Friday, September 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 20, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jefferson Starship -- "St. Charles" (1976)

As impactful as they were, I never got much into Jefferson Airplane. Their only songs I ever ripped for my MP3 collection were "White Rabbit," "Someone to Love" and "Volunteers."

By the time I hit college in the mid-70's, they reinvented themselves by altering their name to Jefferson Starship, with two members departing to form Hot Tuna, and the addition of guitar wunderkind Craig Chaquico.

While the band's production values got more polished with each album, they still retained some of the hallmarks that propelled them through the radical 60's: the folk-influenced group singing and harmonies with Grace Slick's solo female voice standing out, sci-fi and mysticism, and acoustic guitars blending with electric.

Song quality was uneven. Their first album, Dragonfly, had the rocketing "Ride The Tiger," with Papa John Creach's fiddle piercing through the roar, going nuts at the song's final chord. The follow-up, Red Octopus, went through the roof from what I call The Marty Balin Effect." Controversially, singer/songwriter Balin contributed one or two very schlocky love songs to each album, unlike almost anything the band had ever recorded before, and those songs often became uncharacteristic huge hits. While there was quite a critical backlash about Starship adding sappy ballads to its political and social agenda, nothing could stop the never-ending playlist rotation of Balin's "Miracles."

Spitfire was the very first Starship album I ever bought, probably because I was so turned off by the overplay of "Miracles." A local FM rock station played the album in its entirety one night and I really liked what I heard. Fortunately, the Balin ballad was on side two, so I was playing side one's four songs to death on my phonograph.

Side one's final song was the amazing nearly seven minutes of "St. Charles," which really captured everything about the band's history and where it was going, minus the Balin garbage. Lots of Paul Kanter's exotic mysticism, strumming folk-like guitars, group singing during both verses and choruses, and the absolute stunning guitar work of Chaquico.

When I say "group singing," I don't mean the three-part harmonies of The Beatles or The Hollies, but something you'd hear around a campfire, an assembly of very different timbres singing the same song together. You can hear Slick, Balin, Kanter and others distinctly, but at the same time.

"St. Charles" has this otherworldly feel about it, a really perfect midtempo arrangement that builds and subsides, builds and subsides, until it just overcomes like a tidal wave you've been expecting all along. But let's talk about Chaquico, because to me, if he's remembered for anything in this band, it would be this song. You can hear his phaser-covered electric guitar throughout virtually the entire song, sometimes drifting lines with the verse's minor chords, to the big D major/suspended hook at the end of each chorus line. It's during the song's final two tumbling minutes that he totally cuts loose, stepping on the wah-wah pedal for some intense solos, and then mimicking the rustling wind across his strings when the band sings "She is the stormbringer."

Unlike Balin's silly tunes, Kanter knows how to write an epic love song without resorting to cliches. There are a lot of lyrics here, but they are an admirable accomplishment of an individual's zen-ish style and belief.

Let me tell you 'bout a dream,
You know I saw her in a dream.

Oh, St. Charles sings,
Sings about love.
St. Charles, tell me tonight,
Won't you tell me 'bout love.
You know I saw her in a dream.

There was China, in her eyes,
In a silk and velvet disguise,
She was movin' like a lady,
Lookin' like a dragon princess.
She was walkin',
walkin' by the river,
rollin' in a rhythm of love.
I never felt like this before;
I'll never stop, I just want more.

Oh, St. Charles sings,
Sings about love.
St. Charles, tell me tonight,
Won't you tell me 'bout love.
You know I saw her in a dream.

I was Shanghai-ed by her way,
Hypnotized by the things she would say,
In the moonlight on the water,
We were like lovers in another lifetime.
Woh, is it only a vision?
Ah, it feels like a prison,
Just the spell of a demon and I can't get away.

Oh, St. Charles sings,
Sings about love.
St. Charles, tell me tonight,
Won't you tell me 'bout love.
Please tell me 'bout love.
I saw her in a dream.
Please tell me 'bout love.
I know I saw her in a dream....

Let me take you,
To another place,
Another time,
Another world of people, dancin' in rhyme,
Dance in the air, six-fingered webbed,
Fair as the air.

She is the storm bringer.
The storm changer.
Tie, yourself down to the main mast.
Tie, yourself down to the main mast.
Like Ulysses in the water storm,
Winds comin' down the main line.
Tie, yourself down to the main mast,
Tie it down with love.

Please click below where it says "Download this track" to hear the song in its entirety.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

James Brown -- "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (1964)

My first experience with "the hardest working man in show biz" was in fifth or sixth grade, watching one of those cheesy low budget "Beach Party" movie rip-offs called "Ski Party" on TV. Starring beach movie regular Frankie Avalon and "Dobie Gillis" star Dwayne Hickman, I thought this movie was hilarious at the time, a real "find" that I had to tell all my friends about.

This movie predated the "Bosom Buddies" concept of men dressing like women by at least a decade. And like many movies of its ilk, it featured cameo performances by rock, pop and soul stars of the time. "Ski Party" had Leslie Gore singing "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" on the college bus traveling to the ski chalet, and the Hondells performing "The Gasser" on a beach somewhere.

However, the corniest cameo was by far James Brown and his Fabulous Flames, who play a heavily-dressed ski patrol crew who rescue one of the goofball characters, somebody recognizes them for who they are, and they suddenly break out in "I Got You (I Feel Good)," dropping their parkas and wearing the most preppie red and white wool sweaters you've ever seen in your life.

I feel privileged and honored to present this classic scene.

But that was about the only James Brown song I liked for a long time. "Mother Popcorn" became a hit, but I didn't get into it because it remained on pretty much one chord for the whole song. That was my complaint for all the James Brown stuff I heard -- too long on one chord.

Fast forward to the early 80's. The new wave and New Romantic movements of music, all heavily influenced by and making tribute to American black soul, bring back a rush of all these classic R&B and Motown songs to the clubs again. I bought a 12" single by an English studio group who put together their own "Stars on 45" by slicing together various James Brown hits to a pumping 4/4 beat. I started hearing James Brown at parties, and then put them on my mix cassette tapes. When I went out dancing with my girlfriend at the time, and the DJ spun"I Got You," I not only had every word memorized, but the black man inside propelled me up in the air, spinning around with arms flailing and legs kicking.

I finally started to get James Brown, a very delayed reaction for a white guy from Queens who got into R&B and soul at an early age. I hung out at the Sounds used record store on St. Marks Place one afternoon, and they were on a James Brown marathon over the stereo system. I caved and bought a James Brown greatest hits compilation on Polydor records, and then in later years, bought the whole Startime anthology.

I finally understood Brown's power of the never-ending groove, funk and jazz, even if it was one chord for a few minutes. I realized I had to let loose a little more, not think about it and just let it take me.

Sometimes the best songs are just the simplest. "I Got You" has the award-winning intro of a patented James Brown wild scream ("Wo-o-w-w-ww!"). You hear that shout, you know it's time to get going. It's about as close to a pop song you'll hear from Brown, under three minutes of uptempo blues, swinging saxophones, and those easy nursery rhyme lyrics.

I feel good, I knew that I would, now.
I feel good, I knew that I would, now.
So good, so good, I got you.

Whoa! I feel nice, like sugar and spice
I feel nice, like sugar and spice
So nice, so nice, I got you.

When I hold you in my arms,
I know that I can't do no wrong.
and when I hold you in my arms
My love won't do you no harm.

and I feel nice, like sugar and spice.
I feel nice, like sugar and spice.
So nice, so nice, I got you.

In these simple lyrics, you get loads of shouts, screeches and held notes. The man is a ball of outrageous energy. And that ending, when the horns do their solo staccato, a tiny pause, a quick snare snap, Brown's explosive "Hey!" and the last chord -- it's just perfect.

Watching the above "Ski Party" clip and the videos below is that this man could dance. Brown swished and swayed across the floor like somebody greased the bottom of his shoes, while snapping his head to the beat. He was so popular, that he broke through the most white bread TV shows of the era. Three very special videos below: the first two are black and white clips of Brown slipping up a storm on early 60's teen TV shows, and finally the man himself on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tonio K. -- "The Funky Western Civilization" (1978)

Where do you start with one of the most cult-like outrageous musical figures of the 70's, maybe ever? Guaranteed that most people who read this blog will have no idea who Tonio K. is, although he went on to write a bunch of 90's pop hits and lyrics for Burt Bacharach. Not kidding.

But let's rewind to late 1978, my college senior year, when I was a music writer for The Buffalo Evening News. The college paper, The Spectrum, solicited all of the local music critics for their top 10 albums of the year, and I noted a handful of votes for Tonio K.'s Life In The Foodchain.

I didn't know what that was, so requested a copy from Epic Records, and it arrived shortly in the mail on green vinyl. Being a rabid album credit reader, I noted a number of names I've seen many times before, like producer Rob Fraboni and guitarists Earl Slick, Albert Lee and Dick Dale.

Now granted, it took me about two or three spins to appreciate Life In The Foodchain. Accompanied by ragged tearing rock, Mr. K.'s voice was what you would call "an acquired taste." But first you had to get through the tons of lyrics of what can best be described as nine over-the-top satirical and misanthropic tales, of ecology gone wild (the title song), amorous vampires ("How Come I Can't See You In My Mirror?") to probably one of the most vicious (and hilarious) put down songs ever recorded ("H-A-T-R-E-D").

"The Funky Western Civilization" is about as close as what passed for a hit from that album. Hard-charging power chords and drums that careened into a genuinely funky James Brown chorus with horns, this was Tonio K.'s ironic very dance-able paean to society looking the other way in the face of self-destruction. Heavy satire to a dance beat.

Chicken-picked electric guitars give way to an R&B down on the farm screaming solo workout, and then, you what is probably the only musical cameo appearance in history by Joan Of Arc. Yes, that's what I said. Joan of Arc. In French. Why wait -- you've got read all the lyrics to appreciate this and believe me, there's more here than the entire Billboard Top 100 today put together:

Come on everybody
Get on your feet
Get with the beat
There's a brand new dance craze
Sweeping the nation
and it's called the funky... western... civilization.

Well there's a riot in the courthouse, there's a fire in the street
There's a sinner bein' trampled by a thousand pious feet.
There's a baby every minute bein' born without a chance
Now don't that make you want to jump right up and start to dance?

Let's do the funky
The funky western civilization
It's really spunky
It's just like summertime vacation .
You just grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there.

They put Jesus on a cross, they put a hole in JFK,
They put Hitler in the driver's seat and looked the other way.
Now they've got poison in the water and the whole world in a trance,
But just because we're hypnotized, that don't mean we can't dance.

We've got the funky
The funky western civilization
It's really spunky
It's just like summertime vacation.
You just drag your partner through the dirt
Leave him in a world of hurt.

You get down
Get funky
Get western
(own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard... maybe you can even get, you know, kinda civilized!

Joan Of Arc: Mesdames et messieurs, bon soir. This is Joan of Arc. Tonio has asked me to personally deliver a rather special message. He say he just cannot get enough of my 15th-century wisdom. He say he loves it when I talk with him like this. And after many a Saturday night of doing ze Funky Western Civilization together, I know for a fact he agrees with me when i say
[in French: You can bullshit the baker and get the buns,
You can back out of every deal except one!]

This is the funky
The funky western civilization
It's oh, so very spunky
It's just like summertime vacation
All's you gotta do is find some little kid somewhere
And throw him way up in the air
(never mind the parents)
Yes it's a funky
A funky western civilization
And it may seem kinda skunky, you know
But it's hitting every nation (all across the universe)
That's 'cause all's you gotta do is grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there!

What did I tell you? And who is Tonio K. anyway, with the Franz Kafka moniker? Rumors circulated that was a former member of Buddy Holly's band The Crickets. Not really true -- he played in a band with those former members in the early 70's on a couple of albums. Wikipedia has a whole bio on the guy (real name: Steve Krikorian), who went hopping from record label to record label after Life In The Foodchain... understandable, given the unconventional nature of his work compared to the corporate rock of the 80's. And the biggest irony of them all is that he co-wrote one of 1993's biggest adult contemporary hits, Vanessa Williams' "Love Is."

Unfortunately, Tonio K. never made a video for his insane cult classic, but somebody has made one for him. Check it out and if you can, download the song for your collection.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Guess Who -- "These Eyes" (1968)

The Guess Who were the hippest rock group to ever bust out of Canada. Considering Canada's constant national drumbeating, culminating in its Juno Awards, these guys were that country's most successful export since ice hockey, and although they didn't have the longevity of Rush, they went on a spectacular Top 40 run from the late 60's through the early 70's.

It was true inspiration that the Guess Who's first American hit "These Eyes," was pulled out of the archives for teen horndog flick "Superbad," with actor Michael Cera singing it out of tune with a bluesy bent to a bunch of older weepy stoners.

"These Eyes" is a moderately-paced ballad with a slightly soulful feel, starting from its slightly fuzzy Wurlitzer electric piano Dm7-C riff. Rift with sentimentality and a touch of drama, the song's narrator is full of sadness from a typical breakup, but keeps referring to some kind of pact the couple made, perhaps engagement? Marriage?

You gave a promise to me, you broke it, you broke it.

You took the vow with me, babe, you spoke it, you spoke it.

Lead singer and co-writer Burton Cummings had loads of charisma and a unique emotional vocal timbre. I recall reading in some "Song Hits" magazine at the time that Cumming's cited Elvis Presley as his biggest influence and it showed in his grunts, shouts, and charging delivery. He knew when to turn it up for the choruses and fade outs. Early on, he had long flowing hippie hair, but eventually cut it and grew a bushy mustache. When the Guess Who broke up in 1975, he signed with CBS-distributed Portrait Records and released some middle-of-the-road hits, notably "Stand Tall."

Cummings' right hand man and fellow songwriter was guitarist Randy Bachman, who of course went to be the main namesake of thundering blue-collar rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

More of a garage band in their early days, producing a local hit cover of "Shakin' All Over," the Guess Who hit it big below the border on the RCA label, who made sure the band had all the earmarks of a pop-acceptable band. "These Eyes" was the only hit of theirs that I remember which featured a string arrangement. After that, they were rocking and rolling all the way.

The video below is the Guess Who lip-synching their way on a Canadian TV show around the time the song was a hit. Note the long close-ups on Cummings' face, his high cheekbones leading me to believe he probably had some Indian blood in him. And if you've seen photos and video footage of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, it's sort of wild to see Randy Bachman all clean cut, wearing a jacket and tie, always a large hulking figure.