Archive for the ‘2008/08 (August)’ Category

Friends, Joe South, Nilsson & More

August 5, 2011

Originally posted August 28, 2008

This will be my last post for about week, as it’s time to focus on packing and moving. The movers come Tuesday, and we’re hoping – as I’ve said before – to have the lighter and smaller stuff already carried across to the new place when the truck gets here. So it’s time to take some time. If all goes as planned, I’ll be back September 5 with a First Friday post looking at September 1968.

I did my usual wandering through YouTube this morning. Here’s the Friends of Distinction lip-synching “Love or Let Me Be Lonely” on television sometime around 1970. (The ending is chopped, unfortunately.)

Video deleted.

I also found what appears to be a television performance by Joe South as he sings “The Games People Play,” which was released on his Introspect album in 1968:

Here’s a video from Beat Club – a German show originating in Bremen that ran from 1965 through 1972, according to Wikipedia – with Harry Nilsson performing “Everybody’s Talkin’.” I don’t think Harry did a lot of television, so this could be fairly rare.

And I’ll close for the time being with an actual live performance from right around 1969, with Chuck Negron leading Three Dog Night through a pretty good rendition of “Easy To Be Hard.”

Video deleted

See you in a little more than a week!

As The End Of The Year Draws Near

August 5, 2011

Originally posted August 27, 2008

As August enters its last days, we’re coming to the end of another year.

Forget that December 31/January 1 stuff. That’s bookkeeping. For me – and for many, I think – the years turn over sometime during the first weeks of September.

During my school days, for thirteen years, the new year began on the day after Labor Day with the first day of school. For another six years – I went to college on the extended plan – the year began sometime in September when the fall quarter started. If I’d pondered that sense of timing at all in those days, I would have expected it to change when I went into the adult world. But it didn’t. Years still turned as August ended and September began.

Part of that was because of my work: Small town newspapers find so much of their content in the local schools that their calendars are tied to the schools’ calendars. In between my newspaper years, I went to graduate school and then taught and worked at several colleges and universities, so my life continued to be tied to a literal calendar that ran from September onward.

But it’s been more than ten years since I was a reporter. My day-to-day life has no connection with the schools, with colleges and universities, with the regular events that command the attention of reporters and editors. And still, it feels to me as if a year is ending in these few days. And it feels as if a new year is about to begin.

Maybe it’s conditioning from all those early years in school. Maybe it’s something so instinctive in the human mind, perhaps something tied to the harvest-time, that we’ve lost track of where it comes from. (It occurs to me that, if the perception of years turning at this time of year is innately tied to the harvest, folks whose forbears were native to the Southern Hemisphere would have a different perception. Anyone from those precincts have a thought?)

Whatever the reason, this time of year has always felt like a time of renewal and change. One such time, an August/September that stands out clearly (I know I’ve mentioned it before), came in 1969, when I spent daytimes of the last weeks of summer at football practice, lugging equipment and supplies around for the Tech Tigers and then hanging around the locker room, sharing ribald stories and the music that came from the training room radio.

In a way that very little else does, music marks our years. And here are some tunes that are markers for me from late August and early September of that year.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1969, Vol. 3
“Goodbye Columbus” by the Association, Warner Bros. 7265 (No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100, August 23, 1969)

“Going In Circles” by the Friends of Distinction, RCA 0204 (No. 90)

“Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” by Joe South, Capitol 2592 (No. 84)

“I’m Gonna Make You Mine” by Lou Christie, Buddah 116 (No. 66)

“Everybody’s Talkin’” by Nilsson, RCA Victor 0161 (No. 49)

“Keem-O-Sabe” by the Electric Indian, United Artists 50563 (No. 39)

“Share Your Love With Me” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 2650 (No. 31)

“Marrakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Atlantic 2652 (No. 28)

“Soul Deep” by the Box Tops, Mala 12040 (No. 24)

“Easy To Be Hard” by Three Dog Night, Dunhill/ABC 4203 (No. 18)

“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, Reprise 0829 (No. 11)

“Green River” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy 625 (No. 7)

“Put A Little Love In Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon, Imperial 66385 (No. 6)

A few notes:

I’ve always been surprised that “Goodbye Columbus” – the theme from the film of the same name – didn’t do better. The record peaked at No. 88 on September 6 and then fell off the chart.

“Everybody’s Talkin’” is one of those tunes that has a few different versions out there. It was used in the film Midnight Cowboy, and two different versions of it are on the official soundtrack. Neither of them sounds like the one I remember coming from my radio. The version here is from Nilsson’s 1968 album Aerial Ballet, and I think this was the version that got airplay as the single, which reached No. 6. I could be wrong. Anyone know?

“Keem-O-Sabe” was one of those instrumentals that occasionally popped up in the Top 40, and the thought occurs that it likely wouldn’t have a chance of doing so today, given changes in attitudes. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits notes that Electric Indian was actually a group of studio musicians from Philadelphia; some of them later were members of MFSB. The record peaked at No. 16.

I liked Kenny Rogers when he was with the First Edition; the group had four more Top 40 hits after “Ruby” peaked at No. 6. They were “Ruben James” and “Something’s Burning,” which I recall, and “Tell It All Brother” and “Heed The Call,” which I don’t. (I have “Heed The Call” but I don’t remember hearing it in 1970.) After those four, Rogers was absent from the Top 40 for seven years, until “Lucille” began his remarkable run of success as a country crossover artist, a string of tunes that didn’t interest me much.

I imagine that, if asked to pick the perfect CCR record, lots of folks would go with “Proud Mary.” Nothing wrong with that one, but something about “Green River” grabbed me the first time I heard that opening guitar riff, and it’s never let me go.

‘You Hide Behind The Oak Tree . . .’

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 26, 2008

Every once in a while, a song comes along whose lyrics make me go, “Wha?”

That frequently happens with the songs of Randy Newman. He’s got a new CD out – Harps and Angels – that I have not heard, but the reviews I’ve read tell me that the CD marks the return of the acerbic and cantankerous songwriter responsible for such gems as “Sail Away,” “Short People” and many more. Being versatile, of course, Newman is also responsible for many sweet ditties, as testified to by his seemingly annual nominations for Academy Awards for song-writing and by his occasionally stunning work for film scores (the best of which, to me, was his work for the 1984 film, The Natural).

But it’s the odd and occasionally unfathomable Newman songs I have in mind today, specifically “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” from Newman’s debut album, 1970’s 12 Songs.

All-Music Guide says: “A sinewy ballad built around a fine bottleneck guitar riff, ‘Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield’ is a love song, basically, but the slightly demented lyric content is what gives it the edge.”

Slightly demented? You be the judge:

“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“And we can listen to it burn.

“You hide behind the oak tree,
“You hide behind the oak tree,
“Stay out of danger ’till I return.

“Oh, it’s so good on a cold night
“To have a fire burnin’ warm and bright.

“You hide behind the oak tree,
“You hide behind the oak tree,
“Stay out of danger ’till I return.

“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“And I’ll make love to you while it’s burning.”

Definitely a “Wha?” to me.

I missed Newman’s 12 Songs when it came out and didn’t catch up for a long time. So I first heard “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” in the early 1990s while listening to Come A Little Closer, a 1974 album by Etta James. I took in the disquieting lyric and scanned the record jacket, then nodded. Randy Newman, I thought. I should have known.

The list of artists who’ve covered “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” is not long. AMG says that sixteen different artists have recorded it, including Morgan Duke, Lee Hazlewood, Nolan, Rain Perry, Lou Rawls, San Samudio (of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs), Madi Sato, the Seatsniffers and the Walkabouts.

Along with Newman’s original, I have access today to two other versions: One by Alex Taylor from his 1972 album Dinnertime, and one by Long John Baldry from It Ain’t Easy, released in 1971. (I have not yet ripped the Etta James version, an oversight that will be rectified soon after we’ve moved and I have access to my LPs again.)

On Newman’s 12 Songs, the credits list three guitarists: Ry Cooder, Ron Elliott and Clarence White, so it’s almost certainly Cooder who provides the snaky guitar lines. Others credited at AMG are Al McKibbon and Lyle Ritz on bass and Jim Gordon and Gene Parson on drums. Lenny Waronker was the producer.

To my ears, Baldry’s cover of the song is more interesting than Taylor’s. The track was on the side of It Ain’t Easy that Elton John produced. (Rod Stewart produced the other side.) Of those who might have played on the track, the credits list Caleb Quayle, Sam Mitchell and Ron Wood on guitar, Roger Pope on drums and Ian Armitt and Elton John on keyboards (though one would assume that it’s John himself providing the superb piano work on “Cornfield”).

Randy Newman – “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” (1970)

Long John Baldry – “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” (1971)

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.)

A Baker’s Dozen of caithiseach’s Favorites

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 24, 2008

(Our guest poster today is caithiseach, who generally hangs his hat at The Great Vinyl Meltdown.)

It must have been the frozen custard cake. We were eating it when whiteray asked me what my favorite single was. I thought for far too long, then I gave him an answer. A day later, with the custard still in his system, he invited me to guest-blog this Baker’s Dozen of my favorite singles. I could not pass up the opportunity to write in this blog, the first music blog I ever read, and the inspiration for my own blog, which deals with quirky old 45s I collected when I was a kid.

Today I have been set a different task: to write about songs that you probably know. I had made my job somewhat easier by adding a marker to the digital filenames of my favorite Hot 100 hits. So I sorted out the favorites, some 400 of them. Then, in order not to think too much or too long, I culled any song I thought might be one of my thirteen favorites. I may have missed some really good songs that I didn’t mark, and surely I am skipping some superb singles that I don’t own or have not digitized, but I used the Force and let it tell me what to do with the material at hand.

One thing I looked for was songs that truly were singles. Crisp story lines, nicely rounded finishes, no sense that the song was hacked out of a larger work, the way a Pink Floyd single would be. I see an artistry in a perfect single that matches the magic of an excellent short story. It’s satisfying in itself, not incomplete and co-dependent like a chapter in a novel. As Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said, I know a real single when I hear one.

By accident I pulled out exactly forty finalists, which suits my way of thinking about music – in terms of countdowns. When I was ten, I started counting down my ten favorite hits, playing them in my mind when I mowed the lawn each Saturday. That short music chart had as much fluidity as a Billboard chart, but it also had a consistency that reflected the amount of thought I put into it. I remember such momentous decisions as replacing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” at No.1 with “The Love You Save.”

Today’s Top Thirteen doesn’t have a lot in common with my final lawn-mowing Top Ten, because I stopped mowing the family lawn around 1982, when I graduated from college. But several songs from that era slipped into the forty candidates for this Baker’s Dozen, and I’m pleased that I still like the songs I enjoyed in my teen years. It would be awful to have outgrown myself completely.

I also started doing the DJ countdown thing on my record player when I was about eight. With just one turntable, that made for a lot of chatter between songs. That’s what you’ll get here; I’m going to explain my choices, rather than give valuable information about the artists, as whiteray does. And I’ll go bottom to top, so here goes:

13. “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond [Bang 578, 1970]

As much as I like other early Diamond hits, this song about betrayal and the response to it stuck with me as a clean discussion of the topic, with no self-pity to muck it up. The delicious Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich production, with the acoustic guitar accented by somber horns, meshed perfectly with the message.

12. “Shattered Glass” by Laura Branigan [Atlantic 89245, 1987]

This cut climbed only to No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. What puts it here is ninety percent appreciation and ten percent desire to share a song you probably have never heard. I was rolling into Bloomington, Indiana after a very long drive, and I got stuck at a very long light at two a.m. This song, new to me then, came on the radio, and I cranked it to stay awake. My car was rocking on its springs already when Laura hit the climax notes of the chorus. The tsunami of sound left my brain unable to process all of the sound in real time. If you play this song loudly enough, her voice at that point will leave an impression on you that will never fade.

11. “No Matter What” by Badfinger [Apple 1822, 1970]

The story of Pete Ham and Tom Evans is tragic, and their band’s output was inconsistent, but they worked magic several times, most notably here. I am a sucker for songs that go silent abruptly and use a drumbeat to pull the music back in. I love the guitar work. I don’t tire of listening to Pete Ham singing. It’s a song about hanging in there. I wish people had hounded these two guys less relentlessly.

10. “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the 4 Seasons [Warner/Curb 8168, 1976]

Three of my forty finalists were on the same chart in March-April 1976, and two of them are in the final thirteen. This song’s bass line has whiteray’s blessing as perhaps the best bass line ever, and that is what drew me to the song in the first place. An amazing piano part carries the song into the second vocal phrase, where the bass kicks in, and Gerri Polci’s turn as lead vocalist gives welcome respite from Frankie Valli. Apart from the message that not learning a lover’s name is an okay thing, the song chronicles a wondrous event without getting tacky. And you should fiddle with your graphic equalizer and isolate that bass line. Mmmmm.

9. “Lucky Lips” by Ruth Brown [Atlantic 1125, 1957]

The year of 1957 was very good for me, musically. I wasn’t born yet, but Pérez Prado recorded “Why Wait” then (had it been an A side, it would be No. 2 here), and Ruth Brown gave us this bright shuffle that rolls along like a diesel engine with a hundred cars behind it. Any song that starts with a long, growly sax note gets my vote, and this one boasts the “No Matter What” silence as well. It would be a good song with anyone else singing it, but no one could put joy into a vocal the way Ruth Brown did.

8. “No One Is to Blame” by Howard Jones [Elektra 69549, 1986]

Almost an answer to No. 4 below, now that I think about it, I found this song heartbreaking at a time when I was heartbroken. Singing about the unattainable, Jones doesn’t get all of the words right, says I, but the melody, his soulful delivery, the percussion – it works for me in inexplicable ways.

7. “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies [Calendar 1008, 1969]

We’re getting to writhe-on-the-floor-in-ecstasy territory now, at least in the case of the upbeat songs. I blogged about this song, which was my one source of joy in 1969, a year that beat me to a pulp. I admire Jeff Barry beyond words, and if you forget the reasons why this song is so gentle, you’ll be able to appreciate the genius he injected into every beat.

6. “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones [London 910, 1969]

Charting simultaneously with “Sugar, Sugar,” this song gave my appreciation of music new range. Until then, I was too young for the Stones, but I figured them out here. The recurrent caithiseach theme of a horn section helps to reel me in, but I also love suspended fourths in any song, and the unified vision the guitars give to the subject matter round it all out. I always think about this being Brian Jones’ last work, and it tears me up.

5. “Misty” by Johnny Mathis [Columbia 41483, 1959]

The song is amazingly evocative poetry, and this arrangement, with artfully understated vocals, is the only version anyone needs to hear. Even so, I didn’t become familiar with “Misty” until 1984, when I waited table at the Raging Bull, a fine-dining establishment in Merrillville, Indiana, that provided music by pianist-singer Tony Liggins. He turned me on to the song, then I found the Mathis version on a Time-Life CD of 1959 hits. From there, the recording crept into my mind to the point that, after a bit of meditation, it wound up at No. 5 here.

4. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez [A&M 1737, 1975]

As much as I enjoy her singing tunes by The Band, and as much as I could enjoy her singing almost any song, Joan accomplished something here that almost defies description, so forgive me if I fail you: She should be as bitter as Alanis Morrissette in these lyrics, but she is so graceful with her condemnation of Dylan that she soars above the situation and avoids sounding like a bitch. Start there, and add a chord progression that is as memorable (and inspired) as what Hoagy Carmichael came up with for “Stardust.” But “Stardust” does not have the eerie, haunting resonance of this song, of course. I don’t know how she could use any major chords in this song, but she chose exactly the right ones, at the right moments. I would crawl to where she is to thank her for the song, if I thought I could get past her bodyguards.

3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen [Elektra 45297, 1976]

I can explain this one. Freddie Mercury trusted his audience to be able to handle big words and big sounds. I enjoyed his work when he was alive, and I ache to have him back now that he’s gone. As a polar opposite to its fellow 1976 chart hit “December, 1963,” this song provided gravity without being maudlin or unlistenable in its pomposity. I think the song must have been a lot of fun to write and record, and I have always found it fun to listen to. My big problem with it came when my sister borrowed my single and scratched it in such a way that you could hear the entire song except for the gong, which is where it skipped. Thanks, Lisa.

2. “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA [Atlantic 3457, 1978]

In 1977-78, on Friday nights I watched Midnight Special. About two a.m., a truck would drop off Saturday newspapers for me to deliver. If I felt like it, I delivered the papers after the show rather than get up four hours later to do my job. Apart from almost getting shot once, it worked out fine. And one morning, I delivered my seventy-five papers with one song stuck in my head. Wolfman Jack had just played a string of ABBA promo clips, and he ended with their “new single,” which was three months away from its U.S. release. I had never heard an intro like the one to “Take a Chance on Me”: an a cappella female lead with male chant underpinning? Then the synth comes in, and finally the song explodes. A sweet message of at-some-point-to-be-requited love, the song is boundlessly cheery but not cloying. Another time, I was sitting in a disco in Salzburg, Austria, drinking expensive imported beer (Budweiser, their only beverage). The dance floor was empty. The DJ tossed on this song, the locals screamed, and before the chant started, there were a hundred couples grinding away. As they say, two hundred Austrians can’t be wrong.

1. “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals [Philles 106, 1962]

The vocalists are actually Darlene Love and the Blossoms. Phil Spector needed a Crystals record, and they weren’t available, and a voice is just a musical instrument, right? Well, I don’t think so. Gene Pitney’s composition captured the tug-of-war between leather-clad surly teens and frightened parents, with a girl’s arms as the rope, as succinctly as could be done. The girl’s choice is clear, which makes the song scarier for “adults” and an anthem for teens who want to push the envelope. Spector recorded some of his other songs very well, but this one includes a wistful piano, hot horns, a tasteful sax solo – and Darlene Love. She appeals to me more than any other Spector girl singer, and she took control of this song to a degree the actual Crystals might not have attained. From the time I became well-aware of this song, around 1970, it has ranged from first to third on my list of favorites. It’s time I admitted to myself that I don’t think any juxtaposition of lyrics, melody, vocals and arrangement tops this one.

Thanks, whiteray, for giving me this chance to think about the concept, and for the space to publish it. Thanks to you for reading what I wrote.

Some of the other songs I considered were:

“Theme from A Summer Place” by Percy Faith

“What’s a Matter Baby (Is It Hurting You)” by Timi Yuro

“Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph

“Washington Square” by the Village Stompers

“Java” by Al Hirt

“Downtown” by Petula Clark

“Bus Stop” by the Hollies

“Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat

“Cecelia” by Simon & Garfunkel

“The Love You Save” by the Jackson 5

“Be My Baby” by Andy Kim

“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon

“The World Is a Ghetto” by War

“ I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” by ABBA

“ Just Between You and Me” by April Wine

“Rosanna” by Toto

“Hello” by Lionel Richie

“Cherry Bomb” by John Cougar Mellencamp

Saturday Single No. 88

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 23, 2008

Well, we got the keys to the house the other evening, and this morning, we took the first carload of stuff over. (We’ve moving the lighter stuff ourselves, leaving the heavy boxes and furniture for the movers on September 2.) And we’ll get another load of two before the heat of the day sets in and then maybe another load when it’s cooled down some this evening.

The heat here in Minnesota is nothing compared to what the Texas Gal has dealt with in her home state or compared to what I’ve dealt with in Missouri. But it’s been humid lately, which is an energy-drainer for both of us, and we’re ahead of the game enough that we can take things at least a little bit slow.

I should write a note about the posting schedule. I plan to continue posting through next Thursday, August 28, and then pause for a week. Our local cable provider has assured us that we will be back on line by Wednesday, September 3. I will certainly be back with a First Friday post on September 5. I might be back earlier than that, but I am not certain.

Do stop by tomorrow, for caithiseach’s Baker’s Dozen of favorite singles, and I will post next week.

In the meantime, here’s a song that feels appropriate. We’re only moving fifty yards and not quite moving to the outskirts – although we’re not far from the city limits already – but we’re certainly moving to a place with more quiet and more trees and less hubbub. That’s kind of what Muddy Waters was singing about in 1971 during his sessions in London (when he had the help of Georgie Fame, Mitch Mitchell, Steve Winwood, Rory Gallagher and a few others).

That’s why “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town” by Muddy Waters from The London Muddy Waters Sessions is today’s Saturday Single.

Muddy Waters – “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town” [1971]

First Steps Into The Adult World

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 22, 2008

It was about late August in 1977 when I finally quit going to college and entered – however tentatively – the adult world. A recession the year before had made it tough for that year’s college grads – of which I was one – to find jobs, so I’d remained in school, doing some graduate work in 1976 and then, in 1977, adding a print journalism minor to my undergraduate degree in mass communications/television.

By the end of the summer, I had that minor finished, having taken a couple of courses in print reporting, editing and layout and a couple of writing workshops. I’d also spent six months as the arts editor for St. Cloud State’s University Chronicle, the student newspaper, corralling reporters to write about everything from theater productions to ceramics festivals; I wrote a lot of movie reviews and had a grand time with all of it.

I was renting a small mobile home from Murl, next to the one where he and his wife lived. I sat at my kitchen table many evenings that July and August, writing letters to newspapers that might need a reporter and listening to WJON, where my college classmate, Jim, usually took the evening shift. I chatted with him occasionally and frequently won the station’s trivia contests.

As the summer drew to a close, two things became clear. First, I’d likely have to find another place to live. Murl, faced with an unexpected vacancy in the spring, had rented me the mobile home at a discount rate for five months. Come September, the rate would revert to the norm, and that would be beyond my means unless I found a job at one of the small newspapers in the area. Second, the state of the economy combined with my lack of experience meant that the odds of finding a newspaper job – whether near St. Cloud or elsewhere – were slender at best. One day in August, my girlfriend of the time and I drove to a small town north of Eau Claire, Wisconsin – about 150 miles away – where I interviewed to be the editor of the local newspaper.

The publisher expressed reservations throughout the interview about my inexperience, while I tried to reassure him that I could handle whatever came my way. I was torn as we drove back to St. Cloud: I needed a job, but did I want to live in a town where four of the five businesses on the main street had displays in their windows of Green Bay Packers souvenirs? It was a question I didn’t have to ponder long. A few days later, the publisher called me and told me that he’d “found a real writer.”

(Even though I likely wasn’t prepared for that job at the time, his dismissal rankled. In the spring of 1983, while I was at the Monticello paper en route to graduate school, I saw in the Minneapolis paper that the same publisher was once again seeking an editor for his paper. I was tempted to send my resume, complete with the list of ten or so state and national reporting awards I’d won, and apply for the job. If it were offered, I thought darkly, I’d decline, telling him I’d decided to write for a real newspaper. I didn’t apply.)

Not quite despairing but concerned, I went one August day to the local offices of a federal program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which acted – among other things – as a bridge between workers and jobs. Perhaps the center’s listings had some job for which I was qualified. My intake interviewer turned out to be a fellow who had bought a car from one of my roommates while I was living in the cold house on the north side. He recalled that my training was in communications, and forty-five minutes after walking into St. Cloud’s CETA office, I was the office’s public relations manager.

The job didn’t pay a lot, something a little better than minimum wage, if I recall correctly. But it was an income, and with the right living circumstances, I could make it work. As it was, my girlfriend also needed new quarters, and her mother owned a cabin on a lake about fifteen miles southeast of St. Cloud. It was rustic: no heat and limited hot water, but we were young, and it was still summertime. So she and I and the two cats we shared moved out to the lake at the end of August for a two-month stay.

Here’s some of the music I recall hearing late that summer and during our two-month sojourn at the lake:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1977, Vol. 3
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle, United Artists 1016 (No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of August 20, 1977)

“Heaven on the 7th Floor” by Paul Nicholas, RSO 878 (No. 79)

“It’s Sad To Belong” by England Dan & John Ford Coley, Big Tree 16088 (No. 74)

“Ariel” by Dean Friedman, Lifesong 45022 (No. 63)

“Angel in Your Arms” by Hot, Big Tree 16085 (No. 61)

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” by Abba, Atlantic 3387 (No. 57)

“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Bill Conti, United Artists 940 (No. 54)

“Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, Epic 50370 (No. 51)

“Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson, A&M 1949 (No. 23)

“Give A Little Bit” by Supertramp, A&M 1938 (No. 17)

“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band, Warner Bros. 8370 (No. 15)

“Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise, A&M 1920 (No. 6)

“Easy” by the Commodores, Motown 1418 (No. 5)

A few notes:

The Crystal Gayle song was inescapable as the summer faded and autumn moved in. It entered the Top 40 in late September and spent three weeks at No. 2 later that autumn. I swear we heard it every evening as we drove home from our jobs in St. Cloud to the cabin.

“Ariel” was Dean Friedman’s only Top 40 hit ever, and it has to be one of the more odd records to crack the charts in 1977. (I’d say “ever,” but there are lots of odd singles out there.) The strained voice, the ramble-on-until-he-has-to-take-a-breath lyrics, the geeky background singers: it’s one of those records your either like or hate. Enough people liked it that it went to No. 26. It’s still got some charm for me, and Friedman got the details right about post-hippie, pre-disco America, from the peasant blouse to the Legion Hall.

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” was Abba’s eighth Top 40 single, and I wondered if the act was getting stale. To me, the great Abba singles were “SOS” in 1975 and “Dancing Queen” from earlier in 1977. But “Knowing Me, Knowing You” grew on me as the season moved on. It was pretty good radio fare, and it stayed in the Top 40 for ten weeks, reaching No. 14.

During the spring and summer of 1977, I filled a lot of space in the university newspaper’s arts section praising the movie Rocky, especially its soundtrack, no doubt boring my readers along the way. I’m not sure these days how highly I would rate the movie (I may ponder that some day and write about it here), but I still think that Bill Conti’s soundtrack – especially “Gonna Fly Now” – was a gem, one of the great soundtracks of the decade and maybe all time. Conti’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for one week in July 1977. Oddly enough, we didn’t hear it all that often in Minnesota; the local stations seemed to prefer Maynard Ferguson’s propulsive cover of “Gonna Fly Now,” which went only to No. 28 in Billboard.

The Brothers Johnson “Strawberry Letter 23” – a cover of Shuggie Otis’ 1971 single – was a piece of smooth-edged funk that sounded like nothing else coming out of a radio speaker that late summer and early autumn. The record peaked at No. 5 on the Top 40 but reached No. 1 for a week on the R&B chart. The guitar solo is by Lee Ritenour.

I’ve posted “Smoke From A Distant Fire” here before, but it’s good enough to repeat it. One of the great one-hit wonders, it popped up on the car radio the other day, and it held its place as one of the few records that I let play, sitting in the parked car until the record is over and only then going about my business. It peaked at No. 9 that fall.

As always, bitrates will vary.

(It’s entirely possible that some of these selections are album tracks instead of single edits. If so, my apologies.)

Coming Attraction
This is just another reminder to stop by here Sunday when caithiseach of The Great Vinyl Meltdown fills us in on his thirteen favorite singles. It’s a good list with some good listening.

Another Listen To The Bliss Band

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 20, 2008

A little more than a year ago, in the post that marked Vinyl Record Day 2007, I shared a track by a group called the Bliss Band, from its 1978 album, Dinner with Raoul. I knew very little about the band – there wasn’t a lot of information on the record jacket. Here’s some of what I wrote at the time:

“I’ve ripped the track ‘Rio’ from this 1978 album, which was produced by Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter. Like the Faragher Brothers . . . the Bliss Band sounds to me a bit like Pablo Cruise or the Little River Band, both of which were hitting the charts about the time Dinner With Raoul was recorded. There’s a touch of Steely Dan in there, too.”

The touch of Steely Dan wasn’t surprising, of course, considering Baxter’s presence as guitarist as well as producer.

At the same time, a reader left a comment about the Bliss Band. I assume it was regular reader Yah Shure, or else I’ve got two regular readers who worked at WJON here in St. Cloud in the late 1970s (which is possible, I imagine). That reader said:

“I was a jock at WJON/St. Cloud when your #2000 album, The Bliss Band’s Dinner With Raoul, went into the station’s album cuts bin in 1978. ‘Slipaway’ quickly became the consensus cut. When the song was released as a single (Columbia 10857) it went as high as the ‘B’ rotation on WJON’s adult contemporary playlist. The single sold OK locally – I bought a copy of the 45 at Musicland in the Crossroads Center – but no other stations picked up on the song and it went away.

“‘Slipaway’ had a nice, Steely Dan-like vibe to it, with some tasty guitar licks in the break.”

A week or two later, I ripped the entire record, but I wasn’t pleased with the rip because of some noise on Side Two. So I shelved the idea of sharing the entire album. But not long ago, I found a rip of the record online that’s in better shape; it was posted in December 2006 at Gooder’n Bad Vinyl, a blog I visit fairly frequently. A track from the record popped up in a recent Baker’s Dozen, and then one came up last night as I was listening, reminding me that it’s actually a pretty good album.

I’m not sure if the record jacket listed the Bliss Band members, but it doesn’t matter anyway: the jacket is somewhere in a box right now and won’t emerge until sometime during the first week of next month. But the list of credits for Dinner With Raoul at All-Music Guide provides some clues as well as some interesting reading:

First of all, the members of the Tower of Power horn section – Stephen Kupka, Emilio Castillo, Greg Adams, Michael Gillette and Lenny Pickett – are listed there, as are Michael and Maureen McDonald and the late Doobie Brothers drummer, Keith Knudsen (all on vocals). Victor Feldman is listed as percussionist. Others listed on vocals are Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews. Alan Park plays keyboards.

And when you account for all those folks, the remaining people must be the members of the Bliss Band. They are: Paul Bliss on keyboards and vocals, Andrew Brown on bass and vocals, Nigel Elliot on drums and Phil Palmer on guitar and vocals.

(I’m sorry to be so imprecise, but with the records and much of my reference library packed, I fear that quite a few posts will be lacking in hard information for a week or so. If I’ve got anything wrong here, please let me know.)

The best track here might be the opener, “Rio,” although I do like “Slipaway” and “Right Place, Right Time” a fair amount. I still think the sound is very much akin to Pablo Cruise with some Steely Dan dissonance and chord changes. It’s a good album.

Over the Hill
Don’t Do Me Any Favors
On The Highway
Right Place, Right Time
Stay A Little Longer
Here Goes
Whatever Happened
Take It If You Need It

The Bliss Band – Dinner With Raoul [1978]

Coming Attraction
I don’t usually post on Sundays, but this coming Sunday will be an exception. My friend caithiseach, proprietor of The Great Vinyl Meltdown, has agreed to provide a Baker’s Dozen of his favorite singles. It’s an interesting – and very good – list that will provide some points to ponder as well as some very good music.

‘Stranger Than Known . . .’

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 19, 2008

Considering the Byrds’ great anthem, “Eight Miles High,” takes one in a number of directions.

The song was written by Byrds Gene Clark, David Crosby and Jim (now Roger) McGuinn, with credit at the time – 1965 – going to Clark for the lyrics and Crosby and McGuinn for the music (with Crosby taking credit for one line of the lyrics). That’s according to Wikipedia, which notes that since Clark’s death, McGuinn has claimed credit for the song’s concept as well as some of the lyrics.

Authorship aside, when the song was recorded and released, the Byrds insisted that it was about the group’s trip to England in 1965. And the surreal lyrics were an approximation of a travelogue from a strange and distant land. Clark said the title was a reference to the altitude of the airplane that brought the Byrds to England.

But as has been noted many times in many places, including Wikipedia, commercial air traffic flies at about 35,000 feet, or closer to seven miles high. To which Clark retorted, as I read somewhere long ago: “Eight Miles High” sounded better.

Well, it does. But even if the reference to literal altitude was a starting point, Clark and the rest of the Byrds cannot have been unaware of the winking reference to a different type of high. It may not have been the original source of the phrase, but the drug reference was almost certainly one of the reasons the song was written, recorded and loved. It’s pretty tame stuff as we sit here in the first decade of the next century, but forty years ago, even a winking reference like “Eight Miles High” was enough to get one’s record banned from airplay, and there were some stations that did not air the record for just that reason.

And the record only went to No. 14. Two of the group’s singles to that point had reached No. 1: “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season).” Sandwiched between those two on the group’s Top 40 chart is “All I Really Want To Do,” which barely made the chart, edging to No. 40 for one week. And after “Eight Miles High,” the group got only three more singles into the Top 40: “Mr. Spaceman” at No. 36, “So You Want To Be A Rock ’N’ Roll Star” at No. 29 and “My Back Pages” at No. 30.

So one can read – based simply on the charts – that “Eight Miles High” was the end of the Byrds as a strong chart presence. Now, there were personality conflicts and personnel changes galore in the group, and those were no doubt part of the reason the group’s presence in the Top 40 changed. How much influence should be laid to each bit of truth is one of the unknowns forty years later. I’m sure the surviving Byrds have something to say about it, and maybe I’ll read their accounts of those times eventually.

One other connection popped into my head as I listened to “Eight Miles High” last evening: Just as Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” provided the name for a group of scuffling London-based blues players, so did “Eight Miles High” – in legend, at least—provide inspiration for another collection of musicians. I’ve read a number of times that the phrase “In places small faces unbound” inspired Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, Jimmy Winston and Kenney Jones to name their group Small Faces.*

Wikipedia, on the other hand, says, “the group took their name from a remark by a female friend of Marriot’s, who noted that the band members all had ‘small faces’. The name stuck in part because of the mod slang usage of the word ‘face’ to mean a popular, trendsetting individual.” If that’s the case, then we have here another instance of the truth being decidedly less intesting than the legend. In matters of rock & roll, I guess it’s entirely up to each individual to decide whether to hold to the truth or embrace the legend.

(The mention of the Small Faces almost always cues in my brain their hit, “Itchykoo Park,” which went to No. 16 in the U.S. in early 1968. The record contains one of the more insistent earworms in my life: “It’s all too beautiful” repeated again and again. Then, of course, there’s the “What did you do there?” followed by the exultant “I got high!” And we’re back to pharmaceutical references again.)

Whether “Eight Miles High” was originally meant to refer to drugs or to travel is a question that likely will no longer be answered; again, legend will trump fact no matter what anyone says. It’s an odd song in its construction, of course, with the Byrds’ version being influenced by the music of India as well as – according to McGuinn – by John Coltrane’s saxophone work. Those unique qualities may be why there aren’t a lot of cover versions of the song.

According to All-Music Guide, there are currently eighty-seven CDs available that have a recording of “Eight Miles High.” More than half of those recordings are by the Byrds, usually the original version but sometimes the much longer (16:07) version that showed up on the 1970 album Untitled.

Among those who’ve covered “Eight Miles High,” there are some interesting names: Crowded House, the Folkswingers (whose album was posted here recently), the Floorjivers, Les Fradkin, Golden Earring, Joe Goldmark, Rufus Harley, Hüsker Dü, Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, R.E.M., Roxy Music, the Leathercoated Minds, the Magic Mushroom Band, Shockabilly, Dave Stewart, the Ventures, and various individual members of the Byrds.

I’ve heard a few of those versions, and – as is par for this course – have never heard at all of some of the performers and groups in that list. The first cover I heard of “Eight Miles High,” however, remains one of my favorites. It was on one of the few albums my sister owned that I have not yet been able to replace on either LP or CD: Leo Kottke’s Mudlark, released in 1971. (In the past twenty years, I’ve never seen a copy of the LP in any used record store; the CD is available online fairly easily, and I’ll no doubt go that route soon.) The rip of the song I’m offering here is one I found at the Groovy Fab forum about a year ago.

I’m also providing a rip of Kottke performing “Eight Miles High” live in December 1968 at the No Exit coffeehouse, which was located in the basement of the student union of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The performance was recorded by Alan Peterman, who offers “Eight Miles High” and six other songs from the performance at his own website. (Despite the low bitrate, it’s worth a listen.)

Leo Kottke – “Eight Miles High” [Mudlark, 1971)

Leo Kottke – “Eight Miles High” [Live at the No Exit, 1968)

*I may have read that tale about the Small Faces’ moniker somewhere, but it’s demonstrably false, and I should have known that, as the Small Faces predate the Byrds’ tune. The “small faces” reference was instead a nod to the British group. Note added August 3, 2011.

Revising My Personal Mythology

July 27, 2011

Originally posted August 18, 2008

Even as I wrote my post for last Tuesday’s Vinyl Record Day, I knew something was wrong. I sorted through the 45s in the two cases I mentioned, finding some interesting things, but there were some things missing.

What, I wondered, had happened to the Trini Lopez single, with “The Hammer Song” on one side and “Unchain My Heart” on the other? Where was the silly John F. Kennedy spoof, “I Really Wanted To Be A ‘Singar’” by Joel Langran? And where was Frank Gari and his “You Better Keep Runnin’”?

The more I thought about it as I prepared my Vinyl Day post, the more I was sure there had to be more 45s somewhere in the apartment. And, indeed, a box came down from the closet shelf Saturday afternoon that had more than a hundred singles in it. As I looked through them that evening, I had the vague memory of sorting through the 45s sometime during my days in south Minneapolis and placing the better ones – both esthetically better and less damaged – in the two cases I’d used for material for my post. I don’t think the post of thirteen singles for last week’s Vinyl Record Day would have altered significantly had I looked in the box from the closet beforehand.

But just as archeological discoveries from time to time make us revise our views of ancient civilizations, so does my closet discovery force me to change my personal mythology. I’ve long said that the first single I remember buying was the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In” in 1969. That still remains the first serious single of music I bought. But the box of records from the closet holds clear evidence, seven-inch vinyl testimony that reminds me that I bought with my own hands and my own cash at least one earlier record.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Dickie Goodman made at least a little money and had a few hits with what Wikipedia says were called “break-in” records:

In 1956, says Wikipedia, “His first song, ‘The Flying Saucer,’ was co-written with partner Bill Buchanan, and featured a description of a news-covered invasion of earth from a Martian space ship. While Goodman asked questions of pedestrians, scientists, and even the Martian himself, their responses were ‘snipped’ from lyrics of popular songs of the day, including tracks from Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.”

Through the Sixties and into the Seventies, the spoof records went on, taking on horror movies, the U.S. Senate, President John F. Kennedy (the spoof by Joel Langran I mentioned above), the Berlin Wall, the television show Bonanza, James Bond, ecology, Watergate, the 1970s energy crisis, the movie Jaws and more.

Along the way, Buchanan left, new sidekick Mickey Shorr came and went, and Goodman went on. And in 1966, he took on one of the biggest pop culture crazes of the time, the television show Batman, a half-hour of satire and mild adventure that ran two evenings a week. Among the recording artists whose records were sampled this time were the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark, Lou Christie, SSgt. Barry Sadler and – I think – Mrs. Miller.*

And having heard it, most likely on WJON, I took advantage of a trip to Crossroads mall, where I went to Musicland and laid down my coins for Goodman’s latest creation, “Batman & His Grandmother,” the first record I ever bought.

*After I originally posted this, friend and reader Yah Shure informed me that the vocal gymnastics I thought were from Mrs. Miller were actually pulled from the Peels’ exercise in comedy and pastiche, “Juanita Banana,” which went to No. 59 in 1966. Note added July 27, 2011.