Educating Peter # 13

September 16, 2012

This week Michael has sent me a song I haven’t heard before: “Breaking Away” by American band Balance.

To save you the bother of reading way too much nonsense (see below), I’ll tell you straight away that I sort of liked the song. I liked the main riff in the verses, and one of the vocal tunes. However…

Here’s one of my difficulties with fully appreciating the music of the 1980s: the production. “Breaking Away” is a pretty good example of one reason why there’s an invisible barrier between me and the music of the 80s. The production irritates me.

I will talk about more than the production, but be prepared for a list of annoyances…

Balance – “Breaking Away” (1981)

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0:00-0:04 – I’m guessing they’re supposed to be drums, but due to the producer deciding this is the way drums are supposed to sound “now” (i.e., the 1980s) I’m hearing a sound that’s decidedly non-musical. Or putting it another way: Are people making those sounds?

0:00-0:04 (again) – That beat reminds me of another song, but I can’t think of what that other song is. Hmm. (Note to self: Think, Peter, think.)

0:04-0:15 – I like that bass riff. It’s cute, and bouncy, and jaunty – and probably another word I can’t think of at the moment. (Curse this limited vocabulary!) There’s a little piano at 0:11 for a bit of colour. That’s nice. But for what it is (just a couple of piano chords), I think there’s a pointlessly large amount of echo on it. It’s only a piano fill. Why put that much echo on it? It sounds like it was recorded in another room. Excuse me while I shake my fist and say “80s production!”. But at least there isn’t as much echo on the piano here as there was on the piano – and everything else – in the Simple Minds track I talked about last week. (Now there was a band that specialised in echo.)

0:15-0:18 – A distorted electric guitar is playing that bass riff. I like it. I also like the sound of the guitar. I think it’s what power pop fans call “crunchy”.

0:18-0:22 – Whatever is making those sounds in this part of the song, it sure doesn’t sound like musical instruments to me. Or if they were musical instruments, they sure don’t sound like them now. 80s production strikes again.

0:22-0:31 – OK. That’s the intro out of the way. Now we have the verse. Ugh. I’m not liking the sound of the singer at all. His voice is fine, and he’s singing well, but courtesy of the 80s production (grrr) he sounds to me like Lou Gramm singing at the end of an empty swimming pool. Pardon me as I shake my fist again.

0:31-0:33 – I really like the little tune the singer sings here (“You know I’ll be breaking away”). It leads into an unexpected chord (F major). In technical terms, the band just modulated. Modulation is a fancy way of saying “changing key”.

Incidentally, now that I’ve mentioned modulation, I’d like to point out a song that to me is the supreme example of modulation in a pop song: The Beach Boys‘ “God Only Knows“. Thanks to Brian Wilson and his ever-restless mind, this song changes key a dizzying amount of times, but you don’t notice them because all those modulations fit together beautifully:

An example of bad modulation in pop music is Silverchair‘s album, Diorama. The songs modulate all over the place, but none of the modulations fit together. It’s a mess. Van Dyke Parks worked on Diorama and praised its author, Daniel Johns, but I don’t know why.

Here’s an example of what I think is bad, bad modulation:

But back to “Breaking Away”…

0:36-0:53 – Another verse, with an extended instrumental bit at the end (from 0:47-0:53). And the singer sang that nice tune again before the instrumental bit (0:45-0:47). Thank you, singer.

0:53-1:05 – Now it’s the chorus. I must admit that I don’t think this is much of a chorus. Unless I’m missing something, all it consists of is everyone singing “I’m breakin’ away”, followed by a guitar lick, followed by “Oooh”, followed by “I’m breakin’ away”, followed by the guitar lick, followed by “Oooh” etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I think it’s a catchy guitar lick, but really. Can I have a bit more variety in this chorus please?

1:05-1:08 – This sounds like a repeat of 0:18-0:22, but worse. What on Earth are those unearthly sounds? Did a human go anywhere near a musical instrument here?

1:08-1:17 – Another verse. Nothing to see here.

1:17-1:19 – Oh boo. The singer changed the last note of that nice tune.

1:23-1:31 – Another verse. See above.

1:31-1:33 – The singer sang that nice tune with the end note he sang the first two times. Yum.

1:39-1:48 – The chorus again. “I’m breakin’ away”, guitar lick, “Oooh”, “I’m breakin’ away”, guitar lick, “Oooh”…

1:48 – The way the singer sings his elongated “away” here sounds a bit strange to me. He sounds as if he’s straining. I’d rather not say what I think he’s doing whilst singing that “away”. (Let’s just say it involves toilets.)

Oh-oh. They’ve cut the chorus short. I do believe they’re going to put in a middle eight here.

1:51-2:10 – Well that was odd. It is the middle eight, but the band chose a very weird chord to go to for it. It reminds me of the moody parts of Alice Cooper‘s Welcome To My Nightmare.

For this middle eight, the band have kept up those ghastly drums but it sounds to me like it doesn’t belong in this song. If I was guessing here (and I guess I am), I’d guess that someone in the band had written the song but didn’t have a middle eight for it. This would have led to that person asking around: “Hey, does anyone have a middle eight?”. To which a fellow band member would pipe up: “Yep – I’ve got one”. The first songwriter would have then said: “OK, that’ll do. Let’s record.” I’ve just checked and found that the song was written by one guy, Peppy Castro. Now I’m guessing Peppy had a spare middle eight lying around and decided the one he used would do the job. I don’t.

2:10-2:17 – There’s that horrible non-human instrumental drumming bit again. And they doubled the length of it. Grrr².

2:17-2:25 – Another verse. Yes indeed. (I can’t think of anything else to say.)

2:25-2:28 – That nice tune again, but this time everyone sang it. Fabulous.

2:33-3:17 – The chorus again. Oh-oh. Because it’s close to the end of the song, I think they’re going to repeat the chorus. Gulp.

By the way, this chorus started with the singing as before, but this time it was accompanied by some awful synthesizer filigree (with a setting that’d be called something like “Ice Crystals” or “Frozen Landscapes”). I hope that synthesizer sound wasn’t there earlier in the song. If it was, I’m glad I didn’t notice it.

The chorus is being repeated and then it fades out. Fair enough. That’s what most pop songs do. As the chorus was repeated I liked the singer’s interjections. He shouts a “Yeah!” at 2:43, and another one at 2:50, and a James Brown-styled “Hnh!” at 2:53, and a couple of urgent “I!”s (that sound like “Ah!”) at 3:00-3:01. As the song fades he adds a fun “ay-ay-ay-ay-ay” from 3:03-3:05. Why not?

Well, I’ve now heard the song. And although I sort of enjoyed it, I don’t have a huge urge to hear it again.

By the way, Michael told me that the song’s author, Peppy Castro, was also a member of The Blues Magoos who had a hit in 1966 with “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet“. That song featured a riff stolen from Ricky Nelson‘s 1962 hit “Summertime“, and the riff was later used for… How about I point you in the direction of Musical coincidences # 94?


Song of the day: Danny Gatton – "In My Room"

July 1, 2012

When you’re a guitarist with unassailable ability and a good bunch of musicians behind you, and you want to record The Beach Boys‘ “In My Room” but you don’t have a vocalist, you realise you don’t need a vocalist because you can do this:

Danny Gatton – “In My Room (1991)

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This isn’t a musical coincidence or anything, but Danny’s version of “In My Room” reminds me of Marshall Crenshaw‘s version of “What Time Is It?”:

Marshall Crenshaw – “What Time Is It?” (1983)

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But back to Danny Gatton. Here’s his rip-roarin’ version of the theme to The Simpsons:

Danny Gatton – “The Simpsons (1991)

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Trivia Time: Danny didn’t want to record The Simpsons theme. His record company persuaded him to because they wanted something they could get played on the radio. Danny offered his thoughts at the end of the track. (It’s quiet, but there’s a definite audible comment.)

And so concludes this week of instrumentals. I hope it wasn’t too much of an ordeal for you. We’ll resume vocal duties tomorrow.

(Now all I need to do is think of a song that has singing in it.)

Oh, and before I forget, here are the original versions of today’s songs:

The Beach Boys – “In My Room (1963)

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The Jive Five with Eugene Pitt – “What Time Is It?” (1962)

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Danny Elfman – “The Simpsons Theme (1989)


Happy Birthday, Thomas Edison

February 11, 2011

Today is Thomas Edison‘s birthday.

Edison invented the phonograph, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Thank you, Mr Edison.

If there was no phonograph, there wouldn’t have been this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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Song of the day: Scott Bennett and The Dotted Line – "I Know There’s An Answer"

September 11, 2010

If you’re a reader of this blog then you’re probably a power pop fan. And if you’re a power pop fan then you’re probably familiar with the scarily revered Pet Sounds. You may have heard that album a few times, or know someone who’s heard it a couple of dozen times – or even a couple of hundred times. Either way, Pet Sounds is a pretty well-known album to power pop fans.

I’m mentioning this because today’s song is a cover of a track from Pet Sounds. Now, I don’t know exactly how you feel about hearing a cover of a Pet Sounds song. If you’re a huge Pet Sounds fan, you may not take too kindly to someone covering something so treasured. But then again, you may be the kind of person who thinks: “They’re only songs. They’re not sacred artefacts that can never be tampered with. Let’s see what someone else can do with them.”

I must admit that I’m in the latter camp (i.e., “They’re only songs…”), so I’m happy to hear someone else’s take on something from Pet Sounds. When I heard Scott Bennett & The Dotted Line‘s version of this particular track, I thought “Oh, yeah – now this is a good cover version”:

Scott Bennett & The Dotted Line – “I Know There’s An Answer” (2004)

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I like the little reference to “Hey Bulldog” at the end of the song.

“I Know There’s An Answer” appears on Scott Bennett & The Dotted Line’s self-titled album (2004).

By the way – and this is one of those “isn’t it a small world!” things – Scott Bennett just happens to be a member of Brian Wilson’s band. Small world, isn’t it?

Speaking of Brian Wilson, here’s the original:

The Beach Boys – “I Know There’s An Answer” (1966)

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As a bonus, here’s a Pet Sounds outtake that sounds strangely reminiscent of something you may have heard before…

The Beach Boys – “Hang On To Your Ego” (1966)

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Frank’s Faves on Fridays

July 23, 2010

Gilbert O’Sullivan – “Get Down (1973)

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I am incredibly glad that you suggested “Get Down”. For me, this song can never be played often enough – or be too loud. I’ve always adored “Get Down”, ever since I first heard it. And that verse! When Gilbert’s singing the verse, is there a better tune in the known universe than that? (Possibly, but not when it’s playing.) And, of course, the song’s nowhere near long enough, so you have play it again. And again. And again. This is precisely the kind of song that reminds me why I loved AM radio in the Seventies so much.

The Tourists – “So Good To Be Back Home Again” (1980)

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I didn’t mind this, but it’s not a patch on my favourite Tourists track, their magnificent version of “I Only Want To Be With You” (1979):

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But “So Good To Be Back Home Again” is alright, I suppose. It just didn’t grab me anywhere in particular.

The Fantastic Baggys – “Surfin’ Craze” (1964)

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A jaw-droppingly shameless rip-off. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this song exists precisely because of the popularity of The Beach Boys. I know you’re a big fan of The Beach Boys, so you’re undoubtedly familiar with the very song that “Surfin’ Craze” mercilessly references (i.e., the real thing).

Beverly Bremers – “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember” (1972)

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This is a song and an artist I’d never heard of before, and I’m extremely grateful to you for foisting it upon me. I loved it. I have to admit, though, that when the singing started, my first thought was “It’s Little Donny Osmond!” but then it settled into a great Big Ballad, and not the kind that Hair Metal rockers created in the Eighties. As far as I’m concerned, “Don’t Say You Remember” = excellent.

Bonus instrumental:

The Marketts – “Out Of Limits” (1963)

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What a weird surf guitar instrumental. It sound like the kind of thing I’ve heard before, but I don’t ever remember hearing the names of the artist or the song (maybe all surf guitar music sounds similar to me). I was puzzled by that odd sound effect in the background. I thought it was an army of staplers, all stapling in synchronization. Weird.

I must say, Frank, that with this week’s songs I’m exceedingly pleased with two of your choices. You scored a direct bullseye with “Get Down” (excuse me while I play it again), and the Beverly Bremers song was a revelation.

Splendid!


Frank’s Faves on Fridays

May 14, 2010

Big Star – “Back Of A Car” (1974)

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My thoughts on Big Star have already been mentioned on the blog. I’m not a fan:

“Unfortunately, during those formative years I never heard – or even knew about – Big Star until years afterward. (Countdown didn’t played them, and neither did any of the radio stations I listened to.) As a result, the Holy Trinity of power pop (The Raspberries/Big Star/Cheap Trick) was incomplete for me because I hadn’t bonded with Big Star as a teenager (i.e., the music becoming virtually a part of your DNA as your personality forms) as I did with the other bands. I have to admit, though, that even after becoming well acquainted with Big Star, I’m still not much of a fan. This’ll probably sound like sacrilege, and instantly revoke any power pop credentials I may have had up until now, but… I generally find a lot of their lyrics a bit too maudlin (e.g., “Thirteen“), their musicianship painfully sloppy (e.g., “Don’t Lie To Me“), and their melodies not terribly strong (e.g., “Stroke It Noel“), to fully enjoy them. You can call me a heretic now if you like. Maybe I needed to have been an American teenager when I was growing up.”

As you can see, I’m not the ideal guy to give an appraisal of a Big Star song. But “Back Of A Car” sounds like a typical Big Star song to me: lots of treble on the Stratocaster; high tenor singing; sounds like The Byrds playing rock songs etc.

The Beach Boys – “Keep An Eye On Summer (1964)

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I’m actually thinking about putting this one on the blog*, but it’s not Australian and it’s not power pop. (I know, I know: that’s never stopped me before.) However, if I do put it on the blog (I probably will), I’ll mention how sublime the harmonies are, and how the guitar part is incredibly similar to the guitar part in “This Boy“.

(*Note to self: it’s on the blog now.)

Incidentally, apart from not knowing this song, I also didn’t know that Brian Wilson re-recorded it for his 1998 album, Imagination:

Brian Wilson – “Keep An Eye On Summer” (1998)

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But back to your suggestions, Frank…

Brinsley Schwarz – “The Ugly Things” (1974)

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I received this with the artist listed as Nick Lowe. Nick is singing on it but it ain’t a Nick Lowe song. I’d never heard the song before so it took a little while to find out that the artist was actually Brinsley Schwarz (the band Nick was in). With that akwardness out of the way, I had another listen to the song and came to the conclusion that it was nice. A little Beatle-y and pleasant, but not much more. The first time I listened to the song (thinking it was Nick), I had rather hoped to get more out of the song than I did. I’m used to the Nick Lowe of Jesus Of Cool. (Which reminds me to listen to it again sometime. I haven’t heard it in ages.) That album has so much variety on it that I think of it as Nick Lowe’s Revolver, where every song is completely different but each song is highly enjoyable. The second time I listened to “The Ugly Things” (knowing it was Brinsley Schwarz), I had pretty much the same reaction as the first time: a little Beatle-y and pleasant, but not much more. For me, “The Ugly Things” is the sound of Nick Lowe as a budding songwriter.

Billy Satellite – “Satisfy Me” (1984)

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This came on after I’d heard the other three songs, and it was a shock. This is the kind of 80’s rock that, whenever I heard it, was one big generic blur to me. There was so much of it around at the time, and it all sounded so similar, that my ears couldn’t tell who was playing what. Was it Ratt, Poison, Warrant, Cinderella? My ears weren’t attuned enough to the subtleties of differences in any of those bands, so back then it felt like I was being inundated by what sounded like one band releasing way too many records. Nevertheless, I duly listened to “Satisfy Me”, and the only thing I enjoyed was the singer’s yelp at 3:18. I thought it was hilarious. Incidentally, I just found out (courtesy of the Wikipedia link) that Billy Satellite is a band, not a person. Who knew? (Not me.)


Musical coincidences # 50

May 9, 2010

I’m amazed that nobody else has mentioned this coincidence before, because to me it’s always been glaringly obvious.

Ever since I first heard this part of the verse in Fountains Of Wayne‘s “Leave The Biker” (1996)…

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…I’ve heard “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’ / Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread”:

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That’s what I hear every time FoW’s Chris Collingwood sings whatever he sings in those verses. For me, it’s all “Mama’s little baby loves…”.

There have been plenty of versions of “Shortnin’ Bread” over the years. The one above is by Paul Chaplain And His Emeralds. Here’s the full version, along with some others:

Paul Chaplain And His Emeralds – “Shortnin’ Bread” (1960)

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The Andrews Sisters – “Shortnin’ Bread” (1938)

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Tony Crombie And His Rockets – “Shortnin’ Bread” (1956)

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The Viscounts – “Shortnin’ Bread” (1960)

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Brian Wilson – “Shortnin’ Bread” (1976)

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The Beach Boys – “Shortnin’ Bread” (1979)

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And here’s the full FoW song:

Fountains Of Wayne – “Leave The Biker” (1996)

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