Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In search of the one-chord song

Trying to write a one-chord song is a time-honored challenge among songwriters, but trying to find a song that actually adheres to the one-chord limit is also a challenge. 

It's a challenge in pop, rock, and country music, that is. In blues, one-chord songs are fairly common. Floyd Jones' "On the Road Again" from 1953 and Boozoo Chavis' "Paper in My Shoe" from 1954 (technically zydeco, but whatever) are a couple of examples. John Lee Hooker is a master of the one-chord song. In funk and reggae, quite a few songs are essentially one-chord grooves, like James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" and Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up." 

Many songs that start out as one-chord songs eventually resort to using other chords. Examples include Donovan's "There Is a Mountain," Robyn Hitchcock's "Superman," Stereolab's "Emperor Tomato Ketchup," and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." 

The Beatles seem to have had a particular interest in the one-chord songwriting challenge, because, in addition to "Tomorrow Never Knows," the songs "Norwegian Wood" and Wings' "Helen Wheels" (below) appear to have been composed along similar lines.

Today on Music Weird, we'll listen to some one-chord songs, beginning with a couple of one-chord songs that Keith Urban and Stoney LaRue wrote about one-chord songs. If you know of others, please add them in the comments! 

Keith Urban – "One Chord Song"

Stoney LaRue – "One-Chord Song"

Neu! – "Hallogallo"

An instrumental, not a "song," but still. Ten minutes on one chord. 

Ozark Mountain Daredevils – "Chicken Train"

The Stooges – "T.V. Eye"

Wings – "Helen Wheels" 

Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper – "The Story of One Chord"

No video. Audio snippet here

Palace Brothers – "(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit"

Unrest – "Hydroplane"

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