Was listening to the album Let There Be Rock by AC/DC all day. It is an absolutely fantastic rock n roll album. I have no idea how the album was recorded, but it sounds like an album recorded by a band live in a room while rolling some fat tape. It may seem simple to some, but the playing, writing, and recording are tremendous. Every groove is deep in the pocket. The guitars sound like snarling dogs. The lyrics are funny and witty and delivered for maximum effect by Bon Scott. There aren’t many overdubs that couldn’t be performed live, a guitar part here and there. I love records like this, that sound like an actual band. A great deal of the magic is from the way the musicians interact with each other. This is primal physical stuff. At the same time there is more sophistication going on in the arrangements then appears. This can be seen in the way there are long pauses on the title track, and then all of a sudden the band explodes back into the song. That’s not amateur hour there. Angus Young’s lead work sounds like he is taking the paint off of an entire countryside of barns. There is a reason that every one from metal bands to Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye love this band. They are the very best at what they do. The title track, which may be my favorite AC/DC song will be posted above. It’s also one of my favorite rock videos.
The rock n roll monolith that is AC/DC continues, even without brother Malcolm Young. The new track sounds like, well, AC/DC. Would you want anything else? As a heavy metal drummer once told me, “Their shit is so simple, but it drives people fucking crazy.” At this point the band should probably be added to the periodic table.
My last posts may have been too dark for a Monday morning. I’m stuck in the airport and I’m sure many of you are stuck at work. (Which is where I surfed the internet so much I once thought I found the end of it!) Here is a little joy in the form of music. This is Melody of Rain by Marah from their Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album. In my humble opinion they are the best band from my home state of Pa and at the height of their powers they are one of the greatest rock n roll bands out there right now. Like many great bands they can’t be properly defined by one genre, but even when they are doing something like this that has one foot in folk music, they always have another in rock n roll.
One of my favorite guitar players is Alain Whyte. He was Morrissey’s guitar player from Your Arsenal through Ringleader of the Tormentors. He still wrote songs with Morrissey after leaving the touring band, although I do not know yet if he wrote any songs on the new album. Morrissey pokes some fun at him in his Autobiography, but with Morrissey it is hard to tell if he there is any real animosity or just a sort of backhanded compliments that are the result of his Northern humor.
Alain Whyte never got the credit that he deserved, largely for the unpardonable sin of not being Johnny, even though he wrote at least 81 songs with Morrissey and contributed to some of his best works.
I loved the guitar team of Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, but I prefer Alain’s melodic expressive playing to Boz’s more rhythmic approach out of the two. They were perfect foils for each other. Although the guitar playing of the two was rooted in pop and rock classicism I actually felt that especially during the 90’s they were one of the few two guitar teams that were pushing the instrument in new directions.
They took glam, rock, pop, and rockabilly riffs, and blended them into a unique recognizable style. Under Steve Lillywhite the pair created what to me are the two high-water marks of Morrissey’s career when it comes to guitar playing. The albums Vauxhall and I and Southpaw Grammar both feature exceptional guitar playing though they are both very different. Vauxhall and I is very beautiful and gentle while Southpaw Grammar explodes with volume and energy.
One of the things that is interesting about their playing is that even when they were playing loud they were often including beautiful melodies under the noise. Vice versa, even when they were playing beautiful gentle parts there was an emotional quality that created tension.
Much how Paul Westerberg often updated the guitar playing of the Rolling Stones by making it more melodic, I feel that Whyte, and Boorer with him took preexisting rock n roll templates and added a new melodicism to them. They might have only been painting new landscapes in the margins, but they were still creating their own language.
Now that Whyte is no longer in Morrissey’s band he often co-writes pop songs with American pop stars. However, if you like his work his work with Morrissey I would recommend checking out the album Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. This album features Whyte’s guitar playing, writing, and singing. Some of the songs you will recognize as songs that became Morrissey songs.
If you are unfamiliar with his playing I would recommend checking out both of the above mentioned Morrissey records. Although I think Vauxhall and I is the pinnacle of Morrissey’s solo career, Southpaw Grammar may interest you more if you are buying a record for purely the guitar playing aspect if you happen to be a rock n roll fan. Both records feature glorious guitar playing that in and of itself has unfortunately been overlooked for too long.
I’m diving back into Marah’s catalogue after getting their excellent Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album. I found a gloriously fun song by Dave and Serge Bielanko, the two brothers that fronted Marah, at least until Serge went on hiatus to raise his daughter. The song is called Livin’ On the Road. It’s from a compilation called Camp Black Dog Presents: Rock & Roll Summer Camp ’98.
The song is a ridiculous rock n roll tale driven by banjo. It sounds like it came from somewhere between Ireland and the Louisiana bayou, but its spirit is completely rock n roll. It features lines such as, “I was a cocaine addict, I did the cocaine a thousand times.” Another choice line is, “I was a hooker’s lover, an undercover friend of whores.” In lesser hands, my mind drifts to all the red dirt bands singing about whiskey, these lines might come across as fake rebellion. But Dave and Serge have such great trashy rock n roll singing voices, and the song is played with such enthusiasm, that one can’t help but feel like defying the laws of decency and nature while listening to it.
I think most rock n roll myths are pure bullshit. However, when delivered in the right hands they do serve a purpose. Most people, at least at one time or another, live lives dealing with some kind oppression. The defiant rock n roller is like Icarus. They are flying higher and closer to the sun than should be allowed, defying the gods. You know that eventually their wings might melt, but they have made it further than most.
We live in an absurd universe. I don’t have to tell you that. Just watch the news, or TV commercials, or politicians, or so many other things. It’s often easy to feel like there is no sense to things and that the Creator went on vacation somewhere along the line. Many people are forced to work jobs that they have no passion for, while others have to deal with sicknesses that aren’t their fault. Fate can be cruel. However, the rock n roller is like some weird mutant that can fly onward and upward, at least for a little while, in spite of such things. I think that’s why so many want to believe in the myth of rock n roll, even if much of it is a myth. To paraphrase the last line of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: They are lying on their backs, thumbing their nose at You Know Who.
No Show Ponies new album, A Manual for Defeat, comes out tomorrow exclusively through www.noshowponies.com.
Before I go any father on the personal story of how our new album was made, I think it is best that I should acknowledge the outside forces that shaped its character. While by no means a “protest” or literal and dogmatic political record, the modern world in all of its absurdity and casual cruelness is never far from view. Make Businessmen Cry, I’m Not Listening to the Radio, The Great Divide, and People are Lonely, are just a few of the titles that I think give you a clue as to where our heads were at.
We moved to Austin at the height of the Bush era. We became adults during the War on Terror and The Great Recession. We watched as the hope of the early Obama administration morphed into endless drone wars and continued economic stagnation. We picked a drone for the front of our album cover because we felt it was one of the symbols that we felt best represented the modern age. There it is in all of its beguiling wonder and terror. We can do almost anything, but should we? Progress is no longer a straight ascension, but a choice of forks in the road. Perhaps it has always been that way.
We chose songs for this album that represented emotionally how we felt living in such a world.
If you feel the US has lost its moral political standing, if the TV and radio make your mind melt, if you work a meaningless job with obscene bosses, or if religion continues to seem something that was invented to bring meaning to a world long past, then this album is for you. I know, I’m not doing a great job of selling. You need smiles for that. Funnily enough at some point in this world I was a salesman. This record is for those that stand outside of the economic good times; or at the very least those that can see that many have been unfairly left out.
Again, this is not a dogmatic protest record, although we’ve got nothing against such things. Living with War is one of Ben and my favorite albums. But when Ben sings, “Only the losers know my name”, you know what is making him feel that way. When I sing, “Clouds are shifting \ camera lens is wide \ it appears we are drifting \ across the great divide”, hopefully with the rest of the lyrics you will get that I’m looking outwards and not in.
It may sound like I just described a dark and foreboding record. Although it starts that way sound-wise to a degree, we love the fun of rock n roll and pop too much. I’m Not Listening to the Radio Tonight was influenced by the unyielding light of African pop music. If We Never See Tomorrow has its roots in the summer pop of the Beach Boys to give you another example. We were also raised by the dark artists of comedy such as Morrissey, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen, amongst others. As the title of a Marah album goes, if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.
We don’t want this album to make you feel hopeless. Art and music are ways to communicate. Hopefully the creation of this piece will help us find other like-minded souls and help them find us. There is strength in numbers. If you can find one other soul that feels the way you do then you are not alone. The world can be a better place if only we can join together and make it so.
Perhaps I’m tying too many things to this record and already weighing it down. At the end of the day this is only a rock record. However, it is one that represents the way that we felt and still feel without shame. It is our lifeblood in sound. Once you hear it, it will be in your hands, as the meaning is always with the listener and not the creator. We did our best, which is all one can do…
Ahhh…where was I on the making of this thing…
To be continued…
As I said yesterday, in honor of Lou Reed, every day this week I am going to pick a set of his lyrics and write a piece on them. Today I picked the lyrics Bottoming Out from his excellent Legendary Hearts album:
I’m cruising fast on a motorcycle
Down this winding country road
And I pass the gravel on the foot of the hill
Where last week I fell off
There’s still some oil by the old elm tree
And a dead squirrel that I hit
But if I hadn’t left, I would have struck you dead
So I took a ride instead
My doctor says, she hopes I know
How lucky I can be
After all it wasn’t my blood
Mixed in the dirt that night
But this violent rage, turned inward
Can not be helped by drink
And we must really examine this and I say
I need another drink
I’m tearing down route 80 east
The sun’s on my right side
I’m drunk, but my vision’s good
And I think of my child bride
And on the left in shadows
I see something that makes me laugh
I aim that bike at the fat pothole
Beyond that underpass
The thing that often gets overlooked by the casual Lou Reed listener is how absolutely drop dead funny he could be. In reading these lyrics one might not think of humor their first interpretation. Lyrics, unlike poetry, are only half the story. How they interact with the music and the delivery of the singer can change their meaning. This song to brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. I find this song to be full of the blackest humor. Lou Reed understood the divine comedy of life.
For those of you that don’t think Lou Reed had a sense of humor, when he released Berlin, what many consider to be the most depressing album of all time, he said he was, “just having fun”. The thing about Lou Reed was that he played everything straight. Some songwriters write songs that are silly, they wear their humor on their sleeves. Also the way they sing something might express joy and humor in their delivery. Lou Reed kept everything real close to his breast. I actually believe this is one of his greatest strengths as a singer. Many people say that Lou can’t sing. In a technical sense, they could often be right. However, when it comes to conveying something through song, for making the stories of his lyrics come alive, he was one of the very best singers. Try to sing the above song and make it come across the way he did. Even if you are a great singer, I bet you can’t do it. His voice was the perfect instrument for conveying his truth.
The music to this song is upbeat. It’s a rock n roll pop song. He purposely chose in arranging this song to put these “dark” lyrics to music that was the opposite. I believe there is some clue there in his intention.
Soldiers in war often express “gallows humor”. They make jokes about completely inappropriate things, even death, to keep sane in the face of madness. I believe that Lou was often doing something similar. You know the old saying: If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
When you watch a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm it is full of humor based on the problems of human behavior. The situations Larry David finds himself in are extreme, but we can often relate to them in some way. He often says the things that we are thinking, but can’t say.
Everyone has had a bad day. This song is a bad day taken to the extreme. In taking a normal situation that everyone has dealt with and painting an extreme version of it, Lou is creating a situation where absurdity arises. There is a famous quote that is, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I would add distance to that equation. Lou Reed, by presenting us with distance to the above situation, through the distance of artistic perspective, allows us to see the humor and absurdity of the narrator’s situation. It doesn’t hurt that again he has put these words to a bouncy little tune that helps highlight this.
Whenever I am having a bad day I put this song on and my spirits can’t help but brighten. It is in particular some of the darkest lines that I find the funniest given the context of the song. It is the way he sings bottoming out with almost no emotion. Maybe I just have a strange sense of humor!
But I don’t think that is totally the case. I’m sure many of you have had a day that has gone from one bad thing to another. All of a sudden it reaches a point of such horrible ridiculousness that you find yourself laughing. Whatever that emotion is, that part of the human spirit that allows us to laugh when things go wrong, Lou Reed must have instinctually understood. He turned it into a song. It’s easy to write a song that is just sad or just happy. But try to write something that conveys those kinds of emotions that are in between, that you feel, but can’t quite describe. Lou made a whole career out of it. He was a poet and an artist. He was also a funny motherfucker.
This is technically going up a little early. But what the hell, it’s after midnight on the east coast.