The 1960s girl group genre might seem an odd place to find tragedy, particularly when it's wrapped in such apparently joyful music as The Chiffons' 'One Fine Day'. Legendary songwriting partners Gerry Goffin and Carole King manage the difficult trick of combining the bright-eyed optimism of new love with the sad certainty it'll never be realised in a song which takes in influences from both doo-wop and opera. It's a wonderful demonstration of the way minor chords and 'blue notes' can make a song more emotionally complex and true-to-life.
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One Fine Day
Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on the making - and the meaning - of classic pop records. I’m Theo, I’m a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured and this week I’m going to be looking at ‘One Fine Day’, written by the songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King in 1963.
A quick run-through of reviews reveals the way it’s typically been heard: music writer Richie Unterberger called it ‘exuberant’ and ‘catchy’, and you’ll typically see it described as ‘upbeat’, ‘peppy’, ‘feel-good’. It was selected by the Chiffons as a follow-up to their no. 1 hit single, ‘He’s So Fine’, because it also had the word ‘fine’ in the title and because they were looking for something in a similar vein: light, sweet and upbeat.
At first glance the two songs seem similar - they’re both about hope in the possibilities of love, both about a particular man who embodies that hope, and both dramatise that yearning in a way that appears to be, as many listeners have found them, ‘upbeat’, in both the musical sense of having quick tempos but also in the sense of being positive - they both seem optimistic, at first listen, that the promise of love will be fulfilled. But despite all that I’ve never been able to shake the sense that the later song - ‘One Fine Day’ - contains an unmistakable note of sadness and that it’s that sadness that makes it a hit, something like what the great Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier called the ‘sad, sweet spot’ at the heart of every great love song. In this episode I’m going to talk about the musical construction of the song to explore this tension, to find the ways the songwriters manage to express both the lover’s hope and her heartbreak.
In many respects, ‘One Fine Day’ presents itself as a to-the-template, breezy pop hit, a product of the Brill Building songwriting machine, which in the late 50s and early 60s was at the heart of the American music industry. Songwriters and producers associated with the Brill Building - a complex of offices and studios on 49th St and Broadway in Manhattan - were responsible for dozens of successful pop singles, from Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Look of Love’ to the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, and many others. Its heydey is conventionally seen in pop music history as representing the interlude between the explosion of rock n roll in the 1950s and the British Invasion - the reworking and re-popularising of rock n roll by bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones - in the mid-1960s. Many see it as symptomatic of the music industry wresting back control of pop music production after the unexpected popular success of rock n roll - the reassertion of industry control, and the reintroduction of an effete, reactionary musical refinement to what had briefly seemed urgent, vital, even revolutionary. Bob Dylan is typical in this respect when he writes in his memoir, Chronicles, ‘things were pretty sleepy on the American music scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s … at a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries’.
Does ‘One Fine Day’, then, count as one of these ‘empty pleasantries’, a perky but ultimately insubstantial piece of music? Well, for a start, it is, in a technical sense, upbeat - I take the tempo of the song to be at around 177 beats per minute - and structurally it is absolutely regular, and thus comforting: we have an 8-bar intro, an 8-bar verse, an 8-bar chorus and so on. Harmonically, as well, there is a lot in the song that contributes to this sense of a bright, comfortable peppiness. I used the last episode in this series to introduce the tonic chord, which is the chord formed on the first note of the scale, and often known as the home chord, because conventional tonal music starts and ends on it. ‘One Fine Day’ is grounded in it: we start on the tonic at the beginning of verse 1 and end on it at the end of verse 2, making the two verses a self-contained section before the bridge, which does explore some chords outside the home key, as is typical for pop bridge sections, also called the middle 8, but even the bridge ends with an emphatic return to the tonic by the use of a huge perfect cadence - that chord change of the dominant chord to the tonic I talked about in the last episode - the cadence which most strongly affirms the home key.
Overlaid on such strong harmonic and structural foundations are two overlapping riffs in the introduction: the famous piano riff, which is being played by Carole King herself on the recording and the figure the backing singers repeat. This style of singing, derived from the doo-wop style of the late fifties, had been heard prominently in the previous Chiffons hit - ‘He’s So Fine’ opens with ‘doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang’ - so it made sense for them to revisit that style in the follow-up - but what gives the opening of the song its tremendous exuberance is the arrangement of these riffs one on top of each other. The fast tempo, and some of the opening drum hits anticipate the beat so it sounds even faster, and the layers of riffs, combine to produce a sense of overflowing excitement, of having too many feelings at once to make sense of them.
Where then, does the song’s undertow of melancholy stem from? Well, if we look a little closer at the harmonic content, we can see the widespread use of chord 6, in this case D minor. This chord, also known as the submediant, is always a minor chord when in a major key, and is, for my money, the most important chord in pop besides I, IV and V - the primary chords I introduced in the previous episode. Those chords, in a major key, are all major chords, so songwriters have often reached for the minor chords on 2, 3 and 6 to darken the mood of a song, none more so than chord 6, which is especially useful in that two of the three notes of its triad coincide with the notes of the tonic triad, and, what’s more, its root note - in this case it’s D - is two steps down from the tonic note, so it’s frequently felt as a ‘fall’. It’s the chord that Leonard Cohen refers to in ‘Hallelujah’, as ‘the minor fall’.
How does ‘One Fine Day’ use this ‘minor fall’ chord? Well, it’s used in two ways: firstly, it’s heard briefly in the four-bar loop of the intro, which is also the underpinning musical accompaniment in the chorus. It’s then heard in the 8-bar verse chord sequence, which consists of two bars of tonic then two bars of dominant, grounding the song in the familiar and lengthening the anticipation before that twist upwards to the minor chord, the moment of pathos.
Its route back to the tonic is coloured slightly by its descent to the minor subdominant chord - technically a dissonant chord in a major key, because it flattens the 6th note of the major scale. This is a harmonic device very familiar to anyone who’s played any number of classic pop songs - it crops up again and again, as does the type of sequence ‘One Fine Day’ uses in its verses - the I-V-vi minor progression I just outlined.
These chord changes are part of a very recognisable toolbox of standard pop songwriting techniques, used by songwriters throughout the history of pop. But partly because it’s exactly songs like ‘One Fine Day’ that such devices became archetypes of the pop style, and partly because they’re used in combination with the other elements of the song, that they’re capable of exerting amazing emotional power. In this song, it’s most obviously the lyric, which at this point is the climactic ‘and you’ll know/our love was meant to be’, the confidence of which is simultaneously undermined by that ‘minor fall’, and the vocal performance which, in classic girl group style, is delivered straight, almost naively, giving no hint of doubt that the person it’s addressed to will ‘know our love was meant to be’. The surface declares maximum assurance at the exact moment the harmony darkens, and the result is a sort of dramatic irony - we know what the singer doesn’t: he may never want her for his girl, a suspicion lent credence by the equivalent lyric in the final verse - ‘you will want the love you threw away before’, a key lyric, hinting that the relationship, except in the mind of the singer, is something that’s already over and is now beyond her reach.
There’s also the crucial interaction of the melody and harmony, and it’s here again that we can see the song’s initial sunny confidence being undermined. The songwriters pepper the song with chromatic dissonances - we’ve already seen the flattening of the sixth note in the verses to produces that minor subdominant chord - but there’s also the use of flattening the major 3rd of the scale, making it minor, but often using it over a major tonality, producing a clash. This is directly derived from the blues tradition which would often ‘blue’ a note like this. They do it in the opening piano riff, in fact, as well as in places in the melody
The flattened third in the melody is also heard as part of some of the song’s elaborate vocal style, which is the most thoroughgoing way the writers, and performers, inject a sense of emotional urgency - even desperation - into the song. This is known as melisma - a device used when setting words to music when more than one note is used for a single syllable. When it is used as prolifically as it is here - most lines contain it, often as four note melismas, sometimes even more - as on ‘girl’ in the chorus - it has a clear expressive function. It has an emphasising effect - it adds vehemence to whatever the line is expressing. In this case, the cumulative effect of the song's many melismas to my ear is one of an innocent longing, performed as they are in the singers’ naive style. You could say they’re at once an expression of the singer's sadness and her defiance of it.
It’s often been noted that Gerry Goffin got the idea for the title of this song from a famous aria in Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly: ‘un bel di, vedremo’ (‘one fine day, we will see’) but writing on this song never takes the link past the simple fact of the title. A quick recap of the plot of the opera, and specifically the role of that aria, suggests there may be more parallels between the two pieces than simply sharing a title.
Madame Butterfly is a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl who marries a visiting US naval officer, Pinkerton, who secretly intends to divorce her when he has to return to America. Her family disown her when she converts to Christianity. ‘Un bel di, vedremo’, a song visualizing Pinkerton’s ship appearing on the horizon, is sung by her at the start of act 2 when Pinkerton has been gone for three years. He will return in the final act but with Kate, his American wife, and only to retrieve the son he has fathered with Butterfly.
It seems to me that what Goffin and King did, in ‘One Fine Day’, was make a thoroughgoing, and ingenious, Brill Building update on Puccini’s tragic masterpiece. They saw that, like the girl group idiom as a whole, Butterfly’s story is about adolescent love, and understood that Butterfly’s particular tragedy - that she is trapped in a fantasy, Pinkerton does not love her as she loves him - would map perfectly onto a pop song about the overwhelming experience of young unrequited love. In place of Pinkerton we have the ‘boy who only wants to run around’, and just as Butterfly dreams of him climbing the hill to meet her, the Chiffons’ singer sees him coming to her with arms ‘open wide’. We even have a hint of the social shame Butterfly suffers and needs Pinkerton’s return to undo, when the Chiffons’ singer dreams of him ‘proud to have [her] by [his] side’.
It’s part of the song’s achievement that its tragedy is worn so lightly. The songwriters give us the sense both of the thrill of infatuation and the bitter disappointment of its rejection, and in doing so, they demonstrate a quality common to a lot of great songwriting - the capacity to express apparently contradictory emotions simultaneously, and what emerges is something closer to the actual experience of love than either words or music could manage independently.