My wife and I have found a number of bands over the years by taking a chance — we’ll read a favorable review and say “let’s try them”. (We’ve also ended up with a few ‘I can’t believe I bought that one’ albums.) That’s how we stumbled upon the Meat Puppets. Pre-Internet, it wasn’t easy to check out bands before buying, so you had to plunk down your money and hope for the best. My wife decided that good review + weird name = let’s buy it, so we got our first Meat Puppets album in the mid-80s. It turns out that they’re a great band that has produced a lot of terrific music.
The band was formed in 1980 in Arizona, by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood (with Curt on guitar and vocals and Cris on bass) and drummer Derrick Bostrom. They started out as a hardcore punk band, and later added psychedelic rock and country elements to the mix. They have disbanded a couple of times and then re-formed. They are currently together (as of January 2012), and released the album Lollipop in April 2011.
Curt Kirkwood is one of the best guitarists I’ve heard, and that, more than anything, is why I’ve followed their career and bought several of their albums. I think that their taste for the bizarre and macabre in song lyrics and images in their videos is the main reason why they remain relatively obscure. In a previous post, I talked about how, for me, the lyrical content of a song isn’t very important as long as the music sounds good. The Meat Puppets are a good example of a band where this comes into play. If lyrics matter a lot to you, or if you’re looking for an emotional lift from a song, you probably won’t think too much of the Meat Puppets. I love them because their music sounds so good. As an example, here’s a video for the song Orange from last year’s Lollipop album:
One of their best-known songs from the early days was the title track of their third album, Up on the Sun. Here’s a video that includes some of Kirk’s improvisation:
The band reached their peak of prominence in the early 90’s. The members of Nirvana were big fans, and they invited the Kirkwood brothers to appear with them on their legendary 1993 appearance on MTV Unplugged, where they did three Meat Puppets songs in their set. The Meat Puppets’ next album, Too High to Die, released in 1994, was their most successful, and the single Backwater made it onto the charts. Here’s a video of them playing Backwater:
Here’s another great song with huh? lyrics, Scum, from their 1995 album No Joke (“Under the stone, we find the scum”):
To conclude, here’s one more video, for the song Vile from 2011’s Lollipop album, which I want to include just because it’s a damn good song:
Neil Young is an amazing musician, a master of several styles of guitar playing. In addition to being the godfather of grunge rock, he’s also outstanding playing folk and country, and has challenged himself by playing with a wide variety of people through the course of his career. He’s also as good at songwriting as he is at playing. In another post, I recommended his film Rust Never Sleeps. In the film, he does the same song two different ways — folk and grunge — demonstrating his mastery of both styles. Here are videos (not from the film) of both versions:
Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue) is the folk version, performed on acoustic guitar with harmonica. This version is from from Farm Aid 1985:
Hey Hey My My (Into the Black) is the grunge version, performed with Crazy Horse. This version is from the Phoenix Festival in 1996:
He first became known in the US as a member of the short-lived but highly influential band Buffalo Springfield. Here is a video of them doing Neil’s song Mr. Soul at the Hollywood Palace in 1967:
Neil collaborated with Crazy Horse many times over the years. He’s playing with them in the grunge version of Hey Hey My My (above), and he played with them in the film Rust Never Sleeps. His first collaboration with Crazy Horse was the album that established his prominence, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which was released in 1969. This trailer describes the effort in 1997 to restore and release five tracks from the band’s March 1970 performance at Fillmore East. Here’s one of those tracks, Cowgirl in the Sand:
Neil and Steven Stills were both members of Buffalo Springfield, which led to Neil playing with Crosby, Stills and Nash on occasion through the years. Here are Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young performing Ohio on 3/30/2000 in Toronto:
Neil played with many musicians over the years. For example, he recorded his twenty-third studio album, Mirror Ball, in 1995 with Pearl Jam as his band. Here they are playing Rockin in the Free World:
I’ll freely admit that I like his rock music the best, but I also like his acoustic music. For the last twenty-five years, he has held an all-acoustic benefit concert for the Bridge School in Marin County, California. The list of performers over the years has been a “who’s who in rock and roll” (look at the list of performers in the history section of the website). He’s made an effort over the years to include younger artists. Here’s a performance from the most recent concert in October 2011, with Neil and fellow Canadians Arcade Fire doing Helpless:
Here’s another performance from the same show, with Neil doing Pocahontas with Beck:
As with some of the other artists I’ve written about, it’s hard to decide where to stop. I hope I’ve given you motivation to go find more about this great artist, and some clues as to where to find it.
My wife and I, on our first date, went to a Frank Zappa concert (April 1973 — we’ve been married since 1975). That qualifies me as one of the few people who has romantic thoughts associated with Frank Zappa’s music. His music can be challenging. If you are looking for simple and straightforward you won’t find it here.
The man was a musical genius, whose interests included many things outside the borders of rock and roll. That included avant-garde composers, Edgard Varèse in particular, and 50’s do-wop music. He also had a delightfully twisted sense of humor. He made a lot of music that was not rock and roll and, as a result, he developed a reputation among many mainstream music fans as a maker of weird music.
For those of you who only know him by reputation, the first thing we need to do is establish that he was an amazing guitar player. Listen to his playing on Willie the Pimp, which also features his high school friend Captain Beefheart on vocals and what can only be described as blues violin:
Willie the Pimp is the second track on the Hot Rats album; the first track is Peaches en Regalia. I found the following video, which uses Peaches en Regalia as the soundtrack for an old Mickey Mouse cartoon, to be tremendously entertaining. It shows the sense of fun that is present in a lot of his music. Note the spoof of the Hot Rats album cover (the image in the Willie the Pimp video) at the very beginning:
Frank Zappa first gained notice as the leader of The Mothers of Invention. The following video is from Paris in October 1968. I think you could call it avant-garde bluesy jazz with some absurd humor thrown in, but that would probably be over-simplifying.
In 1969, Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention (primarily for financial reasons), and released Hot Rats as a Frank Zappa album in October. I graduated from high school and started college in 1969, and didn’t start expanding my musical horizons until I got to college. Hot Rats was the first of his albums that I heard. I didn’t find out about the original Mothers until they were already over.
In 1970 he formed a new version of the Mothers to tour with. This version included three former members of the pop band The Turtles. (Here’s a link to the band’s website and a link to a video of their biggest hit Happy Together). Due to contract problems, the former Turtles couldn’t record using their real names, so Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman called themselves the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, which was later shortened to Flo and Eddie. Here’s a video of this band doing Call Any Vegetable from November 13, 1970 (a good example of their weirdness).
This was the version of the band my wife and I saw on our first date — April 27, 1973 at Dillon Gym, Princeton University. Flo and Eddie were there, as was French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. We arrived at our seats about 7:20 for an 8:00 show and Zappa was on stage because apparently they had a new guy on the sound board that night. He was out there for about another 20 minutes before going backstage to get ready — it was an interesting behind-the-scenes look. If anyone has a set list from this show or knows where to find one, please let me know.
One other touring event from this period deserves mention — they were playing at the casino in Montreux, Switzerland, when an audience member set off a flare, starting a fire that burned down the casino and destroyed the band’s equipment. This event was immortalized in Deep Purple‘s song Smoke on the Water (didn’t know that until I was researching this post).
The albums Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe (‘) (1974) led to his most commercially successful period. (Watch out where the huskies go, don’t you eat that yellow snow.) Here’s a video from Saturday Night Live in December 1976 doing I’m the Slime:
Frank Zappa released over 75 albums (according to a 12/1/2010 interview with his son Dweezil) before he died of prostate cancer in 1993. Other great albums that I haven’t mentioned yet include 6 volumes of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, and Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.
For even more information, visit the Frank Zappa website. Also, his son Dweezil has put together a band to play his father’s music. Visit the Zappa plays Zappa site to check on their touring schedule.
As I said in my Introduction for this site, I listen to the voice as an instrument – how does it sound with the other instruments – more than what the words have to say. Practically speaking, that means a song could be one of my favorites despite the fact that its lyrics are lame. Ten Years After: 50,000 miles beneath my brain? Huh? I’ll admit that there are songs that I really like, and have listened to over 100 times, for which I don’t know all of the lyrics.
For example, the following two videos are R.E.M.’s first national TV appearance October 6, 1983. They performed Radio Free Europe (one of my all-time favorite songs) and an at-the-time unnamed song which was later called South Central Rain. I don’t know if the lyrics are lame or not, because I can’t figure out what most of the words are, and it hasn’t been important to me to look them up. The fact that Michael Stipe has his hands on the microphone means that most of the time you can’t lip-read to get a hint. I DO think that he has an awesome singing voice, which fits perfectly with the band.
As an aside, when writing this post I was pleased to find a “clean” version of the Radio Free Europe performance. When I first found it, in the only copy on YouTube (and still the most viewed), some clown had added a dialog balloon with “I’m gay” at about 0:50. It says a lot about the person who did it and nothing else. When I’m listening to a singer, I want to know how well they can sing and if they fit with the musicians. I don’t care who they sleep with.
So you might be thinking ‘How can you call it one of your favorite songs if you don’t know the words?’ It has to do with the differences in how people experience music. For many, you could say it’s like poetry set to music — the lyrics form a picture in your head, and the sound of the music plus that picture are how you experience that song. For other people it’s primarily about emotions — how the song makes you feel. For some it’s just background sounds.
In addition, I don’t think people experience music the same way all the time. I may not care much about lyrics, but if I dislike the lyrics strongly enough, it doesn’t matter how the song sounds. So I think each person experiences music in some combination of the ways I described above.
The sum of all this is that when you ask people for their favorite songs, the lists will differ. I’m not offended if you don’t like some of the songs I’ve featured here. How do you experience music?