FFWDing to the Best Part: “Hold On to the Nights,” Richard Marx (1988)

It’s hard to believe it, but Richard Marx was a truly dominant force in popular music for several years, from the late ’80s right on through the early ’90s. Today — though he still continues to release albums, tour, write songs for others, and be a generally pleasant fellow — he has become a bit of a punchline.   The long-distance-dedication-worthy slow jams. The permed mullet. The cheese of it all. But I believe he was more a victim of his era, at least when it comes to his style choices.

As for his musical prowess, who is to quibble with his smooth tenor that lends itself both to romantic ballads (“Right Here Waiting,” “Now and Forever”) and more rock-and-roll fare (“Don’t Mean Nothing,” “Satisfied”)?  (He also plays piano and guitar, which is 1.5 more instruments than I can handle.)

“Hold On to the Nights” came from Marx’s eponymous debut album, and would became his first number-one single in the summer of 1988. As it came on the heels of the similarly titled “Endless Summer Nights,” I didn’t think much of HOttN when first it hit the airwaves. (Also, as an eighth grader, I didn’t have much experience with the frustration of unrealized love.)

But I gained a new appreciation for the song upon seeing the video, which utilizes a live performance rather than the studio cut. And it is WILDLY better, and not just because of the epic nature of Marx’s hairdo.  I used to joke that any kindred spirit of mine would be someone who could call to mind the four ways in which the live/video “Hold On to the Nights” is superior to the original.  Twenty-six years later, I haven’t had that discussion with anyone, so I will lay these four points out here.  And bullet number 3 is my personal “Best Part.”

1.2:08 – 2:17: A higher modulation of the heartbreaking lyric, “Promises in vain, love that is real but in disguise.”

2. 4:03 – 4:07: Instead of a retread of the penultimate line of the chorus, he delivers an impassioned glory note — “I wish that I could GIVE you more…” It might be off by 1/32nd of a pitch, but I will sacrifice technical accuracy for zeal any day of the week.

3. 4:21 – 4:28: Marx holds the final vocal arpeggio for about four seconds longer than the studio version, somehow taking this part of the song from “meh” to nerve-tinglingly fantastic. He even almost looks cute doing it.

4. 4:35 – 4:40: In lieu of a piano tinkling away into the ether, this version closes with six defined, pronounced notes. It’s a cleaner end, and makes it easier for the listener (and Richard himself) to enjoy some well-earned fist-pumps.

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One thought on “FFWDing to the Best Part: “Hold On to the Nights,” Richard Marx (1988)

  1. I was hoping that the existence of this footage meant that a whole late 80s Marx concert DVD was available for purchase, but that does not appear to be the case. Did they really set up a whole film crew at a concert and then only finish recording one song? Live albums are reputed to be “greatest hits played fast,” but as you show, at their best, recordings of live performances open a window into alternate interpretive phrasings that can improve on the controlled studio versions amidst the excitement of a live audience. Live performances also don’t have the luxury of fading out while repeating the chorus over and over; they have to wrap things up somehow.

    Sometimes artists opt for a “semi-live” middle ground, augmenting the live performance with other instrumentation, or re-recording flubbed notes. Fleetwood Mac apparently did this quite a bit on their “The Dance” DVD (1997), which is why it both sounds and looks great. When the brief Queeny dueling guitar lick comes in at 3:39, with the camera on a single guitarist, I suspected Marx was pulling this trick, which I’d last seen done so blatantly on an REO Speedwagon concert DVD. (Perhaps the average viewer can’t tell which guitar licks take two guitars, or perhaps they didn’t care.) But no, the camera pulls back, and Marx has two lead guitarists, and when he hops up from the piano at the end of the video, the backup keyboardist jumps to there too. The tour photo montage also shows a saxophonist at 4:17, though he’s not heard on this track.

    In his Greatest hits album liner notes concerning this song, Marx talks about how relieved he was to develop a vocal rasp through over-singing on tour so he no longer sounded “as clear as a twelve year old girl.” Maybe so, but that solution also kills his ability to hit high notes prematurely. Most pop musicians are self-taught in their stagecraft, singing, or instrumentation, and the record labels only expect them to be big stars for maybe three or four years each, so no one gives adequate attention on how to sing for career longevity. If you’re watching a singer with bulging neck muscles, they may look impassioned, as if they really think about you a lot baby, but they’re also destroying their vocal instrument.

    Marx’ piano style here (except on the intro riff) is a great example of “block chords,” in which all notes are played simultaneously and evenly as straight quarter notes, giving the music a throbbing feel. On a sheet of piano music, each chord looks like a straight vertical line. Block chords are also the easiest way to play piano, which makes them a suitable style to play while singing. They’re also found in songs like Lionel Richie’s “Say You Say Me” and Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” The next hardest way to play the chords is to move one of the notes in the chord onto the offbeat, as done in Heart’s “Alone,” Regina Spektor’s “Samson,” or The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” The first verse of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” has block chords on the first verse and switches to the one-note offbeat on the second verse. One lovely, difficult effect is to arpeggio all the notes, as in Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman” or the first and last verses of Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis.” Another piano solution is to simply play the vocal melody, as in Kenny Roger’s (but really Lionel Richie’s) song “Lady.” The most interesting choice is to compose a moving piano line which complements the vocal melody without just mimicking it. This is what Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Tori Amos’ “Pretty Good Year,” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” do.

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