Somewhere between all those pedigree verses and choruses there’s a mongrel bit of a song that can make or break it, house some off-piste guitar pyrotechnics or give the singer the opportunity to show off his mastery of the octaves. It’s the middle eight and it’s the unsung portion of a great pop song. Unless it’s sung.
Before the hordes of musicologists descend (and they do hunt in packs), let’s try and establish a few ground rules. The middle eight is the eight-bar B section of a song in thirty-two-bar form, where the verse is the A section. All clear? In pop, it’s generally regarded as the bit after the second chorus in a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-eight-chorus structure, although it’s sometimes referred to as the “bridge” which then confuses it with the bridging section often found between verse and chorus. There. Clear as mud.
For our purposes, we’ll think of it as the middle bit, a passage that’s a bit different and ranges from eight bars to sixteen bars to whatever the hell the artist thinks they can fit in before we’re begging them to get to the chorus again. It can be a moment of rare beauty, redemption or doubt – depending on your key – and at its best is the pivot a classic song revolves around. Let’s dig up some great examples.
1Bruce Springsteen – ‘Born To Run’
Subtlety’s a quality not often appended to The Boss, but he lets the bells ring and the keys change for ‘Born To Run”s centrepiece as girls comb their hair and boys try to look hard before he dies with Wendy “in an everlasting kiss”. Then it’s explosions and saxes and bom-bom-bom-buh-boms as we gear up to that “last chance power drive”.
In their pomp, the Pet Shop Boys were devoted to the art of the middle eight, making classic constructs that were then brought to the cutting edge by their ever-evolving electro pop. Neil Tennant was particularly pleased with ‘Heart”s middle bit, but ‘It’s A Sin’ is where it’s really at. “Father forgive me,” he pleads, then proceeds not to give two hoots as ‘It’s A Sin’ picks up and tumbles to its thunderstruck conclusion.
The middle eight as counterpoint to the middle finger. Cee-Lo spends most of the song haring about giving it the old up-yours to everyone involved, but for a few bars he gets down on his knees and squeals “Why?” like a man who knows he’s lost but is still prepared to make himself look a total arse.
Lennon vs McCartney. Past masters at the middle eight – and just think, we could’ve just about squeezed ‘A Day In The Life’ in here – the most satisfying Beatley example is John Lennon’s downer reply (“Life is very short…”) to Paul McCartney’s optimism. Always harshing poor Macca’s buzz, that Lennon. OK, it’s as much a bridge as a middle bit but is a stellar technical example.
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The Beach Boys’ mini-opera is a pretty generous song. There’s enough delightful moments in the middle eight (or middle 24 or whatever) to provide chunky meat for another three or four songs, and it’s just testament to Brian Wilson’s overpowering, untethered creativity that he could afford to pour all this gold into one.
Here’s a neat one from the Dame in what was already a fat-free classic. The perfect bridging middle section between chorus and, um, final chorus is a quick diversion to explain his chameleonic yen. We’re saying. “Strange fascination fascinating me”. A thesaurus might not have gone amiss, mind.
Can we get much higher? By the time we get to the delirious middle bit, ‘Zero’ has already worked up from a low thrum to a turbo-thrusted lust beast, but we’re further treated to a big rude zigzagging electro-guitar solo and Karen O yelp-spitting “Was it the cure? Shellshock!” Maybe it does its job too terrifically, because the final chorus feels like an anti-climax.
And this is where the middle eight really comes into its own, After minutes of sappy, unconvincing love rivalry between Jacko and Macca on a song with all the emotional power of a wet lettuce, there’s a drift away from the chorus before Jacko cuts in with the mighty “But we both cannot have her/So it’s one or the other” section. It’s as if he’s been given a jolting shot of conviction – he has bite, he’s got soul, and suddenly everyone’s ready for ‘Thriller’. That middle bit can rescue anything.