In this week's episode, I look at rock 'n roll through various lenses, whether it's dealing with the inevitable aging of rockstars (Lemmy Kilmister), absorbing past influences to strike out in a new persona (Thunderbitch), or sidestepping your peers to experiment and evolve (Incubus).
- Video footage of Motorhead's recently-cancelled Austin gig can be found on Youtube here.
- Thunderbitch's 2015 self-titled album can downloaded from iTunes here.
- Incubus' 2004 album A Crow Left Of The Murder... can downloaded from iTunes here.
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Hi there everyone and welcome to the tenth episode of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host, The Eagle, and today – well, yesterday to be more precise – is exactly 2 months since we started this journey, and man how the time has flown by! I hope that you’ve been enjoying our weekly format and how we’ve split up each show.
To help newcomers, or people who’re just dropping in to listen to a particular segment, we’re going to trawl through each and every past episode, and post the exact times in the description on Soundcloud under Show Notes. Since we don’t play music on this show – mainly for copyright reasons – it can be hard to divide the sections from each other. So hopefully this will help you guys zero in on your favourite part!
Let’s get down to business and have a look at our first story…
The rockstar: a job whose description transcends that of a mere musician. But is it a job which has a retirement date, complete with the obligatory gold watch and shake of the hand?
It’s a fact of life for the rest of us mortals, and the stakes are naturally a lot higher when your job is to be a living legend of rock ‘n roll. The expectations are seemingly eternal.
We’ve heard the phrase “only the good die young” - but there are an elite few that have challenged this notion over the years, soldiering on through rampant drug use, marathon tours, and somehow still churning out album after album.
Two names that come to mind are the Rolling Stones’ iconic guitarist Keith Richards, and Ozzy Osbourne, the psychotic lead singer for Black Sabbath and a successful solo artist in his own right. Both are known for their unstoppable, almost superhuman physical constitution: I mean, there’s that the long-running joke which says “there are only two things that will survive a nuclear holocaust: cockroaches and Keith Richards”. And Ozzy was even considered a genetic mutant by a scientific study a few years ago due to how his body processes drugs and booze.
But there is one hallowed name which all the rockers, punks and metalheads can unanimously agree on – and he usually goes by just one name: Lemmy.
Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister almost defies belief: how can one man carry the fastest, loudest, most badass band throughout its 40-year history, without slowing down or compromising as he reaches old age? While Richards and Osbourne had a definitive heyday in their youth, Lemmy doggedly continues to show his middle finger to the Grim Reaper, living a lifestyle founded on Jack Daniel's whiskey, cigarettes, and exceptionally loud noise as he approaches 70 years old.
Until relatively recently – about two years – the man-slash-deity was literally indestructible, copy-pasting pages and pages of his mythology with seedy tales, and a Motorhead album appearing almost every second year. But in 2013, Lemmy suffered a hematoma and was fitted with a defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat. Silly doctors – didn’t they know that current drummer Mikkey Dee has been doing that for the past 23 years?
But it was a small chink in the armour. Since then, the hard drinker has swapped out his trademark Jack Daniel’s and coke for vodka and orange juice due to his diabetes. Apparently this constitutes as a ‘compromise’ in Lemmy’s books. Despite walking with a cane, he has steadfastly refused to retire, saying he’ll keep performing “as long as I can walk the few yards from the back to the front of the stage without a stick, or even if I do have to use a stick.”
This is what makes the two recent gig cancellations in Salt Lake City and Austin tough pills to swallow. On both occasions, the band stopped mid-concert – a rarity if ever for Motorhead. In Salt Lake, the high altitude and thin air of the mountainous region had given Lemmy breathing problems, but in Austin, heartbreaking fan footage shows that he was just not up for it, and really needed time to recover.
Watching a shaky Lemmy concede defeat in obvious disgust is not something anyone is ever truly prepared to watch. Hearing him later admit to the crowd “I would love to play for you, but I can’t” is like being told as a child that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy don’t exist – all in one go. It just can’t be true, Dad. It can’t.
But what also surprised me about the footage of this sad event was the crowd’s reaction. The moment Lemmy left the stage for the first time, people instinctively starting shouting out “We love you Lemmy!”, clapping and cheering their hero on. Even after the announcement, the respect and admiration was palpable between artist and fans – not a boo to be heard. Not many musicians, or even other rockstars, could have that luxury.
Amidst the supportive noise, you could also hear some concerned mutterings: “he looks too sick”, “he looks like he’s gonna fall over”. The same carried through to other comments I read online from genuine fans, encouraging Lemmy to take his time, that he didn’t owe us anything.
This highlights a frustrating reality faced by loved ones of the elderly: it’s difficult to convince them that change is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it prevents them from dying a horrible death. Motorhead could easily downscale their tours, focus more on studio work, and enjoy what seems to be the twilight years of Mr Kilmister. But this is all that Lemmy knows, and he has been a consummate professional in keeping the lifeblood of his band flowing, despite numerous changes in line up, record labels and trends. I’ve watched one or two documentaries on him, and he frankly admits that he’s a “selfish son of bitch” who’s “not qualified for anything else”. That means no retirement plan in sight, and business as usual. And business ain’t too bad right now: the band just released their 22nd album Bad Magic to great acclaim, and since the sadness of Salt Lake and Austin, Motorhead has returned to the stage with trademark stubbornness and danger, and the amps turned up louder than everyone else.
Contrasted with this never-say-die approach comes news that fellow metal pioneers Black Sabbath have finally seen ‘The End’, announcing their farewell tour of the same name in 2016. Guitarist Tony Iommi has confirmed that this is "very definitely" the last time we will see them on tour, and their logic is completely opposed to Lemmy’s. Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012, and with all the travelling that comes with touring, there is a very real concern that there might be a recurrence of the disease if the band were to continue performing night after night. The guitarist still loves gigging, but admits that everything else that comes with it, including sound checks, promotional work, and the inevitable travel, make it an impractical and risky exercise for someone of his age and health.
The presence of aging rockstars in our culture and society is a concern that, much like climate change, has slowly creeped up on us. Those who rose to prominence in the 1960’s and 1970’s are now rapidly reaching an age where they can’t ‘do it like they used to’ for decades past, and we as a fan base - probably stretching back at least three generations now in some cases – can’t expect them to.
But just like you would do with your grandma or grandpa, you adapt the environment to their liking, so they can still continue to do what inspires and empowers them, but on reasonable terms. Leave the lengthy stadium tours behind, embrace sporadic yet engaging gigs, and set up shop in the studio. If music was the only calling they ever had, like it has been for Lemmy, then life doesn’t need to end the moment you step off stage.
This week, we have a new release from a rock ‘n roll lady who has some youth on her side. For this side project, she definitely wins the title for ‘Band Name You Wish You Had Come Up With First’: Thunderbitch.
Brittany Howard is the face behind the awesome name, and you most likely would know her as the frontwoman of Grammy-nominated roots-rock outfit Alabama Shakes, who skyrocketed to fame in the early 2010’s and are prime rock real estate at present. Earlier this year, the Shakes released their second album, the kaleidoscopic Sound And Colour, which was as far-reaching and varied as the title suggests.
But since 2012, Howard has had another pot cooking on the stove, and whilst Thunderbitch might come as a surprise to most fans of hers (as was the case for me), the group has a long yet brief history. So there hasn’t been an awful lot of gigging in that time – the band has reportedly only played three shows together, all of them in Nashville Tennessee, one of them in a hot wings joint. Now that would be quite a dinner.
In Thunderbitch, Howard has united with members from Nashville-based bands Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle to clearly let off some steam and hone down her influences to a very plain and simple one, according to the band’s bio: "Rock 'n' roll. The end,” And looking at other promotional material, she seems to be indulging in a fully-fledged stereotypical rock ‘n roller alter ego, much like one of her self-professed main influences, David Bowie, did with his Ziggy Stardust persona. This means a straight black wig in a bob cut, lily-white face done up like a Japanese geisha, ruby-red lipstick, black shades, and a trademark leather jacket – which happens to be the subject of the first song. Just don’t try remove the beloved garment – because “I ain’t never gonna take it off/ It’s gonna rot off my bones,”. Yikes.
Musically, Thunderbitch roots itself in a garage punk aesthetic, crunching and slapping and biting with sloppy abandon. But the well of influences they draw from is not far removed at all from Howard’s main band, but in this context, breathe life into the mid-fi mayhem. The most prominent is the glammy proto-punks New York Dolls, who themselves had taken the rebellion and aggression of the Rolling Stones one or two staggered steps further. But I was most pleased with the strong 50’s rock ‘n roll vibe, where the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis stood over grand pianos, hammering away melodies with a manic urgency.
This is most evident on ‘I Just Wanna Rock ‘n Roll’, whose twinkly piano taunts you to get up and shimmy away to the sunny, exuberant tune. The band dip and dive with a dynamic, headlong momentum across the album’s 33 minutes, but the real star of the show; the thing that separates Thunderbitch from being merely good to great, is Head Shape-Shifter herself: That Voice.
That Voice is what wrenched Alabama Shakes from relative obscurity to international prominence, and That Voice is also probably capable of stripping paint from a freshly-painted door. The power of Brittany Howard’s larynx cannot be overstated, and it oozes through every nook and cranny of these 10 tracks, so much so that you could find your own breathing rising and falling to her every intonation.
Howard stands at the altar of the Church of Rock ‘n Roll in a talking-blues preacher mould here, snarling white-hot lines such as “I don’t need no R-E-S-P-E-C-T” while Patron Saint Chuck Berry nods with approval on ‘Wild Child’, or rasping and howling and yowling while a Category 4 musical hurricane forms around her on ‘My Baby Is My Guitar’.
It’s not all crash, bang, boom in the room – two slower songs somehow grapple and slither their way into proceedings, and to great effect. I personally enjoyed the sticky and sweet ‘Closer’, which gives space and time for Howard to crank up the engines before each chorus, as she contemplates making her lover an exclusive one. The other slow-dance, ‘Heavenly Feeling’, is the backing music for the band’s cryptic video teaser film, and the light yet booming Link Wray guitar starts the gradual heave into motion, after which an ominous organ part engages in a triple-threat battle with Howard’s vocals and some crashing drums.
One doesn’t just make music like this nowadays without a knowing wink to the audience, and I think that Howard and her Thunderbitches are aware of how deeply they have submerged themselves into the image and attitude of their influences for this project. It also manages to capture her undeniably rapturous stage presence on record, and lets you as the listener also feel the zap and zing which is fuelling this terrific Thunderbitch.
Last up for this week, we have a retrospective look at an album from a band who were always a crow left of their murderous peers. Incubus are a Californian alternative metal outfit who have flipped the script between almost every album they have produced, so much so that your perception of the band could be drastically different depending on when you got into their music.
In late-1990’s/early 2000’s, a toxic blend of rap and metal began to reach mainstream recognition, and around that time, Incubus found themselves lumped into the ‘nu-metal’ craze, thanks to MTV and a wave of suburban teenage angst and anger which fed on it. Yes, they were loud and yes lead singer Brandon Boyd occasionally busted a rap, but Korn or Limp Bizkit they were not. To be honest, these guys had more in common with early Red Hot Chili Peppers and other funk rock bands than they did with the legions of nu-metallers invading the airwaves at the turn of the century.
The moment where Incubus first showed signs of switching up the rap-metal template was on their third album, 1999’s Make Yourself, and the band infused a mellow atmosphere to some of the best-known tracks from it, such as breakthrough singles ‘Drive’ and ‘Stellar’. The surfer-bro-hippies made their zen-like intentions further known on the 2001 follow-up Morning View, written and recorded and probably inspired by the house in the beach town of Malibu, California where they had found their musical Shangri-La.
By this point, long-time fans must’ve been scratching their heads, wondering where the up-tempo oddball antics of the band’s 1995 debut Fungus Amongus had disappeared to. Thankfully, we get a well-needed jolt of energy mixed in with the experimentation on what is my favourite Incubus album, 2004’s A Crow Left Of The Murder…
This time around, the band opted for a crisp, clean, yet heavy sound, which amplified the strengths of their secret weapon who had always been in plain sight: guitarist Mike Einziger. The innovative instrumentalist comes from the Frank Zappa / Steve Vai / Jimi Hendrix school of rock, meaning that he filters and manipulates a wide range of styles and effects through his trusty axe. This album allows Einziger to indulge in lengthy, carefully constructed solos and deliver crunchy, elastic riffs that are the driving force behind several of the best tracks.
By this point in their history, Brandon Boyd had also blossomed into a full-throated vocalist, easily capable of shifting his voice from meditative to riotous from song to song, or even within a song, as is the case in the barnstorming album opener ‘Megalomaniac’. The track is a highlight amongst the many politically-charged lyrics that populate the album, which was released at the midpoint of the second Bush administration.
It was a time of social turbulence and frustration, and the overloading effect of the media is apparent in songs such as ‘Talk Shows On Mute’ and ‘Made For TV Movie’. ‘Megalomaniac’, however, takes a swipe at either popstars or politicans, spitting acerbic lines with righteous anger, such as "Hey, megalomaniac! You're no Jesus! Yeah, you're no Elvis! You're no answer!". The accompanying music video also made its intentions clear, showing images of a mutant Adolf Hitler interspersed with shots of a protest, and as the video progresses, the speaker’s podium rises up high to reveal that it’s actually a gas pump. The pump then begins to spurt oil over the crowd, while the main figure’s head becomes a bald eagle’s and starts eating people who are now turned into fish. It’s bizarre, and you have to see it to believe it.
So yes, the socio-political climate had had a large part in fuelling this sudden swerve into politically aware music, but new producer Brendan O’Brien also brought a wealth of experience in the genre. O’Brien had established himself as a leading rock producer in the 1990’s, lending a hand to the likes of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Rage Against The Machine – who were the blueprint for gnarly rap-metal with a conscience.
But I mostly enjoy this album for its free-flowing ideas and musical ambition, even if the message isn’t always abundantly clear. You can feel the push and pull of Einziger’s jazz-influenced prog rock guitar noodlings, guiding the loose and limber rhythm section on ‘Sick Sad Little World’. By the halfway point of that song, the band are locked into a propulsive, psychedelic bridge, and with Boyd’s scattered vocalisations sprinkled on top, you have something transcendental in its scope.
Since this progressive moment, Incubus music has been few and far between. On the 2006 follow-up Light Grenades, the band expanded upon the sounds previously explored here to varying results, and on their most recent album output, 2011’s If Not Now, When?, much of their aggressive earlier sound had been somewhat controversially ditched in favour of simplicity. Much like another genre-defying alternative metal band Deftones, it’s best to just leave the lads to their own devices and patiently watch what emerges from that. Their eclectic track record speaks for itself.
Well we’ve reached the end of another episode, and now begins the search for what to bring you next. I hope you enjoyed our latest show, and if you’d like to see more content on these artists, we have the previously-mentioned Show Notes on Soundcloud, and some pretty cool promotional collages on our Facebook page. Thank you very much for tuning in. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.