Thursday, February 14, 2019

HAPPY/UNHAPPY COUPLES: JOHNNY & MARY/ROBERT PALMER

OK, so I'm going to run with this idea of a named couple a little further, given the groundswell (ha!) of acclaim to my previous post, mainly due to this also being a terrific track, long loved by me.


I am uncertain who the named Johnny and Mary might be, I can find nothing about them, but I'll wager it took a fair bit of relationship counselling, should they have ever stayed together, the lyric outlining classic partner dysfunction. It probably wasn't the John(ny) and Mary in the Dustin Hoffman/Mia Farrow film but the song could be a nice projection of their possible fate. I doubt also it was the inspiration for the 10,000 Maniacs spin-off duo of John and Mary, Lombardo and Ramsey respectively, but that at least allows a link. I always feel the song owes some little debt to the classic standard, 'Frankie and Johnny', tho' it was clearly after the failure of aforesaid counselling for that lyric to play out. I always associate them, anyway, but with upward of 256 versions of that staple, and several films, I won't pursue that one. Or not too hard, anyway.

Robert Palmer always stuck out a little from the company he kept, never quite embracing the tribalisms of any of his bands, or the image of the day. I feel he was always happier in the slick suits of his solo days than the hair and flares of earlier band Vinegar Joe. He seemed always a soul man, whether in a rock band or even in the song featured here, an early example of synth-pop. Even in, arguably, his most famous period, the MTV years of 'Addicted to Love', producing unashamedly rock anthems, as memorable to men of a certain age for the band in the video, he managed to maintain a sharp sense of funky. Indeed, his keenest work was inspired, arranged and backed by Lowell George, from deep south mavericks, Little Feat, fusing soul, jazz and country to a broad based rock and roll shuffle, together with the Meters, metronomes of the New Orleans melting pot of influences. He was also an early adopter of reggae, after moving, mid 70s, to a house nearby the famed Compass Point studios in the Bahamas. Not bad for a boy from Scarborough, on the north Yorkshire coast. It is strange to think he was considered almost an elder statesman when, in 1985, he hooked up with members of Duran Duran and from Chic, to form The Power Station, his vocals bridging the diversity of influences into a malleable fusion. All the more so when you remember he died, tragically young, at only 54, in 2003, some 15 odd years later.

Back to the song, living on after the author's death, passing through quite a few hands from Status Quo to Ellen Foley. But it is this version that lingers longest, sung by another englishman, from even further up in the north of England, another rough hewn lad happier in ties and tux, one Bryan Ferry, here fronting a rearrangement by Todd Terje, a norwegian electronic artist.


Enjoy!
Enjoy more!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

happy/unhappy couples: The Letter




purchase [The Letter]


Even though I didn't grow up in the US, my American parents had those perforated, punch-out valentines card booklets for us kids. (Are they still being produced?) Send your sweetie a card. A love letter.

This past week I had my students write a "real" letter. You know? Paper and envelope kind of letter. In this day and age.

After the fact, it got me thinking: I wonder if Jeff and Lauren are a happy couple these days. I wonder if they would have been happier if they had been sending old-fashion letters instead of the electronic version. It's a dying art it is, writing snail mail.





<The Letter> seems to include both happy and unhappy in one swell foop: The couple must be happily in love: the love-letter included lots of love in the form of "can't live without you no more..." (happy), but the distance between is painful: "ain't got time to take a fast train ..."(unhappy). The couple is probably going to be happy when the singer gets there, don't you think?

The songfacts website suggests that the studio addition of the jet plane taking off may have contributed to the song's success (take yourself back to 1967: when people wrote letters and we spelled it "aeroplane").

Happy/Unhappy Couples: Voices Carry

’Til Tuesday: Voices Carry
[purchase]

If you watched MTV in its early days, you almost certainly saw the video above, of ‘Til Tuesday’s 1985 song “Voices Carry.” It was one of the most popular videos of that era, winning the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in a Video, and singer Aimee Mann won Best Female Performer at the American Video Awards. It has taken up residency on most lists of all-time great videos, and it likely propelled the song to a No. 8 slot on the Billboard singles chart. Despite positive critical reception, the band never again reached that level of popularity, broke up after its third album, and Mann went on to a successful solo career (managed by ‘Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman).

The video, directed by D.J. Webster, was unusual, in that not only was it shot like a movie, it included dialogue over the music. It tells the story of an unhappy couple—a man, played by actor Cully Holland, dressed and acting like a rich, obnoxious Wall Street guy, and a woman, played by Mann, with untamed, platinum blond hair, the bassist in a New Wave band. The man is controlling and dismissive, denigrating her music as a “hobby,” and trying to get her to act and dress like the arm candy that he believes he is entitled to. Meanwhile, we see Mann playing and singing with the band, and when she returns home, her boyfriend yells at her and, to the extent possible in a video shot for MTV in 1985, forces himself on her, while he fantasizes about a romantic lovemaking session with a brunette, neatly coiffed, version of Mann.

The final, iconic, sequence (based on a scene from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) starts with the couple, dressed to the nines (if anything, the video shows that Aimee Mann can pull off hats), in the audience at Carnegie Hall, surrounded by similarly well-dressed people. The boyfriend’s smug superiority turns to disgust when he notices that Mann has a small rattail braid peeking out from her hat, and as his annoyance increases, Mann begins to sing along with the song, increasingly forcefully, as the audience begins (not at all without cause) to look askance. As the boyfriend becomes more and more agitated, Mann begins singing louder and louder, before finally standing up, elbowing him on the way, ripping off the hat, displaying her wild hair, and belting out, "He said, shut up! He said, shut up! Oh God, can't you keep it down?” And as the audience turns to watch, the boyfriend buries his head in shame. In so many ways, this song, and especially the video, was way ahead of its time. Add your hashtags here.

Interestingly, Mann originally wrote the song, and the band performed it, about a lesbian relationship. But the record company was not that progressive, so they changed it to an abusive heterosexual couple. Cully Holland, the actor playing the toxically masculine boyfriend, died in 1991, with only three other credits on his IMDB page, and a little Internet research turns up that he died either of AIDS or suicide, and that he was likely gay. So, you had a song about lesbians turned into one about heterosexuals, with the aggressive male member of the couple played by a gay man. The mind reels.

Although many of Mann’s songs deal with difficult and serious topics, she has a great sense of humor. I’ve seen it in her live performances, and it emerges in interviews. Understanding the place of the “Voices Carry” video in music history, she decided to parody it, in a video for her 2012 song, “Labrador.” It begins with a faux “Behind the Scenes” interview with director Tom Scharpling, played by Jon Hamm (who appears to be game for anything), suggesting that they do a shot-by-shot remake of “Voices Carry.” Mann states that she thought it was a stupid idea that she was tricked into doing when Scharpling claimed that the contract was a birthday card for his nephew, which she signed while on the phone, The video is, essentially, the same as the other one, although Mann, more than a quarter century on, and with long, straight hair and dark framed glasses, looks nothing like she did in the original, and the boyfriend is played by drummer Jon Wurster, whose high-pitched voice and little pony-tail mocks the Wall Street bro look of his predecessor. There are other fun bits in the “Labrador” video, which actually looks like it was shot in New York (Boston was the location of the original, except for the façade of Carnegie Hall), but I’ve written too much already, so just watch:

Sunday, February 10, 2019

HAPPY/UNHAPPY COUPLES: JACK & DIANE/JOHN COUGAR (MELLENCAMP)

Is there a more archetypal US couple than Jack and Diane? Well, of course, the answer is an unreserved yes, but, ignoring that, this couple have maintained an ongoing virtual life, come what may, in the nearly 37 years since John Mellencamp brought them first to our attention. Hell, he wasn't even John Mellencamp then, being still the John Cougar some manager thought sounded cooler than his given name. But ain't it a great song?


The song very nearly didn't make it, Mellencamp having dumped it, being unable to get his band to give the accompaninent he heard it as needing. It took Mick Ronson, yes that Mick Ronson, to insist he give it another crack, this time with Ronson on additional guitar. The iconic hand claps shouldn't even be there, being initially just part of the click track to facilitate the arrangement. But it just sounded better with than without. And should you still be pondering the Ronno/Mellencamp linkage, most odd in retrospect, the Spider from Mars and the midwest journeyman roots artist, remember then that John, then Johnny, Cougar was being pushed as a slightly Bowie-esque retro-rocker in the mid 70s, and that the aforementioned manager was Tony DeFries, the famous main man of MainMan, who also looked after Bowie. Anyhow, this song was many years after the DeFries management, but I am sure that's where the pair of them first met. Ronson subsequently invented himself as a go-to guitarist for anyone from Bob Dylan to Ian Hunter, ditching the spandex and stack heels along the way, whilst DeFries ditched Cougar to the no lesser delights of Rod Stewart's management team and Billy Gaff.

The song did well. Number 1 in 1982 for 4 weeks, still his biggest hit. It has also given birth to a number of references across music and film, as the names Jack and Diane have almost come to be generic of just about any young couple in their struggle to stay together. It was certainly the first I had heard of the artist, his earlier US hits having failed to translate across this pond. And I heard no more of him for some time, despite ongoing success in the US. I guess my tastes had always been a tad rootsier than the charts, and I was developing a taste for Steve Earle, as he ploughed his country into a rock furrow. What I didn't know was that (by now named) John Cougar Mellencamp was traversing the opposite direction, in 1987 they each perhaps halfway in the transition. Earle produced 'Guitar Town' in 86 and, a year later, Mellencamp produced 'The Lonesome Jubilee', still, for me, his masterpiece.

Of course he has made many a record since then, most of it in a similar vein, much of it to a high standard. A heart attack slowed him a little in the 90s, yet ironically boosted his status. By his return to performance he was being greeted as a similar icon to the working man as Springsteen, and would appear on stage with the Bob Dylans, Willie Nelsons and Neil Youngs of this world. And so he has continued, increasingly a politicised performer, albeit with views fairly constantly to the left of centre, no small critic of the current regime. (Indeed, I hadn't realised until this day that he was, in fact, one of the founding fathers, with Young and Nelson, of Farm Aid.)


So what of Jack and Diane? Well, they made a (brief) reappearance in the 1998 song, 'Eden is Burning', but the song is, presumably, so allegorical as to give no personal update. But I'll bet he worries who they voted for, last time around. But he still plays it.


Here.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Happy/Unhappy Couples: Happy Loving Couples


Joe Jackson: Happy Loving Couples
[purchase]

Valentine’s Day comes during the end of this theme, so it seemed like a good time to look at happy and unhappy couples. I’ve written before about Joe Jackson’s career, so I won’t repeat myself, but one thing is clear about Jackson is that he writes very sharp, often cynical lyrics, but they often demonstrate ambivalence, and his song, “Happy Loving Couples” is a fine example. My parents did pay for an expensive education, so let me bring in Tolstoy for a second—Anna Karenina somewhat famously begins, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” On the surface, that’s sort of what Jackson seems to be saying here--

Happy loving couples make it look so easy 
Happy loving couples always talk so kind 

And the narrator seems pissed at that—

Until the time that I can do my dancing with a partner
Those happy couples ain't no friends of mine

And he aspires to that sort of easy couplehood, wearing matching clothing and reading Ideal Homes magazine. But the ambivalence in the lyric is really, I think,  that his anger is not simply that he’s uncoupled, but that he realizes that a relationship takes work, and really isn’t all that easy.

The song, like many on Jackson’s debut, is rooted in classic pop/early rock, but sped up and with an edge that put it into the New Wave genre (and to be fair, there’s more than a whiff of Elvis Costello’s Less Than Zero in the chorus), and it would be criminal not to mention Graham Maby’s great bass playing on this song, and most other great Jackson songs.

I didn’t date all that often in my high school and college days (shocking, right?), and sadly more than once found that Valentine’s Day was the end of a relationship, and not the beginning. Or even the middle. But I’ve now been married for more than 30 years to the love of my life, and I know (because people have told me) that they think that our relationship seems easy, and for the most part, it is. But trust me, it isn’t always, and what seems effortless to the outside world does take work, every day. And we don’t wear matching clothes or read home magazines (at least I don’t), but we do occasionally watch Fixer Upper together, because aren’t Chip and Joanna a great, happy (looking, at least) couple?

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Spies and Secrets: Secret Agent Man



purchase [ Johnny Rivers Secret Agent Man]

Kind of in the middle of the James Bond/Man from UNCLE and Danger Man (in the UK) came Johnny Rivers' 1966 hit <Secret Agent Man>.

Written by the duo P.F.Sloan and Steve Barri, it was Rivers who took it to the top of the charts (#3). Rivers, along with Sloan and Barri, was under contract to Lou Adler of Dunhill Records.  Curiously, once again, the Ventures again made the most of the times by recording this in addition to their James Bond Theme from back in '62.


If you sense a certain similarity between the two songs (Bond Theme and Secret Agent), that's because ... well ... it's a life of danger. And that guitar is what danger sounds like. And because there is a certain amount of ... plagiarism (No... building on what came before).

That said, seems to me that Johnny Rivers hasn't received the credit he's due. Don't forget: he's also the man who sang the (again #3) hit the following year: <Baby, I Need Your Lovin'>. There's an informative interview/article in Forbes magazine that provides some sense of the man and his life.


Sloan himself tells his version of how things went down here.
Sloan and Steve Barri, incidentally, went on to found The Grass Roots. (Sloan below)


Other versions include:
Bruce Willis (above)

DEVO (above)

Most folks think that Rivers did it best.

SPIES & SECRETS: MY SECRET IS MY SILENCE/RODDY WOOMBLE


If, like me, you find a tot of melancholia is the best pick-me-up on a frosty February morning, you could do a whole lot worse than immersing your ears in this fella. You may know him better as the vocalist and front man of Idlewild, that scottish institution of melodic and intelligent rock, but it is in his other guises I find more pleasure.

Broadly this what I call Glaswegiana (or Weegiana, the derivative), that melting pot of indie-rock and traditional folk, with generous side-orders of country, jazz and classical, anything really, dependent upon who's in town. You can find a fiddle as equally as an electric guitar, an accordion as a synthesiser and bagpipes as a saxophone. Drums, real or electronic, optional but often. Why (Glas)We(e)giana? Well, apart from tripping neatly off the tongue, much of it derives in or around Glasgow, Scotlands 2nd city, itself a melting pot, as the industrial revolution brought in waves of highlanders and irish, anyone dispossessed and looking for gainful, often the detritus of lives lost elsewhere. Whilst the music or musicians might not derive from the city, it is where it coalesces, a sort of hibernian delta triangle. Strong drink has never been far away from the heart of this city, and where there is drink, there is song. So there has always been rich and vibrant musical scene, the city being the breeding ground for bands as diverse as The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Simple Minds and Primal Scream. But it is after hours, after sell-out shows at such iconic venues at Barrowlands and King Tut's Wah-Wah Hut that the seeds of Weegiana tend to be sewn. The yearly Celtic Connections festival, 2 or 3 weeks of gigs and shows across the city, bears ample testament to this. Nominally a "Folk" festival, the list of names appearing shows just how wide a palette this term has become, and there are always specials, one-off commissions and collaborations  that typify my thesis. Here's this years programme. And the sessions, come-all-ye's of whoever has been playing each night, The Festival Club, held nightly at the Art School, from the time of curtain down at all those other venues until the wee hours, exemplify this still further.

But Woomble, more about him. From Irvine, an ancient burgh on the Ayrshire coast, south west of Glasgow, and with a somewhat peripatetic childhood, holidays in his parent's camper van and period of relocation to the states, he ended up in Edinburgh, where the nascent Idlewild came to germination. Hooking up with Colin Newton and Rod Jones, drummer and guitarist respectively, in 1995, the band were initially renowned more for enthusiasm than expertise: one famous early quote had them described as the "sound of a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs". However, their gamut morphed relatively swiftly, with the endorsement of influential radio DJ, Steve Lamacq, from mere clatter to a clinging wraparound sound, evocative both of grunge and a powerpoppier sound, not dissimilar to early R.E.M. Indeed, such comparisons, as they lurched into the 2000s, became commonplace, with no diminishment by the comparison. I first came across them about this time, actually as support to R.E.M. in the late summer of 2003, playing at Old Trafford, in Manchester, UK, the home of Lancashire cricket club.

                                                        American English/Idlewild

I liked them, but I liked a whole lot the more folk tinged direction of his debut solo album, entitled the same as the song here featured, in 2006, songs soaked in the spray across windswept jetties of the scottish island, Mull, he had migrated to. In collaboration with others from both folk and rock backgrounds, this epitomised the scottishness my heart adheres to. Then, linking up with Kris Drever, from Lau, folktronica mavericks, and the mercurial John McCusker, fiddler extraordinaire, currently the delight of both the Transatlantic Sessions, another baby of Celtic Connections, and of Mark Knopfler's current band, they set off as a trio, album to follow. Along the way he joined the sprawling collective, Reindeer Section, the ensemble conglomeration of whomsoever Gary Lightbody, of Snow Patrol, could find in Glasgow during those years at the turn of the century: members of Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai and Arab Strap, amongst others.  Marvellous times indeed, encapsulated still further by his curatorship of 'Ballads of the Book', a 2007 album that brings together the cream of then scottish culture, both musically and literary. As well as members of band/individuals as disparate as Teenage Fanclub, King Creosote and the Incredible String Band, premier folkies like Alasdair Roberts and Karine Polwart were present, collaborating with writers such as A.L. Kennedy, Ian Rankin and more. Many names appear time and time again across all of Woomble's involvements, musicians unfettered by their day job, just wanting to play. In 2011, he continued his solo output with 'The Impossible Song and Other Songs', describing the process here.

                                                The Weight of Years/Ballad of the Books

I guess there is less money in such arty fare, and it was to Idlewild Woomble again returned, since which time he has bounced between the two, band and solo, gradually mingling the sources, a fiddle player now part of the live Idlewild experience, and newer Idlewild members appearing simultaneously in his solo band. And the style has narrowed between the two, as more albums appear, band and solo. I saw his solo show perhaps a year or so after "My Secret" , and it was all fiddles and acoustica, a glorious show, yet last year, to commemorate solo album number 4, "The Deluder", it was he and the current Idlewild bassist, Andrew Mitchell/Wasylyk on guitar, playing, largely, a lot of Idlewild songs in an unplugged format. (I picked up the Wasylyk album from the merch desk.....)
Idlewild are on tour this summer. I remain undecided.

Changing the tune a little, in case I find myself accidentally convincing myself I don't like Idlewild, here's Woomble himself, a fine writer, who has penned regular monthly columns for Glasgow's Sunday Herald newspaper, as well as keeping up a blog on his personal website, www.roddywoomble.net. It's about breakfasts.

Get 'My Secret is My Silence' while you can.




Friday, February 1, 2019

Spies and Secrets: F.B.I.


Ian Hunter: F.B.I.
[purchase the album at a very high price]
[purchase just the song, at a reasonable price]

Growing up, as a good liberal child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the FBI was the enemy. Under the leadership of director J. Edgar Hoover, and after his death, the FBI was instrumental in trying to suppress the civil rights and anti-war movements, discriminate against gays, and generally act as a tool of the “Establishment.” I personally have no problem with enforcing the law, if done fairly and within the bounds of the law—and so I have no problem with the FBI’s anti organized crime or terrorism work, for example—but with respect to the civil rights and antiwar stuff, they definitely crossed the line. Which may be why, in part, it wasn’t hard to watch The Americans, and find myself sorta pulling for the Russians, even though watching the show demonstrated that they were also pretty horrible.

It is interesting, though, that now it is the “leader” of the American government himself who is the biggest critic of the FBI, despite the fact that he appointed its director. And let me be clear—former director Comey deserved to be fired by whichever candidate won the 2016 election because of the way he botched the handling of the investigations of both candidates. But to have done so for the explicit reason of impeding the investigation into alleged conspiracy with Russia to influence the election is simply wrong, and probably illegal. So, it is amusing that these days, it seems like it is the liberal Democrats who seem to be bigger fans of the FBI than the Republicans.

I doubt that the FBI is that big a deal in England, much as the band The Shadows was never that big a deal here. (How’s that for a clunky segue?) But in England, they were huge, with multiple hits, and lead guitarist Hank Marvin influenced pretty much every great English/Canadian/Australian guitarist, including Richard Thompson, Andy Summers, Brian May, Steve Howe, George Harrison, Neil Young, Tommy Emmanuel, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, and Jeff Beck. Just to name a few.

Although they started out as the backup band for Cliff Richard, maybe the poster child for “huge in England, mostly unknown in the US,” the Shadows went on to fame in their own right, mostly as an instrumental band. “F.B.I.,” released in 1961, was not their biggest hit, but it did hit #6 on the UK charts (and never charted in the US.)

Ian Hunter opened his 1980 live album, Welcome to the Club, with a cover of the song, featuring his band’s guitarist, Mick Ronson, who has also been quoted as saying that Marvin and The Shadows were influences on him. (Both Ronson and Marvin appeared on Roger Daltrey’s solo album, One of the Boys, for what that’s worth). It is a great way to kick off a great live album that includes a bunch of Hunter’s and Mott the Hoople’s best songs (and some other interesting covers). I remember playing this album more than a few times at WPRB.

The aforementioned Brian May also covered the song on a 1996 tribute album to Marvin and The Shadows, as have others.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Spies & Secrets: It's No Secret



purchase [Jefferson Airplane Takes Off]

James Bond, The Man from UNCLE, Our Man Flint ... the 60s spawned an interest in spies that played out in various TV and movie productions both in the US and in the UK.

Way out in San Fransisco, things were headed in a different direction. The "kids" out there tended to look askance at government antics - establishment lies and secrets. Some thumbed their noses, some were outright in-your-face hostile, in the streets protesting the government, while others chose to share their anti-government message in lyrics and song. Among those choosing music was Jefferson Airplane. Check out the lyrics for We Can Be Together.

Just a few weeks back, J.David noted the passing of Marty Balin, but in doing so, probably didn't anticipate that someone else would bring it back around in the Spies/Secrets theme.

Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. One of the earliest albums I owned. My musical proclivity then, as now, was pretty eclectic. Probably my favorite from this, their first album is <Let's Get Together> - a full on plea for the hippie-dom philosophy of "we are all brothers (and sisters)". After that track? It's a toss-up between <Come Up the Years> and <It's No Secret>.

<It's No Secret> isn't a song about spies. It's a plaintive Marty Balin love song. This, of course, before Grace Slick. And there doesn't appear to be any spying going on here. After all "it's no secret".
But consider the lyrics (credited to Balin):
As I get older the years they get heavy for you
Oh is it any wonder why I feel that my whole life is through
Yeah, when I stop feeling how strong my love is for you
Oh, know I'll be empty wanting your love like I do



This is nothing like the Beatles <Love Me Do>. The chord changes are beyond the Beatles' I-IV-V, and the notion of love that the song expounds is beyond the innocence of the "Love Me Do" type.

Incidentally, there are other <It's No Secret>s out there - because sometimes love IS a personal secret:

Elvis on a totally different track (he sings "... no secret what God can do"):







Kylie Minogue