Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Spinners -- "It's A Shame" (1970)

The Spinners were one of the Philly Sound super groups of the 70's, recording for Atlantic Records and working with songwriter/producer genius (yes, I know it's that word) Thom Bell. However, before they were on Atlantic, they recorded for Motown and this was not only their first hit, but by far their biggest and maybe only hit for that label.

What is so distinct about "It's A Shame" is that it's early Stevie Wonder written-and-produced. Lately, I've been reading former Rolling Stone magazine editor Ben Fong-Torres' compilation Not Fade Away, where he interviewed Wonder in early 1973. His album Talking Book had come out the year before, Innervisions was on its way, and for the first time, he carried a lot of clout at Motown. Wonder explains that even though his first production credit was on the Signed, Sealed and Delivered album, the first actual production gig he did was this Spinners single.

The "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" single was the musical reference point for "It's A Shame," both featuring ringing sitar-like clean guitar leads, in-the-pocket grooves from in-house bassist James Jamerson, and a kind of pumping drum playing, which I am not sure was Wonder himself or one of the "Funk Brothers."

I didn't even realize that "It's A Shame" was the one and only Spinners single to feature lead vocalist G.C. Cameron because I always knew the group's lead singer was the great Philip Wynne. But Cameron remained at Motown and married Berry Gordy's daughter when the Spinners split for Atlantic Records. You hear it's the Spinners, you assume it's the same guys, but it turns out not to be so.

In Fong-Torres' interview, Wonder explains why groups like The Spinners left Motown: "Writers are so important. I think a lot of our artists could have been more successful if they had other writers, besides Holland-Dozier-Holland, because then they would have found their identity -- and that's what everybody needs." He elaborates later on: "It's difficult to be a sustaining power for a long period of time. It's like a person comes out with a beat, and you keep on doing it and doing it and riving it into the ground."

Of course, the irony is that the Spinners spent years under Thom Bell's wing, producing a long series of soul classics.

While the Spinners will be mostly remembered for those Atlantic hits, "It's A Shame" is as much a big party song as its "Signed Sealed and Delivered" template, with those chiming Fender rhythm guitars, popping horn arrangement, and the group echoing "sha-ame" during those verses.

I've got a few videos in honor of "It's A Shame." The first is a straightforward video tribute soundtracked with the single, and another from 1989 featuring G.C. Cameron doing his remake of the song on a Detroit TV show (and you can easily tell that he's got the lead voice of the single). The third is really an appreciation of what Motown bassist James Jamerson did in songs like "It's A Shame," so here is a one-minute shot of a talented guy playing Jamerson's part, and you can see there was a lot going on across that fretboard, you may not have realized it. That dude put some swing underneath this great song.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Pet Shop Boys -- "So Hard" (1990)

The Penn and Teller of the English synthpop world had released a number of great singles but hit the jackpot with the Behaviour album in 1990. Where the duo could have picked all kinds of big name collaborators, they chose German musician/producer Harold Faltermeyer, whose biggest claim to fame before that was composing and writing the "Axel F Theme" from Beverly Hills Cop.

The Pet Shop Boys represented a striking confluence of disco and DJ culture, gay subtext, and artsy pretensions. Former Smash Hits magazine editor Neil Tennant sings in a slightly nasal tones, pretty much devoid of emotion, but carrying a melody quite well and full of irony. Their lyrics had sort of a journalistic bite, alluding to gay relationships, dependencies ("Rent") and trysts, but never quite giving it all away. They had an unquestionable devotion to the art and artifice of pop music, and often celebrated it in their songs and shows.

The Pet Shop Boys present an interesting contrast with the just-discussed New Order. Both created dance music and relished their 12" extended remixes, but that's where the comparisons ended: whereas New Order incorporated a lot of live instruments into their music, the Pet Shop Boys were all about the synthesizers, and a lot of them.

Whatever the music skills of the Boys, they always made a point of teaming with the best synthesizer and drum programmers as well as remixers in Europe, notably Julian Mendelsohn and Shep Pettibone early on. However, Behaviour was a real tour de force of analog synth programming, layered, EQ'd and arranged brilliantly.

"So Hard" opens with a short flying percussion pattern, some introductory kicks and spacey pads. The kick then goes straight 4/4, the hi hats move in, a woosh of a keyboard, giving way to the throbbing synth bass line and a minor key Fairlight riff. The instrumentation is definitely house music-based, lots of little hits and bleeps quantized in time with the groove. The narrator is again in a frustrating relationship, and as if often the case with The Pet Shop Boys, playing head games:

I double-cross you and you get mysterious mail
I've tried hard not to shock you
It's hard not to with the things I could say.

Tell me why don't we try
not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?
Why don't we try not to break our hearts
and make it so hard for ourselves?

You lock your letters in a box
and you've hidden the key
I go one better - I'm indebted to a contact magazine.

Tell me why don't we try
not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?
Why don't we try not to break our hearts
and make it so hard for us?

The Pet Shop Boys put angst to a disco beat. The song's break delivers it in spades:

Everybody's got to live together
just to find a little peace of mind there
If you give up your affairs forever
I will give up mine
But it's hard
so hard.

The group's best album coincided with their first major tour of America, one which I caught with my then-girlfriend (later wife) at Radio City Music Hall. I use the term "concert" loosely here because there was nothing traditional about it -- it was closer to theater and performance art, with numerous costumed dancers and players, a lot of pre-programmed synths and drum machines, and Tennant and Lowe casually moving in and out of the scenery, very much keeping with their low-key composure.

And Harold Faltermeyer? Despite the success of Behaviour, that was his last major commercial harrah.

Below is the official video, a strange black and white number shot around Newcastle in the UK. With various scenes of two couples having found outdoors, playing pool and pinball, the Boys appear like mysterious ghostly figures, Tennant singing with total ennui and Lowe not saying anything and sometimes just staring into space. They are accompanied by what look like bulky black bodyguards everywhere they go. If I put my English majors cap on, I'd say the PSB are the guilty consciences of the foursome, motioning blankly like the cats that ate the rat. By the video's end, it seems that one guy is checking out the other girl, and gets slapped for his trouble.

By the way, if you enjoy the Pet Shop Boys, you owe it to yourself to investigate the Pet Shop Boys Song-By-Song Commentary site, "Interpretations and Analyses of Every Song Written or Performed by Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant" by Wayne Studer, Ph.D.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

New Order -- "True Faith" (1987)

It took me a considerable amount of time to get into New Order. Yes, I know they rose from the ashes of much loved Manchester cult rock group Joy Division (whom I never got into) and their "Blue Monday" single was supposed to be a ground breaker. Still, nothing really clicked until my brother got this double album of remixes, greatest hits, re-recordings and the new single "True Faith."

That song broke crossed over into the mainstream and was featured on the soundtrack of the Michael J. Fox "Bright Lights Big City" movie, so by this time, I was surrounded, really. I was smitten with three songs from this album -- "True Faith," "Bizarre Love Triangle" and "Perfect Kiss."

As a latecomer, the only New Order albums I ever bought were the last two -- "Get Ready" and "Waiting For The Sirens' Call" -- and then about two years ago, I dug back and bought "Technique."

In the age of CD singles and downloads, compiling New Order's singles works just fine for me. I've listened to them enough to appreciate and admire the dance music they pioneered, and why they sound so different than other bands. New Order struck me as a rock band who preferred to work with popular 4/4 kick drum on the beat and hi hat playing 16ths dance rhythms of disco, rave and electronica. Even war horse Quincy Jones signed them to his label in the US, so he was hip to their sound and popularity.

"True Faith" has all the trademarks I've gotten to know about this band...

* The song title is never in the lyrics. As catchy as the whole "True Faith" melody is, the lyrics are rather introspective and depressing. On one hand, they appear to be about escaping a dark childhood (My morning sun is the drug that brings me near/To the childhood I lost, replaced by fear/I used to think that they day would never come/That my life would depend on the morning sun), while I've heard another interpretation of it being about breaking free of heroin addiction. Either way, a great example of heavy sad lyrics with a bouncy tune and you can dance to it!

* Peter Hook's bass. Like John Entwhistle, you can not mistake Hook's live electric bass in the songs. First of all, hats off to these guys putting a live bass in a musical genre that always featured synths doing the job. Hook's bass has this hollow, scratchy tone in a dark reverb, very much played as a strong melodic instrument rather than just "holding the bottom."

* Bernard Sumner's acoustic guitar playing. Another instrument usually not associated with the dance music genre, yet he strums it hard and feverishly and it works. A-ha employed it in their "The Living Daylights" single discussed earlier. Done the right way, the chords ring out over the synths beautifully.

Below are three "True Faith" videos: first is the original one from the single, done by French director Philippe Decoufle and winning all kinds of praise when it came out -- it certainly has a subtle surreal flair with its opening face slaps done to the beat. The second is the band performing the song live at 1998's Reading Festival. As you can see, there was a lot of simplicity in what New Order did -- basic synth pad chords, straightforward acoustic rhythm guitar, live drums -- no show-off virtuosos really needed to make audiences dance. And the final is a very fine well-edited video of the outstanding Shep Pettibone 12" remix.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ian Lloyd -- "Slipaway" (1979)

Off the top of my head, this seems like the only song Ric Ocasek gave away that became something of a cult New Wave hit.

Luckily it landed in the hands of Ian Lloyd, better know as the lead singer of another one hit wonder band, Stories (interracial love tale "Brother Louie," which was also a cover tune).

Lloyd had been singing background on various song and albums. When he cut this solo album Goose Bumps for Scotti Brothers Records, this was the one tune written and produced by Ocasek, featuring all his fellow members of The Cars. The song's original demo can be found on the double-album Just What I Needed: Cars Anthology, but this version beats it by miles.

"Slipaway" is best described as a 60's party song as remade by Ocasek. It's faster than most Cars songs, probably as fast as "Don't Cha Stop" from the debut album. It's got an absolute pumping beat, with a matching bass going up and down with it and a killer analog synth hook that sounds suspiciously like a really old Virginia Slims cigarette commercial (now I know I'm really dating myself!). Lots of hand claps, heavily shouted background vocals of "That's right" and some cool bottle rocket effects that make the whole production seem like it's going to explode.

Trademark Ocasek lyrics: obtuse, name-dropping, and a bit of biting sarcasm...

I can tell that you're wild
and you love their aching smile
and I know I'm on the list to be kissed.

When you're givin' out the name
of the one you want to blame
you'll be on the brink of tears, that's right

Could I talk you out of stayin' here tonight?

Well I see that you're cute
in your Fiorucci suit
and your eyes have seen the shadows that you hide.

I could be a little sweet
that would come off very neat
you'd be on the brink of tears, that's right

Could I talk you out of stayin' here tonight?

And of course, you can clearly hear Ocasek singing back to Lloyd "something's gotta change now" during the chorus.

This is one tough little record to get. The album is long out of print and I don't know of any collections it can be found on. Truly one of the great rare singles of the New Wave era.

But somebody has done us all a favor and put together a neat little video for the song, so kudos to them!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Hollies -- "Carrie Anne" (1967)

The Hollies stood out from so many of the British Invasion bands because they had consistency, musicianship, longevity, talent and an abundance of songwriting skills.

In some ways, they were the forerunners of the jangly Byrds sound, even contributing member Graham Nash to them. No matter how the music scene evolved around them through the years, they stuck to their chiming guitars, multiple harmonies and classy choice of material.

It's tough for me to pick out one song to start with the Hollies, so I'm diving in with "Carrie Anne." This one stands out for me because it's their biggest hit to prominently features Nash's unmistakable vocals, and it has an out-of-right-field steel drum solo, which must have seemed alien at a time of guitar dominance. It took a lot of guts to put that type of solo in there -- there's nothing in the song that resembles anything Caribbean -- yet somebody had the genius to try it, and it works.

The year it came out, the band was already in the third year of an incredibly long roll of chart topping hits, which started with their cover of "Just One Look" in 1964, so they were really picking up steam heading into their next single, "King Midas In Reverse."

"Carrie Anne" was also co-written by band members Nash, Tony Hicks and Allan Clarke. Clarke was the lead vocalist for the band for all those successful years and known for his emotional delivery. Although on "Carrie Anne," the lead vocals were traded, Clarke pretty much stood front and center for the band's long productive history.

This past late fall, "Carrie Anne" had the honor of being the first Hollies song my young daughter clicked with, immediately identifying with the lyrics of playing school games as kids.

When we were at school our games were simple
I played a janitor, you played a monitor
Then you played with older boys and prefects
What's the attraction in what they're doing.

Hey Carrie Anne, what's your game now, can anybody play?
Hey Carrie Anne, what's your game now, can anybody play?

The "Carrie Anne" videos below are a real treat. The first is a live 1969 performance on BBC's Channel 4 in black and white, with no steel drums, substituted by the bassist plays along with some off-screen orchestra. Graham Nash has left the year before. The second video was a 1968 lip synch performance on "The Smother Brothers Show" in color, Nash in full "Robin Hood"-type gear. And finally, a 1973 live performance on "ABC in Concert" at a time when Clarke had left the group for a solo career and was replaced by Swedish singer Mikael Rickfors.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Outfield -- "Your Love" (1986)

For years, I've had this theory that when a major musical artist disappears for a while, or maybe they no longer record, sometimes another act appears that sounds just like them and gets a hit single out of it.

Previously on this blog, I noted the group Flash mimicked prog rockers Yes for their one single "Small Beginnings." Other examples: when Springsteen took years between albums, questionable acts like Billy Falcon, D.B. Byron, and some say Meatloaf stepped into the void.

The theory definitely holds true for the English band the Outfield, and their one big hit single "Your Love," which could have been easily mistaken for The Police, who broke up two years before this tune appeared. For a clone song, it is very good and you have to give credit where credit is due.

The lead singer sounds almost exactly like a yelping Sting. The instrumentation is sparse and the guitars are heavily chorused, just like The Police. The drums are compressed and gated, just like the Police. The group is British, just like the Police, yet they have a very American name, tagged after a sport that never ever caught on in the UK.

So if you can forget that these guys are soundalikes, you have a great well-arranged little pop-rock single that made it to #6 on the US charts. The song starts "cold" -- no intro -- just vocals and only a heavily chorused rhythm guitar accompanying on D, Bm and A chords:

Josie`s on a vacation far away, 
Come around and talk it over
So many things that I wanna say
You know I like my girls a little bit older.
I just wanna use your love tonight.

Then the overdubbed background vocals echo "I don't wanna lose your love toni-ight."

Two big simultaneous smashes on the snare and hi hat, and the whole band drops in, with the
bass anchoring that mid-tempo beat and the drums miked all over for airy ambiance, pounding like a train engine.

The little thing you notice in this song: when the singer goes back to just his voice over a drum this time, the beat pattern changes to a Phil Spector-type "bum...bum-bum" like the kind you hear on the beginning of The Four Seasons' "Rag Doll." Just a cool little touch to keep things interesting in the middle.

Two albums later, still unable to recapture the heat of "Your Love," the Outfield released Voices of Babylon, produced by David Kahne, which I consider one of the sleeper rock albums of the 80's. Not one hit off this album, unfortunately, but the songs are actually far more consistent than Play Deep, with lots of delays and reverbs moving them slightly more away from The Police sound.

Here's the official video of "Your Love," which has an extended intro.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Boston -- "Don't Look Back" (1978)

Better guitar playing through technology.

This was the mantra of former Poloroid tech whiz Tom Scholz, who created the most successful debut record of all time, the self-titled premiere of the band Boston, in the basement of his house. Playing most of the instruments himself without a synthesizer to be heard (despite a photo of a five-piece band on the back cover), Scholz's masterpiece went on to sell 17 million records.

Now when one of the songs from Boston comes on the radio, it almost seems like background music by now to my ears. I feel like I've heard that album so many times, that my senses are completely used to it, and it seems old hat. Not to diminish that album's incredible musical accomplishment and countless times I and a million other college students and radio stations played it infinite times. It's like knowing every moment of a movie before it happens... it's not very exciting anymore.

On the other hand, the title song from their second album Don't Look Back hasn't had that effect on me yet. To me, it's still one of the most upbeat, catchiest, best roaring rock anthems written, played and produced.

What I remember about that second album was that after the debut selling enough copies to equal the population of Beijing, Epic Records wanted that follow up album "yesterday." Scholz would not budge because he was famous for being a perfectionist. In those days, group put out an album a year, sometimes more. Taking more than that was unheard of until Bruce Springsteen started taking his sweet time between records. That's life as a rock perfectionist... you assume you now have the clout to spend more time making the idea followup.

So it was with Scholz, a rock purist who lived very strictly in an analog world of no synthesizers, recording and mixing to magnetic tape, and damn if everything had to be perfect. After all, he played most of the instruments himself, but you'd never know because it truly sounded like a band. He kept pushing Epic back, telling them to bug off until he was good and ready.

Apparently, Epic had pushed Scholz to the point where he finally delivered them album number two, even though he hinted that he still didn't think it was finished. And in August of 1978, the world got Don't Look Back, which on the heels of selling 17 million copies, was bound to be a letdown. Personally, I thought the album was a mixed bag and overall not up to the songwriting of the first one, but that's a tough act to follow.

Rising above it all was the amazing title track, layers of perfectly synchronized distorted Gibsons, and another magical riff that Scholz clearly lived to produce. The Boston sound was the ideal marriage of Scholz's mastery of guitars, basses and B-3 organ, along with lead singer Brad Delp's certified one in a million voice. The late Delp was born for the high register, not like Rush's Geddy Lee, but it just rang out in an upper range as clear as a bell, calling out the charge.

"Don't Look Back" was all optimism, look straight ahead, and who cares what others say... major chords throughout, tambourine waving. It was probably Scholz thumbing his nose at Epic Records, since he had the keys to the kingdom.

As with a typical Boston song, the bass is very rudimentary, going up, down, up down... and the drums are functional. However, the heavy guitar chords, dual guitar line melodies, complex chord structure and swooping arrangement take this baby over the top.

Don't look back
A new day is breakin'
It's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind where I get taken
The road is callin'
Today is the day.

I can see
It took so long to realize
I'm much too strong
Not to compromise
Now I see what I am is holding me down
I'll turn it around.

I... finally see the dawn arrivin'
I... see beyond the road I'm drivin'
Far away and left behind.

You had to hand it to Scholz to start with the chorus first, and then a break to follow each one. Each chorus acts like a verse, that it's kind of hard to nail down exactly what it is!

"Don't Look Back" is filled with those little moments I always talk about, the ones that catch your ear like candy: the hard chords of "turn it around" with the picks scratching down the guitars... the fade away in the middle of the song ("Left behind... left behind....") where it's just the kick and the hi hat, then the song's riff coming in louder until it climaxes with this roaring pulled guitar string taking it back to the song's minor chord break... and that insane ending chord led by the drums.

I just don't tire of this song.

For some reason, Boston got tagged with this "corporate rock" label, almost as a backlash to their out of nowhere success. But I do not see where that applies, as Boston has truly been the vision of an individual, Tom Scholz, and not the marketing mechanism of a record label.

Below is the official video for the song, which is notable for two things: 1) the band is lipsynched to the song in concert (??) and 2) this is an edited down version, which the band would never play in concert anyway. So I'm sure this whole concert was just staged for the video. The second is a 1987 performance in Pittsburgh -- not top notch quality, but good enough to see how this song was performed in concert.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Haircut 100 -- "Love Plus One" (1982)

Haircut 100 was truly one of the New Wave era's coulda-shoulda been stories. Just when they exploded onto the scene with their first album, Pelican West, their main songwriter/singer quit for a solo career and they were never the same trying to replace him.

During this period, many bands were taking rock, soul and dance music, and combining them into new and exciting songs. As a rebellious response to the repetitive disco era that proceeded it, many new artists were suddenly landing on college and "new rock" radio stations as imports, and being snapped by major US labels.

Such was the case with Haircut 100, which was mainly the vehicle for singer/songwriter Nick Heyward. They landed out of nowhere on WLIR-FM in the early 80's with their first import single, "Love Plus One" and you'd never really heard anything like this. Whereas a number of English New Wave acts were borrowing from soul and Motown (Spandau Ballet, Paul Young, Naked Eyes, Kim Wilde, The Jam, etc.), Haircut 100 took a decidedly South American route.

As you'll see from the video below, they dressed like good little English school boys, like a smiling bunch of goody two-shoes. Every video I've seen of them, they've been in an unusually chipper form, wearing the kind of clean cut semi-preppy outfits any mother would love to see on their daughter's dates.

After the opening scratchy guitar chords, a catchy marimba riff marks time with the kick and hi hat, the electric bass slides down, and it's this upbeat pop tune with a slightly Latin feel, a soprano sax wailing away, and some congas under the mix. Heyward's got the typical vocals of the era -- almost disaffected, nothing amazing, but totally capable of carrying the clipped melody. And if you're going to spend the time studying the lyrics, well, they're almost nonsensical.

I, I went off to the right
Without saying goodbye, goodbye
Where does it go from here?
Is it down to the lake I fear?
Ay ah ah ah ah ah
Ay ah ah ah ah ah
Then I call
Ring (ring) ring (ring) ring (ring) ring (ring)
La la love plus one
Ring (ring) ring (ring) ring (ring) ring (ring)
When I call love.

They are fun to sing, as truly silly as they are. But this is what a great pop single was at the time -- just different... clocking in under four minutes, danceable, happy as hell, and unfailing melody.

Thank God, Arista signed these guys up and released Pelican West in the US. However, they probably lived to regret it when Heyward suddenly bolted the group to go it alone at the height of the first album's fame. While Heyward made a bit of a dent in the UK by himself, he pretty much went nowhere here. What could have been.

One guy who really did make it in the band besides Heyward (if you call his career as such) was American-born drummer Blair Cunningham, who actually joined Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders later on after original drummer Martin Chambers, played with Paul McCartney and others.

Below is the official "Love Plus One" video, shot on some kind of kitschy jungle set with torchlights and swinging vines on a sound stage somewhere. Heyward seems just a bit goofy, nodding his head to the right in case you don't understand the first line of the song (I didn't, for years).

Monday, April 14, 2008

Peter Godwin -- "Baby's In The Mountains" (1983)

If you're a New Wave fiend who relishes the more obscure acts, then Peter Godwin's your man. There are about five zillion New Wave record compilations, and you'll be inundated with the Stray Cats, Modern English, Men At Work and The Police, but good luck finding one with Peter Godwin (you can try Just Can't Get Enough, Vol. 12).

Together with Duncan Browne, Godwin was in the minor pop band Metro previous to jumping off on his own track.

"Baby's In The Mountains" was prototypical for the era -- layers of analogue synths driving a mid-tempo pumping beat, programmed drum machine with synthetic beats, what sounds like a deep Moog bass, and a highly affected vocal periodically backed up by female singers.

If there was one musical twist that singers liked to do at this time, and "Baby's In The Mountain" is a prime example, it was the slightly chromatically out of tune throwaway line. In this case, listen to the pre-chorus when Godwin sings "and there's NOTHING I can do" which kind of goes up and down an octave in those six words.

The song really took hold when Polydor had master mixer John Luongo did one of his classic extended remixes, jetting the song into the dance clubs at the time. Since making it big in dance clubs was still going strong from the earlier disco era, these 12" singles gave whole new lives to songs at the time (see my post on ABC's "Poison Arrow"). Luongo earned his chops with those disco songs, so when these New Wave acts came calling with their 4/4 dance beats, it was an easy transition for him. You can find his remix of "Baby's In The Mountains" on a "best of" Peter Godwin compilation on Amazon.

Here's a simple home-made video for "Baby's In The Mountains." Not much visually, but it's good to have the song out there:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nilsson -- "Everybody's Talkin'" (1969)

Truly out of another time and era, "Everybody's Talkin'" is closely aligned with the film it came from, Midnight Cowboy, that the song evokes such clear emotions from this classic late 60's John Schlesinger film about loners scraping by to make it in New York City.

Certainly the first five minutes when short order cook Joe Buck (Jon Voight in his film debut) leaves his town in the middle of nowhere, Texas to take a bus to Manhattan and make a living as a hustler. He walks the streets of the city looking out of place yet not out of place at all in a fine cowboy hat and boots, a grinning picture of blond charisma through the bustling avenues. He's checking out the sights, especially those fine rich women on the East Side, ready to use his best pick up line to get a transaction going. He walks by what seems like passed out body in the front of Tiffany's and wonders why nobody is stopping to see what's wrong with this poor fellow.

Many people think its was Nilsson who wrote "Everybody's Talkin'," but it was composed by folk singer Fred Neil and recorded by Nilsson for his 1968 Aeriel Ballet album. The original single flopped but was later picked up for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, where it was rediscovered and became a top 10 hit. Although this was the world's first vocal introduction on a mass basis for Nilsson, he was always a terrific songwriter and at the time, Three Dog Night was about to release its first smash, a cover of Nilsson's "One."

The beauty of "Everybody's Talkin'" is its carefree, hit the highway no matter where it goes feel. The signature major-major seventh introduction on the banjo has this down-home flavor, the bass easily going up and down on that root chord, the train motif brushes on the snare, and a rather striking George Tipton orchestration with high strings staying on one long note for most of the choruses.

The Midnight Cowboy producers couldn't have picked a better opening song, one that conveys wanting better things somewhere else, not listening to anybody else but yourself on the journey to that place...

Everybody's talkin' at me
I don't hear a word they're saying
Only the echoes of my mind.

People stopping staring
I can't see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes.

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Thru' the pouring rain,
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Banking off of the North East wind
Sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone.

I remember hearing the song for the first time, captivated by the above elements, but truly moved by Nilsson's voice. He was gifted with some true emotion in his delivery, and while he put it all into the song, there was something eccentric about the wordless middle part of the song. He "woah- woah- woah" the verse melody in what would become his trademark"melodic whine," for lack of a better description. He held one note towards the end of the part, and after a decade of on the mark crooners, you couldn't help but shiver at the unusual timbre of Nilsson's tone. This is also the only part of the song that the strings go into lower octaves.

When you hear the music in the film's early sections, the mix is different from the single. Nilsson's vocals are a different take, most noticeably at the song's end. The first video is taken right from Midnight Cowboy's opening credits, and then below, a great black and white video of Nilsson lipsynching to the song on the West German TV show "Beat Club."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Tommy James -- "Draggin' The Line" (1971)

Through the latter half of the 60's, Tommy James & The Shondells evolved from a prototypical garage rock with bubblegum band ("Hanky Panky," "Mony Mony") to a flat out psychedelic bubblegum band ("Crimson & Clover," "Crystal Blue Persuasion").

Then Tommy James dropped the Shondells and decided to make what would now be called Christian rock and basically nearly committed career suicide... except for this one single that landed on his Christian Of The World album.

Sounding like it made no difference that the Shondells left, "Draggin' The Line" continued James' uncanny knack for spaced out lyrics packaged in short irresistible three-minute pop songs.

This song had so many good things going for it in all its simplicity, it would be nearly impossible for it to not be a hit. Take out your perfect 45 checklist and so many items you can mark off:

  • Ridiculously catchy bass line played nearly throughout the whole song.
  • Equally catchy verses and chorus.
  • Three or four chords, tops.
  • Chugging guitar and the rigidly-played 4/4 drums.
  • Simple horn arrangement emphasizing the melody during the break ("I feel fine, I'm talking about peace of mind, I'm going to take my time, I'm getting to good times...").
  • Bass voice echoing the song title, followed by two syncopated horn pops.
  • The cool 8th-note snare drum part that transitions out of the break.
Was James high on a drug called "life" or something else when he wrote the following verse:

My dog Sam eats purple flowers,
We ain't got much, but we got ours,
Digging the snow and the rain and bright sunshine,
Draggin' the line (draggin' the line)

Or what was he thinking when writing these lines:

Lovin' a free and feelin' spirit,
Huggin' a tree when you get near it.

I guess he could have used the words to the National Anthem, because the music itself was so good, the words nearly didn't matter.

R.E.M. did a decent cover of "Draggin' The Line" on the soundtrack to "Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

No real good live videos around from this song, but here's a nice "Draggin' The Line" montage that serves as a tribute to Tommy James...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Melanie -- "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" (1970)

The biggest hit song about leprosy to ever hit the Top 10. Or is the song about the Woodstock Festival?

At least I always thought it was leprosy. I mean, let's just get right to the lyrics for this one...

We were so close there was no room
We bled inside each other's wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace

Lay down lay down lay it all down
Let your white birds smile
At the ones who stand and frown
Lay down lay down lay it all down
Let your white birds smile
At the ones who stand and frown

So raise candles high
'cause if you don't

We could stay black against the night
Oh raise them higher again
And if you do we could stay dry against the rain

Quite a shift in subject from the songwriter whose other biggest hits were "Brand New Key" ("I've got a brand new pair of roller skates, you've got a brand new key") and "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma?"

Now if you find photos of Melanie (last name: Safka) online, you'll see she was definitely a kind of a hippie babe in those days. She made the rounds in Greenwich Village coffee houses in the late 60's, and even performed at the famous Woodstock Festival of Peace, Love, etc.

She recorded on the Buddah label, probably better known for its bubblegum acts. But there was nothing bubblegum about "Lay Down," which had the sparse instrumentation of Melanie's acoustic guitar, a drummer, a bassist, a pianist and a conga player, and the overwhelming backup of the gospel group The Edwin Hawkins Singers (who had their own Top 40 hit "Oh Happy Day").

The instruments are practically an afterthought, as Melanie's smoky, chilly voice and the multitude of gospel singers generate the song's eerie yet rousing verses and choruses. It's a downright spooky song, yet with that folk background, Melanie wants everybody to sing along, and with a large number of gospel powerhouses belting out the chorus (with some hand claps as the song progresses), it's hard not to be totally captivated by it all. Melanie herself steps right up to match her background singers, and it's tremendously moving.

You'll see what I mean in the powerful live black and white video below. Towards the end, the camera makes a shocking cut to the audience, which is definitely not what I expected it to be .

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dave Edmunds -- "I Hear You Knocking" (1970)

Dave Edmunds has had many rock and roll lives, and if there's any justice, one day he'll be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Welsh guitarist is one of the few famous rock and roll purists still around. For Edmunds, it seemed like music never progressed past 1967 or so, and the only thing that ever happened was rock and roll and rockabilly... basic, raw, no tricks, all based on Chuck Berry riffs and licks.

Way before Edmunds was a member of Rockpile, put out several classic rock albums in the New Wave era, hung out with all the pub rockers like Brinsley Schwarz, or produced early 80's rockabilly revivalists The Stray Cats, he put out this lo-fi, one-man band version of an old rock tune first recorded by Smiley Lewis.

A bare bones production, Edmunds probably was not much of a drummer, so he used only a hi hat to keep the steady 4/4 beat. I don't even think he bothered with a kick drum. Surrounded by an old plate reverb. He used the old "telephone effect" for his vocals, EQ filtering off both the high and low ends to create a tinny up close tone. Edmunds laid down a flawless classic blues rock progression, palming down the guitar strings for that back and forth motion.

You can't really say Edmunds' version "cranks" -- it's a real throwback to late 50's cheap rock productions where it was all arranged Berry licks and yelping and howling.

If you're like me, digging the little things that people sometimes put on their records, this one featured Edmunds calling out the names of famous 50's rock artists during the solo:

Fats Domino!
Smiley Lewis!
Chuck Berry!
Huey Smith!
(and one other name I still can't hear clearly)

The other cool little thing: when that solo is over and Edmunds finishes shouting out those names, he plays his one and only piano chord of the entire song to act as a bridge back to the third verse -- an augmented one, it seems to me.

Below are a few videos, including where you see poor Dave standing by himself lip-synching with that amazing looking Gibson in his hands, then another with Rockpile, and finally with a foll blown band including two drummer and a horn section. Long live rock and roll!
I Hear You Knocking - Dave Edmunds (Dec. 1970)

Here another early TV spot. Check out the boots. What show was this where people just hung out or danced?

With Rockpile (yes, that's Nick Lowe on bass)

Edmunds with the full treatment... and an awesome Telecaster!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Spandau Ballet -- "Gold" (1983)

I guess after posting about ABC, it reminded me of the other band that could have been their close cousins, Spandau Ballet. More white English boys playing black-influenced music, feathered hair, a saxophonist, live drummers, and banging 12" remixes.

However, they differed in a few respects. While ABC's Martin Fry always seemed to have a wink in his eye and relish his cleverness, Spandau Ballet's lead vocalist Tony Hadley would rather croon in his powerful baritone. Fry masterminded ABC, while the engine behind Spandau Ballet were the Kemp brothers, guitarist Gary and bassist Martin. ABC employed strings and brass, while Spandau Ballet filled out with synths and jazzier motifs.

Over the arc of both careers, I found Spandau Ballet was as consistent as ABC. While ABC's second album, Beauty Stab, was a disappointing flop, they got right back up again and reinvented their sound for How To Be A Millionaire. Spandau Ballet never replicated the success of the album True (and its title song), their following album Parade was practically a sequel, fairly close in quality.

At first, Spandau Ballet were pretty much a UK sensation, the poster boys for the New Romantic movement, which I guess was another way of saying handsome English white guys making black-influenced dance music. The single "Chant No. 1 (Don't Need This Pressure On" was strictly a hit in New Wave UK and American clubs, a bit rough and crude, yet a catchy chorus.

However, they fell in with the production team of Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, who really polished up their music, added a punchy compression to their mix, and upped their songwriting game, and that made all the difference. The album True was an international success, mostly on the the back of the title song, a six-minute New Wave ballad. When the song was a hit, I was assisting in Arista Records' A&R department on West 57th Street, often pointing out to the staff that the lyrics made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Then again, a lot of Spandau Ballet lyrics are a bit obtuse.

Fortunately, "True" was the last song on a rather great album, full of tunes that rivaled any Duran Duran album at the time. Rising to the top was "Gold," which never quite became a hit here in the US, but was notable for having that one syllable hook of the title word ("Gold!"), hitting right on a jazzy minor ninth chord for it.

With the song starting with just keyboards, Hadley whips out the croon right away, holding that last note of "tall":

Thank you for coming home
I'm sorry that the chairs are all worn
I left them here I could have sworn
these are my salad days
slowly being eaten away
just another play for today
oh but I'm proud of you,but I'm proud of you
there's nothing left to make me feel small
luck has left me standing so tall-l-l-l-l-l-l.

The give and take between Hadley, and the Kemp brothers' whispery coo's and echoes, with intensely ascending chords made for an exciting "building" effect. Jolley and Swain loved covering all the vocals in a wonderful warm reverb. A prominent Yamaha electric piano rolls chords and doubles the melody, even echoing the chorus later in the song. Tuned bongos synched up just before the second verse. Jolley and Swain paid particular attention to separating all the instruments, giving the kick and snare a deep punch that you can even hear in the video below.

All the little things of this song worked: Hadley's dramatic rush into the word "Gold" while the Kemps hit it right on the downbeat, the weirdly off piano notes during the opening verse, squeezing the word "indestructible" into the chorus, the piano glissando just before the final chorus, and the minor chord motif that underlines the last few bars.

When I see this video, I wonder what happened to Tony Hadley. He seems capable of pulling off a Rod Stewart and singing "the great American song book" and other classics to extend his career. Several years after True, the Kemps took a shot at acting and played the title characters in the brutal British gangster film "The Krays."

Another ABC similarity: an album full of amazing 12" extended remixes. The "Gold" remix is also my favorite, a true tour de force that starts very mellow and jazzy for about a minute, then pounds in with the drums, tuned bongos and the whole shebang. It is almost like an overture leading up to Hadley's vocals, which drop in about three or four minutes into the mix.


Friday, April 4, 2008

ABC -- "Poison Arrow" (1982)

When punk rock burst onto the scene in the mid to late 70's, they took their cues from 60's garage rock and 50's twangin' rock and roll. With that, the floodgates opened and the New Wave movement spewed forth all kinds of innovative bands which distinctly borrowed other American genres.

The one genre the English music acts revered the most was American soul music and R&B. There was a sudden rush of interest in Motown, fueled with the 1983 "Motown 25" NBC-TV special, where Michael Jackson moonwalked across the stage to "Billy Jean." Phil Collins covered "You Can't Hurry Love," Soft Cell merged "Tainted Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go?" Kim Wilde discoed through "You Keep Me Hanging On." The Jam lifted a Motown groove for "A Town Called Malice."

The one English act that took the whole phenomenon through the roof was ABC, who had the good fortune to team with "let's make it big baby" producer Trevor Horn and create their landmark debut. Mining all kinds of soul styles, ABC paired oh-too-clever lyrics with bright shiny production values, swirling strings, popping horns, thumb-pulled bass licks, and a nice dose of theater.

Singer Martin Fry was the perfect lead vehicle, his not-subdued English accent actually sounding more compelling than any tabloid reporter. He and the band dressed up to the nines, and each song was going to be a performance, inviting all to dance no matter what your day gig was.

"Poison Arrow" still remains my favorite ABC song, just a notch over "The Look Of Love," probably because there's this weird tongue in cheek attitude, like Martin is just winking at the audience, crying his heart out to the disco beat, but you hear the hiss in his voice:

If I were to say to you "Can you keep a secret?"
Would you know just what to do
or where to keep it?
Then I say"I love you" and foul the situation
Hey girl I thought we were the right combination.

Who broke my heart?
You did, you did
Bow to the target,
Blame cupid, cupid
You think you're smart
Stupid, stupid.

Then into the chorus, Fry raising it up to a falsetto, laying on the guilt, and you can truly picture Cupid shooting this poor sap down:

Shoot that poison arrow to my hear-r-r-rt
Shoot that poison arrow
Shoot that poison arrow to my hear-r-r-rt
Shoot that poison arrow

As with many Trevor Horn productions, the arrangement are impeccable. Three deep piano notes lead into a pulsing 16th-note hi hat, claps and barreling kick, a floating sax, and then the funky bass climbing to a peak and boom, right into the R&B groove of the song. It's the kitchen sink of soul -- xylophone, more sax, heated congas. Fry doesn't even begin singing until about 35 seconds into the song, which is a mere 3:24.

Later, the song takes its break, most instruments falling away to the piano and drums, where Martin has his little conversation with the heartbreaker:

He: "I thought you loved me but it seems you don't care."

She: "I care enough to know I can never love you."

With not even a second to breathe, a huge loud electronic drum fill comes takes up all the space, and then the final choruses.

This time in music also featured many classic 12" extended remixes of New Wave songs, another lift from the disco era. In the case of "Poison Arrow," there had to be at least a few, and for The Lexicon of Love, it seemed every song had at least two. There was even one 12" disc that featured an orchestra performing an overture of all the album songs. These were fantastic records, and there is a British import of all of them on one CD.

Below are two fun and kinda cheesy videos and then a real treat: the first is the official song video, which features "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and its Cupid character whipping off one of those arrows, and even more importantly, ABC itself in all its tuxedo and gold lame suit glory. The second is ABC doing their lip-synch of the ever popular British TV show "Top of the Pops." As always, half the fun is watching how the musicians goof around to the recording they have to play to, and in this case, the ridiculous upright attempting to copy the funky electric bass of the recording is the notable culprit. And the third is a kindly posted video of the 7-minute remix of "Poison Arrow."