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)

Buy Payola$ here

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...

Buy Dora Bryan music here

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.

Buy it here

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.

Buy it here

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:

Buy it here

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.

Buy it here

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:

Buy it here

Saturday, December 6, 2008

She's The Kind of Girl — Gene Clark (1970)

Official history shows the original lineup of the Byrds stayed together long enough to record two classic 1965 albums before reassembling eight years later for a largely uninspired, one-off reunion disc. Case closed. That's all she wrote.

Well, not quite. In May 1970, Gene Clark — the Byrds' best songwriter and first original member to fly the coop — convinced all four of his former bandmates to perform on She's the Kind of Girl, his first new solo single following the dissolution of his country-rock duo Dillard and Clark. (Two months later, the five original Byrds would record the single's B-side, One in a Hundred.)

Clark's powers of persuasion were not strong enough to get these warring factions together in one studio and one time — nevertheless, once the sessions were complete, the world had two more Clark compositions featuring Roger McGuinn on ringing 12-string guitar, David Crosby on harmony vocals, Chris Hillman on bass and Michael Clarke on drums. And just like the old days, the producer is Jim Dickson, who helmed the group's pre-Columbia recordings (later released on Preflyte). The only other musician on the track is L.A. jazzman Bud Shank, whose flute solo is a defining element on what is otherwise a great, lost Byrds single. She's the Kind of Girl could have fit snugly on either the Mr. Tambourine Man or Turn! Turn! Turn! albums, and it's certainly better than almost everything on that surprisingly lifeless, self-titled reunion disc. The fact it hasn't been included on either of the two Byrds box sets verges on criminal.

Perhaps Clark's label, A&M, didn't like this sadly beautiful ballad, or didn't recognize the value of a virtual Byrds reunion, but She's the Kind of Girl/One in a Hundred was never given a proper release at the time. Both tracks were eventually released on Roadmaster, a 1972 Dutch compilation of Clark off-cuts.

She's The Kind of Girl (link expired)

Undeterred by the aborted single, his next two solo albums, 1971's Gene Clark (aka White Light) and 1974's No Other, were both singer-songwriter classics (but, tragically, only recognized as such following his death in 1991). From the latter, here's the former Byrd performing Silver Raven:

Buy it here

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Shadow Knows — David Axelrod (2001)

I still find it strange hearing the name David Axelrod mentioned regularly on the news and in the papers. Of course, that David Axelrod is President-Elect Barack Obama's former chief strategist and current senior advisor; the David Axelrod I've followed for years is one of popular music's unsung heroes, a cool-as-f--- composer/arranger whose late-career resurgence at the start of this decade appears to have petered out. Sad, that. I think it's time to give a little more love to the other David Axelrod, whose music will still be heard and enjoyed when President Jenna Bush takes office in 2033.

Born and bred in a working-class area of Los Angeles, 'The Axe' paid his musical dues with the Specialty and Contemporary labels before moving onto Capitol. There, he helmed a series of visionary and often overreaching albums by an impossibly diverse collection of acts (most notably The Electric Prunes, Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley and himself) during his 1964-70 purple patch. He built his reputation on big concepts, bigger orchestrations and bass 'n' drum work so booming, I'm sure they affected the tides. Certainly, his career has ebbed and flowed: He was on top of the world in 1969, on the brink of homelessness in 1988 and back in demand by the late-'90s, when his old grooves started to get sampled by the likes of Dr. Dre, Lauryn Hill, DJ Shadow and Mos Def.

Today's post is from Axelrod's last album of 'new' material, a self-titled 2001 release on James Lavelle's Mo' Wax label. The record was actually started in 1968 as a musical adaptation of Faust but the project was eventually shelved and forgotten ... that is, until Axelrod was handed an acetate of the original rhythm tracks in 1999. Loving what he heard, he re-entered Capitol's Studio B to do some supplemental recording, including two new tracks, and finally completed the record, minus the original concept.

The Shadow Knows, named in tribute to DJ Shadow, dates back to those 1968 sessions. Not one of his orchestral blowouts, this blues-jazz slow-burner features a couple stinging guitar solos from the late Howard Roberts and some beautifully melodic bass lines from Carol Kaye over cool, ominous chords, earthy B-3 organ and a laid-back, in-the-pocket groove. This is music to luxuriate in; turn it up and allow the sound to wash over you.

Alas, this could be the last new record we hear from Axelrod. He turns 73 in April and there's no sign or suggestion he's working on another project; in fact, the news section of his official website stopped being updated in 2006.

The Shadow Knows (link expired)

To hear how Axelrod's music has been sampled, here's the video of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's The Next Episode, which makes excellent use of The Edge, a track Axelrod wrote and arranged for TV actor David McCallum's 1966 album Music: A Bit More of Me.

Buy it here

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Future Just Passed — Shirley Horn (1963)

Last weekend, as I watched a preening Beyonce belt out a lung during her SNL musical performances, I was faced with a horrible dilemma: Do I poke out my eyes first, or chop off my ears? In the end, I opted for a third option: Mute the TV and go feed the cats. Less blood. Nevertheless, my initial reaction sums up how grating I find Beyonce and her diva contemporaries: They may have the ability to sing on key without the use of Auto-Tune but remain painfully oblivious to the concept of nuance, opting to deliver lyrics as if they should all end with an exclamation point.

Oh, what they could learn from singers like the late Shirley Horn, an exceptional jazz pianist who also happened to be one of the genre's greatest ballad singers, thanks to her smoky, seductive voice and impeccable, understated phrasing. Her best recordings are enticingly intimate. Rather than attacking the music and lyrics, she caresses them, gently and unhurriedly. If your heart doesn't skip a beat listening to Shirley Horn sing, you may already be dead.

Today's post is from Loads of Love, one of two pop-vocal albums she released on Mercury in 1963. (The other being Shirley Horn with Horns.) My Future Just Passed was originally a peppy little number performed by Victor studio band The High Hatters in the 1930 musical-comedy Safety in Numbers. Horn's version has some altered lyrics and an almost glacial tempo, both of which change the song significantly. Whereas the High Hatters' version sounds like harmless trifle (you can download it here), Horn's rendition is dark blue and desperate, as her case of love-at-first-sight turns into heartbreaking realization fate might not be an ally and her soulmate could belong to another: "Life can't be that way/ To wake me then break me," she whispers, with slight reservation, as if she really knows life can be that way.

Yet, in the liner notes to a 1990 reissue of Loads of Love, Horn dismisses her vocal performances on the Mercury albums. "When I made those records," she said, "I hadn't experienced enough to know what the song lyrics meant; I hadn't lived them yet."

Could've fooled me.

My Future Just Passed (link expired)

Horn put her musical career on the backburner following those 1963 Mercury discs and focused on family life for the ensuing 15 years. She began touring again in 1978 and released a series of critically acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning albums for Verve starting in 1987. In 2002, she had a foot amputated due to complications of diabetes but she continued to perform and record until succumbing a massive stroke in 2005. She was 71. Here is Ms. Horn in her latter years, looking frail, but still able to sing circles around pop stars a half-century her junior.

Buy it here

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering Kenny MacLean

Bongo Jazz was saddened yesterday to hear about the death of Kenny MacLean. For most, he will be best remembered as the bass player for Platinum Blonde, a hugely popular band in Canada during the mid-'80s who were, admittedly, thinly guised Duran Duran copycats. Suffice to say, Platinum Blonde were not my kind of thing and, as a young music writer learning the ropes, I surely took a few good swings at 'em in print at the height of their success. I thought they were fakes, flawlessly designed by accountants in some music industry boardroom to con 16-year-old girls to part with their money (and, at their concerts, with sundry items of clothing.) At the time, I thought musicians fell into two categories: those with integrity and those without, and the four members of Platinum Blonde fell into the latter category.

I had a lot to learn and Kenny MacLean provided a lesson I've never forgotten. In 1986, I chatted with MacLean over the phone to promote an upcoming concert at the 20,000-seat Pengrowth Saddledome. The show fell during Calgary's annual Stampede Week. MacLean was a good sport despite putting up with an interrogation, er, interview technique that can only be described as Defend Your Life. Near the end of the conversation, MacLean inquired what other acts were playing in the city during Stampede week. I mentioned The Everly Brothers were at the Saddledome the night before Platinum Blonde — and MacLean flipped out. He said he loved the Everlys; he mentioned he was in town that evening; he needed a ticket. I had an excellent pair of seats and no date, so I offered my extra ticket to MacLean. To my surprise, he accepted the offer and, an hour before showtime, I met a member of the dreaded Platinum Blonde at the hockey arena.

There was nothing 'fake' or 'manufactured' about MacLean's excitement that night. In fact, he reminded me of the girls I'd see at Platinum Blonde shows. He wanted to go to the merchandise tables and buy a T-shirt, and, omigod!, wondered if I had enough pull to get him backstage to meet Phil and Don. (I didn't.) He was dressed down that night — just a pair of ordinary jeans, a non-descript button-up shirt and hair that appeared untouched by any Vidal Sassoon product. Nevertheless, as we walked through the concourse, I could tell many of the kids who were dragged by their parents to see this lame-o show recognized MacLean. He was gracious and accommodating to all the teenaged fans who approached him for an autographs or to pose for a photograph. As the kids surrounded MacLean, a man likely twice their age, I surveyed the parents as they stared at this unassuming (albeit impossibly svelte) fellow. I suspected what they were thinking: This guy is a rock star?

Funny, I was beginning to think the same thing.

MacLean and I finally took our seats and, with a few minutes before showtime, we just shot the shit. We talked about the new records we liked; the songs we hoped the Everlys would sing. I mentioned I liked his previous band, The Deserters, and thought they recorded some pretty good material before losing their way. MacLean said he was proud of the Deserters and wished they could have paid the bills. Platinum Blonde, he said, didn't make the sort of music he personally enjoyed but, as a professional musician, it was good to have a steady gig, play high-energy music before big, adoring crowds, and tour with bandmates he genuinely liked. He felt blessed. And I thought to myself: Really, is that so bad?

Soon the lights went down, the Everlys took the stage and MacLean transformed into someone I recognized: a music fan, kind of like myself. Phil and Don's harmonies obviously lit up MacLean's pleasure centres; he whooped and cheered every song with unreserved glee. Sadly, I had to leave the show before its conclusion to file an early review; I wish I could have stuck around, to hear more Everlys, but moreso, to soak in MacLean's good vibes.

Platinum Blonde didn't have many more good years. As bands of this ilk are wont to do, they tried to go 'respectable' and 'adult' with an ill-fated 'funk' album and soon thereafter it was all over. Undeterred, MacLean stayed busy over the next couple decades, recording the occasional solo disc, playing sessions and helping developing artists. His sister found him dead Monday in his Toronto apartment.

I'll always remember him for that Everly show, and how he loved this song:

Let It Be Me (link expired)

Finally, here a video of MacLean performing Don't Look Back, the title track of his first post-Blonde solo album. Very Beatle-y, and a mighty fine song.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I Love You Like I Love Myself — The Playn Jayn (1985)

Hair metal, hip-hop and electro-pop are among the genres most widely associated with the 1980s but anyone who frequented indie record shops during the era knows the decade also spawned a seemingly endless supply of quality, '60s-inspired psych and garage bands. A few hit the mainstream but most came and went without much notice, leaving behind a bunch of shoulda-been hits waiting to be rediscovered. Rhino's excellent Children of Nuggets box set from 2005 collected 100 of them — and still there were notable omissions, including today's post from The Playn Jayn.

Led by brothers Mike (vocals/harmonica) and Nick Jones (guitar), the London quintet released two albums — the first live, the second studio — that never have been released on CD (at least as far as I can determine). The wonderfully titled I Love You Like I Love Myself is the leadoff track from the group's sole studio offering, Five Good Evils, released in July 1985.

Naturally, this Jones/Jones composition is a meant to be a narcissist anthem but its dopey lyrics — "Love is like a butterfly/ Lives one day and then it dies" — suggests tongue is firmly planted in cheek. The music, though, is no joke: It's an uncannily accurate period pastiche, highlighted by Nick's doomy, horror-movie intro, Clive Francis's hyperactive drumming and Mike's playful vocal. "I love myself! I need myself!" he declares straight-faced, as the song comes to a close.

The Playn Jayn fell off the radar following Five Good Evils and a revival seems unlikely. According to internet reports (so take this with a block of salt), Nick has given up music and is working as a photographer, while brother Mike is an acid casualty, living with his parents in Bournemouth.

I Love You Like I Love Myself (link expired)

I was unable to locate any footage of The Playn Jayn but I found the next best thing: Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes playing Eleanor Rigby on ukelele. Tune in, turn on and drop out, man.

Visit the Playn Jayn's Myspace page here

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Amanita Muscaria — Shelleyan Orphan (1989)

2008 will be remembered as the year a beloved, late-'80s act returned to record stores for the first time in 17 long years. I am referring, of course, to the Bournemouth, England, duo of Caroline Crawley and Jem Tayle, better known as Shelleyan Orphan. (To whom did you think I was referring?)

They are currently touring the UK in support of We Have Everything Their Need (pictured left), their first album of new material since 1991's Humroot. (You can hear a couple new songs, as well as their sublime 1986 single Cavalry of Cloud, about Nick Drake, on their MySpace page here.) These chamber-pop boffins didn't split because of intolerable, Pink Floydian rancour yet their reunion is still surprising because there seemed an utter lack of demand for one. I have great affection for their first three Rough Trade records, especially 1989 sophomore disc Century Flower, but I would have suspected Shelleyan Orphan could play to all of their remaining diehard fans in a venue only slightly larger than a telephone booth. I'm glad to be proven wrong.

Today's post is one of my favourite cuts from the forementioned Century Flower. Amanita Muscaria may not feature Crawley's lovely voice but the instrumental is bewitching all the same and representative of the baroque beauty of which Shelleyan Orphan are capable. The dramatic, sawing cellos and swirling, unfettered woodwinds combine for what could be mistaken as God's soundtrack for the blooming of a flower. Yes, it's that enchanting. Perversely, Amanita Muscaria isn't a flower but a poisonous fungus known for its hallucinogenic properties. Oh, the stuff you can learn reading this blog...

Amanita Muscaria (link expired)

Despite using such non-rock 'n' roll instruments as oboes and cellos and bassoons, Shelleyan Orphan are also capable of rhythmic, pulse-quickening songs, such as Century Flower's rollicking single, Shatter. Here's the video:

Buy it here

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stuff That Works — Guy Clark (1995)

Great songwriting never goes out of style. That's why, when someone like Rodney Crowell is given the freedom to simply do what comes naturally, the Houston native crafts crackerjack Americana records like his latest Sex and Gasoline. This Joe Henry-produced disc has been on heavy rotation at Chez Bongo Jazz over the past six weeks; its humanity, (often black) humour and homespun wisdom replenish the soul while leaving a smile on your face. 

Oh, and it rocks, too.

There isn't a dud on the disc — Crowell's first in three years — and a handful of tracks rank with the best songs he's ever written. I'm particularly sweet on the final track, Closer to Heaven, in which the 58-year-old takes stock of what's important to him ... and, in an amusingly cantankerous way, what's not: 

"I don't like hummus/ I hate long lines/ Nosy neighbours and Venetian blinds/ Chirpy news anchors alter my mood/ I'm offended by buzzwords like 'awesome' and 'dude.' " 

Among his loves he lists: his wife and kids; biscuits and gravy; actress Sissy Spacek, and singer-songwriter Guy Clark. Have a listen:

Crowell, of course, has mined this seam before. Closer to Heaven is a close relative of today's post, Stuff That Works, a song Crowell co-wrote with fellow Texan Clark on the latter's must-own 1995 album, Dublin Blues. Like Closer to Heaven, Stuff That Works is a simple yet poignant celebration of the old and reliable over the new and shiny. At first, Clark sings of favourite shirts and boots and guitars but, in the final two verses, the song becomes about even more venerable stuff. Stuff like trust and loyalty and true love. "Stuff that's real/ Stuff you feel," sings Clark, "the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall."

It takes a man of a certain vintage to deliver a song like this with authority — perhaps explaining why Crowell felt he needed another 13 years to write one for himself.

Stuff That Works (link expired)

Here's a little more from Sex and Gasoline, the video for the title track. Lyrically, it's the photo negative of Closer to Heaven, as it skewers society's misplaced obsession with youth and beauty. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud lyrics in this one. My favourite: "You're over 30/ Why, you old hag!"

Buy Sex and Gasoline here

Buy Dublin Blues here

Monday, November 17, 2008

One of Those Things — Dexy's Midnight Runners (1985)

Exactly 30 years after Warren Zevon scaled the pop charts with Werewolves of London, the song's addictive piano riff was once again all over radio this year — this time, as the foundation of the ubiquitous Kid Rock single All Summer Long. Sampling Werewolves proved a savvy move on Rock's part but not necessarily an original one.

In 1985, Dexy's Midnight Runners released Don't Stand Me Down, the difficult and willfully contrary followup to breakthrough album Too-Rye-Ay and its globe-straddling single, Come On Eileen. The Celtic soul sound and gypsies-in-dungarees look of 1982 were gone, replaced by long, conversational tracks and natty Ivy League attire. If Dexys leader Kevin Rowland was trying to befuddle his fan base, he succeeded. Time has revealed Don't Stand Me Down as an idiosyncratic masterpiece but, at the time, it was career suicide.

One of Those Things was one of the album's catchiest songs, thanks to its unmistakable piano riff. It's Werewolves of London. Except, when Don't Stand Me Down was originally released, the song was credited to Rowland ... and no one else.

"Basically, I'm amazed and quite embarrassed at my arrogance when I hear this," Rowland wrote in the liner notes of the album's 1997 reissue. "I stole the riff totally from Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London after hearing it on the radio. I didn't care that it was obvious and I ignored the danger that it might well be detected, feeling that what I was doing was more important, Ironically, I thought up a melody that was maybe as good to go over the chords ... but I still insisted on using Mr. Zevon's as well, such was my obliviousness. He now rightfully owns a portion of the song."

One of Those Things might have stood an outside chance at radio play if the first verse, you know, didn't piss all over the music played on the radio. Gotta say, though: The song's chorus and central complaint — "It all sounds the same!" — is more relevant than ever.

One of Those Things (link expired)

Also from Don't Stand Me Down, here's the video for This Is What She's Like, a phenomenal 12-minute album track edited into a four-minute flop single.

Buy it here

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything — The Faces (1975)

The surviving members of The Faces are scheduled to reconvene tomorrow for the first rehearsal for a planned Summer 2009 reunion tour. Certainly, it's good to see 'em back together. Considering their boozy exploits throughout the 1970s, it's a small miracle four of the band's five original members are still with us, their livers apparently still functioning. (Bassist-singer-songwriter Ronnie Lane died in 1997 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.) The question remains: Can Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagen conjure their former shambolic soulfulness now that they're all in their 60s? I'd be surprised if the old chemistry still exists but, hey, I look at it this way: as long as Rod is busy with The Faces, he isn't recording another installment in his abysmal Great American Songbook series.

Today's post is one of the Faces' last official releases before their dissolution in late 1975. Lane had left the band at this point, Stewart was eyeing a full-time solo career and Wood was only a year removed from replacing Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. Given the circumstances, You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything could have been an uninspired toss-off by a distracted band in commercial decline. On the contrary, this jointly penned single, released in January 1975, proved a triumphant swansong that cemented a legacy from which The Black Crowes, Georgia Satellites, The Quireboys, Flies on Fire and countless others would draw inspiration.

You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (link expired)

Here are The Faces in their 1972 prime, covering Paul McCartney's Maybe I'm Amazed.

Buy it here

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Rubber Ring/Asleep — The Smiths (1985)

Another Smiths compilation; another missed opportunity. Rhino's two-disc Sounds of the Smiths best-of arrives in stores next week, boasting a fine track listing and much-needed remastered sound supervised by guitarist Johnny Marr. The first CD rounds up the usual singles, most of them timeless; a second CD cherry-picks album tracks and B-sides that haven't appeared on previous compilations. So what's this missed opportunity?

The Smiths' late-1985, 12-inch single, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (pictured left), contained two excellent non-album B-sides, Rubber Ring and Asleep, which were effectively conjoined. These tracks would make regular appearances on subsequent compilations — 1987's Louder than Bombs contained both – but they were always separated for some inexplicable reason. (Sounds of the Smiths contains Asleep but not Rubber Ring).

Perhaps someone in the Smiths doesn't like the segue from Rubber Ring to Asleep. If so, he's wrong. These Morrissey-Marr songs fit like, um, hand in glove (sorry, couldn't resist); as originally released, they combine for eight uninterrupted minutes of Smiths bliss.

Fans of the legendary Manchester band will likely have to wait for the inevitable Smiths Singles CD box set to hear the combined Rubber Ring/Asleep in remastered digital sound. Until then, enjoy this vinyl rip.

Rubber Ring/Asleep (link expired)

And here's the none-more-'80s video for the A-side, which would later appear in remixed form on The Queen Is Dead.

Buy it here

Saturday, November 8, 2008

There's No Blood In Bone — The Poppy Family (1969)

There was a She & Him long before Her & That Guy. She & Him, of course, is actress/singer/songwriter Zooey Deschanel and multi-instrumentalist M. Ward, whose debut album Vol. 1 was one of the left-field hits of 2008. Deschenel's sweet, melancholy-tinged vocals wrapped in Ward's gentle country/folk/pop arrangements proved to a beguiling combination but not necessarily an original one. She & Him have drawn comparisons to countless acts and, today, I'll throw out a rarely mentioned antecedent: The Poppy Family, a Vancouver-based group led by another she-and-him partnership, Terry Jacks and his then wife Susan. Their two albums, 1969's Which Way You Goin', Billy? and 1971's Poppy Seeds, would not only appeal to fans of She & Him but also to anyone with an affinity for late-'60s, early-'70s soft-psych. Their music is ripe for rediscovery ... and more eclectic than you might remember.

The Poppy Family are best known for the title track of their debut, a No. 2 hit in the U.S. in 1970 and still a staple of easy-listening radio:

And 1971 brought the Poppy Family's best single, Where Evil Grows, which peaked outside of the U.S. top 40 despite sounding infinitely groovy (that riff! that sitar! those harmonies!) The song may have underperformed in the U.S. because its sinister lyric provided an unwelcome and likely unintended reminder of the Manson Family murders, still fresh in the American psyche. Thirty seven years later, this remains one of my all-time favourite songs:

Which Way You Goin', Billy and Where Evil Grows are very different songs and yet the group also could play straight-up country (1972 single Good Friends — very She & Him) one moment and soft-psych freakouts the next. Today's post, from the Poppy Family's debut disc, falls into the latter category.

"When Joey died, Marie went mad," is the song's outstanding opening gambit (not including the eerie spoken-word intro in which Susan's voice is varispeeded wildly.) The band embraces this unhinged spirit, with fuzz guitar and organ soloing almost free-form and Susan bellowing like Grace Slick after ingesting the bad brown acid. If you remember The Poppy Family as soft-pop peddlers, There's No Blood in Bone will confound your expectations.

Terry and Susan Jacks divorced in 1973 and the Poppy Family disbanded. They would both embark on solo careers and Terry even enjoyed an international chart-topper with 1974's ghastly Seasons in the Sun. But neither would reach the artistic heights they scaled together.

There's No Blood in Bone (link expired)

Let's end this post as it began, with a little She & Him. Here the video for Vol. 1's first single, Why Did You Let Me Stay Here?

Buy Poppy Family here

Buy She & Him here

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Change Is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke (1963)

Dear America,

Hey, it's finally Election Day.

Please don't screw this up.


Bongo Jazz

A Change Is Gonna Come (link expired)

Buy it here

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jimmy Browns — Bend Sinister (2008), Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head) — Ben Folds (2008)

Seeing Elton John in Las Vegas this summer was among my concert highlights in 2008, especially since the show began with my all-time favourite Elton song, Bennie and the Jets. I've never tired of this classic-rock fixture because, 35 years after its recording, the track has somehow maintained its elusiveness and duality. Bennie and the Jets is glam and disco; studio and live; celebration and satire; a dancefloor filler and stubbornly mid-tempoed. The song is so damn indefinable and flummoxing, I wonder if the producers of Soul Train realized they were booking a balding, pasty white Englishman to perform this chart-topper on the African-Amercian music show. Bennie and the Jets — it's a special song, indeed.

Within the last month, I've come across a couple of new songs that could be Bennie's grandchildren.

First up is Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hits His Head), the opening track from Ben Folds' latest album Way To Normal (pictured left). Folds, of course, was initially described as the slacker generation's answer to Elton and this comparison, in some ways, stands up. Just as Elton went from the inspired pop of Honky Chateau to the perfunctory MOR of 21 at 33 in eight short years, Folds's recording career followed a similar trajectory between 1997's fizzy Whatever and Ever Amen and 2005's accomplished and mature (read: bland) Songs For Silverman.

The good news is Way To Normal recalls Folds's more playful and energetic earlier records. Opening track Hiroshima sets the tone: It's a blatant homage to Bennie, with its dubbed crowd noise and stomping piano chords (not to mention the stuttering B-B-B's in the subtitle), but whereas Elton's song describes some ultra-cool Rock God in full flow, Folds's song recounts the time he walked over the edge of the stage and sustained a concussion during a concert in Japan. "They're watching me/watching me fall," goes the catchy-as-hell chorus, while the verses are equally guileless and self-deprecating. The song has a great, abrupt ending, too.

There's more Elton love in Jimmy Browns, a track from Stories of Brothers, Tales of Lovers (pictured right), the second full-length album by Vancouver's Bend Sinister.

The quintet — think of them as Canada's answer to The Feeling — borrows liberally from FM rock of the late 1970s, especially from the modestly proggy likes of Queen, 10cc, Boston, Klaatu and Supertramp. Here, they build an entire song around the slightest variation of Bennie's piano chord progression although, to be fair, the rest of the song creates its own brand of electric music, solid walls of sound.

Hiroshima (link expired)

Jimmy Browns (link expired)

As good as these tracks are, they don't hold a candle to the song that inspired them. So, I'd be remiss if I didn't include a video of Elton performing Bennie and the Jets. Here's a campy clip of Elton duetting with the host of The Cher Show, from 1975:

Buy it here and here

Sunday, October 26, 2008

When adverts go bad...

One of the pleasures of flipping through old music magazines is finding those woefully misguided advertisements that surely remain a source of embarrassment for the acts they were intended to promote. Today, I thought I'd scan a couple to share with you.

Typically, an ad is placed to hype a hit. Here is a rare example of an ad inspiring a hit:

In 1976, Heart's debut album Dreamboat Annie had become a left-field million-seller and the group's label, Vancouver-based Mushroom Records, patted itself on the back with this National Enquirer-styled ad that appeared in December of that year.

"Regional hit mushrooms into million seller," read one headline.

"Tiny Record Co. Beats The Odds," read another.

In the end, tiny record co. beat itself.

The ad also pictured Ann and Nancy Wilson, seemingly topless and back to back, above the headline, "Sisters Confess: It Was Only Our First Time." The sisters were so appalled by the implication they were lesbian lovers they broke their contract with Mushroom, not long after this ad appeared, and signed with CBS affiliate label Portrait.

Barracuda, the leadoff single from Heart's first Portrait album, was inspired by the above ad; many of Ann's lyrics (You lying so low in the weeds/I bet you gonna ambush me") are surely directed at Heart's former label.

Next up, this gem from Fall 1981, promoting U2's sophomore album October.

The band is described as the "one thing standing between you and assembly-line rock," a reminder these future rock superstars were once simply upstart newcomers, considered longshots to knock the likes of Foreigner, Journey and Styx from their lofty perches. (To be fair, all three bands have played to bigger audiences than U2 so far in 2008.) Yet the ad's real delight is found in the copy below the picture. Does anybody remember Bono being nicknamed "The Green Tornado," or the Edge being known as "the man of a thousand guitars"?

Actually, U2 does.

"There was this really embarrassing line of promotion on our very first album," Bono told BBC, erroneously, in 1992. "When we arrived in America and we were feeling pretty cool...for about a minute. And (laughs) they described The Edge as 'a man of a thousand guitars.' They thought this was very exciting."

"It was ironic," revealed The Edge, "since I had only one guitar at the time."

Then drummer Larry Mullen reminded the BBC of Bono's short-lived Green Tornado nickname.

"I wasn't gonna bring that up," replied Bono, so embarrassed, he surely conceived his Mephisto alter-ego later that day.

From this fall's two-CD reissue of October:

A Celebration (link expired)

Buy Heart here

Buy U2 here

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Here Comes A Saturday/Wish — Cowboys International (1979)

Cowboys International: Terry Chimes, far left

Sometimes one blog post begats another. While I was writing last weekend about Topper Headon's 1986 solo album Waking Up, I felt compelled to devote some words to the post-Clash career of the band's other significant drummer, Terry Chimes. He played on the Clash's incendiary 1977 debut (credited as Tory Crimes), left soon thereafter, only to return to the fold in May 1982 following Headon's firing. Between those two stints, Chimes sat in with Johnny Thunders's Heartbreakers and Generation X, but more significantly, he was a member of the short-lived Cowboys International.

Chimes didn't simply join a gang of Clash wannabes. Fronted by vocalist-composer Ken Lockie, Cowboys International specialized in propulsive, highly stylized synth-rock that, like many new wave bands of the era, was heavily influenced by Bowie, Roxy and Eno. If Lockie and Co. were trying to predict what '80s pop would sound like, give 'em credit: they were on the right path. (One suspects the nascent Psychedelic Furs were listening and taking notes.)

Today's posts come from the quintet's 1979 debut, The Original Sin. Here Comes A Saturday was the languid, glacial single, while Chimes drums the hell out of the album's closing track, the whirlpooling Wish, which also features a guest turn from Public Image Limited guitarist Keith Levene (also another Clash alumnus).

Alas, this Cowboys International lineup was disassembled about six months after The Original Sin's release and Lockie toured the record with an almost entirely different group of musicians. He released a solo disc, The Impossible, in 1981 before briefly joining PiL as a keyboardist. In 2003, he reissued The Original Sin as Revisited and, a year later, recorded a new Cowboys International album, The Backwards Life of Romeo.

Chimes, as previously mentioned, rejoined the Clash in 1982 and can be heard pounding the skins on the group's recently released concert set, Live at Shea Stadium. Chimes and The Clash parted company again in 1983; the drummer joining Hanoi Rocks and later Black Sabbath, before pursuing his current career as a chiropractor.

Here Comes a Saturday (link expired)

Wish (link expired)

Buy it here

Monday, October 13, 2008

Not One Of Us — Peter Gabriel (1980)

Just a guess, but I suspect Sen. John McCain ain't big into rock music. That's OK, rock music ain't big into him, either. No wonder, then, the GOP's presidential candidate and his running mate are having a dickens of a time finding a rallying anthem for their campaign.

To date, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, The Foo Fighters and Heart have all asked the McCain-Sarah Palin ticket to stop using their songs. Browne even launched a lawsuit over the use of Running on Empty in a McCain TV spot, although you'll notice those truth-in-advertising watchdog groups didn't say peep about it. ("Running on Empty? Yup, that pretty much sounds right. Next...")

I may not be allowed to vote in the U.S. election, being a Canadian and all, but I'd like to contribute to the process in some small but meaningful way. So, today, Bongo Jazz would like to suggest the ideal anthem for the McCain-Palin ticket. Admittedly, the song wasn't a big hit, like Pink Houses or Barracuda or My Hero, but it chimes with an emerging theme of the McCain-Palin campaign: be suspicious, even afraid, of those people who are not exactly like you.

Palin may become tongue-tied when asked difficult, 'gotcha' questions like, "What newspapers do you read?" — damn that liberal media — but she was articulate and at-ease spreading xenophobic disinformation (how Christian of her!) by telling crowds last week that Barack Obama "palled around" with terrorists and that he "doesn't see America as you and I do." Meanwhile, Time magazine reports McCain volunteers are being encouraged to accuse Obama of being a terrorist, of being a secret Muslim, of refusing to salute the flag, of hiding where he was actually born. And some sheep ... er, value voters are believing this nonsense (see video below ... and get really depressed), pointing to what they consider irrefutable evidence: Obama's name sounds kinda threatening, especially the Hussein part. His skin isn't middle-America white. His family tree has roots around the world. And these McCain-Palin supporters are reacting exactly how you'd expect folks who respect the sanctity of life would: By shouting "kill him," and "off with his head," in reference to Obama, during GOP rallies.

Now imagine how energized this base would become if McCain-Palin adopted today's post, from Peter Gabriel's third solo album, as their official campaign song. Its chorus — "Not one of us/Not one of us/Oh no, not one of us" — boils down the intellectual complexity and philosophical nuance of the GOP's key campaign plank into just six words ... so few, even McCain-Palin supporters could memorize them all before election time. Republican strategists will nod their heads in agreement to the line, "There's safety in numbers when you learn to divide." And everyone who believes 'foreign' is a synonym for anti-American will surely chant "USA! USA!" after the lyric: "A foreign body/And a foreign mind/Never welcome in the land of the blind." (Blind, in this context, is not an insult. Travel and book-learning opens the eyes and makes you an elitist, don't you know.)

Of course, Gabriel is rebuking, not endorsing, xenophobic impulses, although methinks some of the people who now suspect Obama masterminded the 9/11 attacks might not be gittin' the rest of his lyrics.

Since Friday, McCain has tried to tone down the 'who is the real Barack-Obama' rhetoric at his town halls meetings but, sadly, the genie is now out of the bottle. The war hero is being heartily booed by his own supporters for stating the simple truth that Obama is "a decent family man." McCain and his handlers are fools if they expected any other reaction from their reconcilatory about-turn. I am reminded of a line in Bruce Cockburn's The Trouble With Normal: "What did they think the politics of panic would invite?

Not One of Us (link expired)

Buy it here

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Topper Headon's Waking Up (1986)

This has been an eventful year at retail for The Clash; not bad for a band that imploded almost a quarter century ago. Earlier this year saw DVD releases of Revolution Rock, a collection of live performances and TV appearances, and The Future is Unwritten, Julian Temple's acclaimed documentary on the life of Joe Strummer. This month, there has been a new record, Live at Shea Stadium, and an upscale coffee table book (very punk rock!) that doubles as the band's autobiography. It makes you wonder: has the bottom of the barrel been scraped clean, or can more CRP* be dredged up to lure Clash fans to the cash register?

(* Clash-related product.)

Clash Mark II guitarist Vince White has proposed a re-recording of the band's much-reviled swansong Cut the Crap that would use Strummer's existing vocals, a la Free as a Bird. An intriguing proposition, especially if Mick Jones were involved, but also a potential train wreck.

I'd rather see a CD reissue of Topper Headon's one and only solo album, Waking Up, originally released in 1986 and swiftly relegated to the delete bins. It deserved a better fate. Headon had been booted out of the Clash four years prior due to his heroin addiction and was still a user when he recorded Waking Up, although song titles such as Just Another Hit and Monkey on My Back are the disc's only signs of his junkie lifestyle. Otherwise, the eight originals and two covers (Gene Krupa's Drumming Man and Booker T's Time is Tight) are flamboyant and lively, reflecting Headon's lifelong affection for old-school soul, jazz and funk. Much credit goes to Headon's fine band, featuring guitarist Bob Tench (of The Jeff Beck Group), Clash session keyboardist Mickey Gallagher and veteran soul belter Jimmy Helms (who would later found Londonbeat and write its 1991 chart-topper I've Been Thinking About You).

Since this album has been long unavailable, I'll post three Waking Up highlights: Leave It To Luck, a gritty Sam and Dave-styled number with a bravura vocal from Helms; I'll Give You Everything, an infectious pop-soul tune that should've been a hit; and Got To Get Out of This Heat, a groovesome, '80s-funk instrumental that would have fit snugly on a Style Council record.

Leave It To Luck (link expired)

I'll Give You Everything (link expired)

Got To Get Out of This Heat (link expired)

Headon was imprisoned for drug-related offences a year after Waking Up's release. He has since conquered his drug addictions and, last January, joined former Clashmate Jones onstage for the first time since 1982. Here's footage of Topper, sitting in with Mick's new band Carbon-Silicon, playing the Clash's Train in Vain ...

... and Should I Stay or Should I Go.

Buy it here

Friday, October 10, 2008

Slow Down — Gonzales (2008)

A love letter to the smooth sounds of the Yacht Rock era? Or an impressively detailed pastiche slathered in irony? I'm still not certain how to view Soft Power, the latest album from Jason Charles Beck, a.k.a. Gonzales. As the title suggests, Soft Power is a virtual compendium of soft-rock styles that dominated sales and radio play in late-'70s and early-'80s. Maybe Gonzales is simply allowing his inner Stephen Bishop to come out and play. Or maybe he's just taking the piss. All I know is: I put the record on, I feel like I've tuned into an AM station from 30 years ago and I get swept away by the lushness of it all, so much so I don't care if Gonzales' tongue is resting in his cheek.

Personally, I don't think that's the case. Most of the songs on Soft Power are so lovingly crafted, with such attention to period detail, that I'm confident this Montreal-born, Paris-based singer-songwriter-producer has genuine affection for the era he's mimicking.

Today's post is a Soft Power standout — a plush, mid-tempo piano ballad that's a little Stephen Bishop, a little Player (ask your mom about them), and a whole lot of Todd Rundgren's Can We Still Be Friends, topped off by the sort of overemotive sax solo that was once de rigueur for male singer-songwriters wanting to underscore their unassailable sensitivity (in an effort to get into some lovely lady's Jordaches).

Quite simply, no one makes music like this anymore. If alternative is hip, and you're striving to be truly 'alternative' in 2008, don't sound like My Chemical Romance — sound like Christopher Cross. Using this logic, Soft Power just might make Gonzales the hippest musician alive. Award the man bell-bottoms, a kaftan and a mood ring.

Slow Down (link expired)

Working Together is another Soft Power highlight; it's a little funkier than Slow Down and contains a lyric that'll resonate with anyone who related to the movie Office Space. Here's the track's delightfully sardonic video:

Buy it here

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel 1979 — Okkervil River (2008)

"So what you are about to see and hear is an unusual and exciting theatrical event," Gladys Knight said, with emphasis on the word 'unusual', when introducing a performance by Jobriath on the Midnight Special that aired March 8, 1974. "This young man, uh, you're about to see this morning is the act of tomorrow." Knight, of course, couldn't have been more wrong although, judging from her delivery of the introduction (see video below), it's clear the soul legend didn't believe a word she was saying. Just over 12 months later, this 'star of tomorrow' would see his glam-rock career implode under the weight of outrageous hype, overzealous management, drug abuse and widespread critical scorn, much of it undeserved.

Needless to say, his is one of rock's saddest tales. Jobriath — born Bruce Wayne Campbell in 1946 — was coming off the original Los Angeles run of Hair and a stint in a short-lived prog outfit, Pidgeon, when he signed as a solo artist with onetime Carly Simon manager Jerry Brandt. Glam-rock was at its commercial zenith and Jobriath — rock's first openly gay performer — was pitched to labels as the natural successor to the sexually ambivalent likes of Marc Bolan and David Bowie. ("I'm a true fairy!" Jobriath told Rolling Stone in October 1973.) Many labels passed — Columbia Records' Clive Davis reportedly described the Jobriath's demos as "mad and unstructured and destructive to melody" — but Elektra Records bit ... and bit hard. Label head Jac Holzman signed Jobriath for a reported $500,000 advance and sunk more big dollars into the promotion of the singer's self-titled debut, released in late 1973. World domination, at least according to Brandt, was a foregone conclusion.

Except it wasn't. Despite a 50-ft. billboard in Times Square, posters throughout the London transit system, full-page magazine ads and an appearance on the nationally televised Midnight Special, Jobriath's first album didn't sell and neither did its hastily recorded followup, Creatures of the Street (released just six months later). Jobriath's timing didn't help: glam-rock had peaked commercially and, by 1974, Bolan's popularity was in sharp decline while Bowie had wisely moved onto the plastic soul of Young Americans, which dovetailed with the nascent disco movement. (Some actually blamed Jobriath for the death of glam.) In 1975, first Elektra dropped Jobriath — Holzman later calling the music an "embarrassment," a sentiment shared by most critics at the time — and then Brandt ditched him, too. The singer announced he was quitting music and retired to the glass pyramid he erected on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Attempts to break into the movies, to write a musical based on his life and to record a third album all failed and, by the early 1980s, he was working as a singer in a New York cocktail bar. In July 1983, Jobriath, a has-been-who-never-really-had-been, died of AIDS-related illnesses. He was 36.

Austin's Okkervil River never struck me as a band that would know, much less empathize with, a largely forgotten, glam-rock footnote. Yet today's post, which closes the band's outstanding new album The Stand Ins, is a heartfelt elegy to the late singer. The music is fittingly ambitious and disarmingly beautiful (Jobriath surely would have approved), while singer-lyricist Will Sheff uses a first-person narrative to inhabit the thoughts of his subject during those wilderness years in the glass pyramid. If you know some details of the period, Sheff's words ache with sorrow and regret; the general tone vacillating between self-pity and bruised dignity. "Pull down the shades/Let's kill the morning/Let it die ... Fuck long hours sick with singing the same songs/In the bars they'll soon be drinking/Let's cash my cheque and drink along." This is the autobiographical musical Jobriath never completed, condensed into six minutes of pathos. It is, as Knight would say, an unusual and exciting theatrical event.

Bruce Wayne Campbell (link expired)

Here are performances by Jobriath from that Knight-hosted Midnight Special, first playing Imaman...

... and later Rock of Ages.

Buy Okkervil River here

Buy Jobriath here