Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lennon vs McCartney

I'm going through my music collection, and I've been listening to a lot of Beatles tracks lately. One thing that still comes up, to this day, almost 40 years since the Beatles broke up, is whether Lennon or McCartney was the better songwriter.

My simple answer is that they made each other better. Whether it was smiles and collaboration or "screw you, wait until you see what I have now", it seems pretty clear that they drove each other on. Competition seems to be a good thing for business, arts, most things really. It stops complacency and makes people focus on results and on improving them.

Having waffled enough, I'd have to say that I'm a McCartney guy. I don't dislike Lennon, I love many of his songs, but on the whole, I like McCartney's songs better. While I was exploring all this, I listened to Lennon's Greatest Hits (solo stuff), and found for the most part that the songs didn't grip me, and seemed a little dated. It might be a bit unfair, as he hasn't written much lately. Lennon put a lot more politics into his music, and while that may be commendable, it doesn't age as well. Songs like "Instant Karma" and "Power to the People" come off as very 70s. And some of his personal stuff is fine, but some of it I don't really click with.

McCartney seems to be more of the tunesmith, capable of writing the catchy hooks and melodies. I find that while everything he writes is not gold, he manages a few great songs with each album, and most of my favorite Bealtes songs are his.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Thunder Road

I find myself endlessly drawn in by Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road". Maybe it's the melody, the slow build, or the simplicity of the narrative, but it grabbed me a while back, and hasn't let go since.

Springsteen is often overlooked lyrically due to perhaps the big sound that the E-street band builds, or perhaps because of his top 40 hits. Mention him to the average joe, and you'll get "Dancing in the Dark", "Hungry Heart" or (most likely) "Born in the U.S.A.". There's an entire article to be written on the incredible number of people who completely misunderstand that song. It's more than a little ironic that Springsteen thought of as Jingoistic, or blindly patriotic when the entire point of his "anthem" was the rejection and plight of Vietnam veterans by their own country. Add in the final verse about the "shadow of the penitentiary" the "gas fires of the refinery" and how the narrator has "nowhere to run, ain't go nowhere to go", and one begins to wonder whether those people have ever actually listened to the words. I suppose it's like a lot of songs: You can still find people who think the Kinks' "Lola" is about a woman. Though really, it fits the model of America in the 21st century: In your face about how right it is, while blissfully ignorant about how wrong it is.

"Thunder Road" is on the opposite side of the hope spectrum from "Born in the U.S.A". It speaks of possibilities, and hope. It stirs up the idea of escaping on the open road, toward the hope of something better. It also hits you on a visceral level, trying to level with you and tell you what it thinks of you, while still holding open the door and accepting you.

The opening of the song is a simple, plaintive harmonica solo, backed with a simple melody on the piano. (it's not until a minute or so into the song that we get any other instrumentation.
"The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch while the radio plays.
Roy Orbison is singing for the lonely, hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again."

With just a few lines, Springsteen paints a vivid picture of Americana, of a boy and a girl, of love and solitude. As the song continues, the narrator tries to convince Mary to join him, to get away from it all, to leave the town behind and hit the open road. He offers a shot at redemption and salvation. There are no guarantees, but he offers her hope.

The song continues to build, and one item of interest is that there is no standard "chorus" as such. The song's title is mentioned in only a few lines, right in succession. It ends with an extended instrumental, saxophone blaring away. It began softly and quietly, but ends in a energetic celebration.

No conclusions as to why, but this one still rates in my top ten of all time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Music of Your Life

I was thinking today, as I was going through my music collection, about how many of the bands that I listen to are influenced by the people I've met throughout my life. I think that music can play the same role as "comfort food", in grounding you in a moment or a period of time. I imagine most of us can hear a song and remember a summer or an evening when that song was playing, and became part of that memory.

I listened to a lot of radio when I was young, and I guess that's where I picked up my interest in different styles of music. I remember I used to take my Fisher Price Seasame Street set and have the "little people" put on concerts to the Top 40 countdown on Saturday mornings.

When I was old enough to start buying my own music, I started with the usual stuff you'd regret later in life. I remember that my best friend in elementary school was a big fan of Abba and Olivia Newton John (he came out a while back...) and that it wasn't until junior high or high school that I started to listen to the kind of stuff that would stay with me for many years.

My friend Brent was a bit more adventurous than I, even in grade 9 or 10 he had discovered The Cure, The Jazz Butcher and Sigue Sigue Sputnik (okay, they can't ALL be winners). When I hear anything by the Jazz Butcher, or tracks from Head on The Door, I think of Brent.

I remember going to the record store and buying Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell, and thinking that I had done something blasphemous. My friend was confused as to why I would listen to that "Weird Stuff". The Pretty in Pink soundtrack takes me to a sunny hallway on the 3rd floor of my High School (especially "Left of Centre" by Suzanne Vega.)I moved through their catalogue and into The Smiths. New Order was around the corner, mostly due to school dances. I was a DJ during high school, and Brad introduced me to many different bands (I remember in particular INXS's Listen Like Thieves".)

I met Ray through Loose Moose, and he introduced me to Billy Bragg, and more importantly, Elvis Costello. Elvis is still arguably my favorite artist.

I'll always associate Squeeze with hanging out in Kate's apartment on candlelit nights playing chess, and "playing chess". Crowded House also belongs to Kate, and many singer/songwriters of the female persuasion.

I discovered a lot of music through Katie: K's Choice, Shawn Colvin, Sarah Harmer, Tariq and Wilco to name a few.

I still love stumbling across an artist I wasn't aware of, and discovering that they fit in with my tastes. I'm sure there are many more friends out there with music yet to be found.