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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Goin’ through a four-year spin.

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It was warm enough to grill in Pennsyltucky this afternoon, and it’s going to get into the 70s this coming week.

I think we’re at that point in the year when a late-season snowstorm is finally out of the question, and it’s just about time to start putting the long-sleeved T-shirts at the back of the shelf.

Almost summer, in other words.

Which brings to mind a song that — by cosmic coincidence — was just starting to hit radio stations across America around this time in 1978.

(Its first appearance in the ever-faithful ARSA database is in the countdown for the week ending May 8, 1978, at WYSL-AM 1400 in Buffalo. They get excited about the coming of summer in Buffalo.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the Bea — er, Celebration featuring Mike Love:

“Almost Summer,” the title track to a California teen movie I’ve never seen that sounds like a hoot if you don’t think too hard about anything in it, has to have one of the worst opening couplets of the Seventies:

“Susie wants to be a lady director
and Eddie wants to drive a hearse
Johnny wants to be a doctor or lawyer
and Linda wants to be a nurse.”

Who in the world has ever wanted to drive a hearse?

The second verse doesn’t get much better — there’s a self-referential mention of a “little deuce coupe,” as well as another of the BBs’ near-obsessive references to hair.

(I wrote about this once on my now-departed other blog — there are a surprising number of BBs songs with references to hair. I may dig out that one and repost it here. Since “Almost Summer” was co-written by Love, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, I say it belongs in the same discussion.)

I revere Brian, adore Carl and sort of quietly respect the other Beach Boys. But I think Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks might have been the most valuable people in that entire enterprise over the years, simply because of their abilities to write lyrics that didn’t embarrass anybody.

Meanwhile, I have no idea who else was in Celebration. The Interwebs describe them as a “studio band.” Not sure whether Brian played on the record, or simply appeared in the videos for promotional purposes.

Whoever they were, their song broke into the American Top 40 the week of June 3, 1978, and peaked a few weeks later at Number 29.

It was gone from the Top 40 a month after it arrived — perhaps because a song called “Almost Summer” lost all its appeal once it actually was summer. Who wants to be reminded of going back to class and cracking books when it’s the Fourth of July?

As minor as it was, “Almost Summer” may represent the last gasp of America’s rediscovered Seventies love affair with the Beach Boys.

The band proper would have only one more Top 40 hit in the ’70s — “Good Timin’,” which slipped in at No. 40 in the spring of 1979. And from there on out, the band would pretty much build its entire brand on nostalgia.

The remaining Beach Boys have a new album of original material — something a lot of people never thought they would see — coming out in a little over a month.

Perhaps that album will be the talk of the summer of 2012. Anything seems possible when it’s almost summer.

I read it too. What does it mean?

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This past week, music-loving bloggers everywhere shared their memories of the late Levon Helm — singer, drummer, mandolinist, roots-rock pioneer, actor, and Time magazine coverboy.

While it wasn’t at the top of his CV, it’s true that Levon and his Band-mates made the cover of America’s largest and longest-running general news magazine the week of Jan. 12, 1970.

I imagine they groaned when they looked at the cover illustration, which made Richard Manuel look like Baba Yaga’s late husband.

(Interestingly, the Jan. 5 issue declared Middle Americans the Men and Women of the Year — a roots move of which Robbie Robertson would have approved.)

The cover of Time doesn’t have quite the same pop-cultural cachet as the cover of the Rollin’ Stone. Still, it’s something of an accomplishment. Not many pop music performers have landed inside that famous red border over the years.

I decided to go through the magazine’s online gallery and pick the five best and worst Time magazine pop-music covers, based on:

  1. The cover photo.
  2. The cover design.
  3. My perception of the worth of the subject.

My judgment does not take into account the contents of the actual cover stories, which I don’t believe I can read without a subscription.

Also, I have not reproduced the actual cover images here because of copyright concerns. Each link opens up in a new window, though, so you can check out each image without losing the thread here.

So here we go:

The Five Best Time Magazine Pop Music Covers

1. Rock n’ Roll, May 21, 1965. In hindsight, parts of this cover are kinda questionable. (Trini Lopez? Petula Clark?) But I love the snapshot approach. Rather than choose one act and try to make them Officially Anointed Representatives of Rock N’ Roll, the cover collage captures all the different sounds that people were mixing into pop music at the time. Soul, Motown, teenie pop, little symphonies for the kids — it’s all there. And the shot of the “Shindig” dancers used at the top of the cover conveys the most important message — youthful energy.

2. Aretha Franklin, June 28, 1968. What do I like most? Is it the immense corona of hair? The enigmatic Mona Lisa-ish expression? The use of a subdued painterly approach, rather than some sort of disjointed attempt at pop art? The word “TIME” rendered in pink, as befitting a natural woman? Could be all of these and more. The bottom line: A classic (dare I say “respectful”?) cover for a classic performer.

3. Bruce Springsteen, Oct. 27, 1975. I’m not sure what I think of the neon/stage light treatment. But the cover image absolutely nails the Springsteen I love — the loose-jointed, golden-tongued Boardwalk Bard. He looks like he’s having a fantastic time, and he’s going to make sure that everyone in the room does the same.

4. David Bowie, July 18, 1983. This is one of the few occasions on which Time’s cover featured a performer I liked, at the time I liked him. I remember reading this issue, so I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one. Personal connection aside, I do think it’s a pretty good likeness of the man, down to his green and blue eyes. And his stylistically varied career (careen?) up to that point made him a deserving cover choice.

5. U2, April 27, 1987. By contrast, I couldn’t stand U2 when they appeared on the cover of Time.  But the cover works well in retrospect, even if it made me groan then. I like the simple design and the fittingly emblematic/symbolic fire treatment. The subhed, meanwhile, plays off the fire theme without being (IMHO) gimmicky or heavy-handed.

Also, the cover shot bears none of the hallmarks of Anton Corbijn, U2’s official court photographer and keeper of their visual iconography. The band seems to be looking suspiciously at the camera, wondering whether the unfamiliar person behind the lens would capture the power, the mystery and the hammer of the gods. (The shot? It’s OK.)

On the flip side …

The Five Worst Time Magazine Pop Music Covers

1. The Beatles, Sept. 22, 1967. If Richard Manuel had cause for complaint against Time magazine, Ringo Starr had grounds for a lawsuit. The world’s most revered pop drummer at the time looks like a sozzled, spiky-haired Muppet in Gerald Scarfe’s cover caricature — not that any of his bandmates come off better. (Random trivia note: Scarfe later married Jane Asher, who was engaged to Paul McCartney at the time this cover appeared.)

The only word for this cover is “ghastly.” Nowadays, the managers of best-selling pop acts probably demand veto rights on magazine covers — and would reject this one out of hand.

2. Joni Mitchell, Dec. 16, 1974. I adore “Court and Spark,” and I love the idea that La Mitchell landed on Time’s cover at her moment of greatest pop success. The only trouble is this: The orange lady pictured huge in the background looks damn near nothing like Joni Mitchell.

The smaller woman in the foreground looks somewhat more like Joni. Though, what she really looks like is the earnest young librarian who used to tote her guitar to the Saturday-night coffeehouses at the Youth Center in 1974, and whose presence there increased teen-boy participation by 250 percent before she moved out to southern California to live with her sister.

3. The Who, Dec. 17, 1979. In a world with the likes of Pere Ubu, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Public Image Ltd doing business, the notion that a tired, sodden bunch of veteran corporate rockers could represent “Rock’s Outer Limits” is laughable.

The design touches (checkerboard, graffiti) also smack of a sort of late ’70s-early ’80s Urban Gothic aesthetic, a kind of post-disco return to blue jeans and muted New Wavey guitar licks and hollow, hostile amphetamine stares. I’m sure it looked Bold and Edgy and Real back then … but seen from today’s perspective, that visual style is about as fresh as Jim Carroll’s unwashed Chuck Taylors.

4. David Byrne, Oct. 27, 1986. In some ways this is actually kinda cool. The idea of using multiple, somewhat out-of-sync close-up shots to make up a larger picture has to be an homage to the cover of “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” Five points for conceptual continuity.

Unfortunately, I find the multi-colored photo treatment so thoroughly jarring and unattractive that it kills the whole package. I also can’t help but think that maybe Time went a little overboard on the whole “Renaissance man” thing: How much of Byrne’s film direction or design work still holds up in court 25 years later?

5. Jewel, July 21, 1997. Combine a blah cover shot; a lame headline (I assume it’s a pun on “Kool and the Gang,” which is to say it’s totally irrelevant wordplay for wordplay’s sake); and an earnest, polarizing subhed (“Macho music is out. Empathy is in”), and the result is a cover that makes you avert your eyes and wish you could un-see it.

I also find it kind of doubtful that Jewel represented the best and most promising performer in her genre. And, if you’re gonna pick one performer to represent an entire genre, you need to pick the best one if you want your choice to stand the test of time. (See Pearl Jam, 1993; Merle Haggard, 1974; or The Band, 1970.)

Professor emeritus.

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American radio listeners in the summer of 1959 would have had no way to anticipate that, five years later, their airwaves would be overrun by British performers.

And the people listening to Boston’s WHIL-AM that summer couldn’t have guessed that the British Invasion would be sparked, in part, by the performer whose twangy instrumental “Blue Guitar” was in intermittent rotation on the station.

(I can’t find a good video of “Blue Guitar,” so here’s another instrumental of the same vintage by the same artist:)

The ARSA online database contains thousands of weekly airplay surveys from radio stations across the U.S. and Canada. The WHIL survey for the week ending Aug. 24, 1959, is the only survey in the collection to mention Bert Weedon — and, to add insult to injury, his name is misspelled.

But Weedon, who died earlier today at age 91, played a foundational role in rock music that many Americans would never hear about.

A guitarist of no little versatility, Weedon made a name for himself in the 1950s playing with the BBC’s show band; with visiting American stars the caliber of Frank Sinatra; as a session man on early British pop and rock singles; and, finally, as a featured guitar soloist on his own records.

His skills hadn’t come easily, though. As a boy, Weedon struggled to find a knowledgeable guitar teacher.

So, as a professional, he decided to write a book that would serve as a surrogate teacher — showing young guitarists the basics of chords, melody and playing posture.

Weedon’s tutorial, published in 1957, bore the enticing title “Play In A Day,” and it hit stores at precisely the right moment.

All over the U.K., teenagers were picking up guitars and trying to recapture the seductive clang they heard on early American rock n’ roll records. Many of them — including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison — turned to Weedon’s  “Play In A Day” to pick up some of the fundamentals they needed to get started on guitar.

(Weedon’s singles also served as inspiration to young British guitarists. According to Wiki, “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” was on the Quarrymen’s set list the night Paul McCartney first performed with the band.)

It would be wrong to describe Weedon as a long-term stylistic influence on the British rockers of the ’60s. Put it this way: When you hear Eric Clapton play “Further On Up The Road,” you’re not hearing much Bert Weedon in there.

But Weedon’s role as the first teacher and role model for Britain’s budding guitarists is worth remembering.

For all we know, Lennon and McCartney might have been pipefitters if they hadn’t had someone to encourage them and provide some starting musical knowledge. Many of the stars who used “Play In A Day” — Brian May of Queen is another — have acknowledged the book’s role in their early development.

And while he never made it big Stateside, Weedon enjoyed both elder-statesman acclaim and an occasional dash of pop success in his home country.

British album buyers of the Seventies had a soft spot for budget-priced, as-seen-on-TV greatest-hits collections by faded artists the likes of Nat King Cole and Perry Como.

Weedon was among the beneficiaries of that trend. In November 1976, the 56-year-old guitarist found himself an unlikely chart conqueror, as his compilation album “22 Golden Guitar Greats” elbowed aside Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains The Same” to claim Number One on the British album charts.

(Led Zep’s Jimmy Page, incidentally, is another British guitarist who reportedly learned his earliest skills from “Play In A Day.” The stoop-shouldered Page, with his low-slung Les Paul, clearly skipped the section about how to hold your instrument.)

Three cheers for Bert Weedon, then. By sharing what he loved with others, he helped make the British Invasion possible.

And in doing so, he helped save us from all the toothless crap that was cluttering the airwaves in those sleepy pre-Beatle summers like 1959.

It took the Limey kids a couple years to get those chords under their fingers … but once they did, there was no going back to Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes.

Rhythm methods.

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If I could have an up-close seat to watch any member of a rock n’ roll band, I would choose the drummer. Any drummer.

Guitarists and bass players dominate the front of the stage, but their business isn’t really all that interesting to watch. The hands go up and down and side to side, and that’s about it.

Sure, some guitarists will try spicing up their stage presence with a backflip or a rabid-dog run across the length of the stage.

But those of us who have tried it know that a flashy stage movement is usually accompanied by a power chord or a simple automatic-pilot lick. In other words, when a guitarist’s legs engage, their brain and their hands shut off.

Drummers don’t have that luxury. They have to use everything they’ve got.

Even the most primitive Charlie Wattsian drummer needs a certain level of limb independence to simultaneously conduct his duties — swatting and rolling here, kicking and pumping there.

To watch an amateur drummer attend to those multiple rhythmic tasks is enjoyable. To watch a truly world-class drummer do it, maintaining interlocking rhythms with all four limbs, is jaw-dropping.

In addition to those raw physical skills, a drummer also needs to have:

  • A rock-steady rhythmic pulse. (I’ve played with singers with mediocre senses of rhythm. Those guys you can work around. But an unreliable or unsteady drummer is like a burned roux; you can’t compensate for that.)
  • A knowledge of dynamics and a good pair of ears, to get loud and soft with everyone else.
  • A sense of the song, so they can create rhythms that mesh with what everyone else is playing. (You’ve probably seen critics write: “Ringo Starr didn’t play drumbeats; he played songs.” Yes. This.)

To take this logic a step further (and why not?): If drummers work the hardest, and are where the action is onstage, a drummer who also sings is the absolute coolest thing to watch.

He can pump the hi-hat, and roll on the snare, and work the ride, and rock the words and the melody — usually while hunched into some weird body position to reach the mic, which must be set far enough away from him that he won’t run into it or hit it with his sticks. (In the days before headset mics, at least.)

Which brings us, as you knew it would, to Levon Helm.

Most every other blogger in the world has linked today to the video of The Band kicking off the Last Waltz with “Up On Cripple Creek.”

That’s the Levon Helm we all keep in our minds — holding that laid-back raggedy-ass shuffle, twisting his head far right to drawl into the mic. He’s building the barn and telling us a story at the same time, without missing a nail or a word.

And he makes it look so easy that we don’t think about how tricky it really is. Sure, he’d done it a million times — and would do it a million more — but that doesn’t make it simple.

Yes, the singing drummer is the coolest show on earth. And no one ever brought more funk, soul, grit and groove to the task than Levon Helm.

Helm may have hated the “Last Waltz” movie, and for valid reasons. But I’m glad it exists. And one reason is that opening version of “Up On Cripple Creek,” capturing forever the definitive image of Levon Helm doing the things he did so well.

Royale wit’ cheese.

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I try not to duplicate stuff I post on Twitter, but I can’t resist here.

When I think “Misirlou,” I think of Dick Dale’s tall-walking machine-gun surf-guitar arrangement, generally known to people my age as the theme to “Pulp Fiction.”

But then I found this version on YouTube. And all I can say is:

Ferrante and Teicher both had wallets like Jules Winnfield’s.

Encore Performances: Instrumental.

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From the old blog, mid-April 2010.

I’m tired and headachy. Drinking a beer because it tastes better than aspirin or sleep.

Our main man Wisconsin JB just devoted a post to the glories of Barry White’s work with Love Unlimited Orchestra — in particular, the Top 40 hits “Love’s Theme” and “Satin Soul.”

This is great because it allows us to toss off an observation from a March 1975 AT40 countdown we heard half of and aren’t going to blog about by itself.

During the countdown, Casey Kasem observed that the touring version of Love Unlimited Orchestra consisted of a nucleus of 17 members.
The rest of the players would be hired in each city for one-off gigs.

So, just as the annals of baseball are full of guys who played in only one big-league game, the local musicians’ union directories of America are full of guys and gals who were members of Love Unlimited Orchestra for one night only.
I bet their kids still roll their eyes in disbelief when they say they played with Barry White.

(Seems that Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who blew big bank trying to move an entire orchestra around America, might have learned something from Barry White’s method. But nooooo — Greg Lake had to learn the hard way.)

It did make me wonder, though:
Did any concert-goers demand their money back on the grounds that that wasn’t the “real Love Unlimited Orchestra” up on stage?
I mean, if one-third of REO Speedwagon went on tour and hired local musicians to fill in, there would have been an uproar.
Sure, the local guys would have had good enough chops to play the songs — but it wouldn’t have been “the real REO Speedwagon.”
Why wouldn’t ticket buyers similarly demand that Love Unlimited Orchestra consist of the original players?

Is a violist or a conga player really more faceless and interchangeable than your typical arena-rock rhythm guitarist or bass player?

Five For The Record: The Kinks, “Sleepwalker.”

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A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: 1977 LP by perennial quirky Anglo pop-rock favourites. Purchased by yours truly for $1 from a used-vinyl store on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, more years ago than I care to admit.

And here’s why I like it:

1. “Stormy Sky.” In which the guys who used to slash their amplifier speakers with razor blades venture into the laid-back world of easy-like-Sunday-morning late-’70s rock.

At first I liked this song strictly for its mellow-gold patina, and for the comforting gentleness in its chorus (“I know that we’ll be all right.”)

It took a few more listens for the ambiguity in the words to come out. The “stormy sky” may be entirely metaphorical; the storm may be taking place within the four walls of a bedroom. And whether the storm is literal or figurative, it’s going to leave a mark: “There’s nowhere we can hide.”

Still, while the reassurance in this song may be only a facade, I’ve always found it soothing, so much so that I’ve been known to hear the chorus in my head during real-life storms.

(For those who find the mellowness of the studio version a little too much to take, there’s a marvelous U.K. TV performance of the song available on YouTube that puts more of the spotlight on Dave Davies’ lead guitar.)

2. Commercial success. According to Wiki, the album hit No. 21 in the United States — the band’s best chart performance in more than a decade. It was the first time since 1970 the Kinks had so much as sniffed the U.S. Top 40 album charts. And the single “Sleepwalker” fell just short of Casey Kasemland, peaking at No. 48 stateside.

I know the legend of the Kinks well enough to know that chart position does not equal artistic success. I’ve heard all the stories about how “Village Green Preservation Society” sold 25,000 copies in its first year, or whatever it was.

I don’t buy into the willful embrace of obscurity. As far as I’m concerned, a world in which more people listen to the Kinks is a better place to live.

And any album that pulls more ears to the Kinks, without totally abandoning the band’s misfit soul, is something worth celebrating.

3. “Juke Box Music.” The LP’s commercially unsuccessful second single treads much the same thematic ground as “A Rock n’ Roll Fantasy,” which would scrape into the U.S. Top 40 for the Kinks the following year. (Said thematic ground being: There are fans who live for our music, but they’re only losing themselves in a fantasy.)

As someone who cherishes the Kinks’ body of work, I enjoy the perversity of this most wonderful of bands trying to tell me not to get too attached to their music.

No, Ray; what you do isn’t only juke box music. I’ve heard plenty of that; and, like Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, I know it when I hear it. I can go dial up some Leo Sayer if I want only juke box music.

What you do — when you want to do it well — is a thousand times deeper and more human and more fallible than juke box music. And the fact that you’re so thoroughly, self-denyingly wrong on this score only makes me love you more. I took your music to heart a long time ago, Ray, and there’s no going back now.

Oh, and listen to brother Dave’s harmony at about 3 minutes into the song. Maybe it’s a trick of the mix, but he has rarely sounded more impassioned. If the last voices I heard on Earth were Ray and Dave singing that harmony, I would die content.

4. No concept. The theatrical, thematically based albums the Kinks recorded in the first half of the Seventies had their high points. But by 1977, they were overdue to break out of that mold.

There are times over the course of “Sleepwalker” when Ray Davies’ relief feels almost palpable … you can imagine him thinking, “Oh, yeah! I don’t have to make all the songs link together any more. I don’t have to put a costume on. Or write linking dialogue. Or stick to a plot. I can just write songs. Like I used to.”

5. Real live radio. I’ve never intentionally sought out an album that bears the markings of a radio station.

But I used to think it was kind of cool when I’d turn up an album in a used bin that had once belonged to a radio station. Those records had a little extra patina of professionalism — kinda like holding a baseball bat that had been used in a big-league game.

Sure, the album looked like thousands of others just like it. But some Lester the Nightfly type had actually used it to entertain the third-shifters in Olean or Oswego or someplace. People had heard the grooves over the radio. It was different, and subtly cooler.

You’ll see, if you look closely, that my copy of “Sleepwalker” is labeled “WBHS #142.”

I’ve been unable to find out what station bore those call letters in the late ’70s. The presence of the letters “HS” suggests it may have been one of those ultra-low-power high school stations, rather than a professional jawn. Kinda less impressive, I suppose.

I still enjoy the idea that my copy of “Sleepwalker” actually served in harness at some point. It adds in some quiet way to my enjoyment of the album, like giving a comfortable retirement to a rescued greyhound.

(You just don’t get that kind of connection from an iTunes download.)