The Impact of The Ramones and Creativity In the Face of Limitations

I learned to play guitar and write songs because of The Ramones.  Before they became trendy again, and long after the original punk explosion, I discovered the Ramones.  They were between Brain Drain and Mondo Bizarro.  I was only 12 or 13 at the time.  Hair metal was in the hight of its popularity.  I read all of the music magazines at the time.  Somehow I must have read an article on The Ramones.  I got my parents to get me All the Stuff and More Vol 1.  It was a compilation that contained their self-titled debut and their second album, Leave Home.

Now you need to understand popular music at the time.  Many of the rock magazines and guitar magazines featured music that was technically challenging to play, especially if you were just starting out.  Although I was a kid and hadn’t yet given up my dreams of being a pro-wrestler(!), I was starting to fall in love with music.  I could play power chords, but not much else.

My parents were really great about letting me listen to anything I wanted, though my Mom did scratch out bad lyrics and nude pictures in the sleeves of albums like Appetite For Destruction!  But they were very supportive of me learning a music instrument in general.  And to learn a music instrument it helped if you could listen to things that made it seem cool, that would keep a young kid interested.

Getting those first two Ramones albums was a revelation.  Not only for the first time could I figure out songs and play along, although I was still cheating playing power chords instead of Johnny Ramone’s infamous bar-chord attack, but I actually started to understand song structure because of this.  With just a couple of chords you could write and play timeless pop songs.  After hearing those records I started writing my own songs.  (Though it would be an extremely long time before I would write anything good!)  Plus The Ramones expanded what songs could be about.  All of a sudden a kid that had only heard songs about girls and parties for the most part, was hearing songs about New York street life, songs influenced by horror movies and comic books, and songs about everything from sniffing glue to beating on brats with baseball bats.  (The Ramones had their girl songs too.)  Their songs were simple, but their subject matter was varied and strange.

As a quick sidestep, even though Ramones songs were simple to emulate, they are actually really hard to play exactly like they did.  Try playing nothing but downstroke bar-chords for an hour.  Try playing Tommy Ramone’s high-hat parts for a whole set.  Their stuff is simple, but it takes real stamina.  Plus their songs, while simple, are full of endless hooks and clever lyrics.

Anyway, I try not to write about my life a lot on here, unless it can somehow help shed light on something or unless I am promoting a show or record I will be a part of.  I wonder how interesting it will be to read about someone being influenced by The Ramones.  There are a million like-minded stories.

But I think the thing is that is the point.  Even if their music is somewhat conservative stylistically, they basically played simple rock n roll stripped of all flourishes and at very fast speeds, they allowed countless people to become creative, who might have otherwise not felt like they could be.  If I were to write a list of everyone who had a little bit of The Ramones in their musical DNA, the list would be almost endless.  One of my favorite periods of music is the post-punk scene.  The music of that time is exploding in creativity.  That scene might not have happened in the same way if not for The Ramones.

When you write you think about who your audience is.  I know a lot of people that come here will read this post and say, “No shit!”  However, if you don’t know the music of The Ramones, you should.  If you are just starting to play an instrument, or you have a kid that is just starting, gift yourself or them a Ramones album.   They were a band that were extremely creative and unique within the confines of stylistic limitations.  That is an important thing to learn, that limitations do not stand in the way of creativity, but actually can aid it at times.

I think anyone in any art should always try to push themselves as hard as they can to be better than before.  But you only have the present.  There is nothing that should stop you from being creative even if you are not where you want to be.  I love people that can do things that I can’t.  From Joni Mitchell’s guitar playing to David Mitchell’s novels, I love hearing, reading, and seeing things that bear the mark of someone pushing the boundaries of an art form.  But communicating an idea is the most important thing.  There is no time to start like now…


Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

I have finally found a newer rock band that I am excited about.  (About fucking time!  You have no idea the amount of time I spend searching newer records sometimes, hoping something will connect in any genre, only to come up empty handed.)  They are the Cloud Nothings and their album Here and Nowhere Else is fantastic.  Although I can’t say at this point they are necessarily doing something new, all the elements are in place musically and melodically, along with insanely enthusiastic playing, to create an exciting emotional experience.  And they are really young, with potential to get even better.  I discovered them through their collaboration with Wavves and went backwards.  (That collaboration is also really great, but slightly different in what makes it so.)

What I really like about them, even if you could criticize the fact that they aren’t moving the ball forward, is they get the overall picture right.  I feel like a dumbass writing this, but the record simply fucking rocks.  There are very few newer bands that you listen to that sound like they are exploding from your speakers with sheer exuberance.  This record also sounds like a rock record should, with a tight punchy sound that, while probably more polished than it appears, doesn’t get in the way of the band’s dynamics.  And Baldi writes songs that are consistently full of hooks.  There is also enough mystery and artistry in the songs and recordings that they live up to repeated plays.  Unlike a lot of other modern “rock” bands, everything is not on the surface.  It’s that combination of unhinged energy and controlled melodicism, mixed with slight mystery, that make them stand out.  Some new bands have exciting musical moments or hooks, but the combination is actually rare.

I should mention that a band is only as great as their drummer and the drumming on this album is ridiculous.  I am seriously wondering if the drummer was eating speed before each take.

P.S.  I haven’t heard their earlier albums other than clips.  The one before this sounds promising, they all sound like they have their charms, but the early albums are different.  They are more of a lo-fi rock experience.  The band is still really young.  As with bands in the 60’s, when bands often had several albums to get it together, bands often take time to gel.  

Johnny Burnette Destroys Train Kept A Rollin'

It’s late Sunday.  Most of you probably won’t even see this until Monday morning.  This will wake you up any day.  This is my favorite version of the rock n roll classic Train Kept A Rollin’.  It’s by Johnny Burnette, who is an early rockabilly/rock/pop star that died young.  This is lightning in a bottle, fire and brimstone, a fucking jet plane taking off.  When a singer lived in an era where sex couldn’t be sung about graphically, they just recorded things that sounded like this.  Message received, loud and clear…

For All My Sisters Review


I really like the new Cribs album For All My Sisters a lot.  It’s pop music in the best sense.  Pop music as played by rock band.  Despite the fact that the band is from England, there is something California about their new record.  If not for the accents on the vocals, there is something about this record that can be traced on a musical family tree back to certain elements of Weezer and even the Beach Boys.  I’m not saying that is intentional, or that there aren’t stylistic differences, only that there is a melodic sense that is somehow sunny and often melancholy a the same time.

The album is produced by Ric Ocasek who also produced Weezer’s Blue and Green albums, and also their excellent new album Everything Will Be Alright In the End.  As I said, there are definitely some melodic moments that recall Weezer, although The Cribs have been delivering great melodies since the start of their career.  However, while Weezer, for the most part, have an easy mass appeal, despite their idiosyncrasies, The Cribs new album is more cryptic.  Despite being melodic, the guitars are more jagged, more angular.  Even their extremely melodic vocal hooks are more elusive, less singsongy.  This is rock n roll pop music filtered through British post-punk.

One of the things that Ric Ocasek does time and time again is get great guitar tones.  He does this without doing anything seemingly complex.  Aside from a couple of synth parts and extra backup vocals, there is almost nothing on this album that the three piece Cribs could not reproduce live.  Hearing a guitar overdub that plays something different than the main guitar line is rare.  Mostly it just sounds like one guitar part doubled.  If you listen to this album, the Weezer albums, or even the Bad Brains God of Love, Ocasek is able to create deep textures through guitar distortion.  He is able to take something incredibly simple and turn it into an aural painting.  Where guitars can often sound flat, he creates an incredible amount of depth, a warm swimming pool that the listener can pleasurably dive into.  This is a big deal, especially for a three piece band.

Despite the album being full of hooks, there is not anything as instantly memorable as earlier Cribs records.  There is no song that has a chorus as memorable as the song We Share the Same Skies, for instance.  This doesn’t necessarily work against it, as the album holds up on repeated plays.  The album is enjoyable on the first listen, but it is definitely a grower.  I know that I have said several times that is is incredibly melodic, and it is true that the album has very glossy production, but there is a slight sense of artiness here, just below the surface, that keeps the album from being swallowed too easily.

If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the lyrics haven’t really opened themselves up to me yet.  That’s not to say that they are bad or unintelligent.  They do not get in the way of my enjoyment either.  It’s just that, despite the album having a classic rock mix, the vocals are not buried like they are on many other indie rock records, the vocals seem part of the music more than the centerpiece.

The Cribs have consistently been at that crossroad where indie, pop, rock, and post-punk collide.  I am partial to this kind of music, but I think anyone that likes to hear guitar oriented rock music with great melodies would like this as well.  They are not doing anything groundbreaking, but they put the ingredients together in a unique way that gives them their own sound and personality.  The fact that they do have their own personality does mean they are able to expand the form on the margins, and that alone is worth something.

Afghan Whigs Crime Scene Part One

Whenever I put on the Afghan Whigs album Black Love it strikes me on a visceral emotional level.  It is one of those great front to back records that feels like one piece, even if there is stylistic diversity on the album.  I believe I have mentioned the record before, but I wanted to post the first song off of it, Crime Scene Part One.  It is somehow beautiful and biting at the same time, with a cinematic scope.  It is a song that builds in intensity until it explodes.  It is a great song that never ceases to register with me when it comes on.  Although there is a lot of music I like because of the ideas involved, this is one of those songs that just hits me in the gut.  I believe that Black Love is the highpoint for the Whigs, and this may be my favorite song on an rock n roll album that never lets up.

Black 47's The Big Fellah

For anyone that loves barn burning political rock n roll that is still musical and entertaining, Black 47 have released a compilation called Rise Up.  (Yes it came out last fall, but I am only realizing it now.)  I want to do a larger piece on this as they are a band that is worth knowing about.  The writing of lead singer/guitarist Larry Kirwan is fantastic, as he is smarter than your average bear.  For the meantime here is the song The Big Fellah that was originally on the album Home of the Brave, and now makes an appearance on this excellent compilation.

Eric Johnson's Venus Isle Review


A really beautiful album that I’ve been completely awestruck by lately is Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle.  It’s one of those albums that is overlooked, not only greatly by the general public, but also within Johnson’s career itself.  Johnson is an Austin musician that is most thought of as a guitar hero for his tasteful yet often extremely technical playing.  He is most famous for his album Ah Via Musicom, an album that won a Grammy and launched three instrumentals into the top 10 for the first time since the 60’s.  (That album came out in 1990.)  Although I hadn’t listened to much of Johnson’s work before recently, I used to have his most popular album and bop around the house to the instrumental Cliffs of Dover when i was 12.  As great as Ah Via Musicom is, its follow up Venus Isle is a truly extraordinary piece of work that is unique even within Johnson’s own career.

Venus Isle is an extremely elegant and regal album.  It has a psychedelic otherworldliness that is very dreamlike.  What makes it unique in Johnson’s catalog is that it doesn’t shift styles in the same way that his other albums do, at least not as overtly.  Some songs bleed into others and the whole album feels like a complete piece.  I almost feel like listening to any one track does not do the album justice.  The album is also as much about texture as it is about songs or individual parts.  Although the guitar playing on it is exceptional, it is often not showy in the way that one thinks of when they think of the term guitar hero.  This album also has more vocals than any other Johnson album except for maybe Tones, his debut.

The album sounds like a combination of Prince’s Purple Rain or Jimmy Hendrix’s Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) crossed with the moody likes of the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine.  That description is really only a jumping off point.  There are even more styles and moods stirred into the pot, but I think that initial description will give you some idea of the overall feel of the record.

Johnson is often called a perfectionist, and one of the biggest criticisms lobbied at him is that his work is too slick.  I think if you were going to judge this record only by rock standards you could maybe make that criticism.  Although this album is rooted in rock n roll, it is played with the precision of a jazz musician and almost at times appears to have classical aspirations.  Every piece feels perfectly sculpted.  If the Rolling Stones created ragged earthy paintings out of blood and dirt, this album is more like a marble sculpture.  I think one can hopefully appreciate both kinds of things.  If you are open to it, this is a really beautiful thing to behold.

Johnson dedicated the album to his ex-girlfriend who was killed during the making of the record.  Although it seems as if this album was well underway when that tragic incident occurred, although I can’t be 100 percent sure of the timeline, there is something about this record that reminds me of an epic poem or symphony that is trying to communicate the beauty of a lost love.  Although this album, at the time of its release, was no doubt modern music, and there is even something forward looking about it in the way that it seems like it is trying to communicate a new language, I can’t help but feel that it also seems part of some ancient past.

Johnson’s voice is light and mellow, and it is low enough in the mix that the lyrics are often hard to discern.  I find his voice pleasant enough, but it does not alone have a quality that, were it not surrounded by beautiful music, that I would necessarily seek out for itself.  I think the way it is used on this record, and on certain other things that he has done, it as another tool used to create emotion in the context of the larger piece.  On work this personal I would always want to hear an artist sing their own words than use someone else’s voice.  His voice perfectly fits into the larger aesthetics of the piece.

This is the perfect kind of album to put on at sundown and slip away into a dream to.  A unique moment in music is created, one that even Johnson never tried to repeat himself.  I know that there are those that look for more edge in music that would judge this for being too perfect, too slick, too painterly, but they would be using the wrong metrics.  I think nothing is more important then for an artist to create that one emotional moment that is true to themselves, that doesn’t look for any confirmation other than whatever light they have guiding them.  I think on this record Johnson achieved that.  The record was a commercial failure, but here it is after all those years, not in the least representative of its time or any other, still living on its own terms.

Here is an interesting piece in the Austin Chronicle from 1996 about Johnson just as he was about to release this record:

Eric’s World: The Many Fantastic Colors of

Batshit Insane Vol. 1: Lulu


I love records that one can only describe as sounding “batshit insane”.  Where the artist seems as if they are out-crazying the din and the whirlwind of the Great Void.  Albums that trump death, even if the artists are alive and the albums don’t even have death as a central theme because, even if it is subconsciously, they know it is out there and they seem not to give a shit.  I am reminded of the character at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who dies, “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”  I also think of George Carlin, putting on a show making the batshit insanity of this world hilarious, and then ending his set by standing on one leg with his arms outstretched, daring to be smited.  These are albums where artistic fear is not only not present, it almost seems as if the artists are daring you not to like them.  Albums like this make me laugh out loud and warm my heart to its very foundation.  I could be having the worst day possible and when I put one of these records on I think, “Thank God they are out there.”  I wanted to write about several of these records to start 2015 out on the right foot.  My goal is to post at least one record a day for the next week.  I’m just having fun, like a child skipping through a field.  Entry #1:

Lulu – Lou Reed and Metallica – Maybe the most insane recording of all time.  So many people hate this record, but I love love love it with my whole being.  I don’t love it because people hate it, but because it seems like someone going as far out on a limb as they possibly could.  Lou Reed was apparently already suffering from the sickness that would eventually kill him.  Did he go out by reflecting on an extraordinary life or by begging forgiveness for past sins?  No, he went further out into the storm than he had ever gone before.  He was a warrior poet that went out into the jungle, that the rest of the village feared, and brought back strange truths.  This record is poetic, vulgar, bizarre, and heavy as fuck.  Based somewhat on the “Lulu” plays of the German dramatist Frank Wedekind, it deals with murder, Jack the Ripper, sadomasochistic sex, and a femme fetal.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg!  On the single The View Reed sings:

I want to see your suicide
I want to see you give it up
Your life of reason
I wanna see you in a coffin, your soul shaking
I want to have you doubting
Every meaning you’ve amassed

When I hear this album I can’t help but mentally be in Berlin’s Teirgarten on a dark and rainy day.  Yet, in case you think that this is just shock for shock value, the album ends with the incredibly poignant and heartbreaking Junior Dad, which casts multiple layers of meaning over the prior proceedings.  The song features, from the breakdown on out, lyrics that are some of my favorite lyrics of all time, lyrics that never cease to move me.  Even if you have no desire to check out this record, check out that song.  A poetic tour de force that shows that Reed was, on his last song on his last record, still a poet of incredible insight and depth.

Sunny, a monkey then to monkey
I will teach you meanness, fear and blindness
No social redeeming kindness
Or oh, state of grace

Would you pull me up
Would you drop the mental bullet
Would you pull me by the arm up
Would you still kiss my lips

Hiccup, the dream is over
Get the coffee, turn the lights on
Say hello to junior dad
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad
Psychic savagery
The greatest disappointment
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad

Ian McLagan's United States Review

Ian McLagan and the Bump Band’s new album United States is an album of pure life affirming joy.  Even the heartbreaking ballads are so in the moment in their performances, that one feels more alive while listening to them.  I love all kinds of electronic music, but for those of you that want to know why nothing will ever beat the heart and feel of great musicians performing with each other, look no further.

I can’t not mention that the city of Austin lost one its greatest residents last year when Ian McLagan died.  However, it is due to his untimely death that I wanted to wait to review this album.  I didn’t want this amazing set of songs to be clouded by the immediate feelings of sadness that hung over his loss.  I also wanted to make sure that when I say this is a great record, it is because it is a great record, as I did not want my own reason to be informed by any sentimental feelings.  As Voltaire said, “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”

And the truth is this is a fantastic recording by a group of musicians firing on all cylinders.  McLagan doesn’t need me to proclaim that he was one of rock’s greatest keyboard players, having been in the Faces and the Small Faces, having worked with the Rolling Stones and so many others.  However, this album sounds like a thesis statement of everything he learned in all of those years working and being part of rock royalty.  His Bump Band meets him at every turn, playing in complete synchronicity with their leader.

Lyrically McLagan almost never strays from tried and true rock n roll themes, but because of the passion that everything is sung and played with, this never hinders the events.  His ragged yet melodic voice, a perfect rock n roll voice if ever there was one, makes even phrases that seem as if they have been around since the foundation of rock n roll come to life.  Heart and soul can make even simple words become expansive and welcoming.  “Why would you ever want to run away,” he sings in the above song Pure Gold.  I would bet there are a million rock songs with this phrase in it, or slight variations of it at least.  However, when he sings it the intellect shuts down, the emotions take over, and you know in your deepest recesses what he means.  How can you not bop your head, tap your feet, and feel a little more alive when that song comes on?

On the track Don’t Say Nothing, which has simply outstanding piano on it, he sings:

If you can’t say nothing positive
if there’s not a kind word in your head
Don’t say nothing at all

Now this isn’t even a statement that I intellectually agree with.  First of all I love singers like Lou Reed and Morrissey, whose dark senses of humor have helped me survive many a day.  I also think in life that in order to make things better, you need to acknowledge what’s wrong with the world.  However, when McLagan sings that chorus with such perfect timing and feel, I find my heart with McLagan for every single syllable.

What a fucking band on this record!  Nothing they do is overly complicated, but if you know music you know that the kind of feel and subtlety they bring to these proceedings is the work of masters.  Every rhythm is in the pocket.  The guitars, keyboards, and bass weave in a way that, while each is masterful in its own right, the parts most definitely add up to a whole more powerful than the individual pieces.

The ballad Mean Old World is one of those heartbreaking cry in your beer kind of ballads.  But it is delivered in a way where you know the sadness is only a passing thing and that you will eventually transcend whatever mean circumstances you find yourself in.  It’s rock n roll partially rooted in gospel music.

When reading about McLagan, you know that like every human, he had his moments in the dark.  However, whenever I saw him at gigs in recent years, what I kept taking away was that here was a guy that was inspiring for the sheer fact that he made you feel better in the moment.  His gigs were joy, his stage banter was playful, and between sets he walked through the audience and made you feel like a friend even if you didn’t know him.  This is all thankfully captured on this recording.

The record simply sounds great too.  Everything has an organic quality that makes it sound alive.  Although produced by McLagan, partial credit must go to the legendary Glyn Johns who mixed it.  Johns has worked with everyone from Led Zepplin to the Rolling Stones to the Who and on and on and on.  The mix is crisp and clear but never loses the earthiness of the performances.  This is how a band playing together should sound on record.

Although his Rise and Shine album contains several of my favorite McLagan songs, before this record I would probably say his last album, Never Say Never, was his best front to back, as the songs were not only great, but the production had that same masterful touch that is apparent here.  However, Mac might have gone out on top with this one.  If you are a rock n roll fan that fears that no great rock n roll albums have been made lately, or you are a musician that wants to hear musicians playing at the top of their game, get this record now.  We shan’t see the likes of him pass this way again.  Luckily for us, recordings like this make his death only a temporary thing.  When you put this record on, whether today or at some unknown date in the future, you will be in that moment completely, alongside Mac, with a shit eating grin and a gleam in your eye…