(After a full week of One Day in Your Life posts, I’m taking a break today, but there will be a new one on Monday).
I have said it many times over the years, although I am not sure I’ve ever said it here: Some of the more thrilling moments in Top 40 history have involved key changes. Apparently, however, there are people who hate ’em. For example, “The Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame,” which says at its FAQ page,
Contrary to what many people seem to think, the truck driver’s gear change is in no way inventive, interesting or acceptable: it is in fact an utterly appalling and unimaginative admission that you’ve run out of inspiration and the song should have ended one minute ago; but you’re under pressure to make something which can be stretched out to the length of a single.
An interesting perspective . . . even if such a blanket condemnation is, like most blanket condemnations, frequently wrong.
I like the phrase “truck driver’s gear change” as a metaphor. (I’d never heard it before this week.) It’s intended to reflect “the utterly predictable and laboured nature of the transition, evoking a tired and over-worked trucker ramming the gearstick into the new position.” And I agree that some of the key changes you’ll hear in pop music—like those frequently thrown in the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey , and every American Idol contestant who’s ever done a ballad—are done solely for the purposes of showing off. But I disagree that every record that employs the technique sucks by definition. Forthwith, five records selected from the Hall of Shame website that do not suck.
“Beautiful Sunday”/Daniel Boone. When you are enjoying a Sunday with your sweetie, why stop when you can crank it up a notch?
“Already Gone”/Eagles. Changing keys at full speed while heading to the fadeout is neither appalling nor unimaginative, it’s Top 40 perfection. If you’re the DJ, you’d better bring your best boss-jock attitude to talk out of it, or if you’re not up to that, punch an uptempo jingle and play something else that’s hot.
“Weekend in New England”/Barry Manilow. Yes, Manilow is a serial offender when it comes to key changes, and this is the one utterly conventional, American-Idolesque key change on my list here, but I don’t care.
“I’d Love to Lay You Down”/Conway Twitty. This is another of the remarkably skeevy country songs Twitty recorded at the turn of the 1980s, but the key change is a keeper, because instead of going up, Twitty goes down. Which, it occurs to me, is probably on his mind in more than the musical sense.
“Livin’ on a Prayer”/Bon Jovi. Jon Bon Jovi is a complete hack, but he scores awesomeness points here for the same reason “Already Gone” gets ’em. The missing beat at the point of the key change is, however, hackery run amok. I’m about half-convinced it was unintentional.
General comments about key changes, or specific examples of good ones and bad ones, are welcome in the comments below.
Recently at WNEW.com:
This Week in Rock History: What’s the Frequency?
Rock 101: The Brill Building
Founding Father: John Lennon
This Week in Rock History: Days on the Green
Rock 101: Saturday Night Live
Watch for a new Founding Fathers post at WNEW.com tomorrow.
“I’d Love to Lay You Down”/Conway Twitty (I don’t expect many of you to download this, let alone want to buy it, but if you do, it’s here; the first key change comes at about the 2:30 mark)
7 thoughts on “Top 5: I’m a Truck-Drivin’ Man”
How funny! The song that instantly popped into my head after reading your first couple of sentences was “I’d Love To Lay You Down.” The first time I ever heard it was while playing it on the air at KOMA/Oklahoma City, and I immediately loved that descending key change… from Conway Twitty, of all people! It was the second such song I’d encountered; the first having been the Cryan’ Shames great 1966 hit, “I Wanna Meet You.”
Wasn’t “Beautiful Sunday” one of the biggest pop hits ever in Japan?
Excellent key change post.
I can think of a few mid-60s pop records with modulations that really set me off. “You Wouldn’t Listen” by the Ides of March, for instance, has a great-sounding, if somewhat conventional, key change to lead into the last verse.
But that pales in comparison to the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins,” which thanks to a neat bridge effortlessly makes the drop from A to D-flat. Genius.
In the opposite direction, the Cyrkle track “You Can’t Go Home Again” has a comical series of intentionally goofy modulations…
I can think of two songs with serious key changes–“Time For Livin'” by The Association, and “Got To Be There” by The Jackson Five.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are “A Girl Like You” by The Smithereens and “So Alive” by Love And Rockets. While I do like these songs, those two bands absolutely positively cannot change keys if their life depended on it.
Strange that key modulations are called “truck driver’s changes.” One song where it really sounds unnecessary is on “Truck Drivin’ Son-Of-A-Gun” by Dave Dudley. It’s from 1965 and it’s based on that “Hi-Heel Sneakers”/”Bread & Butter” riff that was so big back then. What always bothered me was the fact that the key changes with every verse. I could see it if they just saved it for the end, like most songs do, but instead they just keep upping the ante, every time a new verse pops up.
And it gets on my nerves. I’m liking the song as it is and I’m just starting to get into it, and then they change up on me. It’s still a good song, but the transition is just too jarring. I’d have just as soon kept it as it was.
Cheap Trick – Surrender
They don’t do all of them in concert now – I assume Robin can’t make it to the high notes.
“Surrender’s” gear change happens right as Robin gets ready to sing at the beginning, too.
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