Our Prayer

Sasha Frere-Jones has an article in the latest New Yorker that’s been getting a fair amount of attention, in which he complains that indie rock has pretty much abandoned a long-standing rock tradition of more-or-less stealing from African-American musical styles. I don’t know nearly enough about current indie rock to critique that, but he did say a couple of things that set my gears turning. First off, he seems to regard the African-American influence as an almost purely rhythmic one.

If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

But African-American music has its own distinct harmonic features as well. And I hear a fair amount of African-American harmonic influence, particularly from gospel, across the pop landscape. But, more interestingly, I hear even more of it in a lot of music by a guy Frere-Jones correctly points up as an inspiration to a lot of the indie crowd:

Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties—respectively, psychedelic music and country rock—and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock’s muse.

Now, I would say that the link is more than tenuous—the initial Beach Boys sound was heavily indebted to Chuck Berry. “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” after all, is just “Sweet Little Sixteen” with different lyrics. But the sound was soon transformed into a new genre: “Fun, Fun, Fun” lifts its opening guitar riff from “Johnny B. Goode,” but after that, it’s essentially a Chuck Berry song that Chuck Berry would never be able to sing. And some atypical later Beach Boys albums (such as Wild Honey or Carl and the Passions) make explicit a debt to R&B and soul that was percolating under the surface of all those bright surf anthems.

But the harmonic influence is a far trickier matter, and points up the difficulty of tracing musical influence in general. The sound I’m thinking of is gospel’s subdominant-dominant mash-up. The subdominant, which we all know and love from plagal “Amen” cadences, colors much of gospel harmony. It’s a common ornament to the tonic chord:

At some point, that neighborly rocking was combined with a stronger V-I bass movement:

That subdominant-over-dominant IV-over-V sound (in chord symbols, either G11(add9) or F/G) is one of the touchstones of gospel. The presence of the first and fourth scale degrees push it past the basic V-I found in hymns, but its resolute diatonicism keeps it from sounding like straight-up jazz. Here’s the conundrum: I hear a lot of that sound in Brian Wilson’s later, more critically-revered output, but did he really get it from gospel? Or did he come up with it on his own, as a natural evolution of his musical voice? Part of the problem is that he uses such sounds in a fairly idiosyncratic way.

The quasi-gospel harmonies stay pretty much in the background in those early Beach Boys songs; everything is arranged for the standard rock instruments of guitar and bass, which doesn’t highlight the vertical thinking as much, and while something like that first progression forms the basis of much of the rhythm guitar, it sounds more like rockabilly than gospel. The gospel sounds only come to the fore around the time of Pet Sounds, when Brian’s focus turns from the bass to the piano (and, by extension, other keyboard instruments) as he eschews live performance for the studio. The textural model is the repeated right-hand quarter-note chord, something Brian probably picked up from listening to Phil Spector records. You can hear it clearly in the organ part that opens “Good Vibrations”:

This is still very much in the Phil Spector mode, solidly triadic. But by the time of “Surf’s Up,” written for the ill-fated Smile album, things have gotten a little more complicated:

The third and fourth bars are close to the typical IV-over-V gospel dominant. But the first two bars are something else entirely. In essence, he’s flipped the V-I movement in the bass, making the second chord of the pair the dominant. And he obscures the movement towards resolution by harmonizing the first bass note as a chord in second inversion, a particularly unstable sonority. The unexpected inversions are something Brian turns to again and again in this period, layering on a question where the bass line would seem to give an answer.

Are the fact that these sorts of chords are also found in gospel a sign of influence or coincidence? On the one hand, Brian has said in interviews that it was actually Burt Bacharach songs that opened up his ears to extra-triadic harmonies, major and minor seventh chords and the like. On the other hand, in the America of the 1950s and 60s, it would have been hard for Brian not to be influenced by gospel—I’ve written before about how the Civil Rights movement infused American vernacular music with a healthy dose of the African-American church.

But the most fascinating possibility is that Brian’s gospel chords evolved separately, but from a common source. If you consider the music he grew up with—Protestant hymns, Four Freshman pop, early blues-based rock-and-roll—it’s not that different from the stew out of which Thomas Dorsey first synthesized gospel in the 20s and 30s. Maybe it’s a musical version of the Miller-Urey experiment: if the right elements are present, the necessary combinations form no matter what. It’s like trying to trace the cross-pollination between the Beach Boys and the Beatles: “Surf’s Up,” for example, wasn’t commercially released until 1971, but had been famously featured in the 1967 Leonard Bernstein-hosted CBS documentary Inside Pop. And put side by side, the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” sure do seem to be in debt to it. But maybe they were just all drawing on the same zeitgeist.

For comparison, here’s one more Brian Wilson similarity, one that most certainly represents a parallel development, and not a direct influence. “God Only Knows” is, on one level, a celebration of the subdominant. It starts on IV (A major); the tonic E-major harmony never appears in root position. Here’s the main progression of the song:

The tonic-related harmonies, in the center of the phrase, are second- and third-inversion instabilities that need to be resolved. That point of tension is surrounded by chords all related to either subdominant IV (including the F-sharp minor triads, which are, after all, the relative minor of IV) or the subdominant substitution ii. The tinta of the song is perennially stuck in the middle of an “Amen” cadence.

You know who else used to stack his harmonies heavily towards the plagal, the flat side of the circle of fifths? Edward Elgar. And for precisely the same reason that Brian Wilson does—to give the music a sense of melancholy grandeur, a sense that bright, sturdy perfect cadences would flood with too much sonic light. Now I know that Brian Wilson wasn’t consciously trying to imitate Sir Edward. But they both heard the bittersweet longing within the plagal cadence, and chose their vocabularies accordingly. Tracing influences is fascinating, but for me, just as fulfilling is the realization that even total musical strangers are sometimes, in the same way, chasing the same star.


  1. Musicians can receive ideas from a tradition or formally, from teachers, they can discover things by noodling about or through some form of cunning. Proving lines of influence is always going to be difficult, but it is fun nevertheless.For example, consider the connection Bacharach -> Wilson, and then go back a step. Bacharach studied with Milhaud, Martinu, and Cowell. It isn’t difficult at all to trace a line from either Milhaud’s polytonality or “wrong note” basses or Cowell’s cluster or late pandiatonic music to those chords of Wilson you describe. Revisting musical history becomes very interesting, when Satie -> Milhaud -> Bacharach -> Wilson or Seeger -> Cowell -> Bacharach -> Wilson are on the table.

  2. <> Tracing influences is fascinating, but for me, just as fulfilling is the realization that even total musical strangers are sometimes, in the same way, chasing the same star.<>Done in one. Nice.It’s also weird how SF-J thinks the Beach Boys’s vocal harmonies are more Glee Club than Motown. Come again, now?

Leave a Reply