Monday, December 31, 2007

Heat Wave, Martha and the Vandellas (1963)

It's not so much irony as justice that, on the first Motown song I'm selecting, the first 29 seconds featured neither Martha nor the Vandellas, but rather the funky-fabulous backbeat and stylings of the then-uncredited Motown house band we only now know to be the Funk Brothers. Just try to remain inert in the face of drummer "Pistol" Allen's four on the floor drum rhythms. (See Allen's obituary in the Independent for some priceless background on him and life as a session musician under Berry Gordy.) It can't be done!

Any Motown enthusiast who hasn't seen the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown is missing a real treat; it's a labor of love by writer Allan Slutsky and director Paul Justman, who dedicated themselves to telling the story of "this unheralded group of musicians (who) had played on more number one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined - which makes them the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music."

Heat Wave was one of the first Motown songs to chart big, and deservedly so. Martha Reeves had worked for peanuts as a secretary at Motown hoping for the day when she could bust out into the limelight with her gritty, ebullient take on life and love. Far less sugar-coated and more soulful than most of the other girl groups, Martha and the Vandellas put all the cards on the table: "is this the way love's supposed to be ... it's like a heatwave burning in my heart ... can't keep from crying ... it's tearing me apart."

According to Gerri Hirshey's seminal history of soul music, "Nowhere to Run," the entire Heat Wave album was cut in a few hours. Says Reeves, "We flew in from Baltimore after doing five shows. We got in around midnight and went right into the studio. Recorded that whole album, then did three songs, backup, for Marvin Gaye. We all had to get shots for our throats because they were suffering from overuse. Understand, I'm not complaining. If I were that age, and the circumstances were the same, I'd gladly do it again. You know how it is. You do stupid, dangerous things when you're really in love. And if you're swept away by it, you don't stop for one minute to think. You say, 'Go get it, girl,' and you don't look back."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

With A Little Help From My Friends, Joe Cocker (1969)

Could The Wonder Years have chosen a more appropriate song to set the stage for a show about teenage angst and the dueling forces of hope and loss in the 60's?

Arguably the most superior cover version ever recorded, Joe Cocker teamed up with a bevy of top-flight musicians including his "brilliant" (according to Eric Clapton) keyboard player Chris Stainton, Jimmy Page on guitar, Steve Winwood on organ and Procol Harum's B.J. Wilson on drums for a radical reworking of the Beatles' whimsical ode to friendship - and to all the other things people will forever debate.

According to an item at Cocker's web site Life magazine called Joe "The voice of all those blind criers and crazy beggars and maimed men who summon up a strength we'll never know to bawl out their souls in the streets." I won't even try to top that description; what drew me to this song was that very unfettered unleashing of emotion; it was well and truly extraordinary.

What is also extraordinary is the song's elasticity - no matter your circumstances, it resonated with that part of anyone's soul that was needy and flailing about. Cocker's much-remarked-upon unrestrained gyrations in his performances were often the butt of jokes, but the joke may be on us - today he is married to the same woman, still records and tours, and seems the picture of health and normalcy.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

She's Not There, The Zombies (1964)

It's not always a bad thing to have to compose a song that can be played in 3 minutes or less. She's Not There is the quintessential example of one that achieved sheer perfection clocking in at just 2:24. I think having the freedom to make it longer would actually have hurt it.

I'm not sure I can convey how exotic She's Not There sounded in 1964, the first year I started listening to rock music. Rolling Stone says, in anointing it one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, "With Colin Blunstone's gauzy vocals and (Rod) Argent's scampering piano, She's Not There was one of the British Invasion's jazziest singles."

Even more than that, it was the distillation of seething emotion around what I took to be the grave risks of giving your heart to someone else only to have it trampled upon, as expressed in the song's distinctive crescendo. I still shiver when I hear it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Light My Fire, The Doors (1967)

Some songs take you on a magic carpet ride back to their historical origins from their very first strains. Light My Fire, with its white-hot intro, is one of those songs.

Although I was only 14 at the time, I distinctly remember feeling in my bones that something had shifted in the zeitgeist with this recording. You didn't have to actually drop acid to sense a coming loss of innocence. It was a very unsettling time. Whenever I hear Light My Fire, I'm whisked back to those haunting feelings.

It's been suggested that Light My Fire precipitated a mass exodus from AM radio to FM, where the full 7 minutes of the song, with its hypnotic organ and guitar solo by Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, could be heard in its entirety. On AM, where all songs had to be less than 3 minutes in length, a truncated version was generally all you could hear, although some stations did feature a 4+-minute radio edit. I can't remember when I first heard the extended version, because I don't recall having access to progressive FM, also known as AOR or album-oriented, radio stations until a few years later. Completists had to buy the album.

Manzarek did a lengthy interview with Terry Gross in 1998 in which he deconstructs the creation of the song. It's well worth listening to, and gives a fabulous peek into the musicianship involved. It also underscores the notion that The Doors were a group in the best sense of the word, not just a Jim Morrison star vehicle, in that their mesmerizing output was a synthesis of all of their considerable talents.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gimme Some Lovin, Spencer Davis Group (1966)

In Eric Clapton's new autobiography, which I highly recommend, he describes Steve Winwood thusly, "Musically, he was like an old man in a boy's skin." For those of us in the States basking in the fruits of the British Invasion, channeling Ray Charles was a good thing!

Stevie played guitar in his father's band when he was 9, so maybe he comes by it naturally, but when he and his band broke into the American consciousness in 1966 at 17, people were blown away that he was so young, so soulful and so white. And it was not an anomaly; the group followed up the next year with I'm A Man, before Winwood decamped to Traffic and Blind Faith.

Gimme Some Lovin was a sublime assault on all of the senses, with a pounding rhythm that that revved you up and made you want to dance all night. Spencer Davis Group emerged just as I was obsessively savoring the soul music that was coming from Detroit and Memphis; "blue-eyed soul," as it was sometimes called, was a new twist on that, and there would be a lot more of it to come from both sides of the pond.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Roll Over Beethoven, Kansas City (Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey), The Beatles (1964, 1965)

There are many, many, many Beatles songs I'd have liked to be a witness to in the recording studio. But as I've tried to decide which of the many early tunes to select for my running list (the later songs will be a separate post), I kept coming back to the covers they did of songs originally recorded by the artists who were their inspiration.

Recognizing that these songs were released in each instance the previous year in the UK on entirely different albums, it was in 1964 that my whole world turned upside down when the Beatles blew onto the American scene. I was 11 when they turned up on the Ed Sullivan Show, and to say that I was transfixed would be an understatement. Like the girls who were immortalized screaming in the audience, I was a complete nutcase over the lads, and when they were doing pure rock and roll, which these songs are, they were the very personification of something else that was pure - joy. And in those days I was big on soaking up joy, even if it was other people's, wherever I could find it. Listening to them rearranged my molecular structure, there's no doubt about it.

These songs in particular are special to me for two reasons. You cannot listen to George Harrison's licks on Roll Over Beethoven and not understand how important he was to the Beatles - regardless of whether that was ever truly appreciated or allowed to flourish in his lifetime - and how much in love with R&B this guy was. On this song, he had the opportunity to pay homage to Chuck Berry, whom he idolized, and he took it.

In the case of Leiber & Stoller's Kansas City, which had been recorded by numerous people, the medley with Little Richard's Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey as performed by Paul McCartney seemed to be his corresponding homage to Little Richard. Although we knew Paul could scream out with the best of them from I Saw Her Standing There, to hear something this comparatively raw coming out of what appeared to be the most angelic looking young man was an unforgettable experience for a repressed young girl.

I was too young to have ever heard the earlier versions of any of these; indeed, before the Beatles, I had never listened to a single thing beyond what my parents listened to. When the Beatles came to the New World, their lives changed forever. And so did mine.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now), Otis Redding (1965)

Technically, Otis wasn't a "group," but any artist backed by the virtuoso musicianship of the Stax/Volt house bands - Booker T & the MGs and the Mar-Keys - well, I'm saying he was.

Stax was known for spontaneous arrangements, with the vocal artists working hand-in-glove with the session musicians, and the results were more often than not minor miracles.

Written by Otis and another giant of soul music, Jerry Butler, this is a prime example of the kind of ballad that regularly soaked into my pores as a young teenager growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., where soul music reigned in the 60's.

As young as I was in those days, I could only imagine what the passion and pain Otis sang of was all about. And imagine I did, because he made it so easy to go there.

Deemed a sound recording that is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress' National Recording Preservation Board, it was inducted into the 2003 registry with the words "Redding's recording for Volt Records exemplifies the brilliance of his vocal expressiveness and the spare but powerful instrumental accompaniments of the much-acclaimed Stax/Volt studio musicians."

Because it also was culturally significant, I direct you to his live performance of the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, only 6 months before he died in a plane crash at 26 years old. This show-stopper of a performance among many was the first time a large, predominantly white audience was exposed to him and this masterpiece. If you've never seen it before, or even if you have, get ready to lose all composure.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Repent Walpurgis, Procol Harum (1967)

"Flower Power" at its height
Aubrey Beardsley-esque cover design

Writing on, Roland Clare says, "If you told me that Procol Harum were convening to play a single request, and then disbanding for all eternity, (Matthew) Fisher's Repent Walpurgis is the anguished thunder I would be hoping to hear."

Amen, brother. Although Procol Harum was far and away the first band I adored with every fiber of my being after leaving my preteens, and I could name song after song I believe to be deserving of all the accolades possible, it is the alternating torment and elation of the instrumental Repent Walpurgis that defined a whole chapter of my life. The harrowing, gorgeous final cut of Procol Harum was a perfect mirror onto my melancholy, quasi-apocalyptic outlook on life at the time. 

Never played on radio that I'm aware of, I didn't discover it or the entire album until introduced to it by my college boyfriend several years later. I had been a major fan of A Whiter Shade of Pale when it was released, but the band was too progressive (art rock is one term it was given) at the time to garner any other airplay.

Who combines a Bach prelude with howling lead guitar solos against a funereal organ backdrop? It was an astonishing composition by the band's organist, Matthew Fisher. I played it incessantly in my hovel of a dorm room, where I could indulge my constantly-spinning-out-of-control emotions to my heart's content. Catharsis was my middle name.

As much as I love every strain of Repent, it was the incendiary performance of Robin Trower that I found most shattering. He single-handedly jumpstarted my lifelong appreciation of the power of the guitar to wring out emotions you didn't know you had.

Writing in his fabulous band history, Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale, Claes Johansen sums up my view of Trower's skills on this and the rest of his efforts with the band best: 

"The remaining lyrical aspects - the physical intensity, the sensual yearnings - are left to Robin Trower to communicate.It sounds a horrible cliché, but his playing almost makes the guitar 'speak.' I have this zany notion that were anyone to analyze human speech in all its aspects - frequencies, harmonics, articulation - and compare it to Trower's playing, they might find the results to be not that far apart."  I've never been able to put that into words before, but it pretty much nails it.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ohio, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)

The "Ohio" single

Another 1970 song, you say? Well, it was the year I went off to college, so it's fair to say it's a year fraught with memories. And among songs that were emblematic of the times in which we were living, this one is the mother of them all.

What must it have felt like for these guys to cut this record, transforming their molten fury into this? By most accounts it was accomplished with all deliberate speed, and utterly in the throes of creative energy that could not be denied.

An interview I found on wikipedia with CSNY's sound engineer at the time says, "the mood was just very intense ... I've been around those personalities for a long time, and the four of them take over a room. They are four distinct personalities and any one of the four is quite overpowering and together they're a joy to be with. It's just a hoot to see them interact. And they were bent on getting it right and were on a mission." Perhaps a bit of an understatement?

It's not possible to hear the searing opening riff of Ohio without being hurled emotionally back to that time. I was preparing to graduate from a Columbus, Ohio, high school, where Ohio State was already gripped with unrest. I would be entering a small college that was 16 miles down the road from Kent State just 4 months later. I remember coming home from school, turning on the radio as I usually did, and being accosted with the news of the shootings. Granted, by this time I'd already lived through the assassinations of JFK, Dr. King and Bobby. Gun violence seemed to be what we were becoming known for as a country. Yet my mind reeled. This cannot be happening ...

The lyrics and music of Ohio are as close to a perfect storm of genius as the rock world will ever see.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

25 or 6 to 4, Chicago (1970)

The Chicago album, also sometimes known as Chicago II

I'm not going to get into all the debate about the meaning of the title of this song. I don't really care! It is quite simply a song that was one of a number I deem responsible for keeping me from slitting my wrists during my first year away at college.

If you subscribe to the theory that music can release endorphins into your system, and I do, this nearly 5 minute extravaganza unfailingly transformed my naturally depressive tendencies into actual joie de vivre. And does to this day. Horns in a rock song? Unheard of at the time!

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the guys to cut that record. I hope that same joie was as present for them when they realized what they'd done.

I find it an abomination that some radio stations will cut Terry Kath's guitar solo in the middle of the song to fit today's non-album-oriented radio formats. That's akin to larceny in my book. Maybe a "special" version was actually edited by producers for this purpose. Whatever, it's wrong, wrong, wrong.

YouTube has some footage of one of the early performances of 25 or 6 to 4 in Amsterdam; it's very raw but quite a find. You can see Kath really working that wah-wah pedal!

I defy anyone who hears this song to not succumb to its infectious call to get up and MOVE. And it's hard to be sluggish and downtrodden when you're shaking that tail feather.

The Winter of My Discontent

For some time I've pondered the strangeness of aging while retaining the interests of a much younger person. When you're a baby boomer, and the music scene provided the backdrop to daily life, rock songs from 40 or more years ago still resonate. Will this always be the case? Will I be languishing in the Boston rocker with the ratty shawl over my shoulders and still thrill to songs from the British Invasion or Stax? All indications are that could happen.

It's the first day of winter, and although it's unseasonably warm today, I need a project that will engage me through the horrific grind that is a midwest winter. So I was trolling around on YouTube, where it's always one marvel after the other, and it got me to thinking: of the zillions of songs that have provided the soundtrack to my life, which ones would qualify for a special list - recordings I wish I'd been in the studio for when the bands just nailed it to perfection?

People often lament not having been at one concert or the other, and I am no exception. But the reality is, unless it's the most intimate venue imaginable, most concerts are crap if it's the music you're there for. I want to have been a fly on the wall of the studio at that exalted moment when the song was truly born and the musicians achieved nirvana, for themselves and for those who call themselves fans. I'll begin with the song that gave me the idea.