Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dancing Queen, ABBA (1976)

Note to the reader: Today's post is by 20-something Ali. She and 50-something Estivator are sisters under the skin who work together in the public relations field.

I recently had a musically stimulating conversation with Estivator; it went something like this:

Me (in my office, dancing in my chair and singing loudly while working)

Estivator (walking by): What on earth are you listening to?

Me: The Mamma Mia! soundtrack ... Don't you just love ABBA? You should cover it in your blog!

Estivator: Um, no. I don't think it fits within the time frame I write about.

Me (searching Google furiously): Oh, but it does!! It was released in 1976 ... so now will you cover it?

Estivator: I don't like ABBA. Well, except for Dancing Queen. I love Dancing Queen!

However, Estivator remained unenthusiastic about writing about Dancing Queen. She suggested I take on the daunting task of being her first guest blogger.

Although I wasn't alive when Dancing Queen was released, it doesn't matter. It takes me right back to the night I turned 17 and was celebrating my birthday on a cruise in the Caribbean for Spring Break. A friend on the cruise sang the sweet "she's only 17" lyrics to me as I twirled around on the dance floor "having the time of my life." I love the song for the role it played in creating that memory, and I love that every other person who hears it most likely has a similar memory of dancing and twirling around a dance floor in their youth.

Featuring the shared lead vocals of Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad and an awesome keyboard glissando, the first 40 seconds of Dancing Queen (that I'm sure are in your head right now) are said to make up one of the most identifiable sections in pop music history. ABBA had already released three albums and was well-known in Europe when the song hit the big time internationally.

But don't just take my word about how amazing Dancing Queen is; Rolling Stone gave it a #171 ranking on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Does that make you feel better, Estivator?

So get singing and dancing and having the time of your life. You know you want to.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Catch the Wind, Donovan (1965)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, in which easy comparisons to Bob Dylan abounded, I always thought Donovan Leitch was an original.

He had a lightness and whimsicality about him that was very refreshing - certainly helped along by his Scottish lilt - but not something I personally ever confused with Dylan, his harmonica and acoustic guitar notwithstanding.

Donovan's recording career began when he was 19 years old with Catch the Wind, a song of unrequited love that is so beautifully lyrical it almost makes you overlook the unrequited love part. His gentle, even delicate, manner was typical of a folk singer, but as time went on it became apparent he was an artist who had something more to say. He spoke out directly against the Vietnam war in his music before it was fashionable, notably with The War Drags On, The Ballad of A Crystal Man and his memorable cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's Universal Soldier.

In a 2005 interview, Donovan revealed that he was brought up to be a socialist by his father, who was a strong union man and bohemian poet, and he was already familiar with Woody Guthrie by the age of 16. When Dylan heard Donovan for the first time (they were introduced in England by, who else, Joan Baez, and became friends), he commented that Donovan reminded him of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had been a Guthrie disciple even before Dylan was, according to Donovan's autobiography, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.

Soon enough the folkie repertoire gave way to more experimental fare in the Flower Power vein that had overtaken the music industry, with many signature songs over the next few years such as Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow. He continued to record the more ethereal songs like Atlantis and Lalena into the later 60s, however. Whatever it was he was into, it was always intriguing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Can-Utility and the Coastliners, Genesis (1972)

Back in the day, Genesis was Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Phil Collins before he became a glorified lounge singer. Most of the time I had no idea what their songs were about, but that didn't stop me from being drawn in by them just the same.

Genesis was the king of progressive rock while I was in college. I went to several of their concerts with my boyfriend - they started to tour the U.S. after Foxtrot was released - who idolized them and particularly Gabriel's theatrics and costuming. Though all that posturing left me cold, few other groups of the time were as artistic in their musical output, and I remember being quite mesmerized by the sheer tonnage of their instrumental capabilities and the way they were used to create a panoramic emotional experience.

As I've listened to the albums more recently, I've found a lot of the music hasn't really stood the test of time; it's all too precious somehow. (My actual favorite album overall was Genesis from 1983 - but that time frame is outside the approved realm of this blog.)

There are exceptions, though, and one of them is Can-Utility and the Coastliners, an underrated song from Foxtrot that caused my heart to soar then and does now. I used to take dance, and in my first apartment after college I remember dancing almost ecstatically to it. Phil Collins is a great drummer and he is inspired on this, as are the rest of the band on however many instruments are involved here - Mellotrons, bass pedals, 12-strings, organs - it's so intricate that it's impossible for me to tell what all's in the mix.

But it is without question one of the best of early Genesis, and I'm glad I rediscovered it. Interpretive dance, anyone?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

The news just came in about the death of a man whose legacy in American soul music is as profound as it gets.

Although Isaac Hayes was best known for scoring the 1971 film Shaft, and in particular its funky-fabulous theme song, for a number of critical years he, along with his songwriting partner David Porter and Booker T & the MGs, formed the lifeblood of Memphis' Stax Records. Together they served as Stax's in-house production powerhouse, writing and producing hundreds of songs, and nurturing some of the label's key artists, particularly Sam & Dave and Carla Thomas. Jim Stewart, Stax's co-founder, credited Hayes with being one of the main sources of what became known as the Memphis sound.

Hayes began at Stax as a keyboard player, and it was he who, on his very first session, played on Otis Redding's Respect and I've Been Lovin' You Too Long. But his prodigious talent as a songwriter could not be denied. Some of my favorite Stax-era songs include Hold On, I'm Coming, Soul Man, I Thank You and, most especially, When Something's Wrong With My Baby for Sam & Dave, and Let Me Be Good To You for Carla Thomas. The man was soul personified, and knew how to bring it out in others.

In 1969 he emerged into the light of day beyond Memphis as a solo artist with Hot Buttered Soul, which had just four cuts on it. His lush signature style is sampled by many young artists today - witness the fact that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 by Alicia Keys, who here describes how his work inspires and has informed hers.

Hayes had a complicated and diverse life, about which much will be written in the days to come. For me, it's enough to note that the man who was born in the grinding poverty of a sharecropper's family was a man of extraordinary determination to make his mark - and make his mark he did. I'll play him out with one of my favorite later songs, Don't Let Go.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart, Reflections (1966, 1967), The Supremes

It's taken me this long to
narrow down the Supremes' music catalogue to just two songs that I feel represent Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson at their absolute pinnacle.

Each of these songs, Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart, and Reflections, showcases the Supremes in their finest moments. And I think I selected these in the end because neither of them is from the usual mold from which, let's face it, so many of their songs were cast.

No Holland-Dozier-Holland composition was ever arranged into a sassier and more hard-driving record than Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart ... it exudes sensual energy of the most life-affirming kind. The blending of Ross' wail with Ballard's and Wilson's surging backing ooh-ooh-oohs puts me into the same frenzy 42 years later as it did as a teenager. The Funk Brothers' Benny Benjamin's 4/4 stomp alone ensures its place in the pantheon of kinetic history and what's up with Jack Ashford on the tinkling vibes? It just doesn't get any better than this, and it was never duplicated, unlike so many of the other carbon-copied hits. Inexplicably, one of the few Supremes hits not to chart at #1.

Reflections was the Supremes grown up and responding to shifting musical trends. Opening with an oscillator that led to its being pegged "psychedelic soul," it was just a beautiful song and an indication of what the girls could have done together if Berry Gordy had left well enough alone. It will forever symbolize the Supremes on the cusp of demise, being the first song on which Gordy put Ross on a pedestal and gave her top billing, and the last on which Ballard appeared. I'll admit its place in my heart is in part secured because of its inspired "casting" as the opening theme song of China Beach, one of the best ensemble TV shows ever made on any subject and certainly on war, in this instance the Vietnam war. The character of Colleen McMurphy, for me, was every bit as influential as that of Mary Richards in embodying young women's stories at that time in our evolution.

But in terms of the Supremes' story, much has already been written: Three close friends from the Detroit projects, in their own girl group called the Primettes (a sister act to the Primes which, featuring Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, was the Temptations precursor group), busting out with the knowledge that they had something special to offer as performers and dreaming of being discovered by Motown. Ross's lesser, shrill, voice but greater capacity for showbiz exploitation eclipsing the possibilities for powerful tenor Ballard and alto Wilson (both of whom could also sing lead more than competently) and setting up a chain of circumstances that led to Ballard being fired from the group in 1967, losing a lawsuit against Motown over that dismissal and ultimately dying, destitute, of a heart attack at the age of 32. And on and on ... it's a great American success story turned turbulent and tragic ... ambition gone awry. My generation was lucky to bask in it while it was good.