Tuesday, April 17, 2018

JOKES, PRANKS & FOOLS : I STARTED A JOKE



It is astonishing to believe the video above and the one below are the same singer, separated, as they are, by nearly three decades. And more so that the first one represented the band, the Bee Gees, then already in their first stride, a full decade before they became near ubiquitous for disco falsettos and windblown hair. In this, their first heyday, they were producing intelligent and sensitive ballads, often, as this, with quirky lyrics that actually are worthy of some thought. Perhaps also astonishing is the fact that the 2nd clip (below), is itself already two decades old, the band now well into their post Saturday night Fever zeitgeist, able to call on songs from all their careers. Now I am no fan of their 70s fame and fortune, only with the passage of enough time able and willing to admit I was a fan of theirs, as a boy, in the 60s. Indeed, I remember singing this very song, into a hairbrush, standing on my bed, for the benefit of my cohort of fellow school chums. (Yup, dormitory days in the UK private school system.......) Robin Gibb, for it is he, was always my top Bee Gee. He always seemed to have a little more grit than his brothers Barry and Maurice, escaping them for a brief moment in '69 through '70, with his solo hit, 'Saved by the Bell', another part of my youthful repertoire.


Joke was the 2nd single from the 1968 album 'Idea', and went top ten across most markets. Written by all three brothers, it was primarily a vocal showpiece for Robin, who described it as a "very spiritual song". Big brother Barry was a bit less serious, citing it as an example of how you could write almost anything in those psychedelic days and then someone would be able to find a meaning for it. It was possibly peak period for their early career as, although they continued to produce a stream of fairly successful records thereon, they were ultimately beginning to fade from view until 1975's Jive Talking'. Which was my cue to lose interest.

Over the years the song has popped up in a number of cover versions, often prompted by film soundtracks. Most well known, perhaps, have been the ones by Faith No More and by Low. My favourite, sneaking out on a single b-side, was by The Beautiful South, the quirky and melodic band fronted by Paul Heaton, who lightened up the UK charts in the 90s and noughties. 



Barry Gibb remains the only living brother Gibb, Robin having died in 2012, aged 62, 9 years after his twin brother Maurice. It seems only now that the majesty of their first decade seems to be rising to the top of their canon. 'Odessa', from 1969, is now seen as a masterpiece to go alongside the Beatles' 
'Sgt Pepper'. If that is the case, 'Idea', with the track here featured, must surely be a 'Revolver'.

Look for an 'Idea'.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jokes, Pranks & Fools: Fooled Around And Fell In Love


Elvin Bishop: Fooled Around And Fell In Love
[purchase]

I really wanted to write about a prank, but the only two musical pranks that I could think of were “Paul is Dead,” which would require essentially regurgitating the stuff that I linked to in this, and “Rickrolling,” which I really don’t find interesting. I also thought about going to the Monty Python well again, but decided against it. But this is a good song, by an artist that I’ve never written about, so here we go.

Elvin Bishop has had a long career as a blues guitarist, after he decided not to finish his degree in physics at the University of Chicago and join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1963. He formed his own band in the 70s, and had a minor hit with the song “Travelin’ Shoes,” from an album on the Allman Brothers’ label, Capricorn Records, that featured contributions from Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, and Sly Stone, among others. The follow up to that album was almost finished, but the producer said that they needed one more song. Bishop suggested “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” but they were all unhappy with the way Bishop’s vocals sounded. In all of the interviews that I’ve read about the song, Bishop is incredibly self-deprecating about his voice, which he considers to be average, at best—although he believes that this has forced him to write better songs.

Bishop suggested that his backup singer, Mickey Thomas, who he acknowledged had an incredible voice, give it a whirl, and rock and roll history was made. “Fooled Around” was a #3 hit on the Billboard charts, and has been a staple on FM radio, and on soundtracks, maybe most notably Guardians of the Galaxy. It is also regularly covered.

After that, Mickey Thomas left Bishop’s band, tried some solo work, and became the lead singer of Jefferson Starship, recording one pretty good album, and a series of less good albums, ultimately (after litigation) dropping the “Jefferson” and recording something that is regularly on lists of the worst song ever recorded. (My Cover Me piece here links to a couple of such lists). Interestingly, the drummer on “Fooled Around,” Donny Baldwin, later also joined Jefferson Starship, but in 1989, in Scranton, PA, he attacked Thomas, who needed reconstructive surgery. Attacking your lead singer is generally a bad idea, and Baldwin was fired, but as history has shown, the Airplane/Starship revolving door is always turning, and Baldwin rejoined a Mickey Thomas-less version of the band in 2008.

Bishop, on the other hand, returned to the relative obscurity of the blues world, continuing to record and tour both as a leader and sideman. When he performs the song these days, he either does it as an instrumental, or with his background singers stepping forward—and occasionally with Thomas. (who also performed the song with Starship). He’s had a couple of Grammy nominations, in the Best Traditional Blues Album category, losing out to B.B. King and The Rolling Stones (no shame there), and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And, one can assume, Bishop continues to cash royalty checks for “Fooled Around,” demonstrating that he is nobody’s fool.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

JOKES, PRANKS & FOOLS: FOOL (IF YOU THINK IT OVER)/Chris Rea



And, indeed, those who bought this as a single, in it's first incarnation, in 1978, could indeed be deemed as potential fools if they then thought the tousle-haired soul-lite balladeer would still be at it a full 40 years later. Number 12 in the U.S. Billboard chart that year, with 3 weeks at the top of the (do they still call it that) Adult Contemporary Chart, bagging a grammy the following year. That was his peak stateside, but he has gone on to have a number of careers in different markets, different genres even, as the years have rolled by. Ironically, for what he states is still his only song not performed on the guitar, he was pitched headlong into the Elton John/Billy Joel marketplace, a place he has never quite fitted. When the next 2 or 3 albums flopped, he was dropped.

Not that you could tell from the featured song, his first love was actually the blues, the real delta bottleneck variety, Charlie Patton through  Howlin' Wolf. Born in Middlesborough, in England's industrial north east, his first band was alongside later rock screecher David Coverdale. Rea only began to sing when the singer failed to show for a gig. In some debt to his record company, he then had a surprise hit in europe, I Can Hear Your Heart Beat, which displays his gradual transition into a (slightly) rockier style, albeit with a retained pop sensibility. Building on this momentum, he then toured constantly, gaining an especially big fanbase in Germany. His home country took a few years yet to catch his drift, with 1985's Shamrock Diaries, which broke him on the back of the success of the song  Stainsby Girls, a paean to the girls, his wife included, of his (Stainsby, north Derbyshire) youth. This is where I first caught sight of him, and remains my favourite of his songs. This album, and the next 2 each sold over a million and, buoyed by a run of further hit singles, finally allowed him to repay his initial advance to the record company of 10 years earlier.

It took his next album, New Light Through Old Windows, to break him back into the U.S. market. Then a relatively unusual step, now much more commonplace, this was the trick of re-reording and reprising his back-catalogue, principally the hits, thus gaining control of his own songbook. The 2nd version of Fool, above, is lifted from that and, whilst broadly similar, shows the more gravelly tones he is now more recognised by, with a little more oomph in the rhythm track. Singles found themselves back in the Adult Contemporary and, yay, finally the Rock Mainstream charts. (Who defines these genres?)

For several years he could do no wrong, albeit still a greater pull in Europe and the U.K., each record getting greater sales and accolade until the early to mid 90s. Whilst The Road to Hell gave him his biggest hit in 1989, an ill-conceived Part 2 a decade later, signed the end of this second wind. This was an unexpected foray into sax'n'electronica . The less said.

In 2001 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an illness with a dire reputation that is generally well onto the killing of you before its discovery. He was lucky, caught early he had a Whipple's procedure, massive surgery to remove the pancreas and much of the gut, transforming you instantly into being dependent both on insulin and the need to take extra digestive enzymes to manage any sort of normal diet. Promising himself that, should he survive, he would espouse his more commercial persona and return to his blues roots, this is exactly what he has done. Setting up his own label and distribution, and often a sidesman and/or producer, allowing other musicians the limelight, he released a number of largely instrumental albums. building up to his major opus of 2005, Blue Guitars, an 11(!!) cd set featuring 137 tracks. Each disc covered a separate theme, to include Chicago blues, Texas blues, electric Memphis blues, country blues etc etc. (The featured selection is from electric Memphis blues. He also painted the cover.


Since then he has produced further and similarly ambitious pieces and tried to get back on the road, albeit dogged by poor health, suffering a stroke in 2016. At the time of writing his last tour remains unfinished, an onstage collapse in December 2017 possibly calling an end to any such further plans. But with all his luck, good and bad, you'd be a fool if you thought him over.......

Fill yer boots.......

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Steps and Stairs: "No Stairway. Denied!"



So, wait: we're doing a "steps and stairs" themed set here and no one's gonna talk about the most obvious choice there is? Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"?

Yeah, I get it--I wouldn't write about it, either. Given that the song is one of the biggest epics in the history of rock 'n roll, and growing up I think I heard it more than any other song, by many, many listens,  it's odd that "Stairway" has such an odious reputation.

Perhaps, as this great piece from GQ elucidates, we all hate "Stairway" because, like "Smoke on the Water", "Back in Black" or "Iron Man", it's the first song anyone learns to play and thus, not only did rock radio run the track on a near non-stop loop, every kid we've ever known who plays the guitar started by playing "Stairway" (well, the opening riff, at least). And made you listen as he fumbled and plucked his way through it. Over and over.

Or maybe, we just got tired of it, despite Led Zeppelin's best efforts to keep their music from being overexposed and overused. Zeppelin are famous for refusing licensing of their music, and from what I can recall, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and Jack Black's School Of Rock are but a tiny handful of films to feature a Zep tune. I suppose it's a question of integrity. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with trying to preserve the sacred in your artwork. This makes sense when you think about this: perhaps the band's greatest, or at least most monumental song is also their most maligned. I mean, we haven't reached "Mmmmbop" or "Boyfriend" levels of hatred, but if there is one joke about Led Zeppelin that persists, it's the "No Stairway" one. I know growing up, it was an absolute staple of the FM rock stations I listened to, and I easily heard it once a day, for many years in a row.  So, Led Zeppelin has tried to maintain some control where they can. The surviving  band members charge a lot of money to use their songs in movies (somewhere in the seven figures), if they relent at all, and have only recently been loosening up and allowing their music to be used. Hence, the famous little easter egg story of where I took the title of this post from: when Wayne goes to play "Stairway" in a scene from Wayne's World, the filmmakers were not allowed to use the actual song. They were allowed to use about three notes before they were in violation of the copyright, so what Wayne (Mike Myers) actually plays is in no way "Stairway." Yet, the scene illustrates the point: people love the song, but never really want to hear it again.


But, what I find funny is this: for as much ill will that  "Stairway" generates, it really is epic--I'd bet it's often the first "blow your mind" rock track young kids hear, and I'd bet on the odds that "Stairway" has been a stadium's worth of fans gateway song to a lifetime of rock music addiction. And it has the power and the majesty to continue to amaze those who are just coming to rock music. So, like anything we love and overuse, "Stairway to Heaven" will always be a song whose value and worth remain high, though the song itself will maintain a quiet presence. Dust it off every few years, but for the most part, let it rest.


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - One Step Over the Line



purchase [One Step Over the Line]

<One Step Over the Line> is not to be confused with the better known <One Toke Over the Line> despite the fact that the syllabication and hence - to some extent the application to a musical format -is pretty similar.

The latter by Brewer and Shipley, the former by John Hiatt.

But the choice for the theme is John Hiatt (and Rosanne Cash) performing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.


The Dirt Band first appeared mid 60's doing Mr Bojangles among other pieces. And then they sort of faded into the background until they came back with their <Will the Circle Be Unbroken> albums, the 2nd of which includes this piece.

I read somewhere that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the group that made country music appeal to rock music fans.
That's certainly true for me (although I do like Country music of a certain style with or without the Dirt Band).

This song seems to appear most often with a female backup vocal. Rightly so. John Hiatt has an inimitable style, but his crooning improves with a female side-kick on vocals.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Steppin’ Out


Joe Jackson: Steppin’ Out
[purchase]

When Joe Jackson released his debut album, Look Sharp! in 1979, he was usually lumped in with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker as “angry young men,” and that comparison was not terrible, at the time. And while Look Sharp! and it’s similar successor, I’m The Man were filled with intense, uptempo rockers that fit with the narrative of the emerging New Wave style, there were hints that there was more to Jackson, that his musical palette was broader.

What I certainly didn’t know at the time was that Jackson had been, from his youth, a multi-instrumentalist, a lover of classical music, jazz and progressive rock, and had studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, on scholarship. (Also, his first name is really David). Or that he was in a band named, variously, Edward Bear, Edwin Bear, and Arms and Legs, before becoming the pianist and musical director at the Playboy Club in Portsmouth.

Beat Crazy, Jackson’s third album, began to meld more styles, including reggae, dub, and soul to the formula, and it was followed, seemingly out of nowhere, by the swing and jump blues cover set, Jumpin’ Jive. By this time, it was clear that Jackson could no longer be pigeonholed. But when he released the Cole Porter and Gershwin influenced Night and Day, filled with Latin and other decidedly not-New Wave rhythms and sounds, it was a bit of a sensation. The album went high on the charts, and the first single, “Steppin’ Out,” a sleek, synth and piano driven tune about, yes, going out, promoted by a modern-day Cinderella themed video, was also a hit.

Whenever we hear it, or even when it is discussed, my wife says, “I love that song.” Because, she does. The album was released as we were graduating from college in 1982, and not only was it on the radio and on MTV all of the time, it was a time when she, and most of us music lovers, still listened to whole albums, and this whole album was filled with good music. So, I’m guessing that my wife heard “Stepping Out” approximately a zillion times over the next year or so, and maybe a gazillion times since then. And that’s OK, because it is an excellent song.

Jackson has continued his eclecticism, releasing albums that would be generally considered to be rock, soul, jazz, classical, pop, New Wave(ish), and has written soundtracks, to mixed reviews since Night and Day (even releasing a sequel to that album). It is fair to say, though, that Night and Day and “Stepping Out” represented Jackson’s commercial peak. The song is, because of its appeal to both fans of rock, and fans of less manic music, likely to remain part of the “classic rock” pantheon as long as there is such a thing.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Springsteen/Into the Fire



purchase [The Rising]

I recently read a poignant piece about fire-fighters ( The Perfect Fire) in which stairs played a major role. Obviously, a lot of the work of firefighters involves stairs, multiple flights of stairs in dark, smokey and deathly conditions. Granted, they are trained for these conditions, but there are always surprises and the job isn't one most people would likely choose off hand.

The article covers the story a multistory fire in Worcester, MA back in '99.
In a large multistory building, it's pretty crucial that the firemen keep precise track of their location. They've got tools: GPS locators, "squawkers" that emit sounds and live wireless/walkie-talkies as well as a lot of primitive [Hagar the Horrible] tools.

But sometimes that whole collection isn't enough.
When a fireball comes at you, none of the above may suffice to save you on its own. And so, sadly, in the case of [The Perfect Fire] - a more or less abandoned warehouse.

Fire-fighters may be the epitome of the working "man" - a thankless job without which society would be more or less paralyzed - kind of like the McDonald's employee? And Springsteen has always been a man pretty much in tune with the working man. He has sung <Factory>, <Working on the Highway>, <Jack of All Trades> ...

<Into the Fire>, from Springsteen's 2002 album The Rising is an anthem about these heroes. The album has been widely ID'ed as Springsteen's "response" to 9/11, with songs titled <Empty Sky> and <City of Ruins>, the claim seems pretty obvious. But there is much more than "the people who put out fires" in his lyrics and equally in his voice:
It's a song about sacrifice.
If I am not reading too much into the song, there's also a cross-over between an actual fire and the emotional/physical fire some may feel from some kinds of love - Love can burn and empower at the same time. Although not explicitly stated in the lyrics, it seems pretty clear that the fire-fighter referenced is a woman.

He sings:
It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire