By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Finn, the leader of Crowded House, has a new music project inspired by his empty house.
"The kids have left home, and we've got a bit more time on our hands," Finn told the Sun-Times this week. "This is the kind of thing you do when you're rattling around the place."
Finn's speaking of his wife, Sharon, with whom he's formed a new band, Pajama Club — so named because the songs grew out of late-night jams the couple had while drinking wine in their PJs. Their son, Liam Finn, 27, now has an acclaimed career of his own.
Pajama Club is the latest outing for Finn, whose lengthy career began in the late '70s with down-under pop band Split Enz and was followed by his own trio, Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong"), a solo career and occasional albums with his brother, Tim Finn, as the Finn Bros. After the death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005, Crowded House reunited and has since recorded two more albums ("Intriguer," the latest).
For Pajama Club, the Finns are joined on stage by New Zealand indie-rocker Sean Donnelly — who had a broad hand in "updating" the PJ Club songs, Finn said — and drummer Alana Skyring. The group's self-titled debut album is due Sept. 13.
Finn spoke with us about the new project — and his many others ...
Q. I understand this started late at night at home, but you're also playing different instruments.
A. That's right. I played drums and Sharon played bass, instruments on which we've no skills. All the songs came from these bass-and-drums grooves. I've never written like that before, and it sounded to my ears quite fresh. To find new angles at this point is a joy. It's really fun to play, and we came up with stuff I wouldn't normally come up with.
Q. Are you playing drums on stage?
A. I play some guitars on stage, and drums for one song.
Q. Of all new instruments, why drums?
A. Every singer fancies himself a drummer. I thought I was totally challenged in that department until one night at [Los Angeles nightclub] Largo with Jon Brion I ended up on the drum kit for an extended period. I held it down rather well until "All You Need Is Love," and those bars of five completely stuffed me up. But that was the incentive. I can't do anything flash, but I can hold down a feel.
Q. How much have you thought about Paul as you play the drums?
A. Not much overtly, though it's reminded me what a great drummer he was. The way he played his high hat and the feel he got is very important to the way I play guitar. I'm attempting to provide the same feel, but it's not easy to find. There's something in the way he swung that matches exactly with the way I play acoustic guitar. I've got that same swing in my head because my body is genetically programmed to him now.
Q. The Pajama Club songs are ... I want to say dark, at least for you. Is that accurate?
A. It's got a jammy, dark atmosphere to it, sure. Some songs on the album are a little darker, a little more open-ended than you might be used to from me. There are psychedelic touches, if I may be so bold. But there's also a lot of simple, groove-oriented stuff. It's quite eclectic in the true sense of the word.
Q. You're finally working out your love of [early-'80s dance band] ESG, I guess?
A. That was one of the initial inspirations, yes — those first dabblings with ESG, early-'80s bass grooves, wit that chanty stuff on top. We were attempting an homage to that concept, though it's more songy, for obvious reasons.
Q. What's the status of Crowded House?
A. We've got songs circling there, too. I was in the studio with them earlier in the year. Hopefully something will emerge next year.
Q. Anything with Tim?
A. Not currently, but we've been talking, trying to will it back into being.
Q. Will you work directly with Liam?
A. We've shared the stage on occasions, and we've talked about and will do some recording together. It's almost overdue now. He's doing his own thing, which is right and proper. I think we've got an album in us, too, he and I. They're backing up, all these projects.
Q. It's not easy to keep track of you.
A. I'm naturally restless. It's possibly confusing for the general public.
8 p.m. July 1
Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $20-$22, ticketfly.com
Clarence Clemons and the rock sax solo
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
In a March episode of NBC’s hit comedy “30 Rock,” writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) panics because she has no “plan B” for her career and thus nothing to fall back on during an unforeseen professional hiatus. She stumbles through dark backstreets as she’s taunted by the voices of “people whose professions are no loner a thing” — such as travel agents, American autoworkers, the CEO of Friendster and a man who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs.”
This wasn’t the first winking obituary for the rock sax solo, but this week’s news might be the last. Sax player Clarence Clemons died Saturday from complications he suffered from a June 12 stroke. He was 69.
Clemons was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — a pillar, given the way Springsteen leaned on him, both literally (the Boss supports himself on the Big Man in the iconic photograph on the “Born to Run” LP gatefold) and figuratively (utilizing Clemons’ impassioned sax solos to intensify his lyrical themes) — and, for at least one generation, Clemons was the epitome of the hooked horn’s particular power in a musical genre for which it was not designed.
A creation of the Romantic era (invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax), the saxophone evolved to become a signifier of romance. The bent woodwind never took hold in orchestral music but found solid purchase in military bands, where its portability and honking volume were valued. Marching bands, concert bands, big bands, jazz — its migration was natural and swift. By the 1950s, as rhythm-and-blues evolved into even more guttural rock ’n’ roll, musicians like Louis Jordan and King Curtis finessed this suitably throaty instrument into the robust soul that would define the rest of the century.
With its roots in rock’s genesis — Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” possibly the first rock single, was credited to Jackie Brenston, the band’s singer and one of the song’s two sax players — by the 1970s and ’80s the saxophone was often employed to evoke that era’s rose-tinted innocence and authenticity. When a third-generation rocker wanted to trace his New Wave stead to some age-old cred, he plugged in a sax solo — from David Bowie reinventing himself (again) by lamenting “all Papa’s heroes” in “Young Americans” and Billy Joel linking his contemporary tastes to the classics in “It’s Still Rock ’n Roll to Me” to INXS’s horn-y claims on American soul (“What You Need,” etc.) and the popcorn purity of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers” (with John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band providing “On the Dark Side” and the rest of the Springsteen-parody soundtrack).
Within that cocoon of Eisenhower-level security, the more relaxed sax solo became an emblem of true heart and romance. (How do you imply that insipid bad-boy Rob Lowe has a heart of gold in the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire”? By making his rawest expression of his passion be through an extended sax solo with his bar band.) Among wind instruments, its reedy timbre sounds the most like a human voice, finishing lyrical thoughts by saying things a human just can’t say. But several Foreigners (“Urgent”), Quarterflashes (“Harden My Heart”) and Spandau Ballets (“True”) later, the cliché became a caricature, and Liz Lemon’s fears became inevitable.
But at the heart of that golden — or brassy — age was the hulking sideman who best encapsulated the instrument’s classicism, passion and romance, sometimes in a single sustained note. Clemons played tenor sax with studied passion much more than technical skill. This wasn’t jazz, this was rock. It was all about feeling — and reaction.
“There’s a lot of pride Bruce took in watching the response that Clarence would get from the audience with his solos,” Alto Reed, sax player for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “The songs would come to life with the first note of a sax line. He was brilliant. His tone was not your typical, classic horn-section sound. It was growly, gassy. You could feel the energy coming out of his sax. Big Man, big sax, big sound.”
Clemons turned in many memorable sax solos for Springsteen songs — “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” I usually throw in his huffing on “I’m Goin’ Down” — but few argue over which was his greatest accomplishment: “Jungleland.”
The ultimate whisper to a scream, “Jungleland” is an epic from Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Springsteen relates the tragic story of the Magic Rat and his star-crossed affair with the “barefoot girl” amid a scene of urban angst and frustration this side of the Jersey state line. It’s “a holy night” filled with people who are “hustling,” “hungry” and “hunted,” and just as the most “desperate” are ready to split (“Just one look / and a whisper / and they’re gone”) the song slams on the brakes, stops chugging forward and — announced by an arresting, almost dissonant long note, like a siren in the band’s rear view — becomes a detour down Clemons’ own backstreets of American imagery and sound.
It’s a song within a song, two-and-a-half minutes within the nearly 10-minute anthem and a necessary non-verbal underscore of the hopeless scene Springsteen has been setting up. Clemons’ sustained warning wails a while longer, defiant against the cascade of cymbals and piano chords behind him, before beginning its eulogy for the Eden that sometime, somehow turned into Jungleland. Twice, three times he returns to the major chord, the hopeful tone, voicing the Rat’s own hubris and bringing the song’s pent-up rage to a rolling boil. In the end, though, Clemons and his narrative collapse whimpering and spent as the piano takes over. Springsteen returns to wrap up the story, and it’s even worse than we expected for the Rat and his girl: “They wind up wounded / not even dead.” But we already knew that. Bruce’s jittery homily left the options open, but Clarence’s rock-steady solo confirmed the despair to come.
“That’s the flip side of rock and roll,” wrote Bob Lefsetz, music industry observer and publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, of the “Jungleland” solo this week. “The exuberance — and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.”
Clemons often relayed the story of working on his “Jungleland” composition for 16 straight hours. Today, his results are not only loved, they are liked: There’s a dedicated Facebook page called “Clarence Clemons’ Sax Solo in Jungleland.”
In a surprise twist, Clemons re-emerged this spring and seemed ready to bestow validation on the rock and roll sax solo with the help of an unexpected admirer: None other than Lady Gaga tapped the E Streeter for saxophone parts on three tracks for her third outing, “Born This Way,” one of the most anticipated and talked-about albums of the year. In the video to Gaga’s latest single, “Edge of Glory,” Clemons sits on a building stoop while Gaga dances in the street and on the fire escape. He hardly moves, except to finger the valves of his horn. Gaga has said the song is rooted in her own experiences witnessing her grandfather’s final moments before death; the week the video debuted her young fans were making their own “get well soon” video for Clemons after the stroke.
What was he doing there, with Lady Gaga of all people? He was doing what he always did: Adding gravitas and a much-needed counterweight to an outsized personality and the frenetic music s/he produced. In the “Edge of Glory” video, Clemons is the only other person in the scene — the only figure with whom Lady Gaga deigned to share the spotlight, just like Springsteen. His music and instrument were as key to that role as his size and personality, and let’s hope rock never forgets his lesson.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When you've shot your mouth off and claimed that your band is the best in the world, what do you say when that band dissolves and you form a new one?
"We're the second-best band in the world."
So says Liam Gallagher, singer from '90s Britpop leaders Oasis and now leader of Beady Eye.
After 18 years of quarrels while Oasis tried to make good on that boast — two Guinness World Records for their chart and sales success in the UK but only two No. 1's in America (for the songs "Wonderwall" in 1995 and "Champagne Supernova" in '96) — in 2009 Noel Gallagher, Liam's brother and the band's chief songwriter, stormed out after a backstage fight. The Gallagher brothers fought all the time, but two hours later Noel posted a statement online saying he'd quit the band and "simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer."
Liam, though, intended to go on working, and so did the rest of the existing lineup of Oasis: Andy Bell (formerly with Ride), Gem Archer and Chris Sharrock. They initially said they'd continue as Oasis but later adopted the new name, Beady Eye.
A new sound, too? Sort of. Beady Eye's debut record, "Different Gear, Still Speeding," released in February, is the same mash-up of Beatles, Stones, Kinks and some more Beatles. The difference is in its tone — lighter, breezier, sunnier, free from all that heavy expectation and Very Big Importance that so often weighed down Oasis records.
"That was Noel. He's very important, don't you know?" Liam told the Sun-Times, and he chuckled. "I'm only half joking."
The Noel-free band, Beady Eye, is booked solid throughout Europe this summer, but they're swinging through North America for only four shows this month in Chicago, then Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. Before they played last weekend's Isle of Wight Festival in southern England, Liam Gallagher and Archer talked to the Sun-Times about the new songs, making music without Noel and how life goes on.
Q: You're playing just four dates in North America this month. Why?
Liam Gallagher: We're just going to test the waters and see if you guys are up for it. No point in going over and slunking it if you're not into it. Things are selling out. We're going to get on stage and do what we do. Hopefully, that's enough.
Gem Archer: We're a brand new band with a brand new set. We can't book an 18-month tour yet.
LG: We've done all that with Oasis. We're not 20 years of age. We're not desperate to crack it, you know?
Q: So how is what you're doing that different from Oasis?
LG: I don't think we're trying to be different than anything. We're staying true to what we do. We're making music we like. There's no big gimmick around it.
GA: We love melody, and we're just giving something out. It's not going to change people's lives. It's rock and roll, isn't it?
LG: We're not trendy. I hope we're not. Our style of music will always be played. It might remind people of the '60s ...
GA: And '70s.
LG: ... and, you know, we're certainly not trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheels' good.
Q: You feel like that now, but did you feel like that when Noel left Oasis?
GA: It's funny, man. When the band split, we knew we weren't finished with music, but we didn't have a great master plan or an agenda or anything. We knew we wanted to keep going. We wanted to keep making music.
Q: The debut album is so breezy and easygoing. Would it sound like that if it were an Oasis album?
LG: If Noel hadn't left, we'd probably be trying to do this with him — and not having any f—-ing luck. But it's not some new experiment. You can only go so far with a f—-ing experiment before you go, "That's not f—-ing us anymore." Anyone can record a tea bag being squeezed out of a monkey's ass, but it's stupid. We like guitar, bass, drums and piano. It's what we do.
Q: You clearly still love the Beatles.
LG: Everybody goes on about that, saying, "That's all they do is that f—-ing Beatles thing." We all love Lennon and George. They're the best band in the world. I'm not going to stop listening to my favorite band in the world just because some f—-ing pervert doesn't get it.
GA: Take the song "Bring the Light." It sounded a different way when we demoed it. Liam said, "It's not quite there." We tried bringing it back toward a Beatles thing, and then Liam wanted to go a little Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and we said, "Imagine if the [Sex] Pistols had a piano player."
Q: What's missing from the formula without Noel?
LG: He made a lovely cup of tea. [Laughs] No, I mean, Noel's a great songwriter, but so's Gem and Andy, and I'm getting there. Andy's better than Noel on guitar. People have this f—-ing bee in their bonnet because Noel's not there. We're not lacking anything. We've got great songwriters in the band. I'm not going to paint on big eyebrows to make people happy.
GA: It doesn't feel like a wonky table.
Q: What was the backstage fight actually about?
LG: You'd have to ask him. I might have had a couple of beers and things were coming to the surface, but that's f—-ing life. Noel wanted to be a solo star. I think he honestly had enough of Oasis and wasn't getting his own way and wanted to do his own thing. He wanted to sing all his own songs and take all the glory. Let him go do it. The rest of us weren't enjoying the creative process. ... That's sh—. If you're not doing that, you might as well go work at McDonald's. I'm sure he'll be f—-ing great, but there's a lot f—-ing more lacking in a Noel Gallagher gig, a lot more missing in his stuff than in ours.
Q: So you're not going to his wedding [on June 18 to Sara MacDonald]?
LG: No, I'm busy playing gigs in Chicago.
GA: This schedule's been in for a while.
LG: He goes on about how he wasn't invited to my wedding. No one was at my wedding but Nic's [wife Nicole Appleton] mum and my mum. Get over it, mate. I've not been invited to his wedding. I'll be in Chicago. I'll come cry about it to Oprah. [Muttering in background] What's this sh— about Oprah retiring? She needs to stay on it. She needs the [vitamin] B12.
Q: You're already at work on a second record?
LG: We're definitely doing a second record when the tour ends. We'll get it out next year. We like putting out songs in the summer. We're not going to rush it, but we're not going to dick about with it. The tunes we've got so far are absolutely big.
GA: It's really getting us off. We did this [first] record out of sheer adrenaline, rehearsed it like a brand new band. There was no concept behind it except, "See you at the end of the tune." The next one will have a sense of ourselves, some breathing space.
Q: So if Oasis was the best band in the world, what's Beady Eye?
LG: We're the second-best band in the world.
GA: It's not arrogance. I just don't get why people would be in anything or a band if they don't think it's the best.
LG: Oasis was the best band in the world till Beady Eye. We'll take it over. Noel can't do it by himself. It's a lock for us.
with the Dig
• 8:30 p.m. June 18
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Sold out
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.