Hatched… Cooked… (2)

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Deryck Cooke, photographed in 1964 (picture from the internet).

Last week, I uploaded a posting that contained an extended quotation from a 1968 article by Deryck Cooke (1919-76) and links to the five pop songs mentioned in it  (four of which I’d never heard until a few days earlier). If everyone who’s interested has digested all of that, I’ll move on to the next bit…

I said that I had a few thoughts — worthwhile, I reckoned! — about each of these songs, and invited people to compare their ponderings with mine. So here are mine — and I hope they prompt people to type their own into the ‘Comments’ box at the end!

First, there’s Harold Arlen’s 1930s classic, ‘Stormy Weather’. Cooke diagnoses “a genuine seven-bar first section, spoiled by [the] mechanical addition of an unnecessary instrumental bar to make up the eight”. You can hear this very easily in the recording, as long as you’re correctly counting four disconsolately plodding beats in every bar (the section’s first bar arrives at ‘[Don’t know] / WHY…’, and the third at ‘[Stormy] / WEAther…’:

Myself, I’d amplify Cooke’s point a little and state outright that the tune would actually make a significantly more intense effect if the next section’s ‘Life is / Bare…’ came in right at the end of that seventh bar — and if I ever had the job of arranging that song, that’s what I’d make it do: the musical tightening would even contribute a feeling of ‘relentlessness’ to the singer’s anguished preoccupation with the verses’ single topic. (Naturally, for that compression to work, the resulting superabundance of tonic harmony would need a little bit of tweaking…)

I’d like to add something to Cooke’s observation, as well. While Arlen’s first section is indeed seven bars rounded up to eight, it’s worth paying attention to what he does in his second section: have a listen to the following, and count the bars in the second section as well as the first…

Cooke says nothing about that second section, but it really is a notable departure from the unwelcome regularity imposed on the first: by the time it has finally concluded, this second section has extended across 10 entire bars.

Now listen to the whole song and count the bar-periods of the ‘stormy weather’ sections every time they appear. (We’ll ignore for now the strongly contrasting paragraphs that Arlen places between these appearances.) What we get is the following, rather splendid structure:

Intro:  1 2 3 4 (greatly slowing towards the end!)

Verse 1 Section 1: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 [8]

Verse 1 Section 2: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

[[Contrasting Episode 1]]

Verse 2 : 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

[[Contrasting Episode 2]]

Verse 3: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Have a listen, and check these numbers as the bars go by:

Yes: in the two re-presentations of the verse, Arlen introduces a quite massive compression in that he condenses the two original sections into one — and, on top of that, makes this unit a different length than either of the previous versions (I’ve counted only the bars of the vocal part). He also gives the final presentation a slightly different ending (spot the high note from which we now descend?) so as to bring the entire structure to a more decisive close.

All in all, this is a pretty nice collection of varied phrases — as I daresay Cooke would have acknowledged, had he been offered the limitless space of the internet for his discussion, rather than a tiny corner within the packed pages of The Listener

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Deryck Cooke, photographed in 1964 (picture from the internet).

All right. Let’s fast-forward to the mid-60s, and turn to ‘Downtown’ by Tony Hatch. Here we can say right away that history has proved Cooke correct — and in no uncertain terms. Of the four Hatch songs he discussed, back in 1968, he considered that this one ‘is wearing best’; and, now, after almost 50 years have passed, it’s the only one left, judging from the fact that one still finds it being busked — as opposed to the other three, which, now that I’ve heard them, I don’t remember encountering anywhere at all, ever.

Cooke doesn’t really say much about ‘Downtown’, apart from his approving remark about the ‘tense, syncopated approach to its climax’ — so allow me to add a few thoughts to his, before we hear the song once again…

First, notice the shrewd way that Hatch starts the song with nothing but a piano: the lyrics (once they begin) will be concerned with ‘alone-ness’ — and so the music opens with the entire texture coming from a single player at one instrument, providing an accompaniment to nothing

Secondly, hear how the descending interval which tells us of the transforming discovery that is ‘Downtown’ actually exists in two different forms in two different structural contexts. To begin with — in the first of the song’s succession of four distinct ideas that go round and round — it is ‘sneaked in’ as a mere suggestion, an idea, placed at the end of the line and after the start of its bar, and sung as a drop from the tonic degree to the dominant (E to B in this key):

… you can always go — downtown…

At the other end of the succession, this motif has been creatively reinterpreted: it’s moved to the beginning of the unit, shifted onto the barline so as to qualify for a downbeat accent, been promoted to the principal, dominating gesture of the phrase, and moved upwards so as to now comprise a descent from the dominant degree to the mediant (B to G sharp here):

Downtown! Things will be great when you’re
Downtown…

(Note also that the unifying rhythmic element moves in the opposite direction, changing from a start to a middle, as it were: compare the rhythm of ‘When you’re alone, and life…‘, which initiates a phrase, with that of ‘Things will be great when you’re…‘, which comes after one ‘Downtown’ and leads towards the next.)

A third applausive comment I might make actually concerns Hatch’s use of something that normally strikes me as an annoying and all too common weakness in pop songs. This is the semitonal ‘jack up’ into a new (and jarringly unrelated) key that a songwriter or arranger will often use to try and kick a bit of life into a static and undeveloping structure that is already flat on its back long before the lyrics have finished. (For a particularly pitiful demonstration, hear this monstrosity all the way to the end.) While I wouldn’t say that Hatch’s use of it here — shifting the song from E major to F major and leaving it there), is altogether free of structural desperation, it does also serve something of a dramatic, narrative function: the mostly instrumental presentation heard at that point appears not only to illustrate one’s imaginary arrival ‘downtown’, but also prepares for the change in tone that comes with discussion of a positive change to that original state of alone-ness. Which, to my mind, functionalises the gesture somewhat, makes it rather more purposive creatively than is usually the case.

As a final observation, I hope I will be allowed to say — miles outside the pop music world though I am! — that I think Petula Clark carries this off very well.

Go on: give it a go…

As it happens, there are a couple of things in the song that I myself would never have put in. One of them comes at the very end — in the form of that muted brass ‘cutloose’ that you’ve just heard hurtling wildly about in the ‘repeat to fade’. (I’ve always hated the pop gesture of the ‘repeat to fade’ in any case…)

The other is that glockenspiel ‘ting!‘ that we keep hearing, and whose wholly unnecessary purpose seems to be to dramatise the occurrence of another ‘bright idea’ in the form of the next escapist distraction. Mind you, it may be that this kind of tintinnabular percussion intrusion is a long-standing Hatch weakness. My ears have always rebelled at the way a certain grotesquely anti-musical bell sound rips into the texture here…

… while the tuned percussion elements of the following instrumental arrangement are among the (many) features that, in their shocking insensitivity, seem to call for whatever musical equivalent there might be of a Public Health Warning…

(Note that we didn’t get a semitonal ‘jack up’ in that version: instead, we heard a ‘sag to the subdominant’ — and one of the trumpets not paying proper attention [2’04”]…)

In spite of those criticisms, however, ‘Downtown’ strikes me as a pretty successful structure that justifies its length and makes its expressive impact clearly and enjoyably. I’m not at all surprised that it has lasted as well as it has; and I’m not too proud or too snobby to say that I’d be jolly pleased to have written it myself. (No, that’s nothing whatsoever to do with ‘the money’, so stop smirking.) Nor am I surprised that even a musical mind on Deryck Cooke’s level of greatness didn’t entirely despise it, rudimentary though it is in so many of its structural particulars.

But we still have three Hatch songs to discuss — the three that didn’t seem to impress Cooke much at all. Am I going to agree with him; or will I find myself defending Hatch against Cooke — and therefore disagreeing with one of my top musical and musicological heroes…? You’ll need to see the next posting to find out…

Meanwhile, don’t forget to add your ‘Comments’ below…

MD

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3 thoughts on “Hatched… Cooked… (2)

  1. An interesting analysis of musical flotsam, which I know sounds dismissive but I did enjoy counting through the plodding bars of Stormy Weather and listening to Downtown with your comments in mind. I thought you’d ruined Petula Clark’s version of Downtown forever (not a great tragedy, I know) by mentioning the ‘ting’, which really does jar when you’re aware of it. Still, I’d forgotten about it the next day and overlooked it while I was listening for the shifting notes used for the ‘Downtown’ melody – that could be a testament to my failing memory or maybe the ting isn’t so offensive after all. As for the cliched brass-out at the end, I agree it’s completely unnecessary. I think it was supposed to represent the abandonment and wild fun that could be had by people grooving in a 60s way downtown; it also reminded me of the cheesy big band flourishes that were used to play performers in and out on variety shows of the time. Finally, I agree that the other three songs you mentioned are instantly forgettable – at least I’ve forgotten them since I listened to them last night.

    I’m not generally a fan of easy listening but if you continue with the Hatch/Clark theme, I’d be interested to read your analysis of “Call Me”. I really like that song, though having just listened to PC’s version for the first time I think it’s easy to understand why so many others covered it thinking they could do a better job.

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  2. re: Stormy Weather

    Interesting that Cooke simply ignores the upbeat before what he would categorise as “bar 1”. Whilst I can see your point about collapsing the reiteration of that update into “bar 7”, to my ear (I tried this at home) the compression is too rushed for the languid, almost limpid nature of this song.

    There’s another point, too. As you note, Arlen goes on to do really imaginative things with his structure, about as radical as the world of popular song ever got in the 30s (OK, I’ve done zero research in support of that statement, so feel to disprove it!). Sometimes, though, in order to be radical, you have to pretend you’re a conservative. What better way to start such an adventurous song than with a perfectly innocuous (if lovely) 8-bar statement. You’re lulled into a false sense of security, before your world is turned upside down…

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  3. re: Downtown

    I prefer this version of that recording:

    Not only is the sound processed (stereo separation?) so you can better hear the arranger’s skills, but you’re also spared Ms Clark’s miming (OK, I could close my eyes instead). A tremendous song which I have no difficulty remembering from its original release. And I rather like the muted brass at the end, even. A hommage to New York (seemingly the song’s inspiration), perhaps?

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