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
[purchase]

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!

ON/OFF:DIXIE CHICKS - BABY HOLD ON



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

[purchase]

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!
Sample: 
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
[purchase]

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

[purchase]

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.