Three Chord Wonders – Rock and Roll’s Top Ten
Authored by: Dale Nickey
For any wedding band or top forty group, the three chord song is a gift from god. Easy to remember, easy to jam on; they bulk up your set list and appeal to the masses. However, there is an art to writing a great three chord song. Melody, lyrics and creative arrangements can all be artfully applied to make a three chord song seem like more than its component parts. A three chord song can be good, dumb fun or the slab foundation on which an epic lyric can be constructed.
Ground rules: The three chord song must adhere to a repetitive pattern that does not deviate. No B part or bridge allowed. “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones, just misses the mark because it hangs on the tonic chord for the verse, and then begins its classic descending progression for the choruses. Lynard Skynard’s, “Sweet Home Alabama” is a classic example of the form. Oh, yeah…..they’re disqualified too. They’re song is a classic three chord wonder, but the band displays a confederate flag onstage and their music annoys me. Don’t like it? Go start your own blog!
# 10 – “Teenage Waitress” Artist: Ggreg Snyder
I almost recused this song from the list due to my involvement in its recording. However, why punish the song or the writer (Snyder) on an empty ethical question. Taken from his eponymous (1989) cassette EP, Snyder employs a simple E-D-A progression to tell the story of a fleeting pit- stop encounter with a pretty young Hojo’s waitress on a long night ride to nowhere. Snyder manages to weave alternating vocal parts over the static chord progression while guitar, mandolin and accordion (aw shucks, it was nothin’) add a folksy gravitas to this charming Outsider-Folk/Rock classic.
# 9 – “Mother Of Pearl” Artist: Roxy Music
Singer/Songwriter Bryan Ferry channels his inner Dylan on this; one of Roxy’s most thought provoking tunes. This is example of the three chord progression being used as the superstructure for an epic, lyric odyssey. Ferry never wrote a better lyric before or since and the band holds up their end with some spicy syncopation and atmospherics. “Mother of Pearl” clocks in at 6:00 minutes but feels shorter.
# 8 – “That’s All Right” Artist: Elvis Presley
The first commercial single ever recorded by Presley. Originally composed by Arthur Crudup, It was released in summer 1954 and lays credible claim to being one of the first Rock and Roll songs ever released. The song employs a repetitive three chord pattern all the way through that supports the verse, chorus and guitar break. Remarkably, the track was cut with no drums, just guitar and voice and Bill Black’s bass.
# 7 – “Save It For Later” Artist: The English Beat
This was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. A graceful, relaxing three chord cruise that employs a string section artfully to disguise what is one of the simplest harmonic structures ever to grace a pop crossover hit.
# 6 – “Free Falling” Artist: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
Tom Petty is probably one of the top practitioners of minimalist pop song-craft. Most of his compositions would find a Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb doubled over in laughter; however he cranks them out in abundance and visits the Billboard charts with regularity. “Free Falling” is his most potent three chord wonder. Petty does “stupid” with more intelligence and panache’ than any songwriter out there today.
#5 – “Werewolves of London” Artist: Warren Zevon
Big hit in the late 70’s for the vodka swilling pop-composer. Basic chords D C G and a ahh-oooo! to top off the chorus. Great feel, clever lyrics and a killer slide guitar solo makes you forget the song is built on thinnest of harmonic contrivances. I played this song into oblivion in the biker-bars of Northern California during the 70’s, and it never failed to turn the crowd our way in the clutch.
# 4 – “Wicked Game” Artist: Chris Isaak
Hypnotic. Sexy, atmospheric and haunting. All this with only three chords and Isaak’s smooth as glass vocals to light the way. Legend has it that Wicked Game stopped director David Lynch dead in his tracks during a late night drive. He called the local radio station to find out who did the track and subsequently used it in his movie, Wild at Heart. The video became an MTV mainstay and rescued Isaak’s faltering career. Truth is stranger than fiction.
#3 – “La Bamba” Artist: Richie Valens
You don’t have to be Latino to enjoy or exploit this epic three chord wonder. Nerdy white wedding bands play this with as much brio as any Latino band. Valens himself was a crossover pioneer, being the first Hispanic Rock Star in white America. Also snuck some Spanish lyrics into the hit version. Another first.
#2 – “Louie Louie” Artist: The Kingsmen
This is the song that defined Garage Rock. Louie Louie introduced the (then rare) electric piano as a rock instrument. This is the song you point to when you’re engaged in the age old ‘feel’ vs. ‘perfection’ debate. The vocalist screws up one verse. The drummer is playing everything except the beat, and the whole track seems ready to fly apart at any second. Monster hit that topped the pre-Beatles billboard charts for weeks. The tune gained a second life as the theme song to the blockbuster hit movie Animal House.
1# – “All Along the Watch Tower” Artist: Jimi Hendrix
“All Along the Watch Tower” is not the greatest song Dylan ever wrote. Hell, it wasn’t even the best song on “John Wesley Harding”. With wheezier than usual harmonica and a scratchy, minimal acoustic arrangement, “…..Tower” was a make-weight track at best, easily swamped by at least a dozen or two Dylan masterpieces throughout the years. Of course, that was before Jimi Hendrix sank is teeth into it. It made sense that the world’s greatest lyric/poet should be interpreted by the world’s greatest Rock musician. Hendrix took Dylan’s sepia toned sketch of the rapture and gave it the full Cecile B. De Mille treatment. Hendrix’s reading of “All Along The Watch Tower” stands as the greatest Dylan cover ever; quite a feat, considering the august list of artists who have covered The Billboard Bard’s tunes.