Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks: Songs I'm Thankful For

I was going to write about the Kinks, but since it's Thanksgiving, I wanted to just write a brief entry about the songs I have been thankful for since, like, ever (the Kinks do cameo here, however).  I'm going more or less in chronological order of when I found them, or rather when they finally took on special meaning with me.  I'm limiting this list to ten songs, I think.


1. The Clash - Lost in the Supermarket
2. Wilco - Theologians
3. The Beatles - Hey Jude
4. Bon Iver - For Emma
5. Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
6. Pavement - Here
7. Big Star - I'm in Love with a Girl
8. The Velvet Underground - Pale Blue Eyes
9. LCD Soundsystem - All I Want
10. The Kinks - Strangers


Have a great Thanksgiving, all ya'll.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: Why They All Go Together

So why do sex, drugs, and rock and roll seem to come hand in hand, kind of like how it's almost impossible to order the B without the L and the T, or any combination thereof?  The most drugged out rockers seem to be most blessed with the gift of rock and roll: Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix were infamous with their use of the horse (i.e. heroin), while others such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop were all about the blow (i.e. cocaine).  But the drugs, in addition to sex, seem to always take precedence or even define the very nature of rock and roll: without the sex and the drugs, rock and roll would not exist at all today, in any way, shape or form.  While hypothetical situations such as that can be debated, the bigger question is "why?"  Why have sex and drugs shaped rock and roll as much as they have?  I think the answer lies in the concept of euphoria.

Sex and drugs are able to foster the highest highs and the lowest lows in a person.  Whether it be a most innocent affection or love (i.e. the Herman's Hermits classic "I'm Into Something Good"), a straight-out depiction of a trip (i.e. "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles), or something utterly raunchy (like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On"), they all evidence the same feeling of euphoria, the same complete happiness with one's state.  See also their flip-sides, those moments of pain due to the realization of lost love (Joy Division's masterwork "Love Will Tear Us Apart") the need for drugs (another masterwork, "Heroin" by the Velvet Underground), the evidence for why sex and drugs have been a vital part of the rock and roll livelihood and the basis for its mystique is because that sex and drugs typically bring out the happiest and the saddest in human beings.  Euphoric joy when everything is going right thanks to love, sex, and drugs, and crippling depression when those things leave the rock and roll man with nothing left to live for.

The easiest full-blown examples of those highs and lows lie within the breakup albums: the best examples are Sea Change by Beck, Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.  Ok, so perhaps the last one is a stretch in that order, but if you were in love with your best friend's wife, I'd say that's about equivalent to a breakup, if not worse.  They all evince the same themes: sheer joy, the throes of despair, it's all there, plain to see.  While not really relating completely to the notion of drugs in rock and roll, the emotions they generate are inherently the same.

All the highs and lows would be useless if it weren't for the narrators who reveal the story, reveal the triumphs and the downfalls, and make us feel.  Rock and roll is (usually) about wearing your heart on your sleeve, so we as listeners 100% identify with the narrator of the song, to live with (or through) them during both the good times and the bad; without the capacity to generate empathy, rock would be as cold and forbidding as electronica.  Every emotion is completely represented in the rock and roll psyche, from hope for the best to the realization of dread, from the best party the night before to the raging hangover after: if it were not for the sex and drugs, then those emotions would not be as easy to channel into a rock and roll song, and today we would be left with a most infantile rock and roll genre of music, which would honestly be terrible, not only to say that this blog would likely be nonexistent if that were true.

That is not to say that sex and drugs are the only things that go together with rock and roll.  Virtually anything could go together with rock and roll, given that it makes those rampant emotions easy to generate, bottle up and unleash in a rock and roll song.  Sex and drugs are simply the easiest ways to tap into that reserve of our emotions and connect us to them, because they're things many of us have to grapple with.  For example, gospel/worship music (I have somehow referred to them very often the past couple of entries when the previous year I'd not mentioned them at all) derives all its euphoric highs and debilitating lows from the relationship between the singer/listener and God.  But for the non-religious, it's certainly harder for one to relate to their plight; whereas most everyone battles with sex and drugs, not everyone battles with the nature of their relationship with God.

For the rest of rock and roll's existence, it will probably still be forever bundled with sex and drugs.  Probably for the better, sex and drugs more easily made emotions easier to access for rock and roll: the barest confessionals, the unabashed statements of love and the hilarious tales of hangovers or adventures would simply not exist without them.  Am I implicitly condoning the rampant use of sex and drugs?  I hope not, as excessive use of either is simply self-destructive.  I'm merely pointing out that the history of rock and roll shows that for better or for worse, sex and drugs were tightly interwoven into the fabric of rock and roll, and perhaps in some ways as rock and roll glorified and brought out the best in sex and drugs, sex and drugs glorified and brought out the best in rock and roll.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power of the Rock Anthem

In my typically fine form, I'm choosing not to write about what I said I would write earlier.  I chose to write this one instead because I can't get the chorus of Paul Stanley's "Live to Win" out of my head...the verses kind of suck, but the chorus sticks in your head and suddenly you yourself LIVE TO WIN!!! (no lie)... I suppose the fact that it's in South Park doesn't hurt its cause at all.  That song just screams "rock anthem," and so here we are.


Yeah, you can name 'em.  Everyone recognizes them.  From virtually every song by Bruce Springsteen to David Bowie's "Heroes," from "Hey Jude" by the Beatles (moreso the last mantra section) to "Sweet Virginia" by the Rolling Stones, rock anthems are powerful tools that are amazing because they inspire the listener and create such intense emotions in the listener so much as to create action, usually.  Sometimes to even relate in music you need a rock anthem because their "sound," their energy, their spirit is a great unifier of people.  This is why when a song like "Bohemian Rhapsody" comes on, everyone, and I mean everyone (unless you are so hipster that you choose to non-conform to such a tradition) goes full throttle into the song all through the end.  True rock anthems are, quite simply, uniters and not dividers.  So really, what distinguishes the rock anthem and what makes it so good?

The main ingredient in a rock anthem is usually the "sense of the epic."  While this sounds broad, nondescript and generally useless, it's the best term to use.  What may help illustrate my point, however, are examples of the "sense of the epic."  Bruce Springsteen, as mentioned before, is essentially the king of the rock anthem, and one of his most widely known tracks, "Born to Run," illustrates the point.  It sounds big.  It goes for broke.  The power in the song rattles you to your bones.  His lyrics also display of a "sense of the epic, " painting desolation around but lo! the eternal ray of light that is worth pursuing prevails!  For Bruce Springsteen's characters, it's quite simply a "do or die" moment and this sense of utmost importance and urgency imbues the song with a strong sense of power, direction, and purpose, not to mention an overall "sense of the epic."

Therefore, is there a sound that defines the rock anthem?  I'd argue that there isn't, though the evidence seems to suggest the contrary.  Tracks like the aforementioned "Heroes" (by Bowie), "Bohemian Rhapsody" or even "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire all have extremely ornate production.  The layering of such a large quantity of instruments (an offshoot or spinoff of the "Wall of Sound") generates a large sound, hence the "sense of the epic" and hence a rock anthem.  However, I would also posit that anthems such as "Sweet Virginia" by the Rolling Stones, "Hey Jude" by the Beatles, and other tunes like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" all suggest that the rock anthem as a dense and layered concoction brewed in the studio may not be necessarily true, though the trend is evident and typically suggests otherwise.

For a rock anthem to truly succeed, the necessary portion is that of the chorus.  If the chorus is not rally-worthy, then the song is not a rock anthem.  It's the power in the chorus that makes the rock anthem such a uniter: who doesn't sing "BORNNNNN IN THE USAAAAAAAA-EAAAAAAA!!!!!!!" when it comes on?  I rest my case.  The chorus has to be easily accessible: even the layman must be able to get around to remember it, so that perhaps even in his drunkest hour he may be able to belt out the chorus when prompted.  But it has to be catchy, it has to be powerful, or else it would not be able to resonate with everyone, from even the most snobby of hipsters down to the guy who doesn't even really like music all that much and could really do without it.  Just take a look here at some rock anthem choruses and see all of the above:

"Come on up for the rising/Come on up, lay your hands in mine/Come on up for the rising/Come on up for the rising tonight."
-Bruce Springsteen

"We can be heroes...just for one day."
-David Bowie

"Na, nah nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey Jude!"
-The Beatles

All instantly recognizable, all instantly hummable.  If you've heard the song before (I suppose liking it would help some), you can instantly belt out the chorus.  They're all anthemic.  All epic-sounding, all-relatable, all-inspiring, all-encompassing...that is what a rock anthem is.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Short Exercise: Top 25 Records, Ever?

In my very very first entry, I already determined the top five records of all time based on whatever barometers I came up with...and this is what I did come up with:

1.      Highway 61 Revisited
2.      Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
3.      Music From Big Pink
4.      London Calling
            5.      Pet Sounds

Do I still agree with these top five?  I think so.  No record has come out within the last 20 years that could get close.  But as an intellectual exercise for myself (and for you to see, I suppose), I present to you what I would consider to be the top twenty records of all time:

            1. Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited
            2. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
            3. The Band - Music From Big Pink
            4.  The Clash - London Calling
            5. The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
            6. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
            7. The Beatles - The Beatles
            8. John Coltrane -  A Love Supreme
            9. The Beatles - Revolver
            10. Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde
            11. The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
            12. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
            13. The Beatles - Abbey Road
            14. The Rolling Stones - Beggar's Banquet
            15. Bob Dylan - Bringing It All Back Home
            16. Patti Smith - Horses
            17. Television - Marquee Moon
            18. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures
            19. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
            20. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
            21. David Bowie - Low
            22. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground
            23. Jimi Hendrix - Electric Ladyland
            24. Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
            25. Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks

Looking over this list, there could be some changes, i.e. dropping Zeppelin off the list, but overall it provides a solid start, as I never have tried to completely rank 1-25 of the best records ever.  The records I'm especially high here that show up in the top 25 whereas they normally wouldn't be are The Velvet Underground, Low, and Physical Graffiti.  I perhaps have underrated Revolver, Blood on the Tracks and Marquee Moon, but I am rather satisfied with the list at the moment.  Do note with some hilarity that no record released after 1988 made this list (and if you discount Daydream Nation, no record was released after the 1970s...)I think it quite clearly indicates a trend that "old school" is "good school"...if I were to use the vernacular.

Next up will likely be looking at culture appropriation in rock music.  That is likely to say, the entire history of rock music, since much of it has just been stealing culture unique to sections of society and incorporating it into the general framework of rock music.