Saturday, August 15, 2009

Top 5 Punky guys.

OK, we now know what I think of Bill Waterson's punky credentials, what were these other top-five embodiment-of punk-as-a-concept people I was talking about? Well, I have a list, it's pretty predictable actually, as long as you don't limit punk rock to music.

Ready? Here goes: 5. William Burrroughs
4. Bob Dylan
3. Joey Ramone
2. Bill Watterson
1. Joe Strummer

Each of these guys embody some sort of punk principle that fits into my definition of what punk is (or at least was meant to be). Let's examine, hmm?

OK, Bill Burroughs is here because he embodies the idea of being an outsider (I'm sure he's in at least the rough draft of "Rock'n'Roll Nigger"). I suppose it's an old artistic notion that to really be an "Artist" - yes capital "a" - you need to be an outsider, always viewing and considering on accepted mores and structures and values of whatever period of time you happen to be in. But almost having the Federal Government ban a book of yours simply on the basis of it being "obscene" is going a touch far eh? William takes number five with the weight of a Supreme Court ruling.
Mr. Bob Zimmerman-the-former finds himself in my musical thoughts often, but he's most often overlooked when it comes to his indirect influence on punk. Dylan takes the idea of emotion over professionalism, and makes it breath. The way Dylan sang opened popular music up for all sorts of "unprofessional" singers - punks, garage bands, metal shriekers.... none could have had a chance at an open market without his unpolished and creaking voice hitting the airwaves. His recording style even more so: one to three takes, completely live in the studio (whether solo or with band) warts-and-all. His spontaneity has allowed him to capture almost the inspiration behind the song itself, recordings so fresh and emotional that contrivance seems impossible. Would that every punk band could manage that (often it's just an excuse to be sloppy or lazy). Dylan warbles his wobbly way to number four.

Three is our good friend Joey Ramone. Embodiment of community, the Ramones were the most accepting-sounding of all bands, letting all the leetle chillen live in their punk tent, giving the sense of both spreading a gospel and letting everyone feel welcome.... no matter how much of a pinhead you might be. Joey's gangly demeanor, his goofy (but surprisingly rich) singing voice, and yes, those biker-boy leather jackets he wore along with the rest of his band made joining a street gang armed with guitars seem natural. Natural to God-only-knows how many future musicians who saw them. Joey jumps in at number three.

Now, if I didn't make it clear enough before, Bill Watterson makes the list based on his purity and authenticity. No amount of money was worth cheapening his work or compromising it. I've said plenty about Bill before, so let's just say he's number two and get to:

Number one. Mr. Joe Strummer. Strummer is number one partly because he has all the values of the above, but even more because he did one thing better than anyone. Righteous anger.

Now, you may say that's not really a virtue, but a big part of bringing all these punk values into focus is giving it a voice that's capable of communicating them without spelling it all out. And for a voice to do that in this context it requires an anger that's not forced or overly sarcastic, pedantic, or melodramatic.

Joe Strummer sounded like a crazy man on the street corner, trying to get everyone's attention because he thought the end of the world was coming. He was crazed and desperate even when he was being funny. He sounded like the everyman, yes, but also like himself (punk don't mean nothin' without pers'nality), and nails the number one spot by being in the back of your house at night while living by the river, and capturing all that it means to live and die (honestly - no fucking overdose) by punk. Stay angry wherever you are, Joe.

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on ebay.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bill Watterson - Punk Rocker?

I was thinking of those lists that many people make, y'know the ones designed to piss you off, or commemorate something only the list writer is paying attention to, and I was thinking of what I'd have for the top five (ambitious, ain't I?) punk rockers of all time. And I realized that most of the people I consider inhabiting the spirit of punk are not, technically, punk rockers. Two of them aren't even musicians. One of them, in fact, drew comic strips.

Bill Watterson is the author/creator of Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip that many would argue was the best the medium ever had. Obviously, he wouldn't rate so high in my thoughts if I didn't think the same thing, but it's not for his main character's accidental anarchy so much as for the author's own attitude for how his work is presented that he's on my list.

I guess the Clash were the first to make purity and non-commercialism punk ideals, but even then these were hand-me-down values from the folk music movement of the sixties. And many punks and folkies were shouldering the cross of non-commercialism either out of peer pressure or, worse, because they thought it might make them more commercially popular. Their pretensions rarely kept the music honest and often was used as an excuse for sloppiness in writing/performing. Hence the anti-market antimatter was a self-defeating piece of ammunition in both the folkies' quiver and the punks' ammo clip. So what's all this have to do with stuffed tigers?

Bill Watterson fought tooth and retractable nail with his syndicate about the licensing rights to Calvin and Hobbes; them wanting to get Bill's characters on coffee cups, calendars and t-shirts and he not. They cajoled, threatened and waved the contract he signed with them when he was young and desperate (blatantly giving them the right to "exploit" Calvin and Hobbes in the market) in front of his nose. And Bill still was stubborn enough to stymie their efforts to give him millions of dollars. Good for him.

Mild sarcasm aside, what Bill did made most of the people in his particular industry think he's crazy. No-one cared if Charlie Brown was on a coffee mug, or the Far Side told you the date at the doctor's office. But think about it now. Charlie Brown, once the relatable hero of the downtrodden, is a cliche. Garfield went from being interesting to being intolerable. The Far Side, the most durable comic on this list, found it's brilliant commentary on the absurdity of life appear dumbed-down and mean-spirited when taken out of the context it was meant to exist in. Calvin and Hobbes, on the other hand, still retains every carefully crafted inkdrop of its power and innocence.

Don't believe me? Look at this cartoonists representation of Calvin and Hobbes grown up and try not to tear up. I did. I'll join you below when you're ready......

Bill Watterson incurred the scorn of his entire industry both to keep his strip pure and make it the best it could be (the Sunday format that infuriated editors and got his syndicate's salespeople thrown out of more than one office). He lost millions of dollars and was called crazy in order to bring us his art unfiltered, unfetered, and unlimited. Bill Watterson is #2 on my list of Punk Rockers.

And people said they were only comic strips.

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on Ebay.

(I realize I didn't tell you what the rest of my list for the top 5 Punk rockers is. Maybe next time.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Volunteering for Wussiness

Yea, hard rock music, heavy metal, it doth make the blood pump and emboldens the heart of man. It also makes a great many guys feel as if they have more meat hanging above their feet if you follow (I think that's part of the reason that hard and heavy found their way in as adjectives for these genres). I find it funny then, that those who make this music are often obscenely insecure and wimpy.

I mean, any kind of person can listen to this music; you'll see both business execs and football players psyching themselves up with some Death or whatever. But in order to be the kind of person who both defines themselves by, and makes their primary form of expression, a music that's (by definition) one-dimensional, you need to do be completely scared shitless by life.

Allowing nothing but negativity and acts of negation (hatred, violence, all that fun stuff) to consume your entire personality makes one seem tough and scary. But it's not in any form a likeable or admirable sense of toughness, it's the same defense mechanism internet nerds (present!) use to distance themselves from a society that seems to want nothing but to confound them.

In other words: metal is nerd sarcasm made into music. Metal band "looking for members" posters are just asking for people to volunteer for wussiness.

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on ebay.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Guitarist's Lament

I am a guitar player.

This should be read as if I were saying "I am an alcoholic", admitting to a problem that impairs one's ability to view the living world. Guitarists (and drummers too, but despite my best efforts, I am not also one of those) very often lose sight of music and what makes it music. Let me explain.

Most guitarists start playing guitar after being inspired by a band or artist whose music was guitar based. Very often these bands featured guitar players whose guitar playing was rudimentary, or, just as often, plain ham-handed buffoonery. The Ramones, the Clash, Nirvana, even the Rolling Stones - the guitar playing is as simple as dry toast and just as effective for the butter of rhythm and the jelly of energetic vocals.
After eating this delicious aural breakfast in the morning of their musical day, guitarist then tend to take the early morning bus of guitar lessons until reaching the grammar school of rudimentary competence, after whi(THUD).

OK, it's several hours later, and after acquiring a painful and somewhat unwelcome haze of consciousness, I found a note explaining that any more continuation of the metaphor above would result in unanesthetized and unsanitary bowel surgery. I will take it under advisement.

Anyway, the little bastards get pretty good at guitar and start to realize that the guitar parts in the music that inspired them are way too simple for them now, and they need to find a new challenge. Enter: hard rock and metal.

To be fair, many guitarists are inspired from the beginning by more complicated heavy metal masturbation, but the trap still has the same result for most people (boys especially): they begin to confuse the guitar part for the whole of the music.

I mean, that IS how metal works too: the rhythm, mood, and melody are all in the riff, not in the voice or even in the overall harmonic structure of the parts. Whereas rock always had riff songs, some damn good ones too ("Louie Louie" of course, with "Sweet Jane" in second, and "Satisfaction" pulling up third) those songs all used the rhythm of the riff vs the vocals vs the drums. In metal the guitar part dictates and defines, rather than plays against those aspects and points our young impressionable guitar players in a dangerous direction musically: single minded guitar player numbnutsification.

Play for a guitarist something awesome that has guitar chords, any song you can think of outside of guitar-y metal sludge. They'll hate it. "This is just three fucking chords, anyone could play this!" Yeah, dickweed, except you before you started taking lessons and ruined your ability to enjoy music!

Guitar players never would have been inspired to pick up their instrument in the first place if it wasn't for Good, Simple Rock Music; and, being so inspired, they accidentally set out to kill their God-given ability to appreciate beauty; eliminating the purity and innocence to love Good Simple Rock Music! Everything they wanted out of guitar was made to seem childish and simple by the poisoning of musical education!

I think someone ought to pass a law stating that you can't learn to play guitar until you're 18. Then someone might actually retain the ability to enjoy and appreciate music for what it is, even as a filthy guitar player.

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on ebay.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Compression Wand

Ok, so you might be a fan of Good music (Bob Dylan) or Bad music (Michael Bolton) but you're likely to not be a fan of most current radio fodder (if you are, go back to bed! This is a school night!). You may be wondering why people who can like both the awesome (The Mekons) and the awful (Rush) can all agree that something like Linkin Park is terrible. It's not being old or failing to relate. It's something more important.

I loved Nirvana, but I'm going to call this one their fault (it's not really, but someone has to take the blame or this'd be boring). A big part of what made "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a hit can surely be attributed to Kurt's passionate vocals, the fantastic lyrics and the loud-soft dynamics. These are sound (as in solid, dummy) parts of the music that make listening to the song enjoyable. But there was something more sinister and subliminal at work too.....
The first thing you realize when you compare Nirvana to any of Mr. Nirvana's heroes (honestly does anyone else know what Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl listened to?) is that everything was smoother and easier to hear in Nirvana's most popular recordings. To those with limited knowledge of musical equipment or recording studios, the machine that makes everything so magically hearable and close in volume is called (technical info, click at own risk) a compressor. That allowed extreme shifts in dynamics to be far more musically effective at a lower volume than before. Rather than having to listen more closely or turn it up, everything was presented at maximum-or-close-to-it volume, making life easier for the lazy music listener.

Compressors and compression had, of course, been around long before Nirvana, but it was the first time in mainstream music where compression allowed the music and composition to exist in a form that sounded realistic, but artificially changed the music to allow for greater-sounding dynamics. Which is all well and good, but soon the spice began to overpower the meal.

Any good song has natural dynamics, even played solo on an acoustic guitar there's still a rising and falling of the singers voice and the strumming or plucking of the guitar. These were all natural aspects of the composition and then would be highlighted or enhanced with other instruments/production. The problem with the compression wars that took place after Nirvana became popular is that as bands tried to top their dynamic extremes and the shifts between them, compression settings were getting more and more ridiculous to keep it all sounding reasonable on the average human's stereo (Robert Plant impression:"does anyone remember stereos?").

You could argue that the mp3 is the reason for the oppressive compression in today's recorded music, producers trying to make recordings not sound like they're coming from the bottom of a well(with cellophane over it) when digitally compressed by the format itself. But my copy of Robert Johnson's Complete Recordings still sounds fine when compressed to empty3 format, and that was recorded in the 1930's. That's not the issue.

The issue is this: since Nirvana waved the compression wand over the forehead of the music industry, the idea that dynamics can sell a song better than songwriting or content has become near-ubiquitous. Modern (and yes, I think of modern in this sense having the same connotation as baby-eating nazi used car salesman) producers and songwriters now have a backward and poisoned view of how to create music: production first.

First comes the bassline: how to make it roughly 75% of the audio band and how to emphasize so that it feels like even more than that. It's about the bass being held back for dramatic effect, and being the loudest thing when it's on. Second comes the "other". In Pop it's usually background singers and in rock it's a wall of distorted guitars. Then they write a verse, carried on as limited a musical support as possible, to create tension while everyone waits for the "other" and bass to really kick in. At this point, they finally have to be bothered to create a melody for the song and then lyrics.

In other words there is no real music in modern music! It's not about creating a melody and lyrics that have intrinsic power, but creating an image of power from production. It's like one of those painted turkeys you see on a box of coldcuts: painted to look like it was cooked better than you could ever really cook a turkey, but raw on the inside, and will give you salmonella.

So there you have it friends, the reason the Dylanite and the Boltonite can find common ground in hating modern radio sounds: they both like music.

-If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on Ebay.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Round and round

"Hypnotic rhythms". "Drone" also comes to mind. Why is modern music so based around the same thing repeated ad infinitum? I know, I know, groove, right? Feeling da ridim mon. But is everyone's attention span so short that they can't remember something unless it's repeated four hundred thousand times or is everyone who gives two quarters of a shite about music so stoned that they just want to get their brains lost in the same thing repeated for what feels like a quarter of a lifetime?

I'm not talking about songs with a groove that repeats slowly over time (45 seconds to a minute per rep) but songs where a four-to-ten second phrase is repeated throughout the whole goddamn thing! I mean thousands of rap songs, pop songs, and rock songs have fallen into this pattern, and I find it wholly unsatisfying. Songs should tell what feels like a story (not a literal story, that's why the Police blew ass) but an emotional one, through dynamics, changes, and pacing.

I mean a great example is comparing Alice in Chains "Hate to Feel" to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused". Might as well call it the same riff. Same tempo. Completely different stories musically! Despite both about being stoned enough to enjoy four-to-ten second loops repeated forever.

I write this to bring attention to a personal bugbear of mine: the band Tool. What the fucking hell is it with these guys? I live in New England and work in a music store (that will remain nameless) and almost everyone there is dropping 1/8th to 1/4 of a weeks pay to see these guys next month. And they're the never-ending-loop champions. Hip-hop, R&B, pop, those loops are monotonous, but the songs only last four minutes. Tools songs are, like, nine. HOW ON EARTH DO PEOPLE LISTEN TO THIS CRAP FOR NINE MINUTES?

Sorry, I'll remember to drink more wine next time I post. A friend of mine said that he could see me dismissing Tool far more efficiently than I have here with the following phrase: "Tool. A band you can set your watch to." Now, I love that, and the fact that he attributes this to me as something I might say is a pretty good compliment, but it misses the issue here: Why is this band popular?

Any Tool fans out there with some ability to tell me what it is? To Shine a Light on this issue and explain why the New Pornographers can write a sublimely catchy song, with a transcendent tune, in three parts ("Sing me Spanish Techno", yeah the video is terrible but if you don't like the song you have no soul), while tool can play the same riff for ten minutes, with no counterpoint or much variation, and have an audience roughly six hundred times bigger? I mean, I don't even notice there's music playing when someone puts them on in the store! They're that hypnotic!

- If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on ebay.