Right now, on my home computer's hard drive, I have 30 songs saved as MP3 files. I downloaded them -- illegally, with no filters for copyright protection -- using a file-sharing program. I've downloaded hundreds of others in the past, but as of now, I've kept 30 in the folder. Now, that doesn't amount to anything, you might say. Millions of people download songs from each other's computers for their enjoyment every day. In a new, maddening twist on an old, old story, however, 30 files are now more than enough to create chaos.
The Recording Industry Association of America, in its capacity to foster the major labels' continuing cluelessness on what ails it, facilitated the serving of subpoenas to nearly 1,000 Internet users two weeks ago -- not pirates selling mass quantities of burned CDs from a dorm room, but normal, everyday folks with the nerve to want to enjoy music. One of these folks, according to a report in Time, was a conscientious bus driver from Fresno, California, who was unaware his grandson had downloaded a few songs onto his computer. It promises to grow worse: Last week, the RIAA announced that Mitch Bainwol, a longtime conservative insider in Washington, D.C., would become its chairman and chief executive in September. Bainwol's most recent boss, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, just endorsed a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, no doubt with Bainwol's input. Intrusion, clearly, is all right by Mitch.
So I'm ready. I'm a trader in the narcotic of free MP3s, a market that's absolutely screaming for legitimacy. I admit it. What'll the investigators find? I present a cross section of the evidence that incriminates me:
Two versions of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well": Fleetwood Mac, the eternal pop machine featuring still-alluring Scottsdale native Stevie Nicks, performed a rousing show late last month at America West Arena. The band, spearheaded by guitarist/genius Lindsey Buckingham, revisited a healthy portion of its radio-friendly catalogue. Before the Mac attack was a "pop machine," though, it was something else entirely -- sorta blues, sorta jazz, sorta psychedelia. I had never heard any of that, so I piqued my curiosity by downloading songs from the band's earliest phases. Drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie and guitarist Peter Green were members of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers when they decided they wanted to capitalize on the progressive craze in Britain being led by Pink Floyd and Cream. They formed the original Fleetwood, with the enigmatic, brilliant Green leading the way. Like Floyd's Syd Barrett, acid would melt Green's brain by 1971, but before then, he wrote spooky, unsettling songs for the band, topped by "Oh Well." The song is propelled by a weird, imbalanced acoustic riff, which is then intercut with Green's electric work. In both versions, the song rocks along to that riff until about the two-minute mark, when a wave of Renaissance Fair acoustic guitar and flute take over. In the longer version, that continues for seven increasingly painful prog-rock minutes. In the short version, it taps out after just one minute; that makes it classic. The contrast between the two is instructive for me as a music lover -- and makes them worth keeping.
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson's "Good Hearted Woman"; Trik Turner's "Friends & Family": Arizona music is a must, right? Jennings cut his teeth in Phoenix bars in the 1960s, developing his rugged but tender "outlaw" country style. With the help of Nelson and Jennings' wife Jessi Colter, still gorgeous at 60 and living in the Valley, Jennings became a superstar in the '70s, something I can hear, embrace and appreciate on this live version of a major hit. The crowd goes berserk on the opening notes, again as Waylon sings the first verse and again when Willie takes over on the next. As for Trik Turner's melodic slice of hip-hop-inspired rock, I downloaded the Valley band's modest 2002 hit after a lengthy barroom discussion on the evils of downloading with former Trik bassist Steve Faulkner, who contends downloading gives labels no incentive to sign rock bands, who can sound that shitty and sell poorly on their own. Sorry, Steve.
Panjabi MC and Jay-Z's "Beware of the Boys"; Fannypack's "Cameltoe"; Electric Six's "Danger! (High Voltage!)": These are easily the three stupidest singles of 2003 so far. They come from albums that have gotten generally positive reviews, but who's gonna care in a few years, when the memories fade and all that's left are these slices of musical silly putty? Why not keep them around with a smile? Panjabi MC is a raga singer who figured that mixing traditional Indian vocalizing with a sample of the theme to the TV show Knight Rider was a swell idea. A sweller idea was inviting Jay-Z to rap, which makes the song enjoyable. The Fannypack song is an ode to the female frontal wedgie rapped by three young women who sound like the overworked staff of a beauty parlor rather than artists. The Electric Six song is phony disco with lines like "Fire in the disco/Fire at the Taco Bell!" The White Stripes' Jack White sings on the chorus, a footnote to an otherwise lightweight gem. It's modern-day ABBA.
Bonnie Bramlett's "Groupie": Ruben Studdard defined his run through the second season of American Idol with this song, better known by the Carpenters' renamed version, "Superstar." His adoption of the song made the original a vital candidate for downloading. Bramlett, who co-wrote the song with cult favorite Leon Russell, sells it as a saucy country tune, which it should be. With lyrics about a perhaps-psychotic starfucker sitting alone in her room remembering her sexual encounter, it's not G-rated material. Russell is scheduled to perform in Phoenix this September and may just pull this one out of the old songbook.
The New Pornographers' "From Blown Speakers" and "The Laws Have Changed": A friend advised me not to invest in the Vancouver band's entire new album The Electric Version, released this past spring. So I downloaded these two songs. Wise choice, as both are fantastic, offering an indefinable pop blend that combines playful organ work, a peppy groove, surf-happy harmonies and lyrics about pharaohs and other oddities. They're the kind of songs you wanna play while you're instant messaging your friends at two in the morning.
Elvis Presley's "That's Alright Mama": I downloaded this one last Thursday for good and obvious reason. Sam Phillips, the man who did more to acclimate white America to black music than just about anybody, had died the night before. Phillips is credited with "discovering" Elvis. Actually, it was the other way around. Presley was an ambitious kid in wingtips and pink-and-black pants looking for a break when he began pestering Phillips at Sam's Sun Records recording studio to record him. Sam, a gifted engineer and producer, eventually relented, pairing Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, and produced this blues gem in 1954. Packaged with a version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," it became Presley's first commercial single and launched rock 'n' roll as we know it. Phillips went on to record Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, lifting them into corporate orbit while never receiving his own big payday. Without Phillips, the RIAA and its lawyers arguably wouldn't even have their cause célèbre. Even though he just entered the ground, Phillips may already be rolling in the dirt.
Who knows? After this column, I may be rolling in my own. Bring it on....
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