“When I die, they’ll say ‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!'”
– Hound Dog Taylor
You’ve heard the story. Here’s one of the least poetic descriptions of it ever from Radiolab, which did a segment on the legend this spring:
The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling–and musicians who’d laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight, and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.
There are some problems with this tale, of course. For one thing, it isn’t even original – the same story was told about Paganini in the 1700s. For another, the story might actually have been about Tommy Johnson. But let’s cut through the romantic supernatural bullshit: the way Robert Johnson got so good was he practiced like a motherfucker.
While it may sound pretty rich coming from a guy whose first recorded output was this, I’d like to hear more bands who sound like they have actually put forth some effort to learn their instruments. I’m thinking about this because, after a brief hiatus, I’m playing shows again. Lord help me, I am even thinking about booking a tour. But before I do that, I’ve got to get my act together. So, I found a practice space and started practicing.
It is the kind of grimy storage space bands usually end up in. I split it with a few others. As an added bonus, it has no air conditioning. This is summertime in Texas, just so you understand. Practicing with no a/c in July in Texas is like being put in the box, like in Cool Hand Luke. But I’m doing it because I don’t want to suck. As a listener, I just wish other bands would have the same courtesy. Being a fan of punk rock, 1960s garage bands, raw blues, country, and the like, you’d think I wouldn’t care. But I do.
There is a difference between intending to get a certain sound, and not being able to do anything else. The early punks used to all have some variation of “We couldn’t play shit!” when describing their musical abilities. That may have been true compared to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, or whatever bloated 70s excesses they were reacting against at the time, but compared to a lot of what I see today they were geniuses.
Steve Jones and Paul Cook may not have been flashy technical players, but they were effective. Contrary to the idea that they emerged fully formed from the wreckage of late-70s London, the Pistols actually practiced quite a bit and put in effort to improve their craft. Then, they kicked out Glen Matlock for Sid Vicious, who couldn’t play and didn’t want to learn. Sid became the role model for punks who wanted to look cool more than they wanted to be musicians.
This is too bad, because the idea that the early punk bands couldn’t play is mostly a myth. Sure, they had the raw spontaneity, but these bands also worked to get their sound. You might not think the Ramones were an example of technical brilliance, but they could stop and start all those songs at the same time. No mean feat, that. They were a well-oiled machine. Look at the set list from It’s Alive and tell me how many of the bands you see today could get through that, with that degree of speed and tightness, without needing paramedics standing by? Sadly, decades later, lesser bands only remember the “we couldn’t play shit” boasting, and use it as an excuse to crank ineptly through three power chords.
Meanwhile, in the blues world, we got the opposite. In the post-Clapton/Stevie Ray Vaughan world, flashy and technical playing and long, boring solos crowded out those who relied more on feel than precision. Not just for guitarists but for harmonica players, too. You had this kind of freak show thing with little kids who got attention due to their “killer chops” – remember Kenny Wayne Sheppard and Jonny Lang? How about Brody Buster? There is something kind of creepy about this trend, in retrospect. My feeling about it was, if a twelve year old can do it, it must not be very hard. Playing pentatonic scales really fast isn’t the point.
There has to be a balance. I can appreciate the virtuosity of Little Walter, but I can also appreciate the simplicity and rawness of Slim Harpo. While Slim Harpo was no Little Walter, he still had a distinctive style and a signature tone. He had obviously worked to get his sound like he wanted it. The idea that you actually have to work to get the sound you want, even if the aesthetic you are going for is a little rough around the edges, is rarely acknowledged.
I don’t know if it is a symptom of the current climate where music is no longer considered valuable enough to pay for, decades of everybody-gets-a-trophy, self-esteem boosting parenting, or the fact that the Sid Vicious ideal of looking cool without practicing won out, but I see too many bands who really can’t play shit. These are offset at the other extreme by wankers with Paul Reed Smith guitars. On the one side, we’ve got complete incompetence, people never bothering to learn their instruments because while they wanted to be in a band, they didn’t actually want to be a musician. On the other side, we’ve got the dopes spending thousands on boutique tube combos and adding “tasteful guitar solos” behind the singer-songwriters they back up. Man, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a tasteful guitar solo. There is a balance somewhere between outright incompetence and overly technical virtuosity. Rock and roll has a mythology of excess, and an Aristotelian appeal to moderation in all things doesn’t have the same cachet.
I like the idea of musicians knowing more than they let on. Simple music isn’t necessarily easy. There are plenty of bad guitar players who can play a fast flurry of notes, but who couldn’t groove on a Bo Diddley one-chord workout to save their lives. Just as Jackson Pollock studied the masters before he decided to do this, Sonny Sharrock could play traditional jazz guitar, but chose to do this instead. Even Link Wray, patron saint of guitar primitives, recorded Lillian. That’s a lot of fancy chords, Link!
You can have inspired primitivism, and uninspired virtuosity, and as Bugs Bunny said, you can have it the other way around in reverse. It can come from the raw and unpolished enthusiasm department, or the technically accomplished department, but I just want it to be good. I’ve always preferred primitive sounds to technical brilliance, but I have a lot of respect for musicians who have taken the time to hone their craft. I have Gories and Billy Childish records, and Back From the Grave comps, it’s true. But I also have records by Django Reinhart, Joe Maphis, Leo Kottke, and Danny Gatton, and plenty of others. I am not opposed to instrumental competence. But the goal should be the the music is neither hampered, nor overshadowed, by the skill of the musicians playing it.
Anyway, back to the woodshed.