What does a chorus do in a pop song? Among our most basic assumptions about what will happen in a pop song is the expectation that it will lead us towards the fulfilment and clarity of a chorus, so it’s always interesting when a song chooses not to do this. Looking at this question in the context of Otis Redding’s 1966 version of ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ can tell us something about what pop songs as a whole express to us: the way - perhaps unconsciously - listening to them shapes our understanding of the world.
All the songs discussed in this episode, including Redding’s version of ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’, can be heard here. The original, by Al Braggs, isn’t on Spotify but can be found - at the time of publication - on YouTube.
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Cigarettes & Coffee
Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on what happens in pop songs and why they mean so much to us. I’m Anthony, a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured and this week I’m looking at the 1966 Otis Redding recording of ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’
[music - ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’]
In the fifth episode of this series, the one about ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, I talked about the ways songwriters work with listeners’ sense of what they expect to hear in a pop song. In that case, it was in the use of recognisable features of the blues style to create a sense of a place and time, and to bring up in the listener’s mind the various associations that come with it.
What are the expectations listeners bring to pop songs? Well, again in that episode, I touched on the role of song structure: the way the song moves through its introduction and verses towards the chorus. Pop songs, according to conventional formula, rise through a state of relative uncertainty in the introduction and verses, reaching a climactic point of resolution in the chorus. This is something that sets pop music apart from some of the songwriting traditions - the blues, or the folk song or ballad traditions - which fed into a lot of the songwriting of the 1960s whose basic structure tends to be more strophic: repeating sections of relatively even emphasis. It’s rare to find in those traditions pieces which exhibit that rapid, inexorable rise towards emphatic release, as has historically been standard in the choruses of pop music.
And if we look beyond songwriting and think more broadly about the musical influences that flowed into what became pop music it’s hard to perceive anything quite like the pop chorus as a defining feature. I want to look at ‘Cigarettes & Coffee’ in the context of these ideas about structure and as a starting point, to look at an essay by the literary critic and scholar of African American culture, James A. Snead, who, at his death at the age of 35 in the Aids epidemic, was described by Cornel West as ‘one of the most important American intellectuals of the late twentieth century’. ‘On Repetition in Black Culture’, published in 1981, is his virtuosic overview of the element of African music and literature which he saw as having been suppressed in European culture, namely the important and honoured place given to repetition. As he puts it:
‘In black culture … repetition means that the thing circulates in an equilibrium … the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back to it.’
In contrast, European culture, and most clearly European music, has been obsessed with the notion of striving towards a goal, of drive towards to some particular moment of accomplishment or resolution:
‘In European culture [he writes] … the ‘goal’ is always clear: that which is being worked towards … [it] maintains the illusion of progress and control at all costs … repetition has to be suppressed in favor of the fulfillment of the goal of harmonic resolution.’
Thinking of western music in this way in fact has a long history - written for the most part by advocates for it and for the view that, as a tradition, it was of unique artistic worth. For thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer, the fact that the European musical tradition was predicated so heavily on a fundamental structure of working through harmonic tension towards resolution, was exactly its claim to artistic supremacy, as it embodied the individual self striving towards self-actualisation, or what he called the Will-to-Exist. Probably the most influential music theorist in the European tradition, Heinrich Schenker, built his entire analytical system on the notion that underpinning all music was a ‘Tonwille’, or Will of the Tone; a fundamental harmonic motion powering music from the dominant back to the tonic.
Throughout this series I’ve made reference to the use of the tonic in pop songs and the way writers can use our deeply-held expectations about it to create emotional narratives - of longing, of disappointment, of discovery - and in this episode I want to do something similar with ‘Cigarettes & Coffee’ with this notion in mind that a basic expectation we bring to pop songs - perhaps our most basic expectation - is that they will direct us inevitably towards a goal, a climactic moment of resolution and finality.
‘Cigarettes & Coffee’ was originally written in what we call AABA form: there are two verses, then an alternating ‘B’ section, then a return to the ‘A’ verse section. Without a clearly defined ‘chorus’ section, it already suggests a more episodic development than the dramatic rise-and-fall movement of typical verse-chorus pop songs. AABA often gives a sense of ‘differing perspectives’ and has been credited with more emotional complexity than typical pop songs. In AABA there isn't the particularly declarative emphasis of a repeating pop chorus, which weakens the sense of linear progression. The B section typically offers a different way of looking at whatever the situation of the song is, but there is still, in its conventional form, a definite sense of arrival when the A section - sometimes called the ‘head’ by jazz musicians, but in fact originally known as the ‘chorus’ - returns, partly because, as is typical, it coincides with a return back to the tonic.
To take just one particularly famous example of this in Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’, the A section is firmly based in the tonic, giving the song its warm, rooted quality; the B section then takes us into some more uncertain harmonic territory which ultimately serves to reinforce the comfort and certainty of the tonic when it returns in the final A section
[music - ‘What a Wonderful World’]
In Otis Redding’s version of Cigarettes and Coffee, however, AABA is stretched out of shape - the clean, jazz-standard-like structure of Al Braggs’ original is replaced by something looser and subtler. The structure of ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’, in combination with other elements of the track like its lyrics and arrangement avoids the appearance of a question being answered, the sense that a resolution finally being arrived at.
At every level of the Redding version of this song, we can see a movement away from a goal-oriented approach to structure towards what we might call a ‘steady state’, or what Snead calls the music’s ‘equilibrium’, reinforced by the absence of clear build towards a climax and the presence of a number of patterns of cyclical repetition.
If we look at the structure of the song, proportionally it’s almost symmetrical - a long opening section defined by a repeating four-bar loop, a short bridge providing brief variation, followed by a return to the original loop in an extended recapitulation of the first section. This means that the basic structural dynamic of AABA is subtly altered - usually the return of A is a denouement, a reassuring return to familiar material after the diversion of the B section, providing a satisfying ‘closed’ ending. This is how it feels in the original. But in the second half of Redding’s version, the A section is extended into open loops of the verse material, which makes it feel potentially endless; that the four-bar sequence could be extended indefinitely.
The musical material itself - the song’s melody and harmony, and the manner in which it’s arranged - bolsters this sense of open-endedness. The song’s clearly in a major key - G major - but it makes extensive use of diminished chords - 2 of the four openings bar are Eb#5, or half-diminished. This four-bar opening sequence is used as a loop, a regularly repeated set of bars, and is exactly the sort of cyclical musical pattern Snead wrote about, and, as he said, expresses the music’s sense of continuity, of what is not changing. And moreover, as a chord sequence, the four-bar pattern avoids the conventional cadences of western music - the type of chord changes which would signify closure or resolution, like the perfect cadence we’ve heard about in a number of episodes, or the IV-I cadence we heard at the end of the chorus in Jealous Guy. It stays in this semi-suspended state until bar 9 of the verse when, via the use of G7, the sub-dominant (C) is heard for the first time (also, not coincidentally, the first time the phrase ‘cigarettes and coffee’ is heard) and it works its way back to the tonic, but with it that looped harmonic pattern of unresolving chords. The basic material of the song always returns us to these chromatic, open-ended harmonies.
The way this musical material is handled serves the basic theme - the horns emphasise the dissonant notes in the chords, and use a combination of long swells, though none that build toward any particular point of focus, and quick descending arpeggios. The effect is one of undulating drama, rising and falling, never reaching a definite destination. The rhythm section - the bass and drums - provide the song’s solidity - the bassline rarely varies from root notes ‘on the one’, and the snare on the back-beat is absolutely constant. There is a palpable lack of a sense that we are being directed towards a particular moment, as in a typical verse-chorus pop song; the bridge does inject a surge of energy - on the line, ‘and oh my heart cries out’ - but it seems to occur spontaneously, not as a destination which been carefully prepared by the previous material, and which rapidly returns to the steady, flat state of the opening.
And it’s possible to see the same ideas reflected in the lyric - which is a combination of the original lines and Redding’s adaptation of them. The opening sketches out the situation of the song: in the original it’s ‘Early in the morning at a quarter to three, I’d like to talk with you over cigarettes and coffee’, but Redding’s alteration guides our focus towards the present moment - ‘It's early in the morning/About a quarter till three/I'm sitting here talking with my baby/Over cigarettes and coffee’. We get the sense that the song is unfolding in real time and it moves through expressions of gratitude and devotion - Darling I’ve been so satisfied - including the suggestion of marriage at the end of the B section - but note how the sense of this being a resounding conclusion is downplayed, especially in Redding’s phrasing, the beautiful line, if you would take things under consideration: it isn’t decided, it isn’t impressed upon the implied audience of his proposal; it’s just something for them to consider.
The placement of the title phrase - always suggestive of the underlying dynamics of a song - is at the middle of verse 1. It’s part of the song’s strategy of constantly suspending finality: the phrase ‘Cigarettes and coffee’ is heard but then the song moves on, and indeed the chord makes a shift (from G major to A major) suggestive of upward movement.
The whole lyric is then repeated, but with subtle variations (in place of Darling I’ve been so satisfied the second time around Otis sings I’ve known nothing but good old joy). In a wholly unfussy and natural-seeming way, that delicate balance of stability and change is expressed through this subtle interplay of repetition and variation. More significantly, Otis shifts from I’m sitting here talking with my baby over cigarettes and coffee to I would love to have another drink of coffee … Help me to enjoy this good time that we'll have. The focus has become more personalised (it’s directly addressed to his ‘baby’) but the idea of another drink of coffee and the good time that they will have gives us the sense that this is simply one moment in the life of their relationship.
And finally, it’s in the manner of Redding’s delivery of these lines that the theme of the song is most forcefully expressed. What Janis Joplin called Redding’s ability to ‘push’ a song - to play with rhythm and phrasing in a way which moves away almost completely from the written melody, is very clear in this song. Redding preserves something of what Amiri Baraka observed as the blues style - a mode of singing which is not tied to conventional chord-melody relationships but instead follows its own, not wholly tonal, lines, overriding bar lines and chord changes when it suits the emotion of the phrase.
The starts and ends of Redding’s phrases are rarely neat; he often leaves huge gaps between the start of bars and his entries, and the ends of phrases often flourish into melismas, making the ends of words indistinct. For instance look at the phrasing of the phrase I would love it yeah at the end of the B section (the moment where that sense of resolution, if anywhere, would be found). It’s sung directly over the line between the B section and the return of the A section, delaying the entry of the verse melody and blurring the distinction between the sections of the song.
To think about the question of all this does to our sense of the meaning of the song, we need to ask what expectations we bring to it as listeners, and in this case, that means principally asking what the lack of a chorus means in the context of a pop song. What do choruses do? Sammy Cahn, the writer of such Great American Songbook standards like ‘Come Fly with Me’, ‘Let it Snow’ and ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’, put it this way: “[the chorus] is both an outcome of the verses and a summation of the song.” Sheila Davis, author of the classic songwriting manual, The Craft of Lyric Writing, wrote similarly, ‘a chorus embodies both the musical peak and the lyrical point of the song’.
Notice how closely this idea of the chorus as the ‘outcome’, the ‘peak’ or the ‘point’ of a song maps onto the goal-oriented notions of western music I was discussing earlier. Cahn and Davis are not in those instances talking about harmony and the underlying pull towards the tonic in European classical music - although in fact the conventional chorus in pop songs does consistently coincide with a return to the tonic - but Snead’s point that in western music ‘the ‘goal’ is always clear’, it is ‘that which is being worked towards’, to me seems especially relevant when thinking about what choruses do in pop songs. While it should be said that no musical feature such as the chorus carries necessary meaning, I think it’s fair to say that the fundamental dynamic a chorus involves encourages a certain philosophy of life, and it’s one that mirrors Snead’s view on the theme of European music as a whole: one preoccupied with heroic striving, with progress and the accomplishment of goals.
It’s worth bearing in mind here the particular technological and economic conditions that brought pop music into being. There was a set limit on how long a single could be, given the size of the 10-inch vinyl record, there was pressure from mainstream radio to keep song lengths short, and, reaching prominence in the age of consumer capitalism, there was a need for a piece of pop music to ‘make its point’ quickly and decisively in order for an audience to want to buy it. The chorus can be seen as the outcome of compacting the goal-oriented aspect of the European tonal tradition into the three-minute song form necessitated by technology and the commercial imperatives of the music marketplace.
I want to take a moment to sound a cautionary note about the dangers of essentializing African and European music - the sort of view that would simple-mindedly mark music of black origin as inherently cyclical, groove-based, and non-goal-oriented, and European music as precisely its opposite. Much musicological work has been done to debunk this binary, although anyone with a passing knowledge of pop music would be able to bear witness to the number of extremely goal-oriented - and brilliant - pop choruses written by musicians of colour - one only has to think of the output of labels like Motown and a writer like Smokey Robinson. Even Snead is clear that he’s using the terms ‘black’ and ‘European’ culture critically, saying that ‘“Black culture” is a concept first created by Europeans and defined in opposition to “European culture”’, and that what he means by ‘repetition in black culture’ is really an aspect of universal human culture which has been repressed in the European tradition. Cultural forms in theory can be used by anyone, and it’s clear that the goal-oriented patterns Snead recognises in European music are nowhere said to be inherent to whiteness or Europeanness, merely a strikingly common and dominant part of its cultural history.
Among the patterns Snead notices in western culture’s preoccupation with ‘progress and growth’ is its manifestation in the economics of capitalism:
‘In European culture, financial and production cycles have largely supplanted the conscious sort of natural return in black culture … Capital … will not only necessarily circulate but must consequently also accumulate ... Economics and business, in their term “cyclicality”, admit the existence and even the necessity of repetition … but continually overlay this … [with] the illusion of continuous growth [and] a rhetoric of “incremental” or “staged” development’
In other words, emphasising the importance of progress may not just be about a belief in personal development, or the advance of civilisation or knowledge, but also fits very well with the bourgeois spirit of capital accumulation, investment and growth. In fact, the mastery of goal-oriented musical forms such as the pop chorus by Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson might be seen as mirroring the push within parts of African American communities in the early 1960s towards values of aspiration and self-sufficiency, a trend which would lead to the project - endorsed strongly by the likes of Richard Nixon - of ‘black capitalism’ in the 1970s.
It’s interesting in this context, then, to consider the fact that a number of the most influential innovators in popular music towards the end of the 1960s were all, in their different ways, pulling song form away from the verse-chorus dynamic and towards longer structures involving repeating cycles - think of Jimi Hendrix, especially his last album, Band of Gypsys, released in 1970, George Clinton, whose band Funkadelic released their first album in the same year, and above all, James Brown, who Snead actually cites in his essay as the quintessential master of this approach to musical structure and who, more or less single-handedly, reoriented popular music around the principle of the groove, a trend that, with the advent of drum machines and synthesisers, would spawn disco and electronica, and then later, with the introduction of samplers, lead to hip-hop production and the bulk of present-day pop.
Otis Redding, who tragically would die in a plane crash in December 1967, at the age of only 26, and would not live to see these momentous changes in the development of popular music, in his own way understood what he was doing in opposition to the prevalent pop style of the era and the Motown method. He worked at the Stax label in Memphis, and, like everyone who worked there, was conscious of its status as the main rival to Motown in American R&B, and which had a very different philosophy. As he said:
‘Motown does a lot of overdubbing. It’s mechanically done. At Stax the rule is: Whatever you feel, play it. We cut everything together, horns, rhythms, and vocal.’
Although what Redding is talking about here is spontaneity in recording, rather than song structure or an approach to repetition, as Snead makes clear, these are all related: in order to have improvisation, you have to have repetition:
‘Not only improvisation, but also the characteristic ‘call-and-response’ element in black culture … requires an assurance of repetition’
This description of musical practice matches closely with what Floyd Newman, one of the saxophone players who took part in Stax recording sessions with Redding, said about his approach to arrangement:
‘[Otis] knew exactly when he wanted the horns to come in. He would hum what he wanted us to play. It was a lot like James Brown. He wanted the horns to fill the gap between lines, a basic call-and-response thing.’
What Redding did with this radically spontaneous approach to recording was very different to what James Brown was doing but, as the case of ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ demonstrates, could lead to no less radical departures from goal-oriented musical form. If he had lived, perhaps his innovations in pop music would have been as striking as Brown’s, although, like Brown, he may not have seen it as innovating at all, but rather a rediscovery of the historically suppressed possibilities and beauty of repetition.
Certainly, in the final fading loops of ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’, when Redding, surely spontaneously, repeats the opening lines of the song - ‘It’s so early, so early in the morning’ - we can hear someone absolutely alive to the possibilities of cyclicality in song form. Leaving aside these larger questions of musical development, we can see that taking such an approach in this song upends our expectation that pop songs should start in a state of tension and move inevitably towards emphatic release and affirmation. ‘Cigarettes & Coffee’ builds to no particular moment; it does not - as so many love songs do - try to embody the accomplishment of the desired. Indeed it is a refutation of the idea of a lover as a goal; it expresses the ongoing state of loving someone, achieved through a careful balance of stability and change, neither giving way to the other, a philosophy of love as something that happens in the present, right now, with you here beside me.