Thursday, August 17, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Moondance" / Van Morrison

When I left Indianapolis to go to college in New England in 1971, I'd never heard of Van Morrison. Sure, there was that song "Brown-Eyed Girl" by the Irish band Them, but I had no idea who their lead singer was. But in the early 70s Van Morrrison, now a solo act, was huge in the Boston area, and everybody from the Northeast seemed to know the title cut from his 1970 LP Moondance.  It was played endlessly in the dorms, almost as much as Carole King's Tapestry (and if you were around back then, you'll know that's saying something).

In that album-oriented age, it didn't matter that it had never been released as a single -- that wouldn't happen until November 1977, when the record company, stymied by Van's three-year writer's block, finally packaged "Moondance" as a single.

I had just moved back to the States after two years in England, and hearing this song on the radio was welcome indeed, especially since the airwaves were otherwise infested with Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel, not to mention the Bee Gees, Barry Manilow, and (shudder!) the Eagles. In that context, no wonder Van's eight-year-old record sounded timelessly great, its Celtic soul sound distilled with laidback cool jazz.

Listen to that saxophone part -- it's like honey (Van, a saxophonist himself, composed the melody first, working it out on a sax). Even better is that nimble Jeff Labes piano solo in the middle eight. And best of all is the sinuous prowl of Van's singing -- leaping for the high notes, snuggling with the lows, flirting outrageously with the syncopated beat. Towards the end, Van just gives up and becomes a saxophone.

Okay, so it's not about a solar eclipse -- this is definitely a nighttime song.  "A fantabulous night to make romance," indeed. Still, that dance of the moon is cataclysmic in its own way. "And every tiiime I touch you, you just / Tremble inside / And I know how much you want me,  / That you can't hide  . . . " Unh-HUNH.       

"Moonshadow" / Cat Stevens

Sure, the titles are similar -- but this 1971 track from Teaser and the Firecat is something very different from "Moondance." Forget the sexy soul and jazz; Cat Stevens' stock in trade was folky charm, all wrapped up in faux hippie wisdom. It's very much a song of its era, but a splendid one nonetheless.

Stevens has said in interviews that this song was inspired by a visit to Spain, where one night he stood by the sea under moonshine so strong that he could see his own shadow. All right, not technically an eclipse, but since the whole thing about the solar eclipse is the moon's shadow blotting out the sun . . .

Like a nursery rhyme, it begins with its chorus: "I'm being followed by a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow, / Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow." All that repetition is almost like an incantation. Then come the verses, which follow a neat pattern -- "If I ever lose my hands [eyes /legs /mouth] . . . I won't have to work [cry /walk /talk] no more." It's an old folk song device; the fun lies in predicting how the singer will complete the pattern each time.

Sure, there's an undertone of melancholy -- all those physical losses, teetering on the edge of tragedy (it's just a whisper away from the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, taunting his adversary while his limbs are hacked off one by one. ["Come back here and I'll bite your legs off!"]). But verse after verse, he somehow finds a way to blithely sidestep despair. The song is suffused with a glorious optimism -- the lighthearted skipping rhythm, the dancing melody, that nimble, delicate acoustic guitar.

Ever since Cat Stevens turned into Yusuf Islam, listeners have been looking for coded religious messages in his songs. There is something cryptic about that bridge: "Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. / Did it take long to find me? and are you gonna stay the night?" But get over it, folks -- this is the sort of anthropomorphic stuff you'll find in hundreds of children's picture books, and Stevens didn't convert to Islam until 1977, long after he wrote "Moonshadow."

 Nearly 50 years later, this song's fey charm survives intact. And if this is the song that pops into my head while watching the sun disappear on Monday, I'll be cool with that.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

In honor of the total solar eclipse that is due to occur over parts of the United States on Monday, August 21st -- a few tunes that may enhance your viewing pleasure.  

"The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" /
The Walker Brothers

Because when the moon is so aligned, it will obscure the sun totally, with just a rim of light -- the corona -- visible.

Anyone remember the Walker Brothers? A trio from California, none of them really brothers, they found success by moving to the UK in 1965 -- payback for the British Invasion, I guess. Their first hit was Bacharach & David's "Make It Easy On Yourself" (remember the Jerry Butler version?); this single from their 1966 album Portrait got a little more airplay in the States and cracked the top 20.

Okay, so it's really not about celestial events; they're bemoaning the cataclysm of love gone wrong. It's hyperbolic, pop-induced tragedy. Still, I love how they copied that Righteous Brothers white-soul sound perfectly, all echo and back-up choirs and manly harmonies. "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore / The moon ain't gonna rise in the skies / The tears are always clouding your eyes" -- rip those heart-strings!

"Everyone's Gone to the Moon" /
Jonathan King

Got the Eclipse Fever yet? Well, dial things to 1965, when social satire was just starting to creep into British Invasion pop, courtesy of the Beatles and the Kinks. And here was Jonathan King -- a clever and well-connected pop enthusiast, who was at the time still a student at Cambridge -- cracking the charts with this uniquely haunting track, prefiguring a desolate Earth depopulated by lunar resettlement.

While it peaked at #3 in the UK, it only hit #17 in the US, but it was eventually covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Doris Day to the Flaming Lips. This is a song that clearly struck a chord. As a goofy pre-teen in Indianapolis, I was mesmerized by its futuristic message of a society gone off the rails.

There's a sort of trudging quality to the verses, as the observers march past "Streets full of people / All alone / Roads full of houses / Never home." Everything's in a wistful state of arrested development, things just unnervingly out of whack. By the time you get to the line "Sun coming out in / The middle of June," you're primed to think it's all too much -- even though in fact the sun should be coming out in the middle of June. Such is the power of nuance.

Then there's that wistful bridge: "Long time ago / Life had begun / Everyone went to the sun." The sun/moon dichotomy is in full force, with all its Dionysian ramifications.

But in the last verse, the sci-fi implications come out: "Cars full of motors / Colored green / Mouths full of chocolate / Covered cream / Arms that can only / Lift a spoon . . " Yes, this is our future, and it's a scary prospect indeed.

Oh, but of course, the astronomical convergence of the sun and moon has nothing to do with social disruption or moral decline or anything. Right?


Tuesday, August 08, 2017

R.I.P. Glen Campbell

"Wichita Lineman" / Glen Campbell

Remember 1968? Back then, the barriers between rock and country music were mile-high stockades. A friend of my mother's -- Lola Wagner, I think it was -- gave my older brother Holt the Wichita Lineman album for his birthday; I can still see him wincing as he tried to thank her politely. Chances are he never listened once to that LP. We knew Glen Campbell from TV shows -- he had short hair and wore string ties and suits and cowboy boots. There was no way we rock fans were going to buy this record.

Now I'm embarrassed that music snobbery blinded me to this song. Joke's on me -- I've since learned  that, long before he became famous in his own right, Campbell played guitar with LA's famous Wrecking Crew studio musicians, appearing on a host of iconic tracks from Ricky Nelson to Frank Sinatra to the Monkees. For a few months in the mid-1960s, he toured with the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson; in 1966 he played on Pet Sounds. A sharecropper's son from Arkansas, seventh son of 12 children, doesn't get to these rarified levels without enormous talent. Glen Campbell wasn't just some slick singer in a rhinestone suit -- he was the Real Deal.

Written by the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, who also wrote "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Galveston" for Glen -- their symbiotic partnership is a novel waiting to be written -- "Wichita Lineman" has a wonderful high-country loneliness to it. In fact, it's downright existential. Once you get past the syrupy strings and Glen's trademark yodel, it's a breathtaking ballad about love and loss and the American west. In fact, it's so spare and subtle that you need to load on the syrupy strings and Glen's yodel to release all the emotion in it.

Nothing much happens here. The singer is stringing telephone wire in some vast western landscape ("I am a lineman for the county," he humbly introduces himself, "and I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.") Later he admits, "I know I need a small vacation, / But it don't look like rain" -- this is the kind of ordinary Joe who only gets a rest when the weather's bad. He's just an American working man, way back before Bruce Springsteen made that kind of guy glamorous (and way before Manhattan rich boy Donald Trump decided to pitch his political future on their backs).

With nothing to distract him out here, he can't get his mind off his girlfriend/wife (could even be his boyfriend, for that matter). There's no back story provided -- we don't know if they're in the middle of a break-up, or he's just found out she's cheating on him, or she's been sick, or anything. He just . . . well, he just misses her.

In fact, she's such a part of him that she seems to be everywhere. "I hear you singin' in the wire / I can hear you through the whine" -- how poignant is that? (And oh, dig how the strings whine like the wind in the wires.) And in the next verse, the same heart-breaking melodic phrase gets these words: "And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time." That's as splendid as the biggest horizon, a sweeping majestic statement of love.

In both cases, he's jerked back to reality with a dull jolt: "And the Wichita lineman / Is still on the line." He jumps an octave to that last dissonant note on "line," underlaid with a throbbing insistent riff like a Morse code signal.

 He's still out there, for all we know, still searching in the sun for that overload. Iconic. God rest you, Glen Campbell.

Monday, July 31, 2017


A new feature here, in which I take two related songs and put them head to head. Please let me know if you have any ideas for song pairs for future Smackdowns!

"Space Oddity" / David Bowie
"Rocket Man" / Elton John

Well, I'll grant you, this could be an unfair contest. As you, my faithful readers, probably already know, I'm a longtime Bowie fan, and this was the song that started me on that road.

Whereas, in the entire 10 years and 1000+ posts of this blog, I have never yet written about Elton John.

But this is not a foregone conclusion, I promise you. I don't NOT like Elton John; I own an album or two of his, and I find that I know vast swaths of the lyrics to his songs. I acknowledge his enormous talent. And once I began thinking of "Rocket Man," I've found that it has an incredible earworm power. Once I start thinking about "Rocket Man," I cannot remember how "Space Oddity" goes.

So bring on the Smackdown. Let's start with the statistics. "Space Oddity" came first, released in July 1969, cleverly (or cynically) coinciding with the Apollo 11 moonwalk launch; it anchored Bowie's second album, David Bowie (which in the US was soon retitled Space Oddity, for obvious cashing-in reasons). "Rocket Man" popped up 3 years later, in April 1972, and was the major hit off Elton's 4th studio album, Honky Chateau. "Rocket Man" hit #2 on the UK charts and #15 on the US Billboard rankings, whereas "Space Oddity" reached #1 on the UK charts and #6 in the US, but only when it was re-released in 1975. So did "Space Oddity" tee up the public for "Rocket Man," or vice versa?

Now let's go to the videotape:

Daffy, isn't it?

Now here's Elton's production. Or rather, here's a lovely video that was created years later, inspired by Elton's song. Hopefully this levels the playing field a bit.

A point of order here: When we talk about "Rocket Man," let's distinguish between the music, which is Elton all the way, and the lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. My private theory is that Bernie Taupin's genius accounts for at least 60% of Elton John's success. And the poignancy of this song is mostly lyrics-driven. In "Space Oddity," Bowie doesn't mention his wife until the third verse ("Tell my wife I love her very much"), and even then Ground Control cuts him off precipitately ("She knows!"). But Taupin leads off with the wife, the job, the routine nature of astronauting: "She packed my bags last night, pre-flight / Zero hour, nine a.m. / And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then / I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife / It's lonely out in space / On such a timeless flight."
He later mentions wistfully "Mars ain't no place to raise your kids . . . In fact it's cold as hell," and, while he's "burning up my fuse up here alone" (a masturbation reference?), his main concern is that he's not worthy of the hero title ("I'm not the man they think I am at home"). I hear here shades of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which is way more about the isolation of fame than it is about The Wizard of Oz. Taupin admits he was influenced by the Bowie song (how could he not have been?), but also by a Ray Bradbury story ("The Rocket Man," in the collection Illustrated Man) and by the experience of watching a shooting star. 
For his part, Elton translates this into a song packed with octave-jump vocals and melodic lines that swoop up and down in parabolas of flight. Yes, his verses stick to Bowie's example, all minor keys and monotones and chromatics, but the choruses soar, with earworm hooks galore. 
Bowie, however, hangs onto the creepy, ominous tone for most of his song. Singing as Ground Control, he reaches into his dark low end of his range; he doubles his own vocals, and lays over a chillingly whispered countdown. His Major Tom is more sci-fi ("Take your protein pills and put your helmet on"), even if he's a product of media hype -- "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear". (Echoes of the Stones' "Satisfaction" -- "but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke / The same cigarettes as me".)  Bowie said he wrote this song to test out a new studio toy, the Stylophone keyboard (those spacenik synths in the background); the title puns on the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a little jab at the U.K.'s nonexistent space program. So far, it's an arty, satirical song, hardly the star-maker Bowie needed at this point in his career.  
But then he becomes Major Tom -- he leaves the capsule and everything goes haywire. He's "floating in a most peculiar way" -- I dig his singsongy delivery there -- he's helplessly "sitting in a tin can,"  and his circuit goes dead. (Oh, and I forgot to mention -- there's a line of thought that Bowie's song was about taking heroin.) Now the melody turns lyrical, switching to major key, and Bowie's lovely upper tenor sings wistfully about how "the stars look very different today." The magic of space travel (or, if you prefer, drug use) breaks through the glass.
And now there's dramatic tension. Ground Control is in panic mode, urgently repeating "Can you hear me Major Tom?" while the good major ruefully notes that "Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do...." It's terrifying, it's existential, and yet it's strangely liberating. What was that poster tagline from the movie Alien? "In space, no one can hear you scream..."  
I vote for Bowie. But I'd love to hear from you. Which of these songs takes the prize in your opinion? 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

First song on the Shuffle...

"Long Long Time" / Linda Ronstadt

A tale of two technologies.

When I moved to England in 1975, I had to leave behind my assiduously curated LP collection -- I had no space for a turntable, let alone a meter-high stack of vinyl. I took with me only a cassette player and a handful of cassette tapes, diligently recorded from my favorite albums, which I created by hand, punching buttons on a tape recorder in my bedroom in Indianapolis. Remember cassettes? So compact, so light -- eight-track tapes looked clunky next to them.

Once I was over in England, I frugally supplemented my meager collection by buying greatest hits collections on cassette. Which is how I ended up with two of the most seminal albums I own: Changesonebowie and Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits.

It was an impulse buy, really. I wasn't particularly a Linda Ronstadt fan, although I had loved her debut single with the Stone Poneys and, I swear, I saw her perform live once at a bowling alley in Western Massachusetts in 1974. I may have hallucinated that particular incident, but I'm sticking to it.

With limited musical options, I listened to those cassettes over and over. And, if you're not familiar with the technology, know that skipping tracks is super-hard on a tape cassette -- yeah, I listened to those albums straight through, track after track. They are INGRAINED in my musical consciousness.

Here's my party line on Linda Ronstadt -- she was a genius at covering songs that the original artists did better. Song after song on that album only teed me up to become fans of Bonnie Raitt ("Love Has No Pride"), Neil Young ("Love Is a Rose"), the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved"), Martha and the Vandellas ("Heat Wave"), and Buddy Holly ("That'll Be the Day"). I'll give Linda the edge on "Desperado," which I maintain she delivered better than her backing bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who'd soon go on to win fame as The Eagles. (Don't say it. DON'T say it. I already know what you're thinking...)

But this song? This song, her 1970 first solo hit record, written by her Laurel Canyon friend Gary White -- this one is Linda's triumph, forever.

"Long Long Time" appeared on Linda's 1970 LP Silk Purse, which she recorded in Nashvillle -- a gutsy move for a California folkie. Linda went full-on country on this album, covering Hank Williams and Mel Tillis, and even twanging up the Goffin-King classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow."
But "Long Long Time" doesn't go Opry. The arrangement stays clean, with acoustic guitar picks and a baroque string section, all the better to highlight Linda's go-for-broke vocals. The refrain lays it all on the table: "'Cause I've done everything I know / To try and make you mine / But I think I'm gonna love you / For a long long time."
That's the ultimate irony of this song: She may be pledging to love him for ages, but in fact the love affair is already over, done, kaput.  That long long time? It's a long long time of agony, frustration, and loss. And so she throws her heart into her voice, yelps and howls and all, protesting her martyrdom.
I love how the lyrics alternate platitudes ("take things in stride," "time washes clean," "wait for the day," "life's full of flaws") with the grim reality of loss. She knows now that she was fooling herself all the time, that he was playing her all the time ("you fell all over girls you never knew").  Harshest line? "Living in the memory of a love that never was." There's a hair shirt for you.
And so, in the grand tradition of Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, Linda Ronstadt laid it all on the line, identifying with the losers in love. Holding nothing back. Because, at this point, why?
It's pretty much a genius track, when you think about it. Thank you, Shuffle.   

Monday, July 17, 2017

It's Been Too Long....

Far be it from me to blame Donald Trump's presidency for everything . . . but I have to say, I haven't felt in the mood for writing about pop songs lately. However, I'll take a page from New York City's post-9/11 scrappiness, and make a stand here:  No vainglorious pettifogging bully is going to stop me from writing about the music I love.

Although it just might take a little time for me to get back into the groove. So here's my solution:  I'll just set the iTunes shuffle on, and write about the first song that comes up. Cross your fingers!

"Girl Talk" / Georgie Fame

Oh, my. Every since "Yeh Yeh" hit the airwaves in 1964, I've been a fan of this Brit charmer. So just imagine my delight when, in my most intense fangirl mode for Alan Price, I discovered that he and Georgie Fame had teamed up for a British TV series (and a couple of diggable albums). Not only that, Georgie had recorded an album with the Count Basie orchestra, fulfilling his ultimate goal of becoming a jazz musician. Wikipedia doesn't even show it, but I own that LP. It introduced me to the music of Mose Allison and a whole lot more. (Here's a crib sheet for that whole complicated music heritage...)

And so when in the year 2000, Georgie Fame wanted to go full-on jazz, Go Jazz Records made it happen . . .

Born Clive Powell, he was molded into a pop star by Larry Parnes, who forced him to change his name and to sing the sorts of tunes that had worked for Parnes' other clients like Billy Fury and Marty Wilde. But Clive/Georgie really just wanted to be a jazz pianist -- and so when the pop frenzy died down, Clive -- who'd already established himself with a sizzling residency at the London's Flamingo club -- drifted jazzward. He secured career stability by becoming Van Morrison's go-to keyboard player, and then took his free time to do what he wanted to.

Gotta love that.

The title of this 2000 album has some ambitious literary connections, to Dylan Thomas and Federico Garcia Lorca. Well, jazz has always tied itself to serious poetry. But there's nothing stuffy about the relaxed groove of this track. First off, there's the sexy syncopation of the musical phrasing. Then there's the flirtatious lyrics ("She bats her eye / You wanna fly / She sighs her sigh / You wanna cry / Hands on her hip / You wanna flip....") Wowza. And then there's that copasetic sax line, winding around, like a beckoning finger. Come here, big boy...

So while Larry Parnes' other "stars" have faded, Georgie Fame survives. Canny career moves have something to do with that, but I like to think it's also just about talent. This guy had the chops to impress Alan Price, and Van Morrison, and those savvy Flamingo audiences.  He gets a groove that transcends pop and jazz classifications. And when the day is done? I'm pretty darn happy just sitting here listening to the groove . . .

Saturday, May 06, 2017

50 Years Young

"Waterloo Sunset" / The Kinks

Released as a single 50 years ago, on May 5, 1967 (it's also on the classic album Something Else By the Kinks), "Waterloo Sunset" may be one of the Kinks best-known songs. But no matter how many times I listen to it, it always devastates me -- and I always find something beautiful and new in it.

Even as he was writing it, the Kinks' resident genius Ray Davies suspected this might be his masterpiece. It was so important to him that, after Kinks producer Shel Talmy had finished mixing the song, Ray stole back into the studio with the other Kinks and recorded it all over again, until it was just the way he wanted it.



It starts off majestically, with those martial bass thrums marching down the scale, but then that twangy guitar riff slips in, laying on a jazzy, modern sound. One of the things I've always loved about Ray Davies' music is his deft mix-and-match of musical styles. In just this one track you've got the 40s-style background oohs (Ray's wife Rasa singing an octave above his brother Dave), 60s girl-group sha-la-la's in the bridge, and the overlapping repeats of "Waterloo Sunset's fine," a nod to Brian Wilson's genius 1966 recordings "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."

And then there's that ineffable melody, sets of gently descending D-A-G chords, each short phrase making an arc until the final phrase dips below the horizon. (Just like a sunset -- hello!) Notice how each verse begins with a widescreen panorama -- the "dirty old river" flowing under the bridge, the lovers Terry and Julie meeting by the platform, crowds swarming "like flies" into the tube entrance.

But the balance is fragile, and Ray ruefully morphs into minor chords as he muses, "But I don't need no friends" or "But I don't feel afraid" (how long he hangs on those "don'ts," as if trying to convince himself). He's focused on himself, complaining how the crowds make him feel dizzy, and he's too lazy to leave home and meet friends. It's not just about London, it's really about his aching heart.

And then, and then -- the world outside his window revives him, and it resolves into the major D-A-G chords for that grand final line: "As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise." It's a great life lesson: Let go of your petty personal concerns, and be subsumed into the big picture.

The tension between the lonely observer and the teeming metropolis is the bittersweet heart of this song. Listen closely and you realize that he never gets out of that room, as he admits in the bridge (all those wistful 7th chords): "Every day I look at the world from my window," a memory drawn from Ray's childhood, when he was confined by a long illness in St. Thomas hospital near Waterloo. His perspective is tinged with a fear of death -- "Chilly, chilly is the evening time" -- but for right now, nature uplifts him, and "Waterloo sunset's fine."

By verse three, notice, he finally shifts the story away from himself and over to his fictional lovers Terry and Julie. (And who in late sixties Brit cinema was cooler than Terence Stamp and Julie Christie?). But unlike loner Ray, the reason they don't need friends is because they have each other. They're in love, and we get our happy ending.

Or do we? The shadows haven't entirely been chased away -- as Terry and Julie "cross over the river," I recall old myths in which crossing a river means death (which gives the line "they are in paradise" an extra twist).

"Waterloo Sunset" is like a great landscape painting, worthy of Turner or Monet; it's also a cinematic piece, with its wide-angle shots, dissolves, close-ups, and long tracking shot. It's a lyric poem, and it's also an epic novel. To do all this with one pop song, in the space of three minutes and seventeen seconds -- and to do it with a simple four-piece band (no added strings, no horn sections) -- well, it's a wondrous achievement. If Ray Davies had done nothing else in his life, he'd be worthy of undying respect.

And of course, he has done more -- so much more....