Category Archives: Rock

‘Mad Men’

The Nostalgia Machine

I’ve been away from writing about films for a number of weeks because I’ve been working my way through the 6 seasons of ‘Mad Men’. I had the DVDs piled up all year and sort of traipsed past it because there seems to be a deluge of good TV content that has to be surveyed and unlike movies, they all demand serious time commitments that come in tens of hours. Six seasons consisting of 78 episodes is a lot to digest. That’s in the ballpark of the original Star Trek episodes. Consequently it has taken me 6 weekends of binging through seasons to watch the whole damn thing, bringing me up to date.

The other reason I had avoided it is because the world of advertising, even set in the 1960s didn’t really seem like a novelty. Having worked for an advertising giant once-upon-a-long-time-ago, I’ve had my fair share of awful anecdotes that came from hanging with hard-drinking advertising execs. There are some truly awful things that you can witness when you get into the accounts servicing end of the business and layering it on with nostalgia in a bid to explore classic sexism racism and generally unpleasant sexual misconduct didn’t seem like a recipe for much fun.   So truth be told, I resisted it as long as I could until I found I had cleared the decks of all other viewing material. Maybe that it is what it takes to be receptive.

We all think we know what the show is about. What is surprising is what it actually is.

In an early season Don Draper is asked to brand the Kodak carousel projector and when he finally explains it, he hits upon the device being a time machine that takes people back through nostalgia for moments. What the show does is effectively service everybody’s nostalgia through these fabricated episodes of people that might have been there. The experience of Mad Men is to evoke an era with as much verisimilitude as possible while attempting to dissect the origins of our own mores. In one sense it’s a ‘Downton Abbey’ for 60s fetishists, but on another level, it is a show that boldly goes to a place that brought us our contemporary consumerist culture. It is a ‘Back to the Future’ trip back to the 1960s where we in the audience are Marty McFly.

What’s Good About It

Just about any part of the craft from cinematography and production design through to choice of music and sound mix are extraordinary in this show.

The casting is equally impressive. There are some great actors putting in some extraordinary performances.  The characters they inhabit are filled with unspoken angst and desperation. It is an amazing show that allows us to be Buddha-like, feeling a compassion for all these people for their weaknesses foibles, doubts and self-loathing.

The scripts are always surprising, witty, insightful and compelling. The sense of existential agony sits side by side with the banalities of consumerism, giving rise to a beautiful aesthetic irony.

What’s Bad About It

In the earlier series you feel the budget doesn’t stretch far enough so you end up seeing a lot of interiors and hardly any exterior shots. It doesn’t get claustrophobic, but you get the feeling the limit of the show’s misc en scene, is just beyond the frame of the shots. At times this feels quite hokey but as the seasons progress you can see more money being thrown at it and it becomes less of a problem.

Considering all the naturalism in the acting and realism in the production design, you get the feeling that Don Draper’s sexual stamina is superhuman. Especially when you watch the episodes back-to-back. As the seasons progress, these sense of the exaggerated sexual stamina becomes utterly laughable that it begins to tear at the carefully crafted fabric of the show’s milieu.

Apart from that odd sort of unintended hilarity, the plot lines can meander into the kind of soapiness one associates with things like ‘Days of Our Lives’ or ‘Beverly Hills 90210’. Sometimes the performances are a little spotty and you notice it as the tenor of the performance jumps from one shot to the next. Maybe it’s bad editing, but it leaves you a little cold because it takes away from the otherwise perfect, seamless presentation.

What’s Interesting About It

Quite simply, ALL of it, actually.

1960s Through The Po-Mo Glass

The year 1960 where the series kicks off is quite a foreign place to us. We think we have a great grasp of what exactly happened in the 1960s thanks to the mass of media artefacts form the 1960s but Manhattan in the year 1960 is closer to Holden Caulfield’s hatred of phonies in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ than the Manhattan of Lou Reed and then Punk rock – That is all in the distant future and what we witness are the dying embers of the New York City in ‘The Age of Reason’. America is at its peak power, the pinnacle of its omnipotence and New York City is the crown jewel in this prosperity. The city then slowly goes into decay as certainty in social cohesion and cultural unity begins to break up.

The six seasons combined – as we still await the seventh to be fully concluded – traces the fall of Don Draper, white male top executive against the rise of Peggy Olsen, the proto-feminist creative executive into the top offices. And it is against this double dynamic we see all the other characters essentially flower into their full weirdness. Through this process we come to understand what the events we know in the 1960s, such as the Kennedy assassinations and the Luther King assassinations as well as the Vietnam War did to American society. America reached the top, and then quickly turned the corner into a decadent phase just as had the Roman Empire. In one sense, having reached the top America had nothing better to do but to fuck around, which is exactly what Don Draper does as he slowly loses touch with the America that allowed him to succeed. In its place emerges an  America with which he can only loosely relate.

It’s a curious thing, this change. Over the years white conservatives have unleashed the culture wars against the progressives as if they are the disenfranchised. This has manifested in accusations of ‘reverse racism’ or ‘moral decay’ but what the show presents to us is that economic growth happened in such a way to enfranchise the other more rapidly than it presented more growth to the established white demographic. It wasn’t the white establishment that got disenfranchised; it was that America grew so fast it enfranchised everybody beyond just the white establishment. When you consider ‘the other’ as a group, it includes women, immigrants, Blacks, Jews, Italians and eventually the gays. The show doesn’t show too many instance of affirmative action. It does however capture the bewildering change, season by season. At first it is like a whisper. By Season 6, the change is like a roar.

Beyond Memory, Beyond Broken Homes

American cinema is decidedly about the formation of families, just as American TV is about the maintenance of families. This is true of things as broad as ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Brady Bunch’ through to ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Breaking’Bad’. The glaring exception to date was ‘Seinfeld’, which was revolutionary in the sense that no families were formed, and the central quartet were decidedly not a family but a coalition of disparate single entities. They were disparate single entities because they were in some ways all exiles from the ideological construct of family, trying to avert the mistakes of their parents. Thus, ‘Mad Men’ arrives as an explication of how American families fall apart.

The trope of ‘First Wives Club’ is that the husband cashes in his success by divorcing the first wife with whom he has a family, with a much younger wife with whom he just has fun. This is no ordinary trope, because there were many kids I knew through my childhood who were from these ‘broken homes’ where the “father ran off with the secretary” and other such narratives. It was a phenomenon that silently ate away at corners of our existence – how some of our friends had fathers who would never come home, and their homes would never be whole again. And all the while the engine of desire for being whole or for your friends’ families to be made whole is there. The yearning and the pain that gets repressed and folded into interactions is exquisitely rendered. The show goes through the various scenarios on which the classic nuclear family setup is torn asunder by the very consumerist society that purports to support them through wondrous products. It leaves one devastated exactly because failure is more common than success, and so many people fail so willfully in the show. Except you come to realise that this is also true in the people who populate our real lives.

The show sheds a light on why the institution of marriage in the American nuclear family of the 1960s failed so spectacularly, so often. Nothing so schizophrenic can survive without actuating the schism.

The Dream Of The World Of Our Parents

I only have a sense of the 1960s through old photographs. My memory of the 1960s is too far back to make any kind of sense. The Vietnam War was there by the time I had any inkling of the world. Demonstrations and marches were regular news items. The context for the sturm und drang has always sat behind records books and movies. Robin Williams joked that if you could remember the 1960s, you probably weren’t there. There’s a weird compelling quality to that joke because as a toddler at the time, I hardly remember it. The 1960s I know of lives in my head through the media construction but strangely there is nothing in it that offers a wider view of society. The fragments of first hand accounts that have actually come down to me through anecdotes remain blurry. The Cuban Missile Crisis, day President Kennedy was shot, Beatlemania, and the day Martin Luther King was shot – these events only form a kind of diorama in my head without the context of the world. Thus it is singularly enlightening to see these events at arms length, sitting in the lounge room with these characters.

The 1960s sits at the precipice of the moment when human history goes from having more people dead than alive, to having more people alive than there ever lived. The post modern explosion happens at 1970, necessarily as the ancien regime of hierarchies begin collapsing, disintegrating bit by bit. As such, the rigid certitude in things such as gender roles and social rank that characterises the earlier seasons seem distant and alien to us, but as the show moves through the decade, we sense the accelerating change barreling towards our contemporary awareness. If the world changed this quickly on our parents, then it sort of makes sense why our upbringing for Generation X was so fractured and cognitively dissonant. They must have thought they were raising us for a world that had the certitude of 1960 when in fact we were always going to grow into a world of ever increasing moral and ethical relativism.

De-Witched

The show that kept getting evoked by the earlier seasons was ‘Bewitched’ where Samantha was the perfect housewife and her husband Darrin was the advertising executive. It’s funny because Samantha was played by Elizabeth Montgomery so the name Betty goes to the wife; and Darren was played by Dick York and Dick Sergent, and so Don Draper’s secret identity is Dick Whitman. Don has a white-haired boss Roger Sterling, just as Darrin had Larry Tate. The rest of it is completely off the rails that flies in the face of the theme of maintaining a family. Instead of a happy housewife who uses magic to make things perfect, Betty is bored and un-empathic with her kids; instead of  being a bumbling doting husband, Don Draper is a philandering alpha male. ‘Mad Men’ posits an American household that disintegrates under the very desire stoked by advertising. The irony is that the central characters are deeply committed to the business of advertising and are fully aware that they are there to fan the unending fires of desire.

‘Mad Men’ effectively posits that the marriage of Samantha and Darrin from Bewitched is doomed to fail exactly because they are in a particular kind of nuclear family arrangement that maximises household consumption but dissatisfies more people than it helps. Darrin, if he were genuinely an ad exec of his times, would have had too may opportunities to philander. Samantha, without magic, would be too vulnerable to the pitfalls of being a suburban housewife, through isolation, boredom and depression. ‘Mad Men’ is partially a tart retort from the 21sst Century towards the cultural delusions of the 1960s. It is on the whole unsparing and unkind.

Don Draper’s Elegant Existential Angst

It’s interesting how the character Don Draper is laden with backstory. They place so many extreme situations in his background, he is practically the other even if he is white. On one level this makes sense because in order for a white male character to have insight into the other, they must be laden with elements in their life that would enable them to share empathy with the other. This gap in turn informs the degree of alienation the main character feels from the mainstream of society. As with the Great Gatsby, Don Draper has arrived at the Big Time in the Big Apple, but he has arrived as an imposter. His origins are worse than humble, his identity is fractured, and he is busy covering his tracks.

In order to portray the great sea tide of change in people’s attitudes through the 1960s, they had to devise a character who is at once very conservative on the surface but is deeply mutable and given to impulses and therefore endless infidelities. What is peculiar as a protagonist about Don Draper is how he is consumed by a silent self-loathing quite unlike any other character in America TV except maybe Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’. At this moment in history, the most interesting aspect of American masculinity on screen is not self-assuredness, but the depth of self-loathing combined with a troubled existential malaise and affliction.

Jon Hamm is remarkable as Don Draper because he is able to milk the nuance of the character as well as deftly play apart the many, many fractured facets of this man. He seems to have so many different smiles, all of them memorable for suggesting different parts of his psyche. The leery lewd smile, the condescending patronising smile, the genuine seductive persuasive smile, the gimme-five smile; all of these smiles are played differently and with great control. The series is essentially an Odyssey through the 1960s with Don Draper who is a kind of Odysseus of advertising – except unlike the Odyssey, it is not certain just where home/Ithaca is for Don Draper. The vast number of episodes allow the story-tellers to really go into every episode of the man’s life, with the sort of detail that would have made James Joyce jealous, for Don Draper is the 21st Century rendition of Odysseus/Ulysses.

Betty Draper, The Emotionally Austere Mother

January Jones’ performance as Betty Draper is the other amazing performance in the earlier seasons. The character drops back significantly after the third season and she’s not that great in season 3 as she becomes this sort of bitchy harridan ex-wife. What’s extraordinary about Jones’ performance is how much she loads into a casual glance or a look away. She raises her eyebrows, or wrinkles her forehead to show displeasure, and generally works through a quick array of conflicting emotions. As a kind of latter day Grace Kelly, she gives off the impression of the perfectly manicured ice queen but there is so much ironic layering in what she does. I don’t think I’ll forget some of the subtle gestures or expressions of disapproval.

The evolution of Betty Draper gives us a sense of how American whiteness preserves itself as an identity. She’s a fantastic character in the fist two seasons. It’s sad that she gives away the stage to Don’s next wife as her 50s kind of beauty gives way to Megan’s swinging sixties vibe. It is as if she is forced to retreat off the stage exactly because what she represents belongs in the past that has died.

The show is in many ways quite an exercise in metonymy. Don Draper in our parlance might just be a sex addict, but because we are watching a time and space where such language does not exist we end up witnessing the drama. Similarly with Betty she might just be a classic ‘First Wife Club’ member, but because she is operating in a time and space without that concept we witness the drama of her emotional disintegration and reconstruction in a different way. Don and Betty as played by Jon Hamm and January Jones are so perfectly matched with their beauty in their scenes in the car as they drive, you almost wish like Goethe’s Faust that their time stands still. The grand tragedy of ‘Mad Men’ – as it is in real life – is that time simply cannot stop for anybody, and all we can have is memory and nostalgia.

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Crimson ProjeKCt @ The Hi-Fi – Sydney 27/Jun/2014

21st Century Touring Band

King Crimson have had so many member changes there have even been off-shoot bands that play King Crimson material but in a different vernacular such as the Crimson Jazz Trio. It shouldn’t be surprising to see Adrian Belew fronting a band that features Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto playing King Crimson numbers. Rumour has it that founding patriarch Robert Fripp never wants to tour Australia so this is about as close to seeing King Crimson live in Australia we’re ever going to get. The other 3 members Julie Slick, Tobias Ralph and Markus Reuter round out the formidable sextet and the rest is prog rock, loud and raw. Beware the dinosaurs.

This is the first time I know of that some incarnation of King Crimson are playing their numbers in Australia. I have waited for this for over 30years. Kind of goes to show Australia is still a cultural backwater.

What’s Good About It

King Crimson have so many different phases to match the number of personnel who have come and gone. This band does not feature any of the members from the the pre-1974 bust up that prompted Robert Fripp to leave the business for 2 years and then move to New York, and yet their renditions of the 70s classic numbers such as ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic Part I’ and ‘Red’ are played immaculately. The post 90s double-trio numbers get a good working out as well, but the real meat and potatoes of the King Crimson material lies in the tricolour albums ‘Discipline’, ‘Beat’ and ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’. Having missed all of King Crimson’s live phases and career,  this is about as good as it gets, and it’s pretty damn good fare.

What’s amazing about this incarnation of Crimson and its repertoire is that they play it with such gusto and for something like 3 hours, you certainly get your money’s worth. You come to realise that the recorded version of the music is just a shadow of this roaring red-blooded rock act. The music played live is far less mannered and much more rudely energetic and in your face. The performance bristles with energy.

The jaw dropping chops, the astounding array of sound and technology, the astonishing artistic choices, the tight control that gives way to sonic abandon, the abstraction, the integration of arrangements, is all entirely mesmerising. You sure don’t notice the three hours fly by.

What’s Bad About It

Musically, nothing.

The venue lighting guys were terrible. They didn’t light the front of the stage properly so we watched Adrian Belew in silhouette, back lit from the stage lights above and back, all night long. It was ridiculous. It was like some high school revue effort and I’m pretty sure there are some high school revues that are lit better than that.

What’s Interesting About It

The twin drumming by Pat Mastelotto and Toby Ralph was a revelation. It made me wonder what it might have been like with the B’boom era double trio setup with Bill Bruford, but in most part Mr. Bruford wasn’t missed. The polyrhythms, the syncopation, the dialogic interaction, the experimentation with sounds and extended spaces all built to a tremendous sonic punch. You don’t see bands with two drummers often but when you do, it changes the perception of rock music. It’s a testament to their musical nous and intelligence that the drum interactions come over so well.

The night had a few surprising moments. Tony Levin and the Stick Men half of the double trio played ‘Breathless’ off Robert Fripp’s solo album ‘Exposure’ (a touch stone for gonzo guitar as well as punk metal, musique concrete and Frippertronics). Amazingly, it sounded very much like the recorded version. Tony Levin was doing the Robert Fripp bits on the Stick and Markus Reuter was doing the Tony Levin bits from the album. Pat Mastelotto was doing a great interpretation of Jerry Marotta.

The encore decidedly wasn’t ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. The band opted to go with ‘Elephant Talk’, and ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’.

Adrian Belew – Guitar Rhinoceros, Twang-bar King

I had the exquisite pleasure of standing right in front of Adrian Belew all night long, so I got a close quarter look at how he goes about doing his thing. The most extraordinary thing – amongst many extraordinary things – is how well his guitar keeps tune because he rides the whammy bar hard. He rides it with his palm, he taps it with his ring finger and pinky, he gently shimmies with it and dives right down so the knob hits the neck pickup. It’s like what you imagine Hendrix to have been like with the whammy, but it’s more. More of everything, all rolled into his musical expression and style. He elicits overtones and harmonics from very different places to where other more conventional players elicit them and he bangs and whallops and bends the body and to get the whole guitar to resonate. It’s avant-garde guitar. It’s what Pete Townshend probably wanted to do but couldn’t so he opted to smash his guitars instead.

It’s not just the whammy bar thing. It’s the loops, the effects, the abstracted shards of noise, the piano sounds off the guitar synth, the brutal distortion tone that comes and goes with a tap of his foot, the seemingly infinite array of tones coming from the Parker Fly, and then there’s the actual playing technique that has to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s the jester in the Court of the Crimson King as he foot taps and finger taps and twiddle knobs in between playing complicated phrases, all with gusto and panache. He’s one of those people who just invent things and it’s perfect. It’s like how only John McEnroe plays tennis like John McEnroe. Only Adrian Belew plays guitar like this. I’ve seen Andy Summers at equally close quarters and Adrian left Andy for dead.

…and he sounds just like on the records. People use the word ‘awesome’ way too lightly to the point it has lost deeper meaning, and that’s a shame. Adrian Belew live on stage is the proper true definition of ‘awesome’.

Tony Levin – Stick Monster

I have a personal pantheon of bass heroes. A lot of them are prog rock guys from England that I natter on and on about – Squire, Entwistle, Wetton, Karn… The big exception is Tony Levin who is just about dead centre in my pantheon but I don’t talk about him much because I can’t begin to emulate what he does. I can come at the other guys because they play bass guitar as a lower register extension of guitars. Tony Levin plays the Chapman Stick – tapping away furiously – and when he plays a normal(-ish) bass, he plays the strings with percussive extensions on his index and middle fingers. I’m not sure what those extensions are made of, and how he goes about getting that tone he gets, but it’s a monster tone.

Seeing him live is a revelation. Especially because I’ve been reading his name on my fave album covers for most of my listening-collecting life starting at ‘Double Fantasy’ by John Lennon. Yes, he’s the bass player there. He’s on Peter Gabriel’s solo albums; Pink Floyd’s ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’;  and he’s even on ‘Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe’ – if you can’t wrangle Chris Squire, you get Tony Levin! – not to mention the 1980 onwards King Crimson albums; and he sounds different every time out on all those records. There is no particular Tony Levin sound you can nail him to (unlike say Chris Squire who can be honed in on with a Rickenbacker 4001 bass) or a Tony Levin style except the aesthetic surprise you get when you hear his sound. And all the while, you can sort of play his bass lines on a normal bass guitar to a point but it’s just not like anything anybody else does. It’s completely original and unique.

So yeah, I finally got to see Tony Levin live, got totally blown away, and walked away with very few hints on how to do that stuff.

The Adrian Belew Power Trio

Which brings me to Julie Slick on bass over on stage right; She seems to know exactly what to do to emulate Tony Levin. At one point Tony got his Stick caught in his belt and so he sort of stopped playing and adjusted his belt mid-song while Julie Slick kept the bottom end engine room going. It was seamless.

Adrian Belew’s half of the double trio played a few non-Crimson numbers and were wild.  They are ecstatic players. But if you can play like that you’d be ecstatic too.

Random Thoughts

Adrian Belew is a gentleman. They say “never meet your heroes”, but every gonzo guitar player should have the joy and pleasure of meeting Adrian Belew.

Tony Levin looks like Walter White. Just much nicer and more approachable.

Julie Slick wore these really funky shoes with one foot blue and the other yellow, adorned by dogs.  They were cool.

No Robert Fripp? No Problem. Markus Reuter had those chops down. He even looked a little like Robert Fripp with the glasses.

Pat Mastelotto looked a lot more imposing in person than in photos. He has a lot of power.

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Quick Shots 01/Jan/2014

Hey, First Post Of the Year From Me

I’ve been busy watching a few silly movies on FetchTV in between the seasonal obligations. It’s pretty cool watching on FetchTV because it saves the on the trip to the video store if nothing else and it sure beats buying more media. I’ve been stuck in the bad habit of buying stuff because I still have the carry-over from the ear when DVDs were actually worth something. It was ever so brief, but they were important for a good half a decade there until Blu-Ray came along and scotched that little bubble.

My New Years resolution last year was that I shouldn’t just buy more media, but a) sometimes it is easier to just buy the box set and b) sometimes it’s better to own than rent and c) it’s impossible to stick to arbitrary rules meant that I bought my fair share of stuff. It’s a bit of a worry if you can’t remember if you’ve bought something or simply watched it on a rented bit of media, but if I think I’m going to go, “you have to watch this scene!?” or “you just have to hear this guitar solo!” then it’s better to own this stuff.

Still, it’s weird having a pile of this media that grew to be irrelevant so quickly. At least with LPs and CDs, there’s an argument to be made that mp3s are a their best worse than either LPs or CDs, and that moving on to just data on hard disks isn’t really an improvement in your listening pleasure. Besides which, you can squeeze a hello of a lot more out of LPs and CDs by having better speakers and amplifiers. Video is different.

With 4k TV looming in the not too distant future, even the marvelous Blu-Ray 1080p format is going to look pretty outdated in the next few years. I’m sure there’s 8k and 16k TVs beyond that, and without an NBN pumping at last 50mbps it’s going to be difficult to run the IPTV services on 4k and up download services, so maybe buying media won’t become totally extinct. Let me just say, 4k is gorgeous. You’re going to want this much more than the time you went from SD PAL or NTSC to HDTV. (That being said, I do seriously  wonder if there’s any joy in seeing 4k TV footage of Kanye West or Miley Cyrus twerking.)

Getting Bad Advice

The news this week that’s been most grating has been this business of Maurice Newman proclaiming that climate science on global warming is delusional.

In an opinion piece in The Australian newspaper, Maurice Newman, the Prime Minister’s pick as head of his Business Advisory Council, claimed high energy costs caused by the carbon tax and the renewable energy target, introduced by the Howard government, had eroded Australia’s competitiveness. Under Labor and the Greens, Australia had been taken ”hostage” by ”climate change madness”, Mr Newman wrote.

“Newman!!”

It’s really no big deal except for the fact that it’s wrong and willfully wrong, and that he is slated to offer up advice to the Prime Minister based on this kind of idiotic denialism. If nothing else, it shows Tony Abbott still thinks the science on this is ‘complete crap’. What’s even weirder is that because the first 100days of Tony Abbott’s time in office was ‘complete crap’, we’re not surprised in the least bit find that his business advisor is a highly motivated climate change denialist.

Can We Please Stop With The Government Debt Hysteria?

This one came in from Skarp last week but I’ve been a bit preoccupied. Paul Sheehan – he of the rather squeaky voice and reflexively right-leaning views – wrote this rather tawdry column.

At 12.30 on Tuesday, Hockey, who has also been the stand-out thespian of the new federal parliament, will unveil the real horror, dysfunction and narcissism of Kevin Rudd’s contribution to Australian political history, disably assisted by Julia Gillard. Hockey will release the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, known in the trade as MYEFO, which will show a budget deficit much worse than Labor led us to believe, probably close to $50 billion, debt obligations much higher than Labor led us to believe, and unfunded liabilities that are so irresponsibly crushing the government will have to walk away from many of them. The most monumental folly is the National Broadband Network, whose economic rationale was worked out on a piece of paper by Rudd. The scheme subsequently created by former communications minister Stephen Conroy would cost more than $70 billion and never recover its cost of capital. The Abbott government will have to start again.

The way that paragraph is written, you’d think that the sky was going to cave in. Fortunately, professor Steve Keen had this article as a retort:

I’m not going to debate (or defend) Kevin Rudd’s personality, but getting this hysterical over a $50 billion deficit in a $1.5 trillion economy? Oh come on: that is slightly less than 3 per cent of GDP (the precise GDP figure is $1.525 trillion, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Comparable figures for some of our trading partners are 5.5 per cent for the USA, 6 per cent for the UK, and 10 per cent for Japan. Australia’s deficit for 2013 is almost 50 per cent below the expected average for the OECD of 4.8 per cent of GDP.

Of course, finding that out doesn’t require a trip overseas: all you have to do is search the web. But what a trip overseas might alert Sheehan to is the economic performance of the rest of the planet – and especially of those parts of it that, as he does, make the size of the government deficit the only stick by which economic performance is measured.

The rest of the article is Keen dismantling Sheehan’s stated position that all this debt is somehow crippling and wrong.Austerity i a terrible thing; not to mention the fact that it doesn’t work.

You sort of wonder how people like Paul Sheehan keep jobs as columnists. It’s like he gets paid not for his thinking and critical faculties – which on the whole seem faulty anyway – but for how hard his blowhard entries blow. And they really blow. Sheehan’s symptomatic of what’s making the media market worse in this era. You just can’t trust what any of these sloppy commentators write.  but somehow they’re up there with a public soapbox on the SMH masthead spreading his kind of nonsense. I mean really! Why do they have to give ‘equal time’ to stupidity and misinformation?

But back to Keen’s take home message about Government debt:

I would far rather see governments acknowledging the problem of private debt, and doing something concrete to reduce it – since the financial sector should never have been allowed to create much of that debt in the first place. But as a second best policy, government spending should buffer the impact of the decline in private sector deleveraging. To do otherwise is to turn a serious recession into a genuine Depression – as Europe has done.

Behind the veneer of apparent fiscal prudence, that is what hysterical articles like Sheehan’s are encouraging – in utter denial both of the actual cause of the crisis and, more importantly for a journalist, in ignorance of what even casual empiricism shows has been the actual impact of austerity.

That, just about sums it all up.

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The Zero Year Of Your Coordinates

Your Mother Should Know

I recently did a bunch of covers of side 3 of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’. What prompted it was a combination of coming off a 12 song set of fairly difficult and challenging tracks which exhausted me and the desire to just play a bunch of stuff I liked as a teen. After I posted them up, it occurred to me that the ‘White Album’ was recorded in 1968, placing it 45 years ago.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is actually an interminably long time in the timescale of pop music. Paul McCartney is about to come out with a new album (called ‘New’) so he’s still going strong after the morbidly death-obsessed ‘Memory Almost Full’ album, but I sat and tried to figure out how music that old – 45years! – must look like to say, an 18year old today.

If I subtract 45 from the year I was 18, it goes firmly into the late 1930s. Now, I had no shot of owning any music from the late 1930s, let alone being more than passingly familiar with it. Quite frankly I – or my other music listening, record-buying friends- would have been extremely unlikely to be familiar with anything that old.

And yet, Walk-Off HBP went to see Ringo Starr earlier this year because his daughter wanted to see Ringo, so clearly the charms of music that’s 45-50 years old is not entirely lost on kids of today. Obviously it’s going to vary from person to person, household to household, family to family. Even so, you wonder about the distance of this time that separates one from the moment of recording.

Bono was saying in some interview someplace that each time U2 go into a studio there’s a challenge of doing better than before but also an equally large battle to be relevant. So it can’t be easy for anybody to be doing any recording 10years, 20years and 30years in. You sure don’t see Led Zeppelin heading for the studio with Jason Bonham, you don’t see a new album from the Rolling Stone every 2years, it just doesn’t happen.

That being said recorded music has one advantage over literature and movies and it is the ability music has to be consumed over and over again. Even your most favourite movie can only be sat through a handful f times unless you want to make a total study of it. Your favourite albums will be by our side in decades to come, surviving multiple listens upon listens. I think the reason why music drags me back is that in the end I can control my output in a ay that is closed off to me in the cinema. I’m doing more and more recordings because I am able to complete thoughts, ideas, concepts; then execute and finish; and in finishing, I am able to move on to the next thing.

This is in stark contrast to the horrors of being a screenwriter and waiting for people to get back to you about your script; and in most instances, nothing gets made even if people tell you how much they like your writing. Frank Zappa certainly wasn’t wrong when he said “music is best”.  There’s certainly a lot of wisdom in that observation.

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Tenacious D At The Sydney Opera House

It Seemed Even They Couldn’t Believe They Were There

I’ve seen Tenacious D live before. They were supporting the Foo Fighters. I’m trying to think of  international acts I’ve seen twice and the list is actually bizarre:

  • Yes
  • Foo Fighters
  • Jon Anderson*
  • Phil Collins*
  • Tenacious D

And that’s it. I’ve seen Pink Floyd once, Genesis once. Led Zep – never. Almost saw Jason Bonham tour with his Led Zep cover band but he cancelled the Australian leg of the tour. Never seen King Crimson. Didn’t see the Who because it seemed really hard to call Pete & Roger & hired hands ‘The Who’. I wish I could see King Crimson – that would make my year.

The asterisks next to Jon Anderson and Phil Collins are there because I’ve seen both gents as part of their band and as solo acts. The most understandable is Yes, at the top with a bullet and it’s only twice because they’ve only toured twice in the last 45years.

The Foo Fighters is weird. The only reason I saw them the second time was because Tenacious D were playing support. So I must really like these guys.

What’s Good About It

It’s Tenacious D. Of course they’re Awesome. Everything about them is awesome. They even tell you this is so. It was all good.

That being said, there were some unexpected stand out moments. They do a quick cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock’n’Roll’ The first verse was sung in a low register that exposed the blues roots of Zeppelin, but the second verse is sung with a falsetto that actually sounded like Robert Plant. It was amazing. They also did a cover of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and ‘The End’ by the Beatles that was a show stopper.

Jack Black is an amazing vocalist. Kyle Glass is an amazing guitar player. Between the two of them, they obliterate the need for the rest of the band. It’s a great night of entertainment

Speaking of which, even the comedian who kicked off the support was great. Very funny man with some sharp insights, fully deserving to be aired in the Sydney Opera House.

What’s Bad About It

This is the tough bit. I don’t think they were quite as energetic and clownish as the last time. I could do with more clownish physical comedy. Also, the gag where they fight and Kyle leaves the stage, setting  the stage for ‘Dude I really miss you’ wasn’t done as well as the previous tour. The artifice felt forced. But that’s trivial. It was a thoroughly enjoyable show.

What’s Interesting About It

The Jack Black rock-buffoon persona is actually quite a work of performance art. I’m not sure  when the first time was that I saw Jack Black on screen and noticed. It must have been  ‘Mars Attacks’ or ‘The Jackal’. It’s really only since ‘High Fidelity’ that we’ve been graced with his “Musical Moron” rock persona that has segued into ‘School of Rock’ and the ‘Tenacious D’ movie. He is a superb singer, a delightful comic actor and author of some kick ass songs.

Somehow he sews together these diverse talents and presents to us the Jack Black rock buffoon persona as his pristine rhetorical device to critique contemporary culture, through rock music. It’s an interesting rhetorical structure because not since has Spinal Tap has there been such a forceful satire of rock music that has also been embraced so tightly by the rock audience.

The irony of two middle aged guys with steel string acoustics claiming to to be the world’s greatest rock band underscores a mordant wit that finds its target in sexual mores to self-help to enlightenment and religion. The catalogue of songs they bash through is like an Odyssey of post-modern neuroses (and faulty self-examination) that culminates in their encore song finale – and sublime masterpiece of idiocy – ‘Fuck Her Gently’.

The Closest Thing I Could Think Of

…was ironically Jon Anderson live at The Factory. Except Jon Anderson is the author of first order texts where Rock’s foundational beliefs are laid out in song. Then along come these two jokers and create a raft of second order texts that mercilessly parodies the metaphysical and social content but in actual fact the most similar show I could think of was Jon Anderson cracking jokes in between bashing out songs on his acoustic.

Rock’s come a long way in a short time. The two Tenacious D members are laden with Generation X cultural baggage, which is in a sense, the result of trying to make sense of the inherited wisdom from the first order texts from the Baby Boomers. It’s not surprising the deliberately garbled bad information results in fine comedy as presented by Jack and Kyle.

You can sort of see how I end up seeing Jon Anderson and Tenacious D live twice.

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Jon Anderson – Live At The Factory Theatre Sydney 06/Apr/2013

“Seasons Will Pass You By, I Get up, I Get Down”

It’s all kind of weird when you cast your mind to it. Consider this turn of events. Jon Anderson is dropped from Yes as their vocalist; They replace him twice, not asking him back; Jon Anderson hits the road doing one-man shows; Jon Anderson plays in Sydney at a converted factory warehouse to a crowd of about 300. This is Jon Anderson, front-man for Yes for something like 39years.

So there we were – that’s KRK and Walk-off HBP and I – at the Factory Theatre. 1 week shy of 1 year since Yes came and played at the State Theatre. No spouses – they disdain our teenage attachments and frankly don’t get it. Oh well. Same as last year.

The support act was… I don’t want to be rude but much like a busker, who started bashing his originals out on an steel string guitar and made us walk out in the second song. It just wasn’t in us to sit through 45minutes of his set. Other people were more polite and stayed, but I can assure you the blunt, artlessness of the support guy was so awful, it set the bar very low for the rest of the night. Maybe this was a kind of blessing in disguise. We even considered maybe that was the point.

What’s Good About It

Jon Anderson’s stage persona is lighthearted and good natured. I won’t venture to hazard a guess at what he is like in private because, well we all know about the casualties of his iron fist in ruling Yes. Stories about how Peter Banks and Tony Kaye were got rid of, how Bill Bruford couldn’t take the process any more, and how Rick Wakeman was in and then out and in again and then out swapping Patrick Moraz in, then out (and Patrick still wants to play for Yes), all revolve around the difficulty of working with the man. Yet, here is the man, ousted from his domain, exiled with just an acoustic guitar or electric piano to accompany himself, singing his song catalogue, and all of it is a revelation. All of it!

Jon Anderson scats his way through the famous lines of songs such as ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’, and it’s all quite fascinating because it reveals how he hears his own music. And it’s weirder than you think. He does what he calls a reggae rendition of ‘Sweet Dreams’ and a harmonically extended ‘Long Distance Runaround’ that doesn’t resemble the original recording at all – and it’s fresh and good.

The anecdotes about Chris Squire, Vangelis and jokes about Rick Wakemen are quite funny too. He also has a couple of cute stories about how he ran into Joe Cocker and Robert Plant way before any of them got to be famous.

He’s quite the seasoned show man unlike the awful support guy who just went on about his wife. This is a man who knows how to sell his songs to an audience.  If you’re familiar with the Yes catalogue, it’s a night of great entertainment.

What’s Bad About It

This show was marred by a faulty DI Box. The sound guy kept winding in the wrong amount of reverb into Jon Anderson’s in-ear monitors so the show was the opposite of seamless. It was all unraveling seam, like an old baseball.

Also, Jon Anderson is not a master musician like his Yes colleagues. Still, he sure hit a lot of bum notes on the guitar. his technique was a strummy drone mixed with a dose of high school barre chord parade. It was good enough to accompany the songs, but only barely. The whole night had a precarious stop-start feel to it as a result.

As shows go, the anecdotes and jokes seem spontaneous but also  underdone and haphazard. I’d sack the audio dude.

What’s Interesting About It

For a start, Jon Anderson’s notion of how Yes songs go are quite different to how they are on record when Yes play these songs. He plays them with a kind of folk-y strum and without the massively built up arrangements, the song expose themselves as rather innocuous, pretty, disarming melodies. If watching Yes play is like master class in how to play, then watching Jon Anderson work is like seeing an X-ray into the skeleton of Yes music. And as Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot through watching.

When he sits at the Piano and sings the opening cantata from ‘Revealing Science of God’, you get the feeling that the harmonic relationship his voice has to the chords is only arbitrary and could be sung over any environment – which I’m sure is not true, musically speaking – and so he goes on to play the most bizarre inversions on piano while singing the bits he sang on the record, pretty much like the record.

The chords on half the song are not the chords played by the band so even when he sings the melody, just like on the album, the harmonic structure drifts into uncharted-weirdo terrain. If you didn’t have his voice and recognise the melody, you’d think it was a mad person babbling Yes phrases.

Which brings me to the strangeness of hearing the vocalist singing the melody without the band. Not to boast, but I’ve been listening to yes since I was a teen and I am an old fart now, I can tell you that their music is burned into my brain. So he would strum the guitar and sing over it, and I could hear the rest of the band in my head. It’s such a weird experience. In some ways, it’s very sad that it has come to this. He can still do it; but the band’s moved on without him, so he’s wandering the world like a minstrel, spreading peace, love and mung beans.

Musical Shaman

I’m pretty sure many of the early Yes songs originated from Jon Anderson strumming his acoustic guitar. These renditions sound very lived-in quite apart from the established versions we know so well. You can just imagine Jon Anderson marching in with these songs and the band being taken aback by the sheer primal rawness. Jon Anderson might think all that happened between his writing and Yes recording was  dash of arranging, but in fact the distance between the versions is mind-warpingly immense.

The chords are so simple while Anderson sings these intricate melodies and you come to realise that he’s somehow plugged into the musical world in a primal way. That’s why the music just comes to him in this raw state. The apparent absence of finesse is off-set by the stripped back beauty of the songs. These humungous Yes songs actually have at heart these strummy little songs – if you want it to.

All night long, I kept thinking that the man was like somebody channelling music, more than building a performance.  In that sense he is like a shaman of music; that is what he has made himself into.

Scales Of Economy

Maybe, I thought, this is one way for musicians to be in the future. Jon Anderson could have put together a ‘Jon Anderson band’ to replace Yes and tour with it, but he hasn’t. Of course, the financial risks are greater in doing so and perhaps not as rewarding. Traveling with a couple of guitars and a ukulele, while hiring the backline electric piano as he goes is probably lower risk and higher reward. It’s not that he’s regressed to an acoustic set up so much as progressed into a new method of traveling further with his music.

And as it was last year, the Yes audience is grey, old, fat and saggy. Newer fans are scant and far between. He can go further around the world to meet more and more fans who haven’t been able to see him live in the heyday. It makes some kind of sense.

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Firebird VII

Firebird Sweet

My Big Guitar Project for 2012 turned out to be this red Gibson Firebird VII with gold trim like the picture above. It’s a bit of confluence of things that led to this project but when I list to factors, you might grok in fullness the weird road to the Gibson Firebird VII.

The most familiar Firebird player in my collection of CDs is Clarence Gatemouth Brown. He had a swanky Firebird V, and there is no duplicating his clean tone without some Firebird under your fingers. It’s just the way it is, because not only is the cut of the body an oddball shape, Firebirds sport minihumbuckers and walnut bodies, with through-body necks.

Other oddities in the Firebird design would be the through-neck design and the Cadillac-fin styling of the body (it was designed by a car designer Gibson Co. hired). It has had many variants over the years, but perhaps the most appealing to me is the Firebird VII with the 3 pickup with Maestro Vibrola arm. Yes, it’s Gibson’s copy of the Fender Stratocaster – even though they’d never admit the bleeding obvious – and being a dyed-in-the-wool Strat player, the one that resonates the most is the FB VII.

Of course, Gibson wares in Australia are always priced for lawyers, advertising execs and drug-dealers, so it was going to be hard to say, “Oh I’ll check out the Gibson”. Sure. On my way home from buying my Aston Martin Bond car.

Anyway, I thought if I could pick up an Epiphone version of the FB VII, I wouldn’t mind loading it up with Seymour Duncans and giving it a red hot go. Of course, Epiphone stopped making their version some years back, so the opportunity seemed to be less than initially imagined. Then along came a full custom shop “body and neck only” in good nick, so that made me empty my piggy bank.

The thing about electric guitars is that you can go through life not knowing the subtleties of what goes into the sound and still be a great player. But if you want to be a unique player, you have to be willing to go much further afield than Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls and Flying Vs. Similarly, with the choice of wood, you have to leave behind Swamp Ash or Alder or Mahogany. Walnut is the thing! (technically, there is mahogany sandwiched in the FB VII, but the ‘wings’ are Walnut).

Walnut warrants a bit of explication. Alembic use Walnut to build thru-body neck designs for their high end product. The grain is open but tight and so there is a fair chunk of density. It has a higher tone than Mahogany, Swamp Ash or Alder, but is not as bright as Maple. Walnut shows great resonance when you rap it with your knuckles. One of my pet dream projects is to build a guitar around a big Walnut body – like a L5S body – and a Walnut neck, to get the maximum wood tone of Walnut and call it ‘Wally’.

The surprsing thing about the Firebird design is just how much wood there is in it. When I sit it next to a Stratocaster, it’s clear it has so much more wood in the headstock and body. This is important because what gives an electric guitar distinctive tone is the wood; and the more wood there is, the more complex and rich the decay of the envelope. Add in the fact that there is no neck joint and you have the recipe for a very rich sounding guitar.

I installed Seymour Duncan SM-1n in the neck and S-M3n and SM-3b for the middle and bridge positions. They’re all wound around Alnico V magnets instead of ceramic magnets, which gives them a warmer, ’rounded’ tone. I guess one could dream about getting Alnico II versions from somewhere, but Alnico Vs should be good enough for now.

Wiring up was a little strange. The Firebird chamber is very small, and it sports 3 Volume knobs and 1 Tone, but only a 3 way switch. I tried using a 6 way switch but that didn’t work out too well. The 3 Volume pots makes things  interesting, especially because there’s effectively no Master Volume control, but there is a master Tone control. You do have more control over tonal combinations between the pickups but the wiring is convoluted as a result of the choice.

The tuning pegs were also an interesting problem. Because of the oddball design in the headstock and tuners, I had to get Steinberger Gearless Tuners. These are interesting things because they work like a clamp and a shifter rather than the traditional winding on to posts. They too were a learning exercise but now that they’re on, they seem to be very stable tuners.

The weird thing about the Gibson Firebird is that there is nothing apart from the body and neck that can’t be improved by third party parts. The Seymour Duncans are better than the Gibson minihumbuckers; the third party Vibrola copy is more stable than the original; there is a roller saddle bridge with locking posts out there that is an improvement on the Tune-o-matic bridge favoured by Gibson. All the same, when you string it up and set up the action, you’re confronted by the great craftsmanship on the body and neck. It sure makes you wonder about the Gibson company.

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