In October of 1961, Columbia Records signed a 20-year-old college dropout from Hibbing, Minnesota who had begun to make a name for himself in the coffeehouses and nightclubs around Greenwich Village. Six months later, the label put out his first album, a collection of folk standards that barely sold enough copies to cover the recording costs. A second album came out the following year, this time featuring almost entirely original material (eleven of thirteen tracks), and went on to sell over a million copies in the U.S. alone. The kid who wrote those songs was born Robert Zimmerman but the artist he became through writing and performing them was Bob Dylan — as in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — and the impact of his work on popular music as a whole was positively seismic. Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”
According to most historians, rock & roll — both the genre and the cultural movement — was born in 1954, when Elvis Presley recorded his career-making rendition of “That’s All Right.” Even the late great Bon Scott of AC/DC (one of the most underrated lyricists in mainstream rock, but we’ll get to that later) kicks off the first verse of “Let There Be Rock” with the immortal line: “And in the beginning, back in 1955, man didn’t know ‘bout the rock & roll show and all that jive.” Of course, Bon was probably jumping past ’54 for the sake of the rhyme — or maybe he just preferred Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” an equally monumental track released in ’55 — but you get the point: to a whole generation of aspiring rock musicians, Elvis was IT, man. And I’m not disagreeing. It just so happens that one of the first songs to embody rock & roll as a genre actually predates the cultural movement itself… Continue reading “THIS ONE DUDE’S HISTORY OF ROCK, Chapter 1: “In the Beginning””
To the uninitiated, the body of music that bridged the gap between the first wave of rock & roll and heavy metal proper — popularized during the 1970s and later canonized as “hard rock” — can often seem as generic as its description. Surely any genre whose sole distinction is its “hardness” must be a one-note affair, totally uniform in terms of aesthetics and devoid of the stylistic experimentation that elevates most genres beyond their ostensible limits (i.e. Gershwin introducing jazz and pop to classical music, Miles Davis fusing jazz with rock, Ray Charles approaching country from an R&B angle, etc). And while hard rock did start out as an aggressive update of the blues — British Invasion bands like the Who and the Yardbirds following their musical roots into more dangerous waters — critics and average listeners alike tend to dismiss the artists that followed as no more than an arena-friendly repackaging of those same roots.
But a closer examination of the genre’s canon will prove this a cursory appraisal at best: in fact, many of the hardest rocking bands in history — or at least those who reconciled artistic integrity with commercial success — have succeeded in putting a signature stamp on the larger body of music for which they collectively stand. With A Night at the Opera (1975), Queen made piano-pop and opera sound brutal; Rush infused 2112 (1976) with the sci-fi imagery and mathematical precision of prog; AC/DC brought boogie-woogie back to life on Powerage (1978). And while all these albums may feature long-haired dudes belting it in their upper registers and busting out flashy guitar solos every other verse, the aforementioned bands are anything but homogenous when it comes to style. Anyone who’s listened to classic-rock radio in the last 20 years should be able to appreciate the sizable difference between, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Riff Raff.”
Continue reading “DEEP CUTS: ’70s Hard Rock”
Earlier this month, 4AD released The Day of the Dead, a 59-song tribute to the Grateful Dead curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National. In keeping with the label’s roster and Dessner brothers’ musical pedigree, the album credits read like a who’s who of indie rock, with everyone from Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo to Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan to the National themselves putting their signature spins on the Dead’s seemingly bottomless oeuvre. Along for the ride is Bob Weir, singer/guitarist and co-founder of the Grateful Dead, whom the Dessners enlisted-– along with Scott and Bryan Devendorf, the other fraternal duo at the heart of the National-– as a part of their “house band” for the project. The result is a mixed bag, to be sure, but one that triumphs in the aggregate. “Already containing universes, the Dead’s songbook is what makes the set enjoyable as a whole, transcending the performers and their translations,” writes Laura Snapes of Pitchfork, further noting that the Dessners & co. “treat the songs as new standards (which they are), pairing them with vocalists.” Continue reading “DAY OF THE DEAD”
Despite the seeming ubiquity of celebrity beefs in and among the Twitterverse, I don’t know if I can recall a more noteworthy instance of great artists shitting on other great artists (and, in this particular case, genres) in the last decade than this:
“What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there. All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy. There’s an enormous market for people who can’t tell one note from another… Millions are in love with Metallica and Black Sabbath. I just thought they were great jokes.”
– Keith Richards
Keith Richards -– a man for whom tact, as proven by his entertaining-yet-occasionally-repulsive autobiography, comes as a secondary consideration at best –– has in a single breath dismissed two whole genres and at least three generations of culturally relevant music. He also managed to sneak in a few digs at his ostensible heyday-rivals, the Beatles, and longtime colleague, Mick Jagger. Say what you will about old Keef, but the man smack-talks with a real economy of words.
In reading the excerpts from his interview, I couldn’t help but see this moment as one of those rare double-binds that truly challenge one’s allegiances of taste. What you choose to listen to on a day-to-day basis -– which varies according to factors of mood, setting, present company, etc. -– matters little compared to what you would choose at the direct and permanent cost of something else: it’s like the “Desert Island Five” game with a “Save or Kill” twist added as a sadist measure.
A great editorial on The Grateful Dead by a dear & highly respected friend.
Given the recent interest in the Grateful Dead (my favorite band) on display in the New Yorker article and the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus, I thought it might be worthwhile to set down my thoughts, if only for future reference. Having never seen a Grateful Dead show myself (alas: Jerry died when I was 4), that might be an exercise in futility. It would seem that the recorded legacy of the Grateful Dead, extensive as it is, pales in comparison to “the thing itself”, real and in the flesh. My Dad saw the Dead a number of times. One of my professors at University followed them from show to show. My access to their musical adventures is removed; an academic and artistic interest at best and a neurotic obsession at worst.
More than that, I have no great love for the culture of the Dead. As I mature through…
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