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.

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.

Best Music of 2015 … So Far

album montageWhile it might seem to some, myself included, that I’ve embarked upon my dotage, I do try to remain current in the music realm. Thus I eagerly await the Beatles reunion tour and wonder what Beethoven’s got cooking. But I jest. So here we are at the ¾ mark for the year and I’ve discovered a bucket full of outstanding albums put out this year. So many, in fact, that this will have to be a two-parter (Will Buck survive Ming’s deathray and carnivorous weasels?) … Well, maybe not a cliffhanger per se.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my favorite albums of 2015 thus far!

Down on Deptford Broadway by Skinny Lister
Skinny Lister’s music features ethereal Celtic folk melodies melding gracefully with rollicking rock and roll. As a reference point think of Dexy’s Midnight Runners at their best, and then think a bit better. These lads and lass, based out of London, have had a fair amount of success since their inception in 2009, and one listen to this album will show you why. 3 stars. Out of 3.

This is The Sonics by The Sonics
This album I’ve already blogged about extensively, so simply buy it, memorize my earlier post and pick your jaw up off the floor. Best album of the year. 3 stars. Out of 3.

No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney
Filed under Local Music, these riot grrrls are still putting out an aural assault worthy of a jumbo jet liftoff. Oh, and they write great songs too. Question: What happens when a local punk/indie/riot grrrl band plays together for nearly 20 years? Answer: This album. If you like it edgy and fast, then giddy up and go. 2.5 stars. Out of 3.

So Delicious by Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
Perhaps my most surprising find of the year, this demon in the rough features a bluesy old-timey group that delivers fun and frivolity and furniture. Without the furniture. Imagine a pig caller shouting the blues while his band of hobgoblins lays down swamp boogaloo pulled from the very depths of hell. If you can imagine this you might want to seek therapy as soon as possible. But Reverend Peyton does bring music from the land of smoky kudzu-infested nights filled with passion, disappointment and whiskey. Check it out and expect to be mesmerized. 3 stars. Out of 3.

It’s Too Late Darling… by Guantanamo Baywatch
It’s very seldom that I find music I’ve never even heard of and get blown away. Enter Guantanamo Baywatch. Granted, my attraction to this album was the band’s name (hey, I’m a superficial guy), but without knowing the genre or anything about the lads and lasses, I discovered a new favorite. And this is one of the beauties of the library, looking into unknown works at no cost to yourself. Expect surf mixed with 50s/60s fun pop/rock. 2.5 stars. Out of 3.

Sundown Over Ghost Town by Eilen Jewell
One of the greatest voices currently putting out music,her gorgeous country music takes you to wide open spaces where the sun sets over hot-baked dirt, followed by crazy nights in crowded honky tonks. 3 stars. Out of 3.

Tune in for more 2015 albums in the near future. And keep your dune buggy off of my lawn, young whippersnapper!

Music For A Lifetime

django-reinhardtThe year: Nineteen-eighty-something. The place: Bellingham. Our protagonist is a handsome young man finishing his studies in music whilst working in the college library. A mile or more from his modest roach-infested home sits the Bellingham Public Library, a bastion of free knowledge. Much to the delight of our hero, the building sports an eclectic vinyl record collection (an ancient form of music media, similar to 8-track tapes) ranging from field recordings of chain gangs to sea chanties of the Hebrides. It is here that he first discovers the music of Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills. And here’s the twist: I was that young man!

It’s true.

Bob WillsSome 30 years later, I still listen to Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills on a semi-daily basis. It’s amazing what an impact these library holdings made on my existence. Throw in Charles Mingus’s Fables of Faubus and Haitian Fight Song and we’ve captured significant musical influences to my later life.

At that time in library collection management, I would wager that audio selection was made to provide people with access to music they’d never find anywhere else (this was before everything imaginable was issued on CD) rather than to provide popular music for listening pleasure. And for me, this was perfect! I loved the Folkways releases of underwater Christmas carols and chants of the Irkutskian mud men. Although I might be misremembering those titles.

When I moved to Everett in 1987, the audio holdings were very similar to those in Bellingham. Perfect! And within a couple of years, a few CDs even joined the collection! It was around this time that music selection processes changed to some extent. Perhaps influenced by the initial lack of offerings on CD, perhaps reflecting a change in library philosophy, popular music entered the library in a big way.

But where I’m going with this ramble is: Bellingham Public Library has influenced my life for over 30 years! I’m so grateful that I was exposed to music that I otherwise did not have access to (no internet, no Pandora, no iTunes, etc). And here at Everett Public Library we try to provide a diverse collection of music that will keep you grateful for the next 30 years.

Wild and woolyOur latest venture is the Local Music collection which currently consists of over 70 titles from a variety of time periods. A good place to start exploring this new collection is the CD Wild and Wooly, a compilation of northwest music stretching from the 50s to the present. Many of its performers might not be familiar names, but they’ve all been essential to the growth of local music. And one of the most important bands found on this album is The Wailers, teenagers (well, they were in the 50s) hailing from Tacoma.

In 1959 The Wailers released the instrumental single Tall Cool One which went on to chart at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100. Other local bands such as the Dave Lewis Trio, The Frantics, The Ventures and The Viceroys (all featured on Wild and Wooly) also focused on instrumentals, joining in The Wailers’ success with hit recordings and sold-out performances. The Wailers’ momentum led to recording an album (The Fabulous Wailers), appearing on American Bandstand and touring the east coast. But there’s no place like home and after returning to the northwest the band started its own record label, Etiquette (which later helped launch The Sonics), and made a ground-breaking recording of Louie, Louie.

And this is just scratching the surface (vinyl humor!) of the amazing Wild and Wooly. Check this one out! Perhaps you’ll find a band or two to put into your life’s playlist for the next 30 years. And stay tuned for more posts on Northwest music.