Monday, June 6, 2022

Sonic Sorcery: "Top Gun Anthem"

In honor of the new "Top Gun: Maverick" movie, I'd like to re-wind the clock to 1986 and the original "Top Gun" movie, featuring a gorgeous theme song, the "Top Gun Anthem", written by Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens.

For a quick backdrop, Harold Faltermeyer is a German composer who was discovered at a young age by producer & composer Giorgio Moroder (with whom he worked on a number of projects). Faltermeyer became hugely famous when he wrote & performed the song "Axle F" for the movie "Beverly Hills Cop" starring Eddie Murphy.

Steve Stevens is best known for his work with Billy Idol and at the time had recorded Billy's first two albums ("Billy Idol" and "Rebel Yell") and was in he studio with Billy recording "Whiplash Smile". Steve went on to record with many others, including Michael Jackson, and appeared on-stage for Live Aid playing guitar with the Thompson Twins alongside Nile Rodgers and Madonna.

Harold and Steve won a Grammy in 1987 for "Top Gun Anthem" for Best Instrumental Pop Performance.

So, to the music!

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Sonic Sorcery: Chromatic Descent with Bob Dylan's "Feel My Love"

Bob Dylan is a man of many talents and, musically, of many lives. 

With a career spanning 60-odd years, with classic songs coming from almost every decade, collaborations with other music legends, 125+ million records sold (with 32 of his 80+ album netting gold or platinum status in the US), Academy Award and Golden Globe alongside his 10 Grammy Awards & countless Grammy nominations (as well as both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature, & other accolades), and much more, Bob Dylan's name & work is written, as it were, into the very stone of modern western culture.

In 1997 he wrote and recorded a song called "Make You Feel My Love" that has since been covered by over 400 artists, with charting versions from Billy Joel (who performed the first commercial release, peaking at #9), Garth Brooks (peaking at #8), and most recently by Adele in 2008 (charting in 10 countries and peaking at #1).

The song has a beautiful descending chromatic line we'll discuss in a moment, and an unusual but compelling chord progression.

Lets jump right in!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: The Dark Arts of "Every Breath You Take"

From the mind of the man who brought us "Roxanne", "Message in a Bottle", "King of Pain", "We'll Be Together", "All This Time", "Fields of Gold", "Desert Rose", and more (over 60 charting singles in all, with 20 platinum selling albums and over 100 Grammy, MTV, AMA, & other major award nominations with 46 wins and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), Sting is among the most prolific & critically acclaimed artists ever, as well as one of the best selling artists of all time.

The song "Every Breath You Take" - which was written in 1982 at Ian Fleming's writing desk at Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica - was released in 1983 and became a Top 10 hit in 19 countries (topping the charts in 6), won 2 Grammys & other major awards, is ranked #84 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list, and more.

Quick note: The song was written in A, but performed with instruments tuned 1/2 step down. However, I'll refer to the song in the key of A for simplicity.

No time to dally! Let's look right at the chart, and then we'll discuss the progression, the chords, the modulations, and the lyrics!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: Modulations featured in "Instant Karma!"

This fabulous song was released in 1970 by John Lennon and is often cited as one of the fastest released songs in pop music history, as the it was written, recorded, and released in a mere 10 days. John Lennon wrote the lyrics & music, and it was produced by Phil Spector, with Beatles bandmate George Harrison on guitar as well as a cast of all star musicians.

The song was an instant hit, peaking at #3 on Billboard in the US, and becoming the first post-Beatles million seller by any of the band members.

Let's dive in with the chart:

"Instant Karma!"

A - - - /F#m - - - /A - - - /F#m - - - /
A - - - /F#m - - - /F - G - /A - - - /
D - - - /Bm - - - /D - - - /Bm - - - /
C - - - /Am - - - /D - - - /E7 - - - /

G - Bm - /Em - - - /G - Bm - Em - - - /
G - Bm - /Em - - - /D - - - /E7 - - - /

A - - - /F#m - - - /A - - - /F#m - - - /
A - - - /F#m - - - /F - G - /A - - - /

Sooo...what's happening here? That seems like a lot of random chords, but really its a very simple progression that just moves to different keys.

The opening two lines of the verse is A to F#m, which is a simple major to relative minor switch.

The third line is D to Bm, while the fourth starts with C to Am...both of which are the exact same progression as A to F#m (which is in the key of A, while D to Bm is the key of D, and C to Am is the key of C).

So its really a 2 chord vamp played in 3 different keys. The F to G to A in the second line is just a transition, as is the last section o fboth verse & chorus (the D to E7 change).

The chorus builds on the same idea, but instead of a straight G to Em, it adds a Bm for half the measure to make a G - Bm /Em - - - (the same vamp again, but in the key of G).

So what we see here is Lennon building an entire song on what amounts to a 2 chord idea moved across 4 keys, with a couple of transitions for spice.

Ponder that idea.....and then take a look at anything you've written with, for example, G - Em - C - D. How can you spice things up using this gift John Lennon has handed us?

Monday, August 23, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: The Fearless Modulations of "Good Vibrations"

In the third installment of this series, we took a look under the hood, as it were, at The Beach Boys song "Surfer Girl" which, harmonically speaking, is a gorgeous run through diatonic exploration. While it does possess a key change at the end (shifting up 1/2 step from D to Eb), the pay-dirt is really found in the prosody between the chord progression and melody.

By contrast, "Good Vibrations" (written just 3 years after "Surfer Girl" was released) leaps into the fires of modulation (aka: key change) with no reservations at all. Worthy of note: Brian Wilson was only 23 years old when he wrote this masterpiece that went on to hit #1 on the charts, be nominated for a Grammy, land on Rolling Stones "500 Greatest Songs list" at #6, and be cited as a major influence for songs like "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles and "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen (and, I suspect, much of Sting's work both solo and with The Police, which we'll examine in future installments).

Monday, July 19, 2021

GUITAR GODS: Jon Butcher

The year was 1983, the channel is MTV, and the camera pans right to left....bass player, drummer, and then settles on the guitarist for a moment as the caption appears in the lower left of the screen: Jon Butcher Axis, "Life Takes a Life". I pause, because the song moves from quasi-Terminator tech rock to open, airy chords over a steady underlying bass/drum pulse. Then the vocal comes in, which is unique, but at the moment I'm only hearing the subtle and very interesting guitar work - fills and textures and tonal coloring. The song moves through interesting stages, a post-chorus shift, a deep blues-based but contemporary guitar solo, and then fades out...and I'm mesmerized.

Worthy of note: 1983 is the year of SRV's "Texas Flood" and Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" in addition to the debut of Jon Butcher Axis, so when Butcher was in the studio, there were no mainstream precedents for his bluesy guitar approach or fearless guitar tone explorations. But when the album hit the streets, Jon was on a short list of new players alongside Stevie Ray and Steve Stevens and Brian Setzer who dared NOT to cop Van Halen licks and party rock compositions on the rock music landscape.

That fearless approach ultimately led to 7 Top 40 singles across his first 5 studio albums, world tours with acts like J. Geils Band, Scorpians, Def Leppard, Rush, INXS, and more, national TV appearances, and a 1986 Grammy nomination for "Best Rock Instrumental" in the song "The Ritual" (alongside songs by Yngwie Malmsteen, the aforementioned Stevie Ray Vaughan, & Jeff Beck).

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Slide Guitar: A Guided Musical Tour

Son House - blues legend
For brevity, we'll do a VERY condensed origin & history of slide guitar, and then a short list of a handful of "modern era" (1955 to now) popular songs featuring slide guitar.

If you find you really enjoy the sound of various slide guitars, I strongly suggest a deep dive into styles and eras touched on below!

Its sometime post 1800 and European sailors have been visiting the Hawaiian Islands for a couple of decades. At some point, they bring ashore an instrument very much like the modern guitar (which was first made in 1850, but there were a variety of similar instruments - some called "guitar" and others bearing different names).

For reasons unknown, the islanders dislike the standard tunings of the 5-string and 6-string instruments, and re-tune them to open chords (they called it "slack-key", as they tuned strings down to achieve this, and we now refer to this as "open chord" tuning). At some point, someone laid a piece of metal across the strings to play it....sliding the metal across the strings. One story is that it was a man named Joseph Kekuku and that he picked up an old rusted bolt and on a whim, applied it to the strings of his "Spanish" guitar. Whatever the truth, the "steel guitar" is officially born.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

This beautiful song was written by the always stellar Carole King and her then songwriting partner & husband Gerry Goffin (for context, if my history is correct, King wrote the music while Goffin & King shared lyric duties for this song).

It was first recorded & released by The Shirelles in 1960 and went to #1 on the charts (despite being banned from many radio stations for being too sexually suggestive), and was subsequently recorded by Brenda Lee, Ben E, King, Dusty Springfield, Cher, The Four Seasons, & more through the 60s (and many more in later decades, from Roberta Flack to Amy Winehouse), and Carole King included a slower version on her ground-breaking album "Tapestry" in 1971 with backup vocals supplied by none other than James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.

The song has since landed on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" as well as taking the #3 slot on their "100 Greatest Girl Songs" list.

Let's dive into this classic.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: Exploring Sam Cooke's Classic "You Send Me"

Here in our 4th piece in the series, we'll look at Sam Cooke's timeless classic, "You Send Me", which was written by Sam (though credited to Sam's brother) in 1955 and recorded & released it 2 years later as Cooke's debut single. The song met with massive commercial & critical success (it was #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts) and has since been listed on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list as well as the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs That Shaped Rock-n-Roll" list.

You can also read my tribute to Sam Cooke.

Let's dive in.