Bob Marley got that right. Marley got a lot of things right and a few things wrong, actually. Lamenting the troubles of the world is eternally on-target; no matter how much change and progress mankind achieves, the world continues to be cloaked in sorrow. It just shifts and moves and takes on new forms to match the times. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the fighting; everyone should do the work of standing up and making their own times a little better.
Sometimes, I get tires of thinking about the changing pace of music and culture, the confusing prism of what things mean, to whom and it what context. Fandom seem to require so much hard work and reckoning these days. Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel and stop trying to be a conscientious consumer. Fuck it, sign me up for Nihilism 101. I just want to listen to the Rolling Stones in all their unrepentant glory. I want to hear Mick Jagger be a little bitch. I want music that means sex, drugs and death. Sorry, but that’s my comfort zone.
I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and that means no thinking about music the way I usually do. I need to get my brain back into running order.
So let’s come back with the four-note guitar riff that every aspiring teenage headbanger learns on their first guitar. It’s one of the most memorable intros in music history, destined to be instantly recognizable long after there’s no one left alive to remember anything else about Deep Purple or the culture they came out of. When something has been riffed so far into the popular consciousness that it’s basically become the generic shorthand for hard-rock guitar riffs, is there any point in asking what it’s about, where it came from, or even if it’s a good song? Well, if you’re a classic rock fan, you probably know the famous story of how Deep Purple’s plans to record an album in Montreux where thwarted when their recording venue burned to the ground. Based on the riff and chorus, you would imagine the kind of hammer-of-the-gods heavy metal lyrics in which hard-rocking vikings threaten to raze your civilization, but it’s actually a pretty mundane story about the inconvenience of finding a recording space for a very loud band in a very quiet Swiss town. Which, I think, is what makes it an indelibly great song. Nobody really wants to hear another poorly-researched heavy metal song about vikings, and this, at least, tells a personal story. Of course, we’re far removed from the days when cultural relevance was measured in guitar solos, and even fans of the genre have to admit that far less of 70’s hard rock culture will endure than your dad and his drinking buddies thought in 1973. But from what’s left of that moment in time, this riff will be remembered as the height of what labradoodle-looking shirtless dudes in obscenely tight jeans could achieve whilst blackout drunk on Southern Comfort.
Your grandmother probably slow danced to this song at her cotillion, if you’re from a certain type of background. The Platters’ version of this Jerome Kern tune was a number one hit in 1958, making millions of nice white debutantes swoon chastely to the vocal stylings of Tony Williams, who was neither white nor a debutante. In other words, it was exactly the kind of sexless, corny-as-Iowa romantic treacle that rock’n’roll set out to obliterate from the cultural landscape. By the 70’s being a fan of vocal groups like The Platters was crippingly uncool. Enter Bryan Ferry, with a well-honed sense of irony and an understanding that yesterday’s uncool is tomorrow’s cool again. Ferry was, of course, one of the first rock singers to cherry pick the corny golden oldies of yesteryear for gems ripe for reinvention. He was not above being utterly campy in his choices, but in this case, he picked something he could sing with a straight face. It’s a love ballad that just needed to be stripped of its pop-hit-of-58 arrangement for its emotional depth to shine through. (A sappy male chorus was very much the trendy production gimmick of the late 50’s.) And honestly, without the cultural context of segregated cotillions and the no-sex-no-fun social mores of 1958, The Platters’ song is not bad. In fact, The Platters were actually one of the best vocal groups of their time and among the first all-black groups to gain mainstream popularity.
You can make fun of Paul McCartney all you want, but he’s just going to shrug and whistle all the way to the bank. If you had written a tune this catchy you would say “This is it, lads, this is our golden ticket out of obscurity!” And then you would spend the rest of your life trying to leverage your one moment on inspiration into a steady paycheck. But Paul McCartney can just take one of the catchiest tunes ever written by anyone ever and throw it away as a novelty song about stinky feet. Because he can. That is all.
It’s some kind of miracle that every Blondie song sounds like a Top 10 hit. Every single one of them. Album after album where even the third-from-last song would be anyone else in the world’s once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece. How did they do it? There’s been no lack of bands that have tried to replicate the formula; you got your pretty blonde singer, you got your girl-group harmonies, your post-punk tempos and your synths. And it’s mostly led to lots and lots of mediocre punk-pop. No, thanks. I guess that Blondie is just magic.
This Jethro Tull song is barely over a minute. That makes it a tiny speck in the universe of a band given to epics in the 15 to 25 minute range. A minute is barely enough time for Ian Anderson to draw a deep breath before a mighty flute solo. It’s a blink of an eye, a fruit fly’s lifespan. Yet, there have been artists aplenty, from the Ramones to Tierra Whack, who’ve said all that they needed to say entirely in one and two minute songs. There’s time enough to say all you need to say in one minute, and if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be writing epics in the first place. Ian Anderson, for all of his ambitions, knows this. He can slide a quiet slip of a song in between all of the big thoughts and say what he has to say. I’ve always loved this, as a breather, a small moment of contemplation. And if nothing else, I love the line “and you press on God’s waiter your last dime, as he hands you the bill…”