The Beatles

The Ramones goes GOLD

photo — Long Island Music Hall of Fame

I remember when I bought this record, in late 1979, at this cool record shop located in a strip mall. I was driving around with a soon-to-be ex from high school and we just stopped in to browse and when I saw the cover of The Ramones I thought “well this looks interesting.” The soon-to-be ex wasn’t nearly as enthralled, especially once we heard it. Released in 1976, The Ramones’ eponymous debut has been heralded as genre-defining and immeasurably influential and it only took 38 years for it to reach GOLD status. I know my first copy of the disc lasted a little over a year. I took it and a stack of other albums to a party and left them up against the electric heat vent in the room. Needless to say it was unplayable after that. I bought another copy that lasted much longer, but I guess a whole lot of other people didn’t follow my example (of buying it, not leaving it against a heater).

While I was aware that The Ramones never had the numbers to compete with Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson, I was actually quite surprised that the record wasn’t already gold. I bought 2, so that means only 499,998 more had to be picked up by people over the years and you would think that for all the people who have raved about and praised the band for their importance, the disc would’ve moved. There was a point in the East Village, NYC (1989-91) when it seemed like every other person was wearing the classic Ramones t-shirt. It was a very trendy fashion identifier for the grunge/punk era in NYC. Kind of like beards are now. I wonder how many Ramones shirts have sold since 1976? Maybe more shirts than records? Perhaps this is a lesson in perceptions or perhaps what the band represented to many people was more important than their actual music. The Ramones were very pragmatic in their approach to getting a band together and this process served as a blueprint for thousands of bands that followed. They also defined (to music writers and fans) the very egalitarian ethos that anybody can do it. Pop and Rock music was ripped out of the country estates, private jets and huge arenas and brought back to the streets. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were guillotined in the press, Led Zeppelin went to see The Dammned in concert and Elvis Presley died because he couldn’t compete with Sid Vicious. The era of rock stars as ROYALTY was over! Hurrah!

It’s interesting that in this interview Johnny talks about how he thinks The Doors were one of the best American bands. Many people who would end up being fans of punk rock and numerous music writers viewed punk as an alternative to anything that smacked of the old guard, but the musicians didn’t necessarily feel that way. Rock writers have always had this love affair with early rock and roll as the almighty pinnacle of rock’s artistic achievements. “The music never had to evolve past Bill Haley and the Comets or Eddie Cochran…that was the real deal maaaan!” Which of course is silly. Very few of these writers would want to be diagnosed with cancer and have the doctor start applying leeches. Not only did music evolve because different people brought different influences and abilities to the table, but technology expanded the scope and scale tremendously. (Watch a Zeppelin video from the 70s and then watch a Beatles video from the first tour only 9 years earlier and consider only the technological differences) Changing social attitudes and the vibrant energy of each new generation continued to up the ante of what was possible — this is what humans do with everything. Why would rock and roll be any different? Here’s an exchange in a Johnny Ramone interview from 2003 that is an amazing bit of synchronicity given the profile I just did of Jimmy Page’s guitar opus Dazed and Confused.

Jones: A lot of punk and speed guitarists owe a lot to you. But, who inspires you?

Ramone: Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.

Jones: Jimmy Page! That’s the last reply I would have expected to hear.

Ramone: He’s truly unique.

Jones: It’s ironic: Almost every blurb I read explaining the appeal of the Ramones chalks it up to you guys reintroducing straight tunes in 4/4 time, two minutes, a return to the kind of stuff the Beach Boys or the girl groups from the early ‘60s recorded. That the Ramones were the antidote to the fifteen minute-long “concept rock” stuff from groups like Led Zeppelin.

Ramone: The Ramones were never anti-Led Zeppelin. Maybe “anti-groups-who-just-aped Led Zeppelin.” Everything in the ‘70s was moving towards all that. FM radio was promoting an album rock format. We wanted to record something kids could dance to. But, Jimmy Page: His playing is truly amazing. I could never play at that level. I don’t try to imitate him, but I listen to him a lot.

I wasn’t surprised that Johnny listens to Led Zeppelin, but what is interesting in this exchange is this idea of The Ramones as “a return” and “an antidote.” That originated in the music press, because obviously Johnny never thought that way. Maybe The Clash did…LOL. I would be willing to bet that a number of people who parroted this “antidote” meme over the years are those same people who never bought The Ramones album…bastards! Here is Jimmy Page and Led Zep playing punk rock in 1970:

While I have known some Ramones fanatics over the years — they had the shirt AND the records and loved the band immensely — in the late 70s and early 80s most people looked down on punk music and thought it was stupid. But at parties even die-hard haters enjoyed listening to Beat On the Brat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes while jumping around like lunatics. Even if one couldn’t take it seriously as an art form it was great fun when it was time to let loose. In my early days as a guitar player I was a chord strummer and not much else. I kind of sucked. Later, I started hanging out with people who played guitar really well and while their favorite bands were Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC and Rush, they all liked playing the Ramones and other punk rock for the same reason. It was great fun!! (It’s also much harder to pull off a great 20-minute version of Dazed and Confused at that age). One of the first lead guitar lines I ever played was the break in Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. It was in my friend’s basement and there were maybe 10-15 people there drinking beer and it was awesome. I had gotten a Peavey 50 watt amp over the Christmas holidays a few months before and I played Glue and the intro to Whole Lotta Love over and over.

Throughout my life my musical tastes and guitar abilities have been completely intertwined and related. As my abilities grew and my ears expanded I have continually sought out new horizons for both my ears and my hands. I think this is true of many people, musicians, artists, parents…Because of this reason, and as I explained in this post, I was never a total 100% punk rock fanatic. Those people are a special breed and I admire their dedication and commitment. I played in a few punk bands over the years and saw loads of punk shows and had lots of fun, but have always played (and listened to) many other styles of music. Living in the neighborhood that was the birthplace of The Ramones allowed me to see the whole thing from a unique angle and participate in some of the excitement and good times and for that I will always be grateful. It’s a shame that Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee didn’t live to collect their Gold Records. They certainly earned them. They were idols of an era that has passed, but lives on every time a group of youngsters or oldsters count off a fast 1234 and blast headlong with abandon into a 2 minute rock and roll anthem.

Cream

CREAM was an awesome band — The first SUPERGROUP and a total powerhouse of over-the-top PSYCHEDELIC-BLUZE-ROCK excitement. I really dug all of their stuff in my younger days and really don’t think Eric Clapton ever did any better except for maybe some of what happened in Blind Faith and, of course, Derek and The Dominos. Very bold statement I know, but I don’t think I’m the only one who holds that opinion. Cream became one of the highest-power draws in the psychedelic era, a period of music I enjoy quite a bit and one that was extremely influential in a way that still resonates even now. Most of the people I’ve known in NYC were not fans, but the whole 60s era and everything was so controversial and so much of its time, I don’t blame those who don’t get it or don’t like it for feeling that way.

I don’t think it’s necessary to regurgitate the band’s biography, but a couple of items are very important to know. The three members of Cream were all major musical stars in England before the band was formed. Clapton’s reputation, developed with stints in The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers led to graffiti on London streets proclaiming him “GOD”. He certainly was one of the most tasteful and fiery practitioners of blues guitar and he had a tone and a touch that was simply too good to believe. Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were also ninjas on their respective instruments and Bruce had a pretty amazing range as a vocalist, a fact that would serve Cream well, especially in live performances. One of the big problems, once they were signed however, was the music business. In 1966 record companies and managers were still looking for “hits” and tried to groom and encourage every band to be the next Beatles. You can see this in the early Cream (mimed) television appearances. I Feel Free is not a bad song, especially the instrumentation. But the insistence on the band to be pop stars would rankle especially Clapton who, at the time, considered himself a “blues purist.”

A major game-changer would arrive in England in 1966 in the form of an outstanding American guitarist who was a big fan of Eric Clapton. His name was Jimi Hendrix. His first album, Are You Experienced? would push people like Cream to new heights and the psychedelic era would take off in full flight. One of the first things Hendrix did when arriving in England was try to sit in with Cream. Even though this episode was devastating for Clapton at the time, he and the rest of London (and soon the world) came to realize that Jimi was what he was. None of the British guitarists, save for Pete Townshend (who was also a Jimi fan), was as upfront and “wild” as Jimi was perceived to be. Clapton saw himself as a disciple of the blues masters and he was playing THEIR music. So it was natural that he would be a little restrained about how he played and performed. He was/is a more reserved person in general. Jimi, on the other hand was playing HIS music, was not British and not a white guy. He had the blues and chitlin’ circuit cred that Clapton could only aspire to and he heard manifestations of the blues that no one else at the time could’ve put across (Third Stone From the Sun, Are You Experienced). However, to the very end Jimi was one of Cream’s biggest fans, launching into an impromptu and basically unwanted (at least as far as BBC executives were concerned) version of Sunshine of Your Love on The Lulu Show after Cream played broke up.

The competition that did exist was good for all involved because as many people know — if you want to be a great musician, hang with other great musicians. There was the other benefit of all kinds of new sounds and technology being made available to guitar players like…the wah-wah pedal! How many great songs have a wah-wah as part of the sound? As people who knew Cream have pointed out, Jack Bruce wrote the riff to Sunshine as a homage to Jimi one night after attending a Hendrix gig. Eric Clapton quotes the song “Blue Moon” in the first few bars of the solo and recorded it on his far-out and trippy-decorated 1964 Gisbon SG. The drum part originated with Ginger Baker who came up with the idea of playing African rhythms on the “1” and the “3”. He and Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the JHE, would “make” many songs for their respective bands and propel Jimi and Eric to new heights because of what they brought to recordings and performances.

While the pressures from the label and management would never dim, onstage Cream became a force for improvised blues-based rock with elements of psychedelia. While Jimi Hendrix would blow up the USA at the Monterey Pop Festival, which Cream’s manager passed on so they would have “bigger impact,” Cream finally did arrive as headliners in the fall of 1967 and quickly established themselves as a very impressive musical force. They gained a very sympathetic following among The Love Generation and were encouraged to embark on long improvised jams that would sometimes pass the 20-minute mark. At the ceremony to induct the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-90s, ZZ Top drummer Dusty Hill related that back in the late 60s EVERY drummer in Texas had their kit set up like Ginger Baker and tried to cop some of what he was doing for their own sound. The same, of course, was true of Eric Clapton and his blazing Gibson through a Marshall stack sound. In some ways, at least at the time, what Hendrix was doing was so far beyond many people (even what he was hearing, nevermind playing) Eric’s approach was much more attainable: Learn how to play tasteful blues licks, plug in, crank to 11. There are many accounts of their tours of the US that detail not only how LOUD the band played, but how GREAT the guitar sound was. Even before Cream, Eric Clapton knew how to get the great guitar tone that was the envy of many players. His sound had a lot to do with his touch, his vibrato, his rolling the tone pots on the guitar back and forth to achieve different levels of brightness and contrast in the tone of his licks. Outside of the wah-wah he eschewed other effects that would compromise the quality of the sound between guitar and amp. While he would switch to Fender Stratocasters by the time he got the Derek and the Dominoes project going, he used Gibson guitars, mostly the SG, a Les Paul, and the ’63-65 Firebird and the ’64 335 that are played at the 1968 Farewell Concert. All of these guitars gave him that big fat tone that became a staple in rock music and it would not be too much of a stretch to say that all started with EC. Here’s a nice collection of pics with the Firebird. Here’s a great site with a really heavy analysis of Clapton’s guitars!

Prior to their post-break-up Goodbye album, Cream released three highly-acclaimed discs: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, and Wheels of Fire, which incidentally was the first ever platinum-selling double album. Both Wheels of Fire and Goodbye combined sides of studio recordings and various live tracks the band recorded in the US. This created an interesting mix between the shorter, almost pop-oriented format of the studio releases and the furiously improvised live numbers that stretched out to epic lengths (for the time). Notable covers of blues material included Sittin’ On Top of the World, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, I’m So Glad, Spoonful, Born Under a Bad Sign, and Cat’s Squirrel, which although it never received the live workouts the others did, is a great song complete with great harmonica lines courtesy of Bruce and a brilliant guitar breakdown. Personally I always liked the vibe of the studio versions of Sittin’ (the tone of the guitar is awesome) and I’m So Glad where Clapton plays the entire solo on the “G” string. Of course the live versions were simply balls-out and furious, demonstrating the best of Cream’s unbridled energy and instrumental prowess.

But all three members of the band were capable of writing original songs and write they did! Besides Sunshine of Your Love, I Feel Free and Tales of Brave Ulysses, there are other really cool things in the catalog. SWLBAR, Badge, Deserted Cities of the Heart, Strange Brew, Politician, What a Bringdown, Toad, N.S.U., Sleepy Time Time, and of course, the completely EPIC White Room. I always associate the sound of these songs with SUMMERTIME for some reason. While the music is not the happy pop sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock, there is none of the cold distance that one hears in The Doors or even some of The Beatles material from that period.

Back in the early 80s, Cream’s Farewell Concert was a staple at midnight movie showings (along with Gimme Shelter, Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). I remember going to see this with a bunch of friends in Pittsburgh and it was party city — a real good time. One of the dudes was a total Clapton fanatic and I’d always say, “yea…but Jimi was better!” When the following portion of the movie came on I still remember him turning around and saying, “See?” If you’re looking to cop some of Clapton’s vibe in your playing there is no better instruction than this right here.

Alas, like many other things during the intense decade of the 1960s, Cream did not survive. The relationship among the band began to sour and the intense pressure and constant touring also began to take a toll. Eric Clapton was gravitating away from the “jam” idea to a more song-based approach and as he has said many times over the course of his career, hearing The Band’s Music From Big Pink completely changed his life and his idea of what he would do with music. In other interviews he also expressed that he was never totally comfortable in Cream, not only because of the strain brought by constant very loud improvisation, but also the pressure brought by the mantle of being a guitar hero in a Supergroup. As the 60s merged into the 70s all three members of Cream would go in separate directions, deal with crippling substance-abuse problems and never be a part of something as amazing again. While the Layla sessions and album were/are amazing, this was definitely due to the involvement of Duane Allman who was extended the invitation to join the group but declined. Neither the album or the single, Layla was an instant hit and gained it’s well-deserved accolades long after Clapton had broken up the group and moved on. His understated guitar hero status has been maintained and he has managed to adapt his sound and style to all of the trends that have come and gone since the 1960s. The Blues is universal and works with anything and he became quite an effective songwriter. While some who loved what he did in Cream probably had issues with EC in the 80s and 90s, he acquired a whole new audience of fans and has managed to keep a career and reputation as a guitar icon for almost 50 years, which is no small feat in a very tough business.

While there were always suggestions for Cream to reunite, this didn’t happen until 2005 and just as it was in the 1960s, their time together was very brief. The shows happened and went off well, but some of the acrimony was still present and it’s not like any of them, Eric Clapton included, needed or wanted to be on tour for months on end. I missed going to the shows but bought the DVD and think they did a pretty good job of it. There was a conscious effort to NOT make it like it was in the old days and many people took them to task for this. People do the same thing to all of these old bands though — there are people who think Van Halen should still be jumping around and writing songs like they did in 1981. Not gonna happen folks. Some of the lyrics to Deserted Cities of the Heart, one of my favorite tunes, maybe sum it up best:

I felt the wind shout like a drum.
You said, “My friend, love’s end has come.”
It couldn’t last, had to stop.
You drained it all to the last drop.
It was on the way,
On the road to dreams, yeah.
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.

Keith Richards — Part I

GUITAR HERO

Keith is my numero uno, the man, the KING OF COOL and HOT TRASHY GUITAR. He was the first guitar hero I had and over the years I’ve learned many a lick and trick from listening to his music, reading his interviews and copping the feel from his playing. Long before Django, or Eddie or Jimi or anyone else I was a huge fan of The Rolling Stones and their music. Not only is Keith’s style great, but because he always mentioned great players from the past that were influences, he provided a link to the past that made for even more listening entertainment and inspiration. The Stones, from the very beginning, always picked great cover songs too — Love in Vain, Mona, Let it Rock, Prodigal Song, Shake Your Hips, Down the Road Apiece, Stop Breaking Down, Not Fade Away and many others always done with the energy and panache that is THE STONES.

There have been many great books on Keith and The Rolling Stones over the years and probably anyone reading this has had at least a few in their possession. The pictures you see in this post come from The Rolling Stones: The First 25 Years, by rock writer extraordinaire Dave Dalton. I’ve had this for so long it’s not even a book anymore. It completely fell apart years ago and is basically just a big pile of pages, but it’s a an AWESOME BOOK. Not only is the photography really brilliant, but it spans the real pinnacle of the band’s career and includes many interviews with Keith and Mick from the 1970s. This is is how I knew all about Keith’s guitar style before I even left home. I was surprised to see this book is still available and if you like Keith and the band, you should totally buy it.

BLUES ATTITUDE

From the early days The Stones were different from all of the other people who banded together to play rock and roll music. They grew to be notorious for their attitude and behavior and although they were eclipsed by The Beatles in the 1960s and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, at least as far as popularity and sales, they became the epitome of what a rock and roll band is, or should be. Not only was their music top-notch, but they had the attitude (in spades) to match. The emotions and the attitudes expressed in songs like Satisfaction and Let’s Spend the Night Together (which was too risqué for The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967) seem quaint when compared to some of the jokes in an present-day episode of Family Guy. But that was the uptight culture that was America in the post-WW II years. Many of the overly conservative/fundamentalist leanings rampant today have been a part of this country all along. Whether he was in court on drug charges, staring down the Hells Angels at Altamont or being flogged in the press as a musical hack, Keith was never one to shy away from conflict. He has the BLUES ATTITUDE, a style and way of life I’ve already talked about in the Bukka White post I wrote last year. Along with the outlaw country styles of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash and the rock and roll snarl of Elvis and Chuck Berry was all about IMPULSE and ABANDON, not only in the music, but also the lifestyle associated with it. Keith Richards came to embody all of this and even today is held up as THE symbol of hedonistic living, a shining example of those people who burn the candle at both ends and then snort the wax. In uptight conservative society, which is really what the upper class wants to inflict on the lower classes because the upper class perfected hedonistic behavior a long time ago, people like Keith were a threat to the status quo that had kept everyone in line. As the 60s progressed, more and more of the old ways fell away. Of course, Keith doesn’t get all the credit for these changes, but he was and is a person who declared, through his razor slash chords and his defiance of traditional mores, that he was a man who lives on his own terms, like it or not.

EARLY DAYS

In the beginning Keith and the Stones played the music of their heroes, the music they loved. It was rude, energetic, infused with sex and danger and the freedom to let it rock. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were a great rhythm section, Mick Jagger was well on his way to being a superstar frontman and Brian Jones and Keith Richards had practiced their dueling blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll “weaving guitar” parts until they had them down cold. They had digested Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Scotty Moore, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and were able to play it with a reckless enthusiasm that drove the kids wild. It was all about MOVING people, as the following clip from The Tami Show proves. The Stones are having a really good time and everything the band becomes is right here in this clip. It’s a tad derivative still — Showtime at The Apollo, James Brown or Otis Day and the Knights maybe. They weren’t really writing their own material yet. But Keith fires the whole band with his timing, feel and exuberance. He’s also really good at those short, stingin’ leads. ROCK AND ROLL BABY!

By 1965, with the release of the singles The Last Time and Satisfaction and the Aftermath album, the band really came into their own with original material and almost all of it was built on Keith’s style and sensibilities. He was and is a complete genius at adapting to whatever the situation required. Very early on, in one of their first forays into the recording studio, the question was asked, “who makes the records?” and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham pointed to Keith and said, “he does.” While part of the reason was Keith’s personality, it was also because he knew how to create a good track and capture the atmosphere necessary to make it more than a great track, especially once the concept of albums came into vogue. Only Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page equaled Keith’s ability to make albums that had not only the sound, but also the ambiance and atmosphere of blues and early rock and roll. Many critics have said that about the Exile on Main Street album, but it was true of other records as well, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers especially. He was and is the KING of lo-fi, slop guitar and with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones and later, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood, he had a lot of help making genre-defining records.

POP STARDOM

In the first phase of their career, the band was constantly being pressured for a single because that was the format du jour at the time. This was true of every band and every project through the late 60s. Many groups, even heavier ones like Cream and The Yardbirds were at the mercy of producers, record companies and managers who didn’t really understand this new rock phenomenon and insisted on doing business the old way. (HERE is a funny interview with Keith Relf, singer for The Yardbirds on the trials and tribulations of dealing with this aspect of pop stardom). Because The Beatles were the undisputed rulers of the pop charts throughout the decade, there was a lot of pressure on bands to follow their lead. Some of this yielded positive results for Keith and The Stones, others were pretty dismal (Their Satanic Majesties Request). Many of the Stones’ early original singles — The Last Time, Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud and 19th Nervous Breakdown were very Rn’B-influenced and contained all of the best riffs and tricks to be mined from listening to all of the influences I’ve already mentioned. However, in 1965 they started to expand on this with other songs like Paint It, Black, Under My Thumb, Lady Jane, Ruby Tuesday, and Mother’s Little Helper. They were able to do this because Keith and Mick were becoming great song writers and Brian Jones was a complete genius at picking up exotic instruments and mastering them them well enough to play on a track or live in a very short time. Even though Keith would, in time, become the best example of the outlaw rock and roller, he, like the others was always very pop-conscious. His guitar hooks usually brilliant and he knew how to ARRANGE a song for the singles format. It was Keith’s idea to use a fuzzbox on Satisfaction to give the guitar a horn-like sound and there weren’t a whole lot of people using fuzz boxes at the time. (It was supposed to be a “guide” track for real horns, but it was released as is). In addition to his electric guitar finesse, Keith was a very good acoustic picker, featured on songs like Lady Jane or Back Street Girl. While some of this material seems a bit off the wall compared to later, there are some real gems in the mid-60s Stones catalog that capture the whole period of 1960s “Swinging London”.

PHASE II

The mid-60s was a really great period for Brian Jones, but, unfortunately it was also the beginning of his decline. He really came into his own as the COLOR guy for the band because he played everything; sitar, mellotron, recorder, harmonica, marimbas, organ, harpsichord, saxophone, accordion, autoharp, and dulcimer. Songs they did during this period, which are still very popular, would have been impossible without him. He was comparable to The Beatles having George Martin involved on their records. According to Keith, Brian didn’t enjoy playing guitar very much after 1965 and while there were certainly other issues within the band, it’s easy to believe that he would’ve been bored being the rhythm guitar player given his multi-instrumental abilities. Hounded by the drug squads and marginalized within the band because of his physical and mental condition, he would become the 1960s first “death by misadventure” casualty.

1968, the year of Jumping Jack Flash and Beggars Banquet, was often heralded by critics as the band’s return to their roots, but it was actually much more than that. In the past they had played American music, but post ’68 they set out to completely reinvent American music and culture, at least as they saw it. It was art in it’s truest sense and while Mick Jagger’s lyrics had a lot to do with the panorama they created, this whole period was Keith Richards coming into his own as a complete (understated) guitar master. He began exploring the concept of open-tunings, used by the blues masters of the past: Skip James, Robert Johson, Bukka White, Son House and Muddy Waters. Combined with his love of acoustic guitars, brilliant song sense and endless supply of memorable riffs and driving rhythms, he created a body of work from ’68 to ’72 that is the Stones pinnacle. Every one of the albums from this period rates five stars or… it should. Charlie Watts has said (I’m paraphrasing) that “every band in the world follows the drummer except The Rolling Stones. We follow the rhythm guitar player.” A very crucial ingredient to why these records were so great was how well Keith and Charlie play together. Keith’s riffs, combined with Charlie’s unique approach to “rock” drumming creates a very powerful, hip shaking statement. This was the beginning of the band’s ascent to superstardom.

OPEN TUNINGS

I learned all of the open-tunings a long time ago precisely because Keith used them. The original version of Jumping Jack Flash (with it’s flip side Child of the Moon) was done in open E/D. Tune the guitar to a major chord E-B-E-G#-B-E (down 2 steps for open-D, which is less stress on the guitar, especially acoustics). Beggars Banquet was the first album done with Keith using these tunings although Brian had used this tuning for slide guitar in the past. Street Fighting Man, Prodigal Sun, Salt of the Earth, No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle and Stray Cat Blues are all definitely in open tunings. Another element that makes this album interesting is that some of the songs were cut with the band gathered around a Phillips cassette recorder which was then put through a speaker and recorded. Sort of like having an overdrive in the chain. Says Keith: “The basic track of that was done on a mono cassette with very distorted overrecording, on a Phillips with no limiters. Brian is playing sitar, it twangs away. He’s holding notes that wouldn’t come through if you had a board, you wouldn’t be able to fit it in. But on a cassette if you just move the people, it does. Cut in the studio and then put on a tape. Started putting percussion and bass on it. That was really an electronic track, up in the realms.” Brilliant lo-fi stuff isn’t it? That track still sounds great and the whole album is just drowning in atmosphere. Here’s the original when the song was still Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?

Here’s my version of Stray Cat Blues…I just did the music for a friend’s project that profiles a woman who takes care of stray and feral cats (at her own expense) in Mexico. I decided to use the Keith approach to the music and I ended up with something not too bad considering I haven’t played slide guitar in 5 years and was never much of a harmonica player. I also used the old Johnny Cash trick of slipping a piece of paper through the strings to create a nice rhythmic “chuck” for the background. The track had to be edited down for the length of the movie, but this is why I love GARAGEBAND.

In THIS post, I do some playing around with open-tunings on an acoustic, including Prodigal Son and You Gotta Move. They are close to what Keith does except “Move” is tuned down to a “C” tuning. I’m playing it in “D”. Keith Part II coming later in the year!

Book Review #2

Two more books from the library! I have some rilly cool things to share: The BB King Treasures and Stochelo Rosenberg (part 1). Both of these coffee-table-esque printed productions are very stylin’ and function as the kind of material I lay out when important and sophisticated people visit. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, I’m New York SASSY and I moved on from Hammer of the Gods a long time ago. But aside from that, both these books are complete and total eye-candy and serve as scrapbooks that detail the lives of two very accomplished musicians. Reading over them puts one smack in the middle of music history and culture and contained within are all kinds of special features that add to the experience. Both were obviously put together with a WHOLE LOTTA LOVE and it shows.

BB King

Riley B. King is a musical institution and The USA is lucky to have him. Over a career spanning 60+ years BB has become a world ambassador and “global musician” of the guitar, influencing some pretty high-powered people along the way and entertaining literally millions of people. The BB King Treasures, which was released to coincide with his 80th birthday, traces his story from very humble beginnings in a Mississippi sharecroppers cabin, through his early love of music and apprenticeship with cousin Bukka White, to his early successes in Memphis radio. It then moves on to the many years of relentless touring and recording. While James Brown might’ve called himself the hardest working man in showbiz, BB just went out and did it, year after year. By the 1960s when British guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page brought the blues back to the United States, BB saw his popularity skyrocket because he WAS the blues and could kill them at The Fillmore playing to a bunch of hippies who were there to see Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. BB and Albert King (no relation but another very influential player) were both revered by white audiences and players alike and enjoyed tremendous success during the late 60s and early 70s.

Year after year BB kept taking his message of music to the people and eventually became a full-blow icon — I mean he’s had an audience with the Pope fer crying out loud. (Supposedly John Paul II played a little guitar himself and wanted BB to show him how to play The Thrill is Gone — but that might’ve been just a rumor). Aside from great writing, this book contains so many cool reproductions of mementos that trace BB’s career — posters, business cards, booking schedules, stickers…neato! There is also a CD that has BB talking about a whole lot of guitar stuff. He relates how he admired Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other players that he heard when he was growing up and how he tried to mimic the guitar bends, slides and chord patterns. He also recalls sitting next to cousin Bukka as he did his thing, but ultimately BB could never reproduce any of it like he heard it. (He illustrates what he’s talking about by singing and picking an acoustic guitar) Listening to the CD it’s obvious ALL of that blues is in BB, but he went and did his own thing with it, took it somewhere else. His vibrato is legendary and his great FEEL gives all of his guitar playing a very human voice — a powerful enough influence that Duane Allman learned all of BB’s licks note for note and John Lennon once said, “I wish I could play guitar like BB King”. John even name-drops BB King in his Dig It jam that showed up on Let It Be. Even after all of the success and world-wide acclaim BB is very humble and cognizant of how he is a part of this long thread of guitar and music and this book serves as a real celebration of all he has accomplished. The combination of the writing, BB’s input, the relaxed feel of the audio interviews and all of the cool little add-ons, give this package a very personal feel and because there is so much here, you can revisit repeatedly without exhausting your interest level.

Stochelo Rosenberg

While Stochelo doesn’t have BB King’s 60 years of history or name recognition, he has established himself as the premier emissary of gypsy jazz throughout the world. Coming from a Manouche gypsy background he is steeped in traditions that date back literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. Stochelo’s book is a great family album, put together with help from Harry Klunder and guitar maker extraordinaire Leo Eimers.

Of course the shadow and presence of the awesome Django Reinhardt is always with Stochelo and all of those who play gypsy jazz. Django was the first world-wide hero of the Manouche community and founded a school and style of music that enjoys great popularity today. The success of Stochelo, his incredible guitar abilities and the wonderful music he and the trio have created has been a very important part of WHY there are so many people listening to and playing the music today. But they always acknowledge and give homage to the master and there is a section in the book devoted to Django. In addition to being a great musician, Django dabbled in painting and favored the female form as subject matter. (Who can blame him!) There are some samples in the book and this is the first time I’ve seen nice reproductions of his work. For over 20 years The Rosenberg Trio has been releasing beautiful discs and completely flooring everyone with their live performances. In addition to Stochelo, the trio features Nou’she, his cousin, one of THE preeminent gypsy rhythm guitarists in the world today and his other cousin, Nonnie an awesome bass player. Because they are all related and have been playing together for so long, TIGHT doesn’t even begin to describe how well they work together. Metal shredders, tube screamers, fingerpickers and technique geeks take notice. The Rosenberg Trio are amazing!

This book is hard to find and maybe impossible to buy now…I don’t know. There were a limited number of copies made. I have # 57. [edit message from co-author Harry Klunder: Hello, for Your information, the book is still on stock, however not so many. Let me know if you are interested, there are about 750 ex. left and they will be presented on the market again next year.Harry Klunder] It comes with one of Stochelo’s guitar picks embedded in the inside front cover, tabs of original music he wrote just for the book, a really insightful interview on his playing technique and equipment preferences and HISTORY. It’s a great presentation of Stochelo’s family and Manouche culture. The Rosenberg Trio was shaped and is sustained by their roots and there are lots of great stories and fantastic pics of family, friends and associates. While Django looms large as Stochelo’s main influence, there were others, much closer to home like his legendary uncle Wasso Grunholz and the well-known and terrifically awesome Fapy Lafertin. There is also a section on Leo Eimers, the guy who makes some of the best Selmer style guitars in the world. It’s obvious Stochelo had a lot to do with the creation of this book because all of the highlights of his life — playing with Stephane Grappelli, success with the Rosenberg Trio and carrying on the proud tradition of Django Reinhardt are contained within. He is also a devoted father and husband and, like BB, just comes across as a real humble, down-to-earth guy, GUITAR GOD, though he may be.

What’s really great about all four of the books I’ve profiled so far is that authors and producers really did a swell job. There isn’t any expense spared to get the story right and make even the tiniest details available to the audience (which I gotta figure includes many guitar players). Anyone in the publishing world will tell you that CONTENT IS KING and what makes these books enjoyable is that at the most basic level, they are great stories told by great communicators about great communicators. All of the extras serve to augment what is already an enjoyable experience for the reader. While I am a great fan and daily participant in the digital publishing landscape, there is always room for printed material, especially 5-star efforts that create an experience that is unique and informative. Both of these books certainly do that and a whole lot more!

Cab City Combo

“We’re a Novelty Band!”

The most offbeat and longest-running musical project of my career(!) was with the New York Novelty Rock band, Cab City Combo. Although we’ve never actually broken up, it’s been years since anything new has been recorded and released. The Combo was the brainchild of Paul Rubin and over the years many friends and acquaintances played sessions with the band. The project was strictly a recording affair; no gigs were ever played and for that reason I always looked at the group (especially in the early days) as if it were The Beatles during the Magical Mystery Tour period. Cab City didn’t have to concern itself with the limitations of the stage and was therefore able to use people, instruments, noises, and studio tricks that worked as a one-off in the studio, but would’ve been hard to reproduce live. Unlike many of my other musical projects I was restrained by a guy functioning as the producer of his own music so I had to come up with cool little parts and riffs (if they weren’t already part of the song) and function as part of an ensemble. It was a continuously fun and interesting challenge and I’m ALL about the challenge! It also afforded more trips to the recording studio and I’ve have always LOVED being in the studio. I can’t remember ever having a bad time recording back in those days. We were lucky because we worked with 3 very sympathetic engineers over the span of our career: Jim Fourniadis, Greg Talenfeld, and Gary Knox. They always went the extra mile to indulge Paul’s whims and offered invaluable assistance to get the production to really POP. It certainly helped that they are all boss musicians in addition to being studio wizards. Jim was actually a member of the Combo for the first couple of sessions.

Cab City Combo's Cabbie Road CD

When I was a kid,  The Dr. Demento show was on the radio every Sunday night and for 2-3 hours he would play a dazzling assortment of weird and funny stuff. (Kind of sounds like 1930s but we’re talking early 70s) I used to do homework while well-known, goofy gems like They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Transfusion, Lil Red Riding Hood and Shaving Cream, the song that won many of the top 10 countdowns on the show in those days, played in the background. I think the family bought 1 or 2 KTEL novelty compilations but I don’t remember them getting a lot of attention. Not only was I also discovering rock and roll and more interested in that, but there was something cool about hearing the funny stuff in the context of a radio format. The songs seemed to lose some of their zip on an LP because I knew what was coming. I didn’t think about the whole concept of Novelty again until the early 90s when I was asked by friends if I wanted to play guitar in the Cab City project. I didn’t know Paul at that point, but we did the first session and it was a whole lot of fun. Since Paul was doing Novelty Rock I didn’t think of it as a huge departure from what any of us were playing anyhow and historically this has always been true.  Sam the Sham and the Pharohs are considered by many to be a fine rock n’ roll band as are a host of other bands who recorded songs that are considered novelty-esque,  like The Champs with Tequila and The Kingsmen with Louie Louie. Cab City was kind of carrying on in the same tradition, but Paul’s influences included people like Martin Mull, The Bonzo Dog Band, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin and other twisted luminaries from the 1970s, while Cab City was always a Novelty Project, that definition could be pretty broad at times. Even though the line-up changed for the next session a year or two later, I stayed on and kept doing it…for eleven years. Paul and I had a pretty good working relationship and as time went on our approach to the project changed to something more like Tommy Tedesco or The Wrecking Crew because Rotgutter, the power trio band I was in at the time, became the core of Cab City. As a band we were already super-tight and that allowed all of the Combo recordings to proceed very quickly and smoothly. Dr. Demento actually played the Combo on his show a few times and Paul had a map going on how many people in how many of the US states bought the CDs. While Cab City was never a threat to Weird Al‘s popularity, it was a nice little project and over the years I was able to put down some really cool and varied guitar on a wide range of music. The sessions were totally fun and part of an era that is rapidly disappearing. Today musicians can avoid recording studios and put their music together on laptops and hardly anyone works with tape. Most of the studios we recorded in over the years are gone now, but it was always an education and a blast to be in that environment putting a project together with like-minded people and friends.

The Combo did get some love over the years, including a nice letter and encouragement from Jello Biafra, punk icon and leader of the Dead Kennedys. Because there was always a veneer of punk rock music and sensibilities in Cab City I was convinced that Paul had aspirations to be a punk rock star! Because most of the musicians in the Combo were capable and comfortable doing that and because punk rock is usually humorously irreverent, the combination worked and it appealed to fans of both styles of music. Even when the music didn’t sound like punk, there was usually a twisted, misanthropic attitude to the lyrics that sounded like PUNK ROCK or NEW YORK. The SUV Song is a good example — musically it’s such a pleasant-sounding song and I was going for a very Caribbean guitar thing. Lyrically it was a different story and that juxtaposition and the sing-a-long chorus made it one of the Combo’s more accessible numbers. Two kids in England liked it so much they made a video for the song.

Some of my other favorite Cab City tracks in the above player illustrate the range of different styles involved in the band and what I did guitar-wise. Paul wasn’t a taskmaster by any stretch of the imagination; he actually let the band have quite a bit of room to come up with their own stuff. But he did have certain ideas about what he wanted and didn’t like. This kind of relationship was good for me as it always forced me to focus and try to see outside my own musical parameters. All of the musicians involved had played with each other in some capacity or knew each other so that made it easy to get the music together and record it quickly. Songs like Monkey King, High Entropy and Insulin were pretty close to being POP numbers. Monkey King always felt like a Broadway show tune meets the aforementioned Beatles Magical Mystery Tour-era to me, I don’t know why. Insulin has a phased kind of George Harrison/Eric Clapton “Badge” era thing going on and I do remember Paul having a lot of input into how that solo sounded. What’s funny is that although I was playing through an MXR Phase 90, I didn’t have it turned on, but it sounds like it was. I’m also playing a Rickenbacker 6-string for the strumming part, which is the only time I’ve ever used a Rickenbacker guitar in my life. I’ve never owned one and the one I used (which was really boss!) belonged to the guy who owned the studio. After You Alphonse, which is the comedy gag of more than 1 person trying to get through the door simultaneously, is probably Cab City’s most obvious punk number. Less than a minute long, the guitar approach is: Just PLAY FAST. High Entropy reminds me of Chris Spedding and the couple of years of hanging out with him certainly influenced the cool, laid back riffing on this song, which was sung by Marti J. Cooney, a lady who contributed many fine vocalizations to the Combo over the years. So did Laurie Kilmartin and Maddie Horstman, who does the lead vocals on the next song, Santa Klutz, which was typical of the goofy fun we had making these songs. 4 of us huffed helium out of balloons to make the elf voices and I can still remember us standing around the mic trying to get it right without making each other crack up. Same was true of Lake Pennsylvania, which was a real biatch to record, especially THE SINGING NIXONS vocal parts. The music was real easy and there was also a steel drum added by Jamila Cowie. Cab City usually had special guests come in and contribute and they always performed well. Banned by the Man was surely one of the finest guitar moments of my Novelty career. I took Jimmy Page’s DADGAD tuning and used it on an acoustic and couple of electrics to create an Indo/Persian feel for Paul’s rant on copyright laws. Since The Beatles figure heavily in the rant, I felt that the almost sitar-esque quality of the music worked well. I forget if we planned that or not. I also played bass on the track and used an Echoplex to get the delay/echo effect. Later on I developed this piece further and I think it will show up in it’s entirety on this blog someday. If you wish you can download other CAB CITY stuff HERE.

Cab City Combo released two full-length CDs; compilations of all of the sessions we did over the years and they are STILL FOR SALE! It’s interesting how during the band’s career and since it was shelved, so much of the music business and New York City has changed. In that way listening to these songs for me is a snapshot of a special time in my life. I’m not a fan of any modern novelty music and probably never will be and the fact that I wasn’t a fan even when we were recording allowed me the freedom to just come up with ideas that would fit the songs and vision Paul was trying to put across. All of the other people involved in the core band over the years were total pros, and many are still involved in the music business in some capacity. My first attempt at a jazz song occurred with the Combo and it’s kind of funny that is where I am now — playing music that I originally did as a parody for a Novelty band. The Combo’s parody stuff was really brilliant and someday maybe it will find it’s way on here. If you want to know why it isn’t, listen to Banned By the Man. Perhaps the Combo will do another session in the future, but even if it doesn’t, there is a bunch of great stuff I was happy to be a part of and am pleasantly surprised when I hear it now. I’m not one of those people who dwells on the past or listens to all the music I’ve done on a regular basis, but every once it awhile it’s a nice trip down memory lane and a way of measuring where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.