Rook, rook, gaze in the brook
If there’s a secret, can I be part of it?
Crow, crow, before I’ll let go
Say is that my name on the bell?
Music and lyrics by Andy Partridge
Recently I saw the documentary “XTC: This Is Pop,” which started me down the XTC rabbit hole, having only been a casual fan at best. On my journey I found a wonderful book “Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC,” which has a somewhat unusual format. Each chapter is a selected XTC song where interviewer Todd Bernhardt let’s Andy free-associate about what he remembers concerning the song in question. To say it’s a fascinating read is a bit of an understatement, at least if you’re an art nerd.
Having been unaware of many of the songs discussed, I would listen to the tune in question on YouTube before I read each chapter. This is how I discovered “Rook,” an astonishing piece of work by any measure. As a musician, let me start with the chords, if only because they immediately caught my ear – mind you, a trained ear that has heard over 60 years of music. The first time I heard the tune I was just entranced – my mind snapped to attention and I thought “WTF is happening here?”
By his own admission, Andy knows fuck-all about music – he taught himself to play guitar by ear, and reports that he was three or four records into XTC’s career before he could play piano with more than one finger. So what are we to make of the impressionistic chords that comprise the verse of this song? After spending an afternoon listening, learning, and checking my interpretation against Dave Gregory’s transcription, I am still utterly delighted and amazed at this tune – playing it is like finding a new toy as a child where every time you play with it you feel delighted and just want to do it again, like a magic trick that never grows old.
In essence, it’s just four chords played on an acoustic piano in slow 6/8 (approximately 71 BPM). With my background in jazz I’m calling them Bb maj7#11 – C6 maj7 – D min6 flat7 – E min7 sus4; but someone who was classically trained might call them something different. But it’s the way they’re voiced that makes them sound so impressionistic (see the link for transcription above).
Then there’s the words, sung in Andy’s plaintive voice, that just send chills up your spine. In the book, Andy talks about how he hadn’t written anything in a while and had a bit of writers block. He states: “Then, after three months, out fell ‘Rook’… I remember thinking ‘Where did this come from?‘ It was like I hadn’t thought of it…”