Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”

Cover for Lucinda William's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

This week, I’ve been listening to Lucinda William’s fifth album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” from 1998. I do not recall hearing any of her recordings before, though I definitely heard Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of her song “Passionate Kisses.” In 1998, I had only started listening to Dwight Yoakam, and my awareness of country music was slim. This album wouldn’t have appealed to me when it came out, but I liked it immediately listening to it for the first time now. It’s a good blend of country and folk rock that I believe today may get it classified as alt-country. These solid songs achieve being naturally catchy while maintaining a since of sincerity and substance. I find it a challenge to choose three songs to focus, because it excludes the others.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

The title track of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” plays after the opening track “Right on Time.” The backing band consists of drums, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, and a mando-guitar. That’s a new one for me. The mando-guitar combines, as you’d expect, elements of mandolin and guitar. Basically, they build it much like a mandolin with same type of strings, but has six strings tuned to a guitar’s standard tuning. In other words, it allows a guitar player to play a mandolin learning a new instrument. The electric guitar is pushed just past the point of the amp breaking up, giving it a gritty distortion. Williams’s started her career in acoustic country-blues, and a preference for this gritty raw guitar sound makes sense. To me it sounds warm and rocking.

The verses drive through a V-ii-V-ii-V-ii-IV-I chord progression for the first two listen, followed by another V-ii-IV-I for the next line, then V-ii-IV-I again for a refrain. The kick drum and bass give emphasis for each IV-I cadence, letting the IV ring out. This gives that cadence a bit of a stomp after the rolling chug of the V-ii pattern during the vocals. Those are played with a rhythm picking eighth note rhythm with an open strum on the up-beat. This supported by the kick-kick-snare beat on the drums. The chorus brings a stronger IV-I-IV-I chord progression, while the vocals repeat the lyrics of the refrain higher.

The lyrics tell an vague story from a young child’s perspective. Something is happening with at least one of the parents that is beyond the child’s understanding, but requires a long drive in the car. The overall feeling is something stressful and sad. I suspect the parents are separating. The speaker of the song mixes the perspective of the mother and the child that suggests they are both the same person viewing the event from different times. Most of the parent’s view is revealed through quotation, until we get to the line “Could tell a lie but my heart would know.” The passing series of images open to interpretation add to the power of the lyrics. These verses follow a ABAB rhyme scheme followed by a refrain.

Can’t find a damn thing in this place
Nothing’s where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road

Drunken Angel

Lucinda Williams’s song “Drunken Angel” tells tale of Austin country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. He was friends with Townes Van Zandt and they had great influence on each other. Unlike Van Zandt, however, Foley seemed to have bad luck when it came to getting an album released. Apparently he managed to record three of them, but the master tapes were confiscated by the DEA, stolen, and lost. The third one was found after his passing in 1989. The lyrics of “Drunken Angel” use his death as a lens to both praise and criticize Foley. His friend Concho January was a veteran on welfare. Foley confronted Concho’s son with suspicions that he was stealing his father’s pension and welfare; Foley was subsequently shot by Concho’s son. Williams’s song expresses disappointed and anger over how Foley’s life choices got in the way of his own songwriting genius.

Again, Williams uses a lyrics structure of verses that end with a refrain and choruses that repeat that refrain like an anthem, though this time the choruses do include an additional line. These verses also follow a ABABC rhyme scheme. The verses here follow a I-ii-IV-I-ii-IV-ii-IV-I-I chord progression. The choruses then launch into a (I)-ii-IV-IV-I-ii-IV-IV-I chord progression. The title of “drunken angel” applied to both the song and the subject combine both her praise for him as a songwriter and her condemnation of his lifestyle. The use of the word “angel” also conveys that he has passed on, “you’re on the other side.” She further lays this condemnation upon his enabling followers.

Followers would cling to you
Hang around just to meet you
Some threw roses at your feet
And watch you pass out on the street
Drunken angel

Lake Charles

Williams’s friend and former boyfriend Clyde J. Woodward Jr died of cirrhosis. He died while she was on a plane to see him one last time to say goodbye. She wrote the song “Lake Charles” about him. They both came from Louisiana. Early in her career he had been both her boyfriend and her agent. But, as the song tells, wherever they went he felt that homeward pull from Louisiana. Especially, the city of Lake Charles. His friend Margaret Moser was with holding his hand at the end, and she wrote an article for the Austin Chronicle that goes into detail about the song and Clyde’s end. This bittersweet track warmly remembers a friend that has passed. She expertly mixes the sadness with love and care, focusing on the heart while letting the sadness come through between the lines.

This ballad consists of two verses, each with two sets of three lines followed be a three line refrain. After the second verses, there is a bridge with a slide guitar solo, followed by a repetition first three lines of the first verse, then refrain twice. The verses follow a I-V-I-IV-I-V for the first three lines, which is repeated for the next three lines. Then for the refrain, they play IV-I-IV-I-V-I. The second verse brings in some wonderful accordion for atmosphere to recall Louisiana. I often forget how much I love the sound of accordion as part of accompaniment.

The lyrics focus on geography. During the second verse, you can feel Williams riding on that airplane as she recalls their road trips years ago. As seen in that verse, she frequently mentions Lake Charles, which is where he most associated.

He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles
He used to talk about it, he’d just go on and on
He always said Louisiana was where he felt at home
He was born in Nacogdoches
That’s in East Texas, not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody that he was from Lake Charles
Did an angel whisper in your ear?
And hold you close, and take away your fear?
In those long, last moments

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

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

Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”

Album cover for Screamadelica

This week, I’ve been listening to Primal Scream’s third album “Screamadelica” from 1991. At the end of the 80s, critics speculated that grebo-baggy music were going to be the sound of the 90s. These genres found new energy in combining psychedelic alternative rock with dance rhythms of acid house. British bands like EMF, Jesus Jones, and the Escape Club brought these sounds to American MTV. This was right before Nirvana’sSmell Like Teen Spirit” grabbed everybody’s attention and changed things. While I liked some of it, grunge didn’t really catch me as hard as it did others. Had I heard “Screamadelica” when it came out, I probably would’ve loved it. I had the same difficulty with it now that I have with the band Muse, several of the songs sound like direct combinations of two or three other songs. More derivative than inspired.

Movin’ On Up

So, that brings us to the opening track “Movin’ On Up.” It’s a good song on its own; However, to me it sounds like The Rolling Stone’sSympathy for the Devil” played like The Who’s “Magic Bus” after listening to George Michael’s “Faith.” The first verse opens with “I was blind, now I can see, you made a believer out of me.” This verse makes an allusion to “Amazing Grace,” where the chorus’s “I’m movin’ on up now, getting out of the darkness; My light shines on.” recalls both The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and the gospel anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” Screamadelica decidely wrote a rock n roll gospel anthem. I’m not sure what they’re believing in: perhaps it’s rock n roll and perhaps it was ecstasy.

The verses follow a I-I-I-I-V-IV-I-I chord progression, over which lay a gospel-blues melody. A female choir joins for the chorus, with a V-V-IV-IV-ii-IV-I-I progression. This jump up to the fifth for the chorus provides the feel of a key change without actually entering one. In addition to the Who-Stones inspired acoustic guitar riff, piano and choir support the gospel feel of the recording. Then an electric guitar provides an excellent solo that sounds more than a little like the solo in Sympathy for the Devil without the danger and edge.

Primal Scream’s love of The Rolling Stones stands out through much of the album. I definitely cannot blame them; my past few years of listening to the Rolling Stones have had a tremendous influence on my work as well. But sometimes I kept being reminded of specific songs by other artists strongly. The song “Damaged” kept making me want to listen to the much better “Moonlight Mile.” I think most of us as musicians try to avoid that. We might say, “I want to make a song like this one,” but our intentions are to emulate what we like about that song without copying the song itself.

Don’t Fight It, Feel It

After the opening track that blends gospel with 60s rock n roll, band jumps into acid-house track “Slip Inside This House.” This cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song from 1967 provides their sideways step into a seemingly disparate genre. Then they make full plunge into house with the third track “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Apparently, their intention was the produce a modern verse of Northern Soul music. Music about dancing, for dancing, with groove and soul.

It’s definitely modern (as of 1991) and makes you dance. It has the house synthetic piano chords that comes and go. It has layered soulful lyrics about getting high and dancing. It has a great bassline and house drums. It has an annoying chirping synth. It goes on and on for seven minutes that I would only find bearable if I was dancing to it in a club, and even then I wouldn’t be sad when it was over.

Loaded

The band update their earlier song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Had” on the epic middle track “Loaded.” The earlier song, from their 1989 self-titled second album. I prefer the earlier version, of course, with its more guitar-rock sound and “Sympathy For The Devil” inspired bridge.

“Loaded” opens with a sample from the movie “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda declaring they “want to be free.. get loaded and have a good time.” This freedom sample is appropriate, considering the song’s strong resemblance to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” from the previous year. Like much of the synth drum patterns of the early 90s, this one dances with the extra hops during the third beat. The synth piano also plays the jazz-inspired chord rhythm patterns heard in a lot of house music of the period. Guitars come and go riffing in a distinctly rock style.

Primal Scream most succeeded in combining house with rock on this track. It proceeds through a journey, with different phases. This keeps the song interesting. While they use house’s tendency towards drawn-out repetition, they’ve found a compromise between what’s appropriate for listening vs. dancing. A dance-club audience thrives on that lengthy repetition, whereas a listener needs variety.

Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul”

Cover for Aretha Franklin's album Lady Soul

This week, I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s album “Lady Soul” from 1968. This marked her twelfth album released in seven years since her first in 1961. Just over a week ago, I spent a week with her tenth album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” from 1967. Both are fantastic. The songs of Aretha Franklin often played in our house when I was growing up. My mom had a copy of the “30 Greatest Hits” compilation on CD. She and my sister listened to it a lot. “Natural Woman” and “Respect” especially got a lot of play. Though her music filled my childhood, it took several years before I actually developed my own appreciation. Franklin’s singing amazes every time I hear her. She knows how to fill the songs with such emotion and power. A lot of singers attempt the same and often just sound like they are yelling. Aretha Franklin sings!

Chain of Fools

The album opens with “Chain of Fools,” written by Don Covay. The speaker of the song is in a relationship with a philanderer. She discovers that he has other lovers and that she is just one of many “fools.” And yet, she is determined to stick it out as long as she can handle. They use the metaphor of a chain consisting of links to represent the collection of lovers. This metaphor is used throughout the song, maintaining consistency.

There are three verses, the first two are eight lines, the third consists of four. Each set of four lines follows a ABCB rhyme scheme. With the exception of “fool/cruel” and “break/take” the rhymes are not strict. We have “man/chain”, “link/strength”, and “home/strong.”

For five long years
I thought you were my man
But I found out, love
I’m just a link in your chain
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
You treated me cruel

There is no real chord progression to the song, though there is plenty of groove and movement. The song provides soulful rock riffs over the same chord all the way through. The guitar mostly plays arpeggios, with a little melodic riffing, of the same minor chord. Joe South’s lead guitar plays some gritty low notes through a clean amplifier, again it’s simple but effective. The bass guitar rolls along, mostly repeating the same two bar pattern, one bar answering the other.

A Natural Woman

The soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” closed side A of the record. Carole King wrote this song with her then husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. I heard this song so much as a child that it feels like the first verse and chorus are just woven into me. It reminds me of the front door and windows being open throughout the house in the early spring. The lead and backing vocals joining and dancing around each other.

Spooner Oldham’s perfectly understated piano starts the song with a simple set of chords, like the piano in a small church. The verses follow a chord progression of I-V-VIIā™­-IV. Then Aretha begins “Looking out on the morning rain,” joined by the bass guitar. Gradually, the strings and drums also begin to play. A gentle, cautious, pre-chorus follows ii7-iii7, a progression that feels like it’s waiting for strength. Then the strings and backing vocals rise up in the chorus with religious joy, “You make me feel.. you make me feel.. You make me feel like a natural woman!”

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
But you’re the key to
My peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like
A natural woman

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.”

Portishead’s “Dummy”

Album cover for Portishead's Dummy

This week, I’ve been listening to Portishead’s debut album “Dummy” from 1994. I remember how excitingly unusual and new this album sounded when I was 17 years old. This combination of goth, hip hop and jazz came from another world; that dark alien digital world was filled with the smoke and fog of human emotion. In this world, Nine Inch Nails were the rock n roll and Portishead were the jazz-soul. This was my and much of the world’s introduction to the trip-hop genre, though I don’t think the name existed yet. While I spent more time listening to Nine Inch Nails, I definitely enjoyed Portishead as well. I seem to have lost touch with most of these songs over time, only really remember a few of them; It was good to spend a week revisiting, even though I didn’t love it as much as I used to.

Sour Times

The second track, “Sour Times,” provides a great example of what Portishead is about. They built the accompaniment around samples of a late 1960s crime-noir jazz piece “Danube Incident” by Lalo Schifrin. Over of this, they have layered organic instruments and synths emphasizing elements of the original score. Beth Gibbons sings about longing for a former lover who has since gotten married to another.

Cause nobody loves me, it’s true
Not like you do

There’s an unusual instrument rises and falls from the back to the front. More percussive than melodic. ; it makes me think of Tibetan prayer wheels, even though they sound nothing like this. It’s quite possibly a cimbalom, which they’ve played in a jangly sinister way. There was something similar in the Schifrin song that sounds more like a plucked violin, or piano strings. It gives the track an non-specific ethnic feel, like some far away culture.

Numb

I love the scratching of Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman” throughout Portishead’s “Numb.” The track showcases some very good performance and songwriting, but it’s the use of a turntable that pushes the song into something fantastic. They use some traditional hip-hop techniques in a more languid broken-hearted way. The original melody gets chopped up slowly, pitches descend, as the heart gives out. This produces a far-off and lonely atmosphere with an instrument normally used for excitement and energy.

Glory Box

The greatest track on the album is definitely “Glory Box.” It rightly closes out the album, sounding like the end-credits of a sci-fi noir film. Portishead built the backing music mostly from “Ike’s Rap 2” by Isaac Hayes. As with other songs, they add their own instrumentation to emphasize or change elements of the original song.

An unfortunate thing that happens throughout this album becomes most apparent to me in this song: the use of samples locks them into a key and especially with a chord progression. Where this has always bother me is the end of “Glory Box.” There’s a bridge where the character of the song changes, a break-down. Then the song returns back to where it was. Had they been using all original instruments, I suspect they would’ve opted for a key-change at the end.

Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be a woman
I just wanna be a woman

Lou Reed’s “Transformer”

Album cover for Transformer

This week, I’ve been listening to Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” from 1972. My dad gave me a copy of “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed” as a gift when I was a teenager. I was already a fan of the Velvet Underground, who I’d learned about through an interest in Andy Warhol. So, I’d already heard some of this album from that compilation, plus some other sources. Still, there were a few tracks here that I’d never heard before, and the whole album is great. Reed studied creative writing in college and had an obsession with Rock N Roll. I believe he dreamed at various points of being a poet, novelist, or journalist. He found an outlet for those drives in the lyrics of the Velvet Underground and later his solo work.

Walk on the Wild Side

The first time I heard the music from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was in the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song from 1991 that sampled it. Thankfully, I heard Reed’s song a couple years later. A couple decades later, I still love it and I’ve forgotten all about the Marky Mark song. ” The music is cool, smooth, and cinematic; Reed’s nearly spoken vocals deliver poetic voyeuristic journalism over grooving, cool, cinematic music.

The song opens with Herbie Flowers playing the iconic bass riff. Flowers produced this groove by layering an acoustic upright bass with an electric bass, both fretless. The upright gives the groove its percussive quality, while the electric smooths the glissando between notes. Rhythmically strummed chords on a significantly high-passed acoustic guitar shuffle above the bass like a hi-hat. Brushed snare completes the rhythm, gently emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat.

The instrumentation remains fairly sparse throughout. Distant strings pad the atmosphere, playing long extended notes in the upper range. Wordless backing vocals bridge between verses, sung by vocal group Thunder Thighs. Reed speaks like poetry that the “the colored girls sing doo doodoo doo doodoo,” and their vocals pick up the riff, singing. A fantastic baritone saxophone solo by Ronnie Ross, with a bit of echo, leading us through the closing fade-out. I dislike a lot of saxophone solos, but this I love.

Reed wrote short vignettes of people he knew around the Warhol Factory scene for each verse of the song. The second first, below, paints a picture of actress Candy Darling. I don’t know how pleased she may’ve been with this description; Still, Darling managed to be fairly successful, especially for a transexual in the early 1970s.

Each verse is a set of two couplets. The first two lines introduce the character and the following two lines describe what they do. Each verse is followed by repeated refrain of “Take a walk on the wild side.” The colored girls singing “doo doodoo” follows the 2nd verse and then the fifth verse, acting first as a bridge then as an outro.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls go

Hanging’ ‘Round

On “Hangin’ ‘Round,” Lou Reed plays more of a straight-forward rock no roll song. Again, like “Walk on the Wild Side,” he introduces the listener to three different characters. In this case, they are people from the past that keep trying to reconnect with the speaker, even though he’s moved past that lifestyle. He looks at them now with a bit of disgust.

Immediately, the groove starts with bass, guitar, and two dirty overdriven guitar. One guitar chugs along a rock n roll rhythm while the other, with mid-range kicked up, plays repeated rhythm-lead riffs. The verses follow first a I-IV-I played twice, and then II-IV-I-II-IV-I repeated twice, folled by the V to allow the next verse to provide cadence.

The first two lines of the verses introduce the character, their appearance then something about their behavior. The difference in chord progressions emphasizes the twist. Then the next two verses provide a contrast in their behavior, a little twist of consequence. The first two lines rhyme at the end, the second two do not. However, he does play with internal rhymes within the second two lines. They way the second two lines rhyme, though, is not done consistently across verses.

Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose
And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke while she was in the room

Satellite of Love

One of my most favorite songs by Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love” was the opening track on the RCA best of compilation, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Here, the placed in the inauspicious position as the second song on side 2. The song tells the story of a man watching the a satellite launch on tv, while plagued by jealousy over his girlfriend’s cheating. Reed recorded a demo with the Velvet Underground, but they did not record an official album version. The narrative slightly reminds me of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” where “the girl with the mousy hair” disappointedly watches a movie while wishing to escape her dull life. Coincidentally, Bowie sings backing vocals on “Satellite of Love.”

The bass, kick drum, and piano come in at the same time to open the song. The vocals begin at just one second in. The feeling of late night longing and thoughtfulness is presented in a casual, somewhat languid manner, yet the song wastes no time getting started. Mick Ronson plays the distinct piano riff that combines ascending and descending arpeggios with chords.

The verses repeat a I-II7-IV-V chord progression. That second chord is a major 7th supertonic, which is usually played in minor. Raising it to a minor and playing it in a the seventh adds a little tension. It also hints that the opening chords are the IV-V7 of the dominant key. Because of this, the feeling is that we’re coming to a resolution that doesn’t happen until the I-V-vii-IV-I-V-vi-I-IV-I-V chorus leads back into the verse.

I love the way the chorus ends on the dominant chords (a common thing to do) and rests with the unfinished line: “Satellite of..” This unfinished chorus comes to it’s conclusion with the beginning of the outro. In the Velvet Underground and his solo career, Reed demonstrated in a few songs that he likes a Latin flavored coda, and this song is a great example. A variety of instruments, including backing vocals, recorder, trumpet, tuba, hand-claps and fingersnaps join in. It’s a triumphant end to a wistful tune.

Satellite’s gone up to the skies
Things like that drive me out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I like to watch things on TV