Archive for February, 2010

THE POWER VS THE PASSION

February 28, 2010

“You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”.

So said John Lennon in ‘Imagine’ as he painted a dream of a world without greed or hunger, countries or religion, or possessions – a song he wrote on an all-white piano, in a vast country mansion, failing to credit his wife Yoko Ono’s contribution. John Lennon’s life was full of contradictions – peace loving John was a bully – but it doesn’t matter. Those realities can’t tarnish the power of the message. We, not John Lennon,  make ‘Imagine’ real by believing it, hearing it and wanting it to be true.

Songwriters again and again articulate our dreams for us. It’s the nature of what they do. They fall in love with us, they hurt with us, and they dream of a better world with us. They articulate and promote thought. We can’t imagine with John Lennon unless those thoughts agree with or prompt our own.

So it has been for Bob Dylan, Neil Young,  Michael Stipe,  Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman … the songwriters who’ve touched our minds as well as our hearts.

That brings us to Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, one of the few songwriters of that ilk who has dared to take the next step. I’ve often asked songwriters what Bob Dylan might think as he sings “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind”  all those years on, still answerless. Peter Garrett used to ask questions and raised important issues as the singer in Midnight Oil. If the truth be known we probably gave him too much credit as the band’s primary source for those thoughts. But that’s the nature of lead singers. Peter was the one at the microphone who demanded to be heard, and we listened. And heard. And responded.

Peter Garrett dared to take the next step, and gave up his career as an entertainer for a career in politics. He told us he wanted to make a difference and now he put himself in a place where he could make a difference. Theoretically. He could have joined a fringe political party and kept talking tough without having to back up, but he joined a major party, and found himself in Government.

Australia has watched the fortunes of the Member for Kingsford Smith with fascination and trepidation. As he’s learned valuable lessons in real politics so have we.  Party “discipline” meant that the once outspoken Garrett was silenced, forced to voice the party line rather than his own, theoretically a fair exchange for a position of “real” power – the ability to act instead of dream.

In recent weeks Peter Garrett’s political career has spectacularly imploded. A “do good” program he was in charge of has accidentally caused a few deaths and unleased a tidal wave of greed which has exploited and created trauma for thousands of Australians. When a “rock star” dreams of making a grand  gesture there’s an entourage who’ll take care of the details.  Left to his own devices Peter Garrett seems to have faltered. Dreaming is easier than doing.

Peter Garrett’s situation shouldn’t however make us think less of what he was saying to us in Midnight Oil, just as we shouldn’t ever stop imagining with John Lennon, whoever they really were or have become.

What I’m listening to: Field Music (Field music), The Cure (Japanese Whispers), The Blue Nile (Pease At Last)

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INVASION OF BOOM BOOM POW

February 26, 2010

The Black Eyed Peas are back at No.1 in the US, their third No.1 in less than a year. The last time anyone accomplished such a feat was three years ago when Justin Timberlake scored three chart-toppers in the space of six months. That’s interesting in itself since it was  the 2003 collaboration ‘Where Is The Love?’ between the Peas and Timberlake which proved a turning point for both artists.  It gave the Black Eyed Pease their “pop’ credentials and helped make the former boyband singer “cool”.

The Black Eyed Peas’ achievements this year – they’ve already notched up the all-time longest consecutive run at No.1 in America –have been largely overlooked because the music industry is in too much turmoil to celebrate the actual music events. The Black Eyed Peas are a definable turning point however.

Apart from everything else music has been going through we live in an era where everything breaks down into specific areas of interest – female oriented artists, male oriented artists, pre-teen, teenage, adult popera, pop idols without appeal outside their own country boundaries, etc etc. The Black Eyed Peas are one act who have managed to sweep all of those divisions aside. They are genre-defying global phenomena.

America  was in fact last to come on board. This is (was?) the bastion of the gangsta style dissin’ rap. There was a lot of natural resistance to the “fun” version of rap the Black Eyed Peas were offering. In America it actually took isolating female member Fergie for her solo album “Dutchess”  to make the difference.  If it wasn’t a deliberate strategy it was a clever one. After that everything clicked  intoi place.

At the heart of it all is William Adams, better known as Will.I.Am, who is to this area of music what Jack White and Dave Grohl  are to rock, workaholics with a rich enthusiasm and knowledge of where music has been, rummaging and repolishing the past while fashioning the music we are listening to now and creating the architecture for the future.

The Black Eyed Peas aren’t just very successful. Their music and their success has changed everything forever. That’s why we listen to music, hoping for that song, that artist, that album which will shift the course we’re on. It’s happened. It happened in 2009-10 in the middle of all that crap the music industry has got itself bogged down in.

 What I’m listening to: Holly Miranda (The Magician’s Private Library), Joanna Newsom (Have One On Me), Magazine (The Correct Use Of Soap)

MUSE-SICK

February 25, 2010

15 years ago Prince made a dramatic statement about his relationship with his record company by painting the word “slave” on his face for public performances. His complaint was that he thought Warners was unable to keep up with his prolific output and he was unhappy with the relatively poor reaction to his “Love Symbol” album. Prince changed his name to “Love Symbol” and was generally referred to as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. He’d removed himself from the “system” and ultimately his career went off the rails, perhaps because of his actions, perhaps because somewhere inside of all that he also lost his “mojo”.

Looking back however Prince’s “Slave” episode might have been the signpost of what was to come. Record companies and musicians are no longer working to the same songbook.

I’ve reported on OK Go’s dissatisfaction with their record company EMI sabotaging their relationship with YouTubers. Earlier this month Warners decided they were withdrawing permission for their artists’ songs to be used by sites including Spotify, We7 and Last.fm – which offer free access to millions of tracks. Warners is throwing their support behind paid download sites such as iTunes, and streaming services which charge for content. Now it’s Muse who are unhappy and bassist Chris Wolstenholme has said “It’s like taking your song off the radio, isn’t it? You’re instantly taking your song away from a group of potential listeners.”  This at a moment in Muse’s career when their popularity worldwide  is at its greatest. Warners have everything to gain. Muse have everything to lose.

Elsewhere, Iceland’s Sigur Ros is complaining about the way British television can get away with using their music – particularly the song ‘Hoppípolla’ – as background music in various programs without permission.

Who’s looking after the music? Who’s taking care of artists’ interests on the corporate level? If the record companies and music publishers can’t be trusted with that responsibility where does that leave the artists? As slaves?

The landscape is changing but the fundamentals are as they always were –  music’s there, the audience is there, and yet wherever they go to find each other they’re being thwarted by other interests.

That’s why artists are facing an immediate future of making their living out of selling t-shirts.

What I’m listening to: Besnard Lakes (Are The Roaring Night), Grinderman (Grinderman), The Move (Shazam)

OK DON’T GO

February 23, 2010

What could I possibly ad to this?

By Damian Kulash Jr. from OK Go.

My band is famous for music videos…In 2006 we made a video of us dancing on treadmills for our song “Here It Goes Again.”…back then record companies saw videos as advertisements, so if my band wanted to produce them, and if YouTube wanted to help people watch them, EMI wasn’t going to get in the way….As the age of viral video dawned, “Here It Goes Again” was viewed millions, then tens of millions of times. It brought big crowds to our concerts on five continents, and by the time we returned to the studio, 700 shows, one Grammy and nearly three years later, EMI’s ledger had a black number in our column. To the band, “Here It Goes Again” was a successful creative project. To the record company, it was a successful, completely free advertisement.

Now we’ve released a new album and a couple of new videos. But the fans and bloggers who helped spread “Here It Goes Again” across the Internet can no longer do what they did before, because our record company has blocked them from embedding our video on their sites. Believe it or not, in the four years since our treadmill dance got such attention, YouTube and EMI have actually made it harder to share our videos….The numbers are shocking: When EMI disabled the embedding feature, views of our treadmill video dropped 90 percent, from about 10,000 per day to just over 1,000. Our last royalty statement from the label, which covered six months of streams, shows a whopping $27.77 credit to our account.

What I’m listening to: OK Go (Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky), Allison Moorer (Crows), Grandaddy Sumday)

 

ELTON’S JESUS

February 21, 2010

I am loath to report or comment on Elton John supposedly claiming Jesus Christ was homosexual because we live in a world in search of instant headlines, and this might just be another. Straight-from-the-hip, uniformed outrage is too easy. As far I can see is that Elton said that Jesus was a “super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.” He didn’t use the word ‘gay’ in a way we can go straight to “Elton says that Jesus was homosexual”. He’s used the word ‘gay’ in a way which could also suggest that Elton was contributing attributes to Jesus he finds in gay people. This needn’t be sexual.

Elton has yet to explain himself , so I feel we should be a bit more intelligent in our reaction. There’s far too much religious fervour in the world as it is, people threatening violence over visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed, over what religion has the right to what words, people STILL in the twenty-first century killing each other in the “cause” of their religion. Let’s tread carefully then and allow Elton to embellish what he actually means.

It brings to mind of course John Lennon’s famous “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus” comment, which set off a storm of controversy months after Lennon’s comment was first published as part of an interview. At the time it made no headlines, but when the quote was repeated – not by Lennon – all hell broke loose. It could be said that John Lennon innocently set off the chain of events which ultimately caused the Beatles to break up.

The storm exploded just before the Beatles’ second tour of America. John Lennon was forced to publically apologize before the Beatles were able to set foot in God-fearing America. But the group’s records and posters were symbolically burnt anyway, and throughout that American tour the group were afraid for their lives. (Religious beliefs beget violence. It makes no sense does it?) But it’s no wonder that at the end of that tour, for that and other reasons the Beatles decided to give up live performances. George Harrison literally putting his guitar down in San Francisco on August 29, 1966 and out loud saying “That’s it”.

What followed then was years of creativity where the Beatles, with the “luxury” or not performing put all their efforts into their energies into making music in the studio. But they were musicians after all, and ultimately that decision also led to the band members fracturing and finally turning on each other. Musicians are able to put personal differences aside when they step on a stage together.

What will Elton John’s statement mean to his career? Hopefully the reaction which unfolds in the coming days will be mature and considered and we will all have had something to think about, not fight about.

What I’m listening to: Pantha Du Prince (Black Noise), Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy), Joni Mitchell (Mingus)

REMEMBERING BON SCOTT

February 19, 2010

AC/DC’s Bon Scott died 30 years ago today.

They’ve built a statue of him in Fremantle West Australia where he spent his teenage years and started his music career. In Melbourne, where his AC/DC career took root there’s a city lane named after his group. The greatest tribute to Bon’s life is AC/DC themselves.

Watching AC/DC in concert last week it occurred to me just how important Bon Scott was and still is to AC/DC – not just a memory, but the spirit.

Listening to today’s AC/DC and watching them on stage these 30 years on – Bon only managed to front them for six years – the Bon Scott impact shone through again and again. Yes he was the experienced singer the very inexperienced AC/DC found at a crucial point in their embryonic career. They were all schoolboys (not just AngusYoung) and he was their teacher. The Young brothers wanted to play the rock and roll they’d heard in their sister’s record collection, and Bon had seen and done enough to take their talents and enthusiasm to realize his own vision of rock and roll. A Chuck Berry for a new era?

He was what Australians call a “larrikin”, a loveable rogue. When those schoolboys and their tutor settled down in Melbourne in the one house, there was a brothel over the back fence. Bon would come back from his adventures over the fence with a wink in the eye and a sly smirk, with stories and ideas for song lyrics. He made the sleazy funny, like cartoons make violence funny. You hear it again in the words he gave AC/DC’s songs, the direction they have followed ever since.

Said she’d never had a Full House/But I should have known/ From the tattoo on her left leg /And the garter on her right/ She’d have the card to bring me down/ If she played it right/ She’s got the Jack (‘She’s Got the Jack’ from High Voltage)

Bon also taught AC/DC stage craft – Angus at least. On stage he brought the songs to life, with that glint in his eye, the smirk, a soaring nasal vocal style, and lots of energy. He’d also been a schoolboy in his early years, picking up tricks at every opportunity. In England in 1973 with Australian group Fraternity he supported a group whose lead singer carried the guitarist on his shoulders during their performance. Bon brought that idea to AC/DC. He hadn’t forgotten that guitar-bearing singer. Ironically that was Brian Johnson, who would replace Bon as AC/DC’s singer.

Bon Scott was a showman on stage. He carried Angus on his shoulders, when Angus wasn’t strutting up and down the stage in his school uniform. Watching today’s AC/DC it occurred to me that by the time Bon died Angus had seen enough and leant enough to take his own act to the next stage. He became Angus AND Bon. The sneer, the smirk, the wink – these are Angus’ characteristics now. When he became AC/DC’s new singer Brian Johnston didn’t have to “be” Bon, because spiritually Angus took that role.

 Bon Scott was as “rock and roll” as any rock lead singer should be, naughty but not frightening. Highway to hell? He was laughing in The Devil’s face and making a pass for The Devil’s woman. He lived life and lustily loved life, with the aid of a fertile imagination. Bon Scott said almost everything himself in the lyrics to ‘High Voltage’

You ask me ’bout the clothes I wear/ And you ask me why I grow my hair/ And you ask me why I’m in a band/ I dig doin’ one night stands/ You wanna see me do my thing/ All you gotta do is plug me into high/ I said high High voltage rock ‘n’ roll/ You ask me why I like to dance /And you ask me why I like to sing/ And you ask me why I like to play/ I got to get my kicks some way /You ask me what I’m all about/ Come and let me hear you shout high/ I said high High voltage rock ‘n’ roll

What I’m listening to: Fear Factory (Mechanize), Louis Tillet (Letters To A Dream), Neil Young (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)

MUTE OSCAR

February 18, 2010

This year’s Oscars ceremony won’t see performances of the Best Original Song nominations, and you can’t blame organizers for their decision.

There isn’t a potential television audience puller amongst them and nothing which could promise a memorable performance of the like offered in previous years by Elliott Smith and Bruce Springsteen. The nominations are .. ‘Almost There’ and ‘Down In New Orleans’, both written by Randy Newman for The Princess and The Frog; there’s Nine’s “Take It All” and Paris 36’s “Loin de Paname” and Crazy Heart’s ‘The Weary Kind’. From a music industry point of view should we despair that we’ve lost touch with an important ally, or were this year’s movies just not very conducive to an important musical input? How quickly things can change. Who can forget Slumdog Millionaire – even though the credits rolled before ‘Jai Ho’ produced its magic?

Clearly movies and music have had a long relationship of mutual benefit. There’s no letup in fact, but it is a relationship that’s changing. The category is Best Original Song and that means, to qualify, the nominee needs to be a song written for that purpose. Out the window goes a lot of the music that has appeared in movies during the most recent qualifying period, and even if it WAS music that somehow qualified chances are it wouldn’t be music that would appeal to the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences which in its own terms has never favoured the crash/bang movies that are also the movie business’ bread and butter.

We’re just not making the kind of music they need for the kind of movies they’d prefer to be making.

What I’m listening to: Mechell Ndegeocello (Devil’s Halo), Miles Davis (Bitches Brew), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (It’s Blitz)

SUITS IN CHARGE OF THE ASYLUM

February 17, 2010

The world is in a financial mess. The music business is in a financial mess. Why? We believed that the bean counters knew what they were doing, that to trust the money experts represented solid ground and prosperity into the future. Instead of wise investors, they’ve been exposed as gamblers and speculators who’ve often done OK for themselves, but who shouldn’t have been trusted with the things that mattered to us .. like music.

The bean-counters were put in change of music some time ago. Biggest consequence? Where the Beatles released seven albums in the space of three years, it took Pearl Jam eight years. Maximise the profits. Did the financial watchdogs make music a more profitable business?
It’s debatable. There’s lots of “excuses” but the people who were put in positions of trust failed us on many counts. Almost everything the music business has done wrong in the last two decades comes back to those people.

We’ve watched the big record companies get fatter, becoming part of conglomerates involved in much more than “just” music, and by implication not quite as entrepreneurial at the creative end. As they’ve got bigger, they’ve swallowed each other up, to the point where currently there are just four global major players – Universal, Sony, Warners and EMI. Soon there’ll be three. For several yaers now we’ve watched the last two on that list, wondering which one would swallow the other. Now EMI is in its death throes. Warners is hovering for the kill.

In 2007 a financially strapped EMI was taken over by investment company Terra Firma, who’d also bought into a waste water recycling company. Make of THAT what you will. Typically Terra Firma didn’t actually  have the money they offered, and the deal has progressively come unstuck. Documents that have just come to hand reveal that Terra Firma supremo Guy Hands proposed splitting EMI’s recording division from its publishing division in order to interest banks into giving him the money he needed. If he’d got his way, his deal would have survived, but EMI’s financial future would have been comprised anyway.

Now, in the latest bid to prop up the money-leaking company it’s been announced that EMI is putting Abbey Road studios up for sale. The company says it has been forced into making this decision.

During these last two and a bit years, there has been much disquiet amongst the artists signed to the label. Justifiably so. There’s been lots of wheeling and dealing with banks and so forth, very little sign of the company actually addressing the thing that might have MADE The money – The Music.

What I’m listening to : Patti Griffin (Downtown Church); The Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Mophine (Cure For Pain)

SHE’S FEARLESS, THEY’RE AFRAID

February 14, 2010

I can’t believe all the carry-one about Taylor Swift’s performance at the Grammys.

So there she was clearly singing live, maybe not at her best, maybe having some technical difficulties. Big deal. Can’t she have ONE moment to celebrate her success with some jackass either invading the stage or a bunch of jackasses tut-tutting? – by way of their criticism condoning the technology-assisted performances that ‘graced’ the rest of the Grammys presentation.

Taylor Swift has nothing to prove. Anyone who’s seen her in concert can testify to that. There seems to be a contingent of the music industry which is AFRAID of this self-reliant, vibrant, natural YOUNG performer, worlds away from the cultivated choreographed “stars” the industry is cultivating, reliant on teams of songwriters and producers. She’s not THEIR product, THEIR invention, not part of THEIR cosy cartel, and they don’t like it.

Music at the top strata in America right now is like an exclusive club. Taylor wasn’t invited.

Sidestepping all the gatekeepers she’s connected with a vast audience, through her songs and through her direct connections to her fans. Taylor Swift’s ‘Fearless’ album is not just a big seller, it’s a moment in time. This is an album which will resonate through the years like Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ and Tori Amos’ ‘Little Earthquakes’.

What I’m listening to: Massive Attack (Heligoland), The Byrds (Sweethearts Of The Rodeo), The Go-Betweens (Before Hollywood)

LET THERE BE ROCK

February 12, 2010

I was planning to write about the consequences of Warners probably swallowing up the embattled EMI, but I’ve just come back from seeing AC/DC and can’t bring myself to worry about the future of music – for the moment – when I’ve just witnessed the very thing we should be focussed on – music and entertainment.

AC/DC were astonishingly good.

The music business tends to be a Peter Pan world where singers and musicians desperately try to hold on to their youth. You’d be surprised how many aging rock and rollers wear wigs and corsets, trying to make time stand still.

Not AC/DC. Angus Young’s famous schoolboy cap came up within a few songs and never made a reappearance. The hair is thinning. Appearance isn’t what AC/DC is about. It’s delivering. The music is relentless, the performance incredibly energetic. About halfway through the show Angus did his strip-tease. The shirt never came back on either. What we saw was what Angus is – a scrawny flatchested  but incredibly fit 54-year old, the sweat pouring off him as he played, and strutted, as it would an 18 year old doing exactly the same thing. If they could!

Towards the end of the show there was Angus’ feature spot where he just played and played at breakneck speed, duckwalking along the catwalk, kicking his legs while playing on his back – on and on he went. You can joke about his age and the oxygen tanks we know are waiting backstage, but what the hell …?

AC/DC used the odd stage props and some pyrotechnics – as you’d expect from a band earning a million dollars plus per show and playing to tens of thousands at a time – but those things are not at all what an AC/DC show relies on. This is just music the way you want to see it played and performed, live without trickery, the energy of the performance and the songs as the primary  source of the entertainment.

This band has been together 40 years. A lot has happened to music in that time, not all good. How wonderful it was to see a performance that reminded me what it’s always really been about, or should be about – honesty, integrity .. and fun.

We’ll get to the corporate shadow cast over all of that at a later stage. Let me just enjoy the moment.