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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pop is a verb

I wrote a piece recently in The Word about The Beatles. It's here. It was an attempt to rescue them from beneath the dead weight of all that social significance and point out that what made them exceptionally good was the catchiness of their records, particularly the early ones. I got a reader's letter which was so derisive that I almost felt like turning up on his doorstep. His argument seemed to be that their greatness was so Olympian it couldn't possibly be reduced to mundane matters of craft. How could the word "catchiness" possibly do justice to their achievements? There's no point arguing with customers so I'll pursue my theory here.

Somebody recently slipped me a copy of an excellent documentary called "The Wrecking Crew". It's about Los Angeles session musicians of the 60s and 70s. It features the reminiscences of people like Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Earl Palmer, Plas Johnson and Glen Campbell, the people who played the actual music on everything from "River Deep Mountain High" through "Somethin' Stupid" to Herb Alpert's "Lonely Bull". It's like going under the bonnet of a whole era of peerless pop music, from The Byrds "Mr Tambourine Man" to the theme from "Hawaii 5-0", and seeing what makes it tick.

To hear Carol Kaye (pictured) and Al Casey talk about how they arrived at the backing sound of "These Boots Are Made For Walking" is to realise how much of a hit record's emotional stickiness arises from the uniqueness of a particular performance. This in turn owes a huge amount to the idiosyncratic ear of a certain musician. Nancy Sinatra has performed that song thousands of times since that recording date but she hasn't found anyone who plays the distinctive bassline like the combination of Chuck Berghofer on string bass and Carol Kaye on electric did on that day. "It's very difficult to capture," she says. Capture's the word.

"The Wrecking Crew" proves how wrong my Beatles correspondent was. And I think most rock fans are probably every bit as wrong in exactly the same way. They think greatness in pop is all about soul and inspiration and having your heart in the right place. It's not. It's about the tiny details that, in the words of some musician here, "make the tune pop". If it doesn't pop all the elements - song, singer, musicians and that unspecified box of skills which we in our ignorance summarise under the word "production" - just lie there on the slab.

When these musicians used the word "pop" it's as a verb, not a noun. That's my learning for the week.