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When we think about anti-government songs, naturally the mind wanders to the punk and folk genres. And usually these songs are terrible. Three to four chords, awkwardly forced lyrics, musicianship that would make Simple Plan blush. Fortunately, there exists songs that not only rock, but also have a good ol’ fashioned anti-government message. Because these songs feature actual rock and roll played by actual musicians, hippies, indie kids, and punks should use caution when listening.

7. The Trees – Rush

PEART-INENT LYRICS: So the maples formed a union/And demanded equal rights/The oaks are just too greedy/We will make them give us light/Now there’s no more oak oppression/For they passed a noble law/And the trees are all kept equal/By hatchet, axe, and saw.

This prog-rock classic by Rush from their 1978 album Hemispheres is a searing attack on unions and forced equality. The use of oaks and maples makes the lyrics a little too cute, but the message is loud and clear.

6. Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who

KEY PHRASE: There’s nothing in the streets, looks any different to me/And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye/And the parting on the left is now parting on the right/And the beards have all grown longer overnight.

Won’t Get Fooled Again isn’t exactly a libertarian screed– Pete Townshend probably shares more in common with socialists than libertarians– but the lyrics definitely harken a world in which both the left and right fight for their own good and the people get the shaft. Every third party candidate should adopt this song as their own.

5. Bulls on Parade – Rage Against the Machine

KEY RAGING: Line up to the mind cemetery now/What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive an movin/’They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em/While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells

One of the hardest rocking songs ever written, and a dynamite screed against government. Rage Against the Machine may be awful, horrible left-wing nutjobs, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground with libertarians. They hate the government, we hate the government. They hate the military industrial complex, we hate the military industrial complex. They hate capitalism, we hate… [END OF SIMILARITIES].

4. Symphony of Destruction – Megadeth

LORD ACTON-APPROVED LYRICS: You take a mortal man/And put him in control/Watch him become a god/Watch peoples heads a’roll

Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine may be insane, and he may not be a lyrical genius (see above,) but he can shred a mean guitar and he hates the government. The song itself rails against the corruptive power of power. Lord Acton would be proud.

3. Taxman – Beatles

THESE LYRICS APPROVED BY GROVER NORQUIST: If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street/If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat/If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat/If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet

Not the subtlest lyrics ever written. But damn are they accurate.

2. Electric Eye – Judas Priest

NSA NON-APPROVED LYRICS: Up here in space/I’m looking down on you./My lasers trace/Everything you do./You think you’ve private lives/Think nothing of the kind./There is no true escape/I’m watching all the time./I’m made of metal/My circuits gleam./I am perpetual/I keep the country clean.

If there was ever a song to describe the past few months, this would be it. Priest may have written the song in 1982 as an homage to George Orwell’s 1984, but it holds even more meaning in today’s ever-expanding surveillance state. It’s easy to imagine the analysts at the NSA cranking this over their loudspeakers as they record your personal conversations. “Electric Eye” was so prescient it was even noticed by Stephen Kinsella at Lew Rockwell.com.

1. Cult of Personality – Living Colour

BLINDLY FOLLOW THESE LYRICS: I sell the things you need to be/I’m the smiling face on your TV/I’m the cult of personality/I exploit you, still you love me/I tell you one and one makes three/I’m the cult of personality/Like Joseph Stalin and Gandhi/I’m the cult of personality

According to Wikipedia, “Cult of personality” refers to “an idealized, heroic, and, at times god-like public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” If there was ever a song to describe the past 5 years… “Cult of Personality” isn’t just one of the best songs ever written, it’s also informative and educational! Living Colour name drops Stalin, Kennedy, Gandhi, and Mussolini, and includes a snippet of FDR reciting his famous “nothing to fear but fear itself” speech. A killer riff, history, one of the great guitar solos of all time, a thoughtful examination of the dangers of hero worship and a complicit media; this song has it all.

Self portraits 188For the rest of the summer, you can catch me on WPTS 92.1, which is the University of Pittsburgh’s radio station. Every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. I try to play a good combination of old time, jug bands, string bands, blues, bluegrass, country, punk, rock, alt this and that, folk, etc. It’s been great fun so far, and people seem to like it. Or, the four libertarians on twitter who have killer taste in music seem to like it.*

You can stream it live on Wednesdays at 3 (though sometimes I start a little late) over this way. During those hours, I tend to tweet @wptsrequest, but I don’t have a lot to work with, so if you want a request, I suggest giving it to me a week early.

It’s a good show, if I say so myself. Even if I am a radio pipsqueak, turns out people are right, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

* Somebody fund this gold and gave us four a radio show. Unpopular politics¹+unpopular music²= $$$

¹ No, Rand Paul does not count.

² No, Mumford and Sons does not count.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.

Earlier in the show, Stanley called Nathan, his grandson, and the technical lead singer of the Clinch Mountain Boys, “Ralph Stanley Jr.” Nathan quickly corrected him, saying “I’m your Grandson” and made it clear to the crowd that the rest of the band also knew that this was Pittsburgh (woooo!) and not “somewhere in Ohio?” as Ralph mumbled or inquired as if he didn’t much care. (I know I didn’t).

The Clinch Mountain Boys do carry Stanley. They play lots of songs that highlight their impressive playing and singing, especially Nathan’s a-little-too-smooth style. (Nobody was smooth like Ralph’s late brother Carter, who was silk and butter, but not shiny, uncomfortable vinyl. Carter drank himself to death in 1966).

Christened in his childhood church days — Primitive Baptist, so services only allowed vocals, no musical instruments — as “ the boy with the hundred-year-old voice,” Stanley may not reach the century mark that would officially grant him having grown into that voice. Yet his age and stature surely make more sense when you hear him sing now. And he can sing.

When Stanley sang “Rank Stranger,” I got that elusive, hair-raising feeling that goes beyond just being happy to be there listening. It came when Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua sang “River of Jordan” in the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA last year. I felt a ghost of it when my friends Jason and Stephen played and harmonized on “Little Birdie” last summer. But the Stanley Brothers’ arrangement on “Rank Stranger” is something else.  In their version — and the Clinch Mountain Boys echoed this on Saturday — Carter starts clear and strong, “I wandered again/ to my home in the mountains….” Ralph is faintly harmonizing here, but first it’s all Carter on display. His voice is classic country, but not unpleasantly so. He’s sad, earnest, warm — and then Ralph takes the second verse with “everybody I met seems to be a rank stranger” and his eerie, ancient voice brings the song to an entirely different place. The contrast in the brothers’ vocals — familiar and unearthy together — hits your spine, your knees, everywhere.

There’s a reason, you see, that this Oxford American poem from the point of view of God says “I have… a voice like Ralph Stanley.”

That voice is not as strong as it was at his peak, but it’s still there, that high droning power. While Stanley sang “Rank Stranger” I just clutched at the hem of my dress and felt so happy I could melt. In those moments, I want nothing, and it’s wonderful.

He sang “Little Maggie,” and “Mountain Dew,” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and other Stanley standbys, too. He didn’t need the lyrics sheet again.

And then he sang “O Death.”

The acapella version from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack won Stanley a Grammy in 2002 and cemented his place in the history of country music. He earned that decades before, but the delighted reaction to the song — a dirge straight from the hills of Appalachia with unknown origin — is entirely justified. But it’s still strange that it’s so popular. The lyrics, addressed to death, are frightening to anyone who has suffered a moment of existential angst. I don’t like to listen to it very often. I don’t want to sap it of its power. Also it’s really scary.

At the Art’s Festival, when Stanley began “Death/O Death/Won’t you spare me over for another year,” my only concrete thought was a prayer; let people — for once — shut up. There were some “woooo” and “owww” sounds at the start, but I was in the front and in my earshot people shushed the loud folks. For most of the song, most of the people were silent.

In fact, I have never heard that powerful a silence at a concert. The palpable quality of the hush reminded me of the graveyard near my grandmother’s cabin in Montana. The graveyard has a dozen or so folks buried, many of whom had  only wooden headstones. Those names are now rubbed away. All ten or 12 individuals — including a baby lastname, and a man with a great ghost story/cautionary tale about not taking a dead man’s remains — were all buried in the late 19th century. They died of diphtheria, and they were tucked away in the mountains to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s a strange place, almost pine forest again. The old fence is almost rotted back into the earth. Nature is winning over man, and that provokes big, scary thoughts on being human when you visit. But it’s also a beautiful spot to spend forever, even if your forever means only your bones in the ground. That graveyard also contains the biggest, loudest quiet I have ever heard. The air of the place seems charged (“the very air come and go with me”). I grant that this feeling may come from my own head. I still feel it in my body each time I go there.

That’s what I thought of when Ralph Stanley sang “O Death.”

Ralph, whose hand I shook after the show (I gushed a thank you, and a “you made my whole year!” He might have smiled a little, he certainly thanked me) got a lot of response from that uptight, Pittsburgh crowd. He stood for the whole hour and a half show, even though a chair rested on stage if he had needed it. His face was solemn, which he apparently always was even as a young, shy man. (He used to let Carter talk to the fans.) He mostly clasped his hands like a boy in church, as he waited for his turn to sing.

He tried to demonstrate the old clawhammer power on “Shout Little Lulu.” That was the very first song he learned — his mother taught it to him. On Saturday he had it, then he lost it, and the band, all full of love, covered for him as best they could. And we in the crowd cheered for him. When we kept clapping and encoring, he thanked us all and blew earnest kisses.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. Ralph Stanley is fading away, as we all will if we’re very lucky.

Ralph Stanley is not a living legend because he is old. You don’t clap for Ralph Stanley because you are kind. He is not a feeble relative to watch over and encourage like a child. You applaud because you are selfishly grateful that Ralph Stanley is here to carry all this music with him. He’s carries it for us, and he has enough of it to give. He calls his grandson his son, and his fingers aren’t nimble enough for the banjo, but on stage he can still go back to his boyhood, Primitive Baptist Church days and stand, hands neatly folded, and do what he was born to do.

Concrete Blonde! Another band that feels like imaginary LA: That is the one that mixes the 60s, the late 70s, the 80s, and the early 90s. That is also Dad tending bar and taking over the LA Times letters. Mom hanging out with Peter Scolari and getting hit on by John Hurt while waiting tables. They meet. They go see Stop Making Sense, they have a few kids. Exene Cervenka lives down the street at some point. Everyone reads Joan Didion and watches cool-MTV until we have to move because of crackhead neighbors and because I get asthma and pneumonia  Soundtrack by the Talking Heads, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, The Cars, X, and the Blasters. Plus, Kingdom Come, I suppose. If only because I don’t remember living in LA, but I do remember the first I saw Uncle Dan without his hair metal hair.

Anyway, this is an anti-cop song, for an added bonus.

The greatest song about a dusty Bible that there is, which is impressive since the other one is by Hank Williams Sr. Fun fact: my friend Bob is still apologizing for going to see the Fox Hunt one night in Pittsburgh. I was taking a nap, he did not wake me up.

Latent Chatham University impulses coming up for me here, but I would love if Tegan and Sara always were this rockin’ and catchy.

One of my favorites by the Stanley Brothers. It makes me want to love the Lord in a way that only Ralph Stanley can.

Took me long enough. Sheesh.

 

 

A vitally important music snob question: which version of “Wagon Wheel” is worse?

A) Generic country-rocker Jeremy McComb’s:

B) Darius “Hootie” Rucker’s:

Trick question, I don’t care because they’re both too boring for me to stay awake. Neither is dynamically bad enough to bleed the ears, they just made a great song significantly less good. Which is a strange thing to do —  to make a song ache less.

Now Laura Jane Grace (formerly known as Tom Gabel) of Against Me! managed to actually cover this now-fratty-douchebag-request song and make it even more gut-wrenching and lonely-sounding. This cover bridged one favorite band to another for me. It is excellent.

But, even though secretly we real music snobs go to Old Crow Medicine Show shows and roll our eyes at “Wagon Wheel” and the hysteria the prospect of it invokes in one-trick fans, please observe how good the original song sounds. And in spite of the wonky lip syncing, how rockin’ this video is, sexy dancing girls, carnival, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings cameo and all:

Still, the winner of all “Wagon Wheel” is this obscure BBC version, with the band cozied up around one mic. The very end cuts off and that drives me nuts, but damn if this version doesn’t make me weep for the lack of Willie Watson in the Old Crow of today.

Check it, and know that no matter how many acoustic guitar dudes cover this song, it will still be great. And more to the point, no matter how I hate the people who go to see Old Crow and drunkenly shout for “Wagon Wheel!”, when the band does play it, the sloshing idiots who only know that one song become a bit more bearable for those four minutes — because we all love that one damn song. And, uh, maybe that’s what liking sports is like all the time, or something. We’re all in it together, is what I mean. Even if they should act like that for “James River Blues” or “Raise a Ruckus” or other, arguably superior songs as well.

No, the real point is that the covers of this song are perhaps like a Taylor Swift song, or something that I kind of like, that’s a little catchy, more fun than average radio noise. Something to which I might listen a few times and like. Maybe if I just heard songs I liked that much, I would think that’s what music sounds like. It would be nice. It would be fun for parties.

But then there’s songs like this, and voices like Willie Watson’s, and that is just another fucking universe from the well-crafted, fun enough stuff — and that’s my music.

That’s the good stuff. That’s the hair-raising stuff.

  1. Robert W. and I, somewhere in the woods of New Mexico, Against Me!, spring, 2006.
  2. Honorable mention: Robert and I, same trip, the hills of SF, listening to the New Pornographers and Joe Jackson albums, which he had just purchased from Amoeba records.
  3. And again, Robert and I on the very first day of the road trip, listening to “Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth — a beautiful spring day and the prospect of three weeks before I had to see my home again.
  4. The clouds and I up in an airplane, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (the “Global a-Go-Go” album), a general feeling that I wasn’t scared to die because there were clouds, Joe Strummer, and I. Date unrecalled.
  5. Tara, Steve, Jason, and I, Parker and Woolbright’s “The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never was  Married Man”, somewhere in Tennessee or North Carolina, December, 2010.
  6. The Carter Family and Old Crow Medicine Show on the headphones, a Greyhound bus in the middle of Montana, August, 2008.
  7. A Grateful Dead song that involved the name “Barbara”, Steve, Jason, Mia, Dina, and I, a speedy descent down the Great Smokies, January, 2013. 
  • io9 on whether end of the world fiction is just a trend that has reached its saturation point. Still, always loved it way more than, say, vampires (the obligatory trend example in most such pieces).
  • Hiroshima, USA.
  • The top 15 nuclear war movies, according to someone. I am very behind.
  • I am currently watching the disappointingly terrible Panic in Year Zero! over here. On the plus side, the helpful youtube user seems to have uploaded a stunning collection of truther, anti-Semitic, and JFK videos, plus other nuclear war movies like Threads (which I gotta finish one of these days), plus a bunch of…Little Rascals episodes. I love the internet.
  • Also, this youtuber has uploaded a bunch of Cold War songs, which I will be bookmarking.
  • This slideshow suggests the best ’80s songs about nuclear war. I don’t know most of them, but the exclusion of “99 Luft Balloons” is not acceptable.
  •  Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov wins the Dresden Award for not nuking the shit out of America in 1986, even when an error made things look like five nuclear missiles were heading for the USSR.
  • This is terrible, particularly the headline — “War with Iran: Real, horrific costs, but what benefits?”
  • Wendy McElroy rhetorically asks in a non-Alex Jones kind of way, “Should You Be Hoarding?”
  • College professor thinks Stalin didn’t commit any crimes, the worst thing might be that half the students clap after his lunacy. Paging: Michael Moynihan, Michael Moynihan.