Friday, 10 September 2010

News, Views and Music Issue 75 (Top Ten): AAA Solos

We’ve spoken about melodies. We’ve spoken about lyrics. We’ve spoken about context. We’ve spoken about new inventions and ideas. But one thing our words can never get across to you is the solo – the rush of adrenalin, channelling all the happiness/sadness/ anger/frustration of the rest of the song in one wild orgasmic 30 seconds of release. We’ve had to extend our top five this week because it just seemed silly cutting so many great solos and instrumental passages out from our list, seeing as all these top 10 are probably equal and are so different to each other it’s often hard to compare them anyway (it was almost a ‘top 13’ this week too, as The Moody Blues’ ‘Gypsy’, CSN’s ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and Nils Lofgren’s ‘Moon Tears’ all came close to the cut). Most of the below examples are played on guitar – the default setting for most rock and roll bands – but there are some notable exceptions played on a mellotron and a sitar! (and goodness only knows what mesh of instruments is going on in ‘Change Is Now’!) So what does make a good solo? Is it raw passion, virtuosity or simply being perfectly placed as part of the perfect song? Well, critics and fans have wondered for years but, do you know what, with our top 10 we reckon it’s a bit of all three...

10) The Beatles “The End” (released on ‘Abbey Road’, 1969): How fitting that the (almost) last sound you hear from the fab four is one long series of solos, each one demonstrating the differences and similarities between each Beatle. Now, The Beatles were never that known for their soloing on records previously – only George usually gets a look in or sometimes John as per ‘Get Back’, but Ringo starts things off with his only drum solo in the Beats’ catalogue. More thoughtful and melodic than most dash-and-thrash drum solos around, Ringo goes for a wander around his kit before stepping up the rhythm at the end. The Beatles’ solos then come in in the order John, George and Paul, all three fascinatingly different – John’s is the muscly, rhythmic attack (highly suitable for a rhythm guitarist), George’s is the soaring feedback-drenched one (very like his close friend Eric Clapton’s style) and Paul is the unusual against-the-beat-and-the-melody counterpart that goes the opposite way to the rest of the music (very like his bass-playing, in fact). All three styles are great – it’s staggering to think that three guitarists this good were all in the same band - and let’s remember, all three men were lead guitarists at some stage during the Quarrymen years (Lennon when it was still very much ‘his’ band; McCartney until he froze during a guitar solo at one of his early gigs with the band; Harrison thereafter). All three will also mine their own guitar techniques throughout their solo years (you can hear bits of ‘Cold Turkey’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and much of the first back-to-basics ‘McCartney’ album in the solos played here), although sadly the closest we’ve come to a Ringo drum solo since is the truly weird ‘Drumming Is My Madness’ from the ‘Stop and Smell The Roses’ album, which sounds like Keith Moon on a bad day.

9) 10cc “Blackmail” (released on ‘The Original Soundtrack’, 1975): In anybody else’s hands except 10cc this would be a joke song. The jealous estranged lover takes lewd pictures of his missus after he rigs up a camera on her toilet and he sells the resulting, undignified images to Playboy magazine – inadvertently making her a movie star! The band are on the edge of tongue-in-cheek throughout the first half of the song, but the whole parody feel is blown away by Eric Stewart’s outrageous double-tracked guitar solo. Drenched in so much feedback it’s positively radioactive, his solo is so wild and out of control it perfectly encapsulates the unthinking rage and anger in the heart of the song’s narrator and screams its way through chord change after chord change, rattling off one drop-dead amazing riff after another as the blackmailer tries to find his way out of the straightjacket he’s in. The solo is loud enough to hurt your eardrums, even if your sound system is turned way down low, but emotional and in context reasonable enough to make a joke song novelty song sound unhinged and sympathetic all at the same time. This song runs to near six minutes and nearly half of that is the guitar solo – and yet, so exciting and raw is it, those three minutes still aren’t enough!

8) The Byrds “Change Is Now” (released on ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’, 1968): This song about fluidity pulls off a typical schizophrenic Byrds trick by tying together pioneering psychedelic and ‘roots’ country styles into one song and even without the solo would be one of the band’ best. But with the solo it’s something else entirely, with the awe-struck shimmering harmonies giving way to a Roger McGuinn solo that steps out of nowhere to begin an exhilarating flight upwards through the song’s scale, while surrounded by a backwards-playing guitar part and Chris Hillman’s insistent bass playing, driving the whole thing forward bit by bit. Most solos are excuses to fill up another 30 seconds because the authors have run out of ideas, but not this solo, which in its ever-moving and ever-restless way is every bit as integral to the song as the words. As the lyrics say, ‘things that seem to be solid are not’, with the mesh of weird noises the perfect expression of how things can change in the blink of an eye. Quite staggering.

7) The Rolling Stones “We Love You” (released as a single, 1967): According to most Stones biographers, Brian Jones’ best period with the band happened offstage, as it were, back when the Stones were still playing blues clubs when this charismatic, multi-talented pioneer used to pull off blues solos on a variety of instruments that left his colleagues and rivals’ jaws dropping. Frustratingly, we don’t get to hear much of that on record as Brian’s control of the band slipped gradually over time and even before their record contract, but this psychedelic single’s mellotron solo is testament to Brian’s expertise on a good day. The song is all about the Stones’ drug trials of the day and is half thankyou to fans and half put down of the establishments that tried to lock them up, but it’s worth remembering that Brian was still facing possible imprisonment at this point, even if Mick and Keef had got off scot free. Brian’s closing solo – on an instrument so new it hadn’t even been on sale a year – is staggering, running this way and that, picking up on the song’s paranoid mood and rhythmic stabbing, switching from the gentle morse code part the mellotron has been playing throughout the song to a free-for-all improvisation that finally releases all the pent up anger and fear lurking at the heart of the song. Part cry for help and part danger signal, Brian’s exceptional bit of skill on the ‘brass’ settings of the keyboard instrument is the perfect coda to this edgy song, even with Mick Jagger adding some off-putting grunting sounds behind him. The way the song ends – with the backing track lurching to a stop, causing Brian’s part to stutter and then end on a long-held sighing note (which the listener is dying to be resolved back to the major key) is one of the most moving passages in rock.

6) The Kinks “You Really Got Me” (released on ‘The Kinks’, 1964): Solos before 1964 tended to come under two categories – the simple, washboard-based skiffle sound of two chords that everyone could try at home and the virtuoso-but-clean licks of The Shadows and their many followers. When The Kinks came to record their third and – had it not been a hit – their last single for record label Pye, Dave Davies destroys tradition by playing the most raucous, out-there solo heard from anyone up to that time. As all fans know, Dave got his peculiar, distorted sound by slashing the speakers of his amplifier with a razor blade and then turning the sound level up as high as possible. The wild, exciting passage is the perfect fit for elder brother Ray’s exciting song about undistinguished passion and lust and is the release this claustrophobic record has been crying out for since the opening note. The most amazing thing of all, though, is how Dave manages to pick up the song’s rhythmic riff straight after his wild solo and journey into the unknown. Certain heavy metal bands have based their whole style on the sound Dave Davies single-handedly invented here as a teenager. As Ray said in his ‘X-Ray’ autobiography show, ‘The way Dave played was very...individual, fast just like the way he spoke’.

5) Pink Floyd “Echoes” (released on ‘Meddle’, 1972): The song is a 22-minute epic of mega proportions even for the Floyd, taking in quiet sonar pings and existential lyrics from Roger Waters about people being strangers to each other. There’s even the sound of crows fighting in the middle, weirdest section, perhaps because they’ve been reading what poet Ted Hughes was writing about them in his dreadful poetry. However, it’s the thrilling section immediately after this that’s on our list, as Dave Gilmour’s guitar goes from see-sawing its way through a riff that plunges from the top to bottom of his fretboard, weaving his way over and over the same old ground and growing in intensity until, several minutes later, he finally gives us some sort of release with a shimmering cascade of noise and melody. One of the most moving things you’ll ever hear, if you stick with this long song all the way through, is that truly mind-blowing release of sound when all of the tension of the past five minutes finally gives way to a sound so sweet, so poetic and so right to the song it sounds like the sun has gone into supernova. There are lots of amazing Gilmour solos out there, but this one displays all his musical talents: torturous claustrophobic rhythm and free-wheeling fluid beauty.  

4) The Who “My Generation” (the ‘Live At Leeds’ version, released 1970): The original version of ‘My Generation’ is pretty special, what with John Entwistle’s  ridiculously complex bass solo and Pete Townshend’s twirling windmill rhythmic chords. But this famous live version from Leeds University shows all features of Pete’s skills. As the song reaches its conclusion, Pete free-wheels his way round any riff that seems to have come into his head, swinging the song this way and that from raw rock and roll to a melodicism not heard this side of CSNY. Snatches of riffs from ‘Tommy’ come and go as Pete gets louder, rawer and more and more emotional in putting his solos across. At one stage he even starts duetting with himself, playing off the sound bouncing off the back of the hall, doubling the sound and intensity at a stroke. How the band ever know how to come back in again behind him is beyond me – Pete was so far away in the stratosphere by the 14th minute of this recording he sounds like he’ll never get back down to earth. Considering the fact that this performance comes some 2 hours and 15 minutes into the band’s set list and you have to ask if Pete – notoriously shy about his ability on the guitar – is actually really human, so impossible is most of what he improvises on the spot at this concert. No wonder the band – or fans – sound like they don’t want to go home. How on earth do the band calm down enough to play final encore ‘Magic Bus’ after this?!

3) The Hollies “Hard Hard Year” (released on ‘The Hollies’, 1965): Like many a song on The Hollies’ third album, ‘Hard Hard Year’ finds the band looking for their own voice, going for deeper and more serious material of their own to master. This track must be one of the bleakest any rock and roll band had recorded up to 1965 – a sighing, head hanging melody with lyrics about bad weather and ill health leading to bills piling high and only misery to look forward to in the years to come. The song is monochromatic and bleak throughout – so the release that comes when Tony Hicks unleashes his guitar solo, dripping with feedback and distortion, channelling all the anger and bitterness of the lyrics, is tremendous. I read an essay once where a musician (I forget which one, not one of the AAA mob), claimed that the guitar was so popular because if you play it in a certain way it sounds like crying. This track is the best example of that I’ve ever heard – cascading ripples of emotion that suggest the guitar is plugged straight into the narrator’s nerve endings. Hicks received many compliments about his sound on this solo so it’s a shame that The Hollies never come anywhere doing anything like this again (although Hicks’ own ‘Too Young To Be Married’ pulls off a similar trick in 1970, with an acoustic guitar this time filling in for the sadness of the pressured lovers in the song). 

2) Pentangle “Once I Had A Sweetheart” (released on ‘Basket Of Light’, 1970): You think you’ve got this record sussed early on – it’s a yearning, traditional folk song sung by a mournful Jacqui McShee over a bed of sawing bass cellos and twinkling guitars. Then in comes John Renbourn’s sitar solo, seemingly out of nowhere, building the song up to such an ecstasy of emotion it’s hard not to cry yourself. Let me underline that again – this is a sitar. It should not work in a 16th century song about lost love and yet so universal is the emotion in the song and so clever the arrangement that before we’re quite aware of what’s happening the sound has wrapped itself around us and won’t let go, as it circles ever higher in despair and frustration at the circumstances in the song. Renbourn’s playing is never better on any instrument, finding its way further and further up the scale, playing cat and mouse with Bert Jansch’s guitar, when all the time you think it can’t get any higher, before swallowing the song up at the end in a sea of noise and echo. If heartbreak could be transferred directly into music it would sound like this, running away with its emotion before collapsing in a sea of self-pity. Fantastic stuff, the highlight of Pentangle’s career I’d say.

1) Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Cinammon Girl” (Released on ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, 1969): For my money the best solo of all is played by a band who’d been together barely a matter of weeks when they recorded this, their first track, and is played – for almost all of it – on one note! On paper that sounds monkeynuts to say the least, but just wait till you hear the thing – Neil’s happiest song to date about the narrator’s excitement over a girl he’s just met is chomping at the bit to get her attention throughout. Neil’s bouncy, rhythmic song then turns sideways in the middle as he writes off to home asking for more money so he can go out dancing with the girl of his dreams, the excitement spilling over into shouts of ‘yeah yeah yeah’ and one of the most exquisitely recorded guitar sounds of all time. Neil’s chiming guitar work stabs away at the same note, persuading it to budge and join in him in the song’s wondrous melody until finally it does, uniting in a positively beautiful sound of harmony. We’ve often said on this website how simplicity is often the key to a good and powerful song and nobody believed in that maxim more than Neil Young, with the solo in this song his best example yet of making the most out of a simple idea. Just to show what Neil can do on the guitar if he sets his mind to it, the song then ends on a cascade of chorded complex riffs, some of the most complicated of all the AAA works, but it can’t compete with his solo in the middle of this song, which is perfectly cast, perfectly played and, well, just perfect. 

Well, that’s it for another week. Make sure you tune in next time for some more news about our site’s future, news stories from the present and – of course – lots of music from the very wonderful past. See you then!

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