Top 8 Uses of Handclaps in Pop Music
By The Staff | 22 November 2005
8. New Buffalo: “Recovery”
- from The Last Beautiful Day (Dot-Dash; 2004/Arts & Crafts; 2005)
Clay asked for suggestions on this handclaps list of his that you’re currently reading, and though I don’t consider myself much of a handclap sort of guy, my mind ran the gamut of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” to the Cure’s “Close to Me” to like three tracks by the Avalanches to that awesome opener of The Bay of Biscay. But then I asked myself, “Are these really excellent handclaps or are they just excellent songs that happen to have handclaps?” I had to be honest: the latter was closer to the truth. I thought I might make a case for Sly and Velella, but in the first instance the claps are damn low in the mix, and in the second you have a new, untested song that pretty much no one has heard outside of Planet Chet.
It was at that point that I decided that this was a bad idea for a list and that I would have to talk about all my various sweet handclap candidates just to take up space before getting down to the one I had settled on. In case you don’t read entry headings, I’ve settled on New Buffalo’s “Recovery.” Why? Because, unlike the other slap-happy possibilities I flirted with, the handclaps in “Recovery” are as totally excellent as the song that they happen to infest. When I suggested “Recovery,” I mentioned that its handclaps are like the sound of a trio of smiling, pig-tailed lasses perfectly handclapping the theme to Are You Being Served?. I find now that that’s the only available description proffered by my mind. In commentary, I add that I don’t know then why I love the handclaps so much; I loathe
Magical enough to make me write 300 words about handclaps, at least.
7. Blur: “Tender”
- from 13 (Food/Virgin; 1999)
Damon Albarn is a cheeky trickster with hooks even if his lyrics are often borderline prenatal in their simplicity and thematic depth (Democrazy? Jesus, c’mon…). “Song 2,” “Coffee and TV,” “Crazy Beat,” “Feel Good, Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood” have all been hugely successful and even more recognizable because of hooks, whether it be the opening lick, the chorus, or a simple visceral yelp. “Tender” is another such bastion of unmitigated hookiness, but it’s also 7 ½ minutes long and pretty much repeats that hook, essentially verbatim, throughout the whole thing. The funniest part about this song’s endurance is that, more than once, I’ve heard it played in full on mainstream radio. So, why is this allowed? Why haven’t the gods of disposable underwear cut the crotch out of this song yet?
I’d say that it’s all because of handclaps. Granted, the handclaps don’t really do much musically, often just following along with the fervent snare and paced bass whomps, leaving when the drums grow silent, coming back when the drums are chided to return, never actually slapping away on their own. Even so, the handclaps introduce an inclusive atmosphere, encouraging the listener to play along before the gospel choir joins and the congregation rises. For a tune as long, as monotonous, and as stubbornly simple as this, the handclaps are a caveat and a bribe all at once: This song may not get much heavier than what’s already ostensibly obvious, but you will have something juicy for a sing-along with your friends, piping out the same notes as long as is required.
6. Broken Social Scene: “Stars and Sons”
- from You Forgot It In People (Paper Bag/Arts & Crafts; 2003)
So . . . that bass line, huh? Sing it with me. Dum dum dum dum dum . . . Okay, maybe not. But still: four measures, 32 tactical strikes, rising gloriously toward a stuttered euphoric utterance, this is a bassline that makes a song good. BSS knew it, too: there’s nothing to this track besides some whispered hoo-ha and processed drums and that fucking bass line—nothing, that is, until the fuzz in the background starts to fade too loud in the front before dropping out and then halleluijah! handclaps! handclaps! handclaps! overtop of the bassline, hammering it home and solidifying the song’s domination over the rest of YFIIP’s already-astounding first half. This is a perfect implementation of the handclaps-as-ornamentation doctrine, hands coming together to applaud the explosive beauty of the bass line and give a hollow track a kick in the ass. And man . . . that fucking bass line, huh?
5. Radiohead: “We Suck Young Blood”
- from Hail to the Thief (EMI; 2003)
So I made this stupid idea for a list, just because I love handclaps, and I threw it out to the other CMGers. Few liked the idea, but Baban, realizing my unease, shrugged and muttered, “I dunno, creepiest use of handclaps? ‘We Suck Young Blood,’ probably.”
Baban was on the ball. After a plaintive piano intro, Yorke quivers, “Are you hungry?” and the claps answer resoundingly in the affirmative. Yorke’s relentless questions compound, piling on top of one another, and the insistent, patient clapping of the lost souls—too hopeless to wish for their own human voice—finds its only supplication through Yorke’s titular wail. When, three minutes in, the band impatiently freaks out (perhaps the nervous twitches of the handclapping masses flipping into spastic fury!), the claps stay in place. But the freak out lasts only a few moments, and the song dissolves back into its stately swan dive, the handclaps echoing the eternal misery of the human experience (or whatever). Only Radiohead could make handclaps sound this disquieting.
4. Missy Elliott: “Pass That Dutch”
- from This Is Not A Test! (Elektra; 2003)
Timbaland’s still a mad scientist, but for awhile there, his every move was the subject of intense scrutiny, the final conclusion of which was always: “Holy shit.” He had already given Aaliyah the indomitable baby coos of “Are You That Somebody?”, so stakes was high for him to give something equally brilliant to his phreak-phlag-phlying ultimate collaborator, Missy Misdemeanor. So Tim flipped through his idea filing cabinet and emerged with the untested handclaps-as-song theorem. “Pass That Dutch” is the breath-taking result: after one of Missy’s finest (see also: briefest) spoken intros, The Beat drops, all titular handclaps with a slight faded quality—shit sounds like a field recording from a playground in Harlem. Tim doesn’t have to do much beyond those handclaps, or, at the very least, he chooses not to do much, just a trio of humming bass blasts, deep as the ocean, to anchor the handclaps as they skip along the surface. Missy’s vocals work surprisingly well over the constant 1-2-a-billion zip of the handclaps—but she’s a guest vocalist on her own track. It’s this beat, this orgasmic salute to the wonder of handclaps that steals the show, a gimmicky track of transcendent silliness. Kudos, Tim.
3. The Beatles: “Eight Days a Week”
- from Beatles for Sale (Capitol; 1964)
One of the Beatles more straight-forward early hits, “Eight Days a Week” is a song that probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as infectious without its double hand-claps throughout. The song features typical Lennon pining and wordplay (there aren’t eight days in a week, ya goofy Brit!) married with jubilant McCartney harmonizing – a pretty typical early Beatles love song. But the handclaps lend the song a weird immediacy and make it instantly catchy and memorable. I’m sure this isn’t the first use of handclaps in music history, though if it were it’d be yet another dubious “innovation” to credit the Beatles with, alongside liner notes and messy break-ups, but it was certainly the beginning of this listener’s long and unhealthy infatuation with songs featuring the ole clap.
2. Super Furry Animals: “Play It Cool”
- from Radiator (Flydaddy, 1997)
Consumerism and the exploitive vagaries of a Technicolor society have been the stuff of SFA songs since before their logic got furry, which was, like, before Time began, so “Play It Cool” is nothing if not a sugary complaint against screaming network TV. Well, whoopee, gimme something else I haven’t pseudo-philisophically been squatting over and huffing out since that dude from Cheaters got stabbed. Seriously, give it to me, because I said so.
Gruff sings, “The electric mistress always sounds so bold. She says I’m free to do anything I’m told.” OK, I say pack this baby thick; I want the beginning to sound like you, Gruff, are playing five banjos on top of eachother, playing them hard, and I want rubbery DJing up against loud electric chainmail; Oh, and don’t forget a falsetto chorus, with a layer of warm organs, we can’t leave any space white or someone might realize how cliché it all is. Handclaps? Of course, that’s as primal a percussive instrument as we can get. In fact, I want the handclaps to drive the song. Besides the initial roll, the snares are going to have to be buried under this lollipop, letting the handclaps do the work. Makem louder at the chorus. Yeaaaaahhhhhhhh.
As any song on this list could attest, handclaps are the oldest trick in the book, next to the fake ending or the synthesized strings, yet here they are fueling this track, sounding wet, hot, and hungry. Gruff sings again, “I feel so seduced, tell me to reproduce.” “Play It Cool” is told what to do by its hoakiest part, and it isn’t any surprise that one of pop’s easiest, self-perpetuating crutches should turn out so immediately likable. If the Super Furry Animals are going to lambaste consumer culture, why not simultaneously wink at it? Take it all on its terms. Celebrate the slapping of skin before you get the credibility slapped right outta your mouth.
1. James Brown: “Think”
- from Live at the Apollo (Polydor; 1963)
I know what you’re thinking—a bunch of indie geeks get together to make a list, can’t come up with anything earlier than 1997, and then tack on some “classic” artist to the top to make the list seem “definitive.” If you’re thinking that, you’re, erm, kind of right, but only in that this is the only pre-indie rock track on here. But this isn’t number one because it’s the oldest. “Think” tops our list because, in six tiny claps, it packs more pent-up handpower than a middle school lunchroom. They’re the hardest working handclaps in show business.
This is one of those tracks that you may not know that you know, you know? One second into the sauntering horn line, though, and you realize your mistake: this is a track that pop culture’s consumed whole, swallowed so completely by the gaping mouth of culture that it barely exists as part of an artist’s canon. The “proper” version of the song is no slouch, but it’s the sweat-soaked freak-out from James “Motherfucking” Brown’s Apollo performance that takes the cake. What’s the difference between the two versions? Well, Brown started by shaving a full minute off the album version by means of lighting a fire under his band’s collective ass: they fly through the damn thing in 1:45, about as long as it takes me to brush my teeth on the days when I choose to do so. More importantly, however, he added six miniscule handclaps inbetween the horn line’s big vamp (I guess it’s the chorus, but who knows with Brown) and the skimpy skips of the “verse.” But it’s those six claps that hold the song together and bring down the house, slipped over a descending guitar and an ebullient bassline. And then, after 1.5 measures of handclaps (which takes approximately 3 seconds) come two beats of exploding hornblast enormity. With “Think,” Brown invented the handclaps-as-red-herring technique—and he hit it out the park so far that no one’s touched it since.