Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunny Afternoon, The Kinks (1966)

One of the interesting aspects of the British Invasion was the inside look some bands provided into a society that was nothing like that of the U.S.

Sunny Afternoon, an acerbic satire by the Kinks on class and England's punitive tax system, was one of my favorite such inside looks. Some groups could be mistaken for any nationality, but you always knew where the Kinks hailed from.

Musically, the Kinks had their own peculiar rhythm and harmonies, personified by Ray Davies' nasal vocals. They started out as a hard-rocking band, but after a few years all that was put aside for songs that were typically vignettes of ordinary life or character studies that pinpointed the idiosyncracies of various strata of English humanity. Even the songs that sounded whimsical, such as Sunny Afternoon, weren't.

Some argue that it was precisely this nationalistic navel-gazing that was partly responsible for the Kinks failing to become as popular as other British groups. Nonetheless, in a 1995 interview with Pete Townshend commenting on influential British bands, he said, "I always think that Ray Davies should one day be Poet Laureate. He invented a new kind of poetry and a new kind of language for pop writing that influenced me from the very, very, very beginning."

Another treat I found, from 1968 - Days, from the European release of the album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society - a lovely song I have absolutely no memory of.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Cannonball Adderley Quintet (1966)

Soul-jazz instrumental Mercy, Mercy, Mercy was one of those rare gems that teenagers got exposed to by virtue of the eclectic nature of the pop charts during the 60s. In today's narrowcasting world, nothing like that would ever happen.

I seriously doubt the entire 5+ minute version that youtube gloriously offers was actually what we were hearing on the radio in those 3-minutes-and-out days, but what we did hear was the epitome of sophisticated cool.

Written by the Quintet's keyboardist, Joe Zawinul, who had played with Maynard Ferguson and later went on to form Weather Report with Wayne Shorter, the smouldering licks of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy never failed to transport me to somewhere better - and more swinging - than I was at the time. There is an automatic and extended visceral reaction from the song's slow burn to the exhilarating finish - a reaction I'm still having 42 years later.

But Zawinul wasn't the only one with a pedigree - Julian "Cannonball" Adderley had played sax with Miles Davis in the 50s, and his brother, cornet player Nat, had been with Lionel Hampton. With Zawinul, rounding out the rhythm section were drummer Roy McCurdy (he's 72 and has a myspace page!), who had worked with Chuck Mangione and Sonny Rollins, and on bass, Victor Gaskin, who went on to play with Dexter Gordon and Duke Ellington. Is it any wonder this song killed?

In 1967, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy popped back up, complete with lyrics (I know not from where), in a recording by the Chicago-based group the Buckinghams. It earned a higher chart position than the original, but doesn't hold a candle to it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, Dionne Warwick (1966)

It is probably only in hindsight that I've come to realize how artists like Dionne Warwick were pivotal in fostering my lifelong appreciation of virtuoso singers.

An ubiquitous presence over the airwaves throughout the 60s, I'm not sure I completely appreciated her gifts then. She was just always there, with one hit after the other - 20 during that decade alone - served up via what she has described as the "three-sided marriage that worked" - her lengthy collaboration with composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David.

Before she was discovered by Bacharach, Warwick had her own gospel group, the Gospelaires, with sister Dee Dee and aunt Cissy Houston, and sang backup on records for the Drifters, Bobby Darin, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, the Shirelles, Ruth Brown and Chuck Jackson. It was at a Drifters recording session for the song Mexican Divorce that the two met.

Originally hired to cut demos, it was soon clear that Warwick was destined to be a star in her own right, and had her first hit with Don't Make Me Over. Her songs were a thing apart from rock and roll or R&B, and being hard to classify were sometimes relegated to that category of popular music that was seen somehow as less cool. Yet when I listen to these songs today, I find many of them quite breathtaking, and they unfailingly evoke my teenage years.

Dionne was easily the most serene and elegant female performer of that era, with a wide vocal register that defied description and made for deceptively easy listening. Check it out ... Although an earlier version of I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself was a hit for Dusty Springfield, I find that arrangement much more overwrought than seems strictly necessary. Dionne's version captured what it feels like to confront the emptiness of lost love to perfection.

In a 2003 story on Warwick in the Independent, Elvis Costello described the Tao of Dionne thusly: "The things that make Burt and Hal's songs extraordinary also create all kinds of difficulties for a performer. In Dionne Warwick, Bacharach and David found this incredibly talented singer who was able to negotiate things that were metrically and harmonically terribly complex, and make them sound conversational and effortless. She has great control and range: she has that dry, close voice but she can also get really big and dramatic without ever sounding strained. Bacharach used to say: `Don't count it - feel it.' And Dionne feels it. That's her great gift."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

You Don't Own Me, Lesley Gore (1964)

A youtube commenter asks, "You mean to tell me that in the sixties, teenage girls actually had to have voices and know how to sing before they had hit records?"

What a concept. Discovered singing in a hotel by the legendary producer Quincy Jones, then a producer for Mercury Records, soprano Lesley Gore had a supremely confident voice that had been honed singing in a jazz group. That voice was first shared with the world in the form of teenage girl standards It's My Party and It's Judy's Turn to Cry, which did absolutely nothing for me. Then came You Don't Own Me.

To this day, the song remains an anthem for independently-minded females everywhere. The other day I mentioned that Linda Ronstadt's Different Drum was an early feminist hit, but I'd forgotten that You Don't Own Me, performed by Gore when she was still a senior in high school, pre-dates that by several years. It was way ahead of its time, actually. (Still performing, Gore has reimagined the song with a stripped-down version on her latest release, Ever Since.)

Written by two men, John Madars and David White, the song was climbing the charts and landed at #2 the week I Want to Hold Your Hand grabbed the #1 spot and didn't let go for three weeks. I can still remember how the dramatically shifting key changes on the arrangement combined with Gore's convincing delivery affected me. I was sure I didn't want anyone to own me! Yes, I was 11, but it got under my skin.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Brown Earth, Christmas In My Soul, Laura Nyro (1970)

I can't narrow it down to one, so I'm serving up two Laura Nyros from one particular album - Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (not a Christmas LP, by the way) - each showcasing the strengths of this otherworldly singer and brilliant composer who was better known for the scores and scores of songs others covered than for her own recordings.

Nyro never sought and actually shunned fame, and her prodigious output became the platform from which others' careers often skyrocketed. The first song of hers that I ever heard was Blood, Sweat and Tears' hit recording of And When I Die.

Brown Earth is a beauty, overflowing with the joy of being alive, the kind of song that is so uplifting one can only just surrender to it. On this lush arrangement, Nyro is backed by the Swampers, a well-respected group of session musicians from that crucible of great American music, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Christmas in My Soul, which was produced by the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere, is one of the most devastatingly searing indictments of the injustices and failings of that time in history I have ever heard. Achingly beautiful on every level from a musical standpoint, its uncompromising truths are harrowing to listen to, though it concludes with a sort of catharsis that envisions it could all be turned around. I typically do not fail to break into tears during this verse: Now the time has come to fight / Laws in the book of love burn bright / People you must win for thee / America her dignity / For all the high court world to see / On Christmas. Lyrics that have as much, if not more, relevance now than they did then.

Neither of these two songs is on youtube. The album's best known song (and the only one Nyro did not write, ironically) is, however, so here she is singing Carole King and Gerry Goffin's Up On the Roof.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Different Drum, The Stone Poneys (1967)

With the exception of Martha and the Vandellas, I am horrified to realize that I have to this point featured no women's voices in this blog. That will have to be rectified in short order. Unfortunately, the early years of rock and roll were comparatively thin as far as successful women were concerned. But they were out there.

One who managed very well, thank you, was Linda Ronstadt, who became a sensation when she was with the Stone Poneys. Someone whose career I have followed ever since, her clear, larger-than-life voice was a welcome addition to the folk-rock scene, and catapulted her to solo stardom soon thereafter. Ronstadt was the only other singer besides Laura Nyro whose work I emulated (or tried to) when I took voice lessons in the 80s.

Written and originally performed by the Monkees' Mike Nesmith from the male perspective, Ronstadt's version of Different Drum turned the tables to tell the story of a free spirited woman - one who didn't need a man to complete her. The lyric Yes, and I ain't saying you ain't pretty / All I'm saying is I'm not ready / For any person place or thing / To try and pull the reins in on me / made an enduring impression on me!

According to Kenny Edwards, the Stone Poneys' co-founder and acoustic guitarist, Ronstadt (and Emmylou Harris) had the unusual knack of being able to "... pick songs ... that are perfect for them, as if they'd written them." I think that is one of the things that has really defined her throughout her career - whether it's Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello or Mike Nesmith, her versions of their songs are authentic and unforgettable. She does make them her own.

The burgeoning women's movement notwithstanding, it wouldn't have been common in those days for a woman to sing / I see no sense in this crying and grieving / We'll both live a lot longer / If you live without me / and come across convincingly. Linda could and did.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sweet Cherry Wine, Tommy James and the Shondells (1969)

I've been thinking a lot about anti-war songs lately, and I was reminded of one from the quintessential singles band of the 60s, Tommy James and the Shondells' rollicking and beautiful Sweet Cherry Wine.

In an interview on the American Gold radio program in 1996, Tommy James said, "My philosophy was that rock and roll was supposed to make you move, not make you think. I always had a problem with people who got too serious with rock and roll. If you want to get serious, fine, but don't call it rock and roll because it isn't. It becomes something else. I also thought there was enough ugliness over the TV every night at six o'clock, watching the war, so, that was hard. I really felt that music should hit you in your stomach, not your brain."

And that's kind of what Sweet Cherry Wine did. Produced by James himself, it didn't beat you over the head with anything but the delicious musicality of it, though the lyrics - "We ain't gonna fight/Only God has the right/To decide who's to live and die" - were quite clearly oriented toward questioning the Establishment's immoral war. I can't even tell you all of the instruments he's got in there, but there are a cornucopia of them, including a flute and an organ. And I think some kind of bell.

The explosive intro remains one of my favorites from that time period. Maybe it's because I'm so inspired by Barack Obama right now, but I'm currently on my 10th replay. The song was irresistible then, is irresistible now, as is the notion that the United States of America might soon find its way back from our long national nightmare with a true leader at the helm.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), Kenny Rogers & the First Edition (1968)

The week Dock of the Bay reached #1 for Otis Redding posthumously, charting in at #5 was a bizarre but highly original composition by prolific Nashville songwriter Mickey Newbury that never fails to bring a smile to my lips when I hear it.

Before Kenny Rogers became a country music phenom, he was a member of The First Edition, a group of refugees from The New Christy Minstrels who felt the need to branch out creatively. I think they achieved that and then some with Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).

As musical exploits go, this one was a doozie. The song's guitar reverb and reverse riff at the intro - not to mention the insane vocals on the chorus, particularly at the end - established it firmly in the annals of psychedelia. Although Newbury intended it to be a cautionary tale against the use of hallucinogenic drugs, I'm not sure that's precisely how it was interpreted by all members of my generation!

Must-see TV in those days was the groundbreaking Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which regularly featured Kenny and the group. Brace yourself! The show was a fixture of my weekly television viewing circa 1967-69 until it was unceremoniously axed by CBS, which was gripped in the throes of censorship thanks to Richard Nixon's growing paranoia about the dangers of the First Amendment.

I gather the song experienced something of a renaissance from its appearance on the soundtrack of The Big Lebowski. Haven't seen it, but it was used in a famous dream sequence, so I'm betting it gave everyone the same rush that it used to give us in the 60s. Must put that in my Netflix queue!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Nature's Way, Spirit (1970)

One month before Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, teens were hearing from the world-conscious L.A. band Spirit about life's fragility and the importance of caring for the environment.

A beautiful song sung by the late Randy California, who formed the group as a teenager with his stepfather Ed Cassidy, Nature's Way was a very harmonic convergence of jazz, folk and rock. As one of the founders of my high school's first Earth Day earlier that year, the song resonated, to put it mildly.

A chance meeting with Jimi Hendrix in New York City led the precocious guitarist California, at the tender age of 15, to a regular gig for 3 months with Hendrix' precursor band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. (This interview with Randy has some nifty background on those days in Hendrix' orbit.) Randy just missed becoming part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience when his parents nixed the idea of him accompanying Jimi on tour to England in 1966.

The much-older Cassidy had played drums with the legendary Art Pepper and Thelonius Monk. These and other influences pervaded Spirit's eclectic and genre-defying repertoire.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Come See About Me, Jr. Walker and the All Stars (1967)

Again with the covers. But walk on by, Supremes version. Impaled on Junior Walker's squealing tenor saxophone, Holland-Dozier-Holland had a whole new song on its hands.

Says Clarence Clemons in a Rolling Stone interview, "Junior Walker and King Curtis were the two biggest influences on me. All those jazz cats were just too abstract for me; Junior was more animated, and he got straight to the point. He knew it wasn't how many notes you play but what each note says - quality, not quantity."

That principle is very much in evidence in Come See About Me. The individual notes of the wailing intro give me the shivers. Then I hop up and dance my brains out through the wailing outro. The 'adapted' lyrics exhorted us to "come see about Junior," and who could help themselves? No one could play sax like Junior, or had more fun doing it. (Unfortunately, this isn't on youtube, so here's the legendary Shotgun, which I was originally going to write about until I remembered how much I loved Come See ... )

Perhaps the only Motown instrumentalist who received his props while he was actually working there, Junior became a Motown artist after the label he originally worked for was acquired by Berry Gordy. Still, I'm not certain it was a natural home for him and the All Stars; they were a bit too rough-and-ready, too hard soul, for Hitsville USA. A really interesting factoid that just surfaced in my research: Steve Winwood based the original Traffic on the All-Stars!

Sometime in mid-to-late 80s, I had the privilege of seeing Junior at The Dell, a very intimate venue in Columbus, Ohio. At one point, he was so caught up in his groove that he walked off the stage and out the front door, playing all the while, and continued to blow on the sidewalk outside the club, serenading passers-by for some minutes before returning to the stage. He never skipped a beat.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I Should Have Known Better, I'll Be Back, The Beatles (1964)

A youtube commenter writes, "I wonder what it would be like living when the Beatles were around. I'd love to have lived back then, even if it would make me 60 years old today ... "

Ouch! I am both amused and not amused by that comment. But the harsh reality is that those of us who were fortunate enough to be participants in Beatlemania are now middle-aged. All things considered, I wouldn't have it any other way.

For today's selection, I've decided to pair another set of Beatles songs - there are so many and not enough time in life to discuss them all. A Hard Day's Night was the first of their albums comprised entirely of Lennon-McCartney compositions. I go through stages where I listen obsessively to the old stuff, and it became apparent to me with this one (the British release, not the U.S. version, which has a slightly different track list) that these two songs are the ones to which I've had the most consistent reaction and attachment for, God forbid, 44 years.

From a yin-yang perspective, I Should Have Known Better and I'll Be Back are the perfect pair - Idealism vs. Realism on parade. In the first, our subject is gobsmacked with euphoria, awash in the happiness of infatuation. In the second, the blush is well off the rose, it's all gone terribly wrong and our subject is overcome with such despond that he's resorted to threatening his love object.

John's opening harmonica strains in I Should Have Known Better set the stage for what I consider to be the quintessential early Beatles song - one just brimming with exuberance lyrically, melodically, rhythmically. It's the gleeful kind of song that I associate with the endorphin rush - probably because I get one every time I hear and sing along with it. At the same time, it can make me sad if I really think about it, because John's natural edginess soon played itself out in songs that, for most of the rest of his life, were largely darker and more cynical, and for me, not as beloved.

I'll Be Back is startling in its wretchedness. Its alternating major and minor keys make it distinctively different from the rest of the album. Immediately, anyone who knows what it's like to be unable to let go of a love gone bad is transported to that miserable place. When they blurt You / Could find better things to do / Than to break my heart again, it's almost like being punched in the stomach. I've felt like that more times than I can count. Well, I can count that high, but I don't want to.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

You're My Woman, Van Morrison (1971)

I became a rabid Van Morrison fan when he was singing blues-rock with Them in the early 60s with hits like Gloria and Here Comes the Night (especially the latter).

As a solo artist, Morrison, a rock troubadour if there ever was one, is a mesmerizing performer. He commits to his music to such a profound degree you cannot help but be swept away by it. I love two comments over at youtube about him: "Van could sing 'take me out to the ballgame' and bring me to tears," was one; the other, "It's more like a soul with a voice than a voice with soul."

Of all the songs on his 1971 recording Tupelo Honey, You're My Woman is the pinnacle. Rolling Stone called it "one of the genuine masterpieces of Van's recording career." At 6:40, the song builds and builds to such emotional intensity that I sometimes can't stand it but never want it to end. It is a love song of monumental proportions, one of the best I've ever heard.

The accompanying horn, piano and rhythm section arrangements on this are also exquisite. This song isn't anywhere to be seen on youtube, but if you want to witness the Irish dynamo in his element, check out this gem as a substitute. Something else to look for: Martin Scorcese's series on the blues, specifically the Red, White & Blues episode that Mike Figgis directed. Here you'll see an astonishing session with Van, Tom Jones and Lulu, accompanied by Jeff Beck. For anyone who loves the blues, I can't overstate what a treasure it is.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hang On Sloopy, The McCoys (1965)

Everyone's all in a lather today about football, and I understand that Eli's Coming has enjoyed quite a workout thanks to the New York Giants, but the only football I know about is Ohio State football, so I'm going to give a shout-out to one of the goofiest songs to go to the top of the charts during the 60s, Hang on Sloopy.

One of those songs that you jive to whether you really want to or not, and I know I did, it had such a feel-good vibe to it that I guess it was only a matter of time before The Ohio State University, my alma mater, decided to make it the unofficial fight song of Buckeyes football. I still laugh when I hear it, the more so because the State of Ohio went one step further in 1985 and made it the official state rock song, of all things, after Columbus Citizen-Journal columnist Joe Dirck wrote a column about a proposal the State of Washington was considering to make Louie, Louie its state rock song.

The actual legislative resolution, which can be read in its entirety here, includes this remarkable language, to wit:

"WHEREAS, Rock music has become an integral part of American culture, having attained a degree of acceptance no one would have thought possible twenty years ago; and

WHEREAS, Adoption of "Hang On Sloopy" as the official rock song of Ohio is in no way intended to supplant "Beautiful Ohio" as the official state song, but would serve as a companion piece to that old chestnut; and

WHEREAS, If fans of jazz, country-and-western, classical, Hawaiian and polka music think those styles also should be recognized by the state, then by golly, they can push their own resolution just like we're doing; and

WHEREAS, "Hang On Sloopy" is of particular relevance to members of the Baby Boom Generation, who were once dismissed as a bunch of long-haired, crazy kids, but who now are old enough and vote in sufficient numbers to be taken quite seriously; and

WHEREAS, Adoption of this resolution will not take too long, cost the state anything, or affect the quality of life in this state to any appreciable degree, and if we in the legislature just go ahead and pass the darn thing, we can get on with more important stuff; and

WHEREAS, Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town, and everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy down; and

WHEREAS, Sloopy, I don't care what your daddy do, 'cause you know, Sloopy girl, I'm in love with you; therefore be it Resolved, That we, the members of the 116th General Assembly of Ohio, in adopting this Resolution, name "Hang On Sloopy" as the official rock song of the State of Ohio; and be it further Resolved, That the Legislative Clerk of the House of Representatives transmit duly authenticated copies of this Resolution to the news media of Ohio."

Regardless of its other merits or lack thereof, Hang On Sloopy's ability to rev up a stadium crowd is undeniable. With lead vocals and guitar by 16-year-old Ricky Zehringer, later to become known as Rick Derringer, its catchy rhythm and ridiculous lyrics perhaps exemplify as well as anything that last gasp of innocence before things got too serious in our world. It wouldn't last long - the week that Sloopy was #1, right behind it on the charts was Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction, a strident cautionary protest against racism, Vietnam and the nuclear arms race.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

It Ain't Me Babe, The Turtles (1965)

I think I've established that I am not a cover version snob, and here's another example of why I'm not. As a genre, folk-rock wasn't one of my early favorites - that developed later - but I believe the Turtles' version of It Ain't Me Babe (as well as the Byrds' cover of Mr. Tambourine Man a few months earlier) made me curious about Bob Dylan sooner than I would have been otherwise.

The longer I do this, the more I realize how much I appreciate the "perfect single," and the fact that the constraints of AM radio in the 60s weren't necessarily a bad thing. It's not easy to create something memorable in under 3 minutes, and I'd rather be left wanting more than to be beaten over the head with a song that goes on too long.

As is the case with every Dylan song, the lyrics are what gave me pause from the start. Everyone's been in the position of having others - either romantically or otherwise - wanting from you that which you cannot give, and I don't think that frustration and defiance has ever been better expressed. (It's been said that Dylan's motivation, in fact, was entirely based on his desire to not be held up as the 'voice of a generation', which he was being saddled with at the time, to his great dismay.)

What the Turtles did was take the song, which had been recorded by Dylan the previous year, and broadcast it out to a larger universe of people than would have been the case otherwise. Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman had been a cappella singers in their L.A. high school choir, and their lovely voices brought a certain accessibility to the hard-bitten sentiments of the song without sacrificing the gritty impact of it. According to one account, Kaylan was trying to mimic the style of the Zombies' She's Not There, which I didn't know until now, but since I pronounced that one of my perfect songs in an earlier post, it all makes sense!

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Losing End (When You're On), Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1969)

Most people associate Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (one of the best titles ever) with the title song and with Cinnamon Girl, Down By the River and Cowgirl in the Sand. In terms of sheer tonnage, that's understandable. And I will go on record as saying I love the whole album - if I had to pick just a handful of LPs that automatically remind me of that time of my life when I was transitioning from wide-eyed high schooler to college malcontent, this would unquestionably be one of them.

In Young's maiden collaboration with Crazy Horse - members of a band known as the Rockets whom he met while making his first LP - he and Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina created a musical gem of blazing musicality that still gives me thrills and chills.

But from the standpoint of a song that gets in there and gets the job done in about 4 minutes, it doesn't get much better than The Losing End. Today, I love this song about how pathetic unrequited love can make you feel as much, if not more, than I did then. It packs such a punch! "It's so hard for me now / But I'll make it somehow / Though I know I'll never be the same / Won't you ever change your ways? / It's so hard to make love pay / When you're on the losing end / And I feel that way again ... " The combination of mournful country-style lyrics and blistering guitar licks - and let's face it, Young's singular vocals - can't be improved upon.

To my mind, the symbiotic relationship between Young and Crazy Horse has produced some of his greatest work. He'd been sitting in with them from time to time after leaving Buffalo Springfield, and once they got together, they recorded the whole album in two weeks. It does have the feel of a jam session.

Although Danny Whitten died in 1972 of a heroin overdose (the heartbreaking Needle and the Damage Done was, in part, inspired by him), decades later Talbot and Molina were still in the picture, touring with him as recently as 2001; Ralph Molina plays drums on last year's Chrome Dreams II and will tour with him in 2008. When the long-awaited Archives project comes out - only on DVD and Blu-ray - I fervently hope we'll see some footage of these guys giving it their all.