Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Turn down the sneering, the natives are restless. Or why Frey and Henley are as good as Fagen and Becker any day (and aren’t quite as up themselves to boot)

I’ve long liked Steely Dan and I also like The Eagles, though I have heard far more - well, everything Steely Dan have recorded, but not everything, The Eagles have done. There are crucial differences between the two bands quite apart from the music they play. For example, although Steely Dan did their fair share of touring, being part of the back-up band of someone called Dave and The Jaywalkers (or something, I really can't be arsed to look it up), and although they toured as Steely Dan in the early days, they gave up just as soon as they could. The Eagles, on the other hand, seemed to have done nothing but tour, and it and the drugs were probably the major factor which saw them burn out in 1981.

There are other differences: Steely Dan are essentially a New York band, even though they spent a considerable time in LA. The Eagles aren't. Steely Dan would be regarded here in Old Blighty as nice middle-class chaps you might well not object to having the vicar take out on a date. The Eagles came from all over what, I suppose, could be described as smalltown America, although Glenn Frey was from Detroit. And their respective backgrounds, or at least some of them, was not quite as hi falutin'. Don Felder, for example, was, by his own admission, dirt poor. Generally, I get the feeling that The Eagles were rather more down-to-earth than Steely Dan.

There is a line in a Steely Dan song which puts down The Eagles - ‘Turn up The Eagles, the neighbours are listening’ on Everything You Did from The Royal Scam - which is another of those cynical, sneering lines of the kind Dan fans like because their appreciation of it confirms to them that they, too, like Fagen and Becker, are a just a little hipper than your average joe, a little brighter, perhaps, a little more knowing, and, of course, if truth be told a little more self-regarding and smug.

Not for them the mainstream pop sensibility of The Eagles - they, brighter, more knowing, somehow - in their imagination - more sophisticated prefer the jazzy intricacies of Steely Dan. Me? Well, however much I like Becker and Fagen’s music, that line and a rather superior, patronising attitude (both are from New York) has always rather got up my nose. Several years ago, I went to see Steely Dan at Wembley Arena in London. Becker and Fagen, although I rather think Fagen rather than Becker, became notoriously unwilling to tour. They didn’t like it at all.

But that was in the Seventies and now, in the Noughties (as I understand we are obliged to call the first decade of the 21st century, I suspect Becker persuaded Fagen that what with staying at expensive hotels and being waited on hand and foot as only successful and respected musos on tour are waited on hand and foot meant that ‘touring’ was not half as bad as it was when they were starting out. For me Steely Dan were always ‘other’, so I was hugely disappointed when at the start of the concert and in the first address to the attendant Dan acolytes, Becker came out with the corniest of corny lines ‘Hello, London, we love your fish and chips’.

Christ, I thought, even Steely Dan have feet of clay. It was rather like hearing the girl you have been idealising fart loudly and take off to the loo where she noisily proceeds to take a dump.

No romance can survive that or Becker’s standard-for-a-tour crass line. Why the fuck didn’t he keep his mouth shut. But he didn’t and a part of my appreciation of Steely Dan died. And so pissed off was I that about ten minutes later I heckled Donald Fagen. We were far upfront, just about four or five rows from the stage, and Fagen and his keyboard could have been no more than 2oft away. So devilry took me and when one song ended and just before another was about to start, I shouted to him: ‘Play Hotel California’.

He didn’t like it, not one bit. How do I know? Well, it will have played on his mind throughout the subsequent song and when that song finished he said something along the lines of ‘bad things happen to people who say things like that’. But why should they. Well, they should - thus the subtext - because they were Steely Dan and way, way more sophisticated than The Eagles. He would have remained high in my estimation had he said nothing. But to respond to so innocuous a heckle - well ...

. . .

I mention this because the other night I watched almost all of The History Of The Eagles, the documentary they made several years ago. And what is obvious is that Glenn Frey and Don Henley were just as obsessive in their determination to achieve perfection in the music they were producing. And whether or not you like their songs - I do - they stood head and shoulders above their peers. OK, so the music is by no means as ‘sophisticated’ as that of Steely Dan, but for what is is, in construction, production and shape, they are just as good.

Frey and Henley wrote lyrics just as good as Becker and Fagen (and I suspect, judging by their subsequent solo work, the lyrics were more Becker than Fagen). I was far more familiar with The Eagles first and second album - Desperado is especially good - than what came later, although naturally I heard the hits on the radio, but I have since bought a hits compilation which spans their whole career and the excellence does not tail off. They deserved their success.

So at the end of the day that sneering throwaway line - ‘turn up The Eagles the neighbours are listening’ - tells you far more about Becker and Fagen than The Eagles. I’ve only been to New York once, and that was more or less by way of a fluke, so it’s fair to say I don’t know New York at all.

But I do rather suspect the that superior superciliousness of Steely Dan is pretty much shared by the the city’s ‘artistic community’. You do get the feeling that they sincerely feel they are a cut above the rest of us, and it doesn’t surprise me that John Lennon, who could be as pretentious as the rest of us given half a chance, was able to make New York his home so glibly. It might also be the reason why Becker and Fagen - who was actually from New Jersey, so what is he so proud about - found it so easy to sneer at a chap from Linton, Texas, and another from Detroit. . . . I was walking home tonight and courtesy of my £15 Three add-on which give me a unlimited 3G internet access I switched off BBC Radio 4 and tuned in to two jazz stations out there somewhere on the net. The first - Jazz24 - was reasonably pleasant, some jazz violinist demonstrating his chops, but I wasn’t in the mood and found another - piano jazz on Jazzradio.com. That, I thought would be a little more to my liking, especially as I like Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano a lot.

It was good, as in pleasant, but not great, uptempo jazz piano, double bass, drums and eventually two saxes. To be honest it sounded like pretty much standard fare, the elements of jazzy funk making the piece I heard reasonably contemporary. But what it reminded me again for the umpteenth time is that 99 percent of your music is in 4/4 time, and 4/4 is boring. Familiar but boring. All pop is in 4/4 as is a great deal of classical music, and a great deal of jazz. We like it because it is the essence, in music, of accessibility. I should, perhaps, write ‘Western music’ - Asian music not only deals in other time signatures but also in quarter notes which our Western ears find ‘strange’.

Increasingly, rather like mediocrity - I would say dumbing down if it weren’t such a cliche - in culture and food, that 4/4 time is imposing itself around the world. And at the end of the day it is boring. I don’t suppose it much matters if the music you are listening to is lightweight, but I find it boring, boring, boring. I can’t claim to ‘know’ other time signatures, but a rule of thumb is that if you can’t dance to it, it is not in 4/4. You’ll find that virtually every country and western song is in 4/4, every funk piece, every pop song, every music hall song, every bluegrass piece, every blues, and we like it because it we are familiar with it and it brings no surprises. I can’t pretend that when I play guitar (not particularly well, and I have finally decided to get better and have started by learning scales) I play anything else. But that notwithstanding it is boring, boring, boring.

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