Let’s rock out with our cocks out

I wonder how people passed on musical information in days of yore (before You Tube I mean). Was it a knees-up around the pianola? A quavering exchange of plucked lute strings at ye olde village fayre? A clattering of burnt sticks about the fire after it got dark in the cave?

As I’m learning singing and guitar, the Internet gets a sound beating every time I need to nut something out. All my lyrics sheets, guitar chords, music videos are to be found therein – my metronome is an app on my phone, and I can get online to Gibson.com any time if I want a lesson by some dude in a bad shirt wailing away on the official black leather couch/exposed brick/fluoro lighting combo of Serious Guitar (just walk into any guitar shop and see what I mean).

My teacher’s coming in from all angles, and the songs I’m ‘mastering’ (read: destroying) range from Gershwin to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, to Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, gospel songs and lullabies. In my own time I bone up on Nick Cave, Ween, The Smiths, The Grateful Dead, Elvis, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton. I learn these by occasional get-togethers with mates, but mostly extensive online searches and obsessive replaying of You Tube clips to drum the song into my head. I found out that not only did Cab Calloway cover the classic St James Infirmary, but Janis Joplin, Louis Armstrong and Leadbelly. I play these clips again and again and again.

The kids! They’ll never know what it was like before (my sister’s junior designer was genuinely confounded, upon being asked to design a record sleeve, about the ‘A’ and the ‘B’ side of vinyl – true story). So how did we find out about music previously?

I used to wear out cassette tapes while perched beside my hand-me-down stereo with the missing door. When I got my first walkman I wore out the batteries playing ‘When the Going Gets Tough’ from my 1986 The Hits tape (I remember being yelled at by my family for this transgression – not for the noise, but for being a complete dag). If I was lucky I could go into one sister’s room when she wasn’t using her record player and try out some of her Nubiles, The The or Lime Spiders albums. Happy days. I’d be chased off pretty quick though after I’d break out the Terence Trent D’Arby.

When I fling out conversational musical sallies, younger people appear to have little knowledge of the past – and yet they have more resources at their fingertips than ever before! The whole scene seems entirely arse-around (god it’s hard to write about modern music without sounding ancient isn’t it? Even the word ‘modern’ sounds hideously 1930s. And ‘younger people’? Kill me).

According to the NY Times, classical musical virtuosos are a dime a dozen these days. They reckon it’s because audiences and critics are demanding more of their infant prodigies, and that back in the day – I presume the day when people would actually leave the house to listen to a piano recital – a lot more clunkers and dud notes would be tolerated. The inference being that times are slicker now? Maybe the music is somehow ‘better’ or more evolved?

What confuses me is that while I know Hip Hop or R&B is not to my personal taste, every voice on radio seem to be auto-tuned out of all recognition. This is an unpleasant, grating sound indeed. On the very odd occasion when someone comes along with actual musical talent, say Adele or Amy Winehouse, they’re praised to the skies as being purveyors of ‘real music’ (although it must be said that regarding the latter, not a single word was written about her gorgeous voice until after her death). The phrase ‘real music’ is one I’ve noticed that comes up regularly in discussions online.

One of the major hurdles in my lessons is improvisation – surely what separates mediocre musicians from great ones, and what I would consider the ability to create or interpret a song to suit their own ability and still be unique and easy on the ear. While honking away in my curiously low register (my range is shared with Elvis, Morrissey, Nick Cave but no female singers), I find it very hard to branch out. When my teacher asks me to get crazy with a pretty easy tune I shrivel up inside – even in the very private setting of her living room.

She has since shown me an easier way to come at it by singing a song on one note only but with a different rhythm, then introducing another note then another. This doesn’t result in Christina Aguilera-style shrieks, or what is technically known as ‘fucking around with a perfectly good note’, but it has made a speck of difference. On the topic of improv, it seems that a phenomenon such as Glee, which does nothing but fuck around with every good note and trample on the memory of every great song and band in the universe, gets more ratings, awards and praise than the musicians did when their songs were first released! Does the fact that the singers on this show can monkey about with scales make them good, or that they’ve really ‘got’ the song?

One final point I need to make here is that despite all my virtual help, technology, recording equipment and gadgets, my mad skillz are more early Sid Vicious than the lovechild of Yngwie Malmsteen and Buckethead (tears). I have discovered that only years of practice is going to get me anywhere in the world of wailing and shredding. Who’d’a thought?

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Filed under guitar, music, music lessons

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