In Appreciation of German Radio and TV Personality Frank Laufenberg

Moderator, journalist and author is a distinguished rock and pop expert who has influenced my music journey

This post was inspired by fellow blogger msjadeli who writes the Tao Talk blog. Msjadeli is a true music lover who frequently likes to discuss the subject. She also writes about it. Just yesterday, she published this post about “the Friday Song”, played on 97 WLAV FM, a Grand Rapids, Mich. radio station that became part of her music journey. This led to a discussion about radio DJs and how they can impact us. It reminded me of my radio days while growing up back in Germany in the ’70s and ’80s and one host, a pop and rock connoisseur who introduced me to lots of music from the ’50s and ’60s: Frank Laufenberg.

In previous posts, I acknowledged several people who had a major influence on my music journey, sometimes unknowingly: my six-year-older sister and her vinyl collection that, among others, included timeless gems like Carole King’s Tapestry, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu, all albums I love to this day; my grandfather, a music professor and piano teacher who was thrilled when I told my parents I wanted to learn the guitar, and payed for most of my instruments; and my guitar and bass teacher who really got me into The Beatles and, of course, taught me how to play both instruments. Yesterday’s discussion made me realize the one person that’s missing is Laufenberg. Acknowledging him is overdue.

Frank Laufenberg in his home studio

Frank Laufenberg was born on January 2, 1945 in the East German small town of Lebus. He grew up in Cologne where he started his professional career at record label EMI Electrola, working in A&R from 1967 to 1970. In 1970, while accompanying an artist to an interview at SWF3, he met Walther Krause, who created and oversaw a then-new radio show called Pop-Shop and offered Laufenberg a trial period as moderator. It would turn out to be a career-changing encounter.

The artist (I don’t remember who it was) did the interview,” recalls Laufenberg in this short online background section on the website of Internet radio station PopStop, one of his current professional homes. “Afterwards, I went to the boss of Pop-Shop, to Walther Krause, to politely thank him, and he asked me how I thought the interview went. ‘If I had recorded it with the artist, it would have been better for him, for me and the listeners’, I replied. And Krause went: ‘If you feel you could do better than the current moderator, why don’t you give a try for a week?’ Evidently, Laufenberg didn’t lack confidence!

Frank Laufenberg’s Rock and Pop Almanach

A week turned into many years, and Laufenberg became a key moderator at SWF3, a popular mainstream radio station on regional TV and radio network Südwestfunk. In addition to Pop-Shop, one of the other shows Laufenberg moderated at SWF3 was Oldies on Sunday nights. To the best of my recollection, the program aired from 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm. That’s the show through which Laufenberg introduced me to a lot of ’50s and ’60s music, really helping me establish a deeper appreciation for music from these decades. I’ll get back to that later.

In the ’80s, Laufenberg also moderated various television shows for regional networks Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) and Südwestfunk. On the latter, this included an excellent live music program called Ohne Filter (literal translation: without filter). In September 1990, Laufenberg started moderating programs on privately owned channel Sat1. Idiotically, this led SWF3 to terminate him with the stupid explanation Laufenberg could not work for public broadcast while also moderating programs for a private channel. Subsequently, he worked at various other private and public channels.

Some of my old music cassettes with music taped from SWF3 Oldies show

In 2013, Laufenberg founded the above mentioned internet radio station PopStop, where he is a moderator to this day. Since April 2018, he also hosts two shows on SR 3 Saarlandwelle, a radio channel on regional broadcast network Saarländischer Rundfunk. In addition to having worked as a radio and TV moderator, Laufenberg has published various music-related books, perhaps most notably Frank Laufenbergs Rock- und Pop Lexikon, which also has been published in English as Rock und Pop Diary.

Now it’s time for some music. Let’s start with the above noted SWF3 Oldies show. Obviously, I don’t have YouTube clips from actual program episodes. But, as you can see in the above photo, I still have music cassettes with songs I taped from the program. So I guess the closest I can offer is YouTube clips of some of the songs that are on these tapes. Unfortunately, when I started taping music on MCs, I didn’t note dates. This tells me these MCs must be from the late ’70s/early ’80s. Here’s a tune from the earliest SWF3 Oldies MC I could find: I’m Into Something Good, co-written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and popularized by Herman’s Hermits in 1964 – a tune I’ve always dug.

I’m fairly certain the first time I heard Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee was on Laufenberg’s SWF3 Oldies. The classic was released as a single in 1959.

Here’s another track that has become one of my all-time favorite ’60s tune with a killer guitar riff: Oh, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, the rocker with an opera voice. Co-written by him and Bill Dees, the song first appeared as a single in 1964. It was also included on the compilation album Orbisongs (clever title!) from November 1965.

Here’s one more tune I taped from the show: The Rolling Stones’ version of Under the Boardwalk. The song was co-written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick and first recorded by The Drifters in 1964. The Stones included their rendition, the first version of the song I heard, on their sophomore studio album 12 X 5, which appeared in October 1964.

The last clip I’d like to feature is from the above noted Ohne Filter TV show Laufenberg moderated: Excellent English guitarist Chris Rea and his tune Josephine, which received lots of radio play on (radio station) SWF3 when it came out. The song is from Rea’s seventh studio album Shamrock Diaries, which was released in December 1984. The footage is from a 1986 episode of Ohne Filter Extra I watched at the time.

The last word shall belong to Frank Laufenberg. Here’s a translation of what he says on the PopStop website about the internet radio station: PopStop – das Musikradio’ wants to bring back variety to radio, variety that’s not only missing to me. We can’t reinvent radio – but we can bring back the good aspects it had. Content that predated the days of “Radio GaGa.” As Queen correctly warned in 1984: ‘Radio – don’t become some background noise’. That’s what it unfortunately has become. But Queen also sing: ‘Radio what’s new? Radio, someone still loves you’. ‘PopStop’ will appeal to exactly these lovers of radio and those who are interested in music. We’re always happy about new listeners and would appreciate if you could recommend us.

Yours Frank Laufenberg

Sources: Wikipedia; PopStop website; YouTube

Vocals In Perfect Harmony

I dig vocals. Great vocals. Especially multi-part harmony singing. Big time! As some visitors of the blog know, that’s why I sometimes can get a bit impatient when it comes to instrumentals. Don’t get me wrong, listing to such music can be very enjoyable. But after a while, I tend to start missing vocals. This gave me the idea to put together a post about tunes featuring great harmony singing.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat random list. I didn’t want to overthink it. Let’s kick it off with The Beach Boys. While I generally wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of their music, much of which sounds quite repetitive to my ears, especially their early tunes, I’ve always loved how these guys could harmonize. One example I like in particular is In My Room. Credited to music genius Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator, the track was included on the band’s third studio album Surfer Girl from September 1963. It also appeared separately as a single in October that year.

One of the first bands that comes to my mind when thinking about harmony vocals are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Boy, when they get into it, they sound like they came from some other planet. Here’s Carry On, the opener to CSNY’s amazing second studio record Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills wrote this song. Harmony singing doesn’t get much better than that, in my humble opinion!

Perhaps the next choice may surprise you: Huey Lewis and the News. Say what? While undoubtedly that band primarily was known for slick pop rock and hits like I Want A Drug and The Power Of Love, these guys could also sing. Don’t believe me? Check out their a cappella version of It’s Alright  – and, yes, have a good time! The song was first recorded in 1963 by The Impressions and written by the great Curtis Mayfield. Huey Lewis and the News recorded their a cappella cover in 1993 for a tribute album to Mayfield titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. No matter how you feel about Lewis, this take is just awesome!

Speaking of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, why don’t we throw in one of their other tunes and a clip of them performing it: People Get Ready. I’ve said it before and I’m not ashamed to say it again, sometimes music really moves me. And, yes, it can bring me to tears, depending on my mood. This is one of these tunes, which was the title tack of the band’s fourth studio album released in February 1965. It’s another composition by Mayfield.

A band I dig for both their music and their singing are the Eagles. One of the best illustrations of their vocal power I can think of is Seven Bridges Road. What I hadn’t known until now is that it’s not an Eagles tune, which for some reason I had always assumed. Nope, it was actually written by American country singer Steve Young in 1969. He also recorded it that year for his debut album Rock Salt & Nails. The Eagles version, which became the most popular cover of the song, was inspired by Iain Matthews’ take of the tune he recorded for his 1973 album Valley Hi. I realize, it’s a bit of a convoluted background story, but you have to give credit where credit is due. This finally brings me to the Eagles’ cover, which they recorded for their Eagles Live album from November 1980. It just sounds breathtaking!

If you looked at the image on top of the post, you already may guess what’s coming next – and last: The Temptations. I think to say that harmony singing doesn’t get better than that is not an overstatement. Their multi-part harmonies ranging from very low to very high are simply insane. Here’s Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).  And, no, this is not an illusion, though it sounds heavenly – is that a real word? In any case, co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and produced by Whitfield, the song first appeared as a single in January 1971. The tune was also included on the The Temptations’ 14th studio album Sky’s The Limit from April 1971. It became their third no. 1 in the U.S.

I realize there are many more songs I could have included. Feel free to let me know which tunes featuring harmony singing you like.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Raising Money For Parkinson’s Rocks

Light of Day Winterfest includes benefit concerts in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia

Listening to my favorite music live is an experience I greatly enjoy. I find it even more powerful when it also involves raising money for an important cause, such as fighting hunger, poverty or disease. Last Sunday, I attended a Light of Day Winterfest 2019 event at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. It was part of a series of regional concerts conducted between January 11 and January 21 to raise money for Parkinson’s disease and other related neurodegenerative disorders. My mother-in-law has had Parkinson’s for more than 10 years, which gave the event additional special meaning.

The annual series of concerts is the key fundraising vehicle of the Light of Day Foundation. According to its website, the New Jersey-based nonprofit funds research into possible cures, improved treatments and support for people living with Parkinson’s and related diseases and their caregivers. The foundation was established by music industry veteran and manager Bob Benjamin and some of his friends in 1998, shortly after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Light of Day is the title of a song written by Benjamin’s friend Bruce Springsteen for a 1987 motion picture with the same name.

The annual concerts have been held since 2000. Over the years, they grew from a one-day event in Asbury Park to a 10-day series of concerts held in different locations. In addition to the Jersey shore town, which remains the main hub, LOD Winterfest 2019 includes shows in Montclair, N.J., New York City, Philadelphia and Rockland County, N.Y. Light of Day concerts have also expanded beyond the U.S. to Canada, Australia and Europe. The most recent overseas shows took place in England, Germany, Switzerland and various other European countries in late November and December 2018.

Apart from Bruce Springsteen, who has appeared at various Light of Day concerts, other performers over the years have included prominent music artists, such as Southside Johnny, Jakob Dylan and Gary US Bonds, as well as numerous lesser known local artists. To date, Light of Day has raised more than $4.5 million for its support to find a cure for Parkinson’s.

Following are some clips I captured from the event, which mostly focused on tributes. I’d like to kick it off with The Bell Bottom Blues, a Jersey band that captures music by Eric Clapton. This includes his solo career and his work in bands like Cream, Blind Faith and Derek And The Dominoes. Here’s one of my favorite Cream tunes, White Room,  from Wheels Of Fire, Cream’s third studio album released in August 1968.

Bob Burger & Friends played a great Tom Petty tribute set. Burger is a singer-songwriter, who according to his website has about 40 published songs to his credit. He has opened for other artists like Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Hootie And The Blowfish and Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes. Among others, Burger was joined by some of his band mates from The Weeklings, a tribute to The Beatles that apart from renditions plays originals inspired by The Fab Four. Here’s Refugee, which Petty recorded with The Heartbreakers for their excellent third studio album Damn The Torpedoes from October 1979.

Next up: CSN Songs, a great tribute to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. On their website, the seven-piece band characterizes itself as the only national CSN&Y tribute show of its kind. CSN Songs does a beautiful job at replicating CSN&Y’s four-part harmony vocals. Here’s their rendition of Woodstock, the classic Joni Mitchell tune CSN&Y recorded for their second album Déjà Vu that came out in March 1970.

The last band I’d like to highlight is Best Of The Eagles (BTOE). Previously, I had seen a couple of other Eagles tribute bands. While they were pretty good, BTOE has been the best so far. According to their website, BTOE were founded in 2012 by guitarist/vocalist Joe Vadala and a group of professional New Jersey musicians. In addition to Eagles songs, they also played Don Henley and Joe Walsh solo tunes, including a blistering rendition of Rocky Mountain Way. Here’s their take of Witchy Woman from the Eagles’ eponymous debut album released in June 1972.

During the current concert series the Light of Day Foundation aims to reach the $5.5 million mark in total fundraising. The schedule of remaining LOD Winterfest 2019 events is here.

Sources: Light of Day Foundation website, Wikipedia, The Bell Bottom Blues Facebook page, Bob Burger website, CSN Songs website, Best Of The Eagles website, YouTube

My Playlist: Pink Floyd

A long overdue tribute to one of my longtime favorite bands

Pink Floyd is one of my earliest music experiences dating back to the mid ’70s when I was nine or 10 years old and still living in Germany. It all started with Wish You Here, another record my sister had on vinyl – and yet another example where she introduced me, probably largely unconsciously, to music I still dig to this day. I’ve said it before and like to say it again: Thanks, sis, love you!

While I’ve mentioned Pink Floyd numerous times since I’ve started this blog more than two years ago, and I’ve written about Govt’ Mule’s great Dark Side of the Mule show and a fantastic Floyd tribute band called Echoes, I haven’t dedicated a post to the actual band – well, I suppose better late than never! Before getting to the music, I’d be amiss not to provide some background on the British rock band. Obviously, Pink Floyd’s history has been told many times, so if you know it already, just skip it and go right to the clips, and maybe grab some headphones – there’s plenty of great music here!

Pink Floyd emerged from a band called The Tea Set in London in 1965. After noticing there was another music outfit with the same name, guitarist and lead vocalist Syd Barrett came up with the idea to combine the first names of two blues musicians who were part of his record collection: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Sounds pretty arbitrary to me, but the result sure as keck was a cool-sounding band name! Initially, they performed as The Pink Floyd Sound and also included Richard (Rick) Wright (keyboards), Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums).

Pink Floyd Jan 1968
Pink Floyd in January 1968 (clockwise from the bottom): David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters & Rick Wright

By 1966, the band was starting to get paid gigs, mainly playing R&B standards. They dropped “Sound” from their name at the recommendation of Peter Jenner who together with his friend Andrew King had taken over the band’s management earlier that year. Gradually, The Pink Floyd’s set featured more original compositions by Syd Barrett, the band’s first artistic leader. In early 1967, The Pink Floyd signed with EMI and recorded their debut single Arnold Layne.

By the time Floyd released their first studio album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in August 1967, they had dropped “The” from their name to become Pink Floyd. Barrett had developed a serious LSD habit and, according to Mason, “became completely distanced from everything going on.” Barrett’s behavior on stage became increasingly erratic, forcing a premature end of Pink Floyd’s U.S. tour in November 1967. The following month, guitarist David Gilmour became the band’s fifth member. Essentially, the idea was that he would play the guitar parts of Barrett who would continue to write music for the band.

Pink Floyd_Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn
Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, August 1967

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and Barrett left in March 1968. The line-up that eventually would transform Pink Floyd to international super-stardom was in place! Waters effectively took over the band’s artistic direction for the next 15-plus years. During that period, they recorded ten additional albums, including two of the best-selling records of all time: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). By the time of the latter, Pink Floyd essentially had become a Roger Waters project. This created tension among the members and led to departures.

The first to leave was Rick Wright in the wake of the 1980-1981 tour that supported The Wall. Eventually, Waters called it quits himself in 1985 and declared Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively.” He then engaged in a legal battle with Gilmour and Mason over the next few years, trying to prevent them from continuing to use the Pink Floyd name. While things were settled long before then, it took Waters until 2013 to publicly admit he had been wrong about the lawsuit and to regret his ill-guided actions.

Pink Floyd At Live 8
Pink Floyd reunion at Live 8 (from left): David Gilmor, Roger Waters, Nick Mason & Richard Wright

Wright returned as a session musician for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), Pink Floyd’s first album in the post-Waters era. The band continued to tour and recorded one additional album during Wright’s lifetime, The Division Bell (1994). On July 2, 2005, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited one last time with Waters and performed as Pink Floyd at the Live 8 benefit concert in London.

On July 6, 2007, Syd Barrett died at the age of 60 after he had largely lived in seclusion for more than 35 years. Rick Wright passed away from cancer on September 15, 2008. He was 65 years old. In 2012, Gilmour and Mason decided to create one final Pink Floyd album, based on music that had been recorded with Wright during studio sessions for The Division Bell. Called The Endless River, the mostly instrumental record was released in November 2014. Now let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Arnold Layne, one of my favorite early songs The Pink Floyd released as their debut single in March 1967. Like pretty much all of the band’s original music during the Syd Barrett phase, the tune was written by the guitarist and lead vocalist.

Bike from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released in August 1967, is another Barrett composition. It’s both a bit weird and catchy at the same time. Two of the cool features I like are the sound collage toward the end, which resembles the turning gears of a bike, as well as the duck or geese-like sounding screams thereafter. According to Wikipedia, they were created with a tape loop of the band members laughing, played backwards and at double speed. Obviously, The Beatles weren’t the only band that effectively had started leveraging studio technology to their advantage during the second half of the ’60s.

In June 1968, Pink Floyd released their sophomore album A Saucerful Of Secrets. The early recording sessions still included Syd Barrett whose behavior and ability to perform had increasingly become less predictable. One of the tracks, for which he provided slide and acoustics guitars and background vocals is Remember A Day, a great composition by Rick Wright who also sang lead vocals, a rarity.

Next up is what over the years has become my favorite Pink Floyd track: The mighty  Echoes from the band’s sixth studio album Meddle that appeared in October 1971. Credited to all four members of the band and clocking in at more than 23 minutes, the epic tune comprises the entire second side of the vinyl LP. I realize only a hard core fan may listen to the entire clip, but that’s fine with me. I simply couldn’t leave out this one!

In March 1973, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side Of The Moon. With estimated worldwide sales of more than 45 million units, Floyd’s eighth studio album became their most commercially successful record. Here is The Great Gig In The Sky featuring the amazing vocals of Clare Torry, who is co-credited for the tune together with Rick Wright. This track still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. BTW, as I wrote this, it happened to be on the radio as part of Q104.3’s countdown of the 1,043 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time. While one can argue endlessly why certain songs make the list and their ranking positions, it’s a fun listening experience. I’ve written about the radio station’s annual tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday before, most recently here. BTW, The Great Gig In The Sky came in at no. 829 – way, way, way too low!😀

Have A Cigar was Roger Waters’ biting critique of hypocrisy and greed in the music industry. It appeared on Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album, the above mentioned Wish You Were Here from September 1975. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere/The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? The lead vocals were provided by English folk rock singer Roy Harper, making it the only Floyd tune besides The Great Gig In The Sky that wasn’t sung by one of their members.

In January 1977, Pink Floyd’s tenth studio album Animals appeared. Loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the concept album criticizes the social and political conditions in the U.K. at the time – two years before the leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister and a favorite target of Roger Waters. Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, Sheep, which like most tunes was solely written by Waters.

Perhaps the Pink Floyd song with the most epic guitar solo is Comfortably Numb, which was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. It appeared on the band’s 11th studio album The Wall, which came out in November 1979.

In September 1987, Pink Floyd released A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, their first record of the post-Waters area. Initially, David Gilmour set out to make it his third solo album, but things changed along the way. The record featured Nick Mason and Rick Wright, who was among the many guest musicians. Wright would later return to the band as a full member. Here’s the album’s closer Sorrow, which was written by Gilmour.

The last song I’d like to highlight is called High Hopes from Pink Floyd’s 14th studio album The Division Bell. Released in March 1994, it was the band’s final record issued during the lifetime of Rick Wright. He had an active role in writing much of the music with David Gilmour, while Gilmor’s  fiancée and novellist Polly Samson co-wrote many of the lyrics. High Hopes was credited to Gilmour and Samson.

Pink Floyd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. They also made the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. As of 2013, they had sold more than 250 million records worldwide, not only making them one of the most influential but also one of the most commercially successful bands of all time. While I don’t believe we will see another reincarnation of Pink Floyd, I’ve not doubt I’ll continue to enjoy their music, hopefully for many more years to come.

To those who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

From Bonehead To Deadhead

My late discovery of the Grateful Dead

For a guy who has listened to music for now more than 40 years, I have to make a somewhat embarrassing admission: Until a few days ago, essentially, I hadn’t known anything about the Grateful Dead. Then, fellow blogger Intogroove, who had done a two-part series on the Dead, was kind enough to give me a few recommendations to start my long overdue exploration of the band. While after two days of fairly intense listening to some of their albums I certainly haven’t become a Dead expert, I’m ready to boldly declare myself a Deadhead – even if all the music I’ve yet to hear (and there is plenty left!) should turn out to be horrible, which I highly doubt!

So why the hell did it take me so long to realize how grate, I mean great, these guys are? For some reason, I always thought that with their marathon concerts and endless instrumental jams, the Dead would be a hard-to-acquire taste. Sure, some may find a 15-minute-plus jam of Fire On The Mountain on their Cornell 5/8/77 live album a bit heavy, and I know there are even longer tunes, but I don’t find anything terrible about it – on the contrary, I actually love that song! And then, of course one needs to realize there’s a significant difference between the studio Dead and the live Dead.

Grateful Dead Press Kit for 1967 Debut Album
Press kit for Grateful Dead eponymous 1967 studio album. From left to right: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, Ron McKernan and Phil Lesh

At least I had been aware of Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), who together with Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron McKernan (keyboards, harmonica), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) founded Grateful Dead in the San Francisco area in 1965. I’m not going to recap their history here. I had first heard of Garcia in connection with the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, one of my all-time favorite records, for which he played pedal steel guitar on Teach Your Children Well. According to Wikipedia, in exchange CSNY helped the Dead with their harmony singing on their albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Both are among the Dead records I’ve listened to and come to dig immediately.

Following is a playlist of Dead songs I like, based on what I’ve heard thus far. Obviously, this is by no means meant to be complete. Considering the band’s prolific output, I don’t think it’s even possible to come up with a playlist that’s completely representative, unless perhaps one does the equivalent to some of their live jams! So here we go.

One thing I noticed is that in addition to original tunes, the Dead had some great covers. One I like in particular is Good Morning, Little School Girl from their debut The Grateful Dead released in March 1967. The tune, which has been covered by many artists, was written and first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson in 1937.

Casey Jones is from Dead’s forth studio album, the above mentioned Workingman’s Dead, which appeared in June 1970. The track was co-written by Garcia (music) and Robert Hunter (lyrics), who frequently worked with the band. I was also happy to realize that I had heard the tune before.

The follow-on album to Workingman’s Dead was American Beauty from November 1970. Two records released with barely six months in-between is pretty amazing, especially by today’s standards! Anyway, here’s the seductive, groovy Truckin’, which is credited to Gracia, Lesh, Weir and Hunter.

Now, I’m going to make a big jump to July 1987, when Dead released what became their most commercially successful studio album In The Dark. Among others, it includes the catchy Touch Of Grey, another song I had heard before, which made it into the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 9 – the Dead’s only top 40 single. I also had known Throwing Stones. The tune I like to highlight here is Black Muddy River, which was co-written by Garcia and Hunter. Gregg Allman covered this beautiful song on his final studio album, which is where I had heard it initially.

Since I realize no Dead playlist could be called as such without any live material, I’d like to include two tracks. The first is from Europe ’72, a triple album released in November 1972: Jack Straw, a co-write by Hunter and Weir.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the epic Fire On The Mountain. This is the version from Cornell 5/8/77, which appeared in May 2017. Initially, the song was included on Shakedown Street, Dead’s 10th studio album from November 1978. It is credited to Mickey Hart, who became a member of the band in September 1967 as an additional drummer, and Hunter.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

“The Making of Aja” Is A Must See For Fans Of True Music Craftsmanship

Documentary provides commentary from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and studio musicians who were involved in the recording of Steely Dan’s masterpiece

With my Steely Dan show (okay, make that Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan band) coming up tonight, not surprisingly, Fagen and his former partner in crime Walter Becker have been on my mind. As I usually do prior to concerts, I was browsing YouTube last night to get a peek from the band’s recent performances. Since I’m admittedly a bit of a music geek, of course, I’ve also checked setlist.fm and have a good idea of what to expect. Suddenly, I stumbled across The Making Of Aja, a fascinating film that documents the recording of what I feel is Steely Dan’s absolute masterpiece and certainly one of my favorite records of all time.

Surprisingly, there is very little public information about the film. According to IMDb, it appeared in 1999 and was produced by British television director Alan Lewens. The documentary’s official title is Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja. It breaks down each of the magnificent tracks on the record, featuring interviews with Becker, Fagen, Aja producer Gary Katz, guitarists Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Rick Marotta and other musicians involved in the cumbersome process of recording the album.

Even if you don’t love Steely Dan’s music, I think you’ll still enjoy this documentary, as long as you like music craftsmanship and have at least some degree of interest in how great music is created. Enough of the upfront talking, or I should better say writing, and time to get to some clips!

Here’s the section of the film that discusses the songs Black Cow and Home At Last. It starts with Fagen doing a hilarious rap singing uptown, baby, uptown, baby, alluding to the track Deja Vu by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (frankly, no idea about these guys!), who sampled a snippet of Black Cow. Among others, he and Fagen also discuss the meaning of the title; other than that it was a soft drink with ice cream that was popular when they were kids, the two music geniuses don’t appear to be absolutely sure what was in the beverage!

The next film excerpt is about Deacon Blues, my favorite Dan tune. Among others, Becker and Fagen isolate different tracks of the song on the mixing board, which I find particularly fascinating. Also very telling is the following commentary by session guitarist Parks: “One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they are after. They are after something you wanna listen to over and over again. So we would work past the perfection point until it became natural – until it sounded almost improvised.” That’s an interesting observation. You’d think that doing the same parts over and over again would be the equivalent of over-rehearsing, which to me sounds like the opposite of improvisation!

The last section I’d like to highlight is about the album’s closer Josie. It starts off with bassist Rainey discussing the song’s bass line – something I’m particularly drawn to as a former bass player. Fagen and Becker also discuss their reliance on session musicians. “Around the time we made Aja we had figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically” explains Fagen. “We realized that we needed session musicians who had a larger pallet of things they could do and who were also good readers because they were coming in cold.”

Have I whet your appetite? Well, in case you’d like to watch the remainder of the documentary and don’t mind Japanese subtitles, here’s a clip of what appears to be the entire film or most of it.

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDb, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/4 Way Street

As oftentimes seems to happen lately, this post was inspired by a coincidence – earlier this week, I spotted 4 Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in my Apple Music album suggestions. While I had been aware of the record (and somewhere still must have a taped recording on music cassette!), unlike Déjà Vu, it had pretty much exited my radar screen. But it didn’t even take the 34 seconds of the opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes to remind me what a killer album it is. As such, it felt appropriate to dedicate the 50th installment of the What I’ve Been Listening To feature to this gem.

Originally released in April 1971 as a double LP, 4 Way Street captured music from a turbulent 1970 U.S. tour CSNY conducted after the release of Déjà Vu in March that year. It includes material from gigs at Fillmore East (New York, June 2-7), The Forum (Los Angeles, June 26-28) and Auditorium Theatre (Chicago, July 5). CSNY were at a peak both artistically and in terms of tensions between them. Unfortunately, the latter proved to be unsustainable, and they broke up right after the recording of the album.

CSNY 1970
From left to right: Graham Nash, David Crosby, Neil Young and Stephen Stills at Fillmore East, New York, 1970

Of course, CSNY never were a traditional band to begin with, but four exceptional singer-songwriters who ended up playing together, mostly as CSN, with Young becoming an occasional fourth member. Each already had established himself as a member of other prominent bands: Crosby with The Byrds, Stills and Young with Buffalo Springfield, and Nash with The Hollies. Additionally, Crosby had released his first solo album, while the prolific Young already had two solo records out – his eponymous debut and the first album with Crazy Horse.

Given their history and egos, it’s not a surprise that CSNY wasn’t meant to last. But while it was going on, it was sheer magic. Apart from Déjà Vu, I think this live album perfectly illustrates why, so let’s get to some music!

First up: Teach Your Children, undoubtedly one of the best known CSNY songs, first appeared on the Déjà Vu album. The tune was written by Nash when he was still with The Hollies.

Triad is a song Crosby wrote while working with The Byrds on their fifth studio album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Although they recorded the song and performed it during a live gig in September 1967, it didn’t make the record. Crosby ended up giving it to Jefferson Airplane, and they included it on their fourth studio album Crown Of Creation from September 1968. Perhaps even more intriguing than the tune is listening to Crosby’s announcement.

Chicago is a song by Nash, which he dedicated to Richard Daley, who was then the city’s powerful mayor. It’s about anti-Vietnam war and counter-cultural protests around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the ensuing federal charges against eight protesters who became known as the Chicago Eight for conspiracy to incite a riot. Nash also included the tune on his debut solo album Songs For Beginners, which was released in May 1971.

Cowgirl In The Sand is one of Young’s great early songs, which initially appeared on his second studio album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the first of many he recorded with his backing band Crazy Horse. Songfacts points out the liner notes to Young’s 1977 compilation album Decade explain that he wrote Cowgirl In The Sand, together with Down By The River and Cinnamon Girl in a single afternoon while being sick with a 103 degree temperature – it’s quite amazing what a fever can do!

The last tune on the first LP of 4 Way Street is Still’s Love The One You’re With, which also concludes CSNY’s acoustic set. The song became the lead single to Stills’ eponymous debut album from November 1970. It climbed all the way to no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his biggest hit single.

The second LP of 4 Way Street captures songs from CSNY’s electric rock-oriented set. Long Time Gone is a tune by Crosby, which was included on CSN’s eponymous studio debut from March 1969. Not that Déjà Vu would have needed any additional strong tunes, but it would have been a perfect fit for that album as well!

Southern Man is another classic by Young, which he included on his third studio album After The Gold Rush released in September 1970. Together with Alabama from his follow-on record Harvest, it triggered a response by Lynyrd Skynyrd with southern rock anthem Sweet Home Alabama. While that tune explicitly tells him to take a hike, the band and Young were actually mutual fans, and there never was a serious feud between them. Young in his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream said his words in Southern Man were “accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”

While with so much great material on the album I could easily go on and on calling out tunes, the last track I’d like to highlight is Carry On. Written by Stills, it’s another gem from Déjà Vu. Like Southern Man, the take of Carry On on 4 Way Street is an extended version.

4 Way Street’s musicians include Crosby (vocals, guitar), Stills (vocals, guitar, piano, organ), Nash (vocals, guitar, piano, organ), Young (vocals, guitar), Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels (bass) and Johnny Barbata (drums). The album was produced by CSNY. In June 1992, an expanded CD version appeared, which was produced by Nash and included four solo acoustic performances, one by each artist.

Like Déjà Vu, the record topped the Billboard 200. It was certified Gold by RIAA just a few days after its release. On December 18, 1992, U.S. sales hit 4 million certified units, giving it 4X Multi-Platinum status. Unlike Déjà Vu, interestingly, the album didn’t make Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: March 11

1968: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Co-written by Redding and Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, the song had only been released as a single on January 8 that year, following Redding’s untimely death in a plane crash on December 10, 1967 at the age of 26. The tune, which topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and climbed to no. 3 on the UK Singles Chart, became his biggest hit. As of December 13, 2017, it has reached 3x Multi-Platinum certification.

1970: The Beatles released Let It Be in the U.S., five days after the song had appeared in the UK, their last single prior to the announcement of their official breakup. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the ballad was actually written by McCartney who also sang lead. Undoubtedly one of the best known Beatles songs to this day, Let It Be gave the band another no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 2 in the UK. Here’s a clip of an early take, which appeared on the third of the Anthology albums. In addition to the instrumentation, McCartney’s lyrics are slightly different than in the final version.

1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released Déjà Vu, the first studio album by the quartet and second studio record by Crosby, Stills & Nash. The record, which became the band’s most successful album, includes numerous gems like Carry On, Teach Your Children, Our House and the brilliant cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. The aforementioned songs also appeared as singles, and each charted in the Billboard Hot 100, with Woodstock reaching the highest position at no. 11. The album topped the Billboard 200 in May 1970 and stayed in the charts for 97 weeks. RIAA certified the record Gold on March 25, 1970, only two weeks after its release. As of November 4, 1992, Harvest has reached 7x Multi-Platinum certification, numbers that are unheard of these days. Here’s a clip of the mighty Woodstock.

1972: Neil Young’s fourth studio album Harvest hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200, staying in that position for two weeks. The record featured various notable guest vocalists, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Hills and James Taylor. The album includes some of Young’s best known songs, such as Old Man, The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold, his first and only no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. That tune also topped the charts in Young’s native Canada, as did the record. Harvest was certified Gold by RIAA less than three weeks after its release and became the best selling album of 1972 in the U.S. As of June 27, 1994, the album has reached 4x Multi-Platinum status. Here’s a clip of The Needle And The Damage Done.

1975: English Art rockers 10cc came out with their third studio album The Original Soundtrack. The record is best known for I’m Not In Love, which was also released separately as a single on May 23, 1975. Co-written by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the ballad is one of the band’s most popular songs and enjoyed massive radio play. It became 10cc’s second of three chart-topping singles in the UK, and their best performing U.S. single, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album’s lead single Life Is A Minestrone climbed to no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart but did not chart in the U.S.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, RIAA.com, Billboard Chart History, YouTube