Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Six -NO! EIGHT!- Economical Uses of Hand Claps in Pop Music

Pop music artists can create entire rhythmic frameworks, or complicated breaks, around the first percussion instrument we learn to play: the hand clap (apologies if you're that one weird kid who could play the guiro before she could walk). Memorable examples abound. Your Beatles. Your Spoons. Your Dixie Cups. Your Roses Royce. But some musicians have the courage of their convictions, and know when enough is enough. They deploy only a small group of claps, let them say what they need to say, and then get out. Today I celebrate a few of these, presented in reverse order of efficiency.

Steve Miller Band - Take The Money And Run: 2x5 = 10 claps
Never been a big SMB fan, but this is fun, as their songs go. "Texas" rhymes with "facts is" rhymes with "taxes." I guess.

David Bowie - Space Oddity: 4x2 = 8 claps
Added 6/10/15, 4:00PM
I am embarrassed this one didn't occur to me, as Bowie is a favorite of mine, and this one should have been obvious. Thanks to Donovan S. for pointing out my omission. Anyway, the four pairs of claps adorn the grounded, acoustic-guitar-led opening lines of the two matching instrumental bridges. The second of each pair marks the lift-off into the spacier, air-and-fuzz electric segments that follow.

The Boomtown Rats - I Don't Like Mondays: 4x2 = 8 claps
Added 6/10/15, 4:00PM
Don't know why this one popped into my head now, other than listening to Space Oddity put the clapclap [pause] clapclap pattern in my brain, and my brain retrieved this. Two pairs of claps end two instrumental intro sections, leading into the first two verses. Serves the same function as the Bowie claps, but in reverse.

Buffalo Springfield - For What It's Worth: 3x2 = 6 claps
This song has become linked in the public consciousness with Vietnam-era protest, and its lyrics pretty well capture the memory of the 1960s as it's been trapped in amber by popular culture. Only CCR's Fortunate Son can rival FWIW for its ability to effect a shorthand for "America + Vietnam + late 60s." (It is apt, therefore, that both appear in the Vietnam sequences of Forrest Gump, the most successful popular 1960s shorthand culture.) Three sets of two claps punctuate the lines of the last verse, which could be about any movement of disenfranchised people protesting authority.

Here's the punchline: For What It's Worth wasn't about Vietnam at all, but was written in response to riots in Los Angeles, themselves a reaction to new curfew laws aimed at reducing late-night traffic in the vicinity of Whiskey a-Go-Go. It's to Stephen Stills' credit that he wrote the lyrics in a general enough way that they captured a spirit that was associated with an entire half-decade.

The Rembrandts - I'll Be There For You: 4 claps
It gives me no joy to bring up this song that was, for the summer of 1995, inescapable. But the Rembrandts, one of whom was the husband of a Friends co-creator, dropped in one iconic quartet of hand claps at the end of the first lyric. That's right, drunk people at the karaoke joint: four, not five. You're thinking "Take the Money and Run."

I read a rumor that the song was offered first to They Might Be Giants and REM. Given that the Rembrandts' sound kind of comes across as a watered-down version of one of these bands', I guess I could hear that, except that both of those bands trade in lyrical irony, metaphor and imagery, and this song is as saccharine-sincere as they come.

Feist - I Feel It All: 3 claps
It took watching the video for me to nail down how many claps are in the last verse of this one. The joyfulness of this song, about taking control of your own emotional destiny, easily could have supported a full complement of regular hand claps. Remarkable restraint on Feist's part.

Bill Withers - Use Me: 3 claps
Withers' fuzzed-out, funky masterpiece features one of the all time great bass/keyboard lines, and exactly three individual hand claps in the last verse, punctuating the "baby"s. I always liked when the Robinson Caruso Organization would play this, for two reasons: it meant a short break for the horn section in the middle of a long set, and I got to listen to this song. If you were at one of these shows, I was the guy in the back of the room with a glass of ice water, clapping three times.

Elvis Costello - Welcome to the Working Week: 2 claps
Less than a minute and a half long, packing in three verses, a bridge, and two and a half choruses. Costello kicked off his debut album with the epitome of rock & roll efficiency. Costello gives us a single pair of claps in the middle of the outro, as if to say "job's done."