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Chris Frantz Breaks Down How He Crafted Songs for Talking Heads & Tom Tom Club: A Nakedly Examined Music Interview

Chris Frantz Breaks Down How He Crafted Songs for Talking Heads & Tom Tom Club: A Nakedly Examined Music Interview

in Music, Podcasts | October 1st, 2020 Leave a Comment

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Chris founded Talking Heads in the early ’70s with his wife Tina Weymouth and David Byrne, and he focuses heavily on these early years of his career in his new memoir Remain in Love, describing it as very much a group effort, even though they intentionally put the spotlight on David, who in turn pretty early on announced that he had to write all the lyrics, that he couldn’t sing other people’s songs.

On the Nakedly Examined Music Podcast, Mark Linsenmayer interviews songwriters about their creative decision-making, and in this interview, Chris tells how he and Tina and David collaborated on lyrics for their early single “Psycho Killer,” and then how Chris’ lyrics were used for “Warning Sign,” a song (played in full as part of the podcast) that appeared on the Heads’ second album, 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food.

Also surprising is that Chris and Tina’s spin-off band, Tom Tom Club, formed in an interval when both David and the Heads’ lead guitarist Jerry Harrison wanted to pause Talking Heads to record solo albums, actually had its best-selling single, “Genius of Love,” prior to the Talking Heads real financial success with hits like “Burning Down the House” and “And She Was.”

The interview includes a detailed treatment of the composition and arrangement of two Tom Tom Club songs that are also played in full: “Bamboo Town,” a reggae-inspired track from their second album Close to the Bone (1983); and “Who Feelin’ It,” a dance track replete with record scratch percussion from The Good the Bad and the Funky (2000). This song was later remixed by The interview concludes with a song that Chris sings: the title track from Tom Tom Club’s most recent release, Downtown Rockers (2012).

Both these last two tracks have as their main lyrics lists of artists that Chris and Tina wanted to pay tribute to, both in influencing their musical sensibilities and/or playing shows with them at CBGB’s during their formative years as Talking Heads in New York City. Chris’ book gives us a vivid glimpse of that scene, as well as the excitement of their first album, working with Brian Eno, their first European tour, and other milestones all the way up to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, which was their first time playing together since the group’s split in 1991.

For more Nakedly Examined Music in-depth interviews about songwriting, arrangement, and the musical life, visit nakedlyexaminedmusic.com.

Mark Linsenmayer is also the host of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast and Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast. He releases music under the name Mark Lint.


How Ornette Coleman Freed Jazz with His Theory of Harmolodics

How Ornette Coleman Freed Jazz with His Theory of Harmolodics

The term free jazz may have existed before Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come arrived in 1959. Yet, however innovative the modal experiments of Coltrane or Davis, jazz still adhered to its most fundamental formulas before Coleman. “Conventional jazz harmony is religiously chord-based,” writes Josephine Livingstone at New Republic, “with soloists improvising within each key like balls pinging through a pinball machine. Coleman, in contrast, imagined harmony, melody, and rhythm as equal constituents.”

This philosophy, jazz critic Martin Williams wrote upon hearing Coleman’s debut, was necessary to free jazz from its formal constraints. “Someone had to break through the walls that those harmonies have built and restore melody.” Melody was everything to Coleman—even drummers can play like melodic instrumentalists. In a 1987 interview, he described how Ed Blackwell “plays the drums as if he’s playing a wind instrument. Actually, he sounds more like a talking drum. He’s speaking a certain language that I find is very valid in rhythm instruments.”

Coleman connected his musical theory back to the origins of rhythmic music: “the drums, in the beginning, used to be like the telephone—to carry the message.” Interviewer Michael Jarrett ventures that Coleman’s ensemble recordings are more like a “party line,” to which the saxophonist agrees. Music, he believed, was a radically democratic—“beyond democratic”—form of communication. “If you decided to go out today and get you an instrument,” he says, “and do whatever it is that you do, no one can tell you how you’re going to do it but when you do it.”

This approach seemed irresponsible to many of Coleman’s peers. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean described the general reaction as “spend[ing] your whole life making a three-piece suit that’s incredible, and this guy comes along with a jumpsuit, and people find that it’s easier to step into a jumpsuit than to put on three pieces.” Collective improvisation, however, cannot in any way be described as “easy,” and Coleman was a brilliant player who could do it all.

“I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note,” he has said, “but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there,” Loosening the constrictions did not mean that Coleman lacked “requisite virtuosity,” as Maria Golia writes in a new Coleman biography. Instead, he “proposed an alternative means for its expression.” (In Thomas Pynchon’s V, a character says of a Coleman-like saxophonist, “he plays all the notes Bird missed.”) This emerged in experimental improvisations like 1961’s landmark Free Jazz, an album that “practically defies superlatives in its historical importance,” Steve Huey writes at Allmusic.

The album features players like Blackwell, Don Cherry, and Eric Dolphy in a “double-quartet format,” with two rhythm sections playing simultaneously, one on the right stereo channel, one on the left. Composed on the spot, “there was no road map for this kind of recording.” But there was a theory that held it all together. Coleman eventually called the theory “Harmolodics,” a word that sums up his ideas about the equality of rhythm, harmony, and melody—a compositional method that freed jazz from its dependence on European forms and returned it, in a way, to its roots in a call-and-response tradition.

Coleman described his long-simmering ideas in a 1983 manifesto titled “Prime Time for Harmolodics.” The title references the band, Prime Time, he formed in 1975 that featured two bassists, two guitarists, and—like his ensemble on Free Jazz, or like the Grateful Dead—two drummers. Jerry Garcia joined the band for its 1988 album Virgin Beauty, expanding Coleman’s fanbase—already significant in various rock circles—to Deadheads. (See Prime Time in Germany in 1981 below.) Harmolodic playing could be dissonant, atonal, and cacophonous, and it could be sublime, often in the same moment.

Simultaneity, radical democracy, intimate communication—these were the principles of “unison” that Coleman found essential to his improvisations.

Question: “Where can/will I find a player who can read (or not read) who can play their instrument to their own satisfaction and accept the challenge of the music environment?” For Harmolodic Democracy – the player would need the freedom to express what Harmolodic information they found to work in composed music. There is always a rhythm – melody – harmony concept. All ideas have lead resolutions. Each player can choose any of the connections from the composers work for their personal expression, etc. Prime Time is not a jazz, classical, rock or blues ensemble. It is pure Harmolodic where all forms that can, or could exist yesterday, today, or tomorrow can exist in the now or moment without a second.

In harmolodic improvisation musicians contribute equally on their own terms, Coleman believed. “From Ornette’s point of view,” writes Robert Palmer in liner notes to the Complete Atlantic Recordings, “each contribution is equally essential to the whole. One tends to hear the horn player as a soloist, backed by a rhythm section, but this is not Coleman’s perspective. ‘In the music we play,’ he said of the performances collected in this box, ‘no one player has the lead. Anyone can come out with it at any time.'” Jerry Garcia remembers feeling confused when first recording with the saxophonist. “Finally,” says Garcia, “he said, ‘Oh, just go ahead and play, man.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”

But of course, Garcia was the kind of musician who could “just go ahead and play.” This was the essential element, and it was here, perhaps, that Coleman differed least from his fellow jazz artists—in his sense of having just the right ensemble. “You really have to have players with you who will allow your instincts to flourish in such a way that they will make the same order as if you had sat down and written a piece of music,” he writes. “To me, that is the most glorified goal of the improvising quality of playing – to be able to do that.”

In “harmolodic democracy” no one ever takes the lead, or not for long, and there are no “sidemen.” Rather than following a chord chart or bandleader, the musicians must all listen closely to each other. Conventional riffs and progressions pop up, only to veer wildly in unexpected directions. “Its clear that [harmolodics] is based on taking motifs,” says avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot, “and freeing it up to become polytonal, melodically and rhythmically.” Rather than abandoning form, Coleman invented new ways to compose and new ways, he wrote, to play.

I was out at Margaret Mead’s school and was teaching some kids how to play instantly. I asked the question, ‘How many kids would like to play music and have fun?’ And all the little kids raised up their hands. And I asked,’Well, how do you do that?’ And one little girl said, ‘You just apply your feelings to sound.’ She was right – if you apply your feelings to sound, regardless of what instrument you have, you’ll probably make good music.

Coleman formed a label called Harmolodic in 1995 with his son and drummer Denardo. In 2005, he recorded the live album Sound Grammar in Germany, which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize two years later. The record became the first release on his new label, also called Sound Grammar, and represented a refinement of the harmolodic theory, now called “sound grammar,” in which Coleman re-emphasizes the importance of music as the ur-form of human communication. “Music,” he says, “is a language of sounds that transforms all human languages.”

Related Content:

How Ornette Coleman Shaped the Jazz World: An Introduction to His Irreverent Sound

Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman: Talk Improvisation, Language & Racism (1997)

When Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman Joined the Grateful Dead Onstage for Some Epic Improvisational Jams: Hear a 1993 Recording

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Devo De-Evolves the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: See Their Groundbreaking Music Video and Saturday Night Live Performance (1978)

Devo De-Evolves the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: See Their Groundbreaking Music Video and Saturday Night Live Performance (1978)

in Music, Television | July 23rd, 2020 Leave a Comment

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In 1978, the debut album by a forcefully idiosyncratic new wave band out of Akron, Ohio both asked and answered a question: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! When we look back on the still-active group’s career more than 40 years later, we may still ask ourselves who, or what, Devo are. Given that they’re a rock band — albeit only just recognizable as one at the time they hit it big — we could define them by their songs. Were Devo made Devo by their their first single, “Mongoloid”? Or was it “Whip It,” their biggest hit and the Devo song we all know today?

There’s also a case to be made that few of us would ever have heard of Devo if they hadn’t recorded their cover of another band’s defining song: the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Devo’s “wicked deconstruction,” writes Allmusic critic Steve Huey, “reworks the original’s alienation into a spastic freak-out that’s nearly unrecognizable.” At The New Yorker, Ron Padgett tells the story of the recording and release of Devo’s “Satisfaction,” a process that began with a rhythm track co-founder Gerald Casale calls “some kind of mutated devolved reggae.” Aesthetically, this tied neatly in with the band’s central concept: “that instead of evolving, society was in fact regressing (‘de-evolving’) as humans embraced their baser instincts.”

It was Casale, by day a catalog designer for a janitorial supply company, who discovered the baggy yellow waste-disposal suits Devo would wear in the “Satisfaction” music video — a daring enough medium to begin with, given the paucity of venues for such productions in the late 70s. But “when MTV launched, in 1981,” writes Padgett, “very few bands had videos ready for the network to play. As a result, Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’ video earned endless rotations.” But the big break came “when they performed the song on Saturday Night Live, wearing the suits and pitch-black sunglasses, and doing the same jerky robo-motions, as in the video.”

You can see their SNL performance, introduced by the late Fred Willard, in the clip above.  Negotiated by the band’s manager Elliot Roberts in exchange for bringing Neil Young on a later broadcast, the appearance exposed Devo to an audience that included no few viewers hungry for just the kind of subversiveness the band’s music exuded. All this only happened because Mick Jagger himself had given Devo’s spastic freakout his blessing — and, as recorded in the book Devo: Unmasked, somehow managed to dance to it as he did so. Later, as Casale remembers it, Roberts claimed to have suggested in advance to Jagger’s people that he “just says he likes it, because it’s going to make him a lot of money.” Or could that living embodiment of rock stardom be a closet subscriber to the theory of de-evolution?

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The Philosophy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Dedicated to Revealing the Truth About De-Evolution

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Beatboxing Buddhist Monk Creates Music for Meditation

A Beatboxing Buddhist Monk Creates Music for Meditation

in Music, Religion | July 21st, 2020 Leave a Comment

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Most of us assume Japanese Buddhist monks to be silent types. In their personal lives they may well be, but if they want to go viral, they’ve got to log onto the internet and make some noise. This is the lesson one draws from some of the Buddhist figures previously featured here on Open Culture: Kossan, he of the Beatles and Ramones covers, or Gyōsen Asakura, the priest who performs psychedelic services soundtracked with electronic dance music. Depending on your taste in music, their performances may or may not induce the mental quiet one associates with Buddhist practice, and the music of Yogetsu Akasaka, the latest Japanese Buddhist monk to attain internet fame, may at first sound equally untraditional. But listen and you may well find yourself in a meditative state without even trying.

“The 37-year-old went viral in May, after posting his ‘Heart Sutra Live Looping Remix,’ a video that’s relaxing like ASMR, and engrossing like a DJ set,” writes Vice’s Miran Miyano. “With the loop machine, he layers sounds and chants all coming from one instrument — his voice.” A musician since his teens and a beatboxer since his early twenties, the Tokyo-based Akasaka became a monk five years ago, following the path taken by his father, an abbott at a temple in rural Iwate Prefecture.

“Before he was ordained in 2015, he belonged to a theatre company formed in Fukushima prefecture, northeast Japan, after the region was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami,” writes Richard Lord in the South China Morning Post. “He has also been a full-time busker in countries including the United States and Australia.”

A busker Akasaka remains, in a sense, albeit one who, from the corner of YouTube he’s made his own, can be heard across the globe. In addition to recordings like his hit version of the Heart Sutra, he’s also been live streaming performances for the past two months. Lasting up to nearly two hours, these streams provide Akasaka an opportunity to vary his musical as well as spiritual themes, bring different instruments into the mix, and respond to fans who send him messages from all over the world, mostly outside his homeland. “I think in Japan, people often associate Buddhism with funerals, and the sutra has a little bit of a negative and sad image,” he says to Vice. Indeed, as the saying goes, the modern Japanese is born Shinto, marries Christian, and dies Buddhist. But as Akasaka shows us, his tradition has something to offer all of us, no matter our nationality, in life as well.

via Metafilter

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Japanese Buddhist Monk Covers Ramones’ “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” & More

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Japanese Priest Tries to Revive Buddhism by Bringing Techno Music into the Temple: Attend a Psychedelic 23-Minute Service

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Tom Morello Responds to Angry Fans Who Suddenly Realize That Rage Against the Machine’s Music Is Political: “What Music of Mine DIDN’T Contain Political BS?”

Tom Morello Responds to Angry Fans Who Suddenly Realize That Rage Against the Machine’s Music Is Political: “What Music of Mine DIDN’T Contain Political BS?”

I, Dancing Bear,” a song by an obscure folk artist who goes by the name Birdengine, begins thus:

There are some things that I just do not care to know

It’s a lovely little tune, if maudlin and macabre are your thing, a song one might almost call anti-political. It is the art of solipsism, denial, an inwardness that dances over the abyss of pure self, navel gazing for its own sake. It is Kafka-esque, pathetic, and hysterical. I love it.

My appreciation for this weird, outsider New Romanticism does not entail a belief that art and culture should be “apolitical,” whatever that is.

Or that artists, writers, musicians, actors, athletes, or whomever should shut up about politics and stick to what they do best, talk about themselves.

The idea that artists should avoid politics seems so pervasive that fans of some of the most blatantly political, radical artists have never noticed the politics, because, I guess, they just couldn’t be there.

One such fan just got dunked on, as they say, a whole bunch on Twitter when he raged against Tom Morello for the “political bs.”

That’s Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, whose debut 1992 album informed us that the police and the Klan work hand in hand, and that cops are the “chosen whites” for state-sanctioned murder. That Rage Against the Machine, who raged against the same Machine on every album: “Bam, here’s the plan; Motherfuck Uncle Sam.”

The poor sod was burned so badly he deleted his account, but the laughs at his expense kept coming. Even Morello responded.

Why? Because the disgruntled former fan is not just one lone crank who didn’t get it. Many people over the years have expressed outrage at finding out there’s so much politics in their culture, even in a band like Rage that could not have been less subtle. Many, like former lever-puller of the Machine, Paul Ryan, seem to have cynically missed the point and turned them into workout music. Morello’s had to point this out a lot. (Ditto Springsteen.)

This uncritical consumption of culture without a thought about icky political issues is maybe one reason we have a separate political class, paid handsomely to do the dirty work while the rest of us go shopping. It’s a recipe for mass ignorance and fascism.

You might think me crazy if I told you that the CIA is partly responsible for our expectation that art and culture should be apolitical. The Agency did, after all, follow the lead of the New Critics, who excluded all outside political and social considerations from art (so they said).

Influential literary editors and writing program directors on the Agency payroll made sure to fall in line, promoting a certain kind of writing that focused on the individual and elevated psychological conflict over social concerns. This influence, writes The Chronicle of Higher Education, “flattened literature” and set the boundaries for what was culturally acceptable. (Still, CIA-funded journals like The Paris Review published dozens of “political” writers like Richard Wright, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and James Baldwin.)

Then there’s the whole business of Hollywood film as a source of Pentagon-funded propaganda, sold as innocuous, apolitical entertainment….

When it comes to journalism, an ideal of objectivity, like Emerson’s innocent, disembodied transparent eye, became a standard only in the 20th century, ostensibly to weed out political bias. But that ideal serves the interests of power more often than not. If media represents existing power relationships without questioning their legitimacy, it can claim objectivity and balance; if it challenges power, it becomes too “political.”

The adjective is weaponized against art and culture that makes certain people who have power uncomfortable. Saying “I don’t like political bs in my culture” is saying “I don’t care to know the politics are there.”

If, after decades of pumping “Killing in the Name,” you finally noticed them, then all that’s happened is you’ve finally noticed. Culture has always included the political, whether those politics are shaped by monarchs or state agencies or shouted in rap metal songs (just ask Ice-T) and fought over on Twitter. Maybe now it’s just getting harder to look away.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness