Monday, February 13, 2006

End of Good Rock?

Many people, myself included, were not only astounded at how fast U2 tickets sold out but at the disaster that surrounded the selling of the tickets. Considering U2 are one of the most successful rock groups of all time (presently equaled only by Rolling Stones in sales/years of touring), I should have expected that they'd be plently of people willing to wait outside Post Shops for hours. The entire controversy over scalping (re-selling tickets at a price higher than what one paid) is idiotic, as Not-PC long ago pointed out. Nothing is wrong with scalping, and in my view, the smart ones are those who take advantage of it. There is money to be made only because the offical ticket seller continues to under-price their tickets. Market demand obviously indicates Bono and co could get alot more for their performances in Auckland. Why they aren't doing so and investing the cash in some utopian scheme to save Africa I don't know.
Anyway, the hyseria and enthusiasm shown over U2 is kinda what I feel when I heard my favourite childhood band, The Smashing Pumpkins, was getting back together. Although 2 of the original members will not be participating, I do not think this matters a great deal. The Pumpkin, like many bands, are defined by their lead songwriter. The replacement of one member with another doesn't necessarily alter the band fundamentally. Anyone who listened to Zwan, Corgan's short-lived post-Pumpkins band, should be able to recongise the dominance he has over songwriting.
To me this is great news, as my passion for rock music has long been on the wane. So many bands today lack not only the technical virtuosity of yesterdays greatest bands, but the experimental and artistic credibility. Pink Floyd, Yes, early Genesis, Rush, or even Led Zeppelin were more ambitious and rarely settled on the same formula. They're sound progressed as further instruments and ideas were explored. A few newer acts have some appeal to me (Queensryche, Mars Volta) but most that are around - from Breaking Benjamin to Coldplay - are just too plain. Rock may continue to sell records, but it seems the age of Rock has come to an end.
Apart from the Smashing Pumpkins, there is only one other band I really would care to see today. That's Rush. To see why, take this example from the LA Times about their drummer, Neil Peart. Some may find Rock a stale form of music, but there's no doubt some within the genre are still pushing boundaries.

The passing of rock drum solos was so unlamented that I might have missed it but for a new DVD by Neil Peart called "Anatomy of a Drum Solo." Peart is the drummer/percussionist for the arena rock institution Rush and is widely considered the greatest living rock drummer. By my calculation, Peart is also the most prolific drum soloist ever. In its astounding 31-year history with its original lineup, Rush has spent more time on the road than the Roman army, and there was always, always a drum solo in the show. At least there was the five times I saw them.So I called Neil Peart to ask: What happened to the drum solo?

"Rock drummers killed the solo themselves," Peart tells me when we meet at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. "It got to be so predictable and manipulative. They cheapened it by making it a clap-along or a boring ramble."

Oh yeah. Few things in music are so grating as a long, thrashing drum solo by some sweaty dude working his way around the trap kit (Tommy Lee, are you listening?). The trouble is, it was always so. One of the sacred texts of solo drumming is Ron Bushy's notoriously flatulent 2 1/2-minute tumble on Iron Butterfly's 1968 monster hit "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."

"Even as a kid I hated that song," says Peart. "It was the anti-drum solo. There was no technique, no musicality, no dynamics at all."

If you owned this album, that's not incense you're smelling, it's shame.

Peart's larger point is that the rock drum solo, which emerged out of an honorable tradition of showmanship set by big band players such as Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, rapidly descended into musical cynicism. Partly at fault was the economics of the arena itself. When rock bands started selling out 10,000-seat coliseums in one town after another, any sense of intimacy—or rock's rebellion—was swallowed by the vacancy of the venue itself. The drum solo became part of a repertoire of arena-rock tricks to pull huge and disconnected audiences into the show.

"Asking the audience to clap along can be part of a really sincere desire to include the audience in the music or the performance," says Peart, "or it can be just like pressing a button. It can be a beautiful thing or an ugly thing."

So what started out as a virtuoso exploration of an instrument's solo potential became, almost immediately, rock's 7th-inning stretch.

The other big problem with drum solos? The audience. It became clear to me after watching Peart's explanatory DVD that civilians—which is to say non-drummers—don't really understand what they're hearing. In one section of Peart's "Der Trommler" solo, he keeps waltz time, 3/4 rhythm (PA-tah-tah, PA-tah-tah) with his feet, while playing lightning-fast 6/8 and 7/8 drum fills across his other drums. In terms of physical coordination, this is something like playing badminton with two rackets while typing with your feet. But if you hadn't been enlightened, you might think it just sounds like billiard balls in a dryer.

Peart amiably disagrees, wincing at the suggestion that the audience somehow just doesn't get it. "Drumming shouldn't be something you need an education to appreciate." After all, he says, "You can't blame the audience for everything."

Other Links:
Understanding Ayn Rand through the music of Rush
Rush, Rand and Rock


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