This week's artists are all about change: in sound, image, and public perception. I unpack the legend of the night Bob Dylan went 'electric' on the week of its 50th anniversary, get lost in the meandering new single 'Honeymoon' by indie pop starlet Lana Del Rey, and steer my way through another acoustic-electric transformation with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - although this time it's in reverse.
- The ConcertHotels.com '100 Years Of Rock' animated infographic can be found here.
- Footage of Bob Dylan's Newport Folk Festival performance in 1965 is hard to come by, but you can see the first song 'Maggie's Farm' on Youtube here or watch snippets of the aftermath in the highly-recommended Dylan documentary 'No Direction Home'.
- A lyric video of Lana Del Rey's song 'Honeymoon' can be found on her Youtube page here.
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's 2005 album Howl can be downloaded from iTunes here.
Our theme music is provided by PodcastThemes.com - thanks!
Jump to your desired section at these points:
2:27 to 9:45
Lana Del Rey
9:46 to 13:41
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
13:42 to 18:07
Hi there everyone, and welcome to the fourth episode of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host The Eagle, and this week's artists are all about change – whether it’s change in sound, change in image, or a change in how critics and fans see them over time. This means that there’s going to be lots of talk about classifying them and trying to analyse these shifts of a sonic nature, according to genre. Whilst that might seem to be pigeonholing an artist this way, it makes it easier to understand and compare what these differences are. So genres are generally accepted, and not entirely definitive of what the artist has done across their entire career.
So I was very fortunate this week to be sent a link to an animated infographic from ConcertHotels.com, which shows how early styles of music way before the 1900’s have morphed into the complex web of genres that we have today in rock ‘n roll music. The best part is that you can click on the various genres and see how it links to all the genres that influenced it.
This is particularly important around the 1960’s and 1980’s, as many new genres and sub-genres began to spring forth from the minds of the musicians that made them. Each genre also includes a sample from a well-known song or artist within it, and helps to get a feel of some of the more obscure ones. The most eye-opening aspect of it is to see the blending of genres and how musicians have taken radically different paths from roughly the same set of influences to create what they have.
It also helps explain some genres that can't really be explained much by themselves. One that stood out for me was cow-punk. Now that comes from the Eighties, and it was a blend of country, new wave, and punk. Now you might say “Well what is new wave” so I’ve also have to look at that, and new wave came from the 1970’s and apparently it was a blend of disco, glam rock, and punk. You wanna know that sounds like? Well then click the sample. Happy exploring, folks.
In this past week, we saw the fiftieth anniversary of a watershed moment in rock ‘n roll music history: the night that Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival on the 25th of July 1965. Now why would this seem such a big event? Well it's because of what Bob Dylan represented at that time and how he changed and challenged that with a performance that was very controversial at the time and has been shrouded in myth and legend over these years. So let’s unpack this event and see why this one festival performance caused so much drama for the Poet Laureate of rock ‘n roll.
Firstly, let’s look at what actually happened. Bob Dylan had performed twice at the Newport Folk Festival before this, and his 1963 and 1964 performances had established him as the poster child of the highly-political and intellectual folk music scene. Fans had come to expect densely-worded songs rallying against the masters of war, all strummed on an acoustic guitar and with a bit of harmonica thrown in for good measure. Little did they know that ‘The Times Were A-Changin’’.
This wasn't particularly evident the day before the big performance, where at a musicians workshop, Bob performed three acoustic songs with no hint of what was to come. The following evening Dylan appeared on the main festival stage clad in a leather jacket, and with a uncharacteristic Fender Stratocaster slung over his shoulder with a backing band behind him. The band then proceeded to play three electric rock ‘n roll songs: the defiant ‘Maggie's Farm’, the recently-released single ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and a work-in-progress called ‘Phantom Engineer’, for cutting the set short and walking off stage.
The crowd had grown particularly boisterous, and the master of ceremonies Peter Yarrow begged Dylan to return to the stage - which he did, armed just with an acoustic guitar. Realising that he didn't have the right harmonica for the song he was going to perform, he asked the crowd for an ‘E’ harmonica and immediately the stage clattered with harmonicas from all directions. He performed two songs this time: ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘It's All Over Now, Baby Blue’ before walking off the stage……for 37 years.
Yes, Dylan was so perturbed by the experience that he didn’t return to the Newport Folk Festival until 2002 for a surprise set, where he sported a wig and a fake beard. Now clearly there was a backlash from all of this, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it, and I’ve identified three reasons why this could be so.
The first one was an outrage for having electric or rock ‘n roll music being played at a folk festival. Now Dylan was not the first performer to do so, but it was an unexpected, and the mostly folkie crowd was probably not aware of the new single ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which had only been released five days before and were probably not people to be following the pop charts. This is the narrative Dylan himself believes, and it's one that fits nicely into a career where he had been criticized for a variety of things up until that point - whether it was his croaky, non-traditional voice, or a move away from singing Woody Guthrie covers into writing his own music.
But probing a bit deeper one finds there is more to the story than what meets the eye, and I believe that the second reason is because of a poor-quality sound. Now this has been corroborated by people closest to the scene of the musical crime; one of them being folk music elder statesman Pete Seeger, who said “Get that distortion out of Dylan’s voice! If I had an axe I’d chop that mic cable right now!” as he was quoted as saying during the performance. Now this is pretty telling because it shows that maybe the problem wasn't so much with the music itself but just how Dylan’s already-divisive voice was being exposed on a poor-quality sound system. And as for booing from the crowd, the festival sound mixer from that day said that the roar of the crowd was much like a sports game in a big stadium, where sounds get mixed and maybe booing isn't just booing – it could just be the way words sound when people are shouting them and there’s lots of noise. Diehard fans who were interviewed at the time - who were aware of his most recent album Bringing It All Back Home, which had many rock ‘n roll songs on it - also complained of sound quality, stating that:
“It did not sound how it did on the album; it didn't sound as clear as it should be. You couldn’t pick up the lyrics”.
These are all very valid points, but the most obvious one is being in front of us the whole time, and that the set itself was very short and ended abruptly. The organist from Dylan’s band that day, Al Kooper, has stated that the band had only played for fifteen minutes, whilst many others at the festival had played for 45 minutes to sometimes an hour. Now I know that if I was in that audience I’d also feel a little bit aggrieved if I had gone to see Dylan perform and he only gave a couple of songs and then walked off stage. Other performers from that year have noted that it was a hostile crowd for everyone, and not just Dylan. It still begs the question: why did he do it?
I believe the hints had always been in his music, and it was really just summed up in the first song they performed from that night, ‘Maggie's Farm’, where he states “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”. He was done with being the poster boy for the folk scene, and the pull and thrill of being in a band and exploring new territory musically was too good to ignore. Dylan wanted to marry the intellectualism of the folk scene with the reach of rock ‘n roll, and a chance meeting in New York with The Beatles in August of 1964 had made him realise that this was possible.
Aside from these career-changing reasons, I still believe he did it on a whim as an act of rebellion due to condescending remarks from the festival organizer about a fellow band who also played plugged-in. This will also explain why they were hastily-organised rehearsal sessions the night before the big performance. So what was the aftermath and legacy of this moment? Well the polarization for Bob Dylan continued on his 1965 and 1966 world tour, where he played split concerts, i.e. an unaccompanied acoustic part and then an electric part with the full backing band. This led to a moment on the British leg of the tour, where a fan infamously yelled out “Judas!” right before he started performing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and he told his band to “play it real loud”.
That confidence has become a parable for pioneers of new music trend since then, such as punk and hip hop and electronica. Any critics who see otherwise are like those dull folkie of Newport. It also the doors of rock ‘n roll had been blown open. No longer was it just ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’; rock ‘n roll became more political, it reflected social issues, and artists were less afraid to take big steps to change their career and sound
Not long afterwards, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones decided to go psychedelic; in the mid-Seventies, David Bowie decided to end his incredibly-successful alter-ego Ziggy Stardust; in the mid-Eighties, Run-DMC and Aerosmith forged an unlikely alliance between rap and rock; U2 confounded expectations with their darker, more electronic Achtung Baby album in 1991; and more recently, Radiohead decided to abandon any overt link to rock ‘n roll on their 2000 album Kid A. It was a transformative moment in rock ‘n roll history, and I believe that many artists followed in his wake.
Lana Del Rey
Next up this week, we have the artist formerly known Lizzy Grant: Lana Del Rey. And she has a new single out called ‘Honeymoon’ from the album of the same name that is due to be released in September. Not much is known about it, and she's moving surprisingly quickly considering that her second album Ultraviolence was released in June 2014. Apparently she's still with a long-time producer Rick Nowels - who's had previous work with Sia, Madonna and Dido – and he’s worked with Lana her entire career.
But most interestingly, it's been confirmed that she’s working with producer Mark Ronson - a name that has been mentioned on this podcast before - who's known more for his signature sound of soul and funk – to produce a sound that she say “is more closer to the golden age of jazz”. Elaborating further, she says “Musically I'm still looking for something different, with majestic choruses, beautiful orchestrations - a type of Fifties vibe with a bit of soft grunge.
For a fan like myself, who skirted on the periphery of support for her major-label debut album, Born To Die, this comes as welcome news. I never bought that doe-eyed, ‘be my daddy’ shtick, and I struggled to enjoy the lyrics even as they uncomfortably parodied American excess and chauvinism and violence. Mainly because she came off as vapid, vacant and tired – a very convincing role if she was meant to be doing that.
What we were left with were occasionally cringe-worthy lyrics stuck in an anachronistic image and style of the 1960’s housewife. With her follow-up EP Paradise, she wasn’t merely just putting her ‘pretty red dress’ on, but exploring more noir-ish themes that were raw and poetic and mature and commented better on post-modern themes that she had tried to explore on her debut album.
This crossover into soul-pop invited comparisons to the multi-platinum selling artist Adele mainly due to that voice. Yes, she struggled with early live performances, particularly on Saturday Night Live in 2012. But since then she has exposed an expansive contralto range spanning three octaves, right from high and girlish to low and jazzy. It’s incredible. This was noticeable in her Paradise EP, but the song that truly floored me from her more recent work was the song ‘Shades Of Cool’ from last year’s Ultraviolence, with the operatic vocals almost engulf you with their strength.
Now because I'm a fan of producer Dan Auerbach’s main band Black Keys, I might be a little bit biased towards the lovely, subtle blues-rock sound, but really what holds it all together is Lana’s vocals - it's undeniable. And that’s pretty much all we get with her latest single ‘Honeymoon’, which implies lasting – or in her case, fleeting happiness - because as the opening lyrics indicate “We both know it's not fashionable to love me”. A pretty naked and barbed swipe at critics.
But what I most appreciate about this torturously slow, meandering ballad with lots of sweeping strings, is the subtle shift in power. “We make the rules/Our honeymoon”. It makes the stereotypical references to Wilshire Boulevard and Pico Boulevard - which are big roads in Los Angeles - a little bit more palatable. In a song with no fixed tempo and nothing to encourage anchor us into a beat, the only thing that we can rely on is Lana’s steadfast voice, which carries us through every rise and fall of emotion that we feel. Honeymoons don't get much more stately, haunting, or romantic than this, and I'm really interested to see how the rest of this album will sound.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
To continue our theme of change for this week, we have a retrospective look at what was then an up-and-coming noise-rock band that decided to radically depart from the sound of their first two albums to produce a mostly-acoustic exploration into Americana or roots music. The album I'm referring to is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s 2005 album Howl.
Now the reason why this departure was so radical and no one could have really predicted it is because the band had such a clearly-defined sound; they had the atmosphere of the noise-rock giants The Jesus And Mary Chain, and the attitude of the avant-garde pioneers Velvet Underground from the 1960’s. Much like their contemporaries The Strokes and Interpol, they had two very successful albums that were seen by critics and fans as very similar to each other with not much growth in sound.
But internal issues as a band were coming to a head, and original drummer Nick Jago was starting to prove to be a liability to the band. He couldn't handle the publicity of being in a major-label band, fought with Peter the guitarist, and ended up going to various rehabs during the recording of this album. It's ironic that it took a temporary breakdown of the band for them to realize their long-term ambitions, and many of the later albums merged their earlier style with the feel of these songs.
And for a band that had just been dropped by their record label Virgin Records in 2004, they had a lot to prove, and Howl, which was named after the poem by San Francisco poet Allen Ginsberg, tries to break free of the sound that they’d been hemmed into. They ended up trading pedals and sneers for slides and acoustics.
The unplugged nature of the music breathed life into the band, especially through the gospel-soaked, gritty country-blues of ‘Devil’s Waiting’ and ‘Ain’t No Easy Way’, which is one of my favourite songs on the album. It’s got a bit of a barn-dance feel; you’ve got the full band going at it in a sort of bluegrass-punk style - it's the most rocking moment. But then you also get the gentle, looping folk of ‘Fault Line’ and ‘Restless Singer’ - which are great showcases for the bands two incredible vocalists. And I love to play a game of trying to distinguish which one of them are singing on a particular song, and you get the main vocalist, Robert, who has a more nasal, bratty sound to his vocals. But this album is guitarist Pete's album, and it showcases his powerful tenor in all its naked glory without being clouded by the reverb and distortion of previous albums.
The first time I listened to this album, I wasn’t so aware of the soul-searching lyrics, and I found on repeated listenings that they had a deep focus on religion and salvation, tackling those topics in a very Johnny Cash-like way - all dark and foreboding, and grappling with spiritual issues as if it were a fist fight. This is most evident on the delicate lullaby ‘Gospel Song’, but I appreciated the more poetic musings on life and love and struggle with ‘Complicated Situation’ and ‘Promise’.
It was also decided at this point that bassist Robert Levon Been was going to shed his pseudonym that he had kept for the first two albums, Robert Turner, in place of his real name. He had done this to avoid comparisons with his famous father Michael Been, who was the bassist of Eighties new wave band The Call. This step towards his own identity was significant in the band, and they toyed with keeping the unpredictable drummer Jago for the next two years before settling on their latest drummer Leah Shapiro - a woman, no less – to take over the throne behind the kit. It’s proven a fruitful move, even with the sudden death by heart attack in 2010 of Michael Been – who had been the band’s sound engineer - and the recent brain surgery that was required for drummer Leah Shapiro for Chiari malformations in the brain.
I feel that the electric-to-acoustic transformations that they undertook on this album were not just tossed-off b-sides, but actually fully-realised songs that were a shaping a sound they were going to become a lot more comfortable with going forward. It was as if the band had traded the howl of their guitars for the howl in their soul. Give it a chance, along with the noisier counterparts.
Well that's it; we're done with episode four of Musicology With The Eagle. I'm gonna let that sink in for a while before we continue our exploration beyond the chords. I am The Eagle, and this has been Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.