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.