Formats Unpacked: Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3

How a song format turns a traditional structure on it's head

Hi all,

We’ve always said that Formats Unpacked will cover a wide range of formats. Sure, we cover a lot of TV, audio, and video, but we’ve also unpacked joke formats, quiz formats, and magic trick formats. Today I’m unpacking a song format.

What is it?

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 is a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

What’s the format?

The song is a list song, or what is sometimes called a ‘shopping list song’, ‘laundry list song’ or a ‘catalog song.’ For this piece, I’m defining a list song as one whose lyrics form a list or there is a list within the song.

The song was inspired by a near-fatal accident involving the band’s lighting roadie who was electrocuted in Italy by a microphone stand - hence the line ‘no electric shocks.’ Dury wrote the song to bring back a little bit of cheer to the mood of the band at the time.

The song follows a traditional pop song structure of verse — chorus — verse — chorus —bridge — chorus, with the verses made entirely of lists of things that made Dury happy.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Having spent a lifetime listening to pop songs, we’re all familiar with the classic verse-chorus structure. But why we like that structure is not front of mind as we sing along to the latest Taylor Swift album. Getting to the ‘why’ requires a little bit of science.

Our brains naturally search new songs for recognisable features that allow us to anticipate what’s next. Scientists believe that the pleasure we get from music is all about making predictions and having them confirmed or violated in interesting ways. In some ways, you could say trying to predict what happens next in new songs (as we do when we are immersed in stories) adds a play-along aspect.

The difference between a verse and a chorus is that the chorus repeats itself. This makes it the most predictable, memorable and therefore rewarding part of the song. However, with list songs like Reasons, where the list is in the verse, the verse has an added element of predictability by the very nature of it being a list. You could say it has the sing-along-play-along factor.

List formats are really popular in other forms of media and with good reason. Just think about how much you enjoy the validation of your predictions being present in those ‘Top 100…’ TV or magazine formats. Or how angry you get when something you love barely makes it in.

You might not think there are that many list songs knocking about. Most people would instantly reach for the boomer anthem We Didn’t Start the Fire if it was a pop quiz question. But this list of list songs contains some absolute classics; 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and Vogue to name a few.

So why choose Reasons over other list songs? Personally, the magic for me is that after 44 years I’m still playing along with this song. I’m still trying to guess and unpick the lyrics as I attempt to sing it. The juxtapositions of Dury’s reasons are magnificent. They switch from simple and sometimes naughty to avant-garde and eclectic. Much like the artist and his band who presented like a bunch of ramshackle punks but were comprised of accomplished musicians playing complex arrangements.

Saying okey dokey, sing-a-long-a Smokey, coming out of chokey

John Coltrane's soprano, Adi Celentano, Bonar Colleano

Or better still…

Take your mum to Paris, lighting up a chalice

Wee Willie Harris

Bantu Steven Biko, listening to Rico

Harpo Groucho Chico

As mentioned previously, list formats are popular but for some reason, I really struggle to come up with a many great podcasts that are list formats. Apart from Desert Island Discs, which just happens to be the best format ever. If you’re thinking of developing a list format, think about how the list can strike the perfect balance between prediction and surprise and what role juxtaposition can play.

Similar Formats

Other list songs worth looking at include Whole of the Moon by The Waterboys. I love the way the verse is shaped around the contrasting behaviours of two people.

I pictured a rainbow

You held it in your hands

I had flashes

But you saw the plan

I wandered out in the world for years

While you just stayed in your room

I saw the crescent

You saw the whole of the moon

Whereas the wonderful Thou Shalt Always Kill by Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip is made up of two lists and has no recognisable chorus other than the repetition of ‘Thou shalt...’ as the opening of a line and ‘…just a band’ as a closing of a line.

Thou shalt not stop liking a band just because they've become popular.

Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry.

Thou shalt not judge a book by its cover.

Thou shalt not judge Lethal Weapon by Danny Glover.

And…

The Beatles: Were just a band.

Led Zepplin: Just a band.

The Beach Boys: Just a band.

The Sex Pistols: Just a band.

The Clash: Just a band.

Crass: Just a band.

Minor Threat: Just a band.

The Cure: Were just a band.

The Smiths: Just a band.

Congratulations if you got this far. It means you’re either a massive fan of the song or are an absolute format nerd like the rest of us. Either way, you’re in great company.

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Share your thoughts in the comments and get in touch if you’d like to unpack a favourite format.

See you all next week.

Hugh

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