Thursday, July 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: LENNONOLOGY: Strange Days Indeed (A Scrapbook of Madness)



With all of the words that have been written about the Beatles, both collectively and individually, I usually find myself asking if there's really a need for yet another book about them. While there have been many excellent well researched and well written books on them, those are vastly outnumbered by others that are little more than cash-in hack jobs. However, from the minute I heard about Lennonology several years ago, I knew it would be in the former category. For years, Chip Madinger and Mark Easter's book Eight Arms to Hold You has been an indispensable volume in my Beatles library, so when I heard that Chip was working on a new book, it was at the top of my list for  books worth checking out. As you'll gather from the following review, the book was more than worth the wait.


In a similar vein to excellent books like Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Chronicle (which I will be reviewing at a later date), Doug Hinman's All Day and All of the Night, or Glenn Povey's Echoes, Lennonology is a day-by-day diary. However, for this book the authors have focused on John Lennon's life from the moment he met Yoko Ono in late 1966 until his murder in 1980. With their meticulous research, the authors have detailed just about every day in their lives during this fourteen year period. The entries for each day contain not only the big events that were happening in the lives of John and Yoko, but contemporary press accounts, media appearances, record releases, recording sessions, and even documents (notes, letters, memos, etc.) that they wrote, mailed, and published. There are even entries where the authors have determined the dates that John or Yoko wrote postcards, notes, and other scribbles. Through all of these entries, the evolution of John from latter-day Beatle to wannabe avant garde artist, solo musician, and political activist can be traced in real time as it happened.



This book took me a long to get through for the simple fact that there is so much information contained within that I read it very carefuly, going through it with a fine-toothed comb so as to not miss anything. At more than 500 pages, Lennonology is a staggering work of reference and information on John and Yoko's life and career. Going through the book, what struck me was the difference in contemporary public and media perception of John and Yoko versus how those events have been portrayed since his death.  While the conventional wisdom since 1980 has been that John and Yoko's exploits were hugely influential and covered enthusiastically by a press that waited with bated breath for their every move, the contemporary information presented by the authors shows that after the initial confusion, interest, and ridicule their relationship garnered, by late 1969 most of the press and fans grew weary of their constant need for attention. Furthermore, their somewhat egotistical chronicling of the minutiae of every aspect of their life, whether via record, film, or interview seemed to wear thin fairly quickly. Even John's status as a Beatle couldn't shield him from the press and fellow figures in the music business taking swipes at him (most strikingly DJ John Peel, who rightly sneered at John and Yoko's call for peace and activism while they rode in limos, flew on private jets, and lived in an enormous mansion). Indeed, by the time the Beatles officially split up in 1970, the press (and many fans) were quite tired of John and Yoko's media oversaturation.



Lennonology also gives some fascinating insight and context into the end of the Beatles. While much of the information has been known for a long time, here it's presented in chronological order to the exact day. Furthermore, there are a lot of little nuggets of information that were new to me, most surprising that John and Paul were still working on songs together and bouncing ideas off of each other as late as the spring of 1969. In addition to the Allen Klein problem, it's also shocking just how much the lack of effective communication between the four of them was to blame for the disintegration in relations. Even though John stunned the other three by declaring that he was leaving the band in late 1969, the door didn't seem to be completely closed until Paul issued his statement in April 1970. While it surprised George and Ringo, it infuriated John and ensured that any chance at further band discussions were remote, if not impossible. The naivete and silliness of much of John and Yoko's politics is also on full display through contemporary media coverage, especially in their early-to-mid 1970s period. John was well-known for finding a new craze or idea, jumping wholeheartedly into it with all-consuming enthusiasm, and then quickly losing interest and moving on to the next thing. His activism was no exception and as a reader, I felt embarrassed for him...no doubt he would be as well were he still alive to read Lennonology.  John's immigration battle to remain in the USA and gain permanent resident status was described in fine detail and sets the record straight on a lot of things regarding the motivations, political and otherwise, behind his nearly six year battle through the court system. As the 1970s progressed, it was interesting to track how John's life settled down after he spiralled out of control during his Lost Weekend of 1973-74. Once his son Sean was born in 1975, he took his hiatus from the music business, finally got his Green Card, and embraced getting older and being a father. However, it was also sad to read of the events in 1980, especially with how fulfilled and happy John seemed to be as he approached 40. Since we all know what happened on December 8th of that year, reading the events leading up to that moment have an almost fatalistic sense of doom that makes it very emotional and difficult to get through. The authors do a nice job of sticking to the facts and letting John and Yoko's words tell the story. The chronicle ends right as John steps out of his limo and onto the sidewalk outside the Dakota that evening, which is as tasteful (yet melancholy) a way to end the book as there could be. The final sections of the book consist of several appendices detailing John and Yoko's discographies as well as a plethora of information such as all of their residences, hotels, and the like during their time together. As an added bonus, there are more than 150 pages of electronic indices available at www.lennonology.com for further research and insight.



The long and short of it is that, if you're a serious fan of the Beatles and/or John Lennon, this is an essential and valuable book for studying their life and career together. The attention to detail is exceptional and while it's densely packed with information, it's very readable. In fact, I would recommend a thorough beginning-to-end reading of the book. Even though it can also be used as a reference book for looking up specific events and dates, the telling of their story and career predominantly in their own words is really enjoyable. There are many new tidbits of information throughout the book that, when read in their proper context, help certain events make more sense than they ever have. Simply put, this is an excellent book that no serious Lennon fan should be without. The true challenge is now waiting for volume two to be released in order to see what new information the authors have unearthed. Lennonology is an exceptional work on the life and career of one of music's true geniuses and his equally interesting (and misunderstood) partner.

LENNONOLOGY can be purchased at www.lennonology.com

MY RATING: 10/10


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Adulting is Hard

For those of you reading this who are adults (which I'm guessing is most of you), you almost certainly understand immediately what I mean by the title of this post. This isn't one of those whining and complaining posts, but rather just some wry and timely observations on the subject. In essence, it's going to be just one of those "life" posts that doesn't try to do anything other then let me get my thoughts out onto the paper, or rather screen...merely an exercise in letting these thoughts out of my brain and into the ether.

My life is, overall, really good and I'm incredibly thankful for what I have. I've got a loving wife, children that bring utter joy into my life, a job I really enjoy, a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and good health. I've got tons of friends and family members who I care about and who care about me in return. I really don't have anything to complain about. However, as with anyone, there are from time to time stresses and problems that arise that make life a lot less enjoyable. It's usually during these times that I'll hear my kids saying things like "I can't wait to be a grown-up!" or "I wish I was an adult right now!" Every time I hear them say things like this, I gently remind them that they have the rest of their lives to be grown-ups, but only a very short period of time to be kids. I also let them know that I'd love to be able to go back and be a kid for a little bit, to which I usually get incredulous looks of disbelief. "But what about all of the stuff you can DO when you're an adult?" they usually ask. While they're right that as an adult, I can do pretty much anything I want to (within the confines of the law, or course), it's always difficult trying to explain to them that "adulting," as we'll call it, also comes with a ridiculous amount of responsibility and stress. Just over the last six months, I went through a job layoff, looking for (and securing) a new job, a plumbing disaster that necessitated a complete remodel of our finished basement, coordinating the sale of one house and the purchase of another, filing my yearly tax return...and that's all in addition to the regular everyday issues of raising four kids and supporting my family. Obviously, I didn't do all of these by myself; I had my wife right by my side and we tackled everything together. My point is, all of that "adulting" was above and beyond even what "normal" life throws at us, yet we got through it okay with a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, and praying. It's times like those, however, that make me yearn for childhood again, if only for a day or two. To have time back where my biggest responsibilities were to keep my room clean, do my homework, and get to bed early! Still, it doesn't do to dwell on the past, especially as it can never be again. Rather, it's best to keep the memories of those days close while enjoying being able to "adult" (as a verb) and all of the fun that (usually) comes along with it, not least of which for me is being a husband and a father.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Update

Regular readers here will have noticed that I haven't been posting nearly as frequently as I used to. There are many good reasons for that and despite my best efforts, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to rectify the situation. Between starting a new job, selling a house, buying a new house, and coordinating moving my entire family and all of our belongings to a new city and state, it's been a crazy month and looks to be that way until the end of the summer when the dust has finally settled. I'm also working on a mammoth book for my new review, so it's taking a lot of time for me to go through and read it (but it'll be worth it...it's a great book so far!). So for those of you who enjoy reading what I write, there will always be more on the way, but perhaps just not as frequently. As much as I love writing on this blog, it doesn't pay my bills and my professional scientist alter ago has to come first. Thanks for understanding and bearing with me...I hope you'll find the results to be worth it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Secondary Songwriters

I've had this theory for years and years, and it's one that I feel has mostly been proven true. It goes like this: just about every great band in rock history are ruled by dictatorships; that is, they all have primary songwriters who compose the bulk of their material and steer the group's artistic direction. This has largely been borne out when one looks at the titans of their respective eras: the Beatles (Lennon and McCartney), the Who (Townshend), the Kinks (Ray Davies), the Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards), Blur (Albarn), Oasis (Noel Gallagher), Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant), the Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), Cream (Bruce), and CCR (John Fogerty), just to name several. There are also bands that have a very democratic split when it comes to songwriting, like R.E.M. (where all four members get credit regardless of who contributed what) or Rush (Lee and Lifeson write the music, Peart writes the lyrics), and bands where the writing dutiesweare split fairly even between two individuals such as Grant Hart and Bob Mould in Husker Du or Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding in XTC. And of course, there are bands with different situations that fit in between all of the ones I've listed above.

However, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to focus on that first batch of bands I mentioned which are ruled by creative dictatorships. Every so often, those running the band would let one of the other members have some of their own songs on the albums, and while the results weren't always as good as those of the main songwriters, sometimes they were. In many cases, the songs by these secondary songwriters, as I'm calling them, were the highlights of the albums they were on and actually every bit as good as anything written by the main writers. I thought it would be fun to write about some of my personal favorite secondary songwriters and highlight some of my favorite songs of theirs. Ready? Let's go!

John Entwistle

Known mainly for being the bass guitarist in The Who, John is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock bass players of all time. While in the Who, he played exquisite bass, sang backing vocals, and played all of the horn parts in the studio. However, he was also a pretty damn good songwriter in his own right. The problem is that with someone as prolific, brilliant, and strong a personality as Pete Townshend in the band, there wasn't much room for John's songs; he even named his first solo album Smash Your Head Against the Wall in reference to how it felt trying to get space on Who albums. With that being said, John had some truly great moments on Who records. While he's most famous for "Boris the Spider" and "My Wife," those aren't two of my favorites of his. Both are great songs but the former is a bit of a novelty song while the latter has been overplayed to death. Instead, I prefer these John songs:

"Whiskey Man"

Released on their second album, 1966's A Quick One, "Whiskey Man" tells the story of an alcoholic who hallucinates an imaginary friend, Whiskey Man, who only "comes out when I drink." Eventually, the narrator gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, still unable to understand why no one else can see his friend. The lyrics are pretty sophisticated and moving for a 22 year old to have written, and the music is quite evocative and quintessentially mid-1960s British.



"Someone's Coming"

A B-side, and one of the few John-penned song that is sung by Roger. This song tells the poignant and humorous tale of a young man who has to sneak out to see his girlfriend because her parents don't like him. With typical wry Entwistle humor and some nice horn work, this is a perfect little vignette from 1967 that sits alongside anything his bandmate Pete Townshend and Kinks songsmith Ray Davies wrote that year.



"Heaven and Hell"

The Who's high voltage live opener during their 1969-1970 period, this song has strange chord changes and lyrics that warn the listener to about where they may end up in the afterlife depending on how they live.  In concert, it was used to warm up the band for the long set that was to come, but the studio version is pretty damn good in its own right.



"When I Was a Boy"

Another B-side, this is a pretty down and bleak look at adult life and how it compares to childhood. More nice horn work from John, but the real highlight of this song is Keith Moon's as-always incredible drumming. It's actually one of my favorite Who songs, period, based on the music, the lyrics, and the band's performance.



"Postcard"

"Postcard' is a song from an aborted EP the Who recorded and tells of the sights, sounds, smells, and ordeals the band encountered during their ridiculously heavy touring years of 1967-1970. Besides the funny yet touching lyrics about homesickness and their various travails on the road, this song also has some humorous sound effects and nice horn, bass, and drum parts.



"Trick of the Light"

With a sound likened by Pete Townshend to a "musical Mack truck," John plays both his usual bass guitar as well as an 8-string bass during this song. Another rare John song sung by Roger (of which there are only three total), this one is about the singer's insecurity and uncertainty as to his, shall we say...performance with a lady of the night. Subtle humor even by John's standards, it's nonetheless a moody and brooding song with some nice guitar licks from Pete during the outro.


George Harrison

(due to copyright restrictions, Beatles songs aren't available on YouTube, hence no videos)

As one of the Beatles, George Harrison obviously needs no introduction. As the third songwriter in a band that happened to have Lennon and McCartney as its leaders, it was unfortunate yet inevitable that George would have a hard time getting his songs on albums. As he also pointed out in the Beatles Anthology documentary, John and Paul had been writing songs long before the Beatles started recording and had worked all of the bad songs out of their systems; George had to do his learning during the early part of their career. While this resulted in him contributing only a handful of songs in the early days (the quality of which was uneven), by the end of their career most of his songs were on par with anything John and Paul were writing.

"Taxman"

One of George's most well-known songs, this slashing and angry rocker has some of the sharpest and most incisive lyrics of any Beatles song. That the topic is the ludicrously high taxation on top earners in 1960s Britain, and that it came from the pen of the Beatle most concerned with money make it all the better. The absolute musical highlights of this song are Paul's bass playing and his jagged and angry guitar solo.
 

"Don't Bother Me"

Maybe you think this is a strange choice, but hear me out. This was the first song of George's to appear on an album (1963's With the Beatles) and as he said later on, was more of an exercise into seeing if he could actually write one. Composed while he was sick in bed on tour with the Beatles, it's a typically dour and sour George song, but the reasons I like it so much have to do with the interesting chord changes and the tremolo rhythm guitar part.

"Something"

Not much can be said by me about this song that hasn't been written elsewhere...it's simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Besides George's exquisite guitar solo, Paul's bass playing and harmony vocals and George Martin's pretty orchestration are highlights here.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

Probably my favorite George-penned Beatles song, this slow burning and beautiful song has fantastic performances from all four Beatles and stunning lead guitar playing from George's best friend Eric Clapton. Eric was the rare outside musician who was invited to play on a Beatles track, but he plays the perfect solo and fits right in with the band and the song. George's acoustic demo of the song has a different feel and is equally pretty, deserving consideration in its own right.

"Within You, Without You"

In my younger days I didn't think much of this song...in fact, I usually skipped over it when I listened to Sgt. Pepper. However, once I actually gave it a chance and really listened to it, I was struck by how beautiful it is both musically and lyrically. My favorite part of the entire song is the blending of the Indian musicians with George Martin's gorgeous orchestral score.

"If I Needed Someone"

The closest the Beatles ever came to sounding like the Byrds, George's chiming electric 12-string Rickenbacker powers this song. The soaring three-part vocal harmonies really make this one for me...it's just a nice, catchy song overall.

Dave Davies

Brothers are natural rivals with each other while growing up, and quite often this competition spills over into adulthood. Taking that natural competitiveness into consideration, it must have been even harder for Dave Davies to be in a band with an older brother as prolific and brilliant a songwriter as Ray Davies. However, Dave managed to contribute some excellent songs to the Kinks alongside his stellar lead guitar playing and harmony vocals.

"Death of a Clown"

Probably Dave's most famous song, this is a beautiful and haunting song about the drag and exhaustion of the endless touring the Kinks were doing at the time. The slightly out of tune upright piano, the melancholy lyrics, and the beautiful harmony vocals from Ray, Pete Quaife, and Ray's wife Rasa, make this is one of the great songs of the 1960s.



"Funny Face" & "Susannah's Still Alive"

Along with "Susannah's Still Alive," "Funny Face" is one of two songs written by Dave that deals with his heartbreak over the estrangement from his first girlfriend Sue. While "Susannah's Still Alive" is bouncier and catchier, "Funny Face" is my favorite of the two. It's haunting, somber, and quite melancholy. Both songs are from the same time period as "Death of a Clown" and are highlights of the Kinks' 1967 sound, fitting seamlessly into the sound of what Ray was writing at the time.





"Mindless Child of Motherhood"

I can't quite put my finger on it, but this is just a song I've always loved. I think what does it for me is the way the frantic and slightly darker sounding verses go into the brighter, jangly chorus that just sounds so...quintessentially Kinks. That it came from Dave and not Ray should end all debate over who was more important to the band's sound...they both were.



"Living on a Thin Line"

Widely considered to be one of Dave's finest songs, I'd have to agree. The music is beautiful and the lyrics are very incisive and appropriate, perhaps even more so today than they were in the early 1980s when this was written. I believe I've read that this was one of Ray's favorite songs that Dave wrote and it's not hard to see why.


I think that's a good place to stop for now. There are many other examples of secondary songwriters I'll write about, but for the time being I think this is a good showcase highlighting how just because someone isn't the dominant creative force in their band, it doesn't mean they never write songs as good as their leaders. Obviously these examples are from some of my favorite bands...those of you reading this may agree or disagree with the examples I've used, or you may have examples from other bands that you like. I'm almost certain that I'll write more articles on this topic in the future, but in the meantime let's discuss. If you have anything to add or comment on, let's talk in the comments below!


Sunday, March 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: John (John Lennon)


To the casual observer, John Lennon's wife was Yoko Ono. However, those who know more about the Beatles' history and background know that before Yoko, John was married to Cynthia (nee Powell) and in fact had spent a decade of his life with her before cheating with Ono an leaving her. Always one to shy from the limelight of Beatlemania during the 1960s and content to be a housewife raising their young son Julian, Cynthia had arguably the best perspective on John's life during the most famous period of his life. While she had written a book about her first marriage in the late 1970s called A Twist of Lennon, it wasn't until the late 2000s that a more comprehensive and thorough look at her time was published: the current book titled simply John. Even though I read it when it came out, I've given it a fresh re-reading for this review.


The book begins with an interesting, heartfelt, and candid introduction from Julian Lennon describing the father who "let me down in so many ways." It's rather heartbreaking to read of Julian's love for his father, while he fully understood from a young age that while his dad sang to the world about love and peace, he gave little-to-none of either to the wife and child he abandoned in 1968. From here, Cynthia begins the book with details about her birth and childhood in Liverpool during WWII. Born in 1939 as the youngest of three children, Cynthia, like John, suffered the unexpected death of a parent while she was a teenager. In her case, it was her father and she handled it, at least from an emotional standpoint, better than John did the death of his mother. It was while a student at art school in Liverpool that she first met John in 1958. After being initially wary of him, they ended up falling in love and even though John's jealousy, insecurity, and aggression meant that their relationship was a bit stormy (including an incident Cynthia recounts where John smacked her in the face, knocking her to the ground), there was genuine love and affection for her on John's part. I'm not going to recount the Beatles' history during this period as it's been written about to death elsewhere and Cynthia does a good job summarizing it in the book as it goes along. What does stand out are the countless anecdotes about John where he is boorish, insensitive, uncaring, and just downright nasty. While she does balance these out with stories of his kindness and generosity (especially with his money, which is well-known), as the Beatles' career progressed and his drug use (which she states was the #1 contributor to the demise of their marriage) increased, these became fewer and further between. She suspected that there was something going on with Yoko from the first time she met her in 1967, but was still stunned when she walked in on John and Yoko in 1968. Amazingly, John went back to Cynthia for a very short time and played it off as a one-off fling until leaving for good and abandoning her and their son. The divorce was nasty although, as she fully admits, Cynthia accepted a ridiculously low settlement offer when she could've gotten so much more. What was surprising was that even in light of this treatment at John's hands, she never stopped loving him and spent the next dozen years up to John's murder wishing for them to be friends again, both for Julian's sake and for hers. Sadly, it never happened.


From here, the book details her life bringing up Julian on her own and how his father's abandonment affected him. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly cruel and it's hard not to feel anger at John when reading some of the things he said and did to his young son. Over the next couple of decades, Cynthia had two more failed marriages and another long term relationship that ended before she finally found the right match with her fourth (and final) husband, Noel Charles, in 2002. To her credit, she's very self-aware and reflective throughout the book, realizing that was much too accommodating and deferential to John, and not assertive enough in standing up to him during their marriage. She also admits to rushing into her post-John relationships despite having reservations about all three men. Her stories of Yoko's manipulations and harsh treatment of Julian, especially after John's death, are equally upsetting. Although Cynthia never comes across as being mean-spirited or out to tell salacious tales, it's hard not to be disgusted with the way John and (especially) Yoko treated them. Still, I don't doubt as to the veracity of the stories as not only have they been corroborated elsewhere, but none of them are anything other than entirely believable and in keeping with John and Yoko's behavior. Likewise, her candidness when discussing John's Aunt Mimi is refreshing. Her portrait of Mimi as emotionally cold, distant, and jealous of anyone else who got close to John, as well as Mimi being incredibly class conscious and snobby jibes with much of what's been written about her elsewhere. This is despite Mimi's attempts to soften her own image in later years with the numerous interviews she gave. I realize that we all have preconceived biases when we read something and that I'm perhaps tipping my hand as to how mine lean, but I didn't find anything in this book that ran against what I already thought about the main players in John's life.


The biggest thing that comes through in the book is how caring and supportive in general Cynthia was as a person. She has an especially close and loving relationship with Julian and everything she did to support him and make sure he became a fine grown man are testament to what kind of person she was. The book ended with a somewhat chilling admission that, while she never regrets having her son, had she known in 1958 what falling for John Lennon would do to her life, she would go back, turn around, and walk away from him. This is one of those books that will make you see John in a much less flattering light, especially if you held him in high regard beforehand. I've always been someone who admired his music and much of his life, but also knew about his many flaws and how poorly he could treat people. For me, it didn't change my opinion of him as much as it simply confirmed how I felt about his failings and shortcomings. As Cynthia rightly pointed out, he was a brilliantly creative genius who was also incredibly complex and flawed.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat bleak and downcast, but given John's treatment of her and how much of a struggle her life was after their marriage broke up, it's quite understandable. If you hero-worship John Lennon, then this probably isn't the book for you, but if you've got a more balanced and realistic view of the man, this book (despite its few flaws) will give you a fairly accurate portrait of the man from the woman who was by his side for the most famous decade of his life.

MY RATING: 8.5/10


Monday, March 13, 2017

Baseball is (Almost) Back!

We're just about through the winter, the erratic weather of the last few weeks not withstanding, and as with every year that means one thing (at least to me): baseball is coming back! Ever since I was a little kid, the warming weather, the melting snow (except for this winter, when we didn't get any), and the longer days always get me excited for the upcoming season. It's as much a yearly ritual as the trees budding, the grass turning green again, and putting away the winter coats, hats, and boots. As soon as possible, I like to get outside with my kids and start playing catch or throwing them batting practice. Add in MLB Spring Training starting in mid-February and Opening Day getting closer with each day and the excitement is palpable. 

As far as my team goes, I've got high hopes for this upcoming Red Sox season. While the loss of David Ortiz to retirement will leave a huge void to fill, the acquisition of Chris Sale should beef up the starting rotation while Andrew Benintendi looks like he'll follow up his stellar rookie campaign with an even better season now that he's be the full-time left fielder. The trio young All-Stars who form the core of the team (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, and Xander Bogaerts) should be just as good (if not better) while the veterans like Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez should remain productive (and hopefully, healthy). I have very low expectations for Pablo Sandoval...anything the Sox get out of him this season is gravy (no pun intended) and honestly, if he plays well I'd hope they sell high and trade him while they can. Beyond that, I'm most interested to see if this is the season where John Farrell finally figures out how to make in-game adjustments and helps the team win games rather than he usual pattern of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

As with every spring, the promise of the new season makes fans of every team optimistic. Usually by June, you know who your team is and whether they have a shot at the World Series, but that's why it's so fun. Every season brings renewed hope and for baseball fans, that's one of the great things about the game...it's as reliable and constant as the seasons themselves.

If you're a baseball fan, who will you be rooting for and how do you think they'll do? Let's discuss in the comments below!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Graham Coxon


It's finally time for another entry in my series of band/artist profiles. For those of you who are new, this is a series of articles where I discuss my favorite bands or solo artists by discussing their background, career, ways in which they've influenced me, and my favorite musical moments of theirs. For this newest entry, I'm using a previous profile on one of my favorite bands of all time, Blur, and using it as a springboard to now focus on their superbly talented guitarist Graham Coxon. While Graham has long been championed as one of the great British guitarists of his (or any) generation, he also has had an acclaimed solo career comprising eight solo albums to date. Because of this, the time is now right to focus solely on Graham and his work both within and outside of Blur.




Since I've already written a profile of Blur, I'm not going to rehash it here. To recap, Graham Coxon was born in in 1969 on a British Army base in Germany where his father was stationed. When he was a child his family moved back to England and settled in Colchester, Essex. It was while attending Stanway Comprehensive School that he met Damon Albarn when he was 11. Famously being the brunt of Damon's comment about his shoes ("your brogues are crap, mate...here, mine are the proper sort!"), the two bonded over a shared love of music. In particular, they both loved the Beatles, Who, and Kinks as well as the punk and Two-Tone ska music popular in the UK during the late 1970s/early 1980s. Having switched from saxophone and drums to guitar while a teenager, Graham enrolled in an art course at Goldsmiths College in London where he met bass player Alex James. Bringing Damon as well as drummer from Colchester named Dave Rowntree who he'd been in bands with into the fold, the four young men formed Blur and the rest, as they say, is history. While in Blur, Graham began recording and releasing solo albums, the first arriving in 1998 and called The Sky is Too High. A charming, ramshackle affair, it continued the low-fi ethic Blur incorporated on their hugely successful 1997 self-titled album. The difference this time was that all of the songs were written, sung, and played by Graham, who covered all of the instruments himself (apart from keyboards). Also, his acoustic guitar playing was more center stage than it typically was in Blur, where Damon usually handled these duties. This album was followed by two more: The Golden D (2000) and Crow Sit on Blood Tree (2001). Both continued the rough-around-the-edges ethos of his debut while growing increasingly dark and aggressive in tone and subject matter; it was quite a contrast to the normally gentle and quiet Coxon. In 2002, Graham had a falling out with the other members of Blur and was sacked from the band. Coincidentally or not, his ouster ran parallel with his ascension as a solo artist and he released a series of excellent albums that were accompanied by solo tours. The Kiss of Morning in 2002 was followed by a trio of albums reuniting Graham with Blur's producer Stephen Street. These three albums are arguably his best, and include Happiness in Magazines (2004), Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (2006), and my personal favorite The Spinning Top (2009). It was also in 2009 that Graham reunited with Blur, and because Blur has taken up the bulk of his time since then, he's only released one further album. However, 2012's A+E shows that he's still able to take his music in new and interesting directions, heavily incorporating drum machines and synthesizers and blending them with his gloriously loud and fuzzy guitars.








One of the things that makes Graham such a great and admired guitarist by fans and peers alike is how unique his sound and style are. While he uses a variety of guitars, his main axe has long been a butterscotch blonde '52 Fender Telecaster run through his typical amp rig of Marshall stacks patched through a Marshall PowerBrake. His guitar signal is routed through his collection of stompboxes in order to round out his sonic palette.  Stylistically, while he has the chops to shred with the best of them, he doesn't typically play like that. Instead, he utilizes a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, chordal arpeggios, and interesting (and often discordant and dissonant) chord voicings. While he's fully capable of such, his solos aren't your typical speed-fests of notes, but rather orchestrated licks, sustained notes, and dissonance which often rub a bit raw against the melodic backing, but always seem to work perfectly in their context. In addition to his fantastic instrumental skills, Coxon is also a master at manipulating his guitars, amplifiers, feedback, and (especially) his effects pedals in order to create entirely new sounds that push his playing over the top. Even more impressive is his ability to seamlessly recreate all of the crazy sounds that he gets in the studio live on stage.  Some of my favorite guitar work of his is below...this is but of a small sampling of his fantastic studio work with Blur.








As you can hear, no two songs sound the same when it comes to Graham's approach to creating and playing his guitar parts, yet all of them are instantly recognizable as him. I could've given another twenty (or more) examples of his greatness, but I think the examples above should suffice in giving an idea of what makes his playing so special. For me personally, from the moment I first heard Graham's playing twenty years ago to this very day, he's taught me that exceptional technique can be melded with a unique personal vision in order to create a sound that may run counter to traditional playing, but can none the less be appreciated and admired. He's also pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me to take more risks in my playing and the way I approach writing songs and guitar parts. I certainly don't claim to be nearly on Graham's level when it comes to his approach, but it's definitely been a useful and effective feather in my musical quiver. 
 
 
 
 
There's a reason that critics and peers alike (including one-time rival Noel Gallagher) have called him one of the finest guitarists of his generation. As with all of the trailblazing guitarists who came before him, Graham Coxon took his innate talent and worked tirelessly at creating a style and sound that is all his own, always unique and instantly recognizable. Ask any musician and I'll bet that they'll tell you that this end result would be their ultimate fulfillment. Graham has done this and then some.