Friday, August 7, 2015

Quintessential Songs: Reducing a Band's Essence to Just One Song (PART 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of this little series of posts where I try to choose the one, and only one, song that encapsulates all there is about some of my favorite bands. I won't belabor the point by rehashing the "rules" for this little thought exercise...if you want to refresh your memory, you can read them at the beginning of Part 1. With that out of the way, let's jump right in to Part 2!


Blur: One of my favorite bands ever, and really the only band from my own generation (although others are close) that I place in the same rarefied air as all of the 1960s bands I have in the top tier of my rock music pantheon. If you want to talk about a band that constantly changed and evolved their sound from one album to the next, Blur will be near the top of that list. While this factor is one of the things that has made them so successful, both critically and commercially, it also makes my task here that much harder. How on earth do I choose just one song that covers all of the different aspects of their sound, which encompasses everything like classic British pop and rock, American lo-fi, English Music Hall, electronic, and world music? Like any great band, they have an instantly identifiable sound but no two albums sound alike and they've spent their entire career constantly pushing forward. It took me a really long time to come up with that one song that captures everything about them, but I think I made a good choice with...

Beetlebum. It's probably my favorite Blur song of all time anyway, and the more I thought about it, it seemed like it was the right choice for this little game we're playing here. With that muted guitar intro before launching into a memorable riff, it grabs your attention right away. The chorus is gorgeous, catchy, and very Beatle-esque...in fact, the entire song is. I've read it described elsewhere as the darkness and light of the White Album all in one song, and for me that's a perfect description. It's the ideal mix of Blur's melodic gift, their edginess and experimental tendencies, imaginative production, and fabulous musicianship.  While Blur's entire career is chock full of superlative moments on both the single and album scale, in my mind "Beetlebum" has always been not only their best song, but their quintessential song.


Rush: Rush is one of those bands you either love or hate...there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Their fans tend to be predominantly male, musicians themselves, geeky (ie into sci-fi, philosophy, science, technology), and in many cases highly intelligent. Indeed, as a massive Rush fan myself I fit all of those criteria, as do 99% of the the fellow Rush fanatics I've met over the course of my life...the amount of guys I've known in my career as a chemist who are also Rush fans is huge. Musically, all three of the guys in the band are virtuosos, and lyrically they are very smart, philosophical, and playfully humorous. Even with a career spanning 40+ years and millions of records sold, people either love these guys or despise and dismiss them. Putting all of that aside, the biggest challenge for me in choosing just one Rush song to represent their long career has to do with all of the different musical phases they've had. First was the hard rock power trio prog era of 1974-1976. Starting with 1976's breakthrough album 2112  through 1984 they were one of the finest rock bands on the planet, melding hard rock with progressive rock's virtuosity and ambitious concepts and compositions. From 1984-1988 they heavily incorporated synthesizers into their sound, while from 1989 to the present they've returned to a more stripped down, heavier sound. There's an awful lot of ground to cover, although in the end my final choice wasn't as surprising to me as I thought it would be...

Red Barchetta. It's the second song off of their biggest selling and most well-known album, 1981's Moving Pictures, a record chock full of hits like "Tom Sawyer," "YYZ," "Limelight," and "Vital Signs." "Red Barchetta" is a fantastic song, but probably only known to hardcore Rush fans, so why did I choose it as my essential Rush song? There are a variety of reasons, the first being that it comes from an album smack dab in the middle of the period in their career when they were transitioning from the long, elaborate song-suites to leaner, more streamlined songs. Moving Pictures was the last Rush album to contain a long, 10+ minute song ("The Camera Eye") and they still had one foot (barely) planted in their prog past as they looked toward the more stripped down, synth-laden 1980s. "Red Barchetta" straddles this divide as it's nearly 7 minutes long and progresses through several distinct sections, yet is such a complete, unified song that it never seems that long. It's got tasteful yet essential synthesizer parts woven within the musical tapestry, but is still mainly reliant on the virtuosic instrumental abilities of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. The lyrics are based on a short science fiction story set in a future when the simple freedom of driving a car is illegal and the world lives in fear of a despotic communist government who controls its inhabitants every move. It's an adventure tale of a young man who, along with his uncle, keeps an old antique sports car (the titular vehicle) hidden in a barn and takes it out occasionally for joyrides. On this particular day, the young man is caught by the police force and uses his driving ability and the smaller size of the car (when compared to the "gleaming alloy air-cars...two lanes wide" used by the police) to outrace them and return to his uncle's farm, where they laugh about the incident by the fireside that night. It's catchy, a fun story, some killer playing (that guitar solo!) and captures everything great about Rush, including their humor, something they have always had in abundance but which the uninformed tend to overlook. If you're not a Rush fan, give the song a listen...you just might like it!


The Smiths: They were one of the most legendary indie rock bands of all time and almost single-handedly kept guitar-based music alive in the UK and Europe during the dark musical times that were the 1980s.  Splintering right on the cusp of international stardom in the US (where they already had a huge and devoted cult following), the Smiths' reputation has only grown and grown since they acrimoniously disbanded in 1987. They never strayed too far from their very British lush and powerful sound that owed so much to the great 45rpm singles and albums of the 1960s and the punk records of the 1970s Morrissey and Johnny Marr loved so much, but there was definitely a progression on their albums toward a more mature, powerful, and exciting sound. The debut album, while solid, is a bit underwhelming, but from there through their next few albums, as well as all of those fabulous non-album singles and B-sides, there's a veritable cornucopia of stuff to choose from in deciding which single song is worthy of encompassing the essence of Smiths. My choice...

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. If you're a Smiths fan, this is perhaps not a surprising choice, but even so, how can you go wrong with such a fantastic song as this one? It's buried as the penultimate track on what is widely considered to be their masterpiece album The Queen is Dead (for me, as much as I love that album, I actually prefer Strangeways Here We Come or even Meat is Murder) but it's worthy of far better. The fact that such a song could have been sequenced on the album that way speaks volumes as to the quality of the Smiths' output. The song has an instantly recognizable hook kicking things off that is repeated throughout the song and its beautiful, lilting melody and rhythm is propelled by excellent performances from Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce. On top of this all is one of Morrissey's finest vocals and lyrics, chronicling the doomed romanticism of the lovesick narrator who is too crippled by shyness and insecurity to express his feelings: he'd rather he and the object of his affections die together in a car crash and be linked together for eternity in death than to risk rejection. The Smiths (well, okay, Morrissey) are often mocked as being perpetually dour and depressing by those too unfamiliar or lazy to actually listen to more than one or two of their songs, but this song melds Moz's tragic story (along with his humor, far too often dismissed throughout his career) with the gorgeous musical backdrop written by Marr and brought to life by the three instrumental Smiths. It's everything special and unique about the Smiths in one three-minute song.


R.E.M.: It's ironic that I decided to choose an R.E.M. song to immediately follow the Smiths, as the two bands ran eerily parallel careers on opposite sides of the Atlantic during the 1980s, the main difference being that R.E.M. was truly more of an all-for-one-and-one-for-all band, whereas the Smiths were more of a creative partnership (Morrissey and Marr) and two subordinates. The other major difference between the two bands it that R.E.M. went on to achieve massive worldwide stardom and critical acclaim upon finally signing with a major label (Warner Brothers) in 1988, whereas the Smiths split before ever recording a note for their major label (EMI). Because of this difference, R.E.M. went on to have an extremely successful 31 year career as opposed to the Smiths' mere 5 years. R.E.M.'s music covered the gamut from jangly guitar rock, folk, punk, country, glam rock, Americana, and every other genre that influenced them. Even among R.E.M. fans, there are many who only prefer the earlier jangle-pop, some who prefer the later, lusher material, and some like me who love it all. Because of this last fact, I thought it would be difficult to choose just one song to represent them, but in fact the more I thought about it, all roads led back to my favorite R.E.M. song which I also think crystallizes their essence perfectly.  

Man On the Moon. Yes, it's one of their most well-known songs and comes from their most commercially and critically acclaimed album, Automatic For the People. Even though it might seem like a safe choice, I really think it does everything it's supposed to do for this little thought exercise. It's got a ridiculously catchy chorus, showcases all four members' musicianship, and integrates multiple aspects of their sound such as rock, country, Americana, and pop. It's also got lyrics that are at once nonsense yet meaningful and funny, often at the same time. Coincidentally, it comes almost in the middle of R.E.M.'s career and covers all of the musical ground in a way I can't really explain any more. Just listen for yourself to see what I mean, unless you're a fan in which case you'll already get it.



Suede: Shifting gears back to the other side of the pond, I've already written a feature on Suede here on the blog, so I won't get into too much detail regarding their career. Briefly, though, while they've been around for 25 years, they've only released six albums (in addition to a host of superb non-album singles and B-sides).  They certainly changed their sound up from album to album, but they definitely remained true to their roots, with all of their music drawing heavily upon 1970s David Bowie, the Smiths, and Pet Shop Boys. They did foray into more straight-ahead 1960s-tinged pop with 1996's Coming Up and electronic experimentation on 1999's Head Music, but by and large the sound they established on their 1993 self-titled debut has remained the foundation upon which all of it is built. That being said, Suede still managed to pen songs that rocked in equal proportion to dark, achingly beautiful and despairing ballads. Perhaps that's why my go-to song for Suede is none other than...

The Wild Ones. Repeatedly cited by Bernard Butler as his favorite Suede song ever, I find it hard to argue. A beautiful ballad with an incredibly complex guitar part running throughout, it also contains one of Brett Anderson's best vocals and lyrics and is at the top of the list for the best of the Anderson/Butler songwriting partnership. A romantically doomed ballad of a love rapidly slipping through the singer's fingers, the extended version has another fantastic Butler guitar solo (is there any other kind?) which was inexplicably edited out of the album version on 1994's Dog Man Star. For me, this only adds to why this song is definitive Suede and why it's the only choice if you have to choose only one song of theirs.


Frank Zappa: Perhaps Zappa is too weird or ambitious a choice for this series of posts: the man's career spanned 30 years and almost 100 albums before he died, and dozens more releases have appeared after his death, drawn from his almost endless vault of studio and live tapes. If ever one artist truly tried to, and oftentimes succeeded in, bringing just about every style of music in existence into his own work, it was Zappa. Blues, rock, jazz, classical, avant garde, spoken word, concept albums, doo-wop, electronic, and many more styles were all amalgamated into his music. As I've written in more detail previously, he was also a keen and wicked social critic and commentator, and there was usually an element of humor to his songs as well. Frank is probably the one artist of whom I'm a fan that is probably impossible to reduce down to one song, but I'm committed (or should be, hah!) at this point, so what the hell...

Montana. Yes, my choice is a song about a fictional dental-floss farmer in Montana who rides a pygmy pony in the moon-lighty-night, rustling his crop with a pair of zircon-encrusted tweezers in his hand. No, there's no cutting social commentary buried in the lyrics to "Montana"...it truly is just Frank having some fun and coming up with a silly, bizarre story. However, it never ceases to bring a smile to my face or elicit a chuckle even after having heard it hundreds of times over the years. Beyond the lyrics, musically this is as complex and rich a Zappa song as you'll hear. Some of the lines the horns, vibraphone, guitar, bass, and drums have to play in unison are staggeringly difficult and showcase the always fantastic musicianship Frank demanded of his band members, no matter who came and went over the years. The vocal arrangements are inventive and harmonically interesting, and of course when you're talking about Zappa, you can never leave his guitar playing out of it..."Montana" has one of the great FZ solos on record, with his snarling, nasty tone achieved through playing through a small amp at maximum volume. His inventive and wholly unique guitar style and technique come through loud and clear...this solo is but one of the numerous reminders that Zappa was a one-of-a-kind master of the guitar. "Montana" doesn't cover all of the musical ground FZ managed to cover in his career, but it incorporates enough of them that in my opinion it's the perfect song for showing anyone who has never heard him what he was all about.


So that's Part 2 wrapped up...I hope you enjoyed reading my picks and would love to hear from you on some of yours. If you're a fan of any of the above musicians, which tracks would you choose for them? And if you've never listened to any of these bands, how did you like these songs?

(stay tuned for Part 3, which will be coming soon!)

8 comments:

  1. Well, I can't comment on Blue or Suede because I don't have anything by them. I feel the same way about The Smiths even though I have a greatest hits CD by them, I haven't listened to them extensively enough to even recall a song or title. But I do know Zappa and the MoI, REM, and Rush, though the exercise still isn't easy, particularly when someone like Zappa has had such an extensive career and played all sorts of styles: jazz, rock, classical, big band, doo wop, etc. By the way, my favorite bands looks something like this: Beatles, King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Zappa, and then there are a ton more that I like that trail after them.

    Anyway for REM I'd say something that had their jangly guitar, alternative sound would probably best describe their sound, but of course it didn't always stay that way. They got lumped in with the punk, new wave acts, but I never really thought of them quite fitting there, much like Tom Petty. So I might pick something like The One I Love, which also incorporates some of their college rock sound, and flirts with a love song, being alive, and sort of a positive message. I have to admit the first song that I thought of was Losing My Religion, but I find it atypical of their overall sound, albeit a great song, has a more mature sound to it. So it's no wonder it was released later in their career.

    Rush--I actually came to this band late. Oh I knew of them, and even had All The World's a Stage at one time, but they never really clicked with me, mostly due to Geddy Lee's fingernails-on-black board vocals. As they matured so did Lee's vocals, but with Rush, I think it was always their music that drove their songs anyway. Like you mentioned a large part of their fans enjoyed their SF lyrics, etc. but they also started branching out with some of them. I picked up Moving Pictures too on vinyl, and it was around that timeframe I started to enjoy their sound with the added synth. Tom Sawyer, might best exemplify their sound. It's almost like a Tom Sawyer of the future, and although I've never really enjoyed that song personally, I can't imagine them not playing it in concert to please fans. Personally I prefer something like Subdivisions or Time Stands Still.

    Like I said Zappa & the MoI are hard to pick from due to his large oeuvre. I picked up Freak Out relatively early (a year or two?) after it was released. I remember I was up in Colorado on vacation with my family visiting my sister who was recently married. We stopped somewhere like a strip mall, and there was a record store there, and I picked up Freak Out because it just looked so bizarre and freaky, I couldn't resist, and I think I picked up something I knew I would probably really enjoy, an Associations record. I did not like Freak Out at first, it was so odd and freakish, but overtime I grew to love it--trying to decrypt what they were doing. I'd play it for friends and they'd shake their heads. One even said, man you like some music that I like and have turned me onto some good bands like The Monkees, The Association, The Beach Boys, etc. But THAT (said with revulsion, pointing to the Freak Out album, ha).

    I might go with Brown Shoes Don't Make It, because within that small suite, it contains bits and pieces of rock, the underground voiceover talking, the absurd singing by some of the Mothers, the drop out of society message, which seems so odd against any mainstream idea of a song (even by today's standards). It's almost like a short rock opera.

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    1. I left out Dylan, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell as favorite musicians too, but there's always more.

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    2. Great choices on REM, Zappa, and Rush. I *almost* picked "The One I Love" as you did...that was my 2nd choice and I totally agree with you that it would be an excellent pick. Zappa, you and I are on the same page that it's almost too hard to pick since he covered so much ground...I think any FZ choice would be a winner because you can't pin him down to just one. And Rush, almost the same thing.

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  2. Ooh. Another Rush fan. Interesting choice of song but I can see where you are going with this selection. Moving Pictures is the album where, as you say, they took a big step away from the SF/Led Zep stuff of the 1970s.

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    1. We Rush fans have to stick together, right? :)

      MP is, as you and I both said, the end of an era...it's still the last album where they had a song over 10 minutes long. For me, the golden era ends with Grace Under Pressure (although I do like all of their albums).

      What's your favorite/go-to Rush tune?

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  3. You're wrong. The quintessential R.E.M. song is "Harborcoat".

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    1. That's a great choice...really underrated song from an underrated album of theirs.

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