U2’s “Achtung Baby”

Album Cover for U2's "Achtung Baby"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s album “Achtung Baby” from 1991. I grew up loving their album “The Joshua Tree” that came out when I was 10 years old. When “Achtung Baby” appeared during my freshman year of high school, it didn’t catch my attention. I did like the second single “Mysterious Ways” with its strong guitar riff and trippy music video, though. My tastes were heading towards more moody and less mainstream interests than U2. It’s a shame, because this is a very good album. Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet.

On this album, I hear a band with established techniques and skills fighting against repeating themselves. There’s a good bit of experimentation with sound and techniques, as if they are determined to not make another “Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s use of delay, while prominent all over that previous album, is more subtle and much less frequent. The drums have taken on a more dance feel; Upcoming artists like Jesus Jones, The Escape Club, and EMF already leading this trend. Many predicted this combination of break-beat rhythms with guitar rock would become the 90s alt-rock sound, until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flooded the airwaves.

Zoo Station

The opener “Zoo Station” start with 3 seconds of quiet background noise and then odd bursts of distorted guitar. This is the announcement that the listener is in for a different U2 album. The bass and drums groove along with a determined driving beat. A tinny snare drum cracks every 2nd the 4th beat, sounding a little trashy. A minimal chord progression contributes to the pending sense of urgency, mostly staying in the tonic with use of the flattened VII and IV to push it forward. “Zoo Station” feels as much like a journey into the album as a destination of its own. The lyrics, which read more a statement of intent, support this:

I’m ready
I’m ready for the gridlock
I’m ready
To take it to the street
I’m ready for the shuffle
Ready for the deal
Ready to let go of the steering wheel
I’m ready
Ready for the crush.

The Fly

The seventh track, and first single, “The Fly” escaped my notice until this week. While not experimental music, this seems to be one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It has the benefit of feeling more uncharted territory for the band, and therefore has a looser, even sloppy, feel. That’s even with the steady dance beat. My son aptly pointed out the resemblance to one of my favorite bands, INXS. It especially reminds me of “Communication,” which INXS started recording just after “Achtung Baby” was released.

The drums continue a dance-beat throughout almost like clockwork, along with the pulsing driving bassline. They keep the song song grounded while the rest seems to scatter here. The guitar starts with a repetitive riff until Bono begins his chorused and heavily-compressed softly spoken vocals. The echoey, slightly flanged, distorted guitar pulls back and then punches back with seemingly random stabs, scrapes, scratches and slides. The lyrics are a bit of a paranoid cautionary ramble. More like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness with an apparent illusion of meaning, tangents off the chorus’s couplet: “A fly on the wall, it’s not secret at all.”

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon
You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room
It’s no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
So I’m telling you, child

One

Just after high school, I was in an emotional relationship; a strong mix of love and hurt between two people who had both to give, certainly some type of codependency. In U2’s song “One” I found a sort-of comfort in hearing words from another that described so well what we had. When in the car with my next girlfriend, this song came on the radio and I mentioned that. She said it was also the song for one of her previous relationship.

What Bono has done with these lyrics is described a commonly set of emotions in a way that many can relate and apply to their own situation. The narrative details of the couple and the events in their lives are completely missing, the actual story is a vast ambiguous cloud waiting for the listener to fill it in. Even their genders are absent. Instead, he reserves his use of detail for the visual imagery for the emotions.

He also combines this with religious allusions, in the third verse, to describe how the other brings their own hurt and needs to the relationship. This verse is tied to the bridge, where the other talks of love as a temple. Despite their praise of the sanctity of love, their own hurt means that loving them is more of a sacrifice than a blessing.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
[…]
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nirvana’s “Nevermind”

 

This week, I’ve been listening to Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album hit record stores and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting played on MTV when I was 14 years old. An adult gave me this album a few months after its release, because they decided they didn’t actually like it. When people call Kurt Cobain the “voice of a generation“, they’re talking about my generation. It’s a label that neither of us cared for. This album is credited with performing various miracles for the world of rock. All of this “blah blah blah” makes it difficult to appreciate the songs. So, I’ve tried this week to forget the myriad of words said about this album over the past 26 years and just listen.

Power barre chords cover this album from start to finish. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts the album with a strong example. The opening riff has become one of the most recognizable guitar riffs, which is amusing considering even Kurt Cobain commented on its similarity to the chorus of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie. That it’s already such a classic rock guitar riff is why it works so well. The song grabs you immediately and you know it’s going to rock.

These are guitar-centric songs written on guitar to be played on guitar. Most tracks are built around a single riff. The bass often bounces under the guitar, even in a head-bobbing early 1960s rock sort of way. While Nirvana was drawing on their alternative rock influences like Sonic Youth and the Pixies, they were also returning to early rock music. People say so much about Nirvana’s use of quieter parts for verses and louder parts for choruses. This is perhaps why the songs can be so repetitive without boring me like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” did. Even though it wasn’t a new concept, the influence was soon seen. Next year’s ep “Broken” by Nine Inch Nails blew me away by pushing this quiet-loud contrast to more obvious extremes.

Rhythmically, the guitar often gives space for the snare drum. This great technique shows up frequently in rock music. Basically, the snare drum will hit on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure and the guitar riffs will have a brief rest to allow the snare to punch through, like in “In Bloom“. You can often hum the guitar riff and the click your tongue for the snare. For the most part, the use of rhythm is this album is straight-forward. An interesting variation though is in the chorus of my favorite track, “Lithium“, the rhythm accents the 1st beat and then an eight-note after the 3rd and 4th beat.

Kurt was an amazing vocalist. His voice at times cuts through as a raspy howl and at others coarse but mellow singing. It was an influence on me early on, even though I doubt I would’ve admitted it. I was particularly floored by his singing for their 1994 performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for MTV’s Unplugged.

The lyrics are raw visceral documents of anger, confusion and disillusionment. They don’t tell stories or even have a meaning in a traditional sense. I can imagine him writing individual phrases and then combining them to form songs. One line will express some raw emotion and then the next line will balance that with a degree of sarcasm. The lyrics express, without romanticism, the difficulties of being an outsider teen in a way that many people experience in an isolated way. It’s no wonder this album took hold and remains important. It’s perfectly adolescent in a way that is summed up in the line “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”