Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, March 05, 2006

When Black Is Really BLUE!!!!!

It's Sunday, i.e. Housecleaning Day (weird, guitar-reverb fanfare), and my wife seems to be taking a trip down memory lane. Usually she monopolizes the stereo with either The Cure or The Smashing Pumpkins, but for some reason Motley Crue's Girls, Girls, Girls album is blaring from the speakers right now.



Ah...80s metal. Droning bass line and power chord guitar riffs. AC/DC was often credited with (blamed for?) having started that trend, which was immediately imitated by everyone else, when they became the band du jour with their Highway to Hell album at the start of the 80s. Actually, groups like Judas Priest and the Scorpions were doing the same sort of thing in the mid to late 70s, but the difference was that those two bands definitely had a more European (i.e. influenced by classical and psychadelic music) flavor. AC/DC, though Australian, was firmly grounded in traditional, blues-based rock and roll. In other words, their style (if you'll forgive me, Paul) was very American.

I was never a big Motley Crue fan, though I preferred their songs to a lot of what was oozing from the radio in those days. Now I find myself strangely enjoying this album. Listening to it with a more experienced and critical ear than I had in my school days (daze), I can hear those American roots loud and clear. It's even more obvious when bassist Nicky Sixx breaks the rules, gets off the drone, and riffs with the guitar. Solid blues scales and a sound that gets pretty funky at times. Then there are the times when the bass line is a shuffle swing a la old time rock and roll. And there are also those old rock standards, such as "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" and "Jailhouse Rock", that Motley Crue performs quite respectably. Definitely very American, far more so than AC/DC. Considering Motley Crue actually IS an American band, it only makes sense.

Which brings up another surprising point. Another obvious difference between AC/DC and Motley Crue is the sound. As far as I know, Angus Young of AC/DC has always used a vintage Marshall Super Lead 100, first with all the knobs turned up to 10 and then with the tone stack pulled out altogether. It's a very classic rock sound. Mick Mars, on the other hand was very much a child of the 80s, so to speak, using a more modern (at that time) Marshall amp (probably a JCM 800) boosted with a distortion pedal. It's a very intense sound, and the more I listen to it, together with that obvious blues influence, I can't help noticing that it's reminding me more and more of a band I really like that was also suddenly popular in the 80s but was considered to be of a different genre entirely:

ZZ Top.

Replace Vince Neil's high-pitched screams with Bill Gibbon's smoky crooning, tell Mick Mars to keep his solos in the bluesy groove without those occasional speed bursts, and you'd be amazed how much Motley Crue could sound like ZZ Top on the Eliminator album. I know that realization shocked me, being a longtime ZZ fan. I'd call that more proof of the influence of American blues on 80s metal. You can't get more bluesy...or more American...than ZZ Top and still be considered a rock band.

As it happens, trends continued to move. While bands like Def Leppard and especially Guns n' Roses were very much in the same vein as Motley Crue, there was a significant branch that retained the British, classical-influenced metal feel. Judas Priest seemed to alternate between the blues and classical modes, but Iron Maiden remained staunchly in the classical camp. I think they probably served as the main inspiration for a number of bands that came to form the so-called "speed metal" genre, which made no bones about its classical roots. Heck, speed-metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen (whose music has been described as "a music theory textbook from the Baroque Era") even included J.S. Bach in the credits on his first solo album! An even bigger influence on heavy metal as a whole was exerted by Metallica, whose use of irregular structures, assymetrical beats, low tunings, unusual chord modulations, and non-Western scales turned the whole genre on its head, and suddenly everyone started imitating them. However, even Metallica's ties to classical music were obvious, as their later recording with a symphony orchestra proved in no uncertain terms.

(Interestingly, though I've liked everything I've ever heard by Metallica, I never really got into them, which is odd. Most of my school-age friends were if not still are Metallica fans. Also, in my college days, for some reason beginner guitarists kept coming to my door asking me to help them learn how to play...as if I could claim to be any kind of expert! They were all into Metallica...and they found it a shock that I wasn't! Then again, I found it a shock that they knew so little about Rush or Jethro Tull...)

So, did blues finally disappear from hard rock? Far from it. Listen to so-called grunge. The guitar sound may be a whole lot dirtier, but both folk and blues can both be heard there very strongly (which is why ZZ Top's Mescalero album was very much in a grunge mode). How about the Red Hot Chili Peppers? That's just funk (i.e. rhythm & blues) with a bit more fire. Heck, even that SUM 41 album a student of mine loaned me (which I'm actually enjoying, by the way) alternates between fast drones and funky, bluesy riffs. The blues is (are?) alive and well in rock even today.

Hey, what th...? My wife just put on one of her Scritti Politti albums. There's another 80s group that just won't go away for some reason. I actually loathed them in my college days, not so much because of the music but because of who listened to them. They were a regular feature of the pretty, plastic, phony social scene that I tried very hard to avoid. During the week or two every year that it didn't rain in western Oregon, the grassy area between the "quad" (four dorms arranged in a square) and the playing fields became "the beach". It wound up a veritable sea of neon colors, flowered baseball caps, loud Bermuda shorts, prism sunglasses, beach towels, insanely stupid chatter at high volume, intelligence-insulting mating rituals, and, of course, Scritti Politti echoing off those red-brick walls at ear-splitting volume. It was pretty much a given that I would do everything in my power to be on the opposite end of the campus until it started raining again.

Actually, now that "the beach" is just another dust-covered memory filed under "look back on and burst out in hysterical laughter", I can listen to Scritti Politti with a bit more fairness. Actually, from a strictly musical standpoint, it's not bad at all. It's just rhythm & blues written and performed by a white man with Miles Davis samples (and occasional Miles Davis sessions) thrown in for effect. Once again, there's that B-word! The BLUES!!!

Back in the mid 19th century, black slaves in the American South had a tradition known as the "field holler", in which they would loudly sing out their cares and woes while toiling in the fields. They sang in a rhythmic "call-and-response" style using a traditional pentatonic (i.e. 5-tone) scale brought over from their native Africa. Later, the scale was westernized a little bit and the rhythm set to the accompaniment of western instruments such as the guitar. This was the birth of the Blues. Who would have thought that, more than a century later, the anguished yells of exploited souls in one of America's darker chapters would continue to have such a profound effect on American...nay, on world music?

Okay, you can put The Cure back on now...or shut up and let me put on one of my ZZ Top albums...

8 Comments:

  • interesting post...i like ur music btw...yea im surprised too ur not a metallica fan..im in love with their music..except the last album, that was a disaster..the songs are too long and there was way too much drumming going on...the songs gave me a headache.. and sum41, yea started out good..but then there music started cloning itself, sounding the same. and the Cure ;) enough said :D

    By Blogger saba, at 11:24 PM  

  • I just never really listened to Metallica. As I said, my friends and all those wanna-be guitarists that kept showing up listened to them a lot, and I liked what I heard. I just never bothered to follow up on it. I guess that, at the time, I was starting to shy away from heavy metal (I was a die-hard Judas Priest and Iron Maiden fan before that) and was branching out into things like progressive and alternative rock as well as "new age".

    Actually, The Smashing Pumpkins helped get me interested in hard rock again, and now I'm starting to listen to it (and record it!) more.

    Bands cloning themselves is a common problem, especially when they find a formula that makes them popular. Look at AC/DC. They were actually a pretty inventive rock band back in the late 70s. After Highway to Hell they got into a rut which STILL hasn't stopped after 20 years!

    The Cure. Most people either really like them or really hate them. My wife really likes them. My musical tastes have always been VERY diverse. (My CD collection includes classical, punk, metal, ska, blues, jazz, progressive rock, classic rock, alternative, new age, new wave, electronica, avantgarde, and ethnic/traditional, to name a few, and I love them all! No rap, though...) I think they're interesting, but they're not really my thing. However, they do put on a great live show, and the song "Friday, I'm In Love" is great!

    Which Metallica album would you recommend?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:37 PM  

  • It is interesting how our musical affections over time. You mentioned Motley Crue as a group that has qualities you didn't see before. By the same token, there are some groups overplayed so much on radio (and TV ads) that I could use a decade or two break from them. Led Zepplin, Rolling Stones, and the Who come to mind.

    I've slowed my Metallica listening sharply after the crap with Lars going militant on his fans about music sharing. Given that Metallica built their following through encouraging people to share recordings of their show, it was too much when they turned on the same people who made them rich. Most people moved on, but it meant something to me.

    I am itching for something different. I need to get out there and find some stuff. Speaking of which, Bob Drake is one of the better of the experimental musicians out there.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:11 AM  

  • Metallica: well their best album is umm best of metallica lol..but i ll list my fav. songs which:
    1.unforgiven
    2.the unforgiven 2
    3. king nothing
    4. no leaf clover (amazing music)
    5. enter sandman
    6. nothing else matters
    7. until it sleeps
    i think these are the best they ever sang.
    I used to loathe rap, or used to say that to show myslef as a hard core rocker..but a friend of mine has been sending me all this rap music..its pretty good..its underground though. I still hate mainstream because all they talk about is drugs and big asses. I ll list you 2 of my fav. rap songs..check them out u ll be amazed
    1. The point of no return - The immortal technique
    2. Bin laden - immortal technique
    i like many more but i dont think u ll be able to find them becuase as i said they are underground..
    My other favorite bands are disturbed, Godsmack, drowning pool, alice in chains, and the cranberries :D
    k i should stop ranting...dude i can go forever
    hope u enjoy the metallica :D

    By Blogger saba, at 1:17 PM  

  • Generation gap. Sorry. This old Panda is outta here. :P

    Mostly, I listen to .... nothing. Weird, I know.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:43 PM  

  • Oooh that's something I don't even have a clue about. I love the music but can't mostly even tell the interprets name and what is the song called. Just know that I also like Metallica, Apocalyptica and at the moment I'm in love with CALEXICO!

    That is some great music :)

    By Blogger Tanker Angel Nelly, at 12:30 AM  

  • I used to be a BIG Metallica fan until the same event that affected Snabby. I just couldn't take the bs from them. That, and the fact that "Load" sounded more country western to me than rock. "Reload"? No thank you!

    I currently rank Megadeth as my top metal band to listen to. After all, this is spinoff of Metallica, but kicks WAY more ass.

    Other bands? You'll rank me as insane when I make my list:

    DEVO
    Enya
    Rob Zombie
    Abba
    Rammstein

    Never got into the grunge thing or rap. Can't stand Jazz.

    zzaan - A longer moment of Zen

    By Blogger DewKid, at 7:12 AM  

  • I find my self listening to christian music, modern, which is mostly folk pop rock country feel to it, to keep my nerves from fraying.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 7:26 AM  

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