He really seems to be on a roll doesn’t he? BTW, he (Jonathan Visger) is also selling a new poster here.
Monthly Archives: February 2010
If you’re younger than I am or if you didn’t grow up in America, you might not know what I mean by AM rock radio, so I’ll try to explain.
The transition of music and music listeners from radio to the Internet reminds me a lot of something I’ve seen before: the late ’70s/early ’80s trend away from playing music on AM radio. If you listen to music on the radio at all, you are probably doing it on the FM band. Nowadays, AM is reserved mostly for news and talk radio. It wasn’t always that way.
AM was where you heard all the top hits of the day for many many years. That was still true when I was a young adolescent in the mid-70s, just getting a taste for rock ‘n’ roll. The sound was a bit trebly and not in stereo, but that was normal. No one thought anything of it. FM radio existed at that point, but there were very few FM stations, at least in my neck of the woods, in the Texas Hill Country. Usually there was one classical station (if you were lucky) and one station that played elevator music (pretty much guaranteed, if there was only one, that would be it). And there was a problem called FM drift. You had to keep retuning the dial every few minutes, cuz the signal would drift to the left or right and it would be off the station.
There was a brief golden age, between about ’75 and ’79, when the music on AM radio was especially good. I’m talking about rock and pop stations, but the country music stations were pretty good at that time also. It basically ended when disco began to take over and you heard nothing else for a few years till everybody got fed up and people started smashing their records and wearing “Disco Sucks” T-shirts.
There were some basic rules to AM rock radio. For one thing, it couldn’t rock too hard. For another, it had to be clean. Sex and drug references had to be well-disguised in metaphor. It was for the kids, but Mom and Dad were going to be listening, so no shenanigans. Strangely enough, those vague restrictions led to some pretty good songcraft.
Here are some of the songs you might typically hear on one of those stations during that time:
Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street
Elton John – Daniel, Tiny Dancer, Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Little River Band – Reminiscing
Billy Joel – Honesty, Only the Good Die Young
ELO – Strange Magic, Evil Woman, Telephone Line
Firefall – You Are the Woman, Just Remember I Love You
Todd Rundgren – Hello It’s Me
Linda Ronstadt – Allison, You’re No Good
Seals & Crofts – Summer Breeze, Diamond Girl
The Who – Mama’s Got a Squeezebox
Chicago – Color My World, 25 or 6 to 4, Saturday in the Park
James Taylor – Shower the People, Up on a Roof, Smiling Face
The weird thing is, I didn’t realize how good it was at the time, only in hindsight. (All I thought back then was, couldn’t we rock a little harder?) There was some dreck on the airwaves to be sure, but any hour of a popular AM station playlist from ’76 would blow the crap they play today right out of the water. Maybe somebody else can come up with other examples.
The Humble Souls album, Thoughts and Sound Paintings was a revelation for me. A friend turned me onto it several years ago and I’ve determined it’s a lost classic. Right in between acid jazz and trip hop, they remind me a lot of my favorite trip hop group, Massive Attack. Released in 1993, I think Thoughts and Sound Paintings should’ve been as big as Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, which came out two years later. Every song on it is just killer.
It’s out of print, but you can find used CDs on Amazon. I think I got it used for like $2.
The album was on Gilles Peterson’s Acid Jazz label (which by the way is RIAA safe). I had a hard time tracking down a lot of information about them on the Internet, but someone on eBay took the time to share the info from the liner notes (which I could read myself if they didn’t use tiny print on a purple background – not enough light and couldn’t find a magnifying glass).
Personnel includes: Marie Jamilla (vocals); Anthony Clark, Simon Bartholomew (guitar); Edie Parker (flute); Ollie Moore (saxophone); Dave Priseman (trumpet).
Personnel: Spider, Hugh Brooker, Simon Anniky (vocals); Simon Bartholomew (guitar); Anthony Clark (acoustic guitar); Dave Priseman (trumpet); Cyril Maccamann (piano); Paul Gunter (congas).
Unknown Contributor Role: Hugh Brooker.
Arrangers: Hugh Brooker; Simon Anniky.
I’m going to have to do a post about Gilles Peterson one of these days also. He’s the one who came up with the term “acid jazz,” and he’s a renowned DJ and “rare crate digger.” He finds the coolest stuff you never would’ve heard otherwise.
This article on ReadWriteWeb is interesting: This Game Is Fixed! Democratized Content v. Voting Rings Some of you disgruntled former and current T61’ers might want to read it. TheSixtyOne is trying to hire a programmer who can stop voting rings consisting of sockpuppets and/or bots that automatically vote up certain content for an unfair advantage. To be honest, if we were still in the pre-Jan. 20 world, I probably would be excited by this story. I do think there was a certain amount of that going on. I’m not going to name names, but there were certain bad artists whose performance in the charts made no sense to me. However… I think it was less of a problem than James and Sam thought it was. Most of the charted music was still excellent. I also think some people did things innocently that got misidentified as vote-rigging. Furthermore, it’s now pretty much irrelevant, isn’t it? With what they’ve done to the site, taking away the user’s ability to choose songs to play, and cutting out all the listener/artist interaction we used to have, there’s not much of a game left to cheat. If you did cheat and got in the charts right now, not too many people would even notice, as it’s quite dead at the moment. Maybe they’re planning to go back to the way it was, but who would trust them? Not me.
I guess it was around 2002 when I got bitten by the indie bug. I was pissed at the way the major labels sued consumers and cheated artists – and I had discovered the wonders of college radio. Back then I listened to KTSW from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas (then known as Southwest Texas State University), which turned me onto so many great bands & artists: …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Cornelius, McLusky, Elliott Smith, Interpol…
I figured who needs the majors? I started paying really close attention to an artist’s record label and if they were on a major label, I would avoid their album or try to get it used. I wouldn’t even download it. Eventually I found out it wasn’t as simple as I thought. I knew who the major labels were, but a lot of times what seemed like a small label turned out to be a one-off, owned by a major. At some point I discovered a tool called the RIAA Radar, which will tell you if any artist or label is affiliated with the RIAA.
There was a period of more than a year when I wouldn’t buy any CD without first running it through the RIAA Radar to make sure it was truly indie. I’ve since gotten over that. Too many of my favorite artists are on major labels and one-off labels. Am I going to give up The Dandy Warhols? I don’t think so. I also don’t blame artists who sign to major labels. There are certain services a large label can provide that an artist can’t always get on a smaller indie or by going it alone, services like promotion and tour support. I totally understand why The Decemberists signed to Capitol (I still liked them better when they were on Hush Records though). It’s a risk though. A band might lose artistic control, or might find that it can never recoup the money the label puts in.
That old attitude I used to have, of “they signed to a major, they’re dead to me now” just isn’t practical or fair. Artists have to do what they have to do. It would be nice to stay in a hotel room instead of sleeping on floors while on tour. I get it.
However, it still makes sense to use the RIAA Radar. It can show you things about the music you love. Years ago when I used it, I was surprised at how many bands I thought were on indies were actually not. For example, Built to Spill used to be on Up, a true indie, but they later went to Warner, obviously one of the majors. Trail of Dead used to be on Merge, one of the big indies, but later went to Interscope, which is part of Universal Music Group. (BTW, in the ’90s, there were six major labels. The majors currently consist of the “Big Four” – Warner, EMI, Sony, Universal. I understand EMI is having trouble, so we may be down to a “Big Three” before too long. The Wikipedia article on record labels is pretty informative if you want to learn more.)
Now when I use it, what strikes me most is how many high profile artists are self-released or on independent labels. For example, I felt a little twinge of conscience when I posted that Vampire Weekend video early on. They’re high profile enough, I was sure they must’ve been on a major, but they’re not. Totally indie. Beggars Banquet, which put out so many great postpunk albums and 4AD, which put out albums by bands like Dead Can Dance and His Name is Alive, are RIAA safe. I kinda thought those might be sub-labels of some major label. Daptone Records (featuring Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and Truth & Soul Records (Lee Fields) are straight up indies.
And thanks to the distribution possibilities of the internet, a lot of artists are simply doing it on their own, without even small label support. It’s pretty exciting to see that change unfold.
And BTW, if you’re interested in independent record labels and the DIY spirit, you should read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the American indie underground in the 1980s. I have a lot of respect for those artists and their labels, which include: SST, Sub Pop, Dischord, Touch & Go and K Records.
Okay, I have to digress from the music business for a little bit after today. It snowed like crazy, big ol’ flakes, piled up on the ground enough for snowmen, snowball fights and other wintery shenanigans. Haven’t seen snow this heavy in Texas since 1984. I know it’s no big deal for a lot of people – my brother who lives in Wisconsin is sick and tired of the stuff by now. But it’s a pretty rare thing around here. In Texas, kids will play in sleet, for God’s sake. Work today was torture. We were like, damn, hurry up and get done, the snow’s gonna melt before we can play in it. I felt like Bart Simpson when he had to study while all the other kids had a snow day. And when I got home, I made a snowman, mostly out of the snow I scraped up from the back of my pickup truck. Not much of a snowman by most people’s standards, but not bad for me.
Here are some kids playing in my apartment complex:
And since this is a music blog… Here’s a song called “Blue Snow,” by Peter Doran. Pretty good song too.
When people find out I live in Austin (or close to it), they almost always ask if I’m going to South By Southwest (March 17-21 for the music festival, March 12-21 for the whole thing). Answer: I wish. I have been several times and mostly had a blast. Definitely discovered a lot of great music. However, I don’t know if or when I’m going back. I probably won’t unless I can get in with a press pass, which isn’t likely since my newspaper (The Hill Country News) is very local and we’re also working on a special section right around that time.
First time I went to SXSW, I got in with a wrist band, which is affordable, but now the demand is so high it’s almost impossible to get one. When they announce that wristbands are on sale, you have only a few hours to get to the location. Since I work in the burbs, that means it’s never gonna happen. I can remember when you had at least a week to mosey on down and pick up a wristband before they sold out.
Then assuming you did get one, everyone with a badge gets in ahead of you. So most venues and most shows will fill up before you ever get in. The Fire Marshal’s office is very strict on the issue of overcrowding. When a venue is full, that’s it. No one else gets in. I still got plenty of enjoyment out of SXSW as a wristband attendee, but now it’s so crowded that even badge-holders often wait in line for hours and don’t get into shows they want to see. And the badges are EXPENSIVE. To register now for the Music festival alone would cost $750. If you registered before Sept. 15 it was “only” $595. I like movies too, but I only ever attended the music festival because music comes first for me. A Platinum badge, which gets you into Music, Film and Interactive festivals, started at $920 and is now up to $1,225. Way, way out of my reach.
Two years in a row when I worked at another publication, I applied for and got press badges, which didn’t cost me, but I was expected to cover the festival and report on it. I would do feature stories on any local (Dripping Springs) musicians in the festival and would review the bands I saw each night. The newspaper I work for now can’t really use reports on SXSW so it’s not an option.
A couple of years ago I got the bright idea of taking my vacation during SXSW and buying my own badge, $500 on my credit card. Then my friend who was going to go with me got called away on business unexpectedly. He was supposed to come back and catch a few days of the festival with me but during his trip back he got a horrible case of the flu. So I was left to wander around the festival alone with no one to talk to. Then my radiator on my pickup truck blew up and I had to get it towed, and it cost me $300 to fix the thing. I still had a good time overall, found some great bands, but it made me pretty shy about plunking down that kind of money. It was scary enough planning a vacation to San Francisco last fall knowing the possibly deadly swine flu was going around. Lucked out on that one.
You might expect me to have sour grapes and say SXSW sucks and is too corporate, but the fact is I got a great deal out of it and would love to go back some year. I discovered a lot of great music there – Gogol Bordello, Antibalas, Kinky and Melissa McClelland to name a few. Also got to see one of my musical heroes, Robyn Hitchcock, three different times. Maybe one day…
If you happen to have a few thousand bucks lying around or work for a company that would pay your way and want to sign up, you can do it at http://www.sxsw.com/. And if you get to go, lucky SOB, tell me who you saw so I can live vicariously and discover some bands secondhand.