Friday, July 28, 2017

Two Words: Four Women

Nina Simone: Four Women


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

[Not available for purchase]

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Four Women


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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Jerry Reed: Guitar Man

[ Purchase ]

Justice delayed: After years of being unfairly bypassed, Jerry Reed is finally making his way to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. It's easy to become obsessed by the snub. (How did Charlie Daniels get in before Reed?) Ultimately, it doesn't matter: Reed is a seminal figure in country music, and hopefully this recognition will allow a new generation to discover his great records, writing and guitar picking.

He was born Jerry Reed Hubbard in 1937. He emerged from an impoverished childhood and developed his chops as a lightning-fast guitar player. He began recording rockabilly sides for the regional NRC label and then Capitol. (I could have just as easily chosen "Mister Whiz" for this entry.)

After a stint in the military, Reed recorded 45s for Columbia that almost no one heard. One of the few that did listen was Chet Atkins, who bought out the contract and signed Reed to RCA. (They are all one big, dying conglomerate now.) Atkins got his money's worth as Reed emerged as a prolific side musician. His distinctive nylon-string picking shows up on '60s and '70s records by Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Skeeter Davis and others. Joan Baez sought him out when she came to Nashville to record. His lightning fast, run-the-fretboard style of picking was widely admired, and Atkins frequently cited him as the best guitarist in Nashville.

Still, Atkins, who guided RCA's country division, couldn't initially figure out a way to get Reed hits. "Guitar Man" was his debut single for RCA, and it stalled at #53 on the country charts in 1967. (A year later, Elvis had a minor pop hit with the song.)

Slowly Reed and Atkins carved out a style that resonoated with country audiences -- a mix of talking blues, cocktail-lounge ballads and novelty records. Ironically, those novelty songs -- "When You're Hot You're Hot," "Amos Moses" "Alabama Wild Man" and others -- may have kept some from taking Nashville's best guitar man too seriously. Yet Reed managed a streak of top 20 records that stretched from 1968 to 1983.

In paticular, his 1970s output is stellar. He cranked out full-length LPs like clockwork -- 20 studio records between 1970 and 1979. They stand out not only because of the blistering picking, but great song selection. Reed avoided the dull covers that mar so many 1970s country records, particularly those from RCA. He wrote much of his material, and augmented those songs with obscure tunes from the American songbook. He was one of the few country recording artists to use a full drum set, and his records sounded great, despite RCA's horrible pressing practices. (Get a load of his take on another two-word track, Sixteen Tons.)

Whatever the reason, Reed didn't get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime, passing away in 2008. I look forward to seeing Reed's Hall of Fame plaque later this year. "Guitar Man" are two words that aptly sum up his great career.


It seems strangely apt to be looking at this song again, and the accompanying video, as relations between the US and Russia (nee USSR) become increasingly strained. (It's funny, as an adult in 1984, I can't quite recall things being that bad, even if reminding myself and reviewing, yes, they clearly were. Mind you, I would have guessed that the Reagan era was a decade or so ahead, so maybe it's my problem!)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood exploded onto and into the UK charts in 1984, buoyed on a wave of an outraged media and a keenly exploitative PR campaign. There is nothing my country enjoys more than the combination of scandal with prurience, always peeking through nearly closed fingers at the decried depravities and disgustingness. Indeed, the british press specialises therein, having a field day with this band. So, when an outraged disc jockey, those purveyors of public taste and decency, suddenly cottons on that "Relax" might be, um, rather more energetic than the name invites, with, shock horror, references to a then barely legal gay S&M scene, their star was guaranteed.

"Two Tribes", the follow up single, was barely a cats whisker behind, vaunting straight to the top of the charts, remaining there for longer than any other single of that whole decade, even sucking "Relax" back up the charts in its wake.. It's true that ZTT, the record company, were at the peak of their game, manipulating the charts and feeding a product hungry population: this was way before such science fiction as downloading and streaming. This was largely black plastic. With 5 varying mixes across the domains of 7 and 12 inches, all marketed as essential, with the collected sales all counting toward the same song, is it any surprise sales were massive, the last great surge of physical product. In truth the song is a slighter variation of its predecessor, both being, arguably, more the product of producer Trevor Horn and his Fairlight synthesiser than of 5 scallies from Liverpool, even if the singer, Holly Johnson exuded as much charisma as the others mostly lacked it. (And was the only one with a surviving career of sorts.) But, as a sound, as a template it is huge, a tsunami of rattly bass, clattering percussion and swathes of keyboard, vocals with echo on their echoes. The different versions varied largely as to what else was chucked into the mix, varying samples scatter gunned over the none-more-exuberant Mr Johnson. These came from sources as disparate as Public Service films around what to do when the  H bomb drops, to snippets of speeches from, amongst others, Hitler and lyrics from Don McClean, all fed into the mouth of Ronald Reagan, via  UK uber-mimic, Chris Barrie. The video came from ex-10 cc band members, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, and featured actors disguised as Reagan and the then USSR supremo, Viktor Chernenko. (No, me neither.....) Tussling in a boxing ring, compered by Holly Johnson, as fellow world leaders look on. It doesn't end well. There was also a substantively longer versions, with yet more samples of speech, but, given the original was deemed to strong, without edits, for MTV, this had little exposure. (Have I got it here? Sure I have.)

The song, in al its myriad versions, had a long life, eventually even reaching the US Billboard top 50, just, at 43. Re-releases came again in '89 and '94, with a 3rd assault in 2000. This time the remixes were by external parties, usually several available in each iteration, now on CD, with up to 5 versions on each disc. I have to say the song, in the majority, still excites, galvanising frissons of nostalgic glee in my ageing bones. The triad of songs, "Relax", "Two Tribes" and follow up, "The Power of Love" are, in my opinion, as strong a launch pad as any new band can or could offer, certainly compared to the fickleness of now where longevity seems more often down to luck than talent. Afterwards? Well, no such luck for Frankie as, sans Horn, the band were but a shadow of what once was, with little left to say, eventually dissolving in a sea of rancour and regret.

Fill your boots!!!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Two Words: Dire Wolf

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf


The Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead was released in 1970. I was ten years old, but my oldest brother made sure I heard it right away. And so began my love of the music of the Grateful Dead. Dire Wolf was the song that won me over. I could not have articulated at the time what is was that drew me to the song, but I can now. It was the song’s folkloric quality. The narrative is steeped in the traditions and attitudes of the western cowboys and settlers. The Grateful Dead told stories of these people throughout their career, and these songs were not based on any historical figures. Instead, they were a retelling of an attitude. Women were idealized backwoods angels, as in Sugar Magnolia and Althea. Men were gamblers and gunslingers, but they were also loving fathers and uncles, interested in mentoring their sons and nephews about the ways of the world. That world would unfold for me over the course of many years and many songs. But Dire Wolf is simpler than that. It is a representation of how Death comes for a man like the ones in these later songs. Death is a menacing figure, yes, but he is invited in for a game of cards. The song’s narrator does not want to die, but the cards are literally stacked against him. Still the game is a friendly one, and perhaps it helps the narrator accept that it is his time. As a ten year old, I had no experience of death, but I knew at some level that the song’s theme was universal.

The mythos that the Grateful Dead introduced me to with Dire Wolf was one that also encompassed a wide range of musical influences. The song itself introduced elements I would recall years later when I began to learn about the traditions of country music. But the Grateful Dead also covered blues folk, and jazz, and they made an astonishing range of songs seem like natural part of a the world view that began to develop in Dire Wolf, even when the band was covering someone else’s song. I would later explore many of these musical styles based on these introductions, especially the blues.

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf (live, San Francisco Civic Auditorium, 12/28/83)

In my tribute to the Grateful Dead, I could hardly neglect to mention their influence as a live band. I actually never got a chance to see them live, but I nevertheless bought into their ideas of what live performance should be. The vocals on live Grateful Dead tracks can sometimes be painful to listen to, which eliminated from my consideration several performances of this song. But the song itself is a living thing. Each performance is a snapshot in the life of the band and its members, and so how the song is performed changes and evolves. This version from 1983 is far removed from the country trappings of the studio version, but it is still definitely Dire Wolf. Now the song is a rock song, with interesting keyboard lines that reflect a lineup change from when the studio version was done.

There is no purchase link for this version of the song. The Grateful Dead catalog includes a dauntingly long list of single concert releases from shows starting in 1966, and ending in 1993. Surprisingly, only one release, Dick’s Picks 6, includes a show from 1983, and the band did not perform Dire Wolf that night. There are no shows at all from 1984. If the rest of the show was as good as this Dire Wolf, this is a show that should be made available.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Words: Summertime Thing

Chuck Prophet: Summertime Thing
[purchase the original]

Back in 2010, when few of the current Star Maker Machine writers were associated with the blog, we did a theme about songs with one word titles. It seemed like time to advance the counter, and focus on songs with Two Word titles. (We promise not to do a theme about songs with 27 word titles).

Where I live, in suburban New York, it has been hot. High-80s, low 90s, with humidity. I know that other parts of the country are suffering through record heat waves, as are parts of Europe (or so I hear from my daughter in Barcelona). Complaining about the heat during the summer, though, is kind of a waste of time. It is, as Chuck Prophet noted, a “Summertime Thing.”

Prophet is someone who hasn’t gotten nearly enough love on this blog, despite his long career, first in the 80s psychedelic Americana band Green on Red, and later as a songwriter, collaborator and solo artist. I’ve been a fan for a while, and he is near the top of my list of artists who I want to see for the first time (I’ll be crossing the Tedeschi Trucks Band off that list in October). I wrote more about Prophet here, so feel free to check that out, if you want more background.

Prophet was born in Whittier, California, near Los Angeles, where it gets pretty warm, but lives now in San Francisco, where Mark Twain famously didn’t actually denigrate the summer weather. “Summertime Thing,” from Prophet’s 2002 album No Other Love, was a bit of a radio hit. It is really a great summer song. The song has a mellow, laid back vibe, and talks about the hot sun, hazy skies, burning pavement, loud parties and skinny dipping in a river. Plus, he name-checks the Beach Boys. Add that to Prophet’s customary drawling vocals, which seem perfect for a hot day, and you just want to slather on the sun screen, grab a crime novel and sit under a big umbrella with a cold drink dripping condensation waiting nearby.

The original version is great, but I’ve linked above to a live version from a 2013 performance at a club in Martinez, California, outside of San Francisco. It stretches the 5 minute song out to past 9 minutes, mostly by adding a long, languorous jam that adds to the easygoing, summertime feel of the song. Even though the performance was in March.