Category Archives: The Presents Series
By Alan Ferguson
It’s 1979 and The Police have one Converse sneaker firmly wedged in the door of fame and fortune. As a band they hail from London, England, where they were initially dismissed as opportunists for trying to hitch a ride on the UK punk bandwagon. But now they’re starting to take off, and partly because they’ve successfully blended pretend reggae with their pretend punk rock.
Most importantly, the general public is beginning to catch onto their “arresting”merits. Lead singer and bassist Sting has a unique, high-pitched voice, sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to write smart and economical pop songs such as the break-out tune ‘Roxanne’, a romantic song about a woman of the night. Stewart Copeland is a deft powerhouse of a drummer, and guitarist Andy Summers is a seasoned pro who shares Sting’s affinity for jazz and classical music. Their 1978 debut album Outlandos d’Amour was impressive, but with the release of Reggatta de Blanc in 1979 (loosely translated as White Reggae), they arrive at their classic sound, and deliver what is arguably their finest musical moment.
Reggatta de Blanc & The Bed’s Too Big Without You, Live 1979
One of the most significant changes on this sophomore release is Copeland’s drumming. Although he dabbled with reggae rhythms on the first album, he was always the loudest advocate of hard-driving punk in the ranks of The Police. But it wasn’t really his forte. He can play louder and faster than anyone else on the scene, but in his zeal he tends to rush the tempo; much to the consternation of his band mates. On Reggatta de Blanc he settles into the style that will become his signature: minimalist, syncopated, and inspired by reggae amongst other global influences. No surprise really, because Copeland grew up in Lebanon.
Of equal note, Andy Summers achieves an iconic guitar sound on this album that was only hinted at in his playing on Outlandos d’Amour. With the strategic use of effects such as delay (echo), and flange (sounds like a jet plane flying overhead), he can generate a dense yet airy sound with one strum, such as is heard on ‘Walking on the Moon’. But he doesn’t need to rely on technology alone to generate a lot of atmosphere. His rhythm guitar parts on ‘Message in a Bottle’, ‘Bring on the Night’ and ‘The Bed’s Too Big Without You’ have an elegant, languorous quality that nicely offsets the dynamic pulse of the rhythm section.
Bring on the Night, Live 1980
As for Sting, he opts for punchy understatement in his bass lines, playing only the notes that matter most. His songwriting on this album sounds as fluid and natural as the exotic soundscapes the band’s concocting. He’s not making lofty statements or name-checking classic literature; he’s just riffing on emotion. He offers up at least one more classic song with ‘Message in a Bottle’’s evocative take on loneliness.
Reggatta also features two Copeland songs. ‘On Any Other Day’ is an oddball litany of one terrible day’s events, and ‘Does Everyone Stare’ is a romantic, nerdy confessional that hints at the trademark quirkiness of the drummer’s post-Police soundtrack work. It’s hard to imagine weirdly wonderful ditties like these appearing on an album by a chart-topping act in 2011.
Does Everyone Stare
There’s a rare and magical chemistry at work on Reggatta de Blanc, and audiences around the world will respond enthusiastically. The Police will go on to even greater commercial success with subsequent releases, but the musical and personal spark within the trio has already peaked. By the time their #1 album Synchronicity arrives in 1983, The Police will be the most popular band in the world, but they will also be weighted down by internal tensions and thwarted by the fact that they will have accomplished all they set out to do.
But it’s 1979, and The Police are just taking off.
“Gimme Some Truth”
By Alan Ferguson
It’s been thirty years today since John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan outside his residence at New York City’s Dakota Building.
During his life he was a celebrity and icon, but since then the memory of the man has been replaced by something of a myth in the collective global consciousness. Lennon himself would likely be appalled by the cultural canonization that’s gradually been attached to his name over the past three decades, at least judging by the way he attempted earnestly, and sometimes with harsh sentiments, to tear down the mythology surrounding The Beatles in his lifetime.
Much can be gleaned about Lennon’s character by relating it to the song he’s best remembered for: Imagine. It displays his brilliant ability to capture the public imagination (it’s called Imagine, after all). It showcases a visionary and political idealist. It demonstrates his willingness to challenge religious and political conservatism (no heaven, no countries, no possessions). This is quite a courageous stance when you consider the fact that he received disturbing threats five years earlier in America for stating that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, and here he was again challenging a U.S. administration that would soon be wary of granting him legal status to live in The States. When reminded a number of years later about Imagine, long after he had given up direct involvement in political activism, he stated that “it’s only a bloody song”.
He had a tendency to enthusiastically whip himself and others up, move on to other interests, and then voice frustration at all the fuss he’d garnered for something he’d left behind.
Aside from being a walking contradiction, Lennon was born to express himself in an uncompromising fashion, and he found a compelling vehicle as one of the most talented songwriters the world has ever produced.
All of The Beatles shared the experience of almost surreal recognition as a musical and cultural force; their accomplishments are unmatched on a global and historical level. And arguably, Lennon was the band leader. At very least he was the most natural risk taker. Although Paul McCartney shares in a songwriting and artistic legacy that transformed the popular music culture and garnered an unprecedented 27 number one hits, Lennon was unique in the way that he “let it all hang out”, both through his candid public commentary and in his songwriting.
He was the first popular music artist to write about deeply personal experiences such as emotional desperation (Help, I’m So Tired, I’m A Loser), grief (Julia, Mother), ambiguous feelings (Strawberry Fields Forever), jealousy (Jealous Guy, Run for Your Life), and spiritual dabbling (Tomorrow Never Knows, Across the Universe), and make it acceptable to do so. He was poignant (In My Life), and he was caustic and judgemental (Sexy Sadie, I Found Out, How Do You Sleep?). He was also pretty good at writing unabashedly about peace and love (The Word, All You Need is Love, Give Peace a Chance, Imagine).
Because of his outspokenness, massive popularity, and innate compulsion to play the rebel, some argue that “we need a John Lennon” to advocate against the current political climate. If he were alive today, he may or may not take up that challenge. He tended to follow his artistic agenda above any other.
Of all that can be said about John Lennon, our most significant loss is that of a unique voice which expressed itself consistently with rare talent, unbridled authenticity, and timeless relevance regarding many aspects of the human condition.
By Alan Ferguson
What are the ingredients of a classic song? It has to have the elements that make for a GOOD song to start with: any combination of seamless melody, interesting chord progression, compelling lyrics, or perhaps just a catchy little riff. A CLASSIC song (and recording) has to go one step further though: it likely combines all of these elements, but more importantly, captures something universally relevant.
With the 1987 hit ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, Australia-based Crowded House created a classic song, combining a simple but effective guitar hook, a soaring melody, a catchy refrain (hey now, hey now), and most importantly, an inspired message of hope that cut through the cynicism and excess of the era. Reference the movie Wall Street if you want to know what I mean…it was released the same year. The song holds an unabashed candle to the idealism of the Sixties with its nod to The Beatles’ song-craft and Procol Harum-inspired organ solo.
Vocalist, guitarist, and principal songwriter Neil Finn, a native of New Zealand, had already been exposed to chart success and popular acclaim, penning some of the biggest hits for his older brother Tim’s band, Split Enz, known perhaps as much for their manic theatricality as their recordings.
Moving on, Neil hooked up with bassist Nick Seymour, and ex-Split Enz drummer Paul Hester to form Crowded House, embracing a musical concept that placed emphasis on less-is-more. ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ became one of the biggest hits ever for an Australasian band, and made the top ten in many countries. The band went on to produce a number of albums that can still make even celebrated songwriters cringe with envy.
Crowded House went out with a bang in 1996, playing a farewell concert to an audience estimated at between 150,000 and 250,000 on the steps of the Sydney Opera House.
The band reformed in 2006, and have recently released their sixth album Intriguer.
At the time, the chart success of Don’t Dream It’s Over hinted to me that the Eighties still had a soft spot for both an inspired song rendered simply, and the idealistic Dream of the Sixties. The fact that I still hear it on the radio informs me that we’ve always needed good reminders of why we should remain hopeful. In the accelerated, saturated world we live in now, a sense of hope is vital.
By Jon Leney
Every so often we stumble across something that affects us deeply and profoundly; something special that sometimes, ironically, has been right under our nose. That was the case last year when my cousin told me to check out the 2007 indie music film Once. I’d walked past it on the video store shelves many times and never really bothered to take a closer look because, quite frankly, it didn’t look like it might be any good. Big mistake.
The film takes place in Dublin and is about an unnamed, street busking, son of a vacuum cleaner repairman who meets an also unnamed, immigrant odd-jobber, single mother piano player. Together, they collaborate on a demo which he wants to take to London in hopes of getting signed. Sounds lame, right? Wrong. The actors are portrayed by singer/guitarist Glen Hansard (remember The Commitments?) of the Irish band The Frames and Martina Irglova, a classically trained Czech piano player and vocalist. And both of them have serious musical chops. Hansard’s raw, emotionally charged singing and playing is offset by Irglova’s more demure and sometimes haunting piano and vocals. The result is a pairing of beautiful musical styles layered together to create a very moving and very natural soundtrack. And that’s why it’s so appealing. You feel like you’re witnessing something special and real unfolding in real time. And in a way you are, because with a budget of less than three hundred thousand dollars, there are no lavish sets, no expensive props, no elaborate lighting, and you likely own a better video camera than was available four years ago. It’s nothing but pure, unadulterated artistry and when it was over it had left me open-mouthed. It’s a conceptual and emotional experience that remains with me still.
Prior to their turns in ‘Once’, Hansard and Irglova had formed a band called The Swell Season after meeting in the Czech Republic in 2006. They became romantically involved during the making of the film, which has earned over 20 million dollars worldwide and went on to garner global attention and critical acclaim when the song ‘Falling Slowly’ (from their self-titled first album) won the 2008 Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. Hansard and Irglova have since called it quits romantically, but continue to write and perform as The Swell Season. In 2009 The Swell Season released the album ‘Strict Joy’, which Spin Magazine gave a four out of five star rating.