Television’s “Marquee Moon”

This week, I’ve been discovering Television’s debut LP “Marquee Moon” from 1977. Somehow, this band has managed to escape my notice until now. It’s a shame it took this weekly project for me to learn about them. This album immediately became one of my favorites. Television played post-punk when punk rock was in its infancy.

Proto-punk generally favors shorter straight-forward songs with little-to-know instrumental sections; Television goes off into more complicated song structures that display some influence from The Who. A few moments would vaguely remind me of The Who’s 1973 album “Quadraphenia” which is also one of my favorites.

The album opens with “See No Evil” introducing the sound of the album. We have drums and electric bass guitar in the center. There are three guitar: one purely rhythm guitar in the left channel, a rhythm-lead in the right channel, and the solo lead in the center. The clean rhythm-lead guitar runs through a series of melodic picked riffs. I especially like the arpeggios in the chorus that continue even as the other instruments rhythmically pause. of New York City rock-n-roll lead vocals of Tom Verlaine grab the listeners attention much like those of New York contemporary Patti Smith. Television has a similar sound as Patti’s band on “Horses” and I love that raw dirty-clean guitar sound.

I love all of the songs on this album, which made it difficult to only choose a few to discuss. I’m skipping over the epic title track “Marquee Moon” mostly because it’d be so much to tackle. It’s the song that first made me think of “Quadraphenia” with the end of the song reminding me a lot of “Reign O’er Me.”

Guiding Light” really caught my attention. It stands out as being one of the slower songs, almost leaning towards a spiritual sound. The song starts with clean guitar arpeggios repeating a I-IV chord pattern. This is joined by bass and a piano beautifully accompanied by the echo of the room. The unusually long prechorus has two parts, the first in V-I chord progression and the second part II-IV. The chorus is a standard I-V progression, with the final I getting extra emphasis as a strong cadence. One thing I love about this song is the use of the natural room ambience and space between the instruments and notes. It’s a very natural sound.

The lyrics feature a nice mixture of poetic and straight-forward rock n roll. For example, I especially like the last two lines of the first verse of “Guiding Light”: “I hear the whispers I hear the shouts And though they never cry for help”. What does it mean? I’m not sure I could say. It’s not even really a complete sentence, but it feels. I saw the lyrics described as “impressionistic” and I’d say that’s correct, though I may be putting my own interpretation on what that person meant. You more feel the meaning of the lyrics than you could possibly getting out of them directly.

I fell in love with every song on this album. This one will get frequent listens from now on. I’m only disappointed it took me so long to actually hear it.

My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”

This past seven days, I’ve been listening to My Bloody Valentine’s album “Loveless” from 1991. I devote each week to a different album considered great in order to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. It also introduces me to a lot of great music. This week was an unusual challenge. At first, I thought the album was awful. By the end of the week, I thought it was mostly awful. The blame does not fall on the songwriting. In fact, I find it difficult to speak about the songwriting at all. The recording and production choices stand as a major hurdle for me. The way they play their instruments did not help either.

This album drowns the listener in a lush warm fuzzy wall of sound. The use of reverb, including the weird reverse-reverb, gives instruments like the guitar an expansive atmosphere of depth. Or at least they would, except the sound is often flattened by emphasizing the production layer. This album often reminded me of an old cassette tape deck I had. The worn out belt would cause the playback speed to rise and fall. Parts also reminded me of another tape recorder on which the head wasn’t aligned quite right. When used to record music on a tape that already had something on it, you would get a mix of the new audio, the previous audio, as well as a little bit of the opposite side in reverse. All of these oddities brought focus to the medium of tape, which is flat. Much of “Loveless” sounds two dimensional to me in the same way.

Guitarist and principal artist of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields, has a fascination with the whammy bar. He strums the guitar while applying pressure to the bar. This creates an effect where the guitar frequently undulates in and out of tune. Pushing this through layers of reverb provides the listener with a feeling of seasickness. It sounds cool, except that he’s doing it too much.  As a child, I dug the syncopated way my Speak-N-Spell said “apostrophe.”  I pushed the apostrophe button over and over again; It brought me joy while annoying everyone around me.

The guitar, the effects on the guitar, dominate the album. For most songs, the guitars shove the other instruments to the back. Drum loops rotate behind the wash of fuzzy reverb. Hints of bass guitar come and go. Sometimes something that sounds like keyboard overloading a toy speaker pushes between the blanket of guitar.

The songs also have vocals. I’ve heard them washed out by reverb and pushed well-beneath everything else. This is not true with all songs, but it seems to be the preference. The vocals sing in a quietly disinterested way, as if they are provided more out of obligation than desire. This expresses a cautious layer of self-conscious cool.  It almost works, but I would push the vocals more forward, give them some presence. They do have melodies and probably even lyrics, if you can manage to hear them.

The start of Only Shallow misleadingly implies a guitar-driven alt-rock album. As mentioned earlier, the focus on the album is more production and creating atmospheres of noise. While it can be argued that these are integral to the songs, I feel that the songs became reasons to create noise. This leads to soundscapes enjoyable in small doses. They wear tiresome long as whole songs.

Frequently, I would get whiffs of Stereolab, one of my favorite bands. The second track Loomer reminded me of Stereolab’s album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements like the song “Jenny Ondioline” which I love. My Bloody Valentine released “Loveless” two years before that Stereolab album. I may’ve liked My Bloody Valentine more if I’d heard them when I was in high school, instead of 25 years later.

Here Knows When” provides a strong example of the elements I don’t like about this album. I suspect fans of the band love this song for the same reasons. Imagine alternately recording Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, Stereolab on a worn out cassette tape with a cheap recorded and then recorded the sound of a motorcycle race over it. I really feel like this started as a good song.

For me, When You Sleep stands out as the best track. the song brought “Degrassi High into my mind for reasons I can’t understand. The use of a melodic instrument between verses and choruses helps tremendously. Vocal samples of ‘ooo’ played like a warped mellotron interact musically with the apparent synth. They’ve layered male and female vocals in a way that successfully brings the vocals forward, almost. I still don’t know what most of the lyrics, but I like what I’ve caught. I suspect an expression of awkward teen crush and bubblegum. Then it goes on too long, over-compressed and lacking variation.

Radiohead’s “OK Computer”

Radiohead "OK Computer" album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead‘s 1997 album “OK Computer” to learn from as a songwriting musician. I remember when this album came out and I loved it immediately. This week served not as an introduction, but as an opportunity to re-examine the familiar for something new. As soon as I heard the open guitar line of “Airbag” I knew it was going to be a great week. I love this album. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to listen to objectively and write about.

Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood enjoys experimenting with the possibilities of his instruments. Effects pedals alter the sound of the guitar in unusual ways. He also incorporates a variety of unusual playing techniques. I remember being blown away the first time I saw the “Creep” music video. Jonny’s guitar stabs introduced the chorus. His manic strumming launched into a guitar solo that feels much more like he’s trying to save his life.

The song was innovative for Radiohead’s sonic character of their instruments, including vocals. The song itself borrows a lot from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” but the sound and performance are wholly unique. Today’s listeners often hear “Creep” as typical 90s alt-rock. Radiohead so quickly evolved far beyond their first album, it’s difficult to realize how strange it sounded when it first came out.

The second track “Paranoid Android” remains one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It opens with a latin-influenced rhythm including a clave and a gentle acoustic guitar playing broken chords. This suggests an atmosphere of elevator and dreams of a 1950s family vacation. Appropriate for the “Please could you stop the noise

I’m trying to get some rest” line. The second verse has the unfriendly, yet catchy, line “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” After about two minutes, the music takes on a slightly sinister feel thanks to some rhythmic single low notes on the guitar. At 2:40, distorted electric guitar strike as Thom spits, “You don’t remember…” Jonny then plays a great, flourish-free, fuzz guitar solo panned full left. A mixture of time signatures add to the exotic other-worldly feel of the song. And then it moves into a mourning-choir section. Distorted guitars rip back into the song. The Rhythm guitar and drums play the ending rhythm, but the fuzzed out lead guitar soars into high notes drawing the song back into life before letting it end.

The great song “Karma Police” does interesting things with chords in their key. The first part of the song is in G major, then the outro is in B minor. The chord progression for the verses could be i-III-v-VII if in A minor, which would be great. However, being in G major, the chords actually follow an unusual ii-IV-v-I progression.

The chorus could be a I-II-V-IV#7 in the key of C major, which again would be great though weird. But, still in G major, the chorus is actually a IV-V-I-VII7. These unusual progressions are played simply on the piano with a strummed acoustic guitar adding texture to the background. Overall, the song has an ambivalent feeling of stability and fragility, marching and floating.

Thom lifts his voice up during the outro;  He sings, “Phew for a minute there, I lost myself.” This matches the peculiar contradiction of a minor key with a triumphant feeling. I love that combination. The opposite happens in the chorus where the chord progressions seem to go from A minor to C major, but the mood drops with an mildly threatening statement of purpose: “This is what you get when you mess with us.”

The blissfully perfect “No Surprises” remains one of my favorite songs. Sonically, it bears some resemblance to The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” from their debut album. With the slower tempo, use of glockenspiel and guitar over a bassline with little percussion and softly sung vocals. The two verses vollow a I-vi-ii-V-I-iv chord progression. The minor iv adds a sense of longing to the pull for resolution. I love this song. The sound is delightfully pleasant tinged with melancholy.

Throughout the album, obtuse lyrics build emotional images of anxiety and distress. I don’t want to make too much of the comparison, but it bears some relation to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both albums deal with the difficulty and burden of living in modern society.  With Radiohead, the lyrics are much more post-modern. At times, they’ve constructed lyrics from lists and yet others are collections of sentiments.  These are pulled together to create an overall sense of meaning, sort of like reading between the lines.

Overall, “OK Computer” continues to be one of my favorite albums. Radiohead make great use of inventive chord progressions. I also appreciate their attention to sonic detail, from use of effects to the choice of instruments. This is true, of course, with all bands. Yet, Radiohead seek out new ways to create strange auditory experiences. They thoughtfully combine these in meaningful ways that suit the songs.

Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.

Ramones’ “Ramones”

I’ve been listening to the Ramones’ 1976 self-titled debut album this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album definitely provides a contrast from the modal jazz of last week’s Miles Davis album. I got my introduction to the Ramones through the “Ramones Mania” collection. I liked most of the thirty tracks; However, the songs seemed musically redundant. I mostly wrote them off. When I met my wife 18 years ago, she reintroduced me to her favorite band the Ramones. Thankfully, they had a broader range than I’d originally thought. So, what about their debut album?

Some see punk rock as a rebellion against disco banality and prog rock excesses. Some focus on punk as a revival of rock n roll, from which disco and prog had originated but drifted far away. The Sex Pistols, especially Johnny Rotten, probably leaned more toward the rebellion side. The Ramones were more perhaps more revival. On their debut album, the Ramones music bears elements of their influences like the Ronettes, the Beach Boys, and 1910 Fruitgum Company. The members of the Ramones heard these pop bands on the radio through their childhood. By the mid-70s, they’ve also been influenced by harder music like “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin. The Ramones brand of punk music strips early rock n roll and pop music down to its basic elements; They create short songs with catchy melodies, simple direct lyrics on adolescent themes, I-IV-V chord progressions, and basic rhythms.

The drummer plays minimalist beats with little to no flourish. The bass further drives the rhythm staying almost constantly on the tonic note of each chord. The guitar, likewise, provides a nonstop barrage of distorted barre chords. These give the music a wash of rock n roll sound, creating a style by opting out of stylistic additives.

The band will emphasize two consecutive beats in some songs, which is a distinctly Ramones rhythmic technique. They achieve this usually through the following. Throughout the rest of the measure (or two), the bass will drive along with constant eighth notes while the guitar is likewise being played with non-stop down-strokes. The snare will hit every 2nd and 4th beat with a kick every 1st and 3rd and maybe a downbeat in-between. To emphasize the two beats, the bass will play quick quarter notes and the guitar will strike then rest on both.  Usually this will be the V and IV chords of the key. The snare will hit on both, accompanied by a cymbal. This pattern gets repeated every two bars.

Joey’s vocal make these songs worth listening to. His melodies are simple, yet catchy. His style incorporates a variety of approaches while always sounding very much like Joey Ramone. They are fed by a desire to mix early rock n roll with a 1970s New York cool. He’s often crooning like Elvis Presley incorporating vibrato and tremolo.  Lines are punctuated with odd rockabilly hiccups and sputters, and occasional spits and snarls. All of these style in the vocals keeps the songs engaging while the rest of the instruments provide a utilitarian background.

The song “Blitzkrieg Bop” opens the album as a perfect introduction. The Ramones “Hey Ho Let’s Go” gets us “revved up and ready to go.” The lyrics “What they want, I don’t know” combined with the earlier lines “They’re piling in the back seat, They’re generating steam heat, Pulsating to the back beat.” sum up a lot of the album. These songs are soaked in a mixture of energetic anger, adolescent apathy, world-weariness, 50s rock n roll mythology, and naïvety. There’s that sense of seeing that the adult world sucks, but we’re not children anymore, so we’re going to have a good time in between.

The mid-album track “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” differs from the rest of the album. This slow song overtly wears more of the Phil Spector inspiration. Johnny Ramone even shows off an ability to play guitar beyond constant downstrokes.  True, it’s still a I-IV-V chord progression, but the Ramones are built on stripped down rock n roll. I also like that this song features one of my favorite instruments, the glockenspiel. However, the mix buries the bells.

These are great rocking songs with the most basic of essentials. All of them work, not in spite of, but because of their simplicity.  These very direct songs get the job done and get out. On the other hand, listening to them several times a day for a full week started to get boring. So, I learned that you can do a lot with very little. I don’t want to say these songs are without substance, but there’s just not enough there to keep them interesting.

Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s 1959 album “Kind of Blue” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. Though not my first time hearing the album, this week definitely served as an introduction. As the songs are all instrumentals, I have no lyrics to discuss. Yet, the music itself speaks in a different language than I’m accustomed.

This is instrumental jazz instead of the rock and pop that I usually listen to. Furthermore, it presents to me the unfamiliar concept of modal jazz. I avoid giving an explanation here for fear that I get it wrong. The article on Wikipedia gives a basic description. Modal jazz is challenging to me, because I’m accustomed to tonal music. In tonal music, the foundation of a song consists of chord progressions that travel from and return to the tonic chord. As I understand it, modal jazz utilizes modal changes instead of chord progressions. Hack Music Theory has a short video explaining Modes. With modal jazz, Miles Davis gave freedom to the melody by releasing it from constraints of chord progressions. I hope I’m getting this right.

Still, my familiarity with tonal music contributes to “All Blues” being the song I most enjoy. While the songs goes through mode changes, within each the song follows a 12 bar blues chord progression. “All Blue” probably fails to be a true example of modal jazz for this reason. The track is in 6/8 time with the emphasis on the first and fourth eight note. Secondary emphasis on the third and sixth give the rhythm a little hop. A gentle rumbling piano opens the track to be joined by horns. This gives an atmosphere of the train yard in twilight or early morning. The rhythmic hi-hat tapping emphasizes this feeling.

That brings me to how fascinating I find the percussion on this album. It’s almost completely based on the hi-hat. The cymbals are played with great expression to convey rhythm. In rock and pop, the hats are most often used to keep time while the kick and snare convey rhythm. The percussion on “Kind of Blue” gives the hats great importance. The drummer plays the other drums much less often than I’m used to. The snare provides occasional emphasis, to add some flavor or to occasionally signify a change. A brush slides across the surface, the rim is tapped, or light trills provide texture. This greater variety of sounds from the snare really gets my interest.

The opening track “So What” also grabbed my interest. The piano plays “buh-boop” followed by the bass “duh doodoo doodoo doodoo doo doo” introducing the foundation of the song. There’s 16 bars in one mode, then 8 in another, returning to 8 of the first mode. Once this is introduces, a splash of cymbal tells kicks off the real journey. Horns take turns soloing improvisational melodic lines over the rhythm section. As mentioned earlier, the cymbals provide the sense of rhythm. The bass gives a foundation for that rhythm. On the piano, chords are played but they are not the drive of the song. They more provide interesting emphasis and offsets to the rhythm. Sometimes, to my ear, the chords sound strangely wrong, but oddly appropriate. This cool music sounds alien to me. I don’t understand the language, but I can feel it.

I definitely need more than a week with this album to full appreciate it. Its cool smoky night-time feel really gets me. I’m looking forward to more from Miles Davis as well as some of the other musicians on this album. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley played the saxophones and Bill Evans played the piano. I already know some of Coltrane’s work. I understand that Bill Evans was a major part of this album’s compositions.  Also Jimmy Cobb played the drums here. I feel that I can learn a lot from his use of drums for my own programming of drum machines. I can learn a lot from this album, especially in the way instruments are being used and interact with each other.  The concept of modal jazz presents a challenge to me which gives me a desire to further understand it.

Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”

Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album coverThis past week, I’ve been listening to the Sex Pistols’ 1977 debut (and only) album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Admittedly, that statement isn’t very punk rock and seems antithetical to the idea of the Sex Pistols. I’m not very punk rock either. Still, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) spoke of the importance for musicians to know their craft and the work of others. I do that every week.

The album opens with the sound of troops marching as “Holiday in the Sun” begins. The dirty distorted guitars buzz in, providing a fantastic start to an album. Here comes the first line “Cheap holiday in other people’s misery” during the intro riffs. It hints at the tone of the album and introduces the listener to singer Johnny Rotten’s vocal style. His voice confidently delivers an attitude at turns sardonic, accusatory, witty, disgusted and angry. That single opening line expresses all of that really well before the actual lyrics even start. Most of the lyrics attack an institution of some kind, whether it’s the royal family, classicism, social norms, government, or even the music industry. This album gives voice to the disaffected frothing with disillusionment.

Twenty years ago, I thought it was sounded universal and fresh, now it definitely sounds 1970s and British. It’s the sound of youth, but it’s the youth of today’s youth’s grandparents. I imagine to a younger generation it might even have all the quaintness that “Rock Around the Clock” had to me at their age. Still, the Sex Pistols music is so infused with rebellion that it still carries some sense of danger, however outmoded.

The distinguishing riff of “Holiday in the Sun” follows the Andalusian cadence; This is a descending I5-VII5-VI5-V5 progression; Of course, the V (G5 in this case) provides a perfect return back to the I (C5) so it sounds great to our ears. It’s always been one of my favorites. This solid progression can provide a sense of menace as it does here. The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” provides a much less menacing example. A verses repeat a V chord, dropping down to IV for rhythmic emphasis, and the choruses are I-II. This sounds a lot of like  I-IV-V, giving the song a solid rock n roll feel.

The track “Pretty Vacant” has always been one of my favorites. The song opens with the guitar playing a distinctive broken A-chord. Undoubtedly, the opening riff provide some inspiration to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. A I5-VII5-IV5-I5-VII5-V5 chord progression supports the verses. The choruses follow another descending riff: IV5-IIIb5-I. I notice here playing the chords within the key is not necessarily a conscious concern. As with Nirvana, the Pistols like wrote songs by finding movements of power-chords along the frets that sound good.  Basically, for rock n roll, sometimes you gotta get your head out of the books and your fingers on the guitar.

The closing track “EMI” has also been one of my favorites since I first heard it. Johnny’s catchy vocal delivery instantly makes the song lovable. Plus, who doesn’t love a good middle-finger to the record company track? Well, okay, it could be pretty lame and come across as cry-baby whining that the average listener can’t relate to. I appreciate the audaciousness involved in blatantly naming the company. They lyrics involve too some admonitions regarding pop culture and the music industry for everybody’s ears. That and the song gets strength from its fantastic mixture of anger and fun. One can get a lot of musical miles out strong vocals, a chorused (or is it double-tracked?) overdriven guitar, bass, and drums.

The final song of the Sex Pistols final concert (not counting reunions) was an emotional expression of disappointment and disgust. For an encore they performed a cover of The Stooges’ song.  Appropriately, this song was “No Fun.”  I’ve never heard the original, but I’ve always liked the Pistol’s covers of it. I won’t go into the background stories of the Winterland concert, but suffice it to say Johnny had had enough; He was facing that realization and the last few minutes of that performance were the result.  The Pistols weren’t built to last, but they produced a powerful album during their short existence.