Saturday, June 29, 2013

Huey Lewis and other 80's flashbacks

Steven Hyden's profile of Huey Lewis is another home run in his Grantland portfolio.  It's partly the proverbial trip down memory lane, and partly a subtle reminder that the "winners' history of rock and roll" still has a few unfinished chapters.  Where was the chapter about the hair metal bands who can play nostalgia shows to thousands of people from now until forever without ever releasing another new album?  Huey Lewis and the News had more top ten hits than almost any other band currently playing the so-called nostalgia circuit, so they're probably good to keep touring from now until forever and a half.

Lewis doesn't say anything particularly insightful in the interview, but he clearly understands his niche in the music industry.  He still plays up the same hard working bar band image that worked for him in the 80's and he knows how to play that role perfectly to the tune of filling concert halls with 2-3K happy concertgoers in medium sized towns basically any time he wants.  That kind of drawing power is nothing to sneeze at, almost indie bands would kill for that kind of steady income.  His little speech about making a new record -- "I don't know what a new record is anymore," Lewis says. "I think what we have to do is record it, and video the recording and make a YouTube clip." -- comes off a bit like granddad going on about those crazy kids these days and their internets.  But you can't claim that the man doesn't know exactly who he is and where he belongs in music in 2013.

The article mainly focused on the success of "Sports", but "Fore!" was huge as well.  It spawned five top ten hits, one more than "Sports", which is a remarkable number for any album in the 80's or any other decade.  They had a solid five year run as one of the top bands in pop music, which doesn't even include "Small World" and its few minor hits.  The synths on the title track were an obvious rip off of Prince's "1999" and "Perfect World" tried to be reggae (and fairly successfully too!), but at least they were trying something new and not standing in place like so many other 80's bands did as that decade came to a close.  However, it's not true, as Lewis claims, that rock stations wouldn't play their album in 1991 because grunge was breaking through and they couldn't be less cool.  Huey Lewis and the News were never cool.  They always looked totally out of place.  They were the hard working bass-drums-guitar-sax band who wore suits on the beach in their videos and always looked out of place (and a little bit too old to be there).  They never fit the mold of the plastic, image driven 80's band, it's just that their songs were generally too good to ignore.

An unexpected side effect of Hyden's article was my rediscovery of the "We Are the World" video, which I hadn't seen or heard in a million years, and has now been inexplicably stuck in my head for the past two days.  From there, I simply had to re-watch the Canadian famine relief record, "Tears Are Not Enough", and ... wow.

First of all, even South Park couldn't come up with a charity record parody as good as this one.  Out of all the charity records I've seen, I don't think any of them manage to piece together this kind of motley crew of oddities, pseudo stars, and people that look like they were beamed in from other planets to appear in the record.  In the latter category, Neil Young looks like he's in his own dreamworld separate from the rest, with his skullcap, long hair, sunglasses, and thin, reedy voice on a song that demands the corniest drama possible. Who convinced underground artists like Carole Pope and the famously reclusive Jane Siberry to show up?  You've got SCTV alumni, Paul Schaeffer, a few token lyrics in French, and Geddy Lee and Bryan Adams getting their vocals specially reverbed just for them.  "We Are The World" featured the biggest superstars in music at the time, but "Tears Are Not Enough" leads off with Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, and Anne Murray.  Lightfoot is and will forever be awesome, but you'll be hard pressed to find three more quintessentially Canadian cultural icons/punchlines.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Two comebacks: Stone Roses and Primal Scream

The Roses' classic lineup reunited a couple of years ago for the first time since 1994, and while Primal Scream never technically went away, they've been playing "Screamadelica" live in its entirety at concerts, and reliving the glories of their most successful album from over twenty years ago feels like something that reuniting bands do.

Both of these acts were my favourite band in the world at one point in time.  A quick and subjective history:

1990-1991.  With all due respect to Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, The Stone Roses were my favourite band during this period.  They'd already gone into hibernation in the UK by the time I heard "Fools Gold" sometime in the summer of 1990, but that hardly mattered to me at the time.

1992.  "Screamadelica" became a sensation, winning the inaugural UK Mercury Music Prize and creating superstars out of both the band and it's producer (Andrew Weatherall).  This oddly mirrored what had already happened when the success of The Stone Roses' debut turned its producer John Leckie into a household name.  I was too busy waiting for Manchester to rise again and scouring the music press for even the tiniest snippet of news about a new Stone Roses album (or gig, or sighting, or anything) and didn't really get into "Screamadelica" until 1993 or so.

1994.  Primal Scream released the blues-y, Stones-y "Give Out But Don't Give Up", which everyone desperately wanted to like.  The collective brainwashing lasted until 1997 or so, at which point a lot of people stopped pretending to like it (the fact that they pulled another 180 with the release of "Vanishing Point" definitely helped). But it wasn't all bad, because the singles "Rocks" and "Jailbird" were hits and still hold up today, and I got to see them when they toured with Depeche Mode on their summer tour (making an already debauched tour even more debauched).

Meanwhile, The Stone Roses finally released their second album, "The Second Coming", and it was a big disappointment in the "we waited five years for a Led Zeppelin tribute album?" sense.  In other words, if it had been released in 1991, people would have called it an interesting direction for a sophomore album and respected the band for leaving Madchester behind (even if the resulting album was even more retro-sounding). They would have regularly drawn thousands of people to their concerts for the next couple of years and been as big if not bigger than they were before.  But they released it in 1994 on the heels of Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, and a wave of other breakthrough albums by British bands, turning them into just another Britpop band in a long list of them, rather than the saviours of rock as we knew it.  Expectations were through the roof, and the only thing that could have saved "The Second Coming" was if it turned out to be as good or better than their debut, which was of course an unfair burden, albeit one the Roses brought upon themselves by sitting at home doing nothing for a few years previous.

1995-1996.  The Stone Roses imploded in spectacular fashion.  Reni left the band.  John Squire broke his collarbone, leading to a cancellation of their headlining slot at Glastonbury and a golden opportunity at a homecoming that could have restored them to their previous stature.  John Squire left the band and a replacement level Stone Roses played at Reading 1996 with a tone deaf Ian Brown.  By the time of the inevitable final breakup in the fall of 1996, I was past the point of caring.  Once in a while I'd listen to the debut album and still be blown away by its ageless cool, but for the most part The Stone Roses had vanished from my life.  Unlike with, say The Smiths or Joy Division, I didn't revisit their music and wonder what could have been had they stayed together.  They were in the past, period.

2000-2001.  Having never really bought into the idea of Primal Scream as an era-defining band the first time around, I certainly wasn't expecting them to climb the mountain a second time.  Somehow, Primal Scream 2.0 turned out to be even better than the first version.  The jet fueled noise/dance hybrid "XTRMNTR" was the best album of 2000, Kevin Shields joined them on tour, and Primal Scream were my favourite band. Thirteen years later, I'm still not exactly sure what to make of "XTRMNTR" (it remains a very polarizing album, even among Primal Scream fans) and I still can't quite believe the 2000-1 years really happened.

2002-2008.  "Evil Heat" was a worthy follow-up to "XTRMNTR", but they'd always walked a fine line between sharp but twisted and demented commentary and lunatic ravings, so it was inevitable that they'd go off the rails.  By mid decade they'd returned to making classic rock and flipping their lids on stage at Glastonbury.  I stopped caring about them almost as quickly as I'd (re)started.

2011 - 2013.  The Stone Roses announced the reunion of their classic lineup, a series of gigs, and rumours circulated about a third album being in the works.  Mani left Primal Scream to focus on being in the Roses again, and has been replaced by MBV's Debbie Googe! (apparently Primal Scream are contractually obligated to have their bassist pull double duty!)  The "Screamadelica" revival shows don't excite me, but the idea of a new album ("More Light") produced by David Holmes is certainly intriguing.

With the introduction out of the way, let's check out some recent gigs by these bands.  Are they still any good?  Is there any reason to still care about these bands?

Primal Scream in Berlin in 2011

This is an hour long TV-quality recording of a "Screamadelica" show, and it's nostalgia at its worst.  I mean, if this wasn't Primal Scream playing "Screamadelica" then you'd shut it off in disgust after five minutes.  Bobby Gillespie's "singing" is lifeless, tuneless, and completely devoid of energy, save for the two minutes at the end of the set when he just screams random things into the mic, which seems to be the only thing he knows how to do anymore.  I've put "singing" in quotation marks because at no point could you conceivably claim that he's carrying a tune, emoting the lyrics, or doing anything else that you'd normally associate with singing.

The band and even the background singers are not doing much more than going through the motions.  "Loaded" gains some momentum toward the end and it's nice to hear them mix the original "Come Together" with the Weatherall remix from the single. There were a few brief instances when this gig brought a smile to my face because I remembered how much I used to love these songs.  Then Bobby Gillespie would screech some kind of horrible phrase and I'd return to the hellish reality of the husk of Primal Scream in 2011.

Like I said, pure nostalgia, and the worst kind because it only makes you think about what once was.  The present is barely tolerable and contains almost no new musical worth.  

The Stone Roses live in Barcelona and Lyon, June 2012: 

Having watched the Primal Scream concert before this one, let's just say I was fearing the worst here.  Yes, I'd heard that the Roses reunion shows had been successful, but I'd heard the same about the "Screamadelica" shows. Ian Brown's voice, which was never what you'd call "polished" even in his younger days, has been steadily heading south over the past decade and a half, and his solo career hasn't exactly disguised that fact.  Whereas the Scream have been playing together for over twenty five years (plus or minus a few lineup changes) and should have been energized or at least something approaching professional at this stage in the game, this lineup of The Stone Roses hadn't played together in over twenty years at the time of their reunion. Hell, Reni hadn't even played drums live on a stage in twenty years.

This is a complete concert pieced together from fan footage of shows in Lyon and Barcelona.  I'm always shocked that somebody has the patience to carefully piece together these things and post them on Youtube, but am usually thankful that they did.  Plus I've always loved a great bootleg, with crowd noise and muddy sound and all the nuances that go into making you feel you were really there, packed in among thousands of people.  Some of these songs cut off a bit before the end, but otherwise the concert is complete.

Three out of the four Stone Roses have been active musicians for the past two decades.  That said, is it obvious that the added experience and time spent honing their stagecraft separately would help them play better as a reunited unit?  I don't think it is ... who's to say that the chemistry would still be there after fifteen years apart?

This is a remarkable concert, and far better than it had any right to be.  What the Roses lack in technical precision is made up for by sheer determinedness.  They're going to put on a great show by force of willpower, and they're going to do it their way.  Ian Brown is going to prance around not doing much of anything other than shake the occasional tambourine, John Squire is going to jam when he feels like jamming, Mani's going to hold the whole thing together with his steady bass playing, and Reni's going to show that he can still drum with the best of them after eons away from the stage.  That's the plan.  They don't let little blips like the distracting unintentional tempo changes in "When Angels Play" and "Standing Here" bother them.  Ian Brown's voice might falter at times, but it still sounds stronger than it has in years, possibly (hopefully) because of the added motivation behind this reunion.  Plus, he's got a safety valve -- whenever he's low on lung power, thousands of people are more than happy to help him out.  

The entire band looks great, especially John Squire, who hasn't aged a bit or changed his clothes or hairstyle in 20 years.

Like all great gigs, this one builds momentum toward the finish, with the band sounding better as they go, until "Made of Stone", "This is the One" and "She Bangs the Drums" close the set with a flurry of hand waving and crowd participation.  It's just so great to hear these songs sounding so anthemic more than twenty years later.  The finale, naturally, is "I Am The Resurrection", and it still sounds unstoppable.

It's not the kind of show I'd want to watch and rewatch every day.  I know I'd keep finding holes in it and some memories are meant to be revisited only occasionally.  But reunion shows can't get much better than this.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Stuff we don't often see discussed: the physics of mosh pits and the economics of ticket scalping

A few months ago I came across a story about the physics of mosh pits.  A few Cornell physicists (and part time metalheads) were blurring the lines between work and hobby, and their article came complete with a link to a mosh pit simulator.  I loved it.  No, it was just about the coolest thing ever.

Now their study has been published in Physical Review Letters, one of the top physics journals in the world. How much is there to love about this article?

1) The title is "Collective Motion of Humans in Mosh and Circle Pits at Heavy Metal Concerts".

2) In the acknowledgements, it's noted that "field work was independently funded by J. L. Silverberg" (the lead author of the paper).

3) The hilarious overuse of scientific language, e.g. "a collective phenomenon consisting of 10^1 - 10^2 participants commonly referred to as a mosh pit".

4) The Cohen group (i.e. the principal investigator of the study) are becoming minor celebrities out of this, check out the insanely long list of media outlets that have picked up on this story.

5) They are a shoo-in to grab the IgNobel prize for physics this year.


In other news, Adam Davidson examines the wildly counterintuitive business of ticket scalping in the New York Times.  It turns out that artists such as Bruce Springsteen, who undercharge relative to the prices that the market would bear, are inadvertently encouraging scalping.  The article ignores the psychological aspect of scalping, where there exists only a narrow window of time in the days leading up to the concert where the anticipation builds for the event and one can maximize the profits from scalping.  This would seem to make an already complex issue even more complex.  

I don't get the Kid Rock model of selling the best 1000 seats at a much higher price than the rest, because are fans really going to shell out that much for only marginally better seats?  And if they are willing to shell out the money, won't the scalpers still want to buy up those seats, because they still stand to make more money selling a small number of those expensive seats rather than a larger number of very inexpensive seats?  The third option is that the scalpers will stay away from those types of shows entirely, but is there really any data to support that?

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Music in Berlin 2013

There was a lot of talk about clubs and clubbing while I was here, but the only live music I saw was a Cuban band at a salsa party in the Gruener Salon in Rosa Luxemburg Platz.  The party was apparently organized by a branch of the local Communist-leaning party and was part of a weekend long festival taking place in the nearby square.  In lieu of an entrance fee, attendees were presented with pamphlets and encouraged to leave a donation in the donation box.  That's a version of PWYC that I'd never seen before.  The music was great the beer was super cheap, and Germans have no idea how to dance salsa [insert joke about German dancing abilities here].  Salsa lessons may be nearly nonexistent in Mitte, but people of all ages sure do love the music.

Speaking of clubs, I thought that clubs were being forced to close in Berlin?  I'd read about how zoning laws and redevelopment were starting to put the clubs out of business and people were worried about the long term health of the clubbing scene.  You can put those worries to rest -- there are a million new clubs (and DJs) I'd never heard of before, and more parties than ever taking place in every corner of the city.  Too bad I never went to any of them, because I'm getting old and cranky and need my sleep lately.  I thought about heading to Berghain (I was staying only a few minutes walk away) to get rejected at the door for old time's sake, but I didn't.

I bought a ton of music at Spacehall, which is clearly now the best place for buying CDs in Berlin.  It's almost become my one-stop emporium for buying music in the city, at least until I get back into buying vinyl again. I also may have bought Pure's "Bodyhammer" 2CD compilation for the second time, I'll have to check when I get back home.  I have a 2CD album at home that isn't recognized by Gracenote, my guess is that I bought it in Berlin right before packing up and moving, left the CD cover in storage, promptly forgot what it was, and rarely took it out of the case because I didn't have the slightest clue what it was.  Anyone need an extra copy?

I also bought Depeche Mode's "Monument" book because I was seeing posters for it everywhere and it looks too good to pass up (even in German).  It's damned heavy and there's supposed to be an English translation on the way in the fall but why wait?  The pictures should tell the story quite well anyway and it's bound to be a collector's item so this is money well spent as far as I'm concerned.  I'm perfectly willing to struggle though it and use my extremely limited knowledge of German to make my way though some of the text.  Part of the focus is on the Eastern European fan clubs anyway.  There's a preview on Electronic Beats' website, whose magazines I will be reading on the flight home.