My Playlist: The Boss

Before getting to The Boss, I’d like to acknowledge the untimely death of Eddie Money who passed away yesterday (Sep. 13) at the age of 70 from complications from heart valve surgery in a Los Angeles hospital, only three weeks after he had revealed his diagnosis of stage 4 esophageal cancer. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the news was his 1986 studio album Can’t Hold Back. I got it on CD at the time, primarily because of Take Me Home Tonight, a nice pop rock tune I dig to this day. I always liked his vocals. In my view, Money deserves more than a paragraph, so I’m planning to do a post on him in the near future.

Turning to Bruce Springsteen, I feel I never really need a particular reason to write about The Boss. As frequent visitors know, I’ve done so numerous times on these pages since I’ve started the blog in June 2016. It ain’t rocket science and all comes down to this: I just love Springsteen – his music, his lyrics, his down-to-earth personality, his amazing live shows. He’s the total package! I’ve been fortunate to see him twice over the past 30 years or so – undoubtedly, these concerts will stay with me forever. I think at least when it comes to live music, Springsteen truly is in a league of his own. Name another notch present day artist who plays 3 to 4-hour shows with seemingly endless energy – pretty remarkable at any age, but even more so for a guy who is about to turn 70!

Bruce Springsteen

To be clear, while music is both my passion and my therapy that more than once has helped me keep my shit together, I’m a fan, not a fanatic – not even when it comes to my all-time favorite band The Beatles. A phenomenon like Beatlemania actually scares me more than anything else. Had John Lennon or Paul McCartney asked their audience to go out and kill somebody, sadly, I have no doubt some lunatic would have acted on that. Obviously, this didn’t happen. My point here is that out of control fandom isn’t healthy, neither for fans nor music artists. With that being said, I still like to celebrate music artists I dig. But similar to drinking alcohol or driving, let’s do so in a responsible way!

The reason why Springsteen has been on my mind for the past few days is his upcoming 70th birthday on September 23rd. Obviously, countless pieces have been written about The Boss. In fact, Springsteen himself released his acclaimed autobiography Born To Run in September 2016. As such, there is really is no need for yet another write-up about his life! Instead, I’d like to focus on Springsteen’s music with a playlist of songs, which I haven’t featured in the blog before. This means leaving out gems like Born To Run, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out and Bobby Jean, to name a few of my all-time favorite Springsteen tunes. Of course, the good news is The Boss has a mighty catalog to choose from, so let’s get to it in chronological order.

I’d like to kick things off with a track that according to Songfacts was one of the tunes that convinced Columbia Records to sign Springsteen in 1972: Growin’ Up. The lyrics about adolescence were inspired by his own troubles in school and frequent quarrels with his old man during his teenage ages. The track was included on Springsteen’s debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., which appeared in January 1973. One of the things I learned when researching this post was that David Bowie recorded a version of the song in 1974 during the sessions for his Diamond Dogs studio album, featuring Ronnie Wood on lead guitar. While it’s actually pretty cool, apparently the take wasn’t released until 1990, when it was included as a bonus track on a reissue of Bowie’s Pin Ups album.

Of course, there’s no way I can leave out my favorite Springsteen record from this playlist: Born To Run, a pivotal album for The Boss, who at that time badly needed a commercially viable record. Well, he hit the mark, and the rest is history. In addition to the title track, the album includes other classics like Thunder Road, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Jungleland and the tune I’d like to feature here: Backstreets. According to Songfacts, Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 2016 the song is about “Just youth, the beach, the night, friendships, the feeling of being an outcast and kind of living far away from things in this little outpost in New Jersey. It’s also about a place of personal refuge. It wasn’t a specific relationship or anything that brought the song into being.”

The River has become one of my other favorite Springsteen records. I listened intensely to his fifth studio album from October 1980, leading up to my second and most recent Springsteen gig I saw in August 2016 during The River Tour – ironically, only to realize that by the time The Boss hit New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, the setlist hardly included any tracks from the record. Here’s Ramrod, a great garage rocker! Come on, come on, come on little sugar, Dance with your daddy and we’ll go ramroddin’ tonight…

Another album I can’t skip is the one that brought Springsteen on my radar screen back in Germany in the ’80s: Born In The U.S.A. Obviously, it did the same for millions of other folks around the world. With hits like the title track, Dancing In The Dark and I’m On Fire, it became Springsteen’s most commercially successful release and one of the highest selling records of all time. Here is one of the few tunes I believe were not released as a single: Downbound Train. The Boss first recorded this song as an acoustic demo in May 1982 during the sessions for his Nebraska album, along with several other tracks that ended up on Born In The U.S.A.

For the next selection, I’m jumping to the early ’90s: Lucky Town, Springsteen’s 10th studio album that was released at the end of March 1992, simultaneously with Human Touch. I still remember I bought both on CD at the same time. Here is the opener Better Days, which also became the lead single released 10 days ahead of the album. “With a young son and about to get married (for the last time) I was feelin’ like a happy guy who has his rough days rather than vice versa,” commented Springsteen, according to Songfacts. It’s a fairly simple track with a straightforward chord progression, but I just love the sound.

An important album in Springsteen’s catalog is The Rising from July 2002. Not only did it mark his first record in seven years, it also was the first with the E Street Band since Born In The U.S.A. Hitting the right mood in the aftermath of 9/11, the album debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling more than 500,000 copies in just the first week. While not all the tracks dealt directly with the terrorist attacks, here’s one that did: Into The Fire, a dedication to the firefighters who were lost that day: The sky was falling and streaked with blood/I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust/Up the stairs, into the fire/Up the stairs, into the fire/I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs/Into the fire…

In January 2009, Springsteen released his 16th studio album Working On A Dream. “Towards the end of recording Magic [his preceding studio record from September 2007], excited by the return to pop production sounds, I continued writing,” Springsteen stated about the album. “When my friend producer Brendan O’Brien heard the new songs, he said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ Over the course of the next year, that’s just what we did, recording with the E Street Band during the breaks on last year’s tour. I hope ‘Working on a Dream’ has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done. All the songs were written quickly, we usually used one of our first few takes, and we all had a blast making this one from beginning to end.” Here’s the official video for the title track.

I’d like to conclude this playlist with Springsteen’s latest record Western Stars, which appeared in June this year. It’s his first album of solo material since Devils & Dust from April 2005. While I don’t dislike the record, I have to admit I’m still getting used to both Springsteen’s singing and the sometimes lush sound – not many edges here. Here’s Tucson Train, the tale of a construction worker who left San Francisco and a difficult relationship to start a new life in Arizona, only for him and his woman to realize they miss each other, so she’s coming there to see him again.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: May 5

This is the 40th installment of my recurring feature on rock music history. While I generally enjoy doing research for the posts and seeing what comes up for a specific date, sometimes it feels I already must have covered most dates of the year. But this little milestone means I still have more than 300 other potential installments left! 🙂

Without further ado, let’s take a look at May 5:

1956: Elvis Presley for the first time topped the Billboard Hot 100, with Heartbreak Hotel, which also became his first million-selling single. It’s one of my all-time favorite tunes by Elvis who interestingly received a credit for singing it. Nashville steel guitarist  Tommy Durden wrote the lyrics. They were inspired by a newspaper article about a man who ended his life by jumping out of a hotel window, leaving a note behind that said, “I walk a lonely street.” The music was composed by Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton. Heartbreak Hotel is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. In my opinion, the track is perhaps the coolest Elvis song. It has also been covered by Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and other artists, and is included in Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

1966: Manfred Mann reached the top of the British charts with Pretty Flamingo. Written by American songwriter and record producer Mark Barkan, the song became the band’s second no. 1 in the U.K. after Do Wah Diddy Diddy in 1964. The tune fared less well in the U.S., where it peaked at no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late August – still not too shabby! The recording of Pretty Flamingo featured Jack Bruce, who briefly became a member of Manfred Mann before co-founding Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in July 1966. Bruce was replaced by another prominent artist: German musician, record producer and graphic artist Klaus Voormann, who remained the band’s bassist until 1969.

1967: The Kinks released Waterloo Sunset, the lead single to their fifth British studio album Something Else by The Kinks, which appeared in September that year. Written by Ray Davies, it reached no. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart, marking the band’s 10th Top 10 single. According to Songfacts, Davies called the tune “a romantic, lyrical song about my older sister’s generation.” Widely considered as one of The Kinks’ most acclaimed tunes, notably, the single did not chart in the U.S. It is ranked at no. 42 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list from 2004.

1969: The Beatles released Get Back in the U.S. Notably, their first single of 1969 was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, the only time such credit appeared on any release by the band. The U.S. single came out nearly a month after it had appeared in Britain. According to The Beatles Bible, this “may have been due to a last-minute remix ordered by Paul McCartney on 7 April 1969, four days before the official U.K. release date.” The delay didn’t hurt the single’s performance in America where it topped the Billboard Hot 100, just as it did in the U.K. Canada, Australia and many other countries.

1973: David Bowie started a five-week run for Aladdin Sane on the Official Albums Chart in the U.K. Bowie’s sixth studio album, which was the follow-up to breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, became his first of six records to top that chart. With Ziggy Stardust being my favorite Bowie album I may be biased here, but I’m actually somewhat in disbelief that it was outperformed by Aladdin Sane. Well, I suppose Rolling Stone seems to agree with me that Ziggy Stardust is the better record: While both albums are included in their 2003 version of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Ziggy Stardust is at no. 35, while Aladdin Sane is ranked at no. 277. Without meaning to get too much carried away with chart positions, Bowie’s next two albums following Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups (October 1973) and Diamond Dogs (May 1974), also hit no. 1 in Britain. I can’t imagine there are many other artists with three no. 1 albums in a row. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are among them. One final fun fact: According to This Day In Music, Aladdin Sane is a pun on “A Lad Insane.” That definitely deserves extra points for creativity! Here’s the insane lead single The Jean Genie.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, Songfacts, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Bowie/ Ziggy Stardust

When it comes to David Bowie, I’ve always felt more drawn to his early years. Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World and Changes are among my favorite tunes. Ditto for Starman, Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City. I was less fond of his Tin Machine venture and didn’t pay much attention to music he released thereafter. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is Bowie at his best, in my opinion. So guess what happened when I recently spotted a used audiophile vinyl copy of this gem at a small record store close to my house? Yep, I just couldn’t resist taking it home!

Often simply called Ziggy Stardurst, the record is Bowie’s fifth studio release and appeared in June 1972. Wikipedia characterizes it as a “loose concept album” revolving around a bi-sexual alien rock musician who becomes widely popular among teenagers before his fame ultimately kills him. Ziggy Stardust also became Bowie’s most notorious alter-ego during the massive tour that supported both this record and the follow-on Aladdin Sane from April 1973. Spanning the U.K., North America and Japan, the extended tour lasted from late January 1972 until early July 1973. One of the U.S. gigs, performed for radio broadcast in Santa Monica, Calif., became a fantastic bootleg. Since 2008 it’s been available officially as Live Santa Monica ’72.

David Bowie & The Spiders From Mars
David Bowie (second from right) with The Spiders From Mars (left to right): Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and Mick Ronson

Driven by his fondness for acting, Bowie liked to create on-stage personas for his music and totally immersed himself into the characters. In the case of Ziggy Stardust things got so intense that eventually he could no longer distinguish between himself and his alter-ego. Wikipedia quotes him from the biography Bowie: Loving The Alien (Christopher Sanford, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997): Stardust “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” Time for a another cheerful topic – music about earth’s demise! 🙂

The album opens with Five Years, which like all other tunes except one was penned by Bowie. Telling about the planet’s upcoming destruction, musically, the song is a great built. Generally speaking, when it comes to music, to me the lyrics tend to be second to the melody and musical arrangement – in other words, usually, it takes the two latter for a song to grab me.

Next up: The excellent Soul Love, a tune with a distinct cool groove. In addition to singing lead and backing vocals, Bowie is also playing acoustic rhythm guitar and alto saxophone. I admire people who can master various instruments and always wanted to be a multi-instrumentalist myself. I only managed to learn the acoustic guitar and electric bass, each with moderate success, but I’m getting off topic here!

Starman was the last song Bowie wrote for the album, after RCA had noted it was lacking a single. Really? How about the catchy rocker Suffragette City? In any case, I’m glad Bowie obliged, since the result was one of his all-time greatest tunes: Starman. It ended up replacing a take of Chuck Berry’s Around And Around, simply called Round And Round. That cover eventually became the B-side to Drive-In Saturday, an April 1973 single from the Aladdin Sane album. BTW, Suffragette City ended up as the B-side to Starman – I think it should have been it’s own (A-side) single!

The record’s title track is another highlight. I’ve always loved the guitar riff – simple yet effective! Plus, it’s about a guy playing guitar. Did I mention guitarists are cool dudes? 🙂

The last tune I’d like to highlight, perhaps you guessed it, is Suffragette City, the tune on the I album I like best and perhaps my favorite Bowie song overall. It’s simply a kick-ass rocker – ahhh, wham bam, thank ya man! (taking some creative license here). Initially, Bowie had offered the song to then-struggling Mott the Hoople. His condition: Don’t break up, guys! While the band declined that tune, they went with Bowie’s All The Young Dudes instead, another catchy song. Oh, and it became their biggest hit in the U.K. and extended their career for more than five years (until 1980) – not a bad outcome!

The album’s music arrangements are credited to Bowie and Mick Ronson (guitar, piano, vocals), who was part his excellent backing band The Spiders From Mars. The other members included Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums). I need to check out whatever happened to these guys after their last performance with Bowie. That show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973 was captured in the 1973 documentary Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by D.A. Pennemaker, a film I’ve also yet to watch!

The Ziggy Stardust album was recorded at Trident Studios in London, U.K., and co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, one of the five main recording engineers for The Beatles. That in and of itself is already pretty cool, but there’s more: Scott has also worked with other big names, such as Elton John, Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck and Kansas. And he co-produced additional Bowie albums, including Hunky Dory (December 1971), Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups (October 1973).

Ziggy Stardust has been called Bowie’s breakthrough album. It peaked at no. 5 on the British Official Albums Chart and no. 75 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart (now called the Billboard 200). The album has received numerous accolades over the years. It is ranked no. 35 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2013 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 1997, it was named the 20th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll in the U.K. In 2017, the U.S. Library of Congress selected the record for preservation in the National Recording Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube