My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Rock The Farm Once Again Proves To Be Gift That Keeps On Giving

Sixth annual music tribute festival on Jersey show delivers day of great music for a great cause

While late September in New Jersey means fall is upon us and soon folks will start bitching about rain, wind and cold weather, I’ve been looking forward to this last weekend of the month all year. The reason is Rock the Farm, the annual music tribute festival and fundraiser in Seaside Heights, N.J., organized by the CFC Loud n Clear Foundation. As previously noted on these pages, this charitable organization provides support to families struggling with addiction at a particularly critical time when their loved ones come out of drug rehab and need to rebuild their lives while staying sober.

It’s a good thing if you like me have never been hooked on drugs, but let’s not kid ourselves: Even if we think we’re immune, there’s no doubt in my mind addiction can happen to anybody. And it can probably go faster than we want to admit. Therefore, I strongly feel we shouldn’t look down on folks who are in the throes of drugs. Instead, we should support them as best as we can. It’s safe to assume nobody wants to be a drug addict, if they could freely choose. And, yes, impacted people probably made some choices they wish they could take back. But we shouldn’t judge. Behind each case, there is a human being with a unique story.

In fact, just like last year, the event featured individuals who had the courage to come on stage and briefly share their stories with the audience. It’s safe to assume it takes guts to this. It’s also extremely powerful. Among these folks was an 18-year-old woman who said she became a drug addict at age 13. Thirteen years – that’s a good deal younger than my 17-year-old. Her life fell totally apart and she lost everything. This is truly heart-breaking stuff. Luckily, thanks to support from the CFC Foundation, this young woman was able to turn things around and now feels she’s stronger than ever. While it was obviously a happy outcome, I have to admit these stories get to me. I also love the message of hope and empowerment. With that being said, let’s get to some music. There was plenty, and once again, most of it was outstanding.

Rock the Farm 2019 Line-up

For readers who aren’t familiar with Rock the Farm, the concept of the 10-hour open air event is this: Imagine a music festival many folks wish would happen but can’t, since artists have passed away or no longer perform. As a music lover, I think it’s a fun idea. Yesterday’s line-up brought a nice mix of tributes playing different music styles, including folk, rock, pop and even hair metal. Following are some clips.

I’d like to kick things off with One Fine Tapestry, a tribute to Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. At the core of this act are Gerard Barros and Diane Barros, a New Jersey-based versatile husband and wife duo performing a variety of different shows. Yesterday, they were backed by a full band and in addition to King also played some tunes by Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. For more information and their schedule of shows mostly in Jersey, you can check out their website. Here’s Sweet Seasons, a tune off King’s third solo album Music from December 1971, co-written by her and Toni Stern.

Coo Coo Cachoo, another Jersey-based act, are Thomas Johnston and Ed Jankiewicz, who have been singing Simon & Garfunkel songs since they met in high school some 47 years ago. This means they started about two years after Simon & Garfunkel had released their fifth and last studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water. I find that pretty amazing. In addition to performing as a duo, they each do solo projects. Johnston recently completed his third album of original singer-songwriter material. Jankiewicz has recorded one original album and plays in an eclectic array of music groups , from symphony to blue grass to jazz. More information is on the duo’s Facebook page. Here is their rendition of America. Written by Paul Simon, the song appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth studio record Bookends released in April 1968. I’ve always liked this tune!

Following are a few tribute acts I covered before, but they’re just too good to skip. First up: Decade, a great act revolving around Neil Young tribute artist John Hathaway, who is also from New Jersey and performs with different line-ups of great backing musicians. Frequent members include guitarist Gordon Bunker Strout, pedal steel player Joseph Napolitano, bassist John Dickson and keyboarder Steve Cunniff. Sometimes, Hathaway’s band also features a female backing vocalist as was the case yesterday with Pam McCoy. For more information and upcoming gigs, visit Decade’s Facebook page. Here’s Cinnamon Girl, a tune from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which Young released as his second solo album in May 1969.

The Glimmer Twins, a Rolling Stones tribute from Philly, are another excellent band I previously featured. Adopting the nickname of the songwriting partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, this bandis led by Keith Call (vocals, harp) and Bernie Bollendorf (guitars, vocals), who bring to life the sound and looks of Jagger and Richards in the ’70s. While the band’s remaining musicians don’t resemble the other members of The Rolling Stones, they sound fantastic:  Michael Rubino (guitars), Bobby Corea (drums), Rob Ekstedt (Bass), Rocco Notte  (keyboards), Valorie Steel (vocals) and Bobby Michaels (saxophone, flute, organ). For more information, check out their website. Here’s Can You Hear Me Knocking, one of my favorite tunes from the Sticky Fingers album that appeared in April 1971. Check out the nice sax work by Michaels!

Yet another outstanding band I’ve covered before is TUSK, a tribute to Fleetwood Mac, which mirrors the Rumours lineup. Their members include Kathy Phillips (as Stevie Nicks, vocals), Kim Williams (as Christine McVie, keyboards & vocals), Scott McDonald (as Lindsey Buckingham, guitar & vocals), Tom Nelson (as Mick Fleetwood, drums) and Randy Artiglere (as John McVie, bass). While TUSK are from Jersey, they tour nationally. Check the band’s website for more information including their schedule. If you are into Rumours and other albums the band recorded with that line-up, this is definitely a tribute act I can recommend. Here’s the McVie tune You Make Loving Fun from Rumours, the Mac’s 11th studio album released in February 1977.

The last band I’d like to call out is Simply Queen, a tribute to – yes, you guessed it – Queen. This Canadian band, which has been around for 15 years, features Rick Rock (as Freddie Mercury), Bob Wegner (as Brian May), Phil Charrette (as Roger Taylor) and Mitch Taylor (as John Deacon). Despite some technical issues they seemed to have, especially in the beginning, Simply Queen put on a great show. It was quite obvious that Rock and Wegner have closely studied Mercury and May, respectively, beyond the music to mimic their onstage personas. So similar to the Glimmer Twins and also TUSK, Simply Queen is an audio-visual experience. While they mostly perform in Canada, they venture out to the U.S. fairly frequently. For more information and their schedule, visit their website. Here’s a nice rocker called It’s Late. Written by Brian May, the song is from News of the World, Queen’s sixth studio album released in October 1977. 

With some not so great things that have happened on the family front over the past two weeks, Rock the Farm could not have come at a better time for me. Oftentimes, I feel music is the best therapy and distraction when the shit hits the fan. I was a happy camper. Can you tell from the selfie?

Selfie

This was the 6th annual Rock the Farm festival and my third time there in a row. I have every intention to return next next year. More information about this great event is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rock the Farm website, One Fine Tapestry website, Coo Coo Cachoo Facebook page, Decade Facebook page, Glimmer Twins website, TUSK website, Simply Queen website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Paul Simon/Still Crazy After All These Years

My introduction to Paul Simon happened many moons ago with Simon & Garfunkel and their second compilation Greatest Hits from 1972, which my sister owned on vinyl. I loved that record from the very beginning and still do to this day. Not long after I had heard it for the first time, I started taking guitar lessons and eventually got a songbook for that collection. I practiced hard to learn the tunes and soon found out what a formidable acoustic guitarist Paul Simon is. Eventually, I managed to figure out the finger-picking for The Boxer – haven’t tried playing that tune in 20-plus years. Anyway…

While there’s an obvious connection to Simon & Garfunkel, this post is about Paul Simon’s fourth studio album Still Crazy After All These Years, which appeared in October 1975. I would say I know a good deal of Simon’s tunes he recorded as a solo artist, but other than the fantastic Graceland from August 1986, I cannot really make the same claim for his albums. As oftentimes happens, the idea for this post was triggered when my streaming music provider served up the record as a listening suggestion. It didn’t take me long to realize this is a great album with a smooth jazz, blues and soul-influenced sound – my kind of music!

Let’s kick things off with the excellent opener and title track. Like all songs on the record, it was written by Simon, one of my favorite American singer-songwriters. It nicely sets the mood for the album. BTW, the recording features the Muscle Shoals Rhythm SectionBarry Beckett (Fender Rhodes piano), David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Also, check out that beautiful saxophone solo by Michael Brecker, which starts at around 2:12 minutes.

My Little Town reunited Simon with Art Garfunkel. The tune, which also appeared on Garfunkel’s second solo album Breakaway that was released about 10 days prior to Still Crazy, became the first single credited to the duo since America, a single off their above Greatest Hits compilation. Simon and Garfunkel may have had a complicated relationship, but they surely recorded some great music together and their voices blended perfectly with each other. While perhaps a little bit lush in the second part (hey, it’s the ’70s!), the song has a nice build.

The big hit from the album of course is 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Yes, I realize it’s perhaps an obvious choice everybody knows, but I just dig that tune way too much to skip it. I love that cool drum part played by Steve Gadd, as well as the song’s bluesy feel and clever lyrics. It became the record’s third single and Simon’s only solo song to top the Billboard Hot 100.

Next up: Gone At Last, another gem on the album with a great soul and gospel vibe. Phoebe Snow and The Jessy Dixon Singers provided dynamite guest vocals. The track also became the album’s lead single in August 1975. According to Wikipedia, Phoebe received a credit on the single. The song charted in the top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have A Good Time, which nicely sums up what I feel when listening to this record. This is another great song with a nice bluesy feel. Musically, it’s the slide guitar, as well the alto saxophone played by Phil Woods, which speak to me in particular. Check it out!

Still Crazy After All These Years was co-produced by Simon and South African born recording engineer and producer Philip Ramone. The record won Grammy Awards for Album Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1976. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and received Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it one of Simon’s most successful solo albums.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

My Playlist: Pink Floyd

A long overdue tribute to one of my longtime favorite bands

Pink Floyd is one of my earliest music experiences dating back to the mid ’70s when I was nine or 10 years old and still living in Germany. It all started with Wish You Here, another record my sister had on vinyl – and yet another example where she introduced me, probably largely unconsciously, to music I still dig to this day. I’ve said it before and like to say it again: Thanks, sis, love you!

While I’ve mentioned Pink Floyd numerous times since I’ve started this blog more than two years ago, and I’ve written about Govt’ Mule’s great Dark Side of the Mule show and a fantastic Floyd tribute band called Echoes, I haven’t dedicated a post to the actual band – well, I suppose better late than never! Before getting to the music, I’d be amiss not to provide some background on the British rock band. Obviously, Pink Floyd’s history has been told many times, so if you know it already, just skip it and go right to the clips, and maybe grab some headphones – there’s plenty of great music here!

Pink Floyd emerged from a band called The Tea Set in London in 1965. After noticing there was another music outfit with the same name, guitarist and lead vocalist Syd Barrett came up with the idea to combine the first names of two blues musicians who were part of his record collection: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Sounds pretty arbitrary to me, but the result sure as keck was a cool-sounding band name! Initially, they performed as The Pink Floyd Sound and also included Richard (Rick) Wright (keyboards), Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums).

Pink Floyd Jan 1968
Pink Floyd in January 1968 (clockwise from the bottom): David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters & Rick Wright

By 1966, the band was starting to get paid gigs, mainly playing R&B standards. They dropped “Sound” from their name at the recommendation of Peter Jenner who together with his friend Andrew King had taken over the band’s management earlier that year. Gradually, The Pink Floyd’s set featured more original compositions by Syd Barrett, the band’s first artistic leader. In early 1967, The Pink Floyd signed with EMI and recorded their debut single Arnold Layne.

By the time Floyd released their first studio album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in August 1967, they had dropped “The” from their name to become Pink Floyd. Barrett had developed a serious LSD habit and, according to Mason, “became completely distanced from everything going on.” Barrett’s behavior on stage became increasingly erratic, forcing a premature end of Pink Floyd’s U.S. tour in November 1967. The following month, guitarist David Gilmour became the band’s fifth member. Essentially, the idea was that he would play the guitar parts of Barrett who would continue to write music for the band.

Pink Floyd_Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn
Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, August 1967

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and Barrett left in March 1968. The line-up that eventually would transform Pink Floyd to international super-stardom was in place! Waters effectively took over the band’s artistic direction for the next 15-plus years. During that period, they recorded ten additional albums, including two of the best-selling records of all time: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). By the time of the latter, Pink Floyd essentially had become a Roger Waters project. This created tension among the members and led to departures.

The first to leave was Rick Wright in the wake of the 1980-1981 tour that supported The Wall. Eventually, Waters called it quits himself in 1985 and declared Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively.” He then engaged in a legal battle with Gilmour and Mason over the next few years, trying to prevent them from continuing to use the Pink Floyd name. While things were settled long before then, it took Waters until 2013 to publicly admit he had been wrong about the lawsuit and to regret his ill-guided actions.

Pink Floyd At Live 8
Pink Floyd reunion at Live 8 (from left): David Gilmor, Roger Waters, Nick Mason & Richard Wright

Wright returned as a session musician for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), Pink Floyd’s first album in the post-Waters era. The band continued to tour and recorded one additional album during Wright’s lifetime, The Division Bell (1994). On July 2, 2005, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited one last time with Waters and performed as Pink Floyd at the Live 8 benefit concert in London.

On July 6, 2007, Syd Barrett died at the age of 60 after he had largely lived in seclusion for more than 35 years. Rick Wright passed away from cancer on September 15, 2008. He was 65 years old. In 2012, Gilmour and Mason decided to create one final Pink Floyd album, based on music that had been recorded with Wright during studio sessions for The Division Bell. Called The Endless River, the mostly instrumental record was released in November 2014. Now let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Arnold Layne, one of my favorite early songs The Pink Floyd released as their debut single in March 1967. Like pretty much all of the band’s original music during the Syd Barrett phase, the tune was written by the guitarist and lead vocalist.

Bike from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released in August 1967, is another Barrett composition. It’s both a bit weird and catchy at the same time. Two of the cool features I like are the sound collage toward the end, which resembles the turning gears of a bike, as well as the duck or geese-like sounding screams thereafter. According to Wikipedia, they were created with a tape loop of the band members laughing, played backwards and at double speed. Obviously, The Beatles weren’t the only band that effectively had started leveraging studio technology to their advantage during the second half of the ’60s.

In June 1968, Pink Floyd released their sophomore album A Saucerful Of Secrets. The early recording sessions still included Syd Barrett whose behavior and ability to perform had increasingly become less predictable. One of the tracks, for which he provided slide and acoustics guitars and background vocals is Remember A Day, a great composition by Rick Wright who also sang lead vocals, a rarity.

Next up is what over the years has become my favorite Pink Floyd track: The mighty  Echoes from the band’s sixth studio album Meddle that appeared in October 1971. Credited to all four members of the band and clocking in at more than 23 minutes, the epic tune comprises the entire second side of the vinyl LP. I realize only a hard core fan may listen to the entire clip, but that’s fine with me. I simply couldn’t leave out this one!

In March 1973, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side Of The Moon. With estimated worldwide sales of more than 45 million units, Floyd’s eighth studio album became their most commercially successful record. Here is The Great Gig In The Sky featuring the amazing vocals of Clare Torry, who is co-credited for the tune together with Rick Wright. This track still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. BTW, as I wrote this, it happened to be on the radio as part of Q104.3’s countdown of the 1,043 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time. While one can argue endlessly why certain songs make the list and their ranking positions, it’s a fun listening experience. I’ve written about the radio station’s annual tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday before, most recently here. BTW, The Great Gig In The Sky came in at no. 829 – way, way, way too low!😀

Have A Cigar was Roger Waters’ biting critique of hypocrisy and greed in the music industry. It appeared on Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album, the above mentioned Wish You Were Here from September 1975. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere/The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? The lead vocals were provided by English folk rock singer Roy Harper, making it the only Floyd tune besides The Great Gig In The Sky that wasn’t sung by one of their members.

In January 1977, Pink Floyd’s tenth studio album Animals appeared. Loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the concept album criticizes the social and political conditions in the U.K. at the time – two years before the leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister and a favorite target of Roger Waters. Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, Sheep, which like most tunes was solely written by Waters.

Perhaps the Pink Floyd song with the most epic guitar solo is Comfortably Numb, which was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. It appeared on the band’s 11th studio album The Wall, which came out in November 1979.

In September 1987, Pink Floyd released A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, their first record of the post-Waters area. Initially, David Gilmour set out to make it his third solo album, but things changed along the way. The record featured Nick Mason and Rick Wright, who was among the many guest musicians. Wright would later return to the band as a full member. Here’s the album’s closer Sorrow, which was written by Gilmour.

The last song I’d like to highlight is called High Hopes from Pink Floyd’s 14th studio album The Division Bell. Released in March 1994, it was the band’s final record issued during the lifetime of Rick Wright. He had an active role in writing much of the music with David Gilmour, while Gilmor’s  fiancée and novellist Polly Samson co-wrote many of the lyrics. High Hopes was credited to Gilmour and Samson.

Pink Floyd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. They also made the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. As of 2013, they had sold more than 250 million records worldwide, not only making them one of the most influential but also one of the most commercially successful bands of all time. While I don’t believe we will see another reincarnation of Pink Floyd, I’ve not doubt I’ll continue to enjoy their music, hopefully for many more years to come.

To those who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: America/ History: America’s Greatest Hits

America’s vocal harmonies and smooth folk rock sound make for one of the best ’70s greatest hits compilations

I was nine or 10 years old when I listened to History: America’s Greatest Hits for the first time. The album grabbed me right from the beginning. It was one of the vinyl records my older sister had, which among others also included Carole King’s Tapestry; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu; and Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits – all albums I dig to this day.

Recently, I rediscovered History. To me, it’s one of the best greatest hits compilations I know, which were released in the ’70s. Others that come to my mind are Neil Young’s Decade, Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), Santana’s Greatest HitsSteely Dan’s Greatest Hits and the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel album. There are probably some others I’m forgetting – in any case, it’s not meant to be a complete list.

I recall reading somewhere that America were dismissed by some as a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young knock-off. While I generally don’t think highly of music critics in the first place, I feel this notion is silly. Yes, America’s three-part harmony vocals are reminiscent of CSN/CSNY, but this doesn’t make them a copycat or somehow bad artists! On the contrary, if anything, the vocal similarity to CSN/CSNY is a huge accomplishment – after all, there aren’t many bands that can harmonize like CSN/CSNY did! On to History.

America
America (from left): Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek & Dewey Bunnell

Released in November 1975, History encompasses America’s 11 most successful singles at the time, plus an edited take of Sandman from their December 1971 eponymous debut. In addition to that album, History includes material from four additional studio records: Homecoming (November 1972), Hat Trick (October 1973), Holiday (June 1974) and Hearts (March 1975).

History opens with one of my favorite America tunes: A Horse With No Name from their debut album. It was written by Dewey Bunnell, who formed America with Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley in London in 1970. The three had met there in the mid-’60s as high school students whose fathers were stationed on a nearby U.S. Air Force base.

A Horse With No Name became America’s most successful single topping the Billboard Hot 100. It also stirred some controversy due to the similarity of Bunnell’s voice to Neil Young, and what some viewed as mediocre lyrics. Coincidentally, the song knocked Young’s Heart Of Gold off the Billboard Hot 100 top spot. I really don’t care whether it sounds like Young, who by the way is one of my favorite artists. With its two chords and killer harmony vocals, this tune simply gives me goosebumps each time I hear it.

Ventura Highway, another Bunnell composition, is from the Homecoming album. When I listen to this song and close my eyes, I can literally picture myself in an open convertible driving on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from L.A. up north to San Francisco. I actually did that trip in 1980 as a 14-year-old, together with my parents. Even though we had a lame station wagon as a rental, not some hot convertible, it was an unforgettable experience! Ventura Highway became a top 10 Billboard single for America, reaching no. 8 and no. 3 on the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, respectively.

Another beautiful tune is Lonely People, which was credited to Dan Peek and his wife Catherine Peek. The song was written a few weeks after their marriage. An obituary in TMR that appeared in the wake of Peek’s death in July 2011 at the age of 60 quotes him: “I wrote it probably within a month of getting married to my long-lost love Catherine…I always felt like a melancholy, lonely person. And now I felt like I’d won.” America  initially recorded Lonely People for their fourth studio album Holiday. It topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart and peaked at no. 5 on the Hot 100.

One of my favorite songs on History written by Gerry Beckley is Sister Golden Hair. Recorded for America’s fifth studio album Hearts, the tune also became the band’s second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics were inspired by Jackson Browne. In this context, John Corbett’s America Revisited quotes Beckley: “Jackson Browne has a knack, an ability to put words to music, that is much more like the L.A. approach to just genuine observation as opposed to simplifying it down to its bare essentials… and it was that style of his which led to a song of mine, “Sister Golden Hair,” which is probably the more L.A. of my lyrics.” I guess this means in addition to CSN/CSNY, America also stole from Browne – unbelievable!

The last song I’d like to call out is the final track on the History compilation: Woman Tonight. It’s another tune from the Hearts album and was written by Peek. Released as the third single, it charted within the top 50 in the U.S.

History was produced by none other than George Martin, who had started working with America on their fourth studio album Holiday. Martin also remixed the first seven tracks on History, which he had not produced originally. The compilation became a huge success in the U.S., giving America a no. 3 on the Billboard 200. In October 1986, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the album 4X Multi-Platinum.

Since History, America have released 12 additional studio albums, 10 live records and numerous other compilations. Now in their 48th year, America continue to perform, featuring co-founders Beckley and Bunnell. Peek left the band in May 1977, long before his death, after he had renewed his Christian faith.

The band’s current tour schedule on their website is filled with dates until January 2019. After playing the MTV music festival Gibraltar Calling in the British overseas territory on September 21, the band is off to a series of gigs in the U.S., including Denver (Sep 27), Emporia, KS (Sep 28), Dodge City, KS (Sep 29), San Jose (Oct 4) and San Diego (Oct 5),  before going back over the Atlantic to Israel and doing some shows in Europe.

Sources: Wikipedia; TMR; John Corbett: “America Revisited”, AccessBackstage.com, May 29, 2004; RIAA Gold & Platinum certifications; America website; YouTube

Aw, The ’80s (Part 1: 1980-1984)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

I’ve mentioned my weak spot for ’80s music on a few previous occasions. My taste has since evolved, and I now find myself wondering more often than not how I could have liked certain songs as much as I did back then. Well, obviously, I was a lot younger (though of course, I’m still young at heart!), and that music was all around me. It also triggers memories of school, parties, the first vacations with friends (and without my parents or any adults for that matter), the first hangover…in other words, it really was the soundtrack of growing up – okay, call me a sentimental fool!

This morning, I rode the car with my wife and put on Duran Duran’s Rio album – she loves ’80s, so it was all her fault! 🙂 Anyway, listening to this 1982 record gave me the idea to reflect on music and some related events from that decade. Since it’s a big topic, I figured it would be best to divide my thoughts in two parts. Obviously, it’s still not possible to make this all-inclusive, so I’m going to be arbitrary and selective, focusing on things that are meaningful to me. Here’s part I spanning 1980 to 1984.

Prince_Purple Rain

Some of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the ’80s are Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, the death of disco, new wave, the advent of the CD, hair metal bands and Live Aid. Of course, I could add many other buzz words, e.g., music videos. At the time, we didn’t have cable or satellite television at my house back in Germany, so I missed out on MTV and VH1. In fact, believe or not, it wasn’t until 1993 when I first came to the U.S. that I watched VH1 and kind of got hooked, especially on their Behind The Music documentaries. For some reason, I never warmed to MTV.

1980

Some of the events I’d like to call out are Paul McCartney’s arrest in Tokyo for marijuana possession, which resulted in the cancellation of the remaining Wings tour that year (Jan 16); launch of Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour in Los Angeles (Feb 7); release of Back In Black, AC/DC’s first album with Brian Johnson who had replaced original lead vocalist Bon Scott (Jul 25); death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (Sep 25); and murder of John Lennon who was shot by deranged Mark David Chapman in front of his Manhattan residence after returning from the recording studio with Yoko Ono (Dec 8).

The biggest hit singles of the year were Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) (Pink Floyd), Woman In Love (Barbara Streisand), (Just Like) Starting Over (John Lennon), Funkytown (Lipps) and Upside Down (Diana Ross). I dug all of these songs at the time. While from today’s perspective my favorite is the Lennon tune, the track I’d like to highlight in a clip is Call Me by Blondie. Co-written by Debbie Harry and producer Giorgio Moroder (remember that guy?), the song was released as a single in February that year and was also included on the soundtrack for the 1980 picture American Gigolo. It became the band’s biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the charts in the U.K. and Canada, and scoring in the top 20 in many other countries.

1981

Notable events include the release of Face Value, the first solo album by Phil Collins – like it or not, the Genesis drummer was just everywhere in the ’80s – with Genesis and solo! (Feb 9); first break-up of Yes (Apr 18) only to reunite less than two years later and release their biggest-selling album 90125; U2’s television debut in the U.S. on the NBC late night program The Tomorrow Show (Jun 4); official launch of MTV in New York (Aug 1); Simon & Garfunkel’s free reunion concert in the Big Apple’s Central Park, drawing more than 500,000 visitors – no disputes over crowd attendance here! (Sep 9 ); and Rod Stewart show at Los Angeles Forum, broadcast live via satellite and watched by an estimated 35 million people worldwide – the first such broadcast since Elvis Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii special.

The top 5 hit singles of the year were Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Tainted Love (Soft Cell), In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Woman (John Lennon) and Stars On 45 Medley (Stars On 45). Again, to me the Lennon tune holds up the best, though I also still like Bette Davis Eyes and have to admit In The Air Tonight is kind of cool. Even though I feel I’ve been over-exposed to Collins, I admit he’s done some good songs. Here’s a clip of Down Under by Men At Work. Co-written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, and released in October, the song was the second single from the band’s debut album Business As Usual that appeared the following month. It was cool then, and I still dig this tune.

1982

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the debut of Madonna with Everybody (Oct 2), the lead single from her first eponymous 1983 studio record, as well as the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (Nov 30), which remains the world’s best-selling record to date. Some of the other events include the death of comedian and Blues Brothers vocalist John Belushi (March 5); premiere of Pink Floyd – The Wall, a film adaptation of the band’s 1979 album with the same title, at the Cannes Film Festival in France; and start of CD mass production by Dutch technology company and disc co-inventor Philips in Langenhagen near Hanover, Germany (Aug 17).

Eye Of The Tiger (Survivor), Down Under (Men At Work), I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners) and Ebony And Ivory (Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson) were the biggest hit singles that year. Below is a clip of Come On Eileen, which appeared as a single in June. Co-written by Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams, the song was also included on the band’s second studio album Too-Rye-Ay, released the following month. I always found it cool how the catchy tune blended elements of Celtic folk with pop music.

1983

On March 2, CDs started to go on sale in the U.S., following their initial release in Japan the previous October. Some of the year’s other events in music include the debut of Let’s Spend The Night Together in New York, a film documenting the 1981 North American tour of The Rolling Stones (Feb 11); release of U2’s third studio album War, which debuts at no. 1 in the U.K. and features their first international hit single New Year’s Day (Feb 28); release of David Bowie’s commercially most successful studio album Let’s Dance (Apr 14); unveiling of Kiss’s faces without their make-up for the first time on MTV (Sep 18) – yes, I do seem to recall that seeing their actual faces was a pretty big deal at the time!; and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, the first heavy metal album to top the Billboard 200 (Nov 26).

The biggest hit singles of the year: Karma Chameleon (Culture Club); Billie Jean (Michael Jackson); Flashdance…What A Feeling (Irene Cara); Let’s Dance (David Bowie) and Every Breath You Take (The Police). Did I have all these songs? You betcha – in fact, I still do, mostly somewhere on music cassettes! Here’s Billie Jean, written by the King of Pop himself, and released as the second single from the Thriller album in January 1983.

1984

Some of the happenings in the music world that year: Announcement from BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read of this refusal to play Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood due to its suggestive lyrics (Jan 11), a ban that was put in place by the entire BBC around the same time – in a clear illustration that something forbidden oftentimes tends to make it more attractive, only 10 days later, the tune stood a no. 1 on the Official Singles Chart in the UK; death of one of the greatest soul artists, Marvin Gaye, who following an argument was killed by his own father with a gun he had given to him as a Christmas present the previous year (Apr 1); release of Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain (Jun 25), the soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name – one of his most successful records and the third-best-selling soundtrack album of all time, exceeding more than 25 million copies sold worldwide; and the first annual MTV Music Awards held in New York, where Madonna raised some eyebrows with a racy performance of Like A Virgin (Sep 14) – Madonna being controversial?

The biggest hit singles of 1984 were Careless Whisper (George Michael), I Just Called To Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder), Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (Wham!), Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper) and Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Since I was a good boy and never listened to Relax and Like A Virgin, here’s a clip of Borderline, a song from Madonna’s debut record. On a more serious note, the tune that was written by producer Reggie Lucas still is one of my favorite Madonna songs. It became the album’s fifth and last single released in February 1984, peaking at no. 2 in the U.K. and reaching no. 10 in the U.S., less successful than the scandalous Like A Virgin!

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the period from 1985 to 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 1st

What could possibly happen on a January 1st when it’s safe to assume many folks are recovering from celebrating the New Year? Well, it turns out quite a bit!

1956: Carl Perkins released Blue Suede Shoes as a single on Sun Records. Written by him, it is considered to be one of the first rockabilly tunes. The song spent 16 weeks on the Best Selling Singles chart from music industry publication Cash Box, a competitor to Billboard at the time, peaking at no. 2. The song was also covered by many other artists, including Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley.

1959: Johnny Cash performed one of his first prison shows at San Quentin prison in San Rafael, Calif. Among the audience members was future country artist Merle Haggard who was serving a sentence for burglary. According to Songfacts, the performance captivated the then 19-year-old who later credited Cash for his “outlaw sound.” About 10 years later, the two men ended up performing together on the TV series The Johnny Cash Show. In February 1969, Cash recorded a live album at that prison, Johnny Cash At San Quentin. Here’s a clip of I Walk The Line, one of the tunes Cash likely also performed during the 1959 gig.

1962: Decca Records A&R representative Mike Smith became the record company executive who rejected The Beatles after recording a session with them at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead, London. At the time, the band’s line-up consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. While manager Brian Epstein and The Beatles were confident Rowe would sign them, instead he went with Brian Poole and The Tremeoloes, a local band. According to the Beatles Bible, he thought it would be easier to work with them than a band from Liverpool. The official reason given to Epstein: “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” While it is safe to assume Rowe bitterly regretted his decision, he did sign up The Rolling Stones, ironically following Harrison’s recommendation.

The Beatles with Pete Best

1964: The television music program Top of the Pops (TOTP) debuted on the BBC. The inaugural of the show that aired weekly until July 2006 featured The Rolling Stones (I Wanna Be Your Man), Dusty Springfield (I Only Want To Be With You), The Dave Clark Five (Glad All Over), The Hollies (Stay), The Swinging Blues Jeans (Hippy Hippy Shake) and The Beatles (I Want To Hold Your Hand). Thanks to its large viewing audience, TOTP became a significant part of British pop culture, according to Wikipedia.

The Dave Clark Five on TOTP

1966: The Sound Of Silence (originally called The Sounds Of Silence) by Simon & Garfunkel reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Paul Simon, the duo initially recorded it in March 1964 for their studio debut Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. But the record bombed and they broke up. After the song had received growing radio play during the spring of 1965, producer Tom Wilson decided to remix the track and release it in September that year. Simon & Garfunkel were only informed about this after the fact. The song’s chart success led them to reunite and record their second album, Sounds Of Silence. On that record, the tune appeared as The Sound Of Silence.

1972: Carole King’s third studio album Music, which had been released in December 1971, reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The follow-up to King’s iconic 1971 record Tapestry from maintained that position for three consecutive weeks. In fact, both albums were simultaneously in the top 10 for many weeks. Here is a clip of Sweet Seasons, which was co-written by King and Toni Stern and also released separately as a single.

Sources: This Day In Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Wikipedia, YouTube