I once attended a workshop with the British singer Sheila Chandra in which she sang a whole bunch of songs from various world cultures over a two-note drone. It was amazing the rich variety of sounds that flowed from such a simple source. It made us wonder: maybe those rock’n’rollers with their three-chord opuses and smart-aleck pop stars with their four-chord showpieces are just too clever for their own good. How about we pursue the keep-it-simple principle and see what can be done with just one chord?
You might find versions of some of these songs with more than one chord, but that’s for show-offs. As Lou Reed put it, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz”.
Monsoon – Ever So Lonely
Let’s start with the abovementioned Sheila Chandra and her band Monsoon with their ever-so-only hit single, which starts off very raga-like, with the chord supplied by the beautiful tamboura, before tragically dating itself with an unmistakeable ‘80s dance beat.
Stoney LaRue – One Chord Song
You can count on a country singer to tell it like it is, and Stoney does exactly that, from the title on down to the lyrics: “She don’t need flash or fancy, she likes a one-chord song”.
The Temptations – Papa was a Rolling Stone
Q: how many chords does it take to win a Grammy? A: one, if you’re one of the great soul acts of all time. That’s exactly what the Temptations did in 1971. That they could stretch that one chord out for a full twelve minutes was testament to the irresistible groove and Norman Whitfield’s soulful vocal arrangement.
Aretha Franklin – Chain of Fools
Here’s another Grammy winner and a classic example of “if you don’t need it, don’t bother”. You could be plucking a rubber band behind Aretha and she’d make you sound good. Throw in a bunch of legendary backing musicians and you have soul gold.
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Run Through the Jungle
This band had such amazing swamp boogie chops it’s hard to believe they were all suburban Californians. For this song they eschewed harmonic sophistication to focus on maximum grunt and growl.
Harry Nilsson – Coconut
It seems from this song that medicine is as simple as music. We recommend something more than lime and coconut for bellyache. On the other hand, this quirky little gem is a good cure for the blues.
Eddie Grant – Electric Avenue
Maybe the single chord ends up wearing out its welcome on this track, or maybe it’s the cheesy electro-pop reggae that doesn’t stand the test of 3 ½ minutes, let alone 35 years.
Any one-chord songs that we haven’t thought of? Let us know in the comments.