Tuesday, 30 December 2014

We Built This City...

One of the most requested songs in our house of late, largely thanks to the recent Jason Segal "Muppets" movie is "We Built This City" by Starship.

Having heard it closely again recently, for the 50th time or so, I was reminded that recently this song was voted as one of the worst songs of all time. In fact, it has been voted as such many times, In 2004 it made international news when Blender magazine declared the song as the worst song of all time. It was then voted as the worst song of all time in a Rolling Stone readers poll.

But seriously, why do people hate this song so much? My kids are blissfully indifferent to any criticism of it, but I've found the debate surrounding the song to be fascinating.

The performing artists responsible for the song are Starship. The San Francisco band has its origins as Jefferson Airplane, a hippie band that found fame in the Summer of Love in 1967 and played large gigs such as Woodstock and the Rolling Stones' ill-fated Altamont Festival. They changed their name in the mid 1970s to Jefferson Starship. Once Paul Kantner, who had been with the band since the very beginning, left from the band he sued the band to prevent them using the Jefferson Starship name, so they reverted to the name Starship instead.

With vocalist Grace Slick as the only remaining member, they relaunched their career with a slick corporate rock album "Knee Deep In The Hoopla" and the lead single "We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)". All the songs on the album were outsourced to professional songwriters and the production was polished within an inch of its life. Partially written by Elton John's long time collaborator Bernie Taupin, it was a song allegedly describing 1970s L.A., if Bernie is to be believed...

What the song is in the writers hands is totally different in the hands of Starship. Here you have a band who started as staunchly anti-corporate in the 1960s, is now grotesquely being corporate. They sing out avoiding "corporation games", corporations taking over the music industry and forcing bands out of the inner city. They appear to be singing out against the very thing they have become, complete with a soulless commercial pop soundtrack.

The backlash may have been delayed but it was harsh. Blender magazine in their original 2004 story rightly (in my opinion) called the band out for being hypocrites; for chastising those who take the corporate dollar all the while taking the corporate dollar themselves. Singer Mickey Thomas doesn't see it that way: " "I'm really proud of that song. For me it was a response to lost innocence. It was about rock music growing up and losing its idealism" he says.

Blender apparently copped heaps of flak over it and ultmately retracted their criticism, with the magazine folding for good in 2009. Singer Grace Slick left the band in 1987, citing her age as the reason she wanted to retire ("old people don't belong on stage") while Mickey Thomas keeps the band alive and touring to moderate sized audiences in casinos around the US.

As a piece of nostalgia it's a bit of fun. I loved the song when it came out and it is no surprise the next generation of kids like it either, as it was designed to be uber-catchy.

Friday, 26 December 2014

100 LPs Shortlist #44: Icecream Hands - "Sweeter Than The Radio"

An awesome name for a band: one that could induce a sugar craving.

And an apt title for an album, if ever there was one. Here is a bunch of songs so sweet and so well written that they seem almost too good to share the airwaves with most of the crap that commercial radio deems fit for broadcast...

..however, I digress.

"Sweeter than the Radio" is an album that is probably the finest work in the relatively thin canon of works by Chuck Jenkins and his band the Icecream Hands. On this album, the songs were the smartest, most clever and eloquently written pieces, up until that point, of the band's career. Deep and complex lyrics married to gorgeous melodies and arrangements that float delicately around the room whenever this album is playing.

Only a band like Icecream Hands could write a song about a girlfriend having an accidental wardrobe malfunction and make it sound like a lost pop classic ("Nipple"). "Dodgy" was the hit single that never was, a complex lyric set against a charging arrangement. Only Chuck, a former record store clerk, could write a break up song framed around the splitting up of a record collection.

"Sweeter Than The Radio" is an album that aches at its core but cushions the pain in uplifting music. It is music that will meet the listener where they are at and takes them to a better place, almost sympathising with them. This music really is sweeter than most radio fodder because it has a beating heart at the centre of it. It is real music, human music, where so much other stuff around is vacuous and shallow.

This was the album that should have broken the band nationally and should have sold double platinum. It earned the band two ARIA nominations but the band carried away no awards. This album was followed up by Broken UFO in 2002 and The Good China in 2007, both fine albums in their own right. However it is this one that stands tall as their finest, in my view.

Take a listen for yourself below.

Have a funky Christmas!!!

Hi all,

On behalf of the crew here at The Sound and the Fury, we'd like to wish each and every one of our readers a very merry christmas and a funky new year.

We'll see you again in the new year.


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Vale Joe Cocker

Now here's one we didn't see coming.

Joe Cocker was one of the great British rock and soul vocalists, with a unique voice and signature performance style. Being internationally renowned, this is a big loss to the music world.

Joe had a somewhat storied career starting as a Sheffield gas fitter who sang in bands on weekends. He started a songwriting partnership with Chris Stainton in 1968 and had a minor hit with their first collaboration "Marjorine" soon after.

While he was a songwriter in his own right, he was more or less known as an interpreter of other people's songs. The follow up to "Marjorine" was a daring reworking of a recent track by the Beatles "With a Little Help From My Friends", which featured a young Jimmy Page on lead guitar. Soon after he hit big with a cover of the Traffic song "Feelin' Alright" and another Beatles tune "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window".

His legend was cemented by appearing at Woodstock, his uncontrollable flailing arm routine making him an prime target for imitation (John Belushi's dead on satire of him in National Lampoon's Lemmings is a sight to behold).

He hit the drugs and drink pretty hard in the 1970s and this caused him many problems. He embarked on a gruelling tour of the USA in 1970. A 65-shows-in-57-days tour across 48 cities with 30+ musicians plus roadies. Despite being a sell out tour, and producing a million selling album and feature film, it left Joe exhausted and heavily in debt. When he toured Australia soon after in 1971, he'd had a vicious fight with his girlfriend in a hotel lobby which resulted in the police being called. He was busted with marijuana in Melbourne and was deported back to England.

He battled booze and drugs for most of the 1970s and, once clean, saw a career rebirth with hits like "Unchain My Heart" and "You Can Leave Your Hat On" in the 1980s. He kept making albums up until his latest, "Fire It Up" in 2012.

Joe was a performer who gave 110% in every performance. The arm flailing was largely uncontrolled and just him losing control in the heat of the moment. His unique performance style and his uncanny way with a song made him loved the world over and the best of his work still sounds great.

Vale Joe. You will be missed.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Guide for Parents Managing their Children's Music Tastes

My kids have finally taken possession of their own music tastes. It's been dormant for a long time and it has just exploded with a vengeance in my house. It has manifested itself in the form of playing the latest tracks on Billboards Hit 100 singles, on MY Spotify account, at full volume. Sitting in the lounge room between two bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, you get similar sounding tunes clashing against each other in stereo, and it leaves very little space for me to play what I want to listen to. When I drive the kids to school I routinely get told to play other music more suited to their taste. It appears to be a rejection of and a reaction against any music that I stand for.

This happens in every household where there are children and parents. At some point or other, kids try to rationalise their tastes and define themselves in some way independent of their parents. You probably did it yourself. I know I did, and it drove my parents nuts.

So if you are being driven nuts by your kids and their music, how do you manage it? Here are a few ideas to manage this phenomenon.

1. Don't critique their music taste.

OK, so I don't necessarily like what the kids are playing music you don't like. Big deal. When our parents were loving the Beatles and the Easybeats, our grandparents thought they were the sole reason for the decline of civilisation.

It's at this point that the generation gap can either be contained or exacerbated. Your kids are going to see you as old and outdated and "uncool" by default, so don't give them any ammunition. My childhood listening experiences were often punctuated by my father poking his head in my room and asking "What's this shit, son?" At that point I knew I was onto a good thing. But on the other side, you are making yourself and your ideas on music instantly redundant should you try.

2. You don't have to like it.

In fact, liking some of their music is to place the kiss of death on it for the kids. And is there anything more ridiculous than a 40 year old bopping along with Nicki Minaj?

3. Engage with your kids and their music.

By now, your kids are not looking for your approval with what they're listening to. But they will still need guidance. Engage with kids and find out what they know about the music they like. Find out why they like it and you'll probably learn something about them in the process.

In my view a lot of modern music, specifically Hip-Hop, still presents a negative stereotype towards women and presents violence as normal and acceptable. If you're child is listening to Eminem or NWA or their ilk, it needs to be a discussion point to talk about these issues. Can they tell the difference between art as fiction and reality? It's one thing for people to talk about in their songs, but is it ok to copy those ideas in the real world? There's also plenty of great hip hop that doesn't trade in these ideas, so can you find some?

Adverse criticism will just drive certain listening habits underground. It's probably better to arm kids with knowledge on issues within lyrics as opposed to banning an artist outright.

4. Good Music is ageless and timeless.

There is a reason why Jimi Hendrix's face is still printed on T-shirts nearly 45 years after his death. There's a reason why Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" has just returned towards the top of the US album charts after 41 years. Good music will outlive us all and will always find fresh ears.

I reckon my kids are starting their musical exploration. They're looking for immediate gratification now, and will find the stuff that will stay with them for years to come as they get further into it. They're looking for their Beatles or Pearl Jam - a cultural signifier that will identify them and their generation that will stay with them forever. They haven't found it yet, but they will in time. Within time we will meet in the middle musically, as I have with my father. We don't like the exact same things, but I have found parts of his music that work for me.

5. This is a passing phase.

The Top 40 singles charts are a transient beast. More so now than ever before. Already, I see kids discarding hit singles of 18 months ago as "old" and "unworthy". And let's face it. There's a lot of stuff that my mates and I bought on 7-inch vinyl and cd-single back in the day that we would be embarrassed about now. In 10 years time my kids will be embarrassed to think that they even listened to "The Gummy Bear Song", let alone danced their little backsides off to it.

Out of what they listen to now, the good music will stick, the crap will be consigned to the skip bin of history soon enough.

Have we hit the nail on the head? What other suggestions do you have? Let us know in the comments.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

They Might Be Giants Re-activate Dial-A-Song

They Might Be Giants are returning to their roots and are re-activating their "Dial-A-Song" service, albeit in a slightly revised form, from January 2015. They intend to deliver one new song every week for 52 weeks.

For those unaware of the "Dial A Song" concept, in 1984, after a theft of musical equipment from their Brooklyn apartment, the two Johns in TMBG decided to buy an answering machine and record their music onto the device. There was usually only one line in, so only one person could listen at a time, and it was NOT a free call. It was a charged at standard rates (a local call for Brooklyn residents, long distance elsewhere, international rates for overseas callers). I'm not sure how much money they made from it, if any, but it had a massive effect on their lifestyle and their songwriting technique.

It had an effect on their lives because the phone would ring at all hours of the day or night relentlessly.

It affected their songwriting because the habits of the callers would tell an interesting tale. The music had to be short and to the point, or people would hang up. It had to be extremely catchy. The intros had to be short, otherwise callers would hang up before hearing the end of the song. Instrumental solos had to be kept to a minimum, because callers would hang up. Certain keyboard notes had to be avoided otherwise the machine would think it is the "end of message" tone and stop the recording before the band had finished performing!

All of these factors went into shaping the sound of They Might Be Giants as we know and love them today. The slogan "Always Busy, Often Broken" was apt, as the service was highly unreliable. But the project gave the band ample songs for the track-heavy albums, which frequently had 20 or more short songs on them. Some estimates claim that the phone service delivered more than 500 unique recordings to callers before being officially retired in 2008.

This is also not the first time TMBG has tried the online, web-based Dial-A-Song either, but this one will be different as it will offer a premium, subscription based model where you can download all the songs to keep as well as a free version where you can just stream them all. The band will also be issuing the saongs via YouTube as well

Either way, it is still a fascinating initiative that would be great to be part of. Find out more here at theymightbegiants.Com

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Vale Ian MacLagan

As time gets on more of those who have shaped our musical thinking and direction start to leave us.

It is with sadness that I report that Small Faces (and later Billy Bragg) keyboardist Ian MacLagan has passed on.

The Small Faces were a band who, along with the Who, closely steered the 1960s British "Mod" movement into legendary status. With a rough-hewn R&B sound they created a number of great singles and a few classic LPs that still hold up well now.

Ian joined the Small Faces at the behest of their manager Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne) right before they became famous in 1965 with their single "Whatcha Gonna Do About It".

The band lasted four years until Steve Marriot left and Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood joined, shortening their name to Faces. The faces released four unimpeachable studio records before calling it a day in 1975. Mac, as he was known to his friends and hardcore fans, then started on a sporadic solo career before doing session work, most notably in albums by Billy Bragg such as "Talking with the Taxman About Poetry".

Mac's playing was always subtle and he never overplayed anything. He was always complimentary to the song, having an uncanny knack of knowing exactly the right note or sound to play at the right spot. His playing on his most famous records can be overlooked but it was a joy to hear.

Vale Ian, you will be missed.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

New Music: Beans on Toast - "The Grand Scheme of Things"

What we have here is the sixth annual release from Beans on Toast, released yesterday. He seems to be as regular as clockwork, releasing an album every year in late November or early December. Yet again, the British anti-folk singer has delivered another set of tunes in his own inimitable style.

For those who are unfamiliar with Jay (aka Beans on Toast)'s work, imagine a scruffier (if that's at all possible) early-era Billy Bragg-styled singer songwriter who is no less passionate but far more pointed and acerbic. If folk music is designed to be left-leaning, Jay profoundly rattles the cages of conservatism such as to completely offend and turn away anybody who can't see past the end of their own opinions. He's a folk singer who is passionate about what he does, stands up for what he believes in - and if he finds himself to be wrong he stands up and admits his failings. He simply calls it as he sees it.

He makes no bones about his own perceived lack of talent, and I admire that. But that's precisely the charm of this, and what folk music is all about. It is music of the people. A simple music that doesn't require huge amounts of technical skill, but gets the message out to those who want to (and probably a lot more who should and need to) hear it.

I've been following Jay's music for a while now, starting with the mammoth 50-track debut album "Standing on a Chair". Jay and I don't see eye-to-eye on certain issues, particularly around tobacco and other drug use (although I'm very glad he's given up all the substances now). However there is a noticeable conviction in what he sings about, as well as a wicked sense of humour.

The latest album "The Grand Scheme of Things" gives us more of what Jay does best: one man, a guitar, and delivering equal amounts of vitriol and sentimentality with plenty of fire in the belly. Certain tracks on the album deviate from the folk base and incorporate country elements similar to those on the second album "Writing On The Wall". He even dabbles in a type of off-the-wall, New Orleans Trad Jazz on "Nola Honeymoon".

The targets of Jay's anger this time around are as deserving as ever: Inhumane chicken farming, the UK Independent Party (UKIP), Young people's inability to connect with nature, the vacuousness of war, inner city gentrification. However, probably his most disturbing tendency of late is to take a shot at those who won't give him a chance. Like the Glastonbury festival on his last LP "Giving Everything", this time he takes aim at the insular mainstream Country Music fraternity in Nashville on the elegantly named song "F*** You Nashville". It goes without saying that, while one can understand his frustrations, writing a song like that isn't going to make anybody change their minds about him.

Mixed in with that is some beautifully written and passionate songs dedicated to mateship across generations ("Flying Clothes Line"), the joys of home cooking ("Lizzy's Cooking"), being a DIY performer ("Folk Singer"), and the excited anticipation of the new year ahead ("NYE").

Speaking of "NYE", in the songs dying seconds Jay sings "Welcome to the last verse of the album, I'd be amazed if anybody got this far...".

For the record, I did. And it was fun, too. It was no more or less than what I'd expected.

This is not a record laden with studio polish. It is rough round the edges, like I imagine Jay Toast himself to be. Through the murk you get a raw earnestness and passion all too rare in modern music.
Be warned that Jay's sharp tongue means that this isn't a family listening album, although there are noticeably fewer choice words on this album than on the previous ones. And as mentioned earlier, anyone on the right wing of the political debate should be prepared to be shocked and offended too. But bring an open mind to the issues discussed within and there is plenty to be gained from a few listens.

Recommended. Be challenged and inspired.