David Bowie: Scary Monsters
I currently live in Tarrytown, New York, which is right next to Sleepy Hollow, and our two villages share many things—a school district, a library, sports programs and a love of Halloween. Over the past few weeks, the streets have been filled with tourists, the villages are decorated with all manner of Jack O’Lanterns, scarecrows and other ghouls. We have parades, hayrides, haunted houses, bonfires and the like. I’m glad that our local merchants are able to cash in on the craze, and people seem to enjoy it, but I think that Halloween, like so many holidays, has gotten out of control. Little kids dressed up like superheroes or princesses are cute. Drunk adults dressed up like vampires or slutty nurses, not so much. I guess it is part of our culture now to try to hang on to our youth longer and longer, and while I’m in no way advocating a return to men wearing suits and hats all the time, or women having to wear dresses and stockings, I do think that there comes a time when putting on a costume in public is just silly. Except, of course, at my college reunion. And get off my lawn, you damn kids!
Speaking of college, when I worked at WPRB, David Bowie released Scary Monsters, which turned out to be another career resuscitator for him. It had a bunch of good and interesting songs, top notch musicians, including Robert Fripp, Roy Bittan and Carlos Alomar, and it hit a sweet spot between commercial and experimental, with rock, disco and electronic influences. It was both a commercial and artistic success, and is commonly considered to be Bowie’s last great album.
Princeton is only a few miles from Grover’s Mill, the site of the alien invasion from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio show, which was a Halloween trick and treat of its own back in 1938. Common wisdom was that the broadcast caused wild panic, but more recent studies indicate that the craziness was overstated. I got the idea of getting a bunch of extra copies of the album from the record company and sending some WPRB staffers out to Grover’s Mill on Halloween to hand out the albums to people. What I don’t remember is what we required before we would give out the precious vinyl, who went, and how, in the pre-cell phone era, we reported this on the air. I know that we had some sort of a remote board, but maybe one of my reader/friends will have a better memory.
I do remember thinking it was a pretty funny idea. And it wouldn’t surprise me if my copy of the album, sitting in a box in my basement, was from that same package of freebies.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
1978 was generally a pretty good year for lycanthropy. Warren Zevon had been one of the few Americans to crack through my then very Anglocentric and punky taste in music, with his shaggy west coast looks beguilingly betraying his in your face attitudes. "Werewolves of London" is arguably a pretty slight song, essentially repetitive and without a middle eight, relying almost totally on it's pounding piano motif, quirky lyric and howl-a-long chorus. Rely away, it worked and it still works for me. OK, it helped that I was a devotee of the Lon Chaneys, junior and senior, namechecked in the song, and who each played myriad mosnters in the black and whites. I had also been to Lee Ho Fook, the Chinese restaurant then a staple of the Sino-British food connection, with drying and seemingly decaying ducks hanging forlorn in the window, and more fried rice than you could ever eat. (Quick interweb check reveals it's still here, alarmingly, or reassuringly, as I swiftly add seemingly to the sentence ahead of this.) Some of the rest of the lyric was beyond me, but folklore has it that the perfect hair of the unknown be-tailored individual was some sly reference to James Taylor. (No, me neither.) What I didn't know, however was that the rhythm section on the song was Messrs Fleetwood and Mac(Vie). Here it is, anyway:
I was a convert, and bought up his live LP, Caught in the Fire, baffling and bemusing my friends with the other strange lyrical deviations of this innocent looking madman. Looks, I gather, perhaps enabled him to get away with much excitable behaviour in his real life, too, to all intents maybe a man not too nice to know, as drink consumed him, rather than the other way round. I have his biography on my shelf, waiting to be read, and it is said to be an uncomfortable read. Ironically it wasn't alcohol but tobacco, his other vice, that killed him, via lung cancer, in 2003, leaving a later legacy of songs a little more reflectful. But only a little.
My loyal reader, hi, Kenny, knows I am a lover of the cover, with a bad habit, expensive anyway, of hoovering up other versions of songs I like, so here is a scattering of those who have covered this paean to panmorphism. I offer you David Lindley , The Flamin' Groovies and even The Grateful Dead. Aficionados will note the date of the last performance. I guess you had to be there........
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Friday, October 17, 2014
R.E.M.: Voice of Harold
The first time I heard “Voice of Harold,” which is a version of “7 Chinese Bros.” from R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning with completely different lyrics, I assumed that it was simply a joke by the band. But it turns out that the story is a bit more interesting.
I’ve always had a sense that, like many great artists, Michael Stipe was a bit high maintenance. (It turns out that Mike Mills, is, too—he took exception on Twitter to something that I wrote on another blog about The Baseball Project). Apparently, when the band was working on Reckoning, which was recorded after a long, exhausting tour, Stipe was having a bad day, and his attempts at laying down vocal tracks for “7 Chinese Bros.” were inaudible. Don Dixon, one of the producers (and a fine songwriter in his own right), was killing time, poking around the studio, and was on a ladder when he found a pile of albums that had been tossed away. He pulled one off the top and threw it down to Stipe, hoping that it would inspire him.
That album, The Joy of Knowing Jesus, by the gospel group The Revelaires, would have been totally forgotten, had Stipe not started singing the liner notes on the back of the cover over the music for "7 Chinese Bros.” Done in one take, Stipe essentially sings, word for word, the laudatory notes written by the wonderfully named J. Elmo Fagg, described as the “Founder and Leader of the Blue Ridge Quartet for 23 years.” A few times, Stipe starts singing on one line, then jumps to the next line, and back again, because he was cold reading the small print and probably lost his place. He even sings the production and art direction credits and the catalog number (“LST 390”).
For some reason, it is charming. Like many of the band’s lyrics at the time, the fact that they sometimes made no sense is immaterial to the reality of the mood they created.
I’ve been a fan of this band for many years, almost as long as it was possible to hear their music in New York, and although I knew that they were from Georgia, I initially never really thought of them as a “Southern” band, in the way that bands like the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd flaunted their Southern roots and used stereotypical Southern symbols and imagery. But as time went on, it became more obvious that R.E.M. came from a different Southern tradition, one of mystery and kudzu and fog, of outsider art and eccentricity. Much of which can be seen in their early album covers.
And maybe that is why “Voice of Harold” resonates. It connected the band to the gospel tradition, and the liner notes that Stipe somehow shoehorned into the music are oddly religious, evocative and proud—for example—
Chill bumps appear and I am frozen in the web
They weave as they reveal their innermost selves
With the outpouring of their hearts
According to Dixon, after doing this take, Stipe was able to successfully record the vocals for “7 Chinese Bros.” I don’t know if The Joy of Knowing Jesus is, as the esteemed Mr. Fagg asserts (and Mr. Stipe repeats), “a must.” But to fans of R.E.M., “Voice of Harold” sure is.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Three weeks later The Beatles revisited "I'm Looking Through You". Americans get two false guitar starts before the band launches into the Rubber Soul version everyone knows. McCartney double tracks his vocals while Ringo can be heard tapping his fingers on a matchbox and slapping his lap for percussion. If you're going to slap your lap, may I recommend you lock the door so Mom doesn't walk in on you?
Ooo, this is a good one! Getting straight to the point, here's the opportunity to rave about one of my true faves, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Clive Gregson, or, within this context his once and occasional band, Any Trouble. It's fair to say he has had a variable career, poised frequently on the precipice of greatness, before either stepping back, or being elbowed out the way by some other gone in 30 seconds whippersnapper. For that we should maybe be grateful, not least as, at various times in his career he has returned and revisited earlier songs, radically redefining them. Between Any Trouble mark 1, Any Trouble mark 2, exemplary duo with Christine Collister (and simultaneously Richard Thompson sideman), solo years, a spell in Plainsong with Iain Matthews, solo years, Any Trouble mark 3 and further solo years, there has been ample opportunity to remake and remodel his songs, juggling with both electricity and acousticity. And somehow remain a thoroughly decent cove.
Spoilt not for choice but more for demonstrable evidence, this isn't even one of his own songs, but it is so good it could be. (I exhort you to search out more for proof of his songwriting. And not half bad guitar.) Anyhow, roll back to the late 70s and a folkie 3 piece are playing the pubs and clubs of Manchester, adding drums and dynamism to address the outbursting of punk. 1980 saw them signed to maverick indie label, Stiff, and attempts to market Gregson as the next Costello. This song was on their first recording, and, in some reflection of then (relative) youth, is a straightforward thrash of a version, displaying the eagerness of a young man out on the friday lash.
Sadly that was that for the erstwhile band for many a long year, and I hope later to be given a theme that allows me to access Gregsons latter years, but until then, here's a taste of how the song might have originally sounded, as dreamt up by it's author, fellow struggling mancunian musician of the 70s, Nick Simpson. This is the 2013 reunion of Any Trouble, with the author guesting. It seems to be the faster version.......
Friday, October 10, 2014
purchase [Purple Haze]
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Well this cat has certainly run a ragged path around his image(s) over the decades, so as good a candidate as any for this thread, even if he is surreptitiously slipping back out of the more severe incarnation of his current given name.
Born Steven Georgiou, of joint Greek Cypriot and Swedish stock, in 1948, one recurring theme throughout his careers has been an apparent sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness, never proving himself comfortable within the confines and constrictions of the music industry, and uncomfortable with the adulation of his fans, with repeated searches for solutions to the mysteries of life. How much of this could be explained by the polar opposites of his Greek orthodox and Baptist parents, who, effectively, split the difference in their ideologies, and sent him to a Catholic school, remains open to conjecture, but it seems he was an aloof and lonely lad, happier in his own company, tinkering with those musical instruments made available to him. Like many later musicians of his generation, Art School became the obvious next step, which clearly was not entirely without merit, as he was responsible for the design of many of his album covers. Originally seeking a musical career under the name Steve Adams, his first success came as a songwriter. If he had stalled there alone, he would probably still be remembered fondly, if only for this song, covered memorably by PP Arnold, Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow and many more. He sold it to PP for £30, currently about $50.
Performing solo in pubs and clubs, a name change was more seriously applied to, with some insight as to what may help, believing the US marketplace was full of animal lovers. Thus Cat Stevens was born, and he swiftly picked up a recording contract of his own. Furthering the animal metaphor a step ahead, his first UK top 30 hit was with, ironically, "I Love My Dog", and here his first image is outed, the swinging 60s fingerclicking hipster, velvet suit, dark glasses and a hideous over-produced backing. A couple more hits followed, "Matthew and Son", again subsequently much covered, including a reprise in the 2nd stage of his journey, and the now somewhat arch sounding, "I'm Gonna Get Me a Gun", a song I don't suppose still likely to feature in his act.
The contracting of tuberculosis in 1969 ground this early start into the ground, the long hospitalisation instilling in him a hunger for some spiritual fulfillment, as he gave up meat and took up meditation and yoga, growing long both hair and beard. It was a very different Stevens that re-launched in 1970, as a lovelorn folkie troubadour, with Mona Bone Jakon, getting his first US gold record with "Lady D'Arbanville", his appearance now perfect for the 70s singer-songwriter boom. Successive LPs became bigger and bigger, through Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat and Catch Bull at Four, these 3 being my personal favourites in his canon. And, because I can, this was my favourite song, and still is, perhaps revealing quite what a shy and introspective boy I was........
Disillusion was seeping in, and he relocated to Brazil in 1973, in part as a tax exile, developing a more "varied" style, of additional electric instrumentation, with synthesisers and a funkier feel to the fore. It didn't work for me, and he and I parted ways. During this time he began to explore other religions, converting to Islam in 1976 after a(nother) near-death experience. Changing his name again to Yusuf Islam, in 1978 he turned his back on the music industry, in part believing the vanities thereof were contrary to teachings of the Koran, devoting himself to philanthropy and education, opening several Moslem schools in London, and working with a number of equivalent charities. Unwittingly, given his prominence amongst Islamists, hindered by some unhelpful and possibly misquoted commentary on 9/11, he was, in 2004, denied entry to the US and sent back to the UK, arousing a transatlantic political furore between the respective governments. He was later able to return to the States in 2006.
In the latter part of the 90s there was a gradual return to music, albeit originally purely secular and without the adornment of instrumentation, and initially in Arabic. Now I am sure I would be wrong in suggesting that commercialisation had anything to do with it, seeing as his income, in 2007, was estimated at still being $1.5 p.a. from U.S.royalties alone, but perhaps his fanbase were delighted when he suggested that his wholesale retreat from western music had been hastier than he had wished, and returned to admitting to and acknowledging, and playing songs from, his Cat Stevens years. His new material has not been a vast catalogue, nor, it's true, perhaps received to the level of his glory days, but he remains a world player, playing often for charitable causes close to his heart and faith. As a way of concluding this chameleon's chronicle, here is his version of someone else's song, the lyric presumably ringing true with his post-conversion experiences with the media and more. I am no expert and unqualified to discuss the intricacies and inconsistencies of (any) faith, but I would too chime in with the sentiment. Hell, I think he is just a great singer, who has written a shedload of a lot of good songs. It's good to have him back.
Here is quite a good documentary from a couple of years back.
So what am I going to point you to? Actually you can't goo wrong with any of his Greatest Hits collections, but for overall consistency it is, for me, Tea for the Tillerman and/or Teaser and the Firecat.