Thursday, February 24, 2005

Top 5: Singles Only

As I noted over at my other blog, I've been rereading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by the late Hunter S. Thompson this week. And as I often do when I'm reading history, I frequently try to remember where I was and what I was doing while that history was being made. While Thompson was following the Democratic primary fight as February turned to March in 1972, I seem to have been buying 45s by the bundle. Here are five of them:

"Bang a Gong (Get It On)"/T. Rex. I had a bit of a T. Rex thing going at a relatively tender age. I bought (and still cherish) "Hot Love," which roared all the way to Number 72 on the Billboard chart in the summer of 1971, and snapped up "Bang a Gong" pretty quickly, too. I think it was the rhythm guitar backbeat that made me love "Bang a Gong"--and it still is.

"Stay With Me"/Faces. In early '72, I discovered a magazine that featured sheet music for four or five current hits in each issue--a real step up from Hit Parader, which had only the lyrics. (It may have been Sheet Music, which still exists today.) It seemed like the coolest thing in the world to me, and I was especially psyched to find "Stay With Me" in the issue that was current in February 1972. I'd already bought the single and looked forward to learning how to play it on my tenor saxophone--until I discovered it was written in D-flat major: a key with five flats.

"Heart of Gold"/Neil Young. I had not shown any predilection toward records with mournful harmonica noises until this came along. Even though it was a Number One record and a huge hit, I like to think it represents fairly hip taste for somebody who'd just turned 12. Much different from those Partridge Family records I'd been buying, for damn sure.

"My World"/Bee Gees. Lest you think I was rockin' out all the time with the likes of T. Rex, Faces, and Neil Young, there was also this, which is not even a major entry in the Bee Gees' catalog, let alone the rock pantheon. Not a very profound lyric either:
My world is our world
And this world is your world
And your world is my world
And my world is your world
Is mine
Strictly speaking, though, I suppose it's true.

"Joy"/Apollo 100. A rock version of J. S. Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" played at about triple speed, and thus the bane of piano teachers everywhere.

I am sure I listened to reports from the campaign trail on my favorite Top 40 station's newscasts, as I was fairly well-informed for a kid my age. But I was all about the music at that moment--as crazed as I'd ever be, and have always been.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Myth, Legend, and Gossip

The Observer Music Monthly is out with a list of the 10 Greatest Rock and Roll Myths. Death, drug abuse, rape--Graeme Thomson's list has a little bit of everything decadent, plus a few surprises. Mama Cass Elliott did not choke on a ham sandwich (so I guess it isn't true that if she'd given it to Karen Carpenter, they'd both be alive today). Keith Richards didn't get all of his blood replaced. Members of Led Zeppelin did not rape a groupie with a shark. (Turns out it was their road manager and a red snapper, which is a distinction without a difference, particularly to the groupie involved--although she's never been identified.)

I had to do a bit of research on one of the myths--the case of Richey Edwards, who, it turns out, was a member of Manic Street Preachers just before the group hit the bigtime in the UK. He vanished in 1995, but has reportedly been sighted several times since, and his bandmates still set aside one-quarter of their royalties in his name. Nevertheless, Thomson says, all signs point to his being dead.

What, no Elvis sightings? Thomson also omits the Paul-is-dead legend, but otherwise, the list seems pretty comprehensive, if pretty grim.

The one that's toughest to debunk is, ironically enough, the wildest one--that blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his talent, or was taught to play by Old Scratch himself. All the parties involved are long since dead, so nobody really knows. Thomson says Johnson was taught by another bluesman, one Ike Zimmerman, and got good by practicing a lot--but one version of the legend claims that Ike may have been Satan himself. As myths go, the Johnson story is truly mythic. The rest--Stevie Nicks' cocaine enemas or Sid Vicious' mum spilling his ashes in Heathrow Airport--are merely glorified gossip. But like gossip, they're plenty damn interesting.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Forgotten 45: "Isn't It Time"

Dylan Thomas wrote some famous lines about not going gently into that good night--of death--and suggested that it would be better to rage against the dying of the light. Which is precisely what the Babys do on "Isn't It Time." Lead singer John Waite and a fevered female chorus sing about the impending death of a love affair as if they were trying to hold back actual, physical destruction. Waite, who always sounds as if he's struggling to keep an emotional outburst in check, sounds quite nearly unhinged here--but in a good way. On "Isn't It Time," the singers are desperate people caught in a hurricane, and who think that the best way to survive the storm is to rage at it just as hard as it's raging at them.

(Chrysalis 2173; chart peak #13, December 24, 1977)

Friday, February 18, 2005

Top 5: Maybe I'm Amazed

As a guy who spends his time poking through the record charts of years gone by, I frequently find myself lifting a line from the book of Genesis: "There were giants in the earth in those days." So it was at the top of the Billboard album chart on this date in 1977.

5. A Day at the Races/Queen. A Night at the Opera was a tough act to follow; Queen made the job tougher by giving the followup a title designed to make people think of it as more of the same. It wasn't, but it's not a bad album on its own. The band even released a Spanish version of it. Find that, and you've got yourself a collector's item. Key tracks: "Somebody to Love," "Tie Your Mother Down," "Teo Torriate."

4. Wings Over America/Paul McCartney and Wings. This topped my Christmas list in 1976, and includes a version of "Maybe I'm Amazed" that improves on the original. McCartney sang several Beatles tunes onstage for the first time with Wings during the 1976 tour the album documents, and the acoustic set featuring "Bluebird," "I've Just Seen a Face," "Blackbird," and "Yesterday" is probably the best part of the album.

3. Songs in the Key of Life/Stevie Wonder. This is, of course, quite nearly a greatest-hits album all on its own--"I Wish," "Sir Duke," "Isn't She Lovely," "As," "Another Star"--and I'll never stop wondering what it would have been like if it had been a filler-free single disc instead of a double. There's no guarantee Stevie would have kept my choices for the best tracks, of course--but that's what CD burners are for.

2. Hotel California/Eagles. Millions--probably billions--of words have been written about this album, which just might be the single album from the 1970s to own if you're only going to own one. Some of the most interesting words are those of Charlie Bertsch, who says that the title song taught him how to use his own powers of interpretation--to read beyond the words on the page and give a written work meaning of his own, much as one would do with works by Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, or Kafka. Key tracks: all of 'em, but since "New Kid in Town" was at Number 2 on the singles chart this week in '77, I'll take it.

1. A Star Is Born (soundtrack)/Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. OK, "giants" is a relative term, and you'd be right to believe Streisand and Kristofferson are the odd ones in a game of "one of these things is not like the others." But even people buying those classic albums by Queen and the Eagles were going to the movies on the weekend, and in the early months of '77, A Star Is Born ruled the box office. And of all the Streisand movie songs, "Evergreen" (at Number 5 on the singles chart this week in '77) is probably the best, neither bombastic nor melodramatic--and that delicate little acoustic-guitar intro still sounds to me like the fall of late-winter snowflakes.

Elsewhere on the chart that week, Boston, Best of the Doobies, A New World Record by ELO, Night Moves, Year of the Cat, Rumours--in other words, a significant percentage of my record collection. And maybe yours, too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Somewhere Along the Way

I know that Valentine's Day is over . . . but if you're ever looking for makeout music guaranteed to set the mood, you could do worse than to put on some Nat King Cole. If you can't make time with your sweetie while Nat's on the box, you'll never be able to.

Cole started as a jazz pianist, and an extremely influential one (sadly ignored by documentarian Ken Burns in his film Jazz), known for "bending" notes on the piano like a horn player, and for an exceedingly light touch. The story goes that Cole's trio was playing a club one night when an intoxicated patron asked him to sing "Sweet Lorraine." "We don't sing," Cole said. The club's manager informed Cole that for this patron, a regular, he was going to sing--and so he did. Not every historian of Cole's career believes the story, but it's a good one, and however Cole was persuaded to pick up a microphone, thank goodness he did. Cole recorded several hits with the trio beginning in about 1944 (including "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Route 66," "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons," and the original version of "The Christmas Song") before moving to orchestra backing in 1948 with "Nature Boy." (In his bio of Cole, William Ruhlmann of the All Music Guide observes that jazz fans felt as betrayed by Cole's turn to pop as folkies did when Bob Dylan went electric.) Other famous hits followed, such as "Mona Lisa," "Too Young," and "Unforgettable."

In 1956, Cole became the first major black entertainer to headline his own network TV show, on NBC, and everybody who was anybody in jazz at the time appeared on it. What it didn't have was viewers. It lasted a season-and-a-half, and its failure has to be considered primarily due to racism. Southern affiliates wouldn't carry it, and it occasionally trailed an ABC series of travel films in its time slot. Throughout his career, Cole often found himself in the middle of racial controversies--sometimes hated by whites for simply being black, and other times criticized by blacks for failing to take a more active role in the Civil Rights Movement.

As the rock era began, Cole continued to chart steadily, even updating his sound now and then (as on "Send for Me," which topped the R&B chart in 1957)--although his true feelings toward rock were displayed in a nightclub number he performed called "Mr. Cole Won't Rock and Roll." In it, he imagined how his major hits, such as "Mona Lisa," would have had to sound had they come out in the rock era. Toward the end of his career, he tended to drown his music in syrupy string arrangements, as if he were trying to be as non-rock as possible. Cole's last major hit came in the fall of 1964--"L.O.V.E."--but by that time, he was already dying of the lung cancer that killed him 40 years ago today. He was not quite 46 when he died.

What-ifs aren't worth much, but had he lasted into the MTV era, I like to think Nat King Cole would have enjoyed some of the same late-career rebirth Tony Bennett did, and may have made peace with the rock world and recorded with some of its leading figures, like Frank Sinatra did. We'll never know, and it doesn't matter anyhow. What Nat did on record during his 20-year recording career was enough to ensure his place in history. And as long as there's romance, Nat will play on.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Vision Thing

When Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company came out late last summer, most of the reviews I saw said it was OK. Nobody was calling it the album of the year, or using very many superlatives at all. It was merely the first studio album from Ray in eight years, and was notable more for its guest-star power than for anything else: Norah Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Van Morrison, etc.

So Genius Loves Company's sweep of the Grammys last night has the feel of a lifetime achievement award given more for a body of work than for a specific work of art. The Grammys have done this before--most recently when Carlos Santana's Supernatural was honored in 1999, and most notably when Eric Clapton's egregiously bad "Tears in Heaven" won Record of the Year in 1992. That bit of treacle--tragically inspired by the death of Clapton's young son though it was--is not remotely the equal of any track you could pick at random off Layla and Other Love Songs, but that didn't stop Grammy voters from treating it as if it were "Layla" itself. In the case of both Santana and Clapton, desire to make up for previous Grammy snubs met the opportunity to do so--and if either man had recorded a chunk of the Los Angeles phone book at that moment, they'd likely have gotten Grammys for that.

In other words: Artists the Grammys ignore in their prime, but who ascend to legendary status anyhow, often find themselves honored in the breach by the Recording Academy--which is a neat little commentary on what Grammy awards are worth to begin with. The only people who need Grammys for validation are those who can't validate themselves purely through their music. To artists with vision, they don't mean a thing.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Top 5: Highway Miles

I have been on the road for most of the last two weeks. I mean literally "on the road," logging miles by the hundreds--which means lots of hours spent with the CD player or tape deck on. So here are five notable albums and songs I've heard in the last two weeks.

Fleetwood Mac (expanded edition)/Fleetwood Mac. Unlike the expanded editions of Tusk and Rumours, which contain numerous alternate versions of familiar tracks along with new material, Fleetwood Mac is pretty slim. The only entirely new track is "Jam #2," which, like the jams on the other expanded editions, doesn't offer a lot, unless you're a hardcore fan of John McVie's bass. But the extra stuff the album does contain is valuable enough: the 45 versions of three hit singles, two of which have been fairly rare: a "Rhiannon" that's more ghostly than the album version, and an "Over My Head" that's so changed up instrumentally that it's almost a new song. (The 45 version of "Say You Love Me," with extra punched-up guitar, has been widely anthologized already.) There's also a proposed single version of "Blue Letter" that was never released at all. Extras aside, Fleetwood Mac is clearly the group's greatest achievement, Rumours notwithstanding. Most groups would do well to create songs as beautiful as "Warm Ways," "Rhiannon," "Over My Head," "Crystal," and "Landslide" in a lifetime of recording--the Mac did it on one album.

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
/Elton John.
Classic mid-70s excess from Elton, from the absurd title to the over-the-top cover art to the extravagant extras included with the original album package. But in the grooves (as we used to say back when records had grooves), Elton recorded some of his most ornate and satisfying music--"Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" is a great Philly soul-style tune in "Philadelphia Freedom" mode, and "Curtains" is hypnotic and mysterious, and is one place where Bernie Taupin's opaque lyrics actually work. He concludes this semi-autobiographical tune on a semi-autobiograpical album with some of his best lines ever: "And just like us/you must have had/a once upon a time."

(Digression: As great a tune as it is, "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" contains one of Bernie's most painful lines: just what the hell is "a cold vacant stare of undue concern"?)

Thirty-Three and a Third/George Harrison. In 1976, George was coming off a couple of critically panned albums, and when he assembled the same band for his new album, nobody was expecting what he produced--an album so instrumentally rich it seems almost three-dimensional, with gorgeous little sounds coming at you from all directions. George's liquid guitar lines are the most beautiful of all, and his singing is sweet and expressive. You know the singles, "This Song" and "Crackerbox Palace"--now get to know the other tracks, such as "Pure Smokey," "Dear One," "See Yourself," and the Cole Porter standard "True Love," normally done as a ballad, but ripped through at breakneck speed here.

"I'll Take Manhattan"/Dinah Washington. Dinah, the erstwhile Queen of the Blues, had gone uptown by 1960, singing with an orchestra, and she's the epitome of urban cool here. This song came along at a moment when New York City was just beginning to relinquish to Los Angeles its title as the capital of American popular culture. But people in Boise or Dubuque would still have hummed lyric lines from this song, about places like Delancey Street and Coney Island, as if they were native New Yorkers, even the ones in Brooklynese: "the city cannot spoil/the dreams of a boy and goil."

"The Things We Do for Love"/10cc. Here's a classic 70s radio hit that grabs you from the first millisecond and keeps you singing along all the way. Despite the lyrics, which are about the compromises lovers make to stay together, the feel of the song is all about the rush of falling in love, long before the compromises become necessary.

The Colour of Love/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. I discovered this group via Internet radio, which is a first for me, and not really a surprise, because if there was ever a group too good for our currently lame broadcast radio world, the Broadcasters are it. Earl, a former member of Roomful of Blues, is the lead guitarist and it's his band, but this 1997 album is utterly stolen by organist Bruce Katz, who gets down into grooves unknown to most normal mortals. One of the best smoky, late-night records ever recorded.

I have more highway miles in my future in coming weeks--which means much more music to be listened to. It's what makes traveling worth it. That also means more extended hiatuses for this blog, sad to say. Do be patient, however--I will be back now and then.