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Perhaps nothing epitomized the accessible DIY nature of punk more than what iconic fanzine Sideburns quipped in its first issue back in 1977: ‘This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. NOW FORM A BAND’. Both literally and figuratively, it shouted at a generation gripped by punk to give it a go themselves, and follow in the footsteps of bands such as the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Of course, it’s a misconception that everything punk was just three chords syringed with a whole lot of distortion and anarchy. But, it’s also true to say that swathes of songs from all genres have compressed an incredible amount of sonic goodness out of three chords, crafting anything from the most poignant to the most punchy of tracks. From the 1950s to the present day, here are 12 songs that wring the most out of a trio of chords or less.
1954 - 'Rock Around the Clock' by Bill Haley and the Comets (E, B, A)
With frenetic instrumentation and oodles of slickness, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ propelled rock 'n' roll into the mainstream, and ultimately changed music forever. Using just three chords (E, A and B major, with the odd 7th thrown in) in the simplest of structures, it squeezed-out a catchy-as-hell hook and a couple of fizzing solos. It’s pretty mind-blowing to think that it was released 60 years ago, considering it’s still one hell of a catalyst for unadulterated hip-swinging, showing that rather fittingly, it’s pretty timeless.
1965 – 'Mr. Tambourine Man' by Bob Dylan (G, A, D)
Before The Byrds gave it a varnish and took the track to the top spot of the charts, Dylan released ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ in April 1965. Mixing three sparse chords and some brilliant but equally simple lyrics, it was one of several now-classic tracks on Dylan’s fifth studio album, 'Bringing It All Back Home'. Apparently, it is Bruce Langhorne’s electric guitar countermelody that gives the track its wistful and nostalgic quality, elevating three simple chords into something special.
1967 – 'Heroin' by the Velvet Underground (Db, Gb)
Making Sideburns look like they were advocating full-orchestra symphonies, Lou Reed once famously said: ‘One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz’. By his standards, he was therefore pushing-it for ‘Heroin’ with its mere two chords; but for everyone else, it’s downright ridiculous to consider writing a track with only a two chord rocking-back-and-forth structure that lasts a whopping seven minutes. Somehow, with the pendulum-swinging beat that twisted-and-turned from tempo to tempo and the most visceral of lyrics ("Heroin, it’s my wife / And it’s my life"), ‘Heroin’ saw two chords being made into one of the most potent rock songs of all time.
1969 – 'No Fun' by the Stooges (A, E, D)
Sure, Iggy Pop may be making his dough now by flogging car and home insurance to the least punk of audiences, but fast-forward over 40 years ago and the Stooges were making some of the fiercest, gnarliest and snarliest proto-punk headbangers around. ‘No Fun’ was the standout track of their eponymous debut LP (with the toxic-waste headbutt of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ a close second), taking the three-chord rule years before it became the flagship technique for the budding punk-virtuoso, and running with it at a blistering pace.
1971 – 'Get It On' by T. Rex (E, A, G)
Undoubtedly one of the defining tracks of the 70s, ‘Get It On’ transported a devilishly simple blues riff into a glimmering masterpiece. The guitar solo manages to sound godly – even if it is just a few notes rather slowly executed – and the odd twinkling of piano gives a shimmering of magic to its star-spangled rock.
1976 – 'Judy is a Punk' by The Ramones (Eb5, Bb5, Ab5)
Who needs anything other than three chords? And, hell, while we’re at this, who even needs three notes in a chord when you can have two-note chords, eh? That was certainly the mantra of Johnny Ramone, whose arsenal was eternally filled with magazine after magazine of shotgun power-chords. ‘Judy is a Punk’ is stupidly simple in its three chord rhythm and fuzzed-out vocals, but it's still nothing short of an absolute belter. Sure, complex can be good, but simple’s often best when you have barrels of distortion and enough leather to befall an entire herd of cattle.
1980 – Atmosphere by Joy Division (A, D, E)
There’s a damn good case for ‘Atmosphere’ being Joy Division’s best track. It exploits the accessibility of a few chords to create something universally anthemic, as well as a soundscape filled with empty space that lingers on the ear. It’s ineffably beautiful and moving in its poignancy - "My illusion / worn like a mask of self-hate / confronts and then dies" - and richness of tone; from Ian Curtis’ distinctive baritone vocals to the expansive synths that bridge the verses.
1985 – 'Just Like Honey' by Jesus and the Mary Chain (G#, D#, C#)
Twisting the expansive back-and-forth chords of ‘Atmosphere’ into something lush and lifting, ‘Just Like Honey’ is a pretty much perfect metaphor for the track: it’s viscous in its pools of distortion and fuzz and it’s swarm of sugary melodies create a killer pop tune.
1995 – Common People by Pulp (C, G, F)
Apart from the fact that ‘Common People’ is rib-achingly hilarious, its sonic structure is the perfect example of the perfect pop song. With just the three major chords in the simplest scale of all, Jarvis and co. squeezed out one of the most uplifting, funny and genuine songs that Britpop blessed us with.
2007 – '505' by Arctic Monkeys (Dm, Em)
Acting as a rather neat precursor for the darker direction the Sheffield four-piece would take on Humbug, '505' closed their second album on an ominous and brooding note. With only two chords – both minor – to its name, it is pretty crafty that such a catchy and (relatively) poppy track is the result.
2010 – 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' by The National (A, F#m, D)
‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is an example of how nuanced indie-rock can be; even with the simplest and most laid-back of instrumentation. By having a minor chord as one of the three in the track – a different move to most three-chord songs – it’s given a new sense of poignancy, with minor and major chords playing off each other to create a swinging pendulum of emotions.
2011 – 'If You Wanna' by The Vaccines (C, F, G)
For as long as music exists and the human race has ears, they’ll always be an uppity group of critics that look-down on the old I-IV-V Three Chord Rule. Sure, it’s laughably simple. But frankly, who cares? Considering almost all of the Vaccines’ debut album consists of the same chord trick, they work wonders in creating distinct and infectious tunes brimming with more hooks than a pirate playing synth. ‘If You Wanna’ is the track that cemented The Vaccines’ status as indie-rock heroes, giving the Ramones punk-pop a good old scrub-up and polish with copious amounts of spaced-out reverb.
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