What does it mean to be a virtuoso?…

 


I’ve spent decades writing about music. I backed away from that as a constant pursuit several years ago because the things people were willing to pay me to write about, in terms of bands/artists/records were mostly things that I had a hard time finding anything positive to say about. It can be fun to savage something truly awful, but at some point that just gets tiresome. As amusing as it might seem to be a professional curmudgeon, in actual practice it’s heartbreaking.

I got involved in playing music, in writing about music because I loved it. And if you love something it hurts your heart to see it go south.

I still love music though, and while I can’t find a lot to root for in contemporary pop or rock, it has occurred to me that there is a whole generation out there who never got to see or hear the things that are part of the musical wallpaper for me. The vast expanse of the interwebs makes sharing cool stuff eminently doable.

So, what’s a virtuoso, and why should you care? Try this:

Jeff Beck does things with an electric guitar that most other players find impossible. He squeezes notes out of parts of the instrument that other people don’t even realize have musical potential. He also does it while making it look easy. I’ve been a fan of the guy since I was 10 and have been trying to learn his tricks since I was 13 (both of these ages were quite a long time ago, by the way), and I can tell you with some authority – nothing he does is easy. Not even close.

And then there’s this:

There’s a whole other thing going on with the Damned, but it’s not as distant from someone like Jeff Beck as some would think. The thing that grabbed me about Beck, as opposed to Clapton and Page when I was a kid was that he was always dancing around at the edge of danger, always pretty close to going off the ledge. Clapton is revered for never playing a bad note, and Page, for all his fiery speed and casual slop is always right in the realm of the permissible with his playing, while Beck, at his best, is very close to going wrong.

Wrong is good. That’s what made early punk so vibrant, because passion was more, much more, important than playing things “right.” Energy and power were there to provide a chance to connect with the audience.

Again, I’ve seen Clapton and Page several times, and there’s an aloofness to their performances, almost as if the audience doesn’t matter, or is irrelevant to what they’re doing up there. Beck is never like that. He’s not going to banter with his audience, but he is, above all else, playing for and to them.

For me, that’s the test. The why of music – are you there for yourself or your audience?

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow…

Tommy Ramone has left the building. There are no more original Ramones.

There are, unfortunately, many bands who sold more records, but you would find it difficult to name any band other than the Beatles who had more of a profound influence on the course of pop music and pop culture than the Ramones. Tommy was their original drummer, and co-produced their two best albums before leaving the drum throne to be a full-time record producer.

One of the advantages of being a latch-key kid was having the ability to do things without parental approval, so long as you didn’t get caught. In June of 1979 I heard that the Ramones were going to be playing a free concert in San Francisco. School was still in, but a feigned stomach ache got me out of that and with my parents off at work I hopped on the AC Transit O bus and made my 12-year old way to the Civic Center and had my very formative mind mashed beyond comprehension by four guys who played like they were going to get the plug pulled on them at any minute. I couldn’t get as close to the stage as I wanted to, but virtually every single performance by every other band I have seen since has been measured against this experience, and most have been found wanting.

In subsequent years I saw the Ramones again several times. Each time there was a different guy playing drums (I could never bring myself to see the post-Dee Dee version of the band, and I never saw Tommy play with them, as he’d left by the time they played that first show I saw in SF) but they were always true to themselves, always fully present and engaged and powerful. As a performer myself I get lost in my head sometimes and forget the lesson the Ramones taught me again and again – play every gig like it’s the last one you will ever play and never leave anything in the tank.

I consider it one of the greatest injustices in the history of pop music that the Ramones did not sell millions of copies of every record they made, because while not all of their records are brilliant, they are all more worthy of a spot in any rock music fan’s record collection than most of the records that have sold millions of copies. At the very least the list of bands who ought to have tithed at least a portion of their earnings to the Ramones is incredibly long.

Rest in peace, Tommy.

 

Thoughts about Ray…

Ray Manzarek: Xs Exene Cervenka, John Doe remember a friend – latimes.com.

I unabashedly love the Doors. Always have. I never connected to most of the music that came out of the Summer of Love. But the first time I heard the Doors I heard something I connected with. I think, even at a young age, I knew that the grit and mystery in their music represented the world a lot more accurately than the music of their peers did.

My Doors fandom is, honestly, what led me to engage with punk and metal later on. The first of the UK punk bands I got into was The Stranglers, who were unabashedly and obviously picking up where the Doors had left off. There was a much, much more direct relationship though between X and the Doors, since Ray Manzarek was directly involved in the creative process that brought us the first four X albums, Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under The Big Black Sun and More Fun In The New World, sitting in the producer’s chair for all four records.

Sitting here in 2013, in a world where punk rock is much more mainstream and accepted than it was in the late 1970s, it probably seems strange to a lot of people that Ray Manzarek, musical leader of a pre-eminent 60s group, would be involved with (pause for dramatic effect) a “punk” band. But what I don’t think people realize is the gap between the world of late 60s rock and punk rock are musical cultures separated by about three or four actual years.

To put this into perspective, these days major artists, like U2 or Green Day, make a new record about once every four years. Until the late 1980s it was much more common for an artist to make a new record every year, so even though the Doors had been dormant since 1973 (Krieger, Densmore and Manzarek kept working together as the Doors for a couple of years after Jim Morrison’s death – and even considered replacing him, with the most well-known candidate for the job being Iggy Pop), Ray Manzarek was still active in the LA music scene at the point when he connected with X. Musically, X certainly had much more in common with the Doors than they did with the biggest hit bands of the mid-70s (ELP, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac).

Personally, I’m so glad the silos that music has been cordoned off into in the past 25 years or so didn’t exist in the mid-70s. If you read the linked article it’s obvious that Ray’s experience was crucial to X getting it right with their first four LPs. He fit in with them well, and his presence in the room made their music better.

Trudging through the swamp…

I’m going to lighten it up here a bit.  Lots of heavy stuff posted in the past few days, and then oddly enough, I look at my site stats and see that one of the most popular posts on this here site is my annual dress-down of the pop charts from 2004.  Hmmm.  Ok, time to rip some people a new one over things that, ultimately, just don’t matter.

Let’s have a look at the top 20 songs from 2012:

#20 – Drake (Featuring L’il Wayne) – The Motto

Well, this starts out well… if you want to spew some hate.  This isn’t even a song.  It’s a drum machine beat with a rudimentary rap over the top.  Seriously?  This is the 20th most popular song of the year?  Things are much worse in the music biz than I could have ever imagined.

#19 – Train – The Drive By

I’m so depressed that this… this, is the first entry by an actual band in the top 20.  Eegads, this is just awful.

#18 – Maroon 5 – One More Night

Ok, suddenly I don’t hate that Train song quite as much.  I am truly baffled as to why the massively auto-tuned Adam Levine is considered such a great singer that he gets to judge other aspiring singers on a TV gameshow about singing.  This song makes me want to punch random strangers in the nuts.

#17 – Flo Rida – Whistle

There are dumber songs than this that have become classics and enduring favorites.  All I can say is that I truly, deeply hope this song isn’t one of those.

#16 - Flo Rida – Good Feeling

Same artist, totally different song.  First song on this list I actually like.  It’s got an interesting groove and when Flo Rida starts rapping it’s got some power to it.  Works as the kind of song they play over the PA at big sporting events.

#15 – Katy Perry – Wide Awake

Ok, so I have a daughter, and she loves Firework, and because she loves it, I’ve grown to love it, and actually gotten to the point where I get misty-eyed whenever I hear it, so I can’t loathe Katy Perry the way I truly want to.  Still, this song is a turd.

#14 – fun – Some Nights

Paul Simon called and he’d like his royalties from Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard.

#13 – LMFAO - I’m Sexy & I Know It

Not #1?  Really?  Hear me out people.  Sure, this is a novelty song, that loses something if it’s not accompanied by the video, but it’s hilarious.  Trust me, this is the song people will remember when they try to think back to 2012.

#12 – Adele – Set Fire To The Rain

Ok, so she can sing, but she’s like the Smiths gone rabid.  I hear her songs and I want to hang myself.

#11 – Flo Rida – Wild Ones

Wow.  Three songs in the top 20 in one year.  I guess it’s official, 2012 was the year of Flo Rida, as far as pop music goes.  Congrats dude.  And no wonder this one is your highest chart position.  It’s your standard macho rapping fused with what sounds like an Adele song.  Makes me want to kill myself to a fresh beat.  Bleah.

#10 – One Direction – What Makes You Beautiful

Kiddie pop.  How do I know?  Because my 7 year old daughter sang this so much I had it committed to memory within weeks after it was released.  The lyrics confuse and disturb me though.  Apparently the thing that makes you most beautiful is that you have no idea that you are.  So, did girls all over the country who have an inkling that they might be beautiful become self-conscious because of this song?  It’s not awful, but I could do without it.

#9 – Nicki Minaj – Starships

This song is just a mess.  Catchy hook, but lyrically confusing and production that makes it seem like they were striving for something epic, and then it just turns into mayhem.

#8 – Rihanna – We Found Love

Lady, you’ve got a terrific voice, but wrapping it in the junk that this song represents is a huge waste of talent.  Anyone, and I mean literally anyone, can make a techno backing track that sounds like this.  Heck, GarageBand has pre-built junk that sounds more imaginative than this generic crap.  Find a songwriter to create actual music for you and your voice.

#7 – Kelly Clarkson – Stronger

This song is a great example of everything that’s wrong with the modern music business.  The melody of the song’s chorus is indistinguishable from a commercial jingle.  I feel like this was written to be in the background of a tampon ad.  Kelly’s another singer with a great voice who really needs to find better producers and real songwriters to pen songs for her to sing.  This is just crap.

#6 – The Wanted – Glad You Came

I’d be surprised if you came if you did it with these boys.  Seriously, this is just a horrible, horrible pseudo latin song that should be quickly forgotten.

#5 – Ellie Goulding – Lights

The first time I encountered this song was in a dance club and I was mesmerized by the music video that was on the screens around the room.  Not because it was particularly good, but because it was so amateurish.  I know people who have spent piles of money and effort to make videos that were miles beyond this one.  But OK, so it’s about the song, the the video, right.  So what the hell, man?  This song sounds like it dropped in out of 1982.  It’s all keyboard pads and stiff drum machine beats.  This is just weird.

#4 – Maroon 5 – Payphone

It’s Captain Auto-Tune again.  With a song about a technological anachronism.  Payphone?  Really?  What a maroon.

#3 – fun – We Are Young

Then why does this song sound so old and tired?  I sense a trend in the music of 2012 – it’s dismal.

#2 – Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe

If you ignore how utterly ubiquitous this song was for so much of the year, it’s actually a pretty nifty little pop song.  And here’s the thing – in a year in which non-depressing songs were scarce, hurray for the blithely positive little tune.

#1 – Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know

First time I heard this, I thought it was a Police song, recorded in 1983 but unreleased until now.  Fascinating that quirky pop like this can still resonate with so many people.

So, there you have it.  the 20 most popular songs of 2012.  Let’s hope 2013 brings more fun and less dire pop.

 

 

Baby steps…

Taking baby steps back into the fold here. I sent this to a dear friend earlier today:


5 things that signal to people that your band sucks and you are a clueless douche:

  1. 1) You wear Hawaiian shirts on stage

  2. 2) You hang a banner with your band name & logo on it behind the drummer.

  3. 3) Your lead vocalist is the drummer.

  4. 4) Your press photos were taken in front of a brick wall, on or near train tracks or in a public restroom.

  5. 5) Someone in the band plays a Keytar.


What precipitated this wave of hate was a photo he posted of his band taken in front of a brick wall.

The last band who got to do this and get away with it was The Ramones. They sort of made it their trademark for a while. And it was novel and interesting in 1976. Same with Cheap Trick posing in a public restroom for the cover of their Heaven Tonight LP (which they had originally intended to call American Standard.

I’m not sure who first had the idea to do press photos of their band on railroad tracks, but I’m sure it’s of similar vintage. If I were to add something to the press photo rule it would be to ban all sad and dreary photos of bands standing in the snow or next to lonely trees in wasteland-like settings. U2 took all the energy out of that particular image decades ago.

I’ve repeated these rules to people dozens of times. I’ve even had to explain them to my own bands from time to time. The ones people seem to have the hardest time with are the Hawaiian shirt + musician = suck rule and the no banners rule. Lots of guys have about as much fashion sense as a deranged poodle, so not understanding that wearing a Hawaiian shirt makes you look like a tool when you’re playing an instrument is, I suppose, understandable. I simply do not get the appeal of a banner.

Sure, you want people to know who you are, on the off chance they like you and want to come see you again. It helps them remember who they liked. Of course, so does talking to the audience between songs and repeatedly saying your name, which is inherently more friendly, and mostly won’t make you look like a douche nozzle. A banner, however, can be hung crooked, hung sloppily and just plain be designed poorly. It also makes one think of being at a trade show, and that’s not a feeling you want to stir in the hearts of your audience… ever.

Having the lead singer also be the drummer is somewhat more complex.  Pop music history is littered with bands who have been massively successful with the dread singing drummer. Genesis, The Eagles, The Romantics, to name a few. The thing is, two of these three bands knew it was a bad idea, so when their drummer was singing they hired someone else to play the drums so he could stand out front, where the singer belongs. The Romantics didn’t get this clue, and thus got consigned to the cut-out bin with the rest of the one-hit-wonders. No one wants to watch your drummer sing.

Lady Gaga has recently severely messed up the obvious uncoolness of the Keytar. For those of you who need to be reminded of how icky one of these things is, I suggest you Google Jan Hammer or Jonathan Cain.

Top 5 from the future…

I used to clutter up this space at the end of every year with a smart-allecky list of the top records of the year, followed by feeble attempts to find a witty way to say “I have no idea who any of these artists are, but they all suck.  Now get off my lawn ya darned kids before I fill yer britches with rock salt.”  I gave that up a couple of years ago, mainly because it was depressing me to feel so disconnected from youth culture and so obviously middle-aged and bitter about it.


Don’t get me wrong.  Being middle-aged and bitter can be very entertaining.  But I think I’d sort of shot my wad on that schtick.  Personally, I like [tag]Patton Oswalt[/tag]’s approach – write a list of the best things you think are coming in the new year.  Here’s his list of music we can all look forward to in 2009:


ALBUMS


I Also Fingered a Girl in a Kiddie Pool of Wesson Oil
[tag]Katy Perry[/tag]
In another collection of songs written for her by the editors of MAXIM Magazine, Katy Perry tries to stretch five minutes of titillation into a careers-worth of relevancy.


Night Grooves
[tag]Fugazi[/tag]
[tag]Ian McKaye[/tag] shocked his fans with this catchy, can’t-stay-in-your-seat collection of dance tunes.   Includes “Shimming the Beat”, “Dew-It Witchu” and “Positive Power Slide”


Gimme Dat
2-Fly
The Wyoming rap corridor finally found its Dr. Dre.


Go Get ‘Em, President Smokey
[tag]Toby Keith[/tag]
Toby’s misguided tribute to our new incoming president effectively ended his career, but what a way to go!


A Very Metal Arbor Day
[tag]Mastodon[/tag], [tag]Anthrax[/tag] and 13 other bands remind everyone to plant a tree and worship Satan.


Nice.


Patton, you’re an evil man.  Please come over to my house for dinner.  I’ll make steak.


I particularly like his skewering of Katy Perry.   Her hit from last year had all the depth of a latrine dug by a parapalegic [tag]Boy Scout[/tag].  The funny thing is there was a feature story on the wires last week about how shock Katy Perry’s new video featured her making out with a guy.  When she moves to [tag]Tijuana[/tag] after she’s blown her royalties on hot pants and eyeliner she’ll make a new video about kissing an [tag]equus asinus[/tag].


Speaking of Jackasses – if only Toby Keith’s demise in the public eye could be so poetic and appropriate.


Seriously Patton.  Call me.  Steak’s on me.