The ZZ Top Paradox - Searching for Secret Narratives in Popular Song
I was saddened yesterday to read of the death of Dusty Hill, bassist with the American band ZZ Top. Back in 2015, during my PhD studies, I was part of a writing group. One week we were asked to write 2,000 words in response to Keith Negus’ ‘Narrative Time and the Popular Song’. My piece for the group centred on ZZ Top and their apparent ability to bend time! I was reminded of it this morning when I found myself again thinking about ZZ Top, so I decided to repost it here. I rarely revisit my old writing (particularly from the early days of my PhD), but I’m pleasantly surprised by this one. And I stand by my theory about ZZ Top and temporal illusions.
So long, Dusty, and thanks for all the tunes.
The ZZ Top Paradox: Searching for Secret Narratives in Popular Song
On February 2nd 2015, the Australian singer Courtney Barnett made a song from her forthcoming debut album available online across a variety of music services. This news was reported in articles online by several music media outlets, links to which were soon shared extensively on social media, including by a number of people in my own networks. As such, I quickly became aware of the existence of the song as I read my Twitter feed during my morning commute.
I’d previously enjoyed an EP Barnett had released in late 2013 so I was excited to listen to her new material, and I immediately fired up the song, Pedestrian at Best, on Spotify whilst on the bus. I listened to the song several times throughout the course of that morning.
Without going into a lengthy discussion of what the song sounds like, my initial description of it would have been that is was lyrically and musically ‘dense’, and that it was organised around a slightly odd arrangement. In short, and on those early listens, it felt slightly complex for a pop song, and particularly one that was intended to showcase a debut album. That was just my initial opinion, of course, and I nevertheless remained a fan. It’s a great song.
LISTEN - Courtney Barnett - Pedestrian at Best
Later that day I shared a link to the song on my own social network accounts, this time using the YouTube video link, rather than the Spotify one I had been using all day. Upon posting the link and seeing the video appear in my feed I realised, for the first time, that the song was 3 minutes and 51 seconds long, and this struck me as slightly odd.
How could a song that I had initially perceived as being ‘dense’, as having an ‘odd’ and ‘slightly complex’ arrangement, also be so short? The song seemed to be much longer than it was, and I was struck be a familiar feeling. It’s one that I would describe, without too much seriousness, as The ZZ Top Paradox.
The ZZ Top Paradox
The American band ZZ Top are a blues rock trio from Texas and have been active since the very late 1960s. They are known for a number of things, but it is primarily their visual image that sticks most prominently in the public imagination, with two of the band sporting very long, luxurious beards. This visual cue is given a further ironic twist by the commonly-known fact that the name of their clean-shaven drummer is Frank Beard. Another common characteristic of ZZ Top is their use of long guitar solos in songs, and what I describe as the ZZ Top paradox relates to the fact that they appear to be able to pull off a seemingly impossible temporal illusion; they seem to be able to fit a 4-minute guitar solo into the 3-minute popular song format.
Just like the experience of listening to the Courtney Barnett song described above, where the actual length of the song seemed at odds with the experience of listening to it, the length and prominence of the guitar solos deployed by ZZ Top can appear to stretch the perception of time against all logic.
Common senses dictates, of course, that in reality this clearly isn’t the case. But just to be absolutely sure, I decided to perform some basic analysis on the structures of Barnett’s song and of ZZ Top’s 1983 hit single, Gimme All Your Lovin’. I wanted to see how the facts stacked up against my perception of Barnett’s song being, as I described above, ‘slightly complex’, ‘dense’ and as having an ‘odd arrangement’, and – according to the ZZ Top paradox - if it is in fact possible to magically sneak long guitar solos past the laws of time.
LISTEN - ZZ Top - Gimme All Your Lovin’
Beginning with ZZ Top, Gimme All Your Lovin’ is exactly 4 minutes in length, or 240 seconds. It contains 120 bars in a standard 4/4 time signature. Structurally it is organised as follows:
4 bars of solo drums; 8 bars of guitar-solo intro; 8 bars of Verse 1; 8 bars of Chorus; 8 bars of Verse 2; 8 bars of Chorus; 2 bar drum break; 24 bars of guitar solo; 8 bars of Verse 3; 8 bars of chorus; 4 bar drum/guitar break; 24 bars of guitar solo followed by a further 6 bars of fade out during the which solo continues.
Combining these elements, the song is made up of 24 bars of verses, another 24 bars of choruses, 10 bars of drums breaks and other dynamic/linking elements, and 62 bars of guitar solo.
From this basic analysis we can see that just under 52% of the entire song is devoted to guitar solos. Not only that, but the verses and choruses, arranged in a pattern that is similar to many popular songs, are also liberally peppered with guitar riffs and power chords. That solos feature so prominently goes some way to explain the illogical feeling that the solos are actually much longer than the song itself. It could be argued that for ZZ Top, verses and choruses are merely a functional and structural necessity that facilitate their lengthy solos.
Turning now to Barnett’s Pedestrian at Best, it is 3 minutes and 52 seconds long and contains 128 bars, also in 4/4 time. Structurally, this song is organised as follows:
4 bars of intro, 16 bars of Verse 1, 16 bars of Chorus, 4 bars of repeated intro, 16 bars of Verse 2, 16 bars of Chorus, 4 bars of repeated intro, 16 bars of Verse 3, 32 bars of a double chorus, 4 bars of repeated intro.
Combining these together, the song is comprised of 16 bars of intro/linking or dynamic elements, 48 bars of verses, and 64 bars of chorus.
As the above shows, the song itself is in fact incredibly simple, with the three elements of intro, verse and chorus simply repeated in an identical pattern 3 times, followed by a further chorus and final use of the intro. There is nothing ‘slightly complex’ about this structure, and it can’t be described as an ‘odd arrangement’. These are illusory, just like the length of ZZ Top’s solos.
In Barnett’s case, it is the vocal delivery and lyrical content that deliver this illusion, with Barnett singing her idiosyncratic, stream-of-consciousness words, delivered in a laconic style, over 112 of the songs 128 bars; she is singing for 87.5% of the song. This would perhaps explain both my initial use of the word ‘dense’ and also the perception that a lot more appears to be going on in this song than is actually the case.
What these two examples show, as would be reasonably suspected, is that there appears to be no factual basis for the ZZ Top Paradox.
Clearly, however, the huge majority of popular music listening practice, including my own, does not include a process of structural and temporal analysis described above, perfunctory though that may be in this case. Instead we experience popular music in much more relaxed, mundane or even distracted circumstances – we often listen as we do other things - and what is interesting about that is that by listening in these ways we are (perhaps willingly) fooled into hearing things, or extracting meanings and narratives, that can be revealed to be either entirely absent, flawed or false, when the song concerned is subjected to a more detailed analysis. As much as I might like to believe that they can, ZZ Top cannot bend time to their will.
So why does it seem that they can? In order to being exploring this question I’m going to attempt to expand on the work of Keith Negus’ ‘Narrative Time and the Popular Song’.
Drawing extensively on the work of Paul Ricoeur, Negus argues that we make sense of the chaos of time through fictional and factual narratives, and that phenomenological time – the lived experience - cannot be separated from either infinite cosmic time or the more grounded ‘connectors’ (such as clocks, calendars) of historical time. As such we exist in a paradox of the triple present, simultaneously aware of the here and now, but also of both the past and of the future. Using the example of Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, which contains circular and repetitive narrative and musical devices, where the factual narrative of Ray Davies exists alongside the fictional narrative of ‘Terry and Julie’, Negus demonstrates how “the paradox of the triple present is harmonised in the recurrent qualities of this repeating moment of redemptive paradise – a merging of the lived with the cosmic; an acceptance yet transcendence of the repetitiveness of calendar days”.
I would like to suggest that there potentially exists an additional layer or dimension to this line of thought, that as well as the cosmic, lived and historical notions of time, there is also fourth. This fourth level of perception occurs when time in popular songs not only stops, as Simon Frith observes, but also appears to be stretched – as it does in The ZZ Top Paradox - or else is physically stretched – as I will show below - and that through these alterations we are able to see and experience new layers of meaning that enable us to harmonise and humanise time in additional ways. To put it another way, as well as there being cyclical narratives in popular song, as Negus suggests, there are also fantastical narratives.
The two examples I will draw on next are actual instances of historical time being altered, rather than (incorrectly) perceived instances, as show before. These instances reveal that within both the confined historical space of a popular song - in other words, the 3-4 minute timeframe that a song normally occurs within – and within the confined narrative structure, as defined by the chord progression, time signatures, and so forth, and whether these are circular or otherwise, there are hidden, secret, unexplored narratives that we can tease out. The examples below merely indicate these secret narratives more clearly, but I would argue that they exist within all of popular music.
The Osmonds – Crazy Horses at 33rpm
LISTEN - Crazy Horses - Original 45rpm version
Crazy Horses was a 1973 hit single by the American group, The Osmonds. Due to it’s glam rock/psychedelic style it was viewed as something of a radical departure for the group, which was made up of several members of the same deeply religious family, and who had previously been known for a more gentler brand of pop. Crazy Horses, with its heavy guitar riffs, prominent horn section and screaming vocals, is a genuinely fantastic record in its own right, but it took on an additional layer of meaning when a different version appeared on YouTube in January 2012.
This version, accompanied by atavistic images apparently culled from B-Movies, was the original, 45rpm version of the song played instead at 33rpm. In other words, it was a slower version. The result is rather astonishing, turning the song into something altogether different.
LISTEN - Crazy Horses - 33rpm version
Justin Bieber – U Smile
Justin Bieber is a Canadian singer who first emerged in 2009 as a teenager and who quickly became a popular singer with young, particularly female, music fans. His 2010 hit single, ‘U Smile’, a piano-led, mid-tempo pop song, was given an unofficial ‘remix’ by production outfit Shamantis which took the logic of the 33rpm Crazy Horses to an almost ludicrous degree. In the new version, Bieber’s single was heard 800 times slower than the original. As with Crazy Horses, the result was something quite extraordinary
LISTEN - Justin Bieber - U Smile - Original version
LISTEN - Justin Bieber - U Smile - 800x slower version
These slowed songs are admittedly extreme cases, but taken together with the examples of ZZ Top and Courtney Barnett discussed above, they begin to hint at the ways in which popular songs contain, and can occasionally reveal, otherwise hidden elements and narratives. Crazy Horses moves from the wholesome, bubblegum pop of the 1970s Top 40 and into the realm of 1990s Stoner Rock, where it becomes a sinister, drug-induced sludge. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber’s saccharine R&B soars into the ethereal, becoming symphonic and ambient in nature.
As such these songs shift not only in historical time, from 45rpm to 33rpm, or from 3 minutes of song to several hours of harmonic waves, they also shift in cosmic time, transplanted to a different plane of popular music history. The Osmonds are taken from the timeline of wholesome, family-orientated popular music, contemporaries of The Partridge Family and The Carpenters that exist on a timeline bookended by the likes of The Carter Family and The Beverley Sisters at one end, and modern, inoffensive pop acts such as Take That and Michael Buble at the other, to an alternate timeline along which Black Sabbath emerged from the dust and soot of late 1960s Birmingham to spawn a genre of music that occasionally sees Norwegian churches burned to the ground. Meanwhile, Justin Beiber as he exists on an alternate cosmic plane, would find a home with more avant-garde record labels and audiences. What is interesting to consider here is that these alternative narratives are somehow contained within the DNA of their original songs, waiting to be accessed.
As listeners, and even at our most distracted, it could be suggested that we don’t merely pass the time with pop music, using it to make the mundane requirements of historical time more bearable, or to create narratives, as Negus suggests, that humanise and harmonise time, but that also we somehow understand that pop contains the secret potential to enhance our experience of lived time by tricking us into feeling that we are cheating it. We cheat it by extracting extra seconds and moments, additional experiences and perceptions, which together occur simultaneously across the multiple cosmic times of musical genres, personal narratives, and histories, and we use these stolen moments in order to soften the blow that time will forever elude us, and that our allocation of it is depressingly finite.
Maybe it is this inarticulate part of us, the one that is forever looking for the eternal in the 3 minute hit, that truly understands the magic of pop.