We are gathered here to praise that most sublime of musical experiences, the audience sing-along. Not just any audience sing-along: not the folksy trifles to be sung around a campfire, or the catchy song you simply know all the words to, or the call-and-response that the singer might have to goad a reluctant audience into. No, I’m thinking about a very specific type of sing-along: the coda, toward the end of certain songs, in which a simple repeated phrase — or string of nonsense syllables — suddenly transforms the song into a whole new species of awesome. It’s either just added on to the existing layers of sound, like icing on a cake; or else it knocks the song down several decibels to an intense near-silence, and builds back up from there. It’s an emotional shifting of gears, a near-spiritual epiphany: the aural equivalent of a dramatic change of stage lighting, or of walking through a door into wide open space, brilliant sunlight, infinite sky.
I’m not a musicologist, but I’m sure the sing-along has deep roots in the blues and gospel and other older traditions. But what’s bringing on my sudden exuberant spouting of bad metaphors is, specifically, the Beatles’ pop masterpiece “Hey Jude,” which for some reason I’ve been unable to extract from my brain for the past few days. So be it: I’ll embrace it, and praise it to the skies.
Here it is, in all its glory:
The Beatles apparently filmed several versions of this. Here’s another take, with more shots of the audience singing along. (Bonus: more Sixties fashion, rhythm-challenged hand-clapping, and squished Ringo!)
Here’s a splitscreen comparison of four existing edits:
And to see the impact “Hey Jude” has across cultures, here’s Paul McCartney electrifying a crowd of thousands at Red Square:
Phenomenal, right? But it doesn’t stop there. Having “Hey Jude” bounce around in my head made me think of other anthemic sing-alongs that, whether intentionally or not, achieve some of the “Hey Jude” effect. Here are some of my favorites:
Simon and Garfunkel, “The Boxer.” Written (and released?) in 1968, the same year as “Hey Jude”; perhaps there was something in the air. There are several live versions, but the original album track best showcases the coda — the “lie-la-lie” choruses taking on hypnotic power, elegiac and compelling. Notice the orchestra kicking in — the higher, ethereal strings at 3:30, the basses at 4:20 — ratcheting up the grandeur much as it does in “Jude”:
(Update: Here they are, over 40 years later, their shimmering harmonies as breathtaking as ever, if not even more impressive in their color and the maturity of their phrasing. As always, whenever they perform in New York, it’s amusing to hear the crowd cheer for “the whores on Seventh Avenue” and the “New York City winters” that are bleeding the song’s protagonist of all his hopes and dreams…)
And here’s a particularly entrancing cover by Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin and Jerry Douglas:
Springsteen is another who excels in songs of slowly-building majesty. Here is “My City of Ruins” — the buildup starting at 4:41 (“With these hands”), the payoff at 6:15 (“Come on, rise up”):
And here is “The Rising”:
U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” naturally deserves mention. In this performance in Brazil, it’s the crowd who carries and ends the song:
The “Hey Jude” effect is evoked by some more recent songs as well. Among the very best of these, I think, is “The Bleeding Heart Show” by The New Pornographers — one of the best-crafted and most emotionally satisfying songs I’ve heard in years. I haven’t been able to find a suitable live video, so here’s the studio version. The coda is actually, I think, a triple-whammy: the song already kicks it up a level at 2:09 with the chorus of “Oooh,” then shifts gears again with the running “Hey-la” choruses at 2:41 and — the icing on the cake — the addition of Neko Case’s gorgeous voice at 3:12. (Note also the subtle shift in drumming at this point, as Kurt Dahl incorporates more syncopated rhythms into his driving beat.)
I’m also fond of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Midnight Radio”, from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve tried to find an online clip from the Broadway soundtrack album, to no avail; this clip, from the (slightly inferior) film version, gives some sense of the song’s power. But the Broadway album better conveys the song’s majesty; and for a full sense of its “Hey Jude”-ness — anthemic chords and upraised hands and all — you just had to be there.
And finally, honorable mention goes to Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” a loving and very capable pastiche of the Beatles’ signature motifs: the solid 4/4 beat, the rhythmic piano chords, the horn solo. The music video is a homage to Beatles psychedelia and a hoot to watch, but it doesn’t include the very ending of the album track, which pays tribute to “Hey Jude” in the long fadeout and Roland Orzabal’s whacked-out vocalizing, reminiscent of Paul’s half-screamed ad libbing at the end of the studio version of “Jude.” (Orzabal is a fantastic singer in his own right, by the way; his full vocal range is astonishing, but unfortunately not on display in the band’s most popular hits.) You can listen to the full “Sowing the Seeds” here:
There are more examples of the children of Jude, I’m sure. Feel free to suggest others. Meanwhile — go forth, take a sad song, and make it better.