Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Most Absurd Disco Cover Songs of All Time

By the time disco was running full steam in the late 70's, the rush to cash in on the disco craze was so compelling that some rock artists jumped on the bandwagon, much to the dismay of their fans, notably Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"), Kiss ("I Was Born For Loving You") and even the Electric Light Orchestra ("Shine A Little Light").

In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, disco actually turned its eyes to the classics. No, I don't mean Chopin (he was exploited for Donna Summers' "Could It Be Magic") or Beethoven (Walter Murphy got him with "A Fifth Of Beethoven").

I mean classic rock and folk songs from the 60's and 70's that didn't sound remotely like they should be played in a discotheque and probably should have been left just the way they are.

Disco turned the tables -- literally and figuratively -- on rock and roll.

There has been no musical category too sacred for a disco makeover. Some covers made perfectly logical sense because they were already rhythmic and soulful, like Bonnie Pointer's take on the obscure Motown tune "Heaven Must Have Sent You," Angela Clemmons' straightforward handclapping re-do of the Chairmen of the Board's "Give Me Just A Little More Time," and Donna Summer's synthesized epic "MacArthur's Park Suite."

However, the whole trend moved into the absurd when record executives and producers had the bright idea that the rock, folk and Broadway musical catalogs had to be raided, spiffed up with a 4/4 bass drum, 8th-note high hats, bouncy strings, hand claps, and oh, jacked up to about 125 beats per minute. Many songs were not meant for this destiny, but clearly destiny be damned! And that's what this post is about.

Remember the audience for the pseudo-musical "Springtime for Hitler" on opening night in "The Producers," jaws agape, eyes wide open in disbelief. You know what you are seeing and hearing is so bad, you can't decide if it's really awful or you just want to laugh at the whole thing and pretend it's a joke. You may have the same reaction when you hear and see these heretical disco genre twists.

Yes, here are the 10 most hard to believe songs that somehow found themselves converted into disco hits. You will see another recurring theme here -- the magical year of 1979, when the genre seemed to peak with insanity.

1) Viola Wills -- "If You Could Read My Mind" (1981): Gordon Lightfoot's 1970 slow sensitive breakthrough folk hit about his devastating divorce gets completely overhauled for the dance floor. The sadness of Lightfoot's fallen-apart relationship? Tossed out! Here's Viola Willis on "Solid Gold" with several women finely choreographed in sparkling gold spandex outfit belting out about that sad breakup. P.S. Not satisfied with desecrating one 70's Canadian folk artist, Wills released a disco version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" too.

2) Rosebud -- "Have A Cigar" (1977): Only a mere two years after Pink Floyd released their prog-rock tribute to drugged-out former bandmate Syd Barrett, Wish You Were Here, Warner Brothers released a 12" single from an anonymous studio band covering Roger Waters' song about, cough, the greed and hypocrisy of the record business. The song kind of takes on a whole new meaning when a funky slap bass and pounding cowbell accompany a couple of unknown singers belting out repeatedly in a rather quantized fashion: "Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar, you're gonna go far (go far-r-r-r-r!), a-ha!"

3) The Raes -- "School" (1979): Continuing the disco-izing of famous 70's prog-rock songs, this Toronto couple took on the opening song of Supertramp's Crime of the Century album. Like Pink Floyd, Supertramp seems have had some traumatic experiences in early UK education and paint a picture of a scared kid being poked around by his parents, friends and teachers. The Raes' version rethinks the song as a duet, where they take that tagline of "He's coming along!" and shout it along with some big cop show horn riffs.

4) Linda Clifford -- "Bridge Over Trouble Water" (1979): Nobody minded when Aretha Franklin made this song into a deep gospel take on Simon & Garfunkel's Grammy Award winning song about companionship even in the worst of times. After all, she was the queen of soul and she could sing the phone book and move the world. On the other hand, I don't think anybody expected this epic tune to feature background singers flittering: "Gonna be a bridge!" And if that point wasn't driven home clearly, here's Linda Clifford, a vision in red while dancing over the Williamsburgh Bridge, belting it out for all the cars driving by and perhaps a jumper who couldn't not believe what they were hearing. Note the jogger running past her at the 1:15 mark!

5) Elton John -- "Johnny B. Goode" (1979): Even the greats make their mistakes. John's career was at its nadir when he released his official disco album Victim of Love, produced by Giogio Moroder partner Pete Bellotte. I bet you didn't even know this album existed! Hoping to capture some of the stardust Bellotte gave Donna Summer, John opened this travesty with an ill-conceived eight minute disco rendition of Chuck Berry's rock and roll classic. Don't choke when you see Elton lip synch the single on TV here. Just keep thinking: "He went on to write 'Little Jeannie' the next year, thank God."

6) The Wonder Band -- "Whole Lotta Love" (1979): Even sacred hard rock bangers Led Zeppelin was not safe from the usual anonymous studio band treatment on this headbanging classic from their album, Stairway to Love. Speeding up that slow throbbing beat, the immortal guitar riff is short and clipped while those singers get their lines in over the hot congas: "You need coo-o-o-olin'! Baby, I'm not foo-o-o-o-lin'!"

7) Amii Stewart -- "Light My Fire" (1979): Making over Eddie Floyd's old Stax hit "Knock On Wood" is Stewart's claim to fame, but she found the time to follow the Donna Summer playbook for The Doors' breakthrough rock classic -- start nice and slow, and then rev up the beat and hold that note on "fi-i-i-i-ire" forever on the tempo transition. Stewart's costume and Egyptian-like dance moves (which clearly seems to have influenced Madonna later on) make this video clip a mesmerizing relic.

8) Sheila & B. Devotion -- "Singing In The Rain" (1977): Words fail me. I'll let the video say it all. A complete 6-minute choreographed routine that easily rivals the "Satan's Alley" finale of the film "Staying Alive."

9) Chilly -- "For Your Love" (1978): Lots of cheesy psychedelic camera visuals... and laughs galore from a group that looks like the cast of "Hair" annihilating the Yardbirds classic.

10) Ethel Merman -- "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1979):This may take the cake. Broadway warhorse with super lungs Ethel Merman was 71 years old when she recorded an entire album of show tune disco remakes, many of them of her own signature properties. I'll spare you "Everything's Coming Up Roses" for this surreal version of the "Gypsy" show stopper.


Witch Queen -- "All Right Now," originally performed by Free
Witch Queen -- "Bang A Gong (Get It On)," originally performed by T. Rex
Salazar -- "Let's Hang On," originally performed by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
Salazar -- "1-2-3," originally performed by Len Barry
Vicki Sue Robinson -- "To Sir With Love," originally performed by Lulu

(I don't think anybody would mind if somebody redid these as disco songs if they were done well)

"I've Got The Music In Me," originally performed by Kiki Dee
"Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," originally performed by Crazy Elephant
"Na, Na, Hey, Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)," originally performed by Steam

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Recession Playlist 2008

If you're going to be out of work, out of money, unable to pay the rent, flipping out at food prices, cutting coupons, searching for sales, pinching for pennies, suffering service outages, scraping to get by, begging for a job, borrowing cash, and standing on the dole line, you may as well sing and dance about it.

With kudos to my friend Andrew Pendrill, here's our Recession Playlist, in no particular order:

Clarence "Frogman" Henry - "Ain't Got No Home": Straight from the city of New Orleans, this was a rousing 1956 blues number later covered by The Band. You can hear the song on the soundtrack to the film "Diner." According to Wikipedia, Henry opened up 18 North American concerts for the Beatles in 1964.

The O'Jay's - "For The Love Of Money": Philly Soul's famous ode to greed, driven by a funky major 7th bass riff which is up front and center the whole song long. Lots of flanger effects, ghostly voices, a trilling trumpet and the three O'Jay's repetitively singing: "Money, money, money, money... MONEY!"

The Kinks - "Low Budget": Brilliantly timed 1979 rock singalong from Ray Davies and the boys when the country was in a recession. "Cheap is small and not too steep/But best of all, cheap is cheap/Circumstance has forced my hand/To be a cut-price person in a low budget land."

ZZ Top - "Cheap Sunglasses": That lil' ol' band from Texas gets down and dirty with a bluesy tribute to inexpensive eyewear. From the album Deguello, this was the first time they used a keyboard in a hit song, in this case, a gritty rough electric piano.

REM - "Everybody Hurts": Something of a modern classic, lead singer Michael Stipe aches along with this ballad that basically says you're not alone, we're all suffering. "Sometimes everything is wrong/Now's the time to sing along" is a worthwhile philosophy we can all live by now.

Gwen Guthrie - "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent": Late 80's disco diva wailing about "bill collectors at my door" so "what can you do for me?" Not your typical sugar daddy request, but a man to help her pay the rent and perhaps in return, they'll get something in return. She makes it pretty clear that there's "no romance without finance!"

Johnny Rivers - "The Poor Side of Town": Moving rock and roll aside for a soulful ballad, Rivers took out the twangy guitar to tell his girl that the rich guy she'd been dating was using her as a "plaything." His best line is "Girl, it's hard to find nice things/On the poor side of town."

ABC - "How To Be A Millionaire": Leave it to singer Martin Fry, the man who gave us the witty New Wave hits "Poison Arrow" and "The Look of Love," to open up this 1985 dancer with "I've seen the future/I can't afford it/To tell the truth, sir/Someone just bought it." Like the Guthrie song, you can dance as a poor person and hope somebody, or at least fate, can deal you some extra cash.

BB King's "Help The Poor": A blues classic from the great Gibson guitarist. Former LA Express guitarist Robben Ford did a terrific cover on his first Warner Brothers solo album, and then King joined Clapton for a version on their duet album. Is the singer looking for monetary charity or lopve from a girl gone away: "Help the poor/Won't you help poor me?/I need help from you, baby/I need it desperately."

The Beatles - "Money (That's What I Want)": A late 50's hit by Barrett Strong and co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, this searing rocker has been covered by the Fab Four, the Flying Lizards and even Josie and the Pussycats! That's doesn't make its sentiment any less serious. "The best things in life are free/But you can keep'em for the birds and bees!"

Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers - "We Need Some Money": Eight minutes of solid thumping go-go beat, right out of our nation's capital. With overabundant percussion, funky horns and glitchy analog synths, Brown updates the Gordy song sentiments and there's no holding back: "I'm gonna lay it right on the line/A dollar bill is a friend of mine/We need money!"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nobody Does It Better: The James Bond Theme Songs From Best to Worst


With "Quantum of Solace" opening this weekend, this is a timely opportunity to evaluate all the James Bond theme songs from best to worst.

Performing the title song to a James Bond movie used to be a musician's badge of honor, and many of them became hits. However, starting with the film "License to Kill" in 1989, not only did the hits dry up, the songs almost uniformly stunk. Yes, the opening credit visuals that accompanied them were still stunning and the movies they went with were almost always excellent. But that musical badge of honor didn't mean anything if they didn't deliver the goods.

The James Bond franchise is very special, but certainly one of the main contributing elements has been the music. Never has there ever been such a long series of films so closely aligned with the style and output of one composer, the brilliant John Barry. The producers lucked out with the English jazz trumpeter and orchestrator, who had such an individual style, emphasizing big brass stabs, swinging jazzy chops, and a penchant for blending major and minor chords for stark effect over three decades.

Most of Barry's theme songs (which he co-wrote with different lyricists) were either big sassy numbers like "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball" that became stylistically dated as the 70's rolled on, or straight-ahead pop ballads like "You Only Live Twice" and "We Have All The Time In The World." He collaborated with rock artists on two theme songs, imparting his signature brass hits on "A View To A Kill" and "The Living Daylights," although the Pretenders did two very cool numbers on the latter soundtrack, which flew under everybody's radar. Three of Barry's theme songs were sung by histrionic Welsh belter Shirley Bassey: "Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker." Most Bond title songs have never "rocked."

Barry pioneered the use of signature themes in all his Bond scores, long before John Williams did the same for all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones flicks. The surf guitar of "The James Bond Theme" is as instantly recognizable as the Coke logo. That minor chord pattern in the same theme was dipped into a number of his future scores and songs, and ripped off blatantly for the guitar lick in Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man."

Three times during the Sean Connery/Roger Moore/Timothy Dalton era, the Bond assignment went to different composers and two of those title songs were smashes too. Famous producer George Martin scored "Live and Let Die" so it was inevitable that Paul McCartney did those opening honors, while Bill Conti (best known for the "Rocky" theme) did "For Your Eyes Only." When they hired 80's hitmakers Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff for the "License To Kill" theme song, it understandably bombed along with its pedestrian Michael Kamen score, beginning a still-standing dearth of title song hits.

What makes a good James Bond song, as opposed to just any other song? It has to be seductive, with the sort of "spy"-type arrangements and chords that acid jazz musicians have appreciated for years. Some bombast falling just short of annoying. Lyrically containing those existential "live" and "die" themes that preoccupy the movie titles themselves. Honoring the John Barry tradition of jazzy horn stabs would be admirable.

I've heard the Alicia Keys/Jack White duet "Another Way To Die" from the new film. It has a few of the Bond song trademarks -- darting horns, deep mysterious piano notes, and the word "die" in the title. However, there's a lot of semi-rapping and shouting, not much melody at all, and it takes over 40 seconds to get started. I'll take a pass on this one, unfortunately.

People are always arguing over and listing their favorite James Bond movie, actors, villains and stunts. But I don't recall a ranking of those nearly two dozen theme songs, so here's my totally opinionated evaluation, from worst to best, with links to each title sequence.

20. "Die Another Day" performed by Madonna: A plum assignment handed to the globally famous musical chameleon and she blew it big time. Released the year before her inferior "American Life" album, Madonna foresakes the memorable dance beats of her "Ray of Light" hit for jagged samples and a forgotten thrown together mess. So much for banking on what the producers were hoping would be a sure thing. Totally ridiculous S&M inquisition video too.

19. "License To Kill" performed by Gladys Knight: Sampling the horn hook from "Goldfinger" (and paying the original composers the royalties too), the songwriting team behind 80's Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin and Starship hits forces poor Motown great Glady Knight to grumble in a low register and spend a lot of time groaning "Uh-huh" and "license to kill!"

18. "The Man With The Golden Gun" performed by Lulu: The corniest title song ever composed by John Barry matched this equally silly film. Sample awful lyric: "His eye may be on you or me/Who will he bang?/We shall see!" Somebody dragged obscure English 60's pop sonstress Lulu out of the mothballs in 1974 to sing this one. Not worthy of John Barry stature by any means. The Alice Cooper song of the same name was far better.

17. "The World Is Not Enough" performed by Garbage: Current Bond score composer David Arnold has yet to create a good title song to this day. Trying to turn Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson into a chantreuse was a huge mistake and this sounds nothing like the crunchy grungy rock of Garbage. This is a very ordinary song, far from the standards of what a Bond title tune should be.

16. "Tomorrow Never Dies" performed by Sheryl Crow: One would have hoped this could have been a rocking Bond theme song with Crow in place, much like what I anticipated from Garbage. Instead, Crow rolls out an unmelodic swaying ballad which just comes and goes with no notice, much like "The World Is Not Enough."

15. "Moonraker" performed by Shirley Bassey: Coming on the heels of Carly Simon's enormous 70's contemporary pop hit of "Nobody Does It Better," pulling Bassey out for one last glitzy over the top rendition felt like the franchise took one step backwards. While the song was bonafide John Barry, with those delicately placed strings and his trademark major-minor chord transitions, it was not one of his best and too Las Vegas-y to make it up the charts.

14. "You Know My Name" performed by Chris Cornell: Finally getting close to the mark, new Bond score composer David Arnold joined forces with great rock baritone Cornell for something that sounds, well, James Bond-ish. Charging distorted guitars, rising strings, a pounding sense of desperation, and a real rock song melody. Appropriate that it appears in the film series' recent return to old school form.

13. "For Your Eyes Only" performed by Sheena Easton: Notable for being the only Bond title song where the artist actually appeared in the opening credits, "For Your Eyes Only" was a nice smooth pop ballad with a good hook and a babe on the vocals. Very synthetic and perfect production values.

12. "Goldeneye" performed by Tina Turner: Many surprises here. Turner was made for singing a Bond title song and it's a revelation that it took until 17 movies for somebody to come up with that idea. Give all the credit to writers U2's Bono and The Edge, along with urban producer Nellee Hooper, who created all the earmarks of danger and mystery: finger snaps, a bursting brass riff, a choppy rimshot-driven drum loop, and low pizaccato strings evolving to the romantic undertones that had been missing for so long.

11. "All Time High" performed by Rita Coolidge: Thankfully not using the title "Octopussy" anywhere in it, Barry swung for the adult contemporary radio format fences and got himself a huge hit. You know it's Barry by the giveaway string arrangements. This was Coolidge's last chart-topper, as it came at the end of a run of successful soft rock covers ("We're All Alone" and "Higher and Higher").

10. "Diamonds Are Forever" performed by Shirley Bassey: For Sean Connery's last Bond venture, Barry put a little more swing into Bassey's bellowing ("Diamonds are forever, forever, forever"), some blatant sexual innuendo ("Hold one up and then caress it/Touch it, stroke it and undress it"), a dose of guitar wah wah, and plenty of seductiveness.

9. "Live and Let Die" performed by Paul McCartney & Wings: A truly bizarre song for the Bond genre, employing McCartney's tried-and-true "three songs in one" gimmick (see: "Band On The Run," "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"). The lyrics are utter nonsense, and there's much ado going on with big orchestra runs with chase scene riffs, with that dramatic unexpected minor chord ending.

8. "Nobody Does It Better" performed by Carly Simon: A perfect 70's hitmaking machine behind this huge pop hit -- composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, cranking out a fluffy concoction that transcended the Bond movie into a popular catch phrase of the era.

7. "From Russia With Love" performed by Matt Munro: There's something truly Rat Pack-ish about this song, as you can almost picture Sinatra belting this one out in a nightclub. With Lionel Bart's dashing playboy lyrics ("From Russia with love/I fly to you/Much wiser since my goodbye to you/I've travelled the world to learn/I must return/From Russia with love") and the Slavic tack piano effects, this was the series' "Strangers In The Night."

6. "A View To A Kill" performed by Duran Duran: This is the first Bond song that actually "rocked" and did it very successfully. The New Wave stars collaborated with Barry on a horn-hit filled 80's-styled danceable rock tune with those immortal words: "Dance into the fire/The fatal kiss is all we need!" Crunching heavily-compressed power guitar chords and funky little Strat licks, those immortal Bond minor chords simmering underneath, Duran Duran and Barry's joint venture still sounds well today, especially to 80's nostalgia fiends.

5. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" performed by The John Barry Orchestra: The title theme of a movie full of "only's" -- the only film to star George Lazenby as James Bond, the only film directed by renowned editor Peter Hunt, and the only film to have an instrumental title sequence. If you thought the James Bond theme itself was wicked, this came in a very close second. Oozing cool, Barry's composition sounds like the best action chase music from the late 60's, building horns, changing keys, and a fuzzy harpsicord-sounding Moog synthesizer running down the twisting baseline.

4. "Thunderball" performed by Tom Jones: The Welsh singing god of the 60's rips his shirt open once more in this bombastic ode to the man who "runs while others walk." Surrounded by a maximum horn riff as beguiling as the one Barry created for "Goldfinger," I can always picture the silhouetted female scuba divers from this film's credit sequence. You've got to hand it to Mr. Jones when he used every ounce of air in his lungs when he explodes with that last "Thun-der-bal-l-l-l!"

3. "The Living Daylights" performed by a-ha: I have great love for this song which went nowhere in the US but of course was a huge European hit. The Norweigian synth pop group collaborated with Barry, like Duran Duran, and produced the sleeper of the whole bunch. As I wrote back on this blog in December 2007: "a truly compelling title song, with tricky key changes, wide open production, a veritable mix of dark Europop and John Barry snazz... Heavily treated electric guitars, hard acoustic guitar strums at emphatic parts, galloping drums with suddenly building snares, twinkling synths, a distorted sax solo, and the falsettos and harmonies of the group itself. John Barry comes in loud and clear with his trademark brassy blasts during the intro and the chorus. Listen for the in-time horseshoes when the song settles in about halfway through before that dirty sax solo."

2. "Goldfinger" performed by Shirley Bassey: The flagship Bond song -- huge, pompous, and mysterious. The blueprint for all future lyricists assigned to focus on a villian as their subject. Parodied and worshipped, Barry's masterwork came in the third Bond film, where he was allowed to step out for the score from beginning to end. Where did he come up those chords for the words "Goldfinger" -- an F major leading to a D flat? Hats off to lyricists Anthony Newley and Lesley Bricusse for coming up with the phrase that he had such a "cold finger." My God.

1. "You Only Live Twice" performed by Nancy Sinatra: This movie and song had a profound effect on me in 1967, as it was the first Bond film I saw in a theater, in this case, the Green Acres Theater in Valley Stream, Long Island. The combination of Sean Connery machine gunning around in that flying Little Nellie, bodies flying through the air from explosions inside the empty volcano crater, exotic Japanese women, and spaceships eating other spaceships was mesmerizing. But that song -- Nancy Sinatra's sexy voice mysteriously floating through the classic Barry melody, with those endless major/minor chord switches, the downward cascading strings, and the Asian influenced xylophone notes, accompanying the literal explosions of chrysanthemum color of the Maurice Binder-designed credits. I never get tired of this song and I knew I was justified when I heard Coldplay perform it live on the b-side of a CD single I bought in the UK several years ago.


Although these songs were not the "title" theme songs, they were prominently featured on the soundtracks and I consider them very worthy and prime additions to the Bond genre.

  • "We Have All The Time In The World" performed by Louis Armstrong: The very last performance from the great jazz trumpeter, the song has great simplicity and poignancy that reflects the ironic jarring ending of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Armstrong enunciates every syllable delicately while Barry's swirling strings hit you right in the gut.
  • "Where Has Everybody Gone?" and "If There Was A Man" performed by The Pretenders: These are two treats on soundtrack of "The Living Daylights," true collaborations between Chrissy Hynde and John Barry. The former is a snarling Bond-ish rocker with mocking open trumpets and switchblade guitar work, while the latter is one of the most beautiful ballads ever to appear in a 007 movie.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Michael Murphey -- "Wildfire" (1975)

Boy, the things they dared to write about in the 70's soft rock era. "Wildfire" was a mid-tempo ballad about a ghost and her beautiful horse. Is that any better than Henry Gross crooning Beach Boys-style about his dog Shannon being swept out to sea and drowning? And America singing about "A Horse With No Name?"

It's possible that "Wildfire" has retained a small modicum of cool, simply because Michael Murphey sang it on David Letterman's show in May 2007. Paul Schaeffer even went to the trouble to learn the solo piano introduction.

Michael Murphey pioneered the whole "cowboy" thing with a soft rock production, a succesful trend hugely exploited by the "Urban Cowboy"soundtrack in 1980. Even now, many years after "Wildfire" was his one and only biggest hit, he markets himself as a "cowboy" as much as John McCain drops the word "maverick." He's a good looking guy with a beard and a ragged sort of wanderer look, and puts out albums of "cowboy songs."

She comes down from Yellow Mountain.
On a dark, flat land she rides,
On a pony she named Wildfire.
With a whirlwind by her side,
On a cold Nebraska night.

Oh, they say she died one winter.
When there came a killing frost,
And the pony she named Wildfire.
Busted down its stall,
In a blizzard he was lost.

She ran calling Wildfire. [x3]

By the dark of the moon I planted.
But there came an early snow.
There's been a hoot-owl howling by my window now.
For six nights in a row.
She's coming for me, I know,
And on Wildfire we're both gonna go.

We'll be riding Wildfire. [x3]

Sensitivity sold a lot of records in the 70's (see Dan Fogelberg, Eric Carmen), so "Wildfire" arrived at virtually the perfect time. You've got a good looking singer with a nice folksy voice, a gorgeous classical piano motif that both opens and closes the song, lots of nice major 7th chords, a poignant ghost story and a rousing chorus where there's a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' at the end.

In 1975, they ate that stuff up. Yes, there was a decent wimp factor, I'm not denying it. I remember not even knowing whether I was supposed to even like it or not when it came out. But I can filter out the slight sappiness because it's just really a very good song. I like that classical piano opening and closing, even if it does verge on the pretentious. When the song kicks in on smooth bounding major/major seventh chords, those high electric guitar notes can either be felt as "genuine wilderness outdoors" or "give me a break!"

So let's roll back to 1976, when Murphey performed "Wildfire" on TV's "Midnight Special."

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Soundtrack Of Our Lives -- "Sister Surround" (2001)

Never underestimate the Swedes when it comes to their ability to take classic rock and roll, and spit it back out to us in an even better form.

With The Hives leading the buzz with short maniacal garage rock a year earlier, TSOOL also took a hyped-up route to US shores, but pilfering different rock and roll. Instead of two or three minute grungy blasts, they were mixing up the melodic psychedelia and thrashing rhythm chords Their Satanic Majesties Request/Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones.

I admit it, I bought the hype and purchased their first US album which was generating all the talk, Behind The Music, without having heard one note from it. The raves sold me. Luckily, I was not disappointed. I liked the album so much that I tracked down the two albums and EP's that were released in Europe before it.

There's always a lot of talk about groups sound like "classic rock," but that genre has such a far and wide meaning, that it's hard to pinpoint what that is. When Coldplay upped the success ante with A Rush Of Blood To The Head in 2002, they were described as having a "classic rock sound" to me. If that meant the band performed fully realized memorable songs with guitars, keyboards, drums and distinct lead vocals, then I'd say these were the many attributes that were missing from FM radio who were wrapped up with hip hop, rap, and highly-produced modern teen bubblegum. A hipper group of music lovers in their 20's, 30's and 40's who didn't identify with Top 40 radio gravitated to the blatant and creative rock of The White Stripes, The Hives, The Vines, Coldplay, and Radiohead.

Like The Hives, having a basic four piece band wouldn't do for TSOOL. You needed at least two or three guitarists to do the job! And why just stand there when you can be flamboyant and crazy. TSOOL operated at the tempos of all the good rock and roll you know from the 70's, charging with spaced out echoes, throbbing beats, layered riffs in your face, stacked Marshalls, and yes, you could definitely dance to it.

"Sister Surround" reminds me a lot of The Dandy Warhols' "Bohemian Like You" with its "Gimme Shelter" style guitars. The Rickenbacker bass anchors those riffs on one deep gun barrel note in the verses, the drums snapping away in straightahead 4/4 time.

Remember in the film "Wayne's World" when everybody is shaking their head in time to Queen's "Bohemian Rhaphsody?" "Sister Surround" is a definite head shaker. Band leader, vocalist and songwriter Ebbot Lundberg -- a burly bearded character easy to spot on the album cover -- is not a screamer but a real singer, much in the vein as your classic rock Lou Gramm (Foreigner) or Steve Perry (Journey). On this song, a lot of his vocals are EQ'ed on both ends to create a variation of the "telephone effect." Lundberg sounds nothing like those guys or even like Mick Jagger, but he's a natural for this genre.

However, another certified Rolling Stones touch: chorus background vocals of "doo doo doo doo doo doo" -- even the Stones named "Heartbreaker" after those syllables.

When you listen to "Sister Surround," and you realize it's just seven years old, you know you are listening to something you really don't hear much of anymore -- the kind of "classic rock" song you may have heard 30 years ago, catchy as hell and makes you want to get out and dance. It's no wonder that the video below takes place in what seems to be a high school gym. A few band members seem to have gone to the Swedish School for Rock Performance Overacting, which the Hives definitely attended if you've seen their lunacy. Watch the rhythm guitarist calmly windmill his Gibson SG like Pete Townshend while the other guitarist close his eyes in deep nirvana.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wild Cherry -- "Play That Funky Music" (1976)

The absolutely greatest one hit wonder party song of all time.

This one is absolutely tough to beat. "Play That Funky Music" was the song that when put on the stereo system at any party virtually guaranteed the place would go nuts. I don't know how many times I strategically placed this song on party tapes in the early to mid 80's for maximum impact. From Kew Gardens and Forest Hills to Fire Island, have song, will travel.

In the second half of my freshman college year, this song was unstoppable. It was the ultimate in-joke: the band being order to "play that funky music, white boy," that it was OK for white people to listen and dance to funk and disco (which for more subtler reasons implied that funk and disco were normally not associated with white people -- aha!).

Despite its noteriety as one hit wonder, at this critical cultural junction when disco was barging its way in, this was the most overt invitation for white rock and roll fans to drop the pretenses and dig the funky groove.

Of course, if you were repulsed by disco (and that included me), hearing a bunch of white guys sing about the glories of disco music in such a tongue in cheek way, accompanied by nothing less than a searingly wild electric guitar solo, your first thought may have been: "Heresy!"

But in what you might call "a self-fulfilling prophesy," the song was just too powerful for anybody, no matter what race, to resist its rascally charm, insanely funky distorted guitar lick, thumping drum beat, and the maniacal singing of Rob Parissi. In the pre-chorus, when he shouts "somebody turned around and shouted," the dance floor crowd literally turned around in a 360 degree circle in place. And believe me, everybody was screaming "Play that funky music, white boy!"

There was a funky singer
Playin' in a rock and roll band.
And never had no problems yeah
Burnin' down one night stands.
And everything around me,
Got to stop to feelin' so low.
And I decided quickly (yes I did),
To disco down and check out the show.

Yeah they was
Dancin' and singin'
and movin' to the groovin'
And just when it hit me somebody turned around and shouted
Play that funky music white boy.
Play that funky music right.
Play that funky music white boy.
Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die.
Till you die, oh till you die

Hey wait a minute
Now first it wasn't easy
Changin' rock and roll and minds.
And things were getting shaky
I thought I'd have to leave it behind.
But now it's so much better (it's so much better)
I'm funking out in every way.
But I'll never lose that feelin' (no I won't)
Of how I learned my lesson that day.

When they were
Dancin' and singin'
and movin' to the groovin'
And just when it hit me somebody turned around and shouted
Play that funky music white boy.
Play that funky music right.
Play that funky music white boy.
Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die. (Till you die!)

Playing "Play That Funky Music" is unacceptable at any party unless it is the full four and a half minute version, where you not only get the extra verse, but the song climaxes with a few repeats of the "play that funky music" line with big rousing choruses and that classic cowbell and then it just lifts up one key higher, and nirvana is reached. Talk about perfect timing!

The first time I saw Wild Cherry was in this video below from the TV show "Midnight Special," and I'm sure you'll love it as much as I do. Smack out of the 70's fashion handbook, there are the barechested musicians, nice 'fros, and the only two black guys in the band -- the horn players! I was surprised to see them playing Gibson guitars (or maybe I should not have been), as Gibsons have a heavier thicker tone more closely associated with rock than funk and disco. But after all, these were reformed rock and rollers "funkin' out in every way."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Elton John -- "Tower of Babel" (1975)

There are too many amazing Elton John songs, and it would be a no-brainer to pick a classic like "Your Song," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "The Bitch is Back." I actually loved many of his songs that were not necessarily chart-toppers, like "Burn Down The Mission," "Take Me To The Pilot," "High Flying Bird," "Teacher I Need You," "Harmony," "Pinky," "Dixie Lily," and "Elderberry Wine" (and that's just the tip of the iceberg).

Earlier this week, actor Kiefer Sutherland was on a local rock station discussing the five or six albums that had the biggest impact on him, and he had the class to name Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy among others (Led Zeppelin IV and Abbey Road were two others). For this post, it's as good an out of left field album to pick from, especially since I believe the first two thirds of it stand up as good as anything Elton John has done.

Captain Fantastic appeared two years after the massive success of the double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, following on the roaring success of Caribou. Elton John was on an unparalleled prolific global run of success, fame and fortune, cranking out a new brilliant album every year, which nowadays is unheard of.

My younger brother owned nothing but Elton John records, so basically played them in rotation one after the other, and I just didn't have to buy them myself. I found it easy to overdose on non-stop EJ, so I kept my album collection diverse, when I could afford to.

Captain Fantastic
was the first album to ever debut at the number one spot on the Billboard charts, a testament to the frenzy the man caused in the 70's. Even more impressive was that it was an autobiographical concept album that ran a little deeper and more personal than the records before it, and from a musician's viewpoint, the compositions more sophisticated.

Despite its cartoonish cover and artwork inside, Captain Fantastic was a gritty autobiographical look at the destitute and emotional days that John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were trying to make it as songwriters. From a sardonic shot at the Denmark Street publishers who dismissed their work ("Bitter Fingers") to nearly getting married young to the wrong person ("Someone Saved My Life Tonight") to scraping enough up enough money to eat ("(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket," this was far from the cinematic fantasy world of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

"Tower of Babel," the album's second song, dives right into some of the anger, sarcasm and betrayal that permeates the record. It starts cold on John's voice accompanied by his piano, Dee Murray's electric bass, and the slight woosh of a ride cymbal for the first 40 seconds. Stark and bitter, "Tower of Babel" is a tableau of corrupt and dark times growing up in Middlesex. With a complex chord and melodic structure that goes through three different key changes, John was blessed with making all these elements flow together naturally. While each verse was low-key and full of hurt, the choruses sped up with full drums and guitars, laying on the vindictiveness.

Snow, cement and ivory young towers.
Someone called us Babylon.
Those hungry hunters
Tracking down the hours.
But where were all your shoulders when we cried.
Were the darlings on the sideline
Dreaming up such cherished lies
To whisper in your ear before you die.

It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel.
Have a ball y'all
See the lechers crawl
With the call girls under the table.
Watch them dig their graves
`Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel.

Watch them dig their graves
`Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel, no no no.

Junk, angel, this closet's always stacked.
The dealers in the basement
Filling your prescription
For a brand new heart attack.

But where were all your shoulders when we cried
Were the doctors in attendance
Saying how they felt so sick inside
Or was it just the scalpel blade that lied

I remember it taking a while for this song to sink in, as I was just coming off the lighthearted bombast of the Caribou album ("The Bitch Is Back," "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"). As an American, I was thrown by Elton John's pronunciation of "Babel" ("bay-bull"), which I didn't know if it was an English quirk or a convenient device to rhyme with the word "Abel."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Phil Seymour -- "Precious To Me" (1981)

Phil Seymour is an important footnote in the history of power pop music. Although nowhere as well known as the big names of The Raspberries and Badfinger, Seymour was much loved in his brief career before passing away in 1993.

Seymour was one of the two power pop guns to come out of Tulsa -- the other was Dwight Twilley. As a matter of fact, Seymour and Twilley were signed to Shelter Records as The Dwight Twilley Band, both of them playing nearly all the instruments (Seymour played drums and bass). Out of nowhere, they had a huge single with "I'm On Fire," which would mark their style of simple major chord power pop with a distinct twangy guitar, usually courtesy of Bill Pitcock IV.

The pair fell out and Twilley hit the road as a studio musican, singing backup on a number of albums, including early Tom Petty. Signed to Boardwalk Records, Seymour's first solo album was like a poppier, cleaner version of the music he'd been doing with Twilley. For some reason, his adopted that striped half-sleeve shirt not only on his album cover, but his videos and live performances. I guess in a weird symbolic way, the style fit him, as his music was still quite simpley arranged power pop.

"Precious To Me" was his only big hit off the record, although there were many other great little songs on there. If "Precious To Me" was released 10 years earlier, it may have been some Frankie Valli hit (with a little of Bob Gaudio's production razzle dazzle, of course) or perhaps would have seemed right on the "Urban Cowboy" soundtrack in a honky tonk version a year earlier. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to keep it basic and simple, which "Precious To Me" is, not deep, not ornamented, but lots of Seymour vocal overdubs, a nice tambourine on the two and four beats, and an easy guitar lick.

Two "Precious To Me" videos: the first, the official black and white version, and then Seymour -- in red and black stripes -- performing it on a TV show.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Dandy Warhols -- "Bohemian Like You" (2000)

Every year, my San Francisco-based friend Ken would create a tape (later CD) of tunes he wanted to turn me on to. Some years ago, he included the Dandy Warhols' "Bohemian Like You," and boy, did that sound great. Little did I know that Ken was a nut for this band and urged me to download the whole album it came from, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia.

The Dandy's never seemed to make a consistent album -- each one had a small handful of terrific singles, surrounded by substandard stuff. They clearly were obsessed by the Velvet Underground and 60's British Invasion and garage rock, and had no problem "nicking" little bits of well-known classics.

For example, the first song on Thirteen Tales, "Godless," bore a remarkable resemblance to the the sweeping minor-major opening guitar chords of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." Still, their dirty-ed up guitars, Farfisa organ lines, vocal drones and rowdy choruses were made for blasting out from speakers and singing along, beer in hand, dancing with your friends.

In the past several years, you'd be hard pressed to find a rock band that somehow created a perfect pop single as this one. The Dandy Warhols had some great songs, but this will always be their certified "hit." Starting with a rumbling eight-bar jungle tom beat and an organ starting to pour in, it explodes into "Gimme Shelter"-like riffs of blended electric and acoustic guitars, smashing drums, and a gripping distorted wah-wah lick. The hyperkinetic bounce of this song made it a popular license for movies and TV ads, notably a Vodophone ad which aired throughout Europe after its release.

"Bohemian Like You" absolutely exudes cool, band mastermind Courtney Taylor-Taylor affecting a quasi-British accent on his vocals, and lots of "Woah-ho-woo!" (and there aren't enough of those in rock songs anymore, let me tell you). With the Dandy's, there is always some kind of artificial attitude, posing, drugs, casual sex, and even condescension. "Bohemian Like You" put it all in one great catchy package.

You've got a great car,
Yeah, what's wrong with it today?
I used to have one too,
Maybe you'll come and have a look.
I really love your hairdo, yeah,
I'm glad you like my do,
See what looking pretty cool will get ya.

So what do you do?
Oh yeah, I wait tables too.
No, I haven't heard your band,
Cause you guys are pretty new.
But if you dig on vegan food,
Well, come over to my work,
I'll have them cook you something that you'll really love.

Cause I like you,
Yeah, I like you,
And I'm feelin so bohemian like you,
Yeah, I like you,
Yeah, I like you,
And I feel whoa ho woo!

Who's that guy,
Just hanging at your pad.
He's looking kinda blah,
Yeah, you broke up, that's too bad.
I guess it's fair if he always pays the rent,
And he doesn't get bent about sleeping on the couch when I'm there,

Cause I like you,
Yeah I like you,
And I'm feeling so bohemian like you.
Yeah I like you,
Yeah I like you,
And I feel woah-ho-woo!

I'm getting wise,
And I'm feeling so bohemian like you,
It's you that I want so please,
Just a causal, casual easy thing.
It isn't? It is for me.
And I like you,
Yeah I like you,
And I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you
I like you.
And I feel woah-ho-woo!

The "Bohemian Like You" video is as much a trip as the song, as grungy as those guitars. Conceived and directed by Taylor-Taylor (no wonder why these guys worked with Duran Duran with their double names), there are two versions -- one with nudity and one without. Lots of tattoos, burning cigarettes, and skinny, funky, hairy people!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Temptations -- "Ball of Confusion" (1970)

Another sad death this week -- Norman Whitfield, one of Motown's most brilliant producers and songwriters. His best work was with the Temptations, and I wrote about an earlier hit they did with him, "Can't Get Next To You" from 1969.

Whitfield pioneered Motown's "psychedelic soul" era, stripping away the orchestrated slickness and love obsessions of Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, and taking it right to the street, where race riots, poverty and war could no longer be ignored. "Ball Of Confusion" was a turning point for all involved, as this was Whitfield's first step into raw territory.

Whitfield altered his production techniques to suit the new mood, while keeping Motown's in-house session band, the Funk Brothers, raw and heavy. More distortion and certainly more in-your-face.

All centered on pretty much one chord, "Ball of Confusion" had a killer bass riff based on a seventh pattern, the kind you know instantly the way you know Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." With a clean electric guitar strumming a hard funk riff in time, legendary falsetto Eddie Kendricks grabs you by the collar with the very first two sentences, then Dennis Edwards' tough rasp for the next part of the verse, and you know, this ain't no typical Motown love song.

People moving out, people moving in.
Why, because of the color of their skin.
Run, run, run but you sure can't hide.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Vote for me and I'll set you free!
Rap on, brother, rap on.
Well, the only person talking about love thy brother is the preacher.
And it seems nobody's interested in learning... but the teacher.
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration,
Aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation.
Ball of confusion. Oh yeah, that's what the world is today. Hey, hey.

This was a song of rage and paranoia, of complaint and observation. It was a whole new world, with brothers being shipped off to Vietnam, cities burning down, anger and cries for justice and freedom. Nothing like the Motown for the past several years, when it was "I Second That Emotion" or "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch." The times were changing and Whitman used the Temptations to drag them along into it.

Whitfield's production was ingenious. Chugging on that one chord funk groove, the song shifts a few times to what I call "the circus break" -- a united horn section cranking a three note I-IV-V progression, percussion cooking, and a wailing harmonica and then an intense wham with the whole group shouting: Hey oogabooga, can't you hear me talking to you, just a ball of confusion. That's what the world is today... hey, hey!

Rest in peace.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pink Floyd -- "Us and Them" (1973)

Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard "Rick" Wright passed away from cancer yesterday at the age of 65 years old. This seemed like a good time to honor him by discussing my favorite song from the band (which he co-wrote), of course from the always selling classic album Dark Side Of The Moon.

Until the band began splintering apart with a tug of war between bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour around the time of The Wall, there were no "lead personalities." Four pretty anonymous English guys experimenting with psychedelia and spaced-out jams ("One Of These Days") until Dark Side of The Moon kicked them all royally into the spotlight, and it became one of the most beloved, influential and best-selling albums of all time.

There was nobody in Pink Floyd with lightening fast licks or crazy solos. Guitarist David Gilmour's sparse blues and jazz solos on his Strat were about the only things that stood out with an individual's personality. Nobody was going to cite drummer Nick Mason or Wright or Waters as outstanding musicians who could be spotted in an instant.

Pink Floyd was a triumph of tone and concept. The music was mostly at the same slow tempo, generally simple chord structures, surrounded by lots of plate reverb. Dark, rudimentary death and insanity-obsessed lyrics, sometimes involving twisted imagery, often misanthropic. Haunting vocals, sometimes bubbling with rage, and a periodic sound effect from a cold sterile world.

"Us and Them" was a perfect example of everything that Pink Floyd could do right. Four remarkably beautiful and strange chords that sound right and yet "off" - D, D6, Ddim7 and G (with a D root bass) -- stretched out in a long flowing intro and the verses to follow. Wright was not Keith Emerson, whipping off rapid fire runs around modular synthesizer keyboards, or was he Elton John, with classical arpeggios or stomping down hard on chord riffs. Wright frequently played extended chords, in this case a swirling rotary-driven Hammond organ, keeping his hands mostly stationary on the keys, slowly moving them in time to change the chords.

How amazing is it that one of classic rock's greatest songs doesn't have mind-boggling drumming, or keyboards or even a roaring Gilmour guitar solo? What it does have is Dick Parry's deep baritone saxophone nudging around the corners until it takes a rampaging solo in the song's middle. In the mid-70's, saxophones were used to play unison riffs in R&B songs, or you could count on David Sanborn to blow a short little number for Linda Ronstadt or James Taylor. On "Us and Them," it became a mysterious space rock instrument, one that hummed like the "2001: A Space Odyssey" monolith.

Waters sure did love his military themes, and "Us and Them" took it to its hilt. Gilmour practically breathed the brief song lines, surrounded by perfectly synchronized echoed delays, about old generals going to war, the ensuing madness ("The lines on the map moved from side to side"), and utter confusion.

Us and Them
And after all we're only ordinary men.
Me, and you
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do.

Forward he cried from the rear
and the front rank died.
And the General sat, as the lines on the map
moved from side to side.

Black and Blue
And who knows which is which and who is who.
Up and Down
And in the end it's only round and round and round.

Haven't you heard it's a battle of words
the poster bearer cried.
Listen son, said the man with the gun
There's room for you inside

Down and Out
It can't be helped but there's a lot of it about.
With, without
And who'll deny that's what the fightings all about.

Get out of the way, it's a busy day
And I've got things on my mind
For want of the price of tea and a slice
The old man died.

For some reason, that last line also reminds me of 2001.

Some marvelous material I've found for this post. Here's Pink Floyd performing "Us and Them" in 1994, sans Roger Waters, with that bizarro Hipgnosis video projected above them. And if you want to get a good look at that video, it's right below it. Then a couple of recent interviews with members of the band discussing the making of Dark Side of the Moon.