On This Day in Rock History: February 20

It’s been a while since my last post in this category, so I thought this would be a good opportunity.

Let’s take a look at what happened on February 20 in rock history. As always, this list doesn’t claim to be complete or objective.

1959: Jimi Hendrix gave his first public performance in the basement of this famous Jewish synagogue in Seattle. He only made it half-way through his first set when he was asked to stop. The audience couldn’t take the unorthodox style of the then-16-year-old high school student!

1965: According to the Beatles Bible, the Fab Four were in the studio that day to make mono mixes of If You’ve Got Trouble, Tell Me What You See, You’re Going to Lose That Girl and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. The last three songs were included on Help!, The Beatles’ soundtrack album for their second motion picture, which appeared in August that year. The Beatles also recorded and mixed That Means a Lot, a song that like If You’ve Got Trouble wasn’t released until 1996 as part of the Anthology 2 album.

1970: John Lennon’s Instant Karma! was released as a single in the U.S. Credited to Lennon/Ono with the Plastic Ono Band and produced by Phil Spector, it became the first solo single of a former Beatle to sell a million copies in America. It climbed all the way to no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 2 in Canada, and also reached the top 10 in various European charts, including no. 5 in the U.K. Here’s a cool clip of the song from a live performance of Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

1980: Bon Scott, the second lead singer of AC/DC, was pronounced dead at King’s College Hospital in London’s borough Southwalk, following a night of heavy drinking that led him to suffocate from vomit during his sleep. Scott provided his incredible voice on AC/DC’s first seven studio albums (counting the Australian and international versions of High Voltage separately). During the Scott era, some of the band’s classic tunes were released, such as T.N.T., It’s a Long Way to the Top, Whole Lotta Rosie and Highway to Hell. Here’s a great clip of Highway to Hell.

1991: At the 33rd Annual Grammy Awards, Bob Dylan received a lifetime achievement award from actor Jack Nicholson. Unlike last year’s ceremony for the Nobel Prizes, I understand Dylan showed, performed Masters of War from his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and even gave a short speech. Other recipients of the award that year included John Lennon, American classical singer Marian Anderson and trailblazer Kitty Wells, the first female country singer to top the U.S. country charts in 1952 with It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.


Ryan Adams Releases Great Alternative Rock Album

As a guy who primarily likes music from the 60s, 70s and 80s, it always reassures me when I come across great new music like this just-released album from Ryan Adams.

I have to admit I like to live in my time bubble when most music was true craftsmanship involving real instruments and real singing, not songs that oftentimes sound indistinguishable from one another and essentially computer-generated. When browsing iTunes these days, I primarily do so to see whether an “old act” has released anything new. I always get excited when I find “new artists” whose music I like.

I had heard of Ryan Adams before, but he wasn’t exactly on my radar screen. While as such he is new to me, the singer-songwriter from Jacksonville, N.C. is anything but a newbie – he’s been around since 1994, when he became a founding member of alternative country band Wiskeytown.

Prisoner is Adams’ 11th solo album. In addition, he previously released three albums with Wiskeytown; five albums with The Cardinals, a rock band Adams fronted between 2004 and 2009; and one album with hardcore punk band, The Finger. These are 20 studio releases (not counting various EPs) in close to 22 years, a sure indication Adams has been a pretty prolific artist! It begs the question what took me so long to find him? Oh, well, the bubble.

Back to Prisoner. Pretty much all of the reviews I’ve seen note the album’s 80s AOR feel. I would generally agree, though I sometimes think critics try too hard comparing new music to other artists. So, yes, you can definitely recognize some Bruce Springsteen and some John Mellencamp in Ryan’s music on the album. Actually, his voice reminds me a bit of Jackson Browne. But I don’t want to fall into the same trap noted above, so I’ll stop the comparisons here!

Before the album came out on Feb 17, Ryan already had released three singles: The opener Do You Still Love Me? and To Be Without You in December, followed by Doomsday in January – all pretty strong tunes. By the way, the not exactly cheerful titles of these and the album’s remaining nine tunes reflect Ryan’s divorce from actor and singer Mandy Moore, which was finalized last June. The music generally is more upbeat than the song titles suggest.

Some of the album’s other standouts include the title track, Haunted House, Anything I Say to You Now and Outbound Train. In addition to melodies that are easy on the ears and Ryan’s solid voice, I like the sparse instrumentation on most of the album’s songs. Many are dominated by acoustic guitar accompanied by bass and drums, with some accents of electric guitar and keyboards here and there. Where electric guitars are more in the foreground, Ryan barely uses distortion. Altogether, this creates a very transparent sound.

Here’s a clip of the album’s opener and first single, Do You Still Love Me, one of the few tunes with dominant keyboards and a more electric rock guitar sound.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: The Rod Stewart Album

Rod Stewart’s first solo album proves he’s a legitimate rocker.

There are some music artists you never can go wrong with because of their great voices, even though not all of their material is top notch. Joe Cocker comes to mind. Another example is Rod Stewart.

Over his remarkable 50-plus-year career, Stewart has touched multiple genres, including rock & roll, soul, standards from the American songbook and even disco. I think he’s always been at his best when he turned to his beginnings – rootsy rock mixed with blues and soul like on his first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, or The Rod Stewart Album, as it was called in the U.S. where it appeared in November 1969.

The album kicks off with a pretty cool remake – The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. The first part borrows from the Mowtown classic Dancing in the Street, while the second part sounds much closer to the Stones’ version. The song ends with the starting theme from We Love You, another Stones tune.

Another great song on the first side is Blind Prayer, a blues rock, and one of the four pieces written by Stewart. Finishing the side is the classic Handbags and Gladrags written by Mike D’Abo, who also plays the piano on the recording.

Side two starts off with An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, another Stewart composition. The other standout on that side of the album is Dirty Old Town, a song written by English folk singer Ewan MacColl and made popular by The Dubliners in 1968.

When Stewart recorded his debut, he was still with The Faces, a band formed in 1969 when he and Ronnie Wood left The Jeff Beck Group to team up with the remnants of The Small Faces. So it’s perhaps not a surprise Stewart got a little help from his band mates, namely Wood (guitar, bottleneck guitar, bass guitar, harmonica) and Ian “Mac” McLagan (piano, organ), though he is not credited on the record sleeve. Among the other musicians are Keith Emerson, who played organ on I Wouldn’t Ever Chance a Thing, and Jeff Beck Group drummer Mickey Waller.

Stewart’s debut release climbed to no. 139 on the Billboard 200 album chart and received positive reviews. Rolling Stone called it a “superb album” and AllMusic rated it 4.5 out of 5 stars. Robert Christgau who by his own admission had a strong prejudice against Stewart gave the album an A-.







Soft Rock Tunes for Valentine’s

Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to write about some of my favorite rock ballads.

I don’t recall Valentine’s Day being a big deal when I was growing up in Germany, though I believe nowadays it’s become pretty popular there as well, especially among young people. While I don’t celebrate the occasion to this day, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of great rock ballads.

I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing (Aerosmith): For a band that had released many great songs since their eponymous 1973 album, such as Dream On, Sweet Emotion and Janie’s Got a Gun, it is quite remarkable that it took 28 years until Aerosmith finally had a no. 1 single in September 1998. I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing was written by American songwriter, Dianne Warren. It probably did not hurt that the power ballad was part of the soundtrack of the 1998 motion picture Armageddon starring Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler, Steven Tyler’s daughter.

Still Loving You (Scorpions): The Scorpions have released a number of catchy rock ballads throughout their long career. I think the best one, Still Loving You, initially appeared on 1984’s Love At First Sting, which also happens to my favorite Scorpions album. Written by Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine, the song was also released as a single in July 1984. It cracked the top 20 in various European  charts and made it to no. 64 on the Billboard Hot 100. Given how much radio play the song received in Germany, I’m actually surprised it only climbed to no. 14 in the charts there.

Open Arms (Journey): There was possibly nobody else who could deliver a rock ballad quite like Steve Perry. Written by him and Jonathan Cain, this gem appeared in January 1982 and was the fourth single from Journey’s seventh studio album Escape. The song became the band’s biggest Billboard Top 100 hit, climbing all the way to no. 2 in February 1982 and staying there for six weeks.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn (Poison): This power ballad was included in Poison’s second studio album Open Up and Say…Ahh!, which appeared in May 1988. It was also released as a single in October that year and climbed in the Billboard Hot 100 until it reached the top spot in December 1988, remaining there for three weeks. Credited to all four members of Poison, Bret Michaels, C.C. DeVille, Bobby Dall and Rikki Rockett, it became the band’s only no. 1 hit in the U.S.

Waiting For a Girl Like You (Foreigner): Written by Mick Jones and Lou Gramm, this tune is one of the defining 80’s power ballads. The song initially appeared on 4, Foreigner’s fourth and best studio album in July 1981, and was also released as a single in October that year. It was one of the record’s several major hits, reaching no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and holding that position for 10 weeks.

I’ll Be There For You (Bon Jovi): The tune was originally released in September 1988 on Bon Jovi’s fourth studio album New Jersey. Written by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, I’ll Be There for You was one of an impressive five top 10 singles the album yielded, reaching the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The guys look kind of hilarious in the clip – oh, well, it was the 80’s era of the hair bands!

Babe (Styx): Babe was the lead single from Styx’s ninth studio album Cornerstone, released in October 1979. Written by Dennis DeYoung, the ballad became the band’s first and only no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100.

Amanda (Boston): Including its eponymous 1976 debut, Boston has only released six albums in its 41-year history. Guitarist, keyboardist, songwriter and producer Tom Scholz, who essentially is Boston, is known for absolute perfectionism when it comes to recording music. And he allows himself to take as much time as needed to meet his high standards. Amanda was released in September 1986 as the first single from Third Stage, Boston’s third studio album. The song became the band’s most successful single, holding the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. Incredibly, it even outperformed Boston’s signature song More Than a Feeling.

Heaven (Bryan Adams): Heaven came out during the peak of Bryan Adams’ popularity, initially appearing on the soundtrack of the 1983 motion picture A Night in Heaven. The song, which Adams co-wrote with Jim Vallance, was also included on his fourth studio album Reckless, released in November 1984. It became the record’s third single and reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1985. It ended up being the most successful of the album’s six singles.

Can’t Fight This Feeling (REO Speedwagon): Initially appearing in November 1984 on REO Speedwagon’s 11th studio album Wheels Are Turnin’, the song was also released as the record’s second single in January 1985. Written by Kevin Cronin, Can’t Fight This Feeling became the band’s second no. 1 single after 1981’s Keep on Loving You. It hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1985 and remained there for three consecutive weeks.

Enjoy and to those celebrating, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll (Rainbow)

This 1978 gem is hard rock at its best.

When I listened to Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll for the first time, the tune blew me away immediately – it still does! The title song of Rainbow’s third studio album is a must-have on any hard rock play list. While I’ve had this and some other Rainbow songs as MP3 files for a long time, recently, I purchased the album on vinyl and have played it a number of times since.

Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll is by far my favorite Rainbow album. There is simply no weak tune on this record. Things kick off at full power with the title song, one of the iconic 70’s hard rock tunes. Like most songs on the album, it was co-written by rock guitar maestro Ritchie Blackmore and Ronnie James Dio, one of the most powerful hard rock singers of all time. I read Blackmore apparently once said when he heard Dio singing, “I felt shivers down my spine.”

Following Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll are two excellent mid-tempo rockers, Lady of the Lake and L.A. Connection, before Gates of Babylon closes out side one. The song’s complexity and its orchestral instrumentation remind me a bit of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.

Similar to side 1, side 2 starts with a pedal-to-the-metal tune, Kill the King. It is one of only two songs with additional writing credits given to Cozy Powell, who played drums and percussion on the album. The second song Powell co-wrote with Blackmore and Dio, The Shed, comes right after Kill the King. Another standout on side 2 is Rainbow Eyes. Coming in at more than seven minutes, it is the record’s longest tune and its only ballad.

Surprisingly, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll only had moderate commercial success. The album performed best in the UK where it reached no. 7 on the album chart in 1978. That same year, it hit no. 89 on the Billboard 200. I suppose this proves chart placements are not necessarily indicative of how great a record is.

Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll was Dio’s last album with Rainbow. He left in 1979 to join Black Sabbath after Blackmore had decided to take the band in a more commercial direction. Together with Blackmore, Dio had been the only constant member of Rainbow since the band’s beginning in 1975. Powell was recruited for Rainbow’s second studio album, Rising (1976), and lasted until Down to Earth, the 1979 follow-up to Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. Under Blackmore’s iron leadership, the band’s line-up constantly changed.

Last year, after he had left rock for nearly two decades to focus on renaissance and baroque music, Blackmore performed two shows in Germany and one gig in the UK with a new line-up of the band, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. The shows presented a mix of Rainbow and Deep Purple songs. Following the positive reception, Blackmore announced additional gigs for this June in the UK. The new line-up has a strong singer, Ronnie Romero, who sounds a bit like Dio.

Here is a clip of Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll from the 1978 album.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube



The Best Super Bowl Halftime Shows

With Super Bowl 51 Sunday upon us, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my favorite halftime shows.

Having grown up in a country where at least at the time American football was an afterthought, I must admit the sport remains an acquired taste to me to this day. However, what attracted me from the very first time I watched the spectacle on TV in addition to the ads were the halftime shows.

An impressive array of music artists have performed at the Super Bowl over the years. Typically, the gigs only last for about 13 minutes, which is barely enough time for four songs or so. This means performers need to figure out how to stick to the tight time limit while making their fans happy – not an easy task!

Most artists end up rearranging tunes to make them tighter and playing medleys. Following are some of my favorite Super Bowl halftime shows I caught over the years. And, yes, this list is skewed!:-)

The Who (Super Bowl XLIV, Miami, Feb 7, 2010)

Drawing from the Tommy, Who’s Next and Who Are You albums, the set list featured some of the band’s best known classics, including Pinball Wizard, Baba O’Riley, Who Are You, See Me, Feel Me and Won’t Get Fooled Again. When I saw The Who a couple of years ago, it was if time had stood still. These guys continue to bring it. Here is a nice clip of their Super Bowl performance.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Super Bowl XLIII, Tampa, Feb 1, 2009)

This must have been one of shortest gigs for the Boss who is of course notorious for delivering one-of-a-kind rock & roll marathons. It may have been short, but Springsteen sure as heck delivered! He mostly stuck to crowd-pleasing classics and also threw in what was a newer song at the time. The set list included Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Born to Run, Working on a Dream and Glory Days. You can all watch it again below.

The Rolling Stones (Super Bowl XL, Detroit, Feb 5, 2006)

Similar to the Boss, the Stones opted to combine two of their biggest hits with one of their then newer songs: Start Me Up, Rough Justice and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. While the band delivered a solid performance, their gig became more known for Mick Jagger’s mic being dialed down during two lines of the lyrics of Start Me Up and Rough Justice.  Feeling the lines could be viewed as offensive, the NFL decided not to take any chances and censored the songs, following the uproar over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl 2004 halftime show. From today’s perspective, it all looks pretty laughable. Watch part I (Start Me Up & Rough Justice) and part II (Satisfaction) of the Stones’ performance below.

Paul McCartney (Super Bowl XXXIX, Jacksonville, Fla, Feb 6, 2005)

Paul McCartney is an amazing live performer and gives me a thrill each time I see him play. Once again, he did not disappoint. His set focused on crowd-pleasers, mostly featuring Beatles songs, and one of his biggest successes with the Wings: Drive My Car, Get Back, Live and Die and Hey Jude. Here’s a great clip of the show, including the usual fireworks spectacle during Live and Let Die.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube




Chicago Is Turning 50

The self-described “rock & roll band with horns” has come a long way since its origins in Feb 1967.

While the past few years have seen various 50th anniversary celebrations of rock bands that started in the 60s, such as the Beach Boys, Cream and this year The Doors, only very few have consistently performed for five decades. Chicago is one of them. The only other band I can think of that can truly match this record is The Rolling Stones.

Chicago’s story started in Feb 1967 – according to a Daily Herald article I found, it was Feb 15 that year. Then, James Pankow (trombone, keyboards, percussion, vocals), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds, backing vocals), Terry Kath (guitar, bass, vocals), Danny Seraphine (drums, percussion), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, guitar, percussion, vocals), Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals) and Peter Cetera (bass, guitar, vocals) formed a band called “The Big Thing.” While the lineup has changed numerous times over the years, Pankow, Parazaider, Loughnane and Lamm have remained as original members.

Initially, The Big Thing was a cover band playing top 40 hits. Prompted by their manager, James William Guercio, they moved to Los Angeles in June 1968, got a contract with Columbia Records and changed their name to Chicago Transport Authority. At that time, they had started to work on own material. In April 1969, CTA released its eponymous double album, which by 1970 had sold over one million copies. Among others, it includes the classic Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is? and a great cover version of the Spencer Davis Group’s I’m A Man.

The album’s fusion of jazz and rock is reminiscent of Blood, Sweat & Tears, which is not a coincidence. A few months earlier, Guercio had produced that band’s hugely successful eponymous second studio album. During CTA’s tour to support their debut album, the actual transit authority of Chicago threatened legal action, forcing the band to shorten its name to Chicago. Just nine months later, in January 1970, Chicago released its second studio album, Chicago, another double release that later became known as Chicago II. It featured three top 10 Billboard Pop Singles, including Make Me Smile, Color My World and my favorite Chicago tune, 25 or 6 to 4.

After an extended tour, the band’s third studio album appeared in January 1971. While Chicago III, yet another double album, did not yield any major hits, it saw the band introduce new musical styles, including funk and country. A great example is the opener Sing a Mean Tune Kid, which features a cool funky guitar sound by Terry Kath. Kath also shines with Jimi Hendrix-like guitar riffs on I Don’t Want Your Money. Speaking of Hendrix, he once told Parazaider, “Your horn players are one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.”

Chicago continued to release new studio albums each year. Chicago X, the band’s eighth studio release appearing in June 1976, yielded its first No. 1 single, If You Leave Me Now. Written by Cetera, the Grammy award-winning ballad prominently features string arrangements and acoustic guitars, foreshadowing the band’s focus on pop ballads during the “Cetera era.” This was continued with Cetera’s Baby, What a Big Surprise on the follow-up, Chicago XI, though in the wake of its releases the album brought more change to Chicago than continuity. It was the band’s last record prior to Kath’s accidental death with a gun and the last album produced by Guerico.

Chicago 16, released in 1982, completed the band’s full transition to soft rock, driven by Cetera and new producer David Foster. The ballad Hard to Say I’m Sorry became Chicago’s second No. 1 single in the U.S. The follow-up, 1984’s Chicago 17, continued the successful formula. It became Chicago’ best-selling album, fueled by four top 10 singles: You’re the Inspiration, Hard Habit to Break, Stay the Night and Along Comes a Woman. While the band enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, tensions rose over Cetera’s and Foster’s artistic dominance.

According to a CNN documentary, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, which aired on Jan 1, 2017, the other band members felt that Cetera increasingly regarded Chicago as his back-up band. Cetera who had physically shaped up also became the focus in the band’s videos recorded for MTV. The cameras mostly ignored the rest of the band. Things came to a boil when Cetera started a solo career and sought an arrangement where Chicago would take breaks after tours to allow him to focus on his solo work. The band rejected, and by the summer of 1985 Cetera was out.

Interestingly, Chicago continued to work with Foster on 1986’s Chicago 18, before switching to Ron Nevison who produced the next two albums, Chicago 19 (1988) and Twenty 1 (1991). Starting with that album, the band slowed down the pace of new releases. Since then, seven Chicago albums have appeared, including two Christmas albums, compared with 16 during the band’s first 25 years.

Last year, Chicago was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, together with Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Steve Miller and N.W.A.. But sadly, this milestone was not all harmony. While Seraphine reunited with his former band mates, Cetera stayed away after the band had rejected his proposal to perform 25 or 6 to 4 in the key of E, four notes lower than the original. In a Rolling Stone interview, Lamm explained, “if it’s just a four-piece band you can do it, but with horns, you got to transfer those…It’s not something we wanted to do for a one-off.”

Chicago has sold more than 100 million records, making it one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time. They have had five no. 1 albums and 21 top ten singles. Among American bands, their success in Billboard singles and album charts is only second to The Beach Boys. Chicago continues to perform live prolifically and is currently doing a 50th anniversary tour across the U.S. This will include 30 co-headlining dates with the Doobie Brothers from early June until the end of July.

Here is a nice clip of Chicago’s epic 25 or 6 to 4. By the way, the title refers to the time Robert Lamm wrote it, which was 25 or 26 minutes to 4:00 am.

Sources: Wikipedia, Daily Herald, CNN documentary “Now More Than Ever”, Rolling Stone, YouTube