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3 Bands That Matter


Music is important. It inspires us, consoles us, uplifts us and comforts us. It is part of what defines us each as individuals. It is a highly personal and subjective thing. What appeals to one person may not necessarily appeal to another. Some people love jazz, others swear by heavy metal, others find meaning in hip hop. For some music is just a means to dance, a conduit to acquiring a lover. For others music is a means of rebelling, of setting ourselves apart from our parents or our community.

We all listen to music for different reasons and with different ears. Like you, I have a great passion for music but I was lucky enough to have a professional interest in it. During the late 80s and 90s, I was a music critic for a variety of publications, mostly the San Jose Metro newspaper but also Calendar Magazine (which would become SF Weekly) and a myriad of online and print magazines. During that time, I was exposed to a wide variety of music from avant garde to alt-country, from reggae to punk, from death metal to Christian rock.

In a real sense, it just means I have an opinion. Of course, we all have an opinion but I was fortunate enough to have a vehicle for expressing it (in an era before blogs, there weren’t a whole lot of those). I tried to use that vehicle wisely. It’s very easy to point a finger at someone’s music and say “that sucks,” or in a more critical way, “that is the aural equivalent of Ex-Lax.” It’s very easy to tear things down, after all. Finding something worthwhile in music you’re not particularly connected to is much harder, and only the really good critics can do that. I have to admit I took an easier route – I tended to only write about bands that I found some connection to. Fortunately, that was fairly easy – I had access to a whole lot of music and there were a lot of performers that caught my ear.

“Bands That Matter” is a terribly subjective appellation. Matter to whom, for example? And how do they qualify? I will admit that this is a somewhat dodgy endeavor, as my English friends might say. For one thing, I’m picking three bands at random that I think are worthy of putting on a pedestal. Some of them are well known, some not so much. I will admit this is more of a self-portrait in my musical taste than a real scholarly effort to discover bands that have made a serious effect on music in general, but I think when you see the list below you will admit that all of these bands have had some sort of impact on music, society or both although truly, some impacts have been more profound than others. One thing to remember – these aren’t necessarily the three bands that matter most, even to me. They are just three of the bands that matter. There are certainly many more that do, which is why this will be an irregular series.

It would be easy to lead off with the Beatles and/or John Lennon here, but I’m restricting my three to bands that are extant in one form or another. This isn’t a list of major hitmakers, although some of these bands have had their share of success on the charts. Mostly these are bands/performers who have either had something to say, or something to share and I think you will agree, the world is a better place for having all of them in it.

U2

Many bands have come and gone since this band burst onto the scene in 1979 but I can’t think of many that have operated for 30 years without changing membership at all. The same four individuals who played on their debut album Boy are still playing in the band today. Unlike other bands that have kept stable, U2 hasn’t been afraid to re-invent their sound from time to time. They’ve gone the pop route, they’ve gone the arena rock route but even when they haven’t been as successful, they’ve always stuck to their convictions.

From the beginning, the band has exhibited a social consciousness, exemplified by their lead singer Bono. As the band would become more and more successful, he would become a tireless advocate for the poor, the starving and the downtrodden. He has lobbied nations and individuals to take a stand to help those in need for various charities, going all the way back to his work in Band Aid, of which he was an integral part. He is one of the most charismatic front men in the business and he has used that to capture the attention of the world media for causes that are important to him ranging from world hunger and AIDS to social justice and global warming. His compassion for his fellow human is exemplary in a business where most rock stars are the definition of self-centeredness.

Bono and his guitarist The Edge have a knack for creating soaring, soul-stirring music that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Few bands make you want to stand up and cheer for nearly every song in their repertoire, but that’s how U2 affects most people. While they are not as confrontational as, say, the Clash their songs nevertheless cannot be ignored. When you hear “Pride (In the Name of Love)” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” you cannot really treat them as background noise – they require a response, emotionally or intellectually. Agree or disagree with the bands politics (and they aren’t really political in the sense that they are active campaigners for politicians or a particular political party) you will find yourself responding to their music.

Part of that is due to the guitar work of The Edge. He is the kind of player that plays from the inside out; his style is distinctive but easily accessible. His sound is the equivalent to a falcon in full flight; it soars and moves at speed but can swoop down at any time without warning and tear at you. Before you know it, a piece of you is missing.

REQUIRED LISTENING: The Joshua Tree is their commercial breakthrough, although the band had success prior to that both at home, in the UK and here in North America. It contains many of their signature hits, such as “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It also has lesser-known songs like “In God’s Country” which are among their best. However it must be said that I have a particular fondness for The Unforgettable Fire which not only contains one of their signature songs (“Pride (In the Name of Love)”) but also two of my very favorites, the title cut (see below) and “A Sort of Homecoming.”

THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG: The song that has the most meaning to me is the title track from The Unforgettable Fire. It was off the album that marked the beginning of their fruitful collaboration with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and is one of the rare songs in their repertoire to make extensive use of keyboards in the mix. I still think of it as the quintessence of U2 although there are those who might disagree. More of a soundscape than a song, “The Unforgettable Fire” shimmers with layered guitars and synthesizers while Bono’s voice rings clear as a bell over the aural landscape. I still get chills whenever I hear it.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

The Boss burst out of Asbury Park, New Jersey on the shoulders of the saucy Latin-spiced “Rosalita” and hasn’t looked back since. He has one of the most rabid fan bases of any performer in rock and roll, and while some regard him as more of a cult item, there is no doubt that Springsteen is one of the most influential performers of his generation.

Few others can lay claim to being the voice of the working class, and in these difficult times we need his voice more than ever. Springsteen’s values are blue collar to the core and American in their essence. While working the bar circuit on the Jersey shore, he assembled the legendary E Street Band, a group of musicians who would complement Springsteen like peanut butter and grape jelly; while Springsteen is the focus of the band being the lead singer, primary songwriter and guitarist, he might be just a great songwriter with a blue collar focus if it weren’t for his musical partner-in-crime saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

There’s something about their collaboration that is truly magical; one can’t think of his great hits “Born to Run,” the aforementioned “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark” without Clemons’ sax. The Big Man is the yin to Springsteen’s yang and in live performances the chemistry between the two is electrifying.

The rest of the band ain’t too shabby either, with Mad Max Weinberg on drums, Garry Tallent on bass, Danny Federici on organ, Roy Bittan on piano, Little Stevie van Zandt (and while van Zandt was pursuing other musical directions, Nils Lofgrin) on guitar and later, his wife-to-be Patty Scialfa would join the clubhouse. 

Springsteen has not been without controversy; when the Reagan campaign appropriated his song “Born in the USA” Springsteen was outspoken with his annoyance. He is a lifelong Democrat who has leant support over the years for Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Michael Dukakis along with a plethora of candidates for office in New Jersey, not to mention weighing in on subjects near and dear to the heart of his own constituency.

Springsteen’s appeal lays in his ability to get to the heart of the common man. In that sense, his album titled The Ghost of Tom Joad is no accident; Springsteen himself is a latter-day Tom Joad, a decent man with honest values horrified at the liberties taken with the working class. In some ways, he has been able to cross party lines; there are an awful lot of Republicans that I know who think The Boss is Da Bomb and have “Hungry Heart” and “The River” on their iPods.

One of the things Springsteen has managed to do successfully is keep his mystique intact. You don’t see a lot of him in the tabloids and he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. While he has contributed songs to movies like Philadelphia and The Wrestler, he is very careful who he allows to use his music and he has been known not to license his songs to filmmakers when he hasn’t been satisfied with the content or the quality of the movie they’re making. For someone with the kind of popularity he enjoys, he has more or less managed to stay out of the public eye and yet when his concert tour comes through any given city, there is a feeding frenzy to snap up the tickets.

You can safely say that Bruce Springsteen comes from a long and honorable line of musicians that include guys like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and he keeps the traditions of their music for the common man alive. Springsteen, more than any pop star today, is identified with a specific voice and I don’t mean his singing voice. He is the voice of the factory worker, the mechanic, the construction worker, the farmhand. He sings for the grocery clerk, the waitress and the road worker but you don’t have to be one of those to appreciate his music….or the man.

REQUIRED LISTENING: There are three albums that no Springsteen fan should be without – not that Springsteen fans are without any of his albums. In chronological order, they constitute his most fertile creative period and while he continues to create compelling, important music today I suspect that it is these three albums he’ll be remembered for; Born to Run, an album that would cause him to become the first man to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week; The River, an epic double album set that is in many ways his most ambitious work of his career and his commercial apex Born in the USA which brought Springsteen out of cult status.

THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG: When I think of Springsteen, I hear “Jungle Land” off the Born to Run album. This is a song that captures desperation and despair, the triumphs and tragedies of being young and free. It is epic in scope and stirring in places, often juxtaposed by quiet moments of self-doubt and self-realization. The heroes and heroines of “Jungle Land” are flawed but doing their best in a world that has become perdition. Sometimes, it’s not escape that’s important but merely the act of attempting to and that’s what “Jungle Land” is all about.

SIGUR ROS

After the first two bands on this list, I’m sure there are an awful lot of people shrugging their shoulders, rolling their eyes or just saying “Huh?” Certainly this Icelandic band doesn’t have the pop chart success of either Springsteen or U2, nor do they have the presence in the mass consciousness of Americans in general.

That’s not to say that we are the be-all and end-all of world opinion mind you. In fact, in their home country Sigur Ros are much admired and highly popular. More than that, however, they are creating a style of music that is unique and compelling. Whether or not that has any kind of lasting impact on music in general remains to be seen. I can tell you that what they are trying to create should have a lasting impact, if music is to mean anything in the coming decades.

One of the problems I have with modern pop music is its soullessness. The primary motivation to creating music seems to be in moving units, selling albums; making money, in other words. Music is being made by committee, with hired gun songwriters cranking out safe, homogenized songs that are in turn gotten hold of by celebrity producers and session musicians until the performer lends whatever stamp they can on the vocals. It is what “American Idol” is all about and quite frankly symbolizes everything I can’t stand about popular culture in general.

Sigur Ros make music for all the right reasons. They never pursued success; it found them. After one of their songs was used on the soundtrack for Vanilla Sky, people responded and began to seek them out. Eventually their songs would appear in commercials and on blogs. Suddenly there was a demand for them and the band found themselves touring the world, all the while wondering how on earth they got there.

One of the reasons Sigur Ros appeal so much is that while they are proudly Icelandic and carry the values instilled in their upbringing in that society with them, their music is accessible on a global level. While some of their earlier albums were sung in Icelandic, they have taken to giving up lyrics almost completely. Singer Jon Thor “Birgi” Birgisson sings in a combination of nonsense syllables and a kind of free-form Icelandic poetry to create his own language which he calls “Hopelandic,” a play on the title of the band’s debut album.

Birgisson sings in a falsetto that swoops and flutters like a seabird, soaring one moment and whispering the next. His bandmates provide music that washes over you like the cold waters of a mountain stream, enveloping you like a fog. Often their music is quiet and simple, utilizing mostly acoustic instruments. From time to time, the band will exercise their rock urges and when they do, they are overpowering.

What I like best about their music is that it isn’t meant to be listened to, at least as far as I can tell; it’s meant to be experienced, to be felt. It is literally music for the heart, and nearly every song elicits an emotional response. This is not a band that wants to make you angry although some of their themes involve subjects that might be upsetting. This is a band that wants you to feel, and then act on those feelings.

They’re currently on a bit of a hiatus while their members are working on some side projects but they are due back with another album next year. In the meantime, seek out their music, find a quiet place and listen. You will be richly rewarded.

REQUIRED LISTENING: Heima/Hvart is the soundtrack album of their astonishing concert film Heima. The band performed a series of free concerts in a variety of venues around Iceland after returning home from their world tour off of the Takk album. The first disk contains songs from that film; the second, Hvart, contains demos and outtakes of music from throughout the bands career. However if you really want to get an essence of what the band is both live and musically, see the DVD if you can find it.

THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG: Although in many ways atypical of Sigur Ros’ sound, the track that first placed this band into my heart is “#8 (A.K.A. Popplagio).” From their 2002 album () (which is essentially untitled – as are all the songs on it), the song starts off slow and dream-like, with vocalist Birgisson warbling bittersweet over an almost dirge-like tune. However, the eleven-minute magnum opus doesn’t stay that way. With drummer Orri Pall DyRason signaling the change with a low, unsettling drumbeat, Birgisson steps up with soundless vocals soaring over an unnerving guitar-bass riff, the music swelling until reaching a crescendo of crashing drums and guitars. The effect is invigorating, much like a plunge into a frigid Icelandic lake after a session in a sauna. It’s hard to do anything but applaud and admire upon hearing it.

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One Response

  1. I highly enjoyed reading this blogpost, keep on posting such interesting posts.

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