Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Ezy Ryder"

I'm taking a night class in creative writing - sort of scratching an ancient itch of you like. While I write for a living, journalism isn't exactly creative: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, it's all laid out there for you and all you need to do is arrange it so that it makes sense. Creative writing is conjuring something out of thin air, something that didn't necessarily happen to people that don't necessarily exist.
And as any teacher will tell you, a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And as I'm finding out, a good beginning is a real challenge.
Which brings me to songs, and how a great song begins. The only problem here is that there are so many great intros to choose from.
I've already listed more than a few songs that have magnificent intros: the Stones' apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter", Hendrix's unstoppable "Ezy Ryder", the Allman Brothers' spic "Whipping Post", CSN&Y's gentle, perfect "Find the Cost of Freedom", Arlo Guthrie's gorgeous "Gabriel's Mother's Hiway Ballad No. 16 Blues", the list goes on....
But then, it's not necessarily *what* you start a song with, but *how* you start it that matters. So a song with no intro at all can be great - the Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict" kicks off with lyrics before the music starts, while Catatonia's "Road Rage" puts Cerys Mathews' voice well to the fore, so you've heard two lines of lyric before you've even worked out what the tune is.
At the other extreme you can spend one and a half minutes listening to Traffic get their so-laid-back-it's-horizontal groove on before Stevie Winwood starts singing in "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys". And Pink Floyd were never ones to mess up a perfectly good piece of ambient soundscape with nasty, human lyrics until it was absolutely necessary (usually around ten minutes into the piece). Besides, you had to let the sustain on Dave Gilmour's guitar fade away before there was room for a vocal...
So what this is all gathering itself to say is that there probably is no perfect, or even right way to start a song.
Great. Now, how about ending a song?
I mean, do you let it gently fade away into nothingness, like the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus"? The Fabs irritatingly stuck so many bits and clips onto the fade-out, forcing me to spend many long evenings gradually turning the volume higher and higher in an effort to work out what was being said (as I recall the final sentence is "Sit you down, father; rest you").
A side question here - how long do you think Cream extended the thrash-out at the end of "Sunshine of Your Love" *after* the recording fades out? I bet that was fun. And who left the tapes running on "Helter Skelter"?
Alternately, you can run a song into a brick wall to end it, like Blur do on "Song 2", or Roxy Music on "Do the Strand", or Faith No More on "We Care a Lot!".
Most songs, if they don't fade out, just bring everything to a neat and tidy end, so tidy in fact that it's almost unsatisfying. It takes a particular kind of cussed nature to cut a song off in its prime and leave the listener wondering what the hell happened to the neat ending.
So, picking my favourite intro hasn't been easy - it's taken many weeks in fact. But I come back, time and again, to Hendrix's Ezy Ryder. It's not delicate or sensitive: Jimi's hammering hard on the strings to get those choked chords out, but nonetheless they flow, they grow, they swirl until the intro's built up such an immense head of steam that you cannot resist or obstruct the launch of the song proper.
The rest of the song ain't so damn bad, either.

For my favourite ending, I'm reaching way, way back to the 70s to the chaotic implosion at the end of "White Punks on Dope": the chorale fades, drunk/stoned musicians ask "as that alright?" and then cackle with maniacal laughter, a toilet flushes, and finally a voice intones something Spanish. More Dada than Dada.

There's no video of the full version of the song sadly. The single was chopped and edited to bits, faded out and generally sanitised. But grab a copy of the Tubes' first album and don't ever let it go. Totally fab.