Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: [Who the Hell is] Tim Pierce?

I've been a student of the guitar for about 25 years now (a length of time which shocks me as I write it down), and a student of most forms of western music a little longer than that. While trying to pin down a moment or two that suckered me into being more of a participant (the former) and less of a spectator (the latter), I realized something about myself:

A great deal of the music that made me want to actually play an instrument was, well, shitty.

For every Van Halen's Mean Street, there was an Alan Parsons Project's Eye in the Sky, or that horrible Abracadabra. Even so, it's not that there weren't some phenomenal axemen in heavy Top-40 rotation from the late 70's to the early 90's; there just weren't a lot of songs hitting the radio (and the radio was pretty much music source #1 on a list that numbered, uh, one) that weren't flatlined and bloodless. And that's what this regular feature's about, that roughness not quite buffed out of the polished diamond. Those wolves in sheep's clothing.

Tim Pierce (though I didn't learn his name until years later) first appeared on my 13-year old guitar radar with some tasty but restrained guitar licks on I Get Excited, 80’s demigod Rick Springfield’s attempt to re-release his monster hit Jessie’s Girl with different lyrics.[1] As Pierce's role grew to that of contributor/collaborator on subsequent albums, he began to sneak some edge back into material otherwise dulled in the technological "breakthroughs" of the day.

Despite its not-so-macho title, Springfield's 1983 release Living In Oz caught my novice ears in a big way. On the Top 10 first single "Affair of the Heart" some wince-inducing overproduction and overuse of electro-everything[2] (keys, drums, vocals) can’t stop the Pierce Train: he bides his time by nicking the galloping main riff from "Barracuda" until he gets to let loose(at the 2:38 mark). He milks one tense, sustained note until a rippling trip up the fretboard (similar thematically to his later turn on Bon Jovi's "Runaway", and just as deceptively tricky). While Oz' title track didn’t age quite as badly as "Affair", its Flashdance-"Maniac" dynamic is still a little off-putting. The payoff here is Pierce’s more uninhibited digit-stretching beast of a solo (2:40). I think he knew this track wasn’t destined for radio.

Though Rick Springfield began an involuntary hibernation at the Dawn of Grunge, Pierce kept busy, if not selective, playing up a storm with noise-merchants like Celine Dion, Michael Damian and John Tesh. Form my part, I’ll downplay those indiscretions in favor of his stellar (and 180 degrees apart) turns on Bon Jovi’s debut single "Runaway" and Crowded House’s "Something So Strong". Bon Jovi's debut single boasts a succinct flurry that’s actually a fuck-ton harder to play than it sounds (And believe me, I tried. A lot.). His leslie-speaker drenched break on Crowded House's bland early alt-pop is a graceful “serve the song” effort, keeping you in the moment while singer Neil Finn’s building up some energy to belt out that chorus one last time. Measuring out equal parts flash and texture, sprucing up simple pop songs without overpowering them or taking them in directions pop songs shouldn’t go, that was Tim Pierce’s stamp on the 80’s.
[1] Ironically, Pierce didn’t play the wicked solo on Springfield's masterpiece—the guy behind that is a Wolf for another day.

[2]This deficiency is typical of most songs you’ll see examined in this space.



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