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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Fine girls and good wives.

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Someone named Brandi called my workplace today … which inevitably set off references to good wives, lonely sailors and finest silver from the north of Spain.

Forty years ago around this time of year, Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” had the look of a big hit on the rise, cresting into the Top 20 airplay charts at stations in Philadelphia, Birmingham, Memphis, Phoenix and Tucson.

The song continued to grow in popularity all summer, peaking in the Number One spot for the week ending Aug. 26, 1972.

And all these years later, it’s still the first thing people think of (well, people over 30 or so, anyway) when they encounter someone named Brandy, Brandi, Brandie, Brandii or any other variant.

Seems remarkable for a song that’s really not that much more special than a couple hundred other hits from the Seventies.

Sure, it’s catchy and well-arranged, and it tells a good story, but you can say that about a lot of Seventies hits. It’s not that incredible or memorable. (Looking Glass’ sole follow-up hit, “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne,” is at least as good a song, and possibly better.)

At any rate, the Brandi connection made me wonder just how many Brandy/Brandi/Brandies there are out there, squirming at every stranger who shakes their hand and says affably, “Brandy! You’re a fine girl.”

The song’s Wiki entry mentions that the name “Brandy” spiked in popularity the year after the song was released.

A longer view of Social Security name trends tells a slightly different story: The name was already on the upsurge in popularity before the song came out.

Between 1967 and 1971 — the year before “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” — the name Brandy rose from No. 804 in popularity among American girls to No. 353. And the variant Brandi rose from No. 851 to No. 330 in the same period. The lads in Looking Glass were on the cutting edge of a trend, whether they knew it or not.

(I am powerless to explain the name’s pre-Looking Glass rise in popularity. I am similarly powerless to explain why anyone would choose to spell Brandi with an “i.”)

“Brandy” rose to No. 82 in popularity in 1973, and stayed in the top 100 most popular girls’ names every year until 1988. “Brandi,” meanwhile, made the top 100 every year from 1975 to 1989.

I tend to doubt people in 1988 were naming their daughters Brandy because of a pop single from the ’70s. My guess is baby names tend to build up momentum, and once they get popular, they ride high for a while.

Oddly, despite being a member of the Brandy Generation, I do not recall going to elementary, middle or high school with a single Brandy. I guess that whole trip happened somewhere else. (I do vaguely remember a Brandi from one or two of my college classes; or maybe she lived on my floor freshman year. She was kind of obnoxious and I would be content to forget her.)

The more recent popularity of R&B singer Brandy does not seem to have lifted the name back into vogue.

According to the Social Security Administration, the name Brandy fell from No. 400 in popularity in 2000 to No. 887 in 2007 — a decline mimicked almost exactly by Brandi. Neither name has cracked the top 1,000 since then.

Everything comes around, of course, and maybe in 20 years another influx of Brandys will crowd America’s day-care centers.

And unlike the first batch, they might get to be 25 or 30 before someone tells them their eyes could steal a sailor from the sea.

Can’t he get by some other way?

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I’m starting to think the Beatles should have had Ringo Starr sing lead on “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” instead of “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

That would have forced my local music writers to get a little more creative in describing Ringo’s local performance last night with his All-Starr Band.

The Morning Call of Allentown headlined its review by noting that Ringo “more than gets by with a little help from his friends.”

Not having wrung enough out of the cliche, MCall doubled down on it at the end, saying that R* “got all the help from his friends that he needed, and did far more than just getting by.”

(This was not MCall’s first trip to the well. A search of its archives turns up the 2003 headline “With a little help from his friends, Ringo Starr to play the State.” The phrase may occur in the text of archived stories, as well, but I’m not paying to read them.)

The Express-Times of Easton offered a “Friends”-free headline and a stronger, more engaging review. But it couldn’t resist saying in its lede that Ringo “returned to Easton tonight, and with a little help from his friends, lit up the State Theatre with radiant energy.”

(A search of the Express’ archives for “Ringo Starr” and “help from his friends” did not show any prior uses.)

Yeah, I know “With A Little Help From My Friends” is a signature song of Ringo’s. And I know it describes the way Ringo’s All-Starrs share the spotlight.

But it’s not the only song the guy’s ever sung. And there’s no law that says it must be mentioned any time Ringo hits the casinos and theaters with his hired sidemen (who, truth in advertising compels me to point out, may or may not actually be his friends.)

I suspected music writers all over the place were beating this phrase to death on a daily basis as Ringo made his way around the country. I expected that, with a few clicks, I would find example after example.

But, not so. The Boston Globe wrote a perfectly good Ringo piece that seemed to go out of its way not to mention “WALHFMF” and was none the worse for it. So did the Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer-Journal. The Day of New London, Conn., also turned in a short but creative Ringo preview story that stayed well away from his friends.

So, big papers and small ones alike are proving that, if you take time to think and dig a little deeper, you can chronicle Ringo’s ramblings without mentioning help or friends.

Funny thing about strong, original writing, though:

It don’t come easy.

They’ll only answer more, more, more.

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If there’s anything all of us amateur critics and standup comics on the interwebs like to do, it’s pick stuff apart for a quick laugh.

In the past month or so, I’ve randomly happened to see two people — one on a blog, the other on Twitter — call out Bruce Springsteen for a daft lyrical moment in one of his obscure early songs.

(The song, “Incident on 57th Street,” includes the lyric, “Puerto Rican Jane / Oh, won’t you tell me, what’s your name?”  To which the Internet responds as one: “Dude. Her name’s Jane. You just said so.”)

In another example, I recently saw someone or other on Twitter play off the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” by observing: “What fun is it being a woman’s man if you have no time to talk?”

And then there are those Twitter trending topics in which people come up with silly, not-quite-right variations on familiar pop culture themes — like #lessimpressivesongtitles or something like that. (Example: “Slim Majority of Americans Were Kung Fu Fighting.”)

You get the idea — and I’ve done it as often as anyone else has. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes, when every single person on the ‘Net goes picking through well-trodden pop culture for a gag line, it gets a little old.

That makes it refreshing on those rare occasions when you run into something that’s truly bloggerproof.

I heard Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” the other day in some public place or other, and was struck by the following verse, transcribed from memory and thus more or less accurately:

“Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand

Lord, don’t they help themselves

But when the taxman come to the door

Lord, the house look-a like a rummage sale, yes.”

If those lines had appeared in some current pop song, the million voices of blogland would rise up as one to point out:

  1. The proverbial silver birth-spoon is found in the mouth, not in the hand.
  2. The taxman doesn’t come to the door. That’s the census guy. (Or maybe the postman. He rings twice.)
  3. “Themselves” and “rummage sale” don’t rhyme, not even in John Fogerty’s self-created East-Bay-meets-Gulf-Coast drawl.

But nobody gets all catty-picky about “Fortunate Son.”

Why? Because it’s a tour de force. It roars like a hurricane, and is equally as impervious to correction or redirection. It blows the trivial and the picayune into the ditch.

It is, in short, bloggerproof.

The world needs more of that, I think.

Don’t turn your back on me, baby.

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When you grow up a classic-rock fan, Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” is one of those songs that just sorta seeps into your bones.

My favorite part has always been the hot double-time Latin jam at the end, which sounds like the titular black magic woman has grown peeved and is going upside the narrator’s head with some fiery sun-baked Aztec hoodoo.

For a while I thought of that section simply as “the hot double-time Latin jam at the end.”

I was probably a freshman in high school, maybe a sophomore, when I bought a secondhand copy of the Abraxas album and discovered that the jam had a name — “Gypsy Queen” — and a composer — Gabor Szabo, the Hungarian jazz guitarist.

(To Carlos Santana’s credit, the song is correctly titled and credited on the LP. He didn’t simply steal the best licks and claim the song for his own, as some musicians would have.)

Wonder if Peter Green and Gabor Szabo ever actually met?

Today, for the first time, I went to YouTube and actually listened to Gabor Szabo’s original version of “Gypsy Queen.”

I think Carlos and band might have done Szabo a favor. The original version is occasionally a vehicle for some fast picking, but it doesn’t take off like the Santana version does.

Put another way: The Szabo version sounds like a hot Saturday night at the country club. The Santana version sounds like an exorcism.

Of course, now that I have my diddley bow up and running, any song is grist for the mill.

So tonight I present my tribute to “Gypsy Queen,” and to that other song that always seems to get lumped in with it.

I leave it to you, the listener, to mentally fill in the conga y timbales.

Now it’s your turn to see me through.

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As is my habit now that I have a car with a CD player, my last stop before leaving for work this morning was the CD shelf. I was expecting a long and demanding day, one that would probably need a little sunshine at the end.

My choice: Boz Scaggs’ Slow Dancer.

Slow Dancer, for the uninitiated, is the album on which Boz hired himself a full-on orchestra — strings, horns, percussionists, the works — to record in a silky R&B crooner mode.

It’s just the kind of career move singers like to pull at age 50 or 60; except Boz was not yet 30 when the album came out in March 1974. I give Marin County’s resident honky soulman at least a few points for creativity and thinking outside the box, then.

Ballads and mellow moonlit funk make up most of the album. And truth be told, most of it isn’t that memorable. Slow Dancer is kinda like the Chrysler Cordoba of slick soul albums: It’s a smooth enough ride, but the fit and finish just aren’t top-flight.

Ah, but the first song is a wonder.

“You Make It So Hard (To Say No)” is  a comfortably upholstered, irresistably catchy soul nugget that deserved extensive Top 40 airplay. Unfortunately, America in the spring of 1974 was too busy listening to “Seasons in the Sun,” “Dark Lady” and “The Lord’s Prayer” to recognize what it had when it had it.

“You Make It So Hard” (and yes, I suppose there is a Bon Scott-level seventh-grade double entendre going on there) was pretty much all I wanted when I left in the morning.

I knew I was going to put in the CD as soon as I got into the car for my drive home. If my day was triumphant, the opening horn fanfare would herald it. If my day was a failure, the song’s upbeat groove would buoy my spirit and make me feel better.

The day turned out pretty nicely, all things being equal.

And as the last hour’s ration of a long day of sun beat down on the Lehigh Valley, I drove home listening to this:

Encore Performances: The gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.

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(This piece first appeared on my old blog two years ago today. I have not edited it except to update the date reference.)

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“Did you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it?” — Daisy Buchanan, “The Great Gatsby”

Thirty-two years ago tomorrow, on the eve of the longest day of the year, the Rolling Stones released the single and album “Emotional Rescue.”

The rest of the album is useless.
But the lead single is my favorite Rolling Stones guilty pleasure, and indeed one of my five favorite Stones songs of all time, with no camp or irony at all built into the equation.

“The Great Gatsby” is probably my favorite novel of all time.
I’m not usually a lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous junkie; but lust, money and crime are always a powerful mix, and I happen to like the way F. Scott Fitzgerald rings those particular changes.

There is something indescribable, something languid, about the production of “Emotional Rescue” that reminds me of “The Great Gatsby.”
It doesn’t specifically remind me of Gatsby and Daisy per se, but it sounds like something that might have been playing in the background scenes if “The Great Gatsby” had been set in 1980.

Put it another way: Imagine Gatsby’s mansion was haunted — like the Overlook Hotel — in a way that made each generation of inhabitants come to the same sad ends.
When the 1980 Gatsby met the 1980 Daisy, and they saw flames in each other’s eyes, and the living room curtains ruffled gently in the summer breeze, “Emotional Rescue” was playing on the stereo.
(I’m trying to cast that scene in my mind as I write. Brooke Shields would have been too young for Daisy; maybe one of the Hemingway sisters?)

Perhaps it’s because Mick Jagger was part of jet-set society by 1980, but I somehow imagine this song as being informed by the milieu of the East Coast richies with whom Mick was hanging at the time.
The California cocaine cowboys of Frey and Henley are not the lead players in this song; the narrator and his desired are bluer of blood, softer around the edges, if no less devious for it.

When Mick sings “You’re just a poor girl in a rich man’s house,” I can practically smell the Givenchy and see the lush jumble of hastily discarded riding clothes tossed over the chair by the bed.

(Or, if I blur the scene a little bit, I can see a pile of lavish silk shirts so beautiful as to bring a conflicted, shallow young woman to tears.)

And really, I could see all that business about being a “knight in shining armour” riding a fine Arab charger coming out of Gatsby’s mouth.
Maybe not in those exact words … but the concept of “I will take you away in style” (with the strongly possessive undercurrent of “You will be mine, you will be mine, all mine”) seem to match pretty strongly with what Fitzgerald’s anti-hero offered his would-be lady love.
(or was Nick Carraway the anti-hero? Hmmm…)

As for the production values of “Emotional Rescue,” it’s all pillowy high-hat and silky saxophone and rubbery bass and humid electric piano.
Electric guitars are hoi polloi — nay, infra dig — in this company, like mud on the carpet or cut-off blue jeans at the country club; and you’d have to listen pretty intensely to find one anywhere before the fade.
The very rich are different from you and me.

Unlike Fitzgerald’s character, we never find out what cards Mick’s character might have up his sleeve, or what false-propped subterfuge he used to get into the big house in the Hamptons in the first place.
But, unlike “The Great Gatsby,” we get to be right there in the room when the Big Advance is made.
I bet it worked for a while, like Gatsby’s.

Peace in L.A.

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Some current events make their way into popular culture more smoothly and convincingly than others.

The Kent State shootings, of course, inspired Neil Young to write the chilling “Ohio,” which was rush-released barely a month later by CSN&Y and became a major hit.

Apollo 11 and successive moon landings spurred Gil Scott-Heron to write the angry “Whitey on the Moon.” While not a hit, the song gained attention through its inclusion on Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, the album that featured Scott-Heron’s anthemic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

The Bloody Sunday shootings of January 1972 inspired Paul McCartney, of all people, to release “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” only a few weeks later. The song — a hit in the UK and US, despite airplay bans — still stands, to my ears anyway, as a rare example of Macca adding a more sinewy, steely backbone to his innate melodic gifts.

And, while I don’t own a copy of the album, I have trouble thinking of America’s Bicentennial of 1976 without thinking of the other word Richard Pryor appended to it.

The news of Rodney King’s death today made me think of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and of two less-than-successful ways that those riots slipped into popular music.

Tom Petty, who ordinarily is no more political than Paul McCartney, rush-released a single called “Peace In L.A.,” calling for cool heads to prevail in his adopted hometown.

It was an earnest enough effort, I suppose, but it didn’t have the snap and resonance of songs like “Ohio” or “Whitey on the Moon” or “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.”

I was just finishing my freshman year of college at the time; and I remember sitting in a dorm room with a good friend of mine as he freestyled lyrics to the song in his best Tom Petty drawl-whine:

Well, they burned down my house
They stole all my git-tars …
We need peace in L.A., peace in L.A., peace in L.A.

(I was sorta hoping Petty was gonna slip this one into his greatest-hits medley when he played halftime at the Super Bowl, just to be contrarian. But, no such luck.)

The L.A. riots also made their way into the college-rock consciousness via Porno for Pyros, a band formed by singer Perry Farrell after the breakup of alt-rock legends Jane’s Addiction.

Wiki says Farrell originally conceived the band’s name after seeing a magazine ad for fireworks. But the phrase also described the L.A. riots well enough; and the song of the same title on the band’s 1993 debut album is clearly about the riots.

Jane’s Addiction was hugely popular among the people I went to school with, so the Porno for Pyros album also turned up in the collections of lots of people I knew.

I never much cared for Jane’s, though, so I was no more sold on Farrell’s trademark double-tracked whine in the context of his new band.

PfP broke up after its second album. Farrell has apparently hinted at a reunion, news that presumably makes somebody somewhere happy, though I don’t know whom.

Seen through 2012 eyes, Porno for Pyros is best remembered as an answer to a pretty good music trivia question: Name an instance in which a band, an album, and one of the songs on that album all shared the same name.

The only other example I can think of is “Bad Company” from Bad Company’s 1974 album Bad Company. Maybe the pop geeks among my readership can provide others.