Ten unlikely hit songs that broke the rules

Few songs that break the rules of pop songwriting ever achieve mainstream success. Deviate from the predictable verse/chorus structure in 4/4 time arranged for a basic grouping of guitar/keyboards, bass and drums, and you can pretty much guarantee being marginalized. During a 20-year period from roughly 1965-1985, however – a period that witnessed a flowering of musical creativity and widespread openness to experimentation – it was possible to break the rules and have a hit record. Here are ten unlikely hits from that period.

Good Vibrations – Beach Boys – 1966, #1
Brian Wilson spent six months and an unheard of $50,000 perfecting this pop masterpiece. While it starts out with the usual verse/chorus alternation, it moves into a contrasting section that could be a bridge except that it moves on to something yet different. The music quiets down to a hush – highly unusual for the middle of an uptempo song – before the voices launch back into the chorus. Rather than fade out on the chorus at this point (the standard formula), a completely new section intercedes before the outer space theremin from the chorus returns minus the vocals to lead the fade-out.

White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane – 1967, #8
This quintessential example of pyschedelia is built on an unusual AAB structure. In the first half, the melody follows a folk song pattern: rather than a chorus, the two verses each conclude with a melodic tag. The song then breaks free from this structured section and moves into something that feels more improvisatory. The melody rises higher as the music intensifies and climaxes with the final phrase repeated twice.

Suite Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Stills & Nash – 1969, #21
True to its name, this is a mini-suite of four contrasting sections: ABCD. There are no choruses, only a changing sequence of verses. After slowing in the B section, the rhythm picks up in the C section. The sequence of verses becomes condensed in section D, propelling the music to its climax.

Black Dog – Led Zeppelin – 1969, #15
A song in which the music keeps stopping and starting breaks the rule of continuity, but there is a play between symmetry and asymmetry in the structure of “Black Dog” that is both surprising and satisfying. The structure is: A (verse three times) / B (instrumental) / A (verse two times plus “ah ah” melody) / C (contrasting bridge). Then the entire structure is repeated.

Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey – Paul McCartney & Wings – 1971, #1
Two disparate songs were combined to create this study in contrasts. The opening, slower “Uncle Albert” song is comprised of three verses, two sung and one spoken. The second song, “Admiral Halsey,” by contrast, is uptempo and uses a verse/chorus structure. But McCartney further plays with our expectations by putting the chorus first, and instead of a second verse he goes into a third contrasting section in an even faster tempo (“little little be a gypsy”), before returning to the chorus.

Living in the Past – Jethro Tull – recorded 1969 but released 1972, #11
Money – Pink Floyd – 1973, #13

These two songs used unorthodox time signatures: 5/4 and 7/4 respectively (Apparently the irregular beat did not interfere with general public’s ability to enjoy the music). The clever use of cash register sounds to set the rhythm in “Money” is also an unusual introduction for a song.

Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen – 1975, #2
The blending of a soulful ballad, a rousing rock-out section, and a tongue-in-cheek opera make this virtuosic song an unlikely hit, but it has become one of the most enduring songs of the 20th century. Probably no other popular song has captured the essence of the surreal so well.

O Superman – Laurie Anderson – 1981, #2 (U.K.)
Everything about this song, from its half sung/half spoken lyrics to its vocoder vocals to its minimalist arrangement and rhythmic pulse built from repetitions of the sound “ha” cry out “anti-pop.” Yet its eccentricity was its charm. Groups like Kraftwerk, the B52s and Devo were also having success with eccentric, anti-pop music during this period.

When Doves Cry – Prince – 1984, #1
Prince had to fight hard to stand his ground against Warner executives who could not imagine that a dance song without a bass part could be successful. But the brilliant omission of the bass line heightens the plangent, high register cries of his voice at the end of each chorus. With the minimal arrangement – drums, vocals and simple keyboard motive (augmented by strings in the final chorus) – Prince distills the music into its most basic elements: the percussive rhythm and the expressive lament of the voice.

While many artists continue to write music that isn’t a slave to pop song format, such songs have largely vanished from the hit charts since the mid 1980s. Musically, the public has become much more conventional, shifting its focus from musicality to image and celebrity, which increases the pressure on artists to stick to the formula. Perhaps we’ll someday see a resurgence of mainstream music that isn’t afraid to break the rules.

For additional posts that provide interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.

1 Comment

  1. What a wonderful piece on songs that made it – and most are favorites of mine. Thanks for the bit of music history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.