Rock n’ roll church

12 01 2013


It just occurred to me a few minutes ago; the Hard Rock Cafe is really like a church. The Detroit Hard Rock Cafe has stained glass depicting kiss, The Supremes, Alice Cooper, Stevie Wonder and other images synonymous with the Detroit music scene.  This is not unlike the Christian churches in the world, great and small, which honor saints of centuries past by memorializing them in colored glass.

The photos of rock gods on the wall are like icons and statues so important to Catholic and Orthodox worship.  More than anything, what we call “memorabilia” has value because of its connection to famous people.  We’re fascinated to see Eminem’s (grubby) sweat pants or a guitar Eddie Van Halen played on a wall.  “He touched those!” we think when we see them, or at least we’re supposed to have that reaction.  Otherwise, why would we care to see a shirt worn by David Crosby?  The stuff on the wall works out to be modern relics.  Maybe we no longer fight wars over a splinter from the “true cross” or an article allegedly touched by a saint or Christ Himself.

I know it’s only rock and roll, as Mick Jagger once said — I know that’s a little corny.  But I see a deeper meaning: places like the Hard Rock Cafe are little hints that people need a God or gods to worship.  The Judeo-Christian Father God is not seen by us under what we would consider normal conditions.  But these gods we can see and touch.

If the Hard Rock Cafe is like a local church, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like St. Peter’s in Rome.  Think about it.




The Cosmic Dancer

16 09 2011

On this day in 1977, Marc Bolan died in a car crash in the southwest London area.  His girlfriend, Gloria Jones, was driving the car that tragic evening.  Bolan was killed instantly when their car went off the road and struck a tree.  Marc was only 29.

The last year or two, I’ve found myself heavily influenced by T. Rex.  Some songs have a surprising amount of depth.  Other songs are shallow or just plain weird.  Some of the attempts by Marc at poetry are god-awful.  But the music has a groove that is missing in music the last 10-15 years.  Looking back on it, T. Rex looks like something of a pioneering act.  On the human level, it is sad that someone so young died in such a way.


The messenger god

6 09 2011

The Roman god, Mercury, was believed to be the patron of travelers, merchant (god of commerce), rogues and thieves, as well as the wind deity.  He was the messenger god, moving swiftly from place to place.  To be “mercurial” is to be volatile, unstable, fickle, flighty and erratic.

Today is the 65th birthday of one of rock and roll’s most beloved performers, the former Farrokh Bulsara, who took the stage name Freddie Mercury.  He helped form the mold of the rock and roll frontman of the 70’s and 80’s, and wrote some of rock and roll’s classic hits of Queen’s era.

In thinking about his life and impact, I wondered if there was a connection between his stage name and his personality, at least as he saw it.  Maybe it was as simple as picking a cool name.  There is certainly evidence that his personal life had its fair share of volatility and instability.  To those fans that loved his music most, he was certainly a rock god.

I don’t consider myself much of a Queen fan.  I have an album or two.  I like a lot of their songs; hardly listen them, though.

But, as real guitar-driven rock and roll seems to continue its steady decline toward extinction, the appeal of bands like Queen (along with AC/DC and the mammoth Led Zeppelin) becomes more and more apparent.  If you’re a rock fan, you can’t help but notice the absence of guys like Freddie Mercury.  It’s hard to beat songs like this.


The new originals (Part 1)

1 07 2011

My oh-so-clever title comes from a bit in This Is Spinal Tap.  One of the fictional band’s early incarnations was called The Originals.  But the name was taken, so the band changed its name to The New Originals.  That little joke best sums up how I would describe those artists that find that sweet spot between sounding unique but borrowing heavily from the past.

You can count them on two hands.  Maybe you’d have to count with your toes.  There aren’t many, but they’re out there.   Some singers and musicians have the knack for taking an old sound and making it entirely their own.  They don’t sound derivative.  They don’t sound like a cover or tribute artist.  They’re not blatant ripoffs.  At the same time, they sound entirely familiar.  Part of their appeal is that they have captured the best of what came before them.

Over the years, I’ve come to love some of these performers.  I recognized that they were heavily influenced by older styles or musicians, but I never understood that I liked them as much for the fresh spin they were able to put on the old stuff.  Some of these artists have been doing this seemingly forever and others are new to the game.   Here are the new originals that I like best:

  • Stray Cats — I grew up listening to 50’s music.  I was never lucky enough to hear pure rockabilly, but I heard enough old-time rock to know what rockabilly should sound like.  Along came Stray Cats, coming somewhere out of the 50’s revival of the late 70’s (think: Grease, “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” Sha-na-na’s TV show) and the punk scene.  They had the balls of a punk band but the soul of guys like Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins.  What was original about them was. . . well. . . they just had their own style.  It can’t be stated much clearer than that.  Brian Setzer also brought something of a crooning vocal style to throw into the punk-abilly mix.  While they were throwbacks, they were just themselves.  They can’t be accused of stealing any single artists style but no one has been able to imitate them.
  • Raphael Saadiq — I admit up front, I’m just discovering his music.  I remember Tony! Toni! Tone! but I had no idea who he was or even that he was still in the music business.  But I heard talk about his newest album and got my hands on his last one, The Way I See It.  I’m blown away.  His voice: amazing.  The sound: it could have been recorded at the Motown studios in Detroit 40 years ago.  The fell: old school R&B.  The lyrics: solid.  While he’s definitely a traditional R & B artist, I don’t think he could be fairly accused of unoriginality.  In a sea of crap music, he has made fresh again a sound older than most of his fans.
  • Brian Setzer — Since his Stray Cats days, Brian has wandered back and forth between rock-infused big band or swing and rockabilly, but his most notable solo work has been with the Brian Setzer Orchestra.  Out of all the so-called new originals I like, he has admittedly been the most derivative.   He’s covered swing and rock standards as well as old Stray Cats tunes.  Where he gets marks for originality is that he made swing and big band sound like a new style.  His sound, like grunge, felt like it was born in its own time, even though it was not.  It fit its era for reasons I can’t quite explain.   He was also largely responsible for launching the swing revival in both music and dance.  Bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy should pay royalties to him for having helped (re)popularize the style.  (Note: I’m not claiming Setzer/BSO was first in time, just early, highly influential and fresh.)
  • Young Veins — From the outset, understand that I’m not saying these guys have had any significant impact on the music business.  I only know one other person that likes them (and he only knows of them through me.)   Two of the guys, Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, left Panic! At the Disco to form Young Veins, probably doing more to upset Panic! fans than to generate positive buzz about the new band.  But their album, Take a Vacation, sounds like it was recorded in 1965.  It’s 4 parts Kinks, 1 part Beach Boys.  It’s so Kinks-esque that I’m sure some would call it a rip-off.  It’s arguable.  I felt, when I heard it, that YV had managed to capture a Kinks-like groove but make it their own.  It certainly isn’t Kinks for the 2000’s.  Their sound is all 1960’s.  For my money, it lands in that sweet spot between borrowing too much and not borrowing enough.

Here’s the thing: at least in the world of pop/rock or R&B, there is nothing truly original.  The foundations were laid long ago and artists can’t play in those styles without sounding like somebody.  It just can’t be done anymore.  As Beastie Boys once said, “Only 12 notes a man can play.”  So whether something sounds fresh depends on whether the artist can trick you into feeling like you’re getting something uniquely his or hers.  These performers, in my opinion, have done that to some degree.

To be continued…

Best of Angus

12 11 2010

Growing up I was always an Eddie Van Halen fan, almost to the exclusion of all the other 70’s and 80’s supposed guitar gods.  I was particularly unimpressed, back in those days, with Angus Young.  I found him kind of boring.  I think I measured a guitarist by his ability to solo and I don’t think that’s ever been Angus’s strong suit.

20-something years later, though, I see his work in a different light.  Angus wrote some of the greatest rock guitar riffs ever.  They’re relatively simple in construction, but powerful.  It’s hard to match the sound he get out of his Gibson SG and whatever his rig was.

I’m not terribly familiar with AC/DC’s oldest stuff, nor do I know much about their stuff from the last 10-15 years.  But we all know their “classics.”  Here are my favorite AC/DC guitar songs

  • Hell’s Bells —  There might not be a better opening riff in rock history than in this song.  The bell is classic!
  • Back In Black — To find 10 better hard rock albums than Back in Black would be incredibly difficult, to say the least.  The title track is one of the best songs on one of the best rock albums of all time.
  • Who Made Who — Before AC/DC’s career took something of a dip, they put out this song for the soundtrack of Maximum Overdrive.  Top notch work in both the solo and the intro and outro.
  • Shoot To Thrill — Another song from Back in Black, STS is a 30 year old track that sounds maybe better now than in 1980.  It fit perfectly in the recent Iron Man 2 flick.
  • Highway to Hell — I always found it somewhat haunting that Bon Scott died within months of the song charting.  As a kid, I always shunned this song as overtly evil.  But I’d be lying to say it doesn’t rock!  HtoH features one of the best rifs ever.
  • Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap) — Simple but powerful aptly describes this tune.  DDDDC is infectious.  It’s a great song to crank and scream down the highway.

Even they gotta be embarrassed

30 10 2009

I don’t like Kiss.  Never have.  Never will.   But I did like at least one song, “Lick It Up.”  Notice the past tense; “did like.”  In 1983, this song seemed catchy, with a good pop-metal hook.  Now it seems insipid.

The video, though, is hysterical.  In the early 80’s, the video was kind of cool and had a tough-guy rock vibe.  Now it’s comic genius.  When the band walks down the street singing and flexing, why are there human skills on the ground?  The band had “unmasked” several years before this.  Their make up and costumes was replaced with huge hair, tight jeans, ripped t-shirts, belts, bandanas and all the other trappings of hair bands.   They look like Flock of Seagulls meets New Jersey housewives.

Vinnie Vincent, Ace Frahley’s replacement on ax, is in all his gender-bending glory, with his pink guitar and soft feminine features accented with more blush, mascara and eyeliner than you could find at an Avon party.  I remember thinking, “Dang, he looks like a girl.”  And he did.

Why are they guys drinking out of plastic gas cannisters?  At one point, one of the savage girls and later a guy on the band look like they are drinking out of a mustard squirt bottle.  Crimped-haired dolls feed the band like they are starved savages.

Not surprisingly, the video more or less ends  with the band “performing” on a stage beset with fire.  The whole set looks so post-apocalyptic.

Paul Stanley couldn’t be bothered to actually play the guitar he’s holding.   He’s too busy swinging an thrusting his pick hand in the air.  Ditch the guitar Paul.  It’s an instrument, not a prop.

No Kiss experience would be complete without having to see Gene Simmons’ slithery snake-tongue.  Sadly, I think Gene has always believed that is sexy to see.

And just what are we supposed to “lick up”?  What is the “it”?  They don’t really tell us.  But we do know that “it’s only right now”.  If you take anything away from this masterpiece — and my ramblings about it — remember this: “it ain’t a crime to be good to yourself.”

Finally one of the cool kids

22 09 2009

It only took 20-some years of fighting it, but I finally became one of the cool kids.  I broke down and picked up a few Pink Floyd albums.  No, I didn’t pay for them.  I got ’em from the local library.  I’ve listened to bits of Dark Side of the Moon and I am listening to The Wall as I write.

I could never tell you why I never even gave Pink Floyd a chance.  I just didn’t.  The closest thing I had to a reason was that there were just “not my style.”  It’s not as if I’d never heard them.  They’re a staple of rock radio.  I’ve heard a few dozen songs on radio alone and probably bits and pieces of albums that friends have played.  But I never sat down and listened to a single album start to finish.  No, I didn’t even try to watch The Wall synced with The Wizard Of Oz.  Since I’ve never been a head, I suppose I never felt the need to really pay much attention.

Lately, though, I’ve felt like I’ve run out of good rock and roll.  I’m a Beatles fanatic but I’m trying not to OD on the new mono and stereo remasters, which have been in heavy rotation at home, work and in the car for 2 weeks.  I need to pick up the new Black Crowes album and that will quench my rock thirst. . . for a time.

For now, though, let’s see how I like the Floyd.