Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Al Stewart -- "Year of the Cat" (1976)

Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" represents a phenomenal landmark for the "soft rock era" where you had the magical combination of a picturesque yet obtuse song alluding to sleeping with an exotic woman in a foreign country, the production wizardry of Alan Parsons (of Project fame), and it was all 100% sap free. "Year of the Cat" was almost a progressive rock song, considering how unlikely it was to be a hit.

I don't know how many times in college I played my acoustic guitar to most of the album, and even got a lot of the "Year of the Cat" solo down. I could do the whole song on piano and from the very first Cmaj7 D Em chords, anybody within earshot knew exactly what I was playing.

Like Seals & Crofts, it took quite a while for Al Stewart to be a household name. He was a mere folk/rock singer with some passable early albums that barely registered anywhere outside the US. His first US album, Past Present & Future, had the cult folk song "Nostradamus," a lengthy retelling of the famous seer's predictions. Stewart hooked up with Parsons for Modern Times, which featured slicker pop production values and brought a little more attention.

But then Parsons really cranked it up and went wild for Year of the Cat, in very much the same elaborate production he devoted to The Alan Parsons Project, and his work for Ambrosia (Somewhere I've Never Traveled), John Miles (Rebel), and Pilot ("Magic"). He hired the finest UK studio musicians and gave Stewart's songs more creative, cinematic arrangements to fit the highly literate stories of historical sweep ("Lord Grenville," "On The Border") and dramatic scenarios ("Broadway Hotel," "One Stage Before").

Stewart was a pioneer of the "singing/talking style," it was a combination of both, with a very distinct English accent. The singing took a back seat to the songs themselves and the remarkable production and arrangement Parsons gave them.

I'd say that "Year of the Cat" was one of the most literate pop hits of the 70's.

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime.

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat.

She doesn't give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears.

By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There's a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat.

Stewart's musical and writing partner was acoustic guitarist Peter White, who sort of belong to that old Jim Croce tradition of the singer/songwriter having a brilliant accompanist. White's trademark picking and melodic solos truly lifted the material.

"Year of the Cat" was an epic album closer, and unlikely for a hit single because of its length and intellectual lyrics. You definitely could not dance to this mid-tempo number. As always when I look back, you couldn't hear anything anywhere like this song, with its carefully orchestrated sax, acoustic and electric guitar solos, all stretched out to a six-minute classic. The fact that the album is still in print is a testimony to its connection with listeners.

The video below is Stewart and band doing a live version of "Year of the Cat" from the great German music variety series "Musikladen." The pianist does a longer, more showy intro than the record. What's notable is that this must have been after the band had been performing on the show for a while, so they're already worked up when they launch into it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ray, Goodman & Brown -- "Special Lady" (1980)

For more than dozen or so years, doo wop-influenced singing groups ruled the carts, starting with the early 70's Philly boom of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The O'Jays and The Intruders, right through several years later to The Manhattans and Blue Magic.

These were the trademarks: impeccable string and horn arrangements, multiple harmonies, light on the funk and heavy on the "smooth," precision dance moves during live performance, and a not very subtle male chivalry in the lyrics.

Ray, Goodman & Brown fit into this mold perfectly. I didn't know until recently that they were originally The Moments who performed the classic slow dramatic "Love On A Two Way Street," but it clicked when I realized the vocal similarities ("oh yeah, they do sound like each other!").

In a tribute to those doo wop roots, the song starts out with the trio singing the chorus a Capella and snapping their fingers in time, instructing each other on who sings what ("Harry, man, I'm singing second!" "Al, bring that bass out!"). They all join in for "Sittin' on top of the world, sittin' on top of the world!" and the horns pop in -- bom bom bom bomp!

This is not really a slow dancer, but the kind you imagine yourself slipping and sliding across the floor in unison, snapping those fingers, showing off those teeth. Lots of nice little bells during the verse, electric piano chords sitting in with the bass and drums, a gritty clavinet during what they call the "pre-chorus." This is prime 70's smooth soul.

We have two videos below. The first is for audio, since it's the complete recording with the opening a Capella part, which is to me is an essential trademark of this song. The second is the group lip-synching on some variety show of the time, with the a Capella part dramatically shortened, but worth seeing for their appearance, disco ball lighting, and the screaming from the audience.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Spirit -- "I Got A Line On You" (1968)

Part of the great San Francisco rock boom of the 60's which gave us Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, Spirit never achieved the long-lasting success of either of those bands, and still remain under appreciated to this day.

They started as a psychedelic rock band, but gradually incorporated jazz and world music with each new album. Unquestionably, they were an acquired taste with their experimental excursions. Remarkably, they were produced by the legendary Lou Adler, who seems to have had his hand in so many influential artists from The Mama and Papas and Johnny Rivers to Carole King and, well, Cheech and Chong.

Their biggest hit by far was "Got A Line On You" from their aptly named second album The Family That Plays Together (guitarist Randy California's stepfather was drummer Ed Cassidy). The song was about as commercial a hit as they could write, but unquestionably a classic. A landmark blues rock riff in B and E major, a boogie piano echoing the chords, and it's a hip-swaying carefree beat with all kinds of hippie-idealism words:

Let me take you baby, down to the river bed
Got to tell you somethin', go right to your head
Cause I (I), I got a line,
I got a line on you babe.

Gotta put your arms around me
With every bit of your love
If you know what to do, I'll make love to you
Cause you got the right line to make it through these times
Cause I (I), I got a line,
I got a line on you babe.

There was no way this song was not going to blast off. It was just too good.

I am very surprised that more bands have not covered this, as this was about as perfect a 60's rock dance tune as there could be. Periodically, there'll be a video of something called Spirit 0f '84 on VH1 Classic, which seems to be most of the band playing "Got A Line On You" with a more percussive beat and other musicians sitting in (most visibly, ex-Steely Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter).

The Georgia garage rock band The Woggles do a terrific version that can be heard once in a while on Sirius Satellite Radio's Underground Garage channel.

But I did find two other notable covers which I have put below the original -- Alice Cooper in a heavy metal crank from the Iron Eagle II soundtrack from 1988, and blind guitarist Jeff Healey opening a 2005 Germany show with an absolute smoking overdriven version with his band.



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Gary Wright -- "Love Is Alive" (1976)

Gary Wright was one spacey dude, as you can tell by this album cover. He was New Age before anybody coined the term. What's with that blue mascara on the eyelids? No question, this guy looks and sounds like a complete only-in-the-70's product.

All anybody seemed to know about Wright was that he played in a semi-obscure British band named Spooky Tooth for seven albums, then left to go solo. Dream Weaver was his third solo album, so it took quite a long time for Wright to get his career in gear. Naturally, I thought Wright was British but according to Wikipedia, he was born and raised in Cresskill, NJ and went to Tenafly High School. The guy was from Jersey!

But space cadets can come from anywhere, and Wright was certainly flaunting that as his shtick. He dressed in long flowing robes and wore mystical symbols around his neck. The title song "Dream Weaver" was a big hit, but with some of the most pretentious lyrics of the time:

Fly me high through the starry skies
Or maybe to an astral plane
Cross the highways of fantasy
Help me to forget today's pain.

He followed up that silliness with "Love Is Alive," and as far as I'm concerned, he hit pay dirt on that one. Like the rest of the album, everything except the drums was played on classic synthesizers of the era. A wicked funky bass riff, just burbling with that "warm" analogue sound of the time, propels the verses until the chorus plays it with straight 4/4. Layers and layers of synth pads, bell twinkles and counter-riffs made for one terrific and very 70's hit.

What sticks in the head: Wright's pronunciation of the word "alive," as he sings the hard "a" sound -- "my love is ay-live."

I know Chaka Khan did an OK cover of "Love Is Alive," but it seems somebody can really do justice to that great funky riff and melody.

Below is Gary Wright and his army of synthesizers performing "Love Is Alive" on the old "Midnight Special" concert series. Those portable synths must have damaged their postures for years to come. The skinny bespectacled guy in the red jumpsuit playing on his left is studio keyboard whiz Steve Porcaro, who would go on to join Toto with his outstanding drummer brother, Jeff. More cowbell, please!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Creedence Clearwater Revival -- "Green River" (1969)

Creedence Clearwater Revival had me as far back as "Bad Moon Rising," which come to think of it, was only about nine months before "Green River" was released. I do not know how this band did it, but between 1968 and 1970, they cranked out five albums (with a couple more to come). Could you imagine anybody doing even two albums in one year today?

I'm not going to rehash the CCR phenomenon but really just to step back and analyze it. Four guys from San Francisco forging a "swamp rock" sound and mythology based on Southern blues, gospel and country music. No Southern roots at all. It's as if they had it in their souls, transported from another time. Even the lyrics were firmly based in the storytelling of folk songs one would not associate with northern California. Whatever gripped their souls to a sound like this was truly otherworldly.

The other part of the equation is that they were able to make millions of people around the globe believe it and fall in love with this music. Look at the video below from a 1970 London concert -- screaming and yelling at four regular guys dressed like they were ordinary flannel-shirted Joes from middle America who just got up that morning to play in a rock band. If you wanted jaw-dropping guitar solos, this was not the place. Everything was done so simply, full of down home feeling, that waiting for John Fogerty to shred was pointless.

Special mention must be made for that awesome Rickenbacker guitar Fogerty is playing in this video. Fogerty got full of himself later on, dismissing the roles of the other musicians, but I think he was dead wrong. The classic sound of CCR is a band effort. It was Doug Clifford on drums, Stu Cook on bass, and Tom Fogerty on rhythm guitar, and thank God the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame saw it that way too.

When I was a rock journalist for a spell in the mid-80's, I spent an evening hanging out with George Thorogood, discussing amongst other things this very band and he told me: "These guys had a sound that will never die."

"Green River" is definitely in my top three Creedence songs for almost cornball reasons: that E7 guitar riff that starts the song off and continues after every verse line, the blending of the C and A major chords throughout, the imagery of a "green river" to a kid growing up in a Queens suburb, and Fogerty's imagination of a comforting place where "if you get lost, come on home to Green River." You didn't need anything more to love a song like this.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Ian Gomm -- "Hold On" (1979)

When the UK label Stiff broke out across Europe with its eccentric group of artists, Ian Gomm fit right into this rat pack. Many of them specialized in in short punk or power pop songs, like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.

Gomm played bass in the cult pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz while Lowe manned the guitar. When that act broke up, Gomm recorded a solo album called
Summer Holiday in the UK, but released here on Epic as Gomm With The Wind with a different song order.

Even if the sunny redhead didn't record another song, he'd still be collecting royalty checks to this day for co-writing Nick Lowe's breakout classic, "Cruel To Be Kind."

But he wrote about dozen short memorable new wave-ish rock songs in the "Cruel To Be Kind" mold for that debut album and one of them went right to the top, "Hold On." Ringing in with an A minor-E minor-F major pattern on the shiny acoustic guitar, the bass, drums and saxophone drop into the second verse, with the echo coming at the end of each first line:

I've been drifting on the sea of heartbreak
Tryin' to get myself ashore
For so long, for so long

Listenin' to the strangest stories
Wondering where it all went wrong
For so long, for so long

But hold on hold on hold on
To what you've got
So hold on hold on hold on
To what you've got

A lot of these pub rock acts who broke into the new wave movement were doing nothing complicated. It was all about simple rock songs, good playing, careful arrangements and usually a bit of wit. "Hold On" was quite a short song but it was extremely catchy. Enough so that my grad school roommates used to mime it rather graphically while changing that chorus to "Hold on hold on hold on to what I got."

Packed with a dozen songs, the album was also short but a remarkable showcase of economic rock songs in that Lowe style. Honest to God, every one of them could have been a hit single. He also slowed down The Beatles' "You Can't Do That," until you are dissecting every syllable in that early classic.

Remarkably, none of those songs followed "Hold On" up the charts. I know Gomm had other albums, even as recent as the 90's, but nothing impacted.

Below is a February 1982 Swedish TV broadcast of Gomm performing "Hold On" live with the legendary power pop pioneers the db's backing him up.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Benny Mardones -- "Into The Night" (1980 and 1989)

Benny! I was attending Syracuse University graduate school when his second album, Never Run, Never Hide, came out. The local FM rock station took immediately to playing "Mighta Been Love," which was all cranking guitars, catchy melody, chugging drums and opened up with those might words with just a mere bass playing: "I never run... I never hide." Bomp ! Bomp! " I can't remember the last time I cried... It might've been the day they took Elvis away."

But then his equally catchy rock ballad about lusting after an underage girl caught on, "Into The Night" and it took Mardones to the top of the charts. This Mardones guy was on to something. In the city of Syracuse, this guy was becoming a god.

My roommates and I loved the fact that the guy's name was "Benny Mardones." OK, we mocked it a little. It wasn't the most dangerous sounding name in rock and roll. Somehow we got the album, and we'd sing along in sort of a pseudo-croon:

She-e-e-e's just sixteen years old
Leave her alone, they say
Separated by fools
Who don't know what love is yet
But I want you to know

If I could fly
I'd pick you up
I'd take you into the night
And show you a love
Like you've never seen, ever seen

The drums were recorded crisply, skipping a beat at the end of every other line. A clavinet and electric piano blending for the chords, tinkling downwards for effect. Heavily chorused rhythm guitar. Synth strings building each chorus up. And Mardones' masterfully belting it out. By the second verse, the last word of every other line overdubbed with breathy echoes ("he-e-e-eart").

Besides, the "Into the Night" chorus utilized one of rock's most powerful chord patterns -- F to G to Em to Am.

Some years later, when I had my first home recording studio in my apartment, I did a version of this song with my friend John so he could impress the girls that summer in Fire Island. It was a little stiff because the drum machine was too rigidly programmed, but John gave it his all to hit those dramatic chorus high spots.

Now, by that time, Benny Mardones was the name of a guy who sang a song we all loved when we went to graduate school, a memory really. Until some Arizona DJ dug the song out of the vault, the phones went crazy and the song amazingly became a national hit all over again in 1989. And from what I read, Syracuse practically built a stature of Mardones in town. That's one of the funny things in rock and roll, when some random city embraces a musical act like nobody else, even if they are not from that town. Much like Crack The Sky and Baltimore, and Little Feat and Washington, D.C.

The first video is a nicely done homemade video featuring old Mardones photos and record covers. The second is a entertaining promo for what was purportedly a 2002 documentary on Mardones' rise and fall with an absolutely priceless introduction.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Crack The Sky's debut album in 1975

In my opinion, Crack The Sky may be the ultimate cult band, perhaps the biggest one in the last 30 years. There's probably an excellent chance you may never have heard of them, and I wouldn't be surprised. They have released, get this, 22 albums since 1975. A few of them are live, and there are a couple of greatest hits (!) (my favorite one being Crack Attic).

But nothing, in all that time, diminishes the absolute greatness of their debut album on Lifesong Records, distributed then by CBS.

This album was presented to me by a fellow from Newburgh, NY named Doug, a fellow freshman who lived down the hall from me in the dorm. He had the best stereo system on the floor. One day, he showed me that he had bought this album based on two reasons only: he loved the name of the band and the album cover. That was it. He had not heard a moment of the music. So he put it on the turntable, let the needle down, and history was made.

Radio, still in its progressive days, when classic rock was new rock, played one song from the album, a rather apocalyptic number called "Ice." Despite even more commercial songs on the album, I don't think the public heard anything more than "Ice" on the radio. Still, pockets of fans were being turned on by Crack The Sky's groundbreaking debut.

Crack The Sky is often described as "progressive rock," but that would lead you to believe they were like Genesis and Yes, full of synth noodling and epic song lengths. That would be totally wrong. Imagine a one-of-a-kind combination of Steely Dan's "Reeling In The Years" with Frank Zappa's sarcastic lyrical bite, along with the first King Crimson album's complex rock guitar lines and crunch and that may come close to describing Crack The Sky.

Band leader, singer, and main songwriter John Palumbo must have been a mad genius when he put this all together. His lyrics were cynical, cinematic and satirical, and the music was precisely arranged with twisting and turning twin lead guitars, complex drumming that snapped with every time shift, and Palumbo's sardonic, somewhat sarcastic vocals. The producers brought in the Brecker Brothers horns on a couple of tunes and who knows what those guys thought.

"Surf City" pits surfers against sharks; the ballad "Robots For Ronnie" is a fat smelly kid's predicament when his parents buy him a pair of robot pets because "The guys think he's a queer because he doesn't drink beer or watch football"; the dazzling "She's A Dancer" is Palumbo's take on the Kinks' "Lola" hidden gender scenario with a heavy funk break, dark guitar runs and trumpet solo; and the finale "Sleep," is a dramatic confession of the stories that creep into Palumbo's head at night, ending in a parade of bagpipes, tubular bells, and waves of acoustic guitars.

It's hard to pick my favorite lyric sets from this album, but here's a sampling...

From "I Don't Have A Tie"
Take a ride to the other side of the town
Your eyes are open wide, look around
And find out where you're going
Social lady is a lawnchair wife,
With a new hairstyle, and a different life
Sleeps alone in her bed at night.

I don't have a tie
To wear to your affair
I don't have a tie to wear.
I don't have a tie
To wear to your affair
I don't have a tie to wear.

From "She's A Dancer"
She's a dancer
And she sparkles and she shines.
She's an attractor
Oh, she loves to wine and dine.
They say she's a lady,
But I just don't know
All right, I like the way she moves
All right, I like the way she moves
All right
She's a dancer
And all the boys have fun.
They attract her
And she keeps them on the run.
They say she's a lady,
But I have my doubts.
All right, I like the way she moves
All right, I like the way she moves
All right
When I look into her eyes
I can see through his disguise
Oh, am I surprised.

From "Ice"
When the summer night has changed its warmer breezes to the icy cold of silent winter freezes, will you be there?
When the flowers in the windows of the neighbors start to bow their frozen heads and to leave us, will I see you there?

Will you stand by me against the cold night,
Or are you afraid of the ice?
Afraid of the ice?

When the waters of the roaring ocean bring a chilling feeling and the beach is closing, are you near me?
When the cloudy skies are blocking out the sun and suddenly your nose has begun to run, do you still hear me?

The critics fell over this record understandably (Rolling Stone said it was deservedly Album Of The Year), but it was not a wide commercial hit. The second album, Animal Notes, was more of the same, and sold even less. I'm convinced these guys were just ahead of their time and frankly, didn't fit in commercially at the late 70's rise of disco and punk.

Palumbo left the band and then rejoined. They began to close their shows with a wild cover of The Beatles' "I Am The Walrus," which I believe stands to this day. And for some reason, the city of Baltimore embraced this band like no other place (even though they were from Ohio) and made them their own. In 1995, the Baltimore City Paper published a now legendary piece about the history of Crack The Sky, how they came together, fell apart, and came together again, and I strongly recommend you read it here.

If you like what you see and want to check out this album, download it from eMusic here.

I went searching long and hard for Crack The Sky videos and found these live ones which I do not think do the album any justice. I was hoping to find videos and embedded players of the original recordings, but no success. As a bonus, I have included the cool single from the second album, "We Want Mine," straight from the original recording -- a bitter and funny song about the band getting ripped off of its money by the record business.




WE WANT MINE ("We don't want your money...")


Monday, January 14, 2008

Electric Light Orchestra - "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" (1974)

I thought I had pretty good taste in music until I went away to college and found out that I only knew the tip of the iceberg. Down the dormitory hall from me was a junior pre-med student who was on the fencing team and an incredible cartoonist. He sometimes thought it was his mission to turn me on to new music and one of the bands he urged me to check out was the Electric Light Orchestra. So without having heard it, I splurged on their then current album, Eldorado.

Little did I know what a heavy album this was going to be. A concept album about a typical English working sod who escapes the real world by fantasizing about being in Eldorado, a land full of mythical creatures and characters out of fairy tales and storybooks. It's sort of like a trip through his madness until it seems at the end he has no choice but to stay in that make believe world entirely. The album had an overture, finale, and even a song called "Illusions In G Major." Well!

I studied the inside album sleeve with all the lyrics and credits -- it was truly a Total Music Geek album. This was my introduction to ELO's mastermind, songwriter and singer, Jeff Lynne, who very rarely ventured out from behind his sunglasses propped around his very large and curly hair.

The three string players of ELO were accompanied by a full blown orchestra, choir, and the band itself, playing traditional amplified rock band instruments. It was as perfect a combination of orchestral music combined with flat out rock and roll as you'd ever likely heard.

"Can't Get It Out Of My Head" was the big hit single from the album since it was clearly the most commercial song on it, as much as a song about losing one's mind can be. It had that famous opening C major chord with the 2nd added, used to great effect on many ballads, notably Chicago's "I've Been Searching So Long." Drummer Bev Bevan's thundering toms drop in before the pre-chorus, while the strings are arranged almost classically, atypical for a pop song.

Pretentious? A bit, but not enough to sound the alarms. I must have listened to Eldorado a zillion times on my turntable. At a record store, I found out that this was ELO's fourth album but the first to really break through on the charts, something unheard of with record company patience nowadays. Needless to say, I bought every single ELO album that came out from that point on and played them regularly.

Worth noting that power popsters Fountains of Wayne covered this song in concert and it could probably be found on Bit Torrent sites.

Below are a couple of really special videos of ELO performing this song when it was a hit. The first was definitely performed live in studio on an Australian TV show ("they're going to slaughter you!"), as it includes both the "Eldorado Overture" segueing into "Can't It Out Of My Head." The second one is the band lipsynching to a shortened version of the song in somebody's boarded up wooden shack! Both videos are notable for the fact that Jeff Lynne is not wearing his trademark sunglasses, rarities indeed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Temptations -- "Can't Get Next To You" (1969)

The Temptations are my favorite Motown group because I got into their style of "psychedelic soul." For all the trouble Stevie Wonder got for addressing contemporary topics, Temptations producer Norman Whitfield had no problem jumping right into poverty, crime, taxes and the Vietnam War.

However, there was nothing topical about "Can't Get Next To You." There was also nothing traditional about it either, since Whitfield created one of Motown heyday's most unusual arrangements in about two minutes and 30 seconds. I always put this song on my party tapes for guaranteed dancing.

The song doesn't even start off with music, but a door slowly creaking open, wild party screaming, and suddenly Dennis Edwards hushes them and says: "Hold it, hold it, listen...." There's a low slow and bluesy piano riff, and then a horn section does three powerful blasts, the piano does a quick little twist and then right into the song.

Way before the "pumping effect" was used in electronic music, Whitfield somehow created a similar effect with this driving beat and "suction" feel of the instrumentation. This is not the Temptations of "My Girl" and "Since I Lost My Baby," but their new era of fuzzy electric guitars and funky rhythms.

Each member of the Temptations takes a line of the verse, with practically no space in between, so it's wonderful to hear them showing off their individual styles:

(Dennis Edwards): I can turn a gray sky blue.
(Melvin Franklin): I can make it rain, whenever I wanted to.
(Eddie Kendricks): I can build a castle from a single grain of sand.
(Paul Williams): I can make a ship sail, uh, on dry land.

After two verses, the song segues into the "train section," where the beat smoothes out into a major key break, and the Temps vocalize their "ooo" that it damn well sounds like a choo choo to me. Then right back to the beat with verse three, and a showstopping pause -- "Cos' I-I-I-I-I... woah, I-I-I-I-I...." and the group comes in like the military with "Can't get next to you!"

What is notable about the two videos below is that Eddie Kendricks is in one and missing in the other. Kendricks left the group to go solo in 1970, so this black and white live video must have been done at that time, considerably after the song was a hit. It's fun to see the group covering for Kendricks trademark falsetto lines.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Producers -- "What's He Got?" (1981)

The epitome of a one-hit wonder, New Wave skinny tie band, The Producers were one of many similar bands cranked out like this at the height of the New Wave movement. Many of the band names started with the word "the." Some of them had one great song and that was it, their one significant contribution to musical history. A lot of them just disappeared right away and their albums became landfill. It was the New Wave gold rush, much like the grunge craze in Seattle in the early 90's when the record labels were signing similar New Wave bands left and right.

As is often the case with the one hit wonder, New Wave skinny tie bands, that one hit was usually a killer and this was definitely the case with The Producers' "What He Got." Their label, Epic/Portrait, was clearly trying to model them in some way after Cheap Trick, putting keyboardist Wayne Famous (!) in the Bun E. Carlos role as the "strange comic looking one who stood out among the handsome band members." They even shared Cheap Trick's long time producer, Tom Werman (one of the great unsung rock producers, in my opinion).

But that's just about with their similarities ended. While Cheap Trick was guitar-driven, heavy Beatles-influenced power pop with lots of overdriven chords, The Producers just had New Wave written all over them. "What's He Got" is three minutes of sharp jangly pop, a rather sneering tale of a jealous guy wondering why the girl he has the hots for is instead going out with that man "with the big black car, long cigar, he's twice your age."

Looking for a place
In his will
Why should you be just a
Mid-life thrill
You'll be thinking of me
Every night
When he turns away and
Turns out the light

Remember rock music when you could dance to it? That was one of New Wave's greatest contributions to culture, something we haven't seen in years. With "What's He Got," you can sing along to the entire song and then the counter harmonies ("na na na na na") like a true upbeat pop song and dance like a New Wave nut, hopping up and down, huddling together.

Below was the group's official "What's He Got" video, which starts off with this nonsensical Monty Python animation rip-off and then goes right into the beauty. Watch how they make that keyboardist appear as the comic relief (and suspiciously he's the only bald one!), surrounded by synthesizers and carrying one monster unit around his shoulders during the break.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Classics IV - "Spooky" and "Stormy" (1968)

The Classics IV were thankfully hip to diverse styles of music and that's what made them one of the more distinguished pop acts of the late 60's.

First of all, they had an outstanding production and songwriting team (who went on to work with the Atlanta Rhythm Section) who laid the fluff on lightly, with minimal if ever orchestration. There was some wit to the songwriting ("Spooky" especially had some nice metaphorical touches, suggesting that the narrator will "propose on Halloween"). They incorporated jazzy guitar chords, a little southern R&B, a soulful sax solo on every one of their hits, and an innovative use of the sitar that was riff-supporting as opposed to psychedelic.

As a matter of fact, despite there being a real band, I'm not quite sure of their involvement in the recording except for the unmistakable lead singing of Dennis Yost. There are not many singers who you can spot immediately, but nobody I know is similar to Yost -- sort of a soft Southern smoky tone, covered in wide open reverb.

Musically, "Spooky" and "Stormy" are like brother and sister -- related chord patterns, with the same 7-stroke guitar riff that the producers clearly loved they did it twice. "Spooky" is an E minor 7th ending on the G note, sliding to an A6th, ending on the F#. The chorus of "Stormy" is an E minor 9th ending on the F# going to the A major ending on the E note. Yes, I know this is technical razzmatazz, but to a musician, one can't help but notice the similarities.

Both songs had some notable cover versions -- you can hear Dusty Springfield's version on the soundtrack to the UK gangster flick Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Santana added a Latin feel and many of those stratospheric up-the-neck solos on the 1978 Inner Secrets album, and inevitably in a salute to their origins, the Atlanta Rhythm Section did a fine honey-dripping version with octave guitar and electric piano solos on their 1979 Underdog album.



ATLANTA RHYTHM SECTION - "SPOOKY" (live, October 1989)

SANTANA - "STORMY" (audio)

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The 10 Greatest Bubblegum Songs of the Late 60's

I spent all my elementary school years in the 60's and listened to a lot of WABC-AM and WMCA-AM radio. While there was plenty of great pop and rock music, I dropped right into the whole bubblegum music craze of the late 60's/early 70's. I could not avoid it and frankly, it was hard to resist, which is exactly what all these record producers and labels wanted.

I bought the singles by acts who were merely fictitious vehicles for these music executives to sell their acts. I thought they were real like everybody else!

How do I define bubblegum music? Under three minutes, "teenage subject matter" (usually girls), an element of silliness, simple chord structure, repetitive to the point of surrender. The song could be highly produced with horns or strings (Spanky and Our Gang's "Sunday Will Never Be The Same"), or garage-type rock (Any song by the 1910 Fruitgum Compnay or Ohio Express).

What is all the boy band music and Hanna Montana but modern variations on bubblegum music?

Sixties bubblegum was particularly unique in that the group names were ridiculous, especially the ones tied in with Saturday morning cartoon shows (The Wombles? The Cattanooga Cats?). Even the "boy detectives" The Hardy Boys had a bubblegum band (Frank Hardy on guitar, Joe Hardy on bass!). You also had the same producers coming out with different songs under different names, often with the same lead singer (Ron Dante sang lead on all The Archies songs, and then did the same on The Cuff Links "Tracy").

For further reading, the book on the topic is absolutely "Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth," still in print, with contributions from my west coast friend Becky Ebenkamp (check out her radio show here). For a modern appreciation of the genre, you must buy the fantastic power pop tribute Right To Chews.

I make no apologies for being a big fan of bubblegum music, especially when one consider The Ramones based a lot of their songs on the same catchy simple chord patterns, and even covered "Indian Giver" on their Ramonesmania compilation? You're telling me that the Cars didn't consciously rip off the beginning of "Yummy Yummy Yummy" for their first hit "Just What I Needed?"

So here is my list of the 10 greatest bubblegum songs of the 60's with some nifty videos below them (in no particular order):

1) Ohio Express -- "Chewy Chewy" (1968): This is the first bubblegum single that I had to buy. I was at a sixth grade party at some kid's house, the boys on one side of the room and the girls on the other, and somebody put this single on the phonograph. That was it, it was all over for me. The singer had this nasal quality to his voice, almost like he was holding his nose while singing the song. And for a sixth grader standing on the other side of the room from the girls, it was easy to dance to, as bad as my floor moves may have been. The Swedish power pop group The Yum Yums (how's that for a name?) did a heavy electrified cover of the song in the late 90's.

2) Crazy Elephant -- "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" (1969): I always thought they were called the Crazy Elephants, but their name turned out to be similar to Iron Butterfly. What is this song, two minutes? Driving beat, the trademark cheesy Farfisa organ, three chords! One of my absolute favorites, the first song I ever did in my home recording studio, and covered with drum machines and samples by cult producer Mitch Easter on the aforementioned Right To Chews record.

3) The Archies -- "Sugar Sugar" (1969): Let me quote Wikipedia's entry on the band... "The Archies are a garage band founded by Archie Andrews, Reggie Mantle, and Jughead Jones, a group of adolescent fictional characters of the Archie universe, in the context of the animated TV series, The Archie Show." I'm surprised they didn't refer to him as "Reginald Mantle." This first big hit by The Archies stayed at #1 for what seemed to be an eternity. Another song with just a few chords, a nicely distorted electric piano playing the chords, and what seems like a black soul singer's voice coming out of Betty's or Veronica's mouth!

4) Tommy Roe -- "Dizzy" (1969): Probably the most complex bubblegum hit of the era. The song changes key seamlessly about three or four times for each verse and chorus, and because of that, has this sort of "merry go round" feeling. Certainly memorable for that shuffle-beat drumming throughout the song, including a couple of solo breaks. Another great cover on Right to Chews, the one by Cliff Hillis, who uses distorted samples, synthesizers and a toy piano.

5) The Cowsills -- "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" (1967): Discussed at length on a previous post. A three-minute "teenage hippie symphony."

6) The Cuff Links -- "Tracy" (1969): Gee, why does Archie Andrews from the Archies sound remarkably similar to the singer of this single? Ron Dante overdubbing himself many times over for a ridiculously catchy song that also pushed the bubblegum envelope by changing keys several times. If there is any song that is a tribute to Dante's brilliant vocal skills, this is it.

7) Steam -- "Na Na, Hey, Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" (1969): Strangely, the one hit wonder that has had the longest-lived life, thanks to modern day sports. The song also marks one of the first successful uses of drum loops. Word has it that this song was made as a goof and the lyrics were never meant to be what they were. Yet, when you combine repetitiveness, catchiness and a good gimmick at the break (repeating the chorus over and over at low volume, building it until it's normal again), and oh yes that awesome drum loop, flukes do happen.

8) The Monkees -- "I'm A Believer" (1966): The ultimate real life bubblegum rock group, where auditions were held to create this group from scratch and go on to do a successful TV show, concert tours, albums and singles. The group members rebelled at one point because they wanted to play their own instruments and write their own songs. But this early hit written by Neil Diamond cemented their fame with another great fuzzy electric piano line, a country-type guitar lick, and Micky Dolenz' fun vocals. Smash Mouth's cover has nothing on the original.

9) The 1910 Fruitgum Company -- "Simon Says" (1968): Not exactly the most threatening sounding band name. I can picture the production team sitting in their offices coming up with the brainstorm of taking the kids' party game and turning it into a silly simple song. They took it all the way to the bank. At a time when there was the Watusi, the Twist and the Pony, it doesn't get anymore blatant than: Put your hands in the air, Shake them all about, Do it when Simon says, And you will never be out.

10) The Lemon Pipers -- "Green Tambourine" (1968): This is the biggest bubblegum hit which delved into psychedelia. Scratchy violins going up and down, prominent sitar playing, and weirdly echoed and altered vocals on the "Now listen while I play-y-y-y-yy."







Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Jags - "Back Of My Hand" (1979)

You just have to laugh when you hear that the name of this band was "The Jags." C'mon. Just as the New Wave movement was building up a head of steam, every other new rock band had their skinny ties and their name began with "The." But The Jags?

OK, well, back n the late 70's, early 80's, for a short shining moment in radio time, WPIX-FM in New York played all the latest new wave and what was considered "alternative rock" for that era. This was before consultants came in and ruined everything good about radio. The other station that led the way in this edgy format was WLIR-FM, which broadcast then out of Hempstead, Long Island, but could be heard in the boroughs.

WPIX-FM played a lot of cool stuff, a lot of the "The" bands, and one of them was this absolutely fantastic piece of rock music which reminded me of Dire Straits, simply because they both prominently featured Fender Strat solos. That's where the comparison ends, though. The Jags came and went, like many other new wave bands, but they had it all riding on "Back Of My Hand."

All the new wave hallmarks were intact: biting put-down lyrics, unforgettable melodies throughout, hard-strumming rock guitars, short sharp stops. The single, lifted off the Evening Standard album, actually had high production values with every chord chiming clearly. Apparently, the song was featured on the Owen Wilson-starring "You, Me and Dupree" soundtrack from a couple of years back.

You only call me if your feeling blue
You tell me I don't pay attention to you
But if you only knew, just what I'm going through
You wouldn't phone those guys who mess around with you girl.

When i call you I get stack of lies
You whip 'em out before you dry your eyes
I'm not a fruit machine, a nineteen sixties dream
And in the 'bet you' list I bet you've never seen her.

You're not unreadable, you're not unbeatable,
I know just what you are, don't push your luck too far
You're not untouchable, not just another girl
I'd get in touch with you , I only wish you knew that

I've got your number written on the back of my hand (x 3)
I've got your number

As much as The Jags came and went, they contributed this one amazing song and for here, we salute them, wherever they may be.

What I love about the video below is that The Jags are not the best song synchers. My favorite guy is the blond guitarist when the camera moves in and pans around to him early on in the song. Not only is he nowhere near the song's timing, but he looks like he's spastically slapping the guitar. Too bad because the guitar playing on the single itself, including the solo, is superb. The end is cut off a little early with audience applause, unfortunately, but to hear this song again is worth it.
the jags - back of my hand

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Golden Earring - "Radar Love" (1973)

Like their fellow Dutchmen The Shocking Blue and their "Venus" hit, Golden Earring put a twist on the popular hard rock genre to produce an international hit. "Radar Love" is unquestionably one of the all-time great rock "pedal to the metal" driving songs, one you cranked up nice and loud scorching the freeway. Seven minutes of made-for-air-guitar-AND-drummer ecstasy.

"Radar Love" -- from the album Moontan -- has a pulsating bass riff that is probably neck and neck in stupidity and simplicity with Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water." I've heard fifth graders play the "Smoke On The Water" riff to show off their acoustic guitar lessons, but why not "Radar Love?"

There is even a web site totally devoted to the one song "Radar Love," and the 350 versions it claims there exists!

What separates "Radar Love" from "Smoke On The Water" is that "Radar Love" absolutely grooves. That fabulous bass riff, that bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp on the F# note, shoot up to the A, quickly down to E then back up to F# part again. You can snap your fingers to this!

No shortage of credit can go to the drummer, who spends his verses doing a fast-paced snare beat, then goes into a straight swing-type 4/4 for the chorus, and then does this absolutely twisted paradiddle deal during the extended solo break, and then goes back swinging into that trademark snare beat.

Lead singer Barry Hay, who has the only easy to pronounce name in the band, has a wicked evil voice as he's snarls, practically wills his girlfriend to appear as he's driving to see her. The band :

I've been drivin' all night, my hand's wet on the wheel
There's a voice in my head that drives my heel
It's my baby callin', says I need you here
And it's half past four and I'm shifting gear.

When she's lonely and the longing gets too much
She sends a cable comin' in from above
We don't need no phone at all
We've got a thing that's called radar love
We've got a wave in the air... (silent beat) radar love!

I hear horns, unheard of for a hard rock band at the time, building up the solo break and then bowing out the final chord of the song. The chorus -- "We've got a thing that's called radar love" -- shares the exact same chord structure at Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Let It Ride" chorus, so you know there's something magical about a song in F# minor.