Thursday, July 28, 2016

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Tickets from a game Mrs. Chemist & I went to that magical 2004 season

I've made no secret of my love for the game of baseball and how it's been really rewarding (and fun!) to see my children so enamored of the sport as they grow up. We're at the point now where they want to watch Red Sox games with me every night, and every morning they ask who won, what the standings are, and how their favorite players performed, and so on. What's been even more fun for me is to teach them all of the nuances of the game...the obscure rules, the fine details, and the strategy. Additionally, teaching them how to interpret box scores, standings, and player statistics has been a lot of fun. (Let me point out here that I'm old school when it comes to baseball...I'm not a big fan of all of these new advanced statistics and metrics, most of which make little sense to me and seem so convoluted and contrived). They're also developing favorite players who they root for (they like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, and of course David Ortiz!) and learning about the history of the game, which I hope will lead to a lifetime of enjoyment for them as much as it has for me.

We've been to several of minor league games for the local team around here, the Harrisburg Senators (double A affiliate of the Washington Nationals); the ballpark is less than a half hour away, the tickets are cheap, they play good ball, and you get a chance to see both up-and-comers as well as established MLB players on rehab assignments. However, later this summer we're taking our kids to Fenway Park in Boston for their first ever Major League and Red Sox's going to be a LOT of fun. I remember what it felt like the first time I saw a game there and honestly, for as excited as I am to go (I haven't seen a game there since 2012), I think I'm more excited to see the look on their faces when we first walk in. It should be a lot of fun for all of us and the first of many trips to the ballpark to see our Sox play. A lifelong dream of mine has been to go to a game at as many of the Major League ballparks as I can, but so far I've only ever been to two: Fenway Park and Olympic Stadium in Montreal (home of the now-defunct Montreal Expos). Now that we're in central PA, though, we're within easy driving distance of many ballparks including Camden Yards (Baltimore), Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia), PNC Park (Pittsburgh), Yankee Stadium and Citi Field (New York City), and Nationals Park (Washington, DC). It'd be a lot of fun to catch the Red Sox at any of those parks, and especially easy at the American League Parks (Camden Yards & Yankee Stadium) where they play multiple times every season.

Wrapping up, going to a game this summer will be a blast and something I know my kids won't soon forget! I don't know whether I'm looking forward to it more as a fan of the game or as a dad who wants to see his kids have fun...probably equal amounts of both!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rockshow! PART 2: Paul McCartney Live at Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, PA July 19, 2016 (A Concert Review)

My ticket!

It had been almost three years to the day since I last saw Paul McCartney live in concert on his Out There tour in 2013, and it still sticks in my mind as one of the greatest shows I've had the pleasure to have seen. When he announced a show for his new One on One tour literally two miles down the road from my house here in Hershey (where I've lived since we moved a couple of years ago), there was no way I was going to miss the chance to see him again, especially as I wanted take my wife (who is also a big Beatles fan) with me. Since I've been signed up for Paul's fanclub for many years, I was able to take advantage of the presale for members and I scored a couple of nice tickets for us. We got them in the mail in early May and since then, we'd been waiting and waiting for the night to finally arrive. My appetite was further whetted when I saw that at Paul's show at Fenway Park two nights earlier, he was joined by the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir (he'd just played Fenway the night before), while Rob Gronkowski, one of my favorite players from my favorite football team (go Patriots!) got onstage to "sing" and play air guitar during "Helter Skelter." Knowing that had we not moved away a couple of years ago that we would've been at that show, it left me wondering what (if any) surprises might await us two nights later here in Hershey. Well, the big night came and went and even though there were no special guests, my assessment is the same as it was after I saw him in was the best concert I've ever been to.

(As an aside, this was Paul's first show ever in Hershey and Hersheypark went all out, renaming the street leading to the park "Paul McCartney Avenue," renaming (for the day) some of the rides after his songs, and playing his music throughout the park all day which was a cool little touch).

There was a banner and flags all around the stadium welcoming Paul

The stage

After putting in a full day at work, I raced home and changed into shorts and a Beatles t-shirt before my wife and I headed over to Hersheypark. It's only a two or three minute drive from our house and since we have seasons passes to the park, we were able to get into the parking lot  (usually concert parking is in the fields across the street). Because of this, we were only a short walk from the stadium and when we got out of the car we could hear the soundcheck going on (we heard the last two songs). Doors were due to open at 6pm and we'd been warned via an email from Hersheypark earlier in the week that security was going to be tight and that we should allow at least 45 minutes to get in. However, after queuing up for less than a minute, we were through security and the gates. After waiting a few more minutes for the stadium doors to open, we were finally inside and got to our seats. They were almost dead center, just a bit to the right and next to the mixing desk. After waiting for almost an hour, a DJ came onstage and played a mix of Paul's songs with the Beatles, Wings, and solo, in mostly remix or cover versions. Around 7:30pm, which had been the announced starting time for the concert, the pre-show film started. Unlike the vertically scrolling banner from 2013, this was a rotating column, but equally as cool, mixing in photos and short video clips from throughout Paul's life and career. At 8pm, the orchestral crescendo from "A Day in the Life" began as the image on the video screens morphed into Paul's famous Hofner bass guitar and he and the band strolled onstage to begin the set. And what a set it was!

Dr. and Mrs. Chemist waiting for the show to begin!

From the beginning of this tour back in the spring, there had been concern that Paul's voice was finally giving out and that this would and should be his final tour. I'd heard clips and seen videos and admittedly, his voice was in rough shape so I was a bit worried at what he'd sound like. I needn't have worried, though, as he was in fine voice, strong and clear and with almost all of his range. There were a few wobbly spots when he tried to go really high in his chest voice but otherwise he absolutely nailed the entire show. "Maybe I'm Amazed," which is a ridiculously difficult song to sing for the best of singers, was spot on and by song's end he was feeling it, throwing in some screams and falsetto that elicited loud whoops of approval from the crowd. There was thus no concern over his voice and certainly none over his musicianship or that of his band. Abe, Rusty, Brian, and Wix were their usual stellar selves and seemed to have had a blast onstage (as did Paul)'s no wonder they've all been together for so long; Paul's very lucky to have formed this great band and kept them together. Also, the sound mix was excellent and in particular the bass guitar was mixed nice and upfront so you could really hear Paul's great bass playing. With that out of the way now, let's get to the music (as well as the pictures that I took that are worth sharing). First, the set list...

Set list

A Hard Day's Night
Save Us
Can't Buy Me Love
Letting Go
You Won't See Me
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
Here Today 
Queenie Eye
The Fool on the Hill
Lady Madonna
Eleanor Rigby
Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Band on the Run
Back in the USSR
Let it Be
Live and Let Die
Hey Jude 

Hi, Hi, Hi
Golden Slumbers
Carry That Weight
The End
The first thing I want to point out is that there were *fifteen* songs that were different from the last time I saw Paul, so the set felt very fresh and new. Yes, he still plays a lot of the same staples, but anyone who thinks they're not going to hear "Hey Jude," "Let it Be," "Band on the Run," and other songs like that, well...I don't know what they're thinking! When Paul came onstage, the roar was deafening and they got right into the set with THAT chord...the entire crowd was on their feet dancing and singing along, as they would for most of the show. I will say right now that I was disappointed that during the songs from his NEW album (which I really like), "My Valentine," and some of the more obscure album  cuts ("Temporary Secretary," "Letting Go") that huge chunks of the crowd went to get more drinks or just sat down. I stood for the entire show and loved every one of the songs. "Letting Go" was a particular favorite of mine as it's one of my favorite songs from Paul's time in Wings and they played a really sexy, grooving version with some tasty guitar licks. Paul told most of his now-familiar stories and banter between songs, but even having heard most of it before I still smiled and laughed. His introduction to "Here Today," telling the crowd to let the people they love know how they feel before it's too late, was even sweeter and more poignant than when I saw him do it in 2013 and that song honestly brought a tear to my eye when he was finished. In fact, "Here Today" and "Blackbird" might have been my two favorite moments of the entire show. Just Paul singing and playing acoustic guitar all alone on the rising stage. He nailed both songs, both instrumentally and vocally, and it was so quiet in the crowd that you could hear a pin drop. Everyone stood throughout and cheered rapturously after...very cool moments. As for highlights, there are so many to mentions, so I'll just list them out...

- "Letting Go:" As I said, this has long been one of my favorite Wings songs ever and this version was a bit slower than the album version with a very sexy, slow groove and great guitar licks from Paul and Rusty. Most of the crowd didn't seem to know it and either sat or went to get more drinks, which is a damn shame as it was a killer performance.
- "Temporary Secretary:" If a lot of fans sat or left their seats during "Letting Go," even more did during this song! I think me and the guy next to my wife were the only ones in our area who knew the song and were excited enough to cheer when it started. Great version although the backing synth track was a bit too high in the mix.

- "I've Got a Feeling," "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five:" Two more favorites of mine, both done perfectly. There was a nice little jam coda tacked on to the end of "I've Got a Feeling" that I'd not heard before.

- "Maybe I'm Amazed:" One of the great ballads of all time, and usually very taxing on Paul's voice, especially in recent years. He absolutely nailed it here...I couldn't hear a single bum note, his screaming was dead on, and he was feeling it so much that he added some extra screams and falsetto near the end that were so good that the crowd around us cheered loudly in appreciation. Stunning version.

- "In Spite of All the Danger," "Love Me Do," "And I Love Her:" I was skeptical as to how "In Spite of All the Danger" would work since it's such a simple, early song and only fans who have heard it on the Beatles Anthology CDs would know it, but it was great! Very sweet and they played it again after it was finished so that the crowd could sing the "oh oh oh oh!" answering part. "Love Me Do" was definitely a fan favorite, as was "And I Love Her." The last song had an added treat for the ladies in the audience who cheered and whistled when Paul turned his back and shook his bum a bit during the solo in the middle.
- "You Won't See Me:" I absolutely *loved* this version of the song...after telling a story about how he was inspired to write the melody from a guitar figure he came up with, they played a fantastic version that was driven more by the acoustic guitar than the studio version is. It was just brilliant and it's little nuggets like this that keep his shows interesting and fresh.

- "Blackbird" and "Here Today:" See above...stunning, both of them.

- "Something:" Yes, he's been doing this tribute to George, complete with the story and the intro on ukulele, for years, but it's still incredibly touching and a great version of the song. VERY well received by the crowd.

- "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da:" Have you ever wondered what 30,000 people singing the chorus to this song would sound like? If you were at the concert, now you know. For a song that is supposedly one of the worst the Beatles ever released (according mainly to critics and the devout Lennon contingent of fans...I've always liked it), it seemed as though EVERYONE in attendance knew all of the words and sung along lustily throughout.

- "Let it Be:" I don't know how you can listen to this song and not be uplifted and comforted, even when everything is going great in your life. Lovely version.

- "Live and Let Die:" A great song, and always accompanied by fabulous pyrotechnics and fireworks. I knew what was coming having seen it before, but it was still cool. Even better was seeing the reaction of my wife and the other first time fans around us marvel in awe when that first blast went off.

- "Hey Jude:" My favorite Beatles song and one of their most recognizable and popular songs of all time. I proudly sang along to every word, as did Mrs. Chemist and everyone else around us. The "na na na na" chorus at the end is must-sing and if you've never experienced being in a crowd with tens of thousands of fellow fans singing and waving their arms to that, you've missed out. Even the well-worn "first the the girls!" instructions from Paul are fun as hell no matter how many times you've done it.

- Encores: Nothing too surprising here, but still lovely, and ending with the final song ("The End") from the final Beatles album (Abbey Road) and that iconic final verse ("And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make") is beyond shrewd. Before "Birthday," Paul brought two fans onstage whose signs caught his eyes: the first was a girl who was probably 13 or 14 who asked Paul to sign her poster. She was clearly shy and a bit overwhelmed with excitement, but very sweet and cute (our oldest daughter is around the same age so she reminded us of her). After she left the stage, Paul brought on a teacher who wanted him to sign her so she could "show and tell" with her students when school gets back in session next month! He signed her shoulder and then she asked for one on her wrist. He cracked a joke about her "pushing it" and that they'd be there "all night" and then gladly obliged. I'm sure she was off to the nearest tattoo parlor first thing the next morning!

The intro film

Paul walking onstage and waving to the crowd

As usual, there was a wide mix of ages in the crowd, from first generation fans in their 60s and 70s to second generation fans my age (30s and 40s), down to teenagers and young children. It was also nice to see a lot of fans of different races, showing that Paul's music has wide appeal across all barriers. The weather was gorgeous, always a plus for an outdoor rain-or-shine concert...warm but not too humid, a nice breeze, and once it got dark, a beautiful full moon that even Paul stopped to point out (including telling the moon that we were having a heck of "a party down here on Earth!"). One thing my wife and I both discussed on our walk out to the car was how Paul and his band not only performed brilliantly, but had great interactions with the crowd. They clearly have a ton of fun onstage and there are lots of little in-jokes that keep them smiling and laughing...that, coupled with the fun they convey and Paul's own gestures and comments, make for a concert that is not only musically brilliant, but a joyous experience.

Once we got back to our car, it took us a little over an hour to get to the road. This made us laugh since we live literally five minutes away from the stadium! To put it in perspective, the show ended right around 11pm (after nearly three continuous hours of music) but we didn't get home until well after midnight. Of course, being so wired from the concert, it took us a while to wind down and fall asleep. I was pretty tired the following morning, although unlike 2013 where I had a stressful hour-and-a-half commute into Boston for work, my current twenty-minute drive to work on back farm roads was much easier! Mrs. Chemist and I both decided that the next time (and hopefully there *is* a next time!) that Paul tours and plays nearby, we're going to take our kids...they're all huge Beatles/Wings/solo Paul fans and would absolutely love the concert. Not only is it amazing that Paul is still out there touring at 74 and putting on fantastic shows, but music from his entire career still resonates with fans of all ages in a way few, if any, performers can claim. Irrespective of his status as a former Beatle and one-half of the most famous and successful songwriting partnership in the history of popular music, Paul McCartney is a living legend who still delivers top-notch and high quality performances and if you haven't seen him yet, try to get to at least one show before he stops for good.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Real Frank Zappa Book

The most iconoclastic and musically adventurous artist to emerge from the 1960s rock music scene, Frank Zappa and his amalgam of rock, jazz, classical, blues, social and political commentary, and satire were a mainstay on the fringes of 1960s and 70s popular music with the occasional foray into the mainstream. In the 1980s he became well known for his political activism against censorship and in defense of free speech. Since his death from prostate cancer in 1993, his music and interviews have continued to be influential, and it's inarguable that the world in its present state would surely benefit from some of his withering social comment and insight. The closest we'll get any of that straight from his mouth is The Real Frank Zappa book, a quasi-memoir he wrote and published in 1990. I first read this book back around 1993 right before he died when I was just getting into Frank's music; I remember laughing hysterically at some of the anecdotes and being surprised at how many swear words he used throughout the book! As I got older, I re-read it a few times, but it had been many years since I'd last gone through it and so, for this review I've given it a fresh re-reading.

Before getting into the details, I want to point out that anyone going into this book expecting a traditional sort of autobiography will be a bit disillusioned. While the early chapters deal with Zappa's childhood, the formation of the Mothers, and his career into the mid-1970s, the bulk of the book is more like Frank's personal manifesto. Yes, there are chapters dedicated to road stories and some of the more colorful events from his career (mainly in the early years), but the majority of the chapters are dedicated to specific topics that Frank pontificates on and on which he espouses his personal philosophy. These include matters such as parenting, religion, politics, technology, and music. For each of these, he lays out his thoughts on the matter and in some cases, how he would change or improve them. In light of all of the upheaval and change in just about all of these areas in the twenty-three years since his death, it's especially fascinating to read his thoughts on matters that are just as topical and relevant now as they were when he was writing this book in 1988. In particular, his personal politics (where he calls himself a "practical conservative") and his thoughts on the music industry resonate almost as much now as they did then. This brings me to one salient point regarding the is more than a bit dated and as such, frozen in its own time. The same has recently been said of Frank's own music and, strangely, I've no doubt he would agree. Most of his ire is directed toward politicians (mainly Republicans, although Democrats don't escape his wrath), evangelical religious groups, drugs (Frank was strongly anti-drugs), communism, and music industry executives. While some of the matters he discusses transcend their time, for anyone born after 1990 it will probably sound like ancient history to read about Reagan, Bush, Nixon, Carter, the USSR, 1980s AOR rock music, and 1980s televangelists. What it all does point out, though, is that he would have a field day with how insane and crazy modern society and the world as a whole have gotten in the years since his death, and it makes me wish he were still here so that we could read the inevitable blog or Twitter he would have as he offered his social commentary.

In general, The Real Frank Zappa book is enjoyable and informative as the only direct word on his life from the man himself. It's entertaining and humorous in Frank's own unique way, but he also shows a few glimpses of tenderness and love (ironically after he states early in the book that he HATES love songs and love lyrics). It's touching and also quite sad to read of his love for his wife and kids, especially with all of the recent drama that's been aired in public over the last several months as his four kids fight over administration of his trust in the wake of their mother's death. The chapter about how his marriage worked best (he worked all night alone in the studio, Gail spent all day taking care of the kids and the business aspects of his career, with minimal interaction between them) perhaps explains why things went downhill in her relationship with their children in the wake of his death without Frank there to act as a buffer. However, it comes across very loud and clear that he loved his children a lot and that he was very proud of all of them. Elsewhere, he goes on and on (and on...) about some of the things that annoy him and honestly, having listened to his music and interviews for almost twenty-five years, it did get a bit tiresome to read the same ire directed at the usual matters, but for someone who isn't as heavily into all things Zappa, this probably won't be a problem. He comes across as a highly intelligent and outspoken individual who really just wanted to be left alone to do and say what he wanted and to live his own life on his own terms. He was also much more than just a great rock guitarist and withering lyricist. In the latter part of his life and career he was much more interested in composing and conducting his first love: orchestral music. His tales of the trials and tribulations in bringing his various classical projects to fruition were funny and depressing at the same time as he busts a lot of the myths behind modern orchestras and the musicians who play in them. He does sometimes come across as fairly misanthropic and contemptuous of the average person, but at the same time there is more than a grain of truth hidden in just about everything he says.  Like everything he discusses in the book, Frank is uncompromising in his views and whether you agree with him or not, at the very least he pushes you out of your comfort zone enough to make you stop and think.

I don't know how I could say that this book is anything other than essential for Frank Zappa fans. It's funny, intelligent, thought-provoking, and a bit irritating (in a good challenges entrenched thinking and pushes you to at least think outside of your usual mental bubble), just like the man himself. There aren't a ton of revelations in terms of information about his bands, albums, or career so anyone looking for a detailed history of Frank's career won't find it here...there are other books that attempt to cover that ground. Rather, you get a taste of what his childhood was like, some of the highlights (lowlights?) from his long career, and a philosophy manual from one of the most musically adventurous, politically and socially intelligent, and one-of-a-kind geniuses of 20th century music.


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


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


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 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!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Tribute to Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute

2016 marks the thirty-eighth year since legendary Who drummer Keith Moon died on September 7, 1978 from an accidental prescription drug overdose at the age of 32. Since then, he's routinely been acknowledged and admired for his unique and revolutionary approach to rock drumming, his drumming prowess both onstage and in studio with the Who, and his madcap and outlandish personality. Depending on which lists you read, he regularly comes in at either #1 or #2 in "greatest ever rock drummers" rankings, alternating with his good friend and mutual admirer John Bonham. However, to many fans Moon is simply "Moon the Loon" and is known more for his crazy stunts and self-destructive lifestyle than for his musicianship and drumming. In the new book A Tribute to Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute, Ian Snowball and Keith's estate have compiled a series of reflections on Keith from his contemporaries, friends, associates, and fans. As stated in the introduction to the book, the goal was to steer away from stories of "Moon the Loon" and instead focus on Moon the musician, drummer, and person, and while not completely successful in doing this, by and large the book sticks to this.

***special thanks to Neil and Omnibus Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Starting off with an introductory chapter from Pete Townshend, There Is No Substitute has some really excellent contributions and insight from people like Kenney Jones (Small Faces/Faces drummer & Keith's replacement in the Who from 1979-82), Rick Buckler (The Jam drummer), Dougal Butler (Keith's best friend & personal assistant for most of the 1960s and 1970s), Richard Cole (legendary roadie for the Who in the 1960s and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s), and more. There are also several hardcore and longtime Who fans and collectors, journalists and writers, and some slightly strange bits from various fans (more on this later). The goal was to present discussions and reflections on Keith as a musician and drumming pioneer and to keep the focus on these aspects of his legend and away from tales of his antics. For the most part, the individuals who contributed held to this, although some did end up going on too long and ended up talking more about his various stunts and gags.

The best parts were those from Keith's fellow drummers, especially those who knew him personally and had spent time with him socially. The drummers who were influenced by him also gave very thoughtful and insightful words as to the impact his style and approach has had on them, and it's from all this discussion that one really starts to realize just how unique and groundbreaking his sound and style (as well as that of the Who in general) were when the band burst onto the scene in 1964. Even though I myself am primarily a guitarist, I love all instruments, consider many non-guitarists to be influences on my style, and can also play bass and drums. I pay attention to musicians on every instrument when I'm listening to music, and I've long had to defend Keith's drumming from people who say he was "sloppy," "undisciplined," and "a bad timekeeper." I don't say this just because I'm a musician myself, but I truly believe all of these to be incorrect (well, "undisciplined" is probably true in the literal sense). His style may not be everyone's cup of tea, but to claim he was a terrible timekeeper and sloppy are just not true. As someone who has listened to hundreds of live Who recordings over the years, as well as their studio albums thousands of times, his drumming is indeed unique and revolutionary, as was the man himself. He wasn't a traditional metronomic timekeeper, but he never lost the beat and always anchored the songs exactly in the right places. I agree with the assessment, stated early on in the book, that Keith was to the drums what Hendrix was to the guitar in terms of a one-off talent who completely opened the door to the new possibilities the instrument offered. THAT is the legacy that Keith should be remembered for, first and foremost, and which the compilers of this book were aiming to convey.

By and large, I think they were successful, as reading through this book made me go back and listen to and watch Who music and videos (both live and in studio) in order to again bask in the brilliance of Moon's drumming. Where the book lost steam for me, and even got a little weird, was during the last quarter or so when the focus seemed to be on contributions from fans and not musicians. Some of them were perfectly fine, especially those who have been fans since the 1960s and 70s and even saw Moon in concert with the Who. The ones that were, for me at least, a bit strange and uncomfortable, were the "lifelong" Who fans between 14 to 18 years old. One was a girl who claims that the fact she looks like Keith means they are connected somehow while another claims to have known Keith in a past life and feels his presence every time she looks at the moon in the night sky. A couple of them also mentioned how Keith and his drumming helped them cope with their anxiety and depression, and that was nice to read. I don't mean to sound cold or heartless in writing this, but it just made me feel strange to read some of these passages. Also, there was a very strange memory from a fan who hung out with the Who backstage on their 1967 and 1968 US tours...she kept referring to Keith as "Keefy" and her rambling and somewhat incoherent reminiscences could've used some serious proofreading and rewriting, although I suspect the compilers of the book left it as-is so as to not alter her words. For me, apart from a few of the truly longtime and lifelong fans and collectors, these really caused the book to lose momentum and as I said, were slightly bizarre and almost uncomfortable to read. I'm not sure they added anything (in fact I'll just come right out and say flat out that they didn't)  to the rest of the book and its focus on Keith Moon as a drummer.

Overall, this was a nice book paying tribute to one of the most legendary drummers in rock history, trying to stick to the music and mainly avoiding the trap of detailing his craziness. The general picture that came across was of a tremendously talented drummer and a very nice guy who was generous to his friends, his fans, and the journalists who covered him; this was also a guy who himself was a huge Who fan...maybe the biggest one in the world. The photographs were nice, even if a couple of the captions had minor errors. In closing, this is a nice book for any Who and Keith won't learn too much in the way of new information, but it will give you a new appreciation (if you didn't already have some) or bolster your existing admiration for Keith's never-to-be-duplicated drumming and personality. Keith Moon was a true one-off in more ways than one and for the most part, this book is a fitting tribute. There is indeed no substitute for Keith Moon!