What I’ve Been Listening to: Bettye LaVette/Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

One thing I love about music blogging is how much I learn about artists I didn’t know or only had heard of by name. Oftentimes, I find myself stepping through one door only to find many others I’ve yet to open. Frankly, I probably would have run out of ideas a long time ago, if it were any different! Plus, I’d get bored if I only wrote about music and artists I know.

The latest example is Bettye LaVette, a versatile vocalist who has been active since 1962. I included her in two previous posts, most recently on Saturday in a piece about artists who have covered songs by The Rolling Stones. LaVette’s great rendition of Salt of the Earth led me to take a closer look at the album that includes her version of the tune. I was quickly intrigued by what else I found on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which was released in May 2010. Her soulful, at times somewhat fragile voice reminds me a bit of Tina Turner and is right up my alley.

Bettye LaVette - Soulful Detroit

While LaVette enjoyed some chart success early in her career, for decades, she was more of a cult figure in soul circles. At least in part that was due to bad luck with record labels. After LaVette recorded what was supposed to become her first full-length album Child of the Seventies, Atlantic Records decided not to move forward with the project, apparently without giving her any explanation. In 1982, Motown’s Lee Young, Sr. signed LaVette to the storied label, which led to the recording of her first released album Tell Me Lie. However, following a corporate shake-up, Young was removed, the label never promoted LaVette’s record, and it failed to chart.

Fast-forward to 2000 when a French collector and label owner called Gilles Petard discovered the tapes for the aforementioned Child of the Seventies album in Atlantic Records’ vaults. He liked what he heard, licensed the tracks and released them under the title Souvenirs in France on his Art & Soul label. Around the same time, Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, a live recording of LaVette in the Netherlands, appeared on the Dutch label Munich. The two near-simultaneous releases created new interest in LaVette as a recording artist and resulted in a contract with label Blues Express.

Bettye LaVette Interview - Blues Matters Magazine

In January 2003, LaVette released A Woman Like Me, only her third full-length studio album. It won the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year and the Living Blues critic pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004. LaVette’s recording career was finally going somewhere. She has since released eight other studio albums and won additional awards, including a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (2006), Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer (2008), Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society (2015) and Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation (2016). LaVette is also in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame and has been nominated three times for a Grammy.

LaVette is an unusual artist. According to her website, she is no mere singer. She is not a song writer, nor is she a “cover” artist. She is an interpreter of the highest order. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 60s and is still creating vital recordings today. This certainly becomes obvious when listening to Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which brings me back to the album. Let’s get to some intriguing interpretations!

The opener is a funky version of The Word by The Beatles. While the John LennonPaul McCartney co-write, which was included on the Rubber Soul album from December 1965, is barely recognizable, I find LaVette’s take pretty cool. It’s got a bit of a James Brown vibe, and I can almost hear his “uhs” in the background.

How about some Led Zeppelin reimagined? Here’s All My Love, a song I’ve always dug. Co-written by John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, the tune first appeared on Zep’s eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door released in August 1979. Check this out – damn!

Let’s move on to Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. The title track of their ninth studio album from September 1975 was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Who would have thought a Floyd track could ever sound so soulful!

Nights in White Satin is one of my favorite songs by The Moody Blues. Written by Justin Hayward, the track appeared on Days of Future Passed, one of the most beautiful concept albums of the ’60s. Here it is in Bettye LaVette style – amazing!

Let’s do two more. First up is another great funky rendition: Why Does Love Got to be So Sad by Derek and the Dominoes. Co-written by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the tune appeared on the band’s sole studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs from November 1970. Groovy!

Last but not least, here is the closer Love, Reign O’er Me, a highlight on the album. It captures LaVette’s unedited live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008 in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, who were among the honorees that year. Townshend wrote the tune for The Who’s sixth studio album Quadrophenia that came out in October 1973. Here’s the actual footage from the Kennedy Center. Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend almost seem to have a Led Zeppelin moment. Check this out. This is friggin’ intense!

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which appeared on U.S. label Anti-, was co-produced by Rob Mathes, Michael Stevens and LaVette. It reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, staying in that chart for 39 weeks. The album also enjoyed some mainstream success in the U.S., climbing to no. 56 on the Billboard 200. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook became one of the three aforementioned Grammy nominations for LaVette.

Thanks to great images on Discogs, I was able to look at the album’s liner notes that reveal some interesting things about LaVette’s approach to interpretations. “I never think of a song as a record,” she is quoted. “I think of songs as songs. I don’t think of a Rolling Stones recording. I think of the Rolling Stones singing this song and now I’m going to sing it. That helps me tremendously…There’s no process of ‘how can I make this different.’ I hear it immediately differently. It’s very hard for another singer to satisfy me. No matter where a singer went with the vocal, if I can think of somewhere else to go, then wherever they went no longer interests me.”

In addition to the vocal approach, LaVette also took artistic freedom with the lyrics, which she changed significantly on a number of songs. “I think the most difficult thing about putting the album together was that many of the words didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “These songs belong to white fans who are now in their fifties…The biggest hang-up was I didn’t want to disrespect them because I knew that there are people who have altars built to many of these songs…When I got into them I realized there were things worth saying but I had to make them things I could sing about.”

So what do some of the artists who wrote the original songs think of LaVette’s renditions? Following are some quotes from a sticker on the CD’s jewel case. Again, I have Discogs to thank for featuring some great images. “A great record. Put me in the Bettye LaVette fan club” (Keith Richards). “Bettye is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once” (Pete Townshend). “Bettye is blessed with an instantly recognizable voice full of power & emotion” (Steve Winwood). “Bettye has recorded an amazing version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me'” (Elton John).

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

Space, the Final Frontier

Yesterday’s successful landing of NASA’s robotic explorer Perseverance on Mars once again reminds us of humankind’s fascination with distant planets and what’s out there beyond our galaxy. Not surprisingly, many music artists have embraced the theme of space in their songs. The first who always comes to my mind in this context is David Bowie, who repeatedly wrote about the topic in tunes like Space Oddity, Starman, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. There are plenty of additional examples. This playlist features some of these songs, ordered according to their release date.

The Byrds/Mr. Spaceman

While birds cannot fly in space, this didn’t prevent The Byrds from recording this happy-sounding tale about a kid who wakes up from the light of a flying saucer and cheerfully asks the ETs for a space ride. Mr. Spaceman, written by Roger McGuinn, appeared on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension from June 1966.

Pink Floyd/Astrodomine

This Syd Barrett tune, an early example of space rock, was the opener of Pink Floyd’s debut studio album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Released in August 1967, this early phase Floyd gem also featured another track in the same genre: Interstellar Overdrive. I decided to go with the shorter tune! 🙂

The Rolling Stones/2000 Light Years From Home

2000 Light Years from Home is a song from Their Satanic Majesties Request, a lovely psychedelic album by The Rolling Stones, which appeared only a few months after Floyd’s debut in December 1967. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune also became the B-side to the American single She’s a Rainbow that was released in November of the same year. Charmingly weird! 🙂

Steve Miller Band/Space Cowboy

Listening to Space Cowboy by Steve Miller Band was the tune that inspired this post, not the Mars rover, though I guess the timing worked out nicely. Co-written by Steve Miller and the band’s keyboarder at the time Ben Sidrin, the song was included on their third studio album Brave New World that came out in June 1969. The vibe of the main riff is a bit reminiscent of Peter Gunn, the theme music for the American detective TV show of the same name, composed by Henry Mancini in 1958. In 1979, Emerson, Lake & Palmer popularized that theme on their live album Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Concert.

Deep Purple/Space Truckin’

Time to go for some Space Truckin’ with Deep Purple. This track is the closer of the band’s sixth studio album Machine Head from March 1972, which to me remains their Mount Rushmore to this day. Like all remaining tracks on the record, Space Truckin’ was credited to all members of the band: Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Ian Gillan (vocals, harmonica), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion).

Elton John/Rocket Man

One of my all-time favorites by Elton John happens to be related to space as well: Rocket Man, from his fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May 1972. As usual, Sir Elton composed the music while Bernie Taupin provided the lyrics. Honky Château became John’s first no. 1 record in the U.S. He was literally flying on top of the word – six additional no. 1 albums in America would follow in a row!

David Bowie/Starman

I guess 1972 was a year, during which space themes were particularly popular in rock and pop music. In June 1972, only one and three months after Honky Château and Machine Head, respectively, David Bowie released his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I have to say I tend to like him best during his glam rock period, and Ziggy Stardust is my favorite Bowie album. Like all except for one tune, Starman was written by Bowie.

Stevie Wonder/Saturn

Even soul great Stevie Wonder got into the “space business.” Saturn, co-written by Michael Sembello and Wonder, became a bonus track to Songs in the Key of Life, his magnum opus from September 1976.

The Police/Walking on the Moon

The year was 1979 when The Police released their sophomore album Reggatta de Blanc in October. Walking on the Moon, written by Sting, is the first track on the B-side. Yes, this was still pre-CDs, not to mention music streaming! I’ve always liked the reggae vibe of this tune.

R.E.M./Man on the Moon

Let’s wrap up this collection of space-themed songs with Man on the Moon by R.E.M. The tune, a tribute to American comedian and performer Andy Kaufman, was credited to the entire band: Michael Stipe (lead vocals), Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin, bass), Mike Mills (bass, keyboards, accordion, backing vocals) and Bill Berry (drums, percussion, keyboards, melodica, bass, backing vocals). It was recorded for R.E.M.’s eighth studio album Automatic for the People from October 1992. The album became their second major international success after Out of Time that had been released in March 1991.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Pete Townshend/White City: A Novel

The other day, while listening to “my” radio station, which is fed by my streaming music provider based on my library and other previously played tunes, I came across Give Blood by Pete Townshend. The tune is the opener of White City: A Novel, released in November 1985. While I couldn’t remember the previous time I had listened to it, I recalled I had come to really dig this record back in the ’80s. This triggered my curiosity, and it turns out I still like Townshend’s fourth solo effort.

Interestingly, the first song I heard back in the ’80s didn’t impress me much initially: The lead single Face the Face. I felt the drums sounded monotonous and kind of retarded. Ironically, the drums track ended up becoming one of my favorite features of the tune, which in turn became one of my favorite songs on the album – go figure! But before getting to some music, let’s start with the bigger picture.

According to Wikipedia, White City: A Novel is a loose concept album around a low-income housing project in White City, a West London district located close to where Townshend had grown up. The themes revolve around cultural conflict, racial tension and youthful hopes and dreams in the ’60s.

There was also a 60-minute companion film, White City: The Music Movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Lowenstein. It appeared on video in 1985 as well, starring Pete Townshend, and English actor and actress Andrew Wilde and Frances Barber, respectively. Now let’s get to some songs. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks were written by Townshend.

I’d like to kick things off with the aforementioned Give Blood featuring David Gilmour on guitar and prolific session bassist Pino Palladino. “Give Blood was one of the tracks I didn’t even play on,” Townshend recalled, per Wikipedia. “I brought in [drummer] Simon Phillips, Pino Palladino and David Gilmour simply because I wanted to see my three favourite musicians of the time playing on something and, in fact, I didn’t have a song for them to work on, and sat down very, very quickly and rifled threw [sic] a box of stuff, said to Dave, ‘Do one of those kind of ricky-ticky-ricky-ticky things, and I’ll shout ‘Give Blood!’ in the microphone every five minutes and let’s see what happens.” Now we know how to write a great song!

I don’t have much to say about the next tune, Brilliant Blues, except it was love at first listen. In particular, I dig Townshend’s vocals, his guitar sound and the catchy melody. He was backed by John “Rabbit” Bundrick (keyboards), Steve Barnacle (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums), who also played on most of the other tracks. BTW, I find Townshend’s singing pretty compelling throughout the album – a reminder he’s a decent vocalist, though it’s fair to say his voice sounds worn these days.

This brings me to Face the Face. “Face the Face was done on a new keyboard,… and I was very keen to get something very, very fast and upbeat knocked out, and I knocked out a few sections that I couldn’t play all together,” Townshend said. “This was very much a new age type of recording, and that’s why it sounds pretty modern, I think. Simon Philips overdubbed the drums [a drum loop from a box], we later overdubbed the brass, we overdubbed backing vocals, we overdubbed everything. It was all overdubbed onto Rabbit’s [John “Rabbit” Bundrick] synthesizer playing.”

Let’s do two more. First up: Crashing by Design. It’s another well written and quite catchy tune. Townshend definitely has a knack for coming up with melodies that are easy on the ears.

The last track I’d like to highlight is White City Fighting, a highlight on the album. Initially, David Gilmour had composed the song’s music for his second solo album About Face from March 1984 and asked Townshend to write the lyrics. Townshend did but Gilmour couldn’t relate to the words. The tune didn’t make Gilmour’s album and ended up on Townshend’s record with Gilmour playing guitar – certainly a great outcome!

White City: A Novel was produced by Chris Thomas, a prominent English record producer whose impressive credits include The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Badfinger, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Pretenders, among others. Thomas also had produced Townshend’s two previous solo albums All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (June 1982) and Empty Glass (April 1980).

The performance of White City: A Novel didn’t match Townshend’s earlier solo albums, especially in the U.K., where it stalled at no. 70 on the Official Albums Chart. By comparison, Empty Glass had peaked at no. 11. The album did better in the U.S. where it reached no. 26 on the Billboard 200, though similar to the U.K., it couldn’t match Empty Glass, which had surged all the way to no. 5. In Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, on the other hand, White City: A Novel placed in the top 20, outperforming Empty Glass.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 24

Time again for a dose of music history, which has recurred irregularly since June 2016 and is my longest running feature on the blog. For any new visitors, in a nutshell, the idea is to look at events that happened on a certain date throughout rock and pop history. As always, the selections reflect my music taste and do not aim to present a full account. With that, let’s embark on some music time travel!

1958: An obscure band called The Quarrymen hit the Cavern Club in London for their first live performance. They were billed as The Quarry Men Skiffle Group. “They’d only been playing for a short while so you wouldn’t expect them to be any good…,” recalled Cavern owner Alan Sytner. “At the time, they couldn’t play to save their lives and all I can remember is their cheek and their chat.” While it hasn’t been definitively documented, The Quarrymen are believed to have performed at the Cavern Club on several other occasions. Four years later, the group would change the music world forever with a different line-up. Their name? The Beatles. Here’s In Spite of All the Danger, one of the first songs recorded by The Quarrymen. Co-written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the tune is thought to have been recorded sometime between May and July 1958. It was shortly after Harrison (guitar, vocals) had joined the band, which at the time apart from McCartney (vocals, guitar) also featured John Lennon (vocals, guitar), John Lowe (piano) and Colin Hunton (drums).

1958: While The Quarrymen were getting their feet wet the Cavern Club, a music phenomenon from the U.S. stood at no. 1 of the UK singles chart: Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock became the first-ever single to enter the chart at no. 1 and was the second no. 1 for Elvis in the UK after All Shook Up. Co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jailhouse Rock was the title track of the picture of the same name that had hit the widescreen in September 1957. It also topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada and reached the top 10 in several other countries.

1967: Pink Floyd were at Sound Techniques Studios in Chelsea, London, to work on their debut single Arnold Layne, backed by Candy and a Currant Bun. Both tracks were written by the band’s initial leader Syd Barrett. When the band performed the latter tune live in 1967, it was titled Let’s Roll Another One and included the line I’m high – Don’t try to spoil my fun. Columbia (EMI) didn’t like the obvious references to drugs and forced Barrett to change the title and rewrite the corresponding line. Songfacts notes the outcome was still strange since the lyrics included the word “f–k,” making it one of the first songs to use the expletive.

1970: Dr. Robert Moog unveiled the Minimoog at a price of $2,000, an analogue synthesizer designed as a portable, simplified instrument that combined the most useful components of the Moog synthesizer in a single device. It became the first synthesizer sold in retail stores and quickly gained popularity among progressive rock and jazz musicians. It also ended up being widely used in disco, pop, rock and electronic music. Not everybody was enthusiastic. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, The American Federation of Musicians feared the Minimoog’s realistic sounds would put horn and string sections out of business. Yes keyboarder Rick Wakeman, an early adopter of the Minimoog, said the synthesizer “absolutely changed the face of music.”

Minimoog.JPG

1975: Elton John, who was flying high, topped the Billboard 200 with his first compilation album Greatest Hits, bringing to a close an impressive 9-week run in the no. 1 spot. It became the most sold album of 1975 in the U.S. and remains his best-selling t0 date. The compilation, which featured 10 of John’s biggest singles, also topped the charts in Australia, Canada and the UK. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time). Composed by John with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the tune was first released as a single in March 1972 and included on John’s fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May of the same year.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Billboard.com; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Michael Jaskewicz/Crooked Tree

Crooked Tree is the debut solo album by Michael Jaskewicz, a singer-songwriter from New Jersey. I met him sometime in 2019 while he was performing at a bar with Cosmic Jerry Band (now called Cosmic), which then mainly was a tribute to the Grateful Dead that has since evolved into focusing on original music. In fact, they just came out with their own debut album Bloom on December 27. I finally got to listen to Crooked Tree and really dig the warm, bare bones acoustic sound.

As Jaskewicz notes in a blog post on his website, in addition to Jerry Garcia and the Dead, his influences include Warren Haynes, Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Trey Anastasio. In an interview with Music Life Now, he also noted Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, among others. Listening to the album before I had seen that interview Taylor came to my mind as well, as did Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Marc Cohn, who is best known for his 1991 signature tune Walking in Memphis. Jaskewicz’s voice occasionally reminds me a bit of Cohn.

Under normal circumstances, Crooked Tree could have appeared last April. But as Jaskewicz pointed out in the above blog post, COVID-19 and his struggle with depression and anxiety delayed things. “I spent a lot of time wrestling with the demons in my head trying to figure out why it seemed every imaginable roadblock to my success in music was being placed before me,” he explains. “Getting ready to step out into the world with songs, only to have the world hold a giant red stop sign in front of my face was pretty much a surefire way to send my mind straight into the darkness. And boy did it ever.”

Time for some music. Here’s the opener and title song, which was inspired by Jaskewicz’s infatuation with oddly shaped trees, as well as the terminal cancer of a close friend. “As I thought of his pain and suffering aligned with the intense light of a human being he was, he became the Crooked Tree in my mind and the words started flowing, ” he told Music Life Now. “I wanted to paint a picture of how beautiful he was, how life had taken its toll on him, and how in reality we are all Crooked Trees. Our flaws make us beautiful. We should not bear shame for the mental and physical scars we have from enduring life.”

In What Is a Life Jaskewiciz muses about the factors that oftentimes limit life. In a separate blog post on his website, he explained, “The absurdity of the verses in What Is A Life are an homage to imagination. Wishes on a feather, bury the clouds and sow seeds of whim, windows of time on a golden swing…. All just random musings of the mind eventually pushed into some corner of your mind to die. Without opening your imagination, you never can truly see the beauty of things, you can’t paint the canvas of your life.”

War That Can’t be Won is a dark, powerful tune. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: …Future’s falling from a poison sky/Future’s calling with a look in her eyes/Blood is flowing over government gold/Seeds of vengeance will grow no more…

I’d like to call out one more track: Falling in Your Eyes, the album’s beautiful closer.

“I am so proud to have released Crooked Tree,” Jaskewicz stated. “In a past life I would have been so content with just that, but the truth is I’m already working on the follow up and my goal is to have it completed by the end of the year.”Jaskewicz appears to be on a roll. At the time of his aforementioned statement, he already had 46 completed songs. On November 30, he released a new single titled Stars In Our Eyes.

I think Jaskewicz is off to a great start and I look forward to his sophomore album.

Sources: Michael Jaskewicz website; Music Life Now; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Arlo Guthrie/Alice’s Restaurant Massacree

I can’t believe it’s taken me more than four years to dedicate a post to one of the most hilarious songs I can think of: Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, better known as Alice’s Restaurant, by folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. And what better time to do so than on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Alice’s Restaurant, the title track of Guthrie’s debut album from October 1967, is a largely spoken satirical protest song against the Vietnam War draft. It’s based on a true though exaggerated story that started on Thanksgiving 1965 when Guthrie and his friend Ray Brock were arrested by the local police of Stockbridge, Mass. for illegally dumping trash. Guthrie’s resulting criminal record from the incident later contributed to his rejection by the draft board.

At 18 minutes and 34 seconds, Alice’s Restaurant can easily compete with some Pink Floyd tunes, except it’s much more upbeat. Because of its length, the track is rarely heard on the radio, except on Thanksgiving when many stations play it in its entirety. This includes Q104.3, the New York classic rock station I mentioned in a recent previous post, which trigged this piece.

Perhaps not surprisingly given Guthrie’s cinematic story-telling, Alice’s Restaurant also inspired a 1969 comedy film with the same name, starring Guthrie as himself. It was directed by Arthur Penn who among others is known as director of the 1967 classic biographical crime picture Bonnie and Clyde.

Commenting on what became his signature tune, Guthrie said, “I never expected it to be so popular,” as quoted by Songfacts. “An 18-minute song doesn’t get airplay. You can’t expect that. So the fact that it became a hit was absurd on the face of it. It wasn’t part of the calculation.” Well, whether intentional or not, I’m sure it helped Guthrie pay some bills.

Last but not least, to all folks who celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving and be safe!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

On Occasions When I’m Up For Heavy Action

A collection of favorite hard rock tunes

My recent “desert island” collection of 10 studio albums included Deep Purple’s Machine Head, which after more than 40 years of listening remains the ultimate hard rock album to me. In that post, I also noted that these days heavy rock no longer is my primary music choice. But occasionally, I still enjoy it, which triggered the idea to put together this playlist. I guess just like with many other things, when it comes to music, it’s all about moderation, except of course for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Neil Young, live concerts, music equipment… 🙂

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I find doing rankings nearly impossible. But since I suppose there needs to be some system to the madness, the following list is in chronological order from oldest to most recent. And, yes, I suppose in some cases you could question whether a pick is really hard, heavy or metal rock, or is it just rock? The boundaries can be pretty fluid. Plus, to some extent, it’s also a bit subjective. At the end of the day, it’s all about music I dig when the occasion is right. With all these caveats out of the way, let’s get to it.

SteppenwolfBorn to be Wild

This classic from Steppenwolf’s eponymous debut album from January 1968 sometimes has been called the first heavy metal song – in part because of the second line of the second verse, “heavy metal thunder.”Born to be Wild was written by Canadian rock musician and songwriter Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire. The tune also appeared separately as a single in June 1968 and became Steppenwolf’s biggest hit next to Magic Carpet Ride. It will forever be associated with the 1969 biker cult picture Easy Rider. Every time I hear that opening line Get your motor runnin’, I feel like climbing on my chopper and heading down Route 18 to the Jersey shore. Then reality sets in. I don’t own a bike, not to mention the minor detail I don’t really know how to ride one. But when I get the urge to look for adventure, there’s always my sexy family crossover SUV! 🙂

Led ZeppelinWhole Lotta Love

While Led Zeppelin IV is my favorite Zep album, Whole Lotta Love possibly is my favorite tune among their crunchy rockers. Credited to all four members, the track first appeared on Led Zeppelin’s sophomore album that came out in October 1969, ingeniously titled Led Zeppelin II. The following month, Whole Lotta Love was also released as a single and became their best chart-performing song, reaching no. 1 in Australia and Germany, and peaking at no. 4 in the U.S. Notably, it didn’t chart in their home country. From today’s perspective, the fact that Whole Lotta Love became such a big hit looks unreal. You need cooling/Baby I’m not fooling/I’m gonna send ya/Back to schooling//A-way down inside/A-honey you need it/I’m gonna give you my love/I’m gonna give you my love//Want to whole lotta love/Want to whole lotta love/Want to whole lotta love/Want to whole lotta love…

Deep PurpleSpeed King

Obviously, it was only a matter of time until I would feature a Deep Purple tune in this post. But while Machine Head was their Mount Rushmore, there’s more to the British hard rockers than this 1972 gem. One great example is the opener to the band’s fourth studio album Deep Purple in Rock released in June 1970: Speed King. Credited to the entire band, the song’s lyrics are made up of titles of classic rock & roll tunes by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, which I always thought was a cool idea. Good golly, said little Miss Molly/When she was rockin’ in the house of blue light/Tutti Frutti was oh so rooty/Rockin’ to the east and west/Lucille was oh so real/When she didn’t do her daddies will/Come on baby, drive me crazy, do it, do it.. This is one kick-ass rocker!

Black SabbathParanoid

While I can’t claim to be a Black Sabbath fan, there’s just no way you can leave out these English rockers from any heavy rock collection. It would be like doing a post about the British Invasion and excluding The Beatles. And, to be clear, I’m not just featuring Sabbath because I felt I had to. I’ve always loved Paranoid, the title track of their second studio album that came out in September 1970. Credited to the entire band, Paranoid first appeared as a single in August of the same year. It became their biggest hit, topping the charts in Germany, and reaching no. 2, 3 and 4 in Switzerland, Austria and the UK, respectively. Apparently, audiences were less receptive in America, where the tune stalled at no. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a cool official clip, even though it’s all playback. Check out Tony Iommi’s cool Gibson SG. One day when I grow up I’m gonna get an ax like this – it even plays rhythm and solo at the same time! 🙂

Uriah HeepBird of Prey

Yep, Uriah Heep with their crazy high vocals can border a bit on the weird, but these guys were rockin’, especially in their early days. I seem to remember when I bought the album Salisbury as a young teenager, my six-year older sister who accompanied me to the record store was a bit embarrassed about my choice. Come on, sis’, while with Carole King’s Tapestry, CSNY’s Déjà Vu and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, to name a few, you undoubtedly introduced me to some of the best recorded music ever, your taste also varied – let’s just leave it at that! 🙂 Credited to the band members Ken Hensley, Mick Box, Paul Newton and Keith Baker, Bird of Prey is the furious opener of Heep’s sophomore album from February 1971. That tune rumbles just like the tank on the album cover – “geil,” as was fashionable to say in Germany back in the day!

RainbowLong Live Rock ‘n’ Roll

I don’t care how you feel about Rainbow, and my thoughts about them are mixed these days, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll just is an epic rocker. Co-written by former Deep Purple guitarist and Rainbow founder Ritchie Blackmore and the band’s powerhouse lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll was the title track of Rainbow’s third studio album released in April 1978. It also became the record’s lead single in March of the same year. To me, this is Rainbow’s best song. Apparently, audiences felt differently, at least the time, and far preferred some of their later songs, on which Blackmore adopted a more commercial sound along the lines of Foreigner.

Gary MooreVictims of the Future

Before Gary Moore fully embraced electric blues during his solo career, the Irish guitarist released heavy rock album Victims of the Future in December 1983. The big hit off that record was the power ballad Empty Rooms, which was played to death on the radio in Germany. I don’t even recall hearing the title track, which was co-written by Moore, Neil Carter (keyboards), Neil Murray (bass) and Ian Paice (drums) – and, yep, that’s the Ian Paice from Deep Purple. The song wasn’t released as a single; clocking in at more than six minutes, it wouldn’t have been radio-friendly to begin with. Admittedly, this is a pretty aggressive tune I can only tolerate occasionally, but when I’m in the mood for some heavy action, I still enjoy it. According to Wikipedia, Moore later dismissed the record as “just one of my feeble attempts at heavy rock”. It’s certainly quite different from his electric blues music he released starting in the early ’90s all the way until his premature death at age 58 in February 2011.

Guns N’ RosesSweet Child o’ Mine

My sentiments about Guns N’ Roses in general are similar to the previous pick. Sometimes, their music is simply too aggressive, so again, I need to be in the right mood. When I am, I actually enjoy a good number of their tunes. On these occasions, Sweet Child o’ Mine is one of my favorites. It’s a track off their debut album Appetite for Destruction from July 1987. Credited to the entire band, the tune also became the album’s third single in August of the same year. It was one of the songs that fueled the record’s massive international chart success, turning it into Guns N’ Roses’ biggest album. The guitar work on this song is just killer!

ScorpionsRaised on Rock

I suppose writing a post about heavy rock without acknowledging German veterans Scorpions would border on treason. The band from the city of Hannover first entered my radar screen with Love at First Sting, their hugely successful ninth studio album they released in March 1984, 12 years into their recording career. I seem to recall reading somewhere there were times before then when Scorpions were more famous elsewhere than in their home country. With hits, such as Rock You Like a Hurricane, Big City Nights and Still Loving You, Love at First Sting definitely changed that. Scorpions continue to rock and roll to this day. In April, they released a new tune, Sign of Hope, a classic Scorpions-style ballad, inspired by COVID-19. According to a statement on their website, they have been working on songs for a new album. The tune I decided to feature here appeared 26 years after Love at First Sting. Raised on Rock is the opener to the band’s 17th studio album Sting in the Tail from March 2010, which together with the supporting tour was positioned as their farewell. Then, they decided they simply couldn’t stop.

AC/DCPlay Ball

Let’s wrap up things with a great late-career rocker by AC/DC. Play Ball is from their 16th studio album Rock or Bust, which is the band’s most recent to date from November 2014. There have been reports about a new album for some time, largely fueled by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, who apparently is close to AC/DC. According to this NME story from late July, the album is already in the can, but it’s release has been delayed due to COVID-19. It sounds like thanks to some technology wizardry, it will feature the classic lineup including Malcolm Young and be the band’s final album. For now, let’s focus on actually released AC/DC music. Co-written by Malcolm Young prior to his forced retirement due to dementia and his younger brother Angus Young, Play Ball was the lead single from Rock or Bust, which appeared in October 2014, preceding the album by one month – a classic AC/DC rocker!

Jeez, after listening to ten heavy rock tunes, my ears are exhausted. Yesterday, the long-awaited reissue of The Rolling Stones’ Goat Heads Soup came out. I think I’m just about ready for Angie. A-Angie, A-Angie/When will this hard rock disappear/Angie, Angie/where will it lead from here…

Sources: Wikipedia; Scorpions website; NME; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets/See Emily Play

I just came across the above clip of See Emily Play performed by Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. It’s from an upcoming album titled Live at the Roundhouse, which is scheduled for September 18 and will be available as a double-CD/DVD package, double-vinyl and on Blu-ray. The material was taken from concerts the band played at the famous London venue in May 2019.

Nick Mason, of course, is the former co-founder and drummer of Pink Floyd and the band’s only member who played on all of their studio albums. In 2018, he formed Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets together with guitarist Lee Harris. Other members of the band, which takes their name from Floyd’s 1968 sophomore album, include Gary Kemp (guitar, vocals), formerly with Spandau Ballet; Guy Pratt (bass, vocals) and Dom Beken (keyboards).

The idea behind Saucerful is to perform Pink Floyd’s early music prior to the The Dark Side of the Moon album. “We’re not a tribute band,” Mason told Uncut in May 2018. “It’s not important to play the songs exactly as they were, but to capture the spirit.”

Whatever you want to call them, I think it’s great fans of Floyd’s early years including the Syd Barrett era have an opportunity to hear tracks that haven’t been played live for decades like Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, If, The Nile Song and, of course, See Emily Play. Written by Barrett, the tune appeared on Floyd’s debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Now that I’ve watched the clip and other footage that’s on YouTube, I’m starting to regret I didn’t catch the band in April 2019 when they played the Beacon Theatre in New York City. A few weeks earlier, I had seen outstanding tribute band Brit Floyd, so I didn’t feel like going to another show of Pink Floyd music. Due to COVID-19, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets had to reschedule many gigs in England and elsewhere in Europe until next year. Their currently planned schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Uncut; Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets website; YouTube

When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube