Song Unions: Bands play dress-up, channel Netflix’s ‘Dark’

Song Unions: Bands play dress-up, channel Netflix’s ‘Dark’

Degrees of separation drop to zero.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'

September 3rd, 2020 at 9:22 pm EDT

Notice: This post contains spoilers for Dark (2020).

In 1973, Don Henley wanted to be John Boham. Henley, drummer for, and one of several ensemble vocalists in the Eagles, had heard plenty of Zeppelin drummer Bonham’s extra-mic’ed bass drum — four albums’ worth by ‘73 — and before a fifth reached his ears, he knew, it was high time he play dress-up. 

This is no knock. If an NBA player had donned an M.J. hat for a game in 1995, and then scored a triple double, 56 points, would you really question his choice? Impersonation or not, what plays plays.

It was during the recording of the Eagle’s second album Desperado when Henley pushed the idea of sounding just “big.“ Glyn Johns, the band’s producer at the time, couldn’t have been less on board.

In the definitive Eagles documentary The History of the Eagles, band co-leader Glen Fry recalled arguments with Johns. 

“You’re not a rock n’ roll band,” Fry, impersonating Johns, sneers. “The Who is a rock n’ roll band. You’re not that.”

Testing identities became a theme on Desperado. It’s in the name: the Eagles played cowboy, ditching the placid for the rugged. Asylum Records actually shelled out the dough to send the band to an old Western set for a promo shoot. It was funny even at the time.

And yet, out of that critically-panned, paradoxical, confused masterpiece came at least two smashes that have held up reliably for half a century, now: “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado.” 

The band’s history and music from the era became the stuff of legend. “Desperado” made its way into one of the more memorable Seinfeld episodes as the song interrupts a Julia Louis Dreyfus makeout session. Her character quotes the lyrics, lamenting about her date later, “It’s like I’m sitting there in the car, and he’s ‘out riding fences.’”

Bill Hader and Fred Armisen spoofed The History of the Eagles in one of the better Documentary Now! episodes on IFC, “Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” with plenty of proverbial studio arguments like Desperado‘s built in.

Get the boots. Get the spurs, Get the extra mics. Open your Spotify: There is a third Eagles track of note from Desperado, worthy of resurrection and submitted here for continual life: “Outlaw Man.”

The story surrounding it and the rest of Desperado turns the track itself into a window, listeners peering into the Eagle’s London studio (yeah, they went to Zeppelin-land to record) and watching the drama amass and conclude in a few minutes’ time.

Starting with a banjo in the studio version, like some segue from the Eagles’ inaugural roots, the track clicks and chords its way into a Glen Fry ramble and a hard acoustic strum. The song’s chorus conjures harmonies, an “outlaw” snake tail, ending in Fry’s rattling “man…”

By the end of the song, Henley bangs away in double-time, not a bridge, but an outro that just fades out and ends, sure to impress the hardcore Bonham fans in abstract weight — but then again, Johns made sure Henley was not particularly “big” in the mix. The drums instead stair their way into the song’s climax almost gradually, despite their obvious. attempted intensity from Henley. A full narrative, the song writes, from inciting and rising actions, to resolution and epilogue.

Depending on whom you ask, the thing is either inspiring or absolutely absurd. Either way, it’s hilarious.

Identity crises are not unique to the Eagles. Bonham and Led Zeppelin had their own as the ‘70s came to a close and the ‘80s beckoned. Not content with just playing the progenitors of punk, Zeppelin figured they’d strut alongside the Ramones, too, a quartet that was rawer in an instant than Robert Plant had ever mustered in his beautiful squawk.

By 1969, Zeppelin’s lead singles “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” had enough original grit to prove that the band didn’t need to continue to lift from others’ works, blues or otherwise. They began to dim the lights and get weirder and weirder with it, Page moving from guitar picks to violin bows and Plant moving from denim jackets that were too small to denim jackets that were really too small. 

Their stage shows sometimes had more punk than a Stooges set. Consider any live version of “The Ocean,” especially the particularly potent version from ‘03’s  How the West Was Won, a live release of a 1972 Zep concert. The song’s central verse riff from Page could have been written by Joey Ramone, and Billy Joe Armstrong himself might have been conceived in its strum.

So, naturally, Zeppelin eventually wanted to play dress up, too, drafting an explicit response to punk proper in their song “Wearing and Tearing,” recorded in ‘78 and released in ‘82 on CODA

The song, clocking it at over five minutes, is more ambitious than most Ramones hits, the New Yorkers minimalists at heart. “Wearing” starts and starts and starts and stops. John Paul Jones’ bass chugs along. Page aligns himself with the rhythm section in open strums with enough gain on them to be mistaken for power chords — you know, punk. 

The Ramones didn’t always want to be the Ramones, either. Their first album arrived in 1974. By their fifth, in 1980, they dabbled in early rock n’ roll, a natural progression-regression of their surf pop. “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” is a Bill Haley and His Comets impression, the world’s most obvious game of charades (again, it’s in the title). The Ramones toss in a dash of Elvis Costello for good measure. The song and its album End of the Century was produced by, shocker, famed ‘60s motown and rock producer, and ‘00s murderer Phil Spector.

The End of the Century session was neither the first nor the last time Spector would be summoned to work dark magic and give a new feel to something familiar. It was he who famously gave the “wall of sound” treatment to The Beatles’ Let it Be, the band’s last released studio record, but their second-to-last recorded. 

Touring out the question and studio sessions increasingly labored, The Beatles had begun to splinter as the 1970s began. Paul was already recording solo material. George was strumming along to All Things Must Pass, finishing the double-album in his head. John had quite literally run off with Yoko.

Spector stepped in to take a run at the tapes, ones the Beatles themselves had glady left behind. He added string accompaniments to Paul’s “The Long and Winding Road” and John’s “Across the Universe” most memorably.

Reportedly, Paul had a conniption. The album enjoyed a rerelease, with a new string-less mix rebranded as Let it Be… Naked in 2003 — the same year Spector murdered actress Lana Clarkson. 

Instant karma.

The choices Spector’s ear made have not stood the test of time well. Spector omitted “Don’t Let Me Down” from the final album entirely. 

Imagine a producer hearing “Don’t Let Me Down” and going, “nah.”

A “naked” version of Let it Be did exist all the way back in 1969. The whole record, the Beatles having just come down from several dimensions of drug trips, was a concept album originally titled Get Back after its opening track. The concept: taking off the long hair figuratively, and “getting back” to rock roots — like Haley and his progenitors, mostly Black American blues artists and rock guitarists, Bo Diddly, Little Richard. Richard inspired Paul to push his falsetto wails, and Chuck Berry was an idol of John’s. 

Oh, and get this: ‘Get Back’ the album was first mixed by Glyn Johns. 

Early in their career, The Beatles, then with drummer Pete Best, played covers for hours upon hours during their residency in Hamburg, a formative crucible famously posited as one of the most obvious examples of the proverbial, Gladwellian 10,000 hours. Blues and early rock were the river to The Beatles’ canyon, etching so deep and condensing into what lay below with such mass that, like a black hole, The Beatles’ catalog pulled anything past a wide event horizon “in” for decades.

The Beatles, though, had more than one identity crisis. On Abbey Road — their actual last studio effort, if one released earlier than Let it Be — the four took a swing outside and aimed long with “She’s So Heavy,” Lennon’s explicit and on-the-nose response to the heavy Zeppelin.

Paul’s bass work twitters on the track and is more of a highlight than John’s rasp. The Sir George Martin Abbey Road mix comes to mind when listening to 2010s supergroup Them Crooked Vultures and their bassist’s work on songs like “No One Loves Me and Neither Do I.” The Vultures consisted of Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stoneage guitarist and vocalist Josh Homme, and in a late-career comeback, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

Dizzy yet?

Let’s exit the closed loop, one incestuous but somehow, also, not. 

The exit? A song novel and almost untraceable, linked to the above playlisting, but branching something completely new: Queens of the Stoneage’s 2017 track “The Evil Has Landed.”

It seems apt that in the closed loop that has been rock from the blues to grunge, to indie and pop metal, that Robert Johnson’s fabled sale of his soul to the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads to gain guitar chops in the late ‘20s also has a mirroring in something like Queens of the Stoneage’s “Evil.” The cover art for their album Villians is demonic and would scare the hell out of Nancy Reagan.

Guitar players even today hear Johnson solo and are convinced trickery, magic or at least overdubbing is afoot. His skills terrified. 

“The Evil Has Landed” similarly should scare the hell out of every guitar player comfortable enough with their current chops to listen to it without prejudice. Queens of the Stoneage, in “Evil” no longer with their twice studio-session drummer Grohl, brought back also for a second run former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore. 

It’s not just Homme that makes “Evil” tick: it’s the whole band, Theodore notably. He and Volta were a lesser-known exit off the rock beltway that most rock fans passed right by in the early ‘00s. The music Volta produced, to borrow the verb from the odd and unforgettable “Roulette Dares,” was daring. It was jazz and metal all at once — spacefaring into the Latin music galaxy and back again, too. Comparisons to Zeppelin and Santana abounded.

Volta guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López Rodríguez-López was essentially the J.K. Simmons character in Whiplash, pushing Theodore and chucking cymbals at his head. As with Whiplash, it’s hard to call anyone in that dynamic “happy,” and lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala still called firing Theodore “the stupidest move we’ve ever made.”

Lucky for us. Theodore newly affixed, Queens’ “Evil” is a flex. The riff, juxtaposed with sonic space for the drums, calls to mind Page and Bonham’s alternating work on “The Ocean” — except that with both a rhythm and lead guitar, Queens absolutely flies. The evil seems to land again as each measure closes, and take off again as each new measure throttles with life. The soloing is an organism unto itself.

A species, you can still see from where, when, and whom it stemmed… but it’s new. At first listen, enthrallingly different.

For those of you who’ve watched Dark, imagine an Escher loop with a trap door, Jonas and Martha disintegrating — or Donnie Darko’s tangent universe with Gyllenhall giggling and the roof collapsing. 

Laughing, Theodore and Homme finally take us home.

In the series finale of Dark, there’s a sense of interconnectedness not just among the present, but among a veritable substance of time, too, in which the characters find themselves stuck as if in a wartime trench — a thick thing, time is. Einstein made science fiction like Dark possible when he theorized and later with researchers was able to prove that time itself did act like a substance, expanding, contracting, and affecting we observers in its stretch. Films like Interstellar recently explored this real phenomena, while science fiction authors like Joe Haldeman, author of sci-fi classic The Forever War, have for decades.

Art, too, works like a substance, interacting with itself in ways that seem to transcend time. Understanding this mechanism as it forges forward is perhaps easy, while understanding its ability to ripple into the past, less so.

The habits that one finds in artists today have within them odd threads from the future and past alike, an argument of genetics that, like the resolutions in Dark, need not invoke free choice to be instructive.

Yes, there are those artists who, conscious, project into the future and hypothesize radical leaps they then take. In an eschatological endpoint perhaps lies a mirror that shoots light and soundwaves alike backward to affect us here, a haywire implosion or explosion awaiting time itself, ripples hitting us where we are among it all, like a rock to a pond.

What would we intelligent hominids do, if we ever reached that endpoint, glistening in understanding and technocapacity? Infinite potential energy?

Might we turn around and send a deliberate influence as if by messenger pigeon? Dali famously often slept holding a spoon so when it fell, he’d hear its clang and awake mid-dream, inspired by parts of his brain otherwise untapped.

When we look at a body of art at a distance, we see these ripples express. They appear to end in the present, but there’s never a crash. We can witness them continuing to pulsate with each passing second.

They are vectored, and so are we.

Perhaps Einstein was partly wrong. Perhaps one day we’ll replace some of his brilliance with a dose of our own. Or perhaps we are part of one dependent whole, far more admiring and vicariously avoiding of one another than we care to admit. We are aqua tesselations interlocked.

We make wakes, and those cognizant and surfing upright rule out little when granting idea entrance to their artistic waiting room, as surfers afloat and in motion. Quite the opposite: they welcome the tides and work with them instead of against them, vetting every crest.

Nothing about that style of ride is new. Over a millennium old, Taoism for instance has a term for the skill: wu wei.

Dark became a show about the same for nearly three seasons, the welcoming of vector as life. Its finale, however, sought to provide an exit, a kind of self-actualization that, for once in the shows’ narrative, allowed minds to swim successfully parallel to the shore and, at least, remove themselves from a riptide, if not from fate entirely.

Fold layers of your time, here. Project. Reflect. Be. What you’ll find is layer after layer of you, a universe, both a part and a whole — a piece and a process.

THE STIFF

Rock is dead.
THE SIFT

In the upper echelons of some of the Western world’s most revered rock musicians exists a predictable and incestuous dynamic, stirring cyclical potions and spells and pouring the concoctions into molds of mutual admiration. Eventually, the cauldron springs leaks, loosing raw sediment from its below. In the worlds that pool thrive sounds somewhat new, ear candy to cure the blues.

IDEAS SIFTED: Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jordan, Glyn Johns, The Stooges, The Ramones, Green Day, Bill Haley and His Comets, The Beatles, Phil Spector, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Nirvana, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stoneage, Mars Volta, Robert Johnson, Nancy Reagan, M.C. Escher, Dark, Donnie Darko, Interstellar, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Salvadore Dali, Taoism, Albert Einstein, General Relativity.

THE PLAYLIST

Warning: explicit language and drug references.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'