporate rock cesspool, they also threw out the baby – melody, harmony, and the hook.

I listened in vain to Punk for something other than screaming, out of tune guitars and anger. Then I heard Elvis Costello. He’d ridden in on the new wave/punk bandwagon, sneering his lyrics and employed cheesy Farfisa organs and rude in-your-face guitar sounds. But that rough surface couldn’t hide the man within, a romantic. You could tell because this particular punk was singing a melody. His voice rasped, “Aaaaa….lison,” but couldn’t hide that it was a hook.  If you didn’t get it when he sang it, you did when Linda Ronstadt did.

The anti-hook sensibility persists among the Indie bands favored by the college crowd. I listen to those bands, looking for some hook to hang my hat on, and can’t understand why there’s nothing there. Except there is something – an entirely different musical property, one mostly the product of performance rather than composition: attitude. We can probably thank the Stones for the predominance of attitude in Pop music – though Elvis and Little Richard might argue. I first became aware of this attitude-based music with the grunge movement. People were raving about the hook in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but when I heard the song, I couldn’t find it. The same is true of Pearl Jam. From what I’ve heard of more recent Indie bands, the attitude they emit continues to range from the dim to the dismal, and I still can’t hear the hooks, which perhaps explains the mystery of how Cheryl Crowe could be one of the most despised artists among that college crowd. She’s no genius, though she has written a handful of very nice songs. Her records sound nice, her voice sweet, but how can you hate her? You can, if you associate hooks with manipulation, and what you want is dark music to evoke some comfortably dark mood in you.  Cheryl Crowe is like sunlight to a vampire.

Then again, vampires are way cool these days. Come to think of it, some of my best musician friends roam the streets at night, sleep all day, shun the sunlight….


From → 60's Music, Pop Music

  1. The master of the hook unquestionably has to be Bizet. There are more singable and catchy tunes in Carmen alone than in most composers’ entire repertoires.

    • I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know Carmen – I like to see operas rather than just hear them, and haven’t had the opportunity for that one yet. I’ll definitely put it at the top of my list. (Of the few I’ve sen, Tosca is my favorite, though not so much for the music as for the drama.)

  2. Nice blog! I’ll have to check out “Carmen,” as Cynthia suggested, but in pop terms, Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson are hard to beat as writers of their own material, but another genius was/is Carole King. When you listen to the stuff she wrote back in the Brill Building days with Gerry Goffin, you find hook after hook. (“One Fine Day” is one good example.)

    For Taj Mahal’s source, check out “Fishing Blues” by Henry Thomas in 1928. (Taj credits Thomas and a J. WIlliams on the vinyl edition of “De Ole Folks At Home,” his 1969 album.) Thomas was also the original source for the flute riff Canned Heat used in “Going Up The Country” (“Bull Doze Blues,” also 1928), but then Bear Hite and Al Wilson of Canned Heat were deep into early blues and other early 20th century music. Check out Thomas at Wikipedia. Fascinating stuff.

    (I’ll link to you later in the day. Nice to have you around!)

    • I checked out Henry Thomas – yeah, love that ancient stuff. Ever see the movie “The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins”?

      Carol KIng was very fine. Funny thing was that she gradually lost energy. Sweet as Tapestry is, it doesn’t have to juice of that early stuff. And by the time she gets to “Jazzman” it sounds like her heart ain’t in it anymore. Maybe exhausted from hauling those gigantic ASCAP checks out of the envelopes.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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