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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Joe Walsh "Rocky Mountain Way" Song Analysis

Here's a song that I've been getting requests to do a song analysis on for a while, and I have to admit that it's long been one of my favorites - Joe Walsh and Barnstorm's "Rocky Mountain Way" from the album The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get.

Although Joe had achieved some measure of success with The James Gang, "Rocky Mountain Way" was the song that broke him as a solo artist, getting as far as #23 on the Billboard charts. In a round-about way, it also led to his eventual place as guitarist in The Eagles, since both were produced by Bill Szymscyk, although Szymscyk also produced the James Gang as well. The song was written by Walsh as a tribute to his new home in Colorada, having just moved from Cleveland, and is one of the first songs to use a talkbox on the guitar. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Rocky Mountain Way" is really a pretty simple song in that it consists of only 3 parts - an intro/interlude/outro, a verse and a chorus. Like all hit songs, it's how it's put together that makes the difference. The song form looks like this:

Intro (guitar), Intro (guitar, bass and piano), Intro (full band with slide guitar), Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Solo (over an extended verse), Chorus, Outro

RMW is really just a blues shuffle, but regardless who's playing the shuffle or how it's played, it's a feel that we as listeners really like and always seems to be a winner.

The Arrangement
As stated above, RMW is a pretty simple song, but as always, the arrangement makes the difference. Take notice how things build in the intro, with the song beginning with a single guitar on the left, then adding a double on the right, then adding the bass and piano, and finally adding the drums.

There are a lot of dynamics at work in the verse as the piano drops out, the guitar play only the E-A blues riff, and the bass and drums alter their playing so it's more open. Then comes the chorus when the slide guitar and piano re-enter and the bass and drums change their patterns again to push both the feel and the level of the band, which continues into the Interlude.

The solo is interesting because the song strips down again. The clavinet enters (or "Funky C" as we used to call it) on the left and the talkbox solo guitar on the right as the rhythm section basically plays the verse feel. On the last 8 bars another rhythm guitar enters on the left to build up the tension as Joe continues his solo over the chorus and outro (which is basically the same as the interlude).

It's all tension and release. Start quiet with a few instruments, add more and build the level and tension up, then mute them and the tension turns into a release. Level up, level down, level up again by instruments and vocals entering and exiting.

  * The Foundation: Bass and drums

  * The Pad: None

  * The Rhythm: Piano trills on the chorus and interludes, high hat on the verse, clavinet on the solo

  * The Lead: Vocal and slide guitar

  * The Fills: Slide guitar on the choruses

The Sound
Like almost everything from the 70's, "Rocky Mountain Way" is really big and natural sounding, and although it's compressed, it never sounds like there's too much. The most interesting thing to me about the song is the use of reverb. You hear a little of one reverb that's panned to the right on the Rhythm guitars, then another darker reverb just on the snare drum of the verse. This dark one is delayed and pretty deep and long, giving you the sort of a "grand canyon" feel.

There's also something happening to the vocal during the verses that I believe is an early analog delay. If you listen on headphones, the live vocal is on the left side, but it's also on the right side as well, only with a lot less high end. It's definitely a stereo effect but I can't say for sure what they were using since there weren't a lot of things that did that around in 1973 (it's too short to be a tape delay). When the song gets to the chorus, the vocal is doubled with a second voice which is panned up the center.

One interesting thing to listen for is what sounds like a bass overdub at 2:03 where the sound of the bass changes for a couple of beats. Sounds like it could have been a bass fix that happened later after the tracking session was over.

The Production
The art of production is making a song interesting, so you can say that Joe Walsh and Bill Szymscyk did their job well. This is basically a four piece band (Joe Vitale on drums, Kenny Passerelli on bass, Rocke Grace on keys and Walsh on guitars) with a few overdubs, but it's the overdubs and the change of feel that make the song.

The rhythm guitar is doubled with a lead guitar overdubbed, and how those guitars enter and exit the song makes it build. Same with the piano, then later the clavinet in the solo. Of course, a lot of credit has to be given to the rhythm section, which push the song along with a solid performance.

Once last thing - listen to how far behind the beat Joe Vitale's snare drum is. That's the perfect feel for this type of song (or any shuffle for that matter).

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Fred Decker said...


Excellent analysis. This song is so simple, but sounds dramatic and good. Nice job picking apart and explaining it.


cthulhu said...

Just recently discovered your blog from Jim Dalrymple at The Loop, so catching up...

The liner notes to Best of Joe Walsh indicate that this song was only Walsh, Vitale, and Passarelli; Walsh (obviously) played all the guitars, Passarelli the bass, and Vitale the drums, piano, and Arp 2600 (not a clavinet), probably the one that Pete Townshend gave Walsh as a return gift for a Gretsch Chet Atkins guitar that Walsh gave Townshend in early 1971 (which Townshend played on Who's Next, and according to his recent autobiography, smashed in a fit of pique during a BBC performance of songs from Quadrophenia in 1973). Rocke Grace is credited as co-writer though.

Killer song, and has really held up well over the last forty years.


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