Friday, November 30, 2007

The Four Tops - "Are You Man Enough?" (1973)

The Isaac Hayes soundtrack to the original Shaft movie was an instant classic, still fantastic to enjoy to this day. Since the movie was a hit, MGM was going to milk that black detective franchise for everything it was worth... which was not much.

The first sequel, Shaft's Big Score, did respectable business in 1972, but by the time it staggered to 1973 with Shaft in Africa, the box office wasn't coming in like it used to. Each sequel was sillier than the last, and this one was thrown together fast for a quick buck that never came.

At this point in the 70's, the Four Tops had left Motown, where they had earned their bread on classics like "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" and others. They were now recording with ABC's Dunhill Records, which teamed them with songwriters Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter and producer Steve Barri. In retrospect, you wouldn't believe how many pop hits these guys cranked out, from the insipid (Coven's "One Tin Soldier"), to slick (Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds' "Don't Pull Your Love") to cheesy (Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy").

Lightning struck again for this match-up, as they cranked out more soulful hits, like "Keeper Of The Castle" and "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got"), all using the careful wah-wah guitars and late Motown-era strings (think The Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone"). So it was natural for Shaft in Africa's producers to have them come up with a song for the film's opening credits.

Even if this film was unintentionally hilarious (and you'll see what I mean below), the song was killer -- same production style as their other hits, ear-grabbing opening with heavy beat kick drum, clavinet and tuned congas, feeling like a private dick film already. I loved the solo handclaps before the chorus, a great device to build up tension waiting for that part.

"Are You Man Enough" asks if you're ready to play tough as Shaft:

Are you man enough?
Big and bad enough?
Are you gonna let 'em shoot your down?
When the evil flies and your brother cries
Are you gonna be around?

I've got some real treats for videos below. First is the Shaft in Africa trailer, and like the one I posted for Trouble Man, it's blaxploitation jive talk through and through. Next is "Are You Man Enough" over the opening credits. Finally, and this has to be seen to be believed, a scene from Shaft in Africa where Shaft's car is running over these ridiculous looking assailants in some of the worst, yet most hilarious stunt work you'll ever see

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gary U.S. Bonds - "This Little Girl" (1981)

Rock and roll comeback stories like this are far and few between. They don't seem to happen anymore, really. So before we even talk about the song, this story has to be told first. It's become rock music urban legend.

In the early 60's, Gary U.S. Bonds had a few big rock party hits, along the same lineage as The Isley Brothers' "Shout" and J.J. Jackson's "It's Alright." Bonds' recordings were kind of primitive but they zoomed up the charts and became classics of the era -- "New Orleans," "Dear Lady Twist," and the one that went to the top, "Quarter to Three."

Then, nothing. The hits stopped coming after a three year ride.

Fast forward 15 years later. Bruce Springsteen and the Street Band are touring to promote Darkness on the Edge of Town. As a matter of fact, he's been doing "Quarter To Three" as an encore. The band hears that Bonds is performing at some Jersey hotel nightclub, so they go see him. They agree to keep in touch.

A couple of years later, Springsteen is touring for his double album The River, which is heavily influenced by those early 60's rock songs. Springsteen and Miami Steve reunite with their hero Bonds and record an entire album with him, with the two of them contributing songs and vocals. EMI Records signs Bonds and out comes his big comeback album Dedication, blessed by the E Street Band.

The record opens up with a joyous version of an old Cajun song, "Jole Blon," where Bonds duets with Springsteen, and E Streeter Danny Federici joins in on accordion. But the next song becomes Bonds' comeback hit, "This Little Girl," written especially for him by Springsteen, and man, it does not disappoint.

Coming right out of that River-era mold, it starts with a slow A minor strum across a Telecaster through a tube amp, like a curtain opener. Then right into that 60's party beat you can clap your hands to -- "Here she comes... Walking down the street." Mighty Max Weinberg builds up on his booming snare drum to the chorus, "This little girl is mine, wo-oh, this little girl is mine. This little girl, this little girl, this little girl is mine!" It's like the hands of time spun all the way back again, and Bonds has himself a moderately-sized FM radio hit.

Bonds, who already years touring, hits the road again with a new band, this time with the Bruce Blessing. He tours clubs everywhere, bringing back his original hits while playing his new album.

And that is history, my friends. Bonds followed up with another Springsteen/Miami Steve album called On The Line, which was good but never broke through like Dedication. A few years later, he was back on the nostalgia circuit, still as smooth and young looking as ever.

As an aside, there was a time when people where covering Springsteen songs left and right (remember the Pointer Sisters doing "Fire?")and he was giving them away or co-writing them with notables like Patti Smith ("Because The Night"). It's been many years since he's done that and boy, we could use some more of those Springsteen tossaways.

Below is a video of Bonds and his band making an early 80's pit stop on the wonderful cult New Jersey local TV access program, "The Uncle Floyd Show," which attracted many rock notables of the day like the Ramones. The songs were always lip-synched, but that was part of the corny fun of that program, which is also missed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Steely Dan - "Bad Sneakers" (1975)

Every day that I went to college, putting a Steely Dan album on the phonograph was virtually a regimen. I ran into many people who seemed to be fixated on a few groups, owned all their albums, and listened to them every day. Steely Dan was my habit.

So obsessive was this habit that I would listen to a different full album each day in chronological order, as if I was taking required vitamins.

Steely Dan was the archetypal band where music geeks like me would pore over the album credits. Especially these guys, who hired only the best studio musicians to perform every single part. This is where I learned about people like drummer Jeff Porcaro, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Larry Carlton, and the slide work of Rick Derringer.

"Bad Sneakers" was my favorite song from my favorite Steely Dan album. It was very difficult to choose a top Steely Dan album but somehow this was always it because it seemed to be the ideal bridge between the rock songs of the first few albums and the much jazzier stuff that was to come with things like Aja and Gaucho.

"Bad Sneakers" seemed to capture the spirit of being a more independent soul being away at college and coming home. By the time I hit junior year, I lobbied the college paper, The Spectrum, to have my own music column and they let me have a test drive. I called it "Bad Sneakers" for really no good reason except I loved the song. I even had a friend of mine design a simple boxed logo for the column, which I don't even think lasted more than a couple of months. Somewhere in my attic, I have copies of these columns stored away.

The song was a rambling scenario of hanging out in mid-town Manhattan with your ratty clothes and acting stupid with your friends. When you are a fancy free college dude, it's hard not to share the spirit. It's got a slight rumba beat in A major for the verses, the very distinct Michael McDonald background vocals mixed prominently beginning with the second verse, and the key shift to C major for the chorus, which was actually a pretty simple little C-Am-Dm7 -G7 affair, especially for these guys who normally used fancy chords.

Bad sneakers and a pina colada
My friend
Stompin on the avenue
By Radio City with a
Transistor and a large
Sum of money to spend

Steely Dan's own Walter Becker does the searing guitar solo before the final bridge and chorus conclude this mere three minute and thirty second masterpiece.

When Steely Dan reunited in 1993 after many, many years off, they cut some great live stuff in the studio with their new band and turned it into a DVD. Below is their version of "Bad Sneakers." The band was known for its pristine audio engineering, so this must be one of the best sounding YouTube clips out there.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Jay Ferguson - "Thunder Island" (1978)

You'd be right to say Jay Ferguson was a one-hit wonder with "Thunder Island," although his semi-clone follow-up "Shakedown Cruise" crawled up the chart some distance. This song will be played on all the radio one-hit wonder weekends, and yes, it has an irresistible chorus consisting of mainly "doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doooooo."

But Ferguson was already part of two major rock bands before he went solo for this one hit. He sang for the seminal 60's rock band Spirit, which experimented with rock and jazz, and had some classics of their own ("I Got A Line On You," "Nature's Way"). He then went off to form the much more southern California rock-based Jo Jo Gunne and their one-off hit "Run Run Run."

Ferguson found short-lived solo success as sort of a more poppier version of Joe Walsh. He shared the same producer as Walsh and the Eagles (Bill Szymczyk), so you know it was very slick with that Southern California rock feel those guy patented. "Thunder Island" was Ferguson's bouncy reminiscence of hanging out with a gorgeous native island girl who was "the color of Indian summer," getting caught in a tropical rainstorm and "making love out on Thunder Island."

The verses had a semi-reggae beat while the choruses were the aforementioned singalong "doo-doo-doo's." In between, the slide solo from Joe Walsh himself. And Ferguson's little kicker of a line towards the end, "So, sha-la-la-la-la-la my lady/In the sun with your dress undone...."

Southern California rock bubblegum? Perhaps. Great opening acoustic guitar riff with C chords backing into the F, the C, and the G major open? Yep. Hey, even if you didn't know the chords, this is one fun song.

Below is Jay Ferguson and his band performing the song as their finale for a 1979 concert in Japan.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The first three songs of Peter Wolf's album "Lights Out" (1984)

Out of print and sitting in eBay auctions, Peter Wolf's first solo album, Lights Out, turned out to be one of the most ingenious rock and R&B albums of the early 80's. As the era of corporate rock was beginning to take over many radio station formats, Wolf's album stands as a triumph of colorblindness in an era when consultants were segregating every musical strand.

Peter Wolf was the perfect candidate to draw no color lines. After spending years touring as the lead singer of the fabulous J. Geils Band, which turned rhythm and blues, doo wop and soul into a rock and roll party, the group split after its biggest-selling album, Freeze Frame. Before joining Geils, Wolf played all those black-based musical genres DJ'ing on Boston's progressive WBCN, famous for his rhythmic patter and rap between songs. As a matter of fact, that rap style can be heard prominently on the J. Geils Band live album Blow Your Face Out in his intro to "Musta Got Lost" [Hey Rapunzel! Heh heh... Hey Reputa the beautah! Reputa the Beautah! Hey Reputa the Beautah flip me down your hair and let me climb up to the ladder of your love!"].

Wolf made a brilliant decision to invite Michael Jonzun and his Boston-based team to work on the solo album. At the time, Jonzun was a pistol-hot producer of the burgeoning "electro-funk" scene, creating hits with his Jonzun Crew like "Pack Jam" and with his brother Maurice Starr masterminded New Edition and New Kids On The Block. You could call it "black bubblegum"

The resulting album was a landmark, synthesizing electric guitar power chords, funk and R&B rhythms, letting Wolf sing with soul and a dash of his rhyming "patter" rap. There was something "old school" and slyly innocent about the lyrics, while the music sounded fresh and edgy ("Dancing in the dark/To the radio of love").

I listened to the first three songs over and over, and frankly, that's all I wanted from it. After that, it would have felt spoiled. Those are the same tunes I played for my eight-year-old daughter, who not only has them on the iPod we share now, but sings them back to me.

  • "Lights Out" -- the big title song hit, "Light out! Uh huh! Blast, blast, blast!" Nothing more to say about that.
  • "I Need You Tonight" -- To a thumping drumbeat, shimmering 16th electric guitar notes played cleanly on a tube amp, with a cheesy synthesizer pushing the chords. More of those throwback lyrics: "When the music stops, I walk you to your door/I say goodnight, like a thousand times before/This is the night, I just can't walk away/This is the night, I need you even more."
  • "Oo-Ee-Diddly-Bop" -- "I'm about to blow my top." Electro-funk at its prime, with Wolf rapping about his electricity, phone and heat turned off, can't get a loan (an old blues stand-by), the beat continues while he drifts off to a land where he's "dancing with mermaids" only to find himself back in reality. However, "But I keep on dreamin'/Nobody better try to take/My dream away from me" and right into a breathy flute solo."
The real shame was that Wolf was never able to top that solo album. He had one more terrific tune from his next album ("Come As You Are"), but nothing ever clicked the same way afterwards. I always thought Wolf would take a cue from David Johansen and create more ingenious ways to entertain and educate (really) audiences with his great R&B music knowledge. To me, Wolf was made to return to his DJ ways on one of the satellite radio networks.

Below are the three videos of those songs, in order. Check out Wolf's tackily-dressed DJ rap at the opening to "Oo-Ee-Diddly Bop":

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Cowsills -- "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" (1967)

The 60's music vibe can mean many different things, from surf music and bubblegum to psychedelia and classic rock groups. The 60's was a watershed era for what might best be called "sunshine pop," uplifting melodies accompanied by bouncy orchestra arrangements, many harmonies and a happy vibe. Acts like The 5th Dimension, The Turtles, The Association, and undoubtedly, The Cowsills.

Often cited as the inspiration for the "Partridge Family" TV show, the Cowsills had two colossal hit singles, both having what may be called a "hippie vibe" for such straight all-American music and kids -- "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" and "Hair" (from the famous musical).

Like The Partridge Family, the father was M.I.A. All you saw were the mother and the grinning kids, looking like total straight arrows, with cute little sis making the cool dance moves.

There was something manufactured about the Cowsills. I mean, they didn't write these hit songs, and just seemed a little too cookie cutter to be true. There was also this weird Osmond family connection I always felt -- here's another group of white all-American siblings with amazing voices, except no Mormon thing happening. But in the 60's, a lot of pop music was very much manufactured by talented songwriters, producers and musicians, and it was just commonly accepted without a second thought (at least the Cowsills were really related, as opposed to The Monkees, who didn't know each other at all when they started).

If I had to pick the best of the "sunshine pop" of the 60's, this song would be right on top of that list. Starting with some rainfall sound effects, "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" was very much what Brian Wilson would have called a " teenage symphony" -- lush strings, cascading harps, echoed voices ("I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew..." "Happy, happy, happy, HAPPY!"), simple electric piano chords picking up the tempo into the chorus, a beat before the second verse ("I knew I had to say hello..."), and the harps rolling down and stopping to indicate it had "stopped raining" ("Suddenly the sun broke through/I turned around and she was gone....").

A little story of meeting a "flower girl" while it rained in the park in three minutes. Seriously brilliant.

I know the group eventually broke up, but young Susan Cowsill ended up singing in bands and backup on albums by roots rocker Dwight Twilley. She was also in a group with former Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson called The Continental Drifters.

Below are The Cowsills performing the song on a video lifted from VH1. Next to eating Carvel, this is one song which is completely guaranteed to make you feel great with not a care in the world, singing along like a fool ("I love the flower girl!"). The lip-synching is awful and it's kind of funny to see the two brothers playing acoustic guitars when I don't think there were any in the song. Speaking of "girls who disappeared," where was young Susan Cowsill in this video?

Underneath that video is a truly special bonus -- The Cowsills singing "Monday, Monday" on Johnny Cash's TV variety show in 1969. Keeping with that totally straight image, all the males are dressed in matching blue suits and black bowties, while mom and Susan are in pink outfits with white lace. Ten-year-old Susan knew how to swing those hips with some very funky dance moves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eric Carmen's self titled debut album (1975)

What do you do when you've just broken up one of the most influential power pop bands of all time, The Raspberries? If you are singer/songwriter Eric Carmen, you sign a deal with Arista Records and release an album the combines the Beach Boys with the works of the finest romantic classical composers of the early 20th century.

I bet you didn't think that would be the answer. Carmen dropped the rough and ready guitars, and the Beatles influences of his former band, and plunged right into well-coiffed blown dry hair, shirt unbuttoned down to the navel and became the epitome of Mr. Sensitive Self-Pity.

Not that this was a bad thing for this debut album, taken on its own terms. Pairing up with Raspberries producer Jimmy Ienner, Carmen laid on the Beach Boys harmonies really heavy as well as the chamber reverb, and instead of coming up with a few of his own tunes, did the time honored rock music tradition of ripping off classical music in the public domain, taking all the songwriting credit without mentioning the dead composers he took from. Yes, that tradition goes back to The Toys' "A Lover's Concerto" (Bach) and Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic" (Chopin). For some reason, I think The Four Seasons' "Opus 17" should be part of this list too, but I'm not sure.

The smash ballad "All By Myself" was undeniably catchy despite the pomposity that went along with Carmen's depressing lyrics ("Livin' alone/I think of all the friends I've known/When I dial the telephone/Nobody's home"). I mean, just take a gun and shoot yourself, man! The drums come slamming in on the second verse ("Hard to be sure..."). The epic's centerpiece, which you will miss if you hear the 45 version, is a three or four minute recreation of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto in C# minor, a very dramatic piano interlude accompanied by orchestra.

The song became a standard, even performed by contestants on "American Idol." And it can't entirely be a surprise that schlockstress Celine Dion covered this song too.

But Carmen didn't stop with the classics there. His other big hit single from the album, "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again"came right off the same classical composer's Symphony No. 2, continuing Carmen's bleak lyrics smothered in harmonies and orchestra.

One of the better rock songs off the album, "That's Rock and Roll," became a big hit for teen star Shaun Cassidy.

Now I have to admit -- I do like these songs, even if I didn't realize Carmen borrowed from Rachmaninoff until at least dozen years later, as I'm sure many others didn't either. The melodies were lush and powerful, despite the downer words, and I kind of dug the big "piano statement" in the middle of "All By Myself." In the mid 70's, before the arrival of punk and while disco was on its way up, certain sappy music had its appeal, I'm not denying it.

My favorite from the album, though, is the opener "Sunrise," which fades in slowly with strings and then bursts right into an upbeat Brian Wilson-type song full of quarter time piano chords, jangly Christmas bells, many overdubbed background vocals, and finally a searing guitar solo at the end accompanied by pumping horns. It's the perfect sunshine-y opener for the epics to come.

As far as the bummer lyrics go, "Eric Carmen" paled in comparison to his second solo album, Boats Against The Current, which should have come with its own suicide prevention line.

Below are two videos: the first from the English show "UK Gold," where Carmen performs "All By Myself, does a small part of the middle Rachmaninoff section, and is surrounded by swaying teens! The second is an absolutely horrid homemade montage to "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again," but this one is definitely for the music, not the visuals.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Marvin Gaye - "Trouble Man" (1972)

I was driving home tonight from the train station listening to XM Radio's RealJazz station, when they played a slow swinging version of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" sung by Cassandre McKinley. A tough song to do, but it was a sign to devote a post to this unique Gaye classic.

We all know all the many hits -- "Your Precious Love," "Mercy Mercy Me," "Inner City Blues," "Sexual Healing," and of course, "What's Going On," which I never tire of.

As Gaye moved out on his own, the jazz influences became more and more pronounced, from the loosening drums to the chords and their changes. Between the "What's Going On" album in 1971 and "I Want You" in 1976, Gaye was asked to score a "blaxploitation" film called Trouble Man. It seems a lot of popular black artists of the day did one of these, including Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and perhaps the most famous one of them all, Isaac Hayes' classic score for Shaft (with Curtis Mayfield's Superfly a close second).

Like a number of these films that were churned out, Trouble Man came and went very quickly, a hard-nosed detective played by Robert Hooks stumbling into a floating dice game and masked robbers and who ripped off who. The 60-second TV trailer is below and it truly has to be seen ("You jive him, he'll wash you away!").

The title song was truly an individual statement by Gaye. You can call it his version of the detective theme song, badass but dark and complex. It was a swinging set of Gaye on drums, a dizzying vibraphone motif, and a lowdown minor-key blues groove made for finger snapping like "West Side Story." With a saxophone wailing and strings building and subsiding, Gaye's falsetto exudes ice cold coolness:

I come up hard, baby
But now I'm cool
I didn't make it, sugar
Playin' by the rules

I come up hard, baby
But now I'm fine
I'm checkin' trouble, sugar
Movin' down the line

The whole Trouble Man soundtrack is a must-buy, simply to hear Gaye's jazz/blues score, which features a number of wordless falsetto vocals over the simmering grooves. One of the instrumentals, "Don't Mess With Mr. T," was later covered by jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.

Below are some true video highlights surrounding this song: the original hilarious 60-second trailer of the 1972 movie, a nicely done homemade video of the title song, a smokin' jazzy live cover by Joni Mitchell featuring trumpeter Mark Isham, and finally a sexy funky hip-hop version by Neneh Cherry in the UK.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Tom Robinson Band's "Power In The Darkness" album (1978)

While English punk bands tore across Europe and the US with spiked hair and rage, it was easy to think lump them all together to the average unassuming American. What The Tom Robinson Band shared with them was rebellion and rock and roll, but the similarities stopped there.

The Tom Robinson Band had two agendas. The first one was political -- they were card carrying members of Rock Against Racism who distributed leaflets and tee-shirts with their clenched hand logo at their concerts. The second one, which made for an interesting juxtaposition, was bassist Tom Robinson loved writing pop songs about cars.

TRB, as everybody called them, burst out in America with their Power In The Darkness album, which combined a full album and EP released in the UK. I attended a press conference at EMI's New York City offices, had a minute with Mr. Robinson, and they chatted up their forthcoming US concert debut. Robinson was a mesmerizing character who was deeply influenced by the Kinks and like that band, put on a rousing show full of sing-alongs.

Power In The Darkness is unquestionably one of the great rock albums of the punk period, a tour through working-class England, battling against prejudice and speaking up for freedom of rights. This was not a sneering band, like The Sex Pistols, or a mod band with soul, like the Jam. TRB was like The Kinks with louder amps, prepped with the basics of guitar, bass, drum, and organ. Each of them played magnificently on this album which won many awards in Europe.

Tom Robinson had good reason to be a street fighting man, as he was openly gay in a punk rock era that was not used to this. While he had one blatant song about it, "Glad To Be Gay," and another that was just subtle and clever called "Martin"("I just want to tell you about Martin/Cos nobody I know has got a brother like him"). But Robinson's genius was that he rocked so hard and his passion was so convincing, the fact that he was gay just dissipated.

One song after the other, the album pulled off being dramatic and scenic while classic guitar rock riffs moved the body. You've got hand it to Robinson for opening an album with "Up Against The Wall," rife with street scenes but ripe for air guitar:

Darkhaired dangerous school kids
Vicious, suspicious sixteen
Jet-black blazers at the bus stop
Sullen, unhealthy and mean
Teenage guerrillas on the tarmac
Fighting in the middle of the road
Supercharged FS1Es on the asphalt
The kids are coming in from the cold

"The Winter of '79" was an imaginary look back at 1979 when supposedly life in England would be akin to war ("The Carib Club got petrol bombed/The National Front was getting awful strong"). "Long Hot Summer" and "Don't Take No For An Answer" were more calls to arms, balanced out by Robinson's car songs like "Grey Cortina" and the big single "2-4-6-8 Motorway."

"2-4-6-8 Motorway" was one of those Kinks-type singalong rock songs that on the surface was about driving the motorway with your best friend, the pleasures of the road. Of course, it could have been subtly interpreted another way, but again, who cared. The song broke them wide everywhere with a memorable chorus you could join in there mere second time you heard it:

2-4-6-8 ain't never too late
Me and my radio truckin' on thru the night
3-5-7-9 on a double white line
Motorway sun coming up with the morning light

Like many bands on this blog, that was their peak. And like other bands on this blog, they hired an American producer to make them even bigger, and it totally flopped. In this case, they hired Todd Rundgren for TRB Two, the band was fighting over songs they liked and disliked and soon crumbled apart.

No matter. They left us a memorable high energy rock and roll creation, immensely entertaining, fun to sing along to with Robinson's Cambridge accent and English jargon, and a model for political songwriting for decades to come.

I've chosen a great promo video of TRB performing "2-4-6-8 Motorway," followed by a clip combining performances of "2-4-6-8 Motorway" and "Glad To Be Gay" from 1977 before they were signed to a label, then two atmospheric homemade clips of "The Winter of '79" and "Power In The Darkness." The volume knob must be turned up!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dire Straits - "Lady Writer" (1979)

Dire Straits started getting a bad rap after they sold a bazillion copies of their Brothers in Arms album and never achieved the same success afterwards. Perhaps it was a backlash to that cartoonish "Money For Nothing" video or the simplistic nature of that particular album, but it seemed like an undeserved treatment. You want bad music from the 80's, there's no shortage, but Dire Straits always produced quality.

I always had a soft spot for the band's single from the second Communique album, "Lady Writer." While "Sultans of Swing" broke this band of such unique sound and artistry, and that debut had some very good songs on it, this is about the only one I really liked on their follow-up.

When I was a college senior freelancing for the local paper, I did a phone interview with 10cc before they hit town for a concert, and they were raving about the new band, Dire Straits. And now let us bow down at the amplifier of songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler -- borrowing some Dylan-isms and English folk rock, he forged a sound led by his totally owned Stratocaster style. Knopfler sounded and played like nobody else, whipping off delicate folk pickings or just bending the strings like a wail.

After their debut album was produced in the UK by Steve Winwood's brother Muff, Dire Straits headed straight to the legendary studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record their second album Communique with famed producers Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler. What they turned out sounded exactly like the first album, without even a hint of the Southern soul that made Muscle Shoals famous. The album was considerably mellower than the first one, but they whipped up a hit single, "Lady Writer."

Why the soft spot for this song? Knopfler writes complex little story lines and this was no different than his other superior material: observing a female author on TV stirs up memories of a long ago love affair gone bad. It could be the fast chords, the little flamenco lilt in the breaks ("Just the way that her hair fell down around her face/Then I recall my fall from grace/Another time, another place"). Or it could be after the last chorus when Knoplfer says "Take it!" and whips into a speedball solo on his Strat that then moves into that unmistakable cry.

Three minutes and forty seconds, and there's really nothing quite like this song (or early Dire Straits) anywhere now. Below, the band performs "Lady Writer" live on German TV, so watch our boy go.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tribute to Tony Burrows and the Cook/Dunaway song factory

Manufactured pop bands like The Archies and The Monkees were not the exclusive domain in the United States. At the same time, the British mimicked what the bubblegum songwriting/producing factories were cranking out, bestselling one hit wonders and then throwing together a good looking bunch of lads to perform those songs on TV and make live appearances.

In America, there was Ron Dante, who sang lead on many bubblegum songs, like the Archies hits or The Cufflinks' memorable "Tracy." In the UK, there was Tony Burrows, who sang on several huge hits produced by the team of Roger Cook and Roger Dunaway.

Like all good bubblegum, you can not get their songs out of your head. While the American hits seemed to have a garage-rock fixation in a lot of early bubblegum (i.e. 1910 Fruitgum Company, Ohio Express), Cook and Dunaway were nothing but slick, slick, slick. Nothing sappy, just very upbeat tunes sung by the amazing Burrows, lots of strings and horns, but not enough to smother the melody.

You can really appreciate Burrows' singing skills and the immense talents of Cook and Dunaway when you remember all these smashes they did together:

  • White Plains - "My Baby Loves Lovin'" (1970)
  • Edison Lighthouse - "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"(1970)
  • The Brotherhood of Man - "United We Stand" (1970)
  • The Pipkins - "Gimme Dat Ding" (1970)
  • The First Class - "Beach Baby" (1974)
According to Wikipedia, "In February 1970 he [Tony Burrows] became the first (and still the only) person to appear on BBC Television's Top Of The Pops fronting three different acts in one show: Edison Lighthouse (who were number one that week), White Plains, and Brotherhood of Man."

So in honor of all of this great English bubblegum music, we present these videos:

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Chi-Lites - "Have You Seen Her" (1971)

One of the granddaddies of the "talking soul songs of the 70's," a whole subgenre which I plan on revisiting periodically. It's not enough to have a great song, because sometimes you just have to talk, you know, stream of consciousness, let the audience in on what you are thinking?

About half of this classic is sheer talking, the sad sack sitting by himself knowing he screwed it up bigtime with his girlfriend, that he really let a good one get away.

"Have You Seen Her" hits big right from the beginning, a slow ballad with a fuzz guitar lead and all kinds of background vocals building up ("Ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhh!") before the talking starts.

If you're going to talk along with one of these records, you have to get the cadences right with every phrase. Remember, the key is doing the talking part sort of nonchalantly, you're not really showing how broken up you are.

One month ago today,
I was happy as a lark,
But now I go for walks,
To the movies... (beat) maybe to the park.

I have a seat on the same old bench,
To watch the children play (huh),
You know, tomorrow is their future,
But to me, just another day (sigh).

They all gather around me,
They seem to know my name (surprised tone),
We laugh, tell a few jokes (casual),
But it still doesn't ease my pain.

I know I can't hide from a memory
'Though day after day I've tried
I keep sayin' (and say it like you're talking to somebody) "She'll be back,"
But today again I've lied.

Of course, the questions I always had were, "Why was it 'One month ago today?' What was that day? Why wasn't it two weeks, or three? If the song came out three months later than it was recorded, wouldn't that make it 'Three months ago today?'"

Thank God the singing parts are so good, all doo-wop-type falsettos, led by Chi-Lites leader and songwriter Eugene Record (yep, that's his name). Of course, Record goes back to the spoken part towards the end, delivering the emotional egotistical punchline:

As another day comes to an end,
I'm lookin' for a letter... (beat) or somethin',
Anything that she would send.
With all the people I know,
I'm still a lonely man,
You know, it's funny,
I thought I had her in the palm of my hand.

The video below is a wonderful montage of the Chi-Lites' career featuring "Have You Seen Her."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Shocking Blue - "Venus" (1970)

Coming at the dawn of my buying 45 singles, I ran out and bought this the second I heard it on the radio (which was probably WABC-AM). Was that a boy or a girl singing? What's that cool bass line? Are they singing "I'm your Venus" or that word that rhymes with Venus?

In 1970, the Colossus record label was importing Dutch bands fast and furious. Shocking Blue was probably the biggest hit the label had, followed by The Tee Set's "Ma Bell Amie." Studying the 45, I was digging these Dutch names on the credits, and then the girl with the big hair on the cover.

It turns out she was the one singing the song. Hmm. And since she knew no English, she was singing it phonetically.

"Venus" was about as perfect a rock song for the time as you could ask for -- that insane bass hook, totally catchy verses and chorus ("I'm your Venus/I'm your fire at your desire"), that shouted out "wow!" at the breaks, and the strangely country-ish Fender licks.

It was so good, that the girl group Bananarama made a disco version hit out of it in in the late 80's.

There are an amazing amount of Shocking Blue videos on the web. They seemed to lip-synch their way relentlessly around the world when "Venus" was a hit. Consistently, each of these videos has the guitarist strumming his electric guitar during the acoustic parts (!!) and no organ in sight during the keyboard parts. For a real kick, you can click here to see lead singer Mariska Veres 30 years later performing "Venus" finally with a live band on Belgium TV -- my my, did she change! Sort of like the Dutch version of Heart's Ann Wilson. Anyway, here's one circa 1970 that really stands out, shot with the band playing on a beach somewhere and riding horses!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Winstons - "Color Him Father" (1968)

The Winstons, whoever they were, released this catchy, slightly sentimental single at the height of the Vietnam War. Little did they know that not only would it go on to be a smash, but its flip side would turn out to be one of the most utilized breakbeat samples to this very day.

Starting off as the opposite of the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama," this first-person paean to a loving warm father who comes home every day after each hard day of work, preaches good education to get ahead, and "never a frown always a smile."

By the time it rolls into verse two, it's revealed that this man is not really the narrator's father but somebody who married his mother after "my real old man, he got killed in the war." And then he goes in for the teary final lines:

She said she thought that she could never love again
And then there he stood with that big wide grin
He married my mother and he took us in
And now we belong to the man with that big wide grin.

This is a big snappy song, and I sometimes thought the background vocalists sounded distinctly "white" (for some reason, Jay and The Americans came to mind?). I love the horn and string arrangements, and one of the beauties of 60's soul music, the grooving Fender licks you can hear underneath it all.

I didn't realize until I just looked it up -- "Color Him Father" won its composer, Richard Lewis Spencer, the 1970 Grammy Award for "R&B Songwriter of the Year, the same year Spencer left the music business.

OK, it's a great song, and you can hear it on the YouTube clip below, but flip it to the b-side and you get the gospel tune "Amen, Brother." A 5-second clip of the drummer became one of the most used samples in hip hop and other dance music. It eventually became known as "The Amen Break," and just about every urban music producer and composer knows exactly what it is.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys - "Good Old Rock & Roll" (1968)

Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys had one huge hit but at least they can go down in history saying that Jimi Hendrix produced it. As a matter of fact, Hendrix produced the whole album it came from, with the unlikely-title of The Street Giveth, The Street Taketh Away.

"Good Old Rock & Roll" was one of the last examples of a hit single medley -- a song comprised of other song excerpts. In this case, a seamless blend of 50's rock classic slices that worked so perfectly, it almost seemed like it was all one song -- "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Long Tall Sally," "Chantilly Lace," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "Party Doll" and "Blue Suede Shoes." Bookending these songs was the original "Good Old Rock & Roll," which kind of summed up the simple intent of the song:

When I was just a little boy
You know my one and only joy
Was listening to that good old rock and roll
When I was, well, I just turned 23
and if you want to get a message to me
All you gotta do is listen to that good old rock and roll

The real beauty of this song is that it's completely unadorned, no special effects or edits, nothing deep or political, no guitar fireworks -- just five guys playing straight ahead rock and roll, taking vocal turns on the different verses, and just digging the highlights of these 50's classics.

When it was 1968, these guys were 23 years old and the Big Bopper and Jerry Lee Lewis were the artists they grew up on. So it's kind of cool that they would record this simple tribute at a time when their producer Hendrix and others were pushing the boundaries of rock music, and it would become their sole claim to fame.

The wonderful live performance clip below is from "The Rick Shaw Show," which was based in Miami, FL.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Redbone - "Come And Get Your Love" (1974)

These guys totally had me fooled, and everybody else as well. With Native American band name, cover art, song titles ("We Were All Wounded At Wounded Knee") and as you can see from the video below, stage outfits and shtick, you would think this was a breakthrough Native American band.

Well, you'd be half right. While fact checking this post, it seems the two brothers who led the band, Pat and Lolly Vegas, were born Pat and Lolly Vazquez and were, in fact, Hispanic!

No matter. "Come and Get Your Love" seemed to bridge the transition of AM hit radio to FM. One of my friends even impersonates famous WABC jock Ron Lundy announcing: "Hello, love! 'Come and Get Your Love!' Redbone! "

The early 70's seemed to specialize in the killer bass hook (see "Green Eyed Lady" and Venus' "Venus") and here's yet another one. An irresistible rock song with pop overtones and a defiantly dance beat. This was just a big super hit, that was followed by one other song that charted, the minor and corny "Witch Queen of New Orleans."

As you can tell, I like finding live performance videos when I can, and this one from the old "Midnight Special" show is a tongue-in-cheek delight. Start with a Native Indian dance in full headdress and tom toms (which I don't know is real or for show), before the song kicks in with that "da-da-da-da-dat" snare intro that just stands on its own. Without the strings on the recorded version, Redbone adds a slight funk touch to the rawness of the song.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Motors - "Airport" (1978)

One of the first English bands to make a serious run in the early New Wave days, when disco was still raging, The Motors were mislabeled as "punks," when in fact they were blatantly a power pop group.

As typical with many great bands, they were far bigger in the UK than in the US. The single "Airport" was from their second album, Approved By The Motors, and it was by far and away their biggest career hit. While it zoomed up the charts in the UK, alas, it was only a minor hit here.

A mid-tempo song with melancholy chords and prominent piano chords and arpeggios, the English accents are thick, but you can't get the song out of your head. This is one of those tunes where you can clearly embarrass yourself belting out the "oo-oo-oo-ooo" background vocals during the chorus.

Band leaders Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster crafted what was in essence a perfect power pop song -- nothing fluffy or light, no teen angst, a whirlwind rock beat, yet everybody singing "dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit" on the break to the chorus:

And I can't believe,
that she really wants to leave me
and it's getting me so,
It's getting me so.

Then they blurt the word "Airport" and before you know it, you're doing that killer "oo-oo-oo-oo" background vocal. What a tune. An early production from Robert "Mutt" Lange, who knows a few things about memorable hooks (Def Leppard, Huey Lewis & The News, The Cars, Shania Twain).

Guitarist Bram Tchaikovsky (yep, that's what he called himself) left the band afterwards to do his own power pop album, Strange Man Changed Man, which featured the fantastic "Girl Of My Dreams" (to be discussed at a later post).

The clip below is from a UK "countdown" show from the mid 70's where the Motors lip-synch their way through the 45 version of "Airport." While pianist Nick Garvey is singing dead seriously, the guitarist and bassist are dressed like, yep, airplane pilots and clearly having a good laugh at themselves.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Big Country - "In A Big Country" (1983)

One of the greatest rock songs of the so-called "New Wave era." When this song broke in 1983, the "New Wave" genre of music hit the mainstream after bubbling under at college and more progressive rock stations.

"In a Big Country" created a mold of English rock anthems that was later followed by U2 and the Britpop bands that came 10 years later. As with many New Wave songs filling the airwaves, it didn't sound like anything else: snapping intro drum fill, shearing major guitar chords, deep kick drum, and the band's hallmark -- twin guitar leads mimicking bagpipes. The galloping beat drove what sounded like a call to arms to a friend in need:

I never seen you look like this without a reason
Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you
I never took the smile away from anybody's face
And that's a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child.

In a big country dreams stay with you
Like a lover's voice fires the mountainside
Stay alive

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered
But you can't stay here with every single hope you had shattered

I'm not expecting to grow flowers in the desert
But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime

Not surprisingly, Big Country was from Scotland, a multi-racial group as well. While this "theme song" was their biggest US hit, they had many terrific songs from this time which can be found on The Crossing album (which is still in print and merged with their great Wonderland EP) and the greatest hits album.

After the success of "In A Big Country," the band's subsequent albums stalled in the US, coming up against the next big music phase of "corporate rock," yet were smashes in the UK. As a matter of fact, after their US success died down, they just succumbed to the trend and hired one of the hot producers of the day, Peter Wolf, to produce the "Peace In Our Time" record. They probably figured if he could work wonders for Wang Chung and Jefferson Starship, it would click with them... the album flopped, despite one great song, "King Of Emotion."

The story gets much sadder from here, as lead singer Stuart Adamson fell into depression and alcoholism while the band lost its sizzle. They did their farewell tour in 2000, culminating in a sold out show in Glasgow. One year later, Adamson went missing, and after his bandmates searched for him, they found he had committed suicide in Hawaii.

If you like the song "In a Big Country" as much as I do, you owe it to yourself to explore the albums I mentioned above. You would discover one of rock's great unsung bands.

Instead of the official MTV video for "In A Big Country," below is their appearance on
Saturday Night Live (you'll see Dick Smothers do the quick intro), just so you can see the power of this band live. Turn it up!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Henry Gross - "Shannon" (1976)

Let me say this right up front -- this song is out and out schlock. But schlock in the good sense, if you think that is possible.

"Shannon" was not going to change the course of music, and I don't know how many musicians would cite it as a "major influence."

So what. You have to admire a song about a dog getting caught in the tide and drowning out at sea. Yes. That's what I said. And it reached #6 on the charts.

A touching melody, a medium tempo, and lots and lots of overdubbed Beach Boys-type harmonies told the tale of the devastating impact of a canine caught in the tide of fate (cough)

Shannon is gone, I hope she's drifting out to sea,
She always loved to swim away,
Maybe she'll find an island with a shady tree,
Just like the one in our backyard.

Oh my God, what can you say about that chorus?

This is truly a guilty pleasure single.

Gross was a founder and guitarist for 50's rock revivalists Sha-Na-Na, a "greaser" dressing group who not only went on to perform at Woodstock in 1969, but had their own variety comedy show afterwards. He left the group, put out two solo albums that didn't make much of a ripple, and then signed to Lifesong Records, put out the Release album, and Shannon took off to the top of the charts.

That was Gross' biggest and only true hit. After his next few albums fizzled, Gross moved to Nashville to write songs for others and periodically record as well. You can find out more on

Besides the neat video below with the original Lifesong 45 playing, you owe it to yourself to see a rather impressive, but amusing video of this guy playing "Shannon" solo on his acoustic guitar, singing along, even the tough falsetto parts.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Eddie & The Hot Rods -- "Do Anything You Wanna Do" (1977)

From the overboard studio slickness of Hilly Michaels, a complete one-eighty and right into the heart of the growing UK punk and pub rock era in the late 70's. Primal stuff, the second coming of the garage band era, with a deep foundation from 50's era rock and roll.

Keeping with the old "Jethro Tull" tradition, there was no "Eddie." Barrie Masters sang lead, backed by a basic two guitars, bass, and drum. Tumbling out of the club scene as the Sex Pistols starting making a rumble, the Hot Rods didn't click until their second album, Life on The Line (appealing cover above on the left), with their super smash single, "Do Anything You Wanna Do."

Unlike the heavily distorted guitars of the Sex Pistols, the Hot Rods had classic pumped up tube amp tones (look at the beautiful long-necked Rickenbacker bass used in the video below -- the guy looks like he's playing it like a rhythm guitar -- what's with that?).

"Do Anything You Wanna Do" was about quitting your job, telling your boss to shove it, and driving out of the city in search of better things and self-realization. Deep, right? Nobody these days writes about their jobs, they seem almost taken for granted. But for Thatcher era youth in England, menial jobs is what set the rebellion off. Here's one set of lyrics that really need to be reproduced, to understand the frustration and compassion that was felt during this era:

I'm gonna break out of the city
Leave the people here behind
Searching for adventure
It's the kind of life to find
Tired of doing day jobs
With no thanks for what I do
I know I must be someone
Now I'm gonna find out who

Why don't you ask them what they expect from you ?
Why don't you tell them what you're gonna do
You get so lonely, maybe it's better that way
It ain't you only, you got something to say
Do anything you wanna do
Do anything you wanna do

I don't need no politicians to tell me things I shouldn't be
Neither no opticians to tell me what I oughta see
No-one tells you nothing even when you know they know
They tell you what you should be
They don't like to see you grow

The song fits into that great "crank it up while you're driving" mold -- blazing guitar chords, fast beat, singalong verses and especially the chorus, all meant to be played loud.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Hilly Michaels -- "Calling All Girls" (1980)

Hilly Michaels made one of the most overtly over-the-top bubblegum pop/new wave records of the era, a cult classic, if you could appreciate it for what it was -- musical junk food that wasn't going to break any new molds, but it was going to grab your brain and remember its verses and choruses over and over again.

Michaels was a popular New York session drummer who recruited a producer who was known for going beyond the nine yards -- Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen and The Cars. The resulting album had everything but stuntmen -- top session players such as GE Smith, Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone, and Dan Hartman ("Instant Replay").

The title song of the album, "Calling All Girls," was just one of those tunes that when you first heard it on the radio, you couldn't help saying: "
What the hell was that?" It starts off innocently enough with simple piano chords played in eighths, and Michaels singing in almost a teenage robotic voice: "I've got lots of money, I've got lots of time/Bought myself a penthouse, filled it up with bubbly wine..."

Then BAM, the whole damn thing kicks in with howling Beach Boys-ish background vocals, heavily compressed drums (a Baker trademark), and Michaels continuing: "Bought a helicopter, yeah, I got a lot/You should see my Caddy, parked out on my favorite yacht!"

Every freakin' trick in the book is compacted into this three-minute song: the "Calling All Girls" chorus sounds like a police bulletin, the half a key jump for the final verse and chorus, police siren wailing at the end.

And that's just the first song on the album. Now imagine ten of these! One of them can be found on the Caddyshack soundtrack, "Something On Your Mind" (which some people liken to a lost Sparks song -- you can find it here). Read the other song titles and you know we're talking surface level pop angst: "Shake It and Dance," "U.S. Male," "Teenage Days," "Turn Me On Your Radio," and "Devotion."

As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing wrong with fluff, as long as it's quality fluff.

"Calling All Girls" was an MTV smash video and it's easy to understand why -- the rotoscope animation is as nutty as the insanely catchy song. Below is that video (with no bottom end, so you're forewarned) and the bonus video for "Shake It And Dance."