Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ye Olde Mix Tape………

Alright – I will ‘fess up. I am a format junkie. What does this mean? I have come to the realization that my music obsession includes a powerful component – I get a kick out of listening to music from different technological formats. I am somewhat bummed that the reel-to-reel deck I’ve had since the early ebay days has bitten the dust. Reel to reel tape decks may well be THE single most inconvenient music playback device ever, but cracking open a “new-old-stock” sealed reel tape and loading it up to watch the reels turn away with great music pouring out just gives me the (good) heebie jeebies! Yes I own and enjoy 8 tracks too (especially if they’re QUADRAPHONIC – muuuwhaaahahaaa!!). Anyone out there who loves the first Steely Dan album (Can’t Buy a Thrill) as much as I do and has never heard it in beautiful quadraphonic surround sound – you just don’t know what you’re missing. I get goose-bumps. I get misty-eyed. I shed tears. I’m pathetic, I know!!
Just today I stumbled upon a bunch of “new-old-stock” blank cassettes (still sealed!) in a thrift store. Anyone remember when these suckers were new on the shelves?
Try “early 1980s”, dude. This particular brand of tape has a special significance for me. When I was a young lad in the early 80s, my older cousin Jimmy made a mixed tape of songs he had been listening to and sent it to me in the mail. The blank tape he used was exactly like the one pictured above. It blew my mind to find a bunch of these still sealed so I had to buy a few. My cousins, whom I looked up to as if they were my older siblings (I had none, biologically), were my idols. The idea that my cousin took the time to put together a bunch of songs from his collection he thought I would enjoy was really amazing to me. Without dragging that tape out of storage I seem to recall what prompted the whole thing was me hearing The Yardbirds’ song “Lost Woman” at their house when I was visiting (for a holiday most likely – they lived in New York City and my family had moved to the ‘burbs). What I particularly loved about that track was – the bass line. It still strikes me as one of the coolest bass lines ever! What do you think?
Anyway – that particular track was only available on an import LP at that time. I just didn’t want to live without that song and it would actually be a few years before I got my mitts on a genuine LP copy. What a great album cover – I love it!

To fill up the rest of the tape, my cousin put on some Queen songs, some Jethro Tull stuff - all tracks I had never heard before and weren't on the radio (deep cuts). I was really into that tape! It started a dialog that continues to the present times – with my cousin and many friends. For many years I really got into making tapes for friends (and they for me – all of which I still have). And I got pretty good at creating “moods” with music on a 60 or 90 minute tape – sometimes with music from quite different genres. Now that cassette has given way to digital files, I kinda miss unwrapping a new blank tape and trolling through my record collection to piece together a collection of some favorites du jour to pass onto my pals.

So a few weeks ago, I did something I haven’t done in a long time – I dragged out my funky old cassette deck, cracked open a C-90 and set about making a mix tape of tunes that grabbed my fancy as I went along. Originally I wanted a 60 minute tape – 30 minutes per side. 90 minutes can be a long time to fill. 60 minutes is more of a challenge to put together a bunch of tunes that somehow hang together – maybe creating or reflecting a particular mood. I sure made some legendary tapes in the past. But that’s where cassette tapes have been relegated to – the past.

But in the not-so-distant past the cassette tape was the preferred format for music lovers on the go. Long before the ipod there was the Walkman and the boom-box. See this thing, kids? THIS was your 80s status symbol. No X-Box, no Playstation. This was it, dude
 The cassette was a pretty durable, if not exactly hi-fi, format. Sure, tapes could get eaten once in awhile, but considering how easy it was to make a copy of even a pre-recorded cassette – you could easily make a near-perfect copy of the original and store that away if you were inclined to take care of your stuff. And consumer tape decks were considered a bit of a threat to the music industry, or so it seemed at the time. Remember these funny little “public service announcements” on the inner sleeves of LP records like this?
(Many years later I was utterly shocked when the technology of CD-burning became available. Why on earth was this allowed? I, for one, saw the handwriting on the wall – perfect digital copies you can make yourself.? Whoah boy! Game changer for sure!)

Even though the sound quality was never stellar on cassette, things did improve over time. I have a really early pre-recorded, massed produced cassette of the Procol Harum “Home” album that is just dreadful. It looks to me like an original 1970 issue and the signal to noise ratio is pitiful – there’s just not enough signal coming off that thing to make it worth the bother of listening to! But by the late 70s and early 80s problems of that sort were resolved enough to make the cassette the logical replacement to the just as portable, yet infinitely more problematic 8-track tape (ever try to repair one of those suckers?).

The best place for cassettes was THE CAR. Since I did a fair amount of travelling as a young man I made tons of tapes for car rides. Many of them are still in boxes in my attic (some have unique music on them…..ah….I suppose I will eventually attract the attention of the “Hoarders” show…….such is life….). The radio – then as now – could not always be counted on to suit one’s mood. Nowadays there’s all these satellite radio channels playing deep cuts, but they’re all segregated into different genres – some of which don’t make ANY sense. Like, what is this Northern Soul shit? Talk about the biggest record collector scam ever. Of all the Northern Soul stuff I’ve bothered to listen to I have to say only about .5% of it was worth a second glance. The vast majority of what collectors are paying mondo bucks for is, musically speaking……shite. Sorry – it’s true. Anyway, I like to hear all kinds of music sometimes totally thrown together in unusual combinations. I don’t have a satellite radio, but I have heard it before and it can be cool, Northern Soul notwithstanding.

So what craziness wound up on my little C90? Hmmmm….

Side A:
The Core – Eric Clapton
She’s Long and She’s Lean – Mallard
Take it or Leave It – Rolling Stones
Blue Form – MU
Powaii – Sonny Rollins (live in Japan)
Babylon Sisters – Steely Dan
Lonesome – Big Bill Broonzy & Washboard Sam

Side B:
TVC-15 – David Bowie
Rock and Roll Stew – Traffic
Carney and Beggard Place  - Rahsaan Roland Kirk
It’s Your Thing – Isley Brothers
Killing an Arab – The Cure
Slip Kid – The Who
Reno Nevada – Fairport Convention
The Dolphins – Fred Neil
One More Chance – Sandy Denny
As Strong As Sampson – Procol Harum

Doesn’t seem like a lot of songs, does it? Yeah, I know – your ipod as GAZILLION songs on it. Everything from Celine Dion to the Butthole Surfers. Okay. I have a little MP3 player too and when I want to hear a shuffle with Three Dog Night, The Flaming Lips, Tiny Tim, Fela Kuti and Louis Armstrong in rapid succession I know where to go. But what about a purposeful juxtaposition of tracks from just as far-flung corners of the musical spheres that hang together in such a way that feels like you’re hearing them for the first time – or, at least, from a different point of view?

Alright – if you’ve never heard The Dolpins by Fred Neil – check it out:
What happens when you hear The Clash right after Aldo Nova? Does it make you want to hear Charles Mingus? Or Maurice Ravel? Or maybe Maurice Gibb? Or Rolf Harris? Or Keith Relf? Where does your musical mind travel to? When was the last time you put together a mix tape of songs you love in a particular order for one of the people you cared most about in your life? What would those musical vibrations say?

As Lou Reed once said, “those were different times……..”

Friday, July 20, 2012

Zappa, Rahsaan, NRBQ and Genre-Smashing

It’s been said “there’s a first time for everything” and this morning marked a “first” for me. Today was the first time I ever started my day by listening to the music of Edgard Varèse . More specifically: side one of the infamous Complete Works of Edgard Varèse EMS 401 – the very same LP that propelled Frank Zappa headfirst into a life as a composer of challenging music.
Varèse is not exactly what I would call “morning music”. But I wanted to hear this record again since I installed a conical stylus on my trusty SONY turntable (conical-shaped needles are more forgiving with old mono records like EMS 401). Anyone familiar with Zappa’s orchestral works will immediately hear familiar noises when spinning a Varèse composition for the first time. Led Zeppelin borrowed from Willie Dixon; Zappa borrowed from Varèse.

Yet, if dissonant orchestral workouts were all we heard from Frank Zappa it is unlikely that either his or Varèse’s music would have become as widely known as they are today. There is only one musician I know of who credited the influence of Varèse in his music before The Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out” appeared – Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk put out a record in 1965 called “Rip, Rig and Panic” (“Freak Out” was released in the summer of 1966).
In the liner notes, Kirk identified the works of Varèse as an influence on his decision to use electronic sounds to enhance what was essentially a “jazz” record. Rahsaan was every bit the musical maverick that Zappa was and took as much pleasure in busting down barriers between different genres. There was at least one time these two giants of the 20th Century shared a stage together - Boston 1969:

Now I would be mighty shocked if there isn’t an audio tape (at least) of this encounter somewhere – in the Zappa vault maybe? The mind’s ear boggles!

Of the two men, Zappa would enjoy more commercial success. Kirk would suffer a series of strokes hastening his demise at the far too young age of 42 in 1977. A terrible loss to the music world. Kirk would have been a welcome antidote to the more conservative “mainstream jazz” that has followed in the wake of his death. But as we all know, if jazz was ever a popular music it certainly hasn’t been in the last 30 or so years. Therefore, the work of anyone in jazz today who might be inclined to stretch the boundaries of music in general would not manage to find a wider audience because there just isn’t such an audience anymore. (Could this have been part of the subtext of Zappa’s “Yo Cats”?)

The idea of melding the so-called classical (composed?) tradition with the jazz (improvised?) tradition had been lurking in the background ever since, well, probably Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton’s time at least. Efforts that leaned towards more “serious” concert-hall fare eventually got tagged with the label “Third Stream”. Lots of folks went swimming in the “third stream” – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller, The MJQ – even Ornette Coleman. Frank Zappa’s brilliant contribution to this tradition came out as “The Grand Wazoo”: through-composed music for a swinging jazz big-band.
 Yet even if Zappa had limited his output to modern classical and third-stream music a-la The Grand Wazoo, we’d still be left with limited impact on the larger picture of the music listening public. It’s hard to consider, but there was a time before “Yellow Snow”  in Zappa’s life. What was he doing before the goofy novelty song propelled his popularity to new heights in 1974? Playing rock guitar and sharpening his media-savvy marketing skills and image projection chops. That droopy moustache and oversized soul patch wound up being one of the best trademark visuals of the 20th century. A natural calling-card for weird musical hilarity.

That and the ability to be an outspoken and willing participant in the heated public discourse of his times distinguished Zappa from his peers and rocketed his image into the forefront of not just alternative, but even mainstream media outlets. The only other figure in popular music at the time who displayed a shrewdness in the handling of the media was John Lennon. Not even Bob Dylan was as good as Lennon and Zappa were.

What further distinguishes the musical leaders of yore, like Lennon and Zappa, from their current counterparts (Lady Gaga?) is how willing the earlier guys were to give credit to their musical (and otherwise) influences. It is remarkable to read all the names listed on the inside panel of “Freak Out” – investigating every name on that list alone could take a lifetime, if done properly. No doubt The Beatles took this idea to the visual level with the Sgt. Pepper front cover. Could we imagine a world where Lady Gaga would encourage her fans to listen to Stravinsky, Ravi Shankar or even Stockhausen? I know…….I know…..
While Zappa and Lennon used their personalities to promote more challenging music to the masses, others were equally hard at work breaking down the walls separating musical genres. In spite of strong songwriting, excellent musical ability and a tireless work ethic, NRBQ never quite caught the break all groups hope for: the HIT SONG. In the meantime, their live performances became the stuff of legend – careening heedlessly from 50s-styled rock and roll to Sun Ra-inspired free jazz to crazed polka-beat workouts.

Fans could drop requests in “The Magic Box” and the group would pick a request randomly and play the song – whether they knew it or not! Or you might see ventriloquist dummies appear – that looked remarkably like the guys in the band! Or “Cabbage Patch” dolls. Group members would swap instruments. But before things might devolve into utter chaos, the Q could turn on a dime and whip out a stompin’ blues shuffle to get folks up and dancing or a wistful Beatle-esque ballad that’d make a believer out of even the most cynical Grinch in the house. There’s going to come a time when future generations are going to look at this and just stare in disbelief:

NRBQ made a career out of dragging their audiences along wherever Terry Adams (still the great key-banger and leader) decided to take them. Just as Zappa spread the gospel according to Varese and Stravinsky, NRBQ spread the super-sonic vibes of Theolonious Monk, Sun Ra and Boozoo Chavis to the unsuspecting throngs that kept showing up at those clubs and bars all over the US in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Probably their biggest audience came in 1999 when the Q was featured at the end of a Simpsons episode playing the theme music over the closing credits -–the only live-action clip ever to grace the otherwise all-animated show in its long, successful run on tv.

Zappa left us in 1993. Lennon thirteen years earlier. There’s still a Terry Adams-led version of NRBQ out there (and absolutely worth seeing), but I wonder how much poorer we’ll be as a culture when this caliber of musical leadership has departed from us for good? I hope some brave spirits get the courage to pick up the banner to rail against the artificial compartmentalization of music – this segregated mentality that seems to be creeping upon us like the dreaded homogenized meatball The Fugs warned us about all those years ago. Think of all the fun we could have if we challenge ourselves to listen “outside of the box”. I’ll let Rahsaan have the last word here (with a little help from John Cage) – in the key of “W”, baby!!