Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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December 12, 2007
non-stop disco glockenspiel

Once upon a time, the musical group     Tavares released a record called "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel."

The record was a pretty big hit. It was released in May, 1976, climbed the charts all summer, and apparently reached its apex in September. It went to # 3 on the R&B charts, and # 15 on the pop.

You currently can hear the record, and see Tavares (& their -- could they be salmon-colored? -- tuxedoes), here.

If/when you listen to the record, you will hear, after the first part of the instrumental intro, a sparkly little 10-note melody:

               ding                               ding

               ding                               ding

You can't miss it.

If you continue to listen to the song, you will notice that when the above-described little melody ends, you will hear it played immediately again. With no variation.

Then played immediately again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And so on.

Over time, TiR's feelings and opinion about the relentless little jingle have gone through various stages:
First, noticing it as merely one element among others in the song's overall musical arrangement; then,

to have the 10-note tune increase in apparent loudness and prominence relative to every other compositional element; then

to our being driven totally up the wall by the motif/sentence; then

to our being really driven totally up the wall by it; then, finally

to becoming fixated on & fascinated by that inane little musical sentence, for reasons that we can't quite seem to explain to ourselves.

One thing we can say, however, is that the little tune is used on the record in a very repetitious way.

How repetitious? This repetitious:
The record clocks in at 3:36, at least in the version in the above-linked video.

During that time span, the 10-note melody plays a total of 36 times.

We counted.

That's pretty repetitious.

So many questions.

However, the questions mainly are reducible to: Why so repetitious? Why? Why?

We have no idea.

Maybe information about what happened during the writing and recording of the song will explain how the record ended up the way that it did? Perhaps. But we have uncovered no direct information or testimony to illumiate what possessed the record's makers, and related matters.

Maybe the whole song germinated from that little riff, which someone stumbled onto while they tinkered with an unfamiliar percussion instrument in the studio, and the riff thus became the backbone of the record. And if so, why not? We understand that multiple, worthy, latter-day Clash songs started out much the same way. But we really don't know.

Could knowledge of the identities of some of the persons responsible for the record explain it? We wonder who exactly was responsible for the way the record turned out.

We weren't there, of course. However, the album and song apparently were produced by Motown-R&B-disco-dance music legend Freddie Perrin, who co-wrote the song with Keni St. Lewis. The latter seems to have an illustrious discography that encompasses both genius and fromage.

One commentator advances the plausible theory that the team was probably going for a Van     McCoy kind of sound. This could help explain it, but somehow not deeply enough.

We seem to need more data. So, we wonder: Who was the musician who played the actual notes, 36 times in a row, for 3.5 minutes, or for a full 6:32, on the LP version?

Four individual percussionists are listed on the credits for the album, including Mr. Perrin himself.

Unfortunately, none of the four percussionists seems to have gone on record about how they weathered the experience of recording "Heaven [etc.]". We might ask the one who played the ten notes: Did recording it cause them to go insane? Were they treated afterward for repetitive strain injury? Suppose, for example, that Bob Zimmitti, who is listed on the album credits, was the one who played it. We would then ask: Which sessions blew his mind more, playing on that Tavares hit, or backing Zappa on The Grand Wazoo?

Finally, we can't help but wonder, in the interests of comprehensiveness: Which particular kind of percussion instrument was the one used to play the chiming, 10-note idée fixe?

The video clip does not include shots of any live backing band, to show us what instrument was used.
[On the other hand, the video does helpfully flash the lyrics on the screen. This settles a different question that, we believe, no one has ever cared to ask, about whether the second run-through of the song's bridge begins with the lyric,
I'm captured by your smell.
Not that such a lyric necessarily would be misplaced, from a scientific standpoint.]

Our first guess was that the instrument used was a celesta. However, now we think that it must have been a glockenspiel.

A glockenspiel.

The awesome power of the pop-rock-(yea, unto disco) glockenspiel is suggested ably in this video, of a live performance by one Cory Arcangel.

Mr. Arcangel apparently decided that Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album featured insufficient glockenspiel. He proceeded to rectify this by recording his own play-along glock accompaniment track.

We are unclear about if the original Springsteen track included any glock at all. If it did, it may have been an electronic glockenspiel.

We note that, in his video, Arcangel plays the glockenspiel while wearing a Metallica t-shirt. To take his ethos one step further, a video of someone playing an actual Metallica song on a glockenspiel can be viewed here.

So now returns our original question: Why so much non-stop glock rockin' on that old Tavares record?

We suppose that the science of hit records explains it. If you want a big hit, make it simple. If you want a bigger hit, make it simpler.

But, again, why? Why must it work that way?

Which brings us to the main point of this whole entry, which simply is to post some excerpts from the writings of Arnold Schoenberg.

In the "Repetition" section of Schoenberg's "New Music: My Music" (1930), he wrote:
In general, music is always hard (not even relatively hard) to understand -- unless it is made easier by repetition of as many minute, small, medium or large sections as possible. The first precondition for understanding is, after all, memory . . .

This is perhaps the reason why, throughout music, as much as possible is repeated as often as possible, especially in simple music.

. . .

If one wishes to be understood, one must keep harping on the subjet in question, and coming back to it.

Schoenberg seems to have touched here on a question of general applicability: whether, to get through to anyone with anything new or different, they have to be "beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly" with it, again and again. Until, perhaps, one becomes bored to death of listening to oneself, with the tedium of it.

Schoenberg, for his part, explained why he did not go this route:
Now, if I recall that I confessed to repeating little or nothing in my music, then you will rightly ask: "Why? Why make it so hard for the listener; why not make things easier for him, in the way he needs; why say once only things that are hard to perceive and remember even when heard repeatedly, so that one completely loses the thread and doesn't begin to comprehend all the things that come later?"

To this I have to say: "I can do it no other way, and it does not work any other way. . . . "

But the reason why there is no other way: were I prepared to be as discursive as one must be, in order to be widely comprehensible, my works would all last 10 to 12 times as long, and a piece which now lasts 10 minutes would play for two hours, while a whole day would not suffice to get through a longer one.

Were each figure elucidated by repetition, and each of the resulting small sections repeated at various points, and so on, then I should certainly be easier to follow; but, on grounds of sheer length, people would be less than ever able to follow me through to my destination.

His view seems to present the speaker/performer with a real dilemma. One can either dumb down one's product and repeat-repeat-repeat, and thereby lose the consumers who want something more interesting. Or, one can say all that one has to say, in all its complexity and detail, and take 10 hours to say it -- then lose the audience that way, through their sheer exhaustion (or a different species of exhaustion).

Schoenberg, with his anti-repetition prejudice, in fact seemed to be talking only about the non-"popular" or high "art-music" that was his life's mission. His direct concern was not with something like the Tavares record, which he probably would have regarded as more akin to folk or other traditional or "popular" music forms. Elsewhere in Style and Idea, he has sympathetic things to say about the function of repetition in music, in its appropriate time and place.

In "Why No Great American Music?" (June 1934; some 8 months after A.S. fled to the USA), he suggests the interrelation bewteen music that has been successfully "advocated for" -- understood by the audience -- and repetition within the listener's mind:
Music is only understood when one goes away singing it, and only loved when one falls asleep with it in one's head, and finds it still there on waking up next morning.

Is that achieved with a single performance? Achievable? No, it is not achievable even with several performances.

Perhaps when one is plagued by the inability to get out of one's head a tune that one hates, one is trying to understand why it is ugly.

However, Schoenberg admits at one point his belief that a main purpose of musical repetition is to take a "short story" and make it "long." And with this, Tavares might agree.

Arguably, the point of a lot of Tavares's jams, and of disco or funk in general, especially in the six-minutes-and-longer version, was not to lead the mind to complex, new ideas, as Schoenberg would have it, but to establish a groove and keep a party, crowd or floor of people dancing.

["Arguably" -- What a weak-ass word to use to start a paragraph! -- especially in this context. Someone might well say: Only an idiot "argues" about dance music. Everybody else either dances to it or they don't. Dancing is its own argument. You don't "understand" dance music with your brain, but with other parts of the body.]

Similarly, ESG has often said that its goal was to take the brief "bridge" part of James Brown's records and extend it, to "keep it there," and essentially to make their records all "bridge." Repetition is the whole point.

In conclusion, to consider all of the above clearly establishes an entirely new discovery of earth-shattering importance to musicology and the history of Western civilization:
Arnold Schoenberg was not Tavares.