Great Songs Part I – Black Velvet by The Lilac Time


The Lilac Time – Black Velvet on MUZU.TV

Click on READ MORE at the end of this post before playing the track, or else it’ll stop when you click to read more. Try and ignore the awful advert before the song… Unfortunately youtube doesn’t have this track.

I first heard this song about a year ago, though it was released in 1987. I was doing other things at home, and the album was playing on Spotify (my boyfriend had found the band and put them on in a fit of nostalgia for his younger days). I’d never heard of them and was only half listening when this song came on.

I was completely drawn in – it was one of those times where you just have to stop and listen. I couldn’t hear all the lyrics properly, so at first I thought it was about a horse called Black Velvet (I think I was thinking of Red Rum…). Although I’m still not entirely sure what it is about, I think I can be reasonably certain now that it’s definitely not a horse.

Why do I love it so much? I’m a music geek, and I always want to analyse why a song is great – and this one’s got a lot to consider. This post should be the first in a series of sporadic writings about my favorite pop and rock songs, and what exactly I think makes them amazing.

I will be talking mainly about the Black Velvet remix version that can be found on Compendium – The Fontana Trinity (2001). I haven’t been able to find out when this remix was done (it’s on as an extra on the 1987 album, The Lilac Time on Spotify, but I’m not sure if it was originally there) but it’s the version I really got to know. The original is a beautifully simple recording with less bass and fewer backing vocals, but I love the epic quality of the remix.

So, to begin…

Hide your feelings
Hide from the postman
Or the night
Spent falling down in the night
In Butcher town
The night spent crawling like a snail
On Black Velvet

Found me a language
That talks without blackmail
Without words
I called for you
Without words
I called for you
And you answered like a kiss
On Black Velvet

And you answered like a kiss
On Black Velvet

Bring me the sunshine
Bring me the ocean
To its knees
The ocean fell to its knees
And we walked softly
Like snow so silent under foot
Or Black Velvet
Or Black Velvet

1. Time signature:

The song begins with two bars of 4/4 time, then changes to 7/4 (or 4/4 and 3/4 – I wouldn’t know without a score) for the first two bars of the vocals, then goes back to 4/4. Genius! It slips so easily into the 7/4 that you almost don’t notice it. Technically it’s not really in 4/4 or 7/4 anyway, since it’s triple time (I really should be talking about 12/8 and 14/8, but that becomes rather complicated).  The triple time helps the whole song flow unstoppably along, and masks the basic time changes. It slips back into 7/4 again on the line, ‘In Butcher town’, and ‘nights spent crawling like a snail’ is in some kind of 10/4 or 6/4 4/4 mix.

So what does that mean for the song? I think it helps create the unreal, mystical feeling that pervades the whole track. The sounds are dream-like and the time changes add to the impression of shifting and unstable reality. The words are particularly cryptic too, but I’ll get onto that in a moment.

2. Stephen Duffy’s vocals

Oh for the time when recordings featured vocals that were not produced to absolute, unreal perfection. I love the fragility and the truth to Duffy’s voice. It is simple and effective – the music and the lyrics say so much that the delivery of them shouldn’t (and doesn’t) get in the way. He’s a folk singer in this song, and uses backing vocals and instrumentation to build to climaxes, rather than vocal changes in the melody line.

3. Lyrics

As previously mentioned, most of the lyrics are rather cryptic… Nevertheless, there is a pattern of sorts – at least in the 2nd and 3rd verses. Duffy seems to like to run on his sentences so they begin by saying one thing, then change to something else by the end. The best example of this is in the final verse:

Bring me the sunshine
Bring me the ocean
To its knees
The ocean fell to its knees

The image of the ocean being brought to its knees is incredibly powerful. The first couple of lines sound like anything you might get in a yearning pop or folk song. It’s pretty standard to ask for things like the moonlight or wind or sun, but simply adding ‘to its knees’ suddenly makes the whole thing seriously epic rather than just cutely folksy. It gets better too:

And we walked softly
Like snow so silent under foot

To me, these images are apocalyptic, and the ‘we’ referred to could be dreamers or gods. So this song starts by talking about hiding from the postman, and ends up with the submission of the ocean. Pretty cool, eh?

4. Instrumentation and harmony

Like everything else, the harmonic progressions in this song add to the slightly unstable feeling. The song’s in the key of C# major (or Db) which is quite an unusual key. I suspect Duffy might have written it from the guitar with a capo, as on any other instrument it’s a pretty nasty key to play in. As well as being nasty to play, C# is also rather beautiful. Every key has its own particular feel, and I’ve always been partial to C# major – it uses all the black keys on the piano, and has a special ring because of that.

From the very first note, the song begins with and holds the 5th of the scale, before moving back to the home chord at the end of each line. It never stays there for very long, though, and one of my favourite sequences in each verse is when the harmony shifts down to the relative minor. It happens on the third line of each verse – the exact spot where Duffy usually turns the meaning of the sentence. With each new verse, that point becomes more and more important.

By the instrumental section between the second and third verses, it’s at that spot where the backing vocals suddenly enter like warning cries from on high, and they do the same in the third verse at the point where Duffy sings ‘to its knees’ with an almost sinister edge to his voice. Combine this with the heavy bass and the effect is electric. The first line of the third verse is accompanied simply by an incredibly low synth bass (almost too low to hear the notes) and sleigh bells – a very strange combination that somehow works. By the time we get to ‘to its knees’, everything’s back in there with a vengeance. The Lilac Time manage to marry synth sounds with acoustic instruments in a pretty seamless way. This is the big difference, though, between the original Black Velvet and the remixed version; the original has far fewer synthesised sounds, and is smaller and more intimate. It’s a sweeter and softer song for it, but I have to admit that I’m hooked on the power of the remix.

Finally there’s the recurring ‘Or Black Velvet’ line, which musically is a very traditional classical 5 – 1 (or V- I) cadence. It’s very much like a chorale or hymn – especially with the suspension held over ‘ve-l-vet’ in the backing vocal part. I think this gives the song a timeless quality, and our western ears find that kind of chord progression very pleasing. Each verse rambles through various keys (especially in the middle) and I think that such a proper cadence at the end of each helps provide at least something concrete to hold on to.

—————

So that’s it, really. A combination of interesting time signature shifts, great lyrics, beautiful delivery and unusual yet traditional harmony makes The Lilac Time’s Black Velvet one of my all time favourite songs. What do you think of it? What songs would you list as musically or lyrically impressive?

Next time… Toto’s Africa!

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One Response to Great Songs Part I – Black Velvet by The Lilac Time

  1. Steve

    “This video is not available in your country.” (Received in the U.S.) Sigh.

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