So I have this off-pitch thing. Some call it a blessing, but I call it a curse. It’s the ability to detect within a quarter tone or so whether a voice or an instrument is not in tune.
You can tell when I hear off-key songs. My eyebrow rises, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end, and I pitch my head sideways like a dog sensing an earthquake. (Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?)
I went through it the other day while listening to Joy Division. And the other night on David Letterman, Nick Lowe performed, which reminded me of another off-tune hit, “Cruel to be Kind.”
Off-key singing — especially when you’re a star — can be difficult to do on tape. Producers have an amazing sense of hearing that makes me seem tone-deaf, and they usually will get the musician to go through countless takes until he or she gets it right. No off-key songs on their watch. Finding a recording with an out-of-tune instrument or voice can sometimes be challenging. (Finding out-of-tune performers singing live — that’s another story.)
So I’ve developed my Top 5 off-key songs and musicians. A few disclaimers:
- No Bob Dylan. In listening to his music I’ve discovered that he doesn’t really sing off-key. He just has a terrible voice. Same with Tom Petty.
- No Ringo Starr, for two reasons: One, it’s too easy, and two, it somehow seems endearing, as if we’re not supposed to expect the drummer for the Beatles to sing, but doggone it if he isn’t trying!
- Nick Lowe – “Cruel To Be Kind.” I love Nick Lowe — he’s still classy after 30 years of making music, and he was dead-on the other night on Letterman. But how did he not notice that his entire background vocal section was singing flat during the chorus of “Cruel To Be Kind”? The three-part harmony in the context of itself is quite good, and Nick Lowe, as usual, is singing right on key. But put the two together, and you have a train wreck. Still a good song, though.
- Club Nouveau – “Lean On Me.” This one, Like Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind,” doesn’t sound so bad at first. About two-thirds of the way through the song, though, lead singer Jay King sings with just a backbeat and an occasional bass note – but it’s not enough to keep him grounded, and he goes WAY sharp, but not enough to notice at first. But when the band comes in again, it’s about a half-step lower than the vocals. Ouch.
- Joy Division – “Atrocity Exhibition.” Choosing a Joy Division song in which Ian Curtis is singing out of tune isn’t really a challenge. I chose the first one I came to — the opening song from their final LP, Closer. This one seems obvious.
- Morrissey – “Suedehead.” Morrissey irks me in that his off-key singing is just bad enough to start the twitching. But his songs are still extremely melodic, and I find myself singing with him, trying hard to reproduce the same semi-tone that makes me go batty.
- Meat Loaf w/ Katharine McPhee – “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” I couldn’t resist throwing in a live performance. Sometimes lip-synching is a good thing, and I wish Mr. Loaf had tried it on “American Idol.” To her credit, McPhee does a great job staying on tune with the Loaf screaming in her ear. There were so many bad notes, I could have clipped the entire song.