Friday, November 29, 2013

The Beginner's Guide to the Music of Frank Zappa: The Non-Definitive Version

Cover of "Apostrophe"
Cover of Apostrophe
by Ian T Robertson

So, whenever someone finds out that you play guitar, sing, record and produce music, etc etc, there is a question that follows shortly after that makes many artists retch with awkwardness.

"So, what kind of music is it?"

I gotta admit I am no different, partly because I sincerely struggle to define what I sound like and partly because that inner monologue of artistic individuality starts screaming at me.


But. I learnt that like it or not, you need an answer. And for the longest time, I answered that question like this - "I'm a bit like Frank Zappa, but without the chops."

Of course that often triggered even more confused looks. What I was trying to say was that the sense of humour and strangeness that infects Zappa's music also infected mine, but that the ridiculous level of musicianship it took to play most of his material was not reflected in my music.

I ended up coming up with the term "Strange Rock" as the descriptor for my music. That seemed to work more readily with most.

The mention of the name of Zappa in the context of a musical discussion with a normal human being elicits some recognition, but normally without any musical exposure.

Instead, you get "Ah yeah, he ate his own faeces on stage didn't he?" or "Didn't he name his daughter Moon Unit?" or "Didn't he run for President once?"

I'll let you all check Wikipedia for which of the above statements is true (and chuckle at my suggestion that Wikipedia is a source of truth).

Very occasionally, you come across someone who is truly interested in exploring the world of Zappa and his immense, eclectic musical output. So they ask the obvious question "What should I listen too first?" Ouch.

At last count including posthumous releases, there are 95 albums released either as Frank Zappa or Mothers Of Invention albums. Granted, there is some double up going on here with some live albums, edited live albums and reworked studio cuts.

But that is still a lot of work to sift through and make recommendations about. Add to that the stylistic and thematic differences in his work and you are definitely on the horns of a dilemma making recommendations.

So, let me see if I can do my best to help out here. Here is my official 'start here' list of ten Frank Zappa releases, aimed at getting you the best overview of his material.

1. Absolutely Free (1967)

To many, to suggest not starting with the landmark first album Freak Out is sacrilegious. But for mine, of the early Mothers Of Invention albums, Absolutely Free stands out as not only accessible but extraordinarily different. Plus - it has "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," a personal favourite.

When listening to this album, just keep remembering this is 1967 - prominent releases that year include Are You Experienced, Disraeli Gears and Fresh Cream, The Who Sell Out and The Doors.

I think it is fair to say that this album ups the ante on strange when compared to the other releases, classic as they are!

2. Were Only In It For The Money (1968)

Combine truly hummable little ditties, musique concrete, various vocal conversational elements edited to give the impression of a storyboard (albeit of a very strange story) and lots of vari-speed weirdness with a clever Beatles rip off on the cover art and you get this album. A true step forward from what came before, showing the boundaries were definitely going to be stretched.

3. Hot Rats (1969)

Frank gets his rock on. Showcasing riffs, guitar improvisation and melodies, you could say that this is a more traditional rock album from Zappa as his first after the 'original split' of the Mothers.

But the rhythmic interplay and use of melody and harmony, though they appear effortless at times, are anything but. This is possibly the first time Frank really displays that he is a serious guitarist. Serious. Guitarist.

4. The Grand Wazoo (1972)

I adore this album. An often overlooked work, this beautiful sounding release showcases Zappa's arrangement ability with a "big band" at his disposal. Gorgeously layered, brilliant melodies, inventive harmony and a rich timbre, this album is a delight and sticks in your head long after it is finished.

5. Apostrophe (1974)

Together with the album it is often spoken with in the same breath (Overnite Sensation, 1973) these albums were immensely important in bringing Zappa into the mainstream music consciousness, primarily due to 4 tracks detailing the adventures of a certain young eskimo named Nanook and a piece of advice regarding the danger of yellow snow. Whether you like the funny story or not, the musicianship on something like "St Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" is still gob smacking.

6. Lather (1996)

Whether you believe all you read or not, this 1996 release is apparently how Frank initially intended the work to appear. Instead, due to various record contract wrangles, they appeared at the time as various albums such as Sheik Yerbouti, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favourites and Studio Tan.

The collection as it appears in Lather is a better representation for mine. It is also the start of a period in Zappa's output that is controversial for some as they believe he gets lazy on the lyrical and thematic elements and relies on simple sex jokes. You be the judge.

7. Joe's Garage (1979)

I don't think this is cheating. I include all Acts of Joe's Garage here as a single piece. This collection suffers again from a lot of fan criticism that the music is getting simpler and the sex jokes and smut is getting more prominent. The right of reply - listen to how extraordinarily gorgeous "Watermelon In Easter Hay" and "Outside Now" are.

8. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers of Prevention (1985)

The 80's are a difficult period to distil the important albums out of. For me, The Mothers Of Prevention however fits the bill.

Classic early examples of Zappa at work with the Synclavier coupled with great montages of the senate hearings on music censorship that he was involved with make compelling listening if not instantly engaging.

There are other albums that sold more and had classic musicianship (You Are What You Is, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch and Man From Utopia come to mind) but this album is important.

9. Broadway The Hardway (1988)

The 1988 band, notorious for self-destructing in the middle of the tour, documented in all its glory on this release. A full, virtuosic big band tonality with amazing vocals packed with a very full element of humour.

Big, gorgeous melodies and harmonies to the fore, backed by a band that could turn on a dime. This is the tour that our mate Mike Keneally cut his teeth on, playing guitar/keyboards and impersonating Bob Dylan probably all at the same time. As you do.

10. The Yellow Shark (1993)

Gobsmackingly beautiful. Rich. Textured. Funny. This album is worth the price of admission alone to the Zappa world.

A glorious gift of orchestral wonder after what can only be described as some difficult earlier orchestral albums, The Yellow Shark documents what happens when a truly brilliant bunch of dedicated musicians immerse themselves in the world of a composer.

The footage of Zappa working with the Orchestra Ensemble through the rehearsal periods certainly indicate he was enjoying the process and the outcomes. You will too.

At the end of the day, your first Zappa album will make a mark on you of some kind. And there are definitely arguments for approaching this from a whole different mindset - like picking up any of the excellent You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore releases for a real live overview.

Pieced together with extraordinary attention to detail of course with parts seldom coming from the same performance.

What was my first Zappa album? Man From Utopia. And yes, it hurt to leave it out ("Dangerous Kitchen!" "Jazz Discharge Party Hats!" "Moggio!").

Did I miss out one of your favourites? Let me know here -

Odysseus' Dog are fine purveyors of Strange Rock. Ian T Robertson is the driving force behind their unique brand of Strange Rock, and is forever trying to live up to the strange mantle of a master like Frank Zappa. Hear more at

Free music, updates on the Dog's blog activity and more are readily found!

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

VIDEO: Sun Gazing

Remembering Jimi Hendrix’s 71th Birthday!

by Cherokee Billie:

Remembering Jimi Hendrix’s 71th Birthday! Click picture to read article.

November 27, 2013 marks Jimi Hendrix’s 71th birthday.

This man single-handedly changed music Forever.

It’s beyond me to even comprehend Jimi Hendrix at 71 years of age.

Out of all the famous performers that I have seen live only one stands out above them all and it is Jimi Hendrix.

I feel grateful that I lived In Los Angeles in the 60’s and was able to see this amazing man so many times in person. Perhaps no other rock-and-roll trailblazer has been as original or as influential in such a short span of time as Jimi Hendrix.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most daring and inventive virtuosos in rock history, Hendrix pioneered the electric guitar (he played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster upside-down and left-handed) as an electronic sound source capable of feedback, distortion, and a host of other effects that could be crafted into an articulate and fluid emotional vocabulary. Jimi literally made his guitar talk.

For a man who could not read music and played the guitar with his left hand he showed what talent and determination can do. They did not make guitars for left handed guitar players at that time and he just strung the guitar strings backwards so he could perform.

Although he was on the scene as a solo artist for less than five years, Jimi Hendrix is credited for having a profound effect on everyone from Miles Davis to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Eric Clapton has stated that after seeing Jimi Hendrix the first time he knew that he, Eric, didn’t hold a candle to the talent of Jimi. In the few short years that he obtained superstardom he has never been forgotten.

Jimi came from a background of a black American of African, European, Cherokee Indian and Mexican descent. An unsettled home environment made Jimi spend much of his early years staying with his grandmother, a full-blooded Cherokee, in Canada.

Jimi took care of his little brother with very little help from his father as his mother had passed away when he was only ten years old. At the age of seventeen he left and joined the army, where he served as a parachute jumper until he broke his ankle and was honorably discharged.

Aside from playing the guitar behind his head or with his teeth, Hendrix was renowned for setting his instrument on fire during his performances. The first time he set his guitar ablaze was on March 31, 1967, during a show at Finsbury Park in London.

That year also marked the release of his first single, “Hey Joe,” which went to #6 and lasted ten weeks on the U.K. charts.

It was followed in quick succession by “Purple Haze” (#3), “The Wind Cries Mary” and the trio’s ferocious debut album, “Are You Experienced?” which featured those tracks and the Hendrix staples “Foxy Lady” and “Manic Depression.”

Hendrix’s popularity in the United States was a bit slower in igniting, but “Are You Experienced?” finally broke through in a major way after a defining moment at the famed Monterey Pop Festival, in June of 1967, when the notoriously outlandish frontman created a sensation by coaxing flames from his Stratocaster during the band’s performance as a sacrifice for the audience.

Throughout the next year, Hendrix’s eclectic psychedelia reached a zenith with two albums, “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland” - the latter ranks as one of the greatest albums of the rock era.

He was recognized as the greatest guitarist when he was alive and one can only glimpse what might have been his future had he lived.

There’s no question that he would have advanced musically beyond what he had done previously. So much of the music performed today would not exist were it not for the groundwork that Jimi Hendrix laid for those that followed after him.

He perfected the use of the wha-wha pedal that alters the tone of guitars and to boost certain frequencies. Jimi’s wah-wah style utilized a percussive “wacka-wacka” effect by muting strings and moving the pedal at the same time. The first time this was ever done was on the song “Little Miss Lover.”

His connection to the audience was so powerful and you felt like every note he played was just for you. I always think of how he came out smiling and how he always exited the same way, smiling.

There were no fancy sound systems; yet, his music was so powerful he didn’t need what is used today to convey his music.

Orchestras have performed some of his songs and I often think how blown away Jimi would have been to have heard his songs done by famous orchestras. Perhaps he would have formed an orchestra himself. He certainly had the talent and the gift to do anything that he put his mind to.

Jimi never owned much of anything during his life as he traveled almost 50 weeks out of the year and what little free time he had he spent in the studio recording. He never was able to settle down into one place.

He called himself a “Highway Child” and that was certainly a good description of what his life was. He did not leave a will and it took many years for his father to gain rights to his estate and it eventually passed to his brother Leon.

Located in Seattle Washington there is a beautiful exhibit called the Experience Music Project with more than 8,000 Jimi Hendrix artifacts in its collection.

Some may say that Jimi Hendrix burnt out, but to burn out you have to first be on fire, and my friends this man was on Fire!

For a gentle man who only lived 27 years he changed the face of music and performing for ever. I know that where ever you are Jimi you are still making beautiful music and smiling. And you certainly did live your life the way you wanted to!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rocks Stars Who Died Before They Got Old: What They Would Look Like Today

by , Open Culture:

Ayun Halliday is the author of seven books, most recently Peanut. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Live fast.
Die young.
Spare yourself the grim realities of the state fair reunion tour circuit.

aged rock stars

On the other hand, it’s deathly hard to control one’s image from beyond the grave. Especially when you’ve got an award-winning PR Agency and a photo manipulation company teaming up to imagine how you might look had you survived!

The twelve unlucky recipients of these posthumous makeovers remain household names (see the gallery here), even though it’s nearly twenty years since the last of their number drew breath.

Like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain was but 27 when he passed, though at the time of his birth, the other three were all old enough to be his mommy or daddy. Fitting, then, that he appears to be the baby of the golden group.

Music writer Elijah Wald and popular music scholar Reebee Garofalo offer insights below each portrait in the gallery about where the subjects might now find themselves in their careers.

It’s all conjecture, but their experience ensures that their opinions can be taken as educated guesses, at least.

Less convincing are the sartorial choices on display. Dennis Wilson in a Hawaiian shirt, okay, but were he alive, might not Keith Moon follow suit with former-bandmates Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, both of whom have adopted the sleek, monochromatic wardrobe favored by aging rock gods?

And who here thinks the 78-year-old Elvis would traipse around in the sort of short-sleeved poly-blend shirt my late grandfather wore to his weekly men’s prayer breakfast?

For pity’s sake, age does not automatically imply drabness!

Who’s that I see over there? Could it be Yoko Ono, looking great at 80, in a top hat and tap pants? Even if she were looking less-than-fit, it would still be a bold choice! I doubt she wears that get-up to the grocery store, but the progression of time has not robbed her of the ability to make a deliberate visual impression.

What is refreshing - though not necessarily believable - is how none of the resurrected icons in these portraits seem to have gone in for plastic surgery.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

VIDEOS: Andy Warhol Shoots “Screen Tests” of Nico, Bob Dylan & Salvador Dalí

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (Photo credit: vpickering)

by , Open Culture:

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. 

He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Just the other day, I had a chat with a well-known poet who laid out for me his theory that Andy Warhol invented our conception of modern America.

When we think about this country, the poet explained, we think about this country broadly in the way that Warhol (and thus his disciples) envisioned it.

We here at Open Culture have covered several of the forms in which the artist promulgated his distinctive brand of Americana, and today, for the 85th anniversary of his birth, we’ve rounded up a few of his famous “screen tests,” the short films he made between 1963 and 1968 that offer portraits of hundreds of figures, famous and otherwise, who happened to pass through his studio/ social club/ subcultural hot zone, The Factory.

Just above, you can watch Warhol’s screen test with Nico, the German singer who would become an integral part of the Factory-formed band the Velvet Underground.

Little-heard at the time but ultimately highly influential, the Velvet Underground’s sound shaped much American popular music - and given popular music’s centrality back then, much of American culture to come.

You may not necessarily buy that argument, but surely you can’t argue against the influence of a certain singer-songwriter by the name of Bob Dylan, Warhol’s screen test with whom appears just above.

Coming from a Polish immigrant family, and seemingly dedicated to the cultivation of his own outsider status his entire life, Warhol understood the importance of foreigners to the vitality of American culture.

Naturally, he didn’t miss his chance to shoot a screen test with Salvador Dalí, below, when the Spanish surrealist came to the Factory.

See also our previous post on Warhol’s screen tests with Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, and others.

When you’ve watched them all, consider continuing your celebration of life in Andy Warhol’s 85th birthday with the EarthCam and The Warhol Museum’s collaboration Figment.

It offers live camera feeds of not only his grave but the church where he was baptized. Comparisons to the viewing experience of Empire are encouraged.

The film Andy Warhol: A Mirror of the Sixties has been added to our list of 550 Free Movies Online.
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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

VIDEO: Discovered: Conversation with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Timothy Leary at Montreal Bed-In (1969)

by , Open Culture:

On May 26, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko One began their second “Bed-In,” a form of anti-Vietnam War protest that combined the media impact of a press conference with the comfort of hotel sheets.

Their first Bed-In, which happened in various rooms of the Amsterdam Hilton in late March of that year, saw them grant interview after interview about peace all day long without moving from the bed in which they had ensconced themselves.

They’d scheduled its follow up in New York City, but Lennon found he couldn’t enter the United States due to a previous conviction for marijuana possession.

They relocated it to the Bahamas, where the heat soon prompted them to move again to the entirely cooler Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.

There they recorded the song “Give Peace a Chance,” aided by such visitors as Tommy Smothers, Dick Gregory, Murray the K, and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary.

But Leary didn’t just come to provide a backing vocal. With his wife Rosemary, he recorded a conversation with Lennon and Ono about … well, about a variety of subjects, but they’d all fall under the broad heading of Leary’s one great pursuit, “consciousness.”

Only recently did Leary archivist Michael Horowitz discover the transcript of this session in “an unmarked envelope in a box of miscellaneous papers,” and this week the Timothy Leary Archives made it available to the public for the first time ever.

The conversation begins with the finer points of teepee life, moves on to the effects of place on one’s state of mind, touches on both couples’ having found themselves on the wrong side of drug law enforcement, and ends with Lennon and Leary comparing notes on how they use the media to convey their message:
TIMOTHY: John, about the use of the mass media ... the kids must be taught how to use the media. People used to say to me - I would give a rap and someone would get up and say, “Well, what’s this about a religion? Did the Buddha use drugs? Did the Buddha go on television? I’d say, “Ahh - he would’ve. He would’ve …”.
JOHN: I was on a TV show with David Frost and Yehudi Menuhin, some cultural violinist y’know, they were really attacking me. They had a whole audience and everything. It was after we got back from Amsterdam … and Yehudi Menuhin came out, he’s always doing these Hindu numbers. All that pious bit, and his school for violinists, and all that. And Yehudi Menuhi said, “Well, don’t you think it’s necessary to kill some people some times?” That’s what he said on TV, that’s the first thing he’s ever said. And I said, “Did Christ say that? Are you a Christian?” “Yeah,” I said, and did “Christ say anything about killing people?” And he said, “Did Christ say anything about television? Or guitars?”
To learn more about Lennon and Ono’s Bed-Ins, you can visit the 70-minute documentary Bed Peace (below), previously featured on Open Culture and still freely viewable on YouTube:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

VIDEO: The Beatles: Unplugged Collects Acoustic Demos of White Album Songs (1968)

by , Open Culture:

Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently finished a dissertation on land, landscape, and labor.

I am a child of Beatles fans; we owned nearly every album in original mono vinyl pressings. But somehow there was a hole in our collection - a whale-sized hole, it turned out - because we didn’t have a copy of the White Album.

I was introduced to it later by a friend, who shared its secrets with me like one would share the favorite work of a favorite poet - reverently.

We delved into the history and learned that recording sessions were notoriously fractious - with Ringo stepping away for a while and Paul stepping in on the drums, and with the others recording solo, sometimes with session players, rarely in the same room together - a situation reflected in the tracking of the record, which feels like a compilation of songs by each Beatle (but Ringo), rather than the usual smooth affair of Lennon/ McCartney, and occasional Harrison productions.

That ranginess is what makes the White Album special: it’s feels so familiar, and yet it’s not like anything they’d done before and presages the genius to come in their solo careers.

So imagine my surprised delight at stumbling across a bootleg that die-hard completists have surely known about for ages (though it only saw release in 2002): The Beatles: Unplugged is a recording of acoustic songs, most of which would appear on the the White Album, played and sung by John, Paul, and George at George’s house in Esher - hence the bootleg’s subtitle, the Kinfauns-Sessions (Kinfauns was the name of George’s home).

Here are the close vocal harmonies that seemed to mark a group of musicians in near-perfect harmony with each other (but without Ringo, again). And here are some of the Beatles’ most poignant, pointed, and vaudevillian songs live and direct, without any studio tricks whatsoever.

Of course these were recorded as demos, and not meant for release of any kind, but even so, they’re fairly high-quality, in a lo-fi kind of way.

Listening to the songs in this form makes me think of the folk/ psych revivalism of the so-called New Weird America that hearkened back to so much sixties’ trippy playfulness, but mostly eschewed the major label studio sound of sixties’ records and welcomed prominent tape hiss and single-track, bedroom takes.

Given the rapid pop-culture recycling that is the hallmark of the early 21st century, The Beatles: Unplugged sounds strangely modern.

The Unplugged session includes a wonderfully airy rendition of “Dear Prudence,” which like so many of these songs, was written during The Beatles’ sojourn in India, about Mia Farrow’s sister (a complete tracklist is here).

The compilers of the release have tacked on three additional songs: “Spiritual Regeneration India” (also a birthday tribute to The Beach Boy’s Mike Love), an oddly upbeat studio run-through of “Helter Skelter,” and a free-form acoustic medley of traditional songs called “Rishikesh No. 9” (also called “Spiritual Christmas”).

In addition to the slew of White Album songs, the recording session also features McCartney’s “Junk,” which later appeared on his 1970 solo album McCartney and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” (here called “Child of Nature”), which surfaced on 1971’s Imagine.

As Allmusic’s Bruce Eder writes, Unplugged is a bootleg so good, “the folks at Apple and EMI ought to be kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.”

Track List

The Beatles - The White Album - Unplugged - demos
0:00 Intro
0:15 Cry Baby Cry
2:42 Child of Nature (Jealous Guy)
5:25 The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
8:15 I'm So Tired
11:24 Yer Blues
15:00 Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
18:00 What's the New Mary Jane
20:39 Revolution
24:49 While My Guitar Gently Weeps
27:29 Circles
29:47 Sour Milk Sea
33:22 Not Guilty
36:36 Piggies
38:42 Julia
42:47 Blackbird
45:02 Rocky Raccoon
47:49 Back in the U.S.S.R
50:50 Honey Pie
52:54 Mother Nature's Son
55:09 Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
58:05 Junk
1:00:46 Dear Prudence
1:05:27 Sexy Sadie
1:07:52 Spiritual Regeneration
1:10:22 Spiritual Christmas

Saturday, November 9, 2013

VIDEOS: For Joni Mitchell’s 70th Birthday, Watch Classic Performances of “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game” (1968)

by , Open Culture:

Joni Mitchell turns 70 today. A child of rural western Canada, Mitchell endured a series of early hardships that might have crushed a more timid soul - polio, teen pregnancy, an unhappy marriage - but she always managed to follow her muse.

Mitchell made a lifelong habit of guarding her artistic freedom and turning adversity into advantage. When a childhood piano teacher slapped her on the wrist with a ruler for the offense of playing by ear, Mitchell decided she didn’t want any more formal music education.

When she found it difficult to form guitar chords with her polio-weakened left hand, she learned to explore alternative, open-chord tunings that have given her music an extra dimension of richness and variation.

As a folk singer in the 1960s, Mitchell managed to fulfill both sides of the Bob Dylan/ Joan Baez dichotomy: In one person she was both the songwriter of genius and the woman with the golden voice.

And like Dylan, Mitchell didn’t remain a folk singer for long. “I looked like a folk singer,” she once said, “even though the moment I began to write, my music was not folk music. It was something else that had elements of romantic classicism to it.”

She went on to explore jazz, collaborating with Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and others.

“Impossible to classify,” says her biography at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Mitchell has doggedly pursued avenues of self-expression, heedless of commercial outcomes.”

As a musician, Mitchell is mostly retired now. She continues to paint and write poetry. To celebrate today’s milestone we bring you a pair of great performances from her younger years.

In the clip above, from the January 21, 1968 episode of the CBC’s The Way it Is, a 25-year-old Mitchell plays her classic early songs “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game.” Even after 45 years, the songs can send a shiver down your spine.

And below, from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, Mitchell’s evolution as a writer and performer are evident in the lilting, melodically inventive “Big Yellow Taxi.” In a previous post, we have also highlighted Mitchell playing a 30-minute set on British TV in 1970.

Friday, November 8, 2013

VIDEO: Joni Mitchell - "Big Yellow Taxi"

by Isabelle Laurent

Joni Mitchell said about writing the song to journalist Alan McDougall in the early 70s: I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii.

I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance.

Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart ... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.

The song is known for its environmental concern - "They paved paradise to put up a parking lot" and "Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now" - and sentimental sound.

The line "They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum / And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em" refers to Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu, which is a living museum of tropical plants, some rare and endangered.

Open-D tuning was used by Joni Mitchell for her "Big Yellow Taxi". Many other artists have covered the song - Bob Dylan, Keb Mo, Amy Grant, Counting Crows, Máire Brennan, Joe Dassin ...
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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

VIDEO: Deconstructing The Master Track of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

by , Open Culture:

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

There are several versions of the story of how The Beatles’ most highly-acclaimed album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club came to be.

In one, John gives the full credit to Paul, who, inspired by “America and the whole West Coast, long-named group thing” - of bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company - came up with the concept.

According to Lennon, Paul “was trying to put some distance between the Beatles and the public”:

"And so there was this identity of Sgt. Pepper … Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band; but it works ‘cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album".

Lennon’s typical mix of grandiosity and self-deprecation probably sells the album short in any fan’s estimation (certainly in mine), but I  believe that Paul cooked up the goofy personas and marching-band look. It is, after all, as Lennon says, “his way of working.”

Paul himself has said of Sgt. Pepper’s: “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We could make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”

Despite the complex of personalities (both real and imagined) in the writing and recording of what many consider the band’s masterpiece, the recording process was incredibly simple, at least by today’s standards.

Today’s digital recording enables bands to record an unlimited number of tracks - either live or, more often, in layers upon layers of overdubs - leaving mixing engineers with sometimes hundreds of individual tracks to integrate into a coherent whole.

In 1967, during the age of tape and the tracking of Sgt. Pepper’s, engineers were limited to four tracks at a time, which they could then “bounce,” or merge together, to free up room for additional recording.

This is how the title song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” was made, and you can hear the four final master tracks “deconstructed” above.

First, in green, you’ll hear the original rhythm tracks, with drums, bass, and two guitars, all recorded on two tracks.

The red line represents tracks 3 and 4 - all of the vocals.

The blue portion is the horns and lead guitar, and yellow is the audience sounds.

You’ll hear each track individually, then hear them all come together, so to speak. The description below of the recording process comes from that inerrant (so I’ve heard) source, The Beatles Bible:

"The song was recorded over four days. On 1 February 1967 The Beatles taped nine takes of the rhythm track, though only the first and last of these were complete. They recorded drums, bass and two guitars - the latter played by McCartney and Harrison. The next day McCartney recorded his lead vocals, and he, Lennon and Harrison taped their harmonies. The song was then left for over a month, until the French horns were overdubbed on 3 March. McCartney also recorded a lead guitar solo, leaving the song almost complete. On 6 March they added the sounds of the imaginary audience and the noise of an orchestra tuning up, a combination of crowd noise from a 1961 recording of the comedy show Beyond The Fringe and out-takes from the 10 February orchestral overdub session for A Day In The Life. For the segue into With A Little Help From My Friends, meanwhile, they inserted screams of Beatlemaniacs from the recordings of The Beatles live at the Hollywood Bowl".

Monday, November 4, 2013

VIDEOS: Miles Davis Plays Music from Kind of Blue Live in 1959, Introducing a Completely New Style of Jazz

by , Open Culture:

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue broke new ground in the world of jazz in a year that saw an unusual number of groundbreaking jazz releases, 1959.

Following up his experiments on 1958’s Milestones, Davis’ move from bop to modal jazz improvisational techniques shifted the terms of the genre, and, as many critics have argued since, the terms of Western music, popular and classical.

Released in August of ’59, Kind of Blue was recorded in New York by Davis’ famous sextet in March and April of that year, and before listeners had a chance to hear the record, those few people lucky enough to be in attendance at the April performance above - at CBS’s Studio 61 - got a chance to hear what Davis was up to.

Doubtless those lucky attendees were few indeed, but one of them, producer and presenter Robert Herridge showcased the performance for a July, 1960 broadcast of his show The Robert Herridge Theater.

The Davis sextet play a few versions of “So What” from Kind of Blue, previewing the album Quincy Jones would call his “orange juice” for its daily jolt of inspiration.

The remainder of the performance consists of compositions by Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, and Ahmad Jamal. See the full track list below.

1 So What
2 Introduction (Robert Herridge)
3 The Duke
 (D. Brubeck)
4 Blues for Pablo 
(G. Evans)
5 New Rhumba
 (A. Jamal)
6 Announcement (Robert Herridge)
7 So What (reprise)
8 So What (reprise)
9 Orchestral fragment

The style of “So What” and the other compositions from Kind of Blue have been credited with creating, in Chick Corea’s words, “a new language of music.”

But Davis cannot take all of the credit. He must share it with pianist and educator George Russell who published a theoretical account of a new way of improvising in 1953 called Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.

Davis was greatly influenced by Russell’s theories and found in them a way out of the manic style of bop that had begun to tire him. Russell’s “modal” jazz moved away from basing jazz improvisation on chords and traditional major and minor scales. Though the theory was new, its basis, the Lydian mode, is as ancient as the Greeks.

In the video above, see Russell in an interview discussing his modal theory, which Ben Ratliff in Russell’s 2009 New York Times obit describes as “simple”:

[Russell] believed that a new generation of jazz improvisers deserved new harmonic techniques, and that traditional Western tonality was running its course. The Lydian chromatic concept - based on the Lydian mode, or scale, rather than the familiar do-re-mi major scale - was a way for musicians to improvise in any key, on any chord, without sacrificing the music’s blues roots.  

Without Russell, we’d have no Kind of Blue, but it’s probably safe to say that without Davis’ brilliant appropriation of modal theory, Russell’s ideas may have faded into obscurity.

The collaboration between the humble theorist, the flamboyant composer and bandleader, and his tremendously talented 1959 ensemble produced one of the most enduring musical documents of all time, and in the archival footage above, we can see some of its critical pieces come together.