Yoko Ono

Christmas Time is Here — Part II

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Here is Part 1 of this series.

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Pete Townshend and The Who

If I had a time machine, I would dial in the late 60s Fillmore East: Jimi Hendrix, early Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Miles Davis, early Allman Brothers and The Who with Keith Moon, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey and nutcase extraordinaire Pete Townshend, the true Godfather of Punk; decked out in his boiler suit, big boots and slinging a cherry red Gibson SG. While The Who was never my favorite band and I did see them in the 80s, in the late 60s/early 70s, with Keith Moon still alive, they were easily one of the most kinetic and explosive concert acts in the world. Youtube clips from the 1970 “Tanglewood” show have the band at the top of their game:

When I say the band was never my favorite, it’s mostly because I always found a lot of their songs really hard to relate to, especially growing up. The early single hits were easy enough and the band always rocked, but some of their best moments were really off the wall. Take A Quick One, the mini opera that completely kills at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. The performance is so good that they completely own the Stones, but the whole thing is just so weird to listen to that it’s hard to imagine a testosterone-charged teen looking to rock would want to throw it on when the urge struck. But the clip shows what The Who always had — smart arrangements and writing and an absolutely blistering live execution of their material…and they are funny. You can’t watch a clip with Keith Moon in it and not be entertained…that is flat-out impossible. This isn’t the best visual quality clip, but get The Kids are Alright or The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus DVD to enjoy a spectacular performance.

Keith Richards once said about Keith Moon…that (paraphrase) “he didn’t know a tin pot from a paradiddle, but he could play with Townshend.” This fact appears in many places in rock literature — Keith Moon was the Chico Marx of rock drumming; an amazingly instinctive player who never practiced, didn’t know what he was doing half the time, and played in a manner with certain techniques (like his double-kick) that defy convention and common sense. As the band evolved it’s interesting to wonder what kind of effect Moon had on Pete’s guitar style, because it’s not like you could be in a group with a guy like Moon and not be affected.

If you compare Townshend to Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page with the extreme left representing the player’s rhythm to lead ratio and the extreme right representing the player’s lead to rhythm ratio, Pete and Jimi are squarely in the middle. Both players integrated chords and fills into their playing much more than Page, who played more single-string riffs and long solos, or Richards (at the opposite end) who played more chord based riffs. This isn’t to suggest that Richards never played lead or Page never played rhythm — Page began using more chord-based riffs as Led Zeppelin’s career progressed and Hendrix started to change his style as his “songs” developed into “jams” later in his career. But Townshend’s style as we know it, is a complete integration of lead and rhythm guitar; he segues from a chord, to a few notes, to some more chords, to a feedback squeal to a loud BOMM on the low E string all in a few measures. He became the master of the rhythm slash and power chord, augmented and accentuated by these “bits” of counter-melodies or noise played on the high strings or single strings. One reason why Pete (and Jimi to a certain extent) differ is that he didn’t come from a blues-based approach growing up, but loved the RnB style of Booker T and the MGs and guitarist Steve Cropper. (Before he hit it big Hendrix put in a fair amount of time on America’s Chittlin’ Circuit playing in RnB bands). In the early days, The Who were known for their MAXIMUM RnB, which meant less solos and more fills, but Towshend’s highly charged, aggressive live approach to guitar and having Moon as the drummer put all of the dance rhythms of RnB on steroids. This is the main reason I think he is the Godfather of Punk as a lot of players in that genre were obviously heavily influenced by him and by the band’s approach to a group sound that minimized individual soloing. This is Keith Richard’s point in the quote above — Townshend and Moon were perfectly suited to playing with each other just as Hendrix/Mitchell, Page/Bonham, Richards/Watts were good combinations. Try to imagine changing those dual combos around and whether that would even work.Townshend/Watts? Richards/Bonham? Kind of hard to imagine. Then factor in how John Entwistle’s bass lines worked within what Townshend and Moon were doing. Together they produced a very busy and explosive sound and that sound defines The Who, at least through the late 1970s.

While some of Pete’s aggression can be written off to his style and personality, part of his artistic background included being influenced by Gustav Metzger, artist and political activist who “pioneered” the concept of creative destruction and auto-destruction in the early 1960s. Metzger would influence other artists and musicians including Cream and Yoko Ono. In the early days The Who were very Pop Art and Townshend certainly was conscious of all of the various things happening in the art world at the time. Yoko Ono has taken a lot of heat over the years as a “singer”, but if one considers what she is doing or some of what she is doing in the same vein, the whole point is not to sing in the standard or beautiful way. Here, let’s look at the following equation:

{\Begin AutoDestruction}
Yoko singing (sometimes) = Pete smashing guitar
{End AutoDestruction/}

See how it all begins to make sense? At the (Yoko) link above Townshend describes being aware of Ono because of his association with Metzger, and describes what she was doing as “insane” but in an admiring way, so I’m not just trying to be funny with the above equation. Townshend was never just a ROCK AND ROLL DUDE!! kind of guy and he didn’t just break things. He was using feedback before Jimi Hendrix came on the scene, combined slashing chords, single note runs, picked arpeggios and extreme volume to bring the sound of violence and destruction to the musical form. Of course, for the actual violence he had a very willing partner in Keith Moon, who absolutely loved breaking things and blowing them up. While some of this was showbiz and some of it was lunacy, the ideas behind it descended from a bona-fide and controversial art movement in the same way that Jim Morrison (and later Iggy Pop (perhaps)) used influences like New York City’s The Living Theater to perform in a way that shocked and moved an audience out of its complacency. It has long been alleged that this is what Morrison (who had been incorporating similar ideas in his performance from the beginning) was trying to pull of in Miami 1969 when he was arrested for indecent exposure and inciting a riot. Below is the entire clip from The Smothers Brothers Show in 1967 when The Who brought auto-destruct to prime-time television. Unbeknownst to anyone else Moon had loaded his bass drum with serious pyrotechnics. Townshend has long maintained his problems with Tinnitus began in the wake of this explosion.

Pete expanded on A Quick One in 1969 with the first full-blown rock opera, Tommy, which was quite an ambitious undertaking at the time. While it has attained legendary status over the years, it certainly wasn’t embraced by everyone when it was first released. Given the nature of the story and some of the themes that appear (infidelity, murder, child abuse, sexual abuse) it really isn’t any wonder that some found it excessively vulgar, exploitative, and casual in its approach to such heavy subjects (boy gets sexually abused by his uncle, plays pinball). But Townshend had a history of bringing taboo subjects into the popular music form (I’m a Boy, Pictures of Lily, My Generation, A Quick One) all done with a British style of humor and eccentricity and Tommy represented a supreme coalescing statement of everything the band had done up to that point and certainly qualifies as a real artistic achievement. What really makes it work is how much of opera revolves around Townshend’s guitar work in a very rhythmic sense. There was no departure from what he and the band were already doing and many of the songs (Pinball Wizard, Amazing Journey, Sparks, Acid Queen, Christmas, We’re Not Gonna Take It and I’m Free) stand on their own as great guitar-driven rock songs. This period of the band, which included performances at Woodstock and Isle of Wight saw them getting the solid recognition they had been working for throughout the 60s and this ranks as my favorite period of their career. Their rave up of Young Man’s Blues from Isle of Wight is as good as rock and roll gets and illustrates perfectly everything I’ve tried to describe about Pete’s guitar style.

The Kids are AlrightWhile The Who started to lose me a bit around the Quadrophenia years, there were still some good songs on the record and throughout the rest of the 70s, at least until Keith Moon passed away. After that they were a completely different band in the same way that LED ZEPPELIN ended with John Bonham’s death. Pete has had a pretty successful solo career in addition to continuing on with Who projects over the years and he is one of the most influential guitarists in rock music. His use of acoustic guitars over the years has really piqued my interest lately — he definitely uses acoustics like Richards/Page to 1) layer nice textures onto a track, 2) provide nice contrasting parts within the song, 3) fill out what is an otherwise “electric” song with an acoustic mixed low to beef up the sound and, 4) in some cases using all acoustics to give the song a really huge, percussive sound. A really close listen of Tommy demonstrates all four of these methods and Pete (like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards) was always a master writer/producer as much as he was a great guitar player. With this in mind I’ll end this with a great solo version of Drowned from The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979. Notice that Pete’s technique is the same whether he is playing acoustic or electric. Like many other great guitar players (Django, Stevie Ray, Jimi etc, etc) he has always played guitar as if his very existence depends on it and that is an attitude and mental state every guitarist should aim for every time the instrument is picked up. The real beauty with all of these players, Pete included, is how they are able to channel the energy, need to play and aggression into something that is stylish and ultimately…artistic!

The Kids are Alright, Isle of Wight and The Rock and Roll Circus are all really great. 4 stars! They are must-have’s in any serious rocker or guitarist library!