As my pop piece, I have selected the classic Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley. I define this as a popular song because it charted at number 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 Charts (All Music, 2014) and the UK Singles Chart (Official Charts, 2014). The song is set at about 150bpm. Seven seconds into the song (having already laid the foundations of the track with Scotty Moore’s memorable riff), Elvis begins to sing the verse lyrics over the same intro Riff in a tenor/countertenor. At 18 seconds the song has already stepped into the chorus section, which delivers a short 12 bar blues turnaround in the same key but away from the initial riff.
At 30 seconds it repeats the verse and chorus. At 57 seconds it repeats the verse and chorus again. After the 3rd chorus we reach the guitar solo, which is played over a short 3-chord turnaround and then flies straight into the 4th verse and chorus. We then have a 5th verse and chorus. The chorus is repeated along with the ‘Jailhouse rock’ refrain until the song is faded out to its conclusion.
The song essentially follows a verse-chorus structure with a guitar break two-thirds through. So we’d say its in an ABABABCABAB format. This is easy on the listener’s ear and allows the chorus to stay fresh in the mind at all times, creating a memorable refrain. The song lasts for 2:35 seconds but manages to fit 5 verses and choruses, as well as a solo. This keeps the listener’s attention. The contrasting rhythmic elements of the beat between the verse and the chorus give it a great dynamic.
It’s constantly up and down, creating a wonderful tension throughout. Elvis’ melodic contour is of the same register throughout, in a pentatonic blues style, which adds more contrast and colour to the track. The lyrics invite listeners to dance and have a good time no matter how bad things get. For example, the fourth verse (Lieber/Stoller, 1956) says:The sad sack was a sittin’ on a block of stone, Way over in the corner weepin’ all alone, The warden said, hey, buddy, don’t you be no square, If you cant find a partner use a wooden chair. ’ These lyrics suggest that even if you’re all alone in a jail cell, you can always dance with the wooden chair you’re sitting on! It has been suggested that Jailhouse Rock has homosexual undertones. Lyrics say “You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see” (Lieber/Stoller, 1956) and as Cracked points out, “Last time we checked, prison wasn’t co-ed” (2011).
But for me it’s just a clever way of getting people to dance-anything goes when the music rolls. In contrast, I’d like to talk about a song called Legalize It by Peter Tosh. Peter Tosh was the lead guitarist in Bob Marley’s Wailers before going solo and releasing this self-titled album in 1976 (Independent, 2013). The track is in a traditional reggae rhythm of 72bpm in a 4/4 time that allows for the offbeat to create the reggae feel. The Guitar chords are F#-E repeated on the offbeat locking with the drums to create a really tight groovy rhythm. The bass riff is bang on with the first two beats of the bar locking in with the bass drum which is also placed at the first two beats of the bar.
This is a classic example of a rhythm section being totally locked in to again, create that rock steady/reggae rhythm. The track doesn’t have many dynamics apart from the introduction leading into the song. It is then broken up with drum fills and a couple of guitar licks around the chords. The vocal contour is of a similar nature throughout both the verse and the chorus refrain of “Legalize It.
The structure is constant but the lyrics represent an ABABBABAB format with the verse repeated twice after the first chorus. Unlike “Jailhouse Rock”, this track does not jump from verse to chorus at the same pace but does have a verse-chorus structure. Both the chorus and verse of Legalize It are based over the two chords mentioned above (F#-E), whereas Jailhouse Rock uses a separate chord structure for both its verse and chorus. Legalize It simply alternates between the verse and chorus lyrics creating a hypnotic feel or ‘stoned’ feel. This perfectly suits the lyrics, which are a clear message to the legalization of marijuana, and the freedom and spiritualization of the Rastafarian race.
Pop Matters notes that “Tosh believed deeply in his cause; it was part of his spiritual life as a devotee to Rastafari and he fought for it. Tosh had run in’s with officials where he blew smoke in their faces. To him, marijuana was righteous and this record wasn’t some childish call to get high-it was a vital shout for religious freedom” (2011). Legalize It is a brilliant example of how music can be used to emphasize lyrics and vise-versa. Elvis made his name as a hip-shaking, gyrating, rebel rousing pop musician in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Peter Tosh was just as rebellious, albeit with a different message.
Taken together, we have two very passionate vocalists with the power to send a message through music to the masses. Although the songs use different styles, they have a common ground and that is the message that comes with the music. The ability to deliver an inspiring message to the masses is a powerful gift used by monarchs, governments and songwriters to this day.
Lyrics to Jailhouse Rock (1957) Jerry Lieber and MikeStollerAll Music (2014) All Music – Elvis Presley – Awards. Available at: http://www.
allmusic. com/artist/elvis-presley-mn0000180228/awards (Accessed: 28 February 2014). British Broadcasting Corporation (2008) BBC – About the BBC. Available at: http://www. bbc.
co. uk/info/purpose/ (Accessed: 19 February 2008). Cracked (2011) Cracked – The Top 6 Most Misunderstood Pop Songs Of All Time. Available at: http://www. cracked.
com/funny-6453-the-top-6-most-misunderstood-pop-songs-all-time/ (Accessed: 28 February 2014). Independent (2013) Independent – Move over Bob Marley: Peter Tosh is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Available at: http://www. independent. co.
uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/move-over-bob-marley-peter-tosh-is-finally-getting-the-recognition-he-deserves-8914028. html (Accessed: 28 February 2014). Official Charts (2014) Official Charts – Elvis Presley. Available at: http://www.
officialcharts. com/artist/_/elvis presley (Accessed: 28 February 2014). PopMatters (2011) PopMatters – Peter Tosh: Legalize It/Equal Rights. Available at: http://www.popmatters.com/review/143907-peter-tosh-legalize-it-legacy-edition-equal-rights-legacy-edition/ (Accessed: 28 February 2014).