Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Carole King Covers: Where You Lead

purchase the original [Where You Lead]

It's a default: Tapestry is Carole King's best. There's not a song on the album that isn't good - and the best of SMM agree.

Several of the songs on Tapestry were co-written with Toni Stern. But ...who is Toni Stern? Google says that Toni gets credits for both "Where You Lead" and "It's Too Late" from Tapestry. However, there is incredibly little info about Toni Stern on the Internet, and - as an amateur musician myself - it concerns me that someone could pen some of the best songs of all time and still remain under the radar! (There must be some online source that recognizes your work even if you don't flog it yourself!) The IMDB movie database credits a Toni Stern with work on Gilmore Girls and Karate Kid but those appear to be re-issues of the same Carole K
ing work 30 years earlier. Stern seems to focus on her writing - her web site is about her poetry. The IMDB/movie links are inconclusive in terms of providing much more depth.

Aside from the "Who is Toni Stern" issue, there is the question of who does the best cover of which Carole King song. Time was, when Star Maker posted most anything online ... because we could. Because the Internet allowed it. Because SMM's policies were based on "we provide this temporary (mp3) link in the hopes that you will love it and purchase the legal version". Gone are those days. Adapting to these conditions, I initially reverted to SoundCloud for a freely distributable cover of "Where You Lead" -of which there are several. Sadly, even the free download links aren't easy to embed here.

Like most of the bloggers @ SMM, I ended up @ YouTube. The listed YouTube covers don't include one by the Michael Baker Band - never head of them before - but they've got a decent cover of "Where You Lead."  Sadly, I can't locate any info clearly related to the band - there are a couple of Michael Bakers online but none appears to be this one.The lead vocals are very decent. The band is fairly tight. I would have wished the back vocals were a little louder. Hope you enjoy. And if you know more about the band, leave a comment.

Carole King Covers: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Me First & The Gimme Gimmes: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

You could argue that one of the ways to tell if a song is really well-written is to see whether it holds up when performed in different styles. Some songs would seem to only be effective in a particular style—for example, the Sex Pistols’ great “God Save The Queen” only works as an angry blast of punk, and not, for example, as a folk tune. Although you might be surprised at how good King Crimson’s prog-rock archetype “21st Century Schizoid Man” sounds in Delta blues style.

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” seems to sound great no matter how it is played. Written by King and Gerry Goffin when she was still in her teens, the song was first released by The Shirelles in 1960, in classic girl group style, with tight harmony vocals and lush orchestration. Although apparently banned by some radio stations because of the sexual nature of the lyrics (!), it nevertheless reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

I’m not going to give you a long tour through the many, many covers of this great song, except to point out that it works in Swedish. And when King recorded the song for the great Tapestry album, she did it in a slower, piano-driven, contemplative style with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor contributing background vocals.  It was both an artistic and commercial success, getting played regularly on FM radio.

It is sort of a gimmick to take classic rock songs of this, and other, eras, speed them up, and turn them into punk songs. Few artists are as committed to this niche that honors the songs, but with sufficient ironic detachment to retain their punk cred, than Me First and The Gimme Gimmes. A “supergroup” of sorts, with members that include Fat Mike of NOFX, Chris Shiflett of Foo Fighters, and Spike Slawson of Swingin’ Utters and Re-Volts, they have released a bunch of albums, EPs and singles, including their 2001 album, Blow In The Wind, which focuses on pop hits of the 1960s. Their version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is, appropriately, loud, fast and surprisingly catchy, like The Shirelles’ version, but still retains some of the melancholy of King’s.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Carole King Covers: Going Back

Purchase: The Byrds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Listen:  Going Back

It is one of those almost cliché—yet still astounding—facts that Carole King is one of the most prolific songwriters in modern history. There are countless songs you know that she wrote and gave to other artists who then took the tunes to the top of the charts. She was prolific as she was talented and her influence has touched on almost every chart in popular music. She is even the subject of a Broadway play—Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The tag line says it all: “The inspiring true story of how Carole King became the soundtrack of a generation.”

It would take another, separate post, to list the artists who’ve recorded King’s music, but one of my favorites is the The Byrds. The Byrd’s unique take on rock—chiming, majestic—was as dependent on the psychedelic sitarspin as it was on folk and pop. Jangly guitars, phasing sound from one ear to another, and a straight up reliance on the country and western rhythm made the Byrds one of the most unique bands of their era. I feel like they are mostly remembered for “Turn, Turn, Turn” which suffers from the invocation of the sappy, flower power ethic of the ‘60s. But, as the Byrd’s ranged more towards country and western and left behind the banalities of the hippie movement, they became a rich, influential outfit that would pave the way for some of today’s most seminal bands (at least in my record collection: Son Volt and Wilco, to name just two.) An early sense of breaking molds and exploring sonic possibilities will forever set the Byrds at a tier above many of their contemporaries, even if they are often overlooked as innovators and were sometimes incredibly uneven.

The Carole King penned “Going Back” was the lead single from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and while the album didn’t chart very high, it is cited often as their best album for its experimental feel. It is a solid album all the way through, working towards a sonic vision, and unlike other albums, it cleaves to an idea and presents it to the listener in a gorgeous, shimmery blend of melody and chiming guitar and vox.  The cohesiveness is interesting in another way: in researching the album, one finds that it was tumultuous time for the band, and three members, including David Crosby, left  for good during the recordings.

The album has made its way onto various Greatest Albums lists (171 In Rolling Stones Greatest 500; 32 on NME’s Top 100) lists and writer, Johnny Rogan, in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, said: “The Byrds' greatest accomplishment on the album was in creating a seamless mood piece from a variety of different sources, bound together by innovative studio experimentation.”

The song itself has an almost antiquated chorus, reminiscent of so much of the sound of the day, but the Byrd’s add those odd, dithering guitars and the song goes from easy listening to something much more adventurous and exploratory.

“Going Back” has a long history, and while the version I’ve chosen is the Byrd’s take, the song has been recorded by artists as disparate as Phil Collins, The Pretenders, Freddy Mercury and Bon Jovi. David Crosby hated it because it felt it was unserious “fluff”. Indeed, it is pure pop whimsy, and covers a timeless theme of coming of age and the loss of innocence that adulthood brings. But, under Roger McGuinn’s harmony and the guitars, it’s a pure pop masterpiece and demonstration of Carole King’s talent at literally spinning gold. I think one way to put a definition on the influence and reach of Carole King is that she’d already written a decades worth of hits before she released her own album, Tapestry, which is one of the greatest selling pop records of all time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Carole King Covers: You've Got A Friend

It's possibly a fact that Ms King's best known song is in itself best known as a cover, namely the comforting and syrupy balm of James Taylor singing "You've Got a Friend", perhaps also "his" best known song. I don't know whether this can or could be proven as, with someone having a career stretching from being a Brill Building manufactured popsmith in the early 60s, to hippie chick troubador a decade later, to damn right, yes, she's still going with a bit of both and everything in between, it's difficult to work out. I guess it's in part generational, with the hepcats of '66 nodding sagely as the by then far and wigged-out Byrds phase their way through "Goin' Back", or the soulsters grooving to Aretha and "...Natural woman", so my generation picked up on "Tapestry", through her old friend and guitar slinger lifting a song from it as his break through single. But this isn't about sweet baby James, being more a tribute to some of the less well travelled versions. (Or is that so far travelled?)

I remain uncertain whether this is the worst thing I have ever heard or whether it is worse even than that, inescapably making me see the Muppets in my minds eye, so expertly do Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire channel Fozzie and Kermit. From the hideous patronising patronage of "contemporary" to the plodding singalongagramps of the performance, any nostalgic buzz for, say, "The Little Drummer Boy" evaporates.

Let's try something a bit more up-tempo, yeah, a James Brown influence:

Nooooooooo, take it off, take it away. Hideous even more than the old groaning above, is this supper club travesty really that Fred Wesley, those J.B.s? No wonder the album was "The Lost Album". I would.

Let's try again, some UK 80s indie, that'll be something, eh?

The Housemartins were the short-lived first band of Paul Heaton, later of "The Beautiful South" as here, and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook. And this version of the song is awful.

I'm beginning to lose faith and falter here. I mean, how difficult can it be? Hell, premium cover version listings site, Second Hand Songs, lists 125 versions. OK, so the list includes everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to Barry Manilow, and God knows who in between.

One more, some late 90's acid jazz:

Brand New Heavies were/are a UK originally instrumental band forming in the mid 80s, diversifying into a somewhat bland vocal hybrid between jazz, funk and nods toward hip-hop and dance music, with a string of sultry southern US vocal divas passing through their ranks, Carleen Anderson and N'Dea Davenport being perhaps the 2 best known, but with Siedah Garrett on the above, a minor hit in the UK. Tellingly, it was not even on the US copy of its parent album. I have to say it's the best of the lot I have found today, if purely by virtue of comparison.

So what's my point? Is it a good song? Well, I had always thought so, but maybe there is rather more of the Brill Building professional hit maker weave in "Tapestry" and "You've Got A Friend" than first hearing makes believe, hence the ease with which it sheds any credibility into a nylon leisure suit of schmaltz. And thus, maybe it is just the consummate interpretation skill of Taylor that embues it with any subtlety at all, although, to be fair, the original is pretty damn good too. Carole King was trained to write songs that would sell. 125 versions is a lot of versions and, by virtue of the names mentioned, hideous though to my ears, a lot of royalties. Success by any marker.

Finally, by way of a lift to my sorry conclusion, was it a fluke? Has the song got the capability of rising above it's apparent formula? Well, who better to give us that answer than the writer and the singer already mention, both here together, a mere 5 years ago.

Praise be! No fluke. Song good, interpretations vary............

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Carole King Covers: Don’t Bring Me Down

David Johansen: We Gotta Get Out Of This Place/Don't Bring Me Down/It's My Life

Last week, I watched all 10 episodes of Aziz Ansari’s great new Netflix series Master of None. In addition to being very funny, the show deals head on with issues of racism, sexism and ageism, among other “isms.” So, when I thought about suggesting a cover song theme for the next two weeks, I became sensitive to the fact that over the years we have done nine other themes focusing on cover songs, and in each case, but one, the spotlight artists were male. Joni Mitchell was the only featured woman. (And as I write this, I realize that all nine artists are white, something that also needs to be addressed). And that’s how we ended up with a theme highlighting Carole King Covers. (That’s a lot of “K” sounds, so it must be funny.)

Next year is the 45th anniversary of the release of Tapestry, which was King’s second solo release. It established her as a commercial success as a performer, and is still one of the largest selling albums of all time. Pretty much every song on the album is great, and I loved it when I was a kid, but it is, honestly, not an album that I pull out to listen to anymore. I hope that some of the other writers here write about covers of songs from Tapestry, and I might down the road, but not today.

By 1971, when Tapestry was released, King had already had a 20 year long music career, beginning with her appearance on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour as an 8 year old, recording demos in high school with her friend Paul Simon, and, while attending Queens College, writing songs for others, mostly with Gerry Goffin, from an office in the famous Brill Building in Times Square. The number of hit songs she turned out is stunning, as is the breadth of styles—artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, The Shirelles, Herman’s Hermits, The Drifters and even The Beatles recorded covers of her songs. The Broadway show Beautiful does a nice job bringing this to life, as well as discussing King’s later career. It is, of course, a cleaned up, streamlined version of the story, but it is very entertaining.

The Animals, led by singer Eric Burdon, were created in the early 1960s, and featured a gritty, blues based sound. In 1964, they released their signature song, a cover of the traditional blues song, “House of the Rising Sun.” Their producer, Mickie Most, reportedly called into the offices of Screen Gems music, then run by Don Kirshner, looking for songs. A furious competition ensued among the various writers and teams, which ultimately resulted in three hits—“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who were friends and rivals of Goffin and King), “It’s My Life,” written by the team of Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico, and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a Goffin/King composition, which was the last hit for the band, before it was renamed “Eric Burdon and The Animals," before breaking up. (Burdon re-formed the band, with new members and a psychedelic style after moving to California in 1966, although the old incarnation also had reunions.)

I had the opportunity to interview David Johansen, I believe in 1981, when he appeared in Trenton at City Gardens. I might even have introduced him. Johansen is one of those musicians who has successfully reinvented himself over the years, from his days fronting the legendary New York Dolls, which was followed by a solo career under his own name, to his partying alter-ego Buster Poindexter and his more recent country-blues work with The Harry Smiths. I was, and continue to be a big fan of the music he released in the early ‘80s, particularly his first three albums, David Johansen, In Style, and Here Comes the Night, all of which received heavy airplay on my radio shows.

Shortly after I graduated from college, and regrettably left the radio world behind, Johansen released a great live record, Live it Up, which capitalized on his justified reputation as a great concert performer. The collection kicks off with an intense medley of the three songs that Mickie Most bought for the Animals from Screen Gems, including a great version of “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Not only is Johansen in total command of the material, his band is tight. It included guitarists Huw Gower, who power pop lovers might know best as the guitarist on The Records’ incredible “Starry Eyes,” and Dave Nelson, who was in Nektar, New Riders of the Purple Sage and The Turtles, as well as keyboard player Charlie Giordano, who now plays with the E Street Band and drummer Tony Machine, who had been in later versions of the New York Dolls.

Math & Science: Battles/Atlas


Why can't land speeders fly higher than five meters above the ground? Why does R2D2, despite being a droid, have feelings and a confidence suggesting the force is in him? How can anyone possibly say that Superman is stronger than Green Lantern when GL can simply make a cage of green kryptonite? Why does Prince Adam get tan after becoming He-Man and why can't anyone recognise him? And in Greek mythology, how can Atlas hold the world on his shoulders and still preside in that world? If he sneezes, does his body shake twice?  Does he also carry the atmosphere and space? I did poorly in science and math, but at least I asked the important questions.

These are questions that still entertain me as an adult, but I keep them to myself unless I'm lucky to find another child man who's been dwelling on them. When musicians mention gods, demi-gods and Titans from myth, I usually take notice. Often it's either sadly generic or so intensely honorific that it's unsettling. (Dead Can Dance's "Song of the Sirens" and "Persephone" do well, and of course Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon").  Battle's "Atlas" is more on the ambiguous side without referring to Atlas himself or the heavens, but it's a hell of a tune, stomping forward into thunderous hypnosis. A flinging guitar riff teases, and then a freaky childish taunt leads you to believe the song will unravel. However, like Atlas, spare a brief time when he passed the world onto Hercules via a trick, the beat is maintained except for one grisly breakdown.

Atlas must have been on the verge of going nuts with all that responsibility, or at least severely pissed off at times. But he was compassionate enough to never let go. Battles presents different versions of "Atlas" and its repetitive madness that could go on for another twenty minutes without tiring you. There are lots of live versions available. This take at the Fuji Rock Festival is one of the best.

text by Jake

Friday, November 13, 2015

Math & Science: Five to One

I’m a teacher in my real life—or is it the other way around?  And one thing I hate, that makes me squirm with embarrassment is when teachers try to teach by co-opting popular songs and parodying the lyrics, or the video, to bring home their curricular goals in a way the kids “will really understand.”

It’s just embarrassing, in the same way your parents were embarrassing when they yelled at you in front of your friends or tried to get down on your level by dropping a bit of slang. You know, to show you they were on your level. Ugg…it’s like every mom is Marge Simpson, too clueless to have a clue, or Homer; too dumb to know how dumb he is acting.

Teachers love parodies, love trying to really reach the kids in ways they will understand. Hey, why don’t we take Shakespeare and rap the lines. Shakespeare would approve—after all, he was just using language in new ways, too…Oh, I know it well: desperate to reach these twitter net numbed little vacant oxygen abusers, we resort to making horse’s asses of ourselves. But, for a phenomenal paycheck…ahhhbullshitchoo!

Point is, school and…almost anything else good in my life never mixed. Strange, in a cosmic way, that I became a teacher. But, I still get the chills when a teacher ditches their dignity to teach a lesson to kids in language they can understand…just reminds me too much of that disaffected little Walkman and MTV numbed oxygen abuser I was not so long ago.

OK, I’m whining…Here’s a case in point, though I have to admit: If any of my teachers looked like this, I might have given the whole school thing another chance…

Annnnndddd.....then, there’s this….


Stop…just stop. You might grow up, but you never grow up too much to not be embarrassed.

Yeah, OK…I’ll stop…

So, this month’s theme is math. Math. The subject I struggled with the most all the way up until I graduated…from college. Math was my preeminent anxiety from grade school on—I had tutors, I failed courses, I did summer school. Once, on the SAT, I did so poorly on my math that my Math score was 100…this was when the top SAT score was only 1400. I got an 800 total…That’s…pretty bad.

In high school, I liked music, and writing, precisely because they were as opposite of mathematics as could get: freedom minus rigidity, enjoyment divided by anxiety equaled a shitty GPA and lowered expectations. The last day I ever had to take a math class was one of the happiest days of my life. I remember walking out of Rawl Hall at East Carolina University, thinking: I will never take another f#$%ing math class again. It was a great feeling, like I’d suffered something for longer than I thought I could and walked out with all parts—limbs and sanity—in tact. I had worked really hard, to be honest and at the end, I knew I wasn’t going to let my relationship with mathematics end with my slinking away to nurse my wounds and regret the fight I hadn’t put up. I worked hard that semester, harder than I’d ever worked and ended the semester with a B-…the highest grade I’d ever scored in any math class. F#$k math. I’d won.

What does this have to do with music? Nothing, other than hating the sciences and the numbers was probably the catalyst for my love of music, and if it was nothing else, it was a precious escape.

One of the first bands I became truly obsessed with in my alternate, music-oriented education, was The Doors. It makes sense in many ways: The Doors are kind of a “gateway” band into serious music for a lot of teenage boys; Morrison was an incorrigible class clown, in school and out (I know this—part of the right of passage of being a Doors fan was to read No One Here Gets Out Alive, Danny Sugarman’s bio); the music was dark enough to be an antidote to a lot of the classic rock that got spun as voice of the generation stuff; and on a personal level, Morrison, much like me at the time, wanted to be and considered himself above all, a poet. I wasn’t a student when I was 16 and 17—I would have accepted any label other than that. Poet was good—the idea was cool and writing poetry got me more than a few girls. Playing guitar helped, too. I suppose that is an equation that still works.

The Doors were a great band to get into—there was plenty of mythology to dig, a real fabled aura around the shamanistic Morrison, and musical sound that was often a dark opposite to the flower power, ‘come on people, smile on your brother’ stuff that was a primer for the 60s rock explosion. Hendrix did it better, of course, but he was solo artist, in a sense. The Doors were a group and thus presented a more unified system of disorder. And while Morrison in particular can be almost cringe-inducing when I go back and listen (L’America?) some tracks, like their first hit, Break on Through, and others— The Whiskey Song, Love Me Two Times, When the Music’s Over— cook with some kind of other spirit, blues-influenced, incendiary, dark and magisterial—when the Doors were on, they were stunningly good—rock n roll dredged through the dirt. I loved that sound when I was young; it represented a true rebellion, an antidote, if you will, to all the forces in life working to keep me stifled in a classroom.

So, in honor to my wayward days, my wasted youth, all the tests I failed, all the desks I carved “The Doors” into, all the dreams I had about blowing it up and blowing it out, I choose The Doors, “Five to One.” This explosive chant and stomp reads like a child’s rhyme, but it burns with a controlled fury that takes aim at the listener or anyone who might not dig what Morrison was pushing. I love John Densmore’s pounding, military drums; Robby Krieger is at his bluesy best when he rips off the solo, and Ray Manzarek’s fuzzed out keyboard line fills in as a static-infused bass, crackling with serious mojo, far advanced and way modern for its time. As for Morrison—he says it all here. Talking about hippies crawling across the floor, flowers in hand, he sets himself in firm opposition to the flower power ethic of peace and love, then goes on to engage in what, to me at the time, was as a pure a middle finger in the face of my teachers, the cops, my folks, as many authority figures as I could find to be pissed off at:

The old get old
And the young get stronger
May take a week
And it may take longer
They got the guns
But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah
We're takin' over

A little light on the true rebellious capital, I realize, but at the time, that was all I needed: a little stomp, a lot of anger and either a stepping stone to something better, or just a nice, fist sized stone through any ready window.

Rock on, Jim…I might make a little fun of you, but deep down, you’re my first and always rock n roll hero.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Math & Science: Π

Kate Bush: Π

As I wracked my brain for another topical track to write about, I discarded a few ideas, mostly because I didn’t have anything personal to write about. I looked at lists of songs, but none called out to me. So I decided to find a song that had an interesting story, and I remembered that Kate Bush had written a song called “Π.” This being a Math & Science theme, I decided to do a little research on the song, to see whether there was anything there.

I remember when the song came out, hearing that it consisted of Bush singing π to some large number of digits. But that’s not all it is. It is actually a song about a mathematician who is obsessed with the number, somewhat irrationally (sorry), and Bush, a notorious musical eccentric with a remarkable voice, does sing many digits of π in a way that is not at all boring.

But if that was all I found, I’d probably be looking for another, meatier topic. Instead, guess what? A couple of math types posted stuff about the song.

Let’s start with the less strange. Chris McEvoy, a self-described “rabble rousing programmer who hates technology but loves people” pointed out in a blog post on November 11, 2005, that Kate got it wrong. As he wrote:

All was well for the first 53 decimal places but then Kate sang "threeeeee oneeeee" when she should have sang "zeeeeeeerooo" instead. She recovered for the next 24 digits but then it went to hell in a handbasket when she missed out the next 22 digits completely before finishing with a precise rendition of her final 37 digits. (Note—McEvoy later amended his statement, agreeing that she said “zeeeeeeerooo" and not "threeeeee oneeeee").

Which led to a bunch of somewhat hostile comments, because apparently π, or Kate Bush, are not to be trifled with. On the other hand, there’s also a positive comment from someone identifying as “Kate Bush,” but it’s the Internet, so you never know.

On March 14, 2006, McEvoy took to the blogosphere to point out that while that day is considered “Pi Day” in the United States, in countries that use a “Month/Day” system, “Pi Day” should be April 31 (31/4), a date that doesn’t exist, so he suggested May Day as the solution. Also, he cited to a number of British newspapers and radio programmes (as he spells it) that referred to his π digit “Gotcha!” Apparently in England, Kate Bush and π are big deals.

Now, let’s discuss Steve Luttrell, who has a degree in “theoretical physics and [a] PhD . . . in quantum chromodynamics (QCD).” Luttrell was convinced that Bush’s “errors” were actually a deliberate creation of a number puzzle. He put together an entire website devoted to this puzzle, A Great Big Circle, which sadly appears to be gone, but discussed his findings in a series of blog posts, here. In essence, he “solved” the puzzle, to find the exact location of an “artefact built out of stones to resemble a steam locomotive.” And, of course, “The locomotive theme is part of an extended metaphor that runs throughout π, consisting of tunnels, columns, chimneys, mine shafts, and generally anything and everything to do with sex.”

Me, I’m more of a fan of Occam’s Razor, but not in the way that Luttrell interprets it. Although I don't have a PhD in quantum chromodynamics, which according to Wikipedia is is the theory of strong interactions, a fundamental force describing the interactions between quarks and gluons which make up hadrons such as the proton, neutron and pion.  I still don't know what that means, but I did wedge a little more science into this piece.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Math & Science: Tom Lehrer Again!

purchase [Tom Lehrer: the Elements]

Yes, it's not "pop". But it once was.

I hadn't planned this ahead, but - digging around - I recalled that Tom Lehrer (in his total output of 37 songs) not only covered the field of Math, but also got around to Science. No surprise - math ... science ... it's all greek to many of us.

As he says at the end - if you can listen all the way through: "Life was much simpler in those days."