This is my first post in quite a few months. I’ve taken a break from working on this sort of thing to study for my qualifying exams. I’m happy to say that I passed all of them, which means I have time to write about heavy metal again!
Another unfortunate consequence of studying for my exams was that I had to miss the wedding of the two loveliest goths in the whole world, N and R. N introduced me to what is now one of my favorite bands, Type O Negative, by playing their song “Black No. 1” for me several years ago. Apparently it’s one of her favorite songs–inside sources tell me this song was played on the dance floor at the end of the wedding–so I thought it would be fitting to dedicate this post to N and R and their marriage, may it be long-lived and happy and shrouded in spooky cobwebs.
Type O Negative had released two albums before 1993’s Bloody Kisses, but this third album was the one that marked the band really coming into their own. It was the first of their albums to chart on the Billboard 200, and though all of their subsequent albums charted higher, Bloody Kisses has been the one which has sold most consistently. Bloody Kisses is the only Type O Negative to receive a Platinum rating from the RIAA (for selling over a million copies), and according to Rolling Stone, it was actually the first album released by Roadrunner records to be certified Platinum.1 The flagship single for the album, “Black No. 1,” is a gothic anthem to gloomy vampire queens everywhere. The music video for this song is full of the dark horror-film-inspired tropes that have become the standard visual language of gothic rock. But what about the music? What makes the music “gothic” and “rock,” what does it mean to blend those two, and what significance does that have beyond reinforcing the video’s visual references to gothic culture?
“Black No. 1” is steeped in the musical language of earlier metal and heavy rock. The song is based in a powerful riff that is repeated through most of the song, with a few modifications. (See the score example below.) Like most riff-based rock music, this riff is not always repeated exactly, but there is a “cadential figure”2 or “turnaround”3 that occurs at the end of every four repetitions of the riff. This riff-based practice of using drum fills and turnarounds to create a regular structure of twos and fours at larger time scales is part of the fabric of rock music, and fills the songs of virtually every rock artist, from Bo Diddley to Led Zeppelin to the Sex Pistols to Dream Theater.
But it isn’t just the layout of the song that draws on rock tradition; Type O Negative’s riffs themselves are built on reliable dark rock prototypes. The notes of Riff A spelled out in scale degrees from the E minor scale form the pattern 1 – flat 3 – 5 – 4, sometimes played as single notes and sometimes as power chords. Progressions of 1-5-4 in a major mode have been a part of rock since it’s beginnings, and are part of the genre’s inheritance from earlier blues music. The way Riff A ends in a 4 that leads back to 1 especially seems to echo blues-inspired progressions like Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” or Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n Roll.” Much of early rock, however, used these blues-based progressions in major keys. The flat 3 in Riff A (the G natural) makes a much darker sound. But this elaboration, too, draws on powerful conventions deep in the history of hard rock and metal. Many metal riffs use 1-3-4 progressions: Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” AC/DC’s song “TNT,” and Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” are just a few famous examples. feature the same progression of power chords. The turnaround that Type O Negative adds to every fourth repetition of Riff A also has echoes of heavy metal history: E G A B D is exactly the same notes as Ozzy Osbourne’s vocal line at the beginning to the verse of the Black Sabbath song “Supernaut.” In observing these similarities I’m not intending to say that Type O Negative is deliberately copying these songs. But the notes of their riffs are amplified by a history of heavy music using similar progressions, and this familiarity is part of why their riffs make us want to rock out–we’ve rocked out to those notes before.4
While these rock conventions form the foundation of “Black No. 1”, Type O Negative adds some layers which transform their music into something much less Dionysian. The first thing we hear in the song is the sound of fingers running across the strings inside of a piano, and during the opening section of the song we hear somber bells tolling in the distance. These sound effects are standard tropes in horror films, and create a morose and slightly twisted atmosphere for the song. This mood is heightened by interludes on harpsichord and toy bells, two instruments which have long been associated with evil or perversion in film and pop music. Classical music has long been associated with vampires and other dark immortal creatures in movies such as The Hunger (1983), and these interludes rely on this association to imply the evilness or darkness of the song’s female subject.
The harpsichord specifically triggers an important reference that is so clear it cannot have been unintentional. At 7:56 on the album version of the song, the solo bass version of Riff A returns from the introduction of the song, accompanied by fingers snapping and a brief motive on the harpsichord. These layers added to the introductory version of Riff A are both quotations of the theme song from the famous bizarre 1960s TV sitcom The Addams Family, whose macabre black-garbed characters have become icons within the goth subculture. The off-beat finger-snaps and repeated ascending scale motive are the most identifiable components of the Addams family theme song, and their use in conjunction in this re-introduction is a clear reference.
“Black No. 1” has further resonances with The Addams Family that are interesting if not terribly consequential. The Addams Family features a few episodes in which the manservant Lurch (who vaguely resembles some depictions of the Frankenstein monster) plays harpsichord, and this may be the most prominent appearance of the harpsichord in media associated with the goth subculture. Lurch’s basso profundo voice also is one of the few in popular culture that can be compared with the deep howls of Pete Steele, the late singer of Type O Negative. While I’m not intending to suggest that Steele modelled his performance persona on Lurch, these similarities may help explain why Steele’s music is identified as “gothic rock;” The Addams Family and Type O Negative appeal to similar parameters of the dark and the bizarre.
Pete Steele’s unique voice is an indispensible part of the band’s sound, and contains its own resonances with rock history. Steele sometimes sings melancholic vocal lines with cracks in his voice that sound like synthesizer prodigy and goth music icon Gary Numan. Other moments in Steele’s singing sound more like Metallica lead singer James Hetfield, whose rough but tuneful voice and yeehaw-ing vocal mannerisms defined what it meant to be an American metal singer in the 1980s. But Steele’s melodic and powerful low range put significant distance between him and his higher-voiced predecessors. In a sense, Steele’s vocal style was part Numan and part Hetfield, but also part Lurch. His unique voice is capable of a special combination of melancholy, menace, and melody that convincingly distinguishes the band from non-goth rock and metal.
The song form is one last dimension of “Black No. 1” establishes that Type O Negative’s gothic rock is more than just conventional rock that superficially references goth and horror tropes. “Black No. 1” is immense and nearly monolithic–the majority of the song is made up of variations of Riff A, and in the mammoth 11-minute album version of the song Riff A occupies all of the first 4 minutes of the song (longer than the entirety of most hit singles). What is it that makes this long-winded song form gothic? In my hearing, it illustrates the epic time scale that is a feature of so many gothic stories and narratives. Mysterious artifacts which have existed for centuries are almost a constant trope in gothic literature and films. One especially salient manifestation of this trope is the quintessential gothic anti-hero, the vampire: a human made immortal whose centuries of extended life give him a bloodthirsty (other)worldliness. By analogy, “Black No. 1” seems to exist before and after the life cycle of a normal 3-minute hit single. In the album version, the first complete Verse-Chorus cycle begins at 1:34, after a full Verse 1. The chorus music appears at 1:12, foreshadowing the later Chorus; but there are no chorus vocals here, and this music has not been prepared by the pre-chorus. In this sense, 1:34 is where the song’s form properly begins, with the earlier material being somehow “before the beginning.” Starting from 1:34 the song form presents two complete cycles of Verse, Pre-Chorus, and Chorus. As happens in the majority of Verse-Chorus song forms,5 after two complete repetitions of the verse there is a contrasting Interlude section. But instead of returning to the Verse and Chorus from earlier, Type O Negative unnaturally extends the life of the interlude by creating a new Chorus at 4:56, followed by a second interlude on toy bells, an extended vamp section with a new Riff C (complete with cowbell and guitar solo), a return of the harpsichord interlude and Riff B Chorus 2. Finally at 7:56 the introduction returns, bringing back the Riff A Chorus.
The song at this point has already had an unnaturally long life. Once it has returned to the original Chorus after the extended many-sectioned interlude at 7:56, “Black No. 1” has completed the template of a normal (albeit extraordinarily long-lived) rock song. But the song continues past the end of this template, past the death of a normal verse-chorus song, and in a particularly unsettling way. The guitars strike an E powerchord at 9:53 after the end of the final chorus, but the drums continue playing a standard rock beat as the guitar chord slowly dies away. A sound effect of wind blowing emphasizes the unnerving effect of the drum rhythms continuing to beat even though the song is over, and the analogy of the song form extending beyond a normal life span is completed by a slow fade out beginning at 9:32. The drums may very well carry on into eternity in the narrative told by the song; the track itself continues more than a minute after the end of the song proper. The epic scale of “Black No. 1” extends beyond the natural limits of a rock song form, and thus mirrors the supernatural persistence of demigods and vampires, demonic artifacts, ancient enchantments and evil tomes that is central to many gothic tales.
Happy Halloween! 🙂
Song Form Analysis of “Black No. 1” (Album Version)
0.00 Ax4 ||:E … G… B… A_ A G A :||
(fourth time: E… G.. A B D Bb A_)
bass alone, tolling bells, hihat on beats 2 and 4. “I went looking for trouble…”
0:26 Verse 1
1:12 “She wiiiiiill”
A x4, sustained guitar version (foreshadows Chorus)
1:34 Verse 2
A’ x4 [A transposed from E to F#] + tambourine
A x4 + cold ambient guitar
2:56 Verse 3
A x8 + synth pads
A x4 + cold ambient guitar
4:15 “Lovin you” harpsichord Interlude 1 in a major mode
4:36 “Lovin you” interlude repeated
4:56 “Lovin you” Chorus 2
B x3 ||: A_ B_ F#_ E_ :||
E_ B F#___ A_ B_ F#___ E_ B_ F#___ A_ B_
5:26 Interlude 2 Toy bells synth
5:40 repeat interlude + synth pipe organ
5:54 C x4 ||: B_ .. B D B A_ .. F# A B E-F-E D :|| (Key of Sol)
(even-numbered repetitions: B_ .. B D B A_ .. F# A B /C# B)
6:13 Guitar solo 1 C x4 + snare on beat 3
6:31 C x4 ride on beats 1234, snare on beats 2 and 4
6:48 “Lovin you” harpsichord Interlude 1 REPRISE
7:10 “Lovin you” Chorus 2
B x3, then E_ B F#___
7:28 “Lovin you” vamp
B x3, then E_ B F#___ A_ B_ F#___ E_ B_ F#___ A_ B_
7:56 A x4 Re-Intro bass alone + snaps + Addams motive
8:17 A x4
8:57 Guitar Solo
9:17 A” x2 ||: E_ G_ E_ A_, E___ G E A___ :||
A” x2 Chorus
9:53 Guitars sustain an E powerchord, drums keep playing a rock beat
10:13 Drums alone with wind sounds
10:32 Drum pattern continues, Guitar in background w/ some feedback
- http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/type-o-negative-singer-peter-steele-dead-at-48-20100415 [↩]
- Susan Fast In The Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music (2001), p. 117. [↩]
- My use of the term “turnaround” is a generalization of the definition which Stephen Valdez gives within the context of the 12-bar blues form.
Stephen Valdez “The development of the electric guitar solo in rock music, 1954-1971” Dissertation, University of Oregon (1992), p. 51. “The turnaround is a melodic or harmonic figure that leads into the repetition of the entire structure. Turnarounds provide an opportunity for different variations of the formula, depending on the style of music and the expertise of the soloist. Tension is usually built during the turnaround and is resolved when the next verse begins.” [↩]
- While I’ve compared the riffs in “Black No. 1” mostly to classic bands from the 60s and 70s, Type O Negative has many more modern influences as well, which are more audible in other songs. [↩]
- A normative form for verse-chorus rock songs from the 1950s onwards is two cycles of Verse and Chorus, followed by a Bridge or Interlude (frequently with a guitar solo), followed in turn by a reprise of the original verse-chorus material. John Covach calls this form “compound AABA,” implying that it originates from a compounding of Verse/Chorus alternation with the 32-bar AABA form of Tin Pan Alley songs in the 1920s and 30s. See John Covach’s 2005 chapter “Form in Rock Music: A Primer” in Engaging Music: Essays in Musical Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein, pp. 65-76. See also p.12 of Bradley Osborn’s 2010 dissertation, “Beyond Verse and Chorus: Experimental Form Structures in Post-Millenial Rock Music.” [↩]