Wednesday, 12 May 2010

So far we’ve discussed cover songs that are loving recreations, near tributes, of their originals, and total renovations, veritable gut and rebuilds, of their counterparts. But I believe there’s more to consider.

Of Standards, Revivalists, and Composers

In any conversation about music, I will usually find a way to bring it around to this next band: Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. (See. It took three installments, but I still got it there.) Ms. Smith and company have three albums that I listen to so often the CDs may very well wear out yet they blow me away every time. The band does splendid versions of old Jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s. Does that mean they do cover albums or have the songs themselves grown beyond cover status?

These are no mere knock-offs. Even if the songs themselves are classics, there’s a huge amount of work that goes into creating a new arrangement. Having a certain appreciation for big-band Jazz, it’s easy for me to see that. On the other hand, they hold a certain place in my life that makes me think of them as more than mere standards either.

Another example would be “Mack the Knife.” It was originally written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for the 1928 Berlin premier of their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper. Mark Blitzstein translated it to English in 1954 for The Threepenny Opera. Louis Armstrong introduced the 1954 translation to the hit parade in 1956. Bobby Darin recorded his own version in 1959 and it is this recording that most people know. Since that time it has charted more than 100 times, so which, if any, are covers? Did Darin do a cover of the Armstrong version? Was Armstrong’s version a cover Brecht/Weill original? What if I recorded my own rendition and released it today? Would it be a cover? Of whose version? If not, where in the intervening 55+ years did they stop being covers and what are they now?

So when do new renditions of a song grow, perhaps even graduate, from being a cover into standard? What makes something like “Mack the Knife” a standard where “Hallelujah” is not? It may have something to do with copyright, but I think a bigger factor is longevity.

These days we have more music being released than ever before. That’s not saying there’s a wider variety, just larger quantities. Much of it won’t be with us in 50 or 100 years. Heck, even 20 years will be pushing it. This issue isn’t limited to songs from the last 5-10 years either. I graduated high school in 1985 and listened to a lot of 80’s music. While I’ll always have a certain fondness, not all of it has held up that well. For every New Order, there’s at least 5 Flock of Seagulls.

So you can see that, like much in present-day society, modern music isn’t built to last. It’s largely disposable; meant to be consumed rather than savored and enjoyed. Many current-era bands, and ever their songs, sound the same. It’s more about selling, not the next big thing, just the next thing. Most of the songs mentioned in parts one and two would have to be included in “modern music” and who knows how long they’ll be around either. Will I still care about them as anything other that curiosities 5 years from now?

Rod Stewart, has had a minor resurgence in his career recording four albums straight from the American Songbook. He’s continued along those same lines with two more albums of covers, one of rock classics and one containing soul and Motown classics. One of his early hits, “Downtown Train,“ was a cover song, the original having been done by Tom Waits.

That just goes to show that you can’t take any old song, create a new version, and have people identify with it. The original has to bring some juice of it’s own. There must have been some base popularity in the original song, something that makes it recognizable years later. Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin all created songs that are timeless. These are the songs that Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughn, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole, and Tony Bennet (to this day) made their living from.

You don’t even need to go back that far to find songs and bands that have that same kind of staying power. Just look at acts such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and many many more.

What about bands that are best thought of as revivalists? There have been others, but two stand-outs would have to be Sha Na Na and the Blues Brothers.

Sha Na Na formed in 1969 and brought back 1950s doo-wop through concerts, an appearance in the movie Grease, and their own TV show (1977-1981). The lineup has changed, but they’re still performing today with three of the original members. I remember them best from the TV show and, for a time, hoped to grow up to be Bowser. I don’t know that they did any original songs, but they made a career out of nostalgia, drawing from songs that are near and dear to most Baby Boomers.

The Blues Brothers began their “mission from God” in a 1976 Saturday Night Live skit and turned into a glorious, loving tribute to the blues, soul, and R&B music from the 1950s and 1960s. Not to be missed (and really, is anyone not familiar with these?) are their versions of “Soul Man” and “Rubber Biscuit.” Whether you consider their work an homage or mere send-up, there are many people who wouldn’t have explored the music of Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, and many, many, others.

What if a songwriter pens the tune for someone else, then later does it themselves? Take the glam rock anthem “All the Young Dudes,” arguably a classic. It was originally written by David Bowie and recorded by Mott the Hoople on their 1972 album of the same name. In 1973 Bowie started doing the song on tour, and his studio recording was finally, although unofficially, released in 1994. ( See note below.)

Are any of these groups cover artists? The answer isn’t so easy for me. Surely, at some point, songs go from originals and covers and evolve into standards. That brings us back to the longevity question I touched on earlier. If your grandparents listened to it, there’s a good chance it’s a standard. If the original performer, the one who made it famous, is dead, it’s probably a standard. If Frank, Tony, Sarah, Sammy, or Nat did the song, it’s practically guaranteed to be a standard.

Ultimately does it really matter? Probably not. But, once in a while, give me a good cover, if it’s all the same to you. Something that is new and, at the same time, a old familiar friend.

† My original example was going to be Barry Manilow instead of Bowie/Mott the Hoople. It should have been easy. Here’s a guy that has written hundreds of songs for other musicians and has a thriving career of his own spanning more than 30 years and over 21 albums – and that’s not counting the live albums and his series of Greatest Songs of the… releases. I couldn’t find a single instance where he a) wrote the song, b) for someone else, c) and later recorded it himself. That was a huge surprise. In fact, most of his hits as a performer were written by someone else and his hits as a songwriter were almost exclusively performed by others.

‡ Some reference/research information for this series from Wikipedia, allmusic, and several friends.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Last time we talked about cover songs that were loving reproductions of the originals. Whether you see them as tributes or knock-offs, the power of a good cover is undeniable. In this part we’ll delve into covers that are total renovations, for better or worse, of the versions done by their original artists. Second in my three part series on cover songs.

Total Renovations

As the name implies, total renovations are when the coverer makes the song completely their own. It’s possible you may recognize the song but only just barely, often because the melody is the only thing left in tact with everything else having been reworked. The typical reaction is “Hey, isn’t this…?”

My first offering is quite possibly the weirdest cover in the renovation class: New York electro/glam group Scissor Sisters’ disco version of “Comfortably Numb” (original by Pink Floyd.) You might say that Pink Floyd covered one or two of their own songs. Not that the radio version of “Another Brick In the Wall” is a happy-go-lucky little tune, but it’s decidedly more upbeat than what was in the movie (The Wall). However they never went disco and the Scissor Sisters rendition is every bit as bizarre as you might think, hence the special fondness for it.

There’s an amazing version of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” done by Nina Gordon. It bears but a passing resemblance to the original, and that’s only because they’re the same words. But that’s where the similarity ends. Gordon turns it into a totally different song. The lead-in gives it a pretty, almost sing-song vibe; then she lays into the first line “Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf*!#er named Ice Cube.” Not at all what you’d expect. There was a time when I could recite the lyrics, learned exclusively from her version.

Two songs come to mind as the epitome of the total renovation type of cover. They are both stunning, practically hallowed in their ability to transform the originals into something new, into things of beauty.

First would have to be Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” from his album American IV: The Man Comes Around (the original was released as a single by Nine Inch Nails.) Overall Cash’s rendition uses the lyrics straight-up from the radio version with one notable exception: “crown of shit” is changed to “crown of thorns,” but otherwise it’s right on.

Where the Nine In Nails original comes across as somewhat angry about the state of the world and frustrated , Cash’s is more remorseful about where his life has been and the video for the song only seems to reinforce the feeling of regret and sorrow. NIN’s front-man Trent Reznor has said “…that song isn’t mine any more…” in reaction to Cash’s remake and the corresponding video.

You wouldn’t normally consider a song of heartache and regret in the cover, or of outrage and fury in the original, to be things of beauty. Listen to both versions back to back. Compare them for yourself. Knowing what we do of Cash’s life, just listening to it, concentrating on the words, is enough to make you cry. May we never know such sorrow in our own lives.

American IV also has a remake of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” that’s pretty spectacular too, although it’s closer to the original than “Hurt.” That’s mostly due to the twang guitar in Depeche Mode’s version that Cash replicates, to a degree, in his.

My second example that embodies the total renovation cover is “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley. The Leonard Cohen original was less sung and performed more in a murmur; hebetudinous, somewhat dispassionate, almost impersonal. Conversely Buckley created what many consider the definitive version. He took the song to new heights, creating a rendition that was at the same time sorrowful and a celebration of sexual release.

“Hallelujah” has been covered by more than 200 artists including Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, John Cale, k. d. lang, and Bob Dylan. Cohen himself has said that there are many different hallelujahs depending upon the performer. But out of all those versions, by all of those artists, it is still the Jeff Buckley interpretation that stands out. His cover is, in my mind, the perfect song. It may as well have been the entire reason the music business came into existence.

Long time favorite band Tears for Fears released the song “Mad World” in 1982. It was originally intended as a B-side for their second single, “Pale Shelter,” but was held back to release on it’s own. It proved to be their first international single, although it didn’t really chart in the U.S.

Some 20 years later Gary Jules and Michael Andrews recorded a version for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. Their recording gained a cult following that prompted them to release it as a proper single in 2003 that became a runaway hit. Where the Tears for Fears original was a steady-moving synth-pop song that expresses a certain frustration with a world as seen through teenage eyes, the Jules/Andrews remake was rendered bare with just piano, cello, and the vocals comes off as somewhat languid, almost despondent. The song received a second or third wind when it was featured during the 2008 season of American Idol.

I am somewhat torn between the two seemingly disparate versions of “Mad World,” never quite knowing what to make of either of them. It seems that whenever one version comes on, I feel as though the other is what I’d rather listen to at the time.

Some cover songs can come from the most surprising places.

Take, for example, “Blinded by the Light.” Originally written in 1973 by Bruce Springsteen, it appeared on his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. Unfortunately, the song pretty much went nowhere. The Boss’s version is a pretty straight up rock-n-roll tune that sounds exactly like you’d expect an early Bruce Springsteen song.

That’s right – the Manfred Mann version that everyone knows is actually a cover. The 1977 remake starts with the chorus, then goes pretty much straight through the song, but is augmented by a lengthy bridge and significant keyboard part. Listening to them both, side by side, I’ll take the Manfred Mann version any day – sorry Boss.

Special mention goes to the Puppini Sisters, whom are best described as a modern-day Andrews Sisters. They even do a spot-on rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Their first album contains versions of “Jeepers Creepers,” “Mr. Sandman,” and “Sisters;” all of which are practically required for a close-harmony group. You would think that puts them solidly in the loving reproduction class, but that’s not what draws me to them. Their retro arrangements of more modern songs such as “Panic” (The Smiths), “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor – wow!), and, my favorite, “Heart of Glass” (Blondie) are truly amazing.

In the third and final installment we’ll dig into songwriters and composers, standards, a couple revivalists, and what makes a good cover song.

Wednesday, 07 April 2010

I’m about to confess a dirty little secret that may damage my credibility as a semi-professional music appreciator — self-proclaimed though it may be — but I’m tired of hiding it. I love a good cover song. Heck, who am I kidding? They don’t even have to be good. As long as they are unique or interesting in some way, I can’t resist them.

What is a cover song? A cover song, or cover version, is a new recording or performance of a song that was released previously recorded and commercially released by someone else. Simply put, a cover song is a remake.

The term cover song was originally coined, likely as a pejorative, in reaction to record label practices at the time. In an attempt to cash in on another label’s success, some companies would hire their own band to create a sound-alike version. They would even resort to deceptive packaging to make people think they were getting the real thing and not some cheap knock-off.

But I believe that cover songs have grown beyond their questionable, even seedy, beginnings. Judge not a cover song simply because it mimics another, but give it room to grow, to come into its own. Modern covers should be looked upon as tributes to the original songs or artists, worthy of consideration in their own right.

Fundamentally there are two varieties of cover songs: loving reproductions and total renovations. Each type has it’s own appeal and I have several favorites in both groups. In this series I’ll cover those two types and offer some observations on what makes a good cover song, as well as songs that have arguably become standards.

Loving Reproductions

In the realm of cover songs, loving reproductions are where the coverer (the band doing the new rendition) makes their version sound as much like the original (the coveree’s) as they can.

Obviously there are allowances for male vs. female singers and slight changes in instrumentation, but the point in loving reproductions is that the new version identifies strongly with the original. You’re meant to immediately recognize it. You may even think you’re listening to the original until you finally decide that it doesn’t sound quite right.

First up is Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which was covered by José González. The two versions are nearly identical. Same beat. Same tempo. Same words. Even González’s voice seems to mimic Elizabeth Frasier’s (formerly with Cocteau Twins) from the Massive Attack original. It’s as though González did a stripped down, acoustic rendition of the song. Something thing I find interesting: other artists have done covers of the José González version, notably Newton Faulkner – sparse yet quite lovely – and pop/jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum, who sometimes does the song at his concerts. So are these covers of covers, or are they just similarly styled remakes of the original?

These next two are a bit interconnected. First is Shawn Colvin’s rendition of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and the second is Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” reworked by Gnarls Barkley. Both stick fairly close to the original, overall, however they don’t hold equal appeal to me. Colvin’s stunning remake comes off as folksy, while the Gnarls Barkley cover is slightly tigher, but nearly note compared with the Femmes’ original. Colvin did something with the song, where Gnarls Barkley phoned it in. Now, this could be that I listened to the Femmes’ in high-school and somehow identify with it more and am resistant to seeing it messed with. I also have a thing for female singers in general and Shaun Colvin in particular.

At the risk of going a bit obscure, one my favorite female voices, Sia Furler, does a version of “Under the Milky Way” by The Church. It’s nearly identical to the original, but with Sia’s voice in place of Steve Kilby’s. I like The Church. I like Sia. I love this cover. It could easily be another thing about voices, but I don’t care. Next time she’s in town I hope she’ll do this song.

But why would anyone bother doing a cover if they’re just going to copy the original? Why would anyone care to listen?

I think that sometimes we just want something different, but not too different. Like a fresh coat of paint that’s the same color as before. A change of voice, a tweak in the arrangement, a new outlook on an old favorite.

Next time we’ll make a break for it with total renovations.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

I’m going to get this out of the way early: Abbey Road is not my choice for 1969. While it has some good songs (“Octopus’s Garden,” “Come Together,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer;” it just doesn’t strike me as strong of an album as some of their others. If you ask me, their best albums came out before I was born. 1968’s the The White Album was great, with many memorable songs, but 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night has some of the sweetest, most touching tracks; “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” being personal favorites.

It was also the last year they performed together in public.

But I’m not here to talk about the Beatles illustrious career, nor years past. I’m here to delve into the music of 1969 and my favorite album for the year.

Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album was released; Vickie Jones was arrested after a concert performance where she did a spot-on impersonation of Aretha Franklin (DO NOT mess with the Queen); The Who’s rock opera, Tommy made its debut; Chicago released their first album; Eric Burdon & War formed; Brian Jones died; Elvis Presley returns to live performance with shows in Vegas; the Jackson 5 make their album debut; Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, The Doobie Brothers, and Judas Priest all form. And if that isn’t enough, we can’t forget those three little days in August: Woodstock.

1969 gave us what was quite possibly the first super-group: Blind Faith. While you can’t deny the potential in bringing Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ginger Baker together, their singular, self-titled album just doesn’t have anything that truly stuck with me after hearing it. There’s nothing there that I look back and think “I’ve got to hear that again.”

Genesis released their first album, “From Genesis to Revelation” in 1969. Many regard their early work, while Peter Gabriel was in the band, their best work. However I think my favorite of theirs came later, in the Phil Collins years, even though I think Collins ruined the band in the end. Peter Gabriel did better work as a solo act, so Genesis doesn’t get the nod this year.

The Jackson 5 released their first album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. It’s got a couple good songs, but it was largely cover songs and was kind of a disappointment for me. ABC is a much better album, so I’ll hold out for that.

I have to note Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone, if only for the songs “Everyday People” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” Both classics and that I can never get enough of.

For me the best album of the year is In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. It was their debut album, and is probably the strongest album ever to come out of the progressive rock genre. My favorite rock guitarist, Adrian Belew, didn’t join King Crimson until later, but I won’t hold that against the album.

All of that said, how can I pick a mere album, a single recording, as the most influential music event of 1969. Clearly that honor must go to Woodstock.

Surprised? Really?

Woodstock was, quite possibly, the single greatest concert event ever. With a lineup including Janis Joplin, CNSY, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Johnny Winter (with Edgar!), Richie Havens, and the Grateful Dead, how can you go wrong? And that’s only half of the bands that were there. Even Sha-Na-Na was there!

OK, so the Sha-Na-Na thing might be pushing it a tiny bit. <grin>

Even the list of who didn’t show up is big: Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson didn’t like hippies), The Doors (Jim Morrison didn’t like large outdoor venues), Led Zeppelin (they didn’t want to be “just another band” on the bill), Bob Dylan (his son was sick – and there were too many hippies outside his house), among others.

There was rain, skinny dipping, mud, storms, more nakedness, free love, and a couple songs thrown in for good measure.

The original plan was for 50,000 people on 300 acres, but the Wallkill town board declined to issue the necessary permits. A little finagling and they were able to rent 600 acres from Mr. Yasgur. Somewhere along the line it grew to nearly 200,000 people, but some 500,000 showed up. Half a million people!

For its time, the engineering requirements were off the charts. 16 loudspeaker arrays, some of which were over 6 feet tall and weighed more than a half-ton. 2000 amps coming from 3 generators behind the stage to power it all.

I could go on, but so many before me have done so much better. I don’t know that anything will ever come close to those 3 days of peace, love, and music in the summer of ’69.

Tuesday, 06 January 2009

It’s been a while since I posted an installment of My Life In Music. Since I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff lately, and finishing up some old ones, I thought it was high time for the next chapter: 1968.

1968 brought us the formation of Yes, Rush, The Carpenters, Led Zeppelin. Warren Zevon also started his musical career that year, and we saw Janis Joplin start her solo career after parting ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. The Monkees ended their TV run after 58 episodes, the Beatles formed their record company, Apple Corps, Ltd., Gibson Guitar patented the Flying V design,and the musical Hair launched on Broadway.

But we’re here to talk about the music itself, not the comings and goings. And there’s quite a bit to talk about.

Let’s start with The Transformed Man by William Shatner. Yes, Capt. Kirk put out an album. It was a terrible mix of Shakespeare and pop lyrics. George Cloony once cited the album as a Desert Island Album — for its motivational qualities — “If you listen to [this song], you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off this island.”

1968 also brought Bookends by Simon and Garfunkle. Notable for the songs “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and the unforgettable “Mrs. Robinson.”

Generally regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, The White Album from the Beatles was released that year. And who could argue? Beatles classics like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Martha My Dear, “ “Blackbird,” “Julia,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter” were all on this one. That’s a ton of great songs, many of which are my favorite Beatles tunes. Yet it’s still not my top pick for 1968.

Now, you might think I’m about to call out Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison as my choice for 1968 Album of the Year, and with good reason. The album, recorded at Folsom Prison (funny how that works), is quite possibly the best of Cash’s career. The title song, although recorded for an earlier release, leads off this one, and the album includes Cash’s well known renditions of a couple songs “Jackson” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

But, alas, no.

For me it’s Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos (Walter, at the time). S-OB, as the title implies, contains a selection of J. S. Bach compositions performed entirely on a Moog synthesizer. While they are fairly common by today’s standards, it was a pretty rare thing in 1968. Even for one song. Even as a background instrument for a single song. To record a whole album, where it’s the only instrument, it was completely unheard of. Yet there it is.

S-OB was reviled by some, but others were excited by the virtuosity in the work and recognized it for how groundbreaking it was. The album sold far better than anyone expected, and spawned a rash of synth albums — many just copycat renditions of redone classical works.

You have to give Switched-On Bach, and Wendy Carlos, a lot of credit. If it hadn’t been for Carlos and this single album, I don’t know that we’d have any electronic music today. You simply can’t deny the influence of a single work from which an entire musical genre is born.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

This started as a simple reply to a link (http://government.zdnet.com/?p=4152) my dad sent me. It’s about Constitutional questions surrounding the RIAA’s litigation against people accused of sharing music via P2P.

My reply:

I believe a lot of what the RIAA relies on is that copyright, although drawn from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, is in the Civil code, not the Criminal code. As part of civil code, they are not as tightly bound by the excessive fines and unusual punishment clauses of the 8th amendment. Besides, the constitution really only controls what the government can do, or not do (as it’s mostly prohibitions), to the people. It doesn’t so much control what one person can do to another.

There’s nothing to stop you from suing someone for $1-million because they stepped on your lawn. You’re just not likely to get it because the judge and the jury in a civil case aren’t bound to sympathize with you.

I’m not saying the RIAA is right. Quite the contrary. I think they’re hopelessly misguided in suing their customers in the manner they have. I think that copyright law, as it exists today, is hopelessly broken. I think the attempts to “fix” or “strengthen” copyright law (things like the DMCA) are hopelessly anti-consumer.

The entertainment industry routinely lobbies for trade agreements and treaties, which they then lobby other countries to sign onto, then come back to the US government cajoling (demanding?) they adjust existing laws and create new ones to support the newly ratified treaty that they essentially bought.

With that in mind, and as a creative artist, what do I think is reasonable? My photography is bound by copyright. Every creative work, whether writing, photos, video, music, software, etc. is. The creator, or artist, isn’t even required to register their copyright any more; although doing so provides extra protections under the law. So what do I want? What do I think is fair?

I think 25 years is fair. That should be plenty of time for me to realize any monetary benefit from selling or licensing my creative work. After that, it should fall to the public domain. If I can’t make money off it in those 25 years, then I’m obviously incorrect in my assessment of the value of a given work.

I don’t think that we should be able to perpetually renew a copyright, nor should it be able to pass down by inheritance to extend the 25 years to something beyond my passing.

25 years from date of creation, no matter who owns the rights. If my descendants want to make a living from my work, they will just have to hope I die early and leave it to them in my will — the clock is ticking.

Even after the 25 years, just having the older materials around doesn’t mean you’ll do something wonderful. I’m a photographer, so I’ll use Ansel Adams as part of my example. If all of his photos were in the public domain, I could assemble them into a book, but I’d still have to bring something to the table. I’d need to offer some kind of commentary or interpretation, or add color in some way. I’d need to do something to make my use interesting. Anything less and I’m just some guy with a fancy coloring book.

So, what about sampling and derivative works? 10% seems fair, with credit. That covers education and criticism too. It let’s everyone do something new and allows someone to be inspired by your work and hopefully create something new and interesting.

Sure, 10% doesn’t stop one band from using the bass-line or central riff from another band’s song. Sure they can build a song from that and still fall within the scope of what I’d allow. It’s a double-edged sword too. If your work isn’t interesting, you’ll only look like a schmuck.

10% won’t stop one film-maker from building their movie around a pivotal scene from that of another, but if their movie isn’t entertaining, then they’re just a hack. Remember, Hollywood has been doing this same basic thing for years.

The real problem comes in trying to figure out what to do when someone breaks the rules. What is an appropriate punishment?

The current laws provide for damages from $750 per use up to $15000 each. For some things that seems far too high (sharing a single song when the price is only $1 via iTunes) and other’s it’s far too low (that same song when it’s used in an advertisement). And what constitutes a single use? Each person that hears an ad, once for every time the ad runs, or just once total because it’s only one ad?

Any off-the-cuff thinking here quickly falls apart. At first 10 times the price of the original item seems like a good idea. A song on iTunes goes for 99 cents. Is 10 bucks enough to convince people behave themselves, especially when they may or may not get caught?

What if it was 10x original value with a $1000 minimum? While it would probably discourage the average consumer, what about commercial misuse? Even $1000 isn’t enough to prevent a radio or TV station from taking a chance on an infringing use. What would stop an advertiser from using any old song in their advertisement or a photograph as the background to a presentation for an internal meeting if all they’d have to pay is $1000, assuming they got caught?

Clearly I don’t have all the answers. Even as an artist I can only wrap my brain around maybe half of it before my head explodes.

Wednesday, 01 October 2008

As I suspect will happen every year through this project, 1967 saw some big milestones in music. It was an important year in psychedelic rock with releases by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and more.

Several bands formed in 1967, among them Ted Nugent, George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Chicago, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Genesis.

1967 was the year of one of the most important concerts in music history – The Monterey Pop Festival – with the first major performances by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, plus the first big American appearances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The concert was huge and became a template for future music festivals, including the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

As if those firsts weren’t enough, Monterey included performances by groups like Simon & Garfunkle, The Animals, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & the Papas, Ravi Shankar, and Grateful Dead. Truly a mix of international acts and a variety of music styles.

The Beatles didn’t do too bad in 1967, releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out as part of a double A-side single (“Penny Lane” was the other half) that year as well. The song raised the bar for what a pop record should be and it’s quite possibly the single-most influential songs they ever did.

Believe it or not the Bee Gees’, widely regarded as a Disco-era act, released their first album in 1967, called Bee Gees’ 1st, a decidedly psychedelic record.

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow came out in 1967, with the Top 40 hits “Sombody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” I’ll admit, I prefer a cover version of “White Rabbit” that Blue Man Group did many years later. It’s probably the most often cited band and album when San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury counterculture comes up in discussion.

Lest we forget genres other than rock, we’ve got a couple each by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, plus releases from Taj Majal, Willie Bobo, Howlin’ Wolf, and B. B. King.

1967 also brought us The Doors self-titled, debut album, with classic-rock staples “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and “Light My Fire.” This may be heresy, but I’ve never been a huge Doors fan. Still, I can’t argue with their influence on rock-n-roll and The Doors is an album every well-rounded collection should include.

It’s tempting to pick Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but it’s hard to know which version to choose. The US/Mexico release has several differences from the original UK version. “Red House” is on the UK release, but “Hey Joe” replaced it in the US. “Purple Haze” appears on the US version, as does “The Wind Cries Mary,” my favorite song from the album.

I’m going to have to go with The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album is a hallmark for its experimental performance sensibilities, but was largely ignored when it was released. That may have been due, in part, to it’s controversial subject matter. Open discussion of things like sexual deviancy, S&M, prostitution, and drug abuse are hard to take now, let alone in 1967.

Today it’s one of the most influential and critically lauded albums in history.

To me it’s the those very same controversial subjects that make the The Velvet Underground and Nico such an important album too. Lou Reed wrote most of the lyrics on the album, but didn’t pick the topics for shock value. Instead, they were just a logical marriage of gritty subject matter and music.

The Velvet Underground is one of the few bands that I have consciously gone back to find as my musical interests grew more varied. I’ve always thought of them as an early punk group, but no matter how you slice it the importance of this album and it’s influence on so many to come along later is cannot be denied.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

1966 is not a year that I remember in the least – not politically, not culturally, not musically – I was born late in the year. My only thoughts were napping, eating, and pooping.

Still, this was an interesting year for music. And since I was born in 1966, it serves as a place to start. Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Johnny Cash and a host of others released albums that year.

What surprised me most, however, was Booker T and the MG’s had an album that year. I always thought they started recently but, as it turns out, the band was formed in 1962. The were largely a group of studio musicians from Stax Records.

I shouldn’t be so surprised that they’re still playing; after all, Dylan and the Rolling Stones are still around. But for some reason they strike me as big names, where Booker T. and the MG’s comes off as a much smaller group that, for some untold reason, wouldn’t still be around.

The Beatles released two albums in 1966: Revolver, and Yesterday and Today. Both albums spawned spawned several remarkable, classic tunes: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “Taxman,” and of course “Yellow Submarine” from Revolver and “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “Yesterday,” and “Day Tripper” from Yesterday and Today. All great songs, but still neither is my favorite album from that year.

The Monkees put out their first album in 1966. Despite having its roots in a television show, it went #1 in the US and topped the UK charts. “Last Train to Clarksville” was a #1 single that I remember having as a scratchy 45 at one point. I played the heck out of that song and never missed the show when it was out in syndication.

Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy each had albums in 1966. Nancy, most notably Boots, which brought us the unmistakable, spectacular “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” I bought a Nancy Sinatra best-of CD a couple years ago just so I could have that song.

Still, with all that great music, and more from the likes of Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Buffalo Springfield, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, The Animals – too many to mention, there’s one more that clearly tops them all.

Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.

Pet Sounds was their ninth studio album and it changed the face of pop music. It’s even credited with influencing The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!

The album has several seminal Beach Boys songs. Tunes that are instantly recognizable, that snap you back to a simpler time (if you’re of a certain age) or just make you feel good.

Right off the top Pet Sounds starts with one of my favorite Beach Boys songs: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” With its many layers of harmonies and upbeat sound, it expresses some of the impatience of youth and how you have to wait for what you truly want.

Even though it’s a cover of a traditional West Indies folk song, “Sloop John B.” will always be a Beach Boys tune to me. It is unmistakably summer. I play it during the winter as a sort of talisman to ward off the doldrums and hopefully bring the sunny days back more quickly. Also, I always wonder how many people have named their boats after this one song.

“Let’s Go Away for Awhile” is a brilliant instrumental song, almost orchestral in its nature. You can hear the strings, saxophone, piano, vibes, and I think an oboe in there.

Sophisticated for its time, “God Only Knows” is, in my mind, the best song off Pet Sounds. The depth of the harmonies and easy complexity of the melody make it stand out. It’s a gorgeous love song that basically says “You make me what I am.”

Although just a smattering, Pet Sounds is truly a classic. I come back to it often and it really did define pop music for many years. It’s truly a must for any music collection.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Most people come into their own, musically speaking, in their teens. It typically starts with a variation of what their parents listen to, then evolves based on what is popular among their friends. Sure, occasionally we’ll want to know more about the influences of our favorite bands, but that often just leads to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Clapton, and not much else.

How often do we really go back and consider what came before?

Although I turned 13 in 1979, it wasn’t until MTV was launched nearly two years later that music really hit me. Prior to that, it was mostly stuff my parents liked: Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, Anne Murray, Crystal Gale… You get the idea. MTV and music videos brought new wave, funk, and ROCK to the table. It was an experience that forever changed the way I listened to the world.

What came before the 80’s? Who influenced the musicians I grew to love and even still listen to? Sure there have been forays into older music. A penchant for jazz and swing. The occasional dip into classical music. Even a late appreciation for the Beatles and Bob Dylan. But what came before?

So I decided to take a look back; starting with 1966, the year I was born, and possibly rediscover my musical roots. The intent is more than just a list of my favorite album from each year. Along the way I’ll offer thoughts on what makes each one my favorite and perhaps some commentary about other releases from the same year.

I’ll begin with 1966 tomorrow.

† Yes, the M in MTV stands for music. They did actually play music at one time.

Saturday, 05 April 2008

This is the first installment in an infrequent series on concert sociology that will depict a particular segment – genus, if you will – of the concert-going public. Kind of a taxonomy or spotting guide for concert patrons. Don’t be surprised if you spot someone you know, or even spot yourself somewhere in here.

Aves Liberticus – Freebird

First up is the Aves Liberticus, or Free Bird. Abundant in their natural habitat of Southern-Rock concerts, they are plentiful at nearly any public music performance.

For the unfamiliar, “Free Bird” was a song released by Lynyrd Skynyrd in November 1974. It begins as a slow power-ballad, but clocks in at over 9 minutes (album version; longer in concert) and features gospel-flavored organ, slide guitar, and a 4+ minute guitar duel. At one concert, Steve Wilson (the band’s guitar player), says that they will play one more song. Someone in the audience yells back “Free Bird!” likely due to the song’s length and a desire for the band to play as long as possible. In the 1980’s a radio DJ urged listeners to yell “Free Bird!” at a Florence Henderson concert as a joke.

Whether it’s an opportunity to make a request, or done as a gag, every band seems to have it’s “Free Bird.”

I was at a CD release show for Nickel Creek’s Why Should the Fire Die? The band played each song from the album, in order (a neat concept for a release party), then took requests. A couple requests in there was one of those uncomfortable pauses and someone in the band said “It doesn’t even have to be one of our songs!” Everybody got a laugh out of it, then Chris Thile added “I know there’s one guy out there dying to yell ‘Free Bird’ right now. Don’t. That stuff isn’t funny.” There was a brief chuckle, then someone asked for “American Pie” or something else completely ridiculous and the band nearly choked from laughter.

At the Mike Doughty show the other night, and pretty much every one of his shows, there’s someone that yells “Firetruck!” between every song until it gets played. This time around Doughty said “Dude, if I promise to play ‘Firetruck!’ will you stop screaming for it?” Then a long pause and “In fact, if anyone shouts ‘Firetruck’ for the rest of the show, I promise never to play it at any show ever again. You’ll ruin it for everybody.” He said it with a huge smile on his face, but I wonder if there wasn’t just the tiniest bit of truth to it.

Even my favorite band, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers has a “Free Bird” in the form of “Mekong.” It’s a song from Rogers days heading The Refreshments. At every show there’s a guy hollering for “Mekong” practically every song. Finally at one show Roger laughed and asked “Have you ever been to one of my shows where we haven’t played Mekong? It’s coming later.” For Roger to skip “Mekong” at a show would be like the Rolling Stones not bothering to play “Satisfaction” – it would quite possibly start a riot.

There you have it, the next time you’re at a concert, you’ll be ready to spot the Aves Liberticus and see for yourself.