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I call it ‘Scrubs Rock’

I’ve always criticised music journalists for creating musical genres out of thin air. So I guess I’m a massive hypocrite for making up the term ‘Scrubs Rock’. In my defence, this wasn’t done out of the desire to promote some new strain of noise pollution, or as an act of self promotion. It was done as a means of warning people about this most pervasive form of music, which is sweeping the charts.

The ‘Scrubs’ of the title refers to the American hospital-based sitcom that outstayed its welcome many years ago. Scrubs Rock is the kind of music that sounds like it could be used on the soundtrack to said programme.

There is no concrete definition of Scrubs Rock, but like audio porn (porncasts?), I know it when I hear it. It’s a sort of overly earnest kind of pop-rock; usually performed by young, male, American bands and singers. The lyrics are sentimental and deal with lost love or ennui. You can perform a simple test to see if a certain song belongs to this genre: If you can picture the song in question playing while Zach Braff’s character walks down a hospital corridor in slow motion; then it’s Scrubs Rock.

A good example is Rhett Miller’s song ‘Come Around’. Here’s a quick clip of the song in all its Weezer-ripping-off glory, being used in an episode:

Horrifying isn’t it? However, that isn’t the epitome of SR. The prime example is The Fray – How to Save a Life:

Time Magazine’s TV critic, James Poniewozik, once wrote: “The Fray is to Coldplay as Drive Shaft is to Oasis”. Never a truer word written. That song gets extra points for also being used in a similar fashion on Gray’s Anatomy.

The major problem with the SR genre, is that it’s not limited to songs that have actually appeared on the show. Songs and artists that have never been featured on the series can still be Scrubs Rock. Even artists that you might not expect, such as Jonathan Coulton, have dipped their toes into the SR sewer. This is my main problem: it seems to be spreading.

I hope that in raising awareness of this most heinous form of music, I might play a small part in stopping its spread. By taking the simple steps of avoiding American network television and teenage girls’ CD collections; you should be able to limit your exposure.

Be safe. Don’t have nightmares.

The Most Influential Albums…

As a music fan, I get irritated by those “best albums of all time” lists that magazines produce. I think that they’re actually trying to be provocative to try and sell more magazines. But “best” is a subjective term, so I suppose I can’t get too upset. More annoying however, are lists of “most influential albums of all time”. This is a topic that I think you can approach somewhat more logically and get an informed set of choices. However, the lists produced by magazines are generally weak, because the records chosen are far too modern. The Ramones were influenced by The Stooges, who were influenced by The Rolling Stones, who were influenced by Howlin’ Wolf. So why include The Ramones? I made my own list by trying to find “oldest common denominator” albums. I came up with the following Top Ten, in order of release:

  • Lead Belly – Rock Island Line (1951)
  • Bill Haley & his Comets – Rock Around the Clock (1955)
  • Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (1956)
  • Jerry Lee Lewis – Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)
  • The Crickets – The “Chirping” Crickets (1957)
  • Little Richard – Here’s Little Richard (1957)
  • Muddy Waters – The Best of Muddy Waters (1957)
  • Chuck Berry – Is on Top (1959)
  • Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
  • Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf (AKA The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)

I’d tell you the detailed scientific process I used to come up with these, but unfortunately I don’t have room to show you my working out. If you look at the track listings on Allmusic, or even better Wikipedia (!), you should see where I’m coming from.

Most of these aren’t “rock”, at least not in the sense that we think of it today, but I think they are the albums that have had the most influence on today’s rock music. It is a bit of a cheat though. The Robert Johnson and Lead Belly records are made up of songs that predated the 12” LP, but were repackaged onto that format. But it’s important to remember that the vinyl album was introduced in 1948: long after the era of the classic Delta Blues singers, who were incredibly influential. Perhaps someone should make a list of the most influential 78 rpms of all time. However, that someone would have to be more knowledgeable than myself.

The Women of Britpop

A friend of mine (a famous model) recently posted a Facebook update, expressing her wish for the band Republica to get back together. Her friends were in agreement and suggested other Britpop bands with female lead singers that should reform too. I often think that wishing bands would reform is like praying for a sequel (or even worse, prequel) to your favourite film. It will only end in disappointment. However, I would at least like to see these female artists get the recognition they deserve.

I was a huge fan of Britpop during its heyday and loved all the great singles that the genre produced. To this day, reading the track list of “The Best Album in the World…Ever (Vol. 3)” fills me with nostalgia. Among my favourite songs were Lush – Ladykillers and Sleeper – Inbetweener. There were a host of other acts with female singers/band members around at that time: Elastica, Echobelly, Dubstar, Catatonia, Alisha’s Attic, St. Etienne. Okay, so not all of these were strictly Britpop, but it shows there was a lot of female musical talent around in the 1990s. So why is it that every discussion of nineties music makes it sound like a men-only club? Perhaps it was because of the whole Blur vs. Oasis rivalry, that the female artists got pushed aside in the public’s consciousnesses. Perhaps there were other factors…

The Onion once had a headline claiming “History Of Rock Written By The Losers”. I certainly think that the history of Britpop was written by geeky male journalists. Most of the journos that championed and later chronicled the genre were men: John Harris, Stuart Maconie, Andrew Collins, David Quantick, Paul Morley, etc.

With every new musical genre, the biggest-selling acts seem to be bands made up of of white males. When Rave music broke through to the mainstream in the late 80s, the real stars should’ve been the DJs: those anonymous people in their darkened booths. But it seemed that the mainstream media needed something familiar to latch onto; so the band The Happy Mondays became the posterboys of the genre.

I’m not suggesting that people who wrote about, or listened to Britpop were sexist. It’s often just the case that people will gravitate towards music that’s performed by people of their own sex. I have a pet theory that people listen to music that they can imagine themselves playing on stage; as a sort of rock star fantasy. I also wonder if male journalists, and guys in general, didn’t really embrace these bands because they felt threatened by their forthright nature. I was certainly uneasy when Saffron from Republica went around labelling men ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’. That’s only because she was unlikely to ever label me that.

One thing that did strike me about the less well-known Britpop bands (many of which had female members) is that they happened not to have albums that were as strong as those of Blur and Oasis. I would argue that Britpop was never about albums, just brilliant pop singles. However, the business model of the music industry at the time was built around the 45 minute album, which was a hangover from the vinyl LP era. Like not having a poster boy, perhaps without a strong album, you could never really make it big in the music industry.

Maybe now, in the days of internet downloads, these Britpop acts could actually make a decent comeback. Bands don’t really need an album anymore. You can even make it without a record label; which would be a great step in the empowerment of women in the music industry. It could be a genuine ‘netroots’ movement too, not like the press release theatre of Sandi Thom and Lily Allen: “For immediate release: this girl has had thousands of hits on her MySpace page. Did we mention she’s pretty and her dad’s famous? For more information call Regal Recordings (a subsidiary of Parlophone)”.

The one thing to take away from this rant is: that if there were more female journalists, there might be more publicity for female bands. However, like the music industry, journalism is changing too. Newspapers and magazines are unlikely to be hiring anybody at the moment; male or female. Luckily, new media is there to fill the gap for the consumer. So, if you want female artists to get ahead: get a blog.

For VW. x

Paul’s Boutique Re-Re-Evaluated

Recently, all the critics and bloggers have been discussing the music of the year 2009. More on that story later. However, with my usual disregard for following the trends; I’m going to talk about an album from not 2009, but 1989.

The Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique wasn’t well received when it was first released, but over the years, it has been re-evaluated by critics and the general public. It’s now considered by many to be a great Beasties album, and possibly one of the best albums of the Eighties. I’m here to argue that it’s about time for a re-re-evaluation, with the conclusion that it was, in fact, rubbish all along.

The main problem I have with the album is that it contains no original music. By that, I don’t mean that the music is derivative: I mean that all of the music is sampled from elsewhere. I find that hard to believe, but both Allmusic and the (ever accurate) Wikipedia confirm this. It’s not that I hate the concept of sampling. Quite recently I got out my copy of The Avalanches – Since I Left You and marvelled at how old songs and bits of ‘found audio’ could be woven into a new piece of art. I think the problem is that, unlike with The Avalanches, I’m familiar with most of the songs that were sampled for Paul’s Boutique, and I prefer them in their original form. I wouldn’t be morally against taking the same tunes, sampling them and/or mixing them together into an Avalanches-style musical piece. It’s just having three idiots shouting over the top of it that I object to!

That’s what annoys me most about this particular Beastie Boys album: The Beastie Boys. Their shrill rapping makes me cringe. These guys must have the highest vocal registers in rap (or even rock) history. It makes for an insane counterpoint to the bass-heavy hits from the 70s that they sample. And don’t get me started on the lyrics! I said don’t! Is there some rule that that all raps should be filled with ridiculous similes and metaphors? All the verses go something like this:

I’m an MC,

I don’t play the fiddle,

I’m short on charisma,

like Jimmy Kimmel

I’m no expert on Hip-Hop; but it’s said that it was originally a musical, rather than a vocal genre. The DJs would mix the tunes together and the Emcee (MC) would be the announcer and rally the crowd. Over the years, it seems that the vocals became more important than the music. Maybe it’s time to change that back. Whatever happens, Hip-Hop can’t carry on its current form. More on that story even later…

P.S. – I have one further point to make about sampling, before I rest my spleen. I believe that sampling can work for the benefit of the new song, but it is bad for the old one. When I first heard a Curtis Mayfield album, I had heard a lot of the music before, in the form of samples. It was disconcerting, and I felt that it cheapened the original record. It was like when I first read The Importance of Being Earnest: I thought Oscar Wilde had just strung a bunch of famous quotations together!

Abbey Road Resurfaced (Side 2)

Here Comes the Sun – This, for me, is a stone cold classic. Like Harrison himself, it’s modest and sincere. My only minor quibble is the stereo placement, which makes it sound a little limp. It actually sounds a lot a lot more Beatles-y than many of the songs that John and Paul were writing at the time. However, that might be because they had moved ‘beyond’ recording three-minute long pop songs. Speaking of which…

Because – Another high-point of the album. It has an unusual song structure and sounds more like a hymn or a classical piece than a traditional pop-song. That’s to be expected, as it’s adapted from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Paul Simon did something similar with his song American Tune: which just goes to show that you can adapt classical music without going all ‘Prog-y’. To my mind, this is the song that best illustrates Lennon’s worldview.

You Never Give Me Your Money – This song feels almost like a mini-medley in itself. It’s about the band’s financial difficulties with their record company. Boo-hoo! You won’t get much sympathy from me, especially when you sing about picking up your bags and getting into a limousine. I can’t help but think that this song, along with Taxman, were probably off-putting to their more blue-collar listeners. Again, it suffers from bad stereo placement: Paul’s vocals alternate between the right and left channels, for no good reason.

Sun King – This had the potential to be another great track, but the ending ruins it for me. That part always reminds me of The Blues Brothers movie, when Murph & The Magic Tones sing ‘Quando Quando Quando’.

Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam – You can usually rely on McCartney for the silly character songs, so it’s a bit of a shock to hear Lennon do a couple. Musically, MMM could be a children’s song, if it wasn’t for the lyrical content. Polythene Pam also has some lyrics which were probably a bit risqué for the time. These two songs aren’t unpleasant, but just seem like cupboard clearing.

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – This one starts out really strong, with its catchy melody and strong guitar work, but descends into the usual McCartney character/nostalgia stuff. Although it’s about the same length as some of their earlier tracks, like And Your Bird Can Sing, it seems brief and unsatisfying.

Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End – Well, after an album of disappointing me, McCartney really pulls it out of the bag with this medley. Again, it feels like a bit of cupboard clearing, as it’s lots of little bits strung together, but I think it’s a fitting finale. Or it would be, if it wasn’t for…

Her Majesty – I really thought this was a mickey take when I first heard it. I only found out later that it was left on the album accidentally. It’s grown on me, and in weird way; I think it was a happy accident. It feels like its inclusion is somehow poking fun the idea of an emotional climactic finale. Overall, I think it makes for a fitting ending to the band’s career. It’s just a shame they released Let It Be afterwards, really.

Abbey Road Resurfaced (Side 1)

It’s been 40 years since Abbey Road was released, and there’s been a load of celebrations taking place to mark this anniversary. Lately, it must have been almost impossible to drive down the actual Abbey Road in London’s NW8, without almost running over four idiots re-enacting the famous front cover photograph. What with The Beatles – Rock Band game being released, and the reissued albums, it seems like we’re in the middle of Beatlemania once again.

I thought now would be an appropriate time to reassess Abbey Road. Many people cite it as the best Beatles album, or even the best album ever made. However, I’ve never found it to be either of those things. I think that when you consider all the songs, you find an album which is unsatisfying, by Beatles standards. So, I hereby present to you the first part of my track-by-track dissection of the album:

Come Together This is one of the strongest tracks on the album, and makes for a very good opener. I find the lyrics to be somewhat less than meaningful, and the drums a little limp, but I love the overall ‘feel’ of the song. It almost seems like funk or soul. At the time, the band was playing with soul musician Billy Preston, and John Lennon even suggested that he joined them full time. I wonder if Lennon felt threatened by acts like Sly & the Family Stone, who in 1969, were surely a lot more relevant than The Beatles.

Something – Again, this is another track that I really like. Famously, Frank Sinatra said it was his favourite Lennon/McCartney song [sic]. I think it’s probably as good as some of John and/or Paul’s earlier work. But I don’t think it’s surprising that Sinatra liked it. It wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by Sinatra, Gene McDaniels or any other crooner. It’s very good, but hardly groundbreaking.

Maxwell’s Silver Hammer This is the first song in what I like to call this album’s ‘Trilogy of Error’. The song has been rightly criticised over the years; mostly for being rubbish. It has all the worst aspects of McCartney’s writing: it’s a silly, slice of life, character song. It must be difficult for bands to try and balance light-hearted material with the more serious songs, and I think this album fails in that respect.

Oh! Darling – I don’t have much to say about this one as it’s mediocre. I’ve always liked Macca in his blues shouter mode, but the music and lyrics are just too bland for it to be truly interesting.

Octopus’s Garden – The band liked to allocate one song per album for Ringo to sing, but did he really need to write the song too?! This, along with MSH, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, makes the album feel quite frivolous. With its nautical theme, it also seems like a cynical attempt to repeat the success of Yellow Submarine.

I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – I love the sinister nature of this song, especially the end section. It shows just how much darker Lennon’s work had become. Many people have criticised the abrupt ending, and I’ll admit to finding it disconcerting at first. Maybe that’s the point though.

Stay tuned for my critique of Side 2 of Abbey Road…

REM Are Scarcely Worth Blogging About

Like a lot of people who didn’t know any better; I used to be into REM. They were my favourite band for a good long while. In the 1990s, they were the kings of not-particularly-alternative rock. ‘Automatic for the People’ was the first album I bought on CD, and I owned all of their more popular albums, which were released on the Warner Brothers label. Before belonging to the giant of Warners, REM were signed to the much smaller label; IRS. I had ‘The Best of’ compilation which covered this era, but found the songs murky and strange. They sounded almost like a country band at times. So, for a long time, I didn’t venture any further into this early part of their career. To summarise; I liked the new stuff but not the old. Over the years, I’ve completely reversed my position.

Early REM is a lot different from their later stuff. The songs were darker and more reflective. The band never strayed too far from their guitar, bass, drums (and piano) roots, and they were all the better for it. They were really ‘Indie’, but in a good way! Along with The Replacements and The Smiths, they were among the most influential bands of the 80s. Not all the songs were amazing, but at least you could listen with the understanding that these were four guys from Georgia, who were signed to a small label. It’s when they became the ‘biggest band in the world’ that they stopped making sense for me.

About the time they signed to WB, their music seemed to change direction. They became less ‘country’ sounding, and Michael Stipe’s vocals were pushed to the fore. This was a huge mistake, as he’s a pretty lousy singer. Distinctive sounding? Yes. Technically proficient? No. This also gave more prominence to the lyrics, which had become bland or often just a series of non-sequiturs. However, Stipe now sounded so earnest; like he really believed the nonsense he was spouting.

During this period, they produced two albums which are considered ‘stone cold classics’: Out of Time and Automatic for the People. However, breaking them down track by track, I don’t think they’re particularly strong. When was the last time anyone listened to Monty Got a Raw Deal? In the age of CDs, many tracks were instantly skip-able. Their following albums (Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up) are interesting failures, at best.

I must confess to not listening to any of their albums after ‘Up’. However, the response from critics and friends has been a bit ‘shrug-tastic’. I suspect that those reviews might be overly generous. I guarantee that if nobody had heard of them before, and they released an album like 2004’s Around The Sun, they would’ve been critically mauled, or more likely; ignored. However, they got by, and continued to record and tour.

The Onion’s AV Club used to have a funny section called ‘Justify Your Existence’, in which bands would be interviewed and asked why they made music and if their music could help people. I would’ve liked REM to have taken this quiz. I once saw an interview that Paul Morley did with Stipe. Morley asked why they were still touring and if they’d thought about giving up. Stipe was visibly angry about this. I think a nerve had been touched.

Despite being several musical generations younger than world-whoring giants like The Rolling Stones, they seem to be obsolescent and trading on past glories. They fill their concert set lists with new material, but all the punters must be waiting for them to play their 90s’ hits like ‘Everybody Hurts’. Nostalgia trips are never good, especially nostalgia for the 1990s.

Muse Lyrics

I hereby present to you a list of the most commonly use words in songs by Muse:

  • Absolution
  • Retribution
  • Accusation
  • Vicarious
  • Atonement
  • Suffocate
  • Belief
  • Crying
  • Dying
  • Broken
  • Insignificance
  • Meaningless
  • Struggle
  • Chained
  • Soulless
  • Futile
  • Fracture
  • Existence
  • Hate
  • Tear

(Seriously though; I don’t hate Muse so much.)