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…

 

Paul Westerberg’s Folker

One of my favorite albums is Paul Westerberg’s Folker.  It is, like the title implies, a collection of folk rock songs, some leaning more one way than the other.  It’s the kind of thing that could easily be overlooked by a critic as what makes it great are the details and subtleties inherent in the record.  The melodies are knockouts and as always, Westerberg has a feel for music that is natural;  He is a musician that is able to communicate emotion with everything he does.  This record, like a lot of Westerberg’s stuff, is personal music, much like the music of John Lennon, but even more so.  Where Lennon never stopped reaching for the big moment, Westerberg seems content to reflect on his own life.  The record, while not a concept record in any traditional sense, does seem to tell a story if you pay close enough attention.  He doesn’t break any new ground in a larger sense, he isn’t creating a new genre, but the music is unique as it could only be made by one person in one time and place.  Westerberg was growing older, there are relationship troubles hinted at (though these songs may just be a way of communicating inner turmoil), his dad had recently been sick and passed away, and there is a sense of reflection, of looking back and asking what it all means.

The album begins with a joke in the song Jingle, in which Westerberg sings, “buy it now, buy it”, over and over again.  It’s almost as if he is clearing the air, before he begins digging in the dirt of his own personal life.  There are many ways to interpret that song, which stands in contrast to the rest of the record.  Is he purposely creating the contrast, as a way of exposing what most music is, an excuse for a marketing campaign, compared to what should be, the personal music that follows?  I have my theories, but this is the kind of record that will leave you with your own.  The record ends with two songs, Gun Shy and Folk Star, where Westerberg finally gets back on the rock n roll horse and sings and plays with abandon.  Has the deep reflection of the rest of the record allowed him to return to his normal life, or is it that he can only bare that kind of introspection for so long before even he must look away?

One of my favorite songs on the record is Lookin’ Up In Heaven.  (And there are no bad songs.  In fact the entire album plays almost like one long piece, however, a piece in which all the components are great in and of themselves.)  As on much of the record, Westerberg does a bunch of neat tricks as a songwriter.  He writes something that is personal, but that still leaves room for interpretation, for the listener to relate enough that the songs could be about them.  He is also playful and complex in the emotions conveyed.  Although the song has an overall melancholic feel, there are moments of rebellion, humor, and defiance.  It’s not all one thing and I think many of the best songs are like that, reflecting the complexity that one feels in any situation.  We are so rarely just sad or happy or angry.  One of those emotions might take center stage, but they are rarely acting alone.  They rarely block out all other thought.  Westerberg is also playful with language, using different variations of the line, “I look high again”, to various effect throughout the song.

Another thing that I love about the song is the spoken word lines, “They invited me to stick around, but I told ’em there was another place I had to check out tonight.”  I wrote awhile back, when I posted the lyrics of the song that:

This song always makes me think of Mark Twain and about how he thought the traditional view of heaven was everything that people wanted to avoid in real life.  A quote from Mr. Twain:  “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.”

I hope this song will serve as a window into this record.  It’s something that I never tire of.  In fact, I probably listen to it more than any of his other records, even those with The Replacements.  (Though his Mono, under the Grandpa Boy moniker, is a great blast of guitar rock that is ever present in my life as well.  It’s like the Rolling Stones meet the Ramones in Sun Studios.)  Even it’s lo-fi, low key vibe seem strengths to me years on.  It’s has never dated as there is no studio slickness to call attention to the time period it was created in.  And the melodies are gorgeous, but are kept from being saccharine by Westerberg’s ramshackle playing and raw singing.  (I’ve long felt Westerberg to be one of America’s greatest and most consistent melody writers next to Brian Wilson.)  It is a record that again looks inward, but in the best sense possible.  In Westerberg’s mirror one can also catch a glimmer of themselves.

 

Pages of Gold by Flo Morrissey

Season after season young female pop singers are paraded out, only to eventually disappear like leaves in the fall.  I spend a ridiculous amount of time listening to new records online and Flo Morrissey’s Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful is one of the few that made me pause.  (She is not related to the other famous singing Morrissey.)  I love how her phrasing is relaxed and effortless, emotional sounding, but naturally so.  The production reminds me of a modernized version of 60’s folk pop.  It’s a sweet kind of melancholy that I find attractive in pop music.  The lyrics are functionary, meaning that they support the song without adding anything truly interesting, but they in no way detract from the music and singing in anyway either.  For a singer of only 20, in our age, this is an accomplishment in and of itself.  It’s too early to tell if she is someone that has any kind of career in her, but she has a voice and authenticity that at least seem real.  In it’s own way it reminds me of Judy Collins singing Clouds, of Petula Clark or Cass Elliot.  The lyric writing is again nowhere near that stuff, and I’m not about to claim she has the personality of those singers.  However, I am interested and hoping for the best.

Neko Case and Morrissey Expand the Form – Reappropriating and Deflating the Word “Man”

I love when songwriters try to expand the form, when they have a knowledge of what came before them and are able to write themselves out of the constrains of typical pop song subjects.  I also love when writers, through wit and intelligence, use language to be playful and subversive.  In both these songs, Man by Neko Case and I’m Not a Man by Morrissey, the word man, and the mainstream connotations of it, are flipped upside down in different ways.  Case is reversing gender roles, claiming the right to use the word for herself, using it to demonstrate her strength.  Meanwhile, Morrissey uses the word, and the meanings that mainstream society associate with it, to call out what is wrong in the modern world.  Case is reappropriate the word, while Morrissey is deflating the strength often associated with it.

 

Iggy Pop and David Bowie On Daytime TV In 1977

My brother showed me these clips today.  They are pretty amazing.  Iggy Pop and David Bowie went on The Dinah Shore Show, a daytime talkshow, in 1977 to do an interview and two songs.  (Above is Sister Midnight and at the very bottom is a clip of them performing Fun Time.  Between that is the actual interview.)   I can’t imagine what a daytime talkshow audience would have thought of the heavy weirdness being laid down by the music those two were making back then!  I mean imagine someone going on one of those vacuous daytime talkshows today and singing Iggy’s lines from Sister Midnight:

Calling sister midnight
You know, I had a dream last night
Mother was in my bed
And I made love to her

Father he gunned for me
Hunted me with his six gun
Calling sister midnight
What can I do about my dreams?

Or Funtime:

Fun
Last night, I was down in the lab
Fun
Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew
All aboard for funtime

 

First Original Music On Windup Wire – San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo by No Show Ponies.  I’m putting up this track as a kind of experiment.  I’ve always wanted to create a site where I could put my writing and music all in one place.  One of the things that I like about blogging is the way that different kinds of things can exist next to each other, like a multi-media collage.  I’ve been working to change this site over the last month with my friend Chris Saunders.  Chris has been essential in helping me take full control over this blog.  Unfortunately, because I have been on the road so much, it is slow going, as just keeping it up to date takes a fair amount of time.  Anyway, although I still need to do some work on the site as a whole, for the first time I can post music that I have written directly to this site, without having to use a link.

No Show Ponies is a band that currently consists of myself, on bass and vocals on this track, my brother Ben, on guitar here, and Alex Moralez on drums and percussion.  We recorded some songs, mostly live, to a analog tape machine two years ago with the great Austin musician Ramsay Midwood.  NSP has been primarily a rock band, but we treated this song as minimally as possible.  The only overdub here is some very light percussion by Alex.

I’m still working out how I want to present my music here and because of that, and the fact that I just started working with my brother again after a year long hiatus, I wanted to choose something that was not entirely representative of what we do.  I always really liked the way this song came out though, as it has a haunted quality in the performance.  (If you listen on headphones, and any musician prays that you listen to their music on proper speakers or headphones instead of tinny computer speakers, there are some strange noises in the background that I can’t account for.  Ghosts in the machine perhaps.)

I’m really proud of this song as a piece of writing.  (Pride cometh before the fall!)  Although this song was written with a very specific location in mind, I feel like the writing is expansive enough that it could just as easily become another place in the imagination of the listener.  I purposely cross-pollinated images from Italy with things that could be in a western movie.  (There is an obscure reference to my favorite western, The Wild Bunch.)  I’ve also always been struck by art that includes a memento mori in it.  (Read about memento mori here.)  “Remember that you have to die.”  However, if you think this song is bleak, I hope it also includes the idea that there is love and beauty in the world, as well as an interesting strangeness.

San Lorenzo

Riding down through painted vistas
Against the rising of the sun
Either the dove shall be released
Or it’s the cold steel of the gun

Your beauty it haunts me
Makes me want to do something bold
Last I saw your naked shoulders
Get covered up in San Lorenzo

Kids are burning insects
With lenses in the street
I begin to feel the presence
Of a divine comedy

Your beauty eludes me
I never felt so alone
I’d give anything to go back
And pass the time in San Lorenzo

Walking past mass graves
Endless skulls and endless bones
Merchants and slaves
All sharing the same tombs

Your beauty, it comforts me
Makes me forget all I know
I’m hoping for a chance encounter
On the way to San Lorenzo

By Jefferson Brown

P.S.  If you like the track, feel free to pass it along to friends or to make it part of some other kind of multi-media collage of your own.

 

Forbidden Love

Darlene Love is putting out her first album of new pop music in years next month.  I’ve got endless space in my heart for Phil Spector sounding pop songs.  Being that Darlene Love was part of the original Spector sound, and that this new album, Introducing Darlene Love, was produced by Steve Van Zandt, who loves and understands that sonic world, this album looks to be fantastic.  I love the single above.  That, is how to sing a pop song.  She is the calm at the center of the storm, directly addressing mortal concerns and transcending them at the same time.

More Posts On Darlene Love Include:  My Favorite Christmas Song

Iron Maiden Releases New Single

The new Iron Maiden single, Speed of Light, is out with the above video.  The video above is absolutely ridiculous, but really, would anyone want anything less? I’m reserving all judgment until I hear the album in full.  Even though I have loved the last couple of albums produced by Kevin Shirley, the extremely raw production always surprises me and takes some getting used to.  So far I have always warmed to it, especially when I hear the songs in the context of the record.  I was expecting a different sound this time, even though I had no reason to think this, so it kind of caught me off guard.  (Nothing but the baseless expectation that after several albums with this kind of sound that they would go a different route.)  I love that they are putting out a double album with only 11 songs on it, with one song in particular topping the 18 minute mark!  With a band like Maiden you always want them to go as big and as over-the-top as possible.

Shadows in the stars
We will not return
Humanity won’t save us

At the speed of light

Morrissey Performs Live On James Corden

Morrissey performing Kiss Me A Lot from my favorite album last year, Word Peace is None of Your Business, on James Corden. Even in a fairly straight ahead pop song, by Moz standards, he manages to get in, “Bastille mausoleum.”

More Posts On Morrissey Include:  Morrissey As Existential Hero

The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)

The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)

The song above song, by Joni Mitchell, is one of the most powerful songs I have heard in awhile.  Typical for Mitchell, it features a poetic depth that leaves most other artists in the dust.  Both this version and the original are fantastic.  (The original is a more typical Mitchell arrangement based around her guitar.)

The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)

Let me speak let me spit out my bitterness
Born of grief and nights without sleep and festering flesh
Do you have eyes?
Can you see like mankind sees?
Why have you soured and curdled me?
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

Once I was blessed; I was awaited like the rain
Like eyes for the blind, like feet for the lame
Kings heard my words, and they sought out my company
But now the janitors of Shadowland flick their brooms at me
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
that you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

(Antagonists: Man is the sire of sorrow)
I’ve lost all taste for life
I’m all complaints
Tell me why do you starve the faithful?
Why do you crucify the saints?
And you let the wicked prosper
You let their children frisk like deer
And my loves are dead or dying, or they don’t come near
(Antagonists: We don’t despise your chastening
God is correcting you)

Oh and look who comes to counsel my deep distress
Oh, these pompous physicians
What carelessness!
(Antagonists: Oh all this ranting all this wind
Filling our ears with trash)
Breathtaking ignorance adding insult to injury!
they come blaming and shaming
(Antagonists: Evil doer)
And shattering me
(Antagonists: This vain man wishes to seem wise
A man born of asses)
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

(Antagonists: We don’t despise your chastening)
Already on a bed of sighs and screams
And still you torture me with visions
You give me terrifying dreams!
Better I was carried from the womb straight to the grave
I see the diggers waiting, they’re leaning on their spades

(Antagonists: Man is the sire of sorrow
Sure as the sparks ascend)
Where is hope while you’re wondering what went wrong?
Why give me light and then this dark without a dawn?
(Antagonists: Evil is sweet in your mouth
Hiding under your tongue)
Show your face!
(Antagonists: What a long fall from grace)
Help me understand!
What is the reason for your heavy hand?
(Antagonists: You’re stumbling in shadows
You have no name now)
Was it the sins of my youth?
What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?
(Antagonists: Oh your guilt must weigh so greatly)
Everything I dread and everything I fear come true
(Antagonists: Man is the sire of sorrow)
Oh you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true

P.S.  One other thing I’d like to add is that I love the way Mitchell uses backup singers here.  They almost used like a Greek Chorus where they comment on the events at hand.  Leonard Cohen will also sometimes use singers in this same manner.

More Posts On Joni Mitchell Include: The Genius of Joni Mitchell