Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sinking & Falling: Fall Back Down

Rancid: Fall Back Down

Back in 2003, my then 13 year old son was in a punk phase, which I kind of liked. He wanted to go see Rancid, the great ska-punk band that was playing at Roseland in midtown Manhattan. Not surprisingly, I agreed to take him. At the time, I was vaguely aware of Rancid, probably from hearing their 1995 song “Ruby Soho,” and maybe a couple of others. The band's early days came at a time when I wasn't listening to as much punk rock as I had when I was in college.  Although there are some who have criticized the band for being derivative, particularly of The Clash, I think that criticism was misplaced (although the Clash influence is unmistakable). There is very little in music, particularly rock music, that doesn’t build on the work of prior artists, and to me, at least, Rancid’s ability to write anthemic, catchy songs, mostly but not exclusively with a ska and punk base, while addressing social and political issues big and small make them special.

And, more to the point, they put on a great show. That night, we saw two opening acts, psychobilly band Tiger Army, which I enjoyed greatly (and who I enjoyed again the following summer at Warped Tour), and hardcore band Roger Miret and The Disasters, fronted by the former Agnostic Front singer, which I did not like. But Rancid put on a great show, and we were dancing (and my son was moshing) the whole time. The Internet doesn’t seem to have a setlist for that show, but considering that it was a single from the band’s then-current album, Indestructible, I’m pretty sure that that they played “Fall Back Down.”  I couldn't find any video from that show--in 2003, not everyone had video cameras in their pockets--but here's a video of them playing the song live, a few months earlier, which gives a sense of how good Rancid is live.

“Fall Back Down” is one of those anthemic songs that the band is so good at. Written in response to the divorce of singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong from The Distillers’ Brody Dalle, Armstrong and co-writer, singer/guitarist Lars Fredricksen, crafted a tribute to the power of friendship in the face of adversity. It peaked at number 13 on the US Modern Rock charts, and in addition to being somewhat more pop than punk, the video for the song contained appearances by a member of Good Charlotte and Kelly Osborne, which led to complaints that the band had “sold out.” The song was also used in a bunch of video games, and even as the theme to a reality show.

This theme was inspired by the effect that the racist-in-chief’s recent racist comments have had on the reputation of the United States, so this song, about friendship and support, doesn’t completely fit. And yet, if you cut out a few lines from the lyrics that directly reference the divorce, it actually kind of works pretty well, as both a reflection on the almost exactly one year since inauguration day (and its tiny crowd), and as a recognition of how we can, with our friends, make it through:

You see it's our style to keep it true 
I've had a bad year, a lot to go through 
I've been knocked out, beat down, black and blue
*                             *                                * 
If I fall back down, you're gonna help me back up again 
If I fall back down, you're gonna be my friend 

The Roseland Ballroom, where I saw that concert, has been knocked down, and a 62-story, 426-unit mixed-use tower is rising on the site.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sinking & Falling: When You’re Falling

Afrocelt Sound System with Peter Gabriel: When You’re Falling


The easy way to address our new theme would be with songs about falling in love. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but I am more interested in what else falling can refer to. In When You’re Falling, the falling is quite literal, especially in the notorious official video. I have used a live version instead for two reasons. First, the sound quality is better, allowing you to really hear all of the moving parts of a great song and band. And second, some people may react to the official video in exactly the way the record label feared at the time, and that would be an unfair distraction from a fine song. Let me explain.

On the commercial strength of Sledgehammer in particular and the album So in general, his label Virgin let Peter Gabriel start his own vanity label. Others, like Prince with Paisley Park, would use such labels for their releases and those of friends. Gabriel, however, launched Real World as a home for contemporary world music, as opposed to the more traditional forms. Afrocelt Sound System caught his ear with their amazing fusion of Irish and African music. It sounds unlikely until you hear it, but Irish traditional music has a percussiveness that the band uses as a bridge to the music of another world, and the result is infectious and very danceable. The band had released two albums of instrumentals that are well worth seeking out, before deciding in 2001 to broaden their appeal by working with guest vocalists. Gabriel was an obvious choice. When You’re Falling sounds like Gabriel must have written it, but in fact his only role was singing it.

I mentioned the official video, which I called notorious. It depicts a man falling out of the sky, into a city that appears to be New York. He falls through the sidewalk and through the earth itself, and out the other side into space. Along the way, he is observed by three separate characters played by Peter Gabriel. One of these characters is an airline pilot. The video came out briefly in the late summer of 2001. Of course, then 9/11 happened, and the label pulled the video for fear that people would associate it with the tragedy. Hence the notoriety I mentioned. For Afrocelt Sound System, this meant that the wider fame and popularity they were seeking eluded them. They deserved better.

IN MEMORIAM: Chuck Berry

Purchase The Great 28 

A lot of people claim to have invented rock 'n roll.

But, that's a prodigious bit of boasting, to say you invented the genre, when the very mythology of the origin is so varied, so colorful, so joyously populated by gods and heroes.  So, where was rock 'n roll made, and where and what from?

To be sure their are ethnographic explanations and tracing the origins of the sound make for great myth-making and listening.

But, the argument pertaining to its exact origin remains as varied as the source materials.

No amount of explication or analysis or research can answer the question and assign a singular forefather to the origins of rock. No Cronus, just many, many Titans. And the myths are there for you to pick and choose from, but in reality, the birth of rock 'n roll is a singularly personal thing. What we lack in historical consensus, we make up for in in the purely individual.  It's about a gut feeling, a deep vibe, a startling, life-altering chord change inside you that get not so much strummed as lit up and electrified and sent shivers all up and down your spine. Rock 'n roll was invented when you heard your first truly, foot shuffling, head bobbing, heart throbbing, "pants dropping" (Springsteen), earth shaking, heart attack making, soul quaking song.

So, who to believe?

I believe Little Richard when he said "The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock 'n roll."

I believe Alan Freed was spot on when he adopted an African-American slang phrase for having sex and used it to describe the new sound that he was spinning--a sound that mixed rhythm, blues and something swinging and new. Freed broke racial barriers by playing black artists on the mainstream airwaves and putting those same bands on stages together in racially mixed concerts.

I believe Jack Newfield, who said in a 2004 article from the New York Sun that rock 'n roll was a "Black and White alloy" of many, many great players, from Ike Turner to Jerry Lee Lewis.

I believe Elvis Presley, who was humble about his part in rock's invention and insisted that he simply took his influences and added something of his own and what came out was what he loved. I believe he truly was the King

Rock 'n roll has its origins, to be sure--historic, cultural, geographical. And it has its legends. Like any great monolith of our dreaming that holds sway in our fascinated imagining should--Rome, the Vikings, the Great Wall of China--the great ideas and events are bigger than even their own definition.

But I think the real inventor of rock 'n roll resides in the listener's own heart. No amount of explication or analysis or research can answer the question and assign a forefather to the origins of rock. It's about a gut feeling, a deep vibe, a starting, life-altering chord change inside you that is not so much strummed as lit up and electrified, sending shivers all up and down your spine.

For me, it was Chuck Berry.

Blistering guitar licks, snazzy suits, a ridiculously athletic and unselfconscious strut--called the duckwalk--that he employed on stage.

Chuck Berry.

He made me want to pick up a guitar.

I could never master his leads when I played guitar, but I tried hard to learn "Johnny B. Good". His car crusing a road rhythms were easier for me, and I still love that sound. When a Chuck Berry song comes up on shuffle, I inevitably get the same rushing excitement that I did when I first heard that ripping, siren call sound of his Gibson hollow-body.

I heard that sound, and I thought, that is rock 'n roll. That is where it comes from.

The heart of rock n roll is an embodiment of spirit--something wild inside you that might be unattainable. It is all gut, a stirring fire that burns from your inner-self all the way out. What it makes you feel is what truly defines it. That's a wonderful little covenant to enter--if you don't love music, don't feel the almost indescribable thrum down in the part of your soul that speaks most closely with the gods--it won't matter to you who invented rock 'n roll.

Extracurricular reading:
Who Really Invented Rock 'n Roll?, from the New York Sun