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Below is a perspective on the state of pop music from my good friend Richard Birt from Los Angeles. Richard’s rememberance of the late great Joe Strummer is particularly enlightening. Enjoy
Zen Ten 2002There was an abundance of musical riches this year on the Left Coast and Los Angeles in particular. 2002 saw Beck, the Eels, Jurassic Five, No Doubt, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and Peter Yorn release some of their best work ever, to critical and local acclaim.
It was a great year for live music as well. Local Orange County faves, No Doubt, opened for both the Rolling Stones and U2, while supporting a major arena level tour on their own. We also had several industry showcase club events during the spring of 2002, highlighting the new garage, grunge and swamp-punk sounds of the Vines (Sydney), the White Stripes (Detroit) and the Hives (Sweden), well in advance of the media feeding frenzy that would come in the fall. In April, we had the third installment of the Coachella Music Festival, which drew 70,000 attendees over three days. The booking was eclectic, featuring rap, electronica and rock, and some of the best up-and-coming acts from around the World. Mars Volta, a new band featuring ex-members from At The Drive-in, stole the show with a devastating set that recalled Rage Against The Machine in their heyday. Expect their debut album in 2003.
Eminem became the new Elvis this year, scoring back-to-back hits with The Eminem Show and 8 Mile, which highlighted his undeniable gifts as one of the best rappers in popular music, black or white. There was also an excellent movie from the U.K., 24 Hour Party People, which brought to the screen the wonderful story of Tony Wilson and Factory Records, celebrating post punk and the rise of the “Madchester” dance scene, via New Order and the Happy Mondays.
Looking back, I would have thought there would have been more albums based on a thematic response to 9/11. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle came up with fresh and thoughtful takes on the events of that day in 2001, a cut above and beyond the fake celebrity and patriotic posturing of Neil Young and Paul McCartney’s lame efforts.
In Remembrance: Joe Strummer (1952 to 2002)
I was greatly saddened to hear about the recent passing of the founder of the Clash. I was a fan from 1977 and I saw them live on all three of their US Tours, taking in shows in LA and even Amsterdam. Hands down, they were the best live band I have ever seen. Jackhammer beats, big, loping Reggae bass-lines, crunchy guitars and tuneful yelping and barking: what was not to like.
I had the great privilege of meeting Joe in person during the US Festival, a three day event held here in San Bernardino in 1983. A collegiate friend and I were in charge of backstage security, and we brought every band in by helicopter, a member at a time. I will always remember him dressed in black, awaiting the other members to arrive, sitting by the landing pad, drinking a beer, soaking up the sun, and cleaning the dirt from his nails with a switchblade knife he had bought in Mexico. He was both talkative and polite, asking me what I thought of his varied music preferences and he inquired on the socio-demographics of Los Angeles. He really dug the multi-cultural aspects of my hometown.
Minutes later, his press spokesman, Cosmo Vinyl, would get in a fight with two roadies backstage, during a heated exchange, which almost prompted the band to pull out of the gig. Cooler heads prevailed, and they played an intense set that night, which would be their last ever American date. Eying him from the side of the stage, Joe’s face looked like it was going to explode, sweat-dripping off his forehead, while a cloud of dust emerged from the mosh pit. He came off the stage coated in mud. I gave him my water bottle and a towel, as showers were a 3 hour flight and drive away, while we waited for the last helicopter. He asked me if I liked the show and gave me a welcoming grin, mouth full of terrible teeth, when I said yes. I can recall the events and that smile from that day as if it was in 2002.
1) Beck, “Lost Cause.” Women: can’t live with them, can’t live without them! Beck’s loss was our gain, leaving behind a string of beautiful songs, sung softly over Nigel Godrich’s rich production. This song is a mature effort, with honest feelings of personal longing and loss, from the usually mercurial Beck.
2) Coldplay, “The Scientist.” A Rush of Blood to the Head may be the best British sophomore effort seen since Oasis and Radiohead. This album is very English in tone and delivery, and greatly stands apart from anything produced on these shores in 2002. You will likely be slowly won over by the shimmering balladry, as represented by this song, rather than the tame rockers also featured in this collection. Expect a major U.S. tour promoting the album this winter.
3) Ryan Adams, “Cry on Demand.” Taken off Demolition, a well thought out collection of demos culled from four recording sessions, “Cry on Demand” revitalizes the whole musical notion of singer-songwriter. There are moments of greatness here, especially on “Nuclear” and this song, which suggest a very bright future.
4) The Hives, “Main Offender.” Lead by Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, their charismatic front man who recalls Mick circa 1965, the Hives broke out of their garage with some of the happiest and dumbest music heard in 2002. Mind you, their garage would contain Volvos, since they hail from backwater Sweden. However, they seem to take their lead from vintage Iggy Pop and the Ramones: all three minute songs, car-crash riffs and muffled production values. In a word: fun.
5) Steve Earle, “Ashes to Ashes.” Steve now looks more like a cantankerous Lumberjack than a country singer of note, but Jerusalem is one of the best state-of-the-union albums since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Largely a reaction to 9/11 and events in the Middle East, Steve serves up an alternative viewpoint, one centered more in despair and insightful indignation of American policy than in patriotic flag waving.
6) Jack Johnson, “Bubble Toes.” Warm, like a golden sunset after a day spent surfing, this is the rare find: a Desert Island Disc. Produced by J.P. Plunier, who has worked with G Love, this has a deliberately light and warm vibe that seduces you from the first listen.
7) The Nappy Roots, “Po’ Folks.” This instantly recalls all the great “positive rap” pioneers, especially Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest, and newer acts such as the Outkast, the Jurassic Five and the Roots. There is much to root for here, including amazing fast rhyming and extraordinary lyrics.
8) Ms Dynamite, “A Little Deeper.” London-based, 21-year old Ms Dynamite is U.K.’s answer to Lauryn Hill, delivering thoughtful hip hop and honeyed soul in equal measures. This song, taken from an album from the same name, won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 2002. Unfortunately, she has not been distributed here yet, so you will have to burn this off the internet or order this on import.
9) Bruce Springsteen, “Lonesome Day.” The Rising was a disappointment to me; in hindsight, an above average album in need of excellent editing. The majority of the album’s songs try too hard to dish up the E Street Band’s signature stadium-filling sound, rather than letting the best songs breathe and take flight on their own. With this said, there were a trio of deeply moving songs dealing most closely with 9/11, which were an epiphany for me. “Empty Sky,” “You’re Missing” and “Lonesome Day” delivered lyrics with profound insights and heartfelt panache, and will be remembered as some of the best in his rich catalogue.
10) The Vines, “Get Free.” This was one of the most hyped bands of the fall of 2002, drawing instant comparisons to Cobain and Lennon from such respected publications as Q and Rolling Stone. While it is too early to turn over the rock throne from U2 or Radiohead, the Vines’ debut effort still really shines with powerful, melodic rock tunes like “Factory,” “Highly Evolved” and “Get Free.”
Honorable Zen Mentions:
1) Red Hot Chili Peppers, By The Way. Former sock-waving funk-metallers discover the Beach Boys and produce warmest and most mature album to-date.
2) David Holmes, Ocean’s Eleven OST. Very creative and eclectic mix album, perfect for that moonlight run home through the Mojave Desert after blowing your stack at the tables.
3) Lemon Jelly, Lost Horizons. Hushed electronica chill out, perfect for the next Mitsubishi ad campaign.
4) Beth Orton, Daybreaker. Beth came out with a smashing debut, Trailer Park, in 1995, which garnered huge critical assessments and a cult following. Central Reservation, her follow-up, suffered from the sophomore jinx, largely undistinguished and the singing feeling tentative. Daybreaker is a nice return to form, featuring guest appearances of Johnny Mar (The Smiths), Ryan Adams and members from Beck’s touring band.
5) OST, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Eno to Zappa, plus great Nuevo Rock acts from Mexico, this is a cross-cultural music mix from the sleeper Mexican road trip/coming-of-age movie. Think of fish tacos and cheap beer in a dusty coastal town.