Monday, 31 December 2012


Well, we survived 2012, despite the Mayans, and the doomsayers.

It was a big year, actually.  Lots of 50th anniversaries:  Beatles’ first record, Stones first gig, Dylan’s first album, James Bond movies, Andy Warhol’s can of soup, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the birth of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Some notable 70th birthdays: Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Annette Funicello, Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin.

50 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, 70 years since the Battle of El Alamein, 100 years since the Titanic sunk, 200 years since the Battles of Borodino and Queenston Heights.

A big year.  I can’t remember 2011 having so much to hype up.  2013?  We’ll see, I guess.  ’62 and ’42 were big years, that’s for sure.

It’s amazing what goes on within you, without you.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Trinities and Triangles

I started playing this game in my head:  name three guitarists, then start exploring how they defined your musical world.

Take Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton:

How did they define musical boundaries?  Well, how about roots (Johnson is the source), astonishment (as only Hendrix) and musicianship (Clapton exactly right)?

What about connections?  Let’s see: there’s a direct line from Johnson to Hendrix (how did he come up with that?), a link between Johnson and Clapton (that’s perfect for the song), and an eternal contention for supremacy between Hendrix and Clapton in the OMG department.

How about John Lennon, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page?  Boundaries set by genres (Rockabilly, Blues and Celtic-Indo-European-something-or-other Folk?).  Strong connections on riffs, riffs, riffs?

How about Woody Guthrie, Son House and James Taylor?

How do just three names sum up what appeals to you, where your boundaries are, what styles you dig, how you play, what you aspire to?  How do they differ?  How are they similar?

It’s a fun game.  Try it.

Friday, 21 December 2012

When I Paint My Masterpiece

Gibson’s list of 10 Iconic Album Covers reminds us of perhaps the best thing about vinyl. 

Here’s the list:
The Beatles, Abbey Road
The Clash, London Callling
Green Day, Dookie
Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin
Michael Jackson, Thriller
Nirvana, Nevermind
Pearl Jam, Ten
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

OK, I know CD’s ruled by the time Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Green Day came along, but you get my point.  Album art – and it was art – had such a bigger impact when the real estate was, well, bigger.

Great album covers don’t just inform or appeal, they make a statement.  So all of the ones on the list are deserving.  As the article says, whittling it down to a list of only 10 is a tall order.  Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul or With the Beatles were also super icons, and Zep 4 easily rivals Zep 1, but let’s not quibble.  Great album art made great albums even better, providing another way to enjoy, to savour, to immerse oneself.

I know we have videos and websites and tweets and all that, but it’s not the same as a 12-x12 piece of cardboard you can hold in your hands.  It’s not as personal.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Let’s Dance

The professors will tell you that performing arts  - music, dance, theatre – all have their origins in religious ritual.

I can’t make a direct connection with theatre, but with music and dance I think it’s less about story-telling and more about timeless, primal forces that come from within.

Can anything express emotion as succinctly as a song?  And when it comes to joy, can anything top dancing?  But which is the chicken and which is the egg?

It struck me a few weeks ago during a gig when I was enjoying watching the crowd dance the night away.  I realized these people weren’t dancing because they were happy, they were happy because they were dancing. 

Sure, alcohol and maybe other substances were involved – but it wasn’t mindless goofiness.  These people were disconnected from their everyday worries, but they were also connected to something more basic, more powerful.  The dancing took them there.  And their smiles were louder than the band.  Then again    they were momentarily carefree, and the happiness caused them to dance.  Maybe dancing and happiness are the same thing.

However it works, it’s a powerful, life-affirming force.  No wonder the shamans got involved.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Ooh baby, baby!

The first thing that jumps at out you when you look at Rolling Stone’s Women Who Rock: The 50 Greatest Albums of All Time (by women), is that there had to be a lot of stretching to come up with a list that long.

Here’s the Top 10:
 1. Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
 2. Joni Mitchell, Blue
 3. Dusty Springfield, Dusty In Memphis
 4. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
 5. Patti Smith, Horses
 6. Adele, 21
 7. Missy Elliott, Under Construction
 8. Blondie, Parallel Lines
 9. The Supremes, Anthology
10. Bikini Kill, The Singles

No one, I mean no one, is going to argue with Aretha being number one, even though she was the Queen Of Soul.  Close enough.  But Taylor Swift?  Bjork?  Dolly Parton?  Yoko Ono?

I know I go on endlessly about how it was so much better before we splintered into so many subcultures, but Dionne Warwick?  Donna Summer?  It’s supposed to be Women Who Rock, not Queens of Pop.

Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett?  Absolute rockers.

Carole King, Dolly Parton and Dionne Warwick?  Nope.

Listen:  there’s a lot of talent on this list and all of the names are deserving of respect.  I know rock is a verb that has also come to mean, “cool.”  But rock is rock, and not all these ladies do.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Agony and the Ecstasy

A few months ago I was outside enjoying a sunset. I thought came into my head.  “Oh,” I said to myself.  “That’s a cool idea for a song.”

Immediately, and I mean right then, a melody popped into my head.  I went inside, went to the piano, and a complete song rolled off my fingers.  Wow!  Now all I needed were the lyrics.

That was three months ago.  I still have no lyrics, despite hours of effort.

You see, the words that came to me sound cool, but I don’t know what they mean.  I know they mean something, but I can’t figure out where to start.  I’ve pushed in a bunch of different directions – love, philosophy, history, religion, nature, all kinds of ideas from the sacred to the profane - but no go.

I feel like Michelangelo trying to free the figures slumbering in the stone.  I know those words are in there somewhere, but so far my hands haven’t broken the spell.  Sigh.

I’ll just keep fussing with it until the right words reveal themselves.  I have to.  It’s a catchy tune.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Frankie Didn’t Come To Hollywood

I usually think of myself as more sympathetic to British than (North) American viewpoints, but New Musical Express's Top 100 Tracks of the Last 60 Years bit me in the backside.

Here’s the Top 20:
1. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
2. Pulp – Common People
3. David Bowie – Heroes
4. The Beach Boys – Good Vibratons
5. New Order – Blue Monday
6. The Stone Roses – She Bangs The Drums
7. The Smiths – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
8. The Specials – Ghost Town
9. Dizzee Rascal – Fix Up, Look Sharp
10. Oasis – Wonderwall
11. The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil
12. The Ronettes – Be My Baby
13. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
14. Sex Pistols – God Save The Queen
15. The Beatles – A Day In The Life
16. The Cure – Boys Don't Cry
17. Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone
18. The Beach Boys – God Only Knows
19. Madonna – Like A Prayer
20. The Stone Roses – I Am The Resurrection

Wow.  A ton of 80’s Brit Pop, only one Beatles, only one Stones.  A thin and curious collection of American acts.  Wow.

I know Americana, Roots, Whatever is my home base, but I always preferred to have it delivered by the English.  I thought I got the English.  I thought they got America(na).

Differing perspectives is what makes the world go round, but at the moment it’s my head that’s spinning.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Name That Tune

Remember that TV show?  “I can name that tune in nn seconds.”  Well, Bob Dylan would have had me stumped.

I’ve always enjoyed it when an artist offers a new rendition of a song during a live performance.  “You might be tired of it; so am I.  So listen to this.”  It confirms that the song has an identity – a life – of its own, independent of the original recording, untouched by the endless repetition.

I saw a Bob Dylan concert, though, and he took things to a whole new level.  The applause that usually accompanies the opening strains of a favourite song was delayed until midway through the chorus.  And the applause was muffled by groans, grunts, whats and huhs?

New arrangements, different lyrics, new melodies (well, with Dylan, that’s maybe a guess).  Actually, it was less like Name That Tune, and more like Guess That Vegetable.

I mean, I was expecting different, maybe even strange.  And I know Dylan’s always been a “this is what I have to say, and this is how I want to say it.  Take it or leave it” kinda guy.  But it was like a band of gypsies rolled into town, heard a Dylan CD at the local bar, then went onstage and jammed it.  Talk about becoming a caricature of yourself!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always admired Bob Dylan.  His music is timeless and his influence is incalculable.  I just don’t know what to make of this bizarre experience.

Something is happening here, but I don’t know what it is.  Do you, Mr. Jones?

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Instant Karma

It’s been 32 years, and it still feels like cold turkey.  John Lennon has been out of my life now for about twice as long as he was in it, and the isolation still plays games with my mind.

For 364 days each year, I feel only joy for what he brought into this world.  On this day, I can feel only bitterness and sorrow.

Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Dude, What’s That Chord?

Gibson’s Top 10 Songs For Six-String Beginners brings back some memories.

It’s the list of songs all beginners start with, the ones that drive the music store employees and patrons nuts, they say.

Here’s the list:
Sweet Child O’ Mine – GNR
Eruption – Van Halen
Wild Thing – The Troggs
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – Dylan
Rockin’ In The Free World – Neil Young
Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple
Iron Man – Sabbath
Seventh Nation Army – White Stripes
Working Class Hero – John Lennon
No Rain – Blind Melon

Eruption?  Really?  For beginners?

Wild Thing would have been on the list when I started out.  As would House Of The Rising Sun, Satisfaction, Gloria, Twist And Shout, Blowing In The Wind, Spoonful, Whole Lotta Love and Purple Haze.

And, like Smoke On The Water, who ever learned all of Purple Haze?

Interesting that Lennon replaced The Beatles and Dylan replaced himself.

At my school, guitar players were a community, and we all taught stuff to each other – even if it was wrong.  There was no internet, there were no tabs, no YouTube lessons, and if you picked up the needle and dropped it too many times, you would toast the record.  If you could afford it you could buy sheet music and songbooks, but the riffs were always missing and the chords were usually wrong.

Still not sure about Eruption, but what I hear kids playing in music stores definitely reflects a higher level of skill than it was in my day.  Chalk one up for the internet. 

I hope the community thing is still going on, though.  That was the best part of learning.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

How Sweet It Was

Well, we already knew this, but a recent study has confirmed that Pop Music Is Simpler And Louder than it used to be.

We sure knew about the loud part.  Just check a CD pressed in the 80’s compared to one pressed last year.

But the study compared almost half a million songs, and found that melodies have been steadily getting simpler.  And the harmonies are disappearing.

Do ya think?  I mean, how much can you get out of shouting over an over-driven power chord?  Or talking over drums and bass?

Gone, it seems, are John Lennon’s chromatic counterpoints, Keef’s mangling and dangling and tangling, or Motown’s pedals.  Too bad.

The study admits that today’s dance beats are infectious.  They are.  They also  were.  It was always about the beat, but it used to also be so much more.

As the title of the article says, it sure is infectious.  But who wants a virus?  I like music that alters my DNA.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Your Mother Should Know

Cool Rolling Stone article called 10 Things You Didn't Know About Beatles Music.

Some little known facts, trivia and insights by Beatles scholar Scott Freiman.

As a lifelong fanatic, I always start such reads with cynicism, expecting to learn nothing.

Wrong, happily.  I did not know that the flamenco guitar intro on Bungalow Bill was actually a mellotron.

I can’t speak to Freiman’s work, but if you like this kinda stuff, the I highly recommend Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald, one of the most surprising books ever written about The Beatles.  Part historical reference, part review, part social anthropology, MacDonalds’ book gives you dates, times, lineups, analysis and historical context to every single Beatles recording session.  It’s brilliant, insightful, and masterful.

Not enough of a fan to get into that level of Beatles minutiae?   That’s OK.  You’re allowed to think for yourself.  Maybe one day you’ll change your mind.  Tomorrow never knows.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Same As It Ever Was

Letting the days go by
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
Into the blue again
Into the silent water
Under the rocks and stones
There is water underground

Once In A Lifetime, by The Talking Heads.  Another one of those fabulous what-does-that-mean? songs.

I remember the first time I heard it, and I instantly related.  I always relate in a powerful way, even though I’m not too sure what it’s about.  A brief online search on the song reveals that it’s a mystery to others too, with various theories being offered up, including:
1. re-incarnation
2. mid-life crisis
3. pointless materialism
4. water (in a meaning-of-life sort of way)

If I’d had to put it into words at the time, I would have gone for mid-life crisis, even though when the song came out I was only 27.  But I dunno.

Water dissolving … and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean

And the video, with David Byrne bouncing around like a nervous puppet.  It’s all kind of threatening and sinister.

Same as it ever was, I guess.

How do I work this?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The 45 Masters

Gibson’s 10 Greatest Singles Bands reminds you why radio used to be do darned good.  Here’s the list:

 1.  The Beatles
 2.  The Rolling Stones
 3.  Creedance Clearwater Revival
 4.  The Smiths
 5.  The Who
 6.  The Eagles
 7.  The Kinks
 8.  Oasis
 9.  The Guess Who
10. The Dave Clark Five

The singles from these bands makes for a pretty good playlist and a decent party.  With the exception of The Dave Clark Five, who understood their market and gracefully retired with the advent of FM radio, all these bands were pretty good on the album front too.  A key point, I think.

The article points out that although 45 RPM singles gave way to albums (then CD’s), in this digital age we’re back to buying singles.

Well, the singles were always there and were always the way to get attention and exposure.  So what sends the bands on this list apart?  For me, it’s a combination of volume and balance.  A multitude of hits to distinguish themselves from the one-hit-wonders, plus the ability to appeal beyond the constraints of the 3 minute pop song.  Each album had a few hits on it, plus some great album rock that proved these bands had depth.  That distinguished them from the pop groups who could churn out singles, but disappeared with the next fad.

The music from the bands on this list will not fade away.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Cultural Icons

We like to touch them.  We like to play on them.  Sometimes, it’s a thrill just to look at them.

Get your mind out of the gutter.  Mainly, we like to hear them.

I refer to the Rolling Stone list of 20 Iconic Guitars.

Some obvious choices: McCartney’s Hofner Violin bass, B.B.’s Lucille, Les Paul squared, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s poor abused strat, Bo Diddley’s Cigar Box, Neil Young’s Old Black, Springsteen’s Esquire, What’s-His-Name’s What-Is-That?

Some I guess-so’s:  Eric Clapton’s Blackie (really, couldn’t it be any strat – since the 60’s when it could have been any Gibson?), Jimmy Page’s Doubleneck (undoubtedly iconic, but I always picture his Les Paul when I think of him), Keef’s Micawber (ya, he likes Tele’s, but he has like ten million guitars of all makes and models, right?), Lonnie Mack’s Flying V (hmmm, not Albert King?)

One WTF?: George Harrison’s 12 String Rickenbacker (George changed guitars for practically every album!  How about John’s Rickenbacker?)

To be iconic means the association has to be a strong one.  Frequently used or seen, or played at a seminal event (like Hendrix’s Monterey strat, as opposed to all the other strats).  So most of the guitars on the list make sense.  Some, though, seem to have been chosen to get the iconic player on the list.

They’re all cool though.  I do like to watch.

Friday, 23 November 2012

What About Now?

Well, that’s all there is, right?

As Robbie Robertson sings: forget about tomorrow, don’t talk of yesterday; it’s too far away.

And does anything snap us into the moment as quickly, as forcefully, as completely, as music?  Not for me.

Ya, the big goal, the killer homerun, the nail-biting election; they’re pretty intense.  And all successful art makes you stop and think – and feel.  But music reigns supreme.  It takes you out of time and puts you in the moment.

You can feel energy you didn’t know you had in you, experience a dormant emotion, or get deep into an idea you didn’t care about.

You dance; you sing along, you listen.  Music is immediate, overpowering, total.  There’s nothing like it.

Music is right now.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

It Won’t Be Long

The thing that jumps out of the Rolling Stone Top 25 Teen Idol Breakout Moments is that not many of them lasted beyond the moment.

Fabian, The Monkees, The Cassidy’s, Bay City Rollers, New Kids On The Block … all gone.  Long gone.  Gone and forgotten.

The list has some noteworthy exceptions, of course: Elvis, The Beatles, The Jackson 5 (well, Michael anyway), and Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra?  Well sure.  The whole idol, screaming girl thing started with him.  But RS does describe the list as “of the rock era,” and the hysteria over Frank started in 1942 – hardly part of the rock era.  OK, let’s not quibble.  Strangers In The Night was #1 midway through The Beatles run of hits – and played on the same radio stations.

But most of the names on the list are in the “oh-ya-I-forgot-all-about-him/her/them” category.  Not surprising, because most of the acts were manufactured.  They were not the real deal.  They were not artists who happened to make it big.  They were a product, created to capitalize on the teen idol impulse, exploiting the popular musical style of the day.

Popularity was intense but fleeting, there being no substance to the material.

The list is actually an interesting reflection of our culture, though, isn’t it?  A few timeless greats whose impact cannot be truly measured, and a bunch of fluff quickly consumed and more quickly forgotten.

The wolves are always hungry.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Hey Hey My My

Whoever thinks rock and roll is dead should take the matter up with the 17,000 fans who crowded around me, whooping it up at a recent concert I saw featuring Death Cab For Cutie and The Tragically Hip.

Rock and roll can never die.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Attack Of The Killer Mirror Balls

In the 10 Songs That Prove Disco Didn't Suck article, posted a while back by Gibson, we are invited to entertain the notion that Disco didn’t almost kill contemporary pop music and culture.

To quote: “No genre in the history of contemporary music has been more thoroughly maligned than disco has. But the music – and its impact – shouldn’t be dismissed in one fell swoop. Many terrific artists dabbled in or even embraced the genre, and emerged with their musical integrity intact. Below are 10 songs that give credence to that assertion.”

Well, here’s the list: Good Times (Chic), Hot Stuff (Donna Summer), I Was Made For Lovin’ You (Kiss), Miss You (Rolling Stones), Heart Of Glass (Blondie), Tears Are Not Enough (ABC), Rock With You (Michael Jackson), Stay (David Bowie), Fire (Ohio Players), Goodnight Tonight (Wings).

Listen: I’m wary of generalizations, and I don’t like the phrase “such-and-such sucks.”  But disco was awful, and this list does not prove the article’s point.

For example:
1)    As much as I adore The Stones and Paul McCartney, and respect Messrs. Bowie and Jackson, these songs are hardly their best efforts.
2)    Yes, it got played in discos, and in hindsight sounds like disco, but Blondie was viewed as a New Wave act.  On second thought, was Blondie copying the disco that came before or presaging the resurrected 80’s synth pop rubbish that was to come afterwards?  Nevermind.

Don’t get me wrong.  Dancing is fun.  A great beat and an infectious, upbeat tune is the stuff of happiness.  But for rockers like me, disco was hard to take.  And the list just proves the point.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Oh My My

I saw Ringo in concert a while back.  It was pure joy from start to finish.

Can’t vouch for the rest of the crowd, but for me it wasn’t about seeing a former Beatle.  It was about Ringo.  Who cares if With A Little Help From My Friends isn’t as inspirational as Let It Be, if It Don’t Come Easy isn’t as deep in your consciousness as Nowhere Man, if – if you’re jaded enough to say it – he’s an also-ran in the vocal department?  Who cares?

What matters is watching a 72 year old bounding around stage acting like a 16 year old, having a ball, flashing peace signs – and meaning it.  He’s been doing this for over half a century, and it shows.  I mean: he’s not tired.  He’s professional.  He’s into it.  He’s still having fun, and it’s contagious.

Ringo is all about peace and love and rock and roll.  That’s a damn fine combination, and that’s what matters.  He just might be the coolest guy on the planet.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Twisted, Sister

How do people even come up with this stuff?  Rolling Stone did a reader’s poll on 10 Artists Who Should Return As Holograms.

The poll was taken after Snoop Dogg had a hologram of Tupac Shakur during a concert, or something.  So, the morbid question is “Hey kids!  What dead people do you want to see on stage?  Cool!  Fun!  Woot!” 

And the list is: Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Notorious B.I.G..

Hey kids!  Anybody not guess who would be on the list?  OK, I guessed Keith Moon instead of Notorious.  Drummers never did get enough respect.

More than a little sick, and absolutely pointless.

Oh, and apparently there is some ongoing tour out there featuring an Elvis hologram.  Talk about the heebie-jeebies!

I liked it better when they just sold those Elvis-on-black-velvet paintings at corner gas stations.  When it comes to cheese, I’ll take low tech.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Don’t Pass Me By

I know the Beatles had more than their fair share of hits singles, but you know what?  They could have had more.

They wrote so many great songs, and actually seemed to pull back starting in late ’65.  You know, so that they only had one or two songs on the charts at a time, instead of the three or four that was customary during the first couple of years.  They definitely could have maintained that dominance with the following songs:

No Reply  - B side I’m A Loser
You’re Gonna Lose That Girl  - B side It’s Only Love
Hide Your Love Away – B side Another Girl
Drive My Car – B side Norwegian Wood
You Won’t See Me – B side The Word
Got To Get You Into My Life  - B side She Said She Said
Here, There and Everywhere – B side Taxman
Back in the USSR  - B side While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Hey Bulldog – B side It’s All Too Much
Here Comes the Sun  - B side Oh! Darling

Judging by the Classic Rock radio playlists and revisionist history, many of these songs are now actually treated like singles. 

I know, I know: 27 number one hits is enough, plus another dozen or song right up there.  Then another dozen or so post breakup releases in the early days of compilation mania (yes, I know: including Got To Get You Into My Life and Back in the USSR).  But check out the list.  They had even more hits in their arsenal.

They sure were something.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Invisible Suns

Fender has a list of Top 10 Unsung Guitarists.  Not everyone can be Eric Clapton and be lionized from (what seems) birth.  Or Steve Cropper and get noticed for being the perfect sideman for like a zillion acts.  So this is a cool list.

Which is:  Doyle Bramhall II, Tyler Bryant, Jim Campilongo, Bill Frisell, Greg Koch, Michael Landau, Buddy Miller, Paul Pigat, Pillip Sayce, Alex Scally.

Can’t say I have heard of all of them, which I guess is the point.  But the write-ups sure prove these are accomplished guys.

Not sure where you would cross the line from “unsung” to “not sung enough” but I might nominate Joe Bonamassa, Buddy Whittington and Coco Montoya.  All masters who coulda/shoulda been bigger.

So what separates these guys from the Claptons, Becks, Pages and SRV’s of the world?  Singing?  Songwriting?  The right band?  Management?  Fashion sense?  Luck?

We’ll never know, of course, or else we’d all go out there and be superstars.

Anyway, play on, dudes.  Your sun may yet shine brighter.

p.s. – I was just kidding about the fashion sense.  I think.