Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Quintessential Songs: Reducing a Band's Essence to Just One Song (PART 3)

Welcome to the long-delayed PART 3 of this series where I choose the ONE song that I think encapsulates each band...and then challenge you to do the same! If you'd like a refresher, here are Parts 1 & 2. Let's go...



One of, if not THE greatest rock guitarists to ever live, there is no shortage of songs Jimi wrote and recorded in his short life and career that showcase his incredible talent as a songwriter and musician, but for me this was one of the easiest choices of this entire exercise. For me, the ultimate Hendrix song is...

Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

The closing track on his 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) was written on the spot in the studio to accommodate a film crew who were shooting some documentary footage on the band. That it went on to become the ultimate Hendrix song and an absolute tour-de-force of his guitar wizardry makes it all the more impressive. Basically recorded live in the studio (I can't hear any rhythm guitar underneath Jimi's scorching lead work), it starts off fading in with a palm-muted wah-wah rhythm before the classic riff explodes into distortion-drenched soloing that is truly face-melting. The song is centered around a simple riff in E and a few chords thrown in as it gets to the chorus, but the impressive thing throughout is Jimi's incredible guitar playing. In this one song, he basically encapsulates everything about his style that stunned the music world when he first came to prominence in 1966: his fluidity and phrasing, his rhythm playing, his leads, his use of effects pedals, distortion, feedback, and the whammy bar...if you only had one song to sum up why Hendrix blew minds in the 1960s and continues to nearly fifty years after his death, this is the one.



Live in Stockholm, Sweden January 1969


Cream:

Hendrix' closest contemporaries were the other legendary power trio that first came to prominence in 1966, Cream. Comprising of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker, Cream was the first rock supergroup, consisting of three of the very best in the rock world at their respective instruments. Melding Clapton's blues and R&B roots with Bruce's classical leanings and his shared jazz heritage with Ginger Baker, they amalgamated all of this into a hard rock and psychedelic sound that produced some of the best records of the late 1960s. It's hard to pick just one song, and the obvious choice would be "Sunshine Of Your Love" with it's instantly recognizable (and imitated) riff, but for me their best song and the one that captures everything great about the band is...

White Room

As the opening track on their epic 1968 double-album Wheels of Fire, "White Room" is a powerful and heavy slice of late 1960s British psychedelic blues rock from the band that just about invented the entire genre. Starting with a "Bolero" section in 5/4 time with tympani, cellos, and sustained guitar feedback, it explodes into a fuzzy chord progression with powerful vocals and bass from Bruce, thunderous drums from Baker, and sinewy wah-wah inflected answering guitar licks from Clapton. With lyrics about a strange experience Bruce's co-author Pete Brown had one evening out and about in London, the song (for me) really transcends its already excellent sound and goes to a higher level during Clapton's outro solo. In my opinion, it's one of the greatest rock guitar solos ever played and shows Eric at his explosive, fiery, and inventive best. Between his speed and his phrasing, he delivers a spine-tingling and lyrical solo that's made even more expressive by his unique use of the wah-wah pedal. Not content to just rock it back and forth in time to the beat, he uses it similar to how Hendrix did in making the guitar talk, moan, and wail as he delivers one of the great performances of his career. It's the final element in a song that sums up everything great about Cream, and my only problem with it over the decades has been that, like Cream's all-too-short career, I wish it went on longer.



Live at the Royal Albert Hall, London November 1968

Pink Floyd:

Another one of the giant bands to come out of the 1960s, it wasn't until 1973's Dark Side of the Moon that Pink Floyd became one of the biggest bands in the world. From that point on through to the early 1980s, they led the way in exploring the outer reaches of rock, both sonically in their music and visually in their multimedia live concert experiences. After Dark Side came a string of albums that continued their dominance, and while the obvious choice for a quintessential song would seem to be something off of either Dark Side or 1979's The Wall, my choice is not from those albums, nor is it from my favorite Floyd album, 1977's Animals. Instead, it's the thematic centerpiece of their 1975 album Wish You Were Here. Written as a tribute to their lost founder and childhood friend Syd Barrett, for me the ultimate Pink Floyd song is...

Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts I-IX)

Bookending the Wish You Were Here album and split into two large chunks, Shine On is evolves over its nine sections, starting from a dreamy, atmospheric intro into a haunting four-note riff that rings out until the band comes in and soars with some of their most beautiful and powerful melodies. The lyrics' message of sadness, wistfulness, and loss are quite poignant and while not explicitly naming Syd, there is no doubt who they're about. The overall piece has quite a somber message, yet the music changes enough over the course of the entire piece that the overall effect is, while not uplifting, ultimately calming as it resolves peacefully at the end. Classic Floyd.



 Live at Wembley Empire Pool, London November 1974


Creedence Clearwater Revival:

These guys were only around for five years as a recording act (1967-1972), but what a hit-making machine they were. Propelled by John Fogerty's songwriting, singing, lead guitar playing, and vise grip over the band's music and creative direction, CCR churned out hit single after hit single and, during 1969-1970, released a staggering FIVE top 10 albums that were loaded with hit singles and classic album cuts. While hailing from the San Francisco Bay area, they pioneered the swampy roots rock sound that became very popular in the 1970s and were steeped in pop, R&B, blues, country, folk, and Americana. There are sooooooooo many songs to choose from when trying to decide which is their signature song, but for me it's an easy choice as my favorite CCR song also happens to be the one that I think sums them up perfectly.

Born on the Bayou

From that swampy, stuttering riff to the powerful and grooving bass (Stu Cook) and drums (Doug "Cosmo" Clifford), and Fogerty's growling vocals telling tales of bayous and voodoo and "runnin' through the backwoods," this song is classic Creedence. Beyond the sound which defines them, it also rocks really hard and shows that even though John Fogerty was the dominant creative force in the band, their music only sounded as good as it did because they had the right combination of musicians playing it. Besides loving this song and being of the opinion that it captures the essence of CCR, I also have a soft spot in my heart for it because I remember hearing it in the late 1980s TV commercial below when I was a kid!



Live at the Royal Albert Hall, London April 1970

TV ad from 1989


XTC:

The final entry in Part 3 is not a classic rock band from the 1960s, although they're an old enough band that to the youth of 2016, they must seem as old as the 1960s bands did to me growing up the 1980s and 90s. XTC's career spanned from 1977 until 2002 and in that time, they put out some of the most classic and immaculately crafted power pop and 1960s-inflected melodic rock ever recorded...music that stands alongside anything their 1960s forebears produced. Their career progressed through a few distinct phases, from hard rocking touring band to studio-only band (shades of the Beatles), from rapid-fire punk and ska-tinged New Wave to textured walls of sound to orchestrally driven baroque-style rock, and everything in between. With that being said, it's a bit of a tall order choosing just one song that encapsulates everything great about the band, but I think I've achieved it by picking...

Towers of London

One of the many standout tracks from their classic 1980 album Black Sea, "Towers of London" is, for me, one of the greatest rock songs by anyone, anywhere, from any era...I absolutely put it up alongside anything by the Beatles, Who, Kinks, and anyone else from the 1960s. From the absolutely spine-tingling opening riff to the vocal melody, the exquisite Beatle-esque vocal harmonies, the soaring guitar solo, the evocative lyrics, the different sections with their inventive chord changes and voicings...the entire song is just brilliant from beginning to end and is one of XTC's crowning achievements in a long career filled to bursting with brilliant songs.

Full album version

Music video version

Recording the song for the TV special "XTC at the Manor"


So there you have it, the third part of this series and my most recent choices. What do you think? If you're a fan of these bands, do you agree or disagree and, if you disagree...what are your picks?

(...and I promise to do my best in not going so long until Part 4!)

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