The bridge. The middle eight. Whatever you want to call it (and I know there’s a technical difference, but whatever), it’s the twist that can take a song into a different stratosphere. It’s the delicious pre-chorus that kicks you into a different gear, building anticipation for that frisson-filled final refrain. Or, sometimes, it’s the left turn that ensures a song will stick with you long after the last notes have stopped ringing.
The Beatles were probably the best exponents of the bridge in pop history. While the 1960s were the decade in which it was in its heyday, they understood its potential better than anyone. They have so many stellar middle eights that it’s difficult to narrow down to just one; I could easily have gone for track 1 from their debut album, “I Saw Her Standing There”, the downbeat Lennon intervention in “We Can Work It Out”, or the equally breezy McCartney bridge in “A Day in the Life”. But I think their best may be “No Reply”, a relatively unknown early cut with an almost mundane verse that takes off with an unusual bridge.
The instrumental bridge is also a cracking innovation. A fine early example is from Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of “Respect”. The brief sax solo leads back into a verse you didn’t think could top the energy with which the song began – but it does. “Badge”, by Cream, with its guitar arpeggios, achieves a similar effect before Clapton’s vocal and extended guitar solo threaten to develop into an extended outro.
The bridge in Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” is a comparable declaration of intent to Aretha’s from a very different musical era. Here the Queen B has to overcome Jay Z’s usual redundant, overlong intervention, and she does it in spades, soaring up to a spectacular high as the chorus hits back in.
Another way to use the bridge is to make a song more personal. Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” achieves this perfectly. The combination of the almost-weary lyric and the building piano work underneath is entirely captivating and pulls you headlong into the final choruses.
“Senses Working Overtime” by XTC is an example of a song that seems to be made up almost completely of bridges. It’s a perfect introduction to a band that always seems to cherish the unexpected. You never know where you’re ending up, but the ride, verging on chaotic, is always fascinating.
Meanwhile Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” is all verses, save for that driving, slightly-faster middle section that manages to move the narrative forward, achieve a key change and break back into the most triumphant moment song all at once. It’s a very sophisticated moment that shows off the band’s virtuosity at the same time as serving the storyline of the song’s powerful lyrics.
A lesser-spotted version of the bridge can be found in “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush. It’s a song that uses the same three chords throughout, using texture and changing instrumentation, including otherworldly backing vocals, to create difference. At 2:47 the galloping beat is suddenly matched by Bush’s urgent cry, “come on baby/come on darling/let me steal this moment from you now”, added to by equally visceral synth strings and a clatter of percussion. It’s the heart of the song.
Simon and Garfunkel’s finest example of a travelling song, “America”, would be stunning without its middle section. But what a beautiful moment it is: discursive, lyrical, and deeply wistful, leading back into that simple run-down chord sequence and the equally simple, disarming verse beginning ‘Toss me a cigarette/I think there’s one in my rain coat’. Here I’ve used the live version from the Concert in Central Park because the extended outro is stellar, with the purest of high harmonies from Garfunkel soaring into a memorable guitar solo before heading back into that chorus. It reminds me of long car journeys when I was growing up.
Next come two great rock bridges. The first is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, a criminally underrated band whose songwriting was on a par with anyone’s. Here we get a contrasting middle section with a change into a more stilted, broken rhythm and some clanging minor chords, breaking into a tasteful guitar solo that carries us home into the final verse: “guess that’s all I have to say…”
Bob Dylan wasn’t a major exponent of the middle eight but there’s a run of four songs on Blonde on Blonde that show he could mix it with the best when he wanted to. Perhaps the best of the four is “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, here covered expertly by Jason and the Scorchers who use that bridge to great effect.
And finally, it would be remiss to leave off one of the greatest songwriters of the ’90s and ’00s, Elliott Smith. Waltz #2 has one of his most moving mid-sections, with the swooning strings and backing vocals creating a crushing sense of woe that still manages to create momentum. (Bonus: check out those swooping violin glissandos in the final chorus.)
The full playlist should appear below, but in case you can’t see it, it’s also accessible via this link.
So, what did I miss?