Vern's Verbal Vibe

Thoughts from Toronto musician and writer Vern Nicholson.

March 15, 2017

I Play Guitar Like A ...

So, I trekked out to Mississauga recently for a music clinic. Don't know if I picked up much of what the instructor tried to impart, but I sure gained some insight into my musical self.

Some people—and our dear instructor, a jazz musician, is clearly in this camp—pick up an instrument in order to gain proficiency, if not mastery. Which is, on the surface, fair enough; after all, it's pretty hard to make music without knowing your way around at least one instrument, even if it's your own voice. The goal is to practise, practise, practise and just maybe, you'll become the next Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani. And I must confess, I worshipped at the altar of technique when I first picked up the bass guitar years ago. My early influences were giants of the electric bass: Chris Squire, Phil Lesh and above all, the magnificent Jack Casady. In retrospect, it served me well to aim that high, as it soon became apparent that steady practice, a few lessons and some basic music theory (thanks, Mom) were the bare essentials needed to even approach my idols' prowess. Never got there, but I did learn how to play reasonably decent bass.

But you know, a funny thing happened on the way to Billy Sheehan: I fell in love with songwriting, arrangement and production. I came to understand that what I really wanted to do was write great songs and make great-sounding records. And to accomplish that, I had to do two things: acquaint myself with a variety of instruments and figure out what makes a song work. Thirty years later, I'm still working on both.

In terms of technique, this means I've become a generalist, not a specialist. I'd rather play ten instruments adequately, and in some cases barely, than one brilliantly. In my experience most "musos" (technicians) find this sort of attitude absolutely baffling. Case in point: the clinic instructor was dismissive of cowboy chords, urging us (presumed) muso guitarists not to limit ourselves to such mundane forms of musical expression. And sure, run-of-the-mill players like me play easy-strum chords partly because we're lazy and inept. Guilty as charged. However, the main reason I and thousands of songwriters use them is because they sound so good. There's something to be said for the shimmering overtones of open strings ringing out, especially in folk and rock.

In the end, perhaps it's a matter of differing tastes. I suppose if you're excited by flurries of notes, unusual scales and metres and convoluted jazz chords, my ringing easy-strum G chord would bore the pants off you. Conversely, if you'd take Roger McGuinn's opening lick to "Mr. Tambourine Man" over any Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani lick ever played, you know of what I speak.

Anyway, we did get some swag last night, for which I was most grateful: a pick holder, a circle of fifths poster and a sheet of promotional stickers, and that's where I'll wrap up. One sticker, now on my lyrics binder, really caught my eye. Designed like a name tag, it said, "I Play Guitar Like A ..." inviting us to fill in the blank. I thought about it for a split second and right away, I knew—

I play guitar like a songwriter.

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February 21, 2017

Appreci/ation

Two months after opening it, I've almost worked my way through The Early Years 1965-1972, Pink Floyd's massive vault-clearing box. Though not without its flaws, this 28-disc set (11 CDs, 9 DVDs and 8 Blu-rays, the content on the DVDs and Blu-rays being identical) is a treasure trove of material from the Floyd's most restless, innovative period. What follows is my highly subjective review, with an emphasis on the audio portion because that's what interests me most. (A more exhaustive review that includes the video material can be found on the excellent fan site Brain Damage.) First, overall impressions:

Pros
  • Nearly all existent archival material from the period is here, much previously unreleased, most in excellent quality.
  • The video footage, much of it extremely rare, has been impeccably restored.
  • Bonus volume (1 CD, 2 DVDs/Blu-rays), ten large memorabilia pieces and five replica 7" singles are all exclusive to the box.
  • Sturdy, attractive packaging.
  • The memorabilia in the individual volumes is a nice touch.
Cons
  • Careful with that price, Eugene. The box sells for $640; the six individual volumes, due to be released in late March, are going for $63 each. I wanted it all and am glad I splurged for the box, but I'm a bit peeved that the exclusive material wound up costing an extra $262.
  • Is the size of a small microwave. I had to clear an entire bookshelf to find a spot for it.
  • Some tracks suffer from inexcusable lapses in quality (inferior sources, songs at incorrect speeds, questionable mastering—see below for specifics).
  • For this price, a hardcover booklet should have been included. Liner notes are there, but sparse.
Now on to the individual volumes (again, I'm focusing on the audio):

1965-1967 Cambridge St/ation

For many Floyd freaks, myself included, this is the heart of the matter: the Syd Barrett era. Disc 1 kicks off with the band's 1965 demos. Syd does his best Mick Jagger on these R&B-flavoured cuts, which is jarring for those used to the English-accented vocal delivery he favoured throughout his brief career. Remasters of the 1967 singles follow, then a couple of remixes. Next up is a trio of long-hoped-for outtakes, the holy grail of Syd's tenure: "In the Beechwoods," "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream," all essential additions to the Barrett canon. The second disc features a scorching September concert, the only surviving live document of Barrett-era Floyd. Unfortunately, the vocals are very low in the mix. This and the clattering "John Latham" session that follows proves once and for all that The Pink Floyd of '67, despite their flower-power reputation, were in essence a proto-punk band—and not for the faint of heart. Glaring omission (there's room for it on Disc 1): the 1966 demo of "Interstellar Overdrive." (This can be, and was, remedied in homebrew fashion. See below.)

1968 Germin/ation

What's here is, with one exception, great stuff: quality remasters of the two 1968 singles, two BBC sessions, and a pair of unreleased songs from an August session in LA that no one even knew existed till now. The exception: an inferior-quality version of "Interstellar Overdrive" that also runs a full tone too slow. Another complaint: there's room on the disc for audio versions of the February Bouton Rouge performances that appear on the DVD/Blu-ray. These feature new guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour taking the lead on the Barrett-era songs "Flaming" and "Astronomy Domine." Fascinating material: why not include it?

1969 Dramatis/ation

Another two-disc volume, and I must confess one that didn't impress, perhaps because too many songs were repeated. The BBC sessions are okay but hardly revelatory, the Paradiso concert again suffers from vocal mic failure and the More outtakes don't live up to their promise. The track labelled "Seabirds" is actually an alternate version of the "Quicksilver" instrumental, not "Seabirds" as heard in the film. Presumably that version is lost. It's wonderful to have "The Man" and "The Journey" in fine quality on Disc 2, but a pity that this show (Amsterdam, September '69) found Gilmour's vocal cords in such rough shape. "The Narrow Way, Part 3" is an especially painful listen.

1970 Devi/ation

Goldmine! Disc 1 is book-ended by two versions of "Atom Heart Mother": a sizzling band-only romp and a brass/choir take recorded for the BBC that arguably outshines the studio recording. In between are fine BBC renderings of "Embryo," "Green Is the Colour" and the rarely played "If." The second disc features outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, a varied and intriguing lot on the whole. The song often bootlegged as "Fingal's Cave" is here titled "Aeroplane" and not only runs longer but rocks harder, with more clarity and definition than heard previously.

1971 Reverber/ation

There's some meaty material packed onto this year's sole disc. "Nothing Part 14," a work-in-progress snippet of "Echoes," is eerily riveting, prefiguring Brian Eno's ambient work. This is followed by another terrific BBC session, the highlight of which is an extended (and dramatically different) take on "Fat Old Sun." I had an inferior version of this on cassette at one time; it's great to finally have it in pristine quality. I'd like to have seen a second disc devoted to the remaining parts of "Nothing" (rumour has it there were 24 in all). Perhaps the rest is lost?

1972 Obfusc/ation

Two discs here, though apparently that wasn't the original intent: the booklet only has room for one (the audio version of Live at Pompeii), while the second disc, a 2016 remix of Obscured by Clouds, comes in a paper slipcase with the curious note that it's a replacement disc for Live at Pompeii, which was "supplied in error." Further, rumblings abound in online forums that both discs suffer from shoddy mastering, in particular a far-too-crisp high end. They don't sound that bad to me, but perhaps I lack the audiophile equipment (or audiophile ears) to discern the problem. In any event, it's good to finally have Live at Pompeii in standalone audio. The Obscured by Clouds remix, on the other hand, strikes me as redundant. Again, giving us audio versions of the live material featured on the DVD/Blu-ray might have been a better choice.

Bonus: 1967-72 Continu/ation

The bonus volume, exclusive to the box, is a frustrating mixed bag. The track list is one to make Syd-era fans drool: two complete BBC sessions from 1967, one from September, the second from December, mere weeks before Barrett's ignominious exit. After that, stray BBC tracks from 1968 and 1971, all that's salvageable from The Committee soundtrack, "Moonhead" (an instrumental recorded to accompany footage of the moon landing) and a live "Echoes" from 1974 (?) round out the disc. On the plus side, all this is killer material; however, the sources chosen are by and large abominable, especially considering that better sources circulate on bootlegs. The "Reaction in G" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" from the September 1967 session are, frankly, unlistenable—and I say this as someone with a high tolerance for bootleg-quality audio. But! All is not lost, because after some diligent poking around the Internet I was able to procure better versions of all the questionable material. So, I proudly present my unofficial, homebrew 29th disc ...

Ultra Bonus: 1965-1972 Augment/ation

I can't take credit for either the name or the idea—other Floydians have taken it upon themselves to create a self-styled addendum of missing/upgraded material, too. Anyway, here's my tracklist, all 78 minutes' worth:
  1. Interstellar Overdrive [Thomson Private Recording Studio, 10/31/66]
  2. The Scarecrow [mono single mix, 6/67]
  3. Reaction in G [live Copenhagen, 9/13/67]
  4. The Scarecrow [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
  5. Reaction in G [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
  6. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun [BBC 9/25/67, upgrade]
  7. Reaction in G [live Rotterdam, 11/13/67]
  8. Apples and Oranges [stereo mix, 11/67]
  9. Scream Thy Last Scream [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
  10. Vegetable Man [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
  11. Pow R. Toc H. [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade, full length]
  12. Jugband Blues [BBC 12/20/67, upgrade]
  13. Baby Blue Shuffle in D Major [BBC 12/2/68, pitch-corrected]
  14. Interstellar Overdrive [BBC 12/2/68, upgrade, pitch-corrected]
  15. Biding My Time [outtake, 7/69]
  16. Oenone [Zabriskie Point outtake, 11/69]
  17. Give Birth to a Smile [Roger Waters & PF, Music from the Body, 1970]
Of these, eight tracks are upgrades to the BBC sessions on Continu/ation; one is an upgrade to the bum cut on Germin/ation; and the other eight are stray tracks that really should have been part of the box but were inexplicably left off. I won't review my self-curated disc other than to say it renders the lapses on Continu/ation and elsewhere far more palatable and for me, literally completes the box set. Now, where might you find said upgrades, were you to go searching for them? Well, here's a hint. Thank me later. You will, however, have to do some serious audio editing.

All told, in spite of the set's flaws and the steep price, I'm most grateful to have it, hence the sincere title of my post. Pink Floyd have historically been rather stingy when it comes to opening the vaults, so this was a most surprising gesture. Surviving band members had little involvement, apparently, other than green-lighting the project. We can, however, thank band conceptualist Roger Waters for the "/ation" titles, though reportedly he's not responsible for "Continu/ation," which he finds "so lame." (Wait till you hear it, Roger.)

Oh, and speaking of appreciation: I've recently scored a copy of the deluxe edition of Fairport Convention's 1969 classic, Liege & Lief, for $9.75. And I just bought two bare-bones box sets containing Fairport's first ten albums, plus the four-disc Live at the BBC, for a grand total of $75. Kind of makes up for my hole-in-wallet experience with the Floyd box.

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January 25, 2017

Recycling the Classics

As a songwriter, I often find myself hunting for that one stellar chord sequence or melodic line that really makes a song shine. I'd like to think I've come up with a few on my own but sometimes, one needs a little help.

If done skilfully, what I'm about to outline for you truly is recycling, not outright theft. Case in point: a song I've just written called "Love's Twin Flames." I'd initially set out to write something in the vein of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which I'm happy to say the finished product sounds nothing like. (You know you're on the right track when you try to ape somebody and it still comes out sounding like you.) I did, however, end up borrowing half the chorus of "Arnold Layne" for my bridge, and therein lies the difference between recycling and stealing. If it's their chorus, make it your bridge or verse. Alter the melody, a little or a lot. Change the last chord or three. Put it in a different key or tempo. And obviously, write a new set of lyrics.

Not done yet, I began tinkering with the chorus of Guided By Voices' "Liquid Indian." It's an absolutely killer chorus paired with the most hideous, abstruse verse ever written (I think Robert Pollard, gifted though he is, sometimes takes perverse pleasure in being demented). Ever since I first heard the song I wondered how that lovely chorus—or something like it—would sit in more genteel surroundings. It's been in the back of my mind for some time as a reclamation project, if you will. Again: I changed the melody, put it in a different key, took out a chord and added two new ones, wrote new words, and it's found a new home as the pre-chorus of "Love's Twin Flames."

Recycling can also happen unconsciously. My song "After You" has a pre-chorus sequence that I knew I'd heard before. I couldn't place it for the longest time but eventually found it in a Fairport Convention tune called "Wandering Man." As it turns out, they (unconsciously?) borrowed it too, from Rod Stewart's 1972 hit "You Wear It Well." And despite Rod, the Fairports and I all using this chord sequence, our songs sound nothing alike. That's how you know you're recycling, not stealing.

A variation on the process is deliberately starting to write by playing a snippet of a well-known song, then going off in a new direction. Another new one of mine called "Puis-Je T'Aimer" began life as "Uncle Vern's Band," a thinly veiled reference to the Grateful Dead chestnut "Uncle John's Band." And for about six seconds, my song and the Dead's sound alike (same intro chords, though I changed the key and tempo). After that, I veer off into a universe that's as unlike Garcia/Hunter as chalk and cheese.

One of my favourite recycled songs is The Jam's "In the Crowd," a stellar track from All Mod Cons. Give that a listen, then try The Kinks' "Johnny Thunder" from their 1968 classic The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Something sound familiar? Not casting aspersions on Paul Weller, but this really borders on theft: same chords, melody, tempo and even key, I believe. Yet! Both are classic songs, and that one part aside they sound nothing alike. If anything, it's a testament to Weller's genius that he borrowed so literally (and liberally) to create a new and equally brilliant piece of music.

Have you recycled others' material in your writing? What's your favourite recycled bit or song? Comments are welcome.

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December 05, 2016

Real Chords #3: Pink Floyd, "Alan's Psychedelc Breakfast" (Morning Glory Section)

I've been on a Floyd kick lately, what with my The Early Years: 1965-1972 box set waiting to be opened at Christmas. I love me some early Floyd, and this thing has it all: 27 CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays and five 7" vinyl singles, plus loads of memorabilia. It's also the size of a small microwave oven. Can't wait! Anyway, I had this song on over dinner tonight, got curious, picked up the guitar, checked for chords online and ... well, the usual. I found an almost-there transcription with a few wrong chords and a disinclination to acknowledge that the capo has been invented.

Now, don't get me wrong: the fine folks who post these things are rabid fans like you and me, brother and sister, and this particular punter's efforts pointed me at the sky—i.e., the right direction—for which I thank him. But if there's an even slightly easier way to play the song, why not take full advantage and use a capo? In fairness, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" is hardly an obvious candidate for that. It's chock-full of awkward chords no matter what you do, and features one chord that's especially unusual (it took me about five run-throughs to finally land on Bbdim7, a chord that eluded Mr. Punter despite his valiant attempt).

I should note that I transcribed this more as an academic exercise, just to see if I could do it. You know how it is: you hear something and go, "Yowza! I want to play that," even if it's not suited to solo performance. I wouldn't recommend attempting this at an open stage unless you were at a Floyd convention, put it that way. At the very least you'd need piano accompaniment, 'cause that's where the melody lies. Even so, the song's Wikipedia entry notes that Rick Wright played three pianos in this section, so make that a magnificent concert pianist, ideally one with a few extra hands. All told, it's more fun to try at home along with the record.

Okay, I'll admit to a second reason for wanting to figure this one out: the chords are so achingly beautiful that I wanted to learn them now so I can use them in modified form later. Some of these progressions will be heard again, trust me. (Next month we'll discuss the fine art of recycling in music, so stay tuned.) Some highlights for you: referring to the transcription below, that intro section is pure chordal magic. The Bbdim7 is the key to its success, the pivot upon which the whole sequence turns. The end of the theme (from the Eb on) is plenty bizarre but somehow they make it work with a lovely piano melody that flutters atop all those weird chords. And finally, the Bb to Abm7 to Eb transition is sublime, worthy of any highfalutin' "serious" composer. Full marks to whoever wrote that section (Wright, I'm guessing).

As with our previous Real Chords entry, the acoustic rhythm guitar transcribed here doesn't exist on the recording. Look at it this way: you can play producer on a Pink Floyd song and add a track that, in your esteemed professional opinion, should have been there all along to add some colour. Here, then, are the real chords to "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" (Morning Glory section), written by Roger Waters, Rick Wright, Nick Mason and David Gilmour. For those of you playing along with the record, this section begins at 8:18.

Capo 2
  • Intro:  D F# Em C Bbdim7* A
  • Theme: D F# G A Bb Abm7 Eb Ab C F E Esus A
  • Theme Variant: D F# G A Bb B Db Eb Ab C F E Esus E
  • Outro: (A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 G) x3, A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 E Esus E
  • Double Time: A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 G A Gmaj7 Fmaj7 E Esus E
  • Quadruple Time: As above, then end on A
* Fingering, low to high: x12020

Notes: I play the Eb using a standard C shape moved up three frets. If you want to try it out, make sure you finger the top string (as if you were playing the high G in a C major chord). Unsurprisingly, an Eb doesn't sound too good with an open E ringing out on top. Anyway, I think the Eb sounds nicer this way and it also makes for an easier transition to the Ab that follows.

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November 19, 2016

Real Chords #2: The Moody Blues, "Dawn Is a Feeling"

We continue our Real Chords series with this gem, the opening number from The Moodies' classic Days of Future Passed. Before we get into it, I offer the caveat that I've arranged the song for guitar; on the recording, no guitar is present. I hear piano, mellotron, drums and bass, and that instrumentation is confirmed by the song's Wikipedia entry. But unless you plan on dragging a mellotron to your local open stage—and if you are, do let me know; that I'd love to see—you will, I hope, find this arrangement to your liking.

A few notes on the composition itself: as is common with material from what I call the golden age of songwriting (roughly 1965-75), we have here a gorgeous melody accompanied by a dreamy chord progression, all courtesy keyboardist Mike Pinder. Particularly noteworthy for me is his inventive use of dominant sevenths, chords that more often than not turn up as drippy clichés in most popular music. He also wisely cedes the lead vocal to Justin Hayward, whose silky, quivering baritone suits the melody perfectly. (Pinder gets his vocal turn in the bridge, and the shift in voice is simply brilliant. For full effect, you really need to seek out the original vinyl mix to hear the reverb on his vocal; on the CD mix, it's dry.)

And again, as mentioned in previous posts, online chord charts will lead you astray even if they seem close to the mark. Yes, the song is actually in C minor, but no guitarist needs to play it in open position unless you enjoy twisting your fingers through a sequence like Eb Ab Db7. To see what I mean try this version, then compare it to mine below.

Here, then, are the real chords to "Dawn Is a Feeling," written by Mike Pinder and arranged for guitar by yours truly:

Capo 3
  • Verse: Am E C7 Fmaj7 Bb7
  • Chorus: E7 Am E7 Am E
  • Bridge: Dm Dm/C#* C Bm E (Am Am/G D/F# E) x2
* Fingering, low to high: xx0221. My online chord namer calls this "DmM7" or D minor major 7th, which makes no freaking sense. I may not be using the slash correctly given that the C# isn't on the bottom, but whatever: it's just a Dm with a C# in place of the high D.

Notes: I prefer playing the E7 in this song as 020100: one, it's easier and two, I think it sounds better than 022130, the alternative. Your choice as to which you like best. I find the Bb7—which is barred at the 4th fret, i.e. one fret above the capo—difficult to play, due to the technical limitations of my guitar or (more likely) the guitarist. Hopefully you won't have as rough a time with it. I'm also playing the root notes of the Am/G and D/F# with my pinky and thumb respectively. It's not exactly smooth yet, but I'm working on it.

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October 05, 2016

Let's Go, Bro Jays?

How about those polite Canadian fans, eh? Viewers across Canada and the United States witnessed yet another example of boorish behaviour last night when a Rogers Centre bleacher creature threw a beer can at Orioles' LF Hyun Soo Kim as he was tracking a routine fly ball. An embarrassing but isolated incident—the actions of one drunken idiot. Right?

Wrong. I wasn't there, but here's an eyewitness account from CBC reporter Jamie Strashin, who was: "Unfortunately, it's not just one idiot. There were again numerous fights at last night's game (I witnessed two from my seat along the first-base line) and a beer can may not have been the only thing hurled from the crowd. There were reports of racial slurs lobbed at Orioles outfielders Jones, an African-American, and Kim, who hails from South Korea. CBC sports reporter Scott Regehr was at the game and says Orioles first-base coach Wayne Kirby, a heavyset black man, got a rough ride from four 20-somethings decked out in Blue Jays garb sitting near him. 'They were yelling at him to go get some more fried chicken,' Regehr says. Regehr says the same quartet that was going after Kirby almost came to blows with another group nearby. Ushers came to speak to both groups but nobody was ejected and the tension remained. 'Watching this great game became secondary,' he says. 'People were concerned about their safety and whether this fight was going [to] erupt.'"

I'll quote another section from the article because it's spot-on, and not coincidentally the main reason I rarely attend Jays' games these days: "With Jays tickets relatively affordable compared to those for Leafs and Raptors games, the Rogers Centre seems to attract a younger crowd. And it's a crowd looking to have a good time. For many, the game appears to be only a backdrop to party. In a province obsessed with liquor regulation, the Rogers Centre sometimes resembles a free-for-all. If anybody was actually cut off Tuesday night, I didn't see it. It seemed everywhere you looked, somebody was double-fisting a pair of tall cans. Beyond carding people, is anybody actually monitoring beer sales? Yes, you can only buy two at a time, but in my section alone, at least a dozen clearly intoxicated people continued to return to their seats with fresh rounds. Who knows how many cans of beer the team sold at prices ranging from $10.50 to $14? A whole lot, as the long lines for the men's bathrooms would suggest. By the seventh inning, the same uncomfortable edge felt during last year's playoffs had set in. For the most part, stadium staff and ushers appeared overwhelmed and unable to contain unruly behaviour. After last year's incident-filled playoffs, there hasn't been a noticeable increase in security or police personnel to deal with combative fans."

The solution is obvious, and you know and I know that no one will go within a million miles of it: stop selling liquor at sporting events. Let the bros who use watching the game as an excuse to drink themselves stupid do so in bars or in their own homes, where they can pelt their TV sets with beer cans and yell any base insult of their choice. If my surefire fix is unpalatable, how about at the very least (a) cutting off liquor sales earlier and enforcing that cutoff; (b) jacking up the prices to whatever level it takes to prevent public drunkenness; (c) expanding the non-alcohol sections at Rogers Centre?

In a statement on their Twitter feed, the Blue Jays apologized to the Orioles and Major League Baseball, and among other things made a vague promise that "we will also enact heightened security measures and alcohol policies that will ensure the fan experience and safety of everyone involved." Translation: someone like me will be barred from bringing a plastic water bottle into the stadium, while sales of tall cans go on unimpeded. Cheers! And let's go, Bro Jays.

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September 29, 2016

A Golden Oldie: Mix Tape Goes Digital

Difficulties, technical and otherwise, prevent me from making a proper blog post this month. In its stead, I present this golden oldie from the archives, specifically April 2009. Enjoy—vn.
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Mix Tape Goes Digital

I know, I know: old news, right? Maybe for you, tech-savvy young'un, but grandpa here just purchased his first mp3 player and is having a blast programming it, which brings me to the subject of today's civics class.

Programming music is an art, one that should be a highly prized social skill. (Why most people care far more about, e.g., the layout of a garden or the presentation of snooty food is utterly beyond me. But I digress.)

Let's begin with issues of top-down structure. I'm old enough to remember when albums were meant to be listened to in totality, in sequence. Thus, my player contains as many complete albums as I could fit onto it (roughly twelve). These are then categorized by genre (jazz, classical, folk, rock, electronica), a feast of full works as the artists intended them.

There are, of course, times when a listener wants a little of this, a little of that. Sure, I could simply use the "shuffle" function but that's too random for my tastes. As one who prefers to program the music's peaks and valleys, I've created a Top 150, a digital jukebox if you will. It too has an overarching structure: one song per artist. This simple dictum in place, we're ready to blast into sonic nirvana. Allow me to introduce you to some of my musical heroes ...

As any performer will tell you, you want to start and finish with a bang. For me, that means kicking off with Game Theory's "Leilani" (a chiming, surreal ode to my beloved via her pseudonym), "Broken" by The Guess Who (the most under-appreciated B-side of all time; Kurt Winter's solo is stunning), and "The Family of Man" by Three Dog Night (what's the sound of one jaw dropping
Danny, Chuck, and Cory, in that order, showing off their pipes). The latter two hearken back to '71-'72, back to my youth, back to the first music I heard that had mojo.

From here we weave our way into and out of the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and occasionally '00s, rarely in that order. We rage in teenage indignation with Husker Du's "In a Free Land," shake our cerebellums to Japan's brainy synth-pop ("Still Life in Mobile Homes"), imbibe the pioneering ambiance of Pink Floyd ("Echoes"
yes, the full 23 minutes), and soulfully "Drift Away" with Dobie Gray.

At Song 24 comes our first thematic pairing: "Venus" by Television and "Venus" by The Shocking Blue. (Compiler's note: Bananarama's "Venus" would be both redundant and inferior. As for Frankie Avalon, not a bloody chance! This mp3 player is cheese-free.)

Song 38 introduces the "sunlight" section of the proceedings. Jonathan Edwards' clipped, caustic "Sunshine" is followed by Richie Havens' exuberant remake of "Here Comes the Sun." Add the trippy "That Ole Sun" by modern psych-meisters The Sunshine Fix and you've got your daily dose of Vitamin D and then some.

Some pairings aren't quite so obvious. Consider Songs 45 and 46, Nick Drake's "Northern Sky" and "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy. I didn't know until recently that the latter was written for/about Nick Drake. Perhaps not coincidentally, both share an ethereal, mystical quality.

Then there are the strictly musical marriages. For instance, at Song 112 I love the way the final chord of Moby Grape's galloping "Rounder" segues into the almost-identical opening of "Kinder Murder" by Elvis Costello. (Note too the completely unconscious "-er" pairing!) The Washington Squares ("New Generation"), Tracy Chapman ("Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution"), Gordon Lightfoot ("Steel Rail Blues"), and Joan Baez ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") form a shimmering folk quartet at Song 97, and let's hear it for this salvo o' soul at Song 106: "Why Can't We Live Together" (Timmy Thomas), "Let's Stay Together" (Al Green), "Funky Nassau" (The Beginning of The End), "Sex Machine" (James Brown). Ow!

I enjoy making "lineage" pairings as well. Though (deliberately) not chronological, the sequence of Teenage Fanclub, Small Faces, The Who and Paul Weller at Song 137 makes eminent musical sense to any student of rock. In a more cultural vein, check out the trio starting at Song 82: "Woodstock" (Matthews' Southern Comfort), "With a Little Help From My Friends" (Joe Cocker, live at Woodstock), and "Moonshadow" (Cat Stevens). The festival's euphoria is first told by a band (and songwriter) who weren't there,
shown in process, and spat back in your face through an early '70s confessional.

As mentioned earlier, it behooves us to end with a flourish, so without further ado I offer The Crescendo, from Song 145: Kate Bush, "The Man With the Child in His Eyes"; Jefferson Starship's epic "St. Charles"
; The English Beat, "End of the Party"; The Waterboys, "Spirit"; and Santana's "Every Step of the Way," a white-hot rush of molten fusion ecstasy. If you listen carefully all four touch on transcendence through love, personal or transpersonal.

And once you've fired all your guns, what else to do but lay down your weary tune in the form of Song 150, the hypnotic "Universal Copernican Mumbles." Turn 'em every which way but loose, then let 'em down easy. Sure, this Paul Kantner
/Grace Slick tone poem arguably violates the one-song-per-artist rule, especially situated a scant four songs from the Starship. But in that spirit, I beg off with words from Herr Kaptain himself:

There are three rules of rock 'n' roll;
unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
- Paul Kantner, after W. Somerset Maugham

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August 08, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Dictators: A Case Study

I've just finished John Fogerty's autobiography, Fortunate Son. Now, I'd say that Fogerty is one of my greatest musical heroes, but that's not quite accurate. It's his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, that I adored as a young boy. Green River was the first album I ever owned, and I have fond memories of unwrapping the rest of their albums as Christmas and birthday presents in the early '70s.

But hold on a minute, you might say. Fogerty was CCR, was he not? Judging from his book, he'd have no trouble agreeing. After all, he wrote, produced, arranged and sang 97% of their material (100% if you discount their 1972 swan song Mardi Gras, about which more shortly). Additionally, all the instrumentation save for the rhythm guitar, bass and drums was played by him. This includes backing vocals on all but four songs ("Susie Q," "Porterville," "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Sailor's Lament," according to the book). And if you believe Fogerty's claims, he wrote many of his bandmates' parts as well. All they did was execute them, to varying degrees of success in his estimation.

As I'm sure is obvious by now, Creedence Clearwater Revival is the textbook example of a rock 'n' roll dictatorship. The collective, such as it is, exists only to support the protagonist's vision. Assuming the dictator is as gifted as he thinks he is, all is copacetic until either (a) his vision falters or (b) the supporting cast mutinies. In the case of Creedence, both happened pretty much simultaneously.

Based strictly on the available evidence—CCR's music and the members' solo efforts—it's hard to argue with John Fogerty. Acquiescence to his bandmates' demands for equal time on Mardi Gras led Rolling Stone's Jon Landau to dub the album Fogerty's Revenge, and later in the same review, "the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band." By this time, rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty had left, leaving bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford the sole beneficiaries of the fledgling Creedence democracy.

So: was CCR really John Fogerty, supported by three fair-to-middling hacks under his employ only because he needed a live band? To answer that, let's examine their subsequent solo careers. As far as I can tell, Stu Cook's entire oeuvre consists of his three songs on Mardi Gras. "Door to Door" is, I think, a rockin' and rather clever CCR knockoff, while "Take It Like a Friend" bubbles along in a funky, early '70s R&B vein, marred only by his unfortunate falsetto at the end. "Sail Away" is the only clunker here, a paint-by-numbers slice of Tex-Mex that goes nowhere and further exposes Stu's vocal limitations.

In addition to his three songs of fame on Mardi Gras, Doug Clifford released a solo album that same year, Cosmo, which even he says is "a terrible record." After hearing it on YouTube I can't disagree, though "Take a Train" struck me as a catchy number. Going back to Mardi Gras, Doug's "Tearin' Up the Country" is a chicken-pickin' trifle I could live without, and "What Are You Gonna Do" is redeemed only by the gospel backing in the choruses. "Need Someone to Hold," on the other hand, is hands down the best non-Fogerty Creedence tune—well played, written and sung.

As for Cook and Clifford's songwriting legacy, I'll just note that their tribute band, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, performs only Fogerty's material. Nor (aside from a Clifford co-write on a 1981 Tom Fogerty album) has the duo written anything else in the ensuing, oh, 45 years.

For a guy who was the first to leave and ostensibly had the most to gain by doing so, Tom Fogerty's self-titled 1972 debut album is pedestrian and sloppily recorded to boot. This was the best he could do after five years in little brother's shadow? Were you to place its top three songs—"The Legend of Alcatraz," "Lady of Fatima" and the non-album single "Goodbye Media Man"—on Mardi Gras alongside those of his erstwhile compatriots, they'd be distinguished only for their resemblance to a junior-league Creedence. In fairness, by the time of his fourth LP Myopia (1974), his songwriting and production skills had improved. Check out "What Did I Know," an amiable country-rocker, the Badfinger-like "Sweet Things to Come," and the homespun "There Was a Time." That said, Tom's best material isn't up to the lofty standards set by his brother in CCR.

As for little brother, his career has lasted the longest and produced the best music of the lot, though he too has recorded his share of duds, Eye of the Zombie and the unreleased Hoodoo among them. In fact, I'd argue that occasional flashes of brilliance aside, none of John's solo output comes anywhere close to matching CCR's five-album hot streak that extends from Bayou Country straight through to Pendulum.

All told, then, the evidence points to John Fogerty as the primary force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, but not the only one. Despite his low opinion of the others' talents and ample data in support of same, the four of them possessed a certain chemistry entirely missing from their solo efforts, J.C. Fogerty's included. Simply put, the music these four made together is far superior to anything they've produced as individuals.

Now, back to Fortunate Son—not a review but a few observations. Beneath what an online reviewer aptly calls an "aw-shucks veneer" is one bitter man, despite his claims to the contrary. It's hard to say who he hates more: his ex-bandmates or Fantasy Records' head honcho Saul Zaentz. With the exception of brother Tom, who gets one compliment for every three barbs, John portrays the other two as selfish, whining ingrates with zero talent and even fewer creative ideas.

What's fascinating—and a strong, unspoken undercurrent throughout—is his utter bewilderment as to why the others demanded creative parity. What comes across is something like, "We were so successful, and we could have kept the band going for much longer if they'd just shut up and done what I said. I was the genius; they had nothing. Why did they go and ruin everything?" All true based on the evidence, but it completely ignores the psychological makeup of the average musician. As Fogerty ought to know, what drives most musicians is the pursuit of their artistic vision. "Musician" and "minion" aren't exactly overlapping temperaments. If you love following orders and taking direction, music is not the career path for you. What's most remarkable is that the others swallowed their pride for as long as they did, regardless of their creativity or lack of same.

Now that I've said my piece, let's revisit Mardi Gras one last time. It's not the worst album ever, though in John Fogerty's defence had the democratic CCR produced a follow-up, that one might have been. To put a pretty bow on a disheartening story, I've assembled a "complete" version of the album by inserting the three Tom Fogerty songs listed above. Call it The Other Fogerty's Revenge. And the verdict? They make the album neither better nor worse, just longer.

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July 16, 2016

Real Chords #1: The Kinks, "Do You Remember Walter"

After cursing and shaking my head one too many times at online chord charts, I bring you an occasional series called Real Chords. If I may say so, those of you who'd like to learn some classic songs on the guitar will spare yourselves much hardship and frustration by heeding the advice herein.

Before I start, I want to note that underpinning the whole enterprise is my version of Occam's razor as applied to songwriting: for 95% of rock songs, the most correct way to play it is the simplest. Many of the writers whose work I'll discuss here are songwriters first and foremost, not virtuoso instrumentalists. If part of a band, they're likely rhythm guitarists. A few might be bassists or keyboard players. Given that they want to make the song work, especially onstage, and they're the ones singing it, they are unlikely to favour finger-twisting, intricate arrangements.

With that out of the way, our first instalment features "Do You Remember Walter," a magnificent tune from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968). My initial search for chord charts turned up two: first, Cassette Theory's eloquent description of Ray Davies' use of key changes, which I confess sailed over my head; and second, several transcription attempts by fans on the Kinda Kinks website. Now, don't get me wrong: these yeoman efforts can be useful in pointing one in the right direction, and oftentimes they're spot-on as is. In both cases here, though, were you to follow these charts you'd be heading towards difficulty and away from simplicity, and you'd be playing several wrong chords to boot.

One clue that you're being led astray is the presence in a chart of chords like Ab, Eb and Bb. Especially on a steel-string acoustic guitar, only masochists or virtuosos would choose to play these chords open. There's also a clever turnaround in the chorus that, at least according to my ears, all these folks have missed. Why? Because unless you capo it—or you're Django Reinhardt—it's unplayable.

And therein lies our solution. No, not practising for a hundred years to become the next Django Reinhardt, though if you want to, be my guest; you've more patience and discipline than I ever will. Try playing the song at Capo 3 and presto: those gnarly Ab, Eb and Bb chords are now F, C and G. (In fairness, the last poster on the Kinda Kinks site arrived at the same conclusion, though I still think he got the turnaround wrong.)

Here are the real chords for "Do You Remember Walter," written by Ray Davies:

Capo 3
  • Intro: A
  • Verse: A C G D G
  • Chorus: C B E C/G Am7 Cmaj9/B* B E F C E D A
  • Outro: A A7 A A7 to fade
* Fingering, low to high: x20010

Notes: I've transcribed this song as I believe The Kinks actually play it. In my own version, I add a little colour by inserting an Amaj7 in the first line of the verse before changing to the C. I'll do a little Asus lick off the A so I'm not just blandly strumming one chord over several bars. Also in the verse, I like to stick an Am in after the D, then switch back to D before going to G. In the second half of the chorus, I sometimes play a straight G instead of the C/G. I encourage you to fiddle around and add your stamp to it as well. In addition, if singing this proves to be an uncomfortable stretch (the range is either too low or, in my case, too high), just move the capo up or down till you find a key that fits your natural singing voice. Simple, right?

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June 24, 2016

Summer Potpourri

This month's post is a bit of a mish-mash, as none of what's on my mind merits a full-blown screed. So, in no particular order:

New Covers. "God's Children" (The Kinks), "Late Night" (Syd Barrett), "Lightning Rose" (Jefferson Starship—ongoing Paul Kantner tribute). Coming soon to an open stage. I'm also working up "Moments of the Soft Persuasion" (Peter, Paul and Mary), but not for live performance. Oh, I can get through it okay but this tune, which has an absolute killer chorus, falls flat without harmonies. If I could find a Paul and Mary to sing it with me, I'd sing the Peter bit. In the meantime, I aim to record a version by overdubbing all three vocals. In trying to work through the changes I kept getting stuck on this one chord. Had no idea what it was. I finally isolated what the singers were doing and figured at the very least, those three notes must be constituent parts of the mystery chord. Those were A, C# and F#, all on the second fret. I then randomly wrapped my thumb around the bottom strings on the same fret and as soon as I strummed, I knew I had hit on it. But what was it called? Since my last "secret chord" post I've discovered a handy chord namer. But if you punch in this chord—a shape that frets everything at the second fret but leaves the D-string open—check out the unwieldy names it generates! That's why I call my chords "Am funny," "Fmould" and so on. That said, "Bm9/F#" was both pithy and accurate, so Bm9/F# it shall be. The magic chord occurs between F#m and G at the start of the killer chorus. Try it, you'll love it.

Brexit. David Cameron will go down in infamy as the British PM who irreparably fractured not one but two long-standing geopolitical alliances—the European Union and the UK itself—all for the sake of quelling internal party squabbles. A bit drastic, no? It's also cost him his job, which may not be a bad thing.

Populism. I've had a couple of people tell me that Donald Trump is eminently qualified for the US presidency because "he's not a politician." You've heard these arguments too, I'm sure. Here's what I find odd: if you wanted someone to train your prize race horse and ride it to victory, would you hire an accountant? Is a jockey your go-to guy when preparing your year-end financials? I'm guessing not. So why does prevailing wisdom tell us that politicians are corrupt, incompetent and unfit to govern simply because they're politicians? And were we to elect a plumber, beautician or snake-oil salesman, would he/she not be tarred with the same brush after a term or two in office anyway? I don't get it.

BMO Field. My tailgating concerns aside, the Argos' new home is a winner even if the team isn't yet. I missed last night's opener but took in the preseason game a couple of weeks back, and I loved it. The seating is cozy, intimate and, for those of us old enough to remember CNE Stadium pre-baseball, a throwback to a golden era of Argonaut football. (Pedantic aside: we football fans never, ever called it "Exhibition Stadium." The Blue Jays brought that moniker in 1977. It was and shall forever remain CNE Stadium. More pedantry: the new place is pronounced BEE-mo, not B-M-O.) I've lately been looking at aerial maps, present and historical, to determine where the CNE's north grandstand was in relation to the new digs. We had season tickets for a few years in the '70s and I recall them being in said grandstand, Section D, Row 33. Seats might have been 3 and 4. As far as I can tell, the old grandstand would cut across the south end of BMO Field on an angle of, oh, 60 degrees or so, meaning my CNE seat would be floating in space somewhere around what's now the 20-yard line, near the west sideline. You see, BMO faces directly north/south; CNE Stadium had a broadly NW/SE orientation. That alone made my first visit to BMO a bit jarring, because there I was, in essentially the same place watching the same team, and the views, the atmosphere, everything is almost-but-not-quite like I remember it. We are, after all, talking 40 years later. It's kind of like looking at an old family portrait on a funny angle with 3D glasses, and there's a blank space where Uncle Ted and Aunt Bertha used to be.

CNE Stadium is now a parking lot, with a cracked marker in the middle of it that says "Exhibition Stadium - Home Plate." Useless if you're trying to locate the grandstand, which was so far from the plate that it may as well have been in the next county. Anyway, I dream that someday the city will create a proper memorial for CNE Stadium, even as revisionist historians decry it as the Mistake by the Lake. (Pedantry, final instalment: whatever its flaws, not a soul called it that during its lifetime. The revisionists have borrowed/appropriated the nickname of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.) In the meantime I'll learn to love BMO, tilted angle, missing persons and all. Whether or not you're all misty-eyed over CNE Stadium, BMO Field is a marked improvement over the Argos' former home, the cavernous and sterile Rogers Centre. Which, by the way, I think is an okay venue for baseball. Not stellar, but serviceable.

By the way, here's a fabulous photo of CNE Stadium in its pre-baseball configuration. This was taken on November 25, 1973 at the Grey Cup, two weeks after my first game there, the Eastern Semi-Final between the Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes. And here's the football field in 1976, during the facility's conversion for baseball. I guarantee I would have been at this game, but am not in the photo. Section D was about 15 yards deep in the near end zone and is cropped out of the shot.

Grammar. In the space of 24 hours I've heard two football commentators say something like "The training staff is going to be very precautious." The adjective is "cautious," guys. Sufficient in and of itself; no need for a prefix. You can be very cautious and take precautions, though.

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