Friday, January 16, 2015

Da Vinci Who? Multi-faceted Musicians!

Much has been made of the story of the musician that drops out of school, leaves a career at the assembly-line or says goodbye to flipping burgers and fries to walk onto the stage. Even more has been said about those who have left behind a criminal career or had no foreseeable way out of the slums except to sing or dance or rap his way to the top of the charts, sometimes with the help of his four brothers and their shiny white teeth.
   Everyone likes to hear the rags to riches story. The one about the underdog getting a break and succeeding, or more specifically; the average Joe or Jane finding their way to the top of their profession, running only on guts and pride and trusting only in their god-given talents. We like to hear the poverty story: where parents went without shoes to pay for piano lessons or the boy or girl learned to sing in a choir in a local church. These stories appeal to people on an emotional level. It's a quaint story that warms the heart and it isn't entirely untrue or fabricated. It does happen and it makes us feel good to think that music is/was a person's salvation from a life of drudgery or an escape from a terrible neighbourhood, a career in crime, or a broken home.
  But there's a subtle implication to some of these stories, if not all of them, and that's the suggestion that if not for music, some intrinsic talent, God's gift of creativity, the touch of the muse or the enlightenment of the soul, that this person or these individuals, musicians, would somehow be lost or wholly unsuccessful in the world. If not for Rock or Rap or Pop, they would be Luddites, drones, slugs, per-diem labourers, slum-dogs, chumps, losers, even convicts. Basically, if not for a hit single or a viral video, the suggestion is that all these people, musicians, would be considered unskilled or worse, obsolete and useless in this modern and technological world. Someone has to do the drudgery, sweep the floor and wash the dishes, and it's the failed musician that is likely one to do it.
    Of course, there's no proof of stupidity in these individuals. Nothing would suggest they are less intelligent than anyone else. Just because Elvis Presley was driving a truck before he cut his first record doesn't mean he was destined to be a truck driver and diverted by a singing carreer. No one knows for certain that Elvis might have become the dispatcher or even the manager of his other profession. In fact, there's no suggestion that these people were uneducated, either. At the time that Chuck Berry finished school, a high school education was pretty much as far as most people went unless they planned on becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
    No one would suggest that if a doctor hadn't any doctoring ability that he would never make it as a musician, but somehow criticism the other way is fair game. A musician, and to some extent those in other 'artistic' endeavours are supposed to be one-trick ponies, only good at one thing, and a failure should that one thing go awry. In most cases there's no way of knowing the 'alternate' outcomes, and no proof. But just to make a point that not all musicians are so dependant on a single raw talent or riding on a wave of popularity, we've found some people that probably fit the criteria that suggest they had more than enough 'resourcefulness' of one type or another, to have gone in a direction other than the musical route, if they chose to....and, like the proverbial 'renaissance man' some of them did.

All the members of Queen: To those who thought rock and heavy metal musicians were all stoners and dropouts who formed a rock band to tell their stories of the slums or escape a life in the assembly lines and/or hauling freight, we offer for example: John Deacon, Brian May, Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor. Each and every member of the band Queen is/was not only an accomplished musician, but has a post-high-school education in a vocation other than music.
   In the U.S. and Canada, Queen were largely thought of as one of those progressive hard rock groups of the 1970s, but in the UK, Queen had a reputation for being a somewhat arrogant rock band, seemingly overly-confidant in their abilities and perhaps a bit posh, both in their presented image and musical endeavours. Of course, taking on a band name like Queen suggested that the members were posh and thought highly of themselves, but perhaps the confidence may have come from the actual accomplishments of the members of the band themselves. Each member of the band had done well enough in school that they all seemed to have a skill/career outside of music that they could've fallen back on, or perhaps even have just switched over if they decided to change their minds about the whole music thing. John Deacon graduated with a degree in electronics, Roger Taylor had a BSc in Biology (after leaving Dentistry), Brian May had left a top school for Astronomy (much to his father's dismay at the time) before obtaining his degree, while Freddie Mercury earned a diploma in Art & Graphic Design in University of West London.
  There was a small possibility that Queen may have been forced to fall back on their academic careers, for it was well known that they had been royally screwed by their first managers. Despite putting out three best-selling albums, Norman Sheffield and a group called Trident were cheating Queen out of their royalties and most of their money from album revenues. (The song 'Death on Two Legs' is about the band's troubles with Trident) But a change of management for Queen and a quick move to put out a new album called A Night at the Opera, and this uncommonly talented band were set up to play and write music very successfully for the next two decades.
     The original Queen came to an end when Freddie Mercury would tragically die of Pneumonia brought on by AIDS in 1991. Since then, Brian May actually went back to school and got his PhD in Astrophysics.

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers
  To those who thought that those namby-pamby hippy-dippy musicians couldn't possibly translate their skills to a career in any kind of military faculty, I offer up Jeff Baxter as an example. 
   In the mid to late 1980s, the race was on to merge the modern computer with musical instruments, and this is when Jeff Baxter began earning some money by consulting for musical-instrument audio companies like Roland, Akai and AudioTechnica. In doing so, he found himself researching technical information published by the U.S. Department of Defense. He was specifically looking for things like data-compression algorithms (originally intended for satellites) that he could adopt without patent-infringement and apply to digital audio technology to record music and sounds in digital format. This led to a general interest in aviation and, almost by accident, he ended up schooling himself on rocket systems and missile defense technology. Did Baxter really need to know the circular area probability of a SCUD-B missile in order to do his job either as a guitar player or as a consultant for AudioTechnica? Probably not, but this interest in 'extraneous information' led him to write a five page paper on how modify the Aegis weapons system to use in mobile missile defense in order to give the United States 'a new role in NATO in the 21st Century'. This paper managed to get Jeff Baxter nominated to the Citizen Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense. As a result, the guitarist for the Doobies is now a Defense Consultant for the DoD.
   To some, 'Skunk' Baxter is the guy that looks most like the Muppet's musician Floyd Pepper. To others, Baxter is the guy that actually 'read the manual' and the technical specifications for everything from the television to the 747 that you're flying to Florida and finds all this information 'fascinating'. But if you spend an hour listening to this lecture by him, you'll find that not only has he 'read up' on his weapons systems, but is actively involved in the U.S. war on terror and has been from the beginning of the 21st century. Jeff Baxter is probably the epitome of all the skills that crossover from music to other aspects of life. He is the asymmetrical thinker that many musicians are, taking existing technology and using it in ways that it may never have been intended (such as Jimmy Page taking a violin bow on a guitar). He is also a proponent of the incredible power of another critical skill of musicians known as 'improvisation'. Basically, he is taking every possible advantage of all the skills that crossover from musicianship to other areas.
    Jeff Baxter might have many skills, both technical and artistic, unfortunately we may never know all his talents. He could be using his skills to spy on people illegally, and we'd never know because ever since he went to the dark side of the force and became part of the U.S. intelligence services and, since all its various bureaus are essentially operating above the law, both national and international and don't come under any sort of real civilian scrutiny. Of course, musicians doing musician things (rather than 'intelligence' things) are often the subject of surveillance and scrutiny by various arms of law enforcement whether they've done anything or not (John Lennon was investigated by the FBI for years) and perhaps it's a little ironic to have a musician on the other side. While being a musician, however, I'm sure that Baxter is required to maintain his behaviour within the boundaries of something like 'The Law' or the 'The Constitution' of wherever he decides to travel. Take that same musician, give him an "intelligence" pass and suddenly he does whatever he wants and tells no one, and we're expected to 'trust' that he's working in our best interests. Go Figure...

Business Leaders, too?
   A musician has a right to earn a living just like anyone else, and don't think that musicians haven't any business-sense, either. Musicians have often written jingles and other catchy tunes to promote everything from movies to cars, and some have cleverly turned a jingle or two into a legitimate songwriting career. Paul Williams, a favourite subject of this blog, began his career writing a jingle for a local bank.
   Tina Turner was one of the first rock n' roll musicians to 'sell her life story'. It exposed her violent and drug-addicted relationship to Ike Turner, but garnered her great success, first as a book, then later it was turned into a very successful movie featuring Lawrence Fishburn and Angela Bassett.
     Chuck Berry, the man that some might call the 'Original Guitar Hero', may have inadvertently invented the whole idea of 'outsourcing' because he decided he didn't want to pay for plane tickets for all his band members when he first travelled to europe. Instead, for almost twenty years, he hired local musicians, sometimes only for a single gig, and since they were all his employees, they had to show up on time, rehearse and play what he told them to.
     James Brown, the 'Hardest-working man in Show Business' always believed in entrepreneurship, and thought it was part of the fight for equality. He felt that black people, including himself, should own their own businesses and employ people in their own neigbourhoods. James Brown may have also invented the idea of 'targeted' marketing, when he chose to promote his singles and songs on the independant radio-stations that played to mostly black audiences.
     Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and KISS practically invented Rock n' Roll merchandising when they realized that they were making almost as much money from t-shirts as they were from selling albums. 
    Not all musicians have endorsed a product of some kind, and some have learned to look after their finances the hard way because they got ripped-off like Queen, mentioned earlier. Some, like Jimmy Page and manager Peter Grant from Led Zeppelin decided that rather than argue with the record company over what song would be on the album, it was easier to produce your own album and then go to the record company with more leverage to make a deal. More recently, bands like Radiohead and many local 'indie' bands have gone truly 100% independant, producing all their own music and financing all production of hard copies, too.

Les Paul
  To those who claim that there is no musician equivalent of Thomas Edison, Da Vinci, Einstein or Newton, we would like to present Lester William Polsfuss AKA: Les Paul.

His Guitar
  No, Les Paul did not invent the electric guitar. Neither did he invent the 'solid body' electric guitar, though there may be some debate as to who built the very first prototype. Les Paul is the inventor of one model of electric guitar called 'the Log', a solid-body electric guitar which obviously led to the later model Gibson guitar that bears his name and also happens to be one of the most iconic rock n' roll sounds that blared through people's speakers throughout the latter part of the 20th Century and even today.
   Les Paul's idea was simply that the instrument that he loved wasn't loud enough for the future of music. He didn't want the guitar to take a back seat to the saxophone, the piano, drums and other instruments. From various experiments that he'd done on his own, he determined that the best electric guitar body was one that was solid, rigid, dense and strong, like "a railroad track". His first prototype for a solid-body guitar was simply called: "The Log" and the 'body shape' was just for show. The actually 'body' was just a single, rigid piece of wood, from the headstock through the fretboard to the other end where the strings were secured. The Gibson corporation rejected the log design, but changed their minds about Les Paul five years later when they were looking to create a solid-body Gibson electric. They came back to Les Paul to ask him to put his name and approval on a new design: a high-quality solid-body guitar made of the most rigid, heavy, dense wood with a reverse cut-away curve out of the body so that the highest frets on the guitar could be reached easily. 
   The Gibson Les Paul was not popular as soon as it came out. Gibson was better known for making acoustic guitars, as well as some very elegant-looking electric hollow body guitars with large f-holes in the side and shiny, lacquered wood with visible grain. By comparison to the ornate and complicated woodwork of the hollow body guitar and the candy-coloured solid-body guitars of the competition, the Les Paul seemed an old-fashioned thing, built heavy, solid and very durable, but on the expensive side and seemingly too tough to get those mild tones. The Gibson Les Paul was discontinued in 1961; Gibson gave up the Les Paul in favour of the much lighter Gibson SG model.
   A few years later, rock and roll became popular worldwide, the audiences and venues were larger, the amplifiers got louder, the music became more bombastic, more guitar solos and riffs, power chords and distortion. With that increase in volume and the importance of the electric guitar came feedback and note-disruption, in large theatres and outdoor shows the twang of a string dissipated as soon as it was played. Then suddenly those heavy, dense Les Paul guitars came back with a vengeance. The dense, solid-body prevented feedback and concentrated the energy of the vibrating string, creating a more powerful sustain. It seemed as though these guitars were built for Rock n Roll's great volume and high-gain amplification; almost encouraging the emergence of the lead guitar rockers and their flashy solos. The British rockers caught on quickly: first Eric Clapton, then Peter Green, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page. Later, Joe Perry and every American rocker had to have one. Eventually guitar players would praise and admire the Gibson Les Paul, making a once-discontinued guitar model one of the most popular designs of guitar ever. The 1959 'burst' Gibson Les Paul is still one of the most sought after instruments of all time, a veritable 'Stradivarius' of it's own era, some of them selling for as much as several hundred thousand dollars.
   Much less expensive are the remakes, the non-vintage modern equivalent. Gibson now makes most of its profits upon the Les Paul design and re-design. There are less expensive versions (Standard and Studio models) but more often than not, they continue to maintain the style, the solid body and even the overall look of the Les Paul 1950s design. Many famous guitar players have 'signature' guitars, but this Les Paul model is the only that has become the icon for decades of guitar music and the basis for one manufacturer's success.

Multi-track recording, Overdubbing, Looping and other inventions: As if his electric guitar wasn't enough, Les Paul's inventive mind had figured out the idea of having multiple channels, including stereo, long before the Beatles' classic Sergeant Pepper album. Paul started out by recording from acetate disks, playing along with albums to create a dual-guitar sound recording when he was the only one playing.
   Later, he convinced his employer Bing Crosby to invest in high-quality audio tape originally invented by the Germans during World War II and this is when Les Paul began experimenting with what we now know as overdubbing, first by installing multiple tape heads to a single machine.
   Finally, with the help of some investment by Bing Crosby, Les Paul owned the world's first multi-track recording device: the eight-track Ampex 'Octopus'. This multi-track recording unit was used to synchronize eight different reel to reel tape machines, but would eventually lead to all the modern multi-track recording techniques from the seventies until now.
     Hundred of thousands of people play around with 'Looper' apps on their smartphones now, but Les Paul invented an attachment to his guitar which allowed him to play along with a looped recording nearly fifty years before. 'The Paulverizer' as he called it, 'would multiply anything that was fed through it'. In actual fact, it was an early model of a recording device that would loop playback so that he could play along with the recording. In live appearances, Paul used the device to surprise his audiences who only saw one guitar player onstage, but suddenly heard five or six guitars at once.
    Les Paul was the pioneer of recording techniques like layering voices, multiplying the number of instruments as well as speeding up playback. These ideas would later be used by the Beatles and numerous other musicians, including the aforementioned Queen who's legendary multi-tracking on Bohemian Rhapsody allowed three singers to sound like an entire operatic choir singing 'Galileo'.

All this and Gold Records, too: Les Paul could always claim that he worked with Bing Crosby and that would be a legitimate claim to fame for most musicians, and a musical accomplishment all on its own. But Les Paul and his then wife Mary Ford had at least three gold-selling singles during the late forties to the early sixties. His accomplishments in playing, song-writing and recording have since been well-recognized in awards coming from many different fields including the Grammy's, the Audio Engineering Society and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
So, okay musicians are multi-talented, so what?
     This blog doesn't mean to suggest that there's never been a musician that ended up tending bar at a nightclub or flipping burgers. Some musicians have long held onto their dream, and when they couldn't play the gig or rock out, they chose to be the roadie or the guitar tech or even the tour-bus driver. Others, when the band broke up, simply picked themselves up and moved onto other things. Musicians are just like every other person in this world, they are many and varied, with different personalities and skills, and some of those skills are in demand while others have to struggle to move into another area of life. Some musicians have to switch professions even after they've had a hit record, usually when their albums aren't selling in the thousands anymore and their gigs have gone from filling a couple thousand seats in an amphitheatre to piling about three hundred fifty into a nightclub. Many musicians have signed themselves to terrible record deals that guaranteed a profit to the record company but only gave a slight hope of real success to the band or artists responsible.
   The real truth is that any person can try and fail at any profession and being a musician is one of the most difficult and demanding choices with very little definition for what could have gone wrong. There's no reason to think that musicians that fail are stupid, nor that the ones that succeed are only a fluke. Simultaneously, just because you graduated from MIT doesn't mean you're going to have a hit album, or even a single. No level of education can guarantee a person a career in music, especially not a recording career that spans several albums, and nothing can guarantee that, even if you do succeed, that success is going to last.  In writing this blog, we at Very Us Mumblings have noticed a trend of musicians getting ripped-off by unscrupulous managers and deceitful business practices by people who know that the time and talent of musicians is limited and despite the failure of the old music-industry model, those people are still out there and they fully intend to turn talent into money and if they leave the artist or musician with nothing, it is only considered a bonus. Such evil still exists, and as a result, being a musician is still one of the toughest careers there is, and there's no reason to think less of a person who has tried and failed. Sometimes trying is worth trying and we can all commend that.
   And finally... At Very Us Mumblings, we believe that no one is truly a single-talent superstar. Everyone is multi-talented and the idea that we should only do one thing for our whole lives seems a little ridiculous considering that we, as a species, are living longer and longer. Over seventy years is almost expected, and a hundred years is not so uncommon that only a few have ever known a person or two in the hundreds. This is a long time to live doing only one thing. The idea that someone should be so specialized in their skills or talent is an antiquated idea, and it probably seemed outdated long before it could be proven so.
   When Rock n' Roll seemed to have left Les Paul's musicial style behind, Les Paul re-emerged from a semi-retirement in the 1960s to begin playing again, first to play some colleges to entertain and answer questions from students. When Les Paul was asked where he drew the line between music and inventing, he stated: "There is no line". He would continue to tinker, experiment and perform live into his nineties. His final appearances were playing Monday nights at New York's Iridium Jazz Club in the Times Square area. It's been said that these Monday night appearances drew a new generation of guitar players in the audience such as Slash and Richie Sambora, paying homage to someone who is an inspiring person, as well as a great guitar-player.

A few Footnotes on the Business Leaders section:
  • As with most business practices, outsourcing has both benefits and drawbacks, Chuck Berry's practice of only using hire-ons led to many shows of questionable quality because Chuck Berry often hired a new band even if the travel expense was just a few hours drive to another town and sometimes the new band couldn't be properly rehearsed in time for the show.
  • James Brown's entrepreneurship was well known, but often he stretched his investments into businesses that weren't related to music and often unsuccessful. e.g: James Brown owned both a number of radio stations and a fried-chicken restaurant. Certainly the radio stations seemed to make more sense than the restaurant, but maybe James Brown had some cooking talent that others didn't know about.
  • Kiss Merchandising is often used as the high example of an idea that can be taken too far. The term 'sell-out' is used sometimes too harshly when talking about bands that use their 'image' or 'logo' to sell something that doesn't have anything to do with music. Gene Simmons has stated Kiss is a brand, not a band, but fans didn't particularly enjoy the Kiss action figure dolls that they put on the market in the early 80s, and it's reported only a very few Kiss funeral caskets were sold before the line was discontinued.  The ultimate Kiss 'sell-out' seemed to be the Kiss Credit-Card, but apparently some Kiss army faithful are getting a better interest rate for their loyalty because the card seems to be popular. Some fans think that too much merchandising cheapens the name, but Simmons has continually stated that he is just giving the fans what they want. It should also be noted that KISS was born and became famous during a time when booming record sales didn't always translate into millions for the artists. Record companies in the 1950s through the 1970s were notorious for their onerous deals which forced the band/artist to produce records on borrowed capital which was expected to be paid back and then left the musicians with only a small percentage of the money generated from album/record sales. As a result, merchandising might have been the only way a band could truly make a living and continue.