what’s in a chord progression…

a.k.a. the evolution of a chord progression….

So have you ever heard songs and you’ve thought “I’ve heard that before, but just can’t place it”.  Chances are it’s because of a copied/inspired/emulated chord or rhythm progression.    That happened recently to me when I was revisiting Led Zeppelin’s first album.  You may have heard the phrase “3 Chords and the truth”.  Well this post is about 5 Chords and the truth.

The song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You Now” has a 5 chord progression that stopped me cold in my tracks.    I said, “Hey! That’s Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”.  Was one inspired by the other? Which came first?  So, having asked the questions I started doing some research.

Actually Led Zeppelin’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You Now” was a cover of the song by singer/songwriter Anne Bredon.   It’s believed to be written around 1959/60 when she first appeared on the folk music radio show called The Midnight Special (not related to the TV series).  Later, Led Zeppelin heard a cover of the song by Joan Baez and decided to cover it on their first album in early 1969. What they did differently was arrange the 5 chords of the song and introduce it as the familiar  “power chords”, that we’ve come to recognize and love, later in the song.

Chicago’s song has the same descending 5-chord progression of power chords (this time way out front) in their song “25 or 6 to 4” from their eponymously titled second album  which came out after Led Zeppelin’s first album late 1969.  The song was released as a single in 1970.  And it is amazing that they were not sued for copyright infringement for using that riff.   By moving the chord progression out front and adding the punchy brass Chicago has shown a much more progressive, aggressive and harder edged use of these chords.   And I never ever thought of Chicago as harder or more aggressive than Led Zeppelin; but in this case I think it applies.

But get this,   Chicago wasn’t the first to copy the riff in one of their songs. None other than George Harrison (that’s right the Beatle’s) used the riff (albeit, a subtler version)  in the song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” recorded in September 1968, around the time Led Zeppelin was recording their first album.  And the Beatles White Album was released in November 1968.

So what is the likelihood of all three supergroups (Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Chicago) being aware of each other use of these 5 chords?    Well,  I would say not at all unless they shared the same recording/engineering personnel.   We have to remember that this was during the analog age, before the internet, social networks etc., and  these bands were all in the studio around the same time, in their respective locations, working on their own albums with no interaction during this time.

According to an article I read this chord progression/riff has repeatedly showed up on many rock songs.  Probably one of the more recent, and famous, ones was “Brain Stew” by Green Day in 1992.  It’s interesting that Green Day “dismantles” the riff keeping the familiar power chords but spreading them out; making it familiar yet distant.

While the songs are all different they are in some ways the same. So enough of the history lesson.  I’ll let you listen for your self.

Anne Bredon – BABE, I’M GONNA LEAVE YOU (the earliest recordings)

George Harrison – WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS

Led Zeppelin – BABE, I’M GONNA LEAVE YOU (arguably the most popular version of this song)

Chicago – 25 OR 6 TO 4

And last, but not least…
Green Day – BRAIN STEW

While some may lament that copying a riff or chord pattern reflects a lack of originality. I remember one popular artist that said basically that all artists steal from each other. It’s the old notion of “standing on the shoulders of giants”. So maybe it’s not important to copy something as long as you are able to incorporate into an original expression as these artists have.  After all it doesn’t seem a whole lot different than today’s hip-hop and electronica artists who sample other peoples work.  In fact what happened in this case was less deliberate and more organic than sampling.

Well I hope you enjoyed this post.  My investigation started on the Wikipedia page for Led Zeppelin after which I migrated to the Wikipedia page for Chicago’s song “25 OR 6 TO 4” which led me to an article for the main source of my information – a column written by Andy Hermann from LA WEEKLY called “You Still Can’t Copyright A Riff – And That’s A Good thing”.

Rock on my peeps. Hope the rest of your week goes swimmingly.

The Tragic Trajectory of an American Band

Jefferson Airplane > Jefferson Starship > Starship:  The rise and fall of an iconic American band.

SOMEBODY TO LOVE

Jefferson Airplane’s album SURREALISTIC PILLOW was arguably the highlight of this particular incarnation. Normally a bands second album is a bit of a let down but this album bucked that trend. Their first album JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF was just that, a “take off.” But SURREALISTIC PILLOW was where the band found their wings and learned to soar. They proved they were “Somebody To Love.” The song WHITE RABBIT ensured their standing as one of America’s pre-eminent psychedelic bands.

WHITE RABBIT

With their 1969 album VOLUNTEERS this snarling trippy psychedelic beast lurched into the realm of political commentary. The Vietnam war had been going on since 1955 and 1968 saw a huge escalation in U.S. involvement in the war which would prove very unpopular here in America. Volunteers was notable for it’s anti-war messages and profanity which would have certainly been given a “parental advisory” had it been released 20 years later in the late 1980’s.

VOLUNTEERS

WE CAN BE TOGETHER

With WE CAN BE TOGETHER, also from VOLUNTEERS, Jefferson Airplane continued with an anthem of counter-culture unity. The “Airplane” (as they were often called) were a wild animal that would not be tamed – magical and beautiful in it’s natural habitat. However that would not stop the corporate music machine from trying to tame the beast. The early 70’s, with the bands final studio album LONG JOHN SILVER, are often referred to as the decline of Jefferson Airplane. But I prefer to see it as the evolution to the next stage.

Two years after the “Airplane’s” final album we saw a more refined beast enter the world of music under the moniker Jefferson Starship which not only reflected the change of the bands style and personnel but also the advances of air travel to space travel. 1974 brought the release of DRAGONFLY

RIDE THE TIGER

While there were no hit singles from this first Jefferson Starship record that could compare to the earlier successes of Jefferson Airplane it climbed into the Top 20 on the Charts peaking at #11. With DRAGONFLY and it’s ascendant RED OCTOPUS there were still traces of the old Jefferson Airplane but the sound had clearly changed (though still interesting) and the wild beast was being tamed and trained like a circus animal. Still wild, but now caged by Record label controls, marketing and manipulation.

MIRACLES

RED OCTOPUS released in 1975 (only 9 months after DRAGONFLY) exploded on the charts with the bands biggest hit called MIRACLES, their version of a love ballad. The follow-up single PLAY ON LOVE would also do well but did not come close to the heights of MIRACLES which peaked at #3 on the US charts. And to my ears this really was the last “great” album by this group.

The remainder of the 70’s and through the 80’s saw Jefferson starship continue to evolve into a hit making machine. Musically they began to incorporate synthesisers which were so prevalent. Their songs became less lyrically relevant and more hook-laden seeking to repeat chart (i.e. sales) success. They had notable success with songs like FIND YOUR WAY BACK (1980) and NO WAY OUT (1984) which tragically suggests that they quietly saw the commercialism trap they had fallen into. Ironically, NO WAY OUT would be the bands first #1 chart hit even though it comes from the often non-rated or poorly rated 1984 album NUCLEAR FURNITURE.

NO WAY OUT

Starship: The final transition.

WE BUILT THIS CITY

In 1985 KNEE DEEP IN THE HOOPLA was released and introduced the final evolutionary stage as Jefferson Starship became just Starship. The name change was the result of a legal case. With this change there would continue to be many personnel changes that would eventually see the exit of the last original band member, Grace Slick, by 1989. This last incarnation saw the release of only four studio albums between 1985 and 2013. By this time the band had lost all of it’s wild and feral nature. They had been tamed and domesticated. They had become strictly a “hit” machine which saw their arguably lamest, highest charting success for their singles; three number ones, WE BUILT THIS CITY, SARA and NOTHING’S GONNA STOP US NOW all between 1985 and 1987. Starship marked an end to a band that had been turned from a tiger to a pet kitten by the commercial forces of corporate record companies, radio and greed. The final studio album from 2013 LOVELESS FASCINATION failed to chart; its title perhaps telling of the bands denouement – the end result of commercial success. They have become a parody or cover band just replaying old modes and motifs anachronistic to a time when they were considered commercially successful. However, I still consider their earliest incarnations the most “successful.” Those were the songs that have stood the test of time. VOLUNTEERS is as relevant today as it was when it was released and continues to inspire.

The decades of the 80’s and 90’s will be remembered (sometimes fondly?) as the age of excess and indulgence. It will also be remembered as the time when managed, systemic, corporate greed and control insinuated itself on all aspects of society and culture telling us what to like and how to think through the use of creative marketing (i.e. “if it sells it must be good. Right?”). I have tried to show, how this impacted the music world through one band – evolving from relevant to irrelevant in its music. While this arc could be applied to many bands throughout contemporary music history there are few that are as dramatic as the tragic trajectory of Jefferson Airplane as it evolved into Starship.