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Friday I’m in love

This Friday we continue our new feature—arbitrary but fun value judgments—with a twist:  our first ever guest blogger, the one and only Janet Lyon.  Take it away, Janet!

Greetings, Michael-blog readers:

This really isn’t anything more than a longish addendum to last week’s “perfect pop song” discussion. I am painfully aware that 204 comments have been added to that post, although I didn’t read them all because unlike some people in my household I actually have to prepare classes and show up in the classroom from time to time. So if you’re already pop-saturated, feel free to go grade a paper or boil an egg or download a pop song instead of reading this. Michael will be back soon, I promise.

In my view, the perfect pop song has one or both of two things: perfect (and perfectly mixed) back-up vocals, and/or perfect hooky instrumentation before and between verses (not to be confused with a “solo” in the middle of the song, which is entirely unimportant). Good back-up vocals act as a kind of enchanted glue for a pop song. On the one hand they body forth a lanky little community hanging out around the song: they understand that song very well, and they slip in comments like they were calling from the front porch, and they make that song bigger and chummier than it had any right to hope for. (Hand claps can sometimes accomplish this too, particularly if they’re drunken hand claps. I love hand claps.) On the other hand, back-up vocals impose a certain structural and emotional order that keeps the song anchored firmly in its pop-slot. Back-ups keep lead vocalists from going around the bend, and they also fill up those uncomfortable aural spaces that would otherwise accrue around a vocal line. (Imagine “Spirit in the Sky” without backups and you’ll see what I mean.)

Michael’s vote for Most Perfect Pop Song went to Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind” which, though unremarked upon by my ever-remarking-upon spouse, has perfect backup vocals. They are in any case perfect for the song, being at once banal and cynical. They’re also perfectly mixed. (And I guess, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I notice mixing and everything else about back-ups because I used to sing back-up vocals, and all my sisters and my brother and my sister-in-law have done or do back-up vocals, and my mother and her sisters did back-up vocals.) But “Cruel to be Kind” doesn’t have the other perfect pop component, that is, perfect inter-verse instrumentation—not that it has to, remember, since perfect pop songs need only one of two pop-ponents. My favorite pop song of all time doesn’t really even have discernible backups, but it does have the best before-and-between-verse instrumentation ever. It’s The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and what’s better than that gorgeously fingered Rickenbacker-y guitar that opens the song and weaves its way through to the end, and even manages to make sense of Robert Smith’s smeary ecstatic ululations late in the track, when a mixing engineer less courageous than The Cure’s would have hit the fade button rather than keep up the guitar line?  (Plus the lyrics are fab.)

So now for a couple-two-three examples of back-ups. Usually I like an anonymous chunk of voices, but it should be said that there are some tremendous individual back-up vocalists, like Bonnie Bramlett, to name just one. Okay, she’s got great pipes whether she’s singing lead or back-ups, but to get a taste of what she can do behind a song try to find “Soul Shake,” recorded with Delbert McClinton. (Yes, she’s famous for slugging Elvis Costello after he drunkenly uttered what sounded to her like a racial slur. But she should also be famous for her voice.) Other surprising front-to-back or back-to-front standouts: Lyn Collins, Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell.  As for just-right pop back-ups: early specimens include “The Boy from New York City” (Ad Libs), “He’s So Fine” (Chiffons) pretty much everything by Sly and the Family Stone (think “Hot Fun,” “Stand”), tons of Beatles songs (there’s plenty about the Beatles on this blog already, but think “Girl” and “Paperback Writer”), most early Motown songs, and especially those immaculate Pips backing Gladys Knight, and especially on “Midnight Train to Georgia”; plus the Four Tops—e.g. “Bernadette,” the song that inspired a nearly-religious homage in Londonbeat’s “Thinking About You,” which, by the way, has great back-ups plus great inter-verse instrumentation. And of course, from Chicago, The Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her?”).

Three songs with admirable back-ups that cannot be admitted here: “Walk on the Wild Side” (too much heroin), Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help from my Friends” (too much beer-oin), and Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” (too many verses, too sensitive, but jeez, those back-ups and that plangent, drunken concertina!).  And another that would be admitted if anyone had heard it: Leon Russell’s “Bluebird.” More recently (and really happy-making): The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed” and Futureheads, “Hounds of Love.” It’s so great having a 19-year-old son named Nick.

There are of course dozens and dozens of pop songs that have great hooky instrumentation, and I’ll name only an eclectic few: Blur, “Out of Time”; Liz Phair, “Supernova”; Hollies, “Bus Stop”; John Lennon, “It’s Only Love”; The Pretenders, “Back on the Chain Gang”; and, dare I say it, Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Michael tells me I must stop.  Something about “band” “width.” And just as I was about to rattle off a a list of rarified pop songs that have both super back-ups and instrumentation that runs like a golden stitch through the song.  I’ll leave you with three: The Easybeats, “Friday On my Mind”; Ray Charles, “Unchain my Heart”; “Chain of Fools” and anything else that Aretha Franklin recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section.  The rest is up to you.

Have a good weekend, and remember to tip your back-up singers.


Posted by on 04/29 at 10:05 AM
  1. Janet,you have made the largely invisible visible. If backup singers help a pop song along, imagine what they would do for a typical Liberal Arts course. If I had a couple of really glamorous, big-haired singers giving emphasis where emphasis need be in my Plato to Nato Political Theory course, why my evals would go through the roof.  Other applications from the quotidian?

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  11:33 AM
  2. Anyone else thinking of “...and the Pips”?  I think they appeared on SNL and performed “Midnight Train to Georgia”.  No Gladys Knight, just Pips.

    Leavin’ in that midnight train.
    Midnight Train
    Ooooooooooooooo Georgia
    Midnight Train.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  11:52 AM
  3. I gotta singles bars would do great business by renting out backup singers at hourly rates.

    Posted by Paul  on  04/29  at  11:54 AM
  4. For hooky instrumentation, somewhat-perfect backup vocals, and outstanding clapability, I’m gonna have to nominate CCR’s “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.”

    Sly and the Family Stone--great call, Janet. Thanks to the woman whose many appositive identities are immortalized in our house through Michael’s “Days Off” essay for CONTEXT! (Travel writing has never been the same.)

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  11:55 AM
  5. stray thoughts:

    1) Bonnie Bramlett is also a damn fine actress, as evidenced by her completely walking away with any scene she was ever in on Roseanne.

    2) The best ever riff on backup singers in call-and-response mode can be found in the Arrogant Worms’ “Carrot Juice is Murder.”

    3) Michael who? I for one welcome this blog’s new double-X-chromosomed overlord.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  04/29  at  11:56 AM
  6. And once again, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 goes unnoticed. Sad, truly sad ...

    Backup vocal highlight: Merry Clayton hitting a note so high her voice breaks, in “Gimme Shelter.”

    Posted by Steven Rubio  on  04/29  at  12:47 PM
  7. All-time favorite back-up is the chorus of Enos on “Once in a Lifetime,” which is even cooler when you know it’s Brian Eno, who can be a soulful egghead when he wants to be (listen to “Spinning Away” and “Lay My Love” on Wrong Way Up, his album with John Cale, for some groovy beauty).

    Then there’s numerous Yo La Tengo multiple voice efforts, if not always in pop songs, as they’ve been defined in these threads. Probably the best is the “ooh-ooh-oh-oh” that Georgia sings through “Alyda.” Still remember her making a face when they played it as a request during a live show once.

    And there’s not just the Jackson 5 “I Want You Back"--there’s Graham Parker and the Rumour doing a mighty fine one on Live Sparks.

    To end with something about as non-pop as possible, let’s not forget The Mekons creating some kind of gospel of the holy spook on Out of Our Heads, especially “Take His Name in Vain.” As the numerous voices drift in and out like lopsided rounds, one moment declarative and self-accusatory, the next imperative and pissy-defiant, someone sings “suck, suck” like a teenager’s joke, or the dictum of a 226-year-old vampire, or empire.

    Posted by George  on  04/29  at  01:13 PM
  8. How recent does a song have to be to qualify?
    My fave begins,

    “Cinque… dieci.... venti… trenta… trentasei...quarantatre.”

    And I hope Janet can imagine this: a large dog
    singing “Fur Elise.” I just got treated to it
    recently: in my house, one phone is set to play Fur Elise.  I was napping and I think the dog forgot I was home. The phone rang, and she sang along, loudly and enthusiastically. Ba-roo Ba-roo Ba-roo, Ba-roo-roo.....

    Posted by david ross mcirvine  on  04/29  at  01:20 PM
  9. Yeah, let’s hear it for backup vocalists!!! I think Emmylou Harris is best as a backup (as opposed to singing lead) - just exquisite.  Linda Rondstadt backing up Warren Zevon is also a treat. 

    And for a rocker voice, how about the woman who shares the spotlight with Mick on Gimme Shelter - WHOA!!  On the other hand I really feel sorry for the band backing up Mick on Sympathy for the Devil (5 minutes of hoo-hooo) - I like the part (hoo-hooo), but they must (hoo-hooo) get sick of it after(hoo-hooo) a while (hoo-hooo).
    For the gents, how ‘bout Steven Soles singing backup?  I love his sound.  Heck, I even like Jerry Garcia doing backups.
    And, yeah, you can never give too much props to Aretha Franklin around the Chain of Fools time.
    But I will do the same thing I did last week - throw in the reggae curveball.  Reggae has a great tradition of vocal trios and has no shortage of great examples.  But I will leave you with my description of the album Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear:  it is the perfect example of reggae as built up by excellent teamwork.  You have drums and bass crackling and pumping; guitar and keys pulsing; horns singing and punctuating (and an occassional flute doing flutey things); and backup vox tying things together.  They create a perfect pulsing carpet for Winston Rodney to chant and wail over. Jah! Rastafari.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  01:25 PM
  10. harmony vocals and melodic hooks… somewhere phil spector and karen carpenter are smiling. in the continuing effort to quantify what makes a perfect pop song, i offer citations that support both of your arguments. think of me as your research assistant…

    “trash” by suede
    firmly embodying the school of thought that suggests that hooks and melodic themes are what make us feel all giddy inside. not a single backup vocal.

    “that is why” by jellyfish
    considered by my friend in london as the best british band ever to come out of america. gorgeous harmonies that provide the dynamic verse-to-chorus lift that every good pop song must have.

    both easily fall into the realm of pop perfection, but for very different reasons.

    Posted by random  on  04/29  at  01:40 PM
  11. Nice to see some one parsimoniously identify the essential elements. OTOH, look where harmony & melodic hooks got Phil & Karen (one a paranoid recluse/murderer, the other unhappy, henpecked and dead). Back-up singers and a catchy opening are not enough!

    “I Want You Back” has all that and is one of the better early Jackson 5 songs, but “Midnight Train to Georgia” (as notable for the call & response as anything else) pales by comparison to the classic early Motown. A neglected Tempts song that illustrates this is “All I Need” (a B-side that achieved hit status in discerning places like Detroit, Cleveland, & Chicago)---a driving beat, great back-up work and a nice recurring hook. That’s a perfect pop song. “Midnight Train” is okay but not in the same category--it’s over the hill Motown, when the original acts were looking elsewhere for record deals. Gladys & the Pips were “more perfect” with “Heard it Through the Grapevine”.

    BTW, thanks for mentioning the underappreciated Sly & the Family Stone. A song that fits the bill even better than your picks is “Everybody is a Star”.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  02:33 PM
  12. to me, the perfect “rock” hook, by which i mean not a “pop” hook but rather an unrestrained bit of musculature (i can’t spell that word but whatever) in the midst of pop hookiness would have to be

    she sell sanctuary by the cult.  the guitar line (but again, it’s “rock” so it’s just a riff, right?) goes up into zeppelin, but comes down to a strummed kicker.  that makes it pop.  the chorus, well there isn’t one really, it’s just one long piece of rockriff perfection.  it’s a perfect song.  i think, despite its absence of backup vocals (but never too late to do a mash up) and hooky chorus, that it should be on this list.

    Posted by Robert Green  on  04/29  at  02:33 PM
  13. I gotta nominate a fairly recent one I’ve been in love with for a month or so:

    New York’s own Brazilian Girls, who are not Brazilian, and feature only one girl. Their dub-ish and completely filthy “Pussy” has that buncha-people-hanging-out-in-the-backyard singin’ along kinda feel.

    And the Hold Steady prove that you can produce an entire album of non-stop fist-pumping rock anthems without actually singing. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from their upcoming second album is pure bar-band joy, with an actual melody for the chorus, complete with female backup singers.

    Emmylou Harris is the world’s greatest backup singer, though. Look no further than her work with Bob Dylan—during the worst phase of his rocky career, she made mediocre songs beautiful.

    And speaking of Dylan, his “Brownsville Girl” is criminally fun—the archetypal faux-grandiose epic song-story, cowritten by Sam Shepard, with “gospel” backup singers-for-hire along for the ride. Gloriously hacky.

    Posted by Alex  on  04/29  at  02:40 PM
  14. Some of the poppiest pop among new bands is coming from New Zealand’s The Brunettes, who have it all--harmonies, hand claps, and horns.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  02:43 PM
  15. You may have even better taste than Michael, Janet.  There are many Cure songs that are hard to beat--I’m partial to “Pictures of You,” myself, if for no other reason than that it wallows unapologetically in its utter melodrama. (Smith can pull off melodrama better than anybody.)

    Now, I want to suggest, for some future thread, that we discuss pop songs that start out great and then end up sucking.  The first minute or so of U2’s “All I Want is You” is just amazing.  It starts out so delicate and beautiful, and then hits that kind of still-delicate-but-energetic (and yet somehow also restrained)-guitar-solo, with the end result being a perfect, but not too over-the-top, crescendo of pathos.  Then the whole thing turns to crap, with the lyrics and tune returning to what should be the delicate stage but, for the rest of the song, to be drowned out by what sounds like U2’s full range of instruments--drums, guitars, synthesizers (I think), etc.  Too bad.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  02:53 PM
  16. When it comes to backup singers, few could match the resume of the great Clydie King.

    Some examples of her backup singing magic:

    “Tumbling Dice” by the Rolling Stones - On this record, she and her partner Ventetta Fields come as close to backup singer perfection as one will ever hear on a rock recording.

    “Sister Golden Hair” by America - Producer George Martin takes a band already known for lovely vocal harmonizing and adds Ms. King’s professional touch to this gem of a pop song.

    “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John -The lush production and overdubbing of so many elements in this beautiful song cannot hide Clydie in the background.

    “You’re No Good” by Linda Ronstadt - On this, Clydie’s background singing is as much what makes the song great as Linda in the foreground.

    “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan - Wow! On this excellent song, Clydie’s (and Venetta’s) backup singing is simply magical.

    Oh man, I could go on all day. This magnificent backup singer was as much a part of 70s rock as smack, Marshall amps, and bellbottom blue jeans.

    Posted by mat  on  04/29  at  02:59 PM
  17. I guess this is the part where the blogger responds. Okay: first I have to correct a huge error. Bonnie Bramlett recorded “Soul Shake” with her ex, Delaney Bramlett, not with Delbert McClinton.  And Chris, I never even knew she was on “Roseanne”—d’you think there’s a boxed set out yet?  Steve, “I Want you Back” can never, ever be overlooked, though I think the back-ups on “The Love You Save” are better (especially the vocal trading at the end).  The live cut of Graham Parker’s cover is a perfect testimony to how much fun it is to do back-ups—thanks for that, George. And thanks to everyone for all the other faves. Yes and yes on Suede and Jellyfish, Random. Mrobert, you’re so right about the hoo-hooos on “Sympathy”; they’re on the honor roll of “performative contradiction back-ups,” along with the middle 8 of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” (aaaaaah, aaaaaah ad infinitum) and the vanilla syrup behind Ray Charles’s “You Don’t Know Me.” And oh yes on the reggae tip—back-ups there are almost like a Greek chorus.  Rich, “All I Need” was a huge hit in my discerning hometown of New Haven, and yup, it’s a great tune, and the back-ups drive the car.  But I still gotta give “Midnight Train” its due: she actually sobs in that song, and the boys hold her up.  See what great back-ups can do?

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  03:03 PM
  18. Keith Richards singing backup on Tom Waits’ “That Feel” is pretty good.

    Posted by ben wolfson  on  04/29  at  03:14 PM
  19. Lance - The pop/rock song that irritates me the most in terms of “starts out nice and then turns to crap” is by Journey. I think it’s called, “Lovin’,Touchin’, Squeezin’”, or something like that.
    It begins well enough (in a sappy rock/pop kind of way), with a pleasing melody and a passionate lead vocal. Then it completely degenerates into this endless “Nya nya nya” thing. What the hell is that about?

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  03:16 PM
  20. The best back-up, quasi-intelligible vocals belong to those in Dr. John’s “Make a Better World.” Without them, the song is flat and unremarkable.  With them it is absolutely impossible to sit still to.  You just can’t listen to it without having to move or shake something.

    I don’t know if this qualifies as “pop” or not, but the backup vocalist on Billy Bragg’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” hauntingly adds a whole other dimension to the song.  It’s either Natalie Merchant or Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries.  Anybody know for sure?

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  03:23 PM
  21. And Chris, I never even knew she was on “Roseanne”—d’you think there’s a boxed set out yet?

    Yeah, she played the role of - wait for it - “Bonnie,” Roseanne’s on-again, off-again co-worker at a couple different restaurants. I dunno about boxed sets, but if you find a stray college student and give him or her a list of episodes, s/he might be able to find them for you on Bittorrent or some other such illegal information-sharing network.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  04/29  at  03:24 PM
  22. My favorite band for back-up/co-vocals is Stereolab; unfortunately, the secondary singer died in a bicycle accident in London in 2003. No words generally; it usually just used the second voice as another instrument and counterpoint melody.

    Also: any of those crazy, nonsense syllables uttered by back-up singers in an Esquivel! ditty.

    Posted by norbizness  on  04/29  at  03:26 PM
  23. My favorite band for back-up/co-vocals is Stereolab;

    The best band for multiple vocalists is Magma.

    Posted by ben wolfson  on  04/29  at  03:29 PM
  24. The Dixie Hummingbirds sing background on Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock”

    Posted by Michaelw  on  04/29  at  03:39 PM
  25. I love the backing vocals on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice.” The backing harmonies, which skip the first chorus, and come in with a burst of flannel-warm ooo’s on the second verse, are panned to the left channel, while John Sebastian’s double-tracked lead vocals are panned hard right.

    On the third and fourth verse they repeat the last half of each line of the lead vocal, which makes singing along—which is sort of irresistable—easier to do if you’re unfamiliar with the lyrics. But the best part of the song is how the backup vocals are a half-beat ahead of the lead on the chorus. Really nice.

    ("Joy To The World” is Three Dog Night, not CCR, although I suspect it’s a good-natured copy.)

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  04:26 PM
  26. It’s Natalie Merchant on the “Way Over Yonder in the Minor key” - she also does a couple of songs solo on the Mermaid Avenue albums.

    For backing vocals, I can’t help but think of Ben Folds Five.  For some reason the song that popped into my head as soon as I started reading this entry was “Kate” from their second album.  Extra points for being a pop song that gets “Bhagavad Gita” into the lyrics. “Philosophy” is good, too, on that score.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  05:55 PM
  27. Oh!  PopCanon’s “René René” has some great backing vocals, and is about Descartes.  Plus a v. good instrumental intro.

    Posted by ben wolfson  on  04/29  at  05:57 PM
  28. To clarify, “Philosophy” is good for backing vocals, not for referring to religious texts. That’s what I get for not proofreading.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  05:58 PM
  29. What about back-up vocals that are a part of the main lyric itself?

    That is, call/response type songs or their opposites, where the singer responds to pestering from the band (i.e. “A Certain Girl” and Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg’s “Walt Whitman’s Niece")?

    What I’m getting at is that my favorite pop song is Gang of Four’s “Ether.”

    Posted by Alex  on  04/29  at  06:52 PM
  30. I agree with Alex.  One of my all-time favorite bands, Sleater-Kinney, makes good use of interplay between two vocal lines, sometimes sung simultaneously, at other times playing off of one another.  S-K blur the boundaries between back-up vocals and the main lyric, resulting in post-punk-pop bliss.  And they do it all without a bassist.

    One more thing: while Sleater-Kinney grew out of the whole riot grrrl scene, I don’t think that they sound particularly like Bikini Kill, or at least they haven’t since their first record.  So all the haters who want to mark them as derivative can suck an egg.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  07:07 PM
  31. Alex prompted me to go dig up the Arrogant Worms song I mentioned, Carrot Juice Is Murder. (M3u link: should start playing when you click.)

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  04/29  at  07:27 PM
  32. Can’t believe we’re into the 30’s on responses without anyone bringing up the brilliant SCTV sketch featuring Michael McDonald adding the backfround vocals to Christopher Cross’ Ride Like The Wind. Along with the “And The Pips” sketch - comedy gold.
    For lessons on how to back yourself up, pick up Todd Rundgren’s A Capella, all vocal album.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  07:51 PM
  33. Hmmm...pop songs. Two of my all time favorites are “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” by Marvin Gaye, and “Anticipation” by Carly Simon (used to strum and sing that one myself as a kid). Great picks, everyone!

    Posted by Carolyn Sue  on  04/29  at  07:56 PM
  34. Mat illuminated something i was going to suggest.  Given the criteria Janet established for the pre-eminent pop song, one must give credit to the producer/engineers in this category.  Certainly Phil Spector(albeit he has been on trial for a crazed murder) was the ( i hate to do this) leader of the pack that started the whole wall of sound in the pop rock genre.  His association with and influence on Brian Wilson, Glyn and Andy Johns, and George Martin, as well as Berry Gordy is a legacy that is immeasureable in its mythic power.  Naturally my personal prejudice sides with the sound guys.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  08:57 PM
  35. bandwidth pfui. I vote Janet gets to talk about plangent concertinas as long as she wants.

    Posted by julia  on  04/29  at  08:59 PM
  36. Julia, believe me, I didn’t really say anything to Janet about bandwidth.  I did, however, say that good backup singers can make a band sound wider.  (I was thinking specifically of the I-Threes, mroberts.) Maybe there was a misunderstanding of some kind.  Wouldn’t be the first time!

    Posted by Michael  on  04/29  at  09:50 PM
  37. I don’t see a mention of “California Dreaming"… so I’ll mention it. There.

    My nomination for perfect pop song (assuming we’re not going back to Cole Porter et al.) is Swivelchair (mp3 link) by Nothing Painted Blue, which is borderline at best in terms of Janet’s theory--there are BG vocals, and a guitar hook, but neither is really what makes it.

    Magma’s a good candidate for gang-vocal champ, but I think the Seldom Scene is at least in the running.

    Posted by Tim Walters  on  04/29  at  10:43 PM
  38. I think of pop back-ups as back-ups for conventionally structured songs, and I would say (as many of you have suggested) that there’s a pretty strong gospel heritage behind pop back-up structures, including structures of swelling or counterpoint or even tension, and of course including the whole call-and-response thing. (The back-up guys keep pestering Kitty to tell them about “The Boy from New York City.”) And yeah, call-and-response is probably also behind even those add-a-link vocal lines by the likes of Gang of Four (very manifesto-like, and absolute minimum song structure), which are wonderful – thanks Alex and Arthur—and other post-punk phenoms like Bad Religion and certainly the whole ska event (e.g. Specials/ “Do the Dog”). You should ask Michael about the band we were in in Champaign (I used to call it white boy thrash, but it really wasn’t that); our main songwriter Kevin C. wrote several songs in which my back-up vocal lines were dreamy, dada-like add-ons to his.  But of course it’s not a new thing in pop song-writing.  My sister Cynthia’s band covers some 40s swing tunes that open with vocal dialogue.

    Mat, I can’t believe I forgot to mention Clydie King!  Why don’t back-up singers get inducted into any halls of anything? Thanks for that, and thanks for the Dixie Hummingbirds, michaelw, and to brooks for reminding me of Dr. John’s great back-ups in “Make a Better World.” (Michael and I saw him without back-ups in New Orleans.) And Travis G: Michael suggested that I include “Do You Believe in Magic,” but that song’s been killed dead by hucksters. “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” by contrast, isn’t dead yet & has lovely back-ups, all by John Sebastian (I think), and I’m so impressed that you sing along to them. They’re tough to sing in spots, for one thing, and for another, I’m guessing you’re a dude, and in my experience the majority of dudes (excepting my brother) don’t do much in the way of working out complicated back-ups. That’s just my experience, mind you.  And spyder, you’re right – nothing happens without the sound guys, in the studio or onstage.  Though I love those dreamy, production-driven backing vocals, I don’t know any back-up vocalists who don’t yearn to snap out a crisp, unproduced line onstage (alone or in a gang) behind a lead vocal.  And that’s when sound guys really rule, cuz if the mix sucks, the vocalists might as well be honking geese.  Hey to you, Julia.  And thanks, everybody, for a fun Friday.  I’ll spend my week downloading a lot of these songs; they’ll be my paper-grading drugs.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  11:36 PM
  39. Can’t hear the term “back-up” without thinking of the Poynter Sisters backing Taj Mahal on “Little Red Hen” and “Frankie and Albert”.

    I once came close to the receiving end of a knuckle sandwich for telling an Emmylou fan she was “a great backup singer”.  She’s just not that exciting as lead, but she is to harmony what Lowell George is to the slide.  Listen to her work with Julie & Buddy Miller.

    Last and not least Dan Hicks’ incredible Lickettes, Naomi Eisenberg and Miss Maryann Price.  As Price herself said, she and Dan sound like siblings.

    Posted by Doghouse Riley  on  04/30  at  12:55 AM
  40. And the colored girls go: “Doo d’doo d’doo doo d’doo doo d’doo d’doo doo d’doo, doo d’doo d’doo doo d’doo doo d’doo d’doo doo d’doo dooooooooo.”

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  09:34 AM
  41. Thanks to calicajun for mentioning Ben Folds’ “Philosophy,” which I recently unearthed out of a massive archives of .mp3s on a backup drive, and have been humming all morning--just good for the pop discussion all around.  I would want to suggest a slight change to Janet’s criterion about backing vocals, and it would actually remove “Paperback Writer” from the list.  They can’t be distracting or the raison d’être of the song.  In “Paperback Writer,” they have that distracting effect--when you first hear it, you’re like, “wow, what virtuouso backing vocals,” and it pulls you away from the rest of the song.  (I’m so glad so many high school music geeks made it onto the faculties of institutions of higher ed.)

    Posted by Robert Rushing  on  04/30  at  11:45 AM
  42. In honor of my friend getting married later this afternoon, I nominate Liz Phair’s “Polyester Bride.” Great backup singing.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  11:50 AM
  43. my inner yang agrees that cruel to be kind is a perfect pop song.  my inner yin says that honor goes to precious and few. and some other part says what about like a hurricane?

    Posted by south(west)paw  on  04/30  at  12:53 PM
  44. TravisG - Ah, you’ve quoted the pop song line I’ve hated on so many levels for so many reasons for as long as I can remember.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  01:33 PM
  45. "I don’t know any back-up vocalists who don’t yearn to snap out a crisp, unproduced line onstage (alone or in a gang) behind a lead vocal.  And that’s when sound guys really rule, cuz if the mix sucks, the vocalists might as well be honking geese.”

    Amen, say it again!  Amen!  And i pray all of yours and Michael’s live performance moments are gifted by a great sound engineer/mixer. 

    I cringe at suggesting that given the nature of pop at this point in our kulture, we do have to acknowledge the ability of Jive Records’ producers in creating (albeit mostly artificially) the highest selling catalog of pop.  Next to that other pop classic-- the Eagles Greatest Hits volume one.

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  03:22 PM
  46. the greatest backup singing on my iPod is Take 6 on kd lang’s Our Day Will Come

    Posted by julia  on  04/30  at  05:17 PM
  47. "Starting to think that all the world’s major problems can be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals.” --Brian Eno, _A Year with Swollen Appendices_, p. 215

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  06:07 PM
  48. Geez, I feel old here.  For backup vocals, how about:

    Bang A Gong- T Rex
    Muddy Water Blues-Paul Rodgers
    Come Go With Me-The Del Vikings
    All Day Music-War
    Gimme Shelter-Rolling Stones w/Mary Clayton

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  08:56 PM
  49. The backing vocals on “Gimme Shelter” totally make the song (never knew who sang those, so thanks for the info), even if it’s joined “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” as the official anthem of “Sixties turmoil” scenes for lazy filmmakers. (I would choose Funkadelic’s “Biological Speculation,” which is a different kind of song, but tom my mind just as appropriate. It also boasts some terrific backing vocals, and the lyrics come as close to describing my religious perspective as anything I ever heard in church; you should check it out if you’ve never heard it. In fact, the backup singing on most of Funkadelic’s earlier, more Sly Stone-influenced songs, are great—particularly “You Can’t Miss What You Can’t Measure” and “Can You Get To That.")

    Emmylou Harris sounds good singing with almost anyone (even that annoying kid in Bright Eyes!), but I especially love her work on Dylan’s Desire. I was blown away the first time I heard “One More Cup of Coffee,” waiting in line at the bagel shop after a night of drinking my first or second year of college. I couldn’t believe it was Bob Dylan when the guy working there told me, and it’s been a favorite since I found a used copy on vinyl the very next day.

    “Bang A Gong” is a great choice, too, but if you’re talking Flo & Eddie backing vocals on a T. Rex song (there’s an endlessly fascinating topic), you can’t forget “Metal Guru.” They kind of add a nice, glossy clear coat over a metal-flake paint job. The backup vocals on Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” cover similar territory. Or a similar paint job, to belabor the metaphor.

    I love Alex Chilton’s slightly mailed in, but totally distinctive and marvelously inverted, backing vocals on Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister.” (He’s got enough talent to waste some of it.) Tonya Donnelly provides beautiful backups for Kim Deal on This Mortal Coil’s cover, as well.

    I used to work at a newspaper called the American Israelite and, for about two years, any mention of my job prompted a chorus of Desmond Dekker’s “The Israelites.” When the backing vocals are the hook, that ought to be considered some successful backup singing. Agreed?

    (Don’t be too impressed, Janet; I might be singing along with the Lovin’ Spoonful, but I ain’t quite harmonizing.)

    Posted by  on  05/01  at  10:58 AM
  50. Posted by  on  05/01  at  01:59 PM
  51. more.

    The shape of rock to come,

    super catchy, but please tell me why these songs are so sticky. Is the brutal repition the hook? whatever it is, I like the furious urgency from the repetition and blocky guitar sound.

    Please Remember Me ~ Franklin Delano

    We Got Mysticism ~ San Lorenzo
    http://www.sacredgeometry.cn/mp3/We Got Mysticism.mp3

    Posted by  on  05/01  at  02:17 PM
  52. Janet,

    Your guest-blog entry has a nice beat, and I can dance to it. When will we be blessed by a regular blog from you?

    Best Wishes,
    Dan “down in the land of dixie” Smith

    Posted by  on  05/01  at  02:25 PM
  53. Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” is the jazz album for people who don’t like jazz.

    Finally, isn’t “Cruel to Be Kind” more than a little lame melodically? It sounds like a 2nd hand Gerry and the Pacemaker’s tune.

    Posted by  on  05/02  at  11:45 AM
  54. Your post on back up singing makes me realize that maybe the all-time greatest pop song is Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” just because the song lets the back up verses and singers—including the exquisite vocals of David Bowie—take over the whole song in long, luxuriant --even plangent-- waves.

    Posted by  on  05/02  at  12:40 PM
  55. Hell yeah to Stereolab - there’s a band that can do just about everything including sublime pop - “Ping Pong” is the most hummable tune about economic cycles ever, and “Lo Boob Oscillator” bops with the best of ‘em even if I have no idea what it’s about.

    And hooks are key to a great pop song, whether instrumental or vocal.  My definition would go something like a song with a hook you don’t mind getting stuck in your head, and when you hear it, is even better than you remembered.

    Posted by John I  on  05/02  at  12:45 PM
  56. Those who enjoy Merry Clayton’s backing vocals on “Gimme Shelter” should check out her equally fine (albeit somewhat brief) backing vocals on “Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, if you haven’t yet heard that song. As I recall, she isn’t really prominent at the beginning of the song, but toward the end, “breaks out of the pack,” so to speak, in a memorable way.

    Posted by  on  05/02  at  01:41 PM
  57. Janet, you are my hero.  When I was a kid/teen I always wanted to be a backup singer, especially for Jackson Browne.  I’d like to give some credit to Rosemary Butler, wherever she may be.  Imagine ‘Running On Empty’ without her and you will know what I mean.  She was ...uh, interesting in concert too. Lots of twirling ala Stevie Nicks.

    One of my all time favorite pop songs is the Spinners’ ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love’. I believe it meets all of your criteria.  Talk about instrumentation - even today 30+ years later I get all mushy when I hear those first 11 notes on the radio. (yes, I just counted)

    Thanks for all the great comments gang.  I love those Gimme Shelter backing vocals - they also inspired my early ambition.

    Posted by  on  05/02  at  04:33 PM
  58. Well now I’m impressed. Janet’s definitely attracted a better class of commenter.

    And Dawn, let me be the first to say I liked your work with Tony Orlando. I always felt the two of you should have struck out on your own. Call me a sentimentalist, but what pop canon songsters have affected the American Zeitgeist more than you two and Señor Orlando? Let’s just say people don’t put cakes out in the rain or drive Chevies to levees when our fighting men and women are in harm’s way. On behalf of all America, and the Yellow Ribbons and Divers Sundries Manufacturers’ Council, I say “thank you.”

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  05/02  at  04:45 PM
  59. Thank you for remembering, Chris!
    Must have been all those wild days on the road with the Mustacheod One that made me forget about my own role in the history of backing vocals.  How could I forget those days, and those moves...twirling my finger in the air while turning in a slow rythmic circle, all the while chanting ‘tie a ribbon round the old oak tree’.  I knew I had hit the pinnacle.  Then it ended..Tony O imploded...I’m just saying ‘crack of Dawn’ had nothing to do with it.  Sigh...now nothing happens when I knock three times....

    Posted by  on  05/02  at  05:23 PM
  60. I’m just saying ‘crack of Dawn’ had nothing to do with it


    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  05/02  at  05:32 PM
  61. uh-huh-huh / yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah

    Anonymous back-up singers on Chuck Berry’s “Living in the USA.”

    Bob & George & Tom croaking in the background while the Orb soars “You’re Not Alone Anymore”—very witty, Traveling Wilburys.
    “sha la la la”

    Another witty T Wilburys bit, the 3 Stooges quote behind the Dylan-led “Dirty World”: 
    Bob sings, “I can’t wait to introduce you to all the members of my gang”;
    The gang responds with a major chord triad:  “hello / hello / hello!”

    Gotta 2nd Janet’s emotion that gospel is the source for pop back-ups.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 1956 “Gospel Train”, lotsa good back-ups from a male quartet.  Amazing album, super hot band of piano, organ, bass, drums, and 2 lead guitars, a bluesy smoothie to back Tharpe during the verses, and Tharpe herself to take her wild solos. 

    One more—the Gosdin Brothers backing solo Byrd Gene Clark on “Tried So Hard.” Gorgeous.

    Posted by John S.  on  05/02  at  08:33 PM
  62. Oh no...I knew when I hit submit that my tasteless druggie joke would be used as a tasteless anatomical joke..for shame!

    Love the Wilburys too.  ‘Dirty world, dirty world, it’s a <pause> ‘in dirty world’. Also the whole chorus singing “Congratulations”.

    It’s all good.

    Posted by  on  05/02  at  09:00 PM
  63. "Cruel to be Kind” and “Friday I’m in Love” are fine with me as nominees for best pop songs!  Great choices!

    I consider pop songs to be a break from rock music.  In other words, it is modern (post 50’s) and it has an awareness that rock exists, though it diverges from it in appeal to the masses through simple hooks, even though it may be the product of a rock group, like the Clash’s “Train in Vain.”

    In that way, I don’t consider “Gimmie Shelter,” or Blues, or Jazz, or U2 to be pop songs, even if they produced popular songs.  (Though, I may be forgetting some U2 songs that may be pop.) After all, just because Bach was popular, is his “Schafe können sicher weiden” to be considered a “pop song”?  Or the troubadours?  Or Walter von der Vogelweide? 

    Suede’s “Trash,” which poster Random mentioned, I dunno, is a bit too rocky for me, and the refrain is kinda lame; I think Suede has much more hooky songs, like “Saturday Night,” which I think is a great pop song.  Maybe one of the best. 

    The Jackson 5’s “I want you back,” that someone mentioned, is a great, hooky pop tune.  And if we’re gonna go back that far, I’d also mention Elvis Presley’s “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Only the second song has backup singers, and I don’t think they do much to the song.  In short, not really sure, Janet, why you view backup singers to be in any way essential to a great pop song.  Going back to an Oldie again, Françoise Hardy’s “Tous les garçons et les filles” is utterly devoid of backup singers and the instrumentalization isn’t that great either, yet, I think it’s the most perfect and sweetest pop song. 

    As for recent pop songs, and the song I’d nominate as best modern pop song, is Fragma’s “Reach Out.” Great dancy start to the song that basically has the hook built into it already, even before the singing starts.  Also, the lyircs, like the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” are sugary, in love, and full of bright optimism. 

    Oh, and then of course there is Britney:  “Sometimes,” “Everytime,” “Don’t Let me be the Last to Know,” etc.  Those are real pop songs.  I do like “Gimme Shelter,” but, come on!

    Posted by  on  05/03  at  06:02 AM
  64. > Posted by Peter Lee on 05/03 at 05:02 AM <

    Does pop song have its own genre or merely anything that is popular? I know the Friday arbitrary rules say pop/rock.

    If we take rock ‘n roll as foundation, that means we have pretty define time span. (50’s to 70’s)

    After 70’s popular music moves to new wave and funk/hip-hop

    I tend to think ‘anything’ that is popular/in. So boogie-woogie, despite extremely popular in the ‘20’s probably isn’t a popular song anymore. Bob dylan an extremely popular rock figure in late 60’s is no currently ‘popular’

    Posted by  on  05/03  at  11:30 AM
  65. Hello Janet, Michael…

    Is there a ‘pop song’ blog out there?  Would be a cool idea if someone hasn’t done it already.

    Some time ago I read a perceptive comment by a Rolling Stone writer-- the point was made that the pop hits that resonate with us have an immediately identifiable sonic quality that we lock into in the first few seconds upon hearing it.  Each of the really successful pop tunes has its own acoustic ambience that sets the hook in the first couple bars.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’d highly recommend “Standing in the Shadows,” the movie about the Funk Brothers, the musicians who were the unheralded foundation of many of the Motown hits.  Here’s a link-


    Check out the backup singing on Huey Lewis’ “It’s Allright.” It’s a remake of an old Curtis Mayfield/Impressions tune, and they really nail it.

    And I’m still stuck on “Smoke From a Distant Fire,” by the one-hit Sanford-Townsend band.  That tune has it all.

    Posted by  on  05/03  at  01:28 PM
  66. Has anyone else noticed the frequent appearance of the glockenspiel in the background of many pop hits?  It happens most frequently in the 60’s tunes, and once you start listening for it, you’ll be amazed at how often it pops up.  The instrument provides a sort of insipid tinkling that’s pretty lame, but I suppose that we’ve heard it so many times that it’s now part of the package and would be missed if it weren’t audible.

    I keep thinking that there must be this little old lady from New Jersey who is the foremost glockenspieler, and that she had the inside track on all the gigs, and that somebody needs to do a profile of her career and the way she has impacted our musical culture.

    Posted by  on  05/03  at  01:39 PM
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