My Top 5 Live Albums Turning 50

Three make a charm. Here’s my third and probably last look for now at 1971. Previously, I mused about my top 5 studio records and my top 5 debut albums that appeared during this remarkable year in music. Now it’s time for my top 5 live albums turning 50 this year.

Similar to debuts, narrowing the universe to live albums substantially reduced the choices compared to studio albums. That being said, I was surprised how many live albums appeared in 1971. For the purposes of my fun exercise, I considered 14 live records. Here are my five favorites. This time, I decided to list them according to their release date.

Elton John/17-11-70

This early Elton John album was new to me. Released on April 1, 1971, it was John’s fifth record overall and his first live release – and, boy, what a great album! It captured a live radio broadcast from November 17, 1970 – hence the title. This was an unplanned album, which was triggered by bootlegs. From a strictly commercial perspective, it turned out it didn’t quite work. A 60-minute bootleg, which included 12 more minutes of John’s music than the officially sanctioned live album, is believed to have impacted sales of the latter. An extended 2-LP edition was released for Record Store Day in 2017. Regardless of the original album’s commercial performance, the music is fantastic. Here’s closer Burn Down the Mission, a tune John initially included on his third studio album Tumbleweed Connection from October 1970. As usual, he composed the music while his long-time partner Bernie Taupin provided the lyrics. This is an extended version that incorporates parts of Arthur Crudup’s My Baby Left Me (starting at around 10:30) and The Beatles’ Get Back (starting at about 14:10). At 18 minutes plus, it can compete with prog rock, but listening to John demonstrating his rock piano chops is a lot of fun! BTW, the guy playing that groovy bass is Dee Murray, who was a longtime member of John’s backing band.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/4 Way Street

4 Way Street, released on April 7, 1971, is the first live album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It includes footage from gigs at Fillmore East (New York), The Forum (Los Angeles) and Auditorium Theatre (Chicago) recorded during CSNY’s 1970 tour. By the time they played these shows, tension between the members had grown to intense levels, and the band dissolved shortly after the double-LP’s appearance – egos in rock! Sides one and two are acoustic and are primarily focused on the individual members, while sides 3 and 4 are electric, featuring the full band playing together. Here’s Ohio, written by Neil Young, and first released as a single by CSNY in June 1970 to protest the Kent State shooting that had occurred on May 4 of the same year.

The Allman Brothers Band/At Fillmore East

At Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers Band is perhaps the ultimate southern and blues rock album and one of the best live albums ever. Released on July 6, 1971, it features music from three of the band’s concerts at the legendary New York City music venue that occurred in March 1971. The Allman Brothers’ third album overall also marked the band’s commercial breakthrough, climbing to no. 13 on the Billboard 200. As of August 1992, At Fillmore East has reached Platinum status. In 2004, it was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” by the National Recording Registry. Rolling Stone ranked the album at no. 49 in their 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the list’s latest revision from September 2020, it still came in at a respectable no. 105. Here’s Hot ‘Lanta, an instrumental the Allman Brothers debuted on this live album. It is credited to all members of the band at time: Duane Allman (lead guitar, slide guitar), Gregg Allman (organ, piano, vocals), Dickey Betts (lead guitar), Berry Oakley (bass), Jai Johanny Johanson (drums, congas, timbales) and Butch Trucks (drums, tympani). These harmony guitar parts combined with Greg Allman’s Hammond are just out of this world!

Chicago/Chicago at Carnegie Hall

Chicago’s fourth album overall and their first live release, Chicago at Carnegie Hall, released on October 25, 1971, falls into the band’s early period, which is my favorite. As such, it immediately made my list of live albums I considered for my top picks. The 4-LP set was recorded from shows Chicago played at New York’s prominent concert venue for a week in April 1971 during their supporting tour for Chicago III, the band’s third studio album that had come out in January of the same year. “The reason behind the live record for Carnegie Hall is, we were the first rock ‘n’ roll group to sell out a week at Carnegie Hall, and that was worth rolling up the trucks for, putting the mikes up there, and really chronicling what happened in 1971,” co-founding band member Walter Parazaider told William James Ruhlmann, who wrote the liner notes for the 1991 Chicago compilation Group Portrait. Not all members were happy with the outcome. James Pankow, one of three co-founders who remain in the current line-up of Chicago, felt the venue’s acoustics weren’t made for amplified music, comparing the sound of the brass to kazoos. In 2005, a remastered version of the album with improved sound quality appeared. And earlier this month, Rhino Records announced a 50th anniversary 16-CD box set titled Chicago Live At Carnegie Hall Complete. It’s slated for July 16. Meanwhile, here’s the amazing 25 Or 6 To 4. Written by Robert Lamm, the tune first appeared on Chicago’s eponymous second studio album from January 1970 (also known as Chicago II).

George Harrison & Friends/The Concert for Bangladesh

I trust The Concert for Bangladesh doesn’t need much of an introduction. This 3-LP album captured the pioneering music charity event that had been organized by George Harrison to raise money for war-ravaged and disaster-stricken Bangladesh and took place at New York’s Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. The two concerts conducted for UNICEF, which raised from than $243,000 at the time, featured an incredible line-up of artists, who in addition to Harrison included Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Eric Clapton, among others. The event brought Harrison and Starr together on stage for the first time since 1966 when The Beatles had stopped to tour. It also marked Dylan’s first major concert appearance in the U.S. for five years. I recall reading somewhere Harrison literally didn’t know whether Dylan would show up until he walked out on stage. Here’s Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which was first appeared on The Beatles’ White Album from November 1968.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Bettye LaVette/Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

One thing I love about music blogging is how much I learn about artists I didn’t know or only had heard of by name. Oftentimes, I find myself stepping through one door only to find many others I’ve yet to open. Frankly, I probably would have run out of ideas a long time ago, if it were any different! Plus, I’d get bored if I only wrote about music and artists I know.

The latest example is Bettye LaVette, a versatile vocalist who has been active since 1962. I included her in two previous posts, most recently on Saturday in a piece about artists who have covered songs by The Rolling Stones. LaVette’s great rendition of Salt of the Earth led me to take a closer look at the album that includes her version of the tune. I was quickly intrigued by what else I found on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which was released in May 2010. Her soulful, at times somewhat fragile voice reminds me a bit of Tina Turner and is right up my alley.

Bettye LaVette - Soulful Detroit

While LaVette enjoyed some chart success early in her career, for decades, she was more of a cult figure in soul circles. At least in part that was due to bad luck with record labels. After LaVette recorded what was supposed to become her first full-length album Child of the Seventies, Atlantic Records decided not to move forward with the project, apparently without giving her any explanation. In 1982, Motown’s Lee Young, Sr. signed LaVette to the storied label, which led to the recording of her first released album Tell Me Lie. However, following a corporate shake-up, Young was removed, the label never promoted LaVette’s record, and it failed to chart.

Fast-forward to 2000 when a French collector and label owner called Gilles Petard discovered the tapes for the aforementioned Child of the Seventies album in Atlantic Records’ vaults. He liked what he heard, licensed the tracks and released them under the title Souvenirs in France on his Art & Soul label. Around the same time, Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, a live recording of LaVette in the Netherlands, appeared on the Dutch label Munich. The two near-simultaneous releases created new interest in LaVette as a recording artist and resulted in a contract with label Blues Express.

Bettye LaVette Interview - Blues Matters Magazine

In January 2003, LaVette released A Woman Like Me, only her third full-length studio album. It won the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year and the Living Blues critic pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004. LaVette’s recording career was finally going somewhere. She has since released eight other studio albums and won additional awards, including a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (2006), Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer (2008), Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society (2015) and Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation (2016). LaVette is also in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame and has been nominated three times for a Grammy.

LaVette is an unusual artist. According to her website, she is no mere singer. She is not a song writer, nor is she a “cover” artist. She is an interpreter of the highest order. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 60s and is still creating vital recordings today. This certainly becomes obvious when listening to Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which brings me back to the album. Let’s get to some intriguing interpretations!

The opener is a funky version of The Word by The Beatles. While the John LennonPaul McCartney co-write, which was included on the Rubber Soul album from December 1965, is barely recognizable, I find LaVette’s take pretty cool. It’s got a bit of a James Brown vibe, and I can almost hear his “uhs” in the background.

How about some Led Zeppelin reimagined? Here’s All My Love, a song I’ve always dug. Co-written by John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, the tune first appeared on Zep’s eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door released in August 1979. Check this out – damn!

Let’s move on to Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. The title track of their ninth studio album from September 1975 was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Who would have thought a Floyd track could ever sound so soulful!

Nights in White Satin is one of my favorite songs by The Moody Blues. Written by Justin Hayward, the track appeared on Days of Future Passed, one of the most beautiful concept albums of the ’60s. Here it is in Bettye LaVette style – amazing!

Let’s do two more. First up is another great funky rendition: Why Does Love Got to be So Sad by Derek and the Dominoes. Co-written by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the tune appeared on the band’s sole studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs from November 1970. Groovy!

Last but not least, here is the closer Love, Reign O’er Me, a highlight on the album. It captures LaVette’s unedited live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008 in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, who were among the honorees that year. Townshend wrote the tune for The Who’s sixth studio album Quadrophenia that came out in October 1973. Here’s the actual footage from the Kennedy Center. Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend almost seem to have a Led Zeppelin moment. Check this out. This is friggin’ intense!

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which appeared on U.S. label Anti-, was co-produced by Rob Mathes, Michael Stevens and LaVette. It reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, staying in that chart for 39 weeks. The album also enjoyed some mainstream success in the U.S., climbing to no. 56 on the Billboard 200. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook became one of the three aforementioned Grammy nominations for LaVette.

Thanks to great images on Discogs, I was able to look at the album’s liner notes that reveal some interesting things about LaVette’s approach to interpretations. “I never think of a song as a record,” she is quoted. “I think of songs as songs. I don’t think of a Rolling Stones recording. I think of the Rolling Stones singing this song and now I’m going to sing it. That helps me tremendously…There’s no process of ‘how can I make this different.’ I hear it immediately differently. It’s very hard for another singer to satisfy me. No matter where a singer went with the vocal, if I can think of somewhere else to go, then wherever they went no longer interests me.”

In addition to the vocal approach, LaVette also took artistic freedom with the lyrics, which she changed significantly on a number of songs. “I think the most difficult thing about putting the album together was that many of the words didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “These songs belong to white fans who are now in their fifties…The biggest hang-up was I didn’t want to disrespect them because I knew that there are people who have altars built to many of these songs…When I got into them I realized there were things worth saying but I had to make them things I could sing about.”

So what do some of the artists who wrote the original songs think of LaVette’s renditions? Following are some quotes from a sticker on the CD’s jewel case. Again, I have Discogs to thank for featuring some great images. “A great record. Put me in the Bettye LaVette fan club” (Keith Richards). “Bettye is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once” (Pete Townshend). “Bettye is blessed with an instantly recognizable voice full of power & emotion” (Steve Winwood). “Bettye has recorded an amazing version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me'” (Elton John).

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

Ladies Shaking Up Music – Part 1

Celebrating female artists in blues, country, jazz, rock & roll, soul and pop

The idea behind this two-part post was inspired by fellow blogger Lisa, aka msjadeli, a talented poet who also likes great music. Throughout this month, she’s doing “Women Music March,” a series I’ve been enjoying. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to check it out. While female artists aren’t a novelty in my blog, the closest I previously came to celebrate their music in a dedicated fashion were two posts on ladies singing the blues. You can find them here and here. Female talent certainly isn’t limited to the blues. This two-part post includes ten of the many female music artists I admire.

It’s also good timing to recognize female music artists in a dedicated way. March happens to be Women’s History Month, a celebration of contributions women have made and are making to society. Obviously, music is an important part of this, and some of the artists I feature were true trailblazers. Initially, I had planned to include all of my 10 selections in one post but quickly realized it made more sense to break things up. Here’s the first of two installments.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe who started playing the guitar as a four-year-old and began her recording career at age 23 in 1938 was a prominent gospel singer and an early pioneer of rock & roll. Playing the electric guitar, she was one of the first popular recording artists to use distortion. Her technique had a major influence on British guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. She also influenced many artists in the U.S., including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few. After Elvis had seen her being backed by vocal quartet The Jordanaires, he decided to work with them as well. Tharpe has been called “the original soul sister” and “the godmother of rock & roll.” Unfortunately, her health declined prematurely and she passed away from a stroke in 1973 at the untimely age of 58. In May 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence. Here’s Strange Things Happening Everyday, a traditional African American spiritual that became a hit for Tharpe in 1945. This recording is historic, as it’s considered to be one of the very first rock & roll songs. Tharpe’s remarkable guitar-playing, including her solos, distorted sound and bending of strings, is more pronounced on later tunes, but you can already hear some it here. This lady was a true early rock star and trailblazer!

Nina Simone

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, N.C. in February 1933, Nina Simone was the sixth of eight children growing up in a poor family. She began playing the piano at the age of three or four. After finishing high school, she wanted to become a professional pianist, so she applied to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. When they rejected her, she decided to take private lessons. In order to pay for them she started performing at a night club in Atlantic City, N.J. The club owner insisted that she also sing, which ended up launching her career as a jazz vocalist. In February 1959, Simone’s debut album Little Blue Girl appeared. It was the start of an active recording career that lasted for more than 30 years until 1993. Afterwards she lived in Southern France and died there in April 2003 at the age of 70. Here’s Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, a medley of the songs Ain’t Got No and I Got Life from the musical Hair, with lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and music by Galt MacDermot. It appeared on Simone’s 1968 album ‘Nuff Said and became one of her biggest hits in Europe.

Aretha Franklin

“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, who was born in Memphis, Tenn. in March 1942, began singing as a child at a Baptist church in Detroit, Mich. where her father C.L. Franklin was a minister. The Reverend began managing his daughter when she was 12 years old. He also helped her obtain her first recording deal with J.V.B Records in 1956, which resulted in two gospel singles. After Franklin had turned 18, she told her father she wanted to pursue a secular music career and moved to New York. In 1960, she signed with Columbia Records, which in February 1961 released her debut studio album Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo. Thirty-seven additional studio recordings followed until October 2014. In 2017, she came out of semi-retirement for a planned short tour. I had a ticket to see her in Newark on March 25, 2018, her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. A few months prior to the gig, it was announced Franklin’s doctor had put her on bed rest and that all remaining shows of the tour were canceled. In August 2018, Aretha Franklin died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. Here’s (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone, a great soul tune co-written by Franklin and Ted White, her first husband and manager from 1961 until 1968. It was included on her 12th studio album Lady Soul released in January 1968.

Carole King

More frequent visitors of the blog know how much I admire Carole King. With the recent 50th anniversary of Tapestry, I’ve written extensively about her. Before releasing one of the greatest albums in pop history in 1971 at age 29, for more than 10 years, King wrote an impressive array of hits for many other artists, together with her lyricist and husband Gerry Goffin: Will You Still Love Me (The Shirelles), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), I’m Into Somethin’ Good (Herman’s Hermits), Don’t Bring Me Down (The Animals), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) – the list of Goffin-King hits goes on and on. This songwriting duo helped shape ’60s music history. They were rightfully inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1987. King is also currently nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While given her general modesty I imagine she doesn’t even care much about it, it’s just mind-boggling to me why this extraordinary artist wasn’t inducted decades ago! If you share my sentiments and like to do something about it, you can go to rockhall.com and participate in the fan vote. You can do so every day between now and April 30. King is currently trailing in sixth place. Only the first five will be included in the fan vote tally, so she definitely could need some support! To celebrate another true trailblazer in music, let’s get the ground shaking with I Feel the Earth Move from Tapestry!

Tina Turner

What can I say about Tina Turner? Where do I even begin? The Queen of Rock & Roll wasn’t only one of the most compelling live performers, as I had the privilege to witness myself on two occasions. She’s also one of the ultimate survivors. Her initial role as front woman of Ike & Tina Turner brought her great popularity but came at a terrible price. Physically and emotionally abusing your woman wasn’t cool, Ike, and will forever tarnish you. And look what happened after Tina walked out on you on July 1, 1976 with 36 cents and a Mobil credit card in her pocket. She launched a successful solo career, while you struggled. At the time Tina was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as part of Ike & Tina Turner, you were in prison – ’nuff said! BTW, Turner is also among the 2021 nominees – this time as a solo artist. Currently in second place in the fan vote, she would certainly deserve a second induction. Here’s The Bitch Is Back from Turner’s first solo album Rough, released in September 1978 after her divorce from pathetic wife beater Ike Turner. It almost sounds like she was giving him the middle finger! Co-written by Bernie Taupin (lyrics) and Elton John (music), the tune first appeared on John’s eighth studio album Caribou from June 1974.

Stay tuned for Part II…

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Spring has officially arrived – Yay, finally, as it’s been a long and lonely winter! I’m also happy to report that with today’s installment, The Sunday Six has hit its first mini-milestone: This is the 10th post in the weekly recurring series that celebrates the beauty of music from different periods and genres, six random tunes at a time. I think I found a nice set of tracks I hope you will like.

Sonny Rollins Quartet/My Reverie

Let’s kick things off with some amazing saxophone action by American tenor sax player Sonny Rollins. I have to give a shoutout to fellow blogger Cincinnati Babyhead, who recently posted about Tenor Madness, a studio album Rollins released in 1956 as the Sonny Rollins Quartet. In addition to him, it also featured Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) – what a cool name, Philly Joe Jones – I love the flow! Oh, and there was this other fellow called John Coltrane, who joined the band on tenor sax for the album’s opener and title track. The track I’m featuring is called My Reverie. Apparently, the first jazz recording was by Larry Clinton and His Orchestra in 1938, featuring Bea Wain on vocals, with lyrics by Clinton. The music is based on Rêverie, a piano piece by French classical composer Claude Debussy, dating back to 1890. This really goes to show there’s such a thing as truly timeless and beautiful music!

The Horace Silver Quartet/Song for My Father

Let’s shake up things a bit on The Sunday Six with another another instrumental and another jazz track back to back. And, nope, Donald Fagen or Walter Becker are not Horace Silver’s father or otherwise related to the American jazz pianist, composer and arranger. But Becker and Fagen both loved listening to jazz. Undoubtedly, they also got inspired by the intro of Song for My Father. Somehow, it became the introductory riff of Steely Dan’s 1974 single Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, their most successful U.S. single, peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Whether consciously or unconsciously, to me, this looks a bit like yet another case where a credit should have been given to the original composer. Perhaps Messrs. Becker and Fagen lost his number! Silver who began taking classical piano lessons as a child was active between 1946 and 2004. Initially, he started as a sideman before leading mainly smaller jazz groups. In the early ’50s, he became a co-founder of The Jazz Messengers, which at first he ran together with drummer Art Blakey. After leaving the band in 1956, Silver formed his own five-piece combo, which he led into the 1980s. He continued to release albums until 1998. In 2007, it became known that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He passed away in June 2014 at the age of 85. Song for My Father, composed by Silver, is the title track of an album he released with his band in late 1965. Great tune!

Jackson Browne/Shaky Town

I trust Jackson Browne needs no introduction. The American singer-songwriter who has been active since 1966 is one of my all-time favorite music artists. I dig both his vocals and his songwriting. I also have something in common with him: We were both born in the lovely town of Heidelberg, Germany. He went on to become a rock star. I ended up playing bass in two bands in my late teens and early ’20s with short-lived ambitions to become a professional musician. It’s probably a good thing it didn’t happen (though never say never! 🙂 ), and I’m a daddy though not rocking in the U.S.A. Instead, I get to enjoy listening to great music by fantastic artists and giving my two cents as a hobby blogger – not such a terrible thing, after all! The one Jackson Browne album I keep coming back to is Running on Empty, his fifth studio release that appeared in December 1977. When I had that aforementioned dream to become a professional musician, I actually envisaged sounding like Browne on Running on Empty, notably, not like The Beatles – true story. I was tempted to go with the title track. Instead, perhaps somewhat ironically, I decided to pick a tune that’s not by Browne: Shaky Town. The song was written by guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who has worked with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Neil Young, Carly Simon and not to forget Carole King. Kortchmar also provided harmony vocals. And check out that sweet lap steel guitar by the amazing David Lindley.

The Church/Under the Milky Way

The Church are an alternative rock band from down under, formed in Sydney in 1980. Their debut album Of Skins and Heart appeared in April 1981. Since then, the band that remains active to this day, has released 16 additional studio albums. Their most recent one, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, came out in October 2017. I covered it here at the time. But it was their fifth international breakthrough album Starfish from February 1988, which brought the Aussie band on my radar screen. I just love the sound, and it remains one of my favorite ’80s records. Here’s the fantastic lead single Under the Milky Way. It was co-written by the band’s bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey and his then-girlfriend and guitarist Karin Jansson, founder of alternative Australian rock band Curious (Yellow). The atmospheric sound and Kilbey’s distinct vocals still give me good chills.

George Harrison/Blow Away

What’s better than enjoying some sweet slide guitar? You guessed it – more sweet slide guitar action! One of the artists I’ve always admired in this context for his unique tone is George Harrison. I don’t know of any guitarist who got that same sweet slide sound. Blow Away was first released in February 1979 as the lead single from Harrison’s eighth, eponymous studio album that came out a few days later. Written by him, it became one of eight top 20 mainstream hits Harrison had in the U.S., peaking at no. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did even better in Canada, hitting no. 7, one of his nine top 10 hits there. The recording features former Sly and the Family Stone member and session drummer Andy Newmark. Nuff said – let’s get blown away!

Elton John/Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll)

Time to wrap things up. How about kicking ass with some good ole rock & roll Elton John style? Ask and you shall receive! I guess Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll) is more of a deep track. As usual, the lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin, while Sir Elton composed the music. According to Songfacts, the tune is a “throwback to music of the late ’50s and early ’60s when lots of songs were about dance crazes and teenage girls.” Songfacts also quotes John from a 1973 interview with now-defunct American rock magazine Circus, in which he reportedly characterized the tune as “a cross between surfing music and Freddie Cannon records” that was intended “to end the ‘Crocodile Rock’ thing.” Sounds like John had hoped it would help people forget about that latter tune. While it’s a great song that appeared on his masterpiece Goodbye Yellow Brick Road from October 1973, it’s fair to say Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll) was completely overshadowed by other tunes from the album, such as Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Bennie and the Jets, Candle in the Wind and of course the title track. John also didn’t release it as a single.

Source: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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