Friday, 30 December 2011

We Are The Champions

Well, it's the start of the New Years Day weekend, and all the radio stations will be into their "Top 500 Songs Of All Time" countdowns.  Or 300, or 250, or whatever number fits their format and scope.

If you're old enough, you may remember a time when this was a new idea, an exciting idea.

I remember when the local FM Rock station first did this, about 35 years ago, I got totally caught up in the whole thing.  I wrote my letter (no internet, kids), I glued myself to the radio all weekend, I bought a newspaper to get the entire list (for my archives?), I debated the relative placement of various songs with the radio (it didn't respond) and friends (a few might have responded).  It was new, exciting, fun - and somehow important.

Then of course it became a standard feature of long weekends and New Years Days.  And after about the 15th time I saw Stairway To Heaven at #1, followed by Hey Jude and Satisfaction, well the idea had lost its lustre.  The list is the list, and not much is going to change year to year.  So unless you can get excited about whether Smoke On The Water placed 23rd or 24th, it's just the same old list.

Nowadays, when all radio stations follow a top 40 format, and probably dont' have more than 500 or 600 songs in their playlist, there doesn't even seem to be a point to such a countdown.  You know, when the listener request app on the station's website gives you a drop down menu to choose from their predetermined list, well  ...

I suppose the whole thing is a break from the top 40 songs you're going to hear this week, so you get a bit more variety during the countdown.  I mean, being exposed to the master playlist instead of just this week's playlist is pretty good, right?  Even if the master playlist doesn't change from year to year, you're still getting some variety and a bit of fun, right?  Right?

What the hell.  Better go and put the radio on.  Hmmm.  I wonder where Bohemian Rhapsody will finish this year?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

Last week I saw a show billed as "Woodstock Festival Tribute."

The featured tribute artists were Melanie, Santana, CCR, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, CSNY, and Jimi Hendrix.  Also on the bill were The Doors and Jethro Tull.  Curious, really, since these two acts were not at Woodstock.

As it turned out it didn't really matter.  CSNY only did Neil Young solo songs - all from after August, 1969.  Tull and Santana also featured songs that couldn't have been performed at Woodstock.

But we live in an age when minor details and facts don't seem to matter.

Bending the truth a little might have been a smaller offence if the show had been good, but it was just OK.  Some good, some more bad.  When you find yourself thinking, sheesh, even the wig is bad, then you know it's pretty bad.

At least they didn't try and re-create the festival itself.  You know, warnings about bad acid and would you “please get down off the towers.”

I guess I made this point before, but: cover bands yes, tribute acts, I dunno.  Actually I do; no thanks.  I get manipulated enough as I go through life without paying for it.  Unless the act is mind-blowingly accurate, it's not entertainment, it’s just creepy.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Take It Easy

So many of the great songs follow the KISS principle.  They're simple, predictable.  Comfortable even.  Not boring, just simple.

I, IV, V and maybe VI minor.  Maybe only two chords.  Maybe a 7th here or there.  That's all you need.  Wonderful Tonight, Bad Moon Rising, Love Me Do, Stand By Me, Folsom Prison Blues  ...  the list goes on and one and on.

Sure, there are lots of complicated songs that are also great.  Many's the time when I've been playing along with a recording trying pick up a song, and I've struggled to figure out what is that chord?  But just as often my brain has told me to add a chord when a new one wasn't required.  Or to make the chord more complex than it in fact was.

My reaction is always, "oh!  It's such a cool sounding song and you're just a good songwriter John (or Eric or Tom or Bob or Pete or John or whoever), so I thought you were doing something clever."  Then it hits me:  "oh!  You were doing something clever.  You were keeping it simple."

Lots of very interesting and enjoyable songs have complicated chord progressions and cool key changes, but most of the classics, most of the songs that move us and get into our DNA don't go much beyond 3 or 4 chords.

It's a strange magic, but it works.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Son, Don't You Understand?

I heard Born In The USA on the radio today, and it struck me how dead simple the song is.

Not for the first time, but it struck me hard.

A 6 note melody (3 really, the other 3 notes are just fills) repeatedy endlessly, relentlessly over 2 alternating chords.  2 chords, 3 (or 6) notes.  That's it.

Yes, Springsteen has a big voice and he puts everything into the vocals.  And he has a big sounding band. 

But, lyrics aside, the real power of the music is the brutish, pounding repetition of a naked leitmotif, an idee fixe stripped down to its bare essence.  The implacable motif drives the disappointment of broken dreams, and the despair of having no future,  straight through your skull.  It screams of anguish and injustice.  It hints at revenge.

And, buried in all that repetition, there is a stubborn hope, an energetic optimism that says never give up.

Powerful lyrics, a great band, 2 chords, 3 notes.  What a formula for a timeless, emotional trip.  No wonder he's called The Boss.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The British are coming! The British are coming!

Here are my favourite types of music:  Rock and Roll, Folk and Blues.  Some people refer to this stuff as roots music.  Some call it Americana (or Canadiana, if you're on this side of the border and typically Canadian (i.e. self-conscious)).

Whatever you call it, it's great music.  And like all American music, it's the offspring of black-meets-European culture.  The best of it is simple, honest, and speaks to everyday people about everyday life.

I've loved this music all my life, but I was a good way into it before I could really appreciate the real McCoy.

The reason is the British Invasion.  The Beatles kindled my passion for music.  They gave me Rockabilly and Motown.  They gave me Folk Rock.  Led Zeppelin and Cream gave me the Blues. The Stones did it all, with a dose of Country.  All very roots, very Americana - all with a side order of fish and chips.

I didn't understand it at the time, didn't get that these bands were taking American music and throwing it back in the face of Americans.  I liked and listened to lots of American artists too, but to me there was something about the English sound that was more alive, more fresh, more interesting.

Hey!  I'm white and have British roots.  So how could I not love my black music served up by Honkies and Limeys?

I still love it, but over the years I've also gradually come to appreciate the unadulterated, original, untouched-by-hallucenogens (most of this was the Sixties, right?) sound(s) too.

A roundabout journey.  Instead of going down the road, I had to travel across the ocean and back again to discover all this great music that was surrounding me all along.

I guess I finally heard someone singing "baby come back."

Monday, 19 December 2011

All My Tears They Fell Like Rain

I was listening to Led Zeppelin's Since I've Been Loving You the other day in the car.  As usual, I tried to sing along.  Tried.  As usual, I failed.

This has nothing to do with the fact that Robert Plant's range is an octave and a bit higher than mine.  What it is, is the fabulous, natural, inimitable timing Plant applies to the vocals.

The timing imparts such raw, powerful, overwhelming emotion that I just get into the song, and so I try and sing along.

Except I can't because his rendering is so unpredictable that each time I hear it, it feels like he's delivering the performance for the first time.  So even though I've listened - and tried to sing along - like, a million times, I can't get the timing down.  When does he pause?  When does he repeat that line?  When does he stutter?  When does he wail?

It's just not possible. 

It's qualities like this that made Led Zeppelin so amazing, and Since I've Been Loving You one of my favourite all time blues songs.

Yes, I can hear some of you purests saying it's not proper blues; it's too white, too psychedelic, too English - but that's the subject for another blog, I think.

And yes, maybe, just maybe, Plant is having us on and giving us more show than real emotion.  Maybe he's just drawing from his formidable bag of tricks to make us think he's suffering.  Maybe he's not taking himself too seriously.  Led Zeppelin was good at that.

But it doesn't matter.  The result feels genuine.

He's says his life is a drag, and you relate and you think life is a drag, and   ...

it kinda makes life a drag, drag, drag  ...  whaaaaaaaaa!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Favourite Songwriters - Part 2

Going back to a previous post  ...  whenever you cut a list short at 10, you start feeling guilty about who you have omitted (well, I do, anyway).

So, some honourable mentions:

Influential blues greats:  Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Leadbelly, Willie Dixon.  See?   There are too many to squeeze into a top ten.

Pete Townshend.  You could say he's uneven, but his best material is huge, and massively influential.

Paul Simon.  Ditto.

Neil Young.  I mean, Neil Young is Neil Young, and even if he didn't make my top ten list, he should be on yours.  Who said this had to make sense?

David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler and Warren Zevon.  My holy trinity of under-rated songwriters.  You can decide which is father, son and holy ghost.

Yikes!  And so I just remembered I forgot - completely forgot - about Bruce Springsteen.  Too late to revise the top ten, so let's put him in with Neil Young and say he should be on yours.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Only Love ...

"Only love
Can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky
Only love
Can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high"

Is there anybody out there that doesn't like Love Reign O-er Me?

I didn't think so.

It grabs me every time, changing my mood from whatever it was to a confused and powerful mix of pain, defiance and optimism.  Daltry's anguished singing, Townshend's soaring guitar, the bittersweet lyrics  ...  wow.

I can be already sad, happy, whatever …  I can be working and not even notice that music is playing - today I was planting a bush - and it just makes me stop, listen, tremble, and think, "ya, that's how I feel!"

That, people, is the power of music.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A Higher Place

I went to a Tom Petty concert a while ago.  It was my fourth concert, and he never disappoints.

Solid musicianship, terrific songs, cool light show, and just the right balance between humility and attitude.

Mike Campbell was on, putting on a clinic of masterful guitar work.  This was an improvement over previous shows, because - although he is a tasteful genius in the studio - his attempts to wow in live performances can sometimes be uneven.

Another improvement:  Petty's noodling guitar solos also seem to get better with age.

As always, the coolest part of the experience was the crowd, who stand up and sing along with every song.  Not some parts of some songs, not when asked to join in, but every line of every song.  Rather like being in church.

I suppose it is, for some people.  Anyway, the fanaticism is contagious and joyful.

Only one complaint, especially coming on the heels of McCartney's nearly 3 hour show:  not enough.  Petty's show was just under 2 hours, which was downright annoying given we were subjected to over 90 minutes of a CSN "performance" that was a long time gone before it even started.

A good kind of complaint, I guess, but the final result was that the lows outnumbered the highs.  I went from "when will this end?" to "hell ya!" to "what, it's over?" and ended up feeling like, for $180, Tom was jammin' me.

Were you, Tom?  I need to know.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

War Is Over If You Want It

It still hurts.

I'm still angry, still shocked, and still very, very sad.

Why did Mark David Chapman murder John Lennon?  How have we managed to create a society where guns and violence are not just OK, they are celebrated?

John Lennon always was, and always will be, my hero.  Sure he was a little weird, more than a little naive, sometimes irresponsible, and deeply flawed.

He was also a genius who spread joy and excitement throughout the world.  He inspired millions to look towards a brighter future.  He spoke to - and for - all of us.

The world is a darker, crueler, more dangerous place than it used to be.  John Lennon was no saint and no saviour, but I can't help but feel it would be a better place if he were still here.

I still miss him.  It still hurts.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Carry On?

My mom, probably like yours, always told me if you don't have anything nice to say, then keep your mouth shut.  That said ...

I saw Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert last year, and it was a sad affair.

I saw them in 1974, and have fond memories.  But their embarrassing performance at Live Aid in 1985, confirmed by woeful appearances on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows, set me up with low expectations for this concert.  Sadly, these expectations were met.

Their music is timeless.  Unfortunately, the boys aren't, and the litany of complaints is too long and painful to record here.  Suffice it to say that if you walked into a bar and didn't know who they were, you'd turn around and walk out.  In fact, I saw a tribute band a few years ago that was way better.

Here's a curious thing, though: the audience was enthusiastic.  
Wildly enthusiastic.  I admit that when I recognized the big songs (eventually, in most cases) I felt a small wave of emotion wash over me.  But people must have been hearing the music in their heads, not the sound emanating from the stage.

I guess my brain is wired differently, because my overwhelming reaction was one of sadness, helplessly hoping they'd get off the stage before it got any worse.

Sorry, Mom.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Favourite Songwriters

The recent post about seeing Paul McCartney live naturally got me thinking about "bests".

So here's a best songwriters list:

To begin, Lennon and McCartney must be split up.  They're too good - and did too much stuff on their own - to be put together.  Oh, and they didn't collaborate as much as we thought at the time.  But mainly, the sheer volume of masterpieces says not only should they be on top, but they must be 1-2.  So ...

1) John Lennon.  An arbitrary choice.  Sorry, Paul.

2) Paul McCartney.  Silly love songs aside, Paul was - and is - a genius who has blessed us with countless thrills, memories and emotions over five decades.  In a class of his own.  No one else comes close.  Except  ...  well, sorry, Paul.

3)  George Harrison.  Not in the same class as his band mates, and a ranking most people will disagree with, but I can't place him any lower on the list.  I just can't.

4) Tom Petty.  Petty has held true to the mid-sixties vibe that The Beatles and The Stones defined.  He gets it.  He has absorbed all the elements, and knows how to serve up the perfect mix of heart-on-your-sleeve-emotion, humour and attitude.  And he's consistent, year after year, decade after decade.

5) Eric Clapton.  Clapton may have started out as a guitar god, but his voice and songwriting eventually caught up.  It's not just Layla.  Clapton has written a formidable number of great songs, and has been consistently fearless in expressing his emotions, transferring them to his audience.

6) Jagger/Richards.  Many would put them number one.  On sheer volume alone, they have a good case.  Ditto influence.  But this is a personal list, and I have to get the other five out of the way first.

7) Page/Plant.  Yes, I know Bonham and Jones were also credited on many of the songs ...   Again, from a volume and influence standpoint, these guys have to be up there.  I always had the feeling that Plant was just making up the words as they were recording, but the words never really mattered, did they?  What mattered was the thunderous and soaring competition between Page's riffs and Plant's voice.

8) John Lee Hooker.  I need at least one classical blues guy here, and ol' Johnny wins handily.  To me, he just told the best, most emotive stories.  That mournful voice helped a bit, too.

9) James Taylor.  Speaking of voices ...   His songs just make me feel.  Mostly good, sometimes sad.  Sometimes both at the same time, and sometimes some things else.  He makes me feel.

10) Bob Dylan.  I'm sure Dylan is number one for a lot of people, and I couldn't argue.  His influence is so pervasive it can't be measured.  And so many great songs.  I do wish they were all a verse or two shorter, though.

Anyway, that's my list.  I know that when I'm working on a song, one or more of the above is influencing what comes out.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Walk Of Life

I attended a small blues festival last summer.  Four acts (2 really, or 2.8 or 3.1 depending on how you want to count).  Two (or 1.3 of them) with some notoriety, and two (or 2.7 of them) not so much.

But it was all good.

Sure, recorded music can be more or less perfect (in terms of sound quality if not performance and taste), but it's not as real, is it?  You can edit out a lot of mistakes and patch in a lot of corrections.  That's what the pros do, what the big stars do, and what we usually get excited about.

But it's not real.  Real is rough and tumble, here goes nothing, fall on your ass music jumping out at the audience - some of it great, some of it inspired, some of it just interesting.

Let me explain the numbers.  There were four acts on the billing.  The first act was two guys: drums and organ.  My first reactions was, this will be interesting, and it was.  Except that this guitarist from one of the other acts sat in and jammed with them for most of the set.  A good thing, especially from the point of view of the organist, who was a busy boy.

The second act performed their set - very nice - and got off without complication.

The third act, Harry Manx, a solo artist (and one of my favourites), played a few songs on his own, but invited the organist and the MC (a harp player from an act not on the billing) up to jam.  Fun stuff.

Then the final act came on.  The guitarist who jammed through the first set, a bass player, and guess who?  The drummer and the organ player that were the first, 'separate' act!

I got the feeling that the whole event was one big jam session.  So all the musicians were on their toes.  Little was rehearsed.  Nothing was automatic.  Most of it involved some danger, and all of it was genuine.

From the perspetive of the audience, that's exciting.  From the musician's perspective, it's about learning and growing and getting better.  Not to mention having fun.

Playing live is how musicians hone their craft, how they learn, how they improve.  How they develop into the magicians that make us all happy.

If people didn't take a chance on live music The Beatles might never have made a record, Rod Stewart might still be busking in train stations, and Bob Dylan might have had to finish college and become a manager at a trucking company or something.

So get out there and listen to live music.  You never know who you'll be helping along.  And once in a while you'll say to yourself, "Oh yeah, the boy can play."

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Sad Songs (Part 2 ... or 3)

OK, so a few songs I overlooked the first time out, and so here's a more complete list:

I Can't Make You Love Me and Matters of the Heart, by Bonnie Raitt

Romeo and Juliet, by Dire Straits

You're Missing, by Bruce Springsteen

Love In Vain, and St. James Infirmary – anyone’s version

Walk Away Rene, by The Left Bank (or Temptations)

Accidently Like a Martyr, by Warren Zevon

Humble Me, either Harry Manx's or Norah Jones's version.

Love Hurts and Crying, by Roy Orbison

Don't Fade On Me, by Tom Petty

No particular order.  They all get to me every time.  And, in terms of tear induction, Here Today by Paul McCartney is the hands-down winner.  Don't know how I forgot that one.

Great songs, all of 'em.  They just hurt so good.