Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Breakup Songs: Coyote

Joni Mitchell: Coyote


Breakup songs generally sound like they are intended for an audience of one: the person being broken up with. The songs can express anger, heartbreak, or despair. They can express undying devotion, now unrequited. But the goal is often to make the case for why the breakup is happening. In truth, the singer is often trying just as hard to convince themselves that it is over as the current or former object of their affection. Coyote is not a typical breakup song, in that it depicts a relationship that the singer never intended to be permanent. But it shares this element of trying to convince both parties that it is over. This is a relationship that has already lasted longer than the originally intended one night stand. Joni Mitchell’s narrator must have originally intended to be gone the next morning without even a goodbye, and this seems to her to be a normal feature of a life on the road. It is a set of rules she thought both parties understood, but “Coyote” had other ideas. He collects women, and he treats them to a level of passion that draws them back like a moth to a flame. Mitchell’s character mentions that she can not and does not expect faithfulness here, but her main stated reason for going is simply that she belongs on the road, and can not be tied down. She is trying to convince both him and herself that what she would get back for this loss of freedom would not be sufficient compensation.

In my description above, I have referred to Joni Mitchell’s narrator. It is curious that the first Joni Mitchell song I thought of for our theme comes from her album Hejira. Mitchell was at this time trying to escape a reputation as a confessional songwriter. Her earlier brilliant relationship songs were certainly about herself, but she had made a break with that mode of lyric writing with her previous album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The songs on Hissing are told in the third person. They are stories about characters that Joni Mitchell invented, and they travel in worlds that Joni Mitchell clearly did not. Hejira is a trickier album to pin down. Even though Coyote is told in the first person, Mitchell asked her fans to not assume it was anything she had experienced; in particular, she didn’t want fans to speculate about the identity of any real life Coyote. I am sure they did anyway, and it would be one of the last songs Mitchell would record that could be construed as being about a recent event in her life. Her personal songs from later in her career tend to be about things that happened longer ago, and there are some great songs among them, but there is not the sense of immediacy that fans had come to expect, and that is found in Coyote.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Breakup Songs: Without You

Harry Nilsson: Without You

When I was a kid, just getting into music, I mostly bought singles, or 45s, as we knew them, for the number of revolutions per minute (RPM) of the turntable, as opposed to LPs, played at 33-1/3 RPM. Some turntables also had a setting for 78, which was for old time records, and therefore was only used to play our stuff fast, making the singers sound like the Chipmunks, as a joke. The 45s had a big hole in the middle, requiring the use of an adapter. Why? This is a question that I have wondered about for decades, and for some reason only decided to Google while writing this post. Turns out, there were both commercial and scientific reason for the big hole, and if you are really interested, click here.

In those days, my father would get home from work in the city around dinner time, and in an era of limited TV offerings, after we ate, it was not uncommon for him to come into my room to listen to music with me. As I have noted elsewhere, my father, at that point in his life, was not really interested in rock music—or at least current rock music. He listened mostly to standards and oldies stations that played the doo-wop of his youth. But he was a good dad, and enjoyed spending time with me, listening to whatever I wanted to. We would lay on my bed, listen and talk. When I had kids of my own, I learned that the best way to find out what was going on in your children’s’ life was not to pepper them with questions, but to just talk, and the information would come out. Plus, it led to a strong bond that we maintained throughout his life. I doubt that my father learned this technique from a book; instead, I think it was just a parenting instinct, and it is something that I tried to emulate. Although, to a greater degree than my father, I actually learned to really like some of the music my children exposed me to.

But my father loved Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” and we would spin my copy of the single (which looked exactly like the one in the picture above) on a regular basis. I remember that at the end, when the song was at its climax, Dad would often say something like, “and now, they are taking Harry Nilsson off the stage in flames,” because of the intense, theatrical emotion of the song. Although it started off with a simple piano backing the vocals, by the end, it sounded like an entire orchestra was playing, and Nilsson was wailing away.

We were not the only ones who loved the song—it was a Billboard #1 hit for four weeks in 1972, and in 1973, Nilsson won a Grammy for the song. As I was thinking about writing this piece, I was having trouble naming other Nilsson songs, and research reminded me of his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking,” and the goofy “Coconut.” And, coincidentally, in the car the other night, WFUV played “Me and My Arrow,” which I recognized, but didn’t know was by Nilsson. The guy had a pretty prolific career, as a performer and songwriter, and spent some time, often drunk, with John Lennon, in the early-mid 1970s, before dying of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 52.

Another thing that I didn’t know until fairly recently was that the version of “Without You” that I listened to with my father was a cover of a Badfinger song. Co-written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of the band, it merged two songs that they had separately worked on. The original is pretty uninspiring, and was not released as a single in the US or UK. But Nilsson’s hit version gave the song new life, and it has been covered more than 180 times, most commercially successfully (and with even more over the top emotion and unnecessary vocal flourishes) by Mariah Carey, and in other languages, including Cambodian.

Sadly, the success of “Without You,” led to tragedy. Pete Ham committed suicide in 1975, after it appeared that a business manager had defrauded the band and its label, leaving the members penniless. Tom Evans subsequently fought with guitarist Joey Molland over rights to perform as “Badfinger,” and specifically about the royalties earned from “Without You.” Following one heated argument, Evans hanged himself on November 19, 1983.

Friday, February 16, 2018


The break-up song, even the break-up album, is such a rite of passage for both performers and listener. For every song of love and fulfilment there are a legion of songs displaying dismay and despair. For every couple sharing "our tune", strip back the facade and each will have at least one song to recall their earlier disappointments in getting there.

But nobody, nobody, has better portrayed the randomness of the teenaged victim of cupid than Billy Bragg, about whom I have written before. And over a consummate acoustic guitar backing, by Johnny Marr, no less, playing a version of the Four Tops
classic, Bragg says all that ever needs to be said.

That's all.

Get it here!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Breakup Songs: Dear Madam Barnum

XTC: Dear Madam Barnum


Breaking up is evidently hard to do here at Star Maker Machine, so let me get us off to a somewhat late start with this one. Mankind may have invented pop music as a type of mating ritual, with a man or woman singing the praises of the object of their affection, or boasting of all the reasons to “pick me”. The breakup song may have followed soon after. Here was a form that could allow you to plead for sympathy from your next intended conquest by showing how you were suffering, or simply blow off steam by venting your anger at how you were treated so badly. I have no doubt that I could, with a little digging, find a seventeenth century madrigal that would fit our theme, but there are many fine examples with a more recent vintage.

Dear Madam Barnum is a fine example of a venting or brushoff song. If anything, this kind of song is a warning to others not to get involved with the woman who has hurt the narrator. This one is indeed about a woman, but there are just as many warnings in pop music about mistreating men, and I am sure we will get to some of those as well.. While I don’t know the background of this song in particular, it would not surprise me to learn that it was addressed to the same woman as XTC’s Mayor of Simpleton a few years earlier. The older song has a narrator rushing headlong into a new romance with his blinders fully on. But now, he is thoroughly disillusioned. Some of the anger in Dear Madam Barnum may well be self-directed, wondering how he got himself into this situation in the first place. The clown metaphor was established in pop classics like Cathy’s Clown and Tears of a Clown, but those songs are pleas for sympathy. This is the only song I know of that takes that concept as the basis for a brushoff song. It works very well indeed, so I would have to think there are other examples. Perhaps we will hear some of those before this theme is done.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Aliens: Saturn/Stevie Wonder

purchase [Songs in the Key of Life]

A last minute entry as we switch themes - on the assumption that any post is better than no post.

Songs in the Key of Life vies with Talking Book as my favorite Stevie Wonder album. Saturn is one of its least known songs.

The 1970s, when the album came out, were full of dreams of the opportunities that space presented us Earthlings: working forward from the 70s, we had Skylab and Mir and then the current ISS. In the 70s, NASA still had a fair amount of PR mojo - hype and hope for humans in space. It was hard not to be influenced by the vast possibilities open to us. Today we have Elon Musk and his cohorts.

The 70s mark a point in Wonder's career where he both changed management and musical style. Gone was the [limiting/limited] image of the somewhat coddled boy-wonder: here was a man in tune. Actually,  a man leading a musical revolution. Talking Book matches chronologically with Exile on Main Street, Thick As A Brick, Close to the Edge, Ziggy Stardust, Eat a Peach, Can't Buy a Thrill - just to give you some perspective.

Listen and ponder.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Nice picture, eh? Sort of a Phillip K. Dick-ian vibe, which in turn leads me on to discover that Electric Sheep is the name of a company that makes the fractal variations many computers have as their screen savers. Go take a look, it is fascinating. If nothing either to do with the picture. Or indeed the song. (And had you known or remembered that Bladerunner, the film, recently reprised as Bladerunner 2049, was based on the book in the link? Any excuse to have a bit of Vangelis.....)

OK, to business. Lamb. Lamb are a longstanding UK band of some 20+ years standing, with a blend of electronic styles leavened by the organic vocals of the singing, the mix of the pastoral with the pulsatile. An on-off existence has seen the duo, Andrew Barlow and Lou Rhodes, electronics and vocals respectively, break up innumerable times, always then seeming to find the incentive, or funds, to rise again like a phoenix. The last such 'final' performance, for they also tour and perform live, was towards the end of last year. I missed the London dates, but don't feel the chance gone forever. Plus, a bonus for me, as an out of the closet and unashamed folkie, as it allows Rhodes to pick up her solo career in the downtime, being more reflective of her upbringing in the world of folk clubs, the daughter of singer Annie Burton. Below is an example of her solo oeuvre, from 2006's solo debut, 'Beloved One'.

'Alien' is from the 2nd Lamb album, their highest charting release thus far, in 1999, hitting the lofty UK peak of 37. It captures the amalgam of drum and bass rhythmic with a more trip-hop dynamic overlying, perhaps why they have tended to blend more with the Bristol scene of Massive Attack and Portishead than of other Manchester bands, from where they hail. Probably the best known song by Lamb is below, 'Gorecki', a paean and tribute to the 20th century Polish composer, which samples his 3rd Symphony, perhaps helping to usher in the expanding respect for his work, especially within the neo-classical movement, enriched and fed by modern electronic composers such as Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds and Colin Stetson. (It seems almost facile to try and explain the wonder of Gorecki, the man and the composer, in a piece such as this. Forgive this feeble mention and explore elsewhere.)

Finally, with no apology, a brief redux of my opening para and 'Bladerunner', with it's memorable Vangelis soundtrack. The 2049 version has just as memorable and incisive a soundtrack, largely via Hans Zimmer, orchestrated by Benjamin Wallfisch, if that is the correct phrase. Here is an excerpt, the links between Vangelis, Zimmer and Lamb being all too apparent.

Alien is here, but there is so much more.....

Aliens: Reach Out

Purchase: Heavy Metal Soundtrack

Aliens, UFOs, little green men in carbon zoot suits, come down to Earth to collect rocks, or kidnap people and probe them for info. Maybe probe our livestock, too...

What comes to my mind when the topic of aliens arises stems from the movies. I've never been much of a sci-fi reader, but I do love a good, ol' fashioned flying saucer flick.  There's the old standbys, like Sigourney Weaver in her underwear and vicious little creatures pulsing out of chest cavities in a shower of gore. But, what else? What other little green men walk through the halls of my imagining? Invaders destroying everything they encounter with death rays, ala Mars Attacks!; strange, long fingered and round-eyed curiosity seekers, peeking through windows, like ET: The Extraterrestrial; or Donald Sutherland recognizing Veronica Cartwright upon exiting his pod and becoming part of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers...

And, my personal favorite, and original encounter with the wonders of R-Rated films, the spaced out aliens on their way to Earth via a blissed out Venice Beach, California, in a giant, smiley faced orb, from 1981's Heavy Metal...

Heavy Metal, with its excessive cartoon gore and oversized, lampoon nudity, it's oddly-shaped plot and disconnected framing devices, devil's cabinet of bizarre characters, and overall bizarrely full blown technicolor beauty, was my first R-rated film. I saw it for the first time as one half of a double-feature on a sleep over, in a dark basement, under the snoring, un-watchful (probably snoring) noses of a friend's mom and dad (the other film was John Carpenter's The Thing). 

And not to understate things, but at the first sign of cartoon boobs, zombie tail gunners, and the glowing green menace called the Loc-nar, among many, many more glorious oddities, I was pretty much hooked, for good. On comic books, nudie mags, and most of all rock n roll, and maybe heavy metal--the magazine and the sound. And, while the only real metal on the soundtrack was a cut from the Ronnie James Dio led Black Sabbath, the movie was a pulsing, stereo blast of day-glo guitar fever, a romp through the wildest kind of imaginings.

My memory of the film is tied directly to the sound: the imagery is forever tied to the music in the film that played over the scenes, a roving scoped-out freak show of atmospherics. Slashing guitars, thrumming, angry keys, phasing drums, Sammy Hagar's howling vox, Don Felder's space trip title track, a dobblering car horn from a UFO speeding past, and the strange incantations of Blue Oyster Cult's "Veterans of the Psychic Wars." But, by far the standout cut from the soundtrack is Cheap Trick's "Reach Out". The song is driven by a purely 80's inspired keyboard march, one that sounds like a bank of spaceship computers pumping out data and coordinates. It's powerpop at its finest, with soaring vocals and churning guitar, but the song is also a spaced out symphony of great early Cheap Trick, with ethereal melodies from a galactic orchestra, laying layers of sound over a staticky transmission.

Aural association is a potent force for me, and just a few seconds of a sound byte will send my imagination and my memory tumbling end over end to not only a movie, but the entire span of an era. The sounds of a song pulled from a memory come with all sorts of weight. And I love the impact, the immediate and and total sensation of nostalgia, when you hear a song from your past.

As I grow older, to continue the metaphor, I often feel alienated from my past--not the places or the people, but the emotional aspects of who I was. My sense of wonder, my curiosity, my willingness to be expansive and expanded by what I saw and heard, and the avenues of discovery I could wander so easily--this all before my psyche began to feel bent and worn down from taking on the weight of too many daily burdens. Hearing old music will especially take me back to being a less complicated, more easily awed kid, bowled over and blown away by all the oddness of the universe, rather than buried beneath the weight of it all.

I still scan the sky for UFOs, eager to catch a lift to places unknown. I signal with a flashlight, I signal with a lighter (Incubus), I dream of concerts on Mars, and I know that aliens can get Pearl Jam tickets a lot more easily than me (The Simpsons), and while I have many more alien references, I feel like I'm beating this metaphor into stardust...Sail on, space cowboys. I'll see you on the dark side of the moon...

EXTRA-CURRICULAR READING: A great write up on the soundtrack from Crave

Monday, February 5, 2018

Aliens: Flight of the Moorglade

Jon Anderson: Flight of the Moorglade

Reading my music writing probably might give you the impression that I listen to prog rock all the time, but I don’t. More than anything, I listen to what would be classified as Americana music, but I am clearly an unrepentant lover of progressive rock. But just because I enjoy the music, that doesn’t mean that I can’t mock some of its excesses. And maybe the easiest things to make fun of about the 70s prog that I enjoy are the concept albums, with their often bizarre narratives. I mean, there are some pretty straightforward ones, like Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, essentially a dramatization of the Jules Verne novel, or Gryphon’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three, about chess (a hidden gem, by the way), or even Pink Floyd’s The Wall, basically a story about a person's difficult childhood and life.

But then there are the crazy ones, like Gong’s acid-fueled three album Radio Gnome Trilogy, or pretty much anything by Magma, or Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which purports to be about a Puerto Rican youth living in New York City, but turns surreal (and is one of my favorite albums, anyway).

This genre of music, which is often tied up with fantasy and science fiction, is ripe for stories of aliens and interplanetary travel (although as we have seen, other genres go there, too.) And thus, we come to Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, the Yes singer’s solo debut, released in 1976, after Yes released Relayer (an album that I have zero memory of) and before Going For The One (which I enjoyed more), during a period when the band’s members were all releasing solo albums. Wikipedia describes the album as telling:

the story of an alien race and their journey to a new world (the story printed in the LP jacket calls it "the earth", lowercase 'e') due to a volcanic catastrophe. Olias, the title character, is the chosen architect of the glider Moorglade Mover, which will be used to fly his people to their new home. Ranyart is the navigator for the glider, and Qoquaq (pronounced 'ko-quake') is the leader who unites the four tribes of Sunhillow to partake in the exodus. 

Now, let me start off by saying that I like this album, and particularly the featured track, very much. Anderson is credited with all of the voices and instruments on the album, which took two years in conception, and 8 months of work, to record. There have long been rumors that Vangelis, who had unsuccessfully auditioned for Yes at that time, and who Anderson collaborated with, played some of the parts, but both men have denied this, and unless Devin Nunes has a memo to the contrary, I see no reason to dispute that (actually, if Nunes had such a memo, it might be more likely that I’d take a contrary position, but I’m going off the rails here).

If you want a chuckle, go ahead and read the whole elaborate story, which was printed on the inner album sleeve. And because most of you won’t buy the album, here’s a link to a website devoted to Olias of Sunhillow which contains the story, and more.

Meanwhile, it appears that Anderson has been working on a sequel to Olias since 2001, to be called The Songs of Zamran: Son of Olias, and as recently as 2014, Anderson confirmed that he is still working on it. Based on his comments over the years, it will be a multi-hour work, and possibly released as an app, including visuals. Here's a preview, from 2013.  And why not, I say?