Posts Tagged ‘“bob dylan”’

Today BBC 6 music is making a big fuss about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album because it was released exactly fifty years ago. Well, how astounding. What a perfect opportunity to celebrate a seminal work of popular culture, apart from the fact that Brian Wilson’s alleged masterwork sounds exactly the same as it did in 2015. And I can assure you that next year the notes will all still be in the same place.

The rock industry, like all aspects of mass-market culture – including books, films and wars – now relies almost exclusively on anniversaries to flog its wares to us.

The Beatles industry similarly kicks up a fuss about Sgt Pepper every ten years, provoking a frenzy of fake nostalgia for the ‘summer of love’ as if the whole nation was floating around on acid in 1967. Sure, the album was a hit but middle-of-the-road crooner Jim Reeves actually sold more records that year. The truth is that these albums accrue cultural value gradually, rather than landing like cultural meteorites.

A while back Iggy Pop re-released the Raw Power album (remastered and fucked-about-with no doubt) to celebrate the fact that it was forty years old, as if its original release had been some kind of great cultural moment – far from it, The Stooges were virtually unknown during their early career and Raw Power was one of a clutch of recordings that existed virtually underground, gaining a reputation over time.

All this wayward historiography would not be such a bad thing if it didn’t grab all the attention that could be available to current musicians.

These days it’s not uncommon to walk past a rack of music magazines in the supermarket and see a line of exclusively dead faces pouting at you. How depressing that pop journalists, lovers of an art form that can embody the present-day zeitgeist like no other should find themselves writing for what are essentially history magazines.

David Hepworth, the ex-Whistle Test anchorman, embodies this tendency of backward looking rock journalism. He has just published 1971- Never a Dull Moment, a misty-eyed eulogy to the cheesecloth generation, wherein he celebrates a year that produced enduring classics such as Led Zeppelin 4, Sticky Fingers and Tapestry. I’m sure it’s a great read but if he really wanted to cash in he should surely have waited until 2021…

Anyway, it has been decreed that today we must have a double collective orgasm because not only is this the anniversary of Pet Sounds, but also Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde was also released exactly 50 years ago. How amazing!

Blonde on Blonde is a great collection of music, but to me it sounds the same (and is equally as good as) his previous albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home. They all feature his mid-sixties persona of the acid-beatnick, musically featuring a ramshackle mix of epic folky ballads, mind-blowing lyrics and spiky rock’n’roll. It’s all great stuff, but personally I can’t fit a Rizla paper between those albums. Hang on though, Blonde on Blonde’s a double album – it must be a classic…

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bob and..

It could only happen in America. I can just picture hundreds of thousands of psychedelic beach chairs, picnic hampers and parasols spread out on the ‘Empire polo field’ (that famous rock’n’roll venue…) as Bob Dylan, the Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Roger Waters and Neil Young perform at a mega-gig in Indio, California this October.

The organisers of Coachella festival have persuaded these fading legends with more wrinkles between them than the Grand Canyon to unite for a three day mega-gig, for an estimated fee of £1000,000 per act.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with celebrating music history, but old legends banding together like this for a quick buck underlines the rift that exists between the older generation and today’s talented musicians. Now that record companies don’t put time and money into developing new artists, musicians are swept up and down on waves of hype, easily disappearing without trace if they don’t make quick returns. If they do get noticed, will their fans actually buy their music or simply play it on youtube, or Spotify where the royalty rates for artists are so pathetic?

This gig will be another easy earner for already-rich performers whose careers blossomed during a ‘golden era’ of huge record sales and music industry largesse. Their generation still have a dependable audience – many of whom are well off enough to afford what are sure to be obscene ticket prices.

It will be like a psychedelic Glyndebourne, glasses raised to the spirits of the past, without the risk of any new blood to spoil the orgy of nostalgia.

This is just another reminder that the music industry is dead on its feet. With no new acts being developed, where are the future elder-statesmen and women waiting in the wings? And there’s another point –  this assemblage of musos is the last gathering of the original rock brotherhood, time-travellers from an era when virtually the only important musicians were male. How dated that looks now.

Don’t they feel uncomfortable turning the stage into a retirement home without any sort of organic connection to what is going on in today? An event like this could easily have included some support acts, I would have thought Neil Young might feel this, or Pete Townsend, or indeed Jagger – who always likes to appear aware of what goes on outside his bubble, at least.

It’s great when old-timers headline Glastonbury; often they can whip the asses of their younger comrades in terms of stagecraft. But sealing themselves off like this is unhealthy. It stinks of greed, complacency and theme-park culture.

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We have all met people possessed of a natural charm that enables them to hold the attention of groups of people, who listen to their opinions, laugh at their jokes and possibly want to share bodily fluids with them.

Charisma is like a magical chemical product flowing in certain peoples’ bloodstream. If you start out in life with nothing but charisma, you will usually make it because you can make people believe in you. Charismatic people are never short of people to help them in their ventures, or to vouch for them if they get in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wealth, looks or talent but how they can make people feel.

In theory I’m a believer in collective organising, but I’ve noticed that successful projects are usually spearheaded by a motivator who has a vision. People will always be happy to fall in line if there is an inspiring figure who knows where they are going. The most successful generals are those that somehow manage to make their troops love them. The danger is that their position can become like that of a cult leader, with their power unlimited.

I remember a TV documentary a few years ago which told the story of a pub barman who convinced several customers he was a spy on top-secret government business. He held them under his spell for years, involving them in bizarre fabricated missions and swindling them out of thousands of pounds for ‘essential’ expenses before eventually being brought to justice.
I’ve never come across anyone like that, but certain people I know have led me to believe that we should be wary of people with an excess of charm. They have often read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People and consider themselves experts at psychological manouvering.

Psychological strategies can be leaned, but I’d argue true charisma is inborn and largely unconscious. Charismatic people seem to have an amplified personality ”turned up to 11” that they couldn’t turn down if they tried.

I can think of a couple of people I know who are not close friends, but when I bump into them and have a brief chat, I always walk away feeling exhilarated, inspired and perhaps just a little jealous of their self-possession. Charismatic people can help us to believe in ourselves.

Then there are others with a quiet charisma, who attract attention by not trying to. They are in their own space and hold a mysterious aura around them. I can imagine the impression conjured by the young Bob Dylan when he was playing in coffee houses in New York City in 1961. Here was a guy who was hard to pin down; odd-looking and enigmatic, there was clearly ‘something’ about him. And fifty-odd years later, people are still trying to figure out what it is.

Throughout the entertainment world, charisma is a highly-prized and relatively rare commodity. I go to a lot of gigs but only occasionally do I see someone with a magnetic presence that holds the attention. When you see it you can never explain it, it’s just ‘it’. There are all kinds of tips and tricks of stagecraft that can be learned from teachers or picked up by experience; but star quality is inborn.

A few years ago, after being a drummer and a guitarist in several bands, I decided to try being a vocalist in a band, just holding the mic at the front of the stage. I wanted to see what it was like being the focus of everyone’s attention.

We were a ragged punk rock outfit, stylistically not far from The Stooges and at the time I was in awe of Iggy Pop, who is surely one of the most unpredictable and riveting live performers ever. My first gig as a frontman was in a small bar in front of perhaps 70 people. I threw myself into it, prowling the stage, climbing on the amps, wrapping myself up in cables.

“He’s a live wire!” I imagined people thinking “…What will he do next?!”

I thought I was doing great, then I looked at the audience’s faces. Not one of them was looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. Their eyes were either on the guitarist’s hands, or the bassist’s flailing hair, or the drummer – anywhere but on the person actually singing the songs – me!

I was internally furious. What was wrong with them? Couldn’t they see how hard I was working? Weren’t they moved by my unpredictable passion? I felt like ranting, but I just continued the gig, now intimidated by the whole situation and feeling like a fraud. I laugh about it now, but I learned a tough lesson. You can’t decide to be charismatic. You either have it or you don’t.

shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to watch someone who most definately ‘has it’ . I was working at the 02 Arena in Liverpool and got the chance to see a few big mainstream acts. Def Leppard, Meatloaf and Michael Buble were all entertaining enough, but Diana Ross had something else. Standing onstage in a red satin ballgown, her charisma completely filled the huge venue. Even inbetween songs, her speaking voice and regal presence cast some kind of shimmering spell over the place.

I’m sure one day some brain scientist or communication theorist will come up with a theory that will explain charisma, but until then all we can say is that some people have a kind of magic!

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“The key to a good album is to be both eclectic and cohesive, and paradoxical as it sounds, that’s exactly what Tom George achieves on ‘Postcards” – liverpoolacoustic.co.uk
postcards cover

I recorded this album with in Liverpool with the expert help of Jeff Jepson at the controls. If I had to sum it up I would say it’s a collection of melodic indie-rock reminiscent of REM, Jeff Buckley and the Stone Roses, but you can decide for yourself by visiting http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/tomgeorge

You can listen to clips of the tracks and if you like them, buy tracks individually or the album as a whole. You can also get the album it on amazon if that’s more convenient.

I played most of the instruments on this album, including electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums. Jeff also filled in with some keyboards, and Norweigan artist Ragz provided extra vocals. I hope you enjoy it.

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Recently I was reading a blog post about the debut album by one of my favourite bands, Dire Straits. As well as celebrating the spell-binding guitar and characteristic vocal style of Mark Knopfler, Another Grumpy Commuter paid attention to the excellent lyrics on the album.

dire straits

“Down to the Waterline” is a tale of teenage liasons in Knopfler’s native North East, while “Wild West End” describes his wanderings around London before Dire Straits’ success.

Then there is the witty description of jazz musicians in “Sultans of Swing”.

Knopfler always has a fine eye for the detail of situations, but despite this, Dire Straits are rarely discussed as a ‘lyrics’ band.

 

It got me thinking, just how important are lyrics to music fans?

 

Songwriters can spend hours, days, months and sometimes years sweating over lyrics; but despite this I have often heard people – music lovers – say that lyrics are of no interest to them. This has always baffled me. Surely everyone’s enjoyment of a song must have some relation to what it’s about, or seems to be about?

Lyrics may complement or contrast with the music, but I don’t understand how you can hear the words without processing them on some level (as long as they are in a language you understand), and that affecting your response to the track.

At the other extreme are people who take lyrics far too seriously. Music critics are the worst for this. Because the actual sound and emotional impact of music is hard to describe, they tend to base album reviews around lyrical themes, trying to sum up what the album is ‘about’, rather than it just being a collection of songs that worked out alright in the studio (or didn’t).

This kind of analysis then becomes the basis of long interviews, with lyric scribblers being treated like they were the authors of great literature, as if anyone listens to an album in that way.

I guess most of us sit somewhere between those extremes; song lyrics may wash over us in a pleasing flood without us catching all of the meanings, or necessarily wanting to. We relish certain lines as they come up, and check on lyric sheets or online to find out the exact words, but it’s rarely a subject for detailed study.

As for my personal favourites among lyric writers, I love the wit of Morrissey and the ‘beat poetry’ style of Tom Waits, but I also like lyrics that I don’t understand. Michael Stipe’s lyrics for REM were affecting as well as often being experimental and opaque. I’m not sure why a “Candy Bar” and “Dr Seuss” crop up in this tune but it’s a beautiful slice of left-field pop.

 

Following on from that, on the classic “Motorcycle Emptiness” by The Manic Street Preachers, I can hardly make out a word James Dean Bradfield sings, but I don’t care. The drama of the song is not diminished by the indistinct lyrics, indeed it adds to the bittersweet beauty of this track, for me. Lots of things in life are enigmatic, which only makes them more fascinating.

 

 

Bob Dylan is probably the most celebrated lyricist of any generation, and he’s certainly one of my heroes. But for all his brilliance, like most songwriters he often wrote lines just to fill up his verses.

Bob Dylan

When interviewed in 1989, a journalist asked him:

“In the song Man in The Long Black Coat you sing ‘People don’t live or die, people just float’…what do you mean by ‘people just float’?”

Dylan: “well…I needed a rhyme for ‘coat'”

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The music community recently mourned the great Pete Seeger, who finally left the stage at the grand old age of 94. Seeger was a key figure in the protest song tradition, nurturing and inspiring a generation of left-leaning folkies including Bob Dylan.
It occurred to me that when Seeger started performing in the 1940’s, he could never have foreseen the breadth of political songwriting he would help to foster. Here are some personal favourites, in no particular order.

1. Billy Bragg – It Says Here                                                                                                                                                                                                    Billy addresses the twisted patriotism of the British Press

2. Bob Marley and The Wailers – Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)

The Jamaican icon reminds us that poverty + hunger = riots

3. Bob Dylan – Masters of war                                                                   A seething Dylan puts the arms manufacturers on trial

4. KRS-One – Sound of Da Police

The influential rapper compares US police to overseers on slave plantations

5. Dead Kennedys – Nazi Punks Fuck Off

Jello Biafra’s fearless broadside Nazi infiltration in the US punk scene.

6. Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy – Television The Drug of The Nation

A powerful indictment of mind-numbing US TV

7. Tom Robinson Band – Glad to Be Gay

Catchy queer anthem that hit the charts in 1978

8. Stevie Wonder – Living For the City

Stevie shines a light on the grinding poverty of urban blacks

9. Yes – Don’t Kill The Whale

English proggers address the whaling issue

 

10. Artists Against Apartheid – Sun City

A host of stars line up to urge a boycott of South Africa during the aparthied era

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Can I start by saying that this is not an attempt at a “how-to” article for budding songwriters. For one thing, I dislike tuition in popular music, but also in an important sense, I don’t really know how I write songs anyway.

For me, there is a fundamental mystery at the heart of the creative process and the last thing I want to do is attempt to codify or systemise the thing.

We are already living in an era when TV talent shows have reinforced the idea of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do things, where the expression of your musical feelings is something to be tutored and judged by self-appointed ‘experts’, rather than something you figure out for yourself.

All I want to do here is outline the route I’ve travelled as a songwriter and point out some of the things I’ve discovered on my journey so far.

(N.B. when I refer to ‘pop music’ I mean everything including rock’n’roll, disco, heavy metal, rap etc…it’s all pop music to me.)

IN THE BEGINNING…

Apart from a short stint playing the trumpet at school, my first steps towards songwriting came when I took up the drums at age 13, and joined a band with some older guys who lived around the corner from me. The guitarist in the band showed me a few chords on the guitar and I took things from there, using my Dad’s classical guitar and chord book.

Like many youths in the mid-80’s I was a big fan of The Smiths and Billy Bragg. But I was also obsessed with Dire Straits, not something I had in common with many of my peers at that time – I could only enthuse about the band with my dad. One thing I liked was Mark Knopfler’s conversational vocal style, his tunes often being half-spoken. You can hear this in their big hit Money For Nothing, and also on a song called Wild West End from the first Dire Straits album.

My songs at that time were (and mostly still are) about myself in relationship to the world around me. As a sensitive teenager, The Smiths’ wit, honesty and melancholy touched me, while from Billy Bragg I absorbed the possibility of being a self-contained musical force.

INSPIRED BY MY INSTRUMENT

Songwriting for me has always gone hand-in-hand with the exploration of my instrument: the guitar. If every song gives you the opportunity to say something different, it’s also an opportunity to play something different. Bands like the aforementioned Smiths and U2 seemed to find a different guitar approach to each song. They gave me the impetus to experiment with my instrument. Just putting my fingers on the neck of my guitar at random allowed me to find new and interesting chords, which would suggest melodies. I was also fascinated by blues, jazz and improvisation, painstakingly teaching myself to bend notes with the feeling of B.B.King.

At 15, I discovered the radio DJ Andy Kershaw, who played a wildly diverse selection of music from around the world. My routine was to sit by the radio with my guitar and jam along to whatever he played on his BBC radio show, which could be anything from bluegrass to hip-hop, calypso to African Highlife. Spontaneously coming up with guitar parts to each track was stretching me and giving me a feel for arranging songs.

For me, arrangements are part of composition. I’ve never been convinced of the wisdom of the aphorism (possibly attributable to Noel Gallagher) that “you can tell a good song because you can play it on an acoustic guitar and it still stands up”. Firstly, you don’t subject a song to any kind of test other than whether you like it. And second, a song is ‘sung’ by the instruments as well as the voice. For instance, one of the most brilliant, catchy and memorable songs I know is David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” and if you played it on acoustic guitar it would sound rubbish.

At one point I felt frustrated that my songwriting wasn’t sounding ‘like me’ yet, just reflecting my influences. So I decided to explore this by deliberately writing in the style of famous artists for a while, as if I was them. I no longer remember any of the tunes, but I do recall that I was writing for both Aerosmith and The Smiths at one point.

SONG STRUCTURE

If you listen to a diverse range of music, then you are exposed to different kinds of song structure. Of course there are no rules, but there are various features which recur commonly in popular music. Here are my thoughts on some of them.

1. THE VERSE

The bulk of a song’s lyrics are generally in the verses, and there may anything between two or nine of them (if you’re Bob Dylan) Most common, though, are three verse songs. Whether or not your song has a ‘beginning, middle and end’ to it, the three verse structure implies a narrative, however subliminally, and this is something you can play with or against.

Bruce Springsteen’s songs are sometimes like mini-novels, with tragic or heroic characters struggling against the dirty side of the American Dream. Despite what can be achieved like this, there have been some great lyrics which either don’t mean a great deal or are impossible to decode.

I particularly like the lyrics of Michael Stipe because they sound great, whether I can understand them or not. REM songs are full of beautiful phrases that wash over you in an impressionistic way that doesn’t tie them down to a specific meaning.

2. THE CHORUS

What is a chorus? Broadly speaking, a chorus is something that repeats three or more times throughout a song, is catchy, and sums up the overall message somehow. A chorus often steps up the drama or emotion in the song. It’s the satisfying bit that the verses are working towards, but unlike the punchline of a joke, it seems to gain power the more it’s repeated. It can be a contrast to, or a development of the musical style of the verse.

I won’t give examples of great choruses here; we all know hundreds of them. They are probably the biggest reason we love great pop music. At the same time, some songs don’t need a chorus at all; a good example being “House of the Rising Sun”, as recorded by The Animals.

3. THE MIDDLE EIGHT / BRIDGE

These terms are interchangeable. ‘Middle eight’ refers to an eight-bar middle section and ‘bridge’ suggests something linking sections of a song. Whatever you call it, this section is essentially about introducing something a bit different to the song. Something that changes the mood but still fits in, like a pleasing detour. Lyrically it’s often a way to get philosophical or take a sidelong view of what you’re singing about.

Not every song needs a middle eight/bridge. Then again, sometimes they get repeated in a song. But they’re at their best when they vary significantly from the main sections but still resolve nicely back into the song.

KICKING OUT CONVENTION

The Smiths are an example of a group that would never let anything as trivial as convention get in the way of an addictive tune. Listen to ‘Panic’. I would defy anyone to describe the structure; whether it’s one verse with two different choruses or two different verses and one chorus (and maybe something is a bridge?)…whatever the case, everything builds up exquisitely to that final singalong : “Hang the DJ…”

 

THE ONGOING CHALLENGE

Songs come to me at unpredictable moments, and not just when I have a instrument in my hands. A tune or lyric can appear in my head when I’m in the shower, walking down a street or even in a dream. Sometimes they can be almost fully formed and only need a little finishing off, but it’s not always that easy. I have had verses or choruses kicking around for years before I finally find the other pieces that make the song work.

OTHER STUFF

If you’re singing a song people tend to assume that you are also the narrator, but that’s not always the case. Tom Waits’ songs are often sung from the perspective of a character, maybe an escaped convict, a ship’s captain or that strange character he’s created called Tom Waits.

Whether writing from scratch or jamming a tune together, collaborating with other musicians is one of the most fruitful ways of finding songs. Except for someone like me!! I enjoy improvising with other musicians but if I have a compositonal idea, I generally find that it is part of a complete (or potentially complete) song – a song that exists somewhere in my head, which only I can uncover. I envy musicians who are able to co-write but I’ve always been more comfortable working things out on my own.

Other things I think about when writing/arranging songs are hooks, riffs, counter-melodies and harmonies. I wont go into them all now but they are all important to me when I’m composing.

THE INSTINCTIVE UNIVERSE

So far I’ve been talking about approaches to ‘songy’ songwriting i.e. making hummable tunes. But there are other influences that are hard to talk about in the same way because they come from a more experimental tradition. If I was to discuss the songcraft of Jeffrey Lewis or Syd Barrett…where would I start? I wouldn’t try because they radically deconstruct musical forms, and their music is suffused with their unique, oblique personalities.

This is why teaching pop music is stupid and pointless, cos so much of what attracts us to great pop music is instinctive and personal by its very nature.

During it’s most powerful phases, pop music progressed at a breakneck pace and no-one knew what was going on. On the whole it was made by people with little technical musical knowledge, certainly when compared with the classical music world. Classical music requires training and study, but in pop music, inexperience and naivety can be as effective as skill and knowledge.

As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking up an instrument as a kid is the fact that it has no rules attached to it. It is a gateway to your own world, not somebody else’s.

But the proliferation of ‘fame academies’ and pop music courses is creating a generation of musicians who are so self-consciously analytical about making music, and so calculating of their commercial potential, that any character they might once have had is obliterated.

I continue to be inspired by different genres of music but at heart I’m something of a traditionalist and enjoy a ‘well-crafted’ song. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is one of the few new-ish artists that’s able to do that, with a real personality coming through. Unfortunately there are only so many melodies out there to be discovered and we rarely hear tunes of a Motown-quality any more. But we keep trying!

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