5 Of The Most Criminally Underappreciated Guitarists of the 1980’s

This list is not scientific. This list is not comprehensive. This list was, like most things that have ever been written, born of a drunken conversation. As a guitarist who started playing at the dawn of the 1980’s, this is a reflection of some of the slingers who shaped my sound and taste. For each player I will present one track as proof of their shredability. Here we go…


He is both older and cooler than you.

First off, how can I not honor a guy nicknamed “Spyder?” Although even 1980’s music freaks mostly don’t know his name, they know that of his longtime spouse Pat Benatar, the diminutive spandex-clad chanteuse with a voice like thunder. Benatar absolutely ruled the airwaves in the early 1980’s, with her first 5 albums going platinum. Today she is mostly remembered for her pop tracks like “Love is a Battlefield” and “We Belong,” but on her first two or three albums she consistently brought The Rock, thanks in a big way to her hubby Spyder. One of the things I respect most about this guy is that he did whatever the Benatar hit machine required – if a song needed a big solo, he could do that, but if it required him to wear a Hawaiian shirt and play a 12-string acoustic he would do that, too. I should also note that, in addition to his work with Benatar, he helped Rick Springfield do “Jessie’s Girl,” which is one of the best rock songs of the early 1980’s; no, shut up, it is. AND, Pat’s “You Better Run” was the second video ever played on MTV, which means Spyder was the first lead guitarist ever shown on the channel. Most importantly, his playing was always sublimated to the song, as it should be. In support of Spyder’s case, I give you “Promises in the Dark,” the leadoff track from their third album. It’s a great 1980’s epic rock song, starting off with a Springsteen-esque piano-and-vocal intro, and then veering into almost Iron Maiden territory on the verse. If you’re short on time, you can click ahead to about 2:40, when you get one of Neil’s (relatively) rare solo workouts, which starts off melodically and then gives you a nice array of wanktronics without staying overlong. Tasty and to the point; the guy’s a pro.


He’s the one that looks like Tiny Tim’s weirder brother.

One Saturday afternoon in 1986 I turned on MTV and caught the last half of the video for “Still in Hollywood,” the first single off Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut album. I was hooked. I bought the cassette ASAP and it was actually the album to which I (finally) learned how to play guitar by ear. However, I only learned to play the basic chord progressions by ear, because there was NO WAY I, or most other guitarists, could imitate what guitarist Jim Mankey was actually doing. For one thing, he played with his fingers instead of a pick, which was extremely odd for a guitarist in a pretty heavy alternative rock band. For another he rarely played barre chords or any of the standard rock tropes you would expect to go with the relatively simple 3- or 4-chord songs on the album. He was just out there doing his own thing, creating an atmospheric, swirling sound that perfectly complemented Johnette Napolitano’s aching, powerful voice and twilit songs about Los Angeles and its denizens. I was having an absolute hell of a time deciding which song to use for Jim, so I decided to just sell out and use the one Concrete Blonde song non-Blonde fans have probably heard: “Joey,” off their third album ‘Bloodletting.’ While it’s not his weirdest or most technically impressive solo, the song as whole shows off his repetoire well. There are the slinky, reverbed-out flourishes during the verse, the ringing melody line going into the chorus and best of all (at 2:49) the fluid, sinuous solo, just 15 seconds long, achingly pretty and all the more perfect for its brevity.


He could cut you with his razor sharp licks, or the crease in his chinos.

Ah, Oingo Boingo. Since I moved to California I’ve encountered a lot of Boingo fans, but back in Texas they were so unknown I had to go to their ‘Alive’ concert tour by myself. Those that did know them had John Hughes film soundtracks to thank, or maybe just hearing “Dead Man’s Party” on the radio around Halloween. I was introduced to them by some older friends who were deep into punk rock and ska and general weirdness and soon discovered their double album “Boingo Alive.” This was a sort of victory lap record, celebrating their 10th anniversary, for which they rented a sound stage and re-recorded a bunch of their best songs live without an audience. To my ear the “Alive” versions of these songs are absolutely superior to the original album cuts, many of which suffer from 1980’s over-production-itis. Those that know anything about Boingo know that it was the brainchild of brothers Richard and Danny Elfman, the latter of whom went on to be Tim Burton’s musical, erm, muse… and one of the preeminent (if frequently annoying and self-repeating) soundtrack composers in Hollywood.

Subtlety was not part of their mission statement.

However, what most of those suckers don’t know is that Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek was the translator that methodized Elfman’s madness. He charted the musically illiterate Elfman’s songs for the band, and later served the same purpose for the movie scores. On top of all that, and despite the fact that he usually dressed like a copier salesman, he was one of the nastiest, damaged-jazz-metal guitar players around. To wit, check out the ‘Alive’ version of “No Spill Blood.” The funk licks between verses are super tasty, but… damn, the solo (starting around 2:10) is just vicious. Sweep picking, whammy madness, dissonance… it’s a sampler platter of mayhem, all coming from the fingers of a guy who looks like one of your Dad’s friends.


It’s like a buckle factory exploded all over them. And yes, that’s the KoP. Steve played guitar on “Dirty Diana.”

I debated whether or not Steve really belongs on this list, since anyone who watched MTV in the 80’s (i.e. anyone paying attention to pop and rock music in the 80’s) would be somewhat familiar with the tiny, patent-leather-clad Q-tip that was (and still is) Billy Idol’s lead guitarist. However I went ahead and did it because a) I only had four people on my list and b) I don’t think people give him the credit he’s due as a guitar player; he’s more of an extra in the videos, part of the visual record.

Like most 1980’s videos, this one was shot inside a smoke machine.

And, well, shit, if I’m being honest, really the only reason he’s on here is “Rebel Yell.” To me it’s a top 5 80’s song, and the solo (at about 2:28) is hands-down my favorite solo of that decade. Yes, above anything Slash or Eddie or anyone else did. Why? Dunno, exactly. It’s just… rock n roll. Its 50% straight-up Chuck Berry and 50% space lasers. It’s stupid and brilliant and a little sloppy and it’s the perfect solo for this particular song, which is one of the all-time great songs to hear on a summer night in the car with the windows down. It’s just… rock n roll.


His smallest dreadlock can play better than you.
His smallest dreadlock can play better than you.

And now we get to the paradox – Bad Brains, by far the least popular AND most influential band on this list. Jazz-fusion players from D.C. who discovered reggae and punk and melded them into something no one else could do. They played faster and better than any punk band ever and were constantly changing, breaking up, inventing new sounds and seem forever doomed to have their legacy guarded and passed down by far too few fans. On the other hand, the Foo Fighters brought Dr. Know and Darryl (bassist) out on stage at a recent concert and Dave G. praised them and played a couple of their songs so maybe they’ll get their due, finally.

In case you had any lingering doubts as to whether Dave Grohl was winning at life.

In any case, Dr. Know’s playing was always far beyond my abilities but provided one of the guideposts for me as I was developing as a player, the loose-but-tight chug of his rhythm playing, the angularity and fire of his soloing, the inversions, the open, ringing chords. He’s got it all. As an example, here’s the title track from their “I Against I” album, which marked the moment where they slowed things down just a bit and in doing so added “reinvented metal” to their mantelpiece alongside “created hardcore punk” and “invented the Black Rock movement.”

At this point I wish to point out that the title says “5 OF the most…” not “THE 5 most…” Hopefully I’ll get some thoughtful rebukes in the comments section and we can do another of these soon.

Live From New York, it’s Your Not-Quite-Adolescent Introduction to S&M

Note about my previous post in this series: I wasn’t aware until around the time I started writing this that literally NO ONE knows who Judee Sill is anymore. To me her record was right there with Jackson and Sweet Baby James and the rest and who had a record with their picture on it that wasn’t famous? In any case if you like the Laurel Canyon/Americana thing and can handle lyrics about Jesus having a gunfight with the Devil or spaceships from heaven or magic spells based on the Musica Universalis designed to make God give the world a break, you should check her out. 

John Cougar on Saturday Night Live, April 10, 1982.

Not too long after this my Mom and I moved. We drove up I-45 about 30 miles, hung a left and ended up out in the pines of East Texas; outside of suburbia but still close enough to Houston to not truly be ‘in the country.’ My Mom married a great guy, an English teacher who had a comic book collection and books everywhere and “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl (on which more later). Mom and Stepdad were progressive and/or laissez-faire about the media to which I was exposed. I can remember them taking me to Woody Allen double features down at the River Oaks and seeing “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” when I was maybe 10. I didn’t get 99% of the humor, but with the rhythm and phrasing, the timing, and the slapstick Woody trafficked in at the time, it was still funny to me. At some point around then I was allowed to stay up late to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and that was what sparked my love for rock n roll.

John Cougar (post Little Johnny, pre Mellencamp) was the musical guest on SNL around the time his hit album “American Fool” came out in 1982. I don’t remember anything else about the episode (apparently Daniel J. Travanti was the host), but Cougar wore a green t-shirt and fringed leather motorcycle pants, and he did “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” “We sound just like Martha and the Vandellas, don’t we?” he asked an apparently indifferent crowd as they started it up. He was obviously having a good time even if they weren’t. (Also: if you can, click on the link above to the “AEDWTN” video and at least watch the saxophone solo that starts around 2:40. Music videos used to be amazing).

More to the point, he also did “Hurts So Good.” As with the Woody Allen movies, I didn’t really ‘get it,’ I didn’t understand, but it hit me hard. It was scary and compelling. Why would somebody sing about pain in such an enthusiastic and positive way?   It was a little scary…and I liked it. His performance made an indelible memory, so much so that for a long time I wondered if I really remembered it as vividly as it seemed. Then one day in my thirties I happened across the episode on TV and, yep, it was all just as I remembered.

When I saw and heard “Hurts So Good,” on SNL, it was some sort of next step on that road. In the year or two leading up to that Saturday night I had gotten more into music in general. A friend of Mom’s upon request made me a 90-minute cassette of two Hall and Oates albums, ‘Private Eyes’ on one side, ‘H2O’ on the other, that I would listen to on a Radio Shack mono tape recorder nestled in the crook of my arm as I strolled around the middle school playground.

But “American Fool” was the first ROCK AND ROLL record – and by that I do mean an actual vinyl album – that I bought with my own money. Listening to it right now, and trying to lay aside the obvious four-coat varnish of nostalgia it has acquired, I get this: it sounds great, although it does sound of its time. Luckily its time was 1982, not 1988 so it’s not burdened with cannon toms and fucking Eventides and Bob goddamn Rock. It sounds expensive, which really just means it sounds like it was recorded in a real studio with a real producer and a rock-solid band playing pro-grade instruments.[1]

It’s emphatically un-hyphenated Rock, and its time was also one in which that was no bar to also being pop. It’s such an obvious thing, right? ‘Pop’ is supposed to be shorthand for whatever’s popular. Those three little onomatopoeiac letters aren’t supposed to contain a sui generis genre, unless it’s that of Popular Song in the Cole Porter/Bing Crosby/Sinatra sense. It just means what’s popular. And what was popular in ’82 was a lot of Rock. I had to look it up, but ‘American Fool’ was a pretty monstrous hit[2]. Number 1 album. “Hurts so Good” hit number two on the Hot 100 and “Jack & Diane” [3] number one. Even “Hand to Hold On To” hit nineteen and I have no recollection of ever hearing that one on the radio.

All of that said, I can be honest with my 10-year-old self and admit that it’s not a great album. It has two all-time great songs, four or five very-good-to-good songs and two or three weak-to-shitty ones (happily it’s pretty much sequenced from best to worst. That was nice of them. Every other musician: do that from here on in, OK?) Does that matter when you’re ten years old? No one has taste at ten and I’m going to say that’s a good thing. Ten year old me didn’t react to things because they were cool or because they fit into an aesthetic framework constructed over years of paying too much attention to popular culture. He reacted to things because they CAUSED A REACTION.

“Hurts so Good” on SNL gave me a perfectly calibrated whiff of danger and hit that attraction/repulsion sweet spot that can be so compelling. And I have to say after rewatching the videos from this album, Johnny C. was putting out a pretty sleazy biker vibe back then, in line with the best rock n roll traditions; he was not yet the Americana/60’s revivalist of a few years later. Shortly after seeing SNL I bought the album on a trip to Greenspoint Mall and I listened the hell out of it and wondered what else was out there. So I listened to the radio because that was literally the only place to hear new music. Between 1982 and 1984 I fully embraced Rock, started playing guitar and caring about my hair and along the way I accumulated the following records:

The Rolling Stones, “Tattoo You” (1)

Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” (51)

Quiet Riot “Metal Health” (1)

Def Leppard “Pyromania” (2)

The Rolling Stones “Hot Rocks 64-71” (4)

David Bowie “Let’s Dance” (4)

Genesis “Genesis” (9)

Scorpions “Love at First Sting” (6)

Motley Crue “Shout at the Devil” (17)

Billy Joel “Glass Houses” (1)

The Police “Synchronicity” (1)

If you eliminate “Hot Rocks” as an outlier (only compilation and only non-contemporary release) you can see how I was a slave to the charts: all of them were big goddamn hit records.[4] Look at the numbers in parentheses up there; those are the highest Billboard Top 200 chart positions for each record. You can see that what I was buying was what was selling, which was what I had a chance to hear, which was what was on the radio. I was too young to really have a shared musical experience with my peers, no older siblings, no other options. Pop, but rock, yes? The reason I am pausing this tale in 1984 is that we didn’t get MTV until around then and that. Changed. Everything.

[1] While writing this section, the drum break in “Jack & Diane” happened and OK the toms are a little cannon-y. However I know that JC was inspired to insert that drum break after hearing “In the Air Tonight” so we have to give him a pass.

[2] It was also Cougar’s FIFTH album. How in God’s name is that possible? I knew he had a couple before that, but Christ. Did he start recording as a zygote or is he now 73 years old?

[3] I didn’t want to get all Klostermanny (Foster-Wallacey?) with the footnotes here, but I’m perusing the Wikipedia entry for the record and see that MICK GODDAMN RONSON did “guitar, vocals, and arrangements” on “Jack and Diane”. How did I never catch that before?! We’re going to get to Ziggy here in a bit and I am, just, DEEPLY disappointed in myself for never knowing that before.

[4] OK the Joan Jett record wasn’t a huge hit, but her next record was and I think I bought “Bad Reputation” at the same time as “Hot Rocks,” on cassette at the music store where I took my guitar lessons, probably under the influence of my friend Mike M. who often wore a Joan Jett t-shirt to school and talked about how she was awesome in concert. He was in fifth grade and he’d seen a ton of rock shows. The 70’s and early 80’s were kind of a great time to be a kid.

The professed rocker goes to Chvrch

Scottish indie titans Chvrches are set to release their second album in a couple of weeks, and are doing that thing where they dribble out a track a week to you if you pre-order the record.  I’m sitting here listening to the third song they’ve dropped, ‘Clearest Blue,’ and, well… listen to this:

Now THAT is how you build up a song, folks. If you don’t start bouncing, dancing or at least head-bobbing when it fully kicks in at the 2:13 mark then you’re dead and can I have your leather jacket?  No, the one with the collar.  Thanks.

That also hits me, as a teenager of the 1980’s, right in the nostalgia bone. When I first got into music I identified as a metalhead/rocker, which was really a social declaration. I was identifying with an at least hypothetical clique (and I’ll write more about that in future posts). But I was always a pop-song lover at heart. More than albums, more than bands, a great 2 to 4 minute song was always the gem for me. And in the 80’s it was often the dreaded synth-pop bands – Depeche Mode, Erasure, and (my personal favorite) Book of Love – that cranked out the best singles.

ANYWAY, along with the nostalgia and head-bobbing, the track reminded me of something I wrote back when Chvrches first album, “The Bones of What You Believe,” came out and my fellow music-nerd wife was having a crisis-of-conscience for loving it so much. After listening to the album I wrote the following and then promptly forgot about it.

My wonderful wife recently mentioned a band called Chvrches to me after hearing them a few times on satellite radio.  She said that they were a band she didn’t think she would (or should?) like, but she did.  She mentioned them a couple times then they came up again at a party this weekend, a Scottish friend mentioning how they’re huge in their native Scotland.  Seeing as their debut album came out this week I decided to give them a listen.

I could hear why my wife expressed surprise at her own appreciation of them from the first couple of seconds.  Chvrches are what us 1980’s children would have called (sneeringly) a synthpop band, and she tends more towards big bashy guitars (think Pixies, REM, Nirvana).  Then I realized pretty quickly that I was diggin’ them too.  I generally try not to analyze why I like or dislike a piece of music, just go with the visceral reaction at least for the first few listens.  But in this circumstance I started thinking about my reaction and what grabbed me and why:

1.     They have good taste.  I should state right off the bat that I have not read anything about this band – no interviews, no reviews.  Aside from knowing that they’re from Scotland and that there’s at least one woman and one man in the band (based on their being both (mostly) female and (some) male vocals on the record), I don’t know anything about them.  Purely from listening to the record a couple of times my initial reaction was that they have good musical taste.  Their obvious antecedents are the holy trinity of 80’s synthpop – New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure.  But they don’t mimic any of them overtly, and they also evoke some of the (relatively) less popular but more interesting groups of that era – Book of Love, OMD, Yaz, and the kind of stuff that I heard on the mixtapes my cooler-than-me high school friends would cadge from the DJs at Industry or NRG or #’s (some of the underground dance clubs in Houston back in the day).   I also recognize that they probably have a ton of less obvious (meaning non-synthpop) influences that will reveal themselves with more listens.   All of this to say they listened deeply and have built a big, interesting sound that evokes all of these influences without ripping any of them off.

2.     The record sounds great.  Again, no idea who this band is or where they recorded this record, but it sounds HUGE.  It sounds like they used real analog synths and 2” tape and a Neve board to record this thing.  Maybe they used a laptop, a good microphone and a few grand worth of software to do it.  Regardless it doesn’t have the compressed, too-loud feel of a lot of modern pop music that is mixed specifically for the radio.  This is an album I would actually love to hear on vinyl because I think it would sound really damn good.  It reminds me that well-recorded synthesizer music can sound just as huge as well-recorded guitar music.  Don’t believe me?  Go back and listen to the first couple of Eurythmics singles, preferably on vinyl or CD, and tell me they don’t sound big and fantasticChvrches learned the right lessons from their musical ancestors.

3.     The songs are solid.  Here’s a project for you guitar players out there:  pick any Depeche Mode hit from the beginning of the band through, say, “Music for the Masses.”  Get out your guitar and figure out the song, then crank up the distortion pedal and go full on punk (or metal, whatever) on it.  Sounds really freaking good, huh?  Same thing with the better songs by a lot of those bands.  It’s not a big mystery – good songs are good songs regardless of the instruments on which they’re played.  That is not to say that there are not hugely popular, wonderful, jammin’-ass songs that depend on certain sonic components to exist – most of Jane’s Addiction’s first two albums spring to mind – but that a genuinely well-written song will hold up, even under the torture of some college girl with an OK voice and a ukulele and a YouTube account.  I will not claim that every track on the Chvrches album could be stripped down to vocals plus an acoustic guitar or a piano and remain something you want to hear over and over again; but I do feel comfortable asserting that a lot of these tracks could have been done with a bass-guitar-drums lineup, or acoustically, and would have been extremely effective.

So, yeah, I like this record.  It sounds good cranked up in the car; it feeds my geekery by letting me imagine the tracks as played by The Moscow Rules, full volume.  And it’s yet another reminder that my wife has good taste even when she doesn’t realize it.

I will note the following: turns out there are 3 members, and the two guys are close to my age (40’s) which explains something about their deep knowledge of 80’s sounds. Also they all came from more guitar-oriented bands, and they do use tons of vintage gear to get that huge sound. We did get the first album on vinyl and it sounds HUGE. Also The Moscow Rules is my band.

A Statement

NOTE: I wrote the following piece as my editorial statement for an online culture magazine for which I was to be the music editor. Sadly it folded before it saw the light of day. It in turn was based on an idea I originally had about ten years ago. Here it is, very lightly edited.

The author, probably listening to a Sesame Street album, mid-1970’s.
I have been obsessed with music since I was about eleven years old. I have played guitar – mostly in the proverbial woodshed, occasionally in front of people who paid to be there. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars and as many or more hours over the intervening decades on music – guitars and amps, concerts and lessons and (mostly) on records and tapes and cds and digital files. It’s come to a point where if someone at a party asks me “So, what kind of music do you listen to?” I no longer have a clue how to answer.

What I do know is that NOW is an incredibly interesting time at which to engage with – and write about—music. I will (and frequently do) argue that there is more interesting music happening right now in the world than at any time in history, and I want to learn more about it ALL. What follows is a snapshot, my view of the ‘industry’ as it seems to be.

Down the Deep River

Like all businesses intimately tied to technological advances, the music industry has undergone a whirlwind of change over the last 25 or 30 years. In the early 80’s, compact discs were still the province of early adopters and audiophiles, cassette tapes ruled, and vinyl was still widely available but could feel the winds of change blowing coldly up its sleeve. In the late 90’s and early 00’s mixtapes gave way to mix cds which in turn surrendered to the entirety of the Internet as a way to share music. Only in the last ten years or so has broadband Internet access become commonplace enough to support direct, digital music sales to consumers (and illegal file sharing, natch). However, format changes had occurred with relative frequency throughout the life of the industry (cylinders to 78s to 33s to 45s to 8-track to…), and it seems that the industry treated the move away from cds and the growing popularity of people storing their music collections on their computers as just another incremental change. This shift to digital formats caught the industry, with few exceptions, completely flat-footed. In fact, it took Apple holding on to a tiny-but-hip share of the PC market and the worldwide boom in cheap, hi-tech cell phones and similar devices to keep the industry as a whole from tanking even worse than it has.   Even with pay-download services, streaming sites and other new delivery concepts, revenue for the big players in the industry has plummeted.

The combination of this drop in profit and the consolidation of most labels under a couple of enormous conglomerates has resulted in hundreds, maybe thousands of professional musicians being dumped from their contracts. Furthermore, the artist’s share of the revenue pie, always a tiny one, has shrunk in proportion to the whole. In the short-term, this is terrible for the artists. Yet, amidst the conglomerates, purges and plummeting sales there are interesting bright spots: sales of vinyl albums have skyrocketed, live music seems to be an eternal growth industry and digital distribution services allow literally anyone with a recording and a few dollars to put their songs a click away from the entire music-listening world. In fact, if there’s justice in this crazy mixed-up world, iPhones and ringtones and Spotify won’t prevent the entropic forces swirling around the Universals and Sony-BMGs of the world from pulling them apart at the seams and ushering in a new, smaller, better music business, one that seems to (sort of) already exist. On the downside the loss of profits mean that the labels that are out there aren’t going to spend money to develop artists like they once did in the glory days; they’re not going to spend money on marketing an album unless the performer is a proven commodity.

Rules of Engagement

So what DOES the artist do to engage an audience? What does the independent label do on a low- to-no budget to help get their artists out there? There have to be as many stories about the new frontiers in guerilla marketing, self-publishing, independent promotion and the struggle to be heard as there are languishing MySpace pages. I hope to have the chance to tell some of them here.

The music industry has never been a model of propriety or fairness. From the beginning, artists were treated like indentured servants, and things haven’t really changed much in the intervening 90 years. Writing stables and payola have given way to production teams and independent promoters, but the effect is the same: homogenized music blankets the airwaves, and the “safe” artists – the ones the companies think are most marketable – get the vast majority of the marketing support. Artists are signed to ridiculous long-term deals, which generally require them to reimburse the company for all expenses related to the recording, marketing, and promotion of their material.[1] In what other modern industry (besides publishing) are employees expected to pay for all the tools needed to perform their work?

Let’s put it in “regular folk” terms: I get hired to work an office job and, on my first day, am handed a fifty-five page contract to sign. When I mention in an offhand manner that my car is eternally in the shop and I had to take the train to work, the boss hands me the keys to a new car and shows me to a workstation. What I may or may not realize (depending on whether I had the money to hire a contracts lawyer look over my contract) is that the car he just “gave” me and the cost of everything I use to do my job – the computer, fax machine, phone, phone service, paper, pens, printer ink, etc. – will be deducted from future earnings, and I won’t see a dime until it’s all paid off. Oh, and the contract included a non-competition clause, so I can’t quit before the end of the contract and go work for a competitor, AND I’m not allowed to see the details of what I owe and what I’ve made, AND when I do finally leave I don’t have the right to profit from anything I did while working there. Yeah. Welcome to the rock n roll dream.

So, what DOES the rock n roll dream look like now? Is it a light-duty day job, tours on the weekends and an 8.0 in Pitchfork? Is it getting twenty seconds of your song on a popular TV show and parlaying that into record sales? Is it going back to the roots of the business and road-warrioring your way to a fan base? It’s more of a multiple-choice question than ever.


It is quite simply not a musician friendly industry and never really has been. Songwriters have it marginally better, sometimes: if you write your own music (and haven’t signed away most or all of your publishing rights), you get a decent return on any recordings of your songs. But the performers, the rock stars, so to speak, generally only make a few pennies on each copy of an album or single. Michael Jackson got a couple of dollars per copy of “Bad” that was sold, and that was seen as a huge deal back then. So, sure, it sold multimillions and he did OK for himself – but what about the average artists that didn’t record “Thriller” last time out? They get hosed, pure and simple.   In fact, their best shot of making money is touring, where they can negotiate their own cut of the gate[2] and (again, if they haven’t screwed up and sold it away) use their merchandising rights to sell t-shirts and whatnot at the shows. This is why all those 70’s and 80’s heavy metal bands that never got songs on the pop charts lived like pashas – because every pimply-faced Trans-Am jockey that bought their albums also went to their concerts and while there bought t-shirts, buttons, posters, headbands, stickers, mirrors (yes, mirrors. The ones with the logos on…oh, never mind), etc. The occasional gold or platinum album was nice, but it was the merch that paid for the strippers, the coke and the gull-wing Benz.

To be sure, the days of musicians buying castles with the proceeds of their talent are almost certainly gone forever. But the Internet-centered connectivity that has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible has allowed musicians a direct connection to their audiences that will allow those audiences to act as their own A&R person, to decide, en mass or in their cultish dozens, what will be the next feelgood hit of the summer or who will be the next hip indie darling.

So, what DOES this connectivity mean to music? Between the laptop loner mixing her next single and the major labels is a vast expanse of the ‘industry’ that seems to be rolling with the changes and maybe, on a smallish scale, thriving. Mail-order vinyl-only record labels, original music venues, locally owned record stores, even boutique amplifier makers are legion and seem to be making a real go of it. Are they? How? 

You’d think that the master-slave dialectic the big record companies have employed over the years would have put them in a good position. But generally it hasn’t, especially since major corporations that have no experience in the arts have taken them all over. Seagrams, or whoever, buys up a label and thinks that they can increase profits using the same methods they did selling tonic water or light bulbs or whatever. And, sure, there are probably some operational aspects of the music industry (distribution, manufacturing) that a bunch of MBAs could improve; however, the obvious thing that they seem to ignore is that music isn’t like tonic water or light bulbs. It’s ephemeral, weird, both far more and far less important than regular consumer goods. Attempts to predict what music the public will want are exercises in futility so the businessfolk now running the labels have tried to dictate public taste and have, to be honest, succeeded, in a way. They have the advantage of owning or having access to a wide array of media delivery systems, and they have the financial power to utilize them in a sort of carpet-bombing technique.

How DOES the modern musical artist engage with ‘the majors’? Are there ways for smaller acts, mid-level bands, independent songwriters to engage with Behemoth and come away (relatively) unscathed? Of course success stories can be wildly entertaining and occasionally edifying, but near-misses, small victories and downright disasters are more intriguing. Let’s talk about that. Let’s not worry too much about genre, or region, or scene. Let’s get in the van. Let’s rock.

[1] In recent years big name artists have signed “360 deals” with these huge companies, in which they do receive funding for their projects in exchange for a percentage of whatever they make doing, well, anything they decide to do. I have yet to hear someone explain how this is different from any typical major label record deal from the last 50 years in any way other than scale.

[2] Well, they used to be able to do this, before almost every major venue in the United States became the exclusive domain of either Ticketmaster or LiveNation.

The Beginning: Linda, Urban Cowboys and the Sandbox Genius

My parents were music fans, so I was lucky in that respect, but on the other hand I had no older siblings to pass down recorded wisdom, and I mostly grew up in rural East Texas. I was a loner, Dottie, though perhaps not yet a rebel. The soundtrack to my earliest memories (say, age 4 on up) consists of what my Mom listened to (Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Judee Sill, Billy Joel’s first record, Jackson Browne, Neil Young), what was on the radio in Houston, TX (ZZ Top, top 40, and that shiny late 70’s/Gilley’s era country like Kenny & Dolly’s “Islands in the Stream,” The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira,” etc.), or what I saw in movies (“Grease,” possibly/unfortunately “Xanadu”). Also, the album cover to Linda’s “Hasten Down the Wind” was… precious to me.


The above album cover was the starter pistol for my preadolescent sexual awakening.

I’m not sure if it was before or after my parents split up but we were still in the tract house in Spring, TX where we settled after my Dad mustered out of the Air Force. I must have been 5 or 6 and I had a record player in my room, on which I mostly listened to story records (The Muppets “Frog Prince”, Superman, a terrifying Batman one about the origin of the Scarecrow) and the couple of 45’s I had asked for – “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and something from the Grease soundtrack, probably “You’re The One That I Want”. That these two were my first personally selected music purchases is telling. The Charlie Daniels track was a story song so that fits in with my existing collection. I remember really liking the movie “Grease” and the songs were catchy as all hell, so that 45 was really my first foray into pop music for the sake of the music.

Happily my folks still had their college-in-the-late-1960’s vinyl collection and at some point a Beach Boys album ended up in my room. It must have been “Smiley Smile;” I can remember lying in bed at night with the lights off listening to the song “Good Vibrations” and it SCARING THE SHIT out of me. Not in a boogieman or eminent death sort of way. In a “these sounds are doing weird things to my brain and I don’t understand them” way. If you can hear the song in your head right now you’re probably thinking of the chorus and what the shit is scary about a bunch of turtlenecks singing about good vibrations? But click on that link and listen to the whole thing; it was the vocal harmonies on the verse and bridge, the fucking Theremin (which of course I didn’t know existed for another 15 years so to my larval mind it was some sort of space wave), the whole brilliant stack of sound that that sad, crazy man put together.   At the time I thought of none of the above. I just lay there and listened, and had goosebumps and felt weird and loved it. Music could terrify me in the same way that pondering the cosmos would later; it was big and mysterious and powerful, and it made that Batman record seem like child’s play.

Not the start I had in mind, but….

Heard some very sad news about an old friend today, but I’m trying to honor him by remembering good things.

Back about 20 years ago he lived in an RV park right smack in the middle of Austin, and for one stretch of time I spent a lot of days with him there, experiencing the ‘Slacker’-esque characters that populated the park and, mostly, listening to and making music. My favorite memory was of a day when he also had a friend who played drums over and around dusk we lugged all of our instruments over to the little baseball diamond behind the RV park. There were electrical outlets in the dugout and we plugged in our amps and set up the drums near home plate and, for a little while, improvised instrumentally as the sun went down and people strolled back to their cars from a day at Zilker, or a meal at Green Mesquite or Baby A’s. A few would pause for a moment and listen, especially the kids, but no one told us to stop or asked if we were supposed to be there. We played the sun down and well past the time when we could really see what we were doing, just communicating through the music. It’s one of my favorite memories, one of the very few Perfect Moments I have tucked in my ledger.

The last time I heard from him he IM’d me asking about a song we had written back then and if I had a copy of the lyrics.  I didn’t, and I put off responding, and now I never can.

Rest in Peace, Milt.