Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Friday Request Line: “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Freebird” and “Lipgloss”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 9, 2010

Reader / One More Robot editor Dean Van Nguyen writes:

Although now it’s probably more out of habit than taste, I cite ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, ‘Freebird’ and ‘Lipgloss’ as my four favourite songs of all time. I want to hear the Unterberger take on these classics.

Right then.

One of the things I’ve always liked and respected about Paul McCartney–and probably one of the primary reasons that so many of his songs, Beatles or solo, have been so enduring–is that he never seems to take love for granted. Whereas a great deal of great love song writers have written about the feeling so much that they seem to take it as sort of a given, Macca seems constantly and consistently shocked, elated, terrified, and yes, amazed at the enormity of love. He refuses to be in any away jaded about it (hence a song like “My Love”) and he refuses to apologize for his arguable naivete (hence a song like “Silly Love Songs”). Maybe my favorite-ever moment in a Paul McCartney song is at the end of “Listen to What the Man Said,” when he pulls back in a near-gasp, “The wonder of it all, baby.” It’s refreshing, it’s honest, it’s enviable.

I’d actually been giving “Maybe I’m Amazed” some thought for the first time in a while recently. For a song as tightly woven into the pop fabric as “Amazed” is, it’s not a song that anyone ever really talks about–in fact, when Dean first wrote me about this being an all-time favorite of his, I was pretty surprised, since it doesn’t really seem to register as being worth having an opinion on with most people these days. I asked my Beatles fanatic friend her opinion on it recently and she just kind of shrugged, which was about the reaction I expected. In a way, it’s almost a compliment to the song–that it’s become such a standard that having an opinion about it is like having an opinion on birthday cake.

Still, there is a good deal about “Maybe I’m Amazed” that is still worth saluting. The piano runs that recur throughout the song–probably the first thing about the song that jumps to mind when most people think of the song–are used almost like no other hook in pop music. Paul McCartney always seemed to have an innate understanding that when it came to love songs, words only went so far, so he never had any problem letting his music fill in the gaps. Few songs would waste their most memorable hook in the middle of the verses like that, but despite the chorus being none too shabby in itself, the runs are what keeps propelling the song forward, what you keep waiting for throughout. Combined with the nearly post-orgasmic “Oooooooh…ahhh“s that finish off the chorus, it’s the non-verbal parts that really bear the load of the song’s power.

Not that there’s not something to be said for the lyrics as well. That typical McCartney shock and awe is on display like in almost few other songs, perhaps his purest hymnal to love’s almighty power. And throughout the song, especially on the chorus, you remember that despite having the reputation of being a lightweight compared to John Lennon, Macca was easily John-Boy’s match for vocal intensity, belting out a line like “MAYBE YOU’RE THE ONLY WOMAN WHO COULD EVER HELP MEEEE!!!!with a possessed rapture that few other singers, Beatle or no, could match. (And which to my knowledge, McCartney himself only really matched one other time in his career, in the super-underrated “Oh Darlin’.”)

And according to some Portugese interview he did recently, McCartney said that “Maybe I’m Amazed” is the song he’d like to be remembered for. Dude wrote a lot of songs, and a whole bunch of them were good, so nothing I have to say on the matter can really top that.

Far be it from me to hate on a song that Pres. Obama himself quoted in his induction speech, but I have never understood this song’s reputation. Consistently cited as one of the greatest soul songs of the rock era–if not one of the greatest, period–“A Change is Gonna Come” always left me sort of lukewarm. I know a lot of the love it gets is due to the place it holds in history, as one of the premier songs of the civil rights movement and one of the first legitimate protest songs to come out of the soul genre, and it’s hard to argue with any of that. But as a song…I don’t know, it just never really stuck with me. It starts off with an off-rhyme (“Tent”/”Since”–nitpicky, yeah, but not something you should be distracting listeners with for such an anthem) and never really takes off from there, sounding kind of plodding in tempo and a little schmaltzy with the strings. The best Sam Cooke songs (“You Send Me,” “Twisting the Night Away,” and especially “Wonderful World”) soared effortlessly, and to me, “Change” is permanently earth-bound.

All that said, it’s still a very good song. The thing that I appreciate most about it is the brevity of the chorus, the way it basically comes out just as an extension of the verse and lingers on that minor chord, as Cooke plainly states that “a change is gonna come”–which, no doubt, is one of the great song titles/sentiments of its era. It’s got a nice, understated feel, but to me, it sounds more like a great forgotten b-side that soul fanatics would latch onto but the normal folk would be largely unaware of than it does an epoch-defining anthem. (Which makes sense, considering that the song actually started out as the flip-side to the much lighter “Shake,” before it started getting play on R&B stations and pop eventually took notice.)

Maybe I just like my soul protest songs a little angrier, but give me the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” over this one any day.

This statement is probably ridiculous in about ten different ways, but I consider “Free Bird” to be one of the most underrated songs in classic rock. Most songs that get reduced to musical punchlines over the years generally had it coming in one form of the other, but with “Free Bird,” the fact that the cliche has come to completely trump the song over the years is up there with Christopher Walken turning “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” into an ironic t-shirt as one of the most regrettable fates to befall a truly great rock song. And make no mistake about it (well, not you, Dean, you’re clearly well ahead of the pack on this one)–“Free Bird” is indeed a truly great rock song.

The first time I ever heard “Free Bird” was when my brother played on a jukebox in some southern barbecue restaurant. I was maybe 13 or so at the time, and though I’d heard about this ridiculous song with this incredible guitar solo from countless different places, for some reason, our local classic rock station never seemed to play it, and this was well before  I would ever search out a song like this on my own. I got impatient waiting for this supposedly amazing solo, despite my brother’s constant assurances that it was still coming, and I figured that whenever it actually showed up, it would be severely underwhelming.

Then, the song started to speed up, and the main solo hook came in. After a minute or so said something like “Oh, yeah, this is pretty good, I guess.” My brother smiled and told me to keep listening. “Huh, all right, I can see why people give this so much respect,” I said a minute or so after that. My brother cautioned me that it wasn’t done yet. Finally, the whole nine-minute thing had come and gone, and I was flabergasted. My heart was racing, my mind was blown, and I had absolutely nothing else to say. I hadn’t been flipped upside down by a twist ending like that since the first time I saw The Usual Suspects. (Or, technically I suppose, the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth times. I really liked The Usual Suspects when I was 13.)

The structure of “Free Bird” continues to stun me to this day. Partly, it’s for the obvious reason–that it’s weird to have a song split into power-ballad and rave-up halves like this. You just don’t see Motley Crue trying to jam “Home Sweet Home” and “Wildside” into the same song–though, on second thought, that sounds like it could have been pretty fucking awesome in its own right. The fact that “Free Bird” glues a song that probably would have been one of the great rock torch songs of its era on its own with a song that would also probably would have bene one of its greatest crowd-electrifiers, and does so in a way that comes dangerously close to feeling organic, that’s pretty impressive.

But the thing that really slays me with “Free Bird” is its unprecedently upwards trajectory. I was having an extremely nerdy conversation with some friends about half a year ago where we were trying to translate our favorite classic rock songs into mental line graphs. We never actually wrote out the results, but I think it would have looked something like this:

You’ll notice that of the songs mapped, “Free Bird” is the only one that never actually tails off. And that’s because I have absolutely no recollection of how “Free Bird” ends. It might be a long final chord, it might be a fade out, it might be a thing where all the band members start playing really fast and end on one final ensemble note. Ronnie Van Zandt might yell “I GOT BLISTERS ON MAH FINGERS!!” at the end of it for all I know. The song’s final five minutes are so intense, and keep getting more and more intense despite seemignly having nowhere left to go, that in my memory, the song just keeps going up for all of eternity, constantly adding new climaxes and new solo sections. In that respect, it is truly without parallel in classic rock–even Page and Plant had to cut it off somewhere with “Stairway to Heaven.”

And all theory aside, I still love listening to this song–the only times I ever turn away from it on the radio are when I know I won’t have time to listen to the entire thing. That’s even after the month or so of my life I wasted/spent trying to beat the song on expert on Guitar Hero II.

Not really going to have too much to say about this, I’m afraid–I love classic-period Pulp and this song is certainly no exception, but I can’t say there’s anything about it to seperate or elevate it from the rest of the fantastic singles that Jarvis and company released around this period (of which my favorite is “Babies,” by a considerable distance).  There are two things about “Lipgloss” that do stand out for me–the wicked guitar tone on the chorus (that clean-fuzz sound that almost sounds like a synth, which is always a good move) and the classic opening line (“No wonder you’re looking thin / When all that you live on is lipgloss and cigarettes.”) Besides that, whatever. Quality song.  Silly video.

I could use this platform as a tangent to rant about how overrated C”ommon People” is, but I’ve kept that one on the backburner for years now. No need to use it up here I suppose.

3 Responses to “Friday Request Line: “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Freebird” and “Lipgloss””

  1. MBI said

    Dammit, I want to pick four songs. I’m a loyal reader, you have to review them!

    “Give In to Me” – Michael Jackson
    “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” – The Offspring
    “Saving All My Love for You” – Whitney Houston
    “Hey, Soul Sister” – Train

  2. Brent said

    When I saw “Lipgloss” in the title I assumed it was referring to Lil’ Mama.

    I might actually agree with “Common People” being over rated, but I think a lot of it’s impact is dulled by the video edit I was used to before I got around to hearing Different Class proper since it excised the arguably essential “you will NEVER UNDERSTAND” bridge section and maybe even the whole “‘Cos everybody hates a tourist” section. Without those it’s a pleasant song but it loses a lot of its bite. All that said, give me “Babies” and “This Is Hardcore” any day.

    And my four…

    Captain Beefheart “Moonlight on Vermont”
    The Ronettes “Be My Baby”
    Big Black “Kerosene”
    Rheostatics “Shaved Head”

  3. MBI said

    I want to make clear that I picked them not because they’re my favorite songs. They’re just songs that I want to see a good writer write about.

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