Archive for the ‘1984’ Category

At The County Fair

May 14, 2022

Originally posted August 10, 2009

It’s county fair time. All throughout Minnesota – throughout the United States, for that matter – late July and early August is the time for county fairs, those sweet and dusty remnants of a time when agriculture was one of this nation’s main businesses.

So the Texas Gal and I took a couple hours yesterday and wandered through the grounds of the Benton County Fair in Sauk Rapids, the smaller city just north of the East Side of St. Cloud. We walked through the midway, shaking our heads at invitations to throw darts or basketballs, or to play the pinball-style Pig Race. We also decided against any of the rides; none of them looked too stomach-churning, but we passed anyway.

We spent a few moments near the animal barns watching eleven- and twelve-year-old girls on horseback compete in barrel-racing. And we walked through the animal barns themselves, checking out the horses and cattle, the pigs, sheep, goats and llamas, the rabbits, geese, chickens, ducks and pigeons. We also spent some time in a couple of the less-aromatic buildings, looking at the photography, quilting and crochet work.

And we had lunch. At the fair’s main crossroads, there was a cluster of booths offering nearly any kind of food you could want, from plain burgers and ice cream cones to funnel cakes, deep-fried cheese curds, smoked turkey legs, barbecued ribs and more. We looked around and finally settled on a French fry stand. The Texas Gal had hers plain, while I had mine covered with cheese and sloppy joe filling.

We don’t get to the fair every year, even though it’s less than two miles away.  Sometimes we just get distracted and forget about it, and other years, we end up with other events scheduled that week.

When I was a kid, however, I rarely missed the fair. I recall going with my family until I was maybe twelve. From then on, for the next six years or so, I went with Rick. Our main focus was the midway. We didn’t go on many rides, maybe the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Scrambler, but we wandered around, played a few games and looked for other kids we knew. We also found ourselves fascinated by the folks who worked the midway, the traveling carnies who went from fair to fair all summer long.

One year, when we were in our mid-teens (which means it could have been any year from 1967 through 1970; if I had to guess, I’d say 1968, when we were fourteen), we biked over to the fairgrounds on Thursday, the day before the fair opened. It was still a busy place. Farmers brought their animals and crops in for judging, as did kids who belonged to 4H. Crafters brought their projects. Merchants put together the commercial booths and displays. And down on the midway, rough-looking carnies put up tents, got the games running and assembled rides from the Ferris wheel on down.

We weren’t the only kids there that day. There were, I guess, about fifty kids, each one straddling a bicycle and watching as the carnies assembled the midway. It was hard work, and our attentions, I’m sure, didn’t make it any easier. After a while, one kid got too close to the work, and one of the carnies snarled at him, snapping off a line that I can still hear in my head: “Go home, kid, and tell your mother she wants ya!”

Rick and I didn’t get snarled at. We got hired. Sometime during that morning, we wandered by the dart game, and for some reason, we asked the guy if he needed any help. He eyed us skeptically, chewed his cheek and then nodded. “Not today,” he said, “but come back tomorrow, and you can blow balloons up for me.”

I had visions that evening of running out of breath blowing up balloons. But when we go to the fairgrounds the next day, I learned to my relief that we’d be using an air compressor, located in the back of the tent, behind the big dartboard. Our employer – I never knew his name and never thought to ask – showed us two chairs, the air compressor, two big empty boxes and a cartoon of balloons waiting for air.

Our job was to blow up balloons, tie them off and fill the two big empty boxes. For doing that, we’d get five or ten bucks, I don’t recall which. We sat on the chairs and got into a routine: Rick would fill the balloon with the compressor, and I’d carefully take it off the compressor’s nozzle and tie one knot in the neck. Into one of the two boxes it went, and by the time I had tossed the balloon into a box, Rick had another ready for me to grab and tie.

It all went pretty fast. In two, maybe three hours, we’d filled both boxes, and we reported back to the dart man. He gave us our money, and we headed off into the fairgrounds with a little bit of extra cash to spend.

A Six-Pack of Fairs
“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon & Garfunkel from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme [1966]
“County Fair” by Bruce Springsteen, recorded in California, released in 2003 on The Essential Bruce Springsteen [1983]
“Renaissance Fair” by the Byrds from Younger Than Yesterday [1967]
“Too Long At The Fair” by Bonnie Raitt from Give It Up [1972]
“Roseville Fair” by Nanci Griffith from Once In A Very Blue Moon [1984]
“The Fair Is Moving On” by Elvis Presley from Back In Memphis [1970]

There is a temptation, given the monumental status of Simon & Garfunkel’s ”Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” to find a different song to lead off this selection, perhaps one of the several covers I have of the tune. That’s a temptation that arises frequently with well-known recordings, and my reaction to that internal censor often is – as it is today – “Then let’s remind everyone why the song has that monumental status.” When two alternate versions of the song were used in the soundtrack for the film The Graduate in 1968, Columbia released as a single the original 1966 version from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (at least, I believe it was the original version). As a single, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” spent nine weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 11. As a cultural artifact, it seemed to be omnipresent during that spring of 1968, nearly as omnipresent as the duo’s “Mrs. Robinson.”

Springsteen’s “County Fair” was included on the bonus CD that came with the 2003 anthology The Essential Bruce Springsteen. In the notes to the CD set, Springsteen simply labels the song a “portrait of an end-of-summer fair on the outskirts of town.” He goes on: “It’s from a collection of acoustic songs I cut shortly after the ‘Nebraska’ album in California in ’83.” The lyrics are spare, which fits in with Springsteen’s other work at the time. I love the name of the band that’s playing the fair: James Young and the Immortal Ones.

The Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair” was co-written by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, and has a good dose of Crosby’s impressionistic approach to songwriting:

I smell cinnamon and spices
I hear music everywhere
All around kaleidoscope of color
I think that maybe I’m dreaming…

In less than two minutes, the song does its work: It pulls the listener – this listener, anyway – out of humdrum twenty-first century America to a moment when neither place nor time are specified (though with the song’s title, one wonders about, say, fifteenth century Florence). It’s an easy song to get lost in.

Give It Up was Bonnie Raitt’s second album, and it held – notes All-Music Guide – to an “engaging blend of folk, blues, R&B, and Californian soft rock.” “Too Long At The Fair” fits snugly into that mix. An oddity: The song’s title was listed on the 1972 record jacket as “Stayed Too Long At The Fair,” with the more familiar title printed on the record label. The website of composer Joell Zoss calls the song “Too Long At The Fair.” I’ve never seen the CD package, so I’ll assume – I would hope, anyway – that the correct song title now appears on the label.

“Roseville Fair” shows Nanci Griffith doing what she did best during the early years of her career: Country-based folk and pop. Her version of Bill Staines’ tune is one of the highlights of Once In A Very Blue Moon, her third album.

“The Fair Is Moving On” is one of the tracks that Elvis Presley recorded during his 1969 sessions in Memphis. Though not as gripping as other tracks that came out of those sessions – “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Only The Strong Survive” and more – it’s nevertheless a strong performance in its own right. I pulled the track from a two-CD package titled Suspicious Minds and subtitled The Memphis 1969 Anthology. If I’m tracking things correctly, this was the version of “The Fair Is Moving On” that ended up on a 1970 LP titled Back In Memphis.

‘Things’

May 13, 2022

Originally posted August 5, 2009

A long-time friend stopped by for dinner the other evening. We talked about our cats (five between the two households) and about K’s work in online education – she teaches students all over the world from her home in Nevada. We talked about our families and about the Texas Gal’s current college coursework. We talked a bit about books, and we shared the nuggets of news that folks do when they’re catching up.

As we were dipping into dessert, K began to look around the dining room/library, then craned her neck to peer into the living room. “Where are they?” she asked.

I was puzzled. “Where are what?”

“The penguins.”

I laughed. For years, I collected penguins, mostly ceramic, and at one point – when I lived in Minot, North Dakota – had a collection of about twenty-five, maybe thirty. I also had penguin bathroom accessories – wastebasket, shower curtain and soap dish – and there were other penguin things around my home.

It was an accidental collection. In 1976 or so, I was sharing pictures from my time in Denmark with my then-fiancée’s family. One of the pictures was of a fountain on the pedestrian mall in downtown Fredericia, a fountain decorated with statues of penguins. My future mother-in-law thought it was odd that I’d take a picture of something so prosaic; from then on, during nearly every visit to her home before and during my marriage to her daughter, she gave me a ceramic penguin figurine or something with penguins on it. The collection grew, and other folks – family and friends – gave me occasional gifts of penguin stuff.

I liked my penguins, and I happily displayed them in two homes in Monticello and then in my apartment in Minot, after the marriage had ended with a sigh of exhaustion. I think that’s where K saw them, during one of her visits to Minot. I might also have had them on display in my next place, in Anoka, Minnesota, where she was a regular dinner guest.

But the penguins are no longer on display. I’m not even sure where the collection is, whether it’s in a box nested in another box on the shelves in the basement or whether I gave them away sometime in the past twenty years. I still have a few penguinish things: A stapler, four newer figurines on the mantel, a sweet powder blue Pittsburgh Penguins cap and a few other items here and there. But my days of collecting all things penguin are gone. I do wonder a little bit about the whereabouts of the ceramic penguins. Some of them were quite nice, and I imagine some had some value as collectibles. But I honestly don’t remember what I did with them.

They were, after all, just things. Nice things, yes, but just things. And as I thought about my penguins this week, I also thought – and not for the first time – about how we here in the U.S. have let our things become so important to us. We collect, accumulate and want more things, whether they’re automobiles, backyard decks, bracelets, books, cookware sets, CDs, sweaters, power boats, coffee-makers or any of the other desirable bits and pieces with which we seem to clutter our lives.

Clutter? Yeah, sometimes – a lot of the time – I think so. We’re not rich, the Texas Gal and I. But we sometimes look around our home and realize how much stuff we have, stuff that decorates our lives and makes them more pleasant. It’s nice to have those things, but in the end, they’re not essential. They’re things. I sometimes think that we can examine our priorities by thinking about what we would make sure to take out of our homes if they were on fire.

Even during the times I had them on display, my penguin figurines would have been far down that list. What’s at the top of the list? Obviously, the Texas Gal and the three cats come first. Then the box that contains documents like our birth certificates, marriage license and so on. Then would come our financial records, which we’ve made easily accessible and portable. Then, if there were time, the Texas Gal would probably grab as many of our photos as she could, and I’d grab my journal from my year in Denmark and my external hard drive, where I keep my writing projects (as well as my mp3s). In a fire, I think we’d be lucky to get that much. And if all we got out was ourselves and the cats, well, the rest of it – all of it, no matter how dear some of it may be to us – is just things.

Are those things irreplaceable? Some of them truly are, and we would grieve those losses. But in the end, we’d be safe and whole and they’re just things.

A Six-Pack Of Things
“A Thing Going On” by J.J. Cale from Grasshopper [1982]
“You’re The Best Thing” by the Style Council from Cafe Bleu [1984]
“All These Things We Dream” by the Living Daylights from The Living Daylights [1996]
“Bags and Things” by Dennis Lambert from Bags and Things [1972]
“Things Yet To Come” by Sweathog from Sweathog [1971]
“If It Ain’t One Thing It’s Another” by the Staple Singers from City in the Sky [1974]

All I’m going to say about these songs today is that, even though a couple of them are by lesser-known artists, they’re all worth hearing.

Into The Eighties

February 11, 2019

Originally posted June 24, 2009

I generally don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the 1980s. The years of big hair, thirtysomething and “Greed is good” don’t attract me much. I find myself, as regular readers no doubt figured out early on, much more interested in the 1960s and the 1970s, the years when I did the bulk of my growing up.

I do tend to subscribe to the theory that we never cease growing up. There is always work to be done, and there always will be. For me, some difficult parts of that work came in the 1980s, making some of those years hard. On the other hand, some of the finest years of my life – professionally and personally – came during that decade, so on the plus-minus scale, it’s mostly, I would guess, a wash.

But according to the numbers I shared here a few weeks ago, I’m not all that much interested in the 1980s, as least as far as the music of the decade goes. Here are the numbers of mp3s, sorted by decade since 1950, as I reported a few weeks ago:

1950s: 1,152
1960s: 8,820
1970s: 13,445
1980s: 3,327
1990s: 4,525
2000s: 5,319

There are fewer songs from the 1950s than from any other decade because, turning six just before the decade ended, I remember so little of those years, both in a large sense and musically.

If I were asked what song from the Fifties I remember most from hearing at the time, it would be a tie between Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” (No. 1 for six weeks in 1958) and David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” (No. 1 on three different charts in 1958 as well). Those are fun, which has its place, but not exactly the kind of artistry I like to recognize here.

Leaving the 1950s, then, as something incomplete, the numbers above show an interesting tale: I clearly have much less interest in the 1980s than I do in any of the other decades I remember. And I’m not sure I know why.

I used to think it was the music: arena rock and synthpop and drum machines and dancepop are what come to mind. I know I wasn’t listening to much pop music when the decade started. As I spent time on various college campuses through the decade, as a grad student, a writer and a teacher, I heard more current music than I had in a while. I liked some of it, and as I dig further into that lost decade these days, I find I like more of the music than I would have expected. (That means that on another day down the road, when I run the numbers, that imbalance may have diminished a bit.) So it might not have been the synthpop and the drum machines and the dance pop. (Arena rock remains less than attractive.)

I called the 1980s a lost decade just above. That might be a bit harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. I didn’t care for a lot of what I saw happening in public affairs or in popular culture, so I think that for chunks of the decade, I just checked out – from music, from most television, from film, from current fiction and nonfiction and from current events (with the exception of those that immediately affected how I was earning my living at the time as a reporter, a public relations writer or a teacher). And at the same time, I was looking for a place to roost, moving from Monticello, Minnesota, to Columbia, Missouri, and back to Monticello. From there, I spent a summer in St. Cloud, then moved to Minot, North Dakota, for two years, and finally ended the decade in Anoka, Minnesota, just north of Minneapolis.

And here’s a random selection from each year of that decade of drifting:

1980: “One Love” by Sniff ’N’ The Tears from The Game’s Up
1981: “The Innocent Age” by Dan Fogelberg from The Innocent Age
1982: “Tables Turning” by Modern English from After the Snow
1983: “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” by Bob Dylan, New York City, April 23
1984: “None But The Brave” by Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. sessions, New York City
1985: “Minutes to Memories” by John Cougar Mellencamp from Scarecrow
1986: “Love You ’til The Day I Die” by Crowded House from Crowded House
1987: “Isolation” by Joe Cocker from Unchain My Heart
1988: “Let The Rain Come Down On Me” by Toni Childs from Union
1989: “The Last Worthless Evening” by Don Henley from The End of the Innocence

That’s kind of an interesting mix. I do have a few thoughts:

As much as I like most of Fogelberg’s work, and as beautiful as I thought The Innocent Age was when it came out, its lush orchestration is sounding more and more overblown as the years pass.

The Dylan track is an early version of “Tight Connection To My Heart,” which showed up on Empire Burlesque in 1985; you can find this version on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. It’s interesting to compare the two and get a look at Dylan’s creative process, looking at what he retained and what he changed. The Springsteen track is from the third CD of The Essential Bruce Springsteen. It sounds more relaxed – but no less muscular – than the songs that made it on to Born In The U.S.A., if that makes any sense.

The Crowded House tune is a lot more, well, angular than the stuff I know best by the band. I have a soft spot for “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” but the lushness of that ballad wasn’t a fully accurate picture of the band, either. The truth was, I guess, in the middle.

I’ve never known Sniff ’N’ The Tears’ work well, so we’ll let “One Love” pass. As to the Modern English track, “Table Turning” is kind of just there, with nothing – to my ears – that differentiates it from a thousand other songs from the same period. It certainly pales next to the same album’s gorgeous “I Melt With You.”

The Toni Childs’ track is from a cryptic album I’ve loved since 1988. The Mellencamp and Cocker can go without any comment. I do wish that a different Henley tune from The End of the Innocence had popped up. From the first time I heard “Heart of the Matter,” I’ve thought that Henley asked the key question about the 1980s:

“How can love survive in such a graceless age?”

Well, love did survive, of course, as did I and most of us who were around for those years. But they truly were, in so many ways, graceless. As do most years, however, they at least left some good music behind.

In The Valley Of The Unplayed

June 20, 2012

Originally posted April 24, 2009

We are in the valley of the unplayed (and to some degree, unloved as well) today.

Last evening, before we sat down to dinner, I asked the Texas Gal to survey three of the four crates on top of the bookcases and pull out six LPs. She did so, handing them to me without looking at them. She had a plan, at least after the first LP: The first one had a gray spine, but all the other jackets after that had an orange spine. So this is music with orange backbones.

(There was one change from the Texas Gal’s selections: The LP of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor was too hacked for me to be happy sharing anything from it. So I called the Texas Gal at work and asked her which orange-spined LP I should select to replace it. The sixteenth, she said. Since there were only six or so LPs left with even partly orange spines, I counted around and around until I came to sixteen. And I pulled the LP out and slid it into Bernstein’s spot. I think Lenny would have liked the song that replaced the fourth movement of the Brahms.)

A reminder: These are records that have been travelling with me for years, gained in bulk buys, odd gifts, garage sale pickings. In any case, these are records that generally haven’t interested me for one reason or another. Often, I’ll poke my way through one of the crates and see a particular record and think, “I need to listen to that soon.” And then I forget about it. Will I listen to the remainder of these records now that I’ve gotten at least one track down? Maybe.

First out of the crates is an LP that’s actually a replacement for a very poor copy I had earlier. I picked up the first copy in 1990 and replaced it in 1999, when I was bringing home albums at a rate of two a day, according to my LP log. And U2’s War got shuffled into the crates until today.

I’m of several minds about U2. I like most of the early stuff, up to and including Rattle and Hum. The group’s experiments in the 1990s were interesting but not very likeable; their work since then is likeable but not very interesting. Well, the song the group recently performed at the Grammy awards, “Get On Your Boots,” was interesting in a train-wreck sort of way. For a number of years, U2 was called the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, and for some of that time, that label might actually have been accurate. But accolades like that generally bring along unfortunate consequences: Back in the 1960s, when faced with that label, the Beatles became self-conscious. A few years later, the Rolling Stones became (even more) self-indulgent.

And U2 – especially Bono – became self-important. (My blogging colleague Any Major Dude examined Bono and the band last month and found U2 – and Bono especially – wanting. It’s a good read.)

Anyway, the first LP out of the crates was War, and here – using the selection system offered by Casey at The College Crowd Digs Me in honor of his dad’s long-ago system – is Track Four:

“Like A Song…” by U2 from War, 1983

I like several recordings by Seals and Crofts. The soft-rock duo had an intriguing sound from the time “Summer Breeze” hit the charts in 1972 until sometime in, maybe, 1974. And, along with “Summer Breeze,” there are two Seals and Crofts songs that pull me away to another time: “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” remain among my favorite records from my college days.

But by 1978, when the duo released Takin’ It Easy (talk about truth in titling!), there was little to separate Seals and Crofts from any other band making softish pop rock, from Pablo Cruise through Firefall to the Little River Band. Their music had turned into audio wallpaper. Track Four on Takin’ It Easy, “You’re The Love,” still spent seven weeks in the Top 40 during the spring and summer of 1978, peaking at No. 18.

“You’re The Love” by Seals and Crofts from Takin’ It Easy, 1978 (Warner Bros. 8551)

The first time I saw Devo was on Saturday Night Live in 1978 or so. The woman of the house and I stared at the television set in amazed bafflement as the band performed “Jocko Homo,” with its chorus that echoed the title of the group’s debut album: “Are we not men? We are Devo.” Not sure if the whole thing was a put-on, we laughed, shaking our heads. And then forgot about it.

Of course, I’ve heard more Devo over the years, though I’ve never dug deeply into the group’s discography. But then New Wave – and Devo was, I think, a milepost for that genre – was never a style I looked into too deeply. (I think there is a copy of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! somewhere around here, but I’m not at all sure.) The third LP the Texas Gal pulled out of the crates last evening was Freedom of Choice, Devo’s third album, from 1980. And coming right after “Whip It” is Track Four, “Snowball.”

“Snowball” by Devo from Freedom of Choice, 1980

This is where the Bernstein should go, with the finale of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. But, as I noted above, the record looked too battered to provide a clean rip. (A few pops and crackles are not unexpected, but this record was gouged; I may discard it.) And the LP I pulled from the crates to replace it one of those that I know I should have listened to long ago: Heartbeat City by the Cars.

The Cars were called a New Wave band, and maybe that’s accurate, but from where I listen now, the group’s work had a depth in songwriting and musicianship that wasn’t always found in the work of other bands in the genre. Maybe the other leading New Wave bands had those things and I just didn’t hear them. All I know is that I enjoyed what I heard from the Cars over the years enough that I bought the group’s greatest hits album long ago. (And along with my copy of Heartbeat City, I think there’s a copy of Candy-O in the unplayed stacks that I should pull out.) So when I cued up Track Four of Heartbeat City this morning, I was pleased to hear the beautiful and shimmering “Drive.” Sung by the late Benjamin Orr, the single went to No. 3 in the late summer of 1984.*

“Drive” by the Cars from Heartbeat City, 1984 (Elektra 69706)

My LP collection long ago ceased to be a reflection of my likes and dislikes. Somewhere in the 1990s, it became something more like an archive. It’s certainly not comprehensive; there are entire genres that are represented barely if at all. But among the nearly 3,000 LPs there are some, that I don’t care for very much, both on the shelves and in the crates where the unplayed LPs wait.

Whitney Houston can sing better than the vast majority of people who have ever tried. The lady has great pipes. She has a shining family legacy of gospel, soul and R&B. And she has sold an incredible number of records. From where I listen, however, she’s spent her career wasting her voice on soulless piffle. (I might exempt “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” from that, but I’ll have to think about it.) Here’s Track Four of her self-titled debut. The single went to No. 1 in 1984.

“Saving All My Love For You” by Whitney Houston from Whitney Houston, 1985 (Arista 9381)

The last of the six orange-spined LPs was a 1980 reissue of a 1963 double-record set collecting the greatest performances of the late Patsy Cline. Released shortly after her death in a plane crash in March 1963, the twenty-four song package probably does a good a job of summing up her career for the casual fan. That pretty well describes me: I know a bit about Cline, and I understand her place in the popularization of country music in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

That popularization, which included the smoothing of the rough edges on country music of the time – the development of the so-called “countrypolitan” sound – put into motion trends in country music that have continued unabated to this day. The result is that, to note one egregious example, the music of Taylor Swift is marketed as country, when it seems to have no real connection at all to that historic genre.

Well, that wasn’t Patsy Cline’s fault. (It’s probably not Taylor Swift’s fault, for that matter.) No matter what the arrangement behind her was, when Patsy Cline began to sing, you knew she was a country artist. Here’s Track Four from The Patsy Cline Story.

“Strange” by Patsy Cline, recorded August 25, 1961 (Decca ED 2719)

I promised the Kiddie Corner Kid that I’d post something from the Willmar Boys’ Chorus album, a self-titled collection of the group’s work that I got in a box of records at a garage sale. (Willmar, as I’ve noted a couple of times, is a city of about 18,000 [according to Wikipedia] that sits about sixty miles southwest of St. Cloud.) Looking at the record jacket and at the photos of the two accompanists and the director, using clothing and hair styles to gauge the year, I’m going to guess it’s from the period from 1965 to 1968.

And there was a little bit of a shock when I was looking at those three photos. You see, I knew the woman who was the group’s director. She and her husband – who worked at St. Cloud State – went to our church when I was in high school and college and I think she sang in the choir at the time, as I did. As I glanced over the photos the first time, I thought, “Gee, that looks like Mrs. O——-!” My eyes dropped to the identification beneath the photo, and that’s exactly who it was, identified – as was the custom of the time – as “Mrs. Robert O——-.”

I didn’t know her well: She was an adult and I was not. I don’t recall her first name, though I’m sure I’d recognize it if saw it or heard it. But I recognized her immediately. And I think it’s odd how little bits of our past fly up to touch us, sometimes from the strangest places.**

Anyway, the Willmar Boys’ Chorus put together a two-record set sometime during the 1960s, most likely as a souvenir for the kids and their families. (I have a few similar records sitting on the shelves recorded by groups in which I played.) And here’s Track Four:

“Doctor Foster” (after Handel) from Willmar Boys’ Chorus, about 1965.

*I am clearly not certain about the Cars. Several times during more than five years of blogging, I have called the Cars’ music “brittle and fussy.” (That’s a description I also frequently lay on Roxy Music.) In this piece, however, I note that I “I enjoyed what I heard from the Cars over the years enough that I bought the group’s greatest hits album long ago.” I suppose that all those two widely separated opinions mean is that there are times – and I think they are rare – when I enjoy the Cars’ music. (“Drive” is an exception, being a track I enjoy anytime it comes my way.) Note added June 20, 2012.

**In the way these things go, I recalled the lady’s first name very soon after this post went up. It was Ruth. Note added June 20, 2012.

John, Maurice & Randy Again

March 21, 2012

Originally posted March 12, 2009

Off to the movies!

Here’s a clip of the opening sequence to 1964’s Goldfinger, with Shirley Bassey singing the title tune. Released as a single, the song went to No. 8 in early 1965.

And since it was on the same page at YouTube, here’s the opening sequence for 1965’s Thunderball. John Barry’s score for Thunderball was good but not at the level, I think, of Goldfinger. The opening sequence of the film was better, though (and the use of evidently naked women as a motif in the sequence was quite racy in 1965). I’ve never thought much of the title song, but Tom Jones’ single went to No. 25 in early 1966.

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Then, here’s the opening sequence for the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago, with Maurice Jarre’s main title track.

Finally, here’s the climactic scene from The Natural, released in 1984. The point I’m making here – if have to make a point; it’s a fun scene to watch no matter what – is to be aware of how Newman’s sonic cues heighten the tension and how his main themes and motifs then lead the viewer through the scene.

Note:
One of the seven tracks I posted yesterday – “Dawn Raid on Fort Knox” from Goldfinger – disappeared pretty quickly. That soundtrack is again in print on CD and is available here. Five of the other six soundtracks from which I posted single tracks yesterday are also available online. The only one that seems to be out of print is the soundtrack to The Natural.

The Music Behind The Movies

March 21, 2012

Originally posted March 11, 2009

My long-time fascination with film soundtracks began – as I shared here in the first few months of this blog – with Goldfinger, the third of the James Bond films. As I wrote, my parents were reluctant at the time – I was eleven – to let me either see the movie or read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. But the soundtrack to Goldfinger was available through our record club, and I spent hours listening to it.

By the time I saw the film, maybe a year later, I practically had the score memorized, and I was fascinated with the way the music enhanced the movie, highlighting passages and underlining transitions. I began to pay close attention to the music whenever I went to a movie.

And I have done so ever since. Sometimes I felt like the only one. “Did you notice the music during the scene when they’re taking the car to Syracuse?” I’d ask my friends over a post-film drink.

“What about it?” one might reply.

“It echoed the main theme and also brought in the theme the composer created for the girl from Jersey.”

“Oh. No, I didn’t really notice.”

I kept listening and buying the occasional soundtrack LP (and later on, CD). My library of them isn’t large – I’ve focused far more over the years on rock, pop and soul – but generally, it’s music I still find interesting. Some of the soundtracks haven’t aged well. I bought the soundtrack to Country, the 1984 film that starred Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard and Wilford Brimley, just days after I saw the film. But the New Age music – the musicians on it recorded frequently for the Windham Hill label – hasn’t worn well, I don’t think. Some others have lasted. And I think those include the three soundtracks that I absolutely love.

The first of those is the first soundtrack I owned: Goldfinger. Written by John Barry, the score for the third of the James Bond films provides a lesson in contrasts, from the blare and rumble of the main title to the insistent music that accompanied the film’s dawn raid on Fort Knox, followed by the hushed background to the arrival of a nuclear weapon before the pounding countdown begins. Matching the music, which I knew well, to the action on the screen was like reading a primer in film-scoring.

(I dabbled with the idea of scoring and soundtrack work as a career, but nothing came of it except a deeper love for the craft.)

The second of my three favorite soundtracks is Bill Conti’s work for Rocky, the first in what became a ridiculous series of films. Conti’s use of repeated motifs, often identified with one character, remains astounding, as does the variety of moods and arrangements he finds for each motif. How much of my affection for the score is a result of the film’s ultra-romantic story of the man who was almost destined to be “just another bum from the neighborhood”? I don’t know. I have a suspicion that it might be just as accurate to say that my affection for the movie is the result of the score. Rocky might have the prefect symbiosis between story and score: Each enhances the other.

The last of the three scores that sit atop my list is Randy Newman’s work for the 1984 film, The Natural. It’s true that the film’s story – especially its ending – bears only a passing resemblance to the Bernard Malamud novel from which it was adapted. (In the novel, given a chance at redemption, Malamud’s Roy Hobbs strikes out at the critical moment and his life and career unravel.) But given the producers’ decision to make Malamud’s cautionary tale into the Great American Fable, Newman came up with a score that was tragic, triumphant and Coplandesque.

So here is one selection from each of those soundtracks and four more from soundtracks that I enjoy, if not to the degree I love the first three:

A Six-Pack of Soundtrack Selections
“Dawn Raid on Fort Knox” by John Barry from Goldfinger [1964]
“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from Dr. Zhivago [1965]
 “No Name Bar” by Isaac Hayes from Shaft [1971]
“Going The Distance” by Bill Conti from Rocky [1976]
“Blade Runner [End Titles]” by Vangelis from Blade Runner [1982]
“The Natural” by Randy Newman from The Natural [1984]
Bonus Track
“Hymn to Red October (Main Title)” by Basil Poledouris from The Hunt For Red October [1990]

Driving On Ice With No Clue

November 16, 2011

Originally posted January 13, 2009

When I went to graduate school at the University of Missouri, I lived in a mobile home park on the south edge of the city of Columbia. The park was on at the top of a hill on Grindstone Creek Road. (The road is still there, according to Google Earth, but the mobile home park is gone.) Heading into the city from my home, Grindstone Creek Road twisted and turned its way down the hill to a major intersection; from there, the university campus was located up another hill, though the roads were straight and the hill not so steep.

For most of the time I went to graduate school, I had no problem getting to and from school and the offices on campus of the Columbia Missourian and, later, the office of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Through the last four months of 1983, I’d had no difficulty with the weather; I’d actually chuckled a little at the way folks clutched their coats and huddled over in the face of a thirty-degree breeze (-1 Celsius).

One day during the first couple weeks of January of 1984, I woke up to learn that an overnight storm had left a skim of ice on the ground, topped by about three inches of snow. I shrugged, got dressed and headed out. I swept the snow of my car – a Toyota that I’d named Toby; I’ll tell his tale someday – and headed through the mobile home park toward the gate on Grindstone Creek Road.

With the defroster clearing away the fog on the windshield, I watched as about four or five cars went past me, heading down Grindstone’s hill. Every one of them was sliding around the curve to the south, fish-tailing as they came through the short straight stretch by the mobile home park and then fishtailing around the curve where the twisty, downhill portion of the road began.

I know how to drive in snow and – when absolutely necessary – on icy roads. My record isn’t perfect: I’ve gotten stuck a few times and had a fender-bender or two, but I grew up driving in winter. Those folks I watched coming past the mobile home park and heading down the hill that morning had no clue. There was no way I was going to pull out onto Grindstone and put myself in their paths. I drove back to my place and stayed put until the traffic had settled down.

A Six-Pack From the Charts (Billboard Hot 100, January 14, 1984)

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, Atco 99817 (No. 2)

“Church of the Poison Mind” by Culture Club, Epic/Virgin 04144 (No. 27)

“The Sign of Fire” by the Fixx, MCA 52316 (No. 32)

“In A Big Country” by Big Country, Mercury 814467 (No. 57)

“Sweetheart Like You” by Bob Dylan, Columbia 04301 (No. 70)

“Suddenly Last Summer” by the Motels, Capitol 5271 (No. 100)

Ah, the Eighties! Not one of my favorite decades musically, although I had some very good years during that time. (There were one or two years that were real stinkers, though, so that may color my perception of the decade.) I’m not at all sure how well any of these have aged. Well, except the Dylan, as its production is not tied to what one might call “The Classic Eighties Sound.”

Actually, the Dylan track sounds darn good, with a good lyric and melody. The credits on the album Infidels list Sly Dunbar on drums and percussion, Robbie Shakespeare on bass, Alan Clark on keyboards, Dylan on guitar, harmonica and keyboards and Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitar. Knopfler and Dylan co-produced. I don’t know which of the two guitarists – Taylor or Knopfler – is playing on “Sweetheart Like You,” but, well, just listen to it. (The record peaked a couple weeks later at No. 55.)

As to the others – all of which I selected pretty much on whims – I think “In A Big Country,” with its bagpipes and broad ambitions, still works. In fact, I like it a whole lot more in 2009 than I did in 1983, when the album The Crossing was released. The single eventually went as high as No. 17 and was Big Country’s only Top 40 hit.*

Similarly, I like Culture Club’s “Church of the Poison Mind” more than I did back then. Still, what makes the track work is not so much Boy George and the rest of the band; it’s the vocal from Helen Terry that lifts the record up from the rest of the pack. By January of 1984, the record was sliding back down the chart, having peaked at No. 10.

Of the other three, I think the Yes single is the most memorable, though not necessarily the best; still, it reached No. 1 in the next week’s chart and stayed there for another week, the only Top Ten hit in the career of the long-lived and oft-altered group.

The Fixx’s single isn’t – to my ears – very memorable. It had reached its peak at No. 32 in the January 14, 1984, chart. And the Motels’ “Suddenly Last Summer” – which is either the best or second best of these six records; call it a tie with “Sweetheart Like You” – was just ending a long stay on the Hot 100. In a twenty-week run, the Motels’ single had gone up to No. 9 before falling back.

It’s possible – maybe even likely – that’s some of these are album versions instead of the singles. And as always, bitrates may vary.

Bonus!
Sadly, I don’t have the record or the mp3, but at Dr. Forrest’s Cheeze Factory, I found a link to the video for the No. 16 record on the January 14, 1984 Top 40: “The Curly Shuffle” by Jump ’N The Saddle:

That’s just one more bit of nonsense that proves that a good novelty single can make the charts in any era. Nyuk-nyuk!

*Shortly after this post was published, a kind reader who knew more than I about Big Country informed me that the bagpipe sound in “In A Big Country” had actually been created by electronically altering guitar sounds. Note added November 16, 2011.

Turning The Corner

November 9, 2011

Originally posted December 22, 2008

We’ve turned the corner.

Sometime yesterday morning, the sun went as far south in the sky as it goes, and it began to make the slow trek north toward spring and summer.

That’s good new for those of us who find the winter grim and gloomy. I must have a touch of seasonal affective disorder. When the shortness of the days becomes truly noticeable in November, I find a melancholy surrounding me. My awareness of its source means that the melancholy need not be debilitating, but there is a touch of sadness that lingers.

Lingering, too, is just a hint of dread, a sensation that – as I have think I’ve mentioned here before – likely is a remnant passed down through generations from my Nordic forebears. Given what we know now of our physical earth, we know that the days of longer light will return come springtime. In the dark forests of northern Europe a couple of thousand years ago, there was no such assurance, and as each day brought less light than the one before it, there must have been dread every year that this year would be the time when the light continued to diminish, leading eventually to permanent darkness leavened only by the faint stars and the pale moon.

We know that will not happen, at least not this year. Today will bring slightly more daylight than did yesterday, and the day after that will bring more than will today. Eventually, we will sit once more in a warm, bright evening with the sun lingering late, and the winter’s gloom will be, if not forgotten, at least set aside.

We’ve turned the corner toward the light.

A Six-Pack of Light
“As You Lean Into The Light” by Paul Weller from Heavy Soul, 1997

“Light A Light” by Janis Ian from Between the Lines, 1975

“Long As I Can See the Light” by Joe Cocker from Hymn For My Soul, 2007

“Look for the Light” by B. W. Stevenson from Calabasas, 1974

“Real Light” by the Jayhawks from Tomorrow The Green Grass, 1995

“Carnival of Light” by Dead Can Dance from Dead Can Dance, 1984

A few notes:

I don’t know a lot about Paul Weller, which is a rather large gap in my database, considering that – as All-Music Guide says – there was a time in Britain when Weller was “worshipped as a demigod.” That’s figurative, of course, or maybe not. There might have been altars dedicated to Weller in a bleak corner in Leeds or somewhere else. But his solo work – which followed his days with the Jam and with Style Council – intrigues me. I’m digging deeper these days. And I do love “As You Lean Into The Light.”

The better-known track from Janis Ian’s Between the Lines is “At Seventeen,” which went to No. 3 in Setpember of 1975. “Light A Light” has the some of the same qualities as the hit: a yearning yet seemingly stoic vocal, lyrics that are literate without being over-bearing, and a seemingly effortless melody. On the other hand, I’ve been a fool for Janis Ian ever since 1967 and “Society’s Child,” so take that into account.

The long tale of Joe Cocker is well known: Brilliance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, comebacks here and there, the occasional indifference of the listening public, the also occasional bouts of excess of one kind or another. But forty years down the pike, one thing remains: The man is one of the greatest interpreters of song to ever face a microphone, and here, he does wondrous things to John Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See The Light.”

On the flipside of the longevity stakes was B.W. Stevenson. He had a No. 9 hit in 1973 with “My Maria,” a song that never reached the country charts for which RCA had intended it. The album it came from, also titled My Maria, sparkled, as did the follow-up, Calabasas. Neither of them sold well, joining two previous albums in the cutout bins. He moved from label to label, issuing three more albums that no one bought, and he died in 1988 shortly after heart surgery, at the age of 38. I don’t know about the other albums, but My Maria and Calabasas are well worth listening to. I found them on a one-CD package not long ago.

I’ll let the Jayhawks’ country-rooted pop-rock and Dead Can Dance’s world-new age trance stand on their own, except to say that I like both and both are well worth checking out.

‘The Conductor Sings His Song Again . . .’

August 15, 2011

Originally posted September 23, 2008

A while back, I wrote about my love for trains and offered a Baker’s Dozen of Trains, thirteen songs with the word “train” in the title. One of the flaws of searching for songs by specific words is that good songs – about trains, in that case – may have titles that don’t show up in the search.

So it was with the song “City of New Orleans,” one of the best songs I can think of written about a train. If I were to select thirteen recordings about trains on their merits, a recording of “City of New Orleans” would be chief among them. But which recording? And there we find our dilemma.

The song was written by the late singer/songwriter Steve Goodman and released on his self-titled debut album in 1970. Most folks know the song from the version Arlo Guthie recorded for his Hobo’s Lullaby album in 1972, the version that went to No. 18 and gave Guthrie his only Top 40 hit. But according to All-Music Guide, there are currently 150 CDs out that contain versions of “City of New Orleans,” giving us lot of options.

Whoever sings it, it’s a great song, with a melody that sounds as old as railroading itself, as if it were shipped across America from the nineteenth century instead of coming from anyone’s pen and guitar. And the plain-spoken lyrics paint pictures:

All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee,
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

And then the chorus, which was so evocative that it was high-jacked as the title for a television show, where its meaning has, I fear, long been lost:

Good morning, America! How are you?
Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans.
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

As I said, a great song, perhaps the greatest American song about railroads. What others would be in the running? Well, “Mystery Train” for certain. Along with “The Midnight Special” and probably a few others. Nominations, anyone?

The above lyrics are from Guthrie’s version, which was changed slightly from Goodman’s original. Goodman’s musical approach was slightly different, too, with more steel guitar and a prominent harmonica. And it’s faster than Guthrie’s version, without the gently rolling feel that seems to mimic a train’s motion. Of the two, I prefer Guthrie’s, for the tempo and the gentle piano underneath the melody.

Beyond those two versions, as I said above, there are plenty of choices. Others listed at All-Music Guide as having recorded the song include Lynn Anderson, Chet Atkins, Back Porch Mary, Joe Brown, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, John Denver, David Hasselhoff, Mike McAdoo, C.W. McCall, the Mountain Folk Band, Holly Near, Jerry Reed, the River City Ramblers, Randy Scruggs, Pete Seeger, the Seldom Scene, Sammi Smith, Hank Snow, Sunnyland Slim and many more.

The version I enjoy most beyond Guthrie’s, though, was the title track of a 1984 album by Willie Nelson. Nelson’s version earned Goodman a posthumous Grammy award for Best Country Song. (Goodman died of leukemia in 1984, the year the album was released.)

Here are Goodman’s original and Nelson’s cover:

Steve Goodman – “City of New Orleans” [1970]

Willie Nelson – “City of New Orleans” [1984])

A personal note: This post is the 500th in this blog’s relatively brief history. I thought about writing about what it means to reach 500 posts. Then I decided it would be a brief post, as the only important thing it means is: I’m still having an immense amount of fun doing this, and it’s great to have a pretty sizable number of readers along for the ride.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Columbia Singles

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 25, 2008

It was about four in the afternoon yesterday when the Texas Gal and I took a break. We’d hauled four carloads of stuff over to the house – following five loads on Saturday – and I’d made another trip to the big-box home center, followed by the assembly of two more sets of utility shelves in the basement.

We’re beginning to envision how the living room will be arranged, and the Texas Gal has a handle on where things will go in the loft, which will be her quilting and sewing space. I can see that my study will have room to have my keyboard out, which means I can make some music again, and we’re negotiating colors for the bedroom. We’ve agreed on a Scandinavian motif for the kitchen.

Those things are much more vision than reality now, and much heavy lifting remains before the gap between those two words is bridged. This will be the first house the Texas Gal has lived in as an adult; she’s been an apartment dweller. And though I shared a house with some fellows during my late college years (I’ve lived in mobile homes and apartments since), this feels like my first house, too. So we’re trying to take in all of the process that gets us home, even the drudgery of piecing together plastic shelf sets and of sorting out boxes of fabric.

As we took our break in what is still a sparely furnished kitchen, she drinking a Dr. Pepper, me sipping a Summit India Pale Ale, we looked at the bare walls and saw the décor that will soon be there; we looked through the archway into the empty dining room and saw the table and chairs that will soon welcome dinner guests. And we smiled at our house-to-be and at each other.

Translating that to music can be sketchy, but I went to my favorite song about smiles, and moved on from there.

A Baker’s Dozen of Columbia Singles

“Make Me Smile” by Chicago, Columbia 45127, 1970

“My World Fell Down” by Sagittarius, Columbia 44163, 1967

“My Back Pages” by the Byrds, Columbia 44054, 1967

“Your Mama Don’t Dance” by Loggins & Messina, Columbia 45719, 1972

“Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia 10090, 1975

“Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan, Columbia 11072, 1979

“Going Down To Liverpool” by the Bangles, Columbia 04636, 1984

“Can’t Get Used To Losing You” by Andy Williams, Columbia 42674, 1963

“Silver Bird” by Mark Lindsay, Columbia 45180, 1970

“Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers, Columbia 44414, 1967

“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde, Columbia 44590, 1968

“Stoney End” by Barbra Streisand, Columbia 45236, 1970

“I’d Love To Change The World” by Ten Years After, Columbia 45457, 1971

A few notes:

“Make Me Smile” still grabs me by the collar and says “Wake up, we’re playing music here!” The same is true, of course, for many of Chicago’s early singles. (Take a look at what JB the DJ at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ had to say about “25 or 6 to 4” recently.) Unhappily, the band didn’t keep up this level of quality. When did I give up on Chicago? Maybe with “Wishing You Were Here” in 1974, but certainly by the time of “If You Leave Me Now” in 1976. For a few years, though, Chicago had a good hold of my collar.

“My World Fell Down” comes from the confectionary talents of Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher, the producers behind Sagittarius. A little too cloying, maybe, but the single is worth noting because the 1997 CD release restored an avant-garde bridge of noise that had been brutally edited when the LP was released in the Sixties.

The Dylan track was the single from Slow Train Coming, the first of Dylan’s three Christian albums of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, with production from Barry Beckett and guitar provided by Mark Knopfler, Slow Train Coming is far better – and far more enjoyable – than the two albums that followed. (Dylan earned a Grammy for “Best Male Rock Vocal Performance” for “Gotta Serve Somebody.”)

“Silver Bird” was one of two great radio singles Mark Lindsay released in 1970 after leaving Paul Revere & the Raiders. “Arizona” was the other, and it went to No. 10 in the early months of 1970. “Silver Bird,” which entered the Top 40 in July, reached only No. 25. They were Lindsay’s only Top 40 hits. I don’t recall the last time I actually heard either one of them on the radio, but they still sound plenty good popping up on the player.

The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits notes that the Avant-Garde was the duo of Elkin “Bubba” Fowler and Chuck Woolery. “Naturally Stoned” was one of those rare hits that almost wasn’t: The record reached No. 40 in its only week on the chart. The book doesn’t say what happened to Elkin after that, but Woolery, the book notes, went on to host TV games shows like Wheel of Fortune, Love Connection and Greed. Even with all that, it’s not a bad record although it’s certainly a period piece.

I’ve never been much of a Streisand fan, but she and producer Richard Perry got it right with “Stoney End.” The record did well, too, going to No. 6 after entering the Top 40 in December 1970. (The similarly titled album came out in February 1971, which explains the seemingly contradictory tags on the mp3.)