Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Songs #266 & 267 - It's TWOsday!

Song #266 of 9999                                                  Song #267 of 9999

Title: The Air That I Breathe                                    Title: Creep
Artist: The Hollies                                                    Artist: Radiohead
Year: 1974                                                               Year: 1992
Album: Hollies                                                         Album: Pablo Honey

I think I've admitted this before but I use Wikipedia for a lot of the research I do for this blog. Unapologetically, I might add. When you have a dozen or so readers, fact-checking of the highest order doesn't really seem necessary. Plus, there are always such fun little surprises lurking in Wikipedia, many of them falling within the realm of incredible pretense. 

Like this! It's no secret that music theory nerds love Radiohead. And why wouldn't they? Their music has rich textures, surprising harmonic structures and key relationships, intricate rhythmic devices—they're very clever lads. So I was more amused than surprised when I read that the "ostinato from Radiohead's 'Creep' features modal mixture, common tones between adjacent triads, and an emphasis on subdominant harmony (IV = C in G major)." Ah, pretense! I mean, we are talking about "Creep," possibly the most simplistic song the band has ever released. Yet someone felt it was worth mentioning that the "highest pitches of the ostinato form a prominent chromatic line that 'creeps' up, then down, involving scale degrees \hat 5\hat 5\hat 6\hat 6....[while] ascend[ing], the lyrics strain towards optimism...descend[ing], the subject sinks back into the throes of self-pity...The guitarist's fretting hand mirrors this contour." Sure... It's as if they found the lost chord progression!

Except they didn't. Which brings me to tonight's 1974 selection, "The Air That I Breathe" by The Hollies. This classic, penned by Albert Hammond (remember "It Never Rains in California"—that guy), uses the exact same chord progression nearly twenty years earlier. Hammond's own version, stripped of The Hollies' soaring vocal harmonies, may have more in common with Radiohead's hit in terms of melody and arrangement, especially the lyrical cello descant that appears in the second verse. But the dramatic spirit of The Hollies' version is perhaps more in keeping with Johnny Greenwood's guitar stabs and strikes that send "Creep" into overdrive. Either way, the minutes Thom Yorke slides into the falsetto vocal line (at 2:26), he is essentially singing Hammond's tune with new lyrics. Yorke eventually (and rightfully) consented to sharing the writing credit with Hammond and co-writer Mike Hazelwood.

I like both of these songs but I find "The Air That I Breathe" to be a more fully-developed work. I really like the little bridge that connects the second and third verses, especially how it exploits the minor version of the iii chord that so prominently figures in the verse progression (I-III-IV-iv). Plus, the chorus has a great hook, even if the lyrics are a bit hackneyed. The musical interlude that follows is also interesting in that the progression (v-IV-I-V) utilizes the minor version of the dominant (v) in a way that is similar to the way the minor subdominant (iv) is used in the verse (I-III-IV-iv). Modal mixture indeed!


  1. I highly doubt the melody lift by Radiohead was deliberate, but it's an interesting co-incidence.

    But don't say it too loudly though, as a similar surreptitious lift landed Men At Work in the middle of a multi-million dollar lawsuit a while back...

  2. Yeah, that was the silly "Kookaburra" suit, right? I never understood that lawsuit as it is common practice to "quote" melodies in jazz improvisation solos and the flute player only plays a tiny tiny part of the melody. Anyway, I don't think you have to worry about Radiohead--they already paid the price for this one by sharing the writer's credit.