About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

The New Beatles?

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I’ve been thinking about the Beatles lately, specifically about recent bands that show an obvious Beatle influence.

(Gestures intimately). Please, come with me. (Walks a short distance). Let me explain where I’m going with this. The Beatles, from day 1 to day last, changed dramatically in style. So I had to ask myself, what do I consider to be a Beatle influence?

Very few bands seek out the early Beatles Mersey beat. What I’m defining as the Beatle sound comes from what one might call their psychedelic period, beginning roughly with Rubber Soul and ending with The White Album (I know, I know, it’s really called The Beatles). This sound has influenced bands a-plenty.

(Holds up hand). Yes, there is still a need to define “influence”. We have Beatles tribute bands, groups that sound one heck of a lot like the Beatles and others that are influenced in more nuanced ways. And nuance is where it’s at for me.

One last bit of business is to define elements that create the Beatles’ sound. This could be a large list, but I’m going to focus on just a few: 1) their prevalent vocal harmonies, 2) the types of chord progressions used, 3) psychedelic tidbits and 4) lyrics that often tell a story.

Let the comparisons begin!

(Approaches desktop computer) While I immediately had a few bands in mind such as Jellyfish and XTC, I needed some help with this topic, so I turned to the internets in search of absolute truth. There I found many bands that are often compared to the Beatles, bands such as Panic at the Disco, Radiohead and My Morning Jacket. But these are bands who I don’t think have a palpable Beatle influence. (Speaks to audience in exaggerated Cockney accent) Oh, I suppose one could focus on any element, such as cymbal hits, and say, “Oi, that’s just how Ringo did it! They’re the new Beatles!” (Returns to regular voice) But from my perspective these groups have no Beatle connection.

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Other common Beatle-comparees include Blur, Arctic Monkeys and Belle & Sebastian. Again, I don’t hear the influence, but perhaps you, the listener, will. And this is not even to say that I don’t like these bands, just that they seem to be on a different path than the lads from Liverpool.

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Delightfully, I found myself introduced to bands I’d not heard before like Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips and Of Montreal. These fine groups do indeed have a Beatle influence, taking some of the key elements one finds in Beatles’ music and repurposing them into entirely original soundscapes.

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(Stretches arms above head) But after this long preamble, the band I really want to talk about today is Squeeze. Over the past forty-plus years, including a break or two, genius songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford have kept Squeeze alive. Perhaps rivaling Lennon and McCartney in lyrical depth, catchy hooks and riveting complexity, these two gentlemen are frequently spoken of in the same breath with the Beatles, even though they’re not well-known in the U.S.

After gaining popularity in the U.K. early on in their career and churning out hits for some time, slowly the band’s popularity began to fade. Their last album was released in 1998. (Raises eyebrow and pauses dramatically) Well, last album less one. In 2007 Squeeze began touring once again and in 2015 they released Cradle to the Grave, picking up right where they left off.

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The album is filled with pop gems. Even on the first listen you’ll feel like you’ve put on your favorite sweater (pantomimes donning garment), the one that makes you happy just to wear. Tempos are a bit on the medium side of fast and the music exhibits a delicate country influence. Songs feature trademark Tilbrook and Difford harmonies while taking small turns into unfamiliar neighborhoods before quickly returning to major boulevards. Here I find an old friend not seen for a long while, one who immediately re-establishes a comfortable rapport. Squeeze again demonstrates why they are, perhaps, the carrier of the Beatles’ torch.

(Turns to walk away) Check this one out. You can’t go wrong.

Just Regular Joes

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By the time you are reading this fascinating post, the following statement will not be true: Tonight I am going to see (and hear) The Tripwires, Girl Trouble and the Young Fresh Fellows. While I’ve never even heard of The Tripwires (Seattle power pop super group) and have not seen Girl Trouble live (they’re a garage rock band from Tacoma formed in 1983), I opened for and consequently saw the Young Fresh Fellows in 1986. For those of you who are good at math (rainmen), that’s 30 years ago. This was also the last time I saw them live. I don’t get out a lot.

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Over the years I’ve kept track of the Fellows and have continued to purchase both their albums and those of their side projects, which are actually big name groups. Scott McCaughey often tours with R.E.M. He plays in the Venus 3 with Robyn Hitchcock. He leads another semi-local group called The Minus 5. Guitarist Kurt Bloch led the well-known Seattle punk band The Fastbacks as well as performing with many other local bands. Bassist Jim Sangster formerly played in grange rock (yes, grange not garage) group The Picketts and currently plays in the genius power pop group The Tripwires. Drummer Tad Hutchison, simply the best drummer period, plays with Chris Ballew of The Presidents of The United States of America in a group called simply Chris and Tad.

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The Young Fresh Fellows’ music is sort of a cross between The Kinks and The Sonics, with a touch of early Pink Floyd thrown in. Garage anthems, beautiful pop melodies and dueling psychedelic guitar solos are offset by oddities such as Tad singing a warped version of Neil Sedaka’s Calendar Girl (January, it was very cold / February, it was still real cold). Their live show is a bundle of energy, top-notch musicianship and humor. Band members are roughly in their fifties, but when Tad puts on a hat that covers his salt and pepper hair he suddenly becomes a 10-year-old boy playing incredible fills. Kurt jumps up and down maniacally and leans into Scott while ripping out psychedelic solos from the depths of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind. Scott is the leader and focal point, providing intricate lyrics delivered with a simple everyman’s voice. And Jim, not to be outdone by Kurt, is a kinetic kewpie doll pounding out the bass, the bass, the bass.

It’s difficult to choose a single song as a favorite, but one that resonates with me is Searchin’ U.S.A. from their Topsy Turvy album.

I’ve been to Pauline’s Café in Bellingham
Jack said he’d be with me in a minute
I asked him for a glass of water
He said, “What for, you want to put some LSD in it?
There’s already speed and marijuana in the hash browns
Pauline always gets a kick out of that crack
And that kind of service brings the customers back

Pauline’s Café, which opened in the 60s, was a legendary diner in Bellingham, barely wide enough to walk through from front to back, simply a counter with barstools. By the 80s the owners were in the autumn of their lives but were full of vinegar and enjoyed messing with the college students. One of Pauline’s strict rules was no dessert until you cleaned your plate. Searchin’ U.S.A. offers up several slices of life that I have experienced (verse 2 begins: Well, I’ve been to the Alderwood Mall…) encased in poppy Americana-esque music.

There are those of us who see the “Seattle sound” as something that existed long before grunge was conceived. The Young Fresh Fellows are the heirs to this wild, dirty, thumping throne of sound born with The Wailers and The Sonics. Check them out and file the experience under Mind Blown!

From The Blues To Infinity

One of the most fascinating aspects of popular music is the interrelationship of different genres and the evolution/mixture of older genres into newer ones. This is a dense sentence which could earn me a professorship somewhere, but the gist of it is simply: music evolves. Rock and roll didn’t just happen one day. Early rock came out of blues, country, R&B (not the same thing as what we call R&B these days), Western swing, boogie woogie and honky tonk to name just a few genres. Certain songs have been around for a looooooong time and have evolved through a variety of styles.

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Submitted for your approval today is Baby Please Don’t Go, a tune that most likely originated as a slave song in the distant mists of time. Its first popular recording came in 1935 from Big Joe Williams, performed in an old-timey blues style. I’m going to venture a guess that many people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Cream when they hear the term “blues”, and while these are in fact blues performers, 1935 blues sound quite unlike their modern cousin. Instruments were often primitive, cigar box guitars and washtub basses for example. Recording technology was not so advanced. And many of the surviving recordings from the time period are not in great shape, so there’s a lot of hissing and popping that I associate with the genre.

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Williams’ song became quite popular (today being perhaps the most-recorded song in history) and was recorded by a variety of blues legends including Lightnin’ Hopkins (1947), John Lee Hooker (1949), Big Bill Broonzy (1952) and most famously by Muddy Waters in 1953. Waters’ version, known as Turn Your Light Down Low, is a nod to the future, a more urban (and electric) blues, and a jumping off point for rock bands in the 60s.

Amongst all these blues, The Orioles recorded a doo wop version of Baby Please Don’t Go in 1952 that was a hit. Their interpretation combines early R&B accompaniment with doo wop vocals, creating a much different feel than the earlier blues versions. Ray Charles also performed an amazing R&B take on the song featuring female backup singers, and, well, Ray.

As the blues became electric, rock and roll began to emerge as a distinct genre. Billy Lee Riley, a member of Sun Records rockabilly stable, recorded a version in 1957 that maintained some of the blues elements, but that featured a distinctly upbeat feel. But the real rock explosion came in 1964 when Van Morrison’s band Them recorded a hit which remains the version people are probably most familiar with today.

Other rock bands followed with the own versions: Paul Revere and The Raiders (1966), The Ballroom (1967), Ted Nugent’s psychedelic group The Amboy Dukes (1968), AC/DC (1975) as a single that reached #10 in Australia, and the Rolling Stones with Muddy Waters in 1981. Each group brought their own interpretation to this now-classic song. And the recordings continue with Cowboy Junkies, Aerosmith and Tom Petty in more recent years. The song provides a veritable geological strata of popular American musical styles. Pretty cool.

So check out these artists, if not to listen to Baby Please Don’t Go, then to hear a wide variety of styles and perhaps to detect common elements that lead from one style to another. It’s a great big beautiful world of music out there (to badly misquote Louis Armstrong and Devo), so take a chance on something new. Or something blues. You choose.

Later, gotta snooze.

What’s New Wave in the Library

I’m a categorizer. Okay, in reality I’m a lazy categorizer. I don’t really care about absolute rigid labels, but when organizing music on my computer (and oh yes I do realize how nerdy that sounds) I like to put bands into categories that make sense to me. When it comes to the term new wave, I tend to think of most any new music I was introduced to from 1979 to the early 80s.

Lately I’ve been trying to get more precise in my labelling, partly because if 1,000 bands all have the same label I can’t find any of them on the computer. So I’ve been moving a lot of bands from new wave into post-punk or punk. But it’s interesting to see that new wave has never been a clearly-defined genre. According to Wikipedia, “the 1985 discography Who’s New Wave in Music listed artists in over 130 separate categories.” One hundred and thirty! So all in all, new wave is a pretty meaningless term.

Yet we continue to use it. So today let us look at what’s new wave in the library.

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One safe bet is Now That’s What I Call New Wave 80s, a compilation featuring bands such as B-52s, Adam Ant, The Go-Gos and many more. It has new wave in the title even! Some of the songs here are the best-known ones by the included bands, but others are not. Quite a mixed bag, which makes it more interesting in my book.

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New York’s CBGB’s was a hotbed of exciting new music in the mid- and late 70s, regularly featuring bands such as Blondie, Ramones and Talking Heads. Many Blondie songs could easily be called pop or disco (although their early less well-known stuff is much more hard-edged), Ramones are often categorized as punk and Talking Heads are labelled post-punk, but when the three groups were starting out they were all called new wave.

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What most people came to think of as new wave was music that I hated at the time, far too mainstream, poppy, and hairstyley. Now that I no longer need to prove how cool I am this music has grown on me. Bands falling under this heading include Tears for Fears, The Fixx and Cyndi Lauper.

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Some new wave bands, such as The Cars, The Police and Duran Duran were quite popular, beloved by people from a cross-section of musical tastes.

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One of the largest sub-genres of new wave is synth pop, music that relies heavily or entirely on synthesizers. Groups in this category include Human League, Yaz and Thomas Dolby.

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Perhaps the ultimate new wave archetype is the literate, nerdy singer-songwriter type. This group includes Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parker. Their songs tend to be thought-provoking and lyrically complex with music ranging from driving pop-rock to ballads and everything in-between.

So there you have it. New wave, meaningless. Music that we call new wave, magnificent. Lots of good music at Everett Public Library. Blog post, finished.

Post-Punk for Ninnies

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Labels are funny things.

I’m not a big fan of rigid music classification. Most music slides between genres and most genres are not composed of one simple set of characteristics.

Post-punk is an umbrella that covers an insane variety of styles. The word implies that the music emerged after punk, but in reality it developed alongside of (and sometimes before!) punk rock. It’s similar to punk in seeking to break away from what mainstream rock had become by the mid-1970s, but its methods differ.

Like punk, there is a DIY attitude that anyone can play in a post-punk band. Conversely, there is also a highly artistic aesthetic steeped in experimental music which attracted highly accomplished musicians. Insane variety. Some of the characteristics that one tends to find in post-punk are: seemingly endless repetition of bass lines or short melodies, monotone singing, a funky feel in one of the instruments, sudden shifts to entirely unexpected places, sloppiness, angular lines. The music is not easily approachable, in fact it’s very in-your-face and can take some patience to absorb. Most of all, post-punk is not any one thing.

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One can see the variety of post-punk styles in our library’s holdings. Talking Heads are fairly mainstream in much of their music, but their early albums were quite different from late 70s rock. Not so very weird, but not heavy like punk, not inane like Wings (sorry Wings fans!). Often strange vocals, some unexpected turns, and just the right touch of quirkiness. Joy Division, on the other hand, incorporated synthesizers along with doom and gloom. Their signature song, Love Will Tear Us Apart, blends lovely music, melancholic singing, and lyrics focused on an inevitable sad outcome of love. Pere Ubu is simply weird, a non-stop assault on sanity. David Thomas, the lead singer, obviously studied vocal techniques with a tea kettle in a helium factory, and the songs challenge reality as we know it. Well worth a spin.

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Of course, many other post-punk groups can be found at EPL.

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The Seattle music scene included many talented post-punk bands, including The U-Men and The Beakers. The U-Men formed in 1981 and stayed active throughout the 80s. Carrying on the legacy of early local rock they brought a soupçon of punk, rockabilly and general weirdness to the foundation laid by The Sonics and other 60s garage bands. Their music is difficult to describe, a bit of The Cramps enmeshed in art punk or embryonic grunge filtered through an improbability blender. Best just to listen.

The Beakers formed in 1980 and existed for only 12 months, but their music exerted influence on local, national and international bands alike. As a local performer I’m always excited to open for a big-name band, and these guys opened for the likes of Gang of Four, Delta 5, XTC and Captain Beefheart! Wikipedia describes their music using adjectives such as perpendicular, yelpy, funk-influenced and dissonant. These four words form a good starting point for understanding post-punk. After the band split up, former members were also crucial in creating a system for distributing the music of independent northwest artists. Tremendous impact for a short-lived group!

So saddle up and give some post-punk a chance. It might take a few listens, a reassessment of expectations, but the music is unique and often moving. Take the immortal words or Talking Heads with you as you move into this challenging musical world:

It’s not cool to have so many problems
But don’t expect me to explain your indecisions
Go talk to your analyst, isn’t that what they’re paid for?

 

Punk 101

When rock and roll began to coalesce in the 1950s, it was a dangerous music, unsuitable for respectable persons. Over time, the sharp edge of menace grew dull and was replaced by a thin gruel of antiseptic multi-tracking and endless guitar/keyboard/drum solos.

Or something like that.

The point being, popular music was ripe for revolution. Enter punk rock.

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There are as many shades of punk as there are of (wait for the semi-literary reference) grey. My first exposure to the music was in the late 70s/early 80s, which is right about when punk was transforming from one thing to another. Early punk, which traces its roots back to the late 60s in the music of The Stooges and MC5, was a clear outgrowth of early rock and roll: three chords, simple songs, repetitive. Perhaps most importantly, it embodied a do-it-yourself revolution. Anyone could pick up an instrument (although drum sets should be left on the floor) and create music. This was a far cry from progressive rock which required instrumental virtuosity. Punk was soon to move to hardcore which was faster, louder, often angry, and to me remote from the roots of rock and roll.

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Here’s an interesting fact about me. Well, a fact at any rate. For the past 35 years I’ve been certain that I don’t like punk rock. Oh sure, I’ve seen the Dead Kennedys twice, X, Iggy Pop, and The Clash; I own every Ramones album; Buzzcocks are one of my favorite groups; I played in a punk band… Why Mr. Burger, the answer is evident: Our author is a punk! The truth is, I don’t think of the groups I love as punk. Early 80s hardcore groups like Minor Threat, extremely aggressive and, at least in my mind, unquenchably angry, defined the one and only brand of punk. Anything similar that I liked I thought of as new wave or some other safe label.

But guess what? Punk comes in many flavors.

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Any of these bands are a good start for your introduction to punk, but today we’ll look at the amazing debut album of the Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. This San Francisco band remains unique in the world of American punk, featuring musicians who are equally at home playing vicious vitriolic anthems, riffing on jazzy chord progressions or tying Elvis Presley songs to the rooftop rack of a nitro burning dragster. Led by the indescribable Jello Biafra, these four lads exploded on the punk scene in a napalm-encased conflagration of politics, disturbing imagery, humor and top-notch musicianship. Biafra’s voice is immediately recognizable and his performances are steeped in a teapot of dramatics.

Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities of the band is the combination of serious political lyrics and disturbing imagery with happy-go-lucky music. Take this excerpt from Let’s Lynch the Landlord, backed by some of the happiest music you’ll ever hear:

I tell him, “Turn on the water!”
I tell ‘im, “Turn on the heat!”
Tells me, “All you ever do is complain, yeah.”
Then they search the place when I’m not here
But we can, you know we can
Let’s lynch the landlord man

Guitarist East Bay Ray, a clear influence on my own playing, remains one of my favorites. His lines fit the DK’s songs perfectly while taking unexpected wanderings into deep, dark cobweb-obscured corners, corners revealed only by Ray’s brain-tingling, ice-pick-toting guitar licks. Not typical punk guitaristing.

So there you have it, Punk 101. Take a chance and check out one of the library’s offerings. And look for more punk albums to join the collection in the future. If the punks are united, they will never be divided.

Best Music of 2015 Part Deux

So little good new music, so much time to listen…. Strike that, reverse it.

album montage deuxI am genuinely surprised at the amount of enjoyable albums coming out in 2015, many by groups that I’ve never heard before. Last month we discovered 6 newly-released ear-tapping recordings and now, to make an even baker’s dozen, we present 6 more in what I like to call: Best Music of 2015 Part Deux.

Hollywood Vampires by Hollywood Vampires
This album features fabulous hard rocking versions of covers, including My Generation, Jeepster and Whole Lotta Love. The band is led by Alice Cooper (yes, that Alice Cooper), Joe Perry (yes…) and Johnny Depp (aye). Individual songs employ many other big name musicians such as Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh. I did not expect this release to be my bottle of pilsner, but these creative versions of beloved songs make my brain tingle in all the right places. 3 stars. Out of 3.

Still by Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson, although not a household name, is certainly one of the greatest guitarists alive. He also writes stunning songs and has a memorable and perfect voice. Rocking for over forty-five years, he puts out another great album with Still. Thompson’s music includes Gaelic influences and a bit of folkishness, but he rocks away as needed. Discover him and then check out his extensive back catalog. 2.5 stars. Out of 3.

Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon is the female member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-timey hokum string band. She sports an amazing voice and with this solo album expands genres to include hip-hop, blues, and more. If you like a strong female voice, check this one out. 2.5 stars. Out of 3.

Policy by William Butler
Butler sings/sang/sung for Arcade Fire, who hit their pinnacle a few albums back with Neon Bible. And since I haven’t enjoyed their new stuff so much, I had no expectations for Butler’s solo outing. Quelle surprise! Featuring music that is surprisingly different from Arcade Fire, Butler delivers an enjoyable album that is strong from start to finish. Styles range from good old-fashioned rock and roll to quirky 80s rock, and beyond. Nicely done, Mr. Butler. This is an excellent effort that breaks away from the shadow of an established band and creates a personal voice. 3 stars. Out of 3.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists
A bit more delicate than my typical listening fare, The Decemberists deliver dreamy, subtle indie/folk/rock. This Portland group has averaged one album every 2 years since 2002, so their catalog is already deep and impressive. If you’re looking for a quiet, feel-good experience, you could do worse than What a Terrible World. 2.5 stars. Out of 3.

Glean by They Might Be Giants
Hard to believe these lads have been around since the early 80s. Although their music inhabits a wide variety of styles, TMBG have a distinct sound, largely defined by the lead singer’s unique voice. As usual, songs contain weird weird lyrics, are often strangely child-like and boldly go where one does not expect. If you like past albums, you’ll probably groove to this one as well. 2 stars. Out of 3.

There you have it, a veritable potpourri of aural pleasurefulness. So get ready to drop the needle on that platter and crank the attenuator to twelve and beyond.