Tom Petty Takes You Inside His Songwriting Craft

Briefly noted: Give this wide-ranging interview with Tom Petty some time. Recorded in 2014, Petty talks with interviewer Jian Ghomeshi about his songwriting craft. The writing of songs, the rehearsal and recording process, the work in the studio, it all gets covered here. As he talks, one thing comes across: Whatever talents he had, Petty put in the hard work. He and the Heartbreakers mastered their instruments, kept getting better, and didn't take short cuts, to the point where they could do magical things together in the recording studio.

Watch Part 1 above, and Part 2 below, where, at one point he says, "I'm doing the best I can. You can't say I didn't try really hard because I'm really trying hard to be good." The value of trying--trying consistently--can never be understated.

Note: Some of the same themes get echoed in Tom Petty's final interview, which he gave to the LA Times last week. You can stream it here.

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Enter the The Cornell Hip Hop Archive: A Vast Digital Collection of Hip Hop Photos, Posters & More

The music and the culture of hip-hop are inseparable from the Bronx, Queens, Harlem, and Brooklyn, NY. And now that the form is a global culture that exists in online spaces as much as it does where people meet and shake hands, its documentary history may be more valuable than ever. Hip-Hop began, unquestionably, as a regional phenomenon, and its formal qualities always bear the traces of its matrix, a confluence of African-American, Caribbean, and Latin American socio-cultural experiences and creative streams, meeting with new consumer audio technology and a drive toward countercultural experiments that took hold all over New York amidst the urban decay of the 70s.

Photo by Joe Conzo, Jr.

We know the story in broad strokes. Now we can immerse ourselves in the daily life, so to speak, of early hip hop, thanks to a partial digitization of Cornell University’s vast hip hop collection. The physical collection, housed in Ithaca New York, contains “hundreds of party and event flyers ca. 1977-1985; thousands of early vinyl recordings, cassettes and CDs; film and video; record label press packets and publicity; black books, photography, magazines, books, clothing, and more.”

Photo by Joe Conzo, Jr.

While this impressive trove of physical artifacts is open to the public, most of us won’t ever make the journey. But whether we’re fans, scholars, or curious onlookers, we can benefit from its curatorial largesse through online archives like that of Joe Conzo, Jr., who “captured images of the South Bronx between 1977 and 1984, including early hip hop jams, street scenes, and Latin music performers and events.”

Photo by Joe Conzo, Jr.

While still in high school, Conzo became the official photographer for the early influential rap group the Cold Crush Brothers. The position gave him unique access to the “localized, grassroots culture about to explode into global awareness.” Cornell’s site remarks that “without Joe’s images, the world would have little idea of what the earliest era of hip hop looked like, when fabled DJ, MC, and b-boy/girl battles took place in parks, school gymnasiums and neighborhood discos.”

Another of Cornell’s collections, the Buddy Esquire Party and Event Flyer Archive, preserves over 500 such artifacts, the “largest known institutional collection of these scarce flyers, which have become increasingly valued for the details they provide about early hip hop culture.” Local, grassroots scenes like this one seem increasingly rare in a globalized, always-online 21st century. Archives like Cornell’s not only tell the story of such a culture, but in so doing they document a critical period in New York City, much like punk or jazz archives tell important histories of London, New York, D.C., Paris, New Orleans, etc.

The third digital collection hosted by Cornell, the Adler Hip Hop Archive, comes from journalist and Def Jam Recordings publicist Bill Adler. The materials here naturally skew toward the industry side of the culture, documenting its leap from the New York streets to “global awareness” and a spread to cities nationwide, through magazine photo spreads, ads, promotional pics, press clippings, and much more.

Some of these collections are easier to navigate than others—you’ll have to wade through many non-hip-hop photos in the huge Joe Conzo, Jr. archive, though most of them, like his Puerto Rican portraits and landscapes for example, are of interest in their own right. Conzo's photo journalism of the Bronx in the late 70s and 80s has all the intimacy and candor of a family album or collection of yearbook pictures—charmingly awkward, exuberant, and a stark contrast to the high-profile glamour of commercial hip-hop eras to follow.

The core of Cornell’s collection came from author, curator, and former record executive Johan Kugelberg, who donated his collection in 1999 after publishing Born in the Bronx: A Visual History of the Early Days of Hip Hop with Joe Conzo, Jr. It has since expanded to 13 different collections from the archives of some of the culture's earliest pioneers and documentarians. Hopefully many more of these will soon be digitized. But we might want to heed Jason Kottke’s warning in entering the three that have: “don’t click on any of those links if you’ve got pressing things to do.” You could easily get lost in this incredibly detailed treasury of hip-hop—and New York City—history.

Photo by Joe Conzo, Jr.

via Kottke

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

How Marilyn Monroe Helped Break Ella Fitzgerald Into the Big Time (1955)

Think of movie stars, and you'll almost certainly think of Marilyn Monroe; think of jazz singers, and you'll almost certainly think of Ella Fitzgerald. Their skills as performers, their inherent iconic qualities, the time of the mid-twentieth century in which they rose to fame, and other factors besides, have ensured that these two women still define the images of their respective crafts. But before their ascension to cultural immortality, the Angeleno Monroe and the New Yorker Fitzgerald's paths crossed down here on Earth in 1955, and, when they did, the movie star played an integral role in breaking the jazz singer into the big time.

If you wanted to play to an influential crowd in Hollywood back in the 1950s, you had to play the Mocambo, the Sunset Strip nightclub frequented by the likes of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren, and Howard Hughes. But at the time, a singer of the reputedly scandalous new music known as jazz didn't just waltz onto the stage of such a respectable venue, especially given the racial attitudes of the time. But as luck would have it, Fitzgerald found an advocate in Monroe, who, "tired of being cast as a helpless sex symbol, took a break from Los Angeles and headed to New York to find herself," writes the Independent's Ciar Byrne.




There Monroe "immersed herself in jazz," recognizing in Fitzgerald "the creative genius she herself longed to possess." Together with Fitzgerald's manager, jazz impresario and Verve Records founder Norman Granz, Monroe pressured the glamorous Hollywood club to book Ella. "I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt," Fitzgerald said later, in 1972. "She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night." He agreed, and true to her word, "Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."

Though Monroe's efforts didn't make Fitzgerald the first black performer to take the Mocambo's stage — Herb Jeffries, Eartha Kitt, and Joyce Bryant had played there in 1952 and 1953 — she did use it as a platform to ascend to unusually great career heights, comparable to the way Frank Sinatra launched his solo career there. The story has remained compelling enough for several retellings, including Bonnie Greer's musical Marilyn and Ella and, more recently, through the hilarious unreliability of an episode of Drunk History. As real history would have it, Fitzgerald would go on to enjoy a much longer and more varied career than the tragic Monroe, but she did her own part to repay the favor by adding nuance to Monroe's superficial public image: "She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Smithsonian Presents a Gallery of 6,000+ Rare Rock ‘n Roll Photos on a Crowdsourced Web Site, and Now a New Book


Rock photography is an art form in itself, as demonstrated by books and exhibitions of some of its masters like Mick Rock, Jenny Lens, Pennie Smith, and so many others. But two years ago, the Smithsonian turned to the crowd, to the fan, to the amateur photographer, with a call to submit photos from over six decades of rock and roll that weren’t hanging on gallery walls, but sitting in a shoebox somewhere. From fans with instamatic cameras to amateurs covering concerts for their school paper, the Smithsonian wanted another angle on our cultural obsession.

Many of the contributions now live on a crowdsourced website. And a resulting book Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen collects the best of these in a chronological history of the genre, from post-war blues to the late 20th century. It will be officially released on October 24, though you can pre-order now.




Websites Mashable and Dangerous Minds present a selection of photos from the book, such as a shot of Sly Stone at the height of his powers (and belt buckle size), a pic of the Talking Heads on stage in Berkeley, 1977; a dark and mysterious glimpse of Bonnie Raitt, circa 1974; and a shot of Cream playing the Chicago Coliseum taken from the side of the stage, with Ginger Baker’s head a complete blur. Also find Joni Mitchell at Kleinhans Music Hall. And The Ramones in Tempe, Arizona, circa 1978.

Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theatre, by Barry Schneier/Smithsonian Books

It’s a reminder of how unpretentious these live shows could be, happening in a world with the simplest of lighting rigs and decades from the big screen projections even up-and-coming bands now indulge in. For the most part, this was an intimate contract between the artist and the audience, all crammed into small clubs with smoke, sweat, heat, and, most importantly, electricity in the air.

The new book also features tales from the people who took the photos, along with some more professional photos to “flesh out this overview of rock and roll,” according to the introduction by organizer Bill Bentley. He adds: "The results, spanning six decades, aim for neither encyclopedic authority nor comprehensive finality, but rather an index of supreme influence."

The Ramones in Tempe, Arizona, by Dorian Boese/Smithsonian Books

That supreme influence continues to be felt, for sure. Although the submission window is now closed, the Smithsonian's website allows you to look through the hundreds of submissions to the project.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Depeche Mode Releases a Goosebump-Inducing Cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”

40 years ago, David Bowie recorded "Heroes," a song that tells the story of two lovers who embrace in a kiss by the Berlin Wall. How the song was recorded gets wonderfully retold by producer Tony Visconti, in a post/video we featured in January 2016. Don't miss it.

Above, you can watch Depeche Mode's new cover of "Heroes," recorded to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the song's official release (September 23, 1977). "'Heroes' is the most special song to me at the moment,” Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan told NME. “Bowie is the one artist who I’ve stuck with since I was in my early teens. His albums are always my go-to on tour and covering ‘Heroes’ is paying homage to Bowie.”

In another interview with Rolling Stone, Gahan talked more about the experience of recording this song: "I was so moved, I barely held it together, to be honest." Watching the performance, I got a few goosebumps, I have to admit.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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A 17-Hour, Chronological Journey Through Tom Petty’s Music: Stream the Songs That Became the Soundtracks of Our Lives

For some time now, both critics and the big guitar makers have clanged a warning bell about the end of rock. But we need not be alarmed. Rock isn’t dead. Only it’s no longer the preserve of leather-clad cock-rockers and sensitive boys with fancy haircuts. “A new generation of female and non-binary performers,” writes a New York Times feature, “punk in style or spirit, coming from the all-ages warehouse and D.I.Y.-venue ecosystem—is taking their place.”

Still for many of us, it feels like rock as we knew it, at least, is passing away, especially after the death of Tom Petty this past Monday. Like so many other recent losses in music, he was exceptional, ushering in a laid-back, unassuming singer-songwriter tradition by being, as Billboard magazine writes, “less of a rock n’ roll star and more of an observational dude” with an “uncanny ability to write hit songs.”

Petty wrote about the everyday sordidness and grace of life in small towns and big cities alike. His songs were spare vignettes written around archetypal American characters who expressed universal longing in poetic lines cut with a diamond. Like Dylan, but with much more concision, he could capture dusty Americana and Biblical dread with perfect clarity, as in 1991’s “Learning to Fly.”

Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still...

Well the good ol' days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn

He wrote lines so achingly moving and evocative that he only needed a handful of them to make spare ballads like 1994’s “Wildflowers” sound like mythological epics.

This is the 90s Petty one generation first came to know, a wistful folk-rock troubadour and youngest inductee into a classic rock elite in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison. The breakout Petty of the 70s and 80s was a scrappy everyman rocker with punk energy and R&B roots. “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That”… there is nowhere you can go without hearing Petty’s “stripped-down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock ‘n’ roll,” as Randy Lewis writes in an L.A. Times obituary.

But, while Petty’s songs became ubiquitous, they never disappear into the repetitious sonic landscape of background music. We recognize them immediately and connect; they feel personal, “as though he’d written them,” Mikael Wood aptly remarks, “to soundtrack the specifics of your life.” He made earnestness cool and gave voice to feelings you didn’t know you had. He didn’t strike self-aggrandizing poses or make cynical money-grabs.

Tom Petty was a true believer, who also believed that rock ‘n’ roll was dying from greed and cynicism: For him, he told the L.A. Times during his 40th, and final, tour, “it was about something much greater: It was about moving people, and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ‘n’ roll. I still do. I believed in it in its purest sense, its purest form. And I watched it commit suicide; I watched it really kill itself over money.”

It’s possible he didn’t know much about the burgeoning young, earnest rock scenes thriving in small venues and house parties in the American small towns and big cities he sang about. But his energy and passion has surely passed on to a generation that has not given up hope in rock ‘n’ roll.

Hear a chronological playlist of Petty’s music (above), a soundtrack of millions of lives, just above. 275 songs, from his first, 1976 album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, and including his work with 90s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Here’s hoping that another crippling loss for old fans will inspire millions of new ones to discover and preserve Petty’s impeccable songwriting legacy.

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

The Philosophy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Dedicated to Revealing the Truth About De-Evolution

The chief difficulty for anyone wanting to make an assault on our municipal theatre… is that there can be no question of revealing a mystery. He cannot just point a stumpy finger at the theatre’s ongoings and say, “You may have thought this amounted to something, but let me tell you, it’s a sheer scandal; what you see before you proves your absolute bankruptcy; it’s your own stupidity, your mental laziness and your degeneracy that are being publically exposed.” No, the poor man can’t say that, for it’s no surprise to you; you’ve known it all along; nothing can be done about it.

–Berthold Brecht, “A Reckoning”

Have you ever felt like Network’s Howard Beale? Ranting to anyone who’ll listen about how mad as hell you are? “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad.”

Or maybe agreed with the weary cynicism of his boss, Max Schumacher? “All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”

Faced with the cruel, stupid theater of mass politics and culture, we begin to feel a blanket of overwhelming futility descend. All of the possible moves have been made and absorbed into the programming—including the outraged critic pointing his finger at the stage.




Avant-garde artists since the late 19th century have correctly sized up this depressing reality. But rather than seize up in fits of rage or succumb to cynicism, they made new forms of theater: Jarry, Dada, Debord, Artaud, Brecht—all had designs to disrupt the oppressive banality of modern stage- and state-craft with mockery, sadism, and shock.

And so too did DEVO, the authors of “Whip It.”

Their 80s New Wave antics seemed like a juvenile art-school prank. Behind it lay theoretical sophistication and serious political intent. “When we first started Devo,” says Mark Mothersbaugh in the “California Inspires Me” video above, “we were artists who were working in a number of different media. We were around for the shootings at Kent State. And it affected us. We were thinking, like, ‘What are we observing?’ And we decided we weren’t observing evolution, we were observing de-evolution.”

Wondering how to change things, the band looked to Madison Avenue for inspiration—intent on taking the techniques of mass persuasion to subvert the enchantments of mass persuasion, “reporting the good news of De-Evolution” in a joyous theater of mockery. The philosophy itself evolved over time, first taking shape in 1970 when Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale met at Kent State. Casale had already coined the term “De-Evolution”; Mothersbaugh introduced him to its mascot, Jocko-Homo, the 1924 creation of anti-evolution fundamentalist pamphleteer B.H. Shadduck.

Fascinated by Shadduck’s bizarre, proto-Jack Chick, illustrated freak-outs, Mothersbaugh and his bandmates adopted the character for the first single from their 1978 debut album (top). Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! announced their carnivalesque gospel of human stupidity. Devo proved nothing we didn’t already know. Instead, they showed us the elevation of idiocy to the status of a civil religion. (Later in the 80s, they would expressly parody the national religion with their Evangelical satire DOVE.)

The theater of Devo was weirdly compelling then and is wierdly compelling now, since the banality and casual violence of late-capitalism that threatened to swallow up everything in the twentieth century has, if anything, only become more bloated and grotesque. “As far as Devo was concerned,” writes Ray Padgett at The New Yorker, “Devo wasn’t a band at all but, rather, an art project… inspired by the Dadaists and the Italian Futurists, Devo’s members were also creating satirical visual art, writing treatises, and filming short videos.”

One of those videos, “In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution,” featured their “first ever cover”—Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man”—before they re-invented (or “corrected,” as they put it), the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” They would screen the 9-minute film, with its footage of two men in monkey masks spanking a housewife, before gigs.

The concepts are aggressively wink-nudge adolescent, reflecting not only Devo’s take on the regressive state of the culture, but also Casale’s belief that “high-school kids know everything already.” But amidst the synths and shiny suits, we still hear Howard Beale’s cri de coeur, “I’m a human being dammit! My life has value!” Only in Devo’s hands it turns to dark comedy—as in the title of a song from their 2010 comeback record Something for Everybody, taken from words printed on the back of a hunter’s safety vest that call back to the band's beginnings at Kent State: “Don’t Shoot, I’m a Man.”

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

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