All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD
Up This Week: Moaning Lisa Smile by Wolf Alice
Read Last Week’s Lecture on Everlong by Foo Fighters here.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Wolf Alice are one of, if not the best young band currently traversing this known universe with a slightly feral folk rock sound. Everything they’ve touched since first announcing themselves with Fluffy in 2013 has turned to gold, with both My Love is Cool and Visions of a Life peaking at number two on the UK album charts. Second album syndrome wasn’t a factor with Visions of a Life, with the sophomore album comfortably blowing the debut out of the water, evolving the sound of My Love is Cool tenfold, and let’s face it, that album could be Don’t Delete The Kisses and eleven other also-rans and it’d still be one of the best albums you heard in 2017.
However, the track we’ll be exploring in this week’s Riff University doesn’t even feature on those two golden giant peaches. In fact, we have to go back to 2014’s Creature Sound’s EP to find the source of this week’s lecture. Inspired by everyone’s favourite perpetual 8 year old, Moaning Lisa Smile embodies all the qualities that we look for in Riff University; big, bold, and bad.
First things first, the riff is unbelievably simple. As in, the riff is just simply flipped between clean and overdriven throughout the whole song, with a solo layered over the top. Three chords, that’s all the band needed to produce an iconic riff. But at the end of the day, the best riffs are the ones that you recognise instantly; the one that the next Ellie Rowsell can listen to and instantly play back on a beat up acoustic with three songs to get their musical career started. A good riff doesn’t require shredding, years of technical ability & something so complex you need an instruction manual just to understand it, it’s all about the feel maaaaan.
For those of us that way inclined, you’ve probably already worked out that the song’s title, lyrics, and music video are inspired by Lisa Simpson, with the song title coming from Moaning Lisa in season 1, episode six, which, in retrospect, is a pretty interesting episode, focusing on Lisa’s depression and her family’s inability to handle it properly. Whilst we look at The Simpsons as a constant source of quotes, memes and shitposts, there were a lot of wholesome and hard hitting moments in the show. Especially in this episode when a note comes home from school saying that Lisa was too sad to play dodgeball, with Homer then saying “She doesn’t look sad, I don’t see any tears in her eyes” with Lisa responding “It’s not that kind of sad”, that’s pretty fucking deep. Depression isn’t necessarily about crying, it’s just not that kind of sad.
The video follows the same path as Lisa, with Ellie Roswell saying “We wanted to create a Lisa-type character and follow her in a pursuit to happiness. Although faced with obstacles in the shape of some nasty bitches, Lisa soon finds the group who make her feel like she belongs.”. The video also features the rest of the band dressed as women, which, Ellie said “We’re not trying to be funny. It’s more that we make stories about girls sometimes but we don’t have enough girls in the band to show that”, which is fair enough to be honest. There’s a lot of girls in that video, so at some point, you were bound to run out of girls to have in the video, and to have the same girl play two different roles? Ridiculous!
Probably the best bit of the song is the chorus. It’s just absolutely fucking huge. The “Ah-ah-ah-ah // scrap the blues, if the blues don’t work // flash your teeth ’til the inside hurts” is beyond anthemic, and it feels absolutely massive despite being layered over that really simple riff. Moaning Lisa Smile is one of those songs that you’ve probably known for years, hearing it on trailers, adverts and in TV shows, and at some point, all the dots join up and it’s a case of oh shit, that’s THEM?!
The first verse is also clearly a reference to Lisa as well and the plot of Moaning Lisa;
“Clinging to love, escape a father and mother // she offers some other way out of the hole // she’s overachieving, chasing her dreams // and coming down slowly, yeah, it’s out of control”
“Some other way out of the hole” might be a reference to Lisa meeting Bleeding Gums Murphy and embracing the potential and her passion for the blues. In the episode we see Lisa being scolded for improvising during a music lesson, having her talent stifled rather than encouraged. By meeting Bleeding Gums, she’s allowed to fully unleash her potential as a blues musician.
It’s pretty cool that Lisa was the inspiration for this song, especially as so many people can relate to Lisa as a character; sometimes that’s having your genius stifled, sometimes that’s not being appreciated, sometimes that’s just not fitting in, and the genius of this riff is its simplicity. Three chords, wash, rinse and repeat. Written down in black and white, three chords doesn’t sound like a lot, but with the feel, the play and the lyrical theme, those three chords are all you need to make Moaning Lisa Smile a hit. Wolf Alice have, and will go on to write more intricate songs, but it’s the simplicity of this that means anyone can pick it up and play it, and that’s what a riff should be about. Your riffs should give accessibility to new players, who’ll take those three chords and maybe play them backwards, maybe play a fourth, and maybe give birth to a new riff.