The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s hard to believe another Sunday is upon us – I feel I just wrote the previous installment of The Sunday Six! For first-time visitors, the idea of this recurring feature is to celebrate different genres of music from different decades, six tunes at a time. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!

Julian Lage/Boo’s Blues

I’d like to start where I left off yesterday’s Best of What’s New: Julian Lage, an American jazz guitarist and composer who released his solo debut album in March 2009. I first came across Lage’s music on Friday in connection with his new album Squint and immediately fell in love with his guitar tone! Borrowing from yesterday’s post, according to his Apple Music profileLage has been widely acclaimed as one of the most prodigious guitarists of his generation. The New York-based musician boasts a long resume as a desired sideman with artists as diverse as Gary Burton, Taylor Eigsti, John Zorn, Nels Cline, Chris Eldridge, Eric Harland, and Fred Hersch, to name just a few. Equally important is his reputation as a soloist and bandleader. He is equally versed in jazz, classical, pop, and show tunes, and has spent more than a decade searching through the myriad strains of American musical history via an impeccable technique and a gift for freely associating between styles, tempos, keys, and textures that adds to his limitless improvisational spirit. Here’s another track from Lage’s new album, which also features bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King: Boo’s Blues. Beautiful music for a Sunday morning!

The Jimi Hendrix Experience/One Rainy Wish

I trust Jimi Hendrix doesn’t need an introduction. One Rainy Wish is a tune from the second album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold as Love, which first appeared in the UK in December 1967, followed by release in the US the following month. The song wasn’t on my radar until my streaming music provider served it up as a listening suggestion the other day. Also known as Golden Rose, One Rainy Wish was written by Hendrix and recorded in October 1967 at Olympic Sound Studios in London, together with Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums). Based on the lyrics, the song was inspired by a dream Hendrix had. Quoting the Hendrix biography Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy, Wikipedia notes the song is “creak[ing] with radical harmonies and rhythmic concepts, not least the fact that the verse is in 3/4 time while the chorus is in 4/4.” Songfacts adds Hendrix used an octavia, an effects pedal that reproduces the input signal from a guitar eight notes higher in pitch, mixing it with the original note and adding distortion. The octavia had been designed for Hendrix by Roger Mayer, a then-21-year-old electric engineer wunderkind. One Rainy Day Wish also became the B-side to the U.S. single Up From the Skies, which was released in February 1968, the only single from the album.

Bob Dylan/Series of Dreams

This next selection of the Bob Dylan tune Series of Dreams is a bit out of left field. Initially, I had planned to feature Angelina, a song I had come across recently and immediately thought would make a great pick for The Sunday Six. Dylan first released Angelina in March 1991 on his 3-CD box set The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. However, I couldn’t find a YouTube clip, something that rarely happens. This bummer prompted me to check whether other songs from this box set are available on YouTube and led to Series of Dreams. Dylan first recorded the tune in March 1989 for his 26th studio album Oh Mercy that was released in September of the same year. But Series of Dreams was ultimately omitted from the album. The version that ended up on the box set is a remix of the original with overdubs added in January 1991. Dylan also included an alternate take of the song on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. While finding Series of Dreams was entirely circumstantial, I’m quite happy with it, so farewell, Angelina! 🙂

Joni Mitchell/This Flight Tonight

The first time I heard This Flight Tonight was the cover by Scottish rock band Nazareth, which must have been in the late ’70s on the radio back in Germany. I had no idea then that this tune was penned by Joni Mitchell. Another prominent example is Woodstock, which I first heard by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on the Déjà Vu album and simply assumed it was their song. I was very young back then! Anyway, Mitchell recorded This Flight Tonight for her widely renowned fourth studio album Blue, which was released in June 1971. The song tells of her regrets as she leaves her lover on a flight and wishes to return. The entire album, which Mitchell made after her breakup with Graham Nash and during her relationship with James Taylor, revolves around different aspects of relationships. While I always liked Mitchell’s songs, it took me a while to get used to her voice, which I felt was very high, especially on her earlier songs.

Tracy Chapman/Fast Car

I still remember when Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album came out in April 1988. Two songs from it, Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution and Fast Car, were very popular on the radio back in Germany. The combination of Chapman’s powerful voice, great lyrics and the relative simplicity of her songs blew me away, and I got the CD immediately. To this day, I believe it’s incredible. Chapman has since released seven additional studio albums. Her most recent, Our Bright Future, dates back to November 2008. There is also a Greatest Hits compilation that came out in November 2015. While Chapman has not been active for many years, she has not officially retired from music. In fact, last November, the night before the U.S. Presidential election, she made a rare TV appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers with a clip of her performing Talkin’ ‘about a Revolution and asking Americans to vote. Here’s a short related clip from Rolling Stone. While all of Chapman’s albums charted in the U.S. and numerous other countries, her debut remains her most successful. It topped the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and various European countries, including the UK and Germany. Here’s Fast Car. I absolutely love this song and hope eventually we will hear more from Tracy Chapman. She’s only 57 years old!

Green Day/Boulevard of Broken Dreams

This Sunday Six installment has been heavy on singer-songwriters, so I’d like to wrap it up with some rock from the present century: Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day. Yes, that track from the band’s seventh studio album American Idiot from September 2004 certainly hasn’t suffered from under-exposure. And while I generally don’t follow Green Day, it’s one catchy tune I still dig. The song’s lyrics were written by lead vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong, with the music being credited to the entire band. Perhaps, not surprisingly Boulevard of Broken Dreams became Green Day’s biggest mainstream hit in America, climbing to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and raking up U.S. sales of over 2 million copies as of 2010. By 2009, the tune had sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, making it the ninth-highest selling single of the 2000-2009 decade. Green Day are rocking on to this day. Since American Idiot, they have released six additional studio albums, most recently in February 2020. According to their website, Green Day are also scheduled to kick off an eight-week, 22-date U.S. tour in Dallas on July 24.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Green Day website; YouTube

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What I’ve Been Listening To: America/ History: America’s Greatest Hits (Re-Post)

America’s vocal harmonies and smooth folk rock sound make for one of the best ’70s greatest hits compilations

On Monday, I found myself listening to America. I realize the trio has been dismissed by some critics as a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff. If anything, frankly, I would consider sounding like one of the best harmony-singing bands of all time as a compliment. But that may just be me. In any case, I’ve loved America’s music for many years and always enjoy revisiting it.

My listening experience made me want to post about the album that started my America journey as a nine- or 10-year-old back in Germany: History: America’s Greatest Hits. Then, I nebulously recalled a previous musing about their first compilation from November 1975. Checking my blog revealed a post from September 2018. Yes, I sometimes have to search my own stuff to remember what I previously wrote! 🙂

When it comes to old posts, sometimes, I wish I had written them differently. My views may have evolved. I also guess there’s a certain learning curve here. In this case, I was happy to see that I continue to fully stand behind each word I wrote almost three years ago. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Re-publish a previous post.

– Re-Post –

I was nine or 10 years old when I listened to History: America’s Greatest Hits for the first time. The album grabbed me right from the beginning. It was one of the vinyl records my older sister had, which among others also included Carole King’s TapestryCrosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu; and Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits – all albums I dig to this day.

Recently, I rediscovered History. To me, it’s one of the best greatest hits compilations I know, which were released in the ’70s. Others that come to my mind are Neil Young’s DecadeEagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), Santana’s Greatest HitsSteely Dan’s Greatest Hits and the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel album. There are probably some others I’m forgetting – in any case, it’s not meant to be a complete list.

I recall reading somewhere that America were dismissed by some as a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young knock-off. While I generally don’t think highly of music critics in the first place, I feel this notion is silly. Yes, America’s three-part harmony vocals are reminiscent of CSN/CSNY, but this doesn’t make them a copycat or somehow bad artists! On the contrary, if anything, the vocal similarity to CSN/CSNY is a huge accomplishment – after all, there aren’t many bands that can harmonize like CSN/CSNY did! On to History.

America
America (from left): Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek & Dewey Bunnell

Released in November 1975, History encompasses America’s 11 most successful singles at the time, plus an edited take of Sandman from their December 1971 eponymous debut. In addition to that album, History includes material from four additional studio records: Homecoming (November 1972), Hat Trick (October 1973), Holiday (June 1974) and Hearts (March 1975).

History opens with one of my favorite America tunes: A Horse With No Name from their debut album. It was written by Dewey Bunnell, who formed America with Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley in London in 1970. The three had met there in the mid-’60s as high school students whose fathers were stationed on a nearby U.S. Air Force base.

A Horse With No Name became America’s most successful single topping the Billboard Hot 100. It also stirred some controversy due to the similarity of Bunnell’s voice to Neil Young, and what some viewed as mediocre lyrics. Coincidentally, the song knocked Young’s Heart Of Gold off the Billboard Hot 100 top spot. I really don’t care whether it sounds like Young, who by the way is one of my favorite artists. With its two chords and killer harmony vocals, this tune simply gives me goosebumps each time I hear it.

Ventura Highway, another Bunnell composition, is from the Homecoming album. When I listen to this song and close my eyes, I can literally picture myself in an open convertible driving on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from L.A. up north to San Francisco. I actually did that trip in 1980 as a 14-year-old, together with my parents. Even though we had a lame station wagon as a rental, not some hot convertible, it was an unforgettable experience! Ventura Highway became a top 10 Billboard single for America, reaching no. 8 and no. 3 on the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, respectively.

Another beautiful tune is Lonely People, which was credited to Dan Peek and his wife Catherine Peek. The song was written a few weeks after their marriage. An obituary in TMR that appeared in the wake of Peek’s death in July 2011 at the age of 60 quotes him: “I wrote it probably within a month of getting married to my long-lost love Catherine…I always felt like a melancholy, lonely person. And now I felt like I’d won.” America  initially recorded Lonely People for their fourth studio album Holiday. It topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart and peaked at no. 5 on the Hot 100.

One of my favorite songs on History written by Gerry Beckley is Sister Golden Hair. Recorded for America’s fifth studio album Hearts, the tune also became the band’s second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics were inspired by Jackson Browne. In this context, John Corbett’s America Revisited quotes Beckley: “Jackson Browne has a knack, an ability to put words to music, that is much more like the L.A. approach to just genuine observation as opposed to simplifying it down to its bare essentials… and it was that style of his which led to a song of mine, “Sister Golden Hair,” which is probably the more L.A. of my lyrics.” I guess this means in addition to CSN/CSNY, America also stole from Browne – unbelievable!

The last song I’d like to call out is the final track on the History compilation:  Woman Tonight. It’s another tune from the Hearts album and was written by Peek. Released as the third single, it charted within the top 50 in the U.S.

History was produced by none other than George Martin, who had started working with America on their fourth studio album Holiday. Martin also remixed the first seven tracks on History, which he had not produced originally. The compilation became a huge success in the U.S., giving America a no. 3 on the Billboard 200. In October 1986, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the album 4X Multi-Platinum.

Since History, America have released 12 additional studio albums, 10 live records and numerous other compilations. Now in their 51st year [updated from original post – CMM], America continue to perform, featuring co-founders Beckley and Bunnell. Peek left the band in May 1977, long before his death, after he had renewed his Christian faith.

– End of Re-Post –

Apparently, America will be touring the U.S. starting in late summer. According to their current schedule listed on their website, things are set to kick off in North Bethesda, Md. on August 13. Some of the other gigs include Hyannis, Mass. (Aug 27); Mulvane, Kan. (Sep 11); Lawrence, Kan. (Sep 25); Reno, Nev. (Oct 2), Mankato, Minn (Oct 22); and San Antonio (Nov 14). The last currently listed show is Sarasota, Fla. (Nov 21). I saw America once in the late ’90s on Long Island, N.Y., and they sounded fantastic.

Sources: Wikipedia; TMR; John Corbett: “America Revisited”, AccessBackstage.com, May 29, 2004; RIAA Gold & Platinum certifications; America website; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 24

Time again for a dose of music history, which has recurred irregularly since June 2016 and is my longest running feature on the blog. For any new visitors, in a nutshell, the idea is to look at events that happened on a certain date throughout rock and pop history. As always, the selections reflect my music taste and do not aim to present a full account. With that, let’s embark on some music time travel!

1958: An obscure band called The Quarrymen hit the Cavern Club in London for their first live performance. They were billed as The Quarry Men Skiffle Group. “They’d only been playing for a short while so you wouldn’t expect them to be any good…,” recalled Cavern owner Alan Sytner. “At the time, they couldn’t play to save their lives and all I can remember is their cheek and their chat.” While it hasn’t been definitively documented, The Quarrymen are believed to have performed at the Cavern Club on several other occasions. Four years later, the group would change the music world forever with a different line-up. Their name? The Beatles. Here’s In Spite of All the Danger, one of the first songs recorded by The Quarrymen. Co-written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the tune is thought to have been recorded sometime between May and July 1958. It was shortly after Harrison (guitar, vocals) had joined the band, which at the time apart from McCartney (vocals, guitar) also featured John Lennon (vocals, guitar), John Lowe (piano) and Colin Hunton (drums).

1958: While The Quarrymen were getting their feet wet the Cavern Club, a music phenomenon from the U.S. stood at no. 1 of the UK singles chart: Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock became the first-ever single to enter the chart at no. 1 and was the second no. 1 for Elvis in the UK after All Shook Up. Co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jailhouse Rock was the title track of the picture of the same name that had hit the widescreen in September 1957. It also topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada and reached the top 10 in several other countries.

1967: Pink Floyd were at Sound Techniques Studios in Chelsea, London, to work on their debut single Arnold Layne, backed by Candy and a Currant Bun. Both tracks were written by the band’s initial leader Syd Barrett. When the band performed the latter tune live in 1967, it was titled Let’s Roll Another One and included the line I’m high – Don’t try to spoil my fun. Columbia (EMI) didn’t like the obvious references to drugs and forced Barrett to change the title and rewrite the corresponding line. Songfacts notes the outcome was still strange since the lyrics included the word “f–k,” making it one of the first songs to use the expletive.

1970: Dr. Robert Moog unveiled the Minimoog at a price of $2,000, an analogue synthesizer designed as a portable, simplified instrument that combined the most useful components of the Moog synthesizer in a single device. It became the first synthesizer sold in retail stores and quickly gained popularity among progressive rock and jazz musicians. It also ended up being widely used in disco, pop, rock and electronic music. Not everybody was enthusiastic. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, The American Federation of Musicians feared the Minimoog’s realistic sounds would put horn and string sections out of business. Yes keyboarder Rick Wakeman, an early adopter of the Minimoog, said the synthesizer “absolutely changed the face of music.”

Minimoog.JPG

1975: Elton John, who was flying high, topped the Billboard 200 with his first compilation album Greatest Hits, bringing to a close an impressive 9-week run in the no. 1 spot. It became the most sold album of 1975 in the U.S. and remains his best-selling t0 date. The compilation, which featured 10 of John’s biggest singles, also topped the charts in Australia, Canada and the UK. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time). Composed by John with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the tune was first released as a single in March 1972 and included on John’s fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May of the same year.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Billboard.com; YouTube

It’s That Time of the Year Again for a Rock Marathon

Next Wednesday morning, right before Thanksgiving, classic rock radio station Q104.3 starts their annual marathon of counting down the “Top 1,043 Classic Rock Songs Of All Time.” The list, which takes a broad definition that goes beyond classic rock in the traditional sense, is based on listener submissions of their top 10 favorite songs.

Playing the entire list from song no. 1,043 all the way down to no. 1 will take from Wednesday, November 25, 9:00 a.m. (EST) until Sunday, November 29, sometime in the evening, usually between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. On Thanksgiving Day at noon, the countdown is interrupted for Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.

This year marks the 20th time of Q104.3’s holiday tradition. Each year, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven has been the eternal no. 1. While the station doesn’t disclose actual vote counts, each year I’ve listened they said Stairway won by a substantial margin.

Rigged voting? I don’t think so. Q104.3 plays plenty of Zep as part of their regular rotation. One of their DJs, Carol Miller, who has been on the air since 1973, is a huge Led Zeppelin fan, and hosts the long running segment Get the Led Out. As such, I think it’s safe to assume many folks who listen to Q104.3 dig Zeppelin. And, honestly, if I could only choose one classic rock song, I also would go with Stairway.

Admittedly, the entire exercise is a bit nerdy but quite appealing to a music nut like myself. BTW, each submission is weighted equally, so the order of the picks doesn’t matter. But think about it, when can you ever hear 1,043 different songs in a row on the radio? Most stations tend to play a limited set of tracks over and over again.

Above is an image of my picks for this year and below are clips of the corresponding tunes. While I still dig all of my picks from last year, this time, I deliberately decided to shake things up and submit an entirely new list. And it doesn’t even include two of my favorite bands of all time, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, not to mention Led Zeppelin. Here are my choices without further explanation, other than these are all songs I dig, though they aren’t necessarily my all-time favorites.

The Jimi Hendrix ExperiencePurple Haze (non-album single, March 1967)

Creedence Clearwater RevivalBorn on the Bayou (Bayou Country, January 1969)

The Allman Brothers BandBlack Hearted Woman (The Allman Brothers Band, November 1969)

The WhoThe Seeker (non-album single, March 1970)

Bruce SpringsteenBobby Jean (Born in the U.S.A., June 1984)

Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersMary Jane’s Last Dance (Greatest Hits, November 1993)

Lenny KravitzRock and Roll Is Dead (Circus, September 1995)

Sheryl CrowIf It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow, September 1996)

PretendersHate for Sale (Hate for Sale, July 2020)

AC/DCShot in the Dark (Power Up, November 2020)

Sources: Wikipedia; Q104.3 website; YouTube

Bruce Springsteen Releases Latest Installment from Bootleg Live Series

The Live Series: Stripped Down features acoustic versions of songs captured between 1986 and 2005

Without much fanfare, Bruce Springsteen released another collection from his officially sanctioned bootleg live series on July 17. The Live Series: Stripped Down features 15 acoustic renditions of Springsteen tunes captured at seven shows in the U.S. and Europe between 1986 and 2005.

Other than short posts on Springsteen’s Facebook page and Twitter handle, there was no big announcement, and there does not appear to be a significant marketing push behind the album. That’s no longer necessary in the age of social media, especially when your target audience is your longtime fans, which I suspect is the case here. This is not about making a big buck. It’s also save to assume Springsteen is not a poor man.

Examples of previous releases of The Live Series (from left): Songs of Summer, Songs Under Cover, Songs of the Road and Songs of Friendship

In fact, had it not been for my music streaming service, I wouldn’t have known about this album! After searching the Internet, I found some additional background information on Alice Cooper radio show/station Nights with Alice Cooper and ABC News Radio, which are my main sources for this post.

The album combines Springsteen classics, such as Dancing in the Dark, Born to Run and The River, with deeper cuts/rarities like When You’re Alone, Cynthia and Seeds. Previous installments in the Live Series include Songs Of SummerSongs Under CoverSongs Of The RoadSongs Of FriendshipSongs Of HopeSongs Of Love, and Songs From Around The World. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Dancing in the Dark, recorded at a gig in Mountain View, Calif. in October 1986. Originally, the song appeared on the Born in the U.S.A. album from June 1984. I think I prefer this stripped down rendition over the studio version, particular the accordion work by Danny Federici and the female backing vocalist – not sure it’s Patti Scialfa.

Here’s Soul Driver, captured at a show in Los Angeles in November 1990. At the time of the performance, the tune was still unreleased and Springsteen announces it as a new song. It would appear on the Human Touch album from March 1992. Frankly, while I own that record, I haven’t listened to it in a long time, so didn’t recall that particular track. Spontaneously, again I would say I like this acoustic version better than the studio recording.

Bobby Jean is one of my favorite tunes from Born in the U.S.A., so I simply couldn’t skip it – another great acoustic rendition that sounds very Dylanesque to me. It was captured at a show in Belfast, Northern Ireland in March 1996. I feel Springsteen’s emotions come out better in this rendition than the original.

Adam Raised a Cain is the second tune on Darkness on the Edge of Town, the fourth studio album The Boss released in June 1978. This stripped back version was recorded during a gig at Springsteen’s elementary school in his home town of Freehold, N.J. in November 1996 – how cool is that! It’s an interesting contrast to the much more rock-oriented original.

Let’s do one more: This Hard Land, a Springsteen tune that first appeared on his first compilation Greatest Hits from February 1995 as one of four then-previously unreleased tracks. The version on this album is from a show that took place in Stockholm, Sweden in June 2005. The Boss is a great storyteller, and I feel this stripped down acoustic setting really serves him well.

Nights with Alice Cooper included the following quote from Springsteen: “It’s like you come out and you fall in love every night in some way. When you’re doing it right, it’s like a rebirth, y’know? It’s not a repetition — it’s a renewal — so that involves something happening every night for the first time. And, amazingly enough, it’s like your first kiss in that there’s something in playing. There were thousands of other times, but still when you come out there’s some element of the first time that’s very, very present. And it keeps you very open and present and it’s what people feel.”

Here’s the setlist:

Dancing in the Dark (Mountain View, CA, Shoreline Amphitheatre, 10/13/1986)
Seeds (Mountain View, CA, Shoreline Amphitheatre, 10/13/1986)
Born to Run (New York City, NY, Madison Square Garden, 5/23/1988)
Soul Driver (Los Angeles, CA, The Shrine, 11/16/1990)
Bobby Jean (Belfast, UK, King’s Hall, 3/19/1996)
Adam Raised a Cain (Freehold, NJ, St. Rose of Lima School, 11/8/1996)
Youngstown (Belfast, UK, King’s Hall, 3/19/1996)
Independence Day (Asbury Park, NJ, Paramount Theatre, 11/24/1996)
Two Hearts (Freehold, NJ, St. Rose of Lima School, 11/8/1996)
When You’re Alone (Asbury Park, NJ, Paramount Theatre, 11/24/1996)
The River (Grand Rapids, MI, Van Andel Arena, 8/3/2005)
Cynthia (Columbus, OH, Schottenstein Center, 7/31/2005)
This Hard Land (Stockholm, Sweden, Hovet, 6/25/2005)
All That Heaven Will Allow (Trenton, NJ, Sovereign Bank Arena, 11/22/2005)
Empty Sky (Trenton, NJ, Sovereign Bank Arena, 11/22/2005)

Sources: Wikipedia; Bruce Springsteen Facebook page; Bruce Springsteen Twitter handle; Nights with Alice Cooper; ABC News Radio; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Second Tom Petty Posthumous Album Out

Career-spanning compilation features hits and two previously unreleased recordings

The title pretty much says it all. The Best Of Everything is a compilation of Tom Petty’s amazing music from his 40 years as a recording artist, largely focusing on his better known songs. Released yesterday, it’s billed as his first career-spanning collection of hits. Unlike last September’s An American Treasure, the 38 tracks for the most part were taken from past albums. There are two exceptions: For Real, a previously unreleased tune, and an alternate version of the title track that restores a lost second verse.

While to a longtime Tom Petty fan like myself it’s not exactly news what an outstanding songwriter he was, it’s still impressive when you see the track listing. Free Fallin’, Mary Jane’s Last DanceSaving Grace, Breakdown, Refugee, American GirlThe Last DJRunnin’ Down A Dream and Even The Losers, to name some of the gems, surely make for a beautiful collection. While I would say American Treasure is more for die-hard Tom Petty fans, The Best Of Everything is a terrific compilation for folks who know just a few songs and would like to further explore his music beyond the fantastic first Greatest Hits mid-career collection from November 1993.

Tom Petty_The Best Of Everything Collage
Released via Geffen Records/UMe, The Best Of Everything is available as a 2-CD or 4-LP set

To make it truly career-spanning, it would have been nice to include a couple of tunes from The Traveling Wilburys. Sure, it’s fair to note the supergroup wasn’t Petty’s band. The Wilburys were primarily initiated by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, and their songs were credited to all members. Unlike Mudcrutch and Petty’s solo albums, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, who helped put together The Best Of Everything and last year’s compilation, had no involvement with the Wilburys. There may also have been legal reasons for keeping the supergroup’s material out. Still, adding two tunes featuring Charlie T. Wilbur Junior on lead vocals would have been cool, in my humble opinion!

Let’s get to some music. I deliberately skip the big hits. The track order seems to be a bit random. Perhaps part of the idea here was to spread the bigger hits throughout to keep the more casual Tom Petty fans engaged. The number of YouTube clips from The Best Of Everything is still limited, so I’m borrowing clips from the original albums, as needed. The first tune I’d like to call out is Dreamville from The Last DJ, the 11th studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, released in October 2002. I’m glad they included this beautiful ballad, which definitely is not among Petty’s big hits.

I Should Have Known It is a nice rocker with a great guitar riff – my kind of song! Perhaps not surprisingly Campbell was a co-writer for this guitar player type of tune, which appeared on the band’s 12th studio record Mojo from June 2010. “I was glad that was on there, because I’m really proud of that track and that performance,” Campbell noted during an interview with Variety, conducted together with Tench and Petty’s eldest daughter Adria Petty, who was also involved in assembling the collection. “It showed a band in their later development still doing quality music.” Listen for yourself!

Next up: The alternate version of The Best Of Everything, another great tune! Originally, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded it for their sixth studio album Southern Accents, which came out in March 1985. Even though I own that record on CD, frankly, I had forgotten about the song.

Scare Easy is a track from the first Mudcrutch album simply titled Mudcrutch, which appeared in April 2008. Initially formed in Gainesville, Fla. in 1970, Mudcrutch was the predecessor to The Heartbreakers. After recording some demos and releasing one single that failed to chart, Mudcrutch broke up in 1975. It’s kind of remarkable they lasted for more than four years. Then, in August 2007, Petty reunited the band. In addition to Campbell (guitar, mandolin) and Tench (keyboards), the lineup featured the other two original members Randall Marsh (drums) and Tom Leadon (guitar), with Petty on bass and lead vocals.

The last tune I’d like to call out is For Real. This previously unreleased song also wasn’t available on any bootlegs, so until it came out as a single a few weeks ago, it’s something even fans hadn’t heard before. According to Rolling Stone, the track was recorded in August 2000 and is “a declaration of purpose” by Petty. “That song to me sounds like Tom reporting from his heart — reporting from the front,” Tench told Variety during the above interview. “It may sound like it’s meant to be a summing up of a career or something, but it’s not, really, because it’s almost 20 years old. We weren’t quite as long-in-tooth and gray then.” I think Tench is right, though it’s the perfect tune to close out the collection.

“When I went back through all this stuff… I don’t want to get heavy with it, but it’s very emotional, in being nostalgic, because we were never nostalgic when we were working,” Campbell told Variety. “We never looked back. We just always were looking forward. But Ben and I were forced to look back as we went through this stuff, and we both had an epiphany about how we have a legacy that has integrity. We were sad, but also very proud of what we’ve done.” Who can blame them.

Added Adria Petty: “I feel like Ben and Mike haven’t had a second to process this, what the next chapter can be, and I think for us, it’s kind of the same. Ben had a baby for the first time six or seven weeks after my dad died, and he’s been deeply in love and entrenched in that. It’s a really horrible thing to have to process both things at the same time, so he probably finally has a little space to just focus on that. Mike’s going to be on the road with Fleetwood Mac through April. He had his first grandchild right after Dad died. There’s a third generation of Heartbreaker kids coming in that are all amazing.”

Benmont Tench & Mike Campbell
Benmont Tench (l) and Mike Campbell, August 2018

So after two major compilations, what else might be in store or in the vault I should perhaps better ask. “There a bunch of really great stuff,” Tench told Billboard. He noted early Mudcrutch recordings, demos from The Last DJ and music from the period of Hypnotic Eye, the final studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from July 2014.

Campbell would like to explore a live album from the band’s shows at the Fillmore from 1997 to 1999, he explained to Rolling Stone. “For me, that was almost the pinnacle of the band just being totally spontaneous night to night to night. We might throw in a Grateful Dead song that we just learned that afternoon. We recorded every show and we had guest artists from Bo Diddley to Roger McGuinn to John Lee Hooker. And I know, in my memory of those 20 nights, there’s an amazing album in there.” That surely sounds like a great idea to me!

However, both Tench and Campbell want to be mindful about further releases to make sure the quality is right and Petty would have wanted to release the material. Adria Petty agrees. “I don’t want to inundate the fans with “Hey, here’s another record!”,” she told Variety. That’s a good thing!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Petty official website, Variety, Rolling Stone, Billboard, YouTube

Ultimate Classic Rock’s Take On 2018’s Biggest Rock Stories

The other day, I came across an article on Ultimate Classic Rock (UCR), which I thought provides a nice wrap-up of rock’s biggest headlines in 2018 and is worth highlighting. Following I’m going to address some of the stories included in the piece.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Queen, which premiered on October 24 in the U.K. and on November 2 in the U.S., became a massive success at the box office. With more than $702 million in ticket sales, it was the eighth highest grossing picture in 2018 and the most successful film biopic to date. The movie has received various nominations, including a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. All this attention has also triggered renewed interest in Queen’s music. The Billboard 200 for the week of December 29 include the movie soundtrack (no. 8); The Platinum Collection: Greatest Hits I, II & III,  November 2000 (no. 33) and Greatest Hits, October 1981 (no. 122). Obviously, it’s not a coincidence that Queen in early December announced a North American Rhapsody tour with Adam Lambert in July and August 2019. Here’s the official trailer of the biopic.

About three and a half years after Fleetwood Mac had restored their most commercially successful line-up with the return of Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham was dismissed in April 2018, reportedly over disagreements about the band’s next tour. And before people knew it, Mike Campbell (formerly of Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers) and Neil Finn (former frontman of Crowded House) were hired to replace Buckingham. In early October, Fleetwood Mac embarked on their current world tour, which is scheduled to stretch all the way until June 2019. A lawsuit brought by Buckingham in October was settled earlier this month. Since I’ve seen the Mac a few years ago (with Buckingham but sans McVie), I currently don’t have any plans to see them again. That being said, based on clips I’ve seen, Campbell and Finn are doing a pretty decent job. Here’s a clip of Go Your Own Way, which apparently was captured in St. Louis in October.

Neil Young managed to pull off getting married to American actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah in August and keeping the festivities a secret to the public – quite a feat in the age of social media! Young and Hannah certainly need to thank their 100 guests who kept quiet about the wedding, which Young officially confirmed in October. I suppose Neil Young doesn’t require any further introduction. Hannah, who started her acting career in 1978, has had roles in more than 70 films of different genres, including Blade Runner (1982), Wall Street (1987), Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Kill Bill Volume 1 & 2 (2003 and 2004, respectively). Young and Hannah had been in a relationship since 2014.

Daryl Hannah & Neil Young

In September, Paul McCartney released his 25th studio album and 17th solo record Egypt Station, which I previously reviewed here. While as a longtime fan of The Beatles, who generally also likes each member’s work thereafter, I may not be entirely objective here, I think Egypt Station may be Macca’s best album since Flowers In The Dirt from 1989. Remarkably, it became his first to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. At 76 years, his voice sounds worn, but I actually feel it goes quite well with the songs. Here’s one of my favorites, I Don’t Know.

Gibson Brands, maker of legendary Gibson guitars like the Les Paul or the SG, re-emerged from bankruptcy in October. As part of the re-organization, a new management team was installed, and private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) assumed majority ownership control. KKR also brought in a guitarist and Gibson collector as chairman of the board: Nat Zilkha, former lead guitarist of Red Rooster, a New York-based band that describes itself as a folk collective with music rooted in Americana with an urban-infused sound. “I feel like I have a personal relationship with the product,” Zilkha told Bloomberg in an interview. “This is a great American brand that sort of lost its way. It’s almost like a responsibility to try to bring it back to what it’s supposed to be.” In May, the 124-year-old music company had filed for Chapter 11 protection with up to $500 million in debt, according to NPR.

Gibson SG Standard
Gibson SG Standard

Sources: Deriso, Nick (December 20, 2018) 2018’s Biggest Rock Stories. Ultimate Classic Rock. Accessed December 30, 2018; Wikipedia; Billboard Top 200 Albums; Red Rooster website; Bloomberg; NPR; YouTube

Neil Young Triumphantly Returns To Boston

Solo set at Wang Theatre spans various decades

“One of my first solo shows was in the Wang Theater, then called the Music Hall,” wrote Neil Young on his website in May, talking about his 2018 solo tour that officially ended last night with the second of two dates at the landmark venue in Boston’s Theatre District. “It’s a real beauty folks – a chapel of soul and music. I hope it still sounds as good as it did then and that I do too!” While I wasn’t around when Young played Music Hall in January 1971, I saw him at Wang Theatre on Wednesday night, the first of his two concerts there, and he surely sounded amazing to me!

Wang Theatre
View of Wang Theatre auditorium from stage

Young was right. The venue is pretty impressive. Take a closer look at the above photo, and you can see the rich ornaments and decorative painting. In addition to its looks, he certainly also well remembered the Wang Theatre’s acoustic, which was great.

While it must be about 40 years ago that Young entered my radar screen with Heart Of Gold, I had never been to one of his shows. When I read about his solo tour a few months ago and noticed it would bring him to Boston, it didn’t take long for me to decide that seeing him was worth a five-hour drive from my house, especially given the tour only had six dates: Two in each Chicago and Boston, and one in each Detroit and St. Louis.

Neil Young

But before I further get to Young, I’d like to acknowledge William Prince, a folk and country singer-songwriter, who like Young hails from Canada. Punctually at 8:00 PM, he walked on stage with just an acoustic guitar and opened the night. Prince is a member of the Pegius First Nation from Manitoba.

In 2015, he released his debut album Earthly Days, for which he won a Western Canadian Music Award for Aboriginal Artist of the Year in 2016 and the 2017 the Juno Award for  Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. From that album, here’s Breathless. The look and feel of the performance, which apparently was captured in December, is very similar to Wednesday night. I thought his voice and guitar-playing sounded really nice. Visit his website for more information.

And then it was time for Young. To get an idea what to expect, I checked the previous shows from the tour on setlist.fm. I noticed the sets were relatively constant and included a mix of well-known songs and other tunes that at least to me were deeper cuts. A friend of mine, who is a Neil Young connoisseur and the lead vocalist in an excellent Neil Young tribute band, thought it was a selection for longtime fans.

The stage setup looked a little like a music workshop. It featured areas with different instruments, including an array of acoustic guitars, a semi-hollow electric guitar, two grand pianos and two organs. Young also had multiple harmonicas on hand. During the show, he shared anecdotes about most of the instruments. For example, one of the grand pianos was from the 19th century, and the bottom had been burned during a fire. Young maintained this gave it a very unique sound, adding this tour was the first time he took it on the road. He also pointed to guitars that had once been owned by Stephen Stills and Hank Williams.

Time for some music. I tried capturing some of the songs, and while the audio came out okay, the quality of the video varies quite a bit. The latter was due to challenging lighting conditions and my seat up on the balcony in the back of the theater. There was also what looked like an illuminated stripe in the background above the stage. I’m wondering whether this may have been done on purpose to discourage taking videos, which officially was strictly forbidden.

While I get they don’t want flash photography, I generally find these “no video rules” complete nonsense. Unless you walk in with a professional camera that enables you to record footage you could sell, what damage are you going to do with clips taken with a smartphone? On the contrary, in my opinion, taking and posting such clips on Facebook or elsewhere actually helps promote the artist. Okay, I’m stopping going off on a tangent now. The following is a combination of my own clips and footage from other recent solo gigs.

First up: Pocahontas, a song by Young that first appeared on the Rust Never Sleeps live album from July 1979. Initially, he recorded a version of the tune in the mid-70s for Chrome Dreams, a then-planned but unreleased album.

Ohio was the only Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tune Wednesday night and one of two songs Young played on the electric guitar. Written by him in the wake of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, the track was released by CSNY as a single in June that year. It was also included on the band’s 4 Way Street live album from April 1971 and the studio compilation So Far, released in August 1974. The tune also appeared on Young’s solo compilation albums Decade (Oct 1977) and Greatest Hits (Nov 2004).

A highlight of the show and perhaps my favorite moment of the night was After The Gold Rush. Young played the title track of his third studio album from September 1970 on a pipe organ. The church-like sound was just incredible. He slightly updated the lyrics by singing, Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century/Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century. The performance was incredibly powerful and gave me the goosebumps!

Among Young’s more recent tunes was Love And War. He recorded the song for his 30th studio album Le Noise, which appeared in September 2010. This clip was captured at his June 28 show in St. Louis.

Young finished his regular set with two gems from Harvest, his fourth studio album released in February 1972: The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold. Unfortunately, the following clip of Needle, shot in Chicago on July 1, is cut in the beginning but otherwise 10 times better than my attempt to film it.

Here’s the mighty Heart Of Gold. Young may be getting old (though he sounded great!), but not the song.

Young came back for one encore: Tumbleweed, a tune from the deluxe edition of his 34th studio album Storytone from November 2014. He performed it with a ukulele. This clip is from the above St. Louis clip.

For now, Young’s second gig in Boston last night marked the final show of his solo tour. In September, he is scheduled to perform back-to-back at Farm Aid (Hartfort, Conn., Sep 22) and, together with Promise Of The Real, at another Willie Nelson event (Saratoga, N.Y., Sep 23).

Sources: Wikipedia, Neil Young official website, William Prince official website, setlist.fm, YouTube