People have different relationships with music. Some people really never have a personal affinity for music and at most it serves as background noise for them. Some people listen to the radio or streaming and like certain songs and styles but it really goes no further than that. Then there’s some people for whom music is an integral part of their daily lives. Like a lot of others my relationship with music falls in to the last category. Listening to music, reading about it, searching for new songs and playing instruments and writing songs are a daily part of my life. I couldn’t imagine not being involved with some aspect of music. Both my parents enjoyed music. I’ve always payed attention to the music playing for as long as I can remember. When I was ten I began taking guitar lessons and have been consumed by music ever since. I continue to search out new styles and bands to this day.
I think there’s a certain time in your life when a lot of your musical roots are set. Your late teens through your twenties are an especially fertile time in your musical education. It’s pretty logical as a lot of what you will be for the rest of your life is set during this period. For people who are more casual consumers of music, the music you latch on to during this time may be what you stick with for the rest of your life. This becomes the “they don’t make good music like they used to” group. The music from that era of your life brings back all the memories of discovery and intense emotion that took place then. It’s a time of constant discovery that may never be duplicated. As you settle in to adult life you’ll hold on to those times. They’ll remain the peak of your involvement with music. You’ll move on to other things that are more important to you. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Even though I continue to search out and listen to new bands and styles, still go to see live music when possible and try to learn new instruments and song writing techniques, that period in my life will always be special. It was more than music. It was a huge part of my identity. It was how I dressed, how I thought about life situations, who I hung out with. It wasn’t occasional. It was a daily affirmation. I hit this age at a time of musical change. The beginning of the first wave of punk rock. I certainly got caught up in that. But what really became my life was the beginnings of what became known as ‘post-punk’. The music, clothes and attitude of everyone in to it was definitely out of the mainstream at that time. Which suited us just fine. If you were highly involved you felt ‘part of the tribe’. A lot of factors kept it tribal. It was the early 1980’s. There was no internet (although the internet is a great source for finding or putting out music, I’m not fond of the fountain of negativity and anonymous vitriol that it has created). You learned about new bands from magazines, fanzines and friends. It was the high time of college radio – we were lucky to have several great stations in our area. Living in the Lehigh Valley in PA we were close to Philadelphia and New York and got to spend a lot of time in smaller clubs up close and personal to the stage. We’d often go to the clubs without knowing who was going to be playing – you just knew it would be a good show. Special shout out to the East Side Club on Chestnut Street In Philadelphia. It was a ‘membership’ club (so they could stay open later) and was our home base for a few years – you can find sites on line that talk about it and list some of the shows (http://punks-on-acid.blogspot.com/2016/09/east-side-club.html is one example).
For this post I thought I’d pick out three bands from that era that made a big impression on me musically and how they specifically informed my song writing. If you read our blog, you’ve seen them mentioned before.
Echo And The Bunneymen had it all. The look, the sound, the mystique. Their first two albums remain on constant play for me to this day. Even though some songs were released as singles, the albums were cohesive and felt like they needed to be listened to start to finish. The song writing lesson I learned was keeping the groove locked in as a pulse throughout a song. Second, the drums tended to be played more as multi measure riffs rather than a straight beat with fills thrown in. Most people have heard of Ian McCulloch (vocals) and Will Sergeant (guitar), but I always felt that Pete de Freitas’ drums did so much more than just keeping a beat. The first song ‘All That Jazz’ establishes a solid pounding groove with the drums, bass and vocals. When the guitar comes in it is crisp and rhythmic. You keep the rhythm sharp in the instrumental parts – again, the drum snare rolls are tight. The second song, ‘Over The Wall’ taught the song writing lesson of making the song a journey. It builds slowly and keeps the instruments in the background until they suddenly burst in. The idea of having drum riffs instead of a simple beat with fills is best heard at 3:02 in the song. You hear how to write a song with peaks and valleys so that the entire piece has changes in dynamics throughout the song.
The next band that had a big influence on my playing and writing is Medium Medium. They only put out one proper album, ‘The Glitterhouse’ and a few singles, but had a heavy influence on how I wanted to write songs. I had always been a fan of funk music. I loved the sound of some of the foundational bands, Sly And The Family Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, The Meters. Medium Medium showed me how to merge funk with post-punk. The idea of leaving a lot of open space in the song. The outsized presence of bass guitar tying in to the drums. Having guitar and vocals skitter across the bass and drum foundation. The sound of another instrument, in this case sax or guitar, blasting in here and there. The first song, ‘Further Than Funk Dream’ has an example of the beauty of the ‘drop out’. At 3:45 it drops down to a simple drum beat. Vocals come in on top. Then you bring everything back in a 4:38. The second song, ‘Hungry, So Angry’ is still one of my favorite all time songs. We’ve covered it several times. This album honestly made me switch from being a guitar player in bands to being a bass player. The joy of controlling the groove.
The third band we’re going to talk about today is Joy Division. They had a huge influence on a whole generation of bands and song writers. There’s a number of song writing style ideas I took from their music. The idea that music could feel so ‘dark’ and still be enjoyable. To this day, I don’t know that I write a lot of ‘happy’ songs. Even if the music sounds upbeat, a lot of the themes are dark. Joy Division reinforced the idea that the song production could be very spare and empty without being ‘boring’. The bass guitar was played in higher registers on the instrument. This made me think of writing with the bass guitar being the more ‘out front’ and melodic instrument and the guitar tied more to rhythm and dynamics. They demonstrated how to use drums in a different way sonically. You can really hear this on the first selection ‘She’s Lost Control’. Their songs made me think about writing songs where the music doesn’t overwhelm the vocals or lyrics. Hearing songs that are so tied in to emotions is really interesting when you’re at an age where emotions are felt so strongly. It lets you know you can tackle these type of issues when you write songs, it doesn’t have to be all sunshine and happiness (although we need those type of songs too). One of my favorite cover versions we did is our cover of ‘Isolation’, the second song here. We replaced the keyboards with guitars – you can find the video on our YouTube channel. I’ll always be sad about not getting to see them live (their live shows were a lot more ‘punk’ – if you get a chance, see Grant Gee’s documentary ‘Joy Division’). We had heard they were coming to tour the U.S. for the first time and were crushed to hear Ian Curtis committed suicide right before they left. There’s musical lessons and life lessons. Joy Division gave me both.