Posts Tagged ‘Queen’

Found In The Unplayed Stacks

March 25, 2012

Originally posted March 9, 2009

At a guess, I’ve listened to eight-five to ninety percent of the LPs that reside in my study. Those I’ve not yet put on the turntable fall into two categories: Records that were my dad’s – mostly classical with an added mélange of show tunes, Swedish folk music and a few odd things – and records that I bought mostly at garage sales that got put into a pile and never got taken out.

Those garage sale records sit in bins atop the main stacks here, and I rarely find a reason to go digging to see what’s there. So let’s take a look:

In the first bin, I see, among others, Chilliwack, Bob James, Steve Forbert, Carly Simon, the Electric Light Orchestra, Asia, Devo, W.C. Fields, Weird Al Yankovic, Amy Grant and the soundtrack to the 1962 film Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison). The second bin brings us a selection that includes Prince, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Anthony, Archie Bell & the Drells, Tina Turner, Patsy Cline, Richard Harris, Madonna and the Looking Glass. And in the third bin, our trove includes Whitney Houston, the Willmar Boys Chorus, Head East, Artur Rubenstein, Culture Club, Al Martino, Chester Thompson (and the Pop Sound of the Great Organ, says the jacket), Sandler & Young and the soundtrack to the 1962 film How The West Was Won.

Despite temptations, I selected none of those records for this morning’s frolic. I chose instead six other albums for today’s music. None of them, alas, were quite as odd as the Willmar Boys Chorus. Willmar – pronounced WILL-mer – is a city of 18,000 or so that lies about sixty miles southwest of St. Cloud; I got the two-record set of that city’s boys chorus at a garage sale here in St. Cloud about five years ago. (Chester Thompson’s album came in the same haul.) The Willmar record could have popped up; I simply went to the stacks and pulled six records out at random.

Having pulled the LPs, I let the records make my selection for me: Using a method I got from Casey at The College Crowd Digs Me, I ripped the fourth track of each record. So what did we get this morning?

A Six-Pack From The Unplayed Stacks
“You Never Miss A Real Good Thing (Till He Says Goodbye)” by Crystal Gayle from Crystal [1976]
“Marcie” by the Four Seasons from Rag Doll [1964]
“Love & Emotion” by Gino Vannelli from Brother To Brother [1978]
“My Heart Echoes” by Kitty Wells from Heartbreak U.S.A. [1962]
“Headlines” by Melissa Manchester from Help Is On The Way [1976]
“Killer Queen” by Queen, Elektra 45223 [1975]

This is not entirely awful. It doesn’t thrill me, but neither did I wince. Probably the best thing here is “Killer Queen.” As it came from Queen’s Greatest Hits album, I went ahead and tagged it with its catalog number as a single. The record went to No. 12 in the spring of 1975, the first of fourteen hits for the group. (“Bohemian Rhapsody” counts as two hits, as it went to No. 9 in 1976 and then – after its inclusion in the movie Wayne’s World – to No. 2 in 1992.)

Other than “Killer Queen,” nothing here really stands out. Maybe the Crystal Gayle tune, which might have been a single. It’s pretty decent late-Seventies country. The Kitty Wells’ tune, on the other hand, is a good example of the blanding of country that took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the mass chorus and the less-than-downhome piano licks. (Though I do not have session information for the Kitty Wells album, I’d bet that the piano was manned by Floyd Cramer.)

The Gino Vanelli track is all right, inoffensive but bland, and the Four Seasons’ “Marcie” is a typical Bob Crewe Half-Wall of Sound production, and it’s okay for an album track. Then there’s “Headlines.” I never was a huge Melissa Manchester fan, although I did like her first hit, 1975’s “Midnight Blue.” But “Headlines” – which Manchester wrote – is a very strange song. A few more listens, and it might fall for me into the category of odd songs by so-so performers that I like nevertheless.

As I was ripping these albums and writing this post, I was under great temptation. So I yielded. Here’s a bonus:

“Ebb Tide” by Chester Thompson from The Pop Sound of the Great Organ. [Prob. 1964]

There are some clicks in this rip, but I decided it was odd enough of a track to put up with them. The record, says the notes on the jacket, was the first ever recorded on the giant Wurlitzer organ in Plaza Studios above New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. There’s no issue date on the record, but a reference to “Java” and “More” as “instrumentals of the past year” puts the record almost certainly in 1964.

I departed from vinyl and from the Track Four method for today’s second bonus. I pulled Alfred Newman’s soundtrack for How The West Was Won from the bins and slipped it on the turntable just to get an idea what kind of shape it’s in. And there was just too much noise to work with the record. But the film’s overture blew me away.

An overture, you ask? Yes, films that wanted to be taken seriously offered overtures before the show started, just as Broadway musicals did (and perhaps still do?). Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia are two other films I recall that had overtures. (Anybody recall any others?)

So what grabbed me about this overture? It’s just odd and amazing in its choral approach: At first it sounds almost like a Soviet choral piece celebrating the glory of labor, and then it becomes more American, if still a little odd. It’s a track very much of its time, and though I remember it only vaguely, I wanted to share it. So I went and found a digital copy. Thus, here’s the overture to How The West Was Won, featuring the MGM Studio Orchestra along with the Ken Darby Singers and Dave Guard & The Whiskeyhill Singers.

“Overture: I’m Bound For The Promised Land/Shenandoah/Endless Prairie/Ox Driver” from the soundtrack to How The West Was Won [1962]

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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