Tag Archives: The Rolling Stones

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.

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Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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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.

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Rock ‘n Read: Some Girls (33 1/3)

I recently finished Cyrus Patell’s book on The Rolling Stones 1978 album SOME GIRLS.  Patell’s book is part of the 33 1/3 series, which for those of you unfamiliar, are short little books written by one author and are dedicated to one classic album.  It’s basically a long-form version of my Classic Albums Revisited posts, which I once did on this very albumThis is the third or fourth book in the series that I’ve read, though currently there are 80+ books in the series.  The 33 1/3 series covers more than just classic rock, there are rap, metal, and country albums in the series as well.

3313somegirls

The books cover the behind-the-scenes/making of-aspect of the albums in addition to providing a track-by-track analysis.  Typically the book will be constructed around a theme of some sort, and of the small sample I’ve read, include a personal story from the author’s life.  Patell’s book on Some Girls is built around the conceit that The Stones record is basically all a love-letter (of sorts) to the late 1970s version of New York City.  Most but not all of the songs, Patell points out, are in some way about New York.  It’s pretty obvious, but strangely enough I never really made that connection.

Some Girls also is structured around Patell’s childhood in New York, around the time of the album’s initial release.  The death of one of his beloved teachers, the author’s first brush with death, plays a pivotal part of the first few and last chapters of the book.  Although I did find it interesting, I almost wish Patell had just stuck to The Rolling Stones.  Had this book been a typical long format book I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem with Patell’s personal connection to the record—but Some Girls (like all the books in the series) is a very short, very compact book.  I had a similar issue with the series entry on PET SOUNDS, but unlike that book, I walked away enjoying Some Girls.

My enjoyment of Patell’s book is two fold: he provides an excellent history of the band and the band’s efforts to record SOME GIRLS while at the same time giving a great history of late 1970’s New York.  He doesn’t just tell us that “Miss You” was written as a nod to the current disco culture, he explains to us that Mick Jagger and company were hanging out the infamous Studio 54.  Then Patell proceeds to give us a brief, but informative history of the club.  Patell’s deft ability to balance band history and history-history is what makes Some Girls such an enjoyable read.

There was one minor annoyance that almost got me to stop reading the book, and that was the author’s reliance on Keith Richards memoir Life.  At the start of the book there were so many long quotes taken directly fromKeith’s book that I nearly put the book down because it seemed like I was basically re-reading Life.  Thankfully, once the author turns away from basic band history and starts discussing the album in detail these direct quotes from Life are less intrusive.  Look, I get it, Patell wasn’t able to actually talk with Keith Richards…but some of the quotes are ridiculously long, taking up damn near an entire page.  I’m glad I didn’t give up on Patell’s book because it really is a good read.

Even if, like me, you’ve read five or six books on The Rolling Stones you should still check out Some Girls.  Patell’s analysis of the songs both lyrically and musically (he gets pretty deep into chords and tuning) is worth a read. If like me you’re a big fan of SOME GIRLS you owe it to yourself to check out Patell’s book, it’s a quick but insightful read.

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About That Paul McCartney/Nirvana Song

Last night a pretty incredible benefit concert was held at Madison Square Garden to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.  This so-called “12/12/12” concert was jam-packed with tons of talent: The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, and The Who were there just to name a few.  Of course today all anyone can talk about is Sir Paul McCartney and the surviving members of Nirvana. Apparently Nirvana and McCartney got together and recorded a song for a documentary Dave Grohl put together called SOUND CITY.

The song’s called “Cut Me Some Slack” and it’s surprisingly not the horrible train-wreck you’d expect from a Paul McCartney-fronted Nirvana.  Not that there’s anything wrong with either Paul or Nirvana, it’s just not two things I’d expect to go together very well.  Sure, Cobain worshipped The Beatles and infused his own music with their unique pop-sensibilities (although he made them heavier) but when I think of Nirvana I don’t think of The Beatles.  Whereas The Beatles were very much a peace and love band, Nirvana was angry and moody.  Plus, McCartney is really getting up their in years and I’ve always associated Nirvana with youth.  Destructive, unbridled, youth.

paul-mccartney-nirvana

I guess maybe that’s why “Cut Me Some Slack” works so well: this isn’t a young version of Nirvana.  Hell, this isn’t even really Nirvana.  Yes, I went there.  I realize that there are bands that can exist without their lead singer, but Nirvana sure ain’t one. Don’t get me wrong, it was really cool to see all those guys playing together again. It was especially nice seeing bassist Krist Novoselic on stage again, as he’s mostly dropped out of the music world, opting to direct films and study law.

Had the song sucked we could have blamed McCartney for being too old and for mucking about where he didn’t belong.  Thankfully the song is good enough, and their performance was energetic.  I was reluctant to write anything about this because I’m starting to feel weird writing so much about all these old dinosaurs of rock. I was looking over my Top 10 Albums of 2012 and I feel kinda strange about having so many classic rock artists on it.  Rock has always been about the here and now AND young people.  I’m not saying that old people can’t contribute to rock music or that rock artists should shut up (or be killed LOGANS RUN-style when they get to old) but the previous generation’s shadow is stifling this generations artists.

As if to drive this fact home, I got an email from Live Nation that really turned my stomach.  Take a glance at the upcoming concerts in my area:

Screen Shot 2012-12-13 at 6.26.36 PM

Memories of Elvis? An Allman Brothers Tribute?Dark Star Orchestra (which is a Grateful Dead tribute)?  Not only are these older acts not going away, when they do (usually only when death intercedes) we are then given tribute bands to fill their places.  Why in the hell aren’t we just going to see new bands? I’m just as guilty as anyone.  In fact, the next concert I’m attending is a Pink Floyd tribute. Just like the film industry won’t let old franchies go, the music industry won’t let old brands die.  And make no mistake, The Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd are nothing but brands at this point.  Three tribute bands/acts in a long list of upcoming concerts isn’t so bad, I guess.  And this is a Live Nation email, which is designed to goad aging hipsters into hiring a babysitter and having a night out.  I get that.  I also get that every night in this city there are awesome, young bands playing their hearts out.  I just wish the Nirvanas and the McCartney’s of the world would bow out gracefully and let them into the limelight.

Ah, don’t listen to me…I’m just an aging rock fan.

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Crossfire Hurricane & Becoming A Better Stones Fan

I love documentaries.  I really love them.  I don’t think I’ve seen a bad documentary, per say.  I subscribe to the theory that at the very least, a documentary will tell or show you something you didn’t know, and thus it wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Some are better than others.  The Martin Scorsese film on Bob Dylan, for example, is a damn good documentary.  Recently, I sat down and watched HBO’s Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which while not as good as Scorsese’s No Direction Home, was entertaining.

crossfire hurricane poster

And how could anything about the Rolling Stones not be entertaining? As far as legendary bands go, the Stones are tops when it comes to drugs, debauchery, death, and deceit.  All the makings of a compelling documentary, right?  Well Crossfire Hurricane covers all the major points in the band’s storied career, but doesn’t really dig in very deep.  Some of it felt rushed and major chapters in the band’s career are glossed over. It wasn’t until the credits started to roll (and I thought, “That’s it?”) that I saw what the problem was: the band were the producers.

So Crossfire Hurricane is really the whitewashed version of the Stones as told by the Stones. If you’re super-fan, you’re not going to necessarily gain any new insights, but the backstage/behind-the-scenes footage is worth seeing.  We see the Stones at the height of their success doing drugs and running around half (or totally) naked backstage.  It’s all very cheeky and fun.

I really wanted to recommend Crossfire Hurricane as THE Stones documentary to see…but it’s not.  The real story is what happened after the credits had rolled: the next morning, all I could think about were the tunes.  I fired up Spotify and started skipping around in the band’s massive back catalogue. And then a funny thing happened: I discovered my all-time favorite Stones song.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

I was listening to STICKY FINGERS while doing my laundry, when I heard “Bitch.”  I’d of course heard it before, but I didn’t hear it until this week.  The cocky, self-assured Jagger vocals, the brilliant Keef guitar lick…it was your standard-issue Stones song until the horns kicked in.  Holy shit, the horns take “Bitch” from good to fantastic. It was like hearing “Satisfaction” for the first time: I was blown away.

Which got me thinking, if a great never-played-on-the-radio song like “Bitch” could hit me like a bolt of lightning—what other astoundingly great Stones songs am I missing out on? Suddenly being a more causal Stones fan doesn’t seem so cool.  There is only one course of action: I must listen to everything by the Stones to ensure that I’m not missing out on any other gems.

To be fair, “Bitch” was a B-side to “Brown Sugar” so it wasn’t cast off into complete obscurity, but with B-sides like this who knows what awesome deep-cuts I’m missing out on.  These are the problems of a true music-nerd.  There are too many great bands with too many great songs left undiscovered.  Whenever I find a blank spot on my musical map, I try to fill it in.  That a band like the Rolling Stones has so many blank spots on my map is embarrassing, to be sure.  So even though I’m pretty sure I could die a happy rock-enthusiast without hearing the entirety of the Rolling Stones 80’s output—I’m gonna listen to it all.  Just knowing the singles and key albums is good, but the odds ‘n sods/deep-cuts are what keep me going, both as a fan and as a human being.

That endless quest for my next favorite song, that’s the very essence of what DEFENDING AXL ROSE is all about.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’ll post more about my travels in the Stones back catalogue.

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Classic Albums Revisited: DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP

The second album that AC/DC recorded, DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP has an unusual release history. In this modern age of iTUNES and instantaneous/simultaneous global releases it sometimes shocks people to learn just how fucked up some band’s catalogs are. The best examples are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. For whatever reason, there is a huge differences in album art, album titles, track listing, etc. on much of the these classic band’s output. This issue often creates a problem for international fans who invariably ask, “which is the official or canonical release for this band?” Oddly enough, The Beatles and Stones are (like in most cases) polar opposites. For The Beatles, the British releases are considered the “true” or “real” catalog. Thus, in the 1980’s when their records were converted over to CD the American public was…confused when the British LP’s were released on CD. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones choose to have the American release act as their “official” cannon.

Whatever.

What does any of this have to do with AC/DC? Well, if you live in Australia or Europe DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP was the band’s second album, and it came out in 1979. If you lived in America it came out in 1981 after the massively successful BACK IN BLACK record. This might seem like a little detail, but if you’re living in America and AC/DC puts out BACK IN BLACK as a tribute to their fallen lead singer, Bon Scott, with new vocalist Brian Johnson and a year later Scott returns on a “new” record…you might wonder what the hell is going on.

The following “Classic Albums Revisited” is true, only the names have been changed to protected the innocent.

The delay in the album’s release in America is all about taste. The good folks over at Atlantic records didn’t get, probably couldn’t get, songs like “Squealer” or “Big Balls.” What they could ‘get’ was the piles of money the band made after Johnson’s death when BACK IN BLACK hit #4 on the US record charts. What’s amazing, however, is the success of DIRTY DEEDS. It went on to reach #3 here in the US, making it the highest charting AC/DC album.

This of course just goes to show you that the suits at the top have no idea what the hell they are doing.

I first heard AC/DC growing up listening to classic rock radio with my parents. I never really noticed a difference between Brian Johnson and Bon Scott. As an older, more critical listener I can separate the two (Scott having a slightly higher register than Johnson). Many consider Johnson to be an imitation of Scott, but I don’t think that’s very fair. However, as a music geek/nerd I have to love the original line-up more.

Growing up, I only knew one person in the whole world that liked AC/DC, a kid named Josh that lived over on the next street. I remember him showing me his CD collection before class in 8th grade. Our teacher was one of the younger teachers at our school, she happened to be walking by when he was showing me his collection:

“Oh, AC/DC…they were popular when I was in High School. I can’t believe people still listen to them.”

She had a nasty, slightly disgusted look on her face. Like we were looking at a Playboy instead of a stack of shiny plastic discs. I can’t really say I blame her, there is something inherently…dirty about AC/DC. Oh sure, they sing about the usual sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll…but that’s not quite what makes them seem so…’brown bag.’ For me, and I suspect lots of people, AC/DC is a bit of ‘brown bag’ bag. You know, the sort of thing you buy looking down at your shoes. The sort of thing you stuff under your mattress.

The album’s title track, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is one of the most cinematic rock songs I’ve ever heard. Every time I hear this song, a roaring advertisement for a dubious, back-alley problem solving service, I can see the vicious High School principal. I can see the cheating boyfriend who needs his ass kicked. The bitchy woman that needs to be put in her place. All of these people harass us throughout our lives– how often have we wished for a tough-talking wise guy to appear and magically “solve” these walking-problems by kicking some ass? The only thing better is: this service is surprisingly affordable (dirt cheap).

“Big Balls.” I’m sure there are a few of you reading this that have never heard this song. And I bet just by reading the title you have a pretty good idea what this song sounds like. Right??? Wrong. Oh sure, AC/DC could have gone all low-brow and written a song about how big their balls are. They could have, but they didn’t. Instead, these (seemingly) dunder-headed rockers form Down Under have crafted a shockingly up-scale double entendre. A song that’s both rockin’ and 10X funnier than any Weird Al song.

My favorite part:

“Some balls are held for charity
And some for fancy dress
But when they’re held for pleasure
They’re the balls that I like best”

The Chuck Berry-esque “Rocker” is an awesome, breathless song that clocks in at only 2:52 but manages to perfectly encapsulate everything about rock music. That this track is so perfect (and yep almost haphazardly dashed-off) is surprising…but not as surprising as “Ride On.” Think about AC/DC and what do you think of? Loud. Balls-to-the-walls rock, right? “Ride On” is a quiet, introspective cowboy song. It’s my favorite track because of the vulnerability in Bon Scott’s voice, the regret and yes…heartache in his soul. At five minutes, it’s too long for radio-play (and was thus, never released as a single) but in my book ranks as one of the greatest rock ballads of all time. The guitar solo starts at 3:40 and goes all the way to 4:47. It’s not a complex or blistering solo, but like great bluesman of the past, Angus Young astounds by somehow conveying real human emotion through thin steel stings.

It’s an amazing, beautiful moment and it’s on an AC/DC record.

The original Australian Artwork:

This album artwork was…DONE…DIRT…CHEAP!!!

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Highly-Unscientific Rock Poll: All-Time Greatest Front-Man

Sometimes there are questions too big for one man. Sometimes, in the search for ultimate truth, we must seek the guidance of others. And then there are times when one wants to increase traffic to one’s blog by actively seeking participation of one’s small readership by stoking the fires of eternal debate…

Yes friends, it’s time to review the lastest statistical disaster I like to call my HIGHLY-UNSCIENTIFIC ROCK POLL!  It’s been a while since this poll was conducted, sorry that it took so long for me to get my act together but I had some stuff come up and I wasn’t able to devote myself to DEFENDING AXL ROSE like I should have/like to. I knew that this poll would be controversial but I didn’t know just HOW near and dear Rock Frontmen were to people’s hearts. What makes a good font-man?  He (or she) has to be charismatic in addition to being a good singer/performer.  A good front-man is like an ambassador for his/her band.  Musicians can be pretty difficult to get along with and some of the best technical players are completely unable to connect with human beings–and that’s where a front-man comes in.  Unlike just about every other part of a band, a front-man is really hard to replace  (more on that later). Anyway, I opened Pandora’s box and asked DEFENDING AXL ROSE’s followers “Who is the All-Time Greatest Front-Man?”  Here are the results:

8, 7, and 6 (no votes) Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, and Kurt Cobain:  Honestly, these were all solid choices and the fact that MICK JAGGER got ZERO votes should tell you how cut-throat this poll was.  Jagger pretty much came to define the classic rock front-man: the swagger, the bat-shit crazy dance moves, the delivery. Roger Daltrey is another excellent “classic” front-man in the same tradition as Mick Jagger.  The Who was an explosive band (literally, go ask Pete Townshend about how explosive they were–if he can hear you) and to front a band like The Who was no easy task.  More than just being a rocker, Daltrey paved the way for more theatrical front-men when The Who started doing rock operas. Kurt Cobain was the most modern front-man on the list and as such, Cobain’s role in Nirvana was much different than tossing his hair and strutting around like a rooster.  Cobain helped popularize the “tortured” front-man.  By making himself less accessible to fans, Cobain drew us all in closer.  That’s very different from Jagger’s chicken-dancing.  Still, as awesome and important as these front-men were (seriously, try to picture their respective bands without them) they got no love from my poll-takers.

3. (TIE one vote each) Axl Rose, Robert Plant, and Lemmy Kilmister: I bet you thought I voted for Axl Rose, didn’t you?  Well as much as I love and respect Axl, I didn’t vote for him.   And from the way this poll panned out, not very many of you voted for him either.  Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s self-proclaimed “Golden God” only got one vote as did Motorhead’s fugly metal-head Lemmy Kilmister.  Lemmy and Mick Jagger are the only two front-men on this list that I’ve actually seen in person and let me tell you–Lemmy was waaay cooler in person.  He’s ugly, loud, brash and he know it. Robert Plant’s mellowed significantly over the years, so I can understand why many people don’t hold him in as high regard, but in his hey-day he was considered a force of nature.  Guitarist Jimmy Page has spent the past 30 years trying to find someone as dynamic as Plant to front his music–and he’s come up dry.

Axl. Axl, Axl, Axl…what happened?  He’s a bit like Mick Jagger mixed with Cobain’s stand-offishness, mixed with a gallon of gasoline and asshole.  I think he’s a brillant front-man but I think he shot himself in the foot with his inability to work well with others, a trait that every good front-man needs.  A front-man fronts a band, he doesn’t just represent himself–which Axl is often guilty of doing.

2.  Ozzy Osbourne (2 votes):  The Oz Man Commeth! I recently took a long car trip and one of the things I listened to was Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, what a band that was!   Ozzy’s great because he has fantastic range both vocally and the kinds of songs he can do–scary ass Satan songs? Check.  Whistful ballads? Check.  Rockin’ anthem? Check.  The bitting the heads off stuff sure helps, too.   He’s a legend of hard rock and I was not surprised he came in second.  There’s a reason he’s got an entire FESTIVAL named after him (he married a pushy ball-buster, I kid! I kid!).  There’s a (mostly complete) Black Sabbath reunion hitting the road right now and I would love to check them out.

Before I talk about the #1 I feel that I should acknowledge that there were a few requests that I add a few font-men, specifically Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame and Bono from U2.  I didn’t add these two because frankly, I’m not a Radiohead person (nothing wrong with them) and Bono slipped my mind.  Initially I wasn’t going to do anything but ignore these requests…then I thought about it and decided that what I would do is have another poll and then have the winners of each poll battle it out.

But that was before Freddie Mercury swept this poll.

#1. Freddie Mercury (13 votes): This doesn’t really surprise me.  When the topic of font-men come up, Freddie’s name always comes up.  You want charisma? Mercury had more than enough, he was oozing charisma.  Queen’s a awesome rock band because they were so many different things: gay/straight, operatic/balls-to-the-walls rocking, playful/dead serious–but despite their duality, they were always amazing.  How badass was Freddie Mercury?  He was still writing and recording music right up to his death.  How committed to his art was Freddie Mercury? Doctors told him for years to fix his overbite and he refused, he was worried correcting his teeth would change the sound of his voice.  That’s commitment.  That’ s love.  And you know what? He did it all for you, the listener.   If I was on my deathbed, you better believe this blog would be the last thing on my mind.  Freddie just wanted to make music and he did.  He complimented his bandmates and helped make them superstars. A few years ago, Queen re-formed and tried to solider on with Paul Rodgers, a legendary front-man in his own right (he was in Free and Bad Company).  How did that go?  Not so well…it wasn’t that Rodgers was bad–he just wasn’t Freddie Mercury.  Freddie Mercury is the greatest rock front-man off all-time.

Poll Closed.

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On Genre and Space Cowboys

Prologue: Genre Sucks

Genre is pretty stupid thing if you think about it.  Trying to categorize music (or any art for that matter) into a neat little box is often an exercise in futility.  I think a lot of critics and fans alike miss the point when they try to put singers or bands into one specific category.  Worse still, people put themselves into a “genre,” telling themselves they only like one specific type of music.

My iTunes does not display “genres,” I switched them off because the iTunes database is ridiculously loaded with so many stupid (and hopelessly redundant) categories. The worst is offender being Alternative Rock which gets tagged as “Alternative,” “Alternative Rock,” “Alternative and Punk,” “Punk and Rock,” “Punk Rock” and so on and so forth.  If, like me, you’ve give up on genre and all the stupid baggage that goes along with it, you’ll find yourself descending into the rabbit hole of awesome music.

Case in point: I used to be a “no rap or country” guy until I realized how foolish and narrow-minded such a worldview was.  For one thing, rock music (which I love) has it’s roots firmly planted in country music–so much so that to deny a love of country would be hypocritical.  Rap music, on the other hand, is probably the only culturally relevant art form going right now, not like rap or denying it credibility would like people in the 1950’s ignoring TV.  I mean, to do so  (and many did) meant they missed an incredible cultural shift.

* * *

Part I: Space Cowboys

But enough philosophizing, this post is called “Space Cowboys” because Keith Richards got me to listen to some damn fine music. I read his epic tome LIFE when it came out, and one of the most interesting bits was his relationship with Gram Parsons. Parsons was Richards brother-in-arms during the late 1960’s.  Whereas Richards came from the RnB/blues  school, Parsons came from more of a country background.  Their friendship was pretty interesting and profound (influencing both Parsons and The Stones).   Keith liked Gram so much he let Gram record one of his greatest songs first (he let him record “Wild Horses” first, if  handing someone your greatest masterpiece isn’t bro-love, I don’t know what is).  In a way they became almost mirror images of each other, until Parsons tragically died of a drug overdose.  Anyway, Richards got me interested in his friend Gram (he spoke so highly of him) so I started digging around in his music.

Gram + Keef = BBF's 4 Eva

Turns out Gram Parsons pretty much invented Wilco.  Well, to be precise, he invited “Alt-Country” or whatever the hell the dipshits at Pitchfork.com are calling the music being created today that strattles the line between alternative rock and country music (drat! foiled again by descriptions of genre).  In 1969 he put out the first country-rock album…ever with his band The International Submarine Band.  After that he joined the floundering Byrds and convinced them to put out a country record (!).  That album, SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO, shouldn’t have surprised people (is there really much distance between folk and country?) but it kinda did.  It kinda blew everybody’s mind, and thanks to Parsons, the band put out one of their best records.  And all he did was rather than having the band make music influenced by country, Parsons had the Byrds doing country music. The stylistic jumble was basically country music, but not quite. Thus a genre was born.

But Parsons was a maverick and was soon out of The Byrds and forming The Flying Burrito Brothers.  I know what you’re thinking–incredibly stupid name, but I was blown away by this band. 1969 was a strange time, and the combination of psychedelic rock merged with country music bred a new kind of cowboy: the Space Cowboys.  These brave men were schooled in the popular Top 40 rock of the day but loved classic country music.  From these intrepid “astronauts” bands like Wilco, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks, The Wallflowers…hell even REM came into being.

Flying Burrito Brothers, not known for their fashion sense.

The first two Flying Burrito Brothers records, THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN and BURRITO DELUX, are two fantastic records from end to end.  Songs like “Wheels” exist somewhere in between psychedelic rock and country–in a place that I never knew existed (or was quite frankly, so fucking exquisite).  At first I found myself pulling away from the “country” aspects of Parsons creations and only admiring their “rock” elements.  But after awhile my prejudices/hangups fell by the wayside (mostly because “Sin City” is fucking righteous song) and I found myself enjoying music I would have otherwise dismissed outright.

* * *

Part II: What does it all Mean?

Delving deeper into this exciting genre of “Space Cowboys,” I happened upon a band with an even stranger name than The Flying Burrito Brothers (if you can believe that): The New Riders of The Purple Sage.  With a name like that, I’m sure you won’t be too terribly shocked when I tell you that famous Dead-Head Jerry Garcia was a member of the band.  More than just a “country side-project,” The New Riders are a ridiculously  awesome hybrid of rock and country.  Taking the next logical step from The Grateful Dead’s AMERICAN BEAUTY  album, THE NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE turns down the stoner-folk and turns up the country.  Both the Parsons albums and The New Riders could be classified as straight “country”  or straight “folk” or straight “rock.”   That they could also be (and are) part of a new hybrid of existing genres should speak volumes for how awesome this music is.  That this movement of “Space Cowboys” happened at the end of the 1960’s/early 1970’s was no accident.  The 1970’s saw an explosion of country influenced rock (and vice versa rock influenced country).  Hell, the era’s biggest, most successful band, The Eagles (also known as “the fuckin’ Eagles, man”) was a country-infused rock band.

So what does all this mean? Well I think it’s important to realize that some really awesome stuff happens “in between” the boring, staid genres.  It’s like tectonic plates bumping and colliding, forming mountains–the best shit tends of happen at the spots where genres collide.  I’ve grown as a music fan/aficionado and now, instead of staring blankly into the middle of a particular genre (even if it’s one I love, like rock) I know go out of my way to explore the fringes of all the genres.  After all, today’s “cowboys” living on the fringe of art often become the next generations mainstream heroes (Wilco).

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Classic Albums Revisited: SOME GIRLS

There are two kinds of Stones fans–ones that think 1972’s EXILE ON MAINSTREET is the band’s greatest album…and those who differ to 1978’s SOME GIRLS. I fall into the latter category. I think EXILE is a fine album, but SOME GIRLS is more fun. The album came out in a very strange time for music, both punk and disco were in full-swing–and rock acts from the 1960’s were beginning to be pegged as “dinosaurs.”

Yes, that’s right–the Stones were being branded dinosaurs all the way back in 1978. Were those boys ever NOT teased in this manner? But I digress. Mick Jagger and company put out a hell of a record in response to the growing criticism that rock’n roll was dead. SOME GIRLS takes what was best about the era (the dance-ablity of disco, and the raw/primal aggression of early punk) and merges it with the Stones classic blues-rock sensibilities.

Some girls look like boys with wigs on...

The band recorded the album over a period of several tense months in 1977. While most of the world was enjoying STAR WARS, guitarist Keith Richards was sweating a possession of heroin charge (he was busted up in Canada). Suddenly, with the prospect of losing their lead guitarist for several YEARS–the Stones got serious and recorded 50+ songs. It was during this time that Jagger, with Richards distracted, took up the bulk of the song writing duties. SOME GIRLS was a product of his frantic writing/recording period.

The album opens with “Miss You,” a bluesy-disco tinged song that became the band’s final #1 song in the USA. Unlike a lot of music from this era, the song remains catchy and cool as hell–despite the disco influences. I think the reason for this is simply, the Stones didn’t do a full disco song. The rest of SOME GIRLS is an interesting mix of punk and country (believe it or not). “Far Away Eyes” being an extreme, almost country parody and on the other end “Lies” tips closer to blind aggression of the early punk scene. Somewhere in the middle falls the rest of the album. It’s this middle where the magic is.

I have three favorite songs on this record, which in itself says a lot about its overall greatness. They are as follows (in no particular order):

1. “Beast of Burden”
2. “Before They Make Me Run”
3. “Shattered”

“Beast of Burden” with its crazy-ass falsetto and rolling guitar licks is a masterpiece. I’ve read that some of the lyrics were improvised by Jagger on the fly…I’m not sure I buy that, but part of the song’s greatness is how laid-back/casual it seems to flow. On the other end of the spectrum, is the precision and edginess of “Shattered.” Jagger’s practically spitting the verses at you, while the guitar chugs along in the backroom…before BAM! Awesome fucking solo (with hand-claps, which is always important).

There’s a theory that the reason this record sounds so good is because the band finally got a third guitarist–SOME GIRLS marks the first appearance of Jagger the guitar player. Not sure how much water that theory holds, but the music side of things does seem more complex than earlier Stones records.

And while he’s not the world’s greatest singer, I do love the Keith Richards “Before They Make Me Run.” Of course it has an amazing, holy-grail-like guitar lick. The song, though not sung my Jagger, is probably (in my opinion) the best example of a “Rolling Stones Song.” All the elements are there: killer guitar, hooky-but simple lyrics, a bluesy-country feel…it’s awesome. It makes me wish Richards had given up smoking cigarettes (his voice sounds like crap now, way too raspy). He might have even turned into a hell of a vocalist–we’ll never know. I think its funny how confident Richards playing is, but how almost quiet the vocals are. You can tell he knew he wasn’t a very good singer–I’ve noticed this on a lot of the early Clapton solo records, too. I took Clapton a long time to get the nerve to belt out “Layla.”

SOME GIRLS is a classic album, and arguably the last great record from one of the world’s greatest rock bands. Most people have actually heard 65-70% of this record via classic rock radio (which plays damn near everything on it). The damn thing is practically a GREATEST HITS for their 70’s period. This one is definitely on my “Desert Island” List of great records. Go check it out–or if you have it (like me) go give it a re-listen.

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