Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dez Reviews the Book I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, 2011

I am the perfect age to remember and love the golden age of MTV (you know, the period when they played music videos and were about music). I remember coming home each day from elementary school, immediately running over to the TV and grabbing a healthy snack (bowl of ice cream, usually), and watching my MTV. Without fail, for about 5 months, they would play Spandau Ballet's "True" at the same time every day (approximately 3:30). Reading the 572 page oral history of MTV's golden years (1981-1992) was kind of like getting a backstage pass to my childhood entertainment, I got to see the inner workings of my many hours of viewing television during the 80's. It is an oral history, so aside from brief overview introductions to each chapter (which are very well done), the book consists of quotes from the actual players that are weaved together to tell the story. Executives, artists, video directors, bit players and main characters all are brutally honest in telling the sordid tales behind the cable channel that forever changed the music industry. Since it is divided into 53 digestible chapters that are clearly labeled topically, if you are not an obsessive like me you don't have to read cover to cover.

There is so much here. If you were fortunate enough to watch VH1 Classic over the summer, they aired the first hour of MTV to celebrate the 30th anniversary of MTV, you saw just how by the seat of their pants MTV was run in those early days. They had maybe 50 videos in their vaults, almost half of which were by Rod Stewart. Technical and editing problems galore, ad-libbing and ill-prepped VJs (of course, you cannot top those original five VJs, what kid in the 80's wasn't in love with Martha Quinn?) was a glorious disaster. (VH1, by the way, was created by MTV as a "fighting brand." It was created as a sacrificial lamb, to be a cheaper and dirtier vesion of MTV to run competitors out of business. Nobody expected it to last, in fact they were instructed not to be profitable).

ABOVE: Early ad trying to get cable companies to add MTV to their subscriptions. As this book reveals, the cable companies resisted mightily, so MTV ran these ads in markets where MTV was not yet available.

BELOW: Another of those great ads (featuring Mr. Bowie)...

MTV was funded and owned jointly by Warner Brothers and American Express, and neither company took their little channel seriously. That is why those early years were so glorious, they were completely ignored by meddling corporate hands. Budgets were shoestring, directors were creating a new artform with the music video that had no established rules yet, through some loopholes in the law the video shoots were not controlled by union rules so they could shoot for 48 hours straight and get it done in a couple of coke-fueled was the wild west with no rules at all. Naturally, there are many tales of destruction, crazy behavior, sex, drugs and rock and roll (hell, even the purposefully annoying Pauly Shore got laid constantly, as per Pauly: "There were groupies, all the time. That was kind of my thing...In the back of the bus, which I called 'The Wood Den,' I had a basket of buttons that said GRINDAGE, and another basket that had condoms. I'd have sex with them with a condom, and they'd leave with a button. So it was win-win.")

ABOVE: MTV was so powerful that it even allowed the extremely irritating Pauly Shore to have prodigious amounts of sex

The book masterfully tells hundreds of humorous, sad, joyous or fascinating individual anecdotes, but it also tells an overarching story of a little start-up with a novel idea that was dismissed by an essentially conservative record industry, then that same channel came to change that very industry and call the shots on which artists would succeed and who would not. A television channel that changed the basic rules of the music industry, as video budgets grew from $10,000 in the early 80's to millions of dollars in the early 90's. A channel that had to eventually betray its own model and charter to survive in part due to a music industry that rebelled against the monster that MTV became (hello reality programming). The book is filled equally with interesting discussions of the business side of the network and rock and roll history during the 80's. While there are many great stories here, I'll mention two or three in particular that I enjoyed...

First is the chapter about what many consider to be the worst video ever made (chapter title: A Whopping, Steaming Turd). That would be Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite." Squier was a respectable rocker up to this point, but this one video killed his career. While much of this book focuses on how MTV made careers (Madonna, Duran Duran, even resurrecting ZZ Top), it also killed or diminished certain careers of artists who could not adapt or who made mistakes. Like the cringe-inducing "Rock Me Tonite" video. It is a hilarious and sad chapter, with Squier and others involved pointing fingers and blaming eachother for what occurred. Squier: "When I saw the video, my jaw dropped. It was diabolical. I looked at it and went, 'what the f*ck is this?' I remember a guy from the record company saying, 'don't worry about it, the record's a smash'...The video misrepresents who I am as an artist...The video had a deleterious effect on my career...[about director-choreographer Kenny Ortega] The guy crippled me." As another observer noted, "The lessons from 'Rock Me Tonite' are that fame can be oddly fleeting in show business - and that rock stars should always think carefully about wearing pink." Indeed. But as others point out in the chapter, maybe Billy should have thought about this while he was filming it, jumping on the feather bed in his pink muscle shirt. Enjoy "Rock Me Tonite" (as you watch it you can see a career dying over 5 minutes)...

ABOVE: The flipside to the Billy Squier tale. No band used MTV better or benefited more than Duran Duran. They would not have been nearly as big as they were without the iconic trilogy of videos from Rio: "Rio," "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Save a Prayer" (above). It helped that they had pin-up good looks and that from the beginning they concentrated on mixing fashion and image with their music. These videos had a gorgeous style to them, and they were played incessantly. for the record, Duran Duran were/are also great musically, something often overlooked.

A story that is told throughout the book is MTV's complicated relationship with Michael Jackson. The racism issue is addressed in an entire chapter and it is a contentious issue amongst those involved (the popular wisdom is that Jackson's groundbreaking "Billie Jean" video broke the unspoken race barrier on MTV). Evidently MJ monitored MTV extremely closely, to see how often they played his videos and how they portrayed him. Jackson decided that he wanted to be called "King of Pop," so he threatened to withold his "Black or White" video from the channel unless they dubbed him King of Pop. It was all Jackson's idea. There was a memo that circulated around the MTV offices that stated, "I know this is a bizarre request, but..." and then outlined the rules that each VJ had to follow regarding Jacko's new title, calling Jackson "The King of Pop" twice per week on air, and "Please be sure to note which segments you do this in case we need to send dubs to the King of Pop himself." On a meeting with MJ for a video around the same period with MTV executives: "I met Michael at Sound Recorder Studios...The meeting was supposed to start at 6 p.m., but Michael - and Bubbles, his chimp - didn't arrive until eight. We started the meeting, and at 8:30 Michael suddenly says, 'Oh, we have to stop. The Simpsons is coming on.' We stopped the meeting and watched The Simpsons."

I would also recommend the great chapter about the Lost Weekend With Van Halen contest about how the band almost killed the contest winner with a debauched weekend of booze, drugs and strippers. I'll let the winner, Kurt Jefferis tell it: "They gave me a 'Lost Weekend' T-shirt and a hat. I met Valerie Bertinelli when I was backstage smoking a joint and drinking Jack Daniel's. They brought me onstage and smashed a cake in my face, then about a dozen people poured champagne on me, including two midgets. After the show, we went backstage and they brought a girl for me. She was a stripper in a short black leather skirt. David Lee Roth said, 'Kurt needs to meet Tammy.' They put on some music so she could dance and take her clothes off for me. David told her to take me into the shower. And I had Tammy in the shower." One of the MTV execs who was present added, "I could hear him howling from where I was sitting." Turns out the kid had a metal plate in his head and wasn't supposed to drink or do drugs. Exec Tom Freston: "They gave cocaine to the guy who won the contest. It turned out he had a plate in his head."

ABOVE: David Lee Roth loved MTV, and MTV loved David Lee Roth

If you love the 80's, if you are one of those people who look back angrily to the early 90's when MTV moved away from videos and music, if you want to know how the music industry was fundamentally altered in the 1980's, if you love tales of rock and roll excess and debauchery, then I Want My MTV is a must-read. Oh, and the fight between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain is worth reading about too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Basketball Draft

Well, thank Tebow that we will have some NBA basketball afterall. Not least of all because A. my father-in-law gets his 4th row Spurs season package that I am frequently the beneficiary of, and B. I can play fantasy basketball again with my group that I have played with for about seven years now.

We had our draft over the weekend, and I got first pick! I've never had that before, in fact I have always been near the end of the draft (which is not a bad thing considering how the draft order goes). I got the #1 pick, but that also means, since we have 11 people, my next picks were #'s 22 and 23. I think it was basically a toss-up on whether to pick Jebron Lames or Kevin Durant, but since I can't stand Lames, I was happy to pick Durant. The rest of the first round went: Lames, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Dwayne Wade, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Al Jefferson. First time in a long time that Kobe wasn't a first rounder. It is a roto scoring league, and the categories we use are: points, three pointers, shooting %, free throw %, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals and turnovers (as a negative, obviously).

My next two picks were Blake Griffin and John Wall. With Chris Paul now feeding Griffin the ball on the Clippers, that should be awesome. I also feel that Wall will blow up this year. He has his rookie year behind him and he was hurt a bit last year, so he is ready to be the stud everyone expects him to be.

The rest of my team rounds out with Joe Johnson (ready to redeem himself after the last two seasons, Crawford's departure from the Hawks helps), Marcin Gortat, DeAndre Jordan (who was outstanding in that preseason stomping of the Lakers, like with Griffin, with Chris Paul running the point he should benefit), Wesley Matthews, Aaron Aflalo, Jeff Teague (a sleeper who could blow up), Sam Dalembert (here's hoping he signs with Houston!), and with Omri Casspi, Jordan Crawford and Ramon Sessions sitting on my bench.

With that line-up, I think assists will be one of my main problems.

Like the team?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dez Reviews the Book No Regrets by Ace Frehley, 2011

Ace was always my favorite. First of all, he had the coolest make-up. Secondly, he was the lead guitarist for KISS, and the lead guitarists are always cool. I don't listen to KISS much anymore, but when I was wandering through the bookstore the other day and saw Ace Frehley's new autobiography/rock memoir on sale, I immediately grabbed it. As any KISS fan knows, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have systematically tried to rewrite, err, Kisstory over the last few decades, minimizing the contributions of Ace and original drummer Peter Criss. I was interested in Ace's side of the story.

One of the main things that I took away from Ace's engaging autobiography is that Gene Simmons is a monumental a**hole. Considering how much Simmons has dragged Ace's name through the dirt, Ace is somewhat justified in dishing on his former bandmate. But that is not the only thing that makes the book interesting.

Ace delivers an engaging life story of a young tough from the Bronx who found salvation in music and his guitar and who was determined to make it big. His is also a story of prodigious substance abuse, and finally earning a hard fought sobriety. Rightfully so, the bulk of the book covers the KISS glory years in the 70's, and there is no shortage of entertaining tales of excess and insanity that comes with the territory of being a member of one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.

But what keeps Ace grounded and relatable is his sense of humor and self-deprecation. While never apologizing for the marketing machine that was KISS in the 70's, he can laugh about it. He has fun trashing the disasterous TV movie they made, 'KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park,' taking great pleasure in Gene Simmons's dashed film aspirations. He rambles off well known stories such as the vial of blood taken from each member of the band that was mixed into the red ink for the KISS comic book series...always with a laugh and roll of the eyes. But he stands by the music, as he should. He is always serious when discussing the music, and makes a good argument that what they were doing, at least in the early days, was groundbreaking theatrical rock.

He seems honest about his prodigious drug use and alcohol issues (so much so that he clearly finds those years immensely entertaining, even as he claims to be embracing the sober life). He gives the requisite warnings about the dangers and how it almost killed him, yet reading a full chapter about partying with John Belushi in the late 70's or another chapter entitled 'Smokey and the Bandit' which details an incredible police chase where a coked-out Ace evades what sounds like the entire police force of New York in his Delorean...damned if that doesn't sound like he was having a blast in those years, however he may be embracing the 12 Steps these days.

ABOVE: Ace still kicks it onstage with his own band (sans make-up)

Other than his substance abuse issues, his complicated relationship with KISS is really the heart of the book. As much as Simmons and Stanley minimize it, KISS in the 70's really was four guys contributing equally, and Ace makes a strong case in reminding us of that. He paints an incredibly negative portrait of Simmons (while Stanley, oddly, is an important player yet Ace doesn't really give him much life). Simmons has proven Ace correct when Ace accuses him of having no sense of humor at all. Just watch that infamous Tom Snyder interview clip (which Ace addresses at length), and that tells it all. Ace and Peter are blitzed out of their minds, cracking jokes, laughing, making Snyder laugh. Gene is shooting daggers at Ace and clearly wants to kill him, trying to talk seriously while they are all in their ridiculous costumes. Paul is stuck in the middle, but seemingly sides with Gene, as he also looks at Ace with disdain on camera as well. There is that moment where Ace looks at Gene, holds up his hands and mouths "what?" (as in "relax, what's the problem?") Go find it on YouTube, it is worth a watch. That moment right there shows why Ace is still more beloved than Gene, and helps explains the power play that eventually forced Ace and Peter out of the band.

As with many great bands, the relationships in KISS were complex, and when Ace writes "I think they're just a bunch of dirty rotten whores," and then pages later writes "To this day I still consider them my brothers in rock 'n' roll and love them," he is being honest both times.

It's a good read, Ace writes in a down to earth tone and spares no one, especially himself. He admits at times that he was difficult to deal with at the height of his fame and substance abuse. But he was/is a singular talent, and by far the most interesting and likeable member of the original KISS. That comes through in this engaging autobiography.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2012

First of all, I know it has been awhile since my last post. Sorry about that. I went to Wyoming last month. That was very cool. I should (will) post about that. Anyway, on to the very important business at hand.

The Class of 2012 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was announced today. It was actually leaked yesterday, but the leak left out one inductee that we found out about today with the official announcement. The Class consists of...

Performer Category:
Beastie Boys, Donovan, Guns ‘n Roses, Laura Nyro, The Small Faces/The Faces, Red Hot Chili Peppers

Early Influence Category:
Freddie King

Ahmet Ertegun Award (kind of a lifetime achievement non-performer contributor to music):
Don Kirshner

Musical Excellence Award:
Cossimo Matassa, Tom Dowd

ABOVE: Will Axl and Slash bury the hatchet for one night and actually perform together?

This is the strongest class in years. Beastie Boys, Guns ‘n Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers are newer (for Rockhall standards), exciting and worthy inductees. No question on any of those. I have been pushing for Donovan for a long time, and had begun to lose hope for him. So glad to see him there. His reputation has slowly and quietly improved over the years. When he was actually releasing his most celebrated material in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he was often dismissed as a Dylan-wannabe or a slight psychedelic waif. He was neither of those things. Donovan was a creative singer-songwriter who captured his time so completely that it is hard to take him out of that context. But what great music he made. Tunes like "Season of the Witch" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man" are creepy psychedelic classics, and his more traditional folky tunes are quite beautiful at times. I even dig "Atlantis."

ABOVE: Donovan is groovy

The Small Faces/The Faces is kind of a BS induction. It would be akin to inducting Joy Division and New Order as one band. Yes, one was born of the other, but they are two very different and distinct bands. Also, They are more on the margin of deserving enshrinement. The Small Faces were a talented British folkish/psychedelic band featuring the great Steve Marriott, while The Faces were a fantastic (but not really innovative) bar band featuring Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. I really dig The Faces music (not so much Small Faces), especially Ronnie Lane’s contributions. So, I think Small Faces/Faces is a marginal choice, but definitely not the worst in Rockhall history (that award goes to Percy Sledge). I find it interesting that Small Faces/Faces was the one inductee that did not leak ahead of time, and it brought the Performer total to six inductees instead of the usual five. Since the tallying process is far from transparent, did they decide to slip in The Faces? Did it have anything to do with Rod Stewart’s blatant campaigning and promise to reunite the Faces for a performance at the ceremony if inducted? Uh, probably.

ABOVE: Did Rod seduce the Rockhall elites into some voting fraud with his campaigning for a second Rockhall induction (this time as a Face) and his promise to reunite with his old band for the ceremony?

Laura Nyro should not be inducted as a performer. Put her in as a non-performer in one of these other categories for her songwriting. That is what she is really known for. Nyro is the only induction that I completely disagree with here, but someone on the Nominating Committee has had a hard-on for her, as this was her third year in a row to be nominated. That induction should have gone to Heart or The Cure.

I was shocked that Heart did not get in, I figured they would be a shoo-in. Right era, right demographics. The Cure is so deserving, as they greatly influenced/innovated within an entire genre of rock. I mean, bands like The Cure should be what the Hall is all about, clear innovation and influence. Hopefully they will be back on the ballot next year.

Freddie King got in through the backdoor, just as Wanda Jackson did a few years back. I’ve been pushing King for many years as well, so I am glad he got in, but it was not the best way to do it. He was nominated as a Performer, and obviously did not get the votes to be in the top 5 or 6, so the Powers-That-Be decided to induct him in the Early Influence category instead. Same deal happened with Jackson, and it was shady then too. King was hugely influential on a certain generation of guitarists, especially Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so no question (to me) that he should be in.

Very glad to see Tom Dowd inducted as well.

For more analysis and Rockhall talk, as always, I suggest Future Rock Legends.


RIP Col. Potter (Harry Morgan, 1915-2011)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

October Cuteness

Who Had the Best Decade?

Today in class, I engaged several of my students with this important question - who topped the 1970's, musically speaking? I gave them the following choices (a multiple choice quiz, of sorts): Elton John, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, David Bowie or Led Zeppelin? They could only consider the material released 1970-79. I considered The Who in there as well, but while their 70's was awesome, too many crucial records and singles were in the 60's. Several immediately went to Zeppelin (as I expected teenage boys would), but once I reminded them that both Led Zeppelin I and Led Zeppelin II could not be considered (both released in 1969), Zeppelin quickly fell out of the running. Although, one student held fast to IV and Houses of the Holy as evidence.

While Elton was initially scoffed at, I rattled off the following discography from the 70's:

Elton John (70)
Tumbleweed Connection (70)
17-11-70 (live) (71)
Madman Across the Water (71)
Honky Chateau (72)
Don't Shoot Me I'm the Piano Player (73)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (73)
Caribou (74)
Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (75)
Rock of the Westies (75)
Blue Moves (76)
Here and There (live) (76)
A Single Man (78)
Victim of Love (79)

First, how freakin' prolific. '70-'75 is unassailable (well, except Caribou). But Rock of the Westies forward really weakens the argument for Elton, so I think he's out.

I imagine my friend ANCIANT, had he been there, would have picked Bowie. But Pin-Ups, the two live throwaways and Lodger weaken Bowie for me. Plus, Young Americans is mediocre overall once you get beyond the title track.

So that left Neil and Floyd. My students went overwhelmingly with Pink Floyd, and that is tough to argue against. While it is not a long discography, just look at it:

Atom Heart Mother (70)
Meddle (71)
Obscured By Clouds (72)
Dark Side of the Moon (73)
Wish You Were Here (75)
Animals (77)
The Wall (79)

OK, Atom Heart Mother sucks, and Obscured By Clouds was a soundtrack toss-off, but the rest of that is all classic. I mean, rock and roll canon stuff.

Neil Young was about as prolific as Elton in the 70's:

After the Goldrush
Déjà vu (CSNY)
Journey Through the Past (soundtrack)
Four Way Street (CSNY) (live)
Time Fades Away (live)
On the Beach
Tonight's the Night
Long May You Run (Stills-Young Band)
American Stars 'n Bars
Comes a Time
Rust Never Sleeps (live)
Live Rust (live)

Journey Through the Past sucks, Long May You Run is terrible and American Stars 'n Bars is spotty. But the rest is great to brilliant.

My students were firmly with Floyd, but I can't decide between Floyd and Neil. Each time I want to lean towards Neil, I think Meddle/DSOTM/WYWH/Animals/The Wall. Can you really top that?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dez Reviews Peter Gabriel's New Blood, 2011

It hasn't been easy being a Peter Gabriel fan for the last fifteen years or so. The failed OVO project, some inconsequential soundtrack contributions, the one proper album of new material was the murky Up, and then a glacial collection of symphonic covers. In fact, his best piece of recent work was his 2002 soundtrack to the film 'Rabbit-Proof Fence,' Long Walk Home. While on tour this last year for his orchestral covers record Scratch My Back with his orchestra, the first half of the show consisted of the SMB material, while the second half featured orchestral reworkings of his own material. Gabriel was so pleased with these new versions of his own tunes, he decided to release those on his latest album, New Blood. He continued working with arranger John Metcalfe on these tunes, the same arranger he worked with on SMB.

I guess Gabriel felt a bit more free and bold when tinkering with his own material, because New Blood is much more interesting and successful than Scratch My Back. This whole symphonic treatment thing is in vogue with older artists these days. Ray Davies played with his Kinks material through choral arrangements (it was OK). Sting did it with Symphonicities (which was terrible). I think Gabriel's symphonic versions are quite successful. It also helps that he is in fine voice here. He was so subdued on SMB, I was afraid that perhaps he had lost his range. Not so, as he shows here.

One of the keys is that he does not choose, for the most part, obvious or overly familiar songs. Yes, "In Your Eyes" and "Digging in the Dirt" are here (as is an obligatory "Solsbury Hill" tacked on at the end as a bonus track), but the bulk of the songs here dig pretty deep into his catalogue. And that works, the less familiar material is less tied down by expectations. The rules here are the same as on SMB, no electric instruments allowed. An occasional piano is the closest Gabriel gets to traditional rock instrumentation.

The most successful songs are the ones where he takes the most chances. The driving opener "The Rhythm of the Heat" is the perfect example. Gabriel tried to get the orchestra to replicate what he had done on the original with layers of percussion. The result, especially in the extended ending, reminds one of a bold Kronos Quartet piece, with the violins and cellos slashing and cutting sharply on top of one another into a thrilling crescendo. The orchestral setting fits some of his moodier songs quite well. The already creepy "Intruder" is made even creepier here with an ominous and brooding orchestral backdrop. The chestnut "In Your Eyes" is quite nice, and benefits from Gabriel's tinkering with the song for over 20 years, it features the extra verse that he often adds in concert and features nice dynamic shifts.

There are a couple of songs where these newer versions actually improve on the originals, such as "Mercy Street," "Wallflower" and "Darkness." The strongest song on the collection is a thrilling version of "Red Rain." While it won't make you want to toss out the original version from So (which is one of Gabriel's finest moments on record, afterall), it is an exciting and bold reinterpretation in its own right that at least matches the original's passion and conviction.

It is true, not everything works here. "Downside Up" is still a mediocre song, however you arrange it, and "Don't Give Up" (never a favorite of mine) is made even more irritating than the original, replacing the annoying Kate Bush from So with an even more annoying Ane Brun. "Digging in the Dirt" does not do anything interesting enough to warrant a new version, and the tacked on "Solsbury Hill" is too similar to its original version to be of much interest (in the liner notes, Gabriel himself admits he didn't want to do "Solsbury Hill," but due to popular demand at his shows, he did an arrangement. His lack of interest shows on that one, and is why it is tacked on merely as a bonus track). But the proper album's closer (before the bonus track), "The Nest That Sailed the Sky," is a lovely, almost ambient, instrumental version of a forgotten track buried on OVO. I would have preferred he end the album there and leave "Solsbury Hill" off altogether, because it is a really nice, moody closer. The jaunty version of "Solsbury Hill" wrecks the mood.

Overall, this record will not make you want to throw out your old Peter Gabriel albums in favor of these new versions, but the best of them can stand as interesting and often quite engaging reinterpretations. Now maybe he will finally finish I/O, which he has supposedly been working on for over ten years.

Rating: *** out of *****

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dez Reviews Lindsey Buckingham's Seeds We Sow, 2011

Tonight my good friend Big Jim is attending a Lindsey Buckingham show in Houston as we speak. To rub it in, he sent me a photo of his tickets on my phone. Bastard. It reminded me that I meant to review his latest release, Seeds We Sow. Most of you probably know that Buckingham was/is the creative force behind Fleetwood Mac's most successful period. With all due respect to Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie fans, it was always Lindsay producing and arranging the songs, no matter who "wrote" them or sang on them.

Most of you probably have not followed his rather fascinating, under the radar solo career. His solo records are places where Lindsey indulges in what is necessarily somewhat restrained on the more commercial Fleetwood Mac records. Production genius? Lindsey makes overproduction an artform on his solo records (some may, and do, complain about his overproduction in his solo work, but that is almost silly. I mean, that is part of the point with Lindsey Buckingham). Neurotic and quirky songwriting? He saves his most bizarre tunes for his solo records. Great guitar? His best guitar playing is reserved for his solo records where he can really let loose. His last few solo records, including this one, are truly solo affairs. He records them at home, plays virtually every instrument, and really holes up and isolates himself from the world. These are insular records.

Seeds We Sow does not disappoint. In fact, it may be his most consistent solo effort, at least in league with the excellent Under the Skin and Gift of Screws. His outstanding acoustic fingerpicking style is all over this record, so there is plenty for guitar afficiados to enjoy here. But the songwriting is a step up from the usual here. "Rock Away Blind" and "End of Time" sound like they could easily fit on a blockbuster Fleetwood Mac release, while "One Take" rocks hard with real fire and anger. For me, "In Our Own Time" is really where the great (over)production, guitar playing, lyrics, vocals and quirky songwriting all come together best. If you are new to Buckingham's solo work, Live at the Bass Performance Hall is still the place to start, but Seeds We Sow stands alongside his best solo studio work.

ABOVE: Here's a live clip of him playing "In Our Own Time." Check out that guitar work. (Sorry for the ad you have to watch up front. It's worth it, though.)

***1/2 out of *****

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees

Well, I can say that although there remain egregious omissions from the Rock and Roll of Fame, this batch of 15 nominees is really, really solid. If the pattern of the past decade or so holds, five of these fifteen nominees will be inducted as Performers in the Class of 2012 in April. Let me say a little bit on each nominee, give you who I personally would vote for out of these, and then I will predict who I think will be in the Class of 2012. Here are the nominees…

Beastie Boys: This is their 3rd nomination, and they definitely will get in the Hall at some point, it is just a matter of when. Innovators not only in rap music, but also in mixing diverse musical elements in a rock and roll context. As innovators, this group is what the Rockhall is (or should be) all about.

The Cure: Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Perhaps the door is opening on important 80’s music, and few bands are more important or influential (or as good) from that period than The Cure. I was worried that the NomCom’s anti-80’s stance (led by 80’s-hater Steve Van Zandt) would remain firm. There are still many egregious 80’s omissions, but The Cure’s nomination goes a ways in rectifying that. Now let’s hope they actually get inducted. They are also responsible for helping the lipstick and eyeliner industry turn a profit.

Donovan: I’m a Donovan fan, and I’m glad he’s getting another nomination. His hippy dippy folk tunes, and later psychedelic pop classics, stand as some of the better representatives of that era. I don’t think his chances are too high in this company, but I’d like to see him get in eventually.

Eric B. and Rakim: Rap pioneers who, if we agree that rap has a place in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, deserve to be there. No question.

Guns ‘n Roses: As great as they were in their classic line-up, it is interesting to consider what more they could have been had they been able to keep it together longer. Had they not had such implosive drug issues, had Axl Rose not been so insane…but then they wouldn’t have been G’nR without all of that, would they? They could have been a modern Rolling Stones. But as it stands, they were the best hard rock band of the 80’s or 90’s. For Appetite For Destruction alone they need to be inducted.

Heart: Finally a nomination for the great Heart. With the Rockhall’s focus this year on the Women in Rock Exhibit, perhaps it is no surprise that they nominated quite a few women this year. The Wilson sisters and their band were responsible for some killer 70’s hard rock, and were early role models for female rockers everywhere.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Is any female rocker any cooler than Joan Jett? She was a total badass, and like Heart, served as a role model for rocker chicks worldwide.

Freddie King: Surprisingly, this is the late, great Freddie King’s first nomination. Surprising because the Rockhall has generally been very good about honoring blues greats/influences, and King was definitely influential on blues-rockers, especially Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I doubt he makes it in this class, but I would love to see him get in eventually.

Laura Nyro: Respected singer-songwriter, I’m honestly not very familiar with her material, so I can’t really say much on her. Perhaps she should be inducted as a Non-Performer, since she is more famous as a songwriter who has provided hits for others more than as a Performer. I doubt she gets in this time around, though.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: What is great about the Chili Peppers is how they have evolved over time, while maintaining influence and quality throughout their various stages. They will definitely be inducted eventually.

Rufus with Chaka Khan: Talented R&B diva/group, not sure they are really Hall-worthy, though.

Small Faces / The Faces: Great nomination, and a surprise too. The Small Faces were quite creative and admired in the 1960’s, an innovative group who dabbled in folk and psychedelia. Then they evolved into a great, gritty bar band featuring Rod Stewart on vocals, Ron Wood on guitar and the underrated Ronnie Lane (who was in both incarnations). I’d love to see these guys get in. It is a bit dubious lumping them together in one nomination, though. They were really two separate bands with some overlap in personnel. It would be like inducting Joy Division and New Order together as one band.

The Spinners: Another area that the Rockhall has actually covered quite well is R&B and soul. The Spinners would be a nice addition to the soul roster of the Hall, and a nice representative of Philly soul.

Donna Summer: The NomCom has been pushing her for several years now. She was a disco icon, and being one of the most important artists in a genre qualifies you for induction in my book.

War: War was a gritty rock/soul outfit in the 70’s, notable for their work with Eric Burdon (of The Animals) and on their own. They were great, but I am not sure they are Hall of Fame-worthy.

So, there you have it. Overall, it is a strong group. That being said, I still have (as do all Hall watchers) a long list of ridiculous snubs. For some it is the fault of the Nominating Committee (Peter Gabriel, Yes, Rush, King Crimson, The Cars, Deep Purple, Chicago, Judas Priest, Joy Division, New Order, Motorhead, The Replacements, The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Big Star…all yet to even be nominated), while others have been nominated but have yet to be inducted. But that aside, this has the potential to be a really solid class.

If I had a ballot, it would look like this…

The Cure
Guns ‘n Roses
Freddie King

I think there are many deserving nominees this year. Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, Joan Jett, Faces, Spinners, Donna Summer and Red Hot Chili Peppers will all hopefully get in at some point.

My Predictions: who I think will be inducted…

Guns ‘n Roses
Beastie Boys
The Cure
This last one is tough, I’ll go with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Thoughts? Predictions?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

RIP R.E.M., 1980-2011

"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening." - R.E.M.'s website today

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cute Stuff

I realized that I had not posted cute pics of my daughter in awhile. She is growing up fast.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

2012 Rockhall Nominee Predictions

It is that very exciting time of year again. Yes indeed, folks, why most of you look forward to the month of September. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Nominating Committee met on the 12th to determine this year’s ballot, which should be made public by the end of this month. My fellow Rockhall obsessives have been making their predictions on their various blogs and websites, so I guess I should throw in my 2 cents. Go to Future Rock Legends for links and more discussion. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily who I want on the ballot (although quite a few are ones I would agree with), it is who I think the NomCom will actually put on the ballot. Predicting these is always a crapshoot, because we know little of the inner workings of this very secretive group of insiders. The ballot in recent years has been growing, so I will stick with 15 slots (with 5 eventually getting into the Hall for 2012). My thoughts:

As for the newly eligible artists this year (25 years after the release of their first single or album), I think that Guns ‘n Roses is the only sure thing. They will be nominated and inducted. The Rockhall would love the buzz surrounding “will they / won’t they” reunite and play for the induction ceremony (they won't).

I think that this is the year Stevie Ray Vaughan (and hopefully with Double Trouble) finally gets nominated. Whenever they do nominate him, he will be inducted that year. But I have been sure he would be nominated every year since he was first eligible, and it has not happened yet. Seems a no-brainer to me. But that does not mean much with the NomCom of the RRHoF.

They’ve been pushing several artists hard for the past several years, and they will continue to do so. Look for Beastie Boys, Chic and Donna Summer to appear yet again on the ballot. Perhaps they will give Donovan another shot as well.

Rumor has it that they are finally warming to the long neglected alternative 80’s scene, so it may finally be time for Sonic Youth to lead that charge. Their record on the 80's in general is just shameful.

I’ve got a feeling also that this may finally be the year they give up on their Rush ban and finally put them on the ballot as the prog representative. Hey, they finally relented on KISS, who may also get another shot.

Steven Van Zandt has to get his requisite 50’s or early 60’s pick on there. I’m thinking, along with many others, that it may be Johnny Burnette and His Rock and Roll Trio this time around. Which would be fine with me. Burnette rocked.

I think that they may throw a bone to the country crowd and give Gram Parsons another nomination.

For the last four slots, your guess is as good as mine. I’ll say Deep Purple, Kraftwerk, J.J. Cale and Roxy Music, just shooting in the dark there.

So, my predictions for the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ballot are:

Guns ‘n Roses
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
Beastie Boys
Donna Summer
Sonic Youth
Johnny Burnette and His Rock and Roll Trio
Gram Parsons
Deep Purple
J.J. Cale
Roxy Music

Now, that looks like a decent ballot. We’ll see how correct I am by the end of the month, and then I will give you my predictions on who will make it into the Hall from the actual ballot.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Ago Today

I felt I should say something about the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This is the last thing that I cover in my U.S. History course that I teach, and my students are still old enough to remember the day (in several years they won't be, which will be strange). I do an excellent 9/11 lesson (about a week long) to cap off the year, and I was pleased when some current students told me that last year's group told them about it and how effective it was. Anyway, I digress.

Like most of the country, I experienced 9/11 through television. I was in law school in Austin at the time. My friend Brian called me up that morning to wake me up and tell me to turn on the TV. The first plane had already hit, I honestly can't remember if the second one had already. I do recall watching as the news of the Pentagon and United 93 broke. I recall watching both towers fall live. As shocked and horrified as I was, I could not imagine what people were going through who were actually at those locations. It was a strange sensation for part of the day when the media could not locate the president (he was in Air Force One for part of the day, as it was deemed safer to have him airborne). I walked to school and of course law students were glued to the TV's in the lounges. I have a vivid image of one girl I knew with tears streaming down her face. (One professor still insisted on holding class that day, though! If we don't learn about Commercial Paper, then the terrorists have won! He at least refrained from calling on anyone that day).

I have watched several of the documentaries they have been airing nonstop this weekend and they are still quite gripping. I especially love the story of Stanley and Brian, two workers in one of the towers who seem to share their story on every single documentary on 9/11 made (including the one that I show my students). Touching story of surival and a new friendship, though. Anyway, it's been ten years.

ABOVE: Here's Stanley recounting his story

Friday, September 9, 2011

OK, Fine. I'll Talk About It

I’ve finally gotten interested in the 2012 election. There is a great website called, which breaks down the positions of each of the candidates (both declared and potential). They also have a quiz that you take, where you respond to a series of policy questions, and then they categorize you on a graph with Liberal/Populist/Conservative/Libertarian at each corner, with the middle being labeled Moderate. Once you take the quiz, click the link at the bottom that says something like “analyze” or “explain” results for a fairly detailed self-report. It turns out that I am a “Moderate Libertarian Conservative.” Even better, based on your responses to the questions, they line you up by percentage with the candidates, from the one you agree with the most to the least. It turns out Jon Huntsman is my man. Well, sort of.

Now, the quiz isn’t perfect, as it just focuses on policy positions. It does not take into account the important intangibles, such as Bachmann’s shrill insanity or Perry’s deep, deep stupidity. Even with Huntsman, my positions lined up with his less than 50% of the time. So I don’t really have an ideal candidate for me out there running. Perry, thank God, was pretty low on my list.

I watched the Republican Debate the other night, and I thought it was quite good. It is clear that this is already really a two person race between Perry and Romney, from positioning them in the middle of the stage of 8 candidates to asking them the first set of questions. (Ron Paul is there for entertainment, it is fun to listen to Cain mangle the English language, I don’t know why Newt is still there other than to complain about the media pitting Republicans against each other (Newt, this is a debate), Bachmann tries mightily to keep her bumper sticker quips straight, my guy Huntsman makes sense but he is not Red enough for the primaries, and they hardly let Santorum even speak). Between those two serious candidates, I will strongly support Romney. The man is intelligent, and despite what he has to say in the primaries, I think that his record shows a reasonable leader willing consider good ideas, regardless of their origin.

Perry touts Texas job creation, which sounds great, but when most of the new Texas jobs amount to serving fries at the drive-through, it is not so impressive. Also, Perry does not believe in working too seriously to educate our next generation for better than minimum wage work, because Texas ranks dead last in the Union in graduating high schoolers. Perry’s solution was to slash budgets and fire teachers (as opposed to fixing a broken property tax system that will continue to deliver deficits every year until it is fixed). The only benefit to Perry’s winning the presidency is that at least he would be out of the Texas governor’s mansion.

ABOVE: Nightmare scenario

And what is Palin’s game? I know she craves the limelight like a third rate reality TV star, but I think it is more. I think she is gunning for a VP slot. She would be much more likely to be chosen by Perry than by Romney. Can you imagine a Perry/Palin ticket? One that would have a good chance of defeating Obama? Scary. Snooky could defeat Obama right now. I say this as one who actually voted for Obama in ’08 (because of Palin, but I actually really liked McCain). Obama has been beyond disappointing. Even worse than being wrong, he has been ineffectual. So the Republicans need to be careful about who they put on the ticket. That ticket will most likely occupy the White House after 2012.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Told You So

This is cool. I was just flipping through the excellent Neil Young biography by Jimmy McDonough, Shakey, and came across a reference to the Houston show that I discussed in my write-up below for Neil. Recall how I said that it was the loudest show I had ever attended. Evidently I'm not the only one. McDonough quoted a friend of his who attended that same show in '89. From the book: "It was total mayhem, and McFarlin was in heaven. Glued in front of [Neil's] amp in Houston, he said it was the loudest show he's ever heard Young play. 'He split my brain open. His guitar was just deafening. You could actually see the sound waves.'" My memory of the show is similar. I recall leaving the show and looking at my friend Johannes, who had a somewhat dazed look on his face. It was like we had just been assaulted by Neil's rock and roll.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #1: Neil Young

NOTE: It is the nature of these lists that they are a bit fluid. If I had made the list on a different day, the upper 20’s might have looked a little different, with one or a few artists slipping outside the bubble and a few others making it on. Two were particularly close. Bob Dylan was referenced in probably 1/4th of the posts, and I am a big fan. If I could redo it, he probably would have been here. Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young) were also close, but the members are well represented. Stephen Stills and Neil Young were in Buffalo Springfield, and Stills also got in solo. David Crosby is in with The Byrds.

And now for Neil Young…

L.A. Freeway, 1966. Steve Stills and Richie Furay have just arrived in town and want to put together a band. Stuck in traffic, Stills looks over and notices a funky looking hearse a few lanes over. Steve says, “that’s gotta be Neil Young.” Stills and Young had crossed paths in Canada the previous year, and both had wanted to play together on a permanent basis. Young had already developed an eccentric reputation in musician circles, and he was known to drive around in a hearse because it was great for carrying and loading and unloading (with the sliding tray for coffins) his amps and guitars. The freeway is essentially a parking lot, so Stills jumps out of the car and flags Neil down. Neil had also recently relocated to L.A. after the break-up of his shortlived band with Rick James (!) called The Mynah Birds (no recordings of this mythical group exist). Buffalo Springfield is born.

Neil Young thrives on limitations. His voice, like Dylan’s, is an acquired taste. While expressive, it is not always easy on the ears. Half of the songs that Neil wrote for Buffalo Springfield were sung by Richie Furay. He is a fine acoustic folk guitarist, but his electric skills could be called rudimentary. Neil Young is excellent for beginner guitarists to learn (his brilliant solo in “Cinnamon Girl” really is one note, played repeatedly). Yet, Neil regularly appears on Top Guitarists lists in various polls and magazines. He plays and sings and writes within his limitations, but opens the songs wide open for emotional exploration. In 1969, he was laid up in bed with a dangerously high fever. Delirious, he wrote “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” in one afternoon. They are three of his most beloved songs. He severely injured his back in ’72 and had to be seated most of the time with a brace for most of a year. This forced a laidback approach, so he recorded Harvest. Neil Young turns his limitations into opportunities.

1989, my brother D takes me and my friend Johannes to see Neil Young in downtown Houston. Neil’s cache is at an all time low, as the 80’s were the strangest decade of his long career. He had released, in succession, records in the following styles: hard rock/country, rock, synth pop (where he sang half of the songs through a computer), rockabilly, country, modern rock and big band blues. He seemed so willfully resistant to success in the 80’s that his record company, Geffen, sued him for purposely making bad records. Anyway, this show is part of his Bluenotes tour. The article in the paper earlier that day warned fans not to expect any of the old faves, he was playing strictly obscure blues music on this tour. We show up, and he comes out and plays an acoustic set which includes the following songs: “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold” and “Needle and the Damage Done.” Not playing the old faves, huh? He takes a break, and then returns with a band that looks somewhat familiar. There is no horn section. This is not a blues show. This is Crazy Horse. He plays the loudest, most raucous set I have ever seen anyone play. He plays so many favorites and wonderful rarities, and a ton of new songs that are just awesome. These songs would soon appear on Freedom, his best record in over a decade. One image stays with me. Some youngish dude in a suit and tie in the front, rocking out harder than any hardcore-tatted up rocker, and Neil, appreciating the working stiff’s energy and abandon, reaches out and grabs his hand in rock and roll solidarity. Coolest moment: distortion ringing from the last note of “Cinnamon Girl” hangs in the air, Neil has a maniacal grin on his face, mutters “ah, that brings a tear to my eye” and then rips into the grittiest version of “Mr. Soul” you’ve ever heard. This is easily the loudest concert I have ever attended. My ears ring for days afterwards.

Early 90’s, Todd and I are driving from San Antonio to the Woodlands to catch Neil Young being backed by Booker T. and the MGs. Driving down I-10, we come upon a drab, olive green bus with tinted windows and the top half of an old car attached to the roof. Faded paint on the back of the bus reads “Buffalo Springfield.” We have just come upon Neil’s tour bus, one that he still uses from the Springfield days. This is the coolest bus I have ever seen. Todd and I frantically try to get Neil’s attention, but we only get anxious glances from the bus driver. Later that night, the show is so great that we decide to get cheap seats for the next night in Austin and drive up there, meeting our buddy Johannes. Our seats in the Frank Erwin Center are in the very back row. We are leaning against the back concrete wall of the arena. It doesn’t matter. During “Rockin’ in the Free World” the three of us play air guitar in unison like fools. A large woman sitting next to us is laughing hysterically at us/with us.

At the age of 65 (last year), he released one of the most bold records of his career.

ABOVE: An appropriate way to cap off my list. This is Jimmy Fallon doing a spot on Neil Young singing "Whip My Hair" by Willow. Very, very funny. Keep watching, as Fallon/Young is joined by a very special guest. And yes, that is actually him. Awesome.

What To Listen To:
Neil has got a lot of stuff. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was his first record with Crazy Horse, and it remains their best and most vital collaboration. After the Goldrush is probably his most balanced record between gentle folk and driving rock and roll. Harvest remains his most popular record, and it is a gorgeous So-Cal folk classic. On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are two of the darkest records in rock, both are uncompromising and great. After a decade of dizzy changes of direction and some bad music, Neil rose from the ashes with the glorious Freedom in 1989, which stands shoulder to shoulder with his classic 70’s releases in quality. Ragged Glory was a much hyped return to form with Crazy Horse. I really like the closet cleaning record Silver and Gold. Neil’s latest, Le Noise, is a bold and intense collaboration with Daniel Lanois. Neil has released a slew of live records. Rust Never Sleeps is live, but it is also all new material, and was a brilliant capper to the 70’s. Live Rust is my favorite live record by anybody. Live at the Fillmore East is part of a prime Crazy Horse show from the early 70’s, and Live at Massey Hall is a wonderful solo acoustic show from 1971, featuring some very funny banter with the audience throughout. Neil is hard to anthologize, but Decade is one of those near perfect compilations, covering the crucial decade of 1965-75.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #2: Bruce Springsteen

Rock and Roll Savior

"I have seen the future of rock and roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen." With that famous concert review, critic Jon Landau introduced the world to Bruce Springsteen (and got himself a new job as Springsteen's producer and manager). In the 1970's and early 80's, music fans viewed Bruce shows as near religious celebrations. The energy, passion and length of his shows were rock and roll personified, 3-4 hour rock and roll revivals.

What was it that set his shows apart? I think it was a matter of commitment and focus. In a well publicized interview from the time period, Springsteen stated that the only place where he felt alive was on the stage. If you watch the excellent recent documentary from HBO on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town you can see firsthand his perfectionism and obsessive nature. It was all consuming, exhausting even for his like-minded bandmates. He never had a drug problem, had few romantic relationships until his first marriage in the mid-80' was all music all the time.

During his performing heyday in the 70's and early 80's, Bruce toured incessantly with his superb E Street Band. It was a family atmosphere onstage that was embraced by the fans as well. There was an uncommon bond between Springsteen and the E Streeters, and also between the band onstage and the appreciative audience. It was redemptive for both sides. Back in the day going to a Springsteen show was a rite of passage, and the key was that it meant at least as much to him as it did to us.

The first time that I saw Springsteen live was in '85 on his mammoth Born in the USA tour. It was not just a show, it was an event. What really struck me, even before The Boss and his band hit the stage, was the electric excitement in the crowd. It was a party, a celebration of true believers. I can still see several young men running around the stadium carrying a huge banner demanding "Rosalita, come out tonight!" (a request for his fan favorite tune from 1974. He didn't play it that night, though). I can see the huge beach balls being batted around the stadium, from section to section, as well as that favorite 80's stadium passtime, The Wave. Once Bruce actually came out to play, he turned that football stadium (it was Texas Stadium in Dallas) into a raucous, small club. I have never experienced anything like that. He was able to reach out and grab each crowd member by the lapels and draw them into the almost carnival atmosphere.

ABOVE: Great clip of Bruce in Phoenix in '78 peforming "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." Check out the sheer exuberance of the performance, and the rapport between Bruce and the dearly departed Clarence Clemons.

Of course he could not burn that intensely forever. His shows these days are still great concerts, but they are shadows (at worst, parodies) of what they once were. Rock and roll is essentially a young man's game (although my #1 seems to defy that rule). Bruce Springsteen also has a more balanced life. His shows are no longer a matter of life or death with him. He is married, has children, his legend is intact. He no longer has as much to fight for. He is probably a happier individual than he was back then, but in gaining happiness and balance, he lost a necessary edge.

What To Listen To:
My favorite Springsteen record is his second one, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. It captures his looser, jazzier early sound wonderfully. Side 2 contains three of his all time great longer tunes that segue into a sidelong suite. Born To Run broke him into the mainstream, it is a declaration of freedom and expresses the desperate desire to bust out of a dead-end existence. It was with the angry Darkness on the Edge of Town where he first started to develop his blue collar hero persona. But it was a dark, dark ride. The acoustic Nebraska was meant to be a full band album, but Bruce felt that the demos sounded better, so he released it as is. A bold move for a major artist. Born in the USA was one of the biggest records of the 80's, with an impressive seven charting singles. He was finally able to blend his working class stories with irresistible rock and pop hooks. Tunnel of Love was a subdued follow-up, but has grown in critical esteem over the years. It is one of the more mature looks at matters of the heart to come out of rock and roll. As for his more recent releases, The Rising and Magic are the best of the lot. It is difficult to capture the live Springsteen experience on record, but Hammersmith Odeon, London '75 captures Bruce on his first ever stop in London at a crucial and exciting time in his career, when Born To Run was not the classic that it is today but simply a new album he was trying to promote. Box set Live 1975/1985 is a fabulous document chronicling live shows from that crucial decade. Essential Bruce Springsteen is the best of the compilations available.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #3: peter gabriel

Innovator or Imperialist?
“World music” instrumentation and influence is nothing new in rock. Pasty Brits and adventurous Americans have tried adding a bit of the exotic to their work ever since that unfortunate day that George Harrison discovered the sitar. How much is creatively incorporating these influences vs. co-opting third world cultural heritage for profit?

One of the more controversial situations arose with Paul Simon’s excellent 1986 blockbuster, Graceland. Simon used South African musicians for the record, exposing many Western ears to sounds they had never heard before. Later Simon was accused by some of the musicians of not paying them what was promised. (There is also the legal battle between Simon and Los Lobos over the songwriting credits on “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints”). It is hard to feel too sorry for the musicians who played with Simon on the record and the subsequent tour. They gained exposure in the West that they never otherwise would have, and many of them capitalized on that. Of course, the Los Lobos controversy is a different matter.

Peter Gabriel has to be the most successful Western artist to use world music in his own songs. He started using world music on his stunning 1980 solo album, the third Peter Gabriel record (aka ‘melt’). Using African percussion on some of his songs, he broke new ground combining Western electronic-based music with African rhythms. The skeletal beauty “Biko” is the perfect marriage of these two worlds. From there, he experimented further on the moody Security. But it was So that hit paydirt, where he found the perfect balance between Western melody and electronics and world rhythms and textures. He managed to make pop music that could move listeners in any hemisphere (nowhere better than on the non-album b-side, “Don’t Break This Rhythm”).

While So was his commercial peak, his creative peak came soon after with Passion, his soundtrack album for Martin Scorsese’s controversial film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’ A mostly instrumental record, it again marries Western electronics with African and Middle Eastern percussion and instrumentation. But whereas before the Western music was primary, on Passion he reversed that equation. The Western melodies and electronic music took a backseat and he allowed the great African and Middle Eastern musicians to take center stage. It is a tour de force of world music in the true sense of the term.

Is Gabriel a cultural imperialist, profiting from the music of the third world? There is a better argument against Simon than Gabriel. Gabriel has definitely given back, from being the primary force behind the WOMAD festivals/movement to creating the Real World studios and record label where Gabriel records and promotes musicians from all over the world. Real World Records has brought artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sheila Chandra and Geoffrey Oryema, among many others, to Western music stores. As great as his work with Genesis was, and as moving and experimental as his solo work has been, Peter Gabriel’s most important contribution may be WOMAD and Real World.

What To Listen To:
With the exception of Colin Hay, Peter Gabriel is my favorite vocalist. What makes a great rock vocalist is quite different than what makes a great traditional pop or opera singer. It is all about individuality, and Gabriel’s bold vocal quirks and raspy voice just grab me emotionally like nobody else. NOTE: His first several records were all eponymous (he said that he wanted them to be like different issues of a magazine), but they are generally differentiated by their cover art.

His debut as a solo artist, Peter Gabriel (aka ‘car’), is a thrilling declaration of independence from his former band, Genesis. He is bursting with ideas, most of which work wonderfully. The third Peter Gabriel (aka ‘melt’) is generally regarded as his best, and that is hard to argue against. He begins to bring in world music textures, innovates the gated drum sound, and delivers a set of his most compelling songs. So was his commercial breakthrough, and rightfully so. “In Your Eyes” is in the running for greatest love song ever. Passion, his soundtrack for ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ is the best example I have come across of seamlessly melding Western and African/Middle Eastern music. A gorgeous piece of work. Plays Live is an excellent live record that sums up his pre-So sound nicely. The two disc Hit is a decent compilation, but it is somewhat haphazardly programmed.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #4: The Who

The singer is an uncomfortable mix of golden rock god and London street thug. Tommy thrust him into the former role, but he more naturally fits the latter. He prances around the stage, dangerously swinging his heavily taped microphone like a lasso. Occasionally he will nail the drummer in the head with it. He’s got a powerful wail, and exudes confidence, but he is also at the mercy of the scrawny guitarist to his left, whom he has punched in the face many times. Yet, he still depends on him for a living.

The drummer is a complete lunatic. Flailing about madly at his drums, wild-eyed and free, he is a child in a man’s body. A child with a lot of money and a penchant for destroying hotel rooms, cross dressing and driving cars into swimming pools. Due to his antics, the band often has difficulty finding hotels that will accept them in certain cities, even though they are one of the biggest bands in the world. Sometimes he has difficulty keeping a simple beat, yet is also considered by many to be a genius on his instrument. He is. The bass player is often frustrated playing with him. He will be dead at 32.

The guitarist. The most prominent feature is his honker. He is often morose, yet plays with a rage that is true and beautiful. He accidently broke a guitar in frustration in the mid-60’s (he was swinging the guitar and it penetrated the low ceiling of the club, and he proceeded to smash it to bits in anger), and finding that the audience responded favorably, it became part of the act. An expensive part. In the early days he would steal guitars from music shops in order to have something to destroy later that evening. He is one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation and possesses an angelic voice. In fact, the band’s early manager wanted to dump the singer and have the guitarist sing all of the songs. He jumps, scissor kicks, makes ridiculous rock god poses, and swings his arm around like a windmill over his guitar strings, sometimes slashing his fingers and playing with blood dripping on to the stage. He turns his amps up so loud that his band held the record in the Guiness Book for “world’s loudest band.” He can also write beautiful acoustic ballads. He is an unapologetic sell out, hawking his band’s songs for any car or deodorant company who will pay. In fact, the band's brilliant 1967 concept album was called Sell Out and celebrates commercialism. He thinks the counterculture is the joke that it really is, calling one of his most famous songs "an anti-anti song" and notoriously booting activist Abbie Hoffman from the stage at Woodstock, snarling "get the f*ck off my stage." In his off time, he helps run a publishing house and works as a book editor.

The bass player stands completely still amidst the maelstrom. Completely still with a bemused look on his face, as if to say “what am I doing playing with these misfits?” He may be standing still, but his fingers are a blur of motion, dancing all over the neck of his bass. I would say that most classic rock music fans consider him to be the greatest rock bassist that there ever was. Listen to “The Real Me.” What makes many of his band’s songs so interesting is that while the guitarist often prefers to play driving, slashing rhythms, it is the bass player who solos like a guitarist. Almost constantly. Yet he also keeps the group’s rhythm grounded, because the lunatic drummer sure as hell doesn’t care. He seems a calm and dull bloke, especially when compared to his colleagues, but he actually has a hankering for booze, coke and groupies. The evening of his death, he will enjoy some blow in a swanky Vegas hotel room in the company of two strippers. This was when he was 58 years of age.

Who are they? Exactly.

ABOVE: The survivors

What To Listen To:
Debut The Who Sings My Generation is a powerhouse rock/R&B record. Maximum R&B, as their tour posters used to proclaim. Many dismiss the sophomore effort A Quick One (While He's Away), but I find it quirky and a lot of fun. The Who Sell Out is a brilliant concept album that was a dry run for the more ambitious ones to come. It is full of sparkling 60’s pop songs and designed to play like a pirate radio broadcast, full with fake radio jingles in between the songs. Of course Tommy is the most famous rock concept album ever made, and while the story is silly, the music is awesome. Who’s Next is considered by most (and me) to be their peak. It is a muscular classic rock monolith, but Peter Townshend breaks ground with his experimentation with synths and sequencers. The rare experimental blockbuster. Quadrophenia is even harder to follow than Tommy, but it is brilliant musically, featuring some of the best use of synthesizers in a hard rock setting that you will ever hear. The Who have released a boatload of live records, but Live At Leeds is the one to get. Ridiculously loud and bombastic, it is The Who at their most muscular. Get the expanded deluxe edition with the full performance of Tommy on it. According to Wikipedia, The Who has released 21 compilations, but I bet it is more. Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy is great because it collects all of their 1960’s pop singles, some of which were not on their records. Odds & Sods is a must for fans, because it is not a hits collection, instead a collection of b-sides, rarities and outtakes, some of which are their best songs. As for actual hits collections, the two disc Ultimate Collection is the best one out there.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #5: Men At Work

Back in the Day
Obviously I do not think that Men at Work were the 5th greatest band in history, ahead of The Beatles, The Stones, Kinks and others. But seeing as this list is about who’s music has been most important to me, MAW needs to be up here. I have no argument for them being one of the greatest bands (because they were not), but I can argue that they were a great band. Singer/leader Colin Hay possesses my favorite set of pipes in the business. He’s got a quirky delivery and an impressive range, as he sings most of his songs with a wink and a smile. Greg Ham offered some interesting sonic textures with his prominent flute and sax parts, while guitarist Ron Strykert was quite underrated. John Rees and Jerry Speiser were a rock solid rhythm section.

Part of it is timing. If you want to go way back to the foggy beginnings of Dez’s musical development, you’d start with some soundtracks. After the children’s songs, the next thing that caught my attention as a little listener were the soundtracks to films. The soundtrack composed by John Williams for Star Wars was crucial, I wore that thing out. Now I know that he was fairly derivative of Holst and other composers, but at the time the Star Wars music was it for me. It was such visual music, I could put on those records and replay the film in my mind. I still think that was one of the greatest film scores ever.

The first rock band for me was KISS. Falling victim to their brilliant mid and late-70’s marketing campaign of KISS dolls, lunch boxes, cartoons and everything else, they got me. But in the process my parents also bought me some KISS records. God bless ‘em, buying a six year old a record with pictures like this on the cover…

I have a strong memory of sitting in my room listening to the song “Strutter.” My Dad came in to check up on me, and I asked him, “Dad, what’s a strutter?” He then attempted to demonstrate to me how to strut across the room. Now that was funny. While I did enjoy the music of KISS, at that age it was just as much about the image, toys and visuals. There are still photos circulating amongst my family of a seven year old Ace Frehley on Christmas morning. My parents had bought me a KISS make-up kit, and my sister made me up as my favorite KISS member just in time for the family gathering.

Fast forward a few years, the very first 45 record I owned was “Our House” by Madness. That is still a great song. After that was “Electric Avenue” by Eddie Grant. For perhaps my 9th or 10th birthday, my friend Benjamin gave me two records. After the soundtracks and KISS records, I count these as my first real rock/pop albums that I owned. One was Duran Duran’s debut, Duran Duran. The second was Men At Work’s Business As Usual. I really enjoyed all of my early music, but no record captured my attention like Business As Usual. I believe that was the first record (beyond the soundtrack music) that I really dove into wholeheartedly, listening to every note. I know that record backwards and forwards probably better than any other.

Business As Usual was huge at the time. Going multi-platinum, they won the Grammy for Best New Artist that year, with the record spawning two #1 hits (“Who Can It Be Now?” and, of course, the unofficial Australian anthem, “Down Under”). So, what is this vegemite sandwich? I did some research, and it appears to be a nasty looking vegetable spread that was popular down there. The line “He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich” became such a catchphrase at the time that McDonald’s started offering the McVegemite Sandwich for a brief time. Really.

ABOVE: a vegemite sandwich

ABOVE: Colin Hay doing a great acoustic version of MAW's signature tune, "Down Under"

I got to see and meet Colin Hay around 2000 when he came through Austin touring as a solo acoustic act. Hay has forged a respectable, if low key, solo career that has gained momentum over the decades. He now has a respectable following in his own right. Anyway, this show was not promoted very well, and I arrived at this little club where there were maybe ten people in the audience. I am not kidding. But Colin gave a great show anyway, chatting between tunes and telling humorous anecdotes about his Men At Work days. He also played a devastating version of “Overkill,” MAW’s finest song. It was such a great experience meeting him afterwards. I got to shake the man’s hand and tell him that his music has been a huge part of my life since I was a little kid. He just smiled broadly, with one eye fixed on me and that lazy eye of his looking off in another direction, and said “awight, at’s great!” in that thick mix of a Scottish/Australian accent of his. He then signed some CD covers for me and was off.

What To Listen To:
Men At Work shown brightly, but they were a shortlived act. They only put out three studio records. Business As Usual is essential 80’s, one of the most charming pop records of the early part of the decade, with almost every song having substantial merit. It was huge and you can hear why. Follow-up Cargo was more uneven, but had some peaks at least as high as what was on Business As Usual, with “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake” being two of their best tunes. There were also some throwaways, though, making it not quite as great as the debut. Colin Hay and flautist/sax player/keyboardist Greg Ham reunited in the 90’s as Men At Work for some touring with some crack session players and released a surprisingly strong live record, Brazil. There are quite a few budget compilations out there, and none of them hit the mark. I guess Contraband is the best of them. I would recommend Colin Hay’s solo work as well. I really enjoy the solo acoustic outings the best, Peaks and Valleys and Going Somewhere.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #6: The Police

Sting the Petulant Pansy
In 2007, I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams. I have always loved The Police, but since they broke up in the mid-1980's, I had long given up on seeing them live. Then...The Reunion Tour! I paid an exorbitant amount of money for tickets (this was the fourth highest grossing tour in history), but I didn't care. This is the freakin' Police. The show did not disappoint. One of the best concerts I have ever seen. I own quite a bit of live Police material, and honestly, they weren't the greatest live band. But, musically speaking, they were better than ever on this 2007/08 tour. This is not just rosy memories here, the live album from the tour, Certifiable, confirms that they were spot on for this one off tour. It is a killer live record.

On his website, Stewart Copeland wrote a funny and self-deprecating review of the second show on the tour. It got a lot of attention, with the media speculating that Sting and Stew were feuding only two shows into the tour, but Stewart made clear later that it was largely tongue in cheek. Anyway, it is a fun read, here it is...

“Whenever you’re ready Mr. Copeland” says Charlie, the production manager, as two crew members hold aside the giant gong, creating just enough space for me to slither onto my percussion stage, which is still down in its pit. I leap on board but my foot catches something and I sprawl into the arena in a jumble as the little stage starts to rise into view. Never mind. The audience is screaming with anticipation as I collect myself in the dark and start to warm, up the gong with a few gentle taps. But I’m overdoing it. It’s resonating and reaching its crescendo before the stage has fully reached its position. Sort of like a premature ejaculation. There’s nothing for it so I take a big swing for the big hit. Problem is, I’m just fractionally too far away and the beater misses the sweet spot and the big pompous opening to the show is a damp squib. Never mind.

I stride manfully to my drums. Andy has started the opening guitar riff to MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE and the crowd is going nuts. Problem is, I missed hearing him start. Is he on the first time around or the second? I look over at Sting and he’s not much help, his cue is me – and I’m lost. Never mind. “Crack!” on the snare and I’m in, so Sting starts singing. Problem is, he heard my crack as two in the bar, but it was actually four – so we are half a bar out of sync with each other. Andy is in Idaho.

Well we are professionals so we soon get sorted, but the groove is eluding us. We crash through MESSAGE and then go strait into SYNCHRONICITY. But there is just something wrong. We just can’t get on the good foot. We shamble through the song and hit the big ending. Last night Sting did a big leap for the cut-off hit, and he makes the same move tonight, but he gets the footwork just a little bit wrong and doesn’t quite achieve lift-off. The mighty Sting momentarily looks like a petulant pansy instead of the god of rock. Never Mind. Next song is going to be great…

But it isn’t. We get to the end of the first verse and I snap into the chorus groove – and Sting doesn’t. He’s still in the verse. We’ll have to listen to the tapes tomorrow to see who screwed up, but we are so off kilter that Sting counts us in to begin the song again. This is ubeLIEVably lame. We are the mighty Police and we are totally at sea.

And so it goes, for song after song. All I can think about is how Dietmar is going to string us up. In rehearsal this afternoon we changed the keys of EVERY LITTLE THING and DON’T STAND SO CLOSE so needless to say Andy and Sting are now on-stage in front of twenty thousand fans playing avant-garde twelve-tone hodgepodges of both tunes. Lost, lost, lost. I also changed my part for DON’T STAND and it’s actually working quite well but there is a dissonant noise coming from my two colleagues. In WALKING/FOOTSTEPS, I worked out a cool rhythm change for the rock-a-billy guitar solo, but now I make a complete hash of it – by playing it in the wrong part of the song. It’s not sounding so cool.

It usually takes about four or five shows in a tour before you get to the disaster gig. But we’re The Police so we are a little ahead of schedule. It’s only the second show (not counting the fan gig – 4,000 people doesn’t count as a gig in the Police scale of things).

When we meet up back-stage for the first time after the set and before the encores, we fall into each other’s arms laughing hysterically. Above our heads, the crowd is making so much noise that we can’t talk. We just shake our heads ruefully and head back up the stairs to the stage. Funny thing is, we are enjoying ourselves anyway. Screw it, it’s only music. What are you gonna do? But maybe it’s time to get out of Vancouver…”

ABOVE: "Voices Inside My Head / When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around" from the Reunion Tour. Check out Sting's bass work especially, he is going to town. Stewart is brilliant on the drums, as usual.

What To Listen To:
The Police only released five records in their relatively short tenure as greatest band on the planet. All five are worth having, and each has its own distinct character. Outlandos d'Amour is their hardest rocking record where they were trying to pass themselves off as part of the punk movement (nobody bought it, they were much too talented musicians to be real punks, and Sting was already showing himself to be a master pop songwriter). Reggatta de Blanc shows them getting a little more sophisticated and really experimenting with reggae influences. Stewart Copeland's drumming is so great on this record. Zenyatta Mondatta is The Police at their most stripped down and skeletal, but the songs really have space to breathe, especially on the first half. Ghost in the Machine has a thicker sound, where they expand their sonic palatte considerably, using synths, horns and even some steel drums. Synchronicity was their blockbuster, and deservedly so. "Synchronicity II"/"Every Breath You Take"/"King of Pain"/"Wrapped Around Your Finger" is a hell of a stretch on any record. As I said above, The Police actually were tighter and better live on this reunion tour than on any previous tours. Certifiable is an outstanding live document, but only available at Best Buy or iTunes. The Police is an outstanding two disc compilation.