Some Sound Advice

Just finished reading a book that was a Christmas present from my girlfriend. It’s called There, I said it – Bob Dylan is overrated. She knows the author/editor (Joshua Shelov), I forget how. Maybe she knows somebody who knows him.

Anyway, for me, the book concept gets an A. The execution, maybe a C. It’s some disappointingly short essays by different intelligent folks (some ESPN people, film people, actual professional musicians, etc.) each taking a personal crack at an untouchable artist.

The Dylan essay is good (by the author/editor, presumably where the entire project began). I like the Steely Dan essay. I think the Stevie Wonder essay is well done.

On the contrary, the Beatles essay never gives any kind of concrete reason whatsoever for not liking The Beatles. The Billy Joel author’s essay proves to me that the guy knows way too much about Billy Joel’s music to hate it. (Plus, he tries way too hard to be funny, as do some others.)

Frankly, I think the four founding Remnants would do a much better job producing the same book.

Go buy it if you’re intrigued. My girlfriend would be happy you supported Joshua Shelov. It’s certainly a quick and easy read.

Within the book, there’s mention of “a bit floating around the internet, with Dave Grohl railing against American Idol, how it’s destroying music, and so on.” As sad as I think it is (in more ways than one) that Dave Grohl seems to be the only official spokesman for rock ‘n’ roll anymore, I had to find it.

This is the best match I could find. Perhaps you’ve seen this a million times already; I had not. Although I wish it were nastier and more direct, as a guy who certainly believes the popular music of today is firmly in the shitter, it speaks much truth.

LINK: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Became White

screenshot-2016-10-06-11-47-38The rock writer Jack Hamilton is publishing a book called Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. It’s an academic work, but a part of it is excerpted at Slate today and it’s well worth the slow start and long read.

Hamilton’s thesis is that the Stones were so adept at embracing and mirroring the black music they loved, that they eventually came to represent a new white authenticity that was embraced by white blues and metal bands that knew little or nothing about the Stones’ roots.

You can read the excerpt here.

I’m not sure what this means in the book’s larger picture, it is an excerpt of course, but without looking at the argument’s validity as regards the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll, this little slice of story feels kind of genuine. Like, yeah, that may be true, though he have maybe set up something of a straw man argument, too. Still feels like useful analysis.

But Hamilton draws in a lot of historical sources to tell this story, and it’s fascinating to read quotes in the black newspapers of 1964 praising the Stones, while the mainstream white press rips them down. And his description of the musical opening of Gimme Shelter is exact and thrilling, like the music itself.

It’s curious that the Margo Jefferson quote from earlier in the piece comes from 1973, which was also a germination point for Death, who we posted about here last week. It’s possible that this book will shed some light on the way rock ‘n’ roll evolved musically and as a business in a racial context.

Then, if you have time, Chuck Klosterman tries to figure out who the one figure from rock ‘n’ roll will be remembered 100 years from now, the way we think of marching band music as John Phillips Sousa and ragtime as Scott Joplin.

Patti Smith, M Train and Radar Love

(click the image to go to the book’s Amazon page)

This is a lovely book, a meditation on creation and loss, a travelogue that takes us on pilgrimages around the world and through Patti Smith’s mind, and an oblique and moving portrait, in the shadows mostly, of Fred Sonic Smith, her mourned late husband.

I came to Smith sharing many of her enthusiasms. I read Burroughs and Ginsberg and Rimbaud in high school, and Sylvia Plath and Genet in college. I loved Jackson Pollock and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, too, before I encountered Smith, though perhaps not as much as Smith has. But I’m sure that’s the connection I made when I heard Horses for the first time, in a book/record store in San Francisco. It was so moving and the sense of this thing happening in New York back then so strong, that I immediately began plotting a way back east.

Which is to say, this book is written for me. It isn’t a music book, barely qualifies as autobiography in more than the sketchiest way. It has lots of funny details, many about cups of coffee, and floats many helpful ideas about connection and community and personal commitment to art, to people, to neighbors, that should resonate for any reader who wades in. But these thoughts come in a poetic, digressive way, the result of a series of trips she makes, not chronologically, to maintain her connections with her spirits around the world.

Fred Sonic Smith, Patti Smith tells us, was a baseball fan. He’d been scouted by his beloved Tigers as a shortstop. “He had a great arm,” she says, “but chose to use it as a guitarist, yet his love for the game never diminished.”

She and Fred bought a decrepit boat with the intent to fix it up, Fred loved boats, and they would sit on it listening to the Tigers games, she with a thermos of coffee, he with a six pack of Budweiser. If there was a rain delay, she notes, they would listen to Coltrane, but if the game were rained out they would switch to Beethoven. Huh?

Baseball writing is not Patti Smith’s forte and the sequence ends with her misspelling Denny McLain’s name, but all credit to her for trying.

There is a great scene in which, because she’s in Reykjavik, she arranges to photograph the chess table used during the 1972 Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky match. She then receives a call from Fischer’s bodyguard on Fischer’s behalf. He would like to meet at midnight. At first they spar, he insults her, she insults him back, but by they end they’re drunk and singing Buddy Holly songs together like old comrades. (I almost spelled Fischer’s name wrong.)

There’s a lovely scene I wanted to quote in whole, just because it gives such a good sense of this book’s charms, but apparently I didn’t dogear the page and I can’t find it. The scene is simple. The Smiths go on holiday, maybe to the Upper Peninsula, and stay in a cabin. In the cabin they find a record player, open the lid and there is a record on the turntable. It is the only record they have, so they spend their holiday playing a whole lotta Radar Love. Must have been the offseason.



Radio Radio

I was at dinner with some friends the other night, when talk turned to Elvis Costello’s new book, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. Many people there that night claimed fandom, but I think I won with my story of being at the first show at the Bottom Line, standing on our chairs so we could look over the fucking piano, and telling the bouncers to go to hell, since we didn’t want to look in the stupid mirror they had for those of us in our blocked seats.

I also told the story of hanging at the bar with Joey Ramone, talking about just how sucky the Tuff Darts (opening act) were.

But then I told the story of seeing Costello and the Attractions on Saturday Night Live, and I got the whole story totally wrong. In my head, the label wanted Elvis to play Allison, and he instead played Radio Radio.

But the clips are clear. He was scheduled to play Less Than Zero, a track about British fascist Oswald Mosely, and who could know it would later become a Bret Easton Ellis post teen drug romp novel and movie, but played instead the insolent and immature but uberly catchy Radio Radio.

For this, Lorne Michaels or NBC, I’m not sure which, banned Costello from NBC shows. Wow.

But on the 25th anniversary of SNL, Costello was back, recreating the moment (equally awkwardly) and played Radio Radio with the Beastie Boys. It’s cool, and I think shows just how tight the Attractions were.

The Song Machine. An early review.

A friend, John Seabrook, has written a book about modern pop songs, called The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. This is a subject that screws up the faces of Rock Remnants writers and followers, or at least most of us, who think that the pop music game is simply awful.

But most of us love the pop music of our youth, at least some of it, which came in a variety of styles. The best argument against modern pop music is that it isn’t really rock, which is pretty much always true. But there is no denying that modern pop music is pop. This is the music that generates all the music industry’s profits these days.

I haven’t read John’s book yet, but an influential music industry commentator, definitely an old guy, wrote a review of it today in his newsletter. He points out some flaws, but he also nails the bit about the generational divide (not that we didn’t know that already). It is the youth who decide what qualifies as important in pop music, which is why I felt kind of flattered that I Love It was a hit last year. It sort of sounded like something I would like.

Here is what John posted on Facebook today.

Lefsetz, for those not in the music business, is the premier analyst in the industry. His newsletter truly is a must reading. Getting reviewed by him is a scrotum-tightening prospect. It happened this morning. And while it’s not all good (the “boob label” – ouch) I’ll take it. “The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory”:

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

You will find the content of this book so offensive you will stop blaming Spotify for the death of music.

Not that it’s that good.

John Seabrook is a writer for the “New Yorker.” He specializes in covering what those in the industry already know. Which is the problem with this tome. If you work in the hit industry, you won’t learn a thing. If you’ve been paying attention to music for the past fifteen years except for the hits, you’ll keep nodding your head saying “I know that.” But the truth is we live in a bifurcated land where those playing by the old rules lose and those playing by the new take all the marbles. And the old people and those following in their footsteps don’t like it.

All the money’s in pop music. In a world of chaos, where there are more tracks than anybody can know, never mind listen to, we gravitate to that which has been anointed. Oh, not you, never you, you know better, you know what’s good, who has talent… My inbox is filled with the self-satisfied self-congratulating. As if anybody cared what they had to say. The old bands have been touring so long there’s no need to see them, they haven’t had a hit in decades and even the nostalgia is wearing thin. Yes, classic rockers and those who followed them set the world on fire, but as they say…what have you done for me lately?

Not much.

Everybody lionizes the Beatles, with their melodic tunes you could sing along to.

And then there are the classic rockers, from Hendrix to Clapton to Zeppelin with a dose of west coast thrown in for good measure. They were virtuosos testing limits who took us on adventures, they set our minds free, we stayed up all night listening to their albums, we went to the show to get closer, and we haven’t had that spirit here since 1999. Sure, songs might rule in country, where they play guitars, never underestimate the audience for that music, even as you pooh-pooh it, but in pop…

Gargantuan stars were built by MTV. But the whole world was watching and by time the door closed on the boy bands, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, sales were dropping, money was missing and everybody with a computer was making music.

And out of this came…

Max Martin and Dr. Luke. The producer was king. Songs written by committee have ruled. And John Seabrook does an excellent job of telling you how these records are made, and you’ll be horrified.

Despite all the money in Rihanna and Katy Perry, no one’s bothered to explain the nougat at the center of their candy-coated productions. We’re inundated with info on their success, who they’re dating, how much money they’re making, but what’s at the core…nada.

Until now.

The book starts off with the story of Max Martin. Which begins with his mentor Denniz PoP. I wish Seabrook went deeper, talked about Karl Martin Sandberg’s, i.e. Max Martin’s, music school roots, how he became so proficient in music. But we do learn the story of Ace of Base. But from there we jump to the story of Lou Pearlman and his charges and too much of this is repeats. Those paying attention know all of it. There are a few details, but also a few mistakes… Like ‘N Sync recorded for Areola? A boob of a label? No, that’s “Ariola.” And it’s Andy Schuon, not Schoun. And most people won’t care, but those who do have a hard time taking a book seriously when there are such basic mistakes. Has anybody ever heard of Google? Or has proofreading gone out the window?

But then Max Martin gets cold, and the story truly begins. He hooks up with Dr. Luke, an arrogant prick who knows how the world works. Max asks if he can rent Luke’s studio…Luke says you can work FREE! Being talented is at most fifty percent of success, knowing how to navigate people…it’s the other fifty.

And they concoct “Since U Been Gone.”

But then comes a detour into Clive Davis, who is lionized, as if only Clive knows a hit. You know all this too.

But then comes the story of Rihanna.

And the creation of the track and hook formula.

No, they don’t write the songs the way they used to. Some make the beats and others create the topline and Seabrook does a great job of delineating how this works. If only he threw out the retread info, he’s so busy writing a survey of the past couple of decades that the good info is nearly drowned out. And the section on K-Pop is nearly superfluous. But when it comes to creating “Umbrella”…

They don’t sit in studios with guitars and pianos, writing melodies and lyrics together. At best, they do that in Nashville. Rather producers come up with beats and then they have their favorite topliners create melodies and hooks on top. And if there aren’t enough hooks in the track, they start all over. They’re in the business of hit singles, not album dreck. And they know one hook is not enough, that you’ve got to grab the public instantly and continue to thrill them.

And this formula is working.

I’m not judging it, just telling you how it is.

Could change… But this is how our biggest star, Taylor Swift, creates her music. She’s tied up with Max Martin. And so is this summer’s phenom the Weeknd. And Miley Cyrus’s hits were written by the usual suspects. And there are more players than Max and Luke, but they’re all similar, they’re men behind the curtain who create the formula, no different from junk food, that’s right, Frito-Lay adds unnatural flavorings to keep you addicted, and so do these producers.

So what we’ve got is a generation gap so wide that the boomers and even the Gen-X’ers can’t see across it. They keep clamoring for a return to what once was the same way Justin Timberlake begged for music videos to return to MTV. Music videos are now an on demand item on YouTube, and if melody and albums and all the rest of what once was comes back it will be different, and certainly made by a younger generation free from the past that understands today’s world.

This is where we are. The youngsters drive music consumption. The reason those making oldster music can’t make money on Spotify is because their audience doesn’t have time to listen. But the youngsters…they’ve got music on all the time. But we keep crapping on their music. The truth is, they’ve tuned us out. And they’re not looking for what we once had. To them, music is purely sauce, constant background noise or dance fodder…it ain’t gonna change the world, that’s for tech.

Who are Benny Blanco and Ester Dean? Are you familiar with the canon of Tricky Stewart? Believe me, he’s much more important culturally and financially than Keith Richards, whose album is sinking like a stone, despite all the fawning press. How about Stargate? And Sturken and Rogers? All the people truly driving popular culture are in this book. That’s why you should read it. And that’s why you’re gonna hate it. This is music? This is what we’ve come to?


People want to make money. These producers have gone where the money is. The labels are following them. Songs are written in camps. And we’re so far from the garden Joni Mitchell is incapable of writing a song about it.

We’ve got all this info on legal, Don Passman writes an excellent book. People know how not to get ripped-off. But they don’t know how to succeed, because they don’t know how the game is played. Because those involved are too busy making money to slow down and tell a press that doesn’t care.

Credit Seabrook for caring. He was curious as to the genesis of his son’s musical favorites.

I just wish he’d gone deeper.

Read this. It’s not out for a couple of weeks. But make a note, pre-order it. And at times your eyes will be rolling in the back of your head as what you already know is repeated simplistically. But then comes the meat…

As for those profiled in the book…they’re too busy trying to make hits to worry about inaccurate portrayals. Because the truth is songwriting and producing are evanescent careers. As my famous friend says – put Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon in a room for a month and tell them if they write a hit we’ll have world peace…and they won’t be able to do it. You lose the pulse, your instincts are untrustworthy, you just don’t want it bad enough.

But these cats do.

And Max Martin has a career longer than the legends.

Which is why you must pay attention. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” may be pablum, but it’s better than any rock ballad since. And “Since U Been Gone” is probably the best rock record of this century. And you may not know the rest of the hits in this book, but what the men don’t know, the little girls understand.

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Grape Ape: Wake Up Website

The Unband were a flash in the pan, leaving behind just one album and a most excellent, non-typical rock book Gentlemanly Repose: Confessions Of A Debauched Rock ‘n’ Roller. Their album is a gem, though somewhat inconsistent. If everything was as great as the great stuff, it would be top 50 material (it may have even made my top 50 – I don’t remember). I posted their fine cover of Billy Squier’s Everybody Wants You a long time ago.

This video rocks like hell and explores several abstract themes, none of which make a lick of sense to me.

Monkeys are funny.

Kim Gordon: Touring With Your Ex

Screenshot 2015-02-24 15.25.43Kim Gordon was Sonic Youth’s bass player for 30 years, until she and husband Thurston Moore split up. Moore, 52, had found another woman. Gordon has now written a memoir, Girl in a Band: A Memoir,
and this excerpt is a description of the band’s last show at a festival in Brazil. It’s a weird and naked document, with a side-eyed look at the rock ‘n’ roll life that feels very real and unfiltered.

The first tune they played that night was an oldie. Let it be your soundtrack.

Lunch Break: Come Together

Screenshot 2015-02-12 12.57.35Here’s a post about Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Beatles. Come Together is an excerpt from Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three, Boyhood.

It is the story of a first love, sort of, and gives a good idea of the flavor of these books.

The Beatles song that’s quoted in the story and gives it its name is one of my favorites from the band’s later period.

The recording is the studio version, even though it is cut to live visuals.

The story ends citing a tune called No Way Back (Ingen Vei Tilbake) by the Norwegian band, The Aller Værste. Here’s a live version of the song, from 1980, which is about the time when the story takes place. You can listen (and sing) along when you get to that part.

Can’t Help It

More former Dil Tony Kinman from the really good read Left Of The Dial:

“I would not compare the Ramones album to what I consider the single greatest moment of rock ‘n roll history. It’s in Little Richard’s recording of Lucille. Little Richard is screaming so loud that he overdrives his mic. On the hit version, there’s actually distortion recorded on that. I don’t care if you are even recording for a shitty indie punk rock label. Punk rockers would not let that happen, nowadays. That was a major hit song by a major hit performer of the time. I am speechless just thinking about it. To me, that is the single greatest moment because of what it is, which is incredible, how it sounds is great, and because of the context. He’s overdriving the mic, but the way things were back then was, ‘C’mon Richard, that sounds good enough. We’re done here. Let’s go, man, I’m thirsty, or whatever, or we better get to the gig.’ The era, the primitive rock era and the way those guys worked back then. . .And to this day, that song still has more truly astonishing passion and emotion in it, real terrible energy in it, than anything that has come since.”

I can’t hear distortion in this, but I think I know what he means. Maybe it’s shitty youtube or something. I especially like watching the drummer here. He amuses me:

Then, it occurred to me that Little Richard reminded me a lot of a character out of my childhood. Cesar Romero’s Joker (always will be my favorite Joker). The wild eyes, the hair, the maniacal smile. If Romero’s Joker wasn’t at least partially influenced by Little Richard, it’s a helluva coincidence. Even the moustache (which I always loved that Romero kept even under the Joker makeup).