Die young, make money

The Grim Reaper is the perfect salesman – that became obvious not only with David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister or Glenn Frey, but might come true for Dr. John as well. It’s a strange dynamic that once inspired Bill Drummond, former KLF mastermind and manager of the Teardrop Explodes, to write a very sarcastic song.

You get a strange feeling when stars who provided the soundtrack to a substantial part of your life (either as idols or objects of contempt) suddenly die, usually too soon. Of course I know: The death of a VIP can’t compare to the death of a close relative or good friend. But even a star who has passed means that you lose something central to your daily life. The world will never be the same again, memories of your youth re-surface, long-forgotten hopes and desires, wonderful moments, perhaps some broken dreams. If nothing else, you become aware of your own mortality.

Collective grief, a uniting consolatory event
Even more disconcerting than the death of a VIP is the PR surrounding it. Especially impressive was what happened after Mr. Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister died at the end of December 2015. It was rather bizarre to see all the people who suddenly claimed to be hardcore fans and sang songs of praise about brute rock. Very nice and decent folks, whom you would rather think would be part of the Roxette universe, wrote weepy social media posts and demonstrated a toughness and wickedness they obviously had hidden for a long time. Conservative newspapers honoured Kilmister as a ”noble savage“. Even public service broadcasting celebrated the heavy metal pioneer and his sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-lifestyle almost as passionately as former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had died a few weeks before. Everybody was on first name terms with ”Lemmy“ – as if this Lemmy had always been his or her best mate. Against the backdrop of horrible daily news from the fields of economics and politics, the collective grief for a deceased star, whom many people had rejected during his lifetime, seemed to become a uniting consolatory event.

The fuss about David Bowie was similarly strange. Of course his death was very bad news for pop music, i.e. for fans and fellow musicians around the world. But the way radio hosts uttered their distress for hours and hours (and then managed to play only the two more than obvious Bowie hits Space Oddity and Let’s Dance) was kind of embarrassing. Posing is an art David Bowie himself mastered much better. The almost biblical exaltation columnists around the world voiced was just as cringey, as were the relentless posts on social media. These took on a life of their own as sheer nerd competitions, according to the motto: Who can post an even more obscure Bowie song or an even more bizarre cover version?

The reactions to the death of Eagles cofounder Glenn Frey were a bit more restrained. Nothing more than friendly words – although there was a time when the Eagles were considered the epitome of rock star decadence. It’s always the same: A star dies – and a pseudo-community comes together to celebrate itself.

I never cared much for Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead. All the stories about vast amounts of alcohol and drugs or about the women Lemmy had “traded” with his own son didn’t do it for me. The same is true of Mr. Kilmister’s singing style, his songs, and of the extremely high volume at which he played them live. But I was impressed by one or two of the interviews he gave, e.g. to the German magazine ”GALORE“: To my surprise, Kilmister turned out to be incredibly astute and cynical, and he took a clear stand about current events. What the fans loved, of course, was this nonconformism, the aura of danger surrounding him, and his ”Kiss my ass!“ attitude. He represented a boldness that ordinary fans lacked. His open machismo, his irresponsibility, and a certain amount of self-destructive behaviour, that is: the personal tragedies behind the mask, were things these fans ignored. I was much more into Bowie, although in my opinion he had released too many mediocre albums with only a few highlights. No hard feelings, of course, for Bowie had recorded many epochal songs and exerted a huge influence on rock music during the first decades of his career.

Becoming Nr. 1 with impenetrable songs

Now I would never think of buying a rock star’s CD just because s/he died recently – let alone that star’s complete back catalogue. That’s why it never fails to astonish me that the Grim Reaper always turns out to be the perfect salesman. A case in point: Bowie’s rather impenetrable album Blackstar, which was released at almost the same time as his death, made it to Nr. 1 on the US album charts – the first Bowie album ever to do so. And after Lemmy Kilmister died, three of Motörhead’s albums even entered the German charts, while Ace of Spades, Motörhead’s signature song, entered the Top 100 of the German singles charts for the first time ever.

And there are more examples. In its Elvis Presley biography, the internet platform ‘laut.de’ sums it up: ”The king is dead – long live the king! That was the melancholy media cry on August 16, 1977. Elvis had already sold 600 million sound carriers with his voice till then. After his death, 200 million sound carriers were added to this within a short period of time, and in the year 2002 their number had reached 1.6 billion.“ About another king, the ”King of Pop“, Wikipedia writes: ”Due to his death, 29 million Michael Jackson albums were sold in less than six months.“ The same internet encyclopedia writes about Austria’s biggest popstar: „Only a few weeks after Falco’s death, his album Out of the Dark (Into the Light) was released and became a huge commercial success. The album entered the Austrian charts at Nr. 1 and remained in the charts for the following three months. In Germany, the album maintained its position in the Top 100 for almost a year. In Germany and Austria alone, the album sold two million copies, the single Out of the Dark sold more than 3.5 million copies”. But did the same apply to rock group Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury? It sure did, according to the web platform ”SPIEGEL Online“: ”After Mercury’s death, the turnover from Queen CDs quadrupled. Bohemian Rhapsody again reached the Nr. 1 position in the charts. And even a remixed Mercury solo album, featuring old flops pimped with a disco beat, became a moneymaker.“ The Grim Reaper as the perfect salesman – this is also true in the field of independent and alternative rock: In the year 1980, after Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide, their Single Love Will Tear Us Apart was rereleased and became a worldwide hit. It follows the same principle every time: Unknown acts become famous – famous acts become legends.

Where were all the posthumous fans when their stars were still alive?

Which leads us to the question: Where were all these fans when their stars were still alive and could have personally profited from their enormous affection? And I’m asking myself: What is it that makes deceased stars so irresistible? Is it their morbid charm? The alarming insight that even idols are only human beings and that we are still alive? Do we celebrate an early death as the inevitable dramatic climax of this almost mythical game of “sex and drugs and rock and roll“, as a supreme discipline, so to speak? Or is it the feeling of holding a great legacy in one’s hands? Do fans suddenly feel the breath of history when the works of a deceased artist begin to transition into their museal state?

”Bill Drummond said …“

Whatever the case may be: Artists themselves are more or less aware of the sales- and fame-propelling power the sudden death of a VIP can have. Among the rock masters who explicitly and creatively adressed this mechanism is Bill Drummond. He was at the center of that Liverpool scene which caused a sensation during the late 1970s and during the 1980s. Post Punk and New Wave were happening, and Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were the biggest Liverpool bands. Members of both outfits had been playing together in other bands before. For example, Julian Cope, singer with Teardrop Explodes, and Ian McCulloch, his counterpart in Echo & The Bunnymen, had been members of The Crucial Three. The ”Bunnymen“ and the ”Teardrops“ were signed by Zoo, an indie label owned by David Balfe and, yes, Bill Drummond. Balfe and Drummond, in turn, knew each other from playing together in the relatively unsuccessful band Big In Japan and  contributed substantially to the fortunes of their Zoo label fosterlings: Balfe was an occasional member of Teardrop Explodes, and Drummond worked as a manager for Teardrop Explodes as well as for the Bunnymen. During the first years of both bands, so the story goes, all participants were said to have constantly quarreled about which band should get the most promotional power – they were all friends, of course, but they were also jealous of each other. Whereas Ian McCulloch and his bandmates are still active today, Teardrop Explodes broke up in 1983 – because of these oft-quoted ”differences of opinion and taste in music“. Bill Drummond would later team up with Jimmy Cauty to realise art and music projects like The Timelords, The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu and, most notably, The KLF – a step that earned him world fame. David Balfe, lastly, founded record label Food which also released some KLF records, of course.

Avantgarde art and marketing strategies

Legend has it that, back when Drummond was managing Teardrop Explodes, he and singer Julian Cope were constantly quarreling. Some people claim it was a downright feud. That may very well be true, because Cope was an egomaniac and eccentric who experimented with drugs, whereas Drummond had a passion for avantgarde art and marketing strategies. Drummond proved how seriously he took his idiosyncratic ideas in e.g. 1992, when he awarded Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread the „Worst Artist of the Year“ award of his K Foundation, including prize money of 40,000 GBP. A year later he participated in the public burning of – believe it or not – one million GBP. Although Teardrop Explodes started out well, they never made it to stardom, and one can assume that Drummond blamed their failure on poor musical and marketing decisions.

No wonder that one of the songs Julian Cope released on his 1984 solo album Fried was called Bill Drummond Said. It’s a catchy song that featured cryptic lyrics. But even if you don’t get the whole picture, you can pick up on the fact that Julian Cope blames the Teardrops’ failure on manager Bill Drummond. And that’s not all: He even suggests that Drummond ruined the band on purpose. The song characterizes him as a stone-cold manager who positively destroyed the delicate structure of the band by pushing the artists too hard towards success and maximum turnover. But did Julian Cope’s song really offend Bill Drummond? Probably not, because it is neither particularly pithy nor aggressive. On the contrary, it fuels the Liverpool scene myth of the 1980s, celebrating its creative masterminds, its libertines and eccentrics, its ”larger than life“ characters.  

Why Julian Cope had to die

You can draw the same conclusion from Julian Cope Is Dead, a song that was released two years later, in 1986, by – guess who – Bill Drummond. The charismatic heavy hitter had been working as an A&R manager for the record company WEA for some time. Now he returned as an artist with his solo album The Man. Julian Cope Is Dead is everything but a deadly serious retaliation song about the former Teardrop Explodes singer. Music and vocal style echo the good old folksong genre, and born Scotsman Bill Drummond sings with a strong Scottish accent. It comes across like a rude drinking song from ancient times, author unknown. Everything we hear sounds just like a fairytale, whispering: No need to worry, it’s only folklore.

The lyrics also don’t sound very trustworthy: ”Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head“, Drummond cheerfully sings, ”if he moves some more, / I’ll kill him for sure. / Now, Julian Cope is dead”. In contrast to Bill Drummond Said,the narrator’s perspective in this song is clear. InJulian Cope Is Dead, only one single person is singing, who turns out to be Julian Cope’s former manager, Bill Drummond. “I shot Julian Cope”, the manager claims, but the singer doesn’t seem to be dead because he can still move. However, and that’s what counts: The public thinks that Julian Cope is no longer alive. In the further course of the song we learn what happened in detail and what the manager has in mind. In short: The Teardrop Explodes was a a superb band, no question, and had some very good songs in their repertoire, but they never managed to leave their mark on rock history. They were just a footnote. Which is why the manager – for the band’s sake as well – came up with a smart plan: Let’s fake the frontman’s death and make the band bigger than the Beatles, let’s create a cult around the Teardrops, which will help to massively increase their record sales: ”Jules C. just follow me, / have your interests at heart. / Now take this knife, / And write to your wife. / Tell her it had to be. / Now Julian said no, / He didn’t want to go …“

An excellent idea: Kill the frontman, then you’re ”bigger than the Beatles“

But the singer, who according to this plan would have had to lie to his wife, didn’t want to join in. So the manager reached for a gun and wounded Julian Cope to keep him from sabotaging the plan: ”Now, Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head, / He didn’t understand / The glory of the plan, / Now, Julian Cope is dead.“ Towards the end of the song the speaker imagines his future success and how he shows off to the neighbours: ”We’ll have platinum records, not gold / To hang on our walls at home. / When the neighbours come round, / I’ll always break down, / repeating the stories of old.“ We can assume that the singer is being hidden somewhere, because the song addresses him again during the finale. That’s when Drummond ridicules Cope’s posing as a martyr, but he also makes fun of the media who are constantly looking for savior figures: ”But who is this man / With holes in his hands, / A halo round his head. / That Arab smock, / And golden locks, / It can’t be, it could be, it is!“ The fact that the initials J. C. apply to Julian Cope as well as to Jesus Christ, plays into Drummond’s hands: ”J. C., please, you’ve got to see, / I was doing what a manager ought. / The records weren’t selling, / And Balfie was drooping, / And Gary had a mortgage to pay.“ The bottom line is that the manager just did his job.

From mate to saint

Aside from the suggestion that Julian Cope just lacked the necessary savvy for generating commercial success, Drummond uses his song as a vehicle to explain a ridiculous marketing strategy. At the center lies the insight outlined at the beginning of this article: The death of a rock star sets an unbelievable process in motion: Record, CD, and DVD sales skyrocket. In an interview Drummond himself reminds the readers of Ian Curtis, whose suicide turned indie heroes Joy Division into global superstars – and helped launch New Order, the subsequent project formed by his ex bandmates. In November 1998 Drummond talked to the internet platform ‘intro.de’ about his song Julian Cope Is Dead and said: “Do you remember Ian Curtis? Joy Division was friends with us, and when Ian died, the media stylised him into something like a Messiah. Of course I knew that death can turn pop musicians into something special, but to watch someone I knew quite well being transformed into a saint was a very intense experience. I then suggested to Mac (= Ian McCulloch) to fake his death. I told him to stay away from the public for two months to see what happened. But he didn’t want to lie to his family. So in the song I replaced Mac with Julian Cope.“

We can’t be sure if this story about Bill Drummond and Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch really happened – but it’s a very nice story for sure, contributing perfectly to the myth around the Liverpool scene of the early eighties. Drummond achieves the same thing with his song Julian Cope Is Dead: It turns the (not authenticated) conflict between the Teardrop Explodes singer and his manager into a legendary anecdote. As a sideline, Drummond puts forward an ironic commentary about the mechanisms at work in the rock business. And who knows what will happen when Drummond himself bites the dust some day.

Sweet Streams Are Made of This

A record deal, huge sound carrier earnings, and finally superstardom? These times are over. Nowadays hopeful musicians won’t rely on a music industry shaken by digital change. They prefer to find their own way through the internet, as ”unsigned artists“, caught between aggregators and e-shops, webradios and streaming services. It is a bumpy road. And a fascinating one. ’Cause just in this merciless Brave New Music World of all things a global community of artists is fostering a prominent eighties trend: synthpop & synthwave. In the thick of it: The German project Buzzing Sound Candy. Insights into 21st century music production – and an exciting virtual microcosm.

Unsigned artists“ are artists without a ”record deal“. Artists not tied to any sound carrier label, having no contract with anyone. It is a state, which applies for the majority of hobby and professional musicians. Whereas „unsigned artists“ in the 20th century had to lead a rather ’unheard’ existence, the digital age offers them limitless possibilities. Nowadays self-made songs and tracks can be released without a record label and completely single-handedly – via internet and its manifold platforms. That is, no question, a useful thing: ’cause music consumers of today tend to buy digital sound packages rather than conventional sound carriers like CDs. Or – and that is the main trend – they abstain from ”ownership“ of a song completely, which means, they are just streaming their favourite music for a small monthly fee.

Which leads us to the dark sides  of these limitless possibilities. In the year 2019, especially ”unsigned artists“ are caught within a global virtual competition of countless other artists. They invest loads of love, time and money into their own music and into their public relations work, but their chances of earning noteworthy sums of money with what they are doing are worse than ever. To present themselves with a band profile somewhere might be relatively easy. But in order to reach a higher degree of popularity, they have to overcome several obstacles – aggregators and streaming services, for example, or the struggle for entering important playlists and winning the favour of influential webradio DJs.

Creative ping-pong

”I’m fed up with nervous A&R guys and dubious distribution partners, they are constantly trying to interfere with your work and coming up with unacceptable conditions. I prefer to keep doing my own thing.“ Says Rossi, composer, lyricist and sound wizard of Buzzing Sound Candy. The German project’s strategy and way of working seem to be a blue print for the ”unsigned artists“ of today. Rossi lives in Frankfurt/Main, where he started as bass player in punk bands, until he discovered synthesizers and began to produce house and electro music. Over the last few years he also released some interesting tracks as DER AXIOMATOR. On virtual musicians’ platforms and through other contacts he finds vocalists. Sometoimes they meet and produce together in the real (i. e. analogue) world – sometimes their collaboration happens mainly via internet, where they send their audio files back and forth. It’s a creative ping-pong. Very often Rossi delivers preproduced tracks, sometimes with melody and lyrics, sometimes the guest singers write their own lyrics or add a self-composed melody. Following this method, a track gets reworked and extended over and over – until its final version.

Selecting artists by AI?

Quickly the project has established a website, which was probably the easiest task of the creative journey. There B.S.C. introduce themselves, put up audio files for sale, fix the prices and are in control of everything. The artwork is homemade as well, and for running the webpage Rossi has to pay a manageable monthly fee. Just running a webpage, however, won’t take you very far. Your aim is to be present in all virtual music stores and in all streaming services – iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify & Co. And how do you achieve this aim? With the help of a so-called aggregator. Aggregators, which often are subsidiaries of huge enterprises, even from the music industry, are something like the interface between artists on the one side, and music stores and streaming services on the other side. They see make sure that artists and their music are available everywhere – a service they want to get paid for, of course. But that’s not all: They also check out the music, and sometimes they even impose censorship. ”The harmless B.S.C.-Christmas dance song EMPATHY!, which pleaded for a meatless, vegetarian X-mas, was rejected again and again by a German aggregator,“ Rossi recalls, ”a scandal actually!“ And: ”Who knows if not some algorithms were already responsible for that, looking for key words like ’slaughter’ or ’blood’ and selecting ’politically correct’ music. I really assume that in the near future Artificial Intelligence will influence even the music business, more than we ever could have imagined.“ Anyway: B.S.C. didn’t make compromises and went on to another service. Now they are using an American aggregator, which hasn’t caused any problems so far.

Always online

Is a good aggregator enough to make Buzzing Sound Candy successful? Not at all. The ideal case would be to enter the huge Apple and Spotify playlists with their millions of followers. ”To be included there leads to thousands of additional listeners within a second, which means your music will be streamed much more often,“ Rossi says. ”And every stream brings you at least a little sum of money.“ However: ”Unsigned artists usually don’t have any chance to be included in those lists. In order to enter the popular playlists of so-called ’music influencers’ you have to pay a lot of money, which has led to the establishment of a huge untrustworthy market. Everyone knows that.“ Pay for a Play – this strategy is out of the question for B.S.C. Therefore they are tirelessly promoting their music via social media like Twitter and Instagram, hoping to get played regularly by the worldwide internet radio stations, especially in the shows of renowned DJs. Such internet radio stations are thick on the ground, and even here every musical genre has established its top stations and DJ stars. The Mixcloud.complatform offers a first impression, it is the self-claimed ”global community for audio culture“. Mixcloud invites you to discover more than 15 million radio shows, DJ mixes and podcasts.

The PR and marketing efforts to get web radio stations around the world to feature Buzzing Sound Candy in their programs are enormous. Elaborate promo packages have to be sent to the radio stations and DJs, and then the task is to dig deeper. ”You have to be virtually always online on Twitter and Instagram,“ Rossi explains. Being featured in such radio shows ”doesn’t bring you money in the first place, but nice advertising effects.“ And it can move listeners to support B.S.C. by purchasing songs. The same applies to the remixes produced by popular DJs for the project. These DJs – who also need to be convinced, of course – have a large fanbase, and so their remixes get a lot of attention.

Are friends electric?

So, by and by we’re getting the whole picture. Buzzing Sound Candy are running their own website www.buzzingsoundcandy.com. An American aggregator called DistroKid sees to it that their songs are available in the global internet music stores and streaming services. The music of Buzzing Sound Candy pays homage to a wonderful eighties genre which survived in the worldwide web and today forms a vital microcosm there. We’re talking about synthpop – or synthwave, it depends. With verve, musicians all over the world are celebrating an era when pop discovered the synthesizer and managed to breath soul into drum machines; when hair was backcombed and faces were painted, when clothes were styled in New Romantic fashion; when Kraftwerk shyly adored a model, Depeche Mode just couldn’t get enough and The Human League listened to the voice of Buddha, while Visage were fading to grey and Gary Numan wondered if friends were electric.

”In other European countries synthpop and synthwave have got a large fanbase,“ Rossi says, ”in Germany, however, the genre is somewhat underrepresented.“ B.S.C. are holding up the flag in their home country. The band name Buzzing Sound Candy is a kind of motto, in the best sense of the word. Their songs rely on catchy tunes and combine the classic electronic soundscapes of the eighties with modern house and dance beats. They come across with idiosyncratic lyrics and a touch of melancholia, if not morbidity: striking synth-dance-tracks featuring genre topics like dark passions (Tasted Heaven), retro-feeling (Back in Time), euphoria (You Take Me High) or machines (Rise of the Drum Machines).

Heart and soul, skills and a digital strategy

Rossi is very creative and prolific, and he stands to his principles. He disapproves of prefabricated company sounds and quick notebook production. He’s a virtuoso autodidact, considering music as an artistic challenge and a solid, inventive craft. No wonder that his studio is filled with a fine arsenal of analogue and digital synthesizers and drum machines. In order to be able to make the B.S.C. songs fit for broadcasting he taught himself the skills of an audio engineer. Every song has to go through a professional mastering studio before it is released, Buzzing Sound Candy place importance on industry standard. ”Our enthusiasm leads us to spend a lot of money“, Rossi explains with a touch of sarcasm. ”It is money we surely won’t see again.“ Everyone knows that even successful stars are struggling against poor earnings: Believe it or not, artists receive less than 1 cent per stream. In order to generate noteworthy sales you have to be a megastar.

Which leads us to the question: Why for God’s sake are musicians taking the trouble? The answer is simple: They love their music. They are working with heart and soul, they just can’t help it. They are part of an exciting scene, meeting exciting fellow musicians and producers. And maybe, secretly, they are hoping to be successful with their music in the end, against all odds. B.S.C. seem to have found a reasonable approach: With farsightedness they send their digital promo kits to relevant multipliers in the worldwide web. Their songs are great and convincing, which is the reason why they get played by internet radio stations and in mix shows around the world, on Artefaktorradio (Mexico), Radiocoolio (Canada), Radio Dark Tunnel (Germany) or in the ”Electric Family Tree Radio Show“ (UK), to name just a few. ”Electric Family Tree“ showrunner is no less a figure than Rusty Egan, once mastermind of the synthpop heroes Visage (We Fade to Grey) and nowadays an influential DJ in the synthpop scene. His unique style of presenting the show and the amazing transitions between the tracks he plays are worth listening to. On Bombshellradio (Canada) B.S.C. once even hosted a radioshow themselves – which was another smart move to gain more attention. Needless to say that they managed to have their songs remixed by influential DJs as well, for example by Mark Kendrick aka Fused. He reworket Back In Time, which led lots of Fused followers to focus their attention on this interesting synthpop duo from Germany. In autumn B.S.C. plan to release an album, accompanied by a limited vinyl edition. Vinyl? „Of course,“ Rossi says. ”Vinyl has become hip again and goes perfectly with the retro feeling of our music.“ Moreover, vinyl releases and live shows plus merchandising offer further possibilities to make at least a little bit money.

Artists are being left out in the cold

”The fact that even celebrated musicians don’t get paid adequately is and remains the biggest problem of today’s unsigned artists,“ Rossi sums up. ”In exchange for a small monthly subscription fee users get offered the complete spectrum of recent music by streaming services. That turns complex songs produced with heart and soul into cheap mass-produced goods, into worthless acoustic accessories. It’s the internet giants that take most of the money, and they’re generating additional earnings by commercials they place between the tracks for users who only use the free version, not the subscription version. The artists, however, are being left out in the cold.“

That’s the reason why journalists like Kabir Sehgal demand: ”Spotify and Apple Music should become record labels so musicians can make a fair living.” Sehgal’s suggestion: Streaming services are making deals with artists and pay them money in advance, so that they are able to keep on working and to produce new music, which in turn generates new customers and additional streams. ”It’s a nice utopian dream, which won’t come true,“ Rossi doubtfully says. Nevertheless he looks forward to the stir that the recent B.S.C. song You Take Me High featuring guest vocalist Fériel might create. The German synthpop project has tasted success already – and maybe they will reach cloud nine with their music someday.

Band info and sound clips: www.buzzingsoundcandy.com

The Controversial Instant Sweeping Blow

It happened half a century ago … In 1970 The Guess Who released an unintentionally provocative song: American Woman.

In the late 1960s an unscheduled improvisation suddenly develops into a worldwide hit. During a concert of the rock band “The Guess Who” in their native Canada, guitar player Randy Bachman needs to deal with a broken string. A small mishap, but not unusual for a rock concert. The experienced musician, who five years later would join Bachman Turner Overdrive and celebrate another worldwide hit, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, puts on a new string and starts tuning his instrument. He absentmindedly improvises a guitar riff, and suddenly the fans are electrified. A few moments ago they were talking and busy with other things, now they’re staring at the stage and banging their heads. Bachman’s bandmates react. Drummer Garry Peterson is the first one to join in, followed by bass player Jim Kale and, finally, singer Burton Cummings. With a striking grating voice Cummings begins to improvise over the steamhammer riff, singing what comes to his mind: ”American woman, stay away from me / American woman, mama let me be / Don’t come hangin’ around my door / I don’t wanna see your face no more …“ Amazing what is going through a celebrated rock star’s head … Several minutes later the impromptu song comes to an end, followed by thundering applause. And the band knows: We have to remember this – come what may. But how?

Fortunately the musicians have discovered a fan who captured the piece on tape. Is he one of these goddamn bootleggers who make lots of money with their illegal recordings? Never mind! They approach the young man, gain possession of the tape and are thus able to reconstruct the framework of the song. After some compositional finetuning and reworking of the lyrics they can finish the piece. Released in 1970 unter the title American Woman, the song hits Nr. 1 on the US charts as well as the Top 20 and even the Top 10 in several other countries around the world.

At first glance the simple lyrics just seem to reject some nameless American woman. The speaker of the song seems to be fed up with her: ”I got more important things to do / Than spend my time growin’ old with you“. Is it a song about the end of a love affair, a breakup song? Only to a limited extent. In the further course of the song the lyrical images become more general, now they seem to address American women as such: ”Coloured lights can hypnotize / Sparkle someone else’s eyes.“ And then the lyrics introduce some new aspects. When Burton Cummings sings: ”I don’t need your war machines / I don’t need your ghetto scenes,“ he doesn’t address American women any longer – he’s addressing the US as a whole. And he provides the lyrics with the touch of a protest song. A statement against the Vietnam War and against social injustice in America.

However, these protest song elements are less marked. The lines about war machines and ghetto scenes don’t manage to outshine the whole song. The words, which were made up during an improvisation and then associatively completed, combine several levels of meaning. These levels do not necessarily fit together. And that leaves room for interpretation. The internet platform ”Songfacts.com“ quotes statements by members of The Guess Who, which give at least some clues. The band claimed to have been shocked by the social problems they became aware of while touring the US. They also explained ”that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous“. They’d rather prefer ”their“ Canadian girls, Cummings & Co said. An outlandish attitude from a present-day perspective, eh? In the end they reported that, near the Canadian border, US American authorities had tried to conscript them and send them to Vietnam – maybe because The Guess Who had many male American fans who had moved to Canada in order to evade such a conscription. 

Controversies often arise from misunderstandings, ambivalences, and felt or real provocations. American Woman in particular offers several starting points. People who listened only superficially and focused on the striking beat of the song assumed that it paid homage to America or to American women. Other people accused the song of misogyny and chauvinism. Members of the protest movement celebrated the lines about ”war machines“ and ”ghetto scenes“, whereas upright patriots were thoroughly upset. Somehow the band managed to scare many layers of society, but in the end they escaped unscathed. I guess it was because of the music. Ironically, in July of 1970 The Guess Who were invited to play at the White House for then US president Richard Nixon. Nixon’s daughter Tricia was said to be a huge fan, which was totally understandable, since the band’s softer songs in particular were in a class of their own. First Lady Pat Nixon, however, understood the political implications of American Woman. And so the band deleted the song from the set list of their White House concert. Not exactly an act of courage …

In March 2019 my new book Provokation! Songs, die für Zündstoff sorg(t)en was published. It presents about 70 hit songs from the last 100 years which caused a stir in their time, and some of which are being discussed even today – from Rock Around the Clock to Relax, from Anarchy in the U.K. to Punk Prayer, from the ”British Invasion“ to ”shock rock“. The last chapter of the book explains some basic lyrical techniques and answers 26 FAQs around the topic of controversial songs. Due to issues of space, this piece about The Guess Who didn’t make it into the printed version of the book. 

Under the Surface

Shallow by Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper is indeed a well-crafted song. Although – or because – it is slightly reminiscent of other great songs.  

There are songs you hear for the first time – and yet you can’t help feeling that you’ve known them for years. It can be an unpleasant feeling, especially when you recognise that the artist you hear has blatantly ripped off some other song. But it can also be an exciting feeling. For instance when you recognise that what you are hearing is a pleasing reminder of several other great songs – even if you are not able to name them at the first go. Deliberately or just by intuition, the songwriter has managed to assimilate different influences and create a unique piece of music, which nonetheless pays tribute to its sources. And because those influencing sources have come together so gracefully and organically, you are haunted for days by the deliciously tortuous question: Dammit – what does this wonderful piece of music remind me of?

The last time I had this exciting feeling was when I listened to Shallow by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Written by Lady Gaga, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando and Mark Ronson and featured in the movie A Star Is Born, Shallow won several prizes, including the Oscar for ”Best Original Song“. The powerful ballad was played very frequently when it was released and there was much speculation about the question whether Cooper and Gaga were having an affair. But that was not the reason why I got the feeling I’d known this song for many years. First of all, there is the mostly successful concept of the ”VIP torch song duet“ – you can’t go wrong with it. And then there is the way the acoustic guitar is played. The song’s mood. Some distinctive chord progressions. Last but not least, there is the melody in the verse parts.

I may be wrong, and you may have a different opinion, but here are the four songs that come to my mind when I listen to Shallow. Once again: I’m NOT addressing the topic of plagiarism – it’s quite the reverse: To filter the most significant and best elements from different (hit) songs and put them together in a touching new musical entity is great song art to me. Extreme was the name of an American band which conquered the world with More Than Words in the early nineties. It is the mood of this reflective love song which may have inspired Shallow – and of course the way the acoustic guitar is being played.

Some of the chord progressions of the Cooper/Gaga song remind me of Only You by Yazoo, especially in the refrain with the following lines: ”All I needed was the love you gave / All I needed for another day / And all I ever knew / Only you“. Among the artists who covered Only You is Selena Gomez, and her calm electronic rendering of the song emphasises its beautiful harmonies perfectly.

As for mood and melody: Something in Shallow also seems to echo the song classic Dust in the Wind by Kansas. It may be far-fetched, but if it’s true it is a much better achievement than the Dust in the Wind cover version someone did for a German tea advertisement in the 1990s.

And here’s the most intense déjà vu I experience when listening to Shallow. I can’t help but think of And Then You Kissed Me, an exceptional song released by the Swedish Band The Cardigans in 2003. And Then You Kissed Me combines the feeling of love with the distasteful topic of domestic violence. Although it reveals some nasty details, it is extremely touching. I don’t know how readers of this post feel, but to me the guitar and the vocals which set in after a strange organ intro are something like a blueprint for the first song part of Shallow.

Of course all the songs I mentioned are completely different from the Cooper/Gaga hit. They start out differently and take different directions. Nevertheless, they might have left some traces – that’s the reason why Shallow sounds so familiar and compelling to me. One could say: Under the surface you can discover a lot of things. Why else should the Gaga/Cooper lyrics contain lines like: ”We’re far from the shallow now …“? What makes Shallow unique is the fact that the song neglects the classic verse-chorus pattern. Rather, it increases step by step, with the finale setting the climax.

Lady Gaga belongs, quite legitimately, to the pantheon of pop music superstars. Smart songwriting, powerful vocals, extravagance, a provocative ambivalence in her songs and the ability of reinventing herself again and again, make her a fascinating entertainment diva. From dancefloor queen to country lady, from rude rock singer to sensitive singer-songwriter – whatever she does comes across authentically, and yet it is always part of a flamboyant Gesamtkunstwerk, including overpowering performances and powerful music. With these skills, Lady Gaga has become an attractive stage guest for fellow superstars, even for old stagers like Sting.

Anthem controversy

50 years ago, at the legendary Woodstock festival, Jimi Hendrix demolished the American national anthem: The Star-Spangled Banner.

Woodstock, August 1969: During his gig at the most famous festival in rock history, Jimi Hendrix suddenly starts playing the American national anthem on his electric guitar. Oops! Is he trying to show his patriotism? The irritation that sweeps the hippie audience only lasts for a few seconds. Then they realize that Hendrix has exactly the opposite in mind. Let’s remember: The American national anthem was born in 1814 during the British-American War. According to the myth, lyricist Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words when, after a battle near Baltimore, he saw the American flag, the ‘star-spangled banner’, still waving above the US fort. But when Hendrix plays the anthem, nothing remains intact and there’s no feeling of pride at all. The exceptional black musician is acoustically tearing the US flag apart. And that’s not all: With sound effects like tremolo, feedback and extreme pitching, he is simulating machine gun fire, alarm sirens and bloodcurdling screams. In doing so, he is reminding his listeners of the brutal war during which the original anthem was written – and using it to voice a resounding critique of the Vietnam war. In this version, America is not the “land of the free and home of the brave” but a nation of warmongers who interfere in distant conflicts, throwing napalm bombs and „producing“ countless victims. The heroic lyrics are being masked – you could also say: They are being drowned out by the instrumental battle noise.

Of course staunch patriots and the American establishment interpreted this kind of destructive act as an insult. Especially in the American South, people threatened to become violent if he were to play his version of the national anthem onstage. Hendrix also polarized as a black artist and as a symbol of integration: In his bands, for example in several Experience line-ups, it was taken for granted that black and white musicians would play side by side. And there were many white women in his entourage who didn’t give a hoot about racial segregation. This led to drastic reactions on the one hand, and to changing attitudes on the other. In her essay ”Vodoo Child: Jimi Hendrix and the Politics of Race in the Sixties“ historian Lauren Onkey narrates how, especially in the South, the band was denied hotel rooms and access to restaurants. Their status as a well-known ”integrated band“ simultaneously laid bare the opportunities and limits of racial integration. As the author explains, Hendrix ultimately achieved some success when it came to emancipation: ”His extensive touring claimed the right of an African American to play with white musicians and consort with white women whenever and wherever he chose.“

In March 2019 my new book Provokation! Songs, die für Zündstoff sorg(t)en was published. It presents about 70 hit songs from the last 100 years which caused a stir in their time, and some of which are being discussed even today – from Rock Around the Clock to Relax, from Anarchy in the U.K. to Punk Prayer, from the ”British Invasion“ to ”shock rock“. The last chapter of the book explains some basic lyrical techniques and answers 26 FAQs around the topic of controversial songs. Due to issues of space, this little Jimi Hendrix piece didn’t make it into the printed version of the book.