Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

It’s Wednesday and I hope this week has been kind to you. Time to take another look at a song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. My pick for this installment is I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John. A search of the blog for this tune came up empty – hard to believe, given I’ve loved this tune since 1983 when I first heard it, and it remains one of my favorite ’80s pop songs.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues was composed by John and his longtime guitarist and collaborator Davey Johnstone. The lyrics were provided by Bernie Taupin, who first became John’s lyricist in 1967 and for the album resumed his full-time partnership with John, which had been paused in 1977 and had only partially been restored since the early ’80s. And, yes, that beautiful harmonica was played by the great Stevie Wonder. The song first appeared in April 1983 as the lead single for Too Low for Zero, the 17th studio album by the English music artist.

Following three non-charting singles in 1982, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues marked John’s return to the international charts. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and no. 4 on the Hot 100. In his home country, the tune peaked at no. 5, the same as in Ireland. It also made the top 30 in various other European countries, including Switzerland (no. 12), Belgium (14) and Germany (no. 22). Elsewhere, it reached no. 4 in Australia, no. 12 in New Zealand and no. 9 in Canada.

Too Low for Zero also did well, marking a comeback for John, whose previous four albums had failed to yield many enduring international hit singles and had disappointing sales. In each New Zealand and Australia, the album climbed to no. 2. In Europe, it was most successful in Germany (no. 5) and Norway (no. 6). In the UK and the U.S. it reached no. 7 and no. 25, respectively. Too Low for Zero became one of John’s best-selling records in the ’80s, especially in Australia where it was certified 5x Platinum. In England, Canada and the U.S., it earned Platinum status.

The above original music video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Australian film director who also directed 19 other videos for John. Filmed in the Rivoli Ballroom in London and at Colchester Garrison Barracks, Essex, the video tells the tale of two 1950s-era lovers. They get separated when the man needs to leave for National Service in the armed forces. After going through trials and tribulations there, he is finally reunited with his girl.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues became a fan favorite and a staple of John’s concerts. Later, he also performed the tune live with Mary J. Blige and separately with Luciano Pavarotti. Here’s a clip of John and Blige captured at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 2000.

Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote this song as a love letter to his wife at the time, Toni Russo, who is the sister of the actress Rene Russo. In the album credits, Bernie wrote, “Hey Toni, this one’s for you.”

Discussing the meaning of the song, Bernie Taupin said: “I wrote this in Montserrat, an island that, tragically, no longer exists. [Devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995 left the entire southern half of the Caribbean island uninhabitable – CMM] Basically, it’s a letter home with a small tip included about making the most of time, not wishing it away just because you can’t be with the one you love. Time is precious; read books, paint a picture, bake a cake. Just don’t wallow, don’t be content.”

Too Low for Zero was the first Elton John album since Blue Moves in 1976 with Bernie Taupin as the exclusive lyricist. During their time apart, each had success working with other artists. Taupin collaborated with Alice Cooper, and Elton turned to Gary Osbourne for lyrics.

This song contains one of the few lyrics that Bernie Taupin regrets. He said: “The whole ‘loving you more than I love life itself’ is something I would never say now. It’s kind of a crass sentiment and totally false. It’s quite another thing to love someone deeply with your whole heart without stooping to this kind of lie. I loathe giving songwriting advice, but were I pushed, I’d say, ‘Never say you love someone more than life or that you’d die for someone in a song.’ It’s just such a disservice to your own spirit. I’d like to think that I’d lay down my life for my children, but until you’re faced with the reality, it’s kind of a moot point. Rambling, I know, but relative nonetheless.”

The Too Low For Zero album has special meaning for Elton, as it reunited him with Taupin and is also where he met his first spouse, Renate Blauel, who was an engineer on the sessions. Elton cites this song as his favorite from the set, telling Rolling Stone, “It’s just a great song to sing. It’s timeless.”

The album also reunited John with the core of his backing band of the early ’70s: Johnstone (guitar, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass, backing vocals), and Nigel Olsson (drums, backing vocals). Perhaps that explains at least in part the album’s great sound!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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A First Glance at Albums Hitting the Big 50 This Year

With a new year upon us, I thought this would be a good opportunity to preview albums that are turning 50 in 2023. Taking a closer look quickly confirmed my expectation that 1973 was yet another great year in music. Based on Wikipedia, I came up with an initial list of 40 records released that year. I’m going to touch on six of them. A Spotify playlist at the end features songs from those albums, as well as one tune from each of the remaining 34 records.

Pink FloydThe Dark Side of the Moon (March 1, 1973)

Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album The Dark Side of the Moon remains among my favorites by the English rock band. Released in March 1973, it was primarily developed during live performances and premiered before the recording sessions began. In fact, as reported by Variety and other music outlets, last month, Pink Floyd quietly released 18 of these concerts on streaming services before the recordings hit 50 years and would have lost copyright protection. The Dark Side of the Moon, a concept album around themes like conflict, greed, time, death and mental illness, is Floyd’s best-selling record and one of the most critically acclaimed albums in music history. Here is Time, with lyrics by Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and the music credited to all members of the band, who also included David Gilmour (guitar, vocals), Richard Wright (keyboards, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums, percussion).

Steely DanCountdown to Ecstasy (July 1973)

Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown to Ecstasy, released in July 1973, was recorded when they were still a standing band. In addition to masterminds Donald Fagen (acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizer, lead and backing vocals) and Walter Becker (electric bass, harmonica, backing vocals), the line-up featured Denny Dias (electric guitar), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (electric and pedal steel guitars) and Jim Hodder (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Countdown to Ecstasy followed the departure of David Palmer and was the group’s first album where Fagen sang lead on every song. After their third record Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker turned Steely Dan largely into a studio project, relying on top-notch session musicians. One of my favorite tracks on Countdown to Ecstasy is My Old School, which like all other tunes was co-written by Becker and Fagen. Baxter’s guitar work shines and is among his best.

Stevie WonderInnervisions (August 3, 1973)

Innervisions, Stevie Wonder’s 16th studio album released in August 1973, is part of his so-called classic period, which spans six records, bookended by Music of My Mind (March 1972) and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” (October 1979). Following his 21st birthday on May 13, 1971, Wonder allowed his contract with Motown to expire. He returned to the Detroit label with Music of My Mind and a much more lucrative contract that also freed him from the artistic straitjacket of the past. Wonder’s lyrics changed and started to explore social and political topics in addition to standard romantic themes. Musically, he began exploring overdubbing and recording most of the instrumental parts himself. Innervisions and the excellent Living for the City perfectly illustrate these changes.

Lynyrd Skynyrd(Pronounced ‘LÄ•h-‘nĂ©rd ‘Skin-‘nĂ©rd) (August 13, 1973)

August 1973 also saw the release of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album (Pronounced ‘LÄ•h-‘nĂ©rd ‘Skin-‘nĂ©rd). And what a debut it was, featuring classics like Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone and the epic Free Bird. You wouldn’t necessarily guess it, based on the album’s relatively moderate chart performance when it came out. In the U.S., it reached no. 27 on the Billboard 200. Elsewhere, it climbed to no. 20 in Switzerland, no. 44 in the UK and no. 47 in Canada. But over time, the picture looks better. As of July 1987, it was certified 2X Platinum in the U.S. The album also made Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was ranked at no. 381 in the most recent revision from 2020. Here’s the aforementioned Free Bird, co-written by the group’s original lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins.

Elton JohnGoodbye Yellow Brick Road (October 5, 1973)

Elton John truly ruled during the first part of the ’70s. With Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a double LP and his seventh studio album, he scored his third of six consecutive chart-toppers in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The album also topped the charts in the UK, Canada and Australia. It spawned four singles, which charted in different countries. In the U.S., Bennie and the Jets became John’s second no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, while the title track topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand. I decided to highlight the magnificent opening medley of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. As usual, John wrote the music to lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. What an opus!

Paul McCartney and WingsBand on the Run (December 5, 1973)

The final album I’d like to call out here is what I consider the Mount Rushmore of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles period: Band on the Run, his fifth after the break-up of The Fab Four and the third with Wings. By the time recording in Lagos, Nigeria began, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough had departed. This left Wings as a trio, which in addition to McCartney included his wife Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. As such, Paul ended up playing bass, drums, percussion and most of the lead guitar parts, with Laine providing guitars and Linda keyboards. Both also sang backing and harmony vocals. After recording the majority of the album’s basic tracks and some overdubbing in Lagos under difficult conditions, Wings returned to England and finished the album in George Martin’s AIR Studios in London. After initial modest sales, Band on the Run became the top-selling studio album of 1974 in the UK. More importantly, it revitalized the critical standing of Paul McCartney whose earlier post-Beatles records had received a mixed reception. Band on the Run’s opener and title track, credited to Paul and Linda, is a longtime favorite of mine.

I’m planning dedicated posts on each of the above albums and possibly others released in 1973, timed to their respective 50th anniversaries. Last but not least, here’s the above-noted Spotify playlist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Variety; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Happy Saturday and hope your weekend is off to a great start! It’s been a busy week on my end, which is also why this Best of What’s New installment is coming out later than usual. The first two selections are on albums released yesterday (December 9), while for the final two picks, I went back to December 2.

River Tiber/In Between

First up this week is River Tiber, the moniker of Canadian singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Tommy Paxton-Beesley. Born and raised in Toronto, Paxton-Beesley also lived in Italy for a year near to the Tiber River, presumably the inspiration for this moniker. His AllMusic bio notes he is classically trained and picked up the cello at a young age before learning the drums, trombone and guitar. Prior to launching his solo career in 2013 with the debut EP The Star Falls, Paxton-Beesley wrote for hip-hop artists. Over the years, he has co-written charting songs, such as No Tellin’ by Drake, Broken Clocks by SZA, AstroThunder by Travis Scott and I Keep Calling by James Blake – frankly not the type of music that grabs me. By now you may be wondering why I decided to feature Paxton-Beesley. Well, his latest album Dreaming Eyes sounds different from the aforementioned music. By the time I got to the third track In Between, a co-write by Paxton-Beesley and Johnathan Mavrogiannis, I felt sufficiently intrigued.

Sam Ryder/Deep Blue Doubt

Sam Ryder is a British singer-songwriter who first rose to prominence with music covers he posted on TikTok in March 2020 during the first COVID lockdown period. Here’s more from his Apple Music profile: After years of playing in rock and metal bands and trying to break into the songwriting game in Nashville, Ryder took to posting cover songs to the internet during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, and quickly caught the attention of stars like Sia and Justin Bieber. In short order, he skyrocketed to social media stardom. In 2021, he released his debut EP The Sun’s Gonna Rise, which has received over 100 million global streams. He also represented the UK at the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest with the song Space Man and finished second overall. Ryder has cited David Bowie, Elton John, and Queen as his artistic influences. He’s now out with his debut album There’s Nothing But Space, Man! Ryder’s high vocals remind me a bit of Sam Smith. His music, which I guess could be characterized as contemporary power pop, is a bit of a stretch to me. Let’s listen to the album’s opener Deep Blue Doubt, credited to Ryder, Ben Kohn, James Napier, Peter Kelleher and Tom Barnes.

Sophie Jamieson/Addition

Next up is Sophie Jamieson, a British singer-songwriter based in London. Here’s more from her AllMusic bio: Jamieson started writing songs as a teen and cites Elena Tonra, Sharon Van Etten, and Scott Hutchison among her later songwriting inspirations. She started playing live while living in Cambridge and taking in the university music scene. A Ben Walker-produced EP titled Where appeared in 2013 and led to an inclusion on Folkroom Records’ Anthology Two compilation. The double A-side “Stain/Other” followed in 2014. In the meantime, a bad recording session and mental breakdown ultimately resulted in a six-year break from music. The first of a pair of self-released EPs, hammer EP, appeared in March 2020 featuring hazy electric guitar and keyboard songs, usually with a rhythm section. Arriving in December of the same year, the four-song release EP, if slightly sparer, followed suit. This brings me to Jamieson’s full-length debut album Choosing. Apparently, it was written during a period in which the artist was struggling with alcohol. Here’s the powerful opener Addition, which drew me in.

Mthunzi Mvubu/Mom vs the Bad Man

Closing out this week’s new music revue is Mthunzi Mvubu, a South African-based saxophonist, flute player and composer. While I frequently feature jazz in my Sunday Six weekly feature, I rarely include it in Best of What’s New – frankly, I really don’t know why, especially when the music is as great as Mvubu’s! From his AllMusic bio: Possessed of a reedy yet smooth, nearly mellifluous tone on the horn, his playing style draws on the North American and African jazz traditions; he also has an extensive post-bop vocabulary. Playing professionally since he was 14, Mvubu has traveled globally with jazz luminaries since he was 18. He is also a member of Londoner Shabaka Hutchings’ Shabaka & the Ancestors. Mvubu is a founding member of the Amandla Freedom Ensemble and, for a decade, has played in drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s band, appearing on 2014’s Project Elo and 2022’s Group Theory: Black Music. While I admittedly know nothing about these albums and other artists, this sounds like a pretty impressive resume to me! Now, Mvubu can add his debut as a leader to his credits: The 1st Gospel, recorded with five other jazz musicians from South Africa. Check out Mom vs the Bad Man – love this!

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist of the above picks and a few additional tunes by each of the artists.

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; Apple Music; YouTube; Spotify

A Music Cover I Like

A “Turntable Talk” Contribution

This is another contribution for “Turntable Talk“, a feature hosted by fellow blogger Dave at A Sound Day.

When Dave recently reached out to introduce the new topic for this round of “Turntable Talk,” I didn’t hesitate one minute to participate again. Thanks, Dave, for having me back and your continued efforts to host this fun series!

When it comes to music, I think it’s fair to say we generally like to focus most of our attention on original tracks. That’s certainly the case for me. I always like to explore new songs, especially if they are written by an artist or a band I dig. But a good cover can also get my attention.

What’s a good cover? I think there’s no standard definition here. However, what it doesn’t mean, at least in my opinion, is that a cover has to be a faithful rendition of the original. In fact, one could argue what’s the point of covering a song when it exactly sounds like the original. As such, I tend to find it more intriguing when an artist or a band take some liberties and put their own spin on a song. In this case I prefer to use the term remake rather than cover.

There are some excellent remakes. My all-time favorite is Joe Cocker’s version of With a Little Help From My Friends. Two other terrific remakes that come to mind are Love Hurts by Nazareth and Proud Mary by Ike & Tina Turner. Not only did Cocker, Nazareth and Ike & Tina Turner make the respective songs their own, but they took them to the next level. I like all three renditions better than the originals!

In some cases, the original tunes are so great that tampering doesn’t make much sense. Two good examples I thought of are the covers of If I Needed Someone and Hard to Handle by Roger McGuinn and The Black Crows, respectively.

Yet another rendition I think is absolutely killer is Elton John’s version of The Who’s Pinball Wizard. To me, this falls somewhere in-between a straight cover and a remake. In any case, John did what I always wished The Who would have done – make this fantastic song longer instead of fading it out in a seemingly arbitrary fashion.

Finally, this brings me to my “bold cover” I’d like to select for this post. I deliberately wanted to go with a tune that looked like an unlikely pick by any of the other participants. In fact, it’s not even a remake of a rock tune but a jazz standard: Al Jarreau’s amazing rendition of Dave Brubeck classic Take Five.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it last or if you haven’t listened to it at all, here’s the original. Composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, the track was first released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in December 1959 on their album Time Out. This was one of the first jazz tunes I ever heard many moons ago. Even though I wasn’t into jazz at the time, I’ve always loved it!

And here’s where Al Jarreau took the tune on his December 1977 live album Look to the Rainbow: Live In Europe. When I heard his rendition for the first time, I was blown away. How Jarreau used his voice here as an instrument is just super cool. In fact, this type of rendition is called scat singing, which per Wikipedia is “vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.”

Songfacts notes Take Five is one of the rare jazz tunes that became a hit. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 25 on the pop chart in October 1961. Elsewhere it did even better, especially in the UK (no. 6), Australia (no. 7), New Zealand (no. 8) and The Netherlands (no. 8). Take Five has also been used in movies, including Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Pleasantville (1998) and Constantine (2005). And it’s one of the most compelling remakes.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Wikipedia

Musings of the Past

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Bowie/ Ziggy Stardust

The other day while browsing the blog for older content that would be worthwhile to republish, I came across a post from August 2018 about my favorite David Bowie album. That’s when I realized that I had actually missed the 50th-anniversary date of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. But since June 16 only passed about four weeks ago, I felt it was still close enough to celebrate this milestone with a repost of the above.

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Bowie/ Ziggy Stardust

When it comes to David Bowie, I’ve always felt more drawn to his early years. Space OddityThe Man Who Sold The World and Changes are among my favorite tunes. Ditto for StarmanZiggy Stardust and Suffragette City. I was less fond of his Tin Machine venture and didn’t pay much attention to music he released thereafter. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is Bowie at his best, in my opinion. So guess what happened when I recently spotted a used audiophile vinyl copy of this gem at a small record store close to my house? Yep, I just couldn’t resist taking it home!

Often simply called Ziggy Stardurst, the record is Bowie’s fifth studio release and appeared in June 1972. Wikipedia characterizes it as a “loose concept album” revolving around a bi-sexual alien rock musician who becomes widely popular among teenagers before his fame ultimately kills him. Ziggy Stardust also became Bowie’s most notorious alter-ego during the massive tour that supported both this record and the follow-on Aladdin Sane from April 1973. Spanning the U.K., North America and Japan, the extended tour lasted from late January 1972 until early July 1973. One of the U.S. gigs, performed for radio broadcast in Santa Monica, Calif., became a fantastic bootleg. Since 2008 it’s been available officially as Live Santa Monica ’72.

David Bowie (second from right) with The Spiders From Mars (left to right): Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and Mick Ronson

Driven by his fondness for acting, Bowie liked to create on-stage personas for his music and totally immersed himself into the characters. In the case of Ziggy Stardust things got so intense that eventually he could no longer distinguish between himself and his alter-ego. Wikipedia quotes him from the biography  Bowie: Loving The Alien (Christopher Sanford, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997): Stardust “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour â€¦ My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” Time for another cheerful topic – music about earth’s demise! 🙂

The album opens with Five Years, which like all other tunes except one was penned by Bowie. Telling about the planet’s upcoming destruction, musically, the song is a great built. Generally speaking, when it comes to music, to me the lyrics tend to be secondary to the melody and musical arrangement – in other words, usually, it takes the two latter for a song to grab me.

Next up: The excellent Soul Love, a tune with a distinct cool groove. In addition to singing lead and backing vocals, Bowie is also playing acoustic rhythm guitar and alto saxophone. I admire people who can master various instruments and always wanted to be a multi-instrumentalist myself. I only managed to learn the acoustic guitar and electric bass, each with moderate success, but I’m getting off-topic here!

Starman was the last song Bowie wrote for the album after RCA had noted it was lacking a single. Really? How about the catchy rocker Suffragette City? In any case, I’m glad Bowie obliged, since the result was one of his all-time greatest tunes: Starman. It ended up replacing a take of Chuck Berry’s  Around And Around, simply called Round And Round. That cover eventually became the B-side to Drive-In Saturday, an April 1973 single from the Aladdin Sane album. BTW, Suffragette City ended up as the B-side to Starman â€“ I think it should have been its own (A-side) single!

The record’s title track is another highlight. I’ve always loved the guitar riff – simple yet effective! Plus, it’s about a guy playing guitar. Did I mention guitarists are cool dudes? 🙂

The last tune I’d like to highlight, perhaps you guessed it, is Suffragette City, the tune on the album I like best and perhaps my favorite Bowie song overall. It’s simply a kick-ass rocker – ahhh, wham bam, thank ya man! (taking some creative license here). Initially, Bowie had offered the song to then-struggling  Mott the Hoople. His condition: Don’t break up, guys! While the band declined that tune, they went with Bowie’s All The Young Dudes instead, another catchy song. Oh, and it became their biggest hit in the U.K. and extended their career for more than five years (until 1980) â€“ not a bad outcome!

The album’s musical arrangements are credited to Bowie and Mick Ronson (guitar, piano, vocals), who was part of his excellent backing band The Spiders From Mars. The other members included Trevor Bolder  (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums). I need to check out whatever happened to these guys after their last performance with Bowie. That show at the  Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973 was captured in the 1973 documentary Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by D.A. Pennemaker, a film I’ve also yet to watch!

The Ziggy Stardust album was recorded at Trident Studios in London, U.K., and co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, one of the five main recording engineers for The Beatles. That in and of itself is already pretty cool, but there’s more: Scott has also worked with other big names, such as Elton JohnPink FloydMahavishnu OrchestraJeff Beck and Kansas. And he co-produced additional Bowie albums, including Hunky Dory (December 1971), Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups (October 1973).

Ziggy Stardust has been called Bowie’s breakthrough album. It peaked at no. 5 on the British Official Albums Chart and no. 75 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart (now called the Billboard 200). The album has received numerous accolades over the years. It is ranked no. 35 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2013 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 1997, it was named the 20th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll in the U.K. In 2017, the U.S. Library of Congress selected the record for preservation in the National Recording Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

– End –

The original post, first published on August 28, 2018, ended here. The following link to the album on Spotify has been added:

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

Elton John’s Honky Château at 50 Remains a Classic

While I know a good number of Elton John songs from throughout his 50-plus-year recording career, I cannot make that claim when it comes to his 30 studio albums. So why pick Honky Château to highlight in a post? Well, to start with, it includes Rocket Man, one of my all-time favorite tunes by John. I’ve also always dug Honky Cat. But the main reason for writing about Honky Château again today is the album’s 50th anniversary, another 1972 classic to hit the big milestone.*

Released on May 19, 1972, and named after Château d’HĂ©rouville, an 18th-century French castle where it was recorded, Elton John’s fifth studio album is a gem that definitely has more to offer than the above-noted tunes. Moreover, it’s a significant album in his recording career. Honky Château became John’s first of seven consecutive no. 1 records in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. It also performed very well elsewhere: No. 2 in the UK, no. 3 in Canada and no. 4 in Australia, to name a few countries where it charted. John truly ruled during the first half of the ’70s!

Honky Château also marked the first record to feature core members of John’s road band: David Johnstone (acoustic and electric guitars, steel guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums). Murray and Olsson had joined John’s touring band from The Spencer Davis Group. Johnstone, a session musician, had first played with John on predecessor Madman Across the Water from November 1971. He pretty much has been with John ever since. Johnstone, Murray and Olsson became instrumental in shaping Elton John’s sound during the ’70s.

Let’s get to some music, and what better way to start than with the opener  Honky Cat. Like all other songs on the record, the music was composed by John with lyrics from his long-time partner in crime Bernie Taupin. I always liked the tune’s New Orleans vibe. The brass section, which was arranged by producer Gus Dudgeon, featured Jacques Bolognesi  (trombone), Ivan Jullien (trumpet), as well as saxophonists Jean-Louis Chautemps and Alain HatotHonky Cat also appeared separately as the album’s second single in July 1972, backed by Slave.

I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself has some of Honky Cat’s New Orleans vibe as well. According to Songfacts, John said the song about a moody teenager’s suicide thoughts isn’t to be taken too seriously. I’m not sure a tune like this could be released today without causing controversy. Of course, the times they are a-changin’, and you could make the same observation for other ’70s tunes. The tap-dancing routine was performed by â€śLegs” Larry Smith, the former drummer of the comedy satirical rock group the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Smith was friends with George Harrison who would include a tribute song about him, His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen), on his 1975 studio album Extra Texture (Read All About It).

Closing out Side 1 is the majestic Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), as it’s officially titled. Not surprisingly, the tale about a Mars-bound astronaut’s mixed feelings about leaving his family behind to carry out his mission became the album’s big hit. Separately released as the lead single in April 1972, backed by Susie (Dramas), it rose all the way to no. 2 in the UK and reached no. 6 in the U.S. Rocket Man also was a hit in various other countries, including Canada (no. 8), Germany (no. 18), Ireland (no. 6) and New Zealand (no. 11). It truly is a timeless classic!

Side 2 opens with Salvation. There isn’t much to say about this tune other than it’s the kind of ballad John excelled at in the ’70s, in my view.

Amy is another nice tune on Side 2. The song about young lust has a great groove. It features French jazz violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Honky Château’s closer Hercules. Initial plans to make Hercules the album’s third single did not materialize. While I haven’t read this anywhere, I’m wondering whether there may have been concerns it could have interfered with Crocodile Rock. One of John’s biggest hits, it was released in October 1972 as the lead single for his next studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Here’s a Spotify link to the entire album.

Honky Château was generally well received by music critics at the time and is regarded as one of Elton John’s best albums. In October 1995, the record was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America  (RIAA), meaning it had reached certified sales of one million units.

In 2003, Honky Château was ranked at no. 357 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, a position that remained nearly unchanged (no. 359) in the 2012 list. Interestingly, the album moved up by more than 100 spots to no. 251 in the list’s most recent revision from September 2020.

* This post was originally published on May 31, 2021. It has been slightly updated.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six, a celebration of the diversity of music of the past and the present, six tracks at a time. If you’ve looked at the blog before chances are you know what’s about to unfold. In case this is your inaugural visit welcome, and I hope you’ll be back. The first sentence pretty much sums up the idea behind the weekly feature. So without further ado, let’s get to it.

Gerald Clayton/Peace Invocation (feat. Charles Lloyd)

I’d like to embark on today’s journey with beautiful music by Dutch-born American contemporary jazz pianist Gerald Clayton. From his website: The four-time GRAMMY-nominated pianist/composer formally began his musical journey at the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he received the 2002 Presidential Scholar of the Arts Award. Continuing his scholarly pursuits, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance at USC’s Thornton School of Music under the instruction of piano icon Billy Childs, after a year of intensive study with NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron at The Manhattan School of Music. Clayton won second place in the 2006 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Piano Competition...Inclusive sensibilities have allowed him to perform and record with such distinctive artists as Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dayna Stephens, Kendrick Scott, John Scofield…[the list goes on and on – CMM] Clayton also has enjoyed an extended association since early 2013, touring and recording with saxophone legend Charles LloydThe son of beloved bass player and composer John Clayton, he enjoyed a familial apprenticeship from an early age. Clayton honors the legacy of his father and all his musical ancestors through a commitment to artistic exploration, innovation, and reinvention. This brings me to Bells on Sand, Clayton’s brand new album released on April 1. Peace Invocation, composed by Clayton, features the above-mentioned now-84-year-old sax maestro Charles Lloyd. Check out his amazing tone – feels like he’s caressing you with his saxophone!

Billy Joel/Allentown

Next, let’s go to another piano man and the year 1982. When I think of pop and piano men, the artists who come to mind first are Elton John and Billy Joel. While John recently announced the remaining dates of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road The Final Tour, as reported by Billboard, the piano man from New York apparently has no plans to retire. Instead, he continues to sell out show after show at Madison Square Garden, even though he hasn’t released any new pop music since August 1993 when his 12th studio album River of Dreams came out. I was fortunate to see the man at MSG in the early 2000s, and it was a really great show – in terms of the atmosphere think Bruce Springsteen playing MetLife Stadium in New Jersey! The Nylon Curtain, Joel’s eighth studio release from September 1982, remains among my favorites. Here’s Allentown, his blue-collar anthem about the plight and resilience of steelworkers in the Allentown, Pa. region in the early ’80s following Bethlehem Steel’s decline and eventual closure.

Buddy Guy/Cognac (feat. Jeff Beck, Keith Richards)

Hopefully, I don’t jinx myself with this next pick, but I just couldn’t help it! Undoubtedly, more frequent visitors of the blog have noticed my love of the blues, especially electric guitar blues. One of the artists I keep going back to in this context is the amazing, now 85-year-old Buddy Guy. I’m beyond thrilled I got a ticket to see him on Wednesday night at a midsize theater in New Jersey – a total impulse purchase! It would be my third time. After a near-70-year career, Guy continues to be a force of nature. Here’s Cognac, a track from his most recent studio album The Blues Is Alive and Well, released in June 2018. Co-written by Guy, Richard Fleming and producer Tom Hambridge who also plays drums, the song features Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. It really doesn’t get much better when three guitar legends come together to play some blistering blues while taking sips of liquid gold! You can read more about the album here.

The Rolling Stones/The Last Time

Getting to The Rolling Stones from Keith Richards isn’t a big leap, but there’s more to it than you may realize. Long before Keef got together with Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck to play guitar and sip some cognac, there was a special connection between British blues rock-oriented artists, such as Eric Clapton, Beck and the Stones, and American blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy. When U.S. musical variety TV series Shindig! invited the Stones in 1965 to perform on the program, Mick Jagger agreed under one condition: They would have to let Muddy Waters on as well. Apparently, the bookers had no clue who that was. “You mean to tell me you don’t know who Muddy Waters is?”, Jagger asked in complete disbelief. Guy likes to tell the story during his shows to this day – and to express his appreciation that British acts like the Stones, Beck and Clapton played a key role to introduce white American audiences to African American blues artists. Here’s one of my favorite early Stones songs. The Last Time, which first appeared in February 1965 as a single in the UK, holds the distinction of being the first original Stones tune released as an A-side. Credited to Jagger/Richards, as would become usual, the tune was also included on the U.S. version of Out of Our Heads, the band’s fourth American studio record from July 1965.

Christopher Cross/Ride Like the Wind

Our next stop takes us to the late ’70s and Christopher Cross. Call me a softie, I’ve always had a thing for the American singer-songwriter whose eponymous debut album from December 1979 is regarded as a key release of the yacht rock genre. Perhaps it helped that one of his best-known songs was titled Sailing and appeared on that record. On a more serious note, I think Cross has written some nice songs. Here’s my favorite, Ride Like the Wind, which together with Sailing and Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) became his biggest hits. Cross dedicated the catchy tune to Little Feat co-founder and leader Lowell George who had passed away in June 1979. It features Michael McDonald on backing vocals and a pretty good guitar solo played by Cross. Now 70 years old, Cross is still around and to date has released 15 studio albums. Apart from the debut I’ve only listened to his sophomore release Another Page.

Stone Temple Pilots/Plush

And once again we’ve reached the end of our journey. I’ll leave you with some ’90s alternative rock by Stone Temple Pilots. Plush, off their debut album Core, became their first single to top Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and one of their biggest hits. Frankly, I mostly know the band by name, but that tune seemingly was everywhere when it came out in May 1993 as the album’s second single. The song was co-written by Scott Weiland, Eric Kretz and Robert DeLeo, who at the time were the Pilots’ lead vocalist, drummer and bassist, respectively. Kretz and DeLeo remain with the band’s current lineup, which also includes DeLeo’s older brother and co-founder Dean DeLeo (guitar) and Jeff Gutt (lead vocals). The Pilots’ eighth and most recent album Perdida appeared in February 2020. Excluding the group’s 5-year hiatus between 2003 and 2008, they have been around for some 28 years – pretty impressive! Perhaps I should check ’em out one of these days.

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist with the above songs.

Sources: Wikipedia; Gerald Clayton website; Billboard; YouTube; Spotify

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Nothing strange and nothing to spit on

After a 62-day streak of publishing one post each day (my initial goal was 50 days, after I had reached 40 posts in a row), I’ve decided that starting from next week, I’m going to reduce the frequency of blogging back to what it used to be, which is about three to four posts a week. While I love writing about my favorite subject music, publishing seven days a week has taken a significant amount of time – time I obviously haven’t been able to spend otherwise.

Along with this reduction in posting frequency, I’m also planning a few other changes. This includes retiring Wednesday’s Hump Day Picker-Upper posts and replacing them with a new weekly feature I’m going to unveil next Wednesday. I’m also considering consolidating some of my current blog categories. The current number of 20 does seem to be a bit excessive. Obviously, any reduction in categories and reindexing of previous posts are more of behind-the-scenes changes.

Since this is a music blog, of course, this post wouldn’t be complete with at least one song. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first tune that came to mind in the current context is one of my favorite songs by David Bowie: Changes.

Written by Bowie, Changes first appeared on the British artist’s fourth studio album Hunky Dory from December 1971. The song was also released separately as the record’s first single in January 1972.

To my surprise, Changes didn’t chart in the UK at the time it came out. In the U.S., it initially climbed to no. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. It re-entered that chart in 1974 and peaked at no. 41. In the UK, the song resurfaced as well and got to no. 49, but it wasn’t until 2016 following Bowie’s death. Wikipedia doesn’t list any other chart placements – strange!

Here’s some additional background on the great tune from Songfacts: This is a reflective song about defying your critics and stepping out on your own. It also touches on Bowie’s penchant for artistic reinvention. Bowie wrote this when he was going through a lot of personal change. Bowie’s wife, Angela, was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Duncan. Bowie got along very well with his father and was very excited to have a child of his own. This optimism shines through in “Changes.”

According to Bowie, this started out as a parody of a nightclub song – “kind of throwaway” – but people kept chanting for it at concerts and thus it became one of his most popular and enduring songs. Bowie had no idea it was going to become so successful, but the song connected with his young audience who could relate to lyrics like “These children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

Bowie played the sax on this track, and his guitarist, Mick Ronson, arranged the strings. Rick Wakeman, who would later become a member of the prog rock band, Yes, played the piano parts at the beginning and end. Bowie gave Wakeman a lot of freedom, telling him to play the song like it was a piano piece. The piano Wakeman played was the famous 100-year old Bechstein at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded; the same piano used by Elton John, The Beatles and Genesis.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Billy Joel

As previously noted, while I’ve listened to Billy Joel on and off for more than 40 years and occasionally included him or one of his songs in some previous pieces, I had not dedicated a post to him. After more than five years of writing this blog, it’s about time to change that. It was all seeded by this recent post from fellow blogger Graham at Aphoristic Album Reviews. In turn, this led me to include the piano man in that post, which then triggered the idea to do this profile and playlist.

Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949 in The Bronx, New York, and grew up on Long Island where he has one of his residences to this day. Ironically, Joel wasn’t into the piano initially and only took it up reluctantly after his mother insisted. To be fair, he was only four years old at the time. During his teenage years, Joel got into boxing but decided to stop after he had suffered a broken nose in his 24th boxing match.

While attending high school, Joel was playing piano at a bar to help support himself, as well as his mother and his sister. His parents had divorced when he was eight years old. When he found himself with an insufficient amount of credits to graduate, he decided to forgo his high school diploma. After he had seen The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Joel knew he wasn’t going to Columbia University but to Columbia Records, according to the 2006 biography Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man, by Hank Bordowitz.

Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 2014

In 1965, Joel joined British Invasion cover band The Echoes and played on some of their recordings. By the time he left the group in 1967, they had gone through a couple of name changes and were called Lost Souls. Joel’s new band, The Hassles, had a deal with United Artists Records, and over the next two years released two albums and a few singles, none of which were commercially successful.

In 1969, Joel and Lost Souls’ drummer Jon Small departed, formed the duo Attila and released an eponymous debut album in July 1970. Things unraveled after Joel had started an affair with Small’s wife Elizabeth Weber Small who eventually became Joel’s first wife in 1973 and manager. Making music and getting into relationships oftentimes don’t mix well!

Joel subsequently signed with Family Productions and launched his solo career with the album Cold Spring Harbor, which appeared in November 1971. It was the first of 12 pop albums Joel released between 1971 and 1993. In September 2001, Joel came out with a classical music album, Fantasies & Delusions, his last to date and I guess by now we can safely assume is his final release of original music.

This shall suffice for background. Let’s get to some music. Following, I’ll highlight six songs that are included in a Spotify playlist, together with some additional tunes. Here’s She’s Got a Way, a sweet love song that most likely is about Joel’s above-mentioned wife Elizabeth.

In October 1974, Joel released his third studio album Streetlife Serenade. In The Entertainer, he gets cynical about the music business and being subject to changing public taste where one day an artist is in only to find themselves out the next day.

After a series of only marginally successful records, Joel scored his breakthrough in September 1977 with the release of his fifth studio album The Stranger. It was the first of four records produced by Phil Ramone who worked with the likes of Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. Here’s Only the Good Die Young. Wikipedia notes the song’s lyrics about a young man’s determination to have premarital sex with a Catholic girl stirred controversy. Pressure from religious groups to have the tune banned from radio stations turned a relatively obscure single into a highly demanded tune overnight and a top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

Joel followed up his breakthrough album The Stranger with 52nd Street in October 1978, his first of four records to reach the top of the Billboard 200. It also earned him two Grammys. Here’s the catchy uptempo song My Life, which became the lead single. Reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, it also was one of Joel’s highest-charting songs at the time.

If you’d ask me to name my favorite Billy Joel album, I’d go with The Nylon Curtain from September 1982. Joel’s eighth studio album isn’t among the four previously mentioned no. 1 records, though it did pretty well, reaching no. 7 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The opener Allentown, about the plight of American steelworkers following Bethlehem Steel’s decline and eventual closure, is one of my favorite Joel songs.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is from Joel’s most recent and likely final pop album River of Dreams, released in August 1993. At that time, I was a grad student, on Long Island of all places, and frequently listened to the album’s title track on the radio. I also got the record on CD when it was released. The song became Joel’s biggest hit of the ’80s, reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, his last top 10 single. I’ve always loved the tune’s combination of pop and gospel elements.

Here’s the above-mentioned Spotify playlist, which includes the previously featured songs, as well as additional tunes from each of Joel’s 12 pop albums.

Billy Joel is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with over 160 million records sold worldwide. During his 22-year pop recording career, he had 33 top 40 hits in the U.S., including three that topped the Billboard Hot 100. Joel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1992), Rock and Rock Hall of Fame (1999) and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2006). Frankly, I had no idea the latter existed – always nice to learn something new when putting together posts.

While the above accomplishments are very impressive, what I find most amazing is that the piano man continues to sell out one show after the other as part of his monthly residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden. That’s about 20,000 tickets each time. And all of that despite not having released any new pop music in close to 30 years!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify