Elvis used it, Ed Sheeran uses it. In this month’s songwriting article, we take a look at one of the most enduring (and embarrassing) clichés of popular music: putting ‘tonight’ at the end of a chorus. We’ve also compiled some Spotify playlists for reference below the article.
Is your heart filled with pain,
Shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?
– Charles Hart, Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1927)
When you said you looked a mess,
I whispered underneath my breath,
But you heard it,
Darling you look perfect,
– Ed Sheeran, Perfect (2017)
90 Years of the Tonight Trick
Of all the clichés found in popular music, one of the worst is that of ending a chorus with the word ‘tonight’. As a device, its appeal is understandable: ending on ‘tonight’ gives the events in the story a sense of immediacy and urgency; it wraps up the chorus conclusively, particularly when it lands on the root note (as it almost always does); it also adds a sprinkle of PG innuendo with its implication of nocturnal shenanigans. However, the last 90 years have seen the tonight trick (as I’ll call it from hereon in) overused, abused and reduced to a grating cliché. It has by now lost all sense of novelty or impact, and hearing it in new music today comes across as poor songwriting. Its fortunes weren’t always thus: it has been rejuvenated at least twice in the last century, and may yet be reclaimed from creative oblivion again. So, taking Charles Hart’s Are You Lonesome Tonight (1927) as a starting point and ending with Ed Sheeran’s Perfect (2017), let me take you on a stroll through 90 years of songwriters resolving choruses with the word ‘tonight’.
1920s-30s: The romantic ballad
Are You Lonesome Tonight (1927) showcases an early form of the tonight trick. The song is a romantic ballad, a pre-pop genre that dominated early 20th century recorded music. Structurally speaking, ballads had no choruses, but were instead made up of verses and the occasional bridge. They also tended to feature the song title in the last line of each verse (aka a refrain). Thus, every verse of Lonesome Tonight resolves on the word ‘tonight’. This helps stress the ‘direct address’ nature of the lyrics: it conveys the sense that the listener is eavesdropping on an actual live conversation. Other songwriters clearly recognised the potential power of the tonight trick, and began shamelessly recycling it in songs such as Fred Astaire’s The Way You Look Tonight (1936).
1940s-50s: Novelty Christmas songs and the birth of rock and roll
By the late 40s/early 50s, the tonight trick had been around for decades and was getting noticeably stale. It was such an established device that it was appearing in cheesy novelty ballads like Gene Autry’s Here Comes Santa Claus (1947) and Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby (1953). What it needed was a creative shot in the arm, or to find some cooler friends to hang out with. That shot came in the form of one of the most significant songs of the 20th century: Rock Around the Clock (1954) by Bill Haley and The Comets (“We’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight”). It’s heralded as the song that brought rock’n’roll to mainstream white audiences, and it even managed to make the tonight trick cool again.
1960s: Elvis and Dylan
In 1960, the pendulum swung back when Elvis released his cover of Are You Lonesome Tonight? It was a world-conquering smash, but became so ingrained in the popular consciousness that using the tonight trick was once again a cliché or, at worst, theft. No-one seemed willing to touch it again for the majority of the decade, and there aren’t many (if any) examples of its use among the big acts (The Beatles, The Beach Boys, etc). The dam finally broke in 1967, when Bob Dylan recorded I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, a cliché-laden parody of a country ballad. Writing an old-school ballad with ‘tonight’ at the end of the title was Dylan’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the trope. Though it wasn’t released as a single, it was unironically covered by many country artists. This arguably showed record executives that audiences were both ready and forgiving enough to let the tonight trick become part of musical lexicon again, and set the groundwork for the decades of exploitation to come.
1970s-90s: The great decline
Dylan inadvertently showed that the tonight trick was once again commercially viable. However, the next five decades didn’t do much to rehabilitate it from a creative standpoint. Once Dylan let the genie out of the bottle, it turned out that the genie was a lover of MOR schmaltz:
- 1977 saw the once-edgy Eric Clapton release the saccharine Wonderful Tonight (“And then I tell her / As I turn out the light / I say, ‘My darling / You were wonderful tonight‘”).
- In 1986, the world was introduced to Chris DeBurgh’s execrable Lady In Red (“I’ll never forget/The way you look tonight”).
- Elton John released (the ‘tonight’-free) ‘Candle In The Wind’ in 1997 to mark the death of Princess Diana. To compound the tragedy, the song was lumbered with the dreadful second A-side Something About The Way You Look Tonight.
21st Century: Knee-deep in schmaltz
The 21st century has continued this trend of ‘tonight’ resolving choruses in the most syrupy of songs. Vanessa Carlton’s baroque-pop stylings were the only thing fresh about her 2001 smash A Thousand Miles (“You know I’d walk a thousand miles / If I could just see you tonight”). We were knee-deep in schmaltz again for 2012’s ‘sic’-inducing Beneath Your Beautiful by Labrinth ft. Emeli Sandé (“Would you let me see beneath your (sic) beautiful tonight”). Sam Smith delivered the word ‘tonight’ in a 10-syllable melismatic warble on 2014’s Lay Me Down (“I don’t want to be here / If I can’t be with you toni-i-i-i-i-i-i-ight”).
Et tu, Ed Sheeran?
Ed Sheeran’s romantic sludgefest Perfect (2017) brings us up to the present day. It is yet another example of how entrenched the tonight trick has become in the ‘schmaltzy pop ballad’ space. His use of the device is notable for two reasons:
- For someone who is regarded as the top pop songwriter of the moment, using a jaded 90-year old cliché comes across as incredibly lazy and amateurish.
- It’s an example of tonight trick usage at its most superfluous. The lyrics make no attempt to rhyme ‘tonight’ with anything (“But you heard it / Darling you look perfect / Tonight”). It is simply shoehorned in at the end as a filler word so Sheeran can get the melody to the root note.
The tonight trick has had a fascinating 90 years. It is a curiously robust device, and will no doubt still be resolving choruses come 2027. From today’s songwriting standpoint, is there any harm in using it? Is there really anything wrong with ending your chorus on ‘tonight’? If you are comfortable using clichés and can’t think of a better rhyme for ‘alright’: go for it. However, if you want to be original and sound like a professional songwriter, absolutely do not use it. It’s a shame that a highly functional songwriting device has to be blacklisted, but that’s the price we pay for living in the age of recorded music: all good ideas eventually get milked to death. Maybe someday the right song will come along to reclaim and refresh the tonight trick, but for now, it’s time to say goodnight to ending on ‘tonight’.
Are you a teacher hoping to teach your students about songwriting? Do you teach a music class and want to give your students an introduction to production or the music industry? Twin Monarch give tailor-made workshops in songwriting, production, and the music industry in general to children and adults of all ages. Read more about it on our Songwriting Workshops page or contact us directly here.
Playlist: The History of the Tonight Trick
Playlist: The Tonight Trick in the 21st Century
We’ll keep updating this one as new songs come along. If you hear a new example, let us know!