[18 January 2007]
James Brown has entire vocal performances that are nothing more than a series of abnormal larynx contortions strung together with sweat and pelvic intuition. In them, words are illusory; language is insignificant. He often interacts with his own freakish noises, heartily guffawing at them as if they were wearing clown shoes on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, both proud of and stunned by their flamboyance and flagrancy. Brown’s hollers—his cries and shrieks and wails and uhs and hey-hey-heys—are premeditated, plotted out from the first bar of the song, lay waiting in the bush, preened and prepped and then sprung with bloodshot-eyed abandon…and sometimes he even asks for permission from the band. “Can I scream, brother?” Brown frantically asks his band in “It’s a New Day, Pts. 1 & 2” (1970), asks them four times (and, in turn, receives four green lights) before letting loose with four raspy shucks of sound.
Artists like Brown and Little Richard are architects of this kind of ritualistic liberation, authors of the inalienable right to vocally exalt the passion of performing in the midst of the performance itself. They can literally heighten the thrill of an already thrilling vocal by augmenting it with a hoot or a holler (Richard’s “whoooo!” from his R&B barnburner “Tutti Frutti”  may be a stronger thread in the cultural fabric than its preceding line, “tutti frutti, aw rooty”—and sheesh, considering that its original lyric was “tutti frutti, good booty”, who wouldn’t shriek in delight at that?), calling attention to the infectious fever entailed in cutting a riveting pop record. Of course this method is nothing more than a relocation of a gospel tradition—testifying—from the church to the pop charts. (Richard, for one, had an early musical education amongst the Pentecostal churches of the American South.) Though its prevalence in three-minute bouts of secularism has stripped hollering of religious affiliation, leaving it exposed to the corrupting elements of sex, rebellion, and excitability, pop artists and churchgoers alike are bawling and hooting for the same thing: to make their tiny voices heard in infinite spaces, in hopes that some kind of vibration will echo back like an existential boomerang.
Interesting and expected, then (expected, mostly), is how the hollers of Brown, Richard, et al have become an inextricable part of the pop-music lexicon, as routine as an occurrence of “baby” or “yeah”, so familiar that they sprout up in any number of a song’s crevices and not always as part of the compositional fabric. They no longer require plotting or structural foresight; they erupt on whim from the pop-cultural subconscious. To have reached the critical mass of exclamatory instinct that we currently sustain required periods of transition: Paul McCartney and John Lennon pinched Richard’s “whoooo!” and used it to incite cultural riot (they may have even satirized it a few years later in “Revolution”); likewise, other bands of the ‘60s British Invasion turned the pre-guitar-solo squeal into an unofficial mark of in-the-know song execution, the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” being a prime example.
The more obscure variations of instinctive pop-song hollering aren’t as imitated or widely discussed as their brethren of the Brown and Richard variety. But they are out there. Now, as you listen to your favorite records and shout along with the little moments when lyrics are abandoned, use this field guide to identify and get acquainted with the many non-verbal sounds that—until now—never had a name.
The Columbus (or, the Land Ho!)
The wild-eyed whoop of abandon, emitted early when a song kicks into its full roar and meant, in part, as an alarm for the impending auditory devastation. Consider it rock ‘n’ roll etiquette, not unlike that exhibited on the golf green: heads up, ‘cause this one’s gonna rock you in places you didn’t know existed. Gaz Coombes demonstrates this nicely in Supergrass’s “Richard III” (1997), letting fly a preparatory yell in concurrence with the landslide entry of the bass and drums. He whoops it up like a man who has a storied history with whooping, one which he would probably recount over a few pints even though he’s a bit tired of doing so. This particular example is compounded by how Coombes sets up the holler with a brief prelude of tritone guitar riffage—ye olde Devil’s interval!—that stokes the song’s start-up with a bit of horned provocation. See also: the Faces’ “Stay With Me” (1971), at the moment that the double-time intro downshifts to that filthy pub shuffle—as good a time as any for Rod Stewart to launch a Columbus, back when a Rod Stewart Columbus actually meant something.
The Phantom Columbus
Quite possibly the most common and unnoticed improvisatory hoot, this occurs deep in the background of a song’s mix, always at a moment where all other instruments drop out, and usually at the song’s onset. In essence, it’s a Columbus (the hasty shout-out predicting some kind of calamitous rapture), but it’s not necessarily one intended to be heard by the public at-large, since it’s only serendipitously picked up by a microphone that just happens to be dedicated to another instrument. Really listen—put on the noise-isolating headphones, crank up the volume to that decibel the doctor warned you about—and you’ll catch more Phantom Columbuses than you’ll care to count. Two songs in particular sport perceptible examples of this holler: Superdrag’s “Sold You an Alibi” (1998) and Mission of Burma’s “2twice” (2006). It occurs during the opening of both songs, between the gutsy plunges of the former’s wicked guitar riff and immediately after the latter’s colossal solo drum foundation. See also: the first few seconds of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971), soon after the drums are introduced to that impeccably slouching guitar.
A dainty tiptoe over to the wild side’s enticing border, as illustrated by Diana Ross in the Supremes’ “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” (1966). Ross’s holler—“whooo!”—is lobbed early in the song, much in the way a tea-party prude would toss a softball. It’s an important moment for the song, however, as it opens the door for the full instrumentation to come tumbling in with the next measure—in effect, the shout is a way of implying that the collective hair will be let down and a swingin’ time will be had by all without actually having to say it and therefore look foolish. Another valid interpretation of Ross’s cry has to do with the element of surprise: it directly follows a line that admits to being bitten by “the lovebug”, so perhaps her shout is nothing more than a reaction to that unexpected molestation.
The Slap and Tickle
An impulsive piece of vocal punctuation tacked onto the end of a line, typically delivered in an exaggerated tone in accordance with the line’s content. The fact that it corresponds directly to the tone of the lyric makes it one of the most profound variations of compulsive hollering—this isn’t just emphasis; it’s emphasis with meaning. Prime example: Levon Helm, in the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” (1969), augments the proud declaration “That’s when that little love of mine dips her doughnut in my tea” with a playful “hee hee!” He’s chuckling about that doughnut, or about his lady’s presumptuous gesture, or perhaps he’s simply content about the entire situation—for goodness’ sake, if he springs a leak, she mends him! You would hee-hee if you found yourself in a drunkard’s dream, no?
The Schmaltz Disintegrator
Fierce approval, in the form of a cathartic “owww!”, that the choice to convert the song from romantic ballad to funky groove locomotive was a wise one. Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” (1972) volleys back and forth between dreamlike sentimentality and bootylicious bodaciousness before ensconcing itself in the latter for its final few minutes. And what provokes and/or convinces it to do so? What transforms it from rumination about “empty souls” and life “encased inside a hollow shell” (take a hike, Camus!) to a Sly Stone-esque come-on? Wonder’s Schmaltz Disintegrator, of course, that sudden screech that urges the song to stay the up-tempo course and never look back.
The auditory equivalent of a junkyard dog snapping his chain to fulfill defensive urges; the snarling, frothy chomps of said animal are rendered, for our purposes here, in quick bursts of adrenaline-addled falsetto howls. Britt Daniel employs this technique with fanatical relish in Spoon’s “Not Turning Off” (1996) (incidentally, another song with a tritone riff at the crux of its construction). To really ensure that the Berserker stands out like splattered pastel paint on an unassuming white canvas, Daniel withholds it until the final seconds of the song, hording it in reserve while speak-singing some quieted yet disquieting lines (“Oh, honey, oh, please, it’s just a machine”). When it’s finally sprung, the frenzied yip is interjected in the brief spaces where the instrumentation plays a mathematical game of stop-and-go—a psychotic reaction to dead space. See also: the Pixies’ “Bone Machine” (1988), specifically the increasingly demented “Yep yep yep yep!” shouts that spring from the nonsensical ether at the end of the second verse.
The Dr. Jekyll
An underdeveloped, hard-to-wrangle scream that strangles the lyric, but not enough to kill it; the lyric is able to drag its still-beating heart through to the next measure. The Dr. Jekyll differs from other hoots and hollers in that it isn’t explicitly a non-verbal noise. It’s got one foot in the realm of words and one in Little Richardian impulse, a muddled, tempestuous freeze-frame of transitory disruption. See: Elvis Costello’s final wringing of the titular phrase in “Beaten to the Punch” (1980), which sounds like swollen vocal chords barking into a microphone made of stretched-taut balloon rubber. Costello’s three decade-long honing of his idiosyncratic and rarely used pig-squeal shriek would move further away from the Jekyll technique to favor a complete eradication of the verbal element (see “Man Out of Time”  and “Playboy to a Man” ). See also: the degenerating primal-scream yowls (“well-well-weeeeeeeeelllll”) that sabotage many of Lennon’s already ravaged vocal performances on Plastic Ono Band (1970).
The Not Fit for Trial
A manifestation of the primordial forces within us, this holler is an oft-imitated splinter of fractured psychosis—the barbaric yawp twisted up in all that filthy confusion that rock ‘n’ roll traffics in. Imagine if Little Richard’s trademark falsetto swoon had peeled itself away from every possible association with sanity; imagine it with scars on its bare chest and its legs akimbo in tight leather pants on a stage floor. Imagine Iggy Pop, arguably the one vocalist who single-handedly defined this loose-canon variety of wounded ecstasy. In the Stooges’ “TV Eye” (1970), Pop sounds like he’s just risen from Dr. Frankenstein’s operating table to greet the cruel and hurtful world, only to immediately fall from a cliff—“Hoooooooooo!”—with his band giving a gravity-led chase. This kind of wail is ubiquitous in 21st-century so-called alternative rock and post punk, but no band, no matter how sinister their hairdos or tattoos, can make a vocal sound like it was courting bloodlust like Pop’s could.
The Huff ‘n’ Puff
A conspicuous whistle, aimed not at any particular component or idea, and introduced at an arbitrary moment. The haphazard, almost slapdash means of interjection is not meant to imply boredom with the song or its topic, but rather encourage the utilitarian hoof-trot of purpose. Songs, too, have work to do. Tom Waits sounds his own call of grizzled impatience in the existential stomper “Make It Rain” (2004), forfeiting a dual-finger-wheedled whistle in the midst of the song’s fade-out. This man doesn’t have time for whoops or hoots (hence the whistle); he’s “just another sad guest on this dark earth”, so a stern command to straighten up and fly right will have to do. His technique acknowledges the spontaneous celebration so often summoned in his occupation—pop singer, to put not-so-fine a point on it—while refusing to get lost in the heat of the moment. It’s whistling while you work: not the seven dwarves’ kind, but the kind that keeps the heavy machinery operator awake so that he doesn’t cut his finger off. Waits, along with the wheelbarrow of pop-music history he’s meant to tote, asks, How many days since a lost time accident? Careful, there.