Top Ten Solos*
he first word that pops into my head at the mention of the word “Solo” (after Han) is Metal. Big hairy backed men licking greasy fretboards as they writhe to the tribal man beat of the music of the one they call Legion. Obviously its great fun to use tennis rackets, hoover arms and pool cues to jump around and solo with, but what happens when the soloing is of a more restrained and less leatherclad nature? Here we present the Top Ten Solos (which unintentionally include no Metal tongue waggling high jinks).
10. Allman Brothers “Whipping Post (Live)” (guitar)
Not, as you may expect, the version from Live At The Fillmore East, though that’s great too. No, I saw the Allmans live in New York recently, courtesy of and with my dad. Dickey Betts is out of the band, which is too bad, but Derek Trucks, the young song of one of the drummers, made me forget my love for Dickey (go ahead—crack jokes). Warren Haynes, the other guitarist, was quite good, but I kept forgetting that every time Trucks took a solo. I don’t know enough about guitars or music technique to really describe them to you properly, but every time he got going the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Fluid and beautiful, tricky but not ostentatious, his solos, particularly on “Whipping Post”, made the rest of the band and the concert pale in comparison. Even my punk loving brother asked the next day, “How the hell did he learn to play like that?”
9. Radiohead "Killer Cars" (guitar)
The unsung classic flipside from “High and Dry", being post-Pablo Honey pop (an album that has not aged well at all) and pre abbreviated political invective Kid A.
The solo in question is not the usual Greenwood attempt at wringing bendy and unknowable notes out of his guitar, although he does do a solo like that later in the song. It’s the brutally minimalist one between 1:21-1:40, which sounds very much like someone (probably mysterious and enigmatic Jonny again) repeatedly hitting that one meaty note, although I think it probably isn’t.
8. The Delgados “Aye Today” (flute)
The Great Eastern is one of the best albums made in 2000, and this is one of its best songs. And the best part of it is the flute. The flute, as the Delgados, the Dears and Mogwai have all shown, adapts surprisingly well to noisy rock. The last minute of “Aye Today” is a joyous collision between standard rock band instrumentation and strings and church bells; and then at 4:05 the flute comes in. For twenty seconds it plays a fucking beautiful ascending melody, ending in a pure, clear, high note; then the song fades; overall possibly my favorite outro in all of music. We need more flutes like it in rock.
7. Ryan Adams “New York” (saxophone)
Never been to New York before, but I seem to have arrived at the idea of it as a multicultural bed of colliding traditions and cultures spawning wild clubs, glorious cafes and streets full of record stores like the one on Endtroducing’s cover.
Saxophone has been a dirty word for me, having never been able to shake the horror of either “Baker Street” or "Simply the Best". But this solo fits perfectly, spiralling between my imagination’s open windowed crowded NY apartments each blasting out different sounds from different lands like a swift pass through AM radio.
6. Teenage Fanclub “I Need Direction” (keyboards)
This was the first single from and opening of their last album Howdy!, and as much as I love the melody and the chorus and the guitars and so on and so on, the real treat starts at 2:27, a series of slow, descending notes followed by a subtle little keyboard bit (lasting only until the three minute mark) that invariably gives me the urge to play air keyboards, as a fellow fan (was that you, Hutlock?) once put it. Do, do-do-do-do-do; Do, do-do-do-do-do. Small and not really shoved in your face as many solos are, but perfect.
5. Smashing Pumpkins “Hummer” (guitar)
I recall the Siamese Dream era as being a more or less baggage-less time for the Pumpkins. Corgan has now obviously gone completely and totally mad, and his homepage gives irrefutable proof with his little puckish asides nestling in between baseball/Jesus rambles and rock and roll mountebank tirades. That album was not exactly short of toes being dipped into the noisier territories; “Cherub Rock” for where he wrestles to keep it reigned within the non JaMC side of feedback or on “Silverfuck” where he overindulges in all things bombastic. But it’s the gentler guitar work like on “Hummer” that really shines.
A divine home run of a solo (when in Rome), Corgan smoothly picks out swooping echoic little notes to create a spacey circular coda over Chamberlin’s restrained drums and the zoned out bass. The finely delicate playing is one of the more reflective moments on an album that swings between guitar work worthy of both Randy Rhoads and John Fahey.
NB At 5:57 there’s an almost imperceptible tiny bleep. Anyone know why its there?
4. Television “Little Johnny Jewel (Live)” (guitar)
“And then he loses his senses”. That’s the line. On record, Television’s debut single (parts one and two, all seven minutes of it) is spindly but compelling. Live, as the second disc of The Blow Out assures, it was a monster. From the very beginning there’s a strength to the guitars that isn’t there on record, but once Tom Verlaine utters the above phrase at 7:25, a new part starts. Thirty seconds later, everything’s gone nuts, and they stay that way for the next seven minutes. There are many songs I would like to hear while under the influence (funnily enough, when actually high, I always forget to put on records), but not “Little Johnny Jewel”. It already makes me feel like my face is melting.
3. Dinosaur Jr. and Del the Funky Homosapian "Missing Link" (guitar)
From the Judgment Night OST comes the greatest MC/guitarist duet of all time from way back in the salad days of 1993. A perfect combination where Del rhymes as freely as Mascis plays it; doughty Del rhyming across Mascis’ foot ceaselessly easing up and revving down on the wahwah pedal.
Much like Neil Young, Mascis has yet to be heard hitting a bum note, and his whole performance here is the solo. A chipped squalling chunky screaming assortment of a mini melodies that he drags around the song as he rides around on it as oblivious to Del as Del is to him.
2. The Cure “Letter to Elise” (piano/toy piano)
This sad piece of Cure pop (not as playful though as the gamboling Goths of “The Lovecats”, “Friday I’m in Love” or “Hey You!!!”) is the loneliest and prettiest moment on the stodgy overlong Wish.
This is not really the actual solo, that title belongs to a piece of harmless generic Cure guitar, which is best left undiscussed. The piano melody is the real show stealer, echoed closely by the tinny chime of a child’s toy piano. It underscores and then overtakes the guitar, its metallic tone lifting the tune above the heavy low end sound of the song.
Perhaps Smith thought that it was time to seek to elevate the toy piano beyond its childlike “Three Blind Mice” connotations, much like John Cage attempted to do with 1948’s Suite for Toy Piano. Or perhaps they got pissed up in the rehearsal room on Japanese lager and thought to explore similar territory to their kazoo version of “The Walk”?
1. Plumtree “Scott Pilgrim” (guitar)
I imagine few, if any of our reader have had the pleasure of encountering Plumtree, so a bit of background: Four females from Nova Scotia, they put out a good first album when they were 16, a great second album at 18 and one of my favorite albums ever when they were 20 (which I promptly forgot to include on my top 100 list, worse luck), and then amicably parted ways. It kills me, it does. Among their many strengths, the two guitar interplay of Carla Gillis and Amanda Braden is the only playing that gives me the same warm fuzzy feeling as Television’s Marquee Moon. In each case the guitars sounded perfect on first listen, and subsequent playing is only done so I can revel anew in the perfection. “Scott Pilgrim” is not Plumtree’s finest hour lyrically; what’s there isn’t bad, but there’s not much there. Instead it’s an excuse for whichever of the two is lead guitarist (or maybe they switch off? I never got to see them live, and the liner notes don’t help) to throw out my favorite single guitar excursion ever, and in an under-four-minute pop song no less. What does it sound like? Like putting the top down in the car and going 140 k/h on the highway.
By: Scott McKeating and Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-04-07