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.