Posts Tagged ‘Yes’

Bruce Springsteen says he learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than he ever learned in school. I’m grateful to have graduated from a much better school system than the one Bruce was stuck in. I learned more in 3 minutes in any class at Somerset High, Somerset, Massachusetts (Go Raiders!) than I ever learned from Deep Purple, Three Dog Night, or Tommy James & The Shondells. But Springsteen was right to emphasize 3 minutes, and not just because “a 4-minute record, baby” doesn’t scan as well and anyway is too reminiscent of a 4-minute mile.

Three-minute records (which I take to mean 3:01 to 3:59) are still the bread and butter of popular music, even though the format they were created for, the 45rpm, no longer exists. This length gives you enough time to sink into a song but not enough time to drown. (In general. There are 2-minute songs that drag and 4-minute songs that fly. Anything by Coldplay is automatically too long.)

I’m guessing that most of the music I listen to (and you, too) is in the 3-minute range, with the next group following at 4:01 to 4:59, followed by 5 minutes, 6 minutes, etc. The number of recorded pop songs longer than 10 minutes thins out quickly, and for every triumph past that mark (The Door’s “The End,” David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” Love and Rockets’ “Body and Soul”) you trip over something like Mountains’ live version of their own “Nantucket Sleighride,” which weighs in at a hard-to-overlook 17:34.

I can only assume that back in 1972 the band performed their masterwork behind a screen of chicken wire to protect them from volleys of beer bottles. “Nantucket Sleighride” is a symphony as imagined by a quartet of metal-munching hippie delinquents. “Nantucket Sleighride” goes on so long that is has themes, movements, fugues, moods, tempos, lyrics, tides, a guitar imitating a triangle, a tugboat yearning for its mate, and what I think are wet blankets fired from a circus cannon.

The boys in Mountain, who did their best to out-bloat Wagner, produced a song that will never be included in any list of the 1 million songs you should listen to before the universe explodes. However, I took a lot of drugs to this album, Sludge Hammer*, and thanks to the miracle of nostalgia and disjointed synapses I still find “Nantucket Sleighride” to be audacious and irresistible.

What happens to pop music after 17 minutes and 34 seconds? That way lies “Tubular Bells,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, prog rock, Yes, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Phish, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, probably Yes again, motels, money, murder, madness, and today’s special guests, The Allman Brothers Band.**

The Allmans’ Eat a Peach (1972) is generally thought to be the band’s high point, though not by this critic. Give me the economy of Brothers and Sisters (1973) any day. I don’t care that Eat a Peach has all those live tracks because that’s where the problem is: “Mountain Jam,” which is not only 33 minutes and 41 agonizing seconds long, it was inspired by Donovan. Apparently, it’s impossible to keep Donovan out of a music blog these days.

I was bludgeoned by “Mountain Jam” at an Allman Brothers concert in 1975 and I didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt. The Allmans in those days packed enough amplification to sterilize everyone not wearing lead dirndls. I didn’t wear my dirndl that night and now you know why I’ve never had kids. Somewhere around the halfway point of “Mountain Jam,” my mind floated away and I could no longer hear the music. All I could do was stare at the band. If I had gone to a Bangles concert in 1985 and they had played a 33-minute version of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” I’m sure I would’ve lost containment then, too. But at least I would’ve been staring at The Bangles. The Allmans, even when they were flush with youth, were not stareable.

“Mountain Jam” makes the Allmans’ 22-minute “Whipping Post” from their At Fillmore East live set sound like a model of musical frugality. When I was 16 I thought the crescendo of “Whipping Post” was rock’s answer to the 1812 Overture. Now I just hear it as everyone barking at everyone else.

Is it possible to produce a 15-minutes-or-more recording that won’t put people to sleep or send them to their Kindles to read another chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey? Probably not, but one interesting attempt that I know of is The Byrds’ 16-minute go at their iconic “Eight Miles High,” from the album Untitled/Unissued (1970). It’s focused, it’s well-played, it crosses the line into jazz, and if I’d gone to that concert instead of to the Allmans’ I’d have 16 kids today. Oh, wait.

Reader challenge: I can’t think of any particularly lengthy songs (say 12-15 minutes or longer) after about 1990. If you can, please enlighten me. I have a hypothesis that song lengths have decreased since the hippie era, at least at the long end, but I need data. Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler are disqualified. Come on, people, let’s move like we have a purpose!

* OK, the real name was Live (The Road Goes Ever On).

** Special D just raised her hand and asked where Pink Floyd is on this list, but I don’t see the point of her question.

“Barracuda”
Heart
1977

“At Home He’s a Tourist”
Gang of Four
1979

“Here Come Cowboys”
The Psychedelic Furs
1984

(With thanks to Loyal Reader Barb for suggesting this post.)

I’m lucky. I’ve usually had someone in my life who could explain music to me. In the early 1980s, that someone was my friend David Clements.

David hosted elaborate theme parties. The one I remember was based on junk food, which is probably why I remember it. He ran name-that-tune competitions featuring hundreds of songs he had culled from the backwaters of pop. At one of them I got off one of my best-timed lines: “Yes fans never know the names of the songs,” I said, immediately before the Yeshead playing the game blanked on the opening snippet of “Roundabout.”

David managed the Northgate movie theater in Seattle and was a dj on the University of Washington’s student-run station, KCMU. His handle was “The King of Pop,” and the poppier the better. Listening to his show one night, I became so outraged by the parade of Stings, Boy Georges, and Bangles that I called and requested something from Saturday Night Fever. David recognized my voice and promised he would play it if I would drive over to the station in my leisure suit. You couldn’t top that guy.

When I first heard Gang of Four, probably at somebody’s party, they intimidated me. The guitars are angular. They’re like getting elbowed under the basket or stick-checked behind the net. The singer isn’t singing so much as opening a vein. On “Love Like Anthrax,” which begins with what sounds like a guitar expiring inside bagpipes, the singer competes with someone who simply speaks. Occasionally they sing/speak the same line. When they do, it’s so harmonious it’s startling.

Gang of Four’s lyrics take apart our politics, our consumer culture, even our love lives. They don’t put anything back together again, either. Even on their friendliest cut, “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” they’re not all that friendly:

The good life was so elusive
Handouts, they got me down
I had to regain my self respect
So I got into camouflage

They’re The Clash without the heroin and with a darker worldview. And The Clash weren’t exactly cheery. It was exhausting just looking at the album covers. I didn’t want anything to do with them.

But the King of Pop saw further than I did, and he suggested I try them. I did and over time I became hooked. In fact I even have a Gang of Four listening ritual.

Run-DMSteve’s Gang of Four Listening Ritual
1) Realize that I haven’t played anything by Gang of Four in a long while.
2) Wave away sudden upwelling of dread.
3) Hear first notes of first song. Wince. Consider switching to Madonna’s “Vogue.”
4) Hooked again.
5) Pound face into desk.

I’ve listed the three songs at the top of this post for a reason. They’re superficially similar in their structure and in the way they gallop along. “Barracuda” was a hit for Heart, who had fantastic hair and who made hard rock for people who were cautiously venturing beyond Hall & Oates. “Here Come Cowboys” was a late-period example of New Wave by The Psychedelic Furs. It would’ve made a passable B-side to one of their better songs.

“At Home He’s a Tourist,” however, is fucking unbelievable. When it starts I always think, Oh no, it’s Heart, no wait, Psychedelic Furs, oh right, Gang of Four. The guitar sounds like it wants to throw up. But by the song’s end I can’t wait to click Replay.

I have David to thank for some great musical memories, but David was killed in 1985, at the age of 28, while making a night deposit after closing the theater. Two lives were lost that night – David’s, and that of the 19-year-old boy who shot him and who will wake every day of his life with that knowledge. I think of you often, David, and of that B-52s concert we went to at the Coliseum. I wish we had taken Gang of Four’s suggestion and gotten drunk on cheap wine.

A Rush of Blood to the Head
Coldplay
2002

My three regular readers know that I use the term “Coldplay” as a handy benchmark meaning “inoffensive crap.” Is the case against Coldplay really that simple? Probably, but let’s consider it anyway.

Coldplay offers expertly crafted, atmospheric soft rock that implies other, harder, kinds of music. They’re not manipulating anyone; they’re sincere. That makes them The Monkees, minus the laughs and the bouncing-puppy energy. I’m guessing that they answer a need for people to be part of something cool created by guys who look like them. That makes them The Who, without all the philosophy. If you like to rock but you secretly enjoy music that makes you float on a cloud, Coldplay rocks just enough to give you some cover. That makes them Pearl Jam with the corners sanded off.

Coldplay is often compared to U2. I admit that both bands are insanely popular, that there are four men in each group, and that all eight of them come from islands off the coast of continental Europe. The similarities stop right there. Coldplay will never be as pretentious as U2, which is a mark in their favor, but neither will they take the chances U2 took on The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. And Coldplay seems to have skipped their hellcat period. It’s too late now for them to clobber us with their versions of War or Under a Blood Red Sky.

“Am I/a part of the cure/Or am I part of the disease?” (Coldplay, “Clocks”)
I’ve written before about guilty pleasures. Here’s another one: Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head.

The album showcases Coldplay’s strengths: Their flair for simple-yet-dramatic musical moments and their skill at constructing relatively short, punchy pop songs. Some of them are short and punchy, anyway. Unfortunately, A Rush of Blood also showcases their weaknesses, like their habit of repeating all of their simple-yet-dramatic musical moments. You can do a lot with half a dozen keys on the piano, but must it always be the same half dozen? Then there’s Coldplay’s Yes-like tendency toward bloat, and finally we have their singer, Chris Martin. Mr. Martin’s voice is breathy, high, and at times whiny. When Bono gets worked up about another issue bedeviling the world, which is every day, his voice goes striding across the land. Martin’s goes flat. It doesn’t help that he married Gwyneth Paltrow.

But man, does this album whip up a mood! At least it does in me. Playing A Rush of Blood on my headphones has made many a task zip right along. How did Coldplay win me over? My theory is that I first heard A Rush of Blood on a temporary job where I spent much of the day feeling sorry for myself. Coldplay is the band for you if you’re feeling sorry for yourself! They are melancholy without being terminal, cathartic without making you curl into a ball. They provide a valuable public service.

My conclusion on the Coldplay question is that these boys are all in their 30s. They work hard, they love their fans, and they take care of themselves. We’d better learn to live with them because they are not going away. And that makes them The Rolling Stones without all the egos.

 

Women dislike Pink Floyd. Certainly all the women I’ve married dislike Pink Floyd. I’ve only married one, but she’s not backing down on this subject. Or any subject.

I can’t recall ever meeting a woman who publicly stated that she liked Pink Floyd. I wonder if there’s an unattached woman anywhere in the world with Pink Floyd in her music library, and I don’t mean something left behind by some long-gone guy. In college I remember a mistreated girlfriend burning holes with her cigarette in her ex-boyfriend’s copy of Meddle. It all seemed very sophisticated, plus it taught me to hide my LPs.

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon may be the most gender-imbalanced record in music history. When Floyd released their masterwork in 1973, it immediately went to the top of the Billboard Hot 200 albums. Plenty of albums surface in the Hot 200, but Dark Side of the Moon was still bobbing around there 15 years later. Dark Side of the Moon is the third best-selling album of all time, trailing Justin Bieber’s My World but outpacing Honus Wagner’s entire Ring cycle. If women aren’t buying this thing, every man on the planet must be.

This leads me to ponder what makes music palatable to women. Here are my hypotheses:

What Women Like in Music
1) Something you can dance to, or might dance to if you could find the right partner.
2) A doomed romance.
3) The possible start of an exciting long-term relationship.
4) Living your own life and setting your own rules.
5) Attractive performers.
6) Four minutes and you’re done.

Here’s how Pink Floyd matches up with What Women Like in Music:

1) Pink Floyd is every bit as danceable as Led Zeppelin.
2) Everyone who has ever appeared in a Pink Floyd song was doomed.
3) Floyd’s idea of a long-term relationship: “There’s someone in my head/but it’s not me.”
4) Empowered women are scary.
5) Even when they were young, Dave, Roger, Nick, and Rick were nobody’s idea of a boy band.
6) They managed to hold “Echoes” to just under 24 minutes.

Given that Dark Side of the Moon is my favorite album of all time, ever, period, it’s a wonder I’ve been able to form and sustain relationships. Fortunately, God gave us headphones before She gave us Floyd.

Pink Floyd fun fact: “San Tropez” is a hybrid of “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita.”

I love Dark Side of the Moon so much that I only play it a couple of times a year. I always want it to be a treat. This same principle explains why I waited 20 years to go back to Apocalypse Now.

Wise men say that you’re never too annoyed for Floyd. Notice that it’s only men who say that. The truth is that once you leave the safety of Dark Side of the Moon you can get very annoyed with Floyd. Pink Floyd can be as bloated as Yes, but without the hysteria. They can be as pompous as Queen, but without the camp. They can be as meaningless as Black Sabbath, but without the medieval camouflage. They can touch your heart with “Comfortably Numb,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “Fearless,” and then try to trap you in “Echoes,” which starts well but after 7 or 8 minutes veers straight into Spinal Tap’s “Jazz Odyssey.”

It’s about time someone said this: 75% of the Pink Floyd catalog is Deep Purple with a PhD.

Shine on you crazy diamond
Thus we can define Pink Floyd Syndrome as a two-part phenomenon:

  • Men are from Pink Floyd, women are from Pink.
  • If you’re a man, you either love everything Floyd or you only love Dark Side of the Moon. Either way, you’ve learned how to hide your record collection.

In a future post we’ll entertain the proposition that Nebraska is Bruce Springsteen’s best album. Until then, keep your headphones on and your partner happy.

There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark. 

Queen: Greatest Hits
1994
Queen

I am never in the mood for Queen. There is no time of the day or night, no day of the week, no season in which I would choose to listen to Queen. This isn’t because I hate them; I don’t. They’re literate, which means a lot here at the Bureau. They use adjectives that are uncommon in a rock song (“warily”) and when the situation demands it they can concoct their own (“belladonic”). I’m just unmoved by their music.

One thing I do enjoy about Queen is that you can arrange their song titles to tell stories:

Fail Whale
It’s a Hard Life
I’m Going Slightly Mad
I Want to Break Free
I Want It All
Fight From the Inside
Keep Yourself Alive
Don’t Stop Me Now
Another One Bites the Dust

Get a Room
Get Down, Make Love
Spread Your Wings
We Will Rock You
Sheer Heart Attack
Sleeping on the Sidewalk

Placing them within the context of their ’70s contemporaries, Queen is less pompous than Yes, wittier than King Crimson, looser than Traffic, warmer than Pink Floyd, better dressed than Mountain, hipper than The Grateful Dead, kinkier than Steely Dan, nastier than Carole King, more electrifying than War, and smarter than Grand Funk Railroad, though that one is easy. My dog is smarter than Grand Funk Railroad. Queen could toast and eat Bread and wash them down with ELO without missing a beat. They are the Monitor to Black Sabbath’s Merrimack. They are not just superior to Chicago, they make Chicago look like Fall River, Massachusetts. Their song about women with overlarge derrieres is AC/DC with metaphors and flashbacks. AC/DC can barely manage a point of view. And their song about murder, the nature of reality, and Galileo made Wayne’s World possible.

Queen was obviously a respectable unit, but this is music, not quantum mechanics. If you could explain art you wouldn’t need misinformed critics like me. Honk if you love David Bowie.

“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
Yes
1983
Yes has been around so long, they had to postpone their first gig until Sir Francis Drake could defeat the Spanish Armada. In the 1970s, Yes and a collection of art-school escapees including King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer created their own playpen of popular music: progressive rock. Prog-rock songs have two underlying characteristics:

1) Too many notes.
2) Boredom.

Yes enjoyed tremendous commercial success with their overinflated songs, and long after the rest of these pompous mammoths had been stuffed and mounted, Yes was still blundering about, bugging the hell out of me. Because Special D says I should stop being a grump, I’ve decided to say something nice about Yes. In fact, my research has revealed so many nice things to say about Yes that I’ve tabulated them for your convenience.

Table 1. Have You Heard the Good News About Yes?
The song “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is superior to all of its contemporaries:

  • Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
  • Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart”
  • Hart to Hart starring Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers
  • Most crud by Heart

If the sacred mission of prog rock is to clear the dance floor of all human life, why did Yes record a dance song? Not only does this heresy remain unexplained, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” became Yes’ only #1 hit! In 1983 this seemed about as likely as the Dukes of Hazzard hosting Masterpiece Theatre. I understand now that the years in which Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and the band’s 1,000 other members spent honing their craft, blowing everything out of proportion and infusing their albums with a heady dose of tedium, was all in the service of this one moment.

Where eagles dare
The song starts with the guitar clearing its throat like a brontosaurus heading for its mud hole. I like it already. Over the next two minutes, the spectacle of a band this inept attempting to create a dance-club hit by straining Thomas Dolby through Deep Purple can’t help but win you over. They even snap their fingers. This stretch of music isn’t really danceable; it’s slow and lumbering. But Yes fans can dance to it, for they are slow and lumbering.

And then, with the music swelling and the falsettos becoming ever more false, we’ve safely reached the end. Right? The song has acquitted itself with honor and can now retire. Right? You know I’m going to say Wrong! We have instead arrived at the bridge. The band doesn’t transition into the bridge so much as trip over it. This is Steve Howe’s cue, or maybe this is what wakes Steve Howe up. With a mighty heave of his fingers, he uncorks a guitar solo that kicks like a line of retired Rockettes. Don’t you always laugh at this point and flail about the room with your air guitar? Of course you do.

Having shot its wad with these bold ideas, Yes contentedly rolls over for the last 60 seconds. The song slowly deflates, leaving you with the memory of a good time and the thought that within 24 hours they’ll be ready to do it again.

What other band could’ve done this?
Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” was a very different song for The Boss, though he sort of repeated that glossy, ’80s-feathered-hair sound a couple years later with “Tunnel of Love.” The Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” a bright, poppy tune, was just a tiny bit out of place on an album that included “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and the rest of their suicidal oeuvre. The Grateful Dead took a stab at disco with “Shakedown Street”; if only disco had stabbed back. But I can’t think of any band that reached so far beyond itself as Yes did with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

Now that’s progressive.