Apr 26 2016

I Don’t Have Anything Profound To Say About Prince Dying.

Not sure how I first found out about Prince. I might have been listening to The Black Experience In Sound, which was a radio show on the University of Alberta’s radio station, CJSR. I’ve recently discovered that the host of the show was Cadence Weapon’s dad. TPOH’s drummer, Dave Gilby sold me 1999 at the discount he got at the record store he worked at. I played the crap out of it. Not only the vinyl but taped it and listened to it on my oversized Walkman as I walked to and from my job at Tops Supermarket on Whyte Avenue.

At the time, I was getting into funk, hip hop and all the black music that was missing from the radio in my very white town. Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire were all great new secrets I’d recently discovered.

What was interesting about Prince though was that, like many fans, I didn’t necessary perceive it as ‘black music’. It was funk and pop and psychedelic and rock and soul. But more than that, it was driven by synthesizers and drum machines so it also had post new wave affectations. So while many compared him at the time to Sly Stone, (high praise), he was actually a lot more complex.

Then there was the musicianship. Prince was a multi-instrumentalist and producer just like two of my other heroes, Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder. Like them, he was a one man operation who wrote, arranged, produced and performed everything. He was a killer guitarist but it was his overall sound that really grabbed me. There was a unique idea of ambience on his tracks, using delay on his drum machines, the timbre of his synth patches-it was completely his.

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. 1999. It was the music, for sure. But just as importantly it was the lyrics. Their completely raw sexuality. Prince’s lyrics didn’t sound sleazy like those of a hair metal band.  Rock bands didn’t write songs like Little Red Corvette where the woman was sexually intimidating. 1999 sounded authentic, real-the kind of feelings a young man has when he is actually discovering sex, not just a rock star’s view of sex. Prince used the real terminology of sex, it was explicit, but 1999 was glamorous not dirty.

My next step was buying his self titled record and Controversy, which I may have bought on the same day. Controversy had two killer tracks, Private Joy, with it’s amazing harmonies and Jack U Off, a high octane jam that talked about getting the girl off. I also bought Vanity 6, a Prince written and produced project starring his girlfriend. Nasty Girl, off of that release, is quintessential Prince, if Prince was a woman. It’s one of his best grooves.

So it was in this completely besotted state that I walked into, (was it the Varscona or the Garneau) theatre to watch Purple Rain the first week it played in Edmonton. This was a real rock movie where a real rock star played a rock star. Melodramatic, corny and totally fucking awesome. I saw it twice more in the next 10 days. I remember being out with my girlfriend at the time’s family and completely ignoring them as I listened to the soundtrack on my Walkman. From then on, Prince became a real artist. Like Todd Rundgren and Lou Reed, he was a prolific songwriter who released an extraordinary volume of material. Like them, he followed his muse, some of his releases resonated with the marketplace and others didn’t and either way, it never seemed to matter to him. Prince was on his own path and you were welcome to follow him or not. But he never drank the Kool-Aid, he never tried to release Purple Rain 2 and none of his records ever sounded like he was pandering for success. He had the occasional hit, most notably Kiss off of Parade, (which had two amazing tracks, New Position and Girls and Boys) the soundtrack to his follow up film Under The Cherry Moon. Was Sign O’ The Times a hit? I remember getting a promo 12” of it when we were on the road somewhere in the States. It had the most infectious bass line almost an antidote to the bass-less When Doves Cry.

He didn’t labor over a record for 3 years to make the perfect, commercial product. A writer writes, a painter paints. A songwriter/musician/producer makes music. Will there be anyone like this again? Was Prince the last of a dying breed?

Living in Edmonton, there wasn’t much opportunity to see Prince live. My friend Alan Kellogg, through his job as a music writer for the Edmonton Journal was flown to Toronto to see him and i was green with envy. I moved to Toronto not long after but never saw Prince live. I became busy with my own music career and also, started to hate going to big shows in arenas.

Recently, he announced two nights of shows in Toronto, intimate performances with just him and a piano in a theatre. My friend Nick was lucky enough to have scored one of the very scarce pairs of tickets available. When his daughter couldn’t accompany him, he asked if I wanted to go. It was an amazing night. Prince just noodled at the piano, playing a bit of this hit, a bit of that one, some Bob Marley, an amazing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You. He still had all the swagger of his early days and the audience ate out of his hand. He strolled off and on the stage for encore after encore and I think we would have stayed all night. In the light of today’s events, I am extraordinarily grateful that I had the opportunity to see that show.

The Pursuit of Happiness would often cover When Doves Cry in our encore. When it came time to record two new tracks for a greatest hits CD, we decided it would be one of them. I don’t know if Prince ever heard it, probably not.

The news of him dying today was so shocking. There have been an unusual number of rock deaths lately, maybe a sign of the times? But there are people you don’t expect to die quite yet. One would have thought Prince would have continued to pound out material for the next 20 years, challenging himself and his audience. I don’t have anything profound to say about Prince dying. I can only speak about my experience with his music. There was a time in my life when his music dominated my life and transformed me as a writer. This is the great thing about being a fan. You fall in love with rock stars and their music and they give you joy. Who wants to die if it means you can’t listen to your favorite record anymore? You want to create great music because of the great music you just listened to. When I listened to 1999 or Purple Rain or Sign O’ The Times, it made me want to get on stage and do something even half as cool.

The loss I feel and the loss I’ve felt through this epidemic of death in music is (cliche alert) the loss of my youth. About how much music used to mean to me. I don’t worship artists like I used to. Sometimes when I listen to an old record I think of where I was and what I was doing when I really loved it. During the height of my love affair with Prince, my music career was just about to take off. The world was opening up to me.

But that doesn’t matter. What’s important today is to celebrate the lives of those who give us so much and to remember how important music is.

As a post script, since I wrote this and before I am posting this, a story. I was hired to DJ the Bloor Cinema’s showing of Purple Rain. I’d done this twice before over the past year and a half. The vibe in the theatre is always great for this movie, people often dance in the aisles to my set and cheer and sing along with the movie. It’s like a less showy Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was hired two months ago to do the gig. Then three days before the showing, Prince died. The advance tickets for the show very quickly sold out. They added a midnight show to accommodate the overflow.

I often DJ music movies at the Bloor and always take pains to not play songs by the actual artist featured in the movie. However, this was going to be different. I needed to do some kind of tribute to Prince which meant playing his music. It was hard to know what to play, and so I played a bunch of my favorite Prince songs. The only exception was that I played Sinead O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U because I thought people would want to hear that. I think I kind of bombed. Not sure what people were expecting, maybe not Delirious, Jack U Off and Dirty Mind? Maybe they wanted to hear Purple Rain tracks which I avoided, (obviously). Anyway, who cares. I was given an opportunity to pay my personal respect to Prince and I took it.

Prince. Thanks for the music and the inspiration. Your music will live on for generations to come, which is the great hope of every artist. But I hope your example of what an artist is will influence the next generation to not be such fame hungry pigs. I hope young people will go explore their muse, their creativity and we’ll get a new Prince.


Apr 4 2016

Bad Musician, Good Rock?

 

Recently, Keith Emerson, keyboardist for ’70’s prog rock pioneers Emerson,Lake and Palmer died. There was certainly no Bowie/Lemmy outpouring of grief over this particular rock passing. Two reasons, one Emerson wasn’t particularly relevant since the very early ’80’s when the style of music ELP created went out of style. It never really made much of a return so he’d been toiling in relative obscurity since then. And two, there is something off putting about progressive rock for many music fans. Which is to say, Keith Emerson wasn’t cool.

Progressive rock was music played by rock musicians that incorporated ideas of classical and jazz music in an attempt to make rock and pop a higher art form. It was in many ways a reaction against the hit single, AM radio and the simplicity of much of rock and pop music. This genre was over represented by British/European musicians if that matters.

The great writer, (check out his definitive Nirvana book, Come As You Are and also This Could Be Your Band), Michael Azzarad posted on Facebook something to the effect that he had a minor affinity for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s live record, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends but ultimately bands like ELP were what drove him to punk rock. I have to say, this mirrors my own experience right down to the actual album. It’s been well documented that punk rock and disco, (and later hip hop) were a reaction against what many felt was the pretentious, overwrought and unglamorous music that FM radio played. Songs were long with lots of instrumental soloing, and were either structurally complex or else more like jazz pieces where the theme would be introduced and then the soloists would take over until exhausted and the theme would be reintroduced at the end the song. This was especially apparent in live performances, I had a live Mountain record where their song Nantucket Sleighride took up two full sides.

There was also an idea of corporate rock. This was music that appeared to pander to corporate profit imperatives, music that was created to move massive amounts of units. Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and Peter Frampton created multi-platinum blockbusters that appeared to change record companies’ business models. As Todd Rundgren once put it, if one record can sell 10 million copies, why can’t all of them sell 10 million copies? The musician as artist was being replaced by the musician as a commodity, (though I may be overstating this-I’m sure many in the music business thought of musicians as commodities since the start of the recording era).

Punk rock sprang out of New York city with a big fuck that to both of these stimuli. Deconstructing rock and roll back to it’s origins as a simple music form that pretty much anyone could play, it also brought a snotty nose defiance and anger that really hadn’t surfaced in popular music maybe ever. Punk rock also brought fashion with it, something that had been lacking in all but glam rock in the post-hippy rock world.

Disco was the other side of the same coin. It was totally fashion oriented, bringing a new sense of excitement, glamour and romance to music. People could dress up, do their hair and go to a dance club to party and engage in the mating ritual. This again gave the middle finger to long haired, blue jean wearing, pot smoking players who soloed for hours in front of an audience who looked pretty much the same as their heroes. It is important to note that not all of these rock bands or even most of them, were progressive rock bands. However, with their pretentious classical leanings and their fairies and hobbits lyrics, prog rock bands were looked upon as the worst of the worst.

Long historical set up for this, apologies.

The whole reason for this piece is, why doesn’t Keith Emerson or his music matter to most people? Keith Emerson was an extraordinarily talented musician with a classical background who had clearly put in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. ELP were a trio of virtuosos (or at least two out of the three) as were the musicians in most prog rock bands. On the other hand, punk rockers needed only a rudimentary knowledge of their instrument. In fact, playing too well was often seen as a negative in punk circles, the Bad Brains notwithstanding. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols did not get the bass gig because of his chops, he replaced a much better player in the band. His fame was a result of his ability to inhabit the anti-social caricature of the punk rocker.

Since then, maybe before then but definitely since then, there has been an idea floating around popular music that there is something honorable or authentic about being a bit crappy. That if you play too well or sing too well or your song is too well written and catchy that you suck in some existential way. Looking at the history of rock and roll, there has always been an element of wildness, abandon and a theatrical not-giving-a-shit that really does define much of the more exciting music of the past 50 years. Starting with Jerry Lee Lewis banging and stomping on his piano to the MC5 and the New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges to the original punk bands from the ’70’s to Guided By Voices and (maybe) Pavement in the ’90’s, this idea of a general looseness to the performance is seen as high art to many music lovers. IT SHOULD BE NOTED HERE THAT THESE ARE SOME OF MY ALL TIME FAVORITE BANDS.

My problem is not with these bands as, see my capitals. My problem is with the idea that the art form that has dominated my life can be properly performed badly. No one says the same thing in the literary world, in film making or any other art form. This offends me. I would love to think that the greatest music was performed by the greatest musicians and was written by the greatest songwriters just like the greatest novels are written by the greatest writers.

Keith Emerson was certainly a great musician. He was also a pioneer in terms of his use of the synthesizer in a live context. His Moog part in Lucky Man was likely the first time many people had ever heard a synth on the radio or ever. Were he in another art form, he would likely have been revered, not just at the peak of his popularity but in perpetuity. However, for the last 40 years, he and his band were offensive to many, a joke to more and worse, uncool to most. Why, I need to ask? I am also asking myself this question. No one laughed harder at the CREEM Magazine review of their album Works, which had the headline, But Only As A Frisbee. I embraced the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash while discarding any affinity to ELP. Yes and even Van Halen, (temporarily). The only progressive rock I held onto was Utopia because, well, Todd Rundgren!!

This didn’t last too long. As I’ve written before, being narrow minded and snobby about music is pretty much the stupidest thing you can do. I snapped out of it. A couple of years ago, I actually impulse-bought the aformentioned, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, a 3CD live set that was the only recording of theirs I really liked. There is a killer version of their best piece, Karn Evil 9, First Impression. (Boy that title really brings back memories of why I stopped liking them).

Sometimes people will play me music that they’ve done or are working on and it’s dissonant and unmusical. I might point that out to them and they’ll say, “well that’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I like.” So you like shit, I think to myself? I think that’s it for me, people justifying their inadequacies. Maybe because they mistakenly believe they know something that others don’t. Or because someone else might have done something less than perfect in a perfect way before them. What that means is the bands I spoke about earlier in this piece may have not been perfect in terms of their virtuosity but the end result ended up being revelatory in terms of its artistic expression. But that’s them, it doesn’t give lesser artists the right to claim their own looseness is all that matters without the payoff of a song as original and culture changing as Blitzkrieg Bop or God Save The Queen or Search and Destroy or Bulldog Skin. I remember reading in, (again) CREEM Magazine, a writer complaining that the trouble with Bob Dylan is that he made people think they could write about nothing and it would seem meaningful. Which I took to say, you can do something in the style of someone else but without substance it remains, without substance.

Let me try this. Music may be more sensual than other types of art. Which is to say, it is not like a story or other narrative art. It enters your consciousness in a different way and makes you feel it, (or not) in your heart, mind and body. So you might like or not like a song based on your own predispositions of beauty. It’s much harder to articulate why you like a song than it is to say why you like a book or movie or play. You say, I like the Dolls because I like that they sound out of control and I like that feeling. Or I like Steve Aoki because all I want to do is dance. This helps me a bit because it means that it’s okay to like a recording of your grandma singing her favorite gospel song more than Steve Vai playing 10 notes a second for two minutes. Because one touches something inside of you and the other doesn’t.

This doesn’t negate my, relative, disappointment over the lack of respect so many hip music lovers gave Keith Emerson. Someone who is that talented and who was honestly attempting to push both musical and performance boundaries should be remembered only fondly. Even if you didn’t actually like his music.


Jan 9 2016

Stay With Me

 

A while back, I did a DJ set at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto ‘opening’ for the movie, A Poem Is A Naked Person. In my set, I played the Faces track, Stay With Me-probably their biggest hit. As always, I was amazed by the incredible energy of the track, it seemed to leap out of the speakers. To this day, it sounds as close to the essence of what I believe rock and roll is as I have ever heard.

Then I thought to myself, you never hear anything like this anymore. I’ve never heard a track with this much rock power in decades. And it made me kind of sad. I finished my set and sat down with a big bag of popcorn to watch the movie. The film was a documentary, mainly about Leon Russell who was a session musician, became part of Joe Cockers band and then became a headline performer himself. He released some pretty good records in the 70’s and had a hit single with a song called Tightrope. The film was directed by legendary documentarian, Les Blank. There was a quasi avant garde aspect to the movie as this was the ’70’s but, mostly, A Poem Is A Naked Person is live and studio footage of Leon Russell. The studio footage is the real prize here. In addition to Leon’s sessions, there is a great moment where the late, legendary country singer George Jones performs Tell Me with just a vocal and acoustic guitar. Beyond amazing.

The Leon Russell studio footage had a huge number of musicians all mic’d up and performing. The illusion, if it was an illusion, was that the entire track was going all at once, vocals and all.  This may have been staged or it may have been just the bed tracks and many of the parts were going to be overdubbed later. But judging by the leakage that would have occurred from all the open mics, especially vocal mics, I’m inclined to think that maybe this was how it was going down. Which is to say, live in the studio.

When I left the movie, I thought about what I had played and what I had seen. Stay With Me. What an amazing track. It was clearly recorded live with probably few overdubs. The Leon Russell studio session seemed to imply a similar process. And, appraising both things, I thought, what am I doing with my life? The music I produce appears to be perfect, everything is perfectly in tune and in time. This is what modern recording has become in the digital age. This has its own value. Back in the day, many musicians didn’t play on their own recordings. Studio musicians who could actually play would be on the recordings and and the band would be in the photos and the live shows. So what we do, in a way, serves the musicians we work with.

But that’s not even my point, that’s just existential pondering. The point is, why don’t we have music like Stay With Me by The Faces anymore. But the real question should be, why would we even want that? Do I need to hear the same song over and over? If some band came out sounding like Bill Haley and The Comets would I think, that’s awesome? Probably not. Music progresses, it moves forward and unless we are willing to move with it, we will just be grumpy old men and women stuck in another era.

I think what I may be wondering is, why don’t we have music like Stay With Me in terms of its power and excitement and relevance to a large group of the listening public? The issue here is, what are we settling for? Liking music because it’s ‘new’ or ‘modern’ is meaningless. Those terms have no musical value. While it may be true that we don’t need to hear the same song over and over, we do need to hear a good song. We do need music that is vital, exciting, beautiful and evokes an emotional and intellectual response.

We also have to decide whether things like great songwriting, great musicianship and great singing matter anymore. Most new music forms are technologically based. You can create a complete album of tracks without every playing a single note on an instrument. This has been true for some time but seems more commonplace and acceptable today. Any kid with a computer can download a recording program from the internet and after a relatively short learning curve, start creating music, even if that music only involves dragging and dropping pre recorded and pre written, packaged music samples.

In the ’80’s both hip hop and post-disco dance music came of age. In some ways, the music forms were similar in that they were electronically based and introduced the idea of the DJ as producer. But it many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Hip hop continued the funk and R&B traditions of American music while dance music went the way of European ideas of music birthed in part by disco producers like Georgio Morodor. Hip hop was sample based, DJ’s would sample parts of records and combine them to form a track. This was often an extremely painstaking and creative process. House music and it’s progeny was more about sequencing synthesizers, programming drum machines and creating a danceable groove that usually followed the four on the floor beat that defined disco. Hip hop music was ultra reliant on great lyrical content as the lyrics were spoken. Those lyrics often explored the African American experience, political ideas or, especially in the case of someone like Ice Cube, extraordinary story telling. Musically, the tracks often had incredible grooves sampled from the greatest drum beats in the history of recorded music. When a producer programmed his or her own drum beats, they still reflected that sense of groove, again referencing ideas of funk and other American forms of music.  Listen to the drum program in LL Cool J’s Kanday as a reference.

So while hip hop used technology to create an incredibly vital, meaningful and exciting art form, can we say the same for Electronic Dance Music? Is a form of music that is largely about the party and involves mostly computer science a lasting idea of music? This is a question, not a statement. The purpose of dance music has always, mainly, been about getting people to dance. That is the art of it so lyrics, vocal performance, creating emotional response are largely irrelevant. It’s almost completely hedonistic, which isn’t a bad thing. But does it have the indicators of great music that we are accustomed to? Having an intimate connection to the artist and the song, being moved or spoken to in a deep and lasting way so that the song becomes part of your personality-does dance music do this? If it doesn’t, does that matter? Have our priorities as a culture changed? Is EDM the perfect music for our disposable culture?

(It should be noted here that most popular music of the past wasn’t particularly deep. Even Stay With Me doesn’t have an extraordinarily meaningful lyrical message. Perhaps my attachment to it has more to do with my musical aesthetic? However, the conditions of most musical forms allow for more ponderous messages than we have seen in most post disco dance music. Maybe a revolution is coming?)

(It should also be noted that I am speaking, mainly, about current trends in EDM. House and techno music that originated in the late ’80’s in to the ’90’s had an extraordinary amount of creative energy attached to it. There was a purity about a music form that had almost no commercial potential in terms of the mainstream and was being created almost exclusively to get people to dance. However, is there a ‘song’ from that era that really stuck out and united the culture?)

This sounds like I’m dumping on EDM, which I don’t think I am. I am asking questions about the future of music and since EDM is a huge part of that future, how does it fit in with the traditional place music holds in our culture and, our souls? EDM currently dominates the commercial music world, with producers like Zedd, David Guretta, Avici, Calvin Harris all scoring top ten hits. Most of the other tracks you hear on hit radio have electronic or electronic dance music elements. So EDM’s relevance is undeniable, it is no longer a fringe music form.

So the new Faces is not The Sheepdogs or Monster Truck. Those bands, as great as they are, are retro bands, they invoke a time gone by. The new Faces are someone yet to be identified, at one time they were Public Enemy or NWA or maybe not.  I’m not talking about the next big thing, like Nirvana. I’m talking about someone who releases a track that pretty much anyone who listens to popular music would find pretty awesome. Because, for an entire generation and the echoes of that generation, that’s what Stay With Me was.

 

 


Aug 9 2015

Keith Richards Thinks Sgt. Peppers is Rubbish

I’ve linked to an Esquire interview with Keith Richards. Facebook was a flutter with a particular statement in it where he referred to The Beatles much celebrated album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band as “rubbish”. He suggests that there’s “not a lot of roots” to it, like that was a superlative? I saw this on someones feed who had a long string of comments. Feelings seemed to be mixed in terms of whether Keith was right or not. I made a brief comment like, “can’t see the point of him saying that,” or something to that effect. I realized I had much more to say.

Let me say right from the beginning that I am a huge Beatles fan. I am also a fan of many artists who were also big Beatles fans. I also like the Stones. and I am not here to bash the Rolling Stones. The Stones with Keith have had the longest career of any rock band and have released a crap load of amazing songs. Sgt. Peppers is not my favorite Beatles album. It’s great and an incredible achievement but I like most of their other releases better. However, it is the furthest thing from rubbish. In fact, Sgt. Peppers and the Beatles musical adventures of the ’60’s are why people still care about Keith Richards.

When rock and roll started it was, an extension of the blues, rockabilly and country music-12 bar derived, making use of the newly popular electric guitar. Coming along side this was emerging R&B and all of these music forms were what both The Beatles and Stones cut their teeth on, their roots. Though as British youth, their roots were even more varied. While the early Stones records reflected this southern American influence, the early Beatles records had more diverse musical concepts and were largely popular because of the, for lack of a better word, pop sound of many of their tunes.

So if one were to get snarky, the Stones built their success on the cultural appropriation of another country while the Beatles basically used their influences to create a new sound. So if Keith is challenging the Beatles authenticity, he’s barking up the wrong tree. (Though that is being snarky, I believe you should be able to perform any music that you feel inspired to perform).

The Beatles created this curry of pop, blues, rock and roll and R&B and kept pushing it with each release until it became something else less definable. They became so successful doing this that they began to lead the culture. And everyone else, including the Stones followed. Everyone’s music became more melodic, then more psychedelic, then more challenging, then experimental with regard to new recording techniques, all because the Beatles were doing it first. The Rolling Stones developed into pretty good songwriters and musicians and in fact created their own style as well. But had they not pushed themselves, or better yet, been pushed by the Beatles,The Rolling Stones could have gone the way of Bill Haley, or they could be like Sha Na Na, a traveling nostalgia show, playing three and four chord rock and roll for blue hairs.

Sgt. Peppers came after three increasingly experimental and challenging releases. Since the release of Rubber Soul, The Beatles had begun experimenting with sounds, recording techniques, new instruments, more complex song arrangements and less sunny and more thought provoking lyrics. This was also influencing another young man, Brian Wilson, who’s historic creation, Pet Sounds was the most daring pop/rock recording of its time. Upon hearing that, The Beatles realized they needed to up the anti and began work on their most experimental album. The idea was to do something completely different to push rock and roll into an even new frontiers. The fact that they were able to do this yet still create an immensely listenable record, with lovely melodies and interesting lyrics is an incredible achievement.

THERE IS NO BAND CURRENTLY THAT TAKES CHANCES LIKE THE BEATLES DID. NO CURRENT BAND DOMINATES POPULAR MUSIC THE WAY THE BEATLES DID.

Brief aside. Some people who hate the Beatles remind me of this guy who used to live on my street. He knew that I’d written a song called Gretzky Rocks. Whenever he saw me, he’d run up and say, “Gretzky sucks. He wasn’t any good. Not as good as Bobby Clarke.”  So Gretzky sucked at being, in hockey perspective, a thug, which is what Bobby Clarke was. What he was really saying is, “I hate people who are great, who are really good at something, because their specialness exposes in my own inadequacy. Their greatness makes me feel small so I will belittle them and their achievement so I can feel good about myself.”

The point here, if I haven’t already clearly made it is; Rock and roll survived as a music form because The Beatles pushed the (cliche alert) envelope with every release. Everyone else followed that example and rock and roll went from Rock Around The Clock to Strawberry Fields Forever, Tommy and Gimme Shelter. Dozens of other bands began to create amazing music and rock and roll splintered into many sub genres. It became the soundtrack of world youth culture and it made music the most important art form in our culture. Until recently. But that’s another blog.

I think it’s interesting that this is coming out now when Keith is promoting a new release. He may have said crazy stuff like this before and I just didn’t know about it before Facebook but my feeling is Keith is more media savvy than he’d probably like people to know. A statement like this could rally his troops and in a way, God Bless him for that. He comes off still a bit rebellious or least not an ass kisser. And that’s great. But he’s still wrong.


Aug 6 2015

The Mystique of the Rock Star

When I was a kid, rock stars were gods to me. Alice Cooper, Brian Wilson, The Who, Queen-they lived in almost another universe where I would never cross paths with them. I liked that-they were stars and I was a fan and that was mostly what made the relationship exciting. They were like the superheroes I read about in comics or watched on TV. Instead, I read about them in CREEM Magazine. If they were just like me, why would I care about them. The fact that they were extraordinary was what made the idea of being their fan logical. However, it wasn’t just big stars, anyone who was in a band lived a different existence than I did. I was not them.

This idea of the rock star as a celebrity lasted a long time. When the so-called grunge movement appeared in the early ’90’s there was a bit of a change in terms of the barrier between the artist and the fan. This happened as hair metal was reaching it’s climax as the dominant music form in popular music. (Hip hop was emerging as well but in a parallel stream and to a lesser extent). Hair metal was largely apolitical, sexist and consumer culture based and the stars were definitely rock stars who wore costumes not completely unlike the way super heroes wore costumes. When grunge hit, it came with more liberal political attitudes, egalitarianism and a more progressive attitude towards women. It also came with an idea of fashion and posturing that blurred the line between the musician and the fan. Artists dressed down, there was an idea that rock stars were jack asses and we are just like you except we are in the band. But that doesn’t necessarily make us any better than you. Some of this was from punk rock, which many feel grunge was just an extension of. But punk had a glamour to it. Though it was also political, I remember it being anti-establishment but also kind of nebulous in terms of social politics.

Years later, I was playing at the Edmonton Folk Festival, which is quite a marvelous event full of all kinds of music, not all of which is folk. A woman named Loreena McKennitt was performiing as well. She had amassed a fairly large fan base as an independent artist and made a ton of money selling her CD’s at the merch table. After her performances, she would towel off and make her way to where her CD’s and t-shirts were and sign CD’s for fans. Apparently, this boosted sales significantly, enough so that she was doing major label numbers as an indie. (I think, eventually, she ended up being distributed by a major, Warner I believe) At the time, I looked at it as a shrewd marketing strategy, I might have even been a bit suspicious of it.

With the rise of the internet, accessibility to ones fans reached an all new high. Sitting at the merch table, meeting every fan and signing every CD became commonplace. Fan clubs became more sophisticated and you could get access to material and other perks before the general public through mass emails that seemed like they were for you only. I heard The Barenaked Ladies used to call up their fans. You could read your heroes Tweets and see their candid photos on Facebook and Instagram. Record companies trimmed down their marketing and promotion teams as the artists could now do a lot of this themselves. (though honestly, very poorly).

Brief digression. I remember seeing Jane Siberry play sort of later in her career. She was doing a one-woman show that was lots of talking and some playing songs. At one point she declared, “I’m not like you,” or maybe, “you’re not like me.” I can’t think of why she would say something like that. She sounded like a total dick even though she was right. I think these things are best shown and not told. If it isn’t obvious that you are different from your fans, saying it will only make you look bad. And saying it will make you look bad even it it is obvious. No one needs their face rubbed in the fact that they are not particularly special. The fact that you are in some way better than your fans, this is an unspoken truth.

Okay, so anyone who read my last post will know how important I believe it is to be nice to your fans, to take them into consideration when planning your set list, even recording your music. However, as a fan, I also believe in the separation of fan and star. I think that mystique is what gives rock stars value. The idea that you are special is part of the reason why people pay money for your music and to see you perform. Otherwise, they’d just stay home and watch their mom play the guitar and sing for them. That specialness, the scarcity of talent and abilities is what makes the rock star valuable.

When I used to play, we would answer fan mail, that is tradition. We’d also let some fans backstage after the gig. That’s because we liked to party. But no one forced us to do this and no one expected us to do this. I should also say that I became friends with some of our fans. But that was natural, it’s like making friends at work. We also made sure that someone else set up and tore down our instruments. It seemed common that someone who had songs on the radio would shlep their own gear.

I love the Internet and I love YouTube and streaming and Soundcloud and a million other things about it. But I hate that it’s turned rock stars into crap eaters that kiss their fans asses. It’s undignified and unglamorous. I hate it that artists beg their fans on social media to come to their shows and “bring some friends”. I hate it that bands solicit their fans for money so they can make a new record. If you disagree then I pity you that you didn’t live in a time when rock stars were gods and goddesses. It was great. (though it doesn’t stop you from worshipping the Kardashians and the losers on Teen Mom or 19 and Counting). And maybe that’s why the Kardashians are so big, because they live in that other world that we have no access to. (Though why the Kardashians are famous is complex.) And I guess the really big stars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 are still untouchable. I guess what I’m talking about is an idea that is taking hold that being common is a way to build your career. That you have to make your fans one by one by being their friend and then when you get big enough, maybe you get to dump them. It’s just a way for record companies to get out of their responsibility to build your fan base and market and promote your record. But that’s less of a concern to me than kids growing up thinking that people who make music are no big deal. They are, people, they are.


Jul 15 2015

The Contract

Years back, The Pursuit of Happiness had just finished an album for our new record company, Mercury Records. The president and a few other soldiers decided to come up from New York to hear us play. We looked (and maybe they did too) at it almost like a showcase. But here’s the problem. We were opening for the Tragically Hip at the old Ontario Place in the round thingy. So there was 10,000 people at this, “showcase”. So what did we do? We opened with Hard To Laugh, played the whole new album, then ended with I’m An Adult Now. Must of been bewildering for the audience almost all of whom were very familiar with our band. Must have been bewildering for the Hip who probably thought we were going to entertain and ‘warm up’ the audience before their show.

This was totally unnecessary. I’m sure we could have gotten away with playing half the album, playing three or four more of our ‘hits’ and everyone there would have had a much better time. Or we could have scheduled a free show at a small club and let everyone coming know that they were only going to hear new material. There may have been some big fans that would have been excited to hear the new album and didn’t care that they weren’t going to hear Two Girls In One. Instead, in the words of Spinal Tap, we subjected a festival size audience with the equivalent of Jazz Odyssey.

When I released my solo album, Summer’s Over, I went out and played shows, just me and a guitar and, occasionally, a beat box. I thought, I’m not going to play any TPOH so everyone knows this is a solo show. What a stupid idea. People left, pissed off at me that I didn’t at least throw them a bone of She’s So Young or an acoustic version of Adult. I made zero fans this way and disappointed many people who paid good money to see me. I remember hearing one woman grumbling as she left, “he didn’t play any of his songs.” Of course I had, just not the ones she wanted to hear.

These examples show me how out of touch I was with being a fan. If any band pulled that on me, I’d been very mad at them.

When you have success as an artist, it’s like you have formed a partnership with your fans. It’s like a contract. You create beautiful music and they buy it. They pay money for tickets and you perform a concert for them. You say, I’m performing for an audience of 2000 tomorrow night. I’m performing FOR AN AUDIENCE of 2000 tomorrow night. That’s an important part of the statement.

Here’s some things artists do to break that contract.
1. They don’t play their ‘hits’. I’ve always wondered why a song is no longer any good once it becomes popular. You wrote the song, you liked it enough to record it. Then people liked it and helped make you famous, maybe even rich (ish). Then you resent the song that helped you quit your day job, allowed you to travel the country, the continent, the world. I can understand getting bored of playing the same songs over and over, every night. And some bands, like Elton John or U2 have so many hits over such a long period of time that it is impossible to play all of their hits. But the tunes that allow that concert to even happen need to be played so the people who spent money on tickets, parking, transit, beers, maybe even a babysitter can go home thinking you aren’t a dick.

2. They play their hit or hits but walk through them, letting the audience see what torture it is to play a song they themselves wrote and recorded and everyone loves. Again, what is the point of this? What do you want your audience to feel? Sorry for you? Ashamed that they like the great song you wrote? Some may. Many will think, ” the show was good but their version of HIT SONG was super lame. It was like, they didn’t even care about the audience. If I did my job that poorly I’d be fired.”

People often say this. “I make my music for myself. I don’t care if anyone else likes it.”

Cool attitude, dude. Here’s the problem with that.

If you want to make music in your basement, record it and listen to it while you take selfies, knock yourself out. You truly are making music for yourself and you really don’t have to care who likes it. I would greatly admire someone who did this. However, once you book a show or release music for the public to buy or even make it available on the web for perusal, you have brought other people into the mix. You are in essence saying, “listen to this and I hope you like it.” Better yet, “I hope you buy it, buy more tickets to future shows of mine.” You might even be saying, “buy my T-shirts, follow me on twitter, like my Facebook page and generally, stalk me on the internet.” You are not saying, “show up and boo, give me the finger, walk out saying “you suck”.” Post on my Facebook page that my music is a steaming pile of crap. Unless you are a sociopath.

Important to say here, just because you are interested in people enjoying your work, that doesn’t mean you have to pander to them. I never wrote a song for the expressed purpose of having a hit or getting a mass audience to like it. I always just wrote the best song that I could with the hope that other people would like the same things I like. I think writing a song with the idea that it will be a hit is a losing game. Writing a hit is almost impossible. So you’re better off writing something you think is great and hoping that others will notice it. At least that way, you’ve written a great song that you can be proud to perform. What I am talking about has more to do with your attitude towards people that you are hoping or even expecting to enjoy your art.

Which brings me to the point here. One of my pet peeves is exactly that, people who take their audience for granted. And also, people who take the fact that they get to make music for a living, even if it’s not their entire living, for granted. There are millions of people who would love to be able to sing and play for money, have people cheer for them and be able to stand on a stage and share their creative vision with others. So you are a lucky duck. And believe me, luck has a TON to do with you being able to do this. There is so much right-place-at-the-right-time, culture-swinging-your-way-or-against-you, fates that make some people stars and other, just as talented, people nobodies.

Sometimes you’ll hear an artist say, “I hate doing interviews.” You know what is worse than doing interviews? Not doing interviews. When no one wants to talk to you because no one cares about your music. So be grateful that there are people who want to hear what you have to say about your music. Every job is at points boring and exhilarating. Being an artist has many more moments of exhilaration than paving roads or cleaning office buildings.

To be clear once more, this doesn’t mean you have to be a kiss ass. No one even likes a kiss ass. You don’t need to be something that you are not, no great music happens that way. And it doesn’t mean, don’t play your new songs. Your new songs might be your future hits. And your fans most likely want to hear something new as well.

What this means is, be a decent human being, take your fans into consideration, have some gratitude for the good fortune that has befallen you and not thousands of other musicians who wish they were you. You may feel that breaking the contract means you are a REAL artist who follows his own road and caring about what your audience wants or thinks means you are a sell out. But it doesn’t mean either of those things. Breaking the contract and taking your luck for granted makes you a jerk. Disappointing your fans means you probably disappoint the other people in your life, your family, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your friends, (I’m sure I also did). And unless you are one of the extremely lucky few who have multiple decade careers, eventually this will all come to an end. And that’s no time to come to the realization of how great it is to have people love your music.

 


Jul 3 2015

Dead Heroes

Joni Mitchell’s health has been in the news off and on over the past couple of months. It’s a bit hard to get a straight story but it appears that all is not well with, arguably, the greatest female singer/songwriter of all time.

The past few years have seen a lot of my childhood musical heroes go to Rock and Roll Heaven. Many of my guitar influences, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Ronnie Montrose and some of my songwriting heroes most notably Lou Reed. If I live long enough, eventually Todd Rundgren, Marshall Crenshaw, Iggy Pop, the various Sex Pistols, Pete Townsend, Eric Carmen, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and the remaining Beatles will also leave this earth.

I was invited to an intimate performance by Joni at Much Music several years ago. Afterwards, I got her to sign my copy of Court and Spark. She did and when I looked into her eyes, they had that sparkle that I’ve seen in some other heroes of mine’s eyes that says, “I’m smarter and more talented than you.”

When Joni released Court and Spark she was without peer in terms of sheer intellectual power and adventurousness as a songwriter while still being incredibly musical and dare I say it, commercial. After purchasing the album, used, at The Wee Book Inn, I spent the next four or five months listening to it. Many point to Blue as a high point for Joni but although there is some fine songwriting there, especially River and Carey, I don’t think it shows Joni fully formed. In most ways, it sounded like any other female singer/songwriter albeit a very good one. Her next album, For The Roses, really identified her musically. Which is to say, it is the record that showed her as being unique, no one else could have made that record. In terms of musical structure and lyrical complexity it’s quite breathtaking. Joni was exploring open tunings on the guitar and coming up with some lovely chords. Those chords would find their way onto her piano keys and would help define her music for several years afterwards. What differentiated Court and Spark from For The Roses was it’s accessibility. I think there were three singles off of that record, Help Me, Raised On Robbery and Free Man In Paris. And they weren’t just singles, radio played the crap out of them. Structurally and melodically, the album was pretty easy to follow and sing along with. But the depth of the songs is incredible. The lyrics are cinematic and, as one tends to believe with Joni, jarringly personal. Some might quibble with what they perceive to be cliches, like “ and you could complete me, I’d complete you,” in the title track but honestly, I don’t think I’d ever heard that said before. Maybe she coined that cliche? The accessibility of the record was aided by the fact that it was her most produced effort to that point. LA session musicians fleshed out most of the songs, which made them more radio friendly. The next album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was more experimental. She may have flinched at being so popular with the masses and felt like she needed to show people that she was no sellout. Hejira was when she hooked up with Jaco Pastorius and started to shift into jazz, (though that was always in her music). At a point her releases became infrequent and eventually, she kind of went off the grid.

I’m stopping there because I don’t want this to turn into a discography review. I mention the other recordings only to set up Court and Spark and I’m only talking about Court and Spark because it was such a seminal album in my musical development. Music has been my life, my career and my meager living, so a record and an artist who helped get you there is important.

There is something strangely different about a hero who’s lived a life, maybe is long past their prime, dying compared to a rocker who dies young. I’m trying to figure out what or why that is. When Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain died, it was tragic, a loss of potential, like all young people’s deaths. When Lou Reed died, it was more like losing an uncle, someone who gave you wisdom as you were growing up, wisdom that stayed with you for the rest of your life.

The young dead heroes become myths. Movies are made, old recordings are found and released, conspiracies about their deaths are raised. They become the subject of a long but static conversation. In death, they lose their privacy, every detail of their life is uncovered by zealous fans who can’t let them rest in peace.

But the old dead heroes lived a life. Many of their fans forget about them or just ignore them most of the time. Their artistic output usually slows. Their place in the culture is often diminished. They may no longer have a major label deal and they are rarely in Rolling Stone magazine anymore. When they do re-enter the spotlight we decide whether we are interested or if we’d rather just throw on Transformer and revisit its greatness and/or nostalgia value. Some of these lives are a bit dark at the end. You hear of musicians who should be enjoying their retirement, out on the road to try to make ends meet. They should have been spared the indignity of waning audiences and shrinking guarantees.

Joni Mitchell isn’t going to make any more albums. Even if she did, I’m not sure I’d care. Which maybe sucks of me. Because she was there when I needed her. If she hadn’t made Court and Spark, I wouldn’t have written many of the songs I did or they would have been very different. I also would have had to listen to music that wasn’t as good as hers. We all need to be grateful to our influences and maybe pay more attention to them even after we are done being taught by them. Just like we need to call our uncles and aunts and even our parents more often to make sure they are okay as a thank you to them for all they did for us.

Easy to say, I guess. As much as we all hate to admit it, we are music consumers. Often, we like something, then we don’t like it or we don’t like it as much as this new thing we like. Or we like this one thing by an artist but nothing else by them. Sometimes we like something and later, we are ashamed we liked it. Like Peter, we deny our former gods. But mostly, they just outlive their usefulness to us. It’s a rare artist that can hit a home run every time at the plate or keep the high standards and vitality of their early work into their twilight years. So my plan is to take a good long listen to Joni’s last full length record, Shine, which I sadly admit, I haven’t heard a single note of.


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.