Posts Tagged ‘Composition’

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 The arguments were that rock music wasn’t progressing or providing anything new and that rock music was being superseded by electronic dance music.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.


Everybody Dance

I was going to write about disco. The main reason I was going to write about disco was because I love it. I’ve been teaching my disco lesson for about 12 years now, on and off. It’ slightly different every time but I’ve wanted to get across the important points about how the different parts work together. I’ve also been convinced that it’s going to be useful to someone someday because it’s bound to have a bit of a resurgence. And now it seems that may have finally happened. With Daft Punk getting to number 1, the BBC showing ‘The Joy of Disco’ and Nile Rodgers documentaries and Chic touring incessantly – not to mention the stellar success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album.

But I decided not to write solely about disco and to make this a fairly general thing about dance music and what are the important factors that make it work. This applies to pretty much all contemporary forms of pop-based dance music from disco to house to reggae to rock bands like AC/DC (for more on them see my previous post on the ‘International Write and Record an Album in a Month, month’ page on Facebook). So here goes…


1 The pulse

In dance music, you must have a strong pulse. This is the heartbeat of the song and the thing that will get you nodding your head, snapping your fingers, stamping your feet or shaking your leg. When people talk about the beat, this is what they mean. The tempo of the pulse can help determine your reaction to the music. Let’s say a resting heartbeat is about 80 beats per minute, anything above that may excite you while you are resting. It will try and push your own heart rate up. If you are already dancing, your heart beat will be much faster so you will need to have a song that is going at a faster tempo to keep your adrenalin going. If you’re at a rave and you’ve just taken a load of dodgy jelly beans then you may need the tempo to go up to 130 bpm or over to satisfy your new puppy-like desire for bouncing around. However, if you’ve been smoking banana skins (or whatever it is that people do these days) and you’re lying back on your sofa with your feet up, eating chocolate and the only dance move you can manage is a barely perceptible nodding of the head, then a hip-hop track at 80 or 90 bpm may be enough.

The pulse will usually be provided by the kick drum, though there are variations on this. With house or disco and some reggae tracks, you may get a kick drum on each beat. The low thud, just like a heartbeat, helping you to keep time; relentless and consistent. With other styles, the kick will accent the first and third beats of the bar and the snare backbeat will fill in the gaps. Funk has a heavy accent on the down beat (beat one), whereas one-drop reggae will leave this beat free so that you almost fall into the rest of the bar and the kick drum will accent beat three.

Quite often, the bass part will support the pulse – just listen to ‘Good Times’ by Chic to hear how that infamous bassline by Bernard Edwards supports the pulse on those first three beats before playing the other fancy bits before doing the same thing in bar 3 of this 4 bar riff (John Deacon’s bassline for ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ works in a very similar way ). Cliff Williams from AC/DC will usually double the pulse by playing 8th notes in his bass parts (take ‘Down Payment Blues’ for example).


2 The backbeat

The backbeat is what happens on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. These beats are normally emphasised by the snare drum. (On visiting Manchester Music Base, former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford described it as ‘the tyranny of the backbeat’.) The snare drum may be supported by handclaps, either real – as in disco – or electronic – as in house or hip hop (check out the handclaps in ‘Turn Me On’ by David Guetta ft Nicki Minaj ). Having a strong kick drum on beats one and three and a snare drum on 2 and 4 gives the piece a sense of a marching left-right-left-right rhythm. This is what gets you walking to the dance floor. Got a good strong pulse and backbeat? You’re halfway there. You’ve got the audience stomping and clapping already. All you need now is to fill in the gaps.


3 Off-beats

This is where the hi-hats come in. Often, anyway. Listen to Tony Thompson’s playing for Chic (or Sister Sledge or whoever), even if the hi-hat patterns are fairly intricate 16th patterns, he still accents off-beats, or there is the classic groove to ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba,  where the shakers do this job. You hear this all the time in house music, with a really strong four to the floor kick, snare and claps on the backbeat and hats on the off-beats.  You’ll notice none of the proper drummers try to do silly demisemiquaver hi-hat patterns. This is because they are not white boy music students trying to show off. The octave bass can often fill this role as well, such as Bernard Edwards’ bass in ‘Dance Dance Dance’, where you play the low octave on the beat and play the octave above on the off-beat.

In some types of music, other instruments are used to accent the off-beat, such as the guitar in ska. Bands like Mumford and Sons will do a similar thing by providing a strong pulse with a kick drum and making the guitar accent against that. Just listen to the way the guitar in ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii does exactly the same.


4 Syncopation

Syncopation is basically stuff that works against the pulse and the accents will land sometimes on the beat and sometimes off the beat. This could be a rhythmic chord part, such as a guitar (often in disco) or a piano (often in house music) or a synth; a percussion part; or even the lead vocal. Let’s take the ‘classic’ (and, by classic, I mean ‘not classic’) ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ by JLS . The main chorus vocal has a very distinct pulse of its own that conflicts with the main pulse of the song. Try tapping the pulse of the song with your right hand and the pulse of the vocal line with your left (or the other way round if you’re left-handed). You may find (if you do it properly) that for every 3 taps of your right hand, you will have tapped your left hand (the vocal hand) four times. This could be described as a four-over-three polyrhythm and it is extremely common in contemporary dance music, especially different types of house music.  The left hand and right hand only meet on ‘LONdon to jaMAIca, La to aFRICa…’ and thereby accent the wrong part of Africa, making it sound like a FREAK a. Quite often you will hear these syncopations taken from Latin American rhythmic patterns, such as the Cuban clave patterns or the Bossa Nova. The rhythm guitar part in ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross plays the reverse (2:3) Son clave pattern to great effect. 


5 Other stuff

It helps if you have a good sing-a-long vocal with a strong hook. If people can sing or shout on the dance floor, they get more excitable and a sense of camaraderie and team spirit ensues. Like football fanaticism but with more rhythm and no opposing team. Lyrics about dancing, music and escape from the humdrum monotony of modern life are often a key element. Check out ‘Lost in Music’ by Sister Sledge .

It also helps to divide those parts up between different instruments. People seem to assume to play a funky bass line or a funky guitar part or drum pattern you have to play loads of notes to have a strong pulse and syncopation but if you have a full band you can keep each instrumental part pretty sparse, then the different instruments don’t sound like they’re racing against each other. Listen to how simple the bass line is on ‘Superstition’, for example. It basically plays the root note on each beat, emphasising the pulse; it doesn’t play the complicated riff that lots of people assume it plays. . Or listen to the simplicity of the guitar and drum parts in ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ by James Brown .

It’s always worth going back to ‘Good Times’ by Chic. Check out from 3:12 where the track breaks down and you can hear the role each instrument plays: including the accents on the hi-hats; the electric piano playing the sustained chords on the first beat of every bar from 4:04; and the piano that comes in at the end of each bar from 4:40.


Anyway, hope that helps!