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30 Days of Songs: Day 11

June 2, 2011

day 11 – a song from your favorite band: The Police: “So Lonely”

I don’t do well with questions about my “favorites.” I don’t like limiting myself in that particular way, especially, I think, with music, where I listen very broadly and for many different reasons. I wasn’t sure where to start with determining what my favorite band is, so I decided to be somewhat scientific about it by examining my iTunes stats. iTunes doesn’t cover all of my listening, but it’s the distinct majority these days, since we no longer have a working CD player that is not a computer. Most of my classical music is still on CD, however. This is not because I object to having my classical music fraternizing with rock – I like mixing it up because it makes me hear things differently — but because I don’t like the way iTunes handles multi-movement works, especially those multi-movement works that are through-composed (meaning the movements run into each other). I listen to some things on LP, but our needle is wearing out and we’re not sure where to find a new one, so we don’t listen that way much either. And I sometimes listen to the radio or Pandora, but usually only when I want background sound, not when I’m really paying attention. So iTunes seemed like the way to go. Also it’s the easiest data set to access.

First I looked at the most repeated songs and tried to tally up the bands. But I learned two things about my listening habits: 1) The songs I listen to the most are usually the only song by that band on my iPod, and 2) The vast majority of songs at the top of my repetition list are on my “Insomnia” playlist, which I talked about yesterday. When I can’t get my brain to shut down at night, I tend to put one song on auto repeat until I fall asleep. Which can sometimes take a while. So the song at the top of my repetition list is Sun Kil Moon’s cover of Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine.” It’s a song I like, but it’s not my favorite. It’s not even my favorite on my insomnia list, but it’s what I put on when I was trying to sleep on the long bus ride to Cincinnati a few months ago – “Dramamine” seemed appropriate for sleeping while on a bouncy bus. And while I have quite a lot of Modest Mouse, it’s the only song by Sun Kil Moon I own. It’s really more of a functional song for me.

Since the song reps approach wasn’t working out, I tried looking at the number of tracks per band. But that, too, was misleading, because the difference between the top and the bottom of the list turned out to be mostly about how I obtained the music. If I own it on CD, I have entire albums. The Beatles is the most represented band in my playlist because someone gifted me with a bunch of CDs. But I don’t actually listen to most of the songs very often. Also, Guided by Voices is over-represented even within the own-on-CD category, because their songs are so short and there are so many tracks on an album. I have purchased very few albums electronically. I like to have the art. But that also means most of the things I’ve acquired within the last several years were purchased by the song. Determining a band favorite by number of tracks meant that music I’ve owned for longer had a distinct advantage. And I want this meme to be more about current listening patterns.

So finally, I just had to pick a band and a song. So I went with a band near but not at the top of the repetition list, one for whom I own a lot of (but not the most) songs, one for which I don’t own whole albums (well, actually I do, but they’re all on LP, so not on iTunes), one that I’ve been a fan of for about 30 years, one whose music has worn very well: The Police. When I say the music has worn very well, I mean that I still listen to the Police for their sound, not for their nostalgia value. And that’s unusual in a band I’ve been listening to since junior high. They also put out one of my favorite albums ever, Outlandos d’Amore (1978, although I didn’t discover it until later when it was rereleased in 1980), which is where my song choice, “So Lonely,” comes from.

I really liked the combination of the reggae-like sound with the punkish freneticism that defines this song. I didn’t know much about either genre at the time I first started listening to it. My entire education in reggae was based on listening to my parents’ LP of Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come. Here’s one of my favorite tracks off that album:

I knew even less about punk, despite the fact that I lived in London during the Sid and Nancy years and used to see a lot of skinheads with safety pins woven through their cheeks when I was on the Tube heading to the orthodontist. I would sit in my small blue trench coat, belt tied at the waist, peering over my violin case at the leather-jacketed, Doc Martened skinheads while sticking my tongue in one side of my cheek and wondering what it would feel like to poke a safety pin through the skin. I didn’t even have my ears pierced.

Gratuitous musical interlude: I can’t think of skinheads without thinking of this song, which I most recently heard performed by a bluegrass band while passing through Kentucky in March. It was surprisingly awesome.

But in any case, when I first heard Outlandos d’Amore, the sound kind of blew me away. It wasn’t totally foreign to my aesthetic sensibilities, but it sounded totally new to me and exciting. The songs on Outlandos d’Amore that got the most airplay were “So Lonely,” “Roxanne,” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Of the three, “So Lonely” is my clear favorite.

The Police had fallen off my listening list for a while until a few years ago until Vampire Weekend appeared on the scene. Suddenly, A-Punk was on the radio all the time. I found myself singing “So Lonely.” The two songs have much in common.

Both songs use a similar and similarly repetitive harmonic palette. “A-Punk” repeats the chords G-F-C through most of the song. “So Lonely” uses the pattern C-G-Am-F (same chords in the same order but starting in a different position in the rotation, plus one extra chord). This in itself doesn’t unite the two songs. This kind of pattern is the basis of a huge number of rock songs. For instance, after I made my first pass through the guitar tab for “So Lonely,” instead of launching into the lyrics, I started singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” It worked perfectly, as I knew it would. This is an essential four-chord pattern. If you haven’t yet seen The Axis of Awesome’s hilarious “Four Chord song,” this is exactly what they are talking about (warning: bad language is minimal, but may not be work safe; also, Dave recently wrote about this in one of his 30 songs posts here). They’ll show you just how many songs you can sing over this chord pattern.

“Those Magic Changes” from Grease draws attention to the same convention (reordered). The backup chorus sings the names of the chords: “C, C, C, C, C, C; A-, A-, A-, A-minor; F-F-F-F-F-F, G-, G-, G-, G-seven.”

But there are other things that unite “So Lonely” and “A-Punk” too. The frenetic pace, for one. A ska beat, for another. Ska is kind of like reggae on speed, at least in its British 1970s/early ‘80s form. Listen to the drums in both songs. I am not much of an expert on drumming, but I have to say that I really like the way Stewart Copeland plays, on this album especially. Sting was the face of the band, but Copeland was the hero in my book. “So Lonely” starts out slowly in a mode that is indebted to reggae – listen to the short drum lick that opens the song and then go listen to just about anything by Bob Marley. His songs typically open with a short (although not usually as short as this) drum flourish. The beat, which is strong, emphasizes the downbeat, not the backbeat so much. It’s not that syncopation is absent, but it exists in a more foreground level in the faster notes that fill in the lengthy space between the beats.

Also listen to Copeland’s occasional interjections. The drum is definitely not background here. It’s practically a second melody. The chorus, though, cranks up the speed in a way that sounds more ska or just plain New Wave than reggae. And it’s the chorus that sounds the most like Vampire Weekend’s A-Punk. Compare the drumming in both songs and I think you’ll hear what I mean.

I like A-Punk. It was probably was my favorite song for a while a few years back. But listening to it side-by-side with the Police, it sounds lightweight to my ears. The Police were a much tighter band with some unbelievable musical skills. And there’s more to listen to.

My ears connected Vampire Weekend with the Police the very first time I heard them. I also hear a little bit of The English Beat, another ska-influenced British band from around the same era as The Police. But in interviews I’ve read about VW’s influences, they’ve never mentioned either of them. And when directly asked, they deny it. I find this interesting and maybe also a little disingenuous.

What’s your favorite band?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2011 1:12 pm

    One of the weirdest musical experiences of my life was the time that I inadvertantly put “les Mis” on shuffle play… I’ll get to Day Eleven when I get home from vacation! 🙂

  2. freshhell permalink
    June 2, 2011 2:03 pm

    I don’t have one favorite of anything – songs, books, tv shows, etc. I couldn’t even break it down by genre, sub-genre. I like early Police but don’t like Sting solo. Love Vampire Weekend, love the Fratellis, and old stuff: The Clash, The Ramones, etc……..I like different things when I’m in different moods. I’m lucky if I can match them since I’m usually only listening to music in my car and even then, I’m relegated to those 20 or so CDs that fit in the box on the passenger seat. I can’t always predict what I’m going to want to hear and I don’t switch them out often. Bottom line: I can’t possibly answer the question.

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