Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos


Ian Dury and many others: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos
[purchase]

Aaah, synergy! Over at Cover Me, I have a piece about early Stiff Records artist Wreckless Eric, featuring covers of his most famous song, “Whole Wide World” (although maybe not so famous, because my wife claims never to have heard the song before reading my post). In the course of that article, I mentioned the “Live Stiffs” tour from 1977 which featured Wreckless Eric and other Stiff artists of the era. (I’ve written about the tour here, too.)

Originally, the plan was for all of the acts to rotate in the running order, but it soon became clear that the clear choice for ending the show was Ian Dury & the Blockheads, and the obvious choice for the encore would be their anthem, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” which would include the other members of the tour.

The version that appeared on the Life Stiffs album was titled “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos,” because, well, it pretty much devolves into chaos. The song begins with Dury introducing the performers while the band vamps, before he yells out “Cut out the fucking spitting,” presumably to the audience, but it might have been to his fellow musicians, I guess. He brings on a few more people, apparently calling for more cables, before saying, “OK, we’ll bring a few more out in a minute, we’re going to start the fucking thing.”

Dury starts singing the song, occasionally ceding lead vocals to others. At one point, he yells out “Nick Lowe, Nick Lowe,” presumably because the Basher came on stage, but another singer, maybe Wreckless Eric, echoes it, as if it was a call and response lyric. (Sort of reminds me of one of my favorite moments from Life of Brian). Dury then changes the lyrics to replace the phrase “cake of liberty” with “cake of Wreckless Eric,” before a wailing sax solo by Davey Payne. At which point, the song turns into a jam, with the singers basically chanting the title, before a big finish.

There were probably 4 drummers, a bunch of guitarists and singers, one sax player, and some keyboard and bass players, all packed on what is likely a small club stage. In a word, it was probably chaos. And probably an enormous amount of fun, except for the fucking spitting.

The song was, not surprisingly, popular, when I was at WPRB in the late 1970s-early 80s. One Saturday morning, my parents were driving down to Princeton to go to the football game, so I arranged to be on the air so that they could hear me. Being the cheeky lad that I was, I made sure that “S&D&R&R” was played, and I wished that all my listeners would partake in the titular items. My father never let me forget that.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: Twisted

Wardell Gray: Twisted

[purchase]

Our theme might have produced more posts by now if it was “mental illness”. That is certainly one way to approach it, although we have already seen that Chaos/ Confusion is broader than that. So this post could actually spark an argument as to whether the song fits our current theme at all. I feel that it does, because of the merits of the song itself, and also because of confusion over who wrote it.

I first heard Twisted as done by Joni Mitchell. I don’t know if it was a single, but it was all over FM radio in 1974. I was 14 that year, and I just assumed that Joni Mitchell wrote the song. What does a 14 year old know? I knew that I immediately loved the song, and I still do. It introduced me to jazz singing, and that at in tern opened my ears to jazz in general. But I did not know until much later that the original version of Twisted was a jazz instrumental by Wardell Gray. Gray is one of those respected figures in jazz history that you come to hear of, but it’s hard to name anything he did. Partly, this is because he was best known as a sideman. Also, although we tend to think of jazz in the period following World War II as a New York thing, Gray was part of a lively scene in Los Angeles that probably should be better known. Certainly, Twisted deserved the fame it would later achieve, and it’s a shame Gray does not get more credit for the song.

Lambert Hendricks and Ross: Twisted

[purchase]

As great as Joni Mitchell’s Twisted is, she isn’t even the one who wrote the lyrics. That was Annie Ross. In 1952, Ross was asked by the head of her record company to write words to a sax solo. Ross later said in an interview that she chose Twisted because of the possibilities of the title. She decided to write a spoof of psychoanalysis, and completed the lyrics in one night. The song is an example of vocalese, a term which did not exist at the time. Basically, vocalese is doing what Ross did here, taking an instrumental piece and writing words for it. Lambert Hendricks and Ross were pioneers of vocalese. They would later be a major inspiration for the group Manhattan Transfer, who would cover many of their songs. Another great name in vocalese, if you want to explore, is Eddie Jefferson.

Joni Mitchell: Twisted

[purchase]

I still love Joni Mitchell’s version of Twisted. Mitchell made the song her own, and the joy of singing it comes through loud and clear. She also made two minor changes to the lyrics. Ross sings, “That’s why I drank a fifth of vodka one night”, but Mitchell sings, “That’s why I got into the vodka one night.” Also, Ross sings, “the reasoning and the logic that went on in my head”, while Mitchell has, “the idiomatic logic that went on in my head.”

Jane Monheit: Twisted

[purchase]

So, regarding the lyrics, who is right? Well, there is nothing to stop the next artist who performs Twisted from singing the words either way. Jane Monheit is certainly aware of Joni Mitchell, having covered A Case of You. But Monheit chose to go back to the Ross lyrics for her wonderful version of Twisted.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Grateful Dead




There's a lot about the Grateful Dead that could be included under the heading of chaos.

Carol Brightman's book about the band is appropriately titled Sweet Chaos. Reviewer David Hadju is not as kind on either the book or the band as Rolling Stone is. (Read the NYT review here).

As tour manager Sam Cutler from the early 70s notes in the 6 part Amazon series called Long Strange Trip, the band's lack of a leader meant a fair amount of chaos reigned, that decisions were difficult to make. Garcia ends up being a reluctant leader in the public eye, but it is the last thing he really wants.

One of the outstanding decisions the band does make, however, is their concert taping policy: scores of fans would show up to concerts with sophisticated taping equipment - with the band's blessing. In the Amazon material, Garcia comments that once the band has played their show, he is more than happy for that night's material to be of use to other people since he is done with it. It's that policy that makes it easy to share this with you.

Most shows had two sets: a more structured sequence of their classic, recognizable songs and a less structured set that some of the band describe as part of their role as travel enablers: aiming to take the audience on a trip.

From the hundreds of free recordings available at the Internet Archive, you can listen to versions of the same songs done over the years and hear the variations in solos, vocals and improvisation. "Playing in the Band" might be 7 minutes one night and 23 the next. Another song might begin as a kind of wandering cacophony before breaking into its recognizable form. Others just wander in loosely structured chaos, such as this version of "Space"

for more tunes from that particular concert (04/07/85 at Philly's Spectrum) click here.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Disorder In The House


Warren Zevon (w/Bruce Springsteen): Disorder In The House
[purchase]

Warren Zevon is one of those artists whose music I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years without ever really being a fan, or learning all that much about him. There’s just so much music out there, and so little time. David Letterman, on the other hand, was a huge Zevon fan. He was a guest on Letterman’s various shows more than two dozen times, and even filled in 20 times as bandleader when Paul Shaffer was unavailable.

Back in 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with lung cancer, and shortly afterwards appeared as the only guest on Letterman’s show. Their interview soon became a classic. Letterman’s respect and compassion for his dying subject, coupled with Zevon’s unflinching honesty and humor (which gave Letterman the opening to be funny, too) is striking.  During the course of their discussion, Zevon responded to Letterman’s question about his new-found understanding of life and death with the phrase “Enjoy every sandwich,” which became a pretty well-known distillation of his life's philosophy. Zevon also performed three songs on the show that night. The Letterman show is worth watching, and you can see the interview here, the performance of “Mutineer,” here, “Genius” is here, and Letterman’s request, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” is here. And Letterman's and Shaffer's heartfelt announcement of Zevon's death about a year later is here.

At the time of the Letterman interview, Zevon had recently released an album whose title, My Ride’s Here, seemed eerily prescient in retrospect. But to be fair, his prior album was called Life’ll Kill Ya, so it is probably more fair to say that he was comfortable with his death as a concept, not that he had any mystical foreshadowing of his demise.

After his diagnosis, Zevon worked on his last album, which ended up titled The Wind. It is hard to listen to the album without feeling that Zevon was trying to sum up his tumultuous life and preparing for its end. It includes 10 original songs (or co-writes with his long-time collaborator Jose Calderón), and a poignant cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The album included numerous high profile guests, including Mick Fleetwood, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, T-Bone Burnett, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris.  While the album contained its share of contemplative ballads, Zevon could still rock and show his trademark twisted humor, most notably with guest Bruce Springsteen, who shared vocals and played electric guitar on the raucous “Disorder In The House.”

The song lays out the chaos and confusion in the titular house--overflowing bathtubs, falling plaster, doors coming off their hinges. It’s so bad that “even the Lhasa Apso seems to be ashamed.” Then, it becomes clear that the song is about criminals being chased by the police, but it appears that the narrator escapes.

To me, what is most memorable about the song is the fun that Zevon and Springsteen seem to have performing it. The Wind was released two weeks before Zevon died, at the age of 56. The album received five Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year for "Keep Me in Your Heart," and it won two Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and "Disorder in the House" was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. These were the first Grammys of Zevon's career, and I suspect that he’d be chuckling to himself if he knew what it took for him to get them.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: What a Confusion

Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Upsetters, Dave Barker: What a Confusion

[purchase]

Dave and Ansel Collins: What a Confusion

[purchase]

The Selecter: What a Confusion

[purchase]

The obvious choice for our new theme would have been Ball of Confusion by the Temptations, but I posted that one for our 70s Motown theme not long ago. There are some interesting covers that might make a good post for one of my cohorts here a Starmaker, but I will leave that to others. Instead, I have a confusing tale of music credits to share.

What a Confusion is a good song to use in discussing the entwined developments of ska and reggae. Ska was the earlier form, combining elements of calypso and American R&B of the 1960s to create something new. Jamaican ska had a fairly rigid rhythm line, with vocals and horns having some freedom on top. As the music began to develop into reggae, the bass lines became more melodic, and the rhythms less regimented. My first selection of What a Confusion is from 1971, and you can hear the beginning of this transition. The song was produced by Lee Perry, who would become famous a little later as Lee “Scratch” Perry. The “Scratch” refers to his pioneering experiments with what would become dub music, but those were still a few years in his future at this point. The singer on the 1971 version is Dave Barker, and this recording is sometimes credited to him. The song was released on Upsetter Records, and I have also seen the song credited to that labels house band, The Upsetters as a result. Somehow, Bunny Wailer and U-Roy also wind up on the credits on some of the videos of this one on YouTube. I believe Bunny Wailer is in the backup band, but I have no idea how U-Roy got in the mix. All of this reflects the early history of artist exploitation in reggae. Performers and writers of these early songs were often not credited or paid, with their producers or labels taking the money instead. Efforts to properly assign credit retroactively are hampered by poor or nonexistent record keeping. So some or all of these people may have something to do with this recording, but it is hard to be sure.

Dave Barker is better known for his work in the duo Dave and Ansel Collins. Their version of What a Confusion is a fairly straight remake, with some changes in the vocal line and vast improvements in the recording quality. The production here brings the song more firmly out of ska and into reggae territory.

The Selecter are a British ska revival band that got their start as part of the two tone movement of the late 1970s that also included the Specials, the English Beat, Madness, and so many others. Two tone ska is different from its Jamaican ancestor in that it includes elements of punk and reggae and even dub on occasion. There is also a prominent role for keyboards such as the organ heard here. I could not find a video of just What a Confusion, so skip to 26:47 to hear the song. This version comes from a 1998 album in which the Selecter paid tribute to some of their influences by recording with them; the lead singer on this recording of What a Confusion is Lee Perry, which brings us full circle.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Two Words: Somewhere Rocks

Ian Hunter: England Rocks  
Ian Hunter: Cleveland Rocks
[purchase England Rocks]
[purchase Cleveland Rocks]

One of the advantages of a theme like this is that it allows me to write about pretty much any artist I can think of, because the odds are pretty high that I can find a song from that artist with a Two Word title.

It turns out that the great Ian Hunter has never been featured in the long history of this blog (although he was mentioned in a piece about his fellow member of Mott the Hoople, Mick Ralphs). After that band broke up, Hunter started a solo career. Although his self-titled first solo album was successful, his next two, which did not feature guitarist Mick Ronson, were not.

In 1977 Hunter released a single, “England Rocks,” in England, with the B-side, a song from his third album. It was very much in the glam-rock tradition of Mott the Hoople, featuring a prominent piano part, and lyrics that appeared to relate to the rise of punk (safety pins!) and references to his grandfather’s badges from World War II. I first heard the song at WPRB, from a compilation album, Shades of Ian Hunter: The Ballad of Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople, which was released in 1979.

Also in 1979, Hunter released a new solo album, You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, which featured a reworked version of the song, titled “Cleveland Rocks.” Now, the song begins with a clip from Cleveland’s Alan Freed, the legendary DJ, the piano has been replaced by a synthesizer, and Mick Ronson is the guitarist. The lyrics are changed a bit—the grandfather in the original was a “villain,” now he’s a “rocker” and the WWII-era badges the singer wore have morphed into records he played.

Overall, I kind of like the “England” version better—it is less slick and a bit rougher around the edges. And I find the synth in the “Cleveland” version annoying. Interestingly, Hunter insisted that he originally wrote the song for Cleveland, but changed it to England, because his record company wouldn’t release it in that way in the US. Based on the lyrics, though, I’m not sure I’m buying that story, but what I think really doesn’t matter, does it?

“Cleveland Rocks” became probably Hunter’s most well-known solo song, especially in Cleveland, where legendary rock station WMMS would kick off the weekend by playing the song every Friday at 6. Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich gave Hunter the keys to the city in 1979. It was adopted by the Cleveland Indians and Cavaliers as a theme, and Hunter even performed the song in the pregame ceremonies of Game 3 of the 2007 NBA Finals in Cleveland.

A cover of “Cleveland Rocks,” by the Presidents of the United States of America, was used in the credits of seasons 3-7 the Drew Carey Show, which took place in the self-proclaimed “Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World," and covers of the song by other artists were used in later seasons. The Ian Hunter original also was used in one episode of the show. This exposure helped to bring the song to the attention of a new audience.

Hunter continues to record well-received solo albums, and to tour, as a headliner, occasionally with a re-formed Mott the Hoople, and once as a member of Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Two Words: Four Women

Nina Simone: Four Women

[purchase]

Lisa Simone, Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, Lizz Wright: Four Women

[Not available for purchase]

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Four Women

[purchase]

Was Nina Simone the Toni Morrison of jazz? The case can be made with songs like this one. Both women used their art to present unflinching pictures of the black experience, black women especially. Four Women is exactly what the title suggests, a song that presents brief portraits of four women and the experiences that shaped them. Each woman gets one verse to tell her story. Simone’s genius here lay in the fact that that one brief verse was enough to tell us what she wanted us to know. This song is not easy to listen to, its lyrics harsh. Simone wanted us to understand our privilege in not having to live these lives. I would imagine that black women hearing this could listen to these words and rejoice in how far they have come, or reflect on how far they still have to go. I have not lived their lives, so I can not truly say. The rest of us can try to understand that Simone is not exaggerating here. We can allow her words to appeal to our better natures, and try to find out what we can do to help. We can begin by not practicing the types of exploitation described here.

There can be no doubt that this song, from 1966, continues to resonate today. It is a staple of many tributes to Nina Simone, such as the one the quartet version I have featured here comes from. There would possibly be more covers of the song now if the major labels were willing to release such material. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s beautiful take on the song comes from an album released on an independent label. That album chronicles Bridgewater’s quest to connect to her African origins by making music with Malian musicians.