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.”
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
Welcome to the second installment of this feature, which I spontaneously launched last Sunday. Now I guess I gotta keep feeding the bear! 🙂 The good news is in music the possibilities are endless. With that being said, let’s start it nice and easy, before we finish it nice and rough!
I’d like to kick things off with some smooth pop jazz from the great Donald Fagen, who together with Walter Becker was the mastermind behind one of my favorite music acts of all time, Steely Dan. I.G.Y., which stands for International Geophysical Year, is the opener to Fagen’s solo debut album The Nightfly. Released in October 1982, it remains my favorite Fagen solo effort. I.G.Y., which ran from July 1957 to December 1958, was a global project to promote collaboration among the world’s scientists. The tune, written by Fagen, also became The Nightfly’s lead single in September 1982.
Paul Simon/Train in the Distance
For some reason, that Paul Simon song randomly popped into my head the other day, so what could be a better selection for this feature? Of course, this may pose the question what’s going to happen when something like Itsy Bitsy Spider suddenly comes to my mind – well, I guess we have to wait and see. As for Train in the Distance, I’ve always dug this tune. Simon wrote and recorded it for his sixth solo album Hearts and Bones from November 1983. Interestingly, the track wasn’t released as a single…Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true/Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true…Love the soothing sound of that song and the great image of the sound of a distant train.
Let’s do another smoothie – after all, it’s Sunday morning! Smooth Operator was the first Sade tune I recall hearing on the radio in Germany back in the ’80s. It’s on the British songwriter and vocalist’s smash debut album Diamond Life from July 1984. Sade, also professionally known as Sade Adu, began her career as a model before becoming a backing vocalist in a British band called Pride. Subsequently, she and three other members of the band, Paul Anthony Cook, Paul Denman and Stuart Matthewman, left to form a group named after her, Sade. Co-written by Ray St. John, another member of Pride, and Sade, Smooth Operator also appeared separately as a single in September 1984 and became a major international hit. Yes, the tune about a con man and pimp sounds like gentleman club music. I still love Sade’s soulful singing and the smooth jazzy sound.
World Party/Ship of Fools
My dear long-time music friend from Germany reminded me of this great tune yesterday, which is a perfect fit to our crazy times. Ship of Fools was the debut single by World Party, released in January 1987. World Party was the name of a music solo project by Welsh multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and record producer Karl Wallinger. He started it in 1986 after his departure as keyboarder of The Waterboys. Ship of Fools, written by Wallinger, was also included on World Party’s 1986 debut album Private Revolution. Wallinger’s love of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and other ’60s music is quite evident, both sonically and visually. In fact, the vocals on Ship of Fools at times remind a bit of Mick Jagger. In 2001, Wallinger was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which required surgery and put his music career to a near-full stop for five years. He was able to resume touring in 2006, though no additional World Party albums have appeared since Wallinger’s dangerous health episode. Based on World Party’swebsite, the project appears to have been on hiatus since 2015. No idea what Wallinger is doing these days.
Leon Russell/Crystal Closet Queen
Let’s get it going with some great rock & roll from Leon Russell. When my streaming music provider recently served up Crystal Closet Queen as a listening suggestion, I decided right away to feature this tune in my next Sunday Six installment. Why? Coz I can! Plus, that’s the beauty of a feature about random songs. Composed by Russell, the tune is from his second solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which came out in May 1971. This really cooks!
The Spencer Davis Group/Gimme Some Lovin’
To wrap up this collection, what’s even better than a rocker like Crystal Closet Queen? Yep, you guessed it correctly – more rock! I’ve always loved this gem by The Spencer Davis Group. When then-18-year-old Steve Winwood hits and holds those keys of his mighty Hammond B3, it still sends chills through my spine, not to mention his amazing soulful voice! Co-written by Winwood, Spencer Davis and Steve’s older brother Muff Winwood, Gimme Some Lovin’ appeared as a non-album single in October 1966 and became one of the band’s biggest hits. The title is also a good motto we should all embrace, especially these days.
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
Lately, I feel I sound like a broken record. Yet another busy week is coming to an end, which once again didn’t leave me with an opportunity to blog. Finally, I was able to carve out some time to take a look at newly-released music.
This Best of What’s New installment features different flavors of rock and some indie pop. Two of the artists are relatively young and were unknown to me, while the two remaining songs come from famous acts. One is a post-mortem, previously unreleased cover of a Bob Dylan tune by an artist who sadly passed away in January 2016. The other one is going to knock off your socks if you’re into early ’70s rock.
Lande Hekt is a founding member of British punk and indie rock band Muncie Girls, which was formed in 2010 in Exeter, England. Their debut album From Caplan To Belsize appeared in March 2016, followed by sophomore Fixed Ideals in August 2018. Undone is a song from Hekt’s solo debut cheerfully titled Going to Hell, which was released today (January 22). Like all of the 10 other tracks, the tune was written by Hekt. According to a review on Bandcamp Daily, she played all instruments herself except for the percussion. The album has a bare-bones homemade feel to it, which is part of what drew me in.
Pearl Charles is a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles. According to her artist profile on Apple Music, she has a knack for writing melodic, low-key indie pop with a jangling country tone. After coming up through the Los Angeles lo-fi and garage scenes, she made her full-length debut in 2018 with Sleepless Dreamer, a finely crafted slice of warm country-pop. She followed it up three years later with Magic Mirror. A lifelong musician, the L.A. native first gained exposure as one-half of lo-fi Americana duo the Driftwood Singers, who released a pair of EPs and one full-length in 2012. A stint playing drums for garage pop act the Blank Tapes introduced her to the crew at Burger Records, who offered to release her first solo effort, a 2015 self-titled EP. Imposter, written by Charles, is a catchy tune from her new album Magic Mirror released on January 15. I’m definitely curious to hear more of her music.
David Bowie/Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
This previously unreleased cover of Bob Dylan’sTryin’ to Get to Heaven appeared as a single on January 8, which would have been David Bowie’s 74th birthday. As reported by NME, Bowie who died from liver cancer in January 2016 just two days after his 69th birthday, recorded this version in 1989 while working on LiveAndWell.com, a limited edition live album that first came out in November 1999. On January 15, it was re-released as part of the Brilliant Live Adventures series of six concert albums. Originally, Dylan recorded Tryin’ to Get to Heaven for his 30th studio album Time Out of Mind from September 1997.
The Black Crowes/Charming Mess
On January 9, The Black Crowesannounced a 30th-anniversary re-issue of their excellent debut album Shake Your Money Maker, which features Charming Mess, a previously unreleased and “recently unearthed” song. The reissue, which includes 4LP Super Deluxe, 3CD Super Deluxe, 2CD, Standard CD & LP, streaming and download formats (jeez, they’re not kiddin’ around here!), is set for release on February 26. Co-written by the band’s founding members Christopher Robinson and his brother Richard S. Robinson, Charming Mess feels like taking a trip back to the early ’70s and listening to a Faces tune – just awesome! After a hiatus from 2002 to 2005 and a breakup in January 2015, The Black Crowes reunited in November 2019 for a planned tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut album. The rest is COVID! Now it appears the tour is set to kick off in Tampa, Fla. on June 25. They’re scheduled to play in my neck of the woods in mid-July – man, that should be a cool show and definitely something I’d consider, depending on where things are with the pandemic.
Sources: Wikipedia; Bandcamp Daily; Apple Music; NME; The Black Crowes website; YouTube
I just dig John Fogerty who at 75 years old still loves what he does and still does it pretty darn well. I was fortunate to see him in action with my own eyes in May 2018. The man had a ball on stage, and you simply can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm – it’s electrifying! On January 6, Fogerty released Weeping in the Promised Land, his first new song in eight years.
Notably, the tune isn’t a typical John Fogerty swamp rocker, though I love these types of songs by him and wouldn’t have minded. Instead, it’s stripped back with Fogerty singing and on piano only, accompanied by a few gospel backing vocalists – so cool! Thematically, it’s a protest song that’s reminiscent of Fortunate Son and Who’ll Stop the Rain from the Creedence Clearwater Revival era. The gospel vocals in particular give me chills – check it out!
John’s words leave no doubt who and what he’s singing about: …Forked-tongued pharaoh, behold be comes to speak/Weeping in the Promised Land/Hissing and spewing, it’s power that he seeks/Weeping in the Promised Land/With dread in their eyes, all the nurses are crying/So much sorrow, so much dying/Pharaoh keep a-preaching but he never had a plan/Weeping in the Promised Land…
As Rolling Stonereported, Fogerty first came up with the line and title “weeping in the promised land” about 25 years ago. While he dug it out a few years back and wrote a full-fledged tune, he wasn’t happy with the outcome. Fast forward to last summer when the phrase all of a sudden became meaningful to Fogerty and resulted in an entirely new song.
Apparently, the initial version, which Fogerty recorded with his son Shane Fogerty (guitar), Don Was (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums), was more of a swamp rocker. Interestingly, it was his wife and manager Julie who suggested John should try to play the tune on the piano instead. Initially, Fogerty who first and foremost is a guitarist (and a pretty decent one) was a bit reluctant, but fortunately, he overcame his doubts.
Writing Weeping in the Promised Land turned out to be quite challenging, Fogerty told Rolling Stone. Over several months, he grappled with the lyrics. He went on car rides to local parks in southern California to get some inspiration. “I felt like I was wandering around in the desert,” he joked.
In the end, it all came beautifully together. And more is on the way, namely an album with all-new material – the first since Revival from October 2007! “We’ve had a couple of recording sessions since this song was done,” Fogerty noted. “Getting this song out of me was almost like a blockage. I had to get this finished first.” He didn’t reveal further details on timing, so stay tuned.
One man come in the name of love/One man come and go/One man come here to justify/One man to overthrow…
As the U.S. observes Martin Luther King Day today, it felt right to feature this tune. Pride (In the Name of Love) may have been over-exposed. It’s certainly been criticized for its lyrics, as have U2 for their grandiose concerts. I can also see why Bono’s frequent political activism for hunger, the poor and other causes while becoming a very wealthy man in the course of it all can rub people the wrong way. And yet I’ve always loved this song.
Bono’s singing is simply amazing, while The Edge provides a cool and unique guitar sound that’s truly signature. While the lyrics may not teach a lot about Dr. King, I still believe the words are powerful. And, call me naive, I also believe being a force for good while becoming rich don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
…In the name of love/One more in the name of love/In the name of love/ One more in the name of love…
Pride (In the Name of Love), composed by U2 with lyrics by Bono, is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. The lyrics were inspired by U2’s visit of the Chicago Peace Museum in 1983, which featured an exhibit dedicated to the civil rights leader. Initially, Bono had intended to write a song criticizing then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan for his pride in America’s military might.
…One man caught on a barbed wire fence/One man he resist/One man washed up on an empty beach/One man betrayed with a kiss…
But as Songfactsnotes, Bono came to the conclusion lyrics condemning Reagan weren’t working. “I remembered a wise old man who said to me, don’t try and fight darkness with light, just make the light shine brighter,” he told NME. “I was giving Reagan too much importance, then I thought Martin Luther King, there’s a man. We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger.”
…In the name of love/One more in the name of love/In the name of love/One more in the name of love…
The melody and chords to Pride were conceived during a soundcheck in November 1983 prior to a U2 show in Hawaii. It was a gig during the band’s supporting tour for their third studio album War that had been released in February of the same year. Like all U2 soundchecks, it was recorded. U2 continued work on the track after the tour and it was subsequently finished as part of the recording sessions for their next album The Unforgettable Fire.
…Early morning, April four/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life/They could not take your pride…
Pride erroneously suggests Dr. King was shot in the early morning of April 4, 1968. The murder actually occurred just after 6:00 pm local Memphis time – a surprising mistake for Bono who seems to be well read. He later acknowledged his error and in concerts sometimes sings “early evening, April 4.” Why he simply didn’t make that a permanent adjustment beats me – rhythmically, I don’t see an issue.
…In the name of love/One more in the name of love/In the name of love/One more in the name of love…
Pride was first released in September 1984 as the lead single of The Unforgettable Fire, appearing one month ahead of the album. It was U2’s first major international hit, topping the charts in New Zealand; climbing to no. 2 and no. 3 in Ireland and the UK, respectively; and becoming the band’s first top 40 hit in the U.S.
…In the name of love/One more in the name of love/In the name of love/One more in the name of love.
Despite initially getting mixed reviews from music critics, Pride has since received many accolades. Haven’t we seen this movie many times before? The tune was ranked at no. 388 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in December 2003. Pride is also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
This is the inaugural post of a new feature I spontaneously decided introduce to the blog. The Sunday Six is going to present random collections of six songs I like. They can be new or old and include different types of genres. In fact, I hope these posts are going to be eclectic and at least occasionally also venture beyond my core wheelhouse. The determining factor is going to be, well, me and what music comes to my mind when writing these posts.
The introduction of a new feature may come as a surprise, especially to more regular visitors of the blog, who probably recall my repeated comments about lack of time to focus on blogging, particularly over the past several weeks. Since this is unlikely going to change anytime soon, unlike the weekly recurring Best of What’s New, I think The Sunday Six is going to appear less frequently. With that being said, let’s get to the inaugural installment.
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs/And Your Bird Can Sing
Folks who read my most recent installment of Best of What’s New may have picked up I’m quite excited about my “discovery” of Matthew Sweet – well, better late than never! I totally love this cover of And Your Bird Can Sing, which Sweet recorded with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles for Under the Covers, Vol. 1. While they didn’t reinvent the tune, I think the voices of Sweet and Hoffs perfectly blend. Released in April 2006, it’s their first of four collaboration albums that celebrate music they both love. Vol. 1 mostly focuses on ’60s tunes. Given they are fans of The Beatles, the inclusion of a Fab Four tune isn’t a shock. I also like they selected what I would consider to be a deep cut. Mainly written by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney, And Your Bird Can Sing was recorded for the UK version of the Revolver album from August 1966. In the U.S., it was included on Yesterday and Today, a record that became infamous for its original cover showing The Beatles in white coats with decapitated baby dolls and pieces of raw meat – yikes!
Travis/Waving at the Window
I really dig this mellow pop tune and think it’s perfect for a Sunday. Until yesterday, I had never heard of Travis, a Scottish rock band founded in 1990 in Glasgow. Written by their lead singer Fran Healy (a guy), Waving at the Window is the opener from Travis’ most recent album 10 Songs that was released in October 2020. The pick of this song isn’t as random as it may look. Yesterday’s start of my Matthew Sweet exploration led to Suzanna Hoffs and my curiosity what she’s been up to. It turned out Hoffs appeared as a guest on one of the other tracks on 10 Songs.
Since I “chatted” with Max from PowerPop about his post on Van Morrison tune Astral Weeks earlier today, my favorite Morrison album Moondance has been on my mind. So here’s the title track to get it out of my system! I just totally dig the laid back and jazzy feel of Morrison’s third studio record from January 1970. Like all tracks on the album, Moondance was written by him.
Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band/Turn the Page
This one you can blame on Cincinnati Babyhead, who earlier today posted on Bob Seger’s album Against the Wind. You see where I’m going with this feature – blaming others! 🙂 Turn the Page, one of my favorite Seger songs, was first recorded for the amazing Live Bulletalbum released by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band in April 1976. It features terrific sax work by Alto Reed, who sadly passed away from colon cancer on December 30, 2020 at the age of 72 years. According to the clip description, this is the official video. While like Live Bullet it was captured at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1975, based on Seger’s announcement, I think the take on the video is different from the album. According to setlist.fm, Seger and his longtime backing band played two back-to-back dates at Cobo (September 4 and 5, 1975), so I assume the take of Turn the Page in the video was captured from “the other show,” i.e., the one that’s not on the album. Are you still with me? 🙂
Sting/Fields of Gold
Fields of Gold is another beautiful and mellow tune that’s just perfect for a Sunday. It also happens to be one of my favorite tunes by Sting. The ex-Police frontman wrote and recorded this gem for his third solo album Ten Summoner’s Tales from March 1993, which I’d probably consider to be his Mount Rushmore as a solo artist.
Let’s wrap up this inaugural installment with a bang: Cream and White Room, from their amazing reunion live album Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005, which came out in October 2005. So good! Written by the amazing Jack Bruce with lyrics by British poet Pete Brown, White Room first appeared on Cream’s third album Wheels of Fire from August 1968. It was the opener of the first record on this majestic double-LP.
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
As another eventful week is drawing to a close, the time has come again to venture into the world of newly released music. This latest Best of What’s New installment features great power pop, indie pop rock and art pop from the U.S. and rock from the U.K.
While two of these acts are well established and have been around for many years, all are new to me. Broadening my music universe by “discovering” artists and bands is a key reason why I enjoy writing the series. All of the featured songs were just released yesterday. Let’s get going!
Matthew Sweet/Stars Explode
Matthew Sweet is a singer-songwriter who played in various bands during the ’80s and was part of the vibrant local music scene in Athens, Ga., before gaining traction as a solo artist in the ’90s. According to his profile on Apple Music, he skillfully navigates the line between the power pop underground and the mainstream end of alternative rock. Matthew Sweet was a master of potent pop tunes and catchy melodic hooks, but he also knew how to make his songs rock, and his inspired use of incisive guitar work gave his songs an edge that was fresh and satisfying. Sweet spent most of the ’80s in the background, performing with the groups Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight, playing in Lloyd Cole’s backing band, and releasing a pair of overlooked solo albums (1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth) as he honed his skills. His this solo album Girlfriend from October 1991 brought him commercial breakthrough. Between 2006 and 2013, Sweet collaborated on a series of cover albums (Under the Covers Vol. 1 – Vol. 3) with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles. Stars Explode, written by Sweet, is from his 15th studio album Catspaw. It illustrates he hasn’t lost his ability to write catchy power pop tunes that nicely rock. Sounds like Sweet is right up my alley, so I’m planning to further explore his music.
Beach Bunny/Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)
Beach Bunny are an indie pop rock band formed in Chicago in 2015. The group started as a solo project by vocalist and guitarist Lili Trifilio who released her debut EP Animalism in 2015. Following the third EP Crybaby in 2017, Beach Bunny became a full-fledged four-piece group. In addition to Trifilio (vocals, guitar), their current lineup features Matt Henkels (guitar), Anthony Vaccaro (bass) and Jon Alvarado (drums). Beach Bunny’s first full-length studio album Honeymoon appeared in February 2020. Good Girls (Don’t Get Used) is the opener of the group’s latest EP Blame Game. Like the three other tracks on the EP, the song is credited to Lili Trifilio and Beach Bunny. The catchy track reminds me a bit of some early Taylor Swift tunes I’ve heard.
You Me At Six/Beautiful Way
You Me At Six are an English rock band formed in 2004 in the greater London area. Apple Music notes post-hardcore and alt-rock influences in their music. I don’t know the band and take this at face value. After two self-released EPs in 2006 and 2007, their debut album Take Off Your Colours came out in October 2008. It peaked at no. 25 on the British albums chart and yielded two UK award nominations. Their fourth album Cavalier Youth from January 2014 topped the UK and Scottish albums charts and also made the Billboard 200, reaching no. 124. The band’s current core lineup consists of co-founding members Josh Franceschi (lead vocals), Chris Miller (lead guitar), Max Helyer (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Matthew Barnes (bass, backing vocals), as well as Daniel Flint (drums) who has been with the group since 2007. Beautiful Way, credited to all members of the band, is from You Me At Six’s seventh studio album Suckapunch. The track’s guitar part drew me in – it definitely has something!
Rounding out today’s new music collection is the duo of Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian, professionally known as Midnight Sister. A profile on Apple Music describes their style as art pop with a cinematic flair…Both natives of the San Fernando Valley [Calif.] and graduates of the same high school a few years apart, they met when Balouzian, a classically trained musician, wrote the score for a short film scripted by Giraffe and her sister, a friend of Balouzian’s. When he followed up by sending some instrumental music to Giraffe, and she returned it with vocals, they liked the results and decided to keep working together. Midnight Sister was Balouzian’s first pop project aside from doing arrangements for Tobias Jesso, Jr. and Alex Izenberg, and Giraffe’s first musical endeavor. Their full-length debut album Saturn Over Sunset appeared in 2017. Foxes is a track from their sophomore release Painting the Roses. It’s an intriguing tune with portions that sound Beatle-esque.
Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.
Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.
The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a “bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops.” Becker was playing bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.
Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.
In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).
In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career.
In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.
After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.
At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebookpage, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!
I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.
Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.
Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.
Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.
By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.
Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.
This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’sMount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.
Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.
February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.
If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.
Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.
This is it – well, almost! As the remaining hours of 2020 are ticking away, the time has come for my final post of this year. Since I’ve already expressed my thoughts about this year in comments to posts by fellow bloggers, I’m keeping this short and sweet.
I’d like to wish all readers a happy and healthy new year and hope you come back for more. Also, please keep the comments coming. I always enjoy reading your thoughts, even though we may not agree all the time on the music we post about. Thank goodness! Can you imagine how boring it would be, if everybody always had the same taste? Reading different perspectives is a good thing!
I’d like to leave you with a few new year’s songs. They aren’t all happy, but I feel choices are limited to begin with. Plus, obviously, the following is based on what I could find. I’m sure there are other tunes that would have been worthwhile to include. Plus, I wanted to keep it to a handful only.
Death Cab For Cutie/The New Year
I only know this indie rock band from Bellington, Wa. by name. Credited to all four members of the band at the time, Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar, piano), Nick Harmer (bass), Chris Walla (guitar) and Jason McGerr (drums), The New Year is the opener of their fourth studio album Transatlanticism from October 2003.
Eagles/Funky New Year
Co-written by Don Henley and Glen Frey in 1978 but apparently not released at the time, Funky New Year was included in the Eagles’ box set Legacy, which appeared in 2018. Groovy!
Otis Redding & Carla Thomas/New Year’s Resolution
How about throwing in some sweet Stax soul music? My kind of music. Here’s New Year’s Resolution by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Co-written by Randle Catron, Willie Dean “Deanie” Parker and Mary Frierson, the tune was included on a studio album titled King & Queen. It appeared in March 1967 and was Redding’s final album prior to his untimely death in an airplane crash on December 10, 1967.
U2/New Year’s Day
Let’s wrap it up with what’s perhaps my favorite tune related to the new year: New Year’s Day by U2. The Irish rock band recorded it for their third studio album War from February 1983. Like all other tracks on the record, it was credited to U2. Here’s the live version from Under a Bloody Red Sky, released in November 1983, which I’ve always preferred over the studio take.
Before we can finally kiss this dismal year goodbye, I wanted to squeeze in another installment of my recurring rock/pop music history feature. Without further ado, here are some of the events that happened in the music world on December 29.
1965: American rock band The Sir Douglas Quintet were busted for marijuana possession in Corpus Christi, Texas. They got probation when they appeared in court with short hair, wearing suits. “I’m glad you cut your hair,” the judge told them. “I saw your pictures in the paper when you were arrested and I don’t go for that stuff.” The episode came in the wake of the band’s best-known song She’s About a Mover, written by their founder Doug Sahm.
1966: The Beatles were at EMI Studios at Abbey Road, working on three songs during three sessions: When I’m Sixty-Four, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. None of the four mono mixes of When I’m Sixty-Four they made that day was used. The work on Strawberry Fields Forever included a tape copy of a December 22 mono mix, as well as creating the final stereo mix. I’ll skip the details, which laid out in The Beatles Bible. Paul McCartney also recorded the first takes of Penny Lane, working into the early morning hours of the following day. Here’s the magnificent Strawberry Fields Forever.
1967: Dave Mason left Traffic barely three weeks after the English rock band had released their debut album Mr. Fantasy. Only eight months earlier, Mason had been one of Traffic’s co-founders, together with Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. Apparently, Mason didn’t have much interest in collaborating on songs. “We all [Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood] tended to write together, but Mason would come in with a complete song that he was going to sing and tell us all what he expected us to play,” Winwood later recalled. “No discussion, like we were his backing group.” Mason would rejoin Traffic in 1968 while they were recording their eponymous sophomore album only to leave again after its release. Here’s House for Everyone, one of three tunes on Mr. Fantasy written by Mason.
1968: Led Zeppelin performed at Civic Auditorium in Portland, Ore. on their first 1968/1969 North American tour, opening for Vanilla Fudge. According to setlist.fm, their set included The Train Kept a-Rollin’, I Can’t Quit You Baby, As Long As I Have You, Dazed and Confused, White Summer/Black Mountain Side and How Many More Times. Here’s a clip of Dazed and Confused from 1968, or as somebody in the comments pointed out 1969. In any case, it’s probably reasonably close to how Zep sounded that night in Portland.
1973: Time in a Bottle, one of my favorite songs by Jim Croce, hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. Sadly, Croce was no longer around to witness the success. On September 20, 1973, he died at the age of 30 when his chartered plane crashed into a tree during takeoff from Natchitoches Regional Airport in Natchitoches, La. All other five members on board of the plane were also killed: Pilot Robert N. Elliott, Maury Muehleisen, comedian George Stevens, manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese and road manager Dennis Ras. Time in a Bottle became Croce’s second and last no. 1 hit in the U.S. after Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, another great tune he had first released as a single in March of the same year.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; The Beatles Bible; Setlist.fm; This Day in Music; YouTube