Archive for November, 2012

Heracleum mantegazzianum, or giant hogweed

An important concomitant of prog rock, of which Genesis is a seminal band, is lyrics that would fit into literature, fantasy and sci-fi. In one of their weirder moments, Genesis has a song about giant sentient plants that want to kill humanity called “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” It’s based on a real plant (heracleum mantegazzianum) that causes ugly, red welts when its sap comes in contact with human skin, and can cause blindness if it gets in your eyes. And we’ve already explored “Supper’s Ready” and its various mythological and biblical themes.

But there’s always been another side to Peter Gabriel and his lyrics. Sometimes he turns his focus to the real world, and unlike the more fantastical elements of Genesis’ music, he has a very critical eye for reality. With fantasy, he takes more of a storytelling role. The dichotomy there makes sense – the real world dissatisfies him, and he usually tries to retreat from it. But once in a while, he feels like telling you about it.

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound – 10/12/1973

Like a good creator of art should, though, he couches his social commentary in metaphor, symbolism and indirect language. We’ve already seen his criticism of the British housing system in “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” and he continues his lament for his homeland in “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” from Selling England By the Pound. The album gets its name from the song, which in turn borrows from a slogan of the British Labour Party. At the time of the album’s recording, Harold Wilson was campaigning with the Labour Party for Prime Minister, which he would win. That was the time of the three-day week and the 1973 oil crisis.

Peter decided the title of Genesis’ new album would be Selling England By the Pound to offset what critics had said about Genesis being US-centered, playing to the American markets and ignoring where they came from. The inclusion of England in the title probably did that, but it’s ironic that their next album had Broadway in the title, referring to the street in New York City.

“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is, at first glance, one big hot mess. The imagery is very vivid, but it seems like its making up characters with without a story. But I was a teenager when I first heard this song, and it was a long time before I checked out what its seemingly random metaphors actually meant.

The first line, which Gabriel sings before the instruments come in, is a small tip-off, though. “’Can you tell me where my country lies?’ / said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes.” Where’s his country? What happened to England? I think Peter is referring to an “Olde England,” a place that books still talk about but has gone the way of the dodo. It’s a place of King Arthur and Robin Hood, of Bilbo Baggins and the Green Knight. It doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it only existed in the minds of storytellers long gone. But nevertheless, “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is Peter’s lament of modernity imposing it’s hard, cold edges on the flower petals of the past.

“Moonlit Knight” is among the densest song Genesis has ever done, and that’s saying a lot. The lyrics make mention of “the Queen of Maybe,” which is most likely a reference to the Queen of May, a symbol used in ancient England to represent the hope of a good harvest. “Old Father Thames” is the spirit that lives in the river of the same name which flows through London. “Citizens of Hope and Glory” is a nod to the English hymn “Land of Hope and Glory.” There are also references to Wimpy Restaurants, the Holy Grail, Green Shield stamps, and two figures from the Morris dance (the “Hobby Horse” and the “Fool”). Peter was playing pretty safe with this song – it’s so layered in subtext and metaphor that almost no one can tell what the hell it’s about.

Steve Hackett

And I just gotta take a second to point out how awesome Steve Hackett is, and what a FRICKIN’ SHAME it is that Eddie Van Halen gets all the credit for tapping. Steve was one of the first to do tapping while Eddie was popping pimples and cheating on his history exams. That’s not a dig on Eddie – it’s music fandom’s fault, not his. If I really wanted to dig on Eddie, I’d point out that his greatest contribution to the art of the guitar was the elephant sound… but I digress. Anyway, let’s give Steve Hackett his due credit, because Lord knows he didn’t get it during his Genesis stint, or even after.

Next: Betty Swanwick’s lost painting.

The Only Band In the World

I was always wired to love music. As far back as I can remember, popular music just made sense to me. Not just the notes, measures, scales and melodies, but artists, albums, studios, record contracts, worldwide tours, genres, sub-genres, radio stations, airplay, Billboard, even the difference between a single and an EP. All these things came as naturally to me as breathing. Also at an early age, I was searching for something, some artist or band that I could latch onto. There were many candidates that didn’t really stick: the Beach Boys, Petra, Neil Diamond, New Kids On the Block (cut me some slack – I was in 3rd grade and had a big sister). However, all of that crystallized when I discovered Genesis.

As can be expected, the smallest part of the credit for that goes to me. The rest of it goes to my dad and radio, but also to my friend Seth. When we were both 11, he sat me down and made me listen to We Can’t Dance from start to finish (more on that later). That moment was when I took my first step into a larger world, like in Star Wars when Luke deflects the shots from the remote with the shield of his helmet down. Not quite a spiritual awakening, but close.

From then on, Genesis was the only band in the world. Or rather, they were the only band that mattered. Lots of people have similar obsessions; I’ve had several. But wherever my musical hyperfocus has taken me, my Genesis phase was the most intense and all-consuming. Even using the word “phase” cheapens its importance and makes it seem to shrink. For about 3 years, when I wasn’t actually listening to Genesis, I was thinking about them. I made innumerable mixtapes that were different arrangements of Genesis songs, some based on a lyrical theme, some on musical timbre, some even on length. Every ounce of energy that wasn’t put on essential things (like school, church and things like eating and sleeping) was dedicated to Genesis. I thought about the all – the – TIME.

Amazingly, though, this entire Genesis OCD disorder was only focused on part of their career, and what a great many Genesis aficionados would consider their downhill slide. I was only interested in the 3-piece years, 1980 and onward. As far as I was concerned, that was Genesis: Phil, Tony and Mike. There were an island unto themselves. Peter Gabriel and his involvement with Genesis was a non-entity that I wasn’t even aware of yet.

Genesis’ 1978 album …And Then There Were Three

Back then, they didn’t have things like Wikipedia to tell you a band’s entire discography in a few seconds. Combine that with the fact that I was only 11 and my mind could only handle so much at a time, and you get a picture of why they’re pre-…And Then There Were Three days never registered. For a long time, my knowledge of Genesis was limited to what the record store had in stock, and I never had enough time or money to get to anything pre-1978. In fact, I bought a cassette copy of …And Then There Were Three and was so turned off by the dull and confusing cover that I only listened to it once.

By the time I was 14, my tastes had expanded to include R.E.M. and eventually Smashing Pumpkins, and I rocketed into the world of musical awareness from there. But even then, I never left my love of Genesis completely behind me. Even to this day, they’ve never stopped being one of my very favorite bands. It was quite fortunate that I discovered Genesis when I did, and also that I discovered them and not some other band. Thanks to my father’s genes, I find something I like and then sink into it as far as I can, and Genesis has an ocean of depth to sink into. I thought the water was pretty deep when I thought 5 albums was all the Genesis there was (Duke, Abacab, Genesis, Invisible Touch, and We Can’t Dance); little did I know that I was just splashing in the surf.

Merry Nuclear Apocalypse!

Hey folks. There won’t be a new AO post until Monday, as I’ll be stuffing my face with family tomorrow. Since Thanksgiving is the official signal to the start of the Christmas season, here’s Weird Al with a festive tune about the A-bomb. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Carl Jung

In the 1920s, psychologist Carl Jung coined the phrase “synchronicity,” to refer to two things which are causally unrelated but seem to be connected. The two things don’t have causality; one does not lead to the other, nor does the second happen because the first did before it. Yet even so, the two share a relationship that defies logic and is purely coincidental.

According to Jung, the synchronistic events must reveal a larger pattern or conceptual framework. We’ve all had the experience of a song coming on the radio that’s been stuck in our heads (or at least all of us old enough to know what a radio is…). The framework would be the genre of music that is both what we listen to and what the radio station normally plays. If the events don’t reveal a framework, they’re merely random and don’t really have any relationship, not even a synchronistic one.

So what’s the most banal, idiotic and inconsequential way to test the concept of synchronicity?

… … … I’m thinking… … …

I’ve got it! How about we play the movie The Wizard of Oz, put it on mute, and use Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a soundtrack?

I kid; I’m not the first person to think of this. It’s not certain how it actually came about, but it can be traced back to a group on Usenet, in the toddler days of the internet. Later, a DJ in Boston brought it to big attention in 1997, even prompting a segment on MTV News. But the biggest culprit of the suggestion of synchronicity between The Wizard of Oz and The Dark Side of the Moon (commonly called Dark Side of the Rainbow) is drugs – lots and lots of drugs. Legitimate as it may seem, Dark Side of the Rainbow is merely the product of music geeks without a job (like me…) sitting around with nothing to do and being hopelessly stoned. How else do you explain the shotgun wedding of two pieces of media separated by 34 years?

Throw into the mix the idea of confirmation bias and you’ve got yourself a stew. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to interpret new information in a way that supports a preconceived notion. Examples would be citing the exact position of the Earth (any closer to the sun and we would burn up, any further and we would freeze) as evidence for creationism, or citing tsunamis and other things that senselessly take life as evidence for the non-existence of God. It also comes in the form of finding patterns where they may or may not exist, like in Dark Side of the Rainbow.

Unbelievably, this idea has been kept alive for almost 20 years. So like a good musical scholar and a curious critical thinker, I tested it out myself. I initially tried to do it old school – I borrowed a DVD copy of The Wizard of Oz from our local library, plugged in a boombox, and played my CD copy of Dark Side. Technological difficulties (like our near-broken DVD player that lets no disc play unmolested) prevented me from getting very far, but my frustrations were soothed by the glories of the Interwebs. One search on YouTube led me to a video of the whole thing, and I didn’t even have to worry about synching the CD with the movie.

I’ll admit there were a few things I couldn’t explain, but they fell under the category of “that’s pretty cool” instead of “THIS MEANS SOMETHING!!! THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!” About 4 minutes into the film, Dorothy is balancing on a fence while David Gilmour is singing “balanced on the biggest wave” in “Breathe.” A little later, the clocks all start sounding off in “Time” at the exact moment Miss Gulch appears on her bicycle. The musical timbre of “The Great Gig In the Sky” shifts from loud to soft at the moment Dorothy hits her head and passes out on her bed during the tornado; however, there’s nothing during the song’s previous timbre shift from soft to loud. The Wicked Witch of the West makes her first appearance right when David Gilmour is singing “black” during “Us and Them”; she’s wearing black robes. The exact beginning of “Any Colour You Like” comes at a scene change – Dorothy is faced with a divergence in the path of the Yellow Brick Road, one where she could choose any path she likes. The Scarecrow begins dancing uncontrollably to “If I Only Had a Brain” during “Brain Damage.” And perhaps most eerily, the changeover in the film from sepia tones to full color comes at the exact moment of the vinyl flip and the beginning of “Money.”

But do these things suggest actual synchronicity? Not according to the classical definition of the term. If you suggested to Carl Jung that his beloved theory of synchronicity applied to The Wizard of Oz and The Dark Side of the Moon, he would at best laugh derisively and at worst smack you upside the head. That is, if he had actually survived long enough to have a clue what Dark Side was; he died in 1961.

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory calls things which seem legitimate but have no scientific basis “hokum.” Dark Side of the Rainbow is hokum. I’m astounded that this ridiculous idea has survived for more than 30 years. I’m even more astounded that I had a hand in its survival; in fact, I’m having a hand right now by talking about it. So in the interest of not beating a dead horse, I’m gonna move on.

Next: how does Genesis top “Supper’s Ready?”

The Quarrymen (later The Beatles), with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best

Pink Floyd didn’t start with The Dark Side of the Moon. Their beginnings actually date back to the early 60s, right around when the Beatles hit the scene. After the Fab Four, every punk kid with a guitar and a chip on his shoulder thought he could have a band. One of the biggest effects the Beatles had on the music scene was opening up the floodgates of possibility; if these four hoodrats from Liverpool could make it big in the music biz, anyone could.

The band that would become Pink Floyd started as just another group of teenagers with dreams of stardom. The group initially orbited around the nucleus of Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. Other people circulated through, but they found their direction when Syd Barrett randomly introduced himself to Mason.

The newly gelled four-piece band went through a great many name changes (some of them pretty ridiculous – my favorites are the Meggadeaths and the Screaming Abdabs) before finally settling on the Tea Set. In 1965 at one of their gigs, there was another band named the Tea Set on the bill, so Syd made up another name on the spot. It was derived from two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. And like that, Pink Floyd was born.

Syd Barrett

In 1967 Pink Floyd’s debut album came out, whimsically titled The Piper At the Gates of Dawn. Syd had taken the role of band leader, a natural position being the lead singer and guitarist, as well as a very out-going personality. But soon thereafter, Syd started to unravel. There are many theories about what was actually wrong with him; some say schizophrenia (a rather easy answer), others say bipolar disorder, and still others Asperger’s. Psychology has developed to 3,000% what it was in the late 60s, though, so they didn’t have language like that back then. But perhaps the biggest contributor to Syd’s insanity was LSD. The drug was extremely poorly understood back then, as were its long-term effects.

Various biographies have been written about both Syd and Pink Floyd, and the stories about Syd’s behavior seem like they can’t be real. “Antics” seems like too mild a word to describe some of the crap he did. Nevertheless, his “antics” proved too much for the band. Roger Waters relates one story of Syd coming into a practice session with a song he had just written called “Have You Got It Yet?” They tried playing it, but in the middle of the first run-thru, Syd made changes to the arrangement. That pattern repeated for long time, each time the band singing the lyric “have you got it yet?” The band eventually realized that they never would “get it,” and that they were instead the victims of a very strange joke Syd was playing.

David Gilmour

Enter David Gilmour. He was a childhood friend of Syd’s, and in 1967 the other three brought him in as a second guitarist. His real purpose was to provide reliable guitar. During shows, Syd often stood there doing absolutely nothing, or he wandered around the stage aimlessly while the rest of the band played. Occasionally, he would join in the song, but there was no way for them to predict what Syd would do. They needed Gilmour to add some surety.

On their way to one gig, the four completely sane members said to each other, “Shall we pick Syd up?” The response was, “Let’s not bother.” It was just easier as a four-piece than a five, or rather a four+crazy.

Syd’s genius, disintegration and departure from the band had a lasting impact on the rest of Pink Floyd’s career. Roger Waters, who became the Floyd’s primary songwriter after Syd’s ousting, spent over a decade contemplating the nature of madness, writing music that had it as its centerpiece. Not only is The Dark Side of the Moon solely about things that drive people to madness, but Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall is a rock opera about one man’s descent into the depths of insanity, brought on by rock and roll stardom.

“Brian Damage” from Dark Side is like the whole of Pink Floyd’s career in miniature. It could be said that all the entire Dark Side album could be summed with this one song. In it, Roger Waters is talking specifically about Syd Barrett, but the application to more general terms of madness is clearer than on any other song. When Roger sings, “the lunatic is on the grass,” he’s singing about Syd. But it’s more than just simple symbolic representation; Roger shares some of the idiosyncratic methods of Syd’s logic, or lack thereof. It’s clear from “Brain Damage” and other songs (as well as the very existence of The Wall) that Roger and Syd shared a sort of kinship – not just musically, but mentally.

Roger Waters

Roger spotted something that’s kinda been gnawing at me, too. Maybe Syd wasn’t really crazy – maybe the rest of us are. The sign says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, but why? What possible consequence could come from stepping on the grass? Isn’t grass meant to be stepped on? Isn’t that its purpose? Yet any logical and “sane” person would obey the sign and keep off the grass. But, according to Roger Waters, “the lunatic” wouldn’t. “The lunatic is ON the grass.” And if Syd were still alive, he’d be one of those “lunatics.” That’s the spirit of punk rock – the spirit of defiance.

I’ve already stated that in order for defiance against something to be good, the something needs to be bad. Grass doesn’t really qualify. But for other things, rock and roll has the right idea. In some cases, defiance is the holiest and most righteous thing you can do.

Next: Dark Side, The Wizard of Oz, and synchronicity.

While I first heard about Pink Floyd from Tanya and the youth group when I was single-digit age, my first real experience with The Dark Side of the Moon came from my friend Joe, when we were in high school. Joe’s dad is a musician, so his tastes became even more eclectic as he grew up.  I tried to get him into Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. in high school (in the interest of his own enlightenment, of course…), but his interests drifted more towards Steve Taylor and Carman, but also Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, but also classical mad scientists like MussorgskyDvořák and Grieg.

As you can see, Joe isn’t one to tow any party line unless he actually believes in it (he’s a staunch Republican and a fervent 5-point Calvinist, for instance). He likes what he likes and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and I admire that. Probably through my prompting, he did eventually come to appreciate Smashing Pumpkins, but he came to it on his own terms and only after I had stopped pestering him. More than anyone else I know, his musical tastes are his tastes, and no one else’s.

Joe may not always know a good thing when he sees it, but he zeroed in on Pink Floyd a lot sooner than I did. I remember he had discovered the Floyd in his dad’s record collection, and like a typical teenager, thought everyone needed to know about this incredible thing he had been the first to unearth. “Neal, you HAVE to hear this! It’s amazing!” The first song he played for me was “Us and Them,” his favorite song. I was extremely unimpressed.

If you know the song, you might think it’s not the best introduction into the world of Pink Floyd. It’s like saying, “Never read Shakespeare? Try Cymbeline.” The reason it’s little less relatable than other Pink Floyd songs is an issue of space. “Us and Them” takes up a lot of space. By that I don’t mean length, though it is almost 8 minutes long, the longest on Dark Side.

“Us and Them” is slower than a lot of other songs, even others by Pink Floyd. But it also has long distances between chord changes. Whereas a normal rock and roll song would take 2 measures to make a chord change, an “Us and Them”-type song would take 4 (or maybe 8). It’s quiet and subdued for all of it except the chorus, which is grand and sweeping without being energetic. Energy has never been Pink Floyd’s strong suit, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’d do a lot better with Green Day or the Ramones.

Room to stretch out is one of the things Pink Floyd does particularly well. Allowing a song the space to move at its own pace and not hurrying through it takes a skilled artist. Don’t get me wrong; hurrying through has its place. In fact, there’s an entire genre of rock music dedicated to hurrying through – it’s called punk. But Pink Floyd takes a completely different approach, one of taking their sweet time to bring a song to full closure. “Us and Them” is almost like a jazz song; all the musicians work within a general framework of D-B-A-B-D, and in the long pauses between those changes, they’re free to do what they wish.

While “Us and Them” took me a while to really sink in (a few years…), Joe keyed into it very quickly. I’ll admit that some of my hesitancy towards the song (and Pink Floyd in general) was because the suggestion came from Joe. Growing up, Joe and I had a very adversarial relationship – each of us was always trying to convince the other that what we liked, what we did, or what he thought was better than what the other liked/did/thought. Smooth peanut butter vs. chunky, chunky applesauce vs. smooth.

But as we developed into men, our opposition to each other gradually became a healthy iron-sharpens-iron. While I still find frustration in Joe’s opposition, I also find comfort. It lets me know that the world doesn’t end with me and my opinions; there are more things in this world than are dreamed about in my meager imagination. Most of all, though, I’ve come to respect Joe’s unflinching devotion to his own preferences. You can tell him up the Wazoo that something is lame, but you can’t tell him he shouldn’t like it if he does.

And with “Us and Them,” Joe found something that I didn’t, or at least not right away. I’ll happily concede that when it comes to Pink Floyd, he was right and I was wrong.

Filthy Lucre

Pink Floyd’s journey through madness takes us to a brief segue from the end of “Time” (which is actually “Breathe (Reprise)”) into a gentle piano, the intro to “The Great Gig In the Sky.” Over the piano is laid a snippet from one of the interviews Roger Waters did during the album’s production. It speaks of how you shouldn’t be frightened of dying, and “any time will do.” These wise words come from Gerry O’Driscoll, the Abbey Road Studios janitor.

The only vocals on the whole track (other than the interview snippets) are those of Clare Torry, a vocalist that engineer Alan Parsons suggested. Clare wasn’t enthusiastic about it, since she was not a fan of Pink Floyd. It didn’t really get better for her when she agreed to come to the studio, as the members of Pink Floyd didn’t really give her anything to do; they themselves didn’t even know what they wanted. So she just said to herself, “Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument.” She did two and a half takes, stopping in the middle of the third because she felt it wasn’t working and that she was repeating herself. But while she was losing confidence in herself, the members of Floyd and the production team were simply blown away. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the album, and even to this day her performance is amazing.

Despite the absence of lyrics, “The Great Gig In the Sky” deals with death and mortality. Death is scary at first, but so much of its bluster and noise is man-made. Something’s only scary if someone’s scared of it. Like “On the Run,” “Great Gig” shouldn’t be strictly thought of as a song, but a wordless piece of art that evokes a feeling without spelling it out for you. There’s a pigeonholing of music that says that only the words of a song can be about something. That’s an extremely limited way of thinking, and The Dark Side of the Moon proves that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The vinyl flip brings more sound effects, these ones from an old-style cash register. The song “Money” is a crunchy, groovy piece of rock in the novel 7/8 time signature. The odd time puts the listener a little off balance, particularly because “Money” is plodding and a little machine-like. When the guitar solo comes, though, it switches to 4/4 in order to make guitarist David Gilmour’s life easier.

The lyrics talk about the excesses money can bring, but more poignantly about selfishness. “Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.” They also make a rather infuriating mistake with the line, “Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.”

Money is not the root of all evil. There is a great misconception out there that somehow the cause of all our problems is money, but that’s just not the case. Never mind that it’s ridiculous to focus on the badness of money and forget things like power, sex and self-gratification. It’s also ridiculous to say that an inanimate object could be the source of an exclusively human problem. No, the reason horrible things are done in the name of makin’ that dollar is not money itself; it’s us.

Jesus didn’t say money was the root of all evil, but a great many people think he did. In fact, one of the only things Jesus had to say about the subject was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s,” which basically means stop whining, pay your taxes, and get back to doing God’s work. The “root of all evil” thing is actually from the Bible, but not only doesn’t Jesus say it (Paul does), but instead of money, it’s love of money. The Bible talks a lot about splitting your loyalties and how you shouldn’t do it. You can’t serve two masters because you’ll hate one and love the other, and that includes money.

Pink Floyd has a similarly cautious approach to money here, not wanting to delve into the excesses that commonly follow success. Money can quickly become an obsession, and that leads to paranoia and madness, which is Floyd’s central theme on Dark Side. But it’s ironic that “Money,” a song that speaks very jadedly about monetary success, was Pink Floyd’s breakout hit and their first taste of the very thing “Money” cautions against. And with the Floyd’s next album, Wish You Were Here, they lament about the hole that money and “Money” got them into. And they didn’t really get themselves out of it until 20 years later with their final album, The Division Bell.

Next: “Us and Them” and the balance between the ugly and the beautiful.