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Listening (Not Going) To ‘Rehab’

Listening again recently to Amy Winehouse’s really good song ‘Rehab’, I was struck by several straightforward but notable things about it.

Right from the beginning, we’re dropped into the middle of a dramatic story that someone is telling (‘They tried to make me go to rehab, I said ‘no, no, no!’).  How can you not eavesdrop?

It’s as if you’re overhearing someone talking urgently to her girlfriend in the next booth or on the next barstools.  So conversational and colloquial, not explaining the references – which people never do when they know each other well and live in the same ‘world’:

I’d rather be at home with Ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cos there’s nothing,there’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

People tell me that she’s referring to Ray Charles and Donnie Hathaway.  That never even occurred to me the first hundred times I heard the song and I don’t think it matters a bit whether it’s true or not.  I just thought she was talking about her boyfriend Ray and some guy (or brand of liquor or type of drug or band or…) named Mr. Hathaway.  Either way it’s the same difference – the important thing is that we’re in her world and we want to know what happens next.

There’s a great power in using specific references, details, that the listener doesn’t exactly understand but that sound real and convincing and put us in the song’s world – it arouses our curiosity and gives a sense of verisimilitude.  ‘Rehab’ is a great example of this.

The song is in the key of ‘C’.  The Chorus and Pre-Chorus chords consist entirely of C7, F7, G7 chords (I, IV, and V dominant 7th chords).  You really don’t hear dominant 7th chords much anymore in pop music.  Along with the lyric, their bluesy quality (and the melody’s) makes the Chorus stand out right away.

The Verses consist of Eminor, Aminor, F, and Ab chords (IIIminor, VI minor, IV, and #V chords).  Unlike in the Chorus, none of these Verse chords feature 7ths.  Also, the Ab chord is the only chord in the song with a non-diatonic root – it gives a tasty break to what would otherwise be a much more mundane harmony and sets up a choice phrase in the melody.

So the Chorus/Pre-Chorus harmony contrasts nicely with the Verses’ – one consisting entirely of dominant 7th chords, one consisting of related chords with no 7ths, in addition to a change of pace in the Ab triad.

Plus the melody navigates through the harmony in a woozy, bluesy way that matches the lyrics (and her voice) perfectly.  I particularly like the use of the passing ‘d’ notes – the flatted 5th – in the melody over the Ab chord.

To write a song as good as this about an addict, it takes a lot more than just being an addict – there’s a lot more addicts out there than good songwriters.  Amy Winehouse was a talented songwriter.

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