It Might Get Loud

Here’s a strange one.  I’m reviewing a relatively recent documentary film about the electric guitar which should appeal to the very essence of my being.  When I first got into the electric guitar Jimmy Page was my absolute, top-dog hero.  I had a poster of his ’59 Les Paul on my wall.  I would watch The Song Remains the Same and soak up his out-of-this-world guitar solos.  I thought he could do no wrong and I would hold him aloft as a god at every opportunity.

This is a film that purports to be the recording of a meeting between three ‘guitar heroes’… Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.  Now… let me first say that if you are into the guitar in a big way you will probably enjoy this documentary.  However… there are some notable flaws.  I’ll start with this one:  The film is built on very shaky ground.  This is supposed to be the meeting of three great guitar players?  So why does most of the film consist of separate interviews conducted all over the bloody place?  It might be interesting and all… but it’s a bit of a con.  If, like me, you really wanted to just see three (/two) iconic guitar players sitting down and having a chat about the where’s, when’s, how’s and why’s of the guitar you’re going to be pretty disappointed.  This film just isn’t focused.  It’s almost as meandering as this review!  Ha ha!

So we open with Jack White building a makeshift guitar… to prove you don’t need to buy one.  The suggestion is that we could all string together a couple of baked bean tins or sculpt our mantelpieces into instruments.  Well… this is a bit of a tall story.  ‘Cause let me tell you all right now – if you want to play the guitar… you’re going to need a damn guitar!!!  And if you don’t buy one then you’re going to have to steal one?!?  I can’t condone that!

The sections with Jack White and his mini-me remind me of the ‘character’ sections in Led Zep’s Song Remains the Same – the sections which as a teenager I found slightly embarrassing to watch.  (John Bonham just about got away with his bit… but the others?  Pretension beyond compare).  Perhaps this similarity is done on purpose? – that would certainly make sense given that much of this film is darkened in the shadow of Jimmy Page.

We are introduced to the three guitar players.  Now, here’s another flaw with this film – the choice of the guitarists.  Jimmy Page.  Fine.  Jimmy Page is an icon and a good choice to eavesdrop on a chat with.  He represents old school rock.  He represents virtuoso guitar skills and everything that was bloated about the concept of the ’70’s guitar hero.  He represents the evolution of blues playing and he is one of the ultimate blues/rock guitar players of all time.  Fine.  Boxes ticked… I’m relatively happy.

Jack White.  I think Jack represents in some ways the rebirth of the guitar in the last decade.  He seems to have the blues flowing through his veins and he does show how the blues has moved on through the decades.  But he is a very similar player to Page.  Both quite raucous in style and arguably (have to say arguably!) quite messy.  White comes across in his interviews as quite avant-garde and rebellious and whilst this is in some ways a breath of fresh air… it also sounds very similar in practice, to Jimmy Page.

Then we have the Edge.  Okay, I don’t own any U2.  I like a few songs and I’m sure I’d like more if I heard them.  I’m always slightly put off by the stadium pomp and coffee table sound, but most of all I’m put off by the singer.  This is probably the first time I’ve heard the Edge speak.  And I’ve got to say… he comes across as a pretty nice, down-to-earth guy.  Yeah… I know.  “Down-to-earth”.  I can’t believe it either.  Maybe it’s an act?  How can he have his feet on the ground when he hangs out with Bono?  But the Edge is here.  He is one of the three.  And the Edge isn’t steeped in the Blues.  The Edge comes from a more punk/new-wave background.  And that is good in a documentary which is supposed to be a chat about the electric guitar.  It should allow differences in style to be discussed.  Should.  Coulda, woulda, shoulda.  See… another thing.  The Edge is almost frowned upon by the others for his use of effects.  Perhaps over use of effects.  I don’t think it’s ever said… it’s just a feeling that I got from watching.  The Edge plays a very simple set of chords, and his delays do the work and produce a multi-faceted performance seemingly from nothing.  And people (well, guitar players) mock.  Well… that’s bollocks for a start.  A guitar, even with effects, will only play what your fingers tell it to play.  And if U2 have sold a trillion records then the Edge’s fingers must have been doing something right.  Bloody hell… I just stuck up for the Edge!  Ha ha!

Anyway… I was going off on a tangent there again.  So… the Edge uses effects.  And the other two come across in this film as blues purists.  Well… I remember the Death Wish 2 soundtrack which Page composed for Michael Winner’s ’80s film.  Using a guitar synthesizer.  For a while back there it appeared Page had lost faith with fundamental blues and was trying to push a few boundaries.  This does not even get hinted at in It Might Get Loud.

So, what’s my point?  Well… I just think the balance of the players is wrong.  And therefore the balance of the film is wrong.  A flaw which the film never recovers from.  This is a film in which the Edge often comes across as lost.  Gazing on with child-like eyes whilst Jimmy and Jack riff on the blues.  Jack should have been replaced with a different type of player.  You could have had Page represent the old guard… the Edge represent the FX-laden middle ground and… Well… we could argue all day about who the alternative third guitarist could have been (Satriani, Vai, Van Halen, Graham Coxon, Matt Bellamy etc).

Crucially, the film lacks conflict.  You have a guitarist inspired by punk who states he was sick of the ’70s guitar hero extended guitar solos.  That is one of the Edge’s most important statements.  A frame of mind that fuelled him in his youth to become the guitarist he is now.  And… so… the Edge sits next to Jimmy Page… LORD OF THE EXTENDED ’70’S GUITAR SOLO… and says nothing about it.  Nothing.  Not a question.  Nothing.  No “Jimmy, if you could go back in time would you have played any of those moments differently?”.  No “Jimmy… I thought your guitar solos went on too long and bored the shit out of me.”  Nothing.  Now… I’m not saying extended solos are good or bad.  I think some of Page’s were, in fact, inspired.  But this is a subject that should have arisen in a supposed conversation about the electric guitar between two so diametrically opposed players.  Don’t you think?

The film sets itself up as an ode to the electric guitar.  There could have been great conversation about what it is that is so special about the electric guitar.  Jeff Buckley always played electric.  Even for songs that practically the whole of the rest of the world would have played on acoustic… he played electric.  I saw an interview with him once where he said that the electric guitar can convey all emotion.  It can whisper and it can roar.  This kind of insight was missing in this film.  And how does the film end???  With a big final song from the three stars all playing acoustic guitars.  Yes… acoustic guitars.  In a film about the electric guitar.  Very strange, and again unfocused.  For me some of the best bits were not guitar related at all.  There’s a moment where Jimmy Page stands in the hallway where Bonzo recorded When the Levee Breaks.  This is a really cool part and is monumentally important in the history of rock drumming.  Drums not guitars.  And another cool bit is Page using the theremin to recreate some of the iconic sounds he pulled off in the Song Remains the Same (a legendary concert vid of a ’70s Madison Square Garden show that I keep going on about!).  The theremin is not a guitar.  Deviation.  See?

A strange film to give a verdict on really.  I already know Page’s life story.  So a lot of the anecdotes and footage were old hat to me.  I could have done without them.  However… if you haven’t seen the footage of Page as a kid playing skiffle, or you didn’t know he was a session musician… then this film may fire you up.  For me there was too much Jack White.  I honestly do appreciate his talent… and I am in no way denigrating any of his achievements… but it’s all just a bit too noisy.  Yes… I know… it might get loud.  Hmmmm.  Maybe they have a point?  And in White’s defense, to be fair, the little segment of Seven Nation Army is pretty cool!

The film could do with a re-edit.  Some of the ‘deleted scenes’ should be stuck back in and some of the introspection should be removed.  This film should have got right the one thing that I was looking forward to – the meeting of three great guitarists to discuss guitar playing.  On a positive note, I now hold the Edge in much higher regard as a person… and marginally as a guitar player.  I have the urge to buy a U2 album.  No… wait… the urge has just left the building.  Ha ha!  The Urge.  I might change my name to the Urge for future recordings.  Hang on… actually that reminds me of something.  In my first band, for a little while I was known as the Huge.  I think.  Or was it the Hedge?  No… I think it was the Huge!  Ha ha!  Yes… on our first tape we had our pictures with our names underneath and I’m pretty sure I was called the Huge.  Must have been a riff on the Edge even back then!  Ha ha!  Anyway… It Might Get Loud is only average where it should have been soaring.  Now… get that guitar out and sing the blues!

The Flaming Lips – The Fearless Freaks

The Fearless Freaks feels homely.  A documentary constructed from a wealth of archive footage.  The director had hung out with the band since the early ’90s and this friendship defines this film.  Grainy VHS tapes of early gigs… cine-cam of childhood exploits… in terms of hazy, sun bleached nostalgia this has it all.

I was turned onto the Flaming Lips when I first heard The Soft Bulletin.  One of those life changing albums, The Soft Bulletin made me re-evaluate everything I thought was good.  The opening drum beat of Race for the Prize is perhaps the greatest opening to any song ever.  The whole album was an eye/ear opener and spent months going round and round the CD player in my car.  Then Yoshimi was released and continued the momentum.  Two pretty much perfect albums in a row.  The point being that, although I know of the long history of the Flaming Lips, and I have read up enough to feign supreme life-long-fan-esque knowledge… I’m really coming to this documentary with very little in the tank.

The Flaming Lips kind of remind me of my first band.  Only in that we were friends first, band second.  We created home videos, went clubbing and hung out together every second of every day.  We would spend our time creating ‘stage-clothes’, writing set lists, producing fliers, writing songs, recording silly comedy skits and generally having a good time.  I’ll be honest, we did it without the drugs.  For drugs seem to weave their way throughout the story of the Flaming Lips.  And… when it comes to ‘band stories’… drugs seem to colour the life of the band and become almost ‘mystical’ in a way.  It’s good to see that the issue of drugs is treated so matter of factly in this documentary.  There is one scene in particular that is so ‘direct’, it feels like a punch to the face.  A scene that is almost worth the price of admission alone.  No flowering up here.  This is pretty raw.  A lot of these documentaries tend to gloss over points the band would rather you knew nothing about.  Will the Beatles ever release Let it Be on Blu-ray? Hmmm.

Anyway… I digress.  Those first bands, bands of friends, usually break up.  Or move on.  Fearless Freaks shows what happens when they don’t.  You get the Flaming Lips.  You get artists who feel completely confident to try whatever they want.  In comfort.  I think this may be key to the success of the Flaming Lips.  Although they probably faced similar record company hassles, I think the DIY ethic of the Flaming Lips pulled them through more so than your typical band.

Flights of fancy.  Wayne Coyne making his own movies – in his back garden.  Whether they’re any good or not isn’t the issue.  It’s the fact that he’s doing it.  Pure creative spirit.  I think being in the Flaming Lips must be a great outlet.  An opportunity to express yourself without having to worry about the trivialities of workaday life.  You want to make a movie?  No problem.  You want to record a 24 hour-long song?  No problem.  You want to record a song that lasts forever?  Yeah… give it a shot.  You want to dress as cuddly animals on stage and inflate balloons with the wind of a thousand virgins?  Make my day.  Perhaps being in any successful band allows these liberties… but none seem so straight-ahead outlandish as the Flaming Lips.  I suppose I look upon it all with a touch of jealousy.  Any artistic statement I wish to make must be played out within the confines of normal life.  You know… crammed in around ‘things you have to do’.  The Fearless Freaks stops short of the most recent period of the Flaming Lips‘ existence, but there’s still plenty of strange food for thought.  And so it is that I want to put the Soft Bulletin on again.  That is the album that lifts me.  That is the album that spawned a thousand clones.  Still, you can’t fail to be influenced.

I didn’t really appreciate the Flaming Lips‘ band dynamic.  I assumed Wayne Coyne would ‘be’ the Flaming Lips.  He looks the part –  mad scientist – and he has made long, greying hair cool!  He just looks like a man who has a hundred magical mystery tours in his head.  But, watching the DVD it dawns on you how pivotal Steven Drozd really is.  The man seems to be the human personification of ‘music’.  Music.  I’m now listening to the Soft Bulletin as I type.  This is a band that when at the top of their game really can rule the world.  And yet they’ve made at least one album that I own that I don’t like.  But to achieve perfection you have to make mistakes.  I’ve drifted from the Flaming Lips in recent years.  Rightly or wrongly I feel they became a bit ‘sugary’.  Too much peace and love… and cuddly rabbits.  But maybe I was just plain wrong.  A band that plays I Want You (She’s So Heavy) live is a band that will always win my heart.

RUSH – Beyond the Lighted Stage

I love watching band documentaries and I’ve really been filling my boots recently.  Here’s one I enjoyed.  ‘Beyond the Lighted Stage‘ brings the career of Canadian band Rush to life.  Let me just (perhaps sadly, perhaps not?!?) admit right now that I have never been a Rush fan.  In fact, it’s a credit to the film that I now just might seek out a few Rush albums.   Well… ’70s albums.  No matter how good this documentary, I’m still to be convinced about the ’80s synth albums!

So… this is a review of a Rush documentary by someone who knows nothing about Rush.  Okay…  I knew they were a prog rock band.  I knew the individual band members’ names.  I knew Geddy Lee had a big nose and could play incredible bass.  I thought Rush were a pretty light, keyboard-centric rock band.  But I honestly hadn’t really heard anything by them.  There were a couple of occasions during the documentary where I had moments of song-recognition.  But on the whole… nothing.  So am I the ideal, or worst person to comment on this film?  Hmmmm.  I think I might just be perfect. 🙂

There’s certainly an unusual amount of ‘home-filmed’ archive footage.  This lends an essence of authenticity to this documentary above and beyond the usual cash-in.  I should Wikipedia why and how some of this footage exists… that would be the right sort of thing to do when writing a review.  But, as a friend of mine said recently after making a truly bizarre sweeping statement.  – “Life’s too short for research”.  Ha ha!  Anyway… you don’t want Wikipedia’d nonsense.  You want my honest, expert opinion.

The first think that hits you in the face is the sheer level of musicianship on display in this band.  The three members are superhuman.  Geddy Lee, on bass, is an animal.  Basslines that make me re-evaluate what breakfast cereal I eat in the morning.  In fact… I actually eat breakfast cereal last thing at night.  So I actually eat supper cereal.  Hmmm.  …and his vocals, while not quite to my taste, are undoubtedly superb.  Alex Lifeson must be one of the most underrated guitarists of all time.  I have been a fan of the guitar, and the guitar hero, all my life and yet I rarely see Mr Lifeson make an appearance in any top-ten lists.  Well… I tell you… Alex Lifeson has some chops.  Oh yes… he has a whole butcher’s shop full!!!

I used to read ‘Rhythm‘ magazine at my old drummer’s house.  It’s not a porn mag… it’s a mag about drumming!  Neil Peart was a regular in the pages of that magazine.  So I have more knowledge of the type of drums Mr Peart uses than the average man on the street… and yet I still hadn’t really heard him play.  Well… let me say now that he certainly lives up to the reputation of ‘consummate drumming professional’ – ‘The Drummer’s Drummer’.  Amazing tom rolls that remind me of Maiden’s Nicko.   And above all, a well-read drummer who writes the band’s lyrics.  Bats away the drumming clichés!  So…. huge Kenny Everett thumbs up to the musicians of Rush.

Elements of the narrative of Beyond the Lighted Stage chime with my own life.  There’s a discussion of how ‘local’ bands were ignored by the locals (essentially Canadian bands in Canada). American bands would play Canada… hear Rush, and think they were the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The locals of course still thought “but they’re just a local band”.  People not seeing the bigger picture.

I used to play in a band that would routinely blow signed, touring bands off the stage.  They would genuinely approach me afterwards and ask what record label we were signed to and where we were playing next.  I would answer “we’re not signed”… and watch their jaws drop.  That’s ‘local band syndrome’.  It’s like a disease.  But the cure for this disease is building up enough of a following that the generals in charge of the ‘power of music’ can no longer ignore you.  This, unfortunately, is trickier now than ever before.  I once watched an interview with someone… I can’t remember who – some old rock star… and he said that if you formed a band in the ’60s and played your instruments relatively well…. you would be signed.  You would be famous.  This is no longer the case.  If watching these band documentaries tells me anything it’s that the game has changed completely.  It will be interesting to watch a documentary in 20 years time about a band making it big today.  The documentary will probably feature more about social networking, public relations, home recording and luck than it will licking Jack Daniels off a hooker’s tits in a LA studio.  Horses for courses I suppose.  It’s just a shame my ‘childhood’ memories of great rock are being struck over the head with a shovel and buried along with all the great albums.

This documentary, ‘rock’umentary if you will… shows Rush veering into Spinal Tap territory on more than one occasion.  They are obviously highly aware of this as I’m sure I spotted a tiny Stonehenge monument perched on one of Geddy Lee’s keyboards.  The usual ‘talking heads’ pop up to offer their ‘expert’ opinion… but it’s nice to see a few more unfamiliar faces (and no Lars Ulrich!).

Beyond the Lighted Stage is an excellently edited and expertly put together film.  I’ve seen some pretty muddled and amateurish efforts in my time and this isn’t one of them.  At times it is a window into the world of the care-free millionaire musician – but there’s enough heartbreak featured to bring the brick of real life careering towards that fragile glass.

Verdict.. I have been won over by the entity that is Rush.  I enjoyed this film.  What more is there to say… it’s nice to see three ‘normal’ blokes who make excellent, technical music.  This is not a film of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  This is a film of oxymorons.  A band with adoring fans and the wealth, fame and ability to do whatever they want in life.  A band that is completely unknown to the population at large.    Alex Lifeson sums it all up beautifully “A million monkeys typing on a million typewriters may eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.  But who the hell’s going to clean those typewriters?”.  Geddy Lee: “We’re getting into a weird area here… monkey defecation.”


A documentary on the making of my latest song – THE FINAL CHAPTER.  This song was completed in incredibly fast (by my standards) time and I think it was all the better for it.  I created a pretty unusual sound… and I managed to fuse elements of rock and jazz without being ‘jazz-rock’.   I could easily write more on the subject… but when I have a video to post – why bother?  Anyway… press play… what else are you gonna do?  – Watch an episode of CSI where someone steals a whole house?!?