Selling Out: Who’s Buying?

gordon9

We are, in fact, only in it for the money.

This morning I was listening to The Howard Stern Show and he had 60’s icon/songwriter/musician Donovan on for an interview and some impromptu acoustic performances. Since it was Stern it was, of course, a great interview (say what you will about the man, but he is, hands down, the single best interviewer I have ever seen or listened to. Especially when it comes to musicians.). Donovan spouted off stories about his days hanging with The Fab Four, recording his hits with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones as session men (pre-Zep), and then  showed Howard how this one descending chord progression is used in tons of songs you know and love (he went on to play “Dear Prudence”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “House Of the Rising Sun”, and more to prove his point–they all use the same type of progression). Then Howard asked him questions along the lines of, “Does it amaze you that so many people know the lyrics to your songs and sing along? Were you aware that would be the case when you wrote them? How do you know when a song is good?” Donovan’s response was insightful. He told Howard, “the first thing  you need to do is please yourself. The second is impress your peers. The last thing you think about is the fans.”

It reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with some fellow musicians. We were ranting and raving about bands that “make it” vs. ones that don’t (including ours, which is why we were so bitter at the time). Then a sentence was uttered that has stuck with me ever since: you have to start making music for yourself.

Most bands and musicians start out with the goal of “making it.” And by “making it” I mean, in simple terms, being able to make music as your professional career, i.e. get paid to make music. Very few fulfill this dream.  When starting out, most artists are all about pleasing the fans, mainly, because they are trying to get some. But for those that  really hit it big (U2, Metallica, The Stones, etc.) they basically get to dictate their own careers once they do.  After Metallica’s Black Album sold a gazillion copies they essentially earned the right to do whatever the fuck they wanted. You think U2 cares if you think Zooropa sucked?

Growing up, the term “selling out” was one of the biggest insults you could hurl at an artist. This was mostly applied in the hardcore/punk/metal scenes. When Metallica came on in the early 80’s they were underground, dirt-bag metalheads wearing jeans jackets, ripped jeans, and sneakers while playing the fastest, most maniacal music on the planet. Now they play the Grammy’s and get mentioned on Good Morning America. Ozzy Osbourne was the devil incarnate back in 1982–now his music appears in car commercials. Does that mean Metallica and Ozzy have “sold out” or that a.) the powers that be are now people of the age that grew up loving these musicians so they are celebrating that love, b.) in this day and age you do whatever you can to get your music out there, or c.) there is no such thing anymore as “selling out.” (I think Ian MacKaye would disagree with c.).

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Oh Nevermind, Nothing’s Shocking

Ted, Just Admit It...This Album Is Awesome!

In the annals of rock and roll history there have been numerous groundbreaking and important albums released, way too many to mention in a short list here. “Game changers” from Sgt. Peppers to Enter the 36 Chambers are discussed, disputed, diluted and written about ad nauseam. From talking heads on VH1 (and bloggers such as us) to the employees of record and music stores worldwide, there are oft agreed upon standards of excellence that these records have established. You will be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least appreciate the significance of OK Computer or the influence of London Calling.

In the past thirty years or so you can probably list quite a few records that are “instant classics” in various genres (again, won’t even try to start naming them). But over time I am starting to get the feeling that the wrong album is being championed to the forefront of “alternative” rock classics: Nirvana’s Nevermind.  Now before I go on let me please state that I am a fan of the band and the album and in no way, shape, or form am I trying to devalue the record’s greatness. Like many other classic albums, it’s pretty much agreed upon that Nevermind was a game changer. The issue is, I think people are forgetting that perhaps an even greater and more influential album was released a few years earlier than Nevermind. An album that in hindsight seems almost more groundbreaking than it did when it was first released. An album that, unlike the claim by many that Nevermind was the “death of hair metal” actually was the beginning of the end of it. The album I am referring to is Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking.

Let’s go back to the mid-to-late-80’s when anyone on the wrong side of U2 and REM were pretty much reaching the end of their runs in the musical spotlight. Hair metal had taken over “real” metal as the most popular form of hard rock entertainment. While the salad days of hip hop were beginning, the end was near for bands like Poison, Ratt, and Motley Crue. Metallica was the lone wolf in the hard rock realm still holding on to the glory years of 70’s British New Wave of Metal while forging new ground (and a genre) with thrash. But girls didn’t really listen to Metallica. You still made out to power ballads by Warrant and if you were lucky, some slower Van Halen songs.

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Coach Spector

So Kobe sets up on the perimeter and Shaq works the post. Fisher, I want you to backdoor your pass from the foul line over to Gasol. And please make sure you write a bridge!

As readers of some of my previous posts might already know, there is nothing I enjoy more than correlating music with sports. Today I would like to ask this profound-yet-absolutely-meaningless-question:  Just how important is the coach to a team or a record “producer” to an artist when it comes to success?

Is George Martin the greatest record producer ever because he happened to be in the room during all of those Beatles recordings or because of his influence in that room? Is Phil Jackson the greatest coach who ever lived because of the triangle offense and his ability to motivate or was he lucky to have Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe? Would George Martin be able to get the same results with, say, a band like Strawberry Alarm Clock?  Would Phil Jackson be able to win a slew of championships with Kevin Ebanks and Manute Bol?

Most people aren’t one hundred percent sure of what a record producer even does. I am not sure if any producer really knows either because the job is more akin to being a creative consultant.

Hey Producer, look at this product we have and tell us what you think about it. Maybe you can comment on its looks, colors, and shapes and present us with some additional options we might like. You can even carouse us to think of some new ideas ourselves. Since we really respect your thoughts and past works we will assume you know what you are talking about.

Or someone might be called a producer for the simple fact that they helped finance a project. Rick Rubin gets paid to produce Metallica records, he doesn’t finance them himself. But if you see a listing for an “Executive Producer” on a band’s record then more than likely that person was simply laundering money from the profits of their cocaine business.

There is no real question as to what a coach’s role on a sports team is. The coach is the boss. The coach makes the team rules, sets the teams goals, teaches the players how to run plays and schemes, and when really good at their jobs will shield the players from any external distractions, whether they be personal or professional. You often hear younger players refer to their beloved coaches in a paternal fashion.  Some athletes will go as far as comparing their coaches to generals in the field with whom they “go to war with” and “battle” alongside. You think John Lennon spent his time praising the greatness of George Martin?

I am not here to downplay the role of the producer when it comes to great music. A great producer (like a great coach) can take mediocre talent and extract greatness from it. Just listen to any Dr. Dre produced album: you might not like the songs or even the style of music but you will without a doubt respect how good it sounds (i.e. well produced). Would Dark Side of The Moon be the same legendary album had Alan Parson’s not help produce it? Probably, the same way those Jordan/Pippen teams of the 90’s probably would have still won championships without Phil Jackson. The 98 Yanks would’ve won the World Series with me as their manager.

What about when a good producer does a bad thing? I, of course, am referring to Clive lets-make-up-for-30-years-of-ignoring-the-classiest-most-interesting-guitar-player-on-the-planet-by-producing-a-made-for-the-masses-crossover-singles-album-with-today’s-young-pop-stars Davis. Supernatural sold 700 billion copies and made Santana a house hold name (…again…if it wasn’t already–which is a shame unto itself). Look, I love and respect Carlos Santana perhaps more than any other guitar player alive today but the fact that “The Academy” only got around to giving him Grammies for that Clive Davis-produced-shitfest vs. anything he did in the 70’s is ludicrous. Clive Davis has an amazing history of evaluating and discovering talent.  But Mr. Davis took an artist known for one thing (incredible musicianship and fusion of styles) and turned him into another (pop rock artist). And Carlos went along for the ride, so he should be called out on that to some degree as well.

I do feel that within the athletic world the role of a coach has a much more influential role than a good record producer might have. The band (usually) still writes their own songs, but players rarely draw up their own plays (unless they are the Brady, Mannings, and Kobes of the world). In this day-and-age you hear about the miraculous one-year-turnaround in sports rather frequently. A team is 4-12 one season, hires a new coach and go 12-4 the next with relatively the same talent. When was the last time Rick Rubin took a band that was horrible and made them great? He took a band that was on the cusp in the early 90’s and transformed them into megastars, but the band was good before he got there. He just made them better. Nigel Godrich has masterfully produced numerous Radiohead albums, but couldn’t do shit when presented with The Strokes.

The debate is never-ending and completely circumstantial. Sometimes a great coach can win with a good team and sometimes a producer can fail with a great band. And vice versa. The interesting aspect of all this is how the coach and the record producer share a very similar role in their respective fields: to collaborate and extract great performances. And in both fields each will sometimes get too much praise for success or too much ridicule for failure (athletes must execute plays and musicians must write good songs). In the end though, I would much rather sit in a control room with Macca discussing the merits of adding a french horn to the bridge than writing X’s and O’s on a chalkboard trying to figure out how to stop Aaron Rodgers from dissecting my secondary.

What Ever Happened To The Guitar Solo?

Guitar Face

The other day, fellow future BumsLogic blogger Mike Eddy and I were having one of our many conversations about music. Over time, the topic turned to the lack of the great “Guitar God” in modern music. Don’t get us wrong, there are dozens of incredible, capable, groundbreaking guitars players around today–too many to list here–it’s just that at some point it ceased to be cool to play a guitar solo and/or be considered a “Guitar God.” In mainstream/classic rock the last undisputed leader was Eddie Van Halen. And that was back in the 80’s! Slash, Tom Morello, and more recently, Jack White, have seemed to inherit the role since. Those players are all rooted in classic rock styles, and while technically and creatively proficient in their playing, they don’t carry the declaration of “God” such as Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Santana, Eddie, etc. once did before them.

I played a house party gig in Washington, DC a couple of years ago and after we finished our set I had a quick conversation with a younger kid who had just watched us play. It went something like this:

NiceGuyDC: Hey man, really enjoyed your band. Cool songs.
Jaded: Thanks. Appreciate it. Thanks for listening.
NiceGuyDC: I’ll tell you what, it was kinda interesting watching you play guitar.
Jaded: Oh yea? Why’s that?
NiceGuyDC: You are definitely the first guitar player I’ve ever seen in a DC rock band that bends notes while playing.
Jaded: Ha, yea…guess so.
NiceGuyDC: You just don’t hear much of that anymore.
Jaded: No you don’t. Maybe it’s cause I’m not ashamed to admit how much I bite off Jimmy Page.

Before I move on, let me just say that there are plenty of bands/guitar players from DC that “bend notes.” I think what NiceGuyDC was trying to say was that the guitar players in today’s popular rock bands don’t play solos.  It’s not that they lack the skills or ability, it’s that they just choose not to. The guitar solo has become a sign of self-indulgence and should only be used when adding swashing effects to a two note repetitive wail.  Don’t even dare take on an extended improvisational solo outside of the jam band circuit these days, that is, unless you want to be called a jam band (Sonic Youth notwithstanding).

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My Top 10 Favorite Metal/Hard Rock Album Covers

Perfectly classic.

#10  AC/DC – BACK IN BLACK
Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap: “I think he is right, there is something about this, that’s that’s so black, it’s like; “How much more black could this be?” and the answer is: “None, none…more black.”

Nuff said.

 

 

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