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.


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.