Monday, October 03, 2005

Who Killed Rock Guitar?


Hint: It wasn't Neil young.

Many people ask, “Who killed rock and roll?” I could do a post on all the different answers to the question, or I could challenge the premise.

I have a different question.

“Who killed rock guitar?”

I want to talk a bit about my taste in music before I explore that question. I am very passionate about music. I LOVE the music that I think is good, and I HATE the music that I think is bad. I don’t think music written and performed as art should ever be used to sell something besides music. It makes me angry to hear a good rock record (or even a bad one) on television to sell something like a beer, a car, or a hamburger. Same goes for any kind of music. I certainly don’t want to hear Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” or Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” selling deoderant or real estate. That should be illegal.

In my aural world, different types of music are judged by different standards. I love the polish and shimmer of a Steely Dan record, the raw emotion and power of a Clash record, the technical prowess of a Jeff Beck record, and the coolness of a 50’s Miles Davis record. “Aja” played by the Ramones might be funny, but I wouldn’t want to hear it more than once.

Rock guitar. One of the great things about rock and roll is that you don’t have to be a virtuoso musician to play it. Some people go as far as to say that being a virtuoso disqualifies you has a rock musician, but I don’t agree. What disqualifies you is relying on virtuosity. Substituting chops for heart and soul. Joe Satriani and Jimi Hendrix are / were both virtuosos, but I know which one I’d pick every time. Put on a Satriani record, and I’m like, “yeah – he can play, now turn that off and put on some MUSIC!”

The guitar IS rock music. An early rock record that features kick-ass guitar is “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks. Not hard to play, but it was right. It cut to the bone. “Da-NaNa-Na-Na! Da-NaNa-Na-Na!” It wasn’t just the chords. It was the tone, the sound and the conviction of that riff.

Then there’s “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young. 1969. I am not a huge fan of his, but I do love some of his records, and “Cinnamon Girl” may be my favorite. It is hard rock, not heavy metal. That rich tube guitar sound, the deep, simple bass part, the sparse and powerful drums, the raw emotion that makes you reach for the volume button and turn it UP.

“DA-NANANA– DA NANA NAH!” (4 times – no guitar soloing just the riff 4 times – then)

“I wanna live with the Cinnamon Girl
So I can be happy the rest of my life
With the Cinnamon Girl”

Simple two part harmony, no bullshit, guitar-driven hard rock love song. Not misogynistic. Not angry or ironic. He loves her, and she loves him. The music and words evoke for me a woman with an ankle-length blue and white skirt, a white sleeveless blouse, sandals, beads. Long, light-brown, wavy hair. He’s a poet and a musician, and doesn’t just want her for the night, he wants her for the rest of his life, and expresses those feelings in a hard-rock song.

If it has a flaw, it is the words to the bridge, (which technically isn’t a bridge …) but at least they are honest:

“Pa sent me money now
I'm gonna make it somehow
I need another chance
You see your baby loves to dance
Yeah...yeah...yeah.”

Very cool guitar solo. Just a turn on the melody, and then back to the riff, played straight up and out until the last time where he messes around on the chord and then lets it ring. Clocks in at under 3 minutes, and you want to hear it again.

The man understood rock music, and rock guitar.

Fast forward to 1976. I can’t say for sure when it happened, but 1976 seems like the year that we left the 60’s behind for good. Maybe it was the beginning of Disco. Maybe it really started back in ’73 when Styx’s “Lady” first hit the airwaves. Maybe it is different for all of us, but for me it was when the first Boston album was released. I didn’t know it then; I even kind of liked it. I didn’t run out an buy it, but it didn’t seem that bad. I’d hear it in the car, at someone else’s house, in a bar, but it was in context with lots of other music. Might even hear "Cinnamon Girl" the same night.

Well, it was that bad. It was that damned processed guitar sound that did it. Tom Scholz, studio wizard, MIT graduate, and rock guitar murderer. The guitar on that first Boston album is to real rock guitar like Tang is to orange juice, like instant breakfast is to bacon and eggs, like pop tarts are to apple pie. It is ersatz. It is contrived. It is pre-packaged, test-marketed, focus-grouped plastic guitar, from the phony power crunch chords to the synthetic solo tones. It is fabricated, pasteurized, homogenized, crap.

Sure, we got all kinds of bands and records since then, and lots of them are good, but that guitar sound ushered in the new mainstream that was being played on the radio. Investment bankers and entrepreneurs decided it was time to invest in rock bands.

In retrospect, can’t we all see that it was Tom Scholz and his band who single-handedly turned rock guitar REPUBLICAN?


***
Andy Rooney on The Cost of the Iraq War courtesy of Crooks and Liars.

The new Top 10 courtesy of The Democratic Underground.

26 Comments:

Blogger David said...

you had me at the pic of Neil Young.
I wonder if that was his real name - do you know?

9:25 AM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

>I wonder if that was his real name - do you know? <

Neil Young

10:06 AM  
Anonymous blue girl said...

Never having played guitar, I really have no opinion of what's good vs. what's Republican -- in a technical sense, that is.

But I get where you're coming from --

But, being a singer...

"Pa sent me money now
I'm gonna make it somehow
I need another chance
You see your baby loves to dance
Yeah...yeah...yeah.”

I love singing harmony to this part of the song -- slowly fading out to let Neil pick up the "yeah, yeah, yeah"

Plus, I really love what I love and really hate what I hate, too.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Brian Alden Bass said...

I tell you what happened to rock guitar. It got too overplayed. Jimi Hendrix invented the distorted in your face kind of guitar and then it was played to death. Guitar Rock died for the masses when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana became more interesting than Slash and Guns'n Roses. I'll tell you who killed rock guitar - Kurt Cobain.

Peace,
Brian

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Pepper said...

Well, I'd take Nirvana and Sonic Youth over the Guns any day, but that might be a debate for another time.

It sure wasn't the Ramones because they were fierce. At least until Spector got his mitts on them.

Great post!

3:48 PM  
Blogger Nobody said...

Ah, now I understand our difference of opinion on Ron Sexsmith, Elton John and U2 a fews ago.

I've never understood Rock Guitar as such. If someone closes their eyes while playing and takes a step back i'm just instantly turned off. I mean I can see it's clever and all, but I just lose interest.

The other extreme is noise for noises sake, ala Sonic Youth. Yes, I can hear they're not just thrashing away and are carefully sculpting sound forms with guitar tones, but that loses me as well.

However, if the guitar is jangling and moving fast with a vocal underneath it, i'm right there with it. (REM, Go-Betweens, the Lucksmiths).

If it's inventive rhythm playing supporting the song I'm also there (anything by XTC).

If it's a display of virtuousity that takes place within the *framework* of the song (XTC - 'Earn Enough For Us', the Matthew Sweet trilogy) i'm in heaven.

Incredibly simple and stupid it has it's appeals too(Yummy Yummy Yummy, I Want To Be Sedated - I view the Ramones as a 'Bubblegum' band).

I think I care about the structure of the entire song and the way instruments are used to support the *vocal*, where you're responding to the emotional connection the sound of the guitars are other instruments are pulling out of you.

Both are equally valid ways of listening, but will lead to differences of opinion on a lot of artists. As much as I adore the songwriting of the Magnetic Fields for example, I can see now it wouldn't appeal to you at all. (Nor would my own stuff LOL).

Have you ever heard the Atomic Numbers song "Who Killed Rock And Roll?"

4:29 PM  
Blogger Neil Shakespeare said...

VISCOUNT: I disagree. It WAS Neil Young who killed rock 'n roll.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

This is interesting and good. "Cinnamon Girl" is truly up there. An open Am7 with a distorted tone is a beautiful thing.

I always thought this was about smack, but I generally assume that of 90% of Mr. Young's pre-"Trans" output.

This is a gorgeous solo. Bent strings against open strings can be fantastic, and I do love that meticulously lead-free main motif. The "Live Rust" version to me is th' one to hear.

Now- I don't know who killed rock guitar but daddy have I come close with some rock GUITARISTS. I think it was somewhere in th' eighties when the hair metal bands made the distorted tone so creamy it was smooth again.

Also, brute chronology has played a part. It's a "classic" thing now with shrines and Disneyland rides.

Me, I stopped using it. It's not rebellious anymore, to say the least. When are people going to realize that smooth is the new edgy?

I guess I have to wait it out. People are always suggesting I add more "edge" to my music. They haven't realized it yet.

They should just flip on a crummy ad if they want that 20th century yestercrap.

6:08 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Simon:

I read this comment with interest, but I don't think my post explains my relative lack of enthusiasm for Ron Sexsmith at all.

Indeed, I like him - but his voice kind of rubs me the wrong way - but so did Andy Partridge's when I first heard XTC. I kind of like the duet that he did - "Lemonade Stand"...I believe? Jury is still out on him.

Many people have predicted what I *would* or *would not* like with mixed results. The reason is there is an aspect of an artist that isn't quantifiable. I don't like Robin Hitchcock for instance, but on paper I should. His *voice* just annoys me. The imagined character behind the voice is someone I don't warm to. It is like when you meet someone and you take a dislike to them for no obvious reason. Sometimes a good reason exists - other times you realize that you had been unfair. Still, you had that feeling and what could you do about it?

On paper I should dislike Nora Jones, but I like her. Same thing - there is a quality to her voice and sound that I warmed to immediately.

So it goes...

Brian: I have to disagree. I thought Cobain was a breath of fresh air. His music had was relevant and real.

Neil: I am certainly no big fan. He lost me in the mid 70's, and surprised me when he delcared himself "Pro Reagan." Still, his late 60's and early stuff I like.

Bobby:

>I guess I have to wait it out. People are always suggesting I add more "edge" to my music. They haven't realized it yet.<

What do they know?

>They should just flip on a crummy ad if they want that 20th century yestercrap. <

Indeed.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous blue girl said...

Neil & Al,

You're breaking my heart...

...and that's pretty sad for an already-blue girl.

Neil Young was "Pro-Reagan??!!" Whaa??!!

(p.s. Al -- I keep having to re-do those LSD-induced code letters below -- what's up with those??)

8:53 PM  
Anonymous blue girl said...

Ok. I just read about Young during the Reagan years....

Oh well...hmmm.

9:07 PM  
Blogger cali said...

I think rumours of the death of rock guitar are premature. It's still out there but far from mainstream.

Have you listened to Neil's "Greendale?" I like it.

Funny thing, in reading this post and the comments I was reminded of a Neil Young concert a few years back. Opening band was Sonic Youth. They were OK - fun actually. But, Neil was fantastic. His guitar playing on "Cortez the Killer" was hypnotic.

I guess my favorite 'rock' band now (maybe the issue here is music labeling...)is Wilco.

And, yeah, bands like Foreigner and Boston are toxic.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

Was just listening to Nick Lowe on the way back home from work - stuff from basically the same period as Boston.

Lots o' gee-tar. And all if it sounding real, in the studio, on the fly and FUN.

I guess they'll always be somebody out there doing that.

5:43 PM  
Blogger cali said...

"Simple two part harmony, no bullshit, guitar-driven hard rock love song. Not misogynistic. Not angry or ironic."

I forgot to comment on this statement. Thank you, Al. Thank you!

6:47 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

>Ok. I just read about Young during the Reagan years....<

What the HELL was HE thinking???

>I think rumours of the death of rock guitar are premature. It's still out there but far from mainstream.<

Yeah, I know - I have a lot of great records that didn't sell well featuring some fine guitar.

My point was that they killed the guitar in the ubiquitous soundtrack to our crap-culture. TV, Radio, Stores - we're surrounded by ersatz guitar-noise.

>Was just listening to Nick Lowe on the way back home from work - stuff from basically the same period as Boston.

Lots o' gee-tar. And all if it sounding real, in the studio, on the fly and FUN.<

Man, I smell a post in the near future! I love Nick Lowe, Elvis, Squeeze, Joe Jackson. That was a HAPPENIN' time in music! 78 to about '81.


>I forgot to comment on this statement. Thank you, Al. Thank you! <

I calls 'em as I hears 'em.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

Yeah, what th' fuck am I doing talking about guitar like it's a retro artifact? It's still the best instrument. To imply that anyone like Nick Lowe or Neil could ever approach irrelevancy is bleak.

But yeah, little fucker's got a lot of baggage hanging off it by now.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous daveminnj said...

try to forgive neil-he was going through health and family problems
in the early 80s and has had
recurrent flashes of idiocy throughout his career. he is also a
genius,the best we've got--so the normal rules don't apply.

by the way (and i don't doubt you've got the lyric right and i've got it wrong) but i always
heard the lyric as "ma-send me money" not "pa sent me money"
and the "ma" lyric paints him as
a self-aware slacker with a sense of humor-so i like "ma" better.

also by the way, i once had a similar experience with steely dan-
on "my old school" my favorite song
from countdown to ecstasy-
i heard the lyric as "holy anger, growing outside her door". one day
listening to it in the car i realized that the lyric was actually "oleander's growing outside her door" and all of a sudden the song seemed so much happier and goofier. not to mention the terrific GUITAR solo
by rick derringer (rock and roll kootchy-koo).

the demise of rock guitar starts
earlier than boston, i think-
i think jimmy page bears a great deal of responsibility-incredibly talented, but with nothing really to say, he larded his work up an
overwrought, masturbatory, self-congratulation. he could really play, however, and his turgidness
was balanced by interesting folk and middle-eastern tangents.

his descendants, like boston, had none of his talent and so increased the bombast.
i think the bloated false-grandeur of arena rock is a direct result of the cultural deadend given us by led zeppelin

11:41 AM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

by the way (and i don't doubt you've got the lyric right and i've got it wrong) but i always
heard the lyric as "ma-send me money" not "pa sent me money"
and the "ma" lyric paints him as
a self-aware slacker with a sense of humor-so i like "ma" better.


I always thought it was "ma" as well. All the lyric web sites have it as "pa."

i heard the lyric as "holy anger, growing outside her door".

And I always thought he was singing "Did you realize / you were italian in their eyes?" in "Kid Charlamagne," and was a bit disappointed when I found out that it was "champion."

not to mention the terrific GUITAR solo
by rick derringer (rock and roll kootchy-koo).


I know that Rick Derringer plays the lead guitar on "Show Biz Kids" but I'm fairly certain that Jeff "Skunk" Baxter takes the lead on "My Old School."

Rick does play one of my favorite Steely Dan solos - the one on "Chain Lightning" which is also one of my favorite songs of all time.

And Denny Dias is really an unsung hero. That's him in the first solo in "Boddhisatva," in "Your Gold Teeth II," and "Aja." He is great.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous daveminnj said...

you were right about janie runaway
and now gothic is sounding good.
it could be that i had my head up my ass when i first listened to it.

you're probably right about the
guitar solo on "my old school".

my memory is from a wonderful profile that the late robert
palmer wrote about steely dan
(rolling stone, 1980). there was a brief interview with derringer which mentioned a solo he did on
countdown. i could have sworn.....
but the mind does play tricks.

it WAS "you were just italian in their eyes" and not even walter becker could tell me different!

1:00 PM  
Blogger Soundsurfr said...

nThe other extreme is noise for noises sake, ala Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth gives me convulsions.

Yes, I can hear they're not just thrashing away and are carefully sculpting sound forms with guitar tones, but that loses me as well.

No, they're not sculpting shit. They just suck. I once caught them live on PBS or something and forced myself to listen to the entire 1 hour performance thinking that I was the Philistine for not understanding the "art" of Sonic Youth.

Afterwards, it took an entire bottle of my best Cab before I could come to terms with the fact that I'd wasted an hour of time and energy listening to the musical equivalent of rotting fruit.

On to Neil Young.

Superb songwriter. Soulful and unique singer. Powerful and uncompromising artist. A legend.

Crapola electric guitarist.

People love it when Neil bangs away narcissistically at his electric guitar in true cave-man style, but I have to leave the room. The Viscount is dead right when he says give me Jimi Hendrix over Joe Satriani - chops for the sake of chops are nothing. But I'm also with Prince when he says "You wanna jam with me? Learn your craft first."

I don't care how passionate your are - If you play like you have meatballs for fingers and your fuzzbox knob is stuck on the full distortion setting, it's gonna sound like puke.

There are people who play as passionately as Neil, but are also technically accomplished and this is the true formula for transcendent music, IMHO. Jimi Hendrix. Frank Zappa. David Gilmore (!). Vernon Reid. Skunk Baxter. Derek Trucks. So many more, thankfully, that I don't ever have to be bothered trying to make sense of New Order or any other purveyors of Village Voice chic who by the way, couldn't find their way around an instrument with a flashlight.

Neil. Play your acoustic and sing. Please. Rust never sleeps because the guitar playing is too fucking annoying.

And as far as the question "Who killed Rock Guitar?"

I believe it was Van Halen.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Andrew, Playing Rock for 25+ years now said...

Yup. It was Van Halen.

When I heard VH's tone in 1979, I was blown away. The problem is that nobody ever topped it. There was and is nowhere else to go in that direction. I'm referring to the tone particularly, not the playing. There are always great players all over and in every time.

Then when even he lost his tone after Album 4 or 5, it was game over. A new sound was needed to advance "rock" and the UnGuitar was the only place left to go.

The blues-inspired rock tones and soulful solo styles of say a Mick Ronson have to be revived but in an evolved form. The player who can do it hasn't stepped forward yet. (Just listen to the solo in Moonage Daydream. Hear the sweet tone of the (unequalized) Marshall Major driven by a '68 Les Paul custom. Compare it to the overprocessed tones of today, preset at the factory for "good tone". And Ronson expressed 20 times more emotion with a judicous bend and a well-timed vibrato than any million-note-per-second alleged "virtuoso".)

That is, there needs to be a new Guitar Sound compelling enough to advance a new genre, and the junk amps in the music store aren't cutting it. They are preset with an EQ "V" curve and that grungy distortion which is all you hear all these days. The burning question is "now what?"

Rock guitar isn't dead- it's in a coma. And it can be re-awakened when you want to say "Holy Shit!" again to something that isn't limited to a single band. When was the last time you heard yourself say that?

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got two cds recently - Mambo Sons Racket of Three and John Fogertys Deja Vu All Over Again,that have killer raw rock and roll guitars sounds on them. To paraphrase Frank Zappa - Rock and roll guitar ain't dead, but it sure smells funny.

2:00 PM  
Blogger docweasel said...

This post is based on a bullshit theory. First off, most rock guitarists DON'T use a rockman or anything like it. They use an overdriven tube amp with hot pickups. If you want to damn Tom Scholtz, you'll have to damn Brian May in the early 70's with his overwound coils. That's the sound Scholtz was trying to emulate.

The fact is, guitar playing, like any instrument, increases its virtuosity factor with every generation. That reached a critical several times, resulting in a "dumbing down" trend like punk or grunge. But the Larry Carltons, Elliot Randalls, Eric Johnsons and their more famous counterpoints always rise above it.

The whining in this post and these comments sound like nothing more than guitar hero wannabes who couldn't quite master a Randy Rhoads solo they idolized and so now you're throwing down your metaphorical guitars and damning the entire world of guitarists that came out since, when is your argument exactly? 1972?

What you're basically exhibiting is a profound ignorance of electric guitar, how a guitarist cops a sound, technique, studio effects and tricks and personalities. Your own argument seems to be "I don't like it, so it sucks".

I don't like you and you suck, and your taste is music sucks, and you are a fucking idiot with no clue about guitar playing or guitar players.

Furthermore, you are conflating Satriani-type acrobatics with bluesy, feel playing. Many of the guitarists you seem to be dissing can indeed play blues or funk or even acoustic fluently, with feel and originality and taste. Satriani is a perfect example.

Stick to politics and preaching to your choir. Your knowledge of guitar playing vs. what is true is like a grain of sand compared to the total tonnage of the entire known universe, sporty.

12:06 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Hi Doc.

Sorry my post inspired so much anger. It's just my opinion.

- Al

12:23 PM  
Blogger Alana said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Margaret

http://guitarlearntoplay.net

9:16 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Thanks Alana. I haven't been writing for a while. Been doing short posts on FB. I hope to get back to it some day.

11:26 AM  

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