Saturday, April 29, 2023

Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy turns 50

Issue 312 of Classic Rock Magazine digs deep on the metal god’s fifth album, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and was the result of what singer Robert Plant called the band’s “buccaneer musician” spirit, “ready to try anything.”

While IV and II are typically cheered as Zop’s best, I consistently come back to Houses and Physical Graffiti as absolute perfection in rock ‘n roll. Of course, most critics at the time judged the band by how heavy it was and that this was a relatively lightweight affair. I’d say they were right about that last point, but they were wrong in claiming that because it was lighter, it was of little importance.

Here are some things about that time in 1973 you may not know:

Plant was 23 and in full golden-god mode. It probably goes without saying that he was “dripping in pussy.”

Drummer John Bonham was also 23, in full beast mode, and was said to be a family man off the road. “But Zeppelin were never off the road.”

Several of the songs recorded for Holy ended up on Physical Graffiti, and they had a brighter quality to them than their previous music - good reasons the two albums have a similar feel lodged in the middle of their catalog. Many of the songs were recorded at The Rolling Stones mobile studio in the English countryside.

The album was delayed from 1972 partly over the artwork. The naked children climbing a cratered hillside and a child sacrifice on the inside replaced the original art, which had been an electric green tennis court with a tennis racquet. Page hated that the art insinuated that the band’s music was some kind of racket, in business terms.

Over the Hills and Far Away and D’yer Maker (top 20) were released as singles in the U.S. and there were no singles released in the UK. But their chart popularity was clearly never the point, as Zep were breaking The Beatles’ records left and right for attendance at their shows across the U.S. 

A strong argument can be made nowadays that Led Zeppelin were the rock ‘n roll Beatles of the ‘70s. The band’s music is timeless and, like that of The Beatles, there are almost never times when I don’t want to hear it.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

How am I going to write just one song?

In my late 20s and 30s, I got pretty prolific as a songwriter. Lately I’ve had an unbelievably empty tank.

So it seemed like a good idea to finally pick up my copy of Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song. I especially like chapter three, titled “Obstacles.” He starts off alluding to dreams, which, if written down soon after waking up, or even in the middle of the night, could provide source material. That made me think of a guy I recently played tennis (who also unfortunately made it into my subsequent dreams) who was way in over his head and in the totally wrong session based on his skill level. His tennis etiquette was the most horrible thing about him, so I started thinking about what kind of music would fit a song about tennis etiquette. For me, that always seems to be the tricky part for me; the words usually come easy.

Tweedy (the leader of one of my favorite bands Wilco) focuses on finding something in the day that isn’t totally necessary. For me, did I have to watch 90 minutes of the Beatles documentary Get Back? Tweedy recommends that replacing even three minutes of that time (the amount of time of a typical pop song) with banging on a guitar and screaming my head off (there, I’ve written a song) is acceptable and will make me feel better than watching three minutes of that movie.

Some of his good advice is that, once you start writing, if you are a little uncomfortable with and embarrassed by the words as you sing them, you are on the right track. Maybe that’s why so many people find that writing a song is difficult, because it is a little bit of a soul searching process, I’ve always found.

It's crucial to get into some kind of habit of writing songs, so make sure to write for 15 or 30 minutes every day, perhaps recording ideas or writing lyrics on a phone. Tweedy even records sounds, like birds chirping, that he would want to hear again and could be turned into something musical.

Try practicing harder guitar parts or progressions late at night while you’re still learning them, then wake up in the morning and play them again. You’ll often find them to be much easier to play in the morning.

Staying in good health is important. At the very least, “If you want to write a song, go for a walk.” I do try to capture snippets of song ideas I get while walking the dog, but I could still stand to do it more often.

It’s definitely ok to fail in writing songs, but the one thing that’s important to try to achieve - in order to achieve success - is finding the truth, or some truth, within the songwriting. Good comedy finds it. These truths can be often invisible in day-to-day activities but found when searching deeper, while sitting and thinking and turning that thinking into words on the page.

Pretend writing a song is just like when you were a kid and you sat on the floor drawing with crayons. You would be proud of your work when done because it was yours and so would your mom and she would hang it on the refrigerator even if it actually wasn't very good. It should work that same way for writing songs as an adult.

When Tweety begins writing about the ultimate question of "the lyrics or the music first," I came up with the idea to figure out what I want to write a song about and then jot down a list of words that would fit in well with a song about that subject. From there I can start working on the words and the music and the lyrics will stay on point towards telling the story I want to tell.

Tweedy will often “steal words from books.” If he has a melody in his head, he’ll grab any old book, open to a random page, and just start scanning for interesting words like catastrophe and hummingbird. He’ll then highlight those and other words before stringing an interesting story of his own out of those words.

He’s also not a big fan of overusing adjectives, prefers what I would call a more Hemingwayian directness in descriptions, such as “I was scared of the big guy behind the counter” or “I was drunk during the day.”

I love Tweedy’s idea of using our conversations (we do them all the time!) as inspiration for songs. I just gave a presentation to my work colleagues. Why not turn that into a song? Even better is his idea to have someone you can speak with at ease ask you about how your life is going. Record it or transcribe what you’ve said afterwards.

Don’t be yourself! I love this bit of advice. When Tweedy was having a bit of a crisis in trying to sing from his own perspective - or, as Woody Guthrie said, “write what you know” - back in the days of his band Uncle Tupelo, he realized most of the kids books he was reading were told from an animal or some other perspective. That allowed him to actually open up and be more emotional in his lyrics. What might the clock on the wall be thinking? Or a vacuum cleaner? Or Chaka Khan?

Experiment with things that are going to start with you not knowing what will happen. For instance, if you’re tired of putting your fingers in the same places, try messing with the tuning of your guitar so that you can get to some weird, distorted places you wouldn’t have thought about. It’s often easy from there to transpose the weird thing you’ve written back into something that is regularly tuned.

Steal! It would be ridiculous not to. Obviously give credit if credit is due, otherwise reappropriate chord progressions, use samples because they can be so cool, and insert your words into other people's created melodies.

For recording song ideas, Tweedy offers some very good tips, especially in light of how digital recording (unlike jamboxes and other methods of old) can be very unforgiving and often make people ultra conscious of how they may or may not like the sounds coming out of themselves. Record in the bathroom, where reverb works nicely and naturally on voices and guitars. Place your phone or microphone at the right spot between guitar and vocals and have it far enough from vocals that the room atmosphere will cushion some of the digital vocals. This one won’t be hard for me: try to focus on the song rather than all the effects and digital tech tricks you can play with.

Calling it writer’s “block” is giving the term too much weight and should be thought of more like a roadblock, hurdle, or challenge. You can try different tricks to get past or around block, such as playing the chords of a verse backwards to see if it works better, putting a great chorus first instead of in the middle, and making sure your best lyric is always the first line in the song. 

But at some point you have to just finish the song without giving up because giving up becomes a habit you don’t want to have.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Revisiting what it was like when Nirvana broke big

I’ve been revisiting Milk It by Jim DeRogatis, an opinionated, controversial journalist and the co-host of the very best rock podcast, Sound Opinions. It’s a compilation of his writing from the 1990s and is one of the definitive documents of the height of “alternative.” I’ll have more summaries over the book in due time, but here are the most interesting nuggets about Nirvana, which takes up a sizable portion of the start of Milk It.

  • DeRogatis opines that Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl's releases with Foo Fighters - except for the band's debut - are trash. But 1997's The Colour and the Shape and 1999's There Is Nothing Left to Lose are hand's-down power-pop classics. (At first I wasn’t crazy about the FFs’ first release but it has aged very well into one of my favorites.)
  • 1991's Nevermind was the first punk record to hit Number 1 and now stands as the 29th best selling album of all time.
  • Cobain liked how Steve Albini used lots of mics around the studio to try to capture the sound of the band being right next to the listener on In Utero. But the one thing he regrets about the recording was not double tracking more of his vocals like Butch Vig had done with him on Nevermind. I agree that would have made In Utero even better.
  • In Utero opener “Serve the Servants” has a guitar solo that sounds like Robert Quine but Cobain claimed to not know who that was. In actuality, his knowledge of punk was scattered because of his hard-earned music knowledge growing up in the sticks of Aberdeen, Washington.
  • If you’re looking for the ultimate book about Cobain, DeRogatis recommends Charles Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven.
  • Of all the riches Nevermind brought the band, Bassist Krist Novoselic was perhaps proudest of his two vinyl jukeboxes.
  • Of course DeRogatis always has to be controversial in his tastes, with disses against Paul Westerberg and Pavement (two of my very favorites) included in the Nirvana section of his book.
  • On Foo Fighters’ debut, Grohl played everything except for one guitar part on “X-Static” by Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Things I learned from McCartney’s book The Lyrics Volume 1

Paul McCartney’s massive self-penned 2021 book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present is an excellent read. My local library has the hard copies (it’s a thick, photo and image-heavy two-volume set) and so I’ll be reading the second book on paper rather than on my Kindle. That said, here are the most interesting things I learned about Sir Paul in the first volume:

  • Paul got the idea to have his band Wings after The Beatles because he still wanted to do music and also saw Johnny Cash playing with a band.
  • His daughter Stella was a rough birth and Paul saw a vision of angels with wings during that time, leading to his band’s name.
  • The night John Lennon and McCartney heard “God Only Knows,” their minds were so blown that it inspired them to write “Here There and Everywhere.”
  • Around the time of Sgt. Pepper’s, the band realized they had access to a sound-effects library and started using them a lot, in songs such as “Blackbird” and “A Day in the Life.”
  • He did a lot of painting in the ‘90s and always remembered his dad talking about “do it now.” He also thought about all the great painters who obsessed for long periods on individual works and Paul always wanted to keep it fun and get all his paintings powered through and done in one sitting.
  • Paul says the trick to songwriting is to write something that is easy to remember, because you also have to do that as a musician. His chauffeur said he’d been working eight days a week, and Paul knew that would be a memorable line when he and Lennon wrote it as soon as he hopped out of the car.
  • George Harrison was inspired by the short stabbing sounds in the music of the movie Psycho for Eleanor Rigby.
  • Paul says he was pretty “straight laced” and was the last Beatle to take LSD. One night he saw a blue hole in his eye and it formed the basis of “Fixing a Hole.”
  • Paul actually met Yoko before John and introduced her, in a way, to John.
  • Paul never could read music and he didn’t like piano lessons when he was young because they were restrictive and boring. And later on, he thinks he might have lost interest in making songs in a band if everyone was just counting out things based on a mathematical formula. I couldn’t agree more. Creating songs rather than writing music has always been what intrigued me and keeps me coming back for more.
  • “Got to Get You Into My Life” is about marijuana and was inspired by the Beatles’ first experience with the drug. It was in a back room with Bob Dylan and Paul remembers George trying to leave and he chased him around as the two of them giggled endlessly.
  • “Here There and Everywhere” was inspired by “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, which was inspired by Rubber Soul. Paul also says it’s his favorite song he’s ever written.
  • The Rolling Stones of course hung out with The Beatles in the early ‘60s. George told their record label they should sign the Stones and they did, but Mick and Keith told their friends the problem was they didn’t have a single. So The Beatles gave the Stones an album track from one of their records that couldn’t be a single for them because it was sung by Ringo. “I Wanna Be Your Man” went on to become the Stones’s “first big hit.”
  • When discussing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Paul notes that most of what drove him was eroticism.
  • The diversity and quantity of John and Paul’s writing together is legendary. And Paul notes that once he and John started a song in the studio, they always finished it before leaving the studio.
  • In the early days of the Quarry Men (named after where John attended, Quarry Bank High School), John, Paul, and George always pretty much knew they would be the core of the group. They always had trouble finding drummers, or even people with drum sets. A guy named Colin Hanton was their first drummer. At their first real recording session, they laid down Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and an original called “In Spite of All the Danger.” The latter is the only McCartney-Harrison writing credit in history.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

TV Snide: March 2023

TV Show of the Month: Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers’ Dynasty - Season 1
(HBO Max): It was a mighty month of TV watching for me. And the undisputed champ is this one. How in the world have more shows not been made like this? Fictionalized documentaries of great sports teams. I would love a 1970s Steelers one. Or how about a 1980s Cardinals? The Chicago Bulls series at the start of the pandemic was close, but real actors would be better, even if the real people (like Jerry West) don't have kind words to say about the way their stories are told. John C. Reilly continues his master class of acting as owner Dr. Jerry Buss. The actors who play Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, West, Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead, Jeanie Buss, and Spencer Haywood are all mesmerizing. I didn’t know who I wanted to watch most. But 1980 is an entertaining and eventful year for the Lakers. That’s all I’ll say. And hallelujah that a season 2 is on the way. It's Showtime! 5 out of 5 stars

Shrinking - Season 1
(Apple TV): Most months, this is my show of the month. Jason Segal kills it yet again (like he does in Winning Time). Harrison Ford is comedic brilliance. The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams is just awesome. With such a superstar likable cast, this show would have to really mess up to mess up. It’s about a psychology practice, but mostly it’s about how these three colleagues deal with the troubles in their personal lives, which include being a widow, having Parkinson’s and a case of the grumpies, and just having typical 30-something life problems. It all culminates in a big wedding, with so much fun along the way that it will be a crime if there’s not a second season. 5 out of 5 stars

Outer Banks - Season 3 (Netflix) The OBX crew continue their exploits to find the hidden treasure, as the show hits the mark somewhere between Indiana Jones and Beverly Hills 90210. It's a blast, and often of highly improbable proportions, to watch with my 15-year-old son. 5 out of 5 

The Last of Us - Season 1 (HBO Max): Yet another great show that I was able to binge digest this month. I wasn't really expecting to like it since I'm only mildly interested in zombies and almost not at all in video games anymore. But I do love some apocalypse, and this show has plenty. After the first episode I thought it was perhaps going to be really poorly acted, but then Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Anna Torv (from the highly recommended Mindhunter show), and Nick Offerman turn up the heat. 5 out of 5 stars

Novel of the Month: Hidden Pictures by Jason Rekulak: This is a tremendous yarn, the rare page turner that wraps every loose end up satisfyingly and clearly describes what happens to everyone at the end. Mallory is a late-teen recovering from addiction who gets hired by a yuppy couple named the Maxwells to take care of their kid Teddy for the summer. She meets old hippy psychic neighbor Mitzi and hot yard-keeper Adrian along the way. As her sponsor Russell gets more and more worried about Mallory’s seeming relapse, little Teddy appears to become more and more possessed. What is happening? Mallory and her new friends will have to figure it out before time runs out for them. 5 out of 5 stars

Beverly Hills Cop: Eddie Murphy was in his prime for this 1984 classic tale of wholly human cops chasing down very bad (and luckily bad shots) drug smugglers in Detroit and L.A. Mike from Breaking Bad and Paul Reiser make early acting appearances and the action is well worth checking back into if you haven’t seen it ever or in 39! years. 4 out of 5 stars

“The Gay Old Dog,” by Edna Ferber (1917): The author was known as sarcastic and this story flips the prejudice against women of the time on its head. Jo Hertz is a Chicago “Loop Hound” and a plump and lonely 50-year-old bachelor. When his mother died back when he was 27, her dying wish was that he not marry before his three sisters married. Jo fell in love with a little woman named Emily, who tried to matchmake the sisters but failed and eventually left to marry someone else. Eva finally married, then Babe, and finally Carrie didn’t marry but rather moved out to the West Side for work. Then World War I started and Jo got rich from his once-pedestrian leather business. He started being seen with a much-younger woman then bumps into Emily watching her son (also named Jo) leaving for war in a parade. He tells off his current parter, then his sisters, and is destined to live the life of an old maid (butler?) from then on. This drags in places but is definitely powerful and important in the march to women’s rights. 4 out of 5 stars

History of the World Part 2 (Hulu): This is a long-in-arriving sequel to Mel Brooks’s Part 1 movie, with the legend himself narrating. Highlights include the Russian Revolution with Nick Kroll selling mud pies and Danny DeVito leading the Kardashian-like Romanovs; Shakespeare in the writer’s room; a bumbling Lincoln and a drunk Grant leading the Civil War; Jack Black’s JoJo Stalin musical in 1918 Moscow; Seth Rogen’s Noah, who only brings dogs on the Ark; and The Beatles reimagined as Black Jesus and his apostles, in sessions and on the rooftop before being arrested, then many years later the Pope’s all-white-man council has a PR meeting that results in Jesus being rebranded as white. Kroll as usual stands out as the brightest light in this farce. 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Kings of Summer (Showtime): The indie 2013 movie is about three teens who decide to “become men” for the summer, running away from home and building a house and a life in the nearby forest. Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaley, and Alison Brie tag along as concerned family members back home. It’s weird and slight but also a touching coming-of-age tale that shows how strong the desire for independence can be. 3.5 out of 5 stars

“My Old Man, by Ernest Hemingway (1923): This story, told from the point of view of a young man named Joe, relates his relationship with his horse jockey father, who gambles on horses and drinks whiskey. The boy loves going to the races and sitting at a cafe in Paris with his dad, until one day he leaves the boy parent-less when he dies in a race. This is one of the master’s earliest stories and it shows promise of his approaching work, but is also a little bit of a mess. 3 out of 5 stars

“Brothers,” by Sherwood Anderson (1921): Anderson, often compared to Ernest Hemingway (I’m still not convinced), tells one of his typical tales of small-town isolation. One man, on his regular walks around his village outside of Chicago, often encounters an old man who people say has lost his mind, and always tells lies and that he is related to famous people. The man is nearly totally silent at night when he returns from his bicycle-factory foreman job. But he begins to fantasize about one woman at the factory and then for almost no reason stabs his pregnant wife to death. He is found guilty and later somehow encounters the old man again one day. The old man doesn’t know he’s the murderer but tells the man his brother is the murderer. One of these days I hope to find an Anderson story that clicks, but this doesn’t hold up over the past century. 2 out of 5 stars