Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Songs Under 3 Minutes: Wouldn't It Be Nice


Beach Boys: Wouldn't It Be Nice
[purchase mp3]


When the current theme idea first popped up, it was originally proposed as “under 1 or 2 minutes”. Really tough. 3 minutes is a hard enough limit. Granted, the constraints of AM radio in the 1960s more often than not forced music groups to keep their songs short. Not having been in the business, I would assume the limit had to do with the programming format: my guess would be that the music moguls had a mandate for short songs with time for ads or promos and pertinent sales monologue in between.

That said, many of the top hits were in that range – and those that weren’t were “cropped” such that they did air for about 3 minutes: if the song went on too long, the DJ would cut in before the song was over: fade out with DJ voice-over. Occasionally brutally crimping the enjoyment of the music. But that was the standard.

So… it should be relatively easy to go back in time to most any top of the pops hit from the early/mid-60s, and make a choice for a < 3 song. Sure enough: BBC’s Top of the Pops list from 1965 shows that most hits are less than 3 minutes. “Hang on Sloopy” is near the max length at 3 minutes 53 seconds. The rest of the pack times in under 3.

Considering that there were folks like Bob Dylan, who most likely felt they had something to say and could most probably have rambled on beyond 3 minutes if given the chance, you have to assume there were external pressures along the lines I suggest above.

On the other hand, I also question how many minutes I would have been willing to listen to variations on lyrics such as “Wild thing, you make my heart sing ….” (’66) in a rather limited I-IV-V chord progression.

The short song format worked for a decade or more. It wasn’t until the ‘70s that radio play began to move beyond the 3 minute limit, and part of the credit there goes to “progressive” radio, more often than not in the FM bandwith. I realize this is an over-simplification of many of the influences and elements, but many of the facts remain.

So, here’s one from that era that fits the thematic limits of less than 3.  I can't help but think of what a huge job it must have been to (try to) sync the tape vocals to the final film output!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Royal -> Songs Under 3 Minutes: The Weight


Aretha Franklin (w/ Duane Allman): The Weight
[purchase]

When I heard about this theme, I thought that I might try to write about some of the shortest songs in my library, but none of these songlets inspired me. So I decided to look at songs that just made the cut—the songs that clocked in at 2:59. I had a surprising number of these, and decided to see if any of them jumped out at me as a potential topic. That’s one of the great things about writing for Star Maker Machine—our bi-weekly themes force me to reexamine my music library, and often I uncover songs that I haven’t listened to in a while, or other hidden gems. Today’s song is one of them, and it makes a nice transition from our Royal theme, too.

The original version of this great, but enigmatic, song was 4:34, and the fine cover by Diana Ross and the Supremes (and the Temptations) was exactly 3:00. The Staples Singers’ well-known version was also 4:34, so it doesn’t work. But there is another version, one that was performed by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, with Duane Allman on slide guitar, that is exactly 2:59. Bingo. It is a damn good version, which some believe is even better than the classic original, and that’s a tall order. I’m embarrassed to say that despite the fact that I have a copy of it, I was essentially unaware of it. By the way, “The Weight” has been covered many times, by many different artists (here’s an article from my other blogging home, but not by me, featuring five good ones).

Also, being a Band song, there is an ongoing dispute about who should have gotten credit for the song—it is officially credited only to Robbie Robertson. Levon Helm, who ended up disliking his bandmate just a bit (One quote from Helm on Robertson: “I hate the motherfucker. “I’d kick his ass if I can get to him. He’s a thieving, lying son of a bitch.”) has stated that the lyrics were 60% Robertson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko about 20% each, and 5 or 10% for Helm (proving that Levon was a better musician than mathematician), and that Garth Hudson should have gotten some credit for the music. Whoever wrote the lyrics, their symbolism has been subject to a great deal of discussion over the years, and here are only a few examples of attempts to explain them.

Aretha’s 1970 album, This Girl’s In Love With You, from whence the featured song comes, was recorded at a difficult time for Franklin, both personally (her marriage had recently ended) and professionally. The album is filled with covers of pop songs, including two Beatles songs, in an apparent attempt at crossover success. Half of the album was recorded in Miami, where she often was late to sessions because she was in her suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel cooking soul food, and the other half was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s legendary FAME Studio, where she had initially established her reputation. Many reviewers dismiss the disc as a mishmash and uninspired.

At the time that Franklin was recording part of the album in Alabama, Duane Allman, who had been playing with, among others, his brother Gregg, in the Allman Joys and Hour Glass, and who had cut some demos with Gregg and future Allman Brother Butch Trucks, as The 31st of February, was working as a studio musician at the FAME Studios. He either was invited by owner Rick Hall, or just showed up looking for work, but either way, he was put to work on a number of songs, including a great, Grammy Award winning instrumental cover of Joe South’s “Games People Play,” with King Curtis on sax. His unmistakable slide guitar part meshes well with Franklin’s vocals on “The Weight,” which, not surprisingly, skew toward a religious, gospel interpretation of the song, that may not actually be there (the Nazareth in the song, for example, is actually in Pennsylvania). Also backing Franklin on the track was the great Muscle Shoals rhythm section, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, and David Hood, known as The Swampers (later memorialized by Lynyrd Skynrd in “Sweet Home Alabama”). For more background, check out this fine documentary about Muscle Shoals.

In reviewing This Girl’s In Love With You, critic Robert Christgau wrote: “I admit that when she sings "The Weight" it sounds as if she knows what it means. But I still don't.” On the other hand, album producer Jerry Wexler had second thoughts about the song, later stating that despite the fact that the song charted on both the R&B and Hot 100 charts, “I regret having submitted that song to her. . . . this is where commercial stupidity and greed got the upper hand in me.”

But the great thing about music, or art of any kind, for that matter, is that each audience member gets to decide whether you think something is great, trash, or something in between. I know what I think about this song, and I suspect that after listening to it, you will agree with me and Christgau, and not Wexler.

Friday, September 12, 2014

ROYAL: JAMES BROWN


Yup, I'm messing you about again, as you scuttle about around how a godfather can be regal. But I don't mean that one. O, I see, did you not realise there was another? I mean Jim Brown, the Ulster postie, Elvis impersonator royale. Except he only covers the songs Elvis didn't sing. Or at least didn't sing this side of his mortal coil. For all we know these may well make up his current repertoire, in a houseband including Hendrix, Entwistle and Moon. But I digress, as Jim King, aka The King, gave up his career as a postman when discovered singing in  Belfast pub, his benefactor being one Bap Kennedy, brother of Brian, onetime Van Morrison echo-man. Bap, himself no musical slouch, was the pivot in N'orn Irish punks, Energy Orchard, before launching a still active solo career, drifting into an Irish tinted Americana. He produced Gravelands, Brown's first LP, it's novelty being that it totally comprised songs made famous by the dead, or from bands wherein at least one member was so. Here's my favourite song

Buy Gravelands

It was a surprise cult hit, albeit selling few*, yet guaranteed Brown many a late night music show slot. I think I caught him on The Word, an 90s UK "yoof" arts show for mainly post-pub audiences. This would have been 1998, with a 2nd disc following, Return to Splendor, two years later, before parting ways with his band. Here's a cracker from it.

Buy Return to Splendor

Subsequently a set of false starts have ensued, including the inevitable attempt at original material. It bombed, recently resurfacing, with other odd cuts, as Return to Gravelands. He remains world famous in his home town and the home of all old rockers, Germany,but I suspect it's better that way, even if he never quite managed the uber-trump of an album of Jerry Garcia songs. Now what could that possibly be called?

*OK, half a mill, apparently........

ROYAL: King Missile, "Cheesecake Truck"


I have no quantitative way of backing up this statement, of course, but I would have to venture a guess that of all the "royal" bands you could think of, none would sound less royal than King Missile. Well, there is Royal Trux, so maybe there's that. In any case, King Missile may very well have been the kings of dumb and funny philosophical playground avant-garde stoner rock -- and the fact that I don't even quite know what that means says something. But much like King Missile's songs, it's best just to take it at face value.

You may be most familiar with King Missile thanks to their fluke 1992 "hit," "Detachable Penis." I feel quite safe in making the assertion that it was the highest-charting song ever with the word "penis" in the title: it hit #25 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Now sure, that's a funny song and all, but for my money, the best thing King Missile ever did was "Cheesecake Truck," a brilliantly ridiculous 1 minute and 11 second "song" from their 1990 album, Mystical Shit. "Cheesecake Truck" makes Camper Van Beethoven's "Take the Skinheads Bowling" sound like "Stairway to Heaven."

But don't take my word for it -- I could say nothing more about the song that would make you appreciate it any more than simply listening to it. And here are the lyrics in full, in order to best appreciate the song's warped genius.
So then I got this idea about driving a cheesecake truck
Cause I figured at the end of the day I could take some of the leftover cheesecakes home.
And I love cheesecake.
So I went to the cheesecake company
And they asked me if I could drive a truck
And I said yes
And they said you're hired.
So the next day I got in the truck with all the cheesecakes
And I drove about a block and I just had to have a cheesecake.
So I pulled over and opened the truck and I got a cheesecake
And I also took one for later
And I took one for my friend Farm Boy
And I took one to bring home
And by that time I had eaten one of the cheesecakes
So I took another one.
So then I figured I might as well stop at my house to drop off all the cheesecakes
So I take five cakes to eat on the way
and I drive another block and a half to my house.
Now it's lunchtime so I eat 10 cheesecakes
And a cheesecake for dessert.
I should point out by the way that all of these cheesecakes were very delicious.
Anyway, I decided the only thing to do would be to eat all
the rest of the cheesecakes and hide the truck somewhere and leave town.
And I miss everybody a lot
But I'm not really sorry
Because they were very delicious cheesecakes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Royal: Queens



As a native of the New York borough of Queens, I’ve been a bit miffed by the virtual (but not complete) absence of any references to Queens during this theme. I could have written about bands and artists who came from that borough, like the Ramones or Paul Simon, or even Run-DMC, or some of the famous jazz musicians who lived there, like Louis Armstrong. Or, I could have made it easy, and written about Queen, or the Queens of the Stone Age. Or picked a song like “Killer Queen,” “Queen Bee,” or, god forbid, “Dancing Queen.” But, no, I’m going to go in a different direction, and talk a bit about some of the great musicians who have been crowned Queen of some genre or another. Because there isn’t an official organization devoted to the creation of music royalty (as opposed to organizations that collect music royalties), in some cases there may be competing claimants for the crown. For the purposes of this post, I deem myself the final authority, and hope that my decisions don’t lead to, say, a War of the Roses. And, because these titles are not granted by the United States, none of these citizens are in violation of Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, the Title of Nobility Clause (or, for that matter, the Sanity Clause).

Let’s get started with the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin:



From the next country over, we have the Queen of R&B, Ruth Brown:



The Queen of Gospel, Mahaila Jackson, occupies an older throne:



Nearby, the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor reigns:



Meanwhile, down in Louisiana, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, lets the good times roll:



We can't forget the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald (who lived for a while in Queens):



Influenced by some of her fellow rulers, the Queen of Rock & Roll (who also held the crown as Queen of Psychedelic Soul, presumably subject to Aretha), Janis Joplin’s reign was too short:



In Opryland, Loretta Lynn, the Queen of Country, holds sway:



Meanwhile, hailing from Staten Island is the Queen of Folk, Joan Baez:



Cuban Celia Cruz’s status as Queen of Salsa was never threatened by the revolution (although she became a citizen of the United States):



And we end this discussion with the Queen of Reinvention, yes, Cher:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Royal: Ace, King, Queen, Jack


Herman's Hermits : Ace, King, Queen, Jack 

  Let's admit we've all written off Herman's Hermits. At least those of us in the US who only know "Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" (#1/1965) and the beer hall singalong "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am " ( #1/ 1965), which knocked the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction" from the top of the US charts. Their appearances in forgettable MGM movies earned them the moniker "The British Monkees".

    But when you're big enough to rival the Beatles, you get your pick from the best songwriters and by 1967, the Hermits were recording hits written by Graham Gouldman ( the ultra-catchy ear bug "No Milk Today", "Upstairs Downstairs"), Ray Davies ( "Dandy") and Donovan ( "Museum").
  



  Both "Museum" and "Upstairs Downstairs" come from Blaze. The cover suggests yet another embarrassing beat band's attempts to respond to The Beatles's Sgt Pepper but, with the exception of "Museum" and the "Taxman" bass lines of "Moonshine Man" it's mostly British invasion-styled pop tunes.

   With Mickie Most producing (and providing the Donovan connection), The Hermits recorded their best set yet. "Ace, King, Queen, Jack", written by Peter Noone and new Hermit Peter Cowap, is just one of the highlights. Though critically acclaimed, Blaze was shockingly never released in the UK and the Hermits failed to turn the corner into the psychedelic era. Blaze is out of print but collectors can find it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Royal: Duke Ellington and Count Basie


Duke Ellington and Count Basie : Battle Royal
[purchase]

In a way, I kind of wish that I had been able to do the transition post from “Offensive” to “Royal” because I find the concept of royalty to be offensive. As the great political thinker Dennis the Peasant pointed out, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” On the other hand, YouTube explainer CGP Grey makes a good case that the British monarchy, at least, is a net benefit to Britain (although not everyone agrees).

But I have to say that the fawning over the British royals and their stupid hats is annoying. Even a constitutional monarch like (former) King Juan Carlos of Spain, who did much to help the country recover from the Franco dictatorship, abdicated a few months ago, after a corruption scandal relating to his daughter and son-in-law’s business dealings, and the reports that the King had been on a lavish elephant hunting safari during the country’s fiscal crisis.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the less attention paid to these generally undeserving winners of the genetic lottery, the better. As I see it, my country was built on a categorical rejection of hereditary nobility, yet maybe we have "highness envy," because so many people seem irrationally fascinated by them. (I make an exception, though, for former King Zog of Albania, because he sounds like a character from Star Trek).

But Royal it is, and I knew that I wasn’t going to write about someone who received their status because “some watery tart threw a sword” at one of their ancestors, or something similar. Instead, I thought of two men who received their exalted status by virtue of their musical genius, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, and William James “Count” Basie.

Now, I don’t know a hell of a lot about jazz, although I like to listen to it. I learned about rock music sort of organically, by buying records, listening to the radio and reading about it. Jazz, though, is something I really only started to dip a toe into during college and after, and never got the bug to learn much of the details. Because there are just too many details. But, of course, I knew about Duke Ellington and Count Basie. And, when I decided to write about them for this theme, I wondered whether they ever played together. Google is a beautiful thing, and when I put their names in to a search, I discovered in 0.46 seconds that, in fact, they actually did one album together, First Time! The Count Meets The Duke, and (a few minutes later) that it was a pretty well received album.

Apparently it took some serious planning to get Ellington, Basie and their entire orchestras together for a session, but it happened on July 6-7, 1961, at the 30th Street Studio in New York. As one article noted, the sessions included “requisite breaks for recreational liberties,” which is a phrase so delightful it is worth stealing. Under the English tradition, Dukes outrank Earls (the equivalent of Counts), and Ellington was one of Basie’s idols, but the album is nevertheless democratically split down the middle—an equal number of each band’s classics, Duke’s orchestra is in the right channel and Basie’s is on the left, and in most cases the leaders each took piano solos (although Basie refused to play on Ellington's signature song, “Take the A Train,” so instead the composer, Billy Strayhorn, was the second pianist). Where that leaves the “Duke of Earl,” is unresolved here.

Our featured song, “Battle Royal,” opens the album. It was originally written by Ellington for the movie Paris Blues, which featured Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, who could be considered acting royalty. In the film, the song represents a “Battle Royal,” when the band led by Newman and Poitier is challenged by a band led by Louis Armstrong, uncrowned jazz nobility himself, playing a character named Wild Man Moore. The Ellington/Basie version featured above starts off somewhat more restrained than the exuberant film version, but rapidly turns into a battle between the two orchestras and their soloists that is both intense and thrilling.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

ROYAL: KING



Much as I loathe Queen, sorry if that shocks, by the same token I 'king loved this lot, shortlived as their flame flickered. Early mid 80's British music was a variety of genres seeking a focus: punk (or should that be post-punk) rubbing shoulders with new-wave, the 2-tone ska boom, various waves of British heavy metal, the ever-present and evanescent dinosaurs re-emerging with hair-cuts, o, allsorts, with no clearly identifiable focus. For a moment I really thought the cockatoo haircuts and spray-painted docs may have cut that mustard. And for a while they did.

Coventry, UK, is/was the home of the Midlands car industry, long dormant now, a multi-racial enclave crammed into ugly post-war housing, most of anything older having been blitzed to smithereeens in the war. With little to trumpet beyond it's cathedral, it had been the hotbed of the above mentioned 2 Tone movement, that had brought together the disaffected afro-caribbean population with their white counterparts, in marked contrast to the "skinheads" of 2 decades earlier, which had plied the latter against the former, and that was similarly strong in cities like Coventry. For a moment Coventry was famous for the Specials, the Selecter and many more. (Here's a history lesson ) Paul King was a member of one such band, the Reluctant Stereotypes, their name a nod to an earlier song by the Specials. They were not particularly successful, but garnished a couple of hits.

That all changed with a new line-up and a couple of name changes, in no small part thanks to their colourful image and energetic dynamic. Paul King, and hence the name, was spectacularly photogenic and the combination of MTV and the adulation of teenage girls propelled them swiftly into the charts. Here's their 1984 break through moment, which I fondly recall, being shown on, of course, Top of the Pops. Now, not a teenage girl myself, either then or now, I found this poly-rhythmic melange sufficiently exciting to jump their bandwagon. (Funnily enough, in the intervening years, much as I still love the song, I can't understand how the video youth dance routine didn't put me off, being gallingly gauche.)

12 inches! Buy it! 2nd hand vinyl import only!

The 1st LP produced several singles, all with extended 12 inch  mixes to add to the overall sales, the ploy of many to enhance their exposures. Some of the other songs were, frustratingly, a little clumsy and clunky, so hopes were probably not high for their sophomore, following a year later, in 1985. I have to say I found this an infinitely preferable piece with way more melody, as demonstrated by this TV clip of my favourite song, still a staple on mixtape CDs I make. (And doesn't he, dontcha think, have a look of Boy George, wondering if George O'Dowd was too a fan?)

And that was that. One solo record and the music was over. A career as "veejay" beckoned, age taking a toll on his appearance between the earlier songs, here and here . Never mind, feet of clay etc etc. Wonder what he's up to now?