No, not Elvis gets his guitar, or Mick and Keef meet at the Dartford train station, but snippets of sound from within songs, that punters sometimes scramble to identify at quiz nights.
A Hard Day’s Night- the Mighty Opening Chord
Revealing a curious etymology, there was both a film and an album ready to go, but the Fab Four were told that it’d be incongruous for there to not also be a song.
With the title originating in a Ringo malapropism, Lennon composed the track in an evening, and the following day, refined the lyrics with help in a taxi on the way to the studio. The song was recorded in three hours. It starts with untouchable majesty.
George Harrison’s Rickenbacker generates most of the moment, but each Beatle contributes to its revered musicology. As with much art there’s a secretive, unknowable complexity behind it. Instantaneously recognisable, but also mysterious in its alchemy, one academic, Dominic Pedler, dedicates a sizable chunk of his 800-page volume, The Song Writing Secrets of The Beatles, to the chord, and lists twenty-one compositional possibilities.
In one theory Pedler deploys a process called a Fourier transformation: the decomposition of a sound wave into its constitute pure tones- as modelled by sine and cosine curves- to come up with a scientific solution.
But, for me, the tale of this thrilling chord is its cultural potent. It’s both a daring announcement and a promise. Innocent and eager, it exemplifies the Beatles’ giddily evolving confidence in both their music and social power.
That the guitars are slightly out of tune only magnifies the charisma, and suggests a bouncing mid-summer walk along London’s Oxford Street, in the bright, blossoming city.
It’s an aural intoxicant.
Paradise City- Whistle Blower
When Elvis first gyrated his hips on TV, I’m sure that in countless homes the first rock obsessions were also born. A few decades later, in the unspeakable 1980’s, a particular Guns ‘N’ Roses fan from Lafayette, Indiana- Axl Rose’s home, too- began investing time and not inconsiderable money touring the world to claim an elusive plastic whistle.
Of course, he’s seeking a concert souvenir: the whistle blown and nightly thrown into the crowd at the 1:21 mark of “Paradise City” from Appetite for Destruction, the album so beloved by aging leather jackets and Triple M music directors. So far, our trophy-hunter’s been unsuccessful. His cabinet remains bare.
In this moment, there’s juxtaposition at work as the song transitions from its opening section and momentum builds. The anthemic tropes are present, but exhilaratingly assembled: pounding drums, driving guitars, and wailing vocals married to shameless subtexts.
Suddenly climbing above this grind and growl is the simplest addition: a lone whistle blast that invests the song with a military discipline, demanding both band and listener focus and follow. It also evokes the urgent start to a football match when the warm-up is done, and we’re in the huddle together, and it’s just us and them.
It’s a riotous call to arms.
The Tourist- The Mourning Bell
Radiohead’s OK Computer is an album of luxurious, sparkling gloom, best listened to through headphones at midnight. Its themes of nagging horror and emptiness are expressed with pristine melodies that seem to bend out through a Kubrick-like universe.
Once described as possessing “… soaring, operatic choruses, and a towering bridge,” the record is closed by “The Tourist.” Its dramatic context is a pending car crash, and over Jonny Greenwood’s guitar Thom York pleads for the driver, possibly himself, to “slow down” and as we wince against the grim inevitability, the roaring doom, instead we hear a tiny bell. What happened? Was there even an accident? And, if yes, of what ultimate consequence?
Again, TS Eliot is right.
What does this bell denote? Some suggest it’s the ding of a microwave, that millennial symbol of mundane gnawing consumerism; for others, it conjures an ancient typewriter in a nameless attic, signalling how this musical story, and our fragile human story is indeed, finished.
Irrespective, it’s a sonic conclusion of poignancy and uncommon beauty, befitting the preceding 53 minutes of searing maelstrom.
It’s a punctuation mark, but also a prayer.