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Fishin’ Blues Part 2: Ear Candy

May 22, 2010

Image by Stefano Mortellaro via Wikimedia Commons

Part 2: Ear Candy

“Hand me my old guitar
 Pass the whiskey round

Won’t you tell everybody you meet that the Candyman’s in town

Look out, look out, the Candyman

Here he come and he’s gone again” – Hunter, Garcia

At the beginning of the ‘80s, I began hearing a new term: Ear Candy. Now, to continue to torture that poor fishing metaphor, Ear Candy is like the shiny stuff on a lure that makes the fish stick around long enough to swallow the hook.

Ear Candy proliferated in the eighties for two reasons. One was that hook formulas and stock set-up devices had been just about exhausted by the previous decade of hit song chasing. The other reason is that it was the golden age of analog recording, when the best recording engineers could magically transform any sow’s ear of a ratty guitar sound into silky vibrations that tickled your ear like candy on your tongue. And, like candy, those aural confections were so crunchy, chewy and sweet that you couldn’t stop.

If you couldn’t make effective hooks anymore, you could catch listeners by luscious sound alone.

The best engineers in that time were said to possess golden ears. I first herd that term in the office of a New York music lawyer, who bragged of his client Val Garay, who’d just shared a Grammy with Kim Carnes for “Bette Davis Eyes.”

Driving out from the city to see my girlfriend up in Connecticut, I found that song to be inescapable on the radio. I couldn’t fathom why it was such a monster hit. I didn’t like the singing or the song. The lyrics were silly, and inscrutable, from the meaning to the rhyme scheme: “She’ll expose you, just to snow you…She knows just what it takes to make a pro blush…” and Kim Carnes rendered them in a world-weary four pack a day croak that made them all the sillier. So why did I hesitate before twirling the dial?

It was the lusciousness of the sound of that synth riff, itself musically unremarkable. I didn’t care that it repeated throughout the song without variation, any more than you care that M & M’s all taste the same. You just want there to be more left in the bag as you munch. The proof that it was that sound that sold the song, was that the writer Jackie DeShannon, a fine singer, had released it in 1974 and it had sunk like a stone. That riff is the definition of Ear Candy.

“Bette Davis Eyes” was followed by more bad songs that became hits thanks to Ear Candy.  The Commodores “Nightshift” – a title which worked perfectly for Stephen King’s story collection – was actually based on a fatally corny concept: dead stars united for a last ghostly gig. What turned it downright sacrilegious was their lame quote of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece “What’s Going On.”  That had been a ground-breaking record, belted out at the height of ‘60s turmoil with passion, and much rarer compassion. The Commodores ripped it off as the cheap punchline of their conceit, singing it with all the passion of a lounge act fourth set Sunday night.

I actually hated “Night Shift.”  Yet I couldn’t stop listening when it came on the radio because of this fretless bass sound. It didn’t evoke sorrow—what the song strived for—but instead made me happy because it sounded so good. I wondered how they got that sound? Someone told me it came from a Yamaha DX-7, like mine. I tried to get that sound but came nowhere close. It was those golden-eared elves again, working their magic compressors, equalization, and who knows what.

A last example: Paul Young’s “Every time you go away.” Here was a case of an Okey Dokey hook being sold by Ear Candy. The songwriter’s sin is mere banality, and the singer’s is only  that of a thousand other blue-eyed boys who pretend to be soul brothers. Utterly forgettable… except for that backing track. It’s a virtual candy store – with soft sprinkles of electric sitar, a chewy bass not dissimilar to that on “Nightshift,” and a piano riff with more crunch and snap than a Snickers bar.

Though we didn’t call it ear candy back then, it had been around since the sixties. In the pre-synthesizer ‘60’s, the sweet sounds mostly came from guitars. Indeed, the hook in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” (see Part 1) is surrounded by charming pieces of ear candy, such as the chugging sound of Lennon’s rhythm guitar, or Harrison’s minimal two-note fill. The Strat that started “My Girl.” Roger McGuinn’s chiming Rickenbacher 12-string on most of the Byrds’ hits. And of course the fuzztone riff on “Satisfaction” – three otherwise unremarkable notes that had me spending $80 that I really didn’t have to buy a fuzztone.

The songs of the Beatles and the Beach Boys are undeniably great. Covers of them by other artists are never as good as the originals, partly because no one sings them as well, but also because so much money was lavished on the original productions. The Beatles ended “Sgt. Pepper” with the most expensive bars of ear candy in music history, hiring members of the London symphony to all play from the lowest to highest notes of their ranges all at  once.

Not to be outdone, Brian Wilson spent $50,000 producing the candy store of Good Vibrations. It turned out to be a good investment, becoming a number one hit. As the song chugs along to the rockinest triplets ever played on a cello, our ears are tickled by a theramin – it’s only commercially successful use outside of 50’s horror flicks. The song, counterintuitively for a pop song, actually slows and quiets as it nears the end, to a kind of electric organ dirge.  Suddenly we’re hit with a massive choral “ah,” followed by the music stopping and the voices chasing silence deep down into one of those old-school echo chambers.

The Godiva chocolate of ear candy is the joyous tinkling keyboards that open “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” telegraphing the title before a word is sung. When I first heard that song, it evoked in me what the composer intended: a yearning for pleasure in the future. Hearing it 40 years later in the movie “It’s Complicated,” it stroked my longing for pleasures long past, just as it was doing for the characters on screen. That’s a neat trick for something that at the time seamed like just another pop confection.

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From → 60's Music, Pop Music

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