Saturday, May 27, 2017

Gold: The Golden Vanity

Rory Block: The Golden Vanity


Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, Ed Trickett: The Golden Vanity


Sam Kelly: The Golden Vanity


Unlike in my last post, there is no need for make to make the case for The Golden Vanity as a folk song. Instead, the song and the versions offered here give a great example of the folk process. What are now traditional songs once served a role in society that is filled now with far less artistry by tabloid newspapers. In a culture that was mostly illiterate, songs like The golden Vanity were how the masses got their news. As stories like this got told and retold, different singers would add their own agendas to the lyrics. The Golden Vanity may have begun as a tale about a specific sea captain. The singer might have left him unnamed, secure in the knowledge that his audience would know who he was. But the song is also a tale of the unfairness of the class structure of British society. There are versions that present the tragic conclusion as inevitable, citing how impudent the cabin boy was to expect to be rewarded for his efforts. The universality of the main theme of the song assured it a long life that extended well beyond the life of the people it was written about. So the enemy is often a “Turkish Revelry”, but sometimes it is a Spanish ship. Likewise, it is important to some singers that the enemy deserves their fate, so there is a verse that describes them as sinners, playing cards and shooting dice as they sink into the sea. Rory Block gives us a lyric where the crew give the cabin boy an honorable death, as if the teller is a former shipmate struck by pangs of guilt. It is unlikely, in the actual event, that the captain would have allowed this, but it puts the blame on him alone for what happened. Gordon Bok and crew give us an exchange between the captain and the cabin boy that exposes the villainy of the captain for all to see; here, the reason the cabin boy does not take revenge is an act of class solidarity.

Another aspect of the folk process is on display here as well. All three versions here are recognizably the same song. But Rory Block and Bok, Muir and Trickett take very different approaches musically, although both are ballads. Sam Kelly turns the song into an uptempo burner, and it really cooks. As these songs pass from news items to parts of the traditional culture, each new artist uses their unique talents to put the song over the best way they can. There are times, like this one, where there never becomes an “official” way to do the song, so each artist must make it their own. I could have presented many more versions, including classic takes by Pete Seeger, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter Paul and Mary, but the versions I have chosen suffice to illustrate the point.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Gold : Gold Town

Tommy Keene : Gold Town

    In 1986, a year that jangly guitars were still all the rage on college radio stations like mine, Washington D.C.'s Tommy Keene released one of the year's finest power pop albums. Songs From the Film was Keene's major label debut. Produced by Beatles audio engineer Geoff Emerick, it's a collection of straight ahead tunes that grow on you ten, twenty, even thirty years later. 

   I caught Keene's act from the back of the 9:30 Club in his hometown a year or two earlier and I wasn't impressed. From the back of the room, he looked like Alan Thicke. In my hometown of New Orleans, the Jesuit owned TV station had replaced David Letterman with Thicke's show Thicke of the Night. We hated Alan Thicke. So that counted as strike one. Keene's reedy voice reminded me of Let's Active's Mitch Easter who seemed to be constantly replacing female bandmates taller than him. Strike two. And the songs may have sounded too straight forward to a guy like me, who considered himself a music snob. Strike three.

 Then, in 1984, Tommy Keene released a pair of EPs on the Dolphin label that sounded great with the kind of songs I liked to play on my college radio show ( Back in the USA MC5, Marshall Crenshaw, the dBs, R.E.M., The Byrds, The Beau Brummels,  the garage rock bands from the Nuggets Compilation, you get the idea). One of them, Run Now, produced by T Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop EP poll and is now included on the Songs From the Film CD.

  Keene never made it big. But take a listen to  "Gold Town" and you'll be left wondering why.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gold: James Bond

purchase [Lulu]

[Un] fortuitously, this comes more or less upon Roger Moore's demise. I had already started in on this topic when I read the news this week about his passing.

More than once, the James Bond series has shown its affinity for gold: the word appears in more than one film title: Goldfinger, GoldenEye, The Man with a Golden Gun. And the metal itself appears even more often - you know, the root of all evil.  Ask yourself: Why does one rock dug out of the ground have such value? Go figure. Gold ... Silver...  Diamonds and more.

The James Bond film series is a serious production process - not least the selection of its music - both throughout each film, but more emphatically, in the film's  intro section. Over the years, the honor of singing the films' intro music has fallen to  the top of the pop: Paul McCartney, Louis Armstrong, Nancy Sinatra, Carly Simon, Rita Coolridge, Tina Turner  ... the list goes on and on. Kind of like  how the list of Bond films that include <gold> goes on and on.

The Bond <gold> selection I highlight  spans a number of musical genres, but there seems to be an over-arching theme to them all: lots of [studio] production. I don't mean to necessarily place this in a bad sense. In fact, the Bond music over-production is appropriate, but it's obvious. That's probably a given for anything Bond - the whole operation is tightly managed - and that's part of what makes the series classic.

Herewith, 3 golden Bond theme songs:





Shirley Bassey:

Gold: Killerman Gold Posse

French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson: Killerman Gold Posse

A theme within a theme—two “Gold” related posts about 1980s Richard Thompson side projects. To follow up last week’s post about the Golden Palominos, this week we look at French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson, a more traditional “supergroup” in form, if not sound or popularity. FFKT released two albums, 1987’s Live, Love, Larf & Loaf, from which today’s featured song comes, and Invisible Means, released in 1990.

Thompson is both a personal favorite, and a SMM regular. His cohorts in FFKT, though, are somewhat lesser known. John French is a drummer, although he contributed some vocals to the project, and is probably best known as “Drumbo” from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Fred Frith, best known as a guitarist, although he mostly played bass and violin in this group, was a founder of the English avant-garde rock group Henry Cow, and has played with and produced a wide variety of mostly experimental and unconventional musicians (including Golden Palomino Bill Laswell). Frith is Professor of Composition in the Music Department at Mills College and is also a writer. Henry Kaiser is another experimental guitarist and ethnomusicologist whose body of work stretches across the spectrum of jazz, rock, electronic and world music.

As could be expected from this crew, Live, Love, Larf & Loaf is an eclectic set of music which seems to also reflect the members’ off-kilter senses of humor. The album includes, among other things, experimental, noisy songs, an Okinawan folk song, a version of the Beach Boys' “Surfin’ U.S.A.” played in the style of Chuck Berry before descending into chaos, and a few songs that sound like slightly twisted Richard Thompson songs.

“Killerman Gold Posse” is one of these, a song about a London youth gang, in which Thompson recounts the gang’s practices of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, although he notes that “the poor are we, and the poor are we.” However, the narrative is interrupted by a chorus, which sings, “We are children, please don't take our freedom away.”

It is an odd song, and one that probably is exactly long enough at 1:47.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Gold: Days of Gold

Purchase The Cadillac Three's Days of Gold

The Cadillac Three is a three-piece, hot-shit, slide guitar, honky-tonk stompin’ outfit that churns out sizzlin’ hot southern-fried country rock. The band is a showcase for lead singer and songwriter Jaren Johnston’s considerable and prodigious talents as a hit maker. Johnston has been around Nashville for a long time (he literally grew up at the Grand Ol’ Opry, where his father was band drummer). But, what sets him apart is his job that has him writing hits for everyone from Keith Urban to Tim McGraw—Johnston maintains a publishing deal with Warner Brothers while still fronting The Cadillac Three.  Which is pretty amazing, but when you listen to the swaggering, brawling, booze-soaked country rock of the TC3, its hard to think of the likes of Keith Urban or any other pop country signer being anywhere near the same league as Johnston’s band.

TC3 channels the best of all genre’s of rock: there’s the laid back lyrical sense of breathing in deep the humid, bug filled air of a backyard party somewhere way down south, to the hyped up giddy kind of buzz that comes from cold beers and shots of Old # 7. Johnston’s a visual writer, who turns phrases expertly and can delve in country clichés without being cliché in the least. TC3 captures everything you might love, or not even realize you love, about not just southern/ country rock, but rock ‘n roll in general: exuberant, down and dirty, crunchy and raw.

Take a listen to “Days of Gold”, a hymn to good time southern summers—whiskey, beers, a smoking grill—set to a quick time, hand clapping, boot stomping lap-steel-driven beat. TC3 are kind of the best kind of party you can find on disc: down home and all revved up. Here’s to summer and all the parties to come!

I'll post two versions of the song: the original, and live version, so you can get a taste of what these three guys can do, which is pretty much tear it up!

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Iron, actually, iron pyrites, but, given its name, not to say the myriad songs so entitled, hopefully quite worthy of a mention here. And clearly a theme of some inspiration, the age old tale of being taken in by all that glitters. Akin to buying a record unheard on the strength of a review. Or a cover.

The Stone Roses were huge for a moment at the rump of the '80s, their debut single blazing a trail that could never quite be replicated, a blend of dance and guitars, heralding the era of 'Mad'chester. For a while (that still lingers) all drums sounded like this, leading rather than riding. I found it exhilarating and still do, but the combination of management and internal rancour effectively leaves it a much better epitaph than the much delayed later product and ill-advised ongoing reformation. Lyrically this is an odd concoction, seemingly both a warning and expectation, about the discovery/dessert of riches the final lines almost apocryphal:

'Gold's just around the corner
Breakdown's coming up round the bend'

Graham Parker and the Rumour are/were, in my opinion, the closest thing to Bruce Springsteen produced in the UK, Parker's gritty songs and presentation pre-dating the passion of punk by a year or two too soon, arguably then diminished by its onslaught. The Rumour were the epitome of classic bar band, grizzled pros even then, most still playing, not least when quirk and circumstance put the original line-up back on the road a few years back. Parker was the angriest man in music, spitting his words out with a venom barely believable from his slight frame. On his last tour of Britain, last year, in duo form with the exemplary Brinsley Schwarz on guitar, he seems finally to have found some mellow. The lyrics here seem to suggest a knowingness, suggesting not only is the music biz paved with fool's gold, but the searching of it is a fool's errand. Or it could be about girls:

'I'm a fool so I'm told I get left in the cold
'Cause I will search the world for that fool's gold, fool's gold'

Ryan Adams is almost frustratingly prolific and terrifyingly inconsistent, at least in live performance, previous shows often marred by his various demons. The story around Fools' Gold is almost typical of his battles. Gold was the name of his 2nd long player, to my mind his best, but not what he wanted or had intended, the idea being of a double set, thwarted by his record company. Some songs came in a limited edition extra disc, others sneaked out, like this, as a b-side for a single, the rest sneaking out as a bootlegged recording. As is so often the way with Adams, his best work is sometimes the hardest to source. The words perhaps display a well-learnt cynicism:

'Fool's gold can buy you anything you want
Fool's gold, fool's gold'

What hasn't ever been said about Amy Winehouse that I could add here, the backline almost lifted from any of the recent posts about Songs From Movies About Musicians,  riches and recognition to ruin. Whilst only putting out 2 records, she was prolific enough to have a swell of other material, b-sides, outtakes and more, and this is one, appearing on a later de-luxe edition of Frank. Of all the 4 songs I feature, it is lyrically the most poignantly apposite, a warning as to the falsehoods that can arise from the entrapment of a band of gold on your finger:

'For me it ain't real, it's fools gold
There too many fools sold, not an excuse, oh
For me it ain't real, it's fools gold
I don't hear everything I'm told'

There are other songs by other artists about this shiny deceitful stone, from Thin Lizzy to One Direction, citing it both a subject and a metaphor for the desperation of hope versus the disappointment of discovery. How apt for popular music, this most fickle of industries.

So, what Fool's Gold old are you going to buy? Fill yer boots!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Gold: Fields of Gold

Sting: Fields of Gold


When I first heard Fields of Gold, I thought I was hearing a traditional English folk song that had somehow escaped my notice. I am no expert, but surely I would have heard someone’s version of a song this good before this? The song features the repetition of alternating lines “fields of barley” and fields of gold” in a way that can be found in many traditional English songs. But there was a reason I had not heard the song before. Fields of Gold is a Sting original, although it shows a strong knowledge of English folk music. This is a side of Sting he had not really shown before. We knew he loved rock and reggae from the sound of his band the Police. On his first solo album, Sting returned to his jazz roots. Since then, he has explored classical music and continued to make his own brand of what must be called pop for lack of a better term. Fields of Gold is the only original folk song of his that I have heard, but it really works. I could hear in my head a more “traditional” arrangement the first time I heard it.

Eva Cassidy: Fields of Gold


In searching for such a version, my first stop was Eva Cassidy’s version. Here we can ignite a whole argument about what is and is not “folk”. Cassidy didn’t care. While she is a revered figure among folk fans, her music is not purely folk. She drew songs from a rich array of genres and sources, and her arrangements were not always what one might consider folk. But if you consider the role that folk music served in society when the songs we are most familiar with were being written, you realize that songs like Froggy Went A’Courting were the pop music of their day. On that basis, any song is fair game, and it is the job of any modern folk artist to make their choice of songs their own. Eva Cassidy did that job brilliantly.

Richard Bennett: Fields of Gold


Still, I wanted to see if I could find an even folkier version without sacrificing either quality or authenticity. Bennett’s Fields of Gold still isn’t what I heard in my head. For that I would need an Irish singer, backed by just guitar and uillean pipes. But Bennett does the next best thing, giving me a small acoustic ensemble, and featuring the cello in the role I assigned to the piper. Bennett’s voice is perfect here. Like Cassidy, Bennett takes his material from a wide range of sources, and he too makes his songs his own.

Fields of Gold has become a standard since Sting wrote it. You can find multiple versions on Amazon by looking either for wedding music or lullabyes. There are also many covers of varying quality and in various genres. So the song may have started life as a Sting original, but I would argue that the place it has taken in our culture now qualifies it as a folk song.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gold: Heart of Gold

purchase [Heart of Gold]

Sad disclosure to apologize for the quality of my research: Turkey continues to block Wikipedia - limiting my ability to access further steps related to my ideas. (It needs to be said)

Crosby, Stills and Nash came out with their first album at the end of the 60s. A veritable powerhouse/Supergroup that included some of the best from Bufallo Springfield, the Byrds ... the top of the charts. (And as JDavid just said, they had their personality problems.)

The album [link] they came out with in '69 includes a collection of rock classics: Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Marrakesh Express, Guinevere,Wooden Ships, Helplessly Hoping, Long Time Gone. Heck .. they're all good.  The collaboration lead them to Woodstock. No small feat.

It appears that it was Ahmet Ertegun (back once again to Turkey!) who convinced CSN that another Atlantic artist by the name of Neil Young might fit in with the original 3. It wasn't exactly a smooth transition, but ... the result was historical: CSNY.

Neil Young brought in an element of edgy-ness, and probably some additional discord in the process: it's hard enough to get 3 musicians aligned. Adding one more only exacerbates the issues. But the roughness of Young's style took the group to a new level and arguably maintained, if not increased their appeal. Thankfully, they managed to hold it together for longer than most people predicted, and we ended up with Deja Vu and 4 Way Street as they helped lead the political voice of America into the 70's.

In '71, Neil Young came out with Harvest - another rock classic that includes Old Man, The Needle and the Damage Done and Heart of Gold. The album was panned by critics but the public was of another mind - one of his most successful works to this day.

Further disclosure: 2-3 years back our blogger Andy LaRayGun, some friends and I did a Neil Young cover at about this time of year in front of maybe 500 students. Andy on the left, me next to him (black guitar doing the vocals)


Gold: The Golden Palominos

Golden Palominos: Boy(Go)

The legendary supergroups like Cream or Blind Faith or CSN&Y were attempts to join musicians famous from other projects into a, well, super group, but they often foundered due to the conflicting egos of the members. The Golden Palominos, often referred to as an “indie-rock supergroup,” was different, gathering changing groups of generally less famous artists for each album.

Originally founded in the early 1980s by Anton Fier, a drummer who had been an early member of, among other bands, The Feelies, the first incarnation of the Golden Palominos was filled with avant-garde musicians like Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay and Bill Laswell, many of whom were influenced by the “No Wave” movement and often had as much jazz influence as indie-rock. Their self-titled debut was experimental, noisy and even featured turntable scratching, a rarity outside of hip-hop in that era.

My introduction to the band was from their very different second album, 1985’s Visions of Excess, which was significantly more accessible. The original attraction was “Boy (Go),” featuring lead vocals from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and guitar from Richard Thompson. The album also featured vocals from John Lydon (a/k/a Johnny Rotten) and supergroup veteran Jack Bruce, as well as the debut appearance of singer Syd Straw, who is on the list of people who should be way more famous. Despite the unusual roster of musicians, the album hangs together pretty well, and is never dull. Also, there’s a great cover of Moby Grape’s “Omaha,” also sung by Stipe.

The Golden Palominos put out albums every few years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a few of which I own, with a constantly changing group of performers, including Matthew Sweet, T-Bone Burnett, Bernie Worrell, Bob Mould and Bootsy Collins, with Stipe, Thompson and Straw dropping by occasionally, joining core members Fier, bassist Laswell and guitarist Nicky Skopelitis for, not surprisingly, varied sounds and results. In 2012 Fier, and a different group of musicians joined Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ & Cryin’ for a new album, A Good Country Mile. That album includes a cover of a Jason Isbell written Drive-By Truckers song, “Never Gonna Change.” (Self-promoting side note—Drivin’ & Cryin’ was the band that Trucker Patterson Hood was opening for when he saw the incident that inspired the song “Opening Act,” which you can read more about here.)

Give Fier and his Golden Palominos sidekicks credit for pushing the envelope, trying new things and always making interesting music. They cannot be pigeonholed, and if that hindered them from gaining an identity and becoming a true “supergroup,” it never prevented them from following their muse wherever it took them. In a world filled with artists mining the same groove until it turns into a rut (thanks, Nick Lowe), it is refreshing, if not always easy, to listen to a project like the Golden Palominos that constantly challenges.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I already had been a fan of the Stranglers when this came out, but my appreciation went atmospheric on this release, sounding nothing like anything else around at the time, a wistful harpsichord led ballad in what seemed to be waltz time. It was also quite different to the music of the Stranglers output ahead of that, previous offerings being of a more aggressive mien, barely suppressed violence and misogyny lurking beneath the surface of not only the songs, but also their audience.

In 1981, when the song came out,  I was both married and gainfully employed in my first job as a junior hospital doctor. Hardly, then, typical punk demographic, yet the UK punk explosion of 1975/6 had earlier grabbed my imagination, shortening my hair and straightening my trousers. I felt, it's true, a little too square for the Pistols and the Clash, but the Stranglers were older, uglier and, a bonus, had a keyboard sound redolent of my beloved Doors. They were the first band in that idiom I caught in a live context, on a bill with U.S. band the Dictators in support, at fabled London venue, the Roundhouse, my first and only visit. November 1977, still a student. Of course I was scared, but it was terrific, taking the opportunity to catch them whenever I could, including the infamous open air concert at Battersea Park, with a newly solo Peter Gabriel amongst the support acts. (Infamous? Well, let's say that the headline act were faithfully nice'n'sleazy......... )

But respectability and commitment had to figure in my life, so it was a couple of years before I revisited the legacy of the band, hearing the eponymous song of this piece burst out of the radio one lunchtime. I was now too 'old' for the more dance-oriented Radio 1, the youth radio of the nation, moving to the young fogey-dom of Radio 2. Lo and behold, this staider and more conservative channel had made this song, by the 'Bring on the Nubiles' hitmakers their record of the week. And they were on Top of the Pops, miming valiantly, the impossible to hum melody imprinting in my brain. What strange things could the lanky Hugh Cornwell be singing about, his voice now a croon compared to the spat out venom of yore? Well the drummer, Jet Black, one part of the melodic inspiration behind the tune, along with keyboard man, Dave Greenfield, suggested it may have been Marmite, which I have mentioned before, a yeast based spread either loved or hated. Cornwell suggested possibly a woman, but his already well-known lifestyle and habits probably gave a better idea. This was a man, after all, who had spent time in London's Pentonville prison for possession of Class A drugs, as described here. Shock and horror, Radio 2 seen to be promoting a song about the joys of Heroin.

By now the Stranglers had almost totally morphed their earlier sound into a far more refined and delicate style, described by some commentators as 'Baroque Pop', a phrase I like, and I saw them a couple of more times. Eventually the steam ran out, or possibly the elephant in the room of 'musical differences', and after a couple of lack-lustre cover versions, Cornwell left the band. The remaining 3 members lurched on, and still do, with various replacements, never quite finding their feet or their glory days. Cornwell has embarked on a solo career of mixed provenance, still the highlights of his shows being when he plays some old. Now, if one day they could patch up their differences and play together as the original band, that would be worth seeing, but the chances of that fade by the year. Somehow the spectre of notoriously spiky black belt in Karate bassist, Jean Jacques Burnel, cosying back up with Cornwell seems unlikely, not least as Jet Black, already in his 40s in their 70s heyday, has had to retire from live shows. As I said, they were already older back in the day.

But the song remains a classic and one I return to often. Remarkably, it has been covered, albeit often in spoof or post-modern ironic style, never matching the original. The version below, actually featuring Cornwell, is, however quite fun!

As a final aside, and one that gives me great pleasure, is the knowledge that Cornwell, junkie post-graduate research chemist, was actually a contemporary of Richard Thompson, guitar hero and icon, ex of Fairport Convention. Indeed, as school mates together, Thompson had included Cornwell, on bass, in his first band, 'Emil and the Detectives'. Which led to a later and somewhat unlikely reunion onstage. As Thompson regularly says, or sings, 'It all Comes Around Again'.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians/ Gold: Golden Slumbers/ The End

k d lang: Golden Slumbers/ The End


Are tap dancers musicians? Because, if they aren’t, making this a transition song from our Songs From Movies About Musicians theme is admittedly a stretch. The main character is a penguin from a group who are great singers, but he can not sing. Instead, his talent is tap dancing, and the movie is about him proving his value to a culture that initially rejects him. Themewise, it only makes matters worse when you know that the song Golden Slumbers/ The End was later used in a movie that definitely would fit both themes: last year’s Sing. There are two reasons why I didn’t want to use Jennifer Hudson’s version from that film: the movie and recording are too new; and k d lang’s version from Happy Feet is just so much better.

Golden Slumbers/ The End is a song that invites overblown bombastic treatments. It is all too tempting to give the song a big production, and have everything crescendo to a big finish. k d lang and producer T-Bone Burnette know better. They understand the power of subtlety here, and they know they have the singer to pull it off. So lang is backed here by piano and the percussion of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, plus very light orchestration and stand-up bass. Burnette trusts his singer to do the rest, and she does, beautifully.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Anvil, Metal on Metal

Purchase Anvil, Metal on Metal from the documentary, Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

OK, I’m going to start this the wrong way, like some apologist whose nothing but guilty of the thing he’s apologizing for…what do they call that, when someone effusively apologizes for something in order to make it seem as if they aren’t guilty of the exact thing they are expressing shame about… hypocrisy?

And what exactly will I be protesting? That I don’t like Metal. I really don’t. I did. But that was a long time ago. I’d rather you not know that. But, now that I’ve written it, let’s leave it where it is.

I’m a little embarrassed at the fact that I used to think the likes of Poison, Cinderella, Dokken, et al were the shit. Big S Shit. I wanted desperately to be able to grown my hair long. I wore a torn and frayed denim jacket, festooned with as many patches as I could fit on it: Def Leppard, Van Halen, Judas Priest, et al. The main back patch was of Iron Maiden’s Eddie, dressed a British infantryman from their greatest song, “The Trooper.”  I wore wrester’s high-top shoes (I don’t know where that came from, but it was the metal thing to do). I wore a mullet since my hair is naturally curly and the only part that would grow reasonably straight was the back. I looked like a tool. 

I was abruptly pulled out of my teenage haze of hairspray and spandex and Ibanez guitars when someone introduced me to R.E.M. It was a simple change over, like a trigger pull. I went from listening to bad music, because that’s what everyone else was listening, to being a music snob. Someone who listened to good music.  Someone who was openly critical of other’s musical tastes.  I would hazard that a lot of you were/are the same…you know who you are. It’s OK; music appreciation is part intellectual, part tribal, and all an affair of the heart. My development of said musical appreciation  is a long history, of which I gone into at varying degrees in my writing for this blog, so I won’t digress too deeply into my own tutelage and history.  Except to say: sometimes your past isn’t at as far a remove as you’d like to think.

Exhibit A: My Spotify library has many of Iron Maidens albums
Exhibit B: I have an ipod playlist called “Hair Metal Faves”
Exhibit C: my obsession with the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Directed by their former roadie, this film is a documentary about Anvil, a little known metal band, and, is simply put: brilliant. It is both heartbreaking and hilarious, but in the end, as uplifting a human story as I’ve ever seen. The “tragedy” of the band fuels the emotional drive of the story, and in a sense proves that the tragedy need not be one that moves us to despair to raise the spirit to a place one finds a sense of thankfulness or self-perspective.  To get a sense of the film, you should know: Anvil are a Canadian metal outfit that put out an album in 1982 that is considered by most metal luminaries as singularly influential. Metallica and Anthrax, Slash, Lemmy, Slayer all fill the film with stunning testimony to the energy and excitement that Anvil brought to the stage and how they seemed poised to reach the very pinnacle of metal triumph.

And then…nothing. Anvil disappeared from the main stream and seemingly into the lore of bands that “might of.” But, they never really went away. The film details the story of how mainstays Steve “Lips” Kudlow (lead vox) and drummer Robb Reiner toiled through decades of obscurity and all the inglorious humiliations of being a band that had tasted success but never quite made it. Nor ever quit. There’s a lot to this film that makes it great. It is a meditation of youthful ambition, on failure and will. It is about friendship and family, but mostly it’s about grit. About never giving in and never giving up. The movie is at times heartbreaking, but in the end, it’s an important film—the message is powerful:  stick to what you know you want and what you’re capable of, despite what happens along the way and all the people who will tell you that you can’t.

I started off talking about how I was embarrassed to admit I used to be into metal. I’m not saying that Anvil was an amazing band—at least not by my standards. I don’t really see the “influence” that the people in film talk about. But, their story, their singular story, is inspiring, fable-like, joyously uplifting. You don’t have to like metal to hope the members of Anvil have achieved success, finally, and the kind of happiness that would bring. You don’t have to like metal to cheer them at the end of the film, maybe even bang your head, if just a little. Because, despite their “tragic” career arc, what you come away from this film is that Kudlow and Reiner are happy, are capable of being joyful, despite the near surreal oddness and frustration of their band’s story. And that is where the sheer brilliance of this movie, and their story, come to the fore: rarely will you ever see a lesson of determination illustrated and perfectly as than in the story of Anvil.

If you haven’t seen Anvil yet, go get it now. The film will stay with you and you just might get their signature tune, “Metal on Metal”, stuck in your head. Which will be a good thing, especially if you need to get off your ass and do something.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Help!

purchase the film [Help!]
purchase the album [Help!]

You've heard the adage "Good thing come to those that wait." I certainly did because I was brought up the child of missionaries - plenty of Christian mores.

The statement applies here because I have been looking at the Beatles' Help! film as a possible posts, and today's Guardian includes an article about the making of the film. The Guardian article leads off with the comment that the film has been "lost" for 50 years. There are screen shots from the film and some info about the process in the news article, but the [unseen] video itself is up for sale - if you've got $50,000 or so.

Help! from the Beatles comes pretty close to fitting the <Movies About Musicians> theme. It is their second (aiming to build on their success -both after the Hard Days Night film, and their back to back album successes) - but today, the film comes across as almost pathetic .[How the years affect perceptions] What seemed "must view" back in the 60s is now so trite you can hardly watch unless you bring historical perspective glasses with you.

That said  ... Help! has value. The album itself has several classics: Help (of course), Ticket To Ride and You've Got To Hide Your Love Away.


Bootleg Beatles:

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Gimme Shelter

[purchase 20 Feet From Stardom]

One of the best documentaries about musicians was 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, which focused on the background singers that we all have heard, but often don’t recognize by name. Not only was it interesting and filled with great music, the film addresses one of my regular writing subjects—why are some incredibly talented musicians not as famous as they probably should be. 20 Feet discusses many of the reasons—bad advice, bad luck, bad decisions, and even a lack of that certain something that allows you to traverse that 20 feet. I’ve mentioned the film before, in my piece about Darlene Love, who is probably the most famous of the singers featured in the film.

But maybe the most famous vocal discussed in 20 Feet, and for me the most memorable segment, was about Merry Clayton’s searing “rape, murder” vocal part in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Luckily, I don’t have to describe the scene in detail, because the video above is a clip from the movie, in which Clayton and Mick Jagger discuss the circumstances. But if you can’t watch the video, in short strokes, Clayton was called out of bed to sing for a band that she hadn’t heard of, was whisked to the studio, pregnant and in her pajamas, to add a searing and unforgettable part to what would become a classic song. Not only are the vocals powerful, the way her voice cracks only adds to the emotional impact of the part. In the video above, you can hear the isolated vocal tracks, which is cool. Here’s Clayton’s cover of “Gimme Shelter,” featuring occasional Stones sideman Billy Preston:

Clayton, born on Christmas Day (which led to her name) in New Orleans, was a veteran singer by the time the Stones roused her from bed. Her powerful vocals were also featured on, among other songs, Neil Young’s “The Old Laughing Lady,” and Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (reluctantly). While Clayton never covered “Sweet Home,” she did do a great, soulful version of the song that it responded to:

In addition, she has had an acting career, both musically—Clayton was the Acid Queen in the first London stage production of The Who’s Tommy—and in movies and TV. More recently, she contributed vocals to albums by G. Love & Special Sauce and one of my least favorite bands, Coldplay.

Unfortunately, in 2014, Clayton was in a serious car accident that led to her having both legs amputated at the knees. She returned to the public eye in 2015, receiving an award from the Jazz Foundation of America (where Keith Richards performed "Gimme Shelter" in her honor with, among others, fellow 20 Feet star Lisa Fischer, who sang the song for years on tour with the Stones) and supporting Obamacare and the MusicCares charity that installed a chairlift in her home, and reportedly is working on a new album.