The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to a new weekly celebration of music in different flavors from different eras, six tunes at a time. Today, The Sunday Six recurring feature is hitting another mini milestone with its 25th installment. And it’s the Fourth of July holiday here in the U.S., so to those who celebrate it, happy Fourth and please be safe!

Teenage Fanclub/The Sun Won’t Shine on Me

Kicking us off today is a band with the somewhat strange name Teenage Fanclub. If you follow the great PowerPop blog, you may have seen this Scottish power pop band was just featured there. In this context, Aphoristic Album Reviews, another music blog I highly recommend, noted that not only are Teenage Fanclub still around (after more than 30 years), but they recently came out with a new album. It’s titled Endless Arcade. Founded in Bellshill near Glasgow in 1989, the band’s initial formation largely included members of The Boy Hairdressers, another local group that had just dissolved. Following a well received more edgy rock-focused debut album, A Catholic Education from June 1990, Teenage Fanclub adopted their signature power pop-oriented sound inspired by groups like Big Star, Badfinger and the Byrds. The third album Bandwagonesque brought them more attention and significant success in the U.S. where the single Star Sign hit no. 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. Not surprisingly, Teenage Fanclub’s line-up has changed over the decades and currently features co-founding members Norman Blake (vocals, guitar) and Raymond McGinley (vocals, guitar), together with Euros Childs (keyboards, vocals), Dave McGowan (keyboards, guitar, bass, vocals) and Francis Macdonald (drums, vocals). Frankly, I had never heard of the band until the above fellow bloggers brought them to my attention. Here’s The Sun Won’t Shine On Me, written by Blake, which appears on Teenage Fanclub’s new album released on April 30. While the lyrics are blue, I love the tune’s jangly guitar sound!

Steely Dan/Rikki Don’t Lose That Number

On to the great Steely Dan and one of my favorite songs from their early phase as a standing band. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, off their third studio album Pretzel Logic from February 1974, also became Steely Dan’s biggest hit single, surging to no. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It did even better in Canada where it peaked at no. 3. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were huge jazz fans. When writing Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, evidently, they were inspired by The Horace Silver Quartet and the intro to Song for My Father, which I covered in a previous Sunday Six installment. Pretzel Logic was the final Steely Dan album featuring the full quintet line-up of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jim Hodder and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. It was the first to include significant contributions from L.A. session musicians, a concept Becker and Fagen fully embraced on subsequent albums after they had turned Steely Dan into a studio project that became an increasingly sophisticated and complex.

The Youngbloods/Get Together

I’ve always loved this next tune by The Youngbloods, and it’s been on my “list” for a Sunday Six for some time. Get Together appeared on their eponymous debut album from December 1966. Written by Chet Powers, who was also known as Dino Valenti and a member of psychedelic rock outfit Quicksilver Messenger Service, the song first appeared on a 1963 record by bluegrass band The Folkswingers. It was also included as Let’s Get Together on Kingston Trio’s live album Back in Town released in June 1964, as well as on Jefferson Airplane’s debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off from August 1966. But it was the rendition by The Youngbloods, which became most successful, giving them their only top 40 hit in the U.S. mainstream charts. Their cover reached a peak there in 1969 when it was reissued as a single and hit no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a pity The Youngbloods did not achieve widespread popularity. After their fifth studio album High on a Ridge Top from November 1972, they called it quits.

Dire Straits/Skateaway

This next pick was also inspired by fellow blogger Aphoristic Album Reviews, who recently did a post on the 10 best songs by Dire Straits. I’ve always liked the British rock band and the great melodic guitar-playing by Mark Knopfler, especially on their 1978 eponymous debut album and Making Movies, their third studio release from October 1980. It’s widely considered as one of Dire Straits’ best records. Knopfler’s songwriting had matured, especially in comparison to sophomore release Communiqué from June 1979, which largely sounded like the eponymous debut. Personally, this never bothered me much, since I dig that first album. Here’s the great Skateway. Let’s go, roller girl! And…don’t worry/D.J. play the movies all night long

Chicago/Saturday in the Park

Given today is the Fourth of July, I thought it made sense to feature a tune that references the holiday. I decided to go with Saturday in the Park by Chicago. Written by Robert Lamm, the track appeared on the band’s fourth studio album Chicago V that came out in July 1972. Why calling it five when it was their fourth, you may wonder? Because the band, which was founded as Chicago Transit Authority in 1967, was in their fifth year at the time. Wikipedia notes two different background stories about the song. According to then-fellow band member Walter Parazaider, Lamm was inspired after he had seen steel drum players, singers, dancers and jugglers in New York’s Central Park on July 4, 1971. Lamm recalled it differently, telling Billboard in 2017 the song “was written as I was looking at footage from a film I shot in Central Park, over a couple of years, back in the early ‘70s.” Regardless of which recollection is accurate, there’s no doubt the tune was inspired by Central Park and that it became Chicago’s biggest U.S. mainstream hit at the time, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1972. It would take another five years before they had an even bigger hit with their single If You Leave Me Now released in July 1976 and topping the Hot 100 in October that year. Chicago are still around and are currently touring. Original members Lamm (keyboards, vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, vocals) and James Pankow (trombone) are part of the present nine-piece line-up. The tour schedule is here. I’ve seen Chicago once more than 20 years ago and recall it as a solid show.

Magic Castles/Sunburst

Let’s wrap up this installment of The Sunday Six with some more recently released music. Again, I’d like to acknowledge a fellow blogger, Angie from The Diversity of Classic Rock, where I first read about psychedelic rock band Magic Castles. For background, here’s an excerpt from their Apple Music profile: The band formed in Minneapolis in 2006, growing out of singer/guitarist Jason Edmonds’ home-recording project as he tapped singer/guitarist Jeremiah Doering, bassist Paul Fuglestad, drummer Brendan McInerney, and Kait Sergenian. Magic Castles played their first show at a friend’s birthday party later that year, began recording their first record the following summer, and by June 2008 offered their self-released debut, The Lore of Mysticore. By then, the group had added keyboardist/singer Noah Skogerboe to further flesh out their sound, and Matt Van Genderen had replaced McInerney on the drums. This new incarnation pulled double duty in 2009, offering sophomore album Dreams of Dreams plus a limited-edition cassette, Sounds of the Forest. Fast-forward some 12 years to April 30, 2021 and Sun Reign, the band’s sixth studio album and their first since 2015. Here’s the seductive opener Sunburst. Written by Edmonds, the band’s only constant member, the tune has a cool ’60s garage rock vibe, featuring a great jangly guitar sound reminiscent of the Byrds. I’m definitely planning to take a closer look at the group.

Sources: Wikipedia; Billboard; Apple Music; Chicago website; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s Sunday morning again, which means yet another week has flown by. But here in the U.S. it also brings us one week closer to the start of daylight savings time and another step toward spring – take this, winter! I’m also really happy how this latest installment of The Sunday Six came out. With smooth saxophone jazz, electric guitar-driven roots rock, pop, soul and some kickass rock, I think it’s another selection illustrating great music comes in many flavors.

Grover Washington Jr./Take Me There

I’d like to kick off the set with some beautiful smooth saxophone playing by Grover Washington Jr. with a tune from his 11th album Winelight released in 1980. When I listened to the record for the first time, which I believe was shortly after it had come out, I feel in love with the music right away. Hard core jazz fans may dismiss it as too pop-oriented. To me as an infrequent listener of jazz, I find it very accessible. More importantly, I really dig Washington Jr.’s smooth tone. Winelight, his highest charting album in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 (no. 5), became best known for Just the Two of Us, featuring the amazing Bill Withers on vocals. Take Me There was written by Washington Jr., who released 24 albums over a nearly 30-year recording career. His 25th and final record Aria appeared in March 2000 after his untimely death in December 1999 from a massive heart attack at age 56. What a loss!

Mark Knopfler/The Fizzy and the Still

Let’s do some more relaxing music. How about some magic Stratocaster played by maestro Mark Knopfler? The Fizzy and the Still is from his fifth solo album Kill to Get Crimson released in September 2007. I’ve always been a fan of Knopfler’s melodic guitar-playing ever since I listened to Dire Straits’ eponymous debut from October 1978. Like on all except one of his solo albums, Knopfler’s backing musicians included multi-instrumentalist Guy Fletcher, who had served as keyboarder in Dire Straits from 1984 until the band’s dissolution in 1995.

Cindy Lauper/Time After Time

Yep, this is an ’80s pop song. I dug Time After Time from the very first moment I heard it on the radio when it came out in 1984. Unlike many other ’80s tunes I also liked back then, this one holds up well to me. Time After Time was co-written by Cindy Lauper and Bob Hyman who is best known to be among the founding members of American rock band The Hooters (there’s another blast from the past!). The tune appeared on Lauper’s October 1983 debut album aptly titled She’s So Unusual. And what a start it was! Fueled by multiple hit singles, which in addition to Time After Time included Girls Just Want to Have Fun, She Bop and All Through the Night, She’s So Unusual became Lauper’s best-selling album. It also topped the charts in Canada, and made the top 10 in the U.S. (no. 4), Austria (no.5), Switzerland (no. 8), Australia (no. 5) and Japan (no. 5). Since then, Lauper has released 10 additional studio albums, various compilations and Broadway cast album Kinky Boots (2013), which was produced by Lauper who also wrote the songs. Now 67, Lauper remains active to this day.

The Rolling Stones/Hitch Hike

Let’s kick up the speed by a notch with a great cover by the The Rolling Stones: Hitch Hike. Originally, this tune was recorded and first released as a single in December 1962 by Marvin Gaye, who also co-wrote it with Clarence Paul and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson. Hitch Hike was also included on Gaye’s second studio album That Stubborn Kinda Fellow from January 1963. The Stones recorded the song for their fourth U.S. and third UK studio album Out of Our Heads released in July and September 1965, respectively. It was one of six tracks that appeared on both versions of the album.

Little Feat/Teenage Nervous Breakdown

The Stones may be the greatest rock & roll band in the world, but that doesn’t mean other groups can’t match them. Here’s the fun Teenage Nervous Breakdown by Little Feat. Penned by the band’s primary original guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Lowell George, the tune is from Little Feat’s sophomore album Sailin’ Shoes that came out in May 1972. Sadly, George died from a heart attack in June 1979 shortly after he had declared Little Feat would disband. The group reformed in 1987 and has since continued with different lineups. Vocalist and keyboarder Bill Payne remains as the only founding member in the current formation. To date, Little Feat have released 12 studio albums, as well as numerous live records and compilations. One of my favorites I feel like revisiting is Waiting for Columbus, which I previously reviewed here. For now, let’s have some fun with Teenage Nervous Breakdown. Tell me this doesn’t rock!

Queen/Tie Your Mother Down

And that we’re on this accelerating rock & roll train, let’s wrap things up with yet another rock gem in my book: Tie Your Mother Down by Queen. But before getting to it, I need to credit Angie Moon from The Diversity of Classic Rock blog, who brought the tune back on my radar screen with her recent post about Queen. Written by guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May CBE, Tie Your Mother Down first appeared on Queen’s fifth studio album A Day at the Races that came out in December 1976. It was also released separately as the album’s second single in March 1977. I just can’t get enough of that main guitar riff – Status Quo simple, to borrow from Angie who also compared it to Rory Gallagher, but so good!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sonny Landreth/Blacktop Run

Sonny Landreth is one of various top-notch guitarists I could have included in my recent slide guitar feature. This is what prompted me to check what Landreth who is also known as “the King of Slydeco” has been up to. Well, it turns out he released his 14th solo album Blacktop Run in February this year. While it’s classified as blues, I’d call it a tasty rootsy gumbo that includes flavors of blues, swamp rock, zydeco and jazz rock.

Before I get to it, first a few words about the man. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Landreth was born February 1, 1951, in Canton, Mississippi, and his family lived in Jackson, Mississippi, for a few years before settling in Lafayette, Louisiana. Landreth began playing guitar after a long tenure with the trumpet. His earliest inspiration came from Scotty Moore, the guitarist from Elvis Presley’s band, but as time went on, he learned from the recordings of musicians and groups like Chet Atkins and the Ventures. As a teen, Landreth began playing with his friends in their parents’ houses.

Sonny Landreth: "How Not to Sound Awful" | WWNO

After his first professional gig with accordionist Clifton Chenier in the ’70s (where he was the only white guy in the Red Beans & Rice Revue for awhile), Landreth struck out on his own, but not before he recorded two albums for the Blues Unlimited label out of Crowley, Louisiana, Blues Attack in 1981 and Way Down in Louisiana in 1985…The second of those two albums got him noticed by some record executives in Nashville, which in turn led to his recording and touring work with John Hiatt.

That led to still more work with John Mayall, who recorded Landreth’s radio-ready “Congo Square.” More recently, he’s worked with New Orleans bandleader and pianist Allen Toussaint (who guests on several tracks on South of I-10, as does Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler). Eric Clapton has called Landreth one of the most advanced guitarists in the world, notes Wikipedia, and one of the most under-appreciated. Landreth’s accolades include Instrumentalist of the Year (Americana Music Association, 2005) and a 2016 Blues Music Award in the Instrumentalist – Guitar category. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the opener and title track. It’s among the eight of the ten tacks that were written by Landreth.

Mule is a catchy up-tempo rocker that makes you want to dance. It features great slide guitar and accordion work.

Groovy Goddess is one of four instrumentals on the album. And groovy it certainly is! Its improvisational nature gives it a jazzy feel. And there’s more of Landreth’s amazing slide guitar work.

Two tracks on the album were written by Steve Conn, who also played electric piano, organ and accordion. Somebody Gotta Make a Move is one of them. Landreth’s website notes the newly arranged song features a guitar tuning Landreth developed but had not used in the studio.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Many Worlds, another instrumental.

Most of Blacktop Run’s tracks were recorded live in-studio at the storied Dockside Studios on the Vermilion River south of Lafayette, La., where artists like Dr. John, B.B. King and Taj Mahal are among past clients. In addition to Conn, Landreth was backed by David Ranson (bass) and Brian Brignac (drums).

The album was co-produced by Landreth, R.S. Field and Tony Daigletto. Field previously co-produced three of Landreth’s other albums. “His [Field’s] brilliance and creative energy recharged us,” Landreth stated. “We came up with new and better ideas, and that’s what you want. It couldn’t have gone better.”

He added, “All told, the different elements of this project came together and I’m really happy about it. Blacktop Run is probably the most eclectic recording I’ve done. And sonically, I think this is the best album we’ve ever made.” While I haven’t explored any of Landreth’s other albums, I know one thing: Blacktop Run is excellent and makes me want to hear more of his catalog.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Sonny Landreth website; YouTube

Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell Releases New Album

“Reunions” may have been his most challenging record to make so far

While I had heard of Jason Isbell before and listened to some of his past music, I had not taken a closer look at the singer-songwriter from Green Hill, Ala., who at age 41 has experienced both remarkable success and full-blown addiction to alcohol and cocaine in his late ’20s. Both sides of his story provide important context for Reunions, Isbell’s new album, which he recorded with his backing band The 400 Unit. It was broadly released yesterday, May 15.

Apparently, Isbell grew up in a musical family. His grandfather and uncle showed him how to play various instruments. As a 6-year-old, he learned the mandolin, and in high school, he played the trumpet and French horn. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the guitar and started playing in a garage band and a country cover band. Eventually, he met session bassist David Horn, whose son Patterson Hood was a co-founder of alternative country and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. When he was 21, Isbell got a publishing deal with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he worked until he joined Drive-By-Truckers the following year during their supporting tour for their third studio album Southern Rock Opera.

Isbell stayed for six years and recorded three studio albums with the band, contributing guitar and vocals, and writing some of their songs. During these years with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell developed his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Apparently, it did not slow him down much. Following his departure from the band in April 2007, Isbell wasted no time to launch a solo career and released his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch in July that year.

Jason Isbell

The 400 Unit, weirdly named after a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Florence, Ala., came together for Isbell’s sophomore album Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit released in February 2009. Two years later, Isbell agreed to enter a rehab program at a Nashville facility. He managed to overcome his addiction and has been sober since. In February 2013, Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires. Since 2011, she had been a guest on his albums and eventually became a member of The 400 Unit. In parallel, Shires continued to pursue her solo career. In 2019, she also formed country band The Highwomen. Isbell played guitar on their eponymous debut album, which appeared last September.

Since Isbell got out of drug rehab, he won many accolades for his music, which among others include four Grammy awards and various Americana Music Honors & Awards. They turned out to be a mixed blessing when making his new album. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” Isbell told The New York Times. “You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”

Jasom Isbell & Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires

The pressure took a toll on his marriage and at some point prompted Shires to move to a motel, since she felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she noted to The New York Times. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed.” So with all the drama surrounding the album, how did it turn out? Pretty good, in my opinion, though one hopes this outcome happened despite the aforementioned challenges, not because of them. Let’s get to some music!

Here is the opener What’ve I Done to Help. Like all of the remaining nine tracks on the album, the tune was written by Isbell. “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record,” Isbell told Apple Music. “It’s a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it’s also a positive message: Most of what I’m talking about on this album is trying to be aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself.” BTW, none other than David Crosby provides harmony vocals on the tune!

In Overseas, Isbell was trying to write a song that’s about multiple things at once, which he views as a big challenge. “On the one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country they’re living in and moved on and left a family behind,” he explained to Apple Music. “And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months.” Apparently, the song was inspired by Eric Clapton, who once said in an interview he didn’t feel he would ever be a great songwriter since he wasn’t able to write allegorically. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that,” Isbell said, “and it stuck with me.”

Running With Your Eyes Closed has a little bit of a Mark Knopfler guitar vibe, which is definitely part of the reason it speaks to me. According to Isbell, “It’s a love song, but I really try hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs of the initial spark of a relationship – that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don’t know that I would have anything new to bring.” I really dig the sound of this track. Check it out!

One of the most personal tracks on the album is It Gets Better. “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything,” Isbell explained. “And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep’. But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it’s important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I don’t really hate that guy anymore, and I think that’s even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor.”

Let’s do one more. Here’s the closer Letting You Go, a tune Isbell wrote for his four-year-old daughter, recalling her as a baby and fast-forwarding to picture her getting married and leaving the house. Well, that certainly looks like a big jump into the future; then again, time flies, as I can attest when it comes to my own son who is 18 now – how did that happen so quickly? “Once, when my daughter was very little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you’,” Isbell reflected. “And that’s the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process.” He clearly is very attached to the little girl.

Reunions is Isbell’s fourth straight album produced by Dave Cobb, who has also produced for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine, among others. In addition to Shires (fiddle, backing vocals), The 400 Unit features Sadler Vaden (guitar, backing vocals), Jimbo Hart (bass, backing vocals), Derry DeBorja (keyboard, accordion, backing vocals) and Chad Gamble (drums, backing vocals).

So what does David Crosby think about Isbell? “Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” he commented to The New York Times. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” Hopefully, Crosby’s praise won’t put additional pressure on Isbell when comes to making his next record. As strange as it sounds, it might actually be a good thing for Isbell if he doesn’t get a ton of accolades for Reunions!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; Apple Music; YouTube

Gerry Lane’s New Album Shows There’s Still Some Life Left in Rock

Down on the Boulevard is Irish guitarist’s sixth solo album

Call me a happy camper. Gerry Lane is the second great artist I just “discovered” and write about during the same weekend. Like Minimum Vital, which I covered in my previous post, Lane popped up in the same “New Music Mix” my streaming provider served up yesterday. And like the French progressive rock band, Lane also doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, even though he has been active since 1970 and played with Noel Redding (yep, that bassist from the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Gary Moore, among others. What’s up with that?

According to his website, Lane was born in West Cork, Southern Ireland. His first instrument was a button key accordion. He later progressed to guitar, and during his early teens he played in the family pub with whoever the visiting musician was. He played in many bands in the West Cork area, one of the most successful being a band called “SOUTHERN COMFORT”…

While in that band he met Noel Redding (Ex Bass player with the Jimi Hendrix Experience). Gerry and Noel played together in various bands around Southern Ireland. During the late 70’s Gerry played the showband circuit in Ireland and England with bands like, Stage 2, Tony Stevens Band and Discovery…In 1980 Gerry formed a band called ” DRIVESHAFT “. With that band he toured extensively in Ireland and England playing headline gigs…and supporting visiting international acts like: Rory Gallagher (also from Cork Ireland), Phil Lynott’s Grand Slam, ZZ Top, Def Leppard, Saxon and the Michael Schenker Group.

In 1983 Gerry moved to England and while living in London he got to work and record with Gary Moore, Cozy Powell (ex-Rainbow / Whitesnake / Jeff Beck / Black Sabbath), Neil Murray (ex-Bass player with Whitesnake / Brian May Band), John Sinclair (Keyboard player with Ozzy Osbourne / Uriah Heep)…In 1993 Gerry moved to the Canary Islands (Gran Canaria) where he now lives and works.

Gerry Lane

The singer-songwriter’s and producer’s vocal influences include Joe Cocker, Tony Joe White, Jimmy Barnes and Bob Seger. Lane’s website also notes Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher, BB King and Buddy Guy as guitarists who have influenced him. When it comes to songwriting, he cites Tony Joe White, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, John Hiatt and Bob Seger. Okay, you might say, any music artist can name famous peers. At the end of the day what truly matters is the music. And the music on this album is a lot fun to listen to, so let’s finally get to some of it.

Here’s the title song and opener. Like all of the 10 tracks on the album, it was written by Lane. Down on the Boulevard also includes a new version of Meloneras Blues, the title track from what appears to be his solo debut from 2008. Check it out!

The album’s second track Kick off them Shoes has a cool blues and Stax soul vibe. It reminds me a bit of Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On. This is some tasty shit!

Track no. 3 is called Cryin’ in the Rain. When the first three songs of an album are great, usually, it’s a good sign. Just like the previous tune, I dig the soulful vibe.

The Writing’s on the Wall features some nice slide guitar action.

Let’s finish things up with another tasty rocker: Solid as a Rock. With that cool guitar riff and sound, I could actually picture this as an AC/DC song. And guess what? It turns out the tune is a tribute to rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, as the notes to the following clip point out.

Mal was a hard man/He was born into a clan/He was a guitar singer/In a rock & roll band/He was dynamite/He was TNT/He was out of sight/He touched the devil in me

He was solid as a rock/He took it to the top/He was solid as a rock/He never let it stop – that’s right/He was solid as a rock…

Yeah, baby!

Sources: Gerry Lane website; 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 100Papa 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

The Hardware: Fender Telecaster

World’s first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar continues to be popular to this day, more than 65 years after its introduction

Similar to the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, which I covered in previous posts here and here, I could have called the Fender Telecaster the quintessential electric guitar. After all, that model predated the Stratocaster and the Les Paul by three years and one year, respectively. And while Paul Bigsby built the first solid-body for country and western artist Merle Travis in 1948, it was the Telecaster that became the first such electric guitar that was manufactured on a substantial scale.

But the truth is “quintessential” is largely in the eye of the beholder. I always loved the seductive shape of the Stratocaster. I also thought Mark Knopfler created such a cool signature sound with it on Sultans of Swing, Once Upon a Time In the West and other early Dire Straits classics. Ultimately, that’s why I feel the Strat is THE electric guitar and wrote about it first. On to the Telecaster.

The Telecaster was developed by inventor Leo Fender, the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Company. He built the first prototype in the fall of 1949 and introduced it to the market in 1950 as the Fender Esquire, a solid-body with one single-coil pickup. But the Esquire was hampered by quality issues, especially around the guitar neck that easily bent, so it was only produced in limited numbers.

Fender Esquire 1951
Fender Esquire 1951

Fender addressed the lacking neck stability with the placement of a tross rod. He also added a second single-coil pickup to the guitar and renamed it the Fender Broadcaster. That name was very similar to Broadkaster drum sets made by Gretsch, so needed it be changed. The Broadcaster became the Telecaster in 1951, and the guitar has been sold under that brand name ever since.

The Telecaster featured several innovations and used production techniques that made manufacturing and repairing the guitar more cost-effective compared to models from Gibson and other manufacturers. Rather than constructing the Telecaster individually, Fender introduced the production of components that could easily be put together into the finished product on an assembly line.

Fender Telecaster 1951
1951 Fender Telecaster

Unlike the traditional glued in neck, the Telecaster had a “bolt-on” neck. Not only did this make production easier, but it also allowed for faster repair or replacement of the neck. Additionally, the neck on the classic Telecaster was made from a single piece of maple without a separate fingerboard.

Moreover, the bodies of the Telecaster were built with solid pieces of wood instead of being hand-carved individually. The Telecaster also featured easily accessible electronics. This was made possible through a removable control plate. In contrast, the electronics of the then-predominant hollow-body electric guitars could only be accessed through the soundholes.

Fender Telecaster Electronics Control Plate
Telecaster control plate for electonics

Unlike the Stratocaster, which got a lukewarm initial reception from many guitarists, the Telecaster was an immediate hit. This can be explained by the guitar’s distinct properties, which according to Reverb include: “A bridge pickup tone like to no other. The definition of twang when clean. The definition of rock when dirty; Liberating simplicity. Two pickups, two knobs, six strings, no frills. It forces you to be a better player; Surprising versatility. Across three pickup positions, different tone knob positions and varying levels of gain, the Tele is capable of an unexpected number of voices.”

I think it’s mainly the guitar’s versatility, which has made the Telecaster a staple in country, electric blues, rock & roll and other music genres. Like in the case of the Stratocaster and the Les Paul, several customized versions of the Telecaster have appeared over the decades. These variants feature different pickup configurations like a humbucker in the neck position, dual humbuckers and three single-coil pickups. There is also a semi-hollow version called the Telecaster Thinline.

Now comes the part of this type of gear-focused post that excites me the most – a list of musicians who have championed the equipment.

James Burton

American guitarist James Burton, who has performed with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison and many others, has played a Telecaster since age 13 and is considered to be the most visible Tele player in the late ’50s. Here’s a great clip of Burton performing Johnny B. Goode live with Presley.

Albert Lee

Also known as Mr. Telecaster, English guitarist Albert Lee has played a Telecaster since 1963. Here is a cool live clip from the early ’70s of Lee performing Country Boy with British country rock band Heads Hands & Feet – holy moly!

Albert Collins

American electric blues guitarist Albert Collins was called The Master of the Telecaster. The Fender Custom Shop offers an Albert Collins Signature Telecaster, which is based on his 1966 model featuring a humbucker pickup in the neck position. Here’s Collins with Iceman, the title song of his tenth and final studio album released in March 1991, two and a half years prior to his untimely death from lung cancer in November 1993 at age 61.

Keith Richards

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has used a variety of Telecasters throughout his long career. The most famous one is a ’53 Tele called Micawber. According to the Fender website, Richards got the Micawber from Eric Clapton as a present for his 27th birthday in 1970. At the time, the Stones were gearing up for Exile On Main Street. Shortly after the band’s ’72 tour, Richards replaced the single-coil pickup in the neck position with a ’50s Gibson PAF humbucker for extra bite. Here’s a clip of Richards in action with his Micawber, together with the Stones: Brown Sugar, from the 2016 concert in Havana, Cuba.

Muddy Waters

Blues guitar legend Muddy Waters played a red ’57 Telecaster. Until 2010, Fender offered a replica as part of its signature series, the Muddy Waters Telecaster. Here is a great clip of the maestro and his red Telecaster, performing I’m A King Bee, captured during ChicagoFest in 1981.

Bruce Springsteen

Of course, this short list of Telecaster champions would be incomplete without The Boss. Bruce Springsteen’s iconic guitar, which is pictured on the cover of the Born To Run album from 1975, is not a pure breed Telecaster. As Bobby Owsinski explains on his Music Production Blog, it’s actually a hybrid from at least two other guitars: a ’50s Telecaster body with what looks like a ’57 Esquire neck, which Springsteen purchased at a guitar shop in Neptune, N.J.

Before selling it to The Boss, store owner Phil Petillo removed the two additional pickups that had been added to return the guitar to its original Telecaster configuration. Over the years, Petillo made significant additional modifications requested by Springsteen, including triangular Precision Frets, a six saddle titanium bridge, as well as custom hot-wound waterproofed pickups and electronics, so the guitar could better withstand Springsteen’s marathon shows. In 2005, he retired his beloved instrument from live shows and has since played clones of it during tours. Springsteen continues to use the original for studio recordings. Here’s a clip of the mighty Born To Run, which is from a 1978 show and presumably features Springsteen’s original Telecaster hybrid. Man, watching this footage makes me want to see The Boss again!

Sources: Wikipedia; “Telecaster Buying Guide,” The Hub, March 2017; “Statocaster vs. Telecaster: The Differences That Matter,” Reverb, Nov 2016; “Interesting Mods: Keith Richards’ ‘Micawber’,” Fender website; “The Story Behind Bruce Springsteen’s Iconic Hybrid Telecaster,” Bobby Osinski, Music Production Blog; YouTube

The Hardware: Fender Stratocaster

Perhaps no other model embodies the electric guitar more than the Fender Stratocaster

To me the Fender Stratocaster is the Porsche 911 of electric guitars. Similar to the iconic German sports car, the Strat was designed decades ago but its basic shape has remained unchanged.

The Stratocaster was developed by the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company (“Fender”) Leo Fender, guitarist and adviser Bill Carson and company associates George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares. It was Tavares who came up with the two-horned body shape, similar to the Precision Bass that Fender had launched in 1951.

Stratocaster Headstock

Introduced in 1954, the Strat became Fender’s third defining model after the Telecaster and the Precision Bass. While Les Paul built the first solid-body guitar, it was Leo Fender who started mass-producing the first such guitar in 1948, the Fender Broadcaster. A few years later, it was renamed the Telecaster and introduced in 1951. The Telecaster gained quick popularity among country and early rock & roll guitarists.

It is quite amazing that to this day, more than 60 years later, the Telecaster, Precision Bass and Stratocaster continue to be manufactured. By the way, it was Fender’s head of sales Don Randall who came up with the name Stratocaster.

Stratocaster Comfort Contours

The Strat featured several innovations. It was the first electric guitar with three pickups; the Telecaster had two. The Strat’s rounded edges and deep body and forearm contours were another first. The so-called “Comfort Contour Body” was another contrast to the Telecaster with its squared-off body that dug into the player’s body and picking-hand forearm.

The new shape, which has been attributed to guitarist Rex Gallion, made the instrument more comfortable to play. Gallion reportedly once asked Leo Fender, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?” The new shape also looked pretty cool – there was simply no other guitar like it!

Stratocaster Tremolo System.JPG

Another key innovative feature of the Strat was its spring tension tremolo system. Leo Fender came up with the design after scraping the initial vibrato system due to poor performance. In the new design the whole bridge moved with the strings rather than having the strings move over rollers with the bridge remaining stationary. The spring tension tremolo system allowed the pitch to vary by at least three half steps.

The tremolo system turned out to be hugely impactful. For example, without this feature, Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of The Shadows, could not have created his signature sound on Apache and many of the band’s other songs. And more than a decade later, Jimi Hendrix’s epic performance of Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock would not have been possible without his guitar’s vibrato bar.

Stratocaster Close-Up

Despite all of its novel features, the Strat was not an overnight sensation. Many guitarists considered it gimmicky. The early rock & rollers largely relied on flat-top acoustic or big, hollow-body electric guitars by Gibson and Gretsch. Leo Fender and his staff continued tweaking the Stratocaster until 1957 when they finally had improved it to the form that largely has remained unchanged to this day.

The Strat is a versatile guitar that has been used in many music genres, including blues, country, soul, rock, punk, heavy metal and jazz. Following are some of the influential musicians who have played the Strat.

Buddy Holly was the first “Strat hero.” According to Fender’s official website, Holly purchased his first Strat in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas in 1955, with money he had borrowed from his brother Larry. He helped popularize the guitar with his 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Peggy Sue also happens to be one of my favorite tunes from that era.

Hank Marvin reportedly was the first U.K. owner of a Strat. His initial preference for the guitar was based the wrong assumption that his favorite guitarist James Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson at the time, was using that model. “We loved the sound he and Buddy Holly had,” Marvin told Vintage Guitar Magazine in 2006. “We just assumed that James would be using the same, because it seemed to be the top model…That’s how I got my Strat. And it was a beautiful guitar, [Fiesta Red] with a birdseye maple neck and gold-plated hardware.”

Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix helped popularize the Strat, especially his favorite white-finish version, the guitar he used at Woodstock. Two years earlier, at Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix also proved you can set a Stratocaster on fire – don’t try this at home!

Eric Clapton became a Strat enthusiast in 1967, after originally having played Gibson guitars. The guitar he used to record Layla was a second-hand 1956 sunburst-finish Strat he had purchased in London in May 1967, which he nicknamed “Brownie.” Clapton’s other main Fender guitar, “Blackie,” was assembled from three different Strats. He used it until the mid-80s. In 1988, Fender introduced the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, the first model in the company’s signature series. Here is Clapton with It’s Too Late, together with Derek & The Dominos.

Rory Gallagher was well known for his battered 1961 sunburst Stratocaster, which he described as “a part of my physical make-up.” Since 1997, Fender’s Custom Shop has built the Rory Gallagher Signature Stratocaster, an exact replica of the Irish blues rocker’s instrument. Here is a clip of a 1977 live performance of Tattoo’d Lady on German TV music broadcast Rockpalast.

Mark Knopfler, another big Strat enthusiast, has been using this Fender model throughout his career. Together with his fingerstyle playing, he created his own signature sound. Sultans of Swing is one of the finest examples. In an interview with Guitar World last year, Knopfler commented on the role his Strat played for the song. “I thought it [the National Steel guitar he used to write the tune] was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan is another great guitarist who is closely associated with the Strat. In January 1992, Fender introduced the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, a signature model based on his favorite guitar, “Number One.” Here is a clip of Pride And Joy, together with Double Trouble.

David Gilmour is considered to be one of the more influential Stratocaster players since the instrument’s invention, according to Wikipedia. He has played the Strat during his time with Pink Floyd and as a solo artist. Here is a clip of Comfortably Numb, which includes an epic Strat solo.

Buddy Guy has played a Strat throughout his career. There has been a Buddy Guy Signature Stratocaster since the early 1990s. Here’s a clip of one of my favorite Guy tunes, Whiskey, Beer & Wine. It rocks like a Hendrix reincarnation!

Bonnie Raitt has owned a Stratocaster since 1969 and told Guitar Player she hasn’t missed one concert with that guitar since then. She also owns various Bonnie Raitt signature Strats. Here is a clip of Gypsy In Me from her last album.

In 1965, poor health made Leo Fender sell the company to CBS. While Fender significantly grew over the next 20 years, there was a lack of commitment and true understanding of musicianship at CBS. In 1981, it brought in new management to “re-invent” Fender. Eventually, CBS sold the company in 1985 to a group of Fender employees and investors. That transaction started a turnaround of the company and may well be reason why it’s still alive today and hopefully will be around for many years to come.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jeff Owens: The History of the Fender Stratocaster: The 1950s, Fender website; Mental Floss; Guitar Player; Vintage Guitar Magazine; Guitar World; YouTube