Saturday, January 26, 2008

Atom Heart Mother (suite), Pink Floyd (1970)

Don't ask me - ask Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason and their avant-garde co-composer, Ron Geesin. They put it out there, I just happened along.

The 23:44 Atom Heart Mother suite in 6 parts from the album of the same name was another one of those songs that I played obsessively in my dorm room. (Only Shine On You Crazy Diamond and its 9 parts is longer.) It was profoundly comforting at a time in my life when very little was. It had an intoxicating quality that was helpful in numbing my anxieties, and in fact I often played it as I was going to sleep.

Co-creator Ron Geesin was an experimental musician who claims some his personal influences were Victor Borge, The Goons and Surrealism. That would explain a lot ... The suite was complete with an orchestral score, a smoking David Gilmour guitar solo that may or may not have been a slide guitar, a hefty component of brass, a choir, numerous inexplicable sound effects, both vocal and otherwise, and no real lyrics to speak of.

The album was actually Pink Floyd's first to go #1 (in the UK). Alan Parsons (later of the Alan Parsons Project) was one of the recording engineers on this, as he was for Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon. Most of the members of Pink Floyd have been quoted as saying they didn't like much about the album after it was finished, and from what I can tell, people who knew about it either loved it or hated it.

I think this is one of those songs where you just had to be there for it to make sense. I can't imagine how anyone hearing it today for the first time would react to it. I'm pretty sure the cow was part of the overall allure. The story goes that the group wanted the album cover to be as un-Floydian and ordinary as it could possibly be to throw people off so their photographer went out into the countryside and took a picture of the first thing he saw. Makes about as much sense as the song itself!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Mind, The Amboy Dukes (1968)

Among the various genres of 60s music, acid rock was never overly enthralling to me, but there are exceptions to everything, and Journey to the Center of the Mind is one of them.

Arguably in a class by itself, Journey to the Center of the Mind had something these other songs didn't - drumming by Dave Palmer that rocked harder than almost anything I'd ever heard, John Drake's commanding vocals, and the blistering guitar licks of the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent. The outrageous 45-second intro still stops me in my tracks.

To be fair, I don't think this song counts as pure psychedelia; perhaps it's on the psychedelic end of the proto-metal spectrum. Which is curious considering that metal music was never huge with me, either. But as I say, there are exceptions to everything.

Funnily enough, to this day, Nugent - a major opponent of drugs - claims he didn't know the song was about drug use. I don't see how that could possibly be the case given the times, but who am I to contradict The Nuge?

Interestingly, Dave Palmer went on to become an award-winning recording engineer, and in fact worked at the famed Electric Lady Studios in New York City after his Dukes stint, where he had the distinction of playing drums for Jimi Hendrix' first formal recording session. In a day when all studios were owned and operated by the record labels, Hendrix bucked the trend with this state-of-the-art facility, which had its opening party just 13 days before he died.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tobacco Road, The Nashville Teens (1964)

Tobacco Road, a country tune written and originally recorded to little acclaim by John D. Loudermilk, was one of my absolute favorite British Invasion imports. As adapted with an R&B sound by the Nashville Teens (who were neither from Nashville nor teens), it was a harmonic convergence of throbbing drums, outrageous piano, dueling guitars and exuberant singers who clearly relished the opportunity they'd been given to breath life into this song.

Tobacco Road was produced by Mickie Most, who also guided the budding careers of the Animals, Herman's Hermits, Donovan and Lulu, and had a knack for finding good songs and good bands to record them. He certainly found both in Tobacco Road and in the Teens, whom he discovered serving as Bo Diddley's backup band. The boogie-woogie stylings of keyboard player John Hawken, who later went on to form Renaissance with Keith Relf of the Yardbirds, alone is worth the price of admission.

The song has since been covered by performers in virtually every musical genre, but this is the gold standard as far as I'm concerned. So many British Invasion songs were complex, clearly had been bred of multiple musical influences, and were really sophisticated for the times. Like The Zombies' She's Not There, it was an incredibly exotic song to hear on the radio in 1964, and still has staying power today.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Eli's Coming, Three Dog Night (1969)

The year 1969 occupies an easily-disturbed place in my psyche because so much was going on in my life at the time. I was getting ready to graduate from high school and leave home for college the next year, I was inching tentatively toward being in love with the boy who became my boyfriend all through college, my parents were undergoing a horrific breakup ... and of course the country was going to hell in a handbasket with its involvement in the Vietnam War. So practically every song that was on the charts in those days is emotion-laden in one way or another.

However histrionic the songs of Three Dog Night might seem today, they were so of that time for me. The 'three-lead-singer' model that they had deployed was very unusual for rock music, and it produced some intense recordings which fit perfectly with the tenor of the times.

The group's first million-seller, "One," took the world by storm, but my favorite will always be Eli's Coming, which was a great example of what they seemed best at - adapting the music of relatively unknown or otherwise undiscovered composers (in this case the genius Laura Nyro) for commercial success. The Beatles' success as "self-contained recording artists," which is just a fancy way of saying that they wrote their own music, made it harder for artists who were primarily songwriters like Nyro to get their music recorded because every group felt they could and should generate their own material. In fact, there was (and probably still is) a kind of elitism around that which suggests anyone not doing their own material is somehow laughable and unworthy.

Regardless, Three Dog Night rose above it all. In addition to Nyro's haunting composition, Danny Hutton, Cory Wells and Chuck Negron with their powerhouse voices covered the music of Randy Newman, John Hiatt, Leo Sayer and Paul Williams. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000. Although this YouTube video is disturbing in so many ways that will become immediately apparent upon viewing, it's worth checking out just to hear the song again and remind yourself why trousers with vertical stripes should forever remain in fashion's graveyard.

Eli's Coming and its command to "hide your heart, girl" so spoke to me that years later when I took voice lessons, the song was one that I regularly worked with to develop my voice. And of course I was inspired to find out more about Nyro, who remains today one of my most revered female vocalists.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cara Mia, Jay and the Americans (1965)

One of the characteristics of the 60s radio playlists was the bizarre variety of genres reflected in the songs that you could hear on one station at any given point in time. You might have Latino stuff like Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 or Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass mixed in with the British Invasion, surfing music and Englebert Humperdinck or Tom Jones. And of course, soul music was everywhere.

So having a song like Cara Mia in the Top 10 for 11 weeks in the summer of '65 wasn't that weird, even though its doo wop vocal style harks back more to the time when it was first recorded, in the 1950s, than it does to the 60s.

Very few songs send chills up my spine the second I hear them, but Jay Black's incomparable rendering of this never fails to cut right to the quick. He was one of a few artists of that time (Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney being two others) whose mastery of his powerful voice and high vocal range could - and still does - bring tears to the eyes. It's a cliche, but it's true here: they don't make songs like this any more.

(Interesting factoid that I didn't know until now - before they became Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were part of Jay and the Americans' touring band in the late 60s.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Jenny Take A Ride, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels (1966)

I recently came across an article from metrotimes, an alternative weekly in Detroit, entitled "The 100 greatest Detroit songs ever" and as I was perusing the cornucopia of delights therein, it put me in mind of one of the baddest garage bands ever to come out of the Motor City - Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

I probably would have loved growing up in Detroit - its music has a certain high-octane quality to it that makes you want to spend your life dancing. The first 23 frenzied seconds of Jenny Take A Ride ... its sheer euphoria factor can't be topped. A much-amped-up medley of Chuck Willis' C.C. Rider and Little Richard's Jenny, Jenny, the song was originally intended as a B-side. Plans quickly changed when their producer, Bob Crewe, who had discovered them opening for - and badly upstaging - the Dave Clark Five when they played Detroit, noted the reaction of the visiting Rolling Stones in the control room of the recording studio.

Why these guys are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is anybody's guess; Ted Nugent (also not in the Rock Hall) credits them as one of his seminal influences and Detroit Medley, a nod to this and other MR&DH hits, has been a frequent staple of Springsteen concerts.

A soulful teenager, Ryder (nee William Levise, Jr.) had fronted a black vocal group, the Peps, and those influences permeate this and every other hit he and the Wheels had. They were the first rock group to reach #1 on the R&B charts. As one reviewer notes, "If this one doesn't get you up and dancing then you are DEAD." To that I say, "Amen."

Friday, January 11, 2008

I Can't Get Next to You, The Temptations (1969)

I wasn't planning on this song today, but it came on the radio while I was driving to work, and got me all stirred up. A group singular for its out-of-this-world vocal stylings and ultra smooth choreography, the Temptations were entertainers down to their DNA, and I wasn't prepared for how happy it was going to make me to hear them today.

The "Tempts" sometimes referred to themselves as "five lead vocalists," and I Can't Get Next to You is a sterling example of this principle in action. Always grittier, edgier and funkier than their Motown brethren, the Four Tops, here each of the Temptations chimes in with successive lines of the song's verses, showcasing their crazily diverse and spectacular singing voices, as well as their exuberant showmanship. And of course underpinning the whole affair are the Funk Brothers, providing the instrumental fundamentals.

I don't know what it says about the schizoid nature of the culture of the time that, when this song was #1 on the Billboard pop charts, 3 of the other top five songs were by Bobby Sherman, Oliver and the Archies. (The other was Sly & the Family Stone, which Temptations producer Norman Whitfield was reportedly attempting to emulate.)

In any event, while psychedelic influences were chipping away at the relevance of other Motown artists, the Temptations - with former Contour Dennis Edwards replacing the departing David Ruffin - managed to deliver red-hot hits (Cloud Nine, Ball of Confusion, et al) one after the other during the latter part of the 60s, of which this one is my favorite.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sounds of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel (1965)

Heartfelt poetry, gorgeous harmonies and masterful guitar work are the central ingredients of this pain-filled prayer against youthful alienation. Until now, I didn't know of The Sounds of Silence's strange genesis, described by Rolling Stone, where it occupies #156 on the list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Originally written for acoustic guitar, that version of the single went nowhere, and the duo broke up. While Paul Simon was abroad, their producer, Tom Wilson, who was also producing "Like A Rolling Stone" for Bob Dylan, prevailed upon Dylan's studio band to add electric guitar and drums to the ballad. After the remix, and without consulting either Simon or Art Garfunkel, he released the record, and it became a hit before either artist heard it.

This bizarre scenario produced one of the most affecting folk-rock compositions ever recorded. Coming from Jewish New Yorkers, it had a deeply morose and very urban sensibility that was unlike anything else heard in America at that time. Its depiction of disaffected society was disturbing and authentic, a song completely of its time and yet timeless.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

It's A Man's Man's Man's World, James Brown and the Famous Flames (1966)

One of the rawest soul songs ever to be recorded, It's A Man's Man's Man's World was nothing short of a masterpiece. It was the closest thing to a spiritual one was likely to hear on the radio in those days, and it has lost none of its gripping luster in 40+ years. See this Village Voice piece for some backstory on the song's creation.

As uninhibited as James Brown was capable of being, and that was certainly one of his primary assets as a performer, as with so many songs I admire, it's the dramatic orchestration surrounding and combined with the main vocal event that made it so noteworthy and effective. Known for demanding his band be as hard-working as he was, they delivered big time on this. But credit should also be given to the song's arranger, the legendary big band/r&b conductor and arranger Sammy Lowe, who brought production values to the table that will forever keep this song in the soul music pantheon of perfection.

At no point in the song, if you were merely listening to it, would you visualize anything other than a man all but prostrating himself in naked acknowledgement of his need for a woman. Pretty heady stuff for a 14-year-old! But as with so much soul music, songs like this reached out and seized me to the very core of my being despite my complete and utter immaturity. They always have and always will.

If you haven't seen it, check out Christina Aguilera's 2007 Grammy performance of the song to see someone channeling James to the very best of her ability. I had to pick myself up off the floor after this; to attempt this and, in my opinion and that of many others, succeed, was truly something to behold. Just one demonstration of the power this song has over people.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Aqualung, Jethro Tull (1971)

I've always had a penchant for rock musicians who have the singular ability to paint vivid pictures and tell what seem to be specific stories in their songs. The more particular the story, the more universality it achieves. One of the first longer songs I remember in this category was Aqualung. As a college student in the throes of social consciousness, a song that shined a light on someone so completely outside the mainstream of society as I knew it was mesmerizing.

At 6-1/2 minutes, Aqualung was like a tiny theatrical play, so intoxicatingly atmospheric with Ian Anderson's madman-like delivery of its in-your-face lyrics and pastiche of heavy electric and acoustical passages. Readers of Guitar World rated Martin Barre's solo here one of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time. It's possible that the lyrics would not have been so well-received had the elaborate musicality of the song been less seductive, but that's what it was, and as far as I'm concerned it accomplished its goal.

Released in March of the year, the month in which I officially become bone-cold from the excessively long winter, the imagery of someone on society's fringes barely surviving on the streets during "December's foggy freeze" brought the issue closer to home, however peripherally. A tour de force at the time.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Soul & Inspiration, The Righteous Brothers (1966)

In inducting The Righteous Brothers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, Billy Joel said, "Sometimes people with blue eyes transcended the limitations of what their color and culture can actually be. Sometimes white people can actually be soulful. This was a life changing idea. It changed my life."

Blue-eyed soul was never more on display than in this stunning ballad, which showcased the best of the otherworldly vocal talents of baritone Bill Medley and tenor Bobby Hatfield as well as the songwriting muscle of the Brill Building's Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Originally associated with Phil Spector, the Righteous Brothers parted the ways after You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, and Medley produced this song himself, neatly replicating Spector's signature "Wall of Sound."

Of the two hits, I always found Soul & Inspiration to be more soul-stirring; its goose-flesh quotient is much higher and it never fails to whisk me back to that time in my life. The song actually topped the charts for three weeks, a week longer than You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling did. It was always an occasion when they appeared on Shindig, where they were a fixture, as well as Hullabaloo and Where The Action Is.

They were a marvel then, and now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Soul Sacrifice, Santana (1969)

I’m a sucker for instrumentals. In my senior year of high school, my inner Latina was seized by the final cut of Santana’s debut album – the 6+ minute jam, Soul Sacrifice. It would be hard to calculate the number of hours I spent in my room rocking out to this transcendent wonder. I honestly believe it would be possible to cure depression if you mainlined this song.

One of Woodstock's most memorable performances, Soul Sacrifice showcased Carlos Santana's virtuosity as well as introduced the then 19-year-old drummer Michael Shrieve, a force of nature if there ever was one. Says Shrieve, on his web site:

"We were the right band at the right time. Our street gang tribal rhythms were perfect for the Woodstock tribe that day. Another year later and we're touring more, our first record is out and the Woodstock movie is opening in theaters across the country. Santana is playing in New York and our first day off we go to see the movie. We didn't know if we were going to end up in the film or not. After all, we were the unknown group there that day.

"Halfway through the movie there we are playing Soul Sacrifice. Halfway through into my drum solo the screen splits and there are 6 images of me across it. I didn't know whether to shout out, 'That's me!' or sink down in my seat. I sank down in my seat and watched and listened. At the end of the song the whole theatre burst into applause, as the 6 of us turned in our seats and looked at each other in laughter and surprise."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Good Vibrations, Beach Boys (1966)

When it came to bands of the 60's, the Beach Boys were America's sweethearts. Everything they produced seemed to touch the right nerve. If I remember correctly, the very first single I bought with my own money was Dance, Dance, Dance. But one song was the show-stopper out of all those released before Brian Wilson's various psychoses led him to withdraw from society. Anyone hearing Good Vibrations that very first time was stopped dead in his or her tracks. "I don't know where, but she sends me there." I still remember the moment we crossed into this new frontier.

Good Vibrations hit the airwaves about six months before Strawberry Fields Forever and, while the two are often compared, I have always vastly preferred the former. It was an extravaganza of sound that was both simple and insanely complex - developed, according to some reports, over 17 separate recording sessions. It broke all the rules that had up to that point been observed in producing pop songs and, with its separate movements, has been described as a pocket symphony. At 3:37, it seems much longer.

One of the many instruments featured in the song was an electronic version of an old instrument known as a theremin. Playing a real theremin involved controlling sound by moving the hands through the air varying distances from two antennas, thus altering the resulting electronic fields. The modification Wilson used, a cross between the original instrument and the later synthesizer and better suited to a musician who knew how to play a guitar, created one of the many signature "good vibrations" of this groundbreaking song.