13. John Lennon - Imagine

If ever there was someone with an ego big enough to think that he could write a song that could change the world, John Lennon was that person.  The main reason The Beatles broke up was because Yoko stoked John's ego to such a degree that he was convinced that he didn't need The Beatles to be great.  To a certain degree, she was right, because John did some amazing songwriting after the split.  "Imagine" was one of those songs, if not the song.  It wasn't a song that talked about how awesome or brilliant he was, though.  "Imagine" is a song that talks about a better world, a song that wants to inspire people to make a better world.  And in many way, it's succeeded.

At the time he recorded "Imagine," John Lennon could've recorded selections from Liverpool's phone book to critical and popular acclaim.  But one of the other reasons he left The Beatles is because he wanted to make his music, with his message.  And I hate to break it to you, millions of Beatles fans, that's okay.  John Lennon wasn't morally obligated to remain in The Beatles just because they made some of the best music ever or because you wanted him to.  In The Beatles, the "sit at the piano and sing a poetic song guy" was Paul, for the most part.  "Imagine" was John's turn to give it a try.

Musically, "Imagine" is very minimally constructed.  It's just John playing piano, backed by a nice string arrangement and a very simple drum beat.  Phil Spector, who was smart enough to know that his trademark "Wall of Sound" wouldn't work on a song like this, gave the song a sparse, yet powerful mix.  Instead of the fullness that so many of his productions had, he just added a simple drum beat and some strings, to add atmosphere.  Phil knew the message of the song and John's great vocals should be the main focus.  I've talked many times about bands' rhythm members putting their egos aside for the good of a song, but I never thought I'd write about a producer doing the same.  But that's what made Spector one of the greatest producers of all time - he knew what would make the song best, and just did that.

John was usually the Beatle that did vocals on the songs that needed an edge, or growl, to them.  The gentle voice was Paul's.  Playing again against type, John gives a vocal performance that's restrained in style, but supremely powerful in its simplicity.   It's conversational, the way he asks us to "imagine all the people, living life in peace."  Simple, yet powerful thoughts delivered simply, yet powerfully.

As simple as "Imagine" may seem, it's anything but, lyrically.  Look at the following line:

Above us, only sky*

In just four words, John encapsulates a universal vision.  The thing is, it differs in so many ways depending on who's interpreting it.  Some might interpret it as a world free of warplanes dropping bombs.  Another sees it as a clear sky, free from the choking clouds of pollution.  Ask a third person, they'd see it as a call to get off the couch and enjoy the allure of a sunny day outdoors, playing soccer with your kids or seeing shapes in the clouds.  Four words and countless interpretations.  That, my friends, is pure poetry.  Striking brevity, but boundless depth.  It's the stuff of Shakespeare or Frost.  I know words like that only confirm John's enormous ego, but when you're the best at something, you can be a little cocky.  Guys like John Lennon, Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs have that cocky swagger because they've earned it, as much as we hate to admit it.

In case you think he just got lucky with that one line, here's another:

Nothing to kill or die for

The implications of those six words are almost limitless.  There are so many things in life that we consider worth taking someone's life or giving up your life for it.  As much as martyrdom may benefit a cause, imagine a cause that doesn't need any martyrs.  People have been killing for money, sex, religion, power, hell, even sneakers for as long as there have been people+.  The thought of a world where none of that is necessary or even occurs is tantalizing.  Imagine...

So in ten total words, John Lennon inspires countless hours of discussions and sets the bar pretty high.  Everything ever conceived or invented started first with imagination.  We can fly across the world in less than a day because the Wright brothers wondered "What if....?"  Mother Teresa knew that the untouchables in Calcutta could be saved, one at a time, because she thought, "What if I can save just one life?"  After that, it's just one more, then one more, and before you know it, thousands of lives have been saved.  John Lennon is telling us, "If you can imagine it, it can happen."

Even though the thought isn't original, the packaging sure is.  Taking deep and complex philosophical ideas and wrapping them up in a pop song is brilliant.  There's an infinitely longer lasting impact from one song like "Imagine" than there would've been from ten thousand articles in the Journal of Philosophy.  Former President Jimmy Carter said, "In many countries around the world—my wife and I have visited about 125 countries—you hear John Lennon's song 'Imagine' used almost equally with national anthems."  That's some pretty lofty praise from a man who's become one history's greatest proponents for peace.

Sometimes when you're that good, it's okay to be cocky.  Go ahead and gloat, John, you've definitely earned it.

* There may be one unintended interpretation to that line that John never thought about.  They renamed Liverpool's international airport after John Lennon, their most famous favorite son.  Their new slogan became, "Above us only sky."  So I guess you can add airport slogan to the list of interpretations of that amazing line.

+ In the Bible, we didn't even get to five people total before someone decided to kill someone else.  Even though I'm a Christian, I have to admit that the plot holes of the whole Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel story are pretty huge.  So Cain must've slept with his sister (that we don't even know about)?  Ewww.  Hopefully, they just ran across some random lady that lived down the street that God created out of a pizza box** or something, because I don't have a sister, but, ewwwwww!

I picked this video because the lyrics play along with the song, so you can appreciate the poetry that I talked about.  They're brilliant.

** My wife was offended by the pizza box line, but I said that it was funny.  While she admitted that it was indeed funny, she said it was also offensive.  I said, "If you can give me a phrase that is as funny as pizza box and not offensive, I'll use it."  After a while, I asked her if she had a substitution.  She just shook her head and said, "It's not my job to make your job less offensive."  So pizza box it is, I guess.  And you know it's funny, don't you sweetie?

14. Aerosmith - Sweet Emotion

I turned forty last year and was often asked how I felt about hitting that landmark age - the precursor to being old.  My answer was simple.  Emotionally, I'm still pretty much a thirteen year-old, so adding another year to my age doesn't really mean much to me.  Age doesn't mean much to Steven Tyler and the guys in Aerosmith, either.  Even though he's sixty-two years old, he's perpetually lived the life of a sixteen year-old.  Drummer Joey Kramer said in an interview, "People always ask, why are you guys acting like kids?"  He paused for a moment, before saying, "We're not acting."  It's true.  They still write songs from the perspective of their young-at-heart mindset, which for a sixteen year-old boy, means sex, getting loaded, having fun, sex, having fun with your buddies, getting in fights, sex, petty arguments, playing in a band and, um, more sex.

The problem is that when you're adults and you add the extracurricular distractions and destructions that are available to adults with money and fame, it's often a recipe for disaster.  And with Aerosmith, at the time that they recorded Toys in the Attic and "Sweet Emotion," the storm clouds were not only on the horizon, but were steadily creeping into everyday life for the band.  The band's cumulative addiction to drugs and alcohol were becoming a major issue.  Bassist Tom Hamilton laughs at the thought that they experimented with drugs.  "[At first], for us, the experiment was a success."  After a long pause, he added, "For a while...."

But after that while, things got more strained. Arguments arose over seemingly trivial things.  Tension over spending too much time together, mixed with jealousy when they weren't spending too much time together, were taking their toll.  Guitarist Joe Perry:  "The ingredients that make up dynamite are benign on their own.  But you put them together.... and they explode."  And explode it did, with no one left unscathed by the damage from the emotional shrapnel.

Even amidst the strife, Aerosmith put together a song for the ages in "Sweet Emotion."  It starts of with Tom Hamilton's brilliant bass line, ambling along, making you wonder where this song was taking you.  If you listen really carefully, you'll also hear a bass marimba, which is like a big, wood xylophone, giving that awesome bass line some extra texture.  It's a beginning that's so memorable that director Richard Linklater used it to open his opus to 70's high school, "Dazed and Confused."  The line doesn't have that typical bass sound to it, which is what makes it so memorable.  You've never heard anything like this before, and you want to hear more.  After the first run-through of the bass line, drummer Tommy Kramer adds some extra percussive effects.  Joe Perry then brings in the talk-box*, adding some really cool atmosphere.  Finally, Steven and Joe harmonize on the iconic "sweet emotion" line, dragging it out and savoring every syllable.

The music throughout the song definitely shows the influence that the blues had on the band.  The casual nature that Joe and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford play their parts is strongly rooted in blues structure, but they give it some extra rock punch during the verses.  Being a sucker for good talk-box work, Joe really helps set the tone for the whole song's bluesy feel.  If blues legends Willie Brown or Robert Johnson could've used a talk box, I assure you that they would have, especially if they'd had Joe's guitar line to listen to.  Steven Tyler's vocals also have a bluesy style.  His lyrics have that man on the prowl for some action feel that many blues songs have, and he spits out each line with the one line at a time cadence that's common with blues vocalists.  The only thing that doesn't ooze blues is Tommy Kramer's drums.  They're pure rock power drums, start to finish.  This gives the song its distinctive rock sound, with most rock fans not realizing that they're listening to a blues song.

In typical blues fashion, the lyrics are about a woman.  The first verse is all about Steven's animosity towards Joe's then-girlfriend, soon to be wife, not too long before ex-wife, Elissa.  It's textbook sixteen year-old rage directed at the girlfriend that's taking your best friend away.

You talk about things that nobody cares
You're wearing out things that nobody wears
You're calling my name but I gotta make clear
I can't say baby where I'll be in a year

The last line shows the uncertainty that Steven already felt about the future of the band.  The rest of the lyrics are Steven trying to drown that bitterness in the only elixir that works on the sixteen year-old boy, sex.

You stand in the front just a shakin' your ass
I'll take you backstage, you can drink from my glass 

Steven is the lyrical master of taking common sayings and turning them into clever puns.  Aerosmith songs are rife with them.  There's a great one in "Sweet Emotion," where he says that "My get up and go must've got up and went."  While some find them forced and corny, I love 'em all.  Keep them coming, Steven. 

Eventually, the discord and drug use led to the splintering of the band, and Joe Perry left Aerosmith.  After years of acrimony, they realized that they were better together, and reformed, finding huge success in the mid-80's on.  So even though they remain sixteen year-olds inside, they've grown emotionally and can keep their priorities straight.  Joe summed it up, saying,  "We still have the same arguments, we've just learned not to take it all personally."  It's too bad that other bands haven't reached the same emotional maturity of Aerosmtith.  And believe me, that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

* For more on the talk box, read my post for #45, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."

    (Fun Fact #265:  After more than twenty-five years of playing together and writing hundreds of songs, Aerosmith finally hit #1 on the US pop charts with 1998's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing."  The only problem was that they didn't write the song.  It was written by noted songstress, Dianne Warren, who also penned Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" and Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time."  If you're prone to calling Aerosmith sell-outs, this would probably be your Exhibit A.)

    Another break in the list, but this time it's for something awesome...

    ..... or at least something not nearly as tragic as my last break in the list.

    The next song on my list has an iconic bass line that is instantly recognizable to anyone who knows rock music.  A second and a half into the song, you already know that you're listening to something amazing.  More on that in a couple of days...

    Finding a rock/pop/soul song where the bass is the main musical focus is like finding that twenty bucks you forgot were in your jeans pockets.  It's that pleasant surprise that makes you smile, and smile big.  Bass players often get the short stick of having to hold the rhythm of a song and be that foundation that enables all the other band members to shine.  So when they get to show off a bit, it's always a welcome change.

    That got me to thinking.  What are those other iconic bass lines that show what a bassist with talent can really do?  It was slow going at first, but once I latched on to a couple, the floodgates really opened and the songs just poured out.  So here are my Top 20 bass lines of all time (that aren't already on my list, either already posted or to come).  I wanted to put them in no particular order, but found that more difficult than I thought.  Being an ubergeek, though, I found a website where you can enter a list of items and it will randomize them for you.  So thanks, Random.org!
    1. John Mellencamp & Me'Shell Ndegeocello - Wild Night (Granted, this is a cover of a Van Morrison song, but the way Me'Shell Ndegeocello makes this bass line her own just gets my body moving.  Every note has attitude to it, and you just can't wait for that bass line to come back.  And thank God it does, all throughout the song.)
    2. Primus - Jerry was a Racecar Driver (Probably the best bassist in history, Les Claypool does things that you just didn't think were possible with a bass.  He spends more time at the top of the neck than a horny vampire.  His enthusiasm is contagious.  He makes you want to pick up a bass and learn how to play it, and with "Jerry Was a Racecar Driver" he spazzes out all over his bass, bathing you with sounds that you're still trying to figure out.)
    3. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Higher Ground (Another cover version, sure, but Flea just assaults you with his bass.  He takes that funky Stevie Wonder keyboard riff and just kills every single note.  And to prove that this isn't a one hit wonder of bass playing, check out Get Up And Jump, Around the World, and the end of Coffee Shop,  Seriously, I could list fifty more.  Flea gives Les Claypool a run for his money on the greatest of all time bass player list.  For my money, I'm a Flea guy.)
    4. Alice in Chains - Would?  (Not enough bassists have utilized the ability of the bass to make, low, creepy sounds.  Mike Starr was able to infuse that deranged creepiness into his bass line to "Would?"  You'd think more bassists would take the natural low register of the bass and use it to their advantage in scaring the pants off you.  If you're walking down the street and you hear this bass line, then yes, a serial killer is just about to disembowl you.
    5. Rick James - Superfreak (Sure, you could blame Rick James for the whole MC Hammer thing, but you have to give him credit for one of the most iconic bass lines of all time, and maybe the most famous.  Who wouldn't sample that for a rap song?  It's irresistable.  I've never really met a super freak myself (my breakfast with Hillary Clinton got canceled), but I would imagine that bass line would fit the situation quite nicely.)
    6. Pink Floyd - Money (As if Roger Waters head wasn't big enough with the unstoppable force that is Dark Side of the Moon, he's got to top it off with an instantly recognizable bass line that may outlive the album itself, if that's even possible.  But you gotta give the guy credit.  Five seconds after you hear that bass line for the first time, it's imprinted on your brain forever, and not in that "Mmmm Bop" kinda way.)
    7. Curtis Mayfield - Pusherman (The smooth nature of both the bass line and Curtis's vocal style goes well with the subject matter.  You'd think drugs would pretty much sell themselves, but Curtis highlights the suave, yet cutthroat salesman aspect of drug dealers.  The bass line weaves through the song as Curtis breaks down the entire life of a drug dealer with authentic street poetry that's still completely foreign to a kid who grew up in the suburbs.  But I'm still listening.  I can't help it.)
    8. The Breeders - Cannonball   (I have no idea what this song's about, but that great loopy bass line just grabs you and doesn't let go.  And did you know that most of the band members were female?  I sure didn't.  A kick-ass female bass player is a fine thing indeed.)
    9. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart (Big fat bummer of a song, but a great bass line.  Bassis Peter Hook really gives his bass a moaning type sound that goes so well with the lyrical subject matter.  To prove how much of a bummer this song was, due largely to the dissolution of his marriage (the main subject of the song), Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide just two months after this song was released as a single.  Suck on that, "Mmmmm Bop"!)
    10. Chic - Good Times (Say what you want about disco, but that genre of music provided some of the most remembered bass lines of all time.  Bernard Edwards provides not only a great bass line for this song, but without "Good Times," there'd be no "Rapper's Delight," so they get credit for an awesome disco song as well as providing the main sample for one of the biggest rap songs of all time.  Not bad for a day's work.)
    11. Queen - Under Pressure (It was a toss up with Another One Bites the Dust, but John Deacon's intro to "Under Pressure" really shows what a simple, yet powerful bass line can do to impact a song.  Without that great bass, the song would still be awesome because it's Freddy Mercury and David Bowie singing together, for Christ's sake, but the bass line takes the song to that Hall of Fame level.)
    12. Elvis Costello - Pump It Up (While the rest of the band plays the more rhythmic parts of the song, Bruce Thomas gets to hog all of the spotlight, not only with that great intro, but all throughout the song as well.  It takes a great song and transforms it into an amazing song (pssst.... that came thisclose to making my list).
    13. Yes - Roundabout (Chris Squire is the Beethoven of bass players.  There's a classical beauty to the way he plays.  But don't be fooled by those statements, he can unleash some tremendously kick-ass bass lines that rock you to your core.  In "Roundabout," the entire band cuts loose, but it's Squire who steals the show, jumping all over his bass as if his life depends on it.)
    14. Rush - The Pass (Geddy Lee is probably the best pure rock bassist who's ever lived and he shows it in dozens of songs.  His talent knows no bounds.  At times in concert, he's singing, playing the bass while also playing the keyboards - with his feet!  I chose "The Pass" because the song is built around his exquisite bass work, rather than your normal rock song that's purely guitar driven.  And it's an awesome song that doesn't get its due.  Check out the classic "Tom Sawyer" for sure, but don't miss out on the lesser known, but amazing bass lines in  "Marathon" and "Where's My Thing?"
    15. New Order - Blue Monday (New wave music never got its just due, in my opinion, but some of the best bass work in the last thirty years has happened in new wave songs.  Until this very moment, I had no idea that Peter Hook was responsible for the awesome bass lines in both "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Blue Monday."  Holy crap!  Nice job, sir.  Anyway, back to "Blue Monday."  After the slow keyboard buildup, Peter plays a pretty stock dance bass line, but then gets to shake it up a bit with some more intricate work higher up the neck.  Two songs by the same guy!  I really am floored.)
    16. Chemical Brothers - Block Rockin' Beats (Another quasi-cover, this one of 23 Skidoo's "Coup," the Brothers take the original bass line and hit you over the f*cking head with it.  It's an aural assault and battery of your ears, but not an unpleasant one.  Relentless in its pace, "Block Rockin' Beats" hits you hard with the bass, the drums, everything.  You're spent when it's over, but you want to listen again, you glutton for punishment.)
    17. Steve Miller Band - The Joker (As an interesting contrast to "Block Rockin' Beat"s frenzied bass, Gerald Johnson shows that a great, slow bass line can work just as well.  It's a bass melody that is instantly recognizable and has an almost whimsy that matches the tone of the song so well.  So while the bass line does steal the show, it also serves the song, which is really impressive.)
    18. Duran Duran - Girls on Film, (Another band where I could pick a bunch of songs (including, "Rio" and "Planet Earth," both of which have almost equally amazing bass lines), "Girls on Film" shows John Taylor at his best.  His bass lines propel both dance songs and moody ballads with equal panache.  I said he was underrated in my Band Aid post and I completely stand by that statement.  Not only did he do great bass work for Duran Duran, but he also got to show some serious rock bass chops in Power Station.  Do yourself a favor - listen to more Duran Duran.  You'll be surprised at the high level of musicianship hidden behind those pretty faces.)
    19. U2 - 40 (In all fairness to Adam Clayton, who I think is a great bassist, he doesn't play bass on this one.  For some reason, The Edge and Adam switch instruments, with Edge delivering that great bass line that lays the foundation for Psalm 40, set to music, while Adam plays an atmospheric guitar which acts as the counterpoint to Edge's bass.  "40" shows that you don't need to jam in as many notes as you can in as short a time as you can to have a great bass line that can carry a song.  Since my conscience is bothering me, please check out Adam's performance on "Mofo."  He kicks ass in that song.)
    20. Paul Young - Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Pino Palladino is probably the best bassist you've never heard of.  Although his performance in Paul Young's "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" is his best flashy work, the way his fretless bass line carries all of "Wherever I Lay My Hat" shows how a great bass performance can carry a song on its broad shoulders.  He's gone on to be the bassist for The Who, carrying the sizable mantle left by John Entwistle's death.  He's a bassist's bassist - a background guy who constantly wows you, but shies away from the limelight.  That also makes him one of the best.)
    So I'll give you a couple of days to try and guess what the next song is.  Feel free to comment with what you think it might be.  And, no, it's not "Ice Ice Baby."  But that song did have a really great bass line.  I wonder where he got that from?

    15. Eminem - Lose Yourself

    When I first heard "My Name Is" in late 1999, I was instantly intrigued.  The vocal delivery was unlike anything I'd heard before.  The nasal whinyness* reminded me of the Beastie Boys' Ad Rock, but the delivery was different.  Couldn't be Beastie Boys, I thought to myself.  When I found out who it was, my first response was, "What a weird name.  M&M?  Isn't he going to get sued or something?"  Turns out he spelled it differently, and he was going to change the face of hip hop.

    The big, purple elephant in the room was that Eminem was white.  And historically, white men couldn't rap.  The statement might be racist, but since black rappers can use the "N" word and get away with it, I can say that before Eminem, almost all white rappers were not very good.  Don't believe me?  Vanilla Ice, 3rd Bass, Marky Mark, Stereo MCs, hell, even Rodney Dangerfield did a rap song.  The lone exception was the groundbreaking Beastie Boys.

    Eminem became the voice of white urban America.  He talked of hard times, really hard times, and not in the tongue-and-cheek way that the Beasties did with "She's Crafty."  He rapped of relationship troubles with everyone - his mom, fellow rappers, his ex-wife.  He was pissed off, and he wasn't afraid to let loose.  If Neil Young was thirty years younger and later, he might have been Eminem.  But it wasn't white urban America who made him famous.  It was the black urban hardcore hip hop fans who first brought him to the public's eye.

    He had the credibility and the pure talent to pull in a strong contingent of black rappers to collaborate and bring their followers.  Black hip-hop fans liked him because he worked hard and had the respect of the artists they loved.  "If he's good enough for Dre," they thought, "he's good enough for me."  White suburban kids liked him because he lived the hardcore, real life that they only read about in magazines in the back seats of their parents' SUVs.  It didn't even occur to them that most of them wouldn't have lasted a week in the same environment that Eminem grew up in.  He looked like them and acted like they wished they could, so it was easier for them to relate.  Unlike those kids who would be terrified to be in the presence of hip-hop god Dr. Dre, Eminem wasn't intimidated by working with Dre.  He knew he had to learn.  He was paying attention.

    "Lose Yourself" was Eminem's hip hop PhD.  Like any great doctoral student, he took something that existed, in this case his own song "Till I Collapse," and built on it, using his life's story as the lyrical basis.  Throughout the song he hits beats at different points in the lines, changing up the cadence to help intensify the feeling that his voice is an actual instrument.  While many, many rap songs are musically elementary, "Lose Yourself" builds layer upon layer of musical depth.  Most rappers have a beat that they rhyme to, but Eminem actually had his musicians frame the beat of the music around his vocals.

    Starting with a piano refrain that would normally sound like an accordion would in a metal song, in this case it works.  It helps build the complexity of the song, with a quickly added guitar riff, played much more like a drum beat.  That creates the tension that leads to Eminem's first, nervous lyrics:

    Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
    To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
    Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?

    That's the theme of the entire song, and why it speaks to so many people.  There are certain moments in life that define it - where a choice made one way or the other will forever alter that life.  They only happen a few times in each lifetime.  Many people don't even realize the opportunity until it's already gone.  Eminem poses the simple question, "Are you or aren't you?"  But with any monumental decision, the fear and apprehension about the consequences often paralyzes someone:

    His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
    There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
    He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready

    But he fails.  He fails horribly.  But like the Chinese proverb says, "Failure lies not in falling down. Failure lies in not getting up."  The music in the song adds a contemporary authenticity to the song that most hip hop songs not only don't have, but pride themselves in not having.  It has horns, strings, woodwinds, and rich keyboard sounds, giving the song a more mainstream pop/rock foundation than almost any hip-hop song before it.  Eminem wasn't afraid to throw the usual hip-hop conventions away and build a song for the ages, not just the latest fad of the summer.  Not only are the lyrics about taking your shot, but musically, it was a radical departure and a huge risk.  While the lyrics are a story about taking risks, the music was an actual risk, considering the audience that was his base.  But Eminem has never been one to shy away from a fight.

    I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
    Success is my only motherfucking option, failure's not
    Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
    I cannot grow old in Salem's Lot
    So here I go is my shot.
    Feet fail me not 'cause maybe the only opportunity that I got

    As much as he's been painted as an a-hole party guy who hates everyone (and while most of that may be true), Eminem is a tireless worker who is constantly not only working on his own music, but is often collaborating with fellow artists with vocals on records, but more likely the behind the scenes work of songwriting and production.  He heeded the advice of those who came before him, most especially Dr. Dre, and took it to the next level, transforming much of hip-hop in the way that Dre did.

    Back in the early 80's many people thought that rap and hip-hop would go the way of disco and other "fad" musical styles and die a none-too-quick death.  Now, almost thirty years later, it's apparent that hip-hop has not only lasted longer than the pop/rock people thought it would, but it's more than likely that hip-hop has supplanted pop/rock as the first music of choice in the United States, based on popularity.  The student has become the master indeed.

    * Go ahead, Webster's, put that in your damn dictionary.  (Whinyness. n.  The act of being whiny.)  It's not a word but it should be.

    16. Band Aid - Do They Know It's Christmas?

    I wrote the beginning of this post before my Grandpa died, so there is  no irony attached, it's just a coincidence, albeit a sadness inducing one for me and my family.  I thought about taking that first line out, but it conveyed so much in a way that another quote or something stupid written by me wouldn't have.  Besides, Grandpa wouldn't have minded.  He liked the way I wrote, and if I told him that the line needed to be there, he would've nodded with that smile of his.  Anyway, on to #16....

    "People are dying NOW.  Give us the money NOW.  Give me the money."

    Bob Geldof wasn't going to mince words.  After seeing a BBC report about famine wracked Ethiopia, he was spurned into action.  The cynic in me would point out that Geldof wasn't tirelessly fighting for justice his entire life, finding causes to throw his support behind - he just happened to be watching the news.  But while most of us would see a story like that and give a sad sigh before we took our next bite of dinner, Geldof immediately took up the fight against starvation in Africa.  He was convinced that while many musicians had said that music could change the world, he would actually do it.  He was cocky yet naive enough to think he could pull it off.

    And he did.  He pulled in all of his markers throughout the music industry in England and set out to gather as many of the hugest pop stars that he could to make a charity record to fight hunger in the forgotten continent.  The more popular you were, the better.  If you could actually sing, that was good, too.  But from the start, Geldof was smart enough to know that the publicity the event would generate, rather than the actual record sales, would be the difference.  He called the one-day supergroup, Band Aid, a straightforward pun acknowledging the fact that no matter how much they raised, their effort would most likely be a band aid to the deep cut that afflicted Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.  Also, it was a "band" of pop stars, you know, providing "aid."

    Band Aid was one of those classic "why didn't anyone think of this before?" moments.  Rock & Roll music had been around for almost thirty years, but it had never occurred to anyone to actually get popular artists together for the benefit of a needy charity and record a song.  Well, it may have occurred to someone, but they'd never actually pulled it off.  Bob did, and it inspired a plethora of other charity singles.  "We Are the World" is certainly the most star studded and famous of the charity singles that followed Band Aid, but there was also the lesser known Canadian artists "Tears Are Not Enough" and the underrated and awesome heavy metal bands single, "Stars."  It all started with Bob Geldof and Band Aid.  But it didn't end there.  Geldof went on to organize the worldwide concert Live Aid in 1985, raising millions of dollars, which led to Farm Aid and other charity concerts, raising millions more for other needy causes.  It all culminated with the gigantic Live 8, which had ten concerts across the globe going on simultaneously, raising awareness on third world debt and the crushing weight it put on countries that were barely standing, if they were even that lucky.

    But back in '84, it began with a gaggle of reporters outside of Sarm Studios in London, documenting huge star after huge star arriving to record their part.  Sarm had donated 24 hours of studio time, so the schedule was tight.  There would be cameras running the entire time, catching all of the performances, culminating in a choir of 45 of Britain's biggest stars in the music business singing the chorus of the song, titled "Do They Know It's Christmas?".  Verses would be sung by various vocalists, giving most every pop music fan out there a line or two from their favorite singer.

    Geldof co-wrote the song with Midge Ure, lead singer and songwriter for the band Ultravox.  Ure wrote the music - an almost haunting minor key melody that also had that instantly recognizable chorus that you'd find yourself singing moments after you first heard it.  Not only were there the vocals by hugely popular singers, but there was an all-star band behind the words.  John Taylor, vastly underrated bassist from Duran Duran, helped lay the rhythmic foundation with the help of Phil Collins on drums.  Yes, kids, before he became a pop superstar as lead singer of Genesis and then as a solo artist, Phil was (and still is) a world-class drummer.  Gary Kemp, guitarist and main songwriter of Spandau Ballet, handled the guitars while Midge Ure did the keyboards.

    Even though the entire world could have felt guilted into buying the record, they bought it because it was an amazing song.  Sure they had dozens of superstars in the music business, but if the song had sucked, it wouldn't have changed much of anything.  Starting with that haunting church bell and almost ghostly resonance of background vocals, signifying the ignored pleas of Ethiopians already lost, it's clear from the start that this isn't your normal Christmas song.

    Starting with the richly voiced Paul Young*, who sang the first two lines that were actually intended for David Bowie (who couldn't make it to the recording in time, but did record a message for the b-side), "Do They Know It's Christmas?" served as a lyrical indictment of the prosperity and complacency that the citizens of the richest nations have (including you and me).  He needed to shake us out of our normal routines of ignoring things outside of our back yard and subtlety wasn't going to do it.  He wasn't above using lyrics that would shame us into doing something to help. 

    But like any smart poet, you don’t start off with the “beat you over the head” message. You soften them up a bit.

    And in our world of plenty
    We can spread a smile of joy
    Throw your arms around the world
    At Christmas time

    So you’re feeling a bit better about yourself. We’ll just smile and things will be better. We’ll throw our arms around the world, metaphorically, and feel less guilt. Geldof has you just where he wants you. The gloves then come off:

    But when you're having fun
    There's a world outside your window
    And it's a world of dread and fear
    Where the only water flowing
    Is the bitter sting of tears
    And the Christmas bells that ring
    There are the clanging chimes of doom
    Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you

    Oh, man, are you an asshole. People are dying in Africa and it’s your fault. If you do nothing, thousands more will die. Deal with that while you eat that Snickers bar. The time for gentle prodding was over. Bob was going to do what he had to do to get people to react and help, and if it took buckets full of guilt, so be it. People were dying.

    His final message was simple:

    Feed the world
    Let them know it's Christmas time

    "You have to give something of yourself," Geldof said, "and what I do is sing and write songs.  So that's what I did."  And it worked. Band Aid raised awareness not only of the plight of the famine in Ethiopia, but raised all awareness in general. People found other causes and ended up doing greater good across the board. So it turns out that pop music can indeed change the world. It just took a man who was just watching the news and just had to do something. Top it off with the fact that it’s an amazing song, and that’s why “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is one of the greatest songs of my life.

    Below is the video that they shot at the studio.  Is it just me, or does Sting look kinda pissed off when he’s singing his lines “the bitter sting of tears?” He gives that look, like, “You had to give me that line?”

    *  Paul Young has always been a favorite artist of mine.  In the early 80's one of our friends, Joan, had a brother Leo who was into early British new wave music big time.  She borrowed his records and played them for my friends and me.  That began our love of British pop music, including the not yet humongous Duran Duran, the soon to be huge Depeche Mode, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Wham! and Paul Young.  I was always so enthralled by Paul's soulful voice.  There was a richness to it that no one else had.  Even though he had a huge hit in the US with a cover of Hall & Oates' "Every Time You Go Away," I highly recommend that you give some of his other stuff a listen that you might never have heard.  Some of his lesser known great songs are "Love of the Common People", "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)", the underrated and provocative "Sex", and "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down."  But the one that always brings a smile to my face is the humorous ode to a breakfast staple that he did in 1978, "Toast."  I found a clip of it and wanted to share it with you.  Check it out.