Did you read the title in Bob Dylan’s voice? I bet you are now I’ve mentioned it. It made me want to listen to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ too and it just so happens that it delivers us a great example for what I’m on about.
Feel is a kind of universal word for musicians. Explaining it in writing is difficult as I only have vague words in my vocabulary, such as vibe and groove to do it. I’ve been sat trying to write about it for ages but I can’t describe it without using the word feel and that just sends me round in circles so I hope you get the gist of what I’m on about. Bob Dylan’s delivery on Like A Rolling Stone is absolutely stunning, the way he squeezes what he needs to say into his given time frame is unbelievable, he could have made the song much ‘straighter’ but the feel of the song wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to listen to.
One of my all-time drumming heroes, John Bonham, was a master of feel too. One of my favourite examples of this is the Led Zeppelin song ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. He hits a crash cymbal so late it’s almost on the next track but it is such a wonderful example of playing behind the beat and he plays the perfect, laid back feel throughout the song. If he was on top of the beat then the entire song just wouldn’t work. Whether you realise it or not, it is the feel of the song that brings about a lot of the emotion we feel. Even before we know or understand the lyrics, it’s the feel that gets us.
Emotional attachment can be important in our likes and dislikes of certain music. If we like the person then we will invariably give their music a chance, I wouldn’t get tired of punching Robbie Williams, he’s just got one of those faces. I wouldn’t choose to listen to his music but, once in a while I’ll hear something on the radio, get quite into it only for the DJ to announce that it is Robbie’s new single. Dammit Robbie, your crack team of writers have done it again and your singing voice isn’t as annoying as your talking one, or your face.
It’s the emotional attachment in some songs that makes them ‘un-coverable’, yes, I’m aware I’m just making words up now but I’m all in on it now. Or in some cases, certain people shouldn’t cover them. Sometimes a song is more than a song, it’s a story, and sometimes it’s a very specific story based on an experience. As you may be aware, I have grown to be quite a fan of Billy Joel’s work over the last couple of years, I won’t go into how that got started here but its his song Piano Man that is the subject here. The song was written during a time where Billy was working as a lounge pianist in a bar in Los Angeles, the people in the song are people he had observed or interacted with. Its part of Billy’s life story, its full of meaning when he sings it. I’ve heard a tribute artist play the song a couple of times and I didn’t have a problem with it as it was done, as was the whole show, in a way that set the scene correctly. However, the other day whilst listening to Radio 2, I heard a version by Tom Odell that, to me, just sucked the entire life out of the song. I don’t know much about Tom, I know people who are big fans and I understand him to be a fine artist in his own right, but for me the arrangement and delivery just butchered the song. As I’m writing, I just found it on YouTube to make sure I hadn’t imagined it and as soon as the 5 – yes 5 – backing vocals kicked in I felt a huge pang in my stomach, like someone had internally punched me and I had to turn it off immediately. No matter how good Tom, or the backing vocalists are – and they are very good – they just made it sound cheesy and sucked the life out of the song.
My other bone of contention this past couple of weeks has been the X-Factor. I have never watched the show fully, I don’t agree with the idea of it, but you can’t fully avoid it. My wife had the ITV breakfast program (TVAM, Good Morning Britain, I don’t know the name of it) on one morning and they had an X Factor segment on meeting the 3 finalists. Obviously, they talked through their emotions, nerves, excitement and then it happened. Cut to a clip of what looks to be, albeit on first impressions, a middle-class fella singing along to Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer. It was then I realised 2 things, I still really like Bon Jovi (pre-1995) and secondly, not everyone can sing this song. And its not about vocal ability. He was singing the words but his feel was nowhere near conveying the message of the song. It felt to me like he was looking down from his ivory tower at Tommy on the picket line and Gina struggling to support them both on her waitress wage. He wasn’t telling the story from the inside. He didn’t understand the struggle. He was more like a Tory talking about people being able to manage on universal credit if they learn how to budget properly while putting in an expenses claim for a moat around their 2nd home.
Honesty is important in life and it is equally as important in music. We convey life through songs, we can gain awareness, we can be consoled or uplifted but it needs to be honest. Like love, you have to mean it with every fibre of your being, not just your words.