Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 3

Foo Fighters

It’s surprising the amount of stick Dave Grohl got for moving forward and making new music. Or, as some saw it, daring to make new music after the death of Kurt Cobain. As the man himself has often pondered – did they just expect him to stop? Music was all he’d done up until that point and he was only 25, why should he stop? In October of 1994, six months following Cobain’s suicide, Grohl booked some time at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle – where Nirvana’s final, aborted studio sessions had taken place (which yielded the demo of what would become ‘You Know You’re Right‘) earlier that same year – and recorded a fifteen-track demo, playing every instrument (save one guitar solo) himself.

Not sure where his future lay Grohl considered looking for another band with a vacant drum stool. One such stool had recently been vacated by Stan Lynch and there’s a great video of Grohl going full Animal with the Heartbreakers on SNL – “it was the first time I’d looked forward to playing the drums since Nirvana had ended.” Ultimately, though (and even after a couple of shows sitting on the vacant Pearl Jam drum stool*), Grohl wanted to give his ‘Foo Fighters’ project his attention as the demo tape he’d circulated was now picking up major label interest. The name was applied to the demo tape as Grohl wanted some anonymity post-Nirvana and to suggest that a group was behind the music.

Released in July 1995, there’s something wonderfully charming and warm about Foo Fighters. It’s very much a product of its time – the guitars are very grunge-like and loaded with the same levels of fuzz associated with Grohl’s former outfit but the songs quickly jump into more melodic and lighter routes and there’s an overwhelming sense of lightness and, yes, goofiness that wouldn’t be present on any other Foo Fighters release (likely down to the fact that the largely nonsensical lyrics were written 20 minutes before recording). It’s loaded with hook, charm and warmth and positivity. Though I have to wonder if I’m the only Foo Fighters fan that doesn’t care for ‘Big Me’.

Highlights: ‘This Is A Call’, ‘I’ll Stick Around’, ‘Alone + Easy Target’, ‘Good Grief’,’Floaty’

Wasting Light

Fuck but I love this album. This is the one instance in which the Gimmick behind it paid off in spades. In an effort to recapture some of the rougher sound of earlier Foo Fighters releases, Grohl decided that Foo Fighters Album 7 would be stripped of all the production bells and whistles that had been draped over Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and bought in Butch Vig and to record the entire album on analogue equipment in Dave’s garage.

At this point, though, it would be futile to expect such a process to result in a raw sounding record. It’s not like Dave Grohl has a small garage for that matter either. But, what makes Wasting Light such a late career highlight is that Vig captures a sense of purpose and drive in the band that had been lacking for at least three albums previous. It’s a big, anthemic rock record shorn of production sheen and filled with a sense of energy that comes from the fact that they recorded the entire album live and – with Pat Smear back in the ranks – a heavier, three-guitar strong attack.

From the off with ‘Bridges Burning’ powering into ‘Rope’ and ‘Dear Rosmery’ there’s no let up. Instead, when you’d expect it at track four, ‘White Limo’ has been described as “a blistering, paint-stripping thrash track” with Grohl’s vocals lost as he screams at what must be the top of his register. There’s no slowing down on Wasting Light. No ballads. ‘These Days’ looks like it’s gonna be that track until it turns into a thumping Foos classic that will no doubt rub shoulders with ‘Run’ and ‘Something From Nothing’ on the inevitable Greatest Hits 2. No, Wasting Light found a revitalised band firing with an energy and power few thought they had left in them and got me really paying attention to the band again and, depending on the day of the week, could just as easily sit right at the top of this list.

Highlights: ‘Bridges Burning’, ‘Rope’, ‘White Limo’, ‘These Days’,’Arlandria’, ‘Walk’.

The Colour and The Shape

Twenty years on (gulp), the moment when the practically-throwaway ‘Doll’ gets torn apart by the arrival of ‘Monkey Wrench’ and The Colour and The Shape shifts into gear remains shit-the-bed-amazing. So good that the band themselves would give the formula another go and top it with ‘T-Shirt’ giving way to ‘Run’ on this year’s Concrete & Gold. That being said, while ‘Run’ is a great song, it doesn’t match the sheer power and fire of ‘Monkey Wrench’ – an absolute stone-cold classic. And it’s not the only one on the album for is home to a tonne of em: ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘My Hero‘, ‘Walking After You’, ‘Enough Space’ and, easily their best song, ‘Everlong‘.

The Colour and The Shape was the first Foo Fighters album recorded as a group (although Grohl would end up re-recording the drum parts himself leaving drummer William Goldsmith little choice but to leave the band. He’d be replaced by Taylor Hawkins before the tour behind the album began) and is the most cohesive and consistent set of songs they’ve put to tape, still. After an extensive tour behind Foo Fighters, the band were coming together with Grohl emerging more confident in his role as singer and band leader – if you go back to ‘Monkey Wrench’ when he hits his final “one more thing before I quit” you can here that confidence screaming through. On the downside his first marriage was ending in divorce. This meant that, in place of the nonsensical lyrics on the first album, much of Grohl’s domestic strife was poured into the lyrics – ‘Everlong’ in particular is a strange mix up as it was written against both the collapse of his marriage and the beginning of a new relationship.

What makes this album stand out for me is that in between the staggering strength of the obvious hits, the songs that are so often forgotten are really bloody good too. Take ‘Enough Space‘ – watching ‘Back and Forth’ it’s clear how important this song was as one of the first new ones Grohl wrote for the band, with a tempo inspired by the jumping up and down of European audiences to heavier tunes. Or ‘My Poor Brain’ or ‘Wind Up’ or the best Foo Fighters album closer to date – ‘A New Way Home.’ These are great tunes and on any other album would be stand-outs. When put on an album stacked with killer classics they’re almost forgotten but prove that The Colour and the Shape is an album full of strengths (and ‘See You’ which, frankly, you can forgive).

Check out any review for a new Foo Fighters album and it will be this one that it gets judged against and with reason. The Colour and The Shape built the template of every song and direction the Foo Fighters would make yet remains their benchmark in terms of quality and consistency.

Highlights: All of it.

*Despite all the MTV (and Courtney fuelled) Nirvana vs Pearl Jam schtick the animosity between members really wasn’t there. Grohl sat in for two shows in Australia pre Jack-Irons and it’s been suggested that, having heard and recognised Grohl’s direction, they told him he’d be better doing it alone rather than playing for someone else. Eddie Vedder would actually premier two of the album’s songs on his radio show in 1995 as well as playing alongside Grohl in Mike Watt’s backing band – whose tour Vedder’s band Hovercraft were on along with Foo Fighters.

Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 1

This year Dave Grohl and his bunch of merry men released their ninth studio album and have embarked on another stadium slaughtering world tour. It seems somewhat strange – having been listening in attentively for most of the ride – for the Foo Fighters to have reached such a scale when the band’s beginnings were so decidedly quieter and personal.

A lot changed in the years between Dave Grohl recording the entirety of the first album across a one-week period in 1994 and topping the charts with Conrcete and Gold as a six-piece member band and with a total of nine studio albums to their name I’ve been listening back through the back catalogue and decided, once again, to try to share my thoughts on each

My previous undertaking of a Least to Most was almost too much of an undertaking. To keep the fun and momentum, I’m not going to be exploring every album in a separate post for one thing though will be looking at them ‘One by One’ but in three hits of three.

It’s worth noting that, as with that initial series; it’s just that, personal favourites – I don’t lay claim to my judgement of one album’s quality to being universal or true. It’s supposed to be fun after all. Though it may well correlate with just such features’ listings, this isn’t a ‘worst to best’ just a ‘least to most’ favourite and, again, I listen to these albums pretty regularly so I wouldn’t call any of them ‘bad’ or they wouldn’t be sat on my shelves.

So, let’s get on with it and get going from the Least end…

One By One

Relax, something had to start this off and I know that this album most definitely has it’s champions. Hey, I can understand it; there are some cracking songs on One By One – there’s just not enough of them and, overall, the album doesn’t gel cohesively. It suffers from both its troubled birth and the band themselves having seemingly stepped away from it.

Coming off the back of the successful There Is Nothing Left To Lose, the band started working up songs and demos before taking a break in 2001 to play some European festivals. I happened to catch em at V2001. Unfortunately, after that show Taylor Hawkins suffered a heroin overdose, landing in a coma for two days.

Once back underway, sessions on the album grew stale, the heavy use of ProTools and rough mixes left band members feeling unsatisfied and, amidst risig tensions, the “million-dollar demos” were abandoned and the Foo Fighters went on pause as Grohl headed out on tour as drummer for Queens of the Stone Age. One massive fight during rehearsals for Coachella and a blistering ‘make or break’ show at the same festival later, the band got back together to take another stab at some of those songs already recorded and get down some of Grohl’s newer compositions including ‘Low’ and ‘Times Like These’.

When One By One dropped – heralded by the spectacular ‘All My Life’ which remains one of the band’s strongest songs – it was initially well received. But time hasn’t been kind to this one and it’s not aged well. It’s a frustrating listen with a good few songs but bogged down overall by several that don’t really cut it after repeated listens. I very rarely listen to this one and when I did so recently I couldn’t remember most of the song titles or melodies beyond the keepers – ‘All My Life’, ‘Low‘, ‘Have it All’ and ‘Times Like These.’ Oddly enough these happen to be the first four songs on the album and, beyond that, I very rarely venture.

Some great moments on One By One but the band’s heaviest album is also it’s hardest listen. As Grohl himself has said ” “four of the songs were good, and the other seven I’ve never played again in my life. We rushed into it, and we rushed out of it”

Highlights: ‘All My Life’, ‘Low’, ‘Have it All,’ ‘Times Like These.’

Sonic Highways

It pains me to put this one so low on the list as it’s one I’ve listened to a lot – chiefly because my almost-four-year-old requested ‘Something From Nothing’ so often- but, while it’s less of a challenge to listen to than One By One the truth is that Sonic Highways is not a great Foo Fighters album.

This is peak-concept Foos and it suffers as a result, almost coming across as not a real Foo Fighters album but as a soundtrack to their documentary series of the same name. Each ‘episode’ would see Grohl adding lyrics to songs based on conversations and ‘nuggets’ from that city. As such the references to Muddy Waters in ‘Something From Nothing’ seem forced and even Grohl’s tribute to his DC punk roots ‘Feast and the Famine’ is glossed and buffed into sonic tameness by Butch Vig. The other problem with the concept is that it forced guest stars onto every track whether or not they were needed – even Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilson questions whether they need a fourth guitar on ‘Something From Nothing’ – as though the songs must be forced through a strict criteria in order to make it to the album rather than happening organically because it was part of the Project to have guests on every song.

Some of the songs and details are good, though, don’t get me wrong. The feedback squall and solo at the end of ‘Something From Nothing’, Gary Clark Jr’s solo on an otherwise turd of a song ‘What Did I Do? /God As My Witness’, Joe Walsh’s chilled guitar licks in ‘Outside’ and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s blasts on ‘In The Clear’ all give a good hit of enjoyment and ‘Subterranean’ is a great one.

The problem is that songs like ‘I Am A River’ and ‘ don’t hold up to repeated listens or justify their length and ‘Congregation’ still holds its place as my least-favourite Foo Fighters song ever. The album, to my ears, sounds like good songs left half-baked, their gestation and development into something better sacrificed in the name of Concept as borne out by the release of the Saint Cecilia at the end of 2015 – four songs recorded without concept or Vig’s production buffing it all out that managed to kick the arse of everything on Sonic Highways.

Highlights: ‘Something from Nothing’, ‘In The Clear’, ‘Outside’, ‘Subterranean’.

In Your Honor

Aside from the whole *Honour thing…. In Your Honor was the start of what I’ve come to regard as the Foo Fighers ‘gimmick’ phase. After touring One by One – a tour which saw them become a genuinely thrilling live act – Grohl was unsure where to take his Foos next and, after the gruelling sessions for that album, didn’t fancy rushing into a new album straight away. Thinking of looking for film score work he picked up his guitar and set about writing acoustic songs, managing to amass a whole album’s worth. But, this being Dave Grohl, he couldn’t just have an acoustic record, he’s a man who has ” to have loud rock music in my life somewhere” so decided it was time for a double album. One CD of “really heavy rock shit” and another of “really beautiful, acoustic-based, lower dynamic stuff.” Uh-oh, sounds like a Concept….

What handicaps In Your Honor, though, is that Concept. That it has to be twenty songs long rather than it being that long because Grohl had written that many belters. That it needs to have ten really heavy fucking songs of wall-to-wall riffs AND ten songs that are as gentle as a kitten’s fart. And to keep them as far apart from each other as possible too. As such while at least half of the ‘heavy’ songs are top drawer, the rest just sort of repeat the notions and many of the songs on the ‘soft’ disc wouldn’t be released were it not a case of needing enough of them to fill a double album and the sheer distance between the two make it hard to link the sides of the same album to each other.

But.. as with all misguided double album’s there’s one gleaming, top notch, single-disc album in here waiting to be heard once shorn of its excess. The opening two on the ‘rock’ disc – ‘In Your Honor‘ and ‘No Way Back’ are as strong and relentless as a viagra’d up trouser snake and break only to let in the album’s lead single (and Foo classic) ‘Best of You’* and ‘DOA’ is equally as catchy while ‘Resolve’ is a 70’s Rock tinged earworm.

Despite the sensation that the band aren’t quite settled in feeling out their gentler side, the ‘Soft’ half has some of the album’s more interesting moments. Opener ‘Still’ is bathed in backround ambience and sneaky piano, ‘Over and Out’ has some great tom-tom work from Taylor Hawkins (though his lead-vocal début ‘Cold Day In The Sun’ veers far too close to AOR Slush), ‘Miracle’ – with piano from John Paul Jones – is a definite keeper as is ‘Friend of a Friend‘, a hold-over written by Grohl while in Nirvana and undoubtedly about his bandmantes and ‘Razor’ features some great guitar interplay between Grohl and his BFF Josh Homme to bring it to a close.

While some of the first disc gets tiresome and some of the “really beautiful” second disc is more “really coffee shop background” – take half of one and half of the other and you’ve got a great album here. Keep them restrained by the Concept and they’re dragged down.

Highlights: ‘In Your Honor’, ‘No Way Back’, ‘Best of You’, ‘DOA’, ‘Resolve’. ‘Still’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Friend of a Friend’, ‘Over and Out’, ‘Razor’.

*Why is Dave Grohl so popular on Amazon? He’s always giving the best the best the best the best reviews.

First Impressions: Concrete and Gold – Foo Fighters

This bloke from the Foo Fighters looks a bit like the drummer from that band Nirvana, doesn’t he?

Despite the PR, expecting the Foo Fighters to break new ground in 2017, some two decades plus into a career that has seen the band grow from a one-man project to stadium-filling rock heavyweights, would be optimistic to say the least. Since In Your Honour Dave Grohl, however, seems determined to try so we fans have been offered our Foo in separate acoustic and electric discs, a ‘serious musicians’ flavour, with ‘raw analogue’ toppings* and with added documentary options on the side. It’s still been Foo, though, no matter how much Mr Grohl has tried to spice it up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind, but, after There Is Nothing Left To Lose, there’s nothing that really sets aside, say, ‘The Pretender’, ‘All My Life’ or even ‘Rope’ as having been on different albums no matter the supposed narrative rules that rock’s smiliest ambassador has sought to apply to them.

Take Sonic Highways as an example – despite the concept and execution, there was nothing, really, to show in terms of sound or execution that differentiated its nine songs from any of the bands other mediocre cuts**. It’s as though there’s no concept or production technique that could change the established loud-quiet-loud-louder and colossal thump of the Foo Fighters at this stage of their career.

I found the concept behind Sonic Highways increasingly odd given how much time and effort the band had put into building their own studio (Studio 606 West) and HQ less than a decade before and seemingly abandoned after two albums – Wasting Light was recorded in Grohl’s garage. In fact, when Grohl declared that he already knew how the next Foo Fighters album would be recorded and that it was something so exciting that no band had ever done before…. I groaned a little inside. Why couldn’t they just get in their studio – or any studio – and apply themselves to the songs not to achieving some wacky concept?

Thanks to PJ Harvey, it seems, I’ve got my wish. Turns out that Dave Grohl’s ‘big idea’ for Foo Fighters Album 9 was to set up a studio on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and record it live in front of a 20,000 strong crowd. Shame, then, that discovering that PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project had been recorded in the same manner (albeit a far more English approach via an art installation in Somerset House) took the shine off the idea for him.

Instead Dave did what he describes as the most unexpected thing for his band to do and took the Foo Fighters into a big studio – EastWest Studios – and hired a producer to oversee their next album, gimmick-free. Well, I say that… this wouldn’t be a Foo Fighters album in the 21st Century if there wasn’t some form of ‘gimmick’ involved, would it? This time it’s the involvement of producer Greg Kurstin. Picked by Grohl for his work with his own band The Bird and the Bee, Kurstin is perhaps better known for his work with acts like Kelly Clarkson, Sia, Lily Allen, Ellie Goulding, Pink and that moaning banshee’s god-awful radio-melter ‘Hello’. Given the combination of a pop and rock heavyweight’s, the ‘gimmick’ of Concrete and Gold is that it’s being pitched as sounding like “Motörhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper.”

So…. does it? Of course it fucking doesn’t. Don’t be daft. But….. it takes a very very good stab at doing so and feels pretty much unlike anything else Dave and his merry men have done before. Yes, the sound is unmistakeably Foo but this time around the band are stretching out in ways they haven’t before and deliver plenty of unexpected and, frankly, great twists to deliver an album that offers  psychedelic, prog-metal, abstract, heavy and, yes, Beatles-esque shades against a Foo Fighters sound that is, for the first time in a long time, suitably balanced and mixed by a producer.

Kicking off with a short throwaway ripped apart by a heavy rocker will inevitably draw comparisons to The Colour and the Shape but ‘T-Shirt’, for all it’s brevity, is a superior song to ‘Doll’ and pushes Concrete and Gold‘s confidence and palette front and centre and – even after maybe a hundred listens at my son’s request – ‘Run’ is an out and out fucking BEAST that ranks as one of the Foos’ best:

‘Make It Right’ offers more than the straight-ahead rocker it initially suggests itself to be, there’s a funk of a groove behind it, unexpected chord changes and a surprising slab of background harmonies that when combined bring, to my mind that is, Aerosmith’s Draw The Line*** album. Initially I’d been slightly less impressed by ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’ when catching the videos of its live reveals but the album version, along with many of the tracks here, shows that – despite their straight ahead live mode – on Concrete and Gold the Foos have actually become a studio band with plenty of unusual-for-Foo song structures and production choices that blend so well. Take the strings that slip so unobtrusively into ‘The Sky…’ as to change a song type they’ve churned out many a time before into something that genuinely lifts skywards.

‘La Dee Da’ falls into the same category for me – I wasn’t impressed by it’s live rendering but, away from the bludgeoning and sonic flattening of radio too, on Concrete and Gold I ‘get it’. If it’s Fab Four you’re after, there’s one of em on ‘Sunday Rain’ – as Taylor Hawkins is too busy singing this spacey (seriously, check out his ‘Range Rover Bitch‘) rocker, Sir Paul McCartney plonked down the drums. Sequentially it’s a good fit because, to my ears, the preceding ‘Happy Ever After’ makes me think of ‘Blackbird’ or one of Macca’s early solo melodies.

‘Dirty Water’ is an early favourite for me; it brings forth sounds of both early Foo Fighters, a playful lightness and airy feel (and, again, some real Beatles tinges) but is bolstered by something sharper and more focused that comes from both a more practised song craft and production that, despite its length, it remains on track and charm. In that respect it serves as a strong summary of the album as a whole.

Concrete and Gold doesn’t quite achieve the premise of its PR but show me an album that does. It does, however, stand apart in the Foo Fighters cannon and is the sound of the band playing to those highs and strengths its achieved during its ascent to stadium rock act while also stretching out enough sonically to both refresh its sound and offer a welcome hand to those fans like me that had begun to wonder if Dave Grohl had anything interesting left up his sleeves. Turns out he does.

I hadn’t pre-ordered this one but I’m already on my third listen of Concrete and Gold and haven’t skipped a track left. For all his efforts to make a ‘concept’ of an album, Dave Grohl has, when he wasn’t even trying to, created a fucking belter of a Foo Fighters album that works not just track-by-track but as an album in itself. Well worth a listen or three.

 

*I’ll put this out there: Wasting Light is the best Foo Fighters album to date.

**Concept over substance unfortunately applies to the album and I wouldn’t slip any of its tracks onto a ‘Best of’ comp.

***Underrated.

Out of Europe: A Romanian Top Five

Here we are, over a year from that colossal outpouring of Stupid that was the Leave vote and with all the idiocy that has fallen out of the government in its tailspin and while all the polls and surveys now indicate that the general consensus amongst us Brits is “holy shit that was a big fucking mistake, STOP STOP STOP” the stupidity continues.

So as we look to be the first country since Greenland to shoot itself in the face in the name of political turpitude, I thought it was as good a time as any to shift the focus of this series to one of the EU’s most recent members, a country to whom I owe so much and have a huge amount of love for despite its contradictions, my second-home in Europe as it were; Romania.

I can’t include one of the precious few songs sung in Romanian I know for even though Zdob și Zdub sing in the language, they’re from the neighbouring Moldova. So ‘Everybody in the Casa Mare‘ will have to remain a ‘linked-to’. I’m also anxious to use this one to show that the Romanian scene is far more than the ‘traditional folk‘ music associated with the country.

This post has been a little longer in gestation than many. My wife, having left the country a fair old amount of time ago, hasn’t kept up with its music and so we reached out to a friend who runs a concert promotion company out of Bucharest and a couple on here are her recommendations. OneDay is a self-financed, independent effort aimed at promoting Romanian new music and introducing emerging international bands to the local concert scene. Pretty cool, right? She’s been involved in getting some pretty big names to the country and is always championing new Romanian music.

As such this post has been something of a voyage of discovery for me, opening my ears to a huge and varied music scene in the country – I’m next heading over in September and am hoping to hit up a few record shops as well as getting back into the mountains.

But I’ll start this list with the first bit of ‘alt/rock’ in Romanian I heard, via my wife….

Omul Cu Şobolani – Depresia toamna-iarna ’06-’07

So, I have no idea whether Omul Cu Şobolani  (I believe they were formed in București) are ‘cool’ back in Romania anymore of it’d get me ‘ugh’ looks in a record shop but this group keep it simple – one guitar, bass, drums and vocals. It was the first bit of rock I heard from the country and I still enjoy it.

Greetings Sugar – Drunken revelations (with Bogdan Serban)

This one came via the recommendations list. These guys also hail from and describe themselves as a “dark hearted band from Eastern Europe”. There’s something of The National / Interpol to the vocals on this, their second single. ‘Drunken Revelations’ is the follow up / over half to their début single – Greener – also worth checking out.

Fine, It’s Pink – Waiting for You

Fine, It’s Pink (another from the list) hail from  Iași and categorise themselves with phrases like “electronic bluesy dream pop” and  “electronica post indie”…  I love the mix of different elements in this one topped off by those vocals.

Fluturi Pe Asfalt – Nu crezi că pot?

Now we come to the discoveries… That ‘Related Videos’ feature on YouTube can also be a blessing for it’s where I found Fluturi Pe Asfalt. This four-piece from Cluj-Napoca (Romania’s second biggest city) tick off so many things I love in music: soaring guitars, mood, thumping drums, post-rock elements, a BIG sound… I’ve been rinsing their bandcamp page for listens (not everything is on YouTube and Spotify isn’t as international as it would like to think) and once I’ve finally worked out how to shift my iTunes over to the new Mac at home I’ll be hitting the purchase button.

We’ve also switched back to Romanian too. The language (I hang my head at my limitations with it) suits the genre, I think and, for those who’s Romanian is as bad as mine – “Nu crezi că pot?”means “Don’t You Think I Can?”

Pinholes – Poza

These guys describe themselves as “alternative rock band with influences that vary from post/art-rock to shoegaze and post-punk.” Again – I’m really getting into this and there’s something about the dark, brooding tone to this, the thumping drums  that I love and, again, tick so many boxes for me. Oh, Poza = Picture.

 

We got the means to make amends… Pearl Jam and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Warning: rant incoming.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a strange thing. From where I sit it seems like a lot of back-slapping and congratulating from industry-types with very little real merit. Does it mean something to be a “Hall of Famer”? Does it add all that much credence anymore? Perhaps it means more in the States than it does here where a UK Music Hall of Fame sputtered, stalled and stopped before anyone paid it any attention.

Let’s spin back a bit to 1983; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was set up by Ahmet Ertegun (he of Atlantic Records) to “recognize and archive the history of the best-known and most influential artists, producers, engineers, and other notable figures, who have each had some major influence on the development of rock and roll” (Wikipedia) and began inducting such artists in 1986 with the first group of artists including Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry.

Since then each year a group of artists are nominated, voted for and inducted in a ceremony – again; from where I sit – that seems overly long on speeches and pretty short on the ‘rock and roll’. With each year there’s criticisms about who is and isn’t nominated (chief amongst which being that those controlling nominations, as a small group, are not musicians and nominate based on personal taste) and then there’s plenty of column inches and website debate and pages handed over to the ‘drama’ of which members from a certain band will be inducted, will attend, will tell the HoF to shove it…

From those Bozos in Makeup to Axl Rose’s tantrums, the question about which ex-members should be in alongside the nominees seems to draw more debate than discussing that band’s lasting impact. The cynical side of me (which seems to only get more so after a decade in marketing) certainly thinks that this is a deliberate act by the HoF in order to stir the pot, get more attention and create more buzz than the ceremony would otherwise get, nominating bands for whom the real question will be “will they induct that member who played tambourine on their first album or…?”

Nirvana had it in 2014 when those members inducted included Dave Grohl and not the four drummers that had sat on the stool pre-Nevermind. Would they induct Chad Channing or the first drummer, Aaron Burckhard? For, you see, there’s a criteria for getting in: “artists will first become eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after the release of their first record (LP, EP or single)”. Bleach was released in 1989 (with Chad Channing on drums and Jason Everman on guitar*) but Nevermind, the first record Grohl drummed on, came out in 1991. It really adds weight to the idea that the HoF is after the popular vote more than anything – everyone loves a bit of Dave Grohl, nobody knows who Chad Channing is. There was, of course, a lot of online hubbub about the ‘snub’ of Chad.

Being the perennially nice guy of rock that he is, of course, Dave praised those drummers that had hit the skins before him in his speech and the band invited Channing to attend.

This year that question and the online buzz falls upon the collective shoulders of Pearl Jam. A band with a huge and dedicated following who forged a path for many to follow. Few can touch them live or match their unique set lists and they’re certainly the last men standing when it comes to the ‘Seattle Scene’. Their place in the Hall, even in the first year of eligibility, isn’t likely to be questioned. They’re also a band who, for the first half of their career, had a Spinal Tap scenario with their drummers**.

Released in August 1991, Ten featured Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and, on drums, Dave Krusen. Krusen, though, had left the band in May due to alcoholism. His replacement, Matt Chamberlain only hung around for a handful of shows before heading off to join the SNL band. He suggested a guy to take his place; Dave Abbruzzese. Abbruzzese played drums through the rest of the tour supporting Ten, on Vs. and Vitalogy before he was fired in 1994.  During which time the band would tour extensively, Abbruzzese would write the music for ‘Go’, ‘Last Exit’ and ‘Angel’ and defined the band’s sound at the time with his ferocious drumming. The harder sound he bought helped them move away from being pigeon-holed as another clone.

If you ask a Pearl Jam fan what the band’s ‘peak’ period was I’m willing to lay money on a large percentage saying 1991-1994. Abbruzzesse was a key part of that sound. The problem is, he enjoyed it too much. I’m not talking piles of cocaine and claims of being a Golden God, no; he just loved it all and smiled too much. Rumours swirl as to why Abbruzzesse was actually let go but it boils down to the fact that he was obviously having fun. Vedder was, at this time, at his most serious and ‘punk’, it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be enjoying your success and, as the front man, he took most of the attention and it was a lot to handle. While the band withdrew from the spotlight, Dave would give interviews (albeit to drum magazines, not Spin or Rolling Stone). While the other members would go the Volvo or battered old truck route, Dave bought a Lexus. He didn’t really care about the famous Ticket Master Boycott either. Apparently the final straw for Dave’s tenure came when he accidentally broke the neck of one of Vedder’s guitars during Vitalogy sessions and didn’t hang around to tell Eddie or apologise. He wouldn’t be in the band when it came time to tour the album he’d helped create, he was let go – Vedder wouldn’t do it, the task fell to Stone Gossard.

Pearl Jam

Jack Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers*** was then in the saddle for four years and two albums before he ducked out (not happy with touring) in 1998 and then-former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron took the seat he still occupies. Now, Cameron is certainly the stick man with the longest tenure and its clear that he’s considered a full member of the band – Vedder continues to praise him and has credited his joining with keeping them together – but I don’t think I’m alone in seeing him as an outsider even some 19 years and five albums later.

Now of all their six drummers, only one, technically, qualifies: Dave Krusen. He played on Ten, twenty-five years ago. By all accounts he’s quite surprised at the nod. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, however, is also inducting Matt Cameron. And nobody from the period between the two.

Now, out-dated and bloated an institution as it may be, if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are recognising Matt Cameron then they sure as shit should recognise Dave Abbruzzese.  As much of a deliberate poking of a hornet’s nest as the snub is, it’s also pretty unfair to then place the onus of dealing with the question onto Pearl Jam (ever-shy of such publicity and awards) to be the ones to deal with it. Dave, obviously riled himself, has said plenty, chiefly:

“I have always thought that every award given to a band that celebrates the bands lifetime achievements should be awarded to every person that was ever a debt incurring, life sacrificing, blood spilling, member of that band. Maybe the Hall should reevaluate the need to put all the monkeys in the same cage in order to boost revenue, and instead let the history of the band be fully and completely represented as they were and as they are. …leave it up to the group to show their true colors as they celebrate their own history in a manner of their choosing…

I will admit to wanting to look out over my drum kit at the faces of Jeff, Stone, Mike and Eddie. Looking to my left at my drum tech, the mainest of mellow, Mr. Jimmy Shoaf and seeing him give me that look that dares me to destroy my cymbals and kick the songs ass, the bands ass and the crowds ass… The idea of counting it off and giving the band, the music & the people all that I have to give, as I always have without compromise or hesitation… The sound of the people singing along… Making eye contact with the person air drumming their ass off right before the big drum fill, so we can do it together…
I loved it.
I loved it every single time.”

Pearl Jam have always marked themselves out as a band of integrity and honest values. They’re continually raising money and awareness for important causes and fighting the good fight. Again, it’s unfair of the HoF to put this on them but it is gonna be down to them to decide how to deal with the Dave question. History gives no real clue – their 2004 compilation Rearviewmirror featured photos cropped not to include him yet in 2016 the band performed his composition ‘Angel’ for the first time since 1994 with Vedder stating it ” was written by the guy who was our drummer. Dave Abbruzzese, We wish him well.”

How it’s dealt with come the night, though, we’ll have to see. And that’s how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame keeps getting people to pay attention. And, damn it, they’ve suckered me in to giving a damn too. The rat bastards.

 

* albeit in name only and his image was ‘tastefully’ removed from the album cover come the 20th Anniversary re-release. Everman would go through a musical life of ups and downs which would include a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint on bass for Soundgarden before cutting his hair and joining the army where he would serve with the Rangers and Special Forces – it makes for a fascinating read.

** You can’t dust for vomit.

***and was inducted into the HoF in 2012.

Least to Most: Bruce – Born in the USA

“You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up”

bruceborn1984Bruce at his largest in terms of both commercial appeal and sound, this was the spark that ignited ‘Boss Mania’ and saw Springsteen go from playing to packed arenas of the faithful to selling out stadiums and play-acting himself to newer audiences against a screen that projected his newly pumped-up image punching his fist into the air, ushering in the final verse of the misappropriated title-track to his then-new album Born in the USA to the cheap seats at the back of the crowd.

Thirty million (and still counting) sales, seven top ten hits. That cover. That Ben Stiller parody. Born in the USA is Bruce’s biggest selling album and, probably, his most well-known.  Yet commercial heights do not always equal creative heights. There’s always a sacrifice, a deal with the devil to achieve those numbers. For my money, the production and sound on this blockbuster meant that the details that make for a great Bruce song were sacrificed somewhat.

But let’s not get confused, though. At this point in the list we’re really getting into the quality end of the spectrum, the wheat has been separated from the chaff and we’re down to lining up in order of personal preference and anything from here on in will likely regularly feature on any stereo and may well top other ‘favourite / best’ lists.

The title track is inescapable, even on this side of the Atlantic, whenever Bruce is mentioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a belter of a song. Let’s skip over the way in which it was misinterpreted as that’s been discussed ad nauseam. I think what fascinates me is just how different this version is from the original demo cut around the Nebraska sessions is (perhaps this was the key to the sacrifice – in its original form it would not have been so misunderstood yet would never have reached such a wide audience) and that the version on the album is only the band’s second take at it – Max Weibnerg didn’t even know Bruce was going to count the band in for another punch at the four-and-a-half minute mark but The Boss has praised ‘Born in the USA’ as his drummer’s finest recording*.

That being said, I dont’ always listen to it when I play the album so over-exposed did it become and it was one of those songs that put me off Bruce initially. Listening to Chapter & Verse recently it sounds so out of place sat between ‘My Father’s House’ and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ as to almost sound like the work of a different artist. Almost.

Perhaps it was a cultural thing – Reagan harped on about a new morning in America while that country’s cinema heroes of the early 1980’s were muscle-bound and jingoistic, here we were had Thatcher and mining strikes (cinema audiences dropped to an all-time low in ’84) so a bicep-baring Bruce singing heartland rock against a backdrop of the Stars and Stripes was never going to be as huge here as it was in the US** and I don’t think this one has quite the lasting appeal in comparison to his other work.

I think that those songs at the start of the album are the ones I enjoy least and rarely listen to. I’d struggle to quote a lyric from ‘Darlington County’ say, or easily recognise ‘Working On The Highway’ if played live. The recording of Born In The USA dates back to 1982 and many of the tracks were written at the same time as those that appeared on Nebraska**. Bruce himself has said that “if you look at the material, particularly on the first side, it’s actually written very much like Nebraska – the characters and the stories, the style of writing – except it’s just in the rock-band setting.” Given that the fabled ‘Electric Nebraska’ has yet to see the light of day I can see why, the songs just don’t suit the sound – in my own humble.

Perhaps its another one of those results of a protracted recording period. Sessions for the album were spread over so many months (years even) that it can seem a little disjointed and with so many songs recorded it would be hard to find the perfect balance and he toiled with it for a long time. At one point in 1982, with the demo tape that would become Nebraska ready for release and a record of band material also ‘ready’ he toyed with releasing the two as a double album; one solo, one ‘band’ with a tracklisting ready as:

BORN IN THE U.S.A
MURDER INCORPORATED
DOWNBOUND TRAIN
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (I’m Goin’ Down)
GLORY DAYS
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN
WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
DARLINGTON COUNTY
FRANKIE
I’M ON FIRE
THIS HARD LAND

Yet then he released Nebraska as a stand alone (no tour, no real fanfare) and took a break before picking up recording again in early 1983 with newer songs coming up and wouldn’t conclude until February of 1984. As such a wealth of material was recorded and never released – you could easily pick a dozen of any such songs and create an album that would still be considered a classic. So the protracted recording, agonising and umming and erring (toying with releasing different selections and demos as is) as Bruce searched for that elusive ‘binding factor’ means that perhaps this record isn’t as consistent as it deserves to be.

But… but BUT. This album contains a wealth of such strong material that even if I tend to skip a few tracks a the start there’s enough here to warrant its inclusion in the top half of this list. Even limiting myself to two tracks from each album when I compiled my own Top 20 Springsteen songs was a tough one with this album and those I chose weren’t released as singles.

‘Downbound Train’ remains one of my favourite Springsteen songs and one I feel is criminally overlooked.

‘I’m On Fire’ gets many a play as does ‘Bobby Jean’. And then there’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’. When Landau listened to Born in the USA his reaction was “we don’t have a single” and told his charge to go home and write one. Legend has it a guitar was thrown at this point. However, Bruce set about writing about his frustration about writing – “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go – and probably a little farther.” His biggest single to date (with it the album actually had seven) and one which initially wasn’t popular with the band. Van Zandt has said “It was much, much, much more produced. I didn’t like that song when I first heard it.”*** While it may still have its detractors I still really enjoy it a lot more than some of the album’s other singles like ‘Glory Days’.

Overall Born in the USA is something of a grab-bag album. Certainly affected by over-production in its unabashed reach for the maistream (no qualms here, if any artist is going to shift thirty million copies of an album I’d rather it a Springsteen than a Beiber) it nonetheless contains more than its fare share of solid Springsteen tunes that carry the album into the higher quality end of his catalogue.

Highlights: ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Bobby Jean’. ‘I’m On Fire’, ‘Born In The USA, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’.

*While Weinberg is fond of the song for the same reasons, his favourite of these sessions, ‘This Hard Land’ was shelved like so many of the 80(!) recorded.

**It was a hit, though, nonetheless, topping the charts and shifting just over a million. I don’t feel though that it had quite the same cultural impact as it did for Bruce at home.

***Van Zandt would leave the E Street band in 82 (though this wasn’t really announced until after the recording of Born in the USA) and Nils Lofgren would join in time for the tour. The official line being that he’d joined in order to help see Bruce rise to success and, job done, it was time to focus on his own music.

Self-compiled; Aerosmith Pt 1

There are some real simple / guilty pleasures in my music collection. They might not be ‘critical’ favourites but I’ll always stick em on.

MTV has a lot to answer for. That’s the MTV that used to be – the one that actually showed more music than reality TV. I can’t say that I’ve watched it for years. Back in the 90’s it was a gateway into a lot of music. For me, in amidst all the “holy shit” moments that came with the explosion of grunge, the video for Aerosmith’s Livin’ On The Edge was an attention grabber – Joe Perry wringing a solo out of his guitar as a freight-train barrels down on him, only to casually step out of the way all cool-as-fuck.

A few years later when the video for Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) aired I went out and got the CD single (again, almost a defunct format now) but listened more to the b-sides instead – Seasons of Wither and  Sweet Emotion. It was like a taster for the early Aerosmith. So, after Big Ones I went right back to the music shop (again, a chain that has long since been relegated to the “do you remember?” list) and picked up Rocks the next day. It got, and gets, a lot more plays than that sumo-wrestler featuring comp.

Jim over at Music Enthusiast (I really need to update my blogroll etc) just finished a great 3-post wrap-up covering Aerosmith and it got me thinking about my own Aerosmith favourites. It wasn’t a deep thought, mind, as back in the days of cassettes I’d already compiled a couple for the car and – though they were on the old 90 minutes cassette and a touch of trimming was required – then done the same with CD. And, now, Spotify.

But why a self-compile in the first place? This is a band with 12 compilations to their 15 studio releases. Chiefly the length of Aerosmith’s career (now at 40+ years and counting) and the switch in record labels from Columbia to Geffen and then back meant that there was no one-stop album that would compile both until 2002’s disappointing compilation (odd song selection, ‘remix’ tracks in the running order, reeked of cash-grab) and those volumes that covered either chapter – let’s call it Pre and Post-Milk Spillage – were a little short on the run time and, therefore, missed a lot of key tracks for my tastes.

Those tracks that were cut off to fit on a CD-length comp were Downtown Charlie and Shithouse Shuffle and a longer, live version of Chip Away At The Stone replaced the studio version here. A few of these tracks (Train and Same Old Song And Dance) most definitely fare better in a live setting but that’s the way it is. Lightning Strikes or Jailbait from Rock In A Hard Place made the cut when there was more tape space but when faced with cutting for length they simply don’t hold up to the rest. Listening through this again now what strikes me most about this part of Aerosmith’s career is the rawness of the sound. Their later work would have a tendency to be more slick and over-produced in its sound as they sought the higher echelons of the chart. Prior to sobriety I guess they just wanted to tear the arse off the place.

So – here’s the slightly trimmed compilation I’ve been spinning in one form or another for the last decade or two from those early days. Starting with what has to be their greatest lead-in to a track, covering personal favourites like Seasons of Wither and the first Tyler/Perry collaboration Movin’ Out before concluding with the biographical No Surprize and, of course, Dream On: