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Great Use of Rock in Roll in Movie Scores

From “Somewhere over the Rainbow” on Hollywood learned that the right song at the right time can take a film places images and dialog could not do on its own. Try not to think about bicycles when you hear “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”.  It’s impossible if you saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Beginning with the Blackboard Jungle with “Rock Around the Clock” Hollywood has repeatedly gone to Rock and Roll to enhance its movies. This use of rock songs reached a new level when Mike Nichols went directly to Simon and Garfunkel for songs that would evoke the story his film the Graduate.  There, the music is inseparable from the film.

When it works, like with “Mrs. Robinson”, it’s terrific. When it doesn’t it becomes a banal cliché – the troubled family getting back together singing an overly loud Motown tune like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into a hairbrush.

curtain pulled backScoring popular songs into Movies and TV for plot value has become common and often the sign of lazy direction or plot development.  Having trouble having the story line and characters add up? No problem, simply license a familiar song and insert it into a dot connecting montage.

This trend has become so common that it was lampooned in the film Team America nearly a decade ago in the song, fittingly titled, “Montage”.

Still, integrating a familiar rock song into a film is very high art.  When it works it is memorable. The wrong song at the wrong time can take the viewer out of the film or show. “Where did I hear that song before” runs through the viewers head instead of what is happening in that moment to the plot.

The use of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” in Argo was a terrific use of the right song at the right time.

So in the wake of  Oscar night, I though it a good idea to think of “The Best Use of Rock Music in Film!”

Again, this is not “incidental” music or songs composed specifically for the film – this is the use of songs that had a life prior to their use in a film sequence.

Here are my choices for the best examples:

The End – The Doors – Apocalypse Now. Perhaps the greatest ever. The song by itself is epic and cinematic.  It’s the song where the police would haul away Jim Morrison in handcuffs after going on his Oedipal rant. The way Coppola uses the song to frame his great film puts both the film and the song into a new light.  The perfect example of using rock music in film.

Sister Christian/Jessie’s Girl – Night Ranger/Rick Springfield – Boogie Nights. Boogie Nights soundtrack is flawless. The loose recreation of the Wonderland murders against the backdrop of a coked-out Alfred Molina – with some naked guy shooting off firecrackers – elevates both the film and these two very pedestrian songs to a higher level then they could have achieved without each other. Total chaos as art.

Stuck in the Middle with You – Steelers Wheel – Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has raised the bar for all auteurs with his great soundtracks.  Pulp Fiction has at least four great song/sequences. Not sure he succeeded this year with Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name” in Django Unchained but he clearly did with Steelers Wheel juxtaposing their giddy song with torture and terror.

Surfin’ Bird – The Trashmen – Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick is a master of using music in his films. I love Chris Issak’s “Baby Did Bad Thing” in Eyes Wide Shut – but that movie is just too weird. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” became known as the “2001 theme” – that’s how powerful Kubrick’s images where when matched to classical music. In Full Metal Jacket he underscores the existential absurdity of Vietnam war then with this throw-a-way novelty song we all vaguely remember hearing somewhere.

Helicopter Sequence from GoodFellas. We all know Martin Scorsese is a master filmmaker. But this sequence – and the particularly driving “Toad” drum solo by Ginger Baker of Cream – illustrates the manic flavor of the era and the paranoia that went with cocaine is simply brilliant. Nilsson, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Muddy Waters, George Harrison, and Cream – and Scorsese –  wow!

Tiny Dancer – Elton John – Almost Famous. Could have chosen “Sparks” by the Who, but this song – one of Elton’s very best – takes on a whole new meaning as the band buries their internal hatchets as they sing along remembering it’s the music that matters and brought them together in the first place. We see it and feel it. Former Rolling Stone music critic Cameron Crowe always has great music in his films but the time he takes with this scene perfectly matches the time Elton takes to get to his chorus. Brilliant. Another great one from Crowe is John Cusack lifting the boom box playing “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything rejuvenated Peter Gabriel’s career.

There are of course many others.

What are your favorites?


5 Great Series to Watch on DVD

Watching DVD’s of serialized TV shows is a superior experience to watching them in their original weekly broadcast format. Watching the episodes one after another helps the viewer become more engaged in the plot, and become more sympathetic to the characters. Best of all no waiting on a cliffhanger, you can immediately find out what happens firing up the next episode. Oh, and no commercials (not that anyone watched them anymore thanks to DVR’s).

Here are some great series to view on DVD:

  1. 24– While this show has been inconsistent over it’s seven season run, riddled with cliche after cliche, and one-dimensional characterizations, more than any other show makes the case for the superiority of the DVD format.  I know many people who have gone through all 24 hours in a weekend because it’s just that addictive.

For those living in cave, Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland), is an ex-military black-ops agent working for anti-terrorist agency CTU. Often going rouge, Jack likes to yell a lot, and involve his family into terrorist activities.  This creates cliffhanger upon cliffhanger. He does all this over the course of 24 hours with a cell phone than never requires recharging.

The typical plot is that the US enters a terrorist situation that can only be thwarted by the rule breaking Bauer, who thankfully gets to kick some serious terrorist ass before the episode ends.

Not the best series out there, but good in a very cheesy and addictively entertaining way.

  1. The Wire– Reviewed at length elsewhere on this blog.
  2. Alias– Some may prefer Lost when it comes to J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) material, but really this is where is all starts. He built his brand here with this show. Week after week of twists and turns against a backdrop of heavy action will have you scratching your head and hyperventilating. Eventually the twists in the plot became too much for the show, which spun out into being ridiculous. The first two seasons were a very big deal – remarkable.

Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is a double agent (or is she) working for a super secret government agency (or is it) SD-6. To go beyond this is pointless, you just need to watch it.

The production values are terrific, and the action keeps coming.  Many now familiar faces appear in the show including Victor Garber, Terry O’Quinn, Greg Grunberg, and Bradley Cooper. Quentin Tarantino guests on four episodes and Ricky Gervais (the office) is featured in his first surprisingly effective dramatic role.

Garner is the star however. Her athleticism and believability in a role requiring as much as it does, is remarkable. Most people put off by Garner have never seen this show. Check it out, it will change you mind and entertain you at the same time.

  1. The Shield – Vic Mackey, the role of Micheal Chiklis’s career, is a duplicitous street detective who consistently breaks the rules in the inner-city of Los Angeles. What engages the viewer is that sometimes the rulesneed be broken, and breaking them produces good. Other times, not so much…and there is much carnage as a result.

Seven excellent seasons of wonderful acting from a mostly unfamiliar cast that actually came to a real conclusion in the final season. Writer Shawn Ryan has achieved something truly remarkable here, a cop show void of cliches. It seems like a new genre when you watch this show with its extensive use of the hand held cams, and quick edits.

It is the characters in the orbit of Mackey however, that both elevate and ground the show. Dutch (Jay Karnes), Wyms (CCH Pounder), Aceveda (Benito Martinez), and particularly Shane (Walton Goggins) are each characters worthy of a show themselves. All add a conscience around the often deplorable exploits of Mackey. Forrest Whitaker and Glen Close provided season long and often riveting guest appearances.

Landmark TV.

5.Prison Break – As much as this is a poor man’s 24, the first season of this show is so good, so meticulously plotted and executed, it has to be included here. Consistently suspenseful in an ominous prison setting with great unknown lead actors. The terrific supporting roles made some of the subsequent seasons tolerable in the midst of utter ridiculousness (at one point they had to break into a prison!). The character of Theodore “T-bag” Bagwell, in particular, a great creation, creepy and fascinating. Seasons 1 & 2 Excellent, Season 3 Good, Season 4 – a mess.

There are many other excellent series I could include here: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Everwood, Gossip Girl, The Office (British version), Arrested Development, and Rescue Me (to name a few).  These were not included because they don’t have a cliffhanger element found in the series mentioned above. I will address those series in future articles.

Get control your viewership and order some of these up today!


10 Overlooked Great Guitar Solos

There are dozens of lists of great guitar solos on the internet. Stairway to Heaven, All Along the Watchtower, Comfortably Numb…the usual suspects. Indisputable.

Here are some other equally great solos, perhaps overlooked. Some well-known players, some not so much (and unfairly so). If you play guitar or love guitar solos, they are all worth hunting down and checking out.

  1. Inca Roads – Frank Zappa- One Size Fits All

Zappa is a great guitar player. The problem is there is just too much material of his out there, and much of it is odd and not for everyone. Despite great musicians and musical complexity, his lyrics and song structure often distract rather than enhance a proper evaluation of his playing.

One Size Fits All (along with Apostrophe) may be one of his most accessible albums. A great song collection with a terrific band this four-minute recorded live solo of hammer-ons and pull-offs through a half on wah-wah shows what he could do when he would “shut up and play his guitar.” Superb.

  1. Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape – Bill Nelson/Be Bop Deluxe – Live in the Air Age

Bill Nelson is one of the forgotten shredders of the late British Invasion. Using an ES-335 and two major seven chords, Nelson gives a clinic through this four-minute solo. Doing right finger tapping before Van Halen and string skipping before Eric Johnson, he just kills it with his tone and vibrato – although he does run out of steam at the end of this solo. His harmonic range, a step beyond the pentatonic riffs of his Island mates, were a real precursor of what was to come with the lead guitar in the eighties.

  1. Poem 58  – Terry Kath/Chicago – Chicago Transit Authority

Jimi Hendrix allegedly said Kath could play “better than me,” and a listen to this two-chord jam might shed some light on what Hendrix saw. He is all over the place here with his heavily overdriven tone. Melodic, dynamic, and lightning-fast – an exceedingly indulgent solo that is an excellent bookend to 25 or 6 to 4.

  1. Spiral – Larry Carlton/Crusaders – Those Southern Knights

Carlton’s fame is tied to his excellent studio work (Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Hill Street Blues) as a session guy and many forget he was a member of the Crusaders for many years. Spiral is one of the few solos where he gets to stretch out during his studio heyday. All the Carlton trademarks are here. The tone, the bends, the vibrato, all anchored by melodic lines. Carlton’s fluid playing over complicated changes with arpeggios was his trademark. This solo very much falls into the description for any Carlton solo, “tasty!”

  1. Have You Heard – Pat Metheny/Pat Metheny Group – The Road to You Live

Metheny is a legend, but like Zappa, has so much material, and much of it straight ahead jazz (and inaccessible to rock fans) – so where to start? I say right here. This CD  provides an excellent overview of his playing in a both a supporting and front and center role within the context of some of the best Pat Metheny Group Songs.

This solo is remarkable in so many ways, Pay particular attention to the dizzying open string chromatic runs in the middle of the song. Amazing.

  1. Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad – Eric Clapton/Derek and the Dominoes- In Concert

Clapton at his absolute finest. After an opening call and response between Clapton’s wah-wah and Jim Gordon’s drums, Clapton takes us through riff after riff against minor chords in the first break. Then, he wraps it up with the major seven chord finale that offers some extreme tastiness as the band backs off, slows down, and lets Clapton have the spotlight. Back when Clapton was still kind of God.

  1. Monmouth College Fight Song – Robben Ford/Yellowjackets – Casino Nights Live at Montreux

Robben Ford and his band, the Yellowjackets, were making some of the most melodic and engaging jazz music of the late seventies. Ford’s blues-based jazz, was then as it is now, one-of-kind. This solo captured live at the Montreux Jazz Festival is Ford as the absolute peak of his blues/jazz hybrid period playing effortlessly over half a dozen changes. The expanded edition of this CD is terrific with formally unavailable performances by Carlton, Feiten, and Ford.

  1. Jungle Fever – Buzz Feiten/ Neil Larsen – Jungle Fever

Buzz Feiten may be more famous for his tuning system than his guitar playing. This is a real shame as he was one of the most exciting and melodic soloists in the seventies and eighties when he played with Hammond Organ Master, Neil Larsen, in Full Moon, and later Larson/Feiten. This available-on-import-only CD is a must-have for anyone who loves that era of jazz/rock fusion.  Sudden Samba is a classic. George Benson recorded Windsong. Both songs are on this CD.  Also, great solos from the late Micheal Brecker.

The solo on Jungle Fever is particularly strong in the way he introduces the guitar in the breaks, and then build the solo to the impossible riff at 5:31. The rhythm section of Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark is spectacular. Just one of many great solos on this overlooked gem of a record.

  1. I’m Home – Steve Lukather/ Greg Mathieson Project – Baked Super Live 

Another import-only CD but W-A-Y worth the effort to track down. A young and enthusiastic Steve Lukather, filling in for the recently departed Larry Carlton has a lot to prove, and does just that over the course of this excellent CD. The late Jeff Porcaro lays down mile deep grooves (drummers! great CD)  over Mathieson’s memorable compositions.

Lukather plays brilliant rhythm, adds atmospheric swells, and when the times comes, kicks it up about three notches to create a guitar climax on this highly melodic song. The slow build showcases the signature style that would be so prevalent in the eighties on tracks he played on for Lionel Ritchie, The Tubes, Boz Scaggs, and so many others.

  1. How Do Those Fools Survive – Skunk Baxter/Doobie Brothers – Minute by Minute

Skunk is on many great solo lists already for his great solos with Steely Dan, like My Old School and Ricki Don’t Lose That Number. (Personally, I love Night by Night). Here the future defense contractor analyst (google it, bizarre and true) takes his plugged straight in the board guitar through the fade out and just blows octaves, blues, chromaticism, melody, and a terrifically entertaining solo.


Top 5 Rock and Roll Album Debuts

Top 5 Debut Albums/CD’s of All Time


There have been some auspicious debuts in Rock and Roll. These have to rank near the very top. Not necessarily my favorite records of all time. These are not desert island discs -at least for me. All have been highly influential and feature great songwriting. The main thing they share, is each one came on the scene like a comet. The Beatles, Clash, or Bruce Springsteen – all of whom had terrific debuts – they weren’t as fully formed in the sense that these five were. Some may even argue that the five below are their best works.

An omission here is Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses. The genie came out of the bottle on that one, and they are still trying to get it back in.  Feel free to replace any of the below with Appetite.

  1. Are You Experienced – Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jimi Hendrix was a phenomenon in London making the British scene like Austin Powers with his single Hey Joe. This record, uneven in parts,  presents a fully-formed future icon who revolutionized the guitar with each over-driven E7#9 chord (and there are many).

The superior US version shows remarkable range. From the hard rock of Purple Haze to the blues of Red House: from the tenderness of The Wind Cries Mary, to the experimentation of Third Stone from the Sun, no record ever before or since said “hey world look at me, the world will never be the same.”

It hasn’t been since.

  1. The Pretenders – The Pretenders

In the middle of US punk importation of bands who had attitude and no musical aptitude came the odd combo of Ohio native Chrissie Hynde with her band of from the UK. Every song encapsulated the angst of the Clash, with the pop sensibilities of the Kinks. It was a delicious combination made even more so when their leader said, “not me baby, I’m too precious, F off!”

James Honeyman-Scott was a guitar chameleon, playing a dizzying display of rhythm and single note lines behind Martin Chambers beefy drumming.

The star though was the enigmatic front-woman whose vulnerable-yet-strong vocals and terrific songwriting would carry her career for decades with a variety of bandmates.

  1. Boston – Boston

Saturated guitars, overdubbed vocal harmonies, and songs that came out of some sinister time-less machine have ensured that thirty years after the fact, somewhere a track from this debut is playing somewhere. As much as I dislike this record, I can not deny its craftsmanship and durability.

Mastermind Tom Scholz created in his basement enough songs for two mega-selling, genre producing (corporate rock!), arguably great records. The late Brad Delp’s vocals are terrific, even if no one could recognize him in a police lineup and their life depended on it. Without Delp, Scholz is just another tall vegetarian with a guitar and degree from MIT.

  1. Elvis Costello – My Aim is True

The reflective singer songwriter wave was over. The wimpy Topanga Canyon guys had put a fork in the genre spewing ersatz introspection, Joni turned to Jazz, and Cat Stevens was praying he wouldn’t drown (ending his career in the process).

Then came this record. A new kind of singer songwriter named Elvis. From the poignancy of the title cut to the hard Farfisa-rooted ska of Watching the Detectives. This was a stunning debut of an artist who is still relevant today, either as a musician or host of the TV show Spectacle.

  1. Van Halen – Van Halen

Rock guitar stunningly reinvented. Edward Van Halen grabs the torch that began with Chuck Berry and was most recently in the hands of Hendrix. By the time you are finished Running with The Devil, EVH makes guitarists all over the planet weep with the solo guitar instrumental Eruption, where dive bombs and right handed finger tapping are both introduced and expanded in the same song.

Then there is the rest of the album.

David Lee Roth might be the best front man in the history of rock. He could kick the crap out of Roger Daltry’s,  sleep with more chicks than Rod Stewart,  all while makingthe guys laugh their asses of.  The Van Halen Lee Roth combo was irresistible and more than other band brought some much needed fun back to rock and roll.

Any list like this is bound to have detractors.

Boston will take the most tomatoes.  They will never make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the rest will. Let me ask you, if you had to choose between Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Boston who do you choose?

Then there are the critics darlings, which maybe sold a collective million copies collectively. I am talking about Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, MC5, Love, and the Talking Heads.  These records didn’t sell for a reason, they suck. They are the musical equivalent of Beowulf, historically interesting, but God bless you slogging through them.