first round game
(5) europe, "the final countdown"
(12) kix, "don't close your eyes"
and will play on
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/9.
The Final Countdown or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Shred: nick greer on europe
Shredding has been an important preoccupation of mine for much of my life. Given a Torino Red Duo-Sonic and a 25-watt Peavey practice amp for my 8th birthday by my spacy but indulgent uncle, my course was set, the destination all but destined. I wasn’t going to be the guy stage left hiding behind his bangs and his barre chords, I was going to be the lead guitarist, an axe-wielder, the face-melter, panty-dropper. Jimmy Page at the Garden. Zappa at the Palladium. Hendrix at Woodstock. Clapton is God.
Except I didn’t want the spotlight and the spotlight didn’t especially want me: I’m still not exactly sure. By the time I was taking lessons, I’d already logged hours absorbing the slack of early 90s MTV. I liked the doomsday psychedelia of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” the overexposed angst of Candlebox’s “Far Behind,” the streetlit accusations of Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” If a song had a solo, I wanted it to hit me half-time and phased-out, wailing with accidental feedback not pinched harmonics. I wanted fuzz and flannel and undirected frustration, anything but the increasingly polished virtuosity of rock from decades past, hair metal being the most recent and therefore worst example. Hair metal was sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll taken to their illogical conclusions: style with no substance, lead with no rhythm. It was opulent and self-absorbed, showy in its masculinity, guitars braced between thighs like second cocks, but this made it kind of fruity too, a bunch of guys wearing tight leather and leopard print, hair permed and lips glossed, more interested in bragging about the chicks they’d banged than the music. Music I needed to be honest and rough.
It’s easy enough to understand why I felt the way I did. My parents were quintessential yuppies of the Reagan era, educated boomers who put out their roaches and cut their hair when they moved to the city to ride the bull market all the way to three kids and a house in the suburbs. They wanted their blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys to grow up as comfortably as they had, and the soundtrack to this was equally idealistic and unconflicted. The music they listened to—if they listened to music at all—was the slick, commercial soft rock of their soft, commercial life, one I wanted to have nothing to do with, being the squirmy, confrontational, and ultimately spoiled boy I was.
It was only a matter of time before I’d get sucked into nu-metal then punk and hardcore and emo and beyond, but not without conflicted feelings about the expectations of that first guitar. That best-intentioned, neoliberal push to take the stage that you’ve so rightly earned. How do you say no to such an invitation? I didn’t have an answer to the question, so I went about the business of badness in harmless fashion. What resonated with me most was pop-punk and melodic hardcore, stuff with uptight drumming and clever, snide lyrics. Before I saw NOFX at Warped Tour in 2002, I learned their entire discography on guitar and bass, and could sing along too:
A buttoned collar, starched and bleached
Constricting veins, the blood flow to the brain slows
They're so fuckin ordinary white
Don't call me white, don't call me white
Soon I wasn’t just playing for hours a day, but practicing. In my high school’s jazz band, I was second chair to the son of a professional guitarist. He’d been going to conservatory every weekend since he was five and would drop jaws with precise performances of “Asturias” and “Malagueña” and I wanted to be that good, better, best, so I practiced, composed, read, wrote—all different forms of study, the very thing that I should have been telling to fuck off. In college, the same college where my parents met, I majored in music where I wrote a thesis on mathematical structures in 20th century music. The summer after my sophomore year I interned at Pandora, the path paved again by my uncle, who’d founded and sold a successful audio software company, and was now an investor in the space. And so the prodigal son returns the obedient one, having never really left. In other words, despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage—a song I returned to when I was sick of listening to Webern, writing about Bartok, thinking about them, about thinking.
It was around this time that I discovered Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” This would’ve been at the height of millennial ‘80s nostalgia, when it seemed like every party at my small, preppy New England college peaked on a sloppy singalong to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” among a phalanx of popped collars. But what better song to celebrate and prolong the end of the night than “The Final Countdown”? Released the year that I and most of my classmates were born, it is an almost perfect expression of the contradictory and self-satisfied energies that were fueling White America in the mid-eighties. Like one of the biggest stars of that time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Final Countdown” is Teutonic pedigree meets American technocracy, an übermensch made all the more über by modern, maybe even futuristic tech. The song’s main melody is a triumphant, neoclassical trumpet line, synthesized into an anthem for space travel, though the lyrics are vacuous enough that they’re also not so slyly about ejaculation: “We’re heading for Venus (Venus).” Like a lot of metal, it’s a confusion of mythic images reinforcing white male power that are presented with such smiling confidence there’s little opportunity to question it. This assumptiveness is even embedded in the declaration of the song’s title, “The Final Countdown,” and it’s in the band’s name too. As J.D. Considine observed in his review of the album: “You have to figure that any band with gall enough to take the name of a continent isn't going to settle for a modest musical approach.” This is music for taking the name of a continent.
Had I first heard this as the soundtrack to the crew team’s fist-pumping, it might’ve triggered a gag reflex, but instead I encountered it in a context that made the song a critique of the same bluster it was meant to celebrate. It’s a specific context, but one I imagine is bizarrely common: on Arrested Development, as the entrance music for Will Arnett’s George Oscar Bluth as he peacocks around stage with a knife between his teeth, pumping up the audience for one of his ill-fated “illusions”:
It’s the perfect pair for the trust-fund magician. Equal parts cocksure and insecure, it’s silly and puffed-up with unearned but totally sincere gravitas. In this setting, the song is not a paean to progress, but a caricature of white male obliviousness. [Ron Howard voice]: And, as another eldest son trying too hard to make his parents proud, Nick couldn’t help but laugh at himself.
As if to confirm this realization, a week after Gob took the stage at The Gothic Castle (to be mistaken for The Gothic Asshole), I stumbled upon and immediately bought a copy of The Final Countdown at a church rummage sale. I listened and listened, learning the song on guitar though the impulses that drove me, while still impassioned, weren’t so tortured, so weighed down by the burden of proof. The song’s solo, a deceptively easy shred, came in a sightread or two. I’d ham it up for my friends, making pained, orgasmic Nigel Tufnel faces during the sweeps. I was mocking the empty indulgences of the song while also capitulating to them, letting them wash over me like the spotlight I’d worked so hard to earn and deny in the same gestures. The song was a guilty pleasure in the fullest sense: a guilt that helped me refine my experience of pleasure, pleasures that spoke to the limitations of guilt.
I can still hear this shift in the music I was recording at the time: moody, directionless songs where shredding is just another texture, another surface.
In “Sefirot,” the shred is mixed so far into the background it’s barely audible, more an echo or a ghost of the once-great lead guitar. In “Odalisque,” the shred is front and center, but too much so, my guitar and preamp and IO all cranked to the proverbial eleven, the track clipping and picking up every hot scrape as I picked or slid around the fretboard. It’s alluding to the virtuosity of lead guitar more than it’s actually virtuostic. In fact, it’s messy, but that’s its essence: juvenilia that doesn’t care what it is or isn’t—punk, essentially. I recorded it in a single, breathless take. I didn’t and still don’t expect people to enjoy it or care about it, myself included, especially. But because of this it sounds all the more honest.
Knowing I was going to write this essay, I listened to the song again for what must’ve been the first time in years, probably since the last time I rewatched Arrested Development, only to find it doesn’t give me the same joy and awareness it once did. I even tried picking the song back up on guitar, but I lost my chops pretty quickly after graduating and getting swept up into my own explorations of yuppiedom and its renunciation. If anything, the song and the decade that birthed it seem even more of a joke if not also a lazy but effective way to sell car insurance, but during a time when the country is being run by suits as absurd as the schlockiest corporate villains of a save-the-community-center movie, it’s hard to laugh along. If this song was the soundtrack to the decline of western civilization, why hasn’t it died yet? It’s “The Final Countdown” but it’s still being played, and here I am, taking a stage I haven’t really earned, rejecting and basking in its spotlight, for this, my solo.
Nick Greer is a writer and never-been guitarist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He holds an MFA Creative Writing from The University of Arizona and edits Territory, a literary project about maps, and Goodnight, Sweet Prince, a digital literary zine about side characters in movies and other media.
From Grandstand Section C, Row 4, Seat 24 with a Panasonic Lumix ZS100 at the Clearfield County Fair: gabriel palacios on Kix’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
YouTube teaches us that the power ballad is a big old mannequin turning on a platform in a Merry Go Round at the great mall of purgatory, and the music video and our memory of it comprise just one season’s window display, to be switched out come fall by the performance on a Monsters of Rock Cruise, the daytime slot on a county fair bandstand. Somehow Kix are always wearing bellbottoms.
It’s hard for anyone to rock the county fair in the daytime. All of the receptors clogged with livestock. Air of deep fried sugar. In a line to ride the elephant in the shadow of the Gravitron, of a sixteen year old rider who vomits before the operator even throws his switch to launch the ride. Lugging a sack of free keychains and pamphlets advertising wastewater treatment.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes” is a dirge of a power ballad, sung into the dark. Over the latter part of the 20th century, Aerosmith’s “Dream On” established the enduring template for this subset of rock balladry: more than once you’ve heard the voice that keens through from a beyond place, heartbreak or maybe the grave; you recognize the minor-key piano chords that issue from some unseen station beneath the stage at a slow constant raindrop. In these descendant-songs, lyrics and music video might work together to triangulate the theme: Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” revels in a state of nervous exhaustion, like a kind of a posh, celebrity hospital stay thing (or is it really an exploited musician’s cry for help?); No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” sounds close enough to “Dream On” and probably would qualify as a power ballad, yet it never wants to dirty up its pop sheen, it never gets existential. Besides, it came too late. Kix, band from Baltimore, on the other hand, who in earlier iterations were known by the strangely punk rock names Shooze, and the Generators, ratchets up the stakes in their entry. “Don’t Close Your Eyes” plays an odd game of chicken with, or rages (balladrage, anyway) against suicide. Could “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” perhaps the least discussed of the interpolations and inversions of “Dream On,” also be the greatest?
The county fairs and the casinos sometimes lead me to think the power ballad is by definition overwrought, middle of the road fare. Big, deliberate chord changes and a chorus that keens irresistibly. And I’ll reencounter one of these tunes in passing that I watched a thousand times on MTV as a ten year old to find I don’t remember it at all. Splashing Sturm und Drang that leaves no ripple. Remarkable then that “Don’t Close Your Eyes” manages to check a fair amount of these boxes yet has some other tricks and resonances in which the rock fan might brood.
The music video for “Don’t Close Your Eyes” has pills, a lovelorn model, and a special emphasis on the swaying and spinning of rockers with guitar and microphone-stand. The slower these songs, the more conspicuous the movements. Now watch it twice, and pay attention to the guitar solo. On first listen, it reminds me of the guitar break in “House of Pain” by Faster Pussycat, the compressed tone of 80’s circuitry. On second listen, I realize that I remember this solo, note for note, from back in the day. Especially its end flourish, a descending figure that bounds up to a harmonic chime, this perfect buzzer at the door of the hereafter. Death after all is the ultimate middle of the road fare, and what is “Don’t Close Your Eyes” but Death Rock, in the tradition of “Last Kiss” and “Leader of the Pack,” twenty-five years too late?
Then I click on the Clearfield County Fair performance on YouTube, to immerse in the way that a fairgoer might, amid distractions. The wind is pummeling the microphone, it’s broad daylight, after all. When the nightclub or theater switches on the houselights at closing time, we know it’s time to scurry. The crowd at the fair scurries, too, the incidental crowd. There are county fair people who have come for the turkey legs and also there is a strong contingent of Kix fans, whooping and pumping fists in the front rows. In the unfiltered afternoon of the county fair stage, that untheatrical zone, the band sways and whirls as if they could be lost in the music. A red truck passes behind the stage during vocalist Steve Whiteman’s sustained high note, the singer bent, leaning into his mic stand. His fist pounds his heart, he gestures outsizedly to signify up and down. He has found his portal and he is utterly zapped, Poltergeist-style, into the MTV clip.
As shot by uploader “efxf22” from Grandstand Section C, Row 4, Seat 24 with a Panasonic Lumix ZS100, we see more of the stage than the audience. But at 2:31, a disembodied hand clutching a bag of popcorn ferries out of its real life, across the ballad memorialized in this upload, and exits stage left into its day.
Following the guitar solo’s harmonic bell (mournful monk in an abbey tower), we close in a final chorus, which feels like a pronounced, seismic, spike of energy and volume. Steve Whiteman doubles over in a kind of full bow, offering up his spentness to the intentional and unintentional audiences at his feet. Finally, the camera pulls back and we see a fuller landscape of assorted clappers and their hands, their blond and gray hair, and their baseball caps and beers.
Months back, I went to see another musical act perform at the Fonda Theater in Hollywood. I’d be surprised if there were less than a hundred semi-historic theaters within a square mile there, but the Fonda was good enough for darkness and getting lost. These musicians had posted signs forbidding flash photography and cell phone recording of any kind. In the enclosure of that venue, the artist was able to exert some control over the environment. The ambience was the world of the music, and that feels comfortable. A festival or a county fair can feel like a street commotion. It occurs to me that one purpose of attending a musical performance is to be transported, and not by your own power, through the dark to pure sounds and textures, and here in the sun of the fair, through the lens of a Panasonic Lumix, you would think there was no forgetting where you, or Steve Whiteman, actually were.
Gabriel Palacios is a poet and musician from Tucson, where he is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems study how the violence of the Spanish Colonial era might surface in the present-day Southwest, like ghostly superimpositions in spirit photography.
At ten he begged his parents to buy him a Skid Row T-shirt bearing a cartoon image of the Mona Lisa in tattoos and a nose-chain. “IT AIN’T ART IT’S ROCK ’N’ ROLL,” the shirt declared.