Things I Keep Coming Back To: Extreme, III Sides to Every Story

I’m fully aware that we consumers are products of our teenage years, and that our musical tastes are often formed for good during that same period.

However, in my case, that formation of my tastes also occurred at the exact same period in which big hair rock and rock in general died as grunge became big, and the album died as MP3s, MTV music videos (as much as I love them), and the internet destroyed it.

Having since lost the concept album as well as the music video, I think it’s fair to reminisce back to my adolescence despite the cliché of it.

I mean, here’s some of the new music videos this week (when I wrote this):

Basically, music videos now appear to be photo shoots in video form. A stylist comes in, sets the look, and they just take video of the artist. Instagram set to music. Bite-size content. The music is forgettable, and the video content is forgettable except for the stylist’s portfolio and the director’s résumé.

A lot has been written about the death of the album, and I myself wrote about the death of the music video.

With all that setup, let me then just leave it all there, and start up a new recurring segment of this blog where I try to figure out why certain things have stuck with me over the years.

At some point I wanted to write about the albums that meant the most to me throughout my life, but I sort of realized that I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of, say, ?uestLove. I should probably just do me.

So, one of the few albums that keeps coming back to me is Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story.

Extreme was a “funk-metal” band from the 80s and 90s. I associate knowing about them solely through BMG and Columbia House as well as from their MTV music videos which were less of their rock songs and more of their ballad-type songs.

From that, I somehow ended up getting this album, bringing the CD with me as I moved, and always wanting to re-listen to it.

It wasn’t until I tried to write a blog post including it that I could make an educated guess about why I enjoy it so much.

The album itself, according to Wikipedia, was one of the last “concept albums” before singles became big.

From Wikipedia:

The album is structured as a concept album in three sections labeled as “sides” — a play on the notion of “different sides to a story” and that of “sides” of an album (in LP and cassette media). The sides, mentioned in the song “Cupid’s Dead” as “three sides to every story” are named “Yours”, “Mine” and “The Truth”, and each features a distinct musical style and lyrical imagery.

Yours is made of hard rock songs, the guitar-centric style which the band had explored the most on their previous albums. Their funk-metal tendencies are present in tracks such as “Cupid’s Dead”, which also features a rap section performed by guest John Preziosa Jr. As a whole, this side deals with political subjects: war (“Warheads”), peace (“Rest In Peace”), government (“Politicalamity”), racism (“Color Me Blind”), media (“Cupid’s Dead”). Summing up these matters, the side closes with “Peacemaker Die”, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which features a recording of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Mine, in total contrast, deals with introspective subjects. In accordance, the band departs from its guitar sound and experiments with different arrangements on this side, with Nuno Bettencourt playing keyboards in addition to (and in some tracks, instead of) the guitar. The side opening song, “Seven Sundays”, is a slow waltz with prominent keyboards and no guitars. “Tragic Comic” is a mostly acoustic track telling a light-hearted love story. “Our Father” is sung from the perspective of the child of an absent father (although many interpret the song to be dealing with God as The Father). With “Stop The World”, the album starts to delve into more philosophical questions, expressing existential doubts — a theme that leads to religion, with “God Isn’t Dead?” (written with the verb form as an affirmation but with a question mark — the chorus says “Please tell me God isn’t dead… I want to know”) and “Don’t Leave Me Alone”, a dramatic plea. The latter was not included in the CD version because of lack of space; Nuno Bettencourt recalls leaving it out “was like cutting off my arm”. Despite not being bound by the limitations of the CD format, the version of the album downloadable from iTunes also omits “Don’t Leave Me Alone”.

Finally, The Truth consists of a three-part opus, titled “Everything Under The Sun”, ending the three-part album. This side nods to progressive rock not only in format but also in musical style, with changes in time signature and an intricate arrangement, featuring a 70-piece orchestra. Lyrically, the spiritual theme set up in the end of “Mine” is further developed and Christian imagery is very present,

I fully accept that most people who’ve heard this album would regard it as “garbage”. Like any person who’s ever loved a song, artist, or album, this only makes me more fond of it.

Extreme’s influences were supposedly Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Queen. Now, I guess every band of their time were influenced by those bands, but I definitely fall into the bluesy-rock family of music with my love for Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Guns n’ Roses.

The first “side” of the album definitely reminds me of Axl Rose’s attempts at artistic narrative in Chinese Democracy (including the obvious audio clips of MLK Jr), while the third side reminds me of GnR’s epics November Rain, Don’t Cry, and Estranged. The second side aligns with GnR’s Dead Horse, Get in the Ring, The Garden, etc.

What I adore about all these songs is that they take me away from where I am, to a world of imagination that I’ve only closest explored when I was a teen exploring BBSs, early online gaming networks, and the mostly textual world of the 90’s/naughts internet. They put me into a contemplative and meditative state immediately.

In the old days, context was added through liner notes, music videos, and interviews in Rolling Stone and Spin. These days, none of those previous things mean anything. But for music, it’s not as though context has just transitioned to social media, at least from the artist’s perspective. The ability for a listener to find new music and control that experience is incredibly easy; just search Spotify, or even better yet, have Spotify’s ML search related songs for you.

Some bands do use fan newsletters, and I guess you could listen to some podcasts (I finally made the leap to listening to podcasts, primarily for engineering management advice and for NBA commentary). But really the conversation with the band and the audience happens even less now than it did before; unless you’re someone who’s been Baned into social media and you also happen to be a musician, you’re not so likely to be able to parlay the 2 worlds together in the same way that, say, Taylor Swift does.

That is to say, really the winners in music seem to be the listener and the marketer — the artist still relies on a lot of hard work and hustle in order to build an organic following, and most artists don’t have the energy, time, or knowhow for it. Social media is such an uncontrollable train that artists can’t really do a slow build. They’re really just bit players in a continually spinning engine of fleeting relevancy.

To me this robs an artist of the ability to transport listeners far away, or to construct a new environment within which to just be — Extreme was able to do this with their album, and I’ll always be thankful for that.