Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Andrew Gold: 1951 - 2011

I was very saddened to hear of Andrew Gold's sudden death in his sleep yesterday at the age of 59. Gold was truly a musical phenomenon of the 70s and 80s, and even if his name does not sound familiar, you know his songs.

His two biggest hits were the out-of-left-field 1977 psychodrama "Lonely Boy" and "Thank You For Being A Friend," the latter which went on to be the long-running theme song for the TV show "Golden Girls." While these two songs brought Gold his biggest success, they were far from his best work and don't even hint at the amazing jack-of-all-trades talent he was.

Gold's initial impact came as part of Linda Ronstadt's band in the first half of the 70s, when the singer was in her heyday. He helped pioneer the Ronstadt "Southern California" sound blending rock and country by arranging many of her hits and playing a very distinct twangy guitar. Think about the solo in the middle of Ronstadt's cover of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" and you'll know what I mean. Here's Ronstadt performing it on "The Midnight Special" with Gold on the left behind her.

His background vocals were very distinct on her recordings, and if you go through them, you'll definitely hear all those arranging, musical and vocal trademarks.

When Gold stepped out on his own, it was in the era of multi-instrumentalists, where people like Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder and Dan Fogelberg played nearly every instrument on their albums through the process of overdubbing. Gold mastered the guitar, bass and piano for many of his solo recordings.

While "Lonely Boy" (from his second album) and "Thank You For Being A Friend" (from his third album) brought him the biggest commercial success, it was his 1975 debut album that was by far his best. Loved by the critics and not selling many copies, Andrew Gold (cover seen above) was Southern California rock at its best, with touches of country and pop, but really the first look at his songwriting. We knew about his singing and playing, but man, this guy could write hooks the size of a skyscraper. Expert musicianship, sounding much like those distinct Ronstadt records, and lots of harmonies. Just a great album with 10 absolutely unforgettable songs.

It's also the first time the public got a taste of Gold's twisted sense of humor and storytelling: the ballad "Endless Flight," with some poor guy on a bumpy flight pondering the future of a relationship at the same time... another guy on the lam from a crime warns his girlfriend to "Hang My Picture Straight"....

Even if the record didn't sell, at least Gold got royalties from Leo Sayer's cover of "Endless Flight."

Beyond those two megahits (and writing the theme song for 90's sitcom "Mad About You"), Gold's song were not destined to last, as country/rock fell out of favor and even Ronstadt had to figure out what her next phase was going to be. Gold periodically released albums, including a mesmerizing tongue-in-cheek tribute to 60s psychedelia under pseudonym Fraternal Order of The All called Greetings From Planet Love. That album had a carbon copy Byrds song called "Somewhere In Space And Time," and nods to "Magical Mystery Tour"-era Beatles, and a John Lennon/Bob Dylan combo called "Mr. Plastic Business Man."

Another side project was really something out of a pop lover's dream -- teaming with 10cc's Graham Gouldman in 1988 to form Wax UK, which had a US cult following and something more than that in Europe. They had one fantastic single, "Bridge To Your Heart," which was accompanied by a crazy Peter Gabriel-ish video.

While many people will remember Gold for those two 70s hits, I will remember him for forging a unique rock sound in that era, writing many memorable songs that nobody would exactly call "easy," superb musicianship and frankly, I can't help but admire a guy who was as talented as he was.

He will definitely be missed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gerry Rafferty -- "Baker Street" (1978)

Gerry Rafferty died today at the age of 63 years old after "a long illness."

While the name doesn't ring a bell with many people under the age of 40, I guarantee they've all heard his distinctive voice. I know my kids have. He sang lead on Steelers Wheel's 1972 hit "Stuck In The Middle With You," which of course later went down in cinema history in the famous ear-cutting scene in Quentin Tarantino's 1992 film "Reservoir Dogs."

It wasn't until 1978 that Rafferty achieved his biggest success, the City to City album, which contained several huge hits, but nothing compared to the impact of his "Baker Street" single.

The late 70s was a fruitful period for English singer/songwriters whose sophisticated tunes were carried away by equally imaginative hometown producers. In the hands of mega-producer/engineer Alan Parsons, folkie Al Stewart went through the roof with "Year Of The Cat," "On The Border" and "Time Passages," all elaborately orchestrated productions.

Rafferty followed the same blueprint with City to City, except with a slightly more Scottish flavor. Each song was at least five minutes long, little detailed stories of English lives, and you could best describe them as "sophisticated English folk pop." Producer Hugh Murphy supported each one with the best UK studio musicians, impeccable arrangements, and a warm, homey analog flavor.

"Baker Street" was the album signature song, with a killer saxophone hook that just echoed on and on. Trust me when I say that "Baker Street" was played on every radio station morning, noon, and night. This was another one of those songs where the lyrics were desolate while the melody was deceptively upbeat and happy.

Windin' your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well another crazy day
You'll drink the night away
And forget about everything
This city desert makes you feel so cold.
It's got so many people but it's got no soul
And it's taking you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it had everything

You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you're tryin'
You're tryin' now
Another year and then you'll be happy
Just one more year and then you'll be happy
But you're cryin'
You're cryin' now

Way down the street there's a lad in his place
He opens the door he's got that look on his face
And he asks you where you've been
You tell him who you've seen
And you talk about anything

He's got this dream about buyin' some land
He's gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
And then he'll settle down there's a quiet little town
And forget about everything

But you know he'll always keep movin'
You know he's never gonna stop movin
Cus he's rollin'
He's the rollin' stone

And when you wake up it's a new mornin'
The sun is shinin' it's a new morning
You're goin'
You're goin' home.

While "Baker Street" cleaned up, there were two other singles from the album, "Right Down The Line" and "Home And Dry" which hit the Top 40. I was a big fan of the first song, "The Ark," probably because it was atypically slow for an album opener, as well as the title "City to City" cut because nothing beats a good train song.

Rafferty never achieved anything close to this kind of success again and eventually faded from sight. He showed up on Mark Knopfler's beautiful soundtrack score to "Local Hero." For some reason, I remember reading an interview with him sometime in 2010 -- still as crusty as ever, railing against the recording industry -- but anxious to release more music.

Below are a few videos of Rafferty's hits from City to City -- "Baker Street" in its 4-minute form (originally 6 minutes on the album), "Right Down The Line" and "Home And Dry." Enjoy them -- Rafferty's best gleaming moments in music that he gave us.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Al Kooper -- "(Please Not) One More Time"

When you're the so-called "Zelig of rock and roll," you're entitled to do what you please.

Al Kooper can merit many pages of biography -- from the guy who played organ on Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" to the man who discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Tubes, and perhaps you know he helped found Blood, Sweat & Tears? That's just the tip of the iceberg. Read his web site's bio and his "selected" discography.

Let's turn the dial back to 1977, and Kooper's seventh solo album, Act Like Nothing's Wrong, shows up at the college radio station as well as the school paper's music section. The cover catches my eye because let's face it -- it is damn weird with Kooper's head on a babe's body and the back cover is the reverse. And he is Al Kooper, he's got loads of credentials, and frankly, I didn't know what he sounded like as a solo artist.

Open up the record (on the late lamented United Artists label), and the inner sleeve reads: "Dedicated to my influences"followed by a long, long list of rock, pop, and soul artists. Never has a dedication worked so well on double duty describing what the album actually is.

Kooper has taken a collection of original and semi-obscure tunes and re-arranged them into the many recognizable styles of popular artists of the 70s. The whole album is a fun game of "spot the artist."

His own 60s hit, "This Diamond Ring," is reworked into a minor-key Little Feat funk workout. "Hollywood Vampire" is a paean to the dire L.A. landscape of Joe Walsh and The Eagles, notably the power chords of "Turn To Stone." And yes, that is Mr. Walsh guesting on slide guitar, in case you didn't make the connection.

For this post, I came really close to picking "She Don't Ever Lose Her Groove," a bobbing Al Green tribute where Kooper gets all soulful and hot and bothered, the Tower of Power horns doing a perfect mock-up of Willie Mitchell's old arrangements, and a killer fluid guitar solo at the end.

We went with the ridiculously catchy "(Please Not) One More Time," which can best be summed up like this: Steely Dan's "My Old School" meets The Beach Boys. Recorded with some of Nashville's finest musicians, Kooper meticulously gets every Fagen and Becker nuance right, with a hefty dose of Brian Wilson: up and down clavinet riff, ascending chord structure, mock horn riffs (including the dead-on break arrangement), and yes, lots and lots of layered Endless Summer-like vocals courtesy of the Ron Hicklin Singers.

And instead of tackling the good old days at Bard College, Kooper gets caught in the cross fire of a long-distance relationship between California and Atlanta, GA, along with some double-entendre rumors thrown in (not having the "energy to go down one more time?"). Hey, there can only be one Fagen and Becker.

Doesn't matter. Here is the very non-subtle "wear your influences on your sleeves" tune along with a video I created which is as much a tribute to Kooper as it is to the song itself.