Stories Behind the Songs: “Turn It Around”

Posted by  Grand Poobah  November 21, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

“Turn It Around” was written fairly quickly at the end of January, 2011. I was fooling around on the piano when the chorus chords came to me. With some additional work, the rest of the chords and the melody soon followed, along with the phrase “Get Up”. In a week’s time, the lyrics were mostly written.

I seem to have been writing a lot of “message”-type songs around this period. In fact, I often worried that my lyrics were getting too preachy. Usually, though, when I seem to be preaching to my audience, I’m actually trying to give myself a pep talk.

Stories Behind the Songs: “Clothesline”

Posted by  Grand Poobah  November 7, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

I wrote the verse chords and melody and some initial lyrics for what would become “Clothesline” in June 2000. I didn’t revisit the song until January 2009, when I came up with a chorus and the riff for the solo section. At that time I also majorly overhauled the lyrics.

I really did knock out a tooth on a clothesline; I believe it was Halloween 1981 or 1982. My uncle and aunt had a clothesline made of a thick metal wire and I ran smack dab into it. Fortunately it was only a baby tooth and the gap in my smile enhanced my Phantom of the Opera costume. In the song, of course, it’s symbolic, but I still don’t know why it came to mind after all those years.

I performed the song solo once or twice before recording the Chameleon Red version in 2012.

Internet Radio Alert

Posted by  Grand Poobah  October 17, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

We got an email from Francois Beaumont, program director of “The Globe” Internet radio station, telling us that “Your Doll” is in heavy rotation.  I’ve listened to The Globe and it’s pretty cool and eclectic.  Check it out: Red

Future Shock?

Posted by  Grand Poobah  October 3, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Culture ShockCulture Shock, a band I was in 20 years ago, is reuniting for a show tomorrow evening at the Hangar Lounge in Wise, VA.  It’s very exciting, and I would never in a million years have predicted this when I quit the band in 1994.  If you want to read my version of the band’s story, it’s here:

“Moloch Must Die!”

Posted by  Grand Poobah  September 12, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Ponch and MolochMy brain works in mysterious (and goofy) ways.  A couple of nights ago, my sleep was disturbed by flashbacks to an old CHiPs episode from 1982 called “Rock Devil Rock”.  In the episode, Gene Simmons/Alice Cooper-inspired rock star Moloch, played by Don Most (yes, Ralph Malph), is riding high on his hit song “Devil Take Me” when he begins receiving audio death threats accompanied by actual attempts on his life.  There’s a cameo by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (hubba hubba) and the episode is directed by John Astin (yes, Gomez Addams).  It’s a pretty campy episode, looking back on it now, but at the time it really scared me.

Keep in mind that I had not seen this episode since it first aired, but still remembered many details, including parts of “Devil Take Me” and the sinister messages Moloch received (“Moloch must die!”, “Moloch will die!”, “Moloch is dead, his fiery breath.”)  At the time this episode came out, the “backward masking” controversy was in full swing and was alluded to in the show.  It’s probably the fact that I was so frightened by purported secret messages hidden in popular songs, not to mention the Devil, that made the show stick in my mind.  What caused it to reemerge from the recesses of my brain?  Probably seeing reruns of CHiPs recently, and my quirky audio memory.  Here’s the first part of the episode:

15 Game-Changing Albums

Posted by  Grand Poobah  September 5, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Someone recently challenged me to list 15 “game-changing” albums that were very influential to me.  So here they are, in roughly the order I first heard them.

  1. (Untitled) – Led Zeppelin
  2. A Night at the Opera – Queen
  3. Love Gun – Kiss
  4. The Wall – Pink Floyd
  5. In 3-D – “Weird Al” Yankovic
  6. Revolver – The Beatles
  7. Electric Ladyland – Jimi Hendrix
  8. Weld – Neil Young
  9. Gretchen Goes to Nebraska – King’s X
  10. The Doors
  11. Nevermind – Nirvana
  12. Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan
  13. Mutations – Beck
  14. Innervisions – Stevie Wonder
  15. Countdown to Ecstasy – Steely Dan

Stories Behind the Songs: “The Inner Life”

Posted by  Grand Poobah  August 29, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Hammered Dulcimer“The Inner Life” is obviously inspired by the Beatles’ B-side “The Inner Light”. George Harrison took the words for that song verbatim from a passage in Lamps of Fire, a collection of religious writings by Juan Mascaró. That passage was a translation of Chapter 47 of the Tao Te Ching.

I got the idea for “The Inner Life” while in Florence, Italy in 2009. I was thinking about how contemplation must come more easily to the introvert than to the extrovert. I’m an introvert, and often have a hard time comprehending extroverts, so I wrote a verse from each perspective. I had a melody in mind also, but since I was traveling abroad I had no musical instrument, and I’m not musically literate enough to write down notes on a staff from my head. So the words were captured, but the melody was lost.

I had always envisioned the song as quiet, meditative, and with an Indian flavor; the drone of the tamboura and the bright, buzzing sitar were definitely part of my vision from the start. So I’m not sure what inspired me, in September 2012, to recast it in a funk mold. But it came to me that way, along with chords and a melody. I quickly wrote a final verse recognizing that we need both introverts and extroverts, and the song, which had languished for three years, was suddenly complete, as what I can only describe as raga-funk.

The recording of the song is notable for the strange instrumentation; I played not only an electric sitar, but a hammer dulcimer, a bowed psaltery, and an ashiko, while John contributed synthesized strings in addition to the bass. Years ago I had actually envisioned doing a sort of Indian-themed song using traditional western acoustic instruments, so this was a chance to give it a try.

Stories Behind the Songs: “Paragon”

Posted by  Grand Poobah  August 22, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Sorry for the long interval since the last blog entry–it’s been a trying month.

Paragon BeardsJohn: The fact that Brian’s help turned “Revolving Door” from a cool chord progression into an actual song inspired me to try again with the Michael McDonald – style stuff. The chords in the verse, as in Revolving Door, just fell out of my brain into my fingers one day while sitting at my Yamaha C35***. After finishing it, I imagined it as interstitial music on NPR (i.e. the 20 second snippets they play between features on All Things Considered). I had sent it to the band as an MP3, and, one day Brian emailed me one day to say that he’d come up with lyrics and a melody, along with a chorus.

Brian: In August 2011, John sent me a demo containing the chords and a simple bass/drum accompaniment for what became the verse of “Paragon”. I liked what I heard, but wasn’t sure what to do it with it. Months later, in May 2012, I listened to it again and decided it was a verse in need of a chorus. I was taking a guitar chords course at the time, and wrote chords and a melody for the chorus, throwing in chords I had just learned. I alternated between keyboard and guitar when writing the chords. Soon after, I decided that there needed to be a different chord progression for a guitar solo; I based the progression on the chorus, using some chord substitutions to arrive at a descending progression. Finally, with some difficulty (due to the strange chord sequence), I arrived at a melody for the verse.

Sometime during the writing of the chorus, I came up with the title “Paragon”. I actually wrote a couple of descriptive paragraphs, trying to solidify the vision of what sort of paragon I wanted to write about. After a few days of effort, I arrived at the storyline of the high-society woman dating a waiter.

John is known for coming up with some funny mondegreens (misheard lyrics), and I couldn’t resist throwing a couple into the lyrics. One was “Awesome Zudokhan Love”, which was how he heard Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me”. The other was “dunder cheese”, which is how he heard “done dirt cheap” in AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds”. I changed this to “thunder cheese” after I Googled dunder cheese, though. I sent a demo of the added parts and vocals back to John at the end of May. He suggested a few changes to the chords in the chorus, and then the song was complete.

We ended up recording two versions of the song; the first was at the original tempo and syncopated. John was dissatisfied with that version, so we recorded a new version at a faster tempo and with a simplified bass, drums, and rhythm guitar. I didn’t really like that version as well as the first, so we let it lie for a while before ultimately deciding to go with the first version.

The initial idea for the video originated with John; we sat around alternately brainstorming and horse-laughing until we had most of the details sketched out. Sadly—er, fortunately, the video came out almost exactly as we had envisioned, mostly thanks to our star actor and some fortuitous props. I threw in another Franjione mondegreen for good measure: “Bingo Jed and Lionel” = “Big ol’ jet airliner”.

“Weird Al” #1!

Posted by  Grand Poobah  July 25, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Polka down with your bad self.It’s the end of the world as we know it…”Weird Al” Yankovic has the #1 album on the charts!  I’ve been a fan of Al ever since seeing his first video on MTV–it was “Ricky”, the “I Love Lucy”-themed parody of Toni Basil’s “Mickey”.  He’s had a remarkable career since then, outlasting most of the bands he’s poked fun of over the years, and I think it’s great that he’s topped the charts with his latest album, “Mandatory Fun”.  Check out his eight videos from the album and then GO BUY IT!  Long live Al!

Stories Behind the Songs: “Skeleton Crew”

Posted by  Grand Poobah  July 18, 2014  •  No Comments  • 

Skeleton SuitsIn the fall of 2012 I took a class online called “Recording with Reason” (referring to the software package made by Propellerhead); as part of that class I had to choose a reference track from a commercial CD as a starting point in recording and mixing a song.  My reference track was “Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads, and the song I ended up writing was “Skeleton Crew”.  It lacked the second verse, guitar solo, and the “second chorus” at the end, but in other respects, it was pretty similar to the end product you hear.  In fact, some parts of the Chameleon Red recording recycle bits from the original class project.

When I finished writing the song, December 1, 2012, I had just been laid off from my day job, which may explain the bent of the resulting lyrics and the fantasy of revenge on greedy corporate dudes.  The “second chorus” is an adaptation of the well-known (and creepy) “dry bones” passage in the Bible, Ezekiel 37:1-3. An engraving by 19th-century French artist Gustave Doré, illustrating this passage, was incorporated into the Skeleton Crew cover art.

The video was mostly recorded in one evening. I had a hard time keeping a straight face during the filming of the “presentation”, especially when I copped a move from David Byrne’s frenetic performance in the “Once in a Lifetime” video.  The “Night at the Roxbury” skull heads were filmed later and were also laughter-inducing. John designed the actual presentation that is seen in the video quite a long time after those scenes were filmed.

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