‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’ said Frank Zappa, allegedly, and I take his point, which is why I have never tried to do it, particularly. There might be a few choreographers prepared to put together a salsa about St Paul’s, or a pas-de-deux about Paddington, but I couldn’t muster the confidence that writing-wise, I was in the same league as such terpsichoreans.
That said, music is without question the most powerful emotional influence on my life, as it is for many people, and as the tragic imbalance the cosmos has deployed between the music lovers and the music makers leaves me solely in the first camp, writing about it is the only positive response I can make. It’s either that or dance (at which I am not great) or cry, (which is a bit pathetic).
I’m not going to start off with Wagner (whom I’ve never actually got, anyway) or the Beatles. Too many have trod those paths before me, and there’s nothing I could bring to either of those overcrowded parties. (The parties, you understand, are taking place at the end of those well trod paths. Don’t you ‘mixed metaphor’ me.)
Instead, I’m going to focus on a particular unknown song, by a supremely unfashionable band who were once quite big, more than acceptable, in fact, in the eighties (did you see what I did there?).
Tears for Fears were famous enough at the time that you’re probably not going to go ‘Who?’, but on the wrong side of cool from The Smiths, so that they are likely, ultimately to forgotten.
Why were they uncool – or at least, why did they become so? Well, they were certainly self-regarding, but Morrisey et al ticked that box with inappropriate confidence. But where The Smiths cloaked their navel-gazing with delicious imagery and lyricism, (‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour’: the assonance, the alliteration, the metonymy – ‘but Heaven knows I’m miserable now’, the pleasing clunking gear change to prissiness and self pity), Mr Orzabal was a little too on the nose with his psychological analysis of what fucks children up. ‘You don’t give me love/You give me pale shelter/you don’t give me love/you give me cold hands.’ Pale shelter? Really? You mean ‘mere shelter’ probably, don’t you? Aren’t children neglected in boldly coloured houses as well as pale ones? ‘Shout, shout, let it all out. These are the things I can do without, come on.’ Oh dear me no. You did most of that for the rhyming didn’t you? The hit Everybody wants to rule the world promises from the title to echo Lennon’s Revolution, but actually fails to make any sense (‘I can’t stand this indecision/Married with a lack of vision’), and their last big one, Sowing the Seeds of Love, though musically fascinating, is hard to forgive for the couplet ‘Politician granny with your high ideals/Have you no idea how the majority feels?’ You can imagine the right-on kids in their black duffel coats and eyeliner saying ‘Yeah! Take that Thatch!’ It’s all a bit Rik.
But musically, they were capable of genius. Rule the World is scarcely a dance number, but whack it up on the earbuds and it’s great to walk to. Seeds of Love contains about five delicious different musical hooks, layered with explicit and implicit references to the Beatles, particularly All you Need is Love. Their breakthrough hit Change begins with a sequencer riff that sounded like nothing ever heard before, not glockenspiel, not maraca, but somehow both.
The song I want to pull apart though, was never a single, and probably justly so, but I love it. Start of the Breakdown is lyrically simple, and verges on the banal. ‘Is this the start of the breakdown? I can’t understand you.’ But actually, by their standards, it stays on the right side of banality and has a certain simple depth. It works as a refrain, and the verses, though pretty meaningless other than possibly inside Orzabal’s head, are quite cool. ‘Scratch the ice, let the telephone ring/Sense of time is a powerful thing/And we love to laugh/love to cry/Half alive.’ And there is one image that works, and works well: ‘Breakdown is a final demand/We stand firm with our head in our hands’ He’ll have been pleased with that one.
The opening is stark. A sudden assertion by the same sequencer sound as on Change, and a single piano chord before the voice. The sequence seems to go its own sweet way, as if programmed for randomness of timing and note.
There is a single feature of this song which delights me more than anything else, and it is this: For the first half (almost exactly) rhythm is provided by a crazily ticking drum machine which seems to skitter along robotically alongside the slap bass against the very simple falling tune in the piano, and the later woody synth riff. The sequence returns for the second verse, duetting crazily against the drum machine.
Then, at the halfway point (it’s actually at 2:25, on a song which runs for 4:59, but which has actually faded by 4:50), just exactly when the song needs something to lift it, there is a sudden snare, and a human drummer starts bashing out a rhythm off the beat while the drum machine keeps skittering on and the sequencer dodges between them. After a brief middle eight in which the sequencer seems to be relentlessly fighting the drummer, the defining piano tune returns, and after the refrain returns and repeats, the song fades.
Why do I enjoy this so much? Something about the symmetry of it, I suppose, but also the way the human drummer seems to represent – and here, I’m certainly dancing about architecture – the struggling of the human spirit against mechanical forces beyond his control. Is that what breakdown is? Is breakdown a struggle against something, or a collapse? Is there actually a link between the lyric and the musical form of the song? I rather doubt it, but musically, I think it is a little gem.
A little footnote: After talking to my daughter about this song, and this aspect of it, I found a youtube video of it being performed in concert. After the sequence is set going, the drummer comes in at once, suggesting that out of the studio, the song’s creators cared not two hoots for its symmetry.