Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band -- "Because The Night" (1980)

In honor of taking my family to see Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band tomorrow night at Giants Stadium, I thought I'd discuss one of his more unusual catalog songs that I consider one of his best (and you can imagine, it's tough to make that choice).

"Because The Night" is unique in that it was the only songwriting collaboration I can recall Springsteen doing (in this case, punk poet Patti Smith), and it never appeared on any album as a studio recording. Patti Smith had her biggest hit with it off her Easter album in 1978, but it was not until several years later that The Boss released this ferocious version on his first live compilation. Upstate New York folk rock band 10,000 Maniacs had a hit with it too in the 90's.

Lyrically, the song is a blend of the two artists while the music is pure Springsteen. Apparently Springsteen was trying to record a version of it during his Darkness On The Edge of Town sessions, and it never quite jelled. And in an uncharacteristic move, because you just don't hear about outsiders stepping into Springsteen's songwriting action, Smith overhauled the lyrics to her viewpoint. While a song like "I'm On Fire" is about as erotic as Bruce usually gets, the "Because The Night" lyrics definitely pushed the envelope.

It starts off with the usual Bruce themes of working all day, "protecting" his woman...

Take me now baby here as I am
Pull me close try an understand
I work all day out in the hot sun
Stay with me now till the mornin' comes
Come on now try and understand
The way I feel when I'm in your hands
Take me now as the sun descends
They can't hurt you now
They can't hurt you now
They can't hurt you now

And then there's this phrase right out of the Bruce playbook...

What I got I have earned
What I'm not I have learned.

However, the middle section shifts to Patti Smith mode...

Your love is here and now
The vicious circle turns and burns without
Though I cannot live forgive me now
The time has come to take this moment and
They can't hurt you now.

Of course, I could be totally wrong about who wrote what...

I think another reason why the song didn't make Darkness On The Edge of Town is because it bears a musical resemblance to "Prove It All Night." Very similar chord patterns on the choruses.

But you have to love Springsteen's distinctly male version, which has that big thump of Max Weinberg's drums, all the men shouting "Because the night!" in the choruses, jacking it up half a key right after the middle break, and the mightily fantastic Nils Lofgren trading off solos with the Boss (his trademark flag hanging off the end of his instrument -- hey isn't this the part you wish Patti Smith could have put on her version?).

Why keep writing about it when you can see it below, straight from Paris in 1985. You can tell this was shot in Bruce's "Darkness" phase with his cut-off shirt and ripped muscles. Below that, a skinny, jacketed Bruce and the band from 1978 (!) in Passaic, NJ. And then fast forwarding to 2004's tour in support of presidential candidate John Kerry, when REM's Michael Stipe joined him in Washington DC. My daughter loved the Patti Smith cover but when I showed her this from a DVD, she recognized it instantly and now calls it "the boy version."

Monday, July 21, 2008

10cc -- "I'm Mandy Fly Me" (1976)

Everything 10cc had been doing had led to this masterpiece album. Four incredibly clever musicians and singers who seemingly could play every instrument, sing like angels and collaborate in endless combinations, 10cc already had their biggest American hit up to that time, "I'm Not In Love."

While they were strictly a word-of-mouth cult act in the US, in the UK, they were unstoppable from the beginning. I remember WNEW-FM playing their early Beach Boys-paen "Rubber Bullets" a few years before How Dare You. One of my high school friends, Jesse Goldstein, was raving about the second album, Sheet Music, and explaining how funny the lyrics were.

I was bowled over by the time The Original Soundtrack album came out, which contained "I'm Not In Love," one of the ultimate headphone records at the time. Intensely creative, crossing over all kinds of genres from opera to Italian movie themes, 10cc proceeded to up the ante with How Dare You (with the easily recognizable Hipgnosis-designed cover). They stepped into different characters from madmen to couch potatoes, threw in lots of bad puns ("I get a pain right here in the Shirley Temples!"), heavily overdubbed voices coming in and out of the speakers, all done in endlessly catchy pop melodies. 10cc specialized in stories of people not playing with all their cards intact.

The album's pinnacle was "I'm Mandy Fly Me," a tongue-in-cheek airborne love saga of being smitten by an adorable airline stewardess in an ad and the wild fantasy adventure that ensues. On the album version, it begins with a snippet from the early "Clockwork Creep" song, with the words "Oh no, you'll never get me in one of these again/Cos what goes up, must come/Down, down, down, down." Graham Gouldman's bass cuts right in with Kevin Godley's 4/4 drums and away we go. Strummed piano strings, a beautiful whistling melody, the well-timed "Fasten Your Seatbelts" bell, and the tons and tons of overdubbed harmonies and vocals.

I've often heard her jingle
It's never struck a chord
With a smile as bright as sunshine
She called me through the poster
And welcomed me aboard.

She led me she fed me
She read me like a book
But I'm hiding in the small print
Won't you take another look
And take me away
Try me Mandy fly me away.

The world was spinning like a ball
And then it wasn't there at all
And as my heart began to fall.

I saw her walking on the water
As the sharks were comin' for me
I felt Mandy pull me up give me the kiss of life
Just like the girl in Dr. No No No No.

Ah when they pulled me from the wreckage
And her body couldn't be found
Was it in my mind it seems
I had a crazy dream
I told them so but they said no no no no.

I found me on a street
And starin' at a wall
If it hadn't have been for Mandy
Her promise up above me
Well I wouldn't be here at all.
So if you're travellin' in the sky
Don't be surprised if someone said Hi
I'm Mandy fly me.

10cc pioneered what I called the "pop opera" on their 1975 Original Soundtrack album -- the nine-minute "Une Nuit A Paris" actually came in three sections with many character parts. By the time of How Dare You, they compacted the form into four or five minutes. "I'm Mandy Fly Me" is wrapped up as a beautiful love song, performed with just a hint of "wink wink" and nowhere as bombastic as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," but akin to the multi-part songs Paul McCartney liked to compose (worth noting that 10cc's Eric Stewart later joined McCartney's band).

I know it sounds like a cliche but in the present era of unrelenting hip hop, sampling and second rate grunge rock bands, we will unfortunately never see the likes of a group like 10cc again. An act where everybody played real instruments, sang like nobody's business, and wrote unbelievably clever and memorable pop songs, with no Pro Tools, Auto Tune or digital editing to alter them.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Beastie Boys -- "Fight For Your Right" (1986)

This is a rap song that even a rock and roller could love.

Coming out of the early Rick Rubin/Def Jam era, when Rubin was sampling some of classic rock's greatest artists for rap tunes (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath), this song, in many ways, was a stroke of genius.

Every young white boy likes a good party song that is loud, obnoxious and you could sing along to like an anthem. "Fight For Your Right" had those three qualities in spades. Throw in the age-old "your parents suck" sentiment, a little porn mention, overdriven guitar riffs and some good old tongue-in-cheek subversiveness and you've got every ingredient for a hit. Except the lyrics are rapped, or should I say, shouted!

So it was no wonder that this song was a no-brainer as my summer Fire Island house anthem in 1987. Please -- silly single white boys from Manhattan, Long Island and Queens spending every weekend in a non-stop happy hour and looking for potential girlfriends?

While Run-DMC recruited the actual Aerosmith band to blend rock and rap, Rubin did the job himself in what can best be described as one cheesy rock production. There are no dynamics in the simple kick, snare and ride cymbal loop (the ride is the giveaway, as it sounds like it's hit at the exact same velocity throughout the song). The meathead three-chord riff mimic the first three notes of Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water." The song's biggest letdown is the solo (once dubbed by Guitar World as one of rock's worst), which you are anticipating some crazy stuff for air guitar nirvana, and it basically sputters from the beginning. I guess Rubin just knew chords!

You wake up late for school man you don't wanna go,
You ask your mom "please?" but she still says "NO!"
You miss two classes and no homework
but your teacher preaches class like your some kind of jerk

You gotta fight, for your right,
to paaaaaaaaaarty!

Your pops caught you smokin' man he said "NO WAY!"
That hypocrite smokes two packs a day!
Man, living at home is such a drag
Now your mom threw away your best porno mag.

You gotta fight, for your right,
to paaaaaaaaaarty!

Don't step outta this house if that's the clothes you're gonna wear!!!!
I'll kick you outta my home if you dont CUT THAT HAIR!!
Your mom busted in and said "WHAT'S THAT NOISE!?!?"
Aww, mom your just jealous it's The Beastie Boys!

For a cheesy rock/rap classic, you need an equally cheesy video, this one costing a reputed $20,000. It gave the three Beastie Boys a terrific excuse to basically strut into a living room, turn a nerd party upside down, hit on the girls, spike the punch, throw custard pies, let their degenerate friends in, and make a mess.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Focus -- "Hocus Pocus" (1971)

Definitely file this under the "what the hell was that?" category. With prog rock roaring in the early 70's, the Dutch threw their hat into the ring, and as always, it was nothing less than interesting.

Focus had one of the most off-the wall instrumental hit singles of the decade, veering close to self-mocking and classical parody. The long version of "Hocus Pocus" was several minutes long, and guaranteed to be heard on the FM progressive rock stations at the time, while the much shorter single was on the AM and usually found in current compilations of the era.

You know the prog rock cliches and they were all here, regardless of where these guys came from: long hair, high-speed quasi-classical precision flourishes on their instruments, high-pitched vocals, unusual time meters and key changes, largely expanded drum kits, and those analog synths.

The song revolves around guitarist Jan Akkerman's highly distorted rock riff front and center, starting on A minor and working its way around some unusual progressions, then breaks into the song's signature yodeling melody. Yes, leave it to the Dutch to bring yodeling to prog rock. The yodeling, done by organist Thijs van Leer, sings out a nonsensical melody, and then gets higher and higher until you expect thousands of sheep to come herding in.

If you listen to the full version, van Leer's vocals get even wackier in one verse, where it seems like he's choking on an Irish jig (at least that's what it sounds like to me!). They even chuck in a Viking-ish flute break, as if the kitchen sink wasn't thrown in already.

A joke on the audience? A sophisticated out-of-the-blue show of musical and vocal chops? Whatever it was, this song was an FM radio staple but then again, radio was embracing a lot of strange stuff in 1971, from the ridiculous Mac and Katie Kissoon's "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and Coven's "One Tin Soldier" to the icky "Stay Awhile" and "Put Your Hand in The Hand."

"Hocus Pocus" is far better and outlived all that pap, and now considered a respectable classic rock song.

The October 1973 video below from NBC-TV's "Midnight Special" is quite entertaining, from Gladys Knight's unlikely introduction ("Musically, they're one of the most exciting and together groups going") to van Leer's bizarre nervous tic facial expressions before, during and after yodeling.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Five Stairsteps -- "Ooh-Child" (1970)

One of the most enduring one-hit wonder soul songs of all time, you just can not help but love the Five Stairsteps' claim to musical fame. It stands up amazingly well after more than 35 years with its dazzling optimism, impassioned vocals, emotionally-charged arrangement, and irresistible melody.

I have vague memories of the song playing on Top 40 radio. The song's timing was perfect, coming at the turn of the decade when blacks were fighting for equal opportunity in jobs and education, and the musical tide was turning with socially-driven artists like Curtis Mayfield, the Norman Whitfield-powered era of The Temptations, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, and The Staple Singers. What makes "Ooh Child" stand out on its own is its inherent sweetness, letting listeners read between the lines of its upbeat message of hope.

The lyrics basically come down to these two passages:

Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things'll get brighter
Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things'll be brighter.

Some day, yeah
We'll put it together and we'll get it all done.
Some day
When your head is much lighter.
Some day, yeah
We'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.
Some day
When the world is much brighter.

Musically, the song is truly marvelous. The "Ooh child" verses are a descending three-chord pattern while the "Someday" verses take the same chords up three steps. Between the two, it creates a "softness" during the verses, and strident fuller choruses with the whole family joining in accompanied by horns and strings. The song really kicks into overdrive during the instrumental break when the whole group is singing "La la la" as the melody, then the drummer does a hyper-fast snare and tom fill when it lifts up those three keys, and everybody is just soaring in layered choruses. The ending is just perfect, when the family hammers in "Right now" while ad-libbing around it, the horns popping in and out.

You want to see an amazing video, check out this one with the group performing the song live on the "Barbara McNair" TV show a year or so after the song became a hit and they now called themselves the Stairsteps. The clothes are right out of the early 70's quasi-white flash look, and you can see somebody actually conducting the band behind the singers. These guys are totally into it, and you absolutely realize why this song still brings chills. Wow.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ozark Mountain Daredevils -- "Jackie Blue" (1974)

Who were these guys? A&M Records put out several of their albums throughout the 70's and even got the famous English producer Glyn Johns to produce their early ones in London's Olympic Studios. You can't be minor league if you are working with the man who produced and engineered The Eagles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and others.

First, imagine what a band with a cool name like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils would like like. I used to. And now that we've got a video of them playing the great "Jackie Blue" below, they look exactly how I pictured them: skinny soft spoken dudes with beards from Missouri.

I'm not quite sure how many times the Daredevils toured through the New York area, but considering that they put out several albums, a couple with rather off the wall titles (The Car Over The Lake Album, Don't Look Down), they clearly had their following. Powered by two big hits early on ("If You Want To Get To Heaven" and "Jackie Blue"), they kept chugging it out for A&M right through to the 80's.

The funny thing about 70's southern rock is that outside of the Allman Brothers Band, a lot of these bands didn't pin their material on the blues, but incorporated jazz, soul, gospel, and sometimes just straight ahead rock. There was nothing really "Southern" about "Jackie Blue" except the Gibson slide licks during the choruses. Alternating between minor key choruses and major key verses, drummer Larry Lee handled the falsetto lead vocals, veering the song into pop territory.

Ooh-hoo, Jackie Blue
Lives her life from inside of a room.
Hides that smile when she's wearin' a frown,
Ooh Jackie, you're not so down.

You like your life in a free-form style,
You'll take an inch but you'd love a mile.
There never seems to be quite enough,
Floating around to fill your lovin' cup.

Ooh-hoo, Jackie Blue,
What's a game, girl, if you never lose.
Ask a winner and you'll prob'bly find
ooh Jackie, they've lost at sometime.

Don't try to tell me that you're not aware,
Of what you're doing and that you don't care.
You say it's easy, just a nat'ral thing,
Like playing music but you never sing.

Ooh-hoo, Jackie Blue,
Making wishes that never come true.
Going places where you've never been,
Ooh Jackie, you're going again.

"Jackie Blue" was mostly not "rock" enough to play on classic rock stations, so you'd periodically hear it on the oldies stations. I never knew more about the band but writing about them now makes me curious to listen to more of their stuff on

One interesting note: just as UK bands traveled to the US to get a "big American sound" using their producers (see the post about Simple Minds and Once Upon A Time's "Alive and Kicking"), you sometimes find it going the other way around. It's interesting that distinctly American country-rock bands like the Eagles and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils recorded their early albums in London, and their sound doesn't sound any less "American."

Below is the Ozark Mountain Daredevils performing "Jackie Blue" on the great UK TV show, Old Grey Whistle Test, in 1976. Listen to how closely they mike Lee's vocals.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Bachman-Turner Overdrive -- "Let It Ride" (1974)

One of the most maligned rock bands of the 70's, Bachman-Turner Overdrive proved that critics didn't mean a damn of Joe Blow loved your music.

BTO truly appealed to the Everyman, a rough brutal "let the tape roll" rock music with not many chords, most of them major, and a fixation on just a few topics: driving ("Roll On Down The Highway," "Four Wheel Drive") working ("Blue Collar, "Hey You"), touring in a rock band (the wonderfully-named "Rock Is My Life, This Is My Song" and "Not Fragile") and good old 70's sexism ("You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," "Let It Ride").

Then, to top it off, these guys all looked like bearded mountain men, as hairy and beastly as their music.

The irony of BTO was the pedigree of guitarist/singer/songwriter Randy Bachman, who did the same chores for the fabulous Guess Who in their late 60's heyday. There was nothing in the Guess Who's songbook to suggest that Bachman had this primal loud and amp-ed up rocker in him wanting to get out, much like William Hurt's peyote tripping deprivation tank professor in the film "Altered States."

Paired with C.F. "Fred" Turner and his brother Rob on drums, Bachman's quartet went on to sell a bazillion albums for Mercury Records. Bachman-Turner Overdrive II was the breakout album with two huge singles, "Let It Ride" (always my favorite) and what became an eternal classic, "Takin' Care of Business." A third Bachman, Tim, appeared on just this one album before he got the boot, singing on the FM cult song "Blown" ("woo-wooo!").

You didn't listen to BTO because of their artistry. There was nothing fancy here. They didn't reinvent anything. Both Bachman and Turner were hoary scratchy vocalists. And they didn't produce any great Dylan-like visions in those three magic subject matters they sang about.

Nope, you listened to BTO because it was big dumb rock music that was catchy, the kind you poured a Rolling Rock or Labatt beer down the old chute to. And when you wanted to teach yourself a BTO song on the guitar, it would usually take about, oh, five minutes to nail down the chords.

Sometimes, Bachman would really throw a curveball and dish out some jazz chops and solos just to show he could play more than your average heavy barre chords. On Bachman-Turner Overdrive II's "Welcome Home," most of the song is just the usual heavy riffing, when all of sudden, for no reason whatsoever, the drums start playing swinging bebop, while Bachman goes noodling around with Charlie Christian-like octaves and solos.

"Let It Ride" is the only BTO song I recall with a jangly quality that just rings out in the very first chords. If you listen to the chorus of Golden Earring's "Radar Love," you can tell both songs share the very same chords -- D major, A major, E major, F# minor. The verses are based on this galloping and stop F#m bass riff, Turner doing his best bellow:

You can see the mornin', but I can see the light,
Try, try, try, let it ride.
While you've been out runnin', I've been waitin' half the night,
Try, try, try, let it ride.

And would you cry if I told you that I lied?
And would you say goodbye or would you let it ride?
Good bye, hard life, don’t cry, would you let it ride?

Babe, my life is not complete, I never see you smile
Try, try, try, let it ride.
Baby you want the forgivin' kind, and that's just not my style
Try, try, try, let it ride.

The genius of "Let It Ride" is it just won't quit, damn it. The chorus guitars really ring, the melody is really catchy, Bachman has this searing guitar counter-melody that underscores the chorus, he has the dumbass guitar solo, and then the big drum breakdown where it's "Ride, ride, ride, let it ride" getting louder and louder until they're all screaming "Won't you let it ride?" until it just stops. That's the false ending, because those ringing chorus chords that open the song come right back in after a beat, with the boys all screaming and whooping it up.

Here's a strange video from way back when of BTO performing "Let It Ride" in concert, while the lighting director shouts out his cues.