Monthly Archives: August 2010

Clash Week, Thursday: “London Calling”

The Clash have two of the best opening songs on an album: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”, and the title track off their third LP, London Calling. Its famous guitar line charges along and seers through the speakers.  For a band known for anthems of defiance, “London Calling” is a true call to arms.  “London Calling” is a punk rock version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.  Joe Strummer spits out the venomous lyrics, and lays waste to what he sees an injustice society.

I’ve often thought of “London Calling” as the last manifesto of a radio DJ.  He knows the world is falling apart, and he’s going to air it all out – if the Thames floods all of London will be fucked, nuclear disaster is imminent and  -“London Calling to the faraway town,” is the sign-on.  In fact the phrase “London Calling” was used during radio broadcasts during World War II – further identifying the song with the apocalypse.

As if the song weren’t gruesome enough, the middle-section contains a breakdown where Strummer lets out his inner-beast with a series of wolf-like howls.  It’s hard to guess whether Strummer made it up on the spot, but the song wouldn’t be the same without it.  (In fact, he repeats the howls again just before the final verse.)  The songs ends rather suddenly, just as Topper Headon swings into a drum-roll, over which Strumme half finishes a lyric: “I never felt so much a-like…” In the background there’s an echoing of morse-code – the DJ’s final cry for help.

The first time I heard “London Calling” was on a mix-tape that my sister made for my mother back when I was a teenager.  It’s thrashing chords felt out of place on a tape that was filled with songs from the Waterboys, U2, Van Morrison, and the Chieftans.  I’m not exactly sure why it was on there, but it quickly grew to be my favorite song off that tape.  It would be years before I fully got into The Clash and understood the importance of “London Calling”, but even as an early teen it struck a chord with me.

“London Calling” has frequently been cited as not only one of The Clash’s best songs, but one of rock’s best as well.  Rolling Stone named it #15 on their 500 greatest songs of rock and roll.  (London Calling the album was also named #7 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)  It also one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

Videos galore, dear readers!

Studio Version of “London Calling”:

The Clash performing “London Calling” Live:

Joe Strummer & The Pogues:

And finally, Bruce Springsteen putting his own spin on “London Calling”:

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Clash Week, Wednesday: “Safe European Home”

“Safe European Home” is without a doubt the best song off The Clash’s second LP “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”.  Even if the rest the album were good (which it’s not) it would be hard to follow “Safe European Home”.   It’s a bit more polished than the songs off The Clash, but it’s harder hitting.  Topper Headon’s opening drums commands you to listen – and if you’re not Mick Jones’ power chords will pull you in.  By the time you’re hooked, Joe Strummer is back from the place he never wants to go again, but ready to relay the story back to you.

The story goes that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took a trip to Jamaica, and felt out so out of place that they came home and wrote “Safe European Home” is response.  “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” Strummer laments in the chorus.  “And sitting here in my safe European home, I don’t want to go back there, again.”  The Clash have sometimes been described as naive in some instances, and this is one instance where I can say that critics might have actually have a point.  Bob Marley was shot a year or two before Strummer and Jones arrived in Jamaica (depending on the time-frame) for trying to ease political tensions at a free concert.  Did Strummer and Jones expect to be welcome with open arms because they talked about world issues and played reggae music?

But Strummer and Jones’ misfortune made for great music.  Like John Lennon who turned his marital issues into the great (and perhaps under-rated) “Ballad of John and Yoko”, Strummer’s first person account in song was at times self-deprecating.  Strummer spits out each line with venom and Mick Jones calls back, “Where’d you go?” after each line.  It’s as if he can’t believe that Strummer actually went.  His calls demand Strummer to finish the story.    Strummer ends his tale stating, “I’d stay and be a tourist, but I can’t take the gun-play.”

The break-down in the second half of the song sounds like an escape.  Jones strums his guitar in a repeating crunch.  Strummer starts mumbling and scatting about “rudie can’t fail” (a theme that would be explored later on “Rudie Can’t Fail”) as the band tries to regain itself.  Topper Headon brings tension, by creating some of the best drum rolls ever put to record.  But ultimately, Strummer (as one most Clash songs) steals the show through his combination of Springsteen-sincerity, Dylan-esque sneer, and Lennon self-deprication showcased in this song.

Safe European Home:

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Well It was Bound to Happen…

Somebody’s already on the Arcade Fire backlash…

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Clash Week: Monday: “Garageland”

The Clash’s “Garage Land” is not only one of the best songs off of their debut, but it’s also one of the best responses to a harsh review.  In 1977, New Musical Express wrote that The Clash were “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage.”  While it probably bothered The Clash they got bad press, they certainly weren’t pissed at being called a “garage band” as the lyrics suggest.  Not only do they play garage music, “we come from garage land” snarls Joe Strummer in the chorus.

Funnily enough, “Garage Band” starts off with a riff that sounds pretty mainstream.  The riff that Mick Jones plays seems destined to be played to on the radio.  But after a few seconds, it’s clear that the riff is deception and the song quickly reveals itself to a be a jagged mid-tempo rocker. The first verse describes the love of being inside the garage, even as carbon monoxide hangs in the air, and people knock on the doors.  And if there’s any question about their motives, Strummer declares, “We’re a garage band.  We come from garage land.”

Luckily Strummer is smart, and can sense his detractors’ criticism before they have the time to pronounce.  Some might suggest that being inside the garage is just a bubble, and that The Clash would perhaps be jealous of other bands.  “I don’t want to go where the rich are going.  I don’t want to go where the rich are going,” Strummer spits out.  “They think they’re so clever.  They think they’re so bright.”

Here’s the original studio version:

And a version from 1977, which shows why The Clash were one of the greatest live bands ever:

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Summer Songs, Friday: “Summertime”

“Summertime” is a perennial favorite.  Originally written by George Gershwin, the song has become something of an American standard and classic.  Even though it was written for the opera Porgy & Bess, remarkably it sounds like a folk song that has since become part of the American consciousness.  Wikipedia states that are over 15,000 different versions of the song recorded to date.

The song is perhaps most notable for its opening lines, “Summertime and the living is easy”.   Whether or not that is true for everyone, I personally think it’s a life that many Americans seek.  (Until researching for this post, I had no idea that it was originally sung as a lullaby in Porgy & Bess.  Bess sings it to Clara’s baby.)

There are several different versions of this song, which I love.  My favorite version is Sam Cooke’s (almost anything Sam Cooke did was better than anyone else’s – except for his version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”.)

Billie Holiday also does a great version as well:

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Summer Songs, Thursday: “Spirit in the Night”

Not many other artists exemplify summer like Bruce Springsteen.  “Spirit in the Night” doesn’t have summer in its title nor does it mention it specifically.  But from the opening notes of the Big Man’s saxophone, it’s clear that Bruce is going to tell a tale where the night is hot and anything can happen.

At the beginning of his career, Springsteen was tagged as the next “Bob Dylan”.  He’s too earnest and sincere for that title, but “Spirit in the Night” does contain a Dylan-esque collection of characters: Crazy Janey, the mission man, hazey Davey and killer Joe.

The studio version of “Spirit in the Night” feels kind of lazy and disconnected.  Due to being one of the last song’s written for the album, the final track only has Springsteen, Clemons, and original drummer Vinnie Lopez playing.  Clemon’s opening saxophone takes us to open back roads of New Jersey.  You can feel the wind blowing through your hair.  Springsteen’s narrative takes us through a night of drinking, casual sex, and a mud-fight.  Like the best Springsteen songs, the crux of the song relies on nostalgia and how the listeners relate to it.  I’m willing to bet most everyone has had a night like “Spirit in the Night”.

In contrast to the studio version, the live version from the Hammersmith Odeon 1975 CD is a monster.  If the lyrics describe a night out and all of the friends adventures, then Springsteen delivers the lines like no one is going to see the next morning – instead of “all night” it’s suddenly  “all damn night”. It’s been written that Springsteen was pissed/frightened that night due to the hype the British press was giving the band. This version is the sound of a band teetering on the edge, and playing with everything they go.  It’s hard to tell who is pushing who – is Springsteen pushing the band, or are they pushing him to spit out his lyrics at a furious place? (I’ve heard quite a few versions of “Spirit in the Night” from the same era, and none come to matching this performance.)

This one isn’t from that performance, but it’s as close as I could get:

This one doesn’t have the entire show.  But it’s worth checking out just for Springsteen’s enormous hair.

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Bob Dylan’s Voice

(I wrote this about four years ago for a class, and just recently found it.)

Bob Dylan’s voice has often been criticized. It can easily be imitated and is instantly recognizable. Lots of people think that they can imitate Dylan, maybe even singer better than him. The debate over Dylan’s voice has followed him for his entire career, and continues to this day.  When his latest CD “Modern Times”, was released in late August 2006, there were some accusations that his voice was entirely shot.  To be fair, Dylan’s voice today is much more of a smoky old man, than a young protester.

A co-worker once remarked to me that she hates and never listens to Bob Dylan “because of his voice”.  Though she respected him she said, because he is a great songwriter.  That seemed like a contradiction, and a bit of a cop-out.  How could she tell if he was such a great songwriter, if she never listens to him?

People use Bob Dylan’s voice as an excuse for why they don’t listen to him. Dylan’s stature in American music – hell, as an American icon – is so firmly secured that to question his validity is an embarrassment. Because Dylan is so literate and his songs offer so many interpretations Dylan does not necessarily make for easy listening. Many of his songs do not get stuck in your head the way that, say a Beatles song  would.  As result, it’s much easier to say that you don’t like his voice rather than just flatly state that Dylan “fucking sucks”.   It’s easier to say and more acceptable.

It can sometimes be easy too overstate Dylan’s importance and influence on American music.  The man practically changed the whole sonic landscape of what a singular song could be.   Dylan is one of the few lyricists whose words actually look good on paper, and could questionably be categorized as poems. (Though this is constantly up for debate.) Even though his words may look good on paper, and many different emotions are contained within them, like many performers his words take on a new edge when actually sung.

Take, for instance Dylan’s most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone” which contains the following chorus:

How does it feel?  To be without a home?  To be on your own?  Like a rolling stone?

When sung, “feel” is dragged out to become “feeeeeeeeel” – the song becomes more icy and vicious with that inflection.  You get a sense of his anger and frurstation at the girl whom he is singing to.  At the beginning of  verse, Dylan adds an “Awww” before continuing with the song’s next line, reinforcing the song’s sarcasm and biting edge.

Similarly in “It’s all Over Now Baby Blue” Dylan uses his voice’s limitations to his advantage.  The first two stanzas of each verse are sung in his “normal singing voice”, while the second two are sung in a lower voice.  For the chorus, Dylan returns to his normal voice, creating a chilling and memorable affect.

Like most singers, Dylan puts an emphasis on certain words and phrases in order to make a point.  In  “Baby Blue” one of the best examples might be the word “coincidence” as in, “take what you have gathered from coincidence.”  However, Dylan pronounces coincidence as “co-IN-zid-DENSE”.  The slight variation of the syllables changes the subject entirely and he becomes quite scornful, which perhaps is not so coincidental after all.

Dylan’s catalogue is rich with such examples of this change of syllables and emphasis on certain words.  The point remains that Dylan used his voice’s limitations to his advantage, and by doing that, he changed musical history.

Prior to Dylan’s emerging on the music scene, most singers and musicians had to  have a voice that appealed to a mass audience.  Dylan changed that.  When Dylan met the Beatles in 1965, they were still considered a “pop” group, while Dylan’s status leaned more to that of an artist.  After their meeting, the Beatles’ music and lyrics began to change dramatically as a result.  John Lennon wrote “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” as if it were a Dylan song – it was a change of pace from the Beatles’ previous songs about girls.  Dylan on the other hand, went in the opposite direction and traded his trademark straightforward lyrics, for a more abstract approach.

But it should also be noted that The Beatles, along with other groups, began to change the way they sang around the same.  There were some exceptions prior to Dylan.  (John Lennon practically screams his head off during “Twist and Shout”).  But the Beatles and other groups started moving away from two vocal harmonies to single vocal tracks.  Because Dylan’s voice broke the boundary, other experiments could follow.  Even though the Who claim the stuttering during “My Generation” was a reference to the Mods’ use of speed, it could not have happened without Dylan’s influence.

Since 1965, different vocal styles developed overtime, as a result of various different musical movements such as punk, metal, and even emo. But there is little doubt that these vocal variations could not have existed without Dylan.

To paraphrase one of his most famous lyrics, Dylan never looks back.  This might be a reason why even to this day, he changes the songs entirely live. Sometimes it’s in a different key, sometimes the songs are sung slower – other times it’s so entirely different it becomes hardly recognizable. Other artists tend to duplicate their recorded vocals live to the point of parody.

Why does Dylan decide to change his vocals so much?  Is it because he gets bored? It’s hard to tell.  I think that Dylan realizes that he cannot duplicate his recorded vocals, and instead of trying to, creates something new.  Dylan has always been one to look forward, not back, and this makes sense.  In this way, he uses his voice to give himself and the audience a new way to look at his songs – which, I believe will last forever.

So to anyone who ever says Bob Dylan’s voice “fucking sucks,” – I suggest they check out “Nashville Skyline.”  Because there he actually sings differently than he normally sings, and it sounds much more akin to a normal vocalist.  But the question is – his real voice, or is he putting on yet another mask?  If that’s his real voice, Dylan’s “voice” is even more influential than anything we could possibly imagine.

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