Friday, June 28, 2013

The Other Guy: Walter Becker

Steely Dan: Slang of Ages

Steely Dan: Slang of Ages (live)


Steely Dan got their start forty years ago, but they only qualified for this week’s theme with their last studio release, 2003’s Everything Must Go. Until then, Donald Fagen always handled all of the lead vocals. One thing that becomes clear from listening to Fagen’s solo work is that, with Steely Dan, he is usually singing the words of Walter Becker. Becker has a cynicism and a sense of irony that are missing when Fagen writes for himself.

One stock character in Becker‘s writing is the sexual predator. You find him, in various forms, in Everyone‘s Gone to the Movies and Cousin Dupree, just to name two. Slang of Ages features him in a less threatening form. Here, he is a down-on-his-luck would-be Lothario, trying to pick up a woman in a bar. This character is not Becker, but rather someone he wants us to see and understand. We don‘t have to like him, and we are even allowed to laugh at his misadventures. But the laugh must be a nervous one, because the character shows us urges we try to deny in ourselves. The way the song is written, it is even possible that the entire encounter takes place only in the narrator‘s mind. In the end though, it does not matter if it is real or not; we have still seen what Becker wanted to show us.

Becker speak/sings his way through most of the lyric here. He can carry a tune when he needs to, but this delivery suits the character. Nevertheless, based on the evidence of this performance, Donald Fagen is certainly the more expressive singer. There is no sign that Steely Dan has any intention of doing any further albums, although they continue to tour. It may be that they decided that Becker should take this vocal because it would be his last chance to do so in the studio with Steely Dan.

I found a nice fan-made slide show for this song. As a bonus, I have also included a live version, also from 2003. The live video should have cut off thirty seconds before it does, however; the song that Donald Fagen begins to introduce at the end, if you’re wondering, is Peg.

The Other Guy: Jon Anderson


I’m working on a King Crimson related post for another blog, and it reminded me that, in King Crimson terms, Jon Anderson is the other guy. Crimson is a band that, if anything, is consistent in its inconsistency— its history is filled with constant turnover in personnel and styles, with Robert Fripp as the only member who has been in every incarnation of the band. Most histories of King Crimson seem to refer to musicians leaving because they didn’t like or understand the music, which raises the question of why they joined in the first place. Wikipedia reports that there are over fifteen-hundred releases on which members and former members of King Crimson appear.

The band’s third album, Lizard, was a departure from the first two, with greater jazz influences, and Greg Lake’s powerful vocals being replaced by Gordon Haskell’s more ethereal style. But the song “Prince Rupert Awakes,” was too high for Haskell, so Jon Anderson, of Yes, was enlisted to sing, his only contribution to the Crimson oeuvre.

On the other hand, when it comes to Yes, in my mind, Anderson is the guy, despite the fact that Yes has had membership turnover that rivals King Crimson. But despite the fact that Anderson was replaced as lead vocalist by "other guys" Trevor Horn, Benoit David and Jon Davison (the latter two having been vocalists in Yes tribute bands before moving up to the major leagues) who attempt to mimic the original, there can be no question that for that band, Anderson is affirmatively the guy.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Other Guy: Brian May

Queen: 39

As much as Mick is associated with the Stones, Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals are synonymous with Queen. And yet, most Queen albums included at least one, sometimes more, songs sung by the other members of the band, typically guitarist Brian May and bassist Roger Taylor. Both men could certainly sing, but neither had a voice with the distinctive qualities of Mercury. Of course, few vocalists do, so that is not really a criticism.

I’ve been a fan of Queen since high school, and like many my age listened to their classic A Night at the Opera many, many times. As much as “Bohemian Rhapsody” blew my teenage mind, and the rest of the album was enjoyable (including the Taylor-sung “I’m in Love with my Car,”) something about "’39," sung by May, has stuck with me through the years.

Until I started researching this post, I was under the apparently common mistaken impression that the song was about 1939 and the start of World War II. The wistful tone of the song fit with my belief that it was about someone looking back to the simpler times before the war, which devastated England beyond what we here in the States experienced.

Turns out, the song is about space travel.

The song, which May has described as “sci-fi skiffle,” tells the story of space explorers who head off on a journey and return a year later, only to find that a hundred years have passed, and everyone they knew is dead. Thus, the wistfulness.

In addition to being one of the greatest and most distinctive guitarists in rock music, Brian May is an astrophysicist. He was studying for his Ph.D when he decided to take a break to become a rock star. But he was no slacker, and in 2007, he finally completed his degree. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, a mostly ceremonial position, allowing him to continue to tour and make guest appearances, including at the London Olympics. May has also co-written books on astrophysics and has an asteroid named after him. So, if he wants to write a song about space travel and “time dilation,” he has the musical and intellectual chops to pull it off.

Interestingly, although May sings the song on the album, in concert Mercury usually sang the lead.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Lorraine McIntosh (Deacon Blue) : Cover From the Sky

Good old wiki, I think, label Deacon Blue as one of the best unknown bands from Scotland. If they don't, they should, but with a disclaimer. For the truth is more they should or could have been, and I never quite know how they didn't make the grade. Apart fom the unknown bit, of course, at which they excelled. Cue angry and irritated of Dumfries pointing out their cumulative sales and hit singles etc etc, which is all well and good, but being world famous in Scotland, sadly, doesn't always equate to international fame and fortune. Go see Big Country, Runrig, The Fire Engines. Strangely, The Proclaimers did.

Deacon Blue sprang from nowhere during that amazingly fertile period for british  literate rock, mid to late '80s. If I look behind me at the groaning shelves, that period evokes Lloyd Cole and early to mid U2. Raintown, their first LP appeared in 1987, it's cover evocative, unsurprisingly, of a rainy day in Glasgow, if there is any other sort. But the songs were full of hope, the stand out for me being Chocolate Girl, positioned so that I just had to play side one time and time again. (Note to younger readers, records had 2 sides!). It wasn't until later on, as they started having hit singles and appearing on Top of the Pops that I gained the image of them. Rather than a standard issue half-hidden girly singer duo or trio, gyrating, semi-synchronised, on the sideline, this band had but one, right in the middle. And usually on a pedestal, woowooing and aaahing away, as her life depended upon it. This seemed undue prominence until I realised she was the girlfriend of the singer. Who also wrote the songs...... Hmmm.

Later came an EP of Bacharach songs, including a plaintive version of I'll Never Fall in Love Again, which, given I was in the throes of a doomed and inappropriate relationship at the time, somehow hit a chord. But the said girly singer sang a line all by herself. And I was rather taken with that. A bit like the shock when Phil Oakey lets one of his girlys, I forget which, sing in Don't You Want Me, except, on this occasion, actually carrying the tune. Or any tune.

In truth I went off them after that. The singles became too complicated and formulaic, too wordy and clever, at least for me. But I retained a candle for their brand and concept, so, when this topic came up, I wondered if she had ever been allowed out, totally alone. And I found this. It isn't bad, either, making me maybe feel I have judged them a little cruelly, but, is it not true, when the magic has gone, the magic has gone. Listen to to all three songs, and be the judge.

The Other Guy: Keith Richards

Keith Richards: You Got The Silver

The Other Guy theme is about that member of the band who doesn't do/rarely does the lead vocals. Keith Richards fits the bill. As I dug around for background info for this post, I came across an online resource that credits Richards with the main vocals in only about 20 of the hundreds of songs the Stones have recorded. Yes, he frequently sings background vocals, but that's not at all the same skill. Hence, the other man.
Away from the Stones, for example on his solo Talk is Cheap album from 1988, Richards is credited with the lead vocals, and you can catch him here doing the lead vocals with X Pensive Winos. Although it is noted that he sang in a (young) boys' choir for the Queen, today, his voice sounds kind of scratchy and he doesnt exactly shine at keeping a melodious tune (post-puberty voice change, no doubt). However, there are those few and far between times when his voice is a better choice for a Rolling Stones song than Jagger’s.
And this is one. Originally recorded for 1969’s Let It Bleed, the live version of You Got The Silver linked above is tagged as being only about a month old. Having dug for several hours to research my options, I have to say that this is one of the better showcases of the man's vocal talents that I was able to locate. His singing calls to mind the quality(?) of Bob Dylan's voice.

As an additional thought, if you consider the relationship between gold and silver/Jagger and Richards, I wonder if there is more to the choice of lead vocalist for this song than meets the eye.