Pop: The Neverending Story – Part 1

There’s an on-going debate among amateur rock afficionados that pits Elvis Presley against the Beatles. It is a battle to determine which had the greater influence in the world of popular music. One thing the Fab Four camp can’t deny here is that the King predated and directly influenced the Beatles. John Lennon once said: “Before Elvis, there was nothing”… Anyway, the legacy debate can hardly be decided objectively because both Elvis and the mop tops left an unprecedented and unquantifiable legacy.

On the other hand, it’s not a case of de gustibus non est disputandum either. It’s more of a philosophical stance. When singing the Beatles’ praises, most point to their innovation; how ‘artistically important’ they were in initiating concepts such as bands writing their own material and releasing full albums of songs instead of ‘just’ churning out a steady stream of singles.

But writing one’s own music is not always necessarily a good thing, but this has at any rate become ubiquitous. Incidentally, after music publishing laws changed (around the time of the Beatles’ emergence on the scene) in 1963, the quality of songwriting dropped considerably. And long-playing albums still consist of songs which float or sink – whether artistically or on Billboard – on their own merit.

Anyway, the Beatles, it is said, basically invented psychedelic rock, ‘deep folk pop’, world music, and orchestral arrangements of rock numbers (not to mention time-honored rock traditions such as excessive drug use and hermitic career interludes in exotic countries such as India). And pointing to all of these distinctions betrays a worldview, which places great importance on art and even more on its progress… Some people do not share this philosophy and so end up favoring artists simply for excellence in doing their job.

Artists like Elvis. From the beginning, Elvis maintained that he wanted to be a ballad singer. Everything else that he became, including rock ‘n’ roll protoplast, happened unwittingly. The thing is that the King’s appeal is in his unique voice and stage persona, not in innovation. Throughout his long career, Elvis was simply a consummate professional who sold songs to the world (he did not write music), without taking himself too seriously.

An unexpected side-effect is that an artist or performer like this will often become original (and therefore ‘important’). That’s what some people want to see in their favorite artists (like me), while for others it is precisely the opposite. For some, aspiring merely to be a ballad singer as opposed to auteur of transcendental concept albums is embarrassingly unsophisitcated and uncouth; a veritable faux pas.

But this is the way it was for ages prior to the cultural upheavals of the 60s. Actually, this kind of artistic self-importance did have a precedent in the Romantic movement of the 19th century, but now it entered the realm of popular songcraft, which by definition should remain simple (which makes it popular). Whereas a lot of 60s and 70s bands seemed to go on a trip never to return to earth along with their fans, a large portion of artists held on to ‘hackneyed’ old-time conventions; namely playing agreeable tunes and selling them as a commodity first and foremost.

The numbers come in handy here (even though they don’t constitute my alpha and omega). Elvis’ chart success and sales far surpass those of the Beatles and other classic bands such as The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. What’s more, Elvis, in turn, is himself completely eclipsed by an even greater giant of pop music: Bing Crosby. Crosby’s heyday was the first half of the 20th century so he is often forgotten, but the numbers have survived; his chart popularity surpasses Elvis’ almost four-fold. I’d say that this speaks, at the very least, to the popularity of good old fashioned songcraft and crooning.


Secondary Dominants – part 2

A great example of an effective application of the secondary dominant – and of masterful songcraft in general – is the perennial Latin classic, “Perfidia” by Alberto Domínguez (1911–1975). It has been performed by some of the most renowned entertainers, like Nat King Cole (above), but versions by Trio Los Panchos as well as Xavier Cugat’s legendary orchestra serve our musical purpose better here. The chord progression for the section discussed is as follows:

Dm, D7, Gm, A7, Dm

D7____, Gm, E7,  A7

After a brief introduction, the song proper commences with a wistful melody over the tonic D minor chord, which then transforms into the corresponding D7 secondary dominant. This pulls the melody nicely into the ‘away’ feel of the subdominant G minor, D7′s tonic. It’s far more poignant than a simple Dm, Gm progression would have been. The phrase ends with a perfect A7, Dm cadence.

The melody then repeats, but now it commences already on the D7, intensifying this part of the phrase even more. And then, also, the cadence is modified by inserting the secondary dominant, E7, which resolves to the primary dominant, A7. This again adds a pleasant tang to the melody and shifts the harmony back a step so that the phrase now ends on the A7 instead of Dm.

A7 then takes the song into the parallel D major chord (and key) for the exquisite ostinato accompaniment of the chorus…

In part 1, I mentioned the possibility of using a series of dominants in a cascade of perfect cadences, often for the main melody of a song. This is the case with Elvis Presley’s “Today, Tomorrow and Forever”, where he sings a captivating duet with Ann-Margret (the melody is actually taken from Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat”).

The progression (originally in C# major) is as follows: C, E, A7, D7, G9, C. All but the first chord are part of a sequence of perfect cadences – E, A7, and D7 being nondiatonic secondary dominants (E could have a 7 but doesn’t need one to function as a dominant).

Another, less prominent application of this same idea is found at the beginning of the B part in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. Here, there is a truncated, descending version of the main motif over F#7, B7, E7, A7, D7, G… all dominants of dominants down to tonic G.

Obviously, the examples aren’t derived from contemporary music and this reflects a general shift away from this harmonic device in favor of different (eg. plagal) sounds and cadences.