One chord wonders

Among the notable people whose passing has been marked over the past couple of months, some may have missed the mention given to Dave Bartholomew, who died in June at the age of 100. He was one of the great behind-the-scenes figures of American popular music. A musician, songwriter, arranger and producer, he helped create rock’n’roll through his crucial collaborations with Fats Domino – he produced ‘The Fat Man’ in 1949, the ur-rock’n’roll recording. His iconic songs include ‘Ain’ That a Shame’, ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Rose Mary’, ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘I Hear You Knocking’. As a solo performer he created many superlative recordings, of which none finer to my mind than ‘The Monkey’, possibly the greatest contribution to evolutionary debate since Charles Darwin:

Three monkeys sat in a coconut tree
Discussing things as they are said to be
Said one to other now listen, you two
“There’s a certain rumour that just can’t be true
That man descended from our noble race
Why, the very idea is a big disgrace
No monkey ever deserted his wife
Starved her baby and ruined her life
Yeah
The monkey speaks his mind

‘The Monkey’ is rightly cherished by fans of New Orleans r’n’b, and all progressive-thinking primates, but it is also one of the great one chord songs. I’m a connoisseur of songs that employ just one chord. It’s song stripped back to the primal essentials: defiant, unprettified, no hiding behind the sweet attractions of chord changes, modulation or whatever. ‘The Monkey’, with its superlative guitar riff and sneering growl of a vocal, never deviates from the hook it establishes at the start, because it doesn’t need to. The unambiguity of the message demands it.

The guitar tab for Bob Dylan’s ‘Political World’, via http://dylanchords.info

One chord songs are a rarity, though that’s particular to Western music. In other cultures, notably India, the notion of chords is a irrelvance. A raga is all about variations within a particular motif or set of motifs (the 1980s pop hit, ‘Ever So Lonely‘, by Anglo-Indian group Monsoon, is a rare example of a one-chord song whose roots lie in Indian tradition). The drone of much of the world’s folk music sustains a sound and a feeling, without the need to progress through any chordal progression.

In Western music, the one chord song is a rarity. Musical forms based around a dance groove (Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Thank You Falettime Be Mice Elf Agin‘ is a classic example) are effectively one chord ventures, since they offer no melodic progression or chord changes, but they have already inverted the functions of a song by their very existence. The one chord songs one seeks out are those that surprise because the song does not go in the direction in which we expect it to go.

Many come out of the Blues. John Lee Hooker, as the pre-eminent master of the form, on the rare occasions when he drifts into a second chord seems almost to have done so by mistake (listen to ‘Boogie Chillen‘ for example). In Hooker’s songs, as with Dave Bartholomew’s ‘The Monkey’ and other blues-based recording, it is all about the riff, where the ear ends wanting only more of the same without any escape into variation.

Among pop songs that stick to the one chord, notable examples include Sonny and Cher’s ‘The Beat Goes On‘, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Run Through the Jungle‘ and Harry Nilsson’s two efforts on the Nilsson Schmilsson album, ‘Coconut‘ and ‘Jump into the Fire‘. Bob Marley & The Wailers’ ‘Get Up, Stand Up‘ never deviates from its single chord. Not does Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn‘ (well, maybe a little in the short break where the guitar riff halts). Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools‘ is another celebrated example, though the richness of the musical texture makes it questionable how far it is a genuine one chord song. In practice the pure one chord song is an elusive creature, because inevitably there will be variations within the chord, complementary figures from a second instrument, wandering basslines, and guitar grooves whose richness lie far beyond the suggestion of single strummed chord.

The trick is to reveal an idea in which only one chord will do. Outside of John Lee Hooker, the artist who has demonstrated the greatest creativity working within such a constraint is, surprisingly, Bob Dylan. In three songs from relatively recent times (do tell me if you can think of other examples) Dylan has taken the one chord beyond drone or riff to an imaginative adventure, namely ‘Political World‘, ‘It’s All Good‘ and especially ‘Tin Angel‘ from his most recent album of original songs, Tempest. In each case Dylan makes his single chord decision a musical adventure, opening up an imaginative world that the options might have suggested could not be there. Every one chord song is a bravura statement, a way of fighting back against where the music wants to take you. It represents a battle of wills.

It was a great disappointment to me, in putting this post together, to discover that punk band The Adverts’ 1977 song ‘One Chord Wonders‘ does not, as I had fondly remembered, employ just the one chord, but at least it expresses the attitude. The best of them are musical wonders; they make you smile at the invention, the sheer chutzpah. The ten examples below all exemplify this. As in previous such musical surveys, it’s a listing of ten greats (excluding Dave Bartholomew, who has already had his turn) that are not a top ten, just an interesting ten, though they are numbered in a descending order for entertainment’s sake.

10. John Lee Hooker, ‘I’m in the Mood’

The arch-priest of the one-chord song. All that’s needed is a riff and an attitude.

9. Bill Withers, ‘Who is He? (And What is He to You?)’

As with many examples here, the song starts with a hypnotic guitar riff from which the ear demands no deviation, but the layers of musical invention that follow cleverly disguise the song’s simple premise. The one-chord nature also suits the lyric’s obsessive nature.

8. Kim Fowley, ‘The Trip’

Producer of so many bubblegum pop hits in the 1960s, Kim Fowley made his own recordings on occasion, including this celebrated early (1965) foray into psychedelia and the championing of LSD. It build up in manic energy, while the single chord permits it no release. There must be a meaning to that.

7. Kevin Ayers, ‘Decadence’

An elegant mystery, that builds up so gradually, starting with the compelling guitar loop, then Ayers’ world-weary vocals, and only halfway through the song’s eight minutes do the drums finally come in. Amid all the swirling sounds it’s just the one chord, as the song drones on, and dreams on and on.

6. Roxy Music, ‘The Bogus Man’

Mesmeric invention from Roxy Music, as they abandon song and let their avant garde ambitions take over. Over nine minutes long, but the groove never slips.

5. Linda Lewis, ‘Moles’

England’s finest soul-folkie, with an acoustic guitar figure that sounds like it might be going somewhere but never does, and a peculiar lyric about blessing animals. It doesn’t last long, and when it’s done you are none the wiser. But the mystery lingers.

4. The Fall, ‘Totally Wired’

The ultimate Fall recording – completely deconstructing the idea of a song, while having all the elements that make any great song work. Except a chord change, of course.

3. Neu, ‘Hallogallo’

You have to see the version of this hypnotic ten-minute masterpiece by NEU! with the brilliant video edit of people around the world dancing, created by Adam Curtis for his BBC blog The Medium and the Message. Yes, you can find it on YouTube, but read his words as you watch it in context. As Curtis says, “I think it gives a sense that we are all together in the dance.”

2. Bob Dylan, ‘Tin Angel’

A mysterious combination of Western drama and ageless ballad, this is one those great narrative songs Dylan has written throughout his career, where the more the story progresses the less certain we are of where we may be or where we’re headin’. One chord, nine minutes – these single chord songs tend to run longer, because once the mood and the groove are there, why stop?

1. Faust, ‘It’s a Rainy Day (Sunshine Baby)’

Not on Spotify, but it simply cannot be left out (and the video is perfect). A thumping beat complemented by thumping piano, a repeated nonsense vocal line like a deadpan nursery rhyme, scratchy guitar, some swirling electronica, and it just goes on and on, until the sublime saxophone figure at the end. The epitome of the one-chord song, in which the music is reduced to its bare bones yet flourishes at the same time. It’s a lesson in listening.

All of the above, bar the Faust number, I have brought together on one Spotify list dedicated to the stubborn perversity of the one chord song. If you know of other examples, drop me a line and I’ll add them to the list. Equally, if there’s a song here that has slipped in a second chord in the hope that we won’t notice, do say, and I’ll have it removed. The purity must be maintained.

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