Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"What's Shakin' On The Hill" /
Nick Lowe


Ah, Nick Lowe . . . one of the great musical loves of my life.

Much is made of Nick Lowe's comeback "trilogy" (they've actually been repackaged as a box set called The Brentford Trilogy), which includes The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2004). But in my humble opinion, the comeback really began with 1989's Party of One, where he first began to move into the more subtle, wry, laidback groove that's been his territory ever since.

It's hard for me to believe that "What's Shakin' On the Hill" was written 20 years ago. Nick still sings it in concert (along with the priceless "All Men Are Liars," also from this album), and it doesn't sound one bit dated -- although truth to tell it never sounded like an 80s song to begin with. That simple opening riff -- a series of descending thirds, falling lazily just behind the beat -- eases us into the song like a stroll down a country road.

He invites us into a pastoral scene -- "There's a cool wind blowin' in the sound of happy people" (that internal rhyme of "wind" and "blowin' in" swings us along). Curious, we move toward that sound, already picturing the venue: "At a party given for the gay and debonair." He adds more details, in shorter scraps of lines: "There's an organ blowing in the breeze / For the dancers hid behind the trees" -- just offstage, so tantalizing. But then comes the cruel reality, as the last two lines descend with a sort of sigh, resolving the melody: "And I ain't never gonna see / What's shakin' on the hill."

So why not? I'm dying to know. He's brought us so close, only to snatch it away. In verse two he explains himself, ruefully: "That I someday may be joining in / Is just wishful thinking / Cause admission's only guaranteed / To favored few." And Nick, apparently -- in his classic role as the wistful loser -- isn't on that guest list.

In the bridge, he owns up to the truth: "I'm too blue to be played with / And I get heartaches / So they tell me, 'No dice'." (The casual cruelty of that "no dice" -- what a slap in the face!) If he were younger, he might blame a girl, but he's old enough by now to admit it's his own melancholy temperament at fault. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) Like Ray Davies in "Waterloo Sunset," he's forever on the outside, a mere observer of life.

With a defensive shrug, he notes, "It isn't allowed / In that carefree crowd / To be seen with tears in your eyes." Well, as soon as Nick tells me that, I realize I don't want to be with that carefree crowd either. Bunch of shallow hedonists. The "gay and debonair" -- HA! No, I want to be outside with Nick, "Kicking cans 'round / While that happy sound / Keeps cracking on." That image of the lonely kid kicking cans around -- how that wrings my heart.

But self-pity's not on the agenda tonight. Stuck outside in the shadows, he confesses, "Though I long so strong to be inside / With the blues is where I do reside," letting the melody crest upwards on "where I do reside." And after the instrumental break and one last go of the chorus, he peters out, muttering "what's shakin'" over and over. He can't quite tear himself away, no matter how resigned he is to his fate.

He doesn't need a lot of details to conjure up the scene -- golden lights gleaming through the trees, shadows pooled around parked cars, an empty roadway gleaming pale in the moonlight. The far-off clink of glasses and ripples of disembodied laughter. And somehow, we know that it's not just a party he's missing -- that hill could represent social acceptance, career success, critical acclaim, domestic happiness, religious faith, whatever.

What kills me is the light touch of this song -- the liting jazzy tempo, the major key, the skipalong melody. (It's really at its best sung solo and acoustic.) He's not slamming against that barred door, nor curdled with bitterness, nor drowning in woe. He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret. It's goddamn Keatsian, that's what it is, delicately maintaining a fragile equipoise between love and loss, between sorrow and acceptance, between now and then and someday.

Or maybe it's just a pop song, you daft fangirl you. Well, that too.


Brady said...

Great song. I love your blog posts.

Anonymous said...

Never commented on a blog before in my life. But I sure enjoy yours, Holly, and this time you've hit on a song that has stayed with me since I first heard it a few years back when I picked up the "Quiet Please..." compilation. I always pictured the singer as someone who recently entered a 12-step program. He's strolling past a raucous pub or party, knowing that he can't go in. "Though I long so strong to be inside." Party of One, indeed!

Holly A Hughes said...

Great point, as I believe this was about the time that Nick went sober. In that respect, it's kinda like the John Hiatt tune, "The Tiki Bar Is Open." (Another of my all-time favorites.) But I also like how Nick universalizes it. He catches a very particular mood -- a certain slant of light, almost -- that's wistful but with no regrets. I don't recall finding that in any other modern songs. I once read an interview with Nick where he said he's always trying to capture some fresh and unique emotion or perspective in all his songs. He sure does that here.

NickS said...

Lovely write-up, and I'm not sure that I feel as strongly about any musician as you do about Nick Lowe :)

He catches a very particular mood -- a certain slant of light, almost -- that's wistful but with no regrets. I don't recall finding that in any other modern songs.

I know exactly what you're talking about when you describe it as, "a certain slant of light." I can think of a number of songs that are close to that mood of wistfulness, but most have a slightly heavier touch of melancholy than the Nick Lowe.

Uncle E said...

Hey Holly

I hope you don't mind but I nominated your site for a blogging award. Any way I can get more people to read your blog and into the great music of Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Hitchcock, well, I don't see how that's a bad thing! If you can, come on over and accept your award sometime, and thanks!

NickS said...

I've been enjoying thinking about this song for the last couple of days, and I appreciate you writing about it -- it's a song that I wouldn't have paid as much attention to on my own, and it rewards a careful listen.

It really is a wonderfully structured song, that isn't built around a single emotional crescendo, but gradually unfolds over the course of the song.

I agree, that it's ahead of its time -- thinking about similar songs, the first examples that come to mind are newer indie-rock songs but I did think of some interesting comparisons.

The first thing I realized is that part of what makes the mood of the song distinctive is not just the balance between wistfulness and acceptance, but also his age. A more youthful version of the story has more anxiety, "I don't know if I'll ever get in", but this song can have more equanimity in part because you get the sense that the narrator has seen enough that the uncertainty isn't as scary. In fact, if I had to guess, I'd think that the narrator has been to parties like that one before, and that's part of why he knows so well what he's missing.

Also, you can really hear the country and soul influences there, and it looks ahead to a song like Nick Lowe's cover of, "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road."

Thinking about similarly wistful songs, there are a couple of broad categories which are worth mentioning (and then mostly moving past).

Travel songs: There are a bunch of pop/rock songs about the fatigue of touring and life on the road. For example "Early Morning Rain" by Gordon Lightfoot (which or even "Super Trouper" by Abba (Teddy Thompson cover which brings out the melancholy).

Late Night Weariness: Songs about the feeling of disassociation or wistfulness from being up a little too late. I'd put Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" in that category (though I'm stretching a bit) or Bobby Womack's "Daylight"

70's Singer Songwriters: Songs like "Free Man In Paris" or "Bird on a Wire" have some overlap, but the Nick Lowe song is clearly slier than either of them.

End of relationship songs -- about the moment when you start to realize, "this hurts, but it was time, and I'm ready to pick myself up and prepare to move on." The two that seem most similar to "What's Shakin On The Hill" are "Black Coffee In Bed" (probably my favorite Squeeze song) and "4th of July" by Dave Alvin/X.

To be continued . . . (I realize this is a long comment, but I have spent the last two days listening to all of these songs, and I wanted to write down some of what I found)

NickS said...

After that, the song that seems like the most interesting predecessor is Otis Redding's "Sittin On The Dock Of The Bay" -- a massively successful pop song about just sitting with your blues for a while.

The lyrics are simpler, and not as clever as Nick Lowe's, but it strikes a similar mood (and, like the Nick Lowe, you can almost visualize the color of the light that he's looking at.

A couple of other folk or Country songs:

I love Miachel Smiths tribute to Gamble Rogers, "Gamble's Guitar" which has this verse:

I had a book and a joint and some chunks of bread
For the seagulls wheeling above my head
Elmore Leonard and Panama Red
And the music from a distant bar
I was thinking about a real good friend
Feeling kind of sorry for myself just then
And a whole lot older than I'd ever been
And I thought I heard Gamble's guitar

I also found myself thinking about Tom T Hall. Something like "Pamela Brown" seems related, but also something like "A Week In A Country Jail" (which is a better song) in which his ability to be non-judgmental about the whole experience is remarkable (Side Note: I discovered Tom T Hall last autumn, and went through a stretch of listening to a bunch of his music, and I kept wondering what you'd make him -- on one hand, I suspect he'd trigger all of your lingering suspicions about country music, on the other hand at his best he's incredible. My favorite song of his is "Homecoming" which is darn-near perfect lyric-writing and "A Week In The Country Jail" is almost as impressive.

Moving a little farther afield I'd also mention Jimmy Buffett's "He Went To Paris". If you think that Buffett has written anything worthwhile (and I do), I'd say that he's at his best when writing about the gap between what one imagines from life, and the way things actually turn out, and I think "He Went To Paris" holds up fairly well (though you couldn't describe it as "Keatsian").

Also, your comment about the line about kicking cans made me think of, "Little Road And A Stone To Roll" which I've always understood to be about walking down the road kicking a rock ahead of you (and I know from the Gordon Bok version, but I've linked to a recording by John Stewart since he wrote the song).

Everybody needs some old loose shoes
And we could all use a little good news
Everybody with a sheet to fold
Everybody needs a stone to roll

Everybody needs a Carol King tune
Everybody needs a little more room
'Cause everybody digs their own deep hole
Everybody needs a stone to roll

Finally, the oldest song that I ended up listening to (thanks youtube) was, "Hallelujah I'm A Bum from 1928 which, once you get used to its rhythms could also be described as, "He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret."

Holly A Hughes said...

Yeah, okay, well, umnh hmm. But still, Nick's is the only song that brings all these things together in quite this perfect, plangent way. My point being that he tries to get a fresh and original take with every song -- and does so with what I think is astonishing regularity.

I love "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and "Black Coffee in Bed," but they are entirely different songs. Just listen to them. They're not doing the same thing at all. They do something else, which is also wonderful, but they each have a specific agenda, which is nothing like Nick's. Otis is chilling and finding peace: Nick is accepting that he'll never really find peace. "Black Coffee" is about the aftermath of a relationship; "What's Shaking" is a self-examination and stock-taking.

And it's such a fine thing in and of itself, I feel little need for any further exegesis.

NickS said...

Oh, absolutely, I agree with you. The more I went looking the more convinced I was that (a) "What's Shaking" is great (b) there isn't much like it and (c) it was particularly remarkable that he did it in 1989!

What's more, I think it isn't only a "song for grown-ups" in terms of its themes, I think it's a song that somebody has to grow into as a songwriter -- Nick Lowe couldn't have written it earlier in his career (maybe I'm wrong, on that).

I did have a moment (not my first thought, but after I'd been listening to a couple of different things) when I thought, "smart, moderately clever (but not clever in a way shows up the other songwriting elements), adult, a little jazzy you'd think that somebody like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchel should own that territory" and then you realize that they don't have anything similar. In part because they're such large personalities.

When I first heard the song I felt like it took a while to arrive at the emotional core of the situation, but upon further reflection, I think it's a brilliant bit of songwriting the way it sets the scene. There are two complete verses before the narrator starts to talk about the way he feels, and that establishes that this isn't a song about somebody locked inside their own head (or with an insistent need to tell you what he thinks).

Incidentally, though, I think I do hear the song slightly differently than you do. Because I'm just not much of a party person, I don't connect particularly with the feeling of being excluded. I hear the first verse and I already know that I don't want to be at the event, so in my head the song becomes about somebody who isn't being forced out, but who just doesn't want to be social -- which may be a slight misreading on my part.

Finally, just a couple of notes about the other songs I mentioned. I do think "Gamble's Guitar" or "Stone To Roll" are the closest -- but the fact that neither of them are pop songs points again to how unusual it is.

I agree that "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" is completely different musically, but I do wonder to what extent Nick Lowe was influenced by Soul music. I don't have a good sense, but I did have an interesting feel of coincidence when I discovered his version of "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road." I was looking up versions of the song because I had heard the Percy Sledge recording on the collection "Sweet Soul Music" and then discovered that Nick Lowe came to it from the same source -- " Lowe said of the song, "I first heard 'True Love Travels on a Gravel Road' on a compilation record that accompanied Peter Guralniek's book 'Sweet Soul Music'. I love the title, I love those sort of gospely words, and it has a lovely tune. Percy Sledge's version is kind of jaunty, where mine is a little more downbeat. .. I love that thing where R & B meets country'"

Finally, I'd just say that "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay" isn't quite as peaceful as you might think -- the mood of the song is relaxed, but the lyrics suggest that it's a temporary respite from some significant troubles.

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
'Cause I had nothin' to live for
It look like nothin's gonna come my way

I wouldn't say that the song is dark or moody, because it isn't but, at the same time, reading the lyrics, it's at least neighbors with some darker emotions.

Anonymous said...

"One of the great musical loves" of your life? Oh, Holly, we know Nick is THE one. But of course there is Ray, and John, and Elvis, and Robin, and Graham, and...and...Oh well, I guess a girl can keep her options open! $20B

Jim said...

Holly, Your blog is incredible - some of the best writing on music out there. This is my all time favorite Nick song, and he has loads of great ones! Your description goes right to core of the music and the lyric. I really appreciate your writing here and I must say I am sometimes stunned by how similar out tastes are, needless to say, very good taste! Thanks for writing this.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks so much!

Jim said...

Funny, I was just re-listening to the clip and had this flash of Ricky Nelson in my head - he'd have done a stellar cover.

Holly A Hughes said...

Ooh, I love that idea! It does have a "Garden Party"-esque feel.