2002: Cody ChesnuTT - The Headphone Masterpiece
If not for a chance conversation, Cody ChesnuTT’s The Headphone Masterpiece would still be a buried memory. And that is very unfortunate.
When I bought the album in high school I felt as if I’d uncovered a rare gem. Sure, my purchase was informed by Rolling Stone’s review, but these songs didn’t fall under the slickly produced R&B rubric of the time. For one, the cover looked like a slapdash graphic design produced with cheap computer software. And across two disc’s worth of material, ChesnuTT explored varied sounds, from neo-soul to rock and roll with only his voice, instruments, and a scratchy sounding multitrack recorder. It’s safe to say that this was my first experience with lo-fi music.
But now I experience the album quite differently. I see the cover as an extension of the message. On the bottom left there are flags of Germany, Japan, and the UK along with a Rastafarian flag and a purple flag which I can’t identify. This is the album: elements of the known and unknown brought together with a personal touch. The name Headphone Masterpiece doesn’t strike me as arrogant or ambitious either. Rather, it seems to me that this is how ChesnuTT genuinely felt. Hell, if I produced ninety plus minutes of music in a sustained phase of creativity, I too would think I’d created a masterpiece.
So when I was reminded that this album had been collecting dust in my collection, my first feeling was regret. I felt as if I’d forgotten a friend whose eccentric company I very much enjoyed. I still remember hilariously irreverent lyrics such as “Thank you Jesus, for my mama/ And I thank you bitches, for my money.” But now it doesn’t feel the same. Artists like Ariel Pink and Here We Go Magic move me with stripped down production and bedroom intimacy. ChesnuTT, however, reminds of a time when musical curiosity and shock value meant more to me than feeling. And while I think Headphone Masterpiece is a seminal neo-soul album, it doesn’t speak to me like it did before. I guess I wish we’d kept in touch.
1965: Los Saicos - “Demolición”
Music is vital. Music never gets old. But what about battle cries? What about the power of watts gone by? What about the pioneering noise of snot nosed kids who made a tremendous racket because they had nothing better to do? Can they do it again when they are old men?
I asked myself those questions as I attended a concert headlined by living legends Los Saicos, who, in case you were not aware, invented punk. Back in 1965 these Lima, Peru adolescents recorded and released “Demolición”, a song under two minutes long that manages to be rocking in the noisiest way, with singer Erwin Flores proclaimed his general desire to decimate a train station in the hoarsest, most sneering of voices. One guitar strums the chords festively while the other hovers like a surfing helicopter; it’s a thriving song, hard and ugly. No wonder it’s considered the unknown cornerstone in the farthest reaches of the punk’s DNA.
One needs reminded that great songs don’t die, or are preserved as long and as good as giant turtles. Witnessing a reformed (and quite grey) Saicos play “Demolición” twice in front of a Spanish speaking crowd going apeshit over some old men reviving their rocanrol fantasies made me think that a) These guys sound remarkably good for a bunch of oldsters who haven’t been active for a long time and b) This song kicks ass and immediately grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go until you thrash and jump and pogo and scream and dance and do everything that music is supposed to do with you. I wouldn’t know since I am Spanish speaking myself, but I bet you don’t need to sing along to every nuance of the lyrics to get the power of what they are trying to convey.
It’s only rock n’ roll, the Rolling Stones once said. But it’s also fucking Rock n’ Roll. Secreting endorphins and reflecting in the now, that life is happening at this very moment and everything’s real. It’s everything this music aspires to be and it affects the listener, no matter the language or the time that has passed.
What I’m sure about is that Los Saicos weren’t thinking about their legacy when they wrote and recorded this song (How could they? They are singing about tearing down the fucking train station, for crying out loud!), yet here we are and “Demolición” sounds as menacing and vital as anything released on Goner or your favorite scum garage joint connection. It probably represents the very essence of rock n’ roll, distilled to the very core elements – simple yet aggressive instrumentation and performance, angry youth singing mad about something or other no matter if it’s important or not, strong rhythm to dance or to destroy your room to. That makes it great to a lot of us, something we feel the need for in our life. And surprisingly, considering the nihilistic time and attitude it portrays, it has aged quite well.
Here’s fan filmed footage of the show I attended, so you can grasp how the band sounded and the crowd’s reaction. It was quite a great show, I have to say.
1973: Incredible Bongo Band - “Apache”
Last week Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album, Watch The Throne, saw its official digital release. Ratings and criticism aside, it is as much boastful as it is homage. A collection of today’s most innovative producers, all under the watchful eye of West, generously co-opt classic funk and soul – the back backbone of hip hop. The first single, “Otis”, heavily samples “Try a Little Tenderness” by the song’s namesake. “New Day”, produced by the RZA, twists Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” into a psychedelic piano-laced dreamscape. If for nothing else, Watch The Throne is a display of sampling panache.
On the sixth track, “That’s My Bitch”, Tribe Called Quest visionary Q Tip and the rest of West’s production group use the break from “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, a familiar, if not cliché sample. Perhaps second to the “Amen” break, the “Apache” break is hip hop, rap, and dance music’s endless recyclable. From the Sugarhall Gang’s “Apache” to Nas’ “Made You Look”, artists have taken the rolling, punchy drum segment and used it as a back beat. Some, like Faboy Slim, keep to original title. Others, including Madonna, Vanilla Ice, and the Roots, go for reinvention, changing the name of the song and the sample’s utility. Regardless, it is a standard; the closest hip hop, rap, and dance come to the blues scale or three chord progression.
In light of such ubiquity, Q Tip and West’s producing team do their best to inventively appropriate the “Apache” break. Dark synths color the melody while an electronic drum kit holds the beat. Only at the chorus does the classic break pair with the new drum sound, and by that point the song posses its own character. The contrast of the playful sample with the foreboding instrumentation makes something upbeat but sinister, like a fast paced montage in a gangster film.
So while “That’s My Bitch” may not be an entirely original track, it is a clever attempt to connect the past to the present. It shows West’s attempt to be the definitive successor to hip hop’s forebears while also reminding us of the enduring elasticity of the “Apache” break.
1967-2010: “The King of Fuh”
It wasn’t just success that eluded Brute Force; notoriety did too. If he had managed to get the necessary publicity after Apple Records championed his mild piano rock song “The King of Fuh”, he might have been as successful as his peers predicted. Instead, radio stations and distributors refused to handle his song about a furry King, with its bizarre, controversial chorus: “All Hail the Fuh King.”
Unfortunately, as the years passed without success and Stephen Friedland descended through fresh hells of addiction, a marriage breakdown, and an ill-advised job in plastics it became clear that he had become a salutary warning about the dangers of cultivating an overly obscure sense of humor. His inspiration had been Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge, who was famous for his absurd, self deprecating stage act. Friedland claimed that his humor was like Borge’s – “heavy funny”: humor with deeper significance. But Borge was not an antsy comic, and despite his avowed influence, Friedland did not reveal exactly what the significance of his own songs was either.
Friedland had been an accomplished musician. Ironically, anticipating his own lost misunderstood years, he wrote The Chiffons’ song “Nobody Knows What’s Going on in My Mind but Me” (his own version is worth hearing too). He also played with The Tokens, who had scored the hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” In 2010, he and his fans felt vindicated when his album, I, Brute Force, Confections of Love was re-released. As in a gentle comedy with a happy ending, he came out of cranky retirement and began playing at festivals like SXSW with a hip daughter whose friends had reminded her of her Dad’s pop cultural significance. While the deeper significance of Friendland’s humor is still buried (on songs like “Tapeworm of Love” for instance), his notorious hit-that-never-was proves that although it is somewhat uncomfortable to dwell on our baby-boomer Dads’ knowledge of such things before our time, stuff like death, taxes, and the “Fuh King” are our birthright and show no signs of going away.
1983: The Plimsouls - “A Million Miles Away”
One of the most depressing songs in the world to me is “A Million Miles Away” by the Plimsouls. Not because it’s a bad tune or an overtly sad song. It’s actually a great singalong track that’s well executed and stands the test of time, one of those songs that stays with you after a single listen, that you swear you’ve heard before but can’t really place. It’s a quintessential power pop songs that should have topped the charts like Cheap Trick, The Replacements, or Marvelous 3. But it didn’t. And that’s what makes it so depressing.
As I’m writing this, I feel terribly lonely and sad for no good reason, at least not a good reason if you’re an adult. The John Belushi movie Neighbors is on TV but I’m not paying attention to it at all. I’m switching tabs to browse my Tumblr and checking Twitter for signs of life; I’ve been listening to punk records for the majority of the evening and I feel like I’m on the verge of tears but not quite there yet, not quite tired or enthusiastic enough to actually let go of the lump in my throat. Now I listen to my treasured copy of the Plimsouls Everywhere at Once – which still has the price tag stuck on the cover, displaying $2.99 US mint – and I keep replaying “A Million Miles Away”, a song that, if you have no idea of it’s actual historical impact, sounds like the biggest hit of 1983. It was featured on the famed movie Valley Girl, proving a common occurrence in teen cinema: the little known but melodic band rocking onscreen instead of a big act. And it makes me feel empty, nostalgic, and pathetic that the world never did justice to this song – the radio played it but not as much as they should have and it didn’t chart very high. Nowadays, hardly anybody sings the praises of the song or the band. Why is it that some bands have all the luck? Is it timing?
Although the cause of my angst and embarrassing adolescent night has little to do with the perceived success of an 80s pop rock band, it saddens me that talent for writing wonderfully constructed pop songs doesn’t come with any guarantees. Of course, a great song has nothing to do with popularity; radio hits, the ones that aren’t trendy or novelty, aren’t made for the masses, they’re songs that speak to an individual and fill their particular lives with something – fun, excitement, sadness, yearning, all and more of the above. These songs can speak to a universal feeling, accepted by millions of individuals, not a faceless mob of hands-swaying drones. If you write about something more particular, the song might speak to a selection of the crowd instead of the whole, and “A Million Miles Away” is that kind of song, one that could have reached millions but was only heard by a few. Still, it rings true to those who have received it, their very own hit song that topped the charts in their particular world for a time. There it remains a classic, like a true friend you hardly see anymore but feel comfortable enough when you do see him/her to just lay in silence, interrupted only by a knowing glance and the cascading sound of laughter from memories of good times that have passed.
1975: Bob Marley & the Wailers - Live!
In the city of Lisbon, situated on a narrow street in the prominent nightlife quarter of Bairro Alto, there’s a small cavernous bar called Bar Pescador (“The Fisherman”). Most nights the proprietor, a jolly Cape Verdean man named Horacio, excitedly paces in and out of the establishment, proclaiming “Bom dia!” to passersby and dispensing beers to patrons. The space is draped with posters and tapestries depicting Bob Marley. To Horacio, Marley is more than a beloved musician. The ethos of the reggae legend permeates all aspects of the bar, from the strong herbal scent to the entertainment – a nightly offering of live music. And not coincidentally, the musicians who play at Bar Pescador often cover Marley, translating his greatest hits into Portuguese but preserving the original melodies and vocal flourishes.
During a visit to Lisbon, I had the good fortune to stumble upon Bar Pescador and returned multiple nights to hear Marley tributes. My favorite performer was a Brazilian man with long dreadlocks and a broad smile. Dressed in loose, flowing clothing, he looked like a kindred spirit of Marley and interpreted songs such as “No Woman No Cry” with similar ease and charisma, substituting the verses with a Portuguese translation but keeping the English chorus.
Serendipitously, at Lisbon’s flea market, Feira da Ladra, I stumbled upon a copy of Marley’s first live record, Live! The album itself is a fantastic representation of Bob Marley and the Wailers energy. The band and the crowd’s reciprocal energy is contagious. But for me, having a recording of Marley’s live music is a vehicle for remembrance. Listening to the songs transports me to Bar Pescador, affirming the remarkable connection between music and memory.