Logo  
  | home | authors | calendar colophon | links | newsgroups | newsfeed | new | printer version |  
volume 2
november 1999

The amazing grace of "Never Ever"

 





  The power of a four-girl band and a three-chord song
by Ger Tillekens
Previous
  All four artists of All Saints from left to right: Nathalie, Shaznay, Nicole and Melanie

"Never Ever", the 1998 hit song of the British girl band All Saints, is a simple three-chord song. These three chords also happen to be the so-called basic chords: tonic, subdominant and dominant. In pop and rock music songs with only those three chords are hard to find. Therefore this nice song offers us a good opportunity to discuss them. Still, there's more to this song that's worth our attention. Because "Never Ever" is built upon the foundations of a very old popular song, "Amazing Grace", we also will dig up some historical facts. And of course we will go into the question why "Never Ever" itself, in face of its simple harmonic characteristics, is such an interesting and attractive pop song.

 
1 The importance of chord combinations in rock music. Though initially most people called it "beat music", from its very beginnings rock music mainly was a harmonic thing. The British beat revolution that started it all, revolved around guitars and the chords played on those instruments. Not hindered by any formal musical knowledge, the artists of early rock music were just sticking chords after one another till they seem to fit with the moods they wanted to express for themselves and to transfer to their audience. That's why chord progressions are so important in rock music. That doesn't mean, however, that other things — like the "beat" itself, rhythm — don't count as well. A good rhythm trick can turn a harmonically simple song, based on just the three basic chords, into a hit song. For a good example, let's look at one of the better results of Girl Power influences in rock and pop music.


2
To the left: Melanie R. Blatt posing in kid-brother look

It all started on All Saint Street. Girl Power was a remarkable phenomenon in the world of rock music of the late nineties. The most conspicuous group of course was formed by the Spice Girls. But, there were other succesful London groups too. One of them called themselves All Saints. This girl band originated somewhere in the early nineties when Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis formed a duo, recording in a studio on All Saints Street, Ladbroke Grove, London. In 1995 they were joined by the Canadian sisters Nicole and Nathalie Appleton. Their band also did add something to the spectrum of the existing groups, as critics judge them more urban and hip-hop oriented. Indeed, in their music as well as their presentation All Saints offer a more streetwise impression than their competitors. In that respect they are worthy successors of the famous girl groups of the late fifties and early sixties. [1] Like the other girl groups of the nineties All Saints clearly cultivate two basic images in the way they present themselves to their audience. On the picture above, taken from the insert of their debut album, we see them adopting a sexually alluring posture, which also is typical for many R&B groups. Here they act as the girl every boy wants to take for an evening out and dreams about what may happen afterwards. The picture to the left, showing Melanie dressed in baggy pants and Adidas sneakers, gives a complete impression of that other girl bands favorite image: the boyish kid-brother look of hip-hop.

3 The images of Girl Power. With those two styles of presentation the All Saints cleverly combine the roles of daring comrade and daring lover. Daring, because in both these roles the girls always show that typical dangerous and inquisitive look in their eyes, which to male onlookers seems to say: "I'm up to you, boy, but are you up to me?" In this respect they do not deviate from the general postures of Girl Power. Just like the Spice Girls they are modifying and mollifying the basic female stereotypes of the sister and the swinger of the class by bending both of them together in the image of the new adolescent girl. However, they make it a lot more easy to combine both these aspects of contemporary girlhood. Unlike for instance the Spice Girls the individual members of All Saints do not adopt special and uniform roles. With each occasion each group member presents a changing and contrasting outfit, thus offering more flexible and less artificial role models to their female fans. The music they make, does sound as supple and inventive.
4 The success of a three-chord song. The group's first single "I Know Where It's At", taken from their nameless debut album, was a small success. Their second single "Never Ever", from the same album, even did better. It reached the charts around Christmas 1997 and hitted a Number One position in the first weeks of January 1998. That's rather good for a composition, that on first sight is little more than a simple three-chord song. Of course, high in the charts one can find a lot more three-chord songs. Most of the times, however, those songs are not grounded on the three basic chords. In pop and rock music, successful three-chord songs will rather show just two of those basic chords with another unusual, incidental chord added for a surprising hook. Most standard three-chord songs built upon the three basic chords are novelty or children's songs. Or else they are just filler-ins. A good example of the last category is the Beatles' song "Don't Pass Me By", written and sung by Ringo Starr on the White Album. Beatles' analyst Alan W. Pollack calls Ringo's composition a "simplistic ditty". [2] In spite of their simplicity, he adds, such songs can still be made interesting with an imaginative arrangement and delivery.
5 A text within a text. "Never Ever" does have something special of this sort. In its harmony it explicitly refers to an old popular song, "Amazing Grace", which has become part of our collective musical consciousness. In "Never Ever" the chords of the first four measures of this hymn are clearly audible behind the spoken intro, as they are accentuated by the piano accompaniment and the voices in the background. And the ghost of this song will stay there for the remainder of "Never Ever". This overlay of songs turns the songlines of "Never Ever" into a text within a text.
The chords to "Amazing Grace":
 
   |C           |            |F           |C           |
 A- ma- zing     grace,  how  sweet   the  sound,  that
   |            |            |G           |
    sav- ed   a  wretch like  me.       I
   |C           |            |F           |C           |
    once    was  lost    but  now      am  found,
   |            |G           |C           ||
    was   blind, but     now  I  see
6 To the right: Nathalie Jane Appleton applying the inquisitive look and posture of Girl Power

The song of a converted slaver. Let's first take a look at "Amazing Grace" itself. As we can see in the diagram above this song is built upon progressions of just three chords. These three are C, F and G. This combination is not unusual for a traditional song and the history of "Amazing Grace" really goes a way back. It was written at the end of the 18th century by John Newton (1725-1807). Newton commanded an English slave ship, but the man shook himself loose from this unholy profession and became deeply involved with religious activities. The hymn "Amazing Grace" was one of the results of his conversion. It describes his feeling of redemption and salvation. Just like that other old religious song "Silent Night, Holy Night", Newton's hymn became one of the lasting successes of popular music. [3] In the 1930's it was even a big hit for the Golden Gate Quartet. This gospel formation used the same three chords for their arrangement. In the heydays of jazz the song, however, became subject to the process of so-called parlourization. In the following years sheet music was sold, that showed ever more embellishments with added tones, relative minor chords and chains of fifths. [4]

7 Some differences. We will treat the subject of added tones, relative minor chords and chains of fifths in the next episodes of this series on rock songs. Here it suffices to say, that embellishments like these once were very popular devices in jazz arrangements. In the chords to "Never Ever" we find nothing of the sort. Here All Saints return to just the bare harmonic skeleton of "Amazing Grace". The only addition of the group is a blue note, a flat-seventh, added to the C in the second measure. Though "Amazing Grace" is still recognizable, "Never Ever" shows some small, but interesting differences with its blueprint. The song was written by Shaznay Lewis in collaboration with Sean Mather and Robert Jazayeri of Rickidy Raw Music. [5] With this song they show their composing qualities. The result of their work is more than just a copy of "Amazing Grace". The All Saints version shortens the original 14 measures into 8 measures. By and large this done by using only the first 4 and last 3 measures, thereby skipping a full 7 measures length of verse.
8 Two chord progressions. This operation results in two separate, slightly different chord progressions. The first four measures, used for the spoken intro and the start of verse and chorus, come out exactly the same as in "Amazing Grace". As the key is raised half a tone upwards to C#, this first progression looks like: C# -» C#7 -» F# -» C#. Apparently to balance the unevenness in length, the second progression has been provided with an extra measure and chord inserted between the last two ones. As a result this progression comes out as: C# -» G# -» F# -» C#. This sequence is used for the second part of verse and chorus. The main structure also is kept rather simple: Intro | Verse | Verse' | Chorus (2x) | Verse | Verse' | Chorus (4x) | Outro. To add to the song's simplicity the outro is accompanied by just one lonesome chord: C#. [6] The first verse shows the main pattern.
The first verse of "Never Ever":
 
|C#                         |C#7                          |
 1      2      3      4      1       2      3       4
 My     head's spinning,             boy, I'm in a  daze.
|F#                         |C#                           |
 1      2      3      4      1       2      3       4
 Feel   iso-   la-    ted,   don't   wanna  communi-cate.
|C#                         |G#                           |
 1      2      3      4      1       2      3       4
 I take a shower,   I will  scour, I will   run,
|F#                         |C#                           |
 1      2      3      4      1       2      3       4
 find   peace of mind,
                the happy    mind  I once   owned,  yeah!
9 Peace of mind. "Amazing Grace" is an old hymn. Its history goes back as far as 1800. "Never Ever" was written about two centuries later, in 1997. There's a big time gap between both songs. Therefore the differences between the lyrics may come as no surprise. As a praise song, the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" are explicitly directed toward an external agency. In contrast the lines of "Never Ever" are phrased as an interior monologue, or as the French say a "monologue interieure". Moreover, the subject of "Never Ever" is not a restoration after a fall from grace, but a comment on a failed love affair. Here secular romance has replaced religious belief. There, however, also is a remarkable correspondence between both songs. The main theme of "Amazing Grace" is about finding grace, the mercy of God. The lyrics express thanks for finding peace of mind. The same theme returns in "Never Ever", where the protaganist is trying to restore her lost peace of mind. By using "Amazing Grace" as a reference to this theme, the composers of "Never Ever" treat the original hymn as a palimpsest, whiping out the original lyrics and writing their own hasty words over the shadowy remaining blots. In the song peace of mind has become something of the past, a memory. Accordingly the harmony stays unobtrusively in the background. The lyrics and melody lean heavily toward the rhythm, accentuating the restlesness of the here and now. Rhythm, as a matter of fact, is an important element of this song and probably one of the main reasons for its success. We will go into that, but first we take look at the more conventional use of chord material. Up for a crash course in music theory ...
10 To the left: Nicole Marie Appleton daring the onlooker to take the next step

Rhythm, melody and harmony. Roughly speaking there are three elements to every piece of music: rhythm, melody and harmony. In music as we know it, each of those elements has its own separate function. Rhythm is closely bound to physical movement and therefore steers and expresses the language of the body. Melody guides the lines of the voice, expressing the changing emotional and cognitive states of the song's protagonist. To this interplay between rhythm and melody the harmony only seems to add some musical color. Harmony, however, does a lot more. Changes in harmony indicate the shifting contexts where voice and body operate. In a way harmony represents the surroundings in which the melody seeks and finds its way. Generally speaking harmonic shifts from one chord to another represent a movement from the "inside" to the "outside" or vice versa. Harmony, thus, not only enriches a piece of music, but also gives additional meaning to the voice of the singer.

11 The Major scale. Harmony is special, because it is built upon the way notes sound when they are played at the same time. Not all notes go together well. Let's look at the most important notes, those of the Major scale. These are the ones we get by playing the seven white keys on the keyboard one after the other: cdefgab.
 
12 Building chords. On the keyboard these notes are ordered sequentially. Their harmonic relationship, however, is something quite different, as we can see in the next figure. The harmonic matrix of tones is built out of two separate lines of tones. On each line the tones are a fifth apart. Both lines are connected by the distance of a third. As we see, each of the basic chords is built out of the intervals of a fifth and a third. By the way, the same goes for all other Major chords. Each Major chord is a triad consisting of a root tone, a third and a fifth. These intervals go together well, because their sound frequencies resonate beautifully; and that's what harmony is all about. For the root, the third and the fifth these sound frequencies come out exactly in a ratio of 4:5:6. [7]
 
13 Names and numerals. As we can see in the diagram above, we can construct three adjacent chords out of the seven notes of the Major scale. These three chords are the basic chords. To identify them, each one of them has got a name and a numeral. The central one commonly is called the tonic. Here it is the C chord with the c at its root, the e on the third and the g on the fifth. To its left in the diagram we find the subdominant with the f at its root, the a on the third and the c on the fifth. At the right of the tonic there's the dominant with the g at its root, the b on the third and the d on the fifth. Often these three chords don't get names but roman numerals. As a starting point the tonic is labeled I. Counting upward along the white keys of the keyboard the root of the subdominant is the fourth one and therefore this chord gets the numeral IV. Subsequently the dominant earns itself the numeral V. More important than their names and numbers is their semantic meaning. Taken together these three chords follow a semantic logic.
14 The semantic logic of the basic chords. In relation to each other, they all add some kind of meaning to the lyrics. The tonic symbolizes the place, where the singer stands voicing his/her individual point of view. With the subdominant the song takes a step back as if the singer retreats in an inner world to think something over. The dominant on the other hand can be interpreted as a step forward. Combined with this chord we often find lyrics in which the singer addresses someone else explicitly or shouts his/her point of view out at the outside world. The "inside" here is the world of inner thoughts, the "outside" the world confronted by the song's protagonist with his/her actions. In this way these chords represent the three elements of human agency, bridging the gap between thinking and acting: reflecting, deciding and declaring.
15 The root of the tonic. The correspondence between chords and their semantic meaning is not always as clear as it could be. After all, throughout a particular song the lyrics in verses will change, while the chord progressions stay the same. But, in a really good song there's always some direct connection between the semantic meaning of the accompanying chords and the lyrics. And, if not in the lyrics, we will often be able to hear it in the tone of voice of the singer. We can check it out in both "Amazing Grace" and "Never Ever". Before we take a look at the chorus of "Never Ever", you'll have to know that the root of the tonic coincides with the key a piece of music is written in. "Never Ever" uses the key of C#. Keys can change, and that's where the roman numerals come in handy. They make it possible to indicate the chords irrespective of the key.
The chorus of "Never Ever":
 
|I                                                       |
 1             2             3             4
 Never         ever   have I ever felt     so low
|I7                                                      |
 1             2             3             4
 When you      gonna take me out  of this  black hole
|IV                                                      |
 1             2             3             4
 Never         ever have I   ever felt     so sad
|I                                                       |
 1             2             3             4
 The way I'm   feeling yeah,
                        you got me feeling really bad
|I                                                       |
 1             2             3             4
 Never         ever had      I had         to find
|V                                                       |
 1             2             3             4
 I've had to   dig away to   find my own   peace of mind
|IV                                                      |
 1             2             3             4
 I never       ever  had my  conscience    to fight
|I                                                       |
 1             2             3             4
 The way I'm   feeling yeah, it just don't feel right
16 Shifting contexts. As we see, apart from the bluesy I7 chord in the second measure, "Never Ever" uses the same harmonic material as "Amazing Grace". The first and second lines of the chorus are framed within the semantic reach of the tonic. As a statement they form the starting point for what will follow. The third line repeats the lyrics of the first one, but now, helped by the subdominant, the words do sound more reflexive. The fourth line again see the tonic reappear when the singer reaches some kind of conclusion. The tonic is also the starting point for the next line. Then within the sixth measure we find a sentence phrased as an exclamation to the outside world: "I've had to dig away ...". Here the dominant underlines the outward tone of voice of the singer. Next on the words "conscience to fight" in the seventh measure, we find the singer retreating in her inner self again. Figuratively she takes a step backward on the subdominant. Then again as a sort of conclusion in the eighth measure there's a finishing step forward back to the tonic. Take a look at "Amazing Grace" and you'll see things work out about the same way there. In most songs the tonic, subdominant and dominant have this effect. The semantic meaning of these chords in western popular music is almost a constant factor in its existence.
17 Authentic and plagal endings. With the assistance of the three basic chords one can construct several chord progressions. To resort to roman numerals, some variations are: I -» IV -» V -» I, or I -» V -» IV -» I, or I -» I -» IV -» I, or I -» I -» V -» I. These are the most common and simple chord progressions. As we can see they come in two flavors. Some have an ending on V -» I, while others finish on IV -» I. These endings, especially when they occur at the end of a song, are known as "cadences". The V -» I ending commonly is known as the authentic cadence; the IV -» I ending as the plagal cadence. In "Amazing Grace" we hear an authentic cadence. In "Never Ever" the change in second progression, the insertion of a subdominant, results in a plagal cadence. Though we've grown used to it, according to the teachings of functional harmony, the plagal cadence not really is the most optimal way of ending a verse or a song. [8] This may be right from a musicological point of view. Semantically, however, the plagal cadence has its own charm. The authentic cadence first offers a declaration to the outside world and then closes with a final decision. The plagal one ends a verse or song with a last time for thinking things over and then ends with a final decision. It's clear that, seen from a semantic point of view, the plagal cadence fits a lot better to the interior monologue of "Never Ever" . That's about all that's there to say about the chords in "Never Ever". Let's skip to that other question: what makes this song so attractive?
18 To the right: Shaznay Tricia Lewis showing that boys are not the only ones who want to have fun

Inchoate thoughts. In the concluding chapter of his book Ulysses, James Joyce wrote down the thoughts of one of his characters. The chapter consists of long sentences withouth any interpunction. Because of this the book as well as the author became famous. Joyce wanted to show the real way people think. Most of the times our thoughts, he wanted to show, are not articulate but inchoate. They won't proceed logically in long linear trains, but go along in circular ways, repeating coercively the same short chain of thoughts over and over again. Especially in periods of heavy emotion these chains can become grinding. This is exactly what we hear in the lyrics of "Never Ever", where our protagonist seems to be tormented by her lover's treason. The musical equivalent of this way of thinking, of course, lies in the rhythm. Within the boundaries of the harmony, but seemingly independent the melody of "Never Ever" points directly to the rhythm, and in that way to the repeating patterns of physical movement. Where the harmony seems to proceed slowly towards its goal, the rhythm is only repeating the same pattern over and over again. The contrast between the slow harmonic rythm and the beat may well be the main hook of "Never Ever". It shows, that chords and intricate chord progressions are not everything that counts in a rock song.

19 Rhythmic tricks. In the song several tricks are used to enlarge the distance between harmony and rhythm. The ternary meter (3/4) of "Amazing Grace" is stretched out to a four quarter time (4/4), seemingly slowing it down. "Amazing Grace" already is a slow song, but now for the listener it becomes even more so. As a result each beat easily can be subdivided in two beats, accentuated by the snare drum. The main beats — accentuated on the second and fourth beat; a so-called offbeat — provide a slow background for the piano chords and the background voices, while the snare drum builds a fast foreground for the lyrics of the singer: a four quarter time starting on the first offbeat and taking two of the original beats. Though rhythmically synchronized the measures of the background and foreground are out of touch, causing a sensation of hasty stumbling for the leading voice. This effect of haste, also built into the lyrics, is further strengthened in the second verse and the chorus, where the singers are putting in the double amount of words to the chords. Moreover, on a slow R&B beat the lyrics are rather spoken than sung. "Soft rapping" may be a better word for it; and this also stresses the foreground rhythm.
Interacting rhythms:
 
                       v               v
Background:   |1       2       3       4      |1   
Foreground:           |1   2   3   4  |1   2   3   4   |
               My      head's  spinning,

                       v               v
Background:            2       3       4      |1
Foreground:           |1   2   3   4  |1   2   3   4   |
                       boy, I'm in a   daze.   Feel

                       v               v
Background:            2       3       4      |1
Foreground:           |1   2   3   4  |1   2   3   4   |
                       iso-    la-     ted ... etc.
20 A fast undercurrent of thoughts. As a result the lyrics of "Never Ever" become a fast rhythmic undercurrent within the slow harmonic mainstream of "Amazing Grace" in the background. The repeated "never ever's" of the lyrics go round in circles, trying to find the peace of mind suggested by the slowly ungoing pace of "Amazing Grace". The religious feeling of salvation of "Amazing Grace" becomes a contrasting background to the romantic uncertainty of "Never Ever". At stake here, of course, it is not spiritual salvation, but the memory of peace of mind in better days. But, the contrast between harmony and rhythm makes clear that for the protagonist of the song it would feel like a salvation to return to those happy days.
21 The power of a Girl Power song. Referring to James Joyce in the context of a 1990's Girl group may seem inappropriate. Joyce wrote "High Art" and many people will denounce the Girl Power groups as purely commercially prefabricated constructions. That's right, there's something artificially and prefab to this kind of teenager rock. Rock, however, is not meant as art; and "Never Ever" certainly does have something in common with Joyce's novel, sharing its theme of feeling and power in daily life. In their songs that same theme is being adapted by other Girl Power groups. The girl protagonists of their songs claim to be strong enough to show their thoughts and feelings very directly. If that's girl power, All Saints have a lot of it. Although they themselves are in their mid-twenties, the group members function as flexible role models for their female fans, most of them girls in early adolescence, and as ditto sex objects for their male fans. They show them that if you've got the power of rhythm, you've also got the power to move your body your own way. And, after all, that's what good popular music is all about.
   
Previous
  Some notes:
1. See on the subject of the girl groups and girl group sounds of the late fifties and early sixties: Greg Panfile (1994), Boys will be Girl Group, or the Johnettes. Return to text
2. See the remarks by Alan W. Pollack (1998) on this song in his Notes on "Don't Pass Me By". Return to text
3. Much has been written about songs like "Frankie and Johnny" and "Greensleeves" as the ancestors of today's popular music. Religious songs like "Silent Night" and "Amazing Grace", however, have been as influential. These hymns also belong to the real classics of popular music. It is remarkable that both these popular songs transmit the same powerful message of heavenly peace as a direct relationship between God and the individual. In his short history of the carol "Silent Night, Holy Night" Bill Egan provides more information about this song. Return to text
4. See for the story about "Amazing Grace" and the Golden Gate Quartet: Volkmar Kramarz (1983), Harmonie-analyse der Rockmusik. Von Folk und Blues zu Rock und New Wave (Mainz: Schott, 1983). Click here for the chord tabs as he notes them in his book on page 44. The concept of parlourization was introduced by Peter van der Merwe in his book Origins of the Popular Style. The antecedents of twentieth century popular music (Oxford: Clarendon: 1989). Return to text
5. As with many sampled and mixed songs, it's unclear who exactly is responsible for which elements in "Never Ever". The next information is just a piece of gossip, but good to know if you're interested in questions on authorship. Next to Lewis, the song credits mention Rickidy Raw. That's the name of the company of Sean Mather and Robert Jazayeri, two producers specializing in R&B, Pop, Hip-Hop, Dance, and Alternative. Apparently they were forgotten when the song became a success. So, in January 1998 they issued a writ against All Saints, claiming fifty percent of the copyright for the song. Their action followed a successful claim by Minder Music over songwriting credits on the track "Let's Get Started", which also appears on the group's debut album. It seems both parties reached a settlement granting Rickidy Raw forty percent of the publishing rights to the track. Return to text
6. Thanks to Manuel Zanzi for his transcription of the song (April 23, 1998). Return to text
7. Sound frequencies are usually measured in units of Hertz (abbreviated as Hz), indicating the number of frequencies per second. Starting from a c of 264 Hz the corresponding third e amounts to 330 Hz (5/4 * 264) and the fifth g resonates at 396 Hz (3/2 * 264). For strings, on a guitar for example, it works just the other way around. So, if a 60 centimeter long string produces a c, one has to shorten it to 4/5 of its original length (48 cm) to get an e; and to 2/3 (40 cm) to produce a g. Today's instruments, by the way, usually are tuned to the Equal Temperament and their intervals therefore will be slightly deviating from these "natural harmonics." These deviations are important for a good understanding of pop and rock music, but that's another story. Return to text
8. Functional harmony encompasses the formal teaching of harmonics. That's what you learn in most music classes about the principles of good harmonic movement. The assumption of functional harmony is that all harmonic sounds used in music may be classified in three large groups, related to the tonic, dominant, and subdominant. Upon this foundation functional harmony has erected a set of rules and regulations about the movement of harmonic sounds within and through these groupings. To the ears of adherents of functional harmony, many — if not most — rock songs are seemingly intend on breaking these rules. Return to text
   
Previous
  The sound fragments on this page are taken from the first untitled album and copyrighted: "Never Ever" 1998 © London Records 90 Ltd. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting. This article is part of a series of essays on individual rock songs and albums: Rock song anatomy.
  1999 © Soundscapes