This Song Bums me out for all the Right Reasons

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Wes Montgomery, and Maybe we do Live in an Age of Miracle and Wonder

So I googled “Wes Montgomery live,” not really expecting much. And this whole thing popped up. 20 years ago you’d probably only be able to access this when a PBS station played it or you dug into the crates at a college library. Now, you can have it for free, instantly, on a whim.

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So I Spent Two Hours Listening to “Sledgehammer” on Repeat. Am I a Lunatic?

The other day I had to get some shit done. I was alone (the baby was with grandma) so I pulled my old school move of putting a single song on repeat for an hour. It’s a good technique if you’ve never tried it. You forget the song is on after the third time. It stops being a work of art and starts being a propulsive force. Once in a while you hum along. An hour feels like five minutes.

When I started working, “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel was in my head. Since I was on that groove already, and it seemed like a funny 80s movie montage tune, I pulled up Rhapsody and put it on repeat.

Later, I told my wife about my afternoon and she said I picked the worst song in the world for my work lunatic repeat trick.

Would love to get some comments. Am I a lunatic? Was my song choice crazy?

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June 18, 2014 · 8:58 pm

Apple Jacks Off its Earhole

iPhone-5-Bryce-Haymond-Creative-CommonsIf Apple does indeed get rid of headphone jacks on future iPhones, something of minor beauty will be lost.

The universal headphone jack is a rare example of shared technology that allows seamless sharing among otherwise disparate devices. You can buy a set of headphones for $4 and be assured it be compatible with expensive, advanced technology, like professional recording equipment or an airplane.

There’s a rumor that Apple boughtBeats by Dre headphones to replace the headphone jacks on Apple devices with propriety connections. Instead of plugging headphones into the headphone jack, iPhone users will connect them through the “lightning connector.”

The lightning connector currently acts as the charging point of the iPhone. An tech journalist speaking with NPR suggested that merging the power source and headphone jack on an iPhone will someday be a boon to consumers as headphones with features like noise cancellation or EQ boosting will not require batteries.

If you read the article on NPR’s website, the bullshit of the suggestion becomes obvious in the space of two user comments.

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But beyond consumer annoyance, this will also have a negative effect on parts of the consumer electronics economy we rarely consider. This will wipe out an entire aisle of every Radio Shack in America. Dollar stores will lose half their tech section. Airport stores will no longer be able to overcharge for offbrand headphones. It will make home audio recording more difficult and expensive.

 

 

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“Free Bird” is the Worst Song of All Time

lynyrd_skynyrd_-_free_birdAfter writing twice about “Stairway to Heaven,” there’s an obnoxious voice in my head yelling “play ‘Free Bird.'” Bear with me as I get it to shut up.

Some people will defend playing the nine minute Lynyrd Skynyrd epic on a jukebox at a crowded bar by saying they were “getting their money’s worth.”

Those people don’t understand money or how to enjoy things.

“Free Bird” starts as a slow rolling storm of a bummer then crests into a tidal wave of irritation. Congratulations. For the low price of $.75 you’ve tested the patience of a room full of drunks.

“Free Bird” wants to to be an epic but, like an Ayn Rand novel, has epic length and epic pretensions without epic importance.

It’s a break-up song, but it’s told from a position of power in the relationship, which kills its effectiveness as a breakup song. It’s a shitty dude bailing on a girl who wants him to stay. His defense doesn’t even rise to the level of shallow, saying there are “too many places [he] has to see” and that if he stayed “things just wouldn’t be the same.” That’s the kind of shit that gets a beer bottle thrown at you if you say it in real life.

Frankly, it sounds like this Free Bird could stand some changing. I wish there a woman sung a last verse about how the guy is pushing 30 and really needs to start taking himself seriously.

Instead, the song ends with a guitar section played by several guitarists who, presumably, couldn’t hear each other while they recorded. The notes mesh together without any sense of relation to each other. There’s no dynamic, no build. It starts fast and ends fast. There’s no soul or personality. Just a blur of blues notes. It’s like a Guitar Center with three middle age men testing out mid life crisis purchases.

Say what you will about “Stairway to Heaven.” Its guitar solo tells a fucking story. Jimmy Page took a long break from kidnapping underage groupies, practicing witchcraft and dabbling in heroin to compose a memorable, simple and melodic musical break.

“Sweet Home Alabama” sucks too, but at least it’s only half the length.

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Is it Weird Being a Super-Chill Person?

Are you the kind of person that naturally puts other people at ease? Do people relax around you, like it’s an instinct? I’m not sure if that’s a burden or a blessing, honestly.

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May 31, 2014 · 10:20 pm

Oh, Wait. Maybe Jimmy Page did Steal “Stairway” After All

A reader comment has me reconsidering my stance on Jimmy Page’s authorship of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Not all the way reconsidering. I’m probably about a tenth less sure of my original position.

The thing is, however, I’m almost positive that Jimmy Page learned the guitar instrumental “Cry me a River” by Davy Graham, which includes several sections that sound far more like “Stairway” than Spirit’s “Taurus.”

The wistful black and white footage is taken from a 1959 BBC special about the then-rising trend of guitar music in Britain. Page would have been 15 when it aired. There were two television channels in the UK at the time. An already accomplished guitarist, Page almost certainly would have watched the show.

Also almost certain is Graham’s influence on Page as a guitarist. Graham pioneered the DAGAD guitar tuning, which Page used in Led Zeppelin. At the very least, Page would have been familiar with this performance. It’s probable that he would have learned how to play it and years later, either consciously or not, incorporate elements of it into “Stairway.”

But more importantly, it’s a really nice little performance. The film has a French New Wave feel and there’s a pretty girl and a funny racist balloon. It’s worth your time. Thanks to Sam for the recommendation.

UPDATE: And thanks to Rob for pointing out that the balloon has a witch doctor caricature face on it and not, as I initially thought, just a cartoon face. Woops!

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May 29, 2014 · 12:31 pm

Radio DJs: Please Only Play the Album Version of “Let it Be”

“Let it Be” isn’t really that good a song, in the end. It’s a churchy, preachy heaping helping of Paul McCartney sugar, a distant echo of the far superior epic Beatles piano ballad “Hey Jude.” But it has one thing going for it: a pretty good—not great, but pretty good—guitar solo. Sadly it also has three mediocre guitar solos as well.

The album version of “Let it Be” was nuanced to a high shine by convicted murderer/record producer Phil Spector. There are horns and strings all over it. And right in the middle is this kick down the doors, swaggering guitar solo. It’s the second one on the video above and it’s the most confident sounding. Not only does it come in big right on the one, it doesn’t hide behind waves of Leslie speaker oscillation. It’s rough and basic, but it’s got a lot of feeling.

The other three are varying degrees of terrible. Unfortunately, the single version is the one that is most often played on the radio. It’s always a letdown. DJs: please either play the album version or the obsessive fan remix below. Thanks.

 

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Sticky Figures: The Man who Turned the Stones into an Empire

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Sometime in the early 1970s the members of the Rolling Stones went from being fake English bluesman to fake English bluesmen/European royalty, pairing their Muddy Waters covers with champagne.

Judging by this fascinating Times obit, it was a Bavarian aristocrat who led that metamorphosis. Judging from the story, Prince Rupert zu Loewenstein may have been the truest genius in the Rolling Stones organization. While Keith Richards merely wrote “Wild Horses,” Loewenstein created the world’s largest and most successful corporate rock machine.

When Loewenstein got involved with the Stones, they were at their peak artistically and their nadir financially. Their gangster-like American manager Allen Klein had effectively robbed their entire fortune and swindled the rights to all of their songs written before 1971.

Where Klein treated the Stones like the Tiki restaurant the gangsters partner with in Goodfellas, Loewenstein saw the quintet as the potential centerpiece for a global empire. He re-wrote their concert contracts and got major corporate sponsorship for Stones concerts. He set up the band with globally minded tax evasion schemes while creating an enviable brand identity by spearheading the creation and copyrighting of the Lips logo, which was subsequently slapped on t-shirts, coffee mugs and credit cards the world over.

And while it wasn’t his most profitable move, his successful court argument that Keith Richards was too wealthy to be a heroin addict was probably his most inspired.

The Times obit contains one of the oddest aspects of Loewenstein’s association with the Stones: he couldn’t tolerate their music. That’s hilarious and illustrative of the possible corrosive influence Lowenstein had on them.

By the time the Stones got involved with Lowenstein, Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Jumpin Jack Flash” and “Brown Sugar” were behind them. They had still yet to record Exile on Main Street and maybe Sticky Fingers (not sure when he joined up with the Stones) but they were sloping downwards towards the oblivion of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Angie.”

And while Lowenstein’s fiscal guidance was good for the Stones’ bank accounts, it was probably disastrous for rock fans. Being penniless in the mid 1970s would have been the best thing to happen to Mick Jagger, et al. Instead of fracturing into heroin addiction and jet-setting, the band members might have been forced to have a mid career renaissance, either together or apart, just to stave off eviction from their mansions. Instead of the zero sum equation of Some Girls, maybe they would have put out a string of mean spirited disco and punk inspired albums. Or Keith Richards would have joined the Faces and shaped up that second-class organization.

In any event, R.I.P. Prince Rupert zu Loewenstein. Your lasting legacy will be that you sold “Start Me Up” to Microsoft for millions without ever actually enjoying the song.

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No, Led Zeppelin Didn’t Really Steal “Stairway.” But They Stole Everything Else

Fucking Zeppelin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like Led Zeppelin to be guilty of plagiarism, but I can’t say they are. This time.

Earlier this month, California jazz rock group Spirit formally accused them of stealing the guitar intro of “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus.”

If you’re sick of Led Zeppelin, this is a great story. It recasts them from decadent geniuses into lazy thieves. There’s a bitter satisfaction at knowing the rightful person got screwed out of credit for something famous, like the anonymous engineers at Zerox who were robbed of authorship for what became Microsoft and Apple. Plus, it’s a great rock nerd secret you can lord over people who haven’t prioritized memorizing arcane rock ‘n’ roll trivia.

There’s a big honking precedent for Jimmy Page recycling someone else’s material: “Dazed and Confused.” Page stole the bass line and most of the words from folk singer Jack Holmes, first for the Yardbirds and then for Led Zeppelin.

The Yardbirds version hews even closer to the original than the Zep re-do.

The Zep version includes a long section of sturm und drang bowed guitar strings and heavy riffage totally absent in the folk original. Robert Plant added lines like “soul of a woman was created below” for a vibe that’s probably misogynistic and definitely a little “settle down bro” overdramatic.

Also: The b section of “The Lemon Song,” which starts about 1:30 in, is a noisier, distorted cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor,” a song that was released only five years before Led Zeppelin II. Also, the lyrics throughout “Lemon Song” song are a direct lift from “Killing Floor.” There are other examples of Zeppelin appropriating blues songs but usually it’s stuff from the ’40s or earlier, like “When the Levee Breaks” or “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Also, “Moby Dick” sounds a hell of a lot like Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step.”  And then there’s Bert Jansch. And “In My Time of Dying” was a folk blues standard despite being credited to the band. The real author of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” wasn’t properly credited until 1990. There’s more, too. Led Zeppelin appropriated and/or stole a lot of stuff. Just maybe not Stairway.

Holmes sued in the early 2000s and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum according to court documents. I expect a comparable outcome for the Spirit case. Zep will likely treat it as a nuisance lawsuit and dip into their overflowing coffers to make it go away. For Spirit it will be a windfall and for Page, Plant and Jones it’ll be a drop off on licensed merchandise on a random Tuesday.

The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” are similar to notes played about 45 seconds into the Spirit instrumental “Taurus.” Both are arpeggiated a minor chords in the fifth fret barre position. The first three notes of the arpeggiated figure are close to each other and the descending bass is also mostly the same until the end, when Page adds a note.

Page’s guitar line is more clever. He’s fingerpicking and playing two notes at the same time. As the bass line descends, he plays a simple but effective counter melody on the high e string. The Taurus song just plays out the notes of the chord. That’s actually kind of infuriating. Do they think they own arpeggiating a minor chord? Are they going after Tom Petty for the guitar part in “Into the Great Wide Open”?

But also, as everybody knows, “Stairway to Heaven” is a long song. Its saving grace is that it has a lot of different parts. The allegedly plagiarized section is only in the first half. They cycle through about three more sections before getting to the outro (which, honestly, bears more than a passing resemblance to “All Along the Watchtower”).

Led Zeppelin evidently opened for Spirit a couple of times in the late 60s, and members of Spirit claim that Zeppelin covered one of their songs live. It’s possible that Jimmy Page heard the song and composed something to match it. It’s equally possible he independently composed a similar figure. What’s certain is that Led Zeppelin utilize it much more effectively than Spirit. It’s the intro of “Stairway,” which slowly builds into a big crescendo. The Spirit song starts off with a 45 second soft barrage of “Nights in White Satin” orchestration before the guitar part floats in and out of the song without going anywhere.

The song didn’t go anywhere either, despite having a three-year head start on “Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t like to argue for the wisdom of the market, but there’s a reason “Stairway” is a big stupid rock epic that the whole world is sick of and “Taurus” is a deep album cut for a band that’s largely been forgotten.

That’s not to say that Spirit didn’t have success. The band actually hit the top 40 a couple of times. And away from the band, former members charted as well. Bass player Mark Andes hit the charts multiple times in the ’80s as a member of Heart, a band whose members coincidentally performed “Stairway to Heaven” with John Bonham’s son when Led Zeppelin were honored by the Kennedy Center.

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