Alabama Song

…and the definitive “Doors chord transition”.

From: Dan

To: Ian, Doantam, Raja

Just listened to some Alabama Song. I can’t think of another song that does i → #vi (Am → F#m). I would think it would sound intolerable, but I actually think it works here, maybe because the instrumentation screams “weird on purpose”:

[Am]          
Show me the way to the next whiskey bar
[F#m]        [D]
Oh don't ask why

Ian, do you have another i → #vi?

I can think of lots of “not very happy” songs that do I → VI, but I’d usually call them both major.

Extra cool that it’s really Am Am F#m D (I like the IV in minor keys, though not especially unusual).

Also is it weird that my first instinct was to call this i → ♭♭vii instead of i → #vi? That’s how disoriented I am by this transition.

From: Raja

To: Ian, Doantam, Dan

I knew I'd heard other songs with these chords. My first best guess was Radiohead – something on Amnesiac. The tabs for Morning Bell say that it's Am → Amaj7, which is sort of close (though if you try Am → F#m along with the recording it doesn't sound too far off). Eventually I gave up and googled ["Am F#m" chords] in the hopes that there are some moderately recognizable i → #vi songs in the key of Am, and sure enough: Light My Fire by the very same Doors!

    [Am]                    [F#m]
You know that it would be untrue
    [Am]                    [F#m]
You know that I would be a liar

From: Dan

To: Raja, Doantam, Ian

Well done. N=2 says we can call this the "Doors transition".

From: Ian

To: Raja, Doantam, Dan

You have shown me chords I cannot explain! I'm going to try to figure this out, but if that fails I may have to go live in a monastery for the rest of my life.

From: Raja

To: Ian, Doantam, Dan

I remember that Ray Manzarek (Doors keyboardist) gave a great interview on Fresh Air several years ago in which he brought along his piano to illustrate some of his stories. Someone has excerpted just the portion in which he talks about "Light My Fire," including those weird chords. It's awesome, and I'm not even a Doors person:

3 thoughts on “Alabama Song

  1. Charles Eliot

    I think that Am – F#m “works” for the same reason any harmonic progressions “works”: because the voice-leading is good. A sticks on A, E moves up a step to F#, and C moves up a half-step to C#. In classical harmony this kind of chromatic movement into a cross-relation usually continues to a further resolution, and that’s exactly what happens when the whole thing resolves to D. In Alabama Song the resolution is immediate. In Light My Fire the resolution is delayed until the end of the chorus, and approached with a standard IV-V cadence.

    In his version of Light My Fire Jose Feliciano jazzes up the F#m even further by playing it as an F#m9. The C-C# cross-relation pulls so hard to D that even adding the G# leading tone to A doesn’t weaken the harmonic movement.

    Reply
    1. dmorris Post author

      Charles:

      Good call, I definitely agree with what you said about the resolution being key. I just picked up my guitar and played the “Alabama Song” verse first as Am Am F#m D (the actual chords), then tried dropping the F#m OR the D, i.e. playing it as Am Am F#m F#m, then as Am Am D D. The melody is A and F#, so the melody works either way. The Am Am F#m F#m sounds just awful, exactly as awful as I would think a i–>vi would sound. But I loves me some dorian, so the Am Am D D sounds only slightly less interesting than the original, which makes me think the F#m in the original is really just a passing chord on its way to D, as you suggested.

      Reply

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