Key Changes

(Pictured: Cornelius Brothers—Carter and Eddie—and Sister Rose, who were pretty great for a very short time. Also pictured: sister Billie Jo, who joined in 1972.)

A few years ago, I discovered a site (which no longer exists) called the Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame, which catalogued instances of what it called the “utterly appalling and unimaginative admission that you’ve run out of inspiration and the song should have ended one minute ago; but you’re under pressure to make something which can be stretched out to the length of a single.”

Obviously, not everyone digs key changes. There’s no denying they have been cheapened in the last few years by TV singing competitions, where wannabe stars try to dazzle the judges and provide a simulacrum of emotion by cranking it up a notch. But in the 1970s, a well-placed key change could turn a good record into a great one. And on the American Top 40 show from October 7, 1972, several of the most pleasing key changes of the 1970s were stuffed into the same half-hour.

(All hyperlinks go directly to the key changes I’m discussing.)

26. “Don’t Ever Be Lonely”/Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. You likely remember only two of this quartet’s five Hot 100 hits (“Treat Her Like a Lady” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now”). If you remember a third one, this is probably it. The Mrs., an experienced singer and musician, heard the key change and said, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.”

25. “Starting All Over Again”/Mel and Tim. This is some grade-A Muscle Shoals soul that not only features a glorious key change, but starts with Mel and Tim talking about how hard it is to make up with a woman before they start singing about it. (Like key changes, spoken interludes could be another hallmark of 70s awesomeness, although this one goes on a bit too long.) Hall and Oates covered “Starting All Over Again” in 1990, and it was a perfect fit. Wonder why it took them so long.

22. “Beautiful Sunday”/Daniel Boone. This is most likely what the erstwhile proprietor of the Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame had in mind—the key change really does feel like somebody slamming a manual transmission into a higher gear—but if your taste for Top 40 cheese is anything like mine, you won’t care one bit.

On the flip, some other key changes I have dug.

On “Already Gone,” the Eagles change keys at full speed on their way to the fadeout. It’s one of my favorite moments in their entire catalog. Bon Jovi does the same thing in “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and it’s pretty cool too, but there seems to be a beat missing, as if they accomplished it by splicing tape and not by playing it live. Which would be a very Bon Jovi thing to do.

Most big key changes come toward the end of the song. Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” puts it near the beginning, at the start of the vocal. And most key changes go up, but on Conway Twitty’s early 80s country hit, “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” he goes down, repeatedly. Given the subject matter of the song, that’s almost certainly what he has in mind anyhow.

We discussed this topic back in 2008 (and I rebooted some of that post for this one), but if anybody amongst the readership has joined the party since then, or would like to weigh in with some favorite (or least-favorite) key changes, go for it.

One More Thing: The 10/7/72 AT40 contains a remarkable number of songs that remained in the radio pantheon for decades thereafter and a few that are still there: “Back Stabbers,” “Go All the Way,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Listen to the Music,” “Witchy Woman,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “I’ll Be Around” among them. At least one other should have endured better than it has: Danny O’Keefe’s shattering “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” If you don’t get it, you will. As was said in another context, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.

9 responses

  1. You are so right about “Good Time Charlie…,” a classic heartbreaker. My O’Keefe lives on the same tiny island in Washington I do but I have yet to run into him. Dwight Yoakam did a respectable cover too.

  2. One song that really bounces around (to the point of being a little on the distracting side) is “I Walk The Line,” which has, I think, a key change before every verse.

    Doesn’t “She’s Gone,” by Hall & Oates, have a monstrous key change at the end that’s milked for all possible dramatic potential?

  3. Johnny Cash’s “5 Feet High & Risin'” changes key at every verse also…

  4. This is a *great* blog post – it’s what all bloggers (on any topic) should aspire to.

    It teaches me things I didn’t know before, it made me think about things from my own past (thinking of great key changes in songs I enjoy), made me go look for another website (the Gear Change Hall of Shame is available on archive.org), and it made me post a comment in response.

    Well struck, sir…

    1. Kind of you to say, sir. Thanks for reading.

  5. Yes to “Good Time Charlie,” gets me every time.

    Just finished a great book, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé” by Bob Stanley (full disclosure: I didn’t make it to the Beyonce part). He mentions the Four Seasons’ “Opus 17 aka Don’t You Worry About Me” as having six or seven key changes.

    Related to your recent post about Cory Wells, Three Dog Night did a ridiculous “Celebrate” on the Soundstage TV show in ’75 that just keeps on modulating, higher and higher, you wonder where it will end. I watch it about every six months just to lift my spirits.

    On the instrumental side, there are two key changes that get me every time, Gene Vincent’s “Race with the Devil,” where the great Cliff Gallup takes his guitar solo from the key of E up to F and B.B. King on the “Live at the Regal” version of “It’s My Own Fault,” the audience is just about in a fever pitch anyway and the modulation ups the ante.

    One last thing, Tommy Roe was very inventive with his songwriting. His “Everybody” starts with the chorus in the key of E, modulates up to F for the verse and then goes back down to E. Very cool. And his (and Freddy Weller’s) “Dizzy” is a marvel. Wikipedia says: “The song has eleven key changes total between a total of four keys. One key is used for the verses, while the choruses get three keys. The key used for the verses is the lowest, while the choruses start off in a higher key, quickly increases to an even higher key, then increases yet again.”

  6. “Layla” bounces around. In the transcription I use, the opening guitar riff/chorus is in D minor and the verse is in C# minor, while Jim Gordon’s piano coda is in C.

  7. I read a pop single review blog where the author HATED key changes. I’d never given them much thought before, but I decided I like them. A favorite is in Helen Reddy’s Emotion.

  8. Down So Low by Tracy Nelson goes up a minor third after each verse. A to C to E flat. It’s organic; the melody somehow resolves there. Add a verse and you’d add another key. Very very cool.

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