If you’ve followed this feature over the past six months, perhaps by now you may think, ‘jeez, when is he going to get it over with?’ I got news for you: This is the final installment!
For first-time visitors, this weekly series looked at music I would take with me on a trip to a desert island, one tune at a time and in alphabetical order by the name of the picked band or artist (last name). In addition, my selections had to be by a music act I had only rarely covered or even better not written about at all.
In last week’s installment, I featured the playlist that resulted from the above exercise. Obviously, the criteria limited my choices, as I also noted to some commenters throughout the series. Today, I’d like to present my “real” desert island playlist. The only rule I kept was to pick one song by a band or artist’s last name in alphabetical order.
In the following, I’m going to highlight four tunes. The entire playlist can be found at the end of the post.
Jethro Tull/Hymn 43
Over the years, Hymn 43 by Jethro Tull has become one of my favorite tunes by the English rock band. Penned by Tull’s flutist, frontman and lead vocalist Ian Anderson, Hymn 43 is off their fourth studio album Aqualung. Released in March 1971, that record is best known for the epic Locomotive Breath, even though incredibly, the single missed the charts in the UK, just like Hymn 43! In the U.S., Locomotive Breath and Hymn 43 became Tull’s first charting singles, reaching no. 62 and no. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively. Of course, one could argue that Tull’s music wasn’t about the charts!
American singer-songwriter Randy Newman has penned many tunes and film scores over his 60-year-plus-and-counting career. Some like Short People (1977), I Love L.A. (1983) and You’ve Got a Friend in Me (1995) became well known under his name, while others such as Mama Told Me Not to Come (1966), I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (1968) and You Can Leave Your Hat On (1972) were popularized by Three Dog Night, UB40 and Joe Cocker, respectively. Many other artists covered Newman’s songs as well. One of my favorite tunes by Newman is Guilty, included on his fourth studio album Good Old Boys, which appeared in September 1974. Evidently, Cocker liked the ballad as well and recorded it for his 1974 studio album I Can Stand a Little Rain.
Stevie Ray Vaughan/Pride and Joy
If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog or know my music taste otherwise you know I love the blues and blues rock. When it comes to that kind of music, in my book, it doesn’t get much better than Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not only was the man from Dallas, Texas an incredible guitarist – perhaps the best electric blues rock guitarist ever – but he also elevated the blues to the mainstream in the ’80s thanks to his great live performances and albums. Vaughan did both original songs and covers. I would argue that his rendition of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is better than the original by Jimi Hendrix! Anyway, here’s Pride and Joy, penned by Vaughan, off his debut studio album Texas Flood.
Full disclosure: My first pick for “y” would have been Neil Young and Like a Hurricane. But since most of Neil’s music was pulled from Spotify earlier this year, I went with Yes. I’ve never gotten much into progressive rock (not counting Pink Floyd and a few others whose music includes prog-rock elements). Yes are one of the few exceptions, together with Genesis. That said, my knowledge of the British band’s music is mostly limited to their earlier catalog. In this context, a song I’ve really come to love is Roundabout. Co-written by vocalist Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe, the track is from the group’s fourth studio album Fragile, released in November 1971. Until Owner of a Lonely Heart (1983), the band’s songs weren’t exactly radio-friendly. That said, Roundabout was released as a single and became the first top 20 song Yes had in the U.S.
Last but not least, here’s the entire playlist. In addition to the above, it includes many of the suspects you’d expect to see if you know my music taste, such as AC/DC, The Beatles, Cream, Deep Purple, Marvin Gaye and The Rolling Stones, to name some.
Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time
Welcome to another Sunday Six where I’d like to celebrate the beauty of music in different flavors over the past 60 years or so, six tunes at a time. Let’s embark on today’s journey.
Wayne Shorter/Infant Eyes
Getting us underway today is soothing jazz by saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. In addition to being a sideman playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, Shorter started his recording career as a bandleader in 1959 with Introducing Wayne Shorter – the first of more than 20 additional albums he has made in that role. In 1970, Shorter became a co-founder of jazz fusion band Weather Report. Here’s Infant Eyes, a beautiful track he composed for his sixth album Speak No Evil, which appeared in June 1966. After an incredible 60-year-plus recording career Shorter (88 years) is now retired.
John Cougar Mellencamp/Rain On The Scarecrow
Next, let’s go to August 1985 and the eighth studio album by heartland-turned-roots rock artist John Mellencamp, who I trust doesn’t need much of an introduction. Scarecrow was the record that brought Mellencamp on my radar screen. At the time, he was still known as John Cougar Mellencamp and nine years into his recording career that had started in 1976 with the Chestnut Street Incident, released as Johnny Cougar. His manager at the time, Tony Defries, had come up with this name, convinced an artist with the last name Mellencamp wouldn’t generate much interest. Mellencamp who hated the name kept “Cougar” through Scarecrow before finally adopting his real name John Mellencamp for the follow-on album The Lonesome Jubilee from August 1987. While Scarecrow is best known for its U.S. top 10 hits R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Small Town and Lonely Ol’ Night, I decided to highlight Rain On The Scarecrow, a tune I’ve always loved. Mellencamp penned it together with his childhood friend and longtime writing partner George Green.
The Byrds/Tiffany Queen
Every time I hear the name The Byrds, my first thought is the jingle-jangle guitar sound perfected by Rickenbacker maestro guitarist and vocalist Roger McGuinn. From the very first moment I heard songs like Mr. Tambourine Man, All I Really Want to Do and Turn! Turn! Turn! I was hooked, and I still get excited about the sound of a Rickenbacker to this day. While I knew there was more to The Byrds than a jangly guitar sound and great harmony singing, until the other day, I had not been aware of Tiffany Queen. Written by McGuinn, it became the opener of their 11th studio album Farther Along from November 1971. By that time, McGuinn was the band’s only original member, though the other co-founders Gene Clarke, David Crosby, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman reunited with McGuinn one more time for the group’s 1973 eponymous final album. Here’s Tiffany Queen, which compared to the three above-mentioned tunes has more of a straight rock sound- I like it!
Fats Domino/Blueberry Hill
Yes, it may seem a bit arbitrary to throw in Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino. But then again, this goes to the central idea of The Sunday Six to feature music from different eras, in a zig-zag fashion. Plus, it’s a timeless classic! Written by Vincent Rose with lyrics by John L. Rooney, Blueberry Hill was first recorded by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra in May 1940, featuring Tommy Ryan on vocals. In 1940 alone, the tune was recorded five more times, including by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the most successful of the six versions, which reached no. 2 on the U.S. charts. But to this day, Blueberry Hill is best remembered by Fats Domino’s amazing rendition released in 1956. It was also included on Domino’s third studio album This Is Fats Domino!, which came out in December that year. It became his sixth no. 1 on the U.S. R&B chart and his biggest hit on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 (no. 2), then-called the Top 100. Feel free to groove along!
Recently, fellow blogger Dave from A Sound Day hosted another great installment of his Turntable Talkfeature, which focused on the MTV music video era. Dave was kind enough to invite me back to participate, and as I noted in my contribution, Peter Gabriel’sSledgehammer would get my vote for best video. With the ex-Genesis lead vocalist on my mind, perhaps it’s not a big surprise a Gabriel tune is included in this Sunday Six. While I generally prefer So and his earlier albums, I decided to pick a song from Us, the follow-on to So, released in September 1992. Here’s Steam, a nice funky pop tune. It also appeared separately as a single in January 1993 and became Gabriel’s final significant chart success. This included a no. 1 in Canada and top 10 placements in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand. In the U.S., the song steamed to no. 2 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Songfactsnotes similarities to Sledgehammer, including prominent horn lines and lyrics “loaded with sexual references.” I guess that’s a fair observation. It doesn’t bother me!
Sheryl Crow/Real Gone
And once again it’s time to wrap up. Since Sheryl Crow entered my radar screen in 1993 with All I Wanna Do, her breakthrough hit from her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club, I’ve enjoyed listening to her music. When she released Threads in August 2019, which I reviewed here, she noted the collaboration album was her final full-length release. Crow cited changed listening habits where most people build their own playlists rather than listen to albums. As sad as it is, it’s a fair point. Plus, Crow hasn’t retired from the music business and has since released a few additional singles. Plus, she’s currently on the road. Real Gone is a nice rock tune from the soundtrack of the 2006 animated film Cars, which appeared in May 2006. My son was four and a half years old at the time and liked the toy cars from Cars – dad liked them as well! Real Gone, which also was released in June 2006 as the second single from the soundtrack, was co-written by Crow and John Shanks who also produced the tune.
Last but least, here’s a Spotify list featuring the above picks.
Happy Wednesday! Once again, the desert island is calling and I must make an important music decision. This time it’s picking a band or artist starting with the letter “G”.
Looking at my library, I could have selected Peter Gabriel, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, Greta Van Fleet, Grateful Dead, Green Day and Guns N’ Roses, among others, but didn’t since I wrote about all of them previously. Instead, I picked Dutch rock band Golden Earring and one of the coolest driving songs I know: Radar Love.
Co-written by the band’s Barry Hay (lead and backing vocals, flute, saxophone, percussion) and George Kooymans (guitar, lead and backing vocals), Radar Love first appeared on Golden Earring’s ninth studio album Moontan from July 1973. Subsequently, a shortened version of the tune was released as a single in Europe in August 1973, except for the UK where it appeared in November that year. The U.S. release of the single took even longer, until April 1974. Here’s the album version.
Radar Love became Golden Earring’s biggest hit. In addition to topping the charts in The Netherlands, it climbed to no. 5 in Germany, no. 6 in Belgium, no. 7 in the UK, no. 10 in Austria and no. 13 in the U.S. Undoubtedly, the tune also helped make Moontan the band’s most successful album.
Before you could send a text message or call someone in their car, there was no way to communicate to a driver – unless you had a certain telepathic love that could convey from a distance your desire to be with that person, something you might call – Radar Love. In this song, the guy has been driving all night, but keeps pushing the pedal because he just knows that his baby wants him home.
…Like many of Golden Earring’s songs, this began with the title and grew from there. Originally intended only as an album track, it turned out to be the only cut on their US debut album Moontan that they could whittle down to a single for radio. It became their showstopper at concerts, and provided a striking moment for their drummer Cesar Zuiderwijk, who would take a few steps back and leap at the drum kit near the end of the song.
Following is a smoldering live version, which according to the clip was captured in 1973:
And here’s something for the geeks among us: 🙂
The song is all in 4/4 time, and the original tempo is around 100 BPM. It’s a very clever arrangement: the intro is on the beat of each bar at the start. The shuffle on the snare is semi triplets which give the illusion of the song speeding up. You have to quantize drum machines to a 6th beat. Consequently the chorus is doubled up to give the impression that the tempo has speeded up to 200 BPM. You have to transpose the 4/4 bar so it can be played with in 1 beat of the bar. It does take a bit of lateral thinking to get your head around the math, but the song is all 4/4 at 100 BPM.
Golden Earring, initially formed as The Tornadoes in 1961 in The Hague, were active until last year. Since 1970, their line-up had consisted of co-founders Rinus Gerritsen (bass, keyboards) and Kooymans, along with Hay and Cesar Zuiderwijk (drums, percussion). In 2021, they disbanded following Kooymans’ diagnosis with ALS, a devastating neurodegenerative condition aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.
After a 62-day streak of publishing one post each day (my initial goal was 50 days, after I had reached 40 posts in a row), I’ve decided that starting from next week, I’m going to reduce the frequency of blogging back to what it used to be, which is about three to four posts a week. While I love writing about my favorite subject music, publishing seven days a week has taken a significant amount of time – time I obviously haven’t been able to spend otherwise.
Along with this reduction in posting frequency, I’m also planning a few other changes. This includes retiring Wednesday’s Hump Day Picker-Upper posts and replacing them with a new weekly feature I’m going to unveil next Wednesday. I’m also considering consolidating some of my current blog categories. The current number of 20 does seem to be a bit excessive. Obviously, any reduction in categories and reindexing of previous posts are more of behind-the-scenes changes.
Since this is a music blog, of course, this post wouldn’t be complete with at least one song. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first tune that came to mind in the current context is one of my favorite songs by David Bowie: Changes.
Written by Bowie, Changes first appeared on the British artist’s fourth studio album Hunky Dory from December 1971. The song was also released separately as the record’s first single in January 1972.
To my surprise, Changes didn’t chart in the UK at the time it came out. In the U.S., it initially climbed to no. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. It re-entered that chart in 1974 and peaked at no. 41. In the UK, the song resurfaced as well and got to no. 49, but it wasn’t until 2016 following Bowie’s death. Wikipedia doesn’t list any other chart placements – strange!
Here’s some additional background on the great tune from Songfacts: This is a reflective song about defying your critics and stepping out on your own. It also touches on Bowie’s penchant for artistic reinvention. Bowie wrote this when he was going through a lot of personal change. Bowie’s wife, Angela, was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Duncan. Bowie got along very well with his father and was very excited to have a child of his own. This optimism shines through in “Changes.”
According to Bowie, this started out as a parody of a nightclub song – “kind of throwaway” – but people kept chanting for it at concerts and thus it became one of his most popular and enduring songs. Bowie had no idea it was going to become so successful, but the song connected with his young audience who could relate to lyrics like “These children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”
Bowie played the sax on this track, and his guitarist, Mick Ronson, arranged the strings. Rick Wakeman, who would later become a member of the prog rock band, Yes, played the piano parts at the beginning and end. Bowie gave Wakeman a lot of freedom, telling him to play the song like it was a piano piece. The piano Wakeman played was the famous 100-year old Bechstein at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded; the same piano used by Elton John, The Beatles and Genesis.
I don’t mean to make any advertising for Apple Music. Other music streaming platforms are probably just as good and some may even be better. It just so happens that 20 years ago, I decided to get iTunes and I’ve stuck with Apple ever since. Nowadays, I mostly use their streaming service Apple Music. Once you’re entrenched in one platform, switching becomes hard, so you’re kind of stuck with it.
In the early years of Apple Music, which I started using pretty much when it was introduced in 2015, I made fun of how they categorized music and what kind of listening suggestions they served up. Over time their algorithms have gotten much better. Nowadays, Apple Music pretty much knows what makes me tick. In a way that’s a bit scary.
Similar to Facebook, the presentation of new content based on previous choices can also work to your advantage. A good illustration is the latest “Favorites Mix” Apple Music generated, based on my listening habits. I pretty much dig each tune on here. Following are five of the 25 tracks. I deliberately picked songs I haven’t featured in a while or at all on the blog.
John Mellencamp/Grandview (feat. Martina McBride)
John Mellencamp has been among my favorite artists since the mid-’80s. While I still dig the straight heartland rock from his earlier years, I mostly prefer the roots-oriented music he plays nowadays. Grandview is a great tune from Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies that came out in April 2017. Much of that album includes contributions from country artist Carlene Carter. Grandview, co-written by Mellencamp and Bobby Clark, is an exception, featuring another country artist: Martina McBride. Love that tune!
Bonnie Raitt/Sugar Mama
My dear longtime music friend from Germany initially introduced me to Bonnie Raitt in the late ’80s. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog you likely know how much I dig that lady. For the most part, Raitt relies on other writers. Her picks tend to be excellent. Here’s Sugar Mama, co-written by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, and first released as Sugar Daddy on McClinton’s 1972 debut album Delbert & Glen. Raitt’s funky rendition of the tune was included on her fifth studio album Home Plate, which appeared in 1975.
Jackson Browne/Our Lady of the Well
My introduction to Jackson Browne was the iconic Running On Empty album from December 1977. I believe my brother-in-law had it on vinyl. My guess is I heard it first in the early ’80s – can’t quite remember! I’ve listened to Browne on and off ever since. Our Lady of the Well, written by him, is from his sophomore album For Everyman that came out in October 1973. Browne’s just a great songwriter!
David Bowie/It Ain’t Easy
If I could only pick one David Bowie record, I’d go with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, his fifth studio album released in June 1972. I’ve always loved Bowie’s glam rock period. On Ziggy Stardust, he wrote all except one tune: It Ain’t Easy. That song was penned by American songwriter Ron Davies who first recorded it for his 1970 debut album Silent Song Through The Land. It proved to be a popular cover song. In addition to Bowie, Three Dog Night, Long John Baldry, Dave Edmunds and Shelby Lynne are among the other artists who covered it. I guess the explanation is simple: It’s a great tune!
Genesis/Land of Confusion
Let me preface this final pick by saying I used to like Land of Confusion by Genesis much more when it came out back in 1986 than I do nowadays. Like many other ’80s tunes, to me, it doesn’t hold up that well. Still, I can’t deny a certain weak spot for the ’80s, the decade during which I grew up. Land of Confusion, credited to all three core members of Genesis at the time – Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford – appeared on the group’s 13th studio album Invisible Touch from June 1986. It also became one of five singles. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the tune is its remarkable video featuring caricature puppets of political leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Brezhnev and Helmut Kohl. The video, which got heavy play on MTV, won a Grammy for Best Concept Music Video in 1987. It was also nominated for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Awards that same year but lost to Sledgehammer by former Genesis lead vocalist Peter Gabriel.
Below is a link to the entire playlist. While I supposedly copied the embed code, it doesn’t embed. Oh, well, not sure whether this has anything to do with my computer or my computer skills, which is entirely possible, or whether it’s, dare I say, a bug in Apple Music. I’ve seen fellow bloggers successfully embed Spotify playlists. Perhaps I should have chosen that platform instead – dang it!
Another 1971 gem in my book is hitting the big anniversary. Today, 50 years go, Led Zeppelin released Led Zeppelin IV, an album that to me hasn’t lost any of its magic. And it’s not just because of Stairway to Heaven. I will add, and I’ve said this before, Led Zeppelin and even the song that would be my choice if I could only pick one rock tune were an acquired taste.
The 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin IV certainly deserves to be celebrated, so let’s go back to November 8, 1971. Actually, let’s make that 11 months earlier. Zep’s fourth studio album was recorded between December 1970 and February 1971 at Headley Grange, a historic 18th-century three-story stone workhouse in the southern English county of Hampshire, which was a popular recording and rehearsal venue in the ’60s and ’70s for artists like Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, Genesis and Led Zeppelin.
Not only did the informal setting inspire the band to try different musical arrangements in various styles, but the absence of any bar or other leisure facilities allowed them to stay focused. “…there was no, ‘Let’s get stoned or go to the pub and get pissed.’,” Jimmy Page told Mojo in a recent interview for a cover story, as reported by Louder. He also said, “It’s like there was a magical current running through that place and that record. Like it was meant to be.”
Apparently, not all of Zep’s members were quite as enthusiastic about the place. “Headley Grange was cold, damp, dirty, smelly,” noted John Paul Jones in the same Mojo story. Page was quick to dismiss the comment, saying, “Why is John complaining? We were there to work.” Yet implicitly, Page seemed to least somewhat agree with Jones, adding, “I don’t want to say anything to embarrass Mrs. Smith, the lady in charge. Headley was a bit austere.”
To make the album Led Zeppelin were using The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, along with engineer Andy Jones who had just worked on engineering the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, one of my other favorite albums from 1971. Zep also had assistance from Stones co-founder and keyboarder Ian Stewart who played piano on the record’s tune Rock and Roll. And, speaking of other artists, Sandy Denny, the vocalist of Fairport Convention was another guest.
Headley Grange wasn’t the band’s first choice. In fact, recording sessions had started at Island Records’ Basing Street Studios in London in December 1970. Zep also had considered recording at Mick Jagger’s home and recording location Stargroves but felt it was too pricey! I guess the band had yet to make big bucks, or perhaps they were a bit skittish about cost, given the lukewarm reception of Led Zeppelin III by critics.
Once the basic tracks were in the can, Zep added overdubs at Island Studios in February. Initial mixing was done at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. But the group wasn’t happy with the outcome, so following a tour in the spring and early summer, Page remixed the entire album in July 1971. Further delays occurred over discussions about whether Led Zeppelin IV should be a double album or be released as a set of EPs.
Nuff said – it’s time to turn to some music. Side one kicks of with Black Dog, a great rocker with a cool guitar riff. According to Songfacts, Jones got the idea for the song after he had listened to Electric Mud, a 1968 album by Muddy Waters: He wanted to try “electric blues with a rolling bass part,” and “a riff that would be like a linear journey.”…When they started putting the album together, Jones introduced this riff, the song started to form. The first version Jones played was comically complex. “It was originally all in 3/16 time, but no one could keep up with that,” he said.
The Battle of Evermore is a great example of Zep’s outstanding acoustic songs. As noted by Songfacts, it holds the distinction of being the band’s only tune that featured a guest vocalist: Sandy Denny, an excellent choice! Robert Plant’s lyrics were inspired by a book on Scottish history he had read. The music was written by Page using a mandolin he had borrowed from Jones. “The band was sitting next to the chimney in Headley, drinking tea, when Jimmy grabbed a mandolin and started playing,” Andy Jones recalled. “I gave him a microphone and stuck a Gibson echo on his mandolin. Jimmy had brought this stuff before and had asked me to take a look at it. Suddenly Robert started singing and this amazing track was born from nowhere.” What a mighty tune indeed!
Of course, no homage to Led Zeppelin IV would be complete without the big enchilada that’s closing out side one. Sadly, in addition to being one of the greatest rock songs of all time, Stairway to Heaven will always be remembered because of the copyright infringement litigation it triggered. Much has been written about this. All I will say is only a deaf person could possibly conclude that Page’s opening acoustic guitar arpeggios weren’t pretty much identical to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental Taurus whether done deliberately or not. By the way, again referring to Mojo, the above Louder piece notes the working title for Stairway was Cow And Gate – something I’m sure you always wanted to know but never dared to ask! That working title was inspired by Robert Plant who had recently bought a farm. I also found Cow & Gate was the name of a British dairy products company. Apparently, today the name lives on as a specialist baby food brand owned by a Dutch company.
On to side two. Similar to side one, it starts with a cool rocker, Misty Mountain Hop co-written by Page, Plant and Jones. “It’s about a bunch of hippies getting busted, about the problems you can come across when you have a simple walk in the park on a nice sunny afternoon,” Plant explained, as noted by Songfacts. “In England it’s understandable, because wherever you go to enjoy yourself, ‘Big Brother’ is not far behind.” Seems like somebody had some beef here! BTW, there are Misty Mountains in Wales.
Going to California is another acoustic gem I’d like to highlight. Songfactsexplains the Page-Plant co-write was inspired by Joni Mitchell’sCalifornia: Mitchell lived in the musically fertile but earthquake-prone Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles; “California” finds her recalling her adventures on a trip to Europe but looking forward to a return home. In “Going To California,” Plant plays the part of a guy who’s looking to leave his no-good woman behind and make a fresh start in California.
This leaves me with the album’s excellent closer When the Levee Breaks. The song’s original lyrics are based on The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and were written by Memphis Minnie. The tune was first recorded as a country blues by Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. Plant who had the record in his collection kept most of the original lyrics while Page rearranged the music. Zep’s version is credited to the entire band and Minnie.
Unlike its predecessor, Led Zeppelin IV was widely praised by music critics. Fans liked it as well. The record topped the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada, Australia, Austria and Italy, and also strongly performed in many other countries. Additionally, it became Led Zeppelin’s most commercially successful album with more than 37 million copies sold worldwide, and one of the best-selling albums in the U.S.
Last but not least, Led Zeppelin IV is included in many lists, such as Rolling Stone’s500 Greatest Albums of All Time (no. 58 in 2020) and Colin Larkin’s All Time 1000 Albums (no. 42 in 2000). In June 2004, Pitchfork also ranked it at no. 7 on their list of Top 100 Albums of the 1970s.
Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time
Hope everybody is enjoying their Sunday and has had a good week. Time again to embark on another music journey where the only thing that’s certain is that nothing is certain. In other words, anything goes as long as I like it. Oftentimes, these posts are pretty eclectic, and this installment is no different, featuring country rock, progressive rock, rockabilly, synth pop, folk rock and Chicano garage rock.
Poco/What a Day
A recent post about Rusty Young and Paul Cotton by fellow blogger Mike from Ticket 2 Ride brought country rock pioneers Poco back on my radar screen – and the realization I’ve yet to take a deeper dive into their music. My first encounter with Poco was in the ’80s when a dear longtime music friend introduced me to the band with their excellent 11th studio album Legend from November 1978. After they had released records for nearly a decade, it finally gave them a top 20 on the Billboard 200, reaching no. 14. Poco were formed in 1968 by former Buffalo Springfield members Richie Furay (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Jim Messina (lead guitar, vocals), together with Rusty Young (pedal steel guitar, banjo, dobro, guitar, mandolin, vocals), Randy Meisner (bass, vocals) and George Grantham (drums, vocals). In addition to 19 studio albums, the band’s catalog includes multiple compilations and live recordings. Poco have continued to perform with many different line-ups, though with the death of Young from a heart attack at age 75 in April this year, their current status is uncertain. Here’s a tune I love off their debut album Pickin’ Up the Pieces that came out in May 1969: What a Day, written by Furay. You can read more about that album here.
Genesis/The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Let’s move to the ’70s and a dose of prog rock, a genre I’ve never really embraced with a few exceptions. One of them are Genesis. I began exploring the British group in the mid ’80s back in Germany when getting access to many of their albums through my best friend whom I’ve known since the second school grade. Genesis were formed in 1967 by Peter Gabriel (lead vocals, flute), Tony Banks (organ, piano, backing vocals), Anthony Phillips (lead guitar), Mike Rutherford (bass, guitar, backing vocals) and Chris Stewart (drums), who all attended a boarding school in the English town of Godalming. By the time their debut album From Genesis to Revelation appeared in March 1969, Stewart had been replaced on drums by Jonathan Silver. After a hiatus following their last studio album …Calling All Stations… from September 1997 and occasional reunions, Genesis reformed in March 2020 and announced The Last Domino? Tour set to kick off in mid-September Dublin, Ireland, and currently including 40 dates across Ireland, the UK, U.S. and Canada. The line-up features Banks, Collins and Rutherford, along with various touring musicians. Here’s the title track from the band’s sixth studio album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which was released in November 1974 and was the last to feature Gabriel. Like the remaining tracks, the tune was credited to all members of the band, which at the time included Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Rutherford and guitarist Steve Hackett who had replaced Phillips on lead guitar in late 1970. For some additional thoughts on the album, you can check here.
After nearly 5 minutes of prog rock, I’m sure y’all are ready for some great rockabilly, a genre I’ve been digging the first time I heard it. Most likely, that was sometime during the second half of the ’70s when I started listening to the radio more frequently, in particular an oldies show that aired on Sunday evenings on my favorite station SWF3 (now SWR3). And it may well have been Carl Perkins or Bill Haley or Elvis Presley – frankly, I don’t remember. Perkins, a rockabilly pioneer, started his recording career in 1954 at Sam Phillips’Sun Records. In February 1957, he released Matchbox as the B-side to Your True Love. Matchbox shares some lyric phrases with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 recording of Match Box Blues, though musically the tunes are different. Matchbox and Your True Love also appeared on Dance Album Of Carl Perkins, his debut full-length record from 1957. It’s probably best remembered by the classic Blue Suede Shoes, another Perkins song that became his only no. 1 on Billboard’s country chart. It also surged to no. 2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100, his best-performing single there as well. Carl Perkins who passed away in January 1998 at the age of 65, was inducted into the Rock Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by Sam Phillips.
Prince needs no further introduction. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I’ve admired him for many years because of his incredible musicianship and remarkable versatility. And I definitely like some of his songs. I was tempted to pick Purple Rain, the title track of Prince’s 1984 album, which brought him on my radar screen, and a tune I love to this day. Instead, I decided to go with another title track, 1999, from Prince’s fifth studio album that appeared in October 1982. To me, it’s one of the most infectious dance tunes I know. According to Songfacts, Prince wrote the party-like jam during the height of the Cold War. But while acknowledging Everybody’s got a bomb/We could all die any day, he resorted to an optimistic stance, telling people to enjoy their remaining time on earth: But before I’ll let that happen/I’ll dance my life away.
Mumford & Sons/I Will Wait
After some country rock, prog rock, rockabilly and a synth pop party tune about nuclear Armageddon, I think we’re ready for a dose of English folk rock, don’t you agree? Mumford & Sons were formed in London in late 2007 by multi-instrumentalists Marcus Mumford (lead vocals, guitars, drums), Ben Lovett (vocals, piano, keyboards, accordion), Winston Marshall (vocals, guitars, banjo, bass) and Ted Dwane (vocals, bass, double bass, drums). After their successful debut album Sigh No More from October 2009, which topped the charts in Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands and hit no. 2 in the UK and the U.S., the band gained even greater prominence with their sophomore release Babel that appeared in September 2012. The record debuted at no. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and the U.S. Billboard 200 and also reached the top of the charts in many other countries. Babel became the fastest selling record of 2012 in the UK and was the biggest selling debut of any album in the U.S. that year. Mumford & Sons have since continued to enjoy success with two additional albums. Marshall left earlier this year, leaving Mumford & Sons as a trio for now. Here’s I Will Wait from the above noted Babel album. Written by Marcus Mumford, it’s the band’s most successful single to date and I assume the song most people have heard. Here’s the official video with footage captured at the breathtaking Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Col.
Thee Midniters/Empty Heart
And, once again, this brings me to the sixth tune that will conclude this week’s musical excursion. Let’s go back to the ’60s where the post started with a pick inspired by my recent review of Los Lobos’ great new album. Native Sons, which largely features covers by bands and artists from L.A. or who ended up there, celebrates the city’s rich musical heritage. The covers include a tune by Thee Midniters, another Chicano rock band who like Los Lobos were from East Los Angeles. Formed in the mid ’60s, their members included Willie Garcia (lead vocals), George Dominguez (lead guitar), Roy Marquez (rhythm guitar), Ronny Figueroa (organ), Larry Rendon (saxophone), Romeo Prado (trombone), Jimmy Espinoza (bass) and George Salaza (drums). After releasing a few albums, the band split in the early ’70s. According to Wikipedia, The Midniters have continued to perform over the decades, led by original members Espinoza and Rendon. I haven’t been able to verify the group’s current status. Here’s their cover of The Rolling Stones’Empty Heart. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Stones first recorded the tune for their second EP Five by Five released in August 1964. Check out this cooking rendition by Thee Midniters.
By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors know what’s about to happen. To new readers, The Sunday Six is all about enjoying the diversity and beauty of music. I make a deliberate effort to feature different music genres including some I don’t listen to frequently. While the resulting picks, therefore, can appear to be random, these posts don’t capture the first six tunes that come to my mind. At the end of the day, anything goes as long as it speaks to me.
Kicking is off is some groovy guitar pop jazz by George Benson. Benson started to play the guitar as an eight-year-old, following the ukulele he had picked up a year earlier. Incredibly, he already recorded by the age of 9, which means his career now stands at a whooping 57 years and counting! He gained initial popularity in the 1960s, performing together with jazz organist Jack McDuff. Starting with the 1963 live album Brother Jack McDuff Live!, Benson appeared on various McDuff records. In 1964, he released his debut as a bandleader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, which featured McDuff on piano and organ. In the ’70s, Benson started to venture beyond jazz into pop and R&B. Breezin’ from May 1976 is a good example. Not only did it top Billboard’s jazz chart, but it also climbed to no. 1 on the R&B and mainstream charts. Here’s the title track, written by Bobby Womack who also originally recorded it in December 1970, together with Hungarian jazz guitar great Gábor Szabó. It appeared on Szabó’s 1971 album High Contrast. Here’s Benson’s version. The smooth and happy sound are perfect for a Sunday morning!
Steely Dan/Home at Last
Let’s stay in pop jazzy lane for a bit longer with Steely Dan, one of my all-time favorite bands. I trust Messrs. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for jazz and other music, don’t need much of an introduction. By the time they met guitarist Denny Dias in the summer of 1970, they already had written a good amount of original music. Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters. It was also Katz who signed the Dan to the label. By the time their sixth and, in my opinion, best album Aja appeared in September 1977, Steely Dan had become a studio project by Fagen and Becker who surrounded themselves with a changing cast of top-notch session musicians and other artists. In this case, the latter included Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jim Keltner (drums) and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), among others. Here’s Home at Last, which like all other tracks on the album was co-written by Fagen and Becker. In addition to them, the track featured Carlton (though the solo was played by Becker who oftentimes left lead guitar responsibilities to a session guitarist like Carlton), Rainey (bass), Victor Feldman (vibraphone), Bernard Purdie (drums), Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals), and of course an amazing horn section, including Jim Horn (what an appropriate name!), Bill Perkins, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary and Dick Hyde.
The Temptations/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
Time to start switching up things with a dose of ’70s funk and psychedelic soul, don’t you agree? Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations is one of the coolest tunes I can think of in this context. Co-written by Motown’sNorman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was first released as a single in May 1972 by the label’s recording act The Undisputed Truth. While the original to which you can listen here is pretty good as well, it’s the great rendition by The Temptations I heard first and have come to love! They recorded an 11-minute-plus take for their studio album All Directions from July 1972. In September that year, The Temptations also released a 6:54-minute single version of the song. While it still was a pretty long edit for a single, it yielded the group their second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’70s. It would also be their last no. 1 hit on the U.S. mainstream chart. By the time Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone appeared, the group already had seen various changes and only featured two members of the classic line-up: Otis Williams (baritone) and Melvin Franklin (bass). The other members were Dennis Edwards (tenor), Damon Harris (tenor) and Richard Street (second tenor). Amazingly, The Temptations still exist after some 60 years (not counting the group’s predecessors), with 79-year-old Otis Williams remaining as the only original member. I have tickets to see them together with The Four Tops in early November – keeping fingers crossed! Meanwhile, here’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, of course, the mighty album version, coz I don’t do things half ass here! 🙂
Peter Gabriel/Don’t Give Up (feat. Kate Bush)
Let’s go to a different decade with another artist I’ve come to dig, which in no small part was due to this album: Peter Gabriel and So, his fifth studio release from May 1986. It’s probably Gabriel’s most mainstream-oriented album. Much of the former Genesis lead vocalist’s other solo work has been more of an acquired taste. I also didn’t pay much attention after his follow-on Us that appeared in September 1992. Fueled by the hit single Sledgehammer, which topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and Canada, peaked at no. 3 in Australia and New Zealand, and reached the top 10 in Germany and various other European countries, So became Gabriel’s best-selling solo album. I did catch him during the supporting tour in Cologne, Germany, and still have fond memories of that gig. Here’s Don’t Give Up, a haunting duet with Kate Bush. Inspired by U.S. Depression era photos from the 1930s Gabriel had seen, he applied the theme to the difficult economic conditions in Margaret Thatcher’s mid-1980s England. While the tune is a bit of a Debbie Downer, I find it extremely powerful. You can literally picture the lyrics as a movie. I also think the vocals alternating between Gabriel and Bush work perfectly.
The Turtles/Happy Together
I suppose after the previous tune, we all could need some cheering up. A song that always puts me in a good mood is Happy Together by The Turtles. Plus, it broadens our little musical journey to include the ’60s, one of my favorite decades in music. The Turtles started performing under that name in 1965. Their original members, Howard Kaylan (lead vocals, keyboards), Mark Volman (backing vocals, guitar, percussion), Al Nichol (lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Chuck Portz (bass) and Don Murray (drums), had all played together in a surf rock-oriented band called The Crossfires. That group turned into The Tyrtles, a folk rock outfit, before becoming The Turtles and adopting more of a sunshine pop style. The band’s initial run lasted until 1970. Vollman and Kaylan subsequently launched pop duo Flo & Eddie and released a series of records between 1972 and 2009. In 1983, Vollman and Kaylan legally regained the use of the name The Turtles and started touring as The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie. Instead of seeking to reunite with their former bandmates, Vollman and Kaylan relied on other musicians. The group remains active in this fashion to this day. Their website lists a poster for a Happy Together Tour 2021 “this summer,” though currently, no gigs are posted. Happy Together was the title track of the band’s third studio album from April 1967. Co-written by Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner, the infectious tune became The Turtles’ biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 2 in Canada, and reaching no. 12 in the UK, marking their first charting single there.
Simple Minds/Stand by Love
I can’t believe it’s already time to wrap up this latest installment of The Sunday Six. For this last tune, I decided to pick a song from the early ’90s: Stand by Love by Simple Minds. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the Scottish new wave and pop rock band and don’t follow them closely, I generally enjoy their music. I also got to see them live once in Stuttgart, Germany in the early ’90s and remember it as a good show. Simple Minds emerged in late 1977 from the remains of short-lived punk band Johnny & The Self-Abusers. By late 1978, the band’s first stable line-up was in place, featuring Jim Kerr (lead vocals), Charlie Burchill (guitar), Mick MacNeil (keyboards), Derek Forbes (bass) and Brian McGee (drums). That formation recorded Simple Minds’ debut album Life in a Day released in April 1979. Their fifth studio album New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84) was the first to bring more significant commercial success in the UK and Europe. This was followed by a series of additional successful albums that appeared between 1984 and 1995, which included the band’s biggest hits, such as Don’t You (Forget About Me), Alive and Kicking, Belfast Child and Let There Be Love. Today, more than 40 years after their formation, Simple Minds are still around, with Kerr and Burchill remaining part of the current line-up. Here’s Stand by Love, co-written by Burchill and Kerr, from the band’s ninth studio album Real Life that came out in April 1991. This is quite a catchy tune. I also dig the backing vocals by what sounds like gospel choir, which become more prominent as the song progresses.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie website; YouTube
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
Best of What’s New is hitting a bit of a milestone this week with its 20th installment. When I started 20 weeks ago, I didn’t expect the feature would become a weekly series. The fact it has turned into that tells me there’s more decent new music out there than I had previously realized. I also recognize my favorite decades in music, the ’60s and ’70s, are gone and won’t come back; still, at a time when the charts are dominated by music that feels largely generic and soulless to me, it’s reassuring to see not all new music is created equal.
I’m also happy about this latest installment, which among others features a psychedelic prog rock band from Norway. How many bands do you know from Norway? And how many of them play psychedelic prog rock? Or how about a multi-national pop prog rock (gee, try saying that quickly!) outfit from Belgium, the UK and the U.S.? Also, were you aware that in March The Boomtown Rats released their first new album in 36 years? But wait, there’s more. All you need to do to find out is to read on… 🙂
LeRoux, aka, Louisiana’s LeRoux, are a band from Baton Rouge, La., which have been around for some 45 years. From their website: Their 1978 Capitol press release read, “LeRoux takes its name from the Cajun French term for the thick and hearty gravy base that’s used to make a gumbo.” LeRoux’s eponymous first album was a musical gumbo that blended various instruments and music arrangements into a spicy, mouth-watering southern rock sound. In fact, their Southern anthem ‘New Orleans Ladies’, voted Song of the Century by Gambit Magazine, simmered with the laid-back feel of the “Big Easy,” evoking images of Bourbon Street and the bayou…Over the years, LeRoux enjoyed performing with many of classic rocks’ greatest bands including The Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Journey, Kansas, Heart, The Doobie Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Foreigner, Marshall Tucker, The Outlaws, ZZ Top and many, many more…LeRoux was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame as their 50th inductee.Lucy Anna, co-written by Richard Ferreira and Solomon Paul Marshall, reminds me a bit of Little Feat. The song is from the band’s most recent, eighth studio album One of Those Days, released on July 24 – their first new album in 18 years. I really dig the harmony singing and warm sound. Check it out!
Nick D’Virgilio/In My Bones
Nick D’Virgilio is a session multi-instrumentalist, who according to Wikipedia is best known as the (studio) drummer of American progressive rock group Spock’s Beard, and is a member of Big Big Train, an English prog rock band – admittedly I had not heard of both outfits before, but my exposure to prog rock has been limited. Moreover, D’Virgilio has recorded and toured with artists, such as Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Sheryl Crow. And, you probably guessed it, he also has recorded some solo work. This included an album and an EP that both came out in 2011, and Invisible, his most recent album released on June 26. Here’s In My Bones, written by D’Virgilio. Part of the reason I decided to highlight this tune is the great organ and saxophone work.
Shaman Elephant/Ease of Mind
According to their Facebook page, Shaman Elephant are a Norwegian psychedelic progressive rock band. Ease of Mind is a tune from Wide Awake but Still Asleep, which a review by the blog The Progressive Aspect notes is their sophomore album. Their debut Crystals appeared in 2016. The review also lists Shaman Elephant’s members: Eirik Sejersted Vognstølen (vocals, guitar), Jard Hole (drums), Ole-Andreas Sæbø Jensen (bass) and Jonas Særsten (keyboards). I will say Ease of Mind falls outside my core wheelhouse, but there’s something about it I find intriguing. What drew me in initially is the acoustic guitar intro. Plus, other than synth pop band a-ha, I can’t think of any other group from Norway I know, so I’m happy to feature one here.
Fish on Friday/Mad at the World
On their Facebookpage, Fish on Friday (FoF) describe themselves as “a multi-national (Belgium-UK-USA) Progressive Poprock oriented project signed to UK label Esoteric recordings-Cherry Red.” Their website lists their members as Nick Beggs (bass, Chapman stick, backing vocals), Frank Van Bogaert (vocals, keyboards, guitars), Marty Townsend (guitars) and Marcus Weymaere (drums and percussion). Mad at the World is a track from Black Rain, which the website’s “bio” section indicates is the band’s fifth album. Unfortunately, there’s no actual bio there, but a news statement about FoF’s second album points out the band was founded in 2009 “when Belgian Producer and musician Frank van Bogaert and keyboard player William Beckers established FISH ON FRIDAY as a studio-based Progressive Rock project.” The band released their debut album Shoot the Moon in 2010. Apparently, it received stylistic comparisons with the Alan Parsons Project. Having listened to some of the tunes from Black Rain, which appeared on May 15, if anything, I seemed to pick up some traces of David Gilmour/post-Roger WatersPink Floyd, though not on Mad of the World. That tune may be a little bit closer to some of the previous music by the Alan Parsons Project. It doesn’t really matter – I like it and that’s good enough for me! Based on credits listed on Discogs, the tune was written van Bogaert, who also produced the album.
The Boomtown Rats/There’s No Tomorrow Like Today
How funny is that! I just finished publishing a mini-series to commemorate Live Aid and the next thing I come across is The Boomtown Rats released Citizens of Boomtown in March 2020, their first new album since 1984’s In the Long Grass! As I admitted in my Live Aid posts, other than Bob Geldof’s association with the band and I Don’t Like Mondays (and I should also add Banana Republic), I pretty much know nothing about this Irish band – rats! They initially formed in Dublin in 1975 and released six studio albums between 1977 and their first breakup in 1986. The band reunited in 2013 with a different line-up. But other than a few live records and two compilations, they did not come out with anything new – until March this year. Released on June 12, There’s No Tomorrow Like Today is the B-side to the album’s first single Trash Glam Baby; interestingly, it didn’t make the record. The tune is credited to Geldof, as well as the band’s other members Pete Briquette (bass), Simon Crowe (drums) and Garry Roberts (guitar). It’s a quite catchy pop rocker!
This post was updated on August 1, 2020 to correct information on There’s No Tomorrow Like Today, the above mentioned song by The Boomtown Rats. Bob Geldof-authorized fan site Bob Geldof Fans reached out to note that while the tune should have been on the album as my post had initially indicated, it was not. Instead, it became the b-side to the first single Trash Glam Baby.
Sources: Wikipedia; LeRoux website; Shaman Elephant Facebook page; The Progressive Aspect; Fish on Friday Facebook page; Discogs; YouTube
The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks
Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTubedemo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂
I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.
Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…
Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.
I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!
Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.
The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Soundexplains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.
For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!
As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.
Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.
Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.
Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.
The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.
In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.
There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.
In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.
In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.
If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.
Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.
And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.
Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.
Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.
One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!
Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.
This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube