Remembering Tucson's Bob Cooke

I grew up in Tucson, and I have fond memories of a local radio DJ that many people in town loved to listen to back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, to put things in perspective, radio isn't the same as it used to be; more and more of the contemporary radio programming is syndicated, playlists are dictated by countless business decisions, and - to be honest - fewer and fewer people are listening to radio as it fights to compete with satellite services, streaming apps, and digital audio. (I will admit, I personally listen to a collection of MP3s that are stored on a flash drive whenever I'm traveling in my car these days.)

But back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, radio was king. For most music fans, radio was usually the only way that you discovered new artists, and it was also how you learned that your favorite artists had released their latest albums. There was no Internet back then, and before MTV launched in 1981 there was generally no television coverage for rock music news. In short, if you liked music, there was radio - and that was it.

When I was in High School, there were two rock stations in Tucson: KWFM and KTKT-FM (which would later become KLPX). Each station had their fair share of DJs, and there was one DJ who drifted back and forth between those two stations: Bob Cooke. He was Tucson's premier funny man - he always had the best jokes, but he was never over the top. (Well, perhaps on occasion...)

I recall staying up late on far more nights than I will admit to finish homework assignments as my semesters came to an end, and Bob Cooke always played requests from students all over town who were engaged in similar last-minute pursuits. And Bob was freakin' hilarious about it. I would call and ask for something by Rush or The Doors, then someone else would call and ask for song from a different band, and so on. Bob played them all. He had a ball as he expressed his faux sympathies for all his listeners slaving away with their books and typewriters, and you knew he was glad that he wasn't working on all that homework.

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One of the particularly amusing parts of Bob's shows was when he was required to read advertising copy live while on the air, because he could never do it without messing with the scripts that he had been handed. I vividly recall one morning when he was reading the advertisements for Farmer John's Sausage Links, which Bob humorously changed to "Farmer John's Wieners." He kept saying the rest of advertising copy incorrectly, and therefore he had to keep starting over. However, restarting the script mean that he would eventually run out of the music that was supposed to play in the background, so he would have to start over - again and again. The entire episode was side-splittingly funny, and I laughed so hard I probably cried…

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People who grew up in the "Naked Pueblo" (as Cooke used to call Tucson) will remember that Bob was tragically killed by a deranged radio listener in August, 1982. (See https://bit.ly/2RswW5o.) People throughout the Tucson valley mourned his untimely death at the young age of just 28 years.

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It's hard to believe that it's already been 38 years since his murder, because I can still remember countless hours listening to Bob's priceless and bizarre sense of humor. I'm sure that he would have retired years ago if he had had the chance to live a full and happy life, which means both Bob and the classic radio format that made him famous might have been able to ride off into the Arizona sunset together.

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Christian Progressive Rock is a Small but Necessary Genre

I mean no disrespect to anyone - including my wife - but I personally find the majority of what is called "worship music" within the church to be insufferably boring when heard outside of a formal church service.

99% of the time that music is based around some arrangement of the I ii IV and V chords, with the occasional vi chord to mix things up.

I'd also say that 90% of the time that music has a time signature of 4/4, with another 7% of 3/4, and the remaining 3% being mostly of 6/8.

Adding insult to injury, most of the contemporary "worship" lyrics are utterly pedestrian and predictable. You could take a list of about 100 words from popular "worship songs" and write them on 3x5 cards, then toss them on a table and arrange them in some sort of random order and you'd pretty much have recreated the next Chris Tomlin "hit."

There was a time that I was working on an "Instant Worship" website as a joke, which would have used something akin to a "Mad Libs" type of algorithm to kick out random lyrics with bogus chord charts based on everything I have mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.

Suffice it to say, if it were not for prog I would have gone crazy years ago. I accepted Jesus in my late teens in 1984, and I spent years listening to a conglomeration (or conflagration?) of Christian music's "rock music" offerings. Bands like Petra were the powerhouses in that genre, and yet - I had been listening to Rush and Yes and Genesis and a host of prog bands before my salvation; Petra was nowhere near the level of musicianship or complex arranging as secular proggers.

I had heard of Phil Keaggy in the late 70s, but it wasn't until I heard King's X in the early 90s that I thought, "Wow - a Christian band with serious prog skills." (Yes, I know King's X seriously backslid in later years, but in their heyday they were awesome.)

Iona and some other Christian proggers came along later, and several pieces from Iona's catalog definitely hit the mark. Although I know several prog fans who grow quickly tired by their Celtic influence. (Irish music doesn't appeal to everyone. Although I'm of Irish heritage so it works for me.) But still - I often feel that there's an itch that I just can't scratch when I think about Christian music. (Which, by the way, is the only music I buy.)

These days I have been particularly impressed by several of the spin off projects and musicians that are operating with Neal Morse's realm of influence. See the following video for an example of what I mean, although that particular song is more a pop/rock piece than prog until you get to the bridge, but having seen them live, holy cow - amazing musicians.

Some of the projects involving Matt Smith of Theocracy are also great. See the following video for Project Aegis as an example.

With all of that being said, more often than not I find that I cannot kick back and enjoy most of what exists within the banal realms of what Christian music typically has to offer, but I can get totally lost in a great prog piece of music.


UPDATE:

Much of what was written above was extracted from a post that I had made in the Christian Progressive Rock Online Gathering (CPROG) group on Facebook. Someone challenged my statements about Iona, to which I replied:

"Pieces here and there from Iona's catalog definitely hit the mark; that's why I intentionally singled them out. Although I know several prog fans who grow quickly tired by their Celtic influence. (Irish music doesn't appeal to everyone. Although I'm Irish so it works for me.)

However, if you look at the brilliance behind albums like
Fragile from Yes, or Lamb Lies Down on Broadway from Genesis, or Brain Salad Surgery from ELP, or Permanent Waves from Rush, etc., I can think of no albums in their entirety from the Christian Prog genre that approach those masterpieces. Because if they did, they'd also be popular outside of the incredibly tiny genre that is Christian Prog. So to reiterate: Iona is some of the best that Christian Prog has to offer, but overall - the Christian Prog genre is seldom everything that it could (or should) be.

PS - I should add that I have everything that Iona produced, to include their live videos. As far as Iona is concerned, I am quite the fanboy, and one of my regrets is that I never had the chance to see them live."

And then, much to my horror, Dave Baindbridge - one of the musical visionaries behind Iona - posted the following:

Thats' great Robert. Have you heard my albums Celestial Fire, and Veil of Gossamer? Both are more 'progressive' than most of my work with Iona. https://www.musicglue.com/iona/shop/categories/dave-bainbridge

I had to quickly re-read all of my earlier statements to see if I'd insulted Iona in any way... which I probably did. Not by intention, of course, but still… crap.

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Yup, there's nothing quite like inadvertently insulting one of your favorite musicians in a public forum to remind yourself that anyone can read what you say.

Gary Numan - Forerunner of the Emo Genre

If you'll indulge me for a moment, I thought it would be fun to look at some music history and give you a laugh at a particular subgenre that used to be enormously popular, why it was important decades later, and where it's at now.

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During the late 70s/early 80s, British New Wave and Synth Pop rose from the ashes of the quickly collapsing British Punk era. For what it's worth - I hated 1970s British Punk. I thought that the bulk of what that genre produced was absolute crap. However, several extremely popular bands emerged out of British Punk's decline; for example: U2, The Police, The Cure, Joy Division, and a host of other artists. Part of what made the British New Wave scene enormously successful was a heavy dependence on an explosion of new synthesizer technologies during the advent of the digital age. These new types of synthesizers were extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but British Synth Pop bands used them differently than their American counterparts. For example, see bands like Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Yazoo, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Erasure, etc.

FWIW - the following Synth Britannia documentary is an excellent expository about the British Synth Pop genre. It's long, but it's amusing, and it's pretty nostalgic for those who listened to British New Wave during its heyday.

However, there was one artist who had a slightly different take than his musical contemporaries, and that was a vocalist named Gary Numan. He had a string of hits, and I will freely admit that his style is probably not most people's cup of tea. That being said, for a good example of Numan when he first hit the music scene in the late 1970s, see the following performance of his "Are Friends Electric" on BBC's "Top of the Pops," which was the TV show that you were invited to play in England when you had "arrived" as a musician. (PS - A lot of British artists became superstars overnight after playing on "Top of the Pops.")

As I said, Numan probably isn't many people's style, but that video is really funny when you think about it from an 80s perspective; the weird costumes, the strange lyrics, Numan's odd voice, and a plethora of synthesizers. And this is where Numan seemed to create his own subgenre that was a departure from his fellow synth-based colleagues, which we liked to refer to as "Science Fiction Rock" at the time, because there was something otherworldly about his approach.

However, recently Numan revealed that he has Asperger syndrome, which makes his success even more amazing. Performances like "Top of the Pops" might have been somewhat easier for Numan, because they were in a tightly controlled environment. Yet Numan was required to tour to sell albums, which makes performances like the following example all the more spectacular when you consider how hard it was for someone with Asperger syndrome to be in front of thousands of people.

I still freely admit that this additional video is probably even less appealing to many people. Although it's interesting, because it shows something that happened at a lot of his shows: he would spontaneously start laughing, but not lose his place. I think I heard Numan laugh on every live recording of him from back in the early 80s. I had always assumed that he was simply enjoying himself as a performer, but now I wonder if it was more of a coping mechanism of Asperger's.

Jumping ahead a few years in the music world, you can see how Numan was the progenitor for the later Emo genres. For example, here is "Are Friends Electric" in 1989, which is ten years after his "Top of the Pops" performance.

And the same song in 2003, which 20+ years later than his TOTP performance.

Note that I am using live versions of the same song simply to illustrate Numan's evolution over the years, and how he was always "Emo" before the industry caught up with him.

All of that brings us today's world. A good friend of mine from my late 70s/early 80s high school days just sent me the following video of Numan performing "Are Friends Electric" from a few years ago.

I find it admirable that Numan is still performing despite his having Asperger syndrome; although to be honest, his more recent live videos have seemed as though he's a little less socially awkward in front of a crowd. Regardless, it's clear that he's still willing to evolve musically. But if it hadn't been for artists like Numan (and a few artists like him - e.g. Morrissey), we probably wouldn't have had the Emo genre. (That could be good -or- bad, depending on whether you like Emo. Personally, I think it has it's place.)

I mentioned earlier that I wanted to use Numan's performances of "Are Friends Electric" over the past 40 years just to chart how Numan changed and evolved musically, but I think it's worth taking a complete departure and showing some of the cool things that Numan has done more recently; like last year for example. To see what I mean, take a look at the following videos.

 

Personally, I think Emo music with Middle Eastern themes and an orchestra/choir works for Numan. His music is probably not most people's style, of course, and it's not necessarily my style, either. That being said, I still think it's... interesting.


UPDATE: The Synth Britannia documentary was the first video that I shared in this blog post, and I should mention that the program has a section that highlights Numan's importance to the British Synth Pop scene; here is the relevant excerpt from that documentary.

The Awesome Spectacle of Cygnus X-1

Back in my high school days when I was playing in rock bands, we would try to play Rush's Cygnus X-1, because it was nearly impossible to pull off. And it is probably for that reason that Rush didn't play it that often, either.

However, Rush pulled out all the stops on their final R40 tour, and they added this epic piece to their set list. But when the DVD was released sometime later, you couldn't appreciate the full spectacle of just how awesome the lights and lasers were during this instrumental.

The other day I happened to discover someone's cell phone recording from the back of the theater during the R40 show, and I combined it with the DVD's stage footage to create the following picture-in-picture video. (The picture-in-picture overlay kicks in around the 20-second mark.)

For all of the Rush fans out there - enjoy. For all of the non-Rush fans, it's okay - Geddy doesn't sing on this one.

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Transcribing Shallow by Porcupine Tree

One of the things that I like about certain pieces of music is "groove," which is hard to describe in words - but you'll know a good groove when you hear one. Several of the pieces that I have transcribed in the past fall into the "great groove" category, which is largely why I transcribed them in the first place; the groove of each respective piece got under my skin, and today's transcription clearly belongs in that collection.

Without further discussion, here's my transcription of "Shallow" by Porcupine Tree. (See https://youtu.be/tIgONIbYSyY for the original song.)

Here are my notes about this transcription:

  • The most-glaring omission from this transcription is the organ part; it's featured in the second verse and in other places, and I didn't bother to transcribe it because - I didn't want to. So there.
  • I tried to dial in the piano part, but even I can tell that it's not perfect. To be honest, this transcription was more about the guitar/bass/drums.

FWIW - I originally transcribed this song several years ago, but I was thinking about it the other day, and I decided to revisit it. After making a bunch of changes, I decided to post the revised version as a blog, which will hopefully help someone in the future.

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Happy Pi Day 2020!!!

A couple years ago I created a piece of music for "Pi Day" from the first 256 digits of Pi. I won't bother to go into the details for that experiment, save to say that I simply took the numbers from Pi and added those to a root note of a major scale and let the notes fall where they may. This was a pretty simple exercise, and I'd been kicking around an idea for a much better exercise ever since.

With that in mind, given the proximity to St. Patrick's day, I decided to create a new piece with an Irish feel.

Here's what I did for this experiment:

I chose to use a 5-note pentatonic scale instead of a 7-note major scale, and I did so because there are 10 numbers in our base 10 numbering system, and 2 x 5 = 10. With that in mind, in my first draft of this experiment, all of the notes in the piece were derived by using a pentatonic scale with a 2-octave range, and mapping the numbers 0 to 9 from the first 252 places of Pi to the 10 notes of the 2-octave scale. (I'll explain why I used 252 places of Pi later.) This first draft placed the piece within the range of an Irish Tin Whistle, and I chose the key of D Major since that's the predominant key for that instrument.

However, while I was entering the notes and listening to the playback, many of the notes were often too far apart from their surrounding notes, with very strange octave jumps, which made the whole piece sound random. With that in mind, I decided to use modulus division to cut the range in half, thereby forcing all of the notes into a 1-octave pentatonic scale. In other words, if a number from Pi was over 5, then I subtracted 5.

This change for my second draft of this experiment resulted in a much smaller scale of "D E F# A B" to work with, and the 1-octave scale fell within range of the bagpipes, so I added drones for "D A D" beneath the melody to add to the illusion of a piper playing. However, during playback with a bagpipe sample, something sounded weird: every time there were two notes of the same pitch next to each other, it sounded odd. I quickly realized that was because an Irish musician won't hold a note for two beats - they'll use ornamentation to separate the identical pitches so it doesn't sound like one continuous note.

My good friends Randy Clepper (www.randyclepper.com) and Mark Wade (www.markalanwade.com) have taught a lot of classes about Irish ornamentation. I leveraged some of the things that I learned from them, and I added "cuts" to each of the sections where there were two notes that needed to be separated. By way of explanation, a "cut" is when you play a quick grace note above the note that is in the melody line. So if you have a A followed by an A in the melody, you would play the first A of the melody, then jump up quickly and play a B before returning to the second A of the melody, making sure to land the second A of the melody on the beat where it belongs. (Depending on the instrument that you are playing, you would play a cut by playing the first A of the melody, then hit a grace note A before jumping to the grace note B, and returning to the second A of the melody. It's like a really fast triplet.) Once I added the Irish ornamentation throughout the piece, it contributed significantly to the Celtic feel.

The drum beat was another exercise in self-indulgence that was fun to do. Because this entire experiment is about math, I chose to create a "Slip Jig," because they're in a 9/8 time signature. Hardly anyone uses that time signature, but it added a lot of possibilities. The accents that I chose were based on the steps that Irish dancers would use for a Slip Jig, which are beats 1 3 4 6 7, which creates a | X - X X - X X - - | beat. Since I play bodhran, I added rolls where I might use them if I were playing in a session.

Lest I forget, the 9/8 time signature is the reason for using the first 252 places of Pi. In my previous Pi Day experiment, I used the first 256 places of Pi, because 256 is one of those golden geek numbers. Since I already had those numbers lying around, I divided 256 by the 9 from the time signature, which resulted in 28.4. I rounded that down to 28, which gave me the number of measures that I would create. So 28 measures of 9 notes each meant that I only needed 252 places for this experiment. (See? It's all so simple, isn't it?)

And last but not least, the 157 bpm tempo that I chose to use was derived from taking 314 (e.g. "3.14") and dividing by 2. ('Cause, you know - more math.)

Transcribing Black Flag by King's X

I had this song stuck in my mind for a few days, and occasionally the best way to get a song unstuck is to transcribe it. With that in mind, here's my transcription of the King's X song "Black the Sky" from 1994. (See https://youtu.be/OtOb2_3YOCE for the original song.)

This piece is a perfect illustration of how cool "Drop B" tuning can be... and transcribing it made me seriously regret selling my 7-string guitar. Winking smile

Once again, my transcription is pretty faithful to the original, and here are the main differences that I can think of:

  • Ty Tabor used a wah pedal to play the guitar solo, but I used an autowah for my transcription playback. That's because I didn't feel like manually notating all of the wah pedal wizardry that Ty was doing. Was that laziness on my part? Perhaps. But the autowah sounded good enough for me.
  • At measure 14, Ty changes the chords on the first pass and the second pass through the chorus. However, I wanted to make the transcription a little easier to read/write, so I notated the chords from the second pass through the chorus. Was that laziness again? Perhaps. Deal with it.
  • I have to admit, there are parts of my bass arrangement that lend themselves to Tim Starace's excellent bass cover of this song on YouTube. (Tim plays it much better than I would, though.)

On a related side note, I have transcribed a few pieces by King's X, and one thing that I've learned to appreciate is Jerry Gaskill's drumming. I grew up listening to guys like Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, Mike Portnoy, etc. In other words, I predominantly grooved to the giants of the Progressive Rock genre. But there are certain drummers - like John Bonham - who lay down a steady groove that underscores a lot of cool stuff that's going on in the rest of the piece. (See https://youtu.be/UvOm2oZRQIk.) With that in mind, Gaskill's drum parts are never mind-blowing, but they definitely create a solid foundation. (And of course, Jerry sings harmony while playing, so he's got that going for him, too.)

Classic Rock versus Contemporary Rock

One of my kids recently asked me why I preferred "classic rock" over much of today's music, and I replied that "back in the day," artists had to actually have talent - not just look pretty for their photo shoots.

Today's biggest "artists" have the majority (if not all) of their songs written by teams of songwriters, and if these "artists" actually sing their own material, then their voices are auto-tuned and quantized into something that barely represents their original voices, and then they lip-synch their vocals when they perform so that they can nail their dance steps while their label pays every possible outlet to promote their over-produced "music..."

At the end of the day, today's "musicians" are little more than performing monkeys. See the following video for what I mean...

Whereas in the past, musicians had to have amazing talent to make a dent in the club scene where they cut their teeth; slogging away through club after club, hoping that one day they would be "discovered" by a record label's A&R department, then hopefully they might land a recording contract and perform the heck out of their material in order to gain a fan base...

Whether that meant nailing three and four part harmonies and complex rock arrangements like Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son..."

...or pulling off similarly complex multi-part pop arrangements like Journey's "Feeling That Way & Anytime."

The reason why I love classic rock is because that's the last time that music was genuine...


UPDATE:

I love videos from Rick Beato, and I noticed after I posted this blog that he had created a video a year ago, wherein he described an additional example of what is wrong with music these days: quantization. In the following two videos, Rick shows how modern-day producers and engineers ruin performances by forcing a drummer's groove into a fixed tempo, thereby destroying everything that makes a drummer great.

How Computers Ruined Rock Music
How Would John Bonham Sound Today? (Quantized)

I'll sign off with those thoughts for you to ponder.

RIP Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Like many Rush fans, I was saddened by the unexpected news of Neil Peart's death today. (See https://cnn.it/385vcFJ.) Neil was the dominant third of the Canadian Power Trio Rush, and as I have expressed before, Rush's music was truly the soundtrack of my life. Every significant season of my life was punctuated by the release of a Rush album.

I first saw Rush around 1980, and it was one of the greatest concerts of my life. Over the next 35 years I saw them several more times, and I spent countless hours learning how to play their music on guitar for several bands. (Many of my bandmates from way back then are still some of my closest friends.)

I took the following photo of Rush on stage in Toronto during one of their last concerts, and Neil is the central point of focus in that image, as it should be - Neil was the principle lyricist and inarguably the driving force behind their success. This tour was Rush's last hurrah before they collectively stepped down from their 40-year career as the undisputed masters of progressive rock, which was followed quickly by Neil's retirement to spend his final years with his wife and daughter.

I hope no one minds, but I'd like to take a bit of creative license with stealing a few specific lyrics from one of of Neil's earliest songs, Lakeside Park, as an epitaph...

So many memories
Shining stars on summer nights
Singing songs together
Though it's just a memory
Some memories last forever...

I will selfishly admit, when I heard that Rush would never tour again, somewhere in the back of my mind I kept hoping against hope that maybe Rush would put on another show someday - perhaps for a charity - and then I might have a chance to see them one more time. Alas, that wasn't meant to be. But I am happy that Neil spent the past few years in retirement alongside his wife and daughter; I think that's a better way to have lived his final days than putting on a concert for selfish fans like me.

Paying Tribute to Freddie

Today marks the 28th anniversary of Freddie Mercury's untimely death in 1991 at the age of 45. I have been a fan of Freddie and Queen since the early 1970s, and to this day I wonder how much more Freddie would have accomplished had his excessive lifestyle not taken its toll. That being said, shortly before my wife and I visited Montreux, Switzerland, this past August, I learned that the city had placed a statute of Freddie Mercury along the shore of Lake Geneva as a memorial to the years that he had lived there. As it turns out, the hotel that we had already reserved was within perhaps a half-kilometer from the sculpture.

My wife and I arrived in Montreux in the early evening, and before dinner we walked along the boardwalk next to Lake Geneva, with the hopes that we would be able to find the memorial before it grew too dark. We found Freddie's statue just as the sun began to set, and my wife took the following two photos: the first image was of the sun setting beside Freddie, and the second was of me behaving like the tourist I was by imitating Freddie's famous pose in the quickly fading twilight.

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Obviously my jacket was nowhere near as elaborate as Freddie's original, and my 360 camera on a monopod had to substitute for Freddie's microphone stand. Nevertheless, before his death, Freddie had said, "You can do what you want with my music, but don't make me boring." With that in mind, I would like to think that Freddie would be greatly amused by the number of tourists who fondly remember him as anything but boring.