Friday, September 30, 2016

Bus Stop - Storytelling 101

One really cool thing about writing a music blog (although I have been unbelievably lax in doing so lately) is finding little gems in a song or an album here or there that you never noticed before. Maybe it's a song you used to hear over and over again but haven't for a long while. Maybe it's a band with whom you are quite familiar but a song that you are not. Or maybe it's a newer song on which you just feel the need to give your own take, even though others have already chimed in on it. But no matter; when it comes to music, the connection is so personal and so intimate  that you get to offer what you want, when you want. Whether it's a comment on, say, "Cake By the Ocean" or on "Johnny B. Goode." There's always room for another take.

This one definitely falls into the category of "old song/new take."

I'll admit I haven't spent a ton of time in my music-loving life thinking about the Hollies. I know and understand their historic significanceone of the key bands to follow the Beatles in the British invasion, a number of catchy and, well, Beatlish hits, hallmarked by stellar harmonies and jangling guitars, and a number of oddball and innovative choices that punctuated some of their biggest songs (most notably the steel drum solo in the middle of "Carrie Ann.") Also and not to be discounted? Unlike so many bands of the Invasion (the Fab Four obviously not included), they had a legit second chapter that stretched into the 70s. No doubt impressive.

I also knew our boy Little Steven gave one kickass induction speech for the band when they made it into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, whether I agreed with their inclusion or not. (I don't think I do. Although who knows? I don't know. Let's move on).

But one thing I never associated the Hollies with was songwriting, or more to the point, storytelling. I mean, their songs were bristling and fun pop, definitely candy aisle stuff all the way. Graham Nash and Allan Clarke soared with their harmonies and upper-register glow, and it was delightful, but I didn't exactly think lyrics or story when hearing their stuff.

But then I listened to "Bus Stop" the other day and it all changed. Not only it is a purely flawless rock-n-roll song, but it is, no lie, one of the finest examples of musical storytelling I have ever heard.

First, listen:

What you hear is a just delectable pop confection sung and performed by a talented band that absolutely nailed what they were trying to do. From the super groovy little arpeggio that opens it, askew though it is, to the varying time signatures to Tony Hicks'  Byrdsy solo to the customary pristine harmonies, the bones are all there for a refined little piece of pop royalty.

But then come the lyrics. And I swear to all that is holy I cannot imagine anyone, at any time, writing a more original, clever yet simple song as concisely as "Bus Stop" was written.

Check the lyrics. This is literally where the song is when it reaches the one-minute mark:

Bus stop, wet day,
She's there, I say, "Please share my umbrella."
Bus stop, bus goes,
She stays, love grows, under my umbrella.

All that summer we enjoyed it,
Wind and rain and shine.
That umbrella, we employed it,
By August she was mine.

Every morning I would see her waiting at the stop,
Sometimes she'd shopped and she would show me what she bought.
Other people stared as if we were both quite insane,
Someday my name and hers are going to be the same.

The story being told is as ancient as time itself. "How I met my true love." But this is the perfect way to tell it. And I never noticed it until recently.

Look at the words again and think of the premisethis is a song about "our story, how we met." Every single word, every one of them, moves the story along. Not a shred of introspection or commentary or any kind of filler; it all goes to explaining—in the most precise detailhow this happened. And again, it does it in just 60 seconds, and at a pace so wonderfully brisk and sunny that you barely notice you have just been told a crystal clear and gloriously unique story from start to finish.

That's half the genius. The other half is how those words are strung together. The buoyant, practically cheeky changes in meter. The off-kilter choice to end some of the key lines absent of rhyme (plenty of things rhyme with "umbrella," but thank Yahweh they didn't try). And the intricacy of it all, the stunning use of interior rhyme that would have made Cole Porter or e.e. cummings (or even Dr. Seuss) proud. "Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows." Eight words and you know all you need to know.

Graham Gouldman wrote these words for the Hollies, and while not a household songwriting name by any means, mayhap he should be. This wasn't the only great thing he ever wrotehe would also pen another wondrous Hollies song, "Look Through Any Window," as well as some of the best things the Yardbirds ever did ("Heart Full of Soul," "For Your Love," "Evil Hearted You") and later front the pretty damn innovative 10cc in the 70s, giving us, among others, "I'm Not in Love" and "The Things We Do For Love." That's one hell of a career.

And if it didn't start with "Bus Stop," it certainly reached heights there that any songwriter at any time or place in history would have been proud to hit. Because truth be told, most don't.

"Bus Stop" is sui generis as a pop-rock number; it sounds familiar and of a time but there really is nothing quite like it, and that's thanks to the songwriting and storytelling. Oh, and I haven't mentioned it but the song goes on for another minute and a half and while it doesn't quite keep the same lyrical pace it had in those magical first 60 seconds, it still works and never loses an ounce of its charm.

That's the way the whole thing started,
Silly but it's true.
Thinking of a sweet romance,
Beginning in a queue.

Came the sun and ice was melting,
No more sheltering now.
Nice to think that that umbrella,
Led me to a vow.

Another little corner of rock-n-roll, so familiar but still in many ways so removed. But this is why we listen, if I may be so bold and speak briefly for the entire rock-n-roll listening population. For moments like "Bus Stop," when we can sit back and smile at the fact that songs may again be this good someday, but they really can't be better.

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