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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Tommy Roe's key changes make me "Dizzy"

...but the song has more than just that to offer. It ends up lending itself to a discussion on risk taking in pop writing and production.


American Top 40 may not have been born yet when today's Senior Year Soundtrack entry was released in 1968, but I still want to begin today's post à la Casey Kasem.


"This week's long-distance dedication comes from Steven in Northern California, who writes: 'Dear Casey, My son Benjamin, who tunes into your show every week, is a senior at UC Berkeley and has started up a music blog. He writes about one song each day without repeating any performers. I recently remembered a song I thought he'd find interesting, with plenty of strings and a whole bunch of key changes. Would you please play it for him?' I sure will, Steven; here's the tune right now: 'Dizzy,' by Tommy Roe."

I'm fairly certain I hadn't ever heard "Dizzy" before my father recommended it to me, and I'm also fairly certain I wouldn't have ever written about it even had I known it without his encouragement. It isn't really my style when it comes to that era — it's one of the earlier records I feel safe calling 'bubblegum pop,' with simple, lovestruck lyrics that seem all too perfect for a gaggle of teenagers to sing together. Yet once I listened through it a few times, the details on which I focused led to me enjoying the song a lot more than I anticipated.


Quite literally in the case of "Dizzy," first things first, because the introduction is one of my favorite parts of the track. The musical term that describes why I like it so much is oblique motion: one line stays on the same note(s), while the others move around. When using oblique motion, the line which stays still gets re-contextualized based on how the other elements move. In the intro to "Dizzy," the electric guitar stays on the notes A and D, while the bass and acoustic guitar move to different chords around it. Because the electric guitar cuts through the other elements, it's all the more interesting that it was chosen to have the static line, but it ends up creating a really fun effect with multiple levels of interest converging in these brief moments of harmonic change and intrigue.


After a quick break to showcase a drum beat that's been sampled its fair share in the past few decades, we get to the first lyrics. "Dizzy" actually starts with its chorus, an approach which has become increasingly rare in recent decades. Beginning with the chorus means the song's standout feature can be introduced much earlier. That standout feature, of course, is its repeated changing of key — and by "repeated," I mean eleven times in a track which doesn't even reach three minutes in length! The song (and each repetition of the chorus) begins in D Major, but right after the chorus begins, it moves up a step into E Major. The one key change in itself is unusual on its own, but then it does it again, this time a half-step up to F Major, all in one go through the chorus. Whereas the first change is prepared by the violin and guitar chords the measure before landing on the new root, the change from E to F is completely unprepared. It definitely threw me off the first time I heard it... but I guess that's the point. After all, the dizziness the title implies leads to a feeling of disorientation. Tommy Roe is singing about how a girl makes him feel that way, but for me and other listeners the key change likely does the job all by itself.


To add to the song's peculiarities, all the key changes mean that "Dizzy" is one of the rare numbers in which the chorus is (mostly) in a lower key than the verse. The verse is entirely in F Major before setting up a move back down to D Major for the start of each new chorus, at which point the form repeats. This oddity only feeds the song's title further, as it adds yet another head-spinning peculiarity to a song that already seemed to have enough of that.


Amazingly, though, the song remains easily digestible in the vein of bubblegum pop despite all the weirdness going on with its key changes. This quality of the music comes as a credit to Roe, his co-writer Freddy Weller, and producer Steve Barri, who mediated the truly dizzying modulations by keeping Roe and the instruments behind him moving along at a regular pace. When one aspect of a musical piece is particularly strange, the best thing to do in order to avoid the piece from getting out of hand is to keep the other parts of the song somewhat normal. That way, not only does the more peculiar attribute stand out more, but it does so without disrupting the flow created by all the other instruments and elements keeping steady time and form. As I look to get into writing and production myself, I take this idea as an important lesson. Taking risks is fine, even in a production with pop sensibilities, but if you want to be able to reach a broader audience you also need to make sure you don't go too far without keeping some elements more standard.

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