In the groove with vinyl…

f0ea4a04f9ca2a1c03de2604e599706e--city-sunset-vinesI follow several record collecting groups and pages on Facebook, and one topic that comes up occasionally is: do we think that vinyl is ever going to “come back” at the level it did in the pre-digital days?

My answer is always the same.

No.

As I posted in reply to the latest iteration of this yesterday…

Most pop music consumers are wed to digital, and a true “comeback” of any physical format would require them to not only change their listening habits but to invest financially in all sorts of technology that simply isn’t compatible with their lifestyle-current tech.

Translated: in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, most kids (or at least most homes) had a home stereo with a turntable-CD player-tape deck. Those physical devices were not only wed to the “music as object,” but they required a physical place to use them. Portability (car stereo, walkman, boombox, etc) was always a goal but took a long time to integrate into the “music as physical object” system. 

Today, most kids either download music (by purchase or fileshare) or skip the acquisition and stream music without buying it. And they can take that music anywhere without adding in a tape deck or CD burner or whatever. So the problem of portability has been solved.

We should just be happy that 45s and albums have not been deepsixed altogether. They’re a boutique item now, and that’s OK.

A little bit further down the thread, someone commented that “I would like to thank RSD (Record Store Day) for ruining the 7″ single, just because of the ridiculous prices. What seemed like a good idea when they started. Ended up in a giant cash grab.”

I’m not sure how Record Store Day “ruined” the 7 inch single. As I replied to this person, Record Store Day hasn’t ruined anything for me. I still go to the same places I always went to find records: flea markets, yard sales, thrift shops, library book sales. Usually, I find stuff I didn’t even know I wanted for less than I would have paid if I’d proactively sought it. And when I proactively seek something, the internet gives me far more options than I had even 20 years ago. I’ve never participated in RSD, although –tying into what I typed above– I’ve found several great RSD releases marked down after the dust cleared.

“So,” I concluded, “I guess I’m happy with the way things are.”

Here’s a further case in point:

DSCN8505Recently, on one of the jazz stations I listen to online, they played “Misty” by Richard Groove Holmes.

Thirty years ago, my only option would have been to go to a record store and either pay full price for a new LP or cassette, or go to Goldmine (a record collector’s magazine which in its heyday was the best place to find used records) or some other source (flea market, used record store) hoping to score a used copy (at who knows what price?).

However, NOW I had these options:

* Download album or individual track from Amazon or iTunes (30 years ago, I would have had to buy the whole album)

* Stream the album or track online

* Order a new or used CD online

* Order a new or used LP online

* Download illegally via a fileshare site.

If I’d wanted, I could have gotten an MP3 of the whole album immediately … free, if my conscience permitted. For slightly more, I could have scored a physical disc (and not expensive, either: a mono original press in VG condition was listed on eBay for $3.99 plus shipping). If I didn’t want to buy, I could stream it free on multiple sites (which I did via YouTube).

And now, here’s the kicker:

After all that, I DISCOVERED THAT I ALREADY HAD THE ALBUM IN MY MEDIA LIBRARY!!!!

Groove screenshotWhen I was a DJ a couple years back, I downloaded via fileshare a TON of classic jazz for airplay, including a zip file of a dozen Richard Groove Holmes albums in 320 kbps MP3 format!!! I own so much music that I lost track of it.

I’m eventually going to buy a used vinyl of it on eBay, but my point is… why do we pretend that the current system and the options it affords us isn’t better than anything we could have designed deliberately?

So really, the question is not “will vinyl ever ‘come back'”?

The question is “Why would we WANT it to?”

Not all the way there…

Brian Wilson solo album montageQuestion for discussion:

How important musically has Brian Wilson’s solo career been?

I made a BEST OF BRIAN WILSON SOLO playlist on my itunes, and it’s full of great music and songs, beautifully arranged and produced. But I’ve always detected a feeling of (for lack of a better term) non-presence in Brian’s solo work, like he wasn’t quite all the way there. It lends a sadness to some of his more poignant solo work. His solo SMILE, I think, is propelled by this feeling, as is THAT LUCKY OLD SUN, which, to me, is his best solo effort that, uhhh, isn’t SMILE.

Yeah… SMILE was originally supposed to be a Beach Boys record; yeah, the songs were almost 40 years old when he finally finished it as a solo artist. But the point was, SMILE was never a complete, unified piece of music before Brian and company put it together and performed it as such, then released it. And no matter how proponents of the original session tapes argue for the 1966-67 recordings, no matter how beautiful the Beach Boys’ voices were on those tracks, those tracks (a) weren’t a finished album, and (b) Brian’s age and experience in 2002 lent a melancholy and wistfulness to the music that simply could not have been present if he’d finished the album in 1967.

I’ve said it before: Brian had to live those intervening four decades in order to give SMILE the punch that it has. The Beach Boys’ sessions from 66-67 = beautiful and important in so many ways. But Brian’s solo SMILE = the definitive completed version of the work.

Brian seems to connect best as a solo artist with sadness; the hollowness and non-presence seems to come through most on uptempo tracks.

It’s hard to say that anything that Brian has done as a solo artist is as “important” as what he did with the Beach Boys, but then, that stuff was so groundbreaking, it’s almost not fair to make the comparison, so I won’t.

But I think it’s telling that the two best things Brian has done in the last 20 years are (a) the fulfillment and completion of SMILE (an unfinished Beach Boys record) and (b) THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO, a Beach Boys reunion album. Something about his songs and their voices is a perfect combination. Their voices are missed on his solo records.

What I loved about THAT LUCKY OLD SUN was that it seemed to reflect where Brian’s head was really at NOW. “Midnight’s Another Day” might be the best song ever written about depression.

And that’s what I like about Brian’s solo career. Jeez, you know… the guy doesn’t NEED to keep cranking out new music, but he is. The extent to which that new music reflects his current state of mind and spirit is the extent to which I like it. So songs like “Midnight’s Another Day” and “Lay Down Burden” and “Southern California” and “Summer’s Gone” get to me at my core, at age almost-50, the same way that songs like “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” did at age 15.

And for that reason, I think Brian’s solo work is VERY important.

So, again: thanks, Brian.

Rock and roll’s greatest pure ARTIST?

1012600_526957500766187_5340897511297623034_nFrom a 2014 Facebook post:

I really think that Neil Young might be the greatest ARTIST that rock and roll has yet produced. Not that he’s always done great MUSIC or written great songs; he hasn’t. If any musician has been inconsistent, it’s been Neil.

But what makes Neil a great artist– the thing that I love about him– is that he’s always exploring and moving his work forward through the work itself.

So he explores these side roads through these album-length projects— “hey, wouldn’t rockabilly be cool? Why not go country? Wouldn’t an album about cars be cool? Wouldn’t it be cool to do an electronica album? How about an album-length novel? How about recording an album entirely on acetate discs?”

And so he does these things, and when you hear them, you think “Jesus…he’s lost his way… he’s lost his mind… he’s obsessed, what’s he thinking? How does the record company put up with him?” Etc etc. But through this work, he’s just doing what artists do: exploring, experimenting, except that instead of confining this exploration and experimentation to a notebook (IF the guy keeps a notebook, it’s gotta be the most interesting and fascinating thing ever. I mean, given what the guy releases , what does he think about and REJECT??) he releases it, puts it out there.

And the result, at least, as I’ve always said to people, is “Neil may not always be GREAT. But he’s always interesting.”

And the best part is that, every few years, he’ll come out with this grand STATEMENT of an album (FREEDOM, HARVEST MOON, RAGGED GLORY) where all of these insanely disparate pieces come together with other pieces you didn’t even know about, and you think “Damn, this guy’s brilliant. How did he THINK of this? He’s just as brilliant as ever.”

And people who weren’t paying attention wonder where it all came from, when, actually, if they’d been listening, he’d been moving ahead of them the whole time.

Amazing. I feel lucky to have been able to watch his career unfold.

Loving LOVE YOU… or… A fortieth birthday card to THE BEACH BOYS LOVE YOU

17862002_10155202088387241_9131997440647892768_nToday, April 12, 2017, is the fortieth anniversary of the release of one of my favorite albums of all time, The Beach Boys Love You.

The Beach Boys Love You might be the strangest album in the Beach Boys’ catalog: a synth-based collection of fifteen Brian Wilson originals, dominated by hoarse vocals and oddball songs about astronomy and Johnny Carson and a guy who has a crush on a girl but treats her like a baby and the first time I heard it I thought WHAT IS THIS SHIT???

And yet now it’s one of my favorite albums of theirs. I consider it not only their last great album, but one of their five best albums of all time, right up there with fan favorites like Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) and Pet Sounds and Sunflower. (Either Friends or Today round out my top five, depending on what mood I’m in or which one I’ve heard most recently.)

So how did an album that started out as a record I quite frankly HATED become one of my all-time favorite records, not just by the Beach Boys, but by ANYBODY?

I posted this today on my Facebook page…

oaaa_beachboysThis album taught me so much.

At the time, the Beach Boys were vying with the Beatles for title of “My Favorite Band,” and so I was really looking forward to this album… and shortly after it was released, I bought a copy, took it home, opened it up, played it through, and… I hated it. Hated almost every track. The vocals sounded harsh and coarse; the arrangements were sparse and odd. The songs seemed, on their surface, to be trite. I think I liked ONE track out of the fourteen: “Good Time.” The rest, I really just HATED…

…but…

…something told me to play it again, stick with it, give it another listen… and another…

…and slowly, track by track, everything I disliked about this album at first grew on me. Subtly complicated melodies unencumbered by “meaningful” lyrics… rough hewn vocals that fit the feel of the songs… guitars and synthesizers and percussion instruments being used in ways I’d never heard before.

What I learned was: when a favorite artist of yours takes his music in a new direction, TRUST HIM.

Thanks again, Brian!

It’s still one of my top five Beach Boys albums, and certainly, along with That’s Why God Made The Radio (their 2012 reunion album), the BEST new album that they’ve released in my years as a fan (1976-today).

That starts to explain it, but still…

A few years back, I frequented a Capitol Records-sponsored Beach Boys chat board, on which another member posted the following:

20100111153520-Untitled-6 copy 2100111Now most of you guys know that I have had very little good to say about The Beach Boys Love You album in the past. A couple days ago I put the CD in my boombox while preparing dinner, and something incredible and unexpected happened: I loved every minute of it. I was jumping around the kitchen singing along with the likes of “Roller Skating Child” and “Ding Dang” and “Solar System” and “Love is a Woman” like it was the Beatles or something. All of a sudden, all of the great things the Love You aficionados have been saying all along made sense. I was in a euphoric state of shock when it was all over. I need some help to determine exactly what happened to me.

I posted the following response:

I’ve said a few times on other threads: when it came out in spring 1977, I absolutely HATED Love You But I gave it a chance and kept listening, and now it’s one of my five favorite BB albums.

I’d say the question shouldn’t be “why do you now like it” but rather, “why DIDN’T you like it before?”

For me, it was a combination of the following:

* On its surface, it sounded like nothing the group had done before. It was certainly a radical departure from the commercial, accessible Fifteen Big Ones (1976).
* The group’s hoarse vocals and the somewhat thin (in spots) background vocals were jarring to someone who was concurrently discovering the group’s “classic” records, which, vocally, were ANYTHING but “thin” or “weak” or “hoarse.”
* Some of the lyrics made me cringe.
* Like the vocal sound, the synth-based instrumental settings were jarring.

That was what I DIDN’T like about Love You when I first heard it. But I think it’s an amazing record. It takes risks, for one thing (like I said, no BB album before or since was such a radical departure from what came before in so many ways).

the_beach_boys_record_japan_charity_single
Musically, I think the arrangements are stunning: the voicings and the way the different instrumental voices play off of and almost “talk to” each other (best example: “I’ll Bet He’s Nice”); the drum parts (one of the best examples ever of how Brian couldn’t be satisfied with a drummer who pounded away on two and four, but who played patterns that, again, played off and “talked to” the other percussion and instrumental voices). The use of the group’s individual lead voices (again, exemplified on “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” where Brian has his brothers trading off the lead vocal part almost line by line). The BACKGROUND vocals, which, am I the only person who has noticed this, was the last time that the group had a new album dominated by their classic background vocal blend of Mike on bass, Carl, Al and Denny in the middle, and Brian high and sweet on top…and speaking of “Brian high and sweet on top,” SCREW that awful, awful, hideous AWFUL TRACK “She’s Got Rhythm” on
M.I.U. Album that everyone oohed and ahhhed over (“Brian’s singing high again!” Yeah, but THE SONG SUCKS!!!)…Brian’s falsetto lead passages on “Airplane” are not only among the prettiest singing he ever did; they’re also pretty much the last time that he sang like “the old Brian.”

The sweet dumbness of the lyrics, which, the more I listened, fit the melodies and the tone of the songs and sounded just fine to me if I didn’t THINK about them too much.

And the cover. I liked the cover.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd the title. In angry “rock vs. Disco” 1977, when the last best hope for rock and roll seemed to be angry new wave or angrier punk, the title The Beach Boys Love You was a breath of fresh air.


The Beach Boys love ME? Why, thank you! 😛

It’s just a sweet, complex, weird, quirky, beautiful album that works on so many different levels that it’s easy to dismiss it…believe me, because when it came out, I dismissed it. But to me, Love You stands right there with Pet Sounds in terms of multi-leveled sophistication, which is why the more you listen, the better it sounds… there’s a lot there to hear, and the more you listen, the more you notice.

That’s my take, anyway.

Roy Wood said of his album Boulders (another quirky fave of mine) upon its reissue on CD that “It’s old, but still weird enough to be different.”

That’s a good way to describe The Beach Boys Love You. I recommend BOTH albums.

I said it about Pet Sounds and I’ll say it again about Love You: Thank you, Brian.

And happy birthday. May we all age as well as The Beach Boys Love You!

Read a few more reviews of the album here.

Teenaged albums

The musical challenge currently circulating on Facebook is…

Copy this post as a status update. List 10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER, but only one per band/artist. Don’t take too long and don’t think too long.

Like most “list challenges” on Facebook, I resisted doing this at first, but then got into a discussion about a friend’s list on HIS page, and even as I typed that “I never do these things,” I was already filling out the list in my head.

As I told him, MY problem in making a list of ten ALBUMS that influenced me as a teenager is that, as a teen, I mainly bought 45s, not albums. I was definitely more of a singles buyer. 45s were 99 cents (or $1.29 for an oldie), and albums were $5.99, $6.99 or more. So I seldom bought NEW albums… although I’d see what I could score used at flea markets/yard sales/etc. This is one reason I always was listening to music that was ten or more years old… those were the albums (and singles) I found in flea markets.

Used and old and inexpensive = yes. New and full-priced = seldom.

heartSo…

…while “Heart” by Rockpile was one of my favorite SINGLES as a teen, I never bought the  album (SECONDS OF PLEASURE) till I was in college. Same with the Bee Gees, Springsteen, Dylan, and so many others: I loved all those SINGLES of theirs, but didn’t buy the albums till much later.

The other problem I had was one that I suspected was reflected in the lists of friends whose high school tastes were, shall we say, amazingly precocious and eclectic for 15-16-17 year olds. A lot of the lists looked backloaded, which is to say, constructed through the lens of adulthood, in particular an adulthood that wants to remember listening to really great music, but NOT listening to sucky top 40 or pop stuff. As this same friend says, I’m not seeing much Kansas, Styx, or Journey on these lists.

The fact is, when I try to think of music I liked back then, my current tastes can’t help but rewrite the narrative in some ways, so that albums I owned in high school but didn’t really play that much have grown in importance to me, while others I played but have grown tired of since, I’ve pushed to the back of my mind.

So I tried hard to think of the albums that I played a lot back then, whether I’d still listen to them today or not.

So… having given those caveats, here’s the list I came up with. Ten albums by nine artists (I didn’t know about the “one album per artist” stipulation when I made my list… sorry!) and then a bonus artist, who, if I was honest, would probably knock every other album out of my top ten.

But what fun would THAT be?

My list, in no particular order:

181997123899Pet Sounds / The Beach Boys (Yes, I really did buy, play, listen, and become obsessed with Pet Sounds as a teen. I think I was lucky in that I discovered Pet Sounds as an adolescent. No album meant more to me as a teen musically, emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually. And I am certain that people who don’t connect with it met it too late in life to really appreciate it.)

love-youThe Beach Boys Love You (This 1977 album taught me one of the biggest musical lessons that I could ever learn: when someone you love does music you don’t get on first listen, STICK WITH IT. I HATED this album at first listen, but little by little it grew on me, and it remains one of my five favorites by ANYONE to this date.)

matching-tieMonty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief (I always loved the Pythons, and this album wildly creative in so many ways. Not just the content; not just the packaging; but the physical album itself was a gag: one side of the album was cut with parallel lathes. What’s that mean? It means that there were not one, but TWO grooves with different content running parallel on the album side. So if you dropped the needle, you didn’t know WHICH program you’d get. Further, they labeled both sides “side two,” so… I had to put an X on the “twin groove” side. One of the best musical and recording practical jokes EVER.)

strange-daysStrange Days / The Doors (one of those “don’t play it anymore” albums, but for the year I was in my perfunctory adolescent Doors phase– age 14– this was my favorite of theirs. Probably because I stumbled on a used copy for 50 cents at Renninger’s Flea Market. I haven’t listened to it in years. Classic rock radio has almost killed the Doors for me, with the exception of L.A. Woman, which I also don’t listen to.)

jan-dean-anthologyJan and Dean Anthology Album (I had a lot of Jan and Dean albums, but this one was the one I played most. I loved every song on the record, and a nice bonus was the booklet, with a history of the duo and a detailed discography chart that showed not only recording dates and chart positions of their hits, but the cars they each were driving and the girls they each were dating when the records came out. Talk about essential teenaged information!)

816cyninkil-_sl1425_Rust Never Sleeps / Neil Young (The first Neil Young album I ever bought, and still my favorite in so many ways. I can’t remember what impelled me to buy it; maybe that a couple friends I knew already loved Neil. But I bought it full price, and I never regretted it.)

blastBlast From Your Past / Ringo Starr (I got this for Christmas 1975, and I still think this is the best solo Beatles compilation album ever, and, if you want to count compilations as actual albums, maybe Ringo’s best solo album period.)

 


byrds-notori_03The Notorious Byrd Brothers / The Byrds
(Side one is still one of my favorite album sides by anyone.)


107571090Split Ends / The Move
(I loved Electric Light Orchestra, and listening to ELO led me back to the Move and this album, which I probably played more than any ELO record as a teen, save maybe Out Of The Blue United Artists took the Move’s final album, Message From The Country, and cut a couple songs, replacing them with five of the best single sides ever made in succession by any band whose name didn’t begin with BEA: “Do Ya,” “California Man,” “Chinatown,” “Down On The Bay,” and “Tonight.”)

elvis-presley-self-titled-vinyl-lp-record-lsp-1254-1956_20985911Elvis Presley (his first album) (I had The Sun Sessions and I loved that, too, but somehow I’ve always preferred Elvis’ first album with “Blue Suede Shoes” and “One Sided Love Affair” and a handful of Sun outtakes (“Trying To Get To You,” “Just Because”). I loved this album so much that I even tolerated it in RCA’s abominable “Electronically Reprocessed” fake stereo. (I learned, by the way, how to “correct” that and un-process the album so that it was in relatively echo-free mono.)

Finally, as my “bonus that probably trumps everything else on the list”…

i53oibx4u2697_p662141_500x500Name Your Beatles album  I mean, really. Any one you’d pick, even YELLOW SUBMARINE. I first heard them all– in the US versions– as a teen, and each one of them was the most important and influential thing I’d ever heard at the time I heard it.

 

Brian’s songs

Sitting at the piano this afternoon, working out the chord changes of a bunch of Brian Wilson songs: “Honkin’ Down The Highway” and “Good Time” and “That’s Why God Made The Radio” and “Solar System.”

recluses-brian-wilson-sizedBrian Wilson may be my FAVORITE songwriter as composer, above even Lennon-McCartney (because Brian did it on his own) or Billy Strayhorn (because, again, it’s hard to tell at times where Strayhorn ends and Duke begins). All of his songs have UNUSUAL structure, chord changes and modulations. Those elements always take me off in musically unexpected directions, but they feel totally natural, unforced, and easy.

As Marian McPartland said about Strayhorn, “there’s always a train wreck chord in these songs,” a chord that seems to come out of nowhere that just can stop a player dead in his tracks. Brian Wilson’s songs have those “train wreck chords,” but somehow, they never feel out of place, and they always lead you right back to the mainstream of the song.

Plus, it’s almost always rock and roll. Not “pop.” Rock and roll.  Brian takes these highfalutin’ musical ideas and applies them to rock and roll songs, and, in doing so, expands the scope and possibilities of the music. 

I, for one, am grateful that I live in an age where he’s actively performing and creating new music.

The compilation challenge

Beatles-album-cover-014.jpgHow many artists can you think of who would pass the following test: a 14-song “greatest hits” compilation consisting entirely of songs that were never released on singles, but that most casual fans would be familiar with?

I can only think of one artist who would pass this test: the Beatles.

Every one of the following Beatles songs is probably familiar to people who aren’t fans of their music, yet none of them was issued as a single originally in the USA or UK. Some of these songs, in fact, might be more “popular” by some standards (airplay, number of artists who have covered them) than some of the Beatles’ hit singles. Several of them have already appeared on Beatles compilations like 1962-1966 and 1967-1970.

My rules for inclusion: original songs only, no covers (so no “Money” or other popular Beatles album track cover songs); songs were not issued on a 45 in the USA or UK between 1962 and 1970 (yes, I know, Beatles geeks, being one myself, that a few of these tracks were later released on FOR JUKEBOXES ONLY limited edition 45s in the USA several years back; those don’t count). And I tried to think of songs that most music fans would probably know as well as (if not better than) the group’s hit singles.

Here’s my track listing. If you can think of one for another artist (I’ll cut you a break and let you include only ten songs on your compilation), post it in the comments. Good luck.

In My Life
Norwegian Wood
Michelle
Girl
Taxman
With A Little Help From My Friends
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
A Day In The Life
When I’m Sixty Four
Back in the USSR
Birthday
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Here Comes The Sun
Octopus’s Garden

 

 

Elvis, King of Kings

wp-1473116554399.jpegHere’s all you need to
know about Elvis:
’68 comeback
special, he’s onstage
seated, red Gibson
hollowbody in
his lap, and one of
the guys in his band
says something about
“You couldn’t do that
in” (some southern town)
and Elvis got an
annoyed, withering
look on his face.

“That’s
where they filmed the show.

“Yeah, the police came
out and they filmed the
show, because they, the
F.B.I. or the
P.T.A., they thought
I was…”

And here he
shook his head and laughed
a puzzled laugh, like
a dozen years down
the road, he still just
couldn’t get what the
big deal was about
his sound, his hair, his
moves…HIM.

“…somethin’. And
they said, ‘Maaaaaaann, that boy’s
gotta be crazy.

“So they filmed the show.

“So I couldn’t move.

“I had to stand still.

“The only thing I could
move was my little
finger.”

And here he
raised his left hand, and
then wiggling his
pinkie back and forth,
his full upper lip
breaking into that
priceless sneer, belted
You ain’ nothin’ but
a hound dog… cryin’
all the time!” and then
he broke up laughing.

“That was the whole show.”

Eight years later, in
a video of
him backstage before
his last concert, he
stood bloated and spent
from whatever the
people around him
allowed him to put
into his body,
squeezed tight into that
ridiculous white
jumpsuit (I’m sorry,
but I can’t even
appreciate the
kitsch of what he was
doing, what he had
become… it just makes
me sad) but at one
point, somebody says
something to him and
he breaks into that
same sneering smile,
a combination
of rebellion
and joy, and it made
me even sadder, like:
How well could all those
sycophants around
him have known the guy
if they’d let him do
all those things that they
had to know were just
destroying him from
every part of his
insides out, and yet
just laughed along with the
guy and let it pass,
as if the things that
made Elvis smile
and sneer weren’t just the
things we all wanted
and needed from him,
but what he needed
himself to survive?

“That was the whole show.”

 

How Much Is Enough? — On Music Theory

As an education grad student at Goddard College, one of my objectives was to design a college level course focusing on the pop album as a unified long form work akin to a novel. This literature review was part of that process. I’m posting it because among other things, I reviewed  my favorite Beatles book ever, Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution In The Head.”

The first “essential question” I wanted to answer this semester was a practical concern: “What understanding of music theory and musicology is necessary for me as an educator teaching this course, and, in turn, what understanding must I impart to my students so that they understand the material, without making either my course of study or the course I am designing either a music theory or a musicology course?”

I picked out a number of theory and musicology books in an effort to get at the answer to this question, but, as I probably could have expected, I didn’t find a direct answer in those texts. Rather, I found the answer through other oblique, seemingly peripheral readings and through my listening. And, also as I probably could have expected, those readings and that music not only gave me unexpected answers, but raised other questions.

Of the theory and musicology texts I either read or skimmed, What Makes Music Work, Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People, and the pamphlet A Primer On Music for Non-musician Educators came closest to answering my question. Not directly, though; rather, for instance, the latter booklet gave me an understanding and a reminder of how music can fit into a student’s (or anyone’s) life, and how a teacher can enhance a person’s enjoyment and understanding of music. The message in the brief Primer was “Yes, this is important and worth pursuing. Students need this.” It was the first text I read, and it was an encouraging place to start.

Meanwhile, the other two books served not only as reminders of some of the theory I’d forgotten, but also struck me as good, easy-to-understand, starting-from-ground-zero theory surveys that could serve as introductions to theory and musicology for my course. The books start with the basics (note values, bass and treble clef, notation, scales) and move into more complicated concepts fairly quickly and deftly. A student could very easily grasp the essentials of song structure and composition from either of these books, and do so much more quickly than in a traditional theory class.

But that doesn’t answer the question, really. How much theory and musical knowledge is enough? As I wrote above, I found the answers in two non-theory books, and I think it’s fitting that those two books are surveys of my two favorite pop/rock artists: the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The books were Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, and Philip Lambert’s Inside the Music of Brian Wilson.

MacDonald’s book is a chronological, song-by-song survey of the 250-some commercially released recordings by the Beatles. MacDonald doesn’t limit himself to discussion of song structure, production, arrangement or other musical elements. Rather, those musical elements are the hub around which the other non-musical considerations revolve. Unlike the “-ologists” in Simon Frith’s book, MacDonald doesn’t treat the peripheral concerns as the point; he always brings the discussion back to the music and the recordings. His analysis of the group’s song “Tomorrow Never Knows” might be the best piece of pop music writing I’ve ever read for those reasons, which I’ll outline further below.

MacDonald’s book is opinionated, and, as I wrote in my journal, I don’t always necessarily agree with his opinions, but I respect them because they’re based on the music.

The best thing about Revolution In The Head is that, while he doesn’t ignore the “-ologies” that swirled around the Beatles and their music (it’s almost impossible to!), he doesn’t let those matters become the conclusion. Rather, they serve as means to his end, which is to impart understanding, knowledge, and (hence) enjoyment of the music. Therefore, in the aforementioned essay on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he starts by putting the song’s genesis in the context of the group’s history, in Lennon’s discovery of LSD, and an analysis of the “acid subculture” (or, in the UK, the lack thereof) which colored the music of the period. LSD, it seems, was everywhere in rock and roll in 1965 and 1966 (even as innocuous a song as “California Girls” was, according to its composer, Brian Wilson, written during an acid trip) and, in MacDonald’s words, the “manual to mind expansion” through LSD and other chemicals was Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience, a book which attempted to tie the use of LSD to Eastern philosophies advocating “abandonment of the self” (most notably The Tibetan Book of the Dead).

These connections have been made and expounded on before in other Beatles, pop music, and pop culture books, I’m sure, but I doubt that any writer has ever deconstructed and rendered impotent the Leary-Alpert acid mythology in quite the way that MacDonald does in his “Tomorrow Never Knows” analysis.

Leary and Alpert, according to MacDonald, “believed LSD to be a ‘sacramental chemical’ capable of inducing spiritual revelations;” this belief was based in part on conversations that Leary had with writer Aldous Huxley (“another Lennon fancy,” MacDonald notes). But, says MacDonald, Leary had “vulgarized” Huxley’s thinking “by speaking of self-transcendence and LSD as if they were the same thing, thereby turning a chemical process into an end in itself.”

The indulgent self-gratification this implied had no religious connotations at all. In fact, the religious camoflage disguising Leary’s psychedelic ideology concealed a hidden agenda which would have been sinister if it hadn’t been motivated chiefly by arrogant naivety… Mystics usually work within systems of controlled development through meditation… By contrast, the LSD trip, while steerable to a limited extent, is produced by an invasive force interacting at unpredictable strengths with the body’s own fluctuating chemistry. The drug, not the subject, is in control. That LSD was Russian roulette played with one’s mind must have been clear to Leary, yet so excited was he by its revolutionary potential that he… advocat(ed) it as a social cure-all… All that is certain  is that if you exhort people to sacrifice their sense of self to a drug, the chances of disaster are high… A trail of “acid casualties” followed in (the drug’s) wake… John Lennon nearly became one of them. (p. 185-188)

From this background, MacDonald presents an account of the genesis of a song that Lennon conceived while following Leary/Alpert’s advice and taking an acid trip while playing a tape recording of a reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “The result was spectacular, and he hastened to capture it in song.” That song, with lyrics drawn from Leary and Alpert’s book, was originally entitled “The Void” and was retitled “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and became “one of the most socially influential records the Beatles ever made.”

It is at this point that many pop music scholars would expand on those social effects, but, instead, MacDonald delves deeper into the music, including an analysis of the melody: “Typically horizontal, Lennon’s lazy mixolydian melody rises and falls over a C drone on bass, tambura and sitar.  The influence of Indian music is obvious, but there is precedent for both the high-lying one-note bass and the track’s broken drum pattern: ‘Ticket To Ride.'” What follows is a description and account of the track’s production (ironically, for a song that is so closely affiliated in most peoples’ minds with Lennon, it was actually Paul McCartney who conceived and recorded the tape loops that were mixed together to create the bizarre and distinctive backing track) and then a brief account of the song’s impact: “As a pure sound-event, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ remains exhilarating–yet it is easy, thirty years later, to underestimate its original cultural impact.” Another window of opportunity to expand on peripherals– in this case, the “cultural impact”– but again, MacDonald keeps his focus on the music.

Through all of this, you’ll note, MacDonald not only stays centered on the music, but he never veers so deeply into theoretical terminology or jargon that a novice feels lost. If you are at all like me, the word “mixolydian” in the previous paragraph probably served as a speed bump, but even when MacDonald tosses in words like that, he never gets too far from lay terms. Certainly a review and grasp of the basic concepts presented in, for instance, What Makes Music Work, would render MacDonald’s musical analyses comprehensible… and for readers like me who hit a speed bump on a word like “mixolydian,” MacDonald includes, in the back of the book, a nine-page glossary of musical terms (a glossary to which even Lennon himself probably would have referred: in response to a famous 1963 London Times review in which writer William Mann noted the “Aeolian Cadences” in the Beatles’ “Not A Second Time,” Lennon admitted he had no idea what Aeolian Cadences were. “They still sound to me like exotic birds,” he said in 1980.)

MacDonald also does a great job of linking the musical elements to the group’s personalities. In what might be the most astute observation I ever read about the Beatles’ musical personalities, MacDonald writes that while Lennon and McCartney were in many instances a working partnership, “the differences in their musical styles were, from the beginning, quite distinct:”

Reflecting his sedentary, ironic personality, Lennon’s melodies tend to move up and down the scale as little as possible… Basically a realist, he instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms of speech, colouring his lyrics with bluesy tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own. McCartney’s melodies, by contrast, display his extrovert energy and optimism, ranging freely across the stave in scalar steps and wide intervals, often encompassing more than an octave… In other words… McCartney’s method is, in terms of intervals, “vertical” (melodic, consonant) and Lennon’s “horizontal” (harmonic, dissonant). In a less narrowly structural sense, the two represented a classic clash between truth and beauty. Seeing music as a vehicle of thought and feeling, Lennon stressed expression at the expense of formal elegance… On the other hand, McCartney produced technically “finished” work almost entirely by instinct (but) could, entranced by his own fluency, all too easily be distracted from meaning, producing glib prettiness, vague exercises in style, and excruciating lapses of taste. (p. 12-13).

This amazing passage points to just how much theory and musical understanding is enough. While terms like “harmonic,” “consonant,” “dissonant,” and even “scalar” might send students flipping back to the glossary for help, one doesn’t need a degree in theory (or, in fact, even a passing grade in Theory 101) to understand the feeling of a “vertical” or “horizontal” melody, especially given MacDonald’s astute assignation of the traits to Lennon and McCartney. Further, the passage makes you notice things you hadn’t heard before in the music… at least it did for me: for days afterward, I found myself noticing the melodic lines of not just the Beatles’, but other performers’ songs, and how they reflected not only the mood of the piece, but perhaps the mental state, if not personality, of the composer.

The lesson in MacDonald’s book as it relates to my question is that complicated and important (if not essential) musical ideas can be communicated to “musical laypeople” very easily without getting lost in jargon. What is essential, of course, is first that the instructor understands these ideas and concepts, and then that he realizes that there is a way to describe and communicate those ideas in plain and simple language, without being condescending. As is the case with MacDonald’s “Lennon lazy and melodies move very little, McCartney energetic and melodies move freely” analogy, the more descriptive in non-musical terms, the more easily understood.

Which brings me to the other book: Philip Lambert’s Inside The Music of Brian Wilson. Lambert’s book attempts many of the same things that MacDonald’s book does, but with less clear success. Part of this may be because of MacDonald’s background: he was a songwriter, record producer, and (most telling) an assistant editor of the New Musical Express. His experience, in other words, was in creating and producing music (which gave him insight into the creative process and the disparate variables which “feed” a song) and then in writing about it for a mass audience (which had to have made him cognizant of writing to the limits of “lay understanding”).

Lambert, by contrast, is a musicologist, a professor of music who, according to the back cover blurb, “has published widely… in the fields of music theory and musicology,” and whose “previous work is The Music of Charles Ives.” Touting these credentials was, I feel, strategically astute in a way. The Beach Boys’ music has traditionally not been taken as seriously as the Beatles’ music, and in fact has often been dismissed by critics and scholars, who choose to be deceived by the music’s surface simplicity (e.g., the thematic content of the lyrics) rather than taking the extra step and delving into the complicated musical elements below that surface. Inside the Music of Brian Wilson is, therefore, presented as a serious musical study, and while such a study is long overdue, I feel that therein lies its flaw as far as accessibility.

As could be expected from his credentials, Lambert delves deeply into the theoretical and structural elements of Wilson’s songs, including diagrams of lyrics and melodic phrases and lines. He also goes deeply into the origins of the songs: in his analysis of “The Surfer Moon,” for instance (a song that Wilson wrote and produced for the duo Bob and Sheri before cutting it with the Beach Boys. Try finding a copy of that 45!), Lambert traces the inspiration for the song not only to well-known pop records like the McGuire Sisters’ “Goodnight My Love” and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” but to a lesser-known vocal record cut by an acquaintance of Wilson’s: the Jaguars’ “Don’t Go Home.” Lambert diagrams and compares the two songs, noting that “the bridges of both move the tonality up in thirds,” and concluding that “The Surfer Moon”s “key mobility” is “perfect” for a song that “rhapsodizes about incoming tide and surging waves.”

Even for someone like me, who has not only a theoretical understanding but also a working knowledge of “key mobility” and “thirds” (meaning I can not only tell you what the terms mean, but I can sit at the piano and play you what they mean), I found myself having to re-read this and other similar passages before I understood them. Like MacDonald’s mixolydian melodies, the terms are a speed bump, and in Lambert’s book, they occur much more frequently than in MacDonald’s. In a book like Lambert’s, which lacks the sharp edge and humor of MacDonald’s, it made for difficult reading.

But if the ideas that Lambert presents are indeed important, then the question for an educator becomes one of translating and communicating those ideas to a class. I have already seen from experience that such passages are rendered infinitely more comprehensible when accompanied by listening exercises, and Lambert acknowledges this obliquely: in his prologue, he writes that “the discussions (in the book) aspire to tell a story of musical development and ambition that a reader who knows the music and who is able to dial up tunes on a disc or MP3 player can easily follow.” Using the book as a “road map” while listening to the tracks in question, I found his text much easier to follow; in fact, this was an advantage that Lambert’s text had over MacDonald’s, which seemed in most instances to presume such a familiarity with the Beatles’ repertoire that listening to the tracks would be superfluous!

This, I feel, also ties into the “proclamations of taste” that pepper MacDonald’s text: as I wrote before, MacDonald is opinionated about the music, and sometimes dismissive of what he feels are the group’s “lesser” efforts. Lambert’s approach, on the other hand, seems to be to describe the qualities of the music without value judgment, and to guide the listener to discover through his own listening what he hears or doesn’t hear. In this sense, Lambert fulfills the role of a music critic as stated in one of my favorite passages by any critic: B.H. Haggin, in his Listener’s Companion and Record Guide:

…Criticism does not, as some people think it must, offer the one possible and correct opinion, arrived at by measuring the piece of music with a set of established caliper-like esthetic principles for determining the good and beautiful. The piece of music is a special kind of communication; the critic reports the effect of that communication on a mind operating not with impersonal esthetic principles but with personal sensitiveness, perception and taste; and the communication may impress different minds differently. The critic, then, reports not what is true, but what is true for him, and what becomes true also for the reader who finds it to be so when he listens to the piece… In sum: I am bound to report what I hear; and the reader then is free to find what I say to be true or not true for him That is our relation.
(Haggin, p. 4-5)

In summary, I think that both books will function well as texts and guides to the music; I think that MacDonald’s book will prove to be more engaging and will draw students in and make them want to listen further; by contrast, Lambert’s book probably will not make any students want to listen to music they don’t already know, but will prove a valuable guide to that music once the students actually ARE listening.

So… what is enough theory? What is too much? The answer I’ve come up with thus far is that it’s not really a question of “how much” or “how little” theory or musicology is “enough,” but, rather, how those concepts are communicated. A discussion of the comparative melodic qualities of Lennon’s and McCartney’s contributions to the Beatles could include as many “exotic birds” as one wished to place in the proverbial tree, but MacDonald’s analogy of the duo’s “vertical/horizontal” melody lines is comprehensible to nearly anyone with ears to hear. That analogy is instructive. A teacher needs to meet his students where they are and bring them to deeper understanding. This does not mean that there will not be a place for Mixolydian scales and Aeolian cadences in my courses. Probably the best approach would be to use such terms instructively instead of descriptively (e.g., “Did you hear what the melody did at the end of the phrase? That’s an Aeolian cadence”). I am thinking that the music itself can be used to introduce more complicated theoretical terms, so that a student isn’t presented with a bookful of theory and then expected to recognize complicated patterns in the listening exercises, but rather is using the listening exercises in part to develop that recognition. I’m sure that this isn’t a new idea for music educators.

Or maybe it is: one assumption I’ve run into repeatedly with “casual listeners,” one that gets reinforced by DJs, critics, and music writers, is a belief that in order to “understand” classical music or “get” jazz, a listener has to first have a certain grasp of theory, harmony, scales, chord progressions and other concepts. I’ve heard this belief expressed repeatedly by people who say that they “don’t know enough about music” to “understand” jazz or classical. It definitely intimidates a lot of listeners and prevents them from exploring music that they have been wrongly led to believe is beyond their grasp.

Instead, why not use the music to introduce those concepts? That’s one of the questions that these readings have raised. There are other deeper questions that I’ll address elsewhere as the semester progresses, but for now, the answer to the question “How much theory is enough?” is that the key is not just my knowledge or understanding, but my communication of that knowledge and understanding. Using the music as a tool for my students’ understanding of complicated musical concepts will be one of the pleasant advantages of this course.

Sources:
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Haggin, B.H. (1978). The new listener’s companion and record guide, fifth edition. New York: Horizon.

Lambert, P. (2007). Inside the music of Brian Wilson. New York: Continuum.

MacDonald, I. (2007). Revolution in the head: the Beatles’ records and the sixties. Chicago: A Capella.

Merrion, M. and M. Vincent. (1988). A primer on music for non-musician educators. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Roseman, E. (2005). Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People. (No publication city cited): Musical Edventures.

Seyer, P., A. Novick, and P. Harmon. (1982). What Makes Music Work. Burlingame, CA: Seyer Associates.