Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Amaze: I'm Amazed

Purchase My Morning Jacket's "I'm Amazed"

I have to be honest: I don't really get My Morning Jacket. I like what they do; I appreciate the wide-ranging canvas they use and the infinite mixture of texture, sounds and compositions they spread across it. But, I've never been able to pin down who they are, or more distinctly, what kind of band My Morning Jacket actually can be labeled as or named. Are they folk, are they rock--no, too simple. Are they a jam-band? Are they progressive? Are they...I don't know what to all them.

Then, someone told me: "Man, MMJ is neo-psychedelic. That's all you need to know."
This bit of information came during the lead up to Pearl Jam in Camden, back in 2008. Outside the show, gathering with the faithful in the parking lot. Someone was playing MMJ and rather then wonder why he wasn't playing Pearl Jam, my curiosity was piqued. The sound was interesting, the descriptor, more so.

I can agree with that classification. And, strangely, I hav since listened to them with a lot more understanding. Neo-psychedelic: it's a freeing idea, and trying to define what doesn't fit into my readily categorized listening ideals (punk, hard-core, pop-country, metal, hair-metal, etc...) can be rendered, annotated and analyzed with the addition of that all-encompassing and opportunistic prefix, neo. Attributing the unknowable or category-defying with the label of neo helps the sound make sense, essentially blending the  misunderstood into the realm of "hard to figure, but cool, because, you know, it's neo--you don't need to understand it; just go with what you feel." And remember, because it's new, it doesn't need to make sense.

Or something along those lines: There's a freedom that comes from ignoring definitions and genre. Music can be tribal, just like politics, fetishes, area codes or passports. It's fun to defy boundaries and traditions, even if the results can confuse. But with music, sometimes confusion leads to the delight of discovery. Or, just delight. As in: amazement at new sounds and the way a band creates a fresh, aural landscape, unlike one you've ever traveled through.

I'll admit, I'm very light on knowledge of MMJ. I haven't gone over the brochures or read the maps closely yet. I\m an unseasoned traveler. And those of you who count yourselves among their (very, very) faithful, I'm probably coming across as a bit of an apostate. My apologies; I'll get there, I promise. There's a lot of ground to cover, so give me some time.

So for as undereducated as I am, I do love MMJ's "I'm Amazed", off their 2008 release, Evil Urges. I saw them perform this on Letterman and what I saw. There was a great energy to the song, anthemic and urgent, stadium-ready. Up until then, I'd only known one thing about MMJ: they had done an epic cover of the Who's own mini-epic, "A Quick One While He's Away" while touring with Pearl Jam. That version, recorded live in Italy, with Eddie Vedder sharing vocals with MMJ's Jim James, was fervent and faithful to the original and glorious in its celebration of sound, rhythm and movement. When I told a friend (ever allegiant to The Who, as one should be) that I thought MMJ's version of "A Quick One" was actually superior to the original, he refused to pay for the beer he had just said he'd buy me. I admire him for his loyalty, and for sticking to his principles.

But, getting back to "I'm Amazed", there's a familiar sort of giddiness to the song and the soaring chorus,  and equally angelic vocal delivery that revels in the highs and joyful proclamations, down to the vigorous power chords and church organ melody line. It's a great song, the kind that needs to be turned up loud, equally brilliant on the car stereo as it would be spanning into the air over a crowd. And what makes the song all the more brilliant is the irony of the lyrics. While the huge-tempo, upbeat major chords would lend a natural happiness to your head bobbing  and foot stomping, the song is really about being amazed by the unbelievable: the lies we take in without thinking for ourselves, the hypocrisy we swallow from our leaders; the division of our united nation; our misguided devotions and "the lack of faith" and the "love that we're rejectin'." The song traffics in disbelief and incredulity more than the traditional joyousness of amazement. MMJ is using the irony of connotation, and like the best writing, the title tricks us towards one belief, but  asks the listener to accept a truth that might not be as easily accepted. For a song that came out 10 years ago, it not only sounds fresh, but the sentiment of disbelief at our national discourse and seeming inability to ease our grip on the ideas (anger) we cling to, is more than pertinent. A simple sentiment, delivered with a deceptively joyful sound.  But sometimes simple is all you need.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Amaze: Amazing Grace

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Amazing Grace

I feel like I need to hurry if I want to write about this song for this theme, because it seems like a pretty obvious choice—and I can’t think of too many other relevant songs to write about. And hey, if other writers want to feature the song, have at it, and I’ve already handled the history for you.

“Amazing Grace” is a hymn, and the lyrics were written by the English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton, way back in 1772 or 1773. Before Newton had those highfalutin’ gigs, he was a seaman. In fact, in 1743, he was pressed into naval service by the Royal Navy—think, walking down the street, being kidnapped and tossed onto a ship.

During his service, he was flogged, recovered, and was transferred to a slave ship. He was so disliked by the crew that they left him in West Africa, with a slave dealer, who turned Newton over to his wife, a Princess of the Sherbro people, in what is now Sierra Leone. She promptly enslaved Newton. After three years of abuse and servitude, Newton was rescued by a captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to find him.

During his trip back to England, Newton had a “spiritual conversion,” because he believed that his prayers convinced God to save his ship from a storm. From March 10, 1748, Newton “avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.” However, when he got back on dry land, he quickly returned to sea on a slave ship, apparently not recognizing irony in any form. Newton continued to become more religious, and continued to work in the slave trade until 1754, when, it appears, God intervened by giving him a stroke, keeping him from trading in humans. Although he did invest in slaving ventures.

In the late 1750s, he ecumenically applied to be a minister in the Anglican, Methodist, Independent, and Presbyterian churches, before being ordained as an Anglican priest in 1764. It seems as if he was a pretty good one, too, and not adverse to non-Anglican views. In 1788, he publicly admitted that the whole slave thing was bad, and supported ending the trade, which England finally got around to doing in 1807 (about the same time as the US did, although as we know, that was small comfort to those already in bondage).

Newton’s hymn, based on his own life experiences, "1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith's Review and Expectation" led off with the killer opening stanza:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) 
That sav'd a wretch like me! 
I once was lost, but now am found, 
Was blind, but now I see. 

The hymn failed to chart in Britain, but was a smash hit on this side of the pond, especially during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th Century, and has become a standard African American spiritual song and was a civil rights anthem.

Nobody knows what, if any, music was used when Newton first led his congregation in the hymn, and there were many different tunes that were used over time, before “New Britain” stuck, and has become the standard version. Although “House of the Rising Sun,” works pretty well, too (better than the theme to Gilligan’s Island).

For reasons that are quite boring, today, I’ve been thinking of my father, who for some reason often remarked that he wanted a New Orleans-style funeral when he died. I wonder if that is where I got my love of New Orleans brass band music, although I doubt it, because I never remember him actually listening to any of it.

Not too long before he died, I bought a copy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s album Funeral for A Friend, which includes many of the songs that are played at New Orleans funerals—in fact, the album is dedicated to the memory of founding member Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, who passed away shortly after its completion. To quote Allmusic at length, because reviewer Thom Jurek nails it, stating that the album:

is resolved in the celebratory gratitude for mercy in "Amazing Grace." But this review does nothing, literally, to describe the sheer power of the transference of emotion that Funeral for a Friend does. This is easily the most heartfelt, honestly rendered, and stunningly captured moment of the DDBB's recording career; it belongs in every household where the celebration of life and its transition from the sorrow of death to the eternal afterlife is honored. It is not only a classic in the genre, but will come to be regarded as a jazz classic, period. 

I’d note that the version is instrumental, so it really is “New Britain,” but that’s being picky.

In lieu of the full on procession, we played the album as people entered into the celebration that we had for Dad’s life, and I think he would have been fine with that.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Amaze: McCartney- Maybe I'm Amazed

purchase -[Maybe I'm Amazed]

I recently came across a lengthy interview with Paul McCartney in GQ mag (Untold Stories of Paul McCartney) that added perspective to the post that I had already decided would fit my choice for the new <Amazed> theme: Maybe I'm Amazed

The original recording, appearing on 1970s McCartney (the one with the cherries bowl on the album cover), was very much a home-studio effort, but was later incorporated into the Wings collection in a more elaborate production.

For me, it is the home quality of that entire McCartney album that endears it to me: pure McCartney in many ways. End of the Beatles, but an indication of what the man is capable of - even in a home studio.

But as for Maybe I'm Amazed, it is supposed to be a paen to Linda, who helped him make it through the Beatles break-up. "In the middle of something he doesnt really understand ..."

It's as good as any of McCartney's Beatles work: lyrics, harmony, timing.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

WIne: Cream-Sweet Wine

purchase [  album ]

purchase [  album ]

For me, Fresh Cream was seminal and gound-breaking music, but mostly in hind sight. I came across Disraeli Gears before I heard Fresh Cream. By that time, Cream had already made its name, so my purchase was essentially filling in the blanks of the Cream repertoire.

Fresh Cream was Eric Clapton moving on from his roots in the Yardbirds and John Mayall. But the album established  Cream as a band to be reckoned with. We're talking mid-to-late 60s and their style of music was pushing the limits of what most people listened to (Soon to come: Jimi Hendrix, who blew it all open, way beyond run of the mill Top of the Pops, which generally would not include Hendrix and Cream until a few years later, under popular pressure)  I was there, listening, and I can attest that it was nothing like you had ever heard, Fresh Cream included. Cream (and Hendrix)  took rock to a new level.

Cream (see my last post) was one of the bands that moved popular music from its "more or less acceptable if dubious" status position to money-making and hence acceptable endeavors. Fresh Cream - in retrospect- had what it takes too move the rock genre forward, but it was both a bit early and not as well marketed as it might have been.

This video is from nigh on 50 years after the real Cream, but it includes the essence of the original - with modernization of Clapton's evolution.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Wine: Champagne Supernova


Another Champagne song, but what the hell is a “Champagne Supernova?” They are words that make no sense together, and even Noel Gallagher, who wrote the damn thing, has no idea what the song means. (Strangely, I’ve recently written elsewhere about an album titled Kilonova, which is not as bright as a supernova, but is still kind of a big deal, despite not being wine related).

Nevertheless, the Oasis song is a great singalong, as the best Oasis songs are, but I’m not posting that version. Instead, the video above is a cover by Scala & Kolacny Brothers. Scala is a Belgian girls choir conducted by Stijn Kolacny, and arranged and accompanied on piano by his brother Steven Kolacny. Starting in the early 2000s, they decided to move away from the classical repertory and into rock covers, garnering way more fame than would be expected from a Belgian girls’ choir singing rock covers.

Their cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was used in the trailer for the movie The Social Network, and other songs were used in trailers for Downtown Abbey, and for other movies and in TV shows. They have released a bunch of albums, mostly of covers of songs from pretty much every genre, in English, French and German, and, of course, a Christmas album (which includes a cover of one of my favorite holiday songs), so, if this kind of thing interests you, I’m sure you can find something that turns you on.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


I suspect the Bonzo's didn't really translate that well across the pond to the USA, that second of two nations divided by a single language. Indeed, apart from a cult of ageing sex- and septuagenarians, I've never been sure whether they actually meant so much over here, their one slab of chart action being produced by one Paul McCartney, often mistakenly thought to be also written by him. But this glorious parody never fails to make me smile, even as I repeatedly play it to my bemused, and unamused, wife. Nonetheless, it seems, in a fortnight of songs about wine, perhaps to give a thought about the downside. And this is probably best appreciated within the context that Vivian Stanshall, the singer and frontman of this anarchic ensemble, died arguably not indirectly from his giving booze one hell of a chance, in a fire on his houseboat, in no small part contributed to his prodigious alcohol consumption. Details vary.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band had no right being a success, but, in a small way, a success they were. Formed in about 1962, the aim was to provide a dada-ist counterpoint to the then trad-jazz revival of its day, which involved the deadpan recreation of the often absurd and very english approach to dixieland. Take "Hunting Tigers out in Indiah", which might be considered one such example, their recreation of an original song dating from the '30s. By this stage they were in transition from an all brass and banjo line-up, beginning to introduce more conventional, for the '60s, instrumentation. Helped in no small part by a resident spot on children's TV programme, "Please Do Not Adjust Your Set", they gradually morphed into a slightly broader parodic approach to all styles of popular music. Should you pursue the clip, it shows also the nascent beginnings of "Monty Python's Flying Circus", with all but John Cleese present. I was a child of that time, and took to this nonsense with ease, able to effortlessly assimilate the Bonzo's into my developing musical palette. (And no surprise that, as I grew older, so could become the peak audience for Python.)

Come 1967 and they had formally ditched most of the jazz, and many of the members who had played that style. A further boost was when Paul McCartney secured them a place in the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour". Here's some outtakes of their included song "Death Cab For Cutie", should you wonder where Ben Gibbard came up with the name. It was still hardly rock and roll in any conventional sense, they somehow still finding favour on the gig circuit and, especially, at festivals. They did manage one tour to the US, as support to the Kinks, themselves perhaps on a revers journey from rock to vaudeville. It was a disaster. They lurched on for a few more tours and a few more albums, shedding members, yet retaining a hard core of Stanshall, later Rutles mastermind Neil Innes and tap-dancing drummer, "Legs" Larry Smith, alongside saxophonists Rodney Slater and Roger Ruskin Spear, inventor of ever more Heath Robertson wind instruments. Acclaim did not, however, translate into sales.

After dissolution in 1970 they had a couple of short-lived reunions. Stanshall descended into ever more eccentric behaviours, ricocheting between drunken japes with Keith Moon and writing a body of works around fictitious upper class gentleman explorer, Sir Henry Rawlinson: "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End", initially as spoken word projects, later a series of books and a radio piece, even a film, with Trevor Howard, no less!. He died in 1995. Innes, ahead of the Rutles, went on to be the resident musical go-to for the Monty Python team, often appearing in their live concerts. Between 2006-8 a final official reunion took place, with Stanshall replaced by comedians/actors Phill Jupitus and Ade Edmondson, playing to nostalgia hungry audiences of (very) ageing schoolboys.

I confess I always found the band to be a better idea than a reality. You probably had to be there, recorded material having dated dreadfully. But for that idea I am grateful. And, for a short time, back in the dim and distant, glad also that I was there. Surely that is worth raising a glass to.

Give booze a chance.

Friday, September 7, 2018


As with so many acts these days, I came late to the National, somehow thinking for ages they were were yet another set of blue-collar Jersey rockers, thrift shop Springsteensalike. Indeed I didn't let them trouble my ears until an otherwise unfettered weekend had me perusing the streams from last years's Glastonbury Festival, a TV highlight over here. This is all that is left still on-line. I think it fair to say that the National made a fair old impression, not just on me but the armchair revellers of the UK in general. I thought that show terrific, hoovering up their back catalogue. Thus, when the opportunity came, as it did, in the early summer to catch them, headlining at All Points East, a new festival, or series of day festivals, in London's east side, I was there. Here was my review, penned elsewhere.

Wine seems apt in association with the National, or at least in connection with the often exuberant front man, honey-tonsilled baritone Matt Berninger. His performances often contain as much wine as his lyrics, bottles seemingly downed, empties hurled who knows where, as an adjunct to finding his acceptable level of muse. (Strangely, when I saw him he was strangely euthymic, water seemingly by his side and in his hand.)

The song I feature comes from, arguably, their breakthrough album, the 3rd, 'Alligator', when they moved from being part time hobbyists to full time musos. This was 2005, but the earlier year has seen the song also featured on a EP, 'The Cherry Tree'.

As to whether the studio versions are the same is harder to know. Maybe in the mix? It gained some discussion on the bands own forum on their website, the confusingly entitled American Mary. (It's a song on their debut.) So, seeing as this "other" version gets a mention, you may as well be the judge.

As to what it all means? Me, I just like the play on words, the cadence of syllables, the meaning of lesser import. It is, after all, only rock and roll. But there are websites devoted to such ephemera, did you know? Maybe I speak to the converted but here is a snatch from one.

I don't know what it is about the band I like so much. I think it is probably the mix of the cerebral and  the bacchanal. And, importantly for an old guy like me, they are clearly no callow boys off some svengali's floor, or raw garage busboys bringing in a new wave of youth rebellion, frightening the horses of my generation. The sound is meticulous, hewn from experience and talent, technique with an additional bravadaccio that boasts both the library and the taproom as sources of inspiration. Charles Bukowski with a eng. lit. major, perhaps? And as apt for the live experience as at home with, yes, definitely, a glass of wine.

Get the song.
And some wine.

Wine: (Have Some) Madeira M’dear

Flanders and Swann: Madeira M’dear


The Limeliters: Have Some Madeira M’dear


Have Some Madeira M’dear is a song that I married into. It was a favorite of my late father-in-law, and I had never heard it until my wife introduced me to it. My father-in-law had a fine sense of humor, and this one also appealed to his lecherous tendencies. The Limeliters were the nearest rivals in popularity to the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul and Mary. These three were at the top of what I think of as the pop-folk genre. For a great gentle satire of the excesses of that genre, find and watch the movie A Mighty Wind. Still, pop-folk did include some very talented musicians, and that certainly included the Limelighters. Have Some Madeira M’dear is a song that I hope will not offend any of our readers and listeners. It describes in a humorous way something which certainly is not humorous in real life: date rape. But the song is not meant to be real life at all. It is a send up of Edwardian social mores, and the genteel way in which it describes something I feel sure the songwriters would not have approved of is the joke, certainly not the act itself.

I only discovered in researching this post that The Limeliters were not the songwriters on this one, but I might have known. Now that I do, it seems obvious that this one must have been written by British artists, in this case the duo of Flanders and Swann. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann were a musical and comedy duo active roughly from the end of World War II until the mid 1960s. During their career, they would even write operettas. But Madeira M’dear, as they titled the song, is probably their best known song nowadays. You may also know the Hippopotamus Song. That’s the one that has the chorus that starts with “Mud, mud, glorious mud…” I had not remembered that there were verses until I worked on this post.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Wine: Bottle of Red Wine

purchase [ Eric Clapton]

I confess that I am a die-hard Clapton fan: one of the first albums I bought was Disraeli Gears. Not too long after, I had the chance to see Blind Faith live in Seattle.  But probably one of my favorite/top albums is the eponymous Eric Clapton first solo album from 1970. To me, it seems to embody/include the best vibes of the John Mayall/Yardbirds era with the harmonic vibrancy that has infused Clapton's later music.

The album - to my recollection - came out at about the same time as McCartney was starting on his solo career: Wings and such, and they both had a transformative effect on me - band-based musicians that had broken free and could produce substantially better music than they were capable of under the constraints of working together with other band members.

Eric Clapton first solo album shows-cases a style that blends Clapton's transition from the harder/rougher (Slwabyr? is what?) to the more melodic tones we hear when he picks up the Steve Winwood influence of Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie and beyond.
There's a certain amount of John Mayall influence in this album, a certain amount of Cream - but more of what later turns out to be really inside the man: more melodic tunes.

I can't say that Bottle Of  Red Wine is my favorite track from the album: my choice would be a toss-up between Slunky, Easy Now, Let It Rain and After Midnight (and that comprises most of the album).

I do wonder why Clapton might focus on wine when there was so much else of the mind-bending substances going on around him at that time (see my last post about West Bruce & Laing). You could take a minute to consider the lyrics:
I went to an all-night get together
And everyone I knew was there.
Had the love that would last forever.
Everywhere I looked, I saw you standing there.

Get up; get your man a bottle of red wine.
Get up; get your man a bottle of red wine.
I can't get up out of bed
With this crazy feeling in my head.
I said get up right now, oh oh.
I said get up right now.
In digging around for copies of songs for Eric Clapton's Bottle of Red Wine, I came across a series of clips that I wanted to share from a guy who does a very decent cover of most of the album. He's doing what I myself have also started in on: guitar on top of backing tracks (it's a great way to perfect your chops)


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Wine: Killer Queen

Queen: Killer Queen [purchase]

Like many people, A Night At The Opera, and particularly, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was my gateway to Queen. That album came out in 1975, when I was in high school, and it really was not like anything else I (or most people) had heard. My love for that album led me to look at their prior albums, which at that point consisted of their self-titled debut from 1973, and Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack, both (!) released in 1974.

What made Queen so fascinating was that they were one part heavy metal, one part prog, one part vaudeville and music hall, and one part pop, but elevated above the pack by Freddy Mercury’s other worldly voice, Brian May’s distinctive guitars, and a strong rhythm section. Mercury, who has been scientifically proven (!) to have been the world’s greatest singer, would have turned 72 today, had he not died in 1991.

While Queen’s debut may have tilted toward metal, and their second, filled with tales of fairies and black and white queens, might have been more proggy, Sheer Heart Attack, was, as its title hinted, more straightforward hard rock. But not completely.

In fact, the big hit single from the album—their first international hit that made it to No. 2 on the UK charts and No. 12 on the US charts, was “Killer Queen,” a song that Mercury stated was not the hard rock that people expected from Queen, but was more like a song that Noel Coward might have sung. In addition to using a grand piano, Mercury overdubbed it with an upright, to give it a vaudeville feel. And May’s multitracked guitar solo is excellent (and one of his favorites)—he added it late in the recording process because he had been in the hospital with hepatitis and a stomach ulcer.

“Killer Queen” is a song about a high class call girl, and the lyrics set this up by informing us, at the song’s very start:

She keeps Moët et Chandon
In her pretty cabinet.

Moët et Chandon, is, of course, a famous maker of champagne, whose history goes back to 1743, and its prestige made it a perfect signifier for the expensive (if not quite Dom Pérignon-level) tastes of the person who Mercury was describing in the song.

One problem, though—he pronounced it wrong.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Wine: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee

Wine is a theme that is rich with possibilities. I hope it will allow us to make a strong comeback from our last theme. This one differs from our old Drinking Songs theme in two important ways. First, we are limited here to Wine. I thought of opening with something by Tom Waits, but his drinkers go for the hard stuff. Beer is also right out. But the second difference should open things up quite a bit. Yes, wine can get you drunk, but many songs about it describe a gentle glow, rather than a full-on drunken stupor, so I hope we will see some examples of that as we go along. I am afraid, however, that that is not the case here. I went with the first song that came to mind, and it is definitely a drinking song.

I was prepared to keep looking. I knew that Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee became one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ signature tunes, and I wasn’t looking to feature him. But it turns out that he wasn’t the original artist or writer. In fact, the song had been around for twelve years and numerous other covers before Lewis recorded his version in 1959. Let’s have a look.

Sticks McGhee: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee


Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee was written by Sticks McGhee, who first recorded a solo acoustic version in 1947 that went nowhere. But two years later he signed with Atlantic and recorded a new version, heard here, that became Atlantic’s first hit. McGhee is one of several artists in this post who could have been featured in our Forgotten theme. He was the brother of the great bluesman Brownie McGhee, and Sticks had several other hits on the R&B charts before the era of rock and roll dawned. That he is not better known probably has everything to do with him arriving on the scene too early.

Lionel Hampton with Sonny Parker: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee


Lionel Hampton certainly has not been forgotten, but the great singer heard here, Sonny Parker, has been. In his case, it had everything to do with the shortness of his career. Parker was just establishing himself in 1949 when he recorded this hit with Hampton. His career would only last until 1957, when he died of a brain hemorrhage. Based on this evidence, I for one would like to know more.

Wynonie Harris: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee


As I said earlier, Sticks McGhee’s hit version of Spo-Dee-o-Dee came out in 1949. It was the custom of record companies in those days to rush to record and release new covers of current hits. So it was still 1949 when Wynonie Harris had his own hit version. McGhee gave us an acoustic blues-based treatment, Hampton jazzed it up, and now Harris gave the song a full blown R&B treatment. What else was there to do with it?

Loy Gordon and His Pleasant Valley Boys: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee


Actually, I’m glad you asked. How about a western swing version? This one is also from 1949, and technically the musical genre here is something called bopping hillbilly music, but it sounds to me like a very close cousin to western swing. Loy Gordon and His Pleasant Valley Boys are a truly forgotten act. I could find nothing about them except for this song, but it’s a good one. If anyone has more information about them, please add it in the comments.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee


And so it went for the next ten years. Every year, a new artist or three released their version of Spo-Dee-o-Dee, with varying degrees of commercial and artistic success. I invite the reader to seek out for themselves some fine rockabilly versions from this time. But gradually, it became more difficult to add anything new to the conversation. There are many versions that simple rehash what previous artists had done. So Jerry Lee Lewis in 1959 deserves a lot of credit for his version. He took the song and made it one of his piano-based rockers that couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

Larry Dale: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee

I couldn’t resist closing with one more. Larry Dale’s version is so forgotten, I couldn’t even find a purchase link. But that is a shame, because this one really cooks. Even after Jerry Lee Lewis had claimed the song as his own, Dale could still find life in it. That is a process that continues to this day, as the song has become a rock standard. I’ll drink to that.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

TRIO: West, Bruce & Laing

purchase [Whatever Turns You On ]

When SMM checked into the Trio theme back in 2010, Darius wrote up Strange Brew by Cream. After the Cream trio broke up, Clapton and Baker moved on to Blind Faith, which included Steve Winwood.

Jack Bruce teamed up with two members of Mountain to form a band called West, Bruce & Laing. West, previously from Mountain, [Nantucket Sleighride]  apparently earned the <Mountain> moniker on account of his rather large size.

Ostensibly one of the famed late 60s super groups, WBL produced a trio of albums between '72 and '74 before folding;  a trio of albums in a trio of years. As a super-group, they signed the largest contract of the time - a $1 million deal with CBS for the three albums. As with much of Mountain's repertoire as well as a fair amount of Cream's, the music a pretty heavy. And it wasn't just their music that was heavy.

Their first album, Why Dontcha did reasonably well, but by all accounts their heavy use got in the way of potentially better quality work. The posted song is from the second of their studio albums but as far as I can tell it is from the much later reincarnation of the band with Jack Bruce's son.

Monday, August 27, 2018


I'm just back from a Folk Festival. As many of my posts might reveal, I am quite a fan of trad.arr. and enjoy an occasional immerse in it. Towersey is a small village in Oxfordshire that has been having such a shindig for over 40 years, this being the 45th. I hadn't been since the 25th or thereabouts, since which time it has moved a little down the road, to an agricultural show ground near Thame, named, I guess, after the river. Like many things, the definition of folk is a an increasingly broad church; the economics of these events require bigger names than any purist folkie might want to expect, which is fine by me, so this weekend included Big Country, Beth Orton and the Proclaimers, who filled the big tents, whilst the more hard core material filled in the gaps at smaller stages. (For the record, of those three names, Big Country were dire, arguably unsurprisingly as their lead singer and songwriter took his own life over a decade ago, I gave the Proclaimers a wide berth, if not far enough to avoid the massed du-de-du-dus bleeding into my beer, across the other side of the site, and Beth Orton was charming, a gauche elfinesque figure with an acoustic guitar and an intense electric guitarist to her side, revelling in his effects pedals.) There was also a fine set by the Richard Thompson Electric Trio, which could have been my theme today but, sorry, it isn't.

Which is all a very long preamble to what is, a celebration of possibly the biggest band on the folk circuit proper. Who weren't even playing. And aren't a trio. Or weren't.

Show of Hands have ascended, modestly, to folk royalty during their 31 year career, starting off as a showpiece for Steve Knightley's songs, aided and abetted by ex-Albion Band alumnus, Phil Beer, on anything with strings and second vocal. However, knowing they needed to get in on the folk club circuit, they added enough traditional songs to get their foot in the door. Avowing a deliberate punk DIY ethos, they started as they meant to go on, turning up with their own P.A. and  lighting, avoiding agents and booking fees, arranging their own gigs for a take of the door. A model that has since become far more widespread, giving both control and consistency, with the next step being ownership of their own publishing and, in turn, their own label. Starting off with cassettes and an honesty box, a loyal following has seen these acorns grow, if not overnight, certainly surely and steadily, until now having sold out the fabled Royal Albert Hall on at least 5 occasions, and with 25 albums behind them, ranging from new songs to old songs, instrumentals, covers and collaborations, they can, literally, call their own tune. Adding Miranda Sykes, on double bass and 3rd vocal, in 2004, she has added both a top and bottom end to their sound,  and they now tour and play more often as three than two.

You'll be wanting some music, I suppose. It is difficult to choose, so wide and varied their output. I have seen them play perhaps a dozen times, impressed always by Knightley's strong vocals and his ability to pen a keenly political take on country matters, whether the c be in capitals or otherwise. More than once his espousal of rural concerns, such as the pricing out of locals from living in their own villages, have led to front page controversy. Phil Beer just leaves me gobsmacked, such is his mastery on fiddle, guitar or mandolin, often all in the same song. (And, fact fans, as well as his sterling work as Ashley Hutching's aide de camp in the 80s Albion Band, it is also he who plays fiddle and mandolin on the Rolling Stones' "Blinded by Love". ) I confess I didn't at first see why Hart was needed until my most recent sighting of the band, earlier this year at another festival, the rather more and decidedly grungy Bearded Theory, where they went down an absolute belter with the audience of grizzled ex-punks and crusties. Hart gave a sufficient and robust solid anchor to allow Knightley and Beer to individually, vocally and instrumentally, soar. Here are 4 songs, from various stages of their existence, 3 originals, 1 cover, it being their masterful transplantation of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" from the west coast to the west country.

"Galway Farmer" was actually written by Steve Knightley, but, so ubiquitous has it become on the folk club circuit, it has made it's way into a songbook of "traditional" irish ballads!

"Country Life" gained the band a fair amount of notoriety for the no holds barred lyric, but little compared to that of the song below, "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed." Can you guess what it is about?

Though not, I believe in the above clip, when playing this song live, the second verse mention of a 'Deadhead sticker' is often switched for a 'Bellowhead sticker', Bellowhead for a while being the biggest buzz in the UK folk scene. SoH have outlasted them.

If you like what you see and hear here, here is a bigger clip, a live streamed recording from 2016's Shrewsbury Folk Festival, where Knightley is also a patron.

And if you want more, go here or here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Trio: The Three Stooges

[purchase The Ultimate Three Stooges Collection]
[purchase The Curly Shuffle]

When I was a kid, I was not allowed to watch The Three Stooges, or their cartoon analogue, Tom and Jerry, because my mother thought that they were too violent. I’m fine with that, and while I was generally aware of the Stooges, and probably saw bits and pieces of their lunacy over the years, my first real, sustained exposure to them was when the Mets started to play a video of “The Curly Shuffle,” by the otherwise forgotten (!) Jump ‘N the Saddle Band during games. The song was released in 1984, as a tribute to the Stooges, particularly Curly, the most bizarre member of the team.

As I have noted, I’ve been a Mets fan since 1968, and while I exulted in the 1969 championship, I also had to live through the terrible teams of the late 70s and early 1980s (and most years after that, sadly). But from 1984-1986, I was living in New York, going to law school and working at law firms during the summers and after graduation. I had time, disposable income, the Mets started to get interesting, and tickets were not outrageously priced. I went to many games during this period, and while they fell short in 1984 and 1985, the team was exciting and won regularly, often coming from behind. At some point, possibly in 1985, the Mets started playing the “Curly Shuffle” video late in games, energizing the crowd, and somehow it seemed to lead to victories. The “Curly Shuffle” became a crowd favorite, and this continued through the championship year of 1986.

At some point, though, the team stopped playing the video—I’ve read that there was some sort of copyright dispute, or for other reasons, and the Mets began a long decline. Although I do remember that the song made at least a cameo appearance during the 2015 season, when the Mets got to the World Series, only to fall short of ultimate glory.

The Jump ‘N the Saddle Band was a true one-hit wonder—an average western swing revival band from Chicago who hit paydirt with a novelty hit (although props to them for covering Nick Lowe’s “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” on their only album). When it became time to do a follow up album, they met with Atlantic Records president Doug Morris (who shortly before this was briefly my boss). His first suggestion was to write another novelty song about the Marx Brothers, but then insisted that they cover a 1940’s song by Benny Bell, “Shaving Cream,“ in which the gimmick was that instead of saying the word “shit,” the lyrics substituted “shaving cream.” The band didn’t want to do it, but Morris was (and continued to be) a powerful guy in the industry, so they did. But, in what amounted to career suicide, they added their own final verse to the demo (which they never intended to release):

We rewrote this song for Atlantic 
They wanted us to deliver a hit 
Instead we put this thing together 
And sent them a big pile of…..shaving cream.

Apparently, Morris didn’t get the joke—or more likely, he got the joke and didn’t like it. Jump ‘N the Saddle Band was tossed from the label, and were never heard from again.


The Three Stooges, of course, were far from a one-hit wonder—whether you count that by their successes, or by the number of times they whacked each other. The three original Stooges, Moe, his older brother Shemp, and Larry, three Jewish boys, two from Brooklyn and one from Philadelphia, came together as part of a vaudeville act supporting Ted Healy in the 1920s. In 1933, Shemp decided to go off on his own, and he was replaced by Curly, who was his and Moe’s younger brother.

For the next 12 years, this group of Three Stooges created their classic works, with Moe as the bossy “leader,” Curly as the child-like fool, and Larry, who was also a talented violinist, as the supposed voice of “reason.” With slapping, pies, and seltzer bottles. Curly’s health deteriorated, and after he had a stroke in 1946, Shemp was lured back into the fold. This changed the dynamic of the group, but they continued to be popular and successful, although not consistently.

The advent of television led to a resurgence of Stooge popularity, even if it might have resulted in lower quality productions. Shemp died in 1955 (resulting in the use of a stand-in, Joe Palma, to permit completion of four films—this led to the “Fake Shemp” trope.). Shemp was replaced by Joe Besser for a couple of years, and then by Joe DeRita, dubbed “Curly Joe,” and this group continued to produce shorts and films until 1970, when Larry had a stroke, and that was pretty much it for the team. So, essentially, there were six Three Stooges.

As my team, the Mets, continue to stumble, Stooge-like, to the end of another season—sort of a Joe Besser type of season---maybe they need to bring back the “Curly Shuffle.” As Jerome Lester Horwitz, a/k/a Yehudah Lev ben Shlomo Natan ha Levi, a/k/a Curly, might have said---“Soitenly!!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Trio: 2 Nice Girls

2 Nice Girls: I Spent My Last $10


2 Nice Girls: Sweet Jane (With Affection)

Why would I begin our Trio theme with a band called 2 Nice Girls? Because I am featuring two songs from their debut album, by which time there were three of them. Before they broke up two albums later, there would be one departure and two new arrivals, bringing the number of members at the end to four. But that, I think, is an important difference between this theme and the Trios theme we did a few years ago. The earlier theme had us posting songs by bands that were trios for the entirety of their existence, and there is room for that here too. But our current theme also allows for songs by more transient lineups. This can include songs recorded by three artists who may even have gotten together for a one-shot project, without intending to become a more lasting act at all. I hope to have an example of this kind of trio later in this theme, maybe even two such examples. But let me get to the matter at hand.

2 Nice Girls was originally the duo of Gretchen Phillips and Kathy Korniloff. With this line-up, they won a Sweet Jane contest in Austin TX that also led to their being signing to the Rough Trade label. By the time they released their debut album, the line-up had expanded with the addition of Laurie Freelove. As you can hear above, their version of Sweet Jane had also expanded to interpolate Joan Armartrading’s song Love and Affection. The best tribute I can pay to 2 Nice Girls is to say that they made the combining of these two songs sound not just natural but obvious. And yet, they were the first to think of it. The group also did originals, in which they were open about their lesbianism, and they displayed a wonderfully sly sense of humor. I Spent My Last $10 is a wonderful example of this. Here they take the homophobic trope of the good girl who goes wrong and becomes a lesbian, and turn it on its ear.

Before the Rough Trade label went under, their releases became increasingly hard to find, so I have never heard 2 Nice Girls’ last two releases. But fortunately, all of this material is now available again. I had wanted to post about this wonderful group before now, but there was no proof they had ever existed the last time I looked. I am glad that situation has been corrected.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Forgotten? Blue Cheer

purchase [Vincebus Eruptum ]

J. David's post that started this theme mentioned the Amsterdam scene, which got me thinking about a band that I for some reason mistakenly associated with Amsterdam. In fact, they were American. I've been searching my brain for reasons why I might have made that incorrect link. Was it the title "Vincebus Eruptum"? While the band did at one time make a move to Germany, that would have been after I stopped paying them any attention. In fact, after most anyone stopped paying them much attention- which is the focus of this theme. I will note, however that the photo above, taken from Wikipedia, kind of bolsters why I might have been thinking so.

Blue Cheer may have come out with a small handful of albums, but only one of their albums and only one of their songs made it anywhere on  the music charts. That said, they had some influence - credited by many as one of the first heavy metal groups and by Clapton and Jim Morrison for their musical influence.

The band struggled through more different lineups than you can imagine, almost all of them including bass player Dickie Peterson.

But it's their version of Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues that stands as their major claim to fame.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Forgotten?: Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band/ Kid Creole and the Coconuts

Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band: Cherchez La Femme/ Se Si Bon


Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Lili Marlene


Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Stool Pidgeon


I know, I know, Darius, what the heck is this? Even though we don’t have a “no disco” rule here, what am I doing? Well, first of all, give these songs an actual listen. Nobody hated disco more than me, and I hate it still, but this is not disco. Yes, Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band especially were marketed as disco, and it worked well enough to make Cherchez La Femme/ Se Si Bon a hit in 1977. But this is not disco. This is music that a major label thought for some reason that they could sell, but it is another thing entirely. Nowadays, we might call this electroswing, if anything, but that genre label would not exist for another thirty years. August Darnell, first with Dr Buzzard, and then with Kid Creole and the Coconuts, was there long before it was even mildly fashionable, and he made this fascinating music that defied the genre labels of the day, and still does. From song to song, you might hear traces of big band music, various Latin stylings, and anything else that caught Darnell’s ear. By the time we get to Stool Pidgeon in 1982, we are hearing one of the greatest bass lines in history, but the song is not exactly funk either.

The main difference between the two groups was emphasis. Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band featured Cory Daye on lead vocals, while Kid Creole and the Coconuts would feature various singers until Darnell himself finally stepped up to the microphone. There were also some lineup changes, but the core group of August Darnell, Stony Browder, and Andy Hernandez remained a constant.

I discovered this music starting with Kid Creole and the Coconuts and the album Off the Coast of Me. The song Lili Marlene particularly caught my ear, even though I don’t understand the German lyrics at all. At the time of its release, I was learning about most of the new music I heard from our own J David and other DJs on WPRB, the Princeton University station. But this one came to my attention because of a write up by Robert Palmer in the New York Times. As I recall it, Palmer talked about how August Darnell lived in a neighborhood in New York City where he would hear music from many different ethnic groups, and he brought all of those influences into his music. Many other artists swam in this same musical ocean, but no one else that I have ever heard synthesized it like this. Beneath the shimmering surfaces of these songs lie great musical depths. Allow yourself to explore them, and you will wonder as I do why this music is not better known today.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Forgotten?: Gin Blossoms

Gin Blossoms: Hey Jealousy [purchase]

Remember back in the 90s, when “Hey Jealousy” was all over the radio? It was a top-25 hit in the US, and was popular on the college/alternative stations. And the follow up single, “Found Out About You,” did well, too, also cracking the top-25, and topping Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. The album from whence these songs came, 1992’s New Miserable Experience, made it to No. 30 on Billboard’s album chart, and the band was riding high. But behind this success was something darker.

One of the founding members of the band, which got together in Tempe, Arizona in the late 1980s, was guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins, who was in many ways the “spiritual leader” of the band, which was named after the slang phrase for what alcohol abuse did to W.C. Fields’ nose. After the band cycled through members, gigged regularly and independently released an album, they were signed by A&M Records, and began to work on what became New Miserable Experience. Hopkins contributed both future hits, and some other songs to the album, but his alcoholism became so difficult to deal with, that at the end of the recording sessions, Hopkins was sacked. And because of financial hardship, Hopkins sold his publishing rights for a relative pittance.

So, while the Gin Blossoms were gathering momentum, the guy who wrote their two biggest songs was out of the band. Now, that’s not to say that only Hopkins’ songs were good. In fact, New Miserable Experience is, for the most part, a deep album, with many good songs written by a number of different writers. It is an album that fits broadly into the power pop genre, with influences from Big Star, to R.E.M., to The Replacements, but they often married upbeat tunes with darker lyrics. Personally, I really liked the album and a number of the songs made it onto cassette mixtapes that were played in my car, turning the Gin Blossoms into a favorite of my young son.

In 1992, as the Gin Blossoms were rising, Hopkins, who had taken a job as a pop songwriter for hire, told an interviewer:

When it comes on the radio, I turn it off, because I don't really want to hear that. It doesn't make me feel good or anything. . . I mean it makes me feel like I accomplished something, but it didn't turn out the way I intended. Well, nothing ever does. 

Now's getting to be the time when, in a way it would be a lot of fun, because they're on the radio all the time. It's my song but I don't enjoy it. I can't listen to it because it just pisses me off. I started the band five years ago. I spent five years of my life on this, to get it to where it is now, and now it got yanked out from under me, so I'm a little on the disenfranchised side.

On December 5, 1993, Hopkins committed suicide.

The band had a successful song on the Empire Records soundtrack, "Til I Hear It from You," co-written with Marshall Crenshaw (who is probably a good subject for another “Forgotten?” piece), which charted as a single, and the band’s follow up album, Congratulations I’m Sorry, named after comments the band received—“Congrats on your success, but sorry about Doug,” was also successful, if not to the level of its predecessor.  I liked it, and there are a bunch of good songs on it. The Gin Blossoms appeared on Leno, Letterman (sometimes with Kiss) (and Paul Shaffer often used their music to go in and out of commercial breaks), and Saturday Night Live. But their momentum stalled, and in 1997, the Gin Blossoms broke up.

Reunion tours in the early 2000s, and a handful of album releases thereafter, including one a couple of months ago produced by the great Don Dixon, have pretty much failed to break through in any real way, and I have not listened to them (although I probably should).

Speaking of Forgotten, the current Gin Blossoms website fails to mention Hopkins at all, which is kind of petty. Although he hasn’t been part of the band for decades, it is likely that had it not been for him and his songs, we might not even know about the Gin Blossoms at all. But, for a few years, Gin Blossoms were blooming everywhere, and maybe this will prompt you to move them from the Forgotten column to the “Oh yeah, I remember those guys” column.

Sunday, August 12, 2018


I loved this band, their singles always enlivening my youth, with Fire Brigade being one of the first singles I bought, familiar with all the words of all their hits, identifying, o yes, with the cool, hairy dude who seemed to run the show. You will understand I was still at school and short back and sides haircuts were the order of the day, perhaps intrinsically one of the reasons I was drawn to the shaggier bands of the day. And whilst lead singer Carl Wayne was always neatly groomed, it was the freakier fellow who played guitar and did additional vocals, later learning he wrote all the songs, that drew my innocent eye. I learnt his name. Roy Wood.

The Move had a chequered career, two steps back for every, and there were many, step forward. Beset by a management that always put notoriety ahead of sustainment, finances were always struggle, after a court case that had them surrendering royalties for their biggest song, Flowers in the Rain. Their manager had thought it a great ruse to produce, in a promotional postcard for the band, a cartoon of the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, in bed with his secretary. They also had then the bad luck of losing the master tapes of the LP produced to build on the back of said single, the delayed re-recording then missing the momentum of the moment. Nonetheless, they were a staple in the UK charts between 1966 and 1969, with hits such as I Can Hear the Grass Grow and Blackberry Way. Why no american breakthrough? In hindsight it seems strange, at least to me, and this was something they hoped a change of management, signing up with the notorious Don Arden, father of Sharon (Osborne), would remedy. Sadly this didn't materialise much beyond a support tour with the Stooges, although they can be included in the roster of artists who managed to produce a Live at the Fillmore LP, perhaps the exception to prove the rule, it being otherwise a yardstick of greatness. (To be fair I haven't heard it, knowing not of its existence until the research conducted for this piece, but it took 42 years to be released.)

The original band was a roster of greats from the Birmingham, not that one, circuit. Brumbeat, as the sound of the city was called, was quite a force in the 60s, with the Moody Blues, Spencer Davis Group and Black Sabbath, themselves also managed by Arden, all emanating therefrom. The original line up of Wayne, Wood, Ace Kefford, Bev Bevan and Trevor Burton began to fracture. First Ace Kefford was fired, for his drug use, shortly before the band appeared at the inaugural Isle of Wight festival of 1968. Trevor Burton subsequently took umbrage at the more commercial direction pursued, with Wayne then moving into the cocktail and chicken in a basket cabaret circuit in 1970. Burton, surely a shoulda/coulda also ran in rock's back pages remains to this day a staple on Birmingham's pub-rock circuit,  fashioning his never changing and never fashionable blues-rock, remaining, like sometime cohort, Steve Gibbons, world famous in Birmingham. Wayne strangely reappeared, after years on the easy listening pastures, as a latter-day lead singer for the Hollies, replacing Allan Clarke, and introducing a few old Move songs to this now largely nostalgia act's repertoire, ahead of his later death.

So what could Wood and Bevan do now? Luckily for them, old mate Jeff Lynne was now available, having earlier been too engaged with the Idle Race, another forgotten band, and was enlisted alongside Rick Price, another Birmingham stalwart foot soldier, on bass. This gave an enormous shot in the arm, with a first sight of the elusive US single chart entries missed before. Brontosaurus, California Man and Do Ya' showed a much more vigorous retro rock and roll style that made a (slight) dent into america. But you are ahead of me, as you query my ownership of the last mentioned. Surely that was......

Indeed. At the same time as Wood and Lynne revived the Move template, so also they worked together on another ambition of Woods, the marriage of strings and rock music. A keen self-taught cellist, amongst virtually any other instrument you might name, he had long sought an opportunity to replicate live the sort of lavish sounds of, say, Strawberry Field Forever. With Lynne an even more fervent fan of the Fabs, in 1970, in parallel with the Move, Electric Light Orchestra were born. However, after their first eponymous recording, musical differences began to appear, and they split, consequently also fracturing the Move. ELO, of course went on to fame and fortune, which need not burden us here, their brand becoming overly saccharine for my taste, although their "version" of Do Ya' perhaps is worthy of compare.

For a while Wood seemed the man more likely. He took his brainchild into the equivalently cello laden Wizzard, but with a much more varied palette, a slew of hit singles evoking bygone eras, in turn replicating an ersatz rockabilly vibe, at others, and convincingly, the Phil Spector wall of sound. Perhaps too talented for his own good, he pursued a solo career of quirky singer-songwritery, as often as not used to demonstrate his mastery of an ever more arcane instrumental palette. Since then, and thus for the best part of 30 years he has seemed to pursue ever decreasing circles, as Wizzard became the Wizzo band, producing a sub-Zappa jazz-fusion, ahead of innumerable short lived iterations. Perhaps he just ran out of steam, perhaps he just didn't need to try so hard. An intensely shy and private individual, living quietly in the same town as a chum of mine, he is apparently content to merely potter about for much of the year, ahead of his yearly donning the warpaint for the annual outing of his pension plan, along with a yearly Christmas concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Mind you, the royalties for a song that never fails to chart, year upon year upon year can do no harm.

He remains etched upon my childhood, a lost figure content, it seems, so to be. Up there with Ray Davies in my book, Kinks supremo, who, perhaps unlike Wood, has never quite given up trying to replicate his bounteous past. Here's his take on it. So, cheers, Woody, thanks for all of that.

Postscript: Do NOT fall for the more recent faux Move product, a latter-day laying claim to by drummer Bev Bevan, who has a track record of this, his E.L.O. part II originally also claiming to be the real thing. Or so, a lawyer writes, I understand.

3 used from $1.82!!!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Forgotten?: Mandrill

Mandrill: Fencewalk


To put it mildly, our Forgotten? theme is off to a slow start. The problem, I think is the paradox at the heart of the matter. By definition, any band or artist I can think of is not forgotten, because I remember them. So the key, I think, is to feature acts who we feel never reached the level of fame they deserved.

I offer as my first example the band Mandrill. As heard here on their biggest hit, Fencewalk, these guys were easily the equal of any of the great 1970s funk bands, such as Sly and the Family Stone or Kool and the Gang. But two things set Mandrill apart, and both kept them from greater fame. The first was that, unlike so many of their peers, Mandrill never went disco. The band lasted in their original run until 1981, and attempted a comeback in 1991, but they never bowed to the prevailing musical trends. That was also the second thing that held them back. Despite the ppure funk heard here, the most unusual thing about Mandrill was how they blended Latin and African musical elements into their sound. Listen to Funky Monkey from 1977 to see what I mean. This was their attempt to adapt to the times, but they couldn’t bring themselves to record a pure disco song.

Mandrill: Funky Monkey


This one never settles into the robotic groove that disco required, and the rock guitar late in the song was something that might have been heard on a Parliament album at that time, but would not break the charts until Michael Jackson and Prince did it ten years later.

As a final example, here is Hang Loose. This one is from the same album as Fencewalk, but here the band is much looser. Every time you think you have the groove figured out, something else happens to change your mind. It makes the song a challenge to dance to, but it’s a great listening experience, and that actually sums up what Mandrill is all about.

Mandrill: Hang Loose


Sunday, August 5, 2018


Focus: Sylvia [purchase]

The premise of our next theme is to highlight bands or musicians who had some degree of fame, but seem to have been forgotten over the years. I think it will be interesting to see what our team comes up with over the next two weeks.

I recently heard Focus’ most famous song, “Hocus Pocus” somewhere, and I was reminded that the song is both an example of incredible musicianship and remarkable silliness. Interestingly, though, most of the band’s music that I am familiar with is not at all silly, and to some degree, their legacy has been tainted by being considered as a novelty act because of this one song. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. In fact, during the period of Focus’ popularity, their music was clever, well-played, and was able to straddle the worlds of rock, folk, jazz and classical without difficulty. They amply deserved their fame, and should be remembered today for more than one song—even if it is a pretty great song.

Originally formed as a trio in 1969 in Amsterdam by keyboardist, vocalist, and flautist Thijs van Leer, after the addition of guitarist Jan Akkerman, the newly named Focus secured a regular gig as the pit band for the Dutch production of Hair. An initially unsuccessful debut album, called Focus Plays Focus followed, but the band recorded a song, “House of the King," a classically influenced instrumental that featured Akkerman’s incendiary guitar and van Leer’s flute, that became a top 10 hit in the Netherlands, and garnered interest outside their native land. The song was added to the international version of the album, re-titled In and out of Focus, but the album was still mostly ignored, only reaching No. 104 on the US album charts.

But it was Focus’s second album, after the rhythm section was replaced, that the band took off. Called Focus II in Holland, but Moving Waves elsewhere, it included the aforementioned “Hocus Pocus,” whose 6:42 second length was edited down to 3:18 for single release. It hit No. 9 on the Billboard 100 chart in the US, and has been featured in movies, TV shows and commercials. In fact, researching this piece reminded me to go watch the movie Baby Driver, which uses an excerpt from “Hocus Pocus” to great effect (spoiler alert). The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart in the US and No. 2 on the UK album chart. Moving Waves featured the band’s signature classical/jazz/rock fusion, with top notch playing, and is really a wonderful album.

Following a successful tour of Europe and the UK, Focus returned to the studio to record their third album, Focus III, with yet another new bass player. Included on this album was the triumphant instrumental (with some wordless vocals) “Sylvia,” a reworking of an old pre-Focus song written by van Leer, and our feature song (because if you have heard of Focus, you probably know “Hocus Pocus,” but maybe not “Sylvia.”) An economical three and a half minute tune, it always makes me happy. While “Sylvia” didn’t reach the same heights as a single in the US (stalling at No. 89), it became an international hit for the band, and the album was also a success. As Allmusic has observed:

The song remains one of the most loved and best remembered songs from Focus' catalog. The consistency in musical quality throughout Focus III is enough to merit any listeners' respect. To be frank, this LP has it all: diverse songs, astounding musicianship, one of the finest singles ever released -- Focus III should unquestionably be ranked alongside the likes of Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon, and any others of rock's greatest. 

And yet, it isn’t.

Focus followed this success with a headlining tour of Europe and the UK, and a North American tour, opening for other prog-rock luminaries. But the rigors of touring exacerbated tensions between van Leer and Akkerman and led to the replacement of drummer Pierre van der Linden. One set of songs was trashed before the band, with the two leaders working separately in the studio, released Hamburger Concerto, another diverse album that while often engaging, was not as good as its predecessors (and even included another attempt to strike “Hocus Pocus” gold with a song called “Harem Scarem.”). The album charted, but not as highly as Focus III. Another world tour followed, including an appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Apparently, a young Michael Jackson was a fan, and saw them a few times, with Akkerman later claiming that MJ nicked a bass line from one of his solo songs.

That’s pretty much where I, and I think much of the world, lost track of Focus. Akkerman and van Leer feuded, drummers came and went, and ultimately Akkerman was given the boot, replaced by the fine Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. But the band devolved into chaos, and a number of bad ideas and alcohol led to the breakup of Focus in 1978.

A few reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, some with, and some without, Akkerman were unsuccessful, but in the early 2000s van Leer formed a new version of Focus, has released a handful of new albums, and, as this piece is written, the band is on tour, with 2018 dates in Europe, the UK, and Mexico. Akkerman's solo career has embraced jazz, rock, fusion, and classical music, and he still breaks out both "Hocus Pocus" and "Sylvia" on occasion.

Clearly, the changing musical landscape in the late 1970s led to the disappearance of many prog-rockers, most of whom changed their sound, disappeared, or fell into obscurity. And yet, there is still a cohort of these bands who are still remembered today. I’d like to add Focus to that group.

Remedies: Steve Earle's CCKMP

Purchase Steve Earle's CCKMP

A stark, unforgiving and unrepentant reflection on drug addiction and personal destruction: I cannot think of another song so blatantly unapologetic in directly speaking of the reasons for , effect and legacy of drug abuse than Steve Earle's 1996 song "CCKMP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain)."

The song is dark and disturbing, a funeral dirge, and one of Earle's most direct and earnest narratives in a career that has gloriously reveled in using song as story.

I have to say, for a long time, I wasn't sure what the song meant to accomplish on a narrative or artistic level. That is, until I started to think of it in terms of what Earle was doing as a writer rather than a singer. It's not really persona adoption, where an author gives us the means to understand a life, a personality and motivations we don't have the direct access or ready evidence to understand. The recreation of a life the consumer (listener or reader, I suppose is better) doesn't know is the basis of creative work, the lifeblood and reason narrative--be it song, story, poem, painting, or sculpture--exists. We read (or look at or listen) to the stories of others so we can understand. Art creates not a forgiveness or a justification so much as an understanding and a sense of empathy. That's why we go to art: to learn what others know through a vicarious experience. This is also a notion that has come under attack with increasing indignation lately. I feel like we're wading in territory of intolerance and victimhood that threatens to drown us and thus, end the artists' ability to explore and bring to the life the story of others and shed light into places that few of us know.  Intolerance is a singular animal, destructive to others, regardless of the motivation or what political or social spectrum it stems from. If we kill voices, or worse, lay exclusive claim to certain stories or voices, we risk losing the stories entirely. To illustrate my point, I direct you to this article from the New York Times. I'm not really sure what the problem is: be it a lived experience or an imagined one, if it is an experience others can benefit from living, even just on a page, it is most likely valuable. So, Earle is allowed to give us this dark slice of addiction and despair because it is his own experience of both.  However, this tangible hold on addiction doesn't give the author exclusive rights to the story, does it?

Of course, what I find refreshing about Steve Earle's "CCKMP" is the visceral rawness of the experience he presents. He doesn't have to explain himself, he just gives us a story that is his story. Or was. Earle is famously clean and sober now and works hard to help others out of the place he was once trapped in. His own experiences gave rise to this simple, uncompromising reflection on his own addiction. Of course, he owns the story and the pain that colors it, and by sharing it, he does shine light into a dark corner we don't know. Earle can give us this story because he lived it and thus owns the scars. But, the artist's job is to do this: let us understand the pain that causes the scars in hopes we don't inflict the same on ourselves. Art is meant to bring experience to life; if the artist has lived the experience, they have every right to it. If they haven't, can we still appreciate their efforts to interpret and bring to life the experiences of others? I'd say yes, resoundingly so. Without art, without interpretation in attempt to understand, what would we know?