The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Joe Jackson At State Theatre NJ: Looking Sharp And Still The Man

I almost would have missed Joe Jackson, just like my recent Who concert. Here’s to hoping that my apparent lack of music attention doesn’t become a trend, though it would probably not hurt my wallet! 🙂 Wait, what did I want to say? Right, the British artist who they called an “angry young man” when he broke through with his studio debut Look Sharp! in January 1979. While I don’t know whether Jackson was pissed then, he certainly doesn’t look angry to me these days! Instead, the man who once sang, “Everybody wants a happy ending,” comes across as feeling very comfortable in his skin and happy to still be making music people want to hear. I suppose that’s really all you can ask for as an artist!

By the time Jackson’s ongoing Four Decade Tour registered on my radar screen, all tickets I could afford seemed to be gone, and I just wasn’t willing to throw hundreds of bucks at some greedy reseller!  Then I received an email from State Theatre New Jersey, a nice midsize venue in New Brunswick, cheerfully announcing Jackson’s gig there. I thought, ‘what the hell,’ so checked out the situation one more time. And, voila, while there weren’t many seats left, I managed to get one without losing my blue shirt. Last night was showtime – and, yes, you probably already guessed it, after 40 years as a professional recording artist, Jackson continued to look sharp and proofed he’s definitely still the man!

“So, here comes a big tour,” Jackson said in an announcement last October. “We want to celebrate the fact that this is happening after 40 years – anything else, would be like sulking in a room by yourself on your own birthday party. Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979) Night And Day (1982) Laughter And Lust (1991) Rain (2008) and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers. I can’t wait. Let’s party.”

Joe Jackson and Band 2019
Joe Jackson and band (from left): Jackson, Graham Maby, Doug Yowell and Teddy Kumpel

And, boy, what a party it was! In addition to singing splendid lead vocals, Jackson played keyboards – something I read he typically didn’t do during past tours. If that’s true, it was certainly great he changed his mind this time. After all, he’s a true musician and multi-instrumentalist, who spent three years in his late teens and early twenties at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying composition, piano and percussion. During that period, Jackson also learned jazz at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Apart from writing pop-oriented songs in genres like punk, new wave, rock, jazz and Latin, Jackson has also composed classical music. The question really becomes what the man has NOT done musically!

Once again the notion that great musicians tend to play with other great musicians turned out to be true. Jackson’s backing band was simply top-notch! The first guy I need to call out here is Graham Maby – and yes, I’m probably bassed, I mean biased. One of my favorite bassists, Maby still has a superb tone and a great sense for rhythmic and melodic basslines. Paul McCartney is who I wanna be when I grow up, but I’d also happily settle with Maby! 🙂 Jackson’s long-time friend and musical collaborator effectively drove the groove together with excellent drummer Doug Yowell, who by the way hails from New Jersey. They really breed musicians in the Garden State – just sayin’! Last but not least, Teddy Kumpel did an outstanding job on guitar. Man, what a fucking great band! Okay, I think it’s time to get to some music, shall we?

The set kicked off with Alchemy, the closer from Jackson’s great new album Fool,  released this January, and then launched right into the furious One More Time, the opener from his debut Look Sharp! – a cool 40-year jump back in time, not to mention style, and a nice illustration of the band’s versatility. I thought Kumpel’s guitar-playing shined in particular during the more rock-oriented tunes. Unfortunately, my smartphone outsmarted me at the wrong time, so I’m relying on another clip I found that cut off the beginning of Alchemy, but it still gives a good impression of the tune.

Jackson’s new album featured prominently in the show with three tracks, one of which (Alchemy) was repeated at the very end, providing nice bookends to the set. I have to say the new songs absolutely held up to his older, better known material. Here’s Fabulously Absolute, a rocker that was also released as a single. Stylistically, the tune isn’t that much different from Jackson’s first two albums. Whatever genre the man plays, he always has a great ear for catchy melodies, though he never aspired to become a pop star and never did – at least not in the traditional sense.

Next is a track from an album I don’t know well: Goin’ Downtown from Laughter And Lust,  released in April 1991. The tune is co-credited to Jackson and a British singer-songwriter named Drew Barfield.

My personal highlight of the evening was a medley of three songs: A cover of Rain by The Beatles, Invisible Man and It’s Different For Girls. Jackson announced it by saying they are now playing the title track from an album called Rain (January 2008). He dryly added no such track exists, so they borrowed it, deciding to change some of the chords. Invisible Man is the opener of Rain, a fantastic song I frankly had forgotten about, which reminds me a little bit of Steely Dan. Apparently, Jackson digs the Dan; in fact, later in the show, he covered King Of The World from Countdown To Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore album from July 1973. And then there’s It’s Different For Girls, featuring Jackson’s lyrics reversing the stereotypical roles of men and women when it comes to sex and love – one of two tunes he played from I’m The Man.

His sophomore release from October 1979 remains my favorite Joe Jackson album. In fact, it was my introduction to him when I received it as a birthday present in July 1980. I own the vinyl record to this day, and it’s still in perfect shape! Instead of relying on his band, Jackson treated the audience to a solo performance of It’s Different For Girls. Okay, nuff said! This is a long clip, and the video is sometimes out of focus, but, hey, it least it’s authentic! Plus, the sound is pretty decent and, most of all, the musicianship is just outstanding. What I’m trying to say in so many words is if you dig Jackson, you should watch the friggin’ clip!

Another Jackson tune I’ve always liked is You Can’t Get What You Want. It appeared on his March 1984 gem Body And Soul blending pop, jazz and Latin. Even though the horns from the studio version are “missing” and Jackson plays their fill-ins on keyboards instead, I think the band does a beautiful job capturing the tune. Check out Kumpel’s funky guitar, which is really cool!

The last track of the regular set was I’m The Man. The title track from Jackson’s sophomore album was another highlight of the evening, which once again showed this band can rock. Not surprisingly, it brought the audience up to their feet!

The regular set was followed by a three-track encore, starting with Jackson’s biggest hit: Steppin’ Out, from the Night And Day album released in June 1982. I’m not a fan of drum machines, and that aspect has always bothered me about an otherwise great tune; but I just couldn’t resist filming it, especially after Jackson noted they’re about to do something truly shocking – playing a song almost exactly the way it appears on an album! Jackson is known for altering studio tracks for live performances, which has frustrated some of his fans in the past – a fact he acknowledged during the announcement of the tune, teasingly adding he doesn’t quite get it, since it’s so much fun changing up songs.

Next a roadie walked out on stage, carrying a small box. It was the original drum machine Jackson had used for the recording. He proudly explained he got that drum machine in 1979, adding it’s pretty much impossible to get this gear nowadays. On Night And Day, Jackson played all of the instruments by himself, except for the drum snare, which doubled the drum machine’s snare, a natural task for Yowell. Jackson also explained the other instruments on the studio recording, including a Glockenspiel that last night was played by Maby. Of course, they also had the programmed synthesizer bassline – again, something else I’m less than fond of! Kumpel took over the organ part on the keyboards, while Jackson handled the electric piano. The following clip captures some of Jackson’s introductory explanations. If you’re bit of a music nerd like I am, this footage may be for you.

Joe Jackson is definitely worthwhile seeing, and I’m glad I finally did so! The ongoing second U.S. leg of the Four Decade Tour lasts until June 1. Some of the upcoming gigs include Miami (May 24), New Orleans (May 28), Houston (May 29) and Dallas (June 1). Afterwards, Jackson is returning to Europe, with shows in Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The last date on the current schedule is Tel Aviv, Israel on July 28.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Jackson website, Setlist.fm, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Joe Jackson/Geraldine And John

Lately, I’ve been listening quite a bit to I’m The Man by Joe Jackson. His sophomore album from October 1979 is my favorite among his records I know. The timing is not entirely a coincidence.

One of the reasons I dig the album is because of the bass parts by Graham Maby, with whom Jackson works to this day. A few months ago, I decided to get inexpensive bass equipment for home use to see whether I could revive the moderate skills I once had close to 30 years ago.

Since I’ve always liked Maybe’s bass playing, I’ve been working to figure out some of his bass parts. I’m not gonna lie – some of this stuff ain’t easy, especially when you’re rusty, but fortunately there’s YouTube. Plus, I’m doing this to relax and have some fun, not because of any bigger ambitions. I simply don’t have the time to take things to any higher level, not to mention that my skills would certainly need to improve!

Anyway, this is where Geraldine And John came into the picture. Except for a cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On, all tracks on the album were written by Jackson. Not only do I love the laid back groove of the tune, but I also dig Maybe’s bass line. It’s not super complicated, which is why I guess I’ve been able to figure it out 95 percent. But it’s just great, both rhythmically and melodically, effectively helping propel the song forward – exactly what a bassist is supposed to do!

I also like to acknowledge the two other musicians in Jackson’s band at the time: Gary Sanford (guitar) and David Houghton (drums, backing vocals), who both do an excellent job as well. On December 15, 1980, the band played their last gig in the Netherlands in the wake of Jackson’s third studio album Beat Crazy. Jackson decided to reunite them for his 2003 album Volume 4. They also toured together leading up to the record’s release and thereafter.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Joe Jackson/Fool

Boy, this is quite a seductive record, which I stumbled across yesterday. And it actually gets even better after you listen to it for a few times! I had completely missed Joe Jackson’s 20th studio album Fool when it was released on January 18. How foolish of me! It has all the elements I’ve liked about Jackson for many years: His great sense of melody, his versatility as a musician and good lyrics. Moreover, despite having been a heavy smoker for many years, Jackson’s voice still pretty much sounds like on his 1979 debut Look Sharp!

As is typically the case on most of his albums, all songs were written, arranged and produced by Jackson. Here is the opener Big Black Cloud. “It is a dark song but it’s also defiant, ’cause I’m saying, ‘Well I’m not giving in to this. I’m not gonna be scared,'”, Jackson told Entertainment Weekly.

Fabulously Absolute is the album’s lead single. The tune combines rock elements that are reminiscent of Jackson’s early punk-influenced days with a new wave keyboard sound. I feel Jackson is oftentimes at his best when he mixes different styles.

Perhaps the catchiest song on the record is Friend Better. It could come right from Jackson’s 10th studio album Blaze Of Glory from April 1989. I just dig that groove!

The last tune I want to highlight is the title track Fool. In particular, I like the Latin piano solo and the bass part of longtime Jackson friend and musical collaborator Graham Maby, one of my favorite bassists. “I had this idea a while ago to write a song about the importance of humor, and I didn’t really know how to do it,” Jackson pointed out during a recent interview with People. “And then I settled on this idea of the fool, the Shakespearean fool or the jester, being kind of a superhero.I actually find it’s very important because I’m actually amazed at how humorless most people are in this business. I really am.”

Interestingly, Jackson recorded the album in Boise, Idaho, right after the end of his last tour. “I’m not the only artist to have ever said this by a long way, but when you write a bunch of songs and record an album and then go out on tour, you find after a while that it always gets better,” he explained during the above People interview. “The band’s playing better, you know the songs inside out, and everything gets better. I find I’m singing better. You wish that you could record the album now instead of back when you did.”

“So I always wanted to do a tour and then go straight in the studio, like the day after the last show. And we finally did it…We did a tour that was long enough that we got to play all the new songs a lot, but not so long that we’d be exhausted at the end of it. We toured for a month, and wherever we ended up, we were gonna go in the studio the next day. It turned out to be Boise, Idaho, which I think is great because everyone I tell says, “What? Where?!” I just think that’s great. Everyone records in L.A. and New York and so on.”

I feel that last statement is signature Joe Jackson, who has always wanted to avoid appearing to be trendy. Undoubtedly, his approach has served him very well over the past 40 years.

Joe Jackson & Graham Maby
Joe Jackson & Graham Maby

In addition to Maby, Jackson’s current band includes Teddy Kumpel (guitar) and Doug Yowell (drums). “One of my inspirations for this album was the band I’ve been touring with on and off for the last 3 years,” Jackson notes on this website. I’ve had many different line-ups but this one is special. I met Graham Maby when I was 18, and he’s still one of the best bassists around. Doug Yowell is a vortex of energy on drums and Teddy Kumpel is the guitarist I always wanted to work with but could never find. Like my first album, this was a band effort, recorded and mixed (brilliantly, by Pat Dillett) in about a month.”

Fool appears on earMUSIC, a division of independent German record label Edel. The album’s release coincides with Jackson’s 40th year as a recording artist, which he is currently celebrating with the Four Decade Tour. Says Jackson on his website: “Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979) Night And Day (1982)  Laughter And Lust (1991) Rain (2008) and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers.”

The tour kicked off in the U.S. on February 5 in Knoxville, Tenn. The first U.S. leg wrapped up on March 9 in Phoenix. Currently, Jackson and his band are touring Europe. In May, they are coming back to the U.S. and Canada before returning to Europe again toward the end of June. The current schedule is here. After four decades, Joe Jackson still looks like he’s the man.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Jackson website, Entertainment Weekly, People, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 5

Earlier today, fellow bloggers Intogroove and Slicethelife reminded me of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s sophomore album Bayou Country, which was released today 50 years ago. Then I spotted a Rolling Stone story about Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., the Bruce Springsteen debut, which appeared on January 5, 1973. Last but not least, Ultimate Classic Rock wrote about the 40th anniversary of Look Sharp!, Joe Jackson’s first record – three great reasons to do another installment of my music history series, and there’s more!

1962: English rock & roll singer Tony Sheridan released his debut album My Bonnie as Tony Sheridan and The Beat Brothers. The Beat Brothers, Sheridan’s backing band at the time, actually were an early incarnation of The Beatles. Their line-up included John Lennon (guitar), Paul McCartney (guitar), George Harrison (guitar), Stuart Sutcliffe (bass) and Pete Best (drums). While there are different versions of the story, the release of the album’s title track as a single appears to have played a role in getting The Beatles on the radar screen of a man who at the time ran the record department of the family’s music store NEMS. His name? Brian Epstein.

1969: Bayou Country, the sophomore album by Creedence Clearwater Revival, came out, the first of three records the band released that year. Unlike their debut, which included three covers, all except one tune on Bayou Country were written by John Fogerty. Looking at the band’s sudden success with Proud Mary and the rapid succession of additional records, one could forget they had actually struggled for a decade, initially performing as the Blue Velvets and then the Golliwogs before adopting the name Creedence Clearwater Revival in January 1968 ahead of the release of their eponymous debut album in May that year. Here’s Bayou Country’s strong opener Born On The Bayou.

1973: Bruce Springsteen released his debut Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.  As the above Rolling Stone story notes, while the album wasn’t a huge commercial success, it included various tunes that would become staples during Springsteen’s live performances. One of them is the only Springsteen song that ever topped the Billboard Hot 100, though not in its original version: Blinded By The Light, which Manfred Mann’s Earthband turned into a major chart success in 1976. The record also featured five musicians who eventually became part of the E Street Band: Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez (drums), Garry Tallent (bass), David Sancious (keyboards) and Clarence Clemons (saxophone). Initially, Blinded By The Light and Spirit In The Night weren’t part of the record that was submitted to Columbia. At the insistence of label president Clive Davis, who felt the album lacked a hit, Springsteen wrote both songs. Here’s Spirit In The Night, another tune that was also covered by Manfred Mann.

1979: Joe Jackson made his studio debut with Look Sharp! Jackson was remarkably successful right out of the gate, with the record peaking at no. 20 on the Billboard 200 and climbing to no. 40 on the UK Albums Chart. The lead single and one of his signature tunes Is She Really Going Out With Him? climbed to no. 13 on the UK Singles Chart and reached no. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. I think the above UCR story put it nicely: “Thin and balding, Jackson wasn’t exactly born for the looming video revolution, but he had an impeccable sense of style reflected by the distinctive Look Sharp! album cover, graced with a striking shot of white dress shoes shining in a beam of light on a city sidewalk. Simple and elegant, it summed up Jackson’s early recordings perfectly, evoking all the sleek musical lines and bracing urban wit throughout the album’s 36-minute running time.” Here’s the great opener One More Time, which like all other tracks on the album was written by Jackson.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Ultimate Classic Rock, This Day In Rock, This Day In Music, YouTube

Aw, The ’80s (Part 2: 1985-1989)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

Here is the second and final installment of my feature looking back at music and some related events in the ’80s. This part is focused on the second half of the decade. As noted in part 1, it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review but instead a selection of things I find noteworthy.

1985

To me the key music event during this year and perhaps the entire decade was Live Aid. I was watching it on TV from Germany while simultaneously taping it on music cassette from the radio. Organized by Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure as a fundraiser to fight starvation in Ethiopia, Africa, the benefit concert was conducted on July 13 simultaneously in the U.K. at London’s Wembley Stadium and the U.S. at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Among others, it featured Status Quo, Queen, U2, David Bowie, The Who and Paul McCartney at Wembley, while some of the performers in Philly included Joan Baez, Madonna, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in a less-than-stellar appearance, a reunited Led Zeppelin featuring Phil Collins on drums. The concerts were watched by an estimated global TV audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries and raised approximately 150 million British pounds.

Live Aid Wembley
The Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium was attended by 72,000 people

Other events that year included the official launch of VH-1 on cable TV in the U.S. (Jan 1); recording of the charity single for Africa We Are The World (Jan 28), co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by USA For Africa, who apart from Jackson and Ritchie featured Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and numerous other top artists; release of Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms, their best-selling record that among others became known for its exceptional sound quality due to its all-digital recording (May 13); Michael Jackson’s purchase of the publishing rights for most of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million, out-bidding former artistic collaborator McCartney whose success in music publishing had inspired Jackson to increase his activities in the business (Sep 6); and Roger Waters’ announced intention to leave Pink Floyd, which marked the start of a two-year legal battle over the rights to the band’s name and assets.

The biggest hit singles of 1985 were Shout (Tears For Fears), We Are The World (USA For Africa), Take On Me (a-ha), I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner) and Material Girl (Madonna). Following is Money For Nothing, the second single from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album, which they performed at Live Aid. Like on the studio recording, it featured Sting on backing vocals.

1986

On Jan 30, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony. The first batch of inductees included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. While over the years since, there has been much debate over who should be in the Rock Hall, the selection process, the award categories, etc., I think there is no doubt that the above artists all well-deserving inductees.

Rock Roll Hall of Fame 1986 Inductees
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 1986 inductees (left to right): upper row: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino; lower row: The Everly Brothers, Buddy Hollie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley

Other events: Bob Geldorf’s knighthood award to recognize his work for Live Aid and other charity concerts for Africa (Jun 10); release of Madonna’s True Blue album, the best-selling record of year (Jun 30); and disbanding of The Clash, Electric Light Orchestra (revived by Jeff Lynne in 2000) and Men At Work.

The top-performing hit singles included Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) – the first German-language song to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna), The Final Countdown (Europe), Take My Breath Away (Berlin) and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). The 1986 tune I’d like to highlight is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which was first released as a single in April. It also appeared on his fifth studio album So that came out the following month. Here’s the song’s official video, which won multiple accolades in 1987, including a record nine awards at the MTV Music Video Music Awards and “Best British Video” at the Brit Awards. It’s definitely one of the most memorable music videos of the decade.

1987

Some of the events in music during that year included the induction of Aretha Franklin as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 3); release of U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree (Mar 9), which topped the charts in 20-plus countries and became one of the world’s most commercially successful records, selling more than 25 million copies; Whitney Houston’s second studio album Whitney, the first record by a female artist to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Jun 27); launch of MTV Europe (Aug 1); and release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first studio album after the departure of and legal battle with Roger Waters (Sep 7). Waters finally wrapped up his legal separation from the band later that year.

The highest-charting hit singles were La Bamba (Los Lobos), Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley); I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me (Whitney Houston), It’s A Sin (Pet Shop Boys) and Who’s That Girl (Madonna) – I remember each of these songs like it was yesterday! Here’s Where The Streets Have No Name from my favorite U2 album The Joshua Tree. Credited to the band (music) and Bono (lyrics), the tune was released as the album’s third single in August 1987, five months after the record’s appearance.

1988

Some of the music events that year included the induction of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Drifters, Bob Dylan and The Supremes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 20); near-death experience for Alice Cooper on stage after one of the props, the Gallows, malfunctioned – yikes! (Apr 7); sale of legendary soul label Motown Records to MCA and financial firm Boston Ventures for $61 million (Jun 27); John Fogerty’s win of what sounds like a frivolous self-plagiarism lawsuit Fantasy Records had brought against him, claiming his 1985 comeback tune The Old Man Down The Road was too similar to Run Through The Jungle, which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 (Nov 7); and final concert by Roy Orbison in Akron, Ohio (Dec 4) prior to his death from a heart attack only two days thereafter.

Leading hit singles: A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins), Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys),  Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle) and Take Me To Your Heart (Rick Astley). One 1988 song I like in particular is Under The Milky Way Tonight by Australian outfit The Church. Co-written by Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson, it became the lead single to their excellent fifth studio album Starfish. Both were released in February that year. Here’s a clip.

1989

I can’t believe I made it to the last year of the decade! Some of the events I’d like to highlight are criticism of Madonna by religious groups worldwide over alleged blasphemous use of Christian imagery in her music video for Like A Prayer (Feb 23), which had premiered on MTV the day before; release of Bonnie Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time, one of my favorite records from her (Mar 21); release of Tom Petty’s excellent debut solo album Full Moon Fever (Apr 24); Ringo Starr’s formation of his All-Starr Band (Jul 23); opening of The Rolling Stones’ North American tour in Philadelphia to support their comeback album Steel Wheels (Aug 31), two days after the album had dropped; and release of Neil Young’s 17th studio album Freedom (Oct 2), best known for the epic Rockin’ In The Free World.

Key hit singles were Like A Prayer (Madonna), Eternal Flame (The Bangles), Another Day In Paradise (Phil Collins), The Look (Roxette) and Love Shack (The B-52s). The final ’80s tune I’d like to call out via clip is Down To London by Joe Jackson, an artist I’ve listened to for many years. He recorded the song for his 10th studio release Blaze Of Glory, which appeared in April 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Joe Jackson/Is She Really Going Out With Him? (A Capella)

Inspired by Music Enthusiast’s previous post about Joe Jackson, a great artist I had not listened to in a while, I revisited some of his albums. While doing that, I came across Live 1980/86, a compilation of tracks from four tours spanning the early to mid-80s. Among many terrific tracks, it features three different versions of Is She Really Going Out With Him?, including the above killer a capella take.

As is typically the case with Jackson’s original music, he wrote the music and lyrics to Is She Really Going Out With Him? The tune was the lead single to his debut studio album Look Sharp, which appeared in March 1979. When it initially came out in September 1978, the single didn’t chart in the UK or the U.S. That changed when it was reissued in the wake of the album and peaked at no. 13 and no. 21 on the UK Singles Chart and the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, respectively.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

The Venues: Rockpalast/Rockpalast Nacht

The 6-hour German TV live program featured top music artists between 1977 and 1986

Rockpalast is a live music program broadcast on the German television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). It became particularly known for Rockpalast Nacht, a six-hour live late-night show featuring concerts from top international artists.

The inaugural Rockpalast Nacht aired on July 23 and 24, 1977. The line-up included Rory Gallagher, Little Feat and Roger McGuinn’s Thunderbyrd. Fifteen additional shows followed until the 17th and final Rockpalast Nacht on March 15 and 16, 1986. That show featured Big Country, Jackson Browne and the German rock band BAP.

The concert events were conducted at Grugahalle, a well known concert hall in the German town of Essen, and broadcast throughout Europe. The TV show was simulcast on various radio stations, so viewers could mute their TV sets and instead use their home stereos to listen to the sound for better quality.

Rockpalast Nacht mostly featured three or four rock bands. Typically, it mixed relatively unknown artists with top international acts, such as Peter Gabriel, The Police or The Who. The program helped put various music artists on the map in Europe, such as ZZ Top and Bryan Adams. Rockpalast Night gained cult status and is considered a unique program in German and European television history.

Following are clips from throughout the program’s 10-year history.

Roger McGuinn’s Thunderbyrd/Turn! Turn! Turn!, Mr. Tambourine Man & Eight Miles High (1st Rockpalast Nacht, July 23-24, 1977)

Peter Gabriel/Solsbury Hill (3rd Rockpalast Nacht, June 15-16, 1978)

ZZ Top/Dust My Broom (6th Rockpalast Nacht, April 19-20, 1980)

The Police/Message In a Bottle (7th Rockpalast Nacht, October 18-19, 1980)

The Who/Baba O’Riley (8th Rockpalast Nacht, March 28-29, 1981)

The Kinks/Add It Up (10th Rockpalast Nacht, April 3-4, 1982)

Joe Jackson/I’m the Man (12th Rockpalast Nacht, April 16-17, 1983)

Cheap Trick/Surrender (13th Rockpalast Nacht, October 15-16, 1983)

Wolf Maahn & Die Deserteure/Der Clown Hat Den Blues (15th Rockpalast Nacht, March 30-31, 1985)

BAP/Verdamp Lang Her (17th Rockpalast Nacht, March 15-16, 1986)

With the 17th Rockpalast Nacht, the program stopped in 1986. Rockpalast resumed production in 1995 and continues to air to this day, though Rockpalast Nacht remains history.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rockpalast website/Archive, YouTube

The Venues: The Old Grey Whistle Test

The British television music show featured an impressive array of artists

This post and the related new category I’m introducing to the blog was inspired by a dear friend from Germany, who earlier today suggested searching YouTube for “Old Grey Whistle Test,” just for fun! Since he shares my passion for music and always gives me great tips, I checked it out right away and instantly liked the clips that came up. This triggered the idea to start writing about places where rock & roll has been performed throughout the decades.

At this time, I envisage The Venues to include famous concert halls and TV shows. Many come to mind: The Fillmore, The Beacon Theater, The Apollo, The Hollywood Bowl, Candlestick Park, Winterland Ballroom, The Ed Sullivan Show, Rockpalast – the list goes on and on! Given it was my dear friend who inspired me, it feels right to start with The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The Old Whiste Test Logo

I admit that until earlier today, I had never heard about The Old Grey Whistle Test. According to Wikipedia, the British television show aired on the BBC between September 1971 and January 1988. The late night rock show was commissioned by British veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and conceived by BBC TV producer Rowan Ayers.

The show aimed to emphasize “serious” rock music, less whether it was chart-topping or not – a deliberate contrast to Top of the Pops, another BBC show that was chart-driven, as the name suggests. Based on the YouTube clips I’ve seen, apparently, this was more the case in the show’s early days than in the ’80s when the music seems to have become more commercial. Unlike other TV music shows, the sets on The Old Grey Whistle lacked showbiz glitter – again, probably more true for the ’70s than the ’80s period.

During the show’s early years, performing bands oftentimes recorded the instrumental tracks the day before the show aired. The vocals were performed live most of the time. After 1973, the show changed to an all-live format. In 1983, the title was abridged to Whistle Test. The last episode was a live 1987/88 New Year’s Eve special, including a 1977 live performance of Hotel California by The Eagles and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.

So what kind of music did the show feature? Let’s take a look at some of these YouTube clips.

Neil Young/Heart of Gold (1971)

Steppenwolf/Born to Be Wild (1972)

David Bowie/Oh, You Pretty Things (1972; not broadcast until 1982)

Rory Gallagher/Hands Off (1973)

Joni Mitchell/Big Yellow Taxi (1974)

John Lennon/Slippin’ & Slidin’ (1975)

Bonnie Raitt/Angel From Montgomery (1976)

Emmylou Harris/Ooh Las Vegas (1977)

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/American Girl (1978)

Joe Jackson/Sunday Papers (1979)

Ramones/Rock & Roll High School & Rock ‘N Roll Radio (1980)

Los Lobos/Don’t Worry Baby (1984)

Simply Red/Holding Back the Years & I Won’t Feel Bad (1985)

U2/In God’s County (1987)

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Joe Jackson/I’m the Man

After recently rediscovering this 1979 gem from Joe Jackson, I decided “I’m the Man” is definitely worth a post.

The first time I listened to I’m the Man was when I got it as a surprise present for my 14th birthday many moons ago. While I liked the music, I didn’t appreciate how brilliant this record is. At the time, I was primarily into mainstream pop and oldies. Today, I consider Joe Jackson’s second studio album to be one of the jewels in my vinyl collection.

When I listened to the album again recently, I was asking myself which genre best describes Jackson’s music. Undoubtedly, there are traces of punk throughout I’m the Man, though the catchy melodies are not what you typically associate with punk. And if you look at Jackson’s later releases, his music is all over the place, including new wave, jazz and R&B – he has even composed some classical music. This guy is one of the most versatile contemporary music artists!

Reportedly, after the release of his debut album Look Sharp!, Jackson told Rolling Stone, “I think people always want to put a label on what you do, so I thought I’d be one step ahead and invent one myself – spiv rock.” I think he was spot on. It really doesn’t matter whether music fits any genre. The only thing that matters is whether it’s great music, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to I’m the Man and pretty much all of Jackson’s other work I’m aware of.

When it comes to I’m the Man, the thing that stands out to me is how tight the band sounds. The first musician I have to mention here is bassist Graham Maby. Combining an edgy punk-like sound with great melodic runs, he is driving much of the music’s groove. As a former bassist, I think I fully appreciate Maby’s brilliant playing – and, yes, I’m probably also a bit biased! David Haughton (drums) and Gary Sanford (guitar) round out the band’s sound, together with Jackson’s piano, harmonica and melodica.

The album is full of energy, with the majority of songs being mid and uptempo tunes. Things kick off furiously with On Your Radio, both in terms of its fast and pumping beat, and Jackson’s lyrics telling ex-friends, ex-lovers and enemies that unlike him who’s on the radio they’re nowhere – no wonder some people called him “an angry young man!” The second song, Geraldine and John, is one of two slower numbers. It’s also one of the best examples on the album of Maby’s great melodic bass lines. The second slow tune is Amateur Hour, which also has a great bass track. Okay, I guess it’s abundantly clear I’m a big fan of Maby’s bass playing!

From a lyrics perspective, It’s Different for Girls is the album’s most outstanding song. In a twist, Jackson reverses the cliche that all men want is sex, while women are longing for love. In this case, it’s the woman who tells the man, “who said anything about love…don’t you know that it’s different for girls.” In an interview with Songfacts in 2012, Jackson explained, “It was something that I had heard somewhere that stuck me as a cliche…And maybe the idea was to turn it on its head and have a conversation between a man and a woman and what you’d expect to be the typical roles are reversed.”

It’s Different for Girls was the second single from the album. It became Jackson’s highest charting single in the U.K. where it climbed to no. 5 on the singles chart. U.S. audiences apparently were less receptive. The song just missed cracking the top 100 on the Billboard charts, peaking at no. 101. The album’s other single was the title track, I’m the Man. It’s similar in musical style and “angry young man” lyrics to On Your Radio. Unlike It’s Different for Girls, it did not chart in the U.K. and the U.S.

Released in October 1979, I’m the Man peaked at no. 12 on the U.K. Albums Chart and no. 22 on the U.S. Billboard 200 – a remarkable success for a sophomore album. It was produced by David Kershenbaum, who has also worked with many other well known music artists, such as Duran Duran, Tracy Chapman, Bryan Adams, Supertramp and Cat Stevens. Kershenbaum had signed Jackson to A&M Records in 1978 and also produced three of his other albums: Look Sharp! (1979), Body and Soul (1984) and Night and Day (1982), Jackson’s most successful album.

Here’s a great clip of a stripped down version of It’s Different for Girls, featuring Jackson on piano only. Apparently, it was recorded during his 2016 Fast Forward Tour.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Songfacts, YouTube