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The ‘Simple Chorus, Complicated Verse’ Song

There is evidence throughout pop songwriting history – at least its Verse/Chorus song part – that if you have a simple and very strong Chorus, often consisting of one or two lines… you can get away with murder in the Verses.

I started noticing this as a kind of ‘formula’ when Sting frequently used the approach in songs he wrote for The Police. Always a gifted melodist, he displayed his penchant for short, simple Choruses right from their first album – ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’, ‘So Lonely’.

In ensuing albums, though, in songs like ‘De Do Do Do De Da Da Da’, ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, he wrote Verses that were harmonically, rhythmically, and lyrically quite complex in various ways while sticking with simple, repetitive Choruses.

Even though they explored areas that were unusual for mainstream pop songs, particularly at the time, The Police’s popular success continued to grow. This was because, no matter how exotic the grooves and harmonies in the Verses got, they always returned to a simple sing-along Chorus, usually with a backbeat on ‘2’ and ‘4’. Something for everyone!

The Beatles did this too (in their brief career, they did at least a little of almost everything). Lennon & McCartney’s pop instincts were so firmly ingrained that even when they went far beyond ‘normal’ pop songs – as, for example, Lennon did in ‘I Am The Walrus’ and McCartney did in ‘Penny Lane’ – they usually landed on a relatively uncomplicated and catchy Chorus.

An extreme example is Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ – the biggest chart hit of his solo career. The Verse may be one of the most unusual ever in a hit pop song. It’s melody and and harmonies are complex; long and winding. And the lyrics sound very, for lack of better terms, literate and educated (for a pop hit), with words such as ’misconstrued’ – you don’t hear that in #1 records every day!

But Simon followed the Verse with a sing-along Chorus so simple, funky, and catchy (“Slip out the back, Jack…”) – and also great – that anyone could ‘get it’. I don’t think Simon was pandering at all. I’m guessing his songwriting instincts and craft told him to look for CONTRAST (one of the songwriter’s best friends), especially after such a mournful Verse, and somehow he made the two sections, that in theory shouldn’t go together, fit perfectly.

We’ve heard this ‘Simple Chorus, Complicated Verse’ approach more recently in a lot of rap songs. Many raps don’t have Choruses per se. It didn’t take songwriters and producers long to realize that pairing a complex rap with a simple Chorus gave it a much better chance at popular success.

This has now been done by many rappers – for example, brilliantly, by Eminem in ‘Lose Yourself’. He does the Chorus himself on that one, but there’ve been many other songs, such as ‘Empire State Of Mind’ by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, as well as quite a few by Eminem and others, where the rapper has been paired with a ‘real’ singer on the Chorus.

There’s also the hybrid rapped/sung song, such as the fascinating ‘Work’ by Rihanna and Drake (read here), which is a great modern example of a ‘Simple Chorus, Complicated Verse’ song.

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