Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Strange Things Happen by Stewart Copeland

Stewart Copeland released a memoir in 2009, Strange Things Happen: A Life With the Police, Polo, and Pygmies and narrated the audiobook. I somehow overlooked this at the time but discovered the print edition when wandering through an unfamiliar library, an activity I recommend if only for that very reason.

It’s best to start by describing what isn’t in the book. Except for a chapter on what it was like to become famous, he mostly skips his heyday with the Police, probably because he documented that with his film Everyone Stares. He also focuses on his professional rather than personal life. He devotes maybe a sentence to Sonja Kristina as his first wife, spilling more ink on their business relationship with Curved Air. In his book Wild Thing brother Ian detailed the circumstances of Stewart’s losing his virginity after his drumming debut; Stewart also recalls the gig but is discrete about the liaison. Ian’s 2006 death merits no mention. Even a story about playing Crusaders and Saracens as a kid growing up in Lebanon primarily serves as a set-up for writing Stewart's first opera about the Crusades. It’s also not a straight-up chronology, although he does provide dates for each exploit he recounts, useful to anyone wanting to generate a timeline. 

Copeland does make his scope explicit. The episodic chapters recall the assortment of adventures he had leading up to, parallel to, and as a result of those early years with the Police. The book conveys his own sense of wonder at everything he’s done, including the patriotism that boiled up in him as he played polo against Prince Charles one July 4th. The polo chapter focuses on his brief time as a member of the leisure class, but almost everything else is about his work as a musician. And this is a strong theme: although he made his mark on the world as a drummer, he is a well-rounded musician/composer for whom percussion is just one aspect of his identity. His composing an opera sounds far less ludicrous after learning about his sideline in film scoring and his traditional music education in college; as someone who struggled through several semesters of music theory myself, I particularly appreciated his difficulties with parallel fifths.

Late in the book, he dives into the Police reunion in the Aughts, the events with Sting and Andy Summers that led up to it and anecdotes from the world tour. Those looking for dirt will find it here, especially the clash of egos. He is very respectful of his bandmates’ talents but also aware of refusing to be dictated to. After decades away from his old band, time spent when he was either clearly in charge or subordinate to others, he and his bandmates chafe at the adjustment to being peers in an alleged democracy. The civil war reaches a truce when they recognize that their reunion will be finite and they can more happily settle in to the remainder of the tour. That attitude and some technical aspects he goes into explain why I was much more impressed with their show during the last stretch of the tour than in its first year.

A few themes emerge. Copeland clearly embraces life and is game for all sorts of musical escapades, even acknowledging that serving as judge for a British TV singing competition was naff but fun. He’s aware of the Police’s place in the world as fake punks. He’s also humble about his musical shortcomings and has no axe to grind. He has a lot of affection for Sting and Andy and takes equal responsibility for the difficulties among them.

The book is an entertaining read, but the audiobook is a more entertaining listen. The latter offers a distinct advantage over the print: interstitial music at the end of each chapter. I’ve read many books about musicians rather than listening to audiobooks so I don’t know if this is unusual. But many chapters left me wonder, “I wonder what that sounded like,” only to be followed with the answer to that question. Likely due to rights issues, the only music snippets are Copeland’s sole compositions rather than any collaborations with others.

Copeland’s turns of phrase suggest an authentic voice rather than the generic tone of a ghost writer. As a favorite examples, bandmates are “bandsters” and Sting’s offspring are “Stingsters.” Read much of his press and you’ll start to recognize some stock answers. He acknowledged devising a set of off-repeated stories when promoting his first opera, and some anecdotes and stories he uses in the book have cropped up in interviews promoting Gizmodrome, his latest musical project. This is an observation more than a criticism. His character comes through in his writing. He's got a lot of character, and it's a likeable one.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mark E. Smith: An Appreciation

When David Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty died, they were recalled for not only their immense musical talent but also their kindness, generosity and principled behavior. Lou Reed was often described as mercurial; he could be nasty. but that wasn’t the only aspect of his personality many dealt with. You can’t say any of those things about Mark E. Smith, the mastermind of the Fall who died Jan. 24. He was cantankerous. He was irascible. He kicked so many people out of his band that this became fodder for a whole book. By almost any measure, he was a terrible person. But his death is a tremendous loss for music.

As staunch supporter John Peel described the Fall, "They are always different; they are always the same." You can hear their influence across the decades from Sonic Youth to LCD Soundsystem to Art Brut to Sleaford Mods. The Wedding Present's David Gedge stated upon Smith's death, "I have seen The Fall more times than any other band." Gedge acknowledged in an interview with me that his own band's cover of Bowie's "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" from their Hit Parade series was their homage to the Fall; it bears an uncanny resemblance to "Bremen Nacht Run Out."

The Fall were an acquired taste. MES was a shouter rather than a singer, prone to adding extra "uh" syllables to the ends of words and punctuating his lyrics with vocalizations like a dentist's drill. A joke in the '90s was that the band never sold any records because anyone who might buy one was already on the record label mailing list, in other words, someone who cared about music enough to make a career of it. The failed attempt to market Girls Against Boys as sounding like the Fall but looking like pin-ups shows what a precarious and rare position the Fall were in. Yet they somehow prevailed. Despite only skirting the UK Top 40 in a career lasting four decades and documented on 30 studio albums, BBC6 devoted their homepage to memorial tributes to the departed frontman.

MES's unusual lyrical topics and rantings became like a secret code among fans. When I had surgery some years back, I was given a wristband labeled "FALL RISK," presumably because of the sedation. I subsequently joked with a select group of friends that they were afraid I'd screech, "High tension line. Step Down!" and scare the other patients in post-op.

On a good night, the Fall were the greatest band in the world. Bad nights were trainwrecks. Their unreliability mirrored that of the Replacements, not coincidentally another band known for their alcohol intake. MES was so inebriated when interviewed for The Fall - The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith that his segments required subtitles. Obituaries also reported that he had fondness for amphetamines. Every one of his 60 years showed on MES's gargoyle of a face. With a string of health-related tour cancellations since November, his death was shocking but unsurprising.

MES's volatility is what makes his death such a loss. Artists like Springsteen or the Stones have the professionalism and concern for their audience to produce reliably outstanding concerts, which is a big reason their careers have endured. But the Fall's unpredictability meant that you never knew what you were going to get, and made the good night that much more special. You couldn't count on the whole world falling away as they locked into a groove. And now we'll never have the chance again.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Album Review: Bee Bee Sea: Sonic Boomerang

Everyone needs an album that makes you want to crank up the volume and jump up and down, and Sonic Boomerang by Bee Bee Sea is it. The guitar-driven trio crank out a remarkable racket from just three people, crafting chugging, driving beats while intervals create a brightness that make the songs explode. It's garage psych with some surf touches. Lyrics are kinda besides the point, kinda muffled and in English rather than their native Italian, so they are just there to provide structure to the songs. especially the repeated words and phrases. "The Dog is the King of Losers" has a bunch of "bow wow wow"s and the title track could include, "rev it up" or "live it up" or something like that as the key phrase. I could be wrong, but it doesn't matter. It's like Ty Segall without the noodly, shapeless indulgences. (Sorry, Ty. I love, but you need to edit.) Even the long guitar breaks are in service to the whole.

Yes, I know this album came out just a few weeks ago, too late for critics who had already drafted their year's best lists. Yes, I know that rock is dead and all the cultural conversation is, rightfully, around R&B and hip-hop, where the likes of Kendrick Lamar are making lyrically substantive albums. Yes, this is a mere trifle in comparison. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fun album right now than Sonic Boomerang.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Concert Review: Gary Numan, Paradise Rock Club, Dec. 4

I know what you're thinking. Gary Numan: one-hit wonder from decades ago. Synthesizer novelty hit guy. But you won't find Numan on any Retro '80s package tours with the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones. There aren't many artists with careers this long whose shows make you think, "Oh, good. He's doing lots of his new stuff."

Since his "Cars" days, Numan has discovered stage presence and industrial music, both of which served his performance well, facing a packed house at the Paradise last night. No Kraftwerkian Teutonic icy detachment from him. An old fan acknowledged after the show that back in the day, Numan was a stiff performer. However, at this show he moved around at odd angles, struck an assortment of poses and generally worked the stage, particularly appreciated at a club with two giant support columns that obstruct views from many angles. He was backed by a young band, all of them in post-apocalyptic desert wear. The guitarist and bass player were fairly animated without trying to steal the show. Vertical banks of lights added atmosphere and spectacle when they weren't inducing seizures. The overall level of showmanship was notably on display with "Love Hurt Bleed," when half the sound, including the vocals, dropped out of the PA. The band's in-ear monitors were apparently still going as they continued to grind through the song despite the growing murmurs in the audience. After a brief pause at the end of the number, full sound and the performance resumed unabated.

If there was any nostalgia in the music, it was for the industrial era of the late '80s into the '90s. Trent Reznor has acknowledged that Numan was big a influence, and the favor has been returned. Many NIN-like sounds turn up in Numan's recent work, and he even added more jagged edges to his once-pristine early songs. However, Numan eschews the anger and shoutiness that characterized the work of Trent and his industrial compatriots while incorporating other aesthetics of the genre.

Numan has maintained an audience by being a charismatic performer and not allowing himself to be constrained and defined by his early single hit.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Concert Review: Chameleons Vox, Middle East, Cambridge

Third time's a charm. I attempt to the see some incarnation of the Chameleons every fifteen years, and I finally saw a great show by them. The first time was the fault of the venue, a not-dearly-departed Philly club that functioned as both a dance spot that sold memberships and a concert venue; those two business models were at odds on a frigid February night in 1987 when the Chameleons came through town at the peak of their popularity. Rather than letting audience members in until they reached capacity then declaring the show sold out, staffers let the fans stand in the cold while they tried to decide how many club members to leave space for as late arrivals. I gave up, recognizing a painful exercise in futility.

A decade and a half later, the band was back together when their tour hit Chicago. They went on late, and leader Mark Burgess spent most of the set complaining about everything that wasn't up to his exacting standards. His pissy attitude was more memorable than any song they played.

So I tried again with great trepidation and low expectations on Saturday at the Middle East in Cambridge. First up were three opening acts that were musically aligned with the headliners, now dubbed Chameleons Vox to reflect that Burgess is the only remaining original member. All three bands would fit right into a Moody Fuckers playlist on a Little Records podcast. First up, the Milling Gowns had the right vibe but were totally stiff, and I've seen shoegazer bands make more eye contact with the audience. Way Out, a crack three-piece, had far more energy. Soft Kill sounded so much like the Chameleons that I almost hoped they'd cover one of the headliner's songs so that I'd be guaranteed to hear a solid version of it. All the bands had the atmospherics but no obvious songs.

Fortunately, I needn't have worried. Either Burgess has grown up in the passing years, or he has wild mood swings and I managed to catch him on a good night. The man at center stage was gracious and determined to put on a great show whatever the obstacles they faced. He acknowledged the first hurdle immediately: their lead guitarist became ill their first night in the U.S. and was unable to complete the tour. Things had gone so swimmingly with the opening acts that the Chameleons had three guitarists from two opening bands (Soft Kill and another that hadn't played at the Middle East) rotate throughout the set. Burgess immediately won the crowd's support for the able fill-ins. He also apologized, in a rasp, that his voice was wrecked, but his singing voice showed no signs of wear. Late in the set he admitted that they'd had to change the key on a song to fit his more limited range, but his tone was still perfect.

How good were they? You know how when a band nails a song that you really love that it feels like your head with explode with excitement? That happened. Repeatedly. Usually from the opening riffs.

Some background for those not familiar with the band. To call them a cult favorite would overstate their popularity. Their music has grandeur, and the lyrics are dark. They were the perfect soundtrack to my youthful days of confusion and heartbreak, exactly what you'd expect from a band with song titles like "Soul in Isolation." But they were never cosplay goth. They didn't have a cool logo to stand the test of time on a Hot Top t-shirt. They broke up at their peak of popularity because their manager died, which is tragic but not the stuff of romantic mythology. But they rightly earned a small fanbase.

They churned out the artfully-rendered fan favorites throughout their set. In introducing "Swamp Thing," their biggest hit, Burgess brought out one of the Soft Kill guitarists and explained that the song had just come together during sound check but they knew people wanted to hear it. The lead guitarist wobbled a bit with the intricate triples but did so well enough to give the song its emotional resonance. He then settled in more comfortably for his stretch of the set.

By the time they closed with "Don't Fall," I had no doubts about whether seeing them was worth the effort.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why Eric Clapton, unlike Dave Grohl's fans, isn't an old fart fuddy duddy

At a press conference for a new documentary about Eric Clapton, a reporter tried to provoke the legendary guitarist with a question about a recent article from the Washington Post about declining sales for guitars. Short version: WaPo's Geoff Edgers got his knickers in a twist because Millennials have different cultural and musical values from previous generations and this is a terrible problem. Clapton's response: Whatevs. Good for him in recognizing that different doesn't mean worse.

Meanwhile, Consequences of Sound reported "Dave Grohl buys his 8-year-old daughter AC/DC album instead of Lana Del Rey" reinforcing stereotypes that men of the past are better than women of the present. I'll give Grohl a pass on this one, sorta, because the details revealed that his daughter actually wanted an Imagine Dragons album and they happened to hit the record story during a Lana Del Ray event. But the article writes dismissively about the young female Del Ray fans who didn't recognize Grohl, and CoS posted in on Facebook with the comment, "Father knows best." At press time it garnered nearly 10K likes and loves vs. 83 angry or sad responses.

Let's transpose this half a century to get some perspective: Daughter wants a Janis Joplin album. Dad buys her Bing Crosby instead. Who is the revolutionary and who is the reactionary upholding the patriarchal status quo? Which side are you on?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Voice of a Generation

Usually the phrase "voice of a generation" is used metaphorically for the words someone delivers in text or song rather than for their literal vocal skills. Kurt Cobain earned the tag, but so did F. Scott Fitzgerald, a guy never known as a singer. But if you take the expression literally, it's hard to find a Gen-Xer more deserving of the title than Chris Cornell.

Even if you aren't a huge fan of Soundgarden (and I'm not, always preferring Mudhoney's grunge Stooges to Soundgarden's grunge Led Zeppelin) or Chris's other work, there is no denying the power of his voice. Many have noted his four-octave range, but he also had impressive intonation and emotionally delivery. Yes, he could scream and wail, but he could also offset it with quiet contrast. Mariah Carey could be a another claimant of the title, and you don't have to be into her musical choices to appreciate her talent.

Chris Cornell wasn't just the frontman of a one of the biggest bands that exemplified Generation X. He was one of our best voices.