Can you think of a band that could save your life? I didn’t ask which band could be your life, the subject of the Minutemen‘s classic “History Lesson, Part II” and Michael Azerrad‘s survey of the American rock underground circa 1981-1991. The question posed here is more literal. A Reuters article this week reported that the Bee Gees’ falsetto-fortified 1977 disco hit ‘Stayin’ Alive,” which clocks in at 103 beats per minute (bpm), almost perfectly matches the 100 per minute rate that the American Heart Association recommends for chest compressions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation. A recent study at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria found that listening to “Stayin’ Alive” helped 15 doctors and medical students perform chest compressions on dummies at the appropriate speed. By contrast, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” despite its title, plods along at a potentially lethal 50 bpm.
No disrespect for the Bee Gees, who started out as a rather classy British Invasion band, but I suspect the disco-loving doctors stacked the deck on this one. Quick review of an online bpm directory reveals that the medical authorities strangely bypassed plenty of songs registering exactly 100 bpm, including such life-affirming ditties as “Straight Cadillac Pimpin‘” by 8-Ball and MJG and “No Shelter” by Rage Against the Machine. But I’m probably just getting defensive because I had to give a guy CPR once, and the song I recall hearing in my head was “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones, which races along at a frightful 175.8 bpm. Miraculously, he survived. For years, I’ve harbored the delusion that the Ramones helped save his life, when the life they helped save was mine.
One song I’d identify as a “lifesaver” without resorting to mathematical determinism is “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops, whose lead crooner Levi Stubbs passed away yesterday. It’s as thorny as a hook-laden love song can get, with “confusion” rhymed with “illusion” and an outstretched hand offering solace in a “world crumbling down.” Almost as good is the 1986 British hit that Stubbs inspired, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” which probably ranks as Billy Bragg‘s finest moment. The song is a bittersweet character study of an enduring woman that says more about living with dignity in hard times than a dozen of Bragg’s wordier political anthems. “When the world falls apart, some things stay in place/ Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face.” When the nameless woman in the song quietly places the Four Tops tape back in its case, her world remains bleak, but she’s managed to survive to face another day, a little wearier and a little wiser. Call me corny, but at a time when the world sure seems like it’s falling apart, keeping the heart moving a little may be the most subversive impulse available. And it’s not just based on math.
Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop”
Four Tops, “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There”
Billy Bragg, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”