Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Yeah boy! I devoted this week to Public Enemy‘s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to learn as a songwriting musician. This first first hip hop album for this weekly project. This was also my introduction to Public Enemy, excluding the collaboration with metal band Anthrax in the 90s. My music is definitely not hip hop; so learning from this album works a little differently. Rhythm and tone of voice take precedence over key and melody. While I consider this a valid style, it’s not one that I either have the intention or skill to use. I look to other aspects of the songs for my purposes.

The famous song “Bring the Noise” opens the album after a short intro track. The song starts with the phrase “too black, too strong,” a phrase crafted from a sample of Malcolm X (“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. […] You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. […] It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”). This perfectly introduces an album that frequently takes pride in being “too black” while designed to wake listeners up to sociopolitical issues.

The lyrics are densely packed with meaning. References deal with current events and/or historical context, particularly with racism and corruption within both the media and the government.. The use of phrases and word-choice to convey meaning is particularly interesting to me. Unfortunately, Public Enemy seems to spend more time talking about how controversial and political they are than actually being political. Braggadocio and self-referential lyrics have been a major part of rap music since the beginning. In the mid-80s when Public Enemy were getting started, rap songs usually spoke about partying, dancing, rapping.

The overall message of this album is that racism is still a problem and that minorities, especially the black community, should be proud of who they are and take a stand against social injustices. Public enemy is not here to teach so much as wake people up so they will take themselves to school. Most directly, they point to Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, saying “a brother like me said, ‘Well What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.'” Though they generally keep it light, when they hit, they hit hard like in the song “Louder than a Bomb” with lines like “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’, Both King and X they got rid of both. A story untold, true but unknown.”

Public Enemy assumes a sizable crowd are going to be hearing the songs and they speak to that crowd, and they write for that situation.  In contrast on “Blue“, Joni Mitchell was speaking intimately to a single listener. On “Highway 51 Revisited“, Bob Dylan was usually speaking to the subject of the song.

The music is almost completely built from samples, with turn-table scratching and a Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the beat. What they’ve done is more than looping a sample; the music is a layered collage of music and sound effects to create a rhythmic atmosphere. The drum patterns make you want to dance. The first beat of each bar is usually dedicated to the kick drum with a snare on the second and third beat. Extra work on the snare and/or hat during space between the second and third beat that give the rhythm their groove.

Limitations of samplers caused them to use short samples, so most samples are either only 4 or 8 beats long.  Since they’ve built each song with a limited collection short samples, chord progressions are nearly non-existent. Changes in the music are created through either having or not having a sample playing; for example, they may cut out the bass line for a eight bars and then bring it back. Combining this layering of starting and stopping phrases with dynamic vocal delivery is what keeps the songs interesting despite the repetitive nature of the music. The siren noises get annoying though.

Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”

Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album cover

I listened to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album caught my attention when I was about 16 years old. As a child, I hated Bob Dylan’s voice, but I felt differently as a teenager. Within a couple of months, I knew all of the words and sang along to the whole album. My experience with this album proved a challenge, because my desire to sing along often prevented me from giving a closer listen. When I did, new layers of the songs showed themselves. Some refreshing, some disappointing.

The accompaniment in several of the tracks is a little chaotic, as if everybody knew the tempo and chords and had at it. The vocals and harmonica are the focus of all songs, so the other instruments are not immediately noticeable. While each instrument plays great accompaniment to the vocals, they are all playing the same song independently. This creates peculiar interactions, but more often creates the sensation that everybody is jamming along in the room. The exceptions feel more cohesive as songs. There’s a lesson here to remember the whole when writing and performing each individual instrument. I enjoy atmosphere of a loose group of traveling musicians having a chance meeting and playing songs together, but I do wonder how the songs would sound if they were better orchestrated.

This may be why Desolation Row feels so right; the last song of the album has stripped down accompaniment of two acoustic guitars over an unimposing bass guitar. In contrast, my favorite track Queen Jane Approximately sounds particularly unrehearsed with several instruments simultaneously playing as if they have are lead accompaniment without knowing what to do. The organist seems to be trying out different ideas with the tape rolling. I realized this after making a conscious effort to focus on individual instruments. The electric guitar’s activity fiddles about in a similar manner. The song opens beautifully with piano and guitar, but loses that sense of planning soon after the vocals start.

The lyrics drive this album; therefore, the focus is always the vocals that deliver them. Lyricists can learn a lot from the work of Bob Dylan. Though certainly dependent on the music, the words on this album read like formal poetry more than rock lyrics. Bob Dylan adheres to consistent structures of rhyme and rhythm for the words on all of these songs. Sometimes the determination to rhyme lead to some word choices that are at times amusing, clever, and inspired. Some of my favorite examples are in “Tombstone Blues”. Each verse is a pair of stanzas. For each stanza, the first three lines rhyme and then the last line of each stanza rhymes with the other. The third verse has the great rhyme of “sick in” with “chicken” making both lines even more memorable than they would be already. This verse also provides examples of Dylan’s ability to write meaningful lines with what would normally have been nonsense rhymes.

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

Bob frequently uses an epistolary phrasing on this album. He is speaking TO somebody in particular. In narrative “Ballad of a Thin Man”, Dylan utilizes 2nd person perspective. However, the tone tends towards condescension. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, but whereas Alice was naive, curious and able to hold her own, the titular Mr. Jones is an uptight square that just doesn’t get it.

Most of what I come away from this album learning is the importance of working on and revising the lyrics; And also to not be afraid of the structures of formal poetry. That and to write individual instruments parts to be in conversation (not necessarily agreement) with each other.

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.

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

What's Going On album cover.

This week, I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On”. What can I learn as a songwriting musician from this great album? I looked forward to this album since starting my weekly albums. This album was mostly new to me, but enjoys critical acclaim. Unfortunately, “What’s Going On” disappointed me. It’s a concept album created as a song-cycle; For me, this is the album’s source of weakness. The songs flow into each other with such continuity that there’s an overwhelming sense of monotony. This monotony makes the otherwise great songs boring. It’s a weird situation, where I can say the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I don’t like the album, but I like some individual songs.

The only song I knew before this week, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)“, remains my favorite on the album. It follows the song “God Is Love” with a noticeable yet smooth key change and drop in tempo. The guitar picks up rhythmically, offsetting the tempo change. A woodblock fills the role traditionally occupied by a snare drum, soaked in what sounds like a spring reverb. It reminds me of some percussion on “Pet Sounds” as well as my grandparent’s Kimball organ. I love the sound. Swelling strings bring overall motion to the song and draw attention to away from the rather repetitive rhythm section. Two of my favorite sounds, tinkling celeste and ringing vibraphone, provide melodic accompaniment. I believe the chord progression is a I7-iv7-ii-IV, like a smoother variation of the 50s doo-wop progression. Part of what works with this song is that it is a break from the monotony of the rest of the album. It has its own groove and sounds slightly different.

The opening title track “What’s Going On” and the closing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)“. “What’s Going On” has very similar use of rhythm guitar as “Mercy Mercy Me”. The opening track starts the album off with the “welcome home from the war” celebration sound, but that sense of joy is slowly worn away until finally reaching the “Inner City Blues” ending. Conceptually, the journey from start to finish makes great sense, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great listening. I particularly enjoy the rhythm of “Inner City Blues”. The first beat of each measure gets emphasis, with the fourth beat given a rest. The pattern rolls over a two measure sequence, with the first beat of the first measure getting stronger emphasis than the second measure. The bongos add nice depth and movement to the rhythm. It’s one of the few songs on the album where I don’t get bored with the bongos.

Lyrically the album falls short for me as well. There’s the overall concept of the returning war veteran to see the injustice in the society that they’re returning to. A society that they feel deeply apart of, even if they feel disconnected by the distance of time spent over-seas. The concept should provide great opportunity to tell stories that get across a strong message. Unfortunately, these songs often “tell, don’t show“. Some lines sound preachy, while others simply sound like bumper-sticker slogans. Perhaps they require being heard from the perspective of 1971, but that IS 6 years before I was born. What Marvin Gaye is communicating remains relevant today, even if some details of the circumstances have changed; the telling is not engaging. It leaves little more to think or feel beyond “Yes, that’s true. He’s right.”

I learned more about things I want to avoid rather than things I can apply to my own music. I appreciate the grooving basslines, but they are repeated too many times. My biggest problem with this album is the sameness. So, I learned that variety is a good thing. I also learned that I really do prefer some story-telling over platitudes. Oh well, I don’t have to like every great album.

The Beatles’ “The Beatles”

The Beatles: The Beatles

This week, I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 “white album” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Such a variety of fantastic songs fill this double LP that I find it difficult to generalize or say only a few things. A week was not enough. This is probably my second favorite Beatles album. It opens with the rocking “Back in the U.S.S.R.“, closes with the gentle “Goodnight”, and journeys through a spectrum of Beatles styles on the way.

The noisy chaos of “Helter Skelter” makes it one of my favorites. The song nearly gets away from The Beatles, as if they’ve created a monster that they can’t keep up with. I believe they were inspired by The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” and you can certainly hear the influence. The drummer pounds on the snare and cymbals as if he’s afraid nobody will hear him over the other instruments. There’s brilliantly fuzzed guitar constantly provides an atmospheric noise in the background; A raw punk bass angrily struggles to keep up with the drums; A lead guitar plays a descending riff after the vocals in an attempt to keep things grounded. The vocals too are strained. Even though they are playing together, all of the elements are fighting to be up-front and the loudest. It’s the greatest. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” enters has a similar feel, but with less chaos. I love them both.

I didn’t care for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when I was younger, but I actually like it quite a bit now. The rhythm puts unusual emphasis on the first and second beat. There’s a kick on the first and second beat of most measures and a snare on the third. This gives an almost trudging sense to the song, because this is a typical drum pattern played half speed. The muted fuzz electric guitar drives along on the first and second beats also, resting for the second half of each bar. The beautiful lead guitar solos sometimes melt into the organ, while a syncopated piano plays in the background. The way the instruments play against and with each other throughout the song really grew on my throughout the week.

“Dear Prudence” opens with a what sounds like finger-picking on an electric guitar and a quieter acoustic guitar. The arpeggios spin like a carousel; a glissando-filled bass-line in the next verse enhances that spinning sensation. At the end of each section, there is a rest before the the next begins. Each section adds layers of instruments building up to the final section. Another electric guitar joins about halfway, during the “look around, round, round” bridge, letting us know that the big finish is coming: an optimistic coda “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.”

I’ll also add that I’ve always loved the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Dear Prudence. I don’t know if Robert Smith of The Cure played in the song, but he does show up in the music video.

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.

The Beatles’ “Revolver”

Revolver album cover

I’ve spent the past week with The Beatles’ 1966 album “Revolver“, listening for what I take away from this album as a songwriter to improve my craft? I went in and out of feeling underwhelmed by the album, but there were some songs that I particularly enjoyed. For me, this is not one of the Beatles better albums. Sure, some tracks are great with very good songwriting. But musically, some of the songs seem rather thin on ideas and I got tired of them after a few days. The first song provides a good example.

The opener “Taxman” starts with a lead-in count, “1. 2. 3. 4.”, appropriate given the often rough raw feel of the album. The complaints about tax collectors, “if you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet”, is not particularly interesting to me. The song reminds me of The Fall with its repetitive punk sound, but lacks the colorful attitude of Mark E. Smith. In contrast, sophisticated-sounding strings provide the only accompaniment in the second track “Eleanor Rigby“. This contrast between songs keeps the whole engaging.

My favorite track, “For No One” features some particularly good songwriting. Engaging imagery draws the tale of a relationship’s end. There’s some exposition, but there’s a delicate subtlety in the telling; This is why it’s so heartbreaking. In addition, the lyrics utilize an unusual second-person perspective to put the listener in the story. A sense of detached going through the process of a breakup runs through the lyrics and it’s emphasized by the rhythm of the piano and vocals during the verses. They read like “step 1.. step 2..”. I particularly enjoy the faraway sound of the piano. This combined with the french horn solo creates a poignant atmosphere of nostalgia that is suits the lyric perfectly. Some days I could not stop listening to this one.

It’s followed by the fairly fun romp “Doctor Robert”, but I often found I skipped it like “Taxman”. I think it could do with a few less “Doctor Robert”s.

I also love the fuzz guitar and rambunctious drums in “She Said She Said”. An annoying high-pitched note plays on the organ through much of the song like tinnitus. Thankfully a song this good can withstand the attempts of one instrument to ruin it. Reversed drums add an almost-but-not-quite psychedelic feel as well as contribute to the forward motion of the song. It’s interesting that different sections of the song have similar accompaniment but different vocals.. and then some sections have much different accompaniment.

Overall, I think there are some interesting tracks on this album that are well worth a songwriter’s time to study. There’s several weaker tracks. Even though “Yellow Submarine” has a playful childish quality that makes it fun, it also makes it so that after a few listens I’ve had enough.

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds album cover

I spent the past week with The Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds”. I first listened to it about 20 years ago and fell in love instantly. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys accomplished things singularly special with this album. It’s difficult to listen to the Beach Boys music critically or analytically, because it so easy to enjoy. Whereas The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” had simple elements put together in complex ways, “Pet Sounds” has layers of complexity that suggest simplicity. Tremendous and inventive songwriting runs throughout the whole album. A closer listen rewards, even though it may be humbling. The songs highlight the singer’s great abilities. The use of voices on this album is something I can only admire from afar. What else can I, as a songwriter, learn from this album?

It’s worth trying instruments in unusual ways. Throughout “Pet Sounds” there are great examples of instruments performing a different function than usual. In my favorite song, “I’m Waiting for the Day”, the organ often provides the rhythmic beat when there’s no percussion. There’s actually large portions of this album with little to no percussion, especially of the typical drum kit variety. In the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, temple blocks provide a more melodic accompaniment than rhythmic; the plucky bass guitar fulfills that role.

I often either use bass to provide either a driving foundation for a song or to provide a a melodic counterpoint; the bass on several songs on “Pet Sounds” also provides rhythm in the absence of a kick drum. This is something I could easily put to try out. I’m taking the long sections with minimal percussion as a challenge to get away from constant pop percussion.

“Pet Sounds” reminds me of the importance of a good opening. The first 9 seconds of the album are joyfully engaging. A 12-string guitar plays a dreamy music-box like arpeggio, a single drum hit grabs out attention, and then immediately there are vocals with a jaunty accompaniment. Two accordions are played so much like rhythm guitar that I actually thought that’s what they were. The song progresses through several different sections, musically quite different from each other, that work perfect together. Mindboggling; A lesson in how different each section of a song can be, if there’s a sense of natural progression.

There’s so much I could say about this album, but I’ll stop myself here. It defies any attempt I can make at pointing out stand-out tracks, because they’re nearly all incredible. It’s true that I frequently skip the slower hymn “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”. I could point out that my favorites are “I’m Waiting for the Day”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, but that’s not fair to equally brilliant songs like “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows”. I believe that this may be the greatest album of all time.