Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Tony Iommi

I cannot write a blog about guitarists that I like without writing about Tony Iommi.  If I did such a thing, all of my friends on the Tony Iommi message board [some of whom are also on Facebook] would not only give me a well-deserved rash, they would disown me.  For the uninitiated, who is this Tony Iommi guy?   He is the guiding light of Black Sabbath.  He’s the one guy who has been in every incarnation of the band since their debut album saw the light of day on Friday the 13th, February 1970.  In short, he’s the guy who invented heavy metal.  He is a king among men.

What sets Tony Iommi apart from other guitarists?  Let me count the ways…

Reason #1 - the riff.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the riff this way:  Riff Pronunciation: /rɪf/ [noun] a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, frequently played over changing chords or harmonies or used as a background to a solo improvisation.  Tony’s greatness lies in the almighty riff.  Regardless of whoever else happened to be in Black Sabbath, the bedrock of every Black Sabbath song is the riff.   I can’t think of many memorable Sabbath solos, but there are many memorable Sabbath riffs.  There are so many great Black Sabbath songs that were it not for the riff, there wouldn’t be much of a song.  Standout riffs:  Symptom of the Universe, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Into the Void, Snowblind, Killing Yourself to Live, Heaven and Hell, War Pigs, Sweat Leaf, Children of the Grave, Children of the Sea, Mob Rules, Paranoid, Black Sabbath… No one has created more, or better metal riffs than Tony.

Reason #2 – the tone.  The last day of the last time Tony Iommi worked a “day job” he lost parts of the fingertips on two fingers of his fretting [right] hand in an accident on the job.  He fabricated prosthetic fingertips so he could play without pain.  He used the lightest strings he could find [banjo strings at first].  He also detuned his strings to ease the tension on his fingers.  Detuning gave Sabbath a heavier sound.  He couldn’t get that effect with standard tuning and heavy gauge strings.  Tony’s amp of choice is Laney.  Always in search of the “perfect” sound he’s used Orange, Fender, Marshall, Hiwatt, and Engl.  But he’s a Laney guy.  His axe of choice is the Gibson SG.  He doesn’t play a stock SG much.  He’s had SGs custom-built for him, either by John Birch, John Diggins [JayDee], or even the Gibson Company itself.   He wants 24 frets instead of the usual 22.  He has his own line of very high output humbucking pickups.  He used to use a Dallas Rangemaster to give his sound a boost.  He uses a lot of wah in his solos, courtesy of the nearly-impossible to find Tycobrahe Parapedal.  Take all of these variables together – the type of amps, type of guitar, type of pickups, the lighter strings, the detuning, the effects [such as they are] – put them all in the hands of Tony Iommi and Voila!  Heavy metal is born.

Reason #3 – the acoustic guitar.  Tony Iommi is not known for his acoustic guitar playing.  Sometimes he’d use it to introduce the song – Children of the Sea [Heaven and Hell], The Sign of the Southern Cross [The Mob Rules], Bible Black [The Devil You Know], and Too Late [Dehumanizer].    Sometimes he’d play it as part of the song – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [Sabbath Bloody Sabbath], Supernaut [Vol. 4], Glory Ride [The Eternal Idol], I Go Insane [Fused].  Sometimes he’d play it at the end of a song – Heaven and Hell [Heaven and Hell], Symptom of the Universe [Sabotage].  On occasion he’d play a short acoustic piece – Laguna Sunrise [Vol. 4], Fluff [Sabbath Bloody Sabbath], Orchid [Master of Reality], and Scarlet Pimpernel [The Eternal Idol].  Some bands, and I’m thinking of the hair metal bands from the eighties, would use acoustics to show their “sensitive” sides.  These would be the “power ballads” that afflicted music during that time.  I’ve heard Iommi play something resembling a power ballad only twice – Changes [Vol. 4 – he doesn’t play guitar] and No Stranger to Love [Seventh Star].  Iommi doesn’t use acoustics to show any sensitivity.  It’s a matter of dynamics, to change up the sound a little bit just to make things just a bit more interesting.  I wish I knew what kind of acoustic guitar he uses because I love the bell-sounding tones he gets out of it [or them]. 

Reason #4 – volume.  Tony Iommi’s music is not for the faint of heart.  It MUST be played at a high volume.  Of all the concerts I’ve seen since 1982, only four of them left me with crickets chirping in my ears…for days!  Of those four, two were Black Sabbath – once with Ronnie James Dio [Washington, DC - 1992], the other time with Ozzy Osbourne [San Jose, CA – 1999].  I suffered happily each time.

Reason #5 – solos.  Tony Iommi is a riffmaster’s riffmaster.  The solo is not his strong suit like it is for other guitarists [Duane Allman, David Gilmour, Ritchie Blackmore all come to mind].  But he is very, very good.  He’s best when soloing slowly [Shadow of the Wind], or Warp Factor Eight [Symptom of the Universe].  In between those two speeds, Tony is a mere mortal.  His contemporaries Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page were good at playing things off the top of their heads in concert, but Tony Iommi is a different soloist.  Whichever solo he’d record for a specific song, he’d stick pretty close to it when playing live.  The exception to this rule is Heaven and Hell.  He can solo his brains out for days on that one.  But a mere mortal Tony Iommi is better than almost everyone else.  If I had to pick a standout Tony Iommi solo, it would be his first solo from Lonely Is The Word [Heaven and Hell].  I can only describe it as being unlike any other solo in his catalog.

Reason #6 - Diabolus in Musica. Tony Iommi stumbled upon the tritone, known in medieval times as “The Devil in Music.”  It was explained to me this way –Nearly everything with that evil, doomy feel to it shares that interval relationship.  It causes a sense of unease, anxiety or evil because it doesn't fall where the ear expects it to.  The final note in the three-note/chord riff to Black Sabbath is the best obvious example.  The music itself isn’t evil, it just sounds that way.  Is there a more scary song than Black Sabbath, the first song from the first album?  What a way to kick off a career!

I asked my friends from the Iommi message board the following:  What one song, in your opinion, captures Tony Iommi's essence, and why?    For me, it’s War Pigs.  I think it’s the best metal song ever done.  So sure of this I originally thought I would put this out as something that was absolute, something that is so self-evident that none would dare argue the point.  But like Magnum PI, the little voice in my head told me “ask the Iommi board guys.”  So I did that and I’m glad I did.  Black Sabbath, and Tony Iommi in particular, are for these guys what the Beatles are to me.  These are the guys who eat, sleep and breathe Black Sabbath.  As for the answer to the question, a trend emerged – most favored Sabbath’s music from the years 1970-75, which means their first six albums with Ozzy Osbourne.  Four songs in particular stood out among the rest – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Symptom of the Universe, Black Sabbath, and Wheels of Confusion.  Why did these tunes in particular get so much love from these guys?

Black Sabbath – This is the “big bang” for heavy metal – where it all started.  This is the very first song from the very first Black Sabbath album.  When Geezer Butler noticed people paid lots of money to have the crap scared out of them, Tony came up with this.  Leave it to him to use a kind of music once banned by the Catholic Church.  It wasn’t intentional to sound evil, just to sound cool.  It starts with the gloomy sounds of rain and thunder, the peal of a distant church bell, then the Riff of Doom.  If you played this combination of notes in the Middle Ages you’d probably have various instruments of mayhem [most of them HOT] applied to your testicles.  If you want to know how to make vibrato work in your guitar playing, listen to the third note of the tritone – perfect vibrato.  There’s a tempo change from the doom crawl to very fast at the 4:35 mark, wah-wah drenched guitar and a scary Iommi solo that builds to a stop-start climax.  If you want to put a sound to the word “ominous” this song will do the trick.

Wheels of Confusion/ The Straightener – This one from Vol. 4 has probably the rawest sounding guitar in the entire Black Sabbath catalog [maybe Supernaut too].  His tone is brutal, with plenty of crunch.  The Straightener is two and a half minutes of Iommi solos.  In addition you hear the acoustic and what sounds like another guitar played through a Leslie speaker.  The Straightener is for Wheels of Confusion what Luke’s Wall is for War Pigs, a good instrumental conclusion to one of Black Sabbath’s more structurally inventive songs.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – it has a little of everything.  Tony had writer’s block when Black Sabbath started work on the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album.  Luckily this song came to him – not one great riff, not two, but three [the main, opening riff, the bridge, and the final, very heavy, detuned part].  Between the riffs are the acoustic interludes.  So you have the heaviness, the light and shade, the tempo changes.  A lot of stuff is happening on this song.  I still have no idea what “Bog blast all of you” means…

Symptom of the Universe – Tony shows thrashers how it’s done.  The riff sounds a lot like Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown, only evil.  He slashes and burns for four and a half minutes and then does a head-spinning 180 and plays a very cool jazzy acoustic guitar for the next two.  He makes the transition from hard thrash to acoustic bliss look effortless.  One of his fastest solos helps with the transition.

One of my fellow board members put it this way when asked the “name one song” question – I don't think I can do that. I like so much of what he’s done that no one song can do that. Each one says something different.”  That’s fair enough – I see his point.   Depending on my mood at any given moment, any of these songs [and many of the others] could be “the one.”  But if someone put a gun to my head and said “choose one now!” I’d pick Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, even though War Pigs is my favorite.

There were some other interesting choices to the "name one song" question from the Iommi board crowd. The most interesting choice was Meat from Tony's first "proper" solo album. It's good stuff - I think it has the distinction of being the only Iommi song with a lead female vocalist. It has a sufficiently high doom quotient. From the same Iommi album, my favorites are Black Oblivion, Flame On, and Just Say No To Love [Peter Steele (RIP) even namechecks Tony Iommi and Jon Lord in this one]. Another interesting choice was Heart like a Wheel from Seventh Star. That one sparked a bit of discussion since Seventh Star is probably the most "un-Sababth" album in Tony's catalog. Seventh Star was supposed to be Tony's first solo album, but the record company had other ideas and wanted a "Black Sabbath" album, even though Tony was the only original member left in the band. Interestingly enough, the person who suggested Heart like a Wheel thought he was suggesting heresey, but the reaction to his suggestion was uniformly positive. This song is as close to 12-bar blues as Tony Iommi will get. He's got a very visceral, razor-sharp guitar tone all over Seventh Star. For Heart Like a Wheel, Tony puts his best solo chops on display. Other suggestions from something besides the Ozzy era included Heaven and Hell, Children of the Sea and Die Young. One can conclude there is much affection for the Heaven and Hell album as a whole.  The Tony Martin era got no love whatsoever from these guys. 

For the most part I am partial to the sounds Tony Iommi made in the later years, most especially the albums he made with the Iommi-Butler-Dio-Appice lineup.  Not just for the guitar playing, but also for the better production, song structure and Dio’s singing.  When Dio came on board for the Heaven and Hell album, Bill Ward was still the drummer, and Sabbath still had a loose feel to them.  He wasn’t as much a timekeeper as he was a percussionist who just went where the songs took him.  They were “Black Sabbath with a new singer.”  But when Vinny Appice came along after Bill Ward left in 1980, the character of the band changed.  Vinny is more of a time keeper [think “Ringo Starr” in a heavy metal band].  And since he played a straight beat, Black Sabbath morphed into more of a skull-crushing juggernaut.  Tony Iommi [and occasionally Geezer Butler] came up with more up-tempo riffs. 

The sludge from the likes of Master of Reality was gone, replaced by the punishing Mob Rules, Dehumanizer, and The Devil You Know.  The riffs aren’t sinister – they’re brutal, mean, crushing.  Follow the Tears and Bible Black [The Devil You Know], I [Dehumanizer], Turn Up the Night and The Mob Rules [Mob Rules] easily come to mind.   The same can be said for Tony’s album with Glenn Hughes, Fused.  So many riffs, so little time…  I Go Insane [from Fused] is one of the most musically complex things Tony has done.  A nine-minute epic, it has four distinctive parts – the first 3:23 is slow, bluesy.  Then the tempo picks up – at first the music has an almost ethereal quality, but then the guitars build up to the 5:46 mark, where it’s massive, brutal, face-melting, pile-driving riffage.  At seven minutes begins the only proper solo, a minute-long affair that eases into the same theme heard in the first section.  Brilliant!  Computer God [Dehumanizer] is a different beast.  A song about technological tyranny, this one has three parts – a start-stop beginning, a slow arpeggio’d part in the middle [the part I can actually play], and the aggressive finish.  Tony flows from one part to another with ease while Geezer Butler’s bass bobs and weaves throughout.  It’s an impressive piece of arranging.  This is how men play heavy metal.
I Go Insane

Computer God

With 2012 almost upon us, we have the promise of a new Black Sabbath album and tour from the original four [Tony, Geezer, Ozzy and Bill Ward].  These men are in their 60s now, but I have no doubt they have one more great work in them.  Psycho Man from Reunion was merely "ok" - I think they can do better.  Tony Iommi’s skills as a player haven’t diminished.  Judging from his last two studio works [Fused and The Devil You Know], I don’t think his ability to create classic riffs has diminished either.  Tony has no need to prove he can produce great work in his later years – he’s already done that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Buddy Guy

“He was for me what Elvis probably was for most other people.  My course was set and he was my pilot.” – Eric Clapton, on the occasion of Buddy Guy’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 2005

Here it is another blog about another blues guitar legend.  Today’s subject – Buddy Guy.  Eric Clapton once called him the best guitar player alive.  Jimi Hendrix once said "Heaven is sitting at Buddy Guy's feet while listening to him play guitar."  When he was 13 he made his own guitar and taught himself how to play.  Buddy Guy moved to Chicago from Louisiana in the late 1950s.  Chess Records used him as a session guitarist for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and many others.  For those blues icons he played the way those guys and his employers [Chess Records] wanted him to play.  But on his own his playing took on a different character.  His guitar playing is loud and aggressive.  He uses feedback and distortion.  He’d play guitar behind his back or with his teeth.  He would solo with total abandon.  His live shows were [and still are] incendiary.  Jimi Hendrix saw that and wanted to be Buddy Guy.    When he became known to the American rock listening public, the assumption was that Buddy Guy was copying Hendrix when it was really the other way around.  Eric Clapton got the idea for a blues-rock trio after seeing Buddy Guy’s trio perform in London in 1965.  He wanted to be like Buddy Guy with a singing, composing bass player.  That trio that Clapton wanted turned out to be Cream.  Buddy Guy has also influenced the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan [RIP].  Without a doubt he is the bridge between blues and rock and roll.
As much as he has been revered by rock and blues musicians, for a long time after the 1960s Buddy Guy couldn’t get arrested.  He’d play his live shows with the same fury and abandon, but he couldn’t get a recording contract to save his life.  In the early 1990s he finally got a deal with Silvertone Records.  He’s recorded some fine albums with Silvertone.  His first three, Damn Right, I Got the Blues [1991], Feels Like Rain [1993] and Slippin’ In [1995] each earned him critical acclaim [Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album each time].  Heavy Love [1998] has more of a rock than a blues feel.  For the most part Buddy Guy’s output follows a formula – his albums are slickly-produced, feature guest appearances [Clapton, Beck, BB King, Bonnie Raitt, Jonny Lang, Mark Knopfler, Carlos Santana, Tracy Chapman, John Mayer, etc], and his on-stage intensity is dialed-down quite a bit.
Sweet Tea [2001] is not slick, not overproduced, and features no guest stars.  There’s no blatant attempt to win a cross-over audience.  This is Buddy’s homage to the hypnotic drone blues played by the likes of Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, CeDell Davis, and R.L. Burnside.  That’s the sound of the North Mississippi hill country.   That’s the sound of Fat Possum Records.  Recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, it’s “back to basics” for Buddy Guy.  For those wanting to hear Buddy Guy finally cut loose on an album, this is the one for you.  Unlike most of his studio output, Buddy dials up the intensity.  Buddy followed his most electrifying album with another atypical album, a completely acoustic folk blues album, Blues Singer [recorded in the same studio as Sweet Tea].  Blues Singer is an excellent counterpoint to Sweet Tea. 
Buddy Guy is an assassin.  Just ask the Rolling Stones.  He played Muddy Waters’ Champagne & Reefer with them for their Shine a Light documentary.  He didn’t pay any deference to them as others who shared the stage with them [Jack White and Christina Aguilera (?!?)] - he slayed them!  Keith smiled the whole time.  I could almost hear him thinking “thank you sir, may I have another?”  The Rolling Stones, despite all their pop success, is a blues band at heart, so they don’t mind it one bit when one of their musical heroes smacks them around on-stage.

Buddy has been around a very long time.  The work he did with Junior Wells [using the pseudonym “Friendly Chap”], most especially Hoodoo Man Blues [1965] and Play The Blues [1972], has been acclaimed by many as some of the finest Chicago-style blues you’ll ever hear. His 1968 album A Man and the Blues is essential.  Buddy’s most recent work [2008’s Skin Deep and 2010’s Living Proof] finds Buddy back in his comfort zone of Chicago blues.   These albums aren’t as intense as Sweet Tea, but they have more grit to them that his well-acclaimed 1990s output.  At 74 years old, they show Buddy Guy isn’t going away quietly anytime soon.  And because of that, the music world is a better place.  Buddy Guy is one of only a few blues giants left.  I hope he’s around quite a bit longer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Hubert Sumlin

I’ve been thinking of writing blogs about guitarists I like for quite awhile. I just hadn’t made up my mind who to start with.  Sadly, current events made up my mind for me when I heard that blues great Hubert Sumlin passed away.  Born Nov 16, 1931 in Mississippi, he was the youngest of thirteen children.  He started with harp player James Cotton, then joined with Howlin’ Wolf in 1954.  After playing with the Wolf for two years, Muddy Waters hired him away for awhile in 1956.  Muddy paid better but he toured more than Howlin’ Wolf.  After that stint with Muddy Waters he rejoined the Wolf and stayed with him until the Wolf’s death in 1976.  He was a guitar hero’s guitar hero.  His guitar playing has been described as “angular,” “jagged.” After hearing all the songs he did with Howlin’ Wolf, I could hear why these guys were so enamored with Hubert.  Without Killing Floor, Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song would exist.  Other songs in Howlin’ Wolf’s repertoire – Smokestack Lightning, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, Commit a Crime, Shake For Me, Down in the Bottom – would be hard to imagine with Hubert’s guitar.  I heard those songs and got hooked on not only Howlin’ Wolf, but Hubert Sumlin as well.

Hubert Sumlin was not a household name.  But for blues enthusiasts, the word “legend” barely scratches the surface when describing Hubert Sumlin.  The music Hubert Sumlin created with Howlin’ Wolf is a landmark (one of several) in the development of electric Chicago blues.  He never achieved the fame that Wolf did, but without Sumlin, Wolf’s greatest, most influential records wouldn’t have been the same.  One look at old Stones and Hendrix concerts and Sumlin’s influence is easily seen. The Rolling Stones imitated the Wolf’s recording of The Red Rooster.  When Hendrix wanted to play the blues in his live shows, his supercharged version of Killing Floor fit the bill.  But don’t take my word for it – check out Hendrix’s BBC Sessions and hear his vicious take on the Howlin’ Wolf classic.  The list of guitar players influenced by Hubert Sumlin is a pantheon of rock guitar gods:  Clapton, Beck, Page, Richards, Hendrix, Vaughan, Zappa.  His importance cannot be overstated.

Bob Margolin:  “When Hubert plays guitar, he takes you to his world of Blues Feeling, from despair to ecstasy, from delicate grace to raw power, from lost to found. His style is original and personal and instantly recognizable. What kind of man can make or break your heart with his guitar?”
Jimmy Page: “I love Hubert. He always played the right thing at the right time.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan:  "Hubert's the heaviest, most original guitar player I've ever heard...and that's the truth!"
Ronnie Earl:  "Hubert's one of the guys who sat down and taught me stuff.”

His preferred axe was a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.  He was known to play a Fender Stratocaster from time to time though.  Early influences that affected Hubert Sumlin's style of play at a young age, included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and of course Howlin’ Wolf.  It was at Howlin’ Wolf’s urging that Hubert stopped playing with a pick and used only his fingers.   Once Hubert found his “sound” he became [or his sound became – he was very unassuming] as iconic as Howlin’ Wolf himself.

When Chess Records wanted Howlin’ Wolf to make a record in England [with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts], they (Chess) originally didn’t want Hubert playing the sessions with them.  Clapton told Chess that if Hubert wasn’t involved then neither was he.  Chess changed their minds, Hubert played on the album.  Such was Clapton’s respect for Hubert Sumlin.

Awhile back I saw a celebration of blues music called Lightning in a Bottle, which was filmed at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 2004.   I wanted to watch it because Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes were going to play [they played The Sky Is Crying].  But before they played, there was Hubert Sumlin with David Johansen.  They played Killing Floor and they smoked!  An amazing thing about Hubert was that not too long before he played RCMH, he had a lung removed due to lung cancer.  Here’s the clip:

He’s done an album with Pinetop Perkins [Legends], A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (1998) with other former members of the Wolf’s band,  and he cut a couple of tunes with Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin on his All-Star Blues Jam (1999).  Someday I’ll get his own CD I Know You.  On the last CD of Hubert Sumlin’s that I bought [About Them Shoes, 2004], Hubert is joined by Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, Bob Margolin, and David Johansen to play tributes to Muddy Waters.  Particularly noteworthy are I’m Ready [with Eric Clapton] and Still a Fool [with Keith Richards].  Both are always on my iPod.  If you can find About Them Shoes, get it!
Hubert passed away from heart failure on December 4th.  He had just celebrated his 80th birthday two weeks ago.  As Jimmie Vaughan so eloquently put it in song after the passing of his brother Stevie Ray, “Heaven done called … another blues stringer back home.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tony's Picks - U2

There weren’t too many bands from the 1980s that I like, but the ones I do like were pretty good – The Police, The Pretenders, and U2.  The Pretenders started out great but after James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon died they became Chrissie Hynde and a bunch of guys. The Police left behind a small recorded legacy - too small for my taste.  U2 on the other hand has hung around for over thirty years.  They’ve done some great work, and they’ve had some duds along the way as well.  Here are the songs that I could hear anytime.  I purposely left off some of the more popular songs, namely Pride [In the Name of Love], I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You, and Two Hearts Beat as One, and Beautiful Day to name a few.  Good songs yes, but they’re overplayed.  If I’m stranded on a deserted island, those songs don’t make the cut.  Here are the ones that do:

Sunday Bloody Sunday [War, 1983] – this one is the first U2 song I ever heard on KILO-94, a radio station in Colorado Springs that used to be great.  This song was the hook for me - New Year’s Day sealed the deal.

October [October, 1981] – I bought this album after I bought War.  No guitar, just piano from The Edge.  At the Red Rocks show [yes, that show] this song served as a very effective intro to…

New Year’s Day [War, 1983] – this one’s a song for Poland’s Solidarity [or so I have read].  It has the driest, most angry Fender Stratocaster tone that one will ever hear on a U2 recording.  Truly a great song…my favorite from this band.

Seconds [War, 1983] – The Edge sings!  This is the song that is sandwiched between Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day.  Getting blown up by atomic weapons was a big worry back then, especially for Europeans caught between Soviet SS-20 and American cruise missiles and Pershings.  It takes a second to say goodbye…

Drowning Man [War, 1983] – U2 goes acoustic, except for an electric violin.  It’s the most haunting song in the U2 catalog courtesy of said electric violin.

A Sort of Homecoming [The Unforgettable Fire, 1984] – The clean guitar tones from War are nowhere to be found here, but that’s ok.  This was my first exposure to Daniel Lanois’ production style where everything kind of smears together.  Larry Mullen Jr’s drums are very different as well – polyrhythmic instead of just keeping time.

The Unforgettable Fire [The Unforgettable Fire, 1984] – Bono’s vision of a nuclear apocalypse.  George Martin used to tell the Beatles to “think symphonically.”  I think U2 does that on this song.

Bad [The Unforgettable Fire, 1984] – Heroin addiction.  This song is almost like a trance.  Maybe that’s what it’s like to be strung out…

The Three Sunrises [The Unforgettable Fire Deluxe Edition] – I have no idea what this one is about.  I just like hearing The Edge abuse his Stratocaster with a slide.

Where the Streets Have No Name [The Joshua Tree, 1987] – I hadn’t heard the song until I saw the video on MTV.  The first time I saw their video was the day I arrived at Officer Training School in 1987, of all places.  When I saw it I thought “Beatles.  Let It Be.  Rooftop.”

Bullet the Blue Sky [The Joshua Tree, 1987] – Bono wanted The Edge to play like there’s a war coming through his amps.  I think he got it right.  Outside it’s America

Running to Stand Still [The Joshua Tree, 1987] – Bad, Part II.  Bono wrote about Dublin’s heroin problem.  The “seven towers” in the song are high-rises in Dublin where lots of drug addicts live.  The piano and acoustic slide guitar are courtesy of The Edge.  Instead of the haze of Bad, this one is an uncluttered, unplugged number with some very good singing from Bono.

Silver and Gold [The Joshua Tree Deluxe Edition] – There are two versions.  One is an electric, all-band B-side.  The other is a bluesy, all-acoustic thing with Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Steve Jordan done for the anti-apartheid Sun City thing.  I like both versions, but I prefer the unplugged one. 

Mothers of the Disappeared [The Joshua Tree, 1987] – The closing track from The Joshua Tree sounds nothing like anything U2 had done up until this time.  In retrospect, it sounds like the coming direction of what became Achtung Baby.  This song would fit right in on that album.  As for subject matter, it’s for those mothers in Chile whose children disappeared at the hands of the Pinochet regime.  Sting covered the same ground on They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo).

Desire [Rattle and Hum, 1988] – When I first heard this song, my first thought was ‘Bo Diddley.’  This was my first hint that Bono was turning away from matters in his environment to matters of the heart.

When Love Comes to Town [Rattle and Hum, 1988] – BB King.  ‘Nuff said.

All I Want Is You [Rattle and Hum, 1988] – Carol and I saw the movie when it was in theatrical release at the State Theater in Marysville, California.  That was the only time we saw a movie there.  The place is closed now.  This song was at the very end of the movie.  It played over the credits.  We stuck around to hear the whole song.  An extremely moving song, it has stuck with me ever since.  Van Dyke Parks provided the haunting string arrangement.  It’s almost perfect, right behind New Year’s Day.  I never tire of it.

Zoo Station, One, So Cruel, The Fly, Mysterious Ways, Acrobat, Love Is Blindness – I already wrote a blog on the Achtung Baby songs.

The First Time and Dirty Day [Zooropa, 1993] – These both sound like leftovers from Achtung Baby, which is OK with me.

The Wanderer [Zooropa, 1993] – Johnny Cash walking under an atomic sky.  This song is so strange one can’t help but like it.

Discothèque, Do You Feel Loved, and Gone [Pop, 1997] – I just like how they sound.  They might just have that dance-club thing down here.  What about the rest of Pop?  Meh…

Vertigo [How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004] – One, Two, Three, Fourteen?

Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own [How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004] – I think Bono wrote this for his dying father.  It reminds me somewhat of One.

All Because of You [How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004] - The beginning sounds like a sonar ping, and you’re on the submarine about to get depth-charged.  Good guitar song.

Elevation [All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000], Magnificent [No Line on the Horizon, 2009], and Electrical Storm [The Best of 1990-2000, 2002] – these songs just sound cool.

Get On Your Boots [No Line on the Horizon, 2009] – Just like Where the Streets Have No Name, I saw U2 play this on a rooftop before I heard the record.  This time the rooftop was the BBC in London.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steve Bartman - Catching Hell

At the end of the 2011 regular Major League Baseball season, two teams who had been a cinch to make the playoffs at the beginning of September [the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves] choked miserably and failed to make the playoffs.  There are two ways to handle such a collapse.  One way is to just own up to your collapse, regroup quietly and wait until next year.  The other is to find scapegoats for your team’s collapse and try to ruin that scapegoat’s reputation.  Atlanta is following the first route.  There’s no bitching, moaning and complaining.  They just owned the fact they choked and didn’t get it done.  Boston is choosing the latter path.  Manager Terry Francona is Boston’s scapegoat.  In the eyes of those who run the Boston Red Sox, their September collapse is his fault.  The players who did the actual choking aren’t being faulted, with the exception of three Boston pitchers [Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and John Lackey].  The other night I watched one of those “30 for 30” documentaries on ESPN.  This documentary was entitled Catching Hell.  This is filmmaker Alex Gibney’s look at the Steve Bartman incident.  Like what is happening today with Terry Francona, this is a case study in the art of scapegoating.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, this occurred during Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins.  They were playing for the right to represent the National League in the 2003 World Series.  The venue: the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.  The situation:  the Cubs had a 3 games to 2 advantage on the Marlins.  The Cubs were leading the game 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning.  There was one out, Florida had a man on second, Cubs ace Mark Prior was pitching, Luis Castillo was batting for Florida.  Chicago was five outs away from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945.  Castillo hit a pop foul toward the stands on the left side of the field.  Left fielder Moises Alou ran over to catch the ball.  It was playable, but Alou couldn’t make the catch.  A fan interfered with Alou.  Alou was furious and shouted at the fans.  The Cubs wanted Castillo called out because of the interference.  Umpire Mike Everitt said the ball broke the plane of the wall between the stands and the playing field.  Since the umpire ruled the ball was in the stands there was no fan interference.  Castillo’s at bat continued.  This is where the fun REALLY began.

Castillo continued his at-bat and drew a walk.  Ball four was a wild pitch, so the man on second [Juan Pierre] advanced to third.  Ivan Rodriguez came up next and singled, driving in Pierre to make the score 3-1.  Miguel Cabrera was up next, hit a ball to Cub shortstop Alex Gonzalez.  Normally a sure-handed infielder, Gonzalez booted the ball.  Instead of turning an inning-ending double play, the bases were loaded.  Derek Lee was up next, hit a double and tied the game at 3-3.  This was Mark Prior’s 119th and final pitch.  Cubs manager Dusty Baker left him in the game while he was running out of gas.  Kyle Farnsworth relieved Prior.  He issued an intentional walk to Mike Lowell, then gave up a sacrifice fly to Jeff Conine, which gave the Marlins a 4-3 lead.  Sammy Sosa missed the cutoff man, and Lowell was able to advance to second.  Farnsworth issued another intentional walk to Todd Hollandsworth, again loading the bases.  Mike Mordecai then hit a double, clearing the bases and breaking the game open 7-3.  Juan Pierre came up for the second time in the inning, hit a single and drove in Mordecai with the Marlins’ eighth run.  Before the Cubs realized what hit them, it was game over, Florida won 8-3.  There was a Game 7 at Wrigley Field the following night.  The Cubs had a 5-3 lead in Game 7, but they blew that one too.  The Marlins won Game 7, won the National League pennant, and won the 2003 World Series beating the New York Yankees 4 games to 2. 

The Cubs’ meltdown in the League Championship Series would be labeled as an “epic failure” today.  Any way you look at it, they choked.  How did such a team of highly-paid professionals unravel so badly and so quickly after one call that didn’t go their way?   Did Cubs fans blame their team for their mental meltdown in Game 6?  Did they blame their team for blowing another lead and not winning Game 7?  Did they blame their pitchers for not being able to get anybody out?  Did they blame Alex Gonzalez for botching a routine ground ball that extended the eighth inning?  Did they blame manager Dusty Baker for leaving Mark Prior in the game too long?  The answer to all those questions is a resounding “NO.”  Instead, they blamed the guy who got in Moises Alou’s way – Steve Bartman.

What happened to Steve Bartman after his collision with destiny?  After the game, one could see a sign outside Wrigley Field.  "Kill that fan! He lost it for us!"  There was an interview clip with Rod Blagojevich – “If someone ever convicts that guy of a crime he'll never get a pardon outta this governor.” [How’s THAT for irony?]   Meanwhile, the Wrigley Field security staff had to figure out how to get Bartman home from the “friendly confines”without him getting killed.  Gibney interviewed Wrigley Field security guard Erika Amundsen, who gave a compassionate account of how she got Bartman out of the neighborhood.  Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser [idiots, both of them] blamed Bartman for the Cubs meltdown on their show ‘Pardon the Interruption.”  The Chicago press didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory.  They found out who Bartman was, where he worked and where he lived – then told everybody.  There was a lynch mob mentality.  Dave Kaplan, host of WGN’s “Sports Central,” was much more rational.  He was on the air after the Cubs lost the pennant, and one fan called in and said “we know where he lives, we’re gonna kill him.”  Kaplan was trying to “talk people away from the edge” and convince his listeners that the Cubs meltdown wasn’t Bartman’s fault.  Fox baseball analyst Steve Lyons knew.  He played back the Bartman incident, froze the replay and circled six other fans who were trying to do the same thing Steve Bartman did. 

Cubs 2003 first baseman Eric Karros had the right idea, He didn’t think about Bartman in the crucial Game 7, just how the Cubs were going to win. Conversely, left fielder Moises Alou says after missing the foul ball, he knew something bad was going to happen — to the extent that he and teammate Aramis Ramirez booked flights home to the Dominican Republic.  Why did Alou book a flight home after Game 6?  And why did he admit doing it?  Alou was a six-time All-Star, won the Silver Slugger award twice, had over 300 career home runs, a lifetime batting average of .303, and won a World Series ring with the Marlins in 1997.  He was not a slug – he was a pretty good player.  So how come a well-paid professional such as Alou just gives up on Game 7 before it’s even played?  The Marlins came back from being down 3 games to 1.  The Cubs had a huge series lead, almost insurmountable.  All they had to do was win one more game.  They didn’t get it done.  Cubs fans wanted to blame someone besides their beloved Cubs for not getting it done.  Steve Bartman was an easy target for them.  Two years later, writer Wayne Drehs had been assigned to interview Steve Bartman.  His boss told him his assignment was two words – “find Bartman.”  Drehs staked out Bartman’s home and followed him to work.  He waited in the parking garage for seven hours.  He surprised Bartman when Drehs seemed to appear from nowhere to ask him for an interview.  Taken aback, Bartman said ‘thank you, I appreciate it.  I’m going to talk to my legal team and we’ll get back to you.”
The thing that most interested me was the interview with Ohio minister Kathleen Rolenz.  She worked the Bartman incident into a sermon she delivered to her congregation.  She paralleled Bartman as a scapegoat with the Biblical 16th chapter of Leviticus, where a goat carries the sins of the people.  The way she described the story of the scapegoat fit exactly they way Bartman was treated as he was leaving Wrigley Field.  As people threw trash and other things at the goat as it was leaving the village as depicted in Leviticus, fans threw all kinds of things at Bartman as he was being escorted from Wrigley Field.

Bartman didn’t make a dime off the controversy.  He was offered $25,000 to sign autographs.  He was given offers to appear in commercials.  Bartman refused those offers too.  The guy who did get the infamous ‘Bartman ball’ sold it to Harry Carey’s Restaurant for thousands of dollars.  The guy who sold the ball was interviewed on camera but his identity concealed.  He profited from the ‘Bartman ball,’ yet Bartman, who hasn’t taken a dime from anyone, is the asshole.

Gibney compares the ‘Bartman incident’ to Bill Buckner.  When he played first base for the Boston Red Sox, he allowed a routine ground ball go through his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets.  Many [not all] in Red Sox Nation blamed Buckner for costing the Red Sox the chance to win their first World Series since 1918.  My opinion?  Pitcher Calvin Schiraldi is the goat in that series, not Buckner.  But Gibney allows Bill Buckner to tell his story and how he wouldn’t go near Fenway Park for many years after his brush with infamy.  The Red Sox have won two World Series since Buckner’s error. The Red Sox brought him back to throw out the game ball on Opening Day 2008. The Boston fans greeted Buckner warmly.  In a postgame press conference, Buckner said it was most difficult for him to forgive the media “for what they put me and my family through.” 

Buckner has forgiven his critics.  But will Steve Bartman forgive his?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why I Like Black Sabbath

In the late 1960s, four lads from the industrial heartland of England, Birmingham, made their entrance onto the music scene.  These gentlemen – Tony Iommi, Terry “Geezer” Butler, John “Ozzy” Osbourne, and Bill Ward created a sound unlike any other.  They were heavier, harder and darker [and probably louder] than anything that preceded them.  First they were the Polka Tuck Blues Band, then they were Earth.  They had to change their name when they found another band named Earth.  A movie theater across the street from where they rehearsed would provide inspiration for a new name.  The movie playing there:  Boris Karloff’s Black Sabbath.  Geezer Butler took note that people would pay money to have the crap scared out of them.  Geezer and Ozzy wrote the words to Black Sabbath.  Tony Iommi stumbled upon the tritone, known in medieval times as “The Devil in Music.”  The music itself isn’t evil, it just sounds that way.  Tony Iommi wasn’t setting out to write Satanic music – he just thought it sounded cool.  Sabbath’s music evolved from the loud heavy blues of the late 1960s.  There wasn’t anything about “wearing flowers in your hair” from this bunch.  If anybody was singing about the occult during that time, they are unknown to me.  These guys weren’t like anything else at the time.  For better or worse [depending on who you talk to], Black Sabbath invented heavy metal.  \m/  What are some of the things that endears me to Black Sabbath?

The Riffs – With all due respect to “the human riff” Keith Richards, he doesn’t have anything on Tony Iommi.  Iommi has a million riffs, and they’re all cool.  Standout riffs:  Symptom of the Universe, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Into the Void, Snowblind, Killing Yourself to Live, Heaven and Hell, War Pigs [of course!].

Doom! – If you want peace and love and hippie shit, you’ve come to the wrong place.  You’ve got death [Behind the Wall of Sleep], drugs [Sweet Leaf, Snowblind, Hand of Doom], nuclear war [Electric Funeral], anti-war [War Pigs], the dangers of messing with the occult [Black Sabbath], hookers [Dirty Women], fleeting fame [Looking For Today], getting ripped off by managers [The Writ], environmental destruction [Into the Void], and even God [After Forever].  So many songs, so many subjects, most of them are unhappy.  There are few love songs, if any.

Tony Iommi – The man had two of his fingertips chopped off [not by choice], detuned his guitars and invented heavy metal.  Black Sabbath has had 37 different people in the band at one time or another [ok, I exaggerate, but only a little bit], but Tony Iommi has been the one constant.  Listen to everything Sabbath has put out and you too will subscribe to the “Iommi = Sabbath Theory.”  Players come and players go, but the records with Tony Iommi still sound like Black Sabbath.  Some lineups have been better than others, but Iommi’s guitar tones from below Hell are always there. 

Geezer Butler – Tony Iommi may have come up with all the riffs, but it was Geezer Butler’s thunderous bass that made Iommi’s riffs the skullcrushers that they are.  Other bassist have played with Sabbath [Dave Spitz, Bob Dailey, Neil Larsen], but none of them had that heaviness that made Black Sabbath what it was.  Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler were made for each other.  I wish I could play bass like him, but that isn’t very likely to happen.

Ronnie James Dio – Simply the best heavy metal vocalist that ever walked this Earth.  I discovered him in Black Sabbath after he was without a job when he parted ways with Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow.  I’ve written at length about RJD in these spaces before, so there’s no need to bore you with a rehash.

Antidote to Crappy Music – Black Sabbath is an antidote to crappy music.  Have you ever been in a dentist office waiting room, and they play this God-awful chick music while you’re waiting?  Have you seen commercials that feature the worst Sheryl Crow song imaginable [and let’s face it, they’re ALL really shitty]?  Or do you just hear a random song anywhere that annoys the crap out of you?  Black Sabbath is your antidote.  I guarantee if you have suffered from crappy music, one play of War Pigs will wipe that crap out of your mind.

Christians – Black Sabbath scares the hell out of hard-core Christians.  These people seem to think that the guys in Black Sabbath are Satanists.  While it’s true that Satan got name-checked every now and then, that doesn’t make them Satan worshippers.  But the mere mention of the word Satan gives these people hissy fits.  It shows how small-minded and clueless they really are, which is fine with me.  There’s one song about Satan – Lord of This World.

Finally, they’re dinosaurs, just like me!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Queen - A Night at the Opera/A Day at the Races

Freddie Mercury would have been 65 years old on September 5th.  With that in mind I thought it appropriate to look at what many critics dub as Queen’s best album, A Night at the Opera.  There are a lot of different kinds of music to choose from on this album.  There’s hard rock, Vaudeville jazz, acoustic folk, and English pop.  A Night at the Opera is a good album, but not a great album.  I’d put it between “good” and “great” [“near great” perhaps?].  I’m not sure why they chose to use titles from Marx Brothers movies for this and their next album A Day at the Races.  My theory is they wanted to convey to their listening public that they were entertainers who weren’t to be taken too seriously.  Freddie Mercury’s life, from all appearances, was all about fun, and so were the Marx Brothers.  So, what about the songs?

Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…) – Queen rocks!  An angry Freddie Mercury at his most venomous.  The object of his displeasure was a former manager.  This is reminiscent of John Lennon’s How Do You Sleep in that the object of Freddie’s displeasure is never named, and that the listener is drawn in to share Freddie’s anger.  I like it!

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon – this is a mercifully brief excursion into Vaudeville territory, but after the bile from Death on Two Legs its nice comic relief.  I like how Freddie’s vocals sound like they’re being sung through a megaphone.

I’m in Love With My Car – Roger Taylor sings!  Every car cliché imaginable is here, but I like it anyway because it rocks.

You’re My Best Friend – Bassist John Deacon’s only song on A Night at the Opera.   He wrote it for his wife while he was learning to play the piano.  The Wurlitzer piano carries the tune, and there’s very little guitar.  I’ve always liked it anyway.

’39 – Brian May sings!  This one’s an acoustic gem about space travel that sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp from LZ III, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  For all I know Page could have lifted his tune from someone else [like he’s never done THAT before…].

Sweet Lady – Hard-rock Queen the likes of which I will never tire.

Seaside Rendezvous – more Vaudeville, but Roger and Freddie use their voices to mimic woodwind/brass instruments, so that in itself makes this song interesting.

The Prophet’s Song – This is a sprawling 8:21 epic which would probably work better if it was 2 ½ minutes shorter.  Coincidentally there’s a 2 ½ minute a capella section that gets a bit tedious after the first ten seconds.  The rest of the song is ok.  It was inspired by a dream Brian May had about the Great Flood.

Love of My Life – one of Freddie Mercury’s most beloved songs.  This version is a piano ballad with bits of harp, but I prefer the live, acoustic guitar version.  Brian May sings it live now, with much audience participation.

Good Company – A Brian May-sung ditty played on ukulele.  This wouldn’t show up on any “mix CD” I would make, but it isn’t crap either.  It’s just “there.”

Bohemian Rhapsody – THE Freddie Mercury masterpiece.  You’ve all heard it – nothing more needs to be said.

God Save the Queen – the Brian May guitar orchestra.  I always picture Freddie with his regal robe and his crown at the end of a Queen show whenever I hear this.  I remember seeing Brian May play this on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.  How cool is that?

Queen - God Save the Queen [Live at Wembley '86]

Brian May - God Save the Queen Buckingham Palace 2002

By borrowing another album title from a Marx Brothers movie, and with similar artwork on the cover, one can’t help but think that A Day at the Races is a flip-side to A Night at the Opera.  Perhaps that is intentional, but I can’t confirm that.  A Day at the Races, the merely “good” follow-up to A Night at the Opera, is a bit of a letdown.  A Night at the Opera was a hard act to follow.  There are two standout songs surrounded many ordinary ones. 

Tie Your Mother Down – Hard rock greatness written by Brian May.  Everything you want in a hard rock song, and more.  This one opened many Queen shows and for good reason.

You Take My Breath Away – After the hard rock bombast of Tie Your Mother Down comes this snoozy piano ballad from Freddie Mercury.

Long Away – Brian May sings.  Instead of using his own Red Special he plays a Burns Double Six 12-string electric guitar.  The song is ordinary, but I like the sound.

The Millionaire Waltz – this starts out as a piano/bass between Freddie and John Deacon.  Halfway through it gets heavy very quickly, but after only about twenty seconds it’s back to the waltz, but with some guitar over the top.  This song is a bit strange, but that makes it interesting.

You and I – a John Deacon song that does absolutely nothing for me.  It’s not bad, but it doesn’t dazzle me with brilliance either.

Somebody to Love – one word: brilliant!  It has the same trademark multi-tracked voices of Freddie, Brian and Roger as with Bohemian Rhapsody.  IMHO, George Michael stole the Freddie Mercury tribute in 1992 with his rendition of this song.  Anyone who watched that performance and wasn’t touched isn’t human.  One of Freddie Mercury’s finest moments.

White Man – a rarity for a Queen song – it’s a political song from Brian May about American Indian mistreatment at the hands of white European immigrants.  It starts out quietly, then gets loud and heavy at the one-minute mark and stays that way until the last 40 seconds, where the song ends the same way it begins.

Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy – I’m sorry, I never liked this one, never will.

Drowse – Roger Taylor sings here.  While not a hard rocker like I’m in Love With My Car, Brian May plays slide throughout.  It’s a good-sounding track, even if it’s a bit sleepy [hence the title].

Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together) – This one is another piano ballad from Freddie with Japanese lyrics thrown in.  Zzzzzz…

Between A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, I can make a pretty decent mix CD.  Now that I think about it…