Category Archives: Music

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

In some unexpected news, AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd has been arrested in New Zealand for allegedly attempting to set up a couple murders. Rudd is the drummer on most of the band’s most famous (and now ironic in many cases) songs but was kicked out of the band in the mid-80s before being brought back a while later. I suppose the fact that this was in New Zealand makes the common parody lyric “dirty deeds done with sheep” even better.

On a more serious note, with Malcolm Young forced to retire for medical reasons and now this, one must wonder if AC/DC can even continue if this doesn’t turn out to be some huge misunderstanding. They still have three long-standing band members, though Brian Johnson was already a replacement for Bon Scott, but this is still something that might be hard for a band to bounce back from. The lineup at least isn’t as absurd as what currently bills itself as “Lynyrd Skynyrd” or the most recent iteration of Guns N’ Roses.

An Update:

It’s now (Thursday night) being reported that the charges for procuring a murder have been dropped for lack of evidence, so it seems the authorities may have been overzealous in their actions. A few other much more minor charges remain, but nothing nearly as serious as this. After all the publicity yesterday, this sounds like it’ll end up being more embarrassing for the police than for Rudd.

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Bassist Jack Bruce Dies

You may have heard that rock bassist Jack Bruce died a couple days ago. He was most famous for his role in the legendary trio Cream, playing alongside Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton. Cream was where Clapton did some of his best work and I think was the band that made him famous in the US. It was also well before Clapton got boring. Jack Bruce was an important part of the band, doing much of the singing and playing varied and inventive basslines. He was much more than a generic bass player playing the root of each chord, as we often see today.

Here are some of my favorite Cream songs in no particular order:

  1. We’re Going Wrong
  2. White Room
  3. Tales of Brave Ulysses
  4. Those Were the Days

This Is Why the Music Industry Is Declining

Along with quite a few other media outlets, the New York Times has published an article highlighting much of what’s wrong with the music industry. The stories are all on the opening act for the Eagles’ concerts at Madison Square Garden. The opening act for a classic rock band that’s been resting on it’s laurels for decades is not normally noteworthy. In this case, it’s not the opening act’s music that is important but rather who the leader of the opening act is. The band is led by none other than James Dolan, of the Dolan family that controls MSG as well as the New York Knicks and New York Rangers.

The Dolans are infamous for running the sports teams into the ground and jealously protecting the various deals that allow MSG to have a near-monopoly on major sporting and music events in Manhattan. They even run a terrible cable company – not that there’s any other kind.

While most stories about the corruption and failures of the music industry focus on the labels, this is a story that shows the problems with the venues that control larger concerts and festivals. The Eagles are a very famous band that can sell out huge arenas. Opening for them gives a band exposure to tens of thousands of listeners, so promoters should want to book a regionally popular or up and coming act so that the audience can be guaranteed a performance with a reasonable expectation of quality. This is not what happened in this case. Instead, MSG booked a band led by its own Executive Chairman. This is problematic for many reasons.

It appears that as a middle-aged, extremely wealthy corporate executive, James Dolan decided that he wanted to pretend to be a rock star. He, of course, fronts the band, which is likely made up of hired session players. The whole thing seems like it’s purely a vanity project meant to fuel Dolan’s undoubtedly colossal ego. Dolan even claims to have hired Mick Jagger’s vocal coach — not that it shows in his music. By owning a venue, Dolan gets to perform in front of a huge audience without ever earning the privilege of doing so. He uses the Eagles’ fame to force the rest of us to hear about his band.

Another problem with this is that bands make money off of concerts. By placing his own band as the opening act, Dolan deprives a more deserving band of a chance to get more exposure and make some money. Nearly all bands struggle with money issues, so Dolan’s vanity project ends up hurting the many bands that are just trying to stay alive long enough to get noticed. Dolan also gets to make even more money off the audience than he normally would. The MSG company will get much of the ticket revenue, and Dolan (and maybe the rest of his band depending on their contracts) will get merchandise revenue and maybe some more ticket money.

Finally, none of this would be that much of a problem if the band were good. It’s not. The backing musicians sound reasonably competent, but play some of the most soulless, unoriginal music possible. The lyrics are embarrassingly lazy and Dolan does not have the kind of vocal skill needed even for the pseudo-bluesy soft rock played by the band. It honestly sounds almost like Dolan is singing over MIDI backing music from a karaoke song. If Dolan just wanted to have some fun playing music that would be fine. Inflicting his music on everyone else is where it becomes objectionable.

It’s fitting that James Dolan’s band is opening for the Eagles: a bored multimillionaire’s insipid ego-driven vanity project opening for the paragon of bland, inoffensive corporate money-making rock juggernauts.

The End of the Roseland Ballroom

Looks like the Roseland Ballroom is finally being demolished to make way for a new building. It was a pretty good venue for concerts but was in a location that was too good to stay around forever. It’s still sad to see another old venue go. I don’t think there are many venues left in Manhattan that can accommodate as many people as Roseland. Soon Disney will probably control almost all the performance venues in the theater district.

WaPo Jazz Piece: Is it Satire? It’s Terrible Either Way

Returning to that opinion piece on jazz I discussed earlier, there’s now someone in the comments claiming to be the author saying that the piece was actually meant to be satirical. There’s no flair confirming the commenter as the author, as is typical, so it’s pretty likely that it’s just someone else trying to cause more controversy.

Regardless, even if we take this at face value and the piece really is satire, the piece still fails at its purpose – perhaps more egregiously than if it were serious.

Taken as satire, it’s not really clear which parts are even satirical. There’s not really any humor to tip off the reader, nor is there anything that is so patently absurd it must be satire. In fact, the points made by the author are all things that one could easily imagine could be included in a serious (though misguided) opinion piece. The commenter claims that the piece can be identified as satire because of its poor arguments. Of course, this is something that a parody commenter account would say too. Anyway, parroting the poorly reasoned arguments of others is not satire. In common online parlance, it is trolling. If it is satire, this would be an example of a musical form of Poe’s Law: at some point a parody that is too serious becomes indistinguishable from real arguments.

Again assuming it is satire, I think the worst part may be the wildly inappropriate choice of venue. The author primarily writes morning news pieces for the Post with a mix of serious and pop culture news. He doesn’t seem to have much of a track record for opinion pieces, let alone a satirical piece about music on the actual opinion page. The Washington Post is probably the second most important newspaper in the country after the New York Times, so people tend to look to its opinion page for serious commentary on current events. There’s no reason to expect to see a satire by this author in this publication. I could understand seeing a snarking parody by Maureen Dowd in the Times opinion page but not this.

I also can’t remember ever seeing a piece about music on the opinion page. Because the Post opinion page focuses on politics and current events rather than media and entertainment, it is not an appropriate venue for parody or satire on a relatively obscure topic like jazz. One of the most important things about writing is knowing one’s audience, and the Post’s readership is not the right audience for satire. The average reader is simply not going to be knowledgable enough to recognize anything but the most obvious parody. A writer shouldn’t expect otherwise for a publication with such a broad audience. Satire would have more of a place in a publication specializing in music, as a more savvy audience would benefit more than the very general audience of a national newspaper.

Satire is meant to lead the audience to see the absurdity or the injustice being discussed. In a famous example, Swift’s Modest Proposal starts out giving serious arguments (Ireland has major problems with poverty) and gradually devolves into absurdity (fix overpopulation and poverty by eating Irish babies). If the audience can’t be expected to recognize absurd statements from reasonable ones, the satire fails. In the case of the Post opinion piece, the satire would have the opposite effect of what was intended. Uninformed readers would not be taught anything. They would go from uninformed to misinformed, having learned falsehoods from a supposed expert. Perhaps this was the point. Perhaps the author wanted to use the prominent position of his piece in the national media to laugh at the members of his audience who agree with his statements. That would mean that the Post’s editors also failed at their mission because it is left to people like me (and various bloggers far more knowledgable about the subject than me) to try to dispel these falsehoods.

Washington Post Opinion: Jazz is Terrible

On Friday, the Washington Post published an opinion criticizing jazz as being boring and pointless. Here’s a long post addressing his points.

The author, Justin Moyer, states that he studied jazz at Wesleyan but never had any real appreciation for the style and never got into the music made by the people he was learning from. It seems like studying jazz was probably a poor choice by the author if he never had any passion for it. Regardless, this is something that has some personal interest for me. I played jazz trumpet throughout middle and high school, and while I was never good enough to try to go into music as a profession, it is something that I continue to do as a hobby. Wesleyan holds an important place in my development as a listener and player of jazz as well. I really got started as a serious listener of jazz by checking out albums in Olin Library. I also spent a lot of time practicing in Wesleyan’s CFA (the arts complex), by the offices and practice rooms of the very men mentioned in the opinion piece as the author’s teachers.

Getting on to the author’s points:

1) Jazz often removes the lyrics from standards.

Moyer uses the example of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” In some movie Duke Ellington’s band includes a lyric mentioning taking the A train to Sugar Hill, which to the author “establishes” the song as an “African American anthem.” This is an odd point. These lyrics would have been added well after Ellington started playing the song, and possibly only appeared in the movie. The other thing is that if one wants the song to be an “African American anthem,” the reference to Sugar Hill is unnecessary. Many people would already be aware that the A train in Manhattan is the express train from Downtown and Midtown to Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood. The title alone is sufficient. In fact, I think it’s even better to let listeners come to their own conclusions from the title and the music than to explicitly explain the meaning. As in film and literature, show, don’t tell.

This is also a pretty off-base point to make considering the development of music throughout history. Jazz in particular is fond of taking old pop, theater, or even earlier jazz standards and transforming them into something new. This is one of the things showing the originality of the genre. Any two artists can take the same song structure and come out with something that sounds completely different. In some cases, musicians only take the chord structure, so the name doesn’t necessarily refer to the melody or lyrics of the original song. The famous “Rhythm changes” (the chords from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”) are maybe the best example of this.

Adapting older tunes in their entirety or even just adding short quotations is a centuries old tradition as well. Just look at all the examples of quotations of Dies Irae, a plainchant hymn that’s over 700 years old. It’s included as part of the Requiem mass with famous examples by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, etc. It’s quoted in secular music such as in the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (though apparently some found its inclusion offensively blasphemous), Liszt’s Totentanz, and in more modern pieces like Crumb’s Black Angels (though it’s much harder to find than in the examples from the Romantic period). A sample was included in a hip hop song from the 2000s (I don’t know the name). In other media, it shows up in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, while one of the common endings (Pie Iesu domine/Dona eis requiem) famously pops up in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The fact that these are wildly different adaptations of the same original tune does not detract from their quality. Nor does the lack of lyrics in some of them diminish the meaning of the quotation. A discerning, educated audience will understand the reference.

2) Improvisation is overrated.

The author’s point seems to be that some people think all improvisation is great, while he still thinks that great music is made all the more impressive if it is great improvisation. This is a reasonable point, but is an illogical one to criticize jazz as a genre. It maybe is more of a criticism of jazz listeners. He uses Phish and the Grateful Dead as examples of often bad improvisation (typically called “noodling” if the band is just playing endlessly without doing anything interesting). He also criticizes jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery for not being interesting enough. Again, this is a criticism that can be leveled at lesser artists but not many of the jazz greats. You can’t judge a style based only on the artists you don’t like. Furthermore, just because a song has the kind of style that makes it good to play as background music doesn’t make it bad. There’s no reason why a mid-tempo tune with a pleasant tone and laid-back style can’t be great.

3) The style hasn’t really gone anywhere in a while.

The idea that jazz has been stuck in a rut is the one position here that I think can be reasonably argued. I actually don’t know a lot about what’s been going on in terms of artists pushing the limits of jazz in recent years. The author mentions some jazz/hip hop hybrids, which he dismisses as tired and tame, but it at least shows that jazz isn’t completely stuck in some glorious past.

I think it is true that the jazz fanbase is largely people nostalgic for music from decades ago, but this is true of many genres. Many people listen to classical music but tend to prefer the Classical, Baroque, and Romantic periods and modern facsimiles. This doesn’t mean that groundbreaking avant-garde composers don’t exist. They just aren’t what the broader community of listeners prefer. The same will be true of jazz as well.

It’s not a fair point to say that audiences like jazz because it’s black music made safe for nostalgic white audiences (this is implied but not directly stated) rather than something like Big Freedia. This clearly shows that the author has a strong preference for upbeat dance music over other styles. This really helps build a case that the author at the very least never cared for jazz as it evolved after the Big Band era. I think this fact alone negates the author’s position as a jazz insider who has grown to dislike the genre.

4) The word “jazz” is applied to too many things.

For example, the writing of the Beat Generation has often been compared to bebop, as have many things in many other artistic media. This is probably true but irrelevant to the thesis of the piece. Calling things that aren’t jazz jazz doesn’t have any bearing on actual jazz. Moyer simply brings up the non-sequitor of “jazz” the aesthetic (really the bebop fan/beatnik stereotype) to criticize “jazz” the style of music. I suppose it perhaps is difficult to come up with a definition of jazz based solely on the music and not on the historical progression of the style, but this is just a sign that the style has evolved from its origins.

5) Jazz is no longer underground dance music.

This is inevitable if a style becomes popular. The general population becomes comfortable with some sub-styles of the music, some musicians become famous, people start studying it in an academic fashion, etc. Calling this co-option (commodification maybe better describes some of the things brought up here) trivializes many of the things that made jazz great. Jazz developed over a very difficult period in American history but played an important role in helping make the country better. Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald are cultural icons and towering figures in the development of jazz. Google Doodles and postage stamps are honoring their place in history and also in some cases explicitly honoring their role as famous black Americans in a time when just being black in America was dangerous. Moyer basically even  says earlier in the piece that Ellington’s activism should be acknowledged more than it is.

Furthermore, jazz is one of the few examples of a truly American art form. It developed out of a number of different musical traditions into something new and unique. It is a form of black American music that captured the imagination of the whole country even during the Jim Crow era. Even white musicians such as Benny Goodman used jazz’s popularity to start pushing for change. New styles that emerged from the Big Band era such as bebop – styles that the author dislikes – were developed so that jazz could be something more than just inconsequential dance music. Jazz musicians wanted jazz to be an art form, not a commercialized product. Honestly, I think the author gets this point reversed. The popular dance music forms of jazz represent society trying to co-opt jazz (although I do like many swing artists), not the less-commercial modern jazz developed as a response. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why it’s a bad thing for people to have intellectual discussions about jazz and why it’s bad to acknowledge jazz’s and jazz musicians’ places in American society and American history.

Another Radio Station Lost to a Conglomerate

I saw in the news that one of the stations I used to listen to when I was younger, WCCC, is no more.  WCCC had been one of the main rock stations in Connecticut for decades and when other stations, such as 104.1 (only temporarily) and 105.9 changed formats, WCCC continued.

They played an “active rock” format when I was living in Connecticut, which for them was a combination of classic rock, alternative, and metal. Given that this was also during the time that “active rock” was often dominated by trash like Limp Bizkit, WCCC was never my favorite station but could be relied on to play some decent music. As a locally owned station, they were one of the few to resist being taken over by a major conglomerate and actually had local DJs in an era when many stations were going to a completely syndicated lineup or abandoning any kind of DJ altogether.

The news reports that WCCC had been losing listeners in recent years – probably as radio declined as a music medium. They had already switched to a more classic rock oriented format to try to attract more older viewers, but apparently this was not enough to prevent a sale.

The new WCCC has been switched to a corporate contemporary Christian station. This is bad for a number of reasons. First, the station now just broadcasts a feed from some off-site studio. There won’t really be any local programming or local personalities on the station. Thus, there won’t be anything unique about the new station.

Second, there’s already a religious station in the area. It seems unlikely that there’s room for multiple religious FM stations but only a couple rock stations and maybe one or two for jazz, classical, folk, etc.

Third, the contemporary Christian format is terrible. Contemporary Christian music is typically seen as a bland facsimile of modern rock where anything remotely interesting, artistic, or even just vaguely controversial has been removed. This doesn’t mean that there is no good religious music; just look at composers such as Bach and Palestrina. Contemporary Christian music, however is a particular style that is widely disliked. Even devout performers tend to run away from the contemporary Christian label. My own view on the genre I think is similar to that of an old South Park episode where the characters form a Christian rock band. The music is so bland that it seems almost like a cynical ploy to squeeze money out of a naive audience that cares more about promoting certain values than on supporting quality music. Thus, music given the “Christian” label tends not to be good enough to have a chance at being popular with the general listening audience. Good music, even with religious themes or religious performers, shouldn’t need to be categorized as “Christian” music.