Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Shadows: Optikler

No longer available!

I succumbed to the initial "The Shadows" options. Granted, there are fewer and fewer people who would make that association, but I am one of them.

It's not that I actually followed/listened to the Shadows. Mostly, that was just a little before "my time" (but not by much), but I knew their sound.

When I was about 12, there was a band at the local college on the next hill over from where I lived and they had a rock band that practiced loud and long every day. We could hear their noise at that distance, and at least once I trekked to see the source: tangles of cords, amps, mic stands ... all well beyond my experience as someone who played Mozart on an alto recorder.
Little did I know that they were practicing for the "nationals"; that year, they won the most prestigious Pop Music award in the country. Their style - if not their influence, was clearly "The Shadows". Well, maybe not. For the most part, the sound that an electric guitar produced (and they would not have had the latest equipment) sounded like The Shadows. (Even early Beatles have that raw sound)

This past week, I was even more surprised to see that the two songs I recall them playing are actually available on YouTube: who would have imagined that songs from a long defunct, short-lived school band from Turkey would be posted on YouTube - my sense of what is YouTube-worthy is clearly not so accurate. That said, it does allow me to share something you would likely never have heard.
And it sounds a lot like The Shadows - even when they play Peter, Paul and Mary.

Check it out.

The second clip appears to be an original: The song title, translated is "Village Girl", but the style is still predominantly Shadows, and it is the "B" side of the Peter Paul and Mary hit that won them the national pop music championships back in 1967.

For comparison: the Shadows

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shadows: Shadow and Jimmy

Was (Not Was): Shadow and Jimmy


What lurks in the shadows? For the next two weeks, we will be shadowing musicians as they explore that question. Taken literally, a shadow as an image created when a solid object blocks light from a small area. It is when the word is considered as a metaphor that things get interesting, and songwriters get inspired. A shadow can be an image of a person, and it can become distorted by the angle of the light or the contours of the surface on which it is cast. So it is not the same as the person who cast it, merely a memory or a distorted impression. “Shadow” is also a term that may be used to describe a ghost or apparition, a supernatural after image if you will. We will be exploring how songwriters work with these ideas over the course of our theme. But first, here is a much simpler explanation. In Shadow and Jimmy, Shadow just a man’s name.

Shadow and Jimmy comes from Was (Not Was)’s 1988 album What Up, Dog?. The album represented the pinnacle of the band’s success, spawning six singles, but somehow Shadow and Jimmy was never even a flip side. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I am at a loss to explain it. The song features a great lead vocal by Sweet Pea Atkinson over a backing track that has the classic feel of songs like Spanish Harlem. The song was a cowrite by David Was and Elvis Costello. David and Don Was would often bring in unexpected artists on their Was (Not Was) projects, and Don especially would later parlay the resulting connections into a very successful career as a producer. The song itself presents a portrait of two men who never finished growing up. As the lyric says, they were “always yesterday’s news”, which, in a sense, makes them both shadows. To me, they represent the parts of maleness that most of us outgrew once we left high school. They never make the leap in their thinking from the idea of girls to that of women. But they are never quite alone as a result, because they have each other. So ultimately, the song is a celebration of a friendship. It may be that some listeners didn’t know what to make of the relationship described in the song. You could dismiss the characters as losers, but Costello and Was don’t do that. Neither character has any success with the opposite sex, and it is not for lack of wanting it. But the songwriters do not want us to pity them; we are asked instead to find beauty in their loyalty to each other. Maybe the song was not a single because not enough listeners could make that leap, but Was, Costello, Atkinson, and the backing band do everything you could ask to make it possible.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Someday August 29 1968

purchase [Chicago Transit Authority] (because the whole album is a classic, not just this song)

Chicago, at one one of their more political moments (68-69) used the sound-track from a street protest where the discernible chant in the background is "The whole world is watching". Those may not be the actual words heard on the streets today, but it is certainly no less true.

The effect of the chaos, cacophony that acts as the intro to the song carries with it images of confusion, chaos, hate and fear ("... faces full of ...")

Typical of Chicago's style, the song makes great use of horns: there's an in-built urgency/blast behind any horn section, and it does a lot for this piece: kind of a punctuation at just the right time - a punch to add an element of urgency to the chaos.

In light of various points of chaos around the world, it might be best to consider a line or two from the lyrics:

Someday you will see how long we've waited for the time ... show you how we've got to get together with you all...

Someone once said "Those who cant remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos

Ian Dury and many others: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos

Aaah, synergy! Over at Cover Me, I have a piece about early Stiff Records artist Wreckless Eric, featuring covers of his most famous song, “Whole Wide World” (although maybe not so famous, because my wife claims never to have heard the song before reading my post). In the course of that article, I mentioned the “Live Stiffs” tour from 1977 which featured Wreckless Eric and other Stiff artists of the era. (I’ve written about the tour here, too.)

Originally, the plan was for all of the acts to rotate in the running order, but it soon became clear that the clear choice for ending the show was Ian Dury & the Blockheads, and the obvious choice for the encore would be their anthem, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” which would include the other members of the tour.

The version that appeared on the Life Stiffs album was titled “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos,” because, well, it pretty much devolves into chaos. The song begins with Dury introducing the performers while the band vamps, before he yells out “Cut out the fucking spitting,” presumably to the audience, but it might have been to his fellow musicians, I guess. He brings on a few more people, apparently calling for more cables, before saying, “OK, we’ll bring a few more out in a minute, we’re going to start the fucking thing.”

Dury starts singing the song, occasionally ceding lead vocals to others. At one point, he yells out “Nick Lowe, Nick Lowe,” presumably because the Basher came on stage, but another singer, maybe Wreckless Eric, echoes it, as if it was a call and response lyric. (Sort of reminds me of one of my favorite moments from Life of Brian). Dury then changes the lyrics to replace the phrase “cake of liberty” with “cake of Wreckless Eric,” before a wailing sax solo by Davey Payne. At which point, the song turns into a jam, with the singers basically chanting the title, before a big finish.

There were probably 4 drummers, a bunch of guitarists and singers, one sax player, and some keyboard and bass players, all packed on what is likely a small club stage. In a word, it was probably chaos. And probably an enormous amount of fun, except for the fucking spitting.

The song was, not surprisingly, popular, when I was at WPRB in the late 1970s-early 80s. One Saturday morning, my parents were driving down to Princeton to go to the football game, so I arranged to be on the air so that they could hear me. Being the cheeky lad that I was, I made sure that “S&D&R&R” was played, and I wished that all my listeners would partake in the titular items. My father never let me forget that.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: Twisted

Wardell Gray: Twisted


Our theme might have produced more posts by now if it was “mental illness”. That is certainly one way to approach it, although we have already seen that Chaos/ Confusion is broader than that. So this post could actually spark an argument as to whether the song fits our current theme at all. I feel that it does, because of the merits of the song itself, and also because of confusion over who wrote it.

I first heard Twisted as done by Joni Mitchell. I don’t know if it was a single, but it was all over FM radio in 1974. I was 14 that year, and I just assumed that Joni Mitchell wrote the song. What does a 14 year old know? I knew that I immediately loved the song, and I still do. It introduced me to jazz singing, and that at in tern opened my ears to jazz in general. But I did not know until much later that the original version of Twisted was a jazz instrumental by Wardell Gray. Gray is one of those respected figures in jazz history that you come to hear of, but it’s hard to name anything he did. Partly, this is because he was best known as a sideman. Also, although we tend to think of jazz in the period following World War II as a New York thing, Gray was part of a lively scene in Los Angeles that probably should be better known. Certainly, Twisted deserved the fame it would later achieve, and it’s a shame Gray does not get more credit for the song.

Lambert Hendricks and Ross: Twisted


As great as Joni Mitchell’s Twisted is, she isn’t even the one who wrote the lyrics. That was Annie Ross. In 1952, Ross was asked by the head of her record company to write words to a sax solo. Ross later said in an interview that she chose Twisted because of the possibilities of the title. She decided to write a spoof of psychoanalysis, and completed the lyrics in one night. The song is an example of vocalese, a term which did not exist at the time. Basically, vocalese is doing what Ross did here, taking an instrumental piece and writing words for it. Lambert Hendricks and Ross were pioneers of vocalese. They would later be a major inspiration for the group Manhattan Transfer, who would cover many of their songs. Another great name in vocalese, if you want to explore, is Eddie Jefferson.

Joni Mitchell: Twisted


I still love Joni Mitchell’s version of Twisted. Mitchell made the song her own, and the joy of singing it comes through loud and clear. She also made two minor changes to the lyrics. Ross sings, “That’s why I drank a fifth of vodka one night”, but Mitchell sings, “That’s why I got into the vodka one night.” Also, Ross sings, “the reasoning and the logic that went on in my head”, while Mitchell has, “the idiomatic logic that went on in my head.”

Jane Monheit: Twisted


So, regarding the lyrics, who is right? Well, there is nothing to stop the next artist who performs Twisted from singing the words either way. Jane Monheit is certainly aware of Joni Mitchell, having covered A Case of You. But Monheit chose to go back to the Ross lyrics for her wonderful version of Twisted.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Grateful Dead

There's a lot about the Grateful Dead that could be included under the heading of chaos.

Carol Brightman's book about the band is appropriately titled Sweet Chaos. Reviewer David Hadju is not as kind on either the book or the band as Rolling Stone is. (Read the NYT review here).

As tour manager Sam Cutler from the early 70s notes in the 6 part Amazon series called Long Strange Trip, the band's lack of a leader meant a fair amount of chaos reigned, that decisions were difficult to make. Garcia ends up being a reluctant leader in the public eye, but it is the last thing he really wants.

One of the outstanding decisions the band does make, however, is their concert taping policy: scores of fans would show up to concerts with sophisticated taping equipment - with the band's blessing. In the Amazon material, Garcia comments that once the band has played their show, he is more than happy for that night's material to be of use to other people since he is done with it. It's that policy that makes it easy to share this with you.

Most shows had two sets: a more structured sequence of their classic, recognizable songs and a less structured set that some of the band describe as part of their role as travel enablers: aiming to take the audience on a trip.

From the hundreds of free recordings available at the Internet Archive, you can listen to versions of the same songs done over the years and hear the variations in solos, vocals and improvisation. "Playing in the Band" might be 7 minutes one night and 23 the next. Another song might begin as a kind of wandering cacophony before breaking into its recognizable form. Others just wander in loosely structured chaos, such as this version of "Space"

for more tunes from that particular concert (04/07/85 at Philly's Spectrum) click here.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Disorder In The House

Warren Zevon (w/Bruce Springsteen): Disorder In The House

Warren Zevon is one of those artists whose music I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years without ever really being a fan, or learning all that much about him. There’s just so much music out there, and so little time. David Letterman, on the other hand, was a huge Zevon fan. He was a guest on Letterman’s various shows more than two dozen times, and even filled in 20 times as bandleader when Paul Shaffer was unavailable.

Back in 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with lung cancer, and shortly afterwards appeared as the only guest on Letterman’s show. Their interview soon became a classic. Letterman’s respect and compassion for his dying subject, coupled with Zevon’s unflinching honesty and humor (which gave Letterman the opening to be funny, too) is striking.  During the course of their discussion, Zevon responded to Letterman’s question about his new-found understanding of life and death with the phrase “Enjoy every sandwich,” which became a pretty well-known distillation of his life's philosophy. Zevon also performed three songs on the show that night. The Letterman show is worth watching, and you can see the interview here, the performance of “Mutineer,” here, “Genius” is here, and Letterman’s request, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” is here. And Letterman's and Shaffer's heartfelt announcement of Zevon's death about a year later is here.

At the time of the Letterman interview, Zevon had recently released an album whose title, My Ride’s Here, seemed eerily prescient in retrospect. But to be fair, his prior album was called Life’ll Kill Ya, so it is probably more fair to say that he was comfortable with his death as a concept, not that he had any mystical foreshadowing of his demise.

After his diagnosis, Zevon worked on his last album, which ended up titled The Wind. It is hard to listen to the album without feeling that Zevon was trying to sum up his tumultuous life and preparing for its end. It includes 10 original songs (or co-writes with his long-time collaborator Jose Calderón), and a poignant cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The album included numerous high profile guests, including Mick Fleetwood, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, T-Bone Burnett, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris.  While the album contained its share of contemplative ballads, Zevon could still rock and show his trademark twisted humor, most notably with guest Bruce Springsteen, who shared vocals and played electric guitar on the raucous “Disorder In The House.”

The song lays out the chaos and confusion in the titular house--overflowing bathtubs, falling plaster, doors coming off their hinges. It’s so bad that “even the Lhasa Apso seems to be ashamed.” Then, it becomes clear that the song is about criminals being chased by the police, but it appears that the narrator escapes.

To me, what is most memorable about the song is the fun that Zevon and Springsteen seem to have performing it. The Wind was released two weeks before Zevon died, at the age of 56. The album received five Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year for "Keep Me in Your Heart," and it won two Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and "Disorder in the House" was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. These were the first Grammys of Zevon's career, and I suspect that he’d be chuckling to himself if he knew what it took for him to get them.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: What a Confusion

Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Upsetters, Dave Barker: What a Confusion


Dave and Ansel Collins: What a Confusion


The Selecter: What a Confusion


The obvious choice for our new theme would have been Ball of Confusion by the Temptations, but I posted that one for our 70s Motown theme not long ago. There are some interesting covers that might make a good post for one of my cohorts here a Starmaker, but I will leave that to others. Instead, I have a confusing tale of music credits to share.

What a Confusion is a good song to use in discussing the entwined developments of ska and reggae. Ska was the earlier form, combining elements of calypso and American R&B of the 1960s to create something new. Jamaican ska had a fairly rigid rhythm line, with vocals and horns having some freedom on top. As the music began to develop into reggae, the bass lines became more melodic, and the rhythms less regimented. My first selection of What a Confusion is from 1971, and you can hear the beginning of this transition. The song was produced by Lee Perry, who would become famous a little later as Lee “Scratch” Perry. The “Scratch” refers to his pioneering experiments with what would become dub music, but those were still a few years in his future at this point. The singer on the 1971 version is Dave Barker, and this recording is sometimes credited to him. The song was released on Upsetter Records, and I have also seen the song credited to that labels house band, The Upsetters as a result. Somehow, Bunny Wailer and U-Roy also wind up on the credits on some of the videos of this one on YouTube. I believe Bunny Wailer is in the backup band, but I have no idea how U-Roy got in the mix. All of this reflects the early history of artist exploitation in reggae. Performers and writers of these early songs were often not credited or paid, with their producers or labels taking the money instead. Efforts to properly assign credit retroactively are hampered by poor or nonexistent record keeping. So some or all of these people may have something to do with this recording, but it is hard to be sure.

Dave Barker is better known for his work in the duo Dave and Ansel Collins. Their version of What a Confusion is a fairly straight remake, with some changes in the vocal line and vast improvements in the recording quality. The production here brings the song more firmly out of ska and into reggae territory.

The Selecter are a British ska revival band that got their start as part of the two tone movement of the late 1970s that also included the Specials, the English Beat, Madness, and so many others. Two tone ska is different from its Jamaican ancestor in that it includes elements of punk and reggae and even dub on occasion. There is also a prominent role for keyboards such as the organ heard here. I could not find a video of just What a Confusion, so skip to 26:47 to hear the song. This version comes from a 1998 album in which the Selecter paid tribute to some of their influences by recording with them; the lead singer on this recording of What a Confusion is Lee Perry, which brings us full circle.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Two Words: Somewhere Rocks

Ian Hunter: England Rocks  
Ian Hunter: Cleveland Rocks
[purchase England Rocks]
[purchase Cleveland Rocks]

One of the advantages of a theme like this is that it allows me to write about pretty much any artist I can think of, because the odds are pretty high that I can find a song from that artist with a Two Word title.

It turns out that the great Ian Hunter has never been featured in the long history of this blog (although he was mentioned in a piece about his fellow member of Mott the Hoople, Mick Ralphs). After that band broke up, Hunter started a solo career. Although his self-titled first solo album was successful, his next two, which did not feature guitarist Mick Ronson, were not.

In 1977 Hunter released a single, “England Rocks,” in England, with the B-side, a song from his third album. It was very much in the glam-rock tradition of Mott the Hoople, featuring a prominent piano part, and lyrics that appeared to relate to the rise of punk (safety pins!) and references to his grandfather’s badges from World War II. I first heard the song at WPRB, from a compilation album, Shades of Ian Hunter: The Ballad of Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople, which was released in 1979.

Also in 1979, Hunter released a new solo album, You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, which featured a reworked version of the song, titled “Cleveland Rocks.” Now, the song begins with a clip from Cleveland’s Alan Freed, the legendary DJ, the piano has been replaced by a synthesizer, and Mick Ronson is the guitarist. The lyrics are changed a bit—the grandfather in the original was a “villain,” now he’s a “rocker” and the WWII-era badges the singer wore have morphed into records he played.

Overall, I kind of like the “England” version better—it is less slick and a bit rougher around the edges. And I find the synth in the “Cleveland” version annoying. Interestingly, Hunter insisted that he originally wrote the song for Cleveland, but changed it to England, because his record company wouldn’t release it in that way in the US. Based on the lyrics, though, I’m not sure I’m buying that story, but what I think really doesn’t matter, does it?

“Cleveland Rocks” became probably Hunter’s most well-known solo song, especially in Cleveland, where legendary rock station WMMS would kick off the weekend by playing the song every Friday at 6. Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich gave Hunter the keys to the city in 1979. It was adopted by the Cleveland Indians and Cavaliers as a theme, and Hunter even performed the song in the pregame ceremonies of Game 3 of the 2007 NBA Finals in Cleveland.

A cover of “Cleveland Rocks,” by the Presidents of the United States of America, was used in the credits of seasons 3-7 the Drew Carey Show, which took place in the self-proclaimed “Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World," and covers of the song by other artists were used in later seasons. The Ian Hunter original also was used in one episode of the show. This exposure helped to bring the song to the attention of a new audience.

Hunter continues to record well-received solo albums, and to tour, as a headliner, occasionally with a re-formed Mott the Hoople, and once as a member of Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Two Words: Four Women

Nina Simone: Four Women


Lisa Simone, Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, Lizz Wright: Four Women

[Not available for purchase]

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Four Women


Was Nina Simone the Toni Morrison of jazz? The case can be made with songs like this one. Both women used their art to present unflinching pictures of the black experience, black women especially. Four Women is exactly what the title suggests, a song that presents brief portraits of four women and the experiences that shaped them. Each woman gets one verse to tell her story. Simone’s genius here lay in the fact that that one brief verse was enough to tell us what she wanted us to know. This song is not easy to listen to, its lyrics harsh. Simone wanted us to understand our privilege in not having to live these lives. I would imagine that black women hearing this could listen to these words and rejoice in how far they have come, or reflect on how far they still have to go. I have not lived their lives, so I can not truly say. The rest of us can try to understand that Simone is not exaggerating here. We can allow her words to appeal to our better natures, and try to find out what we can do to help. We can begin by not practicing the types of exploitation described here.

There can be no doubt that this song, from 1966, continues to resonate today. It is a staple of many tributes to Nina Simone, such as the one the quartet version I have featured here comes from. There would possibly be more covers of the song now if the major labels were willing to release such material. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s beautiful take on the song comes from an album released on an independent label. That album chronicles Bridgewater’s quest to connect to her African origins by making music with Malian musicians.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Jerry Reed: Guitar Man

[ Purchase ]

Justice delayed: After years of being unfairly bypassed, Jerry Reed is finally making his way to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. It's easy to become obsessed by the snub. (How did Charlie Daniels get in before Reed?) Ultimately, it doesn't matter: Reed is a seminal figure in country music, and hopefully this recognition will allow a new generation to discover his great records, writing and guitar picking.

He was born Jerry Reed Hubbard in 1937. He emerged from an impoverished childhood and developed his chops as a lightning-fast guitar player. He began recording rockabilly sides for the regional NRC label and then Capitol. (I could have just as easily chosen "Mister Whiz" for this entry.)

After a stint in the military, Reed recorded 45s for Columbia that almost no one heard. One of the few that did listen was Chet Atkins, who bought out the contract and signed Reed to RCA. (They are all one big, dying conglomerate now.) Atkins got his money's worth as Reed emerged as a prolific side musician. His distinctive nylon-string picking shows up on '60s and '70s records by Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Skeeter Davis and others. Joan Baez sought him out when she came to Nashville to record. His lightning fast, run-the-fretboard style of picking was widely admired, and Atkins frequently cited him as the best guitarist in Nashville.

Still, Atkins, who guided RCA's country division, couldn't initially figure out a way to get Reed hits. "Guitar Man" was his debut single for RCA, and it stalled at #53 on the country charts in 1967. (A year later, Elvis had a minor pop hit with the song.)

Slowly Reed and Atkins carved out a style that resonoated with country audiences -- a mix of talking blues, cocktail-lounge ballads and novelty records. Ironically, those novelty songs -- "When You're Hot You're Hot," "Amos Moses" "Alabama Wild Man" and others -- may have kept some from taking Nashville's best guitar man too seriously. Yet Reed managed a streak of top 20 records that stretched from 1968 to 1983.

In paticular, his 1970s output is stellar. He cranked out full-length LPs like clockwork -- 20 studio records between 1970 and 1979. They stand out not only because of the blistering picking, but great song selection. Reed avoided the dull covers that mar so many 1970s country records, particularly those from RCA. He wrote much of his material, and augmented those songs with obscure tunes from the American songbook. He was one of the few country recording artists to use a full drum set, and his records sounded great, despite RCA's horrible pressing practices. (Get a load of his take on another two-word track, Sixteen Tons.)

Whatever the reason, Reed didn't get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime, passing away in 2008. I look forward to seeing Reed's Hall of Fame plaque later this year. "Guitar Man" are two words that aptly sum up his great career.


It seems strangely apt to be looking at this song again, and the accompanying video, as relations between the US and Russia (nee USSR) become increasingly strained. (It's funny, as an adult in 1984, I can't quite recall things being that bad, even if reminding myself and reviewing, yes, they clearly were. Mind you, I would have guessed that the Reagan era was a decade or so ahead, so maybe it's my problem!)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood exploded onto and into the UK charts in 1984, buoyed on a wave of an outraged media and a keenly exploitative PR campaign. There is nothing my country enjoys more than the combination of scandal with prurience, always peeking through nearly closed fingers at the decried depravities and disgustingness. Indeed, the british press specialises therein, having a field day with this band. So, when an outraged disc jockey, those purveyors of public taste and decency, suddenly cottons on that "Relax" might be, um, rather more energetic than the name invites, with, shock horror, references to a then barely legal gay S&M scene, their star was guaranteed.

"Two Tribes", the follow up single, was barely a cats whisker behind, vaunting straight to the top of the charts, remaining there for longer than any other single of that whole decade, even sucking "Relax" back up the charts in its wake.. It's true that ZTT, the record company, were at the peak of their game, manipulating the charts and feeding a product hungry population: this was way before such science fiction as downloading and streaming. This was largely black plastic. With 5 varying mixes across the domains of 7 and 12 inches, all marketed as essential, with the collected sales all counting toward the same song, is it any surprise sales were massive, the last great surge of physical product. In truth the song is a slighter variation of its predecessor, both being, arguably, more the product of producer Trevor Horn and his Fairlight synthesiser than of 5 scallies from Liverpool, even if the singer, Holly Johnson exuded as much charisma as the others mostly lacked it. (And was the only one with a surviving career of sorts.) But, as a sound, as a template it is huge, a tsunami of rattly bass, clattering percussion and swathes of keyboard, vocals with echo on their echoes. The different versions varied largely as to what else was chucked into the mix, varying samples scatter gunned over the none-more-exuberant Mr Johnson. These came from sources as disparate as Public Service films around what to do when the  H bomb drops, to snippets of speeches from, amongst others, Hitler and lyrics from Don McClean, all fed into the mouth of Ronald Reagan, via  UK uber-mimic, Chris Barrie. The video came from ex-10 cc band members, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, and featured actors disguised as Reagan and the then USSR supremo, Viktor Chernenko. (No, me neither.....) Tussling in a boxing ring, compered by Holly Johnson, as fellow world leaders look on. It doesn't end well. There was also a substantively longer versions, with yet more samples of speech, but, given the original was deemed to strong, without edits, for MTV, this had little exposure. (Have I got it here? Sure I have.)

The song, in al its myriad versions, had a long life, eventually even reaching the US Billboard top 50, just, at 43. Re-releases came again in '89 and '94, with a 3rd assault in 2000. This time the remixes were by external parties, usually several available in each iteration, now on CD, with up to 5 versions on each disc. I have to say the song, in the majority, still excites, galvanising frissons of nostalgic glee in my ageing bones. The triad of songs, "Relax", "Two Tribes" and follow up, "The Power of Love" are, in my opinion, as strong a launch pad as any new band can or could offer, certainly compared to the fickleness of now where longevity seems more often down to luck than talent. Afterwards? Well, no such luck for Frankie as, sans Horn, the band were but a shadow of what once was, with little left to say, eventually dissolving in a sea of rancour and regret.

Fill your boots!!!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Two Words: Dire Wolf

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf


The Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead was released in 1970. I was ten years old, but my oldest brother made sure I heard it right away. And so began my love of the music of the Grateful Dead. Dire Wolf was the song that won me over. I could not have articulated at the time what is was that drew me to the song, but I can now. It was the song’s folkloric quality. The narrative is steeped in the traditions and attitudes of the western cowboys and settlers. The Grateful Dead told stories of these people throughout their career, and these songs were not based on any historical figures. Instead, they were a retelling of an attitude. Women were idealized backwoods angels, as in Sugar Magnolia and Althea. Men were gamblers and gunslingers, but they were also loving fathers and uncles, interested in mentoring their sons and nephews about the ways of the world. That world would unfold for me over the course of many years and many songs. But Dire Wolf is simpler than that. It is a representation of how Death comes for a man like the ones in these later songs. Death is a menacing figure, yes, but he is invited in for a game of cards. The song’s narrator does not want to die, but the cards are literally stacked against him. Still the game is a friendly one, and perhaps it helps the narrator accept that it is his time. As a ten year old, I had no experience of death, but I knew at some level that the song’s theme was universal.

The mythos that the Grateful Dead introduced me to with Dire Wolf was one that also encompassed a wide range of musical influences. The song itself introduced elements I would recall years later when I began to learn about the traditions of country music. But the Grateful Dead also covered blues folk, and jazz, and they made an astonishing range of songs seem like natural part of a the world view that began to develop in Dire Wolf, even when the band was covering someone else’s song. I would later explore many of these musical styles based on these introductions, especially the blues.

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf (live, San Francisco Civic Auditorium, 12/28/83)

In my tribute to the Grateful Dead, I could hardly neglect to mention their influence as a live band. I actually never got a chance to see them live, but I nevertheless bought into their ideas of what live performance should be. The vocals on live Grateful Dead tracks can sometimes be painful to listen to, which eliminated from my consideration several performances of this song. But the song itself is a living thing. Each performance is a snapshot in the life of the band and its members, and so how the song is performed changes and evolves. This version from 1983 is far removed from the country trappings of the studio version, but it is still definitely Dire Wolf. Now the song is a rock song, with interesting keyboard lines that reflect a lineup change from when the studio version was done.

There is no purchase link for this version of the song. The Grateful Dead catalog includes a dauntingly long list of single concert releases from shows starting in 1966, and ending in 1993. Surprisingly, only one release, Dick’s Picks 6, includes a show from 1983, and the band did not perform Dire Wolf that night. There are no shows at all from 1984. If the rest of the show was as good as this Dire Wolf, this is a show that should be made available.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Words: Summertime Thing

Chuck Prophet: Summertime Thing
[purchase the original]

Back in 2010, when few of the current Star Maker Machine writers were associated with the blog, we did a theme about songs with one word titles. It seemed like time to advance the counter, and focus on songs with Two Word titles. (We promise not to do a theme about songs with 27 word titles).

Where I live, in suburban New York, it has been hot. High-80s, low 90s, with humidity. I know that other parts of the country are suffering through record heat waves, as are parts of Europe (or so I hear from my daughter in Barcelona). Complaining about the heat during the summer, though, is kind of a waste of time. It is, as Chuck Prophet noted, a “Summertime Thing.”

Prophet is someone who hasn’t gotten nearly enough love on this blog, despite his long career, first in the 80s psychedelic Americana band Green on Red, and later as a songwriter, collaborator and solo artist. I’ve been a fan for a while, and he is near the top of my list of artists who I want to see for the first time (I’ll be crossing the Tedeschi Trucks Band off that list in October). I wrote more about Prophet here, so feel free to check that out, if you want more background.

Prophet was born in Whittier, California, near Los Angeles, where it gets pretty warm, but lives now in San Francisco, where Mark Twain famously didn’t actually denigrate the summer weather. “Summertime Thing,” from Prophet’s 2002 album No Other Love, was a bit of a radio hit. It is really a great summer song. The song has a mellow, laid back vibe, and talks about the hot sun, hazy skies, burning pavement, loud parties and skinny dipping in a river. Plus, he name-checks the Beach Boys. Add that to Prophet’s customary drawling vocals, which seem perfect for a hot day, and you just want to slather on the sun screen, grab a crime novel and sit under a big umbrella with a cold drink dripping condensation waiting nearby.

The original version is great, but I’ve linked above to a live version from a 2013 performance at a club in Martinez, California, outside of San Francisco. It stretches the 5 minute song out to past 9 minutes, mostly by adding a long, languorous jam that adds to the easygoing, summertime feel of the song. Even though the performance was in March.

Friday, July 21, 2017

On/ Off: On the Amazon

Don McLean: On the Amazon

[purchase On the Amazon from Amazon]

I am not a big fan of Don McLean. He is an artist I know mainly for American Pie, and it has taken me many years to come to appreciate him for that. However, my wife was a big fan at one time. That is why I knew about the song On the Amazon. The song is a deep album track from McLean’s self titled 1972 release. It is best considered to be a novelty song, with the singer presenting a catalog of imaginary Amazonian denizens with some highly unlikely names, and the song is quite amusing. On the Amazon also presents us with a musical mystery. Unlike most of the material Don McLean recorded, On the Amazon is a cover, and a very unlikely one.

Bobby Howes: On the Amazon

[Not available for purchase]

The original version was recorded by Bobby Howes in 1929. It was written for the musical Mr Cinders, but was apparently left out of the London production that was mounted that year. Still, the song was considered to have enough merit to warrant a recording by Bobby Howes, who played Jim, the character who would have sung the song in the show. Mr Cinders is a gender reversed version of Cinderella. Jim goes to the ball disguised as a famous explorer, and On the Amazon supposedly boasts of his adventures in a place Jim has actually never visited.

The question I can not answer is, how did Don McLean come to hear the song? The show was a modest success in London, playing for about a year and a half. It made its way to Europe, where a translation into German was also successful. But the show never made it to Broadway. On the Amazon was not even the best known song from the show. That was Spread a Little Happiness, which did become something of a standard in England. So maybe McLean heard that song and wondered what else the songwriters had done. He would have had to do some research, at a time when there was no internet to help. It is clear to me as well that McLean didn’t just find the sheet music for On the Amazon. His performance includes some vocal mannerisms that are clearly from the Bobby Howes recording.

On the Amazon is still hardly a standard today. Spread a Little Hapiness and the show Mr Cinders have however seen some renewed interest. Sting had a minor hit with his recording of the song for the film Brimstone and Treacle. That may have led to a London revival of the show in 1983. The only record I could find of a US performance of Mr Cinders was a 1988 production that was mounted in Connecticut. There have been a number of covers of Spread a Little Happiness since then, although none have come near charting.

One final note: On the Amazon by New Riders of the Purple Sage is a completely different song.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On/Off: Turn It On Again

Genesis: Turn It On Again

If you are a fan of Genesis, as I have made it abundantly clear that I am, there are a number of turning points where people jumped on and off the band’s wagon. Genesis’ rise to popularity probably began with their second album, Trespass, which introduced the band’s dense, theatrical progressive style (their debut, From Genesis to Revelation, sounds mostly like a cross between The Moody Blues and pre-disco Bee Gees). From there, the band gathered followers until 1974’s epic (and epically confusing) concept double album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Then, lead singer and focal point, Peter Gabriel climbed up Solsbury Hill and out of the band.

Gabriel was, of course, replaced by Phil Collins, and while the next few albums were somewhat lighter and simpler than in the Gabriel-era, they were still recognizably prog. Many Gabriel lovers were reflexively turned off, but Collins’ greater accessibility (and even a love song) retained some fans and attracted more. But when guitarist Steve Hackett defected, and Genesis released …And Then There Were Three…, with an actual pop hit, much of the old guard jumped off.

Not me, though. I had moved to college at that point, and was working at WPRB, at a time when our staff included both lovers of prog and punk (and lovers of both), when the rock music world was really changing. And while it seemed that Genesis might have been done, instead, we got Duke, which I liked. It had long, proggy songs, but also harder rock, and maybe one of the band’s most divisive songs, “Misunderstanding,” an obvious attempt at a pop hit that sounded like nothing the band had ever done. Collins reportedly based the song on The Beach Boys' "Sail On, Sailor", Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and (ugh!) Toto's "Hold the Line.” The album was the band’s first to top the UK charts, and hit 11 on the US Billboard Hot 200. I remember long discussions in the WPRB studios as to whether Duke indicated that the band was staying on course, or whether “Misunderstanding” and some of the other poppier tracks were an indication that they were off the tracks.

As it happened, “Turn It On Again,” our featured and theme-appropriate song, was probably the song that showed the direction that Genesis was heading towards. An apparently fairly straight ahead rocker about a man obsessed with television, it nevertheless had sections in odd time signatures (13/4 and 9/4). (Aside—the first song I thought about for this theme, The Tubes’ “Turn Me On,” another TV focused tune, was actually the subject of this piece I wrote back in 2014).

When the band reconvened to create their new album, they reportedly decided to focus on simpler songs, and the result was Abacab. That album’s harder edges, punchier synths, “gated” drum sound and even horns, led to commercial success, reaching number one on the UK Albums Chart and number 7 on the US Billboard 200, but I think that it is fair to say that fans of songs like “Supper’s Ready,” jumped off the bandwagon in droves. A popular (mostly) live double album was next, followed by a self-titled disc in 1983, that, while still retaining a few longer pieces, is probably mostly remembered for its pop hits, and the catchy, but ultimately very embarrassing song, “Illegal Alien.” The album reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 9 in the US, so clearly their fanbase was increasing, but, I suspect, even more longtime supporters were turned off.

I flipped the “off” switch on my fandom after the next disc, Invisible Touch, which had some well-crafted songs, but ultimately left me cold. Although I heard some of the songs on the next album, We Can’t Dance, on the radio, I didn’t buy it. The next album was recorded without Collins, and I think it is fair to say that most Genesis fans were put off by Calling All Stations—I know that I never turned it on.

That all being said, there have been rumors over the past few years of a Genesis reunion, now that Phil Collins has rescinded his retirement notice. If I were a betting man, and I’m not, I’d say the chances of a Collins/Rutherford/Banks reunion is high—it would incredibly lucrative to get them on stage (and probably a popular album, if they cut one). Hackett, who often tours playing old Genesis songs, has indicated a willingness to join, but I’d bet that scheduling would make that a less likely option. And I think that the chances of Gabriel signing on would be low, although the concept has been bandied about. I’d be interested in seeing them, increasingly so depending on how much of the “classic” lineup was on stage, but suspect that it would be a stadium tour, which turns me off.

Monday, July 17, 2017

ON/OFF : Electricity

Jings, me too, this is a real toughie, scouring the interweb for songs relating "on" with "off". My initial idea had been to find equal and opposite songs. Like You Can Keep Your Hat Off as a riposte to  Tom Jones, Eat Stuff on the Sidewalk as a riposte to the Cramps, but no such luck. It's enough to make me go off on one, a peculiarly english phrase that would make a wonderful song title, meaning to lose my rag or blow my fuse. Which, like a lightbulb in my head, gave me the answer. OK, abetted by the illustration to the side of this column. A switch. The ultimate off/on being of electricity. (Let's ignore water as that would "faucet", boom boom!!)

So then, Electricity, the initial single from UK synthpop pioneers, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, back in 1979. Inspired by Kraftwerk's earlier Radioactivity, this song is a paean to the wastage of the earth's resources, truly ironic in a band who relied so totally thereupon. (OMITD unplugged would just be singing!) Over this side of the pond it seriously seemed, for a while, as if guitars may have had their day, such was the plethora of electronic keyboard bands bursting forth, from the Human League through Depeche Mode, Tubeway Army through Soft Cell. OMITD did have a bass guitar to complement the drum machines and synthesisers, but I was never sure whether this was for real, or a prop for the vocalist to fill his hands with. Suspicious at first, it wasn't long before I was converted. It was touch and go whether I preferred this band or the Human League, they were certainly the two leaders in my pack. I don't know how well, if at all, this style translated stateside, or even if any impact was felt at all. My usual sources, thanks, Wiki, suggest little.

Riding the crest of their wave, OMITD followed this single, and the album it led, with the even better Enola Gay, about the plane that dropped the initial H bombs, perhaps the ultimate on/off, before a brace of songs about Joan of Arc (both, confusingly, of the same name), no moon in june dilettantes these. Frustratingly, I think it was this arguably cod-intellectualism that pissed me eventually off, along with the expansion to include more traditional instrumentation, guitars, real drums, brass. The band split, Paul Humphreys, synths and straight hair, leaving Andy McCluskey, bass and curly hair, to lead whatever session men were about him. Even that imploded, before a chance request to do some gigs brought the original duo together and back to life in the mid noughties, a decade or so ago. How do they sound? Not a clue. I haven't had the heart since about '83. But what a heart it was then. And we are supposed to be conserving power, aren't we. Or most of us.....

Start here!


purchase [Dixie Chicks music]

I've been a Dixie Chicks fan for a while: maybe it's the Dixie element (my years spent in North Carolina), maybe it's the chick element, maybe it's just the music.

Maybe it's the politics. Not so much unlike the Russian Pussy Riot in terms of staking a position.

Yes, there are a couple of slips in this recording (if you listen carefully you can hear them), but this song has a lot what it takes to turn me on: (aside from the theme requirement (Baby Hold ON) - decent harmony, mostly coordinated backing (but off in a few places - bass, drums etc))

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ON/OFF - 2 from Creedence Clearwater Revival

purchase Willy and the Poor Boys

Judging from our output on the ON/OFF theme, you would be inclined to agree with Darius, that the pickings are slim. Actually, my standard process for a theme is to see what Songfacts.com lists for a particular phrase, and for "on" it shows 1976 possible avenues to explore.

Like of lot of other teens in the late 60s early 70s, I listened to a lot of Creedence. CCR had a ton of hits between 69 and 70. Heck, they were one of the headline bands at Woodstock. And then they disappeared in a mist of acrimony,

I havent listened to them much since, so it's mildly entertaining to see that the band are still touring 50 years later, albeit under the name Creedence Clearwater Revisited without John Fogerty, who - incidentally - also still performs. On and on they go. Apparently quite successfully: one review claims that at a recent concert he witnessed "timeless, historical music performed to perfection.."

Looking back, I have to say I'm not sure quite why I "liked" their music.  That said, I recognize that they had a unique sound and their hits like Susie Q, Willy and the Poor Boys, Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising, and more - a remarkable number of major hits in such a short time - are rightfully part of the pantheon of essential rock.

There must have been something to their success regardless of what Jon Landau's critique of their final album as "the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band". You can decide for yourself if it stands the test of time:

Sunday, July 9, 2017

On/ Off: Left Turn on a Red Light

Blackfoot: Left Turn on a Red Light


Our new theme is once again rich with possibilities, but it is surprisingly hard to research. A Google search I did for songs with “on” in the title yielded a list of songs that begin with the letter O. Songs with “off” produced similar results. Useful, but limited, and with a lot of items that are not relevant. It turns out that searching YouTube for phrases containing one of our keywords was far more helpful, which is how I got here.

This post is something of a goof for me, and I will get more serious as our theme progresses. I wanted to see if I could find a song that transitions from our Right theme into the new one, so I searched for “Right Turn on”. As you can see, it didn’t quite work. However, this song combines our actual theme with what I had guessed our theme would be. I thought we might go from Right to Left, which is why I couldn’t resist sharing this.

So, as to the song itself. I don’t think I had ever heard Blackfoot before I found this one. I had heard of them, but the name turned me off, because I thought they were a metal band. In fact, at least on this evidence, they were a southern rock band. This song is no Sweet Home Alabama, but it is a fine example of the genre. This one is from 1979. If it was released now, it would probably find a home on country radio. At the time, however, there was still a war going on between country purists and this upstart musical form. I can remember how horrified country music people were by the music of the Eagles, and this song probably would have been equally terrifying to them. Times have certainly changed, to the point that I would think someone could have a hit on country radio nowadays with a cover of this one.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Right: Tom Waits - Step Right Up

purchase [Step Right Up]

SMM has posted about Tom Waits in the past (link to those posts), but Step Right Up isn't one of them. The album from whence it appeared, Small Change, has so many of my favorite Waits' pieces that I could choose almost any one of them. The album comes from his darker days, likely influenced by the too many days on the road - with repeated references to the seamier side of life.

It wasn't just the man's gravel-ly voice that piqued my interest; it was partially the minimal musicality of that style (something as simple as a lone bass accompaniment) and partially his way of twisting a word half way through such that it changed meaning from what you thought it was going to say. The song is like a rap before rap was conceived and the words just go on an on and on - no 2 and half minute Beatles pop lyrics here!
it's effective, it's defective, it creates household odors,
It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection
It gives you an erection, it wins the election

Step Right Up is an indictment of commercialism/advertising and so it is informative that Waits has had to resort to the legal system to keep marketers at bay (see Frito Lay).

Incidentally, there's also a tribute to Waits album by the same name.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Right: Red Right Ankle

The Decemberists: Red Right Ankle

We’ve heard much about Right hands since this theme started, but not so much about other body parts. So, here’s one about a Red Right Ankle, from the Decemberists.

I’ve made it abundantly clear, both on this blog, and elsewhere, that I’m a big fan of the Decemberists, while acknowledging their penchant for pretentiousness, bombast and prominent use of words even too obscure for the SAT verbal.

Back in 2007, lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy was interviewed by the A.V. Club, and was asked:

AVC: You are known for writing novelistic lyrics about obscure historical figures. Have you ever been tempted to write about something more typical, like your girlfriend or something else in a personal vein? 

CM: I do write songs about my girlfriend. They just come out in different ways. Specifically, once we had a fight and she drove all the way to Vancouver to get away for the weekend, and I sat down and was like, "I'm going to write as many songs for her as I possibly can." "Red Right Ankle" came out of that, which was probably more of your typical "write a song about your girlfriend" song. 

So, “Red Right Ankle” is a song about Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, Carson Ellis, a book illustrator who also does the artwork for the Decemberists. And while it is a relatively simple song, and beautiful in that simplicity, Meloy cannot help himself but to refer to his beloved's  “muscle, bone and sinews,” a “gypsy uncle,” and a “hide-out in the Pyrenees.”

Because even in a love song, Meloy insists on the unexpected.

Right: Something So Right

Jeanne O’Connor: Something So Right


Something So Right can be called a classic song by Paul Simon. It has certainly been covered often enough. But I had a hard time finding a version that came close to what I hear in my head. That has everything to do with how records were produced in the 1970s. The song originally appeared on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. It started well enough, but soon the production starts to swell with unnecessary strings that I have always felt provide a level of artificial emotion that this song does not need. The genuine emotion in the writing should be enough. Even so, the song does need a small ensemble to move it along. So, Simon’s live version on Live Rhymin’ suffers from the opposite extreme. Here, Simon strips the song down to just voice and guitar, but now the song sounds desolate in a way that still does not do justice to the lyric. So I went in search of the perfect cover, a version that heard what I hear. Phoebe Snow’s version is marred by the pop-jazz arrangement that worked so beautifully for Poetry Man, but became a cliché for her. Annie Lennox did a cover years later that Simon blessed with his backing vocals and guitar playing, but here again I find the production overdone. There is a DVD of Paul Simon and Friends where Dianne Reaves takes the song and gives it a promising small band jazz reading, but Reaves loses her mind at the bridge, and falls into the trap of oversinging the song. I was afraid to even sample versions by Barbara Streisand and Celine Dion with the Muppets.

Finally, I stumbled upon this version by Jeanne O’Connor. I had not heard of her before, but by this time I knew the version I wanted would be by an indie artist. It would be someone who avoided the temptation to overproduce the song by the simple expedient of not having the budget to do so. This is a small ensemble jazz take, which suits the song well, but O’Connor keeps her voice under control. By not forcing things, she allows the emotion of Simon’s writing to shine through as it always should have. O’Connor’s vocal has enough heart to make the song completely convincing, but she does not impose her will on a song that is too fine to need that kind of help. There is still room for someone to record the perfect version of the song, perhaps with guitar and a small folk combo. But until that version is recorded or finds my ears, this will do nicely.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


Couldn't resist. Or at least I think I couldn't, but maybe not. Fate. Kismet. Call it what you will, it's all pre-destined, yeah? Maybe.

In keeping with my last posting, I thought I would again follow on the dextrous direction that began with red and was followed by the devil. In truth, I am not sure of what fate's right hand, or indeed left, might mean, or how they may differ, unless the former is the butter side up, the latter, butter side down. Indeed, is luck the same as fate? Is fate the same as luck? I am uncertain whether this metaphysical troubled Rodney Crowell much when writing the song. It just sorta sounds good, the lyric then being one of those stream of consciousness lists like Reasons to be Cheerful (right hand) or We Didn't Start the Fire (left hand), the words as important for their order and sound as their meaning, yet entirely also dependent thereupon. Clever, if confusing.

Rodney Crowell feels to have been around forever in my musical lifetime, first as the callow youth alongside Emmylou Harris in her Hot Band, writing the knock-out (and album stand-out) side one closer, Till' I Gain Control Again, on Elite Hotel. That was back in 1975, and he has kept on keeping on. Marrying into country royalty, becoming husband to Roseanne, daughter of Johnny, Cash in 1979, until 1992, will have done no harm either, but he was already successfully penning material for a range of significant other artists, including Bob Seger, as well as a roster of more typical country performers. Having had limited success with his solo records, he effectively put his career on hold to helm her own, writing much of the material and producing. In the 80's he hit his own paydirt, with a run of records that cemented his reputation. 1988's Diamonds and Dirt managed 5 (country) number ones alone. Here's one of 'em.

However, for me it is his later trio of recordings, starting with The Houston Kid, in 2001, that hold the strongest appeal. Biographical in style, I strongly commend these three, with Fate's Right Hand, containing the eponymous song of this piece, and The Outsider making up the triad, now commonly referred to as the Houston trilogy. This period of his life also produced his book, the commendable and likewise autobiographical Chinaberry Sidewalks: a Memoir, covering the same somewhat tumultuous childhood as do the songs. Wonderful stuff. Here's a song:

Into the last decade he has again teamed up with Emmylou Harris, producing a brace of duet albums and going on tour with her, still managing other output as well. This years Close Ties reveals him now to be an elder statesman, performing alongside ex-wife Cash and Sheryl Crow, amongst others. I have seen him twice within the last five years, once with Emmylou, and once as a featured singer with the celebrated Transatlantic Sessions, the show that brings together the best of scots/irish with american musicians, held every year over here in the UK. On both occasions he shone, the grittier counterpoint to Emmylou at the one, and an altogether americana tour de force at the other.

A final word, lest all this talk of country be off-putting. This isn't and never has been any saccharine "& western": his genre has always been in those slightly rougher roadhouses, where rockabilly meets western swing, leaving always room for a weeping steel barroom ballad, ahead of another rousing rocker. I'd like to shake his hand. Right hand.

Choose Rodney!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Right: Dr. John's Right Place, Wrong Time

purchase [Right Time, Wrong Place]

The Nite Tripper indeed. Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, better known as Dr. John has been making music since the late 50s- from time to time finding himself in the right place. The list of musicians he has worked with is so long that it is almost shorter to list those he hasn't played with at one time or another.

In '72, a year before he made a name for himself beyond being known as a great session player, he came out with Iko Iko. And then followed it up in '73 with "Right Time".

The lyrics for his classic <Right Place, Wrong Time> point out how close you can get and still miss the mark. Kind of like "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades". I appreciate the "brain salad surgery" reference to the Doctor's state of mind - which Emerson Lake & Palmer picked up on. And this phrase leads to my more favorite and related line: "refried confusion" . I also note the multiple references to missed opportunities such as "right vein... wrong arm" and "right road ... wrong car". And yes, Dr John has been clean since the 80s, before when he was definitely on the wrong path.

The song is such a classic that you'll find a number of friends performing it with the man himself.

There's a pleasantly informative interview done by SongFacts that will give you some additional perspective.

with Johnny Winter:

with Eric Clapton:

Friday, June 30, 2017

Right: Night Time is the Right Time

Ray Charles: Night Time is the Right Time


Aretha Franklin: Night Time is the Right Time


Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas: Night Time is the Right Time


Count Basie and Big Joe Turner: Night Time is the Right Time


R&B, the musical genre, bears no resemblance today to its origin as Rhythm and Blues. In particular, all traces of actual blues have been scrubbed out of today’s R&B. But it was not always this way, and Night Time is the Right Time is a perfect song to make the point. The earliest recorded version of the song was a midtempo blues by Roosevelt Sykes in 1937. From there, many other blues artists of the day recorded their versions, with varying lyrics and moods. Nappy Brown added the background singers, and chose the lyrics we know now in 1957. But it was Ray Charles the following year who created the version that has become the starting point for any subsequent versions. Normally, when you perform the song, you are covering Ray Charles in some way, at that is certainly the case with all of the versions I have chosen. Charles sped up Nappy Brown’s version, giving the song the feel it has now.

Aretha Franklin takes the song and turns it into a piano blues, but her vocal line reveals her roots in gospel. It is a combination that has real power. Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas showcase the state of Rhythm and Blues in 1964 with their version, and show how the song can work as a duet. Finally, in 1974, there is this wonderful take by Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. Basie and Turner go way back. They often worked together during the big band era, with a full band behind them. But, in 1974, such artists who were even still around were working with much smaller groups. Basie and Turner did not fight that here. The album this is from featured a four piece horn section, but they are not heard on this track. Instead, Basie and Turner offer a stripped down version that takes the song back to its blues roots.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I don't know what colour the devil's right hand may be, but it would not surprise me if it were, too, red, what with what he has in it, as the theme moves to another right hand. (And there are a few other right hands out there, should the rest of the team choose to follow.....)

The song, 'Devil's Right Hand', written by Steve Earle in the very early 80's, yet appearing first on 1989's 'Copperhead Road', down to an earlier record label owning the rights to it, on an album they never released. So already typically part of the Earle paradigm of paradox, luck never quite in step with his profligate writing talents. And, since then, much as Earle's fortunes have changed in every which way, down, up and sideways, so the song has morphed with him, appearing in many styles and with, often, subtle symbolic shifts in the lyric.  It was still his encore when I saw him live last year.

At face value it is a simple and almost traditional folk ballad, warning of the dangers of gunplay. Earle himself fought initially shy of citing it an overt anti-firearms/anti-handgun song. But, at at time when his own private life was under some federal scrutiny, there came a surprising life imitates art moment.  I will let Earle take up the tale:

And I make no bones about including a 3rd version, this time the re-recording for the 'Brokeback Mountain'. Why a re-recording? It seems there was some disquietude in having a film set between 1963 and 1983 featuring a song (nominally) from after that time. This faster version is designed to be in the style of relevant time period. (And you thought filmmakers just slap any old song in to fit a mood, with neither thought nor consistency! Well, of course most do......)

With a song of this sort, a message with a moral, a good ol' tale of ornery folk, it has been hardly surprising that it has been much covered by the great and the good, with the royalty of country outlaw chic leading the way. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings have each performed it separately, as well as together, in tandem with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, as the Highwaymen. Webb Wilder, Bob Seger and, english folk giants, Show of Hands (not on youtube), have also done the song proud. (Strangely, and I cannot quite see why, youtube shows me that not a few white supremacist bands have taken it up. I had never quite seen them on that side of the gun lobby, not least as I might be reasonably happy to see them all shoot themselves up, but I digress...)

Devil's Right Hand, buy it and make him one-handed!! Even more versions than featured here!!!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Right: Red Right Hand

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand
[purchase the album]
[purchase Seasons 1-3 of Peaky Blinders]

Sometimes, a song seems to have been written for a specific event, but it turns out to be a coincidence. I remember just after 9/11, at least three songs were being played on the radio that appeared to relate to the attack—Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” with its references to tall buildings shaking, skyscrapers scraping together and smoke, Afro-Celt Sound System and Peter Gabriel’s “When You’re Falling,” with its references to falling off of buildings through smoke and clouds, and Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York,” which sounds like a love song to the devastated city. But each of these songs was written before the attack and have nothing to do with it (the Ryan Adams song is actually a love song to a city resident, and the video was shot 4 days before, and includes shots of the World Trade Center).

Which is a long way around saying that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ song, “Red Right Hand,” sounds like it was written specifically to be the theme song for the BBC TV show, Peaky Blinders, but, in fact, was written two decades earlier.

For those of you who are living under a rock, or under an outdated belief that television sucks, it is currently the age of “Peak TV,” where there is just so much great stuff available to watch, on streaming platforms, cable, and even on broadcast TV, that it is literally impossible to see everything good. A few years ago, my friend Tom suggested that I watch Peaky Blinders, a show about a Romani/Irish gang run by the Shelby family in Birmingham, England, after World War I, and I decided to give it a try. The Peaky Blinders gang, which actually existed, supposedly derived their name from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peak of their flat caps to use as weapons, but that story may be apocryphal.

I was hooked, immediately. The central character, Tommy Shelby, a damaged, decorated veteran, is ambitious, ruthless and apparently fearless. His goal appears to be to consolidate the family power, then to expand their influence to London, and maybe further. As is common in such stories, such as The Godfather, or Boardwalk Empire (to which it is often compared), there is a plan to begin to move toward engaging in legitimate business, which turns out to never be as easy as it seems. They are opposed not only by other criminal gangs, but also by the authorities, who want to both use the Blinders for their own agenda, while ultimately bringing them down. This ambiguity includes an uneasy relationship with Winston Churchill.

The show is, often, over the top, with choreographed and hyper-dramatic scenes of violence and mayhem, but it is also a family drama, as Tommy needs to deal with his brothers and other gang members, a headstrong sister who ran off with a Marxist, and his aunt, who ran the gang while the men were off at war, and still wields substantial power. There are, of course, love interests and interactions with Downton Abbey-esque nobility, Italian and Jewish gangsters, and IRA fighters.

In any event, Tommy Shelby, as played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is one scary motherfucker. And “Red Right Hand,” describes

A tall handsome man 
In a dusty black coat with 
A red right hand 

The rest of the lyrics describe this man as terrifying, mysterious and dangerous:

You'll see him in your nightmares 
You'll see him in your dreams 
He'll appear out of nowhere but 
He ain't what he seems 

Not to mention the fact that the music, as is typical for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, is eerie and filled with foreboding. It sets a perfect tone for the show, and the song, and other Cave songs, are used throughout the series to great effect. There have been three seasons, so far, with two more promised.

But, as I said, the song was released in 1994, when Cillian Murphy was playing in rock bands, two years before he got his first acting gig. Prior to Peaky Blinders, the song was used in a number of films, including Dumb and Dumber, and the Scream franchise, and in an episode of The X-Files. It has even been used by the South Australian Tourist Board for a commercial campaign.

I have to admit that before watching the show, I was no fan of Cave. And I still don’t love all of his music—some of it is just too dark and strange for me. But Peaky Blinders turned me on to “Red Right Hand,” and other songs of his that I’ve grown to love.