May 06, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

SONGS ABOUT ROCK (VII): “You Were Right”

built-to-spill.jpgBUILT TO SPILL
“You Were Right”
from Keep It Like a Secret

“You Were Right” is one of those songs: half jokey, half-not-jokey; absurdist, serious; nonsensical, profound; about nothing … about everything. It could only have come out of the 1990s.

If you haven’t heard it, it begins with a crashing, soaring, repeated chorus: “You were wrong/When you said /Everything’s going to be all right.”

The vocals cry out with pain; the song, it seems, will be a tragedy and an elegy.

Except, then the verses come, quieter, confiding, intimate:

You were right when you said
All that glitters isn’t gold
You were right when you said
All we are is dust in the wind
You were right when you said
We are all just bricks in the wall.

Oh, you say, I get it. And that’s about it, though as the song goes on the group get funnier, quoting Dylan, Seger, the Stones, and, in a burst of imagination, Hendrix. (“You were right when you said/Manic depression’s a frustrating mess.”)

The question about the song is just who or what is being made fun of. At face value, the song is probably trying to say that homilies (“Everything’s gonna be all right”) don’t help us, but that on some level even the hoariest stadium rock cliché contains truth. Which I think I agree with.

On the the hand, the guys in Built to Spill are probably being arch. They know John Cougar Mellencamp has nothing to say, and that Hendrix, often, didn’t either. And in the end, after all, a hard rain hasn’t yet fallen. You can’t help noticing most of the lines are from dorky classic rock acts, the last line of the verses is a total kiss-off: “You were right when you said/That this is the end.”

… which in turn is a joke, because it’s not the end, really; the song concludes with the repeated mocking refrain, “Do you ever think about that?”, which seems to be another  swipe at credulous music fans.

On the other hand, it is true that all that glitters isn’t gold, and it could be the band is trying to make it clear that wisdom comes from unexpected places. On the other hand, the “all that glitters isn’t gold” line is probably just an acid “Stairway to Heaven” reference. On the other hand, the woman in the song is sure that all that glitters is gold.

On the other hand, you can’t buy a stairway to heaven, either.

————

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Apr 08, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

SONGS ABOUT ROCK (VI): “Left of the Dial”

tim-cover.jpgTHE REPLACEMENTS
“Left of the Dial”
from Tim

The college rock movement of the 1980s became increasingly self-conscious; in the 1990s it would become indie rock’s debilitating (and silly) obsession with selling out and so forth. The Replacements, like Mott the Hoople, seemed to infuse almost every one of their songs with this self-consciousness; in this context, the dramatic, searing “Left of the Dial” is both Paul Westerberg’s “Gimme Shelter” and “The Ballad of Mott.”

But unlike Ian Hunter, the pathos Westerberg finds here never falls into lugubriousness. The result is as wrenching a tale of itself rock has ever produced, the story of a doomed and uncompromising music’s past and future; “Left of the Dial”— an interior monologue, a transcontinental travelogue, a meditation on the music and its discontents—is, not insignificantly, Westerberg’s greatest song, which is saying something.

It’s a song about guitars (soaring guitars, chiming guitars, keening guitars, strangled guitars) and singing, too. Westerberg had a melodramatic streak (“The Ledge”) and as his fans know, a sentimental one as well; his underrated voice could make anything convincing. His vocal work here is a tour de force of whispers, murmurs, wails, conversation, hope, defiance, and ruefullness.

You can read the thing many ways, and back in the day there were many explanations for this or that line. (Among other things, “Left of the Dial” has a hidden love song.) I take the bigger view. The title refers to college radio, tucked down in the high 80s and low 90s on the dial. Our heroes, on tour, are in Georgia, apparently, part of the great random diaspora of the era, a movement (with stops and starts) of shaggy musicians that took them to college towns and big cities, clubs and dives, bad motels and fans’ houses, supported and connected by college radio and a few alternative papers and fanzines and not much else.

The opening, keening guitar line heralds both pain and excitement; we get the latter first, as the music pulls up short and a bunch of grubby rock boys on tour grab for what notice they can. But the ambiguities in nearly every line underscore the new territory all are in:

Heard about your band in some local page
Did it mention our name? Didn’t mention our name

On that second line, I don’t know which of those two variants he’s saying. The bands stay in contact this way, second hand, most evocatively, thrillingly, via the radio:

Passin’ through and it’s late; the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state

As Westerberg rachets up the dramatic tension in the song, the band keeps moving west, and it’s hard not to hear, in the long instrumental break, the sound of a shitty van chugging up the Rockies and then, as those coarse, keening, single-double-triple guitars burst to the fore again, reaching a crest and barreling down toward the Pacific and … what? Stardom? The music industry? No, something different:

Pretty girl keeps growin’ up
Wearing makeup and playing guitar…

That’s what you hear, for a second, until you realize Westerberg is saying something different. He actually sings:

Pretty girl keeps growin’ up
Playing makeup and wearing guitar.

There’s a fabulous tribute to the female indie rockers of the time here, some of whom sported exaggerated smeared baby-doll makeup, delightedly confusing the signs associated with the image of a figure sporting a guitar fronting a rock band. But again there’s confusion, too; it’s hard not to hear a disconcertedness in the transposed words in those lines. In the very next moment we see why:

Growin’ old in a bar
You grow old in a bar

That’s a reality of the scene Westerberg can’t stop himself from thinking about. At this point, you can see why he’s sung the thing the way he does. He knew that his career would be OK, but he knew that too many others of his clan wouldn’t turn out that way. His envoi …

If I don’t see you for a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial

…is less optimistic than it sounds; he knows and you know it’s not that likely.

————

Last week’s “Song About Rock.”

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Mar 25, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

SONGS ABOUT ROCK (IV): “World Tour ’88”

totally-lost-cover.jpg “World Tour ’88”
YOUNG FRESH FELLOWS
from Totally Lost

Younger readers will want to know that, for a time, the shambling, transcendent Young Fresh Fellows had a decent following; their obscure but plainly beloved power-pop, driven by Scott McCaughey’s insanely memorable songs and one of the sharpest drummers in the business, snapped heads live and made a lot of fans. (One of the group’s claims to fame was being asked to play at Paul Westerberg’s wedding.)

The provenance of “World Tour ’88,” a mock history of the band and one of the funniest tracks I’ve ever heard, is a bit muddled. It was a “bonus track,” back in the day, that was either not on the CD but on the vinyl edition of “Totally Lost,” or on the CD but not the vinyl. I forget.

Many years ago, interviewing head Fellow Scott McCaughey, I complimented him on the song’s in-jokes. He said thanks, but that he hadn’t actually written it. As I recall, I think he was the credited songwriter, and like I said the song is about the band; confused and backpedaling, I said, Well, it’s certainly sung with a lot of spot-on deadpan humor. He said he hadn’t sung it, either. This comedy went on for a while before he said a friend of the band’s had written and recorded the thing solo, for the group, and that rather than re-record it they just added it one of the editions of their next album.

As I recall, it was done by a brother or a cousin of one of the band members; this Fellows fan site says it’s Mike Ritt.

So now when you listen to it, you can hear that it was probably done in a home studio, with a simple drum machine and a few instruments and sound effects layered on. That just makes the joke funnier.

There’s a million “rise and fall of a rock ‘n’ roll band” songs; this one imagines the Fellows as superstars, wined and dined and playing Japan. Part of the joke here comes from the time; in the late 1980s, the “college rock” era, selling out and going large was a big issue—for a while it was about the only thing Westerberg wrote about. It was hilarious even to consider the Fellows playing Budokan, and a little bit of a tweak to suggest that if the Fellows did get huge that they’d be just as foolish about it as any hair band.

(This was all before Nirvana, of course, when a lot of things folks thought would never happen … happened.)

Anyway, music politics aside, the song is distinguished by the vocals: the singer, ruefully, can see what’s going on, but he’s helpless to stop it. He can only marvel at the steamroller:

Well the royalties get spent up quick
‘Cause we buy stuff for our friends
And Bruno wanted some Sennheiser mikes
So Joey Roth from A&R
Picks up our tab at the bar
Our label treats us nice and says we’re great
World tour ’88

“World Tour ’88” peppers this “Behind the Music” melodrama with YFF arcana and music industry in-jokes. They’re all having a lot of fun, but listen closely and you see it’s all coming out of the band’s advance. There’s an electric wash of a crowd noise, an emcee shouting “All right, Tokyo!” and a dorky guitar fanfare, but what you come away with is that sorrowful inevitability. The song ends with a statement of paralyzed wonder that captures stardom as well as anyone has:

Somehow I still feel pretty much the same
And we never really asked for all this fame
But it’s pretty cool what’s happened as of late
World tour ’88

——

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Mar 18, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

SONGS ABOUT ROCK (III): “The Ballad of Mott”

mott“The Ballad of Mott”
MOTT THE HOOPLE
From Mott

All Ian Hunter ever wanted to write about was rock. His eye and ear were so good, his romanticism so utterly devotional, that you forgive him his excesses. In this song, indeed, excess, lugubriousness, self-pity, and even bad writing are present. But something else is, too, and that something else is a perspective on a dubious industry, at a time, the early 1970s, at which it was just beginning to separate from itself and head down into a freaking swirling vortex of excess, lugubriousness, self pity and bad writing.

Did anyone write about rock this way before Ian Hunter? We shall see:

Rock and roll’s a loser’s game
It mesmerizes and I can’t explain
The reasons for the sight and the sounds.

“It mesmerizes and I can’t explain.” Those bottomless words, complete with a tip o’ the hat to Pete Townsend, resonate still, don’t they? (Or do they?) People forget something important about Hunter, who came to stardom with his glam-rock quintet, Mott the Hoople, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in an inspired and frequently hilarious second wave of grand British rock. (Remember that it was David Bowie, then a star, who gifted Mott with their commercial breakthrough song, “All the Young Dudes.”)

But he was in fact not a coeval of Bowie, or Marc Bolan, for example. He wasn’t even of the generation of the Beatles and the Stones and Rod Stewart and the Kinks, either; Ian Hunter was a musical lifer in the late 1960s, more than a decade in the game, born in 1937, about five years before Mick and Keith and John and Paul and just after Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Hunter’s eye on the business was at once dispassionate and personal; he had many years to reflect on the music’s glittery false promises and inexplicable pull.

Those excesses? Let’s get that out of the way. The song’s full title is “The Ballad of Mott (March 26th 1972 Zurich).” It gets worse, as in the following verse. Younger readers will want to know that the litany of names that follows, enunciated with (unintentionally) comical seriousness, is a rundown of Hunter’s fellows in the band:

Buffin lost his childlike dream
And Mick lost his guitar
And Verdon grew a line or two
And Overend’s just a rock ‘n’ roll star

Wow—”Buffin’s childlike dreams.” I think that what Buffin dreamed about was less childlike and more adolescent and porny, but whatever. The rest of the song, however, is serious. There’s a stillness in the open spaces, an articulate and regretful guitar solo, and an honestly in the arrangements and presentation that explains why to this day Hunter is a hero to the alt-country crowd. But his concerns, confused, redolent and moving, keep coming: “I feel somehow we let you down,” Hunter says. And: “The rock ‘n’ roll circus is in town.” And: “I can’t erase the rock ‘n’ roll feeling from my mind.”

That chorus mesmerizes still, and Hunter would return to these themes, again and again, as we shall see.

——

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Mar 11, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

SONGS ABOUT ROCK (II): “Thirteen”

no-one-record.jpg“Thirteen”
BIG STAR
From #1 Record

This deceptively emotional meditative tour de force from “#1 Record” to me has always been one of the key pieces of evidence in how advanced an artist Alex Chilton was in those days. He had seen the rock world, close up, from an extremely early age. (Chilton had been the lead singer of the Box Tops, whose worldwide hit “The Letter,” with Chilton’s preternaturally gravely lead vocal, came in 1966, when he was 16.)

Five years later, on the first album from his famously under-appreciated next group, Big Star, Chilton captured something important about both rock and adolescence.

“Thirteen” may be the quietest and most unadorned song Big Star recorded (a significant status for a group with its rococo ambitions); its emotional progression, by contrast, is arguably the group’s most explosive, complex and nuanced.

The music, if you haven’t heard it, is based on almost entirely on a lulling guitar line that repeats through most of the song. The only production touches are a faint bass and a few layered bits of guitar foofara. There’s no chorus, just three stark five-line verses, sung with a precarious frailty, broken by a delicate, simple guitar break before the last verse.

Lyrically, you take in the title and the first verse and you have a deftly limned portrait of a newly born teen, dealing with love for the first time and speaking with a deliberately clichéd naivete:

Won’t let you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you by the pool?

In the second verse, the school yard clichés are displaced by an oddy combative couplet: “Won’t your tell your dad get off my back/ Won’t tell him what we said about “Paint it Black’?”

I think what’s Chilton’s doing here is saluting the birth of teen defiance, set to the tune of the 60s rock that formed him. Far younger than most kids, he saw the effects of rock on kids across the counry—saw it roil their souls at it did his. Indeed, swept up, he continues, “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/ Step inside now it’s ok/ And I’ll shake you.” Those sexually charged words are, like the rest of the song, sung with a tremulousness and insecurity that entirely subverts their overt meaning.

Then comes the guitar break, and the singer, heart bursting, makes a further cosmic jump:

Won’t you be an outlaw for my love?

One minute he’s a child going to a dance, and the next, he hears “Paint It Black,” and he’s on the run like Clyde Barrow. But then, at this moment of overwhelming emotion, all he can say is…

If it’s so then let me know
If it’s not, well, I can go

.. and the moment dissolves, again, into insecurity.

——

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