Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Valentine/Drain You

So Tommy Stinson recently said this:
It may have been time, but the timing was less than ideal. The year the Replacements wandered off into the sunset, Nirvana dropped "Smells Like Teen Spirit," effectively ushering in the alternative-music revolution that would dominate rock culture in the '90s. It was the unlikely triumph of underground culture, and it's hard not to think the Replacements, having been key players, wouldn't have benefited somehow from that breakthrough. 
"I'll be honest with you," Stinson says. "I never really got the connection, to be frank. I didn't hear anything in Nirvana or any of the so-called grunge bands that had anything to do with us. I really didn't. In my mind, we were more a sort of rock and roll, sort of almost rootsy punk-rock kind of band. That stuff was more metal-leaning to me. Having people make a lot of to-do about them sounding like us or any connection, I think, was a bit of a misstep in the journalistic world. Aside from wearing flannel shirts."
Which just...

I mean.

Tommy. Tommy.

I love you, brother, I really do, as much as one guy who's never met another guy can love that second guy. But I'm going to say you're a mite too close to see what's pretty obvious. Which is that this, amongst many other things:

pretty clearly helped give birth to this:

Now, look. Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to say you guys are on the hook for a paternity suit or nothing. The breakdown, por ejemplo, pretty clearly owes way more to, say, early Led Zeppelin than it does vintage 'Mats (or even later LZ)—although if, Kurt Cobain's underrated guitar playing aside, Nirvana had had a Bob Stinson in the band, that breakdown might (would) have sounded mighty different. And I loves me some Chris Mars—one of the great drummers of the post-punk 80s, and a fine songwriter in his own right—but he ain't no Dave Grohl: them's some bigass drums being played on this song, sounding (as always) far more like John Bonham than someone from Sonic Youth or Hüsker Dü or R.E.M. or, yes, the Replacements.

But the drum part itself? That could have been written by one Christopher Mars. The melody? Paul Westerberg, without question. The bass? Well, okay, that doesn't sound much like Tommy Stinson, I'll grant you, although Grohl's harmony vocals kinda do; Tommy was and is a great bassist, but Krist Novoselic—one of the most important and most unheralded bassists in history, Iggy Pop perceptively aside—doesn't seem to have been much influenced by him, at least to my ears. Even Cobain's voice has that Westerbergian ability to be sweetly vulnerable one minute and then gravelly and rock as all get out the next second.

Sure, Nirvana was heavier, although much of that was simply that they were of their time as the Replacements were of theirs. But the basic DNA underpinning each band? It might be too much to say they were twin brothers of different mothers...and then again, it really might not be.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Misfits/Sixteen Blue

DT and I were speaking recently of the various ties between bands, influences of older artists on younger, as well as contemporaneous artists sometimes symbiotic relationships.

I've been in a Kinks mood recently, and I'm always in a Replacements mood, which may be why, upon hearing this song for the first time in 20+ years, it sounded so clearly proto-'Mats.

Tell me that doesn't sound like the blueprint for this.

From the lyrical thrust to the arrangement down to the melody to even the playing, with its pop elegance juxtaposed against a country background; I mean, even the first few seconds of each sound like, at most, first cousins—appropriate, given the genetic bonds at the heart of each bands' genesis.

It's no coincidence that the Replacements would bear more than a few similarities to the Kinks: both were fronted by amazing lyricists but massively aided and abetted by a sometimes unheralded group of musicians with whom they grew up. Both had aspirations far beyond "mere" rock and roll, but Cole Porter be damned, neither could help but return to balls to the wall rock again and again.

Paul Westerberg once talked about how maybe some bands had done the ballads better, and maybe some had done the hard rock better, but that no band had ever done them both as well as the Replacements. As a diehard fan, I find it hard to entirely disagree...but when listening to the Kinks it's hard to entirely buy in, either.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

You Really Got Me/Destroyer

Well, this is kinda fascinating. Here's one of the all-time great bands, during their 2nd or 3rd or perhaps 4th, depending upon how you're counting, career renaissance playing a talk show in Australia. Think about that: they were doing well, commercially, at this point in time, and yet they were playing a talk show at about the same time the Rolling Stones and the Who were playing outdoor stadiums for around 75,000 people a pop. This from the band that no less an authority than Pete Townshend said was the third member of the Holy Trinity of British Rock, along with the Beatles and the Stones, and not the Who.

And yet. Here they are playing a talk show (which would be cancelled just a year later). And damn if they don't give it their all.

Watch Ray Davies shimmy and shake at the beginning like a young Roger Daltrey tying to be James Brown. Check out Dave Davies with his angelic high harmonies and his effortless mastery of the fretboard, showing later imitators from arena rock bands like REO Speedwagon just how it's done, from the originator of the proto-punk riff, one of the most impressive transitions in rock. Note Mick Avory dressed like he's auditioning for an AC/DC tribute band and observe as he seems to be having trouble keeping up with the tempo.

And then there's the song itself, utilizing the riff of "All Day and All of the Night"—itself a rewrite of "You Really Got Me," a lesson Townshend learned well when he himself then brilliantly rewrote it for "Can't Explain"—and adding lyrics that are either a sequel to "Lola" or at least a continuation of the story from a slightly varied point of view and brought up to date, going from the beginning of the anything goes in the Me Decade to the frantic stress of the 80s, one of the more interesting deconstruction of a famous rock band's own mythology by the very rock band in question.

And, of course, it kicks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RIP Christopher Hogwood

Well, this is a bummer.

Christopher Hogwood was one of the first conductors I followed, when I was just getting into classical music. Never as famous as Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan, he was one of the pioneers in the "historically informed performance" movement, wherein avid scholarship was applied to compositions, in an attempt to replicate as closely as possible the performance practices of the day, so you could hear, say, a Mozart symphony performed the way Mozart would have heard it—which is what Mozart would have had in mind when composing it. So orchestras were smaller, instruments which had fallen out of favor (such as the valveless trumpet) brought back, tempos often quite a bit brisker, and even the sound of a note itself changed, as a A, for instance, was tuned to something like 430 cycles per second, rather than the 440 cycles per second that's standard these days.

What's all that matter? Maybe not a lot. Except that, for me, coming from a rock and roll and jazz background, I found Hogwood's recordings to simply sound more alive and vibrant than most others.

Take a really easy example. Here's one of the best known classical compositions ever, and one which, no matter how overplayed it is, I still find delightful, the Canon in D, by Johann Pachebel.

Sounds great, right? Sure, it might conjure up visions of a lightbulb commercial or perhaps a middle grade piano recital, but it's still a lovely piece of music.

This, on the other hand, is Hogwood's version.

Note how—even if you don't listen to classical music—you can easily hear how much smaller the orchestra is, how much lighter a tone the reduced forces brings, how much more clarity there is, how much easier it is to pick out and follow individual lines, not to mention how much quicker the tempo. Rather than the lush tones to which one had become accustomed, whether aware or not, this was rougher, more aggressive. It was, frankly, a pretty punk approach.

This wasn't for everyone. A lot of people just plain liked their Beethoven weighty, not fleet of foot, and understandably so: there are times that I myself like to hear Otto Klemperer trudge through Beethoven's Seventh like a drunken argentinosaurus trying to make its way through an especially stubborn tar pit. But for me it was a revelation. The idea that this was the way Bach or Beethoven would have expected their music to be played was a thrilling idea. But at the end of the day, what worked for me most was that it simply sounded wonderful.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


I could watching a thousand hours of this and never get tired. I wish this guy'd do one for every track.

I never cared for Low as much as for Heroes, which I know casts some suspicion on my status as a Bowie fan. But I did always love this song.

Monday, September 15, 2014

All Along the Watchtower

Welcome to another installment of "All Along the Watchtower" Watch, wherein we listen to various versions of, well, "All Along the Watchtower."

Here's one I've always liked. Although the great Stereogum thinks it's failure, I'll be so bold as to disagree. Andy Partridge sounds remarkably like Bono doing a half-assed Bob Dylan impersonation, and considering this was released two years before U2's first LP was even recorded, that's not only all the more impressive, it makes one wonder if XTC wasn't perhaps a bigger influence on U2 than is commonly acknowledged. (I don't actually think so.)

Admittedly, the scat singing at the end doesn't really work, and the harmonica seems an odd choice for a sort of punkish take on the classic, albeit more in the angular Wire school of intellectual punk, with perhaps some ska influences mixed in there as well. Still, a worthy addition to the canon.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


"Confirm thy soul in self control. Thy liberty in law."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Selling Out

 So I ran across this very amusing piece a few days ago, and it reminded me of a series of posts I wrote to a mailing list back in the days of yore, when mailing lists were the main way people passionate about a given topic exchanged ideas and information—which is to say the prehistoric days around the turn of the century.

I don't recall what started the entire discussion, but it could have been the then-fairly-recent commercial for...an automobile, maybe?...featuring Peter Gabriel's song "Big Time." Or maybe it was Led Zeppelin definitely shilling for a car company. Or Pete Townshend...shilling for a car company. Before he sold perhaps his greatest song to a cheesy cop show. Which was before he sold perhaps his second greatest song to another cheesy cop show.

Whichever it was, it seemed just such a betrayal by one of our greatest artists, something I found shocking and upsetting. Ah, but I was so much older then...

Look. I get it. I do I mean, yeah yeah, it's all very meta, the way Gabriel is saucily taking the piss out of the entire venture by using that song, of all his songs, to shill a product. So mighty clever. As Pete Townshend, now vying with the Glimmer Twins for the poster boy of what used to be called selling out, once said:
For about ten years I really resisted any kind of licensing because Roger had got so upset when somebody had used "Pinball Wizard" for a bank thing. And they hadn't used the Who master—and what he was angry about was, he said that I was exploiting the Who's heritage but denying him the right to earn. Who fans will often think, "This is my song, it belongs to me, it reminds me of the first time that I kissed Susie, and you can't sell it."
And the fact is that I can and I will and I have. I don't give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie. If they've arrived, if they've landed, if they've been received, then the message is there, if there's a message to be received. 
I think the other thing is, though—and I'm not trying to sideswipe this, this is not the reason why I license these songs, it's not the reason why I licensed "Bargain" to Nissan—it was an obviously shallow misreading of the song. It was so obvious that I felt anybody who loved the song would dismiss it out of hand. And the only argument that they could have about the whole thing was with me, and as long as I'm not ready to enter the argument, we don't argue. Well, I'm not ready to argue about it. It's my song. I do what the fuck I like with it.
[Emphasis added.]

Isn't that just adorable. "Sure, I took millions but you were all in on the joke, right? If you were a real fan, you'd have gotten it."

And that sums up Townshend so wonderfully right there, the way he manages to be absolutely right and completely wrong at the same damn time, even as simultaneously compliments and denigrates the hell out of Who fans. As counterpoint, I present this quote taking the opposite stance:
I had such grand aims and yet such a deep respect for rock tradition and particularly Who tradition, which was then firmly embedded in singles. But I always wanted to do bigger, grander things, and I felt that rock should too, and I always felt sick that rock was looked upon as a kind of second best to other art forms, that there was some dispute as to whether rock was art. Rock is art and a million other things as well—it's an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it's a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes as well. I don't think there's anything to match it.
[Emphasis again added.]

Let's see now, who said that? Oh, that's right: it was Pete Townshend. Calling his older self full of shit. (To be fair, Pete often calls himself full of shit, not infrequently in the same interview or even breath.)

So. Seems that once upon a time, at least, there was such a thing as the concept of selling out, and that some artists considered this a bad thing. Some of those artists later went on to do the very thing their earlier selves had claimed to find abhorrent. Life's a funny thing, innit?

First of all, let me point out the blindingly obvious, which is that the world has changed since I wrote much of this, 10 long years ago. For the majority of artists—including, yes, major gazillionaires like the Who and the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and so on and so forth—the only way to get their new stuff heard is by licensing it to a commercial, and that goes quadruple for almost any act younger than U2. So I get that.

The concept of selling out is so old-fashioned that I'm not sure some of today's artists are even aware that it was even a thing, much less thought of negatively. So I may not like that the only way I'll hear a new song by, say, Camera Obscura or Real Estate or The War on Drugs is when they license it for a television show, but I get it. Hey, times have changed, the world moves on, and an artist has to make a living. I oh so very much get that. Trust me, I'm nobody and I've totally sold out more times and more cheaply than I can bear to remember.

But it seems to me that there's a big difference between writing a song with a commercial in mind (Stevie Wonder's commercial for a local soda of which he was extremely fond) and a song which, theoretically, was written from the heart (say, "Bargain").

The first is a simple act of craftsmanship and has a long history, and if that history isn't normally thought of as noble, well, at least some truly great artists have contributed to it. And when it's simply an exercise, there's seems to me no great crime against High Art, whatever that may be—it's just providing a service, and if the end result is of a high enough quality, we're all better off: there are always going to be commercials, so better good commercials than bad and, really, is it all that different than Bach writing The Art of the Fugue as a try-out for a club he wanted to join?

The second one, however, seems to me a betrayal of everything that truly great rock artists believe in and stand for. I'd have no moral qualms with Pete Townshend or Peter Gabriel giving up rock to write commercials; I'd be saddened, maybe, but otherwise, hey. But to write a song from the heart and sell it to the fans with the implicit promise (and I believe that promise is indeed implicit in everything those guys said in the first few decades of their careers) that this means something to me, this is what I really feel, this is a small slice of my soul...and then sell it to a soulless corporation for a big chunk of change, when neither of those guys is exactly on their way the poorhouse, seems a despicable act.

Do you really believe that's not the exact pose the Rolling Stones were attempting (quite successfully) to sell in the 60s and 70s? In retrospect it's pretty clear that Jagger, at the least, was almost certainly never some true believer—but they worked hard to embody the total rock and roll image, which included giving The Man the finger. But if you don't believe that they tried to make their audience believe that they somehow embodied a higher version of Integrity than the pop stars of yore, as well as the business men of the day, you're either kidding yourself or don't know your rock history. 'cuz that's exactly to a T what those middle-class kids posing as rebels were doing.

Now, do I deny that it's their right to do whatever they want with their work? Of course not. In fact, let's say that again, for those in the back, just to be perfectly clear: it's their work and they have every right to do whatever they want with it.

You know what? To make this unmissable, let's say that one more time:

It's their work and they have every right to do whatever they want with it.

But. For them to deny that every fan who gave them their money and spent hours and hours listening to their work, work that was presented as one thing, and then to turn around and sell that same piece and allow it to be used in such an utterly different and contradictory way, is a rejection of those very ideals that made them attractive to us fans in the first place. It's a con job. It's saying, here, check out this thing—it's a small slice of my soul. And you take it as such and perhaps it forms a small part of who you are. And then ten years later they sell it to an SUV commercial. That's bait and switch. It's a fine technique for making money. It's impossible to reconcile with Art or Truth.

Once again, as Townshend himself said: "Rock is art and a million other things as well: it's an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it's a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes."

It's a two-way thing. You give us your music, we give you our money, but in rock and roll that's not where the deal ends. There's, as Pete Townshend himself said, more—there's feedback and an identification thing that is perhaps unique to rock and which most of the great bands have acknowledged and utilized. Townshend himself obviously did (and this is not the only time he said something along these lines, just the one that was close at hand). Or at least he did before H+P offered him a couple million.

Look, he and they all have the right to do it. But that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do. I'll still enjoy their music and sometimes be touched by it and often marvel at their artistry. But I can no longer believe that they are the pure artists they would have (or have had) us believe they are.

And here's the thing: if artists as diverse as The Doors, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, R.E.M., The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam have all refused to license their songs (it's extremely notable that McCartney has no qualms about licensing the songs of others he owns—Buddy Holly, for instance—but refuses to let the actual Beatles recordings be used) giving up in some cases mind-boggling amounts of money, then the very notion that there's something distasteful about the practice isn't absurd. You can disagree with my argument and maybe you're even right, but these artists obviously agree with me to some extent. And when someone passes up tens of millions of dollars to avoid doing it, it's something that needs to be at least given the benefit of some thought rather than dismissed out of hand.

Now. You'll note that all my examples are of extraordinarily wealthy rock stars. I don't begrudge Gary US Bonds whatever he made for those beer commercials in the early to mid 1980s, or Southside Johnny, who did one as well, or B.B. King for whatever he's done—XM Radio? Sirius? And maybe a hotel commercial too, right? And diabetes medication. And a fast food chain. And maybe a few others. God bless you, good sir, say I.

But do you really think at any point in the past twenty-five years that any of them (toss Etta James in there too) has in their best year made even a third of what, say, The Stones have made in their worst year? When real life (paying the mortgage, say) runs up against ideals, real life wins. I mean, duh. But when you're sitting on a hundred million in the bank, I kinda feel like staying true to the ideals you espoused which got your that fortune in the first place just isn't asking too much.

Neil Young clearly feels the same way, given how openly he savaged his friend Eric Clapton in an award-winning video:

As pal DT once said,
Robert Klein once joked, you may recall, that imagine how set for life Neil Armstrong would have been had he stepped onto the lunar surface and exclaimed, "Pepsi Cola!" Some moments need to exist for themselves, and art needs to exist for itself. If it's good enough or, hell, even mainstream enough, it will take on another life and turn into a moneymaker. And to that I say, "Groovy."  
Two last points and then I'll allow this self-righteous rant to die a merciful and deservéd death. The first is Tom Waits seems to agree with me and, as a general rule of thumb, if Tom Waits agrees with you, you're probably on the right track:
Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.
When I was a kid, if I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.
Finally, I think Berke Breathed's Bloom County summed it up nicely—and when in doubt, always go with a drawing of a penguin:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Favorite Song Friday: Back to the Old House

Nostalgia is such a tricksy baggins. One tiny misstep and you plummet into precious sophomoric navel-gazing, and understandably, since generally nostalgia means looking back at a time when you were less world-weary, less pessimistic, more, well, young.

Morrissey stays well on the right side of that line with his sparse lyrics to this b-side, ever so lightly sketching out just the faintest of images, dropping hints as to what may (or may not) have happened with the most delicate of brush strokes, the lack of much concrete detail enabling the listener to identity more easily.

Johnn Marr's lovely fingerpicking and Andy Rourke's always wonderful bass provide a delicate and unwavering support for some of Morrissey's most gentle and, especially towards the end, unmannered vocals, his baritone leaving no doubt as to his adulthood, and yet his wistful wonderings of "are you still there? Or have you moved away?" followed by wordless pinings manage to make it clear that there are some things you never fully leave behind.

I would rather not go back to the old house
I would rather not go back to the old house
There's too many bad memories
Too many memories

When you cycled by here began all my dreams
The saddest thing I've ever seen
And you never knew how much I really liked you
Because I never even told you
Oh, but I meant to

Are you still there?
Or have you moved away?
Or have you moved away?

I would love to go back to the old house
But I never will
I never will