The Specials – Too Much Too Young
I love ‘Gangsters’ by the specials, it’s a great song. But I think by far their most powerful song is Too Much Too Young.
The original studio album version is instantly forgettable, but the version we all know and love (which sounds like a live recording played at double speed) is just breathtaking.
I’ve always been a rocker, and whenever I think about ‘energy’ in songs I instantly start comparing things to ‘System Of A Down – Toxicity’ or ‘ACDC – Let There Be Rock’ or ‘Slayer – Angel Of Death’. But periodically you’ll get songs in other genres that have the same adreneline releasing properties.
Cases in point might be ‘The Prodigy – Firestarter’ for example.
Too Much Too Young is the Ska equivalent of Toxicity or Firestarter. From the opening drum fill to the ending ‘CAP!! CAP CAp Cap cap…’ it’s just an onslaught.
It’s a Ska masterclass.. a tour de force… It’s just ‘right’.
The lyrics (see below) are a punch to the nose. The tempo is ridiculous, and the added percussion elements and shouted backing vocals make if feel like a punk crossover song.
Anyone who was a teenager in the 80’s has a gut reaction to hearing this song played live. It’s like an electric shock. A heady mixture of nostalgia and amphetamines.
Very much ‘of its time’, this is a song about the virtues of birth control.
The lyrics are pretty brutal and seem in modern times to be borderline misogynistic. But without doubt this song had a massive impact on girls in the 80’s, and I’m going to suggest it was a positive one.
The Specials in fact were incredibly influential, think what impact “Free Nelson Mandela” had. Bands today are just politically vapid by comparison.
It’s pretty on the nose, the message is delivered over and over again :
“You’re much to much, much to young, you’re married with a kid when you could be having fun with me” (one assumes this is the royal ‘me’, as in ‘like any young non-parent’).
This message is hammered further home by the continuous interjection of various affirmations delivered in deepest patois by the backing singers : “Gi way de birth can-tro-wal, wi doan wan no pikni” etc.
At some point during the song one of the backing singers utters the phrase ‘you silly moo’. As in ‘you breed like a cow’. Which is not just borderline misogyny, it’s full on. I imagine they wish that wasn’t in there these days.
I do sometimes feel uncomfortable singing this song. I worry that young parents in the audience will take offence etc. But once the song gets hold of you, you loose any misgivings you had and just roll with it.
In fact there’s another song we used to do with a similar message ‘The Raconteurs – Steady As She Goes’ which I feel more uncomfortable with singing.
Anyway the lyrics to this song couldn’t be more direct. There’s no obfuscation. It’s not couched in prose, it’s just a simple stark message : Don’t get knocked up as a teenager.
A masterclass. The bass line is just crazy.
Because The Specials have two guitarists, covering this song is not straightforward, especially if you’re singing it at the same time.
The hard part is the section (“it’s in your living room..” etc.) where the second guitar is wailing, and you’re trying to sing.
No idea of key, possibly G Major.
This would make the verses : V-I-IV-V
But the song uses the A (ii) as a kind of punctuation, making it more likely the song is in some other key where the A is a V etc.? Who knows, not me that’s for sure.
I think what makes this song is the seemingly random use of the piccolo snare drum, it’s just pure Ska.
Madness – Baggy Trousers
No Ska section would be complete without this song, and it’s essentially the soundtrack of my school years.
Apparently written in repost to Pink Floyd’s ‘Another brick in the wall’, Suggs points out just how much fun school was for him, and just how terrible it must have been for the teachers that Floyd were so down on.
Madness have approximately 5 billion members, most of them play some sort of brass instrument. The song is sax heavy but Marcus does a great job on the saxamesizer. Nothing gets an audience of 35 to 55 year olds moving like Baggy Trousers. It’s like Dancing Queen, you just can’t stay seated when someone plays it.
This is a photo-realistic depiction of life in an 80’s British “comprehensive” school, and in fact a pretty good description of life as a child in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Happier times.
The stand out lyric is ‘teacher comes to break it up, back of the head with a plastic cup’.
We picture the scene.. Two boys fighting on the school field surrounded by a circle of onlookers braying encouragement. The teacher sees the ruckus carrying his now empty plastic coffee cup and dispatches it as he approaches, before finally grabbing the boys by their jacket lapels and carting them off to the headmaster.
Corporal punishment (teachers hitting kids) was fine in the UK in the 80’s. Of course this is the subject of the Floyd song that is the antithesis of this song. In this line Suggs describes the kind of teacher on pupil violence which typified the age. Yes, there were unforgettable scenes of kids that we’d now consider ‘spectrum’ being dragged crying and screaming to the front of class and beaten with a shoe. But mostly it was a kind of ‘clip around the ear’. An accurately aimed piece of chalk, or plastic cup.
Singing this song makes me happy, and fills me with nostalgia.
Because of all the passing chords, it’s hard to know exactly what key this song is in. But we really have a choice between Fm and Bbm (with an outside bet of Cm). It’s tempting to choose Bbm knowing there’s a large Saxophone part in this song, but I’m going with Fm which makes the verses a kind of run up : i-iii-iv
Then there’s a funny turnaround featuring a really strong ‘B’ chord which seems out of key. The chorus would be based around i-iv but it alternates between major and minor chords. It’s all quite confusing, as (to me) are most Ska songs.
We like the tings at the beginning (on the cymbals). The best part for me is the ‘make a difference through the day’ bit. I’m not sure why, but I get a feeling of release when the saxophone comes in after that part. I can relax and just listen to it all going off.
Queens Of The Stone Age – No One Knows
As a band, we’re largely rockers by nature. I grew up on the typical diet of 70’s and 80’s rock and metal, and it’s really the backdrop of my musical taste.
But when you’ve done a few gigs as a covers band you’ll notice which songs make people sit up (or dance!), and which has them staring at their feet, or their phones.
A lot of classic rock is great to play, but absolutely underwhelms audiences, so we’ve moved almost entirely into upbeat pop.
But periodically we do hanker to do straight up rock.
I can’t say I’m a massive fan of QOTSA but this particular song is pretty much an insta-classic. I think it was suggested by Marcus, and I was initially skeptical. “nobody wants to listen dirge rock”, or “QOTSA, who are they?” etc. But in honesty this song is a grower.
When trying to decipher the meaning of rock (or pretty much any) lyrics, first ask yourself: Is this a thinly veiled description of a gratuitous sex act? In almost all cases, the answer is yes. In this case a description of how much Josh likes to submit to a girl on top.
We do this in C Standard tuning. That is the guitar is tuned as it usually is but with the E string now a C.
One of the things that makes this song stand out is that you can’t quite tell what key it’s in. It’s slippery, it moves around a lot. It seems to be in Cm but there’s the confusing use of Cb major. I’m going with :
Verses : i, v7, VII or v+ ??
This last chord (in normal tuning it would be a Eb major (in this tuning it’s Cb) seems to function as a kind of 7th chord, trying to resolve back to the Cm. This seems to be the same kind of ‘trick’ used in a lot of Ska (Gangsters, Nightboat To Cairo). Use of the chord one fret down from the root chord as a kind of 7th. I don’t understand it from a music theory perspective but it sounds great.
The verse chords are played in a punchy rhythmic staccato style that peddles on the open C bass string. Every few bars there is some kind of ‘fill’ on the guitar. Sometimes it’s a little run up on the bass strings, sometimes it’s harmonics, sometimes a dissonant twang or a little shrill lick.
If find it hard to remember which bit goes where so I just throw in one of these where I feel like it.
The chorus consists of a kind of ‘ladies night in buffalo’ style octave run up followed by a full on rock wailing on the open C string. Theres a point in the middle 8 where everyone just wails on the C and it’s full on ROOOOOCCKK!!
It’s almost impossible to sing and play the chorus at the same time. I find myself angling my head at the microphone just so I can see the frets. This makes it sound bad, because the chorus has a falsetto part (re..a.. lize..) which demands full gob/mic contact, which you can’t do if you’re gawping at your fretboard.
I think the solo is played on a guitar which has been deliberately slightly de-tuned. It’s deceptive, it sounds like a half-arsed, can’t be bothered solo (think Teen Spirit) but on close inspection it’s incredibly well worked. It starts with essentially leaving your finger on the b string and sliding it up and down to various positions seemingly randomly (sometimes with an open high e pedal tone) and ends in a kind of lovely built up crescendo. From a technique perspective it’s not particularly difficult to play, but it’s very difficult remember, and to make it sound right. It’s great and I hate it, hate it, hate it.
Billy Idol – Rebel Yell
Rebel Yell is pretty much THE archetypal 1980’s rock song. Every facet of it, from Stevie’s overuse of the wang bar to the sound of the studio reverb is unmistakably 80’s. Even after several decades this song still has the potential to give me goosebumps.
It’s a love song no two ways about it, but it has a kind of ‘radiohead – creep’ or ‘teen spirit’ angst. It reeks of the alchohol and the night.
For me this song is every inch a ‘teen spirit’ but it was tried and found guilty of the crime of being ‘a pop rock song’. But just stop for a second and think about this verse :
I’d sell my soul for you babe
For money to burn with you
I’d give you all, and have none, babe
Just to, just to, just to, to have you here by me
In the band we refer to this section as ‘the romantic’ bit.
But the whole song is just one big expression of that kind of burning love you have for someone you are deeply in lust with. There’s no frills it’s just a straight up and down declaration of unconditional love.
I love this bit too :
He’s out all night to collect a fare,
Just so long, just so long it don’t mess up his hair
Accentuated in the video by Billy Idol preening his quiff. Like all truly great rock, it’s unsophisticated and unremittingly on point.
I think the vast majority of our songs are in B Minor, and this is one of them. Stevie Stevens did something on this song that very few other guitarists have ever done, he created something absolutely timeless.
The opening staccato picking in B is just lovely to play. Usually when you have a ‘peddle tone’ it’s the bass note that drones, but in this lick it’s actually the chord.
So you have to pick the b and e strings with your middle fingers whilst your thumb walks the bass note around to a different pattern. For me the transition from picking with your fingers to requiring the plectrum (for the ensuing pinched harmonic) is difficult, because I hold my pick like a moron.
It’s such an iconic start to a song that everyone instantly recognises it even if they couldn’t tell you what the song is called. Neil used to play this in Band of Oz, and he grew his finger nails especially for this, referring to them as the rebel yell fingernails.
With them he managed to get that lovely ringing sound, but I don’t bother I just pick it with the pads of my fingers, and let it be a bit dull 🙂
Once the initial riff is over it drops into a textbook example of 80’s hair metal with a little riff that runs down from G to E including a lovely pinched harmonic.
The main riff in the verse is a set of three triads (sometimes actually diads) on the d,g,b strings. With some funky rhythmic picking.
The rest is just full on 80’s wang bar nonsense.
The keyboard parts fill in the gaps and add a lovely 80’s atmosphere to the whole song.
Let’s say the song is in the key of Bm. Making the verse progression something like : VI, III, i
The chorus then goes : i, III, VI
And the rocky dropped middle 8 goes : V1, v, iv
Played over the chorus progression, the solo is what I’d call ‘wang bar pentatonic’. It starts with it’s own introduction, a rapidly bent note that echoes Billy singing ‘owww’. I guess Stevie did this because Billy kept forgetting to ‘introduce’ Stevie’s solo for him. I know our band forget to do it too.
The intro bend is followed by some double stops in D and then some extreme bending such that a lot of the notes sound almost chromatic.
The solo famously features a toy alien ray gun used over the pickups like a kind of bizarre ‘e-bow’. I just do a pick slide there because I’m slap-dash like that