The Joshua Tree Turns 30

Not only did this 1987 album catapult U2 to international superstardom, but it is also one of the band’s best records in its 40-plus-year history.

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Since U2’s announcement in early January of a summer tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, the seminal album has been on my mind. So it was only a matter of time before I would write a post about it.

Released on March 9, 1987, The Joshua Tree is one of my favorite U2 records. That the Irish rock band named its fifth studio album after a tree that grows in the Mojave Desert in the southwestern U.S. is not a coincidence. The lyrics and music were inspired by U2’s feelings about America at the time: an admiration of its ideals, freedoms and open spaces, mixed with antipathy toward political and social concerns.

U2’s appreciation of landscapes like the Mojave Desert becomes apparent not only in the album’s cover art but also in its sound, which I’ve seen described as “cinematic.” One of the best examples of this cinematic sound is the beginning of the ballad Running to Stand Still. It features a Ry Cooder-type slide guitar that could come right out of the musical score for the 1984 drama motion picture Paris, Texas.

Joshua Tree features some of U2’s most iconic songs, including Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You. The two latter tunes became the band’s only singles to hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The first song only made it to no. 13 on that chart – surprising, in my opinion, since I find it as strong as the two other tracks.

Bullet the Blue Sky is the album’s most haunting tune, using heavy guitar feedback, distortion and slide-guitar playing to great effect. Lyrically, it’s one of U2’s most political songs that has become a staple of the band’s live concerts, where it has been performed with references to violence and political conflicts.

The album’s final track, Mothers of the Disappeared, is equally moving. It pays tribute to Madres de Plaza de Mayo and COMADRES, groups of mothers in Argentina and El Salvador, respectively, whose children had “disappeared” during the dictatorship eras in these countries. Two other songs that stand out to me are Red Hill Mining Town and In God’s Country.

All of the album’s lyrics were written by Bono, while all music is credited to U2. In addition to Bono (lead vocals, harmonica, guitars), the band includes The Edge (guitars, backing vocals, piano), Adam Clayton (bass guitar) and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums, percussion).

While U2 plays amazingly well as a band and has gotten even better over the decades, I’d like to call out The Edge. In my book, he is one of the coolest guitarists who managed to create a signature sound that is unique and instantly recognizable – not a small feat, if you consider how many rock guitarists are out there!

The Joshua Tree was U2’s second album produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who were also involved in producing many of the band’s subsequent records. In addition to U2, Lanois has produced for a variety other great artists, such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Peter Gabriel, while Eno has collaborated with David Bowie and David Byrne, among others.

With more than 25 million copies sold worldwide, The Joshua Tree is one of the most successful records. The album climbed to the top of the charts in more than 20 countries, including the U.S. Billboard 200. It also won two Grammy awards in 1988 for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Even the U.S. Library of Congress recognized the album’s significance and selected it for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2014.

In a Facebook chat with fans on the day of the 30th anniversary, The Edge explained “U2 became a really popular band” during the initial Joshua Tree Tour in 1987. Troves of fans crowded in front of U2’s hotels and outside concert venues, frequently forcing the band to escape through back doors – it almost sounded a bit like “Beatlemania.”

It will no doubt be different during the upcoming The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, which includes 21 concerts in North America and 12 shows in Europe. The tour kicks off on May 12th in Vancouver, Canada, and concludes on August 1st in Brussels, Belgium. U2 is one of the greatest live bands, and I can’t wait to see them on June 29th at MetLife Stadium in East, Rutherford, N.J.

In addition to the upcoming tour, U2 fans can also look forward to “the ultimate collector’s edition of The Joshua Tree,” which the band announced on the eve of the album’s 30th anniversary. The reissue, which is slated for release on June 2nd, will be available in various formats, including vinyl and CD super deluxe box sets, a 2-CD deluxe set, standard vinyl and CD releases, and different digital formats. I might go for the vinyl!

Here is a great clip of a live performance of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

Sources: Wikipedia, Facebook, U2 web site, YouTube

 

Small Town Rocker Gearing Up For More R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

Last week, John Mellencamp released the second single from his upcoming new album “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” which he will support with a U.S. tour this summer.

I’ve been a huge fan of John Mellencamp for many years. He’s one of my favorite rock singer-songwriters, along with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. I always enjoy checking out his new music, and so far, I like what I’ve heard from his upcoming new album.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which is set for release on April 28th, will be Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album. It features  country singer and songwriter Carlene Carter, the daughter of Johnny Cash’s second wife, June Carter. Carter was the opening act for Mellencamp’s last 2015-2016 tour that supported his previous studio album Plain Spoken.

On February 24, the second single from Sad Clowns & Hillbillies appeared. Grandview features country artist Martina McBride. The song is a bit more rock-oriented than much of Mellencamp’s music in recent years. It reminds me somewhat of the American Fool and Scaregrow albums from the 80s.

The first single from the new album, Easy Target, was released on January 19th. The timing on the eve of the Presidential inauguration was not a coincidence. Sung with a raspy voice, the bleak ballad touches on income disparities and mindless shootings of African Americans in the U.S. In a Yahoo! News interview with Katie Couric, Mellencamp characterized the song as “a reflection on the state of the country.”

For much of his now more than 40-year career, Mellencamp has voiced his political opinions through some of his songs, from his criticism of Ronald Reagan in the 80s to the Iraq war in 2003. Together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, he also started Farm Aid in 1985, which raises awareness of the importance of family farms and has organized concerts almost every year since then. The organization celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015.

Mellencamp was born in the small town of Seymour, Ind. on October 7, 1951. He still lives in Indiana to this day close to Bloomington on the shores of Lake Monroe.  According to the bio on his web site, Mellencamp was attracted to music at an early age and already was performing in local bars when he was 14.

Mellencamp’s recording career started in 1976 with the release of Chestnut Street Incident under the name of Johnny Cougar. His breakthrough came in 1979 with I Need a Lover from his third studio album John Cougar. Mellencamp’s fifth studio release American Fool brought broad commercial success. It reached no. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, held that position for nine weeks, and became the best-selling record of the year. The records includes the classics Hurts So Good and Jack & Diane.

One of my favorite Mellencamp albums is 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. It blends rock with traditional folk and country instruments, creating a warm and rich sound. It was a new style for Mellencamp, which he would continue to embrace on many of his successive records. To me the standouts are Paper in Fire, Check It Out, Cherry Bomb and We Are the People. The album became one of Mellencamp’s most successful releases worldwide.

Apart from writing great songs over so many years, Mellencamp has also done some excellent covers. Two of my favorites are the Van Morrison tune Wild Night, included on the Dance Naked album (1994), and a fantastic version of The Drifters’ hit Under the Boardwalk from 1999’s Rough Harvest. For some reason, until recently, I had pretty much ignored that collection of alternate acoustic versions of Mellencamp tunes and some covers, until a good friend pointed it out. Another highlight on Rough Harvest is an unbelievable cover of Dylan’s Farewell Angelina.

Mellencamp’s summer tour will kick off in Denver on June 5 and after more than 20 gigs conclude on July 11 in Forest Hills, NY. In addition to Carlene Carter, the tour will feature Emmylou Harris and folk pop duo Lily & Madeleine. I saw Mellencamp once about 20 years ago – I believe somewhere in upstate New York. I would love to catch the show at Forest Hills Stadium, a great venue where I also saw The Who a few years ago.

Here’s a nice clip of Mellencamp and McBride performing Grandview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo! News, John Mellencamp web site, YouTube

 

 

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