Michael Anthony — the glue

Jefito has a brilliant post challenging our conceptions of rock music by making an astonishing point: Van Halen is not Van Halen without Michael Anthony?

“Who?” you ask. The bass player. The one not named Sammy, David or Van Halen. For the first time, Van Halen will conduct business without him on an upcoming tour or album or whatever they think they’re attempting.

Jefito says that’s a stupid idea. I agree, but for slightly different reasons.

Jefito’s argument is musical. He’s not impressed with Anthony as a bass player but argues that his backing vocals were a key part of the band’s sound.

That’s one reason to keep him around. I’ll argue that there’s more to it.

The comments on Jefito’s post hint at my point — in a band full of high-strung people, he was the glue that held things together. He kept the band functioning as a unit and was important to its personality. In a band like Van Halen, that’s important.

His departure says everything about why he was needed in the first place. Jefito’s summation:

“I’m speaking specifically to Eddie’s decision to go public on Howard Stern’s show with the news that Michael Anthony had been dumped. The reason for this seems to be Anthony’s willingness to go on making music with Hagar, which is a little like a divorced mother tossing her kid out of the house after he has dinner with his dad.”

It’s worth adding here that Van Halen toured with Hagar just 18 months ago.

Eddie has always been adept at spinning Van Halen’s revolving door as the singers’ faults. At some point, when you’re no longer able to keep a lead singer and you’re no longer seeing eye-to-eye with the bass player who kept things from imploding all those years, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.

A lot of bands have a guy who served as the glue …

– John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin. It’s always irritated me that Jones never gets his due. First of all, he was damn good on the bass. (Best example: Immigrant Song.) Second of all, he was clearly the only guy in the band who could be counted on to be somewhat coherent through the haze of the ’70s.

– Adam Clayton, U2. Sometimes, being the “glue” means that you’re willing to take a supporting role. The bass line in With or Without You is four notes. Period. And the song would not work any other way. He knows he has had a great ride with one of the world’s greatest bands. And you get the feeling he helps Bono stay grounded. I may be totally off on this, but I picture him filling the “lukewarm water between two visionaries” role posited by Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap.

– Malcolm Young, AC/DC. Kind of a bland rhythm guitarist on stage, but very much in charge.

The new Van Halen will feature Eddie, Alex and Eddie’s son Wolfgang, with David Lee Roth singing. Never have I felt more sympathy for David Lee Roth.


Al Against the Machine

Weird Al isn’t known for his original songs. Way back when, he would occasionally do a video for one of his more inspired efforts, which generally parody a style or a band rather than a particular song. (Best examples: A couple of movie themes, the Devo-flavored Dare to be Stupid, the doo-wop One More Minute, which hits its peak when the background singers soulfully repeat the last word of the line “I’d rather have my blood sucked out by leeches.)

Al seems to be rare form now, hitting an Aerosmith-esque second wind more than 25 years into hit career. White and Nerdy, a parody of Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ (no, I hadn’t heard it until Al’s version came out), is a trip. And apparently his highest-charting single ever … yes, higher than Eat It or Like a Surgeon.

And then there’s this one, which takes the overblown anger of Rage Against the Machine and says what’s really on the mind of the American people: I’ll Sue Ya!

The animated video works well:

Al’s Wikipedia entry is a must-read. Things you may not have known:

– He once opened for Missing Persons. It didn’t go well.

– Keyboardist Ruben Valtierra is the “new guy” in Al’s band. He joined in 1991. No one has ever left the band — drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz joined in 1980, bassist Steve Jay joined in 1982 and brought guitarist Jim West with him. Off the top of my head, the only band I can think of with that kind of stability is Rush (one personnel change in 1974), and they only have three guys.

– Chamillionaire was so happy with Al’s parody that it popped up on the rapper’s MySpace page before Al had it out. Al’s not exactly a technophobe, so that’s saying something.

– Al’s fans forced Wikipedia to protect the Atlantic Records entry. You have to read the discussion to see why. I can’t do it justice. Colbert’s got nothing on this guy.

– On the other hand, there are so many imitators in this day of easy uploading that we need a “Not Al” page to list songs that he did NOT record.


Convenient but predictable

Loyal reader Fred passes along a great read about a music professor who has traced the history of how recordings have changed our perceptions of music.

Hard to believe that just a few generations ago, anyone who wanted to hear music had to go to a local hall or play it on a piano. Then we had fragile vinyl for a couple of generations. Then 8-tracks, the goofiest invention I can remember in my lifetime. And now the CD age has come … and possibly gone already.

Funny how the most convenient music becomes, the more disposable it seems.


What we miss as radio dies

Marc Fisher is an erratic Washington Post columnist, clearly out of his element when he starts talking about things beyond his immediate sphere of knowledge (soccer, the Virginia suburbs, etc.). But at his best, he’s very good. And he’s best when writing about radio, which he did in this week’s Post Magazine, taking us behind the scenes of a focus group.

It’s mildly depressing, yes, to see that actual human beings can’t stand Motown, and that’s why Big 100.3 no longer plays it. You may find yourself shifting blame from faceless radio programmers and big companies to your fellow human being and his tin ear.

Highly recommended read.

The timing, as it turns out, was particularly interesting. One day later, which would be today, the 11th-ranked radio station in Washington flipped formats to the “George” format — ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, whatever.

Here are the odd aspects of the deal:

– A radio station chain (Bonneville) is cooperating with a public-radio giant (WETA). Bonneville is basically handing over its music library, and there will be more cooperation down the road.

– WETA is junking a talk format (one or two local shows, lots of NPR/PRI syndication, BBC, etc.) that it picked up only a couple of years ago, somewhat controversially.

– Have we mentioned that the format in question here is classical?

Here are the sad aspects of the deal:

– The station that flipped, WGMS, has been broadcasting classical music for nearly 60 years.

– WETA is flipping from one extreme to another. They’ve gone from classical with a little talk to all-talk to all-classical, aside from hourly NPR news bulletins and a one-hour simulcast of NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which is produced nearby. (I once interviewed at NewsHour.) The reactions at WETA’s blog hint at the resulting mess — some people are thrilled that WETA is back and claim WGMS never played their favorites, but a lot of people don’t like being jerked around. And WETA won’t even play the NPR standards like All Things Considered and Prairie Home Companion — though the folks at WAMU are surely thrilled to be Washington’s only over-the-air source of such programming. (To folks who’ll miss all that programming — get an iPod. NPR and PRI do great podcasts.)

– For amusement, read about WETA’s decision to flip two years ago, then read today’s press release.

– We’ve had WGMS on the radio in the baby’s room. It’s a soothing, friendly presence — the music, the announcers, the ads for things like investing in gold. There’s an atmosphere to it you just don’t get on faceless XM. (And we only have one XM receiver, which we’re not lugging into the baby’s room.) I didn’t just listen to it because it’s classical. Even as a music major, I think classical these days is basically background music. I listened to it because it’s local, friendly classical. A couple of commenters on WETA’s blog make the same point — they’ll miss the WGMS announcers.

– Twelve staffers — many of them Washington radio institutions — are in limbo, though they will have opportunities to interview at Bonneville. (To do what? It’s hard to picture the same soothing voices that introduced Bach chattering between cuts from Seal and Poison, the artists Mrs. MMM heard back-to-back as she listened in shock this afternoon.) And what happens to the folks who produced WETA’s news program, Intersection? And shouldn’t a powerful public radio station in the nation’s capital produce more content?

– WGMS was a great station, well-liked. The demographics are just wrong.

– Just listen to the signoff. It’s heartbreaking, even as they spin it as a good day for classical music because it gets a more powerful signal and so forth.

The demographics are the killer. I’m a good little capitalist and all, but seeing another demonstration that advertisers (and therefore programmers) don’t care about you when your brand loyalties are established bodes ill for everyone’s future, doesn’t it?

Hope I die before I get old, I suppose. Oh wait — the three classic rock stations don’t play that song anymore. Too old.


Weirdest pop hits, No. 1

Well, maybe not No. 1, but it’s the first one I’ve written about. And it’s apparently the only No. 1 song Bruce Springsteen ever wrote, and it’s not even his recording of the song.

If you grew up in the ’70s, you heard Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s (my, what a lot of possessives) Blinded by the Light a couple hundred times. And you were probably too young to appreciate what a strange freaking song it is.

First of all, the Springsteen song itself is a convoluted mess. Picture the song Rosalita with a clumsier arrangement and a vocal straight from the John Fogerty “Bathroom on the Right” school of enunciation.

What it had going for it was a collection of enigmatic lyrics with cool rhyming hooks that stick in your head. That must be what Manfred Mann and whoever was in his band that week heard and decided to build upon. (Best tangent from the band’s history: One-time drummer Chris Slade, who can be heard on Thunderstruck, was let go from AC/DC even though he was considered the best musician in the group. He’s a tad more inventive than Phil Rudd.)

So Mann and vocalist Chris Thompson gave it a go, tossing the song in a completely new arrangement and rejumbling the lyrics. There’s no coherent narrative in place, so why not?

The song has earned a wonderful Wikipedia entry — one of the best I’ve ever seen for a single song. But it only skims the surface of the inherent oddities in the song:

1. Not many songs are built on a spacey keyboard riff that keeps reappearing as the rest of the band abruptly shuts down.

1a. The band abruptly shuts down a lot. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus structure does not apply whatsover. This is a hodgepodge of partial verses and one-line choruses popping up at random.

2. Somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the song, Mann (presumably) plays Chopsticks on the piano.

3. Thompson’s delivery makes “deuce” sound like “douche.” But in the Springsteen version, I have no freaking clue what he’s saying. “UPPPP ooos veh neh doooze, guh behna dunner inna nyyy!” Of course, I’m the one who thinks The Rising sounds like “come on up, fertilizer.”

4. An ex-girlfriend once insisted to me that this song was a gay anthem. That interpretation hinges on hearing the much-misheard line as “slipped up like a douche” and taking “middle of the night” to be, well, where the sun don’t shine. My guess is this is wishful thinking from a dormmate of ours who insisted every guy was gay. Even if that were true, Springsteen would’ve been way out of his league.

In any case, that would be a new twist on Wikipedia’s note that the title is a reference to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. In fact, everything I found on a search for “blinded by the light homosexuality” led me to some sort of theological debate.

Manfred Mann had a knack for covers. An earlier incarnation of the band had success with Dylan’s Mighty Quinn, and he later recorded a version of the Police’s Demolition Man. If you think that’s strange, check out the other artist to record that song in the early ’80s. That’s right — Grace Jones.

See, this is why I find today’s music scene so boring. You just don’t have anything this bizarre. In my day, the guy who did Doo Wah Diddy Diddy could hit No. 1 with a twisted keyboard reconstruction of a Springsteen tune, a snarling androgynous woman could speak-sing her way through a Police classic, and ELP was covering Aaron Copland. Those were the days.