Friday, May 10, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Silly Love Songs

Paul McCartney’s "Silly Love Songs" is both one of the more reviled as well as ingenious pop tunes ever, a song that manages to be both a catchy little ditty and a surprisingly complex composition.

The majority of the song is based around a repeating three-chord-structure. These basic chord changes are first heard in the oddly industrial-sounding introduction—seriously, what the hell's up with that? Is it meant to counterbalance and highlight the most basic element of humanity throughout the rest of the song? An ironic counterpoint to the lushness to follow? Or on his own ability to seemingly churn out perfect pop ditties with automaton-like efficiency?—where they’re run through twice. A simple but unusual pattern, it consists of the tonic, mediant and subdominant, rather than the far, far more common tonic, subdominant and dominant; making things even a bit more interesting, the mediant and subdominant are both seventh chords, adding a certain amount of tonal richness and ambiguity.

Then we’re into the main body of the song. The chord changes are heard once again, but this time the feeling is completely different. Where before we had sixteenth notes on the high hat and factory-like percussion with whole note chords on the piano, the percussion has disappeared to be replaced by standard (if outstanding) drumming (courtesy of Joe English), with eighth notes on the high hat. The piano’s still there, but it’s no longer just playing bare chords, instead comping tastefully.

The main difference, though, is the bass line, certainly one of the finest in rock history as well as one of the most memorable and, not incidentally, mixed extremely high. In fact, it’s the lead instrument of the song, louder than either the drums or piano. Which, astonishingly, are the only instruments for this first verse. Just bass, drums and a little bit of colorization from the piano comping quietly in the background. That's it. Drums, some restrained piano, and carrying much of the melody and harmony simultaneously, lead bass—not at all standard for your typical silly love song. I can't think of another hit that's almost entirely just bass and drums.

Then, of course, there’s the vocals, singing one of those instantly catchy melodies McCartney literally used to be able to write in his sleep (cf. "Yesterday).  Even if you haven't heard the song in decades, I'm sure you can sing the melody flawless. Except, here's the thing: mind-bogglingly, this fantastic melody is never heard again until the very end of the six-minute-tune.

Think about that for a second. Imagine being able to write a melody as lovely and catchy as the first verse’s: "you’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs." Now imagine you’ve got so much talent that you can simply toss it to the side and move on. After all, you’ve got plenty more where that came from. That's unreal.

But that's not all. Oh, no. In fact, before the song’s over, McCartney will come up with five different melodies to go over that one basic set of chord changes, as well as others for the different sections of the song. Many of them are related to each other yet remain distinctly different, thanks to augmentation, diminution, interpolation, extrapolation and so on. Tasteful New Orleans brass suddenly pop up to introduce the chorus, during which they disappear, to be replaced by strings. This is the "I love you" section and, sure enough, it’s the same three chords again with a new melody on top.

After the chorus, we get the second verse, the "I can’t explain, the feeling’s plain to me, say, can’t you see" (hey, I never said the lyrics were brilliant) verse, whereupon McCartney comes up with a different, yet equally catchy melody—his third, for those keeping track at home—over the same chord changes. This time, Linda’s singing the "I love you" melody from the chorus in the background, kept company by the horn section.

Another chorus, this time both Paul and Linda singing the "I love you" melody and then we come to the bridge, the "love doesn’t come in a minute" section, which is played over an entirely different set of chord changes—the first that's happened in the song.

And then it’s right back to the good ol’ three-chord-structure again, this time for the solo. But as there’s no noticeable guitar in the song and the piano’s been relegated to simple comping and the bass has been taking the leads all along, what’s he to do? Why, he has the horn section take the solo, playing yet another melody, this one a variation on what they’d been playing in the background during the second verse, related to the original melody, only now each of their phrases is answered by the strings.

Then we’re into yet another section. It could be the chorus or it could be a verse, since they’re over the same set of changes. Since Paul’s singing yet another melody, the "how can I tell you about my loved one" line, however, it might simply be a whole new section, especially since it’s over a setting similar to the industrial introduction. Sans percussion sounds, however, its effect is completely differently, largely thanks to the addition of the drums and bass. After two runs through this, Linda begins to sing the "I love you" chorus part behind Paul’s lead line.

We come out of that for a quick trip to the brass and strings running through the changes once, and then it’s back to the new version of the introduction section. This time through it’s Paul singing the "I love you" melody while Linda soon adds the "I can’t explain, the feeling’s plain to me" part from the second verse. After a bit Denny Laine chimes in with the "how can I tell you" line that Paul’d had the first time but has since discarded. And, of course, all this is interlocking over the same three chords.

Finally we get back to a verse, and at long last we get the triumphant reappearance of the first melody, more than five long damn minutes after we first encountered it. Whereupon the entire song wraps up—and yet, interestingly, it ends not after another chorus, as would be expected, but at the end of this verse and, enigmatically, on an unresolved mediant chord rather than the expected tonic, giving a strangely unsettled feeling to the entire thing, as though McCartney's daring people to look more deeply into what would seem at first or second or ninth glance a simple pop throwaway, knowing that if they did they'd see a composition that's light years away from merely being a simple silly love song, its title notwithstanding.

There are but a small handful of artists ever who could have pulled off a feat this tricky and and audaciously hide the whole damn thing in plain sight. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Prince are the obvious contenders, but I'm not sure any of them (certainly, Spector seems especially unlikely) would have had the restraint to pull off the curiously minimalist instrumentation at the beginning. (The fact that while McCartney's a multi-instrumentalist, like the rest, he's perhaps first and foremost a bassist obviously has more than a little to do with that.) 

But here's the kicker, and the reason that this song I've always loved is one of my all-time favorites: rumor has it that McCartney wrote it as a one-fingered-salute to the critics (some even say it was John Lennon himself) who’d said he was no longer capable of writing anything other than silly love songs.
McCartney picked up the gauntlet and created a complex composition disguised as the fluffiest of pop hits so successfully that even today few look past the title—and made millions off it.

Know what that is? That's ninja. Hell, that's beyond ninja: that's punk. That's punk on a level Malcolm McLaren never even dreamt of.