Sunday, April 23, 2017

70s Motown: Smiling Faces Sometimes

Rare Earth: Smiling Faces Sometimes

[purchase]

70s Motown strikes me as a curious choice for our theme, although there are great riches to share. We have heard some of that already, and there is much more to come. But the 1970s were a period of decline for Motown. Starting in the 1950’s, and lasting all through the 1960s, Motown was a music industry leader. The label perfected a distinctive sound, and other labels scrambled to catch up. By the end of the 70s, however, Motown had become a follower. They caught on first to funk and later to disco after their rivals had begun to move into the same space. Motown’s 70’s efforts to innovate largely failed to catch on with the masses. Oh, sure, there were still individual artists making vital new music on Motown, but the label overall would never again be the trend setter it had been in its heyday.

The song I am featuring here, Smiling Faces Sometimes, shows how Motown tried to stay relevant in the 70s. The song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1971. The two were Motown in-house writers, and it was standard practice at the label to record versions of the same song with different artists. So Smiling Faces Sometimes was first given to the Temptations, and then, later in 1971, was a hit for The Undisputed Truth. Both versions were produced by Whitfield. By 1973, Motown was trying to adapt to a changing musical marketplace, so they launched a rock label. Their first signing to this new imprint was a band whom they asked for a suggestion of what to call the new label. As a joke, the band suggested that Motown name it after them, and they were quite surprised when Berry Gordy said yes. Both the band and the new imprint were Rare Earth. For Rare Earth’s 1973 take on Smiling Faces Sometimes, Norman Whitfield once again produced. This version was never a hit, but I like the sparseness of the production compared to the earlier versions. What you hear is just the instruments played by the band itself, without the lush arrangements of the older takes. But whoever heard this version at the time did not see it that way. Motown did not become a power in rock music, and the Rare Earth imprint was eventually shut down.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

70s Motown: Doctor My Eyes



Jackson Brown’s “Doctor My Eyes” is a staple: it’s his sound, one of his biggest hits, part of every live set he’s released. It’s a strange song, in a way: it’s about a world-weary, tired out soul, but the music is so upbeat—with that coursing piano line and the overdrive-tinged guitar—one can easily miss the point. Though, it’s more about accepting a certain numbness from seeing too much, the song evokes almost the exact opposite sensation.

Now, put little MJ—Michael Jackson—in front of the Jackson Five, and you’ve got an even stranger dichotomy: nothing the Jackson’s did in the ‘70s could ever sound downbeat. And their cover of Jackson Brown’s classic is one of my favorite cuts from their catalog.  Off their 1972 Looking Through the Windows, their take on the song is classic Motown to me.

Starting off with a chirping bird choir of doowoops, their take on the song churns through a great Motown styled strings and bashing drums soundtrack, while MJ trades off vocal duties with Jermaine, but providing his inimitable vocal harmony as a backing track
. This is Motown in the best way that Motown sound was its own unique entity, so self-evident of its perfection, vibrant and church choir worthy. I’ve always thought of that sound as something akin to the spiritual, rendered so perfectly and a part of nothing other than its own mythos and origins. A good cover, done on the Motown label, seems to do what a good cover should: reinvent and create anew from what we thought we knew.




Friday, April 21, 2017

70s MOTOWN: Harvest for the World

This could be a harder assignment than it might initially appear, so spoilt for choice is the vast legacy of this iconic label, the yin to Stax's yang in the history of black popular music. And whilst, yes, my personal taste errs now more to the southern grit(s) of Stax, my childhood was festooned and imprinted with all those hits from the Motor City. It seemed that for every guitar band in the charts, there were twice that number of sharp dressed dudes and shiny frocked floozies, singing and dancing their socks off, so ubiquitous were the Temptations, the Supremes, the Miracles, the (4) Tops etc etc etc. Indeed I came to resent their permanence: when Marvin Gaye was number 1 with (I heard it on the) Grapevine for the whole of one summer, I hated the ease with which all usurpers were kept at bay. Love it now, less so then. I acquired a dislike and distrust of the so-called the Soul that curdled mine.



So what changed it? Actually these guys, around long before and around long since, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of brothers, who suddenly, in mid 70s, discovered the alchemists stone, turning white rock boys onto black r'n'b with the simple trick of if you can't beat 'em. Namely the guitar, the electric guitar. Based around brothers, Ronald, Rudolph and O'Kelly Isley, the Isley Brothers were a potent force in the 60s with songs such as Shout, Twist and Shout and This Old Heart of Mine, but had found their star perhaps waning a little. (Innocently, I had always assumed that better known-to-me versions by Lulu and the Beatles were the originals, these being poor copies, rather than vice-versa. Forgive me, I was just a wee boy!) Perhaps picking a trick from their erstwhile supporting and session man, James Marshall Hendrix, younger siblings Ernie and Marvin were conscripted, along with bro-in-law, Chris Jasper, beefing up the sound with guitar, bass and keyboards, electric rock guitar, bass and keyboards. I found the 3+3 album of 1973, referring to the trio plus trio as outlined above, astonishing, my gateway drug to an appreciation of black music hitherto denied by a prejudice, not of colour but of image. But these were way cooler than the bands namechecked above: no more suits, replaced instead with bandannas and tie-dye all the way, arguably standing the scrutiny of time less well, but hey...... Scales dropped, Damascus seen and I was on the bus, with all the previous suspects  reciprocating my conversion, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, for two, swiftly becoming suitable rock visionaries, whether by virtue of their music or lifestyle, irony not unintended.

This is my salute to the Isleys, who persevere, still with Ron and Ernie enrolled in the cause. This, their finest moment, Harvest for the World, an apt pointer for those, and there are many, who might see now as a time right to make a Harvest OF the World.


Disclaimer: 3+3 was on Epic records. That may be the truth, but that's not what most will think, so, spiritually, at least, I rest my case.

Entry level? (Recommended, a fabulous selection.)
Specific.

70s Motown: Living for the City



purchase [Innervisions]

When I first saw him live, he was billed as Little Stevie Wonder. I'm pretty sure he played the harmonica. And I probably had one of his albums and a few 45s at that point in time. That would have been late 60s. I recall being affected by My Cherie Amour - on AM radio - a decent piece filled with emotion over the medium that was "par for the course" back then.

Recently, there was an obituary in the NYT for Sylvia Moy. Moy was working as a songwriter for Motown at about the time when Motown sensed that  there was a serious limitations to the "Little" Stevie Wonder process. She asked to take on the project. One of the results of the collaboration was My Cherie Amour.


Talking Book, then Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life spread out over the 70 along with a couple of other albums that don't quite make the grade for me - these are classic Wonder. Around 1972/3, there is a major style switch - away from the slightly tinny 60s soul style to a much richer production primarily fueled by a new keyboard style. And at about this time, Wonder takes more control of his music (switching labels, new contracts ..) and the quality of his work leaps forward.
We have here what is not really a cover - except that it is: Ray Charles works together with Stevie Wonder in this version of Living for the City.



Ray Charles was not a "Motown artist"- he had signed with Atlantic (back once again indirectly  to Turkey & Ahmet Ertegun). But Atlantic was poaching Motown at this point in time: Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding .. they were all Atlantic artists. And ... collaboration often makes things better.

70s Motown: Ball of Confusion

The Temptations: Ball of Confusion

[purchase]

This one barely fits our theme, having been released in 1970. For the Temptations at least, the classic Motown sound of the 1960s was already a thing of the past. Musically, this one presented a powerful mix of funk and rock, a combination that would prove to be a fruitful mix later for George Clinton with his groups Parliament and Funkadelic, and even later for Prince. But here we see that Motown was there first. During the decade of the 70s, Motown would gradually lose their musical leadership role, becoming followers into the land of disco by the end of the decade. But, in 1970, the Temptations got Ball of Confusion onto transistor radios throughout the land. That is how I first heard this one when it became a hit. Probably its lyric of social relevance would never have made it onto AM radio had it not been the Temptations. They were already AM radio staples for their work to that point, so pop chart fans wanted to hear their new one. The new song was part of a trend of socially relevant songs of the period, but most were by white artists, and very few explicitly addressed the issue of racism.

As it was, a stream of songs that were bland and worse, by such luminaries as the Archies, was suddenly and almost violently interrupted one day by Ball of Confusion. The transistor radio I referred to earlier was not mine, and I hated most of the songs I heard on it. But I listened, because the radio itself was a novelty. I knew of only one transistor radio in all of the small town I grew up in, and it belonged to a friend. So I listened because he actually liked this stuff, and I wanted to hang out with him. Ball of Confusion then became an important song to me not for its social awareness, but as a musical lifeline in a sea of dreck. I am happy to say that, listening to the song today, the quality of the music still stands up.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

70s Motown: I Want You Back


Graham Parker & The Rumour: I Want You Back (Alive)
[purchase]

“I Want You Back” was recorded by the Jackson 5 as the first single the band released on Motown, on October 7, 1969, so I’m kind of pushing the theme a bit. But it became a Billboard No. 1 single for the week ending January 31, 1970, so there’s that.

By the time that Michael Jackson died in 2009, he had gotten pretty strange, what with the skin lightening, the nose, the glove, the monkey, the Neverland ranch and the sexual molestation allegations. But as a child myself when “I Want You Back” was released (MJ was born three years before me), it never struck me how strange it was that the Jackson Five songs about love and loss were being sung by an 11 year old child.

And yet, it is hard to deny that “IWYB” is a great song, with an incredible riff. It was ranked 121 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, and the notoriously picky Pitchfork listed it as the second best song of the 1960s (sorry, theme maker). Apparently, the Daily Telegraph said that it was “arguably the greatest pop record of all time.” As a lawyer in my non-blogging time, I’m always wary when someone uses the word “arguably,” but it is certainly in the conversation.

Not surprisingly, it has been covered many, many times. My favorite version is by Graham Parker & The Rumour, who regularly began performing the song on their 1979 tour supporting Squeezing Out Sparks, the album that briefly catapulted them to fame. It was originally released as a single, with “Mercury Poisoning,” one of the great record company “fuck you” records of all time, and later as part of the Live Sparks radio station promo disc (ultimately released to the public as a bonus CD with Squeezing Out Sparks). Parker’s version is, predictably, intense. That it is being sung by an angry adult seems way more appropriate than the pre-teen fronted original. But who says rock ‘n’ roll needs to be appropriate?

Proof that “I Want You Back” is a great song is demonstrated by the fact that it works in pretty much any genre. My friend Patrick wrote about Five Good Covers of the song, including the Parker version, here, and it also is successful in jazz instrumental and vocal versions, Brazilian versions, performed by a steel drum band (hey--that fits the last theme!), as an emo song, in Japanese, by former Michael Jackson backup singer Sheryl Crow (here, inaccurately, but more theme-appropriately, introduced by Jamie Foxx as a “1973 hit”) and, predictably, if excellently, by Bruno Mars.. Although, I’m not liking this version.

But if you want to see something incredible, again, thanks to Patrick, here’s a version with just Michael Jackson’s vocals.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Steel: The Pipers

Sileas: The Pipers

[purchase]

Over the course of our Steel theme, we have heard an awful lot of music played instruments which are variants of the guitar. This is not surprising, but there are other instruments which also fit. To most minds, the harp is probably not one of them. The harp, like the classical guitar, is usually played with nylon strings. Of course, nylon was only invented in 1935, but the mellow sound we think of for harp music was played instruments strung with gut strings before that. Steel strings are far more unusual in harp music. In fact, Mary MacMaster of the Scottish folk duo Sileas is the player I know of who plays a steel stringed harp. What difference does it make? I could try to explain, but Sileas gives the best possible explanation through their music. That’s because the other member of the group, Patsy Seddon, plays the more typical nylon strung harp. The Pipers is a tune that presents the contrast in the two sounds to great effect.

Seddon and MacMaster first came together in a group called Sprangeen, which stayed together for two years, and made their only album in 1984. By the following year, that group was done, and MacMaster and Seddon had become the duo Sileas. They would eventually be inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, despite having only made four albums together as a duo. That’s because their other larger group, The Poozies, has proved to be far more stable than Sprangeen, accounting for another seven albums. Seddon and MacMaster are both also fine traditional singers in both English and Scots Gaelic. At least back when I first saw them in 1986, they were also wonderful live performers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Steel: Leo Kotke



purchase [ Leo Kotke 6 & 12 String Guitar ]

The only 12-string guitars I have ever seen (or played) were steel stringed. Probably something about the tension/configuration. The one I owned had serious bridge problems - 12 strings of metal pulling against a wooden bridge had bowed the whole thing into contortions, making it almost impossible to fret/play.

It was back about the time I picked up this instrument that I was listening to Gordon Lightfoot, maybe a bit of Simon and Garfunkle, John Fahey and Leo Kotke.


There is a full-ness to the sound of a 12-string that - even with today's options of pedal effects and studio editing - is tough to replicate. The instrument rings like nothing else. (But, for some reason, brings to mind Doublemint gum - double the sound, double the effort) The richer sound comes about from the configuration of pairs of strings that are an octave apart: you're hitting an A, but there are two of them and they are an octave apart (one a higher/lower sound than the other). As a player, (if you are right handed) your left finger needs to depress both strings together and your right hand needs to figure out if you want to hit the higher or lower sound first. Maybe not quite as complex as a pedal steel style, but presenting more complexity than the standard 6-string version.


I came across Kotke's 1969 <6 and 12 String Guitar> album about the same time I found Lightfoot's <Sit Down Young Stranger>. They are both from about the same year (69/70). Lightfoot struck me as more romantic. Kotke as the more accomplished guitar player. (Check out his version of Bach's <Jesu>, which I still perform in my own variation.)



a selection of other Kotke performances:

(above 6 strings, but it's Allman Brothers!! Little Martha)
(above <8 Miles High>one of his signature tunes - but as he says :I haven't done this in a long time. However, it is fairly recent - showing that he still does his thing)
listen to the 12 strings on this version of Deep River Blues.

Steel: Steel Mill—He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)

[purchase Chapter and Verse]
[purchase Born to Run (the book)]

What would Lynryd Skynyrd have sounded like if it was fronted by a kid from Jersey named Springsteen? Check out “He’s Guilty” by Steel Mill, a band from 1969-70 featuring Bruce Springsteen on vocals and guitar, future E Street Band members Danny Federici on keyboards and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez on drums, and “Little” Vinny Roslin on bass.

Bruce’s first band was The Castiles. When that band broke up, he joined a hard rock band called Earth, then formed Child, which then became Steel Mill, when another band had already registered as Child. As Springsteen described Steel Mill in his excellent autobiography Born To Run:

It was blue-collar, heavy music with loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound. If you mixed it up with a little prog and all original songs, you had Steel Mill . . . you know, STEEL MILL . . .like LED ZEPPELIN… elemental-metal-based, bare-chested, primal rock. 

After becoming a big deal in Jersey, and somewhat surprisingly, in Richmond, Virginia, the band decided it needed to head to San Francisco and teach the hippies about rock n’ roll. Auditioning at the Matrix (the club co-founded by Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane) they got a gig opening for Boz Scaggs, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. Steel Mill was apparently good enough that a critic from the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “Never have I been so surprised by completely unknown talent.” Shades of Jon Landau’s famous quote from a few years later, "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” You can hear a bootleg of one of the Matrix shows here.

Steel Mill got to play a few shows at the legendary Fillmore (where Bruce heard future band mate Nils Lofgren’s band Grin perform), and were well enough received that Bill Graham offered to record demos, one of which was “The Judge Song.” But nothing happened. Instead, they returned to New Jersey, where they could make a living.

Over the next few years, Steel Mill went through personnel changes (including a period with Steve van Zandt on bass). Springsteen explored different musical styles in bands named Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom (early- to mid-1971), the Sundance Blues Band (mid-1971), and the Bruce Springsteen Band (mid-1971 to mid-1972), before getting signed to Columbia Records and, ultimately forming the E Street Band.

“He’s Guilty” was never officially released until last year’s Chapter and Verse, the companion musical collection to the autobiography. The official version is edited down a little from the original, which can be found on some bootlegs, but I couldn’t find one online to post.

Steel: A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine




Back when I was in college, early to late 90s (I stuck around to take a few extra classes) there was a neo/retro-lounge music craze that kicked off. For me, the whole soft bubble keys and castanets movement started with Esquivel. Juan Garcia Esquivel was a Mexican bandleader, and his Esquivel! or Space-Age Bachelor Pad, re-released along with a lot of other music on Bar None, was the height of easy listening. Space age pop, exotica, lounge: it all meant the same thing.

The music goons and college DJs and bar band bums that made up my crew got into it, thought that sleazy lounge nostalgia pop made us sophisticates. We bought a bartender's book and learned how to mix fancy drinks. We hit up the Goodwill and bought the snazziest polyester duds we could and threw Lounge Lizard parties. Our first one was a smashing success. Some tools tried playing 80s music, nostalgia for the ‘80s becoming a real fad itself about that time. But, we insisted: lounge or nothing.

From there on it was Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Herb Alpert, Combustible Edison, Dezi Arnez, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Southern Culture on the Skids, the very Reverend Horton Heat, Les Baxter, Elvis movie soundtracks, Ennio Morricone, Stereolab, Paul Anka, Canada’s crown prince of the languid orchestral swing. Understand, we were making our own definition of lounge. It didn’t matter if we were throwing in Big Band, Rockabilly, or Barry Manilow: sweet and easy listening meant being silly chic and suave in a way that let us push the furniture against the wall, put on our dancing socks and glide sliverswift across the floor with the few girls we had convinced to come to our one of a kind Odd Ball.

It didn’t matter that we were mixing in multiple genres—Tarantino was making great soundtracks with AM radio gems that would never have been any one single radio programmer’s play list. And we took our inspiration from him and the record bins at the local CD shops (Vinyl was making a big comeback as as fad about this time, too). We made up our own playlists and bought even  better records at those same thrift stores.  We were chasing a kooked up, weirded-out vibe, where sound was blatantly old, odd, but fun, without any pretension, full spectrum color that came from a time we didn’t really know, but wish we had.

This was the early ‘90s, right? I said that? Nirvana was magic, but the spell hadn’t quite taken full effect. So flannel and Doc Martens hadn’t taken up so much room that those natty, mis-matched suits bought at the thrift store were  out of our wardrobes quite yet. Eventually, those two sartorial elements would merge together, and velvet jackets, ratty, off-labeled t’s and thick soled suede wingtips would all somehow look good together. That, a superior hair.

I miss dressing like that. I also miss those parties, where our social existence was an un-ironic Halloween bash every weekend, while we swilled well-vodka martinis and cruised, strutted and cut a rug like we were some variation of George Lazenby James Bonds, full of the kind of exuberant camp, quirk and whimsical bliss that space-age pop music, with all those Batman and Robin zings and zangs and zooms and booma boom booms sound effect graphics, brought to glorious, techni-color life. 


So, Paul Anka—I dubbed him the crown prince of Lounge, with a capital “L”. Today, I ask you to pull out your snazziest duds, get dolled up and hit the dance floor with your very best gal, and ring a ding ding to the glorious sound of  “A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine.” Dig it  and dance on, space traveler...


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Steel: Steel Bodied Guitars

Colin James: National Steel

[purchase]

In 1927, the invention of the electric guitar was still many years away. This was a problem for players who wanted to use guitars in the dance music of the day. The guitar was a relatively quiet instrument, but you needed volume to play lead lines in the dance bands of the day. The invention of the National Steel Guitar was the first solution to that problem. The steel body and the resonator cones inside it gave it the volume needed to stand above the musical fray. The inventors of the instrument were thinking that white dance band musicians would be their main customers, and they also thought they might sell some in Hawaii. What they did not expect was that black blues musicians would also be great customers. Blues in those days was largely played solo or in very small groups. What the National Steel Guitar Company did not realize was that many of these artists played in juke joints. These were noisy places where the music had to cut through loud conversation and get people to dance. Today, the National Steel is generally thought of as a blues instrument. That has a lot to do with the work of early players such as Bukka White and the Reverend Gary Davis. Colin James features the sound of the National Steel in his song of that name, which is also a fine tribute to the power of the instrument.

Abbie Gardner: Honey on My Grave

[purchase]

The invention of the dobro followed in 1928, and was meant to address some of the same problems. But, as you can see, only part of the body of a dobro is steel. The dobro also has only one resonator cone where the National Steel has three. The result is an instrument that still stands out in a crowd, but has a mellower sound than the National Steel. This makes the instrument more versatile. Today, the dobro is mainly found in bluegrass and country music, but Abbie Gardner shows off the bluesy and soulful aspects of the instrument. Gardner would later record this song with her group Red Molly, and that version is well worth seeking out. But this solo version highlights the sound of the dobro better.