Think Free


The Power of Pop – Still No. 1 after all these years

Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you want to dance with me

Rock and Roll Music, Chuck Berry

Rock and Roll is a form of popular music originally emblematic of the freedoms, joys, sorrows, romance and rebelliousness of youth. It emerged in the 1950s, blending country/western and the blues. The emphasis is on the “back beat” — the second and fourth beats (ta TA ta TA). This is the opposite of the military march, with accents on the first and third beats (TA ta TA ta).

Cultural studies professors and musicologists also say that a lot of rock and pop music runs roughly at the same tempo as – or as a multiple of – the human heart beat. This claim is a bit vague but rock certainly does connect on a visceral level.¹

Early rock’s brightest lights were people like Chuck Berry (1926-), Little Richard (1932- ), Bill Haley (1925-81), Buddy Holly (1936 -59) and “The King,” Elvis Presley (1935-77). These guys nearly killed the old crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Sinatra was hip enough to joke about it when Elvis appeared on his TV show in 1960. And in 1977 Crosby embraced the, at the time, spiky David Bowie because he recognized his immense vocal talent. So the old crooners were down but certainly not out.

The 60s and 70s saw pop/rock expand into a different kind of beast. Recording technologies (like the multitrack tape studio), the rise of FM radio, and the changing values of the hippie era opened up new sounds, techniques and styles.

Dianna Ross and The Supremes helped to define the Motown sound (music from a record company based in “Motor City,” Detroit).

British groups like The Beatles and The Moody Blues brought in symphony orchestras and made rock accessible to kids from 2 to 102.

Meanwhile, Traffic and Americans like The Doors (with Jim Morrison), Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin challenged conventional parents around the world. Teens and young adults were openly getting drunk, doing drugs and practicing free love.

In this unhinged era of purple haze and paper suns, there were still lots of sharp business people ready to profit from millions of young consumers. Rock took on different styles and marketing categories. The two dimensions, music and money, thrived in a more finely tuned kind of reciprocity.

Suddenly we had Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Progressive Rock, Funk, Raggae, Soul, Easy Rock, Disco, Glam Rock, Pop Rock, Bubble Gum Rock, Comedy Rock, Folk Rock, Christian Rock, to name a few.

Image by Mike Clark, taken at HMV records downtown Toronto Jan 22 2017 (store now in receivership).

Image by Mike Clark, taken at HMV Toronto Jan 22 2017 (now in receivership).

Some of the biggest 1970s stars were Paul McCartney and Wings, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, David BowieGenesis (with Peter Gabriel), Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Yes, Led Zeppelin, ELP, Santana, Supertramp, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller, King Crimson, The Alan Parsons Project, Rush, Bob Marley, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, The Who, The Guess Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Eagles, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, The Bee Gees, EWF and Stevie Wonder.²

Disco also hit the scene in the 70s. Donna Summer is arguably the grandma of EDM, along with her grandpa producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder still makes commercially viable music today. And producer Nile Rodgers, another 70s survivor who helped David Bowie commercialize “China Girl” in the 80s, recently worked with the EDM star, Avicii.

The German band Kraftwerk also played a huge role in the development of electronic music, as did Alan Parsons in a more progressive style.

One of my favorite 70s songs is “I’m Not In Love” by 10CC (1975). The band used analog tape loops to achieve what we now take for granted with digital tech. The tune is so well done and ahead of its time, I still get goosebumps when I hear it.

The 70s were great to live through but things had to change. Toward the end of the decade pop music was overblown. Progressive rock collapsed in on itself with pretentious, uninspired, pale reflections of former glories.³

Enter Punk Rock, New Wave and Rap.

Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols are often cited as the inventors of Punk Rock. And minimalist bands like Devo, The B-52s, The Talking Heads and The Police (with Sting) were part of a “New Wave.” Most of the New Wave fizzled out fast but The Talking Heads made their mark into the early 90s. Their existentialist, deconstructionist songs have been studied by academics interested in postmodernismRappers Delight (1979) is usually credited as the first rap record to reach mainstream audiences, based on “Good Times” by Chic.

Groups like Soft Cell, Eurythmics and Art of Noise used sequencers and digital sampling with a new minimalist response to the excesses of the 70s. A key feature of 80s pop was the “orchestral hit” — a full orchestral sound burst from the touch of keyboard. Sampling was also essential to rap and hiphop.

Annie Lennox

Like most trends, pop’s minimalist response didn’t last. Instead, 80s pop-rock was mostly about slick studio production, made possible by digital instruments and recording gear. Duran Duran and Tears for Fears are good examples of the lush, 80s studio sound. Meanwhile, Depeche Mode worked digital sampling to create harder, “industrial” music.

In 1980 John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their successful album, Double Fantasy. Sadly, Lennon was murdered by a misguided fan that same year. In 1981 The Moody Blues reinvented themselves with a new keyboardist and a No. 1 album, Long Distance Voyager. And in 1983 Yes rose from the ashes with a totally new sound in “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

Madonna was a sensation in the 80s, along with The Police (Sting), U2, Michael Jackson (the “King of Pop”), Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Winwood, Dire Straits, China Crisis, Queen, Boy George, Wham! and many others. The Cure was an influential art band, lingering somewhere between cult and superstar status.4

The New Age movement and ambient music was also on the rise. Ambient music is a diffuse style pioneered most notably by the producer Brian Eno in the late 70s (Eno also made rock albums). Eno’s seminal album is “Music For Airports” (1978), a soft and repetitive strain of voice and piano tape loops.

Eno’s analog artistry influenced more accessible, digital acts like Enya, various Windham Hill artists and producers like Daniel Lanois. Eno also collaborated with stars like David Bowie, The Talking Heads, U2 and Philip Glass.

The 90s saw more lush studio production with woman singers like Mariah Carey and Céline Dion. Others, like the late Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and The Smashing Pumpkins kept it straight and simple. Alice In Chains took a dark turn with lyrics like, “you’d be well advised… not to plan my funeral ‘fore the body dies…”

Alice In Chains

Alice In Chains

Radiohead delivered a sound reminiscent of the 1970s band Jethro Tull. Garbage, Bjork, Alanis Morisette, The KLF and Seal all had their moments. No Doubt had a killer single, “Don’t Speak.” And TLC released a classic album, Crazy, Sexy, Cool.

Veteran rockers who kept up with the times (e.g. Elton John, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen) flourished in the 90s with top-selling albums. Others like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan lost touch with the pulse of the people.

Rap, Hiphop, Dance, Grunge and Techno (now a branch of EDM) also took off in the 90s, although they all began in the 80s or before, depending on how you look at it. The (late) Guru‘s intelligent and pacifist Jazzmatazz vols. 1&2 were appreciated by listeners of all colors and creeds.

The new millennium saw more powerful woman acts like Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, who’ve billed themselves as the “longest running rock act,” continued to fill stadiums.

More recently EDM (electronic and dance music) seemed to dominate for a while. The outstanding EDM artists are Avicii, Skrillex, Tiesto, Krewella, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Zedd and several others.

Nile Rogers and Avicii

Nile Rodgers and Avicii

But pop music is still number one. Acts like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Drake and Kanye West tell us that we still want to hear people in the mix.5

¹ The normal human heartbeat range is 60 to 100 bpm. The default tempo for most digital audio workstations is 120 bpm. In a witty interview, classical pianist Glenn Gould says he dislikes rock because it’s always the same tempo within a given song (e.g. 4/4 time). But some Beatles’ time signatures change within a given song. And I suspect the same is true with Genesis and Yes.

² And many more; this list is somewhat arbitrary, mostly based on my upbringing and personal likes. See top 70s bands. Any account of the history of rock must be biased. “The History of Rock” thread at The Reaper Lounge is contentious at times.

³ It’s almost like there’s a universal curve in pop where things start off great, reach their peak, and then decline to mediocrity or worse. By way of contrast, classical composers tend to get better with age, probably because their music is not focused on youth but on maturity.

4 David Bowie’s touching swansong “Lazarus” seems heavily influenced by The Cure.

5 This is how many people feel but it’s not quite right. Everything has changed, once again. The laptop has replaced the guitar as the new indie folk instrument. Anyone with a PC and a bit of talent can post material on SoundCloud or YouTube. This tends to show how incredibly talented the leading producers are. There are amazingly skilled people behind the buttons, and gifted vocalists behind their effected vocals. Some might have to try doing EDM themselves to fully appreciate its human element.


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Joni Mitchell – Not one of my personal favs but respected

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joni Mitchell  (born 1943) is a Canadian folk, pop and jazz singer-songwriter whose hippie era lyrics speak volumes about the current situation:

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

–Big Yellow Taxi

We are stardust, we are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden


Mitchell has played, collaborated and recorded with many top pop, rock and jazz stars, to include James Taylor, Carole King, CSNY, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and the list goes on. Some believe she is the most important female pop artist of the 20th century.¹

Some of my female friends were really into her back in the day. But she never really turned my crank, for whatever reasons. As a kid and young adult I found the likes of Patsy Cline, Carole King and Annie Lennox far more appealing when it came to woman composers/vocalists.

Their music seemed less “involved” and more up front. For me, getting a good simple hook is the hardest thing to do. It’s less impressive to do long complicated pieces that never really fly. And I suppose I felt that Mitchell’s tunes, for the most part, were stuck on the ground or mired in drama. That’s an entirely subjective opinion, though, and it’s hard not to respect her for songs like those mentioned above, along with “Both Sides Now” and, I suppose,”California,” “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” and “Help Me.”


Related » Bruce Cockburn

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Alanis Morissette – Time smooths jagged edges

Alanis Morissette live at the Moon&Stars Festi...

Alanis Morissette live at the Moon&Stars Festival Locarno 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alanis Morissette  (1974 – ) is a pop-rock songwriter and performer born in Ottawa, Canada. Her wildly successful album Jagged Little Pill was in stores when I was doing my doctorate in Ottawa. So I felt a special connection to it. Also, I was happy to see another Canadian make it big.

Her style is a mix of Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. She’s been called the “Queen of alt-rock angst” by Rolling Stone magazine,¹ but there were other Alternative Queens before her, not too long ago.

Alanis Morissette: Live in the Navajo Nation

Alanis Morissette: Live in the Navajo Nation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of Morissette’s more recent melodies seem to combine Native American Ghost Dance music with traditional pop-rock influences. And it seems that her jagged edge has smoothed out a bit over the years.

As with many pop stars, Morissette seems to enter into another reality while performing. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic family, she now practices Buddhism.

Not really a global force in music today like Sia, Katy Perry or Adele, Morissette’s last album Havoc and Bright Lights (2012) did have limited success in North America and generated a hit in Europe.



Boy George

Boy George em sua apresentação como DJ na boat...

Boy George em sua apresentação como DJ na boate Pacha, em São Paulo, Brasil. O evento ocorreu em 14 de julho de 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Boy George (George Alan O’Dowd, 1961- )

In the 1980’s this lead vocalist from the pop group Culture Club followed David Bowie‘s lead by cross-dressing and generally combining big business with political statement.

The single “Karma Chameleon” touched on spiritual themes, as did his less commercially successful later work.

In the 21st century he remains an outspoken critic of figures like Madonna, although he’s virtually gone from an 80s big shot to a new millennium dark horse. In 2008 he served four months in prison for the assault and false imprisonment of Audun Carlsen.¹

I only mention George here because, in his day, he did have something to say.


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David Bowie

David Bowie 2004

David Bowie 2004 (Photo credit: markjeremy via Flickr)

Obviously, this needs updating… –MC

David Bowie (1947 -) is a British musician, record producer, arranger, actor and visual artist. Originally David Jones, apparently he changed his surname to avoid confusion with the popular Monkee of the time, Davey Jones.

Most would agree that Bowie is in a rare league of iconic rockers, including the likes of Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Madonna and Elton John.

His best music synthesizes existing idioms to create something fresh and often exploratory. And because of his considerable talent, his musical explorations rarely go off the grid.

Bowie the philosopher, if you like, also takes us to new dimensions often passed over by status quo thinkers. His song “Starman” (1972) ponders the idea of extraterrestrial life and its potential impact on humanity.

There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds

There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile

And in “Loving the Alien” (1984) he sings:

Believing the strangest things
loving the alien…

Meanwhile, Black Tie White Noise (1993) looks to the meeting of spirit and the body, a topic that sometimes scares away so-called intellectuals who think they’re smart but really are quite narrow-minded:

Where the flesh meets
the spirit world
Where the traffic is thin…
You’ve been around
but you’ve changed me

In Bowie’s heyday the press often depicted him as “going away” from this world into some kind of creative journey and then “returning” whenever he produced a hit single.

There might be some psychological truth to this, as found in “Little Wonder” (1997):

Enter Galactic, see me to be you
It’s all in the tablets, Sneezy Bhutan
Little wonder then, little wonder
You little wonder, little wonder you…
Sending me so far away,
so far away…

Not unlike the Hindu Shiva-Shakti dyad, Bowie plunged into cross-dressing before this was considered chic in the music industry.

Cover of

Cover of Sound + Vision

But there’s more to Bowie than meets the eye. Connecting him to religion and spirituality is far from spurious, considering his interest in parapsychology, as found in “Sound and Vision” (1977):

Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision…
I will sit right down,
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Within Asian systems paranormal abilities are known as siddhis, and in Catholic mysticism those which come from God are called called interior locutions, insights, perceptions and private revelations.

Bowie himself, however, is often critical of organized religion, as expressed in this chant from The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), released several years before the Catholic sex-abuse lawsuits hit the media:

Sex and the church
Sex and the church
Sex and the church
And the church
And the church

Bowie might someday be regarded not just as a musician but as a visionary or futurist. Considering the looming global water crisis the following scenario from “Looking for Water” (2003) doesn’t seem too far off:

Silver leaves are spinning round
Take my hand as we
go down and down
and down
Looking for water…

I’m looking for water
Looking for water
(Looking looking)
I’m looking for water
Looking for water…

The musician/visionary combination is not unheard of. Both Pythagoras and the legendary Orpheus combined music, philosophy and spirituality.

Pythagoras linked musical harmony to cosmic order, while Orpheus used his lyre to wrest his wife Eurydice from the underworld lord of death, Cerberus. But like Lot’s wife, and against a dire warning not to look back while escaping, Orpheus foolishly cast a glance backward, losing Eurydice forever.

This story speaks to the wisdom of accepting and trusting in the future, an idea summed up in Bowie’s tune, “Changes” (1971):

Turn and face the strange
ch ch changes…
time may change me
but I can’t trace time

Bowie has also ventured into acting and composing soundtracks for film and video games. For some time he hosted a lively, free internet forum called “Discourse” at, which now charges membership fees.

Although criticized for being cheap when it comes to charity, Bowie replies

I can never make my mind up, I’m so f***ing flippy floppy. I can see both sides of everything and it’s really awful. Source » “DAVID BOWIE – BOWIE’S CHARITY STRUGGLES” at

David Bowie & Band @ Area2 Festival

David Bowie & Band @ Area2 Festival (Photo credit: markjeremy)

Cheap or not, for his considerable import as an artist he was awarded the 2008 Andromeda Award at

Around 2004 Bowie suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency surgery. Since then he’s understandably kept a low profile, appearing here and there, and endorsing his son’s 2009 “Moon” movie.

All that changed when on his 66th birthday he released a new album, The Next Day (2013). Keeping true to form, one of his videos for the record upset the Catholic League. And so far it’s the fastest-selling album of 2013.

Other interesting things about Bowie:

  • he was offered but declined a knighthood
  • his actual religious views remain somewhat mysterious
  • he just wants to make records now (and not give concerts)
  • he’s apparently vowed never to do public interviews again’s Very First 2008 Andromeda Award!

Related Posts » Nineteen Eighty-Four

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Leonard Cohen

English: Leonard Cohen

English: Leonard Cohen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonard Cohen (1934- ) is a Montreal-born writer, poet and musician. Around the time of the release of his record, The Future (1992), Cohen was likened to an Old Testament prophet by a Canadian reviewer. And this might not be too far off. Cohen’s lyrics and retrospective asides seem to dance around the idea that he’s a mouthpiece for the Divine as well as a humble guy, just like anyone else.¹

Along these lines, Cohen seems content with his combination of Jewish and Buddhist beliefs.

Cohen lost his father when he was nine years old. But he was left with a modest trust fund so didn’t have to worry about money in his younger days.

He bought a house and spent his formative years in Greece, this influence discernible in much of his music. A former ladies man, he openly tells of forays into drink, religion and whatever else might have sustained him. He once held the unconventional notion that the Nazis were defeated by music. And he speaks of a creative spark that apparently those “who are there” know about and those “who are not there” do not.

The following lyrics from “Bird on the Wire” (1969) speak for themselves:

Like bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way
To be free.

And from Susanne (1967):

And Jesus was a sailor… Only drowning men could see him.

In “The Tower of Song” (1988) he sings:

Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.

And in The Future (1992) he takes an even darker route:

I’ve seen the future, brother:
it is murder.

However, The Future also contains some humorous and hopeful elements.

Apparently bilked out of his fortune in 2005 by former manager, Kelley Lynch, Cohen filed a suit and was also sued. Still standing, his comeback tour, cds and verse have proved that he’s a survivor. His latest album, Old Ideas, has received 4 and 5 star reviews from critics and fans around the world. Not bad for a guy nearing 80 yrs.

¹ See for example, “Going Home” from his latest cd, Old Ideas »

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Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn (album)

Bruce Cockburn’s first album, 1970 (Photo credit: Wikipedia – click on image for fair dealing rationale)

Bruce Cockburn (1945 – ) is a Canadian, Ottawa-born folk and rock musician. He sang about Christianity through natural metaphors well before it was considered cool to do so. Despite this, Cockburn managed to survive and even thrive in the Canadian record industry.

In one interview¹, he said that it’s fine to sing about God, but if the music’s not happening, then the message doesn’t really connect. This was probably an oblique reference to the contemporary Christian pop of the time, so much of it being formulaic and arguably not too original, musically speaking.

At he’s quoted as saying:

I am a Christian songwriter. I just don’t fit the Christian music scene.

As the years went by, Cockburn became increasingly critical of what he saw as hypocritical political and religious practices. In “The Gospel of Bondage” (1988) he denounces the selective use of Biblical quotations to justify questionable acts:

God won’t be reduced to an ideology…God must be on the side of right, not the side that justifies itself in terms of might.

Bruce Cockburn performing at the City Stages f...

Bruce Cockburn performing at the City Stages festival in Birmingham, Alabama, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps due to music’s unique ability to move the body and arouse passion, his “Rocket Launcher” (1984) single was sharply criticized:

If I had a rocket launcher… Some son of a bitch would die.

Cockburn responded to his critics by saying there’s a difference between (a) the artistic representation of anger and (b) advocating angry practices (see sublimation).

With regard to “Rocket Launcher” he claimed to merely represent his outrage in response to the bloodshed of innocents in South America.

Signing with the SONY label, Cockburn’s sound became bigger but he never really cracked the American market as, perhaps, anticipated.

Back with his former True North label, however, his electronically enhanced acoustic sound has returned, along with some noteworthy retro-style experimentation.

Like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Alanis Morisette, Celine Dione, Glenn Gould, Justin Bieber and Drake, Cockburn is something of a culture hero in a country that is finally growing out of its national identify crisis.²

The following tune, “Wondering Where the Lions Are” is a reference to the Old Testament story of Daniel in the Lions Den and, according to Wikipedia, is his most popular single to date on the US but not the Canadian charts.³

¹ From a magazine article. Source cannot be located. Probably somewhere between the late 80s and the new millennium. In recent decades, Christian pop has undergone a serious reboot, some of which is arguably just as “cool” or “good” as anything else out there.

² This was especially prevalent in the 1980s, when entire university departments in the Humanities spent countless hours (and taxpayers dollars) looking at how Canada differed from the US and beyond.