Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Somebody Scream

Sometimes it's too much. Sometimes it's too frustrating, too exhilarating, too much to contain. Sometimes words won't do, and it bubbles up from your chest and explodes from your lungs, then out your mouth like a cannonball. Sometimes it's wordless. Sometimes it's the guttural, purist form of one right word.

Sometimes you gotta scream, Blogworld.

Here now, in an alternative to YouTube Wednesday, is a list of Rock's Greatest Screams.

This list is by no means comprehensive, just several of my favorite screams in the history of pop/rock. Join in and let me know your favorites, and what I'm missing out on!

Rock's Greatest Screams!

The Beatles, "Long Tall Sally" (0:32)
In later years, Paul's rockabilly remixes were a sincerely schlocky form of flattery, but the Beatles' early covers are some of the best we have, and some of Paul's sharpest vocals. Little Richard's original is controlled chaos, wonderful and exuberant and unpredictable; the Beatles' cover is a glorified riot, pushing the song as high and as fast as it can go. Paul's up to the challenge. It's his scream leading into the first solo that marks the song's first departure from the original: Paul simply can't help himself. He's having too much fun. What follows is a sound of pure, unbridled joy. Late "rocker" vocals by Paul would be endearing self-parodies. But in this scream you can hear what made the Beatles THE BEATLES: before the hits, the American invasion, the hoopla, and the superstardom, they were four consummate musicians who loved playing rock music.

Radiohead, "Stop Whispering" (4:38)
I can't find the original Pablo Honey version in its entirety, so please enjoy the edited YouTube clip and iTune the song. Even without its climactic scream (at 4:38 on the actual record), "Stop Whispering" would still be one of Thom Yorke's hallmark vocal performances. His strength and control at the top of his vocal register would inspire hundreds of imitators in the next decade, most of them doomed to falsetto-laden antiheroics. At each refrain, Yorke sings "stop whispering/start shouting" at a delicate volume; as a listener you realize that, for the song to fulfill its promise, Yorke himself must shout at some point. The scream comes in the last refrain, but what makes it special is that it starts normally. Throughout the sustained note of "shoooout," Yorke gradually turns the normal note into a scream. You can actually hear--second by second--his vocal chords tearing themselves loose. It's a remarkable moment, and I've never heard anything else quite like it.

Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Love" (2:43)
The scream in "Whole Lotta Love" is really a duet: in the song's unabashedly sexual breakdown, Plant and Page play off each other, calling and responding to each other's squeals, yelps, yells, and screams. There's no single legendary, sustained, primal call here--just a thrilling, spontaneous duet between the guitarist and singer, each pushing each other toward climax.

(Side note: I'm not an unconditional lover of Robert Plant. Zeppelin, at their best, were amazing blues improvisors and inventors. Unfortunately--and understandably--what we get on record wasn't always their best. Plant's work on Zeppelin I and Houses of the Holy are sometimes hard for me to hear, often bringing moments of masturbatory histrionics without anything truly new, or exciting, or memorable--like the breakdown in "Whole Lotta Love." To me, Robert Plant was a talent; Jimmy Page was The Talent.)

Pearl Jam, "Blood" (1:03)
In one of the most vulnerable vocals of the 90's, Vedder is audibly desperate, pained, and clawing his way out of it. The entire song features a screaming refrain ("It's my blooooood"), but at 1:03 the band drops out and let's Eddie's single, sustained scream do all the talking for them. In terms of sheer supernatural power, length, and violence, it's possibly rock's greatest scream. After eleven seconds of blood-curdling magic, perhaps the greatest (and most impressive) vocal moment is what comes next: a couplet sung in a pure, gentle, nearly-whispered style--a smooth, wholly unaffected vocal tone. No human should be able to follow that scream with that sound.

Nirvana, "Tourette's" (All)
The whole thing is such a blatant kiss-off, you can practically hear Cobain daring the mall-queens to like this. A moment of fearless punk on an album of iconic pop/rock.

The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again" (7:44)
There's a reason this is an easy answer: it really is that great. Within the context of the song--an epic rock saga almost symphonic its phases--Daltrey's scream at the 7:44 mark means everything. It means more than the instrumental section it ends, more than the verses and choruses and bridges it succeeds, more than the outtro it catalyzes. Depending on the time of day or season or year, it could sound like the end of times, or a new beginning, a triumph or a downfall, victory or defeat. If rock at its best and purest is a wordless expression of freedom, then let Roger Daltrey's scream at 7:44 be one of rock's landmark moments. It is, above all else, free.

***And a Special Bonus! Rock's Worst Scream:
Switchfoot, "Meant to Live" (2:37)
There is a difference between singing and screaming, and there is a difference between yelling and screaming, and this is somehow none of the three. He clearly got to the mic and didn't have a clue which of the three he wanted to do. He should've yelled, because he can't sing there, and the song lacks the anger or believable joy to merit a legitimate scream. What we get instead is one of rock's biggest vocal abortions. This is what it sounds like when a man can't get it up. This is the sound of Man, Failing.

(Side note: I actually enjoy the song as a guilty pleasure. But this scream is unspeakably bad.)

What are your favorite screams? What am I missing? Hit up the comments and yell at me!

I tip my hat,


Hillary Brooke said...

Silversun Pickups- Lazy Eye (3:07)

This song haunts me in a good way & I'll never forget having to leave their concert as they took fucking stage...sometimes being a responsible adult is a terrible job...I should really just become a musician.

ross k. said...

Did you even mention a band called Switchfoot? I'm going to assume they formed after 1995 and appeal to teenagers in Bardstown, which is why I don't know a single one of their songs. Boo. (And by the way: In Utero, pop? "Milk It" "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," and "Scentless Apprentice" don't sound too pop to me, sir.)

Here's an obscure one I'll bring up from the graveyard: young Jim James on "It Came from Norway," the second song on Hotel Roy's Helicopters record. The scream at the end is blood-curdling. I saw him do it live when I was 14 or 15 and he was 17 or 18, and I never forgot about it.

Chris Milam said...

Wow...I linked to this on Twitter and now Switchfoot is following me. What are the chances I can get sued for calling something a "vocal abortion"? Any lawyers out there?

Michael said...

Oh man, I'd never paid attention to that switchfoot song and I can't stop cracking up over that scream.

There's gotta be a good Chris Cornell (soundgarden version) out there. nothing comes to mind off the top of my head though. He tended to "sing" his screams i guess ... i.e. the one before the guitar solo in "Spoonman."

ross k. said...

Yeah! Cornell unleashed a classic that really does belong with the others on Milam's list. It's in "Outshined," in the middle of the song. You can't miss it. The whole Badmotorfinger album is pretty harrowing, actually. I think Cornell probably left about 20% of his vocal tissue in that studio.

ross k. said...

I should also say it's not fair to leave out Prince, whose screams will raise your hair up until it looks almost like mine. Probably the best known ones are in "Kiss," but there are shockers in "The Beautiful Ones," "Purple Rain," and "Free" too.

Hillary Brooke said...

Anything by Janis really should be on that list too...& maybe Van Morrison, & Hendrix...damn, so many are now coming to mind, but I lack the tracks to back up my additions.

ross k. said...

Yeah, this is a great entry, isn't it? I feel like everybody waits for the awesome screams in songs but nobody has thought to catalogue them. Kudos to Chris for posting this.

One more: for everybody that saw Terminator 2 when it came out, Axl Rose's scream at the end of "You Could Be Mine" was definitive. How does one go about singing this? Scratching my head...

Michael said...

I say Chris writes a more in depth entry about the scream.

Chris Milam said...

Cornell and Joplin have a treasure one scream sticks out for me, because awesomeness abounds. Same (kind of) goes for the ACDC Guy.

Chris Milam said...

Oh, and thanks Ross!

Michael, you want to guest-write an in-depth entry about The Scream? Mi casa...

Lady M said...


sorry...couldn't help it.

TownCharacter said...

On a later version of "Mannish Boy" by Muddy, Johnny Winters, who is on board for production, etc. provides numerous screams, especially any time Muddy sings 'I'm a man'. This first occurs at 1:05, but they're all through, indicating Winters' devotion to the master. Winter also provides some wonderful (unprintable) comments at the fade out.

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