If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Roxy Music

I can’t believe it’s Wednesday again and we’re almost in July! This would be the perfect time for a summer vacation, and a beautiful tropical island sounds like an attractive proposition. But wait, before I can leave on yet another imaginary trip to some remote island in the sun, once again, I have to pick one song to take with me.

In case you’re a first-time visitor, there are a few rules that limit my options, which make the exercise both challenging and interesting at the same time. My pick cannot be a tune by a music act I’ve frequently written about. Ideally, it should be a band or artist I haven’t covered yet. It can only be one track, not an entire album. And picks must be in alphabetical order.

This week I’m up to “r.” Bands and artists (last names) starting with that letter include Radiohead, Bonnie Raitt, Ramones, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Otis Redding, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt and Roxy Music, among others.

Based on the above criteria, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt were immediately excluded from further consideration. For some of the other artists, sadly, I had to search my own blog to refresh my memory to what extent I had covered them before. At the end, it came down to picking Radiohead or Roxy Music, and I decided to go with the latter and More Than This.

More Than This, written by Bryan Ferry, first appeared in April 1982 as the lead single of Roxy Music’s eighth and final studio album Avalon, released the following month. It’s just a gorgeous pop tune I’ve loved from the very first moment I heard the band playing it on the radio at the time it came out.

More Than This was popular, reaching no. 6 in each the UK and Australia, but it wasn’t the group’s biggest hit. The latter was their great cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, which they recorded and released as a non-album single in February 1981 to honor the ex-Beatle who had been senselessly killed by a deranged individual in New York in December 1980.

Art and pop rock group Roxy Music were founded by Ferry, the band’s lead vocalist and main songwriter, and bassist Graham Simpson in England in 1970. While they have been on and off ever since, their active recording period spanned 1972 to 1982. During these 10 years, Roxy Music released eight studio albums, three of which topped the UK charts: Stranded (1973), Flesh and Blood (1980) and the above-noted Avalon.

In 1982, at the height of their commercial success, Ferry who at that time was the only original member together with Andy Mackay (saxophone, oboe, keyboards, backing vocals), decided to dissolve Roxy Music and focus on his solo career, which he had launched in parallel to the group in 1973.

Roxy Music have since reunited several times for tours and are currently gearing up to be on the road again starting in September to celebrate their 50th anniversary. In addition to co-founders Ferry and Mackay, this includes Phil Manzanera  (guitar) and Paul Thompson (drums), who were all part of the group’s lineup that recorded Roxy Music’s 1972 eponymous debut album. The schedule of the five-week tour, which includes dates in Canada, the U.S. and the UK, is here.

Following are a few additional tidbits on More Than This from Songfacts:

Written by lead singer Bryan Ferry, this song is about a love affair that fell apart. Asked in 2014 by Entertainment Weekly why the song endures, Ferry replied, “For some reason, there’s something in the combination of the melody and the lyric that works for people.”

In America, this song got some traction when it featured in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation in a scene where Bill Murray sings it in a Tokyo karaoke bar. When the song was first released, however, it had little impact on the charts, bubbling under at just #102 on the Hot 100. Many college radio stations played the song, but commercial stations stayed away for the most part.

Roxy Music occupied just a small niche in America, where they hit the Top 40 just once (“Love Is the Drug” – #30 in 1975), but they were far more successful in the UK.

Ferry told The Mail on Sunday June 28, 2009 about the Avalon album: “I started writing the songs while on the west coast of Ireland, and I like to think that some of the dark melancholy of the album comes from that place.”

10,000 Maniacs covered this in 1997 on their album Love Among The Ruins. Mary Ramsey sang lead, as original Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant had just left the band to go solo.

Sources: Wikipedia; Roxy Music website; Songfacts; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by The Hollies

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time again to pack my bags for yet another imaginary desert island trip. Of course, before I leave I must make an important decision about which song I should take along from a band or artist I haven’t covered on the blog or only mentioned once or twice.

I’m up to the letter “H” for this little fun exercise. Looking at my song library, picks could have included Hall & Oates, Jimi Hendrix, Herman’s Hermits, The Hooters and Huey Lewis and the News. Based on the above selection criterion, I decided to go with The Hollies and Bus Stop, a song I loved from the very first time I heard it many moons ago!

The Hollies were formed in December 1962 in Manchester, England. Their original line-up included Allan Clarke (vocals), Vic Steele (lead guitar), Graham Nash (rhythm guitar, vocals), Eric Haydock (bass) and Don Rathbone (drums). Over their now 60-year career, the group has seen numerous line-up changes, with Clarke remaining as the only original member. Wikipedia notes that together with The Rolling Stones, they are one of the few UK groups from the early ’60s, who never disbanded.

Bus Stop, written by then-future 10cc co-founder Graham Gouldman, is one of the best-known tunes by The Hollies. I also believe it’s their first song I heard on the radio while growing up in Germany. The band’s distinctive three-part harmony singing grabbed me right away. You just don’t hear such great vocals anymore these days.

While at the time it was released as a single in June 1966 The Hollies already had scored a few hits, especially in the UK, Bus Stop became their first top 10 single in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 5. Elsewhere, the title track of the band’s fourth studio album from October 1966 topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand, and reached no. 2 in the UK, no. 3 in Norway, no. 4 in The Netherlands and no. 9 in Germany.

Following are some additional insights from Songfacts:

This song is about a couple who meet one rainy day at a bus stop. Love blooms when they share an umbrella.

In a Manchester newspaper, Graham Gouldman said he wrote it whilst riding on the No. 95 bus, which ran from East Didsbury – the route went through Manchester city centre, to Sedgeley Park, Cheetham Hill, Prestwich, and on to Whitefield near Bury. Gouldman was living with his family on this route in Broughton Park Salford at the time.

Graham Gouldman’s father was a talented and creative writer who often helped his son with song ideas. Graham had the idea for bus stop setting, and his dad came up with the first line: “Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say, ‘please share my umbrella.'” From that starting point, he was able to finish the song.

In a Songfacts interview with Gouldman, he explained: “He gave me those words and I immediately, as I was reading them, heard the melody in my head, and it just kind of wrote itself. And then the middle part of the song I wrote – I got the melody and the words all in one chunk.”

The timeline in this song is a little askew. We know that love bloomed over the summer, but then we get the line, “Came the sun, the ice was melting.” This harkens spring, so apparently time has passed. In Gouldman’s Songfacts interview, he clarified: “Winter is over, the snow is passed because the sun has melted it, so there’s no need to shelter anymore under the umbrella. You could say the snow is underfoot so you don’t need an umbrella anyway, but it’s poetic license: it could have been snowing so the umbrella can protect you from the snow as well as the rain.”

Graham Nash of The Hollies [who later became part of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & YoungCMM] recalls learning about this song when their manager, Michael Cohen, told them about “this little Jewish kid who lives down the street,” which was Graham Gouldman. When Gouldman played it for them, they knew they had a winner. Nash says they recorded it in just an hour and 15 minutes.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by The Cranberries

The third installment of my weekly desert island exercise brings me to the letter “c.” Some of the artists and bands I could have selected include J.J. Cale, Ray Charles, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sheryl Crow. My pick are The Cranberries and Linger, a song I find exceptionally beautiful. The melody, the musical arrangement and the lyrics are all coming together perfectly.

Linger first appeared in February 1993 as the second upfront single of the Irish alternative rock band’s debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? That album was released two weeks thereafter in March.

The Cranberries’ second single became one of their biggest hits. In addition peaking at no. 3 in their native Ireland, it reached no. 4 in Canada, no. 8 in the U.S. (Billboard Hot 100) and no. 14 in the UK, among others. The single remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for an astonishing 24 weeks.

A beautiful great acoustic version of Linger was included on the band’s seventh studio album Something Else, released in April 2017. The record featured unplugged and orchestral renditions of 10 previously released singles, along with three new songs. Sadly, it would be the final album with Dolores O’Riordan who passed away on January 15, 2018, at the age of 46 years. The cause of death was determined as drowning in a bathtub due to alcohol intoxication.

Here are some additional insights from Songfacts:

Cranberries guitarist Noel Hogan wrote the music for this song before Dolores O’Riordan joined the band. Originally, it had lyrics written by the group’s first singer, a bloke named Niall Quinn. When O’Riordan auditioned for the band, she had some ideas for the song, and after she was hired, she wrote her own set of lyrics, turning it into a song of regret based on a soldier she once fell in love with.

The emotional, girlie sound was a huge departure for the band, but wildly successful. The song got lots of airplay from radio stations looking for an alternative to rap or grunge, and MTV put the video in heavy rotation [So did VH1 where I saw it repeatedly during my first semester as a student on Long Island, N.Y. – CMM]. The Cranberries became one of the best-selling bands of the mid-’90s.

In a Songfacts interview with Dolores O’Riordan, she described this as “a love song.” In the lyric, she describes being mistreated by her love and seeing him with another girl, yet unable to break free because he lets their relationship linger. This hardly seems the stuff of dreams, but the feeling of first love is what O’Riordan keyed in on. It brought her back to a time of innocence.

The Cranberries recorded the first version of this song in 1990 at their manager’s studio in Limerick, Ireland. It was one of three songs included on a demo they distributed to local records stores, which found their way to various record companies. Island Records signed the band, which released their first EP, Uncertain, in 1991. “Linger” was not part of that EP, as they wanted to save the song for when they built a bigger fan base.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Barclay James Harvest

Time again to make the tough choice to pick only one tune by a select artist or band I would take to a desert island. Hopefully, this will never happen, as it’s pretty much mission impossible. We’re up to the letter “b”, so choices include The Beatles, Badfinger, Bad Company, Chuck Berry, James Brown, David Bowie and The Byrds, to name some. I decided to go with Barclay James Harvest.

‘Who the hell is that?’ some of you may wonder, and why didn’t he take his favorite band of all time, The Beatles? Well, let me remind you one criterion for this feature is to pick an artist or band I haven’t covered yet or only a few times – call it a little twist to the exercise! This post is the first about Barclay James Harvest (BJH), a British group I was very much into during my teenage years, growing up in Germany. If I recall it correctly, they were pretty popular there at the time.

BJH (from left): Stuart “Woolly” Wolstenholme, John Lees, Mel Pritchard and Les Holroyd

BJH were formed in September 1966 by John Lees (guitar, vocals), Stuart “Woolly” Wolstenholme (keyboards, vocals), Les Holroyd (bass, vocals) and Mel Pritchard (drums, percussion). Their eponymous debut album appeared in 1970. Various configurations of the group have since released close to 20 additional studio albums, as well as numerous live and compilation records.

BJH are oftentimes classified as prog-rock and art rock. This sounds pretty accurate to me, especially for their earlier albums. I think one can also add symphonic rock, folk rock and pop rock. Currently, there are two touring versions of the group, John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest and Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd, which are each led by an original member. In case you’re interested to learn more, you can visit their respective websites here and here.

This finally brings me to the song I decided to pick: Mocking Bird, a tune that appeared on BJH’s sophomore album Once Again from February 1971. Written by John Lees, the symphonic rock tune is very reminiscent of The Moody Blues.

Six years after Once Again had appeared, Lees wrote a song titled Poor Man’s Moody Blues. But what could be viewed as an acknowledgment that the group was influenced by the Moodys apparently was an angry reaction to a journalist who had called BJH “a poor man’s Moody Blues.” The tune deliberately sounded very similar to Nights in White Satin.

Understandably, Justin Hayward, who wrote the renowned Moody Blues song, was less than pleased. Had this happened in the U.S., I think it’s safe to assume there would have been a big lawsuit. Years later, Hayward received an apology from Les Holroyd when they met each other.

Sources: Wikipedia; John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest website; Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd website; YouTube

My Playlist: Fastball

When I recall a song I haven’t heard in ages, I tend to revisit the band or artist who performed it, especially if I don’t know them well beyond a tune or two. That’s what happened with Fastball when I remembered The Way the other day and included the cool tune in my last Sunday Six feature. After sampling a bunch of other songs from different albums by the American alternative-rock-turned-power pop band, I liked what I heard and decided to put together this profile and playlist.

Fastball were formed in 1994 in Austin, Texas by Tony Scalzo (vocals, bass, keyboards, guitar), Miles Zuniga (vocals, guitar) and Joey Shuffield (drums, percussion). After Shuffield had introduced Zunigo to Scalzo who had been with California group The Goods, the three of them decided to start their own group.

Following a series of names, including Star 69, Magneto, Magneto USA, Ed Clark’s Business Bible and Starchy, they decided on Fastball. What appears to be a baseball metaphor is definitely more memorable than some of the other names they had considered. Fastball managed to quickly gain popularity in the Austin music scene. After a local journalist had seen them perform, they brought them to the attention of Hollywood Records, which led to a record deal soon thereafter.

Up to that point, Fastball’s story almost looked like a fairytale. Other bands struggle for years to sign with a label if they ever get that far. But the Texas group’s ride wouldn’t be without bumps. While their debut album Make Your Mama Proud from April 1996 yielded a win in the “Best Pop Band” category at the Austin Music Awards (tied with The Wannabes, another Austin group), the record sold poorly (about 5,500 copies as of April 1998). Suddenly, the future was wide open, to creatively borrow from Tom Petty, and all of the band’s members felt compelled to keep their day jobs.

Then came their break – again, something many music artists never get. And it was a big one. In February 1998, Fastball released the above-mentioned The Way, the lead single of their then-upcoming sophomore album All the Pain Money Can Buy. The Way, which only was the group’s second single, hit no. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, as well as in Canada on both the mainstream and alternative rock charts. Overseas, it also reached no. 7 in Sweden and no. 21 in the UK.

By September, only six months after its release, All the Pain Money Can Buy had sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, thus reaching Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Interestingly, the album “only” reached no. 29 on the Billboard 200. It did better in Canada where it climbed to no. 18 and also charted in a few European countries. Fastball had arrived. But their commercial and chart performance would be short-lived – again, an all-too-familiar playbook in the brutal music business.

In September 2000, Fastball’s third album appeared. It was appropriately titled The Harsh Light of Day. While it received positive reviews, once again, it turned out to be a record that didn’t sell well. As of January 2004, sales totaled a mere 84,000 copies – definitely a harsh drop compared to the predecessor’s million units sold in just six months! It also was the group’s last album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 97.

Despite lacking chart and commercial success, Fastball managed to soldier on. They remain active to this day in their original line-up and have since released four additional studio albums. Their catalog also includes two live records and a compilation. I’d say the time has come to take a closer look at some of their songs. And there’s definitely more to this band than The Way.

I’d like to do this in chronological order starting with Fastball’s debut album Make Your Mama Proud from April 1996. Compared to their sophomore record, the songs on their debut effort sound a bit rawer and remind me a little of Green Day’s 1994 album Dookie. Here’s the title track, written by Scalzo.

Turning to Fastball’s hugely successful second album All the Pain Money Can Buy, I’m skipping The Way, since I just covered it (though the tune is included in the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post). Instead, I’d like to highlight Out of My Head, the only other song that had sounded vaguely familiar when checking out the band’s music. Penned by Scalzo, the song also became the third single off the album and the last to make the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 20 – interestingly outperforming The Way, which missed the U.S. mainstream chart but as noted above was pretty successful elsewhere.

You’re an Ocean is a catchy pop-rock tune from Fastball’s third album The Harsh Light of Day, the last appearing on the band’s original label Hollywood Records. Once again, the song was written by Scalzo. The record featured some notable guests, including Billy Preston and Brian Setzer.

In June 2004, Fastball released their fourth album. Previously, they had signed with new record label Rykodisc. The record was mixed by Bob Clearmountain who is known for having worked with major acts like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Toto and Bon Jovi. Two tracks, Someday and Red Light, were produced by Adam Schlesinger who among others founded Fountains of Wayne. Here’s Someday written by Miles Zuniga – nice power pop! The album did not chart.

The Beatlesque The Malcontent (The Modern World) is from Fastball’s fifth studio album Keep Your Wig On that came out in April 2009. The band had switched labels, and the record appeared on MRI/RED Distribution. It was co-produced by Miles Zuniga and CJ Eiriksson, with mixing once again done by Bob Clearmountain.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Friend or Foe, the opener of Fastball’s seventh and most recent studio album The Help Machine from October 2019. The song was written by Zuniga. The record appeared on the group’s own 33 1/3 label.

It’s a pity Fastball have largely been under the radar screen for the past 20 years or so. I find their melodic rock and power pop that oftentimes is reminiscent of The Beatles and Badfinger enjoyable. Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above and some additional tunes by the group.

“When I look at our catalog, there’s not a bad record in there,” notes drummer Joey Shuffield in the band’s online bio, “We’ve been through our ups and downs, but I think we’ve really found our groove over the last few years.”

“We spent a lot of time on a major label, so initially the transition back to being an indie band was a little bumpy,” Shuffield further points out. “But now it feels comfortable being responsible for everything ourselves, because that way we’re more likely to get it right. We’re all so into the music now, and I think you can hear that on the last couple of albums.”

Adds Tony Scalzo: “It’s only natural that you get better at what you do as you get older and more experienced. But you can’t always figure that out when you’re in your 20s. Now that we’re on our own label, the pressure’s all on us, and that’s fine. All I ever really wanted was a consistent creative outlet, and we’ve got that now.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Fastball website; YouTube; Spotify

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Hope everybody is enjoying their Sunday. I find it hard to believe we’ve already come to the end of January. Once again it’s time to embark on another mini-excursion to explore music of the past and present, six tunes at a time. Fasten your seatbelt and off we go!

Jimmy Smith/The Organ Grinder’s Swing

Our first stop on today’s time travel is groovy jazz by organist Jimmy Smith who helped popularize the magnificent Hammond B-3. Smith was already on stage in clubs as a 6-year-old when he joined his father for a song-and-dance routine. After Smith had taught himself how to play the piano, he won a Philadelphia radio talent contest as a boogie-woogie pianist when he was nine years old. Following service in the U.S. Army, Smith attended Royal Hamilton College of Music in Hamilton, Ontario in 1948, followed by Leo Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia a year later. He began exploring the Hammond organ in 1951, and played piano and organ in various Philadelphia R&B bands before switching to organ permanently in 1954. When Alfred Lion, co-founder of jazz label Blue Note Records, heard Smith perform in a local club, he signed him right away. Already his sophomore release The Champ from 1956 established Smith as a new jazz star. Between 1956 and 2005, he released an enormous amount of albums both as a leader and as a sideman playing with other prominent jazz musicians. The Organ Grinder’s Swing, a composition by Will Hudson, Irving Mills and Mitchell Parish, is from a 1965 album titled Organ Grinder Swing. It features Kenny Burrell on guitar and Grady Tate on drums. Take it away, boys!

Santana/Anywhere You Want to Go

After this groovy start, let’s jump to April 2016 and keep groovin’ while adding some Latin flavor. If you are a more frequent visitor of the blog, chances are you have seen me write that I dig Carlos Santana, particularly his first three albums with the classic Santana band, which appeared between 1969 and 1971. As such, I was quite excited when I learned in 2016 that Carlos had reunited most of the band’s surviving members for a new album aptly called Santana IV. It was released in April that year, and Santana also toured with the band. I caught one of the fantastic shows in Allentown, Pa. You can see the setlist here. And here’s a tune from Santana IV, Anywhere You Want to Go. Keyboarder Gregg Rolie wrote that song, which they also played during the above-mentioned show. Other original members from the classic Santana band playing on the album and during the tour included Neal Schon (guitar, vocals), Michael Shrieve (drums) and Michael Carabello (congas, percussion, backing vocals).

Bonnie Raitt/All At Once

For my next pick, I’m slowing things down with a beautiful tune by Bonnie Raitt, another artist I’ve loved for many years. Not only is Raitt an outstanding slide guitarist, but she’s also a no BS artist: What you get is what you see! All At Once, penned by her, is from Luck of the Draw, Raitt’s 11th studio album. It appeared in June 1993 and became her second hugely successful record following Nick of Time from March 1989, her commercial breakthrough that had come after years of personal and professional struggles. While unlike Nick of Time it didn’t top the U.S. charts (but reached a close no. 2), Luck of the Draw sold even more copies than its predecessor. Raitt dedicated the album to Stevie Ray Vaughan who had died in a helicopter crash in 1990 and had encouraged her to stop drinking. Apparently, Vaughan’s encouragement had a huge impact on Raitt’s becoming sober.

Badfinger/No Matter What

I would now like to turn to Badfinger, a band I’ve come to appreciate largely thanks to fellow blogger Max, aka badfinger20 from PowerPop. The Welsh rock band, widely recognized for their influence on ’70s power pop, evolved from The Iveys, a group formed in 1961. In 1968, they became the first band that was signed by The Beatles’ Apple label. Following the release of their debut album Maybe Tomorrow in July 1969, the group changed their name to Badfinger. From 1970 until 2000, nine albums appeared under that name. While Badfinger had four consecutive hits between 1970 and 1972, things tragically unraveled after Apple folded in 1973, and they struggled with a host of legal, managerial and financial problems. It drove two of the band’s members to commit suicide, Pete Ham in 1975 and Tom Evans in 1983 – one of the saddest stories in pop rock history! Here’s No Matter What, Badfinger’s second hit released in the U.S. and UK in October and November 1970, respectively. Written by Ham, the beautiful power pop tune was also included on the group’s third studio album No Dice, released in November of the same year.

You’re Among Friends/Don’t Borrow Trouble

The next stop on this musical journey is the present. Shout-out to fellow blogger Eclectic Music Lover who does a great job in highlighting contemporary artists and bands who oftentimes aren’t widely known. One great example is You’re Among Friends, an indie rock band from Cleveland, Ohio. According to their blog/website, they were formed in 2007 by Anthony Doran (lead vocals and guitars) and Kevin Trask (bass, keyboards and backing vocals), together with Chris Tarka (drums). Their current drummer Mike Janowitz has been with the group since 2019. Their website notes, Tagged as “casual rock” by Powerpopaholic, their music has been described as having “rollicking blues at its core with a sugary coating of power pop” by Cleveland Scene and as “a laid-back style of funky, blues-infused folk rock” by Eclectic Music Lover. To date, You’re Among Friends have released four full-length albums, as well as a couple of EPs and singles. Don’t Borrow Trouble is the catchy opener of the band’s fourth and latest album Good Enough Sometimes, released on January 10 this year.

Men At Work/Down Under

And, once again, this brings me to the sixth and final pick. This one’s by a band that came from a land down under: Men at Work. The group was formed in Melbourne in 1979 by Colin Hay (lead vocals, guitar), Ron Strykert (bass) and Jerry Speiser (drums), who were subsequently joined by Greg Ham (flute, sax, keyboards). By the time Men at Work recorded their debut album Business as Usual in 1981, they had added John Rees on bass and Strykert had switched to guitar. Down Under, co-written by Hay and Strykert, became the record’s second single in November that year and Men at Work’s biggest hit, topping the charts in Australia, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, the UK and various other European countries. The tune introduced most of the world to the Vegemite sandwich, an Australian snack, as well as Australian slang terms, such as “fried-out” (overheated) and “a head full of zombie” (a marijuana reference). Late last year, Australian producer Christian “Luude” Benson remixed Down Under featuring Hay on vocals, which in January charted in the UK and Australia at no. 32 and no. 48, respectively – not my cup of tea, though I really like the original.

As usual, here’s a playlist with all of the above tunes. Hope there’s something for you.

Sources: Wikipedia; You’re Among Friends website; YouTube; Spotify

The Hump Day Picker-Upper

Cheering you up for a dreadful Wednesday, one song at a time

For those of us taking care of business during the regular workweek, I guess it’s safe to assume we’ve all felt that dreadful Wednesday blues. Sometimes, that middle point of the workweek can be a true drag. But help is on the way!

My proposition for today is I’m a Believer by The Monkees. While it’s a silly love song, it always makes me happy. And what’s wrong with that?

It may come as a surprise to some readers that I’m a Believer was written by then-25-year-old Neil Diamond. He actually spent his early career as a songwriter in New York’s legendary Brill Building. By the time Diamond penned I’m a Believer, he already had created a top 20 hit for Jay and the Americans with Sunday And Me that had come out in November 1965.

According to Songfacts, Don Kirshner while looking for material for The Monkees came across I’m a Believer. As part of a deal with Diamond, he allowed him to record the song as well. The Monkees’ version appeared first in November 1966 as their second single. It became a smash, topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK and various other European countries.

Diamond’s version certainly wasn’t bad. It appeared on his sophomore album Just for You from August 1967 but wasn’t among the three singles that were released from the record – probably a smart decision, given it would have been very unlikely to match the success of The Monkees or even come anywhere close to it.

A few additional tidbits from Songfacts: The Monkees sang on this, but did not play any instruments. The producers used session musicians because they were not convinced The Monkees could play like a real band. This became a huge point of contention, as the group fought to play their own songs. [We know eventually they did – CMM]

Neil Diamond had intended the song to be recorded by the Country artist Eddy Arnold, and was surprised when record executive Don Kirshner passed it instead to The Monkees.

Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith didn’t believe this would be a hit, complaining to the producer, Jeff Barry, “I’m a songwriter, and that’s no hit.” Jeff Barry banned him from the studio while Micky Dolenz recorded his lead vocal.

A cover version by Smash Mouth was featured in the 2001 movie Shrek and went to #25 in the US. Diamond wrote the song “You Are My Number One” for Smash Mouth’s next album.

Mojo magazine July 2008 asked Neil Diamond if he resented at all the Monkees’ success with this song at a time when his own recording career was less successful. He replied: “I was thrilled, because at heart I was still a songwriter and I wanted my songs on the charts. It was one of the songs that was going to be on my first album, but Donny Kirshner, who was their music maven, hears ‘Cherry, Cherry’ on the radio and said, ‘Wow, I want one like that for The Monkees!’ He called my producers, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich…But the head of my record company freaked. He went through the roof because he felt that I had given #1 records away to another group. I couldn’t have cared less because I had to pay the rent and The Monkees were selling records and I wasn’t being paid for my records.”

Happy Hump Day, and always remember George Harrison’s wise words: All things must pass!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Sometimes it’s funny how things go. Even though my employer observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day and, as such, I was officially off on Monday, this week still felt very long. Finally, Saturday and another installment of my weekly new music feature are here. This time, my picks include three artists/bands who are entirely new to me and two I’m familiar with, especially one I’ve known since the ’80s. Except for the last tune, all tracks appeared on albums that were released yesterday (January 21).

Miles Kane/Change the Show

My first pick is Miles Kane, who is known as a solo artist and as a member of English supergroup The Last Shadow Puppets. He also used to be the lead vocalist of English rock band The Rascals, who were active from 2007 until 2009 when Kane decided to launch a solo career. His Apple Music profile describes him as an artist with a “resonant croon and charismatic stage swagger” who is “known for his vintage ’60s- and ’70s-inspired rock sound.” Here’s more from Apple Music: Born in 1986 in Merseyside, Kane was an 18-year-old guitarist when he formed his first band Little Flames with childhood friends vocalist Eva Petersen, guitarist Mat Gregory, bassist Joe Edwards, and drummer Greg Mighall. However, after Petersen and Gregory left the band due to creative differences, Kane and the remaining members formed the Rascals with Kane taking on vocal duties...In 2011, he delivered his full-length solo debut, Colour of the Trap. This brings me to Change the Show, the title track of Kane’s new and fourth solo album. The tune was co-written by him and Jamie Biles – catchy pop/rock with a retro flavor.

Texas Hill/Heaven Down Here

Texas Hill are an alternative country trio founded in 2020. According to their website, Craig Wayne Boyd offers a voice full of gospel-tinged country smoke, Adam Wakefield blends a rootsy bluegrass-and-Americana rasp, and Casey James wraps it with a blue-eyed soul quality and deft blues guitar chops. [Casey James did ring a bell, and it turned out in June 2017, I covered his sophomore solo album Strip It Down.]…The Voice and American Idol worked in creating a fan base for all three...That connection helped forge Texas Hill. James and Boyd, who grew up 60 miles apart on the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, ran into one another at a 2019 event in Nashville and dove into conversation…Roughly a month later, Boyd brought Wakefield into the musical conversation, and when the three of them met up, Boyd introduced a song he’d just written. In September 2020, Texas Hill released their eponymous debut EP. Heaven Down There, credited to all three members, is the title track of their first full-length album. Great country rock with beautiful harmony singing – the kind of music that makes me happy!

Keb’ Mo’/Good Strong Woman

Keb’ Mo’ (born Kevin Roosevelt Moore) probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. While typically characterized as a blues artist, the Nashville-based guitarist and singer-songwriter also integrates elements of pop and Americana into his music. I grew fond of Moore when he teamed up with Taj Mahal for their great 2017 “uplifting blues” collaboration album TajMo, which I reviewed here. I also saw the two later that same year during the tour that supported TajMo. Good Strong Woman, which features former Hootie & the Blowfish lead vocalist Darius Rucker, is a track from Keb’ Mo’s new album Good To Be…The soulful, country-flavored tune was co-written by Moore and Jason Gantt. This sounds really sweet! Here’s the official video.

Penny & Sparrow/Voodoo

Penny & Sparrow are an indie folk duo of Texas singer-songwriters Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke. According to their Apple Music profile, they rose out of Austin, Texas, in the early part of the 2010s, combining rich harmonies and a modern sensibility inspired by acts like Bon Iver, the Swell Season, and Mumford & Sons. After honing their sound with a few indie releases, they signed with Southern indie Single Lock Records and issued a trio of well-received albums including 2016’s Let a Lover Drown You and 2019’s Finch. Voodoo is a tune off Penny & Sparrow’s new album Olly Olly. Like all except one of the other 11 tracks on the record, it was co-written by Baxter and Jahnke. Sounds pretty!

Scorpions/Rock Believer

This brings me to my final pick, which comes from Scorpions. When I last featured the German rock/pop metal stalwarts in a Best of What’s New installment in May 2020, I referenced a statement by the group that noted they “are working on lot’s of Hard‘n Heavy Rockers for our new album these days.” That album, Rock Believer, is now in the can and scheduled for February 25. Here’s the title track, which was released on January 14 as the second upfront single of what will be the band’s 19th studio album. Scorpions were formed in 1965 in Hannover, Germany by guitarist Rudolf Schenker, who remains with the group to this day. The present line-up also features Klaus Meine (lead vocals, guitar; since 1969), Matthias Jabs (lead and rhythm guitar, backing vocals; since 1978), Paweł Mąciwoda (bass, backing vocals; since 2003) and Mikkey Dee (drums; since 2016). Scorpions first entered my radar screen with their immensely successful 1984 album Love at First Sting. In general, I dig their melodic pop metal, though whether I want to listen to it also depends on my mood, which I think applies to most other music as well.

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify list featuring the above tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Texas Hill website; Scorpions website; YouTube; Spotify

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 21

Dare I say it, it looks like my irregularly recurring music history feature is becoming more frequent. But with nearly 300 dates left to cover, I still have a long way to go, so it’s safe to assume this series won’t end anytime soon. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the events in music that happened on January 21 over the past six decades or so. I would also like to briefly acknowledge the untimely death of operatic rock artist Meat Loaf, which was reported overnight. He was believed to have been 74 years old. The cause of death has not been revealed.

1963: Since nearly everything in my little music world starts or finishes with The Beatles, let’s get this bloody item out of the way. According to The Beatles Bible, the ultimate source of truth about the band, On this day The Beatles appeared on the EMI plug show The Friday Spectacular, at EMI House, 20 Manchester Square, London. They chatted to hosts Shaw Taylor and Muriel Young, and studio recordings of ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ask Me Why’ were played. The show was recorded before an audience of around 100 teenagers, and was broadcast live on Radio Luxembourg. The overwhelming crowd size tells you this was still pre-Beatlemania. Though their press officer Tony Barrow said that during the recording, “I was finally convinced that The Beatles were about to enjoy the type of top-flight national fame which I had always believed that they deserved.” Side note: Three years later on that same date, George Harrison married his first wife Pattie Boyd, with Paul McCartney serving as best man.

1966: The Trips Festival, a three-day landmark event in the development of psychedelic music, kicked off at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, Produced by Ken Kesey, Ramon Sender, and Stewart Brand, the event is largely recognized as the first to bring together what would be called the “hippie” movement. The sold-out festival, which drew 10,000 people, featured the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane, among others. And some 6,000 people drinking punch spiked with LSD, who witnessed one of the first fully developed light shows of the era. I also found this trippy clip!

1978: Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack album of the 1977 motion picture starring John Travolta, stood at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first of 24 weeks on top of the U.S. mainstream chart. It also reached no. 1 in Canada, the UK, Australia and many other countries. Saturday Night Fever became one of the best-selling albums in music history. With more than 40 million copies sold worldwide, it remains the second-biggest selling soundtrack of all time after The Bodyguard. But, as oftentimes is the case, what goes up must come down. Not even three years later, the Bee Gees, the group most associated with the soundtrack and disco, called it quits, finding themselves caught in the furious backlash toward disco including bomb threats – something you could sadly picture nowadays as well! I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care whether you call Bee Gees music disco, R&B, disco-influenced or anything else – I dig it!

1984: British progressive rock stalwarts Yes hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Owner of a Lonely Heart. Co-written by band members Trevor Rabin (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Jon Anderson (lead vocals) and Chris Squire (bass vocals), together with co-producer Trevor Horn, the catchy pop rocker was first released in October 1983 as the lead single for the group’s 11th studio album 90125, which came out the following month. Owner of the Lonely Heart became Yes’s first and only no. 1 on the U.S. mainstream chart. It also did well in Europe, especially in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 2. While earlier singles like Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout and And You and I are great songs as well, they simply weren’t radio-friendly. Yes, Owner of a Lonely Heart has a commercial ’80s sound, but it’s a hell of a catchy tune!

1987: Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards during the Rock Hall’s second annual induction ceremony. Here’s what the Rock Hall posted on their website: Lady Soul. The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remain anthems that defined soul music. Long live the Queen. And here are The Rolling Stones guitarist’s live remarks from that night – let’s just say it was a classic Keith Richards speech!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube

Elvis Costello Revisits His Roots on Vibrant New Album

Writing an informed review of a new album by a music artist like Elvis Costello who has had an impressive 45-year recording career is a bit tricky when you’ve only listened to a fraction of their previous catalog. But having been a music fan for essentially the same amount of years, I feel confident to proclaim I know great music when I hear it, and The Boy Named If definitely qualifies!

If you’re a long-time Costello listener, which I cannot claim, you may ask which Elvis Costello is showing up on the new album. After all, the British singer-songwriter hasn’t been called a chameleon for nothing, having worked with the likes of Richard Harvey, Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie von Otter and The Roots. Based on my limited exposure, I can clearly hear early influences going back to his first few albums, especially This Year’s Model, his sophomore release from March 1978, and the first record with the then-newly formed The Attractions.

The Boy Named If, released Friday, January 14, is Costello’s 32nd studio album. He is backed by The Imposters, the official name of his touring band since 2002, which has had different members. According to this review in Showbiz 411, the current line-up includes Steve Nieve (keyboards), Davy Faragher (bass and vocals) and Pete Thomas (drums, percussion). Ultimate Classic Rock called this group “essentially the classic Attractions lineup minus bassist Bruce Thomas, replaced by Davey Faragher.

“The full title of this record is ‘The Boy Named If (And Other Children’s Stories),” Costello noted in a statement on his website. ‘IF,’ is a nickname for your imaginary friend; your secret self, the one who knows everything you deny, the one you blame for the shattered crockery and the hearts you break, even your own. You can hear more about this ‘Boy’ in a song of the same name.”

Elvis Costello

Well, I’d say ’nuff upfront info, let’s check out some music. For some odd reason, I couldn’t embed YouTube clips for some of the songs. In these cases, I resorted to embeds of Spotify sound files. I’m also including a Spotify link to the entire album toward the end of the post.

I’d like to kick it off with an early favorite, the opener Farewell, OK, which also had appeared separately as one of three singles leading up to the album’s release. “Like a lot of good rock and roll songs this began with a drummer down in a basement and a singer howling outside the backdoor,” Costello stated on his website. “It’s a blurred gaze, a drink too much, an accidental punch and a kiss goodnight all in the tumult of a dancehall.” Like all other tunes on the album, it was penned by Costello. I love Farewell, OK’s cool retro feel, including Nieve’s Vox Continental and the harmony vocal fill-ins.

Here’s the title track Costello mentioned in his above comment, together with the opening verse to give you a flavor of the lyrics.

I’m a lucky so and so
A fortunate stiff
You said you’d never knew me but I’m the one you want to be with
If I tumble from a tightrope or leap from a cliff
I won’t be dashed to pieces
I’m the boy named If

Penelope Halfpenny is another early favorite. Like in the opener, Steve Nieve is back with that seductive Vox Continental keyboard. I just can’t get enough of this cool sound – okay, perhaps once again my nerdy side is rearing its head. But even if you don’t care about the Vox Continental or any other instrument for that matter, you’ve got to admit this is a bloody catchy tune. Check it out!

Costello and the band are slowing things down on Paint The Red Rose Blue. But don’t get fooled by the ballad’s beautiful melody. This ain’t exactly a silly love song. Paint The Red Rose Blue, which first appeared as another upfront single, is “the account of someone who has long-courted theatrical darkness, only for its violence and cruelty to become all too real,” as Costello put it. “In its wake, a bereft couple learn to love again, painting a melancholy blue over the red of romance.”

My Most Beautiful Mistake (reading that title, I keep thinking of Sheryl Crow’s My Favorite Mistake) is another track I’d like to call out. The song features American singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins on backing harmony vocals. I like how her voice bends with Costello’s.

Since I already featured Magnificent Hurt, another highlight on the album, in my last Best of What’s New installment, I’m skipping it here and go right to the final track I’d like to highlight: the beautiful closer Mr. Crescent.

“Whatever you take out of these tales, I wrote them for you and to make the life of these songs a little less lonely, if you should care to dive in a little deeper,” Costello said in the above statement. “I started ‘The Boy Named If’ with just an electric guitar, some sharps and flats, high heels and lowdowns, with five songs in bright major keys and carried on to write a whole new record for The Imposters to play.”

He added, “The initial rhythm section for this record was my guitar and Pete Thomas’ Gretsch drums, recorded down in Bonaparte Rooms West. Our Imposter pal of 20 years standing, Davey Faragher soon dialed in his Fender bass and vocals while we awaited dispatches from France. If the record sounded swell as a trio, Steve Nieve’s organ was the icing on the cake, the cherry and the little silver balls.”

The Boy Named If was co-produced by Costello and Sebastian Krys, who also had worked with Costello on his two previous studio albums Hey Clockface (October 2020), Look Now (October 2018). Appearing on EMI, with Capitol Records serving as U.S. release partner, the new album is available in vinyl, CD, cassette and downloadble/streaming formats. There is also a deluxe version that includes an 88-page hardback storybook.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters Announce  The Boy Named If & Other Favourites 2022 UK Tour

In early December, Costello announced plans for a 2022 UK tour featuring The Imposters, along with American guitarist and singer-songwriter Charlie Sexton. Among others, he is known for having been a member of Bob Dylan’s backing band starting in 1999. The tour is set to kick off on June 5 in Brighton – keeping my fingers crossed for British fans! For additional details, you can check here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Showbiz 411; Ultimate Classic Rock; Elvis Costello website; YouTube; Spotify