A Transformation in Rock and Roll

By Alexandra Fileccia

“Moonage Daydream,” the third track on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), tells the story of an alien-messiah who shows potential in saving the human race, or so the theories say. All of the songs on Ziggy contribute to the overall concept of the album: Alien life forms serve as the only hope for Earth and the human race to survive.

At the end of the Space Race in 1971, David Bowie gave alien birth to the song “Moonage Daydream.” With its far-out lyrics and space-like production techniques, Bowie takes his listeners to another planet, which fits the generation of spacy coke freaks through the 70s, like Bowie himself. Bowie transcended the precedents of rock and roll with his glam rock appearance and obsession with space exploration. In a way, Bowie who started as an outsider to the genre, created a musical niche where he could finally belong.

Enter Bowie’s alter ego: Ziggy Stardust, the album’s main character. As a human in contact with aliens, Ziggy seems the most likely to save to world—a sort of angel on Earth. Throughout the album he transforms into a rock star. This Ziggy persona gave a new face to rock and roll. It challenged the way white artists played black music, and in a way, made rock and roll sound even more foreign—from another world. “Moonage Daydream” shamelessly and consciously exists as white music; he doesn’t even try to sound black, as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously did.

As Bowie’s early alter ego (he later plays the role of Aladdin Sane among others), Ziggy Stardust fuses “the sci-fi futurism of writers like William Burroughs and JG Ballard with a hard-rock sound and a transsexual campery borrowed from Lou Reed,” says Sean O’Hagan in his Guardian review of the book Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie playing the role of the album’s character created a new way to experience and think about rock and roll. He did not have his own style (previous and future albums sound totally different, some even play with different genres); in fact, putting on a show and acting as his made-up character became his style. “And that self-conscious sense of theater is part of the reason why Ziggy Stardust sounds so foreign,” says Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his review of the album on allmusic.com. Bowie laces his lyrics with vocal theatrics in the style of Ziggy Stardust.

The opening lyrics strike right at the beginning of “Moonage Daydream” after a few powerful guitar strums and drum hits. Bowie confidently declares, “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you.” On the word “you” he trails off with an exaggerated vibrato, which simulates a falling feel. “I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you.” Under this line, an acoustic guitar holds rhythm while the bass grooves along. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar in this song, in addition to Bowie eclectic voice, creates a modernized folkie feel. However, the way he shouts the next lyric and the bizarre image it creates, “Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird/And I’m busting up my brains for the words,” stays true to Bowie’s over-the-top stage persona, completely opposite of the folkie aesthetic.

Continue reading “A Transformation in Rock and Roll”

Advertisements

A Tribute to Blues: A Closer Look at “Yer Blues”

By Alexandra Fileccia

Lennon used “Yer Blues” to mock British artists who tried to replicate the sound of the blues and failed. However, the Beatles composed this track honoring the genre of blues—rock and roll’s great ancestor. The band released “Yer Blues” in 1968 during the later years of their career. The song comments on the British Blues Boom. The title for the track hints at Lennon’s ridicule with the word “yer,” which means “your” in British slang. Lennon also wrote the song while in India to see if he could, in fact, write a blues song better than the “British Blues” songs that surrounded him, according to Walter Everett in his book The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology (170).

The second track on side two of the first disc of the White Album, “Yer Blues” captures a depressing and raw, emotional sound that makes the track unique. Lennon sings with enormous force, which makes the track stand out on the album and from the Beatles’ discography as a whole. “‘Yer Blues’ takes the frustrations of ‘I’m So Tired’ to an even deeper level,” Everett writes (170). Not every Beatles member recorded in the studio at one time, which accounts for the isolation of instruments and how distant they sound from each other. The space in the “blues lick” allows every band member “to piddle about without sounding busy,” (Riley, 277). The listener can hear each individual instrument very clearly. The separation of instruments creates a hollow sound for the song, which adds to the song’s uniqueness. Most Beatles’ songs sound full and bustling with different instruments, unless the track’s main focus lies in the acoustic guitar and vocals—think “Blackbird,” “Julia” or “I Will;” all acoustically-based songs though the latter actually builds up a little toward the end.

The raw, angsty emotion in Lennon’s voice rules as a major component of the blues track. Typically a blues song implies sadness, yet “Yer Blues” carries immense anger. The listener feels desperate, frustrated, lonely and angry at the same time—they feel the way Lennon feels. After Lennon counts the band in, the songs starts off with Lennon singing the chorus, “Yes I’m lonely, wanna die/Yes I’m lonely, wanna die/If I ain’t dead already/Girl, you know the reason why.” On the second line he holds out the “o” in “lonely” and pushes the “e” in “ evenin’” in the first verse, “In the morning, wanna die/In the evenin’, wanna die.” The blues and swinging blues as genres both play with vowel length in relation to tempo—a way to express individuality. The scratchiness of Lennon’s voice throughout the track displays great heartache and anguish. The song would be totally different if he sang the lyrics in a normal tone without all the wails and cries. The listener wouldn’t be able to feel as connected to the struggle Lennon sings about and goes through on the track. “Yer Blues” embodies a melancholy that only suicide can relieve, as the lyrics suggest.

Lennon references the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965) by Bob Dylan in the second vocal solo in the lyrics, “Feel so suicidal/Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones,” according to Tell Me Why by Tim Riley (278). In Dylan’s song, he sings to a character named Mr. Jones and Lennon shows a relation to that character. The primary song writer, Lennon, also sneaks in a reference in the third verse of “Yer Blues,” to “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937) by Robert Johnson, one of the most popular blues singers in the 1930s (Everett, 170). In “Hellhound,” Johnson sings, “I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving/Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail/Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail/And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.” Johnson’s lyrics discuss sadness so blue that it keeps hitting him like hail. Lennon’s lyric “Black cloud crossed my mind/blue mist round my soul” uses a similar description of sadness as Johnson’s lyrics. By referencing these great musicians before him, Lennon tips his hat as if saying, “These guys knew how to do blues.”

Continue reading “A Tribute to Blues: A Closer Look at “Yer Blues””