The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed”

Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" album coverI’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones‘ 1969 LP “Let It Bleed” for the past week. Each week, I give attention to an album widely considered great in order improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. I’m also getting to hear a lot of great music as a result. “Exile on Main Street” had its turn a couple of months ago. I’ve been into that album for a few years already, but “Let It Bleed” as an album is new to me. I’ve enjoyed some familiar tracks and been introduced to some I hadn’t heard before. Though overall not as good as “Exile,” there’s a lot to appreciate on “Let It Bleed”.

The opening guitar riff of “Gimme Shelter” has long been one of my favorites. It’s an oddly muted and gently picked arpeggio on a clean electric guitar through either a tremolo or Leslie, with a simple solo of sparse notes played on a slightly overdriven electric guitar. I love this amazing and highly unusual sound. The strange chord progression (I-VII-VI) adds to the urgent yet eerie atmosphere. Normally, a descending progression would continue to the fifth to provide a natural sounding return to the tonic, but that doesn’t happen in this song.

With it’s a chorus of “War, children, it’s just a shot away; It’s just a shot away”, this song has appropriately been used in countless documentaries and movies, especially those dealing with the Vietnam War. The very sound of the intro conjures of those images; since I wasn’t born until after the Vietnam War, I can’t say if the documentaries are the reason or if it is the song itself. Generally speaking, the lyrics of these songs reflect the hopes and anxieties of the late 1960s, including serial killers.

This dark topic is explored in “Midnight Rambler“. As a narrative, the song progresses like the classic spooky tales where the murderer keeps getting closer and closer. The perspective of the lyrics changes throughout and we wonder who is speaking. Mick asks “Did you hear about the midnight rambler?” suggesting that he is an innocent gossip spreading a warning tale. As descriptions grow more detailed and the murderer gets closer, the speaker becomes the assailant. This leads up to the final verse, where all is violent confusion:

Did you hear about the midnight rambler?
He’ll leave his footprints up and down your hall.
And did you hear about the midnight gambler,
And did you see me make my midnight call,
And if you ever catch the midnight rambler,
I’ll steal your mistress from under your nose.
I’ll go easy with your cold fanged anger .
I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts.

The song’s V-IV-I chord progression (though it might be I-VII♭-IV) drives along with a slightly menacing bluesy eight-note groove. In keeping with the lyrics, the accompaniment builds slowly in intensity until dropping to a near-crawl at the half-way point. From there the tempo gradually ramps up in speed again rising in crescendo to the stabbing at the end.

There’s a bit of country influence on these songs, but the worst example is “Country Honk“. It’s a country reworking of their great song “Honky Tonk Women” which had been released as a single earlier. Unfortunately, they really just made a mockery of both country music and their own song. It’s the weakest moment of the album. Better is the old blues song “Love in Vain“, which is a cover of a song by Robert Johnson. Because I’ll be getting to Robert Johnson in a later week, though, I’ll hold on discussing it

The strong title track “Let It Bleed” uses a regular I-IV-V-V7 chord progression. The feel-good sing-along first chorus says “Well, we all need someone we can lean on and if you want it, you can lean on me” with later choruses playfully replacing “lean” with “dream”, “cream”, and “bleed.” I’m not sure how much sarcasm we can read into the chorus, but the verses seem to tell a much different tale. Notice here also the rhyme scheme as well as the repeated use of slightly similar sounding three word phrases.

I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
With that jaded, faded, junky nurse oh what pleasant company

My favorite track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” opens with a boy’s choir singing the first verse. I believe removing this intro would be an improvement. Then the song repeats a I-IV chord progression almost the whole way through, with the choruses ending with a II-IV-I cadence. The sound of Mick Jagger’s clean vocals up-front with a lone acoustic guitar is a great opening to the song. With the last line of the first chorus, a piano and organ add to the accompaniment. A choir of voices join Mick to sing “You get what you need”.

Like other songs on the album, the verses are narrative with the chorus providing a message or lens through which to see the verses. The chorus of “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” provides a great way to close the album about the turbulent 1960s. This bumper-sticker type of philosophy usually makes me roll my eyes, but the way they work with the verses makes it OK. The fourth verse is probably my favorite; I love the narrative of a small moment through which we get a glimpse of a character’s life.

I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And man, did he look pretty ill
We decided that we would have a soda
My favorite flavor, cherry red
I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy
Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was “dead”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced”

Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album cover

I devoted the past week to Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s 1967 debut LP “Are You Experienced” to learn as a songwriting musician. Hendrix did not much appeal to me when I was a teenager. His status as a god among guitarists gave me the wrong expectations, something like Joe Satriani, who I never liked anyway. I found Jimi’s guitar playing sloppy and didn’t initially care for his singing. Years later, I heard second chance without the expectations. What I heard as sloppy before, I now hear as human expressiveness. I hear an innovative guitar-player deeply connected with their instrument. In contrast to Joe Satriani’s technically brilliant guitar playing, Jimi’s confident playing exudes heart and soul.

Album opener “Purple Haze” starts with a short strange percussive march played on guitar and bass before breaking into one of rock’s greatest guitar riffs. Throughout the song, bass, guitar and drums work together to create a monument. The bass provides a full strong foundation upon which the fuzz guitar builds a wall of harmonics-ladens rock. At the 30 second mark, Jimi shouts “Purple haze all in my brain!”. The vocals drip with heavy reverb and are oddly panned full right.

The usage of panning throughout the album is often awkward and disorienting. The use of reverb on the vocals in “Purple Haze” make the panning feel even more unnatural, because the reverb also is completely in the right channel. I understand that these decisions were results of many era-specific factors: limitations of the recording equipment, a sense of youthful experimentation because stereo was still fairly new, limitations of listening equipment as some listeners were probably still on mono equipment. The drums were nicely recorded in full stereo, so they are spread across the stereo field in a way that feels natural. I’m obviously not saying that things need to feel natural, but the use of stereo effects on this album can distract from the music rather than add to it.

One of my favorites, “Love or Confusion“, makes a wonderful combination of guitar-playing and guitar-experimentation. While the bass provides a solid textural groove, Jimi strikes power-chords and individual notes letting them ring out with fuzzy bliss until they just start to grab a little feedback. My love of fuzz and feedback made this song instantly grab my attention. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their fingers off the pan knob and the guitar will occasionally dive left then right. This movement flattens the guitar by making it obvious that it takes up a single point in stereo field. But still, that use of drums and bass to create an rhythmic bed while the guitar produces an atmosphere of noise is amazing.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience arranged these songs strategically well. Instruments, including vocals, take turns having focus while the others pull back to support the lead. This often shows up with vocals and guitar taking turns as lead, which undoubtedly comes from the blues. In some songs, it’ll be that the guitars do something to punctuate the beat, then they fall back for a vocal line, then return to the guitar, then vocals.

For the most part, I find the lyrics on the album to be better than average, but not necessarily amazing. Most of the tracks, like “Manic Depression”, feature very direct lyrics that I think are well-written sincere expressions of their subject. This writing and performance without posturing contributes heavily to the album’s greatness.

The Wind Cries Mary” stand out for me as the best on the album, which was apparently written after he and his girlfriend (not named Mary) had had a fight. The last verse makes brilliant use of imagery in a way that everybody can relate to. Jimi uses word-choice here like a palette to paint this scene of loneliness and regret. The room is so empty that the speaker’s absence is felt even though they are in the room.

The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
Cause the life they lived is dead

The song “Hey Joe“, written by “Billy Roberts, has long been one of my favorite songs. Even when I didn’t care of Hendrix so much, I enjoyed “Hey Joe” and it’s definitely for the music. I do like some murder ballads, but I don’t particularly enjoy the words of this one. The single chord progression repeats throughout the song. It feels like a non-stop coda from the opening that could go on forever. Probably because this song in E minor never fully resolves to the chord of E minor. The chord progression goes C – G – D – A – E (VI – V – VII – IV – I). That’s a very unusual chord progression for me, though it doesn’t sound strange at all. This leads me to think about the possibilities of not fully resolving a chord progression; I appreciate the non-stop cyclic feel it produces here.

The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”

Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album cover

Each week, I listen to a great album for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This week’s album has been The Rolling Stones’ 1972 double-LP album “Exile on Main Street”. I already love this album and I have definitely enjoyed a full week of giving it a close listen. I actually only started listening to the Stones about 15 years ago. They were one of the favorite bands of my girlfriend’s father, which prompted me to give them a real listen. Some years passed before I heard “Exile on Main Street”, but it grew on me very quickly.

The blood of Rock ‘n’ roll runs through the heart of this album. Chuck Berry gets cited often by Keith Richards as one of his primary influences. Berry’s songs like “Little Queenie” impressed him by how loose the skillfully played music was. That quality is very present throughout “Exile on Main Street”. Everybody is playing this finely crafted songs together where everything sounds right, rolling with loose execution. The performance swings with a human spirit that sounds so natural and skillful. The lesson here really is to know your instrument, know your parts, and play it with soul.

The rocker “Rocks Off” opens the album with a lone guitar riff, joined by drums, and another guitar, bass and restrained slurred vocals. A few more bars, and piano joins with the vocals picking up in energy. I love the glissando fanfare on the horns in the chorus that act as an extension of the vocals. Like several songs on “Exile”, “Rocks Off” musically starts off as a basic rocker and grows into a party. As mentioned earlier, the song is loose.. but it seems like everybody is playing to catch up with everybody else, as if the energy of the song itself just might outrun the band.

The kick drum often hits on the beat, as well as a eight-note before the beat. This type of kick drum pattern lends bossa-nova rhythms their shuffle, and has the same effect here. Several parts of the song build up intensity and tension; Individual parts seem they are about to lose relationship with each other. This tension is released by the introduction of a section with all parts coming back together, often with backing and lead vocals joining together. This technique is used on several of the songs to great effect.

Something similar happens in my favorite track, “Let It Loose“. The song hints at a chorus through verses and bridge, but it isn’t until 3:53 mark that the backing vocals begin to sing the “Let it loose” chorus. Even then, the lead singer Mick continues to sing for 20 seconds before joining in the chorus himself and the song ends shortly after. This is one of the reasons I love the song. Up until the one and only chorus, the structure of the song feels tenuous. It begins to dissipate a few times, but the lead vocals bring it back on track. Even then, the loosely sung vocals are like a rambling gospel blues seeking structure. There are at times whispered and slurred and other times a soulful raspy holler. I also love the watery picked guitar line, an effect achieved either with tremolo or a rotating speaker. The chord progression is essentially a I-IV-V, one of the most common chord progressions in rock music. According to online sources, it’s I-I7-IV-I7-V-V7.. with some ii in there.

For me, “Shine a Light” shares musical ideas with “Let It Loose”, but with a more common song structure of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro. A brilliant breakdown separates the bridge and the final chorus, which provides rest while allowing that final chorus to come back with more energy. Both songs have great lyrics with visual imagery painting a surreal emotional picture.

“I Just Want to See His Face” features the band recorded as if they are playing down the hall and we happen to be in the house. It’s not a particularly engaging song on its own, so I’m assuming this treatment allows the song to act as a transition between tracks. Whatever the reason, it does cause it to stand out oddly in a quiet way. An interesting choice for the middle of a great rock ‘n’ roll album that otherwise puts the listener in the room with the band rocking out.

The Clash’s “London Calling”

London Calling album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician to improve my craft. It’s been a great week!

I got into The Clash in a rather backwards way. I grew up loving the video for “Rock the Casbah“, but that was mostly because of the armadillo. When I was about twelve, I bought a cassette of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album “No. 10, Upping St.” at a dollar store. Singer Mick Jones had been kicked out of The Clash a few years previous and formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, who had directed several of The Clash’s music videos.  I went from there to The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which is more of a reggae-aware punk album than the later “London Calling”. It’s difficult to categorize this album. There’s a mix of reggae, ska, punk, rockabilly, post-punk, new wave, pub rock, etc. No matter what you want to call it, it’s definitely the Clash.

The music on “London Calling” has a very percussive quality. In reggae music, the rhythm guitars frequently emphasize the offbeat. For most of these songs, the Clash rhythm guitarist strum hits on the quarter-note along with the kick and snare, emphasizing the beat rather than adding a hop to it. Sometimes the upbeat, the 2nd the 4th beat gets an emphasis, but more often it’s all four. The lead guitars are more likely to play the offbeat than the rhythm, which I find interesting. There are exceptions, of course, with some songs being decidedly more “reggae”, or the hit “Train in Vain” for which the rhythm guitar focuses on the offbeat; and then some sections hits on the downbeat. This change gives these sections a sense of “slowing down” even though the tempo actually remains constant.

The instrumentation and production on this album is very open and light. There’s space between the instruments, with each occupying its own space sonically. There’s also a lot of air. Instruments frequently rest, which makes the sound both open and rhythmic. Strums are muted, or quickly muted, as opposed to ringing out. There’s also not much “padding” to fill the space. It’s refreshing to hear all of this bounce and grit with breathing room.

Every track is fantastic, but “Jimmy Jazz” stands out as my favorite. Our son pointed out that this track may’ve been of particular influence to one of my heroes, Peter Doherty. I like how the song maintains a breezy feel, while still having the percussive quality. A bright acoustic guitar punctuates the beat throughout, with a flanged slightly distorted lead guitar plays on the offbeat. I also like the horns, which is not something I an often say. The lyrics vaguely tell the story of a character named Jimmy Jazz, being sought by the police. An outsider, apparently on the wrong side of the law.

The lyrics on this album combine story-telling with a sense of “sharing the news”. We learn about strange characters, romanticized like the Beats saw old movies and dime paperbacks. These cool scenes of outsiders populate some songs, while others are more like a street-punk standing in the street shouting to fellow rebels, “This is what’s happening, open your eyes, take a stand.” The album combines a multi-national perspective musically, with a boot firmly rooted in the British streets.