The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

This is the fourth installment in a row of my recently introduced feature that highlights six random songs I like. I’m becoming cautiously optimistic I can keep up the pace and make this a weekly recurring series.

Clannad/Caisleán Õir

Irish folk group Clannad was formed in 1970 in the parish of Gweedore located on the Atlantic coast in northwest Ireland by siblings Ciarán Brennan, Pól Brennan and Moya Brennan, together with their twin uncles Pádraig Duggan and Noel Duggan. Initially known as Clann as Dobhar and since 1973 as Clannad, according to Wikipedia, the group has adopted various musical styles over the decades. This includes folk, folk rock, as well as traditional Irish, Celtic and new-age music, often incorporating elements of smooth jazz and Gregorian chant. Clannad’s eponymous debut album came out in 1973. They have since released 15 additional studio albums, the most recent of which, Nádúr, appeared in September 2013. The group remains active to this day, with Ciarán, Moya, Pól and Noel still being part of the line-up. Pádraig passed away in August 2016. Caisleán Õir is the breathtaking opener of Macalla, their eighth studio album from 1985. It became one of their most successful records, partially because of a collaboration between U2’s Bono and Clannad vocalist Moya Brennan on the tune In a Lifetime. Macalla brought Clannad on my radar screen in the mid-’80s. The vocals on Caisleán Õir, co-written by Ciarán Brennan and Máire Brennan, still make my neck hair stick up. I recommend using headphones for that tune!

Fretland/Could Have Loved You

Fretland are an Americana band from Snohomish, Wa., which I featured last May in a Best of What’s New installment. Unfortunately, it appears the situation hasn’t changed, and publicly available information on this band continues to be very limited. Fretland were founded by singer-songwriter Hillary Grace Fretland  (vocals, guitar). The line-up also includes Luke Francis (guitar), Jake Haber (bass) and Kenny Bates (drums). Could Have Loved You is the opener and title track of the band’s upcoming sophomore album scheduled for March 26. Here’s the official video of the pretty tune, which was written by Hillary Grace Fretland. Her voice reminds me a bit of Sarah McLachlan.

 John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter/Indigo Sunset

Heartland rock and Americana singer-songwriter John Mellencamp, one of my long-time favorite artists, needs no introduction. To country music fans, the same is probably true for Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and her first husband Carl Smith, who just like June was a country singer. June’s third husband, of course, was the man in black, Johnny Cash. With so much country in the gene pool, it’s perhaps not surprising Carlene became a country artist as well – and a pretty talented one I should add! During Mellencamp’s 2015–2016 Plain Spoken Tour, where Carter opened each show for him, the two artists started writing songs together. Eventually, this resulted in Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, Mellencamp’s 23rd and most recent studio album of original material, which was released in April 2017. Here’s one of the tunes Mellencamp and Carter wrote and performed together, the beautiful Indigo Sunset. I absolutely love this song. Check out the incredibly warm sound. I also think Mellencamp’s and Carter’s voices go perfectly with each other, even though they couldn’t be more different.

Simply Red/If You Don’t Know Me By Now

British pop and soul band Simply Red were formed in Manchester in 1985. They came very strongly right out of the gate with their studio debut Picture Book from October 1985. The album, which spawned various popular singles including Money’s Too Tight (to Mention) and Holding Back the Years, brought the group around smooth lead vocalist and singer-songwriter Mick Hucknall on my radar screen. After a four-year break between 2011 and 2015, they remain active to this day and have released 12 albums as of November 2019. Their amazing cover of If You Don’t Know Me By Now was included on their third album A New Flame that appeared in February 1989. It became hugely successful, topping the charts in the UK, Switzerland and New Zealand, and placing within the top ten in various other countries, except the U.S. where it stalled at no. 22. If You Don’t Know Me By Now was co-written by songwriting and production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who are credited for developing the so-called Philly sound. The tune was first recorded and released in 1972 by Philly soul group Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Man, Hucknall’s got soul – so good!

America/Ventura Highway

Formed in London in 1970, folk and pop rock group America was one of the bands my sister unknowingly introduced me to as a 7 or 8-year-old. She had their first greatest hits compilation History: America’s Greatest Hits, a fantastic introduction to the group. I realize the trio that originally consisted of Dewey Bunnell (vocals, guitar), Dan Peek (vocals, guitar) and Gerry Beckley (vocals, bass) sometimes is dismissed as a copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even if you think that’s true, I’d consider it to be a compliment; because that comparison largely stems from America’s harmony singing. How many bands can you name that sing in as perfect harmony as CSN? Or America, for that matter? Anyway, Ventura Highway, written by Dewey Bunnell, is the opener of America’s sophomore album Homecoming from November 1972. Every time I hear that song, I picture myself driving in some convertible on the California coastal Highway 1, with the free wind blowin’ through my hair. BTW, America exist to this day, with Bunnell and Beckley still being around. Peek, who left the group in 1977 and became a born again Christian, passed away in July 2011 at the age of 60.

Cream/Strange Brew

You didn’t really think I could do a Sunday Six without at least one ’60s tune, did ya? Of course, you didn’t! I trust you’ve heard about British rock trio of ingenious bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce, guitar god Eric Clapton and drummer extraordinaire Ginger Baker. Co-written by Clapton, producer Felix Pappalardi and Gail Collins, Strange Brew is the opener of Cream’s second studio album Disraeli Gears that came out in November 1967. If you had asked me, I would have bet Sunshine of Your Love was the highest-charting song from the album. Not so, at least not in the U.K. – turns out Strange Brew climbed to no. 17 there, while Sunshine of Your Love peaked at no. 25. In the U.S. it was different. Sunshine surged all the way to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Brew didn’t chart at all. Funny how these things can go – perhaps it was too strange for American taste!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Simply Red/Picture Book

Frequent visitors of the blog perhaps may be a bit surprised that I chose to highlight Picture Book by Simply Red. After all, sometimes it may appear I just can’t get enough of classic rock and blues. And while it’s certainly true these two genres form my core wheelhouse, I also enjoy other music.

Released in October 1985, Picture Book was the debut album by Simply Red. I’ve always dug it for its smooth soul and funky sound and Mick Hucknall’s distinct lead vocals. Before getting to some of the record’s music, I’d like to briefly touch on the band’s background.

Simply Red were formed in Manchester, England in 1984. Surprisingly, and I had not known about this until I read it on Wikipedia, most of the initial members came from musical backgrounds that were very different from Simply Red. Lead vocalist Mick Hucknall’s previous music venture was a punk band called The Frantic Elevators. That band was founded in 1976 and in addition to Hucknall (vocals) included Neil Moss (guitar), Brian Turner (bass) and Kevin Williams (drums). After seven years, The Frantic Elevators called it quits – ironically after the release of their fourth and final single Holding Back The Years had finally gotten them some attention.

Simply Red 1985
Simply Red 1985 (from left): Tim Kellett, Sylvan Richardson, Tony Bowers, Fritz McIntyre, Mick Hucknall & Chris Joyce

Following the demise of the Elevators Hucknall teamed up with band manager Elliot Rashman, and they put together a band of local session musicians, which became Simply Red. Their initial line-up consisted of Hucknall (lead vocals), David Fryman (guitar), Tony Bowers (bass), Fritz McIntyre (keyboards and vocals), Tim Kellett (brass, live backing vocals) and Chris Joyce (drums). Bowers, Kellett and Joyce each had previously been members of post-punk bands.

In 1985, Simply Red got a record deal with Elektra and started working in the studio. After recording one tune, Red Box, which would become the B-side of their first single Money’s Too Tight To Mention, Fryman left the band and was replaced by Sylvan Richardson on guitar. Let’s get to some music from Picture Book.

Here’s the opener Come To My Aid, a funky tune with a catchy melody. Co-written by Hucknall and McIntyre, the track also appeared separately as the album’s second single in August 1985.

One of my favorite songs on Picture Book is the second track Sad Old Red. I love the jazz and blues groove of the tune, which was written by Hucknall. It’s the kind of music that makes you snip your fingers.

Next up: A fantastic cover of Heaven, which was co-written by David Byrne and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads and initially appeared on the band’s third studio album Fear Of Music from August 1979. I like the original but feel Simply Red kicked it up a notch by turning the tune into a beautiful soul ballad.

The second great cover on the album is the above mentioned Money’s Too Tight (To Mention). The song was co-written by brothers John Valentine and William Valentine who performed as The Valentine Brothers and first recorded it in 1982.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Holding Back The Years, the previously noted tune by The Frantic Elevators. Co-written by Hucknall and the band’s guitarist Neil Moss, the song also became Simply Red’s most successful single, topping the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at no. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart.

Simply Red went on to record nine additional studio albums before disbanding in 2010. By that time, Hucknall was the only remaining original member and Simply Red essentially had become his solo project. In 2015, the band reunited and has since released a new studio album, Big Love, in May 2015 and conducted two anniversary tours.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

The Venues: The Old Grey Whistle Test

The British television music show featured an impressive array of artists

This post and the related new category I’m introducing to the blog was inspired by a dear friend from Germany, who earlier today suggested searching YouTube for “Old Grey Whistle Test,” just for fun! Since he shares my passion for music and always gives me great tips, I checked it out right away and instantly liked the clips that came up. This triggered the idea to start writing about places where rock & roll has been performed throughout the decades.

At this time, I envisage The Venues to include famous concert halls and TV shows. Many come to mind: The Fillmore, The Beacon Theater, The Apollo, The Hollywood Bowl, Candlestick Park, Winterland BallroomThe Ed Sullivan Show, Rockpalast – the list goes on and on! Given it was my dear friend who inspired me, it feels right to start with The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The Old Whiste Test Logo

I admit that until earlier today, I had never heard about The Old Grey Whistle Test. According to Wikipedia, the British television show aired on the BBC between September 1971 and January 1988. The late night rock show was commissioned by British veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and conceived by BBC TV producer Rowan Ayers.

The show aimed to emphasize “serious” rock music, less whether it was chart-topping or not – a deliberate contrast to Top of the Pops, another BBC show that was chart-driven, as the name suggests. Based on the YouTube clips I’ve seen, apparently, this was more the case in the show’s early days than in the ’80s when the music seems to have become more commercial. Unlike other TV music shows, the sets on The Old Grey Whistle lacked showbiz glitter – again, probably more true for the ’70s than the ’80s period.

During the show’s early years, performing bands oftentimes recorded the instrumental tracks the day before the show aired. The vocals were performed live most of the time. After 1973, the show changed to an all-live format. In 1983, the title was abridged to Whistle Test. The last episode was a live 1987/88 New Year’s Eve special, including a 1977 live performance of Hotel California by The Eagles and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.

So what kind of music did the show feature? Let’s take a look at some of these YouTube clips.

Neil Young/Heart of Gold (1971)

Steppenwolf/Born to Be Wild (1972)

David Bowie/Oh, You Pretty Things (1972; not broadcast until 1982)

Rory Gallagher/Hands Off (1973)

Joni Mitchell/Big Yellow Taxi (1974)

John Lennon/Slippin’ & Slidin’ (1975)

Bonnie Raitt/Angel From Montgomery (1976)

Emmylou Harris/Ooh Las Vegas (1977)

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/American Girl (1978)

Joe Jackson/Sunday Papers (1979)

Ramones/Rock & Roll High School & Rock ‘N Roll Radio (1980)

Los Lobos/Don’t Worry Baby (1984)

Simply Red/Holding Back the Years & I Won’t Feel Bad (1985)

U2/In God’s County (1987)

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube