The Perfect Pop Song: That Thing You Do!

In his song “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” David Allan Coe sings about how his friend claimed to have written the perfect country western song. Coe disagreed, saying that his friend hadn’t mentioned “mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk.” His friend wrote another verse mentioning all these things, and Coe then agrees that it was the perfect country-western song.

I think that’s exactly what Adam Schlesinger did when he wrote “That Thing You Do!”. He seems to have used every trick in the book to create the perfect pop song. Granted, that’s what he was supposed to do: write a song that a fictional one-hit wonder (like “The Wonders”) would sing in Tom Hanks’ movie “That Thing You Do!” And I mentioned this song’s perfection a few months ago when counting down the Top 10 Perfect Pop Songs.

But after listening to this gem the other night on my way home from a meeting, I was amazed by the number of overt references to Beatles/British invasion groups Schlesinger used. It’s a veritable recipe for a pop song, with every ingredient included:

  • The voice. Mike Viola’s voice is similar to John Lennon’s: it’s raspy, but it breaks in just the right places so that girls swoon, like when Viola says “heart” and “heartache.”
  • Hand claps. From “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” and the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels,” hand claps in a song just entice you to clap along. It’s such an essential, Tom Hanks wrote the recording of the hand claps into the movie.
  • Major to minor chords. At the risk of going into music theory geekdom, a lot of 50s pop songs and Beatles songs made use of the major-to-minor chord progression – especially the I – iv progression (Jellyfish’s “The King is Half Undressed”). “That Thing You Do” is full of them. The opening guitar riff at :09 is a good example, and it’s repeated throughout the song.
  • Three-part harmony. This song has beautiful harmonies, but it goes one step further, adding the ooh’s and aah’s so prevalent in 50s and 60s music. It also features the echo technique in which the backup singers repeat what the lead singer is singing.
  • Corny lyrics. “I know all the games you play / And I’m gonna find a way to let you know that / You’ll be mine someday.” Pure bubblegum. 
  • Bridge. A bridge is a part of the song – usually about 2/3 through the song – that sounds different from the regular verse or chorus (It appears at 1:35 of this song). Good pop songs follow the verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – verse – chorus. That’s pretty much the form this song takes.
  • The scream. At the end of the bridge, the lead singer screams – just like in “Twist and Shout.”
  • Guitar solo. We’re not talking Van Halen guitar solo – It’s more of an instrumental mimicking the verse. Think “I Should Have Known Better” from the Beatles.
  • Major seventh for the ending. See the Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long.”

If you’re having trouble imagining all of these techniques, here’s the song. Listen closely, and you’ll hear it all.

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  1. 10 years ago