Thursday, 7 March 2013

The day Steve Miller rhymed “abracadabra” with “reach out and grab ya”

The day Steve Miller rhymed “abracadabra” with “reach out and grab ya”

At NASA Steve Miller was called the Space Cowboy – the nemesis of the warlike Martian High Council; quick on the draw with an experimental ray gun; an expert wrangler of satellites, using the Apollo rocket’s robotic lasso.

Back on planet earth, in shadowy underworld circles, he was known as the Gangster of Love - a throwback to the romance prohibition era of the 1950s and early 1960s, when he earned a living running boxes of contraband Valentines Day cards between New York and Atlantic City for the Clintoni Family.

Some people called him Maurice - a name traditionally given to an elite of cabal of men and women who speak of the pompitous of love. In 1987 I was taken by my grandfather to The Royal Society, where Miller lectured on this subject for six hours without pausing for a break. He concluded his speech with a demonstration of how small objects can be made to levitate in a tank of the densely gaseous compound Sulphur Hexafluoride. I forget his point, but remember that it was eloquently made.

Despite his many accomplishments, Miller, ever the renaissance man, yearned to create something less abstract and far grander in scale. He laid out his ambitions in 1977, in an interview with the music journalist Charles Shaar Murray:

“I want to write a song capable of inspiring awe, something comparable in scale and grandeur  to the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge. I want people to say: ‘Wow! How the hell did he make that?’”

In 1981, Miller’s plans were to come to fruition in a song called Abracadabra. The chorus incorporated one of the most ambitious rhymes ever conceived, offsetting the five-syllable title against the five word sentence “reach out and grab ya.”

Miller would have been only too aware of the dangers of creating such a behemoth. It was well known that a song’s instability increases exponentially with the complexity of its rhyming structure. As the connections between the lines of verse become more laboured, the stresses exerted on the composition as a whole leave it in danger of collapse.

Many of the more literary-minded rock and pop groups of the 1960s had attempted rhymes of three or  four syllables, often with disastrous consequences as their lyrics caved-in under the weight of their own contrivance.  Accidents of this type were so common in San Francisco that the city employed a specialist unit to rescue bands who had foolishly attempted to rhyme ‘Grand Canyon’ with ‘D’artagnan’ and had subsequently become buried in the rubble of their own psychedelic whimsy.

Producer Gary Mallaber was among the first to be informed of Miller’s audacious plans for a five syllable rhyme:

“Steve handed me a set of lyrics for a new song he had written called Abracadabra. So I sit down and I read the first verse:  ‘I heat up, I can’t cool down...’ Okay looking good so far. Then I get to the chorus  and I’m like ‘Woah! Hold on! A five-on-five rhyme! This is crazy! It can’t be done!”

Undeterred, Miller engaged the services of the architect, Maxwell Herne. Previously he had worked on a building in downtown Toronto called ‘The Waffle Stack.’

“During the construction of the Waffle Stack everybody said that the building was going to fall over, but it didn’t. I knew there and then that he was the man for the job,” recalls Miller.  

Herne immediately spotted problems with the original design for Abracadabra.

“The challenge was to rhyme a five-syllable word against a sentence of five individual syllables. The problem is that ‘abracadabra’ rolls off tongue faster than ‘reach out and grab ya.’ It takes less time to say, so immediately you have a structural imbalance that’s probably going to wipe out you, your entire band and the first three rows of the audience if you play it.”

Herne’s elegant solution was to preface “Abracadabra” with “Abra, Abra.”

“The idea was to create a kind of brace that would bear the weight of the counter-sentence,” he reminisced, 17 years later, at a gala dinner held in his honour.

To support the massive forces that were to be exerted on the chorus, Miller, Mallaber and Herne designed a 60 foot tall, asymmetrically-buttressed archway. Because of its size, the group would have no choice other than to perform the song directly underneath it, knowing that there would be little hope for their survival if it collapsed.

When it came to sourcing appropriate materials for the archway the trio shunned the usual aluminium and lightweight plastics that were commonly used as in pop songs of this era.  

“We needed a material that was strong, yet light...” says Mallaber.

“...The Proto Metal and Prog Rock bands of the time were using exotic elements forged in the hearts of stars but these turned out to be too heavy. In the end we went a different way. Working in conjunction with scientists at MIT we developed a new alloy called Mitlerium that fulfilled our requirements.”

With the archway completed the band prepared to test the song:

“The day we played Abracadabra for the first time was insane...” recalls Miller.

“...As a precaution the area around Capitol studios in Hollywood was evacuated. There were three ambulances, a fire engine and a military gunship, all on standby in case anything went wrong. Everybody on the sound stage kept nervously glancing up at the archway. We expected it to collapse at any moment.”

Maxwell Herne watched the performance from the sidelines:

“I was amazed at how well the structure held. I had a panel of instruments in front of me measuring the stress levels. In the end it didn’t so much as creak.”  

 “Years later I was discussing Abracadabra with an exec for Warner Records...” says Gary Mallaber. 

“...He said that there was something magical about the way the song held together. Let me tell you there was nothing magic about it. It was all down to a solid grasp of architectural engineering and the behaviour of metallic lattices when subjected to controlled structural loads. Most modern bands aren’t prepared to learn these basic skill-sets any more and I think contemporary pop music has suffered as a result.”  

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