Legacy

I’ve been thinking lately about the legacy of some of my favorite bands.  I’ve recently started following Art of Noise on Instagram, who are currently at the planning and prepping stages of an upcoming tour.  The other week I downloaded the new album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

This year we’ve seen new releases by The Godfathers, Daniel Ash, The Feelies, Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Peter Murphy, Depeche Mode, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Wire, Clan of Xymox, Robyn Hitchcock, Slowdive, Blondie, Erasure, The Charlatans UK, Alison Moyet, Ride, Cheap Trick, Public Enemy, KMFDM, Sparks, The Waterboys and Living Colour.  And there’s still three-plus months to go in the year, with more new releases by classic bands coming up.

It occurred to me that many of these bands are from the first generation of 70s and 80s rock and its multitudes of subgenres, or their slightly younger siblings.  We still have some musicians from the original rock wave of the 50s and 60s — Ringo Starr has a new album coming soon, and Paul McCartney is still on tour, for instance, and recently-passed Chuck Berry had a new album out as well.  One has to remember that rock music as we know it really is a young genre compared to other popular and fringe music out there.  We’re still seeing it grow and evolve.  We’re also still seeing some of the old vanguard putting out albums.

My fascination here isn’t just that many of these bands were my favorites when I was in high school thirty years ago, and that I’m just reliving my youth in my own pathetic way.  I’m also fascinated that these bands are still going strong, still providing their signature sounds, still touring, still releasing.  Some of them may have taken an extended hiatus for various reasons (Ride’s last album was in 1996, for example, and they split almost at the same time it came out), but upon their return, fans both old and new rejoiced.

I’m fascinated by the legacies of these bands, because I’m living during their tenure.  I’m watching and listening to their history as it happens.  It’s that ‘I was there’ moment — it’s my own Woodstock remembrance, in a way — and I love that I’m a part of it in my own way, as a listener and as an owner of their recordings.

Finest Worksongs: REM

Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document.  It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.  It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.

Of course, I’d known REM quite early on.  I remember MTV playing “Radio Free Europe” in its early days.  I remember “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” getting a lot of airplay on WAAF and WAQY.  Even “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here” got minor play.  And “Fall On Me” was a big college radio hit as well as a staple on the early days of 120 Minutes.

Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records.  They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.

Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album.  REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire.  By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands.  In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener.  Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.

For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM.  I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends.  I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’.  They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between.  And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.

I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore.  I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs.  It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.

I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there.  [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.]   They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.

Favorite Bands: Cocteau Twins

cocteau twins 2

If I had to pick any one band that influenced my bass and guitar styles the most, inspired numerous plot ideas and settings for my early writings, and always calmed my teenage soul late at night, it would definitely be Cocteau Twins.

I absolutely adored the layered, chiming and heavily echoed guitars of Robin Guthrie, the dual-tone melodies of bassist Simon Raymonde (and even the dissonant meanderings of original bassist Will Heggie, who went on to be part of the band Lowlife), and the otherworldly vocalizations of Elizabeth Fraser.

They were My Bloody Valentine at a much lower volume.  They were Felt with a hell of a lot more ambience.  They were goth without the pretension and imagery.  And they were one of the biggest anchors of the classic 80s sound of the 4AD record label.  When all the music critics described their sound as pastoral, autumnal or dreamlike, they really weren’t trying to be over the top.  They really did sound like the Scottish Highlands on a cool and foggy morning, or a late October in foliage-laden New England.

If you haven’t given them a close listen, especially their dreamier 80s output, I highly suggest it.  It’s quite lovely.

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends

So recently I’ve been reading David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock and enjoying it immensely.  Things I’ve learned:

–It’s evident that a few members of Yes either quit or were canned due to insufficient pretentiousness levels.  Tony Kaye was an adequate keyboardist that didn’t play flourishes and got the boot early on.  Rick Wakeman quit out of boredom, and the fact that he had no frigging idea what Jon Anderson was singing about half the time.  Steve Howe actually kind of likes Tormato, their 1978 album that nearly no one else likes, including the rest of the band.  Chris Squire’s bass was, not surprisingly at all, mixed loud, front and center on their first albums.

–Van der Graaf Generator were well-loved, even if their music made no damn sense at all.  The same goes for The Soft Machine.

–Robert Fripp is a genius guitarist…but no one knows what the hell he’s trying to play.

–Greg Lake had an ego about the size of Great Britain.  Keith Emerson not as much, but close.  Carl Palmer just wanted to play his drums.

–Keith Emerson’s famous stage shtick of sticking knives in his keyboard to get sustained sound was originally courtesy of some old Army knives from a roadie named Lemmy Kilmister.

–The guys in Rush write great songs, but they’re kinda sorta meatheads.  Singer Geddy Lee didn’t always know what the hell drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics were going on about, just that they were virulently Libertarian.  [This political bent seems to have faded into the background around the same time Geddy started playing synths on the albums, interestingly enough.]

–The more members Genesis shed, the poppier and more famous they became.  Keyboardist Tony Banks said if they’d called it a day when Peter Gabriel left, they’d have had a significantly smaller fanbase.

–Most bands, when interviewed by Creem magazine in the 70s, would make these wildly erudite but utterly vacuous proclamations about how progressive rock will change the world.

–Marillion singlehandedly brought back prog in the 80s by saying ‘Screw you, we’re going to play this stuff anyway.’

Seriously, though, it’s a fascinating (if slightly sarcastic) read if you’re a fan of the genre.  One of the pleasant surprises is that he does briefly touch on the less famous prog bands, including a handful of non-English bands from Italy and elsewhere.

 

Coming Soon: Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper Reissue Edition

Come on, you knew it was coming. 🙂

I’ve been obsessing about this release since hearing about it some months ago, and since it’s such a landmark album — not to mention this release being the only time so far that a full Beatles album has been given a completely new stereo remix — I think it’s only fair that I give it the BtB treatment, now that I have it my grubby paws.  I’d like to go over what one can expect: the differences in sound between the original mono and stereo mixes, and the new 2017 stereo mix.

[Alas, I do not have a 5.1 sound system so I won’t be able to provide any input on that at this time, though it’s part of the big box set edition.]

Stay tuned!

Boston Rocks

citgo sign

Speaking of 90s music, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff lately that came out while I was in Boston, college and post-college.  The city has a fascinating musical history, especially where rock and radio is concerned.  [I highly suggest looking for Carter Alan’s Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN and Brett Milano’s The Sound of Our Town for a great overview.]  There’s always been a scene of some kind in the city over the years, and it’s always been great.  A lot of it is due to its eclectic mix of blue-collar families and college students.

I was glad to be able to listen to, if not go see, a lot of the local bands while going to Emerson College in the early 90s. Here’s a few of my favorites from that era…hope you enjoy!









It Was Fifty Years Ago…

You may have heard the BIG NEWS from hither and yon that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is getting a super deluxe edition from Apple in celebration of the album turning 50.  It’s BIG NEWS because this is the first Beatles album to get this kind of remaster/expanded reissue.  The deluxe edition will contain a new remix from Giles Martin, two discs of outtakes, and a dvd and blu-ray of even more goodies — including a 5.1 mix (!!) and the Making of Sgt Pepper documentary from 1987.  The new stereo remix, per Martin, is not the original remaster we heard on the 2009 box set, but a true remix, in which he shifted the sounds to make it sound more like the original mono mix.*

Yer darn tootin’ I pre-ordered it as soon as I heard about it!

Anyway…I’m looking forward to hearing this new mix.  I gave the album a good listen the other day (the mono mix, actually) and it really did break a hell of a lot of rules and boundaries.  Hundreds of other bands who heard the album for the first time were completely blown away by it, even more influenced by it.  When people call songs ‘Beatlesque’, they usually mean it sounds like something from this album.

Me?  I’m looking forward to hearing “A Day in the Life”…it’s what I think of as their finest moment, not just in songwriting but in production.  It transcends being just a pop song and turns into an orchestral piece.  Hearing a new stereo mix of this song should be a treat.

To quote from my ‘Blogging the Beatles’ series from a few years back, plus a few added notes:

Though this track was recorded relatively early in the sessions (19-20 January, with additional work done a week or so later), by the time they finished recording, they knew that this absolutely had to be the last track on the album, no question. It’s long been considered one of their best compositions, and given the amount of time dedicated to it (a total 34 hours, twenty-two more than the entirety of Please Please Me!), it’s by far one of their most complex productions.

There are three distinct parts – the first and third, written mostly by John and taken from recent newspaper articles (the death of friend Tara Browne in a car accident, the report that the roads in Blackburn were filled with potholes, and so on), and the middle section provided mostly by Paul (a simple nostalgic trip of riding the double-decker bus through Liverpool when he was younger), each with its own personality.

The first part is performed with deliberate slowness, starting quietly but growing increasingly louder until we reach the end. [EDIT: Ringo’s drumming here is to the fore, punctuating each line of the verse, mixed high and given a thunderous echo.  The deliberate slowness of this first part adds to its haunting mood, which makes the first orchestral swell sound like a maelstrom.]

The link to part two is via a crazy idea from Paul and Martin, in which an orchestra plays an unscripted rise from the instrument’s lowest E up to its highest in the space of 24 bars. [EDIT: if you listen closely, you can just about hear Mal Evans under the din, counting out said bars, leading up to the alarm clock going off.] That link serves not just to wind up the listener but the speed, as Paul’s section comes in double-time, a bouncy and simple melody meant to evoke a commuter running late.

The second gives way to a third part via an absolutely breathtaking eight bars – it’s not complex, but listen to how Martin takes a simple four-note score and makes it dynamic by gradually increasing the volume of the brass, pulling them from the back to the foreground, while simultaneously pushing John’s angelic ‘aah’s being pushed back into the increasingly echoey mix.  [EDIT: In the mono mix, John merely fades into the mix, but in the stereo mix he pans from right to left as well. This entire section is by far one of my favorite moments of any Beatle song ever.  A few simple mixing and scoring tricks, but they’re done so beautifully.]

In part three we’ve returned to an abbreviated repeat of John’s first section, played double-time as well…only to be brought back to that nightmarish ascension again. This time, once everyone hits that high E, we’re left floating up in the air for a brief second…only to come crashing down – hard – on a final low E chord. That final breathtaking moment is played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans on three pianos and George Martin on a harmonium, and is drawn out to nearly forty seconds via the recording level being brought up as high as possible as the piano’s natural reverberation slowly fades.

The Super Deluxe Edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be released on 26 May, one week shy of fifty years of its original release.

 

* Some background here…the Beatles were present for the original mono mix of the album back in ’67, but were not present for the stereo mix, which was done afterwards.  Audiophiles often say the mono mix is much better, as it’s closer to what the band wanted.  It also has a fuller, tighter sound, whereas the stereo mix feels a bit spacious.  Oh–and “She’s Leaving Home” is at the right speed on the mono mix, and in my opinion makes it a stronger song, where the stereo mix was slower and more maudlin, maybe too much so.