My First Gig in Years

Last night, I had the pleasure of joining my friend Tom Adamson in playing a gig at Chapman’s Brewery in Angola, IN. Tom simply referred to us as “Tom Adamson and Friends,” but because he is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church I jokingly called the group “Fr. Tom and the Confessions.”

It was a lot of fun playing music, not just listening and writing about it. It was also an intimate setting, surrounded by friends and family. I also had the the joy of signing Big Star’s “I’m in Love with a Girl” to my five-year-old daughter.

 

Our song selections ranged all over. Tom put together a Spotify playlist for rehearsing our covers.

 

The entire gig was a family affair. Tom’s teenage son Sam played his first show by supporting us on the drums. And my uncle Troy shared much of the singing credit. Oh, and my uncle is just a few years older than I am.

Tom and Troy were in a band in the mid-2000s called Bottle Rocket Blue. We played a selection of their songs. It was a nostalgic time for Tom and Troy for whom life’s twists and turns have taken far distances and in different directions.

 

But the beauty is that the music that connects us opens the doors for us to reconnect. And it can allow us to build new connections with those we love.

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A New Addition: A Podcast Lecture

I’ve been awake for hours recording and editing my first audio lecture. I’m proud of it, and I hope that some of you will enjoy it.

In the coming weeks, I will record more of these lectures and will host them on as a podcast for my students and for anyone else interested in listening.

The first episode looks at a question I ask my students at the start of the course: would there have been rock music without the electric guitar. I hope that this lecture helps them (and you) understand the much more complicated history of that instrument and its relationship with rock music.

Tomorrow, I’ll be practicing on my Les Paul. So, enjoy this episode while I get some sleep and then shred on my guitar.

Cover Me: McLemore Ave. as a Funeral March

The fine people over at Cover Me Songs have published my most recent essay. This one looks at the full-album cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road by Booker T. and the MGs, called McLemore Ave. They managed to release this album just eight months after the original. My thesis is that the artistry of this album from its name to its imagery to its music is like a funeral for The Beatles and for the Sixties. Here is a sample:

Like a funeral, McLemore Avenue takes you on a journey through the emotions of grief, fear, and celebration of life. And at the exact moment that the music world—and the world in general—was encountering these emotions, Booker T. & the MGs offered a tribute to serve as the processional.

There are scores of Beatles covers, as their music has been inspirational to generations of artists. However, given the Fab Four’s love for music by black artists from the ’50s and ’60s, covers by some of these artists are among the most intriguing. A few years ago, Cover Me Songs also did a feature on a Beatles covers compilation by soul and R&B artists.

I’m also partial when it comes to the legendary Aretha Franklin belting out “Eleanor Rigby” on her 1971 Filmore West live album.

Spaced-Out Rock

Over the weekend, we remembered the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and subsequent moon walk by the crew of Apollo 11. This historic commemoration had me thinking about the importance of the space race on rock music.

Throughout the 1970s there was a fascination with space themes in rock music. This was especially captivating those bands inspired by the musical exploration of psychedelia. They wanted to combine their ambient music with lyrical and visual themes drawn from science fiction and contemporary science. As a result, we arrived at a new term: Space Rock.

There were precursors to Space Rock even in the 1950s. In 1959, British songwriter composed the instrumental song “Telstar” for the band The Tornados. It sounds like a theme song so a sci-fi show from the ’50s. The song garnered a #1 hit in both the U.S. and in England.

Fast forward almost ten years, one of the first prominent bands within this movement was Pink Floyd. In the midst of the Syd Barrett era, they had already performed space-themed songs such as “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive.”

Then, during the BBC broadcast of the moon landing in July 1969, Pink Floyd performed live their largely forgotten tune “Moonhead,” a pulsing, ambient jam to accompany the ethereal views of humanity in the heavens.

That same year, David Bowie had his first major hit with “Space Oddity.” The title was a play on the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick. Many know the song as “Major Tom,” who is the main character set to flight in space.

Both Bowie and Pink Floyd would continue their exploration of space themes through different formats. Pink Floyd’s music ventured further into the elaborate arrangements and lengthy jams that psychedelia had introduced. Consider, for example, their song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” borrows heavily from “Moonhead.” And then, their 1973 smash hit album Dark Side of the Moon continued the space themes by using the moon as a metaphor for mental anguish. Likewise, they would write the lengthy “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” as a tribute to their estranged Syd.

Meanwhile, Bowie would write tight pop songs such as “Starman” and much of the rest of the material on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as using space as a source of hope in a world experiencing decay.

Bowie and Pink Floyd were not alone in these space explorations. Another British band known as Hawkwind combined elements of psychedelia and hard rock to write spacey rock that was layered in distortion. Their 1973 album Space Ritual combined live and studio overdub material to create a sonic landscape that was out of this world.

Even Queen got in on the space themes on their massive 1975 hit album A Night at the Opera. Brian May’s song “‘39” tells the story space travelers coming back to Earth in the year 2139 after 100 years away from their homes.

British bands were not the only ones to approach Space Rock. Themes from space also influenced the Afrofuturism of the avant-garde jazz by Sun Ra.

George Clinton took on space themes in Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop (1973) and Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1975).

More recently, post-grunge band Hum had a hit in the mid-90s with “Stars.”

And even more recently, The Flaming Lips’ 2002 concept album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots made use of sci-fi and space themes to explore emotional states.

As the space age emerged at the same time as the age that gave birth to rock ‘n roll music, it is therefore no surprise that rock music looked to space for its themes and inspiration. Should we choose to go back to the moon or even to Mars, I wonder how space themes may influence another fifty years of rock music.

A Toast to the Women Who Rock!

Photo Credit: WireImage found on the New York Post

Tonight, I’m going with my wife to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts play at the local outdoor theater. At first, she wasn’t sure about this concert, as neither of us are that big of fans. But I reminded her of her recurring statement that in my class on Rock ‘n Roll History and in my writing about rock history that I should include more women. She often says, “Hashtag, Girls who Rock!”

So, we are going tonight to see one of legendary women of rock. Her band The Runaways were a crucial link between glam, hard rock, and proto-punk. And her reinvention following The Runaways maintained a gritty female persona visible exactly when it was needed. I don’t think we would have seen the Riot Grrrl movement in the ’90s without Jett’s version of punk feminism in the ’80s.

Which leads me to thinking about other women pioneers in rock music. For a couple of months, I’ve been following the digital humanities dissertation of Leah Branstetter at Case Western University. It is a fascinating project that uncovers biographies of some of rock music’s forgotten heroines.

I’m also enthusiastic about her use of the digital humanities approach to telling these stories. We can witness in real-time how Branstetter is engaging with her subjects, thinking through her analysis, and presenting her findings. Also, we can observe some carefully curated presentations that move beyond the stale words on paper method of scholarship.

Another thing that excites me about this project is that she approaches it from multiple angles. While she is a musicologist by training, she is using methods in ethnography and oral history, gender theory, and social history to inform her study. This multi-disciplinary strategy is the hallmark of good scholarship in the future of the academy.

One other part of the story that is worth sharing is that women were integral to manufacturing the gear that helped to popularize rock music.  A gear-head colleague recently told me that Leo Fender’s amplifier factor employed women to do the wiring for the circuits. Similarly, the “Kalamazoo Gals” built guitars in the Gibson factory during and after World War II.

Suffice it to say, the history of rock ‘n roll deserves to give more attention to the women who helped build, perform, and consume rock music.

Pat Boone’s Crossover Music Flouted the Boundaries of Sacred and Secular Marketplaces

Once again, I had the honor of being featured on the website Cover Me Songs. I enjoy working with the editors and the opportunity to write about music in a critical way.

Today, my essay in defense of Pat Boone went live. In that essay, I look at the tongue-in-cheek humor of Boone’s 1997 album In A Metal Mood, which was collection of covers of hard rock and heavy metal songs. Here’s a sample:

I tried to situate Boone within the larger history of rock and roll. His covers of R&B songs by black musicians helped to sanitize and popularize rock music for white audiences. And we owe some debt of gratitude because without that broader appeal of rock music, heavy metal may never have come into existence. I also consider Boone’s relationship with American evangelicalism and the backlash that In A Metal Mood created among the TBN crowd.

Readers of this blog will come to learn that I’m a fanboy when it comes to the scholarship of Randall Stephens at the University of Oslo. I’m especially fond of his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n Roll. Stephens gives a brief recounting of this episode in the epilogue of his book. He summarizes the kerfuffle as follows:

In certain circles, the prospect of Christian artists–whether old-timers like Boon or relatively new stars like Amy Grant–selling out to the market and caving in to secularism was a pressing concern. (p. 243)

I think that is about three-quarters true. Christian circles often bemoaned the secularism of popular music and the non-ecclesial marketplaces that vied for the attention of the public. But Contemporary Christian Music was an industry in and of itself. And thus it had its own markets to which it kowtowed. American Protestantism had sanctified market capitalism early in our national history. And in turn corporate America helped to sell the idea of America as a Christian nation. So, working within the markets of the Christian-industrial complex was not so secular and enterprise. It was when an artist attempted to step out of (or bridge between) the marketplaces that Christians often turned on their own.

First Installment at Cover Me Songs

Recently, I started as a staff writer for Cover Me Songs, a blog devoted to showcasing cover songs. It’s a great site and good people, and I’m happy to write for them.

My first installment was to expose readers to the fact that Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man” was in fact a cover of an earlier blues song by John Brim.

It’s hot outside where I live. So, I’m happy to stay inside and write more reviews of cover songs. Stay cool and keep on rockin’!