The Venues: Hollywood Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 6

After having done more than 50 installments of this recurring feature, I still find it intriguing what turns up when you look at a specific date throughout music history. I’ve said it before and I say it again: It’s a rather arbitrary way to do this. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all about great music. Without further ado, let’s see what happened on June 6.

1960: Roy Orbison, the rock & roller with an operatic voice, released Only the Lonely, his first big hit peaking at no. 2 in the U.S. and Canada, and topping the charts in Ireland and the U.K. According to Songfacts, it was one of the first tunes Orbison wrote together with Joe Melson. Among others, the two also co-wrote Crying and Blue Bayou. Songfacts also includes the following Orbison told NME in 1980 about writing “sad songs” like Only the Lonely: “I’ve always been very content when I wrote all those songs. By this I’m saying that a lot of people think you have to live through something before you can write it, and that’s true in some cases, but I remember the times that I was unhappy or discontent, and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate, and I certainly couldn’t write a song, no way. All the songs I wrote that were successful were written when I was in a contented state of mind.”

1962: The Beatles came together for their first artist test recording session at EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London. According to The Beatles Bible, the action went down in studio no. 2, where between 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm they recorded four tracks: Besame Mucho, Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why. The session was produced by George Martin with assistant Ron Richards and was the only one to feature Pete Best on drums. Initially, Richards was in charge, and Martin was only brought in after engineer Norman Smith was intrigued with Love Me Do. At the end of the session, which was hampered by quality issues due to the poor equipment The Beatles had brought along, Martin called them to the control room to tell them what they would need to do to become professional recording artists. When none of them reacted, Martin said: “Look, I’ve laid into you for quite a time, you haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?” After an awkward pause, George Harrison responded: “Yeah, I don’t like your tie!” That cracked the ice, and the rest is history. While none of the material recorded at the session was used, four months later, The Beatles featuring Ringo Starr on drums re-recorded Love Me Do with George Martin. Backed by P.S. I Love You, it became their first single (not counting My Bonnie they had recorded with Tony Sheridan in June 1961).

1971: After 23 years on the air, CBS aired the last episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a repeat. The last original telecast, episode no. 1,068, had aired on March 28 of the same year. Originally co-created and produced by Marlo Lewis, the show’s initial title was Toast of the Town. On September 25, 1955, it officially became The Ed Sullivan Show. Countless famous artists performed on the program, such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. CBS and Sullivan were quite conservative, and there were some “controversial” performances on the show. One of the most notorious appearances were The Doors on September 17, 1967. For the song Light My Fire, Jim Morrison had been told to alter the line Girl, we couldn’t get much higher. He complied during the rehearsal, but when it came to the live performance, he sang the original line – committing the ultimate sin! The Doors were never invited back on the program. Here’s a short clip documenting the horrible transgression!

1982: The Peace Sunday: We Have a Dream concert took place at The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which attracted a crowd of 85,000 people. The six-hour event to promote nuclear disarmament featured artists like Tom Petty, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne. It was partly broadcast on ABC Television’s Entertainment Tonight program on the same day. Here’s a clip of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing the Dylan tune With God On Our Side. Dylan first recorded the song for his third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ from January 1964.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts: Music History Calendar; Songfacts; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

The Hardware: Vox Continental

Compact keyboard with characteristic sound became hit among touring bands in ’60s

When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.

For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

Thomas Walter Jennings
Jennings Organ Company founder Thomas Walter Jennings at his Dartford factory in Kent, England in 1964

Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries (JMI) in 1957, started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!

Vox Continental Electronics
The electronic inside of a Vox Continental

The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.

Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.

As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.

The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)

The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player. Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!

Because (The Dave Clark Five)

Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith playing the organ.

I’m A Believer (The Monkees)

I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees eventually learned how to play their instruments. Here’s a TV clip from 1966, which looks like the guys know how to play for real; if they’re faking, it’s certainly done well!

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)

After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.

Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)

Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post, is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case. It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube

Memorable Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Performances

Last evening’s HBO broadcast of the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony gave me the idea to take a look at previous inductions and highlight some of the performances there. I’m not getting into the nomination and selection process, the judges, which artists who currently aren’t in should be inducted, etc. – topics that undoubtedly will continue to be discussed. This post is about some of the great music that was performed at the induction festivities over the years.

I’d like to start with the 1999 induction ceremony that featured a great performance of In The Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett and Bruce Springsteen, one of the inductees that year. They were backed by The E Street Band. Springsteen, a huge fan of Pickett, frequently performs some of the soul legend’s tunes during his shows. Recorded at Stax studios in Memphis, the song was initially released in June 1965 and became Pickett’s first hit for Atlantic Records. He co-wrote the tune with Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper.

In 1993, The Doors were inducted into the Hall. The band’s then-living original members Ray Manzarek (keyboards), Robbie Krieger (guitar) and John Densmore (drums) teamed up with Pearl Jam lead vocalist Eddie Vedder, who did a fine job singing the parts of the charismatic Jim Morrison. Here’s Light My Fire, one of my favorite Doors tunes that appeared on their eponymous debut album from January 1967. Like each of the original songs on the band’s first two records, the tune was credited to all members.

The 1993 inductees also included another legendary band: Cream. Jack Bruce (lead vocals, bass), Eric Clapton (guitar) and Ginger Baker (drums) reunited for the occasion. One of the songs they played was the terrific Sunshine Of Your Love from Cream’s second studio album Disraeli Gears, released in November 1967. The tune was co-written by Bruce, Clapton and Pete Brown. To this day I think Sunshine has one of the coolest guitar riffs in rock.

Among the 2018 inductees were The Moody Blues, a band whose second studio album Days Of Future Passed became one of the first successful concept albums and put them on the map as pioneers of progressive rock. They played the mighty Nights In White Satin from that record, but the first tune they performed was I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock & Roll Band). That song is from their seventh studio album Seventh Sojourn, which appeared in October 1972. It was written by John Lodge (vocals, bass, guitar), who together with Justin Hayward (lead vocals, guitar) and Graeme Edge (drums) is one of the remaining original members who performed at the induction.

Last but not least, here is a clip of what may be the best Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame performance to date: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, played during the induction of George Harrison as a solo artist in 2004. The performance featured Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison and Prince, among others. It will forever be remembered for Prince’s incredible guitar solo. While My Guitar Gently Weeps appeared on the “White Album,” the ninth studio album by The Beatles from November 1968.

Source: Wikipedia, Legacy.com, YouTube