08) High Fives 2019 – Trucker’s Gear Change

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This started the way the best features do, as a conversation in the pub. We’ll let Allan take it from there.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the pop music book; if the song’s on its last legs and you still need another thirty seconds or so to get you up to the optimal time for radio play, then you deploy one the producer’s most potent tactical weapons – the trucker’s gear change. In its most basic form, the whole arrangement shifts up a tone or a semitone, to grab back your attention before the chorus repeats and fades. Usually, it just happens once, but that depends on how desperate you are (or how weak the song is). You might even get some clever stuff going on to get from one key to the next; when that happens, you get all classical and call it a modulation. What do they sound like? Let’s start with an absolute clunker.

“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston

Considering the quality of the musicians available to producer David Foster, this TGC is bone-jarringly unsubtle; there’s no attempt to pretty it up by repeating a riff in the new key or moving through a few passing chords. Oh no; old key/bang/new key – we’re done. As if that’s not enough, there’s a whole bar of almost complete silence before the melody crashes back in again, maybe David Foster thought that the average listener couldn’t remember which key the song was in after 4 beats. Who knows; anyway it’s a crash/bang/wallop of the highest order and you can hear the teeth grinding off the flywheel:

“Love on Top” – Beyonce

OK, we’re now well and truly in the era of digital recording and production and it’s much easier and quicker to manipulate sounds. You can do a TGC with a mouse-click. If it’s so easy to do, why not do loads of them – one is good, two must be better. Beyonce co-produced this with Shea Taylor, so she’s sharing the blame here. In the last ninety seconds of the radio edit there are four, yes four upward key shifts as the chorus is repeated. It makes you wonder what it would be like if the key shift just kept repeating. As it happens, someone thought of that. Here it is with fourteen upward shifts:

 

“The Snake” – Al Wilson

Ah, the old Northern Soul classic. Fans will remember that one of the UK pressings of this song had a cover of the John Fogerty classic “Lodi” on the b-side. That’s not relevant, just me showing off. Sometimes you can get away with a few stick shifts if you’re building up to the climax of the song and that’s what happens here. At the end of the second verse, there’s a bass riff which is then repeated a tone higher and you’re in a different key. It’s not just a chorus repeated in exactly the same way but higher, it’s part of the process of moving the story along. And the same device is repeated at the end of the third chorus into the final verse as the song reaches its dramatic finale. Maybe I’m biased, but I think this is part of the arrangement of the song and that keeps it out of Room 101:

“Heat Treatment” – Graham Parker & the Rumour

You might think that any key change part way through a song would be agreed with the writer; it ain’t necessarily so. This was the title song of GP and the Rumour’s second album “Heat Treatment”, released in 1976, the same year as his debut “Howlin’ Wind” (two albums in a year and incessant gigs; musicians grafted in those days). Partway through the song, there’s a modulation; it’s quite musical – a two-bar horn section phrase takes the song up a tone. It’s not lumpy but it does the job fairly quickly. The problem is that it’s not part of generating extra excitement, just the opposite. It takes the song into a bass riff breakdown and the groove has to be built up again from scratch. Graham Parker made his feelings about it known when the album was remastered for CD; his sleeve notes refer to it as ‘that abusive key change’. Fair enough.

“Up the Junction” – Squeeze

This was the title track from the second Squeeze album, with a tip of the hat to Nell Dunn who wrote the novella of the same name. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford were just beginning to realise their potential as songwriters and Jools Holland was still their keyboard player. This is a key change that is about as far from a trucker’s gear change as you can get. It’s a modulation that reflects a downbeat turn in the lyrics through a ten-bar bridge using minor chords before dropping a whole tone for a more upbeat verse and then, paradoxically, going back up by a whole tone for the downbeat final verse. Difford and Tilbrook characteristically messing with the conventions. Bits of “Up the Junction” trivia? There are no choruses and the title of the song doesn’t appear in the lyric until the last three words: