29 March 2016

The Song Remains The Same

This past weekend, my friend Rodney got to see his favorite band (The Who) in concert, and he had a great time (and you can read all about it here!). While reading his review of/love letter to the show, it dawned on me just how many of the songs I know, but by other artists.

To be right up front, I've never been the biggest fan of The Who. I have no problem with them - they're great musicians, and they obviously write great songs (which is the point of my writing here). It's just that, honestly, they're not of my generation.

Ironic, ain't it?

I grew up listening to country music - as in: George Jones, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride. We lived out in the country, no cable, and watched "Hee-Haw" every weekend.

Once we moved into town, my music vocabulary started expanding in huge ways. A couple of neighborhood friends (Jamie and Rocky are mostly to blame) introduced me to the joy of rock n' roll. KISS and Iron Maiden were two that caught my attention early and held on, with others - W.A.S.P., for one - coming into the picture later.

And that circles back to what I was thinking about today. In Rodney's post about The Who, he made a passing reference to the song "The Real Me." I absolutely love this song. It's got a great guitar riff, but more than that, it's got a terrific bass line in that is one of the earliest things I recall noticing a bass line. It's almost like a separate lead guitar part, but it's definitely doing its own thing.

But the kicker is, I didn't know it was a song from The Who. I know it as a W.A.S.P. song, with Johnny Rod playing the part that I now know was created by John Entwistle. It was the song I first recall understanding that bass is something more than just rhythm-keeping, that it can be a part of the song, too. When I started hearing Billy Sheehan playing with David Lee Roth, I knew it was something special, but at the time, I thought it was just something DLR had put together to try and climb out of Van Halen's shadow. But "The Real Me" introduced me to the concept of bass as its own voice, rather than just a piece of the background. (Before all my drummer-buddies start yelling at me, I did learn the same thing about drums from other songs, like "Dangerous Toys" by the band of the same name, in particular the song "Ten Boots.)

I've known the song since W.A.S.P. released it in 1989, but - embarrassingly - I didn't even realize it was a cover until a few years back (7, 8 years now, I guess). As a yout', I didn't have the benefit of the internet, and as a not-yout', I had never really thought to look it up. I just really enjoyed the song.

Now, having learned it was a cover, I found The Who's version. And it's great! It really does rock, heavier than I would have expected (at that time; I've learned way more about The Who since then), with amazing vocals and that gorgeous bass in it. But it's not my version of the song.

So, while dwelling on all this, it made me realize there are a lot of songs that I musically "grew up" on cover versions. To me, those are the "real" versions, even if they're not the original. Thought I'd share a few, so the three people that ever read this can get a look into my own music-fan history.


The Who's "The Real Me" - Covered by W.A.S.P.

Another from The Who "My Generation" as covered by Gorky Park
This one, I knew was a cover, but this is the version that caught me at just the right moment in my music development. I really like this band, and I'm bummed they didn't make it bigger

"Mony Mony" by Tommy James and the Shondells, famously covered (and banned from school functions) by Billy Idol (this is the live version with Steve Stevens on guitar; this version of the song, coincidentally, bumped off another Tommy James cover - Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" - from the #1 spot)

The King, Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" - Covered by another legendary band making a come-back in their career at the time, Cheap Trick. Just as a personal note, as a 12, 13 year old kid watching the video for the Cheap Trick version, it was incredibly cool to see an electric base on a monopod stand being played as an upright bass.

Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" recreated as an early, popular rap song by Run DMC. This one might be a bit of a cheat, because Aerosmith is part of it. But - like Cheap Trick - this new version of the song brought Aerosmith back from the edge of obscurity to continue their legendary career.


That's just a few notable songs. I'm not trying to say any of these covers are better than the originals. Just that these are the way I first heard these songs.

And the songs are the same. The music is there. If the songs weren't great in the first place, they wouldn't have been covered, and they certainly couldn't have been covered so well! It's just proof that good music transcends generations. Good music is good music, even when it's tweaked and twisted and "made new." At its core, good music lasts forever.

But what do I know.

09 March 2016

When does a band become an act?

So, of course, there's lots of talk about the big news from hard rock this week. Due to medical issues and the potential for permanent and complete hearing loss of singer Brian Johnson, AC/DC has postponed the last 10 shows of their current tour (and, rumor has it, their last 10 shows in the US ever). The band has announced that fans can get a refund, or hold their tickets for make-up shows likely to feature fill-in singers.

Much ado is being made about the replacement singer part. The arguments tend to fall into two camps: "Well, if it's not Brian Johnson singing, then it's just a cover band at this point!" vs "Johnson was a replacement singer himself, so what's the big deal?"

Yes, Brian Johnson was a replacement following the death of Bon Scott. Scott didn't quit over contract issues, didn't run out and form "Bon Scott's AC/DC" to compete against the 'real' band. He passed away. The current band line-up had been together about 5 years at that point. But now the lead singer has been Johnson for 35 years. Pretty sure it's safe to stop calling him a replacement.

But it brings up an interesting point: When does a band stop being a band and become an act, more like a Broadway show, where the parts are the same, but the actors are different?

KISS is a band that had divided their fandom on this issue. They made the very conscious decision to put new players - Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer - into the original characters created by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, respectively. Now there is talk that Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons may be looking for replacements to fill their own platform boots so that the show - the act - can keep going.

Foreigner was formed by Mick Jones, Ian McDonald, Lou Gramm, Ed Gagliardi, Dennis Elliott, and Al Greenwood. In their 40+ years as a band, only Mick Jones remains. So are they still rightfully the same band?

The Who is another big one. This is a band that has legendary names associated with it: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, One of the biggest names - Keith Moon - was the band's second drummer. Townshend and Daltrey are still there, though, and touring with different faces joining them on stage.

Even AC/DC itself - they've had drummers come and go like they're Spinal Tap! They lost one of the two founding members to health issues when Malcolm Young had to step aside. The two longest-serving members - Angus Young and Cliff Williams - will be the only two left on stage with this replacement-singer plan being put forward. Does that make them less of a band than The Who?

So where is the line drawn? How do you tell the difference between a reformed band and a cover act that has a really cool long-term cameo from an original member? Is the upcoming Guns N Roses tour REALLY a reunion when there will still be "new" players in the band (who have been there longer than the original members)?

And when did it start to matter? I seem to recall days long past when a band was 4, 5, 6 guys and that line-up stayed pretty constant. But nowadays, I think bands trade members around more the Major League Baseball on deadline-day. Guys play for so many different bands, it's hard to know who they "belong" to in a given moment.

I have no idea what my point here is, other than to say that, yes, if AC/DC - or more specifically, Angus Young - decides to keep playing, the band will still be called AC/DC if that's what he wants. It's his band, regardless of who's out front. Will it be weird? Sure, but I guarantee the guy in the funny hat seemed bizarre to the Bon Scott fans in 1980.

The only question that really matters is 'Will the tickets still sell?' I know they're still still for "The Who Hits 50!" tour, so I guess that answer that question....

....or does it?