Not-so-classic rock

Almost ten years ago, Rolling Stone magazine published a list of the top 100 guitarists of all time.  Several famously accomplished guitarists were absent, Kurt Cobain was included, and Jack White showed up at #17.  The list caused a storm of controversy, especially among aficionados, and in hindsight it seemed almost designed to do so.  In March this year, Spin produced their list of the top 100 guitarists of all time, and the composition of that list and the ensuing reaction seem eerily familiar to what happened in 2003.

Before we continue, let me tell you how these lists usually go.  There’s a definite subculture of people who identify as ‘guitarists’ – not musicians, but guitarists – and they buy more guitars than they’ll ever play, they’d rather acquire effects pedals than practice, and they talk about ‘tone’.  Most importantly, they read magazines like Guitar Techniques, Guitar Player and for the teenager taking their first steps into the fandom, Total Guitar.  The internet’s been completely overrun by lists because they’re easy to produce and read, but even back in ye olde magazine times, the editors knew the value of a good list.  I might not give a damn what amplifier Zakk Wylde uses, but if that month they were going to tell me the top 100 guitarists, I’d pick it up just to see who was in the top 10.

There’s a problem, however, with practically every one of these lists: they’re mostly identical.  If any of you reading this have ever read Total Guitar, I bet you could name at least 20 people that would be included without a moment’s hesitation.  Not because you were familiar with their work and thought they deserved to be recognised, but because you’ve heard so many people drone on and on about how influential and incredible their playing was.  Jimmy Page, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, Brian May etc. ad nauseum.

Spin and Rolling Stone took a different approach, which is fitting because they’re not specialist magazines.  Instead of including musicians based on pedigree or the number of notes they could play per second, they included their favourites.  The ones who made them go “Wow!  Listen to that guitar!”  As a result, many of the usual suspects were left out, and some of them weren’t even guitarists.  The community was apoplectic with rage because whatever classic-rock guitarist they looked up to when they were a spotty teenager didn’t have Spin‘s seal of approval.

I think they did the right thing.

Look, guitar music isn’t doing great right now.  Kids don’t really care much for guitars, even though they’re still used as a marketing tactic.  Watch any modern pop music video and you’ll see people playing them when they’re not audible on the recording.  Kids like digital music and new-wave soul singers, and you can’t blame them, because our notion of what the guitar represents is still stuck in the fucking 70s.  Sadly, I can’t find a video of the Grammy awards performance from Paul McCartney this year, but the average age of the ‘supergroup’ was 56.  This, according to the Grammys, is the best the classic guitar/bass/drum setup has to offer – a bunch of ancient white men trading smug tired riffs while congratulating themselves on how hard they still rock.  Of course, that’s not the case pretty much everywhere else, but these are the people who have all the money and power in the industry.

To survive, I think guitar music has to keep pushing forward and stop chasing the so-called ideal of ‘classic rock’.  Even today’s critical darlings occasionally seem a little too in thrall of past decades, as if evoking their memory and flaunting your muso-cred were more important than what’s happening now.  For my money, I’d rather show up on Spin‘s list than Total Guitar‘s any day, because it would mean that my playing was important to everyone, not just other guitarists.

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Revisiting my CD Collection: Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine

2001

 

Rage Against the Machine stood for power. They were all about the power the common people had, the power authorities abused, the power of music. The defining theme of this album is clear in every snare hit, every menacing bass riff. The politics may not hold much appeal for those looking to get their stomp on, but the music will make a believer out of you.

Some knowledge of the band’s catalogue was a requirement for guitarists and bassists at Greenwood Academy. It was expected that you’d know a couple of riffs at the least, probably Killing in the Name. Their songs are insanely good fun to play, technically demanding but not intricate, primal and brutal in their simplicity. The difficulty isn’t in imitating, but in replicating their sheer aural force. There’s a popular misconception that power is born only from volume and the number of instruments you can throw on a song, and while RATM certainly have volume in spades, their instrumentation is surprisingly sparse. The power comes from the passion with which they play, the tightness of their rhythm (recorded in an age before computers would align your performance into perfect time) and the inimitable sound of the album.

And this is one incredible sounding album. Find yourself a halfway-decent pair of headphones, turn it up and revel in the glory of brutal sound that doesn’t fall apart into mush when you dare to nudge that volume slider. It’s always crystal clear what’s going on, and it translates into grooves that just won’t quit.

Sadly, as a result of their talent for inspiring misguided teenagers to buy Che Guevara t-shirts and pretend to understand socialism, you won’t find many espousing their virtues these days.  While I’ve yet to hear anyone say Rage Against the Machine were a bad band, it seems that the time in which you could list them as one of your favourites is gone for now.  They’re passé, but unlike any band who was subject to fads or a commercial image, they won’t stay that way.  Like I said, the politics might not appeal to anyone over the age of 20, but genuine passion can’t be ignored forever.

I’d never stick Rage Against the Machine on at a party, nor would I listen to them alone unless I was feeling particularly nostalgic for days of yore, but their eponymous debut stands as a symbol of what can be achieved when a small group of passionate, focused and hard-working people get together with a couple of instruments to make a point. Rage Against the Machine knew what they were about, and you don’t need to use your imagination to hear that power twenty years later.


Selected Highlights from the UFO Department of the MoD, Vol. I

Like many who grew up watching The X-Files, I have an unabashed love of conspiracy theories, aliens, ghosts and cryptozoology.  I dig their folky sensibilities – creepypasta are the modern Grimm’s Fairy Tales, after all.  If someone says they saw something, I’ll believe them, and I will never be that asshole who immediately tries to deduce the rational explanation.  Do I think the spirits of dead people are walking around?  No, probably not.  Am I hellbent on making someone feel like an idiot for sharing their experience when I don’t actually know what really happened anyway?  You’re damn right I’m not.  Besides, in true Spooky Mulder fashion, it’s more fun to entertain “extreme possibilities”.

Some people take it real, real seriously though.  They don’t enjoy a good yarn, or ask “what if?”, they actively seek answers that don’t exist to questions no-one asked.  The Ministry of Defense actually has people whose job it is to reply to correspondence regarding UFOs, and they periodically release these letters to the public.  I go through them from time to time.  Most are pretty dull, but occasionally a gem can be found.  It’s a painfully real, sometimes hilarious, often sad window into the minds of the sort of people I’d probably never speak to.  Here are a couple of my favourites.

I’m not sure what this guy’s deal is, but I think he might be a stalker.  Like, for reals.  In a later e-mail, he complains bitterly that he was accused of  assaulting Robbie Williams when he was only trying to get him medical attention.  What’s more, he thinks this is information the Ministry of Defense desperately needs to know.

This one made me a little sad.  The sender doesn’t want to be thought of as your garden variety UFO “nutter”, and yet they just can’t help but enclose a leaflet they wrote on the existence of alien spaceships.  Like a nutter.

Another case of bizarre material being sent to the MoD for no apparent reason.  This person believes they were a cartoonist for Queen Elizabeth I in a past life.  Amusingly, their supposed work not only predates that of Benjamin Franklin, but is also drawn better.  Just couldn’t let Ben have that one, could you?

One of many examples of the disenfranchised citizen demanding answers from a corrupt government that doesn’t seem to care for their troubles.  Personally, I’d demand the re-release of the Maverick Bar.  They were delightful.

You’re right, it is very obvious you’re not an expert on military aircraft, or even slightly acquainted with widely-known models.

I can very clearly picture the wry smile of whoever wrote this.

Ooft.  Notice the handwritten annotation: “the subject is not clear”.  No shit.

What strikes me about a lot of these replies is how polite and patient the government seem to be.  I guess it’s their job, and they can’t exactly tell people to stop pestering them, but there are a greater-than-expected number of e-mails between employees asking for information and clarification on the behalf of the deluded.  It’s kind of sweet.

Well, that was interesting.  I may have another look through the files some time and post anything of interest.  Remember, this is but one of thousands of archives full of billions of articles, letters, songs and pictures, all freely available on the internet.

Try digging some time.  It’s a lot of fun.