The Problem With Lists

Whenever you set about making a list which has lofty goals — e.g. “Top 10 Songs That Defined The 60s“, you have to careful about the criteria.  On the aforementioned video, the listmaker used both record sales and influence on music as the primary characteristics for inclusion on the list.  Here’s the choice, as formulated:

10. Hit The Road Jack — Ray Charles (’61)
9. Mrs. Robinson — Simon & Garfunkel (’68)
8. You Really Got Me — Kinks (’64)
7. Respect — Aretha Franklin (’67)
6. Like A Rolling Stone — Bob Dylan (’65)
5. My Generation — The Who (’65)
4. Good Vibrations — Beach Boys (’66)
3. Satisfaction — Rolling Stones (’65)
2. All Along The Watchtower — Jimi Hendrix (’68)
1. I Wanna Hold Your Hand — Beatles (’63)

With honorable mentions of:

Stand By Me – Ben E. King (’61)
Be My Baby – Ronettes (’63)
Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye (’68)
Light My Fire – Doors (’67)
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield (’67)

The problem with this list — and by the way, I don’t have any argument over the worth of the songs because they’re all excellent — is that I’m not sure how much the R&B numbers (e.g. Ray Charles and Aretha) influenced music, per se, because R&B hadn’t really changed much since the 1950s (e.g. The Platters) and it was only when James Brown’s funk and later, bebop came on the scene that the R&B genre started to change radically.  (The really big change to R&B had already happened, with Elvis using R&B to ginger up the early rock ‘n roll music and getting White people to listen to it.)

The biggest problem with the list, though, is the concatenation of “record sales / popularity” (which is an easy measure) and “influence” (which isn’t easy).  Using just sales, for instance, we’d have to include songs like Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly, Percy Faith’s Theme from ‘A Summer Place’ and the Four Seasons’ Big Girls Don’t Cry, all smash hits in the 1960s, but not influential songs by any measure.

Here’s an example of my confusion.  Simon & Garfunkel were simply folksingers (albeit brilliant ones), and even the brilliant Mrs. Robinson wasn’t that different from other songs of that genre, before or since.  Paul Simon would later be a major change agent in music, but S&G, not so much.

The two songs on the list which stand out as not only popular but also influencers are of course I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Good Vibrations, both of which changed the way other musicians started to compose and play.  The fact that they were also hugely popular merely emphasizes what giant songs they were.  Using that criterion, there would be a very strong case to put the 1967 Beatles’ A Day In The Life (the song and the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album) onto the list — because having already influenced modern rock music once in 1963, the Beatles went ahead and changed its direction again, in 1967.

Likewise, the inclusion of Satisfaction and My Generation makes sense because they weren’t much songs as they were generational counter-culture anthems and they too set the stage for others to follow.  (Despite my dislike of both bands, it’s quite likely that without The Who and the Stones there would have been no punk music, for example.  That’s “influence” for you.)

I also have my doubts about All Along The Watchtower because while it is quite easily one of my favorite rock songs of all time, all Hendrix did was make a Dylan song sound good (not a difficult task, by the way).  Jimi’s music was so different and so iconic that his would-be successors (e.g. Stevie Ray Vaughan) simply covered his songs.  Yes, Hendrix changed the way people played music, but I challenge anyone to point to a modern song of which you can say, “Aha!  That sounds like Hendrix!” (although I will allow that Lenny Kravitz has come awfully close on occasion, as did Prince).

So if you were to ask me to draw up my  list of 12 Songs Which Defined the 1960s, it would look like this, but ranked in no specific order:

  • Good Times Bad Times — Led Zeppelin (68) — OR — Whole Lotta Love (69) because Zep practically defined hard rock for future musicians.  Granted, they came right at the end of the 60s, but the point of the 1960s was that it set up the next decade’s music (and beyond).
  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Good Vibrations — no argument from me on those two;  the Beatles song established pop music and Good Vibrations was a forerunner for other neo-orchestral songs which followed, such as Bohemian Rhapsody.
  • A Day In The Life — for reasons as stated above.
  • Ditto Satisfaction and My Generation, which dirtied up the clean Beatle-esque songs of the 60s and reminded us that at its heart, rock ‘n roll isn’t pretty.  (By the way, if we use record sales as a criterion, Honky Tonk Woman — a much better song, in my opinion — outsold Satisfaction by far, but the latter is the more important song.)
  • Whiter Shade of Pale — Procol Harum (’67) turned rock progressive.
  • (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay — Otis Redding (’67) turned R&B into Soul.  Without Otis, artists such as Bill Withers, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex and maybe even Marvin Gaye might not have been as big as they were.
  • You Really Got Me — The Kinks (’65). Still heavy, even today.
  • Like A Rolling Stone — Bob Dylan (’65).  Hate his voice, love the music.
  • Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? — Chicago (’69).  Like Sergeant Pepper’s, you could pick just about any song off Chicago’s first album to put on this list.  (Jimi Hendrix’s comment to the band:  “Your horns are like a set of lungs and your guitarist’s better than me.”  ‘Nuff said.)
  • White Room — Cream (’68).  No list of musical influencers of the 1960s would be complete without Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.

Honorable mentions:

  • Space Oddity — David Bowie (’69) although his real influence would come in the next decade (a story for another time).
  • Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag — James Brown (’65)… now he changed R&B.  Without him, no Earth, Wind & Fire, for example.
  • River Deep, Mountain High — Hellooo Tina (’66)
  • Funk #48 — James Gang (’69).  Like many of the musicians in the above bands, Joe Walsh probably influenced more bands than he’d care to admit.  We’ll look at him in greater depth when I get round to doing this for the 1970s.

I should point out that I don’t necessarily like all the songs listed above, but I can’t deny their influence on the 1960s.

Your arguments and invective are, as always, welcome in Comments,

Thursday Night Movie

Last week I ranted about the homogenization of cars, but I don’t want you to think that said homogenization is confined only to the automotive world.

Let me now turn my baleful gaze upon an old bête noire of mine, the poxy music industry, where this homogenization  has become economically critical. (I should say it’s become an “art form”, but “art” and “the music industry” are mutually-exclusive terms.)  It’s even worse than the auto industry, because at least the homo-cars are being driven by something other than pure sales appeal, i.e. fuel consumption efficiency.  Not so for the loathsome bastards who run the music business:  their homogenization is driven by naked profit-seeking — which is all fine and capitalistic, but then don’t try to dress it up as “art”, because it fucking well isn’t.  And they are just vultures — see here for just one heartbreaking example.

From Longtime Reader PeterB comes this excellent video, which explains why modern music sucks to People Of A Certain Age.  More to the point, however, is this:  beyond all the expressions like “timbral decline”, “harmonic compression” and so on, what becomes apparent is how music is being turned quite simply into the aural equivalent of Huxley’s soma:  something which delivers jolts of pleasure, but has no actual nutritional value whatsoever.

I know that manufactured pop stars — people promoted because of their looks rather than their musical talent — are not a recent phenomenon;  hell, that’s been going on since the 1950s.  (As an aside, the exquisite Cass Elliott would never have made it in today’s music world because overweight.) But at least the earlier pop idols could sing or play musical instruments, and record producers (grudgingly) allowed musicians some degree of latitude in the expression of their music — Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Lennon-McCartney and talents of that ilk were allowed to dictate what they sounded like.

No more. Now, Britney/Taylor/Justin are herded into the studio, given a lyric sheet and, having delivered the lines, are ushered out while post-production turns the synthesized noise into something that will be downloaded millions of times on Spotify.

It’s dreadful, it’s awful, and I am so glad that I am no longer a professional musician.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to something which challenges my musical senses.  It may be a classical piece like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, it may be King’s X’s Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, or it may even be something simple like Alan Parson’s Pyramid.

But whatever I listen to, it will last longer than two minutes, and it will create a mood rather than deliver a brief dopamine hit.  For that, I’d just watch the wonderfully-talented (and sexy) Grace Potter.  No compression, sampling or any of the usual tricks there, just unrefined talent and ability.

Musician Thoughts

All the way from past Down Under (i.e. New Zealand), Reader Tony H. writes:

Was reading your post about the travails of the guitar industry.
I bet if you looked at the way the piano industry “evolved” from a time in the 50s & 60s where every second house in my street had a piano you’d see some interesting comparisons. As a kid we’d go up and down the street to people’s houses, go inside and they would play Christmas carols and we’d sing along. No parents along for the ride, mind you.
How many actual pianos do you reckon got sold world wide last year? Thousands? Tens of thousands? So if you were one of those British or German piano makers you were on a hiding to nowhere.
Part of the problem is longevity. Once you get up to pro level gear, it basically doesn’t wear out.
I’ve got a 30 year old Fender Strat. Played 100s of shows with it. I use a 1970s Fender amp. OK, I’m a semi pro person, so I bought myself a Gibson Les Paul 12 years ago. I’ve got two 80’s Marshall amps that I use for practice and social playing.
None of this gear is ever going to wear out to a point where repair is not an economic proposition. So unless I break something or it gets stolen, me as a daily user of my equipment represent zero revenue to any of these suppliers.
OK, yes, I go through strings at a rate, but that’s like buying petrol for your car.
If I did write off one of my guitars, in truth I’m much more likely to buy a vintage example than a new one – not even a price decision.
So how are Fender or Gibson ever going to get any money out of me? Self tuning guitar? Nah. Hi tech like Line 6 with built in effects etc? Nah, I like the sound of my old analogue tubes and nicely aged bits of wood.
Clearly I’m not alone, the largest sector in the Gibson catalogue is “reissues”.
Both Gibson and Fender have gone down market to chase volume. There are Epiphones and Squier guitars at every price point.
As a person that really gets their brand proposition, actively uses their products and is in the fortunate position of being able to pony up a few thousand on a new instrument if I wanted to, they have got zero dollars off me in the last ten years and are highly unlikely to get anything off me in the next 10 years either.
OK, maybe a modern amp as lugging around a 100 watt head and a 4 X 12 quad box is starting to tell, and these days I never get to crank it.
So, zero growth potential from me.
Also, anecdotally, the value proposition for Fender and Gibson has been steadily eroded by products from other makers. Yes, I fully get the “wank value” of owning a Les Paul, but objectively there are dozens of alternatives at much cheaper prices and the quality gap is narrowing all the time.
Whats left for them? Joining Harley Davidson in acquiring 100% of a diminishing market? We all know how that works out.
Cheers & keep up the good work.

All true, and I know for a fact that if I were still playing, it would be on my old Rickenbacker 4001S through… well, not my old Roland RB-120, because it died the day before my last gig in S Africa, all those years ago. [cue spooky music]

It was one of the best-sounding bass amps ever made, by the way, and it was one of the very few which could handle the high output from my Rick (which I always played at full volume from the guitar controls).

So much did I love that guitar that if by some miracle I could play bass again (arthritis, don’t ask), I’d be playing that same old Rick… but instead of trying to resurrect the old Roland (great though it was), I’d probably get one of the new amps. Well, I say “new”, but in fact it would be a new version of my old Roland. (You may all return your shocked faces to Sarah Hoyt now.) They stopped making the RB-120 back in the early 1980s, if that helps. Here’s the Cube 120XL:

Note to Reader Tony: forget that valve stuff for gigging; this is the business, with all the different amp effects built in. (I actually owned the smaller 30-watt version of this amp a little while ago, and I loved it.)

See? I can change if I have to. Especially as this amp weighs about a tenth of my older double stacks, and my back still gives me an occasional twinge to remind me how much I abused it back then.

Anyway, here’s a pic of the old band setup at the OK Corral Club, just outside Pretoria, taken in May 1977:

Yeah, that’s me (age 22) on bass at bottom right. I can’t remember what amp I was playing through back then, but it was either a Fender Bassman 120 or a Marshall 100-watt rig (can’t see it clearly in the pic).

Note also the various Gibsons and the Fender Strat. Yes, we supported them way back then too. (Marty’s Les Paul was a ’63 and Kevin’s Strat was a ’65. I don’t remember the year of the Flying V, but I think it was a new one, i.e. 1975-ish.)

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Unlike Reader Tony, I wouldn’t go back to gigging; I’d only play old standards (Gershwin, Carmichael etc.) in a four-piece house band (piano, bass, drums and either a horn/clarinet player or a female torch singer), in an old-fashioned night club where people dressed up and danced cheek to cheek:

You may call me old-fashioned, if you wish. I wear the label with pride.

Happy Together

Watch this video (embedded in the pic), and if these charming young girls do not put a smile on your face, I don’t want to talk to you ever again.

There’s more cuteness in there than a basket full of kittens…

5 Worst Song Performances

The song might have been a good one, but the rendition left a lot to be desired. In ascending order of tunelessness (and no links because projectile vomiting):

  • Whiskey In The Jar — Metallica
  • Danke Schön — Wayne Newton
  • Yesterday — every single person except Paul McCartney who ever tried to sing it
  • Tutti Frutti — Pat Boone

…and OMG, in its own special Hall Of Shame For One:

  • My Way — Frank Sinatra

Look up the performances at your own peril.