Saturday, 4 March 2017

Oliver!: The Monkeywrench - Notes & Chords Mean Nothing to Me (8 March 1992)

I realise that when a man walks in the valley of YouTube comments he stands a risk of getting bitten by rattlesnakes, but while listening to this track by the Seattle supergroup, I came across a particularly  thought provoking one, in regards to rock music.
In my notes for this track I praised the punk spirit underpinning it.  The whole notion that anyone can play guitar and that technique doesn't really matter.  Just pick up and play.  Who cares if you "sound like an ass" - the act of playing is simply enough.  One could imagine it being written by someone who had taken the three chords on the cover of the Sideburns punk zine captioned "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third.  Now form a band." and produced this very song with them.  I had been surprised that it had taken till 1991 for someone to write something that elaborated on such an anti-theoretical approach to music.  Except that it hadn't taken that long, at least not in the case of Notes & Chords Mean Nothing to Me, because it had been written a decade earlier by Californian alt-rock band, Redd Kross.  Their version, apart from the ending is slower than The Monkeywrench's, which starts fast and gets quicker.
For YouTube user, OnionTerror2007, The Monkeywrench's version was the superior one, as they felt that Redd Kross's was "a mess".  But the uploader of Redd Kross's version, Isobeljellybean made a very pertinent reply:
"...This is a song performed by the teenagers who wrote it about not caring how the music sounds as long as they enjoy it.  The Monkeywrench version is alright but er...performed by folks for whom the notes and chords mean quite a lot."
Now, I should say at this point that The Monkeywrench's version would be the one I go back to, on the grounds that it's better performed and really gets across the sense of excitement and liberation in music that the song talks about.  However, it does that precisely because the guys in the band were talented enough to bring that out in their performance.  It drips with a superior faux authenticity.  Redd Kross's original sounds more hesitant, but nevertheless, also sounds more authentic precisely for the reasons that Isobeljellybean describes.

Notes & Chords Mean Nothing to Me is one of the most undervalued important, keystone songs of the last 35 years because it lifts the lid on the argument that has polarised music lovers since time immemorial: Does the artist mean it?  The Monkeywrench's version rocks as hard as the song would demand, but are you really buying into it when you've been playing for years?
I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, because the fact is that this marvellous song has served as an unspoken manifesto to anyone who has ever sat at a musical instrument and persevered with it long enough to make music and gain mastery over the basics - where those basics take them is a matter for the artists themselves, but let us celebrate those who had the courage to press on and not let ridicule or fear stop them.  Would that we could all be so fearless.

A couple of other observations:
When Peel gets around to playing The Datsuns a decade or so on from this broadcast, I wonder whether he will notice the similarity between them?
I can't believe that I've written about The Monkeywrench without quoting my favourite Goon Show joke.
"Have you got a monkeywrench, Min?"
"I gave it back to the monkey".

My thanks to Fred on Twitter for suggesting that Alternative TV may have got there first (51 seconds in)

Shortly releasing a new compilation of their material from the period when they wrote Notes & Chords Mean Nothing to Me.

Videos courtesy of Canale di Cindelora (The Monkeywrench) and Isobeljellybean (Redd Kross)

1 comment:

  1. Always loved this song, and prefer it to the original. Fair point, though, about it perhaps not being 'true' to the ethis. OTOH, Mudhoney were never known for being the most professional of bands...