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Superlatives, The Column

February 2, 2015

I’ve read the data: my readers respond when I insult icons, dissect shabby and rotting pop phenomena, or reel off subjective but very vocal ‘best of’ lists.  So, as much as I enjoy tumbling into great downy word-beds influenced by Ginsberg, Pound, and Joseph Mitchell, today I am giving the people what they want:  I’m going to list some of my favorite (and least favorite) rock-type things, culminating in the crowning of The World’s Douchiest Artist.

Now, let me note this list is ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE and completely based on my personal experience, and I make ZERO claims otherwise. When I list my favorite songs, shows, or records, I recognize that my world-view is relatively limited; for instance, I don’t know very much about jazz, so Oscar Peterson or Keith Jarrett or even Miles could have made something that would shake my musical foundations to their very core, but I was too busy listening to Hawkwind, Fu Manchu or the Kinks to discover it.

So as you go on this little journey with me, remember that I’m not pretending any of this is absolute (though a lot of it probably is).

What was THE best show I ever saw?  If I could go back in time and see ONE band on ONE night again, who would it be?  Easy.  Hanoi Rocks.  At Danceateria in 1983, I saw them define soaring, leaping, splitting, snarling, rock’n’roll; they combined thirty years worth of rock memes into one glitter-metal-punktastic night, taking the most acrobatic, cartoonish, and extreme aspects of the Who, Stooges, Dolls, and Damned and blending it (literally) perfectly into one loud, tight/loose, hissing, sassy, sashaying beast of PURE JOY.   Honorable mention:  The Clash (any/every show I saw ’79 – ’83), Stiff Little Fingers (1980), and R.E.M. circa ‘82/’83.

Hanoi Rocks, circa 1983.

What was THE live performance that turned me into a Puddle on the Floor and Changed My Life? Young Marble Giants at Hurrah in NYC in November 1980.  The show was an exhilarating master class in expanding the possibilities inherent in a rock combo; these three unassuming, pale people walked on stage and introduced to me the idea that quiet and shocking, hushed and gigantic were compatible.  YMG were a tsunami of tension wrapped in beauty, punk rock power tucked in a pocket of a cloud.

Hey, I was at this show.

This painting by Hitler instantly brings to mind “Karn Evil 9″ by ELP, obviously.

What is the Worst Song of the Rock Era?  (N.B., the work of any and all jam bands is exempt, for reasons I explain here)  Recently, a friend was attempting to explain to me that the loathsome, artistically venal and conceptually corrupt ELP were not all bad, and they directed me to the songs “Lucky Man” and “Hoedown.”  I explained the following:  Hitler was a pretty decent landscape painter, but that hardly matters, does it?  Now, let’s assume “Lucky Man” is a reasonably charming painting of the Vienna Opera House. “Karn Evil 9” is the London Blitz.  46,000 civilian dead.  Does one nice watercolor make me forget 46,000 civilian dead?  No, I don’t think so.

If I had only ONE song to listen to for the rest of my life, What would it be? “Hallogallo” by Neu! (please note, as always, the exclamation point is part of the name).  The first track off of Neu!’s first album consolidates the spacious, gorgeous, revolutionary open-mindedness of Krautrock, the nearly-sinister power and maxi-minimalism of the Velvet Underground, the lessons of 20th Century avant-garde composition (like LaMonte Young, Schoenberg, Cage, Reich, Riley, etcetera), the wah-joy heaviness of Hendrix, and A LOT OF DRUGS into one EXTRAORDINARY song.  In addition, EVERY musician should be COMPELLED to listen to “Hallogallo” – it is an extraordinary lesson in harmony, power, and patience, and it serves as a sweet, sweeping enema for all bad musical habits.  Honorable mention:  Nothing.  “Hallogallo” is THE BOMB, figuratively and literally.

The Three Albums You Must OwnPet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Metal Box/Second Edition by PiL, and Ramones by The Ramones.  Each of these are aesthetically nearly perfect, conceptually extraordinary, monstrously influential, and of unquestionable historic value. Honorary Mention:  The Beatles by The Beatles (The White Album).

I know what you’re thinking at this point:  “Tim, I have always been confused by the fact that during the Civil War there were Slave-Owning states that REMAINED part of the Union.  I mean, Tim, we were always told that the Civil War was this slave vs. non-slave kind of thing.  So are you telling me that Lincoln and his honchos actually ALLOWED states where slavery was still LEGAL to stay in the Union?”  Why, yes, that’s true.  The CSA was made up only of stated that SECEDED from the Union; if you were a state where slavery was LEGAL but you DIDN’T join the Confederacy and stayed in the Union, Lincoln and the U.S.A. was perfectly happy to have you.  HISTORY IS FULL OF GRAY AREAS, you see.  Remember that.

Michael Des Barres.

Who is The Nicest Rock Guy Ever?  Easy.  Michael Des Barres.  Not only is he one very talented and charismatic dude (and, if you recall, his song “Grim Reaper” landed in my ten-greatest riffs of all time list), he is also consistently kind and gracious without being superficial and patronizing, and he makes every fan feel like a friend.  Everyone in the freaking business should learn from him; being nice in no way compromises the intensity of your work or your ability to be deeply artistic or rocking.

Finally, Who is the Douchiest Artist of All Time?

Once again, I issue the caveat a) that this just reflects personal experience and b) I never personally interacted with either Paul Simon or Lou Reed, both of whom, I understand, are likely candidates for this honor.  Having said that…

The Douchiest Artist I ever met was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  I present this honor without comment, other than to say the singer was okay, kind-of.  Runner-ups are Jesus and Mary Chain and Ric Ocasek.

This guy was unnecessarily a rude prick to a 16 year-old fan 37 years ago and I have never forgotten.

I want to say a few words about Ric Ocasek, because there’s a lesson in there that I never, ever forgot:  I encountered Ric Ocasek when I was a wide-eyed 16 year-old.  And he was a total dick to me, for no discernible reason.  And I have never, ever forgotten the fact that a “rock star” would actually make the effort to be rude to an excited young fan.  A musician – either in a live situation or off-stage – has only one chance to make a first impression on a fan/listener, and the impression you make will stay with them for life.  Most of the people you meet and most of the people who see your band will only see your band that one time. So never throw away a show, never be rude to someone who just wants to acknowledge that they enjoy their work.  I mean, of course this doesn’t apply to stalkers or people who interrupt you during meals or personal conversations.  But you get the idea.

Godfather of Slocore OUT.  

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The Ten Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time, Revealed!

December 11, 2014

There is a delicious squabble going on in the webbernet:  Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies is appropriately livid that his brother Ray has recently taken credit for the earth-changing guitar sound Dave devised for “Your Really Got Me.” Now, Dave doesn’t contend that Ray more-or-less wrote the riff; he just is alarmed that Ray is taking credit for the sound, which was as significant an element of this stunning scene-change as the riff itself.

Dave Davies

Any follower of the Kinks (especially one cognizant of the mercurial and frequently downright-unpleasant behavior of Ray Davies) is barely surprised by this most recent kerfuffle.  Without a doubt, Dave’s story is the one to be believed.  In July 1964, when Dave stuttered and distorted the bar-chord that Bo Diddley had fiddled with a decade or so earlier, he literally invented an entirely new avenue for rock music; it is one of the fundamental moments in the history of the guitar.

In any event, the whole thing got me to thinking about riffs. I have been a serious fucking acolyte and proselytizer for the Church of the Riff pretty much since the day I first heard “You Really Got Me.”  Riffs are the crosses the rock’n’roll Christ was nailed to, the stone upon which the rock’n’roll church was built.  Riffs are the raised print on the calling card of rock. Me likee riffs long time.

Jesus (artist’s interpretation). Somehow, he has worked his way into this discussion.

And no, I don’t consider “Louie Louie” the Baby Jesus of all riffs; in its’ first incarnations, the “Louie Louie” riff is a fiddle-thin piano plink transcribed to guitar; admirable in composition, but pale in execution, especially when held up to the Kinks sonic farts to come.  For all intents and purposes, the riff era begins in June of 1964, when Dave slugs out those hefty F-G’s.

And by “riffs,” I am talking about something fairly specific:  a sequence of bar chords played on the guitar in a repetitive fashion, with a significant element of the song introduced or sung over the chord sequence.  For instance, “Can’t Explain” by the Who is (what I call) a riff; the (nearly as arresting) “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain is not (great part, but too much single-note diddling and not enough bar chords). Likewise, the extraordinary, branding arpeggios that inaugurate “Don’t Fear The Reaper” isn’t (for the purposes of this discussion) a riff, but the slug-like bolts of armor that open BÖC’s “Godzilla” most certainly is.  And anything keyboard-driven is not up for consideration, which eliminates worthy riffs like “Tin Soldier” by the Small Faces or “Open Your Eyes” by the Nazz.

Got it?

So I thought I would take the time to list my favorite riffs.  Yeah.  These are more or less in order.  Yeah.

Jailbreak Thin Lizzy

There is so much to say about Thin Lizzy — they almost literally invented the modern day rock ballad, their influence on U2 (and all modern posture rock) is incalculable, along with Springsteen they showed their was a middle ground between proletariat crowd-rabble rousing and sensitive and credible songwriting, and Phil Lynott is one of the great rock stars of all time – but I often just prefer to think of them as the writers of the greatest riff in rock history.   It’s “Can’t Explain” re-written by Free, it’s “Gloria” running for a subway, it’s a big chunk of rubbery tuna gulping for breath between slabs of mayonnaise, it is almost dream-like in it’s weird mixture of gigantic and intimate, it is the riff’s riff.

I Need You The Kinks

After the success of You Really Got Me, the Kinks tried a lot of variations on the slurring bar-chord thing, each a little better than the one before.  This is the apotheosis; it’s as if the Kinks saw into the future they had created, and just let the beast loose, predicting the feedback howl of The Creation or Hendrix, the punk aggression of the Stooges or Pistols, and the junkyard repetition of Suicide or krautrock.

Cities on Flame With Rock’n’Roll  Blue Öyster Cült

Yes, I know it’s a re-write of Sabbath’s “The Wizard,” but it’s a superior re-write, dammit, reducing the somewhat frantic jumble of the Sabbath original into a menacing slur that sounds like an eight-story Golem trashing the car-part yards that one used to find near Shea Stadium.  True, it almost disqualifies itself due to its’ single note-to-bar chord ratio, but those first three chords just announce the Fall of Man as well as anything ever recorded, so this has to get on the list. 

Grim Reaper Detective

Let’s say someone gave Led Zeppelin an IV-drip full of pure Costa Rican coffee beans, then told them to spit out a riff based on the “Odessa stairs” sequence in the movie Battleship Potemkin, with the further instruction to make it sound like “You Really Got Me” played sideways by someone describing the Running of the Bulls, and you have this strange, aggressive, gorgeous riff.  I also believe this is the only riff here that’s from an out-of-print and non-streamed record, and that’s a goddamn shame.  I will further note that if you grew up on Long Island in the 1970s, you knew this as the song in the Speaks commercial. 

I Want You The Troggs

Clearly, just a re-write of the “Wild Thing” riff that had made the Troggs famous, but because they’re, well, the Troggs, they couldn’t help but make it dumber, fiercer, and more threatening (and did I mention dumber?); this is the sound of a bully stealing the meds from a school for children with downs’ syndrome and then burning the place down, and then going to fuck his girlfriend, who looks a lot like Juliette Lewis after she drank a lot of cough syrup. 

AC/DC, who are not on this list, for reasons explained immediately to the left of this picture.

Now is probably a good time to answer a question you are most surely asking:  Why is there no Sabbath or AC/DC on the list?  AC/DC aren’t here for the same reason you don’t put John Entwistle on a best bassists’ list or Pet Sounds on a best albums list: their presence is so obvious that to include them would just humble, obfuscate, clog, and complicate the completion of the entire project.  For instance, you could inarguably include at least three AC/DC riffs in the top ten – “Highway to Hell,” “Sin City,” and “TNT” — and could make a good case for including four, five, six, or seven; so if one is going to functionally complete a list like this, you have to do it without AC/DC.  Let’s just call them Lords of the Riff, and be done with it.  As for Black Sabbath, I’ll be frank:  What Sabbath did (and to a degree, invented, though the Move, also from Birmingham, seems to have dabbled with it first) was pretty freaking amazing, but their brethren and offspring actually improved on it; the stoner and doom metal movement that emerged in the late ‘80s and beyond took the Coyote Crawl of Sabbath’s slabber and turned it into Cerebus Slobbering through the sludge of Hades; basically, you can pick up any CD by Fu Manchu, Weedeater, Wo Fat, Electric Wizard, Orange Goblin, and many, many more, and you’ll see that they’ve basically bettered Sabbath at their own game.

Now, back to the list.

Roadrunner Jonathan Richman

A lot of great riffs are re-interpretations of earlier classic riffs; “Roadrunner” was a taming of the Velvets’ world-ending and feral “Sister Ray,” but they replaced the drug beast howl of “Sister Ray” with a clarity and krautrock motorik discipline, and even an overlay of Fabs/Big Star sensitivity.   It’s one of the great stompy-fisty riffs of all time, “Autobahn” transcribed by the Dave Clark 5. 

Farmer John The Premieres

It’s curious that this riff appears nowhere in Don and Dewey’s original version of “Farmer John” (a wonderful, but riff-less, dose of amphetamine r’n’b via the Everlys); I would love to know how the Premieres came up with this, and why they attached it to this song (anyone who wants to contribute some thoughts/theories, please do so).  It’s a slightly more elaborate, more syncopated, and less drunken variation of “Louie Louie,” and Neil Young did a kickass version, too, in which he underlined the proto-Sabbath slur of the riff by filling it with volume and morphine. 

Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult

BÖC have the honor of being the only band represented on this list twice.  A profoundly influential riff – along with a pile of Sabbath riffs, this piece alone virtually sired Stoner metal — BÖC have strapped a standard Sabbath slur to the back of a twelve-ton slug and created a perfect personification, via guitar, of the Lizard God honored in the lyrics.

Sweet Jane The Velvet Underground

Stately, patient, majestic, instantly embracing, not so much a swagger as a confident, straight-backed march to the table that’s been waiting for you at the hippest club in the city.   Would love to know where this came from; an earlier memorable VU riff, “There She Goes Again,” was appropriated lock, stock, and barrel from Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” but I can find no source for this. 

Making Time The Creation

An angry, arty, chunky interpretation of what the Who, the Small Faces, and the Move were doing, only the Creation do it perfectly.  There’s something decidedly odd about the chord selection, making me think that perhaps it was composed backwards.  It’s a shame Hendrix never covered this; there’s a deeply beautiful drunk on a tightrope snarl here that he would have nailed.

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