Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Terry Riley turns an R&B ditty into 20 minutes of madness

Illustration for article titled Terry Riley turns an RB ditty into 20 minutes of madness

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: our favorite songs that come in at over 10 minutes long.

Terry Riley, “You’re No Good” (1967, but released in 2000)

In the age of Ableton, when anyone with a laptop can record anything and make infinite twists to it, a work like Terry Riley’s “You’re No Good” would hardly appear to justify the 20 minutes it takes to listen to it. It’s a noticeably primitive experiment in splicing and looping, created with just a pair of reel-to-reel tape recorders, an early Moog synthesizer, and an obscure soul song—a piece of work that sounds like an improvised goof even in its recorded form. And yet, if you allow “You’re No Good” to unfold, you’ll hear an entire future of experimental music hidden within it, as well as the R&B-sampling technique that became the basis for so much of hip-hop. Not bad for a recording that was all but forgotten about for 33 years.


In 1967, Riley was already well ahead of the curve when it came to messing around with tape loops and phasing, having reconfigured Chet Baker’s trumpet into haunting, endless echoes with 1963’s mindblowingly modernist Music For The Gift. Like his contemporary Steve Reich—whose “It’s Gonna Rain” drew significant influence from Riley’s crazed cut and paste—Riley was particularly interested in the way playing the same patterned phrases against each other can create a disjointed rhythm and unusual harmony (a technique he would apply to some of his more familiar, more formal minimalist compositions like 1964’s In C). So when the owner of a Philadelphia disco—clearly still addled from watching Riley perform an all-night concert of alto-sax feedback—commissioned him to compose a “theme” for his nightclub, Riley took the opportunity to apply that process to something a little more club-friendly that he could totally fuck with.

Riley’s victim was “You’re No Good,” a just-released R&B cut from vibraphonist and minor Latin soul sensation Harvey Averne, with vocals by Little Anthony And The Imperials’ Kenny Seymour. On its own, “You’re No Good” is a solid little tune, with Seymour engaged in a catchy call-and-response with a finger-wagging female chorus over his cheatin’ ways. But in Riley’s hands, it becomes a true exercise in delirium. Beginning with nearly three full minutes of synth drone that suddenly breaks, in media res, into the song’s funky verse, it only gets more disorienting from there.

Riley plays with the channels, panning from side to side and cutting speakers out completely, before introducing a doubled track played at a slightly different speed. It echoes at first, then abruptly slips out of time—Averne’s vibraphone notes cascading infinitely upward, the frustration of Seymour’s rejoinder, “I’ve been through this scene once before,” matched by the song’s increasingly maddening loops. Finally, near the end of its 20-minute run, Riley tosses the whole thing into a bleeping, buzzing cacophony of synth drones and glitching reverberations, as though the song is being torn apart and scattered to the ether—soul destroyed by the machine.

“You’re No Good” was similarly lost in space until it was discovered and finally released in 2000, at which point its ideas on sampling and manipulation had become old hat in the hands of decades’ worth of electronic music artists and DJs. But even today, “You’re No Good” remains a fascinating, funny, and completely engrossing listen, if you’re willing to give it the time.


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