Left of the Dial: “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”
Written by Left of the Dial on February 22, 2018
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? –Gary Numan
Are friends electric, what a question indeed. Electronic prodigy and synthesizer architect Gary Numan presents a stark display to what the possibilities of an all-digital sound may have in store. Despite having what may be considered a direct footprint onto the burgeoning keyboard and drum machine driven sound that would later dominate the 1980’s, Gary Numan is a relatively unsung hero unless conversing with proper musician circles. Casual listeners may recognize him as the “Cars” guy, but his importance goes much further than an MTV video with neon tracksuits and holographic tambourines (although, I doubt anyone would complain about any of it). No, Gary Numan’s synthpop sound goes much beyond the novelty that many may be tempted to pin him with, as “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” makes a very reasonable case for the importance of electronics in music. Fun Fact: Gary Oldman is younger than Gary Numan by 13 days, ain’t that a kicker?
Return the Gift -Gang of Four
The natural state of Post-Punk music is almost oxymoronic in its most basic concept. Post-Punk is an effort to take an inherently snotty and volatile genre and stripping it down into its most minimal form in hopes to bring Punk to its absolute logical conclusion. Nobody was quite able to drive home minimal effectiveness like Gang of Four was able to do, the chords played on their recordings are few and far between but each one has incredible sound and is really able to pack a punch. The intro guitar line to the cut “Return the Gift” almost taunts the listener in it’s isolated simplicity, almost sarcastically performed by the guitarist. It’s only two notes he’s playing for Pete’s sakes, anybody could have wrote that! But the underlying genius is in the fact that if anybody could have wrote it, somebody already would have. It may not be until the full band kicks in where it becomes apparent that the focus of the band is in the notes that aren’t played, and all the rhythmic tinkerings of the Reggae Dub influenced rhythm section. I distinctly remember being 15 or so and was flat-out flabbergasted at this songs discordant guitar solo the first time I had heard this album, an absolute middle-finger to anyone who walks into this project with preconceived notions of what the instrument’s purpose in a group is which is perfectly brilliant. Perhaps not too surprisingly, this record made an appearance on Kurt Cobain‘s list of his 40 favorite albums ever and the influence is clear as daylight. The entirety of Entertainment! is a must-listen for anyone who has even the mildest of interests in this approach of songwriting.
You’re No Good -Linda Ronstadt
There is clearly an art to writing a unique song to call your own, but it is something else entirely to take an existing composition and perform it in a way that reclaims another work as yours. Perhaps there was nobody better at doing so (in a post vocal Jazz age) than the silk-voiced Linda Ronstadt, who had a surprising knack for making chart toppers out of mostly pre-existing material. Despite nearly none of her hits being written for her she is still able to make all of her songs have a cohesive sound, often with Americana-tinged performances from a real “who’s who” of session players and a vocal style that conveys incredibly without feeling the need to blare over her instrumentals, to a degree hadn’t been seen to this effect since Dusty Springfield. The influence of Linda Ronstadt and her sultry charm of “You’re No Good” exceeds past just her Pop contemporaries, as this track was covered and featured as the opening track to Van Halen’s sophomoric effort Van Halen II which surely must’ve alienated some of their hard-rocker fans but satisfied those who are familiar with the group’s affinity for Pop hooks. Linda also resides in Tucson these days, so I gotta give some representation to AZ.
Surf Hell -Little Barrie
Sometimes a killer guitar riff is what sells the entire package. Little Barrie seems to know just what makes the guitar sound so infectious, as the group leans the song’s structure on the call-and-response back to that KILLER riff. Sometimes it’s kind of shocking to hear a guitar line like this, as surely somebody must have already written this riff prior. A guitar riff that is this simple and effective would leave one to think that it must’ve been around since the beginning of the Rock revolution, but it seriously only came to in 2011 which is wild. Of course the rest of the song is just as exciting, the rip roaring *wipeout* guitar tremolos are a personal favorite of mine. Something which only came to my attention after the initial broadcast, was that this is the group responsible for the twangy theme song to Better Call Saul which is just fascinating to me. I’m gonna chalk this up to being an intentional decision on my hand seeing as how I chose to end with “Baby Blue” from Breaking Bad. “Surf Hell” doesn’t care if you own a surfboard, grab a pair of headphones and get ready to hang ten with this song.
He Was a Big Freak -Betty Davis
“HE WAS A BIIIIIIIGG FREAK!”, Betty Davis hollers. Well, it definitely takes one to know one because this gal is as freaky-deaky as they come. Betty Davis is so much more than just a footnote on the life of Jazz great Miles Davis, Betty was able to carve out an identity for herself that very few are able to match even to this day. She and her wild live shows helped elevate her to becoming a vital voice to the Black Feminist movement of the time eschewing traditional gender norms in trade of being a funkily strange feat to behold. Even the instruments are an assault to the senses, featuring a large sound despite each instrument contributing only a note or two in order to make a sound that is larger than it’s sum. A sound that is blippy and bloopy, it would seem that each player has an incredibly short attention span but instead falls in line with some of the other world-inspired Funk music. Although being more than just a +1 to Miles Davis (and a brief stint with Jimi Hendrix) it also can’t be measured how influential she was to the world of music after she convinced Miles to transition to his Fusion period which produced one of the most fertile times in music history as artists were then inspired to blend the elements of Free-Jazz, Psychedelic Rock, and Funk, most clearly seen in the polarizing but essential Miles Davis record Bitches Brew. It is not uncommon for Jazz purists to express their distaste in how strange Bitches Brew is, but it would be quite the sight to behold to witness them experience the mania of Mrs. Davis.
Free Money -Patti Smith
When discussing the legacy and greatness of Patti Smith, there are many words that may first come to mind in such conversation. Innovator. Poet. Esoteric. Enigmatic. Rebel. She is able to create masterworks in the Art Punk scene through a seemingly effortless way, one that implies an incredible amount of thought and preparation but sounds so natural that it would only seem obvious for her to have such an approach despite apparent difficulties. Most songs on her debut Horses follow a twisting song structure often built around dynamics and textural ideas to help support her lyrics, which is where the crux of the song usually falls upon. “Free Money” has some of the more decipherable lines in her canon, so each line is direct enough to get the point across while still painting an overall image to the listener. Played in a way that only her band could, the song only continues to grow until it consumes itself in a frenzied climax that will be sure to leave you breathless.
A Tear for Eddie -Ween
“Play it like ya mama just died” is what Funkadelic legend George Clinton yelled to guitarist Eddie Hazel before recording what is the legendary ten minute long guitar renaissance “Maggot Brain”, commonly referred to as one of the greatest songs to ever come from the instrument by anybody who’s worth their salt. Eddie’s guitar doesn’t gently weep, but instead wails and moans to the heavens and back with Eddie only acting as the receiver of these vibrations. It seems as though Hazel never quite got his fair share of credit amongst most listeners despite a wonderful track record with Funkadelic and a great solo outing stylishly called Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs. One of his most proper tributes comes from an incredibly unsuspected place, from the impossibly eccentric duo Ween on their first major label release Chocolate and Cheese. Despite what anybody would normally expect from them, Dean Ween delivers a magnificently powerful guitar spectacle that doesn’t seem to have even a hint of irony to it. In both style, sound, and execution, Ween is able to properly encapsulate what made works like “Maggot Brain” such an entrancing listen and then some more. The Boognish must have been smiling down upon the recording studio that day as some unfiltered magic was gathered on the tapes.
Hear Me Lord -George Harrison
It seems like the pendulum of George Harrison seems to be swinging to his favor these days. Often overseen by the public and most definitely overlooked by fellow Beatles, George had to fight his way to the top and he overcame artistic adversity in stride. During tumultuous recording sessions of The White Album onward, Harrison built up a grand number of monumental genius songs, most of which would not find a proper home until after the Beatles dissolution and George Harrison compiled his pent-up efforts into the three vinyl record album All Things Must Pass, which may stand as the highest of marks from any Post-Beatle. All four Beatles released solo efforts in the same year the public knew of their break-up, but despite how they may have acted, it was only George whose music genuinely sounded confident without being a Beatle. Proving himself as a real “dark horse” so to speak, All Things Must Pass has the honor of being the highest selling album of the Fab Four after their break-up, and it is because of songs such as the closing track “Hear Me Lord” that makes it such a compelling listen. He was able to take his religious passions and constructed them into songs that actually sounded like they existed with a puropse, equipped with the production talents of Phil Spector at the board of course. It is here that you should take care, and beware of darkness.
The Calvary Cross -Richard and Linda Thompson
Decently gone are the days of husband/wife folk teams touring the countryside, which is a minor shame. Despite the equal billing, the music of Richard and Linda Thompson was that of guitarist Richard Thompson who has an impeccibly enthralling guitar style and a devotion to crafting songs. A kind of guitar playing that better belong amongst the Appalachain moountains, Richard Thompson’s fingerstyle plunks and grazes along the neck and break-neck and finger-blistering speeds, a real must listen for any fans of the guitars of Fleetwood Mac and Dire Straits. The pair may be best represented on their “Lights” duology of I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out The Lights, very warm and cozy music best enjoyed in a cabin settings perhaps. At least that’s how it sound to this listener, and their music may leave a different impression on you than it does me.
These Days -Nico
The most toical I’m gonna get this week, I absolutely enjoyed the snowfall that Portland got this week. When my enviromental scenery changes, so does my mood in music to an extent. To me, there is nary a better song for Wintery days than the intimate “These Days”, sung by the icy German accented Nico and supported by an intricately fingerpicked guitar performance by songwriter Jackson Browne. Before Jackson was a household name and AM Radio DJ’s best friend, he cut his teeth in the biz as a session guitarist and songwriter for a while. It should be noted that he was only fifteen years old when he wrote this song, an absolute natural genius in the music world. As great as his songwriting is, this song wuld be nothing without Nico’s one-of-a-kind delivery as she translates the lyrical poetry into something near transcendental. Of course, Nico had a one album stint with avant sensation The Velvet Underground on their debut record The Velvet Underground & Nico, not to be confused by their other self-titled record after Nico’s departure which was just simply The Velvet Underground. Nico was a prodigee of Andy Warhol’s factory girls, and was placed in his project The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (which very well could be a contendor for my favorite band name of all time.) Her past experimentalism is put away for “These Days” however, as her voice is only accompanied by the sole guitar and some mood-building strings. Next time nature strikes again, do youself a favor and go out for a walk with Nico serenading “These Days” through your headphones, it hekplps build the world around you and you won’t regret it.
You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon -American Football
Another song of strange comfort, albeit in less tangible ways. In both sound and context, mystery shrouds the essence of small-town Illinois project American Football, who released only one album before quietly dropping off the scene. Conflicted feelings are evoked in music and words, due to taking elements from the underbellies of the Emo and Math-Rock genres. This venue of genre-blending makes traditionally whiny Emo vocals sound earnestly heart-felt, and the usual wankery of Math-Rocks complex time signatures and tunings only add to the underlying heart of these songs. American Football is a delicate balancing act, of each instrument seemingly working both with and against each other, as they may be playing conflicting rhythms in entirely different tunings, allowing for guitar chord pairings usually unseen on the instrument. But it isn’t just studying the complexities s what makes the music so effective, it is only this approach which garners a unique sound that has new elements to reveal itself through each new listen.
Another Girl Another Planet -The Only Ones
A common chord progression can actually be a hidden strength to a song given the proper musicians are using it right. The actual progression used by The Only Ones is sure not to drop any jaws, but it provides a sense of familiarity that pairs perfectly with the blissfully nostalgic lyrics. The song’s definite meaning may escape, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a lot of fun to speculate as the lyrics have just enough twists and turns to really latch onto. It is also worth pointing out the melodic quality of both guitar solos, they go through the motions but can easily change mood at the flick of a switch. It is also rare to hear a classic Punk song sound this gosh darn optimistic which may be why it became a beacon of inspiration to later Pop-Punk acts even being covered by Blink-182, take that however you may. Long distances wear out our narrator, so the band doesn’t waste any time with this song gem of a song.
While R.E.M. has done a fine job of fine tuning their band’s sound over a long series of albums, they hadn’t really ever changed their sound in a drastic manner. In the 90’s the group regained a second wind of sorts and released Automatic For The People which many people, fans and public alike, may consider to be their finest hour. Mostly known for it’s quieter moments, it is in a way appalling to me that “Ignoreland”, the most energetic song on the album is well, um, ignored I guess. Part of the joy of hearing R.E.M. put on this obviously loaned outfit is hearing the band achieve their goal but in a totally backwards way. Instead of being burned out of creating high profile rockers, the group approached it in a way that was most familiar to them which is equipped with capo-ed guitars, low register harpsichord(?) slamming, and sputtering singing. The band seemed to progress in this style for their Grunge inspired 1994 follow-up Monster but it is on “Ignoreland” where the groove is properly there, which produces a dizzying effect to marvel at.
Drop In The Bucket -David Lee Roth
For all of the harshness directed at what has been (semi-)lovingly been dubbed Van Hagar, time has been relatively favorable to this mach II iteration, much more so than the solo career of David Lee Roth which is strange that never quite took off. I’m not going to deny the very obvious, Van Halen worked because of what both Van Halen brothers brought to the table. If you remove Eddie or Alex Van Halen from Van Halen, the band simply wouldn’t work, and I’m not even fixating on the name aspect of it. But this is not as apparent to the consuming public that the group was warming up to as the eighties rolled along, after years of tearing up underground circuits, the band was finally seeing some mainstream success no small part due to how charismatically off the walls frontman David Lee Roth is. A harsh fact is that to your average consumer, the singer is the face of the band. If they are removed from the equation, the band usually suffers and the casual market jumps ship to the singers new project. This never seemed to happen with David as the newly led Van Halen had Sammy Hagar’s red locks in the spotlight, and David now had to rely on whatever song was written for him which was predictably hit-or-miss. Public tide shifted to the Halen boys who also played part in some light ridicule, DLR’s debut Eat Em and Smile was reciprocated with Van Hagar’s OU812 (try pronouncing that one out load if you don’t get it.) And by the time the 1990’s rolled out, there was a fat chance of the public caring about a washed-up spandex enthusiast, his songs were probably an exercise in banality, right? Wrong, much as Ozzy Osbourne thrived with guitarist Randy Rhodes, David found a new life in guitarist Jason Becker of Cacophony fame with fellow guitarist Marty Friedman. Jason’s approach was an incredibly tasteful lesson in the art of shredding with a bluesy approach that makes him stand out amongst his peers. It is tough to tell if his solo career could have picked up with Becker at the wheel as Becker devastatingly developed ALS during touring and was unable to play guitar, eventually taking his movement and speech as well.. Jason Becker’s legacy definitely is growing these days, both as a guitarist and as an advocate for overcoming the odds ALS may give.
Baby Blue -Badfinger
A delayed fanfare is better than none at all, and it is finally time for Power Pop ensemble Badfinger to take a victory lap. In a nightmarishly similar story to fellow Power Pop eventual “rags to riches” story band Big Star, Badfinger constantly made some excellent material despite outside forces. There may not be a better moment for them than the pitch perfection that is “Baby Blue”, providing everything that could be wanted from a 3:37 Pop record. The band finally got their day in the sun when featured in the final scene of Television juggernaut Breaking Bad, as thousands of unsuspecting viewers were introduced to the band. Only one member of Badfinger remains but he has given his thoughts on the excellence of its’ use in the series, which anyone familiar with the show could say that it was the perfect closer to it. Curiously enough, “Baby Blue” was also featured in a particularly darkly comedic scene in Martin Scorsese’s Oughties masterwork The Departed but failed to garner quite the same public response the song would later receive. Being used in media can only go far enough, it is a testament to the songs enduring quality to find a new life of its own despite whatever stands in the way.