Wednesday, 31 August 2011

When FM Became AM Radio

I remember how excited my friends and I were when CHUM FM switched from classical music to album rock.  Now we could hear not just the commercial stuff, but the trippy songs too.  Now we could hear artists on the fringe.  We could hear experimental music, blues, folk, jazz fusion, hard rock, acid rock, and progressive rock along with pop.

And yes, we could hear more Jimi Hendrix and less Petula Clark.

Looking back, there was stunning variety on the CHUM AM, but at the time the main attraction of stations like CHUM FM was even more variety.

Then over time the formulas crept in, the suits took over, and the genres splintered and formed the base of separate sub-cultures.  The AM stations became all talk and the FM stations became Top 40, but all specialized.

Who decided variety was a four letter word?

A few years ago a radio station in Florida announced it was switching to an all Led Zeppelin format.  I remember thinking, "cool publicity stunt, but stupid."  I mean, what are we talking about, 120 songs?  150 if you count the live stuff?  Ridiculous, right?

Not really.  I read a while ago that the average radio station has a playlist of 36 songs.  Each week, they rotate 4 songs out and 4 new songs in.  So it takes around 9 weeks for the playlist to turn over.  If the Led Zeppelin station has used that process it would take 30 weeks.  Not bad considering you'd get hard rock, blues, folk, prog rock and straight up rock and roll in the process.  You wouldn't get that kind of variety over any 30 week period on any station out there today.  You'd get the same cloned voices shouting "you piss me off" or whining "you're such a loser."  Or you'd get the same song from the same artist you've heard a million times, and wonder, "did he only record this one song?"

With today's 36 song play list, you'll go about 4 hours before the songs start repeating, given commercials and babbling.  Hmmm ...  and if the Led Zeppelin station went straight through the song catalogue you'd go 13 hours.

So there you go, an all Led Zeppelin radio station would give you three times the variety of your average station out there today.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

What We Need - Part 2

Do you know what we really need?

More variety.

I was browsing through the old charts from my hometown Top 40 station the other day, and it's just amazing the variety we used to get in the 60's.

Check out 1967.  Yes, we had The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Procol Harum and Buffalo Springfield.  But they played along side Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, The Supremes and Dione Warwick.

Or 1966.  Again The Beatles and The Stones.  Again Frank Sinatra and The Supremes, with Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Percy Sledge.  Mitch Rider on the same chart as The Righteous Brothers.

Or how about 1965?  The Stones share the spotlight with Roger Miller, Bob Dylan shares it with The Beatles, who share it with Elvis, The Byrds, James Brown and Charlie Rich.

And look at 1964:  The Beatles on the same list as Louis Armstrong.  Chuck Berry and Elvis on the same list as Dean Martin.  My generation listening to our music, our parents' music and our grandparents' music.

Did I really enjoy listening to Dean Martin when I wanted to hear The Beatles and The Stones?  Not really, but I tolerated it, and I respected this other music.

And why shouldn't I respect Frank Sinatra?  He respected The Beatles.  Why wouldn't I appreciate Johnny Cash or The Supremes?  The Beatles did.

These days, all radio stations are top 40, but each station caters to a small sub-culture, and the variety is gone - not just in genres but between bands and artists.  If we even listen to radio, that is.  Because we can each retreat into our iPod playlists and musical genres catering to sub-cultures of one.

Where's the adventure in that?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

What We Need

Do you know what we need?  We need more:

Harmonica.  How come Neil Young is the only person outside of the blues that still plays one?  Whatever happened to that great sound in a rock song?  Remember "John Lennon: rhythm guitar and mouth organ"?  The blues harp isn't even that common in the blues anymore.  And you can't duplicate it on a synthesizer.

Organ.  Sometimes I feel like bands should be compelled to include at least one track on each CD featuring the organ.  Maybe we're just too impressed by synthesizers and all the cool things they can do.  We seem to have forgotten the fabulous rich tone of the Hammond B3, even the quirky toy sound from those portable Hohners and Farfisas.  Organs rock!

Piano.  While we're at it ...

Melody.  We need more singing and less shouting.  We need more singing and less whining.

DonovanHe was the quintessential hippy.  He was so trippy!  Speaking of which, we need more ...

Love songs.  And we need more ...

Songs about peace, love and understanding.  What's so funny about that?


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Best Guitarists Ever - Part 2

Some honourable mentions, in no particular order:

Joe Bonamassa.  He has studied - and mastered - the masters.

Peter Green.  Clapton's successor with John Mayall and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Green was the master of the tasty lick.

Robben Ford.  Incredibly versatile, I don't understand why his isn't a household name.

Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker.  Definitely the two most influential guitarists who ever lived.

John Frusciante.  The Chili's frontman has all the right chops!

Shifting gears to acoustic greats:  Keb' Mo', Bruce Cockburn, and James Taylor.  Well, you don't have to be a blues guy to play amazing guitar.

In leagues of their own:  Harry Manx, who manages to blend blues, folk and Indian music and make it sound obviousRitchie Blackmore, whose lightning speed and unique vocabulary have never been matched.

Oh ya, and Paul McCartney.  Sure, we think of him as the bass player who can play piano, but his solo on Taxman alone earns him a spot on the list.

Again, each one of these giants can surprise and delight, but always to compliment the song.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Best Guitarists Ever

Well, here's my version anyway:

1.  Eric Clapton.  A dedicated student, inventive interpreter and astonishing improviser.  Quite simply: the best.

2.  Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Incredible speed and energy - and man did he beat up that guitar!  But always musical.

3.  Mark Knopfler.  Rockabilly, country, spanish, folk, blues, rock.  Knopfler can do it all.

4.  David Gilmour.  His music is the furthest from the simple blues and rock that I love, but can Mr. Gilmour ever make that Strat sing!

5.  Bonnie Raitt.  No, she's not Duane Allman or Sonny Landreth, just the slide player with the tastiest licks, period.

6.  Angus  Young.  Biting solos, amazing speed, and the best vibrato going.  Angus rocks!

7.  George Harrison.  Strong as they already were, was there any song that George's guitar playing didn't improve?

8.  Jimi Hendrix.  The quintessential guitar hero, a huge influence on everyone that followed, Jimi's power to surprise and astonish is unsurpassed to this day.

9.  B. B. King.  Simple.  Powerful.  Perfect.

10.  Mike Campbell.  Never a show off (well, not on record anyway), Campbell keeps his licks simple, to the point, and 100% aligned with the song.

There is a big range in styles, and, some might say, technical prowess in this list.  But each one of these fabulous guitarists share one important trait:  they are musical.  Their guitar work fits the music.

And that's always the point, isn't it?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

About The Blues - Part 2

What's amazing about The Blues is the endless variety it seems capable of spawning.  

It may be ironic to some, but I believe that variety is a direct result of the highly structured nature of the music.

Sure, all music has structure.  And yes, Blues is more than the near-ubiquitous I-IV-I-V-IV-I chord progression.  But it does have rigid structures, and afficianados are pretty strict about what they will - and will not - accept as authentic Blues.

With all these constraints, Blues artists have to try harder to sound new and fresh, to surprise and amuse.  Harmonies, melodies, rhythms, instrumentation, fusions with other genres  ...  Blues musicians are constantly working out how to stay true yet sound new at the same time.

The result of this challenge is that The Blues clicks on all levels.  We respond emotionally to the mood and the lyrics.  We respond physically to the groove and the rhythms.

And we respond intellectually to the stay-true-sound-new challenge.  How did Eric Clapton make that cliched turnaround sound new?  How did Stevie Ray Vaughan get from that note to that note?  How did Jimi Hendrix come up with those notes?  Did John Lee Hooker just add an extra beat there?

The Blues is the perfect blend of the satisfied "oh, ya!" and the astonished "oh, wow!"

Friday, 12 August 2011

About The Blues

John Lennon famously said "before Elvis there was nothing."  But as far as I was concerned before John Lennon there was nothing.  For a long time anyway.

When Muddy Waters sang "the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll," to me, that was just some old guy trying to stay relevant.  For years, I just didn't get it.  I got that Cream and Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull were doing all these great blues covers, but all I was hearing was Cream and Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull.  To me they were just covers.  Even when my idols brought their idols Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf over to London to record, I didn't get it. I thought they were just being nice to these old guys.

Years later, I finally went back and started to listen.  And I got it.

What's not to get?  A hypnotizing groove, raw sexual energy, guitar virtuousity, betrayal, heartbreak, injustice, standing alone against the world.  How had I missed all that?  Wow!

Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, BB King  ...  they may not have shaped my world as directly as Lennon, McCartney, Clapton or Page, but in the end their influence was even bigger.  First they influenced me indirectly through my idols.  Then they touched me directly.

And it turns out there was plenty before Lennon, plenty before Elvis.  It just keeps going back:  Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Son House, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson ...  there is no beginning.

Hopefully there will be no end.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

About Influences - Part 2

After such a promising start, music seemed to lose the plot in the early 70's.

Folk disappeared and Rock 'n' Roll was unofficially abolished.  Soul morphed into Disco, and Metal split into cheesy Power Pop on the one hand and some kind of demonic cartoon on the other.  Prog Rock became so bloated and pretentious is started to suffocate itself.  You sure couldn't dance to it.

What a godsend, then, when Punk opened a door for the New Wave explosion in the late 70's.  Suddenly things were fresh and energetic again.  We had guitar hooks, palm-muted shuffles, catchy harmonies and energetic beats.  We even had a return to boy-meets-girl lyrics, though with a lot more irony and menace than we got in the 50's and 60's.

And it wasn't copycat stuff.  The Cars, The Police, The Pretenders  ...  the new bands created a new sound even while they made us feel it was 1965 all over again.  New harmonies, new technologies, and new attitudes - all added fresh life to old ideas.  Artists like Elvis Costello and Tom Petty got to the very root of things, sounding authentic, yet current and relevant at the same time.

Then is all went wrong again.

The guitars were replaced by synths, the leather and denim were replaced by spandex, bad hair proliferated, and the 80's became a virtual wasteland. 

Somewhere in there I realized that you couldn't even hear a guitar on the records I was buying.  That's when I started filling out my record collection with stuff I had missed the first time around. 

That process required a bit of thought and introspection;  I had to analyse what it was I really liked, and why.  Part of the answer was obvious, of course:  guitar-based rock 'n' roll, creatively presented and expertly produced.

The other part of the answer was an overdue surprise:  the thread that held everything I'd ever loved together, the foundation on which all this wonderful music had been built ... was The Blues.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

About Influences - Part 1

It all started with She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand.  Ever since The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, they have been at the centre of my musical universe.  It's a lot more crowded now, but for a long time the only stars in the sky were John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Sure, there were a lot of other bands I enjoyed:  The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five (well, for a while).  But all of them just seemed second best when compared with The Beatles.

I even understood that The Beatles had influences, and that they did a lot of cover songs on their early records:  Rockabilly, Motown, even show tunes.  But they made it all sound like, well, The Beatles.

Eventually, their relentless experimentation expanded the universe to the size where there was room for others.  By the time they had taken us through Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's and Mystery Tour, there were no longer any boundaries.  And by constantly searching and experimenting themselves, they taught me that I should do the same. 

And the world was ready for me.  Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, James Tayor, Donovan.  They were fearless, bold, astonishing.

What an exciting time the late 60's was!  As the British Invasion gave way to folk rock and then west coast psychedelia, whole new genres and styles seem to burst onto the scene.  Prog Rock, Heavy Metal, a new breed of folk  ...  oh, and this not-so-new thing called the blues.

What was so wonderful was that everyone crossed over.  Pop met classical met folk met jazz met country met eastern met blues.  And even though many great artists managed to create their own distinctive sound by crafting their own unique blend, even though there were so many styles and genres, it was all one.  Things had not yet splintered into competing sub-cultures and descended into formula.

That was very cool.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

About February 9, 1964

The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a seminal moment for all of us.

For some of us, it was our introduction to Rock 'n' Roll.  For others, it was a re-birth.  If you were swept up in the excitement, it seemed like everything was new:  the music, the hair, the clothes, the attitude ...  an attitude that was bold and fresh, cheeky, original, experimental, exploring, challenging.  An attitude that embraced new ideas.  It was a revolution.

For those who didn't get it, the initial reaction was a mixture of surprise and mild amusement.  But that quickly gave way to alarm as the revolution took hold and a new culture was born.

For those that came along after, it was your seminal moment too, because Rock 'n' Roll now dominates our cultural landscape - from TV commercials to sports arenas to shopping malls.  The rebellion that was once shocking and dangerous now permeates our world, though that rebellion has been safely commercialized and the danger has been replaced by detached irony (I'm different, Dude.  I haven't sold out.  Not Me!).

In 1964, Rock 'n' Roll had been around for years.  So had teenage rebellion.  But what took hold after The Beatles launched The British Invasion changed all of us.

Exploited but never quite tamed, Rock 'n' Roll continues to evolve, and, although we've let things get too commercial, we also continue to embrace new ideas.  Rock on!