Ears At Work

“Amazing,” I said. “A Top 10 smash with only two chords.”

My wife and I were driving with The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” on the juke, and as always, I was listening with producer ears.

“Only two chords in the whole damn song,” I said. “E major to a D# minor with an F# root note. That’s it! Two chords that never resolve to a definitive tonal point. And there’s no bridge or pre-chorus, and the middle eight is the same two chords with a string section on top. Talk about minimalism!”

After eleven years, she is used to my frequent soliloquies on song writing and production, baseball history, jazz and punk history, world history, Simpsons references, ‘80s and ‘90s Saturday Night Live references and all the general detritus that floats out of the garbage dump that is my brain. She’s mastered the art of the smile and nod: smile at my genuine heartfelt enthusiasm and nod along in general interest, knowing that I’m just going to keep going. We get along great like that.

“And,” I said, “here’s…wait for it…the Organ From Nowhere! That Hammond B3 in the verse. ‘You made your choice’ dah-da-daaah da dah-da-daaah. Where else in the song is there organ? NOwhere else, that’s where! But it works!”

We continued on our way, driving toward lunch at the Homestead with my parents.

“I like the strings,” she said.

“Yep, that’s the Philly sound,” I said. “The songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff launched that sound at Philadelphia International Records: doo-wop harmonies and lush string arrangements. Think of The Delfonics, Billy Paul, The Stylistics, Teddy Pendergrass…”

I am, of course, just thinking out loud as I hear all these elements connecting and presenting themselves. My brain is a sieve. And my ears are constantly in the studio.

“It’s a great sounding record,” I said. “Hollow body, probably a Gibson, for the da-dat-da-dah octave guitar part, then a nice clean Fender Strat through a Fender Twin amp for the chords. Classic combo there. It’s a good mix…except for the drums.”

“What’s wrong with the drums?” She said.

“Gah!” I said. “The 1970s was what I call the ‘Dead Drum Era.’ The idea, for some bewildering reason, was to make the drums sound as flat as possible. I can hear the producer saying, ‘That kick drum sounds real punchy. Better throw a few more pillows in it, and maybe a phone book! And that snare drum is HUGE! Better put a tampon on it!’”

“A tampon?!?” she said.

“A tampon,” I said. “That’s an old producer’s trick to dampen a really hot snare drum, like in a room with a lot of echo. Or in the case of the Dead Drum Era, as an unfortunate aesthetic choice. They still do it, but fortunately not as much.”

The song was over. We arrived for lunch, and another typical drive with me was over.



  1. Yeah, sounds like a typical drive with me too. Except there’s more cursing.
    Also, the 70s dead drums were replaced by some incredible bass work.

    Just for you, another fine example of a 2 note song –

      • My brain is a strange place, Hobbs…

      • Strangely beautiful Brian. I love reading your stuff.

      • You are the awesome, Hobbs!

  2. I’m not gonna lie, I love those smooth sounds from the 70’s, maybe more today than I did back then…?

    The dynamic you have with your wife is pretty great. The best marriages always seem to have the talker/philosopher and the listener who happily and lovingly rides the waves of enthusiasm with you.

    • Oh, I’m totally – TOTALLY – a child of the AM ’70s. That’s deep in my DNA! Embrace it. Dig it. 😉

  3. Excellent point, Guap. Being a bass player, I’m definitely a connoisseur of those 70s grooves.

    Naturally your video is BLOCKED in the Cube, but looking forward to partaking tonight…

  4. I love the easy conversational style of this essay— it really does work beautifully. But, what I really love is that I learned, I think, six new things about music and music production in a matter of minutes. Nicely done!

    • At your service, ma’am (adjusting my headphones like a Stetson)

      • Seriously awesome. *Shakes head* Tampons! Thin-sounding drums! I did not know!

      • 😀
        Take five random songs from the ’70s on your iPod. Specifically Top 40 stuff: The Carpenters, The Spinners, Helen Redy, whatever. Listen to the drums. Flat and thuddy. Skip the ’80s: that was the era of the drum machine. Or actually, take a listen to Simple Minds, Simply Red, some of the other bands that used actual drummers. Much more life-like sounding drums. Go to the ’90s and take five more random songs. Compare the drum sounds to the ’70s songs. You’ll totally hear it. TAMPONS AND PILLOWS AND PHONE BOOKS in the Dead Drum Era.

  5. I have a real thing against the drum-machine era. I don’t have a well-formed opinion about it, though, just a native dislike. I’m going to listen to Simple Minds and get back to you on non-flat sounding drums in the ’80s and ’90s.

      • Never did like it. Never gonna like it. Not even ironically. (I rarely like anything ironically. I just like things or do not like them, you know?)

      • I’ve seen some interesting things done with drum machines. Specifically, I saw Black 47 play, and they had both a drummer and a drum machine. It negates some spontaneity, but I don’t think it overwhelmingly took away from the show…

      • Yeah, I remember them doing that. Drum machines do have a place, but not, my humble opinion, as a replacement for live drums, a’la OMD.

  6. I’m listening to Simply Red’s “Holding Back” instead. I can hear the drums, which sound high and full and organic. I can also hear the lyrics. The drums are better than the lyrics. Oh my gosh, now that I know about the Dead Drum-Era, I can never un-know this information.

    • Yeah, welcome to my world! 😉 I’ll save an overview of mic placement techniques for another day, but suffice it to say mic placement and the sound of the room also became more prominent consideration in recording and mixing from the ’80s on.

  7. Have you ever noticed how close melodically SImply Red’s “Holding Back” is to The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around”? Spooky.

    • Son of a BITCH, it’s almost the same two chords! Wait, let me analyze this in the Cube. I’LL BE BACK!

      • I TOLD you. And I can’t stand Simply Red. But, except for the rhythm changes, it’s more or less the same song, right?

      • Okay, top of my head in-Cube analysis: Holding Back The Years is D minor 9 to G major. So it feels like a standard II – V – I (re – so – la) to C major, but it never resolves to C major, because it, like I’ll Be Around, is only two chords. The Spinners progression is an E to a D#, so it’s only a half-step, therefore it doesn’t feel like it’s going to resolve anywhere. And it doesn’t. So two two-chord Top 40 smashes. GOOD CATCH, COURTENAY BLUEBIRD!!! I’ve only been listening to that Simply Red song for 25 plus years and haven’t caught the two-chord-ieness of it yet!

  8. Now mic placement I know a little something about— but not much. You ARE going to write MORE music production pieces soon, right?

  9. And now I’m happy! I said a smart thing about melody! Then I learned four new smart things right now. Because of your clear and intelligent answer, I remembered four things from piano studies having to do with chord progression! You are full of gifts today, Brian Westbye!

      • Back at you! Seriously! And I love when you write about music— you have a knack making this subject so much fun!

  10. Brian you have obviously found the perfect mate! Am well aware of the ‘nod’ gesture when going on about the musical points in a tune; could be a song on the radio, CD, or a movie score.
    At one point (at about 15) had to force myself to stop analyzing film scores in order to relax and pay attention to the dialogue and acting heh.
    The comment on the B3 killed me. Spent two days creating a B3 patch on my trusty old DX-7 to get the REAL B3 Hammond sound. To use in only one original I was working on. No worries, Have used the patch since.
    Dig the Animaniacs vid too -smile-
    You be the coolest 😉

    • I spent MANY an hour programing a DX-7 in college (and I can’t play keys to save me bum!). Got a passable B3 and lots of Space Invaders chirps. And probably a C or B minus.

      Imagine us at a dinner party? I shudder for everyone else…

  11. I would listen politely for the short answer, but once you decide to read half of the encyclopedia, I would have to go someplace else in my mind…or run the risk of killing you in your sleep…. 😛

      • Mind you, if it was a subject that interested me, I might actually listen for awhile…love it when someone is a walking encyclopedia when its about something I WANT to know about! 🙂

  12. Next time you are driving – would you mind if i sat in the back seat and listened into your conversations?

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