Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Machine Gun"

There's a long and in most cases honourable tradition in popular music of artists exercising their rights as human beings to comment on the world around them and, where appropriate, to protest at what they perceive to be wrong.
Every so often someone writes a learned article on the dearth of protest songs today, and casts back nostalgically to the 1960s for examples of a time when popular music wholeheartedly embraced its role in contemporary society and threw up a legion of committed, intelligent songwriters.
Since that period we've not exactly been over-endowed with protest writers, and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" andd Peter Gabriel's "Biko" stand out a mile among fairly innocuous tunes like "Sun City" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
What's even more interesting is that musicians - real, honest-to-God players of instruments - don't seem to have bestowed protest songs with their very best work. I mean, while we can all agree with the sentiments expressed, most of these tunes are not what you'd call classic.
Take "Do They Know It's Christmas?" We remember it for what, exactly? Mostly the images associated with the song, and the fact that the song itself, and the Live Aid concert, were major events. Midge Ure's melody is fairly pedestrian and the lyrics...well, don't get me started.
As I said, there are songs and artists out there which "did the job" far, far better than anything we've seen in the last 30 years: Country Joe McDonald's "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die Rag", Edwin Starr's "War", Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son", Arlo Guthrie's hysterically funny "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", and Neil Young's savage "Ohio" are just a few.
But this one stands head, shoulders and body above the rest. Not because it's lyrically very clever or says something new, but because this song, more than any one other song, represents the revolution that Jimi Hendrix wrought on the electric guitar as an instrument. If all you ever wanted to hear was how a musical instrument and the sounds it makes can call up the images of something, then this is your song.
Here, Hendrix hoists the guitar out of the rhythm-and-blues trenches and lets rip, almost literally. He drags feedback, white noise and soaring, screeching horror from a simple piece of wood and wire and lets them play about our heads.
The song bleeds as if its life was seeping out through hastily-applied bandages, breaking out into occasional screams of pain. The chaos of hurt, the trembling unstoppable trainwreck of war is brought to life through ten fingers, some wires and transistors and one unholy battle of a song.
I'm sure I've bored on this topic before, but nobody, NOBODY had ever made music like this, or has since. Nobody has been able to lasso the unpredictable whiplash of feedback or white noise and make it do their will like Hendrix did. And to tame it, organise it into such a hard, powerful statement like this.....
Billy Cox and Buddy Miles provide a steady background of bass and wailing harmonies, while Hendrix's vision of hell shape-shifts and crawls around your head like a particularly vivid nightmare. Towards the end, Billy and Buddy harmonize behind Hendrix's singing, uttering a ghostly, other-worldly howl that matches the mood to perfection.
The lyrics aren't anything special, but they don't need to be. The music's doing all the talking here, and it's saying a ton.
Check out the film of this performance below. Hendrix built his early reputation as a showman, a show-off, playing the guitar with his teeth or behind his head but here, it's all about the music, the sounds. He stands still for much of the song, moving only to adjust the effects pedals or crank up the speakers. It's as if he doesn't want to be noticed, but prefers to let the music have its say.
THAT'S a protest song, dammit.

Friday, February 01, 2008

"Sweetheart of the Rodeo"

Back in the day, music was simple to understand. Your grandparents simply had "music," which usually referred to Brylcreemed crooners singing the sort of song that brought to mind cardigans, hot chocolate and a crackling fire.
After Bill Haley there was "music" and there was "rock 'n roll."
Bob Dylan popped up and we had to add "folk."
Someone paid attention to what was going on in the US and reluctantly, we opened a new file called "country and western."
From there, it went downhill. Acid rock, folk-rock, glitter rock, prog rock, disco, punk, new wave, ambient, house, trance, garage, you get the picture.
Proper music nerds like nothing more than to spend hours categorising bands. And it's got to the stage now where pretty much every band has its own sub-sub-sub-sub genre. Just to prove that they aren't like anyone else you've ever heard.
And of course you can't have any two genres actually merge - it has to be a 50:50 joint-venture, with an option to withdraw on grounds of music and aesthetic incompatibility.
Where is all this taking us tonight?
To the site of a deep-space impact, to be precise. The kind of impact where a solid, meaty planet busy on its own orbit meets a feisty asteroid that just won't take no for an answer.
Imagine you're in The Byrds, a solid, respected band touted for a while as the US' answer to The Beatles. You're all fantastic musicians, you sing glorious harmonies and you've managed to drag folk influences into the electronic rock age more convincingly than Dylan ever did.
You've had some seriously big hits: "Mr Tambourine Man", "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "Eight Miles High", "My Back Pages."
Unfortunately, your band is falling down around your ears. Either you don't get on with them, or they don't get on with you, or they have better things to do, and eventually you're left as just Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn. What to do?
Well, what they *did* was draft in Gram Parsons.
Gram was a fairly low-profile guy at this time: no track record to speak of, but it didn't stop him from shoving The Byrds off the folk-rock highway and onto a new, dusty, unimproved road - country-rock.
"Sweetheart of the Rodeo" was the only Byrds album with Parsons on board, but it's a million miles away from the trippy "Eight Miles High," or the chiming "Mr Tambourine Man."
Where before there were 12-string Rickenbacker guitars, here were country twangs. Where before was the nervous, jittery rhythm of "Eight Miles High", here was a laid-back cross-country groove.
Today, this sound is so all-pervasive that we take it for granted. Sheryl Crow, the Eagles, Neil Young wouldn't have been able to do half the things they did without the car-crash that created country-rock. Pretty much the entire mid-80s "Americana" movement - Jason & the Scorchers, the Rainmakers, the Jayhawks, Long Ryders - owe their existence to this album and to the new genre it created.
And that's one for the nerds.