Thursday, December 12, 2013

Atlantic Nirvana Piece

Nirvana's Tense, Brilliant Unplugged in New York, 20 Years Later

Recorded four months before Kurt Cobain's death, Nirvana's MTV performance was intimate, awkward, and totally genius.


Nirvana’s legendary Unplugged in New York has never really had the chance to be evaluated outside of the canonization of Kurt Cobain that followed his entry into the “27 Club.”  It’s admittedly hard to hear him sing lines like “I swear I don’t have a gun.” and “Don’t expect me to die,” without thinking about what would tragically follow, only four months after the performance.
But on the 20th anniversary of the song set's airing, it’s worth considering the performance as a work of music, not mythology. Because as music, it’s incredible. The band run through a tense and brilliant 14-song set in one scintillating take, something unusual at the time for the popular MTV series, and the result is one of the greatest live albums ever—an unforgettable document of raw tension and artistic genius.

While intimacy was an intended part of the concept (Clapton’s delicate “Tears In Heaven” was given a second life by his Unplugged rendition), parts of the Nirvana set at Sony’s Hells Kitchen studio feel so personal it’s awkward. It’s not an album you put on twice in one day, and listening to it through can be a draining experience.The stripped-down MTV franchise was a big success at the start of the ‘90s. Acoustic guitars hadn’t been as popular since the folky early ‘60s. Old, established acts like Springsteen and Clapton used it as chance to have some fun reworking old favorites and make some money without having to write new songs. Of course, this isn’t how Cobain approached the opportunity, choosing to play six obscure covers (three with relatively unknown act the Meat Puppets, who joined Nirvana on stage) and only one real hit, “Come As You Are.” He requested the set be dressed as a funeral with Stargazer Lilies and candles, and willfully ignored the crowd's frustrated shouts for requests: “You want me to play ‘In Bloom’ acoustically?!”

Watching the video of the performance only heightens the effect. At the end of the first song Kurt looks at the camera and gives a gnarly forced smile. He later told the producers to make sure it was edited in because, “My manager tells me I need to smile more.” It’s a rare glimpse of humor from an agitated and prickly soul. Even Kurt’s closest allies seem wary of him. Dave Grohl sits quietly throughout, with only a stripped-down kit and a pair of brushes to protect him from Kurt, who repeatedly spins around on his chair and glares at the drummer over hunched shoulders. At one point Kurt passively tells Grohl to not play on “Penny Royal Tea,” saying, “Am I going to play this, alone?” Dave immediately understands that it’s not a question but a command and lays down his brushes on his snare: “Do it alone.” Grohl then nervously turns to guitarist Pat Smear, asking, “Do you have a smoke, Pat?”
Kurt goes on to play the very personal song alone with his eyes closed. As it ends Grohl shouts out “That was really great!” Kurt responds, “Shut up.” It’s a sore moment revealing a singer uncomfortable in his own skin, through addiction and depression, and a friend who seems to only want him to pull through

Despite this tense air, when the band members do play together they sound inspired. This is Nirvana without the noisy adrenaline and anger, closing in on a something sweet. Kurt’s method had often been to tear a hole in the middle of the beautiful melodies and chord progressions that seemingly come so naturally to him. Previous glimpses of this stripped down splendor can be found on the studio versions of “Polly” and “Something in the Way,” but it really comes through here.  When Novoselic picks up the accordion in “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” alongside Lori Goldston’s gorgeous cello, it creates the prettiest noise the band has ever made.
People have argued before about the validity of the praise heaped upon Cobain. “Legend” status engulfed him the second the news of his death spread. Writers like to speculate about the mediocre music he would have inevitably gone on to produce as a middle-aged grunger, but to describe Cobain as a grunge musician is like calling John Lennon an icon of Merseybeat, and whatever would have transpired it wouldn’t have changed one single note of this performance.  We’ve seen Iggy Pop sell insurance and John Lydon sell butter, but it doesn’t make “Lust for Life” or “Pretty Vacant” sound any less vital. Like Freddy Mercury’s majestic “The Show Must Go On,” or Johnny Cash’s heartbreakingly defiant “Hurt,” there is no way of listening to Unplugged in New York without invoking death; it’s in every note, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a masterpiece.

Those unconvinced should skip to the final track, a rendition of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” It ranks among the greatest single rock performances of all time. All night, Cobain, while never quite able to hide his anxiety—sniping at band mates, grimacing and grasping at half smoked cigarettes—has remained definitely present and in control. That is, until the very end, when he briefly loses it.
For the final line, “I would shiver the whole night through,” Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word “shiver” so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word “whole” and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that’s hard to describe: He opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity. Then he finishes the song.
When Neil Young first watched the performance, he described that final note of Cobain’s as “Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” Four months later Cobain would quote Young in a scrawled letter to “Boddah,” his imaginary childhood friend, before shooting himself in the head with a shotgun at his Seattle home on Lake Washington Boulevard: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
The producers and crowd needed an encore, and requested it directly of Kurt, but he refused. That wasn’t him posturing or being a diva. He simply had nothing more to give.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kieron Bryan and the Arctic 30

I wrote an article for Truthout about the incarceration by the Russian authorities of my friend Kieron Bryan, a journalist not a pirate....


Kieron Bryan and the Arctic 30

Friday, 18 October 2013 09:38By Andrew Wallace ChamingsTruthout | Interview
Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise. (Photo: <a" target="_blank"> l'Ours / Flickr</a>)Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise. (Photo: l'Ours / Flickr)
On September 18, 2013, activists aboard the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise attempted to climb onto the Gazprom Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Pechora Sea in protest against the perceived high risk to the environment of offshore drilling in the Arctic.

Russian coast guards descended from helicopters onto the ship, threatening the crew with knives and guns. Video footage of the confrontation can be found here.
The next day, the ship was seized by the coast guard and towed to the port of Murmansk, where crew members were taken to a detention facility for questioning. Despite President Vladimir Putin's proclamation that the detainees were"obviously not pirates," all 30 have since been charged with piracy, which in Russia carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.

Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA said, "It was the stiffest response that Greenpeace has encountered since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985."
The captain of the Arctic Sunrise is American Peter Willcox, who was also the captain of the Rainbow Warrior, bombed by French intelligence services in 1985, resulting in the death of photographer Fernando Pereira.

Two journalists were aboard the Arctic Sunrise, Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov and British freelance videographer Kieron Bryan, alongside the 28 activists.

Despite the efforts of Reporters Without Borders and a growing protest in the UK, it seems that the Russian courts have not made any distinction between the two journalists and the other activists.

While the case has been getting mainstream media attention in the UK and drawing celebrities to a thousand-strong protest outside the Russian Embassy in London, the US press has not yet devoted much coverage to the case, despite the incarceration of a US citizen, Willcox.

On October 9, Russian authorities claimed that hard drugs were found on the ship, and the charges will be modified accordingly. "During a search of the ship, drugs (apparently poppy straw and morphine) were confiscated," Russia's Investigative Committee said.

Greenpeace immediately released a statement. "Before leaving Norway for the Russian Arctic, the ship was searched with a sniffer dog by the Norwegian authorities, as is standard. The laws in Norway are amongst the strictest in the world, and nothing was found because nothing illegal was on the ship. Any claim that illegal drugs were found is a smear, it's a fabrication, pure and simple."

Russia's treatment of journalists has been historically troubling. In its September 2009 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists repeated its conclusion that Russia was one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.

I spoke to Bryan's brother Russell about Kieron's situation.

Andrew Wallace Chamings: Kieron has been charged with piracy. What's the next step in his proceedings?
Russell Bryan: He has an appeal to be allowed bail at some point in the next week or so, although we do not know when. Other than that, we have no [indication] as to when his trial might be.

I understand the detainees have been moved around. Do you know Kieron's precise location today? 
He is now in a detention center in Murmansk along with the other 29 detainees. We haven't been given details of exactly where, and we are still being told by the Foreign Office that the Russian authorities will not allow families to visit.

Have you or your family considered the prospect of traveling to Russia?
Absolutely. We are desperate to go. I think at the moment it's a case of taking the Foreign Office advice. But we are starting to look at visas, and we will go as soon as we can. Mum and Dad want to make sure he's OK and that he knows we are fighting for him.

Have the Russian authorities shown in any way that they are treating the two journalists differently from the activists?
Not so far, no. Greenpeace has made a point of differentiating the two of them and have stated that they were on the boat to document what was taking place. This appears to have had no effect.

Do you think Kieron and the others are being made an example of?
It certainly feels like that. Greenpeace carried out similar action last year and nothing happened. As a journalist, Kieron understood there were risks involved in this job, but that is also a part of the work he does. He has covered many things that haven't been comfortable for him, the student protests being a good example. But at the same time no one could have foreseen what the Russian authorities have accused them of. It's a ridiculous charge, and one [that] none of them, least of all Kieron, should be facing.

I understand that you received at least one letter from Kieron. How are his spirits? Does he have any insight into his prospects from the inside?
No, I don't think he knows any more than we do, to be honest. He talks of being calm, which I imagine is because he doesn't feel like he has done anything wrong. But at the same time, we know that he's been described as emotionally drained and tired.

Has Kieron's role as a hired journalist, not an activist, been clearly defined in the press?
Yes. We are getting there. It's something that Greenpeace have been very supportive about and I know would matter to Kieron. He wasn't a member of Greenpeace nor an activist, and we have been trying to correct that as much as possible. I'm not sure if it will make any difference in Russian court. I know it should, but I have no confidence that it will.

For more information on Kieron's incarceration and charges visit and @freekieron on Twitter.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Bay Of Actual Pigs

An article I wrote for The Atlantic about swimming swine...

A Bay of Actual Pigs

A fascinating zoological experiment unfolds near the Bahamas.
A pig on Exuma Cays (Eric Cheng)

Major Cay is an uninhabited island in the Bahaman Exuma Cays. Uninhabited, that is, by people. On a pristine sandy beach on its northwest corner, there's a colony of around 20 pigs who retrieve food from passing boats and bathe with tourists. Beyond the opportunity to have your photo taken in a real-life New Yorker cartoon, this phenomenon is both visually stunning and zoologically confounding. 

Various theories persist as to how the happy pigs found themselves living a life of tropical luxury. Some say sailors left the animals there to breed and one day provide a source of food for inhabitants of the island, and they never came back. Others claim a shipwreck dumped them there on the rocks, or that the pigs were introduced by the Bahaman government as a tourist attraction. If the latter were true, it was a wise move -- boat tours from the neighboring Fowl Clay and mainland Exuma run daily, and feeding the pigs is encouraged.

The level of mystery surrounding the swine's origins is somewhat peculiar, since the pigs first appeared as recently as 2001. Major Cay, or "Pig Beach" as it's locally known, is an anomaly -- pigs do not normally live on beaches. In warm climates, pigs wallow in mud as a way of protecting their skin from UV rays. However, it seems that when there is tourist treat to be had, these animals will gladly risk the tropical Bahaman sun.

A pair of pigs basks in the Bahaman sun. (Eric Cheng)

For years it was widely believed that pigs could not swim at all because they would cut their own throats with their sharp trotters, a myth perpetuated in Samuel Coleridge's 19th-century poem The Devil's Thoughts:

"Down the river did glide, with wind and with tide,
A pig with vast celerity;
And the Devil looked wise as he saw how the while
It cut its own throat. "There!" quoth he, with a smile,
"Goes England's commercial prosperity.""

But as Major Cay shows, pigs are actually very strong swimmersTheir island home is approximately one square mile in size and has three natural springs that provide fresh water for drinking. The beach is sheltered by neighboring islands from large waves caused by tropical storms, leaving tranquil waters for piggy paddling.

Neighbors include Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage, and David Copperfield, all of whom purchased their own islands nearby in the Cays. It's also near Staniel Cay -- a.k.a Thunderball Grotto -- where the 1965 Bond movie was shot.

Most report that the animals are friendly, but caution should be taken when large mammals are chasing food. Eric Cheng, and underwater photographer who has visited the beach twice, described the scene to me via email.

"One thing that isn't obvious from the pictures is that the adult pigs are actually quite big and can run you over as they try to get to the food that tourists bring. While this is typically humorous when it happens, it is only funny because it is rare for a real injury to occur."

The herd has thrived; population estimates have increased from seven in 2011 to 20 today, and recently tourists have spotted three or four piglets on the sand. And although somewhat tamed by the tourist interaction, this wild herd provides an interesting insight into what zoological curiosities can manifest in the absence of man.

The pigs appear to be domestic breed gone feral, and not wild boars gone tame, and so it is likely that man played some part in placing them in their current habitat, as the theories suggest.

"The pigs appear to be somewhere between wild and tame. They are wild animals, but are docile and singularly interested in the pursuit of food, which is why they plunge into the ocean and swim out to boats." Eric told me.

If by some luck these animals are allowed to continue to live and procreate in the sandy saltwater, the long-term results of this unintended experiment could prove even more fascinating. But, for now, they provide a unique and myth-busting sight.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tonight's The Night turns 40

I wrote an article for Drowned in Sound about Neil Young's Tonight's The Night, one of the strangest and greatest albums ever recorded.

Link here.

I Have No Idea Where The Fuck It Came From - Neil Young's Tonight's The Night at Forty
Forty years ago this week, Neil Young entered a makeshift studio on Santa Monica Boulevard in a state of deep depression and alcoholism and, in that single session, recorded the majority of the darkest album of his (or possibly anyone’s) career.
Coping with the recent deaths of roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, Neil had seen heroin kill his closest friends, and he wanted to sing about it. That gloriously messy collection of songs about death would eventually be released as Tonight's The Night two years later. Neil’s own father Scott once described the album as “a man on a binge at a wake,” but that doesn’t quite do it justice.
Beyond being emotionally broken Young was also in terrible physical shape, having just finished the disastrous Time Fades Away tour he had developed a serious throat infection, brought on by ninety dates of alcohol abuse and falsetto.
As a Britpop-obsessed teen in the late nineties, probably while looking for a Graham Coxon interview, I came across an interesting list in Q Magazine – 'The Fifty Darkest Albums of All Time' (I since can’t find any actual evidence of this list, I guess someone forgot to tell the internet).
Second on the list was Tonight’s The Night (pipped to the gloomy post by Joy Division’s Closer). Back then I assumed all “depressing” songs had to be slow introverted ballads in the mould of Radiohead’s 'Street Spirit' or Spiritualized’s 'Ladies and Gentlemen...'
On first listen, Tonight’s The Night didn’t sound introverted at all, in fact it sounded positively joyous - the band were playing fast, and not fast like punk, fast like rock and roll. You can’t dance while lamenting your existence! It sounded like the band were having fun, sort of, in the same way that sometimes getting drunk and smashing stuff can be fun.
But of course, desperation can not only be expressed through ethereal arpeggios and precisely arranged fifty-piece orchestras, it’s often released through singing what’s on your mind, in any key you want, and bending guitar strings until they break.
The record is Young’s sixth “studio” album, although like the vast majority of his fifty album back catalogue, it was recorded live without overdubs. The vinyl label was black, not the usual Reprise orange, and it doesn’t sound like Neil Young. Whether through tequila or grief, Neil’s voice on this album is sometimes unrecognizable; it’s bluesy and lower in range. The tracks have no banjo and few harmonies - it’s bar-room blues, sloppy and soused. It’s also rough, angry, sometimes dissonant and often deliberately shambolic.
At the time Neil was more than happy to shed his folky image. He had recently refused to continue to record country-rock, despite Warner Bros. requests, after the phenomenally successful Harvest,
“Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” Young famously wrote on the Decade liner notes.
That led to The Ditch Trilogy - three records that would be called “lo-fi” today about desolation and the blues - Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night.
While his peers (Fleetwood Mac, CSNY) were spending millions of dollars on big name producers, overdubs, choirs and string-sections, Neil recorded everything live, in a basement, in one take, in the middle of the night. The song 'Roll Another Number' was written there in the studio in that same session, and recorded immediately.
By all accounts it was a dingy scene. Photographer Joel Bernstein visited, “It was like doing a documentary on nocturnal animals pulled out from under a rock, they looked like rodents when you shined a light in their eyes.”

Drummer Ralph Molina explained the band’s preparation; “We’d just get to a point where you get a glow, just a glow. When you do blow and drink, that’s when you get that glow. No one said ‘Let’s go play,’ we all just knew it was time. We never talked about what anyone was playing, who’s playing what part or any of that kinda shit. It was so fucking emotional.”
Neil also tried to describe it, “When I first started the record, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I did get into a persona. I have no real idea where the fuck it came from, but there it was. It was part of me. I thought I had gotten into a character – but maybe a character had gotten into me.“
The album starts and ends with two versions of the same titular song. A piano led blues number that Young wrote in his head without an instrument, and on which he doesn’t hesitate to sing about what’s on his mind.
Bruce Berry was a working man he used to load that Econoline van.
If you never heard him sing, I guess you wont too soon
‘Cos people let me tell you, it sent a chill up and down my spine
When I picked up the telephone and heard that he died out on the mainline.
The anger embodied as Neil spits in the words “died” and “mainline” is far away from the fragile warble of 'Old Man' and 'Heart of Gold'. That furious proclamation of a friend’s surprise death is then followed by a soothing three piece harmony repeating the title – “Tonight’s The Night”, as though angels have dropped down to reassure him that it’s okay, his can release his demons and move through this tragedy among his friends that are still alive, tonight.
Elsewhere on the album one of the most prolific songwriters of all time is seemingly too beaten up to write anything original. He rips off The Rolling Stones’ 'Lady Jane' and confesses to it, tired and alone at a piano, in a serene moment amongst all the chaos…
I’m singing this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own…
I hope that it matters.
The song ends and something strange happens. A live recording of 'Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown' rips apart the tranquility, with none other than Danny Whitten on lead vocals. The source and subject of the surrounding darkness, the corpse at the drunken wake, Neil’s dead band mate, is dropped in like a ghost in a live recording from a year before his overdose. Like a cruel joke Neil and Whitten sing together ecstatically about the good times.
Then seconds after we hear the dead man joyously sing, we drop back into the “present” hear his friend suffer a break down on 'Mellow My Mind', closing out one of the strangest three song sets on any album. A desperate bluesy mouth harp leans into to slow jagged chords, and then Neil releases one of the most desperate pleas for help ever put to tape…
I’ve been down the road, and I’ve come back.
Lonesome whistle on the railroad track.
Ain’t got nothing on those feelings I had.
Baby mellow my mind, make me feel like a schoolboy on good times.
It’s a song about wanting to retreat into the safety of youth, far away from the horrors around him. If for some perverse reason you don’t have time to listen to the whole album, jump to 0:56 on track 6 for a twenty-second summation. As Neil’s voice rises higher and higher you can hear him lose it. He sings, or rather tries to sing the word “track.” It’s out of tune, and out of hope, broken wide open and was thankfully never rerecorded or autotuned.
A third tragedy, a double murder in a bad drug deal in Topanga Canyon, Neil’s neighbourhood, is the subject of the heart wrenching 'Tired Eyes'. Neil talks through the verses before sliding into a sad pretty melody repeating, “Please take my advice, open up those tired eyes” on the chorus. It’s a tender song stripped of any bravado about the confusion of death and fragility of life. Critic Richard Meltzer once described it as “if Dylan did Wild Horses.”
The album then closes with a heavier and even sloppier version of the opening track, the tinkling piano now replaced with a growling blues guitar that sounds like a gorilla kick-starting a Harley.
The ominous album cover is mostly black, and features an obscure and menacing monochromatic shot of Neil on stage in a Seersucker suit, wearing a harmonica and strange smile. This same cover art adorned the t-shirt that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant was allegedly buried in.
One of many oddities about the album sleeve (including an unexplained photo of Roy Orbison) is a report by a Dutch journalist who visited the sessions, printed in full, in Dutch. Neil claimed that he was so gone at the time that it might as well stay in the foreign text; it was all Dutch to him. It translates as follows,
“Most of Neil's songs about Danny's death reflect his guilt complex. Neil seemed to fall back into an even deeper depression. Then he began drinking, became sentimental and generally intolerable for anyone who had anything to do with him. It's said that those around him treated him with great caution for fear of provoking him, causing him to retreat and become a recluse.”
The more studio production that goes into a record, the more dated it becomes. Some albums, like Purple Rain or even Kid A, apparently aspire to be pinned to their time through digitized effects and overdubs. But elsewhere these studio tricks make some albums hard to listen to years later. So the raw nature of Tonight’s The Night, like a lot of Dylan or early Stones, lends it a timelessness that makes it still sound alive and present today.
While the album is hard going in places, it is apparently nothing on an the original sprawling mix, complete with between song drunken raps, that Warner Bros refused to release, and has yet to see the light of day despite the pleas of fans. Neil’s dad Scott once heard this version and described it,
“It is a handful. It is unrelenting. There is no relief in it at all. It does not release you for one second. It's like some guy having you by the throat from the first note, and all the way to the end.”
Of course Tonight’s The Night didn’t sell as many records as Harvest, but like Woody Allen’s dark follow-up to Annie Hall, Interiors, the album was maybe a necessary outlet granted by the record company to move the artist on, up and out of a heavy funk.
To claim that albums of this candour no longer exist would be wrong, and retrophillic, but just the fact that a major label released this messy document of a man in such a fraught state is something that may never happened again. These kinds of albums are seemingly only released these days as anthological bootlegs after an artist has died.
Some have given this dark masterpiece a more universal meaning, even calling it a calculated concept documenting the downfall of the hippie dream - a set of saturnine songs to parallel the murder at Altamont and the end of the 60s.
David Marsh wrote in The Rolling Stone, “The demise of counterculture idealism, and a generation's long, slow trickle down the drain through drugs, violence, and twisted sexuality. This is Young's only conceptually cohesive record, and it's a great one,”
For me it is not a picture of a dislocated generation, but a dislocated man going through an exorcism of grief, while drinking in LA. Forty years ago in a temporary studio in instrument rental warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard Neil forced himself to sing about this pent up stuff in order to get it out and move on. This culminated in a seedy, ragged and brilliant record, a personal document of a man in chaos and distress. So personal that Neil felt the need to apologize in the final liner note –
"I'm sorry. You don't know these people. This means nothing to you."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Atlantic culture piece

Here's an article I wrote for The Atlantic about why the biggest bands are British, but the biggest solo artists are American.

Link hereFull text...

The World's Biggest Bands Are British and Its Biggest Solo Artists Are American

The Michael Jackson estate recently announced that the King of Pop had posthumously achieved the milestone of moving one billion records worldwide. The numbers are hard to verify, but if true, they put him in a small club with The Beatles and Elvis Presley. These three artists are the best-selling acts of all time: two American solo singers from humble beginnings, and a group of working-class boys from the north of England.

That fact conforms a rule that becomes more and more noticeable the further down you look on thelist of the greatest-selling artist of all time: The biggest bands in the world are British, and the biggest solo artists are North American.

The top 20 artists, in order, are The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, AC/DC, Whitney Houston, The Rolling Stones, Queen, ABBA, The Eagles, U2, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Aerosmith, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. The list is perfectly split between 10 solo artists and 10 groups. Eight of the 10 solo artists are from North America, while eight of the 10 bands are from outside America, the majority being British. Remarkably, the country that invented rock and roll has not produced any of the top seven rock bands. America's strongest contender, in at No. 8, is often-derided soft-rock stalwarts The Eagles.

As Independence Day nears, the history of this divide in musical outputs serves as a reminder of how the cultures of U.S. and its mother country have been distinct yet inextricably twined. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have always admitted that their music is a take on American rhythm and blues. Even The Beatles started out performing Chuck Berry covers. American bands, meanwhile, have often needed to make it in England before getting recognized back home, as was recently true of The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Kings of Leon. (The greatest-selling album by a US band in the UK ever? The Scissor Sisters' debut. Yes, really.)

While U2 (not strictly British but signed to a British label with two members born in the UK) were shifting millions of records in the late '80s and '90s, there were arguably two American bands that could have achieved the same worldwide domination. Guns N' Roses and Nirvana both had the combination of anthemic songwriting and compelling stage presence needed to become a true world-beating act. Only one of these bands ever desired to be that big, and for very different reasons, neither was able to produce a sustained run of best-selling albums.

At the dawn of the modern music era, though, American solo artists led the way.
"For the first 10 years (1953-63) of rock and roll, there were no British musicians involved in recording and having a worldwide impact," says rock historian Barry Drake in an email. "The American '50s models were all solo performers--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles."

Even when an ensemble did make it big during that era of American rock and roll, it would be named after the front man--Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Bill Haley and The Comets. The Beatles' name was inspired by Holly's "backing" band, but they broke out as a democratic group--maybe because there was no way of choosing a front man from Paul and John. Until the fab four blew up, Drake points out, even most British recording artists were solo performers like Cliff Richard, Helen Shapiro, and Billy Fury.

But when the band of four seemingly equal members did take over the world, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, they changed the rules forever--and created the intercontinental rock divide that persists till today.

While Motown Records' Berry Gordy realized the attraction of moving the spotlight onto a lead singer by renaming The Supremes "Diana Ross and...", the Beatles were being sold by Capitol as four boys with identical haircuts and matching gray collarless suits. While Michael Jackson was being groomed to leave the Jackson Five from the age of 13, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were releasing million-selling albums without a single band member's image on the artwork.

It's hard to avoid wondering whether political/social mores play a role in the dichotomy. America, after all, likes to think of itself as a land of individualists. Elvis, Jackson, and Madonna all came from humble beginnings, surrounded by poverty and family tragedy. They epitomized the American dream, and so you might argue that the more left-leaning Europeans are happier to celebrate the collectivism of a band. If we look to what's thought to be the most ideologically "right" genre, this theory holds true: Of the 25 greatest selling country-music stars of all time, all are solo artists. The UK's two bestselling solo stars, meanwhile, do not fit the rags-to-riches mold of the American singers, but are rather privileged virtuosos who were in stage school from a very young age (Phil Collins, Elton John.)

But an arguably sturdier explanation lies in the way those first two giants, Elvis and The Beatles, influenced listeners, musicians, and recording industries in their respective countries. The most-talented aspiring artists on the east side of the Atlantic, from Bono to Freddy Mercury, wanted to be in a band like the Beatles. In the States and Canada everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson wanted to be the next King.

For evidence, look no further than the two continents' current of-the-moment, globe-conquering phenoms. "We watched that film of The Beatles when they first touched down in America and we saw a real likeness with our personalities," Harry of One Direction said last year. Justin Bieber, meanwhile, had this to say on Argentinian TV: "Elvis... He was cool."

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Surviving Britpop - Stay Cool

For posterity here's a piece I wrote a few years back for a music site that has since been swallowed by the internet...

Surviving Britpop - Stay Cool

It used to be okay to tell the press that you are the greatest band in the world; it was all the rage in 1997. Oasis, The Verve and Embrace often made the claim. It could be argued that the claims were even justified (except in the case of Embrace, of course).  However, after such delusions of grandeur, it is apparently pretty hard maintain a level of cool when you are no longer the greatest band in the room.

After a drawn out marketing campaign for fan club members only, which basically consisted of weekly emails asking “Are You Ready?” in a big red font, I was very excited about Richard Ashcroft’s fourth solo album last year. The Verve had inevitably split up for the third time but he had come up with a new band, “RPA and The United Nations of Sound” and gathered a bunch of LA super-contemporary session musicians and hip-hop producers.

Sure, it was the worst band name since The Alan Parsons Project, and none of his three previous solo albums had been groundbreaking, but maybe this would be the one. It wasn’t. It was a terrible and desperate attempt to sell records in which every song ran out of lyrics after a minute, and so repeated the line “I’m reborn” or “Na na na na na” for the remaining five. I now pretend it doesn’t exist.

In 1993, Ashcroft would creep around a smoky stage barefoot in a skinny t-shirt howling under low red lights. He had an effortless cool, like Jagger in the “Sympathy For The Devil” video, while behind him Nick McCabe and an unstoppable rhythm section created some of the most thunderous rock grooves since Led Zeppelin.  The NME deemed him “Mad Richard” and hailed The Verve as “The Return of Rock and Roll”; a real band that could be deified and compared the greats, in the midst of lightweight Britpop acts trying to emulate The Kinks (see Dodgy, Space, Sleeper). The Verve had such high ideals that their music would never appear on a TV commercial. When they controversially lost the songwriting rights to Bittersweet Symphony to The Rolling Stones, the song soon appeared on a car advert, to which Ashcroft proclaimed “Don’t buy Vauxhalls, their shit”. He was so inspiring that when Keith Richards (a man who himself knows a little about cool) said “If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money”, I stopped listening to the Stones for a year.

Ashcroft’s new material can be heard in a recent Volkswagen Jetta commercial and is being used by Fox News for baseball montages.  Now Richard wears a red velvet suit (more Neil Diamond than Neil Young) and tries to work out how to sell records. He even sank to releasing a soccer inspired video to “Are You Ready?” in time to cash in on last year’s World Cup in South Africa. What changed? Maybe it was the drugs. Back in his psychedelic hey-day he claimed that he would always see life through a cracked pair of sunglasses due to the amount of chemicals ingested during the infamous Northern Soul sessions. Maybe he just stopped not giving a shit. The only person that still thinks Richard is cool is Chris Martin, who introduced him as “The best singer in the world” at Live 8, although admittedly at this point Martin hadn’t heard The United Nations of Sound.

Ashcroft’s soul mate Liam Gallagher is also pretty hard to take seriously these days. He used to strut out to a packed stadium full of rioting kids, dressed in a shabby Adidas shell-suit, as though he had walked straight from the Manchester council estate, and he was, well, the coolest man on earth. Fifty thousand people stared at him, and he stared right back, before ripping into the gloriously hedonistic “Cigarettes and Alcohol”. Now he spends his time working on his fashion label “Pretty Green”, playing in a sixties tribute act, and combing his meticulous and ridiculous bowl cut.

How is it possible that Thom Yorke, who used dip his spikey hair in hydrogen peroxide and run around art school in platform shoes, is now the coolest Britpop survivor? Probably because he never really gave a shit, and still doesn’t, clearly demonstrated in the sublime Lotus Flower video.  The only other cool Britpop survivor is Jarvis Cocker, who is also always ready for some extraordinary dancing. I guess it’s easier to look cool when you are still making relevant music. Maybe The Verve will get back together for a third time and make something great.  Maybe Ashcroft will buy back what he sold out, and forge an illustrious a solo career, or maybe I should stop giving a shit, and practice my moves.

The United Nations of Sound album gets its US release this week. But, for old time’s sake, here is Mad Richard at his best, before he stopped dancing…

Andrew Wallace Chamings

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Canon in the 1990s

I wrote an essay for Drowned in Sound about the influence of Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D on 1990s pop culture...

Link here... Canon in the 1990s

Here is the full piece...

Canon in the 1990s: From Spiritualized to Coolio, Regurgitating Pachelbel's Canon

In November 1994 Green Day released 'Basket Case', the third single from their third album, Dookie. The melodic punk-pop gem spent five weeks at the top of the US Modern Rock Tracks chart and was the band’s first UK top ten hit. Six months earlier A & R man Rob Cavallo had heard a demo of the song and promptly signed the indie punk revivalists to the major label, Reprise. The band has since gone on to become one of the world’s best selling artists of all time, selling over 75 million records. Beyond its commercial success 'Basket Case' was also critically acclaimed. The New York Times describing it as “, funny, catchy and high-powered.” BBC Radio One listeners voted it “The Greatest Punk Song of All Time” in 2006. Missing from any of the appraisal was mention of the chord progression, which closely mirrored a piece of chamber music written in the seventeenth century by Johann Pachelbel, Canon in D.
Oasis released 'Don’t Look Back in Anger' at the peak of their short-lived world domination in 1996. The NME voted it number one in the “Most Explosive Choruses Ever” chart, and Q Magazine voted it the 20th greatest song of all time. Songwriter Noel Gallagher has regularly acknowledged his plundering of other’s music, and even admitted that the song’s opening piano riff is “about 50%” stolen from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He didn’t mention how the song also utilizes the same chord progression as Pachelbel’s, with a slight variation in the final bar.
The regurgitation of this chord structure in the pop music of the 1990s is remarkable. Beyond Oasis and Green Day the sequence could be found across the charts, in every genre: Aerosmith’s 'Cryin’' (1993), Tupac’s 'Life Goes On' (1996), Coolio’s 'C U When You Get There' (1997), Spiritualized’s 'Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating Space' (1997), Belle & Sebastian’s 'Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying' (1996). The chords in question, when played in the key of D Major as Johann intended, run through D major, A major, B minor, F# minor, G major, D major, G major and A major.
Beyond folk singer Ralph McTell’s 'Streets of London' (1974) few examples of the chord sequence can be found before 1980. This maybe because Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People, released that year, used the original chamber piece as its theme. This score was splashed all over the 53rd Academy Awards as the film won four Oscars, including Best Picture. This may be when the descending chord sequence was definitively reintroduced to western popular culture.
Beyond its prevalence in the charts, what’s more noteworthy is that many artists who used the sequence created their biggest (and in some cases only) commercial hit in doing so, such as The Farm with 'All Together Now' (1990) and Vitamin C’s 'Graduation Song' (2000).
There is also something in those eight chords that inspires communal singing among large crowds of young men. The Village People’s 'Go West', popularized by The Pet Shop Boys in 1993, is chanted every week by thousands of people in unison, with varying lyrics, in football stadiums across Europe. Variations include “One-nil to the Eng-Ger-Land”, “Stand Up if you hate Man U!” or the German’s slightly less vitriolic “Steht auf wenn ihr löwen seid!” (Stand up if you’re Lions!) The aforementioned “All Together Now” by The Farm is also prevalent in the terraces and was actually licensed by Everton Football Club as their official song in 1995, and again by the England team in 2004. It also happens that “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is the only song for which on an entire world tour in 2009 Noel Gallagher would turn his microphone to the arena (Oasis fans have often been compared to a football crowd), to let them take the lead vocal.
Unlike Jazz, pop music works because of repetition. From repeating the same melodic and lyrical phrase three or more times to form a catchy chorus (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds! Lucy in the sky…”) to then repeating that chorus three or more times within the same song. Even if the listener hadn’t heard the song before, through repetition of the phrase they may be singing along by the last chorus. The next time they listen they’ll sing along on the first line of the first chorus, and when people sing along, records are sold.
The repetition = money formula works beyond the confines of a single hit. When music is made for a purely commercial reasons, and not artistic, the “cover version” is invariably called upon. The commercial side of pop music is nowhere more prominent than on television talent shows. Eight of the nine winners of the UK X-Factor released cover versions as their debut single, all were number one hits.
Of course, unless you are Jimi Hendrix, there is little critical adulation given to covers, but what if you were able to utilize the inherent commercial advantage of selling repetition, while still releasing an “original” piece of music? You have likely given yourself a head start. Listeners may not be consciously singing along to the melody on the first listen, but they’ll probably be humming along to the descending chords.
Trying to analyze the composition of punk music structurally is akin to grammatically deconstructing Dr. Seuss: it’s futile and misses the point of the art form. Kurt Cobain said, “Punk music is freedom, it’s about doing and playing what you want.” If that freedom means lifting from an old piece of classical music, it shouldn’t matter, that’s the point of punk. Furthermore, there is no plagiarism without intent, and only Billy Joe Armstrong himself could say if he was aware of Canon in D when he wrote the lyric “Do you have the time, to listen to me whine?” over a string of chords for the first time. Maybe he had just watched Ordinary People.
Some artists have acknowledged the plagiarism explicitly in their composition: Coolio’s 'C U When U Get There' actually starts with a ten second sample of the original string piece before the sound of a record being scratched followed by a hip-hop beat, and a continuation of the same chords. Music lawyers contend that simply reusing a four-chord structure is fair game, and too common to infringe copyright, but an exact progression of over six to eight chords, as is the case here, is harder to defend as chance.
Regardless, in the case of Canon in D legality is not in question as copyright disappears 70 years after the author’s death. Johann Pachelbel died in 1706 as somewhat of a one hit wonder himself, except it wouldn’t be a hit for around 300 years. Some historians contend that he wrote the piece in 1694 for his friend Johann Bach’s wedding day, fittingly enough, since 1980 Canon has been the most commonly played wedding song, after the Wedding March.
The baroque era piece is taken from Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo. It was unplayed for years - only a single manuscript of the work from the 19th century exists. It was first published in 1919 but did not become popular until the last quarter of the century. As far as the pop charts are concerned the influence was far more apparent in the 1990s than any other decade. Despite its last showing in the charts in 2000, the descending chords live on elsewhere. Whether a football fan singing “You’re shit and you know you are!” in unison with fifty thousand others makes the connection with the string quartet accompanying his sister walking down the aisle, is hard to say.
This phenomenon of a piece of art being appreciated in a different era than it was created is not uncommon in literature (Kafka, Thoreau) and the visual arts (Van Gogh, Vermeer), but much more rarely seen in music, certainly not with the extended period of dormancy, followed by short period of cultural saturation found with Canon.
Whether the Canon chord progression endures into the 21st century beyond wedding ceremonies and football games remains to be seen. Maybe it will lie dormant for another century or more before another popular resurgence. What's clear is that be it through a succession of plaigerisms diverging from the same source, or a series of isolated coincidental acts of songwriting, for one decade in at the end of the 20th century, that chord sequence was embedded in the public consciousness, whether they knew it or not.