Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

I remember when I was at university, back in the early nineties, being part of a debate as to whether or not rock was dead. The answer was ‘no’. It should have been a short debate but it was prolonged by the setting – this was a presentation in a university lecture theatre and it was set up to spark discussion.
I thought that the answer was obvious: here is some current rock music; people like it and people are still making it.
But the question was a bit deeper than that. The arguments were that rock music wasn’t progressing or providing anything new and that rock music was being superseded by electronic dance music.
Immediately after that debate (I think it may have happened as a result of that debate), Brit Pop happened and everyone was listening to Oasis; and then Nu Metal happened and someone, somewhere was listening to Limp Bizkit. And then everyone knew that rock wasn’t dead.
But there is a wider question and that is whether or not EDM (as it is now called) is not part of the rock canon. From the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Primal Scream and the like incorporating elements of early house music into their guitar based rock music in 1989 and 1990 to Rudimental, Chase and Status et al using real drummers and guitar players in their live shows, the dance music and rock music aspects of popular music have not necessarily been opposing elements but complimentary.
The problem is, though, that when people try and merge guitar-based music with EDM, they usually end up with some horrible hybrid of dubstep with electric guitars or heavy metal with synth noises and dirty bass lines. When it works best, it is much more a natural union, a meeting of minds and not like putting curry sauce on your ice cream.
That said, when people talk about rock being dead, what they are generally referring to is bands or four or five people playing guitars and drums.
There is no doubt that in recent years, rock music – in the sense of people playing loud guitars and hitting drums and singing with a rasp in their voices – has taken a bit of a drubbing when it comes to airplay, chart positions and sales. Album sales have been plummeting for some time and rock has generally preferred the album to the single.
But this is nothing new.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, there was only one weekly rock show on the radio (good old Tommy Vance) and nothing on the television (except for a couple of half-hearted, short-lived attempts – remember ECT anyone? No?). And yet rock was supposed to be in some sort of golden era then. This was the decade of Iron Maiden, of Back in Black (in the top 3 best-selling albums of all time), the invention of thrash metal and hair/glam metal, of Guns n Roses and Metallica at their peak.
The problem now is, not that people don’t want to listen to rock music, – most of the people I know will attest to that: people of all ages from kids to people even older than me – but that people don’t have any new, cool rock stars to look up to. There is no voice of the generation that’s sticking it to the man, saying ‘we’re not gonna take it’, ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me’. No one’s talking ‘bout this generation in a way that is capturing the imagination of the world. Rock stars used to be people who sat outside the system, did what they wanted and were able to express what you were thinking and feeling in a way that you couldn’t and we loved and idolised our rock stars because of that. They did and said all the things that we couldn’t do and they never apologised for it. They questioned authority and put the man on the back foot and everything they did sparked a fire.
Now, the artists are beholden to the man. The man understands the art and the artists understand the man. They understand the rules and play by them because they fear that by not playing by the rules, they won’t succeed and they will be destined to a life of nine to five: stacking shelves, serving burgers, filing papers and still working for the man but not making music. They fear that, unless they give in to the demands of the musical arbiters of taste, that music will be taken away from them forever and so the artist makes compromises.
It is perhaps little surprise then that some of the best rock albums of the last couple of years have been made by old guys who don’t have to follow those rules. David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ was obtuse, vibrant, interesting and new. Black Sabbath made an album that sounded like an old Black Sabbath album from years ago with long songs with tempo changes. Both of these albums got to number one in the UK, outselling more contemporary artists in their field. While this may demonstrate that people still want to hear that music, it doesn’t say much for the future. Both of those acts are rock legends and have a respect earned from the music they made way in the past. Whether people will still be listening to ‘The Next Day’ or ‘13’ in years to come like they do with Ziggy Stardust or Paranoid is doubtful. Neither act had released anything new for a number of years so both albums were bound to sell well initially just out of curiosity and nostalgia. None of these heritage acts are important to the future of rock and roll, except in the way that they inspire others. Who are the rock stars of this current era? Who are the David Bowies, Ozzy Osbournes and Mick Jaggers of the 21st Century? At present, it seems that fans of rock music are pecking at the last few crumbs left by its great stars. A bit like Man United bringing Paul Scholes out of retirement, you can’t keep doing it forever.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Music is still as important as ever. BMI registered their highest ever income in the last quarter, so people are still consuming and paying for music, albeit in different ways than they used to. People want music to move them, to capture the way they are feeling or to change the way they are feeling. They want to sing and dance and cry and shout and to express themselves, and that is what rock n roll is all about. Rock n roll is about passion and real emotion. It is about belonging and it is about not belonging at the same time.
And these are things that are missing from a lot of music at the moment but they are making a comeback. The X-Factor era is dying. No one cares. People aren’t trotting out the same tired lyrical clichés about being in the club so much anymore. JLS have split up. Even Miley Cyrus has something to say. Yeah, there will always be and always have been manufactured pop acts but it’s the bits that the man can’t control that are the more interesting.
The way music is recorded now means that everything is very precise – the tuning and the timing are spot on and everything sounds very technical and clinical. But people have realised for a long time that they don’t want that. They want signs of life, signs of humanity that we can identify with. And there is absolutely nothing stopping us from making music that does that. I’ve seen Labrinth, Plan B, Jessie J, Rudimental, Rihanna and a whole host of other non-rock acts performing with a live band and my immediate thought is always, ‘why don’t they make their records sound like that?’ The energy that comes from the interaction between the musicians is always immense. Watching Plan B live is akin to watching The Who.
What we need is music with genuine but energy, attitude and humanness, and rock stars with the same qualities.

My advice for making a great rock record that could set the world alight would be this:

1. Write a simple song. Write other songs: write complex songs, long ones, short ones, whatever the hell you like but write something simple as well. Simple and direct. A few chords, a strong basic groove. Make it exciting.

2. Leave space in the basic arrangement. Don’t overcrowd it, don’t use too many sounds. Don’t layer your guitars endlessly. It’s got to sound like four or five people in a room (check out any AC/DC album, the first Iron Maiden albums, the first Oasis album, the first Arctic Monkeys album and countless others).

3. Write a good strong hook that people are going to want to shout when they’re drunk.

4. Have a simple message that people are going to identify with – preferably one that says, ‘I’m right and I’m going to fight for that right and even if I’m wrong, I’m still going to fight for the right to be wrong so screw you’ (but say it more eloquently than that). Ray Davies said that the art of the pop song is fitting your whole message into 3 minutes and a couple of verses. You can use scenarios in your verses to make your point but hit the listener directly in the face with your chorus (check out the Beastie Boys’ ‘Fight for Your Right’ or Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ or the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’).

5. Rehearse that song until you can play it in your sleep.

6. When you record it, play it live. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just play it like you really mean it, like you believe every single word and every single note you play. Don’t waste any notes for the sake of sticking them in. Listen to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Leave space. Have dynamics. When it gets big, it’s got to kick off.

7. Re-record the vocals. Don’t use autotune but re-record until every word in every line is delivered with the right amount of conviction, whether it’s softly and intimate, sarcastic, angry or whatever. Don’t oversing it. It has to have light and shade. It doesn’t need a big warbling melisma every second syllable.

8. Let the drummer play some fills. Let the guitar player have a solo but make every note of the fill or solo count. Let it be aggressive or mournful or whatever suits. Record company people and producers hate that stuff. They think it’s self-indulgent and a distraction from the song. Screw ‘em. That’s the stuff that makes people want to play the drums or play the guitar. How many people wanted to play the guitar after hearing Noel Gallagher play the solo to ‘Live Forever’ or hearing Dave Gilmour play ‘Comfortably Numb’? How many people wanted to play the drums after hearing Dave Grohl or Keith Moon or John Bonham? Loads. That’s how many. How many people wanted to play the drums after hearing Coldplay? Not many, I imagine and that guy’s a good drummer, but rock n roll should inspire people to want to make music. It’s about heroes and stars and people who can do special things. John J.R. Robinson is allegedly the most recorded drummer in the world and a fantastic player but more people wanted to play drums after hearing ‘We Will Rock You’ than anything he’s played because it has power and passion.

9. Make people want to play air guitar and air drums. Even air keyboards if you have to.

10. Learn some stuff. About people, about politics, about philosophy, about music. Believe in something. If you want people to be interested in you, you need to be interesting.

11. Know the rules. Know what’s supposed to make a hit record. Keep what you like and dispose of the rest. It’s your game now.

12. Don’t die at 27. That is really stupid.


How to Pretend You’re in AC/DC

Posted: November 18, 2013 in Music
Tags: , , ,

Being AC/DC

AC/DC are one of the most successful rock n roll bands of all time. They began in the early 1970’s in Australia and are still hugely popular today. There are a number of factors that have helped to make them successful but what I’m aiming to do is to explore what is it in their music that works so well and how the songs are put together.

Lead guitarist and songwriter, Angus Young was once quoted as saying: “I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” And, though this is very much an overexaggeration, there are a number of themes and ideas that reccur over and over again (besides which, they are now up to 15 albums). AC/DC are a band that play to their strengths and play with a lot of discipline and great understanding between the musicians. This isn’t about ego or showing off, this is about playing for the song.

In this lecture, I aim to focus on the way the instruments work together in the arrangement, as well as the chords that are used, the song structure and various other compositional elements.



Let’s start with the drums. AC/DC have one of the most distinctive and underrated rhythm sections in any band. Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams are key to the sound of this band and the drumming of Phil Rudd provides the foundation for the rest of the band to build on. To do this he has to keep things very simple but play in a very particular way. You will notice if you listen to any number of AC/DC songs that Rudd more often than not plays a straightforward 4/4 beat with the kick on beats one and three, the snare on the backbeat (beats 2 & 4) and the hihats playing 8th notes through the bar. The kick and snare need to be very strong to accent the pulse of the song and the hihats help glue the thing together and make it groove. The hihats are played in a semi-open style with more subtelty in the dynamic than the kick and snare. Usually, those hihat hits that fall on the beat are stronger than those in between each beat.

There are very few complicated drum fills in an AC/DC song and the main role of the drums is to keep the pulse strong as the guitars play a syncopated rhythm around that. This is a similar role to that of the drums in disco or house music or, in fact, most dance musics in 4/4 time with a strong pulse – just look at the role of the Surdo in Brazilian samba music.

However, the drums will often support the rhythm of the guitar changes at key points in a song, such as the end of a chorus, or in the introduction. This is usually done by the use of cymbal crashes in time with the guitar chords.



As with the drums, the bass guitar plays an important role in underpinning the pulse of the track. Very often, the bass will play even 8th notes across much of the piece and allow the chord changes to move around that, particularly in a verse. So, if the piece is in A (which a lot of AC/DC songs are) the bass player will paly a continuous stream of A notes while the chords may change from A to D to G or wherever.  Unlike with the hihats, the attack and volume of these notes will usually be very consistent and this helps to add tension to the verses. This tension is one of the key things that makes an AC/DC song work because it is released as we go into the chorus, but more of that later.



The two guitar players Malcolm and Angus Young are the mainstay of AC/DC. They are the only two people to have played on every AC/DC album and they write all the band’s songs. The two brothers were born in Glasgow and moved to Australia with their family when they were young. Older brother George was also a guitar player and songwriter in 1960’s group The Easybeats, whose biggest hit ‘Friday on my Mind’ [S5] was co-written by George Young and his Dutch songwriting partner Harry Vanda. The pair also produced AC/DC’s first 6 albums.

Angus Young, the younger of the two AC/DC brothers is one of the most iconic figures in rock. Noted for wearing a school uniform on stage and running around with boundless energy, Angus is also one of rock’s most celebrated lead guitar players. He has a ballsy, bluesy style in his lead playing but also plays with a similar nervous energy to the way he runs around stage.

The two have an excellent understanding of their roles and how the two guitars work together. Mike Fraser, who has engineered the last few AC/DC albums, says his philosophy on getting the big AC/DC guitar sound is simple. There is no massive layering of guitars; the two guitars given there own space in the mix creates the wall of sound. Often, the guitars will play in unison, one panned left and the other panned right but there are times when they will each perform different roles.

It is important when the two guitars are playing the same thing that having two guitars makes a difference to the output and the dynamics, which is why often a riff will start with just one guitar and the other will join in later. This enables the listener to really hear and appreciate the power of the two guitars.

Sometimes, though, the two guitars are playing different parts. Angus will play a distinctive riff higher up the neck and Malcolm will play the chords in open position at the bottom of the neck. This occurs in many AC/DC songs and is one of their trademark ideas.



AC/DC have had two lead vocalists in their recording career: Bon Scott, who was lead vocalist from the first album until he died in 1980, and Brian Johnson, who has been the lead vocalist since their biggest selling album, Back in Black, was released the same year. (Prior to that, there was also Dave Evans, who cut an early single with the band.)

Though the two are very distinctive, they do share certain similarities. The main similarity is that they both sing in a high register without singing falsetto. This helps to add energy to the track and give that feeling that this is high octane and ready to blow.

In the verses, the lead vocal often answers the question asked by the guitar chords. The guitars will play a chord sequence or riff and then leave space for the vocalist to deliver his line. This is a technique that runs through a lot of rock and blues music. Great rock and roll tracks like ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, great blues tracks like John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom, Boom’ or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ all use this trick. ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ is a classic example of AC/DC using this technique but it is found in abundance throughout their career.

Backing vocals


There perhaps isn’t much to say about backing vocals in AC/DC songs but they do provide an improtant role and are one of the key elements that make the band attractive to the audience that they have. The backing vocals are provided by Cliff Williams and Malcolm Young. Live on stage you will see the pair stood at the back either side of the drummer whilst Angus and Brian soak up all the glory up front. The rhythm pair will stand with their heads down, hair covering their faces, shaking one leg throughout the verses and bridges. Then, as the chorus is about to begin, they will walk forward to the microphones and sing the backing vocals.

There are no fancy harmonies, no complex counterpoint. The backing vocals will belt out the chorus like two blokes singing along in a pub. And that is exactly what a chorus should be. The idea of a chorus is that it is the bit that everyone sings along to. The word ‘chorus’ implies multiple voices so the AC/DC way is to make a chorus simple, sing-along and make it sound like anyone could sing with a few mates down the pub. What could be more appealing to a rock music fan?



So that is how the instruments work in an AC/DC song but how do we put it all together? Again, it would be very much an exaggeration to say that all AC/DC songs follow the same pattern but there are certain structures that occur again and again and they are not unique to AC/DC.

In Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s book ‘The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way’ ( ), they describe the structure needed to have a number one hit single in the UK. They suggest that you should start with the introduction, move on to the verse, then a chorus, another verse, chorus, then some kind of middle 8 and a breakdown before going back into choruses to finish. They say that a proper songwriter could put in a bridge or pre-chorus before each chorus but that should only be handled by skilled songwriters.

AC/DC tend to follow this model, as do many, many songwriters. Often the verse and the chorus will be in the root key but there will be a shift for the pre-chorus which helps give the chorus more impact when it comes in. The pre-chorus may move to chord IV or V. One trick that has been used on many songs is to play the same chord riff in the verse as in the chorus but keep the verses really tight, stabbing the chords in a staccato fashion and leaving spaces, then explode with those same chords in the chorus.