Drive Carefully, Pop-Pickers…

by Tom on August 9, 2003

You must have noticed a particularly irritating rock’n’pop tactic to which certain songwriters resort when forced into a desperate compositional corner: having flogged every last bit of life from their tune but being unable think of any natural way of killing the damn thing off, a last-ditch decision is made to shift everything up a semi-tone and just keep going, in the hope (i) that this will provide the dirge with an extra dose of energy, and (ii) that the listener won’t notice the awful jarring effect as the musical gears screech protestingly.

It usually sounds absolutely horrible, but that hasn’t stopped Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and many others from indulging in this reckless musical practice as repeat offenders.

It just won’t do, and now there’s a website, the Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Fame, dedicated to keeping track of the list of musicians who have been tempted by the dark side in this way. When the revolution comes, this kind of behaviour should be punishable with at least a stern ticking-off by the musicological authorities, so it’s important to maintain a list of the principal perpetrators to date.

The FAQ gives this high-minded description of the site’s purpose:

This site functions as an educational resource with the aim of ensuring that in a better future world, our children, our children’s children, and ideally also our children’s children’s children, avoid this musical crime. Equally, there is an element of name-and-shame involved, to help prevent those who may already have offended from doing so again in their career. Although frankly I think it’s too late for Westlife.

I especially enjoyed Dominic Pedler’s essay on the musical theory of the Truck Driver’s Gear Change, which includes a discussion of some cases in which it appears at first sight that even the Beatles couldn’t resist. Quite rightly, Paul McCartney is released without a stain on his character for the modulations in ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Penny Lane’, but Pedler is a bit less sure about ‘Octopus’s Garden’ and a few others, deciding to nominate the moptops for an honorable Yorkie in recognition of these lapses in ingenuity.

Update: Non-British readers will most likely have no idea what a Yorkie is and what its relevance might be. Fair enough: the Yorkie is a perfectly ordinary chocolate bar which was advertised in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties as being so extraordinarily chunky (I believe that was the adjective chosen) that the biggest baddest trucker could subsist on nothing but as he drove up and down the nation’s motorways during the night. Personally, I’ve always preferred a bag of wine gums.



Dan Simon 08.09.03 at 11:48 pm

But where would boy bands be without them?


zizka 08.09.03 at 11:56 pm

Haven’t gone to the site yet. Barry Manilow has a place of honor, I hope. But maybe I’m wrong.


zizka 08.10.03 at 12:07 am

Called that one right. He’s tied for the top with the Beatles, and there’s a Ray Stevens song called “Help me, Barry Manilow” which is presumably a parody and thus doesn’t really belong on the list.

Ray Stevens was a countryish singer whose songs were all novelty songs. Ahab the A-rab is the only one I remember (ca. 1960, unrelated to Middle East politics). His nephew lives here in Portland and knows all of his songs.


Tom Runnacles 08.10.03 at 1:03 am

I’m curious: have Westlife, who’ve evidently been serially guilty on this score, inflicted themselves on the US yet?

I can only apologise if they have.


Anon 08.10.03 at 2:53 am

This also occurs a lot in such composers as Bach and Beethoven. Mostly it will occur in classical music during the development, but it will just be in passing. Later composerin the context of an Neopolitan chord (bII). Suppose a piece is in Db. The section in Db could be repeated in D if the next key was Ab. This forms the large scale progression I-bII-V, a progression I know I’ve seen in several romantic composers. The technique is legitamate if the section up a half step is followed by a section in the key of V.

Otherwise, not so much.


Belle Waring 08.10.03 at 3:31 am

I really think this post ought to have been entitled Circle Jerk of Fifths. OK, sorry, I’ll be leaving now.


Maria 08.10.03 at 9:17 am

Back in the days when I thought of conquering the world as a rock star, I thought a great name for a band would be “– — and the Modulations from Hell”.


ester 08.10.03 at 2:07 pm

Heads up readers of Crooked Timber. Not one of these bloggers is over 35, a few aren’t even over 30. None of them is yet a full professor nor have any of them made a major mark in the publishing world. The jury is still out on their status as intellectuals, show do caution when reading them.


Angus 08.10.03 at 2:54 pm

That key-change thing has resulted in some of the most sublime moments in pop music. (Just listen to Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” if you don’t believe me.) When people start demanding that pop tries at all costs to avoid being cheesy and obvious, they end up with the soporific likes of Norah Jones. I’ll take Dusty and co (and even Westlife) over that, thanks.


William Sjostrom 08.10.03 at 5:51 pm

Wine gums? And how do you talk without teeth?


Skarl 08.10.03 at 9:06 pm

Thanks to Ester, I re-read “Drive Carefully, Pop-Pickers…” with the skepticism a non-tenured music critic deserves.


david 08.11.03 at 3:21 am

Are you talking about Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer?” If so, you may have to rethink. That’s some dramatic pop music, and the step up is full on.


Nabakov 08.11.03 at 4:27 am

Another song arrangement trick is what I like to think of the “drop to floor and give me four” when, after the penultimate chorus, everything cuts out except the drums (usually just the kick and/or snare) for four beats, creating some quick and cheap tension before the final choruses.

It’s particularly noticeable on sixties tracks like “Satisfaction” “Friday on My Mind” etc. It’s
not as grating though as the “gear change” and at least gives the DJ warning the song’s about to end.


dave heasman 08.11.03 at 2:09 pm

I’ve only ever found the “subtle key change” (as I called it when noticing it on a crap Shadows record in 1961) on one reggae record. Tempting as it is to leave an exercise for the reader, it is Pluto Shervington’s “I Man Bitter”. Which is stunningly good.


Sven 08.11.03 at 3:12 pm

Oh thank God. I thought Yorkie was a cheap shot at Radiohead.


slushfund 08.12.03 at 2:02 am

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm . . . . . raisin n biscuit yorkie . . . . . . .


matt 08.12.03 at 1:46 pm

This is what happens at the end of “Party Girl” by Elvis Costello, right?

And amen to the mention of “Living on a Prayer-” it’s the key change that transforms that song from campy anthem to, um, transcendent campy anthem.

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