The Guitar

I’ve recently made an iTunes playlist called “The Guitar” which, funnily enough, features songs which have great guitar. Here it is, with some comments. I restricted myself to one song per artist.

“The Act We Act”, Sugar Copper Blue
Bob Mould has surely got one of the best guitar sounds in rock. Played loud front and centre, the guitar here is so deep and loud, yet melodic – it’s rock for sure, but nothing like metal. I imagine he (as former Husker Du frontman) was pissed off that Nevermind was so successful, and wanted to really show off his chops. Great job, Bob.

“Columbia”, Oasis Definitely Maybe
This is an amazing song, easily my favourite by Oasis. (There’s not really much competition). The snarling guitar sound is terrific, and the pulsing riff and circular guitar lead could just go on forever.

“Only Shallow”, My Bloody Valentine Loveless
An utterly explosive opener to MBV’s magnum opus. The contrast between the overdriven guitar and the trancey, dreamy verses is delicious.

“One”, Metallica …And Justice For All 
That machine gun bit is still fucking incredible.

“Bron-Yr-Aur”, Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti
Jimmy Page didn’t just do crushing riffs (see: “Immigrant Song”, “Heartbreaker”, “The Rover”), he is an amazing strummer. This accoustic worlout is from my favourite Zep album, Physical Graffiti, though Disc 2 (odds and ends) rather than Disc 1 (classics like “Custard Pie”, “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying”).

“Keep It In The Family”,  Anthrax Persistence of Time
Seven minutes of pure, focused, channelled aggression. The tightness of the riffing is amazing.

“Protest And Survive”, Discharge Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing 
I deliberately put this after Anthrax because I first heard of Discharge through Anthrax’s b-sides compilation Attack Of The Killer B’s, where they covered this song. I found this album at a record sale (just check the back cover!) and was blown away. The guitar sound is incredibly powerful, hugely overcharged without distorting.

“Wah-Wah”, George Harrison All Things Must Pass
In which George gets out his anger at The Beatles.

“Three Days”, Jane’s Addiction Ritual de lo Habitual 
I love multi-section epic type songs, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Paranoid Android”. This is a killer example, with outstanding guitar from Dave Navarro in numerous points – the guitar solo which brings in the instrumental section (from 4.43), the static riff generating enormous electric power and tension (from 7.08), the sitting-on-the-brink-of-nirvana chords (9.24)… One of the best rock songs ever.

“Friction”, Television Marquee Moon
Like all songs on Marquee Moon, this features exceptional interplay on the guitar.

“I Heard Her Call My Name”, The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat
Though Lou Reed invented lots of different aspects of punk/alternative guitar (static riffing, feedback, massive distortion), this is an example of his lead work. Overblown to the max!

“Satellite”, Sex Pistols Kiss This
Steve Jones is one fine rhythm guitarist. This was only a b-side (to “Holidays In The Sun”), but with its massive overdubbed guitars and Johnny Rotten throwing himself into the eye of the hurricane, it is a fan favourite.

“One In A Million”, Guns N’ Roses G N’ R Lies
GN’R at the Stones-iest. The fuzzy lead (by Izzy Stradlin) over accoustics is very reminiscent of Sticky Fingers-era Stones. Fucking brilliant. Ah, what could have been…

“I Found That Essence Rare”, Gang Of Four Entertainment!
Punk you don’t associate with rhythm, but Gang Of Four manage to be funky and punky. I don’t see that much of them in Franz Ferdinand, but they’re supposed to be a major influence. Gang Of Four stomp on them.

“Bed Crumbs”, Fudge Tunnel Hate Songs in E Minor
A forgotten gem of British metal, Hate Songs in E Minor has some massive, distorted, echoing guitars. “Bed Crumbs” has this, and a crushing riff… wow.

“Hangar 18”, Megadeth Rust in Peace
Dave Mustaine took great pride in being named the best metal guitarist in some book – it can appear odd to people outside the magic circle just how sensitive to critical attention artists can be. He found particular pride/glee in being named ahead of Kirk Hammet: I guess the scars remain. Anyway, the technical level on Megadeth’s best album Rust In Peace is astonishing. The best song “Hangar 18” showcases this: the shifts in time, the fury, the solos, the slashing riffs, the mounting climax… yup, Mustaine could play.

“Porch”, Pearl Jam Ten
Pearl Jam were a bit earnest and right-on in comparison to Nirvana’s headlong dive into the chaos of punk. They were the affirmative Clash to Nirvana’s nihilistic Sex Pistols. This song is one of the punkier in their debut, Ten (which is reverb-rich and soft-edged), and has this wonderful sense of mounting excitement

“Black Math”, White Stripes Elephant
See, I do like some music after 2000…! Jack White is obviously a great guitar player, with a primal, bluesy sound. I love the careening, free-wheeling vibe to this song.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks”, The Who Live At Leeds 
Goddamn. Just… goddamn.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
Is it just me or were the Stones only really good when Mick Taylor was in the band? Well, that and Beggars Banquet. This song has a ferocious fuzz guitar intro (by Keith Richards) and an outstanding solo by Taylor.

“Painkiller”, Judas Priest Painkiller
I can see the evolutionary importance of Judas Priest, in their twin-lead guitars and stripping-out of any blues influences (whereas Black Sabbath used to, you know, be a blues band). But apart from Stained Class, I don’t think their albums really that much cop. Painkiller was a roaring return to form after a pretty indifferent decade in the 1980s, featuring magnificently over-driven guitars and a solo that threatens to burst out through the musical score.

“Symptom Of The Universe”,  Black Sabbath Sabotage
In which Tony Iommi invents thrash metal, eight years before Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All.

“Atrocity Exhibition”, Joy Division Closer
Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), like other guitarists in bands with stand-out bass players, often used his for texture and commentary rather than melody. Here, he make teeth-grindlingly abrasive shards and yowls, over a lop-sided rhythm and bass played as lead. It’s a fascinating step-change from previous album Unknown Pleasures.

“Theresa’s Sound World”, Sonic Youth Dirty
I love how this modulates from arpeggios to a beautifully controlled rising-tension section, ebbing and flowing several times, before building to an ambiguous climax. Compared to the simple telelogical pleasures of rock music, with its massive resounding resolutions, this is pleasingly open-ended and enigmatic.

“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, The Smiths Strangeways, Here We Come
What I’ve previously called “the beautiful gossamer shimmer” of Johnny Marr’s guitar. Magnificent.

Song Oddity

Earlier I took a look at some albums which represented a curveball for the artists involved. But what about individual songs which vary from a customary repertoire? These are maybe more often found on b-sides or when a band does the “let it all hang out double album” (copyright: The Beatles). It must be odd being a musician when you get known for being a particular style and sound: if your fanbase does not want you to develop beyond that, it must be insanely frustrating. Rock and metal are particularly bad for this, having the most aggressively self-righteous of fans, but I’m sure it happens in other genres too.

1. Fatboy Slim, “Santa Cruz”

Though primarily known for his chirpy beaty tunes under the Fatboy Slim brand, Norman Cook’s music taste is enormously eclectic – he did after all go from The Housemartins to Beats International. This song was before the Fatboy Slim style set hard with his (enormously successful) second album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – the first, Better Living Through Chemistry is a more of a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds, from the funky “Everybody Needs A 303” through to the breakbeat workout “Punk To Funk“. My favourite, though, is “Santa Cruz”, which manages to be spacey and dreamy, and yet somehow mechanical and insistently rhythmical. It doesn’t so much conjure images of a physical location as make me think of loving machines, imaginative robots… nice!

2. Sonic Youth, “Nic Fit”

Sonic Youth were one of the John the Baptists to Nirvana’s Jesus H Christ. It must be odd, and kinda embarrassing, to have one of your juniors in a scene make it big with such cataclysmic success. Particularly if you are aching hipsters like Sonic Youth. The trouble with Sonic Youth (and bands like Mudhoney etc) was that to them (and to Nirvana to a large extent) punk was an elite thing, not the enraged voice of the kids, but a sneering at the populisms and massed exaltations of the music scene. Thus, things like melody and song structure were seen as being beneath them, as insufferable bones tossed to ravenous lowest-common-denominator audiences; thus, the contempt towards popular Seattle bands like Pearl Jam. This attitude is preposterous of course. What of a song like the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant“? Isn’t that pop?

Sonic Youth never could put together an album with catchy tunes: their astonishing sound and hipper-than-thou attitudes got them so far, but even their bold efforts like Daydream Nation and Goo lack hooks and, ultimately, memorability. Their post-Nevermind effort, Dirty, is a far more full-bodied effort (producer: Butch Vig) but while it has greater dynamics it still lacks decent riffs and hooks, the sort of thing Kurt Cobain could so easily turn out (if not without embarrassment). Dirty has one real oddity though, a cover of The Untouchables tune “Nic Fit”. It is the ultimate low-fi song I’ve ever heard, guitars sounding like the stings are so loose they are splayed all over the fretboard, and no discernible lyrics whatsoever. It makes such a great contrast to the guitary pyrotechnics of “Wish Fulfilment” and “100%” (not to mention the preachy “Youth Against Fascism” and “Swimsuit Issue“) that I absolutely love it.

3. Iron Maiden, “Strange World”

I prefer Maiden’s albums with Paul Di’Anno to the Bruce Dickinson glory years for a couple of reasons: they were punkier, more street-savage, and capture the excitement of a band discovering its potential, rather than the full muscle of a band in a successful groove. The epics, tedious Satanism and occasional proggy excesses of the Dickinson years were yet to come: this was Maiden, lean and fierce: a “prowler”, “running free”, a “drifter”, in “purgatory”.

“Strange World” is one their eponymous first album, and is one of two ballads (the other, “Remember Tomorrow” is also excellent). It sounds like a jam session going utterly right, and shows how exciting Maiden were in their early days, before they set like concrete.

4. Lou Reed, “Street Hassle”

Lou Reed practically invented alt-rock and punk rock , particularly on the guitar. His work throughout The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground bristles with invention and intelligence: from the static urban riffing of “I’m Waiting For The Man” to the chugga-chugga “Run Run Run” to the demonic “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the tender nobility of “I’m Set Free“. So it’s kinda funny that Reed’s greatest solo achievement, “Street Hassle”, features very little guitar. A dramatic poem in three parts, set over 1. an repeating string octet figure 2. gentle guitar interplay, then a fine bass solo  3. more strings, bass, guitars, and keyboard. Unusually, the guitars aren’t the focus of the song; it’s the lyrics and the voice (Bruce Springsteen gives a great spoken word piece – “tramps like us were born to pay” – in a nice meeting of the artistic patrons of New York and New Jersey). With its tender humanity, grief and sense of loss, “Street Hassle” is a million miles from the cartoonish image Reed presented in Transformer and Rock And Roll Animal. It is also a devastatingly effective piece of music.

5. Oasis, “Whatever”

God, I had such hope for Oasis in their early days. Definitely Maybe was a fine, punky, raw-edged album, with a terrific sense of melody. Songs like “Columbia” were a great reminder of the merits of the electric guitar. When “Whatever” came out, I thought, Wow! Here’s a band discovering colour and timbre and texture! The comparison with prime psychedelic-era Beatles was so obvious. I really thought Oasis were going to go on and produce something new and innovative. Then they came out with the “Roll With It” single, which was crushingly awful, and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which had none of the excitement or adventure of its predecessor. And then they got even worse after that, atrophying into the most lumpen council estate plodding rock. This is a coruscating reminder of a time when they seemed like they were going to be one of the best bands ever. Shame they were just content to be the biggest band in the world, for a moment.

6. Beastie Boys, “Song For Junior”

As the Beastie’s songs are a dense stew of styles, sounds and influences, (“a thick pop-culture gumbo where old school rap sat comfortably with soul-jazz, hardcore punk, white-trash metal, arena rock, Bob Dylan, bossa nova, spacy pop, and hard, dirty funk”, as the Allmusic review of Check Your Head memorably puts it), it is a little surprising to hear a whole song done straight up in bossa nova. The rhythm and style of this song is just great, a loving tribute. (They released another straight-up bossa nova tune on the Sounds Of Science compilation, “Twenty Questions” which is touching but less rhythmically pleasing).

Out The Ordinary

It’s often nice when a band does an album out of left-field. I seem to be in the minority in believing this, as these albums tend to get fans up in arms about “selling out” or some such fucking nonsense. This is especially true in metal, but generally observable throughout rock – rock fans being the most inanely conservative and tediously unadventurous of any genre (perhaps excepting the selfrighteous folkies screaming “Judas!” when Dylan went electric in 1965). I don’t, of course, mean when a band loses it and goes all crap – as can be seen when they only have one good album in them (Tricky, Oasis, The Cranberries). I mean when they are good and try something different, take some risks, branch out, have a bit of fun, stretch themselves. Here’s some examples of when artists try something different and pull it off.

Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline

Though I am not really a big Dylan fan (I mean, really, where’s the beef?), this is a beautifully done album. That near-yodel of a singing voice, coming from his normal acerbic nasal register, must have knocked lots of his fans for six. Then too, the lyrical content, far from the early political protest songs or the hipster-period cryptic allusions and wordplay (“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, indeed) is quiet, meditative tales of love and loss. The music of course is country, but in the folky, rural sense, not the absurd cheesy gash beloved of white trash around the world. (Trust me, I know). Though Dylan had to some extent prepared the ground with John Wesley Harding, that retained his familiar voice and harmonica. Nashville Skyline, with its steel guitars and cornpone twang, is something else altogether. I really like it.

U2, Achtung Baby/Zooropa

These albums have to be considered companion pieces, and were of course unified by the Zoo TV tour. There’s also the fact that both are only half-good, with noticeable declines in quality on side 2 in both. Achtung Baby is where U2 dropped the earnestness and the bombast and went post-modern: with magnificent Brian Eno production, it shakes their sound out from top to bottom, reconfiguring and reimagining it completely. (Remember, they had been critically slaughtered for the rootsy Rattle And Hum three years earlier). Opening with “Zoo Station” and its direct lift from Bowie’s Low tune “Sound and Vision”, it leads directly into the cool, hip “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the (now cliched, but still majestic) “One”. Superb triptych! With fluid rhythms and swirling neo-psychedlic guitars, the whole album mostly keeps to rock structures but is endlessly inventive with the sound. Zooropa on the other hand delves even further into dance music (“Lemon”, maybe my favourite U2 song ever), electronica (“Numb”, which is a kind of counterpoint to Tubular Bells, but contrasting the mush of modern consumerism where Oldfield found affirmation in musical layering), found sounds (the opening half of “Zooropa”, for which the album credits thank “the wold of advertising”, and the innocence of “Babyface”, four full years before Radiohead’s “No Surprises” – honestly, compare the two) and tops off the opening half with the heartbreaking “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”. Shame, then, that the second half is turgid. Apparently Zooropa was going to be an EP made during the Zoo TV tour: if they’d only taken the time to write a few more songs to knock off filler like “Some Days Are Better Than Other” and “Dirty Day”, it might have been an absolute monster of an album. The post-modernism of Achtung Baby is refined even further: where that album is most about relationships and loss, Zooropa is about the human condition in the late twentieth century. It’s a staggering achievement… for five songs out of ten. Still, at the time, I found it one of the most intellectually exciting albums I had ever heard.

REM – Monster

So the plan was REM were going to do a proper rock album and Nirvana, following up from Unplugged, were going to do something a bit more pastoral, like Automatic For The People. Well, that didn’t quite work out. Great idea though. REM still made their rock album in Monster, which comes across as a cathartic blurt after the pastoral Out Of Time and the sombre Automatic For The People. But rather than rock, REM “rock”. It always seems like a genre exercise, a self-conscious effort which never escapes inverted commas. This can best be seen in songs like “Crush With Eyeliner” (great video, too) and “Star 69”, which is about the first time the REM have done a song about sex and getting some. Self-conscious hipsters that REM are, they can’t really rock out like Nirvana would, or even as Pearl Jam did in their wilder moments like “Porch” or “Leash”. Monster therefore comes across as tongue in cheek, as a glam rock album akin to Mud or The Sweet rather than the alt rock sincerity of Seattle bands. But given REM’s need to catharsize and to slough off their earnest image, it all works rather well, if one-dimensionally. Still, the guitar sound in “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Let Me In”, and the tickled eroticism of “Tongue” and “Strange Currencies” are fine additions to REM’s palette.

Slayer, South of Heaven

Slayer’s early albums focus on speed and aggressive attack, like being slashed with a stanley knife. The ferocious riff that tears open the first track on their first album (“Evil Has No Boundaries” from Show No Mercy) shows this perfectly. Insanely fast, like Iron Maiden on demonic amphetamines, the riff explodes into the first verse with a shrieking scream from Tom Araya, before storming into the unsurpassable couplet “Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell / No-one can stop us tonight!” Hell yes! The second album Hell Awaits mixes it up a bit but the short savage blast of Reign In Blood cannot be beaten for speed and intensity. It’s insanely, demonically ferocious. Fortunately Slayer realised this and switched tack for the subsequent South of Heaven. With slower tempos, the music is now more full bodied, thicker, beefier. (This was three years before Metallica did something similar with Metalllica, AKA the Black Album). It was then a side of Slayer no-one had really heard before, but they do it really well, and in fact South of Heaven is my favourite Slayer album. The opening title track has a spooky, haunting opener and builds and builds in intensity; “Silent Scream” has terrific breakbeats from Dave Lombardo; “Behind The Crooked Cross” is a fascinating tale of a Nazi trapped “by a cause I once understood”; the ending of “Mandatory Suicide” is horrifying; the crunching ending of “Ghosts Of War” is fantastic; and the cold sparkling arpeggios which open “Spill The Blood” show the way to the next album’s “Seasons In The Abyss”, which would actually be an MTV hit (!). Far too few metal bands have a good grasp of dynamics, and are content to pound away without variation in tempo or intensity, making it far too homogenous. In South of Heaven, Slayer show their master of both.

Talking Heads, Remain In Light

Starting out as a nervy CBGBs/new wave band, Remain In Light is a real leap. It showcases the band trying out polyrhythms and jungle funk, and is marvellously produced with liquid fluidity by Brian Eno. The centrepiece is “Once In A Lifetime”, which everyone should know by now, but there’s lots of killer tunes, such as “Born Under Punches”, “The Great Curve” and (my favourite) “Seen And Not Seen”. David Byrne, man, is a goddamn genius. This is a terrific example of a band developing their sound while staying true to their aesthetic. Some bands change their approach and with it what seems to be their entire guiding principles – for example Suede after the aching romantic heartache of Dogmanstar shed the angst to become upbeat glamsters on Coming Up and subsequent albums. Which might be alright as an album, but like… what happened to the band I used to like? (See also Poison, chasing their tales in an attempt to gain critical favour with posturing bluesy albums like Native Tongue). Talking Heads here show how to do it, with this exceptional album.

Overrated Albums

Knobheads

I can’t be bothered reading the music press any more. Partly this is an age thing: the new music magazines tend to cleave either to the kids, who are looking for something to call their own, or hipsters who seek out the obscure, while the “classicists”, like Q and Mojo etc, endlessly venerate the middle of the rock, the tried and true. This is all very well when it comes to the Classic Rock Canon. The trouble is when they prattle on about tepid shite like David Grey or Springsteen or Coldplay or the endless would-be Joni Mitchells: derivative nothingness that ekes out a living in the slipstream of really creative musicians. How I utterly loathe and detest lack of imagination in music! And how common it is. So easy to follow whatever trend, whatever genre, whatever production formulas and fads.

Both types of writing, more specifically, endlessly irritate with their attempts to hitch whatever releases to the zeitgeist. It must be every music journalists’ dream to the next Geoff Barton, he of Sounds who popularised the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (aka the NWOBHM, which so inspired Metallica). This leads to absurd drivel trying to read more into music than is there. I remember some ridiculous twat saying how Bloc Party were “scarily prescient” with an album or single called Tsunami, just before the 2004 disaster. I mean, that is low. Or how The Strokes apparently inaugurated a CBGBs/lower-East Side revival, when they really were nothing like punk forebears like Television or The Ramones or Blondie etc, and were actually embarrassed by such comparisons.

This is the trouble: at times, media and fashion trends will dictate the “need” for a certain type of band, and if there isn’t one to hand, well, they’ll try to shoehorn one in. Thus, Suede “inaugurated” Britpop, despite Brett Anderson’s contempt for its parochiality and jingoism. The Almighty, older metalheads may remember, were to be the Great British Metal Hope of the early 1990s, were it not for the fact that they sucked ass, and were really a punk band in it for the money. Iron Maiden, going even further back, originally had a distinctly punky edge and had to turn down record label request to cut their hair to fit in with the by-then goonish punk style. (Their first album, with its street-level aggression, budding ambition (see “Phantom of The Opera” – check this video of Paul Dianno-era Maiden live at the Rainbow – thought its telling that the best part is the instrumental section) raw charm, and lack of filler (always a Maiden problem) remains my favourite). This kind of fashion-led music journalism is a joke, never conveying the merits of an album nor contextualising what the artist(s) are doing musically. It leads to albums which might be flavour of the month but which is actually vastly overpraised. Here’s some I think never lived up to the hype.

Blur – Parklife

It is a clever album, sure. At a time when British music was looking westwards to grunge, dance or hip-hop, this was a bold proclamation of British cultural tropes and memes. The trouble was, it was so fucking arch, so sneeringly ironic, that a good half of the album comes over as callow posturing. Case in point: “Parklife”, a song I have always detested. Song for song, it starts very well – “Girls And Boys”, “Tracy Jacks” and “End Of Century” are a fine 1-2-3 (though not as good as “Tender”, “Bugman” and “Coffee and TV” from 13), but gor blimely guvnor, if the second half ain’t filled with oh-so-satirical portraits of working class life and Londonisms and all that guff.

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express

OK, this will be controversial. Trans Europe Express is a mighty fucking fine album, and songs like “Europe Endless”, “Metal On Metal” and the title track are indisputable classics. Trouble is… “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Show Room Dummies” both leave me cold. When you compare that to their other great albums, that’s an unusually high dud ratio (The Man Machine: no duds; Computer World: no duds; Radio Activity: no duds). I just find it a bit weird that TEE is always cited as the Kraftwerk album to listen to, the one that makes all the Best Of polls. I’d put The Man Machine first as their best, most consistent, most Kraftwerkian – and then Computer World.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

I don’t quite get why this one is so critically lauded. It seems to me like a bunch of samples of good songs thrown together. Might have been a relatively new idea at the time, but hey, if you sample a lot of good songs, you can’t really go wrong. The range is nice, but… unless you’re really doing something new and imaginative with them, not just rapping over them, it’s not much of a stretch. I FAR prefer the subsequent Check Your Head, which is an even denser stew of samples and excellent rootsy live instrumentation. I love that warm fuzzy bass sound they have, and the richness and range of the styles of music. In comparison Paul’s Boutique is a series of clever backdrops to the Beasties’ rhyming – alright, but not, I’d say, what they do best. (The Check Your Head follow-up and partner-piece Ill Communication is perhaps even better, if less original).

Daft Punk – Discovery

As much as I loved Homework, I loathed Discovery. “One More Time” – what an appalling song! When I briefly worked in Edinburgh, it was on high-rotation on Radio 1 – must have been something like once an hour. No wonder songs no longer rise on the charts when they get flogged to death like that. This is not to say I dislike house-style electronica – I like the stuff the DP duo did in between Homework and Discovery, especially “Music Sounds Better With You” (lovely video) but also (even!) “Gym Tonic“. It’s just that the housey/R&B stylee of Discovery discards everything I’d liked about Daft Punk – the abrasive rhythms, the abandon, the intensity – in exchange for pretty mediocre pop/disco tunes. Meh.

Others:

Definitely Maybe is infinitely superior to What’s The Story Morning Glory?, even considering Wonderwall.

Music For the Jilted Generation is faaaar better than The Fat Of The Land.

Animals is better than both Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of The Moon.

Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All are ALL greatly superior to the Black Album.

Miles Smiles, In A Silent Way and Jack Johnson are all better than Bitches Brew.

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

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To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

Radiohead: An Evaluation

Radiohead

Radiohead are the rock band which is now most critically esteemed and popular, the one considered to have a solid body of work and to have innovated new trends, rather as Pink Floyd did in the 1970s or, say, REM did in the 80s. None of their “britpop” contemporaries are any longer worthy of attention, even if together, while post-millennial rock has often been noted for its lack of ambition and – let’s not beat about the bush – crushing lack of talent. While Blur, Oasis and Pulp managed to string one or two decent/good albums together, band like The Killers or The Libertines barely even managed that. So now Radiohead are the elder statesmen, the grand dames of alternative rock. Lauded for their triple-guitar sonic assault in The Bends, hyped to the nines for the innovative OK Computer, and considered “brave” for their Warp Records-inspired Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have been the quality album rock band to beat.

Trouble is – a disturbingly high proportion of their songs are simply not very good. They do have numerous absolute beasts of songs, tunes which not only sound great but which expand or redefine what a rock song can do – the true sign of greatness. But a disturbing high proportion of songs on all of their albums verge between filler and utter meaninglessness. Nietzsche says somewhere that poetry’s arguments are always inferior to philosophy because poetry’s ideas are carried along by their rhythm. The same might be said about music – sustained by rhythm alone, songs which articulate nothing plod on through their structural frame. I would argue that there are some Radiohead songs like that. (Filler, on the other hand, can just be songs which aren’t up to much, but sometimes these have a certain charm. Iron Maiden were another band which always struggled to do a consistent good album, but some of their album filler like the instrumental “Los’fer Words (Big Orra)” is quite fun. It must be really bloody hard to put together an album every two years when you tour like the Irons.)

Maybe I can grade Radiohead’s songs by their success.

GENIUS

You should know these by now. “Fade Out (Street Spirit)”, with its beautiful video. The warped majesty of “Paranoid Android”. The magnificent bad-acid jazz of “The National Anthem”. “Creep”, millstone though it became. “My Iron Lung”. “Karma Police” and its painful singalong coda. I have a particularly strong admiration for “The National Anthem” which is unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord… oh boy. A ferociously articulate song.

GOOD

This sub-strata includes songs which say something clearly and successfully – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Knives Out”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “Morning Bell” (both versions), “High And Dry”, “Fitter Happier”, “Pyramid Song”, “Everything In It’s Right Place”… Got something to say and say it. They don’t stretch the boundaries like the ones listed above, but they make their point.

MEH

Now we’re on the songs that just exist. This does not necessarily refer to Radiohead’s more experimental or abstract songs (which by definition do not have the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure). I mean that they do not articulate anything, lack any kind of point. One of the worst offenders is “Black Star” – although it goes through the motions of appearing heartfelt and such, it just feels utterly bland. Rock to be anything has to be transgressive; “Black Star” is Radiohead by numbers. Other crapola includes the last two songs on OK Computer, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. While the second side (that’s the latter part of the album, you youngsters) is definitely inferior to the first, these two are so pallid and banal that they dispel the cumulative atmosphere of the entire album! I always always skip them. On the other hand, “Hunting Bears” sounds like Johnny Greenwood doing some guitar scales. What the fuck is the point of that? I can dig “Treefingers” lack of melody or rhythm because of its atmospherics (it’s not too far from Aphex Twin’s magnificently synaesthetic “Select Ambient Works”. But “Hunting Bears” is nothing. And I almost always feel that Radiohead’s adoption of skittery breakbeats adds nothing to their music… And Pablo Honey is almost entire snooze-a-thon.

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For such a critically lauded band, I think it’s interesting that there’s little mention of Radiohead’s significant lacuna in some songs. Hardly anybody even expects a fully satisfying album anymore, content as they are to buy individual tracks from iTunes, or just to download the whole fucking lot then make your own playlist.  But as a devoted album listener, I would just like to point out that about one third of their songs are, as Sick Boy said, “just… shite”.

Guitar Solos

Listening to my iPod on the way to work every day, I tend to go for more energetic music: mostly hard rock and metal. And consequently, I have been considering what makes a great guitar solo. (This is the kind of thing that goes through my head, I’m afraid – it’s a burden). Structurally, the solo in rock music is different from that in jazz. In rock, the solo often goes after the bridge, before the final chorus, or verse/chorus. (Not always, of course – it used to irritate me, for example, that Oasis’ “Live Forever” has the solo after the first verse, but now I see the point of setting out a bold statement so early in the song), while in jazz the solos are what is being “sung” in each “verse” (or in jazz terms the chorus).

The trouble I often find with guitar solos is that too many of them are generic, perhaps astonishing you with their vigour and intensity, but rarely do they add to the narrative of the song.  A good solo is usually a restatement of the themes or ideas of the song in “pure”, unrestrained fashion, outside the confines of the riff and chorus, but the truly great ones add to the meaning of the overall song. So, then, let’s look at examples of all three.

Generic Solos

I think Lou Reed is the most important American rock musician ever. Really! Trouble is, as good a guitarist as he is, he’s often a poor soloist. They meander here and there without making much of a statement, or, indeed, impression. Check out the solo in “Run Run Run”… great riff, crap solo.  He would go on and get better – the soloing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” is just demented (though still quite directionless), but he’s essentially a rhythm guitar player. (It’s notable that his best work has been with great guitar players like Robert Quine and Mick Ronson, as well as Sterling Morrison, of course).

Punk was so aggressively back-to-basics, reacting against the wanky instrumental pyrotechnics of “dinosaur rock” that being “flash” with guitar solos was actively discouraged. (See the essential anti-solo in The Buzzcock’s “Boredom” and the self-mocking “GUITAR HERO” on Steve Jones’ amp). Punk is therefore filled with example of merely adequate solos, and songs without solos at all. Brian James of The Damned (well, their first two albums) repeatedly riffs where the solo would normally be on Damned! Damned! Damned!here’s a good example.  The Adicts, in their fun song “Chinese Takeaway” show how a basic riff can make a good song, if performed with irrepressible relish, but there’s nothing to the solo at all. Steve Jones has excellent delivery (he must have incredibly strong fingers), but solos in “God Save The Queen” and “Satellite”, for example, are nothing special in comparison to his great riffs and Rotten’s electrifying voice.

Good Solos

As I said above, I think good solos restates themes or ideas of the song. The best example of this is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, where instead of shredding the fretboard, Kurt Cobain simply plays the melody. This isn’t just laziness: it’s lean and concise, increasing the intensity of the song. Similarly, here’s AC/DC with the live version of “Whole Lotta Rosie”: god, that riff is fantastic, but while the solo brilliantly gives the feel of the song, it doesn’t add to its meaning. You see what I mean? Metal bands often feature riff-shredding solos, and while these can be enjoyed for themselves – if you like that sort of thing; I personally think they’re fairly self-indulgent: virtuosity means nothing to me. For great guitar solos, you need something more.

Great Solos

As said above, I believe that great solos add to the meaning of the song; they add to the overall narrative of the piece. Perhaps the best metal solos come in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” – the first solo (starting at 3.35) gives a sense of the bliss and peace of the drug addict. Beautifully and skillfully, this modulates to an ominous, immensely powerful central section (“Master, master, where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”), with the bass-heavy, dark riffing giving the sense of abasement to some almost-Lovecraftian greater power . This clearly suggests drug bliss and drug withdrawal. Another brilliant example is in the Velvet Underground’s incomparable “Sister Ray”, the most ferociously dissonant song ever recorded. John Cale’s keyboard solo (starting from 3.53), where he takes on Lou Reed’s guitar and wins in an exultant example of pure volume and power (at 6.24), is just astonishing. Joy Division, no strangers to dissonance or atonality themselves, could not capture half of this power in their cover of the song. Slayer’s screamingly-intense solos (performed both by Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) in “Angel Of Death” capture the insanity of Auschwitz in a way that no riff ever could.

Good soloing is not exclusive to metal, of course: Johnny Marr was probably the most influential British guitarist of the 1980s, with good reason. Check out the beautiful gossamer shimmer of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”: not only does it create a vivid atmosphere, they give a sense of yearning beauty that Morrissey’s tongue-in-cheek lyric fails to capture. The vibrato-rich, glossy black solo by Bernard Butler in Suede’s “The Asphalt World” similarly creates a world of epic longing and tortured poetry which redouble the effect of verses, which verge on the absurd. (Butler wanted the song (and solo) to be longer – I often think he was right. Structurally, the song is similar to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” – itself over 17 minutes). And how about the solo in Television’s “Marquee Moon”? Just savour the guitar interplay.

These are, of course, just a few examples of songs which I think have great guitar solos. What about you, what would you nominate?