Month: June 2014

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.

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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.

RIP Mr Padre

My favorite baseball player of all time died yesterday.  Mr Padre.  Tony Gwynn.

I’m not a big stat head, so I can’t really rattle off all the ways he was good.  I know he won eight batting titles and almost hit .400 in 1994, the strike year.  He was a great fielder when he was young, and was awarded several Gold Gloves.  He was one of only a handful of players in recent decades to spend his entire career with one team*.  He’s far and away the best Padre player ever**.

He was also, by all accounts, a very nice man.  I wish I had some personal story of meeting him, but I don’t.  I’ve only seen him on the field.

I don’t actually care that much about stats- my current favorite Padre is Cameron Maybin, and he’s only rarely even playing.  The reason Tony is my favorite doesn’t even have that much to do with baseball.  It’s his attitude to playing.

I wish I could find the quote, and believe me, I have been searching for it, but I read an interview with Tony where the reporter was asking him- why don’t you go somewhere else and play?  San Diego is underpaying you.  Tony responded with something along the lines of- I like San Diego, because I like hitting singles, and if I went somewhere else the media would be on my case for not hitting home runs.

To me, this is the most perfectly San Diego thing anyone could ever say- because we San Diego fans aren’t clamoring for anyone to kill themselves for our amusement.  Winning isn’t everything in San Diego.  In fact, I’m not even sure it is a thing.  WE LIVE IN SAN DIEGO.  Asking for too much more than that seems like tempting the fates.

But all back-patting about how awesome our city is aside, I really admired Tony for saying this.  Because sports, and almost everything else around us, tells us that we have to keep going for THE BEST.  Reaching for something higher.  Tony was reaching for something- a lot of hits, but that was his goal for Tony Gwynn, not ours.   Tony knew what he wanted to do, and he found a place where he could be happy doing it.  There’s nothing better than that.

 

*Trevor Hoffman, another great Padre, came close- he spent his first and last years with other teams.

**Dave Winfield was very good, but he only went into the Hall as a Padre as a snub to George Steinbrenner- he played more years with the Yankees than the Pads.  And I don’t think he was as good as Tony.

Maya Angelou the last great poet

First, let me start off by saying, I don’t know much of anything about Maya Angelou and this post isn’t really about her.  I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in school, but that’s about the extent of what I know about her.  I read a few tributes and she sounds like an amazing woman, so maybe it’s time to rectify that.

But whether I do or not, one thing that was interesting to me was how many tributes there were to a poet in 2014.  And my suspicion that this will be the last time in my lifetime that the death of a poet will be a national interest story.  Can you name another living poet with even half of the stature of Maya Angelou?  One that even learned people, let alone people who took high school English, could be expected to know?

I can’t.  The closest I can think of is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, author of Coney Island of the Mind, and currently 95 years old.  I saw him give a reading sometime in the 90s.  He’s maybe more important for publishing Howl, but either way, he’s not household name.  And he’s the most famous living poet I can think of.

The time of poets is over.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be any poets.  I’m sure there will.  There might even be some great ones.  But they’ll never capture the popular imagination the way they once did.

One reason I suspect is with greater media artists have greater control over their work.  In 1800 if you were an artist who wanted to give every person who experienced your art roughly the same experience, you had two choices.  You could paint/sculpt/draw something and display it for people or you could put it in a book and publish it.  That was it.

On the other hand, if you wrote a song, you work was going to be interpreted by numerous people and might sound completely different depending on how they played/sang it and what instruments they used.  If you weren’t famous enough to get your song published, people might not even know if was you.

You ever think about songs we consider traditional folk songs?  They didn’t just spring out of the ground, there was someone, somewhere who is lost to time who had an idea and made it into a song.  It’s kind of fun to think about.  As long as we have cheap digital recording, that may never happen again.  Imagine being able to trace House of the Rising Sun or Midnight Special back to its original owner.  Or finding out who really wrote The Iliad- some ancient Greek poet who sat down and wanted to tell the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans and put it in a blog post that we could search for.

But 200 years ago you could put your name on a book of poetry and be relatively certain your poems would always be attributed to you.  But nowadays why would you limit yourself that just writing poetry?  You could write a song for a larger audience and still be sure people would know it was written by you and would hear it in the way you’d want them to.  Or you could take that further- write a song and produce a music video for it.  Or make a 3D IMAX film.  Go nuts!

And the same goes for the audience.  Sure, you could just read a book of poetry, and I enjoy doing that.  But I also remember one time I found an old record in a library with TS Eliot reading one of his poems.  It brought a whole new life to the poem he was reading, just to hear him read it in his own voice.  Imagine if we had old recordings of Rimbaud or Whitman lying around!  Or Virgil reading The Aeneid.

I enjoy reading something on the page, because having the freedom to make the picture in my mind is a beautiful thing.  But in order to do so I need time and to not be distracted, which is a rarity in my life.  And even then I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to hear a recording because I’d trust the author to read it the best (though I’m not sure this is justified either).

I feel like I lost my train of thought here somewhere, but the point is, getting a book of poetry published is no longer the best transmission of ideas an author can hope for and it’s not the best an audience can hope for so the world has moved on.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing or a good thing, it just is.

The rock club business model

One thing I’ve alluded to a bit here but not really gone into detail about is the business model that many of the rock and roll clubs seem to follow.  I only know it from the outside- as a performer in said clubs, so take this with a grain of salt.  I’m just relating what I see.

There seem to be several levels of rock and roll clubs and we can roughly divide them into three- the places that host (relatively) well known bands, the places that are destinations in their own right and the places that rely on bands to bring customers.

San Diego has a couple of marquee clubs.  They regularly have well-known bands.  The bands draw crowds.  They make money.  I don’t know much about these places because we almost never get asked to play them and we rarely try to get on bills at any of them.  From what I hear, if you do get on a bill, you can expect to be paid well, have a set time that does not change and have to submit press packages* beforehand to get approval.  They have professional, top-notch sound systems and soundpeople who will make you sound good.

What I term destination clubs are places that people regularly go to without checking local music listings.  They’re hangouts that occasionally have bands.  For bands, these are some of the best places to play- they have a built-in crowd and the crowd and bartenders haven’t been blasted with music every day of the week.  Sound systems vary, from one that’s almost completely DIY, to another that has a very good soundman.  These too tend to have higher requirements to play- you probably don’t need a press kit, but you’ll be expected to be pretty competent and not drive away the crowd.  These are also some of the best places to see live music.

AND FINALLY

The places that expect bands to bring their friends.

Let’s be real for a minute- I do not get this business plan.  Let’s say you’ve got up the nerve to take out a big loan to open a bar.  You’ve spent months getting it built out to your satisfaction.  You hired bartenders and now you’re in business.  Your first move… rely on the flakiest bunch of people you can find to bring in customers.  Does this make any sense to you?

It never has to me.

Bands are notoriously flaky.  Shit, most bands have trouble meeting up with each other to practice once a week.  I’ve had people cancel auditions for the dumbest reasons possible.

“my bike got stolen bro”

“I can’t afford guitar strings”

“I was in jail”

“Sorry, I forgot”

But hope springs eternal!  So you open your club and you start booking bands to play.  Since your club may or may not have many other reasons to go there, you have to keep the calendar full.  Which means every night of the week you’re getting bands to play.  Even in San Diego, a fairly large city, there aren’t that many quality bands that want to play more than once a month or so- bands don’t want to ask their buddies to show up 3 times a month.  That’s just not going to fly.  So the best bands are going to ration how much they play out.

The worst bands, however, are happy for any chance to play, ever.  So monday night you’ve got three terrible bands, that have nothing to do with each other, grinding out terrible music to the five friends they each managed to drag along.  Again, what kind of business model is this?  I think you’d have better luck with a pool table and a juke box.  Neither of those will make people want to leave.

Of course, even the worst bands have some pride, and most will want to get paid.  We like getting paid.  I know I’m thousands of dollars in the hole now on my rock and roll career, so playing for free isn’t a big deal if it sounds like fun.  But again, a few bucks is nice.  But how to pay for that?

Well, you could just pay out of pocket.  Say $50 a band.  Or $25 a band, plenty would take that.  Hey, it’s better than nothing.

But you probably don’t want to do this because what if the three bands you booked don’t bring anyone.  Then you’ve lost money.  So you charge at the door and give that to the band.

The thing is, this turns people away.  I’ve seen it many, many times.  It’s probably happened to my band, though I can’t confirm because I’m usually on stage when my band is playing.  But I’m standing outside and someone will come up and the doorman will say “Five dollar cover”.  Five bucks right?  Big deal.

“Oh I don’t know man, why?”

“Live bands bro”

DA DA DAH DAH DA DA CHUGGA CHUGGA WEEE WEEE

“Uh, nevermind”

That person might have spent money on drinks.  Now they left.

And for the people who pay the $5- are they gonna come back?  Are the gonna tell their friends that your place is fun?  They just wanted a beer, now their ears are blown out by lousy music.  Shoulda just gone to the place with the juke box.

I don’t get it.  I don’t get why this is a plan people have, but they keep trying.  I don’t want to single out any clubs because we may want to play there someday, but it just makes me wonder.  Why not put some effort into making a place that’s fun to be in its own right?  Why not screen out the crappy bands a little more ruthlessly?  Why not limit shows to a few times a week, have the bands play at set times instead of letting them push off playing until 11 PM because they don’t want to play to an empty room?  And why not try a little harder to make at least the genres of bands fit together?  Why not just pay a small amount out of pocket instead of turning people away?

There are places that do these things, and do them well.  A lot of places don’t.  It’s frustrating.

*A press package usually includes a professional looking CD, professional photos and a bio.  One club that I know of requires you to submit one, even if the headliner requests that you open for them.

Black Keys vs White Stripes

So I wasn’t really following the ongoing feud that Jack White seems to be pursuing with the Black Keys.  Jack apparently hates them.

Jack White DETESTS The Black Keys — in particular BK singer Dan Auerbach — and the confession was made in the middle of Jack’s very nasty divorce.

Jack is clearly pissed his kids are being enrolled in the same school as Dan’s kid, writing, “My concern with Auerbach is because I don’t want the kids involved in any of that crap … That’s a possible twelve f***ing years I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that a**hole with other people trying to lump us in together.”

That’s my emphasis on the last line there.  But let’s be real, these two bands are going to be forever lumped together.  There are two famous two-piece blues outfits ever, and they both became famous right around the same time.  They don’t sound that much alike except in the sense that they were both led by blues purists and they both had lousy drummers.  But like Prince and Michael Jackson, or Biggie and Tupac, or Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, they are stuck with each other.  For what it’s worth, the Black Keys don’t seem to be all that upset about it.  Their response to him was pretty mild:

“I actually feel embarassed for him,” Carney tells RS writer Patrick Doyle. “I don’t hold grudges, man. I really don’t. We’ve all said fucked-up shit in private, and divorce is hard.”

For his part, Auerbach refused to enter the fray – “I don’t know him, so it’s extra-unexpected,” was the extent of his take

But to me where they differ has always been what’s interesting.  Jack White always seemed like the quintessential hipster- color coordinating everything up to and including their roadies outfit, giving weird, cryptic interviews.  Having strange obsessions. Intentionally hiring a borderline pointless drummer

Hipster stuff.

The Black Keys just looked like schlubs:

That’s about the most unfashionable album cover ever.

But it was a great album.  White Stripes were the cool kids I would want to be, while Black Keys were a lot closer to what musicians like me really am.  Just some people playing music.  There are awesome things about both- what we aspire to be, and what we can admire but never really hope to be.

I took these two songs from the two albums that, to me, were the ones that put both bands into the realm of important.  That’s a totally subjective estimation, but I remember when Elephant (White Stripes) and Rubber Factory (Black Keys) came out and listening to both extensively over the following months.  Both were high points for them- White Stripes never really came out with anything quite that good again, and Black Keys became a different band.

That’s maybe the other difference- Black Keys really did evolve from a band that was explicitly trying to sound vintage to a band that, after ten years, sounds like today.

This isn’t the best song they’ve done, but it sounds like something a new band would make right now.  And maybe that’s because radio caught up with bands like the White Stripes, Black Keys, the Strokes, all those early 00’s bands that were doing garage rock.

Jack White’s music, just sounds a Jack White.  It’s good, but he starting to sound a little frozen in time.  Maybe he wants it that way.

You know what’s totally messed up?  I found this video on Youtube and the ad that ran before the music started?  An ad for the Black Keys’ tour.