Just A Couple Of Prog-Rock Blokes

I’ve never much cared for the “progressive-rock” band Yes (except for their 1985 reboot, saying which always starts an argument with my Yes-fan friends). And in saying that, I’ll stipulate a lot of that disdain was my own adolescent “too cool for school” arrogance about music.

But “a lot” ain’t everything. “Progressive Rock”, with its orchestral pretensions and acid-fueled subject matter, annoys me almost as much in retrospect as it did then.

But as I noted five years ago with the death of their founding bassist Chris Squire, they could really play.

Of course, they knew it. One of the things that probably got me off on a bad foot with Yes were a series of interviews I read with guitarist Steve Howe; with his academic background and classical guitar training, Howe came off like he was working on a cure for cancer, rather than…songs.

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman – he of the Gregg Allman hair and flowing robes and mad-scientist stacks of keyboards – is inseparable from Yes (although he’s left the band a few times, so Yes is clearly separable from him). In the seventies, Wakeman was practically a synonym for bloated pretension.

And they were right – but as always, there’s more to it.

This is htt a fairly fascinating piece about the Rick Wakeman story, including a lot of things I really never thought I’d want to know but am glad I now do. And I’m actually kind of interested…

…in the guy. Not the seventies Yes albums, or Wakeman’s (not making this up) ice show about the legend of King Arthur – although reading about the guys he produced it all with just gets more and more interesting.

And to circle back to Steve Howe? I saw this a few years ago, before Squire’s death – a “rig rundown” of Howe and Squires instruments, amps and other gear. And Howe comes across as a pretty dang likeable…

…well, not so much a “bloke”. Maybe more of an affable old professor who’s taken to genial chats about his favorite light reading.

There are times I kick myself for having sorted so much of the world out according to cliches I picked out of Rolling Stone.

I’ve Seen All Good Bassists

Music geeks over the weekend noted the passing of Chris Squire, longtime bassist for prog-rock icons Yes.

Now, as I’ve written innumerable times, I really listen to music on two levels; is the music technically adept in some way – singing, instrumental chops, production – and does it grab me in the liver and say “this song is something important to you”.

Much Noise, Signifying…:  Speaking for me?  Yes – of whom Squire was the only constant member from 1968 through his passing, as the band went through 18 other members over the years – was always plenty of the former, and only rarely any of the latter.

As to the former, the musical talent?  It was always the band’s long suit.  I, like a lot of guitar players of a certain age, grew up very pleased with myself for nailing the first part of “Roundabout”, and bobbing my head in awe at the rest of the song:

Admit it; if it weren’t for “I’ve Seen Good People” and “Roundabout”, you don’t know the words to the chorus of a single “Yes” song before 1984.   It’s not the most ornate Yes song of their first 16 years as a band – they frequently had songs that filled entire 20 minute album sides – and far from their least accessible.

But there’s no doubting the technical chops; Rick Wakeman’s virtuosic but gaseous keyboards, Jon Anderson’s fluid lead singing, and Steve Howe’s technically-impeccable and occasionally-brilliant guitar (why does he always look like he’s getting a prostate exam when he’s playing?).

But Squire’s bass is the most notable thing about the song; from the blazingly ornate yet reliable sixteenth-note runs during the verses, to the off-kilter pulse of the chorus, it’s really brilliant stuff.

Which, of course, made me nod my head and go “yeah, pretty brilliant – now where’s some music I actually feel?

Worse, Yes committed some terrible crimes against music.   Their trite, mawkish cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” deserves a tribunal, somewhere:

It was the first time I had actually felt some emotion besides admiration for their technical chops when listening to a Yes song.  In this case, it was unbridled hatred for murdering a great song.

But it wasn’t the last.

So – wanna start an argument with a “Yes” fan?  Tell him you didn’t hear a “Yes” song that you actually enjoyed until “Owner of a Lonely Heart”:

The band shed Howe (who went to join the dull as dry toast “GTR” for a few years) and added South African guitar whiz Trevor Rabin.  They also did three albums in a row produced by Trevor Rabin, the former lead singer of “Buggles” (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), who’d sung lead for Yes for a year before becoming one of the defining producers of the 1980s.

And again – underneath Rabin’s guitar and Wakeman’s un-Wakeman-y keyboards, Squire’s bass is absolutely subtle and ingenious.

The best way to get an old-school “Yes” fan to try to assassinate you is to say you prefer the song to their earlier work. But I do.  Far and away.  Assassinate me?  Bring it.

No Respect: I  wasn’t the only one who didn’t much care for Yes.  The Rock and Roll hall of fame has been cool to them:

In February 2013, Rolling Stone spoke to Squire about Yes’ legacy and the fact that Rush, but not Yes, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Logistically, it’s probably difficult for whoever the committee is to bring in Yes,” Squire said. “Rush is fairly simple. It’s the same three guys and always has been. They deserve to be there, no doubt about that. But there still seems to be a certain bias towards early-Seventies prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson… In our case, we’re on our 18th member. If we ever do get inducted, it would be only fair to have all the members, old and new. So that may be a problem for the committee. I don’t know.”

Of course, the Hall of Fame – for whatever it’s worth, which is really not much – is dominated by critics.  And critics have always savaged the band, except for their brief flirtation with New Wave during the Rabin years.  Dave Marsh wrote in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide:

Classical rockers with hearts of cold, Yes entered the Seventies as a creative example of post-Pepper‘s artistic aspirations, a musicianly alternative to the growing metal monster rock was becoming. It left the decade as perhaps the epitome of uninvolved, pretentious and decidedly nonprogressive music, so flaccid and conservative that it became the symbol of uncaring platinum success, spawning more stylistic opponents than adherents. … On Tales from Topographic Oceans, the bottom fell out …

Now, I had that particular Record Buyer’s Guide.  And I was as “rockist” as Marsh, who is most famous as the definitive biographer of The Who and Springsteen, and who has always compared all rock and roll to the MC5, and always will.

At it was via watching rock critics’ treatment of Yes during its various stylistic gyrations in the eighties – especially Marsh, my favorite as a teenager, and the single most promiscuous mixer of art and politics in the English language – that I finally realized something; that the real gaseous, bloated, self-important, pretentious, overblown, in-love-with-the-sounds-of-their-precious-creativity ones…

…are the rock critics.

RIP Chris Squire,

Rethinking The Seventies: The Eagles

If I’ve learned one thing after leaving my post-adolescent years, it’s that there are few things in the world more useless than rock critics.

Not every rock critic.  Not all the time.  But as a job classification, rock critics are somewhere between supermodels and professional reality-TV contestants in terms of useful output generated per unit of input.

Of course, part of my emnity with rock critics is embarassment over the way the adolescent Mitch ate up the crap they were peddling.   I managed to evade some of the more embarassing adolescent gaffes of the eighties, of course – photos of me with a frizzy seventies perm, or supporting Gary Hart – but I sure did drink up the whole jug of “rock critic as social commentator” koolaid.

I’ll forgive myself for missing it, of course, because like any teenager, my perspective started in junior high; nothing that came before counted, naturally.  Even moreso – growing up in rural North Dakota, my main window into pop culture, and pop counterculture, was through the issue of Rolling Stone that came to the Jamestown Library every week.

And in RS, every week, the “great” critics of the day – Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Cameron Crowe – and the not so great (the execrable Parke Puterbaugh) held forth on the changing culture…

…through the medium of the album review.  The self-important, “English majors gone wild”-style attempts to turn snark about this week’s entertainment product into commentary on Deep Thoughts-style reviews that you went to Rolling Stone for.

Anyway – the geist of that particular zeit, was “old is bad – new is good”.

Same as it ever was and ever shall be, of course.

And so by the time I became aware of the musical world outside Jamestown, the new and loud and snotty – the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, reggae, ska, punk in general – was in.  The old and measured and, worst of all, commercial – everything from Led Zeppelin and Bad Company to Linda Ronstadt and Elton John – was out.

And one of the big losers in that calculus was The Eagles.

And truth be told, I was always fine with that.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always had a few Eagles songs that, deep in the back of my musical consciousness, I’ve loved.  “Take it to the Limit” is one of my favorite last-call songs ever.  “Already Gone” is one of my favorite guitar raveups – I’ve always wanted to play it in a cover band.  And the guitar player in me has spent hours dissecting all of the glorious technical nuance in “Hotel California”.

Last week, I wound up watching the movie “History of the Eagles”, covering the band’s story up through their breakup in 1980 (and the sequal, covering their various solo careers and reunions after 1994).

Lessons learned:

  • The re-united Eagles are an extraordinarily un-compelling band whose muse has left them.
  • But that implies that the Eagles had a muse to lose.  And up through about 1977, they did.

The snotty teenage Mitch chose to ignore the latter point – and never really stopped until last weekend.

But the more I learn – or re-learn – about the Eagles in their original incarnation, the more I think I may have short-changed my adolescent self.

Videos below the jump.

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Rethinking The Seventies: Boston

It’s one of the driving forces behind radio station formatting; people tend to become most attached to the music that they heard in adolescence – from about 12 to the early-mid 20s.  That’s the time of one’s life when hormone-addled emotions grab and internalize emotional markers for the rest of peoples’ lives. 

Music is, of course, one of the most emotionally immediate art forms.

And so for the past sixty years, radio stations have banked their economic futures on playing music that resonate with each succeeding demographic group’s musical emotional markers. 

If you’re one of the first wave of Baby Boomers, then, the Beatles were Top Forty radio when you were in your teens and twenties; as you moved through your thirties and forties, they became “classics”.  And as you slide toward the tail end of your big-money earning years, they become “Oldies”.  And in 10-15 years, you’ll start seeing “nostalgia” stations playing sixties music.

Presuming music radio still exists, of course.

But as I’ve noted in this series – at least in re yours truly – there’s a separate emotional motivation – the one that leads to staking out one’s own identity.  In my case, it involved seeking out music that everyone at Jamestown High School wasn’t already listening to – at that time, the punk, new wave, and other non-top-40 stuff that was starting to make waves by the mid-late seventies – and eschewing the stuff that was popular at the time – the Linda Ronstadts, the Bee Gees, Barry Manilows, Andrew Golds, Eagles, Olivia Newton Johns,  Kisses and Bad Companys and Seals and Croftses and whatever else dominated the charts during that post-Watergate, post-Beatles, pre-Reagan era.

And at the intersection of those two emotional drives was Boston.  Or at least their first album.

On the one hand – it was the most perfect example of “corporate rock” of the seventies.  You look up “overproduced” in the dictionary, you see a drawing of Tom Scholtz, the group’s founder / guitarist / keyboarist / songwriter / dictator / superego / producer / electronic research engineer / sole remaining original member.  There was not a spontaneous bit of music, or an unaltered natural sound, anywhere on 1976 debut album.  It was the product – in both senses of the word – of Scholtz’ manic vision and Epic Records’ marketing plan.  And that was the stuff that teenage punks were supposed to eschew up and spit out

On the other hand?  It was the most perfect example of “corporate rock” of the seventies.

To a generation of kids, discovering the big wide world and out-of-town radio and girls is inextricably tied in with Tom Scholtz’ shimmering acoustic guitar; with Barry Goodreau’s mega-multi-tracked guitar pyrotechnics; with Brad Delp’s every-bit-as-enhanced-as-Kim-Kardashian’s-butt vocals; above all, with the overall sound, which is no more spontaneous than a meal cooked by a molecular gastronomer…

…and no less gloriously perfect.   

And for all of Pete Townsend’s purported dabbling into psychoacoustic research into patterns of sound that humans can not resist, it’d be hard to find a better example of any such phenomenon than “More than a Feeling”, “Long Time”…

…and probably half a dozen other moments on the first album 

If I were an eccentric billionaire, I might well pay a couple of psych grad students a few grand to determine whetherBoston- or especially “More than a Feeling” and “Long Time” – don’t have some sort of pavlovian, autonomic response among a generation of guys from 45-53 or so. 

And so while the obnoxious teen punk Mitch Berg didn’t say it too loud?  In a place that punk never talked about, even with his closest musical friends, Boston – and Boston – got quietly grandfathered in on the list of “music I’ll keep listening to with unironic joy”.  And there was always a copy of Boston lying around somewhere – a cassette in an unmarked case, in the case of an, er, friend of mine.

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Reconsidering The Seventies: James Taylor

In the wake of the breakup of the Beatles – who were probably the last musical group in history on which nearly everyone in the music-fan world, black, white, “serious”, pop, alt, mainstream – agreed, many different currents in pop music battled for public mindshare.

One genre that’d been largely waiting in pop music’s wings since before the Beatles got of the plane in New York was the various incarnations of folk music – both the “impure”, Bob Dylan strain that was mixing in rock and roll influences, and the more purist variety that was horrified by Dylan’s experimentation.

Naturally, over time, both subgenres mixed, frayed, developed orthodoxies, and apostates from those orthodoxies, and…well, became pretty much like any other genre of music.

And with the disappearance of the Beatles, and the retirement of the Formerly Fab Four to their single neutral musical corners, and the rest of the British Invasion either moving to consolidate their niches in pop culture (the Stones, the Who) and the deaths Hendrix and a slew of other sixties’ pioneers (Janis Joplin) and overrated hangers-on (Jim Morrison), some space appeared for some of those subgenres to make a move for center stage, as it were.

And of all of folk’s subgenres, one – the “Singer/Songwriter” – was most perfectly placed to reflect the zeitgeist of the decade.  The seventies were a mewling, neutered, utterly un-funky decade, clogged with self-doubt and angst and anxiety about what one really, reallywas – and so were the Singer-Songwriters.

Loosely modeled after Bob Dylan, but with an extra helping of bathetic sensitivity and a little light on the inventiveness and the insight, the singer-songwriters were a little like the nebbishy folk musicians that’d clogged Greenwich Village and Haight Ashbury and Cedar-Riverside a decade earlier – but they’d skipped “Howl” and read “Bell Jar” instead.

They were many; John “Welcome Back Kotter” Sebastian, Dan Fogelberg, John Denver (soon to be subject of one of these pieces), Jim Croce (ditto), Jackson Browne (yep),  John Prine (probably), Lobo and Terry Jacks and a zillion similar (not a chance).

But towering high above all of them, at least on the decade’s sales charts was James Taylor.

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Reconsidering The Seventies: The Who

One of the key tenets of being a late-seventies, early eighties musical “rebel” was rejecting not only the bland corporate rock and jet-set superstars of the seventies, but affecting a studied boredom with the sixties.  The Beatles were fun, but they were old news. The Stones had turned into a multinational enterprise more famous for their glam lifestyle than any actual music they’d done since 1972 or so.  Don’t even start talking about the Moody Blues, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers…

But there were two survivors of the British Invasion that still demanded respect.  The Kinks (of whom more later), who were sort of like the garage band we all wanted to have, run by Ray Davies, the same too-clever, too snarky, too-cool-to-be-a-hipster kind of guy we all aspired to be (or better yet, little brother Dave, the guitar anti-hero who spawned many a punk imitator)…

…and The Who.

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Reconsidering The Seventies: Fleetwood Mac

In the seventies, back before Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen completely rebooted the sales charts, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac was the ultimate, inescapable soundtrack of the last half of the decade.

And as such, being the hipper-than-thou, too-literally-cool-for-school wanna-be rock’nroll animal, I hated it.

Hated the nasal yawping of Stevie Nicks.  Hated Christine McVie’s banal cooing, and Mick Fleetwood’s shaggy dissipation and calculated (or coke-ulated) English off-beatness.  Hated especially Lindsay Buckingham’s “Look at how avant-garde I am, while selling 13 million copies!”, and John McVie’s…well, no.  I always liked John McVie.

It was a few years later – when Nicks basically adopted the Heartbreakers as her backup band for her first couple of solo albums – that I started to think maybe they deserved a chance.  But it was just a start.  And I didn’t follow up on it…

…until about 2009.  When I saw a Fleetwood Mac concert on TV.  And they were…pretty good musicians.  And they did a…

…well, pretty fair live show.

And I did a little digging.

Less Than The Sum Of History:   Fleetwood Mac’s history, for those who pay attention, reads a little like Spinal Tap:  the band has actually gone through four major line-ups, and innumerable minor changes to boot.    And while I knew about all of them when I was an obnoxious teenager, I never really paid much attention until recently.

Fleetwood and McVie started in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – the band that also launched Eric Clapton, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, “Cream” bassist Jack Bruce and original Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar, among dozens of others – during the British blues craze of the mid-sixties, when a generation of young Brits looted and pillaged the American blues tradition.  Also starting with Mayall were guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green.  Spencer, Green, McVie and Fleetwood started “Fleetwood Mac” in 1967 (McVie’s girlfriend, keyboardist Christine Perfect, left blues-rock band “Chickenshack” and joined the band after an album or so, and married McVie in 1969).

I did say blues, right?

That’s Spencer, an over-emoting Kirwan and Green, from about 1969.

Green and Spencer then went on to have a couple of classic seventies-style drug-induced meltdowns, leading the band to reform with a dizzying array of other musicians – including this line-up with singer-guitarist Bob Weston and American singer-guitarist Bob Welch, which yielded some progressive-y blues…:

…and some scandal (Weston banged Mick Fleetwood’s wife Patti Boyd, who would also be the fulcrum of the long feud between George Harrison and Eric Clapton)…

…leading Fleetwood to fire Weston, Welch to leave for a brief solo career, and the rapidly-divorcing McVies and Fleetwood to settle on a new front line, the American duo (and also-splitting-up couple) of Nicks and Buckingham.

Which was the band’s definitive line-up, the one that gave us Fleetwood Mac and Rumours and superstardom and excess…

…but we’ll come back to that. Here’s one of their big singles, “Go Your Own Way”

…and “Second Hand News”…

…and the big kahuna, “Don’t Stop”…:

On the “con” side, it was the ultimate manifestation of ’70’s California pop music; the first cousin of everything the Eagles, Jackson Browne and all the other west-coast pop artists I trained myself to detest were doing.

On the “pro” side? They were very good at it. Fastidious musicianship (even from a band that built sand castles out of cocaine); a style that got more unique over and music done as a craft rather than a nihilistic “art” form…

…that I had pretty much adopted as my thing at the time.

The song that started me thinking that there was something worth listening to? “The Chain”:

Suddenly, the notion that I’d grown up with – that Fleetwood Mac was a soulless, bloodless, hits-in-their-sleep Brill Building pop corporation – was self-serving, short-sighted, solipsistic and just plain dumb; it’s a great song.

So I’ve actually listened to some Fleetwood Mac over the past few years. Not gonna shell out $200 for the concert…

UPDATE:  as you can see from the comments, the “stub” version of this article – and the entire series – has been floating around my drafts folder, and occasional accidental publications, for four and a half years. 

But I’m finally getting it written!

Reconsidering The Seventies: Baseline (Reboot)

(NOTE:  I first ran this piece almost a year ago – April 17 2013 – fully intending to follow through and write this series.  And then…I didn’t.  But now I am.  So I’m going to re-run the piece from waaaay back when, and try to do a new piece roughly every Friday).

As I noted when I started this series a week or so ago, part of the reason I didn’t care much for most of the music of the seventies was because, in my drive to be just plain different than everyone around me, I figured if I was in for a dime, I’d best be in for a buck; go all-in with the punks and whatever else was cooler-than-thou.

When I was a kid in the seventies, I was too tall, coulda used a few pounds; the athletic gene skipped a generation (or at least the “willing to put up with coaches” gene did).  I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t especially smart, I wasn’t “in” with any crowd.  I had greasy hair and terminal social awkwardness.

But I did read Rolling Stone.  I knew what the cool kids were listening to in New York and LA and Chicago, and I sought it out; the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Generation X, to be sure, but all sorts of other stuff that was “alternative” in its day; Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, all of them were off the beaten pop path at that point.  That they all became the top forty within half a decade is one of the glorious things about early-eighties music.

And I buried my teenage identity in pretty much anything that the kids in North Dakota weren’t listening to.  The guys?  They dug Bad Company, Shooter, Trooper, Rush, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss and the like; the girls were into Dan Fogelberg, Styx and the Bay City Rollers and God only knows what else. The music geeks thought Chicago and Alan Parsons and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were just dreamy.

So I was pretty insufferable.

But it needs to be added that it was, in many ways, a terrible, terrible decade for pop culture.

Maybe it reflected a hangover from the turmoil of the sixties.  Maybe it was a measure of a society floating aimlessly and beginning to decay after a couple of decades of purpose and dynamic growth.  Maybe it was just all those baby boomers.

But like polyester clothes, The Brady Bunch and the Chevette, much of the music of the 1970s was a reminder that times were really not good.

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