Tag Archives: Blondie

Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

King+Crimson+Red
Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

Chad Channing, honorary Hall of Famer; on Nirvana’s other drummer not being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I’ve avoided talking about Nirvana on this blog this week. Every other site on the internet was running deep-and-meaningful Kurt Cobain retrospectives, and I didn’t want to seem like I was doing it just to get clicks. It’s hard for me to write sensibly about Nirvana, anyhow – more than any other band, it was Nirvana that made me pick up the guitar, play music, write songs. It’s because I heard Nirvana when I was, what, 12 or 13 that I’ve spent twenty years playing music, thinking about music and studying music. I can’t condense all of that into 500 or 1000 words. Every time I try it defeats me No, they’re not the best band that’s ever been, but their music was the catalyst for me. I don’t know where I might have channelled my energies if I hadn’t have been blown away by Smells Like Teen Spirit in high school. Possibly I’d be more employable.

The only way I can write about them is to go small, stick to one little issue. So here’s a post on Chad Channing, who wasn’t inducted with Nirvana to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Of course the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is unnecessary. Music fans create their own pantheons, and that’s absolutely as it should be. A surprising (to me) number of my favourite artists are in it, but an important minority are not, never will be. It’s nice when they recognise people I think are really important, and it doesn’t bother me when they don’t. The R&RHoF was founded by Ahmet Ertegun. He may have been a singularly smart businessman, but he also never stopped being a music fan, and so on the whole the HoF does a reasonable job of spotlighting the greats, even the less well-known, less commercially successful ones, and they’re pretty canny about who they pick as representative of ‘Rock and Roll’ (Popular Music Hall of Fame would have been an apter choice of name), revealing Gene Simmons as the unimaginative, dunderheaded bigot he obviously always has been. It’d have been nice to see him and his lame-ass band permanently excluded, just for Simmons’ reaction.

Inductions of band with multiple line-ups, though, is a genuinely tricky issue. Very awkward with Blondie a few years ago. No induction, too, for the Bobs – Welch and Weston – from Fleetwood Mac in 1998 (although gratifyingly the late sixties guitar trio of of Green, Kirwan and Spencer were all inducted). Inductions for vocal groups such as the Drifters, for whom Wikipedia lists 27 past or present members, are even more difficult for the Hall of Fame to cope with. The last few weeks saw a lot of back and forth over whether Chad Channing would be inducted with Nirvana. Channing was, by many counts, Nirvana’s fourth drummer. But let’s keep it simple. Dave Foster and Aaron Burckhard never recorded with the group. They’re out. Dan Peters (on loan from the then-on-hiatus Mudhoney) cut one song with them. The same as Andy White did with the Beatles. Anyone want to see Andy White added to the list of Beatles members? No? OK, Dan Peters is out too, then. Which leaves Dale Crover, Chad Channing and Dave Grohl. Crover toured with Nirvana, recorded with them too, but always on the understanding that it was a side gig; his day job was with the Melvins. Others would make a case for him. Being more hard-headed, I wouldn’t.

Channing, though, he should have gone in. It was very tough on him not to include him. He played on the majority of Bleach and a bunch of non-album tracks that ended up on Incesticide and on the With the Lights Out box set, 21 in total by my count (although I’m no completist and there may well be a bunch more I don’t know of). That’s a greater number than any drummer barring Dave Grohl. So in the absence of a proper induction for Channing, it was cool of Grohl to spend a minute of his speech talking about Chad, drawing people’s attention to the fact that a lot of the drum parts he gets most credit for are actually performances of parts that Channing devised. He handled a difficult situation gracefully, and I find it kind of hard to believe that he or Novoselic had a hand in Channing’s exclusion.

So, Chad Channing, honorary Hall of Famer, then. Let’s get a handle on him by taking a look at some of his parts.

In Bloom
I’ve been telling people for years that In Bloom was a Chad Channing drum part played by Dave Grohl. OK, Grohl might have played it tighter and more powerfully, but credit where it’s due. Bootlegged versions of the Smart session (also known as the Sheep session, recorded in Madison, Wisconsin, with Butch Vig, before Grohl joined the band) are out there if you want to hear them. Channing plays very well.

It’s an intriguing part. The hats are played in 16th notes, the kick mirrors it with its stuttering two-beat pattern at the start of each bar of the verse, while the snare is in quarters. In effect, the right hand and right foot are continually pushing the song forward, while the left hand pulls it back. Channing’s also responsible for the mighty tom fills in the intro (16th notes again) and for the inspired 8th-note triplet snare rolls in the choruses. Grohl brought the mighty snare roll (a full bar of 16th-notes) that takes the song into the chorus to the party – in Channing’s version, it’s only half the length, so the part is somewhat collaborative, but basically it’s Chad’s.

It’s a truly iconic part among drummers. The song would be immediately identifiable to most listeners from the drums alone. That’s a really hard trick to pull off while also playing for the song and refraining from showboating. But everything about the drums on this track is integral to the overall effect. For this alone, I’d have seen Channing inducted with the rest of the band.

School
There’s already bootleg footage of J Mascis sitting in with the surviving members of the band on this one the other night. It’s great.

School is typical of Channing’s playing on Bleach: loose, swinging and full of little details. He had a behind-the-beat style, sometimes at odds with the playing of Krist Novoselic, who’s more likely to ahead of the beat than behind it, but it’s all part of the signature feel of the album, which is claustrophobic and heavy in an oddly precarious way, like it might come apart at any moment.

School is not a simple part. After a 16th-note verse, with two kick patterns that alternate, bar by bar (and which Channing played with a double pedal, I think, although Grohl used to play it with a single pedal), the savage switch to a half-time feel would defeat many drummers. Channing switches to it via a triplet snare roll – a good choice for such a big change. His Bonham-esque whole-kit roll halfway through each chorus is a highlight, as is his increasingly frantic playing in the song’s middle section, before and during Cobain’s guitar solo. Not coincidentally, the tempo begins to speed up wildly here. It’s not particularly controlled, but it’s hugely exciting.

Negative Creep
More double-kick fun in this one. In truth, I’m not a big fan of double kick playing generally. Too often it tends to lead a sort of martial stiffness, leaving the music very straight and rigid. Negative Creep is not rigid. Channing didn’t base his whole style on double kick. He used it for little touches in grooves that otherwise could have been played with a single pedal (Grohl adapted the part, missing out the mini rolls on the kick). It’s cool and quietly inventive.

Between Channing’s galloping kick drum, and Cobain’s increasingly hysterical vocal, it once again sounds like it’s about to fly off your turntable at any moment. But that’s part of its charm. The abandon was a key part of what attracted a lot of people to this band.

 

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Nirvana, 1989, l-r Kurt Cobain, Jason Everman, Chad Channing, Krist Novoselic