Category: Albums


Best-Sellers

According to Wikipedia (‘cause ya know, the internet is never wrong…), but also what I’ve heard most of my life, the best-selling album of all time is Thriller by Michael Jackson. Officially, it has sold 42.4 million copies, but some suggest it may have sold as many as 65 million. Following it distantly (more than 10 mil) is the first Eagles’ greatest hits compilation. It sorta makes sense – The Eagles were a singles band. All their albums were basically collections of filler punctuated by 3 or 4 great songs on each one. When you collect all those great songs in one place, you get the 2nd best-selling album of all time.

After that comes the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. Technically, it’s a “various artists” thing, but let’s not kid ourselves – it’s a Whitney Houston record. She sings the first 6 tracks, and Alan Silvestri (who gets credit on the film for “Music by”) only does track 13. The rest is, again, just filler.

Fourth is Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which again sorta makes sense. Rumours and the story surrounding it are splitting at the seams with human drama. Go to any supermarket checkout line and the tabloids will show you how much we love a messy breakup playing out in public, and one committed to record is no different. It’s the reason Taylor Swift’s music is so popular; she’s gone through the cycle of dating, breaking up and writing a song about the guy she just broke up with about 6 billion times now. Rumours features not 1 but 2 breakups, and to top it all off, band members and songwriters are breaking up with each other! You have Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams,” which is a 2nd-person account of her breakup with Lindsey Buckingham, followed a little later by Buckingham’s own “Go Your Own Way,” a 2nd-person account of his breakup with Nicks! There’s also keyboardist Christine McVie divorcing her husband, bass player John McVie, and writing a hit single about her new lover, “You Make Loving Fun,” forcing John to play it every night. That’s just mean.

Other top sellers include Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road by The Beatles, and Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall by Pink Floyd, which gives me hope. However, Shania Twain’s Come On Over beats out Led Zeppelin’s IV by half a million. I’ll save my ground-shaking rage at that fact for another time…

And in slot #5, we have Back In Black, AC/DC’s tribute to Bon Scott that not only contains a tip of the hat to Bon, but honors Bon’s memory by being the biggest, baddest, most explosively rocking album AC/DC has ever done or will do. Honestly, I don’t know why AC/DC made more albums after this.

That’s a very good question: why did AC/DC continue? Nothing they did afterwards came even close to the overwhelming, jaw-dropping awesomeness of Back In Black. Hell, only one album in that entire 34-year span even had any hit singles. I don’t know the definitive answer, but consider this. AC/DC made Back In Black in the first place because Bon would have wanted them to continue, so it would be a poor honoring of that to make one album and then call it quits. If they did that, they may as well have not even made Back In Black at all. So under that logic, they’ll have to keep making albums until the day the last AC/DC member dies. And that seems just like the sort of bull-headed rock and roll thing they would do.

Every single song on Back In Black (and indeed every AC/DC song from anywhere in their career) sells itself out completely to the trimming and trappings of loud and overly indulgent rock and roll. This is what AC/DC does – their approach to their music only involves a lead brick on the gas pedal. And while that’s not true of their personal lives anymore since Bon died, they still make their name on their sound being SO huge, SO bombastic and SO overwhelming that there isn’t another band that can withstand them.

This is the only image I could find from the video. You can’t see the mechanical bull, but you get the idea…

“You Shook Me All Night Long” is the first single from Back In Black and also the first AC/DC song I can remember hearing. I was about 7 years old, at the house of a friend of my older sister’s down the street, and we weren’t supposed to be watching MTV, a fact that my sister’s friend’s mom didn’t know. I was kinda blown away – not just by the force and power of the guitars and grittiness of Brian Johnson’s voice, but also by the scantily-clad hotty riding the mechanical bull in the video. The song’s lyrics are simply dripping with innuendo and double entendres which flew way over my 7 year-old head. That mechanical bull stuck with me, though…

“What Do You Do For Money Honey” follows a looooong tradition of songs about prostitutes. Precious few of them take a moral stance. Instead, most of them have an observational tone, letting the listeners come to their own conclusions. AC/DC, like The Rolling Stones before them, perform their hooker song as an ode to the charms and prowess of the woman of the night in question. “What Do You Do For Money Honey” is a pretty direct song concerning its subject matter, but like all hooker songs, never mentions the words “hooker,” “whore” or “prostitute.”

“Shoot to Thrill” is my favorite AC/DC song of all for one simple reason: the final chorus breakdown and “big rock ending” features Brian Johnson throwing himself completely into the song and singing his lungs out. It’s like he’s laying himself on the slab of sacrifice of the altar to the gods of rock and roll. Like Bruce Springsteen did on “Jungleland,” he sings as though he fully believes the world is going to end when the song is done. It’s quite a thing to behold.

And cap track “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” contains AC/DC’s entire musical philosophy boiled down to an easy-to-digest 4 minutes and 26 seconds version. It’s in the title, and in the spoken word intro: “Rock and roll ain’t no riddle, man. To me it makes good, good sense!” And perhaps the most blindingly simple declaration which sums up the whole enchilada is the closing lyric: “Rock and roll is just rock and roll.” Slam the gavel, court is adjourned.

Next: why darkness and despair are such attractive qualities in a girl.

Bang Your Head

There was a guy in college (I don’t remember his name ‘cause we weren’t friends) that I was in a conversation with once. It was at one of those freshman mixers at the beginning of the year. There was a group of us, and he posed a question to the group.

“What is the biggest, heaviest, most monster, melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll, EVER? Don’t answer; just think of it in your head. You got it?”

We said “yeah,” or nodded, or murmured assent.

“Wrong. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

I piped up in a testy voice. “Isn’t that an impossible question to answer, since music is inherently subjective?”

“No. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

We all just rolled our eyes and wandered off. Not because “Back In Black” isn’t the most melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll ever (a thing which is impossible to determine), but because none of us liked being told by a relative stranger that we were definitively wrong about something, and in such a brusque tone. And you know what I thought? “’Back In Black’ can go suck my balls. Jerk.”

Quite obviously, this was before my fandom of AC/DC started, which is logical considering this is freshman year of college and my musical world is very small, swirlingly absorbed by Smashing Pumpkins and Genesis. Still, that’s little excuse. While it’s impossible to put guitar riffs on a scale of “this one is so-much-point-so-much better than that one,” “Back In Black” really IS monstrous – head-banging, devil-horning, balls-to-the-wall monstrous.

Every rock fan on the planet, the tall and the small, knows that riff. Every rock guitarist knows how to play that riff. Why? ‘Cause it’s a really easy riff; seriously, it takes a few times through to get the basics down. The only tricky part is the descending note pattern at the end of the 2nd measure. And for whatever reason, it’s one of the riffs that young guitarist learn first.

“Back In Black” is AC/DC’s tribute to their fallen singer, Bon Scott, written by their new singer, Brian Johnson, a man who had never actually met Bon. Admittedly, Brian was just writing what sounded good, going off of what he had heard ad infinitum from his other AC/DC-ers. Angus told him that the lyric needed to not be sad or morbid, but instead to be a celebration. And when Brian wrote the line “I got nine lives, cat’s eyes / Abusing every one of them and running wild,” it fit so perfectly with the man Brian had never met. And now it’s taken on a life of its own, being covered by so many rock bands it’s uncountable.

Lyrically, “Back In Black” is a first-person narrative from a guy who truly believes he is invincible. He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking and the gorge right below his high wire, but he behaves as if he’s never going to die. Sound familiar? And while this all seems like it’s setting us up for a delicious blow of irony on paper, the music is just as disrespectful to the concept of danger as the song’s protagonist. It’s driving, joyful and full of larger-than-life energy. “Back In Black,” being the tribute song that it is, gives no indication of the tragic fall or hopeless ending that Bon’s life turned out to have. It leaves all of that to “Hells Bells,” the album’s opening song.

“Hells Bells” fulfills what buying a CD or vinyl copy of Back In Black means for the listener. You find it in the record store and it’s all black; the words on the cover are barely readable. From the album’s physicality alone, you get a small sense of doom and dread, not knowing what awaits you when you drop the needle or press play, but fearing that it will be dark and a little disturbing. “Hells Bells” doesn’t disappoint. It opens the album with the lonely and mournful sound of a single church bell, rung several times before an electric guitar plays an equally mournful minor key riff. The absolute weight of the music falls on you as the rest of the band joins in, and you know that this is a different AC/DC than you knew.

Then there’s “Hells Bells” subject matter and main character: Satan himself. In this song, he’s a roaring lion, a savage devourer, and a remorseless consumer of every soul he comes across. The Satan that AC/DC portrays, like that of Black Sabbath and the plethora of bands they inspired, is the simplest and most obvious form of evil. How can anyone look at this evil and want any part of it? How can anyone listen to a song like “Hells Bells” and not see incredibly clearly that, contrary to what Bon previously affirmed, Hell is a VERY BAD place to be?

AC/DC, I think, understands this. They know that there exists a schism between two eternal destinies and that it’s drawn upon moral lines. They realize that there IS good, there IS evil, and that human beings exist somewhere in between, tipping at different times towards one or the other. And I truly believe that AC/DC want to tip towards the good, on the whole. It may not show in much of their music, but it doesn’t have to in order to be true. AC/DC, at their scar tissue-covered heart, are searching for salvation.

Zombies

AC/DC/ - Back In Black - 7/21/1980

AC/DC – Back In Black – 7/21/1980

I just saw a short film called Cargo; it was one of the finalists at Tropfest Australia 2013. It’s about a dad who is bit by a zombie (his wife) and is trying to get his baby daughter to safety before he turns. It’s only 6 and a half minutes long and features no dialogue, but it wrecked and ravaged me with its throbbing-heart emotionalism and simple yet gut-punching theme – love conquers all, even zombies.

The main appeal zombies have to me is the rapid change in states of a thing. When water turns to ice or steam, the elemental nature of the thing stays the same – two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen. But we understand and experience the altered-state water in totally new ways.

And with zombies, the very nature of the thing seems to change, though it’s still recognizable as what it used to be. In Cargo, the man’s wife is elementally different, something dangerous and terrifying, even though she is still his wife. And likewise, he knows that he will very soon become very dangerous to his baby daughter. But she will still be his daughter, and he must still protect her, even from himself.

Things drastically changed for AC/DC when Bon Scott suddenly died by aspirating his own vomit, even the nature of AC/DC itself. They never really got over the grief of losing Bon, but they translated it into music. They all decided they had to go on with the band, and that the last thing Bon would have wanted was for AC/DC to die with him. The surviving members even talked it over with Bon’s mother, and with her consent, they started seeking a new lead singer.

Brian Johnson was the first name the Young brothers came up with. He was a someone Bon had told them about while he was alive, and a performance that he had seen of Brian screaming his guts out on every song with his then-band Geordie. On one song, he held a high note, then dropped to the stage floor flailing and convulsing. The roadies had to take him out in a wheelchair. Bon thought, “Now there’s a guy who knows what rock and roll is all about.” Brian later told them it was because he came down with appendicitis that very night.

Bon Scott had only been dead a few weeks when Brian Johnson got a call from the Young brothers asking him to come to London to audition. The first song he sang was “Whole Lotta Rosie,” which is one of the songs I think of when I think, “What would be an impossible song to audition with because it’s so immortally Bon’s?” Brian, though, he smashed it out of the park. After the members of AC/DC finished picking their jaws up off the floor, they jammed some more and then hired Brian a few days later. They never even auditioned anyone else.

Brian Johnson is like a zombie version of Bon Scott. His voice is what Bon’s would sound like if he had come back from the dead, if Hell had spat him back out. Both have a gravely roughness and intensity, but the main difference is that while Bon’s voice gave you a sense of fun debauchery, Brian’s only indicates a downward spiral, hedonism ending where it usually does. And likewise, AC/DC’s music experienced a shift when Bon died, and became a zombie version of itself. It’s much more subtle, and the ironic celebration of sin and bad behavior is still there, but it’s a much more hopeless one. The band went from being carefree Libertines to uncaring Nihilists, and the beginning of it is on Back In Black.

In addition to taking the reins as AC/DC’s new lead vocalist, Brian also took over as main lyricist. His writing involves a level of double-entendres and euphemisms previously unseen in AC/DC’s songs. Bon told stories; he was like the guy in the bar who says “Let me tell you ‘bout this one chick I used to date. Smokin’ hot body. And in bed? Whoo! Every night was like a rodeo!” But Brian relied on the more literary devices of innuendo and implication.

And somehow, this made the dirty jokes that much dirtier. Those who get it don’t need anything else to be said. What Brian says is sometimes very subtle. “Let me cut your cake with my knife.” “She told me to come but I was already there.” “I’ll be guided in, We’ll be ridin’, giving what you got to me.” Do you know what he’s talking about? ‘Cause I do.

But without a doubt, the most suggestive, euphemism-laced and subtly filthy song on Back In Black is “Givin the Dog a Bone.” This song skirts the line between decency and just out-and-out pornographic detail. Nearly every line is a double-entendre, and the whole song stops just short of stating the thing it’s about outright. It shouldn’t take more than the first verse for you to figure it out.

She’s taking down easy, Goin’ down to her knees

Goin’ down to the devil, down-down to ninety degrees

Oh, she’s blowing me crazy ‘til my ammunition is dry

Oh, she’s using her head again

Oh, she’s using her head again

I’m just giving the dog a bone

I’ll give you a hint – it starts with an F and ends with an –ellatio.

While I’m not crazy about its choice in topic, “Givin the Dog a Bone” is an absolutely ingenious song in the way it talks about it. This type of verbage makes the wordsmith in me simply tingle with delight. “Givin the Dog a Bone,” the better part of the Back In Black album, and indeed AC/DC’s post-Bon output on the whole, joins a long tradition in rock and roll that goes all the way back to Robert Johnson when he sang “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg!” Even Shakespeare did it with the line in Hamlet about “country matters.” It can be summed up, I think, with a rather current phrase: I see what ‘cha did there… Wink, wink.

Next: A tribute to a fallen friend.

The Ugly Truth

John Keats - if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar...

John Keats – if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar…

John Keats composed the famous lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in his much-anthologized poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ol’ Johnny is one of the names that even non-literary people know, even if only as “some guy I learned about in college,” mostly because of this poem. It’s famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.

I take that back – it’s half true, maybe not even that. An enormous amount of the truth in this world isn’t beautiful at all. Cancer; war; child slavery; sexual slavery; serial killers; planes crashing into skyscrapers. And some of the beautiful things in this world don’t communicate any truth at all. I’m reminded of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry about the Mirror of Erised: “This mirror gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it.”

My mother is constantly puzzled about why I like some music or some movies that are about suffering, hate, pain or other bad facts of the world. While I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – even to myself – I think it has to do with my relentless search for truth, regardless of how it makes me feel.  The primary source of truth for me is God, and while that’s my mother’s source as well, God leads us down different paths that often lead to different truths. Not opposed truths, mind you; just as a house divided against itself cannot stand (thanks Abe), truth divided against itself isn’t really truth at all. But some of the nuggets of truth that I discover are ones my mother is just not privy to, and vice versa.

Joy Division is one of those places I find an experience that communicates real, unflinching truth. Notice I didn’t say that truth is communicated directly from the band; it’s not. I doubt Ian Curtis knew or cared whether he was communicating truth. But his lyrics are honest – about how he felt, how he perceived things, and how things affected him. To a properly discerning mind, such honesty will always communicate truth.

And it just so happens that Joy Division’s particular flavor of truth wouldn’t be at all palatable to my mother, but it is to me. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten a little taste of death. I’ve faced the reality of shifting my existence from one phase to another, and I’ve faced the pain in that transition. Joy Division never appealed to me before I got cancer. But after my diagnosis, I gained an understanding about both this world and eternity, and suddenly there was much more truth available than before. Strange as it may seem, some of that truth lay within Joy Division’s music.

“So what is that truth?” I hear you asking. I wish I could explain it in one sentence, a pithy phrase or aphorism that people so often mistake for “wisdom.” But this truth can’t be transferred with words only, not even from a writer with my considerable but ultimately inadequate skill. But I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel good. It might even bum you out. But despite that, it has the power to make you a better person.

I don’t have a pithy phrase, but I do have a song that captures Joy Division’s essence and entire musical ethos in a mere 6 minutes and 10 seconds. “Decades” contains all the sadness, weight and depth of meaning that Ian Curtis was ever trying to tell the world. “Decades” is about being brought to the absolute brink of darkness, or “knock[ing] on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,” and the evacuation of personhood that causes. It’s comparable to “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, which is about the same thing. The “young men” in “Decades” have been forced into deep, dank places where they’ve had their humanity torn to shreds. The most immediate application of this theme is lads returning home after a war – in Britain, that would most likely be WWII. My own interpretation involves being introduced to death, as I was. When you come back from that, you’re changed, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly how.

But to really understand the truth Joy Division communicates, you need to actually listen to “Decades” – preferably hundreds of times over 5 to 10 years like I did. The real truth is in the music, the emotion it invokes, and the cosmic experience it sparks. And I would posit that ALL the best music is like this.

Joy Division’s career was incredibly short. They formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), their first album was released in 1979, and Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released posthumously, and the rest of the band then reinvented themselves as New Order. At first glance this seems tragic, mired in Ian’s unrealized potential. But being the optimist I am, I think that Joy Division’s destiny involved everything that happened to them and they did what they were supposed to do. And they’re still doing it; so many bands simply would not exist were it not for Joy Division. But the most important thing they did was communicate truth. Ugly truth it may be, but truth’s nature is not affected by our labeling of it with “beautiful” or “ugly.” It’s just truth.

Next: Hell IS a bad place be.

The Basement Door

Joy Division is a band that only music critics and others very seasoned in rock history seem to know. But actually, everybody knows them, because they show up in just about every rock band’s music since 1980. Their influence is so far-reaching that it’s at a higher level, one where you don’t even know that that’s where it comes from. Without Joy Division, I can’t even imagine what the musical landscape would look like.

I can only wisely enter so far into Joy Division. When I listen to them, I cannot help but contemplate the sad and bankrupt state of this world, the carelessly evil things people sometimes do to each other, and perhaps most of all, the darkness within my own soul. And if I go too far down that road, if I descend that staircase all the way to the dank and dirty basement, I fear I may never come out.

I like Joy Division right where they are, in that basement. I can flit from room to room on the first floor, climb the stairs to see the bedrooms, and even go outside the house to bask in the sun – and I can also open the basement door, go down a few steps and sit contemplatively, listening.

A few bands who have followed in Joy Division’s extremely influential footsteps (and more who have taken it to the next level) rail and thrash, shriek and flail about, screaming all the while “I’M UPSET ABOUT SOMETHING!” They’ve taken distress, patented it, packaged it, slapped it on a plastic lunch box and sold it in Best Buy, warranty included. Joy Division is remarkable precisely because they didn’t do that. To them, distress looks like Ian Curtis with his deadpan stare, tortured by demons of which we as listeners only have the briefest indication.

Joy Division - Closer - 7/18/1980

Joy Division – Closer – 7/18/1980

Curtis, frontman and doomed casualty of Joy Division, had epilepsy. It’s a very misunderstood affliction, probably because it’s so startling and troubling to see. Perhaps in this age of understanding for people who are different in some way, it has a softer definition, but back in the late ‘70s it was still pretty weird. Make no mistake, an epileptic seizure is a big deal, but the person having one needs medical help, not horrified stares (or fascinated ones – more on that later).

Closer is only their second album, but it’s also the last release they would ever put out. In addition to 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, there were a handful of singles, as well as their debut EP An Ideal For Living, released in 1978. The name Joy Division, which sounds strange to our English-speaking ears, is the name for certain women in Nazi concentration camps during WWII – they were racially pure women set aside for the sexual service of officers in the German army, in order to create a master, Aryan race. Joy Division caused even more stir with the cover for An Ideal For Living, which featured a Hitler Youth playing a drum. The question was asked not long after that: are Joy Division Nazis? (The answer is “no.”)

And then in 1980, exactly two months before the release of Closer, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house. The darkness and groaning melancholy of Joy Division’s music suddenly became starkly and frighteningly real.

Closer opens with the exceptionally dark “Atrocity Exhibition.” The lyrics talk of the public’s sick desire to see something horrible as a satiation of their dark nature. Ian Curtis first saw this when Joy Division became “that band with the epileptic.” A few times, Curtis had an epileptic seizure on stage, and he adapted his dancing style to emulate his seizures. Some people came to their shows on the off-chance that he would have a seizure. Curtis had a keen sense of phoniness, so he naturally was angry.

Though it’s a great song, “Atrocity Exhibition” is not the best lead-off track. It’s long, doesn’t do a great job of getting you to engage, and is catchy only because it’s so repetitive. But like all Joy Division songs, its value is in the atmosphere it creates, not the sum of its musical parts. And that atmosphere is palpable and intense – it’s a smoke you can reach out and feel, can breathe in and feel in your lungs.

After that comes “Isolation,” a study of what gives the song its name. It speaks of a fear that is with you “every day, every evening,” all the time. I know this fear – to me, it’s the fear of all of the world’s circumstances closing I around you at once, and being left with the paralyzing but undeniable fact that you’re not up to the task of dealing with them. They’re too much for you. You are inadequate. That fear still sneaks up on me occasionally, and when it does, it causes me to fold inward, to not move, to not try. Because if I don’t try, I can’t fail.

Ian Curtis, 1956-1980

Ian Curtis, 1956-1980

I identify with Joy Division and Ian Curtis immensely. A lot of people do, and that’s why JD’s music remains so popular among certain people. Curtis is a symbol that lets depressed and fearful kids (and the occasional 32 year-old…) know that they’re not alone and not the first. But Curtis’ story also alerts me to the dangers of descending too far down the pit of despair. It’s important to feel every feeling, but feeling any feeling too much can be perilous.

What sets Joy Division apart from the wide gamut of bands they’ve influenced is that they don’t try to pretend that the dark, billowy place to which they take you is cool, attractive, or in any way a good place to be. Their music is devoid of glamour, polish or contrivance. The void it leaves is filled instead with the depth of Curtis’ own despair. And it’s DEEP, man…

Laser Beam

179 laser beam 02Peter Gabriel has a bit of a history of delving into fantastical, esoteric and sometimes downright bizarre subject matter. He did a song about leaving Genesis in which he draws a comparison between Jesus Christ and himself, sings about sentient plants who want to destroy humanity, and covers such subjects as voodoo, touch healing, and hermaphrodites. And let’s not forget the 90-minute magnum opus of weirdness that is The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

But once in a while, he turns his attention to the real world, tightly focusing like a laser beam on actual events. And he does it in a way that forces us to focus, too. The things he shows us may be horrifying in one way or another, but we’re completely unable to look away.

179 laser beam 01Jeux Sans Frontières was a game show on the BBC and in other European countries. Different teams representing their country of origin would compete in ridiculous, over-the-top games involving obstacle courses, all of them wearing goofy latex costumes of matching colors. It ran from 1965 to 1999, though just in specials for the last few years.

Seems quite innocent enough, right? But in the hands of someone like Peter Gabriel, it becomes a grand comment on the nature of war and how it’s simply a game to the people who orchestrate it. “Games Without Frontiers,” a literal translation of the French name of the show (it was called It’s a Knockout in the UK), uses sing-songy rhythms and unsettling guitar sounds to demonstrate its point, as well as a lyrical set-up like an international list of children playing Capture the Flag. The total effect is an incredibly creepy song, one that captures your attention and holds in its disturbing sway.

Guest vocalist Kate Bush appears on this song, repeating the tag line of “jeux sans frontiers,” which gets misheard almost as much as “hold me closer, Tony Danza.” For a long time, I thought it was “she’s so funky, yeah…” And the use of Kate Bush adds to the creepiness of the song, her voice being both bizarre and alluring.

Besides “Games Without Frontiers” and the previously discussed “Family Snapshot,” the other place on Melt where Gabriel laser-beams in and makes you stare at the horrifying truth of things is on cap track “Biko.” It starts off with clearly African voices singing in an exotic language one refrain over and over again. It’s the Zulu protest song “Senzeni Na?”, commonly sung at South African funerals where the person being buried was an anti-apartheid activist or martyr. This particular segment is a live recording of singers at the funeral of Steve Biko.

Biko was one of the strongest voices against apartheid in South Africa, and was the very definition of what the South African government at the time termed an “agitator.” He was arrested in late August of 1977, held in custody for several days, and taken in September by police to the Walmer Street prison in Port Elizabeth. There he was interrogated, beaten and tortured by police in room 619, and sustained severe head injuries. At that point, he was transferred to another prison in Pretoria (not a hospital), where he died a few days later.

“Biko” is not only the best track on Melt, but it’s also one of Peter Gabriel’s best-known and best-loved songs. He closes nearly every concert with it, and it has been a regular part of his repertoire since it was first released. It’s supported by a backbone of quiet yet sonorous drums and some tribe-style grunting, Later, the backing chords are provided by what sound like bagpipes. The song has a very slow pace, no guitar heroics to speak of – about 2 chords are played in the entire song – and doesn’t even feature Gabriel’s best singing. Nevertheless, emotions are high in this song which clearly emphasizes that less is more.

179 laser beam 03The song contains some powerful lyrics, but two of them jump out at me. The first is “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire.” The white officials and police could blow out Biko’s candle by silencing his voice, and use extraordinarily brutal and savage means to do so. But they couldn’t blow out the fire that silencing him would ignite. And with the freeing and election of Nelson Mandela, that fire finally consumed them and apartheid ended.

And the closing lyrics of the song are this: “The eyes of the world are watching now.” This isn’t just a historical observation; you’ll notice the lyric is not “The eyes of the world were watching then.” Steve Biko and his death were big deals, but “Biko” is talking about something far less temporal. And it’s not really a call to action or a mobilizing message to the masses – that’s not what Peter Gabriel does. Instead, he’s using his laser beam again, focusing on you and your own heart. What will you do? The next time you see injustice before your very eyes, whenever and however it may come to pass, what will you do?

It’s a hypothetical question, one which we can’t answer until it becomes real to us. And it will – at some point you will need to answer that question. For me, the first person to ask it to me was Peter Gabriel.

Crash, Ride, Hi-Hat

Roberto is the drummer on the Worship Team at our church. Nowadays, that might not seem like a big thing; churches not only have drummers, but 3 loud guitars, smoke machines, complicated lightning schemes and the most cutting edge worship music available. Some worship bands look more like they’re performing a rock concert than leading people in actual worship. They have “Worship” in their name for a reason, and a lot of worship bands would do well to remember that more often.

But at our church, the fact that we have a regular drummer every week, and he’s an integral and fully accepted part of our Worship Team, is a big step forward for us. One of the biggest problems we’ve ever had at our church is the long-standing resistance to change in the music from the older members of the congregation. Folks who had been at this church 30 years were threatening to leave; first it was because we used choruses (some of which were written in the ‘70s) in addition to hymns. Then it was because we used some choruses that weren’t lifted directly from scripture. Then it was because we started incorporating a drum kit into our worship. Then it was the electric guitar. And worst of all, a few people thought our church shouldn’t do these things because they were somehow un-Christian or satanic.

hmm, maybe it really is satanic... ;-)

hmm, maybe it really is satanic… ;-)

Roberto is the one and only drummer our Worship Team has. No backups. When he’s not there, we just don’t have any drums, and the music suffers. In one of his most candid and naked moments, he told me about how hard it is to be such a visible figure of what some members of our congregation (even still) didn’t want. When he got down to specifics, he said what people had the biggest problem with was cymbal crashes. He uses them sparingly, but occasionally in practice he’ll cut loose with some crazy cymbal-snare-tom freak-out, like a little storm that lasts 5 seconds, reminding me distinctly of Neil Peart.

It’s mystifying to me. Cymbals? Really? Why, out of all the features of drumming, do you pick out cymbals to be the top church-disturbing thing?

If I step outside myself for a moment, I can actually see the elder church members’ point, and it’s because my mom has a form of the same point. (You’re not an elder, mom – didn’t mean to imply that) My mom was an MK – Missionary Kid, that is – in Guatemala, so she grew up in a church that was largely cut off from the American Christian experience. In a way, that makes it purer, but it also makes it slower to change. To her, church music is all about hymns. She loves hymns, and I’ve learned to love hymns because I love her. And since her love of hymns reaches so deep, to the very depths of her childhood, it makes her profoundly sad to see our modern church society where hymns are all but forgotten, even disrespected. So it makes sense for her to have some angst directed at what has replaced them. I get it.

But God would not have us be stagnant and unmoving. God is all about our growth and forward motion, both in our individual lives and as a Church (that’s with a capital C). And this has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but for those in the grip of grace, for those who trust in the Lord, there isn’t anything to fear from change. Change is good.

So what about cymbals? Were it merely on a practical level, without all this “IT’S SATANIC!!!” garbage, I think I could at least understand it. Cymbals are, by their very nature, crashing. That’s why one type of them is called a crash. Crashes are typically played on the first beat of a four-measure or eight-measure figure, like at the beginning of a verse or a chorus. And their primary function is to add punctuation to the beat, piercing your consciousness in the process. And let’s face it – old people don’t like having their consciousnesses pierced (or their eardrums). Maybe the reason certain elders of our church’s congregation have objected to cymbals (and drums in general) in the past isn’t “it’s unholy” or “we must avoid the appearance of evil,” but that they simply don’t like them. That, at least, makes sense to me.

Melt by Peter Gabriel is a landmark album for him in many ways, but the most radical is this: it doesn’t contain any cymbals. Not a single crash, ride or hi-hat, not a single hit of the brass anywhere on the album. This was intentional – Gabriel, though he’s a multi-instrumentalist, doesn’t play the drums, so he instructed Phil Collins (who guested on a few tracks) and regular drummer Jerry Marotta that this was his concept for the album. This made the music more primitive, more elemental, and recalled images of jungle tribesmen in Africa with painted bodies and feathers on their clothes. And even though Melt deals with real world issues like no other previous Gabriel album, the inflection of the whole thing is one of elemental human reaction, of listening to your gut above all other things.

Maybe I should sit those elder members of our congregation down and make them listen to Melt. After all, they wanted no cymbals! I kid…

Next: September ’77, Port Elizabeth, weather fine…

Penny For Your Thoughts?

George Wallace

George Wallace was a politician in the ‘60s and ‘70s who served as Governor of Alabama for the 3rd longest gubernatorial stint in post-Constitutional U.S. history, and was also a losing presidential candidate four times.

George Wallace was notorious as a strict segregationist, which basically reads today as “racist.” But back then, in the time and place he existed in, everybody was a racist – at least by today’s standards. Alabama in the early ‘60s was not a friendly place for black people. Wallace’s most famous incident was when he stood at the doors of the University of Alabama on the day black students were granted the right to admission into the university. And make no mistake – he was standing there in a symbolic gesture of blocking the students from entering. Alabama was being desegregated and a lot of people, Governor Wallace chief among them, were not happy about it.

Arthur Bremer

Arthur Bremer

In 1972, George Wallace was running for president again. He had just won his 2nd bid for governor, and his presidential bid was run on a platform of racism and mudslinging. On May 15th, he was at a mall campaigning, using his extremely vitriolic racist rhetoric. Arthur Bremer was there, too. Wallace gave his speech, but he wasn’t standing on a stage like politicians do today; rather, he was down among the crowd with a small circle of space between him and his constituents. Arthur Bremer pushed his way forward when Wallace was shaking hands after his speech, pulled out a revolver and shot Wallace four times, emptying his gun and injuring three others before being subdued. Wallace survived, but was in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

Bremer didn’t do it because of political rage at Wallace’s controversial stances, or out of some high-minded sense of right and wrong, or even as a hired assassin in a massive political struggle. He did it for a much more elemental, selfish and id-based reason – he did it because he wanted to be famous.

Bremer tried to time the assassination for when it would make the evening newscast. He picked a high-profile and divisive individual, one whose assassination would have a much greater ripple effect than someone who was universally well-thought of. There were better candidates, though. Bremer had first fixated on Richard Nixon, but decided it would be nearly impossible to get near him. And the kicker, he had even thought of a memorable catch phrase to recite when he pulled the trigger. “Penny for your thoughts?” This would further cement him in the public’s mind, perhaps especially because it was so cornball. He didn’t say it, though – the heat of the moment must have driven the phrase from his mind.

Bremer wrote An Assassin’s Diary, published in 1973 shortly after his attempt on Wallace’s life. The book details not only the facts of the incident on May 15th, but also provides a chilling first-person perspective on his motivations and thought processes. In it, Bremer explains that he wasn’t particularly opposed to Wallace’s campaign positions, and didn’t really care about politics at all. Rather, he had an attachment to Wallace, and Richard Nixon before him, because killing such a note-worthy and famous figure would in turn make him internationally famous.

His logic (if you can call it that), seems sound. You usually don’t talk about John F. Kennedy without at least mentioning Lee Harvey Oswald. Likewise, no one talks about Abraham Lincoln without bringing up John Wilkes Booth (except Steven Spielberg). Killing someone famous makes you famous. But why would someone even want to become famous for something as heinous and terrible as murder? Everyone looks at you as the epitome of evil and all that is wrong with the world, at least for a time. Look at George Zimmerman.

There are two reasons for this. One: killing someone is a much easier and faster way to become famous than building something yourself, like the person you want to kill. Destruction is always easier than creation, but it pays much smaller and less satisfying dividends. Two: people who do these types of things don’t care why they’re famous. All that matters is that when people hear your name or see your face, they have an instant and inescapable association with it. The specific nature of the association is not nearly as important as its existence. And the stronger the association, the better.

Peter Gabriel read An Assassin’s Diary, and the result is the song “Family Snapshot.” Gabriel never mentions Bremer specifically, and even the scenario laid out in the song doesn’t resemble the Wallace assassination attempt. Details are mentioned, and it much more closely mirrors Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The song is in first-person except for a brief section that’s in second-person. Here, the killer addresses his target, explaining that they were “made for each other,” but not in the romantic you-complete-me way. Bremer thought that his and Wallace’s destinies were destined to intersect in this particular way. And in a disturbingly twisted way, he was right.

It’s ironic, though, that so much time has passed and virtually nobody knows who George Wallace is anymore, let alone Arthur Bremer. All he wanted was to be famous, and it didn’t work.

“Family Snapshot” goes through phases that mirror the state of a killer’s mind. It starts with quietness and calm, then gets more nervous and jittery, the drumming becoming gradually more frantic. It builds to a tension-filled climax, and then when the shot is fired, the music instantly converts back to the calm, beatless quiet, where the killer reflects on his early life and what brought him to this point.

This is clearly a new approach from Peter Gabriel. “Family Snapshot” and Melt in general see PG acting like the doctors in A Clockwork Orange, forcing Alex’s eyes open while horrors unfold on the screen in front of him. But instead of standing at a distance and scribbling on his clipboard, Peter’s there with you, holding your hand, and whispering, “Look…”

Next: the “gated drum” technique.

Treasures

Peter Gabriel - Melt - 5/23/1980

Peter Gabriel – Melt – 5/23/1980

I have no idea what I would do if someone broke into my house. The closest it ever got to that was when a woman knocked on our sliding glass door at about 2am. My wife heard it first. Scared out of her wits, she tried to look up the police – we didn’t have smartphones yet, and the idea of calling 911 apparently didn’t penetrate either of our 2am hazes. I had to deal with the potential intruder. It was a short black woman with wide eyes and no shoes, definitely drunk. Clearly not a robber, she was saying something to me that took me a few tries to figure out. She thought I was a friend of hers, Bernie or something, and she wanted to sleep there for the night. I told her in no uncertain terms to go away. I don’t think my wife or I slept much after that.

As traumatic as that was, it’s not even a thousandth of what it must be like to have an actual intruder in your house, one with evil intent to your possessions. It’s something no one ever wants to think about.

Unless you’re Peter Gabriel, that is. And if you’re Peter Gabriel, not only do you like thinking about it, but you like forcing your listeners to think about it, too. “Intruder” leads off PG’s third eponymous album commonly called Melt, with plodding and doom-filled drumming, then what sounds like glass being delicately cracked, like a window that’s being broken as quietly as possible.

Peter sings this song like a sociopathic lunatic, provoking a reaction of tension-filled dread from the listener. Like Hannibal Lecter’s icy, smiling stare, it’s the quietness of Peter’s voice punctuated by moments of frothing madness that make for the most terror. “Intruder” is one of the most terrifying songs I’ve ever heard, bested in that department only by Bach and his “Toccata & Fugue.”

When I visited my family a few Christmases ago, the men had a discussion about intruders (which is to say they had the discussion and I listened silently), which led into gun control. My brother-in-law, who was going through a gun-crazy phase at the time, wanted to acquire a classic, noisy shotgun. He had a theory that if anyone ever broke into his house, all they would have to hear was the loud CLICK-CLACK of a cocking shotgun and they would high-tail it out of there, but not before making a mess on your floor. He said the gun wouldn’t even have to be loaded, because all you need is the sound to get the intruder shaking in his probably stolen boots.

I think there’s something to that, but like I always do, I’m looking for the root. If you want a shotgun to ward off intruders, you obviously think it’s a real possibility that you will at some point have an intruder. Delusion and paranoia are extremely likely, but let’s assume that attitude has a basis in reality. What is that basis? Do you have a lot of valuable stuff that would attract an intruder? A fancy car, an opulent house, an unnecessarily loud stereo system? Why do you have those? Greed? Inadequacy? A need to feel successful?

Religion would classify those things as “treasures,” and my religion teaches me that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In a sort of pre-emptive strike, Jesus said to “store up your treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and thieves do no break in and steal.” In short, don’t have too much stuff. Why? ‘Cause having too much stuff chains you to this world, and that’s not where you wanna be forever. (Matthew 6:19-21)

But enough of that.

Peter Gabriel adherents had never really heard anything like “Intruder” from him. It was a revelation of one of Peter’s abilities, one that had only been touched briefly upon with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It’s the ability to show you extremely strange and horrifying images and make you want to keep staring at them. Previously, he had done this with fantasy and fiction, but with Melt, he was making you look at the real world. “Intruder,” “Family Snapshot,” and “Biko” deal with fully real moments of violent horror and what they mean to your actual life. No more hiding behind constructs like Blackstone Enterprises or Magog or even Rael, as transparent as he was. Now, it’s just Peter.

Next: portrait of a killer.

Worms

Worms: just the very word sounds gross, doesn’t it? The first image I conjure up when I hear it is the earthworm, then Earthworm Jim, then the parasites that dogs and cats sometimes get. After that, I think of the Pink Floyd song “Waiting For the Worms.” In The Wall, worms are a metaphor for what happens when we close ourselves off to human emotions and descend into singularity and isolation.

On a smaller, tighter scale, worms also represent Pink finishing his transformation into a Hitler/Mussolini figure, carrying out his plan to elevate himself over all of humanity. Nazi imagery is very strong in the language of “queens and the coons and the reds and Jews.” Many people think the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish thing, but it wasn’t. Nazi Germany didn’t just hate Jews, but all people who weren’t Aryans, weren’t of the “Master Race.” Hitler was an equal-opportunity discriminator.

Back in “Hey You” at the beginning of the second disc, the narrator sings in the bridge, “No matter how he tried, he could not break free / And the worms ate into his brain.” And in “Waiting For the Worms,” much is made of “follow[ing] the worms.” Those worms have taken up residence in your brain, and are now controlling your actions. And where does following them lead? To a perfect land where the weaklings and degenerates have been expunged in the showers and the ovens, where “our colored cousins” have been sent back home, where “Britannia rule[s] again.”

Wait a second… Britannia? I thought this was supposed to be a totalitarian control state! I thought this was the Third Reich! Surely the United Kingdom is as distant ideologically from Nazi Germany as the night from the day! Axis and Allies, man! Different sides! Britain would never!

Sense the sarcasm, people. Roger Waters is indeed saying that his beloved homeland has the potential to become everything that WWII was fought specifically to stamp out. Britain could descend into government-sponsored racism, and according to Waters, it wouldn’t even be that hard.

When Pink is at his absolute worst, riding through the streets with a megaphone and his goons marching before him, he has a sudden and jarring halt. The crowd is shouting, Pink is delivering his megaphone diatribe, and the David Gilmour is playing that harsh, minor key refrain that appears in “Another Brick In the Wall” and “Hey You” that binds the album together, and all of the craziness that The Wall has been building towards is at a fever pitch. Then Pink suddenly shouts “STOP!”

With that, the song “Stop!” starts with its 30 seconds of piano interlude. This is the moment where Pink breaks out of his isolation and attempts to deal with what he has done. And once again, he retreats into his own mind and creates a cast of characters who put him on trial.

“The Trial” is the lynchpin and climax of the story, and as such, it’s actually very hammy and unintentionally comical. It sounds very much like a piece from a Broadway musical where the rest of the album does not, even though The Wall has a cinematic feel and scope rarely seen. Pink is put on “trial” for the crime of “showing feelings of an almost human nature.” The schoolmaster from the first act, Pink’s wife, and his mother are brought in to testify, and then “Worm, Your Honor” (the judge or arbiter) pronounces Pink’s sentencing.

The figure of Worm, Your Honor, given the symbolism present previously on The Wall, must be the epitome of solipsism, and the pinnacle of cutting yourself off. In light of that, it’s pretty ironic that the “sentence” that Worm, Your Honor imposes on Pink is what ultimately saves him from complete isolation. “The Trial” ends with the repeated chanting of “Tear down the wall!” followed by a the sound of a single, gargantuan blast, echoing through the vast nothingness that separates Pink’s solipsistic world from reality.

In my opinion, all the characters in “The Trial” (the Crown lawyer, the judge, the mother, the schoolmaster, the wife, even the chorus who sings about how crazy Pink is) are creations of his own mind. After all, he lives in a world where the only occupant of even the tiniest consequence is himself. He’s reached a point where even he is not willing to go, and there has to be a breaking point. Creating a scenario where he’s put on trial is the perfect way to point out his own colossal, self-inflicted guilt for all the atrocities he’s done to both the people most important to him and the world at large.

There’s one more track, and it passes in little more than a whisper. You may think “Outside the Wall” will be a summing up of the entire 90 minutes and 2 discs-worth of material on The Wall, but you’d be wrong. Instead, “Outside the Wall” finishes the album looking at things from a slightly different angle.

The narrator is probably Pink himself, but since he’s addressing the listener specifically, it hardly matters. He talks of your own loved ones, “all alone or in two’s;” because even though you may have descended into a world where only you seem to exist, you still leave behind a lot of people who care about you. In fact, that’s the whole point of The Wall; Pink thought he was leaving behind the people who made him build the Wall, but he wasn’t. They came back to convict him in “The Trial.” And if God forbid you start to go down the same path as Pink (the same path as “me,” says Roger Waters), remember there might be people who want you back, people who love you.

Huh; I guess “Outside the Wall” does a pretty good job of summing up after all.

Incredibly geeky note: “Outside the Wall” – and thus The Wall as a whole – ends with someone saying, “Isn’t this where-“. At the very beginning of the album, in the first few seconds before “In the Flesh?” kicks off, the same person can be heard saying “-we came in?” There ya go – useless information of the day!

The Wall is a monument to madness, pulling together so many experiences and influences from Roger Waters’ life, but that’s not the reason it’s great. It has some of the best and most well-known songs in Pink Floyd’s entire career, but that’s not why, either. It’s great because it captures a moment in time, a sliver of being in which Roger Waters, and indeed Pink Floyd itself are on a precipice. It marks a decision to not go down the road it details, and to instead come into the light.

Pink Floyd at Live 8 in 2005

Pink Floyd at Live 8 in 2005

Soon after, Roger Waters would release his swan song The Final Cut and angrily part ways from Gilmour and the rest. He would even try, unsuccessfully, to sue the other three Floyds for use of the Pink Floyd name. Pink Floyd’s final album The Division Bell, released without Waters in 1994, is a treatise on communication and what happens when we stop talking to each other. Gilmour was offering an olive branch to Waters with The Division Bell, and in 2005, the finally got back together… for one performance. Live 8 saw the first time Pink Floyd had performed as a four-piece in 24 years – and the last time the world ever saw them in that form again. Sigh…

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