Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tower of Power -- "Only So Much Oil In The Ground" (1974)

In the early 70's, Warner Brothers/Reprise Records had a counterculture-spiked advertising/promotional campaign that they ran in magazines like National Lampoon and Rolling Stone promoting their lively roster of artists including from Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Wildman Fisher (!!), Norman Greenbaum, The Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt and Tower of Power. Featuring Robert Crumb-inspired art, they offered a free promotional record to sample their artists. It's hard to forget that promotion, as it appeared regularly and was given out at record stores.

Then sometime in 1974, still in high school, I read a rave review of the new Tower of Power album, Urban Renewal, singling out "Only So Much Oil In The Ground" as perceptive, topical, and... uh, funky. Then everybody started talking about that song. Maybe I heard it once on the radio, I don't exactly remember -- Tower of Power was never embraced by radio, for some reason.

But this was the heyday of record album buying, where I absorbed rock critics in newspapers and magazines, and if they thought this was outstanding, I was going to spend my $5 or $6 a buy the record. And that album cover was not exactly a big fish hook to reel'em in, a demolished building is not a pretty sight.

The first thing that hit me when I put the album on was everything. That bulldozer horn section knocks you over from the very opening of "Only So Much Oil" and really doesn't stop. Horns, drums, bass, organ -- all cooking at the same time. Unlike, say, a typical pop record which actually builds, layering on more instruments and licks, these guys operated on full steam for nearly every song.

Why wasn't the band on the cover? You could see them on the back cover in a tightly cropped photo -- this ensemble was nearly all white boys playing in your face soul and funk. Only keyboardist Chester Thompson and singer Lenny Williams were black. This was the same year the Average White Band broke through with a similar concept on "Pick Up The Pieces" (and they were not on their album covers either), so you'd think TOP would get their radio play with less obstacles by this time. Nope, and this was two years before Wild Cherry would just make fun of the whole thing with the classic "Play That Funky Music (white boy)."

Ironically, with a topical leadoff single and a staggeringly timely cover, the rest of Urban Renewal was not going to be the next socially-conscious What's Going On. Heavily influenced by James Brown's horn jams (except with twice as many brass players!), TOP swooped and cut like daredevils through funky numbers, all musicians at the top of their game, much like Frank Zappa always had the cream of the crop. This was the Oakland, California sound, patented in their previous album, Back To Oakland.

Everything was complex... but it totally cooked. There were swooning ballads ("Willing To Learn," "It Can Never Be The Same," "I Won't Leave Unless You Want Me To") and always the dizzying 6-minute instrumental jam (in this case, "Walking Up Hip Street"). Taking from the Motown tradition, they wrote lyrics based on old sayings, slogans, warnings, double entendres and metaphors -- "It's not the crime/It's if you get caught!" "Maybe it'll rub off!" "(To Say The Least) You're The Most."

To record a large group like this requires quite an engineering job and even on vinyl during those days, you couldn't help but be impressed by how these records sounded. Full of life, everything clear and crackling, giving the speakers the full workout.

The members of Tower of Power were always worshiped like musical gods, now in their 40th year. Co-founders Emilio Castillo, bassist Rocco Prestia and the professorial looking Stephen "Doc" Kupka always get the familiar screams and yells. David Garibaldi is known as one of the best funk and soul drummers anywhere (and I own his drum sample/loop disc "Tower of Funk"). Former saxophonist Lenny Pickett would do the wildest things on record and stage with that instrument, stoking the crowds into loud screams, shouts and whistles, and he would eventually leave to be in Saturday Night Live's house band. Trumpeter Greg Adams spent 25 years arranging the magical material until he left to release solo albums (and I own his loop/samples DVD, "Greg Adams Big Band Brass" -- check out the cool music on his web site).

The band has been through more lead singers than Spinal Tap has with drummers. Old school TOP fans still think Lenny Williams was the best of the long line, some of whom sounded eerily like the man himself.

I've seen them live half a dozen times and if you think they're a party on record, then you haven't seen nothing yet. A TOP concert is a bring down the house experience, with more people playing "air horns" and "air drums" than any other act I can think of.

I do have to give a tip of the hat to my friend down the hall at SUNY at Buffalo during freshman year, Doug Alpern, for coming armed to school with more TOP albums and opening the whole scene to me.

So here they are, live from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006, is Tower of Power knocking everybody out with "Only So Much Oil In The Ground," which still seems to be a timely message today.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Josh Rouse -- "Winter in the Hamptons" (2005)

Insightful singer/songwriters who play acoustic guitar don't get very far in the US, unfortunately. You'll get played on college stations, but since airplay is totally controlled by public corporations, that would be about it. However, go to Europe and the undiscovered gold from here gets dug up and treasured. It's no secret that the UK music magazine Uncut is passionate about their "Americana."

Maybe that's why when after a handful of albums and a marriage down the tubes, Josh Rouse gave up his adopted city of Nashville and moved to Spain. His Rykodisc album, 1972, was a paean to the golden era of soft rock, and the critics clamored over this breakthrough record to no avail. He decided to pack it up and head across the pond, but before he did, he recorded his farewell to the old life with producer Brad Jones and released Nashville.

You may think you're in for some heartland country music, but no. The name of the game is folk-rock with nods to 70's soul and pop and no sappy stuff either. The standout cut is "Winter In The Hamptons," which is one of those songs you wish would go on for longer than its 3:06, perhaps with another solo because the chord progression is so damned juicy.

Nicking a little from the Police's "Message in A Bottle" guitar pattern, this is a folk/rock pop gem that just glides fast and carefree, with the absolutely killer hooks and singalongs. From experience, I can tell you that winter in the Hamptons is quiet, beautiful and possibly truly dull. It's like the rich and famous are out of town, so it's a remote still life with limited things to do in the cold weather. Rouse uses that vibe as a metaphor for nothing left to lose but flying away to the new life in Spain.

Here we go
Singin' our songs with our soul
Winter has gone
Where do we belong
We have stayed too long.

Friday night
So uptight we get stoned
Sit in the Hamptons
It is too cold
We have stayed too long.

Spring is finally here
And we're so well dressed
It's a talent and it's our style
So put on your hat
Because the forecast is rain clouds.

Never know
American scene's such a bore
Still, we are hangin' on
We have stayed too long.

And we'll fly
Take a gypsy to Eurosize
Our money is gone
Where do we belong
We have stayed too long.

Sick of livin' here
It's such a mess
'Cause the government they're all liars
So put on your hat
Because the forecast is rain clouds.

As you'll see from the videos below, it's the opening a capella singalong "ba da da da dahhh" that sticks right in your head from the start and clearly gets live audiences singing along. Rouse has been in Spain a few years, so YouTube is full of Rouse concert videos from all over that country, and man, do they love that guy. There are a couple from two years ago with stops in LA and Brookyln that are just as enthusiastic, so it's heartening to see there is still strong support here too.

The first video is a very well-done purposefully grainy production for "Winter in the Hamptons" followed by Rouse and his crew singing the song in the middle of the daytime at the Plaza del Trigo in Arana de Duero in Spain from this past August! I hope you fall in love with this song as much as I have.

The Nice -- "Hang On To A Dream" (1969)

Not all prog rock was synth noodling. Sure Keith Emerson brought monstrous analog synthesizers into the studio and on stage, moved around the cables, and made all kinds of weird and wonderful noises when Emerson, Lake & Palmer became musical sensations.

But before ELP, Emerson led the late 60's trio The Nice, where he mainly stuck to pianos and occasional Hammond organ. The Nice were definite precursors to ELP, mixing rock, free jazz and classical genres, sometimes to bombastic but not elaborate extremes. They took particular joy in morphing classical, jazz and folks songs into their own updated arrangements, adding a driving rock beat, jamming on a chord progression, and sometimes turning the original into something unrecognizable.

Like Yes, they turned Leonard Bernstein's "America" from West Side Story inside out. Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo A LA Turk" was sped up, changed to the rock standard 4/4 time, and distorted.

Somehow I fell into possession of The Nice's third album (I think one of my limousine driving neighbors gave it to me), simple called Nice, around the time it came out. I only listened to side one, three melancholy songs followed by the 8-minute musical rock/jazz sound collage "For Example" which I remember during the whirlwind climax featured horns playing the opening notes to "Norwegian Wood." The album's second side consisted of two live recordings, the aforementioned Brubeck cover (now simply called "Rondo '69") and a completely lunatic reworking of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me."

The album's opening number, "Azrael Revisited," set off the mood with a sinister dissonant piano riff accompanied by a snapping drum beat and relentless cowbell, all the better for a song about the angel of death, right?

As if death wasn't grabbing enough for a curtain opener, then came the rather poetic two-faced cover version of American folk singer Tim Hardin's "Hang On To A Dream." Ostensibly a simple song about being left behind by your girlfriend and hoping for the best, leave it to Emerson and company to turn it into something far more complicated and unexpected.

Emerson was always about as subtle as a sledgehammer and seemed to delight in showing off not only how amazingly fast he played, but that he could do it in nearly every genre. And just in case you didn't get the point, he would simply mix in a few genres in the same song, whipping off everything with lightening speed.

Tim Hardin's "Hang On To A Dream" is a beautiful stark song, and The Nice's rearrangement manages to retain that beauty yet gassing it up into something you'd hear in a Balinese temple. Emerson is all piano flourishes and classical riffs. Vocalist Lee Jackson sounds mopey and crackling, especially when he stretches out "she says what she do-o-o-o-o-oes." A little triangle for the emotional touch, a holy choir for the choruses, and a cello for the chamber effect.

Really nice, really pretty and actually moving, and then suddenly Emerson breaks into a series of major jazz chords for no apparent reason and boom, the Nice has shifted into rocket bebop mode, Jackson's electric bass now pumping double time, Emerson racing up and down the piano, a tambourine hitting the quarter note beats, and the song is now off to the races. This break comes to a dramatic climax, and then Emerson gives one of his patented classical downward spirals, a very brief pause and a Chinese gong is smashed, cue choir.

Below is a very entertaining black and white video of The Nice performing "Hang On To A Dream" live on the Beat Club television show. No choir, but you can see Emerson was clearly in charge, nearly overpowering everybody else on stage, even plucking the piano strings at one point. You can barely hear Jackson's low-key singing. The jazz break in this show goes on far longer than the album version, but Emerson is pretty much unstoppable and a certified madman.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Mop Tops -- "Plastic Moon Rain" (1995)

This is the band that made me want to go out and buy Rickenbacker guitars (and I ended up with two).

In the aforementioned post from a couple of days ago, describing my discovery of modern day power pop and purchase of Not Lame's The World's Greatest Power Pop Compilation... Really, the very first cut on that album was this song, The Mop Top's "Plastic Moon Rain."

Folks, I was truly forever sold when the first several seconds played. Ringing, slightly overdriven Rickenbacker guitars playing full out D major and A7 chords playing by themselves, with the drums pumping into the beat. Do you remember hearing all those guitars on Byrds songs like "Feel A Whole Lot Better" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Tom Petty classics like "Here Comes My Girl" and "The Waiting?" That's how it hit me then and it still sounds great now. And to encapsulate the perfect single, they speed it up at the end and bring in the tambourines, a trick that Todd Rundgren memorialized in the liner notes to his Something/Anything album.

Yes, leave it to the Swedish once more to take a musical genre and perfect it. Those guys have always known their pop, whether it's the sweeping Euro style of ABBA or current production and songwriting behind Britney Spears and Ke$ha ("Tik Tok"), it seems catchy hooks are that country's major export.

What is "Plastic Moon Rain?" I swear I think it's about death in some Frank Zappa kind of way.

Magic world train, plastic moon rain.
I feel no pain, plastic moon rain.
You grow old, no hair to comb.
So alone, in your heart and soul.

Fall on me again, fall on me again

Plastic, moon rain
Let it fall, let it fall, Let it fall on me again
Plastic, moon rain , Don't deny it, here it comes.

Don't be afraid, you're not insane

If you see, the plastic moon rain
There's no escape, no hideaway
Come taste and feel, the plastic moon rain
Fall on me again, fall on me again.

Plastic, moon rain

And who are these Mop Tops, who came up with their corny Beatles tribute name? According to their web site, they've been around since 1985, and their audience liked their "ruffleshirts, Chealseaboots, Vox amplifiers and swaying popbeat (all spelling theirs)." With a back catalog of 200 songs, they signed a deal with Velodrome Records in Gothenburg, and their album Inside was released. Contributing singles on a handful of compilations, the band only produced their second full album in 2008, Ground Floor Man.

Inside is a Beatles-like Rickenbacker showcase, all deeply rooted in the Fab Four's early albums like Meet The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Help and Revolver. They don't mimic the Beatles, like the fictional Rutles, but employ the band's styles and instrumental simplicity, a real throwback when artists went for a jangly 60's sound with a quartet of instruments. Unfortunately, Inside is out of print.

But what we do have is this outstanding song. The video takes photos from The Mop Tops' web site, when they played small clubs in a couple of rare New York City visits, visited a well-stocked music store selling (what else) Rickenbackers, and performed at Liverpool's Cavern Club for a Beatles fest.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Greg Kihn Band and their live cover songs

I was updating my entry from two years ago for The Greg Kihn Band's Byrds-like cover version of Bruce Springsteen's "For You" with a homemade video, which brought up memories of seeing them perform at My Father's Place in Roslyn, LI back in 1981. "The Breakup Song" finally got him into the Top 40, but his biggest chart topper, "Jeopardy," was two yearsaway.

Kihn had toured relentlessly behind behind five very solid rock albums before "Jeopardy" become a hit and he put on a hell of a show. Real essence of rock and roll, stripped down, all emotion and sweat.

He's now the morning DJ at a classic rock station in San Jose, CA, still performing with a band, and even with four horror novels under his belt! And his son's name is Ry, after Ry Cooder, so there's more serious cool.

Finally found out what the striking five-sided guitar Kihn is always playing as his trademark: it's a Vox Phantom XII.

Springsteen returned Kihn the favor by giving him "Rendevous" for the With The Naked Eye album. Kihn loved doing covers, not only on albums, but in concert too. Let me share with you some of those live tunes on video, and you'll see what you're missing from a long time ago.

"Rendevous" (Bruce Springsteen)

"Roadrunner" (Jonathan Richman)

"For Your Love" (The Yardbirds)

"Sheila" (Tommy Roe)

"Higher and Higher" (Jackie Wilson)

"Telstar" (The Tornados) (this video from 1978)

The Rooks -- "Reasons"/"Colors" (1995)

One of my biggest music turning points took place in 1997 when I was browsing the lower level of the late HMV on East 86th Street in Manhattan. I remember not being terribly impressed by anything on the radio, grunge's heyday had passed, my son was just one year old, so I found myself walking up to 86th Street to do a cultural clean sweep between HMV and Barnes & Noble.

In the compilations section, I ran across three new CD's from the Warner Brothers archival label Rhino devoted to power pop of the 70's, 80's and 90's respectively, the famous (and brave) Poptopia series.

I was familiar with almost all the 70's content (The Raspberries, Dwight Twilley, Badfinger, Nick Lowe, Cheap Trick, Shoes, etc.), about half the the 80's edition and almost none of the 90's. As a matter of fact, I was surprised there was a CD devoted to the 90's at all -- there was power pop going on now? I bought the last two decade editions and brought them home to sample.

Even though I had never heard of most of the 90's bands, it was clear that three-minute jangly guitar rock was alive and well. As is my habit of diving in deeply into my passions, I researched every one of my favorite songs on that CD, typed in "power pop" into a search engine, and among the top results was Colorado-based power pop store/label Not Lame. I had struck gold, because here was a site that was slavishly devoted to the whole genre, selling CD's from all kinds of regional labels, with a special section devoted to Swedish power pop!

I took the safe route by ordering a Not Lame compilation modestly titled The World's Best Power Pop Compilation... Really! Volume One. After the Rhino Poptopia compilation, this was another CD sent from rock heaven, cracking open the that genre even further with more artists to relish and research. Good taste travels because there was one band both CD's shared -- The Rooks.

If the Beatles could release double A-sided singles (i.e. "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" and "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever"), the Rooks could have put out one of their own with "Reasons" (from Poptopia) on one side and "Colors" (from World's Best Power Pop) on the other.

Here was New York City-based band, right in my own backyard, emulating British Invasion guitar bands, an American version of the beloved UK New Wave group The Records, with chiming Rickenbackers and Fenders, layered harmonies, bristling tambourines, and the occasional two-lead attack (see The Records' "Starry Eyes" for reference!). Both "Reasons" and "Colors" are turn-it-up-loud songs that you can sing to, with modern analog production, yet sounding delightfully retro, like when you first heard the jangle of The Hollies' "On A Carousel."

I'll admit that "Reasons" has very few lyrics, and you really have to listen to get all the words of "Colors" through the mix, but it honestly makes no difference. Who could decipher what Michael Stipe was singing about on the first four R.E.M. albums behind the jangly guitars of Peter Buck?

The Rooks, led by songwriter/singer/guitarist Mike Mazzarella, remained local underground favorites throughout the 90's who were loved by the alternative music writers and critics, but sadly never able to break out on any wide basis. They produced indie label albums and singles and found themselves on other compilations, and I don't even know if they are technically still "together."

Their web site at is alive and well with a tremendous amount of content and scrapbooks. In his online bio, Mazzarrella writes: "Today, most songs are written around riffs, samples and patterns and that is where the classic song structure suffers. If I can't perform a song on an acoustic guitar or piano and make it work, then it's not worth my time."

I have the best of the Rooks in one good place, their Not Lame compilation called Encore Echoes, which contains "Reasons," "Colors" and a whole lot more of their great songs if you appreciate British Invasion-influenced guitar bands.

Since there are no videos for "Reasons" and "Colors," I've created one of my own featuring both songs, incorporating much of the artwork from The Rooks' web site. Below that is a fun 3 1/2 minute overview from a never completed 1998 documentary about the band, featuring the backing tracks of another song, "Love Said To Me."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Shoes -- Tongue Twister album (1980)

Legendary power pop bands are split into three divisions: the ones that are revered and charted (The Beatles, Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Cars), the ones who didn't chart but command a huge cult following in their aftermath (Jellyfish, Big Star), and the many regional bands who may have cut an album or two and are now just a mere memory for obsessives.

Shoes (note: no "The") fell between the second and third categories and probably constitute indie rock's first pioneers of the "DIY" ethos. Famous for being based in Zion, IL, Shoes were recording and distributing their own homemade EP's and albums way before new wave acts like The Police and 90's grunge bands were doing it.

They pressed and distributed their Black Vinyl Shoes record in 1977, became the toast of music critics, were signed to Elektra Records and immediately teamed with Queen producer Mike Stone for their Present Tense album. While some people consider that to be Shoes' finest moments, I prefer their follow-up, Tongue Twister, co-produced by the band and Fleetwood Mac producer Richard Dashut.

Imagine Shoes as a raw version of the Cars with no synthesizers. As a matter of fact, like Boston and Queen's early albums, they were purists who often boasted about the no synth approach (and with Shoes, no keyboards at all). Extremely melodic mid-tempo to fast songs, definitely more on the "rock" side than pop, very 4/4, and the real operating word here is "crunch" -- the riffs and power chords were mixed right up front for your air guitar pleasure.

Tongue Twister made full use of overdrive and distortion in both the rhythm and lead guitars, twiddling the pedal knobs for all kinds of effects with a little acoustic tones blended in periodically. No, this did not sound like Fleetwood Mac at all, despite Dashut's credentials, and not blues based, like many classic rock acts, but power pop rock on the order of Cheap Trick's first three albums. Real drums and guitars, Gary Klebe's scratchy vocals, tastefully placed and sparingly used harmonies, nothing more than three minutes long, and one in a while, you'll hear a chord riff EQ'd perfectly, sitting in one speaker like ear candy.

In John Borack's superb 2007 Shake Some Action book (subtitled: "The Ultimate Power Pop Guide"), Shoes' Jeff Murphy cites his 10 favorite pop songs, which should give you an idea of where the band drew their influences: The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," Big Star's "September Gurls," Todd Rundgren's "Couldn't I Just Tell You," Badfinger's "Baby Blue," The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," Paul Revere and The Raiders' "Hungry," The Beatles' "You Never Give Me Your Money" medley, The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," Big Star's "The Ballad of El Gordo," and Cheap Trick's "He's A Whore."

I assembled this 14-minute tour through my five favorite songs from Tongue Twister, followed by the Shoes' official videos for the two best songs from Present Tense -- the Byrds-ish "Too Late" and "Tomorrow Night." It's worth noting that they were played on MTV's launch date of August 1, 1981.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Genesis -- "Mad Man Moon" (1976)

Although a number of albums made a huge and lasting impression on me during my four years at SUNY at Buffalo, one of the records that hit the hardest was Genesis' A Trick Of The Tail.

I certainly enjoyed my share of 70's heyday prog rock from Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but this was the first one that really cut to me emotionally. I was not a particular Genesis fan entering college, and about the only song I knew from the band was "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway."

What I was just discovering was that Buffalo was a city with musical tastes all its own, and living there, you couldn't help being widely exposed to artists that were not even registering a blip elsewhere. This was a Midwestern blue collar city by Lake Erie that happened to be located on the northwest corner of New York State, just a Peace Bridge ride to Canada and Toronto.

Much like Washington D.C. adopted Little Feat and Baltimore took in Crack The Sky, Buffalo was a Genesis city.

Although the release of A Trick of The Tail didn't even register with me, the album was soon blasting loudly through the UB dormitories, and when spring came, out the windows as often as Peter Frampton Comes Alive.

I succumbed to the incredibly melodic snapshots, sweeping Melotron strings, Steve Hackett's acoustic guitar arpeggios and ringing chords, and Phil Collins' numerous ripping drums. Each song was its own little story, with the characters illustrated on the front and back covers of the album: a nurse sedating her patient ("Entangled"), a hunter seeking a mythical creature that turns into a "pool of tears" ("Squonk"), a thief who constantly denies his guilt right up until his death ("Robbery, Assault and Battery"), and a mythical creature who outwits his captors ("A Trick Of The Tail").

All magnificent and epic, but the real stunner to me was keyboardist Tony Banks' "Mad Man Moon," a complex ballad of mixed time signatures, a shift from its E minor verses to a magical D flat major interlude in the middle, and then a yearning return to the verses. It was as close to classical Chopin preludes as Genesis was ever to get, and a true showcase of Banks' piano and synth skills. Only in the prog rock genre could you get away with a tale of lost love, mortality, and madness on an epic poetic journey such as this, all seven and a half minutes and not one moment wasted.

Was it summer when the river ran dry
Or was it just another dam
When the evil of a snowflake in June
Could still be a source of relief

Oh, how I love you, I once cried long ago
But I was the one who decided to go
To search beyond the final crest
Though I'd heard it said just birds could dwell so high

So I pretended to have wings for my arms
And took off in the air
I flew to places which the clouds never see
Too close to the deserts of sand

Where a thousand mirages, the shepherds of lies
Forced me to land and take a disguise
I would welcome a horse's kick to send me back
If I could find a horse not made of sand

If this desert's all there'll ever be
Then tell me what becomes of me, a fall of rain?
That must have been another of your dreams
A dream of mad man moon

Hey, man, I'm the sandman
And boy have I news for you
They're gonna throw you in gaol
And you know they can't fail
'Cause sand is thicker than blood

But a prison in sand is a haven in hell
For a gaol can give you a goal
A goal can find you a role on a muddy pitch in Newcastle
Where it rains so much, you can't wait for a touch
Of sun and sand, sun and sand

Within the valley of shadowless death
They pray for thunderclouds and rain
But to the multitude who stand in the rain
Heaven is where the sun shines

The grass will be greener till the stems turn to brown
And thoughts will fly higher till the earth brings them down
Forever caught in desert lands one has to learn
To disbelieve the sea

If this desert's all there'll ever be
Then tell me what becomes of me, a fall of rain?
That must have been another of your dreams
A dream of mad man moon.

Buffalo was certainly ahead of its time, as this was way before Genesis decided to go the pop route and hit the top 40. A Trick of The Tail was Genesis' first album after Peter Gabriel left the band, when they decided to put drummer Phil Collins in front of a mic and step into those big shoes. As assured as Collins was as a vocalist, this album belonged to Banks and guitarist Hackett, who both stepped forward with their respective instruments, and the former as a composer. Collins was pretty unknown -- his goofy persona and Motown phase were still a long way off, thank God.

Their next album, Wind & Wuthering, was a sequel of sorts to A Trick of The Tail, except they got a bit silly ("Wot Gorilla," "All In a Mouse's Night") and dipped their toe into the pop pool successfully to their own surprise ("Your Own Special Way"). After that album Hackett left, Genesis became a threesome, dropped the "prog" part of their style, and headed on the fast track to the Top 40. All those big hits like "Invisible Touch," "No Reply At All," and "In Too Deep" bore almost no resemblance to all that great music when they were with Hackett and Gabriel.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Cars -- "Let's Go" (1979)

Criminally passed up by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, it's time to give our due to The Cars, a band who truly never would have been given a second look by today's radio programmers if they were just starting out now, but luckily came around at the right time.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a band who could produce a slew of perfect singles and amazing albums, while veering between the commercial and experimental within the grooves of the same record.

This was a band of true yin and yang.

For example, on the band's virtually perfect debut album, in between such classics as "Good Times Roll," "Bye Bye Love," and "You're All I've Got Tonight" are the very spacey "I'm In Touch With Your World" and the creepy electronic dirge "Moving In Stereo" and nothing seems out of place.

It could be the brilliant sky high singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek, possessed with just an eerie, deep detuned voice, just one step away from hosting the late night B-movie horror flicks on local TV. Or the more conventional yet distinct vocals of the late bassist Benjamin Orr.

The Cars miraculously followed the perfect debut with the nearly as divine Candy-O, as if they never took a break between records. The leadoff cut, "Let's Go," is my favorite Cars song (and I can't even pick the runner-up, because they'd all come off this album) because it's really one of the best get-up-and-go tunes out there. If you want your album flying out of the gate, this would the one to use, a flashy A chord, pumped up by the click-clack percussion, and then the heavily-distorted Prophet 5 sync lines from Greg Hawkes. It's a complete adrenalin starter.

At grad school, the new wave movement was firing on all cylinders, and we'd enter our parties with our favorite records, like this one and the first B-52's, toss off whatever was on the phonograph, and replace them with all the groovy new rock sounds. Surrounded by TV studio geeks at Syracuse, one of them analyzed the then two Cars albums to discover what the secret to their sound was -- "it's the compression!" he concluded, courtesy of perfectionist producer Roy Thomas Baker.

How did the Cars not get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet mystifies me. The band was an anomaly of exuding complete hipness with weird excursions intact, yet being wildly commercially successful with their compact 3.5 minute pop songs with densely layered harmonies, precious Eliot Easton guitarwork, and clever drumming from David Robinson. For all his romantic whimsy, Ocasek even netted the girl, model Paulina Porizkova, where they live happily in Manhattan's Gramercy Park area, where you can periodically spot the man himself, strolling down Park Avenue South.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Leo Sayer -- "One Man Band" (1974)

Looking back, it's really sad how most people will remember Leo Sayer for some plastic mindless pop hits like prom song wannabe "When I Need You" and the inane "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing." Before that turning point in Sayer's career, you'd be hard pressed to think this was the same artist, for he was doing rather simple, intensely personal songs during the first half of the 70's.

My friend John who lived a few blocks from me was very into Sayer's Just A Boy, but I only paid cursory attention. Sayer wrote the lyrics to David Courtney's music, which was influenced by British dancehall style, much like Paul McCartney and The Kinks. They made a distinct English counterpoint to Southern California singer/songwriters of the time like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. The production was sparse and the chord structure was folk-based, part of the great Adam Faith production factory.

Sayer's songs were being covered by Roger Daltrey on his first solo album ("Giving It All Away") and Three Dog Night (an overdramatic reading of "The Show Must Go On").

At this time, Sayer had taken the stage persona of a sad clown, with bright white makeup, a black skullcap, and simple big black buttons going up his white billowy outfit. As you'll see in the video below, it made a very striking visual appearance, probably similar to the reaction Peter Gabriel's costumes got when he was in Genesis.

Sayer's themes were often loneliness and going it alone. "One Man Band," with its happy-go-lucky ringing guitar and banjo, personified these concepts lyrically, singing and begging for money, starving in between gigs, and being ignored by passersby. The tune belonged in the great English pop tradition of pairing downer lyrics with snappy upbeat melodies (i.e. Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again Naturally").

Everybody knows down Ladbroke Grove
You have to leap across the street.
You can lose your life under a taxi cab
You gotta have eyes in your feet.
You find a nice soft corner and you sit right down
Take up your guitar and play.
Then the lawman comes and says move along
So you move along all day.

I’m a one man band
Nobody cares nor understands
Is there anybody out there wanna lend a hand
To my one man band.

For three days now I haven’t eaten at all
My, my, I must be getting so thin.
Soon my cap won’t be large enough
To drop a half-a-crown in.
So hey there mister don’t you look so sad
Don’t look so ill at ease.
When I can play you any song you like
To cheer up the life you lead.

And oh, oh, oh, look at the rain falling
Oh, oh, oh look at it rain
Oh look at it rain.

Nobody sees the minstrel boy
As he sings his tale of woe.
Nobody sees him coming, nobody sees him go
So hey there mister don’t you look so sad.
Don’t look so ill at ease
When I can play you any song you like.
To cheer up the life you lead.

I’m a one man band
Nobody cares nor understands
Is there anybody out there wanna lend a hand
To my one man band.

It's really what happened after Just A Boy when Sayer's career really took a twist. His follow-up album, Another Year, featured even more depressing lyrics, and was unable to produce an American hit out of it. His label, Warner Brothers, brought him to California to meet uber-pop producer Richard Perry, who laid the production on thick and heavy for Ringo Starr, Barbara Streisand, Nilsson, Johnny Mathis, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross. In other words, the antithesis of everything Sayer had been doing before.

It was not long before Sayer dropped all that introspective stuff for big pop productions, out came the Endless Flight album and the two megahits mentioned in the first paragraph. I reviewed the album for my college paper The Spectrum, just appalled at what happened to Sayer, tagging him a sellout. Hey, it sold plenty of records and I guess that's what Warner Brother wanted.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Brick -- "Dazz" (1976)

The golden eras of disco and funk overlapped in the 70's, and it seemed by the time I hit college in 1975, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing one or the other.

A certified rock and soul kid away from home for the first time, I couldn't get into most disco until years later, when it was more of a nostalgia. I must have been sheltered from all of it in high school, but once in the dorms of Buffalo, if you wanted to hang out at any club, you could not avoid the 4/4 four on the floor and synchronized hi hat.

Brick, and who knows where these guys were from (Atlanta, as I found out many years later), created this ingenious funk riff with clavinet chords, a thomping shuffle kick, a very splashy hi hat working the eighths, and what sounded like a clap and stick mixed together on the 2 and 4 beats. The beat swayed.

These guys were marketing savvy enough to call the style and the song "Dazz" -- "disco" and "jazz" merged together, except that while you could absolutely dance to it, it was definitely not disco in any traditional sense of the word. This was badass funk, not more than one step away from The Ohio Players, that you could jam to. This I had no problem getting into, although the lyrics, like most funk songs, were ridiculous. It was pretty much this...

Everybody go on and dance
If you want to.
Music makes your body move
Well all right!
Funky dancing get up
Get down, shake your booty.
Music makes your body move
Well all right!

Jazz dazz (disco jazz)
Jazz dazz (disco jazz)
Jazz dazz (disco jazz)
Jazz dazz (disco jazz)

OK, so the words were stupid, but that truly didn't matter.

I actually ran out and got a copy of their album Good High (!!!) because the song's full version had a lengthy flute solo and some insane squealing analog synth bass going "wo-o-o-owwww!" I couldn't care less about the rest of the album and I couldn't tell you another song these guys did. This was unquestionably one of the best party songs of the era and I wish instead of playing the same Motown and Aretha hits at weddings and bar mitzvahs, some DJ would be smart enough to lay this one down.

It's worth noting that after this song's success, Brick tried to make lightening strike twice with a follow-up called "Dusic" (!!) but that never made it! Wonder why?

Note to fellow music geeks: do not confuse this song or group with the Dazz Band, who came out later with the equally amazing "Let It Whip" (which truly had not a drop of jazz in it).

Believe it or not, I've got a few videos on this one. First, you have Brick performing "Dazz" live on the great old TV show "Midnight Special" and you'll note that they speed it up considerably. Then a sedentary homemade video of the long album version of "Dazz," which really is one of the mothers of all jams. Finally, some young white guy shows how he plays the electric bass to "Dazz" which was so entertaining, I had to add it. See -- great funk riffs never die, no matter how old you are!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Kinks -- "Sleepwalker" (1977)

After stumbling through much of the 70's without a hit since 1970's "Lola," cranking out lukewarm concept albums for RCA (Preservation Act 1, Preservation Act 2, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace), somehow music legend Clive Davis remembered Ray Davies could write a damn good rock song, and signed them to his Arista label.

Leave it to "Mr. Golden Ears" to basically tell Ray to forget about the concept records and artsy pretensions meant for the cutout bins, just write those witty rock songs we know you can do. Mr. Davies obliged on the Sleepwalker album, taking a big leap forward of ripe overdriven power chords, acerbic observations on gigging ("Life On The Road"), a woman who can't stop dancing ("Juke Box Music"), and even failed suicide ("Life Goes On").

Happily, the title song broke through on FM radio play, floating on air guitar ready riffs and lyrics that, well, have more than one interpretation 30 years on. A vampire? A stalker? A guy who is just flat out losing his marbles? Davies has written about so many crackpots over the years, any scenario is possible.

I personally like the break where the music dies down, the piano plinks, Davies bounces from speaker to speaker and then that E major riff sledgehammers its way back into the scene.

Ev'rybody got problems, buddy. I got mine.
When midnight comes around, I start to lose my mind.
When the sun puts out the light,
I join the creatures of the night,
Oh yeah.

I'm a sleepwalker.
I'm a night stalker.
I'm a street walker.
I'm a night hawker.

Ev'rybody got secrets that they wanna hide.
When midnight comes along, I take a look inside.
Don't go talkin' in your sleep:
I might come in for a peep,
Oh yeah.'

I'm a sleepwalker.
I'm a night stalker.

When ev'rybody's fast asleep, I start to creep.
Through the shadows of the moonlight, I walk my beat.
Better close your window tight:
I might come in for a bite,
Oh yeah.

When the night time comes, I start to creep.
I prowl around when you're fast asleep.
I walk around on my tippy toes,
And I get into places that nobody knows.

I'm always around if you wanna meet.
You can find me on almost ev'ry street.
You'll always get me on the telephone.
I'll even come to your home if you're ever alone.

Luckily, Sleepwalker was just the beginning of a raft of excellent Arista albums, one of which yielded their big comeback single, "Come Dancing." That was a silly song, but if it drew listeners back to the Kinks in massive numbers, my tongue is held.

Here are the Kinks live with "Sleepwalker."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tommy Tutone -- "867-5309/Jenny" (1982)

This week's New Yorker magazine featured a small profile of former Tommy Tutone guitarist Jim Keller, co-writer of their biggest hit, "867-5309/Jenny." Keller is now living in New York City, running classical composer Phillip Glass' publishing company, and only recently performing in low key joints by himself.

If anybody doubts the staying power of this one-hit wonder from the New Wave era, look no further than Bruce Springsteen's recent "Radio Nowhere," which pretty much copped the riff right out from under the California band.

There can't be a New Wave CD compilation without "867-5309/Jenny" licensed for the deal. This was the perfect song for a time when skinny tie bands were still the rage, and people were still dancing to rock and roll. A jangly arpeggio riff, a singer who sounded like he had cotton in his mouth, a band named after a non-existent entity, and the requisite killed power pop hook.

Yes, there was plenty of phone number hysteria, and woe befell all those who had that phone number. And what's with the backwards slash in the title -- couldn't a parenthesis do the trick?

Although the band pretty much shot their load with this song -- they had three albums on Columbia Records -- they did have at least one other quality song which didn't quite scale the charts like "867" and that was "Angels Say No."

Below are two videos -- Tommy Tutone performing "867-5309/Jenny" in 1983 on the old ABC-TV Saturday Night Live rip-off "Fridays", and then a very cool one from 1979 of "Angels Say No," way before it appeared on an album, shot in Marin County. Jim Keller is wearing the green shirt in the first video and barechested in the second.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Todd Rundgren -- "Parallel Lines" (1989) and "Not Tonight" with The New Cars (2004)

Back in college, the zaftig music editor of the school paper used to sneer "Todd is God." She may have had something there, although I wish it wouldn't have come from her.

Rundgren's life as a pop and rock music chameleon and jack of all trades never seems to get its proper due. He probably could have cruised for years cranking out surefire little pop ditties like "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw The Light." But then he'd make a complete left turn and do something nuts like his album Faithful, which was like his musical version of Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho," except he did note for note copies of the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" and The Beatles' "Rain." Or his 20-minute electronic drone excursion that occupied the entire second side of 1981's Healing.

Let's not forget Todd the maniacal producer, who made commercial gold out of Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Patti Smith, The Psychedelic Furs, Cheap Trick, The Tubes, XTC and others. That's a whole other blog entry.

After wandering off the beaten track commercially for much of the 80's, Rundgren pulled another one of his outstanding pop gems out of a hat when he assembled a huge set of musicians and singers in the studio and cut the Nearly Human album live. Always introspective, soulful and taking an unvarnished look at the human condition, Rundgren melded amazing hooks with his vocal arrangement mastery to tackle singular obsession ("The Want of a Nail"), child abuse ("Unloved Children") and the mind games between lovers (the exuberant "The Waiting Game").

The production was quite grand, rivaling the one on Bat Out of Hell, but certainly more impressive that it was all done live in studio. Unfortunately, the CD mastering was aggressively compressed, which flattens the dynamics of the many instruments and vocals used in the album.

Coming in my final months at Radio City Music Hall, I finagled tickets to see Rundgren and the whole original band on his album tour stop at The Ritz venue. The place was packed, the Todd is God groupies were out, and they blew the roof off with a horn section, an extended group of musicians and background singers.

However, one special song stands out from that record, from a forgotten theater project Rundgren that came and went when Nearly Human came out -- a musical version of playwright Joe Orton's never-used Beatles movie script "Up Against It." "Parallel Lines" is is a searing sad mid-tempo ballad about how certain relationships are never meant to happen, given a layered pop treatment on the album. I particular love the fact that each of the verses' last lines is completed in the choruses.

Kindred spirits moving along the spiral
I can see you up on another level
It's too great a fall
And I can't reach you to pull me higher
But I don't seem to get much closer or any more far
What would you tell me, if I could hear you speaking?
If you could touch me, how would I know the feeling?
I just can't imagine
But I try to do it anyway
I wish I was moving faster, I wish you'd drift back
But it just wasn't meant to happen
Very soon I'll have to...

Face the fact
Some things never come together
Parallel lines running on forever
And you can't turn back
There is never any starting over
Parallel lines never do cross over

From this classic personal project, Rundgren had no problems doing what may be called "crass sell out" gigs, something that almost seemed antithetical to his usual anti-corporate banter. Yes, he did the Ringo Starr & His All-Stars Tour, but even more fascinating was jumping into the Ric Ocasek role when some of the remaining Cars reunited to record and tour to cash in on New Wave nostalgia in 2007.

I thought it was musical heresy when guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes hooked up with Rundgren to record a couple of Cars-clone songs and then tour as The New Cars. Rundgren recruited his old Utopia mates Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince to join on what was an obvious way to pocket some easy cash. Original Cars bassist Benjamin Orr had passed away, and both drummer David Robinson and Ocasek wanted nothing to do with the deal.

You have to admire Rundgren for taking some of that Faithful magic and writing a song that sounded remarkably like an Ocasek number and even produced like one, almost a loving parody. The drone-ish clipped vocals, sarcastic, obtuse lyrics -- all there.

Below are two very different version of "Parallel Lines" -- the first is a stripped-down slow and moving rendition from the TV show "Night Music," followed by the tour band performing the album arrangement live in Japan. And then The New Cars, on "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson."