Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Was Frank Zappa a rocker?

For better or worse, we love to categorize music. On the one hand, it helps us to sort between the thousands upon thousands of songs that are out there. On the other hand, these categories can be awfully constraining.

Back when I was a Boy Scout in the early 1970s, Frank Zappa released an album entitled Apostrophe. If you were to go into a record store at the time, it would probably be filed in the rock section. Zappa had long hair at the time, so he looked like a rocker. He played guitar, so he really looked like a rocker.


Recently I had the opportunity to listen to the song "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" again. (Yes, The Sound made it from the B's to the D's.) Now from my dim memory of my Boy Scout years, I only really remembered the chorus. But when you take some time to actually listen to the song, it becomes very clear that labeling Zappa as a rocker unfairly constrains what he was about.

In some ways it's difficult to judge Zappa because of the nature of some of his lyrics. Just when you start considering the jazz influences in his work, you hear him singing about dog doo snow cones. Or perhaps you fast forward a few years to his three-album epic about the evils of the music industry, which includes songs such as "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?"

Well, that's why Zappa is missed by almost everyone - even Tipper Gore.

P.S. Via a Steven Hodson post, I happened to find the perfect illustration for this post. Unfortunately the artist, Viktor Hertz, chose to copyright the image rather than sharing it under Creative Commons. So I had to use this picture instead.

Songs embedded in the recesses of our brains

So anyways, I was driving to work one day, busily working on some parody lyrics to the Smashing Pumpkins' "Eye" (first words: "I whine. A lot."), when a song popped up on the radio.

I knew that I had heard the song a long time ago, but I couldn't place what the name of the song was, or who sang it.

All that I knew was that the title of the song probably began with the letter B or the letter C. You see, the radio station (The Sound 100.3, KSWD) was playing its end of summer 2000 songs from A to Z thingie, and they were early in the B's yesterday afternoon. Since the thingie is going on until the United States Labor Day holiday, I knew they had a long way to go on their list.

Afterwards, I was reflecting on all the songs that are in the recesses of my brain. I've heard tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands, of songs over my lifetime. I can divide these songs into four categories.

Category 1 includes songs that I can pretty much hear on demand, any time I want. A prime example is Royksopp's "The Girl and the Robot"; even if I don't have my netbook with me, the song is loaded on my phone.

Category 2 includes songs that I've heard recently, perhaps on the radio, or perhaps on one of the many streaming services that I use. An example out of this category is Rob Dougan's "Furious Angels."

Category 3 includes songs that I haven't heard in years, or perhaps decades, but if I hear the song, I'll immediately remember everything about it. An example out of this category is the Supremes' "Love Child." This is a pretty fun category; when my daughter was very young, I'd hear one of these songs and say to her, "That song was a hit 21 years ago." Sadly, I never managed to sell my daughter on Madness or the Buggles or Foghat or whoever.

Which brings us to Category 4, which includes songs that I haven't heard in years, or perhaps decades, but if I hear the song, I end up saying "I know I've heard this before." For whatever reason, the song made an impression on me when I heard it, but it didn't make THAT big of an impression. An example out of this category is the song that I heard that one morning while driving in to work - "Breakdown" by the Alan Parsons Project. This song originally appeared on the I Robot album in 1977, and it's probably safe to say that I haven't heard it since the 1970s. "Breakdown" was never released as a single, but I probably heard it on one of the Washington, DC rock stations, since it went into heavy rotation on those types of stations (which is why The Sound included it in their playlist).



So what happens when a song such as this goes from the recesses of your brain and ends up at the forefront of your brain? Will it soon be forgotten again, or will this supplant "Time" as my favorite Alan Parsons Project song? Who knows?

P.S. Speaking of whining, the next song played by The Sound was the Tom Petty song also known as "Breakdown." But they played the live version, in which the first verse was sung by the crowd, not by Petty.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Live, then not so live

You remember the 1970s, don't you? Remember the band that released a bunch of studio albums that went nowhere, and then released a live album that received all sorts of attention? And then the band released a studio album that did sort of well? And then the band disappeared from the public consciousness?

No, I'm not talking about Peter Frampton. See Martin for that, even if he didn't explicitly mention Frampton's post-Alive hit "I'm in You."

I'm talking about Cheap Trick. You know, the guys who released Dream Police. And a massive live album before that.



The best part of this band? Their bass player is named Tom Petersson, which holds a certain resonance for people who lived in Portland, Oregon in the 1980s.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What's scrobbling? (plus a bit on turntable.fm)

Whenever you get involved in any specialized field, you often end up using a language that is incomprehensible to others. I've previously discussed some of the terms that I used in my prior job as a product manager. Now some of my co-workers know a lot of these terms, and one of my co-workers (let's call her Kim, since that's her name) knows a lot of them (she actually writes TRSes, so she knows them better than I do).

But when I'm not working, I use an entirely different language, talking about scrobbling things from blip.fm to last.fm, and abusing people for not putting proper ID3 tags in their mp3 files. And you can't CCB an ID3 tag. (Believe me, I've tried.)

After reading a post entitled Scrobble Turntable.FM to your Last.FM recently listened tracks, I installed the Turntable Scrobbler and tested it in my vanity Empoprise-MU room at turntable.fm.

I then made an announcement on my personal Facebook page:

I'm in The Empoprise-MU Room on turntable.fm
Come join me and let's listen to music together
Now playing: Darkel - Be My Friend


Then I said:

And, most importantly, it's now scrobbling to last.fm. This should be interesting.

Looking over that announcement, I now realize that many of my Facebook friends have no idea what I'm talking about. Now certainly some of my friends, such as Louis Gray and Josh Haley, understand the wording very well. But another of my Facebook friends - I'll call her Kim - asked a very important question:

What's scrobbling?

Perhaps I should write a whole series of posts about all of the things discussed above, but Kim's question is a good one for starters.

Last.fm defines scrobbling as follows:

Scrobbling a song means that when you listen to it, the name of the song is sent to Last.fm and added to your music profile.

This, of course, assumes (1) that you actually have a music profile at last.fm, and (2) that you're listening to music in a way that scrobbles can be recorded. For example, if you pull out your transistor radio and tune it to KIIS-FM, the songs that are played on the radio can't be recorded on your last.fm profile.

Yet.

But there are a number of ways that you can listen to music and have it recorded by last.fm. The first way, obviously, is to listen to music on last.fm itself while you're logged in to the service. All of those songs are automatically recorded on your last.fm profile page.

The second way is to play music that is stored on your hard drive in a way that last.fm can scrobble it. I have a netbook with Windows 7, and I've set it up so that if I'm logged in to last.fm, everything that I play on Windows Media Player is automatically scrobbled.

The third way is to listen to music on some other service that is somehow compatible with last.fm. There are a number of examples of this. In addition to turntable.fm, it is also possible to listen to music on blip.fm and have it appear on your last.fm profile.

In case you're curious, my last.fm profile is here, and my blip.fm profile is here. You can probably see Darkel's "Be My Friend" on the latter (although if you're reading this post long after I wrote it, you'll probably have to scroll down) - so you can listen to the song also.

And if you want to see the last.fm scrobbles of a bunch of different people, go to http://friendfeed.com/lastfmfeeds.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let's argue about the greatest songwriting team

Jerry Leiber recently passed away, and The Music's Over opened its post on the topic as follows:

Jerry Leiber along with partner, Mike Stoller was arguably the greatest pop songwriting team of the second half of the 20th century if not all time.

As I read those words, the first thought that popped into my mind was "Lennon/McCartney." Obviously Lennon and McCartney had the benefit of performing their own songs, but both Leiber/Stoller and Lennon/McCartney were responsible for hits by multiple artists (and yes, certain Lennon/McCartney songs were given directly to other artists, such as Cilla Black).

Why are Leiber and Stoller so important? The Music's Over cites Leiber/Stoller's song catalog:

The list of their early hit songs includes “Hard Times” by Charles Brown, “Kansas City” by Little Willie Littlefield, and “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley by way of Big Mama Thornton. They also penned “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Searchin,’” to name just a few.

Clearly an impressive list. But The Music's Over also cites one other thing in Leiber/Stoller's favor:

Leiber and Stoller are largely credited for taking rhythm and blues music out of the black clubs and spreading it to white America and beyond.

To put it another way - if there never was a Leiber and a Stoller, would there have been a Lennon and a McCartney? Perhaps - Elvis Presley was not 100% dependent upon Leiber and Stoller - but maybe the young Lennon and McCartney would have had fewer inspirations.

I will certainly grant that Leiber and Stoller tremendously influenced popular music in the last half of the 20th century. But I'd argue that Lennon and McCartney were just as influential, if not more so.

What did John and Paul do that Jerry and Mike didn't?
  • First off, John and Paul absorbed multiple influences. While they were not (at least initially) influenced by the true rhythm and blues artists that inspired Leiber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney were initially open to American country music, as well as traditional English popular music. As time passed, they were influenced by the Motown sound, a variety of sounds from California (beach boys to hippie girls), and an assortment of classical and avant garde composers.

  • Second off, John and Paul wrote songs that were performed in multiple styles, by themselves and others. My favorite album of all time is the 1968 album The Beatles (a/k/a The White Album), which zooms between a few of the aforementioned styles (Beach Boys rock in "Back in the U.S.S.R.," traditional English music with the non-wild "Honey Pie," avant garde with "Revolution #9," country with "Rocky Raccoon") and throws in a half dozen other styles besides. Even if you ignore Harrison's and Starr's songwriting contributions, Lennon and McCartney alone provide three album side's worth of musical adventures. And that's just one album.

  • Third off, Lennon and McCartney have yielded more interesting cover versions. "Hound Dog" is going to be "Hound Dog," unless it's covered by Daniel Miller or something. But you can rest assured that a "Yesterday" cover by Ray Charles and a "Yesterday" cover by Frank Sinatra are going to sound a little different. And when Joe Cocker records with his friends, he doesn't sound like Ringo.

  • Fourth, in a related way, Lennon and McCartney have been more inspiring to others. Obviously this is because Lennon and McCartney were also famous for performing their songs, and not just writing them. However, it cannot be argued that there are millions of people who have said to themselves, "I want to be in music, just like Lennon and McCartney!" And some of those people have also said, "I want to write songs, just like Lennon and McCartney." The number of people who have said "I want to write songs, just like Leiber and Stoller" is far fewer.

So at the end of the day, I'd argue that it is Lennon and McCartney, not Leiber and Stoller, who stands as arguably the greatest pop songwriting team of the second half of the 20th century.

But I'd give Leiber and Stoller a close second.

Of course, I've consigned the following teams to 3rd place or below: Bacharach/David, John/Taupin, Holland/Dozier/Holland, King/Goffin, Mann/Weil, and Jam/Lewis. (I excluded Rodgers/Hammerstein, even though their career lapped into the second half of the 20th century.) Let's throw Jagger/Richards in there for good measure. I'd argue that none of these teams had the impact of Lennon/McCartney or Leiber/Stoller.

Am I wrong? Who would you nominate as the greatest pop songwriting team of the second half of the 20th century?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Two "Sound of the Crowd" covers

Human League's "Dare" was a departure from what the band had done before, primarily because of a radical change in the band's membership. One of the songs on that album was "Sound of the Crowd."

And people have covered it.

I recently ran across a cover from Mindburner that pretty much sticks to the original.



But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that another artist had covered the song - Kelly Osbourne. What's more, her cover version appears on her "One Word" single. As you may know, I like "One Word."

Osbourne's version can be heard here (YouTube video which is pretty much an audio track).

Between this B-side and the Visage-ish A-side, it's clear what decade Osbourne was residing in at the time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Well, they have similar hairstyles

There are huge, overwhelming, incredible, massive amounts of music that are released all the time. A ton of music was released this year. A ton of music was released when I was 20. A ton of music was released the year before I was born.

Because of this huge volume of music, it's no wonder that we get confused at times.

As you know, Liz is in the middle of listening to 1001 albums. Liz is significantly younger than I am, and she is therefore discovering some of these albums for the first time. This allows her to offer a refreshing take on the quality of the music, unaffected by what else may have been going on at the time that the albums were originally released.

In that spirit, she recently reviewed the R.E.M. album Document. Here is how her review began:

So, R.E.M. is one of those bands that I've never entirely cared for. A while back I watched "Man on the Moon" and they did the theme song for it. That was my first real taste of R.E.M. and there's just something about the tone of Moby's voice that I never really latched onto.

This album was more of that good ol' Moby. Wikipedia says that they're "college rock" whatever that means. They have a sound that is a little bit psychedelic with the wailing guitars and the constant and Doors-like hypnotic drum beat. There is also the mumble-y sound of Moby's voice that makes me feel like on a smidge bit of mushrooms while I listen.


Now I can agree with most of what Liz wrote...with one exception. Because of her unfamiliarity with the band, she got a teeny bit confused about one itsy bitsy detail. Some of you spotted the error immediately. Some of you have no idea what I'm talking about. Some of you are surprised to learn that Moby was the lead singer for R.E.M. before launching his solo career.

He wasn't. For those who don't know, the lead singer of R.E.M. is Michael Stipe.

The whole episode got me thinking. There are some obvious differences between Moby and Stipe, but there are also some similarities - and I'm not just thinking of the hairstyles.

Both artists, in their own ways, are willing to experiment with different musical styles.

Both artists, in their own ways, are extremely open to collaboration.

And guess what? They've both performed together, along with some guy named Bono (no, not Sonny Bono).



And I find it entirely appropriate that when Stipe and Moby got together, they performed a Neil Young-Bob Dylan medley.

It's too bad that Bono didn't shave his head for the event.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When music is dated

Wow...only one post in the Empoprise-MU music blog for the entire month of July! I'll try to double that this month.

I don't know about you, but old songs go through my head all the time. So one day an old song was going through my head, and one of the lyrics stopped me cold:

She's the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World

The lyric, if you don't recognize it, comes from the song "Polytheme Pam," part of the song suite on side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road. Well, albums don't have sides any more, and we don't have a News of the World any more either.

When I first heard the song in the early 1970s, I had no idea what Lennon was talking about. Back in the early 1970s, the only way that you could really know about foreign newspapers would be to go to your local library and see if they had a copy. And as far as I know, the Shirlington Branch of the Arlington County Public Library never stocked that particular paper.

I'm not the only person who thinks of the passing of News of the World from a musical perspective. Reason.com incorporated a reference to Polythene Pam into its obituary. And the Bangkok Post went one step further:

Polythene Pam was reportedly a combination of a couple of dodgy people Lennon knew in Liverpool, and he knew quite a few. There's some debate whether the character in the song was a transsexual or just a Merseyside tart.

So which of your favorite songs refer to things that no longer exist?