Waiting for the Godots in Popular Music

There are moments in songs you wait for. Sometimes it’s by accident, often it’s by design, but regardless of their origin, pop music is littered with unforgettable moments in songs, or ‘Godots’ (with apologies to Samuel Beckett).

Why ‘Godots’? Because no matter how many times you hear the song, no matter how many times you experience these moments, you never really stop waiting for them. Every time you hear the song.

There is no one universal feature that defines a Godot, other than it’s brevity and some element of surprise. It stands out, and calls emphatic attention to itself, maybe because of its incongruence from the rest of the song, or maybe because it’s delivering a much anticipated ‘payoff’, or maybe because it is so god damn irritating.

Here are but 10 examples:

10. Take the Money and Run – The Steve Miller Band

steve miller band

This insanely listenable song, just as fresh the 100th time you listen to it as the first, is a glorious soup of hooks, harmonies, jangly guitars and feel-good “hoo-hoo’s” (the latter of which I’ve always suspected were the sound a train pulling away, perhaps shuttling these bank-robber stowaways to freedom).

For a particular moment to stand out in this AM masterpiece – the song itself is more or less one long hook – is not easy. But nestled at the 0:35 and 1:14 mark of the song are two quick successions of 5 hand-claps that steal the show.  You’re waiting for them as soon as the song begins, it’s difficult to resist clapping along when it happens, and you are more or less biding your time until it occurs again the second time, after which you can finally relax and enjoy the rest of the tune.  A quintessential Godot.

9. Nobody Home – Pink Floyd

pink floyd

At the other end of the feel-good spectrum is this poetic and mournful paen to modern day alienation and loneliness, ‘Nobody Home’ by Pink Floyd from The Wall. Accompanied by a swelling but hesitant orchestral score, a lone piano, his own echo and the atmospheric  aftermath of a ‘domestic dispute’, ‘Pink’ (the singer and main character in this sprawling concept album) recites an ironic list of worthless shit meant to represent his pathetic argument for living.  It’s grim but beautiful, and punctuating this solemn recitation is the constant chatter of a TV left on in the background, which adds a marvelous documentary-like effect to the song, as though we are eavesdropping on the composition of a suicide note.

There are two instances when Pink pauses for dramatic effect before delivering the line that lies at the emotional heart of the song ‘…there’ll be nobody home’, a reference to the fact that he has been abandoned by his lover.  It’s in the midst of the second occurrence at the 1:41 mark that we hear ‘Surprise, surprise, surprise!’ in the background, which as it turns out is a clip from the show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., braying his infamous catch-phrase.

Rather than spoil the moment however, this random piece of pop-culture detritus stands in such stark emotional contrast to the mood of the song it actually enhances the psychic despair by highlighting the vapid meaninglessness of popular culture in the midst of genuine human misery.

8. You Dropped a Bomb on Me – Gap Band

True to it’s title, a bomb does indeed drop at the 0:17 mark of this 1982 dance floor stomper, making a piercing whistle-noise as if dropped from a great height, and sounding exactly like the Coyote falling to the floor of the painted desert. Perfect!

The ‘hook’ however is that after that first initial, delightful sound, it goes away. So we wait. And wait. And wait. Another bomb does not drop for almost 2 more minutes (an eternity in a pop song) but when it does at 2:27 that is our Godot and it is glorious.

Be careful what you wish for though because this second strike kicks off a barrage that includes 23 more whistle-bombs taking us right through, uninterrupted, to the end of this 5 minute song.

7. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey

journey

Another song that makes us wait – a great device used to sustain our attention and deliver a payoff – is Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey.

Few listeners who were around to hear this now-classic ballad the first time it surfaced can believe it’s back, and with such ferocious appeal, providing the soundtrack to the final scene of The Sopranos, the musical and emotional high point of the latest season of Glee – it’s even present at Detroit Red Wing games now, where thanks to the mention of a boy ‘born and raised in South Detroit’ it’s positively screamed by the fans.

The secret to this song’s appeal is the highly unusual decision to sing the chorus only once, and not until the very end of the song. The unmatched sweetness of Steve Perry’s impossible falsetto once it finally arrives at 3:23 delivers a climax that feels like a genuine triumph for the mysterious ‘streetlight people’ who populate the song.

6. Paradise by the Dashboard Light – Meatloaf

meatloaf

Could this be both the most overrated and underrated song of all time? Perhaps. As divisive as this mini-teen-opera is, there is no denying it is an utterly original and imaginative track filled with brilliant lyricism and guts. Were it on the Rocky Horror soundtrack it would be the best song on the album.

It’s most famous moment occurs when the song switches conceits in medias res and we find ourselves listening to the play-by-play of a baseball player’s progress around the bases. In fact, it’s a real-time chronicle of a horny teenager’s effort to separate his girlfriend from her pants in the back seat of his car (the moaning and heavy breathing give it away). ‘Holy cow I think he’s gonna make it!’ the announcer cries when all of a sudden ‘STOP RIGHT THERE! I GOTTA NOW RIGHT NOW!’ the girl retards the boy’s mounting progress by demanding, on the spot, lifelong, unequivocal loyalty, to which the boy replies rather meekly and somewhat desperately ‘Let me sleep on it’.

As a sequence it’s brilliant. The song’s only real sin is it’s ubiquitousness. An absolute delight in every way, it has overstayed its welcome for many by becoming a fixture at every high school dance, 70’s party and wedding ceremony performed in the Western world in the last 35 years.

The true punchline comes when the boy finally succumbs to this Faustian conundrum by ‘swearin to my God and on my mothers grave that I would love you to the end of time’ followed moments later at 7:14 by ‘And now I’m prayin’ for the end of time’, a saucy tip of the hat to the speed with which post-coital bliss retreats after consummation.

In an epic song that rocks, is devilishly funny and filled with a jukebox full of fun it’s hard to find one shining moment but this one does nicely. Thanks mostly to the coded message that brings a smile of recognition each time it’s heard, and which is made more poignantly sweet by the retreating coda that follows as the song fades to black, telling us ‘It was long ago and it was far away and it was so much better than it is today’. It was indeed.

5. Lost in Love – Air Supply

air supply

A watched pot never boils. But of course it does. It just seems that way. The greatest appetizer is an appetite. The context you bring (an appetite) to the content (the food) enhances it, makes it better, more satisfying – the context therefore has an inherent stake in defining the quality of the content. You get the picture.

Australian duo Air Supply delivered the mother of all 80’s-era easy-listening payoffs in their hit ‘Lost in Love’ by building a slow, controlled boil that doesn’t bubble over until the 3:00 mark. But when it does, you believe. It releases the tension by surprising the listener in a deeply pleasing way with an unexpected and most welcome octave jump. You didn’t realize you were waiting for it, but when it happens you feel all of the emotion that has been building throughout the song. The man is most certainly ‘lost in love’ as the title suggests and you don’t doubt it for a moment.

True, it does sound as though the singer’s nuts are stuck in the closed door of a car but that’s beside the point: it is a falsetto that rivals even the great Steve Perry’s by being even more delicate and some might argue more sublimely successful in capturing that ethereal moment when the ecstasy of love overwhelms the senses, causes you to abandon reason, and makes you feel ‘lost’ in the middle of the day.

4. Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams

bryan adams

Buried within the fade-out of this ubiquitous CanCon ditty-that-will-not-die (at 3:03 to be precise) is a very naughty bit indeed. Mr. Adams plays with the lyrics and reports that “Me and my baby did a ’69”. Juvenile, silly, and impossible to ignore once someone has pointed it out. Every time you hear the song you lean close to the speaker or turn up the volume just to be absolutely sure you heard it right the last time. You did. And you can stop listening now, if only they would stop playing it.

3. Wendy – The Beach Boys

wendy

1 minute and 19 seconds into the recording of this song, someone in the studio coughs. The sound made it onto the master tapes, and ever since it has been a very small part of musical history. What makes this supposed flub special is how it evokes the innocence of the time, the honesty of the performance, and the halcyon days of the early rock and roll era.

Imagine just for a moment the impossibility of an errant sneeze making it’s way onto a hermetically-sealed, Auto-Tune-enhanced digital track by the likes of Britney or Justin or Rebecca Black. It couldn’t happen. Most popular music today is produced to within an inch of its life, and that knowledge makes this Beach Boys track and their lo-fi studio accomplishment all the more significant: that this was a one-take recording with all of the musicians in one room playing at the same time (less than a rarity these days); that the achingly beautiful and meticulously arranged harmonies are ‘real’, and have not undergone enhancement in post-production. The artisan-like feel of the cough contributes to the song’s authenticity, it’s archival and historical value, and to the listening pleasure of the experience itself.

2. Surfin’ Bird – The Trashmen

the watchmen

This thrash-surf-pre-punk treasure is the Holy Grail of Garage music. It makes Louie Louie seem downright intelligent by comparison. It is unlike any song that came before, and unlike any song recorded since. No one yet has come close to capturing the thrilling insanity found in this mess. The only instrument you can really hear is the drums. The lyrics aren’t absurd, they are total gibberish. And it’s hard to find a more honest expression of the spirit of DIY rock n’ roll than Surfin’ Bird.

At 2 minutes and 15 seconds it is compact, to say the least, yet somehow within this musical mayhem the singer finds time to have a what sounds like a complete and total breakdown, collapsing into a string of nonsensical, guttural blurts that trail off into nothingness. Then, the singer singer gulps a huge swath of air and at 1:10 begins an unholy babble that always lasts longer than you think: ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba…” before careening headlong once again into the void.

This song is so bloody weird, so irreverent and so vexingly original it cannot be ignored. It is the sound of deranged, teenage joy made manifest, and this moment, this bizarre breakdown and phoenix-like re-surfacing (Ba-ba-ba-ba Ooo ma mow mow, ba ba mow ma mow) takes this song from cult status to truly immortal.

1. Suffragette City – David Bowie

suffragette city

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am!’

If you’ve heard the song, you know exactly what I’m talking about, which makes this the Godfather of the Godots. ‘Nuff said! God Bless!

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9 responses to “Waiting for the Godots in Popular Music

  • spencer

    The king of all Godots for me is in CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. Every time I listen to it I spend the entire song waiting for the “do do do do do”‘s — and every time I think they’re about to get there they kick into another verse instead. The payoff doesn’t come until the 6:32 mark in a 7:24 minute song. But when it does come it’s like, yahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! You can’t not sing along.

  • Exo Ooderonovich

    One that always gets me is when they break into full tilt boogie toward the end of Janis’ Me and Bobby McGee. And FSTP does a some transitions I always listen for – like in Goodbye Caroline – All this time I was thinkin about you!! (I really was…)

  • Nick Spence

    Some of my personal Godots:

    1) Sweet Child O’Mine (G’N’f’n’R): Slash’s first of many solos in this song begins on an epic high note, but the band sneaks in a heart-wrenching minor chord underneath it. Air guitar enthusiasts around the world rejoiced!

    2) Keith Jarrett – The Koln Concert (Part 1): A few minutes into the recording of this mesmerizing improv performance, you hear someone moan in ecstatic pleasure, and it echoes through the concert hall. You think that this person was extremely high and just gave themselves away. Then you realize it’s Jarrett himself, the expression captured through the mic inside his piano. He may have been high. It was the 70s and this was jazz improv in Germany.

    3) La Cienega Just Smiled (Ryan Adams): The song is already beyond beautiful, but the fact that Ryan chooses to play the signature guitar riff for the first time on acoustic nearly kills me. I listen for it everytime and attempt (unsuccessfully) to silence the room.

  • Thinfinn

    Love this!

    My Godots

    It’s 1987, a packed dance floor, REM’s End of the World is playing, people are dancing, trying to sing along ( we used to have End of the Word competitions- how many verses you could sing) and then at once everyone shouts Leonard Bernstein and smiles- a satisfying Godots

    The Beat Goes On/Switching to Glide- 2songs 2 Godots. The Beat Goes On is all about Dave Diamond (singer) and Zero (guitar) making plans to meet up with chicks. Mid first verse Dave Diamond grinds – “Hey little Donna aaaaaaaw still wanna, said to ring you up when I was in Ta-ran-ah” (Toronto). Love the line, love the name check. The song and quest to pick up chicks continues ending in an annoying echoing of “the beat goes on and on and on” at this point I’m almost ready to change the station and then I hear “this beat goes” followed by fuzzy synthesizers and what sounds like phazers firing and then I switch to happy glide.

  • whyskeltonwhy

    Leonard Bernstein! – yes – what a fantastic find.

  • Nick Spence

    Okay I’ve had some time to think of a couple more:

    1) D’yer Maker (Zep): Imagine a high school house party so ramped and crowded that people are spilling out the front door. Well, this song is the house and the people are drum fills. Bonham is such a monster on this track that its hard to distinguish one amazing fill front another, but there’s a beautiful note that shines through. At 2:58, amongst some great snare work, Bonzo pushes everything aside and hits a single high hat, naked and alone. To me, the song exists for this high hat; it’s like they started with it and built the song around it.

    2) Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes (Paul Simon): After each chorus there is great, celebratory horn part (a hook on its own) but the Godot lies in the double shot on the 12-string guitar that launches the brass. Not many songs feature a 12-string guitar (try to think of one); fewer still have me air guitar to a 12-string chord shot.

    Great thread, whyskeletonwhy!

    • whyskeltonwhy

      I love the granularity of Nick’s posts. This is aficionado-level music listening here. I went back and listened to those and they are fantastic, the genius is in the details.

      In that spirit, on ‘I Hate My Generation’ by Sloan off Twice Removed, at the 0:46 mark the singer says ‘..and maybe I watched too much TV…’ after which, at 0:50, the drummer sneaks this tiny little buh-duh-thump-TINK! in what I think is a tom-tom/bass drum shuffle followed by a strike on the bell of a teacup cymbal.

      It is super-quick, subtle, and so immensely satisfying, especially to fans of percussion. In all of their rather formidable catalogue that cymbal strike is my favourite Sloan moment.

      Regarding songs with 12 strings in them – I don’t know for sure, but I’ve always wondered whether Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ begins with one.

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