I’m listening to The Roches, singing the title track of their 1995 album Can We Go Home Now. It has just popped up on my iPhone, which is playing a selection of things from my Apple Music library that it thinks I will like, based on algorithmic logic.
The Roches were three sisters from New Jersey who sang wry, insightful, folk-derived songs in close harmony, often with minimal or no accompaniment. I remember when I bought this album, their 10th, I was surprised and slightly underwhelmed. There were synthesisers, and the lyrics were plainer, less tricksy.
The song ‘Can We Go Home Now’ is eight-and-a-half minutes long and is arranged verse-chorus, verse-chorus, verse-chorus. Technically, it’s the strophic form common in folksong. For the first half of the song, until midway through the second verse, we get nothing but (I think) Maggie Roche’s voice over a simple, warm, synthesiser bass ostinato: a repeated phrase that won’t give over.
Since the arrival of cheap Roland and Casio keyboards, some time in the Seventies, the synth ostinato has been extraordinarily prominent in pop music. It all started with ‘I Feel Love’ by Giorgio Moroder, sung by Donna Summer, but his synthesisers weren’t cheap. Then Kraftwerk, who were from the German art-music labs and didn’t buy theirs off the shelf either.
Everyone else – the Human League, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, the Pet Shop Boys, had to wait until the arrival of the first integrated synths with the arpeggiator function. Hold down a chord and they would play it one note at a time. Later you could just hold down one key, or perhaps two if you wanted a minor chord. When you were fed up with the first arpeggio, you could move on to a second chord, then a third. Not very interesting, but you were making music: electronic skiffle.
My favourite synthesiser ostinato song is Abba’s ‘The Day Before You Came’. Like ‘Can We Go Home Now’, and the granddaddy of them all, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero (1928) it repeats a very simple rhythmic pattern throughout, but builds in intensity: there is a quality of emotional suspense. Ravel had a commission to orchestrate one of Albeniz’s Iberia piano pieces (wonderful on guitar, by the way) for a dancer. Stymied by copyright law, he decided to write a new piece based on a Spanish dance (he was a Basque). According to the very good Wikipedia entry on the piece, he picked out a one-finger melody on his piano and told a friend “Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”
And that’s pretty much what he did. The two bar 3/4 rhythm, according to the anonymous Wiki author, is played 169 times. Two 18-bar tunes, pretty much in C major (every beginner’s favourite key, because there are no sharps and flats to worry about), alternate over the top. It gets more complicated than that, but the tune only lurches into another key once, very briefly, at the end. The interest comes from the orchestration: the same with Abba’s song, which is a brilliantly arranged.
Amusingly, the right-wing literary critic Allan Bloom said in his misrerabilist 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind that “Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel’s Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them.”
I wouldn’t have wanted to have sex with Allan Bloom, but he has a point. It’s not really about the rhythm, unless you’re into mechanical sex, more about the tension and release. The same is true of ‘The Day Before You Came’, where the release is emotional more than physical. It’s an odd song, lyrically. It appears to be telling the story of a woman’s escape from depression and mundane routine when a new lover comes into her life. The music builds and opens up into a thrilling climax, and yet it is all almost unbearably sad. Agnetha sings in an inward, restrained manner, more talking than singing. In the accompanying video, she is on the edge of despair. It was the final ABBA recording. Extraordinary song.
Back to ‘Can We Go Home Now’.
As the ostinato churns on, the story becomes somewhat bleak. The narrator wakes up alone ‘in a strange bed’. She pulls on her boots and goes downstairs where ‘she’ is sitting in a chair. There are only two characters in the story and the relationship between them is not made explicit, but I’m guessing, from previous form, that they are mother and daughter.
And then comes the chorus:
Can we go home now
Was what I said.
She looked at me
and said “We
It really doesn’t look like much, but this simple exchange for me encapsulates a deep experience of dislocation. I see it as a childhood memory. The mother, for whatever reason, has taken the child away from familiar surroundings and landed her somewhere new. The child wants to go home. The mother simply removes that possibility, or rather she reframes the reality. ‘Home’ (then) is replaced by ‘home’ (now).
In the next verse, the mother reacts to the child’s dismay. “ ‘Matter with you,’” she says, the line eschewing unnecessary grammar. After that, it’s a little unclear who is speaking. Someone has nearly forgotten “the difference between / what is and what’s not” Where they are now, there is sky, sand and sea. On the line “plenty of sky”, the rest of the sisters arrive, in gorgeously static parallel harmony.
And then the second chorus. Once again the narrator asks to go home, saying she has had enough. This time, the mother looks at her and says “tough / luck / suck”, at least in the version on the Roches.com official website, although Apple Music says the lines are “tough love sucks”, which seems to make more sense to me. I really can’t tell from the audio.
Another verse, spent watching TV in boredom. The mother seems to go somewhere. The child breathes “a cry” when she comes back. And then the conclusion. Once again the narrator asks to go home. This time:
She looked away
and said please
Well, this is a narrative twist. The mother, it now appears, needs the child. They are locked together in their new world.
It’s a classic short story: beginning, middle, end, told with the bare minimum of verbal and musical resources. I think it’s rather brilliant, because it resonates. It’s a universal experience, the moment in childhood when you realise first that the world will not always accommodate itself to your desires and second that the adults in your life may need you to accommodate yourself to them.
I started writing this because I hadn’t really looked at the lyrics before on my phone and was enraged that they seemed to be wrong. Did Maggie (if was her) actually sing “tough love sucks”? Who put the lyrics there? Who makes the decision on whether they are accurate? It’s all a mystery of the algorithm, a concept with which we are all becoming horribly familiar and to which I will return.
Another lyric conundrum
I was already puzzled about it. A couple of songs before this, the phone played something it identified only as ‘track’ from an album called WC. This was one of my bootlegs, a gorgeous section of the backing track for the Beach Boys’ ‘Wind Chimes’, taken from the Smile sessions. The boot is called Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 17, by the way. Recommended.
You hear the count in, then a simple tune on string bass, the lightest tapping percussion, and marimba, most likely, framed in the beautiful chamber echo of the LA studios . Later it stops, and you hear Brian counting in again. Then there’s a new take, with saxophone, flute, prepared piano, guitar and what have you. I can’t express the loveliness of it all: the simplicity of the basic riff, the exquisite colours of the arrangement.
Anyway, Apple has kindly supplied some lyrics for this piece of musical splendour. There seems to be a kind of rap battle in progress.
It starts like this:
I got the recipe to be the greatest mc you see
My tongue is sword my ammunition the vocabulary
I’m the type you just sit back and listen
when I’ve heard enough of your shit
I take your mind to prison
Cause when I drop my poetry
Everybody gets frantic
I put you down, bitch, like the ice did Titanic
Well, Majid goes on for a bit, then hands over to Lenny, who is Spanish. [Original punctuation}:
Todos me miran reconocen este estilosiempre en español en la cima yo estoy fijolatino orgulloso con formulas que complicantu forma de pensar sin saber que significanrepresentar es fundamental, es algo que siempre hagoy pase lo que pase tengo outland por mi ladoven conmigo y déjame enseñarte el caminoy descifrarte las entrañasde este laberinto formado con palabrassoy representante de un sonidoque queda para la historiaclavado en tu memoriapersonaje carismático, como Napoleóndiscantar estos versos es mi profesión
Then in comes Acorn:
:I come right-n-exactWith a mighty impactThe name is AcornBlasting´ off roofs when I brainstormDon’t stay calmNever forget it, kid,Prospects are limitlessPathetic kids, y’all’s careers are as shortAs a minute isLet it be dark for a minute,When I kick yo ass it’ll spark in it,You’ll never receive a medallionWith a mic carved in it,Often it is cats like youI feed my rancor withYou shouldn’t have been a poet,But a dancer, kidThe only things buggin’ me be the eternal Q´s,So now I search for tools that make fire,So I can be burnin’ crews,At first I chewYa nerves in two, then I turn intoA pyromaniac and serve ya c
After that Waqas comes in, possibly in Turkish. Luckily, there’s a translation.
‘I’m a terrorist’, it begins, and gets worse.
I’m a terrorist
Whenever you’re near
Don’t be unaware
Or this sultan cut’ll cut your head of
Be afraid don’t step or I’ll separate you from your roots
Eat you raw and spit you out…
And on it goes.
Meanwhile, the lovely Smile music carries on, oblivious.
Again, who put that there? Who let them?