Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Top 5: Too Long in Exile

Regular readers of this blog (if such there be) have probably given me up for lost, what with no new posts for almost two weeks--but I'm not. I know exactly where I am--in another hotel room. I'm getting a new appreciation for Jackson Browne's "The Load Out," although what I'm traveling for is nothing so glamorous as a concert tour. But like Browne's road, mine seems to stretch out forever, with many more miles than there are interesting ways to pass them. Like Browne, I rely on music to get me through. Here are five more notable musical moments from the current trip:

Too Long in Exile/Van Morrison. For the first half of this album, it's business as usual for Van--a song about getting back to his roots, another about how the music business has screwed him--and then, long about track seven, an entirely different album breaks out. There's a guest appearance by John Lee Hooker on two tracks (including "Gloria," Morrison's 60s classic with Them, and knowing how Van usually feels about his old songs, this 1993 rerecording of it is nothing short of a miracle) and several straight jazz tunes, including a positively charming version of "Moody's Mood for Love." At 15 tracks, this album goes on a bit too long, but take the top eight or nine and you'd have an absolutely essential Van Morrison album.

"I Do the Rock"/Tim Curry.
This tune barely scraped into the low 90s on the Hot 100 at the end of 1979, at a time when Curry was known only as Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Curry name-checks dozens of celebrities, from Dizzy Dean to Anwar Sadat to "Governor Brown and Linda," in an odd and indeterminate accent. If you remember this at all, you share my sickness.

Alive in America/Steely Dan. This album documents the group's 1993 American tour--inspired, as Donald Fagen claims, by his desire to hear what "Babylon Sisters" sounded like live. Like most live albums, this isn't essential, but you may dig the key tracks: "Kid Charlemagne" and a version of "Reeling in the Years" with horns.

Straight Up/Badfinger. This is the best Beatles album of 1971. The phased sound of the opening track, "Take It All," is right out of the White Album era, and "Flying" sounds like John and Paul in an alternate universe. George even plays on a few tracks, including the magnificent "Day After Day." That Badfinger was good enough to create "Day After Day" and "Baby Blue" on the same album without becoming superstars in the process is nothing short of tragic.

"Nowhere to Run"/Martha and the Vandellas. The Motown rhythm section was more than capable of moving the earth, as they do here--but it's Funk Brother Jack Ashford who steals the record. He's the tambourine player. Listen to it: You will never hear another record where the tambourine snaps and sizzles with the kind of menace Ashford puts into it on this one.

This trip's just begun, and I have miles to go before I run out of tunes, so watch and listen for more.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Top 5: Hall of Famers

Last week, rapper 50 Cent had three of the top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100, two under his own name and one with fellow rapper The Game (with whom 50 Cent has had a rather large falling-out, if the shooting incident outside a New York radio station recently is any indication.) Such feats of chart dominance have happened before--in fact, greater ones. The king of them all, of course, remains the week of April 4, 1964, when the Beatles had the top five all to themselves: "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Please Please Me." And during the week of March 18, 1978, the Bee Gees claimed the greatest monopoly of the 1970s, with two records of their own and two more they wrote, produced, or sang on in the top five.

5. "Love Is Thicker Than Water"/Andy Gibb. There's no explaining the monstrous hits that Gibb's first two singles, "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" and this, became. Particularly when the next two, "Shadow Dancing" and "Everlasting Love," which were far more distinctive, weren't nearly so big.

4. "Lay Down Sally"/Eric Clapton. EC is the lone interloper at this Gibb family reunion, and "Sally" is far removed from their slick productions. It even got some country airplay at the time, and the album from which it comes, Slowhand, is essential, with tracks such as "Cocaine" and "The Core."

3. "Emotion"/Samantha Sang. At this moment in history, I could probably have taken this record to Number 3. Terrific intro, great refrain, and the Bee Gees harmony that Mr. and Mrs. America found irresistable in the spring of '78.

2. "Stayin' Alive"/Bee Gees. I was driving my '74 Hornet in my hometown (somewhere around 15th Avenue and 14th Street--I swear, I remember this) one afternoon late in 1977 when something came on the radio I'd never heard before. And when I say "came on the radio," I mean "leapt out of the speakers and grabbed me by the throat." Awestruck, I said aloud to no one, "What the hell is this?" Remove all the baggage "Stayin' Alive" has accumulated, all the snickering about disco and the Bee Gees, and you're left with one of the true monuments of the 1970s, a Hall-of-Famer for that devastating intro, if nothing else.

1. "Night Fever"/Bee Gees. Not in the same league as "Stayin' Alive," not even close, but it did eight weeks at Number One while "Stayin' Alive" did only two. Along with Saturday Night Fever itself, "Night Fever" made glittering disco-ball culture safe for middle America.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Forgotten 45: "Autobahn"

Imagine a 25-minute song about what it's like to drive fast on a highway. Now imagine it becoming a hit in the United States. It happened 30 years ago this week, with the singles chart debut of "Autobahn" by the German duo Kraftwerk. Yes, America invented the highway song, but we never imagined one like this: In its original form, "Autobahn" is actually a suite with several different sections, mostly instrumental but with a few verses (and I use the word loosely) "sung" in German, describing the experience of driving on Germany's famous highway. (The single is cut to 3:27, which makes for a much shorter trip.) That something so odd could get a fair amount of American airplay in the same spring with the far more conventional "Black Water" and "You Are So Beautiful" is another of the glories of the 1970s.

After spending the bulk of the decade making electronic soundscapes, Kraftwerk spent a number of years in the 80s creating mechanical dance beats, the sort of thing Mike Myers used to make fun of in his "Sprockets" sketches on Saturday Night Live. You wouldn't immediately think that both ambient music and techno would have one common ancestor on the family tree, but they do.

(Vertigo 203, chart peak #25, May 3, 1975)

We Got Mail: A reader writes that he thinks The Guardian ripped off my post of a couple months back about weird band names. I rather doubt it--I think we both ripped off the Canonical List of Bad Band Names, which would account for the peculiar similarities.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)

Friday, March 11, 2005

Top 5: More Highway Miles

More travel for me this week, which means more miles logged with the CD player rolling. Here are five albums that made the trip this time:

Tupelo Honey/Van Morrison. From start to finish, one track to the next, this is not my favorite Van Morrison album, and it's probably not even in the top five. But it does feature two tunes that would be on my list of top five Van Morrison songs: "Wild Night" and "Tupelo Honey," which might be the most beautiful song ever written by anybody, anytime.

Me and Mr. Johnson/Eric Clapton. In which Clapton updates and electrifies Robert Johnson's acoustic blues tunes. It's Clapton's tribute to his guiding inspiration. It's probably a better album if you know Johnson's original tunes--if you don't, it's likely to be less compelling, and sound like more of what you've heard Clapton do before. Key track: "Come on in My Kitchen."

Mighty Love (expanded edition)/Spinners. This album, released in 1974, is what the group's 1975 masterpiece Pick of the Litter sounded like in the test tube. Key tracks: "Mighty Love" (in which Phillippe Wynne scats unbelievably for two minutes) and the gorgeous long version of "Love Don't Love Nobody." The expanded edition also features four early tracks recorded just after the Spinners left Motown, which are notable mostly for lacking the sweetness of the group's later work.

Best of Bowie/David Bowie. A compilation from Bowie's heyday, "Space Oddity" through 1985's "This Is Not America," many of them presented as shorter 45 versions. Also features a 1997 song called "I'm Afraid of Americans," which, it turns out, was a few years ahead of its time.

The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and the Story of Brotherly Love/various artists. OK, I'm only one disc into this three-volume set, but what a disc and what a set. It covers Gamble and Huff's career from independent producers of records like the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart" and Jerry Butler's "Only the Strong Survive," through their 70s heyday as the moguls of Philadelphia International. This was originally supposed to be a four-disc set taking Gamble and Huff right up to the set's late-90s release (and you can see the blank space in the package where the fourth disc was supposed to be), but last-minute legal disputes kept any post-1976 recordings from being included. Nevertheless, what's there is as good as 70s music ever got.

I've still got the trip home to come, so it's a good thing the CD case is full.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Top 5: Mice Elf Agin

It's the neverending beauty of the Top 40--in the '70s, it had something for everybody. Take the Top Five from this week in 1970, for example.

5. "No Time"/Guess Who.
Dig that buzzing distorted guitar. It's the lead on this, it's the solo on "American Woman"--and it's pretty much the signature sound of the Guess Who, that and Burton Cummings' musically challenged bark.

4. "Hey There Lonely Girl"/Eddie Holman. Beautiful early Philly soul record with a positively unearthly, proto-Stylistics vocal by Holman, who hadda squeeze his legs together mighty tight to get up to that last note.

3. "Travelin' Band"/"Who'll Stop the Rain"/CCR. No more than five minutes of music on both sides of this single, combined--but it's five good minutes. And as social commentary, I'll see your Bono press conference and raise you "Who'll Stop the Rain."

2. "Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)"/Sly and the Family Stone. Here's another record by Sly that's maybe 15 years ahead of its time, and more evidence that wherever Prince goes, the Family Stone has already been.

1. "Bridge Over Troubled Water"/Simon and Garfunkel.
A magnificent achievement, even if the big orchestra is starting to sound a little bit dated now. But it's also a White Album-like indication of trouble to come between the players. Simon wrote it but Garfunkel sings it alone, and Simon says the ovations Art got on stage frosted him quite a bit. It originally had two verses, but Art suggested Paul write a third one, which he did ("sail on, silver girl")--although Paul didn't think it matched the other two.

Today is the 54th birthday of English singer/songwriter Chris Rea, one of the classic one-hit wonders thanks to "Fool (If You Think It's Over)" in 1978. Despite his lack of followups over here, he's had a successful career in Europe and many of his albums remain in print here (all except for the one with "Fool" on it, strangely enough, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?). He's got a distinctively fat, buzzy guitar style (not heard on "Fool") and his voice has deepened and roughened over the years, both of which make him one of the best largely unheard artists I can think of. So here are five great Chris Rea tunes, not counting the obvious one:
"The Road to Hell" (1989)
"Auberge" (1991)
"Standing in Your Doorway" (1978)
"God's Great Banana Skin" (1993)
"On the Beach" (1986)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Bong Hit

March 2, 1988: U2 wins the Album of the Year Grammy for The Joshua Tree, but the Grammy voters reveal that they're as starstruck in their own way as a 16-year-old girl when, after lavishing several Grammys on Paul Simon's Graceland album the year before, they can't resist giving him one more, naming the single release of the title song as Record of the Year.

March 2, 1966: Despite the fact that the Beatles have set the world on fire in the past two years, the Grammys honor Frank Sinatra with Record of the Year for "Strangers in the Night" and Album of the Year for Sinatra: A Man and His Music. John and Paul do win Song of the Year for "Michelle," though.

March 2, 1964: The furious storm of Beatlemania continues to rise, as "Twist and Shout" is released. By the end of March, the Beatles will have the top five songs on the Billboard chart; by mid-April, they will hold down 14 spots on the Hot 100.

Birthdays Today:
Jon Bon Jovi is 43. One of the most annoying rock stars of all time. Can't sing, can't write a song that's not ridden with cliches, and thinks being from New Jersey makes him some kind of working-class poet/hero. No, that's Bruce Springsteen, Jon. You're just a haircut with nothing underneath.

Eddie Money is 56. Money opened his 1986 tour in Macomb, Illinois, while I was the morning show host on the local rock station. Somewhere there's a picture of me taken before the show with two listeners who won backstage passes on my show. I never looked (or felt) cooler in all of my radio career. However, if I'd been as cool as I thought I was, this next wouldn't have happened: I sat down to interview Money after the sound check before the show and my tape recorder promptly died.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1986: "Kyrie"/Mr. Mister.
"Kyrie eleison" is Greek for "Lord have mercy," a phrase songwriter Richard Page says helps give him strength. Whatever you say, Dick. The record is one of the great fist-in-the-air hits of the 1980s, as long as you don't think too hard about it.

1981: "I Love a Rainy Night"/Eddie Rabbitt. Someday, I'm going to make a list of the Worst Number One Singles of All Time--and this will be on it, as will Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," which was Number Two at the same time (and had been Number One the preceding week). Christ, no wonder WLS went to album rock about this time.

1974: "Seasons in the Sun"/Terry Jacks. You just knew it the first time you heard it--"This record is going to be huge, and we are going to get sick of it." Yes it was and yes we did, although the song is one of the 1970s' great trash monuments. And the intro (bong-bong-bong-BONGGGGG) is still pretty compelling.

1960: "Theme from A Summer Place"/Percy Faith. The quintessential instrumental, and what people think of when they imagine muzak. Did nine weeks at Number One, however, and topped the charts on the day I was born.

1948: "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover"/Art Mooney Orchestra. People my age know this song mostly from Bugs Bunny cartoons, although it was a substantial hit in 1927, and an even bigger one in 1948. Six different versions made the charts late in the winter of '48. Mooney's orchestra specialized in singalong records--and with so many versions of "Four-Leaf Clover" floating around, you were going to be singing it yourself, like it or not.