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Monday, December 17, 2012

Rock Gods Spotlight #3: Drums

If you've seen the recent TV ad for the Volkswagen Jetta, with the driver doing his best air drum performance to Rush's "Fly By Night" before realizing he has an audience, you've basically seen what I look like on any given day in my car.  When I turn up my stereo, my feet start stomping on my invisible bass drum and my steering wheel takes a pounding, all in the name of Rock.  Playing the drums is my missed calling, perhaps along with writing, so until the day comes when I have the time and resources to dedicate to fulfilling my dream, my car is my drumkit.

I'm certain that growing up in the 80's had a lot to do with the musical tastes I have today, especially considering my love for the drums and the ridiculous drum solos from some of the most iconic songs of that decade.  Before diving into my favorite drummers, I have to mention 3 songs with some of my favorite drum parts that nearly everybody knows, that are essential pieces of Pop Culture.  First is the infamous intro to Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher", which features Alex Van Halen transitioning from what sounds like 6 bass drums to a lightning fast exchange between snare and cymbal leading into Eddie's genius finger-tapping opening.  As if that intro alone wasn't enough to make you go out and by a kit, next up is the sequence from "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins that nearly everyone has played air drums to at some point in their lifetime.  The song, a bit of an urban legend, is a slow and haunting Pop classic that's suddenly flipped on its head with a thunderous breakdown capable of shaking the fillings in your teeth with the right set of headphones.  The third, which was accompanied by one of the coolest videos of the decade, is the drum intro from Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing", which is like a drum solo spread out into several small bits, all coming together just in time for one of Mark Knopfler's tastiest guitar licks.

When it comes to naming the best drummers in Rock, John "Bonzo" Bonham is pretty much at the top of everyone's list, and I do think he is among the absolute greatest, but on my list the top spot belongs to Neil Peart.  I mentioned Rush's "Fly By Night" earlier, which is certainly not the most impressive piece Peart has done but there is nothing unimpressive about anything he does on the drums.  Their 1991 album "Roll The Bones" was the first album I owned from the Rush catalog, but I was definitely familiar with some of their classic tracks like "Limelight", "Spirit of Radio", and of course "Tom Sawyer".  I own nearly all of their albums since RTB as well as "Chronicles" which is a fairly comprehensive collection of their pre-90's material.  Much like singer Geddy Lee's bass playing, I think Peart's strengths are highlighted more on the band's instrumental tracks, but there are several tracks on every album that show what a powerhouse he is, technically, creatively, even lyrically.  On their latest album "Clockwork Angels", Neil plays with a new level of power and ferocity, not that his playing isn't powerful already, but it seems that in his downtime he may have recently enjoyed some heavy Rock that got him fired up when it came time to record.  His drum solo is the highlight of any Rush show, and when the lights go dim after the instrumental piece that leads to it, he has the attention of everyone in attendance, a sea of faces covered in awe.  I've only seen Rush live once, on their 1994 Counterparts tour, but I have seen and heard a few of their live releases over the years and it really just keeps getting better, tighter and more impressive.  I've seen articles and videos of people downplaying Peart's status for how old he is or saying that today's drummers are better simply because they're louder or faster, but it's no mistake that his name is near the very top of every single "best drummer" list published, along with Mr. Bonham.

Moving right along to "Bonzo", also known as John Henry Bonham of Led Zeppelin, who could make the most simple drum kit sound like the massive kit Peart uses today.  For most of Rock's most highly-esteemed drummers, their status was achieved over a number of decades; Bonham did it in just 12 years.  Discovered in July 1968 by Jimmy Page while forming his post-Yardbirds band, Bonham helped build one of the most highly respected catalogs of music in history, until his tragic and untimely death in 1980 at the age of 32.
Known for speed, power, fast feet and his distinctive sound, he earned a long list of accolades naming him the greatest and most influential Rock drummer of all time, not only in his time but even in polls taken as recently as 2011.  Some of today's most popular drummers like Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chickenfoot) and Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), along with legends like Roger Taylor (Queen) and Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones) recognize him as the best of all time.  Taylor, responsible for a number of classic anthems himself, said the following about Bohnam, "The greatest Rock 'N' Roll drummer of all time was John Bonham who did things that nobody had ever even thought possible before with the drum kit. And also the greatest sound out of his drums - they sounded enormous, and just one bass drum. So fast on it that he did more with one bass drum than most people could do with three, if they could manage them. And he had technique to burn and fantastic power and tremendous feel for Rock 'N' Roll."  Bonhan's legacy lives on, not only in the music of Led Zeppelin's catalog, but also through his son Jason, also a drummer, who performed the most important show of his career in 2007 at London's O2 arena with his dad's bandmates, now available as "Celebration Day".

Two of Seattle's biggest bands are still going strong and sounding better than ever thanks to one man, drummer Matt Cameron.  Cameron was already with Soundgarden when Pearl Jam was just getting started, and he helped them out by playing on the demos that were sent to Eddie Vedder to enlist him as their singer.  In 1997, tensions within the band caused Soundgarden to stop, leaving Cameron conveniently available when Eddie Vedder asked him to tour for their "Yield" album when their drummer Jack Irons had to bow out.  Matt accepted, and quickly went to work learning 80 songs in two weeks, eventually joining Pearl Jam as a permanent member, bringing the evolution of the band full circle.  Matt Cameron's contributions to Pearl Jam were instantly recognized in their albums and live performances, and guitarist Mike McCready credits him for "making Pearl Jam a way better band".  In 2010, singer Chris Cornell announced the end of Soundgarden's hiatus, and Cameron began sharing his time between the two projects.  Speaking as a fan of both bands, especially after hearing how strong their latest album "King Animal" is, I hope Cameron can continue supporting both because losing him now to go back to Soundgarden full time could be devastating for Pearl Jam.  I never fully appreciated his playing until he joined Pearl Jam, but listening back to the Temple of the Dog album and Soundgarden's catalog, especially their latest, has me puzzled as to why it took so long to realize that Matt Cameron is up there with the very best.

Tommy Lee is just as well-known for his personal life as he is for being the drummer in Motley Crue, and I think his power and style is frequently overlooked because of it.  He has jammed with the A-list of Rock, and collaborated with a number of musicians including Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie, and bassist Stu Hamm, and thanks to his tabloid lifestyle he is among the most notorious figures in Rock history.  I find a lot of interesting aspects of his playing like fills and breakdowns he incorporates into his solo music and Motley Crue, and on songs like "Wild Side" and "Primal Scream" there is a power coming from his drums that I don't always hear, even from drummers of today's heaviest bands.  I love his use of the bass drum, and I think his style of playing makes for a very clean Rock sound which comes through in every one of his collaborations.  If you want to hear Tommy at his most powerful, check out the title song from Stu Hamm's "The Urge", which features huge bass drum sound and some of the sharpest cymbal work and timing he's done.  I find it very fitting that he played with the all-star lineup at the VH1 Rock Honors show for Kiss playing "God of Thunder", because that's what I think his unofficial nickname should be.

Dave Grohl already turned up in this Rock Gods Spotlight series for his role as Frontman in the Foo Fighters, but as I mentioned in that post he was already killing it on drums before we saw him on the mic.  I can't really decide which role he excels at, just that he's able to put a lot more of himself into his music as a Frontman.  Behind the kit, especially after years of being a Frontman, he seems more at ease than ever, even jubilant at times while playing even the loudest and hardest music.  His upcoming documentary "Sound City" features new music he wrote and recorded with Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, and Paul McCartney, and he's in the process of recording an album with Queens of the Stone Age, their second to feature Dave on drums.  As I mentioned in the Frontman spotlight, Grohl was praised by Kurt Cobain, mostly for his timing and power and I'd have to agree.  I think Dave has achieved the best of both worlds, playing drums when opportunities arise but also getting to be the man out front, using his words and vocals, not just his power behind a kit, to make music.

There are many drummers out there who all deserve their accolades, but those are just my favorites, the ones I don't feel get enough credit or attention for their contributions to Rock and their "Rock God" qualities.  I have to give honorable mention to Rick Allen, who overcame the ultimate obstacle for a drummer when he lost his arm in a car accident and came back sounding as if nothing had ever happened, with the help of a few extra foot pedals and very quick feet.  I'm also thoroughly impressed with Steven Adler who made his mark on the Rock world as the original drummer for Guns 'N' Roses, and overcame addiction to return to music with his latest project "Adler".  Who are your favorite drummers and do you think they are "Rock God" material?  Stay tuned for Rock Gods Spotlight #4: Axeman (Lead Guitarist)!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rock Gods Spotlight #2: Bass

In this edition of the Rock Gods Spotlight, I'll be discussing the unsung heroes of Rock who bring a layer of depth and groove to contrast the screaming guitar chords, the mighty bass players.  Listen to your favorite Rock songs, paying special attention to the bass line, that deep groove that pulses throughout the song, then try to imagine the songs without it.  That void comes from what many people consider the least important member of a band, which is why I call them the unsung heroes.

I admittedly never gave much consideration to the amount of impact the bass can have on a song, and ironically it wasn't hearing a particular bass player in a band that clued me in, it was hearing what a particular artist could do on a bass guitar, as a solo artist without a band.  Stu Hamm, longtime collaborator with guitarist Joe Satriani, has released a number of solo albums, mostly backed by a band and sometimes including his own vocals.  His solo album "The Urge" contains a live solo track recorded during one of his shows.  When I heard that solo track for the first time I was mesmerized even before I heard the opening notes to the Peanuts theme "Linus And Lucy".  From that moment on, I found myself paying closer attention to the bass lines from my favorite songs and it wasn't hard to pick out my favorite players based on the impact they had in their respective bands.

As an exercise, I'm going to mention a bass player but I won't name his band until I've finished talking about him in order to test my unsung hero theory.  His name is Tim Commerford, and I think his contribution is absolutely imperative to the magnitude of his band's sound because you can hear it right up there with the other parts.  Listen to any song from this band, and his playing is so huge and so powerful that I cannot possibly imagine any of their music coming off as large as it does without him.  He's been in two very well-known bands, although the second is more of a spin-off of the first than anything and was fairly short-lived despite releasing a trilogy of albums in their time.  The band he's most known for has created some of the most powerful and politically-charged music ever, but the spotlight has always been placed on the singer and guitarist.  On songs like "People Of The Sun" and "No Shelter", his bass is hardly in the background, but right out in front with an urgency to it like he's trying to incite a riot even before the song breaks and the guitars start in.  The band is Rage Against The Machine, and for those who knew that by his name I assume you recognize his impact as I do.  For those who had no clue who Tim is until I revealed what band he plays in, you've proven my unsung heroes theory.

Another absolute maniac on the bass is Les Claypool of Primus, whose playing is so distinctive it really becomes the main focus of their sound.  Because he's also the singer of Primus he's more well-known so there's nothing unsung about the man responsible for "My Name is Mud" and "Jerry Was A Racecar Driver".  I saw them live during the Family Values tour in 1998, and it was quite an experience seeing him strut across the stage plucking away at his bass.  I had one of their albums "Pork Soda" which had a few very interesting songs on it, like "DMV", which is a very accurate account of spending the day at one of their offices, and Mr. Krinkle, with its huge cello opening.  Les Claypool has said to be most influenced by Heavy Metal legend Geezer Butler, and it shows when he teamed up with Ozzy for a cover of Black Sabbath's "N.I.B." on the Nativity In Black II tribute album.  You can listen HERE to Les completely shredding on the opening sequence, which I consider the greatest 32 seconds of Rock ever recorded.

Flea, the aptly-named pint-sized bass-slapping genius of the Red Hot Chili Peppers hardly looks God-like by any interpretation, until he plugs in.  Flea is the funkiest, freakiest and most colorful bass player in music (in both style and appearance, except maybe for Bootsie Collins) and may even take singular impact to the next level, going as far as saying his playing defines the sound of the band.  Seeing Flea live in concert is like watching the Tasmanian Devil playing bass, bouncing around and spinning his head as though it's barely attached to his body.  On the exterior he's basically a Rock 'N' Roll cartoon character, but inside his style and the way he mixes melody with madness is beautiful chaos.  On tracks like "Otherside" and "Californication", he shows his more melodic and technical side but when they break into "Give It Away" or "Higher Ground" the volume goes to 11 and Flea's not so small anymore.

To stand out as an individual in any band can be a challenge, but to have your skills noticed when you have someone like Neil Peart playing drums behind you or going up against Alex Lifeson's classic riffs is quite an astonishing feat.  Rush's Geddy Lee takes on bass, vocals and keyboards and has been doing so for more than 30 years now.  His voice is a bit polarizing, you either hate it or love it, but when he tears through "Yyz" or "Tom Sawyer" it's not his vocals most people are tuned in to.  Rush puts out a huge sound coming from only 3 members, mostly thanks to Geddy's versatility but also because they are three musicians at the top of their game, each legends on their own, and one of the few remaining Rock bands with the original lineup intact minus the drama and turmoil that has plagued most of their peers.  Geddy's bass really stands out best on the group's instrumental tracks, but on their heavier tunes it's right up there with Lifeson's riffs and in recent years you can really see him digging in deep on their classic tracks to give them new life.

Among my favorite bass players of all time is someone for whom the title "unsung" is almost insultingly understated, and Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament is not only one of my favorite bass players but favorite musicians in general.  Pearl Jam profoundly changed the way I hear and absorb music, and a lot of it has to do with hearing Jeff's style and his outlook on music.  Whether he's sitting on a stool with a stand-up bass on the deep album cuts, or going Punk on recent tracks like "Got Some", I hear his playing loud and clear and it's hard to imagine them without him, like RATM without Tim.  Jeff views music much like I do, for the way it can change your whole outlook.  On the "Single Video Theory" DVD, which documents the sessions that became my favorite Pearl Jam album "Yield", he mentions how music can be one of the more healing art forms and I couldn't possibly agree more.  Of course, with a variety of side projects like RNDM and Tres Mtns, Pearl Jam is just one of Jeff's outlets and as long as he can balance them all there can never bee too much music from Jeff Ament in the world. 

There really are a number of incredible bass players, some more credited than others, and I'd have to give honorable mention to Michael Anthony of Chickenfoot (previously Van Halen), Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, and Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band.  In a post titled "Rock Gods Spotlight", I'm certain every member of Led Zeppelin is expected to be recognized, but I'm sorry I just have never considered John Paul Jones' playing terribly important to their sound, but you can bet you'll see Bonzo in Spotlight #3, Drums!  Stay tuned!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Rock Gods Spotlight #1: Frontman

The new music released this year from some of the biggest names in Rock, especially the live DVD package "Celebration Day" from the one-time reunion show Led Zeppelin performed in 2007, has inspired me to start a new series called "Rock Gods Spotlight".  In each series I will breakdown what I feel is the composition that makes up the greatest Rock figures in each key role in the band, and who I feel deserve the top honors.  The first post in the series will be focused on the most recognizable figure in any band, the Frontman.  I prefer that title for all it implies, which is far more than a "singer" but the person out in front, the one most responsible for connecting with the crowd, the face of the band.  It is for this reason that many of rock's best vocalists may be overlooked in this post as they're more known for vocals over showmanship and adversely some of Rock's top frontmen aren't necessarily known for their vocals but their presence and delivery.  Let me be clear about one thing, I am not claiming this to be the definitive list of Rock's ultimate members, but who I believe to be among the very best in their role.

Coming back to Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant is arguably one of the most powerful voices and respected figures in the history of Rock.  Since the release of "Celebration Day", Plant, along with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, has answered countless questions about the experience of playing together again for the event.  The success of that performance raised the burning question asked by every reporter at every press conference regarding whether more shows would follow, which Plant has vigorously dismissed.  His lack of enthusiasm to continue playing as Led Zeppelin has the fans split into two main groups, those who support his integrity and those who call his usage of Zeppelin material in his solo endeavors hypocritical.  To Robert Plant and many others, nobody in Led Zeppelin has anything to prove, especially after the 2007 show.  To Robert himself it's his loyalty and respect for his dearly departed friend, original drummer John Bonham, that has him prepared to let that show stand as their curtain call.
Following the death of Bonham in 1980, the band agreed to stop out of respect for him, at which time Robert began a very experimental solo career throughout the 80's and early 90's.  In 1995 Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page reunited for a special edition of MTV's popular Unplugged show, re-named "Unledded", followed by a tour, all excluding Zeppelin bandmate John Paul Jones, a move he addressed at their Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction with the quip "I'm glad my friends finally remembered my phone number".  In talking about the ultimate Rock frontman, Plant is near the very top of the ranks.  His presence, mystical and sometimes ethereal, is countered by his delivery which can quickly erupt from a smooth bluesy drawl to a blistering howl.  Plant has explained that he feels less connected to the Zeppelin catalog over time, as it has been diluted with other projects such as his recent Bluegrass efforts, but as he proved in 2007 the connection is definitely still there, ready to be conjured at will.  He has been named the quintessential rock frontman in a number of publications, a deservedly lofty honor. 

Of course, Plant is not in a class of his own, even if he may be considered the head of his class.  There are a number of Rock's most prolific singers worthy of the frontman status and among them are Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, David Lee Roth, Mick Jagger, Michael Hutchence, Jim Morrison and an entry that may surprise some, Dave Grohl.  Again, this is my personal list of those I feel most defined their role, and as with any of my posts I encourage people to give their input and challenge me.

From that list, I have to start with Steven Tyler because since I first got turned onto Aerosmith during their "comeback" era in the 80's, and then even more after re-discovering their classic era, they have been one of my very favorite Rock bands.  Furthermore, of all Rock frontmen I find Steven Tyler among the most irreplaceable.  There is a stark contrast between powerful ballads such as "Seasons of Wither" and "Dream On" and the innuendo-laden "Love In An Elevator" or rap-style, in-your-face delivery of "Walk This Way" and "Eat The Rich" that Tyler balances effortlessly.  I find Zep's catalog much more consistently steeped in Blues-flavored Rock, while Aerosmith injects R&B and Funk to their sound, along with a heavy dose of sexuality, courtesy of Tyler's sharp tongue.  Their latest album "Music From Another Dimension" is the closest they've come in decades to their classic sound, but Tyler's insistent use of ballads continues to hold them back from making a real Rock record worthy of their legacy.  Regardless, Tyler is easily among the very best of all time.

Mick Jagger, leader of the Rolling Stones, who are celebrating 50 years together this year, is one of the more flamboyantly energetic frontmen like the late great Freddie Mercury of Queen.  Jagger dances jubilantly across the stage, swaying his hips and waving his arms like a Rock marionette, inspiring "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5.  Jagger's range is something of an enigma, as he really doesn't have any power in his voice but can be just as tender on "Wild Horses" as he is fierce on "Shattered".  Freddie Mercury was the ultimate showman, with an operatic voice and larger than life persona that could turn any song into an anthem, which the band wrote plenty of.  Of all Rock singers, the frontman whose lofty status has always confused me is David Lee Roth.  Yes, the scissor kicks and stage persona are right in line with the best showmen in the business, but his antics remind of the cheap glamour of Las Vegas and a one-man Cabaret act completely unaware that there is a band playing behind him.  He's never been considered a strong vocalist and I think the classic material wouldn't sound right with someone else, but really for other reason than it's how we first heard it.  He is widely regarded as one of the top frontmen of Rock so I felt a responsibility to include him, despite my opinion.

During my early teens I spent a lot of time turning back the clock to discover music from previous generations, mostly Classic Rock like Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Led Zeppelin. 
I got the double disc "Best of the Doors", knowing only a few of their biggest tracks, and became fascinated by how uniquely different their sound was.  Jim Morrison died, allegedly in a Paris apartment bathtub, 5 years before I was born which certainly lends a greater sense of mystery to hearing his music posthumously.  After learning more about him, he reminded me of another very well-known musical figure of my generation, rapper Tupac Shakur.  This is where most people would have expected me to say Michael Hutchence, and I'll get to that.  There was one thing that tied Tupac and Jim together that not many people are aware of, and that is Poetry.  I find a striking similarity in the way these two figures were incredible artists with words, yet chose to express themselves through music and died tragically very young as the result of the lifestyle that was associated with it.  INXS's Michael Hutchence had far more in common with the late Jim Morrison than leather pants, and many considered him a re-incarnation of Morrison, or even the Jim Morrison of our generation.  The sexuality that eminated from them both in concert could make many wonder if women fans ever realized there were other members of the band on stage and that translated to all forms of publication as well, with both men photographed mostly alone.  There was a similar mystique about Hutchence and the way he presented himself that always led to comparisons between the two, but not only in life.  Controversy surrounded Hutchence's death, an alleged suicide, just as it did Morrison's and neither case was really closed conclusively.  Not only was their sense of style and swagger alike but they shared the same smoky baritone and gave their music an added layer of drama and effect that is not existent in many singers today.

My final inclusion in this first spotlight post focused on the Rock frontman is Dave Grohl who, after becoming well-known as the drummer for one of the biggest bands of the 90's, turned a self-made demo tape into a new musical chapter that is now 17 years and running, called the Foo Fighters.  Grohl is a fierce drummer, regarded even as a superior to the late John Bonham by Kurt Cobain himself, and even showed some vocal abilities while in Nirvana on tracks like the B-side "Marigold".  The 1994 death of Cobain, quickly labeled a suicide though widely speculated as murder, brought Dave out from behind the drums to be the frontman for a new band, but he didn't have a band, he had a demo tape.  He reserved space from a friend and recorded a tape, and then formed a band to tour the music, which was officially released in 1995 as the debut album from the Foo Fighters.  The band was immediately compared to Nirvana which visibly annoyed Grohl as he pushed to be recognized as a new band.  Following some internal conflicts which almost led to the end of the band before their fourth album was finished, they pushed through and released "One By One" in 2002 featuring the track "All My Life", one of the band's biggest hits to date.  In 2011, they released "Wasting Light", recorded on analog tape in Dave Grohl's garage, which was documented in the film "Back And Forth".  The album won 4 Grammy Awards including Best Rock Album and has been widely recognized as one of the best albums of 2011 across many publications.  In watching the documentary film and seeing their VH1 Storytellers episode, it's evident that Dave Grohl was always intended to be a frontman, even if he was content behind the kit with Nirvana and on many of the guest appearances he's made or side projects he's done throughout his time with the Foo Fighters.  Underneath the Rock God exterior though, what has me most impressed about Grohl is just how human he still remains.  Watch the "Live At Wembley" DVD and you'll see him become overwhelmed at the magnitude of the moment after performing an encore with John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, or watch him playfully respond to his daughter asking him to break from the recording of "Wasting Light" for a swim on "Back And Forth".  Dave Grohl is most likely not someone who thinks of himself as a Rock God but when he plugs in, he instantly embodies the Frontman status and does not let up until the last note of the last song.

This concludes the first post in my "Rock Gods Spotlight" series, with more to follow very soon.  Stay tuned for Spotlight #2: Bass, just because I'm sure Lead Guitar was expected next and I'd hate to be that predictable.