Educating Peter # 13

September 16, 2012

This week Michael has sent me a song I haven’t heard before: “Breaking Away” by American band Balance.

To save you the bother of reading way too much nonsense (see below), I’ll tell you straight away that I sort of liked the song. I liked the main riff in the verses, and one of the vocal tunes. However…

Here’s one of my difficulties with fully appreciating the music of the 1980s: the production. “Breaking Away” is a pretty good example of one reason why there’s an invisible barrier between me and the music of the 80s. The production irritates me.

I will talk about more than the production, but be prepared for a list of annoyances…

Balance – “Breaking Away” (1981)


0:00-0:04 – I’m guessing they’re supposed to be drums, but due to the producer deciding this is the way drums are supposed to sound “now” (i.e., the 1980s) I’m hearing a sound that’s decidedly non-musical. Or putting it another way: Are people making those sounds?

0:00-0:04 (again) – That beat reminds me of another song, but I can’t think of what that other song is. Hmm. (Note to self: Think, Peter, think.)

0:04-0:15 – I like that bass riff. It’s cute, and bouncy, and jaunty – and probably another word I can’t think of at the moment. (Curse this limited vocabulary!) There’s a little piano at 0:11 for a bit of colour. That’s nice. But for what it is (just a couple of piano chords), I think there’s a pointlessly large amount of echo on it. It’s only a piano fill. Why put that much echo on it? It sounds like it was recorded in another room. Excuse me while I shake my fist and say “80s production!”. But at least there isn’t as much echo on the piano here as there was on the piano – and everything else – in the Simple Minds track I talked about last week. (Now there was a band that specialised in echo.)

0:15-0:18 – A distorted electric guitar is playing that bass riff. I like it. I also like the sound of the guitar. I think it’s what power pop fans call “crunchy”.

0:18-0:22 – Whatever is making those sounds in this part of the song, it sure doesn’t sound like musical instruments to me. Or if they were musical instruments, they sure don’t sound like them now. 80s production strikes again.

0:22-0:31 – OK. That’s the intro out of the way. Now we have the verse. Ugh. I’m not liking the sound of the singer at all. His voice is fine, and he’s singing well, but courtesy of the 80s production (grrr) he sounds to me like Lou Gramm singing at the end of an empty swimming pool. Pardon me as I shake my fist again.

0:31-0:33 – I really like the little tune the singer sings here (“You know I’ll be breaking away”). It leads into an unexpected chord (F major). In technical terms, the band just modulated. Modulation is a fancy way of saying “changing key”.

Incidentally, now that I’ve mentioned modulation, I’d like to point out a song that to me is the supreme example of modulation in a pop song: The Beach Boys‘ “God Only Knows“. Thanks to Brian Wilson and his ever-restless mind, this song changes key a dizzying amount of times, but you don’t notice them because all those modulations fit together beautifully:

An example of bad modulation in pop music is Silverchair‘s album, Diorama. The songs modulate all over the place, but none of the modulations fit together. It’s a mess. Van Dyke Parks worked on Diorama and praised its author, Daniel Johns, but I don’t know why.

Here’s an example of what I think is bad, bad modulation:

But back to “Breaking Away”…

0:36-0:53 – Another verse, with an extended instrumental bit at the end (from 0:47-0:53). And the singer sang that nice tune again before the instrumental bit (0:45-0:47). Thank you, singer.

0:53-1:05 – Now it’s the chorus. I must admit that I don’t think this is much of a chorus. Unless I’m missing something, all it consists of is everyone singing “I’m breakin’ away”, followed by a guitar lick, followed by “Oooh”, followed by “I’m breakin’ away”, followed by the guitar lick, followed by “Oooh” etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I think it’s a catchy guitar lick, but really. Can I have a bit more variety in this chorus please?

1:05-1:08 – This sounds like a repeat of 0:18-0:22, but worse. What on Earth are those unearthly sounds? Did a human go anywhere near a musical instrument here?

1:08-1:17 – Another verse. Nothing to see here.

1:17-1:19 – Oh boo. The singer changed the last note of that nice tune.

1:23-1:31 – Another verse. See above.

1:31-1:33 – The singer sang that nice tune with the end note he sang the first two times. Yum.

1:39-1:48 – The chorus again. “I’m breakin’ away”, guitar lick, “Oooh”, “I’m breakin’ away”, guitar lick, “Oooh”…

1:48 – The way the singer sings his elongated “away” here sounds a bit strange to me. He sounds as if he’s straining. I’d rather not say what I think he’s doing whilst singing that “away”. (Let’s just say it involves toilets.)

Oh-oh. They’ve cut the chorus short. I do believe they’re going to put in a middle eight here.

1:51-2:10 – Well that was odd. It is the middle eight, but the band chose a very weird chord to go to for it. It reminds me of the moody parts of Alice Cooper‘s Welcome To My Nightmare.

For this middle eight, the band have kept up those ghastly drums but it sounds to me like it doesn’t belong in this song. If I was guessing here (and I guess I am), I’d guess that someone in the band had written the song but didn’t have a middle eight for it. This would have led to that person asking around: “Hey, does anyone have a middle eight?”. To which a fellow band member would pipe up: “Yep – I’ve got one”. The first songwriter would have then said: “OK, that’ll do. Let’s record.” I’ve just checked and found that the song was written by one guy, Peppy Castro. Now I’m guessing Peppy had a spare middle eight lying around and decided the one he used would do the job. I don’t.

2:10-2:17 – There’s that horrible non-human instrumental drumming bit again. And they doubled the length of it. Grrr².

2:17-2:25 – Another verse. Yes indeed. (I can’t think of anything else to say.)

2:25-2:28 – That nice tune again, but this time everyone sang it. Fabulous.

2:33-3:17 – The chorus again. Oh-oh. Because it’s close to the end of the song, I think they’re going to repeat the chorus. Gulp.

By the way, this chorus started with the singing as before, but this time it was accompanied by some awful synthesizer filigree (with a setting that’d be called something like “Ice Crystals” or “Frozen Landscapes”). I hope that synthesizer sound wasn’t there earlier in the song. If it was, I’m glad I didn’t notice it.

The chorus is being repeated and then it fades out. Fair enough. That’s what most pop songs do. As the chorus was repeated I liked the singer’s interjections. He shouts a “Yeah!” at 2:43, and another one at 2:50, and a James Brown-styled “Hnh!” at 2:53, and a couple of urgent “I!”s (that sound like “Ah!”) at 3:00-3:01. As the song fades he adds a fun “ay-ay-ay-ay-ay” from 3:03-3:05. Why not?

Well, I’ve now heard the song. And although I sort of enjoyed it, I don’t have a huge urge to hear it again.

By the way, Michael told me that the song’s author, Peppy Castro, was also a member of The Blues Magoos who had a hit in 1966 with “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet“. That song featured a riff stolen from Ricky Nelson‘s 1962 hit “Summertime“, and the riff was later used for… How about I point you in the direction of Musical coincidences # 94?