Killola (or How the West Was Won)

February 23, 2009

killola-vert-darkby Kevin Egan

(The following piece was originally written for last fall’s issue of the now defunct, Chord magazine.  I felt it was a shame that this piece didn’t make it to print, since I’m not sure if I’ve come across a band that works as hard as Killola.  Anyway, I just wanted to get this out there where it belongs.)     

 

Who says melody is dead? 

All you have to do is go up on a steep hill and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can see L.A.’s latest pop-rock sensation, Killola, an act with some of the catchiest and sing-songiest tunes ever, riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

I know.  That metaphor has been used before.  But Dr. Thompson was writing about a time when something exciting was happening in California.  So am I. 

At times reminiscent of bands from the eighties and nineties, Killola remains true to what made the music of those two decades intriguing, with great hooks, quirky lyrics and a solid rock beat.   But this isn’t something they’re conscious of when writing songs.  They just love catchy music.  

“Sometimes all it takes is a D major chord with a little whistling, “says bassist, Johnny Dunn.  “A good melody makes it.  The test is if it can sound good acoustically.  If you can take it to the parking lot, you win.”   

Johnny’s referring to the many parking lots Killola will be playing acoustic sets during their upcoming U.S. tour, for their underage audiences that can’t get into the 21-and-over venues.  To them, it’s the least they can do for the fans that have proved their loyalty by helping Killola become a worldwide internet sensation.

“We used to do an interactive webcam night on Friday nights,” says Lisa Rieffel, lead singer of the group.   “We’ve developed relationships with these people.  We know what these people look like.  We know how they laugh.  We know what they look like in their pajamas.  We just haven’t met them.”

Killola seems excited to finally have a chance to get together with their longtime friends but there’s still one element to these types of encounters that frustrates Rieffel just a little.   “If one more person tells me I’m much shorter in real life, I’m gonna be pissed!”

But that seems to be the extent of what irks Rieffel.  Killola are truly dedicated to the people that are truly dedicated to them.  In fact, to reciprocate the love and loyalty, Killola have recently put their latest album, I am the Messer, plus two bonus songs, on their website (killola.com), to be downloaded for free. 

Now everyone has a chance to ride that high and beautiful wave of the catchiest and sing-songiest tunes ever.           

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Tipper Gore to be Inducted into Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame

January 15, 2009

by Kevin Egan

CLEVELAND (AP)-In what might be the most controversial news in the world of rock ‘n’ roll since the passing of Elvis Presley, it was announced today that Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President, Al Gore, is to be inducted in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, causing both praise and outrage from rock ‘n’ roll fanatics throughout the world.

Gore, 60, besides being known as the wife of the former vice president, had also made a name for herself back in the Eighties by leading a group composed mostly of Washington wives called, The Parent’s Music Resource Center (or The P.M.R.C., as it was more infamously known).  The P.M.R.C.’s main task was to force the music industry to label  each record it released, in the same manner films were rated by the MPAA, particularly those that included “explicit lyrics.”

In response to many of the rock videos Gore had watched as part of her research with the P.M.R.C., she had once publicly cried, “The images frightened my children!  They frightened me!  I am frightened!  Way frightened!  The graphic sex and the violence were too much for us to handle.”         

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Eventually, a Senate-hearing on the “dangers” of rock music was held and artists including Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and legendary folk artist, John Denver, came to the defense of the first amendment rights of the artists in question.  It was later decided that each record company would “voluntarily” label albums if they felt they might cause a disturbance in certain communities.  Still, once the smoke had cleared, Tipper Gore had become a full-blown enemy of the rock world.   

Ironically, years later, after her husband and Bill Clinton had won the 1992 presidential election, The Gore’s made an appearance on MTV, the very channel they had once accused of perpetrating “pornography,” thanking all the young people that had supported them in their campaign.  Those that remembered the Tipper Gore of the 1980’s were shocked and somewhat perplexed by the appearance.

Mike Scorzelli, 39, Massapequa, N.Y. remembers: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I remember thinking, ‘Wasn’t that the same broad that tried to outlaw music videos like seven years ago?  Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s on MTV’s kissing her ass?  That’s so f**ked up.’” 

And if that wasn’t enough to inflame the rage of those that remembered Gore’s past as “Public Enemy No. 1,” Al Gore, himself, during his bid for the presidency in 2000, was, surprisingly enough, financially backed by such famous rock stars as Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh, Stevie Nicks and Dweezil Zappa, son of one of Tipper Gore’s most outspoken opponents, Frank Zappa.

Apparently, all had either been forgiven or “forgotten.”

When asked why Tipper Gore was being inducted in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, spokeswoman for the institution, Helen Gurchnecht, replied, ”The Hall of Fame is going ‘green’ this year and there’s nothing more ‘green’ than the Gore’s.   Rock ‘n’ Roll is no longer about playing loud, living fast and expressing yourself creatively.   These days, it’s more about whether or not you bring your own shopping bag to the grocery store.  Or if you decide to walk to church instead of taking the family SUV.” 

Along with Tipper Gore, other inductees will include Run DMC, Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials and longtime friends of the Gore’s, Metallica, who have publicly defended the Hall of Fame’s choice to induct Gore. 

“Tipper kicks ass,” says drummer, Lars Ulrich.  “We all belong to the same country club and enjoy each other’s company immensely.  In fact, we recently had the Gore’s over for cocktails and it turned out that my butler used to be their butler, like fifteen years ago.  We got a great laugh out of that one.  It’s such a weird and crazy world.” 

Although the rock ‘n’ roll elite seem to have embraced Gore, regardless of her past assaults on their art and culture, there are still some rock ‘n’ roll fans that will never forgive or “forget” the havoc she wreaked back in the Eighties, no matter how “green” she may have become.

“I’ve got two words for Tipper Gore,” says Robby “the Snake” Fontana, 41, Freehold, New Jersey.  “Go f**k yourself.”  

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

      

 


“The Anti-anthem:” Yesterday and Today by Kevin Egan

December 16, 2008

 

woody_guthrie8factory_fire_gallery_kevin_ciarra_470x320

Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground

You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much

 Till you spend half your life just covering up

 Not very colorful lyrics, are they?  Recognize them?  They’re the first verse of one of the most popular American anthems of the last thirty years.  They belong to a song that has been used by some of the most conservative institutions to incite feelings of nationalism and patriotism, particularly during the 1980’s, when a new brand of Republicanism ruled over our collective consciousness.  And as we were proudly proclaiming our superiority over the Soviet Union, unions in the United States were being broken up, the groundwork for market-deregulation was being laid, and tax breaks were given to the wealthiest of Americans, setting off an era of inequality that still exists today.  

So, what was this song that so feverishly incited a nation to feel so wonderful about itself?  Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A..” 

After the release of the album of the same name in 1984, Springsteen came to represent the mainstream for most rock ‘n’ roll fans.  It was an album that, on the surface, seemed to be a collection of the shiniest pop trash imaginable.  Silly, childish keyboard riffs like the main motif in “Dancing in the Dark” were found to be so laughable, it was difficult to view Springsteen as the prolific songwriter he had been years before.  To many, he had become a popstar in the same league as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.  Compared to the punk and heavy metal bands that were blossoming at the time, Bruce Springsteen seemed less threatening than Clay Aiken does today.   

But rockers weren’t the only ones blind to the sentiments Springsteen was truly expressing in a brilliant song like “Born in the U.S.A..”  Almost the entire country accepted the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A.” as an anthem of pride.  We were under the impression he was expressing his gratitude for being born in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”   The Cold War was still a reality and the song’s chorus seemed to reflect our nation’s sense of righteousness compared to the Soviets’ “Evil Empire,” where people waited on lines for toilet paper and didn’t have the freedom to chose their own occupations.  It had become a late twentieth century version of “This Land is Your Land,” which coincidentally was also misunderstood by the public. 

In Woody Guthrie’s song, he sings how this country belongs to everyone, not just the landowners.  Included in the entire set of lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” are the lines:

woody_guthrie9

 As I was walkin’ I saw a sign there

And that sign said, “no tress passin”’

But on the other side it didn’t say nothin’

Now that side was made for you and me!

 

 

It is a protest song on the subject of the inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots.” 

Springsteen’s song, though saturated with the most hi-tech production of its day, along with a keyboard sound now affiliated with the Eighties exclusively, was, and is, as strong of a statement on inequalities in America as Guthrie’s.  And it is more rich with social commentary than any other song since its conception.  In fact, considering the numerous troubles Iraq War veterans currently find themselves in, after returning from service, “Born in the U.S.A.” is just as significant today than it has ever been before.   

What confused listeners in 1984, more than anything, was the hi-tech, glossed over production.  On Springsteen’s earlier records, like Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run and Nebraska, the production is much more raw, accentuating darker tones that complimented the stark images projected in Springsteen’s lyrics.  For instance, in the song, “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s first big hit, lyrics like “it’s a deathtrap, it’s a suicide rap,” referring to the home the narrator and his girlfriend live in, are screamed alongside one of the filthiest guitar sounds you ever heard, as well as the raunchiest saxophone solo in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.  The marriage of the words and the music help to create one of the most epic rock ‘n’ roll sagas of youth escaping a pre-determined, hopeless fate. 

But on Born in the U.S.A., the album, Springsteen trades in those dark tones for the synth-pop sounds of the 1980’s, leading some to believe he was cornering himself into a time frame that would ultimately be considered an embarrassment by the handful of musicians that survived that period.  And although there’s a good chance Springsteen was actually looking to get rich and sell millions of records and his choice of production was a product of those desires, in “Born in the U.S.A.,” he shrewdly manipulates the production to help tell hi story of a Vietnam veteran no longer welcome in the United States.

Originally written at the same time as the stark, depressing and mournful songs of his stripped-down masterpiece, Nebraska,  “Born in the U.S.A.” tells the story of someone “born down in a dead man’s town” and will lead a difficult life accordingly.  Early on, he gets in trouble with the law and is ironically handed a gun, forced to fight in the Vietnam War.  He comes back but, because of the controversy the war has stirred up, he can’t get a job.  Even his V.A. man (“Veteran’s Affairs”), whose job it is to assist veterans, can’t help him, asking the young man, “Son, don’t you understand?”  Ultimately, as Bruce sings, he ‘s got “nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”  

Those that own the 1998 release, Tracks, are familiar with the earlier version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” from the “Nebraska Sessions.”  This version’s kinship with the songs on Nebraska, musically and lyrically, is much more apparent, particularly in the tone of the guitar, which is eerily stark, echoing as if being played in a dirty tunnel somewhere on the outskirts of town.  Springsteen also sings the song in a different key, which serves to articulate the narrator’s frustration and hopelessness as hauntingly as possible.  There is no question as to what sentiment he is expressing in this version.   

On the later version, the one the public knows above all others, 1980’s synth-keyboards, as well as Eighties production techniques, dominate the landscape of the song, creating the undesirable effects previously mentioned, as well as deceiving the listener into thinking he/she is listening to a pop anthem generated for the masses.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Although, Springsteen had been most effective in his earlier days when the rough and rugged recordings of his earlier albums matched the dark aesthetic of his lyrics, Springsteen actually uses the glossy production and Eighties synth-pop sound as counterpoint to the bleak, hopeless lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A..”  It’s a cleverly deceptive approach, one that has been barely been recognized or celebrated.     

Musically, “Born in the U.S.A.,” has no changes.  Though instruments come in and out at different times, the same musical theme that emulates the chorus of the song, plays throughout the entire composition, which is significant in defining why “Born in the U.S.A.” has been interpreted as an anthem.  Although, the truth is, the repetition of this theme actually symbolizes an American Dream that has been infused in every citizen’s consciousness since birth, which is why it is consistently repeated throughout the entire song without any changes.  It emulates the concepts and ideas that are perpetuated in our schools, on our televisions, and out of the mouths of our leaders.   They are bright, shiny, optimistic ideas about the possibility of everyone in America succeeding, as long as they gave it their best effort.  It seems that even in our darkest hour, when we feel as if our country has failed us, as the narrator does in the song, the selling of the American Dream never fails to waver, much like the musical theme in “Born in the U.S.A..”       

Regarding lyrical structure, like many of the songs written during the “Nebraska Sessions,” the song is constructed in the traditional folk format of verse/refrain, verse/refrain, etc..  Springsteen, however, plays with these conventions, creating a somewhat fragmented version of this structure, one that fits the theme of the song more appropriately.  This change first becomes apparent at the end of the third verse.  The final line of the verse is the V.A. man’s question to the narrator, “Son, don’t you understand?”  It is very possible that it is at this point that the narrator has finally come to a realization that being born in the United States of America does not necessarily grant one the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as promised in the Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps that is why Springsteen decides not to sing the chorus, although the music continues in the background.  In place of the chorus, Springsteen just mumbles, “No.  No.  No. No.  No.,” almost like a person that can’t accept a truth they are forced to confront.

Continuing with this redirection of how the song is structured, the fourth verse concerns the narrator’s brother, who had also fought in Vietnam.  For the first three verses, four lines are used in their construction.  Again, with the exception of the third verse, these verses are then followed by the chorus of the song.  Contrary to these previous verses, the fourth verse has only three lines: 

                                  I had a brother at Khe Sahn

                                 Fighting off the Viet Cong

                                They’re still there, he’s all gone

The fourth line is left out and a feeling of incompletion (for those who are listening) takes over.  What happened here to differentiate these lines from the previous?  Why is there no fourth line?  One can only suspect that the narrator is broken up by the loss of his brother, he can barely finish the stanza.  And once again, no chorus is sung, though the anthem-like keyboard continues, undaunted by this man’s struggle. 

The fragmentation of the narrator’s state of mind then continues on with the fifth verse, if you can even call it that, since now there are only two lines:        

                               He had a woman he loved in Saigon

                              I got a picture of him in her arms now

And for a third time, no chorus, only the keyboards that articulates the feelings of patriotism and American optimism that are associated with the American Dream.  By this time, the keyboard melody seems to be looming so high above the narrator, at such an unattainable height, we can no longer question why he chooses not to sing along.  It is a dream that he can never reach.

Finally, the song breaks down for a sixth and final verse.  Here, Springsteen describes the narrator’s surroundings.  It’s ten years later and he’s living ”in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery.”  It’s a bleak vision.  And although the narrator chooses to once again sing along to the chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.,” he punctuates that sentiment with the fact that he’s “a long, gone daddy in the U.S.A..”  The final irony being, although this song was used as a propaganda tool to promote America’s superiority over the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, the truth was, there were many people, particularly the soldiers that fought for this country, that were forgotten and ostracized, forced to live lives as hopeless as those lived under the Soviet flag.  In fact, to articulate the continuity of the hopelessness of soldiers returning home from war, including those today returning from Iraq, when Springsteen plays this song live, he sometimes returns to a more haunting key on his guitar and extends the line “I’m ten years  burning down the road” to “I’m ten years, I’m fifteen years, I’m twenty five years down the road,” painting a picture of a never-ending dilemma that soldiers are forced to face.  It has almost been twenty five years since the conception of this song and the treatment of soldiers returning from war are still somewhat troubling.  Veterans’ Hospitals have been reported to be inadequate in their ability to treat the soldiers properly, soldiers have come back to America plagued by the trauma of serving in the war, families have not received some of the benefits promised to them by the government, and soldiers still have trouble finding employment once they finish serving their country.   With the exception of the few lines that actually mention Vietnam, this is a song that could’ve easily been written today about a soldier returning from the Middle East.             

By contrasting bleak and depressing lyrics with optimistic, finely polished American sounds, Springsteen had actually created what can be referred to as an “anti-anthem.”  He had taken an American rock ‘n’ roll tradition and turned it upside down.  And the truth is, very few people at the time understood what he was doing.  It’s very possible that only Neil Young was able to pick up on what Springsteen was going for, since Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World” is another song that rallies around a infamously misinterpreted chorus that “celebrates” our freedoms, while the lyrics address children being dumped in garbage cans and our country being ruled by a “kinder, gentler machine gun hand.”  It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone how, over the twenty years later, both songwriters have remained at the top of their game and at the forefront of their profession.  Their clever, sometimes deceptive approach to their craft is easily what makes them the smartest and most creative tunesmiths of our time.     

 


I AM “IRONIC” MAN by Kevin Egan

November 12, 2008

 

Dio with Heaven and Hell @ Jones Beach          pic by Vito Lanciano

Dio with Heaven and Hell @ Jones Beach pic by Vito Lanciano

Webster definition of “irony:” a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning.

 

 

Webster definition of “satire:” a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.

 

As I write this, I’m listening to Dio: not for ironic reasons, as many hipster or cool kids would think, to mock the excessive drama associated with metal, but I’m listening to him because the songs that struck me at fifteen years old are still ringing in my bones and I can’t shake them.  There’s nothing funny or ironic about Dio to me.  I still take him very seriously.

 

The “ironic” aesthetic associated with hipsters that has plagued us all over the last ten years or so has become so tiresome, it’s time someone mocks “irony” in an ironic way, just to give these creeps a taste of their own medicine.  How many more “ironic” moustaches or rock t-shirts do we have to endure before we vomit our disgust all over these venomous perpetrators?  Really, is it that funny to be wearing a Def Leppard t-shirt to a party?  Is that the best you have?  Is that the funniest thing you can think of before leaving your apartment?  Good grief. 

 

It’s the lack of effort that’s most annoying.  If these twerps would take a couple of seconds to really put together something creative and inspiring, going out may be a little more exciting and the world may be a little more colorful than it had been a night before.  But once again, “repetition” is confused with “style.”

 

What IS funny is “satire.”  Let’s take the film Spinal Tap, for instance.  This monumental commentary on the often ridiculous rituals associated with hard rock runs so deep and strikes a nerve so shattering that even the thrashiest of thrashers can’t help but to laugh, for no other reason than it rings true.  It’s that clever.  It goes so far beyond just wearing a rock t-shirt for “ironic” purposes.  It is a perceptive study of a culture that, like it or not, ruled the Earth for a short period of time.  And the makers of that film focused on the specifics of that culture so insightfully, the film has ultimately been embraced as a classic.  A rich kid thinking it’s funny to rock a denim jacket and sport a giant pair of sunglasses can hardly compare to a piece of art like Spinal Tap. 

 

“Ironically” enough, a few years back, when hipsters were deep into their “ironic” metal phase, they tried to form bands that reflected their take on the genre.  Few succeeded, for the most obvious reason:  You need to know how to play an instrument to play metal.  There is no way around that.  Most hipsters subscribe to the aesthetic that you only need to learn a couple of chords and you’re ready to play in a band.  That may have been true for The Ramones but they were the exception.  True metalheads actually stayed home on Friday nights and practiced their guitars until six a.m..  That was one thing hipsters hadn’t anticipated, that it takes a skilled musician to play metal.  This realization must’ve taken some of the zing out of their “irony” since there isn’t anything funny about breaking your ass to learn how to rip on the guitar. 

 

True, there are many amusing things about Dio, as Jack Black has humorously pointed out in Tenacious D’s hilarious song about the master of metal, “Dio.”  But that was done out of love and was, in a way, a salute to Dio.  I suppose the lesson to be learned here, for hipsters especially, leave the comedy to the comedians.