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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Five For The Record: The Beacon Street Union, “The Clown Died in Marvin Gardens.”

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: Title track of second and final album released by “Bosstown sound” mainstay band. Released August 1968. Failed to chart in any city, state, country or other jurisdiction I know of, though I imagine the hip Boston stations probably gave it a couple spins.

And here’s why I like it:

1. Highbrow allusions for the win. It took me three listens to catch the musical references to Chopin’s Funeral March. For a psychedelic band, that’s pretty subtle: Most of the BSU’s peers would have had a fuzztoned lead guitar play three minutes of variations on it.

2. An arranged marriage. I dunno whether the BSU did their own arrangements, or hired an outsider.

Either way, “The Clown Died…” gets much of its charm from an interesting and relatively light-handed arrangement.

It’s full of musical touches that come and go — the four bass-drum booms as the cortege treads slowly by; a carnival organ that submerges and rises again; a harpsichord; strings; some dark, eerie flute licks; lead singer John Lincoln Wright’s one-word break into harmony on the word “hotel;” and those never-ceasing maracas (or whatever it is that sets the percussion groove.)

3. Mind your ah’s. Lead singer Wright — born in Boston; raised in Sanford, Maine — handles his R’s pretty well for most of the song. They lean a little toward H’s, but acceptably so, in a standard semi-tough lead-singer sort of way.

Then we get to the payoff line of the song, and Wright coughs up some Beacon Street:

The ground dried and hardened
After the clown died in Mahvin Gahdens.

I mean, he doesn’t even try to pretend he’s from anywhere except New England. The Bosstown sound, indeed!

4. High concept. A mashup of circuses and Monopoly as some sort of comment on the human condition? I have no idea what it means but I’ll buy it for a dollar.

The album cover is pretty good, too — five longhairs and a dead clown. I woulda taken a flyer on that if I’d stumbled across it in a record store bin in 1968.

(Unfortunately, they devoted Side Two of the album to throttling “Baby Please Don’t Go,” rather than further exploring their Ringling Brothers Barnum & Boardgame motif.)

5. Turn it up. BSU guitarist Paul Tartachny is not usually ranked with Joe Perry and J. Geils among Boston’s great guitar exports, but he rips off a good solo when he finally gets a chance.

(Any time the lead singer says something about “a lion trainer that’s gone maaaaaaad!” and looks in your direction, you gotta deliver the goods.)

Some of it is the same kind of scrambling modal raga-ish stuff every lead guitarist this side of Nigel Tufnel was serving up in 1968.

But it builds up a good head of steam, especially when Tartachny whips out some stuttering licks that bring to mind Berton Averre on the long version of “My Sharona.” (Listen at the very end and you’ll hear them, over what sounds like a berserk funeral procession.)

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Sleep.

When my diddley bow is working, I tend to go on jags where I play it a lot.

Here, then, a song that’s perfect for either sleepy lovers or tryptophan comas, wherever you find yourself this Thanksgiving.

I am, at least for the time being, thankful for my one string.

Stock characters.

I saw a couple old friends at my son’s elementary school the other day.

They looked happy enough, but I had to wonder if they weren’t frolicking on borrowed time.

photo-11

“Peanuts” may be a remarkably successful ghost franchise … but it’s still a ghost franchise.

The sight of Charlie Brown and Linus and their compatriots made me imagine a time when elementary school kids have no idea who they are. And it can’t be that far in the future, can it?

The kids certainly aren’t going to discover the strip in the paper, because they won’t read newspapers.

Their parents might not introduce them to it, either. In a few more years, we’ll start to approach a point where the parents of elementary school kids are too young to have established their own childhood connections with “Peanuts,” which was already declining in humor and relevance when I was a kid.

If they didn’t bond with the strip and its characters, they won’t make it part of their kids’ lives. They won’t sit down with them to watch shows like “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” which marks its 40th anniversary this year.

(The holiday airwaves are pretty crowded these days, and there are a lot more channels than there were in 1973, which makes it less likely the kids will stumble across the shows on their own. If they do, they might well be put off by the simplicity of the animation and the period details: What’s that big black thing Charlie Brown picks up to talk to his grandma?)

Charlie Brown and company are not necessarily on the fast track to oblivion. There are always grandparents to introduce their grandkids to “Peanuts.”

Also, Charlie Brown and Snoopy are familiar enough characters to remain popular in plush toyland, even without the power of a daily comic strip to sustain their identities. Kids will probably be getting stuffed white dogs with long ears and black gumball noses for decades to come.

Elementary schools aren’t havens for the cutting edge, either. So the “Peanuts” gang is likely to have a place over the water fountain for at least 10 years after they begin to significantly fade from the public consciousness. And if no other characters come along with their mass familiarity, maybe they’ll hang around even longer, just ’cause they’re there and they’re friendly enough.

It won’t be a bad thing when they disappear. Every cultural touchstone has its day, and Charles Schulz’s characters have lasted remarkably longer than most.

I wonder what will replace them in America’s childhood consciousness when they finally fade.

Hopefully, the new cartoon overlords will be as nuanced as Schulz’s characters were at their best, and won’t be one-dimensional Elmo-ish caricatures.

America’s children deserve better than that over their water fountains.

Repeat offender.

I’ve been thinking lately how much I missed my diddley bow.

My old one has a habit of coming apart at the output jack. I didn’t think I could fix it, so I spent the kingly sum of $15 on a new pickup and a new output jack, which I plan to solder together so firmly that archaeologists will find it, intact, in the year 8585.

But I got antsy waiting for the new parts to arrive in the mail. So I went down to work on the old one. And sure enough, it could be fixed.

Now I’ll have the makings of two diddley bows. Maybe I’ll play one with my hands and one with my feet. I’ll play lavishly orchestrated, carefully harmonized duets of “Quando, Quando, Quando.

(This sheds new light on my previously stated goal of becoming “the Ferrante & Teicher of the diddley bow.“)

I love the diddley bow for its simplicity, and also because it’s a wonderful instrument to just pick up (metaphorically) and bang around on.

I’m nowhere near note-perfect on it, and I never want to be. I prefer the way it sounds when I’ve been playing it for about five minutes — when I’m close enough to imply the correct note, but far enough away to make everything sound wobbly and fluttery and variable.

There’s damn well enough perfect music in the world; I’m trying to redress the balance in the other direction.

The default use for a diddley bow is pentatonic blues licks. Personally, I like to deploy mine in the service of the Seventies’ most memorable melodies. You haven’t heard mellow gold ’til you’ve heard me do it.

To wit:

Awwwwwwww, yeah. Ol’ blue eyes is back.

From the Valley: Back to the Action, “Get It.”

Another installment of the ongoing From the Valley series of local music reviews, featuring Lehigh Valley-based bands.

Here’s the good news about Get It, the new EP by Bethlehem quintet Back to the Action:

It’s professional-quality pop-punk, equal to anything you’d hear on the radio, or in movies aimed at 18-to-34-year-olds, or in the varied other pop-culture outlets where melodic-but-slamming music turns up these days.

And now the bad news (and yeah, you can guess where I’m going):

It’s professional-quality pop-punk, equal to anything you’d hear on the radio, or in movies aimed at 18-to-34-year-olds, or in the varied other pop-culture outlets where melodic-but-slamming music turns up these days.

Pop-punk, at least to my jaded old ears, is one-dimensional and predictable music, no matter who’s playing it, and no matter whether it’s being filtered through the Disney Channel or a college radio station at midnight.

Song after song, pop-punk rests on the same incessant, interchangeable, unsubtle bed of power-chord guitar — choked and stuttery in the verses, big and ripping on the choruses.

(Even the tone of the guitars barely seems to change from song to song, band to band. It’s as if every guitarist in the 18-to-34 demographic was issued the exact same gear.)

And then there’s the vocals. There’s a certain vocal timbre and range that represents the Perfect (dare I say Cliched?) Pop-Punk Lead Singer Voice.

Those gifted with a Perfect Pop-Punk Lead Singer Voice inevitably use it to double- and triple-track themselves singing about elation (“Hey you (hey you) / Get up, I wanna let you know that I love you tonight”) or alienation (“You had me tied into a knot inside my own mind.”) 

Back to the Action’s singer has one of Those Voices, in spades. You’ll know it the instant you hear it. And he does with it exactly what you’d anticipate he would do with it, if you’ve ever heard any pop-punk.

If you like this kind of music, you’ll probably dig it. If you don’t, you’ll probably wonder why you should give these guys any more of your attention than you’ve given any other band in their genre.

For myself, I don’t have much of an answer to that.

The guys in Back to the Action have pretty good chops. Check out all the tempo shifts in opener “Say Goodbye,” for instance.

If they figured out a way to put those skills into the service of a sound that was recognizably theirs, I’d rave about it.

And maybe they will yet.

I suspect the best thing that could happen to these guys (and yes, I am passing an unsolicited generational judgment … but why stop now?) would be for all five of them to fall in love with some rough-hewn, idiosyncratic album — Tonight’s the Night, or The Basement Tapes, or some more recent equivalent — and soak themselves in it for a couple of months, and emerge from the brine making music that doesn’t sound like everybody else.

Until then, we’ve got the good news/bad news story of a band that — in terms of musical development, if not sales — has climbed about as far as it can go on its particular woodpile.

Back to the Action’s “Get It” is available for download on Bandcamp, for $5 or more. The band is also playing Dec. 7 at Planet Trog in Whitehall.

From the Valley: Flashback, Part 2.

A couple days ago, I wrote about the playlist for WAEB-AM, formerly the Lehigh Valley’s favorite Top 40 station, this week in 1968.

The ARSA database also happens to have WAEB’s playlist of top records for this week in 1970. It seemed like an interesting comparison to see how a region’s tastes, and the offerings of its hit-radio stations, could change in two short years.

Let’s have a look, then:

– Bubblegum and light pop still makes up the bulk of WAEB’s playlist, but it’s a heavier station that it had been in 1968. Note Free, the Who, Joe Cocker and Canned Heat on the Top 20, with Chicago, Eric Clapton and Steppenwolf bubbling under.

– As in 1968, there’s a clutch of soul records on the bottom half of the surveywhich represents an improvement, I suppose, since there are only 20 songs on the list this time around instead of 40. I would have liked to hear “I Think I Love You” and “Super Bad (Parts 1 & 2)” back to back.

– The album chart also shows a move toward heaviness, or at least seriousness: The Band, Led Zeppelin, Santana and Joe Cocker are all scoring big in the Valley.

– But the No. 1 album (assuming that the first album listed is also the most popular) is a weird one: The Artie Kornfeld Tree‘s A Time To Remember!

Kornfeld is probably best remembered as one of the guiding lights behind the Woodstock festival. He was also a musician, though the interwebs suggest that this was his only album.

A Time To Remember! shows up on only two local airplay charts in the ARSA database, with the other mention coming roughly a month earlier at a station in Denver.

I can only wonder what accounted for his brief burst of local popularity. Perhaps he played a concert here?

– Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdowns had been airing for four months in November 1970. Thanks to this excellent site, we can compare the hottest records in the Lehigh Valley to the hottest records nationwide.

I notice that several of the songs just arriving as “New Power Sounds” on WAEB’s airwaves (Clapton, Chicago, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder) are already on the national 40. That suggests that WAEB took a little longer to get on them than other stations.

On the other hand, the Carpenters’ saccharine “We’ve Only Just Begun” was No. 2 nationwide but only No. 9 in the Lehigh Valley. (It was down from No. 8 the week before, suggesting it might already have peaked as a hit in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.)

For the most part, the charts are pretty similar once you get up into the Top 10.

Both charts share the same Number One, the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” and the same Number Three, the Jax 5ive’s “I’ll Be There.” And most of the other records don’t differ all that much in chart positions.

In this particular week, anyway, the tastes of the Lehigh Valley were pretty similar to those of the nation as a whole.

– For what it’s worth, I have at least a passing familiarity with every performer on the 1970 WAEB countdown … whereas the 1968 countdown boasts a number of acts I couldn’t tell you Fact One about. (To name a few: Unifics, Singing Ork. Circus, Pop Corn Generation, Rene & Rene, Autry Inman, Magic Lantern, Billy Harner and the Ethics.)

At first I thought that might be a sign of the growing heterogeneousness of Top 40 radio — i.e., that it was harder for a local or regional band to get airplay in 1970 than it had been two years before.

But I think the relative unfamiliarity of the acts of 1968 can be explained by two other reasons:

1) There were something like 50 acts on the ’68 survey, and only 30 two years later, so there was more room in 1968 for regional heroes and one-shot wonders.

2) I’m simply less familiar with ’60s pop than I am with ’70s and ’80s. Maybe there’s no trend at all between the acts on the two surveys; it’s just my ignorance that accounts for the difference.

From the Valley: Flashback, Part I.

Not our usual From the Valley content. But, it’s local and it’s about music, so I’m calling it what I want. The local music reviews will be back soon enough.

The Lehigh Valley is heavily influenced by larger, more culturally active cities nearby. The people who live here watch the network TV stations from Philadelphia, and go to New York City for museums, art and other High Culture.

By and large, we listen to radio stations from around here — though, in an age of corporate ownership, that doesn’t mean as much as it used to. For instance, WAEB-FM, the Valley’s Top 40 station, and WAEB-AM, a mostly conservative talk-radio station, are both Clear Channel stations now.

Back in the day, WAEB-AM was the Valley’s hit-radio station, one of a small chain of stations owned by Lehigh University graduate Bill Rust.

Like similar stations in countless other cities, its playlists would have reflected listener preferences and decisions made locally or, at very least, regionally. What was being played in Hartford or Denver or Tallahassee wouldn’t have figured into the mix.

The invaluable ARSA database preserves a number of WAEB’s weekly most-played music lists — including two from this very week, one in 1968 and the other in 1970.

We’ll take 1968 first, and get back to 1970 soon.

What, then, was the Lehigh Valley listening to 45 years ago this week? If you’d gone into the halls of Dieruff or Becahi or Nazareth Area High School, what would the kids have been buzzing about?

Here’s the full survey; I’ll pick out some of the highlights:

– Apple Records — at that moment, the most buzzed-about new label in the business — holds the 1 and 2 spots with its first two single releases, Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

– There’s a lot of fairly lightweight pop on the countdown, whether it be straight-up teenybopper bubblegum (note “Bang-Shang-a-Lang” and “Chewy, Chewy” back-to-back, as well as the Cowsills coming up as the next Sure Shot) or marginally more grown-up productions (Johnny Nash, the Turtles, the Union Gap).

– Cream’s “White Room” at No. 20 is kinda funny. Because of the band’s reputation as Heavy Musicians, and because the song was a classic-rock radio staple when I was a kid, I never thought of it as a pop song.

But, seen through the lens of this countdown, I could imagine “White Room” appealing to the same kids who bought, say, “Green Tambourine” or “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” It’s oblique, it’s psychedelic, it’s catchy … sure, why not?

(It is harder-edged than most of the songs I just mentioned. Especially at the end, after they play the bolero rhythm for the last time, and hold that one chord a little longer than usual, and Eric Clapton lets just a touch of feedback creep through. Feedback is electronic devilsong. It works well here.)

– Big Brother’s “Piece of My Heart” and Sinatra’s “Cycles” at Nos. 28 and 29 is priceless. Talk about two diametrically opposed but beloved American voices. Wonder if WAEB ever actually played them back to back?

– Bobby Womack cut “Fly Me To The Moon”? I didn’t know that. Hey, it works OK.

– Another tune I was unfamiliar with and had to look up: Petula Clark’s “American Boys,” at No. 33.

Even after groups like the Supremes had embraced topicality (viz. “Love Child,” No. 6 on the WAEB Fabulous Forty), Ms. Clark was still cutting bouncy advice-to-the-single-girl records like it was 1964 all over again.

It is either charming or sort of sad to think that — in a world where the White Album and Beggars Banquet and Music from Big Pink and God knows what else existed — somebody was still dishing out this kind of froth.

– A nice cold shot of soul at Nos. 36-38 with Eddie Floyd’s “Bring It On Home,” Johnnie Taylor’s decidedly adult “Who’s Making Love” (bet that sounded good next to “Chewy, Chewy”) and Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life.”

Of course, it was followed by the Chipmunks and Engelbert Humperdinck … so it’s safe to say that WAEB was not the standard-bearer of soul in the Lehigh Valley. (Or, perhaps, that the Lehigh Valley was not the standard-bearer of soul in the U.S. Maybe that was something else you looked to Philly or New York for.)

– The New Music Power Sounds list, again, is mostly forgettable pop (Nancy Sinatra? The Osmond Brothers? The Pop Corn Generation, whatever that was?) with a weird interloper in the form of Jefferson Airplane’s “Lather,” the bitter-edged, willfully bizarre story of a man-child who refuses to grow up.

So there you have it. It’s not my favorite 50 or so songs. But it was the Lehigh Valley’s favorite 50 or so songs — not Hartford’s or Denver’s or Tallahassee’s. And in that, it is noteworthy.