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Listen Cloze, Now: "Stand By Me" by Ben E King

Schlep; schlep;
Schlep-schlep-schlep; schlep,
Schlep-schlep-schlep; schlep,
Schlepppschlep; schlep........

An old Drifter rolls into town, and your front yard, and your arms.

In the best version (1961 single, not this ^ one), the double-bass is a mess; waterlogged, flattened, hushed. It's just percussion. But out of it: glory underplayed, undertoned, motive, roadlike.

As in all this calibre of R&B, the guitar and backing trio are barely there. The strings creeping up, up, up on him are a masterclass in predictability; their 1:55 spotlight is painful, extremist contralto schmaltz. And yet! they are after all only the bassline given razored, tight wings, dream-come-true dignity.

There's only two bits to the lyrics (fidelity, and apocalyptic fidelity) and scarcely two in the sound (that stepwise homophony, which King's voice is just interpolating, but with such measured, accented passion that you don't notice). Is that enough for this song to "be about" anything?

: Yes. Who knows what loneliness is? Not I, when I've you there. Metaphysics of friendship is big and strange, child. By the end, it's changed, no longer a plea. "Whenever you're in trouble, won't you stand by me": he's offering. There are better things in the world than reciprocation, but they're usually illegal.

Note the varying volume in the vocals (2:25); he's let go, dancing around the mic. Well? Would you be standing still, ever, at all, if you were Ben E King? The fade-out is brutal, one-second-long, demanding a repeat play.

Why can't something be pedestrian and spiritual? Surely only shows our crap understanding of what spirit is (and, relatedly what pop songs are).

There are apparently 400 covers extant. (A lot of them drop the bass part, a profoundly senseless and anti-musical thing to do.) Lennon's one is wrongly dominant (breadthless Bowie stuff). Muhammad Ali did one, and he actually does alright until the end. The Otis Redding one just underscores how balanced King is; OR wasn't half a drama queen. Pennywise's is an above-average entry in the LimeWire comedy punk-cover tradition. Sean Kingston's only song grabs the bassline, but leaves behind its charm, momentum, emotional poise. Bloody Bon Jovi did it in Persian(!) last year, encouraging "worldwide solidarity for the people of Iran" (this is a fact I don't know how to respond to). And turgid bachata toy Prince Royce took it up charts again last year.


  1. I like the Pennywise one; wouldn't say it was comedy, just in a different style entirely. Maybe I lack a sense of humour?


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