The Ramones, the Ronnettes, and Cargo Cult Rock and Roll

The thing everyone forgets about the Ramones is that they were a girl group. Which, mind you, wouldn’t stop them from beating me up if they found out I said that.

What I mean to say is that the Ramones did a lot of things that groups like the Ronettes or the Shirelles may have done.  You just never noticed because you were too busy bobbing your head along to the drums and that buzzsaw guitar.  But there’s background hand claps on “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” for God’s sake.  And they’re in “I Wanna Be Sedated,” too in the part where the boys bleat “bahbah bahbah bahbahbah bahbah,” which is, after all not so different from the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” or the background “ooh’s” (and hand claps) of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”   And aren’t there’s some “oohs” in “Rock and Roll High School?”  Why, yes there are.

So what makes the Ramones so different from the Ronettes (besides, y’know, the gutars and the penises)?  Well the most important factor is probably that they didn’t have a clue what they were doing.  Joey wasn’t a great singer by any stretch of the imagination, and Johnny doesn’t seem to have known too many chords (although strumming downstrokes that fast for two and a half minutes is not easy — trust me on that).  Their record producing also took some interesting turns.  Someone told them you have to seperate the drums and the guitars.  So the guitar is hard right and the drums hard left.  You have to give them credit, they never let themselves get paralyzed by overanalysis; if they didn’t know how to do something, they made it up.

Some indigenous peoples have been known to imitate the processes of operating an airline landing strip in the apparent hopes that performing the same rituals as foreigners will result in material wealth coming from the sky (as it does for their industrial neighbors).  These are known as cargo cults.  The Ramones were rock and roll’s original cargo cult.  “We all have to dress the same, and have the same name.  And you smash those drums, and I’ll strum this here guitar, and you play the big one with the four strings and we’ll be famous any day, now.”  Of course, for them, it worked.

Published in: on January 31, 2012 at 8:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

40 Years of Stairway and 44 Years of Stairway

Forty years ago today, Led Zeppelin IV, containing “Stairway to Heaven,”  was released.  In 1991, someone at Esquire magazine estimated that the total amount of time “Stairway” had played on some radio station somewhere added up to forty-four years.  If you could play them all back to back, even if “Stairway” hadn’t been played at all in the past twenty years (which I know it in fact has) you could play “Stairway” continuously from its release until now, with four years of surplus “Stairway.”

So, its no wonder some people are sick of it.

But in the zendo they say sometimes you have to empty your cup before you can put anything more in it.  So today, put aside eight minutes and try to forget Wayne’s World, and High School, and all the times you’ve heard it on the radio, and try to just listen to what “Stairway” sounds like.

If you ask me, it really is that fucking good.

Published in: on November 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quick Hit: Hank Williamses

The Hank Williamses are kind of like the Star Trek movies except it’s the odd ones that are good.

Published in: on October 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Crazy World of Warren Zevon

I love October for a lot of reasons, but one of the tops on my list, however trifling it is, is hearing “Werewolves of London” on the radio.  But its really too bad that Warren Zevon only gets that one song played, one month of the year.

I actually think Warren Zevon is the best of all the seventies singer-songwriters.  So James Taylor may have the most emotional weight and gravitas.  And Paul Simon might be the most clever and worldly (and Graceland really is as good as everyone says).  And Jackson Browne is cool, even if I feel 40 whenever I listen to him.

But Zevon made two things, his stock in trade that those other guys only ever touched on.  First, he could groove.  His more popular songs — “Excitable Boy,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and yes “Werewolves of London” — all have enough rhythmic umph that you could almost dance to them (and almost dancing is about as much dancing as I like to do sober).  The other thing is that Zevon has a great sense of humor.  His album “Life’ll Kill Ya” contains a song titled “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” which was strangely prescient of Zevon’s cancer diagnosis two years later.  Here’s the first two verses:

Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kind of rough”
He said, “I’ll break it to you, son
Your shit’s fucked up.”

I said, “my shit’s fucked up?”
Well, I don’t see how–”
He said, “The shit that used to work–
It won’t work now.”

And the song has verve, which you don’t always expect from a rumination on aging and mortality.

Ok, you say, but Randy Newman’s funny (sometimes even on purpose!).  Yeah, “I Love L.A.” is actually a pretty good little social commentary, but Zevon does something far stranger and, to me, more interesting.  Zevon creates characters.  Whether it’s a werewolf whose “hair is perfect,” or the uncouth doctor from “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” these are all people who you could almost meet in our world, but not quite (although I could actually imagine my doctor giving a diagnosis like that).  And if you’re only familiar with the Linda Rondstandt cover of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” you’re missing out on the woman who propositions the singer for some S&M.  The juxtaposition of real world details (say, the 60’s conflict in the Congo) with the highly improbable (say, a headless, machine gun-toting ghost), creates the sense that Zevon’s songs take place in a world just like ours, but maybe tilted 15 degrees askew.  Zevon’s zany world would actually make a really good setting for a comic book or maybe a tabletop roleplaying game (sorry, did I get some nerd on you?).

Randy Newman’s point is usually fairly easy to grasp.  He does not, in fact, love L.A.  I’m not sure Zevon has a point, but if he does, maybe its that our world is weirder and more wonderful than we give it credit for.

That’s my favorite part of Zevon’s humor, but there’s more there, too.  In the same way that Dr. Strangelove is a great parody of war thrillers because without all the jokes it would be a great example of a war thriller, Zevon is a great parody of a singer-songwriter because he’s such a good singer-songwriter.  I can’t help but smile at the paradoxical irony and sincerety when Zevon interjects “Talkin’ about the man!” in the last chorus of “Roland the Headless Thompson gunner.

Of course, Zevon isn’t funny all the time, but the fact that he’s so funny makes you pay closer attention when he get’s serious.  On, his final album, The Wind, there’s only two songs of transition between a song about partying “’til the end of the night” and his musical last request “Keep Me in Your Heart.”  The way the two songs reflect on each other makes the former oddly poignant and the latter oddly warm.  And that strange mix of emotions reflects our world dead on.

Warren, wherever you are, thank you, and I hope you’re getting some much needed sleep.

Published in: on October 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm  Comments (1)