“To Be Played At Maximum Volume”

It’s funny what can make an impact.

One of the earliest examples I can think of a comment sticking with me, and influencing my sense of a song was a throwaway line by my brother about Ziggy Stardust.

He said, “It’s a great song and he sings the hell out of it.” What more needs to be said?

It took my a while to appreciate that recommendation* but what’s interesting is that, while the phrase says nothing specific about the song, it’s surprisingly apt for the song, and the entire album.

*Here’s my story with Ziggy Stardust. I borrowed the CD from my brother, listened to it a couple of times, but didn’t get into it. Then, as these things can happen, I never returned it and, about a year later I started listening to it a lot, and to this day it’s one of my absolute favorite rock albums.

To elaborate: starting with the first element, of calling it a great song. Like almost every song on that album it has a great, memorable guitar riff, and is well structured musically and lyrically. It is important, at this point to refer to the note on the back of album that I have used for the title of the post. The first thing to pull you in to most of the songs is Mick Ronson’s guitar work. I wouldn’t say it needs to be at maximum volume, but it has to be loud enough that the opening notes of Ziggy Statdust bite, and get your attention. The production is great throughout, and particularly notable for how it balances a careful arrangement with leaving plenty of space around Bowie’s voice, and you need to be able to listen to both. If the arrangement is fading into the background, and the song feels unmemorable, turn it up.

In terms of the performance, I think Bowie really earns the emotions of the song. Like any fiction, music invites a willful suspension of disbelief. Compared to other mediums, it matters less, partially because songs are short. It’s possible for a song to be perfectly good song, and carry you along with energy and drive without you ever entering into an emotional world of the song. There is nothing wrong with a song that just asks you to enjoy the groove for three minutes. What is frustrating is a song that is emotionally manipulative — that deploys emotional cues without constructing an emotional core of the song.

Ziggy Stardust is a song for which it is very easy for me to suspend disbelief. When he sings “Just the Beer Light to guide us / We bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands” It doesn’t feel overstated, it makes me think of the experience of feeling a wave of anger and jealousy towards a friend. The line, “Became the special man, then we were Ziggy’s band” makes me think about just how strange it would be to perform with someone who was truly a star. It earns the emotions.

Finally, in addition to that my brother’s comment also just says that, if the song might sound silly on first listening, give a second chance. Trust that, if you’re willing to look for what’s good in the song, and take the song on its own terms, that you will be rewarded. There is substance beneath the surface. That’s always a useful recommendation.

Update: I realize I should say a little bit more about Bowie, at the risk of going on too long. First, I think of Bowie as one of pop’s great interpreters of songs. He is constantly putting different inflection and emphasis on each word, and doing so in a way that develops the meaning of the songs. In particular listen to the first song on the album “Five Years” and listen to how many different ways he uses his voice on that song.

Secondly, the point at which I really got into Bowie was a period in my life when I was feeling depressed and direction less. The Ziggy Stardust album ended up being surprisingly comforting to listen to on headphones, sitting around and night thinking “what am i doing with my life.” I don’t exactly know why that it, and Bowie has stayed in my affection more than any of the other music I listened to at that point, but that was emotional entry point into Ziggy Stardust.

I will return to both of those points in later posts.

  1. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    I sort of missed out on Bowie — when I was in High School I listened to Bauhaus, and never listened to Bowie till later on; by the time I did I was coming to his music by way of Bauhaus and other bands he influenced, and it just didn’t sound exciting to me. But it sounds like there is a lot there to be excited by, if you approach it the right way. Maybe I’ll spin your Bowie mix this evening.

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  2. NickS’s avatar

    Post updated with some additional specific comments.

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  3. NickS’s avatar

    I sort of missed out on Bowie … [I listened to] other bands he influenced, and it just didn’t sound exciting to me.

    I’m really happy you wrote this. It actually steals from a future post.

    The “classics” category, for which this is the first post, is intended for music that is so influential that people might not feel like they have to go back and listen to it — because the ideas are present in other music.

    I have a couple of other songs in mind for which I want to say, “listen to the original, appreciate just how great it is, and why it was so influential.”

    So it’s nice to have confirmation that I’m not the only person who can think, “do I really need to listen to [X], I already know what it sounds like based on people influenced by it.”

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  4. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    He is constantly putting different inflection and emphasis on each word, and doing so in a way that develops the meaning of the songs

    I think I know what you mean; I was listening to your Bowie mix tonight and noticing how his voice is really distinctively his own, and how words seem to take on special shades of meaning when spoken by it.

    Something that I think can be really important in this regard (though I didn’t notice it right away with Bowie), is syncopation — If you listen closely to e.g.Robyn Hitchcock you will catch a lot of moments where he waits a fraction of a beat before singing a key word, and the pause lets you get ahead of him lyrically and start to fill in your own imaginings. Or this afternoon I was listening to Dylan’s spellbinding performance of “Delia” — when he sings
    Curtis said to the judge, “What might be my fine?”
    Judge says, “Poor boy, you got ninety-nine.”
    He waits almost 2 full beats before “you got ninety-nine”, and it really focusses the song and the listener’s experience of the song.

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  5. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    (Here’s a copy of that Delia, BTW, in case you haven’t heard it. It makes me think of masterful film noir.)

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    1. Amberly’s avatar

      The’res nothing like the relief of finding what you’re looking for.

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    2. NickS’s avatar

      I hadn’t heard that before.

      Dylan really is a great singer. On a song like that, it feels like the song is straightforward enough that he doesn’t have to work that hard to pull it off, and he just nails it.

      It’s like watching a great athlete working at 80%. They take something moderately difficult and make it look like they’re just coasting.

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    3. RS’s avatar

      Nick,

      Thanks for the encouragement to listen to Delia. It’s a traditional song. Is it from one of the two collections he did in the last few years? It sounds like it.

      I particularly like how he switches from telling the story as a “narrator” and singing “All my friends are gone” as if it is completely true about him, the first-person singer.

      Thanks also to the Modesto Kid for providing the link.

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    4. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

      RS, it’s from “World Gone Wrong”, from ’93. I sort of think that and “Good as I been to you” (’91) are the very peak of Dylan’s career. But of course there’s a lot there to love. I haven’t listened to the collections you’re talking about, I guess I ought to. Could you tell me the titles?

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    5. RS’s avatar

      MK,

      Sorry, I lost track of time. Those are the two collections of traditional material I was thinking about, I had just forgotten they were already that long ago.

      I think his comments included in the notes in the CD version of the Harry Smith Collection are a good companion to his recordings of traditional material.

      Nick, have you thought of including any songs from the Harry Smith Collection?

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    6. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

      RS, as I was looking around the web yesterday I saw he also released a similar record in 2006, called “Modern Times”. Track list looks great.

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    7. RS’s avatar

      Modern Times has a very different feel from those earlier ones. It’s a bigger band and has a much stronger — though gliding/easy — rhymic pulse. Mostly a very happy feel to the presentation of the songs. I like it.

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    8. Jeremiah’s avatar

      I have listened to this song a bunch of times. We have had several arguments about it. What I notice about it hearing it this time (that I’ve never noticed about it before) is how stripped down the musicality is, yet how grandiose the song is. I’m not sure how Bowie carries that off but it’s amazing. Maybe it’s because of the rest of the album. The song really takes up a hell of a lot of space for how bare bones rock and roll it is.

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