When I saw that Scott Weiland had died, I wasn’t really expecting to feel much, and I didn’t. I have honestly been expecting to hear that he had died for the last fifteen-plus years, since over that time period I’ve to see a lot more headlines about his arrests and stints in rehab than about his musical output. I stopped reading articles with Weiland’s name in the headline a long time ago for that exact reason. But I always turn up the radio when “Vaseline” or “Interstate Love Song” comes on.
I always thought STP got a bad break critically, initially due to the misfortune of releasing “Plush” as one of their first singles right when Pearl Jam was blowing up and, let’s be honest, he sounded a LOT like Eddie V. on that track.
So they got lumped into the grungepile despite the fact that by their second album they showed themselves to be a much more versatile band than that categorization allowed. They often eschewed big guitar solos, went in for interesting song structures and really had an ear for a good, tight pop song. This versatility gave us some of the great rock singles of the mid-90’s and at the same time probably denied them from the long-term super-fans that their nemeses Pearl Jam got by finding their formula and riding it into the flannel-hued sunset. They lacked the consistency of sound that brings those fans that will buy your albums unheard.
Those that paid attention also discovered that Weiland was quite the vocal chameleon, able to do that Veddery moan but also the punk sneer, the Morrison-esque croon, whatever the DeLeo Brothers’ compositions required. Plus he had that dangerous, who-kn0ws-what-he’ll-do quality that really good frontmen often have. Part of that was natural talent; part was stagecraft. And part of it was the drugs.
The drugs. I am probably sticking my hand in the fire here but fuck it, it’s not like I have advertisers to worry about. When it comes to music, for the most part I adhere to Bill Hicks’ controversial but difficult-to-deny theory that drugs and art go great together. They’re not essential or even useful for everyone, they don’t excuse anything, but they’re as intertwined with rock and roll as Gibson Les Pauls and ridiculous haircuts. Sometimes they’re a key component. Perry Farrell hasn’t released a listenable piece of music since he got sober, and now he doesn’t even have drugs to excuse the fact that he’s an intolerable twat. Aside from the obvious fact that one is a musical genius and the other couldn’t songwrite himself out of a paper bag, there are at least three other reasons why Keith Richards is a far more interesting person than Gene Simmons: Jack Daniels, Marlboros and heroin. Would Johnny Cash have become the Man In Black without the Dexedrine? Would Sgt. Pepper exist if Dylan hadn’t smoked out the Beatles? One of David Bowie’s most critically acclaimed albums was recorded when he was so fucking zooted on cocaine that he literally cannot remember a single second of making the goddamn thing.
There’s no need to feel guilty about enjoying that music, and thus condoning that behavior. We’re not built to take the weight of individual stranger’s problems onto our shoulders; I’m not talking about shirking our duties as a neighbor or a citizen, I’m talking about not involving our psyches in the life choices of some person you will almost certainly never meet whose record we dig. If you deny yourself the pleasure of engaging with art made by anyone who does drugs or makes poor life choices or does unpleasant things or is simply an asshole you’re just going to spend your life trying to enjoy really shitty art.
I don’t know the exact ups and downs of Weiland’s attempts at sobriety and how it coincided with his various musical projects over the last couple of decades and that doesn’t really matter; I don’t need to know and I don’t need to care. I’ve never listened to a Velvet Revolver song and I had no idea he even had another new band until I read his obituary today. And honestly, anyone who’s a genuine music fan has to admit that the only reason anyone gave a shit about Velvet Revolver was that it gave them a chance to hear two good musicians do fucking SOMETHING even though they couldn’t do what we actually wanted them to do, which was be in the great bands they started out with. That or they were mildly curious to hear about the latest drug-fueled escapade that Weiland got himself mixed up in. That second part IS something to feel guilty about if you participated in it, because that’s about celebrity schadenfreude bullshit, not art.
I don’t know what any of this means. The last new good thing I can remember hearing from him was a track called “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down” and it was released in 1998. I liked that song a lot. It was Weiland in Morrison mode, a sloppy drunken waltz with a string section and accordions and all kinds of kitchen sink shit, plus a nice late-Beatles nothing of a chorus. It wasn’t a hit, but it was a good track and I listened to it a lot back then. He was talented, and he apparently did a lot of drugs, and he was in a really good band twenty years ago. Now he’s dead. I don’t know if he was a good person at heart; that’s for the people that actually knew him to celebrate or contemplate as the case may be. For me, I’ll still turn up the radio when “Vaseline” or “Interstate Love Song” comes on. What else should I do?
Another – very very late and kind of short – installment in my ongoing series.
I had a shitty stereo with a turntable in my room. At some point my Mom walked into my room with an armload of records. I don’t recall what she said exactly, whether I should listen to them or that I might like these or what. I’m sure at least some of the impetus behind the gesture was that she was sick as shit of hearing “Pyromania” and “Metal Health” over and over again. When she left I put the stack in my lap and took a look. A couple of Cream records, Janis Joplin’s “Pearl,” at least a couple of Led Zeppelin’s first 3 or 4 records, “Ziggy Stardust,” the Faces “A Nod’s As Good As A Wink…” and Rod’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”
Even with a turntable, even with all these capital-A Albums, my memory still chops them up into 7” single-sized chunks. “Me and Bobby McGee” and the Faces’ “Stay With Me” were two big takeaways from the stack. The only albums of the bunch I remember listening to all the way through a lot were Ziggy and Led Zeppelin IV. I don’t recall ever listening to the Cream albums even though their covers were so striking and I don’t recall any particular reason NOT to listen to them aside from, you know, the tweedly-deedly. I also recall a moment in the title track to “Every Picture Tells a Story” where someone in the band or in the studio while they were recording yells out “HEY!” in a completely random and non-musical way. Whoever that person was sounded EXACTLY like my stepfather and literally every time I listened to that song (which was a lot) I jumped when that “HEY!” happened because I thought it was him telling me to turn it down or go clean the pine needles out of the gutters.
Was it growing up with most of my musical intake coming from commercial radio and MTV that made me tend to think of music in terms of songs instead of albums, singles instead of bands? Dunno but that’s how it was and still is with me. Not that there aren’t albums that I love from front to back but I don’t expect to do so. Why should I be surprised when a group of even superlative musicians can’t come up with 40+ minutes of amazing music every year, or every other year, or even once? It’s arbitrary and more than that it’s really, really fucking hard to do. It’s hard enough to produce – and by that I mean everything that goes into it: writing, arranging, performing, engineering, mixing, mastering, artwork – one single song that people will want to hear more than once. But that’s do-able. Thus I never held it against a band or a singer if I only liked one or two of their songs. Sure there were times when I’d get pissed that I’d dropped ten bucks on a cassette only to discover that literally every song other than the one on the radio was absolute dogshit. But you learn your lesson and you start to get a feel for when something’s a one-hitter or a going concern.
 Shut up. It’s their fourth album and I don’t wanna hear about the fucking symbols or whatever.
This is backing up a bit, but once I was genuinely committed to playing guitar – ELECTRIC guitar – I naturally gravitated towards guitar-heavy music, and that meant going back in time, poring over the pages of the tablature-rich, ossified Guitar For The Practicing Musician and trying to figure out what the guitar gods of the last age were doing. I also took lessons from guy named John Carney via the local music store. He was a good dude, very much of the age (shiny-snaps shirt open 1/3 of the way, black jeans, kinda longish hair) and a pretty patient teacher. Instead of stuffing me with theory he would ask me to bring in a track to work on. I’d bring a tape and in about 5 minutes he’d have a basic tablature transcription and then we’d work our way through it, occasionally learning some theory along the way. At some point I heard Ted Nugent’s paean to domestic violence “Stranglehold” and was blown away and bought the cassette. Sure the lyrics are a goddamn nightmare but the combination of swampy funk groove and the endless yet surprisingly tasteful guitar solo that makes up the bulk of the song are prototypes of 70’s hard rock. So I brought it to John and he taught me the couple of riffs that the actual song consisted of. Then he sat there listening to the solo and said something to the effect of “OK, there is no way I am transcribing all of that business. Here is the A-minor pentatonic blues scale; it’s all he’s doing, just playing those five notes in various combinations up and down the neck. Just, like, learn that and then do it for six or seven minutes and you’re good.” And I was off. I don’t think I learned another scale for 2 or 3 years. You can play 80% of rock, blues and country songs produced in the last 60 years and never use another scale; just figure out the key and go.
On the way to or from practice one day, I slid the Nugent cassette into the deck of our Mazda GLC and glanced over to see how much Mom was hating the music. Not much of a reaction. I pointed out that it was Ted Nugent. “I know,” she said. “I saw him in concert one time. He came swinging out of the rafters on a vine, wearing a loin cloth.”
I don’t know what I expected. I had seen her record collection so there was no reason to be surprised that she had been witness to some Live Gonzo. I asked who else she had seen. Ridiculous. Janis (“people kept putting bottles of Wild Turkey on the stage, and she kept drinking them”), the Doors, the Allman Brothers, on and on.
 Apparently they played for 3+ hours then went to the local college radio station and played on the air for another couple hours. She didn’t say if they managed to get in anything aside from “Whipping Post.”
I don’t think the mainstreaming of music videos, meaning their conversion via MTV from promo clips that might get shown on late night TV or pay cable to THE way youngsters were exposed to new music, was quite as game changing as the Internet would be a generation later. But it certainly had a huge impact in regards to creating a shared/homogenized youth culture. I remember seeing the random video here and there before we got MTV – “Fish Heads” on Showtime at a friends house; “Centerfold” on SNL one night; the full version of “Thriller,” obviously, at a church youth group ‘lock-in.’ I even remember my friend Kevin describing Tom Petty’s video for “Lucky” and being completely mystified. Music video wasn’t a term yet; he literally did not have the vocabulary to describe what he had seen to me. It’s like a Road Warrior movie but to a song? Huh?
Being from North Florida, Sir Thomas was always going to have a leg up in surviving the apocalypse.
Receiving MTV was a genuinely revolutionary event for me. Out there in the sticks I had no pipeline aside from mainstream rock mags, mainly Rolling Stone; my parents’ record collections (which were not to be despised and on which more later); and once I was in high school some of the freaks in the upper classes were a great help. But MTV was fucking manna from heaven, especially up through maybe ’86 or ’87 when they were still playing just about any video they could in order to fill 24 hours with something other than Rod Stewart tracks (seriously, why did he do somanydamn videos before there was a reason to?).
I had been playing guitar for at least a couple of years. My first song on the electric was “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and through junior high and into my freshman year it was all about the metal. But then I somehow was allowed to talk to girls, and they liked the Cure and the Violent Femmes and obviously I was going to find out what that was all about. I started watching “120 Minutes,” and that late night video show was my one beloved pipeline to actual cool music from March of 1986 until I moved to Austin three years later. The first big gift I got from MTV was seeing The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” video on 120 Minutes one night. It grabbed me immediately, with the swirling psychedelic imagery and the opening guitar/sitar line evoking some of the late 1960’s records my Mom had loaned me. And then WHACK!!!! A gunshot of a snare hit and the song kicks into a propulsive, almost metallic chug. It was leading me into a musical borderland where I would spend most of my time thereafter. I sought out the cassette of The Cult’s album “Love” immediately and it was a solid collection, although “Sanctuary” was far and away the best thing on it.
To the eternal question of “Quaker hat or headscarf?” Ian Astbury’s answer is “Costume Change!!”
And then a funny thing happened. I recall sitting in English class talking to S.S. and I brought up the Cult and she asked to borrow the cassette. She loved it and then I loaned it to someone else, and someone else and suddenly my “thing” was turning people on to the cool new shit. I had people thanking me for introducing them to bands or records years later. I was a tunepusher.
I tortuously figured out how to play “Sanctuary” on the guitar and later on my girlfriend introduced me to some guys who needed a guitar player for their party band. They asked me to bring a song to the table, and “Sanctuary” was the card I dealt. I was in.
MTV’s second big gift I remember thusly: it’s a weekend afternoon, I turn on the TV and catch the last half of Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood.” It was exactly what I was looking for: loud guitars, shouty chorus, chick singer, grainy black and white, chaos and urbanism and punk rock. In my memory it was later the same day when I rode with my parents to Wal-Mart and, improbably, there was the eponymous Concrete Blonde debut cassette right there in the rack.
This video predicted the popularity of cat videos, bad tattoos, hoarding and good musicians not making any money ever.
So I get this Concrete Blonde record and I’m REALLY digging its swirly, spacious sparseness and I’m thinking that, solos aside it seems pretty simple guitar-wise. So I get my rig set up and push ‘play’ and start strumming along and something just goes ‘click’ in my brain; maybe it was “Song for Kim” with that simple single-note riff that brought it all into place for me, but regardless I suddenly knew how to play by ear. I had never grasped how to do it before; it’s one of those leap-learning things that happens all at once. It just has to click and it clicked and I jumped in to learning songs with both feet.
Aside from its eternal association with my growth as a musician, I loved that record from the first time I pressed play. I still do, it’s a nostalgia generator par excellence. Whenever I go to L.A. it’s playing on a loop in my head if not on my car stereo. All because MTV existed and decided to play a regionally known indie rock trio signed to IRS Records in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.
 Directed by Bill Paxton. Sorry I am required by my brain to trot out that piece of trivia any time it is even remotely relevant.
 By “they” I mean the tiny, tiny sweet spot in the Venn diagram of exurban East Texas girls encompassing those that a) would talk to me and b) had any valid opinion about music whatsoever.
 i.e. exactly the opposite of what and where I lived.
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…
1. NEIL ‘SPYDER’ GIRALDO
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.
2. JAMES MANKEY
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.
3. STEVE BARTEK
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.
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.
4. STEVE STEVENS
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.
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.
5. DR. KNOW
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 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.
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.
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. Number 1 album. “Hurts so Good” hit number two on the Hot 100 and “Jack & Diane” 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:
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. 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.
 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.
 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?
 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.
 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.
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 fantastic. Chvrches 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.
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.
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. 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 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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.