Song of the Day: Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time (July 3, 2021)
A lovely performance of a lovely song, beautifully recorded a few years ago on the Australian iteration of the Idol franchise, at the conclusion of Lauper’s appearance as a guest judge.* There’s something especially magical about the complete sympathy that can develop between musicians, and one of the great pleasures of this rendition is watching Cyndi and her unnamed co-performer reach something akin to symbiosis, his work on the acoustic serving as a sort of combined lead and bass guitar compliment to Cyndi’s rhythm chords on the Appalachian dulcimer, her latter-day signature instrument. I’ve been searching the internet all day, trying to find out who he is, and whether, as it seems here, he and Lauper were longtime collaborators.
Time after Time was co-written with Rob Hyman for her spectacular 1983 debut album, She’s So Unusual, which sold umpteen millions during its 96 week run on the charts (65 0f them in the top 40), and included six different songs that made it on to the Hot 100, including this one, which became her first Billboard number 1. She never burned quite so brightly again, but over the decades her reputation has soared, and Time After Time in particular has come to be regarded as one of the modern era’s great love ballads, amassing a remarkable breadth of accolades, which you can read about here:
Still, whenever Lauper comes up, the conversation seems to turn to the supposed mystery of why she never made it as big as Madonna, who appeared at around the same time, and looked at the outset to be the inferior talent. Well, not a lot of performers were ever as big as Madonna, but it’s hardly as if Cyndi was a failure, not with 50 million album sales and an awards cabinet that displays not just a couple of Grammys, but an Emmy and a Tony as well. The odd thing about her was that all appearances to the contrary, Lauper was a serious musician who wanted to make music for its own sake, prevailing trends be damned, and she wasn’t all that concerned with mega-stardom, or willing to do the things women have to do if they want to reach the sort of heights to which the almost pathologically driven Madonna manifestly aspired from the outset (and that’s no knock against Madonna, whose sheer drive and enormous talent have for decades been a thing to behold). Anyway, so what? I find the whole discussion irritating – does anybody ever look at the career of, say, Randy Newman, and say “yeah, but he was never as big as Springsteen”?
Have another listen to Time After Time. Cyndi accomplished plenty, and surely that’s enough.
*There was a lot of commentary in the local press about Cyndi’s apparent dismay with the regular judges; bless her heart, she thought they were harsh to the point of cruelty, and kept jumping in to contradict their criticisms and offer encouragement to the poor saps on stage.
Song of the Day: Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street (June 5, 2021)
Who hasn’t dragged their tired soul home after long days of pounding the pavement in pursuit of some dream; when everything has been tried, everyone talked to, everything possible done, your very best, most complete shots taken… yet still there are no takers? Such moments can be incredibly discouraging and depressing. They can also be cathartic.
Nancy Wilson, discussing the emotions stirred by Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, 2018
The greatest riff in pop music history might not be Keith Richards’s guitar part from Satisfaction, and might not even be a guitar part at all, whichever your nominee might be. There’s a good argument that it’s actually the instantly captivating, infinitely memorable, and manifestly immortal saxophone line performed on Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 mega-hit Baker Street by little-known (and wonderfully named) session player Raphael Ravenscroft, who claimed to have composed it himself (early demos prove him wrong on that score), said he was paid for his efforts with a union scale 27 pound cheque that bounced (dubious), and always insisted rather sourly in public that it was almost unlistenable, telling one interviewer I’m irritated because it’s out of tune. Yeah, it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best. According to most knowledgable sources it’s neither terribly inventive nor especially difficult for any competent saxophonist to play, and evidence suggests that anyway Rafferty might have nicked it, from an earlier 1968 Jazz/Rock fusion recording called Half a Heart, performed in 1968 by virtual unknown Steve Marcus. The theft allegation is made plausible by the eerie similarity between the two, yet rendered equally implausible by the near certainty that UK resident Rafferty could never have heard the obscure American record, which moved maybe 1,000 copies in its own market, wasn’t sold at all in Great Britain, received absolutely no airplay anywhere, and wasn’t noticed by anybody until well after Baker Street emerged. Have a listen:
Songwriting credit for Half a Heart is widely attributed to vibraphonist and sometime composer Gary Burton, who’s gone back and forth on whether the resemblance between the two riffs could be pure coincidence, sometimes saying yes, because the older record was so obscure, sometimes thinking no, because they’re so similar, while also wondering why anybody’s asking him about it, seeing as he certainly wasn’t the composer. He’d remember something like that, right? So a bit of a mystery endures, and remains a lively topic of discussion on the internet among those (mostly pedants like me!) who like to discuss such things. You can read all about it here in this article in the Atlantic:
Whatever. Maybe it’s simple, technically unimpressive, and even plagiarized – there’s still something about it, isn’t there? I’ve never known anybody who doesn’t respond to it. Whatever the context, Baker Street cuts right through the background noise. People always want you to turn it up.
I’ve always found it odd that what strikes me as a rather moody, dark, and bluesy number, one boasting some scorching guitar work to boot, is universally classified as a “soft rock classic”, or, as they refer to the genre these days, “yacht rock”. Really? It doesn’t sound all that soft and yacht-worthy to me, not musically, and certainly not lyrically either, being, as it is, an account of a stumbling drunk’s depressed late night ramble down London’s legendary street, feeling beaten, directionless, and uncomfortably self-aware:
Winding your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well, another crazy day
You’ll drink the night away
And forget about ev’rything
This city desert makes you feel so cold
It’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul
And it’s taken you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it held everything
You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re tryin’, you’re tryin’ now
Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now
I don’t know about you, but I’m not up for lumping that in with Margaritaville and the Pina Colada Song, neither of which would in any case be getting much play on my yacht, even if I owned the sort of vessel a more benevolent Cosmos would have long since gifted a deservingly agreeable fellow like me.
Baker Street is purely autobiographical. Rafferty, always notoriously dismayed by the cutthroat aspects of the music business, was embroiled at the time in legal battles over contractual recording obligations (a hangover from his stint as frontman of the group Stealer’s Wheel, whose hit Stuck in the Middle With You was one of the musical highlights of a generally lacklustre 1973), feeling angry, depressed, and drinking heavily. The song recounts the aftermath of one of his many visits to London to meet with the bloody lawyers, and his subsequent visit to an old buddy’s flat, where he could take a little break for a while, have a few laughs, and try to focus on something else. This is from the website Songfacts:
The song was the Scottish singer’s first release after the resolution of legal problems surrounding the acrimonious breakup of his band Stealers Wheel in 1975. In the intervening three years, Rafferty had been unable to release any material due to disputes about the band’s remaining contractual recording obligations, and his friend’s Baker Street flat was a convenient place to stay as he tried to extricate himself from his Stealers Wheel contracts. Rafferty explained to Martin Chilton at the Daily Telegraph: “Everybody was suing each other, so I spent a lot of time on the overnight train from Glasgow to London for meetings with lawyers. I knew a guy who lived in a little flat off Baker Street. We’d sit and chat or play guitar there through the night.”
The legal problems were eventually resolved, but the drinking and depression remained, and I’m sorry to report that Rafferty died relatively young in 2011, aged only 63 (which no longer sounds anywhere near as ancient as I’d like), his liver and kidneys both shot from decades of boozing. He’d long since given up on making music or capitalizing on his earlier successes, and didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass, having even, at one point, turned down a chance to tour with Paul McCartney. He didn’t die a pauper, if that’s any comfort; right to the end, Baker Street was earning him a nice pension of about 80,000 pounds a year (approx. $US 125,000), and must still be raking in the royalties for somebody, one hopes his ex-wife Carla, who finally couldn’t live with him any longer, as his demons overtook him and his behaviour turned disturbing and erratic, but by all accounts never stopped caring. “There was no hope”, she said later. “I would never have left him if there’d been a glimmer of a chance of him recovering”. Listen to Baker Street, and you can hear it all coming.
Yacht rock, my big squishy backside.
Song of the Day: Marc Cohn – Walking in Memphis (June 6, 2021)
As long as we’re talking about great riffs that weren’t played on guitars, how about the piano work in Walking in Memphis, which lent the song a distinctive sort of Bruce Springsteen-meets-Bruce Hornsby feel when it was released, and thirty years on still sounds a little different from anything else on the radio. It was the standout cut on Cohn’s eponymous 1991 debut album (which won him a Best New Artist Grammy), and told the true story of a journey taken years earlier to the city that was one of the wellsprings of the Delta Blues, as well as the home of the legendary Sun Studio, which Cohn aimed to visit along with other real yet mythical locales like Graceland, the tacky mansion where Elvis lived out his fantasies, and Beale Street, immortalized in the blues classic by the legendary W.C. Handy – the sort of trip that for many American musicians would amount to a religious pilgrimage. There was a little actual religion, too; Cohn also made a point of visiting the church where soul singer Al Green had taken up preaching as a Reverend, and took in a sermon.
Later, after walking the streets for a while, Beale Street especially, he headed home, up Highway 61 and into Mississippi, where he had the encounter that inspired him to compose the song, in a little roadside diner/cafe that caught his eye called Hollywood, of all the things to name an utterly unglamorous little joint sitting in the middle of the impoverished boondocks of pretty much the poorest state in the Union. Inside, an aged black piano player named Muriel Wilkins, who’d obviously been a regular at the place for years, was performing spirituals and old standards, and there was something about her – maybe Cohn simply admired the skill of a fellow musician, but you get the sense that it was something else, that he felt drawn to her at some sub-conscious level. When she took a break between sets, he approached her to strike up a conversation, and they hit it off. He wound up telling the sympathetic 70 year-old the bulk of his life story, really spilling his guts about how he was a struggling performer, how he lost his parents young, his Dad when he was 12, his Mom at only 2, and bless her heart, Muriel listened – really listened. As Cohn told Q magazine in 1992:
She was real curious, she seemed to have some kind of intuition about me, and I ended up telling her about my family, my parents, how I was a musician looking for a record deal, the whole thing. Then, it must have been about two in the morning, she asks me up to sing with her and we do about an hour, me and this lady I’d never met before, hardly a song I knew, so she’s yelling the words at me. Then at the end, as the applause is rising up, she leans over and whispers in my ear, she’s whispering, “You’ve got to let go of your mother, child, she didn’t mean to die, she’s where she’s got to be and you’re where you have to be, child, it’s time to move on.”
In the song, she asks him if he’s a Christian child, and he answers “Ma’am, I am tonight”.
Now that’s a hell of nice story, isn’t it? Heck, it’s downright inspirational, and steeped in the sort of mythical quality one expects from tales about finding your muse along the dusty roads of the Old South (plus it’s way more uplifting than the one in which Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan at the crossroads).
Cohn kept in touch with Muriel, and she attended his wedding before she passed on, about a year before Walking in Memphis was released. You can’t help but wish she’d lived to hear it.
Walking in Memphis wasn’t the only good thing on the album – I’m a big fan of Ghost Train, the very next track on Side 1 – and two others, Silver Thunderbird and True Companion, made it on to the charts. Unfortunately, with that, Cohn peaked commercially, but he’s kept on making records, and I’m thinking I should check them out, and for that matter, revisit his debut.
The Hollywood, named not after Tinsel Town but Hollywood, Mississippi, still stands, and is, it turns out, a legendary place, which you can read about here if you’re interested:
Song of the Day: Jennifer Warnes – It Goes Like It Goes (June 10, 2021)
This beautiful, extraordinarily delicate little piece, voiced by the great Jennifer Warnes, played in its entirety over the opening credits of Norma Rae, which dramatized the struggles of labour amid the appalling working conditions in the old textile mills of the American South. It always sounded to me more like something composed by Stephen Foster than anything on the charts in 1979, and my first impression was that it had to be the work of Randy Newman – who but he could conjure something so mournfully evocative, echoing the musical traditions of another era? – but it was actually written by David Shire, a prominent film composer of the day, with an assist from lyricist Norman Gimbel. The song’s simple message, that there’s nothing special about the average person’s story, you’re born is all, then you work hard all your life until you grow old, wasn’t calculated to put a goofy smile on your face and a spring in your step, but then, neither was the movie, based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a textile worker who led union organizing efforts in one of the mills in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The famous scene that everybody remembers, in which Norma Rae defiantly makes her stand on a worktable in the middle of the shop, wasn’t Hollywood fiction. That’s exactly what Sutton did, and it went down just as portrayed in the film. These are Sutton’s own words:
I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet…
Then, just like in the movie, the cops came to drag her away in handcuffs.
The battle was won, the plant got its union, and things got better for a while, but then the jobs started to move off shore. The J.P. Stevens factory where Sutton worked closed in 2003, and so have hundreds of others, all over the Carolinas and throughout the United States. While the domestic manufacture of textiles has rebounded a bit in recent years, this hasn’t meant much for the labour force; these days the robots do the work, and at last count only about half a million people are employed in the entire industry. The jobs aren’t ever coming back.
It’s not entirely clear how we should feel about that. Those mill jobs were terrible, dehumanizing, and never paid all that much, unions or not. Yet people need to put food on the table, and hustling around while a computer cracks the whip in the Amazon warehouse – sorry, fulfillment center – isn’t a whole hell of a lot better. One way or another, seems like, the rich keep getting richer, and the ordinary folk keep working their lives away for wages that barely make ends meet, always one paycheque away from being out on the street, without even a couple of hundred bucks in the bank in case the tired old car blows a gasket, or, God forbid, somebody needs to go to the doctor. It goes like it goes, and people hang on by their fingernails, maybe believing, like the song says, that you never know, some things along the way might get a little bit better.
Maybe so, if somebody can get get that sumbitch Joe Manchin on board.
It Goes Like it Goes won the Oscar for best song, and Sally Field won for Best Actress.
Song of the Day: Chris Collingwood – You Can Come Round if You Want To (June 15, 2021)
Just a sweet, tuneful, gentle little song by the other half of my beloved Fountains of Wayne songwriting team. After the break-up, Collingwood recorded the solo record Look Park, named after a favourite public green space back in his home town of Northampton, Massachusetts, on which You Can Come Round If You Want To was one of he highlights. It has a wistful, innocent quality that leads one to imagine the narrator as a not very successful, not terribly ambitious, but compassionate and utterly guileless sort of fellow, maybe a little lonely, but determined to deal with it all as best as he can, and mindful of what he’s got, when so many have so much less. Yeah, he’s just barely getting by, with the bank on the phone to remind him that he doesn’t really own anything he thinks he owns – So many bills to pay, so many bills, he sings – but hey, it’s OK:
And when the power goes out or the cable is broken
I’ll tell you every story I know
How we complain and find fault where there ain’t none
When some people got nowhere to go
Maybe he can’t scrape enough together this month to pay the cable bill, but it could be worse, right?
A little company would be nice, though.
Song of the Day: Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced? (July 20, 2021)
He made the electric guitar beautiful. It had always been dangerous, it had always been able to evoke anger. If you go right back to the beginning of it, John Lee Hooker shoving a microphone into his guitar back in the 1940s, it made his guitar sound angry, impetuous, and dangerous. The guitar players who worked through the Fifties and with the early rock artists — James Burton, who worked with Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, Steve Cropper with Booker T. — these Nashville-influenced players had a steely, flick-knife sound, really kind of spiky compared to the beautiful sound of the six-string acoustic being played in the background. In those great early Elvis songs, you hear Elvis himself playing guitar on songs like “Hound Dog,” and then you hear an electric guitar come in, and it’s not a pleasant sound. Early blues players, too — Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert King — they did it to hurt your ears. Jimi made it beautiful and made it OK to make it beautiful.
Pete Townshend, one of the greatest ever to wield a guitar, had this reaction upon first seeing Jimi Hendrix play in a London nightclub called Blazes, back in 1966: I need to find something else to do for a living. Later, at the legendary Bag O’Nails club, Hendrix insinuated himself on stage to out-do Eric Clapton, then playing with the “super-group” Cream, who was taken aback – shocked and frightened, truth to tell – by the American’s supernatural talent. Graffiti all over London attested that Clapton was God, so what did that make Hendrix? Everybody flocked to see him, the entire pantheon, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, Eric Burdon, John Mayall, and of course Pete, all of whom quickly came to the settled conclusion, from which none of them ever wavered, that Hendrix was the greatest guitar player who ever lived, or ever would live. It wasn’t just the raw skill, it was the sinuous assuredness of his artistry, the obvious joy he took in the performance, the way he could do things holding the thing behind his head that nobody else could do no matter how carefully they cradled the damned guitar, all of it without seeming to boast or show off in any way. It was just what he did, which doing had a way of making everybody else in the trade feel like a bit of poser, to the point that it left those who’d built their fame on their reputations as guitar maestros not merely rattled, but almost abashed. At the famous Monterey festival in 1967, Townshend was desperate that the Who not follow Hendrix, since you simply couldn’t follow Hendrix, and according to legend the matter was decided by a coin toss, which Pete won (many years later, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful dead said that either way, this left him in the most unenviable position in concert history, having to appear between the Who and Hendrix, Townshend and the boys smashing their instruments like madmen, Hendrix later setting fire to his guitar, “and in the middle there’s us going ‘pling pling pling'”). End of the day, though, maybe it wasn’t so great to precede Hendrix either.
He only had time to record three albums in his all too brief career, Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. The first of these might just be the greatest debut album in pop music history, presenting an artist fully formed and capable of extraordinary feats of both playing and composition, and its title track remains one of the most powerful and musically sophisticated artifacts of the psychedelic era. This is from Wikipedia:
Hendrix historians Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek have praised “Are You Experienced?” as “a majestic setpiece of declamatory anthem rock”:
Mitch [Mitchell]’s military snare raps out behind the startlingly contemporary hip-hop scratch sound-effects of tapes running backwards punctuating Jimi’s condition for being your guide (‘If you can get your mind together’). To what? Sexual ecstasy? Altered states of consciousness? Or just finding yourself, taking time out to view what you’re doing from the outside, ‘from the bottom of the sea’, letting go of the daily grind of the ‘measly world’. It is all there for the taking. The secret is being at peace with yourself – ‘not necessarily stoned, but beautiful’.
The overall effect was fantastic, though, one feels almost churlish in noting, the track is obviously the product of some very attentive listening to contemporary tracks by the Beatles, in particular Rain, I’m Only Sleeping, Tomorrow Never Knows, and Strawberry Fields Forever, in which can be heard virtually every musical device incorporated by Hendrix, including the martial snare drumming, the backwards guitar solos, the “scratch sound effects”, and the false ending. Even the insistent hammering on a single piano note has an echo in the coda to Strawberry Fields. What remains obvious is that Hendrix, in adopting these devices, was no mere imitator, and Are You Experienced is certainly no mere Beatles knock-off (in fact, so vast was Jimi’s talent, and so respected was he among his peers, that Lennon and McCartney were probably chuffed at the compliment; Paul, certainly, has always delighted in telling the story of going to see Hendrix and hearing him play the title track from Sgt. Pepper just a few days after it was released). Among all the amazing recordings he produced in the short time he was with us, from his apocalyptic take on Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, to the frantic, heavier-than-heavy-metal grind of Crosstown Traffic, to the beautifully nuanced and laid back artistry of The Wind Cries Mary, nothing else displays quite the level of artistic confidence, or has quite the emotional impact, of Are You Experienced? It still feels visionary.
Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have. There’s something about the way he sings those lines, sounding both sly and playful, yet also in genuine possession of some profound knowledge that eludes the listener. He’s just talking about being high on whatever it is the drug-addled lunatics are ingesting these days, scoffed the establishment, and they were probably at least partly right. At the height of the Sixties, a lot of people believed that substances like LSD were opening their minds in a host of positive ways, leading them not into a false and dangerous world of incoherent and meaningless hallucination, but to an exalted plateau of cosmic truth. Maybe Hendrix did too. Yet, falling under the sway of the music, it’s hard not to feel that he’s getting at something else, like he really did know something we didn’t, something about how to see the beauty of it all without needing the chemical assistance.
Whatever that may have been, it seems not to have been enough. Maybe it was just a stupid miscalculation, maybe something else, but by 1970, when he was just 27, he was gone, the victim of barbiturates, having decided to swallow 18 times the recommended dose of the sleeping pills that had been prescribed for girlfriend Monika Dannemann. The sheer, pointless waste of it, and of the lives of so many others like him, provokes a sort of bewildered, disappointed anger. He wasn’t finished. He’d barely begun. Didn’t he understand? Wasn’t it obvious that he was supposed to stick around? So often, it seems, we’re left with the same baffled questions, the what-ifs, and the thoughts of what could have been, if only.
Song of the Day: Kathleen Edwards – Westby (July 23, 2021)
This is from her debut album, Failer, released in 2003 (she’d previously made a six song EP that was pressed to to the tune of about 500 copies). The record established her as one of the most authentically earthy writers on the scene, penning astute and insightful little short stories and character studies wrapped in catchy tunes that beguile to the point that you almost miss the acid sentiments in the lyrics. She’s never one to apply the sugarcoating, and a lot of her songs convey a sort of school-of-hard-knocks sensibility, hinting, perhaps, at the clinical depression that’s sometimes knocked her back on her heels. After a painful break-up in 2012, she quit making music for a while, and opened up a coffee shop called Quitters in the little town of Stittsville, just outside Ottawa. Now and then, a customer from out of town would wander in to tell her that her music had helped her through hard times, or changed his life, and eventually, lucky for us, the urge to get back to playing and composing returned. Her latest album, Total Freedom, was released last year to strong reviews. She still owns Quitters, though (always a good idea to have a fallback), and during the pandemic she and her band used it as a recording studio.
Westby is about a young woman losing her virginity to an older (one senses much older) man in a cheap motel, and she feels neither proud nor dirty, it just is what it is. She muses that if he wasn’t so old, she might even keep him, might even introduce him to all her friends, but here’s the thing:
I don’t think your wife would like my friends.
After he falls asleep, she channel surfs for a while, then steals his watch on the way out. Here, There, and Everywhere, this ain’t.
If Westby is your cup of tea, you’re bound to like Six O’Clock News, another standout track from Failer:
Just another happy-go-lucky number, this time about a loser gunned down in the street in front of his pregnant girlfriend. My kind of tune! Enjoy!
Song of the Day: Dusty Springfield – Son of a Preacher Man (August 3, 2021)
Amen, Ms. Hoffs.
Dusty may not have invented “blue-eyed soul”, a term coined by a Philadelphia DJ to describe the Righteous Brothers, but with Dusty in Memphis, an album that invariably lands itself on critics’ Best of All Time lists, she sure as hell perfected it. After a career singing straightforward pop tunes, including such hits as Bacharach/David’s catchy (but in hindsight rather chauvanist) Wishin’ & Hopin’, Dusty landed herself a contract with Atlantic Records, then one of America’s leading R&B labels, and found herself in a recording studio in Tennessee, surrounded by some of the best session players and most highly sought-after back-up vocalists in the business, including a female vocal quartet out of New York, the Sweet Inspirations, founded by Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother. Magic ensued. The resulting album didn’t do all that well, actually (shades of Pet Sounds), but Son of a Preacher Man cracked the Top 10, before vanishing for a while from the public consciousness. I remember liking it a lot when I was a kid, back in 1969, but had forgotten all about it until it was used by Quentin Tarentino in Pulp Fiction, as the soundtrack to the quirky scene in which Travolta’s character first encounters Uma Thurman as a disembodied voice speaking at him over the intercom, before the hysterical events of their highly eventful night out kick off. Everybody’s reaction upon viewing that scene was pretty much the same: oh, yeah, Son of a Preacher Man, cool, I remember that one…damn, it’s good, isn’t it? The Pulp Fiction soundtrack sold several million copies, and Dusty had a lot to do with that.
Lots of people have recorded covers of the tune, including the great Aretha Franklin (herself the daughter of a preacher), for whom it was originally composed by songwriters John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, but who turned it down as “disrespectful”, likely having intuited what it was, exactly, that only the preacher’s boy was able to do for the narrator (you get right down to it, this song is, well, kind of filthy – sly about it, but delightfully, joyously, downright dirty by the standards of the day). Not even Aretha, though, can outshine Dusty, not on this one. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Susanna.
Song of the Day: John Mellencamp – Key West Intermezzo (August 10, 2021)
Seems to me that Mellencamp never quite got his due, though he had a great deal of commercial success in the eighties and nineties. Maybe it’s because he started out as “Johnny Cougar” (hey, at least it wasn’t Little Johnny Cougar), and transitioned through being John Cougar Mellencamp before the branding exercise ended with the simple use of his real name, making him seem a bit inauthentic. Maybe it’s because he was always being compared, unfairly and usually unfavourably, to Springsteen. Maybe it’s on account of his early songs seeming a little facile (though be honest, who doesn’t like Jack and Diane, however guilty the pleasure?). Damn, though, he could write a song when he put his mind to it, and as the years went on, and he suffered through a heart attack at only age 42, he changed, matured, stopped swinging for the fences with big, arena-friendly anthems, and started writing interesting little stories and character studies. Key West Intermezzo, an extremely well played, tightly constructed, deftly arranged, and beautifully produced little gem about nothing more grandiose than a couple of buddies out on the town on a hot summer night, strikes me as his best. Mellencamp and co-writer George Green supply the quirky little details with a light, wryly perceptive touch: the loud Cuban band at the Flamingo, “crucifying John Lennon”; the inevitable gorgeous girl spotted across the bar, stirring the ice in her drink “with an elegant finger”, while the narrator looks balefully at her well-heeled boyfriend and thinks man, what’s she doin’ with him; his buddy, Gypsy Scotty, spinning a yarn about some girl he knew back in Kentucky, but c’mon, he just made that story up – there ain’t no girl like that; the wan sunlight of an early Florida morning making for “a bone-coloured dawn”; there’s a cinematic feel to it. You feel like you know these guys, like you’ve hung out with guys just like them your whole life.
It’s a good feeling, even acknowledging the rueful observation that yeah, she might have caught your eye first, but you can’t just call dibs on the attentions of that girl over there, the one everybody’s noticed by now, who’s surely going to come and go having never looked your way at all. Nothing for it, I guess, but to lean on your buddies and push on ‘til dawn.
Song of the Day: Unkle – Heaven (August 14, 2021)
For some reason I have a weakness for hypnotic techno-pop, which maybe you don’t share, on top of which a video of a bunch of scruffy skateboarders doing their thing in slow motion might not seem, at first blush, worth much of your time, but wait for it; this was directed by the great Spike Jonze, whose work over the years on music videos has been fascinating, funny, innovative, and sometimes downright ground-breakingly visionary. This one takes a turn when, after a bunch of the usual stunts, nothing new or shocking (though executed brilliantly), dude skates his ass straight through what seems to be a concrete wall, and it gets more, er, explosive from there. The juxtaposition of the rhythmically low-key, trance-like audio with the pyrotechnics as these professional boarders seem to be close to getting themselves killed amid action movie-style blasts of fire and shrapnel is really quite jarring, and thoroughly fascinating – in a way, the movement of these guys through the slow motion explosions is just as mesmerizing as the music.
Musically, this reminds me a bit of U2’s Bad, off Unforgettable Fire.
The footage is distilled from the movie Fully Flared, also directed by Jonze (in collaboration withTy Evans), documenting the unparalleled prowess of the Lakai skateboarding team.
Song of the Day: The Breeders – Cannonball (august 16, 2021)
Oh what fun!
For just a moment there in the early 1990s, the Breeders, formed in 1989 by Kim Deal, the bassist for The Pixies, and Tanya Donelly, singer-guitarist for Throwing Muses, were everybody’s indie rock darlings. Their album Last Splash went platinum, propelled along by Cannonball, which somehow only made it to number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was featured in heavy rotation on MTV and VH1 in the quirky, joyous garage band video attached above, co-directed by Spike Jonze. This left a vivid impression, on both the critics and the slice of the demographic that really loves tight, energetic pop music, that still lingers. Has there ever been a more infectious groove? It just rolls along with authority, don’t it? The lyrics, meanwhile, are deliberately and playfully silly, in the finest rock & roll tradition:
I know you, little libertine
I know you’re a cannonball
I’ll be your whatever you want
The bong in this reggae song
…the reference to reggae arising from Kim Deal’s sense that she’d written something that crossed Caribbean rhythms with grunge music, to which she applied the provisional title Grunggae, imagining it to be an oddity with limited commercial appeal. Interviewed in Mojo in 2013, she said “Did we record a song that opened with me saying, ‘Check 1-2,’ and then loads of vocal feedback from my brother’s harmonica mike, and think, ‘This is destined for radio?’ That was the sort of thing that didn’t get you played on the radio then. We thought no one would play it.” Geez, really Kim? To my ears, from the very start, with drummer Jim McPherson tapping out a clever rhythm on the cymbal stand just before the bass kicks in, this thing had “winner” written all over it. The way it alternates between the mellower, harmonious verses and the raucous chorus, that irresistible hey now, the bass work, the urgent drumming, the sudden, decisive ending, wrapping it all up before you’ve had enough – that, folks, is how you do that. It’s actually incomprehensible how it only made it to #44 – what the hell do people want out of a pop tune, anyway, if this isn’t it? – and I wonder how many of the songs above it on the charts rate any mention today.
Oh, and you’re right if you think the woman behind Kim on guitar looks confusingly similar. It’s not a CGI trick or anything. That’s twin sister Kelly.
Song of the Day: Neil Young – Heart of Gold (August 19, 2021)
At top, another terrific concert video from BBC 4, bless ’em. Somebody should put together a collection. I’d buy it!
The songs for Young’s Harvest, his 1972 breakthrough album, were written when Neil was in a downbeat and contemplative frame of mind, recovering from a back injury that made it hard for him to do anything much except sit still and play his acoustic guitar. He literally was unable to stand bearing the weight of his favoured Les Paul electric. So, very well, sitting quietly was the order of the day, and songs that reflected his unusually subdued circumstances flowed naturally. “I didn’t know what else to do”, he said, as if his sort of creative process was simply an inevitable product of boredom. In the result he wound up with the raw material for what became the highest-selling album of 1972 (beating out stiff competition from, among others, the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and Simon and Garfunkle’s Greatest Hits ), and his first and thus far only Number 1 single, today’s selection.
Harvest also included the classics Old Man and Needle and the Damage Done, which, along with Heart of Gold, were premiered for a wildly enthusiastic audience at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1971, in a concert that lives on in rock music legend. A little while later, Young found himself in Nashville, recording a segment for the Johnny Cash Show, on which, as luck would have it, a couple of up-and-comers named Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were also scheduled to appear. Hey, that’s Nashville for you; you’re bound to run into legendary performers, and those destined to be legends.
Local producer Elliot Mazur got wind of Young’s presence and invited him to record at his newly opened Quadrafonic Sound Studios, which despite its grand, high-tech sounding name was really just a rustic old house rigged up for recording, with the drums set up in the kitchen and the control room on the porch, a venue that suited Young right down to the ground. Asked to assemble his own band out of whoever was available, Neil corralled a local session group billed as the Stray Gators, and snagged both Ronstadt and Taylor, still in town, to sing back-up. Both were in the studio for Heart of Gold, and while I can’t claim to discern much from Taylor in the mix, Ronstadt’s unmistakable voice rings out clear as a bell, as usual, especially at the end. This is Mazur on how the session went, taken from Guitar magazine:
Mazer later told TapeOp.com, “Neil was very specific about what he wanted. When Neil Young plays a song, his body language dictates everything about the arrangement. Neil sat in the control room of Quadrafonic and played Heart Of Gold. Kenny [Buttrey, drums] and I looked at each other, and we both knew it was a number one record. We heard the song and all we had to do was move Neil into the studio and get the band out there, start the machine and make it sound good. It was incredible!
“At one point [on Out On The Weekend], Neil said to Kenny that his hi-hat was too busy, so Kenny said, ‘Fine. I’ll sit on my right hand.’ He played the whole take sitting on his right hand.” By only three days in, Young had already cut the versions of Old Man and Heart Of Gold to be released. “Neil and the band played live,” said Mazer, “same as every song on Harvest.”
At the time, anybody playing thoughtful acoustic ballads while accompanying himself on harmonica was apt to be compared to Bob Dylan, and Dylan himself thought Heart of Gold sounded eerily like something he should have performed:
The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was “Heart of Gold”. I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to “Heart of Gold.” I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, “Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.
Sour grapes, perhaps, but I doubt very much Dylan viewed Young as a rank imitator, and I’d bet he was more angry at himself for not being the one to have written the big hit.
The final mixing of the studio release occurred at Young’s Broken Arrow ranch in Northern California, a process out of which arose one of the best stories you’re ever going to hear about the recording business. This is Graham Nash, excerpted in this case from the same article in Guitar Magazine, recounting an oft-repeated tale that’s become central to Young’s enduring mystique:
So it was that Graham Nash visited Broken Arrow, expecting to hear the album from the comfort of Young’s makeshift home studio. “That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said get into the rowboat,” recounted Nash to NPR. “I said, ‘get into the rowboat?’ He said, ‘yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake’. Now, I think he’s got a little cassette player with him or a little, you know, early digital format player. So I’m thinking I’m going to wear headphones and listen in the relative peace in the middle of Neil’s lake.
“Oh, no. He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard Harvest coming out of these two incredibly large loudspeakers, louder than hell. It was unbelievable. Elliot Mazer came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil: ‘How was that, Neil?’ And I swear to God, Neil Young shouted back: ‘More barn!’”
According to the article, a fansite was selling More Barn!! T-shirts back in the nineties. I might just check on Amazon, see if anybody’s selling one.
Song of the Day: Tragically Hip – My Music at Work (August 20, 2021)
Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone
And the dummies might be right
You feel like a jerk
My music at work
My music at work
Ah, truer words. Truer words, folks.
This one is personal. This one stings. This one, I lived myself.
You see, I used to be a lawyer, and my initial years in the profession were spent at a Bay Street law firm that was as much cult as place of business, full to bursting with the same sort of self-satisfied, privileged, upper class, clever-clever Caucasion pricks on wheels that we saw not so long ago acting as both witness and Republican interlocutor in the hearings to appoint self-satisfied misogynist prep. school shit-heel Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. Down there at King and Bay, you worked yourself nearly to death helping the wealthy avoid paying their fair share of taxes, hoping to one day win the prize, while they kept moving the goalposts. Nights and weekends, nights and weekends, you know the drill, asshole. We will not be the ones to blame for the inevitable delay in closing. Keep those billable hours coming. Now, drop and give me fifty, maggot. For years and years, there I was at my desk, struggling to understand the arcana in the absence of any sort of guidance, when everything was indeed bleak in the middle of the night, and I felt like a jerk.
Here, Gord Downie portrays more of a low-level corporate grunt than aspiring master of the Universe, but the manic, meaningless, claustrophobic choreography of the dark, regimented office space is just the same. The night so long it hurts.
Song of the Day: Outkast – Hey Ya (august 22, 2021)
Just when you’re about to lose all hope in popular music, along comes the almost unbelievably charming Andre 3000 of Outcast, delivering this clever, cheeky, compulsively danceable pop tune with a video that has him playing all the members of the fictional group The Love Below, driving the girls bonkers as if they’re the Beatles on a British version of Ed Sullivan. I think Andre may have the most captivating smile in showbiz. I just love how the manager harangues them at the start, to get out there and act like they got some sense, since he didn’t fly all the way overseas in the middle seat so they could fuck it up. They have to make some dough over here, just to fly back home – remember, dude, Greyhound don’t float on water. That, the brilliant green outfits, the Love Haters decked out like jockeys, buddy on keyboards in the beret quietly smiling to himself, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture!”, and “Give me some sugar! I am your neighbour!”
Best thing to come along in years and years.
Song of the Day: The Rolling Stones – Tumbling Dice (August 24, 2021)
As much as Jagger’s lyrics or Richards’ riffs, Watts’ timekeeping on key Stones songs made them key Stones songs. The loose, almost jazzy feel on “19th Nervous Breakdown,” his groove lock with Richards on “Beast of Burden,” his extraordinary control with a very odd rhythm on “Get Off of My Cloud,” the bounce of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” his ice-cold snare on “Gimme Shelter” — all of these are masterclasses in serving the song and shaping it at the same time.
Rolling Stone, August 24, 2021
“Got to roll me” sings Mick, and Charlie lays ’em flat in the aisles.
From the Rolling Stone record guide
You turn around twice, and the drummer for the Rolling Stones has died, aged 80, and there ain’t a lot scarier than that.
The above-quoted Rolling Stone Record Guide, in one or another of its editions, the red one I think, once declared Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman to be the “most existentially funky rhythm section in all of Rock & Roll”, and it was certainly true that the two of them seemed to stand calmly apart from the boys up front, like the guys in the engine room, making everything work without drawing much attention to themselves while Mick preened and posed and shook his money-maker for the crowd. It was like it was just a job, you know, his deadpan affect making it seem as if he’d rather be playing real music in a jazz combo that could make proper use of his extraordinary talents, but you can’t eat integrity, and if the yobbos wanted to make him a millionaire for supplying the backbone to Paint it Black, Under My Thumb, Satisfaction and all the rest, well, easy money was easy money. Not to say he was phoning it in – not at all – it’s just that he could do that shit standing on his head, and nothing that the Glimmer Twins over there demanded of him was about to make him break a sweat. Was he even enjoying himself, a little? It was hard to say. It didn’t seem like it. As he sat back there maintaining the most preternaturally locked-in backbeat in the business, you wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he was thinking about the plumbing in his East Sussex cottage, or considering a change in his investment managers.
He was quiet, and he was cool.
Today’s retrospective on the Rolling Stone website, quoted above, mentions a number of standout performances, but for me Charlie was at his most sublime for Tumbling Dice, one the best songs on one of the six or eight greatest albums ever made, 1972’s Exile on Main Street; listen especially for the fills he supplies at the climax. The accelerated rhythm kind of slides in, takes over centre stage, and like the man wrote, Charlie lays ’em flat in the aisles.
I’m hoping they don’t try to tour without him. You can’t have the Stones without Charlie. You just can’t.
Songs of the Day: The Everly Brothers – Crying in the Rain; Bowling Green; Cathy’s Clown
For a while there, Phil and Don Everly were almost the biggest thing going, rivalling Elvis with a string of hits beginning in 1957 with Bye Bye Love, and continuing into the early Sixties, with 1960’s Cathy’s Clown, their first Number 1 under a new relationship with Warner Records, being their biggest hit. During their run at the top they taught a whole generation of performers to come about intricate harmony and lilting melody, and were an incalculable influence on everybody from the Beach Boys and the Beatles to Neil Young and Paul Simon. Indeed Lennon and McCartney, early on, aspired to be the “British Everlys”, and their first Number1, Please Please Me, owed much to the American Duo, featuring the same sort of harmonization that was the Everlys’ trademark. Keith Richards thought Don was one of the greatest rhythm guitar players who ever cut a record, and Bob Dylan said “we owe those guys everything”. They had taste, and serious vocal and instrumental chops. Their songs, whether self-written or not, avoided the kitsch and phoney sentimentality that characterized so much of the output of their 1950s peers, and drew heavily on the country and Appalachian folk music on which they were raised in home state Kentucky. A striking, rather moving vein of heartbreak and melancholy runs through their hits, and even the most upbeat numbers, like Wake Up Little Susie, were less about happy romance than they were about stress, mistakes, and facing the unpleasant music.
Yet good as they were, and despite the boundless respect of the industry, their star faded with startling rapidity after around 1962. It’s hard to understand; there was nothing inherently obsolete or less sophisticated about their style than most Sixties acts, and they should have been able to make a go of it. Instead they became a nostalgia act, and bickered back and forth, pursuing solo careers from the mid Seventies to the mid Eighties, until launching a minor comeback as a duo, propelled along by one Paul McCartney, who gifted them probably the best thing he ever wrote for a third party, the sublime On the Wings of a Nightingale, a song of the day way back when:
Song of the Day: Paul McCartney, On the Wings of a Nightingale
The middle selection above, Bowling Green, might seem an odd choice from a catalogue that contains much more prominent and popular numbers, but it’s a sentimental favourite. Way back, I think the late Sixties, the Everlys had what was then known as a “summer replacement series”, new programming the networks broadcast rather than play reruns of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. It was my first exposure to the duo. They closed every show with a brief rendition of Bowling Green, and it really put the hook in me, especially that one delicious musical phrase, a man in Kentucky sure is lucky.
Phil died in 2014 of COPD, brought on by years of smoking, and Don left us just last week, his passing obscured by the almost contemporaneous death of Charlie Watts, a figure who these days looms much larger in the public consciousness. Charlie would have told you, though, just like all the greats would tell you, that Phil and Don Everly were the real deal, and earned their place in the pantheon.
Song of the Day: The Temptations – Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (August 28, 2021)
Fatherless siblings hear the nasty talk going around on the street, and ask Mama some pointed questions she was hoping she’d never have to answer. She isn’t going to lie. It’s true. Papa was good for nothing, and when he died, all he left us was alone. This is pure urban grit, the sound of streetlights reflecting off the surfaces of dark, rain-soaked streets, steam rising from subway grates, and big old Cadillacs splashing through the potholes, while over there, down that dark alley…well, shit, you don’t even want to know what’s goin’ on in there. Written by the immortal Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone was first recorded by the almost forgotten Undisputed Truth, who never got any higher with it than #63 on Billboard, before the Temptations got ahold of it, turned into an epic twelve minute statement piece (later edited down to about seven minutes for the single release) and took it right to the top in September 1972, winning three Grammys in the process.
It’s undoubtedly a great vocal performance all around, but that ain’t the half of it. Crucial, impeccably moody backup is provided by the Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary in-house ensemble of master musicians, with Maurice Davis on trumpet, Melvin “Wah-wah Watson” Ragin on guitar, and Bob Babbitt on bass, everybody doing their thing at such a high level that the backing track, without vocals, was chosen for side B of the single, and it won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental. The mood they create is so immersively, evocatively atmospheric that in its full-length version, with almost the first four minutes being exclusively Funk Brothers with no vocals at all, Papa Was a Rollin Stone isn’t so much a song as history’s funkiest film score. Indeed, the music for 1971’s Shaft was a major influence on arranger Paul Riser Sr., whose idea it was to add a frosty string section to ratchet up the drama. It’s practically impossible to listen to it now without thinking Seventies urban crime drama.
Amazingly, the group was reluctant to record it. The story goes that the guys were growing weary of the “psychedelic soul” label affixed to them since their smash hit “Cloud Nine”, and wanted to go back to romantic ballads, like My Girl, and Since I Lost My Baby; writer/producer Whitfield also seemed just as interested in the instrumental backing as the vocals, which wasn’t an attitude likely to win over a vocal group, but surely suited this particular number to a “T”. There was also friction between various band members and Whitfield, especially when it came to frontman Dennis Edwards, who was irritated at being commanded to keep redoing his vocal until it had just the right tone of pained weariness, dread, and uncertainty. There were dozens upon dozens of takes. Edwards wanted to emote. Whitfield wanted him to sound more matter of fact, almost flat, like you would when you knew you weren’t going to like the answer, but reckoned you needed to ask anyway. Later, basking in the glory of the band’s last Number 1 hit, the singer had a change of heart, saying in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that “I wanted to put more on it. I didn’t want it to be so bland. But Whitfield actually wanted it bland. Every time I would try to over-sing it, he would change it. He would make me mad…I did not appreciate it until I heard the record. And I said, ‘Wow.’ What he was doing, he was getting me into a certain mood.” He was, and did it ever work. There’s nothing in pop quite like the intonation of those opening lines:
It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will
‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died
I never got a chance to see him
Never heard nothing but bad things about him
Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth
It sounds so emotionally authentic that for years the story has circulated that the pain was real, because Edwards’s father actually did die on September 3, which seems not to be true, at least according to the Wikipedia article**, but sure sounds as if it ought to be – too good to fact-check, in the words of author, screenwriter, and old newspaperman David Simon.
If ever there was a song that better earns the old “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” label, I’ve yet to hear it. They really don’t. Back then we didn’t realize, of course, that we were feasting on the last great songs of a golden age in popular music. In 1972, it still felt like the Sixties (which anyway hadn’t really begun until February 1964 over here), and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone seemed to be setting the standard for another decade of terrific hit music. Nope. Of course, there was great music in the Seventies, but generally it wasn’t the zeitgeist. Times were changing, and the era of big radio hits being not merely the most popular, but also the very finest, compositions of the day was drawing to a close. In just a couple of years, it was all Disco Duck, Convoy, Theme From the Poseidon Adventure, and Billy Don’t Be a Hero. Meanwhile, Barry Gordy wrapped up the operation at the famous “Hitsville USA” house/recording studio in Detroit, moved Motown Records to L.A., and made a go of it for a while, but the magic was lost, and the label was eventually sold and then re-sold to and among various international conglomerates. Look at it this way: it was a miracle in the first place, and miracles don’t last forever.
Both the single and extended album cut versions are attached above.
Song of the Day: Paul McCartney – Find My Way (August 30, 2021)
I mean I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. But I’m in awe of him. He can do it all and he’s never let up, you know. He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm. He can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody and he can sing the ballad as good as anybody, you know so… And his melodies are, you know, effortless. That’s what you have to be in awe of… I’m in awe of him maybe just because he’s just so damn effortless. I mean I just wish he’d quit, you know. [laughs] Just everything and anything that comes out of his mouth is framed in a melody, you know.
Recorded during the pandemic for what became McCartney III, the third career solo outing since 1970 in which he plays all the instruments, Find My Way showcases Paul in fine form, continuing with a career renaissance that began with his excellent Chaos and Creation in the Backyard in 2005. Recent years have seen both robust chart performance and a dramatic critical reappraisal of both Paul’s solo career and his overall contribution to the Beatles, as people generally have come to recognize and value a talent that’s gifted them an ungodly motherlode of songs the non-existence of which is practically unimaginable to anybody who loves good pop music. I remember once, some music critic in the Toronto Star writing about his attendance at a McCartney concert and describing, as if he’d just come to appreciate it, “the terrifying depth of his catalogue”. Paul wasn’t saving the fan favourites for the end, the guy noted, because they’re all fan favourites. I’ve seen it myself; the concert I attended in Halifax a few years back went for over three hours, and he never got around to playing anything that anybody among the assembled 60,000 didn’t know by heart. My brother and I later engaged in an exercise of trying to figure out how long he could play before he did have to resort to something relatively obscure, and the answer, we figured, conservatively, was something like ten hours. Think of that: ten hours, probably, of three and four minute songs before he had to resort to playing a song that perhaps wouldn’t be instantly recognizable to everybody there within the first couple of notes.
Nobody else can say that. Nobody, ever.
The recent fantasy film Yesterday imagined a world in which a struggling singer/songwriter awakes one day in a world in which the Beatles had never existed, and he’s the only one who remembers them. It was purely a fanboy exercise, of course, not bad, not great I guess, but it had some lovely moments, including this one, in which Ed Sheeran, playing himself and being an incredibly good sport for the sake of the film, challenges the only guy who remembers the Fab Four – and who has now become an international sensation, claiming their whole catalogue as his own original compositions – to an impromptu songwriting contest:
Here’s the thing: imagine how many McCartney-penned Beatles classics they had to choose from to be the one that blows poor Ed Sheeran out of the water, and leaves him feeling like Salieri to the newcomer’s Mozart (even though Sheeran’s song, I thought, is quite nice in its own right, which perhaps is the whole point). The title track was disqualified, because they’d already used it:
So they were down to, I dunno, about 30 others, maybe, that fit the mood? I might have decided to make short work of Sheeran with something even more formally perfect, For No One, say, or Here There and Everywhere, She’s Leaving Home, Blackbird, Mother Nature’s Son, or Eleanor Rigby, or maybe gone for the pure overkill of Golden Slumbers, Let it Be, You Never Give Me Your Money, or even, God help him, Hey Jude. Or maybe just murder him outright with Penny Lane. That’s just a sampling, assuming we don’t want to change the tempo with something like Get Back, Lady Madonna, We Can Work it Out, With a Little Help From My Friends, Paperback Writer, or …well, pick one. The point of today’s column, however, is to argue that they needn’t have limited themselves to a pre-1970 timeline, if the premise is that nobody ever heard of this guy McCartney, or anything he ever wrote. One could choose from a whole slew of terrific songs composed by Paul in his solo career, a lot of which, if that’s the test, would have slotted in to Beatles’ releases without anybody noticing anything amiss. Take this little gem, which one can easily imagine appearing on the White Album:
It was something his Dad used to say to offer support to him when he was down; he’d hold out his hand and say “put it there”.
I expect Sheeran would have been equally cowed by the exquisite and exquisitely Beatlesque Maybe I’m Amazed:
Likewise the gentle, unassuming, almost painfully delicate Junk would strike most people as better than Ed’s nice little song:
Or how about jump forward a few decades, to My Valentine, written in 2012 to fill out an album of covers of old classics, titled KIsses On the Bottom, extracted from the Great American Songbook, all of them songs to which Paul’s musician father exposed him as a kid?
Nobody, not Gershwin, not Rodgers, not Porter, not Berlin, ever wrote one better – indeed, this one, written in C minor, seems quite deliberately to be channeling the great Richard Rodgers, once described by musicologist Dominic Pedler, in his book Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, as the only other popular composer who ever rivalled McCartney’s “leap in the dark” gift for melody. It’s simply sublime, this one. Hey, don’t take my word for it. This is from American Songwriter magazine:
Writing a good love song, one that will bring tears to a woman’s eyes quicker than a dozen roses (or in the case of a man’s eyes, maybe quicker than tickets to a NASCAR race), is one of the hardest things any writer can do. Paul McCartney’s written a few that are part of pop music history. But maybe none of them have been as genuine, or sound as effortless, as “My Valentine.”…The song was as effective and timeless as any of the other great songs written by the masters he covered on Kisses On The Bottom, putting him squarely in their ranks. Nobody but McCartney could combine those lines with a killer melody in a minor key, of all things. Trying to write a love song in a minor key is automatically asking for trouble, as minor keys typically don’t lend themselves to positive, uplifting thoughts and feelings. But McCartney, being McCartney, got away with doing this song in C minor and including various minor chords in the changes as well.
Or how about this genuine piece of art rock:
At The Mercy would have been right at home within another iteration of Abbey Road’s “long medley”; Lord, that wonderful orchestral moment after the lyric “we can watch the universe explode”…the ringing guitars…the icy, foreboding strings…
Or how about How Kind of You, which is beautiful and dazzlingly sophisticated from the first note. It’s simply a superior exercise in music composition, and just listen to the extended coda, and how he wraps it up. It’s a McCartney hallmark, the ineffably elegant ending:
Then there’s this exhilarating rave-up, a live version of a track completed, from start to finish, in just a few hours for release under the pseudonymous group name The Firemen, in response to a challenge to compose, arrange, and produce/record a song in the span of a single working day:
It takes the like of Bono, Thom Yorke, and Noel Gallagher months to come up with something like that.
This is one, I’m convinced, that John would have liked a lot:
That’s Abbey Road Studio 2, by the way, and the kid at the recording console is Giles Martin, son of George. Try to keep track of all the mega-celebrities who jumped at the chance to be in a video with Sir Paul. This one rocks. Especially impressive is the dreamy interlude of the bridge, it was scary, but I did it, and I’m coming back for more.
I guarantee you, George Martin would have spoken warmly about this:
The sheer power of this one:
That’s one of the standout tracks from Ram, an album that was so reviled upon its release that you would have thought Paul had committed war crimes while making it. Honestly, critical reception was insanely hostile, and I do mean insanely, given that this is the present popular and critical consensus:
“Universal acclaim”. Hunh.
Which brings us to Find My Way. In a way, it’s just a good-timey number typical of its composer, but it’s also stuffed with the whole suite of subtle McCartney touches, beginning with the opening chords on electric harpsichord, and continuing through layer upon layer of expert instrumental ornamentation. It reminds me a bit of another sure-fire hit he wrote around 1968, which ended up being handed to Badfinger, Come And Get It, though it’s a great deal more complex, especially in the finale, another extended coda in which so many different instrumental lines are piled, each new one atop the last, that the complexity is essentially symphonic.
Look, I know that anybody who might still be out there reading my posts, supposing there actually is anybody, will be weary of my endless, tireless, interminable advocacy for Paul McCartney. Yeah, I hear you, but I’m on a mission, O.K? It’s because I came of age in the Seventies, when the man was generally reviled in the (essentially childish) rock press on a number of spurious grounds, among them his unforgivable tendency to not be angry at the world, and his heinous wish to write songs that made people feel good (and admittedly, his veering into some rather lightweight territory there for a while). I was myself apt to fall prey to the party line, and the Lennon hagiography, yet as I immersed myself in the Beatles catalogue, it became clear to me that the majority – I’d argue the vast majority – of the compositions that live on indelibly in the popular consciousness, and which will still be on the lips of ordinary folk centuries from now, are Paul’s. I really don’t think there’s any doubt about this. Plus, since my teen years, I’ve watched as nobody noticed that even the solo albums roundly condemned as dreck always included a couple of classics, and I’ve taken heart in his continuing popularity, as he keeps on making albums that hit the top of the charts. McCartney III debuted at #2, just a whisker behind Taylor Swift’s latest, and the previous album, Egypt Station, opened up at Number 1. Sometimes, some things are just as they should be.
Sorry to be grandiose, but hear this: McCartney will inevitably be recognized as the greatest songwriter in history. There will be arguments, of course. But the benchmark will be Paul, and not just for his work with the Beatles. To quote John Lennon from a different argument, in which I think it’s fair at this point to say he wasn’t as far off the mark as so many claimed at the time, I am right, and will be proved right.
Here, too, when you have the time, have a watch of this marvellous documentary from Britain’s ITV, and take note of the songs that made it to #1, and remain the popular favourites:
Song of the Day: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – Tracks of My Tears (September 1, 2021)
Back in a Motown frame of mind today. To which the obvious question is, “Wait – you mean you’re sometimes out of a Motown frame of mind?”
There are those who’ll tell you that Tracks of My Tears is the greatest song ever to come out of Motown. Rolling Stone declared as much earlier this year, placing it top of the list despite stiff, stiff competition from all those other songs we all remember, from Reach Out, I’ll Be There, to What’s Goin’ On, My Girl, You Can’t Hurry Love, Heard it Through the Grapevine, and, well, you know the litany. Interestingly, it says here, they put Papa Was A Rolling Stone, a recent Song of the Day, at #2 – talk about a tough call. As with all such lists, you could probably write the titles of the top 15 or 20 on slips of paper, pull them out of a hat, and still come up with a thoroughly defensible ranking, so no need to get too dogmatic about Smokey’s #1 status here, but there’s no denying the sheer, wrenching power of this emotionally honest, utterly un-macho ode to abject heartbreak. Written in the form of a confession to his lost love, the song conjures an almost operatic mental tableau, as the singer, spotting his ex across the room at some party, drops his jovial facade, turns to the audience, and sings his heartsick aria – a theme he revisited later in the scintillating Tears of a Clown (#10 on the RS list), in which he references Pagliacci. The lyrics, true pop poetry, took Robinson months to write, as he struggled to say something new about an old, old story, and they didn’t start to come together until the lines so take a good look at my face / you’ll see my smile looks out of place came to him. Why, though, would his smile seem so false, though only if you took a close look? Staring in the mirror one morning, he thought what if you cried so long, and so hard, that you could actually see lines left behind, like footprints? The implication is that no matter when you look at him they’ll probably be there, because he probably just staunched the tears again. It’s the waterworks, off and on, off and on, all day long, every damned day.
The story goes that Pete Townshend was so impressed by Smokey’s artful use of the rather unmusical word “substitute” in a pop lyric (though she may be cute, she’s just a substitute, ‘cuz you’re the permanent one ) that he resolved to take up the challenge and write his own song around it (though nothing about the Who’s Substitute was apt to betray its inspiration to the geezers back in Shepherd’s Bush).
Surprisingly, given how gloriously it flirts with melodic perfection, the music came along more easily, with a mighty assist from Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin, who supplied those gorgeous, sinuous, sorrowful opening licks that are so crucial in setting the stage – surely one of the best, most evocative openings of any pop song of the era, on a par with the introduction to Here There and Everywhere. Tarplin originally had a melody in mind too, which he based, believe it or not, on Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O), but obviously Smokey and the band must have kicked it around a while before it arrived where it ended up – Calypso, this ain’t.
As always, the Funk Brothers are back there supplying their own special groove, and extra instrumentalists were brought in from the Detroit Symphony to fill out the sound. You gotta figure that sometimes it was kind of crowded down there in the basement at 2648 W Grand Blvd.
BONUS TRACK! Linda Rondstadt’s version! Linda always could pick ’em. Aretha covered it too.
Song of the Day: Northern Pikes – I Can’t Compare (September 7, 2021)
Known mainly for rocking, sometimes rather cheeky numbers like She Ain’t Pretty, Kiss Me You Fool, and Girl With a Problem, Saskatoon’s own Northern Pikes peaked around 1990 with their double-platinum album Snow in June, disbanded a few years later, then reformed to release Truest Inspiration in 2001, on which appeared this elegant, lovely, and sadly overlooked story of unrequited love tinged with resignation. Musically, it’s a bit of a mash-up, with a melody that sounds a little (or a lot) like a riff on Hagood Hardy’s The Homecoming, of all things (readers of a certain age will remember the famous soundtrack for the 1972 Salada Tea commercial), with a guitar line borrowed from the Beatles’ It’s Only Love repeated at the end, but it’s all brought together into a lush and mournful whole, the like of which no one who knew the group only from its most popular output would have had any reason to expect from them.
Oh, how he longs for this girl…
I’m kissin’ your eyes as you fall asleep
I’m watching you breath so peacefully
I’m dreaming of what will never be
Over and over again
…but it’s hopeless, she’s not into guys like him, i.e. (one gathers) ordinary schmucks who might be a little light in the wallet. Well then, he tells her, pretending she’s listening, if it all falls apart and he drives you away, go with God and grace, but don’t come looking for love around here, ’cause I sure as hell don’t have what you’re looking for. Bitter? Maybe. A little petulant even? O.K., sure, but look, if you can’t be bitter and a little petulant when you’re struggling with the ugly truth that you just don’t make the cut, and your heart’s breaking, well, then I guess I just don’t know.