Tuesday, May 10, 2011

School of Rock

Yesterday at work I put on Beck’s Sea Change in the background while undertaking some menial task. My younger colleague (he's about 25 I reckon) and I had the following conversation:

YC: Who’s that?

JH: Beck. It’s his break up album.

YC: Never heard of him.

JH: You’ve never heard of Beck?

YC: Nope.

JH: What about Loser? You must have heard that song?

YC: I don’t think so.

(JH starts playing Loser)

YC: Oh I think I might have heard this.

JH: What about this one?

(JH starts playing Devil’s Haircut)

YC: Nope, never heard that one.

This made me feel old. However, I’ve often spoken to him about music and his favourite band is the Red Hot Chilli Peppers so I don’t feel too bad. But it did get me thinking about my relationship with music and the musical mentors I have had.

Back in 1993, my world was being rocked by grunge – Nirvana, Pearl Jam and yes, I must confess I even liked the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic. This was my second year of uni and I’d made friends with this Post Doc in Marine Biology from the US called Dr Rob* (that’s what we called him). He was in his late 30’s and had bought all this music with him from the States because he said at the last minute, he got strangely nostalgic and patriotic and bought all this American music over like the Band, the Stooges, Grateful Dead etc... He introduced me to lots of music and was a very influential figure in my music development.

However, he took total umbrage at my liking of Blood Sugar Sex Magic. One day he came round with all these tapes and cds and did a track-by-track deconstruction of that album. It was devastating to watch. He’d play a couple of minutes of the RHCP track and then pull out the corresponding song from his collection it sounded like. Funkadelic featured largely but I distinctly remember him playing Breaking the Girl and then playing a Jethro Tull (?!) song which was exactly the same. Even I Could Have Lied was a total rip of Maggot Brain. In that afternoon Dr Rob had totally changed my opinion of that album and blown my mind.

Back in 1993, I thought of Dr Rob as a wise old sage of music, a teacher and arbiter of excellent taste. I now see that he was just a guy who loved music and wanted to share it with people with similar interests. Now I’m Dr Rob’s age, I know a lot about music but am constantly learning, finding new music and being exposed to the artists I missed or didn’t understand when I first heard them. Like Dr Rob, my expertise is from just being alive for a while and having an interest in music. I guess I don’t feel so bad about feeling old because my young friend doesn’t know about Beck, it just means I’ve been around longer and heard more stuff.


*Dr Rob was a huge Iggy Pop fan and my favourite story of his was when he saw him in New York. Dr Rob was down in the pit and between songs Iggy pointed at him and said “Hey! Hey you! I like your hair!” and then started the next song. I think that could have been the greatest day of Dr Rob’s life.



  1. Ah, see, now this is where relative age comes in. See, I first heard Iggy and the Stooges when I was about 5. How so? He's my mother's cousin, and got really excited when Funhouse came out and sent copies to all his relatives that were still speaking to him. So, I had no appreciation for him, until much later. But, still that exposure meant that years later, I had connections in my mind that others did not- which would be closer to connections that folks about 15 years older than myself would commonly make. So it goes down the line. Either that, or I'm prematurely old. I can't say for sure. I can say, however, that taking my son to the Rocknroll hall of fame was an eye-opener for him- it gave him a new perspective on the music he liked, and how it fit, how it had antecedents (He's into the Emo/goth nu metal stuff, and into Dubstep. So, glam rock and reggae kinda fascinated him, in a historical kind of way.So, I thought he might like some of the post-punk stuff that mixed glam and dub, like Magazine. Not at all. He didn't see how it had any bearing whatsoever. It made me realize that old saw about horses and water masks a bigger reality- the reason why you can't make something connect for someone a quarter century younger than you isn't simply because time has marched on- it's because their place in the world is different. The reason why the horse won't drink may very well be that it's the wrong well.

  2. Chasing the source-rips of a song can be enlightening but also highly dispiriting. The question ultimately becomes: yes, but what does this version add? Is it unique in its own way or a bland reiteration? Jazz is littered with interesting interpretations, variations of standards, and noone complains of stealing chords of riffs (cf 'Watermelon Man', 'I Got Rhythm')...

    I was listening to the local community station's regular nuggets show of late 60s psychedelic pop and such. A song came on that sounded exactly like Deep Purple's 'Black Night', with only the smallest difference of riff-note. Definitely earlier, in terms of sound & style. I chased it online as '(We Ain't Got) Nothin Yet' is a song by the Blues Magoos http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%28We_Ain%27t_Got%29_Nothin%27_Yet.

    Maybe the issue is: how deep is the riff? Who owns a riff? There is so much riff-ripping in music. I remember a similar thing with that key Mogwai track, 'M~ fear Satan'. So powerful, rolling and pure in that Mogwai way. Then I remembered a similar, very similar riff on Kyuss' Blues for the Red Sun cut ('Apothecaries' Weight') and indeed that track is a precursor to Mogwai's 'version'. And then, much later, I came across a really good Phil Manzanera album (Diamond head) whose opening track 'Frontera' also has the riff. No doubt there's an earlier lineage I'm missing out on, after all it's a three chord riff, what are the chances.

    But, do any of these precedents kill off the value and effect of Mogwai's monster instrumental? No, if anything, that song's bigger than the riff.

    You might as well be Metallica trying to patent E-minor (as the joke went).

    A good execution of an idea trumps the fact of its being appropriated, borrowed or copied, methinks. Especially in music.

    New hybrids, new variations of ideas, is important even if the ideas are old.

    With the Chili Peppers' BSSM, which I still like because of the time in my life when I switched on to Funk, I hear a band who deeply love Funkadelic and The Meters, but who still make it their own. Kiedis is a tosser and lightweight songwriter, but Flea really is the core of the band - which is unusual for a bassplayer these days. Of all the Funk music I've listened to, I haven't come across that many rip-parallels on the album, though I'm sure they exist. Also, Funk has limited chord potential, so... not to defend the Chilis, I just think it's inevitable. Their cover versions are usually quite... authentic. [And that Maggot Brain association in your post needs to be clarified - do you mean the title track? If so it doesn't ring quite true... please expand/clarify.]

    phew, an essay already...

  3. Matt - I think you have make the horse keep drinking until it likes it. I'm all for tough love when prescribing good music haha.

    Rino - I understand exactly what you're saying and agree with you about the evolution of music but the point I'm making is that my own music education is informed by the people and music that have randomly come up in my life. I think my understanding of the connection between music new and old expands every year based on experience and random discussions like this (I’d never put Mogwai or Kyuss together even though I’m big fans of both).

    On the RHCP, Dr Rob was an passionate funk fan so he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of those bands and played songs with the exact bass/guitar lines as the songs on BSSM (it’s too bad I lost touch with him because I’d love to catch up with him and get his take on the last twenty odd years of music). There is no denying Flea is a great player and it is an amazing sounding album but some of the music was such a blatant a rip off that the only thing the RHCP added was the bullshit Kiedis was yelling over the top. It was disheartening at the time because it almost seemed like the entire album was a tribute album to other songs but also because it totally went over my head and I felt like a dumb kid – I don’t think I’d feel that way now but when you’re 19 being given a proper schooling on music, it felt harsh (I guess it’s how I’d feel if I was a 16 year old Vampire Weekend fan and someone played some Talking Heads records).

    The Maggot Brain (title track) reference was related to the solo - essentially Frusciante’s guitar tone and phrasing (especially around the 3:30 mark on Maggot Brain). Don’t get me wrong, Frusciante is a great player and I particularly like that song but I was never really able to listen to them in the same way after that.

  4. exactly - they are educational moments - but they do tend to spoil one's appreciation of the music in the now... especially at a younger age - when the excitement of the new is the thrill. I'd say avoid ermmmm 90% of Led Zeppelin if you're in any way precious about the Blues ;-) Also, that track off Nevermind, Come As You Are - a literal rip. I think it was Killing Joke? Does knowing that have the same deflationary movement?

    I say: steal, but improve. Or add, or change the context and sound around it significantly. Don't just add a different, tosser singer on top/ (see Led Zeppelin, above)

    That said, so much RHCP since then has been a massive disprovement, or devolution, or playing in circles.