Saturday, July 24, 2004

Sorry for the whole long silence. Not all my fault – blog problems too.

Anyway, I bought the new Van Halen today.

Now, what’s unusual about that sentence? Well, for a start you haven’t heard the words “new” and “Van Halen” together in seven years. But the keener-eyed amongst you may have noticed that this new Van Halen has been in British stores since Monday, and I, the Van Halen diehard, have not shelled out until six days later. What’s up?

What’s up is that I hadn’t listened to the online samples that were made available because I was too frightened the new songs were gonna suck – a premonition not helped by the mixed reviews they were receiving. And remember that I said a great title is 50% of having a hit? Well, how can a song called “Up For Breakfast” ever be any good?

I was right. I was trying to be open minded about it, but my brother (who would make the ultimate A&R man) talked some sense in to me with a swift mutter of, “What a load of shit” and turned it off mid-song. The truth hurts.

It pains me because I really believe that Van Halen should be in the league of the greats. In terms of great rock bands, they are A-list material. But somehow the legend has been ruined. They’ve blown it. Outside of America, no one cares at all and even in their homeland they were actually passed over for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. This is tragic. Me? I wish Diamond Dave was around to save the day. And I speak as no DLR lover. I don’t have any of his solo records or any of the albums he did with VH. Can’t stand the guy’s voice, and don’t think that much of him as a songwriter either. But he was the magic of Van Halen, and boy could they do with some magic today.

What’s needed is something that will persuade my generation that Van Halen are one of the Great Bands – ie bands whose name gets mentioned in the same sentence as Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. My generation just doesn’t get Van Halen. I’m not sure I even really get Van Halen. But from reading and listening, I think I’ve pieced together what made them great. Best of Both Worlds fails hugely on all counts to communicate this. For a start, there’s the cynical cashing in of it all. A seven year wait, and for what? The last VH compilation was called Best of, Volume 1 so this should be volume 2, right, with no overlap from the original. But actually, apart from the new 1996 Roth songs, everything that was on volume 1 is on this new compilation. This is a minor gripe though, really, the sort of manipulation we music buyers are used to by now. A bigger problem is that both compilations, while calling themselves Best-Ofs, have actually tried to be greatest hits packages. And of course you have to have hits to sell something. But in markets outside of North America, releasing a Van Halen greatest hits album is a problem, because they don’t have any. Well, apart from “Jump”. But, fantastic timeless pop song though that is, it is not going to persuade many 19 year old Metallica fans to switch allegiance to Ed & co. Best of Both Worlds is loaded with dated late-80s schmaltz like “Feels So Good”. Since no one in Britain’s ever heard that anyway, they might as well have stuck on “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”. Ah well. Tracklist bitching is as old as compilations themselves, and it’s still only a minor gripe.

The problem is that I don’t think you can grasp the greatness of Van Halen just by listening to their albums in the 21st century; I think you had to see them. All of their CDs are patchy. The early ones features Diamond Dave’s appalling non-singing and suffered from tight-fisted budgets from a record company that didn’t believe in the band (Van Halen 2 was actually recorded for less money than VH1 since the good folks at Warners thought the first album was a fluke). The late ‘80s stuff now sounds dated and, while I love it to death, it takes a connoisseur to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill hair metal. The things that made Van Halen great were the incredible showmanship and musicianship, along with how revolutionary they were, something difficult to grasp in hindsight. Another problem is the lack of bands in the 90s willing to cite them as an influence. Alice in Chains and the Smashing Pumpkins came out of the closet, but until recently the music world has been reluctant to acknowledge them. Which is part of the problem with explaining them to kids my age. Classic Van Halen just sounds so different from everything that’s around today that it’s hard to make it seem relevant, whereas there’s so much Zeppelin and Metallica copying going on even now that it’s hardly a leap to go from Audioslave to the originals. Still, this is changing – the last time I picked up Total Guitar, everyone interviewed mentioned Eddie Van Halen.

The main thing about Van Halen was the flamboyance and the colour. And that’s where David Lee Roth comes in. His critics need to understand a few things. 1) Saying Dave can no longer sing is not a legitimate criticism since he never could in the first place. 2) Saying he is sad and washed up is also irrelevant, because the second you put him back in Van Halen, he is no longer either of the above. 3) Saying he is too old is just defeatist because neither you nor I am in possession of a time machine, and since the Van Halen legacy is in shreds, we have to make lemonade with what we got. What Dave does still have is the personality. And that’s 98% of it anyway. The remaining 2% can be made up with a lot of EVH solos. And no songs called “Up For Breakfast”.

You really need to read Dave’s book, specifically the chapters called “Wars & Remembrance” and “Reunion Blues”. He says it better than me. If you read them, you will be convinced. Dave is not just a singer. He gets involved in every aspect of the production. Best of Both Worlds is a pathetically inadequate tribute to the greatest American rock band since Aerosmith. If Dave had been around, even the packaging would have been better. I am no graphic designer, but vibrant presentation was a huge part of Van Halen. Roth described it as “the greatest visual entity”. He talks about how to him getting involved in artwork is communicating to your audience every bit as much as the songs themselves. In short: it matters. So a plain black cover doesn’t cut it. Musically, too there is a ton of unreleased Van Halen stuff sitting in the vaults. If Dave had his way, that would come out too. That’s what we need. Early ‘80s studio outtakes and live recordings? That would show the kids what Van Halen really meant.

Too many fights and too little music have left Van Halen as irrelevant to modern music as Def Leppard. The world needs Dave.


Saturday, July 10, 2004

Check out more Rock Hole auctions... Def Leppard and White Lion.

And if you're not bidding, spare a thought for the poor idiot who buys the White Lion CD.

I hope they don't read this site.



Friday, July 09, 2004

Rock Hole Q&A

You talk alot about melody, and hooks.. etc.. while I have a faint understanding of what you're referring to.. I'd love to have a strong enough idea that I can formulate my own opinions. if you can think of some prime examples of good and bad "hooks" or melodies.. etc.. based on songs you'd expect me to own.. that'd be awesome

Okay, hooks are fascinating to me, because you would think they are subjective and purely a case of writing something you like and hoping other people will too, but top hit writers approach it like a science.

The question I keep searching for is: What is a great hook, how do you know when you've got one, and how do you come up with one?

First of all, we'd better define what a hook is. Unfortunately, it's not in any dictionaries or books I have, so I have to make up my own definition.

In pop music, a hook is usually a vocal phrase, and it's usually in the chorus. However, my definition of a hook would be: any short, catchy musical idea. It's called a hook because it "hooks" you into the song. The hooks job is to sell you the song. So if you hear the song and it grabs you, the hook has done its job. If it grabs a lot of people, then you can say it's a successful hook, and a successful hook is a great hook, I guess. Hooks are a commercial thing. People that are just into making artistic music or whatever don't need to worry about having lots of hooks, because they aren't worried about sales. If you're worried about sales, you need hooks. I also like hooks for a second reason: I think a song is boring if it doesn't have them. I enjoy catchy, memorable things that stick in my head and make me sing along. I like commercial music.

The best comparison for a hook is a soundbite. You know when politicians make speeches and they want to make headlines so they come up with a short, snappy phrase to catch the voters' attention? A hook is a soundbite for a song. Repetition is important. Although a great hook should get you first time, most hooks are repeated just to make sure you can't forget it. Most hooks are pretty gimmicky, but the best don't wear thin even after many listens. But this is pop hear. A hook's job is not to become an immortal piece of art. A hooks job is to make sure that on Monday the shelves are full of the record, and by Friday they're empty.

Since the chorus is usually the most memorable part of the song, the hook is usually contained there. However, it's accepted wisdom in the music biz that you need to hook your listeners in as quickly as possible before they have a chance to get bored and change the station. As a result, many songs contain hooks much earlier in the song. This can be done a number of ways. One way is to start the song with chorus (which contains the hook), or an instrumental version of the chorus (as on Bang Bang by Danger Danger). Doing this has the added advantage that when the listener hears the chorus for the first time, it is already familiar to them.

Let me define a second term: Riff. A riff is any repeated instrumental idea.

A riff can function as a hook, particularly in hard rock. Guitar riffs often are the main hooks in heavy rock songs, (eg Smoke on the Water, Back in Black). Opening with a strong guitar riff is a good way to instantly hook your listener. Another example of an instrumental riff acting as a hook is that duh-duh-da-dah-dah DUH DUH brass riff in "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" by Shania Twain (Mutt Lange is the king of the hook. He is Captain Hook).

In pop music I've noticed a recent trend toward kind of spoken hooks on the into. Like in Britney Spears' song "Baby One More Time", the line "Oh baby, baby". It sticks in your head, it's immediately identifiable (that's very important for a hook), and it comes early on in the song. Using those kind of hooks is also a good way to put a hook early in the song (Do you wanna get rocked? And what about Beyonce? Uh oh, oh-oh oh no no... "Uh oh" is a very happening hook in pop music right now... or it was a few months ago).

Sometimes I call these hooks that come early in the song "secondary hooks", because the main hook is still found in the chorus. The really big hits are just stuffed with hooks. They aren't just banking on the chorus. They've stuffed the song with hooks. The riffs are catchy. The verse is simple and memorable. The guitar solo is one that you can sing.

Drums can also features as hooks -- see "I Don't Wanna Know" by Mario Winans. I'm only picking this because it's current. A drummer once pointed out to me that a drum loop can be a hook because it's so repetitive in a way that a human drummer can never be. This is a great drum loop. I don't pay much attention to drum loops, but to people who load up their cars with sub-woofers for maximum bass, this kind of stuff makes or breaks the record. A drum fill can also be a hook.

Since the most successful hooks are vocal lines, there are two factors in getting them right. First up, the melody has to be good. This is the most subjective area, in my view. How do you know when a melody is good? Well, melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm, so basically you just need nice sounding notes sung in a cool rhythm. Musicians basically come up with this by trial and error, although obviously you can learn a lot from what's been done in the past. Then you can gloss up your melody with harmonies, and harmony is, unlike melody or hook writing, a very well covered topic in musical academic literature.

The second thing you need is a lyric that people are going to catch on to. Remember I said a hook is like a political soundbite? Well here is where that comes into play. You need words that people are going to relate to, that they're going to remember, and that they're gonna like. And if it's gonna sell, it almost always has to be about love or sex. "Rag Doll" by Aerosmith was gonna be about ragtime, an early form of blues music and an ancestor of rock n' roll. John Kalodner said "No one's going to understand that. We need hits this time. You've gotta sing about pussy!" Some people don't like the sound of that. If not, maybe hook writing isn't for them. Remember, we're trying to sell records. Sometimes you get a hit which is not about love or sex, but the lyrical theme always has mass appeal.

Hook spotting is easy. Just think of a song that's been a big hit and ask yourself, "What is the bit that everyone remembers? Why does everyone like this song?" That's the hook. The bigger the song, the better the hook, in theory at least.

Some classic hooks? In no particular order, off the top of my head:

1) "Pour Some Sugar on Me". Joe Elliott started singing this chorus casually one day, and Mutt Lange said "WHAT WAS THAT? That's the best hook I've heard in years!" If Mutt says that, it's good. And just look at what a hit that song continues to be. It does everything we asked of it: Great melody, harmonies, and a catchy lyrical idea with a sexual theme. Sex sells.

2) "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" by the Offspring. Why was this such a huge hit? Yes, the riff is cool, and the chorus rocks, but what made this crossover to the pop market? "Uno, dos, treis, quatro, cinco, cinco, seis" and "Give it to me baby -- UH HUH! UH HUH!" Hook city. Similarly, a band called the Shamen had a massive UK dance hit in the early 90s (I think) with "Ebenezer Goode". The song was good, but what made it a hit was a guy saying in a funny voice "Naughty naughty, veryyyy naughtyyyy" between the chorus and the second verse.

3) "Walk This Way". What can you say? That is the best guitar hook ever, bar none. And then WALK THIS WAY in the chorus totally hits the spot. Two killer hooks, one song. Smash hit.

4) "Livin' on a Prayer". Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that "whoa oh" always seems to work as a hook. Almost any Bon Jovi single has a great hook. The bassline also acts as a hook, as does the talkbox guitar. Anything that's an unusual sound that people haven't heard before works as a hook, like talkbox guitar, or Cher's hit "Believe", where the vocoder effect on her voice basically is the hook.

5) "All You Need is Love" by the Beatles. The chorus melody is great. The brass in between lines also acts as a hook though. Arguably, it's more important than the vocal.

6) "Kickstart my Heart". A great title is 50% of having a hit. Internal rhyme and alliteration are great things to have in a hit title. There are hits with lame titles, but most slam-dunkers have awesome titles too. Think about it.

7) "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys. The first part of the greatest double A-side pairing in the history of rock & roll is stashed with melodic genius, but I'm picking out Mike Love's tags from the end of the song "Good night baby... sleep tight baby" and the "ba ba ba ba" backing vocal. The first is a simple repetitive hook, and the other is a good example of a vocal hook that doesn't need words to work, like "whoa-oh" in "Livin' on a Prayer" or any song which has a "nah nah nah" sequence in it. At the beginning of "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne there's that nonsense "la la la la" tag which works as a secondary hook.

8) "Jump" by Van Halen. A keyboard riff is the hook here, really... there's not that much of interest happening melodically in the chorus, although you shouldn't underestimate the power of something simple that any idiot can shout along to.

9) "We Will Rock You". Again, a rhythmic thing is functioning as a hook, this time it's stomping and clapping. This is a feature of many great hooks though -- something everyone can join in with. Of course, the melody is important here too. This is a hit even without instrumentation -- a triumph of economy.

10) "Let's Get Rocked". This is just genius. If you did a chart of all the songs I've ever heard, this would be #1 -- most listened to, most sung while walking down the street, most consistently loved. Many people thought it was stupid, but the not-so-subtle innuendos more than did the job, and every second of this song is packed with hooks. It's hard to know where to start. "I s'pose a rock's outta the question", "let's get the rock outta here", the "Chopin/ Mozart/ Beethoven" sequence with accompanying strings... You barely have time to breathe between hooks. Def Leppard were rewarded with their biggest ever global hit.

I think that's everything I know about hooks. It's everything I can think of right now at least.