A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Percussive Mimicry

From time to time, pop and rock bands need to include a specific, non-musical sound in their songs – generally something that will complement the lyrics . While they could simply ask their audio engineer to overlay a sound effect in the studio, many bands will often call upon their drummers to use their drum kit, or any other instruments as well as objects they may have – castanets, bells or even wooden blocks – in a creative way in order to mimic that sound.

Over the past few months, I’ve been listening for examples of this creative use of percussion instruments. The more I heard, the more impressed I became with versatility of the modern drummer. This is what I’ve compiled so far – I’ll be adding to this list as I discover more examples of percussive mimicry. If I’ve missed anything noteworthy, please let me know in the comments.

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Band: Bananarama
Song: Shy Boy
Effect: Heartbeat
Lyrics: “I never missed a heartbeat [SFX], sitting in the back seat.”
MM:SS: 00:25

Shy Boy AC-2

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Band: The Beatles
Song: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
Effect: A hammer being struck on someone’s head.
Lyrics: “Bang [SFX] Bang [SFX] Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon her head”
MM:SS: 00:48
Comments: I couldn’t find the original Abbey Road version of this song on YouTube. This was the closest-sounding version I could find.

BAR AC-2

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Band: The Beatles
Song: A Day In The Life
Effect: A car crash.
Lyrics: “He blew his mind out in a car [SFX], he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.”
MM:SS: 00:44
Comments: A drum fill mimics a car crash, or (as I interpret it) a car rolling over several times, before coming to a stop with its freshly-deceased occupant inside.

BSP AC-2

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Band: Doug & the Slugs
Song: Too Bad
Effect: Gunshot.
Lyrics: “A 45… goodbye! [SFX] I used with no hesitation.”
MM:SS: 02:32
Comments: In the official video, Doug Bennett is despondent over a failed relationship and shoots himself in the head. As he crumples to the ground, his love interest merely rolls her eyes. Miraculously, Doug survives with just a little bit of stage blood on his forehead.

Too Bad AC-2

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Band: Duran Duran
Song: Is There Something I Should Know?
Effect: Jungle drums.
Lyrics: “People stare and cross the road from me, and jungle drums [SFX] they all clear the way for me. Can you read my mind, can you see in the snow?”
MM:SS: 01:52
Comments: I wasn’t sure if I should even include this example, because it’s essentially a drum imitating another type of drum. Yes, this mimicry is a bit of a stretch…

Duran AC-2

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Band: Huey Lewis & The News
Song: The Heart Of Rock & Roll
Effect: Heartbeat.
MM:SS: 00:02

Sports AC-2

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Band: The Knack
Song: Your Number Or Your Name
Effect: Subway train wheels.
Lyrics: “Caught a glimpse in the subway, but you weren’t going my way. You were lost in the rumble of the train [SFX].”
MM:SS: 00:57

Knack AC-2

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Band: Paper Lace
Song: The Night Chicago Died
Effect: Clock ticking.
Lyrics: “And there was no sound at all, but the clock up on the wall [SFX].”
MM:SS: 02:24

Paper Lace AC-2

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Band: Rough Trade
Song: High School Confidential
Effect: High heels against the hard floor of a high school hallway.
Lyrics: “You can hear, her stilettos click [SFX]. I want her so much, I feel sick.”
MM:SS: 00:45

Rough Trade AC-2

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Band: Styx
Song: Don’t Sit On the Plexiglass Toilet
Effect: The sharp staccato sound of a toilet seat smacking against the base of a toilet.
Lyrics: “A boy of five stands close to the toilet, holds the lid up with one hand. Won’t let go the lid for fear that, on his banana it will land [SFX].”
MM:SS: 00:21
Comments: This is a hidden track from their 1973 album, The Serpent Is Rising. It received some airplay during the 1980s, on the Dr. Demento Show.

Styx TSIR AC-2

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Band: Tony Orlando & Dawn
Song: Knock Three Times
Effect: A hard object hitting a pipe – presumably the pipes beneath the kitchen sink.
Lyrics: “Oh my sweetness [SFX – foot stomping] means you’ll meet me in the hallway. Twice on the pipes [SFX] means you ain’t gonna show.”
MM:SS: 00:50

Tony Orlando AC-2

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Artist: Trini Lopez
Song: If I Had A Hammer
Effect: Bell.
Lyrics: “If I had a bell [SFX], I’d ring it in the morning…”
MM:SS: 00:57

Trini Lopex AC-2

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Unintended Lyrical Inspiration: Lenny Kravitz

This post is one in a sporadic series in which I analyze pop song lyrics from a my own unique perspective, and discover inspiration where the musician never intended any. Today I’m going to examine a song by Lenny Kravitz called Always On The Run.

This song – a collaboration between Lenny Kravitz and Saul Hudson (who wrote the music) – opens with a guitar riff that’s reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, followed by lyrics that that consist of well-intentioned maternal advice. Here is a line from the first verse (at 0:52 in the video) that in my opinion, rises above the rest: 

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If your reaction to this line is indifference, then I agree that it may not sound particularly meaningful or even important. The first few times that I heard this song, this admonition didn’t do anything for me either. 

So what are we supposed to get out of it? On the surface, this line, when spoken by a parent to a child or teenager, probably means “You can achieve whatever you like in life. You are limited only by your talent and ambition. However, you can also decide to do as little as possible and coast your entire life, without striving to develop your character or a solid work ethic. The choice is yours.”

I’d like to add an additional interpretation: “Once you decide to leave the nest, you are essentially on your own. If you lack ambition and decide to coast though life, no one (other than your immediate family) is going to care if you don’t accomplish anything.”

You’re probably thinking “Come on, that’s just common sense. Everyone knows that they have to make their own mark on the world, and no one is going to care if they are not reaching your potential.” That’s what I thought too, until a decade ago, when society started to change. This change was the emergence of the helicopter parent, and the deleterious effects that their over-nurturing was having on their children.

Garden Hose

When I was a child, we didn’t have helicopter parents, and in hindsight, my friends and I had a fair amount of freedom:

  • There were no cell phones, so we could be playing with the neighbour’s kids all day long, and our parents weren’t the least bit worried.

  • I rode my bicycle up and down my street, and on the road, since our street didn’t have any sidewalks.

  • Starting in Grade 5, I walked to school and back, by myself. This was a 20-25-minute walk, each way.

  • We played road hockey, and if a car was coming someone would simply yell “Car!” and we all stepped aside. I didn’t see this as inherently dangerous.

  • I remember a field trip in Grade 6 that involved orienteering. After a lesson on how to use a compass and read a map, we were sent into the woods (in small groups) to find various markers on trees, and then make our way back to the starting point.

Parents At Job Interviews

Today, many parents not only drive their teenagers to high school, they rarely let their kids out of their sight. While you could argue that this is merely an enhanced form of parental nurturing, I call it coddling, and it doesn’t end when the children grow up and become adults. Some parents are even accompanying their adult children to job interviews, which I think is just bizarre.

What emerges from this overbearing style of parenting, is a set of unrealistic expectations from others and from society. Witness bridezillas and promposals

Helicopter Parents, Pool

If the constant, smothering attention weren’t annoying enough, some helicopter parents believe that their child can do no wrong and often blame or even harass teachers because their child is performing poorly in class.

Imagine growing up surrounded by people who give you participation trophies so that you will never experience disappointment, and who bend over backwards to ensure that you never have to exert yourself. This, to me, is similar to growing up with Secret Service protection. You will eventually feel invincible and believe that no harm will come to you, no matter what decisions you make.

That’s why I believe that many of these kids will enter the workforce with a skewed sense of entitlement. Not all, obviously, but a greater percentage than the previous generation.

That’s why Lenny Kravitz’s song lyrics have acquired a renewed relevance. Once you strike out on your own, it will be up to you to make a name for yourself, which requires paying your dues and working harder than everyone you know. If you don’t succeed, no one will care.

While society owes you nothing, this doesn’t mean that people will be mean to you. In fact, people will likely be kind and sympathetic. For example, if you are at a fast food restaurant and the cashier is a man in his mid-30s or mid-40s, you obviously aren’t going to make fun of him. On the contrary, you may think:

  • He enjoys what he does for a living – so who are we to judge?
  • Maybe this is all he’s capable of doing. We mustn’t criticize.
  • Maybe he needs to work two jobs to support his family or for an unexpected expense.

However, you’re not going to wonder whether this middle-aged McDonald’s cashier is achieving his version of fulfillment or self-actualization in his life. That’s his problem.

Lenny Kravitz GH

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If you’re a young adult about to enter the workforce, memorize this line. Better yet, make it your mantra. I hope that you will become an ambitious and accomplished person, and that you’ll make your own positive mark on the world. On the other hand, if you decide to take the path of least resistance in life, no one will care. Your well-meaning helicopter parents created an artificial environment for you, which unfortunately bears no resemblance to the real world that you are about to enter. Lenny Kravitz may not have thought about it in this way, but he has just given you a valuable life lesson.

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The Strumming Guitar Montage

Strumming GuitarHave you ever thought about how many rock and pop songs use a strumming acoustic guitar? I did, a few weeks ago, which inspired me to create this music montage. The sound of a strumming acoustic guitar may sound fairly generic, but I’ll bet you’re astute enough to be able to identify the titles and artists of the songs that use them. There are ten well-known pop and rock songs in this music montage, and they span the years 1969-1979.

As usual, there are two versions of the montage. The easy version contains one second of silence between each sample, and the other more challenging version does not. See how many songs you can identify!

The Strumming Acoustic Guitar Montage: 

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The Strumming Acoustic Guitar Montage (with silence between the samples):

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The Single-Note Beatles Montage


beatles-clipartDo you consider yourself an ardent Beatles fan? Do you know all of their music, or at least their popular tunes? Could you identify a Beatles tune after hearing only one note? This music montage contains a single note (or chord) from ten well-known Beatles songs. Nine out of ten samples are of the opening note, but one sample contains a note somewhere in the middle of the song.

As usual, there are two versions of the montage. The easy version contains one second of silence between each sample, and the other more challenging version does not. See how many songs you can identify!

The Single-Note Beatles Montage: 

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The Single-Note Beatles Montage (with silence between the samples):

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A Record Library In The Palm Of Your Hand

As part of my ongoing effort to practise mindfulness (formerly known as stopping to smell the proverbial roses), I often take time to look around and ponder the many advances in technology – not inter-generational transformations, but ones that have occurred during my own lifetime. Since change happens slowly and often imperceptibly, we may not always be aware of the dramatic advances that have occurred since our childhood.

I’m sure that most of your are familiar with Moore’s Law: In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years. As it turns out, Moore’s forecast has been fairly accurate since 1965, and has also been applied to digital storage capacity. Moore’s Law is often quoted in computer magazines when a columnist tries to predict what computers may be capable of in the not-too-distant future.

moores-law-1

256gb-usb-driveA few weeks ago, I was browsing through Amazon.com, and saw some USB thumb drives that had a capacity of 256GB. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this, since I’ve known about Moore’s Law since the 1980s, but I was still stunned by the exponential increases in digital storage capacity.

When I was in university during the mid-1980s, I volunteered at the campus radio station. During my first year I was a disc jockey, and I had my own two-hour, weekly show. Back then, they were still playing vinyl LPs and singles, since compact discs – which had just been released – were still prohibitively expensive.

The radio station’s record library was a sight to behold – it took up an entire (fairly large) room. The other, more senior disc jockeys told me that this library contained approximately 5,000 LPs, which was larger than the libraries at most commercial radio stations. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of it, but here is a similarly-sized record library:

record-library-2a

As a teenager, I felt as if I had died and gone to music heaven; everything I could think of was in that room. There were more albums than I could possibly listen to, and new music arrived almost weekly. Unfortunately, no one – not the disc jockeys or even the station management – was allowed to borrow any of the albums or remove them from the building. However, there was one exception: if we were supplying the music for a campus pub event, then the DJs would carry two or three milk cartons full of LPs to the pub and back.

At the time, it seemed like there was more music than I could possibly listen to in a lifetime, but how much music was in that record library? If I listened to one album per day, it would take me over 13.5 years to listen to those 5,000 albums.

Today, of course, most of us listen to our music as MP3 files, and the size of our music collection is often expressed in megabytes (or gigabytes), instead of the number of albums we own. This got me thinking… if I were able to digitize the campus radio station’s entire record library, how much disk space would I need?

In order to simplify the calculations, I’ll have to start with a couple of assumptions:

  • Songs vary greatly in length, so rather than use the average number of songs (10-12) on a typical LP, I decided that a more accurate measurement would be the actual playing time of an LP. According to this source, a typical LP contains between 18-21 minutes of music per side, or 36-42 minutes per disk.
  • I encode my MP3s at a variable bit rate, averaging 128-136 kbps, which works out to just under one megabyte per minute of music. So let’s round up and assume that each megabyte of an MP3 file contains exactly one minute of music.

Therefore, the size of a typical vinyl record will be between 36-42 megabytes. The average value in this range is 39 MB, but I want to be really conservative in my calculations so I’m going to assume that every LP in the station’s record library contained a full 42 minutes of music. Therefore, each album (digitized as a 128 kpbs MP3) will be 42 megabytes.

Multiply 42 MB by the 5,000 albums in the record library, and we get: 42 x 5,000 = 210,000 megabytes or 210 gigabytes.

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How Much is a Gigabyte?

This may seem like a ridiculously easy question: a gigabyte is one billion bytes, isn’t it? Well, yes and no… it depends on whom you ask. When you buy hard drives or USB drives, the manufacturers advertise 1 MB or 1 GB as exactly one million or 1 billion characters of storage, respectively. This seems logical, for those of us who grew up with the metric system, but to computer geeks, this isn’t quite accurate. In the computer world, the kilo or “k” prefix is actually 1,024 bytes (two to the tenth power), and not 1,000. This may not seem like much of a difference, but watch what happens when we start scaling upwards:

One megabyte is: 1024 x 1024 = 1,048,576 characters
One gigabtye is: 1024 x 1024 x 1024 = 1,073,741,824 characters
210 gigabytes is: 225,485,783,040 characters

Therefore, the radio station’s music library – that entire room full of vinyl albums – can easily fit onto one of those 256 GB USB drives… with room for an additional 704 albums!

Finally, if that isn’t enough to boggle your mind, consider this: thumb drives aren’t the only available format – there are now SD cards and MicroSD cards with the same 256GB capacity. Behold:

microsd-hand-comparison

Music that once filled every nook and cranny of an entire (fairly large) room now fits not only in your hand, but on the tip of your finger. This isn’t a comparison from an antiquated 1950s textbook; this colossal miniaturization happened during our lifetime, and is still continuing.

Financial planners try to impress us with what they call “the magic of compound interest” (which I don’t think is particularly magical at all – it’s just simple math). Now compare the annual growth of compound interest to the technological advances predicted by Moore’s Law, and after a couple of decades, you will also be astounded.

This is one example of mindfulness. Incredible things are happening all around us; it’s easy to be awed by your own existence by simply pausing and paying attention.

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How K-Tel Shaped My Music Listening Habits

On April 27, 2016, Phil Kives, the founder of K-Tel International, passed away at the age of 87. K-Tel was a household name back in the 1970s and 1980s, and if you grew up during those decades, then you probably bought (and may still own) some of their products, such as the Patti-Stacker and the Veg-O-Matic.

K-Tel Patti-Stacker

In addition to time-saving kitchen appliances, K-Tel also produced music compilation albums. When I was about eight years old, my parents bought me a copy of K-Tel’s Sound Explosion – 22 Original Hits, 22 Original Stars. This was a big deal to me because it was my first “grown-up” LP. Up until then, my music collection consisted entirely of children’s records. I wasn’t familiar with these Sound Explosion songs, but I was happy to be listening to the same music as my parents and their friends. A couple of years later, I acquired two more K-Tel albums: Disco Dynamite and Music Machine. With 22 songs on each album, this was a great way to start building my music collection. It was cheaper than buying all of the 45s, and took less time than recording the songs from the radio onto cassettes (which was usually an exercise in futility, since the songs were invariably interrupted by the disc jockeys).

K-Tel Music Albums

I was content for a while… that is, until I bought a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Its version of Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven was longer than the version on my K-Tel album. This seemed odd to me, since I just assumed that my K-Tel albums contained the complete songs. Of course being a kid, I had no idea how many songs an average LP contained, and I never wondered how Phil Kives was able to fit 22 songs onto two album sides. As I started listening to the radio more often I began to notice that other songs were also much longer than my K-Tel versions. I now realized what was going on, and I felt a profound sense of disappointment, and that I had been cheated. These weren’t complete songs at all – they were all heavily edited. Those K-Tel albums were the musical equivalent of a tasting menu, and (if you’ll forgive this tortured metaphor) one that left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth!

I now felt that my burgeoning music collection was a waste of money (OK, technically it was my parents’ money), since I didn’t even have the complete songs. Now I had to buy some of this music over again, in order to hear the complete songs and experience them properly. While this may not seem like a big deal to you, as a pre-teen with limited financial resources, it was a significant setback for me.

My second music-acquisition setback occurred during my teenage years. I was happily building my music collection by listening to AM radio stations (1050 CHUM, 680 CFTR and 1150 CKOC) and buying the 45 RPM singles of the songs that I liked. When I started listening to FM radio stations, it happened again. Unknown to me at the time, AM radio stations usually played the edited “single” versions of Top-40 hits, while FM stations played the full-length album versions. Once again, I felt ripped-off. However, upgrading this time was going to be a challenge. Those 45 RPM singles (at the time) cost $1.14 at Sam The Record Man, but albums – most of which contained only one or two songs that I liked – cost $5.99 or $6.99, which was quite an expense for a high school student who didn’t have a job.

In hindsight, one good thing did emerge in the midst of this musical and financial angst. I started to consider songs not merely as entertainment, but as a form of art. I also began to view disc jockeys and the music industry with contempt, for butchering this art in their misguided belief that consumers could only enjoy to songs that were packaged in small, bite-sized, three-minute pieces. This was utter nonsense; if I could sit through an entire classical symphony or even a four-movement concerto, then I could certainly digest a four or five-minute pop song.

As far as I was concerned, this wanton butchering of of pop music was blasphemous. Imagine that you are an art gallery curator, and that you’ve recently acquired an invaluable collection of well-known paintings. Your gallery is holding an exhibition to show off your new collection, and you want to give the public their money’s worth by displaying 100 of these paintings. Unfortunately, when the collection arrives, you realize that the canvases are larger than you thought, and that you won’t be able to fit the entire collection in the allocated space. What would you do? Display fewer paintings, or buy a bunch of smaller frames and then take a pair of scissors to each painting to make then fit into these smaller frames? This sums up the way I felt about the people who created the edited “single” versions of pop songs, as well as the staff at K-Tel Records.

Picture Frame Mona Lisa

You obviously know what this painting is – enough of the canvas is visible to tell you that much – but you’re not experiencing this piece of art as completely as you should.

Since my teenage years, I’ve become almost obsessive about building a proper music library. I stopped buying 45 RPM singles, and I now ensure that songs I do buy are always the full-length versions. A song is a musician’s piece of art, and it should be listened to just as it was written. Anything else is incomplete and diminishes the experience. This philosophy has also led to a few joyous discoveries over the years. From time to time, I discovered that the album versions of some songs contained not only an additional verse, but also an extended opening instrumental (Jet Airliner, Driver’s Seat . Occasionally I would discover huge swaths of new material (Come Sail Away, Love Is Like Oxygen, Call Me, Magic Man. The full-length versions of Santa Esmerelda’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Rapper’s Delight still amaze me – they both clock in around 15 minutes, with almost no repetition!

You might assume that I love the 12-inch maxi singles, disco remixes and assorted extended versions of songs. Well, yes and no. I like them, but only if they contain additional, fresh material. Adding 16 bars of a pulsating drumbeat does nothing to enhance the song; it’s just a cheap (and lazy) way to sell additional copies of the record. I also have no use for YouTube remixes that simply copy and paste the existing musical material – they also add nothing to the experience. I’m looking for new material that wasn’t present in the original recording. That’s why even now, decades later, I’m still pleasantly surprised with some of my musical discoveries. Thirty years after it was released, I heard – for the first time – the extended rap in the song Miss You, by The Rolling Stones (from 1:46 – 2:37). I had never heard this version on the radio, and it isn’t included on their Some Girls LP.

When LPs and CDs are remastered, there are often additional tracks added to the original playlist. These can be outtakes, early versions or alternate versions of the original songs. I love listening to these because they give me some insight into the creative process of the musicians and lyricists. I like experiencing their musical ideas that were considered, but eventually ended up on the proverbial “cutting room floor”. One excellent example is an alternate version of Who Are You, by The Who, which contains a verse that wasn’t included in the version of the song. Evil Woman by The Electric Light Orchestra is another notable example – this alternate version contains an extra verse plus a short orchestral intro.

Turntable Stylus

Over the decades, I’ve become philosophical as I reminisce about my music library. I don’t harbour any ill will toward K-Tel or its founder Phil Kives. Yes, I did have to spend more money on my music collection and buy many songs more than once, but I’m glad that I started my musical journey with a K-Tel record. I now have more of an appreciation for music as as art form, and less tolerance for mass-produced, butchered versions of songs. I believe that the quality of the pop and rock sections of my music collection is higher because of this experience. Indirectly, Kives taught me that songs should be experienced in their entirety, just as the artist composed it, and not how the record labels decide to repackage it.

I still have my three K-Tel compilations albums, tucked away in my vinyl collection. Although it’s been decades since I’ve played them, I can’t bear to get rid of them. They were among my first LPs, and were responsible for making me a more discriminating music lover, and less likely to accept the edited and watered-down sonic pablum that’s still being fed to the masses.

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CFRE Roadshow Promos

CFRE LogoBack in the 1980s, when I was a student at the University of Toronto, I worked part-time as a disc jockey at their campus radio station, CFRE. The station broadcast throughout the campus, in the student residences (via hard-wired speakers) and also on 91.9 cable FM. I had one two-hour show, once a week, usually from 8:00am – 10:00am, which worked out well for me, because it was before my classes.

Technics-SL1200The next year, I became the station’s Production Director, which was amazing because I had a recording studio full of equipment all to myself (including two Technics SL-1200 MKII turntables)! I also had the opportunity to hone my music editing skills using the tools of the era: a 15-inch-per-second reel-to-reel tape deck, a razor blade and splicing tape. No digital editing here – back then, we had to physically cut the tape, re-arrange it and then paste it back together to create our music mixes. If we did a good job, then no one would be able to tell where the edits were made. I tell ya, you kids these days have it so easy…

When I started my Production Director role, another staff member (and disc jockey), Eric Disend, compiled a 30-second promo for the station’s external DJ service, which we called the CFRE Roadshow. For a fee, students could hire station disc jockeys for residence parties – we would bring the station’s own equipment, along with at least 200 LPs, stored in milk cartons. When I heard Eric’s promo, I was blown away by his technical editing skill. I was used to hearing complete songs on the radio and hadn’t heard such slick editing and segueing before. His promo certainly inspired me because after a while I started thinking “I’ll bet I can do something like this, too”. Over the next few months, I conceived, compiled and constructed versions two, three and four of the CFRE Roadshow promos.

CFRE v2

I said nothing at the time, but I created a small tribute to Eric’s work in Promo #2: I included another sample from the same Dead Or Alive song, You Spin Me Round. Just like Eric’s montage, the lyrics in my second sample were also “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”.

I still had these promos recorded on cassette tapes, and converted them to MP3s a few years ago so that they wouldn’t be lost forever. Here they are, for posterity. They may sound a little dated now, but I remember these promos being fairly well-received by the other station staff members.

The songs in these montages may be a little more difficult to guess. Although most of these songs were popular during the 1980s, not all received radio airplay, and some samples are taken from extended mixes of the records. Try to guess as many as you can, and write your guesses in the comments.

CFRE Roadshow Promo 1 (Eric): 

CFRE Roadshow Promo 2 (Bob): 

CFRE Roadshow Promo 3 (Bob): 

CFRE Roadshow Promo 4 (Bob): 

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