too much typing—since 2003

5.12.2004

they're choruses, Jim - but not as we know them

Your left-field song-jimmiers can fiddle together a song without a chorus (my definition: a structurally distinct, recurring segment of music generally with the same lyrics each time it repeats), or without repeating elements, or in any other unconventional structure - but try writing an actual hit song without a chorus. Is it possible, given most people's tastes?

I'd say so - with qualifications. What's the chorus of Gary Numan's "Cars"? There's no chorus that fits my definition - but in a way the song doesn't need one, since it's built on a riff. And to indulge in a bit of dead-horse abuse, a distinctive riff often does the work normally handled by lyrics: anchoring the song in memory. Most classic riff-based songs double up on their hookiness by also featuring a distinctive vocal chorus (think of "Sunshine of Your Love," and not only do you hear the riff in your head, but probably also the chorus - whose lyrics, as if that doubling-up isn't enough, consist primarily of the song's title). Bill Murray made fun of this convention by having his lounge-singer character write lyrics to the Star Wars theme: they were, of course, basically the words "Star Wars."

An odder case (and, perhaps, a less popular song because of it - but still a charting single) is Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." Probably the most distinctive aspect of this song - and the part of the song positioned where a chorus would normally be - is that arching saxophone line. If you know the song, that's probably the part you thought of when you read the title. But if you think about, that lick really is the song's chorus: structurally, the rest of the song is nothing but verses, a bridge, and an instrumental section over the chords of the "chorus" segment. Furthermore (and probably diminishing the song's standing in people's mental jukeboxes), the title doesn't appear in the lyrics (or if it does - I'm too lazy to google them - it's not in any distinctive position).

Now you know why people can never remember the titles of songs by New Order or Stereolab...

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Gentle On My Mind", for a long time (and maybe still) the most popular song evah, has no chorus or riff. Neither does "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Standards (songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Leopold & Loeb, etc.) didn't usually have choruses or riffs.

Traditional ballads don't have choruses or riffs, although some have repeated nonsense lines.

So I don't think your qualification is necessary.

(Tim W.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Miles here. "Baker Street" does feature the titular phrase: "Winding your way down on Baker Street" is the first line of the song. But as you say, it's not conventionally located, and the sax solo is really the chorus. Incidentally, I love that song.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Flasshe here. I don't know if I was bothered more by the titles of New Order songs not appearing in the lyrics, or by them suddenly doing songs where the title did appear. I'm a fickle musical consumer.

Dave said...

I'm a big fan of the Call's "The Walls Came Down", which gets by with what I'd call a refrain, but no chorus.