OM126 - Ynwie Malmsteen

Ken’s early music preferences (OM126)

For most of his college years, Ken preferred jingle-jangle Pop, friendly non-abrasive electric Pop, the folkier the better. He listened to the Indigo Girls, but sometimes they get a little roud. 10,000 Maniacs was the perfect number of maniacs, it was exactly right! One of their songs mentions Verdi, another one is about the plight of domestic violence, it is all very smooth and melodic. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians is perfect because it got a little bit of funky backbeat and you can experiment with moving your butt. There is this one song ”What I Am”. Ken also likes R.E.M.

His friends would get into the Pixies or these later LoudQUIETloud bands and Ken realized he likes the quiet, but it was going to get loud. Billy Corgan let him down! Ken was a very sensitive soul, but as he got older, he started listening to Fugazi records that he never would have put on in High School, which is the opposite of what you would expect. His friend’s brother was very into that D.C. music scene and in High School there is never any shortage of young males who like loud shouty music.

John’s history of discovering Rock music (OM126)

John was a loud and shouty personally, but musically he was a poetic soul who started with a jewel tortoise. His dad was much older than his peers’ fathers, he was born in 1921, and he didn’t have any older brother who introduced him to any Rock music. It didn’t occur to John's parents to make any kind of youth culture available to him because his mom was Francis McDormand in Almost Famous and his dad was still jitterbugging. It is a real bonding moment for father and son when your dad teaches you to Charleston! They had a lot of family songs, like Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight, and Coney Island Washboard.

Dads love novelty songs! Ken’s dad was a little younger and it was The Purple People Eater and The Streak, or the Monster Mash. During John’s whole childhood he heard Pop music like Elton John playing in the stereos of kids driving down to the reservoir to make out and smoke marijuana. He understood that this music was out there, but the music in their home was Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

It wasn’t until he was in 6th grade when John had a friend over at his house who asked to put on some music. As John turned on the clock-radio next to his bed and out of it came some kind of super-corny Easy Listening 1970s stuff, his friend found that garbage and turned the knob to 107.7 KWHL in Anchorage. It was just at the start of I am the Walrus, this amazing creepy sound, and it was coming out of a $0.01 speaker on John’s clock radio, but it blew his mind and transformed him from then on. John’s superhero origin story is that he has been bitten by a radioactive walrus!

John's picture of The Beatles had been some lovable mob-tops, and how could this music come out of them? After that he went back and started listening to early Rock’n’Roll and he listened to it contiguously, starting in 1955 with Buddy Holly, and he listened to it through a natural progression. He would listen to some music, he would enjoy it, and then he was ready for something a little more sophisticated. Most people go backwards, like they listen to the R.E.M. and then wonder who influenced them and they listen to The Velvet Underground and The Birds, but John went in the correct order, starting with Peggy Sue and working his way up.

When John reached the psychedelic era he was just old enough that he was ready for his mind to be blown by Rock’n’Roll. He played psychedelic music and took his teddy bear out and stared deep into his eyes. He would turn the lights off in his room, turn his little black & white television on the UHF setting so it was just static, and he would put on She’s So Heavy (I Want You, by The Beatles) on his Sears record player and he would stare into the TV, trying to fathom the unfathomable. Now John's story has turned into a supervillain origin story, this is Charles Manson talking!

When John entered 7th grade he met a whole group of young boys who had much more sophisticated musical taste. It also coincided with the dawn of what became the 1980s Metal scene, it was right about the time when Judas Priest released their seminal record British Steel, Iron Maiden came out with Killers and there were several very important Metal albums that came out right at that time.

John was not prepared for it because he hadn’t been listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, he didn’t have a background in this kind of music and it all hit him. He was still listening to Live at Leeds and this new style had very baroque lyrics about robots or the Hall of the Mountain King. It was an entirely new sound for John and he leap-frogged and had to go back later to fill in the music of the 1980s, because he had missed all the great New Wave and all the great late 1970s / early 1980s Pop music.

The contemporary bands John was listening to in High School were Metal bands, which was all Ken’s friends as well. They admired the acrobatic guitar artistry, they would ask Ken to listen to that run or to that solo, it was like an athletic event to them. John’s hands are just meat-claws, one of them being almost entirely useless. He can move things, he can hold things, but for him to chose to be a guitar player is a hilarious career choice. It was the long con, a great bit John has been doing for 20 years.

The two schools of Rock’n’Roll (OM126)

From the very beginning there have always been two schools within Rock’n’Roll: One of them really praised technical and musical ability and saw Rock and Pop music as part of a cultural continuum where humanity has been investigating the scales and the world of music and really making art in the form of music. The other side of Rock’n’Roll valued what they imagine to be authentic spirit, the energy and unfeathered expression of a person’s soul, inner trauma and pain.

In the very earliest days of Rock’n’Roll and electric guitar Pop music, the music was fairly well crafted because it was often written by people other than the artists, but during the psychedelic era in the mid 1960s, the two worlds started to diverge. What became the psychedelic music started to take elements of Jazz or earlier forms that was very much arranged around technical knowledge and turned into Progressive Rock. The other side was much more visceral and primitive and turned into Punk.

The brand of Indie Rock, the genre that John pioneered and was one of the leading artists of, and Pavement is a great example of it, was that even if people did have technical ability, they tried to pretend that they didn’t. It was Kurt Cobain's whole act: ”I don’t even know how to do this!” He would say that on stage, he would play, the audience would go ”That’s amazing!” and then he would OD. Too soon? That schism in the late 1960s between Rock that was visceral and Rock that was technical set Rock’n’Roll on two different paths: Music to dance to and music to listen to!

Progressive Rock (OM126)

Progressive Rock really wanted Rock’n’Roll to be a serious art form. It wanted to incorporate the scales and tones of the whole family of music and people wanted to be making music that elevated the form. It was an expression of the romantic era of classical music, of the fantastical, of something that connected to the old myths or the Norse Ways. There was a pre-history of Progressive Rock where they were gobbling up everything that they could incorporate into it.

Throughout the 1970s there was a progression on the progressive side. In the 1960s there was proto-Progressive Rock music like The Moody Blues or Jethro Tull who were bringing flutes and orchestral elements into their music. Also The Beatles were influencing everybody with their choices, but they were more influenced by Music Hall in their orchestral arrangements. Ken blames Paul, and it is always Paul!

Progressive Rock started to bring orchestral elements that were written in a classical style. This was all happening primarily in England. We think about Rock’n’Roll as an American style of music, but although all of those ideas originated in America and the combination of the Appalachian Music, the Blues and African spirituals all happened in America, it was always the British who were trying to push the form in various directions. We sent Elvis into the Army, we put Jerry Lee in jail and we killed Buddy Holly. Rock was dead and they saw and opening! Progressive Rock is very colored by English traditional music and themes.

Avant-Prog, Neo-Progressive Prog (OM126)

By the 1970s there was this Avant-Prog movement, trying to incorporate American Jazz into Rock again and there was an entire era of bands in the mid-1970s that were making very serious music with the single-minded intention that no-one enjoy it. None of those bands survived and people would not recognize any of the names, like Morgue Whomps. They are all terrible and unlistenable, but they were trying to advance the form and they were very much connected to one another.

They had a scene called Rock in Opposition, lead by the band Henry Cow with the motto ”The music record companies don’t want you to hear”, but it wasn’t that the record companies were trying to keep people from Henry Cow, but no-one wanted to hear Henry Cow and their moooooooosic. The movement actually had a big festival, it became very popular in Germany, somewhat predictably, and it influenced a whole new wave of unlistenable German bands.

After Avant-Prog, which no-one liked, a new movement called the Neo-Progressive Prog developed out of that with the most famous band being Marillion, which still exists. Even though they were not especially popular themselves, they influenced a lot of bands that followed, incorporating different musical scales than what would normally be found in Rock’n’Roll. Blues music is characterized by the Blue scale. You flat the 5th in a chord or you flat the 3rd and it creates that mood, but there are a ton of other scales in music and as Progressive Rock progressed, they added all these different scales. Blues is a minor pentatonic scale, but in Rock they started to add the Aeolian scale (white keys from A), the Dorian scale (white keys from D), and the Mixolydian scale (white keys from G).

When John was in High School and the other guitar players were talking about the Dorian scale and the Mixolydian scale, John had no idea what they were talking about and they would say Mixolydian as a joke and they would crack up, but John had no idea that they were laughing at because he was still working on flatting his 3rds. He would laugh anyway because he just wanted to have friends. Although Marillion was the only band from that genre that fully embodied Neo-Progressivism, the themes of neo-progressive music are visible in the music of Rush and Iron Maiden, with a lot of tempo changes, a lot of themes of the super-natural, other-worldly, and fantasy-themes. It is lyrical and it is the entire experience of the band.

In the earlier stages of Progressive Rock the idea was that all the band was soloing and playing off of each other, while Neo-Progressive Rock started to move into a realm where they were incorporating the style of Blues where each instrument would solo and would have a feature. The lead guitar would become more prevalent rather than just flute solos. As John’s dad would say: "Everybody solo all at once!" It was his description of any jazz that came after 1950. A lot of this music is about technique and virtuosity, which is in contrast to what was happening on the other side of the Rock scene with the Ramones and the New York Dolls and whatnot.

In the mythology of Rock music, Progressive Rock is seen as having been killed by Punk (It has no balls, how can it propagate itself, right?), but that is a real simplification of what happened. By the time Punk landed, Rock critics and most Rock consumers already didn’t like Prog music. It wasn’t selling, it was universally panned, and it wasn’t that Punk gave people what they had been lacking because Emerson, Lake & Palmer wasn’t providing it, but these were two very different sides of the world. Punk rose when Progressive Rock was already morphing into something else.

Heavy Metal, Yngwie Malmsteen (OM126)

Out of the overburdened and pretentious Progressive Rock world started to burble up Heavy Metal, which was very concerned with technique and skill. In their early days, Proto-Metal bands, Judas Priest being the best example, were wearing bell-bottom jeans, they had long tracks with long stretches where somebody was just ringing some chimes, one member of the band was just a dancer. A lot of people asked why it was called Heavy Metal and John remembers going into the record store and asking the guy behind the counter for some Heavy Metal and he gave John some long, boring, music-store-employee lecture about how there is no such thing.

Simultaneously with Punk, Metal started to become a movement of an underground male working-class European expression of economic and youthful angst, but they really praised skill, whereas kids listening to Punk Rock were contemptuous of skill. They wanted noise, while these Metal guys wanted skill! Eddie Van Halen came out of the United States, playing an extremely baroque style, but then entered the scene a 20 year old Swedish Guitar player by the name of Yngwie Malmsteen.

He was a prodigy and was able to play classical music on an electrical guitar. He always said that he wasn’t into Jimmy Hendrix and his favorite guitar player was Richie Blackmore, the guitar player of Deep Purple. He was very much one of the most elaborate and baroque guitarists. Yngwie wanted to take that to its highest expression. His real favorite musicians were Paganini, he was super into nerds like Bach, and he wanted to communicate that kind of music within the Heavy Metal universe. He brought a style of soloing and a style of composition into Metal that almost completely excluded the Blues and no longer had any emotional component. In fact it draws from the 19th century classical tradition which was very nationalistic, like Wagner. Part of the romantic era was also very connected to the idea of "Your People Your Narrow Culture".

Yngwie was a very arrogant Swede. Ken has been to Stockholm once. Everyone is very good-looking with their severe glasses-frames in the subway. Yngwie hasn’t expressed any nationalistic opinions and this metal culture was not a political culture. The new wave of British Heavy Metal at the time, although it was all white males, had absolutely no misogynistic or racist content and no Clapton-style nativism. Later on there became Black Metal bands who did take politics into their music, but during this era it is really surprising how little the music conformed to what your expectations would be of a bunch of angry young white guys playing heavy music.

Yngwie would scallop the wood between the frets on the fretboard of his guitar so that you could press down harder on the string and make the note go sharp because he had created this extra space for the string to travel. This was his innovation and you can buy his signature model Stratocaster that comes with these scalloped frets. John has tried to play it and every chord sounds totally out of tune because John would press on the string with his lobster claw. Yngwie had a delicacy and a tremendous dexterity, so he could make chords so delicately that the note fretted cleanly and he wasn't pressing into it.

Yngwie is routinely in the Top 10 guitarists of all time lists, but in a very crucial way he ruined Rock’n’Roll. The Metal of the 1980s became increasingly soulless music. For example Kurt Hammett, the guitar player of Metallica, if you want to find soul in his guitar playing you have to search for a very long time. Sometimes he accidentally plays a note that has some soul, but then you see him wince because he didn’t mean it. That was true of a lot of the bands of the 1980s. Their technical skill and their technical ability, expressed through this crazy Locrian Mode (white keys from B), or Phrygian Mode (white keys from E), took out whatever emotionality is intrinsic to certain scales and certain kinds of music. The technique robbed the tunes of their heart.

It wasn’t until Guns N’ Roses entered the music scene playing electric blues and putting some Blues and Glam back into guitar Metal, which had become this very slick, glossy, technique-oriented, dispassionate and ultimately extremely misogynistic and extremely culturally lame music. The video for Warrant’s Cherry Pie is not very woke. John is not saying that Guns N’ Roses brought wokeness to the Metal scene, but their music certainly reintroduced a passionateness to Rock’n’Roll.

Yngwie Malmsteen still plays and he is still enormously popular in Sweden and around the world. He introduced the idea that a guitar player can be famous and popular with their audience simply because they will just stand up and play the guitar without any songs or lyrics, but just guitar pyrotechnics. He has a band, and he has lead singers, but they wouldn’t get along with him because he is the show. Nobody likes Yngwie, which is a sitcom that Ken likes, the number one hit in Sweden for 18 years.

Yngwie knows it and he is pretty self-effacing about his disagreeableness. In Sweden he is still a big star, he is handsome. Even Ritchie Blackmore went on record saying that he really likes Yngwie and admires the fact that he claims to have taken a lot from him, but he finds his music very disagreeable (see this article).

Listener feedback (OM126)

This episodes spawned quite a few discussion threads in the Omnibus Futurelings Facebook Group:

I thought both live episodes were neither good nor focused. I have no idea why they did the Malsteem episode as neither host seems to be knowledgeable in the subject. They seemed to pick it just to make fun of that genre of music. I won't stop listening but that episode really rubbed me the wrong way.

The overdue library books just seemed like a complete filler episode. What Ken accused the newspaper industry of doing.
Cory Gallaher (link to post)

I guess the American version of Malmsteen was Joe Satriani?
Dan Avery (link to post)

Just to be picky, Mixolydian etc are modes not scales.
Lindsay Marshall (link to post)

As your resident arrogant Swede, I have a few things to say about the Yngwie episode. First of all, they did pronounce his name correctly as “Yngve”, because that's his damned birth name, but his ridiculous respelling of it should by rights be pronounced “ing-whee”. Honestly.

Also, you should google “Malmsteen” and “unleashed the fucking fury”. And, no, he's generally nothing but a joke in Sweden. He might have been more than that if Sweden weren't the fourth largest music exporter in the world and we have loads of international successes to be proud of.

But I digress. My main issues were with Roderick's tracing of prog, which missed one important factor and then got another one bad wrong.

First of all, prog sprung out of late-60s psychedelic pop (pretty much all the major players in hallmark bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson came from that scene), which had already sort of dispensed with blues tonality and the idea of authenticity over skill (at least in the songwriting sense). So invoking The Moody Blues as a proto-prog band isn't entirely off-base, but Jethro Tull were a folkey blues band at that time and didn't really influence the genre of prog early on. If anything, their proggy period started late in the genre's heyday and carried on beyond it.

As a side note, the prog bands of the early- to mid-70s weren't panned at the time. Not at all. King Crimson's seminal 1969 debut In The Court of the Crimson King (arguably the album that set the template for prog) was rapturously received overall, and even an album like Yes's 1974 Tales from Topographic Oceans, a double album of four-20+-minute sprawling compositions, now generally hated, got some good reviews even in Rolling Stone at the time.

But Roderick's characterization of Rock in Opposition wasn't wrong, I would say. What was wrong, however, was tracing the lineage of neoprog from it.

What neoprog did was actually the exact opposite of RIO; instead of ramping up the complexity, atonality and experimentation, they basically took that out, retaining prog's roots in pop, but maintaining its bombast and theatricality. A lot of the structure of early-70s prog was still there, but made much simpler, even if they retained some “complex” aspects like playing in odd meters, etc.

As noted, Marillion were the main act of the neoprog movement, and they were a major chart-topping band in the UK in their first incarnation, and singles like Kayleigh or Lavender are essentially just pop songs. I think they deserve a mention for, in their second almost-not-prog-at-all incarnation, being the first band ever to crowdfund an album over the internet, back in 2000.

And as for how prog influenced heavy metal, I think that's arguable as well. It's not entirely wrong, but I don't think it's a straight line. Much hard rock and proto-metal already these complex and pseudo-classical aspects (which may arguably have been inspired by prog, so there's that).
Of late – say in the last 10-15 years – most of what gets called prog is indeed pretty bluesy and rocky (and often very metally) because that's sort of seen to be the baseline for any kind of rock, and it is called “progressive rock” after all, right?

Well, yes. But progressive rock - at least as defined by the hallmark bands of the 70s - is neither progressive nor rock (just like new wave is neither new, nor an actual wave). Although, that battle may be lost by now, to be honest.

Thanks for coming to my TEDx talk.
John Eje Thelin (link to post)

John's response to the listener feedback

I had a lot of problems with this episode, to the point where I deliberated not releasing it and had to be talked back from the cliff by Ken. First, it was too short for the topic by half, so I was struggling to fill in the bases and then my time ran out before I could really even address the main topic. Second, I knew I was on thin ice because I was attempting a topic that has TRUE FANS who are, as a rule, even with one another, some of the most argumentative and distempered people in all of rock music! The Venn diagrams of Futurelings and Prog/Orchestral rock historians overlap enough that I expected trouble.

I am not an expert on the many universes of prog-rock, and I'm a self-taught musician who doesn't even know what key his own songs are in. I have literally no idea about modes. But I didn't pick this subject to mock it, I'm genuinely interested and curious and lived through the era as an aspiring guitarist who felt quite lost. I also have opinions about it because I have tastes and preferences. I was never moved by Zappa, for instance, but very moved by RUSH.

Anyway, I felt like I failed to give this topic its proper due and dreaded being prog-shamed by the true aficionados of the genre, which of course has come to pass. I do not like to disappoint Futurelings or do a bad job, and in this case I wish I'd had another half hour and more time to reflect on my outline.
John Roderick

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License