What I’ve Been Listening to: Frankie Miller/The Rock

When Max from PowerPop blog recently posted about I Can’t Change It by Frankie Miller, I was immediately intrigued by the Scottish rock singer-songwriter’s soulful vocals. I also instantaneously recognized the name from an appearance on the German TV concert program Rockpalast I had watched in August 1982, though I still can’t remember any of the songs Miller performed during that show. Anyway, this is what prompted me to start listening to his music including his third studio album The Rock from September 1975.

Before getting to this gem, a few words about Miller are in order. He was born as Francis John Miller in Glasgow on November 2, 1949. Miller’s first exposure to music was his mother Cathy’s record collection. She particularly liked Ray Charles who interestingly ended up covering the above I Can’t Change It on his 1980 album Brother Ray Is at It Again, a song Miller had written as a 12-year-old and recorded for his debut album Once in a Blue Moon released in January 1973.

Going back to Miller’s childhood days, another music music influence were his older sisters Letty and Anne, who introduced him to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Miller started writing his first songs at the age of nine after his parents had given him a guitar. While still being at school, he started singing in a series of bands. Eventually, he joined Glasgow outfit The Stoics. While Chrysalis signed them in 1970, the band broke up before making any recordings.

In 1971, Miller formed a band called Jude, together with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, ex Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker and James Dewar, a Glasgow bassist and vocalist. While the band got attention from the British music press, they dissolved in April 1972, also without recording any music. Miller ended up signing a contract with Chrysalis later that year and released his above debut album in January 1973.

Frankie Miller at Rockpalast, Germany, 1982

Until 1985, Miller recorded eight additional solo albums. After his second-to-last solo release Standing on the Edge from 1982, he mostly focused on songwriting, including film music. Miller’s professional career came to a tragic end in August 1994 when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while writing music for a new band he and Joe Walsh had formed with English keyboarder and drummer Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace, respectively.

According to a bio on Miller’s website, the brain hemorrhage should have killed him but he has shown remarkable courage to claw his way slowly back to health, after spending 15 months in hospital. With massive support from his partner Annette, Frankie is learning to walk and talk again and has even written a new song with lyricist Will Jennings called “Sun Goes Up Sun Goes Down”. But sadly, Miller has not been able to resume performing.

The Rock back cover

While Miller’s records apparently received positive reviews, they were not commercially successful. His singles did not fare much better. Only two of them reached the top 40 in the UK: Be Good to Yourself from May 1977 (no. 27) and Darlin’ from October 1978 (no. 6). Miller’s songs have won writing awards and been performed by an impressive array of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh and Eagles.

Time to get to The Rock, Miller’s only album officially credited to the The Frankie Miller Band. All tracks were written by Miller. Here’s the excellent opener A Fool in Love. Like other tunes on the album, it reminds me of Joe Cocker. The song was actually covered by Etta James on her 1990 album Stickin’ to My Guns.

The title track was inspired by the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, which could be seen from the studio where the album was recorded. According to Wikipedia, Miller said that music saved him from prison. He dedicated the song to the plight of prisoners, apparently a reference to his second cousin Jimmy Boyle, a Scottish former gangster and convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist after his release from prison in October 1981. The Rock has got a cool Faces, early Rod Stewart vibe.

Another gem is Ain’t Got No Money. It’s probably not a coincidence that it became the album’s most covered tune, including by artists like Cher, Chris Farlowe and Bob Seger. Frankly, this would be a great song for The Rolling Stones.

Let’s slow things down with All My Love to You, a dynamite soulful tune. Why this didn’t become a hit beats me. Check it out this beauty!

Frankly, there’s no weak track on this album and I could have selected any other. Let’s do one one more: I’m Old Enough.

The Rock was produced by Elliot Mazer, one of the co-producers of Neil Young’s Harvest album. Musicians included Henry McCullough (lead guitar, backing vocals), Mick Weaver (keyboards), Chrissy Stewart (bass), Stu Perry (drums, percussion) and Miller’s former Jude mate James Dewar. The album also featured two ingredients for shaping its soul sound: The Memphis Horns and The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Frankie Miller website; YouTube

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Neil Young’s Long Shelved “Homegrown” Finally Sees Light of Day

It’s been a long time coming. Some 45 years. But it was worth the wait. Today, Neil Young officially released Homegrown, an album he initially had planned to put out in 1975. But written in the wake of the breakup of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, it felt too personal to him, so he decided to shelf it.

According to Apple Music, Young also had an entire second album written: Tonight’s the Night. In fact, he already had recorded it in August and September 1973, but had not released it. After deciding to stash away Homegrown in the drawer, he put out Tonight’s the Night.

Back to Homegrown. While these songs were written during what arguably was Young’s most creative period, I think it’s fair to say we’re not looking at another Harvest or Harvest Moon, to name two of my favorite Young albums. Still, this is a fine record, which takes Neil Young fans on what I think is a fascinating time travel journey back to the mid-’70s.

All of the 12 tracks on Homegrown were written by Young. Five of the tunes previously found their way on other Young records: Love Is a Rose (Decade, 1977), Homegrown (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars). Additionally, Young had performed other songs like Separate Ways or Try live but not officially released on a record.

I’d like to start with the opener Separate Ways, a tune directly addressed at Snodgrass: …Though we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharin’ our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…The little boy is Zeke, who was born in September 1972. According to this New York Times Magazine story from September 2012, Zeke has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot. Young’s second son Ben who he had with his second wide Pegi Young (née Morton) is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and non-verbal. Young also has a daughter, Amber Jean Young, his second child with Pegi, who is a visual artist. To me, Tim Drummond’s melodic bass line and the pedal steel fill-ins by Ben Keith are the song’s musical highlights. BTW, none other than Levon Helms manned the drums on this track.

As previously noted, Homegrown first appeared on Young’s eighth studio album American Stars ‘n Bars from May 1977. While the two versions are similar, the original take feels “less produced,” starting out with some studio banter. Karl Himmel played drums on this recording.

We Don’t Smoke It No More is a nice, largely instrumental blues tune. Unlike the title may suggest, it actually does smoke quite a bit. Ben Keith, who also provided backing vocals and produced the track, did a nice job on slide guitar. And Young proofed that when it come to the harmonica he also some blues chops.

White Line is one of the album’s gems. The original acoustic country-oriented version we hear here sounds significantly different from Young’s previously released grungy take on Ragged Glory. I also feel it’s superior. In addition to Young on vocals, guitar and harmonica, this recording featured Robbie Robertson on guitar. According to Wikipedia, Young also recorded White Line for Chrome Dreams, yet another album that wasn’t released at the time – gee, I don’t believe I’m aware of any other music artists who creates entire only to shelf them! In October 2007, Young released Chrome Dreams II, but other than being an obvious reference to the shelved record, I don’t believe the two have anything in common.

The last track I’d like to call out is Star Of Bethlehem. While this recording is pretty much identical to the version Young previously included on American Stars ‘n Bars, it’s another highlight and as such simply too good to skip. Undoubtedly, that’s largely because of the beautiful harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. Ben Keith also provided backing vocals, as well as dobro, but it’s really Harris who makes the song shine.

Like most of Young’s records since 1989, Homegrown appears on Reprise. The album was co-produced by him, Elliot Mazer, Ben Keith and Tim Mulligan. Apart from the above mentioned, additional musicians include Stan Szelest (piano) and Sandy Mazzeo (backing vocals.)

The final word here shall belong to Young. If you’ve read my previous posts related to this record, these words probably sound familiar. “This album should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest, Young wrote on his website. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; New York Times Magazine; Neil Young website; YouTube