- Published: Monday, 10 February 2020 22:04
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"He's a triskadecapedal, carbon-based humidoid." This was the second-ever collaboration between the aforementioned Don Marvel and myself. For a second time, Don handed me a set of lyrics and suggested I write a song of it. I have a feeling, however, that it was the first time he did this thinking "I'm excited to hear what Ian will do with this." A month or two earlier, Don had given me lyrics which had become "Gopher Gassin'," but that was somewhat exploratory. We were both happy with that song, so now it was more like "let's keep this going." I can't even remember whether it was my idea that he give me lyrics? It does seem likely, as that is a way I started operating some time in high school. I have a few songs lying around with lyrics by various seemingly random people with whom I was in a summer show and barely ever saw again. "give me your lyrics, I'll write a song." I continued to operate this way in college, note the previously presented Snout (I have yet to write this one up, but it is on the Soundcloud, lyrics by Julie Gozan.) When I saw these lyrics I remember a big smile spreading across my face. I recall it being in a dining hall at Oberlin that Don presented them to me. There had been a reference to a "Meat Bomb" of some sort in a campus periodical. It was in character for Don to take this jumping off point to get to "Meat Balm." I believe it was Don's goal to hand me the wackiest pile of words he could come up with; "Meat Balm" is Don Unchained.
"Meat Balm" was written during the OCMR era -- spring of 1990 -- but it was not destined to be an OCMR song. With its frequently shifting time signatures, I had a strong feeling our lead singer/guitarist would struggle to follow along. So for a while it was just a song I played on the piano. I wasn't prepared to try to teach it to Mr Ability either, although that group had demonstrated some facility for time changes (cf "I Am the Magic Hand", "Caribou" and my own "Righteous Weasel").. it remained in my personal repertoire, and there were a couple of solo performances. Spring of my junior year, I recorded a backing track for this song using Digital Performer sequencer software, on my friend Evan's computer while we roomed together in NYC. I used this arrangement the following fall in my junior recital, with added horn section, plus two vocalists. I have this recording,perhaps it will emerge here. in my estimation this song reached its true expression once taken on by Anomaly in 1997. Anomaly was finally a band that could handle my time changes with confidence, in no small part due to Brian Lafleur.
This song hinges on a riff that I've always found compelling. It's essentially the "Smoke on the Water" riff -- it's part of the minor pentatonic scale, ascending to the 4th degree of the scale via the lowered third (in A, this would be A-C-D), or approaching the tonic from the 5th degree, via the lowered seventh (in A, E-G-A). You'll find this motif sprinkled throughout my works. Meat Balm's riff is basically A-C-D-C (short-short-long-short). The song begins with an expansion of this riff, wandering tonally into F# major before descending ominously in diminished 5ths in a 7/8 figure, followed by a partial whole tone scale bringing us back onto an Am-Dm vamp in a slow 4/4. This section prefigures the longer guitar solo later, before shifting back to the signature riff, via a rhythmic transition in 3/4 I'm very proud of.
In the first verse there is a little musical allusion that pleases me -- the lyric goes "Take the A train, that's funky A for anaerobic groove bus" -- I could not resist sneaking in a quote of the main hook from the Duke Ellington classic. It fit perfectly in between the vocal lines, and worked with the harmony, when I worked it out I cackled like I'd stolen the golden goose. I couldn't really work it into my piano accompaniment so it didn't really see the light of day until I did it on my recital with horns. When Anomaly worked it into the repertoire, Eddy got to play this line on bass. It just occurred to that the whole song takes the A train -- A minor, that is.
This song likes to cruise in 7/8 time, likely influenced by Genesis, a la Cinema Show, but in the verses it shifts to 4, 3 2...whatever suits the words. The first line is 2 bars of 3 ("Can you dig that, Felix Andromeda love pool?"), then 2 bars of 7; next a bar of 2/4 and a bar of 6/8 ("I said seal it with simmering dove drool") followed again by 2 bars of 7/8. I won't walk you through the entire song, but you can see the pattern (or lack thereof). The lead-in to the chorus ("fuchsia carpet on every wall, auto-laser flushing in every stall") "stabilizes" into 7/8 (almost). leading us to the chorus which climbs stepwise to A major, from Eb major, in 7/8 time. Then we state the title "Meat Balm, the web-footed groove hound" over the Magic Pink Floyd Chord Progression (D minor - G major, or minor I to major IV). This is a chord progression that I love and have to restrain myself from using at times. You hear it all over the place -- it's kind of a turnaround that never gets home to I --- but never as prominently as in Pink Floyd. It's used in "Breathe" from Dark Side of the Moon, the opening guitar solo of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond"( the key riff outlines G minor7 - C major) , "Sheep" from Animals (E minor - A major) , a song I can't remember from "Obscured by Clouds" and most prominently in the guitar riff of "Wish You Were Here" (again E minor - A major). In Meat Balm, we use D minor - G major. There's something compelling and melodic about moving up a fourth from a minor chord to a major one. It's a modal feel, the major chord doesn't seem like the tonic, and it doesn't lead us back to I strongly the way the V chord does with its leading tone in the middle. Since it's not particularly functional in a traditional harmonic sense, it is prone to oscillatory use. I dip my toes into this by repeating it once, before zooming back into A minor, via a quick descent to E major (from that G). Next we restate the big riff.
This song is an example of the influence of Pink Floyd on my music. My parents were fans through the 70s, overlapping with my early childhood such that their music was like the air I breathed. I became a devout fan in high school, by which time I had started to pursue an active interest in rock music. They are one of few extremely popular bands that I have a strong connection with. They could make a one or two-chord jam very interesting (cf the first part of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond"), but they also could develop an odd chord progression and make it reach people (such as the last part of "Shine on" ). They also were distinctive because they did a lot of minor chord jams. There is a sadness, a melancholy to much of their music which I think is part of why people enjoy it so much. In Meat Balm, I am specifically I'm referring to the guitar solo section in the middle after the first chorus, which is two chords: A-minor, D-minor. Anomaly's guitarist, Matt, is a big Pink Floyd fan too, below his jazzer veneer -- I think this is why he could always do a lot with this solo section. Sometimes it would go for a while, and we could always build it dynamically along with him.
This was a song that Anomaly was proud to do, because it was tricky, but I could never tell exactly how well it went over with the audience. I do know there was at least one fan who liked it enough to reference it in a short story. Such is the legacy of the epic groove hound with the webbed feet.