Episode 15 - John Mayer & Grateful Dead, Grimes, Radiohead

Musicology With Kurt - Episode 15 - John Mayer & Grateful Dead, Grimes, Radiohead.jpg

Show Notes

This week, I try to understand why some bands choose to soldier on after original members have passed away, with the news that guitar sensation John Mayer has joined the Grateful Dead off-shoot group Dead & Company. We also try to make sense of eclectic synthpop sorceress Grimes' new album Art Angels, and put on our tin-foil hats for a musical conspiracy theory concerning Radiohead in this week's retrospective.

  • Footage of John Mayer performing with Dead & Company - an off-shoot band of Grateful Dead - can be found on Youtube here.
  • Grimes' 2015 album Art Angels can downloaded from iTunes here.
  • Radiohead's '01/10' playlist requires an alternating combination of songs from their two albums OK Computer and In Rainbows. For more information on how to set this up, check out this guide or search on Google for 'Radiohead 01 10'. There's plenty of discussions surrounding the playlist.

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Segment Times

Jump to your desired section at these points:

  • John Mayer & Grateful Dead

01:46 to 09:18

  • Grimes

09:19 to 14:59

  • Radiohead

15:00 to 21:17


Show Transcript

 

Intro

Hello everybody, welcome to the fifteenth episode of Musicology With The Eagle! I am The Eagle, your host on this journey of music discovery and discussion.

If you’ve been a regular listener of this podcast, you might have built up this perception that I’m an all-seeing academic who intuitively knows all there is to know about the artists I’m covering – that you as the listener are probably doing more discovering than I am. Well, to be honest, I was the one doing some serious discovering this past week, bringing myself up to speed with two vastly-different artists who I’d only vaguely been aware of, but somehow never seriously considered listening to.

What I’m trying to say is: we’re one in the same here. Yeah, I might be the one condensing a whole lot of background research into one show, beamed into your car, or office, or kitchen – wherever. And yeah, I might scrutinise some music issues in more depth than you would yourself. But oftentimes when I read about or listen to something, I’m literally starting at page one. Almost no reference points. “That sounds cool – let’s give it a try”. It’s just the attitude you have, what you choose to do with that information. I’m choosing to do a podcast, so let’s begin with the latest one…

 

John Mayer & Grateful Dead

‘The show must go on’.

Whether it’s a Broadway production, television drama, or a band of seasoned musicians, this little truism is built into the DNA of every group of performing artists. No matter how much they like it or not, the expectation to continue after losing a team member is something which cannot be ignored. The fans often demand it, the record company needs the sales, and many times, the artists themselves feel that they could make it work with the new guy.

Music history is littered with what you could call ‘Frankenstein’ bands, bolted and reassembled with replacement parts, awakening sometimes years after the original incarnation was put to rest. Regardless of the reasons for reforming, the risk is almost always high. Bringing in new blood and tampering with the purity of a well-established musical product could get you lynched by your own fan base, or met with cynicism and indifference if you’re lucky. Surely just starting over with a new name would be safest?

This past week, I saw yet another example of the ‘Frankenstein’ phenomenon, with members of hippie-rock heroes Grateful Dead integrating contemporary guitar legend John Mayer with one of the group’s many off-shoot bands that continue to perform Grateful Dead material. In the aftermath of de facto bandleader and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, the Dead have continued to rise again through a number of reunions by the surviving members involving various combinations of musicians. Whilst none of them are referred to specifically as ‘Grateful Dead’, the names, intention, and material played sometimes suggest otherwise.

This is probably because they’re just echoing the community-minded philosophy that was espoused during Grateful Dead’s long and winding 30 years together, where they played over 2,300 shows and toured near-constantly. Everybody felt a part of the Grateful Dead experience, and attending a show was commonly seen as the only way to truly understand the band and appreciate their music. The group’s openness and generosity inspired a legion of like-minded fans known as ‘Deadheads’, many of whom followed their tours for months or years on end.

Musically, this approach made Grateful Dead well-known for their extended jams, full of distinctive group-minded improvisations that somehow translated into a cohesive blend of psychedelic, oftentimes manic beauty. Although each band member's stylistic contribution became more defined and consistent over time, Grateful Dead’s free-flowing spirit emphasised the group more than any one individual.

So yes, out of respect, ‘Grateful Dead’ formally disbanded when founding member Garcia passed away, but surely the community and legacy they had built could continue under another guise? Garcia was an iconic guitarist and personality, but the very nature of the band has allowed others to assume that role in some form.

This first manifested in a group called ‘The Other Ones’ in 1998, comprised of Dead mainstays Bob Weir (on guitar), Phil Lesh (on bass), and the dual-drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The Others Ones later became simply ‘The Dead’, and continued that way with a revolving cast which allowed for individual members to seemingly drop in and drop out at their leisure to have a stab at playing the extensive Grateful Dead songbook.

Which bring us to the present day. 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the group whose first gig was in a humble pizza shop in Menlo Park, California, and an appropriate 5-concert reunion in July called ‘Fare Thee Well’ was slated to be the last time that the so-called ‘core four’ would perform together. Months later, this has proven to be correct, as Lesh has once again gotten off the bus, only to hop back into his own revolving-door group Phil Lesh & Friends. Musicians: you can just never keep them still for long enough.

So, what are the magic words people? ‘The show must go on’. Bassist-for-hire Oteil Burbridge was brought in, and Trey Anastasio of Phish – who had filled in the lead guitar role during the ‘Fare Thee Well’ gigs – was swapped out for the incumbent Mayer. From some circles, this might’ve been a baffling choice: Mayer’s style is bluesy, fluid, and precise, but he admitted that he only discovered Grateful Dead’s music in 2011, so there were fears that he wouldn’t appreciate or uphold the sanctity of the songs. Thankfully, the first Halloween gigs under the ‘Dead & Company’ name - who are to tour until the end of December with this lineup - proved otherwise, and Mayer apparently assumed the role with assured, yet respectful confidence.

Researching all the resurrections and reshufflings of the Grateful Dead got me thinking about other bands which have found themselves in similar positions.

Death to a founding or critically-important member usually hits the hardest, as it would be if a friend or loved one were to pass on. As briefly mentioned in Episode Five, Led Zeppelin took the untimely death of drummer John Bonham so seriously that they never reformed, save for sporadic performances. The most prominent of these was 2007’s long-awaited ‘Celebration Day’ at London’s 02 Arena, which kept things purely in the family with Jason Bonham – John’s son - seated behind the kit.

Queen, however, has taken a blended approach to honouring frontman Freddie Mercury’s irreplaceable legacy. The band have frequently performed with other singers under the title ‘Queen And…’, with the likes of Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert assuming the role on a long-term touring basis. It makes it seem as if Freddie has just popped offstage to go to the bathroom, and will be back soon.

For some bands, it’s been so long since a member’s death that you sometimes forget their previous lineup. Hard rockers AC/DC have been without their first settled lead singer Bon Scott for 35 years, and since Brian Johnston has took up that mantle, they’ve reached the pinnacles of rock ‘n roll success, with 1980’s ‘Back In Black’ estimated to be the fifth-highest selling album of all time. Manic Street Preachers didn’t even replace infamous lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards when he tragically went missing in 1995, choosing to soldier on as a trio to more mainstream fame.

But most of the time, a band is like a company, with people being fired, hired, and retired at frequent intervals. Red Hot Chili Peppers know this combination all too well, with founding member Hillel Slovak passing on in 1988, and a slew of guitarists such as Dave Navarro and John Frusciante passing through their doors before and since.

In Episode Ten, we discussed the inevitable aging of rock stars, and the same could be said for the bands and groups they form a part of. Not everyone is like the equivalent band example, U2, who have maintained the same stable lineup for 35 years. Sometimes life happens to you, and you can just let it be. People start having diverging interests, substance issues creep in, and the Grim Reaper occasionally robs the best and worst of us. The show sometimes can’t go on the way it was intended.

 

Grimes

This week, we have a long-awaited new release from the genre-bending sorceress Grimes. ‘Art Angels’ is her fourth studio album, and her second major-label one after the breakout success of 2012’s ‘Visions’.

I make note of this distinction, because the shapeshifting songwriter’s sound has evolved significantly from her first two avant-garde assemblages of Aphex Twin-meets-ABBA madness. The lady behind it all is a 27-year-old Canadian named Claire Boucher, who got her stage name after listing her music on MySpace in the 'Grime' genre multiple times, even though she didn't know what the British music genre was when she did it.

Boucher’s rise to prominence makes her an interesting ambassador for the ‘post-Internet’ generation, whose fluid genre-identity was made possible by free web downloads and late nights spent on file-sharing sites. Her music refuses to conform or confine itself to any norm or description – I could list some comparisons, but the acerbic auteur would probably roll her eyes and say I was misguided in some way. Let’s just say that the touchstones and influences are deliciously obtuse, taking elements of synthpop, witch house, electro-R&B, and wisps of disjointed electronica to concoct a confusing soundscape of overdubbed falsetto vocals and dreamy aural detours.

This was at least the case on her first two albums: ‘Geidi Primes’ (named after the fictional planet in the Dune novel series), and ‘Halfaxa’. The pair were full of strange, bewitching song titles and disorientating vocals that if my father were to hear, he would ask “Is she trying to strangle a cat?”. But the albums gave her some good grounding, and the wild experimentation produced moments of brilliance amidst the perplexing yet intriguing haze, such as the gentle, pulsing beat of ‘Dream Fortress’, or the pairing of R&B-ready sighs with haunted synths in ‘Sagrad’.

With these two incredibly oddball outputs in mind, it makes the major-label leap back in 2012 all the more profound. Her unabashed passion for pop music began to coalesce with the eclectic material that had preceded it in a way that sacrificed little of her ethereal ‘vision’, and brought about a vivid unreality that was both spooky and catchy at the same time. What makes this even more notable is how self-contained her artistic genius is: Boucher not only writes and sings, but records and produces all her music, all by herself with no outside producers.

This solo sonic journey continues on ‘Art Angels’, and the results are overwhelming. Yeah, overwhelming would cut it. ‘Visions’ had flirted with pop sensibilities, viewing them from a curious mid-distance through a ghostly lens. Songs like ‘Genesis’ or ‘Oblivion’ had managed to sleepily balance the weird and the melodic, but on this outing, Boucher is equal parts sugary and menacing, defiantly taunting the hipster hordes with brazenly-pure pop pleasure.

Lead single ‘Flesh Without Blood’ is a sunny, outrageous example of the headlong dive she has taken into making damn-good pop music on her own terms. The chorus even feels like a spiritual successor to the pop-rock earworm ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ by Kelly Clarkson. When you pair it with a music video involving a blood-soaked Marie Antoinette outfit, a purple wig, angel wings, and dancing on a basketball court, you’ve got something unmistakably Grimes-y.

The rest of the album is just as loud, surprisingly complicated, and catchy. ‘World Princess Part II’ has a lush, hypnotic instrumental backing with bleeping synths which would be right at home on an old video game soundtrack. A reworked studio version of ‘Realiti’ also makes an appearance – a song which she had lost the original Ableton recording file for, and which absorbs EDM and trance into her seemingly-infinite palette of sound. And good luck avoiding bopping along to the shiny late-90’s pop-group panache of the title track – it’s genetically engineered to attack your most vulnerable of pleasure centres.

The three-year wait between ‘Visions’ and ‘Art Angels’ wasn’t just your standard touring/taking time off to write story. In a rousing streak of creative independence, Boucher also taught herself to play guitar, drums, keyboard, ukulele, and violin – all of which appear on the album in some form, the most noticeable being the guitar parts.

It’s something that she’s being very outspoken about, mainly due to the sexist behaviour that she’s encountered from “men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’. An avid Tumblr blogger, Boucher has consistently courted controversy online with her feminist frustrations with being a rising 20-something female celebrity. Much like Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES – whom we discussed in Episode 8 – Claire Boucher wants to be a role model for young women in an industry which seeks to control their image and where they are left open to abuse. Refusing to be infantilized because she refuses to be sexualised, the artist known as Grimes fearlessly continues to tread her own path. Wherever she’s going, the journey will be equally weird and wonderful.

 

Radiohead

For this week’s retrospective, we’re putting on our tin-foil hats and debating a musical Easter egg placed by one of the most critically-acclaimed alternative rock bands of the past 25 years: Radiohead.

Much like their chocolate-y brethren, Easter eggs hidden in music are often just as delicious when found by fanatical sleuths. The difference between the two is that at some point in your life, your parents will probably ‘fess up and say they placed the caramel eggs at the bottom of the garden. Musicians, on the other hand, aren’t always so forthcoming, which allows conspiracy theories to ferment.

Most of these Easter eggs fall under the broad category of secret or hidden tracks – songs tacked on to the end of an album, which frustratingly turn the final track into some 25-minute monster….with 18 minutes of silence. Personally, I’ve encountered a lot of these at the height of CD’s popularity, when you’d leave your CD player on for ages and suddenly a burst of laughter or music would scare the crap out of you, such as Nirvana’s ‘Endless, Nameless’ from their classic album ‘Nevermind’.

This practice wasn’t just limited to CD’s, although the extra storage space of the digital format allowed for this trickery to be more widespread. One of the first examples of a hidden track on vinyl was ‘Her Majesty’ on The Beatles’ final recorded album ‘Abbey Road’ – a 30-second ditty accidentally spliced onto the last song, and not listed on the album’s sleeve. The locked grooves of a vinyl disc also allowed snippets of musical nonsense to be stowed away from prying ears, or varying track listings depending on where you dropped the needle – used to hilarious effect on Monty Python’s ‘Matching Tie and Handkerchief’ album.

Once found, it’s pretty obvious that these hidden tracks were placed there deliberately. Where things get really meta is when an artist manipulates, distorts, or syncs up the music in such a way that it possibly creates a whole new message. The moral outcry of backmasking – which is when a sound or message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward – was spearheaded by fundamentalist Christian groups particularly in the 1970’s and 1980’s, who alleged that many prominent heavy metal musicians had made use of the practice for Satanic purposes. Oftentimes backmasking is unintentional, and requires a bit of handiwork to uncover if it was even placed there anyway, let alone if it’s a decipherable message.

Which brings me to Radiohead’s alleged sorcery, but of a synchronization kind. For the past few years, there have been rumours going around that two of the band’s most popular records, 1997’s ‘OK Computer’ and 2007’s ‘In Rainbows’, are two halves of one album, which can be stitched together almost seamlessly with eerie results. The conspiracy theory is known as the Binary Code theory, the ’01/10’ playlist, or the ‘Ten-spiracy’.

Ten years after ‘OK Computer’ had set the creative benchmark for modern rock, Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’ on the 10th of October – tenth of the tenth, a mere ten days after it was announced. ‘In Rainbows’ had ten tracks, and like ‘OK Computer’, also had ten letters in its title. Radiohead also preceded the release of the album with ten cryptic messages, which repeatedly emphasized X, the Roman Numeral for ten, and binary code in phrases such as “Xendless Xurbia” and “BLINK YOUR EYES ONE FOR YES TWO FOR NO”.

Fair enough, the band liked the number ten. But then it gets weirder. Fans noted that one of the working titles for ‘OK Computer’ had been ‘Ones and Zeroes’ – another binary code reference – and one on the songs on ‘In Rainbows’, called ‘Nude’, had been played live as far back as 1998. ‘In Rainbows’ even felt like a spiritual successor to the 1997 masterpiece: a guitar-heavy album after years of electronica experimentations.

Eventually, someone thought to arrange the two albums together into one playlist, alternating song for song to see how it flowed. And having personally done it myself, I can say that there’s definitely some weight to the theory. With a recommended 10-second crossfade, many of the tracks complement each other beautifully, both structurally and lyrically. The hyper-programmed beats of ‘Airbag’ and ’15 Step’ feel like long-lost cousins, and the suite of ‘Bodysnatchers’, ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, and ‘Nude’ transitioned so seamlessly and thematically that I burst out laughing – when I probably should’ve been feeling a bit like a ‘Paranoid Android’.

Look, the theory falters a bit with some of the transitions, and the cynic in me wants to say that with a 10-second cross-fade, literally any song could sync up, especially if most of the songs on this playlist have ambient fade-outs or intros as it is. But if this were to be true, if Thom Yorke and the gang had planned out a double album with songs written and recorded a decade apart in this manner, it would be a massively ambitious meta-venture. Only ridiculous concepts such as Tool’s build-your-own hidden track in their 2006 album ‘10,000 Days’ or The Flaming Lips four-CD harmony exercise ‘Zaireeka’ could even compare with its level of planning.

Naturally it’s been difficult to verify if the ’01/10’ playlist was intentional or not. An alleged quote from ‘someone associated with Thom Yorke’ has been floating around since the theory gained prominence, claiming that “the meaning behind all of this is right in front of our faces, we’re just overlooking it. It seems to annoy Thom that no one ‘gets it’ yet, given the mountain of clues.” But in this day and age, you can’t just believe everything you read or listen to on the Internet. Who knows what lies you are being fed?

 

Outro

On that mysterious note, we leave it there for this week. Thank you for tuning in to our podcast, and I hope you had fun and learnt a thing or two whilst doing it. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.