Tag Archives: The Guardian Music Blog

Ritchie Blackmore – 10 of the best

The Guardian have just published my piece on Ritchie Blackmore for their “10 of the best” series.

Like some of my previous entries in this series, reducing the essence of a major artist’s career down to just ten songs is never easy. As on my earlier Black Sabbath piece I wanted to avoid a list containing ten obvious standards and nothing else, so I missed out very well-known songs such as “Smoke on the Water” to make room for a couple of lesser known and often overlooked gems.

There were a few songs that picked themselves. “Eyes of the World” was one of those songs that changed my life, so it had to be there. Likewise, the towering “Stargazer” could not be omitted. I did consider including representatives from his 1960s session work, and from the more recent Blackmores Night so as to cover his entire career. But in the end I decided to focus entirely on his prime years from 1970 to 1984.

Quite a few of the alternative suggestions in the comments did actually appear in earlier drafts of my list, including “Child in Time” which I eventually left out in place of “Speed King”, and the live version of “Catch the Rainbow” which one commenter described as the nearest thing rock guitar ever came to Coltraine.

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Gatekeepers

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock FestivalChantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival, which prominently features female artists

The Guardian have run their fourth piece in as many weeks bemoaning the fact that the lineups of major festivals are too male-dominated.

Unfortunately while it does raise some valid points it ends with this awful paragraph that seems deliberately calculated to provoke a defensive reaction from male rock fans, especially when the proposed “solution” had been to add commercial pop acts like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry to the bill.

In a world where women are deconstructing pop music, club culture is booming with some of the most innovative sounds in years, and a new generation of hip-hop and rap stars are heralding a socio-political cultural revolution in America, the white, male rockist notion of what a music festival headliner should be begins to feel hopelessly archaic.

The use of the dated 1980s term “rockist” does rather imply the author didn’t actually like rock at all, and the whole thing smacked of Social Justice Warrior-style invasion of other people’s spaces. One of the authors did later clarify that that wasn’t what she meant and she did love rock after all, but by then the comments were swarmed with bellicose sexists. I even had to ask the moderators to remove one of my own comments that recommended and namechecked a female artist because I didn’t want her to become the subject of online harassment.

While there is undoubtably sexism across all levels in the music business, I still think one big problem is the way a very small number of gatekeepers get to filter all the music mainstream audiences get to hear. The problem is not just that those gatekeepers are disproportionately white and male but that so few people have a disproportionate amount of power.

Previous articles have spoken of “elite tastemakers” numbering as few as fifteen record label executives, radio programmers and magazine editors who get to decide almost everything Joe and Johanna public get to hear.

Commenter “Cathartic” writes of the influence of gatekeepers in metal, using the Download festival referenced in the piece as an example.

There are numerous metal bands with females in that are less commercially successful, which disproves the idea that women just like to watch, but its almost certain that if festivals gave newer acts (both male and female) more of a chance many would develop the fanbase needed to justify headline slots.

Its a Chicken/Egg situation largely. Download is extremely conservative about its line ups, most of the headliners and main stage acts are basically older American and British bands that have been around for decades, and they are not known for given the European bands a slot. The latest roadrunner signing will take preference over an established European band regardless of commercial appeal. 10 years later that band will have enough mid-afternoon slots that they would have to be really bad not to have turned that exposure into sales.

However elsewhere in Europe, Nightwish and Within Temptation are two examples of female fronted bands that will land headline slots in hard rock/metal festivals. Both would pull off a senior slot at download as well these days. Both those bands can pull off UK arena tours now, but it was Bloodstock that has pioneered these types of bands in the UK first. There is the audience out there.

There are plenty of female musicians – ratio is irrelevant – playing in smaller bands in genres which download claims to cater for. The question is why so few have been able to make the leap from small touring for petrol money to headliners. The reasons may be complex, but the reality is his festival (and other music industry big wigs) have acted as gatekeepers in the genre and adopted an extremely conservative booking policy that has meant download have never taken risks on helping the smaller bands reach a larger audience. His comments just portrayed an under ignorance of the genre he caters for. Reality is headliners may be the ones that sell tickets (and Nightwish and Within Temptation certainly could add ticket sales for download), but the mid-afternoon slots are far less risky to try something new and there are a whole host of bands with female musicians that get ignored. Many people at festivals find discovering new bands part of the reason for going to a festival anyway.

That hits the nail right on the head.

I do suspecr that one reason the grassroots progressive rock scene is more friendly towards female-led bands than the corporate indie-rock festival circuit is previsely because it isn’t so controlled by bean-counting gatekeepers.

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Not So Alternative Comedy

In a Guardian comment thread that was actually far more entertaining than the nasty mean-spirited blog post it was attached to, somebody linked to this joke from Alexei Sayle:

I was at a Motorhead gig when after an 8 hour number entitled ‘I’ve got a dick the size of a Ford Cortina, someone called out “sexist shite” and they thought it was request …

If you laughed at that, it’s very likely that you know little or nothing about Mötorhead or their music.

Alexei Sayle could be a very entertaining comic actor, but I never rated his act as a stand-up comic in the early days of his career. He presented himself as an “alternative comedian”, eschewing the sexism and racism that was a staple of so much second-rate comedy of the 70s.

But his act was actually nowhere near as radical or as funny as he liked to think it was, and tended to be laced with a lot of smug self-rightousness. The example above showed, just like the racist Bernard Manning, he was willing to get cheap laughs by punching at his audiences’ designated out-groups without needing to put in any effort to be genuinely funny.

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There are some questions for which “Ziltoid the Omniscient” is the only possible answer. Because bonkers prog-metal sci-fi concept album about the daydreams of a bored barista.

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Black Sabbath: 10 of the best

Black SabbathThe Guardian have just published a piece I’ve written in their “Ten of the Best” series, about Black Sabbath.

The task of choosing ten songs to tell the story of the most influential metal band on the planet wasn’t an easy one. Listening to all their albums, especially the early ones, showed Black Sabbath’s remarkable consistency. For every song I eventually chose there were two or three others that would have been equally valid. At one point my draft list said “Something from Master of Reality”, and I could easily have chosen almost anything from that album. That my final list didn’t have space for “NIB”, “Paranoid”,”Iron Man”, “Children of the Grave”, “Spiral Architect”, “Neon Knights” or indeed anything at all from “Volume 4″ says it all.

One dilemma was whether to base the list around the obvious standards that everyone knows, or highlight some of the lesser-known gems. In the end, I went for a bit of both, including defining classics like “Black Sabbath”, “War Pigs”, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Heaven and Hell” while leaving room for atypical songs such as “Air Dance” or a representative of the often-overlooked Tony Martin era.

Speaking of the Tony Martin era, one of the constraints I had to work to was that all the chosen songs had to be available on Spotify, and unfortunately neither “Headless Cross” nor “Tyr” were there; the only album available was “Eternal Idol”. Hence the last-minute substitution of “Glory Ride” in place of Tyr’s “Anno Mundi”. Which makes the comment that it was a great list except then “Anno Mundi” should have been there instead of Glory Ride spot-on. Little did he know.

Some of the other comments are amusing; there are clearly a few people who don’t like anything beyond the first four albums and lost it with “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. As as for “Too much Dio”, there is no such thing as too much Dio. But that’s Guardian commenters for you…

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Quote of the Day

From a Guardian piece on Eddie Bo, the gentleman of soul who never got his due:

“James [James Black, drummer] was also an accomplished trumpet player,” Bo recalled. “On that day, the trumpet player was doing his part on From This Day On, but it was too complicated. I was getting frustrated with him. In the end, James took the trumpet from him, and hit him in the head with it – bent it. Then he said, ‘Let’s go – I’m tired of bein’ here.’ And he played the trumpet part himself.”

Ouch! If you’re a trumpet player, be wary of the drummer!

This piece is a good example of why music writers love interviewing veteran musicians – theyve got stories to tell that up-and-coming bright new hopes just can’t match.

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The Pros and Cons of Classic Album In Full Sets

A Guardian piece claims that  the ‘classic’ album set is ruining festivals. It actually makes some good points, but those points are so clumsily-made that the whole piece reads far more like provocative clickbait than perhaps it should. The last sentence on this quote is a self-evident load of tripe.

This week, there’s even an entire festival in Chicago and Denver dedicated to artists too lazy to write a proper setlist. Weezer, Slayer, Jane’s Addiction and seven more will plough through their biggest albums front-to-back at Riot Fest, so if you want to hear a band you used to like perform a track they wrote as filler 20 years ago, knock yourself out. Be honest: when was the last time you actually played an album, including all those rubbish “skits” artists are so keen on, all the way through?

The “Play a classic album in full” thing got started because fans were getting bored of older bands playing the same standards tour after tour as if they were their own tribute act, and it was an opportunity to shake things up and perform the odd rarely-played song live.

This was a fine approach for bands who have made albums as consistently great as “Moving Pictures” or “Blackwater Park”, but once the trend caught on too many bands who hadn’t actually made a flawless classic jumped on the bandwagon. For them, some of those rarely-played songs were rarely-played for a reason.

There were two such sets on the Prog stage at High Voltage in 2011, Uriah Heep playing “Demons and Wizards” and Martyn Turner’s Wishbone Ash playing “Argus”.  The latter worked really well, it’s an album that’s stood the test of time, and it made for a more enjoyable set that the blues-rock workouts you get from Andy Powell’s official Wishbone Ash nowadays.  The Heep set was far less effective,  much like every 70s Uriah Heep album there was a lot of filler and some of the album had dated very badly. A greatest hits set cherry-picking the best songs from their 40 year career would have been so much better.

Which all goes to show that album-in-full sets are neither a good thing or a bad thing in themselves, but they depend on the band, and on the album.

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No, Guardian, “anti-riffs” are not a thing.

This week’s Guardian Music Blog clickbait is “What are the best anti-riffs in rock”, a piece bemoaning the fact that a Radio 2 poll on greatest riffs is full of classic rock rather than the sort of music the writer likes.

It’s true that the original list is so predictably dull it deserves to be mocked mercilessly. If it was any more musically conservative it would be called “Noel Gallagher”. It feels like it was voted by people who’s knowledge of rock is limited to a compilation “The Best Classic Rock Anthems.. Ever” bought at a service station on the M1. As other commenters have noticed, The Rolling Stones seem glaringly absent, and aside from Slash there no guitarist there who isn’t white; No Hendrix, no Chuck Berry. And they’ve clearly never heard Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe“. Or realise Deep Purple’s “Burn” is infinitely better than the lumpen meat-and-potatoes of “Smoke on the Water”.

But the suggestion for “Anti-riffs” is no better. It does make me feel that the author hasn’t got over ending up on the losing side of the punk wars, and resents the fact that 60s/70s classic rock has stood the test of time while the scratchy C86 style stuff John Peel used to play late at night hasn’t, and means little to people who weren’t in their late teens at the time.

No, an “anti-riff” is not a thing. But here are a some great pieces of guitar work that don’t fit the conventional blues-derived classic rock formula.

  • Opeth’s “Windowpane“. The evocative rippling guitars are a thing of beauty. It took some nerve to open with this when Opeth played the Metal Hammer stage at High Voltage in 2010, but that’s exactly what they did.
  • Chic’s “Le Freak”. I’d rate Nile Rogers as one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time, and rock fans who ignore his music are missing out. This one’s the Whole Lotta Love of funk.
  • A lot of the Alex Lifeson’s playing on Rush’s classic “Grace Under Pressure”. It feels like he was constantly thinking “What would a classic rock guitarist play here?”, and played something altogether different and better instead.

What are your suggestions?

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Nitro – Freight Train

The Guardian asked for nominations for worst music videos, so I suggested this.

Yes I know finding bad examples of 1980s hair-metal is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s a genre that hasn’t aged well with few acts reaching the Sturgeon threshold. But this one is quite exceptional. The O-gauge steam train at the beginning is bad enough, but wait for the moment two and a half minutes in where guitarist Michael Angelo Batio goes the full Nigel Tufnel and then some.

Some people blame Nirvana for killing off the Rock Guitar Solo. But on the evidence of this I think the likes of Michael Angelo Batio have a lot to answer for.

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Britpop: a cultural abomination?

I’m seeing so many articles in the media about Britpop to mark the 20th anniversary of Oasis’ first album than I’m coming to the conclusion that an awful lot of music writers are in the throes of mid-life crises. Which is why Michael Hann’s conterblast declaring Britpop “a cultural abomination that set music back” is a welcome corrective.

If C86 had defined indie as music made by white guitar bands, then Britpop finally robbed it of any connection to its original derivation: music produced and distributed independently. Indie had ceased to be an alternative. And if it was no longer an alternative, but a hegemonic force of its own, then what was the point of it?

There were a few decent bands who got themselves lumped in with Britpop; for example, I still listen to Suede’s “Dog Man Star” regularly. But Britpop’s legacy was still a stifling musical conservatism, with a narrow vision of what a guitar band could or should be.

Whatever the merits of Suede or Pulp, nothing good came from the hordes of lumpen Oasis-a-likes that followed in the wake of Oasis and Blur’s chart success. It was all backward-looking and parochial, endless recycling of all the least interesting parts of late-60s guitar pop, exactly the sort of music 70s progressive rock was a reaction against.

Still, some good things came out of it. It was at the height of Britpop that Bryan Josh decided to form Mostly Autumn. But that’s another story entirely.

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