Tag Archive: Rock and Roll


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.

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God, religion and spirituality in all their piety seem very far away from where the Rolling Stones are, but are they really? The church and rock and roll are actually more married than one might think. After all, the church is a place for sinners, broken and fractured people with problems, hang-ups and unanswerable questions. The church is no place for folks who have got it all figured out, much as it may seem like a collection of sanctimonious, self-righteous prigs, or too holy for someone who’s screwed up as badly as you have. Just the opposite. Jesus came to perfect the imperfect, not save those who were already saved.

Rock and roll, in the same fashion, is a forum for people to share and commiserate with – and sometimes enjoy – their problems. It points out what’s wrong and says, “let’s fix this,” and also what’s right and says, “isn’t this great?”

Christianity has produced some great music over time. Indeed, it was some Catholic monks who first thought up the idea of writing music down and came up with a language to do so. In more modern times, black churches used their culture, heritage and personality to develop a form of worshiping God in song, and it was called gospel music. The most prominent feature of gospel is the sense of laying it all down and being completely sold out for God. It’s been regurgitated by thousands of white musicians, including the Rolling Stones on Exile. They too use their personality to present it in a true Stones fashion in a completely authentic way.

“Tumbling Dice” is a prototypical slice of gospel-tinged blues-rock, and using gambling and dice games to illustrate the desire for freedom from commitments, particularly troubles concerning women.  It features a background chorus of female singers who inject the song with heart and soul, and a lilting guitar part that sways smoothly with incredible flow. It doesn’t rock as hard as some other songs on Exile, but it stands up better for that sense of head-nodding, foot-tapping joy that gospel owns for all its own.

“Loving Cup” is another gospel-tinged song, this time utilizing the spirituality and inherent holiness of the piano. Long-time Stones session pianist Nicky Hopkins shows brilliance here, giving the Stones that extra push they needed to rocket off into musical ecstasy. “Loving Cup” is a desperate love song, beautiful and extremely poetic in its discourse about how much the narrator loves and depends on his subject. It reminds me of “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin in its honesty and grace, but has the added element of the music supporting the lyrical theme in a greater way. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Stones love song without a sexual reference or two. “I’d love to spill the beans with you ‘til dawn.” I see what ya did there…

On the second side, things slow down a bit after the frenetic pace of “Happy” and “Turd On the Run” and the danger of “Ventilator Blues.” That lowering pace comes first in the form of “I Just Want to See His Face.” The feel of this song is completely one of a gospel jam, people sitting around with instruments and not knowing where this will go or when it will end. Sometimes that produces the most soulful and spiritual music. “Face,” though, sounds sloppy and directionless, like the spirit is simply not with them. It could be due to the production, which makes you think you’re hearing what’s going on one floor above you. You’re not part of it, not down in the musicians pit with everyone else. As a result, you don’t feel the same “holy ghost power” that the musicians probably do.

Things get even slower with “Let It Loose,” which ends the third side of the record on a very soulful note, if very long in the tooth. The song is over 5 minutes long, the longest on the entire record. It also takes quite some time to really get going, and the good parts don’t last long enough. It makes the experience pretty boring; soulful, but boring.

Near the end of the record, however, is the penultimate statement of spiritual good will, “Shine a Light.” This song is a show-stopper, fantastically epic and emotional. That same chorus of female singers does wonders, as they inject attitude and authenticity to what’s really a white English boy trying to be a Macon, GA gospel preacher. Mick Jagger, for his part, acquits himself with remarkable aplomb, selling completely out to his role as the rock and roll saver of souls. He hoots and hollers like a Pentecostal church member , punctuating his singing style with impassioned cries of joy.

I can visually imagine “Shine a Light” in no other way than a southern Baptist church with a big stained glass window, a choir in robes of white, maroon and gold, the congregation on their feet and dancing despite the 100 degree heat, and Mick in a black pastoral robe losing control of his voice and his limbs.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Exile On Main St. is the last great album the Rolling Stones ever made. After that came Goats Head Soup, and that began a downward slope that took almost 20 years to break out of, punctuated by a bright spot or two (Some Girls wasn’t that bad). But suffice to say, after Exile, they started being a parody of rock and roll and eventually were a parody of themselves. They exist now as a reminder of a past age, inspiration for all the aged rockers to pick up their guitars again, and the most arthritic band still making music. I guess that’s pretty good.

No matter the different areas they wander into, the Rolling Stones will always be a rock and roll band. As the decades march on, the Stones have become even more of a bastion of rock. Their records get progressively more rock and blues oriented, and have a simpler structure with each one. Their live show is centered on the resurrection of rock and roll. Their like Christian fundamentalists in that regard; while the rest of the world is evolving, they’re holding on to the past with an iron grip.

The past can be a glorious thing. There’s so much rich history from which the Rolling Stones can draw, and there has been for a long time. That’s one of the central ideas Brian Jones had when he formed the group: covering old blues tunes. As far as Jones was concerned, the Rolling Stones were supposed to be a cover band. I wonder what he would think of the band nowadays if he weren’t pushing up daisies.

Just like they never lost that rock and roll centering, they also have never stopped looking to the past for inspiration. That’s all over Exile On Main St. They don’t just look to the blues masters like Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo, but they’re also drawing in soul, funk, R&B, and a healthy dose of gospel music.

Some Girls

Using forms of music other than blues and rock is nothing new to the Stones (“Dead Flowers,” “Factory Girl”), but Exile is set apart from other Stones records is that it never sounds as authentic or heartfelt; not even close. For you Stones aficionados, take a second and compare “Torn and Frayed” to “Far Away Eyes” from Some Girls. One uses country music to create a sense of empathy, emotionalism at its best, and the other is a parody of country music, pointing out its most ridiculous aspects. You might not even notice “Torn and Frayed” is in the country vein because of its exposed-nerve rawness; “Far Away Eyes” is just silly.

But rock and roll is their forte, and they prove it on Exile. The albums starts of with a dirty “oh yeah!” that is only an indication of the entire album. “Rocks Off,” for all its fun and abandon, has harrowing lyrics. The Stones were very aware that they were doing a lot of drugs. In “Rocks Off,” lyricist Keith is talking in very candid terms about the exact cost of the drugs he’s taking. By his own admission, they leave him “splattered on a dirty road.”

“Rocks Off” also features a brass section. This is something that is all over Exile. Sticky Fingers started the trend, “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” both having saxophone solos and “Bitch” using brass right up front to play the main riff. But on Exile, over half of the songs feature some brass instrument. It worked beautifully for them on Sticky Fingers so there’s no reason to think it won’t have excellent results on their next album. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Speaking of sax solos, “Rip This Joint” has a blazing one. Everything else about this song is blazing, as well. It wins the award for Fastest Tempo of any Stones song, before or after. It’s like a Route 66 trip through America, but that of an illegal immigrant being hunted down by customs.

Slim Harpo

The most recent Stones albums have shifted down to slower gears by the 2nd or 3rd track (“Love In Vain,” “Wild Horses,” “No Expectations”), but Exile just barrels on. The 3rd track here is “Shake Your Hips,” originally done by Slim Harpo. The Slim version drips with sexuality, hinting at naughtiness but still with a sense of fun. When put in the hands of Mick Jagger, though, it’s all naughtiness. I imagine Mick’s serpentine movements and effortless groove, and I almost think he’s singing this song to himself. “Shake Your Hips” has gobs of danger and sin to it, something I think Mr. Harpo would have approved of.

Things finally take a downturn tempo-wise, but “Casino Boogie” is no lilting, sentimental ballad. It has a certain singability, encouraged by the drunken sway of the music, even though I still don’t know what the words are; Mick and Keith, as they sometimes do, seem more interested in the way words sound than the actual words. And it is actually a boogie, in the classical, music theory definition of the word. I always thought “boogie” just meant a general style of blues-type music, but there’s actually a technical, objective definition. My 3 semesters of Music Theory in college didn’t teach me that, either; I learned it from Wikipedia.

Exile is a double album, despite that it fits on one CD and is sold as such. If you first experienced it on CD, as I did, it seemed weird that it had 18 songs when every other Stones album has at most 13; most merely 9 or 10. The fact that it’s really 9 and 9, rather than 18, was a well-kept secret from the younger generation – or at least from me, anyway.

Next: Person Who Applies Suction Over the Male Appendage… Blues

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.