Mix: State of the band union

For whatever reason, I am fascinated by songs about the experience of being a recording artist, especially those addressing frustrations toward the industry. When they are autobiographical, I consider these “state of the band union” songs, the public airing of an artist’s grievances.

I’m surprised there aren’t more such songs, as that would seem to me to be similar to how much Hollywood loves to make movies about itself. Akin to those pictures, many of the songs I have encountered about the music industry are highly facetious.

So, here’s a mix of tracks that give a general impression of a profession I have had little exposure to, but which scan as accurate to me. Once again, the links are to YouTube videos that may later be as dead as some of the musicians in this mix.

“I Love My Label” by Nick Lowe

A typically witty early single from the guy I once read a description of being “the world’s greatest production slob”. This catchy number is an embarrassment of riches lyrically, with such insights as “they always ask for lots of songs/of no more than 2′ 20″ long/so I wrote ’em some”. Lowe was incredibly clever, especially in the early years of his career, once naming an EP Bowi after David Bowie released an album titled Low.

“The World Band In The World” by 10cc

If Nick Lowe was a clever anomaly in the world of rock music, 10cc was a whole band made up of precocious musicians and songwriters who were usually the smartest people in a room. They especially put the smart in smartass, with such brilliant tracks as this one, a skewed analysis of the process of making a hit song. Later, and memorably, sampled to great use by J Dilla on his farewell album Donuts.

“Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal” by They Might Be Giants

It is hard to believe there once was a major scandal about radio DJs receiving compensation for spinning particular tracks on the air. This “Payola” scandal ruined a few careers, such as that of legendary 50’s DJ Alan Freed. There have been similar scandals over the years, including some in this century. I find that astounding when worse white-collar crimes seem to make news almost daily nowadays.

“Star” by Stealers Wheel

Stealers Wheel is best known for “Stuck In The Middle With You”, but “Star” is my favorite song of theirs. Though beautifully sung and played, it conceals some seriously bitter lyrics. What is all the more shocking is its author, Joe Egan, was likely aiming these barbs at his partner in this duo, Gerry Rafferty.

“Write Record Release Blues” by The Jesus & Mary Chain

The title says it all, doesn’t it?

“I Am Produced” by Guided By Voices

An interesting little ditty from the perspective of the physical record being made at the pressing plant. Similar to the JAMC track, I find this an interesting commentary on the mundane and repetitious process of creating new product.

“2002 A Hit Song” by The Free Design

I wouldn’t have expected trenchant insights on the music industry from such a lightweight act, though digging deeper into their catalog reveals some unexpected shades from the group who made “Kites Are Fun”. Somehow, this track is one of the hardest hitting in this mix, with the highly polished, upbeat production making the lyrics even more bitterly ironic. “We did all this last time/and it did not work/What?!”

“Top of the Pops” by The Kinks

…and then the hollow victory when one actually makes the big time…

“Mercury Poisoning” by Graham Parker

This song may be a bit confusing until one realizes Parker was on the Mercury label at the time, and they seriously didn’t know how to market him.

“Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?” by The Monkees

Rather obvious what this song is about, as reinforced by the lines “Didn’t I do it right the first time?” and “How many times do I have to make this rhyme”. Sung by Peter Tork, the first to leave the group, and it was after this movie and its soundtrack album.

“The Beta Band Rap” by The Beta Band

This, the first track off their debut album, allegedly details The Beta Band’s early days, from their formation up through getting signed to a label. I was amused by how off-putting this track is–essentially, putting their worst foot forward. Tellingly, the band immediately disowned the album upon release, though I’m still unsure as to how serious they were about that.

“The Machine” by The Association

60’s soft rock kings The Association were far better than their detractors would have one believe. All that AM-radio play didn’t obscure some of their more curious tendencies, such as this bit where they portray themselves as a machine that cranks out music. More whimsical than cynical, they did this bit as part of their performances at the Monterey Pop Festival and on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” by The Byrds

Those born in this century may find this baffling, but the lines between rock and pop used to be firmly defined and largely uncrossable. Listening to this track might help to better understand the thought process of the time, with this being a direct shot at The Monkees. As for myself, I am a huge fan of both of these groups. Also, to their credit, the members of The Monkees worked hard at becoming a real band beginning with the album Headquarters. Unfortunately, it still can’t be disputed they began as a prefabricated entity.

“Only A Northern Song” by The Beatles

This song, recorded in the sessions for Sgt. Pepper, is one of the least liked in the canon of the world’s most legendary band. Not to be contrarian, but it may be one of my ten most favorite by them, and that is coming from a massive fan. There’s an uneasy feeling throughout this track, akin to that surreal feeling of being awake at 3 am (that is, if your normal mode of operation is during daylight hours). I find this song a bit unnerving, and I like that. There aren’t many in their oeuvre you can say that about. But it is included here because George Harrison wrote it in protest to the smaller share he had in Northern Songs (the Beatles’s publishing company) than Lennon or McCartney.

“Red Lights” by Marbles

“Hey, old timer, there’s a new kid on the block/Before he’s through with you, your amps will be in hock”. Excellent power-pop number about a hot new performer in town, who is shutting down the legacy acts. And yet, even the singer lamenting this situation wishes he could get in on that action: “I will sell my mother/for the chance to play guitar/in his band.”

“Company Book” by Sugar

I like this song, one of the few tracks from this band not sang by Bob Mould. It seems like yet another cynical take on the music industry, though I’ll be damned if I can actually figure out what’s going on. “The songs inside the company book/do not deserve a look/they are rules in and of themselves.”

“Drum Machine” by Too Much Joy

There were a lot of “funny” bands around in the early 90’s, but few were smarter, or had better hooks, than Too Much Joy. This toss-off song is a great example of their clever writing.

“Neighborhood Rock ‘N’ Roll Band” by Gary Lewis & The Playboys

It took me a while to come to appreciate Gary Lewis. That he is the son of the legendary comedian gives his recording career a whiff of nepotism. But as I recently learned, he originally performed under a pseudonym and never tried to trade on his influential father’s name. Although I came to enjoy some of his music (some of it to a considerable extent), he would never be mistaken for a rocker. The closest he ever came is this number, which at least has some raucous, discordant and feedbacking guitar. Even so, I feel this is more of a fantasy of being in a literal garage band than nostalgia for ever having really been in one.

“(Now That’s) The Barclords” by Urge Overkill

Another bit of fantasy, this time the band Urge Overkill somehow both as the big stars they wanted to be and aspiring guys on the outside looking in. This was in keeping with the unusual line they straddled in the early 90’s, adopting neither the sound nor style of the grunge scene, yet being too strange for the mainstream. They were magnificent, and this track shows how hard they rocked for any decade.

“Meet On The Ledge” by Fairport Convention

For my last selection, a chose a song where a band back in the 60’s imagined their reunion on a rooftop in the future, long after they have presumably separated. “We used to say/there’d come a day/we’d all be making songs”. Alas, singer Sandy Denny would not be in such a reunion, should one happen, as she died in 1978, making this track all the more poignant. “When my time is up/I’m going to/see all my friends”.