After dreaming I was listening to “Riders On The Storm”

February 21, 2015

I woke up this morning with my mind full of that cascading electric piano phrase that punctuates the Doors’ “Riders On The Storm”.

It reminded me – again – of that poignant song that, like The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and The Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” LPs, acts as a musical full-stop for the wild inventiveness and assertiveness of the 1960s and the beginning of a transition into less certain times.

I was young at that time – 1971. Barely into my teens, and still a year away from seriously beginning to embrace rock music as the soundtrack of my life, so I came to these records retroactively when I was little older. When they had already begun to acquire a sense of historical destiny. It seems to strange to look at back from these days of glacial rock and pop musical development where it becomes difficult to place the decade behind a contemporary sound, let alone the year, but in the early 1970s rock and pop was moving so fast in terms of changes to style and sound that you could mark out epochs in months.

At the time, of course, I thought that this helter-skelter pace of change and development would continue indefinitely. It was only in the late 1980s, as the first slowdowns began to take effect and I became familiar with the history of jazz, that I realised that this was not going to be. Jazz had gone through similar rapid transitions from the 1920s into the 1970s, but the broadly creative stylistic movements were behind it, even as certain artists continued to produce vital work. Now it was the time of Wynton Marsalis, talented for sure, but deliberately retrograde in terms of style. Jazz passed from a vital forward looking music into a consolidating, backhoeing, form. Mining the past and developing new syntheses, still interesting but now lacking that sense of historical onrush.

Rock and pop are at the same point today. Of the mainstream forms, only hip hop and dance represented some form of evolutionary development over the past few decades, but even they have begun to consolidate into their own histories.

Does any of this really matter? Vital artists continue to work within all these traditions, these days carving out small niches that more dependent on the artist themselves rather than being allied to any movement. Broad movements instead have splintered into ever more specialized sub-movements, with the multitude of confusing and often overlapping genres represented by only a handful of artists each. Such labeling has already become essentially redundant. You are better off settling in at the level of the artist him or herself alone.

This is fine, I suppose. But what has been lost is the sense of music as a social movement, an umbrella encompassing a generation. Opened wide and clear for all to see.

I miss that.


September 27, 2014

I have barely posted on ‘Music’ over the past few years.

Partly this is because I have stopped buying music. My attentions have turned to the more creative, from a personal point of view, art of photography.

This means I have stopped becoming a music consumer.

I never thought I would reach this stage. Looking out, in my basement from my computer den, I see rows and rows of CDs and LPs, all lovingly accumulated over the years since I was 15.

Most have been converted to MP3s or FLACs, played now over my computer network in my bedroom, usually just before I go to sleep.

Or at work over the tinny speakers attached to my computer.

Or in the car over the not quite so tinny car speakers. Occasionally, between recorded radio plays.

Has music really become so peripheral to my life?

Perhaps it has. Yet it still holds strength. Last weekend, driving back from Holliday, MO, after an afternoon photographing sunflowers, I played the third album I ever bought, the first Roxy Music album, over and over again. Music bought when I was fifteen. I loved it. Those old songs, heard so many times since, still move me. They cast me back into the absolute beginnings of my life yet hold true to the life I life today. How can this be? How can something I loved while still living with my parents, while still a virgin, while still terrified of the unknown future ahead of me, still be meaningful today?

I don’t know. Perhaps this, more than anything, is a testament to the power of music.

The Big Express

September 27, 2014

Bit of an oddity, this, a new post here, but two circumstances led me to it. First, I was unable (for unknown reasons) to log onto the Ape House forum pages to make some comments. Second, through a convoluted chain of circumstances beginning with the introduction of an ’embed’ function into Cowbird, my almost exclusive internet outlet these days (apart from the inevitable Twitter and Facebook), I revisited my two Blogger blogs. Untouched they’ve been for years as My Opera and then Cowbird supplanted them.

But now I revisit and find a vastly increased level of functionality and ease-of-use.

So let’s go again.

“The Big Express” is an XTC album dating from the early 1980s. A period of mind-wobbling productivity for the band, pushing out reams of exquisitely crafted pop songs that sent critics into ecstasies and the general public into a swoon of indifference.

During a brief period in the mid 1980s, I scooped up almost all the current and older XTC albums (perversely skipping Go2) and feel immediately in love with two songs from “The Big Express”. The opener, a choppy mid-period Beatles-style guitar driven rumination on lack of awareness that managed to bridge the (admittedly narrow) gap between The Beatles and The Jam. And a little way into the running order, “This World Over”, a gloomy meditation on a post-nuclear world with twinges of Police sonics, but a typically entrancing melody.

The rest of the record I failed to take on board.

For years.

Until this weekend, when, undoubtedly stimulated by the multiple listens I have recently given Bowie’s excellent new “The Next Day”, a record itself stuffed with beautifully crafted songs, I listened again to “The Big Express”.

What a great record it is. Full of invention and energy, subversively constructed songs that defy clichés and an overall feel of a band at the height of its powers. Where, to be truthful, XTC was for most of its now sadly truncated career.

The revisit affirmed my love of “Wake Up” and “This World Over”, but other songs, “I Bought Myself A Liarbird”, “I Remember The Sun” in particular, are all reshuffling that great mental list of tunes, noteworthy or not.

That’s what I wanted to say on the Ape House forum, but this will do just as well.

(Originally posted April 11, 2013 on Music (Blogger))

What’s The Story?

March 26, 2007

Walking to the sound of my favorite tune
Tomorrow never knows what it doesn’t know too soon

I was cycling through Forest Park this morning on my way work, my mind wandering as it usually does at that time. This time I was thinking about music, and specifically the Oasis of ‘What’s the story (Morning Glory)?”. Part of this relates to my weekend experience of reminding myself how far and how low this band fell after the release of “Morning Glory”.

But there was more at work here than that. It’s about one full year since I finished my college course on the music of The Beatles, and I was thinking of that band as well. Oasis and The Beatles are tightly connected – the lyric quoted above directly refers to The Beatles’ song “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and this is just one of myriad Oasis borrowings and references.

Oasis manage to transcend this obvious fixation by never actually sounding like The Beatles. The guitar roar and Liam Gallagher’s whine place the band far closer to, say, the Sex Pistols sonically. For their first two albums, the band certainly squeezed out enough inspiration from this clash (no pun intended) to produce some truly catchy and unforgettable rock. But then it all fell apart, and the interesting thing about this is how slight the musical change was.

Post-“Morning Glory”, Oasis is not that different in sound and style from pre-, but what once sounded fresh and exciting becomes dull, uninspired and sometimes even turgid. It’s difficult to analyse exactly why. Certainly, songs became over-extended or relied one time too many on familiar sounding riffs and melodies. But something intangible was lost – best described as inspiration in both composition and performance – once the original band fragmented, even as the sound remained largely the same. Playing “Morning Glory” and “Be Here Now” back to back is perhaps the most effective demonstration I can think of recordings that rise to art and fall to over-confident mediocrity.

The Beatles, although not as consistently great as their reputation suggests, nonetheless never experienced such a tipping point. During the lifetime of that band, a lifetime well exceeded by Oasis, The Beatles produced about twice as much music and remained vital to the end.

I think this is a clue as why I have been so let-down by Oasis. The sound of this band is just about as close to the perfect sound that I have ever heard; their early songs as close to perfection as I could hope for. But this amounts to about two albums worth plus a collection of worthy singles. They should have broken up there and then and kept my fond memories and impressions intact.

The Beatles managed to do just that – break up before their decline (and the solo work demonstrates just how far they could have fallen).

I guess it really is all about timing.


March 26, 2007

The energy that record companies devote to ensuring their consumers buy the same music over and over again never fails to astonish me. I suppose it all began in the 1970s when independent companies such as Mobile Fidelity began offering ‘half-speed remasters’ of popular best-selling rock albums, particularly those that attracted audiophiles in the first place.

Then along came the CD with its supposedly miraculously large dynamic range and scratch-free reproduction. Again, those same best-sellers were pushed onto that format, complete with a price premium to match those ‘half-speed remasters’, and what did we find? A very variable result, with some recordings well-mastered even from the earliest days (I have excellent CD versions of Wire’s Pink Flag, and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus dating from those early days), but many sounding somewhat lifeless compared to LPs. a few sounding downright bad.

So began the CD remaster. Some in the 1980s, a lot more in the 1990s and 2000s. In some cases, they really do sound a lot better than their precursors. In others, marginally so. Some sound merely as if they have been remixed to boost the bass, some sound genuinely opened up with more detail coming through. But it is all a matter of degree. And, in a movement of sweet irony, much of this music is recompressed, reduced in sonic quality and recycled as mp3, WMA or iTunes. Portability easily trumps fidelity in most people’s estimation.

Now we are moving into DVD audio and SACD, allowing 5:1 and more remixes for home theaters and supposedly even greater fidelity. In strict signal terms, yes, the greater bandwidth of these new formats allows for even greater fidelity to the original source. But for most of us, it doesn’t matter at all.

For me the best thing about CDs was the removal of all those scratches and hisses. I was never such as audiophile that I really cared that much about the sonic imperfections of the earlier CDs. Certainly I can hear the improvements in the remasters. Sure they are nice, but they don’t really alter whatever artistic value I get from the music. Two speakers, mostly just headphones, are all I am ever going to want for music reproduction so the multichannel enhancements are essentially meaningless. In truth, I’m not even sure the jump from mono to stereo was really that significant. I prefer to spend my cash on seeking out some fresh and new music rather than buying yet another copy of Dark Side Of The Moon.

Raw Power

March 26, 2007

Considering all the vitriol and censure that has been inspired by rock music from its very beginnings when Elvis asked if it was alright, mama, there are really very few rock records that can be considered truly toxic.

Elvis has been so assimilated that it takes a spin of his Sun Records recordings to remind you of how intensely powerfully he could rock, as well as reminding you as well as anything how a burning, brilliant star can be dulled and quenched by commerce.

But throughout the history of the form, a few rock artists have ducked expectations and produced music that is simply out of time and place. One such recording is Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power.

I bought this record when it first came out, all the way back in 1974. I’m glad I did, because that record has essentially ceased to exist. There is a CD, but this is a remixed version. A very worthwhile version, to be sure, and definitely worth having, but it is not the same.

The remix, by Iggy Pop himself, is entirely understandable. The original sound of the record is incredibly monochromatic. Guitars and vocals are merged into each other. The rhythm section churns underneath like a quicksand. It could have been recorded directly from a cheap transistor radio.

Nonetheless, this compressed sludge of a sound is perhaps the greatest hard rock/heavy metal you are ever going to hear.

The Stooges are (rightfully) touted as the first true punk band, in the 1970s meaning of the term, and everything you hear in punk music from that date onward has its roots in that sound. All the masterpieces made by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks or The Ramones are unthinkable without The Stooges, and Raw Power is surpassed by no one.

Whichever recording you hear, you are going to be pinned against the wall by the first cut, Search and Destroy, and you won’t slide down to the floor until the final, the most appropriately named Death Trip.

Not a long time to hang suspended for sure, about 30 minutes, but you might not be quite be the same ever again.

Raw Power was made by a band in the throes of dissolution, with nothing to lose and nothing to spend. The extraordinary dense mix is attributed to the use of an ultra-cheap, practically lo-fi, recording studio. David Bowie attempted to apply to 1970s-style clarity to the original recording and failed spectacularly. Iggy Pop simply cranked all the meters into the red for the remix and let the sludge bleed through unadorned.

Raw Power is in no sense a pretty record, despite a peerless heavy metal ballad in Gimme Danger, and it is best listened to when you are in a really foul mood. For however bad you might feel, you are not going to match Pop for sheer piss. When a song such as Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell is one of the lighter tunes, you know you are in deep. Deep as a song such as the highly ambivalent Penetration will take you.

It’s a great ride.

City of Ruins

March 26, 2007

I recently picked up a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising in a clearance sale. Getting it this way I removed myself from accompanying publicity on its release about 3 years ago that mostly focused on the World Trade Tower attack theme running through the record. In addition, time has cast a more nuanced view of that event, a tragedy that spawned more reckless tragedies. Things are not quite so black and white now.

The record is a good one. I have never been a great lover of the Springsteen sound, but he sings well here and the E-Street Band plays well. The production is guitar heavy, which I like, but the drums are mixed too loud and too trebly. If I have any problem with the record, it is that it tries too hard to be a heartfelt epic. The lyrics are mostly generalities and are pretty obvious ones at that. That need not necessarily be a problem, but 15 songs in much the same vein is too much. Musically, too, it relies often on r&b and gospel derived forms that have regrettably also become somewhat clichéd.

I think Springsteen made this record too soon. Perhaps he felt he had to at the time, and there is no lack of sincerity in his approach. Memorials made soon after any event are notoriously difficult to pull off, because what seems earnest at one time can become overly sentimental and even mawkish later on (witness Elton John’s almost unlistenable today Candle In The Wind for Princess Diana). I don’t think anything on The Rising will suffer that fate, but should Springsteen return to the subject today, I think he would make a better record.


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