Paul Simon’s Eponymous U.S. Solo Debut Album Turns 50

Today, fifty years ago, Paul Simon released his eponymous solo album. His first record that appeared nearly two years after the break-up of his duo with Art Garfunkel was his second solo effort overall and the first to appear in the U.S. The Paul Simon Songbook from August 1965 had come out in the UK only. It would eventually be released in the U.S. in 1981 as part of a five-LP boxed set titled Collected Works.

Simon started work on the album in early 1971. For the reggae-influenced song Mother and Child Reunion, one of the reasons why I spontaneously decided to write about this 50th anniversary, he traveled to Jamaica. Simon liked reggae and listened to artists like Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Bryon Lee. So he decided to record the tune with Cliff’s backing band at a studio in Kingston to make it sound more authentic. Afterward, he went to San Francisco to record some demos there.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the songs. Opening Side one is the aforementioned Mother and Child Reunion. The tune had also appeared as the album’s lead single on January 17, 1972, Simon’s first single as a solo artist. Songfacts notes that Simon wrote this in response to the Jimmy Cliff song “Vietnam,” where a mother receives a letter about her son’s death on the battlefield…Simon said of the song that it “became the first reggae hit by a non-Jamaican white guy outside Jamaica. Among others, the tune reached no. 4 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, no. 4 in Canada and no. 5 in each the UK and Australia.

When I listened to the ballad Duncan for the first time, it reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa, because of the beautiful pan flute fill-ins. It turns out those flutes were played by Los Incas, the same Andean group of musicians who had previously collaborated with Simon & Garfunkel on El Condor Pasa. Duncan was also released separately as the album’s third and final single in July 1972. It charted in the U.S. and Australia but didn’t match the success of Mother and Child Reunion.

Another tune from Side one I’d like to call out is Run That Body Down, which has a nice jazzy touch. Some notable backing musicians on that track include renowned jazz double bassist Ron Carter and guitarist David Spinoza who among others worked with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the ’70s and produced James Taylor’s 1974 studio album Walking Man. Also, check out the great guitar solo by jazz guitarist Jerry Hahn, which starts at around 2:25 minutes.

Side two kicks off with one of Simon’s best-known songs and one of my favorites: Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. The song’s meaning is unclear. Songfacts states, When asked what “Mama Pajama” saw that made her so distraught in this song, Paul Simon has said that he’s not exactly sure, but he assumed it was something sexual. Simon made up a crazy little story for the song, and named the main character Julio because it sounded like a typical New York neighborhood kid (Simon grew up in Queens). What Paul didn’t realize until years later was the impact the song had on Spanish-speaking listeners who were thrilled to hear a song coming out of America with a Latin name in the title. That’s how you do it: You just make up stuff, based on things you may have seen or read, and then have clever people debate what you meant. Bob Dylan anybody? Or how about Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker? Julio also became the record’s second single. Its chart performance fell in-between Mother and Child Reunion and Duncan. It did best in Canada where it peaked at no. 6. On the U.S. and UK mainstream charts, it reached no. 22 and no. 15, respectively.

Next up: Peace Like a River. I decided to call out this song primarily because of Simon’s acoustic guitar playing, which blends folk with a dose of blues. Learning the acoustic guitar myself many years ago, I can definitely say he was one of the players I admired. The difference between Simon and myself: He became famous, while I always remained a closet acoustic guitarist! 🙂

The last tune I’d like to call out is a short instrumental titled Hobo’s Blues. Did I just say instrumental? No vocals, something I’m generally addicted to? Yep, sometimes you don’t need vocals. The standout here is French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, the only musician on the track besides Simon on acoustic guitar. Pretty neat!

Paul Simon was co-produced by Simon and Roy Halee who had co-produced Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (April 1968) and Bridge over Troubled Water (January 1970) albums. He also had co-produced the tune Mrs. Robinson from the soundtrack of the motion picture The Graduate, for which he had won a Grammy Award.

The album was mostly well-received by critics. According to Wikipedia, even Robert Christgau had something positive to say, writing in the Village Voice, “this is the only thing in the universe to make me positively happy in the first two weeks of February 1972” – jeez, he must have been on some substance! And in Rolling Stone that year, Jon Landau called the album Simon’s “least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far — this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme.”

The album, which in 1986 reached Platinum certification in the U.S., topped the charts in the UK, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Notably, it was Simon’s only no. 1 album in the UK in the ’70s. It would take until the fantastic Graceland from 1986 to reach the top spot again. In Canada and The Netherlands, Paul Simon climbed to no. 2, while in the U.S. and Australia, it reached no. 4 and no. 5, respectively. The record was ranked at no. 268 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It also made the list for the 2020 update, coming in at no. 425.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 21

Dare I say it, it looks like my irregularly recurring music history feature is becoming more frequent. But with nearly 300 dates left to cover, I still have a long way to go, so it’s safe to assume this series won’t end anytime soon. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the events in music that happened on January 21 over the past six decades or so. I would also like to briefly acknowledge the untimely death of operatic rock artist Meat Loaf, which was reported overnight. He was believed to have been 74 years old. The cause of death has not been revealed.

1963: Since nearly everything in my little music world starts or finishes with The Beatles, let’s get this bloody item out of the way. According to The Beatles Bible, the ultimate source of truth about the band, On this day The Beatles appeared on the EMI plug show The Friday Spectacular, at EMI House, 20 Manchester Square, London. They chatted to hosts Shaw Taylor and Muriel Young, and studio recordings of ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ask Me Why’ were played. The show was recorded before an audience of around 100 teenagers, and was broadcast live on Radio Luxembourg. The overwhelming crowd size tells you this was still pre-Beatlemania. Though their press officer Tony Barrow said that during the recording, “I was finally convinced that The Beatles were about to enjoy the type of top-flight national fame which I had always believed that they deserved.” Side note: Three years later on that same date, George Harrison married his first wife Pattie Boyd, with Paul McCartney serving as best man.

1966: The Trips Festival, a three-day landmark event in the development of psychedelic music, kicked off at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, Produced by Ken Kesey, Ramon Sender, and Stewart Brand, the event is largely recognized as the first to bring together what would be called the “hippie” movement. The sold-out festival, which drew 10,000 people, featured the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane, among others. And some 6,000 people drinking punch spiked with LSD, who witnessed one of the first fully developed light shows of the era. I also found this trippy clip!

1978: Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack album of the 1977 motion picture starring John Travolta, stood at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first of 24 weeks on top of the U.S. mainstream chart. It also reached no. 1 in Canada, the UK, Australia and many other countries. Saturday Night Fever became one of the best-selling albums in music history. With more than 40 million copies sold worldwide, it remains the second-biggest selling soundtrack of all time after The Bodyguard. But, as oftentimes is the case, what goes up must come down. Not even three years later, the Bee Gees, the group most associated with the soundtrack and disco, called it quits, finding themselves caught in the furious backlash toward disco including bomb threats – something you could sadly picture nowadays as well! I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care whether you call Bee Gees music disco, R&B, disco-influenced or anything else – I dig it!

1984: British progressive rock stalwarts Yes hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Owner of a Lonely Heart. Co-written by band members Trevor Rabin (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Jon Anderson (lead vocals) and Chris Squire (bass vocals), together with co-producer Trevor Horn, the catchy pop rocker was first released in October 1983 as the lead single for the group’s 11th studio album 90125, which came out the following month. Owner of the Lonely Heart became Yes’s first and only no. 1 on the U.S. mainstream chart. It also did well in Europe, especially in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 2. While earlier singles like Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout and And You and I are great songs as well, they simply weren’t radio-friendly. Yes, Owner of a Lonely Heart has a commercial ’80s sound, but it’s a hell of a catchy tune!

1987: Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards during the Rock Hall’s second annual induction ceremony. Here’s what the Rock Hall posted on their website: Lady Soul. The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remain anthems that defined soul music. Long live the Queen. And here are The Rolling Stones guitarist’s live remarks from that night – let’s just say it was a classic Keith Richards speech!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 10

A look on the calendar revealed January 10 was a date I had not covered yet as part of my recurring music history feature that has become a bit more regular over the past few months. Not sure yet whether this is going to remain the case. For now, let’s look at some of the events that happened on January 10 throughout rock history.

1958: Jerry Lee Lewis topped the UK Official Singles chart with Great Balls of Fire, one of his best-known songs. Co-written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, the rock & roll classic had been recorded on October 8, 1957, at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., and released on November 11 that year. The tune also became a big hit in the U.S. where it topped the Billboard country and R&B charts and peaked at no. 2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. The song was also featured in the American rock & roll picture Jamboree from 1957. “The Killer” remains alive at age 86.

1964: The Rolling Stones released their eponymous debut EP in the UK. It came on the heels of their second single I Wanna Be Your Man in November 1963, a cover of a Beatles tune that had yielded the first top 20 hit for the Stones in the UK. The EP featured four other covers of tunes written by Chuck Berry, Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, Arthur Alexander and songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Here’s the Alexander song You Better Move On, which also became the Stones’ fourth single in January 1964. Unlike I Wanna Be Your Man, You Better Move On did not make the British charts, though it charted in Australia at an underwhelming no. 94. I’ve actually always liked this rendition.

1969: George Harrison quit The Beatles while they were at Twickenham Film Studios, where their rehearsals for the Get Back/Let It Be sessions were being captured on camera. If you watched the Peter Jackson documentary The Beatles: Get Back, you could see that George’s frustration about the tensions within the group had been building up. When they broke for lunch, he had had it and told his bandmates, “I think I’ll be leaving, I’m leaving the band now.” Asked by John Lennon, “When?”, Harrison replied, “Now. Get a replacement.” His last words before walking out were, “See you ’round the clubs.” A few days later, he returned after he had received assurances the concert The Beatles had planned would be canceled and that his other wishes would be respected. Fortunately, things turned out to be different with the famous roof concert, though if you watched the above documentary, you saw it was up in the air until the very last minute.

1977: American blues legend Muddy Waters released Hard Again, the first of his final three studio albums that were produced by electric blues guitar virtuoso Johnny Winter. That’s pretty much all the facts you need to have to know this has got to be great. The album, which was recorded live in-studio in just three days, won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. Here’s The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll, Pt. 2, co-written by Waters (credited as McKinley Morganfield, his real name) and Brownie McGhee.

2016: David Bowie passed away from liver cancer in New York at the age of 69. He had received his diagnosis 18 months earlier and decided not to make it public. Just two days earlier, his 26th and final studio album Blackstar had been released. The recording had taken place in secret at a studio in New York. Co-producer Tony Visconti called the album Bowie’s “parting gift” for his fans before his death. While I understand many fans like Blackstar, admittedly, it’s not my cup of tea. I much prefer Bowie’s first decade, in particular his glam rock period. Here’s one of my favorites, Suffragette City, off his fifth studio album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars from June 1972. To quote the instruction on the back cover, “To be played at maximum volume”! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 4

Welcome to the first 2022 installment of On This Day in Rock & Roll History. While the approximately 70 different dates I’ve covered since the start of this irregular music history feature in 2016 feel like a lot of ground, the reality is this still leaves close to 300 dates I can pick. Today it’s going to be January 4.

1967: The Doors released their eponymous debut album, which proved to be a smash. Not only would it become the Los Angeles band’s best-selling record, but it also was a huge chart success. In the U.S., it surged to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also performed well in Europe, reaching no. 3, no. 4 and n0.6 in France, Norway and Austria, respectively, as well as no. 43 in the UK, among others. Some of the album’s highlights include the singles Break on Through (To the Other Side) and Light My Fire, as well as the epic closer The End. Here’s the latter credited to all members of the group: Jim Morrison (vocals), Robbie Krieger (guitar, backing vocals) Ray Manzarek (organ, piano, backing vocals) and John Densmore (drums, percussion, backing vocals).

1972: Roundabout by Yes, the only single from their fourth studio album Fragile came out. Co-written by singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe, the tune became the English prog rockers’ most successful U.S. single of the ’70s, reaching no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Notably, it missed the charts in the UK. The album did much better in both countries, climbing to no. 4 and 7, respectively. Below is the 8:30-minute album version of Roundabout, one of my favorite Yes tunes. Since there was no way radio stations would play such a long track, the single edit was shortened to 3:27 minutes.

1975: Elton John stood at no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with his rendition of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. The recording featured backing vocals by his friend John Lennon (under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O’Boogie), who wrote most of the original. Credited to him and Paul McCartney, as usual, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds first appeared on The Beatles’ studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from May 1967. John took the tune to no. 1 in the U.S., which according to Wikipedia makes it one of only two songs credited to Lennon-McCartney to top the U.S. charts by an artist other than The Beatles. John’s version was also successful elsewhere, hitting no. 1 in Canada, no. 2 in New Zealand and no. 3 in Australia. In the UK, it peaked at no. 10.

1980: American rock band The Romantics released their eponymous debut album. It reached no. 61 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 – not bad for a first record. Below is What I Like About You, which first appeared as the album’s lead single in December 1979. The garage rock-flavored tune was co-written by band members Wally Palmar (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica), Mike Skill (lead guitar, backing vocals) and Jimmy Marinos (vocals, drums, percussion). The Romantics remain active to this day, with Palmar and Skill still being part of the current line-up.

1986: Phil Lynott, who had best been known as a founding member, lead vocalist, bassist and principal songwriter of Irish rock band Thin Lizzy, passed away at the age of 36. The cause was pneumonia and heart failure due to blood poisoning (septicemia). Lynott’s final years of his life following the disbanding of Thin Lizzy in 1983 were marked by heavy drug and alcohol dependency. Here’s one of the group’s best tunes written by Lynott: The Boys Are Back in Town, off their sixth album Jailbreak from March 1976. It also became the record’s lead single the following month.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Music; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: December 28

Welcome to the 75th installment of my irregularly recurring music history feature where I celebrate birthdays of notable artists and look back at events that happened on a certain date throughout the decades. Today, my picks revolve around December 28.

1968: The Miami Pop Festival kicked off north of Miami, Fla. The three-day event took place at Gulfstream Park, a horse racing track in Hallandale. Not to be confused with another festival that had been held at the same place seven months earlier, the Miami Pop Festival was the first major rock festival on the U.S. East Coast, drawing approximately 100,000 people. Performing acts came from a wide variety of music and included Chuck Berry, José Feliciano, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and Steppenwolf, among others. The only footage I could find is this clip of Turn On Your Lovelight by Grateful Dead. Good tune, actually, and it’s only 12 and a half minutes long! 🙂

1970: John Lennon released Mother as a single in the U.S. The haunting tune became the lead single of Lennon’s debut solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band that had appeared two weeks earlier on December 11. Songfacts notes Lennon wrote this while he was undergoing “Primal Scream” therapy, where he was dealing with a lot of issues that were detailed in the lyrics: He lost his mother at a crucial period in his life to a drunk-driving, off-duty policeman who ran her over in a crosswalk, and his aunt Mimi raised him, which explains the line, “Mother you had me, but I never had you.” His father, a merchant seaman, left him for the sea and for work. “I wanted you, you didn’t need me” explains his feelings about his dad. Lennon’s primal screaming on this song expresses the pain of his childhood. It’s one of Lennon’s most personal and powerful songs.

1976: Guitarist Freddie King, who together with B.B. King and Albert King was known as one of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar,” died at age 42 from complications of stomach ulcers and acute pancreatitis. King who hailed from Gilmer, Texas, picked up the guitar as a six-year-old, initially learning from his mother and uncle. He moved to Chicago as a teenager and eventually got a deal with Federal Records after Chess Records had repeatedly turned him down. In 1960, King recorded his first single Have You Ever Loved a Woman with that label. Written by Billy Myles, the tune also appeared on King’s 1961 debut album Freddy King Sings. Over his 14-year recording career, he released 13 studio records.

1978: Rolling Stone magazine voted Some Girls by The Rolling Stones as album of the year. The band’s 16th studio release became their sixth no. 1 album in a row on the U.S. Billboard 200 since 1971’s Sticky Fingers and is considered to be among their best records by many of their fans. It also holds the distinction of being the only Stones record to be nominated for a Grammy in the Album of the Year category. There was some controversy surrounding the cover showing the Stones with select female celebrities and lingerie ads. Following the threat of legal action from the likes of Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett and Liza Minnelli, the album was quickly reissued with a different cover that replaced all celebrities with black and punk-style garish colors with the phrase “Pardon our appearance – cover under re-construction”. Here’s a track off the record, When the Whip Comes Down, credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as usual.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; The Current/Minnesota Public Radio; YouTube

Happy Birthday, Keef!

Today, Keith Richards turned 78 – wow, that’s kind of hard to believe! And that The Rolling Stones are still out there rockin’. In fact, they just recently wrapped up their No Filter Tour in Hollywood, Fla. Based on clips I’ve seen, they still sounded great!

While I suppose the most iconic guitar riff Richards has written is for (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and it definitely remains cool, I’d like to celebrate his birthday with another great riff, which is my favorite: Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The tune was first released as a non-album single in the UK on May 24, 1968. The U.S. release followed a few days thereafter on June 1.

Here’s what Keef told Guitar Magazine about the riff in an interview published in December 2020:

Jumping Jack Flash comes from this guy, Jack Dyer, who was my gardener – an old English yokel. Mick and I were in my house down in the south of England. We’d been up all night; the sky was just beginning to go gray. It was pissing down raining, if I remember rightly. 

Mick and I were sitting there, and suddenly Mick starts up. He hears these great footsteps, these great rubber boots – slosh, slosh, slosh – going by the window. He said. “What’s that?” And I said, “Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumpin’ Jack.” We had my guitar in open tuning, and I started to fool around with that. [singing] “Jumpin’ Jack…” and Mick says, “Flash.” He’d just woken up. And suddenly we had this wonderful alliterative phrase. So he woke up and we knocked it together.

On the record, I played a Gibson Hummingbird [acoustic] tuned to either open E or open D with a capo. And then I added another [acoustic] guitar over the top, but tuned to Nashville tuning [tuned like a 12-string guitar without the lower octave strings]. I learned that from somebody in George Jones’ band, in San Antonio in ’63. We happened to be playing the World Teen Fair together. This guy in a Stetson and cowboy boots showed me how to do it, with the different strings, to get that high ring. I was picking up tips.

And since it’s so much fun, let’s wrap things with a live version from the excellent Sticky Fingers- Live at the Fonda Theater 2015. Released in September 2017 as part of the Stones’ Vault Series, the album, in my view, reaches the iconic Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert from September 1970.

Happy birthday, Keef, and keep on rockin’

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar Magazine; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: December 16

It’s been a while since the last installment of this irregularly recurring feature. While picking a random date is an arbitrary way to look at music history, I think it’s always interesting to see what comes up. As usual, the picks reflect my music taste and are not supposed to be a complete list.

1965: The double A-side non-album single Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out by The Beatles hit no. 1 in the UK on the Official Singles Chart, becoming their ninth chart-topper there. Primarily written by John Lennon, the tune was credited to him and Paul McCartney, as usual. According to Songfacts, the lyrics were the first reference to LSD in a Beatles song. Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out were also included on Yesterday and Today, a U.S. album from June 1966 that caused an uproar over its original “butcher cover,” showing The Beatles in white coats, covered with decapitated baby dolls and pieces of raw meat. Frankly, I much prefer Day Tripper – always loved that cool guitar riff!

1966: The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their first UK single Hey Joe, backed by Stone Free. Different recordings of the song were credited to different writers, including Billy Roberts and Dino Valenti. Some recordings have indicated it as a traditional song. The first commercial recording was made by Los Angeles garage band The Leaves in late 1965. Hendrix’s rendition is the best-known version of the song and became one of his biggest hits in the UK, reaching no. 6 on the Official Singles Chart.

1970: Credence Clearwater Revival received Gold certification in the U.S. for their singles Down on the Corner, Lookin’ Out My Back Door, Travelin’ Band, Bad Moon Rising and Up Around the Bend. All songs were written by John Fogerty. CCR’s first five albums Credence Clearwater Revival (May 1968), Bayou Country (January 1969), Green River (August 1969), Willy and the Poor Boys (November 1969) and Cosmo’s Factory (July 1970) were also certified Gold. Here’s Travelin’ Band, the lead single from Cosmo’s Factory, which appeared in January 1970, backed by Who’ll Stop the Rain. Love that tune!

1972: Me And Mrs. Jones, the biggest hit for American soul singer Billy Paul, reached no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was included on Paul’s 1972 album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. The tune about marital infidelity was co-written by prominent Philly soul songwriting team Kenny Gamble, Leon Hoff and Cary Gilbert. Songfacts notes Me And Mrs. Jones knocked I’m the Woman out of the top spot, a female-empowerment anthem by Helen Reddy.

1989: Billy Joel’s 11th studio album Storm Front, which had come out in October of the same year, reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The piano man’s second-to-final pop record to date was also pretty successful internationally. Among others, it topped the charts in Australia, climbed to no. 4 in Canada, and reached no. 5 in the UK and Germany. Here’s the lead single We Didn’t Start the Fire, which like the album turned out to be a big hit for Joel. The fast-paced recitation of 118 significant political, cultural, scientific and sporting events that occurred between Joel’s birth year 1949 and 1989 became one of his signature songs.

1993: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York concert aired for the first time on MTV. Unlike other MTV Unplugged shows Nirvana chose to perform predominantly lesser-known material including various covers. Moreover, in contrast to previous performances in the series, which were entirely acoustic, Nirvana used electric amplification and guitar effects during their set. The concert was taped on November 18, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City, less than five months prior to lead vocalist Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 8, 1994. Here’s Nirvana’s haunting cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day in Music; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

At 50, Led Zeppelin IV Continues to Shine

Another 1971 gem in my book is hitting the big anniversary. Today, 50 years go, Led Zeppelin released Led Zeppelin IV, an album that to me hasn’t lost any of its magic. And it’s not just because of Stairway to Heaven. I will add, and I’ve said this before, Led Zeppelin and even the song that would be my choice if I could only pick one rock tune were an acquired taste.

The 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin IV certainly deserves to be celebrated, so let’s go back to November 8, 1971. Actually, let’s make that 11 months earlier. Zep’s fourth studio album was recorded between December 1970 and February 1971 at Headley Grange, a historic 18th-century three-story stone workhouse in the southern English county of Hampshire, which was a popular recording and rehearsal venue in the ’60s and ’70s for artists like Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, Genesis and Led Zeppelin.

Not only did the informal setting inspire the band to try different musical arrangements in various styles, but the absence of any bar or other leisure facilities allowed them to stay focused. “…there was no, ‘Let’s get stoned or go to the pub and get pissed.’,” Jimmy Page told Mojo in a recent interview for a cover story, as reported by Louder. He also said, “It’s like there was a magical current running through that place and that record. Like it was meant to be.”

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant at Headley Grange

Apparently, not all of Zep’s members were quite as enthusiastic about the place. “Headley Grange was cold, damp, dirty, smelly,” noted John Paul Jones in the same Mojo story. Page was quick to dismiss the comment, saying, “Why is John complaining? We were there to work.” Yet implicitly, Page seemed to least somewhat agree with Jones, adding, “I don’t want to say anything to embarrass Mrs. Smith, the lady in charge. Headley was a bit austere.”

To make the album Led Zeppelin were using The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, along with engineer Andy Jones who had just worked on engineering the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, one of my other favorite albums from 1971. Zep also had assistance from Stones co-founder and keyboarder Ian Stewart who played piano on the record’s tune Rock and Roll. And, speaking of other artists, Sandy Denny, the vocalist of Fairport Convention was another guest.

Headley Grange wasn’t the band’s first choice. In fact, recording sessions had started at Island Records’ Basing Street Studios in London in December 1970. Zep also had considered recording at Mick Jagger’s home and recording location Stargroves but felt it was too pricey! I guess the band had yet to make big bucks, or perhaps they were a bit skittish about cost, given the lukewarm reception of Led Zeppelin III by critics.

Once the basic tracks were in the can, Zep added overdubs at Island Studios in February. Initial mixing was done at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. But the group wasn’t happy with the outcome, so following a tour in the spring and early summer, Page remixed the entire album in July 1971. Further delays occurred over discussions about whether Led Zeppelin IV should be a double album or be released as a set of EPs.

Nuff said – it’s time to turn to some music. Side one kicks of with Black Dog, a great rocker with a cool guitar riff. According to Songfacts, Jones got the idea for the song after he had listened to Electric Mud, a 1968 album by Muddy Waters: He wanted to try “electric blues with a rolling bass part,” and “a riff that would be like a linear journey.”…When they started putting the album together, Jones introduced this riff, the song started to form. The first version Jones played was comically complex. “It was originally all in 3/16 time, but no one could keep up with that,” he said.

The Battle of Evermore is a great example of Zep’s outstanding acoustic songs. As noted by Songfacts, it holds the distinction of being the band’s only tune that featured a guest vocalist: Sandy Denny, an excellent choice! Robert Plant’s lyrics were inspired by a book on Scottish history he had read. The music was written by Page using a mandolin he had borrowed from Jones. “The band was sitting next to the chimney in Headley, drinking tea, when Jimmy grabbed a mandolin and started playing,” Andy Jones recalled. “I gave him a microphone and stuck a Gibson echo on his mandolin. Jimmy had brought this stuff before and had asked me to take a look at it. Suddenly Robert started singing and this amazing track was born from nowhere.” What a mighty tune indeed!

Of course, no homage to Led Zeppelin IV would be complete without the big enchilada that’s closing out side one. Sadly, in addition to being one of the greatest rock songs of all time, Stairway to Heaven will always be remembered because of the copyright infringement litigation it triggered. Much has been written about this. All I will say is only a deaf person could possibly conclude that Page’s opening acoustic guitar arpeggios weren’t pretty much identical to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental Taurus whether done deliberately or not. By the way, again referring to Mojo, the above Louder piece notes the working title for Stairway was Cow And Gate – something I’m sure you always wanted to know but never dared to ask! That working title was inspired by Robert Plant who had recently bought a farm. I also found Cow & Gate was the name of a British dairy products company. Apparently, today the name lives on as a specialist baby food brand owned by a Dutch company.

On to side two. Similar to side one, it starts with a cool rocker, Misty Mountain Hop co-written by Page, Plant and Jones. “It’s about a bunch of hippies getting busted, about the problems you can come across when you have a simple walk in the park on a nice sunny afternoon,” Plant explained, as noted by Songfacts. “In England it’s understandable, because wherever you go to enjoy yourself, ‘Big Brother’ is not far behind.” Seems like somebody had some beef here! BTW, there are Misty Mountains in Wales.

Going to California is another acoustic gem I’d like to highlight. Songfacts explains the Page-Plant co-write was inspired by Joni Mitchell’s California: Mitchell lived in the musically fertile but earthquake-prone Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles; “California” finds her recalling her adventures on a trip to Europe but looking forward to a return home. In “Going To California,” Plant plays the part of a guy who’s looking to leave his no-good woman behind and make a fresh start in California.

This leaves me with the album’s excellent closer When the Levee Breaks. The song’s original lyrics are based on The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and were written by Memphis Minnie. The tune was first recorded as a country blues by Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. Plant who had the record in his collection kept most of the original lyrics while Page rearranged the music. Zep’s version is credited to the entire band and Minnie.

Unlike its predecessor, Led Zeppelin IV was widely praised by music critics. Fans liked it as well. The record topped the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada, Australia, Austria and Italy, and also strongly performed in many other countries. Additionally, it became Led Zeppelin’s most commercially successful album with more than 37 million copies sold worldwide, and one of the best-selling albums in the U.S.

Last but not least, Led Zeppelin IV is included in many lists, such as Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (no. 58 in 2020) and Colin Larkin’s All Time 1000 Albums (no. 42 in 2000). In June 2004, Pitchfork also ranked it at no. 7 on their list of Top 100 Albums of the 1970s.

Sources: Wikipedia; Louder; Songfacts; YouTube

Pink Floyd’s Meddle Turns 50

Today, 50 years ago, Pink Floyd released their sixth studio album Meddle, yet another gem in the treasure trove of 1971 to hit the big milestone. Coming just a little over a year after Atom Heart Mother, Meddle is considered a transitional album that foreshadowed what arguably were the band’s Mount Rushmore releases The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. While the two latter records were always among my favorite Floyd albums, Meddle is a record that grew on me over the years. Nowadays, if I could only pick one, I might actually go with Meddle.

According to Wikipedia, when Pink Floyd went into the studio in January 1971, they had no clear idea what kind of record they wanted to make. Apparently, the work started out with some novel experiments that inspired what would become my favorite Pink Floyd track these days, the mighty Echoes. Unlike the group’s later albums that increasingly were dominated by themes and lyrics devised by Roger Waters, Meddle featured lyrical contributions from each band member.

Meddle inner gatefold (from left): Roger Waters, Nick Mason, David Gilmour and Richard Wright

The recording sessions for Meddle stretched out over eight months from January through August 1970. That’s because Pink Floyd had concert commitments throughout that period, which forced starts and stops. During that same timeframe, the band was also working on Relics, a great compilation album of their early work with Syd Barrett. Considering all these distractions, it’s quite remarkable to me that Meddle turned out to be such a masterpiece.

There were also some technical challenges. At the time Pink Floyd started work on the album at Abbey Road Studios, the facility only had eight-track recording technology, something the band found insufficient for their needs. As such, they ended up working at other smaller studios in London, which already were equipped with 16-track recording technology.

Time for some music! Let’s start with the opening instrumental One of These Days, which is credited to all four members of the band. The dominant pumping bassline was double-tracked, with each Roger Waters and David Gilmour playing one track. The cheerful line, “One of these days I will cut you into little pieces,” was spoken by drummer Nick Mason. Songfacts notes it was “digitally warped to give it an evil sound to it” – mission accomplished!

Fearless is an acoustic tune co-written by Gilmour and Waters. According to Wikipedia, Waters played it in a guitar tuning called open G, which Syd Barrett had taught him. In this tuning, the lower E and A strings and the high e string are each tuned down by one note to D, G and d, respectively, so a G major chord can be played without fretting a string. The crowd of people that can be heard near the beginning and at end of the song is a field recording of Liverpool soccer fans chanting their anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The final track on side one is Seamus, a country blues style song credited to all members of the band. The tune was named after a dog that belonged to Steve Marriott, the frontman of Humble Pie at the time. Songfacts notes the dog would bark and howl every time he heard music, or if someone played the guitar. In fact, the dog can be heard barking and howling throughout the entire track. Pink Floyd biographer Nicholas Schaffner dismissed the tune. Gilmour essentially admitted the song wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, saying, “I guess it wasn’t really as funny to everyone else [as] it was to us.”

This brings me to the only tune that makes up the entire side two of the album. While at 23 and a half minutes Echoes is a pretty long track, no post about Meddle would be complete without it. Once again, Echoes was credited to the entire band. The ambient sound effects and musical improvisation resemble what Pink Floyd would take to the next level a few years later on The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. I’ve really come to love this epic track!

Overall, Meddle was well received by music critics when it came out. It also enjoyed significant chart success, especially in Europe where it climbed to no. 3, no. 7, no. 11 and no. 2 in the UK, France, Germany and The Netherlands, respectively. The performance was more moderate in the U.S. and Canada where Meddle reached no. 70 and no. 51, respectively.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: October 14

After a longer pause, it’s time again for another installment of my irregular feature where I explore what happened on an arbitrarily picked date throughout rock history. The only rule I have it that it must reflect my music taste and be a date I haven’t covered yet. The good news is I got plenty of choices left, including October 14, so without further ado, let’s get to it!

1957: The Everly Brothers hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Wake Up Little Susie. Written by husband-and-wife country and pop songwriting duo Felice Bryant (born Matilda Genevieve Scaduto) and Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant, the tune became the first of three no. 1 songs Don Everly and Phil Everly scored on the mainstream charts. The Bryants also wrote Bye Bye Love, the previous single by The Everly Brothers, as well as numerous of their other hits. Wake Up Little Susie reached the top of the Billboard country and R&B charts as well, and was included on The Everly Brothers’ 1958 eponymous debut album. It was the first song by them I heard in my early teens when I was still pretty much adoring Elvis Presley. While in my mind back then nobody could ever match Elvis when it came to rock & roll, The Everly Brothers quickly earned my respect.

1967: Of course, no music history post can be without The Beatles or related topics. In this case, it’s an artist who managed to knock out The Fab Four from the top of the charts. The great Bobbie Gentrie, who later became a woman of mystery, hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 with her debut album Ode to Billie Joe, ending the 15-week reign of The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. According to Wikipedia, it was the only record that managed to displace Sgt. Pepper from the top spot. Released on August 21 that year, Gentry’s debut album had been quickly assembled following her successful single with the same title. This is such a great tune!

1968: Next let’s turn to The Beatles themselves to see what they were up to. The year was 1968 and the location was Studio 2 at EMI Studies, Abbey Road, London. John, Paul and George were working on eight songs for the White Album – of course, The Beatles Bible had to count them all! The ultimate record of Beatles truth further notes Ringo Starr had left for a two-week family vacation to Sardinia and as such was absent. In fact, he had no further involvement in the album’s mixing and sequencing. The recording session saw the completion of work on one the tunes: Savoy Truffle, a song by George Harrison, which had been inspired by Eric Clapton. Eric has “got this real sweet tooth and he’d just had his mouth worked on,” Harrison explained. “His dentist said he was through with candy. So as a tribute I wrote, ‘You’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle’. George’s sense of humor could be peculiar!

1971: Specialty Records, the company that held the rights to Little Richard’s songs, sued John Fogerty, charging the Creedence Clearwater Revival song Travelin’ Band plagiarized Richard’s Good Golly, Miss Molly. Here’s Richard’s tune. The CCR track is below. Great gosh a’mighty, if this is plagiarism, then pretty much all classic rock & roll songs are! I feel this is very different from Zep’s rip-off of Spirit’s Taurus or the similarity between George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and The Chiffons’ record of He’s So Fine. Eventually, the case was settled out of court. Travelin’ Band first appeared in January 1970 as the B-side to Who’ll Stop the Rain, the lead single of CCR’s fifth studio album Cosmo’s Factory released in July of the same year.

1977: David Bowie released his 12th studio album Heroes. The second installment of Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy only came nine months after predecessor Low. The third album in the series, Lodger, would appear in May 1979. Bowie recorded all three albums in West Berlin, Germany, in collaboration with Brian Eno and co-producer Tony Visconti. Bowie was quite busy in 1977. The making of Heroes followed his participation as keyboarder during a tour of his friend Iggy Pop and co-producing Pop’s second studio album Lust for Life. Heroes incorporated elements of art rock and experimental rock, and built on Low’s electronic and ambient approaches. In general, I’m more fond of Bowie’s late ’60s and glam rock period. That being said, I always liked the album’s title track that was co-written by Bowie and Eno. The record did pretty well in the charts, reaching no. 3 in the UK, the top 20 in various other European countries, no. 6 in Australia and no. 35 in the U.S. – overall largely matching the performance of Low.

1983: Let’s finish this little history post with another album release: She’s So Unusual, the solo debut by Cyndi Lauper. The record became a huge chart success and Lauper’s best-selling album with more than 16 million units sold worldwide as of 2008. It certainly was welcome news for Lauper who only a few years earlier had found herself forced to file for bankruptcy, a fallout from the aftermath of her previous band Blue Angel, a failed debut album and a lawsuit the band’s manager Steven Massarsky had brought against her and the band. Beware of hiring a lawyer as your manager! She’s So Unusual yielded several hit singles. Here’s the most successful and my favorite, Time After Time, co-written by Lauper and Rob Hyman who is best know as a founding member of American band The Hooters. The tune topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and Canada, climbed to no. 3 in New Zealand, reached no. 5 in Australia, and became a top 10 hit in various European countries, including Austria (no. 6), Ireland (no. 2), France (no. 9), Germany (no. 6), The Netherlands (no. 8) and the UK (no. 3).

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Rock; The Beatles Bible; YouTube