Space, the Final Frontier

Yesterday’s successful landing of NASA’s robotic explorer Perseverance on Mars once again reminds us of humankind’s fascination with distant planets and what’s out there beyond our galaxy. Not surprisingly, many music artists have embraced the theme of space in their songs. The first who always comes to my mind in this context is David Bowie, who repeatedly wrote about the topic in tunes like Space Oddity, Starman, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. There are plenty of additional examples. This playlist features some of these songs, ordered according to their release date.

The Byrds/Mr. Spaceman

While birds cannot fly in space, this didn’t prevent The Byrds from recording this happy-sounding tale about a kid who wakes up from the light of a flying saucer and cheerfully asks the ETs for a space ride. Mr. Spaceman, written by Roger McGuinn, appeared on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension from June 1966.

Pink Floyd/Astrodomine

This Syd Barrett tune, an early example of space rock, was the opener of Pink Floyd’s debut studio album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Released in August 1967, this early phase Floyd gem also featured another track in the same genre: Interstellar Overdrive. I decided to go with the shorter tune! 🙂

The Rolling Stones/2000 Light Years From Home

2000 Light Years from Home is a song from Their Satanic Majesties Request, a lovely psychedelic album by The Rolling Stones, which appeared only a few months after Floyd’s debut in December 1967. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune also became the B-side to the American single She’s a Rainbow that was released in November of the same year. Charmingly weird! 🙂

Steve Miller Band/Space Cowboy

Listening to Space Cowboy by Steve Miller Band was the tune that inspired this post, not the Mars rover, though I guess the timing worked out nicely. Co-written by Steve Miller and the band’s keyboarder at the time Ben Sidrin, the song was included on their third studio album Brave New World that came out in June 1969. The vibe of the main riff is a bit reminiscent of Peter Gunn, the theme music for the American detective TV show of the same name, composed by Henry Mancini in 1958. In 1979, Emerson, Lake & Palmer popularized that theme on their live album Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Concert.

Deep Purple/Space Truckin’

Time to go for some Space Truckin’ with Deep Purple. This track is the closer of the band’s sixth studio album Machine Head from March 1972, which to me remains their Mount Rushmore to this day. Like all remaining tracks on the record, Space Truckin’ was credited to all members of the band: Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Ian Gillan (vocals, harmonica), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion).

Elton John/Rocket Man

One of my all-time favorites by Elton John happens to be related to space as well: Rocket Man, from his fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May 1972. As usual, Sir Elton composed the music while Bernie Taupin provided the lyrics. Honky Château became John’s first no. 1 record in the U.S. He was literally flying on top of the word – six additional no. 1 albums in America would follow in a row!

David Bowie/Starman

I guess 1972 was a year, during which space themes were particularly popular in rock and pop music. In June 1972, only one and three months after Honky Château and Machine Head, respectively, David Bowie released his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I have to say I tend to like him best during his glam rock period, and Ziggy Stardust is my favorite Bowie album. Like all except for one tune, Starman was written by Bowie.

Stevie Wonder/Saturn

Even soul great Stevie Wonder got into the “space business.” Saturn, co-written by Michael Sembello and Wonder, became a bonus track to Songs in the Key of Life, his magnum opus from September 1976.

The Police/Walking on the Moon

The year was 1979 when The Police released their sophomore album Reggatta de Blanc in October. Walking on the Moon, written by Sting, is the first track on the B-side. Yes, this was still pre-CDs, not to mention music streaming! I’ve always liked the reggae vibe of this tune.

R.E.M./Man on the Moon

Let’s wrap up this collection of space-themed songs with Man on the Moon by R.E.M. The tune, a tribute to American comedian and performer Andy Kaufman, was credited to the entire band: Michael Stipe (lead vocals), Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin, bass), Mike Mills (bass, keyboards, accordion, backing vocals) and Bill Berry (drums, percussion, keyboards, melodica, bass, backing vocals). It was recorded for R.E.M.’s eighth studio album Automatic for the People from October 1992. The album became their second major international success after Out of Time that had been released in March 1991.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Pete Townshend/White City: A Novel

The other day, while listening to “my” radio station, which is fed by my streaming music provider based on my library and other previously played tunes, I came across Give Blood by Pete Townshend. The tune is the opener of White City: A Novel, released in November 1985. While I couldn’t remember the previous time I had listened to it, I recalled I had come to really dig this record back in the ’80s. This triggered my curiosity, and it turns out I still like Townshend’s fourth solo effort.

Interestingly, the first song I heard back in the ’80s didn’t impress me much initially: The lead single Face the Face. I felt the drums sounded monotonous and kind of retarded. Ironically, the drums track ended up becoming one of my favorite features of the tune, which in turn became one of my favorite songs on the album – go figure! But before getting to some music, let’s start with the bigger picture.

According to Wikipedia, White City: A Novel is a loose concept album around a low-income housing project in White City, a West London district located close to where Townshend had grown up. The themes revolve around cultural conflict, racial tension and youthful hopes and dreams in the ’60s.

There was also a 60-minute companion film, White City: The Music Movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Lowenstein. It appeared on video in 1985 as well, starring Pete Townshend, and English actor and actress Andrew Wilde and Frances Barber, respectively. Now let’s get to some songs. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks were written by Townshend.

I’d like to kick things off with the aforementioned Give Blood featuring David Gilmour on guitar and prolific session bassist Pino Palladino. “Give Blood was one of the tracks I didn’t even play on,” Townshend recalled, per Wikipedia. “I brought in [drummer] Simon Phillips, Pino Palladino and David Gilmour simply because I wanted to see my three favourite musicians of the time playing on something and, in fact, I didn’t have a song for them to work on, and sat down very, very quickly and rifled threw [sic] a box of stuff, said to Dave, ‘Do one of those kind of ricky-ticky-ricky-ticky things, and I’ll shout ‘Give Blood!’ in the microphone every five minutes and let’s see what happens.” Now we know how to write a great song!

I don’t have much to say about the next tune, Brilliant Blues, except it was love at first listen. In particular, I dig Townshend’s vocals, his guitar sound and the catchy melody. He was backed by John “Rabbit” Bundrick (keyboards), Steve Barnacle (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums), who also played on most of the other tracks. BTW, I find Townshend’s singing pretty compelling throughout the album – a reminder he’s a decent vocalist, though it’s fair to say his voice sounds worn these days.

This brings me to Face the Face. “Face the Face was done on a new keyboard,… and I was very keen to get something very, very fast and upbeat knocked out, and I knocked out a few sections that I couldn’t play all together,” Townshend said. “This was very much a new age type of recording, and that’s why it sounds pretty modern, I think. Simon Philips overdubbed the drums [a drum loop from a box], we later overdubbed the brass, we overdubbed backing vocals, we overdubbed everything. It was all overdubbed onto Rabbit’s [John “Rabbit” Bundrick] synthesizer playing.”

Let’s do two more. First up: Crashing by Design. It’s another well written and quite catchy tune. Townshend definitely has a knack for coming up with melodies that are easy on the ears.

The last track I’d like to highlight is White City Fighting, a highlight on the album. Initially, David Gilmour had composed the song’s music for his second solo album About Face from March 1984 and asked Townshend to write the lyrics. Townshend did but Gilmour couldn’t relate to the words. The tune didn’t make Gilmour’s album and ended up on Townshend’s record with Gilmour playing guitar – certainly a great outcome!

White City: A Novel was produced by Chris Thomas, a prominent English record producer whose impressive credits include The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Badfinger, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Pretenders, among others. Thomas also had produced Townshend’s two previous solo albums All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (June 1982) and Empty Glass (April 1980).

The performance of White City: A Novel didn’t match Townshend’s earlier solo albums, especially in the U.K., where it stalled at no. 70 on the Official Albums Chart. By comparison, Empty Glass had peaked at no. 11. The album did better in the U.S. where it reached no. 26 on the Billboard 200, though similar to the U.K., it couldn’t match Empty Glass, which had surged all the way to no. 5. In Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, on the other hand, White City: A Novel placed in the top 20, outperforming Empty Glass.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Elton John/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

While I became aware of Elton John more than 40 years ago and have listened to him on and off ever since (admittedly more off for the past three decades), I mostly know him based on specific songs. Except for John’s 1983 album Too Low for Zero, which I really dug at the time and still enjoy to this day, I haven’t explored his albums in greater detail. This occurred to me the other day when I put together a post on Elton John rockers.

I always had been more fond of John’s earlier songs, so perhaps not surprisingly, once I decided to further explore his albums, it made the most sense to me to start looking at his releases from the first half of the ’70s. From there, it didn’t take long to get to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and realize why it’s widely considered to be John’s best album.

By the time Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in October 1973, John had established himself as one of the most successful pop music artists of the ’70s. With predecessors Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, he already had two internationally successful studio records under his belt that had generated hits like Rocket Man, perhaps my favorite Elton tune, Crocodile Rock and Daniel.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road gatefold

Appearing only nine months after Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came together during what arguably was the most productive period for John and his close partner in crime, lyricist Bernie Taupin. They had a total of 22 tracks, for which Taupin wrote the lyrics in just two and a half weeks while John composed most of the music in a whopping three days. Narrowing down the songs to 18 tracks still meant there were too many to fit on one LP. That’s why the album became a double LP, marking the first of John’s four such studio releases.

Inspired by The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, John wanted to record the album in Jamaica. Production there started in January 1973, but things became quickly hampered by technical challenges with the sound system and the studio piano, along with external distractions, including a professional box fight and political unrest. Work was speedily shifted to Studio d’enregistement Michel Magne at Château d’Hérouville located in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, France, where John had recorded his two previous above noted albums. The last-minute studio change apparently didn’t have a negative impact: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in just two weeks. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the magnificent opener Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. The first part is an instrumental of music John felt he’d like to be played at his funeral – one wonders a bit in what state of mind he was! It’s followed by Love Lies Bleeding, which Songfacts describes as an angry song about a broken relationship. Had it not been fused together with Funeral, something producer Gus Dudgeon had come up with, I would have included Love Lies Bleeding in my previous post about great Elton John rockers. While due to the total length of over just 11 minutes the track initially wasn’t released as a single, it became a fan favorite and staple of John’s live set lists. It’s easy to understand why!

I could easily fill up the remaining post with just the hits the album generated: Saturday’s Night’s Alright for Fighting, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets and Candle in the Wind. The one I really cannot ignore is the title track, another contender for my all-time favorite Elton song. According to Songfacts, the yellow brick road is an image taken from the movie The Wizard of Oz, and it was rumored the ballad is about Judy Garland. But instead the song seems to be about Taupin. Songfacts: The lyrics are about giving up a life of opulence for one of simplicity in a rural setting. Elton has enjoyed a very extravagant lifestyle, while Taupin prefers to keep it low key.

Grey Seal initially was recorded for John’s eponymous sophomore studio album from April 1970, but the tune didn’t make the record. Songfacts notes Taupin has said that it’s one of the songs he wrote with lyrics he never really understood, but somehow work. As for Elton, the song is one of his favorites, as he loves the way the music matches up to the lyrics. In the tradition of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” the lyrics form a series of images that are open to translation. Elton called it “Procol Harum-ish absurd, like a Dali painting.” I love this tune and can easily see why it appealed so much to John.

Next up is Sweet Painted Lady, a deeper cut from the album. From Songfacts: Written in the style of the British composer Noël Coward, this song is about sailors back from the sea and the “sweet painted ladies” – prostitutes – waiting for them at harbor brothels.

Let’s do one more: Harmony, the album’s closer, and a track that had been considered as a single. But the timing was deemed too close to Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, the lead single to John’s follow-on album Caribou. Instead, Harmony became the B-side to the U.S. version of the Bennie and the Jets single. Songfacts notes the tune gained a fervent following, especially on the New York City radio station WOR, it won the “Battle of the Hits,” voted on by listeners, for 33 consecutive weeks.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road became Elton John’s best-selling studio album. In February 2014, it reached 8x Platinum certification in the U.S. In 2003, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s also included in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent revision from September 2020, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road held up pretty well, coming in at no. 112, down from 91 in the corresponding lists for 2012 and 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Rockin’ Elton

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin primarily are known for great pop songs they wrote, especially during John’s most productive period during the first half of the ’70s. Your Song, Rocket Man, Daniel and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are some that come to mind. Occasionally, they also came up with more rock-oriented tunes. I thought it would be fun to put together a playlist focused on the latter.

Rock and Roll Madonna

Rock and Roll Madonna was released as a non-album single in Britain in June 1970. It didn’t chart. Even though the beginning and the end sound like a live recording, the audience noise was added, a technique John would use again some four years later for Bennie and the Jets, one of his various chart toppers in the U.S. and Canada during the 70s. Rock and Roll Madonna featured Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover.

Crocodile Rock

Crocodile Rock first appeared in October 1972 as the lead single for John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player from January 1973. The tune, which has a late ’50s and early ’60s flair, became John’s first no. 1 single in the U.S. In 1974, a lawsuit alleged John and Taupin had illegally copied the falsetto of Speedy Gonzalez, a song that been popularized by Pat Boone in 1962. The case was settled out of court.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting perhaps is my favorite rocker by Elton John. It appeared on the excellent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, his seventh studio album from October 1973. It also was released separately in June that year as the lead single. The tune prominently features Scottish rock guitarist Davey Johnstone, a longtime collaborator who had become a full-time member of John’s band for his fifth studio album Honky Château released in May 1972.

The Bitch Is Back

Another nice rocker is The Bitch Is Back – sounds like it could be the title of Stones song. The tune was recorded for John’s eighth studio album Caribou from June 1974. It also became the record’s second single in August of the same year. Dusty Springfield sang backing vocals.

Pinball Wizard (Tommy soundtrack, March 1975)

Obviously, Pinball Wizard isn’t a John-Taupin song, but I just couldn’t leave it out. I almost like this excellent cover better than the original by The Who. When I heard John’s version for the first time, I thought this is how Pete Townshend should have written this rock gem instead of what feels like arbitrarily fading out the song at less than 3 minutes. John’s cover is part of the soundtrack for the 1975 film version of Tommy, in which he also starred, along with numerous other music artists like Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and the members of The Who.

(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket

Two months after the film version of Tommy had been released, John’s ninth studio album Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy appeared in May 1975. It features (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket, another great rock tune.

Grow Some Funk of Your Own

The ’70s were a very productive period for John, especially the first half, during which he released nine albums. Rock of the Westies was John’s second studio record in 1975, which appeared in October that year, only five months after Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy. Here’s Grow Some Funk of Your Own, for which Davey Johnstone received a co-writing credit. The song was also released separately in January 1976 and became the album’s second single.

I’m Still Standing

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with the only track that’s not from the ’70s: I’m Still Standing, from Too Low for Zero, John’s 17th studio album that appeared in May 1983. Coming on the heels of four less successful records, especially compared to his releases during the first half of the ’70s, Too Low for Zero marked a comeback. It ended up being John’s best-selling album of the ’80s. I did like it at the time and still do. Here’s I’m Still Standing.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

Today, John Lennon, one of my all-time favorite artists, would have turned 80 years old. He was born John Winston Lennon on October 9, 1940 in Liverpool, England. The former Beatles member’s life was tragically cut short on December 8, 1980 when he was shot to death by Mark David Chapman. A mentally unstable Beatles fan, Chapman had turned against Lennon over his lifestyle and public statements, including his comment during a March 1966 interview that the Fab Four were more popular than Jesus. Lennon was only 40 years old.

Instead of writing yet another biographical post, I’d like to celebrate the occasion with Lennon’s music by reposting a playlist I originally published in January 2018. It’s focused on his solo career.

My Playlist: John Lennon

I’m introducing a new feature to the blog with the ingenious name “My Playlist.” Why? Coz I write the bloody blog, so I can!😀

On a more serious note, there are many different ways how to enjoy music. Apart from listening to entire albums, I like creating playlists for my favorite artists. Oftentimes, they include tracks from multiple records and span their entire recording career. Typically, it’s a combination of popular tunes and deeper cuts. That’s really the basic idea behind what I envisage is going to become a recurrent feature.

First up: John Lennon, one of my biggest music heroes!

John Lennon & Yoko Ono

Following his marriage to Yoko Ono in March 1969, Lennon quietly left The Beatles in September. Around the same time, he and Ono were contacted by the promoters of the Toronto Rock & Roll Festival, and hastily put together a band to perform there. The result was the first incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band, which in addition to Lennon (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and Ono (vocals) included Eric Clapton (lead guitar, backing vocals), Klaus Voorman (bass) and Alan White (drums). Their performance at the festival was captured on the album Live Peace Toronto 1969, which appeared in December 1969.

After the official breakup of The Beatles in April 1970, Lennon recorded his first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and released it in December that year. Until his death in December 1980, six other solo records followed: Imagine (1971), Some Time In New York City (1972), Mind Games (1973), Walls And Bridges (1974), Rock ‘N’ Roll (1975) and Double Fantasy (1980). Milk And Honey (1984) was recorded during the final months of his life and appeared postmortem. Let’s get to some music!

Cold Turkey (Single 1969)

Cold Turkey was Lennon’s second solo single released in October 1969. Written by him and credited to the Plastic Ono Band, the tune was recorded right in the wake of their appearance at the Toronto Rock & Roll Festival, where it had been performed in public for the first time. In fact, the song had been so new that Lennon hadn’t memorized the lyrics yet, so Ono held up the words on a cheat sheet! Unlike Live Peace Toronto 1969, Ringo Starr played the drums on the studio recording. In addition, Ono’s wailing sounds were absent – frankly, something I don’t miss in particular.

Instant Karma! (Single 1970)

Instant Karma! was the third Lennon tune that appeared as a non-album single credited to the Plastic Ono Band. Peaking at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and UK Single Charts, respectively, it became the first solo single by a former Beatles member to sell one million copies in America. In addition to Lennon, Ono, Voorman and White, it featured George Harrison (guitar, piano, backing vocals), Billy Preston (Hammond organ, backing vocals) and Mal Evans (chimes, handclaps, backing vocals).

Mother (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band 1970)

Mother is the opener of Lennon’s first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which came out in December 1970. The painful cry to his parents, who abandoned him as a child, is one of the most powerful tunes he wrote. The relative sparse instrumentation of just piano, drums and bass, combined with Lennon’s screaming voice, still gives me goose bumps every time I listen to the song.

Jealous Guy (Imagine 1971)

Jealous Guy first appeared on Lennon’s second studio album Imagine released in September 1971 in the U.S. While that record is best known for its beautiful and timeless title track, which became the top-selling single of his solo career, to me Jealous Guy is an equal. Interestingly, it didn’t come out as a single until November 1985, four and a half years after Roxy Music had scored a no. 1 hit with their great cover.

New York City (Some Time In New York City 1972)

To me, Lennon was one of the greatest rock & roll singers. I just love this original tune from Some Time In New York City, his third solo album from June 1972, credited to John & Yoko, Plastic Ono Band and American rock band Elephant’s Memory, best known for backing Lennon and Ono in the early ’70s. The autobiographic track is both an anthem to the city, which had become Lennon’s and Ono’s home in September 1971, and a middle finger to the Nixon Administration. Concerned about their political activism, President Nixon was looking for ways to kick Lennon and Ono out of the country. Instead, he turned out to be a crook and was forced to resign. Maybe another Lennon would come in handy these days!

Mind Games (Mind Games 1973)

Mind Games is the title track and lead single of Lennon’s fourth solo album from October 1973. According to Wikipedia, he started work on the song in 1969, which originally was titled Make Love, Not War. Lennon finished the tune after he had read the 1972 book Mind Games: The Guide To Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. The track was recorded around the time Lennon separated from Ono and with her encouragement had an 18-month relationship with May Pang. Let’s just leave it at that!

Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (Walls And Bridges 1974)

Included on Lennon’s fifth solo album Wall And Bridges from September 1974, Whatever Gets You Thru The Night also was the record’s first single. It became his first no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, a chart success that was only achieved one more time with (Just Like) Starting Over from the Double Fantasy album in the wake of his death. The above clip shows Lennon joining Elton John live at New York’s Madison Square Garden in November 1974, his last major concert appearance. While the quality of the video is poor, not including it would have been a great miss. John also played piano and provided harmony vocals on the studio version.

Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’ (Rock ‘N’ Roll 1975)

As previously noted, I’ve always thought Lennon was great at singing rock & roll. He also loved the genre, and this record is an homage. The medley of Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me and Send Me Some Lovin’, co-written by John Marascalso and Leo Price for Little Richard, is one of my favorites on the album. Rock ‘N’ Roll was Lennon’s last studio release prior to his five-year family hiatus, following his reunification with Ono and the birth of their son Sean.

Watching The Wheels (Double Fantasy 1980)

Watching The Wheels is from Double Fantasy, which came out in November 1980 – the first studio album after Lennon had reemerged from secluded family life. Credited to him and Ono, it is sadly the last release that appeared during his life time. The tune also became the record’s third single in March 1981, following Lennon’s death in New York City on December 8, 1980. While the song couldn’t match the chart success of the album’s first two singles (Just Like) Starting Over and Woman, I like it just as much.

Borrowed Time (Milk And Honey 1984)

I’ve always dug the cool groove Borrowed Time Lennon’s last studio album Milk And Honey that appeared postmortem in January 1984. According to Wikipedia, the song was inspired by a frightening sailing trip through rough seas from Newport, R.I. to Bermuda in 1980. After pretty much everybody else on board had become incapacitated due to sea sickness, Lennon who wasn’t impacted ended up taking the yacht’s wheel for many hours by himself. It’s crazy if you think about it – the man survived what clearly were much lower odds than being shot to death by some nutcase!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Paul McCartney/Tug of War

As a huge fan of The Beatles and Paul McCartney, I was really excited when Tug of War was released in April 1982. Catching Take It Away on the radio yesterday prompted me to revisit McCartney’s third solo album, which I had not listened to for many years. It turned out I still dig it, though not for the primary reason that initially attracted me back then: Ebony and Ivory, a smash hit in Germany, as well as many other countries.

While McCartney’s duet with Stevie Wonder isn’t a bad tune, I think it’s fair to say both artists have written better songs. One also must remember the ’80s were a time period when high profile duets were very much en vogue. I still like the ballad’s message, as well as the idea to use the black and white keys on a keyboard as a metaphor for perfect harmony – sadly a state of affairs that nowadays seems to be more elusive than ever.

No matter how you feel about it, Ebony and Ivory was the big hit single from Tug of War, which came out about a month prior to the album. I have to say I wasn’t particular impressed with McCartney II and that record’s hit single Coming Up, even though both had impressive chart success as well. I thought Tug of War was a far superior album. I think I still do but like to caveat the statement by adding that I haven’t listened to McCartney II in a long time.

Tug of War was McCartney’s first album after the breakup of Wings. It also was his first record following the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, which not only impacted the record’s timing but also its content. Initially, McCartney’s plan was to make another album with Wings, but then things changed.

While apparently he had grown weary about continuing his band, McCartney started rehearsing songs with them in October 1980. He brought in George Martin as producer, but they both felt McCartney’s latest compositions weren’t a good fit for Wings and decided to pursue a record without the band.

The project was paused for two months after Lennon had been killed. In February 1981, work on the album resumed. Between February 3rd and March 2nd, recording sessions took place in the Caribbean at AIR Studios in Montserrat, which included Wonder, bassist Stanley Clarke, Carl Perkins and Ringo Starr.

During Tug of War recording sessions at AIR Studios in Montserrat: Paul McCartney with Ringo Starr and I believe Eric Stewart.

Additional sessions at Martin’s AIR Studios in London followed over the summer. They also yielded songs McCartney would use for Pipes of Peace, the follow on to Tug of War from October 1983. Apparently, McCartney and Martin weren’t in a huge hurry and used the remainder of 1981 to put the finishing touches on the record. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above noted Take It Away. Like all other tracks on the album except for one tune, it was written by McCartney. In June 1982, Take It Away also was released separately as Tug of War’s second single. While it charted in many countries, including the UK and the U.S. where it climbed to no. 15 and 10, respectively, the power pop tune didn’t match the success of Ebony and Ivory. It features Ringo Starr on drums, George Martin on piano and 10cc’s Eric Stewart on backing vocals. Take it away, boys!

In addition to Ebony and Ivory, Tug of War included a second duet with Stevie Wonder: What’s That You’re Doing. Apart from providing vocals, Wonder also co-wrote the funky tune with McCartney. In fact, to me it sounds more like a Stevie Wonder song. Stewart made another appearance on backing vocals.

Here Today is a moving tribute to John Lennon, which can still make me emotional. It may not be quite as compelling as Elton John’s Empty Garden, but I still find it beautiful. When I saw McCartney live last time in July 2016, he performed the tune solo with just his acoustic guitar – a quite powerful moment!

Next up: Ballroom Dancing, a nice pop rocker. Guests on this tune include Starr (drums), Stewart (backing vocals) and former Wings band mate Denny Laine (electric guitar).

The last track I’d like to call out is McCartney’s great duet with Carl Perkins, Get It. I love the tune’s rockabilly retro vibe and Perkins’s electric guitar work, which he provided in addition to vocals. You can also literally feel the fun they had when recording the track, and it’s not only because of Perkins’ laughter at the end.

The final words of this post shall belong to Paul McCartney. “I think, you know, with my songs, I have my own approach,” he told Andy Mackay in an in-depth interview about the album in August 1982, which is transcribed on fan website The Paul McCartney Project. “I’ll tell you the way I see it: the thing I like about my stuff, when I like it, is that the listener can take it the wrong way, it may apply to them, you know.”

Sources: Wikipedia; The Paul McCartney Project; YouTube

It Was 35 Years Ago…

A look back on Live Aid benefit concert – Part 2

Here’s Part 2 of my mini-series recalling musical highlights from the Live Aid concert that took place on July 13, 1985. Like in the first part, the footage in this post was all captured at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The next installment is going to feature clips from John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, the second stage of the music marathon.

One of Live Aid’s definitive moments was the performance by Queen. Freddie Mercury once again vividly illustrated he was a born live performer and showman, and the rest of the band was on fire as well. Here’s We Are the Champions, the closer of Queen’s mini set. Written by Mercury, the tune combined with We Will Rock You was the lead single of the band’s sixth studio album News of the World. Both appeared in October 1977, with the single predating the album by two weeks.

It kind of must have sucked having had to follow Freddie Mercury, especially after that performance. The Who, who had reunited for Live Aid following their breakup in December 1983, proofed they were up to challenge. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, together with Kenny Jones and John Bundrick on drums and keyboards, respectively, were in decent shape. Here’s the mighty Townshend-penned Love, Reign O’er Me from Quadrophenia, the sixth studio album by The Who released in October 1973. And, yep, the chap announcing them is Jack Nicholson, who I guess was so excited he literally read everything from a piece of paper. 🙂

Let’s wrap up this second part with some Elton John. Bennie and the Jets, composed by John with lyrics from Bernie Taupin, first appeared on his seventh studio album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that came out in October 1973. The song was also released separately as the record’s third single in February 1974. Nice performance by John who had staged a comeback in 1983 with his great album Too Low for Zero, though seeing him without flashy glasses is unusual.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Venues: Hollywood Bowl

I rarely blog back-to-back in the same category, but yesterday’s post about Red Rocks Amphitheatre was so much fun that I decided to do another one. And the Hollywood Bowl certainly isn’t just any place, at least not in my book.

The first time I heard of the legendary Los Angeles entertainment venue was in connection with The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was one of the very first Beatles albums I got on vinyl. I must have been around 12 years at the time. I still own that copy!

Then, in 1980 as a 14-year-old, I got to visit the actual venue (though not for a concert) during a summer vacation in the U.S., which included L.A. – my first visit to this country. Also my very first time on an airplane! I still have so many vivid memories about this trip. Seeing the Bowl where The Beatles once played remains one of them.

I suppose the trip planted the seed that led me to come back years later to study in America and eventually stay here for good. My girlfriend I met during my studies, who I’m happy to call my wife for now 20-plus years, also had something to do with it! 🙂

Back to the Hollywood Bowl and a bit of history before we get to the ultimate thrill. It all started 101 years ago in 1919 when the Theatre Arts Alliance asked William Reed and his son H. Ellis Reed to find a suitable location for outdoor performances. After the Reeds found and selected the natural amphitheater because of its amazing acoustics and convenient proximity to downtown Hollywood, the Community Park and Art Association began construction of the facility.

The Bowl began as a community space rather than a privately owned venue. The first events were held there in 1921. Proceeds from the early performances were used to finance construction of new elements, such as a stage, seating and background, which were added in 1922, 1923 and 1924, respectively. Initially, the Bowl served as a venue for concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a community space for Easter services, the Hollywood Community Chorus and younger musicians including children.

In 1926, the first band shell was constructed but it was considered unacceptable from both a visual and an acoustics standpoint. Lloyd Wright came up with the now-familiar concentric ring motif and the 120-degree arc in 1928. But his wooden construction was destroyed by water damage and replaced the following year by a shell with a transite skin over a metal frame. That structure stood until 2003 and evidently was the one I saw in 1980.

In the early ’80s an inner shell made from large cardboard tubes that had been there since the ’70s to improve the acoustics was replaced by large fiberglass spheres designed by Frank Gehry. Eventually, in 2003, the 1929 outer shell was replaced with a new, somewhat larger, acoustically improved shell. Initially, a curtain served as a backdrop until a proper back wall had been constructed, which was first revealed in 2005. I suppose that’s the structure that stands to this day.

Now on to the real fun. Those who’ve visited my blog more frequently won’t be surprised what comes next: The Rolling Stones – just kidding! I love the Stones, but the first clip must capture my favorite band of all time. And, yes, there is historic YouTube footage.

The Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl twice, in August 1964 and in August 1965. Here’s A Hard Day’s Night, the title track of the corresponding studio album, which as usually was credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This version is from the August 23, 1964 gig, an impressive illustration of “Beatlemania.” According to The Beatles Bible, all 18,700 tickets had been sold for the show. A Hard Day’s Night was the second-to-last tune of their 12-song set.

Are you ready to set the night on fire? On July 1968, The Doors did just that. Their performance that evening was captured on Live at the Hollywood Bowl, the band’s third official live album released in May 1987. A VHS version of the concert also appeared at the time. In October 2012, the full version of the show came out on CD, LP and Blu-ray as Live at the Bowl ’68. Credited to all four members of The Doors, Light My Fire originally was included on the band’s eponymous debut album from January 1967. Man, watching this footage gives me goosebumps, especially Ray Manzarek’s extended organ solo – even though by definition it doesn’t have any vocals! 🙂

Let’s get it on with a nostalgic piece, as Elton John called it during his September 7, 1973 gig at the Hollywood Bowl: Crocodile Rock. That show was also filmed, for inclusion in a documentary by English film director Bryan Forbes, Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things. Co-written by John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, Crocodile Rock was first recorded for John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, which came out in January 1973. Now, that’s the Elton John I dig. You also gotta love the guy behind John in the crocodile outfit playing what looks like a Vox Continental keyboard!

Before jumping to the current century, let’s go to October 2, 1991, and a gig by Sting during his Soul Cages Tour that year. The show at the Hollywood Bowl also coincided with his 40th birthday. Here’s The Soul Cages, the great title track from Sting’s third solo release that appeared in January 1991. Like all songs on the album, the tune was written by him.

Next are two clips from the current century, for which it is easier to find YouTube footage. Let’s kick it off with The Rolling Stones and what according to Setlist.fm looks like the first of two dates played at the venue in 2005: November 6. There was another show there two days later. Both concerts were part of the Bigger Bang Tour. I caught the Stones for the first time during that tour on October 1, 2005 at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa. I realize Satisfaction is the most overplayed Stones song, but unfortunately, it was the only complete clip I could find from their Bowl gig. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction became the first no. 1 for the Stones in 1965 and was also included on the American version of their fourth studio album Out of Our Heads released in July of the same year. Hey, it may be over-exposed, but it’s still one of the coolest guitar riffs in rock & roll! When watching Jagger in this footage I noticed he was still moving like this when I saw the Stones again last year – unbelievable!

The final clip I reserved for an artist who has been near and dear to me for many years. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us: Tom Petty. The following footage is from his final show with The Heartbreakers. This gig at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 2017 marked the triumphant finale of the band’s 40th anniversary tour. You can watch the entire concert here. I’ve done it twice and have to say it’s just amazing. For this post I’d like to highlight the final two songs of the night: You Wreck Me from Petty’s second solo album Wildflowers (November 1994) and the classic American Girl, off the November 1976 eponymous debut by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Setlist.fm; YouTube

Steve Forbert Releases New Album Early Morning Rain

Collection features 11 covers of singer-songwriter’s favorite tunes by Gordon Lightfoot, Elton John, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen and other artists

While I’ve heard of Steve Forbert before, included one of his songs in my previous Best of What’s New installment and some fellow music bloggers I follow have covered him, I still feel I know next to nothing about this longtime American singer-songwriter. But here’s one thing I know for sure: I dig Early Morning Rain, Forbert’s first covers album in a 40-plus-year career, which came out today.

Forbert was born on December 13, 1954 in Meridian, Miss. He started writing songs as a 17-year-old and moved to New York City in 1976. He became a street performer in Greenwich Village and soon started playing CBGB and other local clubs. In 1978, Forbert got a record contract with Nemperor and later that year released his debut album Alive on Arrival. The record was well-received, and some critics were quick to call him “the new Dylan,” a label Forbert dismissed as a cliche.

His sophomore album Jackrabbit Slim from 1979 included Romeo’s Tune, which also was released separately as a single and became what essentially has been his only hit to date. In the U.S., the tune climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also charted in other countries, including Canada where it peaked at no. 8, as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I don’t recall hearing the song on the radio in Germany back then.

Steve Forbert

Forbert’s songs have been covered by a wide range of artists, including Keith Urban, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart and John Popper. In 2004, his album Any Old Time, a tribute to Jimmy Rodgers, was nominated for a Grammy in the category of “Best Traditional Folk.” In 2006, Forbert was inducted into the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, and just earlier this year, he received a 2020 Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Music from that state. But it seems to me all this recognition hasn’t translated much into chart or other commercial success for Forbert.

Early Morning Rain is Forbert’s 21st studio album. The tracks represent what he calls 11 of his favorite folk-rock songs. Artists he covers include Gordon Lightfoot, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies – quite an interesting group. Forbert told American Songwriter he made his choices from an initial list of 150 tracks. So why does this album speak to me? To start with, I love the warm sound. I also like how Forbert approached the songs and made them his own. While his voice is distinct and certainly not exactly opera quality, I think it greatly matches the song arrangements.

Let’s get to some music. Since on YouTube you currently cannot access clips unless you’re a premium subscriber, following are links to the album on Soundcloud and Spotify. Hope that at least one of these platforms will work for readers. If you have Apple Music, you also can get it there.

While I think it’s worthwhile listening to the entire album, I’d like to call out some of the tunes. The opener and title track Early Morning Rain was written by Gordon Lightfoot. It appeared on his debut album Lightfoot! from January 1966. The beautiful steel guitar fill-ins that according to the credits listed in this review by Americana Highways were provided by Marc Muller, particularly stand out to me in this tune.

Your Song is one of my favorite Elton John tunes. Composed by John with lyrics by longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the track first appeared on John’s sophomore eponymous studio album released in April 1970. The backing vocals in Forbert’s version were provided by New Jersey singer-songwriter Emily Grove.

Pretty much all of the tunes on the album are on the quieter side. One exception is Supersonic Rocketship. Interestingly, Forbert’s take sounds more rock-oriented than the relatively mellow original by The Kinks. Written by Ray Davies, the track was included on the band’s 11th studio album Everybody’s in Show-Biz, which appeared in August 1972. Again, Grove features on backing vocals and nicely blends with Forbert.

Someday Soon is a country & western song by Ian Tyson written in 1964. The Canadian singer-songwriter recorded with his wife Sylvia Tyson as part of their duo Ian & Sylvia. It appeared on their third studio album Northern Journey. For this cover, Forbert is supported on backing vocals by Anthony Crawford, a singer-songwriter from Birmingham, Ala.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, a song I’ve dug for many years. Suzanne was first published as a poem in 1966 before it was recorded as a song by Judy Collins later that year. Cohen included it on his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen from December 1967. It also appeared separately as the lead single to that record.

In addition to Muller, Grove and Crawford, I like to acknowledge the other musicians listed in the credits: George Naha (electric guitar), Rob Clores (keyboards), Aaron Comess (drums), and John Conte and Richard Hammond (both bass). The album was produced, mixed and engineered by Steve Greenwell. Based on AllMusic, Greenwell also produced Forbert’s previous albums The Magic Tree (2018) and Compromised (2015).

“I’ve never done a cover record, and after 40 years, that’s a lot of pent up thinking,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “The point was to be able to really make a contribution. It’s not that much different from making an album of my own material. I wanted to pick things that hopefully fit like a glove…I do have a style and so like I’m presenting my style instead of playing out my heart and soul with original material.”

Given the large initial list of songs, Forbert also didn’t rule out the possibility of a sequel. Some of the tunes he mentioned in this context include Dance the Night Away (Cream), I Should Have Known Better (The Beatles), North Country Blues (Bob Dylan), Are You Lonesome Tonight (Elvis Presley) and Lather (Jefferson Airplane). As a fan, I’m delighted to see a Beatles tune, but I’d be even more curious to hear Forbert’s take on Dance the Night Away.

I realize there is a certain degree of irony that Forbert’s first record I explored more closely and decided to write about is a covers album. But I suppose you got to start somewhere, and Early Morning Rain is a new album I happened to know was coming out today. Plus, I’m definitely encouraged and certainly curious to listen to more of Fobert’s music.

Sources: Wikipedia; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Americana Highways; AllMusic; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 15

Time for another installment in my long-running, somewhat geeky music history feature. I still get a kick out of researching what happened on a certain date throughout the decades in rock & roll, even though it’s such an arbitrary concept. Admittedly, I’m using the term rock & roll loosely here. It pretty much includes all music genres I dig – hey, it’s my blog, so I get to make the rules. Without further ado, let’s get to March 15!

1967: The Beatles began work on Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison. According to The Beatles Bible, Harrison had written the tune at the London home of longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voormann who first had met the band in Hamburg and had shared a flat with Harrison and Ringo Starr in the British capital in early ’60s. Several musicians from the collective Asian Music Circle played traditional Indian instruments during the recording session. They were joined by Harrison and The Beatles’ then-personal assistant Neil Aspinall on tamburas. “The tabla had never been recorded the way we did it,” commented sound engineer Geoff Emerick. “Everyone was amazed when they first heard a tabla recorded that closely, with the texture and the lovely low resonances.” Within You Without You was included on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of Only a Northern Song, another Harrison tune that would later appear on Yellow Submarine.

1969: Cream hit the top spot on the UK Albums Chart with their fourth and final studio album appropriately titled Goodbye. It would stay in that position for two weeks. Here’s one of the record’s tracks, Politician, which also is one of my favorite Cream tunes. Co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, Politician was one of three live tracks on the record that were captured on October 19, 1968, at The Forum in Los Angeles during the band’s farewell tour. By the time Goodbye came out in February 1969, Cream had already disbanded.

1975: Black Water, a classic by The Doobie Brothers, climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only two no. 1 hits the band had in the U.S. The second one was What a Fool Believes in 1979. Penned by Patrick Simmons who also sang lead, Black Water first appeared on the Doobies’ fourth studio album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits released in February 1974. Interestingly, the initial single release of Black Water was as the b-side to the record’s lead single Another Park, Another Sunday. While it’s not a bad song, you still have to wonder about that decision, which seems to suggest that between the band and the record company, they hadn’t quite noticed what a gem Black Water was.

1986: The Bangles reached no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart with Manic Monday, scoring their first hit, which also peaked at no. 2 in the U.S., Australia, Germany and Ireland, and placed in the top 5 in Austria, Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland. Written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher, the tune was included on the American pop-rock band’s sophomore album Different Light, which had appeared in January of the same year. I generally find listening to The Bangles fairly enjoyable. In particular, I like their harmony singing, plus they have some pretty catchy songs. Just please spare me with Eternal Flame, which at the time was hopelessly burned by overexposure on the radio back in Germany and I suspect in many other countries. BTW, The Bangles are still around in almost their original lineup. Following the band’s breakup in 1989, they reunited in 1998.

1999: Curtis MayfieldDel ShannonDusty SpringfieldPaul McCartneyThe Staple SingersBilly Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Sean Combs, Art Alexakis, Elton John, Neil Young, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles and Bono, respectively –  sounds fucking unreal to me! Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band to perform at the ceremony. Here are Bruce and the boys with Wilson Pickett, performing a scorching version of In The Midnight Hour, a Stax classic Pickett had co-written with Steve Cropper in 1965. Watching Pickett say he wants to kick Bruce in the ass but will keep it light since he’s The Boss and Bruce responding ‘Let’s give it a shot’ is priceless –  damn, this wants me to go and listen to some kickass live music, so badly – fuck you, COVID-19!

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