This week we decided to have a little ‘riff’ about ‘riffs’. Big or small, dominating the song or hardly there at all, these are the ‘hooks’ that the ear remembers long after a song has stopped playing and can help add a little more commercial worth to a song. Most riffs tend to be played on guitars – sometimes solo, sometimes with lots of musicians playing at once – but there’s a few curios in our top ten list, including one played on a banjo, one on an organ, one on piano, one on a synthesiser and one on a mellotron. We’ve spoken already this week at some length about ‘I Want You (She’s So heavy’), perhaps the ultimate riff song in the sense that the riff is almost all that’s there for the full seven minutes of the song – and yet that’s entirely in keeping with the suffocating, desperate atmosphere of the song. Lennon was a natural at writing riffs, but rather than have a top ten of Beatles songs we’ve decided to keep our list to just one entry per AAA artist. Naturally many of you will have your own favourites that didn’t make our list – if so why not send them in to us?
1) “Duh-Dada-Duh-Dah!” (The Kinks, ‘You Really Got Me’ 1964)
Just think what a different song ‘You Really Got Me’ would be without that insistent riff at the very heart of the song. This is isn’t some casual crush the narrator has got, it’s an infectious, hypnotic obsession and the tricky four note riff is central to the (ungrammatical) idea that the girl has really ‘got’ him ‘going’. Ray Davies originally wrote the riff for a piano to play, a bold open chord run that sets up the uncharacteristic confidence of the song; brother Dave went one better by playing the riff through his electric guitar and it’s little green amp which the younger Davies had slashed with a razor blade to get an angrier sound. This was the template for at least another two Kinks singles of the 1960s (‘All Day and All Of The Night’ and ‘Til The End Of The Day’), but thereafter The Kinks didn’t really write ‘riff’ songs again until the 1980s as their songs became more about words and atmosphere. Perhaps they thought they’d already written the perfect riff song and wouldn’t ever be able to top it?!
2) “Duh-Duh-Di-Duh-Duh-Dum-Di-Doo-Dah” (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, ‘Ohio’ 1970)
‘Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own...’ – Neil Young’s rare moment of political chest-beating was brave stuff for 1970, CSNY writing, recording and releasing this song within a fortnight of the Ohio Kent State Shootings (where Nixon took umbrage to a tiny peaceful anti-Vietnam protest and sent i n the heavy mobs, killing four students outright, one of whom was just an innocent passerby). In these still pre-Watergate times this was a watershed moment – and ‘Ohio’ perfectly sums up the claustrophobia and the solemnity with which the younger generation realise that ‘finally we’re on our own’. This riff doesn’t soar infectiously (like ‘You Really Got Me’), it’s hemmed in from all sides and hobbles its way through the song, barely standing upright with grief, before finally flourishing in one of the greatest guitar solos of all time too.
3) “Duh-Di-Der-Der-Duh-Dumdrumdrum-Dri-Dri” (The Hollies, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ 1966)
‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ is an unusual song, a catchy enjoyable pop song clearly made musically for the band’s younger audience but with a subject matter of the more adult variety. Inspired by a lapdancer at a soho club, the song’s scattershot riff is played by Tony Hicks on a banjo which gives the song a really distinctive sound that does a really good job of summing up the fascination and embarrassment the narrator experiences. Original copies of the single included a much longer solo on the banjo (heard only on the sadly now obsolete German-only ‘30th anniversary’ set) that has to be heard t5o be believed, the ringing chords sounding both innocent and knowing at the same time.
4) “Woooh-oooh-oooh-ooh-ooh!” (The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’, 1966)
The Wilson brother’s mother Audree used to tell her children that animals could pick up ‘vibrations’ in humans and could tell if they were ‘kind’ or ‘cruel’. Son Brian went one stage further, figuring that people probably had the same ideas subconsciously and telling the tale of a boy picking up on ‘vibrations’ from a girl that were ‘good’. That translates well into the song’s breezy riff, which is made to sound more paranormal by the use of a theremin (an instrument a bit like Rolf Harris’ ‘Stylophone’ that’s more normally used to create ‘creepy’ sound effects in horror films). This could easily have sounded like some bad Hollywood B movie but by featuring a sunny, catchy, four note phrase completely unlike anything else around in 1966, Brian instead ends up creating perhaps his biggest triumph of all.
5) “Duh-Der-Der-Dah-Dah-Duh!” (The Monkees, ‘I’m A Believer’ 1967)
Micky Dolenz is the perfect singer for tackling well-meaning-but-awkward narrators. Neil Diamond’s breakthrough song is the perfect setting for it, telling the tale of a narrator who always thought love was ‘only found in fairytales’ and that he’d never experience it for himself, accompanied by a six note phrase that sounds both sad and happy at the same time. Unusual, in the sense that the riff is played ‘in between’ the lines in the chorus rather than underlining each one, it’s a very memorable hook that can sounds quite different played ‘before’ and ‘after’ the narrator has found ‘love’, turning from sad folk to rousing gospel in a matter of seconds.
6) “Dum-Duh-Diddiddi-Dum-Duh-Diddiddi-Dum-Duh-Diddliddli...” (10cc ‘Rubber Bullets’ 1972)
This riff is built on anger, Godley and Creme being moved by a newspaper account of the brutal way in which a prison riot over harsh conditions was brought to an end. The prison guards protested that they only used ‘rubber bullets’ – but even rubber bullets hurt and 10cc are inspired to write perhaps their angriest song of all, about a ‘party at the local country jail’ that was only meant to be fun. The song’s noisy, bubbling riff plays for a full 30 seconds before the song kicks in properly, successfully setting the scene for a turbulent angry sound that won’t be quietened, whatever the officials have to say.
7) “Dum-Di-Dum-Di-Der-Dum-Der” (The Who, ‘Substitute’ 1966)
The Who have come up with many great riffs over the years and perhaps I should really have gone with our old favourite ‘I Can’t Explain’ and its turbulent, incoherent riff. But we seem to have talked about this song a lot recently (it’s been in so many of our ‘top tens’ of the past year) so I’ve plumped instead for the singalong riff that’s at the heart of ‘Substitute’. Pete Townshend wrote this song after reading that The Who were ‘just a substitute for the Rolling Stones’ and turns in one of his bitterest but funniest lyrics, about a narrator born the wrong colour, to a family that don’t want him and who ‘substitutes’ his nagging wife for his mum (‘because at least I’ll get my washing done!’) Like the narrator, the riff doesn’t know which way is up and seems on a voyage of discovery throughout the song, heard ‘upside down’ and ‘sideways’ throughout the track.
8) “Duh-Duh-Der-Duh-Doo-Dah-Der” (The Beatles, ‘Hey Bulldog’ 1967)
‘Hey Bulldog’ is quite an obscure song – in the sense that any Beatles song is ever going to be obscure – hidden away on the ‘Yellow Submarine’ film soundtrack and cut from the film, but it’s one of Lennon’s better songs of 1968 and it’s menacing, angry strut was a big announcement that the ‘peacenik’ Lennon of 1967 was – for the time at least – over. Much of the prowling menace in this song – which is undeniably angry over something, despite its nonsense lyrics – comes from the angry insistent riff, unusually played by Lennon on piano (Lennon never really learnt to play properly and most piano parts on Beatles records are by McCartney or George Martin; however this pretty complex part is an exception). Rolling comically from side to side, the riff suddenly reveals the sting in it’s tail via an eerie chord progression that stretches Lennon’s voice to breaking point (‘You can talk to me! If you’re lonely you can talk to me!’)
9) “Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Der-Dum-Dum” (Neil Young, ‘Heart Of Gold’ 1972)
Neil’s biggest hit to date, even 40 years later, might not be his greatest ever song but might well feature his best ever riff (though both ‘Old Man’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ cut it close). Simple by Young’s standards, this open chord strumming sounds much like a lot of other singer-songwriter acoustic ballads around at the time and sounds roughly like Neil would have sounded as a medieval minstrel. Fittingly this is a narrator whose on a journey of discovery, having been all around the world looking for a heart that’s worthy enough to get excited over, and the ever-changing chords in this song fit it’s restless nature.
10) “Dum-Doo-Dee-Duh-Duh-Der-Der-Doo-Be” (Paul McCartney, ‘Coming Up’ 1980)
Finally, it’s our old friend ‘Coming Up’, one of the greatest catchy-but-deep songs from the catchy-but-deep specialist bar none. This song is about the future, both from the lyrics (which try to urge us to believe that the perfect world is in front of us, born from the seeds and dirt of the problems we are facing now) and from the music (which is played on a then-very modern sounding synthesiser). Ignorant critics call this song a ‘doodle that got lucky’, but it’s actually one of Macca’s more cleverly thought out songs, with this insistent riff so bright and cheerful it’s impossible to dislike. This isn’t fake or artifical happiness, though – it’s the sudden realisation that hard times are over and all there is to do now is smile. As a result, this might well be the most Mccartneyesque song of them all!
That’s all for this week, ba-doo-doo-de-dah! We’ll see you next issue for more, too-de-loo-de-loo!