Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. I’m not really up for too much writing tonight, but here’s a really cool live version of Some Kinda Love by the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City. Enjoy.
August 1, 2010
June 27, 2010
It’s been known for a long time that in his pre-Velvet Underground days Lou Reed worked as a staff songwriter for a small label called Pickwick records and recorded a number of conventional (at least by the standards of the book as VU later rewrote it) rock and roll ditties, including an infamous novelty dance song (or parody of a novelty dance song) called “The Ostrich,” for which Lou tuned all of the strings of his guitar to the same note, hence the potential for feedback and drone effects, hence “Sister Ray” and Metal Machine Music and all the craziness that came later. But first, there were songs like Your Love, now available courtesy of the Norton Records compilation All Tomorrow’s Dance Parties.
June 20, 2010
Happy Father’s day, Daddy-O!
When I Paint My Masterpiece is a song written by Bob Dylan, and wonderfully performed by The Band. I have to confess a supreme ignorance of The Band, beyond their association with Dylan and their big hit “The Weight,” but many fellow rock snobs are very enthusiastic about them. (I’ve not even seen the famed concert film The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, and I’m a big Scorsese fan.) The Band’s version of this song was brought to the attention by the movie Observe and Report, a comedy with Seth Rogen playing a disturbed Mall Security guard. In my interpretation of Dylan’s impressionistic lyrics, the singer of the song has never been to Europe, but has as rich an inner fantasy life as Rogen’s character, and imagines himself changing the world and his own sordid and pathetic life by creating an artwork to rival the European masters of old. My favorite line is “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola/Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” It’s a pop-art effect (Dylan, with his roots in the folk scene, is underappreciated as a pop-artist) and stands the European fantasy on its head.
June 13, 2010
“St. Louis Blues” was published by W.C. Handy in 1914. It was not the first blues song, as is sometimes asserted, nor is Handy the “Father of the Blues,” as is more frequently asserted. The blues is elemental, an veritable axiom upon which American popular song rests, so it can have no such thing as a “father.” But it is a great tune, and perhaps the 20th-century standard. Notes at Art of the Mix contain some interesting facts, such as, “It was first performed publicly by an unknown female impersonator,” and, “in the 1930s when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, the Ethiopians adopted it as their battle hymn.” I don’t know what battle-hymns normally sound like in Ethiopia, but I wouldn’t immediately think of a song with the famous lyric, “I hate to see that evening sun go down.”
Notable versions of the St. Louis Blues have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bob Wills, and John Fahey. Here are two of my favorite versions, one by John Kirby and His Orchestra, and one by the great Sicilian trumpeter and vocalist Louis Prima.
June 6, 2010
My my, I’ve been slacking, haven’t I? Well no, actually my girlfriend Jane and I have been sick with strep throat for almost a week, rarely leaving the bed and trying to cheer ourselves up by watching Monty Python and Star Wars. Not that you need to healthy to blog of course, in body or mind, but let’s just say the muse split on me for a while there.
The last SfS featured punk stuff of slightly disturbing origin, so for this week how about a little hippie stuff? Aw, come on, you’ll like it.
The late ’60s and early ’70s saw a flowering of solo steel-string acoustic guitar in a genre that was never really named. It was mostly instrumental, based in traditional American folk and blues music, though more virtuosic and featuring expansive and innovative song-structures (“compositions”), to which it added a diverse array of world influences, particularly Indian. The most well known of these guitarists are John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and many important figures recorded on Fahey’s Takoma label, such as Kottke, Robbie Basho, Peter Lang, and Max Ochs. It was mostly an American phenomenon, but a few Brits such as Davey Graham and Bert Jansch should be included. In a way this is just an outgrowth or development of the 1960’s folk revival, a mutant instrumental counterpart to the singer-songwriter genre of the Joni Mitchell/James Taylor variety which the ’60s folk scene also produced. Fahey called it “American Primitive,” which may be accurate in terms of the driving emotions behind his work, but is deceptive as a musical descriptor. Fahey was actually creating a kind of modernism out of American musical traditions, in the way Bartok (a favorite of Fahey’s) had done with Romanian and Hungarian folk music. Well, as you might expect, this stuff didn’t really crack the charts.
Robbie Basho changed his name from Daniel Robinson, Jr. in honor of the haiku master Matsuo Basho. (Basho composed perhaps the exemplary haiku, “In the Old Stone Pool.” It goes, “In the old stone pool/a frogjump:/ splishhhhh.”) As the name suggests, Basho had a certain fondness for the East, and his music is characterized by Eastern influences. For example, check out The Hajj.
Sandy Bull may have been the most eclectic musician of the lot, playing guitar, banjo, and oud (a sort of Arabic lute). He liked to overdub multiple tracks in order to, uh, play with himself. He was fond reinterpreting disparate songs into his unique idiom, such as Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” Here’s Gospel Tune, an original composition, which sounds like a mildly psychedelicized Lightnin’ Hopkins.
May 23, 2010
Last night I saw the Ian Curtis biopic Control. I’d say it’s above average as far as those films go. But it did inspire me to revisit the music of the unique post-punk band Joy Division. This week’s song is No Love Lost, from their first album, 1978’s An Ideal for Living. In this period the band had an aggressive sound that could still be categorized as punk, though tracks such as this bear the seed of the more spacious and bleak style they would later adopt.
Joy Division took their name from the forced prostitution wing of Nazi concentration camps which were alleged to exist in the controversial 1955 book The House of Dolls. The book’s author, Yehiel Feiner, was a holocaust survivor who wrote under the pen name Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (meaning “Concentration-Camper”), and his writing is variously viewed as novelized history or pornographic exploitation. (Apparently pulp Nazi porn briefly flourished as a literary subgenre in Israel in the early 1960’s, called “Stalag fiction.”) At any rate, the novel must have had an impact on Ian Curtis, since he took the band’s name from the book and featured excerpts in the song “No Love Lost.” (The style of Curtis’ vocal delivery here recalls John Cale’s on The Velvet Underground’s similarly morbid “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation”.) Curtis was fond of references to underground literature, and also took titles from William Burroughs (“Interzone”) and J.G. Ballard (“The Atrocity Exhibition”).
Between the band name and the Hitler Youth depicted on the album cover, Joy Division were early on suspected of Nazi sympathies, but that is quite unlikely. And yet there is an abiding fascination with Nazism apparent in their early work- the song “Warsaw” (which was the band’s original name as well), for instance, is about Rudolf Hess- not as a positive political doctrine but as an aesthetic, or even an atmosphere. (Of course, as Walter Benjamin has indicated, fascism is less a political doctrine than an aestheticization of politics.) It’s a fascination that was not only shared by other punk bands, but was also weird undercurrent of the 1970’s zeitgeist (expressed in films such as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Lilian Cavani’s The Night Porter). At least in the case of Joy Division I doubt it expresses anything beyond adolescent morbidity, and Curtis would drop the Nazi imagery as he grew into his own as a songwriter and required less ready-made signifiers of his alienation. But if anyone is interested in making serious connections between fascism and punk rock (and not just the obvious skinhead groups but respected art-rock bands), I’d suggest reading Lester Bangs’ 1979 essay “The White Noise Supremacists.”
May 16, 2010
By my count I’ve missed five weeks of ASfS, and I’m ruminating over a number of ideas to make it up. I could do different versions of a single song for a few weeks (I’ve got a zillion versions each of “Summertime” and “Caravan”, or I could take one week and use it to highlight a particular artist by posting a bunch of their songs (I’ve been wanting to write about the Minutemen and Sonny Sharrock for a while). Either way seems like too big a project for today (got to ease myself back into the blogging routine, you know), so here’s the song I’ve been listening to most lately:
Fearless by Pink Floyd, from the underrated 1971 album Meddle, is a unique song within the Floyd’s oeuvre, presenting an attitude of youthful optimism, fitting for being chronologically placed after the manic child’s-play of the Syd Barrett-led Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the elegiac Barrett tribute Wish You Were Here (to say nothing of The Wall, a paranoid and alienated expression of the Roger Waters-dominated period). With their psychedelic soundscapes and compositions of epic length Pink Floyd is often thought of as hippie music, or as pretensious art rock, which is why Johnny Rotten used to wear an “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt. But that’s a narrow-minded view. “Fearless” could fit right into an indie-rock set by your local college-radio DJ, and the it’s been appropriately covered by both Phish and Low. The chanting you hear in the background is fans of the Liverpool Football Club singing their anthem, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” so we’ve got hippies sampling jocks singing a show tune.
April 4, 2010
I’m no Christian, nor even a theist, but the Christ mythos, particularly as expressed in artistic forms, can touch me deeply. Also, my girlfriend’s sister was baptized as a Catholic last night, so I’ll try to keep the sacrilege to a minimum today.
I was looking through my music to find an appropriate song for Easter Sunday, and I realized that there are a ton (in my collection, at least) of great songs about the crucifixion, but almost none about the resurrection. Something about the human condition dictates that our imagination is ignited a great deal more by Christ’s suffering and death than his rebirth, just as inferno fascinates us more than paradiso. Is it sympathy or sadism?
At any rate, here’s a resurrection song: He Has Risen, by The Knights of the New Crusade, from their album My God is Alive! Sorry About Yours! This band may sound like a parody of Christian fundamentalism, but let me assure you these guys are serious. Actually, serious may be the wrong word. They just happen to mix their gospel with Sonics-style garage-punk, a huge dose of humor (their anti-evolution song is called “There Aint no Monkeys in My Family Tree”), and actual knight costumes. So while the Knights clearly disapprove of Nietzsche’s declaration about god, I’m sure he would approve of their levity about what they hold most dear.
Bonus Jesus quote: “I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not rules.” -William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Bonus YouTube clip: Bill Hicks on our strange way of celebrating Easter.
Finally, I want to announce, to my 2-and-a-half regular readers, that I’ll be taking a month-long hiatus from blogging as I head into the home stretch of Spring semester, but I hope to be back with a vengeance (no sacrilege intended!) come May. Adieu.
P.S. There’s also this.
March 28, 2010
Today was a wonderful early Spring day, but the weather has been schizophrenic here for the last week, so we’ll see if it will hold. I, of course, have been spending the weekend fighting off illness (Spring means severe allergies for me). So it’s going to be a quick post and off to bed. This morning my brother asked if there was any music I specifically associated with Spring. I couldn’t think of a good response then, but I have a great answer now: I’ll Remember April by Jazz pianist Bud Powell is breezy and lilting and simply perfect for this time of year.
Well that’s about it, music lovers, except for this note: A Song for Sunday is now taking requests. Pick a song, artist, or genre you’d like to hear, and leave a request in the comments section. I certainly can’t guarantee anything, but if I come up with something for you, but if I do you’ll get not only a great song but some choice words from yours truly, Earnest Scribbler (and I am quite full of delightful musical trivia, as my friends can attest).
March 21, 2010
On Alex Chilton’s Wikipedia page, it lists the musical genres he worked in throughout his career: “Rock n’ Roll, Power Pop, Proto-Punk, Hard Rock, Blue Eyed Soul, Indie Rock.” This should give you an idea of the breadth of his contribution to rock over the years. Masses of people have heard his music without knowing his name. His first band, the Box Tops, had a huge hit in 1967 with “The Letter.” Aw, come on, you’ve heard it. It’s the one that begins, “Give me a ticket for an aeroplane.” At the time Chilton was only 16. In the 1990’s, Chilton had his second biggest hit: the theme song for That 70’s Show was a song written by Chilton, from his band Big Star’s first album in 1972. Here’s another song from Big Star, from their second album, Radio City, and one of my favorites: September Gurls. Any pop song with which includes the line “I wish your butch and you would touch” gets my approval.
Big Star really didn’t have a niche in the musical world of the 70’s, which was divided between flashy arena rock or glam rock on the one hand and sensitive acoustic crooners like James Taylor on the other (and later punk vs. disco), but like the Velvet Underground they would become increasingly influential with the ascension of indie rock from the eighties underground to the present. After Big Star’s demise Chilton got involved with the punk scene, charting an unusual career path which moved from mainstream pop to edgier underground fare. His real glories in this area are as a producer, where he worked with two of my garage-punk fave raves The Cramps and The Gories. Here’s Human Fly, from The Cramps 1979 debut EP, Gravest Hits, and Ghost Rider, from The Gories’ 1990 album I Know You Fine, But How You Doin’.
Chilton also had an eclectic solo career that incorporated Jazz elements (his father was a Jazz musician). As with most seminal indie groups, there was a Big Star reunion. Chilton probably had many of creative years ahead of him before he died a heart attack on Wednesday. To this I can think of little to say except cliches like “The music lives on,” and blah blah blah. But you know cliches become cliches because they happen to be true in the first place.