I’m sitting in a hotel room in Tampa on a business trip. I never like turning on the TV in a hotel room for some reason, and the WiFi is free, so I’m fooling around on Twitter and Facebook and email and listening to my iTunes on shuffle.
R.E.M.‘s “Shaking Through” comes on, one of the most influential modern songs of my life: it’s always sounded like a noise I’d enjoy making.
In college, I was having a lousy junior year, lonely in an apartment that I thought was going to be a blast, except all my friends ended up with jobs or girlfriends or the urge to drive home a lot, and I was left alone when I wanted not to be alone.
One beautiful fall afternoon I sat on the shag carpet, alone, and angry that I was alone. Two floors down, I heard a noise.
Uncharacteristically I rose, opened my apartment door in a trance, drifted down the stairs following the sound like a cartoon character follows a visible scent with his nose, and ended up in front of the basement apartment of someone I’d never met.
I knocked. He answered. “Um,” I said, suddenly worried he had begun constructing false and paranoid explanations of why I was bothering him. “What… what’s the music you’re playing?”
“‘Radio Free Europe’ by R.E.M.” He went in and found the album cover and let me hold it.
I went upstairs, got my wallet, and walked to Discount Den to spend my meager pizza funds on Murmur.
Tonight, bored in Tampa, I realize that if somehow three Nashville producers were induced to sit through all of _Murmur_’s shambly, mumbly, jangly Side 2 opener, “Shaking Through,” one would turn to the other and say, “Barry Manilow.”
Another would agree. “Yep. Barry Manilow.”
The third would nod and chuckle, “Heh, heh.”
That’s exactly what happened to me on one of the earliest songs I had that “worked.”
I sat in a publisher review with several people. My song—prescreened and approved by the person who was staging the session—was played. The three publishers all did a good job of appearing to pay attention throughout everybody’s entire songs, which is a luxury (the universal protocol is that it’s all right for a person critiquing a song to turn it off after the first verse and chorus).
That the publishers persisted till the end was lucky for me, because the really clever part of my song comes in its coda.
The hook is “One Thing Right and One Thing Wrong,” and the singer is a husband listing the ways that he regularly undoes his every good move by doing something stupid. One verse, for example, runs: “I said ‘I like your new hairdo’/She said ’It’s been that way for a week or two’/I was doing housework for ’bout an hour/Started the clothes while she was in the shower” and then the chorus appears, starting with the hook line.
Toward the end, I start switching it all around with different rhymes that the audience sort of figures out the split second before I sing them, which usually elicits a laugh. For example: “It’s just about as miserable as you’d suspect/Doing one thing right and one… incorrect” or “It blows the day to kingdom come/Doing one thing smart and one thing dumb.” You get the idea.
At one point during this section, the bushy eyebrows of one publisher flew up, up toward the ceiling, up toward his hairline.
Then a moment later, another chuckled to himself.
At the end, after a couple other comments, one of them said, “Barry Manilow.”
Another said, “Yep.”
The third one said, “Heh, heh.”
I’ve seen other publishers say the exact same things, in that order, to other people since the day it happened to me.
Would they have said it to Jack Tempchin and Robert Arnold Strandlund, the writers of the Eagles’ “Already Gone?” They might have.
Here in Tampa, as it happens, I’m spending a couple days riding around doing research with a co-worker whose friend was road manager for the Eagles.
“Now that they don’t do drugs, it’s all about the food. Most of what my friend does is set up the best chef in each city to do a spread of food backstage. Another friend of ours got to go back with her one time (even though I work with this woman, she obviously has a whole different set of types-of-friends than I do; none of my friends go backstage at Eagles concerts).
“She ended up making friends with Glenn Frey. She was going to go on the plane with him—he still hates the others and won’t fly on the same plane as them—but a bodyguard warned her, ‘As soon as you hear the opening of “Hotel California,” go immediately to the limo. As soon as that song’s over they sprint to the limos, head to the planes, and it’s wheels up, bam, off they go.’"
So as “Hotel California” fingerpicks to life, if a trio of Nashville publishers were hanging out backstage eating the delicious foods of the best chefs in America, they’d have already turned to each other to say, “Barry Manilow.” “Yep.” “Heh, heh.”
Because “Already Gone” and “Shaking Through” (and the R.E.M. hit “Stand”) all share what Nashville producers regard as a flaw: they modulate unnecessarily.
That means that toward the end of the song, in their view, the writer or arranger didn’t know how to raise the level of excitement any other way except to move the song up into a different key. If it began in the key of A, modulating up a whole step would put the song in B. Another whole-step modulation would take it to C#.
In his string of 1970s radio hits, Barry Manilow relied on the “modulate up one key” device over and over. Usually he’d slow everything down in a big ritardando and just when you thought the song was lurching to a close, he’d raise up a step and repeat the last verse.
Done once, it creates a sort of triumphant renewal of the song. Done twice, it can make the song seem like it’s spiraling into a frenzy of some kind.
That was kinda what I had in mind when I made the end of “One Thing Right and One Thing Wrong” modulate twice. It starts in the key of C, but it ends in the key of E.
In the Land of Disciplined Songwriting, those shifts give off an odor of desperation. They sound like a quick fix, the last resort.
Which isn’t fair, of course.
Would “New York, New York” be as powerful without its half-step modulation? Is anyone less fond of “Surrender” because Rick Nielsen snuck a modulation in toward the end?
No. No one even knows what you’re talking about if you try to point it out.
But in Nashville, you stick a couple modulations in, and you’re courting easy dismissal. Because the “Barry Manilow, yep, heh heh” carries with it a “back in the excessive 1970s when things were less disciplined” and “sometimes showmanship wins out over craftsmanship, but not when I’m in charge” implication that lets the publisher drop his interest in your song.
And since they listen to tens of thousands of songs in their careers, they’re constantly looking for a reason to drop your song. It’s just easier for them. The only songs they want are the ones they can’t get rid of. The ones they can’t find any reason to dismiss.
When I listen to Nashville radio stations, I have to admit, I don’t hear songs modulating.
Sitting in my hotel room, after “Shaking Through” has long been shuffled past on my iTunes, I find myself wondering if I should rework “One Thing Right and One Thing Wrong” to eliminate my temptation to step it up, step it up, step it up.
Or maybe I should just let it go, move forward, and take a lesson from those publisher eyebrows that flew up at the raising of the key a whole step.
I shouldn’t fight it. From now on, if a song starts in E, it ends in E.
Heh. Heh heh.