Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Genius Class

Okay, over the rules One More Time. Not the The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time -- but 25 Favorite Opening Riffs, in five 5-riff installments. The arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Doesn't have to be a guitar riff, but vocals don't count. 3. Has to be a true opener -- the very first notes of the song, proclaiming this song's distinctive DNA. 

Remember how, back in the day, AM radio DJs used to gab during song intros, trying to sneak a few more words of banter/announcements/advertising messages?. That used to drive me crazy. Transistor held up to my ear, I wanted to prove my pop savvy by being the first in the room to shout "I love this song!"

I know I said I was leading off with the "no-brainers." But some of you may have noticed -- and, if you're anything like the music fans I think you are, been distressed by -- the absence on that list of the REAL no-brainers. Which are, forthwith and henceforth...


Sunshine of Your Love / Cream


Sheer genius here, to double the bass riff with the electric guitar -- a particularly fuzzy guitar as well, with a wah-wah pedal and Marshall amps. The great bassist Jack Bruce wrote that commanding riff and it dominates the song -- those first four notes (LISTEN HERE!) sliding seductively into a dark downward spiral, over and over. Every bassist I know has learned this riff -- but it just doesn't sound the same without that scratchy guitar on top.
NOTE: Invoking the "one riff per band" rule, I decided on this rather than "Layla," even though they're by two different Clapton bands.  Sorry, Slowhand, but the competition was fierce.

Satisfaction / The Rolling Stones


Oh, the one-riff-per-band thing made this very tough. So many great Stones riffs -- but in the end, how could I have picked anything else? Talk about fuzzy guitars -- Keith Richards added a fuzzbox to his Gibson to get this snarling, snarky tone just right. It's only three notes, up and down a tiny minor-key scale, but how perfectly does it encapsulate the song's theme of pent-up frustration -- up and down, over and over, never breaking out of that narrow range.  It makes me want to smash things -- which is, presumably, the point.

You Really Got Me / The Kinks



Oh, why did I impose that one-riff rule?  Well, basically, because otherwise this entire list of 25 might well have been nothing but Stones, Kinks and Queen riffs, with a Beatles tune here and there. But of all the great Kinks openers (and yes, I AM prejudiced in this matter), how can we deny the riff that started it all for them?  As with the previous two songs, the distinctive tone of the guitar makes all the difference; in this case, the mutilated amplifier of Dave Davies, turning his electric guitar into an angry buzzsaw. Ricocheting between two notes, with just enough syncopation to sound erratic and dangerous, it's an aggressive cry of sexual frustration that will not be denied.

Summer in the City / The Lovin' Spoonful


How long does it take the Lovin' Spoonful to claim your eardrums? Two notes plus one drum-whack. True, the notes are ominous, swelling organ tones and the drum-whack is punitive to say the least. But oh, for sheer economy of effect, this gritty urban anthem of seizing conditional pleasure scores BIG-TIME.  Considering that everything else this band had released was mellow jug-band stuff -- "Daydream," "Do You Believe in Magic" and "Younger Girl" -- this hard-hitting 1966 urban song reminds us that the Lovin' Spoonful were originally a New York City band. And their reward for working so hard?  Their only #1 hit.

Hard Day's Night / The Beatles


BEST OPENING RIFF EVER.

Okay, I too resist the idea that the Beatles get to win all the prizes. Even though I was a true Beatlemaniac back in the day and still adore my Chosen Beatle (Paul McCartney), I would love to spread the accolades around. But let's face it: with one discordant guitar chord, the Fabs announced that their hit record was going to be better than your hit record, and they were right. They win for sheer economy of effect; they win for the streamlined drive of the track that followed. This song is a relentless, exhilarating ride into the heart of pop and out again. It was the title track of the first LP I ever owned (note: the American version, really a film soundtrack, but I so loved that movie) and I would love to be objective.

But I can't.

But really: One chord and you KNOW what song this is.

And isn't that the definition of a great opening riff?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Jazzing It Up

Next installment of 5 in my 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. The parameters: 1. One riff per band. 2. No vocals. 3. Must occur right at the beginning of the record. This is all totally subjective, folks, and they're in no particular order. Enjoy!

So far we've been talking rock riffs, mostly, but here are a few that venture into jazz territory -- and announce those intentions right off the bat.

Moondance / Van Morrison


Two backbeat piano chords, repeated. A few light brushes on the drums. And then That Voice, slipping in like butter. "Oh, it's a marvelous night for a moon dance...."  Talk about Less Is More.  Eventually we'll get a divine jazz solo, plus Van's jazz-freak vocal swoops and scats (it's as if he becomes the saxophone himself); pianist Jeff Labes really gets to fly with his piano improv in the middle eight. But it's those first chords -- cool, laidback, effortlessly syncopated -- that set the whole swinging thing in motion. Sometimes you only need two measures....

Undun / The Guess Who




What? No Canadians so far?  I'm sure that violates broadcasting protocols north of the border, so let's slip in this 1969 gem. It's like "Moondance"'s minor-key cousin, with a little more Latino beat.  Guitarist Randy Bachman, later of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (a best riff runner-up for "Taking Care of Business") has said he based this song around some new jazz guitar chords he'd just learned; it sure doesn't sound like any other Guess Who song. That opener is quick and crafty: Three guitar chords, syncopated, with a few smacks of offbeat drums, and a percussive vocal choo-pah! on the backbeat. (We'll soon see where they got THAT idea...)

Build Me Up Buttercup / The Foundations


Stairstep guitar strums, underlaid with tambourine -- and yes, bongos! -- it's so simple, and it's all about the syncopation. (Do you sense a theme here?)  Soon enough we get the second motif, layered on in counterpoint by a percussive electric piano; it's upbeat, happy pop, and just jazzy enough to make you snap your fingers and bounce in your chair. Oh, give in to it; just get up and dance, folks; you know you want to. And the singer hasn't even started yet!

Time of the Season / The Zombies

Start to finish, this is one magnificent song (read here my full take).


But today, let's focus on that brilliantly crafted intro. Like the opening of "Under Pressure," it's pure percussion, but put together like a Swiss cuckoo clock. As I dissect it, it's two beats on a tom-tom, one thump on the bass drum, then a hand clap, then a block, then a vocal gasp. All in rapid succession, intricately syncopated; it takes a downbeat plus two beats, no time at all. Repeat three more times, and it's what, eight seconds? But by the time Colin Blunstone starts singing, we're already spooked out. Brilliant.


House of the Rising Sun / The Animals



Hilton Valentine's unspooling guitar lick, hung on stairstep notes from Chas Chandler's bass, sets the whole song up, as if he's casting a fishing line and deftly reeling us in. Minor-key glissandos, rising ominously upwards, will soon be handed over to Alan Price's prophesying organ. (Which will eventually blow things into another stratosphere in the middle eight.)  I suppose this isn't technically jazz: It's more like mission revival meets the blues. But oh, is it dark, and OH is it compelling.  Still sends shivers up my spine, every time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs --
Keyboards and Bass

Next up in our 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. Remember the rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. No slow fade-in's or drum fills -- hit that riff from the get-go. 3. No vocals. (Sorry, Little Richard.). 

Blondes DO NOT have more fun, and the guitarists DO NOT get all the good intro riffs. Cases in point....

Whiter Shade of Pale / Procol Harum


In the Progressive Rock Hall of Fame -- a hall of fame that, by the way, I am never going to visit -- this 1967 track still stands as the opening salvo that first defined prog rock. I would maintain that there IS no "Whiter Shade of Pale" besides this Bach-Lite motif played on the Hammond organ by Matthew Fisher. In 2009, Fisher won a lawsuit to get equal songwriting credit with the two original co-authors, claiming that the riff he created was an essential part of the song's enormous success. Duh -- ya think?

Baba O'Riley / The Who



The Who had so many great opening riffs, it was hard to pick just one -- but this 1971 classic can't be denied. True, the Who's opening riffs didn't always connect to the songs that followed. (I spent years trying to find their song "Teenage Wasteland," only to discover -- so recently, it's really embarrassing -- that this song IS "Teenage Wasteland.") Pete Townshend claims he wrote this to deplore the number of kids stoned out of their gourd at Woodstock, conveniently forgetting that the Who themselves were stoned out of their gourds at Woodstock. Hmmm.  He also invented the name Baba O'Riley as an amalgam of mystic Meher Baba and minimalist composer Terry Riley, both of whom inspired him at the time. And that weird space-frequency organ riff that starts it all?  Townshend says he generated it electronically by feeding Meher Baba's life information into a synthesizer, then played the resulting melodic phrase on a Lowrey organ, using a marimba repeat function.

Oh, Pete, you art school poser. Not one whit of that information improves my appreciation of this riff.  I prefer to believe that it dropped from outer space into Keith Moon's garden. Because, man, it's really cool, isn't it?


Super Freak / Rick James



It all starts with the bass, the Great Instrument of Funk. Messing around in the studio, trying to cook up one more track for his 1981 Street Songs LP, Rick James doodled this bass lick first, then layered on guitar, keyboards, and campy vocals, hoping to give it a little "new wave texture." Presto: One of the most fun and outrageous funk-soul songs ever. Interesting Footnote #1: After MC Hammer "sampled" (or, um, STOLE) this lick for "U Can't Touch This," Rick James sued him for co-writing credit -- and won, garnering his first Grammy award in the process. (Raise your hand if you think "Super Freak" was ten times more deserving of a Grammy than "U Can't Touch This.") Interesting Footnote #2:  With MTV swiftly becoming THE way to market pop music in the US in 1981, Rick James filmed this video -- but MTV wouldn't air it because they didn't play black artists. And to think that just a few years later, Michael Jackson would soar to the top of the charts due to his MTV ubiquity....almost makes you feel sorry for Rick James.


Sweet Dreams / The Eurythmics


Ah, the 1980s -- the decade that almost killed rock music (hi there, Uncle E!). So many earworm synth riffs, so little time. I was tempted to go with Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams" just because, you know, my long-standing fangirl crush on Daryl Hall. But then I remembered what it felt like in the 1980s when this Eurythmics song dropped at a party, and . . . well, it's no contest. To plagiarize from my own previous blog post: "It was mechanized, soulless, and yet it functioned perfectly as a bass line (Dave Stewart in fact invented the riff by playing a bass line backwards), stalking the underbelly of the song....a scenario of hope and aspiration, turned to despair by that relentless automaton beat. I picture robots on an assembly line, hustled heartlessly along. But it was a killer dance track, and in the Eighties, that was what mattered."


Under Pressure / David Bowie & Queen

Surely one of the weirdest and most divine pop collaborations ever.



Two masters of the Opening Riff, battling it out for diva top honors. This well may be the best percussion opener ever: one cymbal brush, then those handclaps, punctuated with stabs of electric piano (the piano is a percussion instrument, may I remind you), all strung along by that exquisite two-note bass line.  Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon improvised this riff in the Montreux studio where they threw this song together, and then they all went out for pizza. When they came back from the break, Deacon had forgotten the riff.  Luckily drummer Roger Taylor remembered it -- and the rest, as they say, was rock history.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs --
Guitar Heroes

Note that I'm not saying The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time; I couldn't even limit it to 10 (thanks for all the suggestions), so 25 Favorite Opening Riffs it has to be, in five 5-riff installments.

A few arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Has to be an opener, starting from the record's very first note.  3. Vocals don't count. 

Let's face it -- guitar licks are our opening-riff bread and butter. And here are the masters: 

Fun, Fun, Fun / The Beach Boys



Probably the perfect surf guitar lick -- stolen from Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode," of course, but just enough crisper and tighter. This is a song near and dear to my heart, if only because it mentions Indianapolis in it.  The Beach Boys rushed out this single in February 1964, knowing that in a week or two the British Invasion would hit, and their clean-cut monopoly of the airwaves would be over. Well, they went down swinging with this one.



California Dreamin' / The Mamas and the Papas


Fast-forward to January 1966, with Beatlemania subsiding (until Sgt Pepper) and Folk Rock making its bid to take over. And here came John Phillips & Co., ready to score a hit with this beauty. That brooding acoustic opening (played by Wrecking Crew guitarist P. F. Sloan) was the perfect mix of protest-song edginess and sublime melancholy. They may have been dreaming of California (and recording it in L.A.) but the mood here is definitely cold and gray as a New York City winter.


Son of a Preacher Man / Dusty Springfield


Dripping slow and sweet as tupelo honey, this sexy September 1968 hit comes from the iconic album Dusty in Memphis. That's guitarist Reggie Young of the Memphis Cats, bringing a lazy Southern style to Dusty's soul sister sound. This narrowly beat out Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" -- there is no doubt what Dusty and the preacher's kid will be throwing off the Tallahatchee Bridge.



Ohio / Crosby, Still, Nash & Young


Protest song? This is the greatest one of all time. And that opening is just about perfect -- insistent, calm, ruthless. The marching tempo, the blithe skipping treble notes, that stern bottom line, and just enough harshness to the electric guitar to let you know we mean business.  In June 1970, this was the record that defined us.


Stairway to Heaven / Led Zeppelin


Oh, this song goes a LOT of different places before its eight minutes are over -- but for a perfect slow acoustic opener, can you beat this?  I always forget how slow it is, each note taking its exquisite time before the recorders kick in. Nevertheless, you know exactly what song this is. Wait for it....

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- the No-Brainers

Note that I'm not saying The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time; I couldn't even limit it to 10 as I originally planned (thanks to all you Facebookworms for your avalanche of suggestions). So 25 Favorite Opening Riffs it has to be, in installments of 5 each.

And to keep things fair, a few arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Doesn't have to be a guitar riff, but vocals don't count.  3. Has to be an opener, right off the bat -- sorry, but no slow fade-in's or drum fills. (So long, "Cry Like a Baby", "Purple Haze," and "Whip It").

After years of listening to Casey Kasem-style countdowns, I feel it's almost sacriligeous to start off with the songs you knew had to be on this list.  But c'mon -- let's get 5 obvious winners out of the way.  I hesitate to call them One-Hit Wonders; for all I know, these groups' fans passionately believe in their deep cuts. But for me, these 5 songs are the only tracks I know from these bands -- and it's all due to the opening riffs.

#25. Don't Fear the Reaper / Blue Oyster Cult


Yes, a classic, and it has endured endless parodies to remain The Great Metal Song of All Time -- and it's all due to that obsessive guitar riff.  It starts from bar one and never stops. Okay, yes, the song is dark -- death-loving in the creepiest sort of way, with husky threatening vocals -- but that shrewdly syncopated riff drills into your brain and will not let go. I hear this iconic song from a durable Long Island band and I am immediately back in 1976, unmoored and vulnerable and WTF? ready to be spooked by the dark side.

 #24. Dirty Water / The Standells


How did a 1960s garage band out of Los Angeles (fronted by the brother of West Side Story's leading man, no less) write the quintessential Boston sports theme song? Search me. But here it is, propelled by that brisk elemental guitar line -- a spanking riff if there ever was one. If you're in a Beantown sports bah close to game time, there's nothing that will clear the stools quicker than this down-and-dirty celebration of urban grit.

#23. Smoke on the Water / Deep Purple


That riff is crunchy, nasty, and it doesn't even replicate the melodic line of the song. (What IS the melodic line of this song? It doesn't matter.) If we're really honest, this 1972 track from a should-be-taken-seriously British band simply takes the riff of "Dirty Water" and steeps it in the sort of minor-key metal moodiness that would eventually make "Don't Fear the Reaper" a classic. But for its moment -- no, let's be honest, for all rock-and-roll time -- it is a great riff that announces itself with supreme confidence. You hear those first chords and you KNOW what song is dialing up. The definition of a great opening riff.

#22. Aqualung / Jethro Tull


Hah. You knew this song had to be on here. While I should be a fan of this band -- it's British! it's cerebral! It's circa 1971! The front man plays a flute, just like I did in my grade school orchestra! -- in the long run I just can't be a Jethro Tull fan. (Raise your hand if this surprises you.) But that aggressive opening riff -- who could argue with that? This song was never released as a single, in those early 70s album-oriented times; and yet I am somehow hard-wired to recognize it from beat one. Do I know where the rest of this socially conscious song about a tramp goes? Weeell....

#21. I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night / The Electric Prunes


In 1966 in LA, with psychedelia just starting to ooze its way onto the nation's airwaves, this mind-blowing track from a local Valley band made it onto the local radio just enough for me to fall forever in love with it.  Written by a female songwriting duo (Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz), it vaulted forever into rock immortality by virtue of its opening riff, played on a fuzzed-up Les Paul.  A love hangover par excellence...

Friday, August 08, 2014

"You Make Me Feel Good"
 The Zombies

A bit of a retread, this, from a 2009 post. But I just saw the Zombies tonight, at B.B. King's in NYC, and it was such a delicious show, I just had to post something. Even though it's late and I'm, y'know, tired, and writing a whole new post would take the edge off of this wonderful post-concert euphoria. So let's just trust that what I had to say 5 years ago still holds true...

video

"You Make Me Feel Good" was the B-side of the first single I ever owned, the Zombies' "She's Not There" (one of the first songs I ever wrote about on this blog; click here to read that post). I'll admit it, I am deliriously uncritical about all those tracks from the Zombies' all-too-brief 1960s heyday. But when I listen to them again, I'm amazed at how well they hold up.

Tonight, introducing this song, Rod Argent mentioned that back in 1964 it was a close contest which of those songs would be the A side and which would be the B side. Now, I love "She's Not There" and I probably would have picked it as the A side too. But in my adolescent basement with my little fold-up stereo, I know that I played both sides of this 45 (since I had no other singles yet, I played it A LOT), and "You Make Me Feel Good" is deeply woven into my pop DNA.

And listening to it tonight, I was reminded just how jazzy the Zombies always were. The Stones were so bluesy, the Beatles were all about rock and roll, the Kinks were...well, someday I'll write a whole book about that. But while all those other bands were based on the guitar chords, the Zombies were led by a keyboardist, and blessed with a lead singer with faultless pitch who could hit any interval you threw at him. It wasn't chord-based melody but something entirely other, an effect only enhanced by those tight off-beat stops and starts. Tremendously sophisticated for 1964 -- which may be why the Zombies never hit the heights they deserved back then.

And it's not just musical sophistication -- these are crafty little numbers emotionally as well.

Sure, the song is all about how happy he is with his girlfriend -- as the chorus puts it, "So good, so good, don't have to justify why / I feel so good, so good, so good / Never thought could be so good to me." But it's not all sweetness and light. There is, in fact, a lurking subtext, and it's all about sex. Notice how it starts out in the middle of a conversation: "You don't need any reason, do you baby?" Reason for what? You might well ask. Listen to that pleading refrain, "But if you need a reason, / I'll give one to you / [oh, yeah] You make me feel good / [what, oh yeah] You make me feel good!" I love how all the voices in the group join in this conversation -- it's not technically a call-and-response but it has the same caught-in-mid-life vitality to it. (They'd do this again, to brilliant effect, in "Time of the Season.")

I have learned that in pop songs, when they won't call something by name, it's sex they're talking about. I didn't make this connection back in 1964, but now I see it plain as day -- he's buttering up his adorable teenage girlfriend so she'll sleep with him. That accounts for the groan at the edge of Colin Blunstone's voice, for all the impatient mmms and oh yeahs and harmonized moans that burst out through the song. That accounts for the insistent foregrounded drumbeat, for the winsome organ intro, for those un-hunh electric guitar curls that punctuate the verses. For a guy who claims to be contented, he's practically squirming off the sofa. But he's a nice suburban kid too, not some over-sexed thug; he's trying to win her over with psychology. For a certain sort of girl (ahem, yes), that's the only way to get in.

None of those other British Invasion bands did sincere longing the way the Zombies did. The Beatles and the Stones were more menacing, the Kinks and the Who neurotic, Herman's Hermits safe and cuddly. The Zombies struck other notes as well, but this sort of song was their specialty -- and man, did they do it right.

Monday, August 04, 2014

50 Years of the Kinks!

"You Really Got Me" /
The Kinks

You all know that riff -- surely one of the Top Ten Greatest Opening Riffs ever. Chances are you even remember the first time you heard it.

But bonus points to you if you first heard it in 1964, either after August 4 in the U.K., or after September 2 in the U.S.


Note that I have opted for a video that simply plays the record, not one of the many great live performances on YouTube. Growing up in Indianapolis, this was what I heard, endless times that fall, on the car radio or coming out of the little transistor radio I hid under my pillow at night after lights out. Oh, sure, I saw them sing it on Shindig and Hullabaloo the next winter, but then the ban happened and the Kinks weren't so easy to catch in the States. It would be another 12 years before I finally got to see the Kinks live. And yes, I believe they did sing "You Really Got Me" that night in London.

It's a song that never grows old.

Granted, when it first came out I was too young, really, to Get It. It disturbed me, in fact. I preferred the cheerier tunes of the Beatles or the haunting romantic sound of the Zombies. (And if the Kinks disturbed little pre-teen me, imagine how I felt about those rowdy Rolling Stones.) It wasn't until "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and "Well-Respected Man" that I really became a Kinks fan -- it was their satiric, oh-so British side that won me over. But in retrospect, I believe that it was "You Really Got Me" (and the follow-up "All Day and All of the Night" and "Tired Of Waiting") that first planted the hooks in me.

Out of the box, you're slammed with that guitar lick -- chugging, harsh, insistent -- full of youthful aggression and a refusal to stand down. But in my humble opinion, the genius of this song lies in pairing that dirty Dave Davies lick with brother Ray's pleading, morose vocal. "Girl, you really got me now / You got me so I can't sleep at night" -- he really does sound as if he hasn't slept in weeks.

Despite starting with such a punch, the song continues to build from there -- not in power but in frustration. Key changes shift groaningly upward, and the volume ratchets up (think of how you tend to talk louder when you suspect you're losing an argument). And the melodic line, so chromatic, circles miserably around a few close notes -- what a perfect evocation of someone who's got himself into a corner he can't get out of.

It's a marvel of vitality, urgency, immediacy, and dead-on emotional truth. Drums slap, an electric piano hammers on his head like a woodpecker. Ray's pleas turn to a snarl, then a wild yelp.  Yeah, sure he insists, "Don't ever set me free / I always want to be by your side" -- but he does NOT sound happy. (How delicious it was a few months later to hear the sequel "Set Me Free" in which lovesick Ray finally calls for mercy...).

Fifty years ago? Nah. This song could have been released yesterday.