Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Is Coming — The Payola$ (1983)

Businesses are failing. Hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs every month; at the same time, hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being diverted to banks that won't divulge how the money will be spent. Christmas Is Coming is definitely a holiday song for these recessionary, economically bizarro times, even though it was recorded 25 years ago by one of my all-time favourite Canadian bands, The Payola$.

The song comes from the Vancouver band's third and finest album, Hammer on a Drum (pictured left). I recently brought out my vinyl copy and listened to it for the first time in years. I was blown away all over again. Hammer on a Drum reminded me a Mick Jones quote when he was reminiscing about The Clash: "The whole thing was fantastic," Jones said. "Who wouldn't write great tunes with such great lyrics?"

Indeed, the Payola$ songwriting tandem of singer Paul Hyde and guitarist Bob Rock (the future uber-producer of the heavy metal stars) had a real Strummer-Jones thing happening on this album and its predecessor, No Stranger To Danger, both of which were masterfully produced by David Bowie's former right-hand man, the late, great Mick Ronson. (Ronson's pal Ian Hunter even drops by to help out on some of Hammer's harmony vocals.)

Since the Payola$ continue to languish in relative obscurity, their four studio albums having never been released on CD, I will post a couple other outstanding Hammer tracks that didn't make the cut on the group's two, woefully inadequate compilations.

Wild West finds lyricist Hyde in full flow as he describes a certain cross-section of right-wing America to a punchy, rock-reggae backing. His final verse takes my breath away; the writing is so lively, vivid and concise: "I lived my life in the happy hour/ The .44 magnum feeling of power/ Warms my bloated, vulgar frame/ Makes the dancers fear my name/ Go-go dancers with greasy curls/ Spread their legs around the world/ Come on, baby, shoot!/ It's the Wild West."

Meanwhile, Perhaps Some Day is a sing-along, nuclear disarmament anthem but its themes of unity, hope and coming together for the common good continue to resonate in the age of Obama.

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas to all.

Christmas is Coming (link expired)

Wild West (link expired)

Perhaps Some Day (link expired)




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Monday, December 22, 2008

All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle — Dora Bryan (1963)

The seeds for U.S. Beatlemania were days away from being sown on this date, 45 years ago. After turning up its nose at early singles such as Please Please Me and Love Me Do, EMI's American affiliate Capitol Records finally decided four Liverpool moptops might have a modicum of commercial potential and, on Dec. 26, 1963, the label released its first Beatles record, I Want To Hold Your Hand b/w I Saw Her Standing There. It hit No. 1 on the North American singles charts five weeks later and the rest is over-documented history. Of course, The Beatles were already a phenomenon in their home country, so much so they inspired this novelty Christmas single sung by British stage actress Dora Bryan. It hit the UK top-20 in the waning days of 1963.

It's naff and blandly orchestrated, topped with a thickly accented vocal that some would diplomatically call an acquired taste. If the singer sounds more like a brassy broad than a lovestruck teenager in the first flush of Beatlemania, that's surely because Bryan was 39 at the time — perhaps too adult to spot the glaring errors in the source material. "I don't care whichever one (mum) gets me/ Ringo, Paul, John, George/ They're all the same," she sings, oblivious to the fact her target audience would consider this statement heresy. (I love hearing Bryan, at the one-minute mark, attempt to cram that particular lyric into too few bars of music. She almost gets panicky at the end.)

That said, All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle has both hapless charm and historical significance, as this is widely considered the first of countless Fab Four novelty records to come.

As for Bryan, memory loss forced her to abandon her acting career in 2006; she is now wheelchair-bound and residing in a nursing home in Hove. Wouldn't it be nice if Paul or Ringo dropped by for a visit this Christmas?

All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle (link expired)

Beatles' 1963 Christmas message for fan club members (link expired)

And, finally, what better way to get into the Christmas spirit than with the newly divorced Sonny and Cher harmonizing with daughter Chastity, actress Bernadette Peters and, um, Captain Kangaroo? Only in the 1970s...



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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dancing In The Street/My Enemy is a Bad Man — Fred Frith (1980)

Dancing In The Street by Martha and the Vandellas is, without question, among the greatest recordings of the 20th century. Don't take my word for it: Ask members of the Library of Congress, who've chosen to preserve it in the U.S. National Recording Registry. So, you'd think other artists would leave well enough alone. Alas, this hasn't been the case and we live in a world with too many renditions of this Marvin Gaye-William Stevenson-Ivy Jo Hunter composition: most are simply adequate (Mamas and the Papas, Cilla Black); a few border on criminal (Van Halen and the excruciating Bowie-Jagger duet).

There is, however, one non-Vandellas version of Dancing I very much enjoy — you'll find it on Gravity, the second Fred Frith solo album and first following the demise of his British avant-garde aggregation Henry Cow. The 1980 album proved a surprisingly commercial venture — relatively speaking, of course — and Dancing in The Street, paired with Frith's own My Enemy is a Bad Man coda, was its flagship single (pictured left). Let's just say it didn't exactly challenge Christopher Cross or Air Supply for chart supremacy that year. Give it as listen and you'll hear why.

Frith's version may have an infectious, swinging groove but that's where the similarities with the Vandellas' classic end. Rather than strive for euphoria, Frith aims for disorientation and strangeness. The melody is seemingly played with one finger on a high-pitched synth, vibrato set to 11, not unlike The Tornados' otherworldly Telstar. However, one's attention is not captured by the awkwardly rendered melody but what's going on in the background: a muted cacophony of electronic noise, heavily distorted human voices and, if my ears aren't fooling me, the sound of barking dogs and power saws. Essentially, this single inverts how we normally hear music: We're compelled to listen through the familiar melody and beat to discern what's happening in the background, even though that's the most non-musical element of the song.

If you're going to cover Dancing in the Street, you better bring your own thing to it — and Frith certainly does that here.

Dancing In The Street/My Enemy is a Bad Man (link expired)

One more interesting version of Dancing in the Street for you today, courtesy of YouTube. From the All-American College Show in 1968, here is the Dick Carpenter Trio — who you'll recognize as The Carpenters with a bass player — who take the song in a decidedly Booker T and the MGs direction. The video quality is poor but it's still worth watching for the host's introduction — "Incidentally, she's a fine singer, too," he says of Karen, the group's drummer — and for the finale, where Zsa Zsa Gabor and William Shatner present the trophy and prize money to the future easy-listening superstars.




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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lotta Love — Dinosaur Jr. (1989)

Apparently Neil Young was a contrary ol' git even when he was a young man. In February 1979, a 33-year-old Young secured a Rolling Stone cover story (pictured below) to promote his then-current album, Comes a Time. Problem was, speaking to writer Cameron Crowe, the musician could barely muster a spark of enthusiasm for the record and its comfy country-pop.

"It's in the middle of a soft place. I hear it on the radio and it sounds nice," Young said dismissively. "But I'm somewhere else now. I'm into rock and roll." (True to his word, just eight months later, he'd release the edgier, punk-inspired Rust Never Sleeps.)

Certainly, Comes A Time isn't among Young's landmark recordings but the album does contain a lot of good songs, including the original acoustic version of today's post. That same year, Nicolette Larson (who sang on Comes A Time) gave Lotta Love a sunny, California-pop makeover and the song surged into the top-10. Hers is a great version but, again, not rock and roll. A decade later, the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup made the unlikely decision to cover Lotta Love for The Bridge, a 1989 alt-rock Young tribute album. Their rendition imagined a world where Comes A Time was recorded with Crazy Horse while the band was all hopped up on cheap amphetamines and powerful hallucinogens. Oh, and incidentally, that's a good thing.

Frontman J. Mascis sounds utterly unhinged, the pitch and meter of his vocals careening like a drunk on the highway. The guitars aren't just loud but tinnitus inducing, drenched in distortion and feedback. And Lou Barlow and Murph's attempts at vocal harmonies are hilariously hapless, especially at the end of the bridge, when what's supposed to be sweet "woos" sound more like the cries of a wounded animal. The overall effect suggests a three-piece band in which no one is aware, or cares, about the others are playing. (Should we be surprised this lineup fell apart before the year ended?) This is as far as you can push the shambolic envelope without the music collapsing into unlistenable chaos.

Dinosaur Jr.'s Lotta Love would have given that 33-year-old Neil Young wet dreams. It is not in the middle of a soft place. It is not nice. It is very rock and roll.

Lotta Love (link expired)

For comparison, here's the late Nicolette Larson lip-syncing (and poorly at that) to her hit version of Lotta Love in a 1979 promo clip. I can only assume from this video that all men in her band were forced to grow unflattering facial hair. It was probably a fetish or something.



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Monday, December 15, 2008

Chick-a-Boom — Joe Bataan (2005)

He laid down some supremely funky, Nuyorica soul in the 1960s and '70s; in the process, helping to originate Salsoul, the genre and the record label. His fusion of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles with lush orchestration presaged disco. He charted one of the first rap singles. Now 66, he's still going strong. So why the hell don't more people know of Joe Bataan?

The man has a fascinating history. Born in Spanish Harlem, Bataan Nitoliano spent his youth running with Puerto Rican gangs and, from age 15 to 20, was incarcerated at the Coxsackie State Prison on car theft charges. Upon release, the self-taught pianist opted to pursue music, not crime. He formed his first band in 1965 and, two years later, was on the charts with a cover of The Impressions' Gypsy Woman. Throughout the late-'60s and 1970s, he'd record several landmark Latin albums (1970's Riot!, 1972's St. Latin's Day Massacre, 1974's Salsoul, 1975's Afro-Filipino), first with New York salsa label Fania, later on his own Salsoul imprint. Just as he ended the 1960s playing music that anticipated a dominant genre of the coming decade — disco — Bataan closed the 1970s with Rap-O, Clap-O, a 1979 single that anticipated a dominant genre of the coming decade — rap. (See the video below.)

Yet the streets eventually drew him back. Bataan put his musical career on hiatus following his 1981 album, Bataan II, and went to work for the next 20 years counselling juveniles at correctional facilities, where he'd share his own tales of crime and redemption. This was a full-time job, not some altrustic whim, and Bataan apparently didn't record or produce a note of music over those two decades.

Surely Bataan fans had long given up hope for new music when, in 2005, the sexagenarian surprised all by releasing his first record in 24 years, Call My Name, on Spain's Vampi-Soul label. Better still, the disc's eight tracks — including today's uber-funky post — pick up where his mid-'70s classics left off.

Chick-a-Boom is a groove-alicious treat, with its cool, syncopated drumming, spine-bending bassline and stabs of Hammond B-3. Great opening line, too — "This is a hold-up!/ Everybody on the ground!/ Put your hands behind your head/ Don't make a sound" — that leads into a lyric that puts the listener into the mind of the criminal in order to acknowledge (if not validate) the reasons for lawless behaviour. "Too much money in too few hands," sings Bataan (quoting Paul Weller's Money-Go-Round). "Imagine how it feels to be rejected/Imagine how it feels to be despised." Bataan might not have been writing music while counselling juveniles but Chick-a-Boom's lyrics suggest he was listening closely and taking mental notes.

Bataan continues to tour and his official website promises a new album is "coming soon."

Chick-a-Boom (link expired)

Here's Bataan, performing the forementioned Rap-O, Clap-O on Germany's Musikladen program in 1979:




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Sunday, December 14, 2008

The New Stone Age — Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1981)

Last Friday afternoon, at around 4:30 p.m., I was happy ... and very, very cold. My work day complete, I was looking at a three-week vacation ahead of me, as well as a protracted, white-knuckle drive home through a nasty blizzard that had slammed into Calgary a couple hours earlier. Temperatures in my little part of the world quickly dropped to minus-40 Celsius at night which, for the metric-impaired, happens to be the same as minus-40 Fahrenheit. Which, for those who know neither metric nor imperial measurement, can be described in three words: off, balls and fall (not necessarily in that order.) 

A cold-day track is in order for today's post — and I don't know a better winter song than today's post, the leadoff track of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's third and best record, Architecture and Morality. First off, rest assured: If You Leave, it ain't. The New Stone Age begins with what sounds like gears grinding — you know, the sound a car makes when you try to start it in minus-40 weather when it hasn't been plugged in for a few hours. ("Plugged in?" you ask? May I suggest you click here and, oh, one final thing: right now, I despise you and your pleasant-all-year-round weather.) The track eventually whirrs into motion with the most un-rock and roll guitar strumming you'll ever hear and, more notably, gales of glacial synth that are the sonic embodiment of Arctic winds blowing across the featureless, white tundra. For years, I mistakenly thought this song was called The New Ice Age. Really, I think it's a more apt title.

An odd, personal note: Of my thousands of albums, Architecture and Morality is the only one for which I can pinpoint the exact date I bought it — Dec. 30, 1981 — only because I heard Wayne Gretzky score his record-smashing 50th goal in 39 games during a radio broadcast later that night. The only other thing I can remember about Dec. 30, 1981: it was a damn cold day. Go figure.

The New Stone Age (link expired)

OMD's original lineup recently reunited and performed Architecture and Morality in its entirety (albeit in a different running order). Rather than pull something from that tour, I opted to post this 1981 performance of A&M single Joan of Arc, if only to bask in the glory of McCluskey's onstage dancing. Please assure me he's not having a seizure.



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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Border Song — Aretha Franklin (1972)

Rock lists are, by nature, contentious things but I'd be surprised if there was any significant opposition — outside of the Michael Bolton fan club — to Rolling Stone's decision to anoint Aretha Franklin the greatest singer of all time. Even the most cloth-eared must recognize her voice is a force of nature; an eighth wonder of the modern world. Recently, I've been digging into her back catalogue and realizing that, like Dylan, in the long shadow of her landmark records (Lady Soul, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You) resides a treasure trove of less-heralded, second-tier albums that are 'merely' jaw-droppingly awesome. The fact they're untouched by overfamiliarity only adds to their appeal.

Spirit in the Dark, her bluesy breakup record from 1970, is my favourite Aretha album and listening to it on vinyl is one of life's simple pleasures. (Hence, the cover's appearance on the new-look Bongo Jazz masthead.) She followed Spirit with the brighter, less anguished Young, Gifted and Black; today's post is the 1972 disc's closing track and arguably the definitive version of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin song. The mostly cryptic Border Song had appeared two years prior on Elton's self-titled, sophomore album; its overt gospel flavour and plea for racial tolerance ("Holy Moses, let us live in peace/ Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease/ There's a man over there/ What's his colour, I don't care/ He's  my brother/ Let us live in peace") must have resonated with Aretha, who pushed to record it and release it as a single prior to Young, Gifted and Black's completion.

Aretha's Border Song features Billy Preston on church organ, a watery guitar solo from Cornell Dupree that could have been lifted from The Beatles' Let It Be and a divine choir of soul voices, led by The Sweet Inspirations — yet the song peaked at a lowly No. 37 on the pop charts in October 1970.  Jerry Wexler, who produced the session with Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, wasn't surprised the song underperformed as a single. 

"What's finally wrong with The Border Song," he told Blues & Soul magazine in 1971, "is that the black audiences don't know what the hell the lyric is about."

Should it matter, when the music sounds this heavenly?

Border Song (link expired)

Here's footage of a 22-year-old Aretha — then just a struggling R&B-jazz singer with Columbia Records —  and Ray Johnson performing Mockingbird on a Shindig episode that aired March 10, 1965. This performance certainly sounds like the  blueprint for the Carly Simon-James Taylor duet that scaled the pop charts nine years later:



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