Middle Management Radio Programmers

Yes I am still on my Neil Young kick.  I am reading his book Waging Heavy Peace with my morning coffee.  Anyway, Neil talks about writing the song Ohio the day the picture came out of the Kent State shooting.  I found these comments about the aftermath of the song, and about radio stations of that time in particular, illuminating:

I picked up my guitar and started to play some chords and immediately wrote “Ohio”; four dead in Ohio. The next day, we went into the studio in LA and cut the song.  Before a week had passed it was all over the radio.  It was really fast for those times; really fast.  All the stations played “Ohio.”  There was no censoring by programmers.  Programming services were not even around; DJs played whatever they wanted on the FM stations.  We were underground on FM.  There was no push-back for criticizing the government.  This was America.  Freedom of speech was taken very seriously in our era.  We were speaking for our generation.  We were speaking for ourselves.  It rang true.  

Knowing how Buffy Sainte-Marie was blacklisted I know that it is not exactly true that performers faced zero push-back.  However, This is precisely why I don’t listen to the radio anymore, ever.  Programmers have ruined it.  Programmers are middle management types who for the most part stand in the way of you hearing anything outside the box on any radio station.  Radio should be a DJ medium.  I also wonder if it is songs like Ohio that killed off DJ freedom.  Programmers may have been put hired to keep this kind of rouge behavior from dominating.  I don’t know the answer to that, but it would make for a very interesting article.  I remember after 911 when Clear Channel banned a lot of songs they claimed would offend people, including John Lennon’s Imagine.  “Imagine all the people / living for today.”  If people did that they sure wouldn’t be working a shitty soul sucking office job for a company treated them like a serf.  Never forget that music, and art, is powerful stuff.  There are those that want to limit your access to it.    

More Thoughts On the Golden Age of Music

I’m always wondering why the 60’s and 70’s were such a golden age of music.  I was born in 1978 so I am not clouded by nostalgic feelings.  I don’t mean that good music stopped being made after the 70’s, only that across the board quality was higher then that it has been since.  Even many banal pop songs of that time feature some great musicianship.

I think a lot of it has to do with money.  Artists were allowed to indulge then.  Kevin Russell always talks about how the music industry from that time was decadent.  A lot of those artists were allowed to live in a drug fueled world of fantasy and wealth.  I remember reading that Pink Floyd sent a photographer to capture pictures of the great pyramids for Dark Side of the Moon.  Just those pictures cost more than most people spend to make the actual album these days!

I also think that the record business was in the hands of people that knew how to exploit it for money, but not control it.  By that I mean they knew how to use artists and their talents to make money, but now it just seems like they stick a pretty face and digitally do whatever needs to be done to make the music sellable.  Real artists do things like challenge corporations politically on occasion.  You don’t want too many of those kinds of people running around with too much money.

There were also a lot less distractions.  Lord knows how many people are fucking around on the internet when they could be writing a song.  Look at me right now!

Technological limitations of the time also required that people really be able to perform and play in the studio.  When you have some limitations on what you can do, technology wise, you have to be creative.  You have to find some way to make the sounds in your head without just pushing a button.  When they used to create the sound of echo in the studio they actually had a box called an echo chamber that created real echoes!  Digital effects are getting better, but nothing substitutes for a real echo.

Getting back to distraction, there was also some kind of artistic community, especially if you look towards the 60’s.  It seems like so many people are off on their own trip now.

There was also the antiwar movement, civil rights, and so many great political struggles that people that were college age were participating in, which is precisely the age when people begin to really come of age with their personal stamp on art.

I think drugs played a big part too.  It was the kinds of drugs that people are on.  A great deal of psychedelics will inspire some weird shit to be cranked out!  I just read this morning that most of one of Funkadelic’s albums was recorded in one day and they were all tripping!  I’m also reading Neil Young’s autobiography right now.  He basically says he was high from 18 to 65.  That will definitely move the mind in new directions.

This is a topic that I have talked about before.  I am always curious about why certain things in the culture lead to creative high points in some field.  Look at TV right now.  Everyone is calling it the golden age of television.  There are several cultural and economic reasons why this is so.  But that, my friends, is for another day.

Guitar Solo as Jet Plane

I would rather hear an electric guitar solo than any other kind of solo.  I think this is because of the combination of technology and  humanity.  Because of the vast array of guitar effects a guitar has almost limitless sonic possibilities.  However, because a person has to bend and attack metal strings in some way, which is somewhat primitive, each person really does have their own unique feel and touch.  On a lot of modern records the guitar solo has become not as prominent as in the past, and this is a shame.  It’s a part of a song where true transcendence can be reached, as things become nonverbal and reach towards that place of pure emotion in the right hands.

What are some of my favorite solos?  I tend to like solos that are at either end of the spectrum.  As always the middle of the road is the worst place to be.  I like solos that are very melodic and beautiful, or I like solos that sound like wild animals.  I also like solos that are Zen like, the perfect amount of notes at just the right time, and solos that are the sonic madness of virtuosos.  This doesn’t really narrow it down does it?

My favorite lead player of all time is Neil Young when he is with Crazy Horse.  Listen to the live album Weld and you will hear things that are pure sonic insanity.  During Hey Hey, My My his guitar sounds like it is puking.  That may not sound very appealing.  But it’s the absence of any discernable technique, and the presence of pure sonic emotion.  It sounds like the paint is being taken off a barn.  In his book Waging Heavy Peace he talks about how when he solos he feels like a condor flying over a heard of buffalo.  Nowhere may this be more apparent than his solo on this album’s version of Like a Hurricane.  This song is like 13 minutes of beauty and fury, but you feel like it could go on forever.  It’s just pure magic.  Neil also has the best guitar tone ever.  He could play a loud chord and it sounds like King Kong.

Jimi Hendrix, on Live at Monterey, does the same thing.  No one would question Jimi’s ability to play, but the guitar stops being a series of notes and becomes a living breathing thing.  His version of Along the Watchtower from Electric Ladyland is an easy choice for one of the best solos of all time.  He does several different kinds of solos on this song and all of them are unbelievable!  Machine Gun is also a place that you can get lost in forever.  It’s the Vietnam War through sound.  That’s pretty ambitious and he nails it.

I was listening to Eddie Hazel this morning on Maggot Brain. That is some serious psychedelic power.  Again the guitar is turned into a living breathing thing.  It’s wondrous when it happens.

Eddie Van Halen, Mark Knopfler, and Lindsey Buckingham are just a few of the many, many geniuses that know how to make you feel through their playing.  Then you have someone like Bruce Springsteen.  He isn’t very technical, although he can definitely play.  But he just chokes the shit out of his guitar and you know that he means it.

I’m not interested in someone just because they have mastered some kind of technical ability.  That may be interesting, but only for a few minutes.  I want something that makes me feel.  I want to hear something that is beautiful like nature or that sounds like a fucking jet plane taking off.

Solos don’t have to be technical at all.  I always think of Steve Jones solo in EMI.  It’s only a couple notes and if I wanted to I could probably go to my stereo right now and figure it out in a minute.  But I don’t want to ever know how he played that, because it remains in the realm of mystery.  It’s those notes against those chords and every time I hear I feel like lifting off.  Paul Westerberg’s solo on AAA is like that too.  It’s one note with a double stop.  It is something a first year guitar player could learn how to play, but it’s just right.  Again, I hear it and it feels like a rocket ship is lifting off.  It’s simple, but perfect.

How does someone like Angus Young from AC/DC do it?  He has the same notes as everyone else, but when he plays you feel like you just want to go out of your mind, in a good way!

I also love people like Johnny Marr and the Edge, who can sculpt with sound.  They arrange notes and sound in a way that is just beautiful.  It’s like looking at the painting of a master.

There are so many great guitar players of different types.  There are so many variations.  The electric guitar is still the best instrument in my opinion.  Again it is that mix of technology and humanity colliding to form something that is truly unique.  I can think of many great solos by other instruments, but except for on occasion they just don’t touch the power of the electric guitar.  I not biased, I’m a bass player.  I can listen to a great guitar player play forever.  When done right it is such a beautiful thing!  Get in the woodshed kids.  We need more of those kinds of experiences in life.

Same Theater, Different Movies

Most everyone understands how easy it for two people to be at the same event and come away from it perceiving it as two totally different experiences.  Communication can often break down between people because of the personal lenses that they are viewing things through.  It’s hard to be completely open to something.  Even if you are generally open to different experiences and try to take them for what they are, especially in the world of art, you have read certain books, seen certain movies, or heard certain albums that provide you with a context of understanding work.  You also might bring with you whatever happened to you that day to an event.  Then as time passes your memory may play tricks upon you as to how you actually experienced something.

I want to share an experience that I have had that shows how hard it can be to remember something as you truly experienced it.  For those of you that haven’t been reading along, I am in a huge Neil Young phase right now.  This has caused me to think back to the one and only Neil concert that I went to.  This was during his Greendale tour, a tour that I thought was highly underrated by the way.  Neil’s Greendale album tells the story of a small town and it’s inhabitants.  On this tour he staged the album in full and he had actors on stage playing the various roles of the town’s characters.  It was part live rock extravaganza and part play.  Then for the encore he brought Crazy Horse back out and played a selection of hits at the end of the night.  This part of the show was a traditional rock concert.  I thought that the Greendale part of the show would suffer from this strict staging, but I actually really enjoyed it to my surprise.

Anyway, these two separate parts of the show were very different from a staging standpoint.  Again, one half of the show had elements of a play running through it and the other half was a traditional rock concert.  The lighting and stage theme were different for each part of the show.  Also the instrumentation was different.  Poncho Sampedro, of Crazy Horse, switched from keyboard in the Greendale half of the show to his more traditional Crazy Horse instrument of guitar.

And here is what it so strange to me.  Looking back on the show when I think about watching it, I remember sitting in two different positions in regards to the stage, but I never moved.  During the Greendale part I felt like I was closer and slightly to the right of the stage.  For the Crazy Horse segment of hits I felt like I was slightly further away and slightly to the left of center stage.  Yet I know that we stayed in our seats the whole time.  I also know that I was not intoxicated under any substances as I went to the show with my parents.  So again same seats, same show, and yet somehow my mind has tricked itself to make it feel as if I watched it from two different locations.

This made me think about how hard it can be for two people to communicate with each other.  My dad says that we are often in this life in the same theater with people, but watching different movies.  If my mind could trick itself to have two different perceptions of the same event, you can imagine how easily and how distant two people’s version of the same event could be.  You can see how this it could make it hard to communicate ideas, especially artistic ideas which are often interpretive anyway, to different kinds of people.  You could also see how in a court of law an eye witness could be unreliable.  The mind is a complex place that can easily trick you.  Or maybe I just had a contact high from what was in the air when Neil played Rocking in the Free World.  Who knows such things?

So Cool it’s Boring

As those of you that have been reading along know, I’m on a big Neil Young kick lately.  Tonight I watched the Jim Jarmusch directed Year of the Horse.  The album by the same name is great, if not up to the level of Weld partially due to Weld’s superior mix.  However, the film is pretty bad.  The footage and the way it is edited look like something a film student would try to do.  When I am noticing the editing of a film more than what the camera is focusing on there is a huge problem with what I’m watching.  Crazy Horse is a great live band, and there is probably countless stories you could tell about them, but the way this film is shot distracts from the performances and most of his interview questions have been dealt with in more depth and with more intelligence in other places.  “Poncho” Sampedro, the guitarist for Crazy Horse says it best in the film (from http://www.thrasherwheat.org):  “So what we’ve got,” he says, aiming his RayBans right at the camera and folding a couple of massive forearms over his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, “is some artsy-fartsy New York director gonna ask a bunch of stupid questions and pretend like you’re explaining what’s been a 30-year relationship.”

I like some of Jarmusch’s films, but to tell you the truth even the ones I like I appreciate more than I love.  I appreciated parts of Stranger than Paradise, Ghost Dog, Mystery Train, and Coffee and Cigarettes.  The rest of his films left me cold mostly. Unlike the films of someone like David Lynch, which are infused with incredible emotions, I find Jarmusch’s work to be more style than anything.  He is not untalented, but style alone will only get you so far.  The best of art translates some ecstatic truth through emotion.  I don’t really feel much of anything when I watch his work.  In fact the feeling that I have most often is boredom.  I feel like his is trying too hard to be cool.  In fact I feel like he is that person that is trying so hard to be cool that he doesn’t allow you to see what’s under the surface, which with most people is infinitely more interesting.

A quick addition:  Neil Young and Jim Jarmusch are actually interesting as contrasts.  Neil Young creates art that is very emotional and primal, while appearing very honest and direct in the way that it is presented.  Meanwhile Jarmusch’s art seems very detached, but it is highly stylized.  People like Morrissey and David Lynch also have a great deal of style, in terms of how they and their art are presented and constructed, but there is always a strong emotional truth at the core of what they are doing. I like art for art’s sake.  But even is something is highly stylized or abstract it still needs to resonate on some kind of emotional level.  

How Neil Young Achieves His Sound

http://thrasherswheat.org/ptma/equip.htm

Two days ago I posted about why Neil Young’s guitar sound is one of my favorite sounds in rock music.  The above article, sent to me by my brother Ben, is an old interview from Guitar Player Magazine on how Neil achieves his sound.  If you are a musician and/or just plain interested in music from a sonic perspective it is a very entertaining and interesting read.  

Disappearing Language

Back in the 60’s and 70’s bands used to put out an album a year.  Sometimes they would put out more than one.  Rod Stewart, between 1969 and 1979, put out 15 albums if you count his solo albums, The Faces, and the Jeff Beck Group.  People simply went in and knocked it out.  Technology and financial matters have changed and now, although there are always exceptions, records usually come out by bands or artists every couple of years. 

When you release an album every few years it needs to count more.  There is a lot more riding on each release.  What we miss out on are the strange little albums that artists often put out between the masterpieces.  I was listening today to the Neil Young album Re-ac-tor.  It’s a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album that is pretty bizarre.  I love it, but it’s not for everyone.  It is an album of guitar workouts.  The songs really take a backstage to the guitar.  If loud guitar is not your thing you probably won’t enjoy it.  Songs, although there are a couple great ones, really take a back seat to the sound of two guitars played at concert volume.  In fact one song, the nine minute T-Bone, has Neil Young repeating the lines, “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no t-bone”, over and over.  There are no other lyrics on the song.  But the guitar playing is incendiary.  There are also some weird touches for a Crazy Horse record on this record.  There are some strange percussion and background synth decisions being made. 

The album is a minor work in his career.  But I’m so glad that it is out there.  It’s this strange little moment in time captured to tape.  It sounds as if there is very little deliberation that went into the recording.  It’s as if they got together, jammed, played with some new toys, and then put it out.  It’s fresh and it’s interesting and sounds like nothing else out there, because it quite frankly seems like a moment in time never to be repeated.   

Luckily modern technology has broken some of the barriers that were once in the way to making a record.  However, albums are selling less than ever before.  With less financial support musicians must make choices about what they can afford to record.  I think it is a shame that some people feel that they should get music for free. 

There are all of these little moments in time, moments of magic that will fade into the ether, never to be documented.  Every time someone decides to not support the art that they love, there is less chance of it being made.  A whole language of expression, disappearing like sand through an hourglass.  

Neil Young’s Expansive Guitar

One of my favorite sounds in rock music is the sound of Neil Young’s electric guitar.  It’s expansive.  Entire universes are hinted at when he lets loose.  My brother and I were just listening to Weld, in my humble opinion one of the best live albums, the rare live album that seems to improve upon the studio recordings, and my brother commented that, “Neil’s guitar sounds like it’s alive.”   War, love, solar systems, the ocean, mountain ranges, psychedelic trips, machine gun fire, whale vocalizations, engines, and freedom, are all contained in THAT sound.  It’s both urban and pastoral.  It’s a sound derived from the technology of the electric guitar and also one that comes from someone playing with their whole entire body.  It’s one of the most epic sounds in rock n roll.  When Neil Young takes the stage with Crazy Horse there is nothing quite like it. 

Although I love Ragged Glory, Psychedelic Pill, Zuma, and all of the Neil Young & Crazy Horse records, I really think you should check out Weld and Year of the Horse to hear what they are capable of live.  Weld is more primal, while Year of the Horse is more contemplative.  These descriptions are of course oversimplifications, but the two albums compliment each other well. 

Another thing that is so great about his playing is he is able to get away from things like scales and notes, sure he is playing both of those things somewhere in there, and get close to pure emotional sound.  The technique which limits most players melts away.  There are some people who would claim that Neil is not a great player because he is not doing anything that is immensely challenging from a technical standpoint.  But technical skill is not what music’s power derives from.  Music is either emotional and interesting or it is not.  Whether someone is a virtuoso or Johnny Ramone makes no difference.  It’s the end result that counts.  Whether it is a beautiful complex tone poem like Wagner’s Tannhauser – Overture or the brutal primitive onslaught of the Sex Pistol’s Bodies makes no difference.  When Neil Young straps on his guitar he straddling between the worlds of pop music and the avant-garde.  It is primal and majestic.  It’s a knife fight in a phone booth and serenity at the top of a mountain, all at once.  

The Power of Political Music

It seems to be a common belief held by many these days that music doesn’t have much of a political role.  Often when a musician tries to get political they are treated in the press as naïve fools.  Sometimes the press will even admit that the musicians mean well, but rarely are they ever treated with any kind of seriousness.  Even when the press looks back to the 60’s, and yes I am generalizing, the political music of that time is treated as some kind of failed experiment.  This would deny the very real contributions that musicians made to end the Vietnam War.  This would also be to deny the contribution that music made to the Civil Rights movement.  Can you imagine the protest movement without its singers?  Can you imagine the Civil Rights movement without the song Amazing Grace

That’s not to say that all political music is good.  Often it can be naïve and simplistic.  Eve of Destruction is not Masters of War.  If you aim to do anything in this world you should aim to do it well.  The reason why James McMurtry’s We Can’t Make it Here Anymore and Neil Young’s Living with War, to name two more recent examples, are so inspiring is because they are so well conceived. 

I mentioned in a pervious post that I have been reading a lot about Custer and the events surrounding his famous Last Stand.  Custer used to travel into battle with a brass band.  Upon a charge he would have them strike up music for inspiration.  Often it was the song Garry Owen.  Sitting Bull, on the other side of the battle, was known earlier in life to sing as he went into battle.  To say that music has no power is foolish.  It has always been there to inspire battles of both peace and war. 

Also if music has no power than why did the FBI keep a file on John Lennon?  Why was Buffy Sainte-Marie blacklisted by the Johnson Administration?  Why is someone like Morrissey today, who has very antiestablishment ideas in his songs, often treated as less than serious by much of the mainstream press? 

If music has lost any political power in recent years it has nothing to do with music in and of itself.  I would say that there aren’t as many serious writers tackling political themes in ways that were as accessible as in the 60’s.  A good deal of the political songs of the 60’s, no matter how deep their lyrics, often had melodies that even a child could memorize.  I love atonal art rock as much as the next guy, I actually do, but people often forget that melody is the first key in unlocking someone’s emotions.  Also mainstream radio has marginalized music of any intelligence.  It’s hard to inspire a mass movement when there is much less potential to cross over to a mass audience.  The airwaves are full of plastic people saying disposable things.  There is also the problem of the internet, which does allow people that have been marginalized the potential to make political statements, but also drowns people in information so that it is harder for any one thing to gain mass appeal. 

I am a fan of overtly political music if it is done well.  If it is not I might appreciate the gesture, but I probably won’t be returning.  However, I truly believe that well done political music still does have the power to make a difference.  If done in the right way it can convey truths in a simple form that can reach those that might not have the time to do research or read a book.  It can touch the spirit in ways that very little journalism ever can.  There is powerful magic there, which can move the soul into action, sometimes before the conscious mind even knows in what direction it is headed.  

Rock N Roll

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I have been listening to the new album by The Shondes.  It is called The Garden.  I have read online that the band is very political.  Despite being largely Jewish, maybe all Jewish, but it’s hard to tell, they have taken a stance of condemning the occupation of Palestine.  I find that commendable.  That is just one example.  However, listening to the bands lyrics I find it hard to get a sense of any overtly political themes.  The title track could be read as a political anthem, but more in the metaphoric sense.  Most of the lyrics seem more centered on human relationships.  I haven’t listened to the lyrics closely enough yet to be definitive on this, and often lyrics can have double meanings, but this definitely isn’t Neil Young’s Living with War. 

The album, however, despite any limitations you could argue it has, feels revolutionary.  By that I mean the sense that it makes you want to go out and do something important.  It does this by simply being full of exuberance and passion.  Even when they are singing something that could double for a typical pop song it seems infused with an energy that feels as if they mean something deeper.  They are not leaving anything on the field.

If I’m going to be honest there are limitations to this album in the musical sense.  The guitar and bass are somewhat bar band like.  The lyrics will not be mistaken for literature any time soon.  None of this seems to matter to me, again because of the passion that it is infused with.

When I listen to this record I want to go stand in a protest line, dance in a circle with reckless abandon, and take on the world.  I think you get what I am laying down.  It sounds like freedom and rebellion.  Yet there is nothing musically discordant or subversive.  The songs are all major and minor key pop rock songs with hooks.  This sense of freedom is again achieved through the pure reckless energy of the performances.  That and big choruses that are sung balls still achieve more than all the studio trickery in the world.

It makes me think of the 1960’s.  If our parents and the history books are to be believed there was a brief moment in time when anything seemed possible.  It might have been fleeting and it might have been doomed from the start, but there seems like there was a moment.  The music from this time seems infused with this sense of energy, passion, and possibility.  I’m not talking about just the political music.  Listen to Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops sing Standing in the Shadows of Love.  It sounds like a fucking jet plane is about to take off.

I love music of all kinds.  I just got the new Grimes record and I really love it.  It’s arty, cinematic, and emotional.  It does not make me want to go outside and burn Ted Cruz in effigy, however.  There is a place for both kinds of music I think.  I like music that fills me with Technicolor dreams and I like music that makes me want to engage with the world.  I think there are too many bands in Grimes arena, that are far less talented, that create music that is not good for much other than shopping and sleeping in.  The term Rock N Roll used to stand for something.  It used to make people uncomfortable.  It used to make people dance whether they wanted to or not, like they were in some kind backwoods church and the spirit had taken over.  I wish more bands would try to remember this.  Too often emotion and passion is replaced by being clever.  If you can be witty and passionate you have the total package.  Don’t be afraid to look a fool going for the jugular.  Yes, you may fail and look silly.  But you also just might wake up in the world you want to live in.