Rock and Roll

Gettin’ Old, Gettin’ Grey

So I was reading Steven Hyden’s AC/DC buyer’s guide and one thing stuck out at me in his review of High Voltage:

Bon Scott was pushing 30 when this LP was released; he was willing his denim-covered ass out of the pub and down the road to immortality

I never knew that.  I knew he’d been around for a while when they hired him, but I didn’t know he was that… old.

OK so thirty is not old, but it’s pretty old for a rock and roller.  I was trying to think of rock and roller who “made it” after the age of thirty.   Here’s what I came up with:

Ian Hunter

Ian started fronting Mott the Hoople in 1969 at the age of thirty, but they weren’t a commercial success until 1972 after David Bowie basically rescued them by offering them All the Young Dudes.  So he was about 32 or 33 when he finally made it.  His biggest solo hit after leaving Mott the Hoople was probably Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Ronnie James Dio

Let’s be real.  Ronnie had lots of things work against him.  Lack of conventional good looks, age, short stature and a receding hairline when he joined Rainbow at age 32.  I should say allegedly at age 32, because even that age is subject to some dispute.  But the voice could not be denied.  My personal choice for greatest heavy metal voice ever.  As a bonus, watch him talk to the crowd here- just seems like the coolest guy

Meat Puppets

In a case similar to Ian Hunter’s, the Meat Puppets were more or less pulled into fame by Nirvana covering a couple of their songs and bringing them on stage to play with them during Nirvana’s Unplugged appearance.

They only had one big hit, but were pretty influential for 90s grunge bands

Sharon Jones

Sharon isn’t a rocker, per se, but Soul music is pretty close to rock and roll.  And she’s not exactly a household name, but I’m going to add her here.  At any rate, after decades making sporadic appearances as a backup singer, she’s finally made it

 

Reevaluating Green Day

So I challenged myself to re-evaluate a band that I’ve on-again, off-again liked for two decades- Green Day.  They’ve never been close to my favorites, but I do have a history of liking them.  It goes something like this-

High School- Dookie comes out.   Dookie was their major label debut (a big deal, for better or worse, for a punk band).  I hadn’t heard of them before.  I liked it a lot and listened to it frequently.

6 months later- everyone is listening to it.  I stop listening to it.  Yes, I know.

Several years- I ignore most of what they do, or in the case of Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), I actively don’t like them.

Several more years- I’m in Japan and mostly ignoring American music

Return to USA- some of their new hits are on the radio- Boulevard of Broken Dreams, When September Ends, Jesus of Suburbia.  They’ve changed a lot- they’re not Rock Star Green Day, not Pop Punk Green Day, but I actually like these songs.

Today- after putting out a album trilogy that I can’t remember hearing a single from, and then Billie Joe throwing a fit at the I-Heart Radio music festival and heading to rehab and finally, worst of all- nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame– it looks like Green Day is officially done as a relevant act.

They had a great run.  But I never really gave them a chance until really late in their career, after having dumped them unceremoniously way back in high school.  I’m trying to rectify that by listening to their albums, in chronological order, one per week until I’m done.  Regular readers of the blog know that I will occasionally set myself up with a task like this and then flake out.  So, fair warning, I might get tired of this and not complete it.  But I did listen to their first album 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours.

The CD actually included three of their first records, so I don’t know if it counts as an album, but I’d always heard it called one.

I don’t remember ever having listened to it and after listening to it for the first time, I didn’t like it.  Maybe it’s not fair to say I didn’t like it.  I just no longer have the tools to evaluate this kind of music, being that I’m old and songs about “why doesn’t this girl like me?” are not interesting to me.

That and the influence of Hüsker Dü is just way too strong on this album.  If Bob Mould had snuck into the studio and replaced Billie Joe’s vocals with his own, I wouldn’t have known the difference.  Sadly, I’m not really a fan of Hüsker Dü, so this just really doesn’t work for me on multiple levels.

But like I said, this isn’t an album directed at tired, old rockers with families and 40 hour a week jobs.  This album is for the kids.  If the kids liked it, then it must have been good.  But I probably won’t listen to it again.  Maybe next week’s Kerplunk will be better.

Great Albums- The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

The Kinks are, in my opinion, the most criminally underrated band from the 60s.  They weren’t the best, they weren’t most ground-breaking, but the fact that they have such an amazing songbook and that people remember maybe four songs of their whole catalog is a shame.

If I had to guess I’d say the problem for them is that Ray Davies isn’t a dynamic frontman like Jagger, or a great singer like Lennon.  The band isn’t a rock and roll machine like the Who or a kickass gang of pirates like the Rolling Stones.  They don’t have anyone who would be notable on their own, no Ginger Baker type drummer and Dave Davies is no Jimi Hendrix.  They don’t particularly have grit like the Doors or Janis.  They never managed to reinvent the pop song like The Beach Boys or the Beatles.

What could they do?  Well, they could rock about as hard as anyone, when they wanted to, which was not that often, at least in the 60s.  They were funny and irreverent and Ray Davies was a great story-teller.  And they wrote great songs.  Mostly it was Ray writing them, but every now and then Dave would come along with a classic of his own.

That’s really the heart of them for me.  Other than Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, no one wrote so many good songs, that were so good, in so many different ways as the Kinks.

They could caveman proto-punk- You Really Got Me, Til the End of the Day.  They could do funny social satire- Sunny Afternoon, A Well Respected Man, Village Green Preservation Society.  They could do hard rock, either anthemic- Lola or groovy- Powerman.  They could do great, sad songs like Dave Davies’ classic – Strangers. or the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Alcohol.  Or just cute songs- Act Nice And Gentle.  They put together some of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded- Days, Waterloo Sunset.

They experimented with a variety of styles, and probably in a smart move, didn’t do a ton of psychedelic rock (they weren’t very good at when they tried), but were really all over the map.

Perhaps most amazingly, the Kinks did something none of their contemporaries managed to do… record a good song in the 80s:

But I wanted to focus on my personal favorite album by them- Arthur:

Arthur was intended to be a concept album to accompany a television special that never got off the ground.  I don’t know if knowing that makes the album better.  You could just as easily think of it as a series of character studies.  It’s about a family, Arthur being the father.  He’s got some kids:

One of them goes off to war:

And dies:

Part of what I like about this album is how much it’s grown with me over the years.  This was always a terribly sad song about a young man trying to be brave and leaving his mother behind.  Having become a parent it’s just devastating.  It’s amazing to me that a young man could have written a song with such empathy.

Arthur also has a son who is a hectoring leftist of some kind:

And some other kids who are looking for a new life in Australia:

The Kinks did a great job of giving the listener a varied emotional experience.  If the whole album were versions of Some Mother’s Son, it would be a real drag.  If you listen to this on LP, this is the last song on the first side, and if it weren’t for the preceding songs, the long, kind of repetitive jam at the end would seem kind of lame, but it lets my brain unwind.  This is one of the sad things about losing the concept of the LP- you can’t really take the listener on the same sort of journey in 3 minutes.

So Arthur’s kids have all gone away and he’s left at home alone.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know whether Ray Davies is making fun of the character in his song, when there’s also clearly so much love for his subject.  I don’t know if he’s criticizing Arthur for accepting his place in society, or if he’s admiring his finding it.  Sometimes I listen to this song and want to be Arthur.

I shouldn’t say Arthur is alone, his wife is with him

I love this song.  This is a song I used to think was kind of stupid, and again, I wasn’t sure if Ray was mocking Arthur and his wife or not.

It wasn’t until I was poor myself that I understood why poor or working class people place so much value in things.   I grew up in a reformed hippie, middle class household and it was considered in poor taste to want to buy luxury items, or brand name items.  That was just tacky.

But I had a rough time for a while when my son was just a baby and now I get it.  Being poor is hard.  Every day is tough, because if you’re close enough to the edge you never know what’s going to cause you to really get stuck- stuck with recurring bills, and debt you can’t pay off.  It’s scary and demoralizing.  But sometimes just having a little something nice makes it tolerable.  Yeah, maybe it shouldn’t matter if you have a nice hat, like the one Arthur is presumably wearing, because who cares, it’s a hat and you’re still poor.  But sometimes having a nice thing to point to, when everything else sucks, can make you want to go on.

Music can sometimes teach you things like that.

Maybe some day this song will grow on me.  So far it hasn’t yet:

The album ends with a great rocker

This is at heart maybe a sad song, but it always brings a smile to my face.  It’s a song that laughs in the face of pain, sadness and disappointment.

I didn’t cover all the songs on the album.  There are a few more, and they’re worth listening to, if not my favorites.  Like I said before, I’ve enjoyed this album for close to twenty years now, but it’s grown with me in a way that few others have.  It’s taught me lessons that took me years to understand.  It’s helped me put myself in the shoes of people who don’t even exist, but I feel better for having done that.  The best music can do this and this is some of the best.

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.

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.

The Definitive Guide to Guitar Moves Part 2

OK, so now you’ve got your stance and strap length down, it’s time for some moves.  Let’s start with the classics:

Jumping

Keith Richards compares being a band that’s playing really well to flying.  Jumping can translate that feeling to the audience.   There are a lot of variations here and I’d like to just focus on two- tucked leg jumps and scissors kicks.

Tucked Leg

This is a Pete Townshend classic.  Actually, there probably isn’t a guitar jump that Pete Townshend didn’t master at some point.  He’s basically the Michael Jordan of jumping around while playing guitar.  He should have his own Air Townshend shoes.

Benefits: Looks cool if done right.  Less likely to kick nearby band members.

Difficulties: If that doesn’t look hard to you then you’re a young person.  Danger of not getting your legs back under you in time.  Guitar smashing into your crotch.

For Extra Coolness:  Do it off something high

Scissor Kick

Another Townshend classic.  There was no stopping this guy.

Benefits: Ability to jump kick nearby band members.  If you mess it up and don’t get your feet totally beneath you, you can play it off like you were jumping into your Power Stance.

Difficulties: Guitar smashing into your crotch.  Retaliation from kicked band members.

For Extra Coolness:  Tuck your Legs while doing a scissor kick.  Do the air splits.