Thursday, 29 September 2011

Focus (no hocus pocus)

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that people who reach the top of their game - be they hockey players, musicians or scientists - spend about 10,000 hours getting there.

10,000 hours.  That's a lot.

So, the other day, I was explaining my own background to someone, and something like this came out:  "Well, in 1975 I was studying classical guitar at the Royal Conservatory of Music, playing folk stuff for enjoyment, but listening to prog rock." 

Yikes.  Not much focus there.  I'm studying Bach, playing Cat Stevens, and listening to Jethro Tull.

Oh, and I'm finishing my degree at night and trying to get kick-start my career in a large multi-national.

I mean, 10 out of 10 for energy, and 9 out of 10 for variety, but minus 20 out of 10 for the obsessive focus that actually gets you somewhere.

Sheesh, Gladwell!  Why didn't you write this book in 1972, when I thought it was all about magic, and had nothing to do with hard work?

Hmmm ...  maybe that's why I keeping trying to pretend I'm only 18.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Cover ... Tribute ... Exploit?

A while ago I went to see one of those Classic Albums Live shows.  You know, the ones that are advertised as "note for note, cut for cut".

The schtick for these shows is that they are not a tribute band.  No lookalikes.  No dress up.  No picture show.  Just a collection of good musicians recreating an album in its entirety.  Quite a challenge when you're trying to recreate the work of studio wizards like Pink Floyd (which is what I saw).

Anyway, it was well done.  They did a good job, and it was interesting to watch as you're thinking, "How are they going to do this?" and so on.

I have to say I enjoyed it, but the whole experience was more than a little unsettling.  It was like I was watching a tribute band.  Like I was cheating.  I felt a little guilty somehow, and couldn't feel fully satisfied.  This is the way I feel when I see a tribute band.

Don't get me wrong, I admire the musicians who can do this sort of thing.  I mean, I have the tab, and I've played Hideaway about three million times, and I'll never get it to sound like Eric Clapton.  So it's impressive.  But it just feels wrong, somehow.

It's all rather creepy.

Like, what is going on exactly?  You know you're not getting the real deal, but somehow you're supposed to behave like you are, or pretend that you are?  Are we exploiting the band's ability to copy, or are they exploiting our need to feel/remember/simulate/fantasize about the real thing?

A credible cover of a great song?  Absolutely!

A recreation or simulation of an experience or memory?  Feels weird.  Enjoyable, but ...

And don't even think about the new breed of lame "musicals" that string together a bunch of pop/rock songs with a feeble excuse for a plot.  That's a whole other level of sickness.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Favourite Albums - Part 2

Here's the rest of the list:

Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced?  Easy and tough at the same time.

John Lee Hooker - The Best of Friends.  See B.B. King.

The Kinks - Misfits.  Another tough call.

Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti.  I can explain: it has one of everything.  OK then, Led Zeppelin I.

Linda Ronstadt - Simple Dreams.  No, it's not the cover.  Really.

Metallica - Metallica.  Nothing else matters.

Neil Young - Rust Never Sleeps.  Sorry Goldrush fans.  Anyway, you didn't expect Trans, did you?

Oasis - (What's the Story) Morning Glory.  Or any other one.

The Police - yes.

Queen - Flash Gordon.  Just kidding.

Rod Stewart - Every Picture tells A Story.  I wish he'd stopped there.

The Rolling Stones - who knows?  Not Satanic Majesty, anyway.

Steve Miller - Fly Like An Eagle.  Not as easy as I thought.

The Tea Party - Splendor Solis.  Another tough one.

Tom Petty - impossible.

Tragically Hip - Road Apples.  'Little Bones' carries that one.

ZZ Top - Tres Hombres.  Natch.

Anyone else?  Guess it's Greatest Hits.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Favourite Albums - Part 1

I stumbled across a Beatles forum a while ago,and the burning question under discussion was, "What's your favourite Beatles album?"  Like it's possible to decide, or consensus could be achieved.  So I typed "the last one I heard" and moved on.

But like a bad TV commercial, the idea wouldn't go out of my head.  So, against my better judgement, here is my list of favourite albums (excluding the Greatest Hits, since that would be cheating).

AC/DC - Back In Black.  Easy.

The Band - Music From Big Pink.  They could have stopped there.

The Beatles - yes.

Bonnie Raitt - Luck of the Draw.  Tough call.

B.B. King - Deuces Wild.  I know it's cheating, but you get his greatest hits repackaged with some great guest artists.

The Cars - A tie.  The Cars and Candy O.

Cat Stevens - Another tie.  Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat.

Colin James - National Steel.  More acoustic and less big band, please.

Cream - Wheels of Fire.  'cause it has two discs.

The Cult - Electric.  In case you care.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here.  Maybe it's the cover.

Deep Purple - Another tie.  Shades of ...  and FireballNot Machine Head, not that I don't like that.

Dire Straits - yes.

Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True.  It was.

Eric Clapton - Crossroads.  OK, that's cheating.  So From the Cradle.  No wait!  Me and Mr. Johnson.  Wait!  ...

The Guess Who - Share the Land.  Just to be contrary.

James Taylor - Sweet Baby James.  Unsurpassable.

Jeff Beck - nope

Jethro Tull - Mood dependent, but let's say Stand Up.

More later.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Pretty ... Raunchy

Every so often, I re-discover Linda Ronstadt.  She's one of those artists/bands that you forget about, and then say to yourself, "I forgot!  I should listen to this more often."

And then you don't, but I wish I did.

What a voice.  Heart-piercingly pretty, eye-wateringly beautiful, kick-ass raunchy.

And what range.  She was part of the countrified folk-rock movement that shifted American music's centre of gravity from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the late 60's and early 70's.  Then she rode the punk/new wave thing with a string of great records.  Then broadway, and operetta of all things.  Then easy listening, mariachi, lullabies  ... it doesn't stop.  I guess she figured out how to grow older gracefully.

But it's those late 70's rockers that I really love.  Fabulous singing, terrific production from Peter Asher, tasty guitar playing from Waddy Wachtel  ...  perfect.

And an awesome collection of covers:  Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, The Stones, Neil Young, Mowtown, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon.  Each one true.  Each one fresh.

I don't know who else is in the band, but when I go to that bar my first Saturday night in Heaven, I expect Linda Ronstadt to be the singer.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Living In Harmony

I confess, most of my music collection was recorded before 1990.  My usual complaints for music recorded in the last 20 years are too much distortion and way too much anger.

And yes, I know that your musical taste is formed by age 16 and eventually everyone gives up on "new stuff" because they grow old.

But there's something else:  not enough harmony.  One singer only.  No backing vocals.  No counterpoint to the melody.  No harmony. 

How come?  Is it too cute?  Is the harmony in the distortion?

A random sample of my iPod, of music that has been recorded in the last 10-20 years:
Jet, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nickelback, Our Lady Peace, The Tea Party, John Mayer - no harmony;  The Donnas, Finger Eleven, Stone Temple Pilots, Oasis (sort of), Third Eye Blind, Collective Soul, Tragcially Hip (a little) - harmony.

That's 50-50, so what am I whinging about?  Well, taking a look at a chart from 1967, I see 9 out of the top 10 - 18 of the top 20 - songs feature harmony.  And not sort of or a little either.  The Beatles, The Turtles, The Association, The Mamas and The Papas. 
We're talking thick, rich harmonizing here. 

Yes, many of these are "pop" songs (the Monkees are on the list twice) that are just too cute for today's jaded world.  But scanning the complete list, I see acts that still get Classic Rock station airplay:  The Who, The Stones, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles  ...  so you don't have to listen to Four Seasons to hear great harmonies.

We need more harmony.  Think of the elevating buzz from a great Eagles or CSNY song.  Think of the John-was-singing-lead-and-Paul-was-singing-harmony-now-Paul-is-singing-lead-and-John-is-singing-harmony joy of those early Beatles tunes.

We need way more of that.  We'd be happier people.

Hmmm ...   Bob Dylan didn't do to much harmony, did he?  Of course, he didn't/doesn't really sing either.  So maybe that's why we don't have more harmony these days.

Maybe it's just too hard.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young To Die?

A while ago, a buddy brought over a Steve Miller concert DVD.

My reaction was, "oh, is he still around?"  Secretly, I was glad it was from a recent concert and not something from the 70's.  Back then the technology was not as good, production standards were low, and everyone was stoned and so the musicianship in most concert videos (that I've seen anyway) wasn't too good.

But that first reaction:  is he still around?  Is he still playing the same old songs now that he's an old man?

Well, the DVD was fun.  Good production, song after hit song well played.  Good old fashioned rock and roll, not too serious, a little trippy  ...  what's not to like?

Except the uneasy feeling that here's one more aging rocker that will soon reach - or maybe already has reached - the point where it's more than a little ridiculous to be playing a young person's music.  Not as silly as The Stones, maybe, who long ago became fossilized caricatures of themselves, but unnerving.  Especially when I reflected that the bulk of my concert video collection is by such people.

Even more unsettling, of course, is the knowledge that I am one such person.

What to do?  Hard to play angry young man or reckless rebel when your face is full of wrinkles, isn't it?  I mean, at bottom, rock music is a bit of a joke and it's best not to take things too seriously - but it's the music that's supposed to be the joke, not the musician.

What's a poor boy to do?  Retreat into the Blues, where you're kind of expected to be old?  Fall asleep over your crossword puzzle while listening to Mozart?

Or do you re-invent the rebellion and claim your right to stay young and immature forever?

Wait a minute, I think I've seen a few TV commercials playing on that sentiment.  Didn't like that one bit.

So what's the answer?  I don't know, but it might be something like:

Don't think about it - just do it.  And ya, I know, that sounds like a TV commercial too.


Sunday, 4 September 2011


Here's a question:  does a crappy world make for an unhappy culture, or does an unhappy culture make for a crappy world?

How come you have to go to church to hear a song with uplifting or life-affirming lyrics any more?  I mean, there are a lot of things out there to be ticked off about or afraid of, but come on.

Have we lost the ability to look at the bright side of things?  Is the present so bleak and the future only bleaker?  Has our sense of irony become so cynical that we can't juxtapose the positive and the negative in the same song?  Or have we become so artless?

Take Yesterday for example.  It's a sad song, right?  But the melody is heartbreakingly pretty, so the song is actually uplifting.  And even though he's hurting, Paul sings "I believe in yesterday."  He believes.  An affirmation.  A positive stand in the face of heartache.

Way to go, Paul.  Show us how to do more of that.  It beats "you piss me off" any day.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Variety (Part 2 ... or 3)

Here's some more arithmetic for you:

I have just over 4,000 songs on my iPod, which is apparently 11.3 days - 271 hours - of music.  With commercials and babbling, that's over 450 hours of music for a radio station.  Almost 19 days before a song repeated.

19 days on my iPod, 4 hours on the radio.  450 hours, 4 hours.

So why would any of us listen to the radio?  Sure, when we hear a new song and like it we want to hear it over again.  But every four hours?  To the exclusion of all the other great music we love?  Are we that forgetful?  Are we that dumbed down?

Maybe the bigger question is:  since they know we all have the technology, why do radio stations stick with the ridiculously short playlists?

I have my favourite artists and preferred playlists, so it takes me months - but I listen to every song on my iPod.  Every one of them.  You see, the 4,000 songs represent only a subset of my CD collection.  They are my favourites.

I have an older iPod, with a puny 20 GB.  The current 160 GB model is capable of storing 40,000 songs.  That's six months before a song repeats.

Even if radio stations wanted to play it safe and only play "hits", there have been about 10,000 of those since rock's inception.  They could still favour current and recent "hits" but have months worth of addditional material keep things interesting.  And that's just rock.  Imagine another 2-3 months worth of tunes crossing over from country, jazz, blues and folk?

Wouldn't that be cool?

Yes, by the way, there is Frank Sinatra on my iPod.