What Makes a Good Rock Record?
...Besides Hot Chicks on the Cover?
Rule 1: Everyone Likes Baseball, Everyone Likes Parks, Everyone Likes a Catchy Tune
This rule tends to overwhelm all the other ones. This rule separates the cream from the milk, the men from the boys, and the goats from the sheep. That tune you heard 10 years ago and still somehow remember how it goes. Hummability. Accessibility, sometimes. Memorability. A catchy tune is somehow able to let its other successful components shine through, making a great solo or production sound even better just because its cuddled up with such catchiness. The components of catchiness are as simple to name as the Brady Bunch kids. Melody? Yeah! Rhythm? A nice beat sure doesn't hurt! A Memorable Vocal Hook? Sho nuff, captain! Long Hammond Organ solos? Sorry, next contestant!
So why is it so difficult to truly pin down catchiness? Well, if you hear the same melody a zillion times (I'm lookin' at you, Blues) is it still catchy? Can you imagine how catchy the first blues song was to those who happened to hear it? Dang, mang! What about cliches? What causes 10 million people to buy a Hootie and the Blowfish album crammed full of hooks and melodies, but also crammed full of the same tired old sentiments that make me roll my eyes and make gagging noises from my throat? Catchiness! What about repetitiveness? I find the hypnotic beats and repetitive melodies of bands like Can and Spacemen 3 to be incredibly catchy, but many would find them boring. What about pure sound? I'm a junkie for Jerry Garcia's guitar tone and soloing technique, and the best way to describe why I like it is that I find it catchy every time. So pure catchiness is a slippery beastie, indeed. Impossible to define. As personal as the contents of our belly button lint.
What I really mean is that catchiness is the glue that makes everything else stick together. Just like a book without glue is called a pile of paper and is a pain in the ass to read, a song without some catchiness is a pain in the ass to listen to. So what are the other essential components? Read on, o great one!
Rule 2: Originality! You mean we want to do something NEW here?
Yeah baby! If all albums were the same there would be no reason to have more than one, or to have record review sites to tell you which ones to buy. I mean, we all like the Beatles, but I certainly didn't want to stop my record collection after my Beatles collection was completed. I wanted to go out and see what had been done with the vocabulary they created. Its what makes us go back to the store to buy more and more, instead of starting a retirement fund or gambling or something. How far out do you want to go? You can stay in one genre and find all the different spins that can be placed on the blues, or rockabilly, or punk, or disco, or whatever. There always at least 10 subgenres under every major genre...wanna know why? Because of originality, foo!
Let's connect this with Rule 1, shall we? I questioned whether a cliched melody, though catchy if you've never heard any of the songs the melody is Xeroxed from, is still catchy in the millionth song you've heard it in. The answer is NO! You have to have some element of originality to make the song enjoyable, unless you're a retard who only likes cliches.
A big problem with originality is questioning whether it ever actually exists at all. You write a song and the song contains a melody based on Western scales and a semi-normal time signature. Are you SURE that no one has ever written the same melody? There's no way to be sure, now is there? What about writing a short riff within the constraints of the blues scale? Man, I'm sure that riff, after 80+ years of recorded blues history, has been used before! Level of originality drops if you're simply working within the constraints of any established genre at all. The artists that are first in a genre are usually considered to be the best and longest lasting. Can you name a really popular blues, country, punk, jazz artist who is currently revolutionizing their chosen genre due to originality? Impossible. The same may not be true in rap or electronic music, genres where it's still possible to do something new.
So what about the true sonic pioneers? The ones who really do go out and do something that has never been done before? The weirdos, the experimenters... Luckily there are some of these trailblazers right now, but I'm arsed to tell you who they are because the minute they gain the least bit of press and/or success a million people start copying them and they become established. Sure, at one time the Butthole Surfers were way experimental, now they're not. And their groundbreaking work now sounds, if not tame, then not as weird as it once was. No one sounded like the Ramones when they first started...NO ONE. Now the genre of punk rock is well established.
And there's the darker side of experimentation, that of experimentation into the unlistenable. What is unlistenable is certainly up to personal taste, of course. Its certainly original, but is it catchy? Is it memorable? Is it interesting? Or is it only experimentation for the sake of experimentation? The spirit of wanting to do something completely new and outside genre is noble and should be supported, but that doesn't mean I want to listen to the results 99 times out of 100..
So where's the solution to this Catch 22? If you try to experiment, anything catchy that results will immediately be copied, digested, watered down, and assimilated. If you stay entrenched in a genre, you're simply copying your forebears. The trick is to copy only the best, for one thing, and to copy from varied sources. And being the first to discover something new, the mark of true genius, certainly doesn't hurt.
Rule 3: Meaning. Is 'Yummy Yummy Yummy, I Got Love in My Tummy' really going to change your life?
I once read Michael Stipe say that REM was more influenced by the Archies than the Beatles. I say that is a bunch of bull patooey. Is there any way that meaning has such small importance in their music that this can be true?
This rule is the foremost reason why people care a rat's ass about Bob Dylan. Sure, maybe some of his songs are catchy even though his music was mostly usual, 'rootsy' rock and blues. And, well, his lyrics are certainly original, but if they hadn't been talking about things that are important to the listener, would people have deified him as they have? If he was earnestly singing 'Like I Really Want to Go Steady with You' instead of 'Like a Rolling Stone', would anyone have cared?
This is the category that explains Rap music. Rap music's beat, and less often its lyrical hook, may hold some catchiness. Let's not joke about originality in rap music after about 1992. There hasn't been any. But meaning, for millions of minorities and white kids....it's got it in spades. I'm not here to debate what meaning rap music has and whether that meaning is constructive and useful or not, but it must be agreed that rap music has meaning for a lot of people or it wouldn't sell for any other reason.
Meaning is not limited to lyric content. Jimi Hendrix's guitar held quite a bit more meaning than his frequently lame lyrics, for example. Grateful Dead fans found a lot more meaning in the band's live performances than in their studio albums. Brian Eno creates music scientifically calculated to interact with physical and psychological structures, for God's sake. Elvis Presley's meaning wasn't even necessarily musical, either. He was a young white dude singing black music. If Elvis had been black no one in their right mind would call him the King of Rock 'n' Roll. I could go on and on...
Meaning is probably the most personal of all of these first rules and most definitely the easiest to screw up. Lee Greenwood's 'God Bless the USA' holds a lot of meaning for a lot of (stupid redneck) Americans, but this American finds little that applies to him in those lyrics. If true importance of lyrical content were the most important factor in choosing what to listen to, we'd all be Joan Baez fans. Protest singers would be #1 on the Billboard charts week after week, but they're not, at least the last time I checked. Cliched love songs still hold a lot of meaning for a lot of people who continue to buy the shit out of them, while only the most original or catchy hold much meaning for me. And who's to judge if a song has no meaning at all? A lot of early REM songs have recycled folk-rock melodies, and the lyrics, man, are about NOTHING if you read them off a page, but still they move me. Must be something intangible in there...just the way it sounds that gets me.
If the method by which catchiness is transported is a hook, the method by which meaning is transported is sincerity (or perceived sincerity, see Rule 4). This is the fundamental difference between 'low' art and 'high' art, and one of the quickest ways to my heart or my trash bin. I'm not cynical enough to doubt that Bono really feels strongly about a lot of world issues, or to think that Neil Young is ever putting it on. They really feel strongly about what they're saying. I also really get the feeling that the guys in AC/DC are a bunch of old hornballs. I also seriously doubt the sincerity of say, a Mariah Carey. This perceived sincerity can be an illusion, though, which brings us to...
Rule 4: Perceived Sincerity. The Intangibles...or how else can you explain getting Something from Nothing?
Warning: This is really confusing writing.
So, in short, you have to have a combination of the three above rules, and really they are so interconnected that it is impossible to truly separate them. A good rock record needs to have catchiness, originality, and meaning, even if one of them is simply perceived to be there. Get me? If a band plays blues with such conviction and belief, it may simply grow importance, catchiness, and even originality, or at least provide a good reason for being able to forget about one of the above that may be missing. This is the reason we buy live albums and go to live shows. Shit man, most of the time you KNOW the song, you KNOW how catchy it is, its no longer original (unless we're seeing the Dead or Phish or something), you're ALREADY FAMILIAR with the meaning...but you need the Energy, the Conviction, the Loudness, the Ritual, the Big Statement, the Dancing, the Grimacing Faces, the Rock 'n' Rollness of it all, or you just wouldn't care to go to the show. This is what I like to refer to as the Suspension of Disbelief factor. Or maybe the Rock 'n' Rollness factor. Just as you wouldn't enjoy a movie if you kept reminding yourself there are highly paid actors who are just doing another day on the job (and would probably act like jerks if you were to meet them in real life), you can't enjoy music if you see the guys up there are simply doing a job, going through the motions, performing as rotely and professionally as possible (and would probably be jerks if you met them in real life). You have to be able to believe them, get swept up by them, bang your head, act like an idiot, simply because you believe (and believe the artists believes) in such sentimental things as the Power of Rock Music or the Scariness of Heavy Metal or the Transportational Ability of Prog or some such bullshit when its actually just mouth noises and notes, just like the most meaningless, cliched saccharine pop.
Take the case of the Rolling Stones. They have zillions upon zillions of dollars, and have had them for nearly 40 years. For some reason I believe that Keith Richards is sincere about his love of performing Rock n Roll, while Mick Jagger is somehow not quite so sincere. Its probably just a big act and I'm buying into the facade, and my perception is way off base, but it does influence my enjoyment of certain songs. I don't know these guys personally, I don't know what they really think about, but my perception is that Keith Richards goes to sleep thinking about how great some obscure reggae musician is while Mick Jagger thinks about his mutual funds. Therefore I'm 10 times more likely to wear a Keith t-shirt than a Mick t-shirt, and the fact that I wear rock t-shirts at all is testament to this Rule.
Of course, irony is the killer here. Its all a big joke, all bands are businesses, sell outs. Its all just facade. Glam rock is based on this ironic pantomime of rock dress and plasticity. Groups like Primus are built upon irony, deflating myths, making fun, and whatever else Primus means by what it is they do. Nirvana...was Kurt Cobain ironic or not? He told us to believe him with one hand and then castigated us for believing him with the other. Is Queen being ironic? They could certainly make a lot of people believe in their songs, believe that 'We Are the Champions' and how we are all one and blah blah blah, but geez! They were so flamboyant and overboard about how they went about it, should someone take them seriously? 150 million people in the country of Russia do. I guess its how much conviction we perceive the artists have in being ironic, or some circular justification that leads us around following our own tail.
All I'm trying to say here is that sometimes its more enjoyable to watch Kiss in concert than King Crimson. And why Van Hagar and VH3 suck so much more than the old band with DLR. Dig?
Secondary Considerations - Factors that may influence the above ffactors, or may otherwise affect overall enjoyability, though not as much as Rules 1-4.
Instrumental Prowess - The big guitar solo, the drummer that can play a million miles an hour, the really great singer, or simply the correct way to bend a blue note. Without this, sometimes other factors can make up, and too much of this and not enough of the others leaves listeners cold. Can sometimes raise a mediocre song up to enjoyable status. Lack of prowess can definitely lower a decent song to unlistenable status. Lets be honest, no one wants to listen to music played badly all the time. And though things like the ability to play a bunch of harmonically correct scales faster than lightning is absolutely anathema to punk, there is room for some instrumental prowess in punk rock. You have to know something about your instrument to play like the Ramones, because it's not as easy as it seems.
Good Production - For fans of the 'George Martin was the Fifth Beatle' theory. Here I define production as the mixing, recording, pressing quality, and all of the 'technical gremlins' that influence the sound besides the writing and performance. Like Instrumental Prowess, putting down a bunch of great songs on shitty tape with bad mic-ing and a horrible mix ruins the songs. As the 80's attest, though, there is such a thing as over-production, and it ruins songs just as fast as bad production. The best kind of production is the kind that allows the songs to shine, and is either 'transparent' to most listeners, i.e. doesn't get in the way, or influences the sound in a manner that brings out the inherent qualities of the performances.
Image and Packaging - This is really a large component of Rule 4 above. Face it, if it weren't for the 'Beatles are Coming' promotion in New York in 1962, the Beatles would have never generated the hype to get them on the radio, much less the Ed Sullivan Show. If the Sex Pistols didn't swear on TV and claim they were destroying Rock Music, no one would have cared. Kiss would never have sold a single record without the face paint, comic books, and cool record covers (see also Rebellion, but a really childish version of it). I'll be honest, hype and image influence purchases quite a bit. Does it make a great rock record? Not at all, but it can change the way we perceive something. One should try to get past this while objectively reviewing albums, but it's impossible.
Concept - Like George Starostin, I like albums with a concept to tie the songs together. Not that every album has to be Tommy or something, but a nice thread tying songs together helps one understand what the artist is trying to say. Doesn't need to be taken overboard like the mid-70's Kinks, however. And some concepts, like Uriah Heep's goblins and wizards crap should just be abandoned in a ditch by the side of the road. But a good concept can certainly help. Like the fact that Madonna's I'm Breathless is actually a concept album about starving Ethiopians who have stepped on depleted-Uranium landmines while wearing furs and eating free-range chickens. Wow, man, I like totally have new respect for her!
Cool Rock True Stories - Part of Image and Packaging, really, but but doesn't the idea that Eric Clapton secretly lusted after George Harrison's wife aid to your enjoyment of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs? It certainly does for me.
Lack of Annoying Factors - Seems to usually apply to singer's voices. I mean, like Rush can play and stuff, but geez, Geddy Lee's voice is hard to get over when you know the payoff is not really that great. I can get over Jon Anderson's annoying voice, though, because I think Yes's music is deeper and the songs are better written.
Correct Amount of Instrumentation and Sonic Density - I tend to like music with a lot of layers to it more than music without such density, due to the fact that it holds interest over repeated listenings so much better than stripped-down, minimalist instrumentation. Of course, I don't like Willie Nelson singing over an orchestra as much as solo with a beat up acoustic guitar. The amount of instrumentation is correct for his style of music.
Rebellion - Goes with Meaning and Believability above. Rock music was initially about rebellion, and the best music has always had a sense of danger about it. Rock music caused the fall of the Communist East a hell of a lot more than billions of dollars of nuclear weapons ever did. Of course, they were rebelling in the name of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep as much or more than in the names of Bob Dylan or the Beatles, but forget that. Making your parents say 'eek!' or 'eew!' is a fundamental part of enjoying rock music.
A Sense of Humor - I'm talking a lot more about 'Bob Dylan's Dream' or 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap' here than any Ween record, but you get what I'm saying. The ability to crack a smile at the right moment adds to the success of an artist in almost every instance. I sure wish prog had more of this.
Keeping it Fast and/or Keeping it Short - Play me one song two times at two diffferent tempos, and I'm going to go for the faster version 9 times out of 10. Play me the identical song for 3 minutes or 6 minutes, and I'm going for the 3 minute version 9 times out of 10. This is simply because its easier for a fast song to sound exciting than a slow one, and easier for a long song to run out of ideas and sound boring than a short one. There are always those 10% that prove to be exceptions to the rule. The same rule holds true for albums. I may rate an album from the 70's higher than one from the 90's simply because the one from the 90's is always over an hour long, and my attention span just ain't that long most of the time. Besides the fact that even the best artists have trouble filling up a double album with winners, even in their primes. Fucking filler-packed CD's. If every band in 1971 felt like it needed to make a 70 minute double album instead of a 40 minute single, I bet a lot of those records would suck a lot more than the short classics they turned out to be.
Track Record - I'm willing to cut a little more slack to an artist that has given me a lot of great music than one who is just trying to break in, but this is my personal prejudice speaking. All of us have it. I have a tendency to harbor a lot of suspicion for a group until the hype has worn off a bit and you can look back at the output and judge it when it's not all over the airwaves/charts/MTV/your friends lips all the time. Perspective. I didn't like Nirvana until 1996, so there ya go. I was too busy listening to every Rolling Stones record I could find back in 1992.
The Overfamiliarity Factor - The occupational hazard of liking rock music too much. I seriously wish I could erase the part of my brain that remembers hearing AC/DC's Back in Black album 10 bazillion times, but I can't. It's nobody's fault but mine that I've heard those songs, and many others, so many times that all the surprises are gone and the enjoyability factor is squeezed out like a juiced orange. Fuck that. It's Radio's fault, dammit, playing the same 5 songs over and over and over for decades like there's no good music out there except for 'classic' rock. But it is my fault I'm listening to the radio right now as I write this instead of some cool record. Fuck me.
Unexplained Prejudices - Sometimes you can't explain why you like something so much. You remember listening to it waaaaay back, when you were a kid. All your reason cries out that you shouldn't enjoy it as much as you do, but the associations, the hard-wired pathways to the pleasure center are there in your brain, permanently. I associate the James Bond soundtrack album with the happiest times of my childhood, for example. I love every last song on that record more than should be legal. 'Your song' you share with your girlfriend, the album you used to smoke weed to, used to play Lego's along to. When you didn't know any better. Prindle knows what I'm getting at here, fer sure. This can inflate ratings and decrease critical effectiveness faster than water through a Mexican.
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