Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Down: Way Down In The Hole


Tom Waits: Way Down In The Hole
[purchase]
[purchase The Wire soundtrack, with 4 of the 5 versions used in the credits]

This year, it seems like I’m writing more about television related music. I watch an enormous amount of television, and I do think that there is so much great stuff to watch these days. In fact, there’s a ton of shows out there now that I would like to check out, but there are just so many hours in the day. In addition, there are a bunch of older shows, often considered to be among the medium’s best, that I have never seen. Some, I’m not interested in, like Game of Thrones, but mostly it is because I didn’t start watching them during their initial run, such as The Sopranos (80 episodes), or Mad Men (92 episodes), or Breaking Bad (62 episodes, plus I’d have to watch Better Call Saul), and their multi-season runs make binge watching difficult.

A few years ago, when I started my own practice, there wasn’t much work right away. I decided to binge watch one of the shows that I had missed, and hit upon The Wire. It was only five seasons (and 60 episodes), it was supposed to be greatAlso, I was a big fan of Homicide: Life On The Streets, which shares significant creative DNA with The Wire.  And my wife wasn’t interested in it. Perfect. (I also watched the 24 episode British show The Thick of It, which was amazing, and easily the most profane program I have ever watched).

The Wire was, in fact, great, and harrowing, and depressing and brilliant. The way that it dissected the Baltimore of its era by focusing on the decay of its major institutions—the police, the unions, the government, the schools, the press, and even the street gangs—was remarkable. The narrative style was groundbreaking, and the performances, by actors who rarely, if ever, have reached the same level of quality since, were stunning. And there was Omar.

But, as I so often have to remind myself, this is a music blog. The credits for the first season ran over a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” recorded by the Blind Boys of Alabama. At the time, I didn’t know that it was a cover, because I’m not that big a Waits fan. The second season, they used the original. For season three, it was a Neville Brothers cover, and in season 4, they commissioned a version, credited to DoMaJe, sung by Baltimore middle schoolers, which related to the season’s focus on the public schools. The final year, they used a cover by Steve Earle, who also acted in the show. Here are all of the credit sequences, conveniently edited into one video:



If you’d like to read more about the credits, go here.

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, followed up that show with a number of well-received television projects.  Generation Kill, which I haven't seen, was about the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Tremé, which I loved, taught me an enormous amount about post-Katrina New Orleans, and that amazing city's culture, particularly its music. After that, he adapted my friend Lisa Belkin's book Show Me A Hero into a gripping miniseries about zoning (cheap joke--it was about race, and politics and ambition and much more).  A couple of weeks ago, his new show, The Deuce, focusing on the sex and pornography industry in New York in the 1970s, debuted to critical acclaim.  So far, I think it is good, but, and I bet Simon gets tired of hearing this phrase, it isn't The Wire (but is it more like that show than the other Simon projects?).

Down: Burning Down, by REM

         


Purchase Burning Down, by REM

REM’s “Burning Down” is an interesting song with a patchwork history, and it stands out for two reasons. One, it’s classic early REM: arpeggiated chords, an all-over the neck bass line that was melodious than rhythmic  and, most indicative of REM’s uniquely nascent sonic fabric, Michael Stipe’s unintelligible, mumbled, yet beautifully imagistic lyrics. Stipe’s vocal delivery was a turn-off for some back then—“I can’t understand what he’s saying!”—but was a badge of uniqueness and cause for devotion to REM’s earliest fans. Especially when the occasional intelligible phrase would break through the gauzy swirl of harmonies, and sit there, like some strange prophecy: “Running water on a sinking boat/Going under but they’ve got your goat…” A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it sounded amazing, so comprehension was secondary. 

As a front man, Stipe set the band apart, with his mop of grecian sculpture curls, and he set a tone for fashion, and a model for navel-gazers who wanted to shuffle and mumble and bury ourselves in our poetry and hide behind our notebooks, in our thrift store chic uniform of flannel cords and wingtips. I’ve written about this before, but when I was coming of age, music and the bands I listened to were a tribal signifier and part of an intricate rite of passage. To identify by a band or a genre of music isn’t unique in itself, but the music—the sound, the bands, the labels and social mores of the actual artistic movement—helped more to create identity than any other source of influence. 

For me, REM was the antithesis and antidote to the goofy, spandex-laden, hair-sprayed excess of 80s metal that we were all listening to. There was something indefinably cool and mysterious about REM and the “progressive” music of that era, and as I got older and finally accepted that I couldn’t grow my hair long, REM provided the kind of musical medicine I needed to help me nail down some kind of understanding of my ever-elusive teenage identity. I’m still looking, I know, but like any true devotee of music, I formed my coherence of self through music and identified as a fan, with a a capital F. In this case, REM was my first true badge, and I felt like some kind of indie legend walking the halls of my high school in my Document Work tour t-shirt. If you have your timelines in order, you might say: Hey, Document rang in the end of REM’s indie cult-status. And you’re right—sadly, I came to them slightly late, but I will say I was the first—the first!—to have Document and I had a personal mission to turn everyone on to a little song called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” 

Going further back, to classic REM,Burning Down” was actually born as a different track, “Ages of You”, and both songs can be found on REM’s B-sides collection Dead Letter Office. “Ages of You”, though meant to originally be released on the EP Chronic Town, was left off. Later, continuing its life-cycle as an unwanted stepchild, it was left off the full length Reckoning, as well.  As quoted in the liner notes of Dead Letter Office, Peter Buck describes the strange duality of the song’s history: “When we got tired of ['Burning Down'], we kept the two pieces that we liked and rewrote the rest to come up with 'Ages of You'. We got tired of that one, also.” 

Burning Down finally saw life as a European only B-side on the 7” and 12” for “Wendell Gee”, from Fables of the Reconstruction. A decidedly different musical contrast exists here, juxtaposing “Wendell Gee’s” maudlin, piano and banjo balladry to “Burning’s” earnest, chiming, sing-along anthemic drive.

Give both tracks a listen. Peter Buck refers to “Burning Down” as a “companion piece” to “Ages of You.” And for that distinction alone it deserves a critical listen. And if you haven’t listened to REM (classic REM) in a while, the track will remind you immediately of what was so great about the band, when you were still a kid, with goofy hair but cool shoes, and a whole world of disappointing disillusions yet to come. (That would be REM's Out of Time, not life in general...)

    
That t-shirt...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Down: All That You Dream



purchase [The Last Record Album]

I hadn't intentionally pre-planned continuity from my last post to this one, but - as the "responsible" for this theme, I do wonder if my eventual theme choice wasn't at least subliminal (I think that applies). I mean, going from Little Feat's Can't Stand the Rain >> Little Feat's All That You Dream. <Entre paranthese> I have to give a tip of the hat to the comment from Dead_Elvis, Inc for the correction in the comments [right side]. But beyond, the theme offers up the possibility of pursuing Little Feat's <Down on the Farm>, notable for little except being the final album to which Lowell George contributed [a little because he was giving his time to <Thanks, I'll Eat It Here> as referenced by Dead_Elvis, Inc.]

There's something similar about the way that Little Feat's (and Steely Dan's- [RIP Walter Becker]) music affects me. Technically, I think I've got it right if I say they both incorporate somewhat complex structures that combine "California pop" with jazz. I'm talking catchy/pop-ish tunes with a twist away from the standard R&B I-IV-V chord structure. Add in lyrics that generally go a little beyond "She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah.." and you've got me on board. (Spyro Gyra and even into a lot of the ECM music from the mid 70s)

Yes, I confess, I am stuck back in the past. There isn't a lot from the present that I listen to. Most everything that comes to mind for a <Down> theme goes back to before the 90s. Heck, most everything I have ever posted here goes back to before the 90s. Not all. Most.

It seems to me that this is a song that sings about a better future, or at least the hope for better. Certainly regret and acknowledgement that things aren't what we wished they would be, but also a desire to improve:

All of the good times were ours ...
Rainy days turn to sunny ones ...
Can't be 'round this kind of show no more

Worth considering that the song isn't credited to Lowell George, but it is among the last that he was here for. Possible premonition because he wasn't around for too many more shows? Online sources say it is he doing the vocals (sounds right).

Also worth considering -from my perspective- is that the song doesn't bring me down. There are songs that do, but the tempo and harmony here aren't sad despite the lyric word choices (clouds, rain, wash away ...)


While you are here, also see Darius' long ago related https://sixsongs.blogspot.com.tr/2012/01/on-air-on-your-way-down.html

Friday, September 15, 2017

Incompetent/Can't : Can't Stand the Rain




purchase [I Cant Stand the Rain]



Maybe we have had enough of the rain. Maybe some of the news pundits are right about how the main stream media tried to make the most of the Carib weather - to the extent that it has surpassed overload and caused unnecessary fears. And maybe J David is right that we have exceeded the "Can't" threshold when we could have been looking at other aspects of the Incompetence/Can't theme.

If you are a regular here, you likely know I have an enduring affinity for the slide guitar, as embodied in such impresarios as Mr Ry Cooder, Ms Bonnie Raitt, Mr Duane Allman and Mr Lowell George. (There are others, but these are among my main staples)

As JDavid pointed out, there are various avenues one can pursue from a theme of Can't - primarily personal incompetence.  I don't think that <I Cant Stand the Rain> falls into this category - the weather is beyond our control, and most likely the lyrics transcend the weather, rather, here, a metaphor for other aspects of the singer's life. You know ... rain is wet and sad and brings you down, especially if you get caught out in it unprepared like...

In my ignorance, I had assumed that this was a Little Feat original. No small amount of their output was original. However, not this.

The song is credited to someone I had never heard of before: a certain Ann Peebles. And while I was only aware of the Little Feat version, there are all sorts of others who have done theirs and you can find many of them at YouTube.

A few of them:





Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Incompetent/Can’t: You’re No Good


Linda Ronstadt: You’re No Good
[purchase]

So far, it seems like all of our posts on this topic are self-critical—I can’t dance, I can’t stand up, I’m a simpleton, etc. But in reality, isn’t it usually someone else that raises the issue of someone’s incompetence? Most of us, I think, have enough of an ego to think that we are at least competent, if not even better than average, but there is someone—a boss, a (former) significant other, a stranger—who tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you suck. [WARNING--link is NSFW]

Over at one of my other blogging homes, Cover Me, there is a relatively new feature, “That’s a Cover?” in which we write about songs that are so well-known that many people might not know that it is a cover. For example, I wrote one a few months ago about The Youngbloods’ iconic 60s tune “Get Together,” which was at least the fourth version of the song. Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “You’re No Good,” also falls into that category.

Not to mention, the song makes it pretty clear that the singer believes the subject to be incompetent:

You're no good, you're no good, you're no good 
Baby, you're no good (you hear what I say)[original lyrics—later versions used “I’m gonna say it again"] 
You're no good, you're no good, you're no good 
Baby, you're no good.

Although admittedly, later on, the singer inevitably (at least for this theme) criticizes herself.

Written by Clint Ballard, Jr., the song was first recorded in 1963 by Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s little sister), and produced by Lieber & Stoller.


This version stalled on the singles chart at #117. Warwick had a moderately successful career, although not as much as big sister Dionne, and she struggled with addiction and health issues before passing away in 2008.

The first “hit” version of “You’re No Good” was by Betty Everett, also in 1963, A bit more soulful (and featuring Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums), this version topped out at #51 on the singles chart, and was more successful on R&B charts.


Everett’s next song, "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" made it to #6 on the singles chart, and although she did have a few more hits, her later career was not as successful, and she passed away in 2001.

The Swinging Blue Jeans, a now pretty much forgotten Merseybeat band, did a gender-reversed version of the song in 1964. It was quite successful in England and France, and even hit #97 on the US charts. It sounds like a version from a now pretty much forgotten Merseybeat band:


The SBJ’s had a few more cover hits, but eventually, as their Wikipedia entry sadly notes, “The band eventually retired to the cabaret circuit.”

There have been many other covers of the song, some in other languages (and even by Van Fucking Halen), but none have had the durability or success of Linda Ronstadt’s version.

Ronstadt began performing the song during 1973, and recorded it with producer Peter Asher (whose sister Jane dated a member of a well-remembered Merseybeat band that Peter also worked with) for her breakthrough album, Heart Like a Wheel. Her version, which became a #1 hit in the US, showcases Ronstadt’s powerful, soulful vocals, and has a great arrangement. Interestingly, Ronstadt has said:

I thought the production on "You're No Good" (her 1974 breakthrough No. 1 single) was very good, but I didn't sing it very well. As a song, it was just an afterthought. It's not the kind of song I got a lot of satisfaction out of singing. 

You could have fooled me. Because she’s so good.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Incompetent/Can't: Can't Let Go



Purchase: Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go", from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Print: "Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road", from Church of Type, by artist Kevin Bradley, "...one of America's most prolific letterpress printmakers." According to his amazing website, "The Church of Type is a full-custom art and design studio working exclusively in the sweet science of authentic handset letterpress."  

I've got my credit card in hand as I write this--really amazing stuff.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has a strange distinction of being the book that all English majors can talk about while not having actually read it. The book is a titan of American Literature, one of the springs from which all that followed it had to flow. Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a bit like Moby Dick—everyone’s heard of it, but few have actually read (or in this case, listened to) it. In the world of Alternative-Country music, Car Wheels is cited as a seminal influence by more singer/songwriters than I can name here and cracked the top 300 of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s bonafides are bonafide; it’s accolades too many to count. Yet, for the casual listener, I wonder how many have given it more than a casual listen?

I’ve listened to the album many times, and chose to write about it for this post not because I am one of it’s true believing praise singers, but because I’ve never quite gotten my head around it.

It’s good, do get me wrong. What am I saying? It’s great. Amazing. 

I’ve just never been able to figure it out: in plain terms, I’m not sure what it is supposed to be. Every track is different, and while it won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Folk Album, it is far from just a folk album. As a collection of songs, it defies definition—it has traces of folk, to be sure, but it dives into country, rock, blues—a sonic landscape as varied and wide-ranging as the subject matter of Williams’ poignant and elegiac prose-poem lyrics. Like many great albums, it marries genres. And like a great marriage, the music comes across as effortless, even when painful and challenging. 

And that’s a good word to describe Car Wheels: a challenge. What to make of such a vast and wide-ranging collection? The songs range from cracking, bar room boogie, to traditional, gospel-tinged Nashville of country music’s heritage days. The moods are myriad, as are the producers (Rick Rubin, Roy Bittan of the E Street Band), and the players are a hall of fame guest list (Steve Earle, Charlie Sexton, Emmylou Harris). The album took six years to record, and Williams re-recorded it twice from scratch—like any piece of literature worth the paper it’s printed on, good work takes time, and not editing, but whole sale revision.  And the reviews are stellar, on a historical level. Back at its 1998 release, and up until today, as it is such touchstone of an album, that Car Wheels still gets press. Much like how we started with a comparison to literature, Car Wheels garners the same sort of praise and asks for the same kind of critical analysis as a great piece of literature. Any collection of songs that covers as much ground musically, can delve as deeply into imagistic setting and character, deserves the copy. 

The original review in Rolling Stone sang the praises of the album in verbiage befitting a literary masterpiece. Writer Robert Christgau waxes poetic about Car Wheels, but he sums up the thematic substance, the heart of the album, best near the end of the review, when he writes: “Whether it's the interrupted childhood memories of the title track, the imagistic shifts …Williams' cris de coeur and evocations of rural rootlessness — about juke joints, macho guitarists, alcoholic poets, loved ones locked away in prison, loved ones locked away even more irreparably in the past — are always engaging…And they mean even more as a whole, demonstrating not that old ways are best — although that meaningless idea may well appeal to her — but that they're very much with us.”

I suppose in the end, I’ve not been very clear about what ‘troubles’ me about Car Wheels. It’s not if I’m dubious on whether the album is good or not—I used the very lackluster adjective ‘great’ earlier to describe my feelings. That’s a poor, pale word for such an eclectic collection of aural story-telling. This is a collection of songs that, again like a great book, keeps me wondering and guessing at meaning and theme. What was Williams trying to accomplish with Car Wheels, aside from collecting memories, stories, emotions. And, as Christgau writes, Williams was working at capturing a mood of the past, an elusive zeitgeist of old times, grey ghosts on country roads, the voices of the greats rising up from the fog to stake a claim in the present tense that they so clearly can lay ownership upon. She captures moods here, many of them, yet none are so prevalent as to direct the record toward one central feeling. The motifs, the tangible, palpable imagery—all of it combines to tell a novel’s worth of story that never really ends. And that is where the album finally differentiates from the novel: there is no end, not to a song. It might fade out, but a collection as strong as Car Wheels never, ever stops telling its story.


Check out this bluesy snarl of a track, a little back porch stomp, called “Can’t Let Go”, which is about exactly like what it sounds. Williams might be tongue in cheek on the metaphors on this track, but this broken hearted blues lament on not being able to shake even the worst kind of love is raw and gets its hooks into you. Kind of like the man that the character of this song can’t let go of. A fitting track to introduce an album that, much like the song, gets a hook and won’t let go.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Incomptetent/Can't: Mayor of Simpleton


XTC: Mayor of Simpleton
[purchase]

In response to Darius' question about the theme, as the guy who suggested it back in February, it was originally "Incompetence," in "honor" of our then-new President. Who knew how bad it would get. Our current moderator, known in these pages as KKafa, although that’s not what his parents named him, felt that was too difficult, and added the related concept of “Can’t.” And so far, that’s where the posts in this theme have gone.

So, I’m going to try to steer it back to my original concept, although, as so often happens with XTC’s music, the lyrics are somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike our current President of Simpleton (or Dementia, or Narcissism, or Egoism, or Delusion, or whatever), who seems blissfully unaware of his shortcomings, the titular Mayor lists all of the things that he lacks competence in:
  • Learning
  • Weighing the Sun
  • Mathematics
  • Reading profound books
  • Writing a big hit song
  • Solving crossword puzzles
  • Unraveling riddles, problems and puns
  • Operating a home computer (note—this song came out in 1989, so having one was not common)
  • Converting pounds to tons
  • Winning Nobel Prizes (If this was an impediment to love, there’d be a lot of single people)
On the other side of the ledger, though:
  •  He loves her 
One would like to think that love should win out over mere brains (a concept which Cheers mined regularly, particularly in its early years), and I think that we are all rooting for the Mayor in this song, because of his self-awareness and clever and heartfelt professions of love. And, so, is he really incompetent?

Unfortunately, XTC never recorded a sequel, so we don’t know whether this plea led to “Sorry, Mayor of Simpleton, I’m Not Interested,” or “I Love You Too, Dummy.”

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

INCOMPETENT/CAN'T: I CAN'T DANCE

That much is true, and I have tried, Lord, I have tried. Indeed there have been times when I tried so hard, I thought I could, the joy and sweat both unbridled as the floor emptied about me. In fact, my dancing years can be contained within 3 succinct eras. But first the song:



This song, originally by Tom T. Hall, nails many of my feelings, even rationalisations, on the subject, and is written from the position of the lovelorn and forlorn dancehall wallflower, forever watching from the periphery, unable to get his girl on account his "affliction." Tom T. makes it matter of fact in his country boogie shuffle, but Gram imbues an extra poignancy and urgency into his cover, which, incidentally, is pegged up a pace or two, into a somewhat clumsy rhythm that is actually well nigh impossible to dance to. Even if you could.

So how did I deal with this, in phase 1, my youth? Luckily, it being the late 60s and early 70s, with the birth of the underground scene and prog, I could pin my flag to those genres. Sitting cross-legged, head bowed forward, shaking in, or slightly out of, time with the stop-start rhythms of Yes, King Crimson and E.L.P. warranted no knowledge of dancing. Dancing music: soul, r'n'b and disco, was for fools, whether they got the girl, and they usually did, or not.

Stage 2 was an awkward amalgam of conflicting pulls on my position. Punk arrived, and the demolition of all before it, including any orthodox styles of dance. And, yes, I could pogo, I discovered. And, with new wave, that slo-mo running beloved of, predominantly, Sting, came within my canon. But there was also the increased importance of Folk-Rock to me during these years, as I, simultaneously to the Clash and Costello, immersed myself deeper in all things trad.arr. I joined a Morris Dance side. There I had to discipline myself into the rigidity of 4/4 rhythmic movement. Like this:


It was hard, it was difficult, but I nailed it, albeit barely competently. It was bliss. Our side would convene once weekly for practice, and meet at weekends to give displays at school fairs and village fetes. Possibly as a result of this confidence, or probably the women I was taken with, I suddenly "got" the dance floor, hoovering up Motown and Stax into my record collection. I had the confidence of a dyspraxic Travolta and hurtled around equivalently. And for all the toes I trampled and ribs I barged, I apologise. Unreservedly.

For now, phase 3, I know I really can't dance. It is a pity, as my wife loves to and is an avid aficionado of electronica/dance. I love it too, but confine myself to listening in the car. As I drive. Occasionally thumping the windscreen repeatedly with my fist if particularly carried away. Just in case, at the age of 60 I have again joined a morris side, but I know I probably fool myself. And the moves are so much harder than they ever were.

A final reflection comes from proggers turned poppers, Genesis, originally just the sort of anti-dancing music I delighted in,  all those phase 1 years ago, latterly topping all sorts of charts with dance worthy tunes. Although I tell myself I shouldn't, I quite like this change in their style and fortunes, this song demonstrating that they too are not entirely unaware of the irony. So, like this song, maybe this dancing lark is my guilty pleasure.


But don't buy them, buy this

Monday, September 4, 2017

Incompetent/Can't: I Can't Stand Up




purchase [Get Happy]

There was a time - about 20 years back - when Elvis Costello and Talking Heads were what I mostly listened to. Both kind of quirky (as opposed to mainstream pop), but both very much in favor with the college-type crowd (which I had long since graduated from - but maybe couldn't leave behind?).

I'm pretty sure that among the things that attracted me to both were (a) the slightly-off the standard I-IV-V chord structures of their songs and (b) the near-poetic lyrics - enough that the words frequently caused me to take a minute or more to ponder their relevance to my current frame of mind. Oh, yes, and neither appeared terribly normal in the MTV videos I saw.

Now, at about the time that <Get Happy> (the album containing Can't) was released, Costello was in hot water on account of his multiple uses of "the n word". He had drunkenly referred to Ray Charles as such, and his "Lover's Army" includes lyrics to the effect "one less white ..n.".
As a result, there are those who believe that his choice of "I Can't.." is a form of either apology or appeasement - because the song comes from the legendary Sam and Dave, who recorded it in a rather slower, more soulful tenor back in the mid 60s.




As for Costello, this song stands in contrast to his earlier dark, angry, vengeful style: granted, the pace - as compared to Same and Dave's slower soul - still rubs a bit the wrong way (also see his dis-jointed dancing on the vid), but you can almost sense that Costello is onto something new, and in fact, from here, it lead to a breakthrough in his career (and puts his racial slur gaffe more or less behind him)

We've got the "Can't" covered pretty well just in the title itself. But how about the "Incompetence"? Well, there's no requirement in SMM's current theme that any single post cover both terms - and in fact they do appear to be linked - if you're incompetent, you can't ... something. But, is there something about Costello or the song that encompasses <Incompetent> as well?
Judging from where Costello went from after this output, I would say: no sign of incompetence on his part.
Your thoughts?


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Incompetent/ Can’t: Can’t Find My Way Home

Blind Faith: Can’t Find My Way Home

[purchase]

I have not been the moderator here for quite some time now. Usually, that doesn’t make much difference, but it does with regards to our new theme. I have some ideas about how to treat the “Incompetent” part, and I will be presenting at least one of those as we move on. But I am not sure what was intended. Perhaps it is better not to know, but rather to put forward one’s own interpretation, which should make this a fascinating theme. But the “Can’t” part is easy enough. Can’t Find My Way Home immediately came to mind, and no wonder. The song is almost fifty years old now, and it continues to be covered in new and interesting ways. That is a fine definition of a classic.

You could say that the song deserves to be obscure. The lyric is barely there, consisting of only one verse and a chorus. The words express a sense of helplessness, and there is no resolution to this, no solace offered. But that is, in a way, the point. For all the idealism of the hippies who embraced the song and made it a hit, there was always a sense that they were fighting something they could not stop, something that was just too big for them. Of course, it did not hurt that the song was by a new supergroup. Blind Faith featured Steve Winwood from Traffic and Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker from Cream, and both of those groups had just broken up. Only bass player Rick Grech, then with the group Family, was relatively unknown. But Blind Faith was not popular just because of their lineup, nor was it simply the fact that they were one of the first supergroups. The talent that came together for this project delivered the goods, and it is ultimately the performance of Can’t Find My Way Home that makes it work, and has made the song an inspiration to musicians ever since. The song has brought together unlikely groupings of musicians for some great performances, so I wanted to include some of those.

Bonnie Raitt with Lowell George: Can’t Find My Way Home

[purchase]

In 1972, Bonnie Raitt was making wonderful blues-based music, but she was far from well known. Lowell George and his band Little Feet were just getting started themselves. Raitt would record her own solo version of Can’t Find My Way Home, although I couldn’t find it on any of her albums. But this version comes from a radio broadcast in New York City. Either Raitt or George could be playing the acoustic guitar or the slide guitar on this one, and there is also an acoustic bass part played by Freebo. This spare treatment really brings out the emotion of the piece.

Allison Krauss and Union Station: Can’t Find My Way Home

[purchase]

Allison Krauss and Union Station are known as a bluegrass group, but that label does not fully describe their artistry. This version of Can’t Find My Way Home honors the song’s roots in blues rock, while also updating the sound in brilliant ways. The recording was done for the TV show Crossing Jordan.

Sheryl Crow with Warren Haynes and Trombone Shorty: Can’t Find My Way Home

[Not Available for Purchase]

As seen here, Sheryl Crow and her band are a part of the jam band scene. She invites Warren Haynes and Trombone Shorty to join them on stage for this one, and Crow’s band supports them ably, with very satisfying results. Crow and her band do not show the elasticity that allowed the Grateful Dead to, for example, segue from Scarlet Begonias to Fire on the Montain, but this is still a strong performance. It makes me wonder why Sheryl Crow has not so far put Can’t Find My Way Home on any of her albums.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Shadows: Shadows In The Rain

 
Sting: Shadows In The Rain (studio version)
[purchase]

For those who remember 2012, I mentioned in a post that one of the first dates I went on with my now wife was to see the movie Bring On The Night, which was the Michael Apted-directed documentary about the creation of Sting’s first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles and the subsequent tour. We loved the movie, and I still have fond memories of seeing it, both because of the film and my date.

I enjoy learning about how music is created, probably because my love of music is not coupled with any real ability to make it. I’m jealous of those who can, so this movie was right up my alley. I was also a big Police fan and had heard, and liked, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I know that Sting has gotten a reputation for arrogance and pretension over the years, but as someone who likes the often pretentious prog rock, it didn’t bother me that for his first solo album, Sting tried to move beyond the reggae flavors of the Police and try to push the boundaries a bit. As a brief aside, I had the chance to briefly interview Sting the summer before my senior year in college, backstage at an outdoor concert at Liberty Bell Race Track in Philadelphia. He was extremely genial and answered all my probably dumb questions, and readily recorded a station ID that we ran regularly — Stewart Copeland, on the other hand, had to be shamed into even doing a station ID for us. But he did two. You can hear them here.

In addition to wanting to expand his musical palette (which the Police had begun to do as time went on), Sting decided that his band wouldn’t be The Police Mark II (or III, for those few Henry Padovani fans out there), and instead chose young, hotshot jazz musicians. This isn’t as strange as it sounds — Sting’s earliest gigs were playing jazz and fusion music in Newcastle during his free time during college and while working as a teacher. Here's a jazzy tune from Sting's last pre-Police band, Last Exit—the melody of which was used in Blue Turtles' "We Work the Black Seam."

The people that he chose were all extraordinary musicians. Keyboard master Kenny Kirkland had played with Wynton Marsalis, bass player Daryl Jones had been in Miles Davis’ band, and Branford Marsalis, on sax, had been in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and played with his brother Wynton, Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie. Drummer Omar Hakim, who was in Weather Report (with Mino Cinélu), was the only member with significant rock credits, having backed Carly Simon, David Bowie and Dire Straits. In addition, Sting brought on veteran backup singers Janice Pendarvis (who was in another of my favorite documentaries, 20 Feet From Stardom) and Dolette McDonald (who worked with the Talking Heads, but was not in another of my favorite music films, Stop Making Sense, or on my favorite Talking Heads album).

The film shows how this mostly non-rock band fused with Sting to create a sound that was still identifiably rock, but had some elements of jazz. Maybe the easiest way to see what Sting was after is to compare the original Police version of “Shadows In The Rain,” a somewhat meandering, spooky dub track, with the studio version from Blue Turtles, which was reportedly based on the original demo that Sting wrote. Amusingly beginning with Marsalis asking frantically what key the song is in over a funky Hakim groove, a harsh voiced Sting enters, and the song turns into an exuberant, upbeat soulful and jazzy tune with solos from Kirkland and Marsalis.

Part of the tension in Bring On The Night, beyond the question of whether the whole concept would work, is that the band was scheduled to play some live shows on little rehearsal. As you can see from the video above, they had no problem with the performance, and the exuberance of the album track is even more apparent.

Another part of the tension in the movie is that it shows, in pretty graphic detail, the birth of Sting and wife Trudy Styler’s son Jake, who is now this guy.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Shadows: Have You Seen Your Mother Baby ...



purchase [Got Live If You Want It ]

Various online sources note the horn section on the Stones' <Have You Seen Your Mother Baby>, arranged by Mike Leander and produced by Glyn Johns. But the use of the horns wasn't the only thing the Stones were experimenting with in 66. It could have been the guitar effects, it could have been their lifestyle, it could have been their public personas.

Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? The group was well into establishing their "bad boy" image, and one of the PR photos that goes with this has them dressed in drag. And that is kind of what this song is about - Various things in the shadows. 


The song is a continuation of their (not just) lyrical provocations:, but think also: I Can't Get No Satisfaction, Let's Spend the Night Together, Get Off of My Cloud, Nervous Breakdown... you continue the list.

Snipets of the lyrics suggest to me that they are asking the girl for more than sympathy, even as they sing

I'm all alone, won't you give all your sympathy to mine?
We live in... glimpse through... hate in ...tear at ... the shadows.
There's a lot in the lyrics that isn't particularly clear and that's probably the intention. Do with it what you will. What you do in the shadows of your mind is your business.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

SHADOWS: The Circulation of Shadows/Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke


Sometimes the opportunity of a theme is as maybe more around promoting an artist, as much, if not more, as is the song used to fit the purpose. This is one such. Lisa Gerrard the artist, if Pieter Bourke will forgive his no doubt integral part within the featured song. And it isn't, I guess, traditionally the usual fare of SMM, with echoes perhaps of medieval plainsong rather than the sprawl of rock and roll. But it is.
Lisa Gerrard was half of uber-goths, Dead Can Dance, who began life in Melbourne, Australia in the early 80s as a conventional if somewhat arty and, even, pretentious amalgam of, as their label described them: "drum-driven, ambient guitar music with chanting, singing and howling." Gerrard and her partner in vocals, Brendan Perry differed from the routine and ritual howlers of their day, in that each possessed vast and idiosyncratic ranges of tone, grand-guignol operettas with the shamanic underflow of the backing instrumentation. Each album became ever less conventional from the tropes of goth, a label they themselves espoused. Witness this, The Trial, from their debut, to the track below it, Emmeleia, from their 6th album, "Into the Labyrinth".



They broke up in 1998, each pursuing separate careers, with Gerrard further immersing herself in the capacious limits of her voice, alongside Pieter Bourke, producing the phenomenal LP, "Duality", that contained the titular piece for this scribble. But before this, with Dead Can Dance still a concern, she had produced, for me, her most astonishing work, 1995's "The Mirror Pool", with standout track, Sanvean being a reprise of an earlier DCD track. Witness a live version below. I challenge you not to weep.



DCD reformed for in 2005 and have performed intermittently in the years since, with a run of increasingly overwrought, in a good way, productions, whilst Gerrard has increasingly pursued a role as a collaborator within soundtrack music, largely independent cinema, but also in bigger blockbuster fare such as "The Insider" and "Gladiator." Solo records have also appeared, all of which I commend. I live in hope of her touring.

Start here, don't stop!

Shadows: Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid)



Purchase: Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid), by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Writing this, I have to say, I feel a bit like a shadow myself. Of myself? I don't know...

I haven't posted all summer: making a permanent household move between three countries (out of Turkey, back to the US, and then on to parts further), I haven't done much writing. Or listening. Or reading, or anything else for that matter. What precipitated this shadowy existence, this strange, disconnected half-life?

I gave up my computer and phone.

I know. I know. Don't ask--I'm not sure how I survived. You can find a lot of data on the benefits of giving up electronic devices, and yes, physically, mentally, et al, it does feel pretty good to go e-free. But, alas, the world turns at a new pace, sometimes speeding up by the day, and it's not really feasible to go entirely free of the web. It's kind of impossible, to be honest. But, then, if you have a smart phone, and try to do anything productive at all you already know that.

And, while I can acknowledge the benefits of unplugging, even though it felt as if someone pulled the plug on me (I'm talking that proverbial big 'plug') it feels good to be back..And honestly, I never want to leave the grid again.

On to our song topic: shadows. When I read Kafka's email to the writers announcing our theme, it is usually a fun, low-stakes game of free association. Often, I would never write about, nor publicly admit to, the first song that comes to mind. We all have guilty pleasure songs, and we all know phrases and snippets of tunes we would be mortified to share and worse, probably hate. Sound patterns, beats, phrases have a way of digging grooves into our subconscious and rising, specter-like, when we least want. Thus, the  often agonizing phenomenon of waking up with a song stuck in your head. Is it ever a good song? One that you are happy to hear?  (While writing this, I admit, the refrain of Taylor Dane's "Tell it to My Heart" is running on repeat in my head...). I'm not writing about Taylor Dane today, so just cool it...But, when I saw we were doing shadows as a theme, the jukebox in my head switched on and Tom Petty's "Shadow of a Doubt" immediately started playing. Writing about my first choice is a rarity. This is a happy one.

From The Heartbreaker's 1979 classic Damn the Torpedoes, "Shadow of a Doubt" has the true designation as a forgotten gem.  But, that's a forgivable sin, because of the brilliance of this album. If Petty had never recorded again after Torpedoes, he'd still be popular. Torpedoes includes the mega-hits "Refugee", "Don't Do Me Like That", "Even The Losers" and of course the crowning jewel, "Here Comes My Girl". With that many great songs, of course there will be a few overlooked tracks, even with something that was released in the heyday of the 'album' age, whatever that means...(editor's note: it means, music used to be celebrated by artists releasing a thing called an album, which was a collection of songs that more or less fit on two sides of a disc (vinyl, cassette or CD) and if you wanted to buy a single song, you had to go to something called a record store, and depending on the year, pick up a 45 rpm piece of vinyl (or cassingle or again, CD), though you usually picked up both the full the LP and the 45. It was a strange time, when human beings had to leave their house to purchase music and took great enjoyment in perusing stacks, or rows, of music in one of the above-mentioned forms. Alas.) So, "Shadow of a Doubt" was as twangy bit of radio pop, with an earnest intro, and chuggy verse and a soaring course. With an almost new-wave (ish) polish and vox, "Shadow" is a  set piece in an incredibly strong selection of Petty's most polished and expertly produced (thank you Jimmy Iovine) and genre-spanning music yet at that point in the Heartbreakers then short career. Torpedoes was their third, and by far, best album to date, a critical success and a full-on radio hit smash. It was kept from the # 1 spot on Billboard only by Pink Floyd's The Wall, which really, who could beat that album, on any level?

I discovered Petty in retrograde fashion: Around 1984, I was in 6th grade, and just starting to realize how important good music was. I was steeped in "classic" rock and developing a fine pedigree, in no small part due to what will always be to me great radio: DC 101, one of the longest running FM signals in the DC Metro area, was a rock n roll powerhouse and in no small measure responsible for much of my musical education. By the time Springsteen's Born in the USA, a truly seminal moment in my lifehit the airwaves, I considered myself a convert, eager to learn as much as I could. Luckily, without an allowance or a nearby record store, I had the radio to rely on. In the 1980s, the classification "classic rock" was a relatively new format designation, seeing as much of what I was listening to--Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Stones--had barely hit the 20 year mark. Add the Dylan tapes I'd inherited from an ex-hippie neighbor into that mix, already the grandfather of rock, and Tom Petty was sure to follow. Discovering music back then was both a joyful experience as well as one of simply connecting the dots. I loved listening to rock radio back when I was a kid--it was more of an experience, a passage, than it is now. Radio was more uniform, : classic rock was classic rock; there wasn't a need for cross-over to draw more audience. At least that's the way it seemed. But age and nostalgia bring on a brighter sense of things, a fonder, more pure memory than the reality. I know for me that listening to the radio was kind of like going to school, only I liked the learning, and no one made me sit in my seat and be quiet.

Speaking of nostalgia, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are on tour this summer, celebrating 40 years. I've heard the shows are fantastic. I haven't been able to catch one, as I believe the ticket prices are commensurate with the band's age and experience. And what I mean by that is: holy crap! tickets are expensive! I've never stopped listening to Tom Petty and his brilliant Heartbreakers. They are a radio staple and if you have XM/Sirius, you know that TP has his own channel, so a good tune is never far away. But, if you haven't done a deep dive into the back catalogue, check out "Shadow of a Doubt", and the rest of Damn The Torpedoes and revisit some of that once in a lifetime radio rock 'n roll. The kind that doesn't get made anymore...





Friday, August 25, 2017

Shadows: Shadows on a Dime

Ferron: Shadows on a Dime

[purchase]

Ferron (with Bitch): Shadows on a Dime

[purchase]

It is possible to be a lesbian from Canada and still enjoy major success in the global music industry. Think of k d lang. But Ferron had these two strikes against her from the start, and she has never had the fame she deserves as a result. Canadian artists must either relocate to the United States before they begin their recording careers, (think Joni Mitchell), or, like lang, have an initial success that it is so big that it can not be denied. And I can not think of anyone who started out recording for a lesbian record label and went on to much wider success. In the case of Ferron, that is a great shame. She needs neither the lesbian nor the Canadian artist label; she is simply one the finest songwriters far too few people have ever heard of, and her appeal should transcend nationality or genre.

Shadows on a Dime is a fine place to start. The song presents a series of vignettes framed by a long train ride. Like the titular shadows on the surface of a dime, they are small things by themselves that add up to something greater. They are a series of thoughts and experiences that define an identity when taken together. That description may sound like new age mumbo jumbo, but the song is wonderfully alive and human.

The album Shadows on a Dime came out in 1984, and I was lucky enough to see her on tour in support of it. She came to Princeton NJ, and I was gently dragged by a group of friends to the show. As with many of my friendships over the years, shared musical tastes were important, so I didn’t really need much persuading. (By the way, I have always lived close enough to Princeton to listen to WPRB, and I was happily listening to our own J David’s show on the station at this time, but he was not part of this. Even now, we have never met in the flesh.) Ferron’s show was great, and I was immediately a fan. I still am, and all of the music I have heard from her in the subsequent 33 years is up to the high standard she was setting then.

Bitch might seem to be an unlikely champion for Ferron’s music. Hailing from Brooklyn NY, Bitch is an in your face songwriter whose songs are confrontational at times. She does possess a rich musical imagination, ranging from variants of folk to rock, club music, and funk, and always making whatever she does very much her own. Yet, when she met Ferron, there was reportedly an instant connection. The album Boulder is an attempt to introduce the music of Ferron to a new generation. Bitch recorded solo performances of some of Ferron’s best songs, and then traveled the country, asking musician friends to add backing tracks to fill out the sound. These included Ani DiFranco and members of the Indigo Girls and the Be Good Tanyas. On the new version of Shadows on a Dime, we hear Ferron in an intimate setting, with Bitch adding fiddle and gentle vocal harmonies. For Ferron, this album was intended to be her musical swan song. It was recorded in 2008, and she intended to do only occasional shows and no more recording. However, there was to be one additional album in 2013, Lighten-ing. This one was made to accompany a documentary about Ferron that used the Boulder album as a soundtrack and starting point. Lighten-ing is, I believe, a collection of new songs. Bitch was once again very involved in the recording, and helped put the band together. For the first time on Lighten-ing, Ferron’s voice sounds like that of a woman who has been doing this for close to forty years. Even so, this is a project that is well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Shadows: Shadows Of

[purchase]

I’ve written about Gong before, a couple of times, and mentioned them in passing. They are a band that I really enjoy, and nevertheless remain pretty obscure. You could probably get a doctorate in the band’s history—it has formed, splintered, reformed, renamed, and changed members more times than one can count. Nevertheless, there’s a website that tries to chronicle Gong's various changes and permutations (as well as other bands from the Canterbury Scene).

I got into Gong through its late 1970s-early 1980s incarnation as a fusion band led by Pierre Moerlen, featuring lots of mallet percussion. The original, spacy, psychedelic version of the band was less interesting to me—although there was brilliance, there was also lots of weird, hard to listen to stuff to wade through. For the most part, the Moerlen-led band was tight, had interesting songs with an unusual amount of percussion and, maybe most importantly, featured incredible musicians, including Allan Holdsworth on guitar. If you don’t know who Allan Holdsworth was (he passed away earlier this year), find his music on the Internet. Days before his death, a 12 CD box set of his solo albums from 1982-2003, entitled The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever, was released. The title was taken from a proclamation on the cover of an issue of Guitar Player in 2008, and it isn’t an overstatement. That’s not to say that there aren’t other guitarists who changed the way guitar was played, but he’s certainly one of them. He was the favorite guitarist of Eddie van Halen; Tom Morello and Frank Zappa, among others, have cited him as an influence.

But the main reason that I’m going back to the Gong well for this theme, which has many possible topics, is that I recently had a chance to meet another of the musicians who played on this song, percussionist Mino Cinélu. Cinélu later played drums for Holdsworth, was in Weather Report, played with, among others, Pat Metheny, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Sting, Kate Bush, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis, and led his  own bands. Mino participated in a panel that I attended recently about copyright law and music, which was led and organized by my friend Heather--who makes her second appearance in SMM--and also featured prominent lawyers and a musicologist who have been involved in some of the most well-known music copyright cases in recent years. Although I’m a lawyer, that’s not my field, and it was fascinating.

Afterwards, we, of course, repaired to the bar for drinks, and I had a chance to chat with Mino, mentioning that I was a huge fan of Gong (particularly the one album of theirs that he appeared on), and Holdsworth, and had participated in an interview with Pierre Moerlen when he, and another formation of Gong, played at Princeton when I was a student. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy, and we’ve been in contact a few times since, most recently to confirm that he, in fact, performed in the live version of “Shadows Of” from the video above, because the Internet shockingly had conflicting information.

It was recorded at the Reading Festival in 1976, and featured Pierre Moerlen and his brother Benoit, also a percussionist, Holdsworth, bass player Francis Moze, percussionist Mirelle Bauer, woodwind player Didier Malherbe and Cinélu. Although the sound quality isn’t great, the performance is, despite the fact that it lacks the amazing acoustic guitar solo of the original, which was a rarity for Holdsworth (or, for that matter, Malherbe's great flute solo).

The Reading Festival that year was a prog-fest, although not exclusively. Other performers included Camel, Phil Manzanera/801, and Brand X. Other non-prog acts included AC/DC (listed in very small type), Black Oak Arkansas, Rory Gallagher (both in very big type), Ted Nugent, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. And, as they say, many, many more.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Shadows: Optikler




No longer available!


I succumbed to the initial "The Shadows" options. Granted, there are fewer and fewer people who would make that association, but I am one of them.

It's not that I actually followed/listened to the Shadows. Mostly, that was just a little before "my time" (but not by much), but I knew their sound.

When I was about 12, there was a band at the local college on the next hill over from where I lived and they had a rock band that practiced loud and long every day. We could hear their noise at that distance, and at least once I trekked to see the source: tangles of cords, amps, mic stands ... all well beyond my experience as someone who played Mozart on an alto recorder.
Little did I know that they were practicing for the "nationals"; that year, they won the most prestigious Pop Music award in the country. Their style - if not their influence, was clearly "The Shadows". Well, maybe not. For the most part, the sound that an electric guitar produced (and they would not have had the latest equipment) sounded like The Shadows. (Even early Beatles have that raw sound)

This past week, I was even more surprised to see that the two songs I recall them playing are actually available on YouTube: who would have imagined that songs from a long defunct, short-lived school band from Turkey would be posted on YouTube - my sense of what is YouTube-worthy is clearly not so accurate. That said, it does allow me to share something you would likely never have heard.
And it sounds a lot like The Shadows - even when they play Peter, Paul and Mary.

Check it out.

The second clip appears to be an original: The song title, translated is "Village Girl", but the style is still predominantly Shadows, and it is the "B" side of the Peter Paul and Mary hit that won them the national pop music championships back in 1967.



For comparison: the Shadows

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shadows: Shadow and Jimmy

Was (Not Was): Shadow and Jimmy

[purchase]

What lurks in the shadows? For the next two weeks, we will be shadowing musicians as they explore that question. Taken literally, a shadow as an image created when a solid object blocks light from a small area. It is when the word is considered as a metaphor that things get interesting, and songwriters get inspired. A shadow can be an image of a person, and it can become distorted by the angle of the light or the contours of the surface on which it is cast. So it is not the same as the person who cast it, merely a memory or a distorted impression. “Shadow” is also a term that may be used to describe a ghost or apparition, a supernatural after image if you will. We will be exploring how songwriters work with these ideas over the course of our theme. But first, here is a much simpler explanation. In Shadow and Jimmy, Shadow just a man’s name.

Shadow and Jimmy comes from Was (Not Was)’s 1988 album What Up, Dog?. The album represented the pinnacle of the band’s success, spawning six singles, but somehow Shadow and Jimmy was never even a flip side. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I am at a loss to explain it. The song features a great lead vocal by Sweet Pea Atkinson over a backing track that has the classic feel of songs like Spanish Harlem. The song was a cowrite by David Was and Elvis Costello. David and Don Was would often bring in unexpected artists on their Was (Not Was) projects, and Don especially would later parlay the resulting connections into a very successful career as a producer. The song itself presents a portrait of two men who never finished growing up. As the lyric says, they were “always yesterday’s news”, which, in a sense, makes them both shadows. To me, they represent the parts of maleness that most of us outgrew once we left high school. They never make the leap in their thinking from the idea of girls to that of women. But they are never quite alone as a result, because they have each other. So ultimately, the song is a celebration of a friendship. It may be that some listeners didn’t know what to make of the relationship described in the song. You could dismiss the characters as losers, but Costello and Was don’t do that. Neither character has any success with the opposite sex, and it is not for lack of wanting it. But the songwriters do not want us to pity them; we are asked instead to find beauty in their loyalty to each other. Maybe the song was not a single because not enough listeners could make that leap, but Was, Costello, Atkinson, and the backing band do everything you could ask to make it possible.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Someday August 29 1968



purchase [Chicago Transit Authority] (because the whole album is a classic, not just this song)


Chicago, at one one of their more political moments (68-69) used the sound-track from a street protest where the discernible chant in the background is "The whole world is watching". Those may not be the actual words heard on the streets today, but it is certainly no less true.


The effect of the chaos, cacophony that acts as the intro to the song carries with it images of confusion, chaos, hate and fear ("... faces full of ...")

Typical of Chicago's style, the song makes great use of horns: there's an in-built urgency/blast behind any horn section, and it does a lot for this piece: kind of a punctuation at just the right time - a punch to add an element of urgency to the chaos.

In light of various points of chaos around the world, it might be best to consider a line or two from the lyrics:



Someday you will see how long we've waited for the time ... show you how we've got to get together with you all...

Someone once said "Those who cant remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos


Ian Dury and many others: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos
[purchase]

Aaah, synergy! Over at Cover Me, I have a piece about early Stiff Records artist Wreckless Eric, featuring covers of his most famous song, “Whole Wide World” (although maybe not so famous, because my wife claims never to have heard the song before reading my post). In the course of that article, I mentioned the “Live Stiffs” tour from 1977 which featured Wreckless Eric and other Stiff artists of the era. (I’ve written about the tour here, too.)

Originally, the plan was for all of the acts to rotate in the running order, but it soon became clear that the clear choice for ending the show was Ian Dury & the Blockheads, and the obvious choice for the encore would be their anthem, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” which would include the other members of the tour.

The version that appeared on the Life Stiffs album was titled “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos,” because, well, it pretty much devolves into chaos. The song begins with Dury introducing the performers while the band vamps, before he yells out “Cut out the fucking spitting,” presumably to the audience, but it might have been to his fellow musicians, I guess. He brings on a few more people, apparently calling for more cables, before saying, “OK, we’ll bring a few more out in a minute, we’re going to start the fucking thing.”

Dury starts singing the song, occasionally ceding lead vocals to others. At one point, he yells out “Nick Lowe, Nick Lowe,” presumably because the Basher came on stage, but another singer, maybe Wreckless Eric, echoes it, as if it was a call and response lyric. (Sort of reminds me of one of my favorite moments from Life of Brian). Dury then changes the lyrics to replace the phrase “cake of liberty” with “cake of Wreckless Eric,” before a wailing sax solo by Davey Payne. At which point, the song turns into a jam, with the singers basically chanting the title, before a big finish.

There were probably 4 drummers, a bunch of guitarists and singers, one sax player, and some keyboard and bass players, all packed on what is likely a small club stage. In a word, it was probably chaos. And probably an enormous amount of fun, except for the fucking spitting.

The song was, not surprisingly, popular, when I was at WPRB in the late 1970s-early 80s. One Saturday morning, my parents were driving down to Princeton to go to the football game, so I arranged to be on the air so that they could hear me. Being the cheeky lad that I was, I made sure that “S&D&R&R” was played, and I wished that all my listeners would partake in the titular items. My father never let me forget that.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: Twisted

Wardell Gray: Twisted

[purchase]

Our theme might have produced more posts by now if it was “mental illness”. That is certainly one way to approach it, although we have already seen that Chaos/ Confusion is broader than that. So this post could actually spark an argument as to whether the song fits our current theme at all. I feel that it does, because of the merits of the song itself, and also because of confusion over who wrote it.

I first heard Twisted as done by Joni Mitchell. I don’t know if it was a single, but it was all over FM radio in 1974. I was 14 that year, and I just assumed that Joni Mitchell wrote the song. What does a 14 year old know? I knew that I immediately loved the song, and I still do. It introduced me to jazz singing, and that at in tern opened my ears to jazz in general. But I did not know until much later that the original version of Twisted was a jazz instrumental by Wardell Gray. Gray is one of those respected figures in jazz history that you come to hear of, but it’s hard to name anything he did. Partly, this is because he was best known as a sideman. Also, although we tend to think of jazz in the period following World War II as a New York thing, Gray was part of a lively scene in Los Angeles that probably should be better known. Certainly, Twisted deserved the fame it would later achieve, and it’s a shame Gray does not get more credit for the song.

Lambert Hendricks and Ross: Twisted

[purchase]

As great as Joni Mitchell’s Twisted is, she isn’t even the one who wrote the lyrics. That was Annie Ross. In 1952, Ross was asked by the head of her record company to write words to a sax solo. Ross later said in an interview that she chose Twisted because of the possibilities of the title. She decided to write a spoof of psychoanalysis, and completed the lyrics in one night. The song is an example of vocalese, a term which did not exist at the time. Basically, vocalese is doing what Ross did here, taking an instrumental piece and writing words for it. Lambert Hendricks and Ross were pioneers of vocalese. They would later be a major inspiration for the group Manhattan Transfer, who would cover many of their songs. Another great name in vocalese, if you want to explore, is Eddie Jefferson.

Joni Mitchell: Twisted

[purchase]

I still love Joni Mitchell’s version of Twisted. Mitchell made the song her own, and the joy of singing it comes through loud and clear. She also made two minor changes to the lyrics. Ross sings, “That’s why I drank a fifth of vodka one night”, but Mitchell sings, “That’s why I got into the vodka one night.” Also, Ross sings, “the reasoning and the logic that went on in my head”, while Mitchell has, “the idiomatic logic that went on in my head.”

Jane Monheit: Twisted

[purchase]

So, regarding the lyrics, who is right? Well, there is nothing to stop the next artist who performs Twisted from singing the words either way. Jane Monheit is certainly aware of Joni Mitchell, having covered A Case of You. But Monheit chose to go back to the Ross lyrics for her wonderful version of Twisted.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Grateful Dead




There's a lot about the Grateful Dead that could be included under the heading of chaos.

Carol Brightman's book about the band is appropriately titled Sweet Chaos. Reviewer David Hadju is not as kind on either the book or the band as Rolling Stone is. (Read the NYT review here).

As tour manager Sam Cutler from the early 70s notes in the 6 part Amazon series called Long Strange Trip, the band's lack of a leader meant a fair amount of chaos reigned, that decisions were difficult to make. Garcia ends up being a reluctant leader in the public eye, but it is the last thing he really wants.

One of the outstanding decisions the band does make, however, is their concert taping policy: scores of fans would show up to concerts with sophisticated taping equipment - with the band's blessing. In the Amazon material, Garcia comments that once the band has played their show, he is more than happy for that night's material to be of use to other people since he is done with it. It's that policy that makes it easy to share this with you.

Most shows had two sets: a more structured sequence of their classic, recognizable songs and a less structured set that some of the band describe as part of their role as travel enablers: aiming to take the audience on a trip.

From the hundreds of free recordings available at the Internet Archive, you can listen to versions of the same songs done over the years and hear the variations in solos, vocals and improvisation. "Playing in the Band" might be 7 minutes one night and 23 the next. Another song might begin as a kind of wandering cacophony before breaking into its recognizable form. Others just wander in loosely structured chaos, such as this version of "Space"

for more tunes from that particular concert (04/07/85 at Philly's Spectrum) click here.