Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”

Album cover of There's a Riot Goin' On

This week, I’ve been listening to Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” from 1971. With this album, Sly Stone took the group in a different direction from their more pop and more optimistic music, like “Everyday People.” Drug use had become heavier, especially cocaine and PSP, which slowed down music production and certainly affected their moods. It also affected the mood of the increasingly impatient record company. He had also joined the Black Panthers and they pressured him to fire the white musicians in the band, when he had intentionally created the band with a mix of black-white and male-female. The Black Panthers put further pressure on him to make the songs as a black-power call to arms. It was in this space of being pulled in multiple directions amongst drugs, hopelessness, paranoia, conflicting ideologies, and the ongoing Vietnam War, that he wrote and recorded “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Sly Stone worked on the album mostly by himself, alone in the recording studio or at home in his bedroom. He used the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine for much of the percussion. He then overdubbed individual instruments that he played. Band members contributed additional instrumentation and vocals,one at a time alone in the studio with Stone. Apparently this process involved considerable bouncing down and overdubbing; Areas of the songs and groups of instruments are mixed poorly, there’s quite a bit of mud and tape hiss. There are times his vocals, presumably recorded while laying in bed, delivered half-hearted get buried in the mix. The vocals,usually the focal point of a recording, get lost. There’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in this album, but it can be frustrating to listen to.

Luv N’ Haight

“Luv N’ Haight” opens the album with electric bass thumped like a drum, then delivering an urgent driving bassline. Joined by acoustic drums, somewhat lost in the groove and mix. A funky wah-wah guitar talks rhythmically on the upbeat. Backing vocals and the wah guitar bring up anticipation, then the fall back for the first verse.

Stone repeats the the line, “Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move.” perhaps describing how he felt while high. He may also be playing with opposites the same way the title does, and referring simultaneously to the way one feels buried by depression. The title is a pun references the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. The name “Haight-Ashbury” had become synonymous with the hippie ideals of peace, love, freedom, drugs, music, optimism, etc. By 1967, it became the center of the Summer of Love. That was the height of Haight, which could not sustain the crowd it ultimately attracted. The drugs got harder and the attitude got paranoid. The mood had changed from glad to sadness. People often identify the the Manson family Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 as the nightmare that truly signaled the end of the Summer of Love. Stone recorded this song the following year. Despite a few other lines and backing vocals, he doesn’t stray beyond this single message.

The music picks up in rhythm intensity towards the end for the coda. Backing vocals ping-pong from left to right channel in call and response: “Feels so good,” “Feels so good.” “Wanna move,” “Wanna move.” They drop the “don’t” probably for rhythmic reasons, but it definitely changes the meaning of the line. Despite the apparent chaos, there’s instrumentation is fairly sparse. The drums are almost completely kick, snare, tom, and hi-hat. There is the clean electric bass that plays almost completely plays the root of each chord, acting more as an additional percussion instrument. The wah-guitar sounds more improvised than planned. There are some horns buried so deep in the mix that you more feel them than hear them. Layers of backing vocals fly about the stereo field. A piano plays off-kilter rhythmic chords, coming and going in the mix, appearing only in the second half of the song.

Family Affair

This track comes across much more mellow and intentional. It opens with electric piano played by famous session musician Billy Preston. Billy Preston played on many records in the 1960s; his contribution to Beatles recordings receives particular recognition. The electric piano in one channel is heavily modified by rhythmic sweeping of a volume pedal, which removes the attack swells on the upbeat. The electric piano in the other channel is left dry. At first, Preston plays a single strike of the chords on the first beat of each measure. After the first verse, he improves melodic arpeggios and chords during the third and fourth beat of the first each two bars. This addition to the groove continues into later verses.

The drum machine has been filtered, rolling off the high end giving it a more muted feel. This creates a pulsing throbbing feel to the percussion, allowing all of the other instruments to sit on top. The loose bass guitar is kept low in the mix, providing just enough underlying tonal groove to support the accompaniment. Except for a few wah-muted solos, the electric guitar is kept hidden. Stone’s vocals are up-close and tight, dry and in front. Again, he’s delivering them somewhere between a smooth singing and low-key talking. Here it totally works, it sounds cool. The tight recording and having them mixed to sit just above the accompaniment makes a big difference.

Runnin’ Away

Towards the end of the album “Runnin’ Away” provides a strange change in feeling. It’s more light-hearted in feel. Male and female double up in perfect unison. The female vocals are up-front with the male vocals adding additional texture lower-end texture. The male vocals are mixed so low, they’re near subliminal. Acoustic drums provide a simple beat, galloping bass guitar provides a throbbing low end, and filtered acoustic guitar strums rhythms between verses. The accompaniment pulls back during the verses, allowing them to take focus. The lyrics takes a sly dig at the disintegration of the hippie movement. Mid-60s Bacharach style trumpet lines enhance the optimistic feel of the song; The lyrics about failure contrast with this feel. This is a joke mocking the failure of the hippie dream.While there is not a consistent scheme for where rhymes happen, rhyming is seen throughout. And the first line of each line ends with a mocking laugh.

Running away to get away, ha-ha, ha-ha
You’re wearing out your shoes
Look at you fooling you
Making blues of night and day, hee-hee, hee-hee
You’re stretching out your dues
Look at you fooling you
Shorter cut is quicker but, Ha-ha, ha-ha
Time is here to stay
Look at you fooling you

Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Cover of Van Morrison's album "Moondance"

This week,I’ve been listening to Van Morrison’s third solo album “Moondance” from 1970. Though I’ve heard his songs on occasion my whole life, my real introduction to him came about two years ago. I spent a week with his second solo album “Astral Weeks” as part of this great albums project. That album did not appeal toe me at first. By the end of that week, I stil did not care for it much, but within a year it became one of my absolute favorite albums. My son got me a vinyl copy of the album for Christmas, and I purchased the Record Store Day release of outtakes. My guitar practice time often involves playing a “Madame George.

I’ve been looking forward to listening to another album of Morrison’s work. This absolutely did not disappoint. This album is more immediately accessible than “Astral Weeks.” That tracks on that previous album can feel like they go on too long, as the performance venture off into a mildly evolving folk jazz. The performances on “Moondance,” while incorporating some jazz-influence, lean more towards folk rock and have more tight composition of pop songs.

Caravan

The third track “Caravan” immediately caught my attention. I really like the “turn it up.. turn it up” section that ends each chorus. The key there is the rhythm. The band hits twice and rests while Morrison sings emphasizing the next two beats. It’s a back and forth call-and-response, with the accompaniment leading. This rhythmically engaging exchange utilizes repetition which encourages the listener to participate. This hook brought me into the song immediately and it is the first thing I talk about here. That’s the sign of a good hook!

The verses start with two runs through the 50s Progression (I-vi-IV-V). This is followed by two runs through a descending chord progression of IV-iii-ii-I. This is played with jaunty boom-boom-bop-rest rhythm that anticipates the post-chorus. Drums, bass, piano, and acoustic guitar provide the majority of accompaniment through the song. Then the band rises into a mildy celebratory la-la-la section following I-V-I-V-iii-ii-I. This again is a common chord progression, a basic two chord I-V.. followed by a descending run through minor chords.

The lyrics present three main themes intermingling in reverie. First, a gypsy caravan spent the night near the speaker’s home when they were young. Second is the speaker’s current relationship with “sweet lady.” Third, these are tied together by songs playing on the radio. The childhood evening of listening to the songs and stories of the caravan revealed something to the young man that he feels benefit in making the current setting resemble that one. As a child, he saw the girl on the caravan playing with the radio and today, he asks his lady to turn on and up the radio. Likewise, as they sat around the campfire then, he asks the lady today to turn on the electric light.

turn up your radio
and let me hear the song
switch on your electric light
then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight
so I can feel you
sweet lady of the night,
I shall reveal you
(If you will) turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher; radio
turn it up, turn it up, so you know; radio

Brand New Day

The slower soulful track “Brand New Day” sits in the middle of side two on “Moondance.” Morrison told he heard a song by The Band on the radio. He was feeling frustrated and down and was inspired to write a song of hope. The imagery and lyrics are poetic, well-written, yet straight forward. He sees the sun come up in the morning, and realizes that this brand new day offers a change. The night is in the past.

Drums, bass, and piano start the song off and vocals start at just after 1 second. A clean electric guitar in the right channel balances the acoustic piano in the left channel. These two instruments play dancing arpeggios and gentle melodic lines, suggesting the chord progression. Morrison’s acoustic rhythm guitar is barely audible in the center. The bass guitar, also center channel, gives us the most straight forward hint of the chords: I-vii-vi-vi-IV-V-I-V for the chorus.

That’s a descending set minor chords for the first bar followed by a promising IV-V major chords, offering a strong cadence. The chorus is a solid cadence-rich chord progression of I-V-i-IV. It has a solid foundation on the tonic, making it a perfect match for the hopeful strengthening feeling in the lyrics: “It seems like… It feels like.. a brand new day.”

The lyrics of the verses consist of two quatrains, each following a ABCB rhyme scheme. However, with the delivery and internal rhyming, we could also see the verses as a pair of six lines each, following a AABCCB rhyme scheme. These lyrics give something of an “Amazing Grace” tale, with the sun and the promise of a new day being the grace. The three verses progress through speaker’s change in feeling. At first, they see the sun come in and see the promise; next, we get a description of how they were feeling before and after without any real detail; and finally, it’s all pleasant warmth.

And the sun shines down
All on the ground
Yeah and the grass is oh so green
And my heart is still
And I’ve got the will
And I don’t really feel so mean
Here it comes, here it comes
Here it comes right now
Till it comes right in on time
Well it eases me
And it pleases me
And it satisfies my mind

Into the Mystic

One of the best songs I’ve heard by Van Morrison, “Into the Mystic” closes the first side of the record. It starts with just the acoustic rhythm guitar that remind me of the previous album, “Astral Weeks.” He adds to it a rhythm slap of the palm muting the strings just as they are quickly strummed. Bass and nylon guitar quietly join in. The bass plays a moving groove, with nylon guitar gently plays lead lines between Morrison’s vocal lines. With the second part of the chorus, a piano joins and the acoustic guitar picks up in energy. After the chorus, some majestic, but simple, horns bring up the mood. They fall back, letting the vocals return to repeat the chorus. Then the horns again. The song builds up in energy and mood this way.

Lyrically, the song presents its own statement of purpose: “I want to rock your gypsy soul, just like way back in the days of old, and together we will float into the mystic.” The verses tie this mission statement to age-old romantic tales of voyages across the sea. And these are the visuals upon which Morrison hopes his song can take us. At the same time, the declaration is that of erotic love. The speaker in the song will be returning from a sea voyage, and when he does, they will make love and “float into the mystic.”

The words are made up of only a single verse, followed by a two-part chorus that he sings twice; and then as the song comes to close “to late to stop now…” The lines of the verse have a AABCCB rhyme scheme. However, in the middle of the third and sixth line, the ending rhyme of the previous two lines appears. He also makes use of alliteration with two words starting with the same consonant: “bonnie boat” and “soul and spirit.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power”

Cover of The Stooges' album "Raw Power"

This week, I have been listening to Iggy and the Stooges’ third album “Raw Power” from 1973. I received my introduction to the Stooges six months ago with their second album “Fun House.” I loved them then, and I loved this album two. At the point of writing and recording this album, The Stooges were officially broken up with alcohol and drug problems. Pop started “Raw Power” as a solo album, but ultimately enlisted former Stooges drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Ron Asheton. They are joined by guitarist James Williamson.

There are three mixes out there, the original release mixed by David Bowie, a 1997 release mixed by Iggy Pop, and a 2012 Record Store Day remaster of the Iggy Pop mix. My copy of the album is the CD version from 1997. Everything sounds more present, despite being compressed violently. It is loud. Mostly he’s pulled back the guitar a little while pushing forward the bass and vocals. Raw power by Iggy and the Stooges. You can feel the equipment is in pain from having such rock n roll pushed through it at such high levels. From what I’ve heard of the Bowie mixes, I agree they are thin, but I also feel the Pop mix is too hot. It’s as if he created a better mix, and then pushed the master level up all the way.

Search and Destroy

The Stooges jump right into the album with rocker “Search and Destroy.” The song kicks off with drums, bass and fuzz guitar. Already loud. After a couple opening bars, Pop sings “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm…” The band provided tremendous influence on rock n roll music, especially punk rock of the late 70s and beyond. This song certainly left a mark. To list all of the bands that have covered “Search and Destroy” would be ridiculous. Some noteworthy covers include the Sex Pistols, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, EMF, Skunk Anansie, and Def Leppard. An interesting thing to note about these covers is how faithful they are to the original. These bands admire more than the songwriting, the sound and attitude of the Stooges excites.

Gimme Danger

As if to prove immediately that they have variety, the second song opens with picked acoustic guitar in the left channel. Bass guitar and drums join in the center, with some sort of melodic percussion instrument in the right channel. Pop’s sings with his naturally course voice a slower melody. He takes on some of The Doors‘ singer Jim Morrison’s swagger as he takes the listener on a trip into the darkness. The lyrics take on some of Morrison’s style: “Say, gotta gimme danger, wild little stranger. Honey, gonna feel my hand; Swear, you gonna feel my hand!”

Penetration

A celeste plays a pretty ascending line of notes in the Stooges’ track “Penetration.” It provides a balance by contrast to the menacing fuzz guitar and Pop’s growling and hissingly wicked vocals. The guitar is primarily a repeated muted monophonic riffs on the E minor chord. This constant repeated riff with no real chord progression feels like unresolved constant travelling on a nightmare ride.

He drives these short lines like an empty narrative list of regrets or confession. It’s not clear, but it’s not pleasant.

Every night at town
Every night at town
I’m going now
Going now
I pulsate
Purify me
Purify me
Take a lay
Take away
Paralyze
Penetration

Blondie’s “Parallel Lines”

Album Cover for Blondie's Parallel Lines

This week, I’ve been listening to Blondie’s third album “Parallel Lines” from 1978. I remember this record being among my parents’ collection, though the only songs I heard were “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass.” Singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein founded Blondie in 1974, after working together as former members of pre-Punk band The Stilettos. A few years later, they released their debut album and the new-wave single “X-Offender.” Blondie came out of the NYC art-rock scene of the early 1970s to become an important part of the new wave movement of the late 70s/early 80s. In New York City, these were bands descended from the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Television. The new wave had many of the same influences as punk rock, but took a different stylistic approach.

Picture This

Blondie released the third track, “Picture This,” as a single in the UK where it hit the top 20 charts. Like much of the album, this great track beautifully combines early 1960s pop musicality with 1970s art-rock sound and a touch of punk attitude. Much of the Blondie sound comes from the use of non-distorted electric guitar with the recently invented chorus pedal, dry punchy drums, and rolling clean bass. Of course, Harry’s cool vocals front the band, truly making it Blondie.

The verses follow a I-IV pattern repeated three times, but then finish differently each time depending on what they are leading into. The first verse completes with an unusual V#-I, pulling into the second verse which ends with a more normal I-V, and then the third just continues a I chord. These are played with picked arpeggios on the chorus guitar in one channel. A clean electric guitar strums each chord once at the beginning of each bar and plays a leading arpeggio during third beat of each measure. The bass walks us up and down each bar from one chord to the next.

The choruses rise up to a IV-V-IV-V progression. This progression along with the intensified vocals and organ, give the chorus excitement through the tension of an unresolved progression begging for cadence. The IV-V-IV-V leads into a extended VI chord, which brings even more tension. The post-chorus then repeats II-VI-II-VI, which threatens to never resolve. Then the next verse starts off with the tonic chord again, returning to the more comfortable I-IV pattern. The song however, does NOT end with the tonic, but just drops the listener off the cliff on that post-chorus pattern.

The lyrics play with the sense of sight, focusing on words and metaphors involving viewing, watching, seeing, and picturing things. Most of the three-line verses follow either an AAA rhyme scheme, or an AAB rhyme with the last line ending with the word “you.” The first and third lines of each verse always begin with the same four words, usually, “All I want is…” except the second verse, which has “I will give you…” The first line makes a statement of either wanting or giving something, the second line gives further meaning to the first, then the third repeats the statement.

All I want is a room with a view
A sight worth seeing, a vision of you
All I want is a room with view
I will give you my finest hour
The one I spent watching you shower
I will give you my finest hour
All I want is a photo in my wallet
A small remembrance of something more solid
All I want is a picture of you

Fade Away and Radiate

On the fourth track, “Fade Away and Radiate,” Blondie delivers and haunting new-wave Television style epic. The slower tempo, beating tom drums that open the song, the soaring guitar effects, the restrained vocals, all lend to the sense of something bigger. There’s not really a chorus, though we do have a bridge and an up-beat coda. This lack of a chorus, in this case, adds to the sense of a warning or story-telling coming in phases.

In the verses, we have a i-IV-I-vi-ii-I-ii-I. Though the song is in a major key, each verse opens with the tonic in minor. It’s an odd choice that contributes to the eerie mood. The bridge stomps down through a ii-Isus2-ii-vi pattern, suggesting some sort of threatening opera. Then with the coda,the tempo gets picked up with reggae-inspired rhythm. This reminds me of how the Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground would sometimes end song with a Latin-inspired rhythm.

Heart of Glass

We certainly cannot ignore Blondie’s massive hit “Heart of Glass.” On this track, the band takes a decidedly disco turn. The band wrote the song in 1975 after hearing the Hues Corporation’s song “Rock the Boat.” Blondie recorded a version under the title “Once I Had a Love,” but were not quite happy with it. They had long referred to it as “The Disco Song” and on the album “Parallel Lines,” they decided to perform it in the disco style.

I don’t know what discussions they had about this, but the decision is a bigger one than might seem today. Blondie were considered part of the NYC punk rock scene, despite their already cleaner sound. To many punks, punk rock music represented a sincere pure-attitude return to rock ‘n’ roll, rejecting what they perceived as soulless nature of disco and corporate rock. For Blondie, a member of the punk family, to record a pop radio friendly disco song struck many as betrayal. Let’s not forget that Harry and Stein were once in a band performing a song called “Anti-Disco.”

So, what makes this song “disco”? Let’s start with the clear four-on-the-floor drum pattern. This means the kick drum hits on every beat, the snare drum hits on every third and fourth beat, the hit-hat strings the beat together hitting on every eight note, opening on the upbeat. The clean bass provides syncopated rhythms, bopping along with octave hops. We have string-like organs lines providing swirling pads. Soften male vocals provide “la la la” backing vocal. Harry delivers ‘ooo-ah’ vocals that soar like Donna Summer. The clean electric guitar shuffles through funk strumming patterns. It’s bright, clean, poppy, it encourages dancing in colorful clubs.

The verses repeat a I-vi chord progression. This breaks from punks conservatively I-IV-V based patterns. The chorus breaks away from I-vi to follow a IV-IV-I-I-IV-II-V-I pattern. Interestingly, the chorus is NOT where we find either titles of the song, those appear in the verses. The chorus has an AABB rhyme scheme. Within the lines, there some use of assonance that ties them together: “between/pleasing/peace/teasing”, “find/fine”, “confusing/losing”, “just/good.” These are well-crafted lyrics for sound.

In between what I find is pleasing and I’m feeling fine
Love is so confusing, there’s no peace of mind
If I fear I’m losing you
It’s just no good, you teasing like you do

The Wailers’ “Catch a Fire”

Cover of The Wailer's album "Catch a Fire"

This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ fifth album “Catch a Fire” from 1973. Caribbean music was only just starting to get noticed by the rest of world. This great album combined with an international tour, drove the band and reggae into world-wide fame.

The closest thing to reggae we listened to in my house growing up was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue.” In my late teens, I actually gave some reggae a listen. I was intrigued by the heavy use of syncopation. Attempts to emulate the strumming patterns on guitar challenged me. It wouldn’t be until my mid-twenties that my girlfriend’s music collection gave me a decent introduction to the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. I came to appreciate his music and stop simply associating it with hippies and stoners. This was real, passionate and sincere music with immediate socio-political concerns. There was more rebellion here than just some smoke.

Concrete Jungle

The Wailers open the album with “Concrete Jungle.” Marley sings about Moving from Jamaica to an American city to find the big city life to just as oppressive, only in a different way. While the song definitely reggae, there’s something about the sound and rhythms that also remind me of Stevie Wonder’s funk. This could be an intentional incorporation of the music of American cities, or perhaps just a cross-pollination of genres in the early 1970s.

The song follows a I-I-vi-IV chord progression for the verses and the chorus, with a I-IV pre-chorus. The rhythms are particularly interesting to me. The way guitar is used is one of the defining features of the genre. The guitar is firmly a member of the rhythm section. Short syncopated percussive claps of guitar chords emphasize the upbeat. A quick stroke of the pick hits these strings and they are immediately muted preventing the chords from ringing out. The Wailers will often use two electric guitars.. on that plays on the eight-note upbeat and the other adding an additional hop by playing an adjacent sixteenth note.

The bass guitar rests a lot more than we often hear in rock and pop music. There will be a deep bass note on the first beat of the measure, with a waking melodic groove until the third beat and then rest. While in most of the music I listen to will have the kick drum emphasize the first and third beat of each measure, that is not the case here. There is still often a snare or timbale on the second and fourth beat, but not always.

Stir It Up

Probably my favorite song on the album is the mellow “Stir It Up.” The Wailers released this song as a single in 1967. A cover of the song by Johnny Nash had found success internationally in 1972, leading to The Wailers joining him on an international tour. For this album, they re-recorded the track. The “Catch a Fire” version starts with an up-beat double-sixteenth chop pattern. A Moog synth provides a deliciously modulated pad that provides the memorable sound of the track.

The song follows a basic I-I-IV-V chord progression throughout. The muted electric guitar keeps the syncopated rhythm pattern. A Clavinet supports the guitar with its equally percussive chops. A percussive bass groove hits the first and second beat then rolls through rest of the bars rising. During the verses, the bass takes more rests, hitting that first beat still, providing a restrained lower end. And while all of this might seem like it’d be chaotic in description, its actually very smooth and relaxing.

Overall, I was disappointed when I started with this album, because I was hoping for songs like “Redemption Song.” Now, I see that that is from a much later album. However, after a week, many of these songs grew on me. They have strong melodies and accompaniment. There are hooks throughout that I found myself singing throughout the day when not listening to the album.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures”

album cover for "Unknown Pleasures"

This week, I’ve been listening to Joy Division’s debut album “Unknown Pleasures” from 1979. My introduction to this album came in 1996 in the rivertown of Marietta, OH. I fled a broken heart in Athens, OH looking for a new group of friends. The first night, I discovered a local coffeeshop called Penny University. The next night, I found my new group of friends. We were old enough to stay out all night drinking coffee, but not old enough yet to go to the bar.

Where the kids of Athens were primarily into punk music like The Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys and The Clash, my new friends in Athens were more into post-punk and goth like Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, and Joy Division. Certainly, they all like a variety of music, but there was a noticable difference in preferences between the two towns. Even though I had been into goth for a few years already, I had somehow never heard Joy Division. That quickly changed.

“Unknown Pleasures” managed to not be the most listened to, so I was not that familiar with this album ahead of this week. Joy Division only released two albums, and my friends seem to have liked the second “Closer” more than the debut. But even more so, they liked the singles collection “Substance.”

Joy Division obsessed over Kraftwerk’s 1976 album “Trans-Europe Express“. Kraftwerk made that album drawing on inspiration from Iggy Pop of The Stooges. In “Unknown Pleasures,” I hear the raw human attitude and emotion of The Stooges combined with the mechanical robotic patterns of Kraftwerk. However, unlike Kraftwerk, Joy Division’s playing is not precise, but rather loose and just a little sloppy.

Disorder

Joy Division open “Unknown Pleasures” with Stephen Morris’s snare and kick drum pattern of “Disorder.” Peter Hook’s rough punk-sounding bass joins in with a pattern similar to Kraftwerk’s bass-lines, starting on the higher octave, but dropping down to gritty lower notes. Swooshing and wooshing electronic sound effects join in the background. Repetitive distorted lead-guitar lines join in, nearly sitting behind its own stereo echo. This is not chord strumming; Bernard Sumner plays the guitar as melodic monophonic accompaniment.

Lyrically, the song consists of three verses. The band provides a wordless chorus that in most songs would’ve been a single-use bridge. They end the song with a coda that other bands might’ve considered using as a chorus: “Until the spirit new sensation takes hold then you know.” Ian has written verses built of four long lines each following an AABB rhyme scheme. It doesn’t seem they were written for music, but rather as beat poetry. Lost in depression, he questions his ability to feel like a normal person. With the first song, Curtis introduces us to the recurring themes of the album: depression, feeling lost, detachment, and isolation.

I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?
Lose sensation, spare the insults, leave them for another day
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away

New Dawn Fades

“New Dawn Fades” closes out side 1 of the original LP release. The track starts with distant echoed sound effects, then a slow simple drum pattern with methodic heavy bass. Distorted reverby guitar plays moody, almost sinister, lines. The guitar is melodic and atmospheric. The sound and feel reminds me of the Stooges’ “Dirt” from 1970; though Joy Division’s track is even further removed from the blues. The song moves at a very slow pace, the drums beating incessantly onward. After four minutes the song sort of winds down losing energy returning to just the drums fading out.

Throughout the album, there’s a sense of separation between the narrator and everybody else. He’s covered or lost in a difficult mixture of heavy emotion and a confusing inability to feel. Stranded in depression, he observes life as an outsider stepping through a movie setduring a nightly rain.

We’ll share a drink and step outside
An angry voice and one who cried
We’ll give you everything and more
The strain’s too much, can’t take much more
Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire
Can’t seem to feel it anymore

The Clash’s “The Clash”

Cover for the The Clash's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to the Clash‘s 1977 self-titled debut album. I spent a week with their double-LP “London Calling,” making this the second time I’ve spent a week with one of the Clash’s albums for this project. I knew some of that one, but with this album I am very value.

My new group of friends in Athens, OH introduced me to punk rock in 1994; This one immediately caught my interest. I didn’t realize that this was the same band that did “Rock the Casbah,” a favorite song from my childhood. With a year, I bought this debut album and played it frequently. It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth, as well as an album I’ve continued to love as an adult.

Janie Jones

The rocker “Janie Jones” opened the original UK LP release of the Clash’s debut album. The drums start the song with a rapid steady beat like a speeding train. Then Mick Jones’s sharp overdriven guitar cuts in with a burst of a single chord. Joe Strummer’s distinctive raspy vocals jump right into the chorus “He’s in love with rock n’ roll, whoa.” The guitar stabs with the same chord at the start of the next bar, “He’s in love with getting stoned, whoa.” And the same for the next two lines, “He’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa. He don’t like his boring job, no.” And with those simple lines they probably embraced half of their audience. Then they repeat the chorus, this time joined by a simple, but energetic bassline.

This is not a complex song; Rather much of its success comes from it’s direct and simple approach. There’s only one chord to the chorus, with the guitar only providing a stab at the beginning of each bar and resting throughout. The verses follow a V-I-IV-V chord progression, with each chord lasting a full two bars. Topper Headon relentlessly beats a near consistent pattern, with basic fills at the end of every two bars. The instrumentation is sparse. We have the drums, bass guitar, a buzz-saw electric guitar, and vocals, but the Clash delivers plenty of energy and attitude that drives this song through its short 2 minute length.

Police & Thieves

In the middle of the second side, The Clash perform a cover of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” This is both the only cover song and the longest song on the album, at six minutes. Murvin’s song had been release just the previous year and The Clash frequently performed the song as a warm-up during recording sessions. Reggae had a big influence on punk rock, and especially the Clash. These 70s punks, like Joe Strummer and gang, would’ve spent their teenage years hearing songs like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker during the late 1960s. A teenager’s appreciation for reggae in England at the time would’ve been a rebellious act of opposition of the racism of older generations.

I love the interplay of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’s guitars across the stereo field. One is panned hard left, the other hard right. Their overdriven short chord bursts go back and forth. First with one playing a chord that slides up to the next, then rests while the other bursts the chord in response. The bass plays a bouncy little riff at the beginning of each bar, preceded by a lead-in at at the end of the previous bar. All of these elements demonstrate how the Clash translated the sound and rhythms of reggae into their own music.

White Man in Hammersmith Palais

Since the first time I heard this album, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” stands consistently as my favorite Clash song. The melody and singing are outstanding, showing off Strummer’s excellent ability to mix sonorous melodic singing, reggae influence, and British punk attitude. The melody, backing harmonies, and lyrics grabbed me immediately as a teenager. It’s an epic song, aware of its scope. There’s reggae rhythms through out, little percussive taps and ticks. The guitars scratches and bursts chords on the upbeat. It’s an absolutely perfect and essential track.

I think the line that got me first was “You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money.” in response to rock bands and corporations capitalizing on youth. In a later verse he sings “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway,” which I wonder may’ve been in partially in response to David Bowie’s comment the previous year that “Adolf Hitler one of the first rock stars.” WIth Bowie being a huge influence on the group and punk rock in general, that and other statements Bowie made about fascism may’ve been troubling for the punks.

Importantly, I think, Stummer acknowledges his own lack of credibility, “I’m the all-night drug-prowling wolf, who looks so sick in the sun. I’m the white man in the Palais, just looking for fun.”