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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.

 


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.