Rather major personal stuff (those of you who follow me on Twitter will know what) means that I’ve not got the brain to write today. Proper post tomorrow.
Today I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a comic shop and bought more Marvel comics than DC ones. I picked up sixteen comics, and only six were DC. Seven were Marvel, and three were Image.
This is a very depressing figure, because three years ago I’d have bought that many comics in a week, and this was ten weeks’ worth of comics I was picking up. And the reason I’m buying so few comics is precisely because up until now I’ve always preferred DC to Marvel.
While I appreciate and love comics’ potential as an artistic medium as much as anyone — give me an Alice In Sunderland or Alec and I’ll rave about it for hours — comics are one of the few media I also turn to for pure entertainment, the way other people watch the football or soap operas. I can’t cope with those things, but I can enjoy an equally mindless comic, so long as it’s done to a basic level.
And throughout my life, since I was about ten, I’ve always looked to DC Comics for that kind of thing.
It’s a kind of brand loyalty I don’t usually have about most things, and think is ridiculous, but when I was first becoming a comics fan, DC was producing comics that were so far superior to Marvel’s it’s hard to think of them even as the same media. While DC were putting out things like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and even fun brainless stuff like Alan Grant’s work on Batman, Lobo and The Demon, Marvel were going all in on the proto-Image GUNS-WITH-A-CAPITAL-GUNS “aesthetic”.
And this meant that at a formative age, I got to grok DC Comics (and 2000AD, which I thought of as essentially the same thing, since the DC comics I liked were mostly made by British writers and artists who were also working for The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic) in a way I never did with Marvel. STAR Labs, Black Canary, the Daily Planet building, WGBS-TV, Lexcorp, all have instant associations for me in a way that, say, Stark Industries, Ms. Marvel, the Baxter Building and so on just don’t.
And so what this has meant is that whenever Marvel have put out something truly, exceptionally, good, I’ve bought it, but I’ve never bought the dozens of basically competent titles Marvel put out every month. I have, on the other hand, bought and enjoyed plenty of DC comics that merely showed a basic competence — I bought every issue of the 2008-2011 Booster Gold series, for example, which no-one is ever going to accuse of being a masterpiece but which had a witticism-spouting man in a gaudy costume having time travel adventures.
Since the New 52 started in late 2011, though, DC has descended into something close to the level of utter incompetence that Marvel where at when I first started buying comics. When the New 52 started out, I put something like thirty titles from it on my pull list, because there were interesting concepts like Demon Knights and Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and people like Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, J.H. Williams, George Perez — people who knew how to make good comics — working on many of the books.
Most of the more interesting titles are now cancelled, and none of those people are working on the comics they were working on. In three years, my DC pull list has gone from around thirty titles to two — Swamp Thing and Justice League 3000. And they’re the two comics I’m least interested in out of all the ones I’m buying.
Sorry, make that three — I’ve also got the Sandman miniseries on my list, the monthly one that’s released two issues in the last nine months.
The vast majority of DC’s output has turned into a sludgy morass of underdressed women, men with too many muscles and too many pockets, and “homages” to “classic” stories but with more violence and misogyny. Some of the titles I’m not reading might have got good again, and some of the new titles might be good. I know people have been saying nothing but good things about Batgirl (but even with Gail Simone writing, or now with Cameron Stewart working on it, I can’t get over the editorially-mandated destruction of Oracle), but DC are not only not making any great comics at the moment, they’re not even making any of those adequately-enjoyable ones they used to make.
And this means that not only am I buying fewer DC comics, I’m not buying as much by anyone as I used to. As recently as 2011 I used to eagerly go to the comic shop every week, and I’d pick a lot of stuff off the shelf to go with my regular purchases. Now I turn up every few months and pick up a handful of comics, and if there’s anything interesting on the shelves it’s usually up to issue three or four and I’ve missed the start of the story.
Luckily for my comics-reading, Marvel have started putting out a few titles so good I’ve ended up adding a few to my pull list, and I intend to add more, so I’ll be going to the shop more regularly. And with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity starting next month, I’ll even have a regular DC comic I’m actually looking forward to for at least six months (and that really does look like the best thing ever).
But if DC don’t change their editorial stance soon, once that’s over I may well, for the first time since I started reading comics, be left reading not a single DC title, and going to the comic shop and saying “Make Mine Marvel”. And as good as many of the current Marvel titles are, nothing in them can replace the thing in my brain that clicks with recognition when I see Etrigan or Bizarro, Darkseid or Booster Gold, Deadman or Zatanna. Those characters, and thousands of other DC characters, are like old friends I’ve known since childhood, and I want them back. I miss them.
http://harkive.org is a project to see what people listen to over the course of one day, today, and they’ve asked people to note everything they listen to on their blogs. I’ll be updating this as the day goes on.
My primary method of music listening at the moment is on my laptop. I have two auto-updating playlists, both sorted in alphabetical order by filename, in Rhythmbox. The first of these is the top thousand tracks that haven’t been listened to since I got this computer. The second of these, which I play when my wife is around, is the top 600 tracks which haven’t been listened to and which aren’t by the Beach Boys, Monkees, Jan & Dean, Harry Nilsson, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, or anyone else she’s got sick of hearing me listen to.
I choose albums from these playlists and listen to them in full. As Holly’s around at the moment, I’ve been listening to the second one (the first one is almost completely full of Beach Boys bootlegs at the moment, as the Beach Boys come very early in the alphabet).
8:46 AM Shortly after getting up (very tired after a bad night’s sleep), I put on the second and sixth Brandenburg Concertos, in the versions by the European Brandenburg Ensemble (I have a few versions of the Brandenburgs, mostly from shoddy three-quid CDs and cheap Amazon MP3 versions).
9:27 A nine-track compilation, The Essential Recordings, by Johnny Otis. Not really the collection that the title would suggest — there’s no Willie and the Hand Jive, for example — but there’s a nice version of Harlem Nocturne and a fun take on The Signifying Monkey.
10:00 I put on The Alcatraz Kid by Jeremy Messersmith. I’ve got three of Messersmith’s albums (he’s an independent artist from Minnesota who I discovered through David Bash’s year-end list one year, and who Holly also likes. His albums are available as pay-what-you-want downloads), but I’m not as familiar with this, his first album, as with his 2010 one The Reluctant Graveyard.
10:35 Jonathan Sings! by Jonathan Richman. A lovely, gentle, relaxing album. Both Holly and I have had a stressful few weeks which have made us quite ill, so I’m mostly going for quiet, easy music rather than anything more dissonant or hard work.
11:10 Clouds by Joni Mitchell Her first album, just her and her acoustic guitar. Far from her best work, but a pleasant set of songs that doesn’t make too many demands on the listener.
11:49 American IV – The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash. We only listen to the first four songs from this before Holly says “can we have something less depressing today please?”
12:04 Back In The DHSS/The Trumpton Riots EP by Half Man Half Biscuit. This is what we’re currently listening to now, fun songs like I Love You Because (You Look Like Jim Reeves), 99% of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd, and Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus.
13:02 Jake in a Box Disc 4 by Jake Thackray — the last disc of the box set by the great Yorkshire singer/songwriter, this consists of his acoustic demos of a lot of his more popular songs.
14:20 Coltrane Plays The Blues by John Coltrane — a collection of outtakes from the My Favorite Things sessions, released in 1962, with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Steve Davis (presumably not the snooker player). I listen to the first two tracks of this, and then Holly goes out to the shop.
14:28 All Summer Long (2012 mono and stereo reissue) by The Beach Boys. As of this writing I’ve listened to the mono versions of I Get Around, All Summer Long and am halfway through Hushabye. I intend to listen to the complete mono and stereo versions of the album unless Holly gets back before they finish, and then I have to go out of the house for a couple of hours.
15:23 Shut Down vol 2 by The Beach Boys — Once All Summer Long finished I stuck on another 1964 Beach Boys album. This one has more filler than the last one, but does feature Fun Fun Fun, Don’t Worry Baby and The Warmth of the Sun, which is pretty good going.
Once this album is finished, I have to head out for a CBT session, so there’ll not be another update til about 7PM.
19:34 Holly’s out for the evening, so more Beach Boys. Bootlegs this time, specifically the That Lucky Old Sun demos by Brian Wilson. That Lucky Old Sun, from 2008, is the best thing Brian Wilson has been involved in since 1977′s The Beach Boys Love You, and the demos are pretty close to the finished version, but without Paul von Mertens’ orchestrations, and with rawer vocals (more multitracked Brian and less of his band) and less compression. I prefer the finished version, but both versions have their merits.
And at about 20:15 I went for a nap that ended up as nearly thirteen hours’ sleep, so that’s all the music I listened to that day.
Mr. Tambourine Man is almost unique in popular music — a track so determinedly formulaic that it inadvertently spawned a whole new genre.
The Byrds had formed in 1964, inspired by A Hard Day’s Night, and were so desperate to be a British Invasion act that they had hired their drummer, Michael Clarke, purely on the basis of his having the same haircut as Brian Jones. Their lead guitarist, Roger McGuinn [FOOTNOTE: McGuinn was at this time known as Jim McGuinn; he changed his name later for religious reasons. For consistency I shall refer to him by his current name throughout.], played a twelve-string Rickenbacker, just like the Beatles and the Searchers used, and the band used the name The Beefeaters on their first single, to sound as English as possible, before choosing the name The Byrds as a Beatles-inspired misspelling.
But it wasn’t their aping of the Beatles that got the Byrds lucky. While Bob Dylan was of course not a British Invasion artist, his songs were becoming very popular for other musicians to cover, and the British band the Animals had had two hit records in 1964 with cover versions of traditional folk songs he’d recorded on his first album. So when the Byrds got hold of a demo of a song from Dylan’s forthcoming album, knowing it wouldn’t be released for several months, they had the perfect opportunity to get a hit.
Despite the band not being hugely fond of the song, they rehearsed a rather turgid, dragging version of it, which can be heard on the Preflyte compilation. This arrangement featured a march beat, with McGuinn and David Crosby playing arpeggiated guitar parts reminiscent of the fade to A Hard Day’s Night, and McGuinn, Crosby, and Gene Clark singing Beatle-esque three-part harmonies on the choruses. They cut the song down ruthlessly, from Dylan’s five and a half minutes to just two and a half, cutting three of the four verses, because they’d been told that the radio wouldn’t play any songs longer than two and a half minutes long. And on the one verse that they did keep, McGuinn, who took the lead, decided to go for a sound “that was very calculated between John Lennon and Bob Dylan”, because he saw a gap in the market.
As calculatedly commercial as they were, though, the Byrds’ early demo of Mr Tambourine Man does not sound like a hit — it sounds like a bunch of amateurs who can’t tell their good ideas (the guitar line) from their really bad ones (the drum pattern). Luckily for them, when they signed to Columbia Records, Terry Melcher was there to help.
McGuinn has, over the years, dismissed Melcher’s contributions somewhat, saying of him “they gave production to someone low on the totem-pole — which was Terry Melcher who was Doris Day’s son who was getting a token-job-in-the-mailroom sort of thing. They gave him the Byrds and the Byrds were supposed to flunk the test.” This is, at best, a mischaracterisation of Melcher, who had already produced several hits (including Move Over Darling for his mother and Hey Little Cobra for the Rip Chords) and would go on to have a long and relatively successful career.
Melcher understood arrangements, and in particular how to make a big hit record by nicking ideas from the Beach Boys, and he proceeded to do that with Mr. Tambourine Man.
Melcher realised that other than McGuinn’s twelve-string part (which as well as being an interesting part in itself also reinforced the “jingle jangle” of the lyrics), the instrumental parts on the band’s demo were at best rudimentary and at worst frankly incompetent, but that the vocals were nearly perfect. He therefore got in the Wrecking Crew, and had them play essentially the same arrangement that Brian Wilson had used on Don’t Worry Baby. While the idea of a second arpeggiated guitar locking in with the lead was kept from the demo, it was mixed right down, and a new guitar part added which copied the slashed chords from the Beach Boys’ hit (doubled almost inaudibly by Leon Russell’s piano [FOOTNOTE: In fact I'll go further and say actually inaudibly. Russell is credited on the session sheets, but I don't hear a piano part on the track as released, no matter how hard I listen. It's possible though that he's doubling the rhythm guitar, and the generally muddy mix makes it difficult to tell for sure.] ), while the bass part was also replaced with one copying the same basic figure as the Beach Boys’ track.
These Beach Boys elements were combined with McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar part (which is usually spoken of as sounding Beatlesque, but is actually far closer to the sound of the Searchers), which is put through as much compression and tape delay as possible to give it a punchier, ringing, sound, and a drum part from Hal Blaine which goes against the style that Blaine used with Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, being a direct copy of the sound on the British Invasion hit records of the time — all splashy hi-hat. What Melcher presumably failed to realise was that the reason the British hit records were full of hi-hat isn’t because anyone thought that sounded good, but because the British studios were generally using a single overhead mic to pick up the drums and the hi-hat was the only thing it could pick up with any clarity. Having Blaine play a part like that in a studio where it was possible to get a decent drum sound was almost a cargo-cult attempt at being British.
Between the hi-hat, the tambourine, the high vocals and the jangly guitar, the finished production can sound to modern ears like a jumbled mess of high-frequency sounds with no mid-range or lower sounds to fill it out. More than most tracks from the 60s, this one has lost a lot of its power because of the changes in listening habits over the intervening decades. At the time, records in the US were mixed to be heard on AM radio in cars, and in order to boost the signal AM radio stations used to add a lot of compression when transmitting. Get hold of a copy of this track and compress it to death in audio software like Audacity, and suddenly you have something that sounds the way it did to listeners back then — a powerful, punchy record that combines equal parts Merseybeat, the Beach Boys, and Dylan into something new and fresh.
What was conceived as a naked attempt at cashing in on as many trends as possible had somehow managed to transcend its origins and become the start of a whole new strand of popular music, one whose influences are still felt today.
Mr. Tambourine Man
Composer: Bob Dylan
Line-up: Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), Gene Clark and David Crosby (vocals), Bill Pitman and Jerry Cole (guitars), Leon Russell (piano), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums). A Roger Webster is also credited on the AFM sheet, as leader, but I have been unable to find any further information as to who he is or what, if anything, he played. Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, the Byrds’ rhythm section, were pictured on the sleeve but did not play on this track.
Original release: Mr. Tambourine Man/I Knew I’d Want You The Byrds, Columbia 4-43271
Currently available on: Mr. Tambourine Man Columbia Legacy CD