Top Ten Vocal Sound Effects
like it when vocalists are confident or foolish enough to potentially embarrass themselves for the sake of their art. Specifically, those moments when the ego at the front is so engrossed in the mood (or, in some cases, the sound of their own voice) that they unleash their inner, primal self all over the place. Whether by accident or through careful choreography, it doesn’t really matter—what counts is the quality of squeak, yell, burble or gasp which briefly comes tumbling out in place of lyrics. The finer instances of this phenomena can act like glorious hooks, burrowing into the listener’s mind and making each encounter with the record incomplete until the crucial flash of emotional abandon appears. Others just end up sounding utterly ridiculous. Both should be cherished.
There are thousands of examples to choose from. Around 729 of them are from the Cocteau Twins discography, but Liz Fraser is so far ahead of the rest of the field it would be unfair to include her. Apologies in advance to those who want to see a completely definitive list here ... because this isn’t going to be a completely definitive list. It’s going to be a “ten favourites” style festival of self-indulgence; which means lots of Goths and dandies. And it starts like this:
10. Morrissey (The Smiths - “This Charming Man”)
Would this track even work without Moz’s excitable “aaaaAAHH!” leading into each chorus? Unlikely. He’s not just making noise for the hell of it though, he’s aurally enacting key parts of the narrative. In order to convey the full backstory of the punctured bicycle, the quiffed one has put his dignity on the line and fired off a quick impression of what the bike’s owner might have sounded like as the tyre ruptured and threw his feet from the pedals.
Not content with this uncanny reproduction of inner-tube based terror, Morrissey astounds the gallery by also recreating the cry of alarm emitted by the jumped up pantry boy as he spills soup all over himself. That’s the mark of a quality yelper—making it work on two levels.
09. Andrew Eldritch (The Sisters of Mercy - “Vision Thing”)
The Vision Thing album was perhaps a layer of pastiche too far for the Sisters; at times so heavily disguised as cheesy cock-rock that it, err, sounded like cheesy cock-rock. There were, however, depths beyond the generic riffing—not least on the title track (best experienced in its extended “Canadian Club Mix” form).
As cynical dismissals of governmental figures go, “another motherfucker in a motorcade” is pretty special. Dig a little further and all kinds of allusions to the 1988 Bush election, General Noriega, and the Nicaraguan Contras can also be uncovered. In light of all this, the hearty *snnniiifffff* which launches the track (and record) may not simply be born of pure derision, but could represent a wider reference to some of Panama’s finer produce. CIA-approved, of course. Allegedly.
(I know, I know—technically a nasal sound effect).
08. Luke Haines (Black Box Recorder - “The English Motorway System”)
Overall, I tried to avoid anything resembling a “do do do” harmony or backing vocal (not really what I was looking for)—but this is slightly different, and worthy of a place. For a change, Haines isn’t being ruthlessly snide or singing about German terrorists. Instead, he’s providing some asphalt ahhh’s to keep this gigantic motorways/complacent relationships metaphor trundling forwards.
Aided by John Moore’s (well, I’ll assume it’s him) clever drum programming, which replicates the rhythmic rumble of wheel on concrete, these gravely background coos deftly complete the rest of the picture. They’re the lights crawling past in a tunnel, the dulcet hum of some internal technology, a dusk sky stretching over the horizon. Cones by the roadside. A friendly figure at the wheel. About to have their heart torn asunder.
07. Anne Stephenson (Siouxsie & the Banshees - “Slowdive”)
Who? Ahh, well, time to reach for some source material. It’ll be just like wikipedia, except without a greasy control freak itching to delete my work:
Anne Stephenson (violin): ‘Mike Hedges asked us to come in and play strings on a couple of [A Kiss in The Dreamhouse] songs. We did “Slowdive” first. Siouxsie said, “I like Es, play lots of Es.” So we started going, “Ee, ee, ee ...” My arm hurt after doing that E thing for so long ...’
Budgie: ‘Yep, it’s Anne who cries “Oh my God!” on “Slowdive”.’
(Siouxsie & the Banshees: The Authorised Biography - Mark Paytress, p.124/125)
Thrilling anecdotal evidence that the semi-orgasmic squeak on “Slowdive” is not emitted by a sexually-charged Sioux, but by a violinist with an exhausted bowing arm. The words are barely distinguishable from spent gasps, but, happily, this means her outburst fits perfectly with the “little deaths” theme of the piece.
06. Billy Mackenzie (The Associates - Sulk)
All of it. Even the instrumentals.
05. Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies and Algy Ward (The Damned - “Machine Gun Etiquette”)
Machine Gun Etiquette is awash with choice exclamations, proving that The Damned took punk’s inclination to be full of gob somewhat literally. For a start, there’s the natter and chatter of “Love Song,” climaxing with a fantastically confused “hey man, what’s happening?” The fresh and fruity “bollocks!” which kicks off “Anti-Pope” is also pretty tempting.
These, though, are clearly discernible words and phrases—which would be stretching the concept a little. Therefore, it is to “Noise, Noise, Noise” we must turn for a handy summation of the band’s entire ethos; for the conclusion of this delightful ditty is an ensemble of carefree rascals chanting “isn’t it nice in here, WHOO!” in scornfully posh accents. Accompanied by a set of kazoo-generated fart noises.
04. Adam Ant (Adam & the Ants - “Prince Charming”)
Yeah, it was pretty tough to decide between this and “da-diddly qua qua!” Although that iconic phrase still resonates throughout the world today, “Prince Charming” gets bonus points for sheer enthusiasm. The da-diddly’s are rounding off a song which has already unloaded a whole heap of insanity. They’re the cherry on the crazy cake.
Here, the bellowed cries of “AHHH-HAAAA! / EUUUGGGHH-HAAA!” are blatant attention grabbers. Our foppish prince doesn’t *need* to yell a demented war cry for the first 30 seconds or so, but he does it anyway. That’s why he’s royalty and we’re all serfs. Excellent use of excessive dry ice and a toy cat in the video, too.
03. Kate Bush and feathered friends (Kate Bush - “Aerial Tal”)
Most people who’d not released an album in the previous twelve years might have been tempted to play things safe. Stick to a standard length, not risk too much—see if the public still remember them. Luckily, Ms. Bush is an altogether more interesting person. Aerial provided a rich, dynamic voyage into the strange (singing about washing machines) and the mundane (um ... also singing about washing machines), with an entire second disc devoted to a conceptual suite about the cycle of a single day, or a humanitarian take on the Genesis myth.
Or something like that. Needless to say, when Kate is playfully mimicking birdsong on “Aerial Tal,” it seems a perfectly natural thing to be doing. Where other vocalists might be too self-conscious or find themselves hopelessly stilted by pomposity, Bush makes it feel as easy as scattering breadcrumbs.
02. Caroline Potter (Piano Magic - “Snowfall Soon”)
Piano Magic have a rotating squad of vocalists, even on individual records—but I’m relatively confident the correct person is being credited here. With “Snowfall Soon,” the moment of vocal release isn’t just an amusing aside or point of curiosity; it changes the entire direction and feel of the song.
For the majority of the runtime, it’s relatively straightforward shoegazy fare—slow, swirly build-up, softly buried singing, and indistinct phasing. Straightforward, that is, until a pleasant lull in the proceedings is shattered by a half-swallowed scream of alarm, as if poor Caroline has just been grabbed by a shadowy figure or swept away in an avalanche. From this point onwards, the drumming pounds far harder and the intoned refrain of “touch sensitive / touch sensitive” adopts a rather more sinister edge.
01. Robert Smith (The Cure - “The Lovecats”)
As the clock ticked down towards his final hours of self-destruction, Smith was saved by a vision. Perhaps it was a blinding epiphany. Maybe it was a narcotic-fuelled illusion. Who can say? All modern scholars are able to ascertain is that this sudden enlightenment consisted of a highly specific set of instructions.
You need to be a bit more jazzy, it said. Why not see if you can dig up a double-bass and some loud shirts? Oh yes, and one more thing ... ahh, how to put this ... over the intro, it would be brilliant if you could pretend to be a love-smitten kitten. No, sorry, you’ve misunderstood—that’s not a metaphor. An actual cat Mr Smith, yes. You must meow your way into history.