Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Darlene Love (1963)


It's a big night for music on TV - Richard Thompson, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe and Allen Toussaint on Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ... , and for the 23nd year, Darlene Love, age 68, belting Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) for a thrilled David Letterman audience.   

Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and the late Ellie Greenwich, Christmas was the only original number on an LP of 13 secular holiday songs Spector gave his trademark Wall of Sound treatment in 1963.  Performed by Love, the Ronettes and the Crystals, his regular stable of artists, their efforts received little notice at the time, justifiably eclipsed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the same day it was released.

As luck would have it, however, Christmas has metamorphosed into a holiday classic with a cult following. First seen on Letterman's show in 1986, when it was still on NBC, Love has performed the song with Paul Shaffer and the band, along with various luminaries as additional musicians and backup singers, every year since, except for 2007, when the writer's strike brought television to a screeching halt.  A lot of people were disappointed that the strike could not be resolved in time for this show to go on - such a tradition it has become - or at least that some special dispensation could not be made for it to go on despite the labor dispute. 

Of those I have seen, Love's 2005 performance is my favorite.  That's the year she was on Broadway in Hairspray and she just tore the song up with her gorgeous powerhouse voice. (Ellie Greenwich was one of the backup singers that year.)  Whether she is singing in front of others or behind them, she is a one-woman wall of sound, and arguably one of the hardest working women in the music industry, a fact acknowledged by her nomination this year to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (this is not her year to be inducted, however).    

If you've never seen the Letterman gig, don't miss another year.  It's worth every glorious second.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, Walker Brothers (1966)


Here in America, we know a lot about the British Invasion, but during that momentous cultural upheaval, the odd American combo crossed the pond and became bigger there than they were here.  The Walker Brothers (not their real name) was one such group.

I knew nothing about them until now, just that I loved their second deliciously melodramatic hit, The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore.  It was the perfect song for teen girls prone to heartbreak which, let's face it, is all teen girls.

Written by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who were responsible for many hits for the Four Seasons, the song was first sung and recorded by Frankie Valli but was not particularly successful - I certainly never heard that version. It's a bit of a different animal, not as operatic as the Walkers performed it.  Produced by Johnny Franz, who was the British equivalent of Phil Spector, the song's orchestral stylings enhanced its effectiveness and was pretty unusual for the time. His touch can also be heard in Dusty Springfield's output.   

The Walker Brothers = Noel Scott Engel, a bass player from Ohio who moved to California, and John Maus and Gary Leeds.  They apparently just liked the name Walker Brothers, perhaps modeling themselves after Righteous Brothers Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, to whom they've been compared.  Another American singer known to them, P.J. Proby, had moved to England to do his thing and become a star, and the guys liked the idea enough to pack up their belongings and become expatriates.  Good decision - they were huge, for several years at least.  Their concerts were screamfests.  My friend Sheila, who is a major Cat Stevens aficionado, found this intriguing link that captures the tone and reveals the Walkers' touring acts at that time were Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, and yes, the Jimi Hendrix Experience!  That's one out-there picture.

Their first hit on both continents, in 1965, was also a crowd pleaser, a Burt Bacharach-Hal David number called Make It Easy On Yourself, a song first recorded by Jerry Butler in 1962 (here's his version). But the group disbanded after a few years in the limelight, reuniting briefly in 1978 with an album called Nite Flights.

The history of the solo career of Scott Walker, as he became known, and which continues to this day, is quite a tale in itself, but would take up an entire post.  Another blogger has already taken care of that for me, though, so I will just refer you to his well-researched and hilarious recounting
  
 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Everlasting Love, Robert Knight (1967)


I'm not usually one for sappy songs, but for reasons I can't explain, Everlasting Love - the version originated by Robert Knight - has thrilled me from the very first time I heard it at 15 and it sends waves of pleasure through my being to this very day. 

I never knew anything about this song's genesis, and it was only after I moved to the Cleveland area in the early 90s, where the oldies station plays only a version that was recorded by Carl Carlton, that I realized any other version existed.  I remember feeling disoriented the first time I did hear it, it was so off kilter from the original, and not in a good way.

My research about the song and those involved with it turns up intriguing threads of all kinds.  And this is just some of them:
  • It was written by Buzz Cason and Mac Gayden. Cason founded a group called the Casuals which is generally thought to be Nashville's first rock and roll band.  They were pegged by Brenda Lee's management as of high enough quality to become her backing band. 
  • Gayden was a talented guitarist and sought-after studio musician who played on Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde sessions.  
  • Cason had a new record label in Nashville, Rising Son. Gayden discovered college student Robert Knight singing with his then-band, the Fairlanes; putting Knight under contract as a solo artist, he had an immediate hit for the new label with Everlasting Love, which Gayden had been tinkering around with for years but never completed. 
  • Let's see, can we find a Temptations connection to the song? Yes!  After David Ruffin departed the group in 1968, he embarked on a solo career, and he recorded Everlasting Love, putting his inimitable stamp on it, for his My Whole World Ended album.  Wow.
  • Detroit native Carl Carlton, who was a friend of Ruffin's, was unfamiliar with the Knight version of the song but loved David's, and wanted to record it himself.  He did, and it became a huge hit in 1974.  I, however, never heard a note of that version until I moved to the Cleveland area almost 20 years later.  
  • Cason was also the mastermind behind Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms), popularized by American soul artist Arthur Alexander, an early influence on the Beatles. (He wrote and recorded the early Beatles cover Anna, a song I always liked - by them - but knew nothing about.) On the Live at the BBC compilation of unreleased performances from BBC appearances in 1963-65, we can hear the Lads singing Soldier of Love.  NEVER heard this before in my life. Amazing!
  • Not that it's relevant, but Cason also voiced the original Alvin of Chipmunks fame.  Random internet discovery ...
Robert Knight continued to record; his Love on A Mountaintop became a huge hit in the UK.  So while I always thought he was a one-hit wonder, he really wasn't after all.  

Friday, November 27, 2009

Willin', Little Feat (1971, 1972)


Now that we've observed the most American of holidays, I thought it appropriate to give a wave of the turkey wishbone to an artist who this fall was posthumously bestowed the President's Award by the criminally under-promoted Americana Music Association - Lowell George, founder of Little Feat.

An event that's been described as " ... always more about the celebration of music than it is about stars and egos," naturally the awards ceremony is nowhere to be seen on any television channel, but everything I've read about it over the years indicates it's something we're all the worse off for having missed.  Held at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, it's a veritable cornucopia of jams and all-around collegiality among musical greats of all stripes. 

Americana, in the context of music, is one of those terms that defies description, but to the extent that it's possible to define it, it connotes contemporary music deriving its sound from myriad roots influences. The AMA gives the President's Award to someone considered to have been a pioneer in this genre, if you want to call it that.  Previous winners in this specialty category have been Jerry Garcia, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, John Hartford, the Carter Family, Gram Parsons and Doug Sahm. For the first time next year, Americana music will have its own category at the Grammy Awards. 

Lowell George's fate may have been sealed when he appeared, at the age of 6, on that most American of early TV shows, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, playing the harmonica with his brother. I used to watch that with my grandmother; for all I know, I saw him.  But that was just the beginning for the little prodigy - George played many instruments, including flute, slide guitar, saxophone and sitar.  (For a real hoot, see him giving guitar lessons to who knows who in this priceless YouTube video.) 

In his capacity as Little Feat's leader, George is most often associated with the world-weary but glorious ballad, Willin.'  The legend about this song goes that Frank Zappa kicked George out of the Mothers Of Invention (he can be heard singing and playing on Weasels Ripped My Flesh) over it, so opposed to drugs and alcohol was he.  Zappa wasn't alone - the song, once it became a Little Feat staple, was pretty much banned from radio airplay due to those references.  

The song was recorded three times in the 70s - a version with just him and Ry Cooder on steel guitar for Little Feat's self-titled debut album; a full-out version with a glittering Bill Payne piano solo and the band's lovely multiple harmonies on their next album, Sailin' Shoes, and then in 1978, as part of their live album Waiting For Columbus. 

Over the years, no one really knew where to place Little Feat genre-wise - was it blues rock? country boogie? comedy funk?  I guess that what made them Americana in the best sense of the word, and Lowell George deserving of his President's Award:  they took what they liked of all their influences, stirred them with a wooden spoon, and served the resulting gumbo to their adoring audience - who could have cared less how to define it.

 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jealous Guy, John Lennon (1971)


I can't say how often it happens, but from time to time something reminds me of John Lennon and I am overcome with sadness and missing him.  That happened tonight as I was watching a PBS documentary about the photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Although I grew up with John as a nearly constant presence in my life after the age of 10, I can't pretend to understand what made the man tick.  If ever there was someone who lived out his contradictions, laid bare his emotional struggles, and acknowledged how painful life could be, he was that someone. 

Famed for his hard-bitten irreverence, inability to suffer fools gladly and determination to buck unreasonable authority at all costs, he also had a tender and vulnerable side that was sometimes uncomfortable to watch play out in public.  The Leibovitz program examined his willingness, for example, to expose himself in the shoot for what became the defining cover photo of Rolling Stone's January 22, 1981 issue, the one where he clings, stark naked, to Yoko Ono - his muse, his mother, his healer, his all-of-the-things-she-was-to-him. 

It was an image that baffled and disturbed many, I think, myself among them.  That it was taken just hours before he was shot to death made it all the more jarring.  I'm sitting here now looking at my tattered and yellowing copy, and I'm still baffled.  And yet ... 

The first time I heard Jealous Guy I broke down crying.  I went looking for it tonight because I think it best exemplifies John's genius as an artist.  He took whatever he wanted to communicate, and boiled it down to its essence.  That meant a lot of his stuff was simple. 

He commented on this in a 1970 interview he did with Jann Wenner - " ... a reviewer wrote of 'She's So Heavy': "He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it's so simple and boring." But when it gets down to it, when you're drowning, you don't say, "I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me," you just scream. And in 'She's So Heavy', I just sang I want you, I want you so bad, she's so heavy, I want you, like that. I started simplifying my lyrics then, on the double album."

Whether it was Jealous Guy, Imagine, Instant Karma or any one of the scores and scores of Beatles songs that will forever tap into our inner joy, capture the essence of the human condition, or nail exactly what it felt like to be left, hurt, insecure or jealous, John Lennon made an indelible mark.  He long ago acknowledged - in that same Wenner interview - that he believed he was a genius, and he probably was. 

In my youth, killing larger-than-life people seemed to be the way things were. The day John was the one killed, I heard the news on the radio.  I was alone in my apartment and had to lie down on my bed, it just knocked the stuffing right out of me.  It's hard to believe that in a few short weeks, he will have been gone 29 years.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

It Tears Me Up, Percy Sledge (1966)


Recently, the children of the late Jerry Wexler, the legendary Atlantic Records producer and coiner of the term "rhythm and blues" when he worked at Billboard, put on a memorial concert in New York to coincide with the festivities surrounding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert.  

One of the performers at the event was keyboardist Spooner Oldham who, along with the virtuoso songwriter Dan Penn, wrote the definitive, the most raw, anthem to love's anguish, It Tears Me Up.  Drenched in pain, the song is a portrait of someone quite simply reeling from betrayal.  Many have sung it but the great Percy Sledge was its first interpreter.  

Wexler was probably the single reason we even knew about Sledge.  Wanting to establish a recording base in the Deep South for Atlantic, Wexler decided to distribute Sledge's signature song, When A Man Loves A Woman, at a pivotal time in Atlantic's A&R evolution.  It became a sensation.  (My prior post on that story is here.)

After that, Wexler began to send more and more artists to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record. Oldham was one of the session musicians working there, which gave rise to hit after hit.  Said Sledge in Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, "What drew everybody to Muscle Shoals ... well, it sits right at the bottom of the mountains. ... When you got mountains standing that high up over you, all the way around for, like, fifty, sixty miles, then you've got a bass track."  

The partnership of Penn and Oldham was one of the most fertile out of that southern crucible, that also included Memphis.  Penn, who once said, "I can't tell where Spooner stops and I begin when we write a song," is a gigantic (and, I feel, unsung) talent - a man through whose songs every emotion no one wants to feel can be experienced.  A Woman Left Lonely, I'm Your Puppet, Out of Left Field and Cry Like A Baby were other songs the two co-wrote, and Penn has written many, many more that everyone recognizes with numerous other collaborators. 

More recently, Penn took on a new project,  producing western soul men the Hacienda Brothers, based out of Tucson.  I have never heard a more heartwrenching or redefining version of It Tears Me Up, bolstered particularly through its use of pedal steel guitar where horns were in the original version. You could be the happiest person alive and you'll want to slit your throat after hearing it.  Find their 2007 album What's Wrong With Right and prepare to suffer.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Salty Dog, Procol Harum (1969)

One of the little mysteries of my life is why I have complete recall of every lyric of certain Procol Harum songs, particularly the very ornate ones. I'm not that good of a memorizer ordinarily.  But that doesn't get in the way of me being able to sing, verbatim, the words to A Salty Dog (and A Whiter Shade of Pale ... and Whaling Stories).

I have this ridiculous fantasy that someday I'll run into one half of the composing team for A Salty Dog, Gary Brooker, and sit on a stage singing it in unison with him, causing him to marvel that there should be anyone in the world other than himself or Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics, who could accomplish this feat.

Well, enough of that fleeting look into my fragile hold on sanity. Why I would know all these words, when I don't even listen to the song all that often, needs some examination.  What could the reason be? 

  1. I've always loved the sea, although sailing generally makes me quite seasick.  I suppose the idea that a rock group would develop an entire song around the seafaring motif could have been quite romantic to me at the age of 15, but still ... all those words. 
  2. And then there's the fact that the first boy I ever loved and I were mad for Procol Harum.  We saw them in concert whenever we could.  It was our thing. I see from my archives of memorabilia, which includes a concert flyer with the A Salty Dog artwork, that we saw them on Sunday, Nov. 14, 1971 at 8:30 at the Columbus, Ohio, Agora, tickets $4.00 advance, $4.50 at the door. 
  3. I was especially smitten with the lead guitarist Robin Trower, but his specific talents - which did not lean toward the classical - were not showcased on this particular song, so that can't be it. 
  4. The album cover, which was a knock-off of a Player's Navy Cut cigarette box, was pretty darn exotic, and in fact the boyfriend went scavenging on his own initiative to find an old box and mail it to me while I was away at a different college.  But that wouldn't explain it. 
  5. Could it have been that I was a sucker for a song that went to all the trouble of using seagull and wave sound effects, just to make the experience more authentic?  Not bloody likely.
  6. What about the fact that it's a magnificently well-crafted song with beautiful vocals and piano from Brooker that build and build and break my heart, supported by the otherworldly master drummer BJ Wilson, to an emotional pinnacle that reverberates throughout my body?   
Yeah.  That might be it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Load Out and Stay, Jackson Browne (1977)


When it comes to moving me, you know you guys are the champs.

Many years ago, I read the Studs Terkel 1972 anthology Working, a compilation of people's musings about how they felt about what they did to earn their living.  People reveal so much of themselves when they talk about their work - and why wouldn't they; for those of us fortunate enough to have a job someone pays us to do, it's how we spend the better part of our waking lives.  How could it not be an all-day psychodrama? 

In his introduction, Terkel wrote that work is a search " ... for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather an Monday through Friday sort of dying.  Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book."  

In The Load Out, Jackson Browne pays stunning homage to the roadies who make it possible for touring musicians to schlepp from place to place but takes it a step further - he illuminates the sentiments of the musician himself who endures crushing boredom and isolation in order to experience the bliss of sharing one's gifts with a live, appreciative audience for a few hours a night.  It's a musical version of something that could have gone into Working, and Terkel probably loved it, if he was aware of it.  

More than 9 minutes long when combined with a variation on Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' Stay, The Load Out is remarkably untedious.  Across the spectrum of his body of work, Browne's songwriting chops have been what distinguishes him - I've never been overly inspired by his voice.  But he excels at capturing sensibilities in an intimate way, of transporting us into feeling states that are very palpable and hard to resist.

He grew up in a musical home, and he had an amazingly fertile group of people around him who he counts as mentors:  Lowell George, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley and Glenn Frey (Browne co-wrote the excellent Take It Easy with Frey), David Crosby and Graham Nash, and his frequent sideman/collaborator the stringed instrument wizard David Lindley.  That's Lindley on slide guitar in the clip and doing the bizarre falsetto after Rosemary Butler in the Stay portion.  

In his remarks inducting Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen described Browne's "slow meticulous crafting of the songs, the thoughtfulness.  Jackson was one of the first songwriters I met who demonstrated the value of thinking hard about what you were saying." 

In so many jobs, people feel quite powerless even as they try to make their mark on some corner of the world. Browne's one of the lucky ones. As he said in his Rock Hall acceptance speech, "They say that music is a very empowering thing.  I'm happy to have had a lifetime doing it." 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gentle on My Mind, John Hartford (1967)

When we faithful viewers of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first met smiling John Hartford, he was singing Gentle on My Mind at what seemed like breakneck speed while playing the banjo.  That was intentional on his part:  in The Craft of Lyric Writing, by Sheila Davis, Hartford says, "I was very much intrigued with the fact that most songs did not run at the normal gait that speech runs at ... I tend to want to say, 'Come on, come on, say it, say it, I ain't got all day.'  That's what governed the speed of 'Gentle;' I wanted a lyric that went past your ear at a faster speed that was closer to speech." 

My friend Wade, who is a banjo fan, calls it "the prettiest hobo song ever written," and that it may be. However, what I especially love about Gentle on My Mind is that the woman is depicted not as a ball and chain but as someone our subject treasures. Granted, the two are hardly ever together, but when they are, the sensibility is that it is life affirming, not soul crushing and judgmental.  I like that - it feels rare.

Gentle on My Mind went on to become the theme song for the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which started its life out simply as Tommy and Dickie's summer replacement series before being picked up in its own right.  Campbell, of course, also recorded the song and made it a huge hit.  Most people probably know his version better, although the two often sang it together and both were recognized with Grammy Awards in 1968.

Wade also observes that the song "seems to have no clear progenitors and to have left no recognizable offspring," and I tend to agree.  It's sort of an American original, just like its composer. Its unique qualities captured the imagination of musicians of every stripe, making it one of the most-recorded country songs in history. What I did not realize is that the song's durability gave Hartford the financial independence to do whatever he wanted to most of his life.  This included earning a license to pilot a steamboat, writing books, clogging, and pursuing his own interest in nontraditionally expanding the boundaries of traditional bluegrass music - some called it newgrass and him a founder of that movement.  I know next to nothing about most of what he recorded after Gentle on My Mind, but I'm about to find out, and there's a lot of it.  

Discovering the talents of Earl Scruggs through the Grand Ole Opry was Hartford's life-changing early experience, and he learned how to play the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar by the age of 13.  When he died too young of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Scruggs was there to perform "Home Sweet Home" at his funeral, and was one of the many musicians devoted to him who visited him in his last days.

Highlights from Hartford's career are the subject of an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. John Hartford: Ever Smiling, Ever Gentle on My Mind, runs through January 2010.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mr. Bojangles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1971)

I recently saw the enthralling Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers flick Swing Time.  In it Astaire dances alone in a performance called Bojangles of Harlem.  (Yes, he's in blackface but they did stuff like that back then.)  Not surprisingly, it reminded me of the beautiful and oh-so-poignant Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song, Mr. Bojangles.


Like a lot of people, I assumed the song was about the famous tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  Except that it wasn't.  Written and recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker (check that link out, it's a great performance!), it refers to a man in New Orleans who got rounded up with other street performers during the investigation of a murder, while Walker himself was in the slammer for public drunkenness.  It was common to nickname the inmates during their time in the jail, and one of them continued to dance even after being locked up, so was dubbed Mr. Bojangles. The song was the result of Walker's close encounter with him, according to his memoir, Gypsy Songman.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which in its earliest incarnation in 1965 included Jackson Browne, was known for incorporating jug band instruments into its songs, certainly not common in pop at the time. John Sebastian used to do it in the Lovin' Spoonful but that's about it. The instrumentation of Mr. Bojangles, which included mandolin, calliope and accordian, made the hard luck sadness of the song's narrative easier to bear, I suppose - something about the man's faithful companion dog up and dying and 20 years of subsequent grieving was particularly heart rending.

The song has become a true folk song, performed and interpreted by everyone from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nina Simone to Chet Atkins and Bob Dylan. And scores of others.
 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler (1962)


I've been wanting to write this for awhile now, and I was given the opportunity when it was revealed today on Facebook that singing Duke of Earl was a featured event of the wedding reception 22 years ago today for my friends Jim and Katie.

This is one of those classic songs that was released a few years before I started listening to popular music, but it has never really left the airwaves. It's similar to The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which, for people who love to exercise their vocal cords, simply never fails to please and just keeps on keepin' on.

Part of the Chicago street corner doo-wop scene that included his friend, the inimitable Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler was originally lead singer of a group called the Dukays.  The group recorded Duke of Earl, which they wrote themselves, in 1961, along with another, Nite Owl, but various contract issues with their record label prompted Chandler (not his real name) to leave the group and promote the song the Dukays had produced on his own power. 

That power was considerable, as the song sold a million copies practically overnight - the first record to achieve that on the Vee-Jay label.  It knocked Chubby Checker's The Twist out of the top spot, in fact.  Chandler, at least publicly, pretty much became the Duke of Earl, sporting a monocle, cape, top hat and cane.  Don't quite get that, myself, but it seemed to resonate with audiences and still does.

Another Chandler friend was Curtis Mayfield, with whom he worked closely for a number of years.  A song that I don't recall at all but which had a good following at slow dances, Rainbow '65, Part 1 & 2, was written by Mayfield for him. Very nice!  It was recorded and released three times, in 1963, 1965 and 1980. 

Chandler also had a career producing music.  Remember the 1969 Mel and Tim hit Backfield in Motion?  A product of Chandler's own label, Bamboo.  He continued to record in new genres, including disco (if you want to Get Down, he'll help you), and has been out there more or less continuously since he began. 

Here's to 22 more, you crazy kids! Wish I'd known you back then cause we'd have been singing this together.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Old School, Steely Dan (1973)

California tumbles into the sea. That'll be the day I go back to Annandale. 

Been feeling like a bit of a stranger in a strange land of late, what with the citizenry trying to paint a sitting president with the brush of a "pastiche of right wing hobgoblins," as writer Max Blumenthal put it on Fresh Air this week.  

However, for some of us, it's our lot in life, and we seek out others of like sensibilities to help us realize we're not going barking mad. Trolling around on blip.fm last night, I was catapulted into memories of a musical enterprise that was the epitome of the stranger in the early 70s - and a most welcome one amidst the other dreck: the cornucopia of verbal and instrumental wizardry that was Steely Dan.

Although it was never a rip-roaring commercial success, my favorite showcase of the skills of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker has got to be My Old School, which as one YouTube commenter puts it, has the "tastiest brass, rippinest guitar riff." There's nothing about the song that doesn't please at the highest levels.

I have the feeling I could research for some time on the lore of the band and its genesis. On their website, I found this amusing remembrance, How I Turned Down Steely Dan, that gives a glimpse into the early days.

On their official website, they are described as having grown up as "disaffected suburban youths" who luxuriated in jazz from an early age.  They met while students at Bard College in the Annandale(-On-Hudson) that was immortalized in My Old School.  They were always more interested in being songwriters, and moved to New York after school to try to affiliate in some way with the Brill Building.  They weren't having any success peddling their songs, but it was there that they met Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans.  He helped them record demos of their compositions and secure various gigs as players with other groups. 

And in fact one of those groups was Jay and the Americans!  In 1970-71, Becker and Fagen were part of the rhythm section for the touring band, a part of their curriculum vitae about which they're less than enthralled. In an old radio interview, to the question "how long did you play with Jay," Becker answered, "as long as we had to." They apparently took on pseudonymns, and Jay Black called them the "Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll."  Good times!
 
Once striking out on their own, concluding it was the only way for their songs to see the light of day, it's not clear to me what soured them on live performance, about which they're famously ambivalent if not outright filled with loathing (although of course they're touring right now).  It seems they've always had an enthusiastic audience, but being in the studio was their first love and their obsession. And they were damn good at it. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hey Jude, The Beatles (1968)

Over the weekend, I heard an interview on NPR with Dr. Deforia Lane , who heads up the Toddler Rock early education program at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here in Cleveland.  I was not aware there was such a program, but its emphasis is on intervention with at-risk preschoolers, their caregivers and teachers, with the objective being to increase a child’s overall skill sets through the structured use of music. 
 
Dr. Lane, who is also director of Music Therapy at the Ireland Cancer Center of the University Hospitals of Cleveland, and Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, noted in the interview how the music of the Beatles melds particularly effectively with the toddler rock initiative.  It seems many of their songs have the qualities that produce the human response of “entrainment,” wherein the music’s rhythms are so resonant for their audience that the songs can be physically and emotionally healing or otherwise catalysts to promoting a state of liveliness or serenity.  
 
I’m glad I heard about that phenomenon, because I was asked by my dear friend Meghan to write a post about Hey Jude.  The occasion for this is one of profound sadness, as she was pregnant with a child she learned had Potter’s Syndrome, a fatal condition, and the child could not be carried to term.
 
Meghan subsequently delivered a baby girl whom she named Jude, after the patron saint of lost causes.  In the time that’s passed, as she has mourned her loss, she has been contemplating Hey Jude, a song she since realized was released in 1968 on the exact day that she found out about the fate of her unborn child.
 
One of the things Meghan pointed out to me was the high degree of comfort that Hey Jude has brought her in recent days, and there are numerous anecdotes of how it has served in that capacity for millions of people the world over.  We already know that the song was written by Paul McCartney to console John Lennon’s son Julian (the two had a very close relationship, closer than the father and son’s was) during John’s divorce from his first wife Cynthia.  I am assuming that one of the reasons for this effect upon the masses is that it is a living example of the entrainment transformation principle in action.  Anyone who wants to really dissect the song’s unusual structure from a musicologist’s perspective can always read Alan Pollack's extensive treatise on the subject.
 
I remember eagerly watching the only live performance of the song ever recorded for posterity – a previously aired David Frost Show appearance in the UK that later aired exclusively in the U.S. on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The lads had not appeared on TV for about a year at that point, and to say that I was feeling deprived is an understatement.  When Paul looked straight into the camera and sang the first “Hey Jude” as only he could, teenagers the world over swooned, figuratively and probably literally in some cases.    
 
I always felt the 4 minute fadeout was a bit monotonous, even despite the considerable effort McCartney expended in varying each segment of it with some new scream or scat-like vocal embellishment.  But the full 7:11 song held the #1 spot on the charts for nine weeks, so not everyone agreed with me, obviously.   
 
For Meghan, Hey Jude has helped her “take a sad song and make it better,” and that’s all that matters.  To her and her husband Kirk, my heartfelt condolences.   

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rain, The Beatles (1966)

I can't imagine being a bass player when this song hit the scene, It would've totally changed everything.- YouTube commenter

Well, look who's having a significant birthday today!  It's my friend Jim, and there's a party tonight so I told him I'd do a post in his honor, and I'm a woman of my word. 

First, a vignette about this day in musical history.  I can barely fathom this little item, and I certainly wouldn't have any way of knowing this without the internet, but something quite peculiar happened on James' birthday in 1964, when he was a teenager, let's just say.

On that day, if you happened to be in the Indianapolis area, you could have dropped in on the Indiana State Fair and seen the Beatles for $3, $4 and $5, depending on your budget, I guess. No, I didn't leave out a zero. There's a page where the old tickets are posted.  And another with concert footage.  And another, the set list.  I'm still scratching my head - the organizers knew they were dealing with the actual Beatles, didn't they?  And not a tribute band?  How, at the height of their fame, were the Beatles selling their wares for those prices?  It's a mystery. 

Anyway, Jim's favorite song wasn't on the playlist that day, but today it is and it's the legendary B-side to Paperback Writer that many consider to be the best B-side that anyone ever recorded - Rain

I remember Rain as one of the last 45s where the Beatles were playing as a powerful unified force of nature before it became all about the album and the artistic and/or personal splits began to be apparent.  Highly exotic, droning and masterful, Rain was especially notable for its prominent bassline - Paul McCartney is considered by some to be the greatest melodic bass player who ever lived, and his licks on this blew people away who understood such things.  Others point to the drumming as being exceptional in the Ringo canon, including Ringo himself.  

It was also the first song in which they used a backwards vocal track, which contributed to its psychedelic feel.  As described by Alan W. Pollack, the musicologist who analyzed every Beatles recording in his "Notes on ..." series,  the track was "the unprecedented (and in retrospect, historically significant) trailing vocal of John's, dubbed over the backing track by playing a tape of his earlier vocal in reverse.  The actual splicing and mixing in of this special effect was done very smoothly, especially by the standards of 1966 technology.  No pops, no clicks, no sudden change of ambiance, etc." 

The image above makes it appear as though Rain was the A-side of the record, but in fact the sleeve looked different on the two sides.  I remember finding that intriguing at the time, for no particular reason, but now it seems quite apt since history showed that Rain was probably as important a song as Paperback Writer, if not more so. 

Anyway, happy happy birthday Jimmy!  Have a delightful day, and I'll see ya later.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pride and Joy, Marvin Gaye (1963)

"Marvin could caress a song like no other singer. He could even bring tears to the eyes of the upper crust." - Frankie Gaye, in his memoir about his brother Marvin Gaye

It is not always a good thing to learn too much about artists whose work we admire and who were so influential in shaping the music of the times in which we've lived.

I definitely felt that way this past week when, in search of a tidbit about the Temptations' Paul Williams that I had heard might be lurking in a book about Marvin Gaye's life, I ended up listening to six CDs about a man who was about as tormented a human being as one could possibly imagine.

I refer to the audiobook version of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, by David Ritz. I knew I wasn't going to read it because rarely is that genre of book well written by any definition of the term. So since the length of my daily commute just cries out for ways to keep me entertained, I slogged through the set, hoping I'd find what I was looking for about Paul (I didn't) and learning more about Gaye's life, about which I knew just the usual highlights (or lowlights).

I don't want to disparage the man; his body of work was a gift to our generation. But after listening to his story, I must say I'm surprised he wasn't killed sooner than he was. Hell, I wanted to kill him - he was insufferable. His own worst enemy, he was a colossal mess of a human being and brought misery to many in his private life. As it was stated in the book, he "turned blessings into burdens." And that would be putting it mildly. Like Michael Jackson, he was extremely disturbed, brought on in part by a lifelong terrible relationship with his father and massively conflicted feelings about his animal vs. his spiritual nature. He desperately needed psychological help he never got.

But his music, for all his relentless despair, was sublime, and his sensibilities enabled him to be comfortable working in different genres. His first top 10 single, Pride and Joy, is an example of how swinging Gaye could be - certainly a lightweight sort of song, compared to, say, his masterpiece What's Going On, but as he interpreted it, it was fabulous. It was inspired by his feelings for his first wife, Anna Gordy (Berry's daughter, yikes I meant sister, thanks J!!) and made Gaye Motown's most successful solo artist to that point, bringing with it pressures that he could never surmount.

Written by Gaye, Norman Whitfield and Mickey Stevenson, Pride and Joy also features Martha and the Vandellas. Singing background was one of the ways the girls earned their keep around Motown until they could get their lucky break (see my earlier post on Heat Wave to learn more about them).

In these early days, Marvin was a paragon of cool - it's pointed out in Divided Soul that he actually aspired to be a crooner like Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole more than he did a soul man. He admired singers who were extremely relaxed like Perry Como and Dean Martin. In Gaye's case, his relaxed persona may have stemmed in part from the fact that he was never straight, but that's another story. The fact is, he had a silky, emotional voice that oozed with style, very reminiscent of Sam Cooke, whom he idolized. If you want to dissect it a bit, YouTube has an a cappella version of Pride and Joy that's a lovely novelty - you can really immerse yourself in his voice. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Here Comes The Night, Them (1965)

In researching my posts, I'm always intrigued to see how much an artist's parents and/or home life influenced his or her life's direction early on. One whose father had everything to do with his ascent to greatness is the former lead singer of Them, the iconic Van Morrison.

In I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity, by Theodore Gracyk, the author writes that kids from maritime locales in the UK, like Liverpool and Belfast, often had broader rock and roll roots than kids from London and other landlocked cities. In the former, the merchant seamen would bring home the latest recordings from across the pond, while Mick Jagger, for example, would have been more apt to send away for imports.

Morrison's father was a Belfast shipyard electrician and he'd had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. He became an avid record collector and exposed his son to rhythm and blues, folk music and jazz very early on. Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie - these were just some of the standard-issue sounds around the Morrison house. Needless to say, his son responded very positively. He received an acoustic guitar as a gift from his father, along with a copy of a manual that instructed him on the revolutionary fingerpicking style of Maybelle Carter, mother of June Carter Cash. Hey thanks, Dad!

Thus inspired, Morrison left school early and went professional at 16, playing saxophone in Irish showbands (like seated big bands, only they stood). Them essentially was formed when a Belfast hotel called the Maritime advertised for a house band, and Morrison was one of those who responded. They were called the Gamblers at first, then decided Them had more cachet. The group became a sensation of sorts; Morrison would improvise and fashion their sets off of the energy of the crowd. It is said his version of Gloria, which became a smash hit, was born on this particular stage.

I don't know how you really characterize what Van Morrison does - his stage presence and that devastating voice, his complete abandon to whatever his muse is ... I have a hard time putting into words how deeply he affects me - and has always affected me, from that first time he growled "Whoa here it comes" and Here Comes The Night just knocked me flat. So beautifully ominous, particularly when you're 12.

As an aside, I didn't realize that their version of the blues standard Baby Please Don't Go (which was Them's first actual hit) became the theme song for the popular British music variety series Ready Steady Go!, where they played as they were getting their commercial start. (Gloria was its B-side.)

Them didn't survive long after their commercial success took them on tour in America and the pressures of the music business broke the group apart. But before that happened, audiences here would have been exposed to some priceless musical interludes.

According to some archival information about the history of the Whisky A Go-Go in Hollywood, Them was the main event for three weeks in 1966, where on several occasions the fledgling Doors opened for them. According to this site, on June 18, 1966, the audience was treated to the two groups serving up a 20-minute version of Gloria and a 25-minute version of In the Midnight Hour. I imagine that Morrison-fest would have been unforgettable.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What's New Pussycat?, Tom Jones (1965)

I'm a Navy Seal and I just threw my panties at him. - YouTube commenter

Ah, the charismatic Tom Jones. I have always been a sucker for a showman - someone who commits to his material to such a degree that you can't help but become a convert even if the material itself is questionable or campy.

For that reason, What's New Pussycat? will always be a favorite. That signature growl: it's ridiculous - and it's sublime. As another YouTube commenter says, "Only Tom Jones knows how to make this such an awesome song."

It's probably worth mentioning that What's New Pussycat? had the advantage of having been written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David - who really were incapable of writing a bad song - for the score of the Peter Sellers hit movie. Jones had sung their To Wait For Love as the B-side of It's Not Unusual; they were impressed with his interpretation of a song that other artists had failed to nail in earlier attempts.

Many times before I've noted that the AM radio playlists during the 60s were as diverse as the streets of New York City. (What's New Pussycat? was #5 the week Satisfaction was #2 on the Billboard charts.) So if you grew up then, it was not unusual to hear Jones belting out his songs on radio and on his weekly variety series, This Is Tom Jones (1969-71). The audience did a lot of screaming. He was considered risqué in certain circles, and sometimes he was even banned, but it was all just good clean fun.

Yet for all the love thrown at Jones' various hits, there isn't a lot in his catalogue that did justice to that lustrous powerhouse of a voice. The arts and culture website Cosmopolis suggested that Jones has "... one of the most incredible and sexiest male voices in show business, comparable to greats like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley ... This comparison of course sheds a bad light on his accomplishments. For years he has worked with pitiful musicians and arrangements. Instead of becoming one of the all time greats, he has produced some of the worst kitsch on the market. His main problem: He is no songwriter and depends on material written by others."

Whether that was his main problem or not, in recent years Jones has tried his hand at his own material - check out songs he co-wrote with Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonder Duplessis for his 2002 Mr. Jones album. According to Jones, "Wyclef and Jerry ... know how to work with me, my voice, my history, and they know how to stretch me while still making me find what's real." (Check out Jean's remix of Pussycat!)

In a BBC Radio interview around the time of his collaboration with the great piano player Jools Holland, Jones acknowledged that always having had so much material put in front of him didn't do much to inspire him to write on his own. Somewhere along the line that changed, but he stressed that he needs to write with others; the collaboration is essential for the ideas to flow, he said.

In trying to find what's real over the years through vast experimentation with musical styles, one thing Jones has never been hampered by is a lack of certainty as to his allure. A friend who saw him live in the 80s handed him some flowers from her perch in front of the stage. Was she ever surprised when he leaned over and gave her a kiss - a French kiss!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Classical Gas, Mason Williams (1968)

I don't know when the term "destination TV" was first coined, but one of the earliest manifestations of the concept for me was in 1967-69, when CBS aired The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

A show that packed a satirical punch so hard it is said Richard Nixon wanted it off the air, it was the baby of Tom and Dick Smothers and their uber-talented stable of writers, which included Steve Martin, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, Pat Paulsen, Bob Einstein, his brother Albert Brooks, and the head writer, Mason Williams. Week after week, the Smothers crew used comedy to skewer the Establishment and give voice to the counterculture.

And did it ever succeed - the censorship battles the brothers waged with CBS are legendary. After wising up to Tom Smothers' habit of turning in the shows too late to be edited before airtime, the network insisted on receiving full episodes days in advance for review by the censors. This was something that everyone in their audience knew about - that's how public it was. Tommy and Dickie were were always my heroes for never surrendering - until they were summarily thrown off the air on bogus breach of contract charges.

But back to the music. In those days it was not customary to present music on variety television unless it was something people were already familiar with, so there was no place for artists to perform new songs for a mass audience before they became hits. No place, that is, until the Smothers Brothers gave them one.

The Smothers' dedication to giving exposure to new artists did not go unnoticed by A&R executives from Warner Brothers-Reprise, which was establishing itself as a label that carried singer-songwriters, a category which had more or less fallen by the wayside during the early years of the British Invasion.

Williams was a folksinger-guitarist turned comedy writer (and the creator of the loopy theme song for the show). For his first album, one of the tracks involved no singing at all. It was called Classical Gas, and it became a smash hit, waking young people up to the beauty of instrumental guitar music.

Described by Williams as "half flamenco, half Flatt & Scruggs, and half classical," Classical Gas was a bonanza of rhythmic changes, and is considered by many to be a tutorial unto itself for learning to properly fingerpick. What was at best conceived as a novelty song became a classic.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

For No One, Beatles (1966)

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

It was this past week in 1966 that an event many felt was a seminal one in the evolution of Beatles musicology occurred - the release of their album, Revolver.

I wasn't one of those people. I was underwhelmed, disappointed, even, in the tracks on Revolver. The fact that it marked a new phase in the Beatles' development as studio musicians just didn't resonate with me, because the majority of songs didn't resonate with me.

But lurking amidst the various ditties about taxes and yellow submarines was a gem called For No One. It was a song that Emmylou Harris once described as being about "love hurting real bad." It was notable for being such a stark departure from what surrounded it. And it was notable on its own merits, for nailing what it feels like when the look in your former love's eyes has gone dark and cold - even if tears are flowing from those same eyes.

Several things about this song made it interesting apart from its naked emotion. At first blush it appears to be outlining the all-too-familiar perspective of the one suffering - "Your day breaks, your mind aches" ... But we switch back and forth between hearing his anguish and watching her movements, presumably separate from his. A well done juxtaposition that made the song even more harrowing. Such power Paul McCartney packed into such a small space.

For No One also featured a haunting instrumental solo by Alan Civil, a French horn player of international renown who was asked by George Martin to become part of the recording session, because McCartney wanted a horn break.

Some say the song was so perfect because McCartney was writing about the demise of his relationship with the beautiful actress Jane Asher who, it must be said, I wanted to be for a full five years of my teenybopper life. (To her credit, Asher, who continues to act and is a much sought-after cake baker, has never sunk to a tell-all about their romance. If she hasn't by now, she probably never will. A true class act.) But unless they broke up at some point before the relationship ended completely (1968), the chronology is off. Regardless, it is McCartney at his best and purest.

As to Revolver, I will say that I also love everything about And Your Bird Can Sing. Everything. And Eleanor Rigby was a masterpiece in its own right. But because it was released simultaneously with Revolver as a single, I have always thought of it independently of the album because that is how I experienced it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Beatles For Sale (1964): To Cover Or Not To Cover? That Is the Musical Question

Earlier this week, crossword puzzle constructor extraordinaire Brendan Emmett Quigley sparked a very minor but amusing firestorm when he mildly dissed the Beatles For Sale album.

In the aftermath, my friend Karmasartre felt compelled to comment on Brendan's blog. Anyone who reads my blog knows I have nothing whatsoever against covers and have written in glowing terms about many of them. One of the reasons is that, done with the appropriate flair, they exposed us to musical genres and artists we'd not likely have known about otherwise, for reasons of marketing (read: profiling).

I thought Karma's perspective was well worth bringing out into the open, as his points are well taken and insightful. They follow, edited for standalone publication.

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In a recent casual poll rating Beatles' albums, Beatles For Sale made a poor showing. The lack of appreciation was linked to the number of cover songs - six out of 14 - on the album. Hard to reconcile with the joy I remember hearing it.

When any of the Beatles albums came out, I slipped a twenty to a friend whose father was a pilot. He would pick up the "real" version (as opposed to the Capitol Records smush job) for me in London. So, I was able to hear the songs the way they were intended, plus enjoy the hyper-glossy finish of the EMI sleeve. In my dorm, Beatles For Sale got as much turntable time as the other early albums.

Until the Beatles came along, nearly all songs were composed by others. Neil Sedaka sang his own stuff, but many 45s were a combination of great writer/great performer. Purchasing an LP was a waste, as much of it would turn out to be crap. Think 11 B-sides and one A-side. There were exceptions: folk albums (and other genres, of course) where the entire album was good material ... and then along came Bob. But for rock and roll, covers meant the best music.

The Beatles, combining great songwriting and performing skills, were the first to make albums a great value. Part of the early allure, though, was not just their own compositions, but their ability to transpose r&b or soul songs into a more penetrable - for some - format. When their version of Twist and Shout first hit the airwaves, people were transfixed, overwhelmed, amazed. There was a bit of "Hey, if John can sing that, maybe I can" among a certain set of listeners ... those who couldn't conceive of matching Ron Isley's soaring notes.

The simple four-instrument lineup added to that fantasy. Could other magic music be similarly attainable? Hearing George transform some wild horn section's scream into a simple guitar line was a normalization of sound that reached the ears of listeners who wanted to replicate it in their parents' garage. It wasn't better, but it was approachable. And the Beatles had traditionally performed r&b songs as part of their repertoire. I wanted to hear them do Shout (and finally heard it on some VHS tape) and Desiree, some Sam Cooke numbers, and other beautiful, soulful sounds (e.g., Phil Specter, more Smokey, maybe an Impressions).

So when Beatles For Sale emerged, most of the covers were warmly welcomed. Rock and Roll Music was explosive and exciting; John's particular brand of gravel needed to see the light of every stylus. Mr. Moonlight was an unfortunate choice, to these ears (note from Estivator: I loved that thing). Always fun to tell people "If you were a Beatles song, you'd be Mr. Moonlight." The Kansas City medley (Estivator: see my 2007 review) was inspired and wild. Words of Love was a serviceable interpretation with excellent harmonies. While Honey Don't just seemed like a vehicle to give Ringo a microphone (Estivator: again, I loved this tune), Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby, showcasing George's obvious dedication to exploring Carl Perkins' guitar licks, was a delight. That these tunes were mixed with such a sweet selection of John/Paul numbers was gravy. The covers may not hold up as well, or appeal to new listeners, but at the time, they were gold.

How many of us have spent good time in the shower meditating on Eight Days A Week or What You're Doing, struggling to grasp how someone dreamt up those wondrous melodies? (Oh, not that many, sorry.) Those are just two of the gorgeous John/Paul songs on Beatles For Sale. This September, the remastered versions of the Beatles' catalog will finally be available. Having heard a few of their songs remastered, I know what a joy this is going to be. Can't wait to hear I'm A Loser (Estivator: along with No Reply, one of their best ever) and the rest in all their glory.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

RIP Gordon Waller (1945-2009)

He was my best friend at school almost half a century ago. He was not only my musical partner but played a key role in my conversion from only a snooty jazz fan to a true rock and roll believer as well. Without Gordon I would never have begun my career in the music business in the first place. ... The idea that I shall never get to sing those songs with him again ... is an unthinkable change in my life with which I have not even begun to come to terms. - excerpt from statement of Peter Asher, on the death of Gordon Waller

This is so peculiar and eerily prescient - only last week I was thinking about all the noteworthy Peter and Gordon songs that I might write about and had been listening to various of their many Top 40 songs from the mid-60s.

The duo with the mellifluous harmonies were the British equivalent of the Everly Brothers, some felt, and certainly both credited Don and Phil Everly with being direct influences on their style.

Oddly, Peter and Gordon were the first British Invasion musicians after the Beatles to have a #1 hit in the U.S. - something I neither remembered nor would have guessed to be true. (I'd have said maybe the Animals, with House of the Rising Sun, but actually it took another 3 months for them to be the third group of British artists to top the charts). How would their story have been different if Peter Asher's sister Jane hadn't been Paul McCartney's girlfriend in those early Beatlemaniacal days? Fortunately, they didn't have to find out, and shared their talents with the whole world.

Mates from boarding school, Peter and Gordon discovered each other's musical bents and began performing together early. At first, they had to scale the wall on school grounds to work their late-hours coffeehouse and pub dates. Later, they were noticed in a ritzy supper club by a man who repped for EMI, one of the UK's three major labels at the time. Still teenagers, they were signed and suddenly in need of songs to take to their first session. McCartney had previously played a version of World Without Love for them, they liked it (Paul and John, not so much, apparently) and he offered it up to them for their maiden voyage in the studio.

Although A World Without Love became the breakout #1 hit, I always thought the less Beatle-esque songs like I Go To Pieces (by Del Shannon) and To Know You Is To Love You (by Phil Spector) showcased their vocal talents most effectively. The latter is a good vehicle from which to appreciate Waller's booming baritone. Both are beautifully rendered.

Connected as they were to the Beatles, they toured the world with the Fab Four as well as other acts, and became internationally recognizable.

Waller pursued a solo career after the duo split but he never found the kind of success he had known with Peter and Gordon. In addition to writing and performing his own music, he became involved in musical theatre. Asher headed up A&R for Apple Records and for decades has been a fixture in the music industry, producing California acts such as Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Friends forever, in 2005 Peter and Gordon reunited for a performance to benefit the Dave Clark Five's Mike Smith, who had been seriously injured in a fall, and continued to perform intermittently as a duo for special occasions.

Friday, July 10, 2009

(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, Rolling Stones (1965)

Though it seems like Keith Richards is the sort of guy who should have passed over to the other side a long time ago given his various excesses, as fate would have it, he's still with us and for my money has always been one of the great guitar gods. Blues-rock guitar gods, anyway.

And so it's his famous grinding riff in Satisfaction - conceived, he has claimed, while asleep; why am I not surprised? - that defined one of the anthems of rock in the mid-60s, giving the Stones their first #1 on the charts 44 years ago yesterday and flipping the bird at the comparatively sweet Beatles. (I Feel Fine, Eight Days A Week and Ticket To Ride had already been #1 that year.)

The Stones had found their way into the top 10 with The Last Time and their cover of Time Is On My Side, both killer songs, but #1 had eluded them. Debates over which band was better were common as was, after Satisfaction, ongoing interest in who was #1 or close to it at any given time. (The Beatles would have more singles top the charts that year than the Stones.)

A Battle of These Particular Bands seems silly when you think about it now, but the menacing, edgy Stones were the anti-Beatles and the juxtaposition of the two was interesting to ponder back in the day. Newsweek didn't call the Beatles "leering." The Stones? Oh yeah they did.

Although being an inductee of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress (2006) would seem to fly in the face of that leering sensibility, nonetheless Satisfaction was, 44 years ago and today, one of the best examples of disaffectedness that the 60s had to offer.

The song was actually railing against America's empty values, but somehow I don't think that's what most kids took away from it. I know I didn't, anyway. It was one of those songs that simply made it OK to give voice to the idea that life is a disappointment on so many levels. (Kind of a musical version of the brain of Holden Caulfield.) And it's also one of those songs that if, say, you're having a bad day 44 years later, still taps into that belligerent streak that some of us (read: I) have always had, for better or worse.

What I didn't know is that the song wasn't initially viewed as anything special, at least not by Richards and Mick Jagger.

On their third U.S. tour, they stopped into various recording studios along their route to lay down tracks for whatever was percolating in their brains at the time. Following a Chicago concert in 1965, that studio was Chess, where some of their own heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, recorded - as did McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters, after whose Rollin' Stone, the first single Chess ever released, the Stones had named themselves.

Here the song's first take germinated but it was nothing like what was eventually released. The finishing touches didn't happen until they hit L.A. and RCA's studios. Keith had recently acquired a Gibson Maestro FuzzTone pedal, and suddenly the song morphed aggressive. However, the story goes that the guitar riff was merely a stand-in for the horns that he was actually envisioning. In any case, he didn't see it as A-side fare. For one thing, he thought it was too much a knockoff of Martha and the Vandellas' Dancing in the Street.

In reality, Satisfaction was probably the synthesis of many influences that could have been soaked up in those days. Nothing unusual about that. Here's Keith briefly demonstrating the song's bluesy roots, from what source I do not know.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, Sam and Dave (1967)

"Even now he can describe a set of red suits worn by Sam and Dave the way some kids would lovingly remember a set of electric trains ... "Vented sides ... pegged pants ... matching patent leather boots." -- Gerri Hirshey, on Michael Jackson in Nowhere to Run

Back in the day, the Jackson Five opened for a lot of blockbuster soul performers and, from his position in the wings at venues like the Apollo Theater, Michael Jackson studied the minutiae of their acts as though his life depended on it.

In addition to learning how to dress for maximum effect, from Sam and Dave Jackson could have learned many things, not the least of which was how to all but surrender to the performance and wring every last bit of soul out of a song. And the Sultans of Sweat, as they were known, were the epitome of soul. "Unless my body reaches a certain temperature, starts to liquefy, I just don't feel right," Sam Moore told Hirshey.

Moore and Dave Prater met in Miami at a time when Jackie Wilson was influencing black singers reared in the gospel tradition to take their electrifying voices and use them in secular (and for the times, often shocking) ways. Sam, who was the son of a church deacon, was emceeing at a small club when Dave, then working as a short-order cook and baker's assistant, introduced himself during a break and the two quickly realized that their voices as a unit were gritty and pleasing all at once. (Sadly, the harmony that their voices achieved was limited to their voices alone; for various reasons they grew to despise each other, not speaking for years or looking at each other on stage.)

A rare Sam and Dave ballad, When Something's Wrong With My Baby showcased the duo's emotion-charged, gospel-infused talents like no other song that Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote for them. Via Stax' partnership with Atlantic Records, which had signed them, Jerry Wexler matched their intense, scorching vocals with the instrumental artistry of house band Booker T & the MGs along with the Memphis Horns - the result became synonymous with Memphis soul and remains the gold standard for soul duos, with the possible exception of the Righteous Brothers.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

If you're a member of the baby boomer generation, you remember exactly where you were at the moment presidents, civil rights leaders and Beatles were assassinated. I'd wager many also remember where they were the night in 1983 when Michael Jackson performed Billie Jean live on the anniversary special Motown 25. I know I do.

I was in my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, and can still recall virtually self-ejecting from my couch when he began his performance; he had just completed some minutes of a crowd-pleasing medley of songs with his brothers. They walked off, Michael made a few goofy transitional remarks, then donned a fedora and launched into the vamp seen around the world. I know I stood and gyrated, literally awestruck, for the duration of the performance, while the Thriller held the audience of millions in the palm of his gloved hand. It was a seminal moment in the history of rock music.

I just saw a YouTube comment to the effect that Michael Jackson was our generation's Elvis Presley. I'd never thought about it before, but in many respects it's probably true. At his peak, he was a phenomenal musical artist who had powers over audiences that will probably be studied for years. I'm reminded of a recent visit to the Rock Hall, and the wing I entered where Billie Jean was suddenly pumped through the sound system. For a brief moment I pondered whether to maintain a modicum of decorum since other people were around, but in the end I told myself "you're at the Rock Hall, fool!" and, throwing my self-consciousness to the winds, I gyrated and thrilled to the song just as I had in 1983. I don't know who saw me, nor do I care.

Despite his status as a preteen, somehow when Jackson sang I Want You Back (1969) and I'll Be There (1970) it came across as right, not creepy and exploitative. For all his descent into childishness as he got older, as a youth he seemed a very old soul. Plain and simple, he had a luminous pre-adolescent voice and his confidence onstage just couldn't be denied.

I don't know why Jackson became the bizarre tortured ghoul that he was for far too many of his later years - or why, for all his money, no one ever stepped in to help him lead a more normal life. Perhaps that was impossible; maybe all superstars are destined to self-destruct. His abusive upbringing certainly had to have affected him at the most molecular level; that he had it within him to channel his life force the way he did is an amazing testament to the human being's ability to transcend the most life-obliterating circumstances.

Sad to say I can't help but think that's he's better off now. Rest in peace, Michael.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dance to the Music, Sly and the Family Stone (1968)

Yesterday I couldn't have told you how I could possibly link guitar god Richard Thompson, who I saw in concert last night for the first time, and Sly & the Family Stone, but it turns out there's a perfectly legitimate linkage, and I'm about to make it.

The advent of Dance To the Music changed the game for my generation's music scene. Fusing psychedelia, pop and soul into a new genre characterized by a front-and-center rhythm section and high-energy vocal arrangements, funk music had arrived in the mainstream and there was no turning back.

Certainly it was impossible to remain in any kind of emotional funk when that song's horns blared and the beat pulsed. I was reminded of this just last week when it appeared on the playlist for a group of women who get together to shake their groove thing once a month at a local dance studio. (Thanks, DJ Dolli!)

Oddly, the group was reportedly never all that enthralled with Dance. When their debut album A Whole New Thing failed to capture the public's imagination, their producers urged Sly to orient their material more commercially. I suppose feeling somewhat railroaded into fitting into some sort of mold, the song ended up completely self-referential, but it doesn't change the fact that it was an extravaganza of sounds by a rainbow coalition of artists who, together, shook up the music industry, captivated young audiences and influenced other artists for years to come. (Just months later, Norman Whitfield used the success of Sly's Family - some of whom were actually family - as the inspiration for Cloud Nine, which began a run of psychedelic soul hits that extended the Temptations' performing life for years.)

Family Stone bassist Larry Graham - who began his career at 13 when he was brought onstage at the Fillmore West with Ike and Tina Turner to play Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s Okie Dokie Stomp - is credited with originating the slap bass form of playing, a gymnastic sort of fingerwork that creates a percussive groove that sounds like, well, percussion. To use his words, he "would thump the strings with my thumb to make up for the bass drum, and pluck the strings with my fingers to make up for the backbeat snare drum. It made sense to me because I had been a drummer in the school band."

The technique, which he called 'thumpin' and pluckin', became the defining underpinning of all funk music, and was epitomized in their later hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Hearing it is one thing - seeing it done is another.

Which brings me to Richard Thompson (a member, during the late '60s, of the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention). This is a guy whose insane virtuosity with his instrument is suggestive of one man playing multiple guitars at once - at least you'd think so if you closed your eyes. When you open them, you actually have no idea what it is he's really doing. Last night, I now realize, he definitely had a slap bass beat going on in several songs. Using a pick on low strings and fingerpicking on high strings as is his signature technique, Thompson had my jaw dropping as he effortlessly created what could only be described as output with funk-like overtones.

Hard to believe, but later this summer will be the 40th anniversary of Sly and the Family Stone's performance of I Want To Take You Higher at Woodstock. If you haven't seen it in awhile, fire it up. No matter how you do it, finding your inner funkster is time well spent. Sly, Larry and the rest of the Family taught us how.