Rock & Pop Critiques For Geeks

“I have no idea what aeolian cadences are........they sound like exotic birds”    John Lennon


It was fascinating to see The Noisettes penning a song from scratch with Guy Chambers for the BBC songwriting documentary, Secrets Of The Pop Song. Under the gun, in front of the TV cameras, is certainly a challenge. But once Noisettes guitarist Dan Smith started riffing on the classic minor-key descending chord progression we affectionately dub “The Runaway Run”, they were clearly onto a sure-fire winner. All the adjacent audio clips capture this same underlying harmonic scheme.

John Lennon drew attention to this i-bVII-bVI-V sequence when explaining that The Beatles’ I’ll Be Back (showcasing an Am-G6-Fmaj7-E descent) was “my variation of the chords in a Del Shannon song”.

While John didn’t specify the song in question, it was clearly the legendary Runaway from 1961, whose verse features a similarly effortless Am-F-G-E drop that would become a standard sequence.

50 years on, The Noisettes excursion (here on the picture-less audio clip), showcases the same basic progression (this time in the key of F minor) and is a great excuse to look in more detail at this minor-key cliché on which some of pop’s finest songs hinge harmonically.

While we’ve given the credit to Del Shannon, the same run had actually appeared on a select batch of great hits prior to Runaway, notably The Ventures’ classic surf instrumental, Walk Don’t Run (written by Johnny Smith in 1955), and Ray Charles’ Hit The Road Jack (1960). Not forgetting the politically-incorrect bridge of the 1958 Lieber & Stoller-penned Three Cool Cats (famously covered by the Beatles on Anthology 1 where it unfolds in E minor: Em-D-C-B7).

The mellow sophistication of this emotive descending line would soon be heard on other classic Sixties outings including The Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Am); the perfect pop of The Turtles’ Happy Together (F#m); the pioneering folk of Davey Graham’s Anji (Am); the slick soul of The Four Tops’ Bernadette and the heavenly harmonies of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations (both Ebm).

The Seventies saw even more versatility, with Stevie Wonder’s Another Star (F#m), Dire Straits’ Sultans Of Swing (Dm) and Richard Hell’s supposedly punk-defining (!) Blank Generation (Am) all using the sequence [which, equally, is defined by the root note descent of 8-b7-b6-5 usually played by the bass].

Meanwhile, The Stray Cat’s Stray Cat Strut (a standout example in C minor: Cm-Bb-Ab-G7), The Foo Fighters’ Tired Of You and Muse’s cover of Feeling Good (both Gm-F-Eb-D) are selections from each subsequent decade before Let’s Play brings us right up to date.

Notice how the progression ‘works’ with a feeling of romantic inevitability as the roots drop down all the notes in the Diatonic Natural Minor scale from tonic to dominant. As a theory interlude: see how the chord built on the 5th degree is invariably a (major) V (or V7) from the Harmonic Minor scale - the major 3rd of V making for a stronger resolution to the tonic rather than the weaker v [minor] chord of the Natural Minor.

Some musos refer to this chord sequence colourfully as The Andalucian Cadence, given its links to the Flamenco culture in southern Spain which draws heavily on the progression to evoke the Latin flavour. Sure enough, other great examples are the Spanish-tinged jazz of Mediterranean Sundance by Al Di Meola: the ultimate version with John McLaughlin & Paco de Lucia on Friday Night In San Francisco where the main theme unfolds around Em-D-C-B7.

For a more contemporary Latin Pop example try Objection (Tango) by Shakira. Listen to the Bm-A-G-F#7 run at 0.49 on our audio clip where the same song is recorded as Te Aviso, Te Anuncio (Tango).

Let me know your favourite examples of The Runaway Run. There are so many great ones and I’ll end here with Derek Truck’s delicious Ka-Ma-Lay and The Steepwater Band’s rockin’ coda to Baby, You’re On Your Own, showing further the range of emotions that you can squeeze out of this single harmonic idea.

As a closing thought for the day, notice the subtle way in which John Lennon tweaked the original inspiration to come up with I’ll Be Back. The Beatles use of the sequence is, firstly, as a ‘closed’ progression in that it cadences from dominant to tonic at the end of the line, rather than hanging ‘open’ on the V7.

Secondly, the A minor verses cadence each time to A major before reprising on A minor. This is a clever switch between Parallel Major and Minor (‘Parallel’ in the sense of being on the same root). This may well also have been inspired by Del Shannon’s use of the same musical concept elsewhere in Runaway as his A minor verses alternate with A major middle eights (“I’m a walking in the rain..”).

But that’s for another day…

50 Years Of The Runaway Run  (an appreciation of i-bVII-bVI-V)

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