The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
Having studied music theory is a bit like being Hurley with his numbers on Lost: You can’t help perceiving patterns everywhere, but are cursed with the knowledge that pointing them out will get you only hairy eyeballs. I’ve devoted a pretty good portion of my life to studying and playing music and try to keep my Hurley cooped up, but sometimes alcohol weakens the “this is only interesting to you” levees and a song on the jukebox or radio will trigger a blurt of useless trivia: “Hey, that Bruno Mars chorus on the radio has the same chord structure as ‘Santeria’!” or, “Hey, that weird synth riff between the second verse and the chorus of ‘Toxic’ is the usual synth riff upside-down and backwards!”
But while these observations are best kept to one’s self, sometimes there are surprising levels to music that doesn’t seem to have much going on under the surface. Take “Hook,” off Blues Traveler’s 1994 album, Four, which seems like a standard pop single with harmonica swapped in for electric guitar. But if you know a bit about music theory and look at it sideways, it becomes a piece of Auster-worthy meta-commentary.
The ability to hold down a church piano-playing gig is one of the few objectively useful things to come out of my couple of decades’ worth of musical education. One morning, I’d been asked to play Pachelbel’s Canon while the congregation went up for communion. This piece is probably familiar to anyone who’s played an instrument, attended a wedding, or owned a Classical Music’s Most Relaxing Hits! CD: It’s ungodly repetitious, running through the same eight chords (D-A-bm-f#m-G-D-G-A, or I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V) over and over until the piece ends or the musician commits suicide.
Pachelbel’s Canon is up there with Beethoven’s Ninth in the competition for the classical musician’s “I Am Going To Kill Myself If I Have To Hear This Goddamn Thing One More Time” Cup. It’s a pleasant enough tune if you’ve never had to play it and you’re not paying particular attention. But it’s essentially 10 seconds’ worth of chords set on a near-infinite loop—for perspective, it takes Lambchop about 15 seconds to get through one cycle of “The Song That Doesn’t End.” Even without Shari Lewis, the Canon can get very grating very quickly.
For whatever reason, communion took much longer than usual that morning. I cycled through all the legit variations I could remember three times with no finish line in sight. To avoid repeating them a fourth, fifth, and sixth time, I started swapping in melodies from pop songs that use all or most of the Pachelbel chords: “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” by Belle And Sebastian, the verses of “Cryin’” by Aerosmith, the verses of “Basket Case” by Green Day—well, almost. (Fortunately, this had once been a category in a college drinking game, so I had a head start on brainstorming.)
Then I remembered “Hook” by Blues Traveler, which doesn’t just use the Pachelbel for a verse or two: Chord-wise, the songs are almost identical. If songs were shapes, these two would be different colors, but they’d be congruent.
Coming up with a piano interpretation of John Popper’s virtuosic harmonica solos off the cuff seemed a little ambitious, so I started thinking about the lyrics to help my slightly hungover self recall the vocal melody:
It doesn’t matter what I say / So long as I sing with inflection /
That makes you feel that I’ll convey / Some inner truth of vast reflection / But I’ve said nothing so far / And I can keep it up for as long as it takes / And it don’t matter who you are / If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks
/ Because the hook brings you back / I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
/ The hook brings you back
/ On that you can rely
On the note where Popper would have sung “hook” for the first time, I suddenly felt like somebody had come up to me and pointed out the 12-tone reference in a Britney Spears single. This song was written by a big music-theory nerd! I wanted to spring up from the piano bench and testify: “Hook” is a really clever example of a meta-song, in the tradition of “Hook” by The Toms and “Please Play This Song On The Radio” by NOFX—a direct, arch commentary on itself. And, in this case, the commentary is a big joke about how listeners will like just about anything laid on top of the chords of the infinitely clichéd Pachelbel canon, even lyrics that openly mock them for liking it.
Popper’s lyrics in “Hook” express frustration with the constraints of writing the “catchy little tunes” and “hip three-minute ditties” that catch the ear and sell records. Most popular-popular songs in all western genres of music use the same four or five chords to make a pretty limited number of musical isotopes. (Blues Traveler’s own biggest hit, “Runaround,” is built on four chords repeated, without deviation, a couple dozen times.) Take this super-popular YouTube video by comedian Rob Paravonian:
The bit itself is kind of infuriating: Most of his examples actually share only the first three or four very common chords with the canon, so the whole premise is as silly as ranting about how many people rip off A Tale Of Two Cities by beginning sentences with, “It was the.” But even if it’s disingenuous, the end part is still a good example of how many memorable songs use similar building blocks. Smart musicians out to make a living (like Popper, who mentions money more than a couple times in “Hook”) figure out how those blocks fit together pretty quickly, and while it’s kind of fascinating, it’s also kind of depressing. As Popper sings at the end of the song’s tongue-twister bridge, “When I’m feeling stuck and need a buck, I don’t rely on luck, because…” well, you know.
So instead of relying on luck in this song, Popper’s co-opted Pachelbel’s Canon, one of the most solid hooks of all time. (Some of the little turns and flourishes in the vocals, like on the line, “It don’t matter who you are,” even sound Baroque, as if to flaunt it.) But he slyly pairs Pachelbel’s chords with lyrics that mock how shameless he’s being. The lyrics, addressed to “you,” the listener, begin by denying they matter at all, then openly proclaim their own insincerity. After declaring that “to confuse the issue [he’ll] refer to familiar heroes from long ago,” Popper immediately drops a reference to Peter Pan (a hero with an appropriate archenemy). “I know you’re going to like these chords no matter what lyrics I slap on them, even if you can’t put your finger on why,” Popper might as well be sighing, “so why should I bother pretending otherwise?”
And, as if to rub it in Popper’s face, it all totally worked: “Hook” was one of the biggest radio hits on an album that went platinum six times. He wasn’t telling listeners no lie, but he might have been a little sad to find out exactly how right he was.