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Imperfect Pitch: 5 Off-Key Songs and Musicians

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!
  1. Nick Lowe – “Cruel To Be Kind.” I love Nick Lowe — he’s still classy after 30 years of making music. 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 isolated would be 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 in tune with the Loaf screaming in her ear. There were so many bad notes, I could have clipped the entire song.

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5 thoughts on “Imperfect Pitch: 5 Off-Key Songs and Musicians”

  1. ABSOLUTELY RIGHT on the Club Nouveau! That’s bothered me every time I’ve heard it for about 20 years now.

  2. Ah, but try to find Bill Withers live version of Lean On Me from an excellent double album of a benefit concert in 1973 (which featured a who’s who in black music at the time. Roberta Flack sang “On A Clear Day…” accompanied by Quincy Jones, and Sammy Davis Jr sang a mindfuckingly great version of his great “I Gotta Be Me”). Anyway, Withers mis-hits the first note totally. The rest of the version is so good though, that I had that on my car mix-tapes, not the studio version. As a result, I have internalised that flat note, and sing it (with a knowing smile) when I hear the studio recording of Lean On Me.

    It’s not an easy song to sing, which is why Club Nouveau dude shouldn’t have attempted it in the first place.

  3. Funny, I was just listening to Joy Division and immediately had to google: “Ian Curtis out of key,” which of course led me here. I scroll down and sure enough we’re both naming the same song. Our ears seem to be in tune with the out of tune and I agree with your top 5. Sometimes I wonder if it’s intended, as in Ian Curtis’ case -one note is so bad that it changes semi tones the way a leslie speaker might warble. Planned? Who’s to say. Can’t ask poor Ian. Oh, and give Ringo a break, he did write “Photograph.”

    I find it amusing that Bob Dylan started bad, somehow got worse to the point of incomprehensible guttural moans and Tom Petty wanted to copy that vocal style? Just listen to the Traveling Wilburys It’s almost embarrassing when they take turns at the mic and Roy makes them all sound like my dog could do a better job.

    Damn I hate youtube commercial that can’t be “skipped in 5 seconds.” Actually I hate those ones too.

  4. Club Nouveau! It drove me crazy every time that song came on the radio. I thought I was the only one who noticed.

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