Thursday, October 19, 2017

LISTEN: TO THE MUSIC/DOOBIE BROTHERS

This has to be one of the most magical bits of riffing in music, I sooooo love this simple sounding casual wrist action, as patented by the Doobie's Tom Johnston, singer and guitarist, of many, in the early incarnation of the band, as well as the writer of this song. It was clearly a sound he enjoyed, as it reprises often in other songs, notably the big early other song they are famous for. And, does it remind you of anything? Let me give you a clue, here's Nile Rogers explaining his style. But that doesn't matter, so glorious a sound it is, in any hands.


But it isn't just the guitar, it is the subtle appearances of what sounds like some mandolin after the first chorus, the banjo slowly leaking through during and after the second, and all the flanging/phasing effects so beloved of the time. (God, I miss flanging. Or is it phasing......) Did I say it had two drummers? Surely the first two drummers on a big hit single in history. Or my memory It is the sound of joy on a plate.

Over to Johnston, who later explained his inspiration, in a never more 70s way:

"The chord structure of it made me think of something positive, so the lyrics that came out of that were based on this utopian idea that if the leaders of the world got together on some grassy hill somewhere and either smoked enough dope or just sat down and just listened to the music and forgot about all this other bullshit, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian and very unrealistic (laughs). It seemed like a good idea at the time." 

Who could argue with that?

I always felt a bit sad about the Doobie Brothers, this earlier raw and less polished aspect of their sound sometimes a little airbrushed out by the smoother Michael McDonald years. Sure, a terrific and gifted singer and interpreter, but why were my beloved hippy band singing philly soul, something I couldn't embrace until a new century beckoned. Did Johnston feel the same? Having started the band and been the main focus, from their tentative start in 1970, breakthrough album, 'Toulouse Street', in 1972, from which this song comes, he left in 1975, nominally from a hospital bed, suffering from what was called road stress. Actually a duodenal ulcer. But the die had been cast, the band slowly seeping in soul and smooth jazz music sounds ahead of that, as ex-Steely Dan-ner Jeff Baxter joined the band. With Johnston in hospital, his Dan alumnus, McDonald, was invited in. (I accept this may be a slightly unfair stance to take, one part of the Doobie style always being the contributions of all, but the Johnston bits were my favourite. )

Since then Johnston has been in and out of the band a couple of times, initially rejoining a near-original line-up in 1989, stimulated by an almost accidental reunion of the by then legion of ex-members available two years earlier. Officially he remains, with Patrick Simmons, singer and guitarist, alongside him at the beginning, and the only permanently present member during the band's on-off history. I guess, for me, they are the two true siblings of this fraternal band. (Is here the place to state I once thought all these contemporaneous bands of brothers just had funny american names, imagining, as well as Mr and Mrs Doobie and their sons, so also Mr and Mrs Burrito, let alone Mr and Mrs Freak, that most hirsute of families? Thought not.)

Back to the song, such is the catchiness of the beat that it is no surprise it captured a few covers. However, fascinatingly, both the two I enjoy most come, arguably, from artists who probably picked up and on the band in their blue-eyed soul phase. So, the Isley Brothers (who were):


and Candi Staton:



I still prefer the original. Here!

Listen: Listen Mr Bilbo

Pete Seeger: Listen Mr Bilbo

[purchase]

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party was the one that welcomed racists. One such was Theodore Bilbo, Senator from Mississippi from 1935 to his death in 1947. Bilbo was one of the most important Southern racist senators that Roosevelt courted to win passage of his New Deal programs. Bilbo boasted of his membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and he promoted segregation and Jim Crow laws throughout his career. Listen Mr Bilbo was written by Robert and Adrienne Claiborne in 1946, the year of Bilbo’s last Senate campaign. Robert Claiborne performed with Pete Seeger, so that would be where Seeger learned the song. I have not been able to find a recording of the song by Robert Claiborne, if there even was one. Bilbo had by this time made himself the face of Southern racism, and of bigotry more broadly. Claiborne’s song is a reminder of how important all the people Bilbo hated were in American history.

Peter Paul and Mary: Listen Mr Bilbo

[purchase]

By 1990, when Peter Paul and Mary recorded Listen Mr Bilbo, Theodore Bilbo himself was largely a forgotten figure, but the attitudes he embodied were still very much with us. So they sang the song as Listen Mr Bigot, but they kept the original title. Where Pete Seeger kept the arrangement simple, just him and his banjo, Peter Paul and Mary created a musical setting that reminds us of the cultural contributions made by minorities, especially black musicians. The song has eerie echoes in our situation today, so it may be time for someone to make a new recording of it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

LISTEN: Listen to Her Heart


Purchase Listen to Her Heart

I'm still grieving over the death of Tom Petty, so, though I've written about him many times, there's got to be a place in our blog for a mention of the Heartbreaker's "Listen to Her Heart."

From 1978's You're Gonna Get It!, "Listen to Her Heart", more so than any other early Heartbreaker's track, helped contribute to the new wave label that clung to the band for so long. And for good reason: the chiming, chorus-drenched guitar, working in a groove over tub drums and the tranced out vocal lines all do sound...modern.  It's a great tune, driving and unique, an FM radio rocker from the AM era, a stadium-style anthem that bounced as hard as it grooved. I've always loved the fade out on the song, where Campbell's guitar lead and the Tench's piano line compete in a crescendoing melody, winding up, then fading out entirely, in that sad way that a great song is one that you wish wasn't so short, though it's compact brevity is part of what makes it so great to begin with. A staple gun shot of a track.

Apparently, Petty wrote the song in response to Ike Turner hitting on Petty's wife. I'd never heard that, but between Wikipedia and re-runs of VH1's Behind the Music, you can learn a hell of a lot...


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

LISTEN: TO THE RADIO/NANCI GRIFFITH

Spoilt for choice, really, songs about the radio abound all over, and it is the immediate word association I link to listen, watching or touching the radio seeming always a bit pointless. Let alone smelling. But there are only a few that go as far as to spell it out, and Nanci came up top of my pile this morning.



And I've been wondering what's been happening to Nanci Griffith of late. For a time, in the 80s, she was huge over here, well, as huge as what-was-then-country-and-is-now-americana got in the UK at that time. She seemed to be forever touring her neat little ankle socks off, perhaps taking advantage of the local enthusiasms, playing venues such as the Birmingham Irish Centre on more than one occasion. (Come to think, there has always been a hibernian appetite for twangy guitars and half her band were from Ireland, so maybe the clue is in the name of the hall.) I snapped up all her early records up until suddenly I reached peak Nanci, round about the brace of covers albums she put out, somehow feeling she had lost her muse. The truth, it seems, is more prosaic, she was losing her health, with breast cancer, treated successfully, and a prolonged spell of what was (euphemistically?) called writers block. There have been sporadic records this century, but her innocent sparkle seems anachronistic now. But then, hell, it was a delight, her quirky introductions, all in look at li'l ol' Texas me high school prom voice, giving me as much delight as the songs. I strongly commend her 'One Fair Summer Evening' live opus from 1988 to catch that flavour at its sweetest, just one stir ahead of saccharine.


So this song, 'Listen to the Radio', what about it? Well, it's from her 8th record, 'Storms', the one where she was being groomed slightly away from her folk-country hybrid into a hoped for wider appeal, with a more easily consumed and slightlier (slighter?) AOR sensibility. Produced by Glyn Johns, the alchemist of the early Eagles output, and without a fiddle or a steel guitar in sight, it was initially dissed by the purists, but I have to say its legacy has lasted longer than its forbears. It sounds good to these ears, my delight heightened as I read the names of Bernie Leadon, Albert Lee and Jerry Donoghue amongst the contributing musicians. The lyrics are typical Griffith, harking back to west texas backroads, nostalgia tinged with regret, loneliness never far away, but :
                                           
                                           When you can't find a friend  
                                           You've still got the radio  
                                           When you can't find a friend  
                                           You've still got the radio …,

words with which I can relate with ease. So my days by the radio were an oceanwide away, a room in a shared house in London, south of the thames, but, 10 years later, settled in Birmingham, I could remember well the feeling. Do people still listen to the radio in this way, I wonder? I know I don't, beyond an occasional catch of the morning news in the car. Are there now songs about Spotify playlists, or YouTube channels? Perhaps there are.

Go on, then, listen to the radio.......

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Listen: Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Sharon Clark: Do You Want to Know a Secret

[purchase]

The first word of this song is also our new theme: Listen. I can think of a number of great songs for this theme. Perhaps that is because songwriters feel a certain degree of insecurity. They come to a point where they feel they must ask us to listen to their work, regardless of how popular they may be at the time.

Certainly, The Beatles should not have had that problem. The whole world was listening, even in the early part of their career that this song comes from. On the other hand, ask any random group of people to make a list of Beatles songs, and Do You Want to Know a Secret will come pretty far down the list. The song is a fairly simple pop love song of the sort The Beatles once excelled at. Heard today, those “doo da doo” backing vocals sound pretty hokey. In part, however, that is because the later musical innovations of The Beatles made such devices all but obsolete. Indeed, I listened to many versions of this song to prepare for this post, and no one keeps the doo da doo’s.

Do You Know a Secret is not covered that often, and it seems to present a challenge to many who have tried. True, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas had a hit with it the same year the Beatles version debuted, but that early cover does not add much to the musical conversation. I listened to very unfortunate club, pop, jazz, and new wave versions that just completely lose track of the song. When I did find hints of where to take the song, it was in the world of jazz. Still, Sharon Clark, who is far more of a secret than she should be, is the only one who I heard who finds the way to make the song her own. Her small band Brazilian tinged version gives the song a sensual intimacy that is suggested by the lyrics. The doo da doo’s become a piano line that works perfectly with the song’s tropical groove. The vocal, if you are going to do the song this way, needs to be quiet but passionate, and Clark delivers beautifully.

Friday, October 13, 2017

True Stories: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down




purchase [The Last Waltz]



Who was Virgil Caine? Quora notes that there is a town called Virgil in Caine county Ohio, but the leads to Mr Caine seem to peter out at about that point.

Robbie Robertson (song credits) appears to have gotten help from Levon Helm (from AR) with the historical data for the song. The events are certainly true: the desolation at the end of the Civil War, the Danville-Richmond train that provided the life-blood of the Southern effort... and more. General Stoneman's tearing up the train tracks contributed to the North's victory. From there on, you have to begin to take sides. Robertson likely would not have done so, being Canadian. That much may not be said for many others today who would still make something of an issue best left to historians.

Back when The Band recorded this song, no one was offended that they/Levon Helm sang his heart out about a story that (you can't sing like that if you don't feel it!) carried lots of meaning. I wish I knew what it is that has perverted our perceptions in the ensuing 45 years.

Forget rejoicing in historical fact (yes, it happened), and certainly put aside attempts to see the other side of the coin (or everyone seeing things your way). Heck, forget about letting your kid discover the next block over: you'll be hauled in for endangering your own kid by letting him walk alone to the park. Fuggetaboudit singing about something so divisive as the Civil War. Sheesh.


I side with none - lived in NC, but consider myself a Northernern for the most part  - that's Northerner as in WA. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't vote for something else if the [wo]man spoke wisdom. And it don't mean that I think  the South was wrong across the board.

Don't know if you were around then, but The Band - when they were high in the charts - were great - in the mid 70s. So great that Dylan toured with them as his band. (Not all that shabby). But the Band were also a powerhouse on their own. Their 2nd album <The Band> includes this song and was part of the <Americana> theme of the album, which included others such as Cripple Creek and Across the Great Divide

The audio mix is superb: harmonica as a weaker instrument sounds like it should, the piano hammers a loud, powerful accompaniment and the vocals soar above the rest. One of their best.

edited later to include the original:



Thursday, October 12, 2017

TRUE STORIES/IT'S ALL TRUE - TRACEY THORN



So here is a quandary for you, both the above are Tracey Thorn and both the above are the song entitled 'It's All True', so it must be. But which one is true for you?
OK, so this is a deceit, but one worth sharing, the two songs being so clearly one and the same and so clearly different. The first is, had you not gauged, the remix, by one Martin Buttrich, (no, me neither) actually came in the year ahead of the second, in 2006, the 2nd, Tracey's "own" version appearing on her 2007 solo record, 'Out of the Woods'. As a boomer from the last century I confess to not always getting the cult of re-mixes. Sure, yes I can enjoy them, as with this, but, as someone who likes to own my music, as shiny black plastic, or smaller silver discs, I can't keep up. With myriad versions and reinterpretations being pumped out willy-nilly, do I want to have them all? This particular song, according to the excellent trainspotter site Discogs, had 16 versions alone of the single, each or most with numerous and differing remixes.
I suspect I miss the point; music for me is a an immersive experience. For the dance floor it is probably a means to the end, for the dancing, for the experience, being even entirely ephemeral to and for the moment. So it is for streaming, for hearing and for disposing, not for listening. (The fact I listen to dance music in the car proves beyond doubt I am not the intended audience.)

Tracey Thorn was the singer, with her husband, Ben Watt, in the hugely accomplished 'Everything But The Girl', who emerged as bedsit jazz in 1984 to drum'n'bass melodicists 12 years later. The connection was always Tracey's honeyed vocal, making her latterly girl to go for any number of electronica projects, most notably Bristol's Massive Attack. She has retired from live music, by and large, to be, initially, carer to her ailing husband, then as mother to their children. (Incidentally, he is now much better, having recovered from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a very nasty auto-immune disease that nearly killed him, and now has a solo career as well, albeit with occasional live appearances.) As well as music, she has also written a couple of well-commended books, one her autobiography of performing, the second around the art of singing. (Should any of this sound familiar, yes, I have written about her before.)

Let's finish with some more truths, sung by Tracey, but written by Stephen Merritt, of  the Magnetic Fields, this time about love, possibly the most powerful truth we ever, any of us, if we are lucky, experience.


Music and Books, go get

True Stories: The Eton Rifles



The Jam: The Eton Rifles
[purchase]

I’ve never written about The Jam, which on one hand is surprising, because they are an amazing band, with great songs, who were on top of their game back in my WPRB days (and very shortly thereafter). On the other hand, though, they are a band that were much bigger in England than they ever were in the States, in part—if not mostly—because they often wrote about specific British issues and sensibilities that didn’t directly resonate here.

“The Eton Rifles” was written by Paul Weller in response to a news account about a street brawl that took place in Slough, in 1978 between “Right To Work” marchers and the upper class students who were members of the Eton College Combined Cadet Force, colloquially known as the Eton Rifles. The marchers were unemployed, and the march was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, and they were being jeered by the Eton students. Apparently, the marchers took exception to the taunting from the rich kids, and wanted to teach them a lesson. But the students were in better shape, and routed the workers, leaving them beaten and bloody.

Weller, who was trying to write more political songs, seized upon this clear example of the entrenched class system’s oppression of the working class to write a powerful song that clearly was sympathetic to the workers and mocked the posh schoolboys to make a point about the worsening divide between rich and poor. Although the song was written about a specific time and place, its message about the class divide is sadly still resonant on both sides of the Atlantic.

I saw The Jam in May, 1982 at the Trenton War Memorial with a bunch of my WPRB friends. It was probably one of the last shows that I saw as an undergraduate. What I remember most about the show was that it was fucking loud. At that point, the band was moving away from its harder edged sound and incorporating more Northern Soul influences, but without abandoning the strong working class political message. Apparently, Weller’s insistence on changing the sound resulted in the band’s breakup later in 1982, and the other members of The Jam, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, didn’t speak with Weller for decades.

In 2008, the British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, an Etonian, somewhat inexplicably picked “The Eton Rifles” as a favorite song, stating, “I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. . . I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs." Weller, a bit dumbfounded (gobsmacked?), responded: "Which part of the song didn't he get? Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? I don't know. He must have an idea what it's about, surely? It's a shame really that someone didn't listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead. I was a bit disappointed really." Of course, our country has examples of conservative politicians misunderstanding lyrics.

Interestingly, the background vocals, credited to the “Eton Rifles Choir,” were a bunch of random people hanging around the studio. They were recorded in the same room that Phil Collins used to create the famous drum sound used in “In the Air Tonight.” Also, there’s a subtle swipe at The Clash in the lyrics, because Weller thought that they weren’t really as committed to the revolution as they claimed.

True Stories: The Way



How the time flies—October, already? For those of you living in normal climates, you are probably starting to see changing leaves and cooler temperatures. Hope so. I live in the desert now, so I wake each day to varying degrees of scorching hellishness. Luckily, I have music to ease me though the weather until the inevitable winter cool off. I listen to a lot of country now that I live in the desert, as the landscape—varying degrees of sandy browns and beiges—just seems to fit. 

Which, in a roundabout, trying to force a connection kind of way, brings us to my song choice for this week’s theme—true stories.  Here, then, is a desert song—a Texas band doing a Texas song with a vaguely Eastern cosmopolitan swing, that oscillates over a funky piano line set to a tin drum lifted from a scratchy 78” vinyl, that climbs up and down the scales, a wandering, ballad that hides a truly sad story beneath that finger-snap veneer. Fastball’s “The Way” was a mega-hit in the late ‘90s, a staple of alt-radio for years. It remains their only real hit, and can serve as an apt definition of the term ‘one-hit-wonder’: “Hey, who was that band that did that song, you know, the one that goes like…” 

I always thought "The Way" was an interesting song: musically, it was unique to the alt-explosion sound of the late 90s, most of that being Pearl Jam rip-offs like Creed and Stone Temple Pilots, or worse, pop-punk with the substance and energy of a rubber ball in a dwindling up down up down up down 3 minute shuffle. You remember 90s radio—it was full of do nothing bands, sandwiched between  the stalwart sounds that will always be “the 90s”. Fastball, on this track at least, sounded as if they were channeling a much earlier era, mono, AM radio scratch and pop, some slick haired crooner making blinky eyes at a starlet, as they both flit around in the herky-jerky sped up motion of an early “talkie.” The vocals start out in a strange mono, with an AM radio scratch and pop track starting the song, and the guitar is simultaneously spit-fire modern and married to nostalgic bygone pop hooks, winks included, but not for irony’s sake. 

“The Way” was a unique track, probably better than a lot of what was getting spun on alternative radio at the time, but it was easy to overlook that: like a lot of good songs, the less is more commandment was violated to a shake your head in shame degree and “The Way” went from fun and quirky to goddamn annoying. I'm talking about being overplayed: “This song again? Turn it!” Which is too bad—Fastball has a lot of really interesting music, but for the average mainstream listener, their knowledge of the band stops at “The Way”—me included. I started doing a deep listen to write this article and what struck me most was how bad radio can be for an artist. “The Way” was a massive crossover hit for the band, which was great for them, but it was their only one. Radio didn’t touch Fastball after 1998, yet here they are, still cranking out music. I suppose the death of radio, while drawn out and painful and pretty much unending, is sad, but it’s given way to musical libraries has enabled people to listen to music like researchers, in pursuit of deeper truth. Thank you, Spotify, for making my musical life such a richer, more fulfilling experience.

Back to “The Way.” Disguised behind that rich piano march and sunny-sounding disposition, is a true story, one that is a mysterious tragedy. The song does what fictional re-creations do best: takes a story with few details, and imagines what led to the one part of the plot that we know: the end. Frustratingly clueless as to the who, the why, the what, the denouement can be haunting if we can’t connect the exposition to the rising action and follow it all along the plot arc. This story in particular is a tragic one: Lela and Raymond Howard were an elderly couple from Saldano, Texas who disappeared June 29, 1997 after leaving their home bound for a festival a mere 15 miles away. They were found two weeks later, in Arkansas, over 500 miles from their original destination, both dead in their car, at the bottom of a ravine. The original article chronicling their disappearance appeared in the Austin Statesman and while the story is tragic, Fastball’s Tony Scalzo turned the tale into a sort of mystic fairy tale of two people hitting the road and finding happiness by leaving all they know behind. In the song, the couple doesn’t die, but ends up in a kind of ethereal, other world happiness, having discovered that freedom that comes with enlightenment, or stumbling on a path to a place where nothing real is real anymore.  It speaks most directly to the fantasy of just ditching the keys and walking off into a metaphorical sunset. Sadly, those kind of wandering off to nowhere stories, in real life, never end well. The real life protagonists of this story were elderly and ill: Lela was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Raymond was recovering from recent brain surgery. Worse yet, they were stopped twice by police on their odyssey—once for driving without their headlights on, once for driving with the high beams on, but neither police officer knew they had been reported missing and sent the couple on their way. 


The search for the Howards stretched out over much of the southwest and included 11 states. The story went from local to national and was featured on the big network morning shows . In their home, it was reported that the couple had laid out clothing, as if to pack, and unplugged the television. However, they had left everything behind, including their cat, who was named “Happy”. The author of the original article stated that: “The Howards were in their 80s and both had been exhibiting cognitive impairments, so the scene in the house didn't seem to bode well. When I found out the cat they left behind was named 'Happy,' the melancholy spoke for itself.”  What made things worse as they were sighted multiple times in that first day, not just by the police, but by a coffee shop attendant and someone at their local Walmart. It seemed, they were lost, but they weren't really lost. It is sad to think that perhaps they were wandering, perhaps they weren't lost, in that traditional, panicked sense of not knowing where you are, but worse, not knowing where to go. Maybe that singular sense of desperation hadn't kicked in and they were on their own adventure? 

When the Howards were finally found, as I said, it was at the bottom of a ravine, where Lela had driven the car off a cliff, but the wreckage was obscured by vegetation. Raymond was still in the car; Lela had made it out of the crash, taken her purse and gone over to Raymond, and apparently tried to remove him from the car. She then walked away from the wreck and made it a short distance before succumbing.The crash had occurred on that first night on the road, which strikes me as even sadder. All that time, missing, but already gone.  And the song’s refrain, “Where were they going without ever knowing the way”, while cheery and happy go lucky when set to a tune, takes on an entirely different sense when you look at it as question that can’t really be answered in real-life. Where were the Howards going? How had they been allowed to keep going? And what were those last moments like? Were they happy, out there on the road, feeling a little of that giddy freedom that comes from being on the road, on the move; or were they lost and driving endlessly on to the hope of being found, that awful sense of panic that we get when we don't know where we are, tugging at their already frail constitutions? Part of me thinks: I'm glad they were together. I hope they knew that and were happy, and that they never really knew they were lost. 


Sunday, October 8, 2017

True Stories: The Death of Silas Deane

Pinataland: The Death of Silas Deane

[purchase]

Pinataland is a musical project headed by songwriter Dave Wechsler. Wechsler seeks out historical curiosities for his song subjects. The Death of Silas Deane is a fine example. Silas Deane is a largely forgotten figure in the history of the American Revolution. That is probably not fair in light of what he accomplished. Deane was sent by the Continental Congress on a secret mission to France, to obtain supplies and funding for the revolutionary cause. Officially, he was sent as a private merchant, because France could not openly deal with a nation that did not exist yet. So you could call Deane a spy in that sense. He was successful, and the support he obtained was vital to the victory in the battle of Ticonderoga. Along the way, however, Deane befriended Benedict Arnold before he turned traitor, and Deane also acquired a powerful enemy named Arthur Lee. Eventually, Lee was able to exploit the connection to Benedict Arnold and the secrecy of Deane’s dealings to ruin Deane’s reputation. By the time Deane embarked for the last time for his home in the United States, he was in failing health, and he died on board the ship not long after it departed.

This is where it gets interesting. Most historical accounts cite Deane’s failing health as the cause of his death, but it was also the subject of what may have been an early American conspiracy theory, which alleges that Deane was poisoned. Pinataland take the uncertainty over the cause of death as the starting point for their song. Wechsler imagines a dying Deane wondering what may be killing him. The lyrics also reference the fact that Deane accomplished his mission without knowing a word of French. The whole thing is given a musical setting that I would call carnival Americana. A mostly acoustic rock foundation is decorated with occasional bursts of gypsy jazz and even klezmer. It sounds like it should be chaotic, but the band not only makes it into a coherent whole, but they also succeed in making it work emotionally. The song honors the seriousness of its subject, but it never musically succumbs to despair.