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An ennead of nines

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Nine is about good things: the number of players on a baseball team, Salinger's stories, a cat's lives, the number of the muses, being dressed fancifully, the chorus of "London's Burning" by The Clash. (OK, so it's also about bad things, like Ice Nine, the deadly substance that threatens the world's oceans in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, but we won't dwell on those.)

Over the years, the third square has inspired writers spanning decades, genres and styles to produce an abundance of nine-centric songs. In observance of 09.09.09, we consider an ennead of those 9-songs. See you on 10.10.10.

"NINE-POUND HAMMER," MERLE TRAVIS (1947)

"Nine Pound Hammer," a traditional work song that dates back to the 1920s, is popularly credited to the country great Merle Travis, who introduced the song to the masses in 1947 and inspired countless cover versions, many by the most outsized figures in country music—Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, and Flatt & Scruggs, just to name a few. Travis, a triple threat as a singer, writer, and innovative guitar player, turns in a marvelous version of the song on 1972's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the 3-LP collection under the auspices of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that introduced the work of the Carter Family, Doc Watson and many other country greats to mainstream audiences. The last line of the final verse—"You can make my tombstone/ out of number nine coal"—refers to one of the most common numbers given to coal seams in Western Kentucky coalmining, a subject to which Travis returned in the oft-covered "Sixteen Tons."

"LOVE POTION NO. 9," THE CLOVERS (1959)

Leiber & Stoller, the brilliant songwriting team behind hits for Elvis Presley, The Coasters and innumerable others in the '50s and '60s, wrote this classic of early rock for the hit-making vocal group The Clovers. The tale of "a flop with chicks" whose visit to a fortune teller turns him into a romantic fool ("I started kissing everything in sight") is prototypical Leiber & Stoller, who liked to marry a solid melodic groove with a somewhat juvenile story. In the recent memoir, Hound Dog, Mike Stoller reports he and his partner were fond of the number nine "because it resonates in song," citing their earlier song "Riot in Cell Block #9" (another great one) as an inspiration. Like many a merry melody that depicts magical transformations due to the ingestion of mysterious elixirs, "Love Potion No. 9" was rumored to be a disguised "drug song," a notion Stoller emphatically rejects.

"REVOLUTION 9," THE BEATLES (1968)

The most frequently used word in the Beatles canon is love, but "Revolution 9" is, for many, as hard to love as anything the Fab 4 ever released. The drearily intoned titular numeral, taken from tapes for the Royal Academy of Music that Lennon came across at Abbey Road Studios, sets the stage for an otherwordly sound collage that incorporates symphony recordings, a slice of the orchestral part for "A Day in the Life," a backward mellotron and random spoken words. As Ian MacDonald points out in Revolution in the Head, "Revolution 9" provided the pop-buying public with its first exposure to experimental techniques developed by composers and poets of the day—and probably its last.

"CLOUD NINE," THE TEMPTATIONS (1969)

The first single to feature master producer Norman Whitfield's "psychedelic soul" style," Cloud Nine" marked a major departure for the Temptations from the catchy, well-tailored mid-'60s Motown sound to something more hard-edged and menacing, closer to the spirit of Sly & the Family Stone than The Four Tops. Sung with urgency by the group's five singers, who trade vocals in a manner they would fully exploit a few years later on "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Cloud Nine" benefits from a brilliant arrangement, fuzzed-out guitars and lyrics that were far darker than the band's earlier singles. While psychedelic soul's time has come and gone, this ode to self-medication as a means of escaping the world's ills still has plenty of resonance today, and still packs a mean punch.

"ENGINE NUMBER 9," WILSON PICKETT (1970)

On "Engine Number 9," Wilson Pickett makes full use of the alliterative qualities of the phrase "number nine," a move Mike Stoller would no doubt approve. With a truly backbone-slipping groove established by the holy trinity of cowbell, maraca and vibraslap, Pickett delivers a rough-hewn, charged-up vocal on this irresistible extended vamp. The band works up such a head of steam that Pickett exhorts them not to stop: "Oh, this soundin' all right. I think I wanna hold it a little bit longer." And they do, for three more minutes of that timeless groove, amid more howls, shrieks, cries of "Lord have mercy" and "Play your guitar son," and entreaties to "just keep moving."

"#9 DREAM," JOHN LENNON (1974)

The number 9 figures prominently in the life of John Lennon. Among other 9-related phenomena, he was born on the 9th of October, as was his son Sean; the Beatles' first recording contract with EMI was signed on May 9, 1962; he met Yoko Ono on the 9th of November, 1966, and Lennon had a big hit with "#9 Dream" in 1974. Now, remastered versions of the Beatles albums will be released on 09.09.09, along with the Beatles-centered version of the video game Rock Band. According to May Pang (in Loving John, her memoir of their 18-month, Ono-sanctioned affair), the song's strangely addictive chorus of "Ah! Bowakawa pousse, pousse" came to John in a dream in which two women were calling his name and intoning this exotic sounding phrase. In the song, Pang is the one whispering "John."

"9-9," R.E.M. (1983)

R.E.M., who covered Lennon's "#9 Dream" for a benefit album in 2007, seem to share Lennon's fondness for the number 9. One of the more unsettled tracks on Murmur, most of which tended to go down smoothly in a wave of jangly Rickenbacker strings and Michael Stipe's autumnal keening, "9-9" keeps coming back to the phrase "conversation fear," but like much of the best work by R.E.M., the song's overall meaning is hard to pin down. It has been argued that the quality of R.E.M's output is in inverse proportion to the clarity of Stipe's vocals. Clearly, the words that open the song—"Steady repetition is a compulsion mutually reinforced"—are better experienced as texture than as the stuff of contemplation.

"NINE LIVES TO RIGEL 5," GAME THEORY (1984)

The title of "Nine Lives to Rigel Five" by the criminally unheralded '80s band Game Theory refers to one of the stars in the constellation Orion. This penchant toward the obscure and geekish is typical of songwriter Scott Miller: "I checked the distance to Rigel," Miller wrote in the liner notes to Tinker to Evers to Chance, an out-of-print collection of Game Theory's greatest, "and it turned out to be very close to nine human lifetimes if you go at the speed of light." Marrying a childlike sing-song melody with B-movie sci-fi keyboards and thumping drums, "Nine Lives" begins and ends with a backwards recording of a vacuum cleaner, perhaps an unconscious homage to Joe Meek's homemade sound effects on "Telstar," the international hit from late 1962 that heralded the space age.

"NINE BULLETS," DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS (1999)

"Nine Bullets" is about as compelling a declaration of intent to commit mass murder as you're likely to find in song. There is little ambiguity here; it starts with Patterson Hood declaring in his scorched tenor, "My roommate's gun's got nine bullets, I'm gonna find a use for every last one" and proceeds to enumerate each of these uses. Yet the song's simple, sturdy melody, which brings to mind a rocked-out version of Neil Young's "Love is a Rose," and the righteous crunch of guitar chords recalling the sympathetic backing of Young's band, Crazy Horse, imbue the song with a sense of joy. After the bridge, as Hood calls out the bullet earmarked for his immediate family, his voice ascends to a tone of raw pleading, but the darkness is offset by an unexpected "shave-and-a-haircut" riff at song's end, suggesting that maybe—but just maybe—he was kidding.

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