Thursday, April 04, 2013

An Ode to Pogo and David Lynch

Had to leave my four-year bloggish exile to share.
Admittedly, this video would be more effective if I didn't include an explanation here. But this is Pogo, famous YouTube remixer, who's pretty legendary at this point. In fact, he's so revered, he can get away with making this bizarre film-noirish remix of himself making faces and singing along with one of his own remixes of The Wizard of Oz. Anyway, his own video is only 97 seconds long. It's brilliant in its own right. But the truly genius part of the whole story is that someone inexplicably took it and reposted it on a continuous loop for ten hours straight. I'm about 13 minutes into the clip while I type this post, but it's the strangest thing; the more the clip repeats, the more it actually transforms from amusing (and slightly dark) into a truly nightmarish and existential exploration of the human condition. It basically becomes a David Lynch movie.
What do you think?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happiness is a Paranoid Android: 3 Case Studies in Pop Music

Required listening for this post: "Happiness is a Warm Gun" by the Beatles; "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead; "42" by Coldplay. Optional listening: "The Tourist" by Radiohead; "Mudmen" by Pink Floyd; "Don't Panic" by Coldplay; "Dirty Day" by U2; "Hungarian Rhapsody" by Lizst.

Each of the three songs listed under required listening can lead to transcendent musical experiences. Indulge me for a minute while I relate my personal attachments to each of the three songs. Then I will make an observation that each of these songs is linked in several different ways. As far as I know, this is not really a common argument (or not important enough to be made in music circles. After reading this post, you be the judge).

"Happiness is a Warm Gun" by the Beatles is widely considered to be a classic, practically in the same league as J.S. Bach for rock fans. I mean, it's part of the iconic White Album, and it's a multisong suite, which was certainly innovative for the late 60s, before Progressive Rock made it fashionable to create a long, seemingly unrelated tune that is still cohesive in an unsettling way. And that, in a word, is a great way to explain the song: unsettling. In its lyrics, we see the zeitgeist of the late 1960s manifested, with John Lennon creating a satire about violence.  

The point of this blog is not to discuss the lyrics of this song, because volumes could be written about it (and I'm sure that they have). What I am going to write about it is what I love most about the song: the musical progression. If you're unfamiliar with it, it's composed of several completely different melodies  intertwined into one (five in less than 3 minutes by my count, though that's probably open to interpretation too), and somehow it works. Well, it's a bit jarring actually, but after hearing it a few times it all comes together. 

What drew me to it in the first place was its haunting beginning: John Lennon starts it off by telling us something about a girl who doesn't miss much. The heavily-phased (and double tracked) guitar accompaniment here is urgent and dissonant, alternating (if memory serves me right) between variations of the Em7 chord to the next section ("She's well-acquainted...") when it suddenly becomes tragic with a pseudo-50s staccato guitar accompaniment and ostensibly nonsensical lyrics, evoking memories of "I am the Walrus." It then takes a sudden turn to an early incarnation of glam rock, until it finally resolves with a bizarre 50s ballad, where the protagonist is apparently confessing his love to a recently-used gun. He then turns to the listeners, repeatedly telling them that happiness is a warm gun.

Anyway, going back to my original point of the last paragraph, what drew me to the song as a teenager is its haunting beginning. Lennon here uses complex finger picking methods (that I believe he had learned from his psychedelic friend Donovan) which he also uses in "Dear Prudence" and "Julia," two other phenomenal songs from the same album. Even though the part is so intriguing and excellent, it only lasts for 14 seconds until the rhythm section kicks in. Indeed, this is why the song is so provocative--there is no traditional pop song format, no repetition of musical themes, no nothing. It is actually a really, really frustrating song because of this format. Now, some people would probably tell you that this is part of the charm of the song. I agree that it is, but mainly only because all of us Beatlephiles have taught ourselves to love the format of the song so we don't go crazy wishing that John would have extended parts 1&2, the best parts of the song.

Ok, if you have iTunes, the transition from this song directly into "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead is a real beautiful thing, almost as if it was created that way by both parties. Both "Happiness" ends and "Paranoid" begins on the same chord, and that's not the only similarity between these songs. In fact, one of the reasons why "Paranoid" has become one of those recent classics is, in my opinion, their masterful attempt at following the same format that the Beatles established in "Happiness." 

Now, if you're very familiar with both songs, you may be disagreeing with my points. Of course, "Paranoid" is much more orthodox in its approach to the song format here, in that it at least repeats each section at least a few times. But there is an overall nagging familiarity in "Paranoid's" format because of "Happiness." "Paranoid" includes 3 distinct sections, though it does oscillate back and forth between the sections several times. Radiohead takes nearly 7 minutes here to achieve the same end as the Beatles, who accomplished their feat in less than 3 minutes. As such, "Paranoid" seems to be much more rewarding because of its adherence to the unwritten rules of the standard pop format, all the while stubbornly refusing to completely submit to it. As the story goes, the song was released by Radiohead as a single, which really freaked out the record company because the song was so long. They asked Radiohead to trim it down a bit, which Radiohead refused to do. The song still received some heavy radio airplay, and seems to be universally-loved by every Radiohead fan.

It begins with a bewitching guitar-saturated, heavily-phased first section, lasting nearly 2 minutes. This section is my favorite part of the song, evoking a mischievous percussive-yet-acoustic feel. After this concludes, the song becomes heated, then violent, then penitent, then finally violent again. Thom Yorke, the singer and lyricist for the band said that this song is about carnage. He's right about that, as the switching between sections does seem a bit violent, though more warranted than Lennon's "Happiness" was. Radiohead is fantastic here in the multiple guitar solos by Jonny Greenwood, voted by some guitar magazines as among the greatest 100 guitar solos of all time. In addition to the disparate groups of songs combined into one, they even switch it up in time signatures here. This song, to me, is the closest Radiohead ever get to being post-progressive rock. 

Like the closing section of "Happiness," "Paranoid" includes a section which is driven by vocals. The over-the-top melancholy of the penultimate section gets a little grating at times, though it does provide a needed respite from the carnage of the shredding guitar solos. Still, Radiohead is at its best here when it's at its most subtle, in the first 2 minutes of the song. Did they intentionally attempt to use "Happiness" as a template for this song? Well, yes, considering that it has been stated by the band (click here). It has also been speculated that the song is an attempt by the band to create a new Bohemian Rhapsody. Does Radiohead blatantly borrow sounds from their rock idols? Given the fact that another one of their songs "The Tourist" overtly hearkens back to Pink Floyd's Obscured By Clouds era sound, (in my opinion) it would not surprise me if they did.

Another notable point of this song is the Douglas Adams connection. For any of you familiar with his "Hitchhiker's Guide" trilogy, which, incidentally, was the basis for my entire teenaged creative muse, the "Paranoid Android" title refers to the Marvin the depressed robot character. If you listen carefully in the background of the "what's there" (0:51), you can hear the 'fitter happier' android voice (courtesy of the Mac speech emulator) in the background talking about being a paranoid android.

Which brings me to the last part of this rambling essay. Douglas Adams must have had quite an impact on bands of the 90s/early aughts, because Coldplay appears to have quite a connection to him as well. In their first album, Parachutes, Coldplay includes the marvelous track "Don't Panic," a nod to the fictional subtitle of Adams' Hitchhikers' Guide. There is another connection here that I'm reasonably certain about. I would claim that their song "42" also references Adams' work. For those of you fans out there, in the series, '42' is the answer to the question about life, the universe, and everything. Which would seems appropriate given the tenor of Coldplay's song, which seems to be about life, existence, and mortality in general. I would also argue here, that Coldplay, like Radiohead, utilize the same song format the Beatles used in "Happiness."

"42" begins with one of the most sublime intros in recent memory. This achingly gorgeous piano and Chris Martin's vulnerable vocals underscore the tragedy (and transcendence?) of death, which is what Martin appears to be singing about.

Now, as a disclaimer, I haven't done any research about this. I haven't even formally read the lyrics of the song  or read any interviews by the band about the song or the album. However, given the French revolution theme of the album Viva La Vida in which "42" appears, it seems appropriate that the song would address the deceased. Martin starts by making the appeal to the power of memory to transcend material constraints by saying "Those who are dead are not dead, they're just living in my head." The music here perfectly complements this sentiment. 

Even more beautiful (and I am attributing this to the genius of producer Brian Eno, one of my musical heroes...[after all, where would U2's Achtung Baby and Zooropa be without him?]) a tension between the sparse and fragile piano work and a fulfilling orchestral accompaniment emerges. This is emotional stuff, people. It's difficult to get through this intro steeped in sublimity without putting everything down, focusing your view on some random thing in your field of vision, and just listening.

After this part concludes, it segues into the logical extension, if loud guitars had to be added. It's not an abrupt sea change, just an extension, though I would submit that it happens way too fast. The part becomes characterized as the 'octave' section of the song, with multiple droning guitars over an erratic drum beat, bringing an urgency to the song. However, it becomes evident here that the listener has reached the point of no return; there's no way that the song can return to its beautiful beginning.

For the final third of the song (at 2:43), Coldplay pulls the contemporary equivalent of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" when the beautiful and intense song suddenly becomes inexplicably goofy. Let me explain: "Hungarian Rhapsody" by Liszt contains some of the most intense strands of classical music ever written (a close second to Chopin's "Raindrop Prelude" [see 1:35 on]...but that's the topic of another post). The first 2/3 of "Hungarian Rhapsody" are incredibly intense, drenched in minor chords demanding your attention. Then the song abruptly changes. No longer is the brooding scene of the dark Hungarian forests in your mind; instead, all of a sudden, you can only see Donald and Daffy Duck performing a piano dual on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. "42" does this to an extent. After the urgent octaves section, the song assumes a completely different (maybe triumphant?) feel. Regardless, the sheer catchiness of this part becomes so invasive in your consciousness, it almost becomes the equivalent of an ABBA song. It's not that this part is necessarily bad; it's just completely out of character with the rest of the song. The outro of the song then teases the listener into anticipating the beauty from the beginning, though, alas, that hope proves to be false. The outro does not repeat the beginning, just a vague semblance. Did Coldplay intentionally sabotage the beauty of the beginning of the song by appending the last third? This all really just comes down to individual taste, but for me, the answer is 'yes.'

There you have it. Three case studies of a common pop song format. Will other bands use it? Have they already? Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Who is Vern?

Merry Christmas, everyone!

I chose to spend the bulk of this post discussing the virtues of a man that has become steeped in Christmas tradition, a man that people have discussed for years and years, and a man that I heard about frequently, especially back in the 80s. The mysterious man, of course, is Vern. Here are the few things that we know about him (based principally on the testimony of one of his closest friends):

--He is actually a nuclear physicist (his friend Ernest explained to his friend, a teenage hoodlum, that he actually taught Vern "all that he knows" about nuclear physics).

--He lives in a house with stone decor in Orlando, most likely built in the mid-sixties.

--He apparently "throws the greatest parties" according to Ernest. Incidentally, when Ernest dropped by to visit Vern, he was preparing to have a Christmas party. He had a punch bowl ready, and was listening to Handel's "Messiah" on the record player, until Ernest unwittingly sabotaged Vern's power supply by nearly electrocuting him.

--According to Seth Applegate, AKA Santa Claus, Vern was one of Ernest's best friends and supposedly "grew up" with Ernest. However, the relationship has apparently grown sour with the passing of time, as evidenced by his rejection of Ernest when he unexpectedly showed up at his house on the eve of Dec. 23.

--He has lived his life in such a way, or has such a strong personality, that he has assumed much of Ernest's free time. In fact, even when he isn't there, Ernest refers to him as if he were talking to him, as evidenced by his hypothetical expression: "Know what I mean, Vern?"

--As far as we know, Vern may not be anything more than a faceless entity, or even a figment of Ernest's imagination. However, this theory may be debunked because Ernest has the company of the transient girl when he visits Vern's house. Still, her testimony to Vern's existence is shaky at best, due to her status as a pathological liar, as well as an unsavory character. I mean, come on, she tried to rob Santa Claus. A theory that I would like to raise is that 'Vern' possibly is an
allusion to Jules Verne, the famous science fiction author, and is ultimately an appeal to Ernest's imaginative side. Perhaps Ernest's failure to come to grips with reality embodies itself in the Verne allusion, or the persona of the aforementioned 'Vern'.

--For further speculation on the existence and identity of Vern, please refer to the motion picture "Ernest Saves Christmas."

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Escribo por la mujer
Quien quebró el corazón

Entró en la vida inesperada
Con los ojos misteriosos
Y dedos cómo las alas de una paloma
Te juro que tuvo corazón de una santa

Juntos, entramos en la puerta
De la felicidad
Con luz brillante
Atrás de ella
Lleno con los rayos gloriosos

La vida es un tiempo breve de tristeza
Y en ella ahora estoy
Para aprender como padecer
Y despues de eso, me voy

Cada día veo cosas famosas
Personas que conocen la fama
Pero ellos no duran siempre
Sólo existe la dama

En mi vida entró con sonrisa
Me tocó con mucha bondad
Pero se fue en el fin a toda prisa
Y me dejó en mucha soledad

Nunca me explicó porque lo hizo
Nunca tuve la oportunidad
Para encontrar en mi vida la razón
Me llenó ella con felicidad

¿Pero pórque me asombró?
Yo muchas veces la había visto
Pero nunca me communicó
Nunca me dijó la más importante

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Apparently, we are all interested in ourselves.