Monday, December 29, 2014

CCR and the Importance of the Rhythm Section in Rock

So a while back I wrote this, about how vitally important the right rhythm section is, how it's like the foundation for a building—if it's doing its job, there's a good chance you'll never even notice it; but if it's not...

That piece has since gone on to become one of our dozen most read items. (At least in part due to people searching for proof that Neil Young was once in CCR. That's CSNY, people. Yes, they're both acronyms.)

But then I read Rob Sheffield say largely the same thing in about 5% the number of words and I wonder why I bother:
[Creedence Clearwater Revival] stood apart from the San Francisco psychedelic bands, partly because of its blue-collar earthiness and partly because their drummer didn't suck. Fogerty's spit-and-growl voice was the purple-mountain majesty above the fruited plain of phenomenal rhythm section Doug Clifford and Stu Cook, California's answer to Wyman and Watts.
Yes. Yes. Exactly. The American answer to Wyman and Watts. DAYUMN. Maybe that's why he writes for Rolling Stone.

Mick Jagger. Keith Richards. John Fogerty. All have created solo albums, some of them many times. And not one has ever come within shouting distance of what they were able to create with their regular rhythm section, despite working with musicians who are, objectively, far, far more skilled. There are plenty of other factors, of course, but after a while, it becomes hard to deny it's no coincidence.

(Good Lord, what size are Clifford's hi-hat cymbals? Those damn things look like they're at least 16".) 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)

Somehow, and I'm entirely sure how, I've lived for decades without being aware of this recording. That is a tragedy—fortunately, retroactively rectified by the downright saintly Chris Barton the Good—but I'm going to do my part to ensure none of you suffer that same fate a moment longer than absolutely necessary.

You just know that when they heard it, John grinned at Paul, feeding off his delicious envy, and rightfully so. Sure, the great Fats had done "Lady Madonna" (an early and groundbreaking experiment in meta) and "Lovely Rita" (less obvious and hampered by an overstuffed arrangement but with characteristically awesome singing by the man himself).

But. Still. Both are good to great songs. Neither inherently superior or inferior to John's "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)." Except that "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)" is simply so goddamn out there. And having the great Fats Domino cover such a crazy song? Is just so very, very.

Monday, December 22, 2014

RIP Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker has died at 70.

What a voice. What a performer. What a loss.

Rock-n-roll's vast and wondrous history has those occasional voices that come around and sound nothing like anyone before or since, voices which demand people snap to attention and take notice. Joe Cocker had one of those voices.

And rock-n-roll's vast and wondrous history is filled with those...what's the word?...those moments. Those times when the sheer power of the art form that is our beloved rock-n-roll comes to the fore and leaves something that is magical and indelible.

Joe Cocker gave the world (at least) one of those moments. Right here, a little more than 45 years ago.

Rest in peace, mate.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's the End of the World as We Know It/We Didn't Start the Fire

I will move heaven and earth if I have to, but I will see this played at DT's funeral.

Thank God someone finally found a way to bring that awful R.E.M. up to the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington's level. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014


TV on the Radio is one of those bands I wished I loved. I respect them enormously, find them fascinating, and certainly enjoy them to a certain extent—just not as much as a band of their calibre deserves.

Which might explain why I like TV on the Radio's new album more than most reviewers. (The same holds true for their previous album, Nine Types of Light.) I've been especially taken by the final track, the title song. I could happily listen to that chorus for hours.

Rain comes down like it always does
This time, I've got seeds on ground

Friday, December 12, 2014

Drift Away

Why should Scott have all the fun?

All his recent great talk here about "Bruce Springsteen: Master Cover Artist" is inspired indeed. I've only seen a small sampling of his vast canon of covers in the times I've seen him live over the years. But those ones I have seen? Priceless. And usually as enjoyable as seeing any number of his greatest original songs done live.

I've been lucky enough to see him do "Mountain of Love" and "Sha La La" in "Stump the Band" moments, not to mention "I'm Bad I'm Nationwide" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do." And a whole bunch of others as well, like "Chimes of Freedom" and "War" and "Hard Times Come Again No More."

But whether he's seizing Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl" for his own or performing a mind-bending version of Bob Dylan's "I Want You" on that same epochal night at The Main Point in 1975 where this happened, it's the way Bruce does the covers that just separates him from the pack. It's how devout these renditions are, how reverent. And it's about Bruce offering that same connection to someone else's work as he offers to his own. That's the intangible factor here; every corner of these songs has meaning to Bruce Springsteen. And he wants the audience to feel that meaning, just as he does.

(Isn't this the case with every performer? I've actually seen Michael Bolton perform "Dock of the Bay" live and, well, trust me. Just no.)

So here another personal favorite, largely because I was there with my son and two buddies when it happened two summers ago in Foxboro. What's fascinating here is "Drift Away," Dobie Gray's sensual, loping soul standard from 1972, not only comes on a whim following a request from an audience member, but it comes well past the 3-hour mark in this concert. At the end of a long, wonderful night of music. This came after a stunning encore version of "Jungleland." After "Born to Run" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and after an extended "Dancing in the Dark" in which a worn down Bruce pretended to go to sleep on stage. Still he had more to give, and breathed just a little more life into an audience that had to be as exhausted as he was. And he nailed it. Because of course he did.

Talk about getting lost in rock-n-roll.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Never Can Tell

Once upon a time, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were one of the great bar bands of all time—only the Beatles were clearly better (although The Band themselves, back in their gin mill days, when they were known as The Hawks, might very well have given both a run for their money, but as far as I can tell, few if any recordings from those days have survived). In the 1970s, Springsteen would pepper his shows with covers, even after he had three or four or even five albums out, so it clearly wasn't for want of material. And his choice of covers tended towards the unusual: rather than obvious crowd-pleasers like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Who, Springsteen tended towards 1950s early rock, like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Elvis, or 1960s frat rock, such as "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" by The Swingin' Medallions or proto-soul like "Cupid" or raucous pop such as "Do You Love Me" by  The Contours.

He continued adding covers to his concerts for the rest of his career, many of which—his transformation of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," for instance, or his cover of The Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "The Chimes of Freedom"—were transcendent. But he tended to add fewer covers as the years went on, and he had more and more original material to sift through. So for a long time, covers tended to be many of the same early rock songs he'd first covered in the 1970s, and largely relegated to the encores.

But a few years back, Springsteen started a new feature called "Stump the Band," where audience members could bring signs with requests. Springsteen would grab a half dozen or so, shuffle them around, maybe consult with Steve Van Zandt, and then play a couple. The results were almost uniformly well-done—no surprise, given the level of talent and experience on stage—and the entire thing was a lot of fun.

But every once in a while, it was more than that. This July 2013 concert in Leipzig, for instance. He and Steve try to figure out a good key for it—they never do seem to quite agree—and then Springsteen gives the horn section a rough arrangement, which they pick up on remarkably rapidly; impressive in any context, but in front of 75,000 or so fans? Insanity. The look in the eyes of the horn section as he's giving them their cues seem to indicate they're aware of the pressure.

Meanwhile, the casualness of Springsteen as he runs through a brief semi-rehearsal and then just kicks into the thing is slightly surreal. This is a guy who's very comfortable being one of the largest rock stars in the world for 35 years. The open rehearsal just suddenly ends with a "are you ready band? Here we go!" and boom. They're off to the races and, rock and roll veterans or no, you'd swear they'd practiced the damn thing dozens of times.

It's a first-rate cover, with lots and lots of room for each member of the horn section, and the redoubtable Professor Roy Bittan to let loose—in fact, one of the biggest "are you kidding me?" moments comes at the end of the very first line, when the professor kicks in with some amazing piano riffing, followed moments later by Nils on some smooth slide guitar (balanced later by some stinging leads courtesy of Steve).

But as Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin pointed out, one of the very coolest bits of the entire experience comes towards the very end, when Bruce holds up four fingers, indicating they should all go to the IV chord, rather than the expected I, a slightly usual move harmonically. Not surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a single misstep.

And you can tell Springsteen's feelin' the spirit. They've been going for eight minutes, but he's not done. After a remarkably successful outing, he decides to go one more round, and yells at everyone to kick back in. Which they do, perfectly. Another quick run and they're out, for good this time.

It all seems so effortless, which it is, if you're blessed with mind-boggling levels of talent, superhuman drive, and put in tens of thousands of hours of practice. Perhaps the only sign that it's not quite as easy as it seems, are the pit stains on Springsteen's shirt, although calling them that is deceptive, as by the end, his shoulders, ribs and a third of pectorals are also soaking wet. The price you pay.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mountain of Love

As further evidence—as though any were needed—of the qualification of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as one of the very finest cover artists of all time, we present this specimen from February 1975.

Springsteen and crew rip into this Harold Dorman song as though it were their own composition and there are label executives in the audience and this is their very last shot at a record deal. In reality, they already had a record deal...although they were on the verge of losing it, if their next album—the band's third—tanked the way their first two had.

Fortunately, the album they were recording at the time was a little something called Born to Run. Unfortunately, the recording process was long, arduous, frustrating and at that point wasn't producing anything near the quality they needed or knew they and the songs had in 'em.

All of which is to say it was probably an amazing relief to take this band, full of piss and vinegar and clearly feeling their oats, with relatively new members Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, out to play in front of a rapturously adoring audience of already devoted fans. Which just might explain why they attack this song with the ferocity of starving wolverines and the precision of top-flight neurosurgeons.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Hung My Head

What an odd choice. Out of Sting's entire oeuvre, this is the song to cover in tribute? And yet it works beautifully. Much of that is because stylistically it's much more in Bruce Springsteen's wheelhouse than most of Sting's work. (Not to mention in terms of vocal range.)

But a lot of it's due to the fact that Springsteen gives it his all here in a way that used to be standard for him when performing covers, but which has become, alas, increasingly rare over the years. (Although not entirely unheard of.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 8, 1980

I was only 12, a huge new Beatles fan and was convinced they would someday soon get back together. They had to. I didn't know everything about them, but that much I understood. They would get back together. They would.

And then my Mom walked down the hallway as I was brushing my teeth on a dreary Tuesday morning and told me John Lennon had been shot and killed the night before in New York City.

Sad as I was, I don't think I could have possibly comprehended how big a loss this was. I'm still not sure I do.

Nor do I understand how John was never really in love with his singing voice. Sure, maybe being around Paul McCartney and that wondrous voice can be intimidating as hell, but anyone who can sing like this really doesn't need to feel inferior to anyone.

John Winston Ono Lennon. Gone 34 years ago today. One more thing I don't think I will ever, ever understand.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

R.E.M.'s "Country Feedback" = U2's "One." Really?

 Yes. Really.

So Scott recently sent me an email entitled “R.E.M. = U2.”

And the first line read, “'Country Feedback’ = their “'One.’”

At first I wondered if he’d been drinking, which was unlikely.

Then I wondered if I’d been drinking. Which was all but a certainty. But then I am getting off-topic.

But really, at first I thought he was nuts. “One” equaling “Country Feedback?” In terms of quality and import? The two tracks being similar enough to equate their places in the band’s respective (and expansively amazing) catalogues?

“One” and “Country Feedback,” essentially brothers of other mothers? Impossible!

Or was it?

I mean, sure, for all their differences the bands have run remarkably similar paths. They are arguably (not here, of course—here there is [almost] no argument) the two greatest bands of their generation, as well as the two most important and successful of that same era. Both had big personalities out front—no one in the game is as big as Bono in that sense, but Michael Stipe has surely (and surprisingly) become one of rock’s more outspoken and articulate spokespeople over the last 30 years, making a rather shocking transition from his days as a shy, barely audible art student. And both emphasized the band as a unit, more than the personalities within it, better than any band since The Beatles. R.E.M. and U2 are filled with talented and innovative band members, but the band always always always comes first. Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe and Bono-Clayton-Edge-Mullen Jr. are inseparable forces that make R.E.M. and U2 what they are.

There are plenty of more similarities from two bands that really came to be rock’s standard bearers in the 1980s and beyond. Monstrous albums, a commitment to sound and style that really remained unwavering and identifiable throughout (you know the sound of an R.E.M. or U2 song—you just do) and ability to keep evolving yet staying true to their roots and core mission.

There were differences as well, of course. They sound very little alike, even as they both fall so decidedly into the rock-n-roll genre. R.E.M.’s sound was firmly rooted in their southern backgrounds and leaned as much on the Byrds and other folk-rock ancestors as their beloved post-punk peers and punk-era forerunners. Meanwhile U2 emerged from Ireland birthed by both the new wave-crazed British movements of the late 1970s as well as the same blues heroes who inspired like the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and blended it with unbending political intuition and a certain Catholic stridence. In the case of both bands, these innovative and unique backgrounds and influences—Southern Gothic with punk leanings, Celtic Fire with blues leanings—created their sound and made them who they are.

So all of that is good, great, super. Their best albums (War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Murmur, Document and Automatic For the People) from their first decade or so all belong, at the very least, on any Top 100 of all time list, likely much higher than that. Both bands hit and hit and hit. And they did it almost in direct parallel to each other, at least until Bill Berry left R.E.M. in 1997.

But back to the initial premise here. “Country Feedback” being the R.E.M. equivalent of “One?” And vice versa? What the who?!

In this corner we have “One.” A modern epic from Achtung Baby that easily stands as one of the five best songs U2 ever did. Even its title—“One”—seems huge and important. It was a radio and video success. Peripheral fans and hardcores hold it in similar reverence, and my guess is it remains one of the first songs you think of when you think of U2. At least I do, and I don’t think I’m alone.

And in this corner you have “Country Feedback,” the penultimate track from R.E.M.’s Out of Time album that came out the same year as Achtung Baby (1991). It practically has a working title – “Country Feedback” just screams “placeholder,” doesn’t it? Obscure and oblique, it had virtually no radio or video presence and is known mostly to just the hardcores. Yet…hmm…among those hardcore fans, list after list of R.E.M.’s finest songs always seem to include “Country Feedback” way up at the tippety top of the best the band ever did.

So there is that similarity. Hmm. Hmmm. Let’s look further.

Both songs sound wholly unique for their respective bands. Both abandon the trademark sound of each—“One” loses the reverb, “Country Feedback" loses the jangle—and instead goes the quiet, more introspective route. And both belie the larger sounds that surround them on their albums—“One” has none of the heavy industrial pulse that beats through so much of Achtung Baby, while “Country Feedback” loses the mandolin and genteel breeziness that dominated so much of Out of Time. So there’s another one.

Here’s yet another, this one a huge one. Both songs start quiet but quickly, declaring their intentions from the first 15-20 seconds. And both songs keep building, building, building to something much bigger, grander than their hushed beginnings indicate at the outset. “One” soars louder and higher, “Country Feedback” keeps gaining dirge-like menace as it plods along. And most important, neither ever break down in the middle only to start again (like, say, two of their other greatest songs, “Losing My Religion” and “Bad” do) and neither ever retreats to the quieter beginnings. Both songs end high and big—“One” with Bono’s melodic howling, “Country Feedback” with Peter Buck and Mike Mills filling the studio with the funereal moan of the guitar and organ. Both songs end and almost literally the opposite place where they began.

And here’s one more, which convinced me that Scott’s initial assertion of the equivalencies of these two songs was, in fact, right on the money. (Whereas initially I thought he was nuts). Both songs are dominated, first and foremost, by the vocals. Which is odd for two songs instilled with such precise and intricate musicianship.

But “One” is Bono’s forum and “Country Feedback” is Stipe’s. I have talked about the epic nature of “One” and I mean it, but it felt funny declaring something that runs only 4:36 as “epic” in the rock oeuvre. After all we’re talking about a category that has longplay standards like “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” leading the “epic” parade, right?

Not really. Had “One” added an extended intro and outro, sure, it would have fit easily into the same six-minute-plus form as those two songs. But that would have defeated its purpose. “One” is about the vocal and needs to have the vocal as its center. “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” each feature wonderful vocal turns from Ronnie Van Zant and Don Henley, respectively. But is either the first thing you think of when you think of those songs? Or are you more aware of Gary Rossington’s gorgeous minute-long slide lead in and Allen Collins’ mindblowing five-minute finishing solo? The same applies to the dueling guitar work Joe Walsh and Don Felder offer at the beginning and end of “Hotel California.” Those guitars, in both songs, are the set-pieces, despite the awesome vocals.

In “One” it begins and ends with Bono. While Henley and Van Zant take on either side of a minute to start singing in their songs and finish up several minutes before the end of the songs, Bono first shows up a mere 14 seconds into “One” and stays virtually until the end. His plaintive lyrics—fracture and loss and who we are and what we do to each other – take hold for more than four minutes of a song that runs just 4:36. (Conversely, Henley is only heard for about 3 ½ minutes of the 6:30 “Hotel California,” and Van Zant only 3:45 of an almost 10-minute “Free Bird.”) Perhaps more than any song in U2’s magnificent canon, “One” belongs to Bono, and showcases his voice as instrument better than any.

The same can be said for Stipe in “Country Feedback.” His singing starts in the first 10 seconds and keeps up, becoming more and more desperate by the second and remains, pretty much, until nearly the end. He is still heard moaning a “Crazy what you could have had” as the song winds to its discordant and unsettling close. Like “One,” the backing music is mesmerizing and superior. But this is Stipe’s show. I cannot think of an R.E.M. song where Stipe is more in command, more out there in front and overpowering, than “Country Feedback.”

And again, the song runs just 4:10, nowhere near the traditional “epic” length as mentioned above. Sure, it could have been. It could have started murkier, with 30-40 seconds of lead-in, and it could have stretched out at the end to the six-minute mark if it had to. But why? “Country Feedback” accomplishes all it needs to accomplish in its tight 4:10 time-frame. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” shows an entirely different direction for the band, just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” builds and builds and never comes back down. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” is a part of a groundbreaking album that launched the band in the 1990s. Just like “One.”

“Country Feedback” is an epic experiment in understated, unnerving lyrics that allows its singer to stretch his range and let his voice become the very embodiment of the words he is singing. Just like “One.”

And lastly, “Country Feedback” stands easily among the very best songs R.E.M. ever did. Just like “One” does for U2.

“Country Feedback” is R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “One.”

Scott was right.

Scott. Was right.

Damndest thing, huh?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Disappear Always

I just heard this for the first time today and I feel comfortable saying it's the greatest song ever. (Narrowly edging out "Where Damage Isn't Already Done.")

Monday, December 1, 2014

Where Damage Isn't Already Done

The greatest song ever? Seventy-four million experts were polled and the results were unanimous:


[Results may or not be scientifically accurate. Or the polling not entirely fictitious.]