Monday, 29 April 2013

Just Follow Me

It’s funny how you can listen to a familiar song and suddenly get a new insight.

Case in point: I was listening to John Lennon’s Working Class Hero the other night and realized it wasn’t an angry song, it was sad.

If I had met John Lennon when the song first came out I would have said:
1. I get it.  You need to put all the Beatle madness behind you, and Plastic Ono Band is your attempt to do that.  Fine.
2. Is all the swearing necessary?
3. Great song!

In the past I would have said it’s a powerful song with Lennon at his best (except for the killer riffs, which are absent): straightforward music and forceful lyrics.  It’s in your face; there’s nowhere to hide.  Good candidate for the angriest song of all time.

Not so, according to my new insight.  It’s desperately sad.

Listening now, I get the feeling that he wasn’t saying the middle class was an illusion.  He was saying it was doomed.  He was saying he was doomed.  “I might have lifted myself up,” he seems to be saying, “but it will all come to nothing.”

OK, maybe he was just saying what he felt, and didn’t presage a future any more bleak than the present he was observing.  But that’s what great art does, right?  The passage of time, hindsight and more recent events only give new depth and meaning.

This song is indeed a rage against the machine, but it’s also a lament.  As a working class hero, he knows the futility of resistance, and the cost that must be paid.

Tell the truth, give it a backbeat, put yourself out there, endure the madness – and get yourself shot.

“Just follow me,” he sings at the end.  How many of us have the courage to do that?

Friday, 26 April 2013

And One For All

I need to take a second pass at this…

So speaking of riffs, New Musical Express’s 50 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time is nothing if not democratic.  Everyone seems to get a turn.  You’ve got at least one each for rockabilly, British Invasion, psychedelia, hard rock, metal, glam, classic rock, new wave, euro pop, alt, grunge, hair, punk, thrash … have I missed anything?

And kudos to NME for spreading the joy, but really, shouldn’t the likes of AC/DC, the Stones, or U2 been on the list more than once?

And if you insist on limiting to one apiece, is Sunshine of Your Love really Clapton’s best riff?  Is Free Fallin’ Tom Petty’s?

As for the Stones, limiting it to one is kinda silly, so it might as well be Satisfaction.

Oh, and even though even one isn’t enough for them either, no Beatles?  At all?  Does NME have something against them?  For heaven’s sake!

I was delighted to see the likes of The White Stripes, The Kings of Leon and The Black Keys on the list, but some of the others just seem to be arbitrary.  I dunno.  When I read these lists I try not to let my peronal taste get in the way (really, I do), but I’m not sure what NME’s criteria was.  Influence?  Sales?  Recognizability?  Airplay?  Fairness and diversity?

Cool collection of pictures, though.

Postscript - best write-up goes to the one for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit:  “Is the most remarkable thing about this riff that it killed hair metal or that it made Nirvana superstars against their will?  No, the most remarkable thing about this riff is that even after hearing it 87 million times it still sounds so visceral.”

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Sticks Like Oatmeal

Gibson has a long-overdue article called Guitar Riffs ... an Art in Need of a Revival.  Yes, I dropped the question mark.

It talks about the dangers of comparing the old to the new (less than effectively, actually, ‘cause of course Babe Ruth was better than Albert Pujols).  They do have a point: each generation has to do its own thing.  But for some reason, today’s rockers seem to have abandoned the riff.

Kinda a weird, because the article nicely explains why that’s the tool to imbed your music inside the listener’s psyche, to imbed it under the skin, to worm its way right into the DNA chain.  A good riff sticks to you like oatmeal sticks to your ribs.

Maybe it helps explain why “classic rock” records now outsell current releases.  As the article explains, a good riff is instantly familiar but also altogether new.  A lot of songs today sound very familiar because they feature the obligatory distorted power chords and shouting, but not much feels new.

By talking about The Stones’ most recent riff on Doom and Gloom, the article neatly proves that Paul Stanley from Kiss was dead wrong when he claimed all the good riffs had been written.

Not so.  Come on, people.  Get out there and give us something to remember.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Alien Blows

Gibson’s 10 Albums That Changed Rock Guitar shows that virtuosity covers a pretty wide spectrum.  Here’s the list:

Jeff Beck - Blow By Blow
Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced?
Van Halen – Van Halen
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers
Chuck Berry – After School Sessions
Joe Satriani – Surfing with the Alien
The Allman Brothers – At Fillmore East
Boston – Boston

A huge variety of styles, and so many disparate techniques - not to mention tastes (which we shouldn’t mention lest I go off on a rant about where is Eric Clapton and you’ve gotta be kidding about Black Sabbath).

It’s interesting how many of these albums are firsts: Zep, Boston, Hendrix … which doesn’t necessarily mean that subsequent albums didn’t measure up – just that the shock and awe were done.

It’s a good list because every one of these records inspired a million players to say “I wanna play like that!”  New ideas, big changes, epic influence. 

Hats off to Robert Johnson, by the way, who managed to make the list 23 years after his demise.  Which is proper, because if you look at the list in terms of influencing the influencers, Mr. Johnson winds hands down.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Say Say Say

I dreamed I met Paul McCartney, and this is what he said:

“Soom people might say oym an arrogant dick, an’ maybe oye am.  Buht oye got to play bass in the fuchkin’ Beatles.  Wha’ ‘ave you duhn?”

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Riffs Across the Water

New Musical Expresses 50 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time is another reminder for me that my culture is more rooted on this side of the Atlantic.

Lots of the expected suspects:  Back in Black, Smoke on the Water, Sunshine of Your Love, Voodoo Child, You Really Got Me, Satisfaction, Cinnamon Girl, Johnny B. Goode, and so on.

Glad to see Rebel Rebel made the cut.  Ditto Song2, Get It On, and Seventh Nation Army.

Speaking of The White Stripes, the list serves up a reminder (to me, anyway) that lots of great guitar-based music continued to be made after 1990.  Not enough, but lots.

That said, and with no disrespect to some of the newer bands listed, but no Springsteen?  No Creedence?  No Dire Straits?  No Tull?  No Zeppelin?  At all?  No Beatles?  Really?   Shouldn’t they have, like 6 or 7 on this list?  Hello?

Also, I get the feeling that the list is trying too hard to spread the joy; one for the Stones, one for the Kinks, one for him, one for her, one for them, one for you, one for me …   Fine, but I’m not sure I Can’t Explain is the Who’s best riff, or The Streets Have No Name the best from U2.  And yes, Free Fallin’ gets the audience singing, but is it really Tom Petty’s best riff?

Maybe these tunes just went better with the pictures.  The NME articles seem to be more about the pictures.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Say It Ain’t So

Aw…   New Musical Expresses piece on 29 Rock Myths Exploded is just a party-pooping downer.

No stomach pumps? no song-induced suicides? no mud sharks? no ash-snorting? no doobies in the john at Buck House? no Mars bars? no ham sandwiches?

Aw, come on!  They were such great stories!

Anyway, how do we know Charles Mansion didn’t audition for The Monkees?  Did anyone ask Stephen Stills?  Are we sure Paul didn’t die?  And what about Dylan?  Are we really sure?

And dammit, we gotta believe Keef had those full-body blood transfusions!  It’s just part of who he is!

Who are these people at NME?  Of course Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil!  Everyone’s known that for, like, 75 years.

This is what’s wrong with the Internet.  People can just make stuff up!  Deniers!  Truthers!  Balloon-prickers!  Liars!

Good on Keith Richards, by the way, who, true or not, got himself involved in 2 ½ of the 29 myths.  1st place, even if it is in an alternative reality.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Monster Live

The Rolling Stone 10 Best Live Albums list makes the point that a good live album could actually make a career, and that’s true.

The reverse was almost true too.  There were some pretty bad – make that pathetic – releases that seriously damaged the image of some otherwise unimpeachable stars (at least for me).

Here’s the list:

 1.  The Who – Live at Leeds
 2.  Allman Brothers – Live at the Fillmore East
 3.  Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive!
 4.  Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-ya’s Out!
 5.  Kiss – Alive!
 6.  Deep Purple – Made In Japan
 7.  Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus
 8.  Nirvana - Unplugged
 9.  The Band – The Last Waltz
10. Bob Seger – Live Bullet

I wonder if it helps to have an exclamation mark as part of your title?

Some great music by some fabulous bands here for sure.  Some are amongst my all time favourites.

The write-up talks about the colossal mistake Townshend made by destroying the rest of the recordings from the tour  - featuring mostly material from Tommy, which is what dominated their shows at the time.  But I remember how incredibly refreshing it was to not hear Tommy, how cool it was to hear The Who rock out, simple, pure and raw.

The albums on the list that had the most impact on me were the ones that were accompanied by films.  The visuals helped overcome the poor sound quality.

To be fair, technology, professional standards and perhaps reduced or alternative substance abuse have tremendously improved what can be achieved in a live recording.  But back then, things were a bit rough and uneven.

Speaking of visuals, when I first heard The Beatles at Shea Stadium, I was embarrassed.  It sounded just awful.  Remember, this was released not long after Abbey Road, one of the cleanest, best produced albums of all time.  Now, when I watch the doctored-up clips on Anthology, I’m convinced Shea Stadium was the best concert performance of ever.

And I guess that’s the challenge of a live album: technology and taste aside, does the recording and the performance manage to convey the magic these musicians can conjure up?  

Anyway, this list sure is a good representation of my generation.

Monday, 1 April 2013

All The Madness In My Soul

When I watched the 12.12.12 Concert for Sandy Relief a while back, I was nothing less than astonished by Springsteen’s performance of Born To Run.

I mean, here’s a guy who’s 63 years old singing his a** off about teenage angst and meaning it.  And he’s convincing!

Sure he’s that good, but maybe the song carries him more than a little.

You know, it just might be the greatest rock song ever.  It’s got it all: the aforementioned teenage angst, plus rebellion, romance, danger, hope, even social commentary – delivered over one of the best riffs of all time.

I don’t know if Springsteen’s incredible energy still makes the song relevant, or if the power of the song still makes Springsteen an untamed force of nature.  But either way, it’s magic.