Sunday, 6 January 2013

"Paint It Black", "Layla" and "This Wheel's On Fire" - the strange effect of up-tempo songs in a minor key

Many of my favourite songs are either in a minor key or rely heavily on minor chords for their emotional impact. I’m not talking about slow, lachrymose ballads, but mid-tempo and fast stuff. There’s something about the intuitively incorrect melding of a musical key which signals melancholy, and a rapid tempo, which signals happiness, which gets me almost every time. The Sixties were a particularly rich decade for the use of a minor key or minor chords. The Hollies themselves repeated the rick on "We're Through":

Pre-dating both of those was this 1963 Merseybeat classic from The Marauders:

There’s more than a hint of The Marauders’ hit in Paul McCartney’s haunting “Things We Said Today”, written the following year:

American band, The Castaways, used the formula to produce their only hit record in 1965:

The Mamas & the Papas released their haunting, mid-tempo “California Dreamin’ in 1965, but it became a monster hit in 1966:

The Rolling Stones, who’d written several rather wimpy minor-key ballads at the start of their career, upped the tempo in 1966 to produce one of their fans’ all-time favourites

Jefferson Airplane released this in 1967:

Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and The Trinity had a hit in 1968 with the best versions of Bob Dylan and Rick Danko’s “This Wheel’s On Fire”:

None of those last four records is exactly happy-sounding – their minor-keyness suggests a certain sense of anger, a hint of threat, which extended  pop’s emotional palette. The effect was – well, interesting, different, even subversive (I hate that word, but it seems apposite). These emotional tones were all present – in spades on Derek and the Dominoes’ furiously yearning “Layla” in 1970:

The following year saw the release of “Stairway to Heaven” – not exactly up-tempo, but hardly an out-and-out ballad either:

Perhaps the relatively rich emotional ubdertones of the minor key soundscape account for the fact that so many of the outstanding songs – the ones that have lodged in our collective subconscious – tend to be lyrically and conceptually more original than their major-key compatriots. For instance, there was this from Helen Reddy in 1974:

Or Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” (which I recently posted here). It can also lead to traditional themes being treated in more interesting ways:

(I’ve often wondered just how sexually alluring Jolene must have been to put poor demure little Dolly Parton in the shade.)

This above list contains any number of well-known classics, so I’ll leave you with a 1991 pop-country hit from Hal Ketchum which seems to sum up many of the points I’ve been trying to make: the lyrics are more interesting than the average country song; although the subject matter is a trifle depressing, the song isn’t; there’s plenty of anger, contempt and yearning in there; and, if it had been written in a major key, it would have gone straight in one of my ears and out the other:


  1. Thanks for a really great selection. "Stay" by the Hollies was the first record I ever bought. They were never comfortable once Graham Nash made them go all psychedelic kaftan-wearing, the era reflected in your picture, but in the tight, no special effects, driving beat combo period, 1963-1966, there were few better.

    Other uptempo minor key pieces worth checking out include "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young, the guitartastic"Fantastic Planet of Love" by Marshall Crenshaw and "Mama Says" by Joe Walsh and Barnstorm. And you can still pick up on the genre today. What else is "Somebody that I Used to Know" by Gotye, the most downloaded track of 2012?

  2. "Hey Hey, My My" popped into my head when you mentioned Neil Young - the electric version. Enjoyed the Joe Walsh. Synchronicity was at work when my son mentioned Gotye in another context today - never heard of him till your comment.

    Of course, there's also all those 1920s and 1930s songs by American Jewish songwriters using minor keys in the great tradition of Hebraic religious music - 42nd Street, Puttin' On the Ritz etc. My son also tells me that the majority of modern dance music uses minor keys, which seems odd.