Friday, 8 October 2010

Neneh Cherry - Manchild

Quite out of the blue, I have been drawn to thinking about the song ‘Manchild’ from two differing sources. One; a review of Neneh Cherry’s 1989 debut, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ by Aussie commentators YourZenMine and two; a comment made by the compiler of the chords to ‘Manchild’ on a well known music tabs website which asks, ‘Is this the most discordant song ever written?’

I’ve always liked ‘Manchild’ and it is still, for me, one of the stand-out tracks on the ‘Raw Like Sushi’ album. One of its major features is its unusual chord progression which flits across keys like a butterfly in a flower shop. In theory a musical key comprises a set of chords based on the notes of its scale, a bit like a paint palette using set colours of a chosen theme (say, browns and oranges for an autumnal setting). Normally, a song would move between these related chords giving a smooth comfortable ride. ‘Manchild’ is the equivalent of introducing splashes of primary blue or red from an unrelated palette where it is least expected and upsetting the normal order of things.

For example, the song is nominally in the key of C♯ major, but even in the first line of the verse we are wrenched onto a chord of E major – a chord having no business at all squatting in the home key of C♯ major - before lurching drunkenly onto the dominant chord of G♯ major. Then it gets worse as the next phrase starts on F major (not the ‘correct’ F minor), briefly redeems itself by rising to F♯ major before rushing off recklessly to C and then E major again prior to ending the verse on a chord of D major – an agonising half-tone from where it started on C♯.

And so it goes on whilst the melody struggles manfully to hang on during the rollercoaster twists and turns of the quirky harmony. It’s thrilling stuff, but it is not discordant in that the chords themselves have no internal dissonance, but it is unusual in the way that it dives in and out of unrelated keys yet manages to hold itself together without alienating the listener.

The overall effect of all this is to make the ambience of the song a little ‘unsafe’ and challenging for the listener who has to constantly readjust their assessment of where the melody is going as it is buffeted away from its safe harbour notes by the underlying harmony. This is what music should do, in my opinion, it should surprise and reassure in equal quantities and this song does just that.

But then Neneh Cherry has always been a pusher of envelopes. She famously appeared on TOTP to perform ‘Buffalo Stance’ whilst 8 months pregnant and in the video for 'Manchild' she holds a teeny tiny baby, presumably her own. Is this baby the youngest person ever to appear in a pop video? I think we should be told.

What we already know is that ‘Manchild’ could well be one of the most ‘discordant’ songs ever written and it’s all the better for it. Whether it is Rock ‘n’ Roll is another question altogether.

YouTube won't let me embed the video here so you'll have to go here to see it and just listen to how those chords lurch around like a ship in a storm.


luminous muse said...

You made my day! There is hope for pop music with harmonic interest after all. Something I mostly despair of since the era of Wilson, Mitchell, Bachrarach, Arthur Lee and yes, John and Paul (there's a hint of that very thing you write about right in "I Want to Hold Your Hand".)

Enjoyed your writing about it too, and the "manfully" pun.

music obsessive said...

Hi Luminous. S glad you liked it - I'm always in the business of making days :)

I know exactly what you mean about 'I want to Hold Your Hand' and I just love music that has technical 'surprises' especially by judicious use of the semitone. If only all muisc was like this.

Adam Cort said...

The bizarre chord structure has always been one of the things I found so mesmerising of this track, since its release to this day.

Great blog BTW :-)

music obsessive said...

Hi Adam - thanks for commenting. Quite by chance I heard 'Manchild' on the dreaded Moyles programme this morning and it has lost none of its freshness. A wonderful piece of music.

And thanks for your kind words re my blog. Its the kind of interest that keeps me going.

Kit Courteney said...

Saw this in This Week's Most Popular Posts, over there >>

Blast from the past. Wonderful!

I could listen to this over and over again... In heavy doses :)

music obsessive said...

Kit - Yes, me too. It's like the air that you breath...etc.

This and 'Seven Seconds' are all you need to know about Neneh Cherry.

Amy Holley said...

Love this song! Every beat and cord and hook of this song draws me in! It has a beautiful yet haunting aura about it! And the lyrics i relate to on many levels! Nenah god bless her, iz one of my fav all time artists, and i support my gurl in whatever she does! She is so very talented, and has much to offer us all! Nenah thank you for your many talents gurl, and may god bless you and your family! From one of your biggest fans in the usa, alabama to be exact! :) ❤ ya! :)

music obsessive said...

Hi Amy. Couldn't have put it better myself!

Pascal Bruttin said...

I'm just rediscovering this song.. thanks to "Nostalgie" radio.. I loved it when I was a teenager and it still hypnotize me today...
I sat on ma piano and.. discovered the sequence of keys.. ohhh yes, I found them after a while! Soooo excited..
I especially love the background sounds adding small effects to the "grave" strings.
And.. you know the best? I was sure I would find a page describing this song.. I was sure because it's addictive.. and it was not only for me.. ;)
Thanks for your review.