Browsing Tag


Arts and Entertainment, Brooklyn Bugle, Existential Stuff, Music, Opinion

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.

From the Web

Arts and Entertainment, Existential Stuff, Music, News, Opinion

Why Jam Bands Suck and Hawkwind Doesn’t

September 29, 2014

I was recently revising my Worst Bands of All Time list, and I asked myself, “Why are there no Jam Bands on this list? That seems very odd indeed, Tim, because Jam Bands are to music what Bret Easton Ellis is to Human Beings.” Part of the problem, of course, is that jam bands would clog up any “worst band” list almost immeasurably; but I decided to try to articulate why I have always considered Jam Bands exempt from the Worst Bands list:

Michael Rockefeller, who deserves better than to be casually referenced in a column on Jam Bands, though in this photo he does look like he might be on his way to a String Cheese Incident concert.

Like the cannibals who captured and consumed Michael Rockefeller in 1961, Jam Bands are generally an aberration that eat their own and don’t mess too much with outsiders. Yes, occasionally there’s a Michael Rockefeller-type incident, but these are rare enough that it’s generally (relatively) safe to pretend Jam Bands don’t exist, and just let them go about their own business.

However, the horrific atrocities of the last century have taught us to Never Forget, and we must, both as a culture and as individuals, never forget this: The world MUST know and MUST be reminded, in schools, in the household, and via the media, that NO ONE who owns a Mandolin should ever, under any circumstances, be permitted to listen to an Ornette Coleman Record while on drugs.

Impaled Nazarene, a Finnish Death Metal Band

It’s true, I just don’t get it, Jam Bands, that is, and by “don’t get it,” I mean I really really don’t get it. Occasionally, I will hear a Dead song and think “Huh…Phil Lesh has it going on,” but beyond that, the whole freaking genre is a black freaking hole to me. Maybe it’s a “lifestyle” thing, like the way most hardcore music was; I mean, you can throw a dart at a list of Finnish death metal bands and any name you hit will be more aesthetically pleasing than virtually any American hardcore band of the early/mid 1980s, but hardcore was a social thing, see? Oh okay SSD were pretty good and the Circle Jerks were great, and no, I am not counting the Bad Brains, because they were a musical life-force of astounding powers, a Nut-Cracking Shiva, so, they are their own freaking genre. And yes, Nut Cracking Shiva is a pretty goddamn hot band name.

Where was I?

In reality, I think the primary reason I cannot even remotely stand Jam Bands is because, well, because they’re not Hawkwind. See, the world deserves amazing jam music, which is to say, music of spontaneity and power and barely controlled but totally controlled out-of-control-ness and music that sounds great on drugs and music that sounds like you’re on drugs even when you’re not and music that sounds like an endless highway curling under the aurora borealis and music that sounds like the universe waking up in the morning and getting out of bed and music that sounds like the universe tucking itself into bed at night; but somehow, Jam Band music in the U.S. only sounds like one fucking thing, like the brutal lubrication-less wanks of people who have picked up the worst parts of jazz and bluegrass and who really paid attention when they went to Berklee.

WHERE DID THIS IDEA ORIGINATE THAT ‘JAM BANDS’ ALL HAD TO MOVE THEIR FINGERS REALLY FAST?!? That’s not a worthwhile skill, that’s just proving you had no friends in high school.

Listen, Hawkwind is a fucking jam band. Perhaps the best. They start up their generator and get into gear and the thing lifts off with a little weight on it like a helicopter pulling out of the U.S embassy in Hanoi and then BOY it kicks in and revs up and sounds like a greasy truck full of cows on dope speeding down the Autobahn, and at some point it runs out of gas and goes for a little nap in the restroom at the planetarium. Listen to Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974) and Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975) and Space Ritual (1973) and Live At the BBC (1972) and hear what a real fucking Jam band sounds like. And Stereolab are a fucking jam band, listen to Peng! (1992) and Switched On (1993) and you’ll hear buzzing guitars doing wheelchair races with Stephen Hawking and synths whizzing and bubbling and barely keeping up and it’s a Radiophonic Workshop of extreme melody and Mesmer-rhythm fighting over who gets to go inside your brain and pump it with the most aural adderall and absinthe, now that’s a fucking jam band; or try listening to the first album by Ash Ra Tempel, (1971), now that is the fucking definition of a jam band, it starts in space and ends up in the mosh pit, imagine the Stooges if the Stooges had way way way way way way way way

way way way way way too much cough syrup and forgot to write any songs; and do you want to hear two perfect examples of what a jam band should REALLY be, both from bands you’ve actually heard of? Listen to “What Goes On” from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, this is the sound of a band totally freaking losing themselves in the music; time stops, time goes eighty-eight hours in a minute, this is a band finding the perfect chords and hanging on to them through every single Bardo stage and living inside of those chords while lying on amphetamine-filled bean bags; and if you want something a bit more controlled but vaporizes the soul just as intensely, listen to “Carnage Visors” by the Cure, a 28-minute instrumental track released by the Cure in 1981 as a cassette-only bonus to their (phenomenal) Faith album; it winds through simple, endless, repetitive arpeggios, it sounds like a day-long Morphine dream that Dave Gilmour keeps on popping in and out of, it implies endlessness, an extraordinary quality for as song to project, it sounds like Robert Smith wrote a song while watching goldfish swim around in Goldschläger and it’s just perfect, and it’s exactly what a jam band should sound like.

And none of it sounds like a bunch of people practicing minor-chord mandolin runs while the rhythm section plays flyshit.

And there are a million more of ‘em out there right now, and Alex Maiolo probably knows the names of all of them, so get in touch with him for a list.

Oh…and as for that Worst Band list…we’ll save that for another time. Let’s just say that number one begins with an “O” and rhymes with “Ingo Boingo.”

From the Web