Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Ten Most Exciting Moments In Rock'n'Roll

Okay, I'm sure everyone's got their own list of exciting moments, and I encourage anyone to post their own faves and refute mine. And along the way, we'll test the limits of what is, or isn't, rock'n'roll. But that said, here we go...
11. Come on, come on now…- The Doors, "Touch Me" (The Soft Parade): Okay, so my Top Ten list goes to eleven. Blame Spinal Tap. In the years since Jim Morrison's death, his legend as a poet-shaman has overshadowed what great pop instincts the band had. "Touch Me"'s long, pounding intro builds to a crescendo, then abruptly stops, giving Morrison a clean shot at nailing his vocal entrance. Which he does, right to the wall. (And stick around for the killer sax solo on the outro.)
10. It's…alive! - Aerosmith, "Train Kept A'Rollin'" (Get Your Wings): Steven, Joe and the boys do a nice, heavy, medium-tempo studio version of the Yardbirds' classic on their sophomore LP. THEN, as the seeming last note fades, Joey Kramer starts a drum roll, Joe and Brad do train-whistle bends on their Strats, and ambient crowd noise lets us know we're now in the front row of a kick-ass concert. The band enters, double time, and do the Yardbirds, and themselves, wicked proud. I got to see Aerosmith on this tour (in the gym at Bowling Green State U. in Ohio, my first real concert) and I'm still out of breath.
Honorable mention: Jackson Brown uses the same technique to great effect on Danny O'Keefe's "The Road" on Running On Empty: just before hook in the 2nd chorus, there's a pause, and we transition from the tour bus rehearsal take to that night's show. Kinda breathtaking, in a quiet Jackson Brown kind of way.
9. In the Pocket of the Gods - Led Zeppelin, "In My Time of Dyin'" (Physical Graffiti): There's a point, about 9/10s of the way through Zep's fully developed, every-permutation-explored arrangement of the ancient blues tune (which also shows up on Dylan's first album), where the band finally plays the riff in unison. All out. After ten minutes of serious jamming, they're totally in each other's pockets. Take notes, us mere mortals.
8. Power POP - The Raspberries, "Go All the Way." The problem with the Raspberries, as opposed to say Badfinger or Big Star, the other gods of power pop, is that while the latter bands have the outlook of (young) men, shading their music with nuance and subtlety and a certain wariness, the 'berries are clearly emotional teenagers, with all the dizzying highs and lows and second-to-second volatility their out-of-control hormones demand. Which is what makes "Go All the Way" so immediate - the crunchy guitar intro is the perfect balance of clean and dirty, and the ascending "come on"'s on the bridge are the perfect distillation of a lifetime of virginity about to be gloriously transcended. This is what love at 14 feels like. (Or did when I was 14.)
7. Ho-oh! - Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run" (Born to Run): Bruce has described Born to Run as his attempt to make a record that sounded like it was written by Dylan, produced by Phil Spector, and sung by Roy Orbison. I actually prefer the casual looseness of his first two albums, but if his goal here was to make music that sounded mythic, he certainly succeeded, never more than on the title track. Halfway through each verse, he adds a two-syllable "oh," his voice almost (but not quite) breaking, and that hint of vulnerability lifts a self-consciously melodramatic lyric to the level of high, timeless art.
Honorable mention: Later in the same song, there are a few measures of catch-your-breath vamping after the harmonically-all-over-the-place bridge. Then, buried in the mix, we hear Bruce summon the most exciting lyric in rock'n'roll: "One two three four!"
6. Spill It All Over the Stage - Joe Cocker, "With a Little Help from My Friends" (Woodstock): To quote John Belushi, as Cocker (from the National Lampoon show "Lemmings"):
I was makin' musical history
Now I'm workin' for Muscular Dystrophy
That Joe Cocker is even still alive must be the 3rd most unlikely event in the history of popular music (behind Keith Richards, same deal, and the fact that somebody gave the Bay City Rollers a record contract). But he was certainly alive in '69 at Woodstock, singing his slowed down, amped up version of Sgt. Pepper's "With a Little Help from My Friends." By the time he gets to the second bridge, he dispenses with the lyric, and just wails "Waaaahhhh!" His voice is so thick and harmonically complex, he seems to hit every note on the scale simultaneously.
5. Stop the world we want to get off… - David Bowie, "Rock'n'roll Suicide," (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars): Bowie wrote two great songs about suicide the same year, so he gave one to Mott the Hoople. The one he kept starts as a relatively simple almost folky ballad, then gradually saxes and cellos come in, keys start changing, and pretty soon knives are lacerating our brain, building up to full stop, which David fills with three words: "You're not alone." Lemme tell you, if you were a closet glam living in Findlay, Ohio in 1973, those were three pretty fuckin' important words.
Honorable mention: On the David Live version, the song builds as above, then just when everybody's expecting David to go over the top, he WHISPERS "you're not alone."
4. Life without skin - Janis Joplin, "Piece of My Heart" (Cheap Thrills) / "Get It While You Can" (Pearl). Janis Joplin, like Judy Garland before her, sang as if she had none of the innate defense mechanisms that allow you and I to move through the world without weeping or shouting every second of every day at the pain and joy all around us. I don't know any more about Janis than what I've read on the album covers (or maybe imagined from seeing Bette Midler in The Rose), but it's not a surprise to me that anyone who burned so brightly burned so briefly. But from her music, I am left marveling at how exposed a human heart can be. (BTW, I am a confirmed atheist, from 9th grade or so. When Borders Books & Music went out of business a few years back, I bought a pile of half-price CDs, then in the check-out line noticed a copy of Cheap Thrills I'd missed. I was way over my limit, so I left it behind. Then on the way home I had a clear vision of meeting Janis in heaven, and her saying, "Six bucks? You wouldn't buy my record for a lousy six bucks?" I went back and bought it, just in case.)
3. The Scream - The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again" (Who's Next). The Who deserve their own list of most exciting moments: Entwistle's bass fills on "My Generation," Moon's drum fills on "Bargain," Townsend kicking the cop who was trying to get them to stop their concert for a security announcement right in the nuts. But for my money, the greatest scream in all of rock'n'roll (aside from the cop's) belongs to Roger Daltrey at the climax of the extended instrumental break of "Won't Get Fooled Again." He's screaming "YEAH!" at the top of his lungs, at the top of his range, and trails down at least an octave before he's done. Tension, tension, tension, RELEASE. I was once hanging out in Keely Sims' dorm room at about 3 AM, and Who's Next was playing softly on the stereo. At the proper moment I reached over and twisted the volume knob all the way up. Very satisfying.
2. Ta-da-da Ta-da-da Ta-da-da Ta-da-da Ta! Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog." John Lennon once said, "Before Elvis there was nothing." He was wrong of course, but in Liverpool in the mid-'50s Lennon had no way of hearing all the rhythm'n'blues race records that had come before. Even in America it took a white boy with greased hair (and greased hips) to get us to listen to our own indigenous music. "Hound Dog," originally a hit for Big Mama Thorton, was Presley's break-through, and D.J. Fontana's triplet snare hits at the end of each verse are what put it over the top. The rockingest record of its time.
Honorable mention: For some of those great black R&B sides, check out Night Train to Nashville, which contains the original "Baby Let's Play House" (covered by Presley) and "Anna" (covered by the Beatles).
1. One Two Three FOUR - The Beatles, "I Saw Her Standing There". I was only five when Paul sang "She was just seventeen" but I knew exactly what he meant. As straight-ahead rockin' as the Beatles ever got (on an original; those great Larry Williams and Little Richard covers don't count), and still good, clean, melodic fun. Paul starts it off with a count-off that promises all the excitement the song delivers, in a cool Liverpool accent to boot. When I watched the Beatles Anthology TV shows with my friend Daniele in the '90s, she started screaming at the TV just like it was 1964.
Honorable mention: Ringo's 5-hit drum fill after the guitar break in "I Feel Fine." The only moment in music that makes me even happier than Paul's count off.
Other honorables I just have to mention:
Derek & the Dominoes, "Layla"  Cream, Eric Clapton's '60s band, were virtuosos, but I never felt emotionally drawn in by their music. On "Layla," however (the original studio version, not his unplugged remake), Clapton sounds completely fucked up and desperate, resulting in one of the most moving pieces of music, ever.

Sly & The Family Stone, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"  The funkiest song by the funkiest band ever. Check out the rhythm guitar/horn break after the 2nd verse (and the bass line throughout the song). Note we are talking about the single, not the slow-motion heroin-coma trance version on There's a Riot Goin' On.

Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"  I should explain that after my band Loose Ties broke up in 1987 I stopped listening to rock'n'roll for a number of years, especially new bands, on the theory that they had somehow gotten the record contract meant for us. Then I heard folksinger Jim Infantino sing an acoustic version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" around a campfire. Even acoustically, I could tell something was happening. Nirvana does it pretty good too.
The Grassroots, "Let's Live for Today"  The world's greatest SUNG count-off, incorporated right into the melody of the song - one, two, three-ee, four-or, lifting a two-chord repetitive melody to anthemic proportions. Also covered by the Lords of the New Church in the '80s (but I'm stickin' to the original).
Hall & Oates, "She's Gone"  The most telegraphed punch in the history of music - 3 consecutive half-step key changes, leading to Daryl's big "she's gone-on-on-on-on-on oh-oh-oh why" moment, but he pulls it off.
The Eagles, "Hotel California" (Hell Freezes Over)  I know, I know. The Eagles, the most jaded group in the history of LA-bloated music biz-laid back-excess, anywhere near a list of most exciting anything?? BUT, on this live "unplugged" version of their mega-hit, when Don Felder and Joe Walsh finally play the tandem ascending riff s at the end of the solo, on nylon string acoustic guitars no less, it is, god help me, exciting.
Howard Huntsberry, "Lonely Teardrops"  Huh? Who? Side two of the La Bamba soundtrack included some gems not sung by Los Lobos-as-Richie Valens, including this killer cover of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops." I'd never heard of Howard either, or have ever heard of him again, but as the band vamps at the end of the tune Howard keeps reaching for, and nailing, higher and higher notes. A truly amazing performance. [Honorable mention to honorable mention: Marshall Crenshaw-as-Buddy Holly singing "Crying Waiting Hoping," on the same record.]
Smith, "Baby It's You"  Though not in Joplin's league, Gayle McCormick, lead singer of one-hit wonders Smith, has a great Janis-esque moment on the last chorus of their version of Burt Bacharach's "Baby It’s You" (which was also covered by the Beatles early on).
Phil Collins, "In the Air Tonight"  Three-quarters of the way through this atmospheric confessional, Collins lets loose an extended, processed drum fill that sounds like John Bonham through a synth-flange-echo chamber. Not only does it make the song suddenly matter, I'd say sonically speaking it's the moment when the '70s gave way to the '80s.
Jimi Hendrix, "All Along the Watchtower"  Jimi's version of Dylan's "Watchtower" is a veritable catalog of cool guitar tricks, from slide-wah-echoes, to tandem octaves, to rhythmic hammer-ons. Just before the 3rd verse there's an insane bent-pentatonic fill I spent a year at guitar school trying to learn.
Rolling Stones, "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'"  The world's greatest rock'n'roll band, only an honorable mention?? I should say I am a huge fan, and consider their Jimmy Miller-produced LPs and singles (Beggars Banquet up through Exile, including "Sympathy for the Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "Moonlight Mile," etc.) THE gold standard of rock music. But choosing one single moment that I'd call as exciting as the ones above…a tough call, maybe because even as kids Jagger & Co. seemed a little too cool to show all their cards. So let me point out a great Keith moment: at the end of the first chorus of "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," the band pauses, and Keith does a down-and-dirty double-stop fill that would make Chuck Berry weep with pride. Then stick around because Bobby Keyes and Mick Taylor strut their stuff in an extended jam. But that's one for the next list…
OK! Feel free to post your own list, and I will compile a People's Choice version and post it in a week or two. Til then…one, two, three, FOUR!