Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

When does a band become a tribute act?

Quite a few veteran acts touring with just one or two original members get accused, rightly or wrongly, of being glorified tribute acts. Yes are a case in point; since the untimely death of Chris Squire the band have been touring without a single founder member, and just guitarist Steve Howe remaining from the early 70s band that made their reputation. There is a noisy faction of their ‘fans’ who refuse to accept the existence of the band without Jon Anderson, going to the extent of creating a Facebook group called “2/5ths of Yes is not Yes”. Given that Yes have gone though many personnel changes in their long history, that attitude is rather silly.

But what about AC/DC? With Phil Rudd in trouble with the law, and first Malcolm Young and then Brian Johnson forced to step down due to ill health they’re down to Angus Young and a bunch of hired hands. The Guardian’s Michael Hann has made a good argument for the band to call it a day after finishing their tour, and I find it hard to disagree with that.

There are plenty of bands on the nostalgia circuit for whom the label “glorified tribute band” is entirely appropriate. Bands who have been playing the same greatest hits sets for the past twenty years with diminishing levels of passion, and have either stopped recording new material altogether or release forgettable albums that add little to their legacy. But that has little to do with how many original members remain. One might even put The Rolling Stones in that category.

But there are others for whom the opposite is true. Look at Hawkwind, for example. Dave Brock spends much of the set sitting down, plays a bit of rhythm guitar, and lets the guys who weren’t even born when he started the band do all the work. But it’s his presence on stage that makes it Hawkwind in a way the rival bands featuring assorted ex-members are not. And what about The Enid, set to continue without mainman Robert John Godfrey with Robert’s blessing?

And how do you classify Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Dweezil Zappa and playing the music of his late father? Early incarnations of the band included Zappa alumni Napoleon Murphy Brock and Stevie Vai, though more recent lineups are made up entirely of younger musicians who weren’t part of any of Frank Zappa’s bands. But the spiritual connection is obvious.

As death or ill-health claims more and more of the classic rock generation it would be sad if their music stopped being performed live. The dividing line between tribute acts and original bands with no original members is likely to become increasingly blurred; a lot of it depends on whether they revolved around larger-then-life personalities, or whether, as in the case of Yes, the music itself is bigger than the performers.

In the end does it really matter? Is “authenticity” more important than the quality of the actual performances?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

What was your first ever gig?

The Guardian’s Michael Hann writes about first gigs. His was pre-hairspray Whitesnake, in the days where every member of the band played extended solos including the bassist. Though somehow I doubt that each solo was realy ren minutes long, even if they might have seemed that long to the 13-year old Michael Hann.

What my first gig actually was depends on what you count as a gig. Was it new-wave one-hit-wonders The Jags, who played a student gig at Bridges Hall?

I can’t remember now if it was a student-only thing or whether tickets were available to the general public. What I do remember is they were truly awful, a drunken shambles who stumbled their way through a barely-recognisable version of their one hit and a dozen other numbers that sounded exactly the same. The guitarist was so blotto he didn’t even notice he’d broken two strings. It’s not surprising they faded away soon after.

Or was it the 1980 Reading Festival, then as now a teenage right-of-passage?

The headliners that year were Rory Gallagher, UFO and Whitesnake, and the bill also included Gillan, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Slade, and many, many New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands (You name them, they were probably on the bill). I remember the huge cheer when Ian Gillan came on stage for his special guest spot on Friday night, and the whole field full of people singing along to Smoke on the Water. Then there was Iron Maiden on Saturday, again in the special guest spot. It was right at the beginning of their career, still with original singer Paul DiAnno. They’d just released their début album, and the energy on stage made it clear they were hungry and going places. Then there was Slade, late substitutes for Ozzy Osborne who’d pulled out at short notice. Nobody expected much from them at the start, and a low-key beginning with a couple of new songs gathered polite applause, but little more. Then they started playing the hits, one after another, and everything changed. By the end they’d completely stolen the show. When they came back for an encore, the crowd wanted that Christmas song. “Ye daft buggers”, said Noddy, “You’ll have to sing that yourselves”. So we did. Then they left us with “Born to be Wild”. Def Leppard found that very hard to follow.

Or the first “regular gig” in an indoor venue? That would have been Hawkwind at the now-demolished Top Rank Club in Reading.

The support was power-trio Vardis who sounded like a 30 second excerpt of Love Sculpture’s “Sabre Dance” repeated in a loop for 40 minutes with occasional vocals. As for Hawkwind themselves, this was one of the more metal incarnations of the band, with the late Huw Lloyd Langton on lead guitar and Dave Brock sticking to rhythm. They also had, of all people, Ginger Baker on drums, a legendary musician but quite the wrong sort of drummer for a band like Hawkwind. In retrospect it was probably not the greatest gig ever, soon eclipsed by far better gigs by Gillan, Budgie, Iron Maiden, UFO and Thin Lizzy. If anything, Hawkwind were actually better when I saw them thirty years later at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, but the superior acoustics of a symphony hall probably helped.

So, what was your first gig? Was it somebody legendary, or someone as awful as The Jags?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Batman vs. Superman is being panned by the critics, who make it sound like it’s the tipping point where big-budget superhero films fall out of critical and public favour. What’s its rock equivalent? Yes’ “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (Self-indulgent creative overreach), ELP’s “Love Beach” (Dying gasp of a spent creative force) or Metallica and Lou Reed’s “Lulu” (Ill-conceived collaboration done for largely cynical reasons)?  Over to you…

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments

Does this year’s Glastonbury main stage headliners of Muse, Coldplay and Adele represent the most corporate and beige lineup imaginable? I know Muse are a great live band, but they’re a very “safe” choice and have played Glastonbury many times. Nothing remotely out of Glastonbury’s comfort zone like Metallica or Kanye West this year.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 2 Comments

Comfort Zones

A blog post by Serdar of Genji Press takes issue with a suggestion that deep listening of music within a narrow genre can be more rewarding than being constantly disappointed by music that’s too far from your comfort zone.

This is a strange attitude to take. If I’m in the habit of listening outside my well-worn grooves, nothing is truly disappointing or distasteful. The mere act of listening without prejudice is itself elating, if you can get to it in the first place. Just having open ears is its own reward.

As is typical for me, I can see both sides of the argument here. Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to listen beyond my own comfort zone of progressive rock and metal and explore the worlds of modern folk and jazz, and there is a lot of great music to be found there. But I’m also aware that there are vast swathes of music that simply do nothing for me at all. Most contemporary chart pop, most three-chord indie-rock, or indeed any artists who’s lyrics overshadow anything they have to say musically, however good they are at what they do, are just not for me.

But the converse is true; even within my most loved genres there is much that falls well below the Sturgeon threshold. As a reviewer I get sent many, many promos for rock and metal acts. Many of them don’t even get listened to, and a proportion of those that get past my “Does their PR blurb make it sound interesting enough to warrant a listen?” filter still end up going in one ear and out the other without making much of an impression. I tend not to write reviews of such albums, because expanding “meh” to the required word-count is more work than it’s worth.

I sometimes feel that I spend too much time listening to mediocre new releases and not nearly enough revisiting old favourites. I can’t even remember when I last listened to a Mostly Autumn studio album all the way through.

There’s an old saying “Life’s too short to drink bad beer”. The same is surely true of music, and like beer, the difference between “good” and “bad” is far more personal and subjective than some would have you believe.

Over to you. When you seek out and explore new music, do you go broad or deep? Or do you prefer to spend much of your music listening time revisiting the things that made you a music fan in the first place?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Keith Emerson and Reviews

Some words following the tragic death of Keith Emerson ought to be pause for thought for those of us who review things:

Emerson’s girlfriend said at the weekend that he’d become “tormented with worry” about upcoming show in Japan, after suffering a nervous problem that made it difficult for him to play.

Mari Kawaguchi told the Daily Mail: “His right hand and arm had given him problems for years. He had an operation a few years ago but the pain and nerve issues were getting worse.

“Keith was worried – he read all the criticism online and was a sensitive soul. Last year he played concerts and people posted mean comments such as, ‘I wish he would stop playing.’

“He was planning to retire after Japan. He was a perfectionist and the thought he wouldn’t play perfectly made him depressed, nervous and anxious.”

Yes it can be cathartic to read highly negative reviews, and even more so to write them. It’s especially true when the subject is somebody you never really liked in the first place. But just as it’s unfair on audiences to pull too many punches, no reviewer should be so lacking in empathy that they completely ignore the effect that reading those reviews might have on the artist.

Critical reviews are an important part of any cultural ecosystem; many artists will never fulfil their full potential if all they hear is fannish cheerleading. But if you can’t frame criticism constructively, directed at an artist you believe can do better, what is the purpose of your criticism?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Blue Öyster Cult – The AOR Years

Music while I work today has been something of a Blue Öyster Cult-a-thon. I’ve been a fan of the band since I heard the live version of “Astronomy” at college many years ago, long before I discovered the likes of Mostly Autumn or Panic Room; indeed it was a chance encounter following a Blue Öyster Cult gig that made me a Mostly Autumn fan. But that’s another story.

Rather than their classic run of albums from the early to mid 70s, which might have been too engrossing and distracting, it’s been their later work; four consecutive albums from their AOR years beginning with 1979′s “Mirrors”. This is music that’s been part of my life for decades, and those familiar songs seeped into my consciousness as I did battle with gnomic XML interface errors and exchanged emails with colleagues over what was causing them.

These were the four.

MirrorsMirrors is one of those albums that still divides fans’ and critics’ opinions decades after it’s release. It was widely hated on its release; there had always been a lighter, poppier side to the bands’ music balancing out the heavy guitars and dark mysticism, but this was the one time they did an entire album in that vein. But taken as its own thing and approached on its own terms, it’s actually very good, and even the most commercial-sounding songs have a hint of darkness about them. The atmospheric epic “The Vigil” remains one of the band’s best songs. The only one that fails is “You’re Not The One I Was Looking For”, a strong candidate for the worst song they ever recorded, not just cheesy, but sounds like old cheese that’s been left out too long in the sun.

Cultaaurus ErectusThose who were underwhelmed by Mirrors hailed Cultosaurus Erectus, produced by Martin Birch of Deep Purple fame, as a return to form. It managed to keep a foot in both camps, with material in a similar vein as its predecessor balanced out with plenty of far heavier songs. One thing I’d never noticed before is the way a section of “Monsters” is a direct lift from “21st Century Schizoid Man”, many years before Kanye West sampled it. It’s probably the strongest of the band’s late-period albums, unless you include “Imaginos” which is best treated as a standalone thing in its own right.

Fire of Unknown OriginFire of Unknown Origin is something of a poor relation. Again produced by Martin Birch, but this time with a lighter, less guitar-heavy sound. With cheesy 80s synth often prominent in the mix, it’s one BÖC album whose production has dated badly. Not that there’s anything much wrong with the songs. The production works on the more pop-orientated material such the title track, and “Burnin’ for You” was a big hit. But you’re left with the feeling that the likes of “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” and “Vengeance (The Pact)” need a bit more oomph.

The Revolution By NightThe Revolution By Night is one of their more underrated disks. By this time original drummer Albert Bouchard had left the band As well as filling the drumstool he’s been one of their more prolific songwriters; and the band had to make greater use of outside writers to come up with enough material to fill an album. The album had a rawer, heavier production with a big guitar sound that brings the songs to life in a way its predecessor didn’t. It’s a little patchy, it has to be said; “Let Go” is down there with YNTOIWLF, but though it’s a “lesser” track I’ve always loved “Dragon Lady”. Buck Dharma’s funk-tinged “Shooting Shark” is an absolute classic, often performed live.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Extreme Metal and Critical Theory

Via the inimitable Peer-Reviewed, an academic paper on Extreme Heavy Metal Music and Critical Theory.

Extreme heavy metal music is transgressive, but can it be understood as resistant in Adorno’s sense of “serious music?” This article seeks to show how extreme heavy metal music approaches what Adorno valued in serious music and the interests of critical theory. I begin with the method of negative dialectics—a difficult and contradictory notion. The philosophy of negative dialectics is, I argue, crucial for the material studies informed by it. I consider next the idea of resistant music itself, distinguishing the negations of serious music from “positive” popular protest music. Finally, I provide an analysis of the negative dialectics of extreme heavy-metal music, considering the music and its culture in historical context. Overall, I offer a side-by-side “critical model,” in Adorno’s sense, of negative dialectics and heavy metal music and culture.

If somebody was to translate this from academic word-salad into readable English, this might actually be an interesting read. But given the inpenetrable nature of that extract, I think I’ll give it a miss and just listen to some music instead.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I have spent part of Saturday morning reading the comments against The Guardian’s obituary of Keith Emerson and reporting trolls to the moderators. It rather confirms my belief that the media narrative surrounding Punk was the worst thing to happen in the entire history of British popular music.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 1 Comment

Are Heritage Acts the Bed Blockers of Music?

The questions about AC/DC’s future following the forced retirement of frontman Bryan Johnson for health reasons has prompted the question: Are so-called “Heritage Bands” holding music back by denying opportunities to younger bands who still have something new to say?

The ultimate heritage act has to be The Rolling Stones, who still embark on mammoth stadium tours despite having added little of significance to their canon since the 1980s. Given the sort of ticket prices these bands charge, how much money are they hoovering up that might otherwise go to support dozens of smaller bands?

At least some older acts are willing to give bands from the next generation a leg up by inviting them as opening acts. Ritchie Blackmore giving Mostly Autumn the support his arena show in Birmingham is a very recent example. So is Steve Hackett; as well as Mostly Autumn, Anne-Marie Helder and Alan Reed have supported him in some sizeable venues. But at the other end of the scale we have those wretched “Package Tours” where two or three veteran acts share a bill and nobody below bus pass age gets a look in. They seem calculated to appeal to those for who the part of the brain that assimilates new music ceased to function when they had kids.

There isn’t a hard and fast definition of what is and isn’t a heritage act, and it’s not just down to age. I don’t think anyone would begrudge Robert Fripp for what is probably the victory lap for his long and innovative career. His new incarnation of King Crimson is playing brand new material and reinventing their older work. It would have been a different story had King Crimson been playing jukebox versions of “21st Century Schitzoid Man” and “Starless” round the circuit for decades. Likewise Curved Air have recorded an excellent recent album “North Star”, which is more than can be said for John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest’s embarrassingly awful “North”.

So, are older bands who refuse to retire the musical equivalent of bed-blockers in hospitals? Or is it simply that they appeal to an audience of their own generation who have no interest in new music?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments