Grateful Dead: Operator
Manhattan Transfer: Operator
Alexis Korner with Robert Plant: Operator
Jim Croce: Operator (That‘s Not the Way It Feels)
When I was a child, there was only one telephone company. If you needed any help making a call, you were completely at their mercy. What we call by the more clunky name of directory assistance was simply known as “information” in those days, and you spoke to a human being, usually female. Lily Tomlin, shown above, brilliantly spoofed the information operator and the power of the phone company. But their job was twofold: to help the customer reach their party, but also to protect the privacy of that party. So, if you didn’t have enough information to help the operator find the number and connect you, you might be treated with suspicion. That created the perfect metaphor for songwriters.
Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen, was the original keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. His song Operator has the narrator trying to find a girl for whom he has incomplete information, maybe just her name. He has a vague idea where she might be, but nothing definite. The girl could easily be a groupie with whom the narrator had a one night stand that made a strong impression on the narrator. But, in listening to the song while preparing for this post, I was struck with another possibility, one I feel sure Pigpen never intended. What if the narrator is a father searching for his teen runaway daughter? As I said, I don’t think Pigpen had that in mind, but it works.
If you have heard of Manhattan Transfer, you may know them for their doo-wop flavored hit The Boy From New York City. Maybe you also know that they went in a jazz direction in their later career. But Operator was their breakthrough song in 1975, and it is pure gospel. The song was originally written and performed about 20 years earlier by William Spivery. Aside from Operator, Spivery is really only known for two other songs, musical tributes to John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The song is a prayer, with the singer asking the operator for a connection to heaven.
Special thanks go out to fellow Star Maker Bert for making this post possible. I asked him for the two songs above, and he went beyond the call of duty and sent me a third Operator by Alexis Korner. I had never even heard it before, but it’s a keeper that is also of historical interest. Alexis Korner was one of many British rock artists in the 1960s who embraced the blues. His playing, based on this example, was fine, but Korner wasn’t much of a blues singer, and that is probably why he isn’t better known. John Mayall was probably an even worse singer, but his reputation rests on his uncanny ability to find sidemen who would go on to fame and fortune. On Operator, Korner got that kind of help too, from Robert Plant. Plant would be in Led Zeppelin a year after this recording, developing his trademark rock howl. But here is the beginning of that voice, in a blues context. Personally. I would much rather hear Robert Plant sing the blues. This Operator is a breakup blues, with nothing special about the lyrics. But the performance is great. It’s just piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and that great blues howl by Plant that makes this one utterly convincing. Incidentally, nothing in the lyrics explains why this song is called Operator, but Korner had to call it something.
Finally, I’m cheating a bit with my last selection. But how can you post a set of songs called Operator, and not include Jim Croce? The parenthetical That’s Not the Way It Feels in the title means the song is not a true homonym, but it fits the theme better than the Alexis Korner song in terms of lyrics. Like Pigpen, Croce’s narrator is seeking a girl he knew back when. But he knows where she is. What Croce’s narrator really wants is the ability to forgive an old hurt that won’t go away. And that is what he is asking for help with.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Bob Seger: Blue Monday (Fats Domino cover)
New Order: Blue Monday
Mondays really have a bad reputation and that plays out in musical titles. Of the many songs I know about Monday, not a single one is uplifting. There's Stormy Monday, Monday Morning Blues, Manic Monday, Rainy Days and Mondays, and of course I Don't Like Mondays. So I guess it's no surprise that there are two versions of a song called Blue Monday.
The first was a 1956 hit for boogie woogie piano bluesman Fats Domino. I'm using a cover of that song, though, by Detroit's own rocker Bob Seger, used in the soundtrack for the 1989 movie Roadhouse. His version doesn't deviate much from Fats', and after growing up outside of Detroit myself, I always like some Bob Seger!
The second is a synth pop club dance song by New Order (surprisingly, we've never posted that band before). It was the biggest selling 12" single ever in the UK, and various remixes, re-recordings, and covers roam the internet. From the book Manchester England: The Story of the Pop Cult City we find that "Blue Monday was really influenced by four songs…The arrangement came from 'Dirty Talk', by Klein & MBO, the beat came from a track off a Donna Summer LP, there was a sample from 'Radioactivity' by Kraftwerk, and the general influence on the style of the song was Sylvester's '(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real'." Both the base and drum tracks were synthesized, and the choir was sampled from Kraftwerk, one of the first records to sample another artist's song like that.
Friday, November 18, 2011
Will Kimbrough: Goodnight Moon
Shivaree: Goodnight Moon
The homonymic pair in question comes from two singles, both released in 2000, from two artists grounded in vastly different soil yet united by their common claim to the American folk and roots traditions.
I could imagine both these songs on the same soundtrack, but the movie in question would have to have a hell of a plot arc to contain 'em both. Which is to say: don't expect much else to compare 'em with, other than song title, release date, and a distant kinship via genre coincidence.
WIll Kilbrough's pulsing, gently soothing, moog-and-brush-driven lullaby is a sweet, languid sleeper that catches the heart, as it caught mine when it re-appeared on the 2003 Oxford American Southern Sampler.
Shivaree's AAA popfolk radio hit delivers the nervous heartbeat of a late-night stalker's subject, taking us along for the ride; you may recognize it from its use over the credits in Kill Bill Volume 2.
Both aim true.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
The Four Seasons: Sherry
Forty-one years separate these odes to girls named Sherry. The older of the two is by far better known—it was the first number one hit for those Jersey boys, the Four Seasons. The other is less well known (to say the least) outside Japan, by the Kiyoharu-fronted band, SADS. These songs are near-polar opposites except maybe for the vocal idiosyncrasies of each lead singer. The first is one of those early sixties tunes with a catchy pop melody and the world's simplest lyrics: Sherry, can you come out tonight? It implies the budding of a new relationship (or is it only puppy love?). The second is a straight-out rock song full of anguish about the end of a relationship, and okay, I know you can't understand the lyrics, so I'll tell you what the first part says:
Sherry, softly I could hear the goodbye,
Sherry, once upon a time you said to smile,
Sherry, I can no longer see the withered falling flowers,
Sherry, Sherry, Sherry, and you were not here.
(courtesy of Myspace Kiyoharu fan page)
The song ends with some effective repetition of lyrics with one word change:
Kimi ga kureta zetsubou (ushinai/yorokobi/akirame) no uta wo…
Which means: The hopeless (lost/happy/forsaken) song you gave….
My own Japanese consists of only the basics: thank you, good morning, where is the bathroom? But have you ever noticed that when you don't speak a language, certain repeated words pop out at you in songs? When I listen to Brazilian music, I always hear "coração" (heart). I think it's a law somewhere that all songs with Portuguese lyrics must contain it.
In Japanese, in every song I always hear "sayonara." I think that says something.
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: The Mountain
Steve Earle with The Del McCoury Band: The Mountain
A mountain is the product of geological upheaval, but it represents solidity. Dave Carter, in his song The Mountain, finds a symbol of spiritual truth here. Carter referred to many different spiritual traditions in his writing; I don’t think divisions between them were important to him. The Mountain refers to Native American beliefs with Carter’s typical economical eloquence. The song showcases Tracy Grammer’s voice beautifully.
Steve Earle finds both the solidity and the upheaval in his song The Mountain. Earle made the song the title track from the bluegrass album he recorded with the Del McCoury Band. The song is about a coal miner who has seen his home ravaged as strip mining replaced the traditional mining methods he grew up with. So, on the face of it, Earle takes the idea of a mountain more literally than Dave Carter. And yet, I think it’s fair to say that Earle’s song also has a spiritual dimension as well. For the album, Earle, by his own account, had to learn to sing. He was several albums into his career, and Earle had always done all of the vocals on his albums. But he had never tried to blend his voice with others before. I remember reading at the time how Earle had to basically start from scratch, and really learn how to use his voice. His performance of The Mountain remains some of the best evidence that all of that hard work paid off.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Give or take a definite article, singers seem to have an affinity for the power of love. In 1985, three separate songs by that title populated the UK charts. Two are featured here, but there is no good reason for anybody to own 1985’s version of waterboarding, perpetrated by Jennifer Rush (and inevitably later covered by Celine Dion).
The best of the four Powers of Love is Martha Reeves’ cover of soul singer Joe Simon’s hit. Written by Simon with the maestros of Philly Soul, Gamble and Huff, it appeared on Reeves’ eponymously titled 1974 album.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood enjoyed a third consecutive UK #1 with their “Power Of Love”. The plan was that it would be the Christmas #1, always a big deal in Britain. Carefully released in late November 1984 to accomplish that goal, it entered the top 10 on 1 December and it topped the charts the following week (succeeding the dreadful “I Should Have Known Better” by Jim Diamond, a possible candidate for the present theme). But the week after it was knocked off the top, almost from nowhere, by Band Aid’s rush-released “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. But even without that mammoth hit, FGTH wouldn’t have had the Christmas chart-topper: number two to Band Aid over the season was Wham!’s “Last Christmas”.
Huey Lewis’ “The Power Of Love”, which scored the glorious Back To The Future, came out bang in the middle of the middle year of the 1980s, and it very much sounds like it. The thing is, Huey and his pals had a reputation as a pop group that referenced the 1950s while yet sounding modern, so “The Power Of Love”, as used in a movie that timetravels from 1985 to 1955, ought to have sounded more like “If This Is It” than the synth-heavy, ’80s movie soundtrack by-the-numbers throwaway number it really is (it’s still superior to the other song Lewis did for Back To The Future).
Finally, Luther Vandross sort of spoils things for us. His 1991 hit is called “Power Of Love”, but then he dicked about with parentheses and almost had himself disqualified from this post. The song is really a stew of at least two incomplete songs. It’s all a bit formulaic, but it has a sense of joy, and it has Luther Vandross singing it.
By the time he passed away, Luther’s reputation was a bit shot by the unfair backlash to ’80s soul and his latter tendency to record pedestrian material. But we must never forget that Luther Vandross was one of the great soul singers of any age. And, as my friend Jason would point out, more people were conceived in New Jersey to records by Luther Vandross than to those of any other singer. And isn’t that really the power of love?
(Graphic borrowed from homelifeweekly.com)
Monday, November 14, 2011
Siouxie And The Banshees::Christine
JK And Co: Christine
House of Love: Christine
Former model and showgirl Christine Keeler became famous for her 1961 involvement with both the British Secretary of War John Profumo and naval attache Yevgeni Ivanov of the Soviet Union. ( As a Texas governor recently said : "Oops.")
I don't for a minute think any of these songs are about Christine Keeler. I just needed a nice picture.
Siouxie's "Christine" is about the subject of the movie The Three Faces of Eve, a woman with multiple personalities.( Now she's in purple/ Now she's the turtle). Jay Kay was just 15 when he put together the band that recorded the following version of "Christine". The 1968 album, Suddenly One Summer, made The Mojo Collection, a book about the greatest albums of all time. House of Love's "Christine" is about young love crushed by the rest of the world.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Patty Griffin: Forgiveness
Luka Bloom: Forgiveness
The Lonesome Sisters: Forgiveness
Single-word song titles are often homonymic, especially those that describe an emotional state; after all, there's a LOT of songs out there, and far fewer emotional states to channel through song. These three favorite interpretations of forgiveness were released within the single decade that took me through my twenties and into my early thirties - through marriage and parenthood, through graduate school and vocational epiphany, through unemployment and homelessness and back again - and each appeared just when I needed it: Patty Griffin's raw debut runs plaintive and deep enough to make my eternal "sad songs" playlist; Irish singer-songwriter Luka Bloom pays death's tribute with eerie atmosphere and a typically low-strung, high-reverb guitar; the Lonesome Sisters won prizewinning song at Merlefest for their deep holler harmonies on this bitter, truly lonesome song of love gone astray; all gave voice to my heart, at one younger, less confident time or another.
Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball
Gillian Welch w Old Crow Medicine Show: Wrecking Ball
[unavailable, purchase studio version]
I suspect that we are going to see this week how certain metaphors strike different songwriters. A wrecking ball is a fine example to start with. Emmylou Harris makes a pun on the word ball, and her narrator invites a boy to a dance. The danger is implied rather than stated, and the song is an eloquent statement on the sense of personal danger that can come with the beginning of a new relationship. For Gillian Welch, her narrator is the wrecking ball of the title, and it is her life and prospects that get demolished. Welch’s Wrecking Ball was on her 2003 album Soul Journey, and that it is the purchase link I have provided, But the version heard here comes from the following year, from a live performance at radio station WXPN’s World Café program, and the backing band was Old Crow Medicine Show. Wow! It sounds as good as you would expect if you know both artists. This version is somewhat less produced than the album version; in either case, the strength of the song shines through.