The final minutes of Sofia Coppola’s indie tearjerker Lost in Translation contain a surefire formula for clearing out the Kleenex box. As Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson share their teary goodbye, a nostalgic, reverb-laden drum pattern kicks in to underscore the couple’s bittersweet farewell.
Alright, Sofia, we know we’re supposed to be sad already! The real question is: why do those drums work so well at bringing on the waterworks? Whether listeners realize it or not, they most likely have heard that same beat many times before. The opening drum pattern of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” isn’t merely a catchy groove. It’s the distillation of more than forty years of pop music history.
The story of the beat begins with legendary producer Phil Spector, whose production style defined the sound of ’60s girl groups and expanded the sonic palette of pop forever. Spector would often record intricate orchestral arrangements that included doubled or tripled parts for brass, strings and woodwinds. He would then play these recordings back into an echo chamber, where microphones would capture the reverberating wash of sound onto a master tape. This signature method, dubbed the ”Wall of Sound,” transformed Spector into an icon and inspired legions of others, most notably Brian Wilson, to emulate Spector’s reverb-heavy production style.
The “Wall of Sound” technique is most famously preserved in The Ronettes’ 1963 Spector-produced single ”Be My Baby.” As Ronnie Bennett’s lovesick lead vocals float above a lush orchestral arrangement, session drummer Hal Blaine drives the song forward with a propulsive backbeat. What ultimately became Blaine’s most lasting musical legacy, however, were the song’s first five seconds.
Recognize that beat?
It’s unmistakable. Ever since the original “boom, boom boom, cha!” of Blaine’s 1963 session recording, that very same drum pattern has appeared in innumerable pop and rock songs from every decade. Doubtful? Just check out “Heat of the Moment” by Asia, “The Bucket” by Kings of Leon, or for a truly contemporary example, “Hair” by Lady Gaga. Yes, it’s everywhere, and the beat doesn’t always appear at a song’s beginning. It can be found hidden in a pre-chorus or a bridge, constituting a tongue-in-cheek wink back at the pop history of the last half century. Similar to the classic Hollywood sound effect the “Wilhelm scream,” the “Be My Baby” drumbeat is a type of in-joke for pop musicians who commonly acknowledge its significance to the history of their craft. The beat’s continued preservation signifies everything that is special about music in the first place: the feeling of community, the emotional connection and, of course, the unabashed tendency for artists to rip each other off. And as of now, you’re in on the joke.