A couple nights I ago I spoke on Led Zeppelin at the Princeton, NJ Public Library. As part of that presentation, I discussed Zeppelin's 1971 epic 'Stairway to Heaven', and cited Jimmy Page's iconic guitar solo as the focal point of the entire song. "Everything in the first six minutes," I claimed, "leads listeners to the climactic onset of that solo."
One man in the audience questioned why I consider the solo the focal point and not the introduction. (Interestingly, this point was repeated last night, when I gave the same talk in Farmington, CT.) I responded by saying intros are fundamentally designed to set up what comes next, and so by definition cannot function as a focal point. He asked about the song 'Sweet Jane' from Lou Reed's 1974 live album Rock n Roll Animal. "Isn't that introductory solo the focal point?", he asked.
I had never heard this album before, but I made a point of listening after his inquiry.
First, here's a structural analysis:
0:00-3:51 Introduction/Solo (108 measures)
3:51-4:26 Verse 1 "Standing on a corner..." (16 measures)
4:26 -4:38 Chorus 1 "Sweet Jane..." (6 measures)
4:38-4:56 Solo (8 measures)
4:56-5:30 Verse 2 "Jack, he is a banker..." (16 measures)
5:30-5:43 Chorus 2 "Sweet Jane..." (6 measures)
5:43-6:00 Solo (8 measures)
6:00-6:51 Verse 3 "Some people..." (24 measures)
6:51-7:04 Chorus 3 "Sweet Jane..." (6 measures)
7:04-7:47 Coda/Solo (18-ish measures)
I see why this man might think that the intro is the focal point - its nearly four-minute duration is more than half of the track's total length. But rhetorical emphasis and duration are different things. In other words, the focal point of a song is not necessarily the longest section.
One of the easiest ways to find the focal point of a song is by finding the title lyrics. (That isn't always true - 'Stairway' is an exception - but it is usually true.) The title lyrics of 'Sweet Jane' are found in the chorus, so the default conclusion is that the chorus is the focal point. Indeed, upon listening, that default conclusion is confirmed. Even though it is the briefest section (just six measures each time), the rhetorical emphasis is clearly on the chorus.
But what if we broaden our scope to include the entire album, rather than just this individual song? Might that solo be the focal point of the album, even if it's not the focal point of the song?
On a macro level, 'Sweet Jane' is the first of five tracks on the album:
1. 'Introduction/Sweet Jane'
3. 'White Light/White Heat'
4. 'Lady Day'
5. 'Rock n Roll'
Just as a song's focal point often coincides with the hearing of that track's title lyrics, so too an album's focal point often coincides with its title track, if there is one. The Beatles' Let it Be (1970) is a good example. (But The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is an exception - 'A Day in the Life', not the title tracks, is the focal point.) In the case of Rock n Roll Animal, the title track is the fifth and final track, 'Rock n Roll', so that's the default focal track. After listening to the album, that is confirmed.
And so I stand by my original assertion: Introductions, whether small- or large-scale, CANNOT be a focal point because they are designed to set up what comes next, rather than drawing and focusing attention on themselves.
I make my way North to Vermont for a talk this evening in Manchester Center:
Friday, 10 May 2019, 7:00-8:00 p.m.
Manchester Community Library, 138 Cemetery Ave, Manchester Center, VT
The Beatles & The Rolling Stones
Ask anybody to name two English rock bands from the 1960s and the response will likely be, “The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.” This 60-minute multimedia presentation will compare and contrast the two through musical examples and interviews with the band members.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of popular music.