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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #7: U2

The Art of Reinvention

Few things are more American than the comeback. In all walks of life, we love the rise, the fall and the rise again story arc. I think it fits in nicely with our historical character as a people, going all the way back to manifest destiny and the wide open possibilities for anyone with initiative and drive. At our birth as a people, it was only the driven and adventurous who made the trip over in the first place (or debt prisoners). Rock and roll is essentially an American art form, regardless of the nationality of its practitioners. And as Bono himself has said, the American Myth has always been something of a religion to the Irish.

So the comeback is something we love in all walks of life; politics, business, sports and our entertainment. But even better than the mere comeback is the successful reinvention, because not only do you rise again from the ashes of your past, but you do it with something new to say or do, not merely successfully reproducing what worked before. There are quite a few reinvention stories in rock music. Some are not artistically great, but at least are commercially successful (take Aerosmith, turning from washed up hard rock dinos into power ballad kings in the 90's).

Bands have several options once they have a huge hit record. They could pull a Dire Straits or Peter Gabriel and lay low for several years, allowing the dust and expectations to settle (as each did after Brothers in Arms and So, respectively). They could try to recapture the same vibe and magic, usually to diminishing returns (INXS after Kick). They could call it a day and go out on top of the world, avoiding the question of “what do we do next?” altogether (The Police after Synchronicity). Or, they could pull the most difficult trick of all, which is to realize that they cannot improve upon their current sound, and therefore go back to the drawing board and create a new sound. This is risky, because why leave the comfort of what got you there? Will your fans rebel?

After U2 released The Joshua Tree in 1987, they were the biggest band in the world. Years ago when I gave you my Favorite Records list, The Joshua Tree was (and still is) my favorite record of all time. It is near perfection. What the hell do you do after a Joshua Tree? They stalled with Rattle and Hum and its disaster of a documentary film that came close to turning U2 into a joke. Seeing the road ahead after Rattle and Hum, they almost broke up, then they decided to leave America, spiritually and musically, and return to Europe in their aesthetic. They went to Berlin (and back to Dublin) and tried to capture some of that Bowie/Eno Low vibe.

The result was the most impressive reinvention in rock history. From being on top of the world with The Joshua Tree, they were able to revamp their entire sound and remain on top with Achtung Baby. The fact that both The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are two of the greatest and most admired records of the past thirty years says volumes about the talent and resilience of Ireland’s greatest band. It is also a testament to what quite a bit of desperation can do. Achtung Baby was a rebirth, and such a creative burst is rare in a band that had already been around for a decade.

What To Listen To:
Boy was an auspicious debut, made most exciting by Edge’s already interesting approach to the guitar. War was the culmination of their first period, U2 at their most earnest, political and confrontational. Unforgettable Fire was a transitional record, but it is also one of my favorites. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno helped U2 create their most atmospheric music. The Joshua Tree, as I said above, is about as perfect as a record can be. Perfectly paced, produced, written, performed…I cannot suggest a single improvement. Achtung Baby shows U2 diving into European dance rhythms and industrial sounds with aplomb, while still retaining their way with a hook. Zooropa is viewed as a toss-off (because it kinda is), but while not as great as Actung Baby, I think that it actually captures their Euro ambitions even better. The live EP Under a Blood Red Sky is U2 in their early glory. I don’t think they’ve gotten it right yet as far as compilations go. Best of 1980-1990, Best of 1990-2000 and U218 Singles all have wonderful tracks, of course, but they are all haphazardly sequenced, are missing some essential songs, and make for a fragmented view of the most important band of the last 30 years. A solid, comprehensive box set is really in order for these guys. They have released each record of theirs through 1987 (so far) in deluxe editions with an extra disc containing b-sides, live cuts and remixes from the appropriate period. If you are a fan, they are all really worthwhile, as U2’s b-sides are often equal to what makes it on the albums.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #8: The Kinks

Concept Kings
The concept album. Few terms in rock and roll cause more divergence of opinion than this one. Depending on your view, the concept album can be the peak of creative expression within the album format or the height of bloated self-indulgence that is far removed from the “three chords and the truth in a garage” aesthetic that means real rock and roll to so many fans. The definition of “concept album” is not even agreed upon. Generally speaking, a concept album is an album whose songs or music is unified in some way. They are not merely a collection of tunes thrown together for 40 to 80 minutes, but the tunes are related. They can be loosely related thematically, or they can actually attempt to tell a coherent story, like a musical or opera, just in the rock music setting.

If you accept the loose definition, you can trace the roots of the concept album back to the 1950’s in jazz (Duke Ellington and Masterpieces by Ellington, for instance) or pop music (Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is often considered a loose concept album). The first rock concept records? I think you can go back to 1966, where Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! and Face to Face by the Kinks may vie for that title.

Face To Face is one of those mostly forgotten records (except by music critics) from the 1960’s that is an absolute gem. But that’s the story of the Kinks in general, isn’t it? Often overlooked, but a gem of a band. There are several reasons that they did not translate as well as their fellow British Invasion bands in the U.S. They had a prolonged battle with the musician’s union that prevented them from touring in the States throughout the late 1960’s. That was part of it. But also, Ray Davies is the most British of the British Invasion songwriters. Most American listeners might be a bit confused by (or indifferent towards) a concept album about day to day British middle class life, or one about the charms of life around the village green, or one attempting to chronicle the cultural impact of the decline of the British Empire (all were the subjects of three classic Kinks 60’s records).

Back to Face To Face. A collection of 14 pop gems that serve as snapshots of British middle class life, Face To Face is simply brilliant and a joy to listen to. I put it up against almost anything else as the great pop record of the 60’s. Ray Davies’s celebrated wit and observations have never been sharper or more concise, from the humorous portrait of a pasty Brit on vacation in “Holiday in Waikiki” to living beyond your means in “Most Exclusive Residence For Sale” to the youth desperately trying to impress in “Dandy,” it is all there. And Davies’s unusual (and conservative) point of view is also dramatically on display in “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home.” Rock and roll is brimming with tunes of teenage rebellion and breaking free from the constraints of overbearing parents and society, but how many songs take the heartbreaking point of view of the parents left behind when their wild child has disappeared? Lesser known Kinks gems are all over this record, including the gorgeous and weary “Too Much On My Mind,” which may be Davies’s prettiest song. And it is capped off with the very funny tax fugitive/upper class malaise tale “Sunny Afternoon”:

“The tax man's taken all my dough
And left me in my stately home
Lazing on a sunny afternoon
And I can't sail my yacht
He's taken everything I've got
All I've got's this sunny afternoon
Save me, save me
Save me from this squeeze
I've got a big fat momma tryin' to break me
And I love to live so pleasantly
Live this life of luxury
Lazing on a sunny afternoon
In the summertime, in the summertime
In the summertime
My girlfriend's gone off with my car
And gone back to her ma and pa
Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty
Now I'm sitting here
Sipping at my ice cold beer
Lazing on a sunny afternoon
Help me, help me, help me sail away
Well, give me two good reasons
Why I ought to stay
'Cause I love to live so pleasantly
Live this life of luxury
Lazing on a sunny afternoon
In Summertime, in summertime
In summertime”

Ray never bested Face To Face (in my view), but he did get more ambitious with subsequent concept albums. The beloved The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is an ode to a simpler British life that probably never really existed. Arthur, Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire is an excellent look at the British middle class as the British Empire is in its twilight, and much more coherent than what many consider to be the ultimate concept record released in the same year, The Who’s Tommy. Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1 is one of the better broadsides at the music industry and the travails of fame. Muswell Hillbillies is another nostalgia session, while Everybody’s in Showbiz details the banality of life on the road. Davies did start to overreach in the mid-70’s with his “rock opera” phase (Preservation Pt. 1, Preservation Pt. 2, The Kinks Present A Soap Opera, Schoolboys in Disgrace), but nobody could accuse him of lacking in ambition.

The Kinks are so important for several reasons. I chose to look at their concept album legacy, but I could have written about how Ray and brother Dave Davies practically invented garage rock with their early singles. Or how they pulled off an unlikely comeback in the late 70’s and early 80’s by reinventing themselves convincingly as a muscular arena rock band (which is where I initially got on board). Or about how Ray Davies would be in the conversation as rock’s greatest songwriter (“rock and roll’s poet laureate,” in the words of Pete Townshend). Or how Ray’s great talent should not overshadow Dave Davies’s talents as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. Yet, at least in the United States, they may be the biggest cult band in history. God Save The Kinks.

What To Listen To:
The Kinks released a series of groundbreaking singles in their early days, even as on their initial records they were still finding their way. The now hard to find Greatest Hits expertly collects those singles and b-sides. You know I like to discuss great streaks, and The Kinks had one from about 1966 through the early 70’s. I discuss them above, but Face To Face, Something Else By The Kinks, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire and Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Pt. 1 are all essential Kinks. After that, the records are more spotty with brilliant individual songs. Kink Kronikles is a quirky compilation that is much beloved that covers this period, but it is not a straight hits collection, more an alternative history that is full of b-sides and hard to find gems. I am a huge fan of the Arista Records years (1977-84), which was their most successful period in the U.S., but those records are all mixed bags of great rock songs and filler. Here is something you can do, string together the following compilations: Greatest Hits (if you can find it) covers the early essential singles, then Kink Kronikles takes you through the late 60’s, Celluloid Heroes starts in the early 70’s and goes to 1976, then Come Dancing With The Kinks covers ’77-’84, and Lost and Found will finish up the 80’s for you. All are worthwhile, well, except for that last one. On a more serious note, the two disc Ultimate Collection is a decent (but far from perfect) overview covering all eras, while the six disc box set Picture Book is exhaustive but quite good.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #9: The Rolling Stones

In the Frankenstein Monster of Rock and Roll, the heart and soul would be The Beatles. The brain would be Bob Dylan, as he opened the door wide open for the subject matter of Rock and Roll. Dylan moved it beyond "Baby, Baby, I love you." Elvis would be the hips and the hair. Chuck Berry would be the hands, as he created the basic rock guitar language. The Rolling Stones? They are the balls. You can decide which body part you think is most essential to rock and roll.

What To Listen To:
As the longest running rock band in the music's history, The Stones have a pretty huge discography. Complicating matter further, up until 1967, they released quite different versions of their records in Britain vs. the U.S. Some of their early and mid-60's records are considered classics, but in my view, you can go song by song in this period vs. looking at whole albums, which were a mix of greatness and filler. But between 1968 and 1972, The Stones hit a streak that is unmatched. They could not miss. Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, the live Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street are absolutely essential rock and roll. Essential, and the essence really. After that, we kind of return to great songs surrounded by some filler. It's Only Rock and Roll is a solid Stones record, and Some Girls surprised many critics and fans with its experimentation with newer sounds. A latterday Stones classic. Tattoo You was released as an album, but it was really a collection of leftovers, albeit top notch and it plays like one of their better latterday records. I wrote an entire post about the controversial Undercover record, I love it. Some hate it. But it was the last time they were really invested in creating interesting music vs. releasing mere product.

Not surprisingly, The Stones have lots of compilations out there. But due to legal complications and multiple labels, few of them attempt to be comprehensive. Hot Rocks is Stones 101, the place to start and in my opinion, the greatest compilation ever released. Not a bum track over two discs covering their music up to 1971. More Hot Rocks is a nice companion piece, going for some deeper cuts and rarities from the same period. For a more comprehensive look at the same period, box set Singles Collection - The London Years collects all of the singles and b-sides through 1971. The perfect addendum is the now out of print Rewind, a tight single record covering '71-'83 almost perfectly. It is really a shame that it is hard to find. There is one compilation that was able to overcome the legal issues and covers their entire career, Forty Licks. It is a bit haphazardly ordered, but it does have the most coverage, but necessarily only skims the surface.

ABOVE: Hot Rocks is the greatest compilation of them all

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #10: Dire Straits

Southern Star

My previous entry may be the greatest rock guitarist alive, but Mark Knopfler is my favorite guitar player. I know I’ve used concert memories lately in several posts, but I’ve got a particularly strong one associated with Dire Straits, so I think I’ll go with that structure here as well.

One of the reasons that my live Dire Straits memory is so important is that it was my first concert experience. I would have been about 12 years old, and my older sister told me that I could come with her and her boyfriend to a concert. Already a dedicated music fan, I was thrilled. A good part of my musical fanaticism can be blamed on my siblings. Growing up I didn’t really have a choice. When I was very young, my sister would make me sit down and she would put those huge 70’s stereo headphones on my head and make me listen to God knows what. It was my sister who introduced me to Bruce Springsteen (well, not personally, but his music). My brother D. was quite important. He gave me a copy of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle, Jimi Hendrix’s Essential, The Best of The Doors and Buffalo Springfield’s Retrospective all when I was quite young and impressionable. My now deceased brother R. was a Stones fan. I have memories of him sitting up in our playroom for hours on end spinning Hot Rocks, getting lost in his schizophrenic mind. That is how I got to know The Stones’s music intimately.

And my sister introduced me to Dire Straits. Her boyfriend at the time, I forget his name, was a nice dude and a huge DS fan. They were coming to the Southern Star Amphitheater at Astroworld on their Brothers In Arms tour, and he got my sis and me some tickets to go with him. She told me that I was going to a concert, and my head was spinning with the possibilities. Could it be Bruce? The Stones? Oh my God, maybe it was Huey Lewis & The News! (This was the mid-80’s, remember). “No, Dire Straits.” Dire who? I had this sinking, disappointed feeling. I quickly tried to familiarize myself with their tunes before the show, but I was still underwhelmed.

The Southern Star Amphitheater, like the rest of Astroworld, is now an open field across the highway from the similarly abandoned Astrodome in Houston, I think they are building some shopping centers and apartments there now. The Southern Star design is now a common set-up for outdoor concert venues, but it was a newer design in the early 80’s. Located at the back of Astroworld (behind the XLR8 rollercoaster), it was basically a grassy hill with a stage in front of it. But there was something a bit magical about the place. Perhaps it was the amusement park backdrop, but it was just the coolest venue for shows in the summer. I saw about 4 shows there in my youth, and each one turned out to be a memorable experience, for various reasons.

ABOVE: The show that I attended in Houston is one of the most bootlegged shows of Dire Straits, in part because it was broadcast live on the radio nationwide. Here is the "album cover" of one of the many bootlegs of the show out there.

We arrived, and we couldn’t find the proper entrance, so the three of us (along with a group of other likewise confused concertgoers) climbed a rather large chain link fence to get in. Concert security wasn’t what it is now. We staked out our spot on the hill, and I recall the people to the right, and the people to the left, and the people behind us all smoking weed. To a 12 year old, this was quite an interesting shock to the senses.

But then the show started and the music wiped out all other distractions (when they started their hit “Money For Nothing” and the crowd rose to their feet, my sister’s boyfriend lifted me up on his shoulders so I could see…cool thing to do). Dire Straits was such a powerful live band in their heyday. They did not play their hits note for note, often extending their songs to double the length that they were on the record. I have a vivid memory of one of those perfect concert moments: 18-minute version of “Tunnel of Love” (which may be my single favorite rock song of all time) with all of its amusement park imagery and dynamics, being played outdoors with a real amusement park as the backdrop. I mean, how great is that? I recall Knopfler commenting on that too.

Fortunately I can relive that moment. In one of those strange coincidences of life, my brother J., living in Colorado at the time and completely unaware that I was attending the show, decided to pop a tape in his stereo and record a live radio broadcast of Dire Straits, live from Houston. A year later, while browsing his tapes, I see a cassette labeled “Dire Straits, Houston” with the date of my show. Really? I made a copy and have it to this day. But wouldn’t listening to it mar the perfect memories? Things always sound better in your memories than they actually were, right? No. I am happy to report that that tape proves that it was not just hazy happy childhood memories. That show kicked serious ass. It features a transcendently great version of “Wild West End,” by the way. Here it is...

Listen to more Dire Straits at Wolfgang's Vault.
ABOVE: For those of you who love great live recordings, check out the website It has a treasure trove of live recordings you can listen to (I saw quite a few Bowie shows there, ANCIANT). It also just so happens to have my Houston show in its entirety. Imagine sitting out on a grassy hill one summer night with the amusement park behind the stage. Great setting. The tune is mellow and pretty, but check out the muscular guitar solo at the end that kicks it wide open. That is why Dire Straits was so great live.

Thanks to my siblings, those who are still with me and the one who has passed on, for giving me the gift of my passion for great music.

What To Listen To:
Dire Straits’s debut, Dire Straits, stands apart from other releases from the late 70’s. There is no trace of disco, hard rock, punk, early New Wave…nothing that reflects the dominant musical movements of the day. This is a laid back, pub rock record more rooted in country, folk, beat and bluesy rock and roll. What does stand out is Mark Knopfler’s crisp, clean guitar playing that is most pure on the debut. The third record, Making Movies, is the one that true fans adore. It was one of those records that was moderately successful in the U.S., but it is much beloved in the UK. Side One is one of those perfect sides (sadly not relevant in the CD or digital age). Brothers In Arms was the breakthrough that became one of the most unlikely blockbusters of the 80’s, and while uneven, it definitely has some very high points. Alchemy is probably tied (with a live album from the artist who will be #1 on this list) for my favorite live album of all time. Released pre-Brothers in Arms, it showcases their dynamic live playing. Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits is a decent single disc intro.