Category Archives: Sort-of-Music-Related

Ring in the New Year with Snoop Dogg & Marty James

Well here we are, the end of another year.

After a long absence, I decided to start writing about music again here at Defending Axl Rose. I’d like to think this came about due to personal growth and/or gained musical insight…but the truth is I moved across the country and restarted my blog while I looked for a new job. And for the month I was unemployed Defending Axl Rose had near daily updates. Then I found work and the posts came less frequently. I wish I’d done more, but I suppose could have done much less, too.

Snoop-Dogg-featuring-Marty-James-New-Years-Eve

My New Year’s Resolution for 2015 is to write more, not just on Defending Axl Rose but in general. We’ll see. U2 once sang that nothing changes on New Year’s Day, and that’s true it doesn’t. The change happens at 11:59 the night before.

Hoist a glass and say goodbye to 2014 tonight, preferably with some killer tunes.


See you next year.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , ,

“Home By The Sea” Is A TWILIGHT ZONE Episode Written By Genesis

Genesis has always been a guilty pleasure for me, but a pleasure nonetheless. I’m not sure how you feel about Genesis, but I have an odd fascination with the band. In fact, I think I love them. It’s not like I really had a choice in the matter, I grew up in the 1980s thus the band is encoded in my DNA. My love for the sappy, syrupy Phil Collins-era eventually led me to the darker, stranger stuff generated in the 1970s when the band was led by Peter “Shock the Monkey” Gabriel. I can (and do) defend a lot of bands, but Genesis has always seemed indefensible, even to me.  Having one of the periods most famous drummers and then using the then-fashionable drum machine on your records? Egregious.

But amid the  puppet music videos, the drum machines, and embarrassingly earnest love ballads, Genesis never really stopped being a prog-band at heart. Even long after Gabriel had vanished from the band Genesis would tuck weird (and lengthy) progressive rock songs onto their albums. These songs no doubt confused the average pop fan who bought their records for the radio singles. Worse, however, these progressive artifacts always seemed to bring the band’s albums grinding to a halt (even though many of these songs are quite good). I find it interesting that a faction within Genesis fought the good fight to keep the band weird even as they were churning out mega-pop hits like “Invisible Touch.”

"Spoooky"

“Spoooky”

As the 1980s wore on, Genesis evolved away further and further from Gabriel’s version of the band replacing his cold theatricality for Collins’ affable charm. And yet, even as they basked in the neon glow of the mainstream (read: MTV), the band continued to make strange music that the public enjoyed.  I’m not 100% sure, but I have the feeling that the majority of people consuming Genesis’ music were oblivious to the darker nature of some of the bands output. I am no exception. The best Genesis songs, in both the Gabriel and the Collins era, are the ones that strike a balance and perfectly merge the band’s bizarre oddball sensibilities with more mainstream pop music. For my money, the best peanut butter and chocolate mix of the two sides of Genesis is the 1976 album A TRICK OF THE TAIL, which was the band’s first post-Gabriel album. If you find the Phil Collins stuff to be too poppy and the Gabriel stuff to be too stuffy/overblown, I implore you give A TRICK OF THE TAIL a listen. It’s the best album the band ever released, mostly because Gabriel was gone and Collins had yet to fully commit to being a pop idol.

Anyway, a few months back, I became obsessed with “Home By The Sea” off the band’s 1983 album GENESIS. For most people, myself included, GENESIS is the record where pop finally won out over the progressive side of the band.  I always remembered if for it’s pop hooks.  It was these same hooks that led me back to reevaluate the album. After hearing “That’s All” on the radio for the 10,000th time, I gave GENESIS another listen.

It was just as I remembered. The album is loaded with hooks, but among the tracks one stood out. “Home By The Sea” isn’t just a good song for this period of Genesis, it’s a good song period.  It’s so good, I found myself humming it all day long. I hummed it while brushing my teeth, driving to work, making a cup of coffee, riding in an elevator, and staring up at the ceiling while I waited to fall asleep. In short, I was haunted by the song.

Home By The Sea cover front

The more I thought about the song and the lyrics (the ones I could remember) I realized that despite being catchy, “Home By The Sea” is a dark, strange song. I decided to read the lyrics and re-listen to the song. When did, I was immediately struck by something incredible: “Home By The Sea” is a fucking Twilight Zone episode! Well, not really…but kinda. The song is about someone sneaking into a house, presumably with ill intent, and getting accosted by ghosts!

“Coming out the woodwork, through the open door

pushing from above and below

shadows but no substance, in the shape of men

round and down and sideways they go

adrift without direction, eyes that hold despair

then as one they sigh and moan”

These ghosts are lonely and force this person to stay with them as they relive their lives. The song talks about pictures coming to life and while it all could be a metaphor for holding onto the past (or growing old), on the surface this is a creepy ghost story of a song.

“Images of sorrow, pictures of delight

things that go to make up a life

endless days of summer longer nights of gloom

waiting for the morning light

scenes of unimportance, photos in a frame

things that go to make up a life.”

I’d heard this song on the radio countless times over the years growing up and none of this had ever occurred to me. During my re-listen of GENESIS, I discovered that the song is actually part one of a two-part suite of songs, the other being “Second Home By The Sea.” That second half is a fantastic near-instrumental (Collins sings a bit of “Home By The Sea” at the very end) that adds a sense of grandeur to the ghostly tale. Combined into one, “Home By The Sea/Second Home By The Sea” is over 11 minutes long which probably explains why it is broken apart (which feels like label interference). But taken as a whole I find these songs to be incredibly powerful.

It’s important to remember that this song(s) appears on the same album as “Taking It All Too Hard.” I can’t think of a greater tonal shift than the leap from “Home By The Sea” to “Taking It All Too Hard.” Sure, the songs don’t appear back-to-back, but the fact that they inhabit the same album is very strange. Not ghosts coming out of the walls strange, but strange nonetheless. That GENESIS reaches such sublime heights while also spiraling so low seems like proof that the band isn’t very good. However, I actually think the opposite. I think it takes real talent and chutzpah to be both on both ends of the creative spectrum on the same record. Straightforward radio pop and a mini-prog suite about ghosts? Amazing. Like something from The Twilight Zone. 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All I Want For X-Mas: 9 Terrible, Weird, Strange Rock ‘n Roll Gifts

As we approach the “silly” season, my thoughts turn to shameless consumerism. I’m not a “reason for the season” kinda guy, but the older I get the more gift giving turns my stomach. A once proud element of fringe culture, rock ‘n roll has long be co-opted by “Big Gift.”

Earlier this week I fell down the rabbit-hole of tacky/puzzling/bizarre rock gifts. Here are my favorites.  And please, if I’m on your shopping list this holiday season…take notes.

1. Rolling Stone Brand Wine: I don’t know about you, but The Grateful Dead I always make me think of red wine. Rolling Stone, the purveyors of cool since before I was born, must have thought the same thing because they now have a line of classic rock-themed red wines that includes the famous jam band. There’s also a SYNCHRONICITY wine featuring the artwork from the Police album. And a DARK SIDE OF THE MOON-themed wine called, naturally, The Dark Side of The Merlot. The Rolling Stones wine, FORTY LICKS, feels like a cash grab too late (that compilation came out 12 years ago!!!).  The wine is red but could this be any whiter? If you’re a rock band and you want to put your name on a beverage (please don’t) at least make it a beer or whiskey.

Because when you think Jerry Garcia you think wine.

Because when you think Jerry Garcia you think wine.

2. Holiday Sweaters: Nothing says the holidays like cold nights and warm sweaters. I personally own two: a way-too-big designer sweater I bought at a thrift store a number of years back and a nice charcoal-colored Hemingway I bought because I wanted to feel masculine. For the longest time I thought two sweaters was enough, but these music-themed sweaters have changed my mind. Can you believe there’s a MASTER OF PUPPETS-themed sweater?

Nothing says "Let's celebrate the birth of Jesus" like an upside-down cross.

Nothing says “Let’s celebrate the birth of Jesus” like an upside-down cross.

My friend Bianca is partial to the Wu-Tang Clan sweater, which admittedly does kick major ass:

This sweater ain't nothing to fuck with.

This sweater ain’t nothing to fuck with.

The Slayer sweater is probably the blackest, heaviest sweater of the bunch though.

Is that snow outside? No, it's RAINING BLOOD!!!

Is that snow outside? No, it’s RAINING BLOOD!!!

I hope they’re using wool from only the evilest, most brutal sheep they can find.

3. Merry Kissmas Blanket: We all knew that Kiss was going to be somewhere on this list, right? Kiss is without a doubt the most over-merchandised band in all of rock. In fact, the ratio of merch to music is probably so high kids today probably don’t even know that Kiss started as a band and not a brand of condom. I waded through a metric ton of crappy Kiss products and the one that made me laugh the most was this “Merry Kissmas” blanket. Can you imagine snuggling up beneath this thing on a cold Christmas Eve?  Gene Simmons is Jewish which makes this even more ridiculous. And “Kissmas” are you kidding? That’s some ballsy branding.

No phallic imagery here...

No phallic imagery here…

4. Daft Punk Action Figures: Kids today have it made. When I was a kid, I had to use my Chewbacca action figure as a stand-in for Worf (the STAR TREK character). When I played with my X-Men toys, Wolverine sliced through coathangers because they didn’t make toy Sentinels. The point I’m trying to make? Growing up in the late 80’s/early 90’s action figures were very protagonist-centric, meaning my Laura Dern JURASSIC PARK figure did a lot of double-duty (that is not a sexual pun or is it?). Anyway, kids today have access to action figure toy lines featuring thousands of characters. Every extra lurking in the background from the MATRIX sequels has his own figure.

The first rock band action figures I ever encountered was, of course, Kiss. I rolled my eyes and thought the notion of rock band action figures was stupid. But then I saw some really cool SGT.PEPPER-themed Beatles figures and changed my mind. I came close to buying those once, but I didn’t because I can never decide if I’m going to take them out of the packaging or leave them sealed up.  Anyway, the Kiss and Beatles figures sorta make sense…but Daft Punk action figures are too weird for me. On one hand I get it, with their trademark black helmets Daft Punk is the musical equivalent of Cobra Commander, so why not have an action figure? But Daft Punk’s funky club music makes me think of designer drugs and flashing lights…two things I don’t associate with toys.

These toys are out to get lucky.

These toys are out to get lucky.

5. Incubus longboard: Do people associate Incubus with skateboarding? I don’t. I associate it with crappy Junior High School dances and Smirnoff Ice. Anyway, if you want your…skateboard chums…to think you’re cool stay the hell away from this this board. I mean, check out the super-exaggerated poses of the members of the band. You got one guy about to take flight Superman-style. Another guy appears to be slipping on a banana peel. Then there’s the dred-head dude who’s hair appears to be attacking his bandmate. And don’t get me started on the frogman with his hands held over his head. What the fuck Incubus? This product is anything but “Stellar.”

Those dreds look like alien tentacles, right?

Those dreds look like alien tentacles, right?

6. Muse “booty” shorts: I look at Muse and wonder “who likes this band?” I’ve never met a Muse fan, let alone a Muse superfan that would want Muse-themed underwear. Seeing these underoos on a lady would be a total mood killer for me. At a certain point fandom stops being cute and becomes scary, I think band-themed underwear is that demarcation line.

Not sure if you want to associate your band with "ass."

Not sure if you want to associate your band with “ass.”

7. Green Day Coasters: First, let me make the obvious joke: who needs TRE drink coasters when you can just use the CD’s? Look, I’m going to be honest and admit I only listened to part of UNO, so maybe DOS and TRE aren’t that bad. Maybe Green Day really is still making good music. Maybe I’m actually getting more hair, rather than losing it. Maybe.

Now that I got that out of the way let’s explore punk and drink coasters. Is there anything more un-punk than worrying about those wet circles on your coffee table? Is there anything less punk than owning a fucking coffee table? At this point, music nerds will point out that Green Day stopped being punk back when Bill Clinton was president. Fair point, nerds. The notion that Green Day has entered the extreme merchandising phase of their career makes me feel old and sad.

Whatever happened to living without warning?                                     Coasters are not risky.

Whatever happened to living without warning? Coasters are not risky.

8. Guns N’ Roses Poker Chips N’ Cards: This is perplexing. Elvis themed cards and poker chips would make sense, after all he has a really famous song about Las Vegas. GNR? Not so much. I only associate GNR with Vegas these days because that’s the only place in North America where Axl seems to want to play live. Why not a Guns ‘N Roses handgun? Surely such a thing exists. Just don’t give one to Axl.

Insert joke here.

Insert joke here.

9. Nickelback Shot Glass: Now this product actually makes a lot of sense! The only way I’m going to listen to Nickelback is in a state of extreme inebriation. Really the only thing wrong with this shot glass is that it’s too small.  I think that they should have made this a 2oz. glass rather than a traditional 1oz. glass. Not that 2oz. of booze is going to be enough to get me in the mood to hear Nickelback, mind you. The website where I found this product was also selling “Official 2012 Tour Booty Shorts.” What is it with shitty bands and booty shorts? I opted to not display these here because the notion of women debasing themselves with Nickelback underwear is too much, even for a joke-post like this one. Please do yourself and favor and never Google “Nickelback merchandise.”

If somebody wants to buy me this shot glass I’ll totally use it though.

Their music sounds tolerable when you're black-out drunk.

Their music sounds tolerable when you’re black-out drunk.

So how about it? Which one of these things do YOU want Santa to bring you this year? Chime-in below in the comments section.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrate No Shave November With “Let It Beard”

November is nearly over, where has all the time gone? This time of year the days grow short and facial hair grows long as hipsters/woodsmen all over the world celebrate the manly majesty that is No Shave November. I myself always grow a bushy beard this time of year, mostly to catch snow and to feel virile. If No Shave November had an anthem, the Boston Spaceship’s “Let It Beard” would definitely be it.

let_it_beard_cover

Boston Spaceships was a side project featuring Robert Pollard and Chris Slusarenko of Guided By Voices and John Moen of The Decemberists. The band put out a few (really great) records before closing up shop in 2011 with LET IT BEARD. The title track is a great gateway to Pollard’s brand of sloppy indie freak-rock. The song features the obvious rhyme of “beard” and “weird” but is otherwise fantastic.

So before the drains of the world are clogged with the sad remains of Movember, let your furry freak flag fly…and let it beard.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

(Un) Joining A Fan Club

At the end of last month I left the Guided By Voices fan group on Facebook after I realized I’m not really a fan. Oh, I love GBV and still regard them as one of my all-time favorite bands, but I’m not a “fan.” The term “fan” is short for “fanatic,” something I only came to realize on August 24th when I woke up and checked the band’s Facebook group. The night before the group had played a live-streamed concert at New Jersey’s famed Stone Pony club. I haven’t seen the footage, but everyone online was chatting about how incredibly drunk/out-of-control lead singer Robert Pollard got as the night progressed.

"How's my drinking?"

“How’s my drinking?”

Guided By Voices is a phenomenal indie-rock band that rides the bizarre line between power-pop and prog rock. They’re known for short, incredibly catchy hooks. But the band is also just as famous for their incredibly drunken live shows. I’ve seen the band four times; twice the band was so drunk it ruined the show. The first time I saw the band was the best, and that was because they drank only a handful of Miller Lites. In recent years, the band has taken to drinking from bottles of tequila and Crown Royal. It’s mostly a shtick, Pollard take a nip and then passes it to the crowd. When I last saw the band live in June, I was relieved that the band was taking it easy as far as the drinking was concerned.

Then the show in August at the Stone Pony happened. Fans on the Facebook group page were clearly divided the morning after the show: some were horrified by how drunk Pollard had gotten, while everyone else seemed to pile on those concerned people and tell them it was “none of their business.” Pollard’s wife even jumped into the fray, defending her husband’s health and state of mind. I was shocked at how angry the thread became, after all everyone in the group likes GBV’s music. I felt like all the comments of concern were valid and made in a respectful way. And yet, everyone who dared ask if Pollard should drink that much was attacked and vilified. The comments defending Pollard’s drunken behavior came from people with really old looking profile pictures, so I knew these weren’t dunder-headed frat boys. Clearly some (but not all) of these people had substance abuse issues themselves. Perhaps that was why the energy of the Stone Pony thread became so poisonous. I love GBV, but not so much that it degrades my common sense. And that was when it hit me: I’m not a fanatic.

I have worried for some time that Pollard’s drinking was due, in part, because of fan expectation. The joy of going to see a live GBV show has twisted into a sickening mix of music and watching Pollard get lit. Could we all be enabling a guy to essentially kill himself? Worse yet, were we guilty of killing the goose that laid the golden pop song? I don’t know Robert Pollard personally, so my desire for him to go on living is pretty selfish—I just want him to keep making albums. Death by booze is both a rock cliché and a terrible thing for fans to thrust upon an artist. Pollard is an adult, older than myself by several decades, so what he chooses to do to with his mind and body is up to him. I can let Bob “be Bob,” but I discovered I couldn’t take part in the online GBV fan community. I’m not a fan in the truest sense of the word—I’m not a fanatic. I’m still able to think for myself and form my own opinions. I love GBV but I can still view them objectively, both as musicians and as regular people. Robert Pollard is not an infallible pop demigod (Pop Zeus, if you will); he’s flesh and blood. I can’t make Pollard stop drinking, but I can remove my voice from the chorus of people online chanting, “Chug! Chug! Chug!”

The older I get, the less fanatical I am when it comes to musicians and authors. I respect a lot of bands, but I no longer feel the need to (angrily) defend the actions of people I’ve never met simply because I like their albums or books. I’m taking a measure, adult approach to my appreciation of all art. I judge the work by itself and I don’t judge the (wo)man who made it at all. Every online fan group/webpage I’ve frequented seems to hold only two camps: people who hold their idols far too high and people who derive pleasure from antagonizing the first group. I don’t fall into either category. I’m not in anyone’s fan club.

 

Tagged , , , , ,

Southern Complexities: Lynyrd Skynyrd & Race

I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but when I was growing up I always found Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those bands that always seemed to have  good songs on (classic rock) radio but was generally unlikeable. The reason Lynyrd Skynyrd was unlikeable was simple: they were stupid, racist hillbillies. The band embraced elements of Southern culture that made me uncomfortable, like the Confederate flag. One of their most popular songs was about a redneck State and endorsed a racist governor! But man, were those songs good.  Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those bands I’d appreciated from afar.

Then about a year ago I heard “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio. Rather than dismiss the song outright, I decided to actually listen to the lyrics. Being a recovering English major, I decided to apply the same techniques of literary analysis I’d use to fake-understand Coleridge to try to fake-understand Lynyrd Skynyrd. It turns out that listening to a rock song via a fuzzy FM radio station is not the best way to study lyrical depth. I decided to go home and pull the lyrics up online and listen to the song again.  Thus began my slow descent into studying Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m going to write a whole lot more words, but for those with little patience (or interest) let me sum up my rambling tirade thusly: Lynyrd Skynyrd, it turns out, was not the band you think they were. I don’t think there’s a band more commonly misunderstood that Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Lynyrd Skynyrd hailed from the South, and with that comes some complicated baggage, but I wouldn’t call them racists. The band wrote a lot of really fantastic, really surprising songs. The amazing part is that I didn’t come to this conclusion after hearing some buried b-side or un-heard deep album cut. The opposite is actually true: Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote and recorded fantastically genre-subverting rock songs that became massive hits!

There are three areas where the uneducated have Lynyrd Skynyrd all wrong: race, guns, and drugs. The band’s image, along with it’s membership, has shifted and changed over the decades so let me be clear as to what incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd I refer to in this essay. As most of you know, in 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd was involved in a devastating plane crash that killed a great number of people.  The Lynyrd Skynyrd that I’m writing about was the original band, fronted by singer Ronnie Van Zant, who essentially ceased to exist after this terrible plane crash.  The band cobbled together from the crash survivors and Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, is Lynyrd Skynyrd in name only as far as I’m concerned.  I will explain my specific reasoning for this later, but to put it simply: Lynyrd Skynyrd (1964-1977) were anything but stupid, racist hillbillies…the post-crash band, while not stupid hillbillies, tend to embrace the stereotypes commonly associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Plus the songs aren’t a tenth as good, so there’s that.  This first post will specifically examine Lynyrd Skynyrd and race.  If people are interested I’ll post the others on guns and drugs.

LynyrdSkynyrd

Just a couple ‘o good ‘ole boys.

Look, I’m not going to attack or defend the Confederate flag.  I was born and raised in Missouri, a State that neither the North nor South seems to want to claim as their own. Personally, I wouldn’t own a Confederate flag but that said, I don’t think there’s a single flag on Earth that isn’t soiled by oppression and blood to some degree. Maybe if I’d been raised in a true Southern State I’d be able to understand the whole Confederate flag thing. Musically, Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing straight-up black music.  I don’t mean that in the way that we all know that rock music is basically a watered-down version of the blues…I mean Lynyrd Skynyrd is basically a blues band. Oh sure, the band is hailed as pioneering the so-called southern-rock genre, but what is that but the blues played by white folks (and maybe with a twang)?

How unfortunate.

How unfortunate.

The bands blues roots don’t necessarily prove the band wasn’t racist, but I find it difficult to believe a bunch of kids would grow up and sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd if they hated black people. Further proof that the band wasn’t a pack of racist hillbillies can be found in their song “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” off their second album SECOND HELPING (1974).  The song is about a kid who hunts up spare change in order to pay a local guitarist to play him a song.  “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” celebrates both the blues and the many faceless people who practice it’s harsh ways (and die penniless). Is the character of Curtis Loew the best depiction of a southern black man? Probably not, Loew’s a drunk who appears to do nothing all day but wait for white kids to bring him money so he can buy more cheap wine. But Loew, who is seen as “useless” by society at large was the “finest picker to ever play the blues” according to the narrator of the song. I think “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” which is supposedly based on a couple of people the Van Zants’ knew growing up, is actually a pretty good metaphor for what happened to bluesmen in this country.  Revered by young, white rock stars, American culture at large ignored our treasure trove of blues musicians. How many phenomenally great artists died penniless or lived on incomes subsidized by royalty checks from guys like Eric Clapton who covered their songs?

Okay, so Lynyrd Skynyrd liked the blues, going so far to write a song about how sad it was that most people ignored brilliant blues musicians: what about “Sweet Home Alabama”?  “Sweet Home Alabama” isn’t the terrible racial albatross many think it is. For starters, the most important fact that people seem to miss about Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Sweet Home Alabama” is this: Lynyrd Skynyrd are from Jacksonville, Florida.  So if the band is from Florida, why did they write a song called “Sweet Home Alabama”? Two words: Neil Young.

In 1970, Neil Young wrote a song called “Southern Man” for his classic (and fantastic) album AFTER THE GOLD RUSH.  “Southern Man” is a fiery indictment of the terrible racism that pervaded in the American South.  The song mentions slavery, racism, cross burning: all the stuff white Southerners love to talk about. Young’s song is seemingly about one “Southern Man” but really points the finger at an entire region of the country. Now if Neil Young has just recorded “Southern Man” we might not have “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Young penned another song called “Alabama” that attacked the State who was governed by the infamously pro-segregationist governor George Wallace. Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” both as a response to Young’s two songs.  “Sweet Home Alabama” mentions both Young by name and alludes to his song “Southern Man,” the song is about Alabama because Neil Young singled Alabama out, not because the band is from Alabama. A surface reading of the song suggests that Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t care for Canadian Neil Young picking on the State and that “Well I hope Neil Young will remember/a southern man don’t need him around any how.” Equally, the song appears to endorse governor Wallace…or does it?  The lyrics state: “In Birmingham they love the governor/Now we all did what we could do/Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?/Now tell the truth.” These lyrics suggest that Lynyrd Skynyrd is in support of Governor Wallace and his racist agenda, right? Possibly, but Lynyrd Skynyrd might also be fucking with us.

Ugh. There's that damn flag again.

Ugh. There’s that damn flag again.

For starters, Birmingham is not the capital of Alabama…Montgomery is the State capitol.  Why is this a big deal? Rather than mentioning Montgomery, the seat of power, the song mentions the State’s largest city.  What was going on in Birmingham?  The state was full of civil unrest in the 1960’s but a lot of the worst stuff happened in Birmingham.  The police used water cannons and attack dogs to try and stop protesters, including Martin Luther King Jr.  Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant pointed out in an interview in 1975 that the line “In Birmingham they love the governor” is immediately followed up by “boo, boo, boo” by the backing vocals. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s somewhat puzzling mention of the then-recent Watergate scandal suddenly makes sense: Lynyrd Skynyrd is not bothered by Watergate because they didn’t do anything wrong, that was an evil act purported by a politician. Likewise, Lynyrd Skynyrd is suggesting that things aren’t as black and white (pun intended) as Young suggests in his song and that not all Southern men love Governor Wallace.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song also suggests that all Southerners cannot be lumped into one category.  In point of fact, that kind of thinking is just as wrongheaded as the racism that Young was rallying against.  In this context, the “we all did what we could do” line appears to be a reference to all the protests that took place in Birmingham. The problem of “Sweet Home Alabama” is that the people hoisting it up as the redneck song to end all redneck songs aren’t as smart as the people who wrote it. Lynyrd Skynyrd proves the old adage about judging books by their covers to be correct: just because someone singing has a Southern accent doesn’t mean they aren’t literate and possessing wit. Further mudding the waters of “Sweet Home Alabama” is the fact that Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd were not enemies as many people think, but actually were friendly admirers of each other.  Many fans that missed the irony in “Sweet Home Alabama” also failed to notice that Ronnie Van Zant frequently wore Neil Young t-shirts. He’s even wearing one on the cover of the band’s 1977 album STREET SURVIVORS.

Van Zandt is third from the left.

Van Zandt is third from the left.

A better look at the same shirt.

A better look at the same shirt.

Likewise, Neil Young sported a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt several times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Neil Young wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

Neil Young wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

Much like the Confederate flag, “Sweet Home Alabama” has a complicated history and has different meanings for different people.  That the song has confounded generations of people is surprising, but perhaps the death of song’s chief architects explains why the song’s obtuse meaning has remained a bit of a secret for so long. Worth noting, in 2009 the State of Alabama started using the phrase “sweet home Alabama” on its license plates.  Given that both potential readings of the song are generally unflattering to Alabama, one wonders why the song would be used on anything official from the State.  It’s impossible to know the inner workings of other men’s hearts, but based on “Sweet Home Alabama” I wouldn’t characterize Lynyrd Skynyrd as racists. The band members grew up in another era, I’m sure they had some degree of prejudice (which everyone has to some extent). That said, for a band making millions of dollars off a Southern image, I think the band had a progressive attitude when it came to the subject of race.  A large part of the band’s attitude, no doubt, stemmed from their love of music—specifically blues music. Consider this the next time someone dismisses popular music as “unimportant.”

Tagged , , , , , , ,

“Valentine” by The Replacements

“If you were a pill, I’d take a handful at my will/And knock you back with something sweet and strong.”

Paul Westerberg perfectly captures the sleazy hopelessness of young, desperate love in “Valentine.”  The song was recorded by The Replacements for their 1987 album PLEASED TO MEET ME, and pretty much the only V-Day song I’m going to be listening to today. The song’s opening lines, in which a star wished upon turns out to just be an airplane tells you everything you need to know about this song.  I wouldn’t call Westerberg unsentimental, I’d just call him a realist.  Love’s a drug and we’re all junkies. 

These guys KNOW what love's really all about.

These guys KNOW what love’s really all about.

Valentine’s Day is just like all the other holidays: a good idea twisted into an excuse for people to spend money they don’t have. Take time to think about all the love you’ve had and currently have, but don’t buy a fucking greeting card.

Tagged , , , , ,

Beatles For Sale: My Rant Against The American Reissued Beatle Albums

Last month The Beatles American albums were re-issued in a large, expensive boxset. Back in 2009, when the remastered CD’s were issued, I gladly handed over my hard-earned currency for better packaging and most importantly, higher sound quality. While no doubt an opportunity to get my money again, the remastered Beatles albums gave me something I didn’t already have: better sound.  The sound quality, especially on the first few albums was vastly superior. Rather than shitty fake stereo mixes, fans were given pure mono as God, and George Martin, had intended.

"All you need is ca$h"-The Rutles

“All you need is ca$h”-The Rutles

These American re-issues are another story altogether. As far as I’m concerned, this is a disgusting money-grab with no redemptive quality for fans. The Beatles so-called American catalog exists because of corporate greed, which is the same motivating factor behind that bastardization’s re-issue. For those of you unfamiliar with what happened to the Fab Four’s albums in America, buckle-up because it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

In 1963, after failing to break into the US, The Beatles were poised to finally conquer the Yankees. Capitol Records, the American counterpart to the band’s UK label EMI, was sitting on small pile of Beatle records. Rather than do the logical thing (i.e. issue the albums as they had been issued in England), Capitol decided to issue all new albums. Instead of releasing albums with 14 songs, as they’d done in England, The Beatles American albums were comprised of 12 songs.  And instead of simply cutting the number of songs down, the songs were swapped around in a confusing jumble.

Another major issue was The Beatles singles. In England it was considered bad form to sell people one song twice, so any song issued as a single was never included on major albums. Thus, songs like “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” were never included on any British Beatles album.  Since this was not the practice in the US, Capitol Records reconfigured the American Beatle albums to include the band’s popular hit singles.

Further clouding the waters, a small independent label called Vee-Jay had the American rights to the band’s first album from 1963 to 1964. Vee-Jay got the rights to this material after Capitol Records initially passed on the Beatles in America. Thus, the band’s album PLEASE PLEASE ME was being circulated prior to Capitol’s involvement as INTRODUCING…THE BEATLES.

That’s how the American Beatles catalog got so messed up. This is how we got records like THE BEATLES IV which contains songs from BEATLES FOR SALE, HELP!, and music from the “Ticket To Ride” single. All of the Beatles records up to 1967’s SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEART’S CLUB BAND are a confusing mosaic of the band’s British output. The madness (mostly) ended with SGT. PEPPER due to the band’s insistence that their albums appear the same everywhere due to the artistic vision they had for that album’s concept.

usa_beatles-vi

The American albums became something of a footnote when they were abandoned completely in the 1980’s when the band’s albums were first put onto CD. Were American fans puzzled when the British albums were released digitally? I’m sure they were, but that was decades ago. In the meantime, people like myself grew up only knowing the proper British albums. Which brings me back to the American reissued albums: who is this supposed to appeal to? Who is supposed to be forking over their money for these? Older fans who might actually remember these albums have by now long adapted to the British releases. Younger fans have never known anything but the British albums. And at this juncture in history, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Beatle fans who wish to own the band’s music already do…and anyone buying the band’s records for the first time would surely buy the recognizable, iconic, British albums.

It felt strange rebuying the albums in 2009, but at least I was getting something new with the improved fidelity. But let’s be honest, the 2009 remasters were a double-dip, plain and simple.  So if the 2009 digital remasters, which I’d argue are worth the money, were a double-dip then these American reissued albums are a triple-dip. This is a product aimed squarely at the hardcore Beatle fan, the one that has to own everything with the band’s name on it.  This is a product meant to be purchased and placed on a shelf still in it’s plastic wrap.

Perhaps if I had the money, and the inclination to continue hoarding physical media, I would fall into that camp/trap. But alas, an 800 mile-cross-country move has changed the way I look at money and the owning of material goods. With this American albums reissue, The Beatles have crossed over into the horrible George Lucas/Star Wars money-grab territory.

I’m a Beatles super-fan, I’ve owned multiple copies of each of these records. Hell, I’ve owned LET IT BE in four different formats (cassette tape, vinyl LP, original CD, remastered CD).  But even as a superfan, I can see no reason to own these reissued American releases.  I don’t need different, less-iconic artwork and a swapped around track listing. In short, I don’t need these albums. I never knew them and I don’t feel it necessary to start now.

This reissue ruffles my feathers because it smacks of desperation—the last act of a band with nothing left to sell me. But that’s not true, there is one thing I’d love to buy from The Beatles. One thing that I’ve never experienced that the band continues to deny me. I speak of the lost documentary Let It Be, the legendary film the band made while writing and recording LET IT BE the album. I’ve never seen this footage, largely because it captures the breakup of the band and paints the musicians in a less-than-favorable light.

I understand that I have capitalism to thank for my Beatles albums, and that their corporate masters have every right to keep selling the same material from now until doomsday. But I wish they’d exhaust the vaults completely before they just pump out the same material over and over.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Black Vendetta vs. Online Music Critics

As part of the Defending Axl Rose 2.0 initiative I’ve taken to social media to increase my site hits.   Facebook has successfully monetized itself in regards to brand promotion and no longer offers much in the way of free promotion for us little guys.  I decided to start using Twitter and Reddit to get the message out about my posts, and for the most part it’s been successful.  I find that Twitter is cool because you often have a chance to actually connect with bands/artists.  There’s a gent I’ve started following calling himself Review Rhino who tweet 140 character reviews of songs that bands send him.  Recently he managed to ruffle the feathers of a struggling band calling themselves Black Vendetta.  They’ve had a back-and-forth exchange that I got in the middle of quite by accident.

Here is Review Rhino’s review of the band’s song “Tennis Girl”:

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 7.30.44 AM

Now, that might seem like a harsh review, but there are a couple of factors one needs to take into account.  Firstly, Review Rhino has 140 characters by which to mention the track name, the band, a brief review, and then give a numerical score.  There’s no pussyfooting around because there’s no space for Review Rhino to gently say “I don’t like your song.”  The second thing that you must consider is that Review Rhino does not seek out songs to review, instead bands willingly send their songs in for review.  As you can imagine, Black Vendetta weren’t thrilled by the review, but the band really got upset when Review Rhino tweeted his “best” and “worst” tracks of the month:

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 7.34.27 AM

Now, even though I don’t want to side with someone complaining about a bad review, I can see Black Vendetta’s point.  I struggle to keep it positive here at Defending Axl Rose, and tend to shy away from things like “worst of” lists because it’s easier to just be positive.  That said, I can see Review Rhino’s point of view, too.  The market is saturated with a lot of mediocre, delusional people making a god-awful ruckus.  For the record this is how I got involved:

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 7.49.37 AM

There’s a lot more after that, Black Vendetta goes on and on about how unfair it is to pick on unsigned bands.  He/she/they also take time to point out that they have a degree in journalism…it’s really very unfortunate.  This is the part of being a critic that’s a frankly a little scary to me.  I’ve been getting lots of requests to review things lately, and some of what people want me to review/write about isn’t very good.  Unlike Review Rhino, I don’t have the stones to play Simon Cowell and crush someone’s dreams.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem telling you that the latest Megadeath album is an utter piece of garbage.  Or that I have desperately tried and failed to listen to all of Black Sabbath’s latest album 13 more than thirteen times.  I’m just not sure I could tell that to an unsigned indie like Black Vendetta.

However, as the saying goes: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  This Twitter thread got me interested in Black Vendetta’s song “Tennis Girl.”  So I fired up Spotify to see if the band was streamable, and sure enough they were! So I listened to “Tennis Girl,” and so can you! I’d like to give the band a chance and put it to a Highly-Unscientific Rock Poll: Does “Tennis Girl” by Black Vendetta suck or not?

Tagged , , , ,

Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday.  It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die.  Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive.  There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.

Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.”  That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics.  It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none.  What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs.  Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album.  This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr.  But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.

Keith is 70 and doesn't look a day over 700.

Keith is 70 and doesn’t look a day over 700.

Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice?  No.  But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks.  When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice.  Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation.  Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity.  I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.

To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs.  These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart.  Here’s to 70 great years!

My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs

1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS.  First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff.  The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts.  At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time.  So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.”  It’s a badass song.

2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET.  This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live.  It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason.  Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes.  This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.

3.  “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER.  This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song.  The song’s a slow burn with a  great groove.  This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.

4.  “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED.  Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist.  In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest.  I still get chills when I hear it to this day.

5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP.  A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep.  Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.

6.  “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU.  People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it.  Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.

7.  “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP.  Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song.  Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.

8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS.  A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar.  Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling.  I think it’s the world-weary voice.  Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.

9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow.  Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.

10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG.  The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals.  It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song.  The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements