“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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Glam Metal Hot Dogs

I just watched this video about 7 times. The cook is never tired!

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May 19, 2014 · 11:31 pm

Does Guns ‘n’ Roses Exist in the Marvel Universe?

iwmprnsdivsdaliusne1Captain America: Winter Soldier was a good movie but I wonder if it’s really a court jester with a broken heart.

There’s a cute scene early in the story where Captain America take out a list of pop culture and historical recommendations, ranging from the moon landing to Nirvana (which he parenthetically annotates as “band” to make sure he doesn’t accidentally looks up the Buddhist state of pure enlightenment, I guess). It compresses a lot of the otherwise boring nonsense about Cap being a fish out of water in the present while making and quick jokes and setting up The Falcon as a cool dude capable of picking out some relatively obscure soul music.

But upon reflection, I find it strange that Guns ‘n’ Roses isn’t on that list. Not only is Appetite for Destruction a culturally significant document offering valuable insight about what it was like to live through the 1980s, it specifically mentions Captain America by name.

Lyrics follow:

———

Captain America’s been torn apart
A court jester with a broken heart
To be a runner take me back to the start
I must be losing my mind, are you blind
I’ll see you at the end of the line

————

In the universe in which we exist, where Axl Rose penned those lyrics, Captain America is a fictional character. In the Marvel universe he is a real person. That doesn’t mean Axl wouldn’t have included him in the lyrics. As a real world figure, he would still ripe for use as a symbol for America in decline.

And the music would probably not be to the taste of someone from the 1940s. But either would Nirvana, who are on that list. In all seriousness, he might have trouble with Chuck Berry.

Incidentally, this dumb idea led me to this insanely detailed analysis of 1980s Captain America comics. It’s pretty breathtaking.

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UPDATED: The Definitive Ranking of U2 Albums

u21113. Rattle and Hum

Bono is at his most preachy and ego-splosive. The band is at their least inspired. With two shopworn classic rock covers, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Helter Skelter,” RAH completes the evolution U2 started on Joshua Tree from post punk pioneers to baby boomer suck-ups. U2 tries out Bo Diddley beats, blues, soul and gospel and it feels like a school project. The only way to save this one is to strip it down to its one good song, “All I Want is You,” and issue it as a single.

12. Pop

After the one-two punch of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 were feeling cocky and it shows. They went full bore into samplers and sequencers and ended sounding like they were trying to remake Filter’s “Trip Like I do” on every song. They’re too angsty and baggage-laden for Chemical Brothers electronics. It’s like taking molly with a recently divorced Dad.

1a. Joshua Tree

This album is terrible. More information here.

10. No Line on the Horizon

How much is Bono bothered by Coldplay? Is it weird to still try to be a hit pop group when there’s another massively successful superstar group so indebted to your sound? Is that how Keith Richards felt when he heard the Black Crowes? I’m only asking because I have nothing constructive to say about this pedestrian late period release.

9. October

There are a lot of funny jokes on “U Talkin U2 to Me” but the most cutting one is that a better name for this album would be “one good song and a lot of fucking around.” “Gloria” is great. The rest is is skippable.

8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

One, two, three, fourteen! Your enjoyment of this record on your tolerance for “Vertigo,” a song that seems equally indebted to the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Dirty Boots” by Sonic Youth. I appreciate that they tried to rock out a little more than usual and think it’s a qualified success despite some filler.

7. All that You Can’t Leave Behind

“Beautiful Day” is probably the cheesiest song I truly love. They cleared a lot of garbage out of their sound after Pop but retained a surprising amount of electronics for what’s sometimes touted as a back to basics album. The whole album is a testament to their mastery of dynamics, with almost all songs featuring a finely crafted peak. Side two is mostly a write-off, but the first half is among U2’s best.

6. Songs of Innocence

This album isn’t bad. More information here.

5. Boy

U2’s first album has two of their all-time greatest songs, “I Will Follow” and “Out of Control.” They’re struggling to find a unique sound, and it’s fun to listen to them get New Romantic edgy with “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”* and new wave angularity on “Twilight” and Flock of Seagulls faze on “A Day Without Me.”  They sound like Souxsie and the Banshees with a better singer and a band willing to write songs in major keys.

*CORRECTION: “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” was a single and not on the original version of Boy. It’s on the special edition re-release, though.

4. Unforgettable Fire

This album is a battle for control between Bono and producer Brian Eno. Soaring vocals vie for dominance with ambient guitar soundscapes. The final result hits higher peaks than U2 had ever hit before. It’s not an unqualified success; the album’s undercooked and long stretches seem like Pink Floyd outtakes but the raw sincerity, charisma and instinctive sense of dynamics on tracks like “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming” more than make up for it.

3. Achtung Baby

It’s surprising how well this album holds up. U2 were out on a limb with this one, using new technology like sampling and loops. It could have easily been a dated-sounding record. They were soaking in the music from then-current Manchester “baggy” sound and added the requisite bongos and electro drums. But, almost certainly thanks to Eno’s meddling, the album is tempered by strange sounds that could be on a ‘70s Bowie record or OK Computer.

2. Zooropa

Everything good about Achtung Baby is improved on their Zooropa victory lap. The sounds are harsher and the songs are better. It seems like a throwaway at first, but it’s as heavy as the rest of their catalogue, just approached differently. Almost every song turns from silly to somber and back again. I think U2 felt like the stakes were low and so they loosened up and made a masterpiece so casual that people overlook its greatness.

1.War

“Seconds” and “Refugee” are deep album cuts. That’s how deep this bench is. U2 would never again be this consistent or as high energy as they are on War. Every song is a classic, punchy rock tune. Aside from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the one song I never, even want to hear again from this album), Bono is at his least annoying. Unforgettable Fire is rightly remembered as an experimental break from traditional song craft, which obscures the weird sounds on War like the almost atonal trumpet solo at the end of “Red Light” or the shimmering background vocals on “40.”

NOTES: I am not including E.P.s, live albums or the Passengers soundtrack.

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The Joshua Tree Problem

the-joshua-tree-u2My biggest problem with U2 is with their biggest album. I hate The Joshua Tree and honestly can not believe it’s a hit.

Usually there’s an immediately evident appeal for a mega-selling records. Thriller and Dark Side of the Moon are undisputed heavyweight masterpieces that happen to be the number one and two selling records of all time.

But I find The Joshua Tree (outsold, incidentally, by the Spice Girls’ Spice) alternately boring and irritating. I’ve had friends speak of how producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois created this layered majestic production but I just don’t hear it. It’s not U2’s worst record, thanks to Rattle and Hum and Pop, but it’s the one where they lost the thread.

Until Joshua Tree, U2 was a new wave, post-punk band. Unforgettable Fire saw them hooking up with Eno and adding spacier, European elements to their sound. But as experimental as that was, it was still within the ballpark of their peers in PiL, Sousxie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen. With the Joshua Tree, U2 made a conscious decision to discard that post punk sound in favor of classic rock style Americana. But they’re not  good enough musicians to record a country blues album, so instead they made a post modern grain silo of a record that reflects classic rock gone by without  really adding anything too new.

The record kicks off with four songs I would pay to never hear again: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “WTSHNN” is U2 at its most plodding and deliberate, featuring three drawn-out introductions before the song’s melody kicks in. “ISHFWILF” and “WOWY” are essentially the same song; a weepy, hookless exercise in acoustic minimalism that wears out its welcome by the second verse. BTBS is 20 seconds worth of cool guitar sound effects spread over four and a half minutes of a rhythm section flop-sweating through “When the Levee Breaks.” “Running to a Stand Still” is a relief but it’s also essentially a remake of the superior Unforgettable Fire track “Bad.”

The second side is an improvement, with stand out tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” “Trip Through Your Wires” is a harbinger of the inept blues-rock of Rattle and Hum. Otherwise, it’s filler that would someday serve as blueprints for Coldplay’s career.

Throughout the album, they’re using slide guitar, harmonica, acoustic guitars; essentially the same palette employed on classic rock chestnuts like Highway 61 Revisited and Beggars Banquet. U2 and producer Brian Eno are less technically adept but more clever than their classic rock antecedents. They use those sounds as texture, mood and accents. The slide guitar in “BTBS” doesn’t create a melody. It instills a sense of dread. A similar atmospheric effect is achieved with the church-like organ intro of “WTSHNN” and the harmonica in “Trip Through Your Wires.”

In a lot of ways, Joshua Tree is a post-modern document, assembled from borrowed materials to comment on how those materials were previously used. Which makes it sort of interesting, but not good.

Previously. The merits of U2 overall are debated here (for!) and here (against!). And talked about in general here.

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