On This Day in Rock & Roll History: April 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music From Down Under That Rocks: Part 3

A two-part musical journey to Australia

‘How can a “two-part musical journey to Australia” have a part 3,’ you might ask. Well, to start with, math has never been my strong suit. I also could have called it ‘le encore’ to the initial two-part mini-series, since that’s what it really is. But I like the concept of a part 3 in a two-part series. Plus at the end of the day, the title matters less than the music.

Parts 1 and 2, which you can read here and here, featured AC/DC, Bee Gees, The Church, Cold Chisel, Crowded House, The Easybeats, INXS, Men At Work, Midnight Oil and Little River Band – or, as Bruce, the man behind the excellent Vinyl Connection, noted, “a pretty good ‘starter pack’ of a certain kind of accessible pop/rock that is, for the most part, radio friendly.” While I leave it up to you to decide whether it’s “pretty good”, I do agree with the radio-friendly part. I realize to some folks pop is a bad word, since they associate it with commercial and selling out. I have no shame to say I like pop, if it’s well crafted. My all-time favorite band The Beatles had plenty of pop. I also think Thriller by Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is one of the best albums ever recorded.

Australian Music Collage 3

Part 3 or le encore or whatever you’d like to call it was inspired by some great feedback to parts 1 and 2 from readers like Bruce, who clearly know more about music from down under than I do. And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy this blogging thing. One door opens another, and the more you get into it, the more you realize how little you know – or, how I prefer to view it, how much more there’s to explore! So let’s get to five additional acts from Australia from A to P. And, no, I’m not saying that’s all the land of the vegemite sandwich has to offer, but as the wise George Harrison once said all things must pass.

Ariel

My streaming music provider doesn’t list even one song by this band, which was founded in Melbourne in 1973. But luckily, there’s YouTube. The following mini-bio is based on the website of singer-songwriter and guitarist Mike Rudd and bassist Bill Putt, who were the driving force behind Ariel. The group combined key members from two of Australia’s leading progressive bands of the period: Rudd, Putt and John Mills (keyboards) had come from Melbourne’s Spectrum, while Tim Gaze (guitar) and Nigel Macara (drums) had played in Sydney-based Tamam Shud. Like Spectrum, Ariel began strongly, but lineup changes, record company problems and the changing nature of music in the mid-70s meant that they never achieved the level of success they deserved. Ariel disbanded in July 1977. During their three-and-a-half-year run, they were quite productive, releasing four studio and two live albums. Ariel proved to be Mike Rudd’s last really high-profile outfit, although he remains one of the most respected figures in the music scene. His long-time musical partner Bill Putt passed away in July 2013. Here’s Miracle Man, written by Gaze, a catchy rocker from Ariel’s debut album A Strange Fantastic Dream released in January 1974.

The Go-Betweens

Indie rock band The Go-Betweens were co-founded by singer-songwriters and guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the only constant members during the band’s existence. By the time they released their studio debut Send Me a Lullaby in November 1981, Lindy Morrison had joined on drums and vocals, with Forster and McLennan handling vocals and rhythm guitar and vocals, bass and lead guitar, respectively. By 1987, the band also included Amanda Brown (violin, oboe, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals) and John Willsteed (bass, guitar), the lineup until their first breakup in December 1989. After pursuing solo careers during the ’90s, Forster and McLennan revived The Go-Betweens with a new lineup in 2000. That version of the band released three more albums. Following McLennan’s death from a heart attack in May 2006, Forster dissolved the band and resumed his solo career. While The Go-Betweens had strong supporters even among critics – of all people, Robert Christgau called them “the greatest songwriting partnership working today” – chart success largely eluded them, with no top 50 hit in Australia or the UK. Here’s Cattle and Cane from the band’s sophomore album Before Hollywood that appeared in May 1983. Co-written by McLennan and Forster, the tune was also released separately as the record’s lead single. Climbing to no. 4 on the UK Independent Singles Chart, I assume it was their most successful song.

Hoodoo Gurus

Initially called Le Hoodoo Gurus, Hoodoo Gurus, a band I had never heard of before, were formed in Sydney in 1981 by Dave Faulkner (guitar, vocals), James Baker (drums), Roddy Radalj (guitar, vocals) and Kimble Rendall (guitar, vocals). So where the hell is the bassist, you might ask – after all, no bass, no band! Well, I suppose Hoodoo Gurus are an exception that proves the rule! Plus, from what I can see, at least on all of their studio albums, they knew better and had a bassist. The band’s popularity peaked in the mid to late ’80s with their second, third and fourth albums, especially in Australia, where according to Wikipedia they reached “iconic status” on the rock scene. Between 1998 and 2003 and band was on hiatus, while their members pursued side projects and solo work. By early 2003, Hoodoo Gurus had reformed. They have since released three additional albums and remain active to this day. Faulkner is the only original member of their current lineup. Here’s a tune that’s right up my alley: Show Some Emotion written by Faulkner and included on their second album Mars Needs Guitars! Love the jingle-jangle sound that reminds me of The Byrds and R.E.M.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The band (initially without a name) was founded by Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave in Melbourne in December 1983, which in addition to him included Tracy Pew (bass) and Hugo Race (guitar), or were they? Wikipedia notes an embryonic version of the band that got together in September 1983 in London where Cave lived at the time. Following a short Australian tour, Cave returned to London, where the first consistent lineup emerged with him, Race, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld (guitar, vocals), and Barry Adamson(bass). At that time, they called themselves Nick Cave and the Cavemen. Their debut album From Her to Eternity, a pun on the James Jones novel From Here to Eternity, appeared in June 1984. A biography by Mark Deming on All Music calls them “one of the most original and celebrated bands of the post-punk and alternative rock eras in the ’80s and onward.” The band remains active until today and has released 17 studio albums, the most recent of which is Ghosteen and came out last October. Here’s the official video of Into My Arms, written by Cave, and the opener to the band’s 10th studio album The Boatman’s Call from March 1997.

Powderfinger 

Powderfinger were formed in Brisbane in 1989 by Steven Bishop (drums), John Collins (bass) and Ian Haug (guitar, vocals), who were all students at a local private school. They started out as a cover rock band that among others played songs by Neil Young, whose classic Powderfinger became their name. By 1992, the band had evolved into the lineup that existed until their disbanding in 2010: Haug, Collins, Bernard Fanning (vocals), Darren Middleton (guitar) and Jon Coghill (drums). Following a self-funded EP that appeared on their own label Finger in August 1992, the band released their first full-fledged record Parables For Wooden Ears in July 1994. It was poorly received. But things started to change significantly with their sophomore release Double Allergic that catapulted them to no. 4 on the Australian charts; each of their remaining five studio albums went all the way to the top. Some of their records also charted in New Zealand. It appears their only album that made the Billboard 200 ironically was titled Odyssey Number Five, their fourth studio album from September 2000. That’s unfortunate. From the aforementioned album, here’s the catchy My Happiness credited to all members of the band.

Sources: Wikipedia; Mike Rudd and Bill Putt website; All Music; YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me

Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)

Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.

Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)

John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.

Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.

Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)

Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.

Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!

New music from young blues rock artists

There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.

Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!

Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.

Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!

Anniversary editions of standout albums

As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.

Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.

The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.

Other notable new releases

It is impossible to cover all new 2017 music I liked, even with breaking down this year-in-review feature into four parts. But at least, I’d like to mention other albums that are noteworthy to me: Ryan Adams/Prisoner (Feb 17), Deep Purple/inFinite (Apr 7), John Mayer/The Search For Everything (Apr 14), Sheryl Crow/Be Myself (April 21), Little Steven/Soulfire (May 19), Chuck Berry/Chuck (Jun 9), Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Jun 16), Alice Cooper/Paranormal (July 28), Steve Winwood/Greatest Hits Live (Sep 1), Ringo Starr/Give More Love (Sep 15), The Church/Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Oct 6), Bob Seger/I Knew You When (Nov 17), U2/Songs Of Experience (Dec 1) and The Rolling Stones/On Air (Dec 1).

The next part of this year-in-review feature will look at some of concerts I attended this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

R.E.M. Releases 25th Anniversary Edition Of “Automatic For The People”

Reissue of 1992 landmark album includes 4-Disc Deluxe Edition and other formats

On October 5, 1992, R.E.M. released Automatic For The People, which is widely considered a highlight in the band’s catalog. Yesterday, a special 25th anniversary reissue appeared on Craft Recordings, a good reason to write about one of my favorite alternative rock bands.

Automatic For The People was R.E.M.’s 8th studio album. It came on the heels of Out Of Time, a Grammy-winning record that had brought R.E.M. broad international success. The song Losing My Religion became their highest-charting single in the U.S., peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

R.E.M

The original intent for Automatic was to make an album that was more rock-oriented than its predecessor. Instead it turned out to be more subdued, focusing on the themes of mortality and dying. This was a big contrast to Shiny Happy People, which lead singer Michael Stipe during a recent NPR interview called a “great bubble gum pop song” and a tune he is not particularly proud of.

Reflecting on Automatic, Stipe noted in a press release announcing the anniversary edition, “Mortality is a theme that writers have chosen to work with throughout time. It speaks of the fragility and beauty of life and living life to the fullest in the present moment. It happens all too quickly and we all know that.” Added R.E.M. co-founding member and bassist Mike Mills, “I think it’s our most cohesive record…It’s the strongest from first to last.”

The album opens with Drive, which also was the lead single released a few days prior to the record. Like all tracks on the album, Drive is credited to all four members of R.E.M., who in addition to Stipes and Mills included Peter Buck (lead guitar) and Bill Berry (drums). According to Songfacts, Stipe commented on the tune in the November 12, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone: “There were, before Punk, a few songs that resonated with me. One was David Essex’s “Rock On”. “Drive” is an homage to that.” The line, “Hey kids, rock n’ roll” was taken from that song.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite with an upbeat melody is a deliberate contrast to the rest of the album. The beginning sounds very similar to the Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens. In fact, R.E.M. decided to pay for the rights to use it. Stipe told NPR he wouldn’t have put the track on the record, had the band not insisted, though he admitted it is catchy. One of the tune’s characteristics is Stipe’s laughter following his inability to properly pronounce the name Dr. Seuss. The band felt it reflected the song’s joy and decided to keep it.

Everybody Hurts is the standout on the album. According to Songfacts, the anti-suicide song was mostly written by Berry who in particular wanted to address young people. Apparently, it had a strong reaction among fans. “The number of times people have said, ‘you’ve saved my life or ‘the song was there at a time when I really needed it, thank you’… that’s my academy award,” said Stipe during the NPR interview. “That’s bigger and better than anything anyone could say to me. Something we did had a positive impact on their life in a moment of great need and a moment when they needed something like that it was there. So that makes me really happy.”

Another tune I’d like to highlight from the original record is Man On The Moon, a tribute to American comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman, and one of R.E.M.’s best known songs. During the above NPR interview, Stipe said he initially felt the tune didn’t need a voice but the band insisted. Watching a VHS tape of Kaufman finally inspired the lyrics. “Somehow he became my hero with the 1,000 faces and these kinds of larger than life questions,” Stipe reflected,  “literally larger than life questions about existence and what happens after we’re gone, or did the man really walk on the moon.”

The 25th anniversary issue is available in various formats: a vinyl LP, a 2-CD edition and a 3-CD + Blu-Ray Deluxe Edition. The latter comes in a lift-top box, together with a 60-page booklet. In addition to the original record, the box includes a CD with 20 demos from the album’s recording sessions, a live recording from November 1992, and a remix of the album in Dolby Atmos on Blu-Ray. According to the above press release, it “delivers a leap forward from surround sound with expansive, flowing audio that immerses the listener far beyond what stereo can offer.” Automatic For The People is the first commercial release using this new technology.

The original album was produced by Scott Litt, who together with recording engineer Cliff Norell also created the Dolby Atmos remix. Litt also produced four additional R.E.M. albums (Green, 1988; Out Of Time, 1991; Monster, 1994; and New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996) and has worked with many other artists, such as Nirvana, Incubus and Counting CrowsLed Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones contributed string arrangements for the original recording.

Automatic For The People earned R.E.M. significant commercial success and was generally well received by music critics. The album peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard 200 album charts and topped the U.K. albums chart four times. The record has sold more than 3.5 million copies in the U.S. as of 2017. It was ranked no. 249 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Records of All Time in 2012. In 2006, it also placed no. 37 on the list of 100 best albums ever, as voted by 40,000 people who participated in a worldwide survey conducted by British Hit Singles & Albums and NME.

I’d like to close this post with one of the demos on the anniversary issue. Mike’s Pop Song, one of two previously unreleased songs, has a nice 60s vibe that is a bit reminiscent of The Byrds.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR “All Songs Considered”, R.E.M. press release, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube