Saturday, August 28, 2010

Strange Fruit: The Politics of Protest Songs

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

A stanza from "Strange Fruit" by Allen and Mellow

Strange Fruit as sung by Billie Holiday
What strikes me most about this haunting, horrific song is that Billie Holiday closed each of her shows with it...back in 1939! That is what I call fortitude in the face of the enemy, particularly since Ms. Holiday began singing to predominantly white audiences by that period of here career. But because many listeners prefer the tune and the delivery of a song as opposed to what is actually being stated in the lyrics, the dire message of 'Strange Fruit' often went right over the heads of her naive pre-WWII audiences, a fact noted by Billie Holiday herself in an interview near the end of her life, when she sadly opined, "They'll ask me to 'sing that sexy song about the people swinging'." Of course, Holiday wasn't referring to Ella Fitzgerald's scat: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"; but people often equate their own meanings and context to words, and lyrics in particular. My brother used to sing "Slow Cousin Walter" as the refrain to the song "Smoke on the Water".

But there are very few songs that resonate so deeply with me and cause such a feeling of revulsion and regret as Strange Fruit. I don't know why I feel regret, because my family never lived in the South; but it must be some ingrained response within American Caucasians, even those Caucasians, like me, whose grandparents got off the boat at Ellis Island and were too busy ekeing out a meager existence during the Great Depression than to indulge in violent, systemic racism (who had such inordinate amounts of time to waste?). Or perhaps it has something to do with the Catholic guilt I still harbor, even though I have abandoned that medieval, misogynistic museum of patriarchal relics and dogmatic oddities decades ago. Therefore, since I was already in a state of rueful melancholy, this got me to thinking about songs in general, and then protest songs in particular. Naturally, this caused -- as these things usually do -- the labyrinthine vaults of useless information stored in the recesses of my brain to disembogue a veritable flood of songs, which gushed over my memory banks and floated about, like so much flotsam and jetsam, in the cluttered corridors of my cramped cranium. And since I was already pondering the subject, what more appropriate way to rid myself of depressing thoughts than share my misery with the rest of you? Sharing is caring, after all.

And rather than belaboring the point by offering a long, winding (and long-winded) narrative history of the protest song from William Blake's "Dark, Satanic mills," to Joan Baez's "Drugstore truck drivin' man" (in honor of Ronald "Ray-guns"), I thought it would be better to just let the songs speak for themselves. And I would just comment. A little. Not too much though. Starting now.

The Star-Spangled Banner by Jimi Hendrix
-- An eloquently stated protest without saying a word. In this most famous version of the 'National Anthem', the message is relayed via Hendrix's artistry at coaxing the sounds of war from his axe: machine guns, explosions, dive bombers, shrieks and moans. Juxtaposing a violent aural assault atop the Anthem speaks volumes regarding the anti-war sentiment of the time, perhaps even more so than Hendrix's Machine Gun from the 'Band of Gypsies' album.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday by U2
-- This rousing, martial U2 song from the album 'War' recalls the 1972 'Bogside Massacre' in the Northern Ireland city of Derry, where British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders, killing at least 17 people, five of whom were shot in the back. The passion and outrage is evident in Bono's vocals on this, the most overtly political of all U2 songs.

Biko by Peter Gabriel
-- Steven Biko was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In 1977, Biko was arrested on trumped up charges under a South African terrorism act (basically, he was arrested for protesting while black). He was beaten so badly during a police interrogation that lasted over 24 hours, that he lapsed into a coma. He died within days due lack of medical care (the police would later claim he committed suicide). As is the way of injustice, the police were cleared of the crime by the South African courts. But the horrid event gained worldwide attention, and Peter Gabriel's stirring anthem, one which he sang to end each of his concerts, is one of the most powerful protests songs of the 80's and a catalyst for change in South Africa. From an anti-apartheid standpoint, it certainly has a more emotional punch than the tepid 'I Aint Gonna Play (Sun City)' by Little Steven and his coterie of 'We Are The World' rejects.

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye
-- Not only is this an important protest song, it is one of the finest soul songs ever crafted. Motown mogul Berry Gordy had refused to release the song on the grounds that it was politically objectionable (even after Edwin Starr had released the song 'War'), but Marvin Gaye stuck to his guns, and after near eight months of wrangling, Gordy finally relented. Like Holiday's 'Strange Fruit', Gaye's delivery of 'What's Going On' gives the song a deceptive, soulful air that belies its social commentary about the Vietnam war, drug addiction and abject poverty.

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
-- In response to Irving Berlin's ultra-patriotic 'God Bless America', an irritated Woody Guthrie composed a simple but stunning folk song which subtly reminds those in power that America is owned by the People and not the institutions that are caretakers for the People. The song has been adopted across the world, and many recorded variations refer to the specific artists' countries of origin.

Blowin' in the Wind by Peter, Paul & Mary
-- Naturally, SONY CORP. has banned any studio versions of the Bob Dylan original, but this Peter, Paul & Mary cover is earnestly sung and was a hit for the group. 'Blowin in the Wind' has become the 'Kumbayah' of protest songs, blithely sung around the campfire without context or thought of the powerful poetry contained therein. Oh well, pass me a smore, please.

Imagine by John Lennon
-- The only anti-nationalistic, anti-religious, anti-capitalistic song of nihilistic deconstruction which is also one of the "100 most-performed of the 20th century" (according to BMI), and which is blithely hummed by right-wing fascists, religious fanatics, and corporate raiders around the world, with nary a thought to the song's meaning. This makes this Lennon song even more satisfying.

Masters of War by Bob Dylan
-- I finally found a Bob Dylan original. Let's see how long it takes SONY CORP. to remove it from the Internet. Ironic, isn't it, that one of the most important protest songs of the 20th century, one that speaks out against the corporate sponsorship of military aggression, should be stifled by corporate greed.

Update: Well, it's obvious and infinitely ironic that profit is more important than the message of this song. Here's a version by Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.

Culloden's Harvest by Déanta
-- Culloden was the site of a battle in 1745 which pitted 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and 3000 blindly loyal Scottish Highlanders armed with muskets and swords against a well-armed British army of 10,000 with cannons. The result is what usually happens when bravery and patriotism faces superior numbers and firepower: within an hour, 2000 Highlanders lay dead and the hopes of Scottish independence was erased forever. Déanta, a Northern Irish traditional band, sings an impassioned version of the song, which is told from the point of view of the wailing widows and orphans left destitute after they were driven from their homes by the victorious invaders.

Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire
-- For a song written in 1965 by P.F. Sloan and sung by Barry McGuire, 'Eve of Destruction' shows quite vividly that absolutely nothing has changed in our society or elsewhere. The Eastern World is still exploding, there are still bodies floating in the Jordan River, and a handful of senators still don't pass legislation.

Sky Pilot by The Animals
-- Another song protesting the Vietnam War. This time, Eric Burdon and the Animals refer to the hypocrisy of religion, as a chaplain blesses soldiers who are about to go out and die. The padre reminds them of their duty to god and country, and then goes to take a nap, exhausted by the unctuous exertions of his own holiness.

For What It's Worth by Buffalo Springfield
Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Southern Man by Neil Young
To the Last Whale by Crosby & Nash
-- Somehow, Steven Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young became the self-anointed, aggregate social-conscience of rock during the 1960's. This occurred in conjunction with Bob Dylan abdicating his throne after pissing off all the dyed-in-the-wool folkies for daring to play an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. In combination or solo, CSN and sometimes Y (just like vowels) offered some muddled hippie indignance ('Almost Cut My Hair'), misguided odes to infidelity ('Love the One You're With') and overgrandizations of personal travails ('Immigration Man'), but the four songs I have emphasized hit their marks with unerring power and clarity. The most poignant of the four is 'To the Last Whale', because, after all, don't we as a society get more upset when animals are being slaughtered than when humans are in danger?

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival
-- John Fogerty vocalized what most American draftees felt in 1969. The Vietnam Conflict was a war fought by the 'have-nots', while the 'haves' (or 'fortunate sons') had their military service deferred while they went to college or, through their family connections, got plumb commissions in the Air National Guard (like George W. Bush) or the Naval Reserve (like David Eisenhower, grandson of Dwight Eisenhower and son-in-law of Richard Nixon, who the song is directly referring to).

The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel
Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Simon & Garfunkel
-- 'The Sound of Silence' was written in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The song and the album it first appeared on, 'Wednesday Morning, 3 AM', were a flop, and Simon and Garfunkel ended their affiliation. But then, a funny thing happened. A producer at Columbia Records thought enough of the song to dub electric guitar, bass and drums on what was originally an acoustic song and rereleased it without the knowledge of Paul and Art. It went to number one and the duo reunited. In regards to 'Scarborough Fair/Canticle', it is actually two songs: an English ballad that can be traced back to at least the 17th century (the part sang mainly by Garfunkel), and an anti-war song sung in counterpoint by Simon. The juxtaposition of the pastoral "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" with "generals order their soldiers to kill", followed by "and to gather it all in a bunch of heather" with "and to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten" is a brilliant bit of songsmithing.

War by Edwin Starr
-- Nowadays, it's difficult to think of this song without recalling Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker's hilarious harmonizing in "Rush Hour', but the 1970 version by Edwin Starr went to #1 and was the biggest hit of Starr's career (a previous version by The Temptations in 1969 was not released as a single). Starr's musical genre was known as 'psychedelic soul'(which also included Sly and the Family Stone and The Temptations), an arcane term that at first seems bizarre, but it eventually morphed into 'funk' which, I suppose, is a bit more familiar sounding to current listeners.

Uncle Remus by Frank Zappa
-- An incredibly sly attack on racism. The lyrics, although witty, hit their intended target with the force of a pimp-slap upside the head. Of course, the allusion to Uncle Remus is self-evident, and the mention of spraying with hoses recalls the crowd control during the 60's civil rights marches. The best lines of all are "I'll take a drive to Beverly Hills/Just before dawn/ An' knock the little jockeys/ Off the rich people's lawn..."

Behind the Wall by Tracy Chapman
-- A chilling and intense song about domestic abuse sung in a capella by Tracy Chapman. It recounts a person listening to a husband and wife fighting night after night on the other side of a wall in an apartment building. The narrator seems to have become almost immune to the constant battering, bemoaning that "it don't do no good to call the police, always come late if they come at all." This song and other stellar songs from Chapman's debut album, like 'Fast Car' and Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution, presented a powerful, feminine social conscience in the music industry that was nearly absent in the big-haired, banal 80's.

Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six by The Pogues
-- A political song from one of the best albums of the 80's, 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God', 'Streets of Sorrow' details Northern Ireland during the time of 'The Troubles' and is sung by Pogue Terry Wood, while 'The Birmingham Six' is sung by drunken poet extraordinaire Shane MacGowan and tells of the plight of the 'Birmingham Six' and the 'Guildford Four' who were unjustly arrested and framed for murder and terrorism. The song was banned by Britain's Independent Broadcasting Authority, until the two groups' convictions were overturned and Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a public apology. You may recognize the story of the Guildford Four if you've ever seen Daniel Day-Lewis in the Oscar nominated 'In the Name of the Father'.

Another Brick in the Wall Parts 1,2 & 3 by Pink Floyd
-- A song so dangerous to the Establishment that it was banned in South Africa prior to the fall of Apartheid. The song and the album 'The Wall' were prohibited by the South African government in 1980 when the song was adopted by a nationwide group boycotting schools in protest of the inherent inequality of the education system. The ban has lapsed, but it has never been officially repealed.

Luka by Suzanne Vega
-- One of the first songs to address child abuse from the point of view of the child, tells the story of 'Luka' who makes excuses and lives a life of denial, which is often a coping strategy for the abused. This song came out in 1987, but Pat Benatar released the fiery Hell is for Children in 1980. Because of her commitment to stopping abuse, Ms. Benatar started a foundation for abused children.

No Man's Land/Flowers of the Forest by June Tabor
-- I had originally thought this version of the Eric Bogle composition was done by Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. I always liked it, but never could find a copy. Well, after some laborious research and many dead ends regarding Sandy Denny, I finally discovered it was actually sung by June Tabor, a noted singer in British folk/traditional circles. Sorry, Ms Tabor. The recording can be found in a stellar Green Linnet compilation of trad songs from all across the British Isles. In any case, the song 'No Man's Land' (sometimes titled 'The Green Fields of France') concerns a narrator who contemplates the senselessness of war at the graveside of Willie McBride, who died at the age of 19 during WWI.

Redemption Song by Bob Marley
Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley
-- Two different politically-charged tunes by Marley that deal with racism, repression and religion (in the case of 'Get Up'). The composition 'Redemption Song' is particularly striking, as Marley had already been diagnosed with cancer and was in a reflective mood about life. He deals with two aspects of slavery here: the physical and the mental, and then freeing oneself from those yokes. Some of the lines of the song were borrowed from a speech given by Marcus Garvey, an early 20th century Pan-African and national hero of Jamaica.

I Aint Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs
-- This song had a huge impact on the anti-war movement of the early 60's, and it certainly is stirring. But as Ochs recounts the different wars he has fought in (he as a narrator, speaking for each generation): the Battle of New Orleans, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, The Indian Wars, WWI and WWII, each followed with the line "But I ain't marching anymore", I wonder what took him so long to actually stop marching.

Zombie by The Cranberries
-- Perhaps the addition of the arresting video makes this Cranberry song special. When Dolores O'Riordan utters the line, "It's the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen," she is referring to the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916, and the fact that Irish rebels and the British Army kept up a near continuous battle in Northern Ireland for nearly 70 years thereafter. The final shot of the dead boy merely heightens the frustration over escalating sectarian violence.

It's the End of the World as We Know It by REM
-- Not necessarily a protest song, per se, but it is indicative of the way I feel after writing this piece.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Rock and Roll Hall of Shame, or The Crock and Faux Hall of Disco, Soul and Rap

Here is a little trivia game I have devised. It starts with a series of trick questions that you probably already know the answers to (as well as where I am going with this line of questioning).

Question #1: What do these six recording artists/bands have in common:
The Bee Gees
Grandmaster Flash
The Jackson Five

Answer: They have all been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Question #2: What do these six recording artists/bands have in common:
Alice Cooper
King Crimson
Jethro Tull
The Moody Blues

Answer: They have not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Question #3: Which set of six artists/bands would you consider as great (or even good) rock bands/artists:

Set #1 -- ABBA, The Bee Gees, Grandmaster Flash, The Jackson Five, Madonna, Run-DMC

Set #2 -- Alice Cooper, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Rush, Yes

If you chose set #1 as a list of great rock artists, congratulations! you are qualified to be one of the muddled revisionists who vote for inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located in Cleveland, Ohio (the nonexistent and wholly mythical capital of rock-and-roll). As a parting gift for playing our trivia game, here is your Rock-and-Roll gift bag, which contains a DVD of the movie Mamma Mia, a CD of the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, an alarm clock autographed by Flavor Flav, a patch of Madonna's pubic hair and Michael Jackson's spare nose.

I don't get it. I just don't get it. As an avid fan of rock-and-roll for more years than I wish to recount, I was always sure what music was considered rock-and-roll, and what was not. Certainly, rock-and-roll is an amalgam of different musical genres, such as blues, country, folk, R&B, jazz and even classical, but I always knew what artist fit where. For instance: Willie Dixon was a legendary blues man and Led Zeppelin were not, they were a rock band that played some Willie Dixon blues tunes; Mussorgsky was a classical composer and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were not, they were a rock band who covered Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; Al Green is a great soul singer and The Talking Heads were a rock band who covered Green's Take Me to the River. But in these days of stilted political correctness, rampant revisionism and wholesale homogenization, everything is now rock-and-roll, and what I once thought was rock-and-roll is no longer even considered in the same musical equation.

Please allow me to elucidate.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a sham. Was that statement too equivocal? Did I stutter? Do I need to be clearer? All right then, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a canard, a fabrication, and those who control the nomination process have an obvious agenda. It is a publicist's idea of a good marketing scam. It is a manipulative ploy by elements of the recording industry to validate and sell certain types of music. It neither perpetuates good music and good musicianship, nor the elements of rebelliousness that once were what rock-and-roll was all about. It is a selection process that sells table space at $25,000 a shot. Put simply, it is a joke.

My primary irritation with the selection process for this Rock-and-Faux Hall of Lame is that there are many artists inducted who simply have nothing to do with rock-and-roll, or at best have a vestigial association with the genre, whereas a sizable segment of what any musician or casual listener would consider actual 'rock music' is utterly and completely ignored. First, I must say it makes perfect sense that there is an inductee section for 'Early Influences', a category reserved for performers who shaped rock-and-roll, but who were not what would be considered rock 'n' rollers. That way, we can honor influential artists such as hall-of-fame inductees Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Pete Seeger, Les Paul, Woody Guthrie, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, etc., and recognize their extraordinary musical achievements. And although they deserve inclusion into such an august body, they are, nonetheless, separate from rock, particularly considering many of the folk in the 'Early Influences' category would have either never heard of the term 'rock' in their lifetimes, or would not have considered themselves, even remotely, as 'rock stars'. The problem then arises when the Hall inducts non-rock-and-roll artists into the 'Performer' category, and by inclusion indicates that the music these artists perform is rock-and-roll.

This none-too-subtle machination by the Hall of Fame is a smarmy but mendacious bit of all-inclusiveness that has nothing to do with what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website alludes to as their principal voting agenda: "Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll." If that is the case, what influence has a pop band like ABBA had on rock and roll, except to instill other bland facsimiles with tepid pop tunes like The Ace of Base? It was ironically appropriate that Barry and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees presented ABBA's induction into the Hall, because they have no business being in the Hall either. Face it, without disco music, The Bee Gees were a washed up and irrelevant 60's band. Their popularity had nothing to do with rock-and-roll, but with John Travolta pertly prancing in a polyester suit under the diffuse light of a mirrored disco ball.

Additionally, Motown acts such as The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops and Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five and Gladys Knight and the Pips, although stellar artists of the soul and R&B genres, just aren't rock-and-roll by any stretch of the imagination; yet there they are -- all Hall of Fame inductees. And don't get me started on Rap music. Rap and its illegitimate progeny 'house music' and 'hip-hop' were never and are not rock music. This genre of 'music' (and I use the term in the broadest possible sense), did not rise, historically speaking, from the rock form, nor does it maintain a sense of rock music on a consistent basis. It may have occasionally grafted elements of rock into its recording process (hip-hop artists will sequence any bit of music into their songs, rather than composing their own), and bands like Run/DMC, Eminem and Kid Rock have incorporated both rock and rap into their performances; however, if one were to have a sentient dialogue regarding music, rock and rap would certainly be separate topics of discussion.

If one were to take the argument to its most illogical and over-the-top conclusion, then according to how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chooses its inductees, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Wagner, Mozart, Liszt, Grieg and other classical composers should all be inducted as 'Early Influences', because countless rock bands (including Hall of Fame inductees Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and U2) owe just as much to Johann Sebastian, Wolfgang and Ludwig as they do to T-bone, Sonny Boy and Muddy. Then, they should select Paderewski, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman and Segovia as rock performers. You might as well throw in Irving Berlin, John Phillip Sousa, Stephen Foster, Liberace, Robert Burns, and Henry VIII (a noted composer during his reign). Am I being ridiculous? Actually, not really. How can R&B, soul and rap acts warrant inclusion in this alleged 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame', but classical musicians are not? Or country musicians, for that matter? They've already inducted Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins. I suggest they induct Kenny Rogers immediately! Like the Bee Gees, he had failed in rock circles after his band, The First Edition, folded. But he had a few psychedelic hits in the 60's -- such as Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) -- and like the Brothers Gibb he made it big in another music genre. Doesn't 'The Gambler' deserve to be included too? No, he doesn't. I was speaking rhetorically.

Which brings me to the six rock bands I referred to in my snarky trivia game at the beginning of this prolix diatribe. There is no getting around it, the supposed 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame' hates hard rock music of the 1970's in general, and progressive rock in particular. Except for a few notable super groups and artists like Zeppelin, Floyd, Bowie, Elton John, Black Sabbath, Queen and, most recently, Genesis, the Hall seemed to skip right over the 70's, going from psychedelia and protest songs to punk and power pop. What is it about superlative musical ability, meticulously crafted compositions, witty or enlightening lyrics and enormously entertaining concerts that this purported 'Hall of Fame' despises? It's not that these bands lacked a significant following; on the contrary, except for one notable exception (King Crimson, which I will expand and expound upon shortly) these bands had consecutive albums in the top ten, their concerts were among the highest grossers, and their music continues to be played daily across the world -- in some cases, more than 40 years after their songs' initial release. You can't point to lack of album sales for the Hall's intentional snobbery and snubbery:

Alice Cooper -- Over 50 million albums sold worldwide
Jethro Tull -- Over 60 million albums sold worldwide
The Moody Blues -- Over 50 million albums sold worldwide
Rush -- Over 40 million albums sold worldwide
Yes -- Over 30 million albums sold worldwide

Nor can you deny their influence and continuing mass appeal. Here is a resume of each band, offered for review to the five-hundred alleged 'rock experts' who vote for the Hall of Fame -- and, more importantly, the 'Star Chamber' committee that sits in judgment of the selection process -- in hopes they will see the fundamental errors in judgement they have collectively heaped upon the tarnished institution for which they continue to bungle, botch and bollix-up. Not that I expect any epiphanic reconsideration from such an inept group of cynical product-pushers. But one can hope, even when such hope amounts to pigs having wings and monkeys flying out of one's buttocks.

Would there be a Marilyn Manson or MTV videos without the pioneering theatrical work of Alice Cooper? In fact, isn't Marilyn Manson just a tarted-up version of Alice for a new generation? And then there are the other bands who name Alice as an important influence: KISS, Twisted Sister, Rob Zombie, Megadeth, The Flaming Lips and the Sex Pistols (John 'Johnny Rotten' Lydon named the Cooper release Killer as the greatest album of all time). With such legendary songs of teenage rebellion and angst as I'm Eighteen and School's Out, and platinum platters of hard rock like Love It to Death, Killer, Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome to My Nightmare, it makes little sense from a rock perspective that Alice is left at home holding his boa.

No, King Crimson was never an album-selling behemoth. They never had an album make it to the top ten, let alone the top twenty, in the U.S. (although Court of the Crimson King made it to #3 in the UK). But King Crimson is as influential as any other band in the Hall of Fame, and particularly those bands who made it on 'influence' alone (Iggy and the Stooges never made it into the top 100, and The Velvet Underground never had an album that placed south of 171). That being said, the effect of King Crimson's innovations -- early contributors or progenitors of progressive rock, jazz/rock fusion, heavy metal, new wave, electronica, acid rock, psychedelia and minimalism -- cannot be overstated. Bands that have cited King Crimson as an influence include Dream Theater, Iron Maiden, Mudvayne, Nirvana, Porcupine Tree, Primus, Rush, Tool and Voivoid. In addition, former band members Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), John Wetton (Asia and UK) and Boz Burrell (Bad Company) carried along certain aspects of King Crimson's sound to their next bands.

Jethro Tull is the only band to have two concept albums hit #1 in the U.S. without any single for radio airplay; as a matter of fact, Thick as a Brick and Passion Play had no discernible separate songs at all, just continuous music on both sides of the records. How's that for free-spirited rebelliousness? Despised by critics (including Jann Wenner and Dave Marsh, who are on the diabolical nominee selection committee) but loved by fans, Tull's eccentric mix of progressive and hard rock, classical music, electronica, jazz, folk and world music, has endeared them to a wide variety of listeners, so much so that they have 14 albums with gold or platinum status (placing them in the top 100 best-selling artists of all time). Songs like Aqualung, Locomotive Breath, Bungle in the Jungle and Living in the Past have been fixtures on rock stations for the last four decades. Oh yes, and they stole a Grammy from Metallica for their album Crest of a Knave. The look of shock on the members of Metallica's faces is alone worth induction into the Hall of Fame.

The Moody Blues had albums that reached the top ten in sales in the U.S. in three different decades: Days of Future Passed (1967), A Question of Balance (1970), Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971), Seventh Sojourn (1972), Long Distance Voyager (1981) and The Other Side of Life (1986). The album Days of Future Passed was the first pop recording to completely integrate a symphony orchestra within a rock format, a conceptual day in the life of everyman, and the results were stunning. The song Nights in White Satin was rereleased in 1972 and became a #1 hit five years after it originally appeared on Days of Future Passed. Their follow-up album In Search of the Lost Chord is one of the best examples of psychedelia ever recorded, with landmark songs like Ride My See-Saw, Legend of a Mind (to Timothy Leary) and Visions of Paradise.

What can one say about a band that continues to sell-out arenas and stadiums over 40 years after they formed in 1968? A band with the best drum solo (Working Man) in rock history (sorry Mr. Moon and Mr. Bonham, you got owned)? Did you know Rush has more consecutive gold and platinum albums than any band in history except The Beatles and the Stones? Were you aware Rush has had gold and platinum albums in the 70's, 80's and 90's? Well, if record sales and sold-out concerts are not criteria for induction, why are Madonna and ABBA in the Hall? If stellar rock albums like Fly By Night, 2112, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures (each a platinum album, mind you) do not warrant inclusion, what exactly does?

Eclectic, innovative and musically superb, the band Yes is as apt to go off on extended space jazz riffing as they are to emulate classical composers such as Bach, Grieg and Stravinsky. Superlative recordings like The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge defined the progressive rock movement in the early 70's and are essential albums in any rock collection. Reformed and retooled in the 1980's, Yes returned to platinum status with the albums 90125 and Big Generator. Much of the work of Yes, particularly the period between 1971-77, makes most other rock bands sound like teenagers practicing basic three chord progressions in their parent's garage. Either that, or it was the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for The Ramones or Blondie.

In conclusion, I have another musical trivia game for you.

Question #4: What do these bands/artists have in common?
Blue Oyster Cult
Canned Heat
The Cars
Harry Chapin
Joe Cocker
Jim Croce
Dick Dale
Deep Purple
Dire Straits
The Doobie Brothers
Electric Light Orchestra
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Fairport Convention
J. Geils Band
Peter Gabriel (solo career)
The Guess Who
Ian Hunter (solo career)
Humble Pie
Carole King
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers
Jefferson Airplane/Starship
Mott the Hoople
The Pogues
Procol Harum
Roxy Music
Cat Stevens
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Uriah Heep
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Warren Zevon

Answer: They are not The Four Seasons, LaVern Baker, Martha and the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield, Solomon Burke, and Earth, Wind & Fire, none of whom have anything whatsoever to do with rock-and-roll, but who have all been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and are thus deemed more important to rock-and-roll than all the rock bands and artists I have listed.

P.S. Send your hate letters to Jann Wenner, Publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine and one of the select few in an evil little cabal who control the nomination process, and thus omit bands and entire music genres (like progressive rock) that they do not care for personally.

P.P.S. On a positive note, The Sex Pistols refused to attend their induction ceremony in 2006. In a hastily scrawled, hand-written letter, they stated the Hall of Fame "is a piss stain", calling the museum itself "urine in wine". Here is the letter:

Rock 'n' Roll is alive and well, but not at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

P.P.P.S: 11/9/12 Well, it has been over two years since I wrote this first rancorous article regarding the dubious RRHOF, and since then only Alice Cooper has been inducted from the group of worthy performers I offered. I've done a few follow-up articles, the most recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Endorses R&B Hall: Half of the Inductees Leave! spells out the hypocrisy of the RRHOF, and settles any debate from muddled revisionists who argued that R&B music has somehow transmogrified into rock music. It is a different genre and has a separate Hall of Fame to recognize extraordinary performers playing and singing that form of music. But it aint rock and roll!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Music to Lick Light Sockets by -- Great Rock Jams from 'The D' and Beyond

It is amazing how one's environment breeds an interest in certain musical forms, so much so that it I am surprised John Locke didn't formulate a theory on Musica Rasa. But growing up in the Detroit area in the 70's seems to have engendered a need for gritty blues, grungy metal and high-decibel hard rock. When punk overtook more trendy music scenes in New York, LA or even Chicago in the mid-to-late 70's, Detroit merely shrugged. We had done that schtick years earlier with the MC5 and The Stooges. In fact, from the 1990's onward there has been a more thriving punk community in Detroit than there ever was in the 70's or early 80's. In any case, Detroit never seemed to favor angsty, emo prats like Television, or later, The Smiths and The Cure. It never was a city for self-obsessed whiners.

In the 1960's, Detroit was known as 'Hitsville U.S.A.', an R&B Shangri-la where Motown Records churned out countless hits from the likes of The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes and The Four Tops; but by 1970, the Motor City had transformed into 'Detroit, Rock City', a mecca for the great unwashed (and seriously stoned) masses to flock for some of the best concerts on the planet. Soon, disparate acts such as David Bowie ('Panic in Detroit'), J.Geils ('Detroit Breakdown'), KISS ('Detroit, Rock City') and Dire Straits ('Telegraph Road') wrote of their touring experiences here. Pink Floyd played 'Dark Side of the Moon' in its entirety for the last time at Detroit's Olympia Stadium in 1974, and would not play it again until 20 years later at the Palace (home of the Detroit Pistons). Also, Detroit could boast of hometown artists like the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, Mitch Ryder, Parliament-Funkadelic, Smokey Robinson, Patti Smith, and so on and on. And yes, Madonna and Diana Ross came from here, but we don't mention them in polite company.

Concerts were 'happenings' back in the 1970's, major events that sent counter-cultural shock waves through the city, and the wild (some would say drug-fueled) enthusiasm of fans was definitely appreciated by the performers. Hometown proud Bob Seger made this famous comment on his mega-platinum 'Live Silver Bullet': “As I told everybody last night, I was reading in Rolling Stone where they said Detroit audiences are the greatest rock-n-roll audiences in the world....I thought to myself, 'Shit, I’ve known that for ten years!'” But that was prior to the forming of the unholy trinity of MTV, the Internet and Ticketmaster -- a tripartite axis of evil that destroyed the album format, reduced musical compositions to single units of product and placed an outrageous premium on halfhearted performances. Don't believe me? Have you been to a concert recently? After various surcharges, fees and taxes (enough to make a cellular company's billing department blush), the tickets are well over $50, then it's $10 for parking, $10 for a beer, and what do you get? a quick 90 minute greatest hits package. There's more musical substance in a Time-Life CD collection infomercial. I'm surprised musicians don't have sponsor tattoos. Gone are the long concerts with multiple encores that put folks like Seger, Tull, Floyd, Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen on the map (and if you ever went to a Bruce concert in the 70's or 80's, you'll recall he'd play for so long that audiences were begging him to stop).

Oh sure, we still have Eminem, Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker hanging around 'The D', and Jack White -- the Johnny Depp of Rock -- still makes occasional curtain calls; yet, for all intents and purposes, he has split to Nashville along with The White Stripes and his artistic affectations. It seems the old vibe -- that musical melding of funky Motown and raunchy Rock City -- is gone, and Detroit itself resembles a burnt-out crater with still-thriving suburbs huddled around its smoldering rim, peering down warily into its Stygian depths. Statistically, the surrounding suburbs have for years had far more people in them than the city proper, as increasing suburban flight led to spiraling urban blight. As for the empty acreage, there are already plans in place to open for-profit farms by corporate pioneers upon the countless blocks and blocks of vacant land in clear view of downtown. Detroit has become an urban prairie overgrown with nothingness; blank areas on a map once filled with hundreds of houses and burgeoning neighborhoods.

Nowadays, anyone with any common sense and access to a bus-line sends their kids to schools in the suburbs, and they shop in the suburbs because there are no major supermarkets or Wal-marts or shopping malls within the city limits. But there are liquor stores. Liquor stores and pawn shops. And hair salons and storefront churches. Every block still standing has a pawn shop, a liquor store, a hair and nail salon and a storefront church or two. That way, you can sell the jewelry you just snatch-and-grabbed, buy your blunts, booze and lotto, and with whatever money is left over, get gussied up in time to pray for someone else's sins. Because the problem always lies elsewhere: it was your kids that shot up the bus stop and killed several high school students; your kids that robbed the restaurant and killed the pregnant manager; your kids that car-jacked a young man, stole his wallet and left his lifeless body atop a pile of garbage in an abandoned house. We shall pray for you and your criminal children. But beyond prayer, we won't actually do anything. Action requires critical thinking, whereas faith requires nothing but mumbling to empty air. And we do not think about things we do not think about.


So, in honor of pleasant memories of a city with more abandoned buildings per capita than anywhere west of Cairo's City of the Dead, I have prominently displayed a clutch of great Detroit jams, judiciously interspersed with many other molten musical gems from all across Planet Rock for your listening (and headbanging) edification.

Rock & Roll by Mitch Ryder
-- In a previous article, I had listed the Thirteen Greatest Cover Songs; unfortunately, I had neglected this monster Mitch Ryder cover of the tepid, thoroughly nancy original by The Velvet Underground. Ryder stole it from New York, moved it to Detroit, and gave it some balls. The original sounds like a flowery commercial for a feminine hygiene product.

A Light in the Black by Rainbow
-- Works by Ritchie Blackmore show up a couple of times on this list. Whether with Rainbow or Deep Purple, Blackmore unleashed several masterful metal monsters. Recently deceased Ronnie James Dio did the vocals on this one. What? Don't be silly. He did the performance while still among the living, of course.

Green Manalishi by Fleetwood Mac
-- One of the great lost classics of the Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac of the 1960's. Personally, I consider 'Green Manalishi', as well as the original acoustic/ electric singles version of 'Oh Well' (which is unfortunately unavailable on the Internet), to be the band's greatest compositions, exceeding even songs from the hit-machine Mac of the 'Rumours' era. Judas Priest did a cover of the song in the 80's, but you'll find none of the dark nuances and eeriness of the original version. Unless, of course, you enjoy pale, utterly sterile imitations.

Kick Out The Jams by The MC5
-- The MC5 was a band whose albums weren't allowed in the house. Oh, you might be able to sneak in an Alice Cooper album (as long as you didn't play 'Dead Babies'), but the MC5? Nope. It was the profanity. Those damned curse words would get you into trouble every time. Sure, they edited this song for radio airplay, but every time Rob Tyner bellowed, "KICK OUT THE JAMS, BROTHERS AND SISTERS!" You knew what he really said, and you wanted to hear what he really said, because The MC5 was anarchic and rebellious and their manager was the leader of the White Panthers. The MC5 and The Stooges started the whole 'mosh' thing, except with punches and biting and bottles broken over your head. Good times, good times.

Bad Motor Scooter by Montrose
-- This song is from Montrose's excellent eponymous first album that literally defined the term 'hard rock'. As far as other heavy duty tunes from the same album, I could have just as well added Rock the Nation or Space Nation #5. Oh, would you look at that -- I just did.

Be My Enemy by The Waterboys
-- The Waterboys were a seriously underrated band of the late 80's. 'Be My Enemy' is on the epochal 'This is the Sea' album. Based on the downright evil lyrics in this song, singer/composer Mike Scott is obviously very pissed off at someone.

Motor City Madhouse by Ted Nugent
-- Once upon a time, prior to his conversion to paranoic, gun-toting, fire and brimstone, right-wing libertarianism -- yes, even further back in the shadowy recesses of the past, before he became a heavy-metal, bow-slinging, Tarzanish parody of himself -- Ted Nugent was a great guitarist. No, I am not kidding. Nugent once cared more for rock & roll than high-testosterone wang-dang-poontangery or politically polemical peacockery. Would that he maintained his music and muzzled his mouth.

Panic in Detroit by David Bowie
Suffragette City
-- Everyone's favorite chameleon and a rock legend who should thank his lucky stars that he made the acquaintance of the late, great guitarist Mick Ronson. These two songs are more about Ronson's guitar than Bowie's tenor.

Bottle of Smoke The Pogues
-- I suppose someone should have mentioned to Shane MacGowan that this song has no electric guitar. The leads are with an accordion. Never mind, I am sure he was too drunk to even notice that there was music playing behind him. For an added bit of drunken trivia fun, count how many time Shane drops the F-bomb.

Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper
Is It My Body
-- The first Alice Cooper offering is 'Billion Dollar Babies' from the 1974 album of the same name. And yes, that is the Irish hippie troubadour Donovan singing along with Alice. Not necessarily my favorite Cooper, but once again a profligate record company has prohibited most of the band's studio work for use on the Internet. In irritation, and after much rummaging around, I found two wonderfully campy videos of Alice on a local Detroit TV show in November, 1971, less than a year after the album 'Love It To Death' was released (January, '71). In the same month as the low-budget TV program, Alice Cooper would release the mega-selling 'Killer' and become superstars. Amazing: two albums in one year and a jump from a local Detroit club band to international stardom. It doesn't happen like that anymore.

Mississippi Queen by Mountain
-- God bless cow bells and the Great Fatsby! Leslie West was literally a mountain of a man and he came up with one of the all-time great riffs for Mississippi Queen.

Supernaut by Black Sabbath
-- Perhaps my favorite Sabbath tune. It almost forces one to play air guitar. Which makes it difficult to type.

I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges
-- Iggy Pop is Ann Arbor, Michigan's favorite son, particularly since they haven't yet found the scientific means to resurrect Bo Schembechler. But Iggy never went to U-M; in fact, based on the simplicity of his lyrics, I am not sure he finished grade school. But who needs grammar and syntax when you are Iggy Pop? He obviously dropped his original name, James Newell Osterberg, because spelling was not on his itinerary. He was more interested in smearing peanut butter on his chest and body surfing out into the audience. I love rock & roll!

Going Down by The Jeff Beck Group
-- Two stellar rock-fusion jams from Jeff Beck & Company that I can't play on the guitar, but wish I could.

Highway Star by Deep Purple
-- Back in the 70's, every aspiring young guitarist attempted the lead on 'Highway Star'. Few succeeded. This version is from 'Made in Japan', one of the best live albums ever recorded. 'Made in Japan' is also notable for one of the greatest comments ever made during a rock concert. Right before the start of a song, singer Ian Gillan asked a sound tech, "Can we have everything louder than everything else?"

Help Me Baby The Frost
-- The Frost never really made it out of Michigan; well, except for maybe guitarist Dick Wagner, who played lead on Alice Cooper's 'Welcome to My Nightmare' and Lou Reed's 'Berlin' album. The Frost's riotous concerts are legendary. Or maybe the rioters at the concerts were legendary.

Stone Cold Crazy by Queen
Ogre Battle
-- 'Stone Cold Crazy' is, as its name infers, utterly crazy; however, 'Ogre Battle' stands at the foot of the 'Mountains of Madness', blasting away at the stone until it becomes a 'Lump of Lunacy'. Not for the faint of heart, or those prone to seizures from shrieking falsetto voices.

21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson
-- Heavy metal jazz? Hard rock fusion? Psychedelic electric Coltrane? Whatever you categorize this frenetic piece of acid jazz, there is no better jam, past, present or future. And I should know, I am sibyllic.

The House of the Rising Sun by Frijid Pink
-- Something about the vibrato vocal screeching and fuzz-toned guitars makes this cover by Detroit-based Frijid Pink particularly special. This song actually hit the top ten in the U.S. in 1970, which just goes to show you how much music has changed in 40 years. An argument could be made quite convincingly that it has not changed for the better. Strike that. I don't even have to argue the point.

Rocky Road To Dublin by Young Dubliners
-- Just when you thought it was safe to go back into your local pub: heavy metal Irish folk music!

Too Rolling Stoned by Robin Trower
-- You've heard of death by chocolate? This is death by Trower, burying you in a mountainous mess 'o' blues. If your home stereo has a good subwoofer, at high enough bass levels you can make your neighbors have bowel movements: "Margaret, I've just shit my La-Z-Boy! Damn that Robin Trower!"

Footstompin' Music by Grand Funk
-- The only organ-centric tune on this list is a keeper from the band from Flint, Michigan. They were really big in the 70's, but they have unfortunately gone the way of the dodo and the cowbell.

Trampled Underfoot by Led Zeppelin
Black Dog
-- Two heavy songs from the two best Zeppelin albums: 'Physical Graffiti' and 'Led Zeppelin IV' (aka 'ZoSo' or 'Volume IV', whatever). 'Trampled Underfoot' is exactly what its name implies, a devastating barrage of funk and John Bonham battering his kit, and 'Black Dog' has one of the best extended guitar lines ever.

Hymn #43 by Jethro Tull
-- So many songs, so little time. The problem with Tull is that, even at their heaviest, their songs variate time signatures, tone and mood so often that it's difficult to pick a song that can be defined strictly as a 'jam' in a hard-rocking sense.

The Great White Buffalo The Amboy Dukes
-- The Amboy Dukes and their Motor City Madman guitarist, Ted Nugent, hit it big in the 60's with Journey to the Center of Your Mind, but that song just isn't loud enough for this list. Nugent's crazy cover of Chuck Berry's 'Maybelline' is the most spastic version ever recorded.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

50 Great Epic Rock Songs

Yes, yes, yes -- I know Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven is the epitome of epochal epicness, and as a band, Zeppelin has a veritable cornucopia of truly great epic songs:

Ten Years Gone
Achilles Last Stand
No Quarter

But let us move further athwart the wide spectrum of rock for other bands who exhibited an epic quality in their songs. First, let us define the word 'epic': very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale); "an epic voyage"; "of heroic proportions". So, an 'epic rock song' is one of imposing structure, one in which the proportions of the song are in size and scale greater than the average 2:30 minute rock tune. In particular, the compositions include movements with variations and coloration in the composition. An 'epic' rock song must have both a powerful and memorable hard rock chord structure and an equally stunning reflective and quiescent section -- it is not simply rattling off a blinding lead in the middle of an up-tempo rock tune. A brilliant example is by Pink Floyd:

Comfortably Numb

Here we have both a variation in vocals as well as instrumentation. Roger Water's manic and tense asides are interspersed with David Gilmour's ethereal dream-invoked balladeering as the song fades in and out of reality. And then the dream is gone and we have Gilmour's towering lead to finish off the song. In my estimation, that piece of music, so full of emotion and epic intensity, ranks as one of the greatest solos in rock history (which goes back to what I mentioned about guitarists not necessarily needing to come up with a hyper-fast lead to create a masterful and memorable solo).

Yet another superb example of an epic rock song is by Derek and the Dominos:


The composition is brilliant, with its two separate movements, the first featuring Clapton's signature guitar riff, and the second with Jim Gordon's piano coda, interspersed with the improvisational duetting of Duane Allman's slide and Clapton's slowhand bent notes. Couple this remarkable melding of elements with Clapton's languishing lyrics of unrequited love, and Derek and the Dominos produced one of the iconic songs in rock and roll history. As opposed to other remarkable rock compositions like Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' or Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb', 'Layla' becomes quieter and more introspective as the song reaches outro (Whereas Stairway and Numb start out quietly and build to lengthy jams).

Now that we are on the same page as far as the definition of an epic rock song, here is a fairly comprehensive list of 50 compositions (including the songs noted above) which take us on just such an epic voyage, categorized from Alice to Zappa. If you happen to have a recliner and a good pair of headphones, I suggest you take the day off work and listen. No, really. I'm sure your boss won't mind.

One more thing, I will be offering neither Bruce Springsteen nor Bob Dylan songs in this compendium of great songs (although they are certainly deserving) because SONY MUSIC CORP. will not allow the original studio versions of their songs on YouTube. The greedy bastards can keep their songs and use them as MP3 suppositories (a digital download of sorts), which may someday loosen their cash-compacted colons.

P.S. I've added more to the list! Find them here: 50 More Great Epic Rock Songs

Sorry for the interruption:


Halo of Flies
-- Imagine a spy movie where the entire cast and crew is on psilocybin mushrooms. Then imagine Alice Cooper composing the soundtrack. And there you have it.

Second Coming/Ballad of Dwight Fry
-- A magnum opus of madness. Dwight Frye was, of course, the wonderfully creepy, fly-eating, spider-loving Renfield character in the Bela Lugosi version of 'Dracula', and this song (even with the last name misspelled) was written in his honor (or the characters he played, rather).


The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
-- It isn't very often that a song about the Civil War becomes a hit, but this tale of a man trying to live through the great conflict is an important piece of musical Americana. I am sure it's still big within the Civil War reenactors demographic.


A Day in the Life
-- What can be written that has not already been copiously reiterated about this remarkable composition? Not much, so I won't compound the effusive praise, except to mention that this song has the most epic single piano chord in the history of music. Oh, and that final, booming chord was E major, if you weren't aware.

Hey Jude
-- Not many bands could get away with releasing a seven minute-long single back in 1968, but hey, they were The Beatles, and 'Hey Jude' became the biggest selling single of all time (up until the saccharine, vomit-inducing 'You Light Up My Life' by Debby Boone in 1977).


Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
-- Perhaps Ozzy Osbourne's best vocal performance, if shrieking at the top of one's lungs can be defined as a 'vocal performance'. Nevertheless, no one in rock can shriek like the helium-lunged singer of Sabbath. Castratos couldn't hit some of those notes. This song is the crowning achievement of Sabbath, with a bludgeoning, downright satanic beat and the harrowing vocals of Ozzy shrieking above the fray. Malevolent, inherently evil -- it overshadows previous attempts at such imagery and is truly frightening in its conjuration of the demons from within.

War Pigs
-- 'War Pigs' is like a frayed old bathrobe and comfy slippers. It seems to have always been around the house, warning us of impending war and nuclear destruction, with dear old Satan flapping his wings and kindly inviting us to tea in a quaint sitting room with murals by Hieronymus Bosch.


Sweet Thing/Candidate
-- 'Diamond Dogs' is without a doubt David Bowie's most underrated album, and 'Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise' is a great example of why this is a phenomenal album. Listen to Bowie's vocal at the start of 'Sweet Thing': He goes from the lower ranges of baritone to high tenor in the matter of a minute. The feverish cabaret -- almost Brechtian -- vocal delivery and the bitingly raw guitar are sublime.


Tales of Brave Ulysses
-- At 2:53 this is the shortest song on the list, but all the qualities of an epic are there, including allusions to Homer's Odyssey, itself an epic.


The End
-- See 'When the Music's Over'.

The Soft Parade
-- This song is so over-the-top and Jim Morrison is so stoned, one can't possibly help but find it endearing. There are so many bizarre lines ('The monk bought lunch', 'This is the best part of the trip', 'love your neighbor 'til his wife gets home', etc.) that one wonders how Morrison managed to remain standing, let alone sing in the studio.

When The Music's Over
-- See 'The End'.


Karn Evil #9, 1st Impression (Part I)
-- I am well aware that it is fashionable to denigrate ELP for their arrogance and ambition. I know, for instance, that if ELP were a species of dinosaur, scientists would likely name them Pompousaurus Rex. Really, I get the aversion. However, most of the negative reviews neither take the band's work in context to the time period their albums were released, nor do they appreciate the audacity of the band. And they were certainly audacious. And that is the fatal flaw in ELP: they were simply too ambitious and too immersed in the classical form to adequately maintain an equilibrium within the rock vernacular. What the hell am I actually saying, you ask? Their attempts to graft classical and jazz forms onto a simpler form like rock always seem to border on the grandiloquent and bloated. But this is one song that works.


The Firth of Fifth
-- Of course, you geography nuts will be interested to know that the 'Firth of Fifth' is a pun on Scotland's estuary of the river Forth, the 'Firth of Forth'. Otherwise, it is not much of a pun (except maybe in Edinburgh). But the song is great. One of my favorites from Genesis.

Supper's Ready, Part I
Supper's Ready, Part II
Supper's Ready, Part III
-- 'Supper's Ready is Genesis' vision of the Apocalypse, full of allusions to St. John's Book of Revelations. And at nearly 23 minutes, it might last until the end of the world. The ending movements 'Apocalypse in 9/8' and "As Sure as Eggs is Eggs' are brilliant and borrow heavily from the composer Franz Liszt and St. John's scripture.

Can-Utility and the Coastliners
-- A song based on the legend of King Canute commanding the waters of the sea to recede in mockery of his fawningly flattering followers. And if the actual legend was as interesting and well-made as this beautifully composed rendition, we'd be talking a lot more about old Canute.


In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (In the Garden Of Eden)
-- I chose this version of the psychedelic epic (whittled down to ten minutes from its original 17 minutes) simply because it was the best sounding version on YouTube. Simply put, they sang the line 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' merely because they were too stoned to sing 'In the Garden of Eden'. So pull out your water bong or hash pipe and waste some time you won't remember losing.


-- The title song 'Aqualung' is a microcosmic mini-epic of the album itself, containing bits and pieces of the album's philosophy and irreverence (the lyric 'snot is running down his nose' made all middle school boys giggle with glee in '71 -- no one referred to snot on an album prior to this!). The poetic allusiveness of the lyrics is exceptionally strong and reminds us that the death of the homeless beggar, who snatches his last rattling breath with 'deep-sea diver sounds', is the reason the album is called 'Aqualung' in the first place (an 'aqualung' is a breathing apparatus used by deep-sea divers, consisting of a mouthpiece attached to air cylinders, causing the distinctive echoed gasping sounds as oxygen is breathed in). An epic bit of flute madness from the same album can be found on this video gem from the Isle Of Wight concert in 1970: My God.

Minstrel in the Gallery
-- The song literally starts with minstrels in the gallery: musicians in a balcony perch newly announced for the amusement of the bored lord and lady of the house (complete with rather snide spoken comments and some unenthusiastic golf claps).


In the Court of the Crimson King
-- One of the great rock compositions featuring the mellotron. Greg Lake had the singing duties on this, King Crimson's first album, and seems in his later work with ELP to have borrowed all of King Crimson's grandiosity and pomposity but none of the band's creativity, nuance and energy.

-- Okay, sit down, as this may get confusing. The title of the album and song 'Starless and Bible Black' are based on a Dylan Thomas poem 'Under Milk Wood' ('It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black'), but the song 'Starless and Bible Black' is an instrumental. The Song 'Starless' is from the album 'Red' and contains lyrical allusions to Dylan's poem. Got it? Good.


Free Bird
-- Hey! The song from 'Forrest Gump' where Jenny almost commits suicide by jumping off a balcony! I love you, Jenny! 'Free Bird' is the national anthem of every trailer park in America.


American Pie
-- I once had all the lyrics memorized for this song. And there are a lot of lyrics! But, since I haven't played 'American Pie' for several years, I can only recall half of the song. Or a piece of 'Pie', as it were.


Paradise by the Dashboard Lights
-- The rock opera to young lust. What I am wondering is, how did the grossly obese Meatloaf fit in the front seat of any car to make out with a young woman? Must be artistic license, as 'Paradise by the Winnebago Lights' just doesn't have the same ring.


The Question
-- As a guitarist, I can tell you that the acoustic guitar parts by Justin Hayward are damned difficult. Your wrist goes numb strumming. Aside from chronic carpal tunnel syndrome, this is one beautiful song.


Green Grass and High Tides
-- Many reviewers castigate 'Green Grass' as a 'Free Bird' clone simply because the song has two lead guitar parts, long, drawn-out soloing to end the song, was written by a southern band who were friends with Lynyrd Skynryd, and was released three months after 'Free Bird'. Pffft! Mere fortuitous coincidence.


-- This Orwellian tune, from the vastly underrated 'Animals' album, follows the life of your usual alpha business-type, who thinks nothing of stabbing fellow-workers in the back as he climbs over the bodies that pave the road to his success (and practices his character assassinations to precision). You'll be happy to know that Pink Floyd has him eventually old, alone and dying of cancer. Poetic justice, at least.

-- This titanic overture on the album 'Meddle' clocks in at a leviathan 23:31 minutes, and supposedly, like the 'Dark Side of the Rainbow' rumor, it is said that if you synchronize 'Echoes' to the final segment of '2001: A Space Odyssey', they mesh together perfectly. I've never tried it. I lack the patience.


A Salty Dog
-- Feel the sea spray in your face. Hoist your missen masts and tie down your yard arms. Then sing the 'Spongebob Squarepants' theme and batten your hatches, matie. One of the best sea songs ever written. Not Spongebob's song, but Procol Harum's, silly.

-- One of my favorite songs of all time; hence, it is featured on this list.


March of the Black Queen
-- 'The Bohemian Rhapsody' is not the end-all, be-all epic Queen song. On the contrary, I prefer 'March of the Black Queen' from the manically musical 'Queen II' album, which exchanged the term 'prog-rock' for 'progressive insanity'.

Bohemian Rhapsody
-- You can't help head-banging, a la Wayne and Garth, to this song. And it does actually adhere (somewhat) to the compositional rules of a classical rhapsody! That's drummer Roger Taylor singing all the falsetto parts, by the way.


You Can't Always Get What You Want
-- One of my favorite Rolling Stones' tunes. Probably because it is so un-Stone-like. The choir is what really sets this song apart from your usual Stone tune. Read the lyrics sometime -- they make no sense. Although they apparently refer to the three major issues of the 60's, at least according to the Stones: love, politics and drugs. I suppose that makes the song just that much deeper and insightful. The Stones, ever in The Beatles wake, supposedly wrote this song in answer to 'Hey Jude', just as the album 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' was released to counter 'Sgt. Peppers'. As if.

Sympathy for the Devil
-- So, let me get this straight: Lucifer witnessed Christ's agony and crucifixion, killed the czar and his ministers, rode a Nazi tank, killed the Kennedys, and all sorts of other vile things -- and I am supposed to show him sympathy? And if I don't he'll 'lay my soul to waste'? To hell with that!


Overture/Temples of Syrinx (from 2112)
-- I really like the 'Overture' and 'Temples of Syrinx' movements of '2112'. The other movements? Not so much. I love Neal Peart's drumming, but Geddy Lee's voice can really wear on you after awhile.


The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
-- A jazzy, hypnotic Traffic tune with a funky, syncopated groove and memorable downbeat. One of the best rock-fusion compositions of the 70's.


Won't Get Fooled Again
-- 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss'...aint that the truth? This songs features one of the great primal screams in all rock & roll on one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.

Baba O'Riley
-- As a matter of fact, this is another song from 'Who's Next' which is just as epic as 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. I could probably throw in 'Bargain' and 'Behind Blue Eyes' as well. What the hell, the whole album is epic!


Starship Trooper
-- The song with the longest outro in rock history. It keeps building and building, layer upon layer, wave upon wave of sound. As far as I know, it's still going on, currently orbiting somewhere over Toledo, Ohio.

Heart of the Sunrise
-- 'Heart of the Sunrise' has one of the wickedest bass lines and drum beats in all of rock, supplied with virtuosic intensity by Chris Squire and Bill Bruford.


Cortez the Killer
-- A great Neil Young song, suffused with buzzing, distorted guitar, but with Young's penchant for glorifying the 'noble savage' (in this case, the Aztec Montezuma). He never mentions the Aztec propensity for blood sacrifice and enslaving enemies. But, Cortez and the Conquistadors did manage to decimate much of the Indian population through disease and war, and then forced Christianity on the survivors, so I guess Neil's indignance is warranted.


Don't Eat The Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It/St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfeast/Father O'Blivion
-- An interconnected melange of rock, jazz, blues, doo-wop and bizarre narrative that centers on a journey by an Eskimo named Nanook, from the dangerous Northern ice (and deadly yellow snow) down to a parish social hosted by a lecherous, pancake-making priest, who is having an affair with a masturbating leprachaun. What more could one ask for from a rock song? Say 'Great Googly Moogly!' if you agree.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Greatest Rock Instrumentals of All Time

This time, I am parting the waters a bit -- if I may use so Mosaic a term for inconsequential trivia -- offering fifteen electric instrumental jams and also fifteen acoustic pieces that I consider the thirty best in the rock milieu, genre, idiom, etc. As always, I am being purely subjective in the matter, keeping strictly to rock music, with one or two noted exceptions (you can make up your own lists adding in classical composers, jazz musicians, polka accordionists and klezmer bands). I am also certain that I missed a few hundred worthy songs, but to hell with it; this list has taken up too much time as it is.

In regards to the songs I chose, I omitted works by the great Stevie Ray Vaughan, as many of his instrumentals are based on Hendrix tunes (who is already represented here), and Joe Satriani, because I do not really care for his Van Halenesque hammer-ons and pull-offs and sterile studio percussion sections (Satriani's schtick is done with greater gusto by Eddie here: Eruption). I stuck within the strictest definition of an instrumental: not a long solo, nor an extended musical piece bookended or interspersed with lyrics (like Pink Floyd's Echoes or Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. Nope, just completely instrumental rock songs here.

In addition, the acoustic pieces are, for the most part, well-known but beautifully rendered airs, and are not necessarily virtuoso compositions that would make Segovia weep; although I did add in some stellar works from Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges just to appease those with a need for complex arrangements (but no Phil Keaggy as I prefer Kottke or Hedges).


Hocus Pocus by Focus
-- Wait, these guys are Dutch? Who knew they even had guitars in Dutchland...I mean, the Netherlands (the Netherlands -- shouldn't that be bordering the River Styx or something?). Anyway, Thij Van Leer and the boys had one phenomenal song in them, and this tune rocks, yodels, whistles and has the best damn guitar licks that ever came out of the Benelux countries. Yes, Benelux. It sounds better than Luxenetherbelgiumbourg.

Soul Sacrifice by Santana
-- Forget Hendrix, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin, the best single tune at Woodstock, 1969 was this fiery, Santanic assault featuring 20 year-old Michael Shrieve's blistering drum solo.

Frankenstein by The Edgar Winter Group
-- Funny thing, Edgar Winter has a helluva vocal range, and can sing the lights out on R&B tunes (check out Edgar Winter's White Trash and their version of Tobacco Road). But, his biggest hit was an instrumental. Go figure. Why is it called 'Frankenstein'? Well, reportedly Rick Derringer suggested to Winter that a 20 minute-long jam they had called simply 'instrumental' could be made into something. So, they got stoned in the studio and spliced and cut and cut and spliced until tape was covering the floor. At that point, their drummer, Chuck Ruff, sighed,‘Wow, man, it’s like Frankenstein.’ The rest, as they say, is history.

One of these Days by Pink Floyd
-- Evidently, the full title is 'One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces' (which can be heard toward the end of the track as voiced by drummer Nick Mason through a ring modulator). It seems the reference was meant for a certain DJ at BBC radio named Jimmy Young, whom the band despised because he was far too chatty on the air.

Misirlou by Dick Dale and the Deltones
-- Most likely the only U.S. hit based on a rebetika song from early 20th century Greek refugees from Turkey. Dick Dale learned it from his Lebanese uncle (also a musician), and the famous one-string guitar lead is based on Dale's Uncle's playing of the oud (an Arabic stringed-instrument, cousin to the lute). 'Misirlou' means 'Egyptian Girl' in Greek. And no, I am not making any of this up. Dale's version is also sometimes titled 'Miserlou' for no apparent reason.

Third Stone From the Sun by Jimi Hendrix
-- The height of Hendrixian rock psychedelia and the advent of electric jazz fusion all rolled into one ball of confusion, complete with distorted mumblings and Jimi's spoken, drug-induced ode to 'Starship: Euphoria'. Beam me up, Jimi, the third stone from the sun is populated by Republican tea-baggers and Muslim extremists! I had also considered Hendrix's version of The Star-Spangled Banner because of its historical significance; however, that performance is, technically speaking, more of a guitar solo.

Fire on High by Electric Light Orchestra
-- Once upon a time, I really liked Electric Light Orchestra. Albums like 'Eldorado' are really wondrous fusions of rock and classical. 'Fire on High' from 'Face the Music' is the last of such bold voyages onto the uncharted seas of symphonic rock, as this album marked the turning point from whence Jeff Lynne transmogrified from a Captain of rock odysseys to an Admiral of the commercial liner 'Poopdeck Pop Excrement'. In then end, shit floats.

Glad by Traffic
-- As the the title emphasizes, 'Glad' is Traffic's playful romp into realms of R&B and Jazz. Steve Winwood's memorable piano runs on this song and other eclectic choices of material on the album 'John Barleycorn Must Die' (from 16th century English folk to jazz fusion) caused consternation in some critics, like those from 'Rolling Stone', who were obviously annoyed by the diffuse selection, which forced them to listen longer than was usually necessary for rock albums they often praised. You know, the kind with four chords and unintelligibly screamed lyrics.

Jessica by The Allman Brothers
-- If you had a list of songs meant for listening to on a long drive with the top down on a sunny, summer day, wouldn't this Allman Brothers tune be among them? 'Jessica' is certainly a non-prescription mood modifier, Mr. Grumpy Pants.

Freeway Jam by Jeff Beck
-- Speaking of Mr. Grumpy Pants, Jeff Beck is a rock visionary who is so obviously obsessive that he uses other musicians like a new mother uses diaper wipes. He goes through bands like us normal folks go through stick matches while lighting a Hibachi. And yet, even through hundreds of permutations and band reformations, Beck comes up with rock fusion gems. 'Freeway Jam' captures the chaos of rush hour, except without the more current sound of 'road rage' gun shots.

Los Endos by Genesis
-- The live album 'Seconds Out' displays Genesis at their creative and performing zenith, with or without Peter Gabriel (who had left the band after the album 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'). After this live album, guitarist Steve Hackett left the band also, and Genesis turned to the lucrative lobotomized listeners of elevator muzak market for their fanbase. This version of the song 'Los Endos' from their 'Trick of the Tail' album, features both Phil Collins and Weather Report's Chester Thompson on drums. Listen closely and you will catch snippets of 'Dance on a Volcano' and 'Squonk' in the song's mix.

Green Onions by Booker T. and the MG's
-- The venerable finger-snapping, toe-tapping John Lee Hooker-esque blues boogie from Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper features the best soulful bite on a Hammond B-3 organ ever heard from a teenager (Jones was only 17 year-old at the time, and Cropper was only 20!).

Hoedown by Emerson, Lake and Palmer
-- Aaron Copeland and ELP go together like franks 'n' beans. In fact, I could have added ELP's version of Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man to this list and probably wouldn't get much of an argument. But I chose 'Hoedown' because of its frenetic pace and that it was an anthem played for Detroit Red Wings games back when they were the last place 'Dead Things' in the 70's. The ELP song was the best part of those dismal games.

Larks Tongue in Aspic by King Crimson
-- A clash of minimalism and metal. The composition begins with ambient percussion -- wind chimes on a blustery day -- and slowly builds with strident strings and buzzing guitars, then suddenly bursts in a furious explosion. Then, the aftermath, a progressive metal/jazz fusion that was most innovative for 1973. The title alludes to Ralph Vaughan William's 1914 composition Lark Ascending, which is an absolutely stunning piece in and of itself. The oriental motifs Williams provided were an influence to King Crimson, who in turn influenced such bands as Tool and Radiohead.

Whammer Jammer by J. Geils Band
-- I couldn't find the definitive version of this song from J. Geils' 'Live Full House' album (recorded at the Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit, 1972) on the Internet, but this live version offers a decent enough rendition of this classic juke-joint party tune with 'Magic Dick on the lickin' stick'. Great blues harp, there, Mr. Dick, complete with the use of a Shure 'Green Bullet' microphone (de rigeur equipment for any aspiring blues harmonica player, by the way -- great distortive properties).


Classical Gas by Mason Williams
-- This is the only piece of easy-listening pop music that was embraced by Hell's Angels, hippies and Lawrence Welk alike. Perhaps because it was composed by Mason Williams, the head writer of the subversive and much-censored 'Smother Brothers Comedy Hour', and 'Classical Gas' first aired on that hit show in 1968, that it reached a huge counter-culture audience who tuned in every week to see The Who, The Doors, Steve Martin and Jimi Hendrix. Needless to say, you'll see this song on many folks' MP3 players right before Black Sabbath's 'Megalomania' and right after King Crimson's 'The Night Watch'. At least that's the way it is on mine.

Mood For A Day by Yes
-- This Spanish Flamenco treatment by Steve Howe from the Yes album 'Fragile' has often been mistaken as a Bach piece, but it is all original, and only slightly seasoned with a dash of Johann Sebastian. I am sure some readers prefer Howe's The Clap from 'The Yes Album', but I believe 'Mood For A Day' is a bit less chaotic and tighter.

Laguna Sunrise by Black Sabbath
-- Back in the late 70's, TV stations signed off for the day with the playing of the 'Star-spangled Banner' and an inspirational 'Come to Jesus' minute. One night, I was up quite late (a usual thing) and there came the inspirational minute. It was a pastoral scene with a little girl and a lamb and some Psalm or another, all pointing toward the infinite goodness of Christianity as the only religion allowed to be broadcast in the United States. What made this minute different? The background music was Black Sabbath's 'Laguna Sunrise'! I laughed my ass off, and wondered if this was some studio's idea of a joke, or whether the programmer had only heard 'Laguna Sunrise', mistook it for a reverent, Christian melody, and was unaware of which band composed it. The ultimate in irony!

Little Martha by The Allman Brothers
-- The only song written solely by Duane Allman (at least as part of the Allman Brothers). The song's namesake is Martha Ellis, a twelve year-old whose grave Duane Allman had come across in the Rosehill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. Duane was buried in the same cemetery only a few weeks after he had recorded the song. After the cold chill is done going down your spine, you will find the song lighthearted, playful and as winsome as a little girl.

Black Mountainside by Led Zeppelin
-- An old Irish air named 'Down by Blackwaterside' given a decidely Middle-Eastern treatment by Jimmy Page on various guitars and Viram Jasani on the tabla drums. Page eventually lengthened the tune and played it on electric guitar, renaming it White Summer/Black Mountainside. It is said that the interest in Middle-eastern music derived from playing 'Black Mountainside' eventually led Page to Morroco and his subsequent composing of 'Kashmir' (the latter sharing a variation of the first's D modal or 'Celtic' tuning).

Aerial Boundaries by Michael Hedges
-- Michael Hedges died in a car accident in 1997 at the age of 43. At the time, I had barely made the acquaintance of this guitar virtuoso via some artist compilations from Windham Hill records. Several years removed, I have a deeper understanding of his music and his genius. Whatever you wish to term it, 'new edge', 'heavy mental' or 'acoustic thrash', Hedges' work deserves a wider audience. Here's a one-man-band version of All Along the Watchtower.

Vaseline Machine Gun by Leo Kottke
-- Like Micheal Hedges, Leo Kottke is underrated and virtually unknown in this dismal age of demographically rigid, machined and milled, plasticine music. If you have the time, pull up some Kottke cuts on YouTube and be amazed! Here's one for the road: Bean Time.

Embryonic Journey by Jefferson Airplane
-- Jefferson Airplane will soon be appearing on this blog under 'The Most Overrated Rock Artists of All Time' (along with The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and Lou Reed, among others). I mean, after one eliminates 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit' (originally performed by Grace Slick's first band, 'Great Society'), what have you got left? Not much but the morning-after downer from a bad buzz. But there are some exceptions to every rule, and just such a one is Jorma Kaukonen's gentle and reflective tune which first appeared on 'Surrealistic Pillow'. But even Kaukonen admitted that he wrote the song in 1962. So technically, even that one is borrowed material.

Horizons by Genesis
-- You see, the way to get glue-sniffing, pot-smoking teenagers in the 70's to listen to classical music was to repackage the original (usually Bach but Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky were also prevalent) and plop it in the middle of a rock album, much like hiding a pill in ice cream. A palatable portion of some Baroquish Bach appears on Genesis' 'Foxtrot' album in the form of 'Horizons', which follows in style Bach's 'Prelude of the First Cello Suite'. 'Horizons' also acts as a prelude to 'Supper's Ready', Genesis' epic 23 minute-long magnum opus.

Bourée by Jethro Tull
-- Ah yes, progressive rock's love affair with Bach continues, and this time Tull does a version of 'Bourrée in E minor', with what flautist Ian Anderson refers to as 'a piece of cocktail jazz' from the superb 'Stand Up' album. Perhaps the inclusion of all the Bach-cum-rock interludes means that, I too, like Bach. That would be an affirmative, maestro.

Dueling Banjos by Eric Weissberg
-- While this cannot be defined in even the loosest sense as a 'rock song', Weissberg spent most of his time playing with rock luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Rick Danko, The Talking Heads and Richie Havens. Besides, the movie 'Deliverance' was rather anti-country and anti-pork: Ned Beatty, 'the other, other white meat'.

Anji by Simon & Grafunkel
-- Paul Simon is noted as one of the greatest 20th century American composers. It sometimes doesn't register with the public that writing such great songs as 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', 'The Boxer' and 'The Sounds of Silence' requires the ability to play guitar exceptionally. Simon proves it here.

Theme from the Last Waltz by The Band
-- Rather than include polka by Jimmie Sturr and his Orchestra (who have won multiple Grammys simply by being the only band left in the 'Polka category'), I thought a fresh take on a waltz would be in order. So, direct from Martin Scorsese's memorable rock-u-mentary (memorable for the giant flake of coke sticking out of Neil Young's left nostril), I give you The Band.

Bron-Yr-Aur by Led Zeppelin
-- If there is such a thing as an 'underrated Led Zeppelin album', then 'Physical Graffiti' would be it. Personally, I consider the album second only to 'Volume IV' (ZoSo) as Zeppelin's best. The song 'Bron-Yr-Aur' is a sterling example of the diverse moods and styles evident on this sprawling double album. The song's title is the name of a cottage in Gwynedd Wales where the band recorded 'Led Zeppelin III', and the song strongly evokes the pastoral Welsh countryside and the mountain retreat with breathtaking sunrises so fondly remembered by the band.

The Choice Wife by Richard Thompson
-- Well, there's any number of choice Thompson instrumentals in DADGAD Celtic/D modal tuning, but this one's short and has some amazing arpeggios. If you'd like, pick up Thompson's all-instrumental 'Strict Tempo' album, where you'll find songs in the Celtic tuning, as well as something remarkable like Duke Ellington's Rockin' in Rhythm, with all the instruments (guitars, mandolins, bass, dulcimer, etc.) played with amazing dexterity by Thompson (fellow Fairport Convention bandmate Dave Mattacks accompanies him on drums).