Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music

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"A variety of approaches are brought to bear on fascinating repertoire, but with the underlying aim of better understanding some brilliant music. There’s nothing more exciting in music writing than something which entices you to listen to what’s familiar to you in a new way, and this collection brings such excitement in abundance."
---Allan Moore, author of Jethro Tull: Aqualung and Rock: The Primary Text

"These essays bring together a remarkable range of tools and perspectives to such diverse topics and contexts as the behind-the-scenes collaborations of composers, performers, arrangers, producers and engineers; pop culture; narratology; and race, politics and gender. The reader continuously benefits from a complementary lineup of sensitive ears that discover novelty in the familiar, exposing the heart of many rock and pop classics through imaginative and authoritative prose."
---Walter Everett, author of The Foundations of Rock and The Beatles as Musicians

The nine essays in Sounding Out Pop work together to map the myriad styles and genres of the pop-rock universe through detailed case studies that confront the music from a variety of engaging, thought-provoking perspectives---from historical to music-analytic, aesthetic to ethnographic, with several authors drawing liberally from ideas in other disciplines. The range of bands and artists covered is as vast and varied as the more than fifty-year history of pop and rock music, from the Coasters and Roy Orbison to Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Beck, Genesis, Tori Amos, and the Police. Together these diverse essays cover a broad spectrum of studies ideally suited for classroom use and for other readers interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of the way popular music works.

Mark Spicer is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His writings have appeared in Contemporary Music Review, Gamut, Music Theory Online, twentieth-century music, and other scholarly journals and essay collections.

John Covach is Professor of Music at the University of Rochester and Professor of Theory at the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of the college textbook What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History and the coeditor of Understanding Rock, American Rock and the Classical Music Tradition, and Traditions, Institutions, and American Popular Music.

Cover art credit: © Dickov

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472115051
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 6/22/2010
  • Series: Tracking Pop Series
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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Sounding Out Pop

Analytical Essays in Popular Music

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03400-0

Chapter One

Leiber and Stoller, the Coasters, and the "Dramatic AABA" Form


THE HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL is filled with stories: everybody who was involved in any way, it sometimes seems, has a story to tell about some important figure or event in rock's past. There is little debate among popular music scholars that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller played a crucial role in the early history of rock and roll. They were among the most important songwriters in the first decade of rock and also pioneered and developed the idea of the independent record producer. They were involved in rhythm and blues in the early 1950s before the style crossed over onto the pop charts, writing songs and running the independent label Spark out of Los Angeles. They enjoyed regional success with acts such as Big Mama Thornton and the Robins, the second of which would be the precursor to the Coasters. Working for Atlantic Records, they figured into rock's explosion later in the decade, writing songs for Elvis Presley and others, and helped develop the new style of sweet soul in the early 1960s, a style that enjoyed considerable commercial success until the advent of the British invasion in early 1964.

Leiber and Stoller like to tell stories, and a favorite has to do with their first major success. While the details tend to change somewhat as the years go by, the gist of it goes something like this: Leiber calls Stoller and says, "Hey, we've got a hit record." Stoller says, "Great, what song?" Leiber says, "Hound Dog." Stoller says, "Hound Dog, the Big Mama Thornton record?" and Leiber says, "No, a version by some kid named Elvis Presley." Stoller says, "Elvis who?!" Of course, Leiber and Stoller went on to write several more tunes for Elvis, mostly for his movies ("Jailhouse Rock" is the classic among these), and the sense that they had the "hit maker's touch" did much to establish their reputation and credibility in the burgeoning field of youth music. In the period between 1954 and 1964, Leiber and Stoller penned songs for a host of artists besides Presley, including the Coasters, the Drifters, Ray Charles, and Ruth Brown, and produced records for the Coasters, the Drifters, and Ben E. King, among others.

In the midst of such broad success in pop songwriting and producing, Leiber and Stoller's most interesting work may well be the records they made with the Coasters. In fact, their partnership with the Coasters provides rich ground on which one can see many musical and cultural trends of the 1950s and even the 1960s coming together. Perhaps most obviously, we have two white men writing songs about African-American culture for a black doo-wop group or, as Jerry Leiber has described it, "a white kid's take on a black kid's take of white society." The Coasters' lead singer, Carl Gardner, has remarked on how puzzled he was that these two white guys could get it right about black culture so much of the time:

Leiber and Stoller were writing black music, and these were two Jewish kids [who] knew my culture better than I knew my culture. And I said, "How do they do that?" You know, and I wondered and I thought about it: "How do they know what we do?" 'Cause every song they wrote was in our culture.

Regarding the nature of their working relationship with the group, Leiber and Stoller give a lot of credit to the Coasters, who had the right to reject or modify ideas that the songwriters brought to them and whose theatrically influenced performances vividly brought the songs to life. Jerry Leiber remarks, "When we hit on something that was really in the ballpark—which was, like, theater, fun, universal—they were the best." As scholars have noted for many years, race plays a central role in the history of rock and roll; the partnership of Leiber and Stoller and the Coasters further underscores the notion that the meeting of black and white cultures in the 1950s could be a complicated and multifaceted exchange. Indeed, this topic could serve as the focus of an extended study of Coasters music considered from cultural and social perspectives, which could provide much insight into the nature of such collaborative endeavors. The present chapter, however, will not focus on this dimension of Coasters records, at least not overtly; instead, it will survey the formal structure of these tracks, zeroing in on a formal type that I call the "dramatic AABA form," an exceptional form within rock music that arose, it will be argued, as a direct consequence of the short, often comical tracks Leiber and Stoller wrote for the Coasters, tracks they called "playlets." In order to better understand the playlet, and the various formal solutions Leiber and Stoller employed to realize it in a series of records, it will be useful to establish a bit more historical context.

What Is the Secret of Your Success? Leiber and Stoller, the Coasters, and Hit Singles

Jerry Leiber was born in Baltimore (1933) and Mike Stoller on Long Island (1933), but both relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1940s as youngsters. Leiber had an inclination toward the theater, hanging around the Hollywood studios whenever he could, while Stoller had studied piano and musical composition formally (his first composition teacher had been film composer Arthur Lange); despite these differences, they both loved rhythm and blues (R & B) fervently and felt themselves drawn to African-American culture and music. They had their first success as songwriters in the Los Angeles rhythm and blues scene of the early 1950s, pitching their songs to local singers such as Big Mama Thornton and working with established musicians such as Johnny Otis. The duo soon became associated with record promoter Lester Sill, and with Sill they formed a small independent label called Spark Records. It was during these early years that Leiber and Stoller first met members of a black vocal group called the Robins, the group that would later become the Coasters. It was also at about this time that they began to expand their role in the record business beyond the confines of songwriting, acting as producers in the studio with Leiber coaching the singers and Stoller handling the arrangements and often playing piano on the tracks. In establishing their own label, they gained greater freedom than they might otherwise have had, and their use of this freedom would have significant consequences for the future of rock and roll.

Leiber and Stoller began to enjoy a series of West Coast R & B hits, especially with the Robins, but they were not successful in getting these records distributed nationally, a perennial problem for a small label in those days. These singles would ultimately stall on the charts. The brother of Atlantic Records owner Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, was based on the West Coast, charged with keeping an eye out for regional Leiber and Stoller, the Coasters, and the "Dramatic AABA" Form 3 hits that Atlantic could license for national distribution. Nesuhi tipped off Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, and this led to Atlantic re-releasing the Robins' "Smokey Joe's Café" in late 1955. As a Spark record, "Smokey Joe's Café" had hit number 122 on the national R & B charts, but as an Atlantic release it went to number 10 nationally and even placed as high as number 79 on the pop charts as well. Wexler had Atlantic buy Spark, with the larger label taking over the rights to the catalog; he then signed Leiber and Stoller to Atlantic as independent producers. The duo no longer had to worry about running a label; Wexler had given them a license to write and produce records. This new arrangement did not sit well with all of the Robins, however, and the group split up, with lead singer Carl Gardner and bass Bobby Nunn forming the Coasters (short for West Coasters) together with Billy Guy and Leon Hughes. Initially Leiber and Stoller recorded Coasters records at Master Recorders in Los Angeles, using many of the same studio musicians as before (including the master jazz guitarist Barney Kessel), but after the double-sided success of "Searchin'" and "Young Blood"—both of which hit number 1 on the R & B charts and broke into the Top 10 on the pop charts—they relocated to New York. The New York sessions, with Atlantic's Tom Dowd now behind the mixing board, produced a string of hit records starting with "Yakety Yak" in 1958, which topped both the pop and R & B charts and introduced the trademark sax playing of King Curtis. The follow-up singles "Charlie Brown" and "Poison Ivy" did almost as well in 1959, although subsequent records tended to cross over less forcefully with the exception of 1961's "Little Egypt," which hit number 23 on the pop charts and number 16 on the R & B charts.

How Do They Do That? Playlets, Form, and the Dramatic AABA

Not all of the Coasters sides recorded with Leiber and Stoller were playlets. The Robins had enjoyed a number 1 R & B hit in 1950 with "Double Crossing Blues," and it is thus easy to understand why the Coasters were unwilling to completely break with the R & B vocal group tradition. Consequently, there are several Coasters tracks that seem to have little to do with their better-known playlet records. Having acknowledged such exceptions, however, it is fair to say that the Coasters are mostly remembered for the playlets. The term was coined by Leiber and Stoller, and they think of playlets as songs that act out a story in the manner of a radio play, often using a wide range of musical styles and sometimes even sound effects to enhance the drama and story, which is almost always humorous. The first playlet was "Riot in Cell Block #9," recorded by the Robins in 1954 and inspired by the radio drama Gangbusters. As its title suggests, the song tells the story of a prison uprising, sketching a colorful set of characters along the way and reinforcing the narrative with sirens and gunshots, presumably taken from standard sound effects recordings of the day. Given Leiber's interest in acting, Stoller's interest in film scores and concert music, and the gifts for comedic performance possessed by the Robins and Coasters, the playlet seems to have been almost inevitable. While Leiber and Stoller most often refer to the radio play as a model, in live performances (many of which survive on film) there was also a certain amount of Broadway and Hollywood performance practice in these songs, especially "Along Came Jones" and "What Is the Secret of Your Success?"

Figure 1.1 provides an overview of the different formal types that can be found among Coasters singles. The figure lists over twenty sides that range from 1954 to 1961, starting with some of the Robins songs and containing all the Coasters hits written by Leiber and Stoller. Simple verse forms are listed first; these are songs that simply repeat a single verse structure over and over again, often with new lyrics but with no chorus. Simple verse forms often include a refrain, either at the beginning or end of the verse, serving as a kind of "minichorus" and often containing the song's hook. In "Yakety Yak," for instance, the refrain is "yakety yak, don't talk back," placed at the end of each verse. The simple verse-chorus form is similar to simple verse except that now there is a chorus, although this chorus is sung over the same music as the verse. For those unfamiliar with the two songs listed in the example, consider Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," which uses the same twelve-bar blues progression throughout as the harmonic structure of both verses and choruses. When the music supporting the chorus is not the same as in the verses, the resulting form is a contrasting verse-chorus form. Those unfamiliar with the songs listed in figure 1.1 might consider the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" or the Beatles' "Penny Lane," both of which have very clear choruses that contrast strongly with the verses.

The AABA form is a favorite among Tin Pan Alley composers, and the most conventional version of this form runs thirty-two measures in length, with four eight-bar phrases making up the four sections. The AABA form consists of two verses, a bridge, and a verse (note that there is no chorus). As in the simple verse form, a refrain is often found in the verses of AABA forms, especially in songs composed during the Brill Building days, and that refrain is often where the hook is located. Early Beatles hits are overwhelmingly AABA forms, and noting this form is one way we can document the influence of American Brill Building pop on early Lennon-McCartney songs. If a song has a chorus, that chorus is always the focus of the tune, but when a chorus is not present, as is the case with an AABA song, the focus is on the verses. The bridge in an AABA form is often so subordinate that it serves only as a way to get away from the verse and allow it to be reintroduced as fresh; consequently, many listeners cannot easily remember the bridges of AABA songs. Many who know the song, for instance, can easily recall the verses to "Charlie Brown," but most will have at least some difficulty recalling the bridge.

In the Coasters tracks listed under compound AABA in figure 1.1, each verse contains a refrain that resists being subordinated within the verse and seems to approach being a self-standing chorus. Full-fledged compound AABA forms employ a clear verse and chorus for each of the A sections, with contrasting music constituting the B section. Examples can be found in the 1960s—the Phil Spector/Righteous Brothers track "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" is a good example—and the form became almost the default form of choice in much 1970s rock. In these Coasters tracks, however, one can see the AABA form beginning to pull away from the simpler thirty-two-bar model, mostly under the force of a refrain that seems to have outgrown its role within the structural confines of the verse. But the verses of these songs are not yet clearly compound AABA, so the term incipient is used to mark this distinction.

Figure 1.1 shows that the Coasters sides employ all of the typical forms associated with popular music. A few of the tracks—"Smokey Joe's Café," "Down in Mexico," and "Little Egypt"—employ a novel formal type not found elsewhere in rock (or if it can be found it is certainly not common). This novel form I call the "dramatic AABA" in part because it seems to arise out of the dramatic requirements of the playlet idea. As mentioned earlier, not all Coasters songs are playlets; it should be noted in addition that not all playlets employ dramatic AABA form. It will become clear, however, that the dramatic AABA form, when it is present, is employed in the service of the unfolding narrative of the song concerned and its structure presents an interesting twist on the well-worn AABA design. Perhaps most significant, the dramatic AABA form elevates the bridge section to greater prominence than it has in other AABA forms. A bridge section (or B section) is usually subordinate to the verses (or A sections), and even in a compound AABA the bridge (B) is subordinate to the verse-chorus pairs (A). But in a dramatic AABA form, the bridge emerges as the narrative climax of the song: the first two A sections develop the story, the bridge (B) is the culmination, and the last A section serves as a kind of epilogue. The dramatic AABA form thus inverts the relationship of the A sections to the bridge (B); rather than being a section that simply serves to provide contrast in order to make the return of the A section seem fresh, the bridge becomes the most important section in the tune. In order to see this more clearly, let us take a closer look at two instances of the dramatic AABA form, beginning with "Down in Mexico" from 1956.

A Dance I Never Saw Before: "Down In Mexico"

In a recording session at Master Recorders in Los Angeles on 11 January 1956, the Coasters were able to record four Leiber and Stoller songs. "Turtle Dovin'" and "Down in Mexico" were released on Atlantic's Atco label in February, while "One Kiss Led to Another" and "Brazil" were released in July. Of these four songs, only "Down in Mexico" and "One Kiss Led to Another" can really be considered playlets. "One Kiss Led to Another" tells the story of a couple that cannot get much done but kissing despite their attempts to do otherwise, and the "Down in Mexico" story of adventure south of the border will be discussed subsequently. The lyrics to "Turtle Dovin'" do not develop a story line but rather explore various ways to describe a woman who prefers staying home with her lover to going out. "Brazil" is a somewhat traditional song, set to a Latin theme, that waxes nostalgic over happier romantic times in Brazil. In terms of form, "Turtle Dovin'" has a simple verse form, while the form of "Brazil" is largely episodic, even if much of the music is based on a chromatic inner-voice figure that rises from perfect fifth to augmented fifth to major sixth and back down again above the roots of E-flat and F minor chords respectively. Of the playlets recorded in this session, "One Kiss Led to Another" is a contrasting verse-chorus form while "Down in Mexico" employs the dramatic AABA. The four songs from this single session underscore the idea that not all Coasters songs are playlets and not all playlets use the dramatic AABA form.

Carl Gardner handles the lead vocals on "Down in Mexico," backed by the other Coasters. The band for these sessions included jazz guitarist Barney Kessel and saxophonist Gil Bernal, as well as Mike Stoller on the piano. Figure 1.2 provides a formal diagram for the song and shows how "Down in Mexico" employs the dramatic AABA structure. The A sections are verses that consist of two eight-bar sections, both of which are built on a simple harmonic foundation. In the first of these sections, the harmony stays on the tonic of E-flat minor, moving to the dominant for bars seven and eight, and in the second verse section the harmony alternates between the tonic and subdominant. The lyrics for the first verse section change with each of the three verses, while the lyrics for the second section remain the same from verse to verse. The use of the same text in the second part of each verse suggests that this section might be thought of as a chorus. But in terms of the rhetoric of the song these second sections are neither the focus nor the hook of the song. Even if they are considered extended refrains—that is, "choruslike" without constituting a distinct section—one might still expect these sections to provide more of a focus point. Since such focus does not occur, this verse will be considered to be in two parts, with the second part acting as a refrain might but with none of the rhetorical effect within the form.


Excerpted from Sounding Out Pop Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xi

1 Leiber and Stoller, the Coasters, and the "Dramatic AABA" Form John Covach 1

2 "Only the Lonely": Roy Orbison's Sweet West Texas Style Albin Zak 18

3 Ego and Alter Ego: Artistic Interaction between Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn James Grier 42

4 Marvin Gaye as Vocal Composer Andrew Flory 63

5 A Study of Maximally Smooth Voice Leading in the Mid-1970s Music of Genesis Kevin Holm-Hudson 99

6 "Reggatta de Blanc": Analyzing Style in the Music of the Police Mark Spicer 124

7 Vocal Authority and Listener Engagement: Musical and Narrative Expressive Strategies in the Songs of Female Pop-Rock Artists, 1993-95 Lori Burns 154

8 Recombinant Style Topics: The Past and Future of Sampling Rebecca Leydon 193

9 "I'm Not Here, This Isn't Happening": The Vanishing Subject in Radiohead's Kid A Marianne Tatom Letts 214

Contributors 245

Index 249

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