Blog on the Tracks
This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I offered readers the chance to Right This Blog! Sue Egypt wanted to talk about Jimi Hendrix. Said we needed to talk about Jimi Hendrix. So take it away Sue Egypt.
I'm not actually going to discuss misconceptions about Jimi Hendrix, because that's a 5000 word essay right there (and needs someone who actually knows stuff). This is more about his legacy - has it been a good thing or bad thing for pop music?
This was partly kicked off by S. Sweetman's blog "The best guitarist in the world" (07/08/15). Because this was frankly, a shocker - especially the subsequent comments. I think it's fair to say it was not this blog's finest moment. Gary Moore, Neal Schon, Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Johnson, Mark Knopfler are just some of the names chucked around.
There was talk of 'chops' and 'shredding'. Even talk of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani (I actually can't dislike these two - they're sort of the Donald Trumps of hero guitar - you sense that at heart they know their shtick is absurd and pointless). But this was like a list put together by 13 year boys. It bowed to all the clichés of the sainted guitar hero - the magic romantic (in an 18th Century sense) shaman sexgod bluesMAN approach to guitar that I thought had disappeared in the flood. I actually went and listened to Eric Johnson because I hadn't heard of him - I will never get that time back (and now you don't need to). There were some interesting suggestions to be fair, like Bo Diddley and Hank Marvin. (To be annoying I've included a list 'The Only 16 (Electric) Guitarists that Really Matter' at the end.)
This week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I once again offered the chance to Right This Blog! So we start the week with our "wild card" Mark Twang. Thanks Mark.
I'm not a big fan of The Eagles but there are a few of their songs I quite like. I'd say my favourite is New Kid In Town. Quite a nice understated arrangement. Nice chords, nice vocals and some tasteful guitar and piano. A bit like something The Band might have done in one of their more laidback moments. But around three minutes and forty seconds something else happens. The song transforms into layers of vocals repeating a few phrases with a few variations here and there - and this all carries on for another ninety seconds - all oohs and aahs. By now I'm reaching for the fast-forward button. Everything I liked about the song is a distant memory. Why? Why did they have to do that?
That song is credited to Henley, Frey and Souther. I have no idea what input the various writers had or what they were hearing when they wrote it but for me that song ended at 3:40 - everything after that is just studio fluff. It's like someone decided this song is too short. "It needs to be at least five minutes long!" I call this the "Hey Jude" syndrome. The need to take a good song and make it bigger. A whole bunch of singer/songwriters got this treatment back in the 70s - Neil Diamond, Albert Hammond, Glenn Campbell. Love them or loath them these guys did have some great songs, but someone, either the guy in the sound booth, or some accountant upstairs, decided that these songs needed improving. Smother them with strings and backing singers and the punters will lap it up.
There is a slight variation on this crime - and I have a name for this too - the "Dire Straits" syndrome. Now Mark Knopfler is a great songwriter and on his best recordings he takes great care to make sure it's the song that shines. More often than not his guitar playing takes second place. But live, at least in the 80s shows I saw, every song gets turned into a bombastic piece of stadium rock. They play a couple of verses, then they take it down, then they take it up - on every song. What makes each song unique is lost. Perhaps that's the way people like their stadium rock. It has a place I guess but at the end of the day they may as well be playing some old 12-bar.
So what I'm trying to get at is that a song is a song. A well written song has its own structure and architecture and the melody and words will carry it through. It doesn't need flashy vocals but a competent singer helps. There may be a solo (not too long) to add some colour and the dreaded middle eight may make an appearance - probably three quarters of the way through. So who decides on how all this will hang together? When does it stop being a song and start being a recording? A talented band may work on an arrangement for a song and then perhaps a producer might suggest a different bass and drum pattern. Perhaps the producer will want to add strings and oohs and aahs at the end. It's that "adding" bit that really annoys me. The morphing of the song into something else.
GUEST BLOGGER, DARRYL
Today, and next week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I asked readers to Right This Blog! (And if you hadn't caught up already, I announced the winners earlier this week - their copy in). But we have to start somewhere. So we start today, with Darryl and his post is about good albums with bad cover artwork. Thank you Darryl...
After postulating the idea of bad album art as an idea for a blog post I then wondered if it might be a redundant topic given the current forms of music consumption. Cover art has been atrophied down a digital black hole, withering from substantial physical forms to a few hundred pixels on iTunes or Spotify. Does anyone care? Is the art of the album sleeve as dead as most musicians' royalty streams? Is anyone making an effort to produce challenging cover art when their canvas is so diminished?
I recently read the 33 1/3 Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kirk Walker Graves. It read more like an analysis of a major historical figure than a paean to a beloved album. The author spent a sizeable chunk of one chapter discussing the cover art for the album, its relationship to Mr. West's previous works, and it's relevance to his public persona. West's grumpy pan is scatter-gunned all over the media landscape, and that's no fun for anyone. The internet and the trash blown ghetto of the tabloid press present an endless river of musicians and other celebrities doing their best to break the narcissism meter.
The profligate media is something of a reversal of fortune when compared to my early record (wax kids!) buying experiences. All I knew were the mysteries the album cover showed me and the glimpses offered by publications like Rip It Up, NME or Melody Maker. We handled albums with a reverence that correlated to their expense and delicacy but also to their significance as a substantive cultural event that was ours alone. My parents were unlikely to understand or care for Fire Dances by Killing Joke which was as it should be. This imbued the experience of owning and playing those albums with a sense of separation from my parents generation. It also split us into tribes and the sleeve of an album was one of the signifiers of those allegiances.
The range of imagination or lack thereof in the arena of album art is truly as diverse as the music they are designed to contain. Music packaging has a rich history, most of which I'm not prepared to tackle. For the purposes of this blog, we will stick to 1960 to the present day. Marketing departments exist to sell a product. Musicians, photographers and designers have often thwarted that ambition with their influence over the image of an album. Some covers are downright lazy or cobbled together afterthoughts. Others appear to be drug-fuelled follies, or are concepts so overwrought in detail and execution that they get in the way of the intent of the record itself.
The best music book I've read in a while is Stuart Coupe's biography of Michael Gudinski ("Gudinski - The Godfather of Australian Rock'n'Roll"). Gudinski is a larger-than-life figure who has dominated the scene across the last 40 years - starting off with big ambitions and realising them, across band management, international touring, publishing, promotion, even film production.
Stuart Coupe is a veteran Aussie rock scribe. He's been involved in record companies and artistmanagement too - he's done the PR-thing and carried off face-to-face interviews with most of the big names in the biz - Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, you name it...
Recently I was in Australia for a quick trip visiting family and friends. I timed my visit perfectly (finishing the book on the plane) so that I could meet up with Stuart in full book-promotion/interview mode. We sat in his writing office for a couple of hours, a memorabilia hall of sorts, piles of books and records and CDs. As we talked I kept scanning the room - a concert ticket on the wall here, poster over there, signed Leonard Cohen LP on display, a signed Iggy Pop one too.
A life in music. A life dedicated to music.
Stuart was the perfect person to write about Gudinski - because writing about Gudinski is a story about Australian (and New Zealand) music. It's about so many great bands across the seventies and eighties: Skyhooks, Cold Chisel, Paul Kelly, Split Enz, The Swingers, Hunters and Collectors...it's a story about power and ambition, greed, muscle, money and might. But it's a story - through all of that - about passion. And Coupe was there. He's met Michael along the way at various points - and this pops up in the story.
Those four studio albums by The Velvet Underground all made a huge impact on me. But the sentimental favourite is Loaded - it was the very first CD I purchased. I was a tape buyer, right through until the early-1990s, I wasn't going to give up that tape collection...I had a tape-deck in my car and a tape-player in my bedroom, there was one as part of the family stereo in the lounge too. I was happy. My father had to convince me that I needed to move to the new medium. So sometime around 1992/3 I bought my very first CD. And I chose Loaded.
At that stage I really only knew The Velvet Underground via compilations and I was starting to hear covers. I was a Lou Reed fan, had plenty of his albums, but this was back when I lived in the wee country town, back when a weekly - or monthly - trip to the music store mean taking in all that they had in the racks and sometimes (nervously) asking if it was possible to "order" something. A special order could take months.
I bought Loaded - the first Velvet Underground album I ever saw on a rack in a shop when I was on holiday in Mt Maunganui. Cue the cliché of hearing a life-changing/monumental album. Until I first sat down with Loaded all I knew was Sweet Jane and Rock'n'Roll and I knew them primarily via Lou Reed live-concert versions. I had heard the VU versions, but they seemed like afterthoughts at that point.
As soon as I heard the album every song was a new favourite - that clean Beatles/Byrds/Beach Boys-like charm to the opener, Who Loves The Sun, the unplanned, unknowing antecedents for alt-country such as New Age and Train Round The Bend and the majestic closer, Oh! Sweet Nuthin' - even the doo-wop influenced I Found A Reason would seem, now, like alt-country was always something that was waiting to happen rather than simply something dreamed up in marketing as a way to get people buying country/fringe-indie...
I love those first three Velvet Underground albums - and most days I figure it's (nearly) equal but Loaded is always the one I feel like listening to above the other VU albums (the next best is the collection of off-cuts and leftovers, VU). Loaded is always the one with the (very) special connection; I'm transported back to that time, that summer of discovering CDs, of taking the plunge, of starting a collection, which started me wanting to write about music, and document my collection, which started me working in music stores, which started me obsessing over the physical product, of studying collections in anyone else's house - I'd visit and spend the first 15 minutes staring at any CD-racks or piles of LPs. (I still do this if there are still albums in a person's house; I'd never ask to scan their hard-drive...does anyone do that?)
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