I was lucky enough to catch a screening of a new documentary ‘The Upsetter: The life and music of Lee Scratch Perry’ the other day, at the Downtown Independent. Now, this guy was an absolute genius and really changed the face of music, essentially creating Reggae and Dub as we know it. When you see people like that, it becomes clear real quick that they have something we don’t. They’ve got something ‘inside’ that makes them unique. Granted, he was (or became) completely bat-shit crazy, but what a force. What drive this man had. Just hearing (and watching) him speak makes it clear that there’s something going on in there that we’ll never understand. That most of us will never grasp. As if he was tuning into some secret wavelength that wasn’t on our dial. As if he ran on hi-octane fuel while we were using vegetable oil. Most of us sputtering to the finish line, while he’d run straight through, to start the next project. This film got me thinking about music – and the different genres, and i can’t help but think of the vast majority of bands today that have no clue about what makes this stuff work. What is it that makes the reggae greats great? How is it that when Muddy Waters steps it up, you get goose bumps? Even the ones that are closely related (Femi Kuti, Ziggy Marley, Lisa Marie), they just don’t have it – some not even by a long shot. Why is that? It’s not ‘complicated’ music, on paper. It’s “just 12 bars, then it repeats, right?” or “seems like you just put the oomph on the ‘and’ instead of the ‘two & four’, yes?”. Correct.. it’s ‘just’ that. Well, that AND that add’l frequency that they were receiving on. The one we don’t have access to.
Problem is, most bands today just look at the ‘paper’ and on there, it’s simple. “We’ll just get a spring reverb and funny hat, and i think we’ve got it.” And just like with the blues (or funk – another area to stay away from, if you’re smart) it can sound ‘almost like it’ real quick. And that’s the deceiving part, because there’s no such thing as ‘sort of good’ blues. It’s only good if it’s 100% – and until you get there you are an insult to the genre. There are a lot of young guys out there playing ‘the blues’ and it’s pathetic. Really. And just like with fast food, it’s amazingly popular (Mayer, Lang) while the few good ones (Bramhall ll, Trucks) get no love.
This also seems to be with the case in smaller markets, where “there’s a void to fill” so we can play the blues, or reggae.. yeah, that’ll be our niche. Our thing. So people that like blues can come see us, and since we’re the only game in town, we’ll automatically be better than silence, or reading. Iceland is a perfect example of this. Iceland seems to have to have ‘one of everything’. We have to have a blues scene. We have to have a reggae band. They even opened a stock market there – like the really big countries (yeah, that went real well). And again, it’s tricky, because it can sound close to the real thing without being any good at all. It’s just that form.. or that spring reverb, and it sounds almost authentic, but it lacks the soul. It lacks that ‘other frequency’ Lee Perry was tuning into. Just like Mc Donald’s, it’s filling, but it’s just not right, somehow. And it’s certainly not good for you. Strange thing, though: this doesn’t seem apply to all genres. Straight up punk, rock, metal, or new wave.. or electro.. Iceland has some of the best in the world, without a doubt.
Similar thing, are covers. There are some bands, some songs you just don’t cover. Unless A: you’re a super bad-ass, or B: you’re a super bad-ass. For example, Zeppelin or Hendrix, or Sly, or Stevie or Marley. Those are artists you stay away from covering, unless you are either ‘A’ or ‘B’.
Side note: RHCP covered both Hendrix and Stevie.. and ruined both songs. Doooh! A great and rare example of an artist covering other and greater artists, are the Rolling Stones. Their early work was ALL covers, and it worked. On the one hand because they were immersed in that music – the american blues, and on the other, because they were hip to that add’l frequency. They were receiving. Just look at Keith play. We’ll never know half of what goes on in there. He’s just tuned into that other frequency.
So get your groove on however you want, and play whatever you want. But if i were you, i’d stay away from the three tough ones: blues, reggae and funk. It’s just not worth it. And in the words of Charles Barkley: “I could be wrong, but i doubt it” Ha!!