Keith Richards vs. the earworms: who will win?

photo from American Songwriter

photo from American Songwriter

There’s no telling when or why a song gets stuck in my head. One especially troubling instance happened in the summer of 1976, when I was a young man cavorting in England. Seemingly out of nowhere appeared a brief instrumental passage from a song by the Easybeats, the Australian band who performed the classic garage hit “Friday on My Mind.” This little riff set up shop in my head and stayed there for days, repeating over and over the same two-measure bass line until I was considering a lobotomy.
Like most earworms, this one moved on of its own accord, probably migrating to some poor sod next to me at the One Elm Inn in Stratford-upon-Avon. My torment was over but his had just begun.
I bring this up now because I’ve been struggling with earworms this week. Frankly, I hope some of you have, too, because then I could put my struggle down to a change in the weather, or September coming on, or something. I’m guessing mental fatigue, my brain’s natural immunity lowered by too much activity.
It began with, again, an instrumental passage, apparently my mind’s weak point of entry. This was from a song I will not be naming here, for fear of somehow re-activating it. More maddeningly, it is a song currently being performed by my band, the Honeytones, and the passage is my guitar solo in that song. Now I find it particularly perverse that I should inflict myself with an earworm bred by a riff from my very own guitar. For what am I being punished, oh Lord? Please tell me it’s the weather.
The Worm that Shall Remain Nameless first struck in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, as a soundtrack to a steady stream of worries about daytime tasks (stories I’m writing, house painting, changing Internet providers etc.). This was bad enough, but then it started following me around during the day. Whatever I was doing – sweeping the walk, riding my bike – there it was, like a bad case of the hiccups. It just wouldn’t stop.
So I tried to combat the riff with a better riff. And what better riffer is there than Keith Richards, mastermind of such unforgettable riffs as the opening lines of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up.” Surely Keith’s ultimate riffage would vanquish my paltry noodling.
For my anti-worm I chose Keef’s masterful work on “Sympathy for the Devil,” not the album cut but the incredible live version on “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.” It opens with a female fan imploring, “Paint it Black, you devils!” They sure do. Keith’s chunga-chunga riff could melt a teenage boy or mesmerize a Peruvian shaman. I’m listening to it now, and it makes me want to bang my head like the car guys in “Wayne’s World.”
This counter-worming is one of several strategies I’ve found online for abolishing musical memes that won’t leave you alone. Others include working out, listening to the song all the way through or picturing an actual worm crawling out of your head and then stomping on it. This last seems repulsive, so I’ll stick with the musical methods.
It is somewhat comforting to know I’m so far from alone. To the rescue comes a TED-Ed talk, written by music researcher Elizabeth Hellmus Margulis, informing me that 90 percent of us get earworms at least once a week. Often burrowing in during mundane tasks, earworms are “one of the mind’s great mysteries,” Margulis says. She calls them an example of “mental imagery,” like imagining a baby crying, except these are involuntary and get stuck in a loop. High-tech sound sources may have made it worse, she speculates, but notes a Mark Twain story tells of a town taken over by a rhyming jingle.
In other words, we seem to always have been stuck with earworms. Whatever. It happens to me a lot, and playing guitar probably has a lot to do with it. I’m hoping other musicians will nod their heads here, and that I have not woken up a worm in your ear just by writing this.
Keith finally did vanquish the Worm that Shall Remain Nameless, by the way. Sadly, a new one popped into my head last night. I won’t name that one either. I’m counting on Keith to bail me out again.

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5 Responses to Keith Richards vs. the earworms: who will win?

  1. rteest says:

    What a fun article, Charley!!! Musical earworms are so universal, and I have experienced probably the most heinous earworm of them all…first hand, up close and personal. IT’S A SMALL WORLD! Yes, the most dastardly earworm known to humans! When I was a young man working at Disneyland in 1976, I was stuck IN THE RIDE, with the music playing over and over and over and over. There wasn’t enough ear bleach in the world to save me! Not even humming In the Year 2525 worked. As the saying goes, “time heals”. That was the only cure.
    I wish I had had an iPod available to me with “good” earworm riffs on it to combat the bad ones.
    Thanks for a wonderfully entertaining article!

    • soulmailing says:

      Thanks for the memories, Ken. I remember hearing that song ad nauseum when I visited you in Anaheim in 1977. I can’t imagine hearing it every day of my life as an employee! Seems to me the tune they played during the Electrical Parade was pretty earwormy as well. And thanks for the phrase “earworm bleach.” I’ll never forget it!

  2. marg says:

    I can relate! Mine seem to revolve around annoying theme songs for tv shows like “Psych.” I find that singing “Amazing Grace” over and over in my head usually does the trick. Also, being vigilant about skipping through the offending theme songs so the worms aren’t able to reestablish residence in my mind.

  3. PS: Cool poem written about Keith by Tom Waits here:
    (you’ll probably need to cut and paste the link to get to it)

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