You know what? It’s the weekend. I’m gonna spend the next coupla weeks being a kid. You folks try it.
The Beatles made their final live appearance on the roof of Apple Records, a concert made famous in the film Let It Be. Here now is a clip from that concert…
OK, that’s not “Get Back.” Here’s the real clip, after the jump.
Every band wants to do its “Sgt. Pepper” album, an album that not only redefines how the band is perceived, but redefines how music is done. The Stones had one in Exile on Main Street. Deep Purple raised the bar on live albums with Made in Japan. Go back a little earlier, before Sgt. Pepper’s even, and you have Bob Dylan upping the lyrical ante with Highway 61 Revisited.
Arguably, though, there is no more influential album after Sgt. Pepper’s than Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. If this was the only album Floyd ever recorded, their place in rock history would have been assured. This is Pink Floyd at its peak, when the band was functioning as four equal members, each one doing something to redefine its sound. Couple that with the pioneering work by engineer Alan Parsons, and you have an album that was, to put it mildly, revolutionary. British rock had to go punk. American rock had to turn back to its fifties roots after Dark Side. Because four guys from London figured out what everything in the sixties was building up to, then actually did it.
There were a lot of single-worthy moments on this one in the album-oriented rock era (a format that’s been overdue for a comeback since the end of the grunge era). “Money” is the obvious one, but then there’s “Time” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” the last pair serving as the albums “title track.” The album started with a simple premise: What can we do that’s different? And then if it sucks, how do we make it good?
From Gilmour’s plaintive guitar (I still say he’s a damn sight better than a hundred “pyrotechnic” players who are all flash, no emotion. Right, Yngwie Malmsteen?) to Rick Wright’s soulful vocal turns to Roger Waters’ poetic take on madness and desperation. Even Syd Barrett is here, if only in spirit. (“And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes/I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon…”)
I could go on and on about the spoken word snippets throughout the album or what was going through Waters’ mind when he wrote the lyrics, but it’s really the musicianship that makes this album. It’s why I prefer A Momentary Lapse of Reason (written for Wright and Mason by Gilmour) and The Division Bell (written by Gilmour and Wright) to The Final Cut (a whiny Roger Waters not foisting his daddy issues on unsuspecting listeners.) The entire album is one long experiment, a jam session in multitrack done over months where even the engineer is a performer. In adding the sound effects, done over several weekends by Waters and Masons in their respective tool sheds, Parsons sweated with his fingers on the reels and the controls as the band literally twisted themselves into pretzel like contortions string tape around the room so they could run things like the cash register from “Money” on a perpetual loop.
“Great Gig in the Sky” with any other band would have been nothing but a demo. Clare Torry’s wordless death wail, however, left the band speechless. They weren’t sure the idea would even work, and Torry thought for a moment when she finished that she’d blown the take. Instead, they recorded one of rock’s greatest vocal turns. Any singer backing Floyd, Roger Waters, or David Gilmour had better have the pipes to measure up (They usually do.) because that is one rough song to cover.
“Money” is really the defining song on this album, not because of the lyrics. (“Time” does more to define the album lyrically.) If you listen to the individual instruments, particularly on the solos, you’ll notice it’s only the bass and the drums that play continuously through the song. The sax solo and Gilmour’s guitar solo, not to mention Wright’s organ line, are all full of stops and pauses. Even today, bands the caliber of Metallica, Rush, and the Foo Fighters usually (not always, though) play all the featured instruments continuously. So Dark Side is unique even in 2013.
How big was Dark Side‘s impact? When the band broke up for the first time in 1983, it was still charting, ten years after its release, and continued to do so for years afterward. Covers of entire albums are rare, but Dark Side and The Wall are two of the most commonly remade. Flaming Lips even did a concert where they covered the entire opus.
And there’s something else about it. I’ve often heard (and even used to say) “Oh, I’ll never get sick of this album or this band.” It’s always wrong. But a friend of mine told me when I was sixteen that, if you love Dark Side, you never get sick of it. It’s one of those albums that’s often in the background when some milestone in your life happens. I listened to it during a lunar eclipse one year and called my cousin at the radio station that was playing it, saying, “You have no idea what it’s like driving around with this on, man!” I’d just watched a jetliner cruise past the reddening moon. My cousin, who was Mike Rose of Akron’s WONE working a rare weekday shift at the time said, “Jim, did you smoke something for this?”
No, but I do know a couple people who lost their virginity to this album (one during that same eclipse. I’m jealous. That would have been a great night to… Um… Never mind.) One writer I know finished his first novel to this album. Another person proposed to his girlfriend with Dark Side on in the background. It’s unobtrusive, very mellow, but at the same time, classic in a way only jazz albums usually are. Most rock albums that reach this sort of stature are very loud, very in-your-face, very rebellious and grandstanding. That’s fine. I love that in Appetite for Destruction and The Black Album and Moving Pictures. But Dark Side is thoughtful if you let the words sink in. It’s relaxing when you don’t. But it always, always, always sticks with you.
That’s a masterpiece defined.
In rock, the lead singer and the lead guitarist are gods. The drummer is automatically cool by virtue of banging the living bejesus out of the skins. However, two positions usually get less respect than they deserve. First is the keyboard player, mainly because just as often as not, they are added to a band as an afterthought. The other is bass.
And screwing with the bass player is the most dangerous thing a band can do. Unless your bass player is an insufferable tyrant (see Floyd, Pink; Waters, Roger), it’s generally a bad idea to boot the man on the four-string guitar. While it may be true that any band with Dave Grohl that doesn’t feature Pat Smear or Taylor Hawkins is not the Foo Fighters, consider that Nate Mendehl has been the Foos bassist almost from the band’s inception.
Part of the problem is the bass’s function. It’s part of the rhythm section. Not as flashy as the drums, nor as melodic as the lead or even rhythm guitar, too often a mediocre bass player stands off to the side and plucks two or three notes. In reality, a bass player can make or break a band. Deep Purple imploded after firing not one (Nick Simper) but two (Roger Glover) bassists, going for a third who was more a vocalist than a bass player. (No one ever accused Ritchie Blackmore of being rational, which is why Steve Morse has had his old job for almost 20 years now.) Yes is nothing without Chris Squire. Rush is nothing without Geddy Lee. The Who didn’t have a lead guitarist while John Entwistle was alive, at least until Roger Daltrey resumed playing again. Pink Floyd hired a jazz bassist to replace Roger Waters. Metallica depended on Jason Newsted to essentially add a third guitar following the death of Cliff Burton, whom the band needed to gel in their early days. Witness the Mighty Met’s 2003 flop St. Anger, which did not have a regular bass player on it, vs. Death Magnetic, where Robert Trujillo balances the band out once again.
It was Paul McCartney who brought the bass front and center. When The Beatles began, bass had evolved from the old days when a guy with a big bass violin stood off to the side and plucked a few notes to fatten up the drums. Not McCartney, who started out as one of three guitarists in The Beatles. When Stuart Sutcliffe left the band, McCartney moved over to bass and decided to treat it like a really loud, deep-voiced second guitar.
At the same time, the Rolling Stones depended on sound-obsessed Keith Richards, a man not afraid of overdubbing as many as eight guitars on a song, to define their sound. That sound would not have existed without Bill Wyman. Wyman and Richards often dispute who wrote what (generally agreeing Mick was always in the equation), but part of that stems from Wyman treating the bass exactly the way McCartney does. Notice how the Stones’ new material suffered for a time after Wyman retired. Jagger famously said, “So what? We lost the bass player.” Richards, on the other hand, saw the loss as damaging to the Stones as when they fired Brian Jones and when Mick Taylor quit. Daryl Jones may be a salaried player, but Richards finds him indispensable, as, I suspect, does Charlie Watts.
So who do I think are the best bass players ever?
- John Entwistle (The Who) – Entwistle didn’t play bass. He played lead guitar on four or five strings. Nowhere is this more apparent than the first few bars of “The Real Me.” It doesn’t even sound like a bass. It sounds like a really throaty lead guitar.
- Chris Squire (Yes) – Like Entwistle, Squire takes the idea of bass as a rhythm instrument as a polite suggestion. Part of Yes’ sound is Squire’s melodic, and sometimes harmonized, bass. His is the Fender that launched a thousand bass players.
- Geddy Lee (Rush) – If anyone picked up Squire’s cues, it’s Lee. While Lee’s style was already noticeable on Rush’s first album, things really amped up a notch when they recruited the acrobatic Neil Peart (Think Keith Moon, only sober, less ADHD addled, and extremely intellectual).
- Tony Levin (John Lennon, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Anderson Wakeman Bruford & Howe) – Chris Squire, John Paul Jones, or John Wetton not available? Tony Levin’s your go-to guy. Like Entwistle, Levin doesn’t play bass like a bass. In fact, one of his basses is not really a bass. It’s a Stick. Like Squire and Entwistle, you can pick Levin out on a song without even knowing he’s on it.
- Pete Trewavas (Marillion, Transatlantic) – Underrated, partly because his bands are fairly obscure, Trewavas has what the others have: A loud, melodic style that does far more than keep time. Indeed, if you listen to Marillion’s opening salvo with original lead singer Fish, you’ll notice the bass line is more integral to the songs than in other bands.
When most people think of The Beatles’ most influential album, they usually think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you listen to what came before, you can see why. It took The Beatles’ own Revolver and Rubber Soul, along with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and turned it up to 11.
But let’s be honest. Sgt. Pepper’s sounds dated. There are songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver that still sound fresh and modern 45 years later. Sgt. Pepper’s is more a snapshot of the era in which it was recorded. If you want to look at the most influential album The Beatles ever recorded, you have to take a serious listen to their self-titled follow-up, colloquially known as The White Album.
It, too, is clearly a product of the sixties, but as often as not, the songs defy definition. A few, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” have achieved timelessness. Not bad considering that the guest guitarist, Eric Clapton, was pining for George Harrison’s wife as the song was recorded.
The White Album emerged during an era when The Beatles had abandoned live touring for the studio. So from 1966 until 1969, The Beatles would practically live at Abbey Road. By now, Apple Records was a going concern and Brian Epstein had already passed away. The Beatles were the biggest band in the world and could literally do no wrong. (Almost. The Magical Mystery Tour proved they could make a bad movie.)
So what do you do when you’ve created the album against which all future rock albums will be compared? (The Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was an admitted dig while Dark Side of the Moon is constantly referred to as Pink Floyd’s Sgt. Pepper’s.) The smart answer is “Anything we want.” But with the exception of “Revolution 9,” the band is surprisingly less self-indulgent than many bands at their peak. (Taking notes, Coldplay? Go ask U2 how they recovered for that faux pas.) They kick it off with a Beach Boys parody (“Back in the USSR”) and end it with a show tune (“Good Night”). In between, they hit blues, ragtime, psychedelia, and even heavy metal. To this day, “Helter Skelter,” even without help from Charles Manson, remains one of the most menacing songs ever recorded, giving even Black Sabbath a run for its money. Without it, there would have been no Who’s “Miles and Miles” and likely no “Smoke on the Water.”
Most of the songs, “Cry, Baby, Cry,” “Blackbird,” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” (which you can hear the vibe from in “Cut Me Some Slack” by Paul jamming with Nirvana) don’t sound fixed to any point in time. A few (“Birthday,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) are definitely relics of the later sixties. But the album as a whole, which defies categorization, is a work of art, one that endures nearly fifty years later. Not bad when you consider that Ringo quit in the middle of it and demonstrated that The Beatles were four musicians, not three musicians and a drummer. Paul drums on a couple of songs, but thankfully, they lured Ringo back into the studio before they finished.
Let It Be is overproduced. Abbey Road might be a better album artistically. But The White Album, more than Sgt. Pepper’s, continues to redefine rock 45 years after it was released.
Some time in 2007, Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates fame decided that, instead of the endless touring longtime rock and country musicians seem to do late in their careers, why not bring the music home and put it up on the web or, better, television where more people can see it with only the guests having to travel? Hall has a reconstructed 18-century colonial house in Upstate New York, near where he, partner John Oates, and most of their supporting musicians are based. The only travel would be done by the guests, who would show up, jam, and “have some food, drink some wine.” The result was an hour-long webcast-turned-TV-show Live from Daryl’s House.
Once upon a time, I knew everything there was to know about music and was constantly up on the latest bands. If I didn’t know them, so much the better. I’d get to know them soon enough. That lasted through the nineties, which, to me, was the last great decade for original music with grunge, post-grunge, Brit pop, post-punk, matured heavy metal, and Lillith Fair. It was like the early 1970′s all over again.
Then came American Idol. That pretty much shut down music for me. Is Marillion doing another album? Is there a Rolling Stones album I don’t have yet? Why hasn’t Kurt Cobain’s corpse been reanimated? Chop chop. I want more Nirvana! The Foos aren’t making albums fast enough!
This just all served to make the 2000′s a bigger suckfest than I already thought they were. And then my friend Brian Thornton turned me onto Live From Daryl’s House. Even some of those singers and bands I didn’t like for being too poppy sounded great just jamming in the great room of Daryl’s restored colonial home. The show is Hall with various session musicians from his solo work and Hall & Oates. John Oates does not appear, but he is frequently mentioned. Anyone can show up, from obscure prog rockers Minus the Bear to sexy alternative rocker Grace Potter to seasoned veterans like Joe Walsh and Todd Rundgren (who brought the show to his home in Hawaii. You haven’t lived until you watch a bunch of guys on acoustic guitars play “Bang the Drum” while a hula dancer struts her stuff.) Hall even had his idol, Smokey Robinson, appear. By the way, an elderly Smokey still sounds better without autotune and no studio trickery than the Black Eyed Peas on a good day.
There is a cooking segment as Hall will have a local chef come in to demonstrate what’s for dinner that day. Sometimes, as in the case of the Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik, the guest musician(s) will do the cooking. Late in the show, the musicians all sit around a big table with that day’s dish to swap war stories from the studio and the road.
Usually, the show has about four to six songs, split between Hall’s backlist and the guest’s. Often younger musicians will want to sing some of Hall’s classic hits. For instance, the female lead singer for Fitz and the Tantrums would not be denied her chance to sing “Sara Smile,” while Minus the Bear picked an obscure song from Hall’s Sacred Songs that originally featured King Crimson’s Robert Fripp at his most bizarre. But it’s also a chance for Hall to sing on new material. Grace Potter, for instance, was excited to hear Hall’s harmonies on her hit “Paris (Ooh La La).”
One thing that comes up time and time again during the dinner discussion near the end of the show is the way the music sounds when they play. Many of the musicians note that they love the sound of the room at Hall’s home and marvel at how, aside from wiring it up for electricity, it is closer to the original house than many restored homes. The other noteworthy subject is how imperfect the music sounds. A note goes somewhere unplanned. The rhythms are frequently improvised. There’s just enough rehearsal to learn the songs they play. This is a philosophy that made Keith Richards a personal hero to me, and it’s one Hall is very big on: Play the room, and don’t over-polish the music.
As such, I’ve discovered a lot of new musicians and developed respect for some I didn’t care for previously. I became a fan of Grace Potter and of Nick Waterhouse (“Say I Wanna Know”) as a result. And I fell in love with Philadelphia singer Nikki Jean after hearing her singing Hall & Oates “One on One.”
This is how music is supposed to be written, played, and recorded: On real instruments, with the room as much a part of the sound as the players, and with all its imperfections and unexpected turns left intact.
When I wrote about The Who a while back, somehow, I managed to leave out their masterpiece, Quadrophenia, which is stunning. I played the hell out of that album in my early 20′s. It is, in fact, probably a far superior album to the rock opera Tommy.
The album tells the tale of Jimmy, a teenaged boy in mid-60′s London who is caught in the middle of the violent rift between Mods (the fashion-obsessed fans of The Who’s style of music) and Rockers (leather-jacket clad blues lovers). Jimmy gets kicked out of his parents house after a fight, falls in love with a girl who rejects him, and is disillusioned to realize his Mod idol is working as a bell boy “licking boots for my perks.”
Pete Townshend describes Jimmy as a thoroughly screwed up individual. The title, in fact, is a play the word “schizophrenia,” the “Quad” referring to Jimmy’s for distinct personalities, all based on members of The Who. Jimmy is having a helluva time trying to figure out who he is. The album opens, first with Jimmy walking along the beach, snatches of the songs from the album fading in and out before Jimmy (or rather, Roger Daltrey) growls “Can you see the real me? Can you? Can you?”
And then the real beginning of the album thunders from John Entwistle’s bass. Jimmy’s not doing so well. His shrink says nothing. His mother tells him insanity runs in his family. The girl he used to love doesn’t give him the time of day. A preacher “full of lies and hate” is only scared of him.
Jimmy can’t handle his alcoholic parents. He longs to fit in. He tries everything, wearing all the right fashions and driving GS scooter “with my hair cut neat.” A double album, the final side shows Jimmy’s ultimate deterioration when he meets Ace (the name given in the 1979 movie, but not on the album). Ace, who was something of a god to Jimmy, turns out to be a lowly bell boy at a hotel. Ace is played both boisterously and sadly by Keith Moon, one of his few lead vocal turns with The Who. Jimmy is treated to Moon’s loud, cockney bravado (“You should see me dressed up in my u-nee-form!”). Moon switches with to a quiet lament about wandering in early to work “spending days licking boots for my perks.” It shatters Jimmy’s illusions about the world. He gets drunk and takes on all comers (“Dr. Jimmy”), boasting, even threatening people. (“I’ll bet she’s a virgin/Well, I’m gonna be the first in!/Her boyfriend’s gonna kill me/Oooh! Fuckin’ will he?”) He flees to a beach, depicted by the epic instrumental “The Rock” and Jimmy’s fate is left ambiguous in the album’s finale, “Love Reign O’er Me.” Did he kill himself? Townshend says only the listener knows for sure.
Quadrophenia is the one Who album embraced by progressive rock fans for its non-linear story and almost classical structure. It also proved a nightmare for Townshend, who struggled to get the album done the way he wanted. He was then given only two weeks to prepare for the supporting tour. He pointed out in a documentary on the album that people were not initially receptive to Quadrophenia and that The Who never did anything like it again until 2006′s Endless Wire. By then, only he and Roger Daltrey remained.
Last week marked the end of the Favorite Bands/Musicians feature. I caught all the ones I wanted to talk about, starting with The Beatles and ending with The Foo Fighters. I’ve gotten emails asking, “Why not Rush?” or “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer?” Some want to know why I didn’t do newer bands or how I could leave out Radiohead and most of the hair metal groups.
Simple. I didn’t want to do them.
There’s a certain point where the term “favorite” becomes meaningless. If every band or singer I’ve ever listened to is a favorite, then none of them are favorites.
Also, I opted to start with The Beatles and the Stones because they were the first groups I really got into. And really, any feature that discusses rock and roll must feature them. It’s like going all the way back to the beginning and skipping over Elvis. Speaking of which…
My knowledge of rock prior to 1964 is limited. Rock was still primitive, closer to country than what it later became. I know. This is what Lennon and McCartney, Mick and Keith, even the guys from Yes listened to as kids. Remember, though, when I was old enough to understand what this strange music coming out of our radios and from the television during American Bandstand, Led Zeppelin ruled, there were still four living Beatles with a new album always a possibility, and the new hot bands were Bad Company and Aerosmith.
I deliberately avoided hip hop because, frankly, I don’t know enough about it to write about it. I like some of it. A lot of it is crap, but then one could probably go through my iTunes and say the same thing.
Also, I avoided country, with the exception of Johnny Cash. And therein is where the heart of the feature lies. Johnny Cash was a favorite. In fact, I had a big Johnny Cash phase about the time I got into Tom Waits (who is definitely not rock and roll.)
And finally, there are a lot of bands I liked – Rush, for instance, some of the Lillith Fair performers, and Dave Matthews – whom I like very much but never grabbed me the way Marillion or Garbage or Zeppelin did.
It’s subjective. No one would consider my list a valid list of most influential or best musicians of the last half century. If it was, I’d have to include the Sex Pistols (whom I’ve never liked) and drop Marillion. Since I’m not a music critic, we’re gold here.
This is the band that never should have happened. It started as a demo EP by Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana, and was intended more to work on songs outside of that band. Only on the way to the next Nirvana album, Kurt Cobain died, orphaning the other three members. Just think how guitarist Pat Smear felt. He hadn’t even made it into the studio with the band yet, and already, they were done.
So Grohl had this EP and no place to go. He got a record deal for it and proceeded to put together a full-blown album, calling the act “The Foo Fighters” instead of “Dave Grohl” because of the old joke about the drummer going “Hey, man, I got some songs I wrote, too.”
Recruiting Smear and members of the punk band Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl went out on tour in support of his new album. I remember when they first debuted that I thought it sounded “like Nirvana on Prozac.” The songs, with the exception of “I’ll Stick Around” were poppier, breezier. There’s “Big Me,” with the infamous Mentos video (parodied hilariously by the band and Weird Al Yankovick on an episode of AlTV), “This Is a Call” (almost childlike in its lyrics), and “For All the Cows.” The last is lightweight and soft until you really listen to the words. Kurt Cobain could have written that song, and it’s quite likely Grohl intended it for Nirvana.
But the video and tour demonstrated that this was, indeed, a band. By 1997, they were back in the studio recording The Color and the Shape. The album nearly destroyed the band. Grohl admits he still wanted to be the drummer and did not like where the beats fell. So he rerecorded all the drum parts and told drummer William Goldsmith that it was just something that bugged him. Goldsmith was not happy and quit. Not long afterward, Pat Smear, already having started in the hot mess that was The Germs and dealing with the drama surrounding Nirvana, decided he didn’t want to be in the Foo Fighters if that was going to be the norm. So he tendered his resignation, leaving Grohl and bassist Nate Mendel the only original Foos. Grohl hired drummer and vocalist Taylor Hawkins (who could easily trade places with Grohl and did so during a fantastic rendition of Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll” with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones sitting in) to drum. To replace Smear, Grohl turned to his old friend Franz Stahl from his days in the band Scream. Smear left the band live on MTV, playing one song, announcing his departure, and introducing Stahl. Probably the classiest exit in all of rock and roll, but then I’ve always liked Pat Smear for some reason.
The new line-up did not do so well. Grohl meshed with Hawkins quite nicely – I’d characterize that as a full-on bromance, and was very comfortable writing with Mendel, who already was steeped in how the Foos did things. Stahl, on the other hand, wrote all of Scream’s music. This did not translate well into the Foo Fighters, where Grohl had realized collaboration was crucial to the band’s survival. So Stahl was invited to pursue other opportunities. Eventually, they brought in Chris Shiflett to replace him. And that, my friends, is how the Foo Fighters as they exist today came to be.
Grohl is definitely THE Foo Fighter, but his attitude has been “Once a Foo, always a Foo.” If Stahl or Goldsmith were to show up backstage, they would likely be out there for two or three songs. Even Nirvana bassist Krist Novocelic is considered an honorary Foo Fighter, even though he and Grohl passed on the idea originally to avoid being seen as just a rehash of Nirvana. It’s this attitude that had Pat Smear slowly drawn back into the fold first as a guest, then as an official member, careful to reassure Chris Shiflett that his job was safe.
The Foos are remarkably unpretentious as a band. Dave Grohl seems oblivious to his own fame most of the time. The band did not even realize their status until they sold out two shows at Wembley Stadium in weeks rather than months. The music is born of punk, but it has a much wider appeal. Instead of four or five guys banging the hell out of their instruments, they’re very careful about arrangements and recording. Their latest CD, Wasting Light, was recorded in Grohl’s garage using tape instead of digital because they wanted to put the music together a certain way. Tape would force the band to play better since, unlike digital, you can’t go in and change a sour note or fix a sloppy tempo. It has to be right on the take or there is no take.
While the Foos are definitely a band – Why else would Grohl work so long and hard to bring Smear back into the fold? – there are really two essential Foos without whom the band does not exist. First, obviously, is Grohl. He is the focal point, the literal personality of the band, and the brains behind its existence. One might as well ask the Stones to tour without Jaggar or Richards. Second is Taylor Hawkins. Though not the original drummer, Hawkins is yang to Grohl’s yin. His is the opinion Grohl seems to value most when things are not right in Foo Land, and he’s the one Grohl wants in the audience when he plays for Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age, or even Nirvana (Oh, chill! Nirvana was a band. Even Roger Waters gets this concept now.) He is like Ringo or Ronnie Wood or Steve Howe, that essential band member that doesn’t come in until later in a group’s history.
For me, the Foos are In Your Honor, the two-disk set Grohl defines as their “Physical Graffiti.” During the trip to and from the 2005 Bouchercon in Chicago, I played the hell out of that album both ways. Just really unpretentious rock and roll that never seems to get stale.
Which is hard to do the way record companies and radio stations flog even the best music to death these days.
Back in 1995, I was up late watching MTV one night. Remember when they showed videos? It was Friday night after Beavis & Butthead, but before Comedy Central showed that week’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. They played a video by a band called Garbage called “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.” The lead singer, this pale red head in a tight blue dress, a sort of sad-but-sensuous look on her face. I loved her voice. I loved her. I was in love.
Her name was Shirley Manson, and she had a dark side and a naughty side, both of which she loved to show off in her lyrics. This was post-grunge, and she had a long history with Britain’s post-punk movement.
Garbage was started by three record producers, Butch Vig (best known for Nirvana’s Nevermind), Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker. They had been in several bands together in various combinations, but were getting attention as sound engineers and, especially after Vig’s Nirvana gig, producers. Vig and Marker owned Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. It was during this time that the three of them formed Garbage. However, they were not to most photogenic of bands. They needed a charismatic lead singer and cast about for one.
Enter Manson, the former lead singer for Angelfish and keyboard player/guitarist for Goodbye, Mr. Mackenzie. She had an interesting voice, a feel for music that wasn’t steeped in grunge the way the others were. They hired her immediately, and she set about reworking the lyrics for their self-titled debut album. So when they debuted, their music oozed with raw sexuality coupled with dark introspection. Yes, I was happy for Shirley when it rained.
They followed it up with “Vow,” which gives Manson an almost vampire-like persona. “I can’t use what I can’t abuse…” and followed up by a diatribe against the shallowness of chasing trends, “Stupid Girl.” “Don’t believe in fear/Don’t believe in faith/Don’t believe in anything/That you can’t break.” The album cemented Garbage’s at the beginning of the post-grunge era.
They followed up with 1997′s Version 2.0, which they worked on for two years. Garbage is meticulous about their albums, composed of three veteran producers and a fourth who came into the trade after joining the band. Manson produced the band’s contribution to the James Bond series, the theme to The World Is Not Enough. If Manson’s sexuality smoldered on Garbage, she flaunted it on this album. (“Sleep Together,” “Wicked Ways”) Manson also dealt with chronic depression in her lyrics. She wasn’t self-pitying or preachy on the subject. She simply wrung whatever creative gold she could out of a bad situation. It was on Version 2.0 that Manson started playing guitar in the studio. However, as the face of the band, she wanted to move about the stage freely. The band tours with an extra guitar player, leaving Manson able to move back and forth.
I’ve always preferred lead singers who can do more than just sing. Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, and Marillion’s Steve Hogarth are all instrumentalists. So Manson was a welcome discovery. That, and I fell in love with her when I really got into the band in 2005.
That was the year when they released what I consider to be their best album, Bleed Like Me, which kicked off with “Bad Boyfriend.” This one is Garbage in its original form, which “Sex Is Not the Enemy,” “Why Do You Love Me?,” and “The Boys Want to Fight.” Maybe that wasn’t such a good album to make the band one of my favorites. I played the album heavily during the disintegration of my first marriage, and like an idiot, I didn’t bother to skip “It’s All Over But the Crying” (which was about Manson’s own divorce.)
Still, I’ve always loved their work. The playing is tight. Manson is a beautiful and compelling lead singer. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re four musicians and producers. I was really happy when they ended a five-year hiatus with last year’s Not Your Kind of People.
So, yeah, Shirley’s my girl. But then my wife says only the Foo Fighters’ David Grohl threatens our marriage. She has good taste. Butch Vig produced Nirvana and the Foos while Grohl played drums on a couple of Bleed Like Me tracks.