Friday, 28 September 2012

Good News For Denver

I started playing with my U.S. music map, plotting where I thought some British artists would land. It looks like this:

I've already described how I thought The Beatles belonged in Ohio to reflect their

twin influences of Nashville and Motown, and how Cat Stevens sounds to me like a blend between Memphis and Motown.

The Stones? Chicago and Memphis, so they're neighbours of the Cat.

Eric Clapton's ancestors came from The Delta, Chicago and Texas, placing him somewhere on the Arkansas/Oklahoma border.

U2 and The Kinks split that Motown pop sensibility with a NY punk attitude, putting the somewhere in Penn state (OK, let's give U2 to Buffalo).

Bands like ELO and Queen blend that Motown pop gift with the Hollywood production thing (and jazz complexity), placing them squarely in the middle of the country.

Cream and The Animals blended their love of Chicago blues with a touch of California weirdness, making them natives of Colorado (there you go Denver). Zeppelin: about the same but with a pull from The Delta.

Deep Purple and Pink Floyd have lots of the Hollywood production and complexity, with a bit of pull from the eastern styles, which I guess lands them in the southwestern desert.
Neil Young lands in West Virgina (sorry Winnipeg), given an equal pull from Nashville and NY. And yes, I know he's Canadian.

Elvis Costello? A bit more NY punk.

Dire Straits? Nashville, Memphis, Delta.

Van Morrison: Memphis, Delta (maybe a bit of Motown?)

David Bowie was tough. NY punk and Motown pop pulling hard against California - landing him in Nashville of all places.

Hmmm ... there's a whole new twist on the idea of "Music City."

Friday, 21 September 2012

Got Your Back

Gibson has this list of 10 Backing Bands Who Propelled Their Leaders To Fame and Glory.

The Spiders From Mars (David Bowie)
The Band (Bob Dylan)
The Heartbreakers (Tom Petty)
The Revolution (Prince et al)
Booker T. and the M.G.'s (Various)
The Experience (Jimi Hendrix)
The Attractions (Elvis Costello)
The Wailers (Bob Marley)
The E Street Band (Bruce Springsteen)
Crazy Horse (Neil Young)

Not sure I can think of any substitutes, but I gotta question The Band and Crazy Horse. Can anyone seriously contend that Bob Dylan wasn't already a household name before he hooked up with The Band? Or that he needed them afterwards? Ditto Neil Young. I've seen/heard Neil Young fill an arena with just his warbly voice and an acoustic guitar. With all due respect to Crazy Horse, any backup band would do.

BTW, can anyone name those guys?

Along the same lines, although Hendrix was not a household name before he teamed up with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, and as good as they were, I wonder how long it would have been before he took the world by storm anyway.

At the opposite end of the scale: as strong as they were - and as much as they were the obvious leaders and the driving creative forces - I find it hard to distinguish between Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, between Marley and The Wailers, between Springsteen and the E Street Band. They were units. The leaders were part of the band.

Probably the most interesting band on the list is Booker T and The M.G.'s. Those guys were the backup band. Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Albert King ... the list goes on.

Ah, hold on a minute! If we're going to include backup bands that supported more than one act, where are The Funk Brothers, who played on more hit records (for Motown) than everyone on the list combined?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Who's The Old Man?

Q:  Is this a running joke from A Hard Day's Night or a sick joke from the 2012 Grammy Awards?

Sadly, both.

Apparently the dominant Twitter chatter while Paul McCartney was on was, "who's that old guy?' and "who is Paul McCartney?"

So, it has come to this.  In a culture of 8 billion units, with individual playlists and nothing shared, people don't know one of the most influential musicians of all time.  And that, friends, is no culture, since culture is defined as customs and civilization of a particular time or people.  Not 8 billion persons.

Ironic that in a world dominated by social media and sharing, we have lost our shared culture.  I mean, I knew who Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Rudy Vally and John Phillip Sousa were.  Sousa died when my grandfather was a child, but I still knew about him.  Paul is still alive and revered by your parents and grandparents Twitter people!

The Twitter chatter didn’t seem to happen during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert or the Olympics.  Maybe by then these people had informed themselves.  Or maybe that stuff was only watched by the inmates of old folks homes. 

But it did happen during the Grammies.  A sad reflection of our times, especially for one who has given - and continues to give - so much joy.

And he's very clean.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Where Music Lives

Q: Where does Cat Stevens live, London or Indianapolis?
Q: Where were The Beatles from, Liverpool or Columbus?

The real answers are London and Liverpool, of course - but the musical answers are Indianapolis and Columbus. Take a look at this map:

Musically, The Beatles were heavily influenced by the sounds of Motown and Nashville. Cat Stevens shared the Motown pop/rock sensibility, but leaned more toward Memphis soul than Nashville twang. So Columbus and Indianapolis are halfway points.

The map shows the styles/sounds that have dominated music for the last 50-60 years (no offense, Miami - I feel your pain, Denver). It's a fun game to pick out the stylistic influences when you're listening to a song - especially for artists hailing from outside the U.S..

It's not quite that simple, of course. Everything is connected to everything, and great artists have many influences, plus their own creative spark that makes them unique.

But it's a fun game. Try it!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Jalopy Rock

Gibson has this list of 10 Great Garage Rock Bands.

The intro talks about garage rock as both primitive and singles-oriented (not self-contradicting?) while Wikipedia describes garage rock as raw and amateurish - and punkish.

To me, rock and roll is punkish by definition. Three chords and a message (even if it's only complaining about the cheerleader who doesn't notice you) - that's the essence of rock and roll. Everything else is just window dressing - or pretense.

Anyway, here's the list:
The Count Five
Flamin' Groovies
13th Floor Elevators
The Seeds
The Troggs
The Electric Prunes
The Kingsmen
The Stooges
The Velvet Underground

Note to Gibson: not sure I buy that Jimi Hendrix loved The Troggs. I always felt his whole Wild Thing thing at Monterey was a put on.

The point of Gibson's list is who were the pioneers, so it is a pretty good list. Otherwise I might have said: where's Camper van Beethoven, The Northern Pikes, The Smithereens, or even George Thorogood? Not that any of these sounded amateurish.

It's not that I admire poor production of sloppy musicianship, but to me it's the feel of the music, not the degree to which it sounds professional. It's about raw rock and roll. So, my list would also include Creedence, The Kinks, The Status Quo, even The Stones and Neil Young.

We're talking genres, right? And a genre is about style and attitude, not commercial success, and certainly not ability. I mean, if Keef isn't punk then I don't know who is!

Monday, 10 September 2012

On The Road To Find Out

That earlier post about Sad Lisa got me wondering why I hadn't dealt with Cat Stevens before. Ultra strange, 'cause I love his music.

He was popular at a time when Folk music was enjoying a resurgence, and the acoustic guitar dominates his work, but his range was just too broad for that little cubby hole.

You've got your folky singer-songwriter stuff like If I Laugh, and your folky protest songs like But I Might Die Tonight, but you also have pop singer-songwriter tunes like Can't Keep It In. You've got your Mediterranean-influenced "folk" like Ruby Love, but you've got your Pop-Rock songs like Ready and Bitter Blue, which could have been played by The Who or Led Zeppelin.

Which brings me to the rhythm and percussion. Most of his songs are filled with rhythmic hooks, layers of percussion, and drummers going nuts. Even songs that begin as seemingly simple folk tunes end up building relentlessly into something more like Rock. Check out Longer Boats and Where Do The Children Play?

It's maybe telling that the only song I could find on my iPod that was just Cat and his guitar, The Wind, is also the shortest.

For a folky, the Cat sure could dance.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me

With a nod to the great/ongoing recession, Gibson has a list of 10 Songs For Hard Times.

Here's the list:
Patches, by Clarence Carter
Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, by Derek and the Dominos
Coal Miner's Daughter, by Loretta Lynn
Busted, by Ray Charles
Inner City Blues, by Marvin Gaye
Aqualung, by Jethro Tull
Kill The Poor, by The Dead Kennedys
Waitin' on a Train, by Jimmie Rodgers
No Woman, No Cry, by Bob Marley
Why I Sing The Blues, by B.B. King

Lotta time, ground and genres covered by this list.  In fact, not sure many of these tunes live up to the genre in the title "Poor Man's Blues: 10 Songs For Hard Times."

A little curious about Aqualung, 'cause frankly I never saw him as a sympathetic character.  Surprised not to see anything by the likes of Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger.  I might have added:
Hobo's Lullaby, Woody or Arlo Gurthrie's versions
Match Box Blues, anyone's version, including (especially?) Ringo's
House Rent Boogie, by John Lee Hooker
Soon As I Get Paid or Crapped Out Again, by Keb Mo

What's surprising, really, is that there aren't a lot more current songs out there.  I'm pretty sure people are suffering, and they appear to be more than a little ticked off.

Where's the musical expression, people?

Monday, 3 September 2012

There Must Be More I Can Tell Her

Sometimes song lyrics are direct and clear. You know what they're about and you respond accordingly.

Sometimes, though, they are open to interpretation. Like the kid in the lit class that challenges the hapless teacher as he/she attempts to pronounce the one, curriculum-approved interpretation of a poem, some songs challenge the listener to imagine different possibilities.

Sad Lisa by Cat Stevens is one such song.

The song is about a sad female called Lisa. That much we know.

But what's her problem? Heartache? physical abuse? autism? insanity? We sense the pain is deep. We also feel something sinister is afoot. The piano shifts between normal and underwater, rising and submerging throughout the song. The tension builds in symphonic fashion as the piano yields to strings and guitar, the strings at first echoing the melody, then taking up a nervous counterpoint.

Who is she? A lover? sister? child? In fact, is she even real? She's lost in the dark. She can't hear the speaker. No one can see her. Is she a tortured soul, a prisoner, or an imaginary friend?

What a poet.

p.s. - like so many great songs, especially from that era, optimism never fully yields to sadness and despair. There must by more he can tell her, maybe one day he will free her.

And maybe that's the central point of the song: never give up.