Saturday, January 14, 2017

CHANGE: A CHANGE IS GONNA COME

Well it is, isn't it? And it would have, anyway, because everything changes, that's a fact, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen. Which is about as philosophical as I am going to get. So I am not going to trump on about politics, probably a relief, because everyone everywhere else will be. But I am going to celebrate this wondrous song, particularly as it later became quite an anthem for civil rights, something we could maybe start storing up in reserve. (Sorry, I said I wouldn't.....)


The b-side to a latter-day single in his career, Cooke was moved to write and record it, late 1963 into 1964, after an incident where he had been turned away from a whites only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana. A Holiday Inn. Despite being, arguably, a previously light-weight lyricist, perfect for the pop-soul that endeared him to a largely white audience, he had also been stung by Bob Dylan's emergence, social conscience a'blazing, so he seized the moment. ("Blowin' in the Wind" was a staple in Cooke's live set.) His producers, inevitably warned against the risks of alienating his fans, hence it's appearance on the flip of "Shake." No, me neither. Both "Shake" and the album both the songs appeared on, "Ain't That Good News", actually his last, sold modestly by Cooke's standards. But that has been dwarfed by the legacy and life of the song, voted number 12 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, as well as being selected for posterity within the Library of Congress, as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically important." All three, say I. But I am ahead of myself. Cooke actually only once played the song live, on TV, the Johnny Carson Tonight show. (I couldn't find any recording thereof to link, sadly.) It was then a full 10 months before the single was ready for release, which eventually took place, over a year after recording, in late December 1964. That release date was already planned, when Cooke was shot dead at another motel, this time in Los Angeles. Colour code uncertain.

There are myriad covers. Although maybe more the metier of the estimable Cover Me Songs, here are my favourite five.


For me, the song that makes The Band's 1973 album, "Moondog Matinee," an essential, the combination of Richard Manuel's keening vocal and the arrangement transformed from the orchestral splendour of the original to simple affecting sublimity.


Another radical revision of the arrangement, Herbie Hancock playing his jazz piano around, behind, on top of a conventional soul vocal version, englishman, James Morrison, the two morphing together just right. But only just.


An astonishing and the possibly OTT extravaganza that was Baby Huey. Just euphoric. Makes me, a middle aged white man, channel James Brown. Convincingly. (Maybe.)


Uncertain still whether this works, cello and the never-less-soul man Ben Sollee. On balance, it does.


Finally, an instrumental mix of all the styles shown above. And more. Bill Frisell, an alchemist of electric guitar, able to run with any genre and leave it resolutely unclassifiable beyond exquisite.

What a song, what a tune. Let it give confidence for the changes that will come. After all, it is all in the ear of the beholder.

Anyhow, don't get upset about the what if of politics, go here, cheer yourself up with some Sam.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Change-The World Has Changed

 
The Fleshtones: The World Has Changed
[purchase]

Things are going to change on January 20. In the abstract, as an American citizen, I’m pleased that our country has a long tradition of peaceful transfers of power between incoming and outgoing presidential administration. But in the real world, I really wish that there was some way to prevent the president elect from taking office. As I wrote elsewhere a few days after Election Day:

It made me wonder how this great country could elect someone whose apparent view of appropriate behavior is the exact opposite of how I was raised and how I raised my children. I know that he is a liar, a bully, a sexual predator and a man who had no compunctions mocking a person with a disability, the parents of an American serviceman who died in action, and women who fail to meet his personal standards of beauty, but whether or not the candidate himself is actually a racist, homophobic, antisemitic, misogynistic, white supremacist, that’s the rhetoric that he used to fire up his supporters. 

So, yeah, I’m not a fan.

I mean, whether or not the latest Russia blackmail material story is true or not, what amazes me is that it actually seems plausible that someone who bragged about grabbing women's genitals without consent or joked (?) about dating his own daughter would hire Russian hookers to provide a golden shower.  Plus, we know how much he loves gold.  

It is hard to tell what the lyrics are to The Fleshtones’ “The World Has Changed,” because singer Peter Zaremba has a bit of a mushmouth, and they don’t seem to be available anywhere on the Internet, so I can’t really tell whether the whole song works for my premise, but the chorus, “Don’t you understand the world has changed?” is good enough. The Fleshtones, by the way, formed in Queens, NY, my native borough, in the mid-1970s and their brand of fun, sloppy, supercharged garage rock meshed well with the punk and new wave scene in New York during that period. I remember playing them on the radio, and this song comes from their first full album, Roman Gods, on I.R.S. Records. The Fleshtones, despite a fairly strong cult following, never really hit it big, like their label mates The Go-Go’s or R.E.M., but have continued to record and perform to the present (unlike The Go-Go’s or R.E.M.).

Back to politics. In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a platform that emphasized hope and, yes, change. Hope for a better future, and change from the failed presidency of Dubya. And while President Obama’s eight years weren’t perfect, they were pretty damned good. He brought a thoughtfulness and decency to the office, gave African Americans and other minority group members hope that they could aspire to the Presidency (and by implication, to anything), and extended health care to millions. He helped bring the country out of the massive recession and financial crisis that confronted him when he took office, gave the order to kill Bin Laden, and was a shining example of how to be a husband and father. Among many other things.

Two nights ago, he gave a stirring, inspirational and personal farewell speech that, fittingly, returned to the themes of hope and change that were crucial to his election. Because he, and his speechwriters, are better writers than me, let me quote a bit from that speech, on the issue of change:

This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it. 

After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it's not just my belief. It's the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government. It's the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union. 

What a radical idea. A great gift that our Founders gave to us: The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good. 

For 240 years, our nation's call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It's what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It's what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. (Applause.) It's what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It's what powered workers to organize. It's why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan. And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well. (Applause.) 

So that's what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It's always been contentious. Sometimes it's been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some. 

The President used the word “change” 19 times in his address, which I don't think is a coincidence.  If you want to read a really good speech, check it out here (you can watch it, too).

We don’t know exactly how things are going to change starting on the 20th, but there are bad indications, in what the new guy is saying (or what may be in his heart), what he is doing, and what his nominated appointees have said and are saying. Let’s hope that this is one of President Obama’s “one step[s] back” after his two strides forward. Because otherwise, we’ve got a problem.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

In Memoriam: Dan Hicks



Above: I Scare Myself
PS: Stick with it until the violin solo
purchase [ Striking It Rich ]

As Andy La Ray Gun said, the stage is (sadly for us down here/ happy for them up there) getting pretty crowded, but I guess they would find a place on that stage for Dan Hicks (d. Feb 6, 2016).

Hicks hit the music scene as far back as the late 50s, worked his way though the 60s and around the 70s gained some recognition.

Striking It Rich is my favorite of his albums (probably because I listened to it the most). It includes a number of tunes that epitomize the man's style and ought to get you to at least tap your foot to the beat. Several of the songs have stuck with me over the 30 or more years:
<I Scare Myself>, <Canned Music> - all essentially of the same Dan Hicks style - a little country,a little jazz, a little folk and ... a little quirky, with an element of humour - of sorts. As in <O'Reilly At the Bar>:

Wasn't that beer there one of mine
Stealin' my beer is a sin
Stealin' my drink has caused me to think
Think about the rat that you are
Whoever you are, you pushed me too far
Now I'm gonna smash your face

Friday, January 6, 2017

In Memoriam: Some Overshadowed 2016 Losses



In a year in which we lost David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, two thirds of ELP, Paul Kantner, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, George Martin, Glenn Frey, Sharon Jones, and Mose Allison, to name just a very few (most of whom are still available as subjects for this theme, hint, hint), it is not surprising that some deaths during 2016 were overshadowed by bigger names. Here are a few that you may have missed:

Fred Tomlinson: Tomlinson wrote much of the music that added to the lunacy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and other British shows, and as leader of the Fred Tomlinson singers, performed a good deal of it. If he did nothing else but write the music for “The Lumberjack Song” and lead the Vikings in singing “Spam,” he’d deserve lionization, but he did much more.

[purchase the complete Monty Python series]

Dave Swarbrick and Pete Zorn: I was introduced to both of these musicians due to their connection to Richard Thompson. Swarbrick was best known as a fiddler, and was a member of Fairport Convention, remaining as a member after Thompson left, playing numerous instruments, singing and writing songs. He also contributed to many albums by Thompson and other members of the extended Fairport circle and performed as a solo artist and in various combinations. Check out this footage of him wailing on the fiddle, and singing, with Fairport Convention live in 1970.


Pete Zorn was an American multi-instrumentalist who played with Thompson live and on record, as well as other bands, often in the same English folk world as Swarbrick, and it does seem that they crossed paths. Zorn was Gerry Rafferty’s first choice to play the sax solo in “Baker Street,” but was unavailable; instead Raphael Ravenscroft got the gig. I remember seeing Zorn play with Thompson and handling many stringed and woodwind instruments, including the bass flute. Here he is, singing and playing sax on Thompson’s “Tear Stained Letter.”

[purchase Richard Thompson’s Hand of Kindness, featuring Zorn]
[purchase Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief]

Gilli Smyth: The co-founder of Gong, with her partner and collaborator Daevid Allen (who died last year), Smyth was a musician, poet, writer and activist. Her contributions to Gong (where she was sometimes billed as Shakti Yoni), and the spin off collections that sprung up over the years, were eccentric, provocative and always interesting. You can get a sense of her "space whispering" performing style, and that of Gong, in this performance from 1973 of “Witch's Song, I Am Your Pussy.”

[purchase Gong’s Flying Teapot]

Bernie Worrell: O.K., enough with the Brits. Worrell, a New Jersey native, was a classically trained pianist who gained fame (and entry to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) playing funk with Parliament/Funkadelic in the 1970s. I really began to appreciate Worrell when he joined the expanded Talking Heads. After that, he continued to play with a wide variety of musicians, and as a leader of his own group. Here he is, featured in the introduction and throughout the live performance of “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense.

[purchase the DVD of Stop Making Sense]

In Memoriam : Merle Haggard


In Memoriam: Merle Haggard
Purchase: Mama Tried 

It’s hard to keep track of all the shitty things that went down in 2016, including remembering all the musical luminaries we lost. Prince, Bowie, Cohen—hard to get past that, but it almost seems like everyone forgot Merle Haggard took the long journey home, too. Haggard passed away right before Prince, so I suppose the news got a little lost.
And, whose casting aspersions? Not me—so much bad went down in 2016 it’s hard to remember it all, let alone remember anything with a light shining on it…

What to say about The Hag? He’s classic country, as responsible for the sound of “real” country as Jennings, Owens, Williams, or Cash. I include Buck Owen’s name in that list of luminaries for two reasons: one, Buck has always been one of my favorites, and two, he and Haggard share equal responsibility for creating the “Bakersfield” sound, otherwise known as honky-tonk.

The meaning of honky tonk is disputed, with lots of disambiguation about the origins of the word, but essentially: it’s chunky, rhythm based hillbilly tunes, spun with a certain verve, rollicking, good time choruses which must be crooned – not sung - and whole lot of dirt and sawdust and love of things run down, of bourbon shot - not sipped - and beer cold and in a can.

I always found Haggard to be kind of square, as before I realized the cultural treasure of country and western music, all I knew of him was “Okie from Muskogee”, which was featured on the Platoon soundtrack and was used as the musical symbol representing the idea of establishment in the platoon itself. There are two great musical scenes in that movie: in the doper’s den, we get a wild party scene accompanied by Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”—sweetness and light, despite the darkness. And Haggard’s anti-hippie screed, “Okie From Muskogee” accompanies the scene where we spend time with the hardcore, non-dope smoking, hippie hating soldiers under Barnse’s command…two versions of hell, made much more tolerable with music, probably both songs inserted as an aural joke…What's ironic about Haggard's straight-laced stance that he took in "Muskogee" is how it directly opposes his own lifestyle, meaning his well-documented drug and alcohol problems. But C&W music is often more about the story and the real life that is reflects than the sterling souls of those who deliver it all. Fiction, or in this case, song, doesn't need to be the truth, at least not so much as it reflects the reality of the one who writes it. It's the emotional truth that matters, not the actual truth that inspires the story...

As I got older, I started to recognize Haggard’s greatness through the influence he had on younger, modern artists. That’s a long list, but his fingerprints can be found everywhere, from Dwight Yoakam to Eric Church, to Reckless Kelly and a lot in between. When he died, the Washington Post wrote how "Respect for the Hag [Haggard] as an icon, both for his musical status and his personal views, is a common theme in country music.” His Wikipedia page goes on to say part of his ubiquity in country songs is the fact that ‘Merle’ rhymes with ‘girl’ and is therefore an easy phonic device to use in four chord, verse-chorus-verse country tunes—you know, the kind you love to sing along to ‘cause they sit so easy in the part of you that feels so good when you hear a pop song…that’s probably a whole post in itself, too.

The Hag—often imitated, rarely equaled (though, I think of all his disciples, Sturgill Simpson, with his grave, beautiful baritone and poet’s soul, is his best successor). There’s a hell of a band up in heaven this year, you know? I don’t want to be there, not yet, but, it bet things sound great right about now. My selection from The Hag is one of my faves, not necessarily his best, but then, that kind of subjectivity could be a whole other post…

I'm using "Mama Tried” for my song to accompany this post, which plays on the best of the outlaw country image that is almost it’s own metaphor with these old troubadours, and never, ever gets old…


Thursday, January 5, 2017

IN MEMORIAM: BLACK (COLIN VEARNCOMBE)

Again I seek a lesser known name to celebrate, part of the tragedy being the unnatural cause of his death, following a road traffic accident, in which he sustained ultimately fatal head injuries. He was 53.


Best known, possibly only known for 1987 UK number 8 single, 'Wonderful Life', an intentionally sarcastic summation of how he then saw his life. However, coupled with his gloriously lugubrious baritone, it struck a chord and took off, albeit only within Europe and Australia Sadly nothing else ever made the same impact, although I feel I prefer some of the other songs on his initial and eponymous LP, so, because I can, I will include them in this piece.

                                                                      (Sweetest Smile)

A little known fact is that he was a touring member of the Thompson Twins ahead of his solo career, which continued, in kicks and starts until his untimely death.

                                                      (Everything's Coming Up Roses)

Sure, the never more 80s production values have dated, but still wonderful songs. Enjoy and explore.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In memoriam: Paul Kantner





purchase [Jefferson Airplane Volunteers]

By about the time that <Blows Against the Empire> came out, I had moved on. That said, I had a copy of <Takes Off> and <Volunteers> more or less as soon as they came out. Certainly, their Woodstock performance was critical to my appreciation of Jefferson Airplane. The view they espoused or symbolized was equally formative to my perception of music and the world in general. But somehow, about the time of the switch to Starship in place of Airplane, they lost me. Might have been my developing musical tastes, the offer of so much more in that realm than what they were into. But it never took away from my sense and recognition that they were seminal.

When I think Airplane, I call up Kantner, Slick, Balin, Casady, Kaukonen. I likewise call up Hot Tuna.
I cant say that Paul Kantner stood out for me - except that he was in it all along. Co-founder. It's not like I studied his guitar chops or anything. But that is from a perspective somewhat not too focused on who's who - I just knew that he was critical to the band.

There was certainly something unusual about the band at the time of <Takes Off>. Partly it was their sound - kind of raw but still harmonic. Partly it was the message they seemed to represent (singing "Our generation's got soul" - in whatever connotations you wish to ascribe - and the message/vision became even better defined with <Volunteers/We Can Be Together> ...  "we are all outlaws in the eyes of America ... to find a better time .. Up against the wall mother fu**er .. tear down the wall". Woah . Hold on a minute (shades of Nixon or someone else), . Part of the West Coast/SF scene but more driven than the Dead in their sound and their message. Friends... we are talking 1969 - that's almost 50 years ago... and look where we are now.

Maybe even more poignant and serendipitous in a sad way: the fact that Signe Anderson (the voice on <Takes Off>) happened to die on exactly the same day that Paul Kantner did. Anniversary coming up in a week or so: Jan 28.

 


Sunday, January 1, 2017

IN MEMORIAM: MARTIN STONE


Phew, 2017..... I felt I had to wait for this piece, mindful how sharp the scythe has seemed to be in this year just gone, culling indiscriminately from the ranks of musicians I have chosen to fill my ears with these last 40 odd years. I guess none of this should be a surprise, these are individuals in, usually, late middle age with lives often, um, well lived, shall we say, strangers not to the occasional pick-me-up in their primes. And some not. Indeed, some of the best livers, to follow the metaphor, clearly have superlative livers and still live on, maybe to give us cause for rumination. And copy for future years.....


Spoilt for choice, my subject may not be or ever have been a household name. That is, unless you lived with me in the early 1970s. I was at boarding school, that peculiar english idea of bettering the child by removing the parents, and, stranger still, l was loving it. Clearly, and as stated here before, I was an odd boy, and I enjoyed to distance myself from the Floyd, Sabbath and Purple of my peers, diving, in preference, into the splendour of folk and country influences, Fairport Convention and the Flying Burrito Brothers, studiously devouring the inkies for ever new and arcane bands. So when I heard of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, my interest was immediately tickled.


An unwieldy mix of hippy redneck culture, filtered through a peculiarly anglocentric prism, to incorporate 20s pastiche, blues and bluegrass, the Willis were in the frontline of pub-rock, the pre-punk evanescence of a simpler music to the prog and pomp of that time. I was hooked. I think they were perhaps the 2nd band I ever saw live, at Hove Town Hall, mesmerised by the stick-thin guitarist,  with what looked like a woollen tea-cosy on his head, peeling off staccato bursts of notes, each droplet lithe and discrete, quite different from the searing screech de rigeur back then, and indeed even now. Retrospectively more of a jazzy stylisation, though the notes were determinably blues in origin. The rest of the band were no slouches either, later Resident "Snakefinger" Phil Lithman, on guitars, fiddle and lap steel, later Attraction Pete Thomas, on drums and the 2 Pauls, "Bassman" Riley on, um, bass, and "Dice Man" Bailey on guitar, sax and banjo.
Bongos over Balham I bought on release, later to discover this was their 2nd album, there being an earlier, nominally duo album, Kings of the Robot Rhythm, featuring just Stone and Lithman and some cameos from assorted guests. Of course I bought it, along with the various compilations that appeared later, the lifespan of the band being distinctly short. Stone continued to drift about the pub-rock circuit, for a time a member of the 101-ers, Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band and, my last live sighting of him, the memorably named Jivebombers. And then zilch. He disappeared.
Being the geek I am I had to look backwards to get my fix, unearthing quite a few of his back pages, starting with Mod group, The Action, later morphing into psychedelic kaftan and yakskin afghan coat botherers, Mighty Baby. I think it was here that he defined and individualised his trademark guitar sound, not least as extended guitar wig-outs were the order of the day. Actually quite a challenging listen, attuned ears always expecting the aforementioned screech of his contemporaries, but worth it. Spells with various other bands, Savoy Brown and famed Ladbroke Grove mavericks/crazies, the Pink Fairies, appear in his c.v., never being quite in the right place at the right time for fame and fortune.
But where did he go to when the music ended? Intriguingly, a 2nd career beckoned and into which he became a far greater legend, disappearing into the little known sub-culture of bookrunning or bookscouting, the apparently cut-throat world of 2nd hand books, whereby fortunes could be made or lost by finding the right first editions in dusty bookshops and library collections. Stone's reputation was of the best, being described as having an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what was there, by smell or intuition, on entry through the door of a bookshop seemingly identical to the one next door. This is described way better here, or by reading White Chapell, Scarlett Tracings, a novel by Iain Sinclair, wherein the chief character, a Nicholas Lane, is unmistakably a thinly disguised Stone. I had become aware of this second life through my purchase of a re-released Mighty Baby LP, with extensive sleevenotes and an interview with Stone, but I always wonder how many of his book people were ever aware of his musical past. And vice versa. Certainly his music fans found it difficult to keep up with him, so it was quite a shock to me to hear and read of his death.
R.I.P. with a burst of their nearly, in my imagination, hit single......


Buy Bongos

Top Posts of 2016

 photo 48b65efd-367e-46c7-b94a-97de6dfb8b56_zps3qooifhm.png

We briefly interrupt our annual In Memoriam theme for our second annual highlighting of the 10 most viewed posts of the previous year.  This year, 9 of the 10 most viewed pieces are from two themes from last summer, "Roads/Streets" and "The Number 4."

Through our (usually) two-week long themes, our international roster of writers address many different kinds of music, and bring different perspectives to their pieces. In our top 10, there are personal memories, political and social discussions, covers, remembrances of those who have passed, both famous and personally important, and even just posts about songs, music and musicians. This list includes discussions of folk, rock, prog, power pop and other genres.

So, in case you missed them, here are the most viewed posts from the last calendar year. But they are only a small sampling of what you will find in our archives, which we invite you to explore.  Also, we invite you to like us on Facebook, so that you won't miss anything.

1. Roads/Streets-Tenemos Roads
2. Girl-Girl Of My Dreams
3. The Number 4-Positively Fourth Street
4. The Number 4-4 Days of Rain
5. Roads/Streets-Bleecker Street
6. The Number 4-Four Sticks
7. Roads/Streets-Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley
8. The Number 4-Four Seasons In One Day
9. Roads/Streets-Shakedown Street
10. The Number 4-409

And there is much more to come in 2017.