Who’s Next Turns 50

Exactly 50 years ago today, on August 14, 1971, The Who released their fifth studio album Who’s Next. The English rock band is one of my all-time favorite groups, and if I would have to pick one album, it would be this gem. As such, I felt it was appropriate to dedicate a post to the record’s 50th anniversary. Who’s Next without a doubt is among my top 5 releases of 1971, an incredible year in music, along with The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Led Zeppelin IV, Carole King’s Tapestry and Pink Floyd’s Meddle.

After the tremendous success of Tommy, Pete Townshend conceived Lifehouse, which was to become another rock opera, yet on a much more ambitious scale. The project was supposed to involve a live-recorded concept album that would provide the music for a film. The live footage would be captured in a series of concerts at the Young Vic theatre, a performing arts venue in London. During these gigs, the audience would be asked to interact with the band to create material for the film.

But after a few concerts at the Young Vic, Townshend grew disillusioned when he realized the audience was only interested in listening to The Who, not interact with the band to create material for the film. Together with other complexities of the project and a bad falling-out between Townshend and manager Kit Lambert, Lifehouse became mission impossible and was abandoned. The doomed project led to major stress within the band and a nervous breakdown of Townshend, with Roger Daltrey reportedly saying at the time The Who were never closer to breaking up.

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Ironically, the Lifehouse disaster led to Who’s Next, one of the best if not the greatest album The Who ever made. A key figure in this context was recording engineer Glyn Johns. Not only did he convince the group to make it a single as opposed to a double LP, but he was also given license to assemble whichever songs he thought would be best in any order. Who’s Next ended up with eight tracks from Lifehouse and one additional tune. The focus was on recording great music, not to force-fit different tunes into an overarching concept. Despite his remarkable role, Johns only received credit as an associate producer (apart from recording and mixing). Let’s take a closer look at the album.

Opening side one is the majestic Baba O’Riley, one of the aforementioned eight songs from the Lifehouse project. Like all except one of the other tracks, the tune was written by Pete Townshend. Songfacts notes the “Baba” in the title refers to Meher Baba, Townshend’s spiritual guru. “Riley” comes from experimental, minimalist composer Terry Riley, one of Townshend’s influences who inspired many of the keyboard riffs and sound effects on the album. Referencing the liner notes, Songfacts also points out the tune reflects Townshend’s vision of what would happen if Baba’s spirit was fed into a computer and transformed into music. “The result would be Baba in the style of Terry Riley, or “Baba O’Riley.”” Here’s a neat lyric video.

Bargain, the second track on side one, is another homage to Baba, according to Songfacts. Townshend believed in his message of enlightenment. “Bargain” refers to losing all material goods for spiritual enlightenment. The song also featured a then just introduced ARP 2500 synthesizer, “the same synth used to call the extraterrestrials in the 1977 movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” Now, there’s some trivia you always wanted to know!

My Wife, written by John Entwistle, is the album’s only song that wasn’t composed by Townshend. Morever, it is the one track that didn’t come from the Lifehouse project. Entwistle who sang lead vocals also included the tune on his third solo album Rigor Mortis Sets In that first appeared in the UK in May 1973.

On to side two. Here’s Going Mobile, the album’s only song featuring Townshend as the sole vocalist. From Songfacts: This is about taking a vacation by riding around in a car with no particular destination. It was something Pete Townshend liked to do...For the solo, Townshend ran his guitar through a device called an Envelope Follower. It was a type of synthesizer distortion that made it sound like he was playing under water.

Next up: Behind Blue Eyes. The lyrics were inspired by an encounter Townshend had with a female groupie after a gig in Denver in June 1970. While he was tempted, he ended up returning to his room by himself. Once there, be began writing a prayer that started with the words “When my fist clenches, crack it open,” which became part of the song’s lyrics. At least so the story goes. Here’s another lyric video.

The last track I’d like to call out is Won’t Get Fooled Again, the album’s epic 8:30-minute closer. From Songfacts: Pete Townshend wrote this song about a revolution. In the first verse, there is an uprising. In the middle, they overthrow those in power, but in the end, the new regime becomes just like the old one (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”). Townshend felt revolution was pointless because whoever takes over is destined to become corrupt. I’m also including a link to a clip of The Who’s live performance of the tune at Shepperton Studios in 1978, filmed for the 1979 rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. What has to be one of the greatest moments in rock history sadly also turned out to be the last public performance by Keith Moon prior to his death on September 7, 1978 at the age of 32.

Who’s Next is widely considered to be the best album by The Who. It topped the UK Official Albums Chart, reached no. 2 in France and The Netherlands, and climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. As of February 1993, the album reached 3X Multi-Platinum Certification in the U.S., meaning it has sold more than three million units. It is Platinum-certified in the UK as well.

Who’s Next also received broad acclaim from critics. Even Robert Christgau had something positive to say, calling it “the best hard rock album in years.” Who’s Next was ranked at no. 28 in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in both the 2003 and 2012 editions. In the latest revision from September 2020, it came in at no. 77.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

It’s time again for what has become my favorite recurring feature on the blog. For first time visitors, the idea of The Sunday Six is to celebrate music in a random fashion, six tracks at a time. It could literally be anything from the past 60 years or so, in any order. My only “rule” is I have to like it. That’s consistent with my overall approach for this blog to write about music I dig. Without further ado, let’s get to this week’s picks.

Neil Cowley/Circulation

I’d like to start with Neil Cowley, an English contemporary pianist and composer I first included in a Sunday Six installment back in March. Born in London in November 1972, Cowley began as a classical pianist and already performed a Shostakovich piano concerto at Queen Elizabeth Hall as a ten-year-old. In his late teens, he played keyboards for various soul and funk acts, including  Mission ImpossibleThe Brand New HeaviesGabrielle and Zero 7. It appears his first album Displaced was released in 2006 under the name of Neil Cowley Trio. Fourteen additional albums featuring Cowley as band leader or co-leader have since come out. He has also worked as a sideman for Adele and various other artists. Circulation is another track from Cowley’s most recent solo album Hall of Mirrors released in March this year. This is very relaxing piano-driven music with elements of ambient electronics.

Cream/Crossroads

After a mellow start, here’s something crunchy from one of my favorite ’60s British rock bands: Cream. Featuring Eric Clapton (guitar, vocals), Jack Bruce (bass, vocals) and Ginger Baker (drums, vocals), they were a true supergroup. As such, it’s perhaps not surprising they broke up after just a little over two years. In fact, given the bad, sometimes physical fights between the volatile Mr. Baker and Bruce, it’s a miracle they lasted that long – not to mention the fact they still managed to record four amazing albums. One of my favorite Cream tunes is their remake of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, which he first recorded as Cross Road Blues in May 1937. Clapton did a neat job in rearranging the acoustic Delta blues. Cream’s version appeared on the live record of their double LP Wheels of Fire. Their third album was first released in the U.S. in June 1968, followed by the UK two months later.

The Jayhawks/She Walks In So Many Ways

Lately, I’ve started exploring The Jayhawks. I first came across the alt. country and country rock band about a year ago after the release of their most recent album XOXO in July 2020. The Jayhawks were initially formed in Minneapolis in 1985. After seven records, they went on hiatus in 2014 and reemerged in 2019. She Walks In So Many Ways is a track off their eighth studio album Mockingbird Time from September 2011. It marked the return of original frontman Mark Olson (guitar, vocals), reuniting him Gary Louris (guitar, vocals), another co-founder. Not only did they co-write all songs on the album, but they also delivered great harmony vocals. The other members at the time included co-founder Marc Perlman (bass), together with Tim O’Reagan (drums, vocals) and Karen Grotberg (keyboards, backing vocals). All remain with the band’s current line-up except for Olson who left again in the fall of 2012. She Walks In So Many Ways has a nice Byrds vibe – my kind of music!

Lenny Kravitz/Are You Gonna Go My Way

Let’s turn to Lenny Kravitz, who first entered my radar in late 1991 when I coincidentally listened to his sophomore album Mama Said in a restaurant in France. My brother-in-law asked the waiter about the music, and the rest is history. I immediately got the CD after my return to Germany and have since listened to Kravitz on and off. While he has won various awards and, according to Wikipedia, sold more than 40 million albums worldwide during his 40-year career, success didn’t come easy – especially in the U.S. where initially Kravitz was told he didn’t sound “black enough” or “white enough”, and there was too much ’60s and Hendrix in his music. Jeez, that terrible guitarist Jimi Hendrix – what a bunch of crap! Anyway, here’s the title track of Kravitz’s third studio album from March 1993. Are You Gonna Go My Way was co-written by him and guitarist and longtime collaborator Craig Ross. I’ve always loved this cool kick-ass guitar riff.

The Police/Spirits in the Material World

Let’s jump to the ’80s and one of my favorite bands from that time, The P0lice. A visit of a tribute band music festival in Atlantic City last weekend brought the British trio of Sting (lead vocals, bass), Andy Summers (guitar) and Stewart Copeland (drums) back on my radar screen. During their seven-year run from 1977 to 1984, The Police recorded five albums, a quite productive output. While I have a slight preference for their earlier rawer sound, I think there are great songs on all of their albums. Here’s one I dig from Ghost in the Machine, the band’s second-to-last record released in October 1981: Spirits in the Material World. I love Sting’s bassline on that track, as well as the synthesizer-driven reggae groove. According to Wikipedia, he wrote that tune on a Casio keyboard, his first experience with a synthesizer.

Pink Floyd/One of These Days

What, are we already at the sixth and final track? Just when I was fully getting warmed up! Don’t worry, I have every intention to continue this zig-zag music journey next Sunday. For now, I’d like to wrap it up with Pink Floyd and the opening track of Meddle. Their sixth studio album from October 1971 is one of my favorite Floyd records and yet another great album that’s turning 50 this year. I was tempted to feature Echoes but realize very few if any readers would likely to listen to a 23-minute-plus track, though I can highly recommend it! 🙂 Here’s One of These Days, credited to all four members of the band, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. I think it’s one of the best space rock instrumentals. That pumping double-tracked bass guitar part played by Gilmour and Waters is just great. The lovely line, “one of these days, I cut you into little pieces,” was spoken by Mason, and recorded using an effect device called a ring modulator, and slowed down to make it even more creepy.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 29

After more than three months, I thought the time was right to do another installment of my irregular music history feature. In case you’re new to these posts, the idea is to capture things that happened on a specific date in rock & roll’s past. It’s an arbitrary but fun way to look at music, since you never know what you are going to dig up. I mostly focus on the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. These posts are not meant to be comprehensive; in fact, they are highly selective and reflect my music taste. With that being said, let’s take a look at June 29.

1962: Motown singing group The Contours released their third single Do You Love Me. Written by the Detroit soul label’s president Berry Gordy Jr., the tune initially was intended for The Temptations. But after Gordy wasn’t able to locate them and had run into The Contours in the hallway, he spontaneously handed the song to them, confident it would become a hit. It turned out to be a good decision. While The Temptations went on and scored multiple mainstream top 40 hits, Do You Love Me became the only such chart success for The Contours, topping Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides and climbing to no. 3 on the Hot 100 mainstream chart.

1964: The Beatles played their first of two nights at Festival Hall in Brisbane, Australia, as part of their only world tour, which also included Denmark, The Netherlands, Hong Kong and New Zealand. They performed two sold out shows on both nights, which were each seen by 5,500 people. But evidently not everybody loved The Beatles, even before John Lennon’s controversial remark about the band being more popular than Jesus. After their arrival to Brisbane from New Zealand, they were pelted with food and bits of wood by some in the crowd while riding in an open-top truck. At the concerts, eggs were thrown at the stage, though The Beatles played on, and the perpetrators were quickly ejected from the music hall. Here’s another fun fact. John, Paul, George and Ringo stood at a hotel called Lennons Hotel. The day after their second night in Brisbane, The Beatles embarked on their long trip back to England. Don’t take it from me. It’s all documented in The Beatles Bible, the ultimate source of truth about the Fab Four! 🙂

Beatles fans in Brisbane – no egg throwers here!

1968: A Saucerful of Secrets, the sophomore album by Pink Floyd, appeared in the UK. The U.S. release occurred on July 27. Sadly, it turned out to be the final album with co-founder and key early songwriter Syd Barrett whose mental condition declined to a point where the group felt compelled to recruit David Gilmour to help out. Barrett left Pink Floyd prior to the album’s completion. Unlike the band’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn from August 1967, for which Barrett was the major songwriter, his role on Pink Floyd’s second album was much reduced. He only wrote one of the seven tracks and contributed some guitar work to two others. Here’s the aforementioned sole tune written by Barrett, Jugband Blues. He also sang lead vocals and provided acoustic and electric guitar.

1974: Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Sundown. He was the second Canadian artist in 1974 to top the U.S. main chart following Terry Jacks with Seasons in the Sun in early March. Written by Lightfoot, Sundown is the title track from his 10th studio album that had been released in January 1974. While he was also successful with other songs, such as If You Could Read My Mind (1970), Carefree Highway (1974), Rainy Day People (1975) and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976), Sundown remains Lightfoot’s only no. 1 hit on the Hot 100.

1984: Bruce Springsteen kicked off his Born in the U.S.A Tour at St. Paul Civic Center in St. Paul, Minn. to support his seventh studio album that had come out on June 4. The tour, which ended on October 2, 1985 in Los Angeles and also included Canada, Asia and Europe, would become Springsteen’s longest and most successful tour to date. It was the first since portions of the 1974 Born to Run tours without Steven Van Zandt who had decided to launch a solo career after Born in the U.S.A. had been recorded and was replaced by Nils Lofgren. It was also the first tour to include Patti Scialfa who became Springsteen’s wife in 1991. And then there was the filming of the video for Dancing in the Dark during the opening night, which featured then-unknown actress Courteney Cox who had been planted in the first row, looking adoringly at Springsteen before he pulled her up on stage to dance with him. It would make The Boss an MTV sensation. I wonder how he views of this today. Well, it was the ’80s…

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

My Top 5 Studio Albums Turning 50

The other day while driving in my car, I caught a cool program on SiriusXM, Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26) titled the “Top 50 Albums Turning 50.” Hosted by former Doors guitarist and drummer Robby Krieger and John Densmore, respectively, it was a countdown of records that came out in 1971, as voted by listeners. Once again, this reminded me what an outstanding period the early ’70s were for music, and I’m not only talking about classic rock. The radio show also triggered the idea for this post. While I don’t want to call this a series, I have a funny feeling I’ll do more about 1971, now that I’ve been bitten by the bug.

The amount of great albums released in 1971 is mind-boggling, especially from today’s perspective. It’s a true gold mine! Some artists and bands like Johnny Cash, Carole King, Faces and Yes released even more than one record. Following are my top five albums turning 50 this year. I’m not great at ranking, so I’m listing my picks in no particular order. Live records and debuts are excluded, since I’m contemplating separate posts for these categories. I guess it’s another way to admit that if you love early ’70s music, summing up 1971 with just five albums is mission impossible!

The Who/Who’s Next

As my favorite album by The Who, including Who’s Next in this short list was a no-brainer. The fifth studio album by the British rockers appeared on August 14, 1971. It came out of Lifehouse, another rock opera Pete Townshend had conceived as a follow-up to Tommy. Eight of the nine songs from Who’s Next had initially been written for Lifehouse. Additional tracks from the abandoned project were subsequently released as singles and appeared on other Who and Townshend (solo) records. Except for My Wife, which was penned by John Entwistle, Townhend wrote all tracks. I pretty much could have highlighted any song from the album. Here’s Bargain, which according to Songfacts is an homage to Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. Townshend believed in his message of enlightenment, which also influenced songs like Baba O’Riley and See Me, Feel Me. “Bargain” refers to losing all material goods for spiritual enlightenment.

Carole King/Tapestry

Folks who follow the blog or know me otherwise won’t be shocked by this pick. When it comes to the singer-songwriter category, Carole King will always remain one of my all-time favorite artists. Tapestry, released on February 10, 1971, is her Mount Rushmore in my book. A couple of months ago, leading up to the 50th anniversary date, I devoted a 10-part series to the album (“Ten Days of Tapestry”, see final part here, which includes links to all previous installments). Therefore, I’m keeping it brief here. Tapestry’s great opener I Feel the Earth Move was solely written by King, like most other tracks on the album.

Led Zeppelin/Led Zeppelin IV

Led Zeppelin IV and Stairway to Heaven marked the start of my Led Zeppelin journey. While they were an acquired taste, Led Zeppelin have become one of my favorite rock bands. To me, their fourth studio album, which came out on November 8, 1971, remains one of the most exciting ’70s rock albums, though I’ve also come to really dig their other records. Instead of the obvious tune Stairway, which I would select if I could only choose one classic rock song, let’s do Rock and Roll. It’s the record’s only tune credited to all four members of the band. In addition to Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, Rock and Roll features Rolling Stones co-founder Ian Stewart on keyboards.

The Rolling Stones/Sticky Fingers

Speaking of the Stones, Sticky Fingers is another must-include on my top five short list of the greatest albums released in 1971. You can read more about my favorite Stones album in this recent post I published a few days ahead of the April 23 50th anniversary date. Here I’d like to highlight a track I did not call out in that post: Sway, which also became the b-side of the album’s second single Wild Horses, released on June 12, 1971. The slower blues track features some sweet slide guitar action by Mick Taylor. Another factoid worthwhile noting is the song marked Mick Jagger’s first electric guitar performance on a Stones album. Oh, and there were some notable backing vocalists: Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane (of Small Faces and Faces) and Billy Nichols, an American guitarist and songwriter who first came to prominence during the ’60s for his work with Motown.

Pink Floyd/Meddle

With so many great albums that were released in 1971, it’s tricky to keep this list to five, but that’s what I set out to do, at least for now. Meddle was the sixth studio album by Pink Floyd, which appeared on October 31, 1971. It foreshadowed the band’s mid ’70s masterpieces The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, especially on the 23-minute-plus track Echoes. While I was tempted to feature this epic track, I think it’s safe to assume very few readers would listen. Instead, let’s go with the opener One of These Days. The characteristic pumping bass line was double-tracked, played by bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour. The instrumental is credited to all members of the band, which in addition to Waters and Gilmour included Richard Wright (organ, piano) and Nick Mason (drums, percussion). The only spoken line in the song, the cheerful and digitally warped “One of these days I’m gonna cut you up into little pieces,” was spoken by Mason.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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