My Five Favorite Song Choruses

by Michael Channing

Songs are usually built around choruses that stick to your brain like peanut butter, but the entire rest of the song exists only to kill time until the chorus can come round again. Rinse and repeat, then repeat and fade out.

I don't mean songs shouldn't have hooks. "With a Little Help From My Friends" has a wonderful chorus you can't help but hum. And the rest of the song says simple but important things, establishing that the protagonist is lonely and in need of company. But does he despair? No, he gets by and high with a little help from his friends. Bam! The verses feed into the chorus rather than simply take up the empty space around it. That's what I look for in a good chorus. Here are my five favorites.

5. "Beneath, Between & Behind" by Rush

Fly by Night by Rush Chorus:
Beneath the noble bird
Between the proudest words
Behind the beauty, cracks appear
Once with heads held high
They sang out to the sky
Why do their shadows bow in fear?

Here, I immediately sound like a hypocrite. I've been listening to this song for years, and I have no idea what the verses are or even what the damn song is about. Something about a kingdom full of birds, I think. The words are lost in the mix, and the CD booklet has a facsimile of of the original gate fold, so reduced in size that it necessitates a microscope to read it. And Neil Peart was still trying to write like Tolkien, which made for some seriously convoluted lines. But the chorus just flat-out rocks. It's all staccato, every instrument highlighting the stressed syllables. It's iambic, the most foot-tappin'est, head-bangin'est metrical foot of them all. The rhyme scheme AAB CCB is one of my favorites. You anticipate the final sounds of the third lines, waiting for the whole stanza to complete itself. And when it does, you're satisfied, as if you'd just eaten a tasty snack that is neither too small nor too filling. The verses come and go as the drums pound and the guitars strum, but you just can't wait for another bite of that yummy filling. Okay, so I only listen to this song for the chorus. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. Wow. I just yarped up my entire college career to describe six lines of a Rush song.

4. "Head Like a Hole" by Nine Inch Nails

Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails Chorus:
Head like a hole
Black as your soul
I'd rather die
Than give you control
Bow down before the one you serve
You're going to get what you deserve

Do you remember the first time you heard this song? I do. I was sixteen, and driving was a new privilege. So I did it whenever I could. And what does a sixteen-year old do while driving from random point to random point? He listens to the radio. I was in Clarksville, TN at the time, and there was a college radio station nearby that routinely turned me onto songs and musicians that have enriched my life. The Pretty Hate Machine album had been out for a couple of years by then, but it was new to me. And damn did it ever resonate with the brooding, judgmental teenager I was sculpting myself to be. Oh, and angry. What was I angry at? you ask. To quote a movie I've never seen, whata ya got? I was angry at my dad for being useless and abusive. Angry at the government for, you know, wars and stuff. At my mom for not understanding. She just didn't get Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it filled me with rage.

Anger and judgment is what being a teenager is all about. You rail against the dying of the light. Then you rail against the light 'cause it's too damn bright. And what you need to prop up all that hormone-induced anger is an anthem. "Head Like a Hole" is the perfect soundtrack to anyone's ire. It says the perfect things, that you're strong and unbending, full of passion that cannot be extinguished. And no one can control you. Oh how they try. They set limits on your driving speed. They don't approve of your t-shirts. And when you ask for extra ketchup at the food court, they hand it over with a sanctimonious sneer. Well fuck them! I'd rather die than give them control! I'll show 'em. I'll sit in my car and crank the radio and yell with the windows rolled up and give 'em all both middle fingers just below the dashboard. Then I'll go home and watch TNG and laugh at their worthless little lives. They'll get what they deserve.

3. "No One Lives Forever" by Oingo Boingo

Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo Chorus:
Let's have a party there's a full moon in the sky
It's the hour of the wolf and I don't want to die
I'm so happy dancin' while the grim reaper...
Cuts cuts cuts
But he can't get me
I'm as clever as can be, and I'm very quick, but don't forget
We've only got so many tricks and
No one lives forever!!!

"No One Lives Forever" gets everything right. The guitar and the horns blend to sound like a saw slicing the night to ribbons. Danny Elfman's voice bounds up the scale like a wolf challenging the moon. The death imagery, the urge to live and celebrate and drain the last drop from the cup of life. It's my absolute favorite Boingo song.

Death is something we all have to wrestle with. Why not confront it in a pop song? Life isn't fair. And it doesn't treat anyone equally. But like the chorus says, we act as if we're excused from death. Other people die. But not me. I think, therefore I am. I observe, therefore you are. If I go, all that I see will be unseen and cease exist. So I simply can't die. That's the kind of self-centered universe I live in. So I need a reminder sometimes that I'm as expendable as everyone else. All my philosophical wank sessions are nothing to uncompromising steamroller of death. Hey, it keeps me level.

2. "The Weight" by The Band

Music from Big Pink by The Band Chorus:
Take a load off, Fannie.
Take a load for free.
Take a load off, Fannie.
And you put the load right on me.

I've never had this particular dining experience, but I've read of the practice of serving sorbet between courses to cleanse the palate. You wouldn't want the flavor of salad dressing in your mouth just before diving into your beef brisket. Ruins the taste and causes disgruntled chefs to rush from the kitchen waving knives and tongs. Sometimes, the chorus of a song can perform the same function. Of cleansing the palate that is, not causing the songwriter to chase after you with a Bic pen. Although I'm pretty sure if he came at me, I could take Robbie Robertson.

"The Weight" is a song about a guy who pulls into a town that just happens to be called Nazareth. He's on a mission and he meets several people there who ask him to do further favors for them. Crazy Chester hands him his dog to take care of, and Luke pawns his wife off on the guy. His old friend Carmen asks him to take up with her friend The Devil.

So this guy goes around town collecting more and more responsibilities, and in between each verse, we hear him invite some chick named Fanny to take a load off and place it on his shoulders. I interpret this as a flashback. As we learn in the final verse, Fanny was the one who sent him to Nazareth in the first place with the simple task of giving everyone her regard. In my mind, with each new duty this guy takes on, he remembers the day he told Fanny he'd do her a favor, and maybe he's rethinking that decision. Each occurrence of the chorus is a reflection upon the previous verse and those that came before it. Every time we hear it, the song feels different. We feel different.

Of course, there's the sound, the gruff male voices joining together one at a time and just barely managing to harmonize. You can feel the conflicted emotions of the protagonist: his desire to offer help, his reluctance to bear one more burden.

Then there are the veiled sexual innuendos concerning the true meaning of "fanny" and taking a "load." But I'd rather not go into that.

1. "American Pie" by Don McLean

American Pie by Don McLean Chorus:
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
And singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

Like "The Weight," "American Pie" has a chorus that feels different each time it repeats. Not only has the local and situation changed since its last occurrence, but also the characters who sing it. Sometimes the protagonist sings it alone, sometimes with his entire generation. Satan himself gets the chance to sing, as well at the Christian Trinity as a sort of hobo choir headed for the coast on the last train out of town.

The language and imagery is packed with hinted meaning and cultural resonance. The pie imagery, of course, is one of the most famous ever attributed to America as a whole. "As American as apple pie," they say. And here, we say bye-bye to it. I wonder though, are we leaving, or has America changed so drastically that we no longer recognize it as the place it used to be? "Drove my Chevy to the levee" references a song from the Fifties that encouraged consumers to see the USA in their Chevrolet. The word "levee" was included, I'm sure, just because it rhymed. But in his song, Don McLean arrives to find the levee is dry. It doesn't take a literary degree to interpret that. Moreover, he finds some good old boys, a term that can be used as either compliment or insult, drinking and possibly discussing suicide. The purity and innocence denoted by apple pie seem to bleed away in each verse, starting with the death of Buddy Holly and leading to the loss of God and Jesus. The chorus looks back each time and repeats, "This'll be the day that I die," but life continues on.

The chorus of "American Pie" is a release for me. Most of the verses are dense with images and allusions, word play, inner rhymes, metaphors teeming with possible interpretations. They're all so beautiful, but also very difficult to parse at the quick pace in which they stream by. The chorus is relatively simple and allows me time to breathe and to prepare myself before the song launches forward into a new cultural era and sings of icons who died long before I entered this world. It's a respite I need and cherish in the midst of all the lovely decay.

Honorable Mention: "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon

Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon

If you don't love howling along with this chorus, then your soul is a joyless husk, and I hope a werewolf rips your lungs out.

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