The key change – typically up a tone for the last round of choruses, after the guitar solo – is one of the least subtle and most familiar tools in the songwriting arsenal. It can be regarded as a kind of musical equivalent of a mighty explosion in an effects-laden action movie: a surefire means of eliciting a Pavlovian response of excitement from the audience, whether it has been earned by what has gone before or not. Accordingly, it is certainly very easy to mock the key change as a mere cheap trick, and there is no doubt that it has often been utilised lazily by songwriters in a range of musical genres. Nevertheless, in rock songs, as in Broadway showstoppers, the key change, used artfully and appropriately, is an entirely legitimate device and has provided some truly unforgettable moments in the annals of popular music. And heck, if they’re good enough for Journey and the Eagles, they’re damn well good enough for the rest of us mortals!
10. Kingdom Come, Living Out of Touch (1988).
The opening salvo from Kingdom Come’s debut was a sizzling slab of bluesy hard rock, and one of its finest moments is provided mid-way through Rick Steier’s solo, when, ushered in by Lenny Wolf’s above-referenced howl, he peels off a simple, but memorable, repeated phrase, which is pushed up a notch, and up again, before the moody refrain. Powerful, muscular stuff.
“Come on baby!”
9. Uriah Heep, Your Turn to Remember (1975).
Probably my favourite track from the Heep’s decadent and hugely successful – but, by their excellent early-to-mid-seventies standards, rather patchy – Return to Fantasy opus, this country-laced ballad, dripping with slide guitar, represents Ken Hensley at his finest. And, with vocalist David Byron also at the top of his game, it is a moment to treasure for fans as one of the last times that the pair – between whom relations had become somewhat fractious, to say the least – were on the same wavelength (musically speaking, at least). As the emotive finale, rising from G to A attests, they could be, at their best, a devastating combination.
“awww, when I look into your eyes . . .”
8. Firehouse, When I Look Into Your Eyes (1992).
A supreme romantic power ballad, the original studio cut of this song featured not one, but two, key changes – first to coincide with the guitar solo, and then for the post-solo choruses. For the acoustic reworking, and live performances, they lost the first key change, but kept the essential second one in place. After Bill Leverty cuts loose, cue the great C.J. Snare taking it home, and singing like an angel.
“Bah-nah-nah ::uuurh:: Bah-nah”
7. Rainbow, Since You Been Gone (1979).
This Russ Ballard-penned classic could hardly be more familiar to rock fans; along with sister cut All Night Long, it marked the beginning of Rainbow’s uneasy and controversial transition from Dio-fronted fantastical Renaissance rockers to slick AOR supremos. The key change is such a great moment a) because of the phenomenal lung power of Graham Bonnet, and the energy he puts into the performance and b) because of the cool lead playing, shadowing the chorus melody, with masterful tension and release, that Ritchie Blackmore dishes up on the home stretch of the song.
“You live for the fight when it’s all that you got, whooa . . . ”
6. Bon Jovi, Livin’ on a Prayer (1986).
The Jovi’s ultimate musical Big Mac could hardly have been complete without the key change, and the Jersey boys, abetted by hitmaker par excellence Desmond Child, pulled off the post-solo theatrics with unforgettable verve and panache. As the big moment of the original video shows, JBJ, as befitting a stadium rock superstar of rock’s most exuberant decade, clearly fancied himself as a bit of a superhero at the time – and, as the song sent parent album Slippery When Wet mega-ballistic, he probably felt like one.
“It’s so true . . . yeah, yeah, yeah!”
5. Slaughter, Streets of Broken Hearts (1992).
Slaughter’s second album, The Wild Life, was exciting, adventurous, and packed to the gills with top drawer songs. Among my favourites from the album is this wistful ballad, which, after an amusingly baroque lead break, rises by a tone, pushing Mark Slaughter’s incredible voice into sublime territory. Covering the key change, and taking it on from there, Mark treats us to a veritable vocal masterclass that never loses its power to amaze and delight.
“It’s all in the mind.”
4. Deep Purple, Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming (1996).
A serious contender for the title of greatest Steve Morse-era Deep Purple track of all, this highlight of renaissance opus Purpendicular is blessed with a haunting guitar motif that introduces the song – and that, going through multiple key changes in its extended climax, is heady, melancholic, and utterly compelling.
“It’s time to say the words unspoken . . . ”
3. Journey, Easy to Fall (1996).
A standout track from their criminally underrated reunion album Trial By Fire, this supremely uplifting string-laced ballad delivers a devastating knockout punch with its post-solo key change – up a tone and a half – following Neal Schon’s guitar solo and a brief, dramatic refrain. Cue Steve Perry bliss, before the band take it down, and Neal brings it home with some exquisitely tasteful, gentle lead playing.
“Tears on your shoulder . . . ”
2. Eagles, New Kid in Town (1976).
A songwriting tour de force from the titanic Hotel California album, this dazzling pop-rock masterpiece proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that key changes can sit perfectly comfortably with the highest standards of musical artistry. In terms of lyrics and musicianship alike, New Kid in Town is a true gem, with the band’s sense of drama and command of dynamics ensuring that the key change is a delectable slice of refined musical grace.
“But I’m never giving up on you . . . ”
1. Warrant, Heaven (1989).
The ultimate power ballad derives much of its power from a dizzying procession of key changes – up, then back down, then up, then up again! Jani’s vocal reaches for the heavens, and there can be no doubt that in his time on earth he achieved songwriting immortality, as this era-defining smash surely attests.