Freda Payne's Band of Gold album

For my next book I need one song to act as the sort of “national anthem” of a particular nightclub in the 1980s. Or in fact, of almost any 1980s nightclub. I was thinking: Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”? Perfect.

Even if it does have a cameo role in the book, it would be fleeting. Yet I’ve been thinking way too much about “Band of Gold” lately. Trying to dismantle it brick by brick, then putting it back together again, to see what makes it tick. Destructive little bugger, amn’t I?

It’s a “story song”, and what a mysterious story lies beneath. But what hits you first is never the words, the lyrics, the story. No, it’s the rhythm, the gloriously infectious tune. Though the song is built on relatively simple, sturdy building blocks, I keep finding more and more layers of sophisticated complexity.

OK, cue the music, all aboard the Soul Train (and try not to get too distracted by the fashions and dancing styles of the time)…

It all begins with the drums. After a quick shuffle or roll*, the beat becomes unmistakably late Motown.

(* Shuffle? Roll? Paradiddle? I don’t know the technical term. To me it’s like a pair of heavy Le Creuset casserole dishes both containing a thick ragout collumping onto your kitchen floor at almost exactly the same time, just before the main beat; I may do ragout but I don’t do drums.)

It’s a steady beat, pre-disco, almost like a marching band; were you to listen to the drums on their own for more than a few seconds they might even come across as too crude, oversimplified. Yet much the same simple beat anchored most of – say – the Supremes’ hits by the very same writing partnership of Holland-Dozier-Holland for an entire decade before they wrote this, so why knock it if it works?

On top of the drums is a looping, lolloping bass line. It weaves in and out of that simple beat, to become the foundation of an unforgettable six-note riff that is already enticing half the club onto the empty dance-floor as we speak. As riffs go, this one rocks. It’s approximately 436% better than “Smoke on the Water”.

The Funk Brothers and the riff

You need to know something about the rhythm section: Uriel Jones on drums, Bob Babbitt on bass. For this particular session these lads are on a nixer. Normally they’re part of Motown’s in-house studio band, the Funk Brothers. Between them they have played on more number-one hits than the Beatles, Stones, Elvis AND the Beach Boys put together.

We’ll come to why these two top session men are moonlighting in a minute, but back to their funky six-note riff. After it’s played twice on just bass and drums, it’s repeated a further two times, this time with a shedload of guitars added, all several octaves above the bass line. The lead guitar is another Funk Brother, Dennis Coffey, and the others include a teenage Ray Parker Jr (of later Ghostbusters fame). There may be a piano in there too.

Now anyone who has heard the Kilfenora Céilí Band in full flight will know that something powerful and magical happens when a large amount of instruments are playing exactly the same perfect riff in perfect unison. And – sugar – nearly forgot to mention the shaggin’ sitar…

The sitar

The guitars are joined on the riff by the distinctive electric sitar of another eminent studio musician, Vinnie Bell from New York.

Vinnie invented the electric sitar and (his Wikipedia entry says) the first electric 12-string guitar. Seems Vinnie’s electric sitar was everywhere in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Nowadays they’d probably have an effects pedal box yoke to do all that (reminder to self: must ask the Edge).

The blue notes

Meanwhile back at the track. The song is building up into a veritable wall of sound, and we’re still only on the riff before the first verse. Vinnie’s droning sitar further fills out the sound – it’s relatively subdued, more a tasteful colouring than the psychedelic mush so common at the time.

Freda Payne’s vocals cut in three notes from the end of the final riff. When the verse comes along the bass will switch to highly melodic runs that almost directly echo her vocal lines.

Besides the lead vocal, the verses will also have some relatively simple strings – again with strong echoes of the main vocal lines – and some soulful backing harmonies that provide a superb counterpoint (they are almost too far back in the mix, so quite hard to catch). Oh, and someone is shimmering a tambourine between the beats. But let’s stay with the main riff for one more moment.

While the song is in G major, the final note in the six-note riff veers into a minor. It’s a blue note. And a blue note means a worried note. It adds ambiguities, anxieties, sadness. And I haven’t even come to what the song is about yet, or what Freda Payne is doing in all this.

The vocals

At the time Payne used to be more of a jazz artist (and went back to jazz later in her career). She has a powerful voice. Yet despite her stunning performance here, there’s a certain fragility. Perhaps they’ve pushed her into a higher key than usual. Maybe she underhits (or occasionally even overhits) a few notes ever so slightly.

(You were allowed to do that back then, before that damned pesky “pitch correction” software came along, back in an era when the tiniest of imperfections were not only tolerated but sometimes even encouraged. When you’d shove a young John Lennon or a very very very young Michael Jackson into the recording booth to belt out “Money” or “I Want You Back” or “Twist and Shout” with a throat as rough and sore as sandpaper, doing “wrong” notes that turned out to be perfectly right in the end.

Anyway. I digress.)

Like I said, it’s a stunning performance. But what exactly is the underlying musical structure of the song? What are the basic building blocks of “Band of Gold”?

Warning: if you study music theory, if you are in a royal conservatoire, please look away now. Because what follows is an unashamedly amateur explanation of poppy and rocky stuff, with a bare minimum of jargon and technical terms…

Verse, chorus, refrain, bridge

Many pop songs are built on a structure of verses, interspersed with a chorus and/or refrain or two.

Let’s define a chorus as an independent section in its own right, such as the repeated “We all live in…” bits in “Yellow Submarine”.

A refrain is repeated too, but unlike a full-blown chorus it’s more of a fragment, a recurring line within a verse that uses the same melody and lyrics each time. Think of the “answer my friend” lines in “Blowing In The Wind”: a refrain rather than a chorus.

Some pop songs also have a bridge such as a “middle eight”. In theory this can be used to break up the repetitive pattern, add contrast with a significantly different melody (and possibly go off in a different lyrical direction too), and ratchet up the energy levels. In practice it’s often just a lazy way to glue together two bits of a song that won’t quite fit together, or it’s a bad distraction that doesn’t work.

(An example of a great bridge, again from the Beatles, is in “We Can Work It Out”. In the bridge the song switches from major to minor – and, some say, from optimism to pessimism – as John Lennon takes the lead vocal for the lines “Life is very short and there’s no ti-i-i-i-ime / For fussing and fighting, my friend…” George Harrison also came up with the smart idea of switching to 3/4 time, to suggest a tiresome struggle with the tax authorities or with your partner in a German waltz or whatever.)

But back to verses and choruses. Occasionally, instead of having the one chorus repeated again and again between a series of verses, a song might appear to have about eight different choruses (“Bohemian Rhapsody” anybody?); or almost every line acts as a hook (Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”?).

Sometimes, though, a pop song has no chorus whatsoever. At first glance (first listen?) you might think it has, but when you try to pin it down it’s never there. Take “Something” by George Harrison. It does have a short refrain at the end of each verse (“I don’t want to leave her now…”), but no chorus proper. Its structure goes:

Verse #1
Verse  #2
Bridge (“You’re asking me will my love grow…”)
Verse #3

Other genres avoid choruses and refrains altogether. Some hip-hop purists frown on them, and classical music has many no-chorus examples too. Perhaps that’s why many of Schubert’s Lieder are so alien and unfathomable to a modern pop audience – songs that are linear, non-repetitive, with very different music for each stanza, so very un X Factor as it were.

“Band of Gold” has an intensely circular structure, and no chorus. Initially I assumed it did have one, but like George Harrison’s “Something” it doesn’t. If it did, I wouldn’t have a clue where the verse began and chorus ended. I was almost tempted to label some subsections of the song as a hybrid thing – as “cherses” or, better still, “voruses”. But they really are verses, with a refrain of sorts that’s only sprinkled into the first and fourth verses: those repeated “…a band of gold” references.

Like, say, Harrison’s “Something” or REM’s “Losing My Religion” (with its refrain of “I’ve said too much/I haven’t said enough”), “Band of Gold” has no chorus proper. In fact this is its underlying structure:

Main riff
Verse #1
Verse #2
Verse #3
Verse #4 (at first glance, essentially Verse #1 with a few minor word changes)
Vinnie’s sitar solo (built on the first four of the six lines of the verse)
Main riff again
Verse #3
Verse #4
(Repeat and fade out on Verse #4)

Now, call me a musical trainspotter, but there are one or two subtle but ever so clever differences in Freda Payne’s vocal line from verse to verse, such as a moment at the very end of Verse #4: instead of repeating the same melody on lines five and six, she reaches higher notes at the very end of the sixth, on the words “here with me”. This acts as a sort of musical punctuation mark to usher in the solo.

You might think the main riff occurs four or five times throughout in the song, but believe it or not it appears only twice: at the start of the song and more than half-way through, after the sitar solo. In the latter it cuts in early, after the fourth line of what would otherwise be a verse (instead of at the end of the sixth and usual final line).

For this second appearance of the riff, though, unlike the beginning of the song where it’s more staggered, the guitars all come in right away with the bass and drums. So to introduce a bit of dramatic tension, Freda Payne comes in and holds a note over the riff from the second set of six notes onwards. It’s simple yet highly effective: a sort of “Donna Summer Moment” as it were.

I don’t know why, but a chorus-free structure seems to suit story songs. I’m thinking of the likes of “Up the Junction” by Squeeze, or Weill and Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”, or even Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May”. “Band of Gold” has more than enough other musical tensions going on within and between the verses and riffs without any need for a chorus or bridge. And then there are chorus-only songs (such as The La’s “There She Goes” – a chorus four times plus a bit of a bridge), but that’s another story…

The lyrics

Yet I still haven’t answered the question. What exactly is “Band of Gold” about?

(And quiet at the back of the class. We’ll have none of your smart-arse answers – e.g. “It’s ABOUT two minutes and fifty-three seconds of achingly sublime Detroit pop”.)

The song was co-written by four young men: the legendary songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland shortly after they’d left Motown (they had to use the name Edythe Wayne on the song credits because of an ongoing legal row with Motown’s Berry Gordy over money and contracts) and Ron Dunbar, a staff employee and producer at their new Invictus label. Hence the Funk Brothers being on nixers.

Lyrically, the story begins with its very end: “Now that you’re gone, all that’s left is a band of gold…”. Then Verse #2 gives a flashback to the couple’s courtship and wedding day, and how “that night on our honeymoon, we stayed in separate rooms”.

We seem to have been transported to a noir zone, or a moment in an Edward Hopper painting. The story is told from a young woman’s point of view. Seems he has walked out on her, and she’s waiting / hoping for him to come back, and all that’s left (for her at least) is that band of gold, her wedding ring and a short refrain. But among the anger and regret and slithers of hope, why did the cad walk out on her?

As Freda Payne explained to the Guardian last year:

When I first heard ‘Band of Gold’, I was in my 20s and thought it was written for a teenager to sing, a 16-year old who’s just got married too young. My reading was that she was frigid or scared and didn’t know what to do in the bedroom, but Ron Dunbar said: ‘You don’t have to like it – just sing it!’

Yet despite this explanation, that’s not quite the song we hear, is it? In fact a common reading (some would say misreading in the sense of it completely missing what the writers originally had in mind) is that either (a) the husband is gay or (b) he has, um, some kind of “reptile dysfunction” (better use this coded phrase to make sure this post doesn’t get banned). No reptiles, no consummation of marriage, hence separate beds, separate rooms, lots of gloom.

The cuts and edits

If this were a court of law and the song itself were in the dock, everything would probably hinge on the reference to how she wants him to “love me like you tried before”. The implication being that it is not the wife but the husband who is, in Freda Payne’s words, frigid or scared, m’lud.

At this point My Learned Friend would interject: the meaning of the song was changed, changed utterly, because of something that happened in the studio in Detroit after it was originally written, m’lud. The single was too long, it had to be cut by 50 seconds, and various other alterations also had to be made.

At this point I will call on Exhibit #6, m’lud, the documentary Band of Gold – The Invictus Story, in which the aforementioned Mr Dunbar explains that the lines “And the memories of what love could be, if you were still here with me” in Verse #1 were a late replacement for “And the memories of our wedding day, and the night I turned you away”.

They also had to dump a longer bridge that was repeated several times in the song. It goes: “Each night, I lie awake and I tell myself, the vows we made gave you the right, to have a love each night.”

I much prefer the finished track, with all its ambiguities, even if it may appear to make the husband the villain of the piece (or even a victim in straight society). Without the cuts the song would have been longer, obviously, it would also have a very different story and meaning, and it would also have that flaming silly bridge: a musically unnecessary and weak part of the structure under which the whole weight of the song would have collapsed.

They did well to get shut of that bridge. In fact, you could say that one way and another the whole song is about burning bridges.

Ah well, let’s give it one more blast. And a happy birthday to Ms Payne, who was a sprightly 74 earlier this week…