Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mike Finnigan -- "Just One Minute More" (1978)

What Boz Scaggs had wrought.

When Silk Degrees became a multi-million selling album in 1976, he basically busted open the door for blue-eyed soul like never before. Suddenly, it totally cool for white guys to sing soul music blatantly in the style of Motown, Philly and Stax. Of course, the guys who really took that concept to the bank were Daryl Hall and John Oates, right through most of the 80s.

But let's go back to the Silk Degrees era. In 1977, English guitarist Dave Mason had the biggest selling album of his career when Columbia Records paired him with producer Ron Nevison for a slickly-produced collection of catchy rock tunes. Mason's band was a collection of immensely talented musicians and composers. The single that drove it through the roof, "We Just Disagree," was written by his guitarist Jim Krueger. Also in the band was keyboardist Mike Finnigan, who had already played on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and other classic rock records.

Mason's album Let It Flow sold tons, so all of a sudden those talented guys in his band had solo albums released on Columbia, who probably thought they could duplicate that success. While we will discuss Krueger's impressive Sweet Salvation another time, Finnigan released what was actually his second album under his own name, called Black and White.

Not a subtle reference, Black and White was like the Boz Scaggs album that Boz never did. Also produced by Nevison, Finnigan sounds remarkably like Mr. Scaggs' deep voice, powerful and emotional all at once. Other than covering Krueger's straightforward rock ballad, "The Words," every song is right out of the Philly and Chicago soul playbook, and it seems they were all written by, yes, white guys! One exception -- his completely fitting cover of The Soul Survivors' "Expressway To Your Heart."

Finnigan's keyboards are right up front, either with a B3 organ or piano, sometimes very gospel-ish, or downright bluesy. And this guy could sing. The obvious single was the unforgettable lead-off tune from the album, "Just One Minute More," co-written by music legend Al Kooper. All slick guitars, orchestration, Finnigan's insanely pleading vocals ("He wants you for decoration/But I need you just to live!"), and thumpety drums. It's just one of those songs you can't get out of your head, right out of another era.

These days, Finnigan is touring all over the world, welcomes just about anybody to friend him on Facebook (over 4,600 of them as of this writing), and contributes to the political blog Crooks & Liars in pretty much the same way he performs -- no holding back. If you want to hear true songcraft style and singing, well, let's go to the video... (and if you'd like the song, you can download the album from Mike himself)...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Walter Egan -- "Only The Lucky" (1977)

One of the 70's biggest one hit wonders deserved a far better fate. Walter Egan's prom song "Magnet and Steel" was positively tongue in cheek and far inferior to the rest of the material he recorded. So let me set the record straight for everybody right now.

A Queens boy who went to Georgetown University, and then headed west to join surf bands, Egan had it all -- good looks, a very distinct voice (sort of reminiscent of Gerry Rafferty), and a knack for writing great little rock songs. He ended up being Lindsey Buckingham's first outside production job after his initial Fleetwood Mac album went through the roof.

They had an awful lot in common: an obvious worship of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, as well as a passion for innocence and simplicity. For their Egan's debut Columbia album, Fundamental Roll, Buckingham enlisted a coterie of prime southern California band musicians, and had his amour, Stevie Nicks, sing with Egan on at least half the tracks.

Imagine a very Fleetwood Mac-sounding album, except truly from a single west coast guy's point of view. From the first few moments of "Only The Lucky," when the drums smash the downbeat, and the acoustic and electric guitars jangle big major chords in unison, you know you are in "Go Your Own Way" territory, but without the complex Mick Fleetwood drum patterns. It's wistful betrayal, with a taste of defiance, done simple and true, going down to the minor chord for the chorus. Nicks is all over the song, even with that "ya-ooooo" during the fade out. And yes, that can only be Buckingham's distinct high up the neck guitar solo, right out of "Second Hand News." Notice that last chorus change to "Only the lucky and I will survive."

I had a dream just the other day
I dreamed that you would never be leavin' me
I still recall what you had to say
You said that you would always believe in me

Then I woke, as I always do
My dream was gone like darkness from the sky
Felt the pain and I saw the truth
Only the lucky in love survive

Only the lucky in love survive
Without love, you're just half alive
Only the lucky in love survive
Without love, I'd just as soon die

I gave my love and I gave my best
God only knows how good it felt to try
In the end, I'm alone again
'Cause only the lucky in love survive

Only the lucky in love survive
Without love, you're just half alive
Only the lucky in love survive
Without love, I'd just as soon die

Only the lucky in love survive
Without love, you're just half alive
Only the lucky in love survive
Without love, I'd just as soon die

Only the lucky and I will survive
Only the lucky and I will survive
I will

Studying many classic 60's based songwriters, like Neil Diamond, Paul McCartney, and Carole King, their chords were basic and easy -- they were all about the melodies and hooks. Egan mastered this craft as well, for the whole Fundamental Roll is just classic rock hook after hook, and the instrumentation is just right for his tales of lust, partying, girls, and cars -- sometimes going up a half a key just at the right moment. A couple of tunes have that early 60's kick drum "bum...bumbum" of many girl group hits.

If you are a Fleetwood Mac fan (especially Fleetwood Mac and its Rumors sequel), Walter Egan's first two albums are mandatory purchases (Fundamental Roll and Not Shy). Because of "Magnet and Steel," Not Shy came back into print a while ago on the Razor & Tie label then disappeared, while Fundamental Roll stayed dormant until recently, when Egan began reissuing copies of his early records. Those first two albums are now a two-fer on one CD. They can be bought new or used through Amazon, or as sparkling downloads from the very same site.

Any discussion of Fundamental Roll can not leave out the album's front and back covers. Israeli-born photographer Moshe Brakha, whose distinct style evoking movement, artifice, and sexiness, first made a splash with his cover shot for Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees album. For Egan's debut record, the clear theme was "teenage lust," something that I could not possibly imagine him getting away with in this current hyper-sensitive era. At dusk, there's the boy-ish Egan standing next to a black muscle car while two sexy cheerleaders are crouching up to him approaching crotch level. And if that's not enough, the back cover was the same setting with Egan squeezing both girls standing up, their skirts hiked up, with white panties clearly showing. Some innocence!

After his album sales crashed, Egan rejoined the surf band he belonged to when he first made his way to California, the Malibooz, which still record and play to this day. One last Walter Egan fact you can amaze your friends with: he wrote the song "Hearts On Fire" for Gram Parsons' classic pioneering country-rock album Grievous Angel.

Enjoy this video I put together for "Only The Lucky," with audio the way it was meant to be heard! And below that, early MTV does a short news segment on the surf music revival, and interview Egan in his Malibooz guise.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chilliwack -- "Fly At Night" (1977)

Canada's sort of answer to the Eagles came blasting through down the hall from me at the very beginning of my junior year at SUNY at Buffalo.

Chris came from Ogdensburg, NY, a small city located in the very north corner of New York State, on the St. Lawrence River, right across from Canada. Setting up the first week of the semester, he put on Chilliwack's Dreams, Dreams, Dreams album on his stereo and had the whole floor mesmerized. And it was the lead off cut, "Fly At Night," that had everybody wondering who they were.

Living on the Canadian border probably gave Chris a lot of exposure to their FM rock radio. We didn't know who Chilliwack was, except they were named for some city in British Columbia and the lead singer had this crazy falsetto. No, not like fellow Canadian Geddy Lee, but imagine if somebody lit a fire under Bread's David Gates, told him to put down the wimpy guitar and sing hard and loud.

Starting with a beautiful D major arpeggio on acoustic guitar, "Fly At Night" was one of those patented rock group road songs, much like Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "What's Your Name," Canned Heat's "On The Road Again" and CSN's "Just A Song Before I Go." Except no girls, no drunks, no fights... it's Chilliwack's anthem about the magic of touring and connecting with the audience.

The band kicks in after the introductory verse, blending electric and acoustic guitars, a nice fuzzy Wurlitzer EP, turning this into one kick-ass road anthem. It's pure propelled gas from there, shifting into an A minor gear, and lead singer/songwriter Bill Henderson really catches you with that high pitched "Ah-aa-aaaaaaaa!" Think of the classic rock catalog, and you just don't hear lead falsettos all that much. Now here comes one and you say "What's that?"

Four men in a rock 'n roll band
Fly at night in the morning we land
Fly at night 'til we're satisfied
See the morning from the other side

And when you close your eyes
Sleep comes fast
When you fly the universe
Well, you need some rest
Yeah, you need some rest

Ooh, we like the big wide spaces
Yeah, we like a sea of faces
Time is just a rubber band
Time is at our command

And when we look out
And see you there
You seem much closer
And you feel so near
Yeah, you feel so near

Well we fly by night, it's like a rocket flight
And baby that's just what it's for
Yeah, we fly by night, it makes you feel alright
It keeps you coming back for more

[Guitar break]

Well we fly by night, it's like a rocket flight
And baby that's just what it's for
We fly by night, it makes you feel alright
It keeps you coming back for more

[Guitar break]

Four men in a rock 'n roll band
Fly at night in the morning we land
Fly at night 'til we're satisfied
See the morning from the other side.

It's funny but now listening to the song a few times over, it really is like that "rocket flight" described in the lyrics -- starting mid-tempo on acoustic guitar, bringing in the rest, careening at a breakneck speed, solos going all over the place and then screeching like brakes when it returns to the acoustic guitars again, and then one last mad run-through.

Two years later, mucking through graduate school at Syracuse University, I turned my roommate Vic onto the song, and it became a bit of an anthem for our apartment. We'd pull out our guitars and play and sing along because this was an absolute blast. Frankly, nobody knew who Chilliwack was unless you lived north of the Peace Bridge, but this song was imprinted and crystallized like our little secret.

The entire side one of Dreams, Dreams, Dreams was a pleasure to listen to. However, "Fly At Night" is truly one of the greatest rock road anthems that nobody ever heard. Below is my homemade video.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Smithereens -- "A Girl Like You" (1989)

After new wave succumbed to corporate rock, there were still a number of breaking bands who were determined not to succumb to shareholder mainstreaming or the wild excesses of hair metal.

The radio dug The Smithereeens right out of the box with two singles, "Blood and Roses" and "Behind the Wall Of Sleep," minor key crunchers that introduced the world to songwriter Pat DiNizio (the latter name checking, of all people, swinging 60's English model Jean Shrimpton). While clearly a huge fan of the Beatles and garage rock, DiNizio's lyrics were always full of pain, anxiety and difficulties with the opposite sex.

Capitol snapped them up and big things were expected of them, miraculously, because they certainly didn't fit in with any of the slick acts of the time. Some classify them as power pop, but I just don't hear it.

Four working class rock musicians from New Jersey, bar band veterans. In a way, they were the great rock hope in 1989.

Their second Capitol album, Green Thoughts, was more bummed-out rock, spewing out one great single, "Only A Memory," but not taking them any further artistically.

11 changed the picture -- they brought in New York rock producer/engineer Ed Stasium, known for his work on all the early Ramones and Talking Heads album. He cleared up the Smithereen's sound, deepened the production to show off the band's chops and seemingly got DiNizio to lighten up for a song or two.

"A Girl Like You" is about as good an album opener as you can ask for, and undoubtedly the band's best song. A showcase for recording double-tracked electric guitars, the song has one of the most head-shaking, catchiest, moving in multiple direction riffs in the genre. When Denny Diken's drums pound in hard after a few bars, you feel surrounded by the band. Diken plays around with the different upbeats of that riff, slamming the cymbals and kick at the same time on the unexpected offbeats.

Yes, there's plenty of DiNizio anxiety, as he always seems to build women up with great worship and then get let down by them, sending him into some dark bummerland.

I used to travel in the shadows
And I never found the nerve to try and walk up to you
But now I am a man and I know that there's no time to waste
There's too much to lose
Girl you say anything at all, and you know that you can call
And I'll be right there for you
First love, heartbreak, tough luck, big mistake
What else can you do

I'll say anything you want to hear
I'll see everything through
I'll do anything I have to do
Just to win the love of a girl like you, a girl like you

People talk and people stare, tell them I don't really care
This is the place I should be
And if they think it's really straange for a girl like you
To be in love with someone like me
I wanna tell them all to go to hell
That we're doing very well without them you see
That's just the way it is and they will see
I am yours and you are mine the way it should be

Now if I seem a little wild, there's no holding back
I'm trying to get a message to you
I won't take anything from anyone
I won't walk and I won't run, I believe in you
London, Washington, anywhere you are I'll run
Together we'll be
Inside, outside, got my pride
I won't let him take you from me.

Stasium mixes in a piano chopping chords down on the 8ths, and yes, there's even the Go-Go's Belinda Carlisle joining in on some of the verses. Yes, this is a song that is meant to be played loud.

While they had a handful of mixed results albums that followed, the last three Smithereens albums over the past few years have been enjoyable cover albums of early Beatles singles and The Who's Tommy. I'm sure the Smithereens can play these songs superbly with their eyes closed, as they probably were doing it as teenagers years ago. Also worth checking out: their gritty cover of The Outsiders' "Time Won't Let Me" on their Blown To Smithereens greatest hits album (see video below with Jean Claude Van Damme).

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Knack's Doug Fieger -- in memorium

Doug Fieger, lead singer and songwriter of the successful and influential power pop band The Knack, died on Valentine's Day after a long battle with lung cancer. It's a very sad end to an amazing musical life.

I knew he was sick during this time, but he still continued to give interviews. He gave a terrific one in January 2008 to Vintage Guitar magazine about his amazing collection of equipment, growing up loving rock and roll, and the impact of the classic single "My Sharona." There was no mention of his illness in the article.

"You can have the same equipment, but unless you've got Jimmy Page's fingers, you ain't gonna sound like Jimmy Page," Fieger says. "Still, as a collector, I like having what a lot of the players that inspired me had."

According to the obituary that appeared in his hometown Detroit News newspaper, Fieger told the paper just last month, "I don't know any better than anyone else when I'm going. I've had 10 great lives. And I expect to have some more. I don't feel cheated in any way, shape or form."

The Knack's premiere album, Get The Knack, sold 6 million copies and brought back a love for 60's-era British invasion guitar rock and roll to the world. Although their aping of the Beatles caused a huge backlash and ridiculous expectations for the band's second album, they kept plugging away making great music and giving no quarter.

If you have any doubts of the staying power of "My Sharona," then you can remember the funny scene from the 1994 film "Reality Bites" (shown below) or that the song is featured in an edition of the video game Guitar Hero.

Their third album, Round Trip, produced by Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, John Lennon), gave them a bigger, in-your-face sound, and featured one of my favorites of theirs, a tour de force called "Africa."

Leaving Capitol for Charisma for the one off Serious Fun, old Detroit buddy Don Was roughed up the band's sound, gave the guitars more edge, but the songs were still there, like "Rocket o' Love" and the title cut.

The band continued releasing records periodically with mixed results, such as Zoom and Normal As The Next Guy.

What Fieger should be remembered for is finding a grand musical vision and sticking with it. Clearly, he was mesmerized by the melodic rock songwriting of the 60's, grew up learning how to play and collecting these instruments that mean so much to him. Even when the critics turned on The Knack and eventually the public went along, he still believed in the three-minute rock song with hooks and harmonies, lots of guitars, and the angst of a teenager.

I own a wonderful DVD the Knack did in 2002 called Live From The Rock 'n' Roll Fun House, where three quarters of the original band do a fantastic staged run through of many of their great songs.

Below is a video memorial for Doug Fieger and The Knack, starting with a local cable interview he did in Rhode Island. You'll notice that a number of these performances were from the past few years, when Fieger was battling cancer, but that did not stop him. Rest in piece, Mr. Fieger.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Squeeze -- "Another Nail In My Heart"/"Pulling Mussels From The Shell" (1980)

I don't think A&M Records knew what to make of Squeeze or how to market them when they first landed in the US in the late 70's. It was a perfect storm of bad luck and timing that kept them off my personal radar, although my brother Scott was obsessed by them.

At first, they were known as "UK Squeeze," probably because of some legal hassle, and that was how they were named on their first album. Second, it was the height of the punk movement, they came from the UK, so they were falsely lumped together with that whole lot. The first UK Squeeze album encouraged this image by not showing the band, but a washed out colored-in photo of a circus strongman pushing his thick arms together.

I witnessed America's reception to them first hand -- during my time at university in Buffalo, they were the opening act at the Memorial Auditorium (was it Blue Oyster Cult?) and they were consistently booed, with things thrown at them on stage. I think I even heard that keyboardist Jools Holland got his hand cut open from that nasty welcoming committee. And if Blue Oyster Cult was the headliner, what the hell was Squeeze doing on the bill?

Still, my brother Scott was playing "Take Me I'm Yours" and "Cool For Cats" over and over, and I promptly ignored it. I think the words that came to mind were "cheap" and "cheesy," was these were low-budget recordings done on basic analog synths.

So imagine my surprise, post-graduation, running around in New York City, as punk slowly gave way to New Wave, that Squeeze got their budget upped and released ArgyBargy. WPIX-FM and WLIR-FM, the two brave local stations that spun a non-stop playlist of all this great new music, added "Another Nail In My Heart" to the roster.

Now, I could not avoid them and oh, they were a pop band! And I could not get that damn chorus out of my head now:

And here in the bar,
The piano man's found
Another nail in my heart.

What sealed the deal was the follow-up single, "Pulling Mussels from The Shell." My hats off to composinig team Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook for coming up with that title and not even bothering to create a rhyme for it. This second British invasion featured lyrics full of English slang, twist and turns ("the cricket's creepy?"), stories about single punters running into trouble and drinking heavily, all in compact little pop melodies. Were these the same guys who barely survived leaving the stage in Buffalo?

ArgyBargy broke Squeeze and finally we all could see past the misguided attempts to sell them as a punk band or whatever A&M was concocting. From there, Squeeze built upon each successful album -- they were a pop band, damn it, one of the best. And at some point, they had better make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

To bring the story full circle, Difford and Tilbrook reunited as Squeeze with two new hires, and toured the States in 2008. I bought tickets to one of their two sold out concerts at the Beacon on the Upper West Side, and my guest was my brother Scott, who had their number down all along.

How much adoration did these guys get? From the moment they hit the stage with "Take Me I'm Yours," the audience never sat down, singing along to every blessed lyric. The band barely took a break, seguing from one classic to another for more than 90 minutes straight. And who should open up for them? A more appropriate booking -- their brothers in pop, Fountains of Wayne.

Below, the official video of "Another Nail In My Heart" from 1980, and then fast forward to that 2008 reunion tour, where Squeeze stopped by the A&E cable TV show "Private Sessions" to do "Pulling Mussels From The Shell."

Squeeze Performs on A&E's Private Sessions!!! - For more funny movies, click here

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rick Derringer -- "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" (1973)

One of the forgotten 70's rock classics, this is one of those songs that when you hear it, you can't help saying to yourself, "Damn, that is a good song. Can't get tired of that one." This should be a staple of every 70's rock cover band.

Rick Derringer had himself quite rock and roll resume. As a member of the McCoys, he played on their one big hit, "Hang On Sloopy." He went on to join Edgar Winter's White Trash, which fused blues, rock and R&B, best known for their horn-driven FM cult favorite, "Keep Playing That Rock and Roll."

Derringer had originally written "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" when he was with the band, yet it was recorded first by Edgar's brother Johnny and then on the Edgar Winter's White Trash live album, Roadwork, with Johnny on guest vocals and absurdly Texas-fried distorted guitar.

With his boy-ish good looks, pop songwriting leanings and insane guitar talent, it was a no-brainer for Derringer to step out on his own with a deal on CBS-distributed Blue Sky Records. All-American Boy was a highly-polished affair that came bursting out of the gate like a rocket with a revved-up "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo," the one Derringer could claim as his own and the true classic. Producer Bill Szymczyk was already making himself known as a commercial rock producer, who would go on to produce The Eagles, Joe Walsh, Dan Fogelberg and others.

Derringer's version had hit written all over it -- boogie rhythm, catchy melody, nonsense "teen" lyrics about a night out listening to a band called the Jokers, picking up a girl and having sex with her "behind the barn," a ridiculous blues tag played after every verse line, and one of the best guitar solos laid down in the 70's.

Since I was teaching myself guitar in high school, I was picking up everything I could learn like a vacuum cleaner. One night I went to see a few guys jam in a neighborhood basement, led by a guitarist nicknamed "Mousy" (!) and they played "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" note for note. It was that night that I learned the power of the barre chord -- hammering the index finger down across the fret to create not only play inversions but fuller sounding chords. I discovered "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" was a barre chord field day from the very opening F chord to the slipping and sliding over the chorus.

In under four minutes, there were actually a lot of little catchy moving parts for a guitarist to learn: the bending G note on the bottom string that went down to the E just before every verse, the sliding E7th notes that started on one octave and zipped up another right that part, that A minor blues lick after every verse line, and the precision stops and starts of the final chorus.

While Rick never duplicated the success of "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo," he did pretty well for himself. He had the fortune (misfortune?) of marrying and eventually divorcing rock photographer/quasi-groupie Liz Derringer. I met Liz years later shooting concerts at Radio City Music Hall and she didn't have many nice things to say about her ex.

Derringer discovered Weird Al Yancovic (yep!) and played on and produced his first albums. And if you're a Steely Dan fan, he had his moments with them, adding slide guitar to "Show Biz Kids" on the Countdown to Ecstacy album and one of the many who contributed to Katy Lied. Not long ago on SiriusXM radio, I heard a cut from a recent blues album Derringer had recorded and it sounded so good, that it's on my shopping list now.

You want to get a dose of that dynamo in his prime, here is Rick doing "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" backed by The Edgar Winter Band (yes, that's Dan Hartman you'll see there). And that's followed by Johnny Winter sitting down playing a stripped-down electrified cover version with just a bassist.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

David Mead -- "Sweet Sunshine"/"Telephone" (1999)

After reading a rave review online on some power pop site, I bought David Mead's RCA Records debut The Luxury of Time without having heard a note of it in advance. Remember those compulsive times?

I'm not quite sure I'd classify Mead as "power pop," although I'm sure there are those who could stretch him under that umbrella.

Mead is a classic pop/rock singer-songwriter craftsman with an amazing voice, how's that?

So you know there's no way this guy is going to last on a major label the way that music is marketed and produced, too. Unless he was going to sell at least a couple of hundred thousand albums, RCA would set him free.

Too bad, because this record is like a lost gem of great music, the kind of individual statement that very few songwriters can make on a major label. Lyrically, Mead is akin to Paul Simon, concocting personal pictures about the inability to move on in life ("Landlocked"), the collapse of 60's idealism ("Robert Bradley's Postcard"), and taking yourself too seriously ("World of A King"). Musically, the influences are definitely Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and The Smiths.

What's remarkable about the first album is the production by Peter Collins, an Englishman who did the same duties for Canadian power trio Rush, Queenryche, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Musical Youth ("Pass The Dutchie!"), Nik Kershaw and Tracey Ullman ("They Don't Know"). You wouldn't exactly think Collins and Mead would be a match, but they click in an unexpected way. Instead of making Mead's sonic palette all singer/songwriter-y with sparse arrangements, Collins lays it on thick with electric and acoustic guitars, reverbs, and delays in a full rock production.

You can just tell that the production is English and not American. I think an American producer would have used Bridge Over Troubled Water or an early Simon album as a reference. Collins went the route of 80's English rock, as the drums are big, the guitars are layered, delayed and EQ'd perfectly, and it all crunches when it has to with a distinct analog warmth.

My two favorite songs on The Luxury of Time are "Sweet Sunshine" and "Telephone." Besides being absurdly hook-happy, they are marvels of a musical artist hitting on all cylinders. Mead's vocals naturally swoop, even within verses and choruses. "Sweet Sunshine" is like walking down the street on the sunniest day of the year and you can feel this guy's head soaring. The opening of "Telephone" is right out of the manic offbeat drum pattern of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and then straightens out to 4/4 for the choruses.

Mead's second RCA album, Mine and Yours, was produced by Fountain of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, and with its lack of blockbuster sales, was the ticket out the door. What followed were much more intimate albums on indie labels, each one a remarkable showcase for his talents, and two of them produced by everybody's favorite Nashville-based power pop producer, Brad Jones (see Josh Rouse's "Winter In The Hamptons").

Below are some video treats. First, since RCA didn't spring for the videos themselves, I made one for both "Sweet Sunshine" and "Telephone" so you can hear these great songs with Collins' deep production. Then Mead performing each of these songs solo on acoustic guitar from a gig in Philadelphia, and finally, from Chicago in fall 2009, he does Paul Simon's "Only Living Boy in New York" (a cover which he did on the soundtrack to the TV show "Everwood," released in 2002).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Graham Parker and The Rumour -- "Mercury Poisoning" (1979)

Part of the three great angry English men who burst out of the music scene in the late 70's (the other two were Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson), Graham Parker earned his chops on the famous pub rock circuit, which gave us Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Brinsley Schwarz and much of the late Stiff label roster.

While Costello drew from early 60's rock and Jackson rocketed across short, sharp songs, the always-in-aviator-shades Parker was heavily influenced by Motown and other soul music genres which he wore on his sleeve. He infused his rock periodically with Funk Brothers licks and reggae beats ("Don't Ask Me Questions"). With his mates, Parker played as a true band and their recordings were full of energy, a totally live vibe, and often with his own four-piece horn section.

In the first years of his recording career on the Mercury label, Parker cut cover versions of soul classics like a stomping "Hold Back The Night" (by the Trammps), that had the twin guitar attack Thin Lizzy made famous, and The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," which stays true to the original, as much as nobody sounds like Michael and his brothers!

However, unlike those R&B songs he clearly loved, Parker was full of rage and agony. His lyrics showed a man who didn't believe in compromises in love and friendship, yet often felt betrayed. He didn't suffer fools, and wasn't afraid of sharpening that poison pen in his lyrics. He always had a penchant for two things: somehow bringing in the weather in his lyrics (often raining, with thunderstorms) and making his chorus the entire title of his song ("Passion Is No Ordinary Word," "Discovering Japan," "Stick To Me"). Parker's tunes were anthemic and bluntly confessional sometimes ("Fool's Gold" and "Pouring It All Out"). My friend John's college floor hockey team was named after Parker's "Heat Treatment" and blasted it before each game.

Savvy artists covered his songs, notably his buddy Dave Edmunds ("Back To Schooldays" and "Crawling From The Wreckage") and what I consider to be the definitive version of his song "Thunder and Rain," performed on a long out-of-print album on CBS by singer/actress Ellen Foley (definitely the subject of a future post -- she belted the female date role in Meat Loaf's famous "Paradise By The Dashboard Light").

Parker wanted to break the US market in the worst way, and deservedly so considering his talent. Watching his buddy and former producer Nick Lowe climb on to US radio with "So It Goes" and "Cruel To Be Kind" didn't sit well with him. Finally, after he released a three-sided live album The Parkerilla to fulfill his contract (yes, in the vinyl days, you could do this!), Parker moved to Arista Records.

His first post-Arista signing recording was a bootleg single aimed right at the record company who he felt failed to promote him properly. Usually wrath is incurred towards ex-girlfriends and other creeps, but Parker packed all the venom he could to blast Mercury Records, which truly marked the end of his "pub rock and soul era." A collector's item (which I have somewhere in a box in my basement), the one-sided "Mercury Poisoning" single had a skull and crossbones on the label. And yes, this is probably the catchiest singalong record label blow-off you'll ever hear.

No more pretending now,
the albatross is dying in its nest.
The company is crippling me,
the worst trying to ruin the best, the best.

Their promotion's so lame
They could never ever take it to the real ball game.
Maybe they think I'm a pet,
Well I've got all the diseases
I'm breaking out in sweat, you bet, because

I got, Mercury poisoning
It's fatal and it don't get better!
I got, Mercury poisoning
The best kept secret in the
we--est, hey the we--est.

The boys and me are getting real well known around town
But every time we try to spread the action
Someone always brings it down, down.
I ate the orange and I don't feel well
For them it's inconvenience for me it's hell.
The geriatric staff think we're freaks.
They couldn't sell kebabs to the Greeks, the geeks,
Inaction speaks, and

I got, Mercury poisoning
It's fatal and it don't get better!
I got, Mercury poisoning
The best kept secret in the
we--est, hey the we--est.

Is this a Russian conspiracy,
no it's just idiocy.
Is this a Chinese burn
I gotta dinosaur for a representative
It's got a small brain and it refuses to learn!

Their promotion's so lame
They could never ever take it to the real ball game.
Listen I ain't a pet,
I ain't a token hipster for your monopoly set
You bet because...

I got, Mercury poisoning
It's fatal and it don't get better!
I got, Mercury poisoning
The best kept secret in the
we--est, hey the we--est.

Now a triple live video treat from Graham Parker -- one original and two covers from the Mercury era: First, "Mercury Poisoning" from Japan in 1979... then "Hold Back The Night" from the BBC's "Top Of The Pops in 1977... and finally, "I Want You Back" (featuring some inaccurate voiceover in the beginning talking about Parker's first two albums "in 1969!").

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blood, Sweat & Tears -- "Spinning Wheel" (1969)

It's amazing to think that in rock history, there were only two jazz/rock bands that ever became huge: Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. While both were pioneers that began in the late 60's, they could not have been more different: Chicago was a rock band with jazz elements, powered by a guitarist who worshiped Jimi Hendrix (the late Terri Kath), and had more hits than I have fingers and toes that went on for a few decades.

On the other hand, Blood, Sweat & Tears was a jazz band with rock chops, a big band New York vibe that swung hard, and like "The Natural," they soared to mystical heights once early on and never got it back again.

While initially an experiment conceived by rock Zelig Al Kooper for their debut album, Kooper departed, and in stepped lead singer David Clayton-Thomas, the stars aligned and they produced the magical album Blood, Sweat & Tears. Ironically, this album, and most of Chicago's classic output were produced by the same man, James William Guercio.

Like a bunch of West 52nd Street jazz escapees who wanted to put some rock juice into the mix, Blood, Sweat & Tears were the truest combination of the two genres: merging bluesy rock with bebop swing and chords you just never heard on Top 40 radio before. As a matter of fact, this was a band where you really had to listen to all the parts, because they were just such accomplished musicians that there was no member who really played "normal" rock style -- they were all skilled moving cogs in the wheel.

And that wheel was "Spinning Wheel," the second single from the album that just blew the roof off and you couldn't hide from it. I urge you to listen to the bass, because it's all over the place, not like any rock song at the time. Like all the best BS&T songs, the arrangement was amazing, horns blasting up and down like the song's immortal opening "what goes up" line, key builds between verses, and clever spaces to let Bobby Columby's airy drum riffs cut between the lines.

Happy enough with the single, the album version went a full minute longer with a crazy jazz jam break, featuring an extroverted Maynard Ferguson-type trumpet solo, swinging piano chords mixed clearly in another speaker, and a sax blast right off a Sonny Rollins album.

That never-heard-it-before rumble earned them a spot on the bill at Yasgur's Farm. Think about it -- this large group of intellectual-looking studious jazz/rock nerds actually played Woodstock, surrounded by the pinnacles of raw hippie culture and acid rock like Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ten Years After, Sly & The Family Stone, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

I had my own personal musical connection to the song back in junior high school. Pushing aside the classical pieces of my old world piano teacher, I became a regular buyer of rock sheet music at Sam Goody, Colony and other stores. "Spinning Wheel" was one of them, because it started so promptly on that groovy E7th-A7th-D7th-G piano bass note riff. Man, I practiced that song over and over, because I was heading to the elementary school talent show to play what I knew. The real bitch of the song was that wacky jazz chord, one I had to really put my fingers in some weird formation, when the "let the spinning wheel turn" line came up. You know that part -- it's like a cross between a major and minor chord.

When I had my chance on the baby grand piano at the Robert H. Goddard JHS stage, I got nervous and fumbled. I don't even remember if I finished the whole song. All I know is the girl piano prodigy got up shortly afterward and played the whole damn thing perfectly with no sheet music in front of her.

Below, you have Blood, Sweat & Tears doing the single version of "Spinning Wheel" on live TV back in '69 (and the only solo is Steve Katz's little guitar number), followed by the full album version below it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taxiride -- "Everywhere You Go" (1999)

Another shot in the dark after reading about them on power pop web-based publications like I liked what I heard streaming over Not Lame's web site, so I bought it on Amazon.

Now I know you're saying -- who are these guys? This was a major label album, on Warner Brothers, that received zero promotion or push, and disappeared faster than a sinking stone.

Debuting smack in the middle of boy band fever, Taxiride looks like they were packaged the same way because, hey, four guys singing, just like The Backstreet Boys! However, the only things they had in common were the same gene set.

Taxiride was signed out of Melbourne, Australia, and it was probably Warners' hope that four good looking guys could ride that N' Sync fad. Just a listen to the very first song from the debut album Imaginate, and you knew this was not some manufactured pseudo hip-hop or heavy ballad silliness. Warners recruited master mixer and producer Jack Joseph Puig to put the polish on these boys. "Can You Feel" was all acoustic guitars and four part harmonies, like a modernized Crosby, Still & Nash, with no drums, bass or keyboards, and rather enveloping to the ears.

The killer song was "Everywhere You Go," which is really the perfect pop rock song, blending acoustic and electric guitars, all those great vocals, production ear candy courtesy of Puig, and the full band playing. And unlike boy bands, who had the Swedish pop machines creating all their material, Taxiride wrote all of their own material.

In learning how to mix over the years, the mantra you hear over and over again is "make it exciting," and this song is definitely a Puig masterclass. If you've heard similar Goo Goo Dolls tune "Slide," which Puig also did the honors, the instruments and vocals have their own space, each one EQ'd precisely in the sound field, everything just builds up from a simple guitar strum, smooths out in the break, subtle use of delays during the second chorus, and little counter reactions to the beat that take over your mind and you don't even realize it.

I played "Everywhere You Go" for my daughter in my car a few years ago, and she made me repeat it a few times immediately, then requested I burn it for her on a CD. That's how addicting a great all around pop rock song can be.

Taxiride's success may have been contained strictly in Australia, and Imaginate relegated immediately to the cut-out bins, they've left us this hidden musical gem.

Strangely enough, the song's official video has a "rougher mix," which seems to have pushed the acoustic guitars back or out altogether, and put the "telephone EQ" effect for the intro. So you should definitely listen to the original version here and then check out the video version below.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Leon Russell -- "Tightrope" (1972)

Leon Russell was sort of the white man's Billy Preston -- he played on a ton of famous artists' albums and then struck out on his own.

Part of a group of Oklahoma musicians who migrated to LA's burgeoning recorded music scene (including Bread's David Gates), Russell was writing and playing on all kinds of hit songs throughout the 60's. He actually co-wrote one of my favorite 60's pop tunes, Gary Lewis & The Playboys' "She's Just My Style" and the Carpenters' made a signature tune out of their cover of his "Superstar."

Russell was jamming in everybody's band, bringing a flourishing rock style of piano that combined New Orleans ragtime and gospel blues feel. He had to of the most famous live gigs in the late 60's -- part of the all-star band on George Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" and having a few moments of his own with a "Jumping Jack Flash/Young Blood" medley... and Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, where they slammed out their famous reworking of The Box Tops' "The Letter."

As was the case with many artists before the 90's, Russell cranked out solo albums that didn't sell much until fate smiled on his solo album Carney. It was probably one of those magic moments where the music just clicked with FM radio at the time, perhaps they were just getting used to his highly slurred voice, because I remember New York rock radio playing "Magic Mirror," "Roller Derby" and more than anything else, "Tightrope."

"Tightrope" was just a plain strange song, clearly the inspiration for the sideshow-like title of the album. Dealing out the metaphor of musician as circus performer, the song jaunted along like a see saw, with brief pauses for a kick drum pounding out three beats. The piano sounded detuned, like it had been played on and moved around for years. Russell's voice sounds like's it's slithering all over the place, on the verge of goofy, especially when he sings "like a rubber necked gi-raffe."

The most ingenious part of "Tightrope" was the break, where Russell plays traditional circus chords, while the snare builds up as if following a tightrope walker, and then he ends it with a schmaltzy C9th up the keyboard (Russell loved his 6th and 9th chords).

I'm up on the tightrope
one side's hate and one is hope
but the top hat on my head is all you see.

I'm up on the tight wire
one side's ice and one is fire
it's a circus game with you and me.

And the wire seems to be
the only place for me
a comedy of errors
and I'm falling.

Like a rubber-neck giraffe
you look into my past
well maybe you're just to blind to - see.

I'm up in the spotlight
ohh does it feel right
ohh the altitude
seems to get to me.

I'm up on the tight wire
flanked by life and the funeral pyre
putting on a show
for you to see.

I don't think the radio every really played any Russell album after Carney, but he's still raking in the royalties from one song in particular off that collection -- jazz guitarist George Benson turned "This Masquerade" into a cocktail jazz classic that sold a billion copies in 1976 and beyond.

Here's Leon Russell's original version of "Tightrope," followed by a solo live version from 2002, in his old hippie long white flowing beard and hat look. Notice how his mouth is so close to the microphone, that he looks like he's going to eat it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

America -- "Three Roses" (1971)

At first, it's not quite apparent why three Army brats with acoustic guitars would become a certified smash with their breezy, nonsensical hit "A Horse With No Name." You could not go three minutes without hearing that song on the radio with its "laa laa la-la-la-la" chorus and Neil Young-like singing.

Looking back, I'm convinced that these guys were kind of a musical bridge between the tumultuous 60's and the post-war early 70's. These good looking hippies were deeply rooted in acoustic folk music, and not threatening or singing about war or pain, but represented a safe nomadic freedom.

America didn't become a "pop group" in the formal sense until Warner Brothers paired them with Beatles producer George Martin three albums later. They were far more interesting when you could actually hear them playing their guitars. For all the grief the band took over the years from critics calling them wimps, there were far wussier acts (i.e. Air Supply, who I always thought epitomized the musical artist that truly needed to be shot and made to disappear immediately).

Because of those acoustic leanings, America were the poster boys for 70's soft rock. In 9th grade, one of my friends used to make fun of their sometimes obtuse lyrics. Later on in my college junior year, there was a guy named Sal down the hall who absolutely worshiped them, and a sure fire way to get him ticked was getting him drunk and making fun of America (hard to believe).

The debut album was a mixed affair. Besides the sand and congas "Horse With No Name" and the disaffected and sappy "I Need You," there were two cult FM radio hits -- the foreboding "Sandman" (with its hard A minor strums that everybody seems to recognize even now) and the brisk "Three Roses."

If you say "well, what did America really bring that was unique to rock music" and even though they may not be hip enough to ever be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "Three Roses" showed what would happen if you miked acoustic guitars very close, made the EQ quite airy on the high end and played full, open ringing chords -- their trademark for years to come.

When Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger was interviewed a couple of years ago about producing America's very recent Here and Now album (with former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha!), he actually cited loving those very same musical techniques. So if a pop whiz like Schlesinger could endorse America, then their hipness badge was finally earned. It's now totally acceptable to like America, even as a guilty pleasure.

"Three Roses" was just flat out ear-catching because of the aforementioned guitar style and an unusual set of chords concocted by America's Dewey Bunnell. You had a piercing A major 7th up the neck, an F#m 7th with an E bass, a very open E minor 9th then back to that F#m 7th, all accompanied by a lively conga player, then joined only by a warm and active electric bass. No drums. The strings were brushed across very fast so they almost sounded like a harpsichord to me. A light and pretty melody, slightly corny lyrics ("Three roses were bought/With you in mind") and uplifting harmonies.

For me, this was a perfect song to play along to because it was all big acoustic guitar chords. I was not used to playing the instrument with such big open chords at such fast speed. I used my pick to make the treble notes ring, especially on the Emin9th-A7th chorus, then figured out the solo that ends the last minute or so of the song, right until it transitions to an Fmaj7th-G pattern at the end.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Blue Magic -- "Sideshow"/"Stop To Start" (1974)

Any discussion of Blue Magic's Side Show has to begin with this observation: between classic Motown and 70's Philly soul, composers had the most incredible run of slogans, warnings, metaphors, plays on words and sayings incorporated into songs. That was a formula that couldn't miss. Bonus points for a mention of "mama."

"Shop Around." "Ball of Confusion." "You Can't Hurry Love." "Stop! In The Name of Love." "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." "The Tears Of A Clown." "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game." "I Second That Emotion.""Can I Get A Witness." "Standing In The Shadows of Love." "ABC." "The Love You Save." "Love Train." "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show." "Want Ads." "Pay The Piper." "Crumbs Off The Table"

OK. Now I've got that out of my system...

The great Philly soul sound of the 70's was not just made by Gamble & Huff or Thom Bell, but other related production teams who just perfected was already in the bag. For Blue Magic, it was the WMOT team, starring producer Norm Harris, who packaged former members of the Delfonics and other local doo-wop groups (as was often the case), backed them with the legendary Philadelphia house band MFSB and out came the hits.

Could you tell the difference between Blue Magic and the Stylistics? Not really. But the quality was high in all cases.

Now it wasn't just the impeccable orchestral and brass arrangements, the major seventh chords, the corny lyrics, the glowing harmonies, the matching ruffled suits, or even the enviable falsetto of Ted Mills for groups like Blue Magic.

It was the moves.

Everybody was in classic precision with each other, much like the Motown groups like The Temptations and Gladys Knight & The Pips before them. There was always the lead singer -- kind of like the straight man who did his own thing -- and then there was the rest of the group, who twirled, swayed, and spun around in mechanical lock-step choreography.

Blue Magic's two incredible hits from 1974 -- "Sideshow" and "Stop To Start" were state of the art Philly soul musical productions with the robotic moves to match, true snapshots of an amazing era in soul performances. You have got to love the opening touches of "Sideshow" with the carnival barker calling: "Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and see the side show in town for 50 cents." And the chorus for "Stop to Start," that is inane when you think about it but it just works for this time period: "I only stop/So we can start all over again."

Special note: other real Blue Magic song titles (do you sense a gimmick?) -- "Three Ring Circus." "Born On Halloween." And the real album titles: The Magic of The Blue. How about Thirteen Blue Magic Lane?

Watch both of these 1974 videos from the TV show Soul Train because they are just unbelievable. A bit campy? Somewhat jaw dropping? Even I feel that way looking at them now and I lived through this back then! It's packaged soul music like we shall never see again.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Plimsouls -- "A Million Miles Away" (1983)

One of the defining bands of the New Wave era, although the closest they ever had to a hit was "A Million Miles Away," one of the poster children for CD collections of the time.

While some New Wave bands added plenty of synths and others did short poppy rock songs wearing skinny ties, the Plimsouls were your way better than average garage rock band, playing mostly minor key dirty rockers with an occasional nod to R&B and soul.

Led by Peter Case (who eventually became a solo troubadour when the band broke up), the Plimsouls stood by the garage rock aesthetic, three guys furiously bashing their guitars amped up into overdrive, a wild and crazy drummer, and a pack of excellent songs either putting down women or madly chasing them.

The Plimsouls' first EP arrived in the mail with an explanation of what plimsouls were -- a type of shoe, although if you Googled the word now, all you'd come up with are band references. LA was pumping out lots of bands with names beginning with the word "The," all crafting catchy three-minute rock songs that were the norm of the period. It got to the point where they were all a blur, record labels spitting them out, and truly there were some gems that would either rally the critics or die under the radar.

That EP, more soul-infused than later material, contained some wonderful songs, like "Zero Hour," "Now,"and "Lost Time," which actually feature R&B-inflected horn sections.

There was an original version of "A Million Miles Away" on Shaky City Records that I remember hearing on Long Island's WLIR-FM radio. Once the band performed the song in the early Nicolas Cage cult movie Valley Girl, they re-recorded it on a bigger budget, and it became part of the outstanding and much darker Everywhere At Once album on Geffen Records. By the time the song broke all over the more adventurous FM rock stations, the Plimsouls had broken up.

A roaring landslide of guitars and a much bleaker view than before made "A Million Miles Away" a perfect fit for Everywhere At Once. Case's songwriting had definitely taken a turn towards the skeptical and pessimistic:

Friday night I'd just got back
I had my eyes shut
Was dreaming about the past
I thought about you while the radio played
I should have got moving
For some reason I stayed.

I started drifting to a different place
I realized I was falling off the face of your world
And there was nothing left to bring me back.

I'm a million miles away
A million miles away
A million miles away
And there's nothing left to bring me back today.

I took a ride, I went downtown
Streets were empty
There was no one around
All the faces that we used to know
Gone from the places that we used to go.

I'm at the wrong end of the looking glass
Trying to hold on to the hands of the past and you
And there's nothing left to bring me back.

I'm a million miles away
A million miles away
A million miles away
And there's nothing left to bring me back today.

Primo garage rock with a spike of nasty -- "The Oldest Story In The World," "My Life Ain't Easy," "Play the Breaks," "Inch by Inch" and a cover of The Rare Breed's "Beg, Borrow and Steal." Timeless and real rock music -- and the album is still in print!

Here are the official video for "A Million Miles Away," a live concert video of the earlier "Zero Hour" and a homemade one of "Now" from the same original EP.