Tag: Rock Music

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 959: Day Two Of Peace & Music

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Said I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock & roll band.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

 

Somewhere amid the cultural symbolism and the anthemic declarations of a generation’s identity lies the actual music performed at the Woodstock festival. Contrasting that weekend with the tighter and more disciplined Monterey Pop Festival from two years earlier reveals an evolution in rock culture: the glittering aftermath of psychedelia, the re-blossoming of foundational blues and folk through rock-tinted lenses, and the collective embrace of instrumental mastery.

The Who sent jaws dropping to the dusty floor in ’67 when Pete Townsend assaulted his guitar into pieces; at Woodstock they were neck-deep in exploring the possibility of rock-opera. The Jefferson Airplane soared on the strength of their early hits at Monterey; two years later their music was more introspective and demure. Soul music, which had tickled the Monterey crowd to the tune of Otis Redding, Lou Rawls and Booker T. & The MG’s, had rocketed into the realm of cosmic funk by 1969, with Sly & The Family Stone representing. And Janis… well she was just Janis. No higher compliment could be given.

Some of the Woodstock performances were iconic. Others were merely adequate. Then there was Sha Na Na, which fit into the vibe of the festival like a can of tuna fits onto a dessert cart. But the music is unquestionably the skeleton that gives the experience its historic form and structure.

Just imagine what could have been.

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A number of acts were either rumored or invited, but never made the bill. Bob Dylan, the poet-rebel of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier, was the most logical invitee. He lived near Bethel in the actual town of Woodstock, but he’d already committed to the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of the month. Shiny new superstars Led Zeppelin were selected, but promoter Frank Barsalona didn’t want his band to be just another name on the bill. The Doors figured it would be a second-rate Monterey Pop so they turned it down, an act that guitarist Robby Krieger claimed they later regretted. Read more…

Day 936: Number One With An Irreverent Bullet

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Here’s the part where the guy twitching in the hungry crosshairs of 40 tells you how the music topping the charts these days won’t inspire so much as a quiver of his trigger finger. But really, who cares? The purveyors of popular song have no interest in capturing my iTunes money. Just as my parents wondered desperately who on earth would want anyone to Rock Them Amadeus, I can’t fathom why Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, a piece of simplistic monotony with a Clueless rip-off video, spent a month this summer at #1.

Ever since the end of the halcyon days of 80’s pop, the soundtrack that flipped the pages of my childhood, I have paid scant attention to the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While MC Hammer’s parachute pants flapped in the raucous wind of his success, my high school friends and I were discovering the mystical quests within the grooves of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records. So I guess I haven’t been hip in about twenty-five years. I’m okay with that.

I’d always been a trifle suspicious of this chart anyway. What is it counting? Sales? Radio airplay? Likelihood of ending up as a parody on Weird Al’s next album? There is actually some math to this madness, and it’s far too complex for my mid-week brain to tabulate without a nap under its belt. But I’ll do my best.

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For almost two decades prior to the Hot 100’s debut in the pages of Billboard (yes kids, Billboard was and is an actual magazine. A magazine is kind of like Buzzfeed.com made out of trees), the chart tabulators kept track of three separate stats: the best-sellers, the songs most played by disc jockeys and the songs most played in jukeboxes. That last one was key, as a disgraceful clump of radio stations were refusing to play rock ‘n roll in the mid-1950’s. Billboard had to track what was big with the kids. Read more…

Day 930: The Other Foo Fighters

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I admit it, I frequently dip into the tart, opaque candy bowl of skepticism, filled with lemon drops of doubt and sour-chews of crotchety fact-checking. That said, I like my sour sweets to end with an upbeat aftertaste, a smidgen of optimism that my aforementioned leeriness will be heartily disproven. Deep down, I don’t believe in the hibber-jabber of ghosts, of karmic energy tallies or Earth-snooping alien life, but even deeper down, I kind of hope I’m wrong.

If this miasma of rambling self-reflection seems like a hopelessly clunky introduction to a kilograph on one of the greatest rock bands of the past two decades… well, it would be. But while the caliber of Dave Grohl’s rocktastic ass-kickery certainly merits a lengthy diatribe of praise (hell, I could do a thousand words on nothing more than the rib-clenching, cerebrospinal-throttling bridge of “Monkey Wrench”), that’s not what today is about.

Today we look at the original foo fighters: no foot-swiveling grooves, no cinematic videos and no capital ‘F’s. These foo fighters transport us back in time, into the goose-feather fury of the second World War, then up into a nebulous sky filled with illusionary aberrations – gravelly bumps in the smooth road of logic and comprehensible reason.

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The word ‘foo’ was a popular nonsense word of the 1930’s, much like any of Doctor Seuss’s whimsical wordage or much of what you’ll hear on Fox News today (hey! A topical joke! Three points for me!). It grew from the work of popular Chicagoan cartoonist Bill Holman and his Chicago Tribune strip known as Smokey Stover. Foo was an anarchic dalliance into the lexicon of imagination. It functioned as a noun, an adjective, and a G-rated exclamation of disbelief. Did it morph into the 1940’s-era military term FUBAR? Perhaps. But it certainly held ground in the American military landscape at that time. Read more…

Day 916: I’m About To Lose My Worried Mind – Led Zep 4Ever

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With practically the entirety of recorded music’s history available at the touch of a trackpad, it’s hard to find a lot of common ground among the masses. Back in the sepiatone days when I was in high school, there was certainly a cultural splintering effect afoot – some grooved to Hammer-time, others nodded angrily and forcefully to Nirvana, while still others begged C+C Music Factory to make them sweat upon a hormone-clogged dance floor – but there remained some sacred touchstones.

For whatever reason – and I pray a sociological study will one day uncover the mystery behind this collective madness – the girls in my high school were united under the secret thrill of ABBA. The boys, however discreetly some of them held back their own cravings for retro Swedish vocal-pop, united under an unwavering commitment to one of the greatest rock bands in ear-thumping history: Led Zeppelin.

Most of us had bands we liked more. For me, there was always the Beatles, while my other friends leaned toward Pink Floyd, Roxette or Extreme (yes, Josh, I’m talking about you). But we all sang along when Robert Plant belted out the first “Hey hey, mama” of their conspicuously untitled fourth album. Today Zep nets a kilograph, if for no other reason than as a thank you for the respite they provided after five straight listens of “More Than Words.”

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The group’s origin story funnels straight back to this guy, one of the most awe-inspiring yet least well-known (among today’s younger rock-lovers) guitar gods of the 1960’s. Jeff Beck had joined up with the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton had left the group in frustration. Now Jeff was feeling the pull of sweet freedom, and his frustration led him to record his own thing, away from the rest of the group. He invited his buddy (and future Yardbirdian) Jimmy Page to play guitar. Read more…

Day 887: Disco Inferno In The Heart of Chicago

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Unite a crowd of people under the frumpy awning of hate and it’s not hard for things to shimmy out of control. Provide those same people with a river of cheap beer and a charismatic leader to stoke their ire and you’d best check that you’re insured against a savage pandemonium. When the promotions team for the unimpressive 1979 Chicago White Sox were looking for ways to beef up fan attendance and amuse their loyal ticket-buyers with something that could counterbalance the Sox’s pitifully mediocre season, they’d have been wise to heed this advice.

Mike Veeck, the promotions director and son of team owner Bill Veeck (hooray for nepotism!), was determined to bring some fun into the stadium, maybe by catering to local music fans; Disco Night back in 1977 had been a huge hit. When Veeck heard that local loudmouth DJ Steve Dahl was thinking of blowing up a huge stack of disco records at a local shopping mall, the gimmick seemed somehow perfect to entertain the kids in the cheap seats at Comiskey Park.

And so was born Disco Demolition Night, a convoluted cocktail of bad ideas and pitiful execution. Anyone who brought a disco record to be blasted at the park was admitted to the July 12 doubleheader for 98 cents (Steve Dahl’s radio station broadcast on the 97.9 frequency, so this made sense). In between games, the batch of disco records would be hauled out to centerfield and blown apart in a ceremonious hurrah. Then, everyone could have a good laugh and settle back into their seats for the second game.

Yeah, right.

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Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl had been fired from WDAI on Christmas Eve, 1978, when the station abandoned rock for the hugely successful disco format. He had a reason to hate the genre. Hired right away by rival station WLUP, which was still very committed to the thumping thrusts of top-notch rock music, Dahl proceeded to become Chicago’s preeminent anti-disco crusader. He rallied his fans into a mock-army known as the Insane Coho Lips, “dedicated to the eradication of the dread musical disease known as DISCO.” Read more…

Day 862: Uoy Tpurroc Ot Sdrow Dnasuoht A

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I was fifteen years old when my dad utilized his extensive technological prowess to produce a cassette recording for me of all the Beatles’ so-called backward messages. By “prowess” I mean he played a reel-to-reel tape backwards. It wasn’t tricky.

Playing music backwards is a phenomenon that has existed since the advent of recorded music. Occultist and all-around weird cat Aleister Crowley  suggested in 1913 that anyone who was wishing to become fluent in the language of magic should listen to phonograph records backwards in order to train their brains. The realm of avant-garde music has experimented with backwards music for decades. But apart from the occasional squonked-brain traipse through the Beatles “Revolution 9” (forward or backward – there’s very little difference), I don’t care much for the avant-garde.

Luckily, the more ear-friendly genres under the canopy of rock music have toyed with stashing backwards lyrics – known as backmasking – within the folds of some well-known songs. Sometimes it’s done as a joke, and other times it’s because rock musicians are clearly in league with Satan and have devised a way to plant subliminal backwards messages in their music in order to corrupt our children and get them to take up smoking. Or something.

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One evening whilst under the strictly medicinal effects of marijuana, John Lennon accidentally played the vocal track for “Rain”, his band’s new single, backwards. He loved the effect, and within a few short months the track was released with a snippet of lyrics at the end played backwards, sounding a little like John had picked up a foreign language during Ringo’s extended drum fill. Their accompanying album, Revolver, featured two backwards guitar solos, but it was the vocal message that really weirded people out. Read more…

Day 811: Sympathy For The Sixties

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Growing up as I did amid hippie anthems, psychedelic living room lighting fixtures and the notorious sweet smell of those skinny little cigarettes my parents would pass back and forth, it was easy to romanticize the Woodstock culture. When I attended high school, anti-war activism (to boot Iraq out of Kuwait) was non-existent and youth culture involved acting intentionally mopey and disenfranchised or memorizing the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby”. Those kids in 1969 were grooving to great music, they were smiling and enjoying the sun, and they were having promiscuous sex without fear of a deadly organ-murdering virus.

I understand now that framing that era is simplistic and one-dimensional, and I’d overlooked the racial violence, the gender inequity, the generational disconnect and the very real fear that many Americans faced at being shipped off to die in Vietnam. Also, from what I hear the weed wasn’t very good. Woodstock – and I watched the film a few times as a teenager – appeared to be the glittering diamond between the proudly stretched arms of the Peace ‘n Love generation. And Altamont was the axe that knocked the entire thing to the ground.

Another simplification, and it pains me to know that this rich and inarguably fascinating period in our history is going to be butchered by hazy summations and inaccurate conclusions the further we move away from it. The Altamont concert was not the “end of 60’s youth culture” or the “death of ideology”. It was a catastrophic blunder fuelled by poor decisions and lousy planning. Woodstock was a fluke, in that things went well after a disastrous build-up. Altamont was reality.

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Less than four months after Woodstock, concert organizers were looking for a sequel. This was prior to the age of corporate-sponsored gigs, when there was no slick industry in place to monetize the counterculture. This is why a free concert was the plan – Woodstock had been free (not by the promoters’ choice, but that’s another story), so why not simulate that vibe on the west coast?

The Rolling Stones were slogging through a successful (though many felt overpriced) tour of the States, and landing in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for a huge free show with a killer roster of opening acts seemed like a great way to finish the tour. They worked alongside members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to make it happen. Read more…

Day 772: Shock & Roll

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These days it seems that if a musical artist wishes to ‘shock’ their audience they either have to piss in a hotel mop bucket or declare themselves to be a genius whilst naming their offspring after a compass direction. Where are the ornithological decapitations? The pseudo-sanguine fluid cascading from a bass player’s chin stubble? How can it be that today’s demographic of millennial youth have tamer, less interesting incarnations of shock within their musical landscape? I know, on the fringes of fame that gaggle of Juggalos continues to stoke the presupposition that clowns are inherently scary. And misogyny is alive and well in what’s left of the world of gangsta rap.

But so what? My generation sang of big butts and their prodigious appreciators. Color Me Badd wanted to sex us up. And our rock stars didn’t put on makeup and dress like some clown school dropout who has made some bad choices. No, they went and got intimate with the ugly end of a shotgun. The makeup thing had already been done to death by the time I was a teenager.

Ever since the birth of rock there has been shock. Parents have turned a furrowed scowl at their children’s godless music, and enterprising musicians have sought to ingratiate themselves to the masses of youth by offering more godlessness and weirdness, even if it was just for show.

Godlessness sells, baby.

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That scary guy with the skull is the great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In the 1950’s, when the older generation was still scared of the seductive power of rock ‘n roll (and let’s face it, they were still scared of black people), Screamin’ Jay was the show kids probably shouldn’t have gone to with their parents. After his manically glorious 1956 song “I Put A Spell On You” became a hit, disc jockey Alan Freed paid Jay three hundred bucks to pop out of a coffin onstage. This gave Screamin’ Jay the inspiration to take it even further. Read more…

Day 473 – The Big Box O’ Juke – 90s Edition

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Once again it’s time to twist that volume knob all the way to the right, wrap yourself in your favorite flannel shirt, bring your old Tamagotchi back to life, and ease into the latest batch of vintage tuneage from the Big Box ‘O Juke. Today we’re dipping into the music of the 1990’s, a decade that brought us mainstream music we called “alternative”, the death of so many record stores who sold actual records, and the birth of the mighty mp3.

The 90’s was the end of populist popular music. Where once a band like the Scorpions could share the same top-ten audience as Cyndi Lauper, now listeners were becoming more fragmented. Rock music hit a wall it still has yet to climb over – apart from a handful of trends (like the forgettable rap-rock phase), guitar-based rock, or at least the stuff that hit the radio, simply stopped growing.

Pop music became computer-based, and the best stuff was wading through an increasingly deeper pool of pap and fluff. But it was still out there. Depending on your tastes, this may or may not be a sampling of some of it.

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I don’t think it’s a shameful confession, but I was never really a fan of Meat Loaf. Nothing against the guy, but his sense of musical-theatre-rock drama just never hit me in my groovocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories of the funky licks that get one’s boogie on. His song “I’ll Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was a monster hit for him in ’93, the first single off that Bat Out Of Hell II album I had to play ad nauseum when I worked at MusicWorld. Read more…