The Who’s “Who’s Next”

The Who's "Who's Next" album cover

I’ve been listening to The Who‘s 1971 LP “Who’s Next” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I wasn’t much into the Who growing up. My parents had the soundtrack to Tommy; This was not the album “Tommy,” but rather the songs re-recorded with performers from the film adaptation. I loved it growing up, fascinated by the apparent story from a movie I wasn’t allowed to see. From oldies stations, I knew a handful of their earlier songs.

In my late teens, I saw the film “Quadraphenia” on IFC at night. I fell in love immediately.  Soon, I discovered that my father-in-law had a copy of the album which I borrowed and never returned. This has long been my favorite Who album. When I went to school for painting, I probably annoyed my studio mates with the frequency I played it. Anyway, except for a couple of songs, I wasn’t really too familiar with “Who’s Next” and I found this album to be great as well; Not as a solid work like “Quadraphenia,” but better perhaps as a collection of individual songs.

The album opens with the electric arpeggio texture of an analog synthesizer. That synth may’ve been an EMS Synthi like Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon. This is joined by piano playing chords in a two bar pattern. This hits the first and fourth beat of the one measure, which leads into the second measure where one the first beat is struck. The bass and guitar soon join in giving this simple rhythm an epic percussive sound. Of course, alongside the constant synth, Keith Moon drives away on the drums. He uses the crash cymbals to emphasize the rhythm. This rhythmic pattern of hitting the first beat of each measure and using the fourth beat to lead into the next second measure gets used in some form throughout the album.

The chords played here follow a classic rock I-V-IV pattern. Though occasionally the order may change some, this is effectively a three chord rocker. The chorus takes a break from the big rock pattern with a V-I-V-IV-I-V-IV pattern coming solely from the synth.  

Roger Daltrey’s vocals complete the sound of the song; they fill it with that punk rock musical passion that The Who were able to pull off. He sings “Out here in the fields, I fight for for my meals, I get my back into my living.” It’s important to know that several of this album’s songs where originally written for a scrapped rock opera called “Lifehouse.” this opening track was to be sung by a farmer heading into London. Townshend wrote the “teenage wasteland” bit as a bit of negative reaction to seeing drugged-out kids at Woodstock

The fourth track “My Wife” was also one of my favorites this week. The use of horns during the second half of the song, really just to punctuate the beat, got my attention first. Each measure start with a full chord strum on the first beat. Again, we hear that classic Townshend straight-forward overdriven electric guitar sound. I think it’s fantastic. Then there’s some partial strums, occasional muted lower notes and arpeggio higher notes. The piano plays syncopated chords bouncing in rhythmic conversation with the guitar. This conversation has been emphasized by panning the guitar left and the piano right. 

The chord progression is not as heavy as the I-IV-V of the first track. I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but this is what I believe the chord progression to be. The verse is I-VI♭-VI♭-IV-III♭-III♭-IV-I then ii-ii-VI♭-IV-III♭-VI♭-V-V. So much for the class rock progressions we heard earlier in the album! This is more the sort of stuff you’d expect from Cole Porter. Rock music typically doesn’t use so many chords in one song, especially borrowed chords.

The track is a bit of a folk-country ballad (in the classic ballad sense) with the Who rock sound. The speaker tells the story of how he got thrown in jail for getting drunk and the trouble he’s in at home because his wife thinks he was with another woman. The tale is dated, but it does make for a good song.

The closing track “Won’t Get Fooled Again” stands as one of the Who’s strongest and most iconic songs. (I’ll reuse the word “iconic” in a bit) The song starts with a lone overdriven guitar power chord that fades out naturally. Beneath this flows another pulsating rhythmic arpeggio synth texture similar to the opening “Baba O’Riley.” Pete Townshend explained the sound is actually an organ played through a sample-and-hold modulated filter. This is heard clean in the left channel with through a delayed-reverb in the right channel to give it depth.

The verses run a I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V-V chord progression. The chorus also make use of a repeating I-IV progression, though at twice the speed and close with III-V7-III-V7-III-IV-IV7-I. That major III in the chorus gives a more majestic feel than the typical minor iii. Also to be noted is that Pete Townshend prefers to give these more rocking strong anthems simpler chord progressions. These gives the listener something easier to immediately grab unto.  Also, again, the majority of the guitar work is bursts of overdriven strums allowed to ring out. It’s also worth noting that, except for vocals, The Who don’t really have a lead instrument. So, Townshend at times will ramp up from rhythm guitar to a lead-rhythm. 

This 8 minute 33 second song is the climactic closer of the album. At 7:44, Roger Daltrey produces a nearly four second scream of “Yeah!” that is the climax of the song. It also remains one of rock n roll’s most iconic moments. That filtered organ sound is another, and they’re both in the same track. After that “yeah,” he delivers the punch-line (and message) of this lyrics about revolutions: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” After this, the song quickly wraps up The song leads up to that 7:44 mark. A first-time listener might not be aware what they are building up to, but Townshend and crew were seemingly aware that repeat listeners would be. They give a similar moment at 4:29, with a 2 second “yeah” that does not have quite the same power but does tie the two parts of the song together. 

This is an amazing album from start to finish; It really shows what can be done with the essential instruments of rock n roll (drums, bass, guitar, vocals) in the hands of impassioned talented experts. Each member of the band is amazing at what they do. True, Pete Townshend is typically not playing anything technically difficult or complex. People who love Joe Satriani’s showy lead guitar are not necessarily going to be impressed, but I am. Keith Moon always impresses me. I’ve often heard complaints that he didn’t know when to calm down, but I think they just aren’t hearing the whole catalog. Anyway, I love this album.  I still think “Quadraphenia” is better, but we don’t really need to compare, do we?

Carole King’s “Tapestry”

Carole King Tapestry album cover

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Carole King’s 1971 album “Tapestry” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I’ve been more than aware of this album for years. From basement sales, I’ve managed to pick up two copies of it based on the feeling that I should appreciate it. And each time I’ve tried it, I would be disappointed. 

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

One of the best songs on the album, “It’s too Late,” has a wonderful vocal performance and accompaniment. I contradict my previous assessment of the album’s weaknesses by then talking about this track. However, I do want to talk about what I liked. On this song, poet Toni Stern wrote the lyrics with Carole King writing the music. King’s piano provides the main rhythm and chords for the song, with bass guitar, drums and congas further filling in the chord progression and rhythm. An electric guitar panned left and an electric piano panned right interact with each other across the centered piano chords. The syncopated rhythms of the melody and upbeat tempo of this minor key ballad seem to encourage King to sing with wonderful energy and confidence. 

With “Way Over Yonder,” King provides a soulful track performed with a gospel sentiment. Melody drives the song, carried well by King’s vocals. This is also one of the looser performances on the album; The loose performance, with the piano coming in and out of swing and syncopated time, lends the song a greater human emotional feeling. The slow pace along with three steps leading to each chord change gives the song soul.

The lyrics focus on a life of happiness and sweetness as a goal in life. This vision is presented like a gospel hymn on the promise of heaven. “I know when I get there, the first things I’ll see, is the sun shining golden. Shining right down on me.” Whereas those hymns have an overall optimistic sense of hope; I appreciate that this song has more a sense of longing.

King provides her own take on her song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” which was originally famously performed by the Shirelles. The Shirelles version, I believe, is featured in one of my favorite movies, “Big Wednesday.” Both versions are performed like a doo-wop ballad. However, the chord progression is not the 50s doo-wop progression, but rather a I-IV-V-I-V-IV♭-IV-iv for the verses. I love the sound of the V-IV♭-IV-iv. The use of the borrowed IV♭ feels like we’re going into a key change, but then we’re brought back to the IV, which gets dropped to a minor at the end of the line. The chord progression is emotionally very effective. 

Overall, I’m still not a fan of this album.  Martika did a great high-energy pop version of “I Feel the Earth Move” in 1989. Having grown up hearing that cover, I find Carole King’s more straight-forward performance to be a lackluster start of the album. So, the album was actually more enjoyable for me if I skipped the first track. However, most of the songs I would love to hear as performed by other musicians, with the exception of “It’s too late” which I love as is.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.

Pixies’ “Doolittle”

Pixies' Doolittle album cover This week, I’ve been listening to the Pixies‘ 1989 album “Doolittle.” My introduction to this alt-rock guitar band probably came through Nirvana and the Breeders. You can definitely hear that Nirvana influence coming from songs like “Tame.” “Doolittle” was nearly a decade old by the time I heard it. Though I know a few of the songs, this week was really my first time getting to know the whole album.

This Pixies album album sounds very 90s, even though it came out before music that typifies the 90s. At the time, it must’ve seemed so strange and new. It’s still unusual today, but definitely sounds dated. Just strange that it sounds dated to a time after it came out. That’s how influential it was.

I fell in love with “Monkey Gone to Heaven” the first time I heard it, whenever that was. The unusual start of the song caught my attention. A series of ascending chords drive out of nowhere, drums begin, then a hit from the bass as if this song is going to rock. Then.. a pause and the vocals calming state “There was a guy.” Instead of rocking, the collected and slightly menacing voice, tells us a story like recalling a legendary news item: “An underwater guy who controlled the sea got killed by ten million pounds of slugs from New York and New Jersey.” That’s the first verse: Nonsense that seems to make sense. The chorus consists of the line “This monkey’s gone to heaven” repeated four times.

“Here Comes Your Man” provides a great example of something I noticed throughout the album. The guitars often play monophonic surf-rock inspired lines. There’s not so much strumming of full chords as usually found in rock music. The album also features a lot more clean, or at least less distorted, guitar than I would’ve expected. When guitars are distorted or fuzzed, they are mixed further back than the clean guitars, providing more of a pad than a heavy drive.

The nearly instrumental “La La Love You” songs also features a lot of surf-rock style lead guitar. Again, this track opens with some rockin’ drums and then takes a mellow turn. It borders on instrumental cheese and surf rock. I love the bright clean electric with dripping reverb sound. The bass rolls along uninterestingly, which is actually in contrast to most of the album where the bass carries much of the instrumentation. The lyrics aren’t much, but that’s really the point. “All I’m sayin’ pretty baby, La la love you, don’t mean maybe.” is repeated several times as the song ends. In a way this song seems to represent much of what the undercurrent of the album: It’s an angular love-affair with rock n roll; it attacks what it loves.

Radiohead’s “Kid A”

This week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead’s album “Kid A” from 2000. When this album was released, I had just moved to Asheville a few months prior. “Pablo Honey” was one of my favorite albums and I really enjoyed “OK Computer.” I also liked the singles from “The Bends”. With each album, they were obviously evolving as an experimental band expanding the possibilities of the alt-rock genre. My first reaction to “Kid A” was one of disapproval. From my perspective, they’d gone off into the stratosphere, losing touch with rock music and the audience. It also got dangerously close to ambient music at times. In short, I did not like it.

About fifteen years later, I’m running into people who love this album. Some even consider it Radiohead’s best. So, I give it another chance.   I now heard a band casting aside the confines of rock to focus on what had made them unique before. It seems they were rebelling against what people said and expected from them. Perhaps, they finally completely rebelled against the brit-pop Nirvana labelled they’d inexplicably acquired in the early 90s. I never understood that description, but there’s definitely no way anybody could say that about “Kid A.” I still didn’t like it.

Three more years pass and here I’m spending a full week listening to “Kid A” because it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. After devoting all this time to it, I still don’t really like it much. However, some parts of it grew on my a little. Some parts wore on me a lot. Overall, I think the album suffers from too much repetition without enough variation. Each song has some cool stuff going on. However, even the cool stuff becomes boring when it goes on for too long.

BBC recording of “Everything In It’s Right Place” since the  album version is not available.

The “Everything In It’s Right Place” is one of the best tracks on the album. The few lyrics are oblique and opaque, which is true for most of the album. The lines capture a feeling of being overwhelmed and in a generally foul mood. Thom repeats lines several times, which makes them memorable and catchy. I almost don’t notice how little description the words give.

The chords follow an unusual pattern of I-II♭7-III♭6 for the intro, and then IV-I-II♭7-III♭6 for the verses. These strange series comes from playing a constant tonic note (C in this case) while playing triadic chords below it. I assume that the use of a constant C puts the song in the key of C, however, it feels like it may actually be in the key of F. The moments of the song that return to that IV chord FEEL like they are returning home to the tonic. This is not a conventionally way to work with chords in rock music and really sounds much more like jazz.

A fan-made video for “The National Anthem” by Radiohead.

“The National Anthem” grabs my interest with its cool driving bassline. Unfortunately, that bass continues without deviation until it is mind-numbingly monotonous. I think of Mancini’s bassline in “Peter Gunn” which holds up to repetition because so much musically interesting happens over top of it that the bassline becomes a groovy background texture. In “The National Anthem” the unchanging bass line stays to prominent; furthermore, the other instrumentation fails to pull the focus away.  I don’t like the chaotic brass free-for-all section. With its lack of musical substance, it’s just chaos. It sounds too much like an imitation of the sound of more avant-garde jazz without any direction or purpose. Rather than building on the bassline, they make stylistic noise in spite of it.  And again, that pulls my ear to the bass.

The vocals provide the most interesting element of the song. Or, more specifically, the processing of the vocals.  There seems to be a combination of doubling-up with a resonant synth, perhaps some ring-modulation, and altered reverb/delay. I’m not sure, but it does wonderful things to my ears.  Too bad the lyrics fail to provide much to the song.  All they gives us is “Everyone around here, everyone is so near. It’s holding on. Everyone is so near, Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on.” That’s it. With this bassline and those horns, I feel that more story-telling is in order.

Live performance of “Optimistic” by Radiohead.

Probably my favorite track on “Kid A” was “Optimistic.” Again, the vocals repeat the same lyrics multiple times. The chorus has six lines, which are three lines repeated, the first two of which are the same: “You can try the best you can. You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.” It certainly helps the lyrics to be memorable.

I probably prefer this song because it’s a little more rocking than the others. The song features guitar. The clean guitar strums rhythmic chords like the Velvet Underground or Stereolab. Drums trip loosely across the toms, creating a somewhat exotic texture. Unfortunately, the song shares the quality of flatness with the rest of the tracks. From start to finish, there’s a feeling of samess due to the dreamy drift between sections and the lack of solid dynamics.

Overall, I didn’t think this was that great of an album. I appreciate it as serious shift transition from the old Radiohead to the new Radiohead, but I don’t know if I consider that a good thing. My tastes are more for the earlier Radiohead than what came after.

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.