How Can You Tell a Good Drummer from a Bad Drummer?: Ringo Starr as Case Study

Yesterday Josh Jones made the case for appreciating the subtle genius of Ringo Starr. And as if to second that, Dirk K. sent this video (above) our way.

Asked what separate good drummers from bad, drummer Brandon Khoo gives a short demonstration that puts Ringo's talents in the right light. It's not about the flash, the shock-and-awe display of technique. It's about his ability--as Dave Grohl echoes below--to "sit in the song" and "find the right feel," true to the philosophy that sometimes less is more.

Thanks Dirk for sending this our way. And thanks Ringo for putting on a great show in Marin on Saturday night.

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How to Know if Your Country Is Heading Toward Despotism: An Educational Film from 1946

Nobody likes a despot — even despots know it. But actually identifying despotism can pose a certain difficulty — which despots also know, and they'd surely like to keep it that way. Hence Encyclopedia Britannica's Despotism, a ten-minute Erpi Classroom Film on how a country slides into that eponymous state. It uses the example of Nazi Germany (which might strike us today as the most obvious one but back in 1946 must have felt almost too fresh), but generalizes the concept by looking back into more distant history, as far as Louis XIV's immortal remark, "L'état, c'est moi."

"You can roughly locate any community in the world somewhere along a scale running all the way from democracy to despotism," says Despotism's standard-issue mannered narrator before turning it over to a standard-issue sack-suited and Brylcreemed expert. And how can we know where our own society places on that scale? "Well, for one," says the expert, "avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism." The film introduces a series of sub-scales usable to gauge a community's despotic potential: the respect scale, the power scale, the economic distribution scale, and the information scale.

The respect scale measures "how many citizens get an even break," and on the despotic end, "common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes; if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don't like a man's race or his religion." The power scale  "gauges the citizen's share in making the community's decisions. Communities which concentrate decision making in a few hands rate low on a power scale and are moving towards despotism," and even "today democracy can ebb away in communities whose citizens allow power to become concentrated in the hands of bosses."

The economic distribution scale turns into a warning sign when a society's "economic distribution becomes slanted, its middle income groups grow smaller and despotism stands a better chance to gain a foothold." If "the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a very small number of people" and "control of jobs and business opportunities is in a few hands, despotism stands a good chance." So it also does in a society which rates low on the information scale, where "the press, radio, and other channels of communication are controlled by only a few people and when citizens have to accept what they are told," a process that renders its citizens ultimately unable to evaluate claims and ideas for themselves.

The opposite of despotism, so Despotism proposes, is democracy, a type of government explained in the previous year's Erpi Classroom Film of that name. Germany, a republic where once "an aggressive despotism took root and flourished under Adolf Hitler," now performs admirably on the respect, power, economic distribution, and information scales — not perfectly, of course, but no country can ever completely escape the threat of despotism. Much about the economy and the nature of information may have changed over the past 70 years, but nothing about respect and power have. Whichever society we live in, and wherever on the spectrum between democracy and despotism it now stands, we'll do well to keep an eye on the scales. Both films were made by Encyclopedia Britannica, in conjunction with Yale University's then prominent political scientist Harold Lasswell.

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Browse & Download 1,198 Free High Resolution Maps of U.S. National Parks


I cannot, and do not wish to, imagine the U.S. without its National Park system. The sale and/or despoliation of this more than 80 million acres of mountain, forest, stream, ocean, geyser, cavern, canyon, and every other natural formation North America contains would diminish the country immeasurably. “National parks,” wrote novelist Wallace Stegner, “are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”


Stegner’s quote---which gave Ken Burns’ National Parks documentary its subtitle--can sound overoptimistic when we study the parks’ history. Though not officially designated until the 20th century, the idea stretches back to 1851, when a battalion, intent on finding and destroying an Indian village, also found Yosemite. Named for what the soldiers thought was the tribe they killed and burned, the word actually translates as “they are killers.”

Westward expansion and the annexation of Hawaii have left us many sobering stories like that of Yosemite’s “discovery.” And during their development in the early- to mid-20th century, the parks often required the mass displacement of people, many of whom had lived on the land for decades—or centuries. But despite the bloody history, the creation of these sanctuaries has preserved much of the country’s embarrassment of natural beauty and irreplaceable biodiversity for a century now. (The National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary just this past August.)


The National Park Service and its allies have acted as bulwarks against privateers who would turn places like Yosemite into prohibitively expensive resorts, and perhaps fell the ancient Redwood National forests or blast away the Smokey Mountains. Instead, the parks remain “absolutely democratic,” open to all Americans and international visitors, the pride of conservationists, scientists, hikers, bird watchers, and nature-lovers of all kinds. Given the sprawling, idealistic, and violent history of the National Parks, it may be fair to say that these natural preserves reflect the country at both its worst and its best. And in that sense, they are indeed “absolutely American.”


There are many ways to experience the National Parks without long car rides or flights across the country or the world, though none of them can match the awe and grandeur of the real thing. Ansel Adams photographed the parks religiously, and in 1941 received a commission from the National Parks Service (NPS) to create a photo mural. World War II scrapped the project, but the 200 plus photos he took are all freely available online. The NPS has also made available 100,000 photographs, blueprints, and drawings of the National Parks throughout their history with its Open Parks Network.


We can add to these already incredible free resources the online project National Parks Maps. Begun in 2013 by Colorado park ranger Matt Holly, the site currently hosts “1,198 free high-resolution national park maps to view, save, and download.” Holly created the site for purely practical reasons. “I’ve always found it time-consuming to visit each park’s web page and use an embedded map viewer or muddle through the website to find a nice printable map,” he writes. “So I’ve done the dirty work for you.”


That said, we find this collection is filled with aesthetic pleasures, and no small number of geographical and historical curiosities. At the top see a 3D map of Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park, with a “stunning overview of Maui.” Below it, see a map of “the range of the Coast Redwood, stretching from southern Oregon to south of Big Sur.” (Redwood National and State Parks appear as a tiny area on the left, just below the Oregon state border.) Further down is a bright blue aerial map of Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park, and below it, a map of the historical Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, the “path of the famous road used by settlers to reach Kentucky.” Plus, then the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon.


Further up, see a map of Death Valley, and just above, a floor plan of the U.S. Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. This tiny sampling of the more than one-thousand maps at Holly’s National Parks Maps site shows just some of the natural (and man-made) wonders the National Parks Service stewards. For more, visit the site, where you can browse by state or alphabetically by park. Holly has also uploaded brochures and trail and lodging maps, and included links to other resources as well as gifts and prints. The site more than accomplishes its practical purpose of centralizing all the cartographic info travelers might need. But it also makes an implicit case for the National Parks by showing us how well they have kept intact the country’s defining features, which will, one hopes, still be here long after we are gone.

via Mental Floss

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the Brilliant Guitar Work of Charlie Christian, Inventor of the Electric Guitar Solo (1939)

On a recent visit to Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture (formerly EMP), I found myself transfixed for well over an hour by the Guitar Gallery, a veritable shrine for guitar players, with “55 vintage, world changing guitars from the 1770s to the present.” In addition to illustrating a few hundred years of music history, the exhibit represents the slow development of the electric guitar, and the many ungainly stages in-between. What we learn in studying the history is that guitar innovations have always been player-driven.

Guitarists have modified and built their own guitars, and many have taken models and adapted them so fully to their style that they become iconic mainstays as other models drop away. Such is the case with the ES-150, Gibson’s first “Electric Spanish” archtop guitar, and its most famous player, Charlie Christian, who has inspired some of the best-known guitarists in jazz, like Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery, and who also may have invented the electric guitar solo. Gibson goes so far as to bestow on Christian the honorific of "the first guitar hero."

Before Christian, guitar soloists in jazz ensembles and orchestras were rare, since the acoustic instrument couldn’t be heard loudly enough over horns, woodwinds, double bass, and drums. The first electric guitar, the “Frying Pan,” arrived in 1931, built for Hawaiian jazz lap steel players. Rapid development of the electric pickup proceeded throughout the decade, and Christian bought his ES-150 the year after it went into production in 1936.

By 1938, when he had found steady work at a club in Bismarck, North Dakota, “a local music store displayed the Gibson ES-150 with a sign reading ‘As featured by Charlie Christian.’” By this point, writes Riff Interactive, Christian was “a regional hero.”

In 1939, Christian joined the Benny Goodman orchestra, but the story of his audition tells us as much about the electric guitar’s importance as it does about Christian’s playing. It seems that “Goodman was initially unimpressed” by Christian’s strumming of an “unamplified rhythm guitar behind ‘Tea for Two.’” (hear him play the song, electrified, below.) But when jazz impresario John Hammond snuck him and his electric guitar onstage with Goodman’s Quintet later at the Victor Hugo Restaurant, “Christian matched Goodman riff for riff and improvised over 20 choruses. He was hired on the spot.” He could play some of Django Reinhardt's most difficult songs note-for-note, and “many of the figures he worked into his solos evolved later into Benny Goodman tunes.”

“Some argue he wasn’t the first” electric soloist, writes the site Justice through Music, but “he made the electric guitar lead solo ‘popular,’ and in essence ‘invented’ it,” leading the way for “Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy, Eddie Van Halen and all the great guitar shredders.” Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead agrees, telling Terry Gross that Christian “was the single greatest influence on the signature 20th century instrument, the electric guitar, even though he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years.”

Beginning in his hometown of Oklahoma City as a ukulele player, Christian picked up many of his “slingshot rhythms” on the guitar from saxophonist Lester Young (hear him play with Young just above). “Amplified slide guitarists in white western swing bands showed Christian how electric guitar could project,” Whitehead notes. “He wasn’t the first electric picker who played on the frets. He dug Chicago pioneer George Barnes. But Christian had the most imposing sound.”

We have a representative sampling of the imposing sound of Christian and his ES-150 in the recordings here. At the top of the post, hear him live with Goodman (who introduces him as “our new discovery, Charles Christian”) in 1939, playing “Flying Home.” Further down listen to “Rose Room” with Goodman’s Sextet, with whom he made most of his records, Whitehead tells us, “compet[ing] for space with other good soloists.” Further down, hear Christian play “Stompin’ at the Savoy” live at Minton’s in 1941 and “Tea for Two” with Jerry Jerome in 1939.

Further up, in “Solo Flight” with Goodman’s orchestra, Christian demonstrates his “impeccable” timing and “heavy, front-loaded attack” in a two-and-a-half-minute showcase. Christian’s phenomenal playing “inspired untold jazz, blues, and rock-guitar players.” In some of his last recordings, before his death from tuberculosis in 1942, he “laid the groundwork for the new music that Christian started calling bebop.” Hear him reshape the sound of jazz with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Don Byas, and Kenny Clarke above in “Groovin’ High.” “You can hear a lot of guitar’s future coming” in these recordings, Whitehead argues, “Chuck Berry included.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

One of the key questions facing both journalists and loyal oppositions these days is how do we stay honest as euphemisms and trivializations take over the discourse? Can we use words like “fascism,” for example, with fidelity to the meaning of that word in world history? The term, after all, devolved decades after World War II into the trite expression fascist pig, writes Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay "Ur-Fascism," “used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits." In the forties, on the other hand, the fight against fascism was a "moral duty for every good American." (And every good Englishman and French partisan, he might have added.)

Eco grew up under Mussolini’s fascist regime, which “was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not totally totalitarian, not because of its mildness but rather because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology. Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy.” It did, however, have style, “a way of dressing—far more influential, with its black shirts, than Armani, Benetton, or Versace would ever be.” The dark humor of the comment indicates a critical consensus about fascism. As a form of extreme nationalism, it ultimately takes on the contours of whatever national culture produces it.

It may seem to tax one word to make it account for so many different cultural manifestations of authoritarianism, across Europe and even South America. Italy may have been "the first right-wing dictatorship that took over a European country," and got to name  the political system. But Eco is perplexed “why the word fascism became a synecdoche, that is, a word that could be used for different totalitarian movements.” For one thing, he writes, fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

While Eco is firm in claiming “There was only one Nazism," he says, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” Eco reduces the qualities of what he calls “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” down to 14 “typical” features. “These features," writes the novelist and semiotician, "cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

  1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
  2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
  4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
  5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
  6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
  8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
  9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
  10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
  11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
  12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
  13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

This abridged list (available in full at The New York Review of Books) comes to us from Kottke, by way of blogger Paul Bausch, who writes “we have a strong history of opposing authoritarianism. I’d like to believe that opposition is like an immune system response that kicks in.”

One detail of Eco’s essay that often goes unremarked is his characterization of the Italian opposition movement's unlikely coalitions. The Resistance included Communists who “exploited the Resistance as if it were their personal property,” and leaders like Eco’s childhood hero Franchi, “so strongly anti-Communist that after the war he joined very right-wing groups.” This itself may be a specific feature of an Italian resistance, one not observable across the number of nations that have resisted totalitarian governments. As for the seeming total lack of common interest between these parties, Eco simply says, “Who cares?... Liberation was a common deed for people of different colors.”

Read Eco’s essay at The New York Review of Books. There he elaborates on each element of fascism at greater length. And support NYRB by becoming a subscriber.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Evolution of Ringo Starr, Dave Grohl, Tré Cool & 19 Other Drummers in Short 5-Minute Videos

I’ve always been more than happy to admit that I think Ringo Starr is a fantastic drummer and don’t find it much worth arguing over. Then again, more and more people seem to have come around to that point of view. Or at least that’s been my experience. Maybe it has something to do with the length of exposure. Once you’ve lived with the Beatles’ music for, say, twenty to fifty years, you’d had a lot of time to reflect on your favorite songs, or favorite moments (like the breakdowns in “Hello, Goodbye” and "Strawberry Fields," for example). A lot of time to appreciate just how well so many of those songs, and Ringo’s drumming, have aged.

But not all of them. I haven’t always found the very early Beatles albums to hold up well for me. There’s something about... well... okay, maybe Ringo wasn’t always a great drummer. But he became one. The thing about a retrospective appreciation is that it’s highly selective.

However, if we were to select elements of Ringo’s technique from songs spanning the whole of his Beatles career, we would be able to see how his playing refined from 1962 to 1995, when he made his last recordings with George, Paul, and John---who left several home demo tapes over which his bandmates layered harmonies and rhythms. (Hear “Free as a Bird” from those sessions here.)

You could take the time to edit together several seconds, chronologically, of famous Beatles songs throughout the sixties and seventies. Or you could do that and play all those parts yourself, and shoot and edit a thoroughly engaging, high-quality video of yourself playing them. That’s what Kye Smith does in the videos here, part of a long series of 22 exercises he calls “5 Minute Drum Chronology.” As you’ll see in his Beatles video at the top, Smith has made some very thoughtful selections from the canon, showing how thoroughly versatile Ringo’s playing became; how well he came to understand nuanced dynamics: when to attack and when not to play at all.

In his Nirvana “5 Minute Drum Chronology,” above, Smith not only duplicates the huge, booming sound of Dave Grohl’s drumkit, but he also perfectly captures Grohl’s tremendous energy. With the focus squarely on the drums, Grohl (through Smith) seems even more the hardcore punk drummer that he was for years before he joined Nirvana. But by the time we get to “You Know You’re Right,” the last song the band recorded in 1994, we see how he had discovered a much lighter touch as well, one he developed even further as a drummer for indie stars like Cat Power.

Smith’s other twenty 5 Minute Drum Chronologies track bands who made it in the nineties, like The Offspring, NOFX, Blink-182, and Foo Fighters. In many cases, none but ardent fans will know the drummers of these bands or have a sense of their full discography. But at least by the time we get to their breakout 1994 album Dookie, many of us will be familiar with a song or two from all of Green Day’s releases. And we’re likely to know the name and face of drummer Tré Cool. (The band’s first drummer, Al Sobrante, takes up the first 20 seconds of the video above.)

Is Tré Cool a drummer who has evolved over the years, developed better feel and more finesse? At least the way Kye Smith plays him. Smith is such a talented drumming impressionist that one can look away and forget that it’s him on the drums and not Cool. Which raises other critical issues with the impressive artifice of these chronologies. These are, of course, interpretations. And in any case, musicians have good nights and bad nights, great takes and not so great takes, and their style might vary more across a single album than between songs on different records.

And in the case of a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, we've seen three different drummers by the time the band released their fourth album, Mother’s Milk and took on highly skilled Will Ferrell lookalike Chad Smith. Nonetheless, Kye Smith gives us a lot to chew on as we watch, by proxy, these drummers adapt to the evolution of their bands’ songwriting. Some of those journeys are naturally more interesting than others. See the complete collection of 22 5 Minute Drum Chronologies here, or down below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Three Pink Floyd Songs Played on the Traditional Korean Gayageum: “Comfortably Numb,” “Another Brick in the Wall” & “Great Gig in the Sky”

If you come visit South Korea, where I live, you'll more than likely pass through Incheon International Airport, and there quite possibly witness a variety of displays of traditional Korean culture, from acrobatics to aristocratic processions to a variety of musical performances. Since the rebuilding of the country after the Korean War, attention has turned to recovering the arts and customs of the past and, in one way or another, making them relevant to the present. Placing them in the middle of an ultramodern transportation facility is one; interpreting the stuff of relatively recent popular culture with them is another.

A few years ago we featured the skills of Luna Lee, a player of the gayageum, a twelve-stringed Korean instrument dating back to the sixth century. Specifically, we featured her renditions of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" and Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Little Wing," meetings of modern composition and traditional East Asian performance reminiscent of what Japanese koto player June Kuramoto and her band Hiroshima pioneered in the 1970s.

But the Korean musical sensibility brings a different set of emotions into play, and now you can hear them hybridized with the psychedelic, operatic, virtuosic rock of Pink Floyd in Lee's versions of "Another Brick in the Wall," "Comfortably Numb," and "The Great Gig in the Sky," all of which must have posed a formidable challenge to convert into gayageum music.

"My ancestors played the gayageum in a small room, so the sound did not need to be loud," writes Lee on her Patreon page, "but my music is performed with modern instruments such as the drums, bass and the guitar. So I had to redevelop my gayageum so that the sound would match that of the modern instrument. I had to increase the volume and pressure, develop tone and increase the sustain sound. And hoping to express the sound of gayageum more diversely like that of the guitar, I had to study guitar effectors and amplifiers and test them to see if they would fit to the sound of the gayageum."

Lee's work of pushing the gayageum into new musical realms continues: in other videos, she tries her hand at adapting songs by everyone from the Rolling Stones to R. Kelly to Tiny Tim to the late Leonard Cohen. But something about her multiple visits to the territory of Pink Floyd feels right. Perhaps, should we find ourselves in another great progressive rock era, the gayageum will be the first instrument to join the subsequently expanded field of instruments — in both a technological and historical sense — let onto the stage. Stranger things have happened there, as the Floyd well know.

Related Content:

Watch Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ Performed on a Gayageum, a Traditional Korean Instrument

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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