#PeaceAndLove and a Big Virtual Birthday Show

Today is the 80th birthday of Ringo Starr, which does seem to be a bit unreal, at least to me. As he has done since 2008, Ringo is asking people wherever they are on the planet to say the words ‘peace and love’ at noon their local time. He’s also doing a birthday show, but given the global COVID-19 pandemic, things will be a bit different this year. Rather than repeating what I previously said, I let him address it directly. Ringo is much more entertaining than I could ever be, which is one of several reasons why The Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without him.

To join Ringo’s Big Birthday Show later today at 8:00 pm U.S. EDT/5:00 pm U.S. PDT, go to his YouTube channel. Here’s a little fun teaser what to expect.

I’m also using the occasion to republish a post from exactly three years ago. Coz, why not?

And don’t forget, love and peace!

I feel we need it more than ever, especially in this country these days!

Repost from July 7, 2017

Today, Ringo Starr celebrated his 77th birthday and announced his upcoming 19th studio album. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Starr and hundreds of fans and fellow musicians gathered at Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood for a “Peace and Love” birthday celebration. The annual event has been conducted since 2008, when Starr was asked about his birthday wish and replied “more peace and love.” Ever since he has asked his fans all over the world to stop at noon their local time and say the words “peace and love” to spread the message.

“The great thing is that it’s continuing to grow,” Starr said in the above LA Times story. “When this started in Chicago in 2008, there were maybe 60 or 100 people…My dream — my fantasy — is that one day in the future everyone on the planet will stop at noon and say, ‘Peace and love.’”

Starr was born as Richard Starkey on July 7, 1940 in Liverpool, England. Of course, he is best known as the drummer of The Beatles, replacing Pete Best in August 1962. Prior to that he had played in Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, which had become one of Liverpool’s leading bands in early 1960. Starr met The Beatles for the first time at Kaiserkeller in Hamburg, Germany on October 1, 1960. Just like The Beatles, The Hurricanes had accepted a residency in the Northern German city.

Only two weeks later after the initial encounter, Starr joined John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison to back up Hurricanes singer Lou Walters during a recording of the George Gershwin tune Summertime. During that time period in Hamburg, Starr also filled in for Best on a few occasions. In August 1962, Lennon asked Starr whether he wanted to join The Beatles. Apparently, George Martin wasn’t very impressed with Best’s drumming. Five months later, the Fab Four recorded their debut studio album Please Please Me, which was released in March 1963.

After the official break-up of The Beatles in early 1970, Starr launched a solo career, which to date has included 18 studio albums. No. 19 is called Give More Love and scheduled for September 15th. Rolling Stone just reported that Paul McCartney appears in two songs on the record: We’re On the Road Again and Show Me the Way. Other guests include Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Steve Lukather, Peter Frampton, Richard Marx, Dave Stewart, Don Was and Timothy B. Schmit. The record’s title song, a nice mid-tempo tune, has already been released, and the album is available for pre-order.

In mid-October, Starr and his All-Starr Band will kick off a 19-gig U.S. tour in support of the album. The All-Starr Band, a live rock supergroup, has existed in different configurations since 1989. The upcoming line-up will include Lukather, Todd Rundgren, Gregg Rolie, Richard Page, Warren Ham and Gregg Bissonette.

Following is a selection of songs to celebrate Starr’s birthday:

Octupus’s Garden (The Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969)

It Don’t Come Easy (non-album single, 1971)

Photograph (Ringo, 1973)

Wrack My Brain (Stop and Smell the Roses, 1981; written by George Harrison)

Walk With You (Y Not, 2010; duet with Paul McCartney)

Postcards From Paradise (Postcards From Paradise, 2015)

Sources: Wikipedia; Christian’s Music Musings; Los Angeles Times; Rolling Stone; Ringo Starr web site & YouTube channel; YouTube

My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Ringo Starr to Throw Virtual Charity Concert For Upcoming Big Birthday

You just gotta love Ringo Starr. He may not be the most sophisticated drummer or songwriter, but he’s just an awesome guy! As reported by Rolling Stone earlier today, Ringo is planning a virtual charity concert for his 80th birthday on July 7. The one-hour event will be broadcast on YouTube starting at 8:00 pm ET, and feature Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Gary Clark, Jr., Sheila E and Ben Harper, among others. Appropriately called Ringo’s Big Birthday Show, the event will benefit Black Lives Matter Global Network, The David Lynch Foundation, MusiCares and WaterAid.

“…for 12 years, we have celebrated it by at noon going ‘peace and love’, wherever you are,” said Ringo during a more than 30-minute video interview with Rolling Stone senior writer Brian Hiatt. “We’re still doing it, but this year is going to be a little different…there’s no big get-together, there’s no brunch for 100, and there’s no gangs of people outside.” Below is a clip of the entire interview. If you dig Ringo, I can highly recommend it. BTW, I do agree with Hiatt, he doesn’t look like 80!

As further reported by Rolling Stone, the event will also debut a special version of Give More Love, the title track of Ringo’s 2017 studio album, featuring guests like Jackson Browne, Jeff Bridges, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson. Ringo will also launch a series of tribute performances on his YouTube channel, including artists like Steve Earle, Peter Frampton and Judy Collins. Last but not least, he is asking fans to “say, think, or post #peaceandlove at noon their local time on July 7th.” 

Here’s the official video of the above noted Give More Love. Co-written by Ringo and Gary Nicholson, the tune is the title track of Ringo’s 19th studio release, which appeared in September 2017. His most recent album What’s My Name came out in October 2019. I previously wrote about it here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

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: May 26

I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since my last installment in this recurring music history feature. And even though to me it feels like I’ve covered so many dates already, the reality is I have more than 300 left to go. Do without further ado, let’s take a look at May 26!

1964: Lenny Kravitz was born in New York City as Leonard Albert Kravitz. He was the only child of actress Roxie Roker and Sy Kravitz, a news producer at NBC Television. Both of his parents have passed away. Kravitz was drawn to music since he was tiny. At age 3, he began using pots and pans as drums, and two years later, he apparently knew he wanted to become a professional musician. After his family had moved to Los Angeles in 1974, Kravitz started listening to rock music like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival. When he set out to get a record deal, initially, he was given a hard time, with record labels either telling him he wasn’t “black enough” or “white enough.” Fortunately, Kravitz was able to overcome this BS, and in September 1989 his debut studio album Let Love Rule appeared. He has since released 10 additional studio records, in addition to a greatest hits compilation, as well as various box sets and EPs. My introduction to Kravitz was his sophomore album Mama Said from April 1991. Here’s a great rocker from that record he co-wrote with Slash: Always On the Run.

1967: The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If I could only choose one of their records, a nearly impossible task, this would be it most days. On other occasions, I might go with Abbey Road or Revolver. You can read more about Sgt. Pepper and why I dig that album here. Following is the record’s grande final A Day in the Life, a tune that was mostly written by John Lennon. Paul McCartney’s main contribution is the middle section.

1969: Janis Joplin made the cover of Newsweek. The headline declared Janis Joplin: Rebirth of Blues. Seventeen months later, on October 4, 1970, Joplin was found dead in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles after she had not appeared for a recording session at Sunset Sound Recorders studios. An autopsy by L.A. coroner Thomas Noguchi determined she had passed away from a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. Joplin, undoubtedly one of the most compelling female blues vocalists, was only 27 years old.

1972: English rock band Mott the Hoople, which despite their cult status in England were on the verge of disintegration due to lack of commercial viability, recorded All the Young Dudes, a song that had been given to them by one of their fans: David Bowie, who also produced the single, played guitar, sang backing vocals and clapped. All of that happened in the middle of the night at Olympic Studios in London, where Bowie had managed to get them some time. The tune was released on July 28, 1972 and climbed all the way to no. 3 on the UK Singles Chart. In the U.S., All the Young Dudes became a top 40 hit, reaching no. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. It ended up saving the band and extending their life until 1976.

1973: Deep Purple release Smoke on the Water as the third and final single from their sixth studio album Machine Head, another gem of a record, in my opinion. The tune, which must be a living nightmare of many folks working at guitar stores, was credited to all members of the band at the time: Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord and Ian Paice. The song was inspired by a fire at the casino in Montreux, Switzerland on December 4, 1971, where Deep Purple were about to get underway with recording sessions for the Machine Head album. But some stupid with a flare gun/Burned the place to the ground – the night before after a Frank Zappa concert. Perhaps he had not liked Zappa’s performance! Whatever the case may have been, the tragic fire, which claimed all of Zappa’s equipment, led to one of the most iconic rock songs of the ’70s.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Music; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chévere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: April 12

For those of you who celebrate, Happy Easter, and I hope everybody is doing well! I decided to do another installment of my long-running music history feature, which hit 50 with the previous post. It turns out April 12 was a pretty eventful date, so let’s get to it.

1968: Pink Floyd released their fourth single in the UK, It Would Be So Nice. The tune, which was written by keyboarder Richard Wright, had a rather uplifting, almost pop-like sound unlike many other Floyd songs at the time. It was the band’s first release after the exit of Syd Barrett. Idiotically, the BBC is said to have banned the initial version of the song due to a passing reference of the London newspaper The Evening Standard, which violated their strict no-advertising policy. Apparently, this prompted the band to record an alternate, BBC friendly version. It didn’t help from a popularity perspective, and the song failed to chart in the UK or elsewhere. Apparently, Roger Waters and Nick Mason didn’t like the tune either. Waters called it a “lousy record.” Mason was even more outspoken: “Fucking awful, that record, wasn’t it? At that period we had no direction. We were being hustled about to make hit singles.” Ouch!

1973: The American children’s TV series Sesame Street has seen many celebrities over its 50-plus-year history. One of the coolest and funkiest guests ever must have been Stevie Wonder who appeared on the program 47 years ago. Then 23 years old, Wonder performed Superstition, the lead single from his latest album at the time Talking Book. I always loved that funky tune. Check out the apparent joy Wonder got out of this and his kickass backing band – priceless!

1976: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band released the excellent live album Live Bullet. The material came from a 1975 gig at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Interestingly, Seger was still a largely regional act at the time. This would change with the band’s next studio album Night Moves that came out in October of the same year and finally put them on the map nationally. Over the years, tracks from Live Bullet became staples on rock radio. Undoubtedly, the best known is the road tale Turn the Page, which was written by Seger. Check out the official video I came across on YouTube. Love that tune!

1976: That evening, Paul McCartney with his wife Linda visited John Lennon at his apartment in the Dakota. Lennon was watching the late-night NBC comedy show Saturday Night, the predecessor to Saturday Night Live. During this particular episode, co-creator and producer Lorne Michaels invited The Beatles to reunite on the show for the deliberately measly offer of $3,000 (approximately the equivalent of $13,900 today). Michaels had no idea Lennon and McCartney were watching the whole thing – and actually considered showing up at the show’s studio that night just for fun. The Beatles Bible quotes Lennon from his final major interview he gave to book author David Sheff in 1980: “Paul and I were together watching that show. He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.” Now, that would have been something!

1983: R.E.M. released their debut album Murmur. Shockingly, the music critics got it right for once and gave it a warm reception. It also peaked at no. 36 on the Billboard 200, not shabby for a debut. A re-recorded version of Radio Free Europe appeared separately as a single and reached no. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100. In spite of the critical acclaim, Murmur only sold approximately 200,000 copies by the end of the year, which back then wasn’t considered special – wow, how the times have changed! Eventually, the album reached Gold certification (500,000 units sold) in 1991. Peter Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar sound, Mike Mills’ melodic basslines and Michael Stipes’ vocals are right up my alley. Here’s Radio Free Europe. Like all other songs except for one, the tune was credited to all four members of the band, which in addition to Buck, Mills and Stipes also included drummer Bill Berry.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfact Music History Calendar; Ultimate Classic Rock; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies

A trip back to ’60s psychedelic music

While it’s quite possible that more than three weeks of social distancing are starting to have an impact, I can say without hesitation that my interest in psychedelic music predates COVID-19 – I would say by at least three decades. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

I guess a good way to start would be to define what I’m writing about. According to Wikipedia, psychedelic music (sometimes called psychedelia) is a wide range of popular music styles and genres influenced by 1960s psychedelia, a subculture of people who used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and DMT to experience visual and auditory hallucinations, synesthesia and altered states of consciousness. Psychedelic music may also aim to enhance the experience of using these drugs.

To be clear, I don’t want to judge people using drugs but personally don’t take any and never had any particular interest to explore stuff. With the exception of alcohol, which I occasionally like to enjoy, I guess the furthest I ever took it was to try cigarettes during my early teenage years. Around the same time, I also smoked a cigar, cleverly thinking that just like with a cigarette, you’re supposed to inhale. As you can see, I was definitely young and stupid. And, yes, I did feel a bit funny afterwards! 🙂

Psychedelic Music Collage 2

Psychedelic music has some characteristic features. Again, Wikipedia does a nice job explaining them: Exotic instrumentation, with a particular fondness for the sitar and tabla are common. Songs often have more disjunctive song structures, key and time signature changes, modal melodies and drones than contemporary pop music. Surreal, whimsical, esoterically or literary-inspired, lyrics are often used. There is often a strong emphasis on extended instrumental segments or jams. There is a strong keyboard presence, in the 1960s especially, using electronic organs, harpsichords, or the Mellotron, an early tape-driven ‘sampler’ keyboard.

Elaborate studio effects are often used, such as backwards tapes, panning the music from one side to another of the stereo track, using the “swooshing” sound of electronic phasing, long delay loops and extreme reverb. In the 1960s there was a use of electronic instruments such as early synthesizers and the theremin. Later forms of electronic psychedelia also employed repetitive computer-generated beats.

Before getting to some examples, I should add that psychedelic music developed in the mid-’60s among folk and rock bands in the U.S. and the U.K. It included various subgenres, such as psychedelic folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock and psychedelic pop. The original psychedelic era, which is the focus of this post, ended in the late ’60s, though there have been successors like progressive rock and heavy metal and revivals, e.g., psychedelic funk, psychedelic hip hop and electronic music genres like acid house and trance music.

Apparently, the first use of the term psychedelic rock can be attributed to The 13th Floor Elevators, an American rock band formed in Austin, Texas in December 1965. Here’s their debut single You’re Gonna Miss Me. Written by guitarist and founding member Roky Erickson, the tune reached no. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became their only charting song.

Eight Miles High by The Byrds is one of my favorite tunes from the psychedelic era. Written by co-founding members Roger McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals) and David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), the song first appeared as a single in March 1966 and was also included on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension released in July of the same year. That jingle-jangle guitar sound and the brilliant harmony singing simply do it for me every time!

In May 1966, The Rolling Stones released Paint It Black. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was also included on the U.S. edition of Aftermath, the band’s fourth British and sixth U.S. studio album. Not only did Paint It Black top the charts in the UK, U.S., The Netherlands, Australia and Canada, but it also had the distinction to become the first no. 1 hit to feature a sitar.

One of the hotspots for psychedelic music in the U.S. during the second half of the ’60s was San Francisco. Among the key bands based in the city by the bay were Jefferson Airplane. Here’s White Rabbit, a tune written by lead vocalist Grace Slick. Initially, it was recorded for the band’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow from February 1967. It also came out separately as a single in June that year.

After ten paragraphs into the post, it’s about time I get to the band that probably is one of the first that comes to mind when thinking about psychedelic rock: Pink Floyd, especially during their early phase with Syd Barrett. Here’s a tune I’ve always dug: Arnold Layne, their debut single from March 1967, written by Barrett. According to the credits, this video was directed by Derek Nice and filmed on the beach in East Wittering, West Sussex, England in late February 1967.

March 1967 also saw the release of Purple Haze, the second single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix tunes. The track features blues and Eastern modalities, along with novel recording techniques and sound effects like the Octavia pedal that doubled the frequency of the sound it was fed. The song also marked the first time Hendrix worked with sound engineer Eddie Kramer who would play a key role in his future recordings. Purple Haze climbed all the way to no. 3 in the UK; in the U.S., it only reached no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Two months later, in May 1967, The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It included the psychedelic gem Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds, the tune that inspired the headline of the post:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

While credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney as usual, the song was primarily written by Lennon.

After the break-up of The Animals, lead vocalist Eric Burdon formed Eric Burdon & The Animals in December 1966. The band subsequently relocated to San Francisco. In May 1968, they released their second album The Twain Shall Meet. Among the record’s tunes is the anti-war song Sky Pilot. Credited to Burdon and each of the other members of the band Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar, violin), Barry Jenkins (drums) and Danny McCulloch (bass), the tune also appeared separately as a single. Due to its length, the track had to be split across the A and B sides. Remarkably, Sky Pilot reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and no. 7 in Canada and Australia. Chart success in the UK was more moderate, where it peaked at no. 40.

In June 1968, Iron Butterfly released their sophomore album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The 17-minute title track, which occupied all of the record’s B-side, was written by the band’s keyboarder and vocalist Doug Ingle. Separately, a shortened version appeared as a single and became the band’s biggest hit reaching no. 30 in the U.S. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida not only is psychedelic rock, but is also considered to be an early example of heavy metal. Here’s the single edit.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Shotgun by Vanilla Fudge. It was included on their fourth studio album Near the Beginning from February 1969. “Near the End” perhaps would have been a more appropriate title, since by that time, the original psychedelic era was entering the twilight zone. Written by Autry DeWalt, the tune was first recorded by Junior Walker & the All Stars in 1965.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

 

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 15

Time for another installment in my long-running, somewhat geeky music history feature. I still get a kick out of researching what happened on a certain date throughout the decades in rock & roll, even though it’s such an arbitrary concept. Admittedly, I’m using the term rock & roll loosely here. It pretty much includes all music genres I dig – hey, it’s my blog, so I get to make the rules. Without further ado, let’s get to March 15!

1967: The Beatles began work on Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison. According to The Beatles Bible, Harrison had written the tune at the London home of longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voormann who first had met the band in Hamburg and had shared a flat with Harrison and Ringo Starr in the British capital in early ’60s. Several musicians from the collective Asian Music Circle played traditional Indian instruments during the recording session. They were joined by Harrison and The Beatles’ then-personal assistant Neil Aspinall on tamburas. “The tabla had never been recorded the way we did it,” commented sound engineer Geoff Emerick. “Everyone was amazed when they first heard a tabla recorded that closely, with the texture and the lovely low resonances.” Within You Without You was included on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of Only a Northern Song, another Harrison tune that would later appear on Yellow Submarine.

1969: Cream hit the top spot on the UK Albums Chart with their fourth and final studio album appropriately titled Goodbye. It would stay in that position for two weeks. Here’s one of the record’s tracks, Politician, which also is one of my favorite Cream tunes. Co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, Politician was one of three live tracks on the record that were captured on October 19, 1968, at The Forum in Los Angeles during the band’s farewell tour. By the time Goodbye came out in February 1969, Cream had already disbanded.

1975: Black Water, a classic by The Doobie Brothers, climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only two no. 1 hits the band had in the U.S. The second one was What a Fool Believes in 1979. Penned by Patrick Simmons who also sang lead, Black Water first appeared on the Doobies’ fourth studio album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits released in February 1974. Interestingly, the initial single release of Black Water was as the b-side to the record’s lead single Another Park, Another Sunday. While it’s not a bad song, you still have to wonder about that decision, which seems to suggest that between the band and the record company, they hadn’t quite noticed what a gem Black Water was.

1986: The Bangles reached no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart with Manic Monday, scoring their first hit, which also peaked at no. 2 in the U.S., Australia, Germany and Ireland, and placed in the top 5 in Austria, Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland. Written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher, the tune was included on the American pop-rock band’s sophomore album Different Light, which had appeared in January of the same year. I generally find listening to The Bangles fairly enjoyable. In particular, I like their harmony singing, plus they have some pretty catchy songs. Just please spare me with Eternal Flame, which at the time was hopelessly burned by overexposure on the radio back in Germany and I suspect in many other countries. BTW, The Bangles are still around in almost their original lineup. Following the band’s breakup in 1989, they reunited in 1998.

1999: Curtis MayfieldDel ShannonDusty SpringfieldPaul McCartneyThe Staple SingersBilly Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Sean Combs, Art Alexakis, Elton John, Neil Young, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles and Bono, respectively –  sounds fucking unreal to me! Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band to perform at the ceremony. Here are Bruce and the boys with Wilson Pickett, performing a scorching version of In The Midnight Hour, a Stax classic Pickett had co-written with Steve Cropper in 1965. Watching Pickett say he wants to kick Bruce in the ass but will keep it light since he’s The Boss and Bruce responding ‘Let’s give it a shot’ is priceless –  damn, this wants me to go and listen to some kickass live music, so badly – fuck you, COVID-19!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 8

Covering March 8 in rock history was a last-minute decision. In part, I was inspired by the last item on the list, which is related to The Beatles. Interestingly, it turned out this date also saw another event related to The Fab Four, which is the first item. What could be nicer than bookending this installment of my long-running recurrent music history feature with my all-time favorite band? Let’s get to it!

1963: Please Please Me by The Beatles placed at no. 40 on Chicago radio station WLS’s weekly Silver Dollar Survey, according to Songfacts Music History Calendar – the first time a Fab Four tune made a radio station survey in the U.S. This also means WLS may have been the first radio station in America to play one of their songs. As usual, the track was credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, though the original composition was by Lennon and the released studio version was significantly influenced by George Martin. About 11 months later, on February 9, 1964, The Beatles would conquer American TV households and start the British Invasion with their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

1965: Bob Dylan released Subterranean Homesick Blues, the lead single to his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home, which appeared two weeks thereafter. The tune marked his first top 40 hit in the U.S., climbing to no. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, it did even better, reaching the top 10 on the Official Singles Chart. According to Songfacts, Dylan told the Los Angeles Times that musically “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the forties.”

1968: The Fillmore East opened in New York City on Second Avenue near East 6th Street. The venue was a companion to rock promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium and its successor Filmore West in San Francisco. Until its closing on June 27, 1971, Fillmore East saw many notable music acts, such as Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. Due to the venue’s great acoustics, many live albums were recorded there, including the legendary At Fillmore East by the Allmans in 1971. Here they are with the epic Whipping Post, captured on September 23, 1970. The band’s double guitar attack with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, along with Greg Allman’s mesmerizing vocals and Hammond are on full display. The band was on fire that night. Live rock music simply doesn’t get better. Check it out!

1974: Queen released their sophomore album Queen II in the UK. The record peaked at no. 5 in the UK and cracked the top in the U.S., reaching no. 49 on the Billboard 200. Initially, Queen II was met with mixed reactions, but as is not uncommon with famous bands, eventually, it garnered praise from music critics, fans and fellow musicians. It also marked the first record for Queen where they used multi-layered overdubs, which became a signature feature on their later records. Here’s the lead single Seven Seas of Rhye, which was written by Freddie Mercury and released about two weeks ahead of the album.

2016: Legendary producer George Martin passed away at the age of 90 at his home in Wiltshire, England. His death was announced by Ringo Starr on Twitter and later confirmed by Universal Music Group. The cause was not disclosed. Of course, Martin is best known for his work with The Beatles. I think it is fair to say they would not have been the same without him. Following the disbanding of The Beatles, Martin worked with many other well-known artists, such as America, Jeff Beck, UFO and Little River Band. One of my personal favorites Martin did for The Beatles was the string arrangement for Eleanor Rigby. Primarily written by Paul McCartney, the tune appeared on the Revolver album from August 1966.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day In Rock; YouTube