Essay No. 2 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)
1988 saw the release of Black’s second album, Comedy (A&M Records). Compared to its predecessor, released a year earlier, Comedy has fewer songs – twelve as compared to fifteen – with each positioned precisely in a well-paced and highly integrated album structure. It was to reach No. 32 in the UK charts and issued in the US with different tracks along with remixes of Sweetest Smile and Wonderful Life. Two singles were taken from the album: The Big One, which reached No. 54 in the UK and No. 43 in Germany and You’re a Big Girl Now, reaching No. 86 in the UK. In the same year Paradise, from the Wonderful Life album, was also released as a single reaching No. 38.
The singles were not as successful as the previous Wonderful Life and Sweetest Smile. Chart success is dependent on several factors largely centring on prevailing fashions and competition. Radio and TV airplay, alongside record company promotion, are key in vying for audience attention. For example, during 1988 singles such as Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky, Fairground Attraction’s Perfect, Enya’s Orinoco Flow, U2’s Desire, Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth and so on were resonating with the mass listening public and played widely on media outlets.
With a year to go to the end of the decade the experimental phase of the new wave and, subsequently, its transformation into a smooth, more commercial style had waned and, as the music and its audience aged, change was again in the air. The 1990s introduced a more natural approach to music with a rougher, tougher and harder-edged collective style. For example, by 1988 Ultravox had already disbanded yet their slick, electro style had been assimilated into collective dance music. Three years earlier, former Ultravox member John Foxx – after pioneering what was to become electro dance music on his first solo album, Metamatic – temporarily retired from the music scene in 1985 re-emerging in the late-1990s. By the mid to late 1980s many of the early new wave bands had stopped altogether, their music kept alive by listeners and fan bases alike.
Yet not all early ‘80s acts had disappeared. The survivors were able to imaginatively reinvent themselves. For example, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peepshow showcased an idiomatic approach, with songs such as Killing Jar’s original string arrangement retaining Siouxsie’s effective earlier approach of simple harmonies and imaginative structures. There was Big Country’s Peace In Our Time, with its idiomatic Scottish folk-style-influenced guitar harmonies, the massive title-track having a similar memorable intervallic guitar instrumental hook introduced in their earlier single, In A Big Country. U2 continued their upward climb with Rattle And Hum and the Pet Shop Boys Introspective continued their successful electro-dance style well demonstrated in songs such as Left To My Own Devices enhanced by its angular new wave album design. The Comsat Angels had also continued, releasing two albums on Island Records and, subsequently, developing their indie approach with My Mind’s Eye and Chasing Shadows (Thunderbird Records). The Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll – a decided progression in the bands’ oeuvre – prepared for their more commercial Heaven Or Las Vegas period.
With production values changing, newer bands, such as The Mission released its second album, Children with reverb-saturated textures and Goth neo-psychedelic drive. Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, with its original and pared-down alt-rock style, marked by Mark Hollis’ vocal fragility, introduced a more natural and organic approach. The abrasive textures of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey featured Cave’s dark, Tom Waits-inspired vocal delivery. My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything introduced an experimental, guitar-effected style while Happy Mondays Bummed epitomised the band’s stoner dance music to the optimum besides chiming with the then-ascendent rave scene.
In the US, The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa with its short, declamatory songs and slick simplicity paved the way for the grunge movement of the early 1990s. The album was to have a decisive influence on later albums as P.J. Harvey’s Rid Of Me (1993), Radiohead’s Pablo Honey (1993) and Nirvana’s Never Mind (1991). Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and its punk/new wave approach, alongside the ever-present Velvet Underground influence, demonstrated a tasteful attitude in the opening Teenage Riot and Silver Rocket, paving the way for Thurston Moore’s later solo work on albums such as The Best Day. REM would create a powerful link between indie and pop audiences with Green (1988). Acts effectively moulded their styles according to prevailing fashions with the industry deftly steering the stylistic rudder. Seldom do artists work in a cultural vacuum.
Yet outside the alternative scene – always observed by the majors as source material for subsequent stylistic developments – 1988 proved to be a particularly good year for commercial pop. For the purposes of differentiation, there are two main major classifications: popular music: memorable, well-crafted and, perhaps, aimed at enduring beyond its immediate moment which might even be referred to as ‘classic pop’. For example, Jimmy Webb writes and records this kind of musical output with such songs as The Fifth Dimension’s Up, Up And Away, MacArthur Park, Witchita Lineman, Highwayman and Galveston. Another example is Carole King who, as a staff songwriter at New York’s Brill Building, developed her craft with hits such as It Might As Well Rain Until September (1962), ultimately becoming a solo artist and releasing the massively successful, Tapestry (1971). This type is less inclined – though not wholly – to be connected to a subculture. The second type is mass popular music: designed for wide-scale mainstream radio and TV, this up-to-the-minute fashionable music has a constant turnover of more of the same. For example, the Stock Aitken and Waterman team produced hundreds of songs during the 1980s and ‘90s for artists such as Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Mel and Kim and so on. Some of this has endured and some not. Songs featured in the Eurovision Song Contest may well fall into the mass pop music consumption bracket. Paradoxically, both popular music and mass popular music have fused to exist together in the present time aimed at music equals revenue. Examples of this tendency might be George Michael’s Faith, Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror, Kylie Minogue’s The Loco-Motion (written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King for Don Kirshner’s Dimension Records), Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind and Steve Winwood’s Valerie.
Other styles such as metal would also enter a commercial phase with Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child Of Mine epitomising the growing interest in glam metal with other bands, such as Def Leppard and Aerosmith, leading the field. Like prog rock, new wave, rave and so on metal was on its way to becoming an enduring and commercial style.
1988’s best selling albums came from Michael Jackson (Bad), Prince (Sign ‘O’ The Times), Madonna (Who’s That Girl), The Cure (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me), The Smiths (Strangeways, Here We Come), Debbie Gibson (Out Of The Blue), Samantha Fox (Samantha Fox), REM (Document), George Michael (Faith), Pink Floyd (A Momentary Lapse Of Reason) and U2 (The Joshua Tree) to name but a few.
Comedy – the album
Bearing in mind the changes taking place within the industry and having commented on wider contemporary styles, I will explore the musical dimensions of Comedy by continuing to look closely at Colin Vearncombe’s artistic development. In pop music merit isn’t necessarily to do with the music itself; how good it is in terms of its compositional, instrumental or production merits. As previously discussed, popular music is often known more for an artist’s notoriety, its place in a particular ‘scene’ or its timbral-cultural ‘clothing’; in other words, how fans identify with an artist through subcultural connections. It may be assumed that if no subcultural persona exists, then it is likely an artist will create a more mainstream, corporate approach. Comedy sees Vearncombe concentrating solely on the quality of the music alone and resulting in a quality mainstream offering, consolidating what was begun on Wonderful Life. In other words, Comedy does not suffer from the extraneous weight of subcultural baggage. To this end, Vearncombe’s instantly accessible output may well be described as enduring popular music – classic pop – rather than mass popular music.
Place and Dance
A strong sense of place exists in Comedy. The cover-art is a direct reference to Spain with Vearncombe standing beside a mural outside Gaudex Cathedral. The musical atmosphere of the country is conveyed in songs such as Let Me Watch You Make Love – with its Spanish classical guitar accompaniment – and the dance-oriented I Can Laugh About It Now and Now You’re Gone. No-one, None, Nothing is essentially a Bolero, one of the best known Spanish dance types. Of course, dance is central to rock and pop music and it is interesting to note that fellow Liverpool musician, Alex Che Johnson, formerly of Modern Eon, relocated to the US to make the electro-funk album Narcotic (Siren Records, 1989) which includes the abrasive hard-core, dance-centred Be My Powerstation – a hit in the US – and Fireflies in Summer. Both Vearncombe and Che Johnson are examples of new wave musicians who moved on to new stylistic pastures by redefining musical approaches. At this point, both artists were attempting to harness rhythm as a key element in their music.
However, is Comedy a specifically dance-oriented album as compared to the more song-centred first album? Black’s management comments, ‘Comedy was much better organised than Wonderful Life in every respect. The recording sessions all took place over an almost continuous period (through necessity) and for a while we had two studios at Power Plant running with a different producer in each and Colin moving between the two. Wonderful Life had formed into an album over a series of disconnected sessions in different studios. Comedy was planned. Quite a few of the songs had been kicking around in demo form since before the previous album. These were taken on and developed with the producers taking a more active role. I don’t think Colin deliberately set out to make a dance-oriented album but we had been touring in much larger, often packed venues by this time. I think knowing you are going to tour the record with a decent band on decent stages influences a lot of choices, especially about song dynamics and rhythms. A lot of second albums suffer from the “now we can do all those things we wanted to do but weren’t able to” syndrome, but we were on a tight schedule so it wasn’t allowed to go too over the top. A decent balance was struck and it was delivered on time to take advantage of the prevailing buzz’ Colin Vearncombe Management, 20-05-21.. I will discuss elements of tempi later.
The title also raises questions as to meaning. Was Comedy an observation of the music industry, or a reference, even, to the black comedy genre? Vearncombe management: ‘Colin was happy with ambiguity and multiple readings of his words. After all, he’d had an international hit with a song that most people thought was about life being wonderful. The title could be read in a number of ways and all of them were valid, but he hadn’t yet formed much cynicism about the music industry. Apart from normal cynicism that comes with being a scouser, that is!’ Ibid.
The core band listed on Comedy are:
Black – vocal, guitar; Gordon Morgan and Robin Millar, guitar; Steve Pearce – bass guitar; Dave Dix, Peter Adams – keyboards; Guy Richman – drums; Martin Ditcham – percussion; Martin Green – sax; Steve Sidwell – trumpet; Dave Dix – programming; Sara Lamarra, Tina Labrinski, Derek Green – vocals; Simeon Jones – harmonica on Let Me Watch You Make Love. Dave Anderson – mixing engineer; Mike Peta – mixing engineer; Perry Ogden – photography. Gavin Harrison, formerly of Porcupine Tree and currently with King Crimson, played drums on The Big One. Dave Dix and Robin Millar were credited as co-producers.
The twelve tracks are:
1. The Big One
2. I Can Laugh About It Now
3. Whatever People Say
4. You’re A Big Girl Now
5. Let Me Watch You Make Love
6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong
7. All We Need Is The Money
8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You
9. Now You’re Gone
10. No-one, None, Nothing
11. It’s Not Over Yet
12. Paradise Lost
Contemporary reviews, such as one from Time Out, remarked: ‘Immaculate songs such as The Big One, You’re A Big Girl Now and All We Need Is The Money melt irresistibly over your heart with epic charms of a French kitsch movie. There’s no flag waving or duelling guitars here, just the odd blustery crescendo and some Spanish flavouring. Smooth, very smooth.’
Lyrics and Harmony
The lyrics are reminiscent of a letter to a former lover, with the ever-present atmosphere of Vearncombe’s innate romanticism felt throughout. The general character of each of the songs may be briefly described:
|1. The Big One||nostalgia/regret|
|2. I Can Laugh About It Now||nostalgia/memory|
|3. Whatever People Say You Are||inner conversation|
|4. You’re A Big Girl Now||advisory|
|5. Let Me Watch You Make Love||voyeuristic|
|6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong||vindication|
|7. All We Need Is The Money||dedicated to Liverpool|
|8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You||guilt|
|9. Now You’re Gone||nostalgia/memory, no going back|
|10. No-one, None, Nothing||confessional|
|11. It’s Not Over Yet||optimism|
|12. Paradise Lost||hopeful|
The character of the words is also reflected in choices of keys/modes with nine of the twelve songs in the minor, leaving only three as major-centred:
|1. The Big One||D major/modulating to E major|
|2. I Can Laugh About It Now||B minor/modulating to C minor|
|3. Whatever People Say You Are||A minor|
|4. You’re A Big Girl Now||G major|
|5. Let Me Watch You Make Love||D major|
|6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong||A minor|
|7. All We Need Is The Money||A minor|
|8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You||E minor|
|9. Now You’re Gone||A major|
|10. No-one, None, Nothing||G#minor Phrygian/modulating to C# minor at the end|
|11. It’s Not Over Yet||G# minor|
|12. Paradise Lost||F# minor/G minor|
The key scheme outlines a long-term descent – from the opening D major (V) of The Big One to the final G minor (i) of Paradise Lost – with relative major and minor keys encountered en route. There are three instances of A minor-centred songs (ii) – Whatever People Say You Are, Hey, I Was Right… and All We Need Is The Money; one on A major (II) – Now You’re Gone; besides expected other related key/modes – B minor (iii) – I Can Laugh About It Now; E minor – You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You; as well as two Neapolitan key-related songs (bii) – No-one, None, Nothing and the beginning of It’s Not Over Yet; and one #vii (F# minor) – the opening of Paradise Lost – and, finally the closing G minor. The Dominant key of D – both major and minor (V and v) – is represented in The Big One and the soft, more central Let Me Watch You Make Love ( Comedy Ex. 1 ). The key scheme gives the impression of gradual musical collapse and it seems highly likely that the positioning of the structure was intuitively conceived, with musical decisions guided by ‘ear’ and ‘feel’ by both Vearncombe and associate producers.
Comedy does not show huge tempo differentiation. For example, four out of the twelve songs have crotchet bpm’s of 88; two are set at crotchet bpm of 120; two at 112; two at 100; one at 72 and one at 63. The programme, therefore, consists of reasonably fast to medium paced song and dance numbers set in context for contrast. Tempi sometimes give the illusion of being slower due to key and texture:
|1. The Big One||88 (medium paced)|
|2. I Can Laugh About It Now||112 (fast)|
|3. Whatever People Say You Are||88 (medium)|
|4. You’re A Big Girl Now||88 (medium)|
|5. Let Me Watch You Make Love||88 (medium)|
|6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong||120 (fast)|
|7. All We Need Is The Money||63 (dotted crotchet; slowish)|
|8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You||100 (fast)|
|9. Now You’re Gone||100 (fast)|
|10. No-one, None, Nothing||108 (fast)|
|11. It’s Not Over Yet||112-116 (fast)|
|12. Paradise Lost||72 (slower)|
Music Types and Instrumentation
The type of music used in any one song not only conveys a sense of place but also works together with melody, harmony and texture/instrumentation as co-signifier. All great songwriters, from Schubert to the Beatles, have an instinctive awareness of this art. It is as prevalent in Comedy as it was in the Wonderful Life album, in an even more direct way.
From the opening of The Big One at the outset of the album through to the closing Paradise Lost music types and textures/instrumentation are contrasted and effectively placed in the structure. The following diagram illustrates both type and instrumentation:
1. The Big One
Type: American-style adult-oriented rock
Instrumentation: FULL TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; alto sax; keyboards; guitar; bass; drums; percussion
2. I Can Laugh About It Now
Type: adult-oriented rock with Spanish/Italian feel
Instrumentation: FULL TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; alto sax; two guitars; keyboards; bass; drums; percussion
3. Whatever People Say You Are
Type: light American funk
Instrumentation: REDUCED TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; alto sax; two guitars; keyboards; bass; drums
4. You’re A Big Girl Now
Type: dramatic American-style rock
Instrumentation: REDUCED TEXTURE – lead vocal; piano; keyboards; guitar; bass; drums
5. Let Me Watch You Make Love
Type: Spanish, although the harmonica conveys the spaghetti-western genre
Instrumentation: EMPTY TEXTURE – vocal; classical guitar; harmonica; keyboards
6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong
Type: big American rock
Instrumentation: FULL TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; brass (trumpet/sax); two keyboards; guitar; bass; drums
7. All We Need Is The Money
Instrumentation: REDUCED TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; guitar; keyboards; bass; drums
8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You
Type: American-style funk
Instrumentation: FULL TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; alto sax; guitar; keyboards; bass; drum; percussion
9. Now You’re Gone
Instrumentation: REDUCED TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocal; keyboard programming/vibes; drums/percussion
10. No-One, None, Nothing
Instrumentation: EMPTY to MEDIUM EMPTY – lead vocal; guitar; keyboards
11. It’s Not Over Yet
Type: Big American rock
Instrumentation: FULL TEXTURE – lead vocal; backing vocals; guitar; keyboards; bass; drums; percussion
12. Paradise Lost
Type: American-style adult-oriented rock
Instrumentation: MEDIUM to FULL TEXTURE – lead vocal, alto sax, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums
It can be seen from the diagram that the big, full textures of The Big One gradually reduce to the emptiness of the fifth song, Let Me Watch You Make Love, where the voice is accompanied by just classical guitar, light keyboards and harmonica obbligato. It is positioned in the centre of the album’s structure. Songs six to eight increase textural density to include big American rock (Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong), an anthemic song (All We Need Is The Money) and American funk (You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You), followed again by textural reduction in songs nine and ten with their Spanish references to Tango and Bolero-like dance rhythms. Again, the final two songs include medium to full textures to bring the album to a successful and satisfying conclusion.
Clearly, thoughtful choices of such things as sense of place, harmony, structural positioning, music type and texture have the effect of creating a complete work.
Dynamics (soft, loud, crescendo, diminuendo etc.) are closely aligned with texture and important in enhancing lyrical content, melody, harmony and rhythm, as well as being a crucial part of the overall architecture. Of course, less instruments may imply lowering of volume level whereas the opposite is also true. However, this is not always the case. Full textures sometimes call for soft playing which is more often found in classical music. Bands such as King Crimson are noted for extreme variegated dynamic ranges in song-pieces whereas a band such as Black Sabbath show the opposite is true. In Comedy, however, dynamics are variegated conveying a reasonably wide range of extremes. Generally, verses tend to be less loud than choruses where the main dramatic weight of the lyrics fall. The following verse illustrates the overall dramatic range of Comedy:
|Overall dynamic continuum|
|1. The Big One||Intro, p; verses, mf; chorus, f|
|2. I Can Laugh About It Now||Verses, mf; chorus, f|
|3. Whatever People Say You Are||Verse, mp; chorus, mf; M8, f – mf|
|4. You’re A Big Girl Now||Verses , mp – mf; chorus, f; final verse, f; coda, p|
|5. Let Me Watch You Make Love||p|
|6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong||Verses, f; chorus, ff; instrumental, ff|
|7. All We Need Is The Money||Verses, mf; chorus, f; coda, f – p|
|8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You||Verses, mf; chorus, f; M8, mp – f|
|9. Now You’re Gone||Verses, mp with cresc; chorus, mp; M8, mp – mf|
|10. No-one, None, Nothing||Intros, p + cresc; verses, mp; chorus & M8, mp/mf; p|
|11. It’s Not Over Yet||Intros, p-mf; chorus, f; instrumentals, p-mp; verses, mf|
|12. Paradise Lost||Intro, p; verses p-mf; choruses mf-f; M8, mf; coda, f|
As with texture, the softest place on the album is Let Me Watch You Make Love, mainly because of its much-reduced texture with a sudden contrast in dynamics for Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong. This is reminiscent of and provides a connection with It’s Not You, Lady Jane on the previous Wonderful Life album. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong, however, does not include the vehemence found in It’s Not You, Lady Jane. Overall, the diagram illustrates the wide use of dynamics to reinforce the musicality of Comedy as a whole.
Although listed as being co-produced by Dave Dix and Robin Millar, both are assigned six songs each:
|1. The Big One||Dave Dix|
|2. I Can Laugh About It Now||Robin Millar|
|3. Whatever People Say You Are||Robin Millar|
|4. You’re A Big Girl Now||Dave Dix|
|5. Let Me Watch You Make Love||Dave Dix|
|6. Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong||Robin Millar|
|7. All We Need Is The Money||Robin Millar|
|8. You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You||Robin Millar|
|9. Now You’re Gone||Dave Dix|
|10. No-one, None, Nothing||Dave Dix|
|11. It’s Not Over Yet||Dave Dix|
|12. Paradise Lost||Robin Millar|
Although there is an undeniable homogeneity in terms of production techniques when listening to the final recordings, there is one main, yet subtle difference between each: Millar’s style is slightly more aligned with stylistic sonic preoccupations of the period (i.e. epic textures – Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong; All We Need Is The Money; Paradise Lost); whereas, Dix has a slightly more forward-looking and natural approach anticipating the 1990s (i.e. textural space – The Big One; Let Me Watch You Make Love; No-One, None, Nothing). However, styles tend to elide in songs such as You’re A Big Girl Now and It’s Not Over Yet. Vearncombe management comments, ‘Dave Dix was a fledgling producer at the time, and I was surprised he didn’t get more recognition for the way he’d developed. His work stands up right beside Robin’s, a self-professed “name” producer.” Colin Vearncombe Management, 26-07-21.
As with the essay on Wonderful Life the songs will be taken individually looking at the minutiae of each with short musical examples and some pitch-classes used to illustrate the music itself.
The Big One
The Big One is vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s Someone Else, released in 1977 on Art Garfunkel’s Watermark, although written some years before (i.e. 1958). This demonstrates the kind of influences Colin Vearncombe may have been unconsciously filtering through his own music, even though his musical output bears the stylistic and timbral hallmarks of the 1980s.
The Big One deals with the windswept emotion of a lost lover and the regrets associated with it. Although never overtly stated, the optimism associated with second chances is underscored in Vearncombe’s ever-romantic declamatory vocal delivery. Indeed, As with the Wonderful Life album, the central feature of Comedy is the song and his, and the band’s excellent performance of them – along with the rhythmic features of dance music – never far away.
Cast in D major, the song’s eight-bar introduction is based around four chords which can be found in countless other examples of popular music: I-iii-IV-V, here, D major-F# minor-G major-A major with two chords occupying every bar. During the introduction Vearncombe’s guitar is the central foregrounded melodic feature ( Comedy Ex. 2 ). The guitar part features the crotchet triplet rhythm found in Wonderful Life and the light accompaniment of sustained organ, bass guitar and percussion never obscure the guitar’s melody.
Verse one (0:21) adds piano which triggers the vocal part the latter and, as with the first album, is the main point of focus ( Comedy Ex. 3 ). Lightly accompanied by volume-pedalled sustained organ, bass, drums with rimshots and light percussion, the vocal wheels and glides in its own time, rises to the apex of the first phrase (‘… used to be’) and falls to its lowest point (‘… memory’). The second phrase has an almost declamatory, free-form delivery (‘And we laughed and we cried and we played and we fought…’) with spontaneous memories jostling to fit into one bar with rising, falling and tied semiquavers: a lightning-fast mnemonic recall of better times. A high piano, like a distant chime, is heard between phrases (0:36).
The soft verse serves as the anacrusis to the much louder and more forthright chorus where Gavin Harrison’s precision drumming is heard clearly for the first time. The chorus features Vearncombe’s guitar from the introduction which is reintroduced as part of the enlarged textural palette. For the sake of rhythm a soft, staccato chord is played by a second guitar on beat four of every other bar on F# minor – first two strings only – along with organ, string synthesiser, occasional piano, bass, drums and percussion. The accompanying harmony remains the same: D-F#m-G-A (I-iii-IV-V). Low backing vocals overlap with Vearncombe’s main vocal part (0:43) but purposely never obtrude ( Comedy Ex. 4 ). Instead, they complete Vearncombe’s introductory ‘That this could be’ by adding ‘This could be the big one’. As in the verse, there is emphasis on A naturals and B naturals (7-9) which circle around the Tonic D (0). ‘This could be the big one’ is repeated twice emphasising the song’s title. There is a change of harmony (1:06) for the post-chorus, where the music falls to G major sustaining over two bars allowing the words, ‘Explain just how we came to part/I never really wanted to’. This heightens the poignancy by lengthening the harmonic rhythm ( Comedy Ex. 5 ) and allowing a listener a moment to absorb the lyric.
A contracted two bar introduction from the opening serves as the anacrusis for verse two, the vocals here being more forthright ( Comedy Ex. 6 ). With more prominent drums, the band accompaniment recalls the previous verse allowing the vocal – as carrier of the lyrics – to be heard first and foremost. The second chorus and post-chorus are the same as the first, but Martin Green’s solo sax replaces vocals for the Middle8 instrumental (2:11 ff.). It includes an improvised reflection of the verse’s vocal part developing the A to B naturals (7-9) found in the vocal line ( Comedy Ex. 7 ). The sax conveys a kind of free flow of unspoken thoughts, with Vearncombe’s voice continuing the sax line as if, now, he is able to announce the inner turmoil audibly (2:32) ( Comedy Ex. 8 ).
With the chorus resuming (2:42) – anticipated by a slight break allowing Vearncombe’s exclamatory ‘This could be!’ to be repeated twice in exasperation – the psychological angst is further reinforced by the abrupt upwards modulation to E major (2:46ff.). E-G#m-A-B – again, I-iii-IV-V – underpin further declamatory vocal delivery. The chorus is repeated with a fade to the end, the alto sax joining (3:15 ff.) aiding and abetting the romantically impassioned character of the song.
The Big One continues the kind of Poe-like drama found in the earlier More Than The Sun but, here, the more craftsman-like approach controls and excises the earlier extremes heard in some of the juvenilia. There is nothing wrong with popular music structural formulae – for example sonata form or strophic forms. It is the craft of a professional singer-songwriter/composer.
I Can Laugh About It Now
The second song follows more or less segue. The Italian, almost reggae – it isn’t reggae, per se – continues the light approach begun in The Big One.
The introductory accordion creates a syncopated rhythm, with the rhythm guitar playing staccato every other bar on beats two and three and a half. The accompanying texture is at a reduced level of just sustained keyboard, rhythm guitar, accordion, bass, drums and percussion, while double-tracked soprano sax is the foregrounded feature ( Comedy Ex. 9 ). The accompanying chords are B minor – A major – F# major (i-bVII-V) with the entire song is in B Aeolian minor.
Vearncombe’s soft vocal enters for verse one (0:16) taking elements of the previous sax line but making something even more memorable. Like the sax, the vocal line rises from B-F# (0-7) ( Comedy Ex. 10 ). The crotchet triplets found at the end of bars echo The Big One and Wonderful Life. The same rhythm is also a melodic feature of Alex Che Johnson’s vocal lines heard on Modern Eon’s Fiction Tales (1981) in such songs as Child’s Play and Mechanic. Here, Vearncombe transforms the introductory sax line extending the range upwards to C# (2) at 0:20. The first half of the verse repeats, descending to E minor (iv) (0:51) and preparing the joyous chorus (1:07) in a finely controlled climax of the song’s title outlining a B minor arpeggio accompanied by Bm-Em-F# (i-iv-V) ( Comedy Ex. 11 ). However, the most memorable feature of the song is heard in the wordless scat-like hook-line (1:22) ‘sha-la-la-la’ ( Comedy Ex. 12 ). The consequent phrase ‘we’re all in trouble’ is effective largely because of the C# (2) creating Bm9 harmony in a strikingly poignant musical moment.
Verse two continues with more prominent drums, string synthesiser and occasional sax following the strophic structure set by the first verse and chorus. Tension is wound-up (3:38) by an abrupt modulation to C minor for the thrice-repeated final chorus together with a fade on the third repeat.
Whatever People Say You Are
Continuing the rhythmic dance-tinged album, the third song is light US-funk with a strophic verse/chorus structure including a dramatic Middle8 with tight brass interjections and a clean-toned guitar solo. The chorus explores a standard F major – G major – A minor chord shift, something exploited by many bands such as Guns N’ Roses including a guitar solo in the Middle8.
You’re A Big Girl Now
You’re A Big Girl Now is again medium-paced with a crotchet bpm = 88. Four out of the first five songs are marked with this tempo. Listeners often prefer the security of musical familiarity and Comedy delivers music which includes nothing experimental or remotely indie in concept.
The song has a light scoring of piano, sustained synthesiser, bass, kick-drum and percussion with long and predictable harmonic rhythms:
G – Bm7 – C – Cm9 – G – G
Each chord lasts for two bars except the C – Cm9 which extend for one bar each where the harmonic rhythm speeds up for the approach of the cadence. Verse one begins (0:21) with Vearncombe singing over the same accompaniment ( Comedy Ex. 13 ). The Minor 7th and 9th chords reinforce the sense of familiarity adding harmonic warmth to the song. The second half of the verse includes more forceful vocals as well as substituting the Cm with Em7 (0:56) and preparing the chorus with a D major (V) (0:59).
So far, everything has functioned at a soft dynamic level but the chorus brings a sudden change as the tension is increased to forte with Vearncombe singing falsetto on ‘cry’ (1:04) ( Comedy Ex. 14 ). The band’s dynamic range is also increased to f with the addition of piano, bass and drums joined by electric guitar and sweeping reverb-saturated string synthesiser, the effect signifying the title’s meaning as a musical metaphor. Vearncombe’s softer backing vocals also add to the rhythmic impetus as well as providing a memorable hook-line ( Comedy Ex. 15 ).
The chorus falls into the second verse’s strophic design (1:25) powered by a soft and rhythmic bass synthesiser, rhythmically anticipated by the bass guitar part during the chorus ( Comedy Ex. 16 ). The synth follows the root pitches of each chord changing during the verse with accented first beats of bars.
Verse follows chorus with the bass synth now reinforcing the rhythmic thrust. An abrupt modulation to Ab major (2:41) cranks-up the tension to a higher level with chorus pedal electric guitar and, together with the bass synth, the forward-movement combined with bass guitar and drums provides extreme rhythmic thrust (2:45) ( Comedy Ex. 17 ).
The subsequent chorus is repeated further emphasising the concept, with tension tailing-off (3:49 ff.) leaving just reduced drums, bass synth, muted bass guitar, single-note electric guitar with funk rhythm, falsetto vocal and a single phrase of harmony vocals. As the music becoming progressively softer, the strings pass from high to middle and, finally, to bass register over thirty seconds to vanish to nothing by the close.
You’re A Big Girl Now reached No. 86 in the UK charts but deserved to go much higher. It is a highly memorable, well-arranged and produced song, demonstrating above all that by 1988 the early experiments of the early new wave had passed once and for all and musicians, such as Vearncombe, had learnt from early experimentation. There was, however, one main difference: technology would now be a dominant feature, yet indie bands such as Sonic Youth, The Pixies and even REM were at pains to react against the takeover by machines applying a harder and more natural edge to their music.
Let Me Watch You Make Love
There is a well-judged dip in dynamics and texture with the fifth song. Clearly, Vearncombe wanted his lyrics heard – beyond all, his thoughts, fears and jealousies – and this voyeuristic confessional is, like More Than The Sun, romantically Poe-esque with lines such as, ‘Sometimes I wonder at the shame I hide/Pare away the man and find the worm inside’.
Scored for just voice, harmonica, classical guitar and synthesiser, the Spanish character of the music is conveyed from the very start with an introduction of a single descending classical guitar line from D to A (0-7) (0:03ff.) ( Comedy Ex. 18 ). This opening ad. lib passage gives way to finger-style, chordal guitar, again at crotchet bpm = 88 (0:18ff.). With the top line now rising from D to high C (0-10) – before repeating and modulating to Bb major (0:28), G minor (0:30), Dm/F ((0:32), E7 susp (0:36), E7 (0:38) – it eventually cadences on the Dominant 7th (A7) projecting backwards to the opening semitonal decoration ( Comedy Ex. 19 ).
The poignant introduction prepares Vearncombe’s introspective lyrics sung over a variant of the previous section. Inner thoughts are presented freely as a descending linear Major 3rd, A to F (7-3) on ‘Sometimes I wonder at this shame…’ ( Comedy Ex. 20 ). The line develops in descending phrases.
Verse two introduces an occasional obbligato harmonica and synthesiser bass strings are added (1:57) to provide a modern edge as well as reinforcing the bass notes of the guitar’s chords: G of minor, F of Dm/F and so on to eventually reach A of the cadential A7. Following a single pitch decoration of the A7 chord (2:50-2:58), the piece ends on the guitar’s high D minor chord (1/2-barre X) (i) (3:02).
Let Me Watch You Make Love lowers the tension of the first third of the album, also taking the music from outer to inner; extroversion to introversion.
Hey, I Was Right, You Were Wrong
Suddenly the outer is immediately reintroduced in the sixth song, picking up the from the final D minor chord of the previous song, though here on a loud electric guitar ( Comedy Ex. 21 ). The tempo and overall temperature are increased (crotchet bpm=120) with a fast American rock-like texture. Rhythmically, syncopation is added with the doubled guitars on the Am-Dm/A-Em/A. A moving pedal pitch (A natural) stabilises the harmonic properties at the bottom-end of the texture while three-note string motifs are added at the top (0:11) ( Comedy Ex. 22 ). A molto-tremolo Hammond organ is added to reinforce the harmony in the verses (0:27) ( Comedy Ex. 23 ).
Bands such as Huey Lewis and the News are recalled, with the basic harmony of the song revolving around:
With a slight reduction in texture in places (0:20), tasteful repetition (2:34) and a spacious guitar solo (2:40) comprising mainly octaves, the extrovert, macho character of the music is played down by an intelligent arrangement. The A modal minor key-centre is carried over into the next song.
All We Need Is The Money
Dedicated to the people of Liverpool, this song a has a slow, swaying and anthemic character with its folk-like (it isn’t folk music per se) harmony of Am-Dm-G-Am. The instrumental hook-line in the piano, which features from the start is memorable in every way (0:02) ( Comedy Ex. 24 ) with the first pitches of every two bars climbing E-F-G-A (7-8-10-0).
The simple arrangement, propelled by technically rhythmic hi-hat, the powerful bass and the full harmony vocals of the chorus provide strong support for Vearncombe’s ever-present voice. During the verse the piano texture is reduced to occasional arpeggiated piano, string synthesiser and softly picked electric guitar.
The Middle8 features an organ solo with clean guitars and sustained harmony vocals. Other features are the well-timed rhythmic chords (3:43) with soft vocal and piano to finish.
You Don’t Always Do What’s Best For You
This is soft, fast E modal minor-centred funk beginning with a soft, Hammond organ solo anticipating a riff featuring electric and bass guitars ( Comedy Ex. 25 ), followed by an accumulative texture underpinned by a soft synthesiser doubling the riff (0:12). Again, the movement of dance is never too far away.
Eventually, sax and organ play a high sustained line over the top of the texture ( Comedy Ex. 26 ). This soft, AOR funk is especially appealing with the introduction of congas in the softer verse and the bright, memorable chorus. Vearncombe’s ability to write enduring material is heard particularly in this song, with the drawn-out crotchet triplets – one of the Black fingerprints – discernible in the phrasing of the chorus (1:08) ( Comedy Ex. 27 ).
The strophic verse and chorus structure is retained for listener familiarity with tasteful touches such as the drop in dynamics (2:22), rhythmic riffs, and virtuosic sax over funk gunk guitar and synth. The band excel in every department rivalling American funk. The coda has precise moments such as the staccato double-saxes behind a virtuoso alto solo (3:59) ( Comedy Ex. 28 ).
Now You’re Gone
This song presents a much-reduced texture. Although it is marked at crotchet bpm-100 from the previous song, it sounds slower mainly because of the reduced instrumentation.
The Tango-like dance has the voice accompanied by string synthesiser and light percussion including a guiro. The hook-line is accompanied by pizzicato strings, with the melody immediately thrown into relief (0:00) ( Comedy Ex. 29 ) and the harmony consisting of two alternating chords: A and E majors. Verse one (0:19) includes a balanced rise and fall during the first and second phrases ( Comedy Ex. 30 ), and the subtly building rising harmonic line in the pre-chorus (0:39ff.) – once heard, never forgotten – ascends towards the chorus with a repeated E natural reiterated in the piano together with sustained strings over the pizzicato. The vocal line, together with the accompanying texture, build tension into the climax of the chorus ( Comedy Ex. 31 ) over the introductory string material. The vocal again includes Vearncombe’s trademark triplet rhythm (0:47) ( Comedy Ex. 32 ) with the guiro heard on every other bar marking the vocal entries and adding to the Italianate style.
Verse two introduces the subject matter of the album’s title:
‘This was comedy
It is true
I was not innocent under you.’
The second chorus has a piano part which includes a quotation from a popular Italian song which prepares the solo piano of the Middle8 (2:15) ( Comedy Ex. 33 ). Vearncombe adds a wordless version of the popular Italian melody under the piano ( Comedy Ex. 34 ).
The pre-chorus climbs into the chorus followed by the Italian song which is now played by the piano in octaves during the fading coda (3:22ff.).
No-One, None, Nothing
The Tango-like character of Now You’re Gone is here transformed into a Bolero. The bass guitar and bass synth present the rhythm, with the song a semitone lower in G# modal minor. The metre is 12/8 (dotted crotchet = 108) ( Comedy Ex. 35 ) with effects such as sonar and metallic percussion creating an ominous atmosphere. As previously discussed, the final three songs display a descent of keys: G# minor (No-One, None, Nothing); G# minor (It’s Not Over Yet); F# minor (Paradise Lost) with a slight rise to G minor at the end.
The present song steadily accumulates texture: first, with electric guitar (0:06); electric guitar and synthesiser (0:17) with a well-defined linear motif (0:17ff.) ( Comedy Ex. 36 ). A further synthesiser with a slow envelope is heard playing a chord of 4ths (0:21) ( Comedy Ex. 37 ) with a dramatic triplet rhythm taking the music into C# minor (0:34) with more well-defined guitar and synth lines (0:34) ( Comedy Ex. 38 ).
The lengthy introduction gives way to the first vocal entry (0:54) ( Comedy Ex. 39 ). A shift into the Phrygian (Neapolitan) A major underpins Vearncombe’s second descending phrase (1:01) ( Comedy Ex. 40 ) adding to the tension. Soft sustained synth defines the harmony (1:10) transforming the music from minor to major mode (G# major/Ab major – 1:14) and a related, strong low piano A major triad (1:18).
Big, dramatic unison chords (1:26ff.) featuring vocals, guitar, piano and synthesiser reinforce Vearncombe’s low declamation of the title reinforced by triplet hand-claps (1:35) as an after-statement ( Comedy Ex. 41 ). The strophic verse and chorus structure has a Middle8 with Vearncombe singing his own harmony vocals before returning to the introduction with distant vocal. The final chorus and countermelody with syncopated guitar lead into the final unaccompanied solo voice (4:59) with the words. The effect is one of sheer despondency:
‘There’s no-one… none…’
The song segues immediately into the opening of It’s Not Over Yet which again gradually accumulates into big US rock with a memorable chorus comprising descending falling linear Major 3rds ( Comedy Ex. 42 ). The Middle8, with its rock-funk workout reminiscent of Earth, Wind and Fire, and the gradual arrival of chorus material made into highly rhythmic dance material prepares the final song.
The finale not only refers to John Milton’s epic poem of the same name, although by title only, but more specifically to Paradise from Vearncombe’s Wonderful Life album. Paradise was also released as a 45rpm single. Here, though, the situation is a lost paradise.
It is slow (crotchet bpm=72), in F# minor and down a tone from the previous It’s Not Over Yet. However, the modal centre is ambiguous: initially, it is possible to hear the song in both F# minor or C# minor. Beginning with a clean arpeggiated electric guitar playing the following chords:
F#m7 – C#m – A – C/m/C#m7 | F#m – C#m – A – G#7 |
These chords become the harmonic basis for the entire song until the eventual modulation. Accompanying Vearncombe’s vocals, the verse is slightly reminiscent of The Cocteau Twins (0:15) ( Comedy Ex. 43 ), with a particularly affecting moment where the strings, sax and backing vocals ( Comedy Ex. 44 ) ‘paint’ the words, ‘So? The stars may shine and the moon may be blue…’. Here, Vearncombe’s vocal is supported by sustained string synth and piano, but alto sax and guitar play parallel octaves from a high C# down to low C#. Only at this moment does the key clarify and F# minor is heard clearly as the point of arrival. Drums now enter (0:49) at last providing some sense of forward motion.
Of all the songs on Comedy, Paradise Lost is one of the most affecting with its fine chorus supported by powerful guitar and soaring strings, descending in semitones during the second phrase (1:23) ( Comedy Ex. 45 ). The second half of the chorus, with its semitonal shift to G major and D major, are key moments before returning to the home F# minor. This ambiguity is resolved slightly in the alto sax and bass parallel octaves which are repeated (2:08ff.).
The Middle8 has yet another surprise with its modulation to E major and A major where Vearncombe exclaims, ‘I would never turn away from you’ which is, perhaps, reinforced in the musical metaphor of the ‘turning away’ of keys throughout the song. Again, there is a further modulation to G minor, briefly referred to during the first chorus, for the second half of the song (2:45ff.). Here, G minor and D major oscillate with the previous G# minor now re-spelt as Ab major (3:00) decorated by the alto sax wheeling and gliding at the top of the texture.
This is epic music with a grand production which has now cast-off the sonorities of the early years of the decade. It is as though all the instruments heard on the album are brought to bear on the latter stages of the song. We hear vocals, backing vocals, alto sax, solo electric guitar, piano, Hammond organ, string synthesiser, bass, drums and percussion. Gradually, the music diminuendos, coming to rest on G minor (minus the 3rd) (5:27) which makes the ending slightly ambiguous. However, the song’s G minor closure marks a long-term V-I descent from the very opening of The Big One as a metaphorical collapse.
The effect of Comedy is that of an epic, yet an epic which never teeters on the edge of over-excess. Songs, performances, arrangements and production are treated meaningfully on this fine follow-up to Wonderful Life release. Undoubtedly, it all seems more integrated than Wonderful Life with the band particularly outstanding. As with Wonderful Life, the album’s emphasis on minor modes, confessional-like material and long-term harmonic descent underscores a veiled and ominous atmosphere suggesting irony in the title. Notwithstanding, it is the strength of Vearncombe’s performance and material which remain central to Comedy’s success, with the song remaining central to the concept but with an allied emphasis on dance.
The question is where would Black turn next; how was it possible to follow on from these first two immensely musical and finely-produced albums? The answer came in his final A&M release – the eponymous Black album – and that is where things were to change pointing the way to an unpredictable future.
Author: Andrew Keeling © 2021 Nero Schwarz Music Limited