Monday, December 26, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied." - Langston Hughes

When I discover, as I often do, all of the glaring omissions in my awareness of the long roster of baby boomer-era musicians, I always wonder how I missed these things. There were only just so many ways to hear music back in the day, so the question is usually one with no answer except I wasn't in the right place at the right time. 

So in the case of Gil Scott-Heron, I can't really say why I was oblivious to him in his heyday; I would have been a fan had I known. He was technically a spoken word artist so that made him something of a rarity, I never heard him on the radio stations I was listening to, no one else I knew was listening to him either, and given the subject matter and presentation of his often scathing social commentary there were probably efforts to marginalize him in the music industry itself.

The New Yorker did a profile on him a year ago that I hung onto and only just read today, even though I intended to back in May when he died. At that time it was obvious how much he meant to many people, both as an influence for other performers - his work's often seen as the forerunner of hip hop, a distinction he had no use for and disagreed with - and just generally to a certain segment of the music-consuming public.

Scott-Heron, who loved to write, was intellectually and creatively precocious, and bored out of his gourd at the public school he attended in New York City. His English teacher, once she got her hands on some of his writings, approached a private school in a tony section of the Bronx about possible enrollment. They were very interested in him, but since he would be one of just five blacks in the student population and hailing from a vastly different socioeconomic status, he was asked by a school official how he would feel if he saw a classmate go by in a limo while he trudged up the hill from the subway. An irrepressible wit and no-bullshitter all his life, he replied, "Same way as you. Y'all can't afford no limousine. How do you feel?"

After graduating from high school he got a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, an institution founded in 1854 to educate blacks who would never be admitted to other colleges in segregated America. Among Lincoln's alumni was the poet Langston Hughes, who Scott-Heron always claimed had influenced him mightily. There he also met his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson, who composed and arranged the music for Scott-Heron's spoken words through 1980. What's so striking about those words is the staggering number of cultural and political references in so many of them - he had a granular awareness of what was going on in the world around him. And he was having none of it.

He raised his deep, rich voice in so many memorable songs, but he is probably best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. There were two versions of it, a live one with just percussion and another with a full band. The first came out on his album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and was rerecorded with the band for the B-side of his single Home Is Where The Hatred Is. There's so much going on in this and so many ways it can be interpreted (here's Scott-Heron himself explaining) and the cadence of the words reminds me a lot of another poet that I often read aloud in those days, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

As time went on, Scott-Heron's life became mostly a horrible mess, ravaged by a powerful drug addiction, health problems and prison sentences. "No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around," Scott-Heron sang in his 2010 release, I'm New Here. Not as true when you've got a crack cocaine habit as he did. We're all the poorer for his demise.

UPDATE, January 1, 2012: Two news items from today, or news to me, anyway, both from today's New York Times. First, a posthumous memoir entitled "The Last Holiday" is coming out on Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. There's a wonderful excerpt in today's Times magazine. Second, Mos Def is changing his name as of today, to Yasiin Bey, and on Jan. 6 will be at the Indelible Festival in New York performing a tribute to Scott-Heron. Wish I could be there. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm Into Something Good, Herman's Hermits (1964)

PBS is airing one of its perennial oldies programs to raise money, and I happened to tune into it this past week right at the point where the sunniest vestige of the British Invasion, Peter Noone, launched into I'm Into Something Good, the debut single of the band known as Herman's Hermits (often pronounced with dropped H's for maximum effect). I'm telling you that opening riff is loaded with some sort of happiness elixir, because my mood went from one thing to the other in seconds flat. It was positively medicinal.

The song was penned by none other than Carole King and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin, and like so many songs of the British Invasion groups at the outset, theirs was not the first recorded version. A member of the Cookies, Earl-Jean McCrae, released her version as a solo artist earlier the same year, although I have no memory of it whatsoever. Some of the Cookies later became Ray Charles' Raelettes. And I didn't realize this, but they were the original singers of Chains, also written by King and Goffin, and later covered by the Beatles on the Please Please Me LP.

Mickie Most, who was producing the Animals and the Nashville Teens, took a shine to a demo he was given of the boys from Manchester. He thought Noone looked like the late President John F. Kennedy (maybe so, but not with that snaggletooth he had at the time), which was a selling point any day of the week during that time period. Though just a teenager, Noone had been acting since childhood, playing a bloke named Stanley Fairclough in the long-running British TV series Coronation Street, among other roles, and had a definite stage presence, as front men go.

Most's strategy for success with the group involved concocting a repertoire of sweet, usually bouncy, non-threatening songs that made them seem squeaky clean despite the fact that they had the same threatening haircuts as the Beatles did. Herman's Hermits were actually more popular in the U.S. than they were in their native land, where in some instances no one bothered to release some of their American hits, which always had a decidedly English feel to them (Herman's Hermits went out of their way to affect English accents, including ones not their own, while other groups were more keen on sounding like they could be from anywhere). The group spent almost all of 1965 on this side of the pond, touring and fending off screaming teenyboppers at every turn in exactly the same manner as the Beatles did, and selling about as many records.

Despite being musicians in their own right, Most favored the use of session musicians for Hermits' records - musicians which included, at various points, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (the latter arranging many of their songs, according to Noone). While a dizzying string of hits was to follow into 1968 - some of which were quite nice, others of which were too cloying for my tastes - ultimately being a singles band doomed them as album-oriented radio evolved and flourished. (Their cover of Sam Cooke's Wonderful World was delightful, I thought.)

Noone, who also continues to act, has for years made the scene with a version of the Hermits wherever the 60s is being revived and reminisced over. He has come here to Akron, Ohio, on numerous occasions and I have not gone to see him. His appearance on this PBS show was so therapeutic, however, that I may have to check him out if he comes again. Reliving the past seems to agree with him - he's the healthiest looking rocker from that era out there, and still has a head of shining hair. And I think he may have had that snaggletooth snapped out as well!

I will play us out with Dandy, but not the version Herman's Hermits did - Ray Davies wrote it, which somehow I managed to not know, and the Kinks originally recorded it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Many Rivers To Cross, Jimmy Cliff (1969)

Look at all of the things I've done that are really not reggae: "Sitting in Limbo," "Many Rivers to Cross," "Trapped." So really first and foremost, I'm an artist. - Jimmy Cliff, November 2011 GQ)

A Jimmy Cliff resurgence is afoot, and it's giving me the opportunity to make up for a sizeable lapse in my musical education. He just performed with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and released a new EP, Sacred Fire (becoming a full release next year). Even before that, though, I was pondering him because he showed up in a big music feature in GQ called "The Survivors," about a group of artists who've "never stopped rocking" despite various challenges.

Everything I've read today makes clear that Cliff is a consummate collaborator, influencer of many other musicians and passionate social commentator, and has always marched to the beat of his own drummer as far as the music industry is concerned. Which may be why the entirety of his career has not followed a trajectory that led to enduring commercial success. But I don't know if that really matters.  

In the 60s and 70s I wasn't into reggae, wasn't really even exposed to it in any significant way I can recall, so I was only dimly aware of Cliff then. What's interesting to me is his comment above about not seeing himself as a reggae artist exclusively, particularly in view of GQ's contention that he would belong in the pantheon of great musicians for Many Rivers To Cross alone. A recent Cliff performance of this song at an intimate venue in New York City had the club owner in tears, according to one report I saw, and I would imagine I'd have been right there with him. This is gospel and gospel music never fails to unhinge me. It takes only seconds, usually; I have absolutely no defenses against it.

Though world music might be a better category for him overall, Cliff is generally considered the poster child for reggae; outside his native Jamaica, he has long been viewed as an ambassador for the rhythmic musical style with the upbeat tempo. In fact, he was one of Jamaica's cultural representatives to the 1964 World's Fair in New York (I was there!). When he was 14, he left the impoverished rural community he lived in, having quit school, moved to Kingston, overlaid ska beats on American music, and then had his first hit, Hurricane Hattie. (This was an actual hurricane that ravaged the Caribbean in 1961.) He's said in interviews that reggae developed organically, emerging from him and other Jamaican performers who were frustrated having to sing music that in no way represented their specific social consciousness or life experience.

Personal note: Setting aside Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff, my first really meaningful introduction to reggae, which is still flimsy at best, came in the form of a band that an old boyfriend and I followed devoutly in Columbus, Ohio, in the 80s, Arnett Howard's Creole Funk Band. Howard's repertoire was comprised of many influences, particularly Jamaican, and we became regulars at many of the Columbus venues where the band performed. I will always remember how the music propelled our relationship forward - it made us get out on the dance floor on a regular basis and put us in touch with a sort of joy that had a strengthening effect on us for a very long time.

As is the way with music, genres are revered and altered in other genres. Among the well known Cliff appreciators were The Clash's Joe Strummer, and today, Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, who produced Sacred Fire; Cliff covers their song Ruby Soho on the EP. The trend of younger artists (Jeff Tweedy of Wilco with Mavis Staples or Jack White with Wanda Jackson come to mind) nurturing older artists in the studio and giving them new life is one that is bearing very interesting fruit right now. Bob Dylan allegedly pronounced Vietnam the best protest song ever written (Cliff has updated this now to Afghanistan); Paul Simon's Mother and Child Reunion grew out of his admiration of Cliff (it was recorded in Jamaica with Cliff-associated backing musicians), who has made at least one wildly successful cameo appearance on Simon's current concert tour. These are only some of the artists who count Jimmy Cliff as important to them personally or in general.

And then there's The Harder They Fall, which starred Cliff and to whose soundtrack he contributed several original songs, including Many Rivers To Cross. It turns 40 next year. I've never seen it, but it's now in my Netflix queue and I'm looking forward to checking it out. In the GQ interview, Cliff hints a remake may be in the works. New life, indeed. I'll play Cliff out with him singing Many Rivers To Cross at this year's Glastonbury festival in England. We can dispense with the dry eyes right now.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I Live For You, George Harrison (1970)

This past month I was stricken with bacterial pneumonia and landed in the hospital for 10 days so my plan to comment on the long-awaited documentary on George Harrison by Martin Scorsese, Living in the Material World, went by the wayside. I am now recuperating at home and thinking about George is back on the agenda.

Note: I Live For You is not a cut on Let It Roll shown above. I just love the beauty of his likeness here.  The song isn't in the documentary either, but to me it exquisitely sums up what George's life came to be about.

Every Scorsese music doc I've ever seen suffers from content that zigs and zags and leaves me hanging. This one is no exception. Fortunately, it does settle down in enough places to further my education about George and for that I am supremely thankful.  

My primary interest was understanding his spiritual journey and getting some sort of bead on the entirety of the life that the Beatles' only true outsider had led.  I remain sorry that he left us too soon and so painfully but have no doubt that George made the most of the life he had, in spades.

The man had so many friends, and they are liberally featured in the film. One of the most intriguing aspects of his personality was how many he had despite having such a devotion to solitude and cultivation of his inner life.  And of all of them, there was an uber-friend - Ravi Shankar.  I am clear that we have Shankar to thank for George's liberation as a solo artist committed to putting the material world in its proper perspective after a life where all of his worldly needs had been met very early on but brought little happiness. He states unequivocally that Shankar ("my blessing") was the first person in his life to ever impress him who wasn't trying to impress him. He showed him how his beloved music had the power to take him directly to God, George's paramount objective.

Nothing about his Catholic upbringing, which exhorted him to simply believe, resonated. His ongoing exposure after a certain point to holy men, swamis and mystics helped him to arrive at one major epiphany: you must see God, you must perceive the soul, otherwise it's better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite. His life became a quest for direct spiritual experience and meaning, while doing the things he loved with the people he loved. As much time as is spent on this topic in the film, I would have been open to seeing more.   

As we all do, George had a dark side. Eric Idle and others point out the bitterness and anger that he always struggled with. Sources of those emotions varied, and aren't fully explored here, but certain things can be deduced and at the very least revolve around the Beatles - and taxes. 

On the Beatles years, not much is new, but the doc distills it well - how marginalized he was despite his obvious and prodigious talent as a musician and deep knowledge of so many genres, and how ready he was to fly the coop of the oppressive group politic. A lowlight: too many of the comments excerpted from McCartney interviews here were maddening in their condescending tone. Put a sock in it, Macca. What a massive ego that man has.

Yet I would argue that George's quiet personal influence and competence as a band member probably kept John and Paul from destroying each other sooner - as George Martin points out, they were far more competitive than they were collaborative. George does acknowledge, though, that the four of them depended on each other every overwhelming step of the success ladder they ascended. ("How many Beatles does it take to change a lightbulb? Four!") 

The composer of Taxman truly loathed the punitive British tax system, although that's not given any major emphasis either beyond one early interview where he and John were asked if they were millionaires yet. No, they said. Where does your money go, then?  "A lot of it goes to Her Majesty," John says. "She's a millionaire," George says.  While he was dying he bought a house in Switzerland so that he wouldn't have to pay exorbitant taxes. 

In one of the final moments of the film Ringo relates going to that house to visit George in what turned out to be the last weeks of his life.  Ringo's daughter Lee was battling a brain tumor in Boston and he had to immediately depart for the U.S. following the visit. With tears in his eyes, Ringo, who in every interview excerpt clearly communicates his love for his bandmate, says the last words George spoke to him were, "Do you want me to go with you?" 

George believed that leading a spiritual life was a choice and was available to anyone who was willing to work to find what was already present but hidden.  It does seem he was more evolved than the rest of us for having put forth the effort with such dedication. And when he finally died, "he just lit the room," according to his wife Olivia.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know, Blood, Sweat & Tears (1968)

I've just finished Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, a thoroughly engaging memoir by Al Kooper, who, among many, many other things, founded Blood, Sweat & Tears.

As a junior in high school, I mainlined the group's eponymous second album, and then had to backtrack to learn that there was a debut LP called The Child is Father to the Man. As with Fleetwood Mac, the original group and the one that became wildly famous were two very different enterprises. Until now I never really knew why.

I defy anyone to read about Kooper's life and not come away with a head swirling under the weight of his extravaganza of experiences. He loved music in all of its iterations so much that he couldn't ever settle into any particular genre and became the poster child for eclecticism, creating music so original and working with so many artists that you wonder how he kept it all straight.

If there's a common thread to Kooper's life in music, it's that he was driven to explore new frontiers. With guitar greats Steve Stills and Mike Bloomfield he began the first so-called "supergroup" after each member departed his prior band; he worked for record companies in A&R; produced artists from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nils Lofgren to the Tubes and even Dylan; taught music at Berklee College of Music; wrote scores for The Landlord film and Crime Story TV series, and though he has slowed down due to myriad health problems, he's still working and writing a great column for The Morton Report, New Music for Old People, the purpose of which is to "fill the gap for those of us who were satiated musically in the '60s and then searched desperately as we aged for music we could relate to and get the same buzz from nowadaze." He also includes obscurities from back in the day that he feels deserved more attention than they received.

By his own description, he was prone to biting off more than he could chew. Sometimes disaster ensued, but boy, did his penchant for throwing caution to the winds often pan out, as evidenced in the event he is somewhat immortalized for, playing the distinctive organ riff  on Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone recording session - essentially an interloper with slender experience in the instrument he played it on. By this point a well-known session musician, he'd been invited to observe, but brought along his guitar and planned to insert himself into the session somewhere. A Hammond organ wasn't in his plans, but one thing led to another and ... well, read the book.

No shrinking violet, he was a guy who always had a vision. In the rock world, no one was doing horns in a big way until Chicago made the scene. Blood Sweat & Tears was Kooper's attempt to integrate the thrilling energy of jazz into a blues-rock format after the demise of his previous gig, The Blues Project.

To his new band members, Kooper stipulated that he was the bandleader and that the group's repertoire and arrangements would be determined by him alone. The "majority rules" policy of The Blues Project had driven him to distraction; he needed to be the impresario. All of the members agreed to this at the outset, he says, but it didn't sit well for long and Kooper was actually ousted by the band before a second album, which led to the eventual selection of David Clayton-Thomas as lead singer and a new, more commercial direction for the group. 

I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know was Kooper's homage to the artistry of James Brown and Otis Redding. As fate would have it, the first recording session for the album was scheduled for the day after Redding tragically died in a plane crash (on my 15th birthday). Kooper insisted on laying down I Love You ... first, and it was accomplished in one impassioned take on the part of all of the players, according to his memoir. Kooper has never been known as a great singer, and his weaknesses show here, but from start to finish the song is a powerhouse of musicality and emotion.

Just for grins, here's a list of Al's top 100 greatest recordings of all time, selected primarily for best engineering and production values, and minus anything on which he was a performer or producer. It would be so much fun to have a beer with him and shoot the breeze. I can't recommend the book highly enough.  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Count Me In, Gary Lewis & the Playboys (1965)

Writing for so long about the music of "my time" (as my darling Millennial friend Melissa likes to call it) has shown me that I can easily play "Six Degrees of Separation" with certain people, especially if their names are Al Kooper or Leon Russell.

I'm reading Kooper's memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards right now, and my next several dozen blog posts could be inspired by the intersections therein. As my friend Mark observed to me earlier in the week, Kooper was the Zelig of the 60s and 70s, and as such he had a dizzying array of experiences producing, writing and playing with seemingly everyone. Russell's background in a similar capacity I've written about previously. Which brings me to Gary Lewis & the Playboys.

Son of the comedian Jerry Lewis, Gary Lewis got a drumset when he was 14, formed a group and got a gig playing at Disneyland. He also got a producer, Snuff Garrett, and a recording contract, for himself and his group, the Playboys. This led to an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show, where they became an overnight sensation with This Diamond Ring, a song co-written by none other than Al Kooper and heavily arranged by Leon Russell. It went to the top of the charts and stayed in that vicinity for weeks and weeks.

In the days before FM radio, a well-crafted song of any kind was always a pleasure to listen to, and This Diamond Ring was well crafted to be sure (although Kooper had had the Drifters more in mind when he banged it out, he says). But their next song Count Me In is my favorite of their short-lived canon. It's just a perfect pop song, although not a Russell composition. It was written by Glen Hardin, who was once a member of the Shindig! house band, the Shindogs (as was Russell), and who himself worked with the likes of Elvis, Gram Parsons, Roy Orbison, Emmylou Harris and many others.

Believe it or not, the buzz about Gary Lewis & the Playboys back in those days was huge. Their record label, Liberty, had an agreement with Ed Sullivan that the next song released by the group would debut exclusively on that iconic variety show, that's how much buzz there was. (According to an old Billboard article I found, that plan was thwarted by Los Angeles radio station KBLA, which had an anguish-inducing habit of breaking singles before their national release dates.)

I didn't know it then, of course, but it's pretty obvious to me now that Russell, as sideman, arranger and sometime songwriter for the group, had a big hand in expertly concocting songs that could have been pure sap into glorious pop songs. But their run of seven hit singles was cut short when Lewis was drafted at the end of 1966. When he returned two years later, he found a music scene starkly different from the one he had left behind, although he continued to record and perform for awhile. In the mid-80s, when the 60s made a comeback permanently, Lewis got back into it with a vengeance and a form of the group has been performing ever since.

And just because I can, I will end with this gem of a video of a young Leon Russell on Shindig! Where would musicologists be without YouTube?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Say It, 5 Royales (1957)

Yeah I know, I was 5 when Say It came out. And I wasn't aware of it when I was 15, 25 or any other age I've been that ends in 5, either. The truth is, I've only just in the last month discovered the song and the 5 Royales, thanks to Steve Cropper and his recently-released salute to the group, Dedicated.

Cropper has assembled some impressive music business luminaries to interpret the 5 Royales' canon. He wanted to pay homage to Lowman Pauling, the axe man who first ignited Cropper's lifelong passion for the guitar and all that could be done with it, and who wrote most of their records, including Say It. 

If Pauling can be deemed responsible for giving us Cropper, I'm all for him and want to know more. That's because Steve Cropper, in one way or another, was involved in virtually every record that came out of Stax in Memphis during its 60s heyday - as guitarist, A&R man, Otis Redding's and Eddie Floyd's songwriting partner, founding member of the Stax house band the Mar-Keys and then Booker T & the MGs. He is the Steve of the "Play it, Steve" interjection by Sam Moore on Sam & Dave's Soul Man.

As an underage youth, Cropper heard the 5 Royales in a Memphis club and was enthralled with the sound Pauling created as well as his style. Pauling was a showman of the highest order, but what he could wring out of the guitar - in both a lead and a rhythm capacity, depending on the need - blew Cropper's mind.

"He was one guitar player doing it all, rhythm to back up the singer and fills as a soloist, back and forth," Cropper said in an interview. "He'd play a lot of what we call shuffles. Then when he felt like putting in a lick, it would take him a second to reach down and then get back to it. That separation between rhythm and lead, and never stepping on the vocal, really got my attention. I kind of designed my own playing to stay out of the way of the vocal, too."

The opportunity to shine a light on Pauling, who Cropper never met despite having seen him live, was appealing but also humbling. And what a job he did with the project. Not being familiar with anything other than the classic Dedicated to the One I Love, which was covered by the Shirelles in 1961 and by the Mamas and Papas in 1967, I found this well-crafted compendium to be a priceless education on a group that influenced not only Cropper but also James Brown and many others. (Brown's hit Think was originally a 5 Royales hit.)

The North Carolina natives came together in the 1940s as a gospel group, the Royal Sons, but as R&B gained a foothold in the 50s, they started to secularize their music, often quite provocatively, and were among the first to do so.

I'm sure Cropper went ape over Pauling's licks on Say It, but what I have fixated on in most of the cuts on Dedicated is the songwriting itself. The Five Royales could be heart-rending, swinging, and downright goofy as far as their lyrics went. In the gut-busting interpretation of Bettye LaVette, Say It (her version thus far is not on YouTube) pretty much falls into the heart-rending category.

Most of the rest of Dedicated is just as enthralling, whichever end of the emotional spectrum it puts you on. Whether it's Buddy Miller's nuttily addicting rendition of The Slummer the Slum or my man Dan Penn's inspiring Someone Made You For Me, this is not to be missed by those who thirst for knowledge about our music's history. 

In 1992 the then-surviving Royales - the two lead singing brothers Johnny and Eugene Tanner and Jimmy Moore - were bestowed the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. It was to be their last performance together. Here's a priceless video of that stirring occasion. 


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Estivator's Top 27 Dearly Beloved

The reports are everywhere of iTunes' upcoming release of the remastered Beatles number ones, which of course reminds me that I have never circled back from my deconstruction of their songs earlier this year to report on my favorites. The exercise was originally prompted by my observation that the typical "top 100" or "best of" lists are invariably miles apart from the songs I cherish all these years later.

I may always second guess myself, but now is as good a time as any to just come out with it, and since there were 27 number ones, I'll share the 27 that are the closest to my heart - or rather, songs I'd be heartbroken if I never heard again and play often. Other than avoiding the monotony that afflicted too many of their later songs, that's my only criterion. Here goes: 

A Day in the Life - The pinnacle of what the Lads could do as studio musicians with George Martin and Geoff Emerick presiding, minus the self-indulgence of so much of the later fare. Can still remember what it felt like to hear this for the first time; it was destabilizing, mind-blowing and awe-inspiring - no drugs required.
A Hard Day's Night - One of the best examples of Lennon & McCartney's early craft which, coupled with the movie, pretty much had me and millions of others losing their minds the summer of 1964. There was nothing out there like it, and it was much more sophisticated than it probably seemed at the time.
Abbey Road Medley - How all of the disparate elements of this medley work so well together is beyond me. I just know it will never get old, its alchemy interpreted to everyone's delighted shock by Steven Tyler at the Kennedy Center recognition of Paul McCartney last year.
And Your Bird Can Sing - It gave me the shivers then, it gives me the shivers now. Gorgeous to the nth power from the standpoint of vocals and guitars.
Eleanor Rigby - Probably my first indication that things weren't always going to stay the same with the Beatles and me. A show-stopper then and now.
For No One - McCartney at his absolute best. A brief but gut-wrenching look inside the devastation of dying love.
Girl - And on the subject of love, pop songs can be so generic. Beatles' songs were the opposite, this being one of the best examples of the power of getting specific, with the added benefit of the stunning musicality.  
Help! - As the other "movie song," I can't not include this. Everything about it is indelibly imprinted on me. You had to be there.
Hey Bulldog - A song that barely registered with me at the time that I have come to adore. Don't know what it's about, don't care. Never fails to increase my endorphin level. 
I Saw Her Standing There - Where it all began for me. If I could go back to the moment when I heard this - and McCartney's scream - for the first time, I would do it in a skinny minute.
I Should Have Known Better - For 2:45, starting with John's harmonica intro, I am awash in endorphins and singing at the top of my lungs.
I'll Be Back - Unrequited love tied up in an exquisitely somber bow.
It Won't Be Long - Simple. Exuberant. With many of the qualities of She Loves You, only better.
I've Just Seen A Face - Proof that McCartney didn't have to resort to sappiness to convey upbeat emotions. Also one of his best, the wizardry he was capable of was never more apparent. As an aside, my friend Harvey Gold has interpreted this movingly in an altogether different tempo, to me demonstrating that the song can be understood on many levels beyond the obvious.
Kansas City (Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey) - No way you could doubt McCartney's rock and roll roots with his raucous handling of this medley first imagined by Little Richard.
No Reply - Another non-generic song about the universal problem of betrayal. Nails it. 
Nowhere Man - They were at the top of their form as a cohesive singing group on this. What a sound, and the lyrics are as powerful today, perhaps even more so.
Oh! Darling - I love my love songs with that hard edge. This delivers on every level with McCartney again reminding us what he could do as a rocker when he put his mind to it.
Roll Over Beethoven - George Harrison paying unabashed homage to Chuck Berry sounds as joyous today as it did then.
There's A Place - Tom Petty once remarked that when John and Paul sang lead in unison, as they do on this, they almost created another voice. It could rearrange your molecules. 
This Boy - The power of John Lennon's solo in this rocks my world.
We Can Work It Out - As emotionally resonant and authentic as anything they ever did in this category.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Although I don't think of this as a Beatles song because it is so pervasively a George production, nonetheless it came out on their watch. Call me trite if you will, but this is a masterpiece by any measure. 
You Can't Do That - One of their "I'll kick your ass" songs that they excelled at but probably aren't generally associated with. Fabulous lyrics and overall construction. 
You Know My Name, Look Up the Number - I know it's ridiculous, but the sublime goofiness of this song quite simply makes me grin from ear to ear. Worth its weight in gold for all that.
You've Really Got A Hold On Me - Another favorite cover. I didn't know what I was listening to at the time, but this interpretation of the Smokey Robinson classic was life-altering, one of the many doors that opened to kick-start my lifelong love of the music of black artists.
You're Gonna Lose That Girl - The call and response construction of this, another ass-kicker, makes it one of my very favorites, along with its parting crescendo. Fabulous.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Boy from New York City, Ad Libs (1964)

Jailhouse Rock. Love Potion No. 9. Charlie Brown. Stand By Me. Is That All There Is?

One half of the team associated with that diverse song set, Jerry Leiber, died this week. The number of individual songs and artists with which he and his partner Mike Stoller are associated is long and, as I have discovered, more diverse than I thought (more about that later). As prolific as they were as songwriters, their producing chops as denizens of the Brill Building and beyond came in equal quantity.

They lived and breathed music together from the time they were 17 years old, Leiber the lyricist to Stoller's composer. But their shared love of boogie woogie stemmed from a much earlier time (watch this Tavis Smiley interview with them where Stoller describes going to an interracial camp in 1940 at age 8, and never being the same again). What was often referred to then as "race music" just knocked their socks off, and they set about to bring it to the masses by melding its allure with pop lyrics. As luck would have it, when they were still very young, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler anointed them from their perch at Atlantic Records, signing them to the record industry's first independent production deal. 

Sometimes I wish I'd been a few years older in 1964, so that the height of the Brill Building influence that Leiber & Stoller personified would have coincided with my high school dances. There's something about that seemingly innocent, all-dancing-all-the-time phase of our history when black music began its crossover into the mainstream that would have been a joy to experience. But I was only 12, and dancing in my room.    

Emblematic of that time is the swinging and swaying The Boy From New York City, a song unusual for its female lead singer backed by doo-wopping males instead of the other way around.  The line "He's cute in his mohair suit and he keeps his pockets full of spending loot" is one of those lyrics forever lodged in my brain (not penned by Leiber, in this case). It was brought to them as a demo out of a Bayonne, New Jersey, nightclub from a group calling themselves the Ad Libs. (Sadly, their career didn't skyrocket from there.)

It must have been fun to produce. I saw a statement this week from Kenneth Gamble (of the Philadelphia songwriting and producing powerhouse Gamble & Huff), who said, "Jerry Leiber was a great inspiration and was vital to the start of my songwriting career. I also had the fortunate opportunity to play piano on many Leiber & Stoller recording sessions as a musician in the early days. When I had dreams of being a producer, I met Leiber & Stoller in the Brill Building when they called me to play on 'The Boy from New York City.'  I was so nervous, but when I started grooving, that's when I really settled down, because Jerry and Mike cut some really groovy records. That was a great time for me as a studio musician."

The dynamic duo is well known for working with the likes of Elvis, the Coasters, the Drifters and scores of other acts, successful and not-so-successful.  But who knew that they produced an album for, of all people, my beloved Procol Harum? I admit that my ardor for the band screeched to a halt after Robin Trower departed following the release of Broken Barricades in 1971. So their subsequent output, which included the 1975 Procol's Ninth album and the apparently quite popular marimba-laden Pandora's Box, was unknown to me. It sure is catchy! 

Best as I can tell, the connection was made via a degree of separation from Stealers Wheel. You don't stay in the music business as long as they did without being somewhat relevant, and in the early 70s, Leiber & Stoller were in the UK producing Stuck in the Middle With You for Stealers Wheel, the group that spawned one of my fave singer-songwriters, Gerry Rafferty. The success of that debut album led to an overture by Procol's record label, Chrysalis (which they went to after the demise of my favorite label ever, Regal Zonophone).

In these trying times, maybe a Jerry Leiber lyric can give us a life raft when it all seems too much, to wit: "If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball. If that's all there is." RIP, sir! 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix (1969)

For baby boomers, no rendition of our national anthem is more potent than the one performed in the final set of Woodstock by Jimi Hendrix. I don't know what people encountering his Star Spangled Banner for the first time might think about it now, but then, it was the very personification of the socio-political conflicts of the era from whence it came.

I have already written about how Hendrix's cover of All Along the Watchtower represented the chaos of that time period in a way that Bob Dylan never anticipated - and himself applauded. That was the thing about Hendrix - he channeled mayhem in a way no one else could, or dared to.

One can hardly imagine what Francis Scott Key might have thought about this particular cover. Hendrix had been performing it in live shows throughout the year before Woodstock, and not always to appreciative reception. There were concerns about whether he should perform it at all in a venue that was supposed to be all about peace, love and understanding. But he did - albeit 10 hours behind schedule from all of the technical difficulties the event had contended with.

In fact, the sun was rising on the new day as, with the instrument that gave him voice, Hendrix contorts and bends the anthem into submission, with and without a wah wah pedal, screaming feedback alternating with melodic interludes that had the audience utterly rapt for four minutes - then he transitioned without a break directly into Purple Haze. There's even a few seconds of the bugle call from Taps thrown in for good measure, a requiem if there ever was one.

All of this played out against the backdrop of an ever-escalating undeclared war in Vietnam. In just a few more months, President Nixon, by executive order, reinstituted the draft, and young men I knew personally began to quake in their boots as the "lottery" that was devised to handle this put them squarely in the crosshairs.

Was the Star Spangled Banner, Woodstock edition, an act of pure contempt or a clarion call for everyone to face up to what was happening in the world? On this 235th American Independence Day, I only know that we are allowed to decide the answer to that for ourselves.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

She's A Rainbow, Rolling Stones (1967)

"I looked up at the sky and said, "Brian, you fool. Why did you have to take it all so seriously? You should have stuck around for the good time."
- Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, in an interview in the UK's The Independent in 2001

This post is in tribute to Brian Jones, who died on this day in 1969, in his own swimming pool, only a few weeks after being given his walking papers by the Rolling Stones. Accounts vary on whether the circumstances were suspicious or entirely his fault. Regardless, he was widely believed to be the soul of the Stones at one time, the one who shaped the general direction of their career at the outset, and probably the most accomplished of them as a musician. One can only imagine what might have been different if his drug- and alcohol-addled story had taken a better turn.

Jones was a multi-instrumentalist, taught to play piano by his mother, a piano teacher. He was into jazz at first, but in 1962, he placed an ad in a London-based jazz publication seeking musicians for an R&B group. That London scene was very tight knit, and with Jones making regular trips to the city to sample what was coming out of the clubs, the kids who would become the original Rolling Stones landed a gig at the Marquee Club, soon becoming a premiere live act anywhere they appeared. Their first record deal followed in 1963. (See previous post on Satisfaction for more history.)

It could have been so right, but for Jones, it all went wrong. He was ultra-sensitive and moody, he had a hard time living in the shadows of Mick Jagger's theatrics, and when Jagger and Keith Richards began writing their own material (which Jones did not, at least not well, according to their longtime manager Andrew Loog Oldham), the Stones parted the ways from their blues roots and became the embodiment of rock and roll. Jones became difficult, distant and downwardly-spiralling. Since their early output was covers of mostly American R&B material, it's hard to say where Jones thought they might have been headed.

Getting him to write was a goal of Loog Oldham's, according to one interview. "You looked at the likely lads ... the ones who were not confused by the game and that was Mick and Keith. I did try and get the songs out of Brian he professed to have in him. I put him in a hotel room with Gene Pitney, who was no slouch in the song-writing department ... and the results were C sides. You cannot write down to pop music, it smells out the fake. And in that department Brian was a fake ... he wanted the rewards of pop, but viewed himself a purist, and Mick and Keith's early efforts junk ... A convoluted, talented, very talented, tortured annoying human being."

Talent he did have in spades. In addition to guitar, harmonica and several other instruments, Jones played the organ, harpsichord and the polyphonic Mellotron. It was the latter which, combined with Nicky Hopkins' deliberate, gorgeous piano stylings in She's A Rainbow, help make it the stunner it is, and a favorite from this psychedelic time period.

There was a camp that felt She's A Rainbow was going way off the reservation for the Stones, or that they were just copying Sgt. Pepper. I never felt that way at all (vastly preferred it to Sgt. Pepper, truth be told), and found the musicality of the song to be as delightful then as I do now. Another multi-instrumentalist and former session musician, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, developed the string arrangement. 

Jones also knew talent when he saw it, and was one of the people responsible for launching Jimi Hendrix in the U.S., having been an avid follower of his career in Britain to that point. Although the Stones did not perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, it was Jones who got up onstage in the dead of night and introduced 200,000 attendees to Jimi and his Experience, their first significant American exposure, after suggesting to Festival organizer John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas that Hendrix was not to be missed. 

To a young girl not sophisticated in who was a brilliant musician and who was just window-dressing, my thoughts of Brian Jones back in the day ran to his beautiful smile and sleek mop of hair. I always thought he looked almost angelic at times. He wasn't even close, but he left an indelible mark on music nonetheless. Check out some of his other great moments here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rocky Mountain Way, Joe Walsh (1973)

It's so disorienting every time I hear about a Tea Party politician who shares the same name with a rock and roller from my youth. For example, this Gov. Scott Walker from Wisconsin has been giving the Scott Walker I know a bad name for months. Now an Illinois congressman, Joe Walsh, is all over the place talking about cutting social programs so that we can raise revenues. Sounds like a plan, but not the right one.

Never mind. Let's talk about the real Joe Walsh. This is a guy who puts his money where his mouth is. A few years back, he funded Kent State University's first talent-based scholarship for its College of the Arts.  It pays for five full years of tuition for a worthy student, the first one being David Jaramillo, a pianist. Funding education - that's how to grow the economy, the other Joe Walsh.

One of my generation's true characters of the music scene, and still going strong, Walsh was born in Wichita, Kansas, and is a classically trained musician (his mother was a pianist). Those of us who live around Northeast Ohio know well that he attended Kent State and joined Cleveland's James Gang in 1969, whipping it into shape for two years with such tunes as Midnight Man.

Despite the James Gang's success, he felt a need to move on, and repaired to Colorado, not really sure how he would next make his mark. "They were strange times and it was hard, but it took me back to basic survival, which is always very positive in terms of creative energy. When you have to get yourself together, you play differently from when you're rich," he was quoted as saying in Colorado Rocks!: A Half-Century of Music in Colorado by G. Brown.

To that end, he formed a group called Barnstorm in 1972, which didn't last too long either but it was in this time frame that the song Walsh is probably most noted for, Rocky Mountain Way, emerged. Who among us - I don't care how old you are - does not insanely play air guitar to this extravaganza of sound? Always a sucker for flamboyant and no-holds-barred guitarists, I love this lead guitar workout more now than I did then. Probably because I can actually appreciate what it is he's doing in it.

Rocky Mountain Way is also noted for the appearance of the "talk box," a device that makes the voice sound like the guitar is talking, later adopted by Peter Frampton, Rick Derringer and others.  

A solo career seemed to be in the stars, however, at least for awhile. Then in 1976, producer Bill Szymczyk had the brainstorm to inject Walsh into the laid-back ethos that was the Eagles at that point, to replace Bernie Leadon. At the time it was received as something of a joke by the public. But with Walsh's guitar, keyboards, writing and vocals bringing that harder edge to the group, the Eagles put out their best work for years, starting with Hotel California.

Described by one commenter on Pandora as "an unassuming virtuoso of the axe," Walsh certainly knows his way around a fretboard but more than that, is the living embodiment of a true music appreciator, something I'm coming to understand now that I'm really listening to his oeuvre intensively. One of the legends about him is that, in his first band, the Measles, he became famous for his ability to play the blistering guitar licks on the Beatles' And Your Bird Can Sing, before becoming aware that it was, indeed, two guitars, or maybe three, I'm not sure if there's any agreement on this point, that we heard in the recorded version.

I'll play Walsh out in rhythmic splendor with his composition with J.D. Souther, Last Good Time in Town. Hey Joe, maybe it's time to run for president again on that "free gas for all" platform from 1980!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part V, The 'We're Not in Hamburg Anymore' Songs

Today's New York Times travel magazine has a feature called Twist and Stout! which examines the contemporary scene in Hamburg, Germany, the city where the Beatles demonstrated the intestinal fortitude they would need to become world sensations.

In clubs like the Kaiserkeller, which still exists, they gave true meaning to the phrase "the hardest working m(e)n in show business," playing gritty rock and roll for hours on end in the most raucous circumstances imaginable. Today, Hamburg is to Europe what Austin and Seattle are to the U.S. - a veritable hotbed of around-the-clock indie rock. 

But that was then. Starting in 1965, the Beatles turned their attention to expanding what they were capable of producing both sonically and in subject matter, moving further and further away from their original roots. We fans marveled at the newfound complexity of what we were hearing on Rubber Soul and Revolver, and in singles like Eleanor Rigby, Paperback Writer and Rain.

But they left the concert world in August of 1966 (the last official concert, held at San Francisco's Candlestick Park) and became entirely a studio band, adopting a no-holds-barred approach to experimentation. The first single to arrive in the new world order was Strawberry Fields Forever, the first album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I would be lying if I said that I reacted to the shift positively - I did not. Although there were flashes of artistry to come that were stunning, I broke with loving them unconditionally about this time. Too much of their output was monotonous or ridiculous and the influence of drugs on their music saddened me. More to the point, it did not speak to me. I still remember the Life magazine interview (June 16, 1967 to be exact) in which Paul McCartney admitted to have used LSD, and spouted off about how we only use one-tenth of our brain. The Age of Innocence was officially over, and at 14, it terrified me.

Decades later, my attitude hasn't changed much. Most of what I love about the Beatles was in the can before they quit the road - fortunately there is so much of that! Reading Here, There and Everywhere, the memoir by their engineer Geoff Emerick, last year, it was easy to see what they were doing. They were amusing themselves; it was all pure whimsy. Once their egos began to clash and it was clear they were coming apart, I truly believe we were lucky to get anything good. But there were exceptions, where the music was original AND a pleasure to listen to. Leaving aside songs like Let It Be, which I think could have been written on either end of the timeline, the ones I will never forget follow. 

Estivator's Picks for Best 'We're Not In Hamburg Anymore' Songs

A Day in the Life
Side two of Abbey Road plus Oh! Darling and I Want You (She's So Heavy) on side one
While My Guitar Gently Weeps 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part IV, The Goofy Songs

You know, you know, you know my name. 
You know, you know, you KNOW you know my name.
You know my name. Look up the number.

Good Golly Miss Molly the Beatles were irrepressible goofballs, and upon occasion that spilled out into their songs in a most memorable way. Maybe they were under such pressure to churn stuff out that songs like these were inevitable, maybe it was just impossible to suppress their natural zaniness.

I didn't like all of them by a long shot. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey?  No thank you. Yellow Submarine?  Zero interest. And there were many others that seemed to me like a waste of perfectly good vinyl.

But the ones I did like I loved. It's tempting to think that these songs were spontaneous eruptions of the Lads' exuberance and/or creativity, but we know that isn't so. From the Beatles Anthology Vol.3, for example, we learned that Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, one of my favorites, once sounded this way, and that wasn't even the first take (it took 42 hours to get to the recorded version, and tempers boiled over during a lot of that time as the group was by then deep in the throes of coming undone, driving everyone around them barking mad.  

And some of what I'm labeling goofy songs were serious - Dig A Pony and Hey Bulldog were two notable examples that I love, and I Am The Walrus was probably the epitome of that. Lots of streams of consciousness, bizarro sound effects and kooky song titles earn these that distinction.

The truth of the matter is the Beatles were just sponges of the highest order - whatever they stumbled across in their sonic world eventually was incorporated into their lyrics, instrumentation and vocal embellishments. Where other artists might not have been able to get away with it, by the time that the Beatles were dominating the music world they could pretty much do what they wanted, with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick only having to keep up with them.   

Estivator's Picks for Best Goofy Songs

Dig A Pony
Hey Bulldog
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Rocky Raccoon
You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part III, The Raw Nerve Songs

My teenage years were a time when I felt an almost constant need for emotional catharsis. I could never have gotten away with all the screaming and trashing rooms in the house that could have provided that catharsis, so how great was it that rock and roll music provided that outlet for me? Let me tell you, great with a capital G.

Although not what they're best known for, I almost always immediately loved every Beatles song that pulled no punches, was emotionally raw and cut me to the quick. These weren't pretty songs; they weren't meant to be. (Not a fan of Helter Skelter no matter how hard I tried, though.)  In these songs they could wring torment out with their voices - so extreme and intense that it was almost painful to listen to. But not too painful - they truly did help sooth the savage beast that raged within me.

And not all of them were about agony. No one familiar with McCartney's cover of Long Tall Sally or Lennon's of Twist and Shout could doubt the purity of their screaming pedigree, the sheer rock energy of it. Playing hundreds of shows at the Cavern Club in Liverpool over several years before they broke through, putting crowds into total frenzy, this was their stock in trade.

When it finally paid off, we got a glimpse of it right away ... who doesn't remember what it felt like to bear witness to Paul's screaming break in I Saw Her Standing There? It never, ever gets old.

Estivator's Picks for Best Raw Nerve Songs 

I Want You (She's So Heavy)
I'm A Loser
I'm So Tired
Oh! Darling
Sexy Sadie

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part II, The Intimate Conversational Songs

John Lennon and Paul McCartney had an uncanny knack for writing songs that revealed themselves as actual speech - the lyrics and the phrasing of the lyrics were so 'in the language' that they forged an immediate, inclusive connection with the listener.

Remarkably free of the contrivances that yell out "this is a song, people!", it was like having a conversation with them or overhearing one - that's how much like spying on the singer's most intimate musings and vulnerabilities it seemed with these songs. It could be creepy on some level, but the feeling went away quickly because, even at such a young age, we could relate to the emotions. I've never quite understood why that should be, but certainly the older I got, the more these songs resonated because they pertained to experiences I'd actually had.

And of course it didn't hurt that these songs tended to be beauties of musical construction from start to finish.

Estivator's Picks for Best Intimate, Conversational Songs

Girl - "She's the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry, still you don't regret a single day."
I'll Be Back - "You could find better things to do than to break my heart again."
If I Fell - "If I give my heart to you, I must be sure from the very start that you will love me more than him."
No Reply - "I tried to telephone. They said you were not home. That's a lie."
You Can't Do That - "I've got something to say that might cause you pain; if I catch you talking to that boy again I'm gonna let you down and leave you flat. Because I told you before, oh you can't do that."
You're Gonna Lose That Girl - "I'll make a point of taking her away from you - watch what you do. The way you treat her, what else can I do?"

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part I, The Covers

During February baby boomers like to hark back to the three Sunday nights that month in 1964 that we first saw the Beatles live on American television, on the Ed Sullivan show. This often leads to further woolgathering on the span of their remarkable career. Perusing Rolling Stone's list of the top 100 Beatles songs recently I was reminded that my taste in their songs never quite matches up with these lists, which often include songs I found to be the dreariest and overlook scores of other delights. Furthermore, when I sat down and put together my top 100, I could only come up with 71.

I started thinking about the Beatles canon and into how many different categories their prodigious output could be divided. I decided to come up with my own breakdowns with representative examples. Note that any one song could potentially go into other categories; they will be listed purely for illustrative purposes. At the end of the series I will attempt to select my top 10 most beloved Beatles songs. I reserve the right to make that the top 25.  Let the fur flying begin.

Category I - The Covers 

Growing up as they did in post-war England, the Beatles lacked for a lot, including anything that passed for indigenous music. As with all of the British Invasion groups, John, Paul, George and Ringo devoured what they could hear on the radio, which consisted almost entirely of the music of American rock and roll, rockabilly and rhythm and blues artists. The first song they ever recorded (as the Quarrymen, minus Ringo) was Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day. They copied the music they heard, and further evolved it into a new form that changed the world forever.
Although Lennon and McCartney had written their own material as far back as when they were in school, they didn't show the signs of their genius right off the bat. Their producer George Martin has said he outright doubted their songwriting ability at first, but they were fortunate in their early days to be on the bill with people like Roy Orbison, whom McCartney names as an inspiration to them to become better writers.

In any case, Martin's policy of not putting the released singles on the LPs that meant the first three albums included a good half dozen covers by artists and composers who were their most seminal influences. As I was first hearing these, at the tender age of 11 and 12, I certainly had not been exposed to the original versions that they were interpreting. I just knew how infectious and life-affirming the rhythms and beats of these songs were and the exuberance with which the Lads presented them. Later comparing these to the originals, I concluded that the Beatles made these songs more accessible and appealing, introducing Americans to their own artists in many instances. To this day I remain fascinated by the process musicians go through to make someone else's song their own.  

Estivator's Picks for Best Covers:

Honey Don't (Carl Perkins)
Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey (Little Richard)
Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry)
You Really Got A Hold On Me (Miracles)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nottamun Town, Fairport Convention (1969)

"My route to school took me past a music shop and there were always guitars on display. I just liked the shape, I suppose; I wanted to possess one." - Simon Nichol, co-founder of Fairport Convention

I have long suspected that if it weren't for the seemingly primal affinity that boys have for guitars and their shapes, the world might have been deprived of much of the world's existing music catalog. When you read the stories of how bands came to be, how often does it hinge on schoolboys who had zero interest in formal education but a full complement of zeal for wringing sounds out of their curvaceous instruments?  Exactly! 

Certainly that was the case with Fairport Convention. I discovered Fairport's haunting repertoire of guitar licks and vocals just as I hit the gloomy prison of my college dorm room in 1970, the perfect time and place to immerse myself in their electrified traditional and folk music. 

Although their original creative influences as a group were often American singer-songwriters, both Nicol and one of the group's other co-founders, the in-a-class-by-himself Richard Thompson, have credited the British Fender Stratocaster wizard, Hank Marvin, of Cliff Richard's backup band The Shadows, with inspiring them to become proficient in the instrument as youths. Before the Beatles and the Stones invaded their own country, the Shadows were breaking ground with a home-grown rock and roll sound that took the world (except for the U.S.) by storm.  Here they are with (Ghost) Riders in the Sky, in a rendition that I have to assume was revolutionary at the time.

Fairport Convention worked the London pubs relentlessly, honing their craft interpreting the music of others, but eventually settled upon an eclectic, almost improvisational fusion of musical forms that was later dubbed the British folk-rock genre. No one in England was doing this, not well anyway, at the time. Thompson, on Elvis Costello's Spectacle show, noted that they drew on The Band's emergence as a successful traditional, roots-driven group in arriving at their newfound direction. 

Fairport's music in that early heyday was distinguished by a number of things, not least of which was what Nicol referred to as "the structured freedom and strength" of Thompson's playing. (Anyone who has never seen him live should put this on the list of Things To Do Before You Die.) Another thing that set them apart was the addition of a girl lead singer, Judy Dyble, who duetted with Ian (now Iain) Matthews.  They felt she wasn't the strongest vocalist, but they and their audiences liked the female touch, and a subsequent search for her replacement turned up ex-Strawb Sandy Denny. Denny is the much revered songbird whose voice you hear floating into the stratosphere in my song selection today, Fairport's glorious reworking of the traditional folk song Nottamun Town. (During her audition, Nicol said she "stood out like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes.")

Fairport landed an American producer based in the UK, Joe Boyd, allegedly after he witnessed Thompson's half hour interpretation of Paul Butterfield Blues Band's East West. (He also produced The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and others in this genre, and had known Denny previously.) Fairport were sometimes compared to Jefferson Airplane, their sound being viewed in some circles as having a tinge of psychedelia. I didn't particularly see the resemblance, but whatever.

Though in its early days the group was as close knit as they could be, some of them living communally, the seminal lineup proved not to be enduring. Matthews left after the Holiday album, not much liking the turn toward traditional folk music; Thompson got restless to pursue his own solo career, and was gone by 1971. Denny left, came back, then left again, forming Fotheringay with her boyfriend Trevor Lucas. She died at the age of 31 from injuries sustained in a fall in 1978 (Thompson's stunning ode to her, That's All, Amen, Close the Door, is RT artistry at its very best). The group has had easily a dozen former members altogether over the years.

Simon Nichol came and went and returned, and today is the only original member of the group, which still tours. For 35 years, they've held the annual Cropredy Convention, an outdoor festival showcasing British folk-rock music that goes on for days (among other things, it boasts that it has "the cleanest toilets you'll find at any music festival"), closed by a lengthy performance by the band themselves.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Whipping Post, Allman Brothers Band (1969)

The Allmans were without question the first great jam band, and they took the jam to heights that it had not previously reached. They played traditional blues mixed with their own unique brand of rock & roll, and there was nothing but strength in that group. - ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, in his write-up for Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Today's New York Times has a piece on "Low Country Blues," a new Gregg Allman project with - who else? - T-Bone Burnett (and Dr. John!) which prompted me to open up an Allman Brothers station on Pandora. Which in turn served up the song that Gibbons went on to describe as his "all-time end-all" song, Whipping Post.

Gibbons was referring to the legendary extended live version performed at the Fillmore East in 1971 that would forever endure on vinyl and its successive formats, not the 5-plus-minute studio version from 1969, but I don't think that really matters. Live or not, Whipping Post is one of the best examples of the way in which great music provides a channel for the expression of emotion so intense that those who listen to it are likely to have their own catharsis.

The song also led me to reminisce about a very specific time in my history of listening to music on the radio. Although I graduated from Ohio State in Columbus, I spent my first two years at Hiram College, located in the Cleveland radio market. I didn't realize it then, but the station I tuned into in 1971-72, WNCR-FM, was breaking ground in the way FM stations were being programmed. (In the early days of FM, stations simply simulcast what their sister AM stations were broadcasting, but the FCC changed that in the late '60s.) What I was hearing was amazing long-form music, often entire album sides, and certainly many more individual songs that lasted longer than 3 minutes.

Whipping Post was typical of the kind of song that received that airplay. In the early days FM stations weren't selling many commercials - although once the AOR format took off, and it did, commercials started to intrude. The NCR DJs had great laid-back voices, a far cry from the hyper AM style, and they prided themselves on seamless segues from one song to another if they weren't doing album sides.

It made for a most pleasant listening experience, with one disadvantage - unless you happened to be present on those rare occasions when the DJ would chime in with the names of the artists and songs you'd been listening to for the past 20 or 30 minutes, you might have no idea of the playlist you'd just been treated to.

I believe a consequence of that was I did not appreciate artists like the Allman Brothers when they were at their peak. In those days you couldn't go online and get the playlist as you can now with stations that stream their audio. So the songs would vanish into thin air and that would be that. I knew a lot about certain music, but I also knew next to nothing about other music - this blog project has taught me that, if it's taught me nothing else.

Some years later I realized, after he was already dead and gone, what a virtuoso Duane Allman was as a guitarist, and that there was a powerful blues-infused rock sound that had its roots in the South. Thanks to all of the resources we have today I can bone up on the entire Allman Brothers Band oeuvre. Maybe even catch them on a tour, since they're still out there four decades later doing what they love.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Feel Like Going Home, Charlie Rich (1973)

"I don’t think I ever recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer and player than Charlie Rich. It is all so effortless, the way he moves from rock to country to blues to jazz." - Sun Records founder Sam Phillips

"I feel like it makes me stale if I stay in one particular category." - Charlie Rich, to Terry Gross in a 1992 Fresh Air interview

Levon Helm explained it well in The Last Waltz - paraphrasing him, he observed that there's a part of the country - the low middle - where the myriad indigenous musical influences, if they converge, result in a sublime gumbo of rhythms and musical styles that defies categorization.

So true this is that the website run by Charlie Rich's business interests intriguingly presents five alternate versions of his biography. Clicking through, you learn how he developed into an artist who wrote and performed in each of the following genres: country, rhythm & blues, gospel, jazz and rockabilly. I've never seen anything quite like it - it's very well done and written.  

But due to this seemingly innate ability to write, sing and play piano in any genre, Rich had a difficult career at best. He worked his whole life but enjoyed success only in brief spurts. I knew him because of the two songs, Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl, that crossed over onto the pop charts in the '70s and got radio airplay, lots of it. On the strength of those songs I wasn't moved to investigate further. Like a lot of people of my generation, I wouldn't have been caught dead listening on purpose to country music (or what I thought of as country music), and that's what I labeled Rich's stuff.

If I had investigated, though, I might have discovered many beautiful tunes, including the breathtaking song I spotlight today, I Feel Like Going Home, which actually was the B-side of The Most Beautiful Girl single (it has since appeared in various forms on other recordings). I only know about it now because my friend Wade sent me a link to it last year out of the blue. It stopped me in my tracks. Who was the Silver Fox, really?

Well, he didn't start out as a country singer. Charlie Rich, born and raised in the Arkansas delta 30 miles from Memphis, became the gifted and versatile musician he was out of influences as diverse as his God-fearing, piano-playing mother and CJ Allen, a sharecropper who worked the Rich family's 500-acre plantation by day and played honky-tonk blues piano by night, often with Rich's dad, who played guitar. He especially loved big band music, played sax in the high school band, and was drenched in gospel at church.

As an enlisted member of the Air Force stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, in the early '50s, Rich started his own group, the Velvetones, which built upon his jazz and blues origins. Upon completion of his service, he began performing in Memphis clubs and writing his own songs. This exposure got him a job as a session piano player for Judd Records, which was owned by Judd Phillips, the brother of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, the man who launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. 

Unbeknownst to Rich, his wife snuck a tape of his to Sam Phillips, who found the material to have no commercial value whatsoever. He handed her some Jerry Lee Lewis records and suggested Rich put in an appearance when he could "play that bad." Nonetheless, Rich was hired at Sun, playing piano and writing, his first exposure to country music as it was thought of then. Eventually he was given the opportunity to record his own songs, and on the third try, Lonely Weekends ended up with a decent chart position. 

Years passed with lots of recording, trying to fit his square peg into a round hole, but with little traction. He moved from one situation to another until the producer Billy Sherrill found a formula that "worked." But although those years in the '70s where Rich was everywhere would be considered success in most people's book, I get the feeling from what I've read that Rich found it unbearably limiting. He eventually went into seclusion, coming out one more time before he died with a jazz-influenced album, Pictures and Paintings, on which he played whatever the hell he pleased. 

In the Terry Gross interview, Rich acknowledged that it's difficult to be successful when people have pegged you as one thing or another, but you don't want to be pegged. As my appreciation of music has broadened immeasurably from what it was when I was younger, I wonder why this phenomenon even exists. Whether it's books, film, music ... why do people have to know what to expect before they experience it?  Sameness in art and performance is a crashing bore. Here he is as bluesman, with Why Oh Why. Great, great stuff.