Friday, September 21, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: My Life

So I was reading this recent interview with the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington. And a few things hit me.

One was the understated badassness of this bit:
I remember the show at the Garden after the Charlottesville riot when you wore a Star of David. How do you decide when you want to make your beliefs known?  
Wearing the Star of DavidAt his show on August 21, 2017, Joel sported a Star of David on his jacket. At the same concert, Joel had images of Trump officials like Anthony Scaramucci and Sean Spicer — as well as James Comey and Sally Yates — projected behind him as he and guest Patty Smyth performed Scandal’s “Goodbye to You.” wasn’t about politics. To me, what happened in Charlottesville was like war. When Trump said there were good people on both sides — there are no good Nazis. There are no good Ku Klux Klan people. Don’t equivocate that shit. I think about my old man: Most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz.The story of the Joel family’s experience with Nazi Germany is told in full in the 2001 German documentary The Joel Files.The story of the Joel family’s experience with Nazi Germany is told in full in the 2001 German documentary The Joel Files. He was able to get out but then got drafted and went in the U.S. Army. He risked his life in Europe to defeat Nazism. A lot of men from his generation did the same thing. So when those guys see punks walking around with swastikas, how do they keep from taking a baseball bat and bashing those crypto-Nazis over the head? Those creeps are going to march through the streets of my country? Uh-uh. I was personally offended. That’s why I wore that yellow star. I had to do something, and I didn’t think speaking about it was going to be as impactful.
The other was how very much criticism has taken its toll on him over the years. He denies it...again and again and again. He has to, because he very noticeably keeps bringing it up again and again and again. And that sucks. Because someone who's accomplished as much as the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington has should really be delighted with their life.

As one of the guys who's sometimes publicly mocked him ever so gently and lovingly, allow me to take a moment to talk about one of the many Billy Joel songs I really truly love and the thing about it which never ceases to impress me, no matter how many times I've heard it.

"My Life" is quintessential Billy Joel, with a lyric that aims for John Lennon, with perhaps some of Chuck Berry's braggadocio, but falls short (mainly in the second verse, which starts great but fizzles into empty albeit rhyming platitudes). Meanwhile, musically, it's a composition of which Paul McCartney himself could be proud, insanely melodic and with a plethora of hooks, including a few which are strictly instrumental and never actually translate to the vocal line.

It's got a compelling (and not entirely dissimilar to "Silly Love Songs") intro that starts quietly and builds until the whole band kicks in and delivers the first hook, just before the second hook is introduced—and again it's only this second hook which will actually turn into a vocal line and even there only as a faint vocal in the outro. Who does that? A guy who can produce the kind of melodies that the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington can, that's who.

So the song is pretty standard, from a structural point of view. With one exception, but it's a pretty big one, and that's what always strikes me about this one. It's not that the verses and the chorus share the same chord changes and melody, although that is kinda interesting, especially given that the intro and outro—which normally would share either the verse or chorus changes—are different. It's the placement of the bridge and the treatment of the second chorus, as well as the way he repeatedly goes to the intro/outro music, using it almost as a substitute for a guitar or keyboard solo.

The song goes:
  • intro
  • first verse
  • intro/break
  • first chorus
  • first bridge
  • second verse
  • intro/break
  • second chorus
  • second bridge
  • intro/break
  • third chorus
  • outro
For the second chorus, though, he has Liberty DeVitto bring the drums down to half-time, lending (or trying to) gravitas, to the first two lines. Then things kick back in and we go to the break section. Then back to the chorus for a third and final time...but only half of it. And then we're into the extended outro, which is just the intro/break section, but with vocals this time, singing the keyboard hook from the original intro.

It's an odd construction. There are only two verses, he keeps going back to the intro music, and the song gets heaviest almost right before it closes it out—and then once it does get ready to close out, it hangs around for a surprisingly (and pleasantly) long time. It's...weird. It feels like a standard 8-bar pop song, structurally, but it's really not. It's slightly, or maybe even more than slightly, askew, but you don't really notice the first few dozen times you hear it, as you're just caught up by Joel's phenomenally catchy melodies and compelling lyrics.

But he's the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington, a guy who's a master of songcraft, so he undoubtedly knows what he's doing. Which makes it even more perplexing and, for me, at least, appealing.

Well done, good sir. Well done indeed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mrs. Robinson

This is one of the greatest things I've ever seen.

I have to believe that Lulu was in on the joke, that she's well aware of how she's completely trampling—in an ever so delicate and effervescent and utterly funk-free way, of course—the point of the lyric.

The way she euphorically sings "any way you look at it you lose" as though she's singing "and flowers make me ever so happy." The way she spins and whirls, so carefree, as she coos about the bleak state of the union, the marital discord and infidelity, the titular character perhaps being locked away in a psychiatric institution.  It's all so gloriously wrongheaded that I have to believe she believes she's representing poor Mrs. Robinson herself, or perhaps Mrs. Robinson's psyche, drugged out of her gourd and beyond reason.

Any way you look at it, it's sublime.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ramble On

Restraint. Knowing when to lay out. Knowing what not to play. As Miles Davis famously advised John Coltrane, sometimes it’s best to just “take the horn out of your mouth.”

Which brings us to, incongruously, John Bonham.

Bonzo. Led Zeppelin’s monster drummer. The man who, more than any other, raised the bar on what it meant to be a rock and roll drummer. Of his peers and predecessors, only Keith Moon was as influential (although his stock has dropped precipitously since his death, while Bonham’s has, if anything, continued to rise) and only Ginger Baker as technically advanced.  Bonham’s technique, his style, his sheer overwhelming volume and speed and most of all power, were mindblowing at the time and, perhaps because of his remarkable influence continuing to this day, don’t sound dated.

From the first very, he amazed. Literally: the first track off their first album has Bonham doing things with the bass drum never before heard in rock and roll. Check out the bass drum triplets he starts playing about five seconds in here—since you’re probably listening on little computer speakers it might be a bit hard to pick up, but for drummers at the time, what he was doing with the bass drum was astonishing.

              "Good Times, Bad Times" outro

Later he, more than any other drummer, would go on to popularize that bane of 70s concert going experiences, the interminable drum solo. Sure, he was a star and a stud…but really? 30 minutes for a drum solo? That’s how long the entire Beatles concert at Shea Stadium was. Even the great Bonzo couldn’t make a solo of that length transcendent.

But when you have a drummer as powerful and inventive and plain musical as Bonham, you overlook such trivialities. (Also, you head for the beer stands.) I mean, you could go through any Led Zeppelin album and find who knows how many amazing Bonham moments. The way he takes songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” or “The Song Remains the Same” or “Trampled Under Foot” or “Kashmir” or “Achilles Last Stand” which are already moving forward like a crazed elephant and somehow manages to shove things up a few notches is just unsurpassed. But just check out these intros:

              "Rock and Roll" intro

              "The Crunge" intro

              "D'yer Mak'er" intro

              "When the Levee Breaks" intro

There's little there that's terribly difficult—but that's one of the points. Simplicity is often best and usually more difficult. And play any or all of those for any serious rock fan who grew up in the 70s or 80s and probably even later and they’ll be able to tell you the name of the song those come from, sing the riff that’s just about to kick in and likely even pinpoint where each song belongs on each album. How many other good drummers have that many signature moments in their careers? ‘cuz those four examples? Are just from two albums. Crazy.

Which brings us, in my meandering way, to “Ramble On.” Off their second album, the song’s notable for several things: it’s perhaps the earliest rock and roll song with Tolkien allusions—especially ironical, given that making Lord of the Ring references is shorthand for mocking geeky prog rock groups, while Led Zeppelin is generally the coolest of the cool when it comes to rock bands, and yet they’re by far the most prominent offenders. It’s good to be the king.

Then there’s lovely bass playing by Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon, John Paul Jones, contributing the most melodic, catchiest element of the music, as well as the odd percussive sound during the verses, Bonham tapping on something which has never been conclusively identified.

And finally we have the point of all this, which is Bonham’s playing. Check it:

                           "Ramble On" 

Notice how tasteful and tasty his playing is? That five note drum riff he plays each time his drums enter? The way he plays half a measure, then pulls his snare out for the next half measure, filling the space with a quartet of syncopated bass drum kicks, and then comes back in on the snare double time for a measure. And then he does the whole pattern again. Chorus over, he again lays out for the verses.

When it comes to the brief instrumental solo section he plays it straight, with a nice smattering of syncopated semi-ghosted notes on the snare before a tiny fill leads into him dropping out for the final verse. Another few runs through the chorus and we’re out.

See what he did there? Or rather what he didn’t do? Four and a half minutes and the world’s greatest rock and roll drummer, the spiritual (if not literal) inspiration for the muppet drummer Animal, the most notorious wildman in the most notorious rock and roll band of wildmen, doesn’t even really play a single drum fill. Instead he simply sticks (no pun intended) to his pre-composed drum part. That is, to quote Luke Skywalker, improbable. And yet there 'tis.

It’s this side of Bonham which often gets overlooked in the justly deserved praise for his power. It’s the fact that Bonham wasn’t just an insanely powerful drummer—although he most certainly was that. But he was also a monster musician sharing an unlikely philosophy with the likes of Steve Cropper, Paul McCartney and Miles Davis: just because you can play something, it doesn’t mean you should.