“Street Fighting Man”
Keith Richards had discovered the magical 6/4 chord, the band was peaking and a classic song was created.
Here’s a problem I never had. Where do you go after you arrive at adulthood (and fame) very early? The Beatles, through hard work and countless six-set nights in Hamburg, reached artistic maturity when most others were still struggling to tune their instruments. They had put in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about as a necessary step to greatness.
Further down the island, a rougher bunch called The Rolling Stones was listening to a lot of American Blues and R&B, still unable to lift it outright. There were tuning problems, for sure, and a maraca shaker with a limited instrument who had yet to add his oversize persona and talent for provocation to the mix. This group, too, would change the course of rock and roll, but it would take a very different path to get there.
When the Beatles broke through, they were A students in American music. Not only did they know more about it than a majority of folks in the land where it originated, they were damn close to stealing songs from greats like The Isley Brothers and Smokey Robinson, to name two. “Twist And Shout” with John Lennon shredding his vocal chords is as viscerally exciting as rock music gets. Paul McCartney did a more-than-passable Little Richard, hiding his pie-eyed, Liverpool sweetness behind an insane banshee wail.
Then they started writing. Everything from Chuck Berry to Buddy Holly, with a whole heap of Everly Brothers harmony went into their artistic blender. Along with a dollop of Tin Pan Alley (Paul’s dad was a bandleader and McCartney and Lennon were born 15 years before rock and roll) and a dash of girl group, the mix was golden, seemingly never-ending and of course, Beatlesque.
Their career as a band called The Beatles was brief — six years and you could argue, front loaded with quality. That’s not the conventional take on their development, but it seems to me there is an arc that bulges in the middle with a trailing off into a bit of indulgence toward the end. Is it a coincidence that heavier drugs entered the picture towards the end or their run? I think not.
Not that the Beatles ever did bad work, but their late works, while entertaining and daring, have an emphasis on studio trickery and some artistic gobbledy gook best appreciated after dropping a tab or two. Revolution #9 might be the inverted pinnacle. While it’s hard not to like these trippy bits, the scrappy bar band that could do it all with two guitars, drums and bass will always interest me more. When they retired from the road, with the screaming fans drowning them out and entered an era of studio masterpieces, they were inevitably on the road to some kind of excess. If we are going to allow anyone to indulge, I guess it should be them. But unfortunately, the rest of the world was looking up to them and within a year of Sergeant Pepper, there were hundreds of psychedelic “masterpieces.” One of the funniest, maybe unintentionally, was Her Satanic Majesty’s Request” by the Stones.
The Stones were into drugs, they almost had to be, by definition. But they found stronger medicine around this time — the 6/4/chord. History should note that around this time, the Stones jammed with Ry Cooder, the masterful slide player and savvy purveyor of every American roots style ever known. Cooder was using open tunings and influenced the course of the world when he showed Keith Richards one called open G. He would later complain of being ripped off by Richards. How much of this is true, I don’t know. I do know that from that point forward, the most important songs in the Stones’ catalogue sauntered out of Keith’s imagination in an unstoppable parade of greatness.
What is it about open tunings, the ones used by blues greats like Muddy Waters and hall of famer Bo Diddly? I can think of at least two things that make them the very useful tools of creation they are. The first is ease of use. Just place your finger straight across the fretboard at any position and you have a new chord. This makes it easy to get up and down the neck and move from one chord to the other. It results in a kind of instant facility giving you the ability to actually surprise yourself. The second revelation is when you discover that, by moving a finger or two, you can create the ultimate mystery chord — the six-four. I learned its proper name when I studied tonal harmony, but I was already under its sway. It’s a bad-ass, earth-shaking, tense son-of-gun. Two chords in one really — a four chord super imposed over a one, and it has informed some of the most majestic and stirring songs you ever had stuck in your head for years at a time.
The first chord in the chorus of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band is a six-four, a C major over a G bass note. The intro of God Only Knows by The Beach Boys features four of them! Brian Wilson was addicted to this chord and used it everywhere. That should tell you that it’s not just a blues thing. It has a strange magic, a feeling of power really and a tension to it that tells you it’s got to change – and when it doesn’t, it gets even more tense! As we all know, music without tension is like food without spice.
Producer Jimmy Miller entered the picture for Beggar’s Banquet, a record that marks a quantum leap for The Stones. In 1968, the Summer of Love had turned pop culture into a giant day-glo bowl of Jello. A little bit of this went a long way and it was soon time for a return to basics. A cleansing of the palette was provided by this album and, a little later, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Miller was a drummer first and famous for his distinctive sound. Working with Charlie Watts and the sometime overlooked Bill Wyman, he had a rhythm section to beat all. The timing was perfect — Keith Richards was on a hot streak and Mick Jagger had blossomed into the preening, snarling model of a rock star, tossing nasty lyrics like fireworks into the flammable soup they were making. The Stones were reborn and heading into a golden age that rivals and, some would argue, surpasses The Beatles. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m awfully grateful Keith learned that six-four chord when he did.
Listen to Street Fighting Man and marvel at a rock group at its peak. Not only is the chord we spoke of all over this song, there is NO ELECTRIC GUITAR! Keith recorded his Gibson Hummingbird into an early Phillips cassette recorder and transferred it in the studio. It was part of his quest for sonic nirvana and it worked like a charm.
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