Tag Archive: blues


Whip It Out

There’s a hidden gem right in the middle of Toys In the Attic, one that’s completely forgotten amidst Aerosmith’s bevy of more famous songs. In the face of “Sweet Emotion,” “Love In an Elevator,” “Cryin’,” “Amazing” and “Train Kept a Rollin’,” a short cover song that was never released as a single must seem very, very small. But besides the fact that I have a slight weakness for underdogs, “Big Ten Inch Record” captures in perfectly crystallized form one of the things I love the most about Aerosmith: the astronomically witty way they talk about sex.

“Big Ten Inch Record” was written by Fred Weismantel, someone for whom a quick Google search turned up very little. As far as I can tell, he wrote many songs back in the early ‘50s, none of which made waves. “Big Ten Inch Record” was first recorded by Bull Moose Jackson in 1952, and was popular but too risqué for radio (nowadays, Radio Disney might think it was kinda tame).

Bull Moose Jackson

Bull Moose Jackson

Zunk Buker, Steven Tyler’s friend and drug dealer, heard the song on the Dr. Demento show and sent a copy to the band. They recorded it mostly straight up, put it on Toys In the Attic, and then kinda forgot about it. I don’t think it was played live very much after the ’75 tour.

In the ancient times of yore when music was played on something called (air quotes) VINYL – oooooooh! – records came in three varieties: 12” LPs, 10” EPs, and 7” singles. “Big Ten Inch Record” is a simple jump blues number about how the singer has a 10” record from a blues band that his girlfriend simply can’t resist. There is a double entendre here, though, and it becomes abundantly clear after the first verse-chorus cycle. You’d have to be thick as block of lead to not get what is really being said.

Got me the strangest woman / Believe me, this chick’s no cinch / But I really get her goin’ / when I get out my big ten inch / …record of a band that plays the blues/ Of a band that plays the blues/ She just loves my big ten inch / …record of her favorite blues

Y’know, I was considering explaining the double entendre in simple and clinical terms, but I think I should have a little faith in my audience’s intelligence and instead employ an old phrase about blues music: if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

Aerosmith’s version drives the point home ever-so-slightly more. It still has that little pause between every instance of “big ten inch” and “record.” It’s amazing what a pause can do (“She’s beautiful! She’s rich! She’s got huge… tracts of land!”). But Steven Tyler changes the lyrics just a tad; every time Bull Moose says “get out my/your big ten inch,” Steven says “whip out my/your big ten inch.” “Whip it out” has a slightly narrower application, and is usually used when talking about a single thing. Again, if you have to ask…

This is a great song because it has a wink. Every time the singer says “big ten inch” and pauses, you can just imagine that he’s smiling and winking at you, as if to say “yeah, you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” This type of discourse about sex, naughtiness and body parts is SO much better than the obvious and crude words of modern music artists, and also comedians. Innuendo and implication make the listener work for it, and that brings them into the comedy. They’re participants in it, not just spectators.

I don’t know about you, but I far prefer Steven Tyler beckoning me into bawdiness rather than Snoop Dogg or Wiz Khalifa throwing it right in my face, trying to break my nose with it. At the very least, it makes me exercise my mind rather than just being entertained.

Next: Toys In the Attic vs. Rocks – DEATHMATCH!!!

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Formulas

Led Zeppelin III

With I and II, Led Zeppelin were taking a well-established formula (the blues) and transforming it into something new. Songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “The Lemon Song” have roots in American blues, but they’re nigh unrecognizable after Led Zep got a hold of them. With III, they started taking a different formula and morphing it, though it’s not as well-established; that formula is Led Zeppelin itself.

It might be the reason III wasn’t well-received when it first came out. They had carved out a niche for themselves with the first 2 albums, but they shifted directions a little too swiftly; there’s less than two years between I and III. Maybe that blues-update thing had gotten boring for them. It must have still held some appeal since there are awesome songs like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Hey Hey What Can I Do.” But change was happening, marked by the presence of “Tangerine” and “Gallows Pole” which had a folk and country vibe to them. Led Zeppelin was playing around with the very definition of itself.

Even so, it’s weird to me. I’ve seen other bands do similar things, and much more radical than that. No one was expecting Smashing Pumpkins to follow the gigantic smash hit of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness with the morose and techno-ish Adore. Bruce Springsteen suddenly changed gears for an album and turned into a mellow singer-songwriter with Nebraska. And I hear Muse is going from Queen impersonators to dubstep. So what’s the big deal?

Detractors of Led Zeppelin’s evolution might have been many for III, but they all changed their tunes when IV hit the streets. Every critic you turned to had nothing but praises for Led Zep after that. All they had to do was not put their name on an album.

I’m just being cynical, a rare thing for me. I think what truly made IV receive critical acclaim is that it was good, really good. In my opinion, there are only 2 albums better than this one. I’ll cover them when I get to them in history.

IV starts out on an intense note with “Black Dog,” a full-on metal stomper. Some of Led Zep’s stuff has deep meanings or esoteric references, but some of it is just “let’s-do-it-in-the-bath” material. The lyrics to “Black Dog” don’t have much behind them other that desperate sexual desire and king-sized libido. The music, however, is incredibly interesting/frustrating. John Paul Jones, who wrote the main riff, wanted something you couldn’t dance to. That’s pretty easy to do, but what’s not easy is not having it be craptastically awful. “Black Dog” has ringing success on both counts. It has an unresolved quality, which always keeps you a little off-balance. I still don’t know what the rhythm is supposed to be. Every time I listen to it I’m aware that I’ve almost got it figured out. I know, I know, something about horseshoes and hand grenades…

“Rock and Roll” continues the force and intensity that “Black Dog” hinted at, but ups it by a factor of 10. And as much as John Paul Jones didn’t want you to be able to groove to “Black Dog,” the groove on “Rock and Roll” is undeniable. Your great-grandmother will be banging her head in her grave, if you play it loud enough. The musical pattern is nothing more complicated or less effective than a simple blues: I-I-IV-I and then V-IV-I-I. Lather, rinse, repeat.

While I think “Rock and Roll” is one of the best songs ever recorded, it really points to the fact that the blues is one of the best musical forms ever created. But more than that, it’s a token of that incredible talent Led Zeppelin had, to take something already existing and reformulate it into a completely new thing. That new thing Led Zeppelin created is something rock bands have consistently been trying to copy since then, and they’ve had little success. Success is not the point, though; it’s pretty fun just trying.

After that, it slows down and takes a turn for the strange and uncharted. I’m not even sure of where to begin with “The Battle of Evermore.” The first adjective that pops to mind is “Beowulfish,” which isn’t even a real word. It calls to mind a land so wild and ancient it doesn’t even seem like Earth.

Besides the Saxon/Celtic vibe, there are several notable firsts documented on “Battle.” It marks the first time Led Zep have had a guest vocalist. This honor belongs to Sandy Denny, singer for the folk outfit Fairport Convention. She got her own symbol on the album, much like the symbols for the other four. It also features Jimmy Page’s first time ever picking up a mandolin. He simply got curious about the mandolin John Paul Jones owned, started messing around with it, and recorded the instrumental track for “Battle” that day. Robert Plant then added his own contributions with the lyrics, which he recorded in two takes.

The lyrics are said to contain at least 4 references to Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, including “Dark Lord” and “Ringwraiths.” It also speaks of Avalon, the Queen of Light (possibly Galadriel) and the Prince of Peace (possibly Aragorn, but more likely Jesus Christ).

Next up: the second side of IV and the descent of Led Zeppelin.

Eric & Duane

August 26th, 1970. Producer Tom Dowd was in Criteria Studios in Miami, doing a record for Eric Clapton’s new band, something Eric formed out of the ashes of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. He had gotten together with D&B keyboardist Bobby Whitlock for some easy jamming over brews and joints, and they had been quickly joined by Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, D&B’s rhythm section. Dubbed Derek & the Dominos, Tom was recruited to man the boards for them after his success recording Idlewild South for the Allman Brothers Band.

That prodigious August afternoon, Tom received a call from Duane Allman, the Skydog himself, letting him know that the Allman Brothers Band would be in Miami playing a benefit concert that night. When Eric found out, he wanted to go.

“You mean that guy who plays on the back of ‘Hey Jude’?” (Wilson Pickett’s, not the Beatles’) “…I want to see him play… let’s go.”

The bunch of them went to the Allmans show that night, and managed to score seats in front of the front row barricade. When the Dominos came in, Skydog was playing a solo, eyes closed and lost in the glory of the blues. When Duane opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, a famous name and godlike presence in the guitar world. And he was staring right at him. Duane froze. Luckily, the Allmans’ other lead guitarist Dickey Betts was right there to pick it up, but when Dickey followed Duane’s gaze to see what he was gaping at, he had to turn away to keep from freezing himself.

Clapton and Allman were two guitar Supermen, transcendent beings Nietzsche would have been proud of. If they had been different people with bigger egos, I think all of Miami would have sunk into the sea with the weight of their posturing, not to mention their talent. But that wasn’t how it went down. Instead, they each had an admiration and giddy excitement at seeing the other one play. Instead of arching their backs and showing their fangs, they both said “oh man, it’s Eric Clapton!” or “I can’t believe this… it’s Duane Allman!”

Slowhand and Skydog met after the show, talked some shop, and Duane said he’d love to come by the studio to check out what they were doing. Eric excitedly said, “Bring your guitar! You gotta play!” And like that, a musical brotherhood was born. Duane became an official member of Derek & the Dominos, and the two were inseparable for the entire recording of Layla. They talked shop, swapped guitars, and showed each other techniques. But the best thing was that they traded licks, calling and answering with their guitars in a fantastic partnership; and it’s all caught on tape for the generations to enjoy and learn from. Pay attention, you blooming guitarists; this is how it’s done.

“Key to the Highway,” the last track on the first half of this double album, contains the glory, beauty and excellent freedom of blues music in its Platonic form. Blues is all about having a basic progression that’s repeated, and improvising over it to creating a unique sound and musical experience not just with each song, but with each repeat of the form of a song. “Key to the Highway” is only 8 measures played over and over again. Yet no set of eight measures is the same because of the splendid element of the guitarists having no idea where they’re going, what comes next, or where it will end. They only know that when the 8 measures are up, the song will start over again, and so can they.

The recording of it came by happy accident. 60s camp artist Sam the Sham was recording “Key to the Highway” in the studio room next door for his album Hard and Heavy. The band recognized it (it’s an old blues standard first recorded by Charles Seger in 1940), and they just started playing it improv-style. After they got going, Tom Dowd started recording. The jam apparently goes on for about 15 minutes before what’s on the album actually starts.

I can imagine “Key to the Highway” going on forever; no beginning, no end. The musicians never tire, never sweat, never get bored or let their minds wander. It’s a picture of heaven for me. I’ve heard lots of things from lots of people about heaven, but my  mom’s description is the one that sticks with me. She says heaven will be all God’s children singing endless praise to him, ceaselessly giving him the glory due his name in a progression that never stops. To complete that picture, I use “Key to the Highway.” When we get to heaven, we will never get tired of playing those 8 measures.

Love Story

From the first time a caveman scratched a burnt stick on a wall, art has been made about a few basic subjects. The struggle for survival (man vs. nature) is a popular theme, as is the creation of the universe. It may have taken a little time to develop, but a motif that’s even stronger and more prevalent, I think, is the classic quest of a lover to win their love. That’s a story that’s been told literally millions of times, and that’s for two reasons. The first is that it’s applicable to nearly everyone. No one doesn’t know the pain, yearning and joy of striving for something of highest value. The second is that it can be told an infinite number of ways. The star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet), the love triangle (Nikolai, Sonya and Marya in War and Peace), the unrequited obsession (Eponine in Les Miserables), the rescue (Superman), the stalker (Erik in Phantom of the Opera), or the woman worth going to war over (The Iliad).

Stories are always more compelling if they really happened. Movies bandy about the term “based on true events” even if the movie shares only the most extremely tangential relation to the facts. It’s because there’s something that automatically ups the drama if there’s a hint of it being reality.

George Harrison & Pattie Boyd, 1969

Cut to 1970 Britain. George Harrison is in wedded bliss with his beautiful bride of 3 years, Pattie Boyd. The “bliss,” however, is a fiction; as George’s interest in Eastern religion is growing, so is the rift between him and his wife. George is quickly becoming distant and strange, morphing into someone Pattie never would have married. But she remains committed to him, and despite the rift, there is still much love between the two. There some rather beautiful moments, not the least of which is the recording of “For You Blue,” a no-brainer blues number that George wrote quickly that illustrates nothing more complicated or less marvelous than a man’s adoring love for his wife.

Parallel to that is the story of Eric Clapton. During the mid to late 60s, he had scaled the heights of stardom almost as high as George and the other Beatles, first gaining notoriety with the Yardbirds, and really showing the world what he could do as one third of Cream. Being already on the mountaintop, George naturally befriended Eric when he reached that high. Eric played lead guitar on the Beatles track “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 1968, they worked together to pen the Cream track “Badge” in 1969, and Eric and George became the best of friends.

Eric Clapton, 1970

What makes this story 50x more compelling than that is Pattie. To use a somewhat antiquated phrase, Pattie was a knockout. Her profession, other than Beatlewife, was as a model. Eric met George and became attached to him, but not nearly as much as to Pattie. For certain people, forbidden fruit is much more appetizing, increased by the severity of the forbidding. Call it cliché, but there’s little more forbidden than another man’s wife. The cliché holds true for Eric and Pattie. He was crazy about her.

Eric was feeling the tension between desire that drives you bonkers and loyalty that doesn’t budge. His reaction to the war inside his head and heart was one of the worst things you can do in this situation, or any. Heroin fixes things temporarily, but only makes them worse when the high wears off. Eric tried to distract himself from one woman who had control of his life by giving control to another. Which is worse? The pain of addiction, or the ache of a heart that breaks every day? Drugs or unrequited love?

It all sounds like something out of a drug store romance paperback, doesn’t it?

Eric was serving third mistress, as well; music. Unlike the other two, this one cradles you when you hurt, whispers in your ear when you’re trapped in silence, and always stands beside you when all your other mistresses are gone. Just as Eric used heroin to dull his pain, he channeled it into music. And the blues is a singularly awesome thing to channel that particular type of pain in to. Thus, in 1970, he delivered to the world Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs.

Duane Allman

After the bitter disintegration of Cream, Eric tried to capture lightning in a bottle with the supergroup Blind Faith. That band toppled over with the weight of its own stardom after one album, but Eric wasn’t ready to give up. He tried again by recruiting two old buddies who played for Delany & Bonnie and taking advantage of a chance crossing with Duane Allman, a rising star who played American yin to Clapton’s British yang. Duane had equal chops to Eric, and their different approaches to the six-string combined in a cosmic brilliance to create something that was so much more than the sum of its parts.

The final piece of the puzzle was the name of the group. They were originally called Eric and the Dynamos, but the announcer at their first public gig screwed it up by saying “Derek and the Dominos.” It turned out to be a happy accident, since Clapton had some misgivings about pasting his famous name to his new band. People might think it was another supergroup, and the problem with Blind Faith was that it withered under the hot sun of media focus. What better solution that the red herring of Derek? Done.

Their one contribution was Layla, and Clapton poured every ounce of pain, yearning, and hopeless angst into that one album. And let me tell you… it’s really something to behold.

Every Inch

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin’s first album carved out a name for them and let the world know that things would be different from here on out. Led Zeppelin was about taking blues music and giving it a hard, modern edge. Nearly every song takes a standard blues formula and spins it to a different angle so it’s almost unrecognizable. “Dazed and Confused” is a good example. It was technically released long before the Altamont Free Concert, largely agreed upon to be “the death of the 60s.” But it heralded changes in the sound, stability, and mindset of rock and roll. It was getting nastier, darker, and more sexual. Led Zeppelin and Beggars Banquet prepared people for it; II made it a reality.

I’ve heard II described as the template for heavy metal. Most metal artists at the birth of the genre looked at II and thought, “we’ll just do that.” In that way, all metal artists from Stryper to Mayhem, Twisted Sister to Slipknot, owe Led Zeppelin big time. Without them, there would be no heavy metal, and that’s just the truth.

Led Zeppelin - II - 10/22/1969

The opening guitar strain of “Whole Lotta Love” is, without a doubt, the heaviest thing the world had heard thus far. Every time I hear this track, it only takes a few seconds before it captures my attention and I think, “wow; this is some serious business.” As plodding and unmerciful as the guitar part is, the vocals are serpentine and smooth, a feat Robert Plant was the first to pull off in this setting. But beware, Plant isn’t a wilting flower or a lovesick puppy – he’s dangerous. Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I once heard Robert Plant say in an interview something to the effect of this song letting the world know that Led Zeppelin “possessed sex.” Each time I listen to this song, I get it. The music is very sexual, but not like a horny teenager. No, it’s more like an experienced womanizer, a lion who hunts prey. The lyrics appear innocent enough, but have an undercurrent of male libido that is almost overwhelming. “I’m gonna give you my love” could be taken at face value, but I think the listener is intended to take it one step further.

Let’s be blunt: every instance of the word “love” in this song could be replaced with “penis.” Near the end, Plant even modifies the lyric to “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love!” It would take football fields full of naivety to miss that meaning. I could do without Plant having an orgasm into the microphone half way into the song, though; it’s not very manly to finish early.

After that burst of aggressive male sexuality, things slow down for a moment with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The song has soft-on-the-verse, hard-on-the-chorus cycle; this is just one piece of II’s influence on not just heavy metal, but rock and roll in general. I think the concept is supposed to be the contrast between the extremes of hard and soft, like sleeping and waking. The verses are almost dreamlike, while the chorus is hard-driving and intense. Despite that, the melody in the chorus isn’t very compelling, and the verses aren’t formed enough. I understand that that’s the point of the song, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

“The Lemon Song,” on the other hand, really does. This song is full of sexual innuendo; Robert Plant saying “the way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right outta bed” is more deliciously bawdy than all the modern sitcoms, rap songs and stand-up comedians combined. Sexual humor is always funnier when it’s presented with a wink. “If you know what I mean…”

“The Lemon Song” is arguably Led Zep’s most blues-influenced song; that’s saying a lot for a band that makes its name on updating the blues for the changing times. It borrows from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, and John Paul Jones’ bass track has funkiness that simply defies his age. Best of all is Robert Plant’s splendid and perfectly timed delivery. I feel I would have a lot of people on my side if I said that Plant is the greatest lead singer of all time.

On Monday: Being a man is more than what’s between your legs.