Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Grass Roots -- "Midnight Confessions"

Rock and roll is filled with "manufactured" groups -- acts that were put together solely for the purpose of looking good and singing hits written by professional songwriters and producers. The most famous case, of course, is The Monkees.

The Grass Roots (and note that "grass" and "roots" are two separate words for these guys) started off as one thing and then, like a writer taking out his pencil eraser, wiped it out and created something completely different.

I was listening to The Grass Roots' Greatest Hits today in my car and was struck how their first great hit, "Let's Live For Today," sounds almost nothing like what followed afterwards. Heck, that song was even in the famous Nuggets garage rock compilation.

The Grass Roots were ABC subsidiary Dunhill's baby, under the wing of the Steve Barri/P.F. Sloan team. It was when they released "Midnight Confessions," a completely re-arranged version of a song written by Lou Josie for a group he managed called The Evergreen Blues, that the group exploded into a string of best-selling singles.

"Midnight Confessions" was truly the template for the big songs that came afterwards: slick pop/soul tracks, infused with traces of bubblegum, performed and arranged by the top L.A. studio cats. In a way, The Grass Roots were like an even smoother version of Three Dog Night, white boys with great voices, covering other people's songs with a little soul inside. The personnel of The Grass Roots may have changed every couple of years, but the one constant was lead singer Rob Grill.

That pop/soul LA sound really blossomed in the early 70's, notably with Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds ("Don't Pull Your Love," "Fallin' In Love") and the Four Tops' post-Motown run at Dunhill ("Keeper of the Castle," "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got").

For a simple pop single, the arrangement for "Midnight Confessions" is quite intricate, changing keys and chords patterns throughout the song. With that unmistakable opening bass line and cracking Jimmy Haskell horn arrangement (same guy who did Steely Dan's "My Old School" and you can definitely tell), "Midnight Confessions" just sort of grabbed you with its infectious tambourine beat and prominent organ arpeggios and chords. Grill has an air of desperation with his pop single predicament -- the girl he loves is engaged? Married?

The sound of your footsteps
Telling me that you're near
Your soft gentle motion, baby
Brings out the need in me that no-one can hear, except

In my midnight confessions
When I tell all the world that I love you
In my midnight confessions
When I say all the things that I want to
I love you!

But a little gold ring you wear on your hand makes me understand
There's another before me, you'll never be mine
I'm wasting my time.

Staggering through the daytime
Your image on my mind
Passing so close beside you baby
Sometimes the feelings are so hard to hide, except...

In my midnight confessions
When I tell all the world that I love you
In my midnight confessions
When I say all the things that I want to
I love you!

In around 2000, I was out in LA handling the publicity for Maxim magazine's first party there ("Circus Maximus") and the contracted producer had a gorgeous staff member helping us get ready for the big event. She was in her early 20's and was tantalizing us all with promises that she was going to visit New York City. She said her last name was Grill and her father "toured and sang." Well, leave it to the music trivia nut to take a few seconds and pull it out of the hat to ask her, "Rob Grill? The Grass Roots?" And yes, this was his daughter.

Below is a classic late 60's video of the band lip-synching their way through the marvelous "Midnight Confessions." I'm loving Rob Grill's pink frilly shirt under his brown tassled jacket... very hip.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Two more great song openings from the 60's and 70's

I recently heard two more song introductions that absolutely qualify for my list of Best Song Openings of the 60's and 70's. And just to remind you of the criteria, I'm not looking at openings that mimic the song's riff or chord pattern... I'm looking at intro's that stand unto themselves, intro's that have almost nothing to do with the rest of the song, they were written to be, well, original cool curtain raisers by themselves.

So the list now rises to nineteen songs.

Steely Dan -- "Josie": Here's a perfect example of what I mean, if you haven't clicked back to the original posting. It hit me when I recently took the family to see Steely Dan perform at the Beacon Theater. "Josie" opens with a weird Asian-sounding set of cutting electric guitar minor-key root chords with wind chimes swirling around in the background, a high hat lightly keeping a quarter note beat to build the tension. It segues into four typical Steely Dan minor seventh chords, cymbals crashing on each chord, hanging on the last one while an electric piano twirls some notes... then wham, into the funky beat and guitar riff of the song. The intro and the rest of the song are not related, but somehow they just click. Everything about the Steely Dan world is off-kilter, so piecing these two parts together seamlessly is par for the Fagen/Becker course.

The Mama's and The Papa's -- "California Dreaming": I had this entire song in reserve for a deserved post by itself, but as far as great intro's, this one was not only outstanding, but done on an acoustic guitar, well ahead of the similar sounding Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer." Pretty much panned to the left speaker, a solo acoustic guitarist picks out a canticle-like E suspended pattern, joined by another guitar in a higher counter melody until a hard E major chord strum. Pause. And then out of the right speaker, "All the leaves are brown...."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Isley Brothers -- "That Lady" (1973)

The Isley Brothers have such a long history in both rock and soul music, even before the genres were distinctly separated, but are often overlooked because of their scattered history of their music fitting in with the times.

It's perfectly understandable that a band that once had Jimi Hendrix as a member would evolve into a powerhouse of rock, soul and funk, much like The Chambers Brothers did the job in the late 60's ("Time Has Come Today"). "That Lady" took the rock and soul, drove it through some distorted amps, and blew it out all over the charts in a real tour de force.

The question I always had about "That Lady" is that wailing lead instrument that plays virtually throughout the entire song -- is it a highly distorted guitar or synthesizer? There's so much overblown tube action -- practically a sizzle -- that it is difficult to determine what the hell is playing. After rummaging through several online videos, it's definitely Ernie Isley's Stratocaster guitar.

Plugged through a phaser pedal, the opening Cm and Fm chords constitute one of the great unsung rock riffs. Then with Ronnie Isley doing his immortal "Purrr purrr!" yelp, that wicked guitar lead line sears right into the rhythm. That's when Marvin Isley's bass comes in, a wonderful stop and start anchor to it, and you can find numerous YouTube videos of amateurs showing off their chops to it.

"That Lady" rocks about as hard as a soul song can do. Furious rhythm riffs, while Ernie's guitar lines go all over the place in a psychedelic washout. It's only during the break when Ernie stops for about, oh, 10 seconds, that you hear an organ underneath the whole thing!

Who's that lady? (Who's that lady?)
Beautiful lady. (Who's that lady?)
Lovely lady. (Who's that lady?)
Real fine lady. (Who's that lady?)

Hear me calling out to you,
Cause that's all that I can do.
Your eyes tell me to pursue.
But you say, "Look, yeah, but don't touch."

Who's that lady? (Who's that lady?)
Sexy lady. (Who's that lady?)
Beautiful lady. (Who's that lady?)
Real fine lady. (Who's that lady?)

I would dance upon a string.
Any gift she'd want, I'd bring.
I would give her anything,
If she would just do what I say.

Who's that lady? (Who's that lady?)
Beautiful lady. (Who's that lady?)
Lovely lady. (Who's that lady?)
Real real fine lady. (Who's that lady?)

I would love to take her home,
But her heart is made of stone.
Gotta keep on keeping on.
If I don't, she'll do me wrong.

While digging up the art for this post, I discovered that the Isleys originally recorded this song in 1964 and then brought it back out in its well-known highly-charged arrangement nearly 10 years later when three more family members joined the band. Now I gotta dig up the original and find out what it sounded like.

One of the reasons why "That Lady" was such a smash is that it crossed all musical genres on the radio -- rock, soul and Top 40 stations were all spinning it simultaneously. The full album version is six minutes long, so the 45 was an edited down three minute version, cutting off a lot of the long guitar solo, and released as "That Lady (Part 1)."

Below are some very cool videos, starting with the Isleys themselves performing the song at twice the speed live on "Soul Train" in the early 70's. Then there a nice video featuring the full album version. And finally, the Isley Brothers duetting with Ashanti on VH1's "Diva" TV special. All I can say about these videos is wow, look at those Marshall amp stacks, the outfits these guys wear, and Ernie's crazy behind the back stuff.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sniff 'n' The Tears -- "Driver's Seat" (1978)

One of the very best in New Wave one hit wonders, Sniff 'n' The Tears' "Driver's Seat" had a fast four on the floor beat, led by the constant snare drum snap on the 8th notes. This was a rock toe-tapper in every sense of the word, backed by the hard acoustic guitar strums of lead singer/songwriter Paul Roberts, all based on three chords.

New Wave was probably the last great period of danceable rock and roll, with plenty of short named bands, or just slightly twisted ones like these guys. "Driver's Seat" was made for the skinny tie crowd with that pulsating snare beat.

Tightly arranged, "Driver's Seat" has a very cool production trick at the song's start that bears a few listenings. I'm actually convinced it may have been an accident. The song's three acoustic guitar chords are played hard twice through, then the drums come in with that precision beat, but it sounds like somebody let the reverb go on for a couple of seconds, and then dial it back quickly back down down. It's a slightly subtle effect, and if you listen to the official video below in the first 10 seconds, you'll distinctly hear it.

"Driver's Seat" is one of the New Wave era's two big driving songs (the other was the Tom Robinson Band's "2-4-6-8 Motorway"), much in classic rock's tradition like Golden Earring's "Radar Love" and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town." You crank it up in the car for a few good reasons -- 1) the pulsating beat, 2) it's about driving and 3) it's a great song, so what other reason do you need?

Doing alright, a little drivin' on a Saturday night.
And come what may, gonna dance the day away.

Jenny was sweet, show a smile for the people she meets.
I'm trouble, let's drive, I don't know the way you came alive.

News is blue (the news is blue), has its own way to get to you.
What can I do (what can I do), when I remember my time with you.

Pick up your feet, got to move to the trick of the beat.
There is no lead, just take your place in the driver's seat.

Paul Roberts had the required disaffected lead singer tone of New Wave bands, his being a bit light and rough around the edges. The background vocals are derivative of doo wop, of all things, with a basso singer doing the "yea-aah" during the brilliant a capella break, and at other times, brilliantly echoing some of the lines with shuffled variations ("What can I do-o-o-o?").

Other highlights: fuzz guitar lines, octave guitar chords, and the square wave synth solo that twists and turns around the last part of the song.

Got to love the fact that you can buy a "Best of Sniff 'n" The Tears" CD, but there was only one real hit for the band. Below is the official video, which is amusing for three reasons 1) Paul Roberts is playing an electric Fender Telecaster but the part is an acoustic guitar, 2) the band's debut album cover conveniently laid across the prominently viewed kick drum, and 3) the cheek and sexist camera pulling away from that kick drum revealing the drummer placed perfectly between a pair of girl's legs. That's followed by the band's appearance on "Top Of The Pops" (Where Roberts at least has the acoustic guitar this time!).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bad Boys Blue -- "Lovers In The Sand" (1988)

Admittedly, if you live in the US, there's a microscopic chance you've ever heard of Bad Boys Blue. And with a corny name like that, I don't blame you if you didn't want to hear about them. However, it took knowing another music fanatic to stumble across the band that never made it on these shores.

From the late 80's through the early 90's, I made weekly Saturday morning pilgrimages to the Sam Ash Music store on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills to check out new keyboard and recording equipment and shoot the breeze with the sales people. One of them, Leck, seemed very attuned to a lot synth-based dance and pop music coming out of Europe but not making a dent here and made mix tapes of them for me. One tape in 1990 contained four or five songs from Bad Boys Blue.

Bad Boys Blue could definitely be filed under Europop, which was the style of music pretty much created and pioneered by ABBA. With the definite emphasis on "pop," the genre has simple chord structures, insanely hooky melodies, fluffy arrangements, bubblegum lyrics, a slightly corny feel, and dance beats leaning towards disco, all in a compact 3 or four minute song. Throughout the 80's, the style gravitated from live instruments to synthesizers and drum machines.

The closest well known group that veered into Bad Boys Blue's wheelhouse was Erasure in its 80's heyday, with songs like "Stop," "Chains of Love," "Chorus" and "Star." Bad Boys Blue is like crossing Depeche Mode with the Archies.

While all the Bad Boys Blue songs on the tape were absolutely enjoyable, the one that kept sticking in my head was "Lovers In The Sand." How many times have you heard a song and wondered why it never became a huge smash? This was a perfect example and probably a bid for the group to make it in the US.

Opening with a radio DJ from "KLW in sunny California" raving about "temperatures around 30 degrees Centigrade (!!)," a powerful drum machine beat revs up and the song launches right into the chorus hook.

Now this is a super hook, folks, the kind that songwriters kill for, played high on a bell-like synth. And for some street cred, a little vocal scratching action ("Lovers, lovers!"). Big simple chords, sexy-ish background vocals from all three Boys ("Now all I wanna do... is just to be with you!"). Lots of little percussion sounds playing 16ths, big gated snare drum on the quarter beat, and a wonderful airy reverb around it all.

To love this song, you have to have some appreciation of bubblegum music and big quasi-corny hooks.

I didn't want emotions, did not dare
Cause I've lost too many love affairs.
I was in the mood to have some fun
Somewhere in the sun.
I blame it on the southern summer nights,
When I lost my heart at first sight.
Now all I wanna do
Is just to be with you.

Lovers in the sand

Walking hand in hand
And dreaming of the last night

We shared.

Lovers in the sand

Deep in love again

And now that I have found you I know
I'll never let you go.

If there was any support behind this song in the US, if there was any real justice, these guys would be on VH1 "Big 80's" video programs for years.

So here they are, Bad Boys Blue with their "Lovers In The Sand" video.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Curtis Mayfield -- "Move On Up" (1970)

Hard to believe that the first time I heard this 8-minute cooking jam from one of the great black power singer/songwriters was five years after it had come out, on the soundtrack to a low-budget sketch flick called "The Groove Tube."

By the time I hit college, there were two cheap-o R-rated comedy movies which parodied TV shows, commercials and popular movies that played the midnight circuit -- "The Groove Tube" and "Kentucky Fried Movie." Groove Tube's memorable opening was in two parts, the first parodying 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second was a loony sketch involving a hitchhiker getting picked up by a hot babe on a California highway and then chasing her through the woods in a twisted version of "The naked Prey" -- all of it done to Mayfield's "Move On Up." There was nothing on screen remotely connected to ghetto struggles or black liberation... it just had a kickin' percussion-driven groove that made for good editing and fast pacing.

Some years later, I tracked down a used vinyl copy of Curtis down on St. Marks Place and played "Move On Up" at many parties. I loved Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack album, and I can still recite the lyrics to most of those songs today. But "Move On Up" was his extended party theme, something where everybody can join in with that killer minor key horn hook.

Hush now child,
and don't you cry.
Your folks might understand you
by and by.
Move on up...
towards your destination.
You may find
from time to time

Bite your lip
and take a trip.
Though there may be
wet road ahead
You cannot slip.
Just move on up...
and peace you will find
Into the steeple
of beautiful people
Where there's only one kind.

So hush now child
and don't you cry.
Your folks might understand you
by and by.
Just move on up
and keep on wishing.
Remember your dreams
are your only schemes.
So keep on pushing
Take nothing less -
not even second best
And do not obey -
you must have your say
You can past the test

Move on up!

This song reminds me of many of War's early 70's jam songs, where it was all live, analog, warm and deep. Mayfield's gorgeous falsetto told many tales of hard times and pushing ahead, building on his body of similar themes with The Impressions ("People Get Ready," "We're A Winner," "It's Alright").

Song highlight: after soloing and just letting the percussion and horns carry the beat, the song pauses for a split second, and the horns do sort of a fake major chord coda. You think it's over and them wham, the drums come whirling back in by themselves, lots of cymbals and snares, with the bass and guitar following in a simmer.

Yes, this is old school, but crank this at the right time in a club or party, and the place goes into a frenzy.

Lucky you, here is the famous R-rated opening sequence for "The Groove Tube," followed by all eight-minutes of "Move On Up," and then Mayfield performing the song live in concert.

Friday, June 6, 2008

New Musik -- "Straight Lines" (1979)

Talk about your obscure yet amazing synthpop records of the New Wave era. I burned this song on a New Wave compilation CD for my daughter not long ago. Today, I put on the CD without looking at what it was just before her birthday sleepover was about to begin. A loud doorbell of the "ding-dong" kind came blasting through the basement and my wife ran to see if the first guest had arrived. Of course, it was the opening sound effect of "Straight Lines."

There's no question in my mind that New Musik were the true pioneers of the synthpop genre, preceding acts like Depeche Mode and Yazoo by a couple of years. Why they fizzled out after a few years, just as those other acts were starting to pick up steam, is not much of a mystery -- their American label, CBS, didn't know what to do with them never releasing their original albums and who knows if they were even promoted properly. It's a miracle they even made American radio at all, while scorching the UK charts.

I remember distinctly hearing "Straight Lines" for the first time on WPIX-FM when the station was pushing its primarily new wave format. The song was extremely catchy, danceable and quirky, but somewhat off balance from its dizzying piano notes. It's got a very fast and straight straight 4/4 beat, perfect for either pogo-ing or wild freak-ish jumping all over the place. Although it feels like a synthpop song, there are a lot of organic elements in it -- I think the drum is live, electric bass, acoustic guitar, typical "round sound" guitar notes.

CBS released on the song on a 10" NuDisk EP, which I ran out and bought. It re-appeared several months later on a US album called Sanctuary, which contained many of the great pop songs from the group's first two UK albums. Thematically, the group was all about emotional distance, things being out of our control.

You're running in circles
Yet traveling in straight lines.
You're racing around
You move at the speed of time.
We're running together
We're moving along the way.
Whatever the weather
You'll find there'll be no delay.

Sure you can hit the beaten track
But you can never turn it back.
One way.
Straight lines (moving on a straight line)
Straight lines (moving on a straight line).

You're making decisions
You wonder which way to choose.
There's this way and that way
How could you ever lose.
We're shifting together
We're on a production line.
All drifting together
As a patent unique design.

Yes you can hit the beaten track
But you can never turn it back.

Tony Manfield was pretty much the band, writing the songs and singing lead with a very "English-sounding voice." When he sings about "being on a production line," well, it really sounds it, pumping away on rhythm and beat. When New Musik broke up, Mansfield went on to produce a number of New Wave acts like the similar-sounding Naked Eyes ("Promises, Promises"), a-ha, The B-52's and After The Fire ("Der Kommisar").

In 1980, New Musik appeared on the UK TV show "Top Of The Pops" performing "Living By Numbers." The announcer introduced the band as follows: "Now this is one of those massive Eurohits sung by a bloke who doesn't seem like he wants to be here. He's either nervous or he knows the song is kack." Kack?

Below are two rare New Musik videos -- a shortened silly version of "Straight Lines" from "Top of The Pops" (the full song is about five minutes long, this one is slightly longer than half that) (gotta love the suits and ties), and the official video of another great tune "This World Of Water," with an early use of the vocoder effect.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The O'Jays -- "I Love Music" (1975)

Listening to Sirius Satellite Radio's Soul Town station, I commend them on playing full versions of many classic hits. This week was devoted to a lot of Philly Soul, and I heard this favorite of mine in its full six minute version twice.

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who not only ran the Philadelphia International label, but wrote and produced many of their hits, were true geniuses. Had to say it. If you think about all the amazing productions that came out of their shop in the 70's from the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, and MFSB, you know you are talking about a truly unique production sound and first class songwriting. And they often could get the dance floor busy as well.

Now it really takes a genius to create a six-minute classic based on two chords -- E minor and F# minor, for those keeping track. A paean to loving "any kind of music," with a thumping bass pattern that virtually never changes the entire song, and yet it works because the groove is magnetic, the O'Jays' vocals are gospel-ish electricity, and the arrangement, as usual, never fails.

I probably should add this song to my list of great song openings of the 60's and 70's. A chunky conga beat played solo for several seconds, joined by the drums with a prominent hi hat, and the climbing bass part that goes back and forth between E minor and F# minor roots. As soon as you hear those congas, before anything else comes in, your head is already shaking in time and your body is ready to groove along.

Gamble and Huff often used the O'Jays for their most powerful "message songs" of unity and love, a common theme of 70's soul music (see my post on War's "The World Is A Ghetto"). As a matter of fact, one of their albums was called Message In The Music. And if you see the Family Reunion album cover (above), where "I Love Music" was taken from, there is nothing subtle about not only their message, but their desire to cut across racial barriers with their success.

I love music, any kind of music
I love music, just as long as it's groovin'

Makes me laugh, makes me smile
All the while
Whenever I'm with you girl
While we dance, make romance
I'm enchanted by the things that you do.

I love music
sweet, sweet music
Long as it's swinging
All the joy that it's bringin'.

I'm so happy to be in complete harmony,
I love you, girl
And to hold you so close in my arms
I'm so glad you're mine all mine mine

Nothing can be better than a sweet love song
So sweet
So sweet
So mellow, mellow
When you got the girl that you love in your arm
Oh honey, I love you, I love you, yeah
Music is the healing force of the world
It's understood by every man, woman, boy and girl
And that's why, that's why I say

I love music
Any kind of music
I love music
Just as long as it's groovin', groovin'

Music makes the atmosphere so fine
Lights down low
Just me and you baby, you know
'Specially when you got a cold glass of wine
Mellow, mellow wine and song.

The arrangement propels this song for a full six minutes, with the drum and bass amazingly staying in lockstep for the same beat and two chords, mixing in the percussion-y transients of a hard-played piano, horns, that infamous conga, and the jazzy chorused Fender Strat guitar strums and lines. In Philly, they always played live.

While the song came out in the early disco era, it didn't really have the characteristics of a disco song other than sharing a 4/4 beat. Yet, you'd have to be crazy not to put out a song called "I Love Music" that you couldn't dance to. With the O'Jays calling out to each other and clapping their hands, this is one song everybody can really join in.

Three videos for this one -- 1) The O'Jays performing the three and a half minute single version of "I Love Music" single on TV's "Soul Train" in 1975, 2) another clip from a different "Soul Train" show where the dancers lined up to show their moves to this song ("the so-o-o-o-o-oul train!"), and 3) the full 10-minute 12" version (which is a must if you haven't heard it before) with guitar solos, orchestra and the O'Jays raising the floor with "I love, I love, I love, I love music!"