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.


A Bottomless Well of Melodies

“Magic Well” by escariel

It has been suggested that some day all the melodies available to us from the 12 tones of the Western scale will be used up. Indeed, how many melodic possibilities could there be in this seemingly short stretch of notes? The truth, of course, is that we are nowhere near exhausting the melodic riches contained in the musical scale.

Further, when octaves, modes, rhythm, harmonies, dynamics, tempo and style are considered, one realizes that mere notes on a scale are only the starting point of music, like a preliminary sketch of a completed painting. But even considering just scale steps, the melodic potential is mathematically limitless, like numerical combinations of the same set of digits.

A good way to illustrate the endless possibilities is by comparing melodies that contain similar phrases, yet sound completely different because of their respective musical contexts. So, for instance, the Tinker Bell leitmotif from John Williams’ score for the movie “Hook” begins with outlines of a 2nd inversion tonic minor chord (Bbm). In Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie”, we find almost the exact same (tonic) chord tone melody, only here it is Ebm. These compositions aren’t even remotely alike; both have different tempos and styles, with instrumentation and moods worlds apart, yet both contain almost identical melodic elements.

Countless other instances of similarities between ostensibly unrelated compositions have been observed, often with undue accusations of copyright infringement. For example, Queen have been accused of plagiarizing a section of Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” for the chorus of their classic “We Will Rock You”.

A similar situation occurs when comparing the beginning of the verse in The Beatles’ “All My Loving” and a particular transition in “Kathy’s Waltz” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. However, instead of suggesting actual appropriation of intellectual property, these examples only demonstrate further that matching melodic phrases can be virtually unrelated in terms of mood, style or harmony.

All of this isn’t meant to suggest that there haven’t been instances of deliberate theft of melodies. However, cryptomnesia is also to blame for many of history’s melody-lifting. If we stick just to the Beatles, we have at least two such instances. First, We have Paul McCartney’s timeless “Yesterday“, which musicologists have traced to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” and Nat King Cole’s and Frankie Laine’s “Answer Me, My Love”. However, the link is legally tenuous. The connection seems to be more visceral than anything else; McCartney, at worst, imitating in sincere flattery.

A more unfortunate example of subconscious plagiarism involved McCartney’s bandmate, George Harrison. The resemblance of Harrison’s solo hit “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons was so uncanny that litigation promptly followed its release. But cryptomnesia or dishonesty should not obscure the compositional reality of the sheer mathematical inexhaustibility of the melodic well.

In closing, an interesting observation occurs when looking at the juxtaposition of melodic phrases such as John Williams’ pixie theme and “Brother Louie” above. The real musical similarities are to other works in their authors’ repertoire. A comparison of Williams’ piece with a certain motif also performed on the celesta from his “Home Alone Overture” makes this clear. Just as comparing “Brother Louie” to other songs by Modern Talking, which for the most part seem to sleep-walk through the same chord progressions.

Such similarities are pretty obvious but the point is that they’re the only real musical limitations, whereas recurring melodic elements are not. Even a versatile composer is always ‘limited’ by his inadvertent idiosyncrasies; i.e. signature style. This hardly constitutes a problem. True confinements result from hackneyed conventions such as predictable chords.