Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I've been thinking about this song, Matthew Sweet's incandescent power pop classic Girlfriend, a lot lately.

No particular reason; sometimes a song sticks in your head for awhile and refuses to leave. But it got me to thinking why I love this song so much.

The lyrics are barely even rudimentary; it's tuneful, it's got hooks up the yin-yang, but Sweet doesn't really develop the melody much. In structure, it's basically four minutes of the same thing over and over again.

But on this particular song, Sweet had a secret weapon: The brilliant guitarist Robert Quine. His snarling guitar lines temper Sweet's airiness, but more than that, they're unpredictable. It's like Quine is a great jazz soloist, taking the song as a starting point and going off in his own direction. The tension between the darker places he seeks out and Sweet's gentler, early-Beatles melody make what would have been just another pretty pop song into something vital and alive.

Maybe every great pop recording needs an extra ingredient, a dash of something unexpected. Without it, you get Paul McCartney's solo career.

This is a sadly typical number from The Artist Formerly Known As The Cute One. It's not bad, exactly. It's just kind of there, blandly inoffensive, like a painting in a dentist's waiting room. McCartney, obviously, once had a hand in some of the greatest music of the twentieth century. He wrote a fair number of my favorite Beatles songs--I'm Looking Through You; For No One; Back In The U.S.S.R.--on his own, without any collaboration from John Lennon.

Still, even without any direct input from Lennon, his influence could still be felt. With the other Beatles around, McCartney knew he had to deliver; he could still be insipid (Martha My Dear) but he couldn't afford to be lazy. He knew his writing had to impress his bandmates. Once they departed, laziness became the order of the day, every song just good enough, melodic but not interesting, the lyrics trite, the arrangements logy.

Of course, it's possible to go too far in the other direction.

That was Bonnie Tyler singing, of course, but we shouldn't really blame her. No, we should heap scorn instead on Jim Steinman, the song's author and arranger, and architect of some of the most godawful overwrought schlock of the rock era. Total Eclipse Of The Heart is typical Steinman--it introduces a number of melodies without bothering to develop any of them, the arrangement is so bombastic Phil Spector would wince and the lyrics...Oh, the lyrics! The song's very title gives you a good idea of Steinman's ability to concoct clever-sounding metaphors that make absolutely no sense. Whereas McCartney consistently does too little, Steinman can be counted on to do too much.

So what's a perfect pop song? Maybe all it takes is a catchy melody, lyrics that are simple but just a bit more profound than they seem, and the sense to end in just under three minutes. Add in Pete Townshend's chiming guitar, John Entwistle's furious bass riffs, Keith Moon's explosive drums and Roger Daltrey's peerless vocals. It's a crime Townshend has sold his songs as commercial jingles and TV theme songs, that he and Daltrey continue to tour even though half of the band is dead, that even by the late sixties sluggishness and grand pretensions had begun to infect Townshend's muse.

But nothing will ever diminish the perfection of this.