You say you wanna revolution

I had a funny thought the other day.  Image you were a twenty year old in Turn-of-the-Century Russia.  You were at the peak of that time in your life when you see everything that’s wrong in the world and you want to change it.  You’re living under and oppressive Emperor who opposes democratic change and cares nothing for his own wealth.  You know what’s really sad?  Unless you were blessed with an extremely long life, that was a good as life was ever going to get for you.

I’ve never been a fan of this song.  It’s just too long.

But it does have a great line

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The song is a pessimistic view of violent revolution that came out at a time in history where there was a loud minority in the USA proposing such a step.  My only problem with the MTNBSATOB* line is that it doesn’t go far enough.  In lots of places, if your new boss was no worse than the old boss, you got off easy.

Being a part of the punk rock scene for a couple decades now, I’ve heard plenty of people claim that a leftist revolution is that solution to our problems.  A leftist revolution in the USA is highly implausible.  Also highly implausible is the revolution that certain right-wing extremists call for.

But let’s say for a second that one of these were possible. Would it be advisable?  Say there were tens of millions of armed, mohawked vegan punx out there ready to Smash the State and start over with something, would violent revolution be a route to consider?

The long answer:

The short answer:

I’d love to see the plan!  Please put it in writing and I’ll be glad to forward it to the FBI.  For real, I’m snitchin’ on you. 

No, hell no, I don’t want to smash the state.  I don’t want to overthrow the government and replace it with one that follows the exact letter of the Constitution.  I don’t want to devolve power into self-governing units of voluntary associations.  I don’t want to abolish private property.

At most I want to make a few tweaks.  There’s no need for a revolution for that.

Like I said, I’ve spent years considering my thoughts on this, and I’ve read up on the Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Mexican and several African revolutions.  I’ve read about many of the resulting dictatorships.  I have a BA in Classical Studies, so I don’t want anyone to think is my field- it’s not.  Just something I’m interested in.  So take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

War of Independence vs Revolution

People who want to overthrow the government like to claim that the government is illegitimate, or better yet, foreign.  Because the most difficult problem for revolutionaries is dealing with all the people who supported the previous government.

The government that you want to overthrow may or may not have been elected, but it’s a simple fact that governments can’t exist without some degree of consent of the governed.  That doesn’t mean it’s tremendously popular, it may mean nothing more than the fact that people are resigned to the devil they know.  They might not like it if you just up and replace it with something they don’t know.  Or they may like the general direction of the government, but they don’t think it goes far enough in the direction it’s going.  Or maybe only 30% like the government, but those people really love it and will be very angry if you destroy it.  At any rate, lots of people aren’t going to be happy with rapid change.

So what does a revolutionary do with those people?  Here’s where the difference between a violent and non-violent (or mostly non-violent) revolutionary becomes important.  The Fidel Castro or the Mao Zedong has already shown that he can shoot his countrymen for his cause.  He’ll have to protect the revolution’s gains.  If he has to shoot some more people he will.  That’s not a good way to start out.

Also, there’s the problem of defining goals.  If the goal is “throw the other country out”, that’s not hard to define.  You make it tough enough, they’ll leave.  If the goal is to overthrow this dictator who took power through extra-legal means and hold elections, that’s harder, because like it or not, some people did support that guy.  If the goal is upend the whole social order and create something totally different… how do you know when you’ve reached that goal?

That’s if the revolution succeeds.  If you cause too much trouble, the population can turn against you and pick someone even worse than the guy you started fighting against to lead them.  That’s not good either.

 Is it really that bad?

Because it could get worse.

If it’s that bad…

Say you’re in Stalin’s USSR.  How much worse could it get?  Probably not much, right?  But on a personal level, it could get a lot worse for you.  And more importantly, it could get a lot worse for everyone who joins your rebel squad so you’re going to get few takers.  And among those who do join your crew, there are going to be at least a few that are excited to sell you out and send you off to Room 101 to be eaten alive by rats.  Good luck getting that revolution going.

The lesson I take away from places like China, Russia, North Korea and Cuba is that once a totalitarian regime gets in power, they’re going to hold it for as long as they feel like.  If the elites decide that holding power isn’t worth ruling over an economic basket case, they might be like China and change course.  Or maybe some foreign power will swoop in and take the guy out.  But the worst dictatorships rarely face existential threats from within.  People have grown into old age in North Korea, waiting for the Kim regime to end.  With Kim Jong Un being a mere 31 years old, and giving no indication that he’s going to be anything different than his father and grandfather, we might be talking several generations that live and die there.

Of course North Korea is maybe a bad example since North Korea’s dictatorship was mostly just installed by the Soviet Union.  Or maybe it’s not, because that takes us all the way back to that young man in turn-of-the-century Russia who was joining up to overthrow the Emperor.  Thanks a lot buddy.

 

*Trying to start a meme here

The Tempo of DOOM

One of the most interesting insights (in fact the only one I remember) from the History of African American Music course that I took in college had to do with the evolution of reggae and it had to do with the tempo.

For some reason, probably because I’d seen a similar evolution in punk and heavy metal, I always assumed that reggae, being slower, was first and that ska was a later, faster invention.  That was backwards.  Ska music was based on early rock and roll and R & B.

You can hear it in the rhythm they’re playing- standard R & B rhythm and progression.

Part of why ska sounds so upbeat was that it was an upbeat time- Jamaica achieved independence from the UK in 1962.  Anything was possible.

But reality didn’t meet expectations.  And as life in Jamaica didn’t improve, people became disillusioned.  The music got darker, heavier, slower.  Musicians grew dreadlocks and started to smoke lots of weed.

Again, this was sort of the opposite of punk, which became faster and harder.  And heavy metal, which went from

To

Heavy metal got angrier.  Faster.

But this also illustrates that there is, what I am going to call a Tempo of Doom.  Black Sabbath is trying to convey dread, misery.  Fear.  Their early music was scary.  Gloomy.

I just bring this up because I’m seeing a similar thing going on in Hip-Hop right now.  I’ve seen people argue that Trap and Drill aren’t rap.  I’ll leave that to someone else to argue.  At any rate, they’re part of Hip-Hop.

One thing I like about Hip-Hop is that it has never really Balkanized to the same degree Rock and Roll did.  It’s the internet so I’m sure somebody disagrees with me, but artists are able to produce songs in a variety of styles and audiences don’t generally get all that upset.  Anyhoo, here’s some Drill:

Here’s some Trap

Kind of looks like they’re taking a page out of reggae’s book, right?  They’re even sporting dreadlocks.

I didn’t have anything particularly profound to say with this post, just that I noticed something I thought was interesting.

Ranking albums by how many songs off of them I can play

I had a funny idea today.  It’s kind of high concept but it’s the title of this post.  If I really like a song I want to learn to sing and play it myself, assuming it’s not too hard.  So I spent the afternoon trying to think of all the albums I listened to that made me want to learn the songs.  I figured it might be give me some idea of what a good album is.  And just for fun I tried to rank them based on how many songs I know and how often I usually play those songs.

5.  The Stooges Fun House

Songs from this album I can play:

Loose, TV Eye, 1970 (I Feel Alright)

In terms of total percentage of songs on an album I can play, this is probably the most.  Mainly because there are only seven songs on it- six if you’re like me and don’t consider LA Blues a song.  These are all just ones that are fun to break out in practice because most rockers know them.  I’ve performed TV Eye and 1970 live before, but probably wouldn’t again.  A little too old for that.  I’m just not that intense a performer anymore.

4.  The Beatles Beatles for Sale

Songs from this album I can play:

Baby’s in Black, Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby, Kansas City/Hey! Hey! Hey!

This is just kind of an odd one that happens to have songs that are easy and two of these  aren’t even by the Beatles, but they introduced me to the songs, so it made the list.  Not even close to my favorite Beatles album.  Baby’s in Black is probably my favorite one to play, just because it’s a simple melody and kind of country-ish, so I sing it to myself.  I’ve actually played Kansas City live as part of a different medley, a long time ago.  I can’t remember what I played with it.

3.  Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin

(I couldn’t find the full album, so I put up this one song, because it’s one of my favorites)

Songs from this album I can play:

Sin City, My Uncle, The Dark End of the Street

This is an album, along with the Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, that really taught me to love country music.  It was also one of the last CDs I ever went out an purchased (a double album set with Burrito Deluxe), and when I got it home I listened to it over and over again.  For a good six months I was obsessed, and I learned a few songs off their second album as well.  Part of why I love the songs on here is that they’re not hard to play- Gram Parsons was a good but not extraordinary singer.  No George Jones or Merle Haggard, that’s for sure.  So I could sing along fairly easily, and hit most of the notes he could.  Any of the songs on those three albums are great for just sitting on my bed and singing.  Probably Sin City, Image of Me (from Burrito Deluxe) and You’re Still on My Mind (from Sweetheart of the Rodeo) are the ones you’ll most likely hear if you walk by my window on a Saturday afternoon.

2.  New York Dolls New York Dolls

Songs from this album I can play:

Subway Train, Personality Crisis, Trash, Pills

Johnny Thunders being one of the great GUITAR GODS of punk rock, this is a must album for every aspiring punk guitar player.  They’re also great, nasty rock and roll tunes.  Pills is originally a Bo Diddley song, but New York Dolls really made it their own here.  Subway Train is a good, sad song to sing on the acoustic.  Personality Crisis, Pills and Trash are punk rock standards, and regularly get busted out in practice.

1.  T-Rex Electric Warrior

Songs from this album I can play:

Cosmic Dancer, Lean Woman Blues, Monolith, Get It On (Bang a Gong)

This is a great album from start to finish and all of the songs are fairly easy, but it’s a diverse set of tunes.  I’ve heard people say The Slider or even Tanx are better, but I’m not going to argue because all three are great.  Of these songs, Monolith is probably my favorite.  It’s a sad, silly song about whatever fairy tales were running through Marc Bolan’s head.  Cosmic Dancer is another great one to play alone on an acoustic guitar when I’m feeling sad or lonely or just in an introspective mood.  Get It On is a fun one to bust out at practice.

What does this tell me?  Well, actually, these are some of my favorite albums.  But they’re also easy to play and they’re from bands that didn’t put out that many albums- New York Dolls and Flying Burrito Brothers put out two that most are familiar with, The Stooges put out three total, and T-Rex put out about four that get much attention.  Only The Beatles have a large output, and including them here is kind of silly, since two of the songs I know are just basic blues tunes.  I probably know more songs by the Kinks or the Ramones, but they’re not all concentrated on any one album since they put out so many.  So I guess there aren’t too many conclusions to draw from this.

Defending The Beatles

Even the title of this post is kind of ridiculous.  The Beatles, of all bands, shouldn’t need defending.  But I have found that if you get a group of music nerds together, someone is going to feel the need to claim that The Beatles are overrated.

I’m not talking about the guy who says “The Beatles are a bunch of pussies and their music is gay”.  If I ran into that guy in 2014 I don’t think I’d even bother arguing.  I’d just walk away.  But that’s a subjective point and frankly, I don’t care.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone that they should like The Beatles.  If you think their music is silly, then think so.  If you think it’s for children, or that it’s sappy and lame, fine.  Makes no difference to me.

I mentioned this in my last post, but I find about half of their music fairly annoying.  Even some of their hits- Eleanor Rigby, for one, is relentlessly irritating.  Notice I’m not saying it’s a bad song- though they did write a few of those.  Just that I don’t like it.  That’s an important distinction.

But The Beatles are overrated is a different claim.  That’s a claim that somehow they don’t deserve their place in Western Pop.  Which is nonsense.  There’s music before The Beatles and music after.  No band in the 20th was as influential as them.  This is indisputable.  And frankly, if you try to argue this with me, I am going to have some answers.  Here are some common ones I hear:

The Beatles weren’t good at their instruments

This claim has the benefit of being somewhat true.  Compared to some of the guitar heroes of the 60s, George Harrison was just average*.  Ringo Starr wasn’t as bad as some people claim, but he was no Ginger Baker.  Paul McCartney was actually a very good bass player.  John’s contributions on guitar or piano were also merely average.

But this criticism misses on two points.  First of all, they were a pop band.  Comparing them to Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience is silly.  That’s like asking why Maroon 5 doesn’t have a guitar player as good as Jack White.  Total point missing.

Second, and more importantly, voice is an instrument.  And by any standard, the two main singers- Paul and John- were very good pop singers.  As a band they could make music like this-

Or like this-

Or like this-

Now some people might say, “well yeah but have you heard _____” and point to some opera singer or Freddie Mercury or someone.  Yeah, fine, but as pop singers go, they were pretty damn good.

George Martin was responsible for their success

George Martin was responsible for some of their success.  He helped teach Paul to arrange, for instance, he helped him with Eleanor Rigby.  Which really is a point against George Martin.  But let’s say you like that song and it’s a point for.  Fine.

Yes, he helped them on Penny Lane.  He helped them on a good deal of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  He’s a producer, that’s what producers do.

But you know what George Martin, so far as I know, didn’t do?  Shepherd any other bands to a similar level of success as The Beatles.

Seriously, if Dr Dre could produce both NWA and Eminem, certainly George Martin could have replicated his success with someone else.  Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn managed to write hits and produce records for Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro and even wrote Mickey for Toni Basil**.  I’m not saying any of these guys produced anything as good as the Beatles, just that they could replicate their success with other bands.  George Martin doesn’t appear to have done that.

Other bands were more important

Who?  The Beatles defined the modern Pop song.  Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is my favorite example, but it’s a song that could be produced today.  The melody from the verse is not connected at all to the giant, soaring chorus.  Songs didn’t sound like that before.  They also didn’t have multiple hooks.  Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys has admitted he was in competition with them, and the Rolling Stones, FWIW, clearly were as well.  Who else was there?  The Who?  The Who’s big contributions were in the late 60s.  As where Jimi Hendrix’s.  Bob Dylan?  OK, maybe Bob Dylan.  Maaaaaaybe.

So there’s what I came up with.  Like I said, I don’t think the Beatles really need defending, but if you run into someone who feels the need to show that they’re some sort of iconoclast, maybe this will help.

 

*I’d say the same about Keith Richards, and he’s considered a GOD, which further proves my theory that people don’t accurately assess guitar players’ skills

**Amongst other hits.  Check their Wikipedia page, those guys had hits for everyone.  Mike Chapman produced Blondie’s Parallel Lines and the first two records by The Knack.

The Perfect Classic Rock Song

Unlike probably most people, I didn’t grow up listening to much classic rock.  My corner of the state had basically three types of music on the radio- Mexican music, Country music and one lonely Pop music station that leaned heavily toward cheesy 80s R & B.  And I think there was an AM radio Oldies station.  No Rock.

My other main source of music- my parents- had apparently decided to stop collecting new rock records in around 1970, the newest record in their collection being The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed.   They had The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s three official albums and The Door’s first album.  And The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.  Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits and a Jefferson Airplane record that sadly wasn’t Surrealistic Pillow.

And there was the music that everyone at school who had MTV was fortunate enough to be exposed to- heavy metal.  This was the 80s.

So it wasn’t until relatively late in life that I became even more than passingly familiar with bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Aerosmith (the 70s version, not the 80s one), KISS (again, the 70s not the… shudder… 80s version), Thin Lizzy, Queen, Black Sabbath.  AC/DC was still cranking out mostly the same style of music in the 80s as they were in 1978, so I knew them.

The first exposure I got to classic rock was when I went to boarding school.  Some of my roommates were talking about Led Zeppelin.  One of them was gushing over a song called Black Dog.  I don’t know why that stuck in my mind, but I was thinking, Black Dog, that’s a funny name for a song.

At any rate, I’m just trying to give some background here.  I didn’t grow up with classic rock, so I’m probably coming at this from a different place than the average fan.  But here’s my choice for a perfect classic rock song:

Aerosmith Sweet Emotion

There’s a lot I like about this song- Joe Perry has one of my all-time favorite guitar sounds, Steven Tyler has some great attitude.  The rhythm section is killing it.  How the song builds from that sweet bass line at the beginning.  The loose, underplayed solo.

But my favorite thing about the song is how it plays with the standard verse + pre-chorus + chorus song structure.  Is sweeeeeeeeet emoooooooshaaan a chorus?  I don’t know.  It doesn’t really sound like one.  It sounds like a buildup before the verse.  Like an intro.  I feel like the chorus should be over the part where no one sings- da da dah dah dah dah dah da da.  Sometimes I try to imagine what I would put in that part of the song, but I can’t really argue with Aerosmith’s leaving it just a guitar riff.

A couple of other contenders- not quite as good as Sweet Emotion, but still pretty close to perfect

Thin Lizzy The Boys Are Back in Town

This is more of a pop song than a rock song, but I’m a sucker for dual harmonized guitar leads.  I also like the laid-back tempo, the laid back singing.  Phil Lynott is telling a story here- it’s not anything groundbreaking, just about it his buddies going out, trying to meet girls and get in fights.  But he does it well.  I can imagine being at Dino’s Bar and Grill when a gang of rowdy dudes comes in and starts making trouble.  A deceptively well done tune.

Led Zeppelin Ramble On

Again with the harmonized dual leads!  But I kind of like this for the same reason I like the previous one- it’s not a hard rocker, it’s fairly melodic.  It tells a story and isn’t trying to melt my face.  Never been a huge Led Zep fan, but this song I like a lot.

Black Sabbath Hole in the Sky

Is this a classic rock song?  Is this heavy metal?  I don’t care.

I picked this song almost at random, because Black Sabbath has so many great songs.  They just rocked so hard.  Great freakout music.  Some of the best.

Black Sabbath for me has always been the Beatles of metal for me.  Not because they sound like the Beatles, but because they have the same ratio of very high quality vs very low quality songs.  It’s about 50/50 that if you randomly select a song by either band that I will either hate it or I will love it.  Almost no songs I am not passionately one way or the other about.

Annnnnnd now I’m hooked on Sabbath for the day.  Here’s another great song by them, just because

You’re gonna get what’s coming to you, that’s true! 

YEAH, ROCK ON OZZY

The perfect song

A couple weeks ago someone over at Balloon Juice DougJ had a post up asking what was the greatest song ever.  My contribution was Ballroom Blitz by Sweet as the greatest rock and roll song ever, but I’m not sure I even believe that.  I don’t know what I’d call the greatest song ever.  There’s just too many ways of looking at it to decide on one.  But Ballroom Blitz is what I consider a perfect song.

I consider a song perfect if I hear it and think, there’s no way to improve on this It’s the best this could possibly be.

For me that means the song does what it sets out to do, and does it in the way that makes the most sense for the genre and the artist that made the song.  It should be both novel but respectful of the traditions of that genre.  It should be entertaining.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I like it.  Let’s start with a genre I write a lot about- punk rock.

The Perfect Punk Anthem- Brickfield Nights by The Boys

I don’t actually know a ton about The Boys.  Probably their best known song is Sick on You, which was originally recorded by the keyboard player’s old band, Hollywood Brats, an early 70s glam band that could easily pass as the English New York Dolls.  That’s about all I know about The Boys.

This song is a classic ode to English teenage life, one of many, many songs that came out around that time.  It’s about hanging around, getting in fights, picking up girls.  They lyrics aren’t amazing, but this isn’t subject matter that requires them to be.  The harmonies are solid, the guitar playing is good.  This is punk rock after all, there’s no reason for it to be any better.

There are a few things I especially like about this one.  It builds nicely from fairly well-used beat.  As a general rule, songs should always build.  Anthems especially.

The Boys also use a trick which I don’t hear too many people using, but it’s a good one- start your chorus off on a minor chord.  I looked up the tab, and it claims the chords are C sharp minor, E and B.  The chorus really hits the stratosphere on those last two chords.   Maybe coincidentally (or maybe not), the chorus for Ballroom Blitz starts on a  a minor chord.

I like the noodly bass line towards the end too.  It’s nice for a song to build and it’s nice for a song to add in some little details to listen for.

There were several other songs that were contenders, but for various reasons I just don’t think they’re on the same level as this one.  I don’t want to nitpick them because they’re all great songs. I’ll throw them on here, maybe you’ll agree with me, or maybe you’ll think they’re better.

Generation X

This song covers mostly the same subject matter but is surprisingly gritty- discovers teenage sex, tries shooting up for kicks- for a band whose punk credibility was considered fairly dubious.

Undertones Teenage Kicks

This is a great standard that almost every punk band will jam on at one point or another.  It’s just too much fun.

Squeeze Up the Junction

I’m not sure Squeeze would be considered a punk band nor would this be a punk song, but it fits pretty well with the others.  In this case, it’s like Brickfield Nights- a bittersweet look back on being young.

I have some more ideas for what the perfect song is in other genres, I’ll get to those soon.

The guitar solo

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this before, so if I have, then maybe take a pass on this post.  But I was thinking about guitar solos today- we did a show and I was watching some of the other bands.  Lotta solos.  Some good, some not so good.  I have some thoughts.

A lot of my insights are borrowed from other people and I’ll share one here.  My friend was watching a local singer/songwriter do an acoustic set.  I wasn’t there for the set, so this is all second-hand.  Anyway, said guy was doing his set and singing songs, doing some solos in his songs.  Which is brave when it’s just you and a guitar, and you’re sitting down.  No way to draw attention from your mistakes.

But maybe that’s wrong, because my friend’s observation was that the audience was paying attention while he was singing, but once he started soloing, everyone was looking the other direction.  Only the guitar players in the audience (this was a small scene, in a small bar, so my friend, could tell, I guess) were paying any attention to the guy’s solo.

Another time I was talking to a guy from some band, can’t remember the guy or the band, but he was the rhythm guitar player.  A cool rhythm guitar player.  He was good, but not doing anything flashy.  Just looking cool.  The band had a lead player, but everyone would go out of their way to compliment his guitar playing.  Even though he was doing the easy stuff.

All of this is hearsay, obviously.  But they kind of fit into my theory that there is a kind of valley in people’s perception of guitar player skills.  Beyond a certain point, there’s really no reason to try to get better, unless you’re going to be a GUITAR GOD.

I made a chart.  Here’s how much attention the audience pays a guitar player’s skill.

Audience Interest

So why show off when no one cares?  Well, this is supposed to be fun, and most guitar players like to noodle.  We like to imagine we are Jimi Hendrix or Jack White or Slash or whoever.  It’s just a hobby, so why not.  YOLO.

But since I’m trying to figure out the formulas for maximum audience pleasure, I’ve come up with some rules for self on when and how to play solos.  They’re roughly this:

Do a good solo.  One that takes the listener on a sonic journey of suspense, wonder and, ultimately, triumph.

Sure, no one but a guitar player cares about Noodles McGhee but if you can write something like the solo in Hotel California or All Along the Watchtower or Mr Crowley, people will enjoy that.  This, sadly, is far beyond my ability, so this has never once come into play for me.

Do a short good solo.

I have occasionally done this.  What’s a short good one?   I love Rock and Roll by Joan Jett has a nice, tight one.  The Go-Go’s usually had good ones.  The two that Steve Jones plays in Anarchy in the UK are good.  Just short, sweet, something to remind people that they are listening to a rock song and that if you had to you could bust out some killer licks.

Do an anti-solo.

This is more the Robert Quine school of punk rock guitar- blast out a bunch of notes very quickly, somewhat discordantly and make a joke of the whole thing.  Basically, de-construct the solo.  This is funny once or twice in a set, but I’m always nervous that if I do too much of it, the audience will either think I can’t play, that I’m just a weirdo, or that I am some sort of self-indulgent noodler.

Not do a solo at all.

I only very rarely even bother on my own songs anymore.   Enough solos have been played already.  The world won’t miss another of mine.