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May 26 2015

American Idol

The word is that American Idol is going to cease production so I imagine I will not be the only one writing about this in the coming days and weeks.

American Idol has become something of a punching bag for ‘serious’ musicians and ‘serious’ music fans. There is some merit to the assessment that it is a misguided shortcut to success in the music business. There is also much proof that disputes this shortcut and that American Idol and its imitators haven’t done all that well in creating stars. With the obvious exceptions.

When the first season aired, I, like many North Americans, was glued to my set. The idea of an amateur singing contest where the prize was a recording contract, to me, is a fantastic idea for a TV show. Season one was a bunch of kids who ran their local karaoke nights or sang in the shower or a bit in their home town bar getting a chance to see if they actually had real talent.

The show’s judges were amazing archetypes. Randy, your uncle, the legit musician, Paula, the supportive mother hen, and Simon, the hard driving, sometimes cruel Dad who showed you how unforgiving the real world was. But when you did a good job, he’d say so and it was the sweetest feeling. Simon was also British which ushered in a new idea of the British on television as sociopaths who insult and ridicule people and generally act like boors. Witness the Hell’s Kitchen dude among others. For the majority of the show’s audience, these judges were unknown, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson’s best years were behind them. So it all started out pretty small.

When Kelly Clarkson beat out Justin What’s His Name, (the fact that I can’t remember his last name is part of the point of this piece), it was an incredible moment. The fact that the best singer who ever came out of the show was part of this first season is also very significant in my opinion.

Why? Because after the first few seasons, it stopped being an amateur singing contest and turned into something more sinister. In those initial seasons, no one really understood the possibilities of the show. Idol couldn’t get clearance from publishers for almost any songs and the kids were generally forced to sing old standards. Later on, when Kelly Clarkson actually became a star and AI became a ratings blockbuster, two things happened. Every singer or wannabe singer in America without a record deal saw this as their shot at fame. And the record companies and publishers saw it as great publicity for their artists and song catalogs. They started climbing all over the Idol producers to have their songs sung and their artists appear on the show as special guests. So around season 4, the show lost its innocence. It was a bunch of professional singers looking for an easy way to become a star instead of working their ass off for years until they were finally good enough to get someone to notice them. The show became part of the music business machine. Eventually the original judges were replaced which killed the show’s chemistry.

So there are two aspects to American Idol that should be addressed. One is that it was a TV show. As a show, it was pretty great at least before they wore out the formula. A music show where kids competed against other kids in a singing contest that was ultimately judged by the viewing audience made for compelling television. One of the big attractions of the show were the auditions. Here the TV audience would get a look behind the scenes at how the finalists were chosen. The producers would air the good, the bad and the ugly. The really great singers who would be, “going to Hollywood,” the show’s catch phrase for contestants who were moving on in the contest, the really bad singers who would essentially be made fools of by both themselves and the judges and the just plain weirdos who saw the auditions as a showcase for their performance art, comedy or delusions. There was something very cruel about this process as the cameras followed contestants crying or cursing, who had their dreams smashed when they were dismissed by the judges.

That brings us to the second part of AI, the show as star maker. At this, Idol was remarkably unsuccessful considering there were 14 seasons worth of singers. One might think that, having the exposure of a massive international audience would be a surefire route to fame and fortune. I can’t remember how many finalists were in the actual show each year, 12? 20? But the list of singers who have had meaningful careers or anything resembling a hit single or album is embarrassingly short. I always felt the show was selling a lie, that you could be made into a star overnight. I think that Idol had an overall negative effect on peoples’ perception of what it takes to be a professional singer.

Because the reality is, very few people get to be stars and stars are not made, they are born. It didn’t help that the songs the winners were given to sing as their first single were uniformly awful. One exception was Phillip Phillips song Home, which was an incredibly sophisticated choice of song that was actually a hit in waiting. So he turned out to be much luckier than the majority of Idol winners. I think many of the finalists were able to use their five minutes of fame to generate some local, home town interest in themselves, some made records but most faded from public view once the next season of AI revved up. A couple of the smarter ones, Jennifer Hudson and Katharine Mcphee went on to act, which seems perfectly logical as they were already TV stars. Sadly, most of the contestants, like Justin What’s His Name, faded into obscurity with only a great tale to tell their grandkids.

One might think the show could go on forever. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of American kids who want to be stars, like the exponentially growing raccoon population of Toronto. But ratings have fallen over the past several seasons, apparently Coke, who must have been their biggest sponsor judging from all the product placement, bailed on the show so, like all good things, it is coming to an end. This will be bad news for those who think kids who tough it out in dive bars, clubs, local state fairs etc. honing their craft and building an audience are suckers. But despite the protestations of millions of Idol haters, that still seems to be the path to success for the majority of people in show business. People may believe something different, but the statistics speak for themselves.

At least a few Idol winners had some play, most of the copy cat shows don’t appear to have made a single person meaningfully famous. Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are legitimate superstars. But that it was so easy to name them says it all. In the end, it was a good TV show and Fox made a bundle and it probably helped finance Family Guy so I’ll choose to see it like that.

May 5 2015

Paul Williams

I just watched Still Alive, a documentary about songwriter Paul Williams. Before I get into that, a story.

Last year at Canadian Music Week, Paul Williams participated in the conference by interviewing producer and musician extraordinaire, Nile Rogers. I brought my copy of Someday Man, the recently rediscovered Paul Williams solo LP. It was recorded and released before he started to have hits writing for the Carpenters and Three Dog Night, Barbara Streisand etc. The discussion between Williams and Rogers was engaging and Paul seemed like a really nice guy but after the panel, I folded and didn’t go try to meet him and get my CD signed. Too many people would be clamoring for his attention, I thought, and I wasn’t in the mood for disappointment.

Later, I saw photos all over Facebook of him and every Tom, Dick and Harry from the conference. Felt like a moron.

A word about Someday Man. It was released on Reprise Records in 1970, it stiffed and was deleted shortly there after. A disappointment, I’m sure for Paul and his songwriting collaborator Roger Nicholls who were getting cuts here and there, but mostly B-sides and album tracks. Not long after this, they would write We’ve Only Just Begun for the Carpenters and Out In The Country by Three Dog Night, (Out In the Country is so awesome, it needs its own blog post). The rest is history and started Paul on the road to being one of the biggest stars in America. Someday Man is jammed with sunny pop gems, some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard. And I should say that, although it is a Paul Williams record, credit should also go to co-writer and producer Nicholls.

Anyway, the documentary starts out well enough, with film maker Stephen Kessler traveling to Winnipeg, one of the two places on earth where Paul’s movie, The Phantom Of The Paradise was a hit. I have a friend from there who has a full Phantom costume so I was aware of the Winnipeg idiosyncrasy. The opening sequence in Winnipeg is truly heartwarming with the fans going bonkers, or as bonkers as middle to late age fans can go, for Williams. He appears to be honestly humbled by the response and remarks that this kind of thing doesn’t really happen to him anymore.

On seeing this I feel like Paul might have been open to my slobbering fanboy attention last spring. Drat!!

The film then turns into a painful and often embarrassing battle of wills between the director and Paul, who comes off as pretty much the greatest guy in the history of celebrity. His incredible patience with Kessler is downright saintly. Instead of being a film about the artist, it becomes more about the film maker and his very clumsy attempt to become friends with Williams.

With the exception of Out In The Country, Paul’s more commercial songwriting efforts left me a bit cold and he became synonymous with the sort of low culture that dominated the 1970’s. Because in addition to being a songwriter, Paul was also an actor or more accurately, a television personality who would regularly appear on game shows, talk shows and serial television. A lot of people hate TV. Most of these people are old and remember how horrible television was in the 70’s into the 80’s. There were three networks and the idea was to not do anything too offensive that might cause a person to change the channel to one of the other networks. Cable TV changed everything and now television is pretty great. (For a deeper discussion on this, check out Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson). So my interest in Paul is not nostalgic.

Paul’s downfall, as it has been with many in show business, was drugs and alcohol. They derailed both his career and his life and he has devoted a great deal of the second act of his life to his recovery. His popularity as a performer stalled in the late ’70’s. Apart from the aforementioned Winnipeg gig and another in the Philippines, the movie reads a bit like This Is Spinal Tap, with him wandering around backstage alone looking for an exit and doing insignificant interviews.

This brings me to the point. Paul seems largely unconcerned with all of that. Our culture eats and spits out musicians, artists, athletes and supernovas of all kinds. People get to be famous/successful for a short period of time and then they are put out to pasture. Kind of devastating for people who worked their whole life for a goal that, once achieved, leaves them standing alone somewhere wondering why it had to end. With athletes, it’s usually because their bodies let them down, which is natural enough and somewhat easier to rationalize. In show business it’s, who knows why?

Watching this film, Paul seems completely content in his life. He lives in a modest house with his wife. He plays the odd gig in Vegas and elsewhere without a lot of expectation. When the film maker shows him some clips from his past TV appearances, he seems revolted, like he doesn’t even know the person he once was. One gets the feeling that he has zero interest in being back in the game in a serious way again. He must still make enough money in royalties to live a comfortable life. And he gets the call every now and then to do an appearance at something like Canadian Music Week, a call that must be a message to him that he is still thought of as a star.

So it doesn’t have to end badly. I think that sometimes when you are not part of the current culture, people can see the real value in what you do. One’s prejudices about what they are SUPPOSED to like become irrelevant. That’s why I think Someday Man is being discovered again. Now that Paul Williams isn’t a clown that you see on Hollywood Squares it’s easier to appreciate his work. This is my favorite track off of it.


Mar 25 2015

Blurred Lines

In the mid ’90’s The Offspring released their breakthrough album, Smash. Not long afterwards, people began calling me suggesting that the song Gotta Get Away was a rip off of our own Hard To Laugh. A few people in the music business were suggesting litigation, thinking we an opportunity to cash in on what they perceived to be copyright infringement. I bought the album and listened to the track and it ‘sounded’ kind of the same but I didn’t think their song and mine were the same. The comparison that people heard revolved around a riff and maybe a drum beat(??). I thought the claim was frivolous and the similarities between the two songs was most likely accidental.

So everyone is talking about the Blurred Lines verdict and what it means. I am seeing posts of Mavin Gaye’s family listening to Happy, by Pharrell Williams, one of the plaintiffs in the Blurred Lines case to see if further litigation is an option. This is disturbing in several ways.

When I first heard Blurred Lines, I thought, wow that sure sounds like Got To Give It Up by Marvin Gaye. the cowbell, the groove-the feel and the sound were very close. I kind of smirked and thought little of it past that. It wasn’t until the lawsuit surfaced that I examined the songs.

My understanding of the law is that, in terms of song copyright, a song is the melody and lyrics. Since there are only 12 notes in Western music, that can get pretty dicey. But the reality is, there haven’t been a lot of these suits. Copyright infringement has needed to be pretty blatant before a judge would hand out an award. One of the most famous cases was George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord which was said to have copied the melody of He’s So Fine by the Chiffons. In this case, it’s relatively clear that the melody is remarkable similar.

That’s not the case with Blurred Lines/Got To Give It Up. The songs are not particularly similar, there is merely a comparable vibe because of the production values. Production values shouldn’t be a matter of copyright.

To me, Blurred Lines falls into the category of homage or tribute. It’s acknowledging someone else’s great art by referencing it in your own art. Like Back In The USSR by The Beatles is a homage to both Chuck Berry and the early Beach Boys. There is a band called The Spongetones who’s work is a meticulous recreation of the Beatles style and sound. Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia did an album called Deface The Music which did the same thing, sent up very specific Beatles tracks in terms of sound and style but were nonetheless original songs. Should they be sued for this?

Almost every early rock and roll song in the ’50’s was a fast paced 12-bar, very much alike in sound, style and structure. Same with so many old honky tonk songs. Apparently the great Hank Williams once said that he basically re wrote existing songs, put new lyrics on them and bingo-a legend is born. You could find 1000 12-bar blues tracks where the differences would only be apparent to a musician. Should everyone above be sued? Does everyone who uses a detuned, distorted electric guitar owe something to Black Sabbath? Does every House producer owe Georgio Morodor/Donna Summer, every Techno producer owe Kraftwerk?

So you see where this could lead. And that’s not even touching bands who wear their influences on their sleeve like power pop demi gods Jellyfish or The Rolling Stones influenced Black Crowes. There is a hilarious video by a comedy troupe from Australia called Axis of Awesome playing several dozen hit songs over the exact same four chords.

And if we want to call out rip off artists, how about Katy Perry who blatantly ripped off Jill Sobule with her breakthrough hit, I Kissed A Girl. Jill’s song had the hook, I Kissed A Girl and at a point says, ‘and I liked it’, just like Katy’s song. And what about Bruno Mars aping the hook of one of Billy Joel’s biggest hits, Just The Way You Are? The melodies in both cases are different but if all we need to show is that the songs are ‘similar’ these songs in my mind are more actionable that Blurred Lines. And should anyone be looking into a half a dozen Led Zeppelin songs that sound like old blues tracks but are ‘written’ by Page and Plant?

Copyright infringement is hot right now because of another recent case involving Sam Smith’s Stay With Me and it’s melodic similarity to Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. It never made it to court as the involved parties resolved it themselves. In that case, one could say the melodies had a striking resemblance. I remember thinking it was a big fuss over nothing, I bet if you dug deep you could find other songs with that descending melody. But most people would think this case had some legitimacy, because it’s the song that’s the same, not the arrangement or production. That’s a huge difference.

The biggest problem with litigation is that it’s not always about who is right but who has the best lawyer. In this case, it was clearly the Gaye family. As for the Gaye family hunting around for more copyright infringement, that’s just gross.

It should be clear that what we are talking about here is much different than sampling. Sampling is using someone’s ACTUAL PERFORMANCE in a song. If Blurred Lines had sampled Got To Give It Up, it’s a completely different case. But even sampling cases sometimes stretch the boundaries of what most people would consider fair. Read up on The Verve’s nightmarish run in with Andrew Loog Oldman and The Rolling Stones with their hit Bittersweet Symphony. That’s another blog.

The worst case scenario here is that people start to think that this is a way to make money in our ever challenging business. If the case before us now becomes precedent, then the floodgates would surely open for literally thousands of equally specious claims. That would effectively kill music production and recording. So everyone in this business should be praying this verdict is overturned in appeals court. Otherwise, things are really going to suck.


Mar 12 2015

Much Music/MTV


I very recently did an interview about Much Music and it brought back, mostly, great memories.

When I was much younger, I would choose the bar I drank at by whether they had an American feed of MTV. Music wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, especially on TV. In it’s infancy, MTV played a wide variety of videos, partly because there wasn’t a ton of videos yet and partly, I suspect (or maybe believe), because they wanted to. My hope is that most people go into business ventures with the best of intentions and only later, money and power and outside interests corrupt them.

Those were great days, a TV station that played music 24 hours a day!!!! I would positively tingle at the thought of getting to see bands ‘play’ their songs on TV. MTV was the epitome of cool and the cry I Want My MTV echoed across America and even north to Canada. New artists burst into the mainstream and MTV started breaking bands and introducing new music, especially post punk/new wave bands to the masses. MTV acted as a real alternative to radio. One of the best features were the specialty shows, 120 Minutes, which featured alternative and independent artists and Headbangers Ball-a heavy metal show. And MTV played hip hop long before the radio did.

Soon, Canada had its own 24 hour video station, Much Music. Initially, Much Music followed MTV’s programming of new, innovative music mixed with the hits of the day. They also had niche shows; their metal show was called the Pepsi Power Hour and they played indie/alt videos on City Limits. They also had Spotlight, which was a full half hour of videos by one artist where you could see a few deep cuts. Eventually they programmed Soul In The City and Electric Circus which featured urban and dance music.

In the channel’s infancy my band, the recently christened, The Pursuit Of Happiness, had recorded some demos at our buddy Scott De Smit’s house on his 16 track Fostex. Another friend, Nelu Ghiran, who worked at the National Film Board offered to shoot a video for one of the demos, I’m An Adult Now. We finished it and brought it over to Much Music with the hope that they would spin it on City Limits. The next day, we got a call saying not only would they play it on City Limits, they were actually going to add it into full rotation. The rest, as they say, is history. MTV in America played a remade, much more expensive version of I’m An Adult Now which had a great deal to do with our success there as well.

Anyway, enough of the bio. Fast Forward. Eventually, both MTV and Much Music succumbed to commercial pressures and in many ways became more like commercial radio stations, though I will say that they occasionally went outside the box with their programming and made stars of bands that might not of ‘made it’ on commercial radio. I’m thinking of System Of A Down as an example.

Later, about 10 years ago, I remember traveling through America with my wife and watching MTV before bed.  They weren’t playing videos but instead, these weird youth-oriented reality shows. We’d watch Jackass and a bunch of others who’s names escape me now. I actually thought they were kind of funny and almost good. Jackass, of course, was awesome and Johnny Knoxville became my new hero. The idea of reality shows wasn’t new at MTV. They started with The Real World many years earlier. My claim to fame with that show was running into one of the original cast members who told me she was a fan of ours because she bought a car that had one of our cassettes jammed in the tape player so she was forced to listen to it.

In subsequent road trips to the USA, the reality shows on MTV seemed to be getting dumber and dumber or maybe the novelty of them just wore off on us. Eventually MTV moved up to Canada and some of these shows came with them. Apparently, MTV Canada wasn’t able to show videos due to CRTC regulations that only allowed Much Music to do that. So the reality shows were really all they had. The success of the reality show paradigm soon influenced Much Music programming as well and that was the beginning of the end. I completely checked out from music television and whenever I passed through the dial it seemed like they weren’t even playing reality shows anymore. Those had been replaced by either reruns of former network shows like The Gilmore Girls or else something to do with vampires. I will say that Much Music still played more videos than US MTV did but that’s probably not saying much.

I am not writing this to criticize Much Music or MTV but rather to say a heartfelt thank you to them for all they did in terms of helping my career and, mostly, for all the entertainment. Being able to watch music on TV and see and hear bands that I never would have seen or heard without MTV/Much Music was fabulously exciting for the younger me. Before 24 music television, the only music you’d see on TV were occasional reruns of Midnight Special or Don Kirsheners Rock Concert or someone lip syncing on a talk show. What was great about music television was that people in small communities who didn’t get a lot of concerts or maybe even a decent radio station could have access to great bands and music. It united kids in both the US and Canada and that, to me, is a great thing.

To paraphrase The Buggles, You Tube killed the Video star. Now that music videos are accessible on your computer whenever you want and on demand, music television has lost its status. This is time marching on, unavoidable however nostalgic people like me might get. It may be that MTV and Much Music were being proactive by cutting down on music and may have seen this coming. Or some would say that nature abhors a vacuum and You Tube filled that when music television abandoned music. It doesn’t matter, it’s too late anyway. Fortunately, the AUX Network is picking up some of the slack but only some of it.

So, Much Music and MTV-it would be hard to overstate how much joy and excitement you gave me over the years. I can’t imagine there will ever be TV stations that would offer kids as much as you did.

May 30 2014

In Defense of The Song

I recently read a Globe and Mail piece by writer Russell Smith called Why Is Pop Music Stuck on The Same Old Song. The gist of it is that the song is boring and there are so many more interesting possibilities in some other kind of musical form, mainly forms associated with Classical Music.

Before I go any further, let me say that I am a big fan of Smith’s fiction, columns and like him a lot as a person. I do, however, have some differences with him about this.

I’m not exactly sure what he means by songs here. Does he mean only what they play on commercial radio or just popular music generally, which is to say the popular music of our time, which would include everything except what most call classical music. So this would be pop, rock, country music, alternative music, hard rock, R&B, metal and, I guess even hip hop. Music that one might find on the Billboard charts maybe?

To start, he mischaracterizes the pop song. He claims they are all, “100 %” in 4/4,” which of course is not true. It would have been fine to say they are usually are. Just in my own recent experience, I just finished producing a very pretty song written and recorded (more or less) specifically for the radio that is in 6/8. I also recently produced a country album that had at least two songs in 3/4. A couple of classic rock standards that immediately come to mind, Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends and Pink Floyd’s Money are 6/8 and 7/4 respectively. And that’s not getting into R&B and commercial prog rock.

He also describes the pop song in terms of the Standard Song Structure, which is to say a song with a verse and a chorus and possibly a bridge. Again this is usually the case though certainly not always. In the early days of rock and roll, structures like the 12 bar blues, which was used in the lions share of rock and roll and rockabilly tunes, and the AABA song structure, popular with the Beatles and many others, were just as common as the standard structure. Recent examples of the AABA include Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day and Every Breath You Take by The Police. And a lot 0f popular music doesn’t strictly follow any typical structure though it usually has some form of repetition.

Ah but I’m nit picking, perhaps he was just overstating for effect. What I really want to say is the song survives because it works. It has form the same way a novel, a movie, a play and most narrative types of art have form. Form allows people to follow your story, your song, your movie. It prevents them from being confused, it keeps them interested enough to see how it ends. Experimental forms of fiction are excruciating and so are most experimental music forms.

Novels, which I believe I just read a defense of by Russell, have conventions like plot and narrative, rising action, climax, resolution, character development as do screenplays and teleplays. (Forgive me for simplifying). These devices make novels, movies and television programs easy to follow, easy to lose yourself in and prevent you from becoming disoriented and/or bored while experiencing them. This is a good thing. Even a movie like Pulp Fiction, which messes with the timeline,  can still be described in a linear fashion.

When I think about a well written song, I consider similar conventions. The intro to a great song would be like the intro to a great book or movie that would draw you in, grab your attention or seduce you in some way. Then we would start at a low idea of intensity which would be the verse where the narrative of the song would start. The action would rise as the intensity of the music climbs in the pre-chorus and then the chorus would be similar to the climax of the movie where the the theme and the essence of the song would be revealed. This would also be the dynamic high point of the song or at least of the cycle of verse/prechorus/chorus. The difference between a song and a story is that this rising action would repeat itself with every cycle of verse, pre chorus and chorus. Visually, instead of one big wave that gets slowly higher to a climax and then falls off like you’d have in a novel, we have more like multiple waves rising and falling with each verse, pre chorus and chorus. By the end of the song, the story would be told, the character would learn something about him or herself and there would be a sense of resolution both lyrically and musically. (Again, forgive the simplification).

So if form has value in other types of writing, it stands to reason that it does in songs. This is not to say that there aren’t possibilities for popular music that lie outside of considered song forms. Baba O’Reily by The Who is a song that doesn’t follow any of the above mentioned song forms not does something more current like Lay Down In The Tall Grass by Timber Timbre, which has sections we could find a name for and has repeating chord patterns but not what one might identify as a verse and a chorus.

Smith then gives some examples of plotless films and non novel novels that I’ve never heard of and no one outside of a Masters English course has either. I call those, exceptions that prove the rule.

Another of his objections to the song is that it is sung by the human voice. He talks about music forms that don’t having singing, instrumentals we can call them. He mentions soundscapes, and I would add, large amounts of what we call Electronic Dance Music. There is lots of this kind of music, lots more than there is plotless movies or non novel novels. This music has value as music to dance to, to get high to, to use as background music at parties, while trying to score or while studying. But the thing about songs with singing is that the voice is the most evocative instrument. When you hear a song that has singing and lyrics, you are more likely to pay attention. And songs with singing can still be completely compelling even if the singer isn’t that, ‘good’. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Tom Waits all have very idiosyncratic instruments but all elicit a variety of emotions in their fans. Songs resonate with people because they relate to them, they speak to them, they REMEMBER them. Words and music together have power that neither have separately. I have looked at lyrics on a blank page and thought, okay. Then I’ve heard them sung and thought, wow. This can often be because of the way the line is delivered, the anger or sensuality or sadness the voice brings to the line. Or it can be because I love the sound of the singers voice and, as the cliche goes, they could sing the phone book and make it sound good.

Often people want to hear something new, new music. But new music is rarely new music. In western music, we are all dealing with the same finite pallet of notes. Usually, new music means music created by new technology. But that’s another post.

Anyway, Russell, forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted your column. But the song is great, worthwhile and will endure whether we like it or not.

Jan 16 2014

Polaris Prize 2013

Their mission statement reads; The Polaris Music Prize is a not-for-profit organization that annually honors, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music by recognizing, then marketing the albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected music critics.

That all sounds pretty nice. The 2013 award was (I guess now not so) recently given out and the winner was Montreal’s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for their creation, ‘Allelua! Don’t Bend! Ascend! a very worthy winner despite the band’s 15-year old girl-like fetish for exclamation points. They are exactly the type of artists who SHOULD be celebrated in an award like this. Their music is challenging, exhilarating-something you are very unlikely to ever hear on the radio, they never hype themselves in the press and appear in every way to be true artists.

I’m here neither to praise nor condemn Godspeed, You Black Emperor. The story, for those who don’t know, is that they refused the accolade and took the opportunity to basically take the piss out of the event and then promised to give the 30 grand prize money to inmates for instruments. They also sort of shamed the awards for giving out money at a gala dinner during a “time of austerity”.

I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, the whole idea of awards for musicians has always seemed odd. You get an award every night when people clap after your songs. When you get paid for a gig or get a royalty cheque. People tell you how great you are in a way that most people never experience. People write about you, take your picture, treat you like you are special. There are rewards aplenty in the music world. Plus, awards in the music world rarely translate into anything else. No one seems to know or care who won an award a week after it is awarded. Awards are for things like sport, where the award is the whole reason for doing the sport. Music is not a sport and in that, I am in full agreement with Godspeed.

And also, it’s nice to see an artist who actually seems to believe in something other than fame and money. That’s the inspiring part of the story.

Here’s the part that bothers me. Many people complain about awards and award shows in the mainstream, awards that they believe most independent artists have little or no access to. Then an award appears that rewards musicians outside the mainstream and now even that is bad? The Polaris Prize recognizes artists for merit, as unquantifiable as that may be, instead of sales and good styling. The money in this award reminds me of the money paid out for literary awards. It has real value to the winner who is typically and gloriously underpaid.

I also have an issue with them taking the money. They say they are going to make a donation to buy instruments for inmates. Real humility would have had them accept the award graciously and then quietly hand the money over to charity. Some people say they should have taken themselves out of the mix once they had been nominated. Maybe they hoped they wouldn’t win and it would go away by itself. I might have thought that.

Now, a bunch of people now have to feel bad about something that would ordinarily make them feel good. The organizers, the board of directors, the judges and the sponsors of the award now are faced with the thought that they are doing something wrong by trying to celebrate excellence in alternative music. Even crapping on Toyota seems mean here. They, again, are putting their sponsorship dough into an event that many expect a big company would avoid. And on another day, they would be criticized for not sponsoring something like this. It’s like when people criticized Loblaws for their Green campaign as a for profit gimmick just as harshly as they would have been criticized for NOT being green. It’s like cool people will never give nerds a break no matter how hard the nerds might try to do the right thing.

Here’s the short of it. When people have something important to say about something, my visceral reaction is, who gives a shit. We live in a culture where everyone thinks they have something important to say and almost no one does. And talking about prize money during a time of austerity? If we want to get political and talk about real social change, what are the avenues for doing that? Is one of them pissing on some pretty well intentioned people who want to reward musicians who have done something cool? Really? I guess you use whatever platform is available to you and if you can influence your fans to think a certain way, then I guess you go for it. But you can do that through the things you control, like your music, your concerts, your website-your direct contact with your fans who sort of have a choice as to whether they are on a date with you or not. But that only works if those fans work for change in other ways, through changing mass public consciousness or through the political process.

Here’s what really happened. The 2013 Polaris Prize has been sullied without them having any say in it. They gave the award to Godspeed! because Godspeed! is awesome and now that was a big fucking mistake.

I really hate the music business.

Nov 22 2013

Lou Reed


The Chicago Sun Times headline was so perfect, Iconic Punk Poet Lou Reed Dead.

It’s weird to feel sad about the death of someone you don’t know. But Lou Reed passed a couple of weeks ago and I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. His music was so important to me at a critical time in my life that it’s kind of like losing a favorite uncle or a teacher who really helped you though a difficult time in your development.

I was in the studio when I heard and I quickly wrote posts for Twitter and facebook that were trite and goofy and embarrassing. So I’ll try again to write about Lou.

I was a bit too young to be there for the Velvet Underground though I caught up with them later. My introduction to Lou Reed was through Transformer and Berlin. I heard them somewhat simultaneously. This was a great time to be a fan of music because many artists were releasing material at a prolific rate.

In the first six years of his solo career he released 10 albums including two double albums. There didn’t seem to be the kind of handwringing about, as the joke goes, ‘where’s the fifth single?’ You went on a journey with your favorite artists where they programmed the GPS and you went where THEY took you. Sometimes it was a great destination and sometimes there were moments of boredom or misadventure, but that didn’t stop you from continuing on with them. There was always enough to keep you interested and the anticipation of what might be next was too alluring.

Transformer was so unbearably sexy. The vocal performance on Satellite of Love still kills me. It’s so confidant, giving the lyrics more meaning than they probably had. Perfect Day felt like a love song for people who were much more beautiful and special than me. Every song portrayed a world that was so far removed from my life in St. Albert, Alberta that it was like Lou was part of a different species of animal. It was glamourous but still intelligent and when you are talking about rock and roll, I’m not sure which is more important. It was New York but not typically American. This had more in common with European glam rock than say, Alice Cooper.

The follow-up, Berlin, was for me, even better. It portrayed a dark world that still contained a enticing sense of glamour. The title track is just majestic. Beautifully produced and arranged by Bob Ezrin, it introduces our anti-heroine immediately and without fanfare. Three piano chords and then, “When she walked on, down the street/she was like a child staring at her feet/But when she passed the bar/and heard the music play/She had to go in and sing/It had to be that way.” As the album begins, she is just a feckless and abusive girlfriend but by the end, she descends into despair and suicide, leaving behind her kids and a boyfriend with a conflicted sense of grief. Lou’s sophisticated pieces were beautifully orchestrated by Ezrin with all his usual tricks, boys choirs, strings, bells and sound effects.

Next came a live offering, Rock And Roll Animal. It featured the musicians from Berlin that would also accompany Alice Cooper. Ezrin’s guys, who gave a real rock and roll back drop to Lou’s cinematic material. Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter were the guitarists and they composed a terrific overture that lead into arguably the best version of Sweet Jane ever recorded. In this version those great chords were chunked out with real power. Lou attacked the vocal with muscle and venom, ‘they’ll tell you that life is just made out of dirt’, he snarls.

I’m going to skip ahead now to Take No Prisoners which followed the incredible Street Hassle. This is to personalize this discography. When I heard it, I realized, this is who I wanted to be. I had become fond of rattling off random stage patter as a young, live musician but here was a guy who could really do it. This is as much a comedy album as a piece of music and Lou spoke his way through Sweet Jane like a stand up. This album, along with Iggy Pop’s Metallic KO were the templates I used to overcome my shyness and create a persona though certainly nowhere near as fierce as those two guys.

After consuming Sally Can’t Dance, Street Hassle and Take No Prisoners, I stepped off Lou’s train for a bit. Took a quick trip with New Sensations that contained Lou’s ‘poppiest’ song, I Love You Suzanne. Then, in 1989, Lou released New York. Many artists make their big statement on their debut. There is a theory I have that you create your best music when you are without the distractions that success brings. One might think Lou had exhausted the topic of his native city but this was more like the final destination on a trip that started with Transformer, passed through Street Hassle and reached a conclusion with this extraordinary recording.

I saw Lou play only once, in 1987 (I think) at Canada’s Wonderland, not the ultimate venue for a Lou Reed show. Up to this point, I didn’t understand people who became emotional at concerts. But hearing the songs I had grown up with brought tears to my eyes for the first and only time at a rock concert.

I think back on the thousands of interviews I’ve done in my career most of which ask the same questions like, “who were your influences?” and I always said, “Lou Reed” among others. He was a true artist in a way that many of my heroes are and actually many aren’t. He stuck to his guns, he was always Lou Reed and never a parody of himself. He never talked about himself like he was some kind of hero the way many elder statesman of rock now do.

Lou, you changed the world with your music and also, you changed me with your music. And for that, I thank you.

Jul 27 2012

Why Do People Hate Country Music?


I’ve heard people say, “I like all kinds of music, with the exception of country.” Or, “I’d work in any style with the exception of country music”. Or, “There is great music in every musical genre with the exception of country music.”

Many people think that country music is the music of hayseeds, simple minded folk, right-wingers! My brother-in-law had a saying, (not sure if it was his saying or if he heard it somewhere but I heard it from him), that country music was, ‘music by losers, for losers, about losers.’ Funny for sure but pretty insulting, which of course is part of the humor.

An acquaintance of mine once said, “as soon as I hear a steel guitar, I tune out.” Which is to say that it is the sound of country instruments that turns him off. That’s understandable, I suppose. For me, that’s a big reason why I like country. I love the sound of a steel guitar or a beautifully bowed fiddle or the clear, ringing tone of a Telecaster. Sound is certainly a factor for people in determining the music they enjoy. Some people don’t like the aggressive sound of metal or Tom Waits voice or Steve Perry’s voice or a Celtic-style fiddle. As I’ve discussed in an earlier blog, music is largely sensual and some gals you find pretty and others you don’t.

But that argument might be too simplistic. Why don’t you like those sounds? A singers voice is one thing. My thought is, there are ideas about singing that are, for lack of a better word, generic. Which is to say, there is a sound of singing that most people can relate to and it is the natural sound of the majority of the singers of that culture. So, in Western culture, someone like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan or Tom Araya or others who have idiosyncratic vocal styles might find a chunk of the population can’t relate to them.

But an instrument in and of itself shouldn’t necessarily have a sound that provokes a negative reaction. It could be that the instrument represents something that the listener has already decided against. It may be that a steel guitar represents country music and that’s something a person already dislikes. That’s listening to music with prejudice, something else I’ve talked about.

There are people who dislike country music even though they haven’t really heard much of it. They couldn’t name you five country songs. They think they know how country music ‘goes’ based on hearing a a handful of snippets of country songs at various times in their lives. This is prejudice, pure and simple. Other people’s exposure to country music comes from television channels like CMT. That station plays almost exclusively something people call ‘New Country’, which isn’t particularly new as an idea or country as music. Or as Linda Richman would say, New Country is neither new or country-discuss.”

Contemporary country, which I believe is a more appropriate term, is largely pop music with country affectations. Those would be country instruments like steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins, clean, Fender guitars and vocals with a distinctive ‘twang’. It also has, for the most part, very narrowly focused lyrical perimeters. There are only certain things that one sings about in country music and there are several words that give away a song as country. (Pretty much every song ever recorded by Brooks and Dunn has the words honky tonk in it). Without those very important country ‘ingredients’, these songs would sound much like’80’s or ’90’s pop songs. Since most mainstream radio is dance and hip hop influenced, people who like songs might be forgiven for turning the dial to country stations to hear one.

But this country pop hybrid is nothing new. In fact, it is what built Nashville. Producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins had the idea in the 1950’s that if country music was ever to appeal to the masses and make some real money, it had to progress from hillbilly music like you’d hear from Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb to something that resembled the music one heard on mainstream radio. So Owen began recording lush productions for Patsy Cline, among many others and turned singers like Jim Reeves into crooners. This took country music out of the rural areas and into the suburbs and created a massive industry that still thrives in Tennessee.

I grew up hating country music. Partly because I was raised in Western Canada and I associated it with guys in shit kickers who would use them on wimpy kids like me. I also thought it was dumb, largely out of ignorance. And my Dad played country and he had dumped my family back when I was 7 years old to run off with an aspiring country singer. Neither of them ‘made it’, which is only a minor consolation to me.

Unlike some who came to country and western via country rock or alt country, I very suddenly began to appreciate traditional country after traveling to Nashville, where I listened to bar bands cranking out standards. I started to realize how important the song was in country, far more important than in most of the music I was listening to. And how great the musicianship was, again far superior to most musicians in pop and rock music which was beginning to be dominated by producers and technology. And how pretty it all sounded and how much I loved the infectious groove of country swing,

And I realized it’s not stupid. Well some of it is. Really stupid. But then so is most music. In the world of traditional country music, there is an incredible canon of beautifully crafted songs spanning the past 70+ years. For those who say weird things like, ‘I could write a country song”, well yes you could but it probably wouldn’t be very good by country standards. Try writing a country song then attempt to get it placed with a country artist. Then go buy a Lotto 6/49 ticket and tell me which one comes up first.

Good country songs have lyrics that sound like they’ve been labored over for months. Every line seems to be fraught with meaning. When I hear someone like Merle Haggard or George Jones singing, their words ring with authenticity.

I mentioned the musicianship earlier and that is undeniable. Some of the greatest musicians in the world are country musicians. This is a difference between country and other forms of contemporary music. You never hear crap musicians on country records. Some of the new, younger singers may not be as good as the old timers but, as simple as this music is, it takes an incredible amount of talent and feel to execute it properly.

At this juncture, I feel like I should make a point. I often end my blogs without making one. I guess that’s the difference between a blogger and a columnist. A columnist needs to make a point and a blogger just needs a computer and a big mouth. In general, I look at my blog posts more as food for thought than lectures. Perhaps to prove my point I’ll post a song by the great Merle Haggard. This is from a CD released in 2000 on the ANTI label, which many will be more familiar with as a punk label, called If Only I Could Fly. He recorded another CD for ANTI called Roots, which is largely a collection of Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams covers and is one of my 10 favorite albums of all time. Check out this song and I hope it will help you see the validity of country and western music.


Wishing All These Old Things Were New


Jul 8 2012

Why Why Can’t I by Liz Phair is a great production.

When Liz Phair released her self titled fourth CD with production by The Matrix, many jumped off her band wagon. The decision to use The Matrix was something of a catastrophic mistake by her label in terms of keeping Liz a viable artist into the future. For those of you who don’t know, The Matrix were the team that launched Avril Lavigne and several other teen singers into superstardom.

In Liz’s case, it was a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. She had spent many years cultivating a rabid cult following that now felt betrayed by what they saw as a sell out. Most people only heard the single, Why Can’t I, a pop masterpiece that really showcased what The Matrix could do if paired with a legitimate singer/songwriter. This production, in my humble opinion, is a home run and, in a fair and reasonable world, should have catapulted Liz into the stratosphere. Instead, it almost derailed her career. Understandably, I suppose but regrettably i believe.

Many see this as a big production but in actual fact, it’s just using a few elements to their maximum potential. The song begins with a seductive intro which, to these ears sounds like a distorted keyboard playing a pretty melody. Maybe it’s a guitar, who cares! The distortion in this case is not fuzzy like garage rock but instead, fuzzy like a warm, fuzzy teddy bear. The verse is just acoustic guitar, bass and drums and Liz singing a very melodic, uh, melody, with some of The Matrix’s patented radio voice call and answer. After four bars we get a new element which is a very discreet keyboard part. The pre chorus does exactly what a pre chorus is supposed to do, it helps the song climb into the chorus. The hi hat opens up, the vocal melody goes up in range, we get a more intense guitar part and there’s a short stop before we blast into the chorus.

The chorus is the main event. But it’s not like there are a ton of elements. It’s big for a few reasons. One, the vocal melody goes up again and the melody is, as the kids say, epic. The vocal is doubled and there are beautiful harmonies. There are low end-y distorted guitars that are giving the whole thing tons of weight. And that’s pretty much it. That’s how you create a gigantic chorus if you know what you are doing. No horn section or symphony orchestra or bells or whistles. Just meticulous use of what’s at your disposal. We finish by going into a re-intro with the warm fuzzy keys and the radio voice call and answer that was recycled from Hilary Duff’s So Yesterday, also a killer track.

The second verse goes down again in dynamics and we get some creative use of Liz’s vocals-using single tracks, double tracks and harmonies to make each line special.

That same philosophy guides the bridge. The producers use Liz as a call and answer with herself. It starts with an effected Liz paired with and octaved Liz. This is answered by a double Liz, one in each speaker. The last line has a dry Liz joining the effected one, which brings tons of intimacy to that last line, ‘baby I’m dying’.

Next we have a great dynamic shift that sports Liz singing the chorus with just a very nice sounding clean guitar. Clean guitars have not been a highlight of most pop or rock productions since the grunge era. Most clean guitars are just whatever the dudes amp sounds like when he clicks off all his pedals. This one feels like someone actually dialed it up to sound nice coming out of the amp. Then there is the unexpected re entry into the chorus, on the second beat of the bar, which creates lots of excitement and makes the chorus feel even bigger if such a thing is even possible.

This production is great because the producers took the time to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Everything is well thought out and the potential of each element was maximized. Why Can’t I also has a great lyric, a perfect pop melody with lots of sunny harmonies and absolutely amazing sounds. A technical and artistic masterpiece, in my opinion and something that should be listened to without prejudice.

Mar 2 2012

Just Who Is Being Dishonest?

Yesterday, I was snooping through the news feed on facebook when I read the status of a friend of mine which stated something along the lines of, “I hate it that people think they can steal music.” About a hundred or more comments followed, many, as is often the case on facebook, by the same three people waging an online argument on someone else’s page. With the public outcry over SOPA and PIPA, the internet has been overloaded with such arguments of late. Many posts key on one or the other side being, ‘dishonest’ in their positions or argument on the use of content on the Internet. For me, this is one of those arguments where it’s hard to figure out who is right. But it’s not hard to figure out who is full of crap.

People on the anti-downloading side are two types of people. First there are artists who often have little to fear from illegal downloading. Which is to say, most of the people who get ripped off on the internet tend to be really popular artists, ones that make a lot of money through legitimate sales of their music. But you rarely hear much from them. The folks I am talking about are usually artists that make their own music, don’t make any money doing it but feel they are making even LESS THAN NOTHING because of the wanton thievery that the Internet encourages.

The other type of regulate-the-interneters are people in the legitimate music and/or movie industry. These people are called, Rights Holders. There is a huge difference between a creator and a Rights Holder. Rights Holder’s are people that own copyrighted material, sometimes through creation but often through purchase,  contract, licensing or some other method. It’s these Rights Holders that are pissed off and are looking to control the way their property is being used. What is dishonest about their position is that they often invoke words like ‘creators’ and ‘artists’ when describing who kids are hurting when they listen to a song on youtube instead of heading to HMV to buy the CD. Let me be clear about something. No one at a record company gives a pony’s ass whether any creator, musician or writer, artist, whatever you want to call them makes a single penny. That’s really none of their business. That is neither a bad thing or a good thing, it’s an IS thing. Companies are beholden to their shareholders, they are not benevolent societies. They are in this business to make money, otherwise, they cannot exist. If they make more money and the artist makes less money, that’s a good thing in their world. That’s completely fine with me. Just don’t bullshit the public about what your true motives are.

In many instances, the rights holders claims are based on things that would make most fair people ponder. Disney makes movies based on stories in the public domain and then copyrights their new versions. Hundreds of blues and folk songs have been remade by rock bands who now have the copyright for those songs. A guy like Clyde Stubblefield who invented the drum beat for Funky Drummer, arguably the most sampled beat is history has never made a dime off of any of those uses. See, he is not the rights holder of that beat, the estate of James Brown and his record company are. No one gives a crap about Clyde Stubblefields rights as a creator. In this argument, he has no rights.

Furthermore, the music industry has taken great advantage of the internet when it has suited their purposes. They’ve pretty much given up on artist development, promotion and marketing since the bands can all do that themselves. Artists can shoot their own videos and upload them to Youtube, use facebook, Reverbnation, Soundcloud etc to spread the word about their band and their music. I often wonder if one of these draconian bills every passed would record companies hire back all the staff they laid off and start making 100.000 dollar videos again or would they say, “Oh, shit-we kind of had a good thing going there.”

In terms of the technologists, the other side in this argument, these people regularly show a complete and utter contempt for content providers. Their stance is that all writers, musicians, filmmakers etc should provide their content for free and the technologists and their websites should make all the money. These people feel that if someone interferes with them being able to make money off of free content that free speech is jeopardized.  (This is a complex argument, one for a lawyer not for someone like me). They also vilify the rights holders and say they are greedy and controlling when the fact is the technologists are worse. In their arrogance, what they don’t understand is that, without content, our computer screens are either blank, say ‘page not found’  or at best are sophisticated postal delivery systems. The world would turn to texting in order to communicate and the personal computer would go the way of the Betamax. There are probably 1000 people world-wide who give a crap about people who write code. There are billions of people who care about someone who writes a great song or great story or makes a hilarious video of their drunk Dad. THAT is the internet.

The saddest part of this debate is that it’s been going on for well over 10 years and we are no closer to a meaningful solution now than when Napster first appeared. I definitely don’t want to come off as some smug know it all because I really don’t know anything when it comes to this and i sure don’t have the answer. What I do know is that things can’t go back to the old rules and there certainly shouldn’t continue to be no rules. I do feel the terms of the debate need to change. Maybe we need someone more impartial to figure this out, someone who’s not directly connected to either camp. Who would that be?