Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Our Love — Donna Summer (1979)

Donna Summer is best known as the undisputed Queen of Disco during the latter half of the 1970s. Which is true, of course, but the work she and producer Giorgio Moroder created between 1977 and 1979 transcended disco and provided the template for all subsequent acts that built dance music with synthesizers and sequencers.

Listen to New Order or LCD Soundsystem and you'll hear echoes of Summer and Moroder. Sometimes you'll hear more than echoes.

I Feel Love, Summer and Moroder's mesmerizing 1977 single, sounded like a transmission from the future and, in a way, it was.

Outside of Kraftwerk or to a lesser extent Neu!, there was nothing really like it in the pop realm.

Yet I Feel Love was only a warmup for Summer and Moroder, who would devote an entire side of vinyl to similar electronic music on Summer's next two studio double albums, 1977's Once Upon A Time and 1979's Bad Girls.

Our Love is from the latter album and, almost 30 years later, it still sounds dazzling, cool and contemporary. I chose this track for one other reason: The electronic drum pattern on the chorus was lifted by New Order and used as the central hook of Blue Monday, one of the most successful and influential tracks of the 1980s.

Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco, sure, but she was a whole lot more.

Our Love (link expired)

Buy it here

Monday, January 28, 2008

Spazz — The Elastik Band (1967)

Lou Reed and Iggy Pop are the popular choices but there are countless other artists who've been called The Godfather of Punk. But I've yet to hear anybody called the Godfather of New Wave, punk's arty, herky-jerky cousin.

The Elastik Band certainly deserve a nomination, if not an acclamation, for its awesomely odd 1967 single, Spazz.

The five-piece formed in Belmont, Calif., just outside of San Francisco, in 1965. Spazz was just the group's second single and, despite the year and place of its conception, the song is hardly a product of Summer of Love hippiedom.

The track is years ahead of its time; its angular guitar riffing, spastic rhythm track and manic, seemingly unhinged vocal suggesting a future where Trout Mask Replica, Television and Devo would be possible. Yet the unexpected Oriental and trad-blues motifs ensure there's never been a single quite like Spazz.

Amazingly, the single was released on a major label, Atlantic subsidiary, Atco. Nowadays, Spazz is the Elastik Band's calling card and best shot at immortality but, back then, the song derailed the group's career before it really started.

Apparently, many thought the song's vicious, mocking lyric was directed at the mentally or physically disabled when, in fact, the truth was something altogether different.

Singer-guitarist David Cortopassi, who wrote Spazz, tells Mike Dugo of
I was straight when it came to marijuana or psychedelics even though drugs were prevalent at the time. It was difficult to avoid drugs and most everyone was trying to get me high which made me feel kind of like an outsider and even more rebellious about it. While everyone seemed to be dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms during the San Francisco music explosion, I wrote Spazz as an anti-drug statement, never thinking it would ever be interpreted as anything else. In retrospect, I doubt anyone other than me knew what it was really about.
The Elastik Band had recorded enough material for a couple albums but, after the controversy over Spazz, the group had only a couple of late-'60s singles green-lighted, neither of which conjured the inspired lunacy or sonic prescience of Spazz.

Today, Cortopassi runs an independent label, Digital Cellars, that has finally released some of The Elastik Band's long-mothballed tracks.

Spazz (link expired)

Buy it here

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Soul: Tainted Love — Gloria Jones (1964)

Soft Cell's Tainted Love is one of the most successful and well-known pop songs of all-time, hitting the top spot in 18 countries and remaining on the U.S. singles charts for a record-breaking 43 weeks. No wonder the song is synonymous with the British electro-sleaze duo. But it's not a Soft Cell original.

The song was written by Ed Cobb (also the author of Brenda Holloway's Every Little Bit Hurts) and originally recorded in 1964 by Gloria Jones, who was born in Longview, Tex., in 1938 but raised in Los Angeles since the age of 2.

She had a lot of recording experience before releasing Tainted Love, her debut solo single. Her all-girl vocal group The Blossoms — whose ranks once included Darlene Wright, later rechristened Darlene Love — didn't have much chart success on their own but their session work can be heard on Bobby Pickett's Monster Mash, Sam Cooke's Chain Gang, Shelley Fabares's Johnny Angel and Bobby Day's Rockin' Robin. Jones left the group in 1962.

Which, for all intents and purposes, brings us to Jones's version of Tainted Love.

Soft Cell, it ain't.

Whereas the 1981 hit was mid-tempo and moody, perfectly underscoring the content of the lyrics, the original is an uptempo, brassy soul stomper that opts for exuberance over anguish. It's still a fine bit of high-energy soul, sure, but nothing so special that it'd stand out from the classics being produced at Motown and Stax.

Tainted Love was not a hit for Jones, who would later secure her spot in pop music history — alas, for tragic reasons. In the early 1970s, with her ascent to solo stardom still on the ground floor, Jones moved to the UK where she met Marc Bolan, fell in love, joined T-Rex as a singer-keyboardist (she appears on five albums from Zinc Alloy to Dandy in the Underworld), married Bolan and gave birth to their child Rolan Bolan. But on Sept. 16, 1977, she crashed her Austin Mini into a roadside tree in southwest London, killing Bolan, her passenger.

Jones was charged for driving under the influence but didn't face trial, as Jones and Rolan had already moved back to L.A. Jones continued to record for her increasingly 'selective' audience. According to multiple reports, she has quit the music biz and is now working in an orphanage in Sierra Leone. She'll turn 70 in September.

And one final note about Tainted Love: The song also was recorded in 1975 by Ruth Swan and, again, the song sank into obscurity. But she was obviously onto something good: If you have the chance to hear it, you'll immediately realize Soft Cell's Marc Almond patterned his approach and phrasing on Swan's version of Tainted Love, not Jones's.

Tainted Love, original version (link expired)

Buy it here (on UK import only)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

1 — Joy Zipper (2005)

Mystery is good.

For instance, I was totally sucked in by the trailer to Cloverfield because it offered few, if any, clues about what was destroying Manhattan. The unknown was tantalizing and unnerving. But intrigue curdled into disinterest when reviews revealed The Big Apple was being stomped by Michael Vick's wet dream: a violent, oversized pitbull that spawns more often than the Spears girls. Yawn.

Which, naturally, brings me to Joy Zipper. (At this point, just nod and smile as if the preceding sentence wasn't a shameless non sequitur.) In the summer of 2005, I must have listened to the Long Island duo's single, 1, a few hundred times even though — or possibly because — I had no idea what the damn thing is about. Certainly the song is catchy enough, chugging along like one of those caramel-centred Pixies pop songs like Here Comes Your Man, Dig For Fire or Wave of Mutilation (the latter covered by Joy Zipper on a Pixies tribute CD). Vinny Cafiso and Tabitha Tindale's boy-girl harmonies on the chorus are nice, too. And when it ends after two and a half minutes of fizzy sonic bliss, you feel compelled to hit the repeat button because you're still wondering: Nice pop song but what the hell is it about?

Cafiso takes the lead vocal on this one and his opening line draws you right in: "Lying naked in the sun/Making at eyes at everyone/You're the one." And who is this One? In the same verse, more clues: "And the flowers and the trees/All laughing at your bike/And the neigbours kids run and hide/If they only knew you were really one of them/But you're not/You're the one."

The One could be just some outcast kid. But why would neighbourhood kids run and hide from the One? Because The One is a big loser? Because The One is deranged and dangerous? That might explain why The One is lying naked in the sun, making eyes at everyone. Of course, Cafiso might not be a omniscient narrator but The One him/herself, playing out revenge fantasies in his/her head. The unknown is tantalizing and, yes, a little unnerving.

Grown men should not spend this much time and energy mulling a pop song, I know, but this one really is a monster. And an enigma. It was ignored by radio in North America when it should've been a blockbuster hit of Cloverfield proportions.

1 (link expired)

Buy it here

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Angels are Voyeurs — Momus (1988)

I recently read The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, a non-practising Jew who decided to spend an entire year following the Bible as literally as possible.

I bought the book purely on the premise and was pleasantly surprised Jacobs refrained from simply poking fun at the many strange and often contradictory laws found in the Scriptures. Instead, when confused about Biblical law — 'an eye for an eye' versus 'turn the other cheek,' for instance — Jacobs seeks guidance from his assembled team of spiritual/theological guides.

Their insights are fascinating yet, despite studying the same book, they described the true nature of God in vastly different ways. Some depict Him as vengeful and impulsive; others compassionate and forgiving.
This reminded me of an, um, interesting depiction of the Almighty by Scottish singer-songwriter Nick Currie, better known as Momus.

His third album, Tender Pervert (right), draws its title from leadoff track, The Angels are Voyeurs. The song is surely inspired the Wim Wenders's 1987 film, Wings of Desire, in which two angels wander West Berlin and spy, with increasing envy, the passions and foibles of the city's residents.

On The Angels are Voyeurs, Momus builds on this idea, pervs it up and suggests God and the angels created the world, forgot about us for a while, then noticed what's happening down on Earth is, like, the best porn and snuff film, all rolled into one:
It intoxicates the Spaceman, watching how we thrill ourselves/
Not by sex but by devising new ways to kill ourselves/
He sees the way we tamper with the things we most depend on/
The danger stands his hair on end and gives him a hard-on/
He calls his angels down to watch that slut the world get hers/
God is a tender pervert and his angels are voyeurs
So not a typical pop lyric, then, and there are a lot more provocative and darkly comic songs on Tender Pervert, my favourite Momus record (but one that's currently unavailable).

The Angels are Voyeurs (link expired)

Buy Momus music here

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Soul: To Love Somebody — James Carr (1969)

Bongo Jazz A Speciality is intended to be a rather free-form blog devoted to all styles of popular music but, starting today, I add a little structure with Sunday Soul, devoted to classic R&B and reggae/dub sides, mostly from the '50s, '60s and '70s.

Let's start with James Carr's outstanding version of the Bee Gees' To Love Somebody.

Barry and Robin Gibb wrote the song in 1967 specifically for Otis Redding; alas, Stax/Volt's deep soul supremo was killed in a Dec. 26 plane crash before recording the track. The tragedy didn't stop To Be Somebody from becoming a pop music standard: The Bee Gees' version, with Barry on lead vocals, was the group's second single, spawning literally hundreds of cover versions over the years. Here's one of the best and one that hints at what Redding may have done with the song.

James Carr, like Redding, grew up singing in the church in the Deep South. Also like Redding, Carr became an exemplary deep-soul vocalist who recorded in Memphis during the 1960s. But whereas Redding cut sides for Atlantic-distributed Stax-Volt, Carr toiled for a significantly smaller label, Goldwax, and, as such, never got the recognition afforded to his contemporaries at Stax and Motown. (His best-known track, Dark End of the Street, reached only No. 77 on the pop charts in 1967). But popularity and quality are two very different things and Carr's Goldwax output is among the best soul music of the era.

Listen to Carr's To Love Somebody and you know you're in the hands of a master. He imbues the Gibbs' lyrics with so much passion and anguish that you can't listen to this passively as it plays in the background; it'll stop you cold everytime. "There's a light/A certain kind of light/That never shone on me," are the opening lyrics and Carr delivers them with utter conviction. You can't help but think he could be singing about his career or his life in general. (The pain you hear is likely real, as Carr suffered from bipolar disorder most of his life.)

To Love Somebody should have been a commercial triumph for Carr but, instead, the song peaked at No. 44 on the U.S. R&B charts. Carr would release only one more single for Goldwax (Everybody Needs Somebody in 1970) before the label folded. Carr continued to tour and record (for a variety of labels, mostly obscure) but his Goldwax days would prove to be his most successful, artistically and commercially.

Carr died of lung cancer on Jan. 7, 2001. Later that year, Kent compiled all 14 of Carr's Goldwax 45s, the A and B sides, on The Complete Goldwax Singles, the best introduction to this phenomenal but underappreciated vocal talent.

To Love Somebody (link expired)

Buy it here

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms) — Dion (1968)

A little pop music trivia for you: Other than Bob Dylan and The Beatles themselves, who's the only other pop singer depicted on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? The answer is Bronx-born Dion Francis DiMucci, better known as simply Dion, who is entering his 51th year (!) as a recording artist. He's as active as ever, having released five albums this decade including the back-to-back triumphs Bronx in Blue (2006) and Son of Skip James (2007).

But today I want to write about 1968 B-side Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms), a once-hidden gem in the Dion oeuvre that's now being rediscovered thanks to its inclusion in several recent Dion re-releases.

I first heard the song on the superb three-CD career retrospective, King of the New York Streets. When I bought the box set, I knew about Dion's doo-wop days as leader of the Belmonts (I Wonder Why, Teenager in Love) as well as his late-60s renaissance as a singer-songwriter (Abraham, Martin and John).

I didn't expect to hear something like Daddy Rollin', which sounds like Dion backed by the Velvet Underground. The churning blues riff and wiry lead guitar work could be the work of Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, while the driving metronomic drumming is pure Moe Tucker. Oh yeah, and Dion is likely singing about smack. Could it be the King of the New York Streets recorded with the Kings of the New York Underbelly? Alas, no, although that would have been one hell of a collaboration.

The real story: In early 1968, his career in the toilet and his personal life in tatters, Dion decided to kick his longtime heroin habit. He was clean, but he hadn't been clean for long, when he gathered some musicians he had met around his Florida home for a recording session in a small studio space near Dion's house.

In the liner notes of King of the New York Streets, Dion says of the track:
This one's kind of multi-dimensional. It can be a love song or it can be about drugs. I recorded it in the back of a bowling alley with a bunch of Jamaicans. We were banging on cardboard boxes. I had my Gibson Birdland guitar and we just let it roll.

What they laid down embodied the danger and intensity of the times. Daddy Rollin' is swampy, claustrophobic and raw; Dion's edgy, agitated vocal suggests he was still going through some withdrawal symptoms when the stepped up to the mic. Dion may say "it can be a love song" but listen closely to those lyrics and it's clear: This Dion-penned song is about his days as a smack junkie. (As if the bracketed part of the song title isn't a big enough clue.)

Despite this subject matter, the song sold incredibly well ... as a B-side of Dion's 1968 comeback hit Abraham, Martin and John (pictured above), which also summed up the spirit of the times but did so with a gentle, horn- and string-sweetened arrangement and a calmer, more reflective tone. Yet Dion sounds utterly convincing on both sides of this classic Laurie 45, which speaks to the great man's talent and versatility. No wonder his recording career is entering its second half-century, his vitality undimmed.

Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms) (link expired)

Buy it here

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Minha Menina — Os Mutantes (1968)

Who recorded the best song titled My Girl?

The Temptations?


Chilliwack, anyone? Anyone?

For my money, the correct answer is Brazil's Os Mutantes, whose A Minha Menina (My Girl in Portugese) is a joyous blast of samba psychedelia that's pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Even if you don't know a word of Portugese, you might assume from the spirit of the record that the song is about the first flush of love ... and you'd be right.

A little background: Os Mutantes were Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista and his younger brother Sergio Baptista, who released their self-titled debut album in June 1968. Rita and Arnaldo were just 20 years old, Sergio 19, yet they were among a group of musicians, visual artists and poets who helped found and define Tropicalia, Brazil's revolutionary arts movement.

The liner notes of Everything Is Possible!, an Os Mutantes compilation, describe the movement this way:

With hefty doses of criticism, lots of humour, iconoclastic ideas and a sprinkling of rock music, Tropicalia was out to question not only the music being made in the country at the time but Brazilian culture as a whole.

Tropicalia artists didn't seek to destroy the Brazilian identity but combine that identity with what was happening around the world.

A Minha Menina, the second track on the band's debut, is a prime example of this multicultural approach. The rhythms are unmistakably Brazilian but there's also a touch of San Francisco here, with the garage-rock, fuzztone guitar licks that run through the song.

Alas, by 1969, Tropicalia was all over, as Brazil's military government cracked down on the movement's intellectuals and political activists. Musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, considered leaders of the movement, were jailed for about a month and, upon release, were exiled to London, England. But the government couldn't exile ideas and Tropicalia planted the seeds from which many agree modern Brazilian music sprouted, while the sounds from this period has been hugely influential on the likes of David Byrne, Beck and Stereolab. Veloso has long resumed his career while Gil is now the country's Minister of Culture.

As for Os Mutantes, the lineup of Lee, Baptista and Baptista carried on until 1972, when Lee left. The brothers stumbled along for another six years but their best days were behind them.

Arnaldo and Sergio, minus Lee, dusted off the Os Mutantes name for some 2006 shows, although many critics agreed, with only two-thirds of the original membership present, this was hardly a true reunion.

Remember Os Mutantes this way -- young, fearless, joyous -- sounding like the future is theirs and everything is possible.

A Minha Menina (link expired)

Buy it here or here

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Beautiful People Are Ugly/Kill Time — The Clash (1982)

Fans attending a Carbon/Silicon show last Friday in London were in for a treat, as singer-guitarist Mick Jones invited a special guest onstage during the encores: former Clash bandmate Nicky (Topper) Headon. Carbon/Silicon, with Topper behind the drums, played Clash favourites Train in Vain and Should I Stay or Should I Go.

The two hadn't performed together onstage in 25 years, when Headon was ousted from the Clash (due to his heroin addiction) following the sessions for the band's Combat Rock album. Jones, himself, was kicked out of the Clash a year later and, for a time in 1984, Jones claimed he had reteamed with Headon and they were planning to play and record as the Clash, too. That never came to be and thank goodness (as one fake Clash lineup was already one too many). Jones eventually put together his first lineup of Big Audio Dynamite, sans Headon, who was still a few years away from conquering his personal demons.

Given the name of this blog, which is pilfered from the Clash's cover of Revolution Rock, you'd be right to assume news of Jones and a now-clean Headon performing together was welcomed around these parts.

Hence, today I'll post a couple Clash songs from the Combat Rock sessions that have never been officially released: Beautiful People Are Ugly and Kill Time.

These songs were among those axed by veteran producer Glyn Johns, who was asked by Clash frontman Joe Strummer and manager Bernie Rhodes to turn the Jones-helmed double album Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg into a less sprawling, more commercial single album that the world would know as Combat Rock.

Johns also binned First Night Back in London and Cool Confusion, which would emerge as B-sides, and a seven-minute, jazzy instrumental Walk Evil Talk, which remains unreleased (at least officially). Did Johns make the right decisions? I think so. Walk Evil Talk is filler, while Strummer-sung Beautiful People Are Ugly and Kill Time sound like Sandinista leftovers, although they certainly deserve to see the light of day at some point. Last year, I was hoping for a 25th anniversary edition of Combat Rock with a bonus disc featuring the original Jones mixes and unreleased tracks. Maybe we'll have to wait for a 30th anniversary edition in 2012. Till then, download and enjoy.

Beautiful People are Ugly (link expired)
Kill Time (link expired)

Buy Combat Rock here

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hanging on the Telephone — The Nerves (1976)

According to rock lore, Jack Lee knew he had written an enduring classic that would catapult his L.A.-based power-pop trio, The Nerves, to stardom as soon as he finished writing Hanging On The Telephone. If this story is true, he was only half right.

Hanging on the Telephone appeared on The Nerves' self-titled, self-released 1976 EP and, well, neither fame nor fortune ensued. By 1978, the band had split, with Lee going solo, bassist Peter Case forming the Plimsouls and drummer Paul Collins establishing The Beat (and forcing a certain Birmingham ska group to change its name to The English Beat in North America. But I digress.)

Of course, the song did turn out to be an enduring classic, thanks to Blondie, whose note-for-note cover (right down to the ringing telephone at the start of the record) kicked off its 1978 breakthrough LP Parallel Lines. Heart of Glass, One Way or Another and Sunday Girl may have been that album's hit singles but Hanging on the Telephone and another Lee composition, Will Anything Happen?, were the album's best songs.

In fact, one could easily argue Blondie's version of Telephone is definitive, thanks to its killer guitar solo, Clem Burke's hyperkinetic drumming and Mike Chapman's shiny production, all of which are missing from the original. The Nerves' version is rickety and the production strictly demo-quality; that said, the record does have a lo-fi charm all of its own. And, you know what: Listening to the original, you gotta think: This is the sort of song that makes a band famous.

Hanging on the Telephone, original Nerves version (link expired)

Buy it here

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Beyond The Valley of a Day in the Life — The Residents (1977)

Imagine if John Lennon cannibalized his own band's music and sound bites to create 'White Album' sonic collage Revolution 9. Well, that's kind of what San Francisco experimentalists The Residents did on Beyond The Valley of a Day in the Life, a mind-blowing 1977 single that sampled and reconfigured Beatles music to haunting effect. (A year earlier, The Residents had done something similar, deconstructing pop hits of the '50s and '60s, on their Third Reich and Roll album.)

The track starts with the Beatles' most famous ending and features a disembodied Lennon repeating "I don't believe in Beatles," a line from his 1970 solo track God. It also contains a loop of Paul McCartney saying, "Please everybody, if we haven't done everything we could have done we tried," pulled from a Beatles Christmas record. I will refrain from mentioning much more about what's sampled as that would ruin the surprises for first-time listeners. Suffice to say, the track is decidedly un-Fab-like and, to my ears, sounds like the soundtrack to Beatlemania's death. But the Residents aren't dancing on a grave here; the track's sonic explorations are only possible because of the imagination and innovation inherent in the source material.

Recently Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles were tasked with mixing and matching Fab songs for the soundtrack of the Cirque du Soleil show Love. The disc, released in November of 2006, drew near-unanimous praise from critics but the work left me cold. To my ears, Love sounded like a Stars on 45 medley minus the Euro-disco throb. If I want to hear reimagined Beatles music, I'll listen to this early sampling masterpiece.

Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life (link expired)

Buy it here

Friday, January 11, 2008

Guess I'm Dumb — Glen Campbell (1965)

Here's one of the greatest Brian Wilson songs you won't find on a Beach Boys record.

In 1965, Glen Campbell was still a few years away from recording Jimmy Webb-penned classics By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Galveston and Wichita Lineman (and an entire decade away from Rhinestone Cowboy). He was a 29-year-old session musician whose own solo career had failed to gain any traction. Enter Wilson, who wanted to give Campbell a "present" for filling in for him during a recent Beach Boys tour. Guess I'm Dumb, originally slated for the Beach Boys Today! album, is a helluva gift.

It's a classic, mid-60s Wilson production (albeit let down by a somewhat murky mix) featuring a lovely, melancholy melody that perfectly complements the downbeat lyrics. Surprisingly, the words were written by Russ Titelman and not Wilson, whose fragile self-esteem would seemingly inspire such lines as: "I'll give in when I know I should be strong/ I still give in even though I know it's wrong, know it's wrong/ I guess I'm dumb but I don't care."

The single was not a hit. That murky mix might have been one reason for the record's commercial failure but, really, it's those words that likely prevented Guess I'm Dumb from joining California Girls and Help Me Rhonda on the 1965 charts. Pop stars are supposed to be better than you and me -- happier, sexier, smarter, richer. They're certainly not supposed to put themselves down. (I know, I know: Unless you're John Lennon singing Help! or Nowhere Man...)

The three principals behind Guess I'm Dumb would move onto bigger things. Campbell would achieve his solo stardom two years later after teaming with Webb; in 1966, Wilson would craft his masterpiece, Pet Sounds; and lyricist Titelman would go on to produce the likes of Buffalo Springfield, Paul Simon and Rickie Lee Jones. Yet Campbell, Wilson and Titelman should still be proud of these two and a half minutes of pop pleasure.

Guess I'm Dumb (link expired)
Find it on Pet Projects: The Brian Wilson Productions (Ace, 2003)
Buy it here