You read a music review in a magazine or online. In the topic line or in the body of the article the reviewer delivers a quick description of the artist being reviewed: ‘punk rock’, ‘bluegrass’, ‘heavy metal’, ‘pop rock’, ‘funk’, ‘hardcore’, ‘classical’. Those are just some basic labels. The labeling can become extremely micro: ‘psychedelic dance party industrial flaming death rock’. We’ve touched on this phenomena a lot on this blog, particularly when reviewing songs in the Grapevine articles. But is this practice good, bad or not important at all? I believe that all of those interpretations can be accurate.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with attempting to label music. There is a vast amount of musical material available. People writing reviews are usually trying to give you a short synopsis of the music so you can decide if you want to listen. I cruise through musical ‘labels’ all the time to help decide if I want to delve deeper in to a band. But as I’ve stated before, this can have a limiting effect and cause you to miss a lot of music that you might actually like. Or it might help you look for a specific musical style online by doing a search for a musical ‘label’ to find new bands. It’s just info. You get to decide how to use it.
Let’s take an example. The Dead South is a band I’ve reviewed before. Let’s take a look at their video for the song ‘Black Lung’:
If you look at how they dress and the instruments they are playing your first thought might be bluegrass music. But is it? In articles I’ve read the band itself has often stated that they don’t consider themselves bluegrass musicians. And if you really listen to the song, I don’t think I’d consider it traditional bluegrass. This song might fall better in to Americana or folk – but again, you’d be describing the music by using a label. Some of their other songs carry a total different vibe. We have talked about this in our Messin’ With The Music series. Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs use mostly acoustic instruments when recording the covers. Again, the mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, etc are often associated with bluegrass. We’ve consistently stated that we’re not attempting to do ‘bluegrass’ covers of the tunes despite the instrumentation. This pulls in another part of the overall picture. A band wants to present an image that they can be associated with. How you dress, how you look, the instruments you use help construct your image. It’s another form of a label. Fans are looking for something to latch on to. But it’s a label the band creates for themselves. If it’s in the band’s control, I think it’s a good thing. There are limitless examples of record labels creating an image for a band, often with disastrous results.
Let’s listen to another song. This is ‘Radio Clash’ by The Clash:
The Clash have always been considered as one of the great ‘punk’ bands. Is ‘Radio Clash’ a punk song? Musically, I’d be hard pressed to drop the song in to that category. But…….listen to the lyrics. They certainly embody the anti-authority, anti big business attitude of punk. One of the reasons that The Clash are a great band (in my opinion) is the wide variety of musical styles they covered in their career. Even though the music touches a lot of styles, the lyrics and attitude are pretty consistent. They were all about destroying ‘labels’, which in itself was part of their band identity. The Clash controlled their own identity and musical style. You can’t ask for more than that.
How about another one:
White Zombie’s ‘More Human Than Human’. Is it metal? Is it industrial? Hard rock? I can tell you what a great song it is in a dance club. So, can we label it? Would tacking a label on this song cause a lot of people to miss hearing it? If a song is really good, it can sometimes break through barriers and be heard by a wide variety of people (this video has over 31 million views). So labeling can be a two edged sword. Some bands will break through labeling and be successful. The vast majority of bands will never have this level of success. Maybe ‘classifying’ their music will help them, maybe it will hurt them. I think the most important part of the equation is the control the actual band has over their classification and image. If I’m in a band, I want to control my own music. This rolls right in to the topic of bands intentionally misrepresenting their style of music and image. I think that’s totally up to the band. You might present yourself one way to get more publicity. This might work and get people to view you and like what they hear. It could also backfire – “these guys call themselves country music? What a bunch of poseurs”. As long as the band controls their fate it works for me. Who doesn’t want to control their own fate?
One thing I miss that was always part of finding and classifying music is the vinyl album cover (although vinyl has made somewhat of a small comeback). You used to be able to browse in a record store and flip through this wonderful art. A lot of thought went in to the album cover design and the visuals were often created to bring to mind a certain classification of music. Does this Grateful Dead cover for ‘American Beauty’ catch your eye? Does it give you an idea of what the musical style would be? Would you buy the album just because of the album art?
Classifying items is a big part of how the human mind works. This is definitely true in almost any type of art. In the last couple of years I’ve fallen in love with landscape photography. I use many of the images for still pictures on videos on our YouTube channel. The following picture was taken in Yellowstone National Park. I altered it to fit with the music for a Steaming Mulch song. Is it still ‘landscape photography’? Does the viewer get to decide? My final thought – art is subjective. You make the call.
When you listen to music, each instrument involved (including voice) has a part in putting across the vision of the artist. In a great song all the parts contribute to this vision. It’s not really possible to say that any particular instrument is the most important. This is especially true because different styles of music use a diverse palette of available instruments to create a song. We recently did a video discussing the different ways to record electric bass. For this post, let’s talk about the importance of bass guitar in songs.
When I first started playing in rock bands, bass guitar did not get a lot of respect. When you’re young and putting a band together the players who were usually recognized by fans of the band were the vocalist and lead guitar player. If you started a band and two people were guitar players, the person who was less technical was often ‘assigned’ bass guitar duties. Or if there was a person you wanted in the band who didn’t play an instrument, you’d teach them the bass. This was because the bass player could just stay on the key note of the chord and play eighth notes. This would be enough to add a bottom to the song and improve the dynamics.
The more I listened to funk, jazz and dance music, the more intrigued I became with how the bass could control the song. The role of bass was a bridge between the rhythm and the melody. And the bass has a great effect on the song’s dynamics. Just doing a well placed ‘drop out’ on bass can kick a song to a new level. As the style of ‘post-punk’ grew, I found more and more bands that built ‘rock’ style guitars and vocals on top of funk style bass and drums. I spent a lot of time practicing and refashioned myself as a ‘bass player’. I must say it’s a great deal of fun to stand out of the light on stage and still feel in control of where the song is going.
Another interesting prospect is writing a song from the bass line up. Usually you would start with guitar parts (or keyboards, banjo, mandolin etc) or a vocal melody. We have written songs that started with bass lines. It allows all the other instruments to freely ‘wander’ where they will as the bass is holding down the chord changes. I would guess that some of the songs selected below may have been written this way.
Practicing bass became one of the most enjoyable things I do musically. Playing along with a great bass line, throwing in different changes, rhythms and scales is totally immersive for me. Everything else disappears. Following are some of my favorite ‘bass-centric’ songs (and bands) to practice with. Most of the bands here fall in to a ‘funk-rock’ category rather than straight funk style – out and out ‘funk’ bands would be another full post. I’ve picked specific songs, but in practice I’ll usually play through the entire album. Let’s groove.
The Bamboos – ‘Step It Up’
Funky from start to finish. After you get down the main riff, the sky’s the limit and you can go off on your own tangents. This album is a staple of my practice sessions.
Medium Medium – ‘Hungry, So Angry’
Although I had listened to funk growing up (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown, Funkadelic, The Meters, etc) this was the beginning of mixing my punk roots with a funk bottom. At early ‘punk’ shows you could still see bands in smaller venues and stand right in front of the stage. I learned a lot just watching what and how the bassist was playing. Medium Medium was one of the bands that pulled the ‘slap and pop’ style in to punk.
Gang Of Four – ‘To Hell With Poverty’
More post-punk funk fun. The bass and drums holding down the rhythm allows the guitar to pursue any noise it wants.
My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult – ‘Sex On Wheelz’
The bass sits way down on the bottom end for this song. Sitting on this riff for five minutes will make your fingers laugh and cry at the same time.
Talking Heads – ‘Crosseyed And Painless’
Talking Heads put out a wide variety of music over their careers. Their mid career run of albums of funk rock were amazing. I learned a lot of bass technique watching Tina Weymouth in the ‘Stop Making Sense’ concert movie (a must watch if you haven’t seen it).
The Clash – ‘The Magnificent Seven’
The Clash were another band all about musical variety. Here they combine funk rock music with rap style vocals.
Pylon – ‘Volume’
Pylon combined a solid drums/bass bottom end with a minimalist top end. If you were the rhythm section in a band like this, you really had to stay on point or the whole song could fall apart. Sounds simple, but playing live you had to keep your timing really tight.
Shriekback – ‘Malaria’
The album this came from, ‘Oil And Gold’, is another full play through practice album for me. We did a Messin’ With The Music cover of ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ from the album. Dave Allen from Gang Of Four was the bass player in this band too.
Bush Tetras – ‘Too Many Creeps’
Another solid rhythm with slashing noise on top. We first saw this band in Manhattan in 1980. If you were in New York around that time ‘Too Many Creeps’ would be your theme song. Times Square in 1980, woooooo…….