Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Story of a Riff - Bullet in the Fever Stranglehold Train

In the 2002 film Adaptation, Nicholas Cage's character asks himself "is there a single original thought in my mind?". As the film and its tell-tale title suggests, there isn't. Everything is deduced from something else; literature, films, thoughts and of course music. This post will trace the career of one particular riff.

In 1972, Savoy Brown released Hellbound Train. Even though the band was in decline, they touched on one of the catchiest riffs of modern rock. The base and steady drum of this song was later to be emphasised and expanded by a number of bands and artists.

Three years later, Ted Nugent had left the Amboy Dukes. The title track from his album Stranglehold would become an instant hit and bring Nugent to the attention of guitar fans. Notice how the base has become more prominent.

The fourth track of U2's The Joshua Tree, Bullet the Blue Sky, is a brutal political commentary. Bono had just visited guerillas in El Salvador and wanted both to portray the horrors of war and to criticise the US involvement in the El Salvador civil war. The riff is here adapted to a more expressive, drum-based form.

Then, finally, the riff ended up in Almost Famous, a 2000 film about Stillwater, a fictitious band in the 70s. Fittingly, their biggest hit, Fever Dog,  is based on a riff which had its heyday in that decade. Somewhat stripped down from the U2 version, the simple determined strength of the drums and solid 2nd guitar still retains the musical weight of Bullet the Blue Sky and the clean ambitious 70s rock sound.

Hopefully, probably, there are versions of the riff not included here and there will undoubtedly be versions to follow. It is worth noting how each new analogue representation brings something new to the riff without actually diminishing any of its original properties. As with most cultural expressions, this heralds many wonderful cultural experiences in the years to come.

Update (19.12.2010)
This post presents two more versions of the riff, one of which is 81 years old!

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