Can You Tell Me What a Wang Chung is?

Recently, I ran across a British jazz group online called The Quartet and was surprised to find that the guitar player in the ensemble was Jack Hues, lead singer/guitarist from the iconic ’80s band, Wang Chung. Their big hits, Dance Hall Days and Everybody Have Fun Tonight (Everybody Wang Chung Tonight), were great dance tunes, a bit fluffy to be sure, but I’m sure they paid the bills for decades, and are maybe even still paying the bills today. The albums, though, contained a lot of interesting music in a wide variety of styles, and featured some excellent song writing.

There was something I immediately liked about the band. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it seemed like this group had some harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic sophistication that belied their exposure to (and expertise in) jazz, prog rock, fusion, or possibly even classical music.

Another thing I liked was that they had a great sense of humor and didn’t take themselves too seriously. For example, listen to the muted background singer in their biggest hit, Everybody Have Fun Tonight, at about 3’22″ sing “Can you tell me what a Wang Chung is?”

Click here to listen to the excerpt* from Everybody Have Fun Tonight.

It’s still funny to hear this subversive and self-effacing line, cleverly hidden in one of the most famous hits of the ’80s (during the Gospel Choir interlude no less!).

As I moved through their catalogue I couldn’t help but notice a few interesting musical features. On their first album, Huang Chung (1982), I was surprised** by the chord progression in the innocuously titled Dancing:



Click here to listen to the excerpt from Dancing.

There is mode mixture, with a major tonic chord in first inversion appearing via a provocative tritone movement in the bass, but most surprising is the chromatic movement thereafter as it moves to i6 and then to V7/V. Secondary dominant chords are certainly found in pop music occasionally, but this amount of chromaticism and the tritone bass movement are generally not found. In any case, the progression stands out in this genre (helped also by the elided cadence and the destabilizing measure of 2/4).

Now, fast forward to their fifth album, Warmer Side of Cool (1989) which ends with an anthemic environmentalist plea entitled Big World (featuring powerhouse jazz and studio players Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Bill Reichenbach Jr. on trombone). Near the end, the chorus repeats a few times, but then it is varied by introducing the following chord progression:

Click here to listen to the excerpt from Big World.

Notice the similarity in the chord progression at the end of Big World and in Dancing. The Big World coda has more mode mixture and chromaticism, but what makes it sound like the same progression as in Dancing is the stepwise bass moving from iio6 to V7/V, ending with the striking i6-V7/V as in the previous example.

Now listen to the Big World excerpt again, and you’ll notice someone (it doesn’t sound like Jack Hues, could be Nick Feldman perhaps?) singing the word “dancing” at the end of the phrase between V7/V and V7sus:


It is exactly the same rhythm in the exact same place using the exact same pitches (transposed) as in Dancing. (In Dancing, this is F→D, or flat 3 moving to tonic, while in Big World it is E-flat→C, which is also flat 3 moving to tonic). In addition to this, as mentioned before, the chord progression is almost identical between the two tunes, as is the tempo (66 beats per minute for Dancing and 60 beats per minute for Big World)! Clearly, this is a reference to Dancing from their first album. Again, another clever, self-effacing and self-referential gesture–an “inside joke” if you will–linking their first and last albums of that era.

Here’s another example, this time of a melodic device that is very strange (unheard of?) in pop music. The album Points on the Curve (1984) features a tune entitled Devoted Friends that sounds like it will be pure ’80s kitsch. (Think high synth strings, Top Gun soundtrack, etc.) But then, the voice enters, with a melody that is positively jarring in this context:

Click here to listen to the excerpt from Devoted Friends.

In a flourish worthy of Slonimsky’s Thesaurus, the melody actually begins with an octatonic scale over top of the tonic chord, eventually landing on the leading tone, forming some kind of bizarre hybrid of octatonic/minor scale that would have kept Coltrane up for two weeks practicing it in all its permutations. (My good friend and brilliant theorist, John Schuster-Craig, also informs me that this melodic fragment is 2/3 of Olivier Messiaen’s Mode III!) This had to be Hues and Feldman on a late night binge daring each other to see if they could get the octatonic scale into a standard pop ballad released by Geffen Records! The chorus doesn’t disappoint either (surprising modulation), so it’s not a surprise that this particular tune didn’t get much radio play.

During their heyday, they also did a commendable job writing and performing the soundtrack to William Friedkin’s crime thriller from 1985 entitled: To Live and Die in L.A.  

The title track is brilliant. A standard pop groove in the verse, with a gorgeous interlude that is pensive, introspective, and very surprising. It captures the mood of LA; a bottomless pit of ennui and self-absorption that mirrors the tragic tale told in the film. In other words, it’s very Wang Chung.

They’re still active in the studio with a great new EP release entitled Abducted by the ’80s (title track features poetry over minimalist electronica) and they’re still touring. And of course Hues has his jazz project, which, while not groundbreaking, is a serious offering in the genre, and even more interesting considering the background and history of the group. So, I guess my hunches about this group so many years ago were fairly good; in fact, I’m quite sure that I may now actually know what a Wang Chung is…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* NOTE: All recordings are owned by their respective copyright holders (Arista or Geffen Records) and are used simply as examples in a “fair use” context.

** The other thing I was surprised by was the poor saxophone playing (amateur is being kind) on this first record. This issue was, fortunately, remedied on the following recordings!

About FraKathustra

http://www.kurtellenberger.com

One Response to “Can You Tell Me What a Wang Chung is?”

  1. Wow, it’s great to see someone else appreciate Wang Chung especially in such a scholarly manner. I always knew they were pretty heavy myself. Not just the music of course, but Jack Hues’ vocal phrasing too. They weren’t only mischievous with structure but also lyrically, who else has managed to fit the word ‘amethyst’ into a song?

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