Saturday, January 23, 2016


If, as is widely surmised, 'Rocket 88' was the first evidenced relic of ye olde rocke and roll, by definition, Ike Turner, tho' neither the writer nor the singer was the first rocker. Sung, written and credited to one Jackie Brenston (and his Delta Cats), the band was actually Ike's Kings of Rhythm, for whom Brenston played sax. Dating from an astonishing 1951, when Ike was 19, a cocktail of western swing, jump blues and the accidentally 'fuzzed' guitar produced by a damaged amplifier. Raw and raggedy around the edges, to my ears it holds up a lot more successfully than other and later contenders for title as first.

Which made me think a bit about Ike, more famous now for his alleged misogyny and mistreatment of Tina, than for this or any other part of his wide-ranging legacy. Now this is not the place to assess his character and I won't. If we are to only glory those spotless in reputation, then the canon of modern music, like literature and art, will shrink to nought. OK, neither should we necessarily celebrate the blemishes and behaviours, even though we often do. Especially as it is difficult to tiptoe through the morals of one era in the shoes of another. So what about Izear Luster 'Ike' Turner, junior, 1931 - 2007?

Born the son of a minister, a recurring theme in rock music, he immersed himself in the musics of the juke joints from an early age, boogie boogie, blues, jazz, setting up and setting out on the road with his Kings of Rhythm, gaining experience by backing anyone from Sonny Boy Williamson to Muddy Waters. The success of 'Rocket 88' led to a temporary suspension of the band, as Turner became a session man and record producer, until, with 3rd wife Tina, or Annie-Mae Bullock as she was christened, a reformed Kings of Rhythm hit the road in 1956, becoming the Ike and Tina Turner Revue 4 years later. No more the rock'n'roll frontman, Ike was now the understated conductor of the band, Tina and her Ikettes taking the full focus of what was and to become a full blown R'n'b extravaganza, second only to James Brown. Arguably their best remembered early song would be the Phil Spector production, 'River Deep, Mountain High', the deal for the song being that Ike had little to do with it. And Ike, maybe uncharacteristically, always shrewdly, went along with it. Not initially a hit in the U.S., it was huge in Europe and beyond, leading to tours with the Rolling Stones.

Roll forward into another decade, popular on both sides of the atlantic by now, a staple in the charts, with covers, 'I Can Take You Higher' and 'Proud Mary', there was one further classic in store, with even now there being barely a wedding disco, or similar, that doesn't include 'Nutbush City Limits.' Both of mine did!

After that it was all about Tina, her revelations about life with Ike piling on the wretchedness already there courtesy old showbiz faves, drink, drugs and paranoia. I can't help but note some irony in that, aged 30, he was teetotal and drugs eschewing, and yet to introduce Miss Bullock into his band and his life, but that's conjecture. He did, however, manage to survive the storms, reputationally and personally, reviving again the Kings of Rhythm in 2001 and achieving his 2nd Grammy in 2006, for solo album, 'Risin' with the Blues.' He died the following year.

So let's get a bit of his finishings, remembering him for his music, not just his onetime amanuensis. (Sadly YouTube didn't have an available version of '18 Long Years', his re-write of earlier Ike and Tina song '5 Long Years'. They, inevitably, were married for 18.)

Beginnings: Brand New Day

Purchase: Brand New Day

While certainly not his finest hour as a lyricist, Van Morrison’s Brand New Day, from Moondance (the album every one you know has in their collection), fits the bill for our theme this month. It’s a simple song, both hopeful and soulful. The mellow groove is pure Van Morrison blue eyed soul, with his lush and plaintive vocal styles, wavering piano and guitar lines and gospel chorus. Van Morrison crosses genres with grace—balladeer, soulster, mystic poet, party hound. Brand New Day is a small blip in the catalog he’s created, but it’s a beautiful song, in its own sense. The man himself explains the origins of Brand New Day as:

"Brand New Day" expressed a lot of hope. I was in Boston and having a hard job getting myself up spiritually...Then one day this song came on the FM station and it had this particular feeling and this particular groove and it was totally fresh. It seemed to me like things were making sense....I didn't know who the hell the artist was. It turned out to be The Band. I looked up at the sky and the sun started to shine and all of a sudden the song just came through my head. I started to write it down, right from "When all the dark clouds roll away…” (Wikipedia)

What song do you think it was? Have to be The Weight? Perhaps I Shall be Released?

For good measure, we should also mention Morrison’s Into the Mystic, itself a soulful meditation on a new beginning of sorts, magical and supernatural, and of heading into new and unknown places, concerning love and other delights…

Happy New Year to all our readers—I hope history proves 2016 to be a far better year than all the doomsayers are predicting. Starting out a year with forecasts of our guaranteed destruction before the next one begins gives me all the more reason to listen to good music and try to see the brighter side of sun. Harmony!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Beginning: Windows 95 Sound

[purchase Windows 95 For Dummies, because, why not?]

Remember Windows 95? Probably not, but when it was released, appropriately in 1995, it was a pretty big deal. For the first time, Microsoft merged its Windows and MS-DOS (remember MS-DOS?) products, and made a bunch of technical improvements that I don’t really understand (although being able to use long file names was convenient). But what was great was that, for the most part, I didn’t need to understand them because they were buried behind an improved graphical user interface, which included a taskbar and a better file navigation system.

However, what is most important for our theme, is that Windows 95 marked the introduction of the “Start” button, which allowed a (relatively) quick way to start stuff. The Start button was part of all subsequent Windows releases, in some form, until the powers that be decided to leave it out of the crapfest that was Windows 8. The outcry was such that it was immediately put back, in the slightly improved Windows 8.1, and was included in the much superior Windows 10.

Now, the personal computer world is mostly divided into two camps, Windows and Mac, with a fringe of Linux and other operating system users. But back in 1995, there were other players in the market, particularly IBM’s OS/2, and the success of Windows 95 essentially drove them out of business. Part of that was based on the technology, but most of it was marketing.

Part of the strategy was to create an iconic “Microsoft Sound” to play when the system was booting up. Microsoft execs approached the master of ambient sounds, Brian Eno, to create the startup music. As he said:

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I'd been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, "Here's a specific problem – solve it." 

The thing from the agency said, "We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional," this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said "and it must be 3-1/4 seconds long." 

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel. 

In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time. 

The final version of the sound, as heard in the video above, was actually 6 seconds, and it successfully became ingrained into the psyches of Windows users. Amusingly, Eno wrote the music on a Mac. I admit that hearing it again for the first time brought me back 20 years to an age of smaller, but bulkier, monitors, slower processors, tiny hard drives and floppy discs. But others have used Eno’s snippet as inspiration. Here’s a piano cover version:

And here’s a version slowed down 23 times, so it sounds like something from Music For Airports:

And here is just one of many remixes of the sound:

In addition to commissioning Eno’s genius to create a 6 second sound, the Windows 95 marketing blitz included a 30 minute cheesy faux-sitcom operating guide starring Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry of Friends, and a memorable commercial, highlighting the Start button, in which they licensed the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.” At the time, it was reported that the cost to license the song was in excess of $10 million, but that was apparently not true, and was an attempt by the Stones to inflate the licensing value of their catalog.