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Saturday, April 13, 2019
Art & Entertainment ... Music ...

My brother plays drums in a rock cover band, and sometimes he tells me about what his band goes thru when they try to learn a new song and get it ready for a show. To me, it seems a lot more complicated than I would have thought. To the casual observer, you have the song in your mind and you just pick up guitars and sticks and imitate it. Since I’ve gone to some of my brother’s shows, I guess that I qualify as a casual observer.

Like my brother, I’m still a rock fan, so I still listen on the radio to the local FM rock stations (what few of them are left). The most serious station that I can pick up is WDHA-FM. (I realize that the internet can bring you any station in the world, but to an old guy like me that seems to be cheating; and then there’s Sirius, but buying your FM radio just doesn’t seem right to me — hey, the commercials seem like part of the experience).

So I’ve been listening to WDHA for over 20 years now. Since WNEW-FM died in 1999, DHA has been the standard for defining what rock is and isn’t. However, in recent years, I’ve come to disagree with some of their trends. In a nutshell, the style of music that they play has been inching towards rap and hip-hop, a white version thereof. At first they slipped in some hybridized tunes with rap-scat elements, by bands such as Linkin Park and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. But after a while, the standards of “hard rock” started changing, such that a lot of the tunes getting airtime on DHA now seem indistinguishable (to me) from popular hip-hop station fare. It’s just than the fact that most of the “rock-rappers” are white, like Beck and Cage the Elephant and Post Malone (and Korn is pretty far out there too).

I still listen to DHA, especially over breakfast and dinner, but have my geriatric finger ready to change to WQXR (Q 104) when things go too far afield on DHA. QXR is OK, except that a lot of its playlist belongs to DHA’s past. The songs aren’t as edgy and fresh as what DHA generally offers (although DHA isn’t always fresh, as they do stick by certain acts like Van Halen and Aerosmith). But at least the QXR sounds are familiar to aging rock people like me.

Given the edginess bias, I have been a bit surprised by a new tune getting airplay lately on DHA, one that doesn’t sound particularly hip nor all that edgy. It’s called “Dance Macabre” by Ghost. OK, so Ghost is considered an edgy act, with its satanic cult mien. But Dance Macabre itself isn’t much different than any other standard romantic evening song. Hey, maybe vampires have their romantic moments too. The refrain goes “just wanna be, wanna bewitch you in the moonlight”. Aw, cute. I mean, Frank Sinatra had a song about witchcraft too.

Come on. Beneath all the black facepaint and all the upside down crosses, Dance Macabre is just a lot of crooning about teenage desire in the night. Yea, it taps into a dark side, like we’re gonna die soon from the plague or whatever, so let’s get on with it tonight. But if you don’t get into the particulars of the lyrics and don’t pay attention to the videos (and I don’t for most tunes), it’s just another catchy pop tune. Some of the hard-core Ghost fans are quite disappointed with it – this fellow says “it feels like I’m listening to REO Speedwagon at their gushiest”.

After a few listens, “Dance” reminded me of an early Beatles tune from my youth. I’m thinking about “Hold Me Tight”, from way back in 1963. “Hold Me Tight” is also a tune that captures the essence of nocturnal hormonal concupiscence, admittedly in a quasi-innocent early-teen fashion. Yea, the lively musical style of Hold Me Tight is a bit different from Ghost’s ponderous dirge (although for Ghost, Dance Macabre is still pretty lively and innocent, although it tries to inject some darkness). But as to Hold Me Tight being entirely void of darkness – remember, 1963 was right after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when everyone from Moscow to Seattle was ready for the nuclear apocalypse. We all walked around awaiting the final chorus of air-raid sirens (the “Civil Defense” system, as the government billed it). Doctor Strangelove would soon be playing in the theaters.

So how different was the setting for Hold Me Tight than for the Black Plague of the 14th Century? Other than Hold Me Tight came out when the threat of mega-death was totally real. The notion that tonight could be our last chance was more real in 1963, even if the Beatles handled it in a much more cheery fashion.

I hadn’t heard Hold Me Tight in many, many years, but with the internet, a tune is never more than a few clicks away. After a few listens, I thought to myself, hey, that tune wasn’t so bad. It’s pretty simple, but it makes you tap your foot or sway your shoulders (if no one is watching). So I also took a look at a video of cover version of Hold Me Tight done in 2015 by some Beatles tribute band in Great Britain. Amazingly, these guys were performing in the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles got started in 1961.

In watching, I noticed that the guy doing Paul McCartney was really working away, plucking his Rickenbacker with gusto. It struck me that his base line seemed to be driving the song! That’s kind of unusual, as the base lines are usually more subtle and recessed, kind of like how onions are the base for most soups, even though you don’t notice them. But in this version of HMT, the base line seems to lead, at least as much if not more so than whatever the usual lead man (the guy imitating George Harrison) was putting down. Hmmm, quite interesting, I thought.

I then checked out another video of a base guitar guy with a McCartney-like Rickenbacker, plucking along to a karoke-like version of HMT (i.e. you could only hear the drum beat and rhythm guitar lines from the real song).

Wow, most interesting ! This tune was a lot more complex than I thought !! Could it be that Paul was responsible for the driving sound behind Hold Me Tight, and George and John were only putting in a few background fills? Well, actually no. I found a long, detailed description of the production and musical arrangement of HMT, which says that George Harrison was in fact responsible for the up and down pattern driving the main verse chorus. The music analyst calls Harrison’s guitar technique an “ostinato”, but to me it sounds like a washing machine in the first cycle, “woog-woog-woog-woog”. The early measures of Saw Her Standing There use a similar guitar sound.

Whatever the particulars, George really gave this tune a lot of momentum! HOWEVER – Paul is no slouch, he worked hard to follow George in climbing up and down the scales. If you play this song with the bass turned way up, you get the sense that Paul is driving the tune just as much as George is.

Now, as to the drumming – Ringo is said by some to have been a relatively “simple” drummer. He gets some credit in HMT for riding the floor toms in a cymbol-less “war beat” during the bridge, i.e. the change of tempo that occurs twice, about half way and three-quarters thru the song (“You Don’t Know, What It Means to Hold You Tight . . . “). But for the most part Ringo is just tapping the high-hat and snare. He puts in a fill at the end of the bridge section, but the analysis site calls his drum rolls “awkward”. I would describe it as hesitant. Ringo hits his crash symbols a bit during the shout out “Feels So Right” line, the line that starts the song and that ends the bridge, but otherwise, the drumming goes mostly unnoticed. I am not a drummer like my brother, but even I can hear that Ringo ignores a good opportunity to get fancy during the echos of the refrain (“So Hold / HOLD / Me Tight / ME TIGHT / Tonite, Tonite . . . “).

As to John’s rhythm guitar – it’s pretty basic but it fills in at just the right times. And during the bridge, you can hear a bit of a twang in his chord, clearly reminiscent of The Ventures !!! This is 1963, when the Ventures were hitting their stride on the music charts. So why not?

Bottom line: even a simple 4-4 tune like “Hold Me Tight” has a lot of layers and complexities to it!! Once you realize that, you realize how amazing it was that four guys came together to coordinate a set of complex musical expressions so well, and make it sound to casual observers (such as me) like something quite simple. And I haven’t even talked about the vocals, which require good timing and ongoing harmonic inflections between Paul and John, with George stepping up to the mike during the refrains.

Wikipedia indicates that both Paul and John didn’t really like the song too much, considered it one of their lesser works. But 53 years after I first heard it, Hold Me Tight still sounds pretty good to me! There’s a guy on Reddit who also recently stood up for HMT.

As to “Dance Macabre”, I will leave that one to others to musically deconstruct; I imagine that it is even more complex than HMT. Ghost has its own musical signatures that show up in Dance. So I come away from this little exercise in music analysis appreciating why my brother puts so much time, thought, and practice effort into what he does with his band. It really ain’t as simple as they make it sound!

And as to Hold Me Tight, the Beatles History web site says it best

For a song that has been given such a ‘bad rap’ over the years, discerning ears can detect a skillful use of songwriting tricks as well as a thunderous studio performance . . . Far from being “half finished,” as some critics have complained, we see in this song The Beatles, McCartney in particular, flexing their songwriting muscles by concocting an imaginative and tightly woven arrangement early in their career. Well done!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:59 pm      

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