Festivale de Football Day 32: USA

This is it, the big one. The motherload. I've skilfully put it last to give me some time to collect suggestions, but I can put it off no longer. The US of A is the daddy when it comes to the rockin' and the rollin' and the hippin' and the hoppin'... It's produced so much great music, and innovated in so many fields. I continue to press my point that British bands tend to do things better than their Stateside counterparts (cf. Morrissey - America Is Not The World), but it can't be denied that America is the Mover, the Shaker in pop. It has been pointed out to me that America has made three great innovations that can't be contributed to external influences (or at least wouldn't have happened without the melting pot stylings of the country), the three great American-invented music forms, if you will: jazz, rap and musical theatre, but I think there's so many more than that. Country? Soul/funk? Yer blues?

I tried to flag a ride/Didn't nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by

I think I shall therefore progress chronologically through my selections, and that brings us nicely to numero uno, yer blues, yer good old-fashioned delta blues. I'm going to include two selections, both of which have seen a myriad of covers, some good, some definitely not. Where one could easily point to Robert Johnson as the father of blues, it's not really true: Son House was a predecessor/contemporary of his, and many went before. But few picked up the shivering-spine, devil-took-my-woman, hunted and haunted spirit of the blues like these two, the religious fervour, the stark realism of the songs. These are two of the most evocative recordings you'll hear, redolent of the depressed dustbowl and the troubles of life. Brian from The Rant selected the track for three Reasons: 1) The Blues is an American-originated genre. 2) The song is about selling your soul to get what you want - what could be more corporate American than that? 3) It influenced just about everything ever made after it. All three-valid reasons, depending on your politics, especially the third - Wes Montgomery once said "everything comes from the blues," and he was not wrong.

Son House - John The Revelator
Robert Johnson - Cross Road Blues

Depeche Mode - John The Revelator (Tiefschwarz Dub)
Cream - Crossroads

"Jazz is a white term used to define Black people. My music is Black classical music."

The first lady on our list is also, arguably, the first lady of jazz. Actually, that's probably not true - ask a jazz afficionado and he'd probably select Ella Fitzgerald or Bille Holliday, but that's fair enough - Nina Simone crossed more over to the mainstream than these two, I guess. SAS Radio suggested Memphis In June as his archetypal American song, and I have to admit, it was a song I was unfamiliar with. To my detriment, it appears, as this is a beautifully evocative ballad, a paean to the deep south missing out all the tensions and problems of the era (the song was written in 1945), and focusing instead on traditional Americana: shady verandas, blueberry pie, sweet oleander. It reminds me of the opening to To Kill A Mockingbird describing the Alabama midday, and it captures beautifully the lazy, hazy weekend of the southern states. It was written (and performed in the film by) Hoagy Carmichael for the George Raft movie Johnny Angel, but it's the Nina Simone version which has captured peoples' imagination over the years.

Nina Simone - Memphis In June

(Photo by Bella Of Bacardi)
I got a hot-rod Ford and a two-dollar bill

Our next chap was, until recently, the official Coolest Man In The World. Walk The Line created a huge upswell in interest in Johnny Cash earlier this year, and rightly so: great as his American recordings are, it's the Sun stuff I'm going to focus on here, the raucous, innovative country rock'n'roll that cemented Cash's place in the pantheon of greats. The track I've chosen here covers two country bases - Johnny Cash performing Hank Williams' uber-classic Hey, Good Lookin'. I remember reading a textbook (incidentally, no help at all) when writing my undergrad dissertation which textually and musically analysed Hey, Good Lookin'. As you can imagine, it managed to condense a great song into a bunch of boring details and as with the massive majority of musical analysis, misses the point by miles, but that was my first acquaintance with this excellent song. The version is from Cash's Sun days, and while not the definitive recording of the song, or even a truly great Johnny Cash performance, it's still a million times better than most people who've tried it. Johnny Cash was suggested by Colin from Let's Kiss And Make Up..., along with a couple of ace others.

Johnny Cash - Hey, Good Lookin'

"I've changed music four or five times. What have you done of any importance?"

I've not posted any jazz up to now, really, but another contender for Coolest Man Alive That's Now Dead. The track I'm going to post is from, if not the biggest-selling jazz album (I believe that honour goes to Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters), but almost certainly the most influential, most respected jazz album (I can say that safely, given that you can't really quantify influence or respect...). They say Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue is the one jazz album that makes its way into every record collection, and by golly, it deserves to. When Davis recorded a record called The Birth Of The Cool, he wasn't kidding - Kind Of Blue is the absolute epitome of quiet sophistication, a subtle meld of beautiful melodies and awe-inspiring musicianship. Not only is Miles Davis a superb bandleader and trumpet-player, but the record also features two of jazz's greatest saxophonists (Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane), but also Jimmy Cobb, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, each a master in their field, and each on top of their game here.
I don't know enough about jazz to really go into depth, and that ignorance leaves me at times slack-jawed in wonder. How improvised is improvised? Did that guy really just make that up on the spot? Did they really play off each other so perfectly? It's a stunning record in every sense. I've included here the alternate take of Flamenco Sketches (a precursor to Sketches Of Spain, which followed), which is only included on more recent pressings. Shawn from The Entroporium suggested that jazz was one of the major American musical accomplishments, so Shawn: voila.

Miles Davis - Flamenco Sketches (Alternate Take)

Yeah don't forget the Motor City (can't forget the Motor City)

Two covered, what's next? Let's try a little dancin'. No label associates with a city more than Tamla Motown does with Detroit, and to me the whole sound of Motown is encapsulated in the fantastically exciting Dancing In The Street by Martha & The Vandellas. When I heard Keiran Hebden was working with Steve Reid, I have to be honest, it didn't click. Then I saw his CV: Fela Kuti, instant credibility and cool; James Brown, instant muso respect; he played on Dancing In The Street, he what? How cool is that? This is such a seminal and historically important track, and more than that, it encapsulates (for me at least) the heatwave we've got right now - kids dancing in the street by fire hydrants, the burning heat of a city in summer... Beautiful.

Martha & The Vandellas - Dancing In The Street

"The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing"

Which leads us nicely from soul to funk. The Godfather of Soul is of course, also the absolute Daddy of Funk, James Brown. He's not one to cry out about his nation really, and although he dipped his foot into politics on occasion, it was usually at the behest of others. One of these occasions came when he was accused of not supporting sufficiently the black power/liberation movement. Rather than respond with a perfunctory, throwaway song to satisfy his accusers, James Brown goes and coins a phrase that's been used ever since. As the man in the suit on stage with him says, James Brown. He's The Man.

James Brown - Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)

"Mark Farner's wild, shirtless lyrics, the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher, the competent drum work of Don Brewer"

The next track I'm not so proud of, but as suggested by Kraigg (who also supplied a video link), it's worthy of inclusion. Early 70's American AOR is not my idea of a good time, but what do I know? Not as much as the American public apparently, as Grand Funk Railroad continue to be huge over the pond. We're An American Band succintly sums up why, "We're an American band/We're comin' to your town/We'll help you party it down." It's a less verbose, less esoteric, 70's frat version of the Eagles if you can imagine/stomach such a thing. It's not without it's charms I guess, but I have to confess I wouldn't have included it (or heard of it) had it not been suggested.

Grand Funk Railroad - We're An American Band

(photo by danocamera)
"I'm totally down with insurrection in the street. I've had a great time with that over the years."

Next up on our time line, we come to the late seventies, and to San Francisco. No longer do you wear flowers in your hair to come here, now you watch out for the burning cars on the front of Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. Jello Biafra hectored the whole world from his surf-punk soapbox, and indeed the whole city when he ran for mayor of SF, and few political punk bands have been as effective/well-known/notorious as Dead Kennedys. To finish the job, they closed the record with a song as all-American as anything, one that celebrates the high-life and the low in one of the countries most famous locations, and did they nail it? This is such a great cover.

Dead Kennedys - Viva Las Vegas

"Son, don't you understand?"

According to my hasty calculations, the next big thing at this point was the New Dylan, The Boss himself, New Joiseys own Bruce Springsteen. If you listen to Born In The USA at the beginning, you could be forgiven for thinking he's not all that far from his NJ neighbour, By Jovi. Far from it, though, The Boss (while not the genius many think he is) is a talented guy, with a real knack for words. The song was hijacked as a Reagan campaign song, which does the guy a disservice - if big Ronnie had listened to the actual words, maybe he wouldn't have been so keen. It's a satirical and pretty biting tirade and once you see past the humungous synths and that drumbeat, a pretty telling account of a working class life. Sure, it's no Ken Loach film, but for a stadium-filling yank, it ain't bad. James from The Life Of Rilo suggested this'un.

Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA (live in the San Siro stadium, Milan 1985)

(photo by alana jonze)
"Real people do real things"

Next up, hop on over to Long Island for yet another political number. Carlton Douglas Ridenhour and William Jonathan Drayton, Jr. are not, as expected English gents, but are in fact better known as Chuck D and Flavor Flav respectively, together the vocal and visual front of the single greatest hip hop act there's even been - probably ever will be. If you've ever listened to hip hop from countries outside the States, you'll know the vast majority of it is a joke. It seems to be something only the Yanks can properly pull off. And no-one raps better than Chuck D, no-one spins wax like Terminator X (I'm quoting, I don't really speak like that).
Although their debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show was critically acclaimed, it was the following two records which cemented the group's importance. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, featuring Don't Believe The Hype and the ace Bring The Noise, and Fear Of A Black Planet, with today's track (again a suggestion of Colin), Fight The Power - probably the group's anthem. It's a statement of intent and a call to arms, from "our freedom of speech is freedom or death" to "straight up racist that sucker was."
Lemme hear you say...

Public Enemy - Fight The Power
Korn ft. Xzibit - Fight The Power

"I recall that you were there/Golden smile and shining hair/I recall it wasn't fair"

Next up chronologically is Athens, Georgia's most famous sons. One of a number of American contenders for Hugest Band In The World recently, they've gone commendably and progressively kookier over recent times, Michael Stipe appearing to employ more and more face paint with each successive show. REM were always one of those bands that was always there, the kind where you forget how many great songs they wrote. I remember hearing In Time, their Best Of collection of songs '88-'03, and every single one's a winner, every one is known by everybody.
I've chosen a song (the band was recommend by kitten) from the Green album, REM's Warner debut (after signing for a rumoured $6million). As ever, it's wistful and insightful, nostalgic yet with it's feet firmly in the now (or the then, if you're going to get picky). It's not the most well-known track on an album featuring hit's like Stand or Orange Crush, or the beautiful You Are The Everything, but it's a great tune and sums up a lot of what REM are about to me, that nostalgia for days past mixed with regret and happiness and sadness and joy, and all put together with a very current, unique sound. There's no-one quite like REM...

REM - I Remember California

I stayed at home on the Fourth of July, and I pulled the shades so I didn't have to see the sky

Calling a genre slow-core is bound to throw up a few derisive sneers, and rightly so. As names go, I wouldn't want to be tagged with that one, heck no. When a band cites the Velvets, Jonathan Richman, Joy Division and Spacemen3 as their key influences, I guess you see where descriptions are coming from, but in Galaxie 500's case, I still don't think its appropriate. The band met at Harvard University, that great seat of learning, which covers at least one American archetype, and indeed their first drumkit was borrowed off Conan O'Brien, covering another; but what Colin suggested this track for was the name of one of their biggest singles - the weaving guitar and hazy vocals of Fourth Of July, from 1990's This Is Our Music album. It's a really pretty song, with it's slightly woozy vocals matching the Velvet-y guitar sounds and the lethargic, stay-in-bed-still-a-little-drunk lyrics.

Galaxie 500 - Fourth Of July

(Photo by riotonsunset)
No one sings like you anymore...

If there was one thing the US did better than anyone in the 1990's, it was The Rock. Now, I don't mean the Limp Bizkits or the Creeds of this world, but burning out of Seattle in the late 80's came roaring a college rock sound so ace that it pretty much took over the world. Factor in Metallica's early nineties heyday and a bunch of the more innovative bands and you have yourself a healthy scene.
Of course, the media latched onto a common location and lumped bands together that ordinarily wouldn't fit, and included some predecessors and some randoms in there, and went and had a field day. So you had the punk rock of Nirvana bordering Pearl Jam's classic rock, Soundgarden's metal and the slow grind of the Melvins with the slacker anthems of Dinosaur Jr. I remember the tail-end of grunge rather than it's heyday: I remember Black Hole Sun on Top Of The Pops, I remember hearing, but not really caring, that Kurt Cobain was dead. I remember Soundgarden splitting up a year or two later, and that affected me more. Soundgarden were full-on ace: the hirsute psychedelia of Kim Thayil's guitar, the pounding (more competent than Grand Funk's, even) and over and above it all, the soaring, rich tone of Chris Cornell's classic rock'n'roll vocals.
Supergroups are a funny business aren't they? They rarely work all that well. Take maybe the most important rock band of the nineties, Rage Against The Machine. Rage were frighteningly amazing: where Thayil's guitar was hirsutely psychedelic, Tom Morello's was all-over-the-place-inventive, a maelstrom of sounds previously unheard eminating from a fretboard. Where Cornell was an unabashed crooner, Zack De La Rocha spat righteous fury like literally no-one ever before had. So what do you get if you put one of the finest instrumental sections in American rock with one of its greatest singers? Audioslave, a disappointingly sedate and uninteresting amalgam. What should work like magic is simply a curiosity. Ah well. Here's how we should remember them: separately.

Rage Against The Machine - The Ghost Of Tom Joad (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Soundgarden - Come Together (Beatles cover, obviously)
Paul Anka - Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden cover)

(Photo by alientologist)
Gonna drink my bean and walk out smoking on the Walt Whitman Bridge

That brings me pretty much to the end, of this fairly mammoth post (for me, at least) and for the series. I'll leave you with a band that ties together the shambolically joyous rock'n'roll of Johnny Cash, with the slide-driven blues of Robert Johnson, and the country stylings of modern-day heroes like Ryan Adams. Marah have burst out of Philedelphia in the last few years (West Philadelpia born and raised? Who can say) to universal acclaim. Although yet to match critical with commercial acclaim, the band are poised to do big things. From last year's If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry (their last album bar the Christmas release, A Christmas Kind Of Town), this is one of the record's (and the band's) high points. Hurrah for Marah, as they say: although he doesn't know it, this is Paul's choice.

Marah - Walt Whitman Bridge

Buy American music here
Buy Robert Johnson/Son House/Depeche Mode/Cream/Nina Simone/Johnny Cash/Miles Davis/Martha & The Vandellas/James Brown/Grand Funk Railroad/Dead Kennedys/Bruce Springsteen/Public Enemy/Korn/REM/Galaxie 500/Rage Against The Machine/Soundgarden/Marah

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CIA Factbook: United States Of America


Anonymous said...

That REM contract was $60 million my man

Rah said...

Thanks! Well-selected tracks, iconic images and evocative writing. Great work all around.

Rachel said...

This is a phenomenal post, so well done, I enjoyed every moment. Very nice work, indeed.

red one said...

nice post!

But the US is not the only country that can do hip hop. There's plenty of good stuff from all over, but at any rate you shouldn't miss out on French hip hop, especially if you like the political stuff.


kitten said...

I remember california is a good call. Sorry for laming out on a song choice (they would have all been mean and you know it) but you did well enough. Quite the R.E.M. packed day yesterday huh? Ah well...

Brian (from such great blogs as the rant) will love it I'm sure. He's known to be almost as big a fan of R.E.M. as myself you know :P

If I end up with 'Fight The Power' in my head all day because of your post though you're going to be in so much trouble.

Oh Simone said...

Thanks for the comments, kids, much appreciated.
Red one, I concur with your statement, but would you agree that the US does it best? My only knowledge of French-language hip hop is Sens Unik, really, which didn't impress. I need to learn.

SAS Radio said...

Awesome post - it must have taken a ton of work. Very enjoyable, very well-written, and impressively representative.

Btw, I had a bit of a start scrolling down when I saw that photo of Biafra - for some reason it makes him look like William Shatner! Never noticed that before. But JB ALWAYS wears that same belt - so I know it's for real.

Nice one, again.

Anonymous said...

British bands tend to do things better than their Stateside counterparts? Such as apply makeup and bat from both sides of the plate? Every Brit "rocker" from Billy Fury to whoever is currently at the top of the watered-down, fopped out homage to American music is at best a capable apostle and typically a over-polished gelding. My case is made by the authorative quote from sissy-rocker, Morrissey. Bless his heart for being so emotionally right: America is not the world, but the best rock and roll bands are and always will be American (Chuck, Berry, The Stooges, Gene Vincent, Link Wray... I'd go on, but I'm bored).

Oh Simone said...

You may be right re. rock'n'roll in it's strictest sense, but haven't the biggest bands in the world been the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen...

I still stand by my argument, and I'm not sure what batting from both sides has to do with anything.

Shawn @ Entroporium said...

Well done, OhSimone. But how did we both miss Elvis?