Joe Jackson At State Theatre NJ: Looking Sharp And Still The Man

I almost would have missed Joe Jackson, just like my recent Who concert. Here’s to hoping that my apparent lack of music attention doesn’t become a trend, though it would probably not hurt my wallet! 🙂 Wait, what did I want to say? Right, the British artist who they called an “angry young man” when he broke through with his studio debut Look Sharp! in January 1979. While I don’t know whether Jackson was pissed then, he certainly doesn’t look angry to me these days! Instead, the man who once sang, “Everybody wants a happy ending,” comes across as feeling very comfortable in his skin and happy to still be making music people want to hear. I suppose that’s really all you can ask for as an artist!

By the time Jackson’s ongoing Four Decade Tour registered on my radar screen, all tickets I could afford seemed to be gone, and I just wasn’t willing to throw hundreds of bucks at some greedy reseller!  Then I received an email from State Theatre New Jersey, a nice midsize venue in New Brunswick, cheerfully announcing Jackson’s gig there. I thought, ‘what the hell,’ so checked out the situation one more time. And, voila, while there weren’t many seats left, I managed to get one without losing my blue shirt. Last night was showtime – and, yes, you probably already guessed it, after 40 years as a professional recording artist, Jackson continued to look sharp and proofed he’s definitely still the man!

“So, here comes a big tour,” Jackson said in an announcement last October. “We want to celebrate the fact that this is happening after 40 years – anything else, would be like sulking in a room by yourself on your own birthday party. Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979) Night And Day (1982) Laughter And Lust (1991) Rain (2008) and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers. I can’t wait. Let’s party.”

Joe Jackson and Band 2019
Joe Jackson and band (from left): Jackson, Graham Maby, Doug Yowell and Teddy Kumpel

And, boy, what a party it was! In addition to singing splendid lead vocals, Jackson played keyboards – something I read he typically didn’t do during past tours. If that’s true, it was certainly great he changed his mind this time. After all, he’s a true musician and multi-instrumentalist, who spent three years in his late teens and early twenties at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying composition, piano and percussion. During that period, Jackson also learned jazz at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Apart from writing pop-oriented songs in genres like punk, new wave, rock, jazz and Latin, Jackson has also composed classical music. The question really becomes what the man has NOT done musically!

Once again the notion that great musicians tend to play with other great musicians turned out to be true. Jackson’s backing band was simply top-notch! The first guy I need to call out here is Graham Maby – and yes, I’m probably bassed, I mean biased. One of my favorite bassists, Maby still has a superb tone and a great sense for rhythmic and melodic basslines. Paul McCartney is who I wanna be when I grow up, but I’d also happily settle with Maby! 🙂 Jackson’s long-time friend and musical collaborator effectively drove the groove together with excellent drummer Doug Yowell, who by the way hails from New Jersey. They really breed musicians in the Garden State – just sayin’! Last but not least, Teddy Kumpel did an outstanding job on guitar. Man, what a fucking great band! Okay, I think it’s time to get to some music, shall we?

The set kicked off with Alchemy, the closer from Jackson’s great new album Fool,  released this January, and then launched right into the furious One More Time, the opener from his debut Look Sharp! – a cool 40-year jump back in time, not to mention style, and a nice illustration of the band’s versatility. I thought Kumpel’s guitar-playing shined in particular during the more rock-oriented tunes. Unfortunately, my smartphone outsmarted me at the wrong time, so I’m relying on another clip I found that cut off the beginning of Alchemy, but it still gives a good impression of the tune.

Jackson’s new album featured prominently in the show with three tracks, one of which (Alchemy) was repeated at the very end, providing nice bookends to the set. I have to say the new songs absolutely held up to his older, better known material. Here’s Fabulously Absolute, a rocker that was also released as a single. Stylistically, the tune isn’t that much different from Jackson’s first two albums. Whatever genre the man plays, he always has a great ear for catchy melodies, though he never aspired to become a pop star and never did – at least not in the traditional sense.

Next is a track from an album I don’t know well: Goin’ Downtown from Laughter And Lust,  released in April 1991. The tune is co-credited to Jackson and a British singer-songwriter named Drew Barfield.

My personal highlight of the evening was a medley of three songs: A cover of Rain by The Beatles, Invisible Man and It’s Different For Girls. Jackson announced it by saying they are now playing the title track from an album called Rain (January 2008). He dryly added no such track exists, so they borrowed it, deciding to change some of the chords. Invisible Man is the opener of Rain, a fantastic song I frankly had forgotten about, which reminds me a little bit of Steely Dan. Apparently, Jackson digs the Dan; in fact, later in the show, he covered King Of The World from Countdown To Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore album from July 1973. And then there’s It’s Different For Girls, featuring Jackson’s lyrics reversing the stereotypical roles of men and women when it comes to sex and love – one of two tunes he played from I’m The Man.

His sophomore release from October 1979 remains my favorite Joe Jackson album. In fact, it was my introduction to him when I received it as a birthday present in July 1980. I own the vinyl record to this day, and it’s still in perfect shape! Instead of relying on his band, Jackson treated the audience to a solo performance of It’s Different For Girls. Okay, nuff said! This is a long clip, and the video is sometimes out of focus, but, hey, it least it’s authentic! Plus, the sound is pretty decent and, most of all, the musicianship is just outstanding. What I’m trying to say in so many words is if you dig Jackson, you should watch the friggin’ clip!

Another Jackson tune I’ve always liked is You Can’t Get What You Want. It appeared on his March 1984 gem Body And Soul blending pop, jazz and Latin. Even though the horns from the studio version are “missing” and Jackson plays their fill-ins on keyboards instead, I think the band does a beautiful job capturing the tune. Check out Kumpel’s funky guitar, which is really cool!

The last track of the regular set was I’m The Man. The title track from Jackson’s sophomore album was another highlight of the evening, which once again showed this band can rock. Not surprisingly, it brought the audience up to their feet!

The regular set was followed by a three-track encore, starting with Jackson’s biggest hit: Steppin’ Out, from the Night And Day album released in June 1982. I’m not a fan of drum machines, and that aspect has always bothered me about an otherwise great tune; but I just couldn’t resist filming it, especially after Jackson noted they’re about to do something truly shocking – playing a song almost exactly the way it appears on an album! Jackson is known for altering studio tracks for live performances, which has frustrated some of his fans in the past – a fact he acknowledged during the announcement of the tune, teasingly adding he doesn’t quite get it, since it’s so much fun changing up songs.

Next a roadie walked out on stage, carrying a small box. It was the original drum machine Jackson had used for the recording. He proudly explained he got that drum machine in 1979, adding it’s pretty much impossible to get this gear nowadays. On Night And Day, Jackson played all of the instruments by himself, except for the drum snare, which doubled the drum machine’s snare, a natural task for Yowell. Jackson also explained the other instruments on the studio recording, including a Glockenspiel that last night was played by Maby. Of course, they also had the programmed synthesizer bassline – again, something else I’m less than fond of! Kumpel took over the organ part on the keyboards, while Jackson handled the electric piano. The following clip captures some of Jackson’s introductory explanations. If you’re bit of a music nerd like I am, this footage may be for you.

Joe Jackson is definitely worthwhile seeing, and I’m glad I finally did so! The ongoing second U.S. leg of the Four Decade Tour lasts until June 1. Some of the upcoming gigs include Miami (May 24), New Orleans (May 28), Houston (May 29) and Dallas (June 1). Afterwards, Jackson is returning to Europe, with shows in Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The last date on the current schedule is Tel Aviv, Israel on July 28.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Jackson website, Setlist.fm, YouTube

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On This Day In Rock & Roll History: May 5

This is the 40th installment of my recurring feature on rock music history. While I generally enjoy doing research for the posts and seeing what comes up for a specific date, sometimes it feels I already must have covered most dates of the year. But this little milestone means I still have more than 300 other potential installments left! 🙂

Without further ado, let’s take a look at May 5:

1956: Elvis Presley for the first time topped the Billboard Hot 100, with Heartbreak Hotel, which also became his first million-selling single. It’s one of my all-time favorite tunes by Elvis who interestingly received a credit for singing it. Nashville steel guitarist  Tommy Durden wrote the lyrics. They were inspired by a newspaper article about a man who ended his life by jumping out of a hotel window, leaving a note behind that said, “I walk a lonely street.” The music was composed by Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton. Heartbreak Hotel is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. In my opinion, the track is perhaps the coolest Elvis song. It has also been covered by Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and other artists, and is included in Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

1966: Manfred Mann reached the top of the British charts with Pretty Flamingo. Written by American songwriter and record producer Mark Barkan, the song became the band’s second no. 1 in the U.K. after Do Wah Diddy Diddy in 1964. The tune fared less well in the U.S., where it peaked at no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late August – still not too shabby! The recording of Pretty Flamingo featured Jack Bruce, who briefly became a member of Manfred Mann before co-founding Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in July 1966. Bruce was replaced by another prominent artist: German musician, record producer and graphic artist Klaus Voormann, who remained the band’s bassist until 1969.

1967: The Kinks released Waterloo Sunset, the lead single to their fifth British studio album Something Else by The Kinks, which appeared in September that year. Written by Ray Davies, it reached no. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart, marking the band’s 10th Top 10 single. According to Songfacts, Davies called the tune “a romantic, lyrical song about my older sister’s generation.” Widely considered as one of The Kinks’ most acclaimed tunes, notably, the single did not chart in the U.S. It is ranked at no. 42 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list from 2004.

1969: The Beatles released Get Back in the U.S. Notably, their first single of 1969 was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, the only time such credit appeared on any release by the band. The U.S. single came out nearly a month after it had appeared in Britain. According to The Beatles Bible, this “may have been due to a last-minute remix ordered by Paul McCartney on 7 April 1969, four days before the official U.K. release date.” The delay didn’t hurt the single’s performance in America where it topped the Billboard Hot 100, just as it did in the U.K. Canada, Australia and many other countries.

1973: David Bowie started a five-week run for Aladdin Sane on the Official Albums Chart in the U.K. Bowie’s sixth studio album, which was the follow-up to breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, became his first of six records to top that chart. With Ziggy Stardust being my favorite Bowie album I may be biased here, but I’m actually somewhat in disbelief that it was outperformed by Aladdin Sane. Well, I suppose Rolling Stone seems to agree with me that Ziggy Stardust is the better record: While both albums are included in their 2003 version of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Ziggy Stardust is at no. 35, while Aladdin Sane is ranked at no. 277. Without meaning to get too much carried away with chart positions, Bowie’s next two albums following Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups (October 1973) and Diamond Dogs (May 1974), also hit no. 1 in Britain. I can’t imagine there are many other artists with three no. 1 albums in a row. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are among them. One final fun fact: According to This Day In Music, Aladdin Sane is a pun on “A Lad Insane.” That definitely deserves extra points for creativity! Here’s the insane lead single The Jean Genie.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, Songfacts, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: April 14

I can’t believe almost three months have passed since my last installment in this long-running recurring feature. For some reason, at times, I need to convince myself to start digging through music history for a specific date yet again, though once I do so, I’m usually intrigued with what comes up. Of course, there are occasions where what I find only mildly excites me. When that happens, I tend to refrain from writing a post.  Anyway, April 14 turned out to be an interesting date.

1945: Richard Hugh Blackmore, better known as Ritchie Blackmore, was born in the southwestern English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. This means the guitarist and songwriter is turning 73 years old today. Blackmore is best known as one of the founding members of Deep Purple, which is still my favorite hard rock band to this day. Yes, there are other great hard rock bands, first and foremost Led Zeppelin, but if I had to choose one, it would still be Deep Purple. Blackmore also founded Rainbow in 1975 and revived the band as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 2015. In 1997, he kissed rock music goodbye and established Blackmore’s Night, a British-American traditional folk-rock band with then-girlfriend Candice Night, who became his wife in 2008 – I suppose he carefully listened to what many parents tell their kids about getting engaged or married: Don’t rush it! 🙂 In 2016, Blackmore was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Deep Purple. Here’s Blackmore in action with a cool high-speed guitar solo: Highway Star, from my favorite 1972 Deep Purple album Machine Head. Happy birthday!

1963: The Beatles saw The Rolling Stones perform for the first time at The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, a suburban town in southwest London. “They were still on the club scene, stomping about, doing R&B tunes,” recalled George Harrison, according to The Beatles Bible. “The music they were playing was more like we’d been doing before we’d got out of our leather suits to try and get onto record labels and television.” Added Paul McCartney: “Mick tells the tale of seeing us there with long suede coats that we’d picked up in Hamburg, coats that no one could get in England. He thought, ‘Right – I want to be in the music business; I want one of those coats.'” And what did Ringo Starr have to say? “I knew then that the Stones were great. They just had presence. And, of course, we could tell – we’d had five weeks in the business; we knew all about it!” Last but not least, here’s some of John Lennon’s recollection: “They [The Stones] were run by a different guy then, Giorgio Gomelsky. When we started hanging around London, the Stones were up and coming in the clubs, and we knew Giorgio through Epstein. We went down and saw them and became good friends.”

Rolling Stones At Crawdaddy Club 1963
The Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy Club, April 14, 1963

1966: The Spencer Davis Group was on top of the U.K. Singles Chart with Somebody Help Me, scoring their second no. 1 single in the U.K. Like their first chart-topper Keep On Running, the tune was written by Jackie Edwards, a Jamaican musician and songwriter. The song was also included on the band’s third studio album Autumn ’66 released in August 1966. If my math is correct, Steve Winwood, who sang lead and played keyboards, was all of 17 years when they recorded the single. He was still known as Stevie Winwood at the time – what an amazing talent!

1967: The Bee Gees released their debut single in the U.S., New York Mining Disaster 1941. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, it became the band’s first international single release and their first song to chart in the U.S. and the U.K., peaking at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 12 on the U.K. Singles Chart, respectively. When the tune was released, there were rumors the Bee Gees actually were The Beatles recording under a pseudonym. “If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype of the machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles,” recalled Barry Gibb, according to the 2012 biography The Bee Gees – Tales of the Brothers Gibb, by Hector Cook, Melinda Bilyeu and Andrew Mon Hughes. “And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was the Beatles under a different name.” While it’s safe to assume opinions about the Bee Gees are divided among readers of the blog, I’ve actually always thought they were pretty talented vocalists and songwriters.

1972: David Bowie released Starman as a single in the U.K., which became his second major hit there since Space Oddity from July 1969, peaking at no. 10 on the singles chart. In the U.S., the single performed more moderately, reaching no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Bowie, the tune was a late addition to his fifth and, in my opinion, best studio album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars released in June 1972. It also happens to be one of my favorite Bowie tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

Brit Floyd Celebrates 40th Anniversary Of The Wall With Spectacular Show

British Pink Floyd tribute band performs most of the 1979 concept album plus other Floyd gems

This November marks the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It’s hard to believe. I got that double-LP album when it first came out and own it to this day – on vinyl, of course! My great guitar teacher at the time was impressed that a 13-year-old would listen to this stuff. The lyrics were certainly less cheerful than the early Beatles tunes he was teaching me about holding hands and she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, apart from classical guitar. Admittedly, I cared more about the music than the words back then.

My initial attraction to The Wall was Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), which received lots of radio play in Germany. Though I realized the context on the album was different, lines like “We don’t need no education” and “Hey teachers, leave those kids alone” somehow appealed to a pretty quiet and well behaved young teenager!😀 I seem to recall a little party in our class room at school where we had a boom box. As our English teacher entered the room, Another Brick In The Wall was playing, and we were cheerfully grooving along.  He couldn’t help but briefly grin before turning serious again.

Brit Floyd Tour Poster

Nowadays, I feel there are better tunes on The Wall than Another Brick In The Wall. I also prefer other Pink Floyd albums like Meddle, Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals. Still, I continue to like Floyd’s 11th studio record released on November 30, 1979.

Brit Floyd got on my radar screen about two and a half months ago when a friend who had them seem was raving about the band, especially their lapsteel guitarist. Shortly thereafter, I learned about their current tour dedicated to The Wall, so I checked them out on YouTube. After starting to watch this fantastic clip capturing an entire 2018 gig at Red Rocks, it didn’t take long to buy a ticket to see these guys, who do an incredible job that should make the surviving members of Pink Floyd proud. Last night was show time at Sands Bethlehem Event Center in Bethlehem, Pa. And boy, what a spectacle it was!

Brit Floyd Collage
Brit Floyd (from left): Upper row: Damian Darlington, Rob Stringer, Ian Cattell & Edo Scordo; middle row: Arran Ahmum, Thomas Ashbrook & Ola Bienkowska; and lower row: Angela Servantes, Roberta Freeman, Emily Jollands & Jacquie Williams

The genius behind Brit Floyd is musical director Damian Darlington, who also provides vocals and plays guitar and lapsteel. Prior to forming the band in Liverpool, England in 2011, he had played for 17 years with long-running Aussie tribute The Australian Pink Floyd Show. If my math is correct, this means the man has played the music of Pink Floyd for at least 25 years. And this doesn’t include Darlington’s earlier music journey, which according to his bio on the Brit Floyd website started when he got into playing the guitar seriously as a 13-year-old. That was about the same age I started taking guitar lessons. Darlington turned out to be more talented!😆

Brit Floyd’s other members have impressive credentials as well. I would go too far to mention them in this post. All their bios are on the band’s website as well. Apart from Darlington, listed members are pictured above and include: Rob Stringer (keyboards, vocals), Ian Cattell (bass, vocals Chapman Stick, trumpet), Edo Scordo (guitar, vocals), Arran Ahmum (drums),  Thomas Ashbrook (keyboards, vocals), as well as backing vocalists Ola Bienkowska, Angela Cervantes, Roberta Freeman, Emily Jollands and Jacquie Williams. Last night, they had three backing vocalists, including Ella Chi, who is not in the above picture. Jacquie Williams was there as well. I’m not sure who the third vocalist was. Yes, it does take an army of top-notch artists and a breathtaking stage production to capture the mighty live experience of Pink Floyd!

Which so much amazing music, it’s really hard to select clips and even where to begin, so let’s start with the opening of the show: In The Flesh? and The Thin Ice., the first two tunes on side 1 of The Wall. Like almost all material on this album, the two tracks were written by Roger Waters. Brit Floyd sprinkled most tunes of the record in sections throughout the show, including the entire side 1.

Apart from The Wall, Brit Floyd played plenty of additional Pink Floyd music, drawing on most of their studio albums starting with Meddle from October 1971. Here’s one of the highlights from last night’s show: The Great Gig In The Sky featuring Ella Chi on vocals, who absolutely killed it! Appearing on The Dark Side Of The Moon, released in March 1973, the lyrics were written by Waters, while the music is credited to Floyd keyboarder Richard Wright and Clare Torry, who will be forever part of modern rock music history for her amazing vocal performance on the tune.

Next up: Fearless, off the Meddle album. This tune was co-written by Waters and David Gilmour. Meddle may best be known for the One Of These Days, which Brit Floyd performed as well last night, shaking the wall of the place, and the epic Echoes, which they perhaps understandably did not play, given the track’s extended length. But I’ve really come to dig Fearless over the years, which is why I decided to record it instead of One Of These Days.

While compared to their ’60s and ’70s albums I’m less fond of Pink Floyd’s music following The Wall, I wanted to capture at least one tune from that era: Keeping Talking from The Divison Bell. Released in March 1994, it was Floyd’s final album with Wright, who passed away in September 2008 at the age of 65. The tune is credited to Gilmour, Wright and Gilmour’s then-fiancee Polly Samson, a novelist who co-wrote many of the lyrics. During the 1994 tour that supported The Division Bell they got married. This is also the last track from the first of two regular sets Brit Floyd played. Set two started after a 20-minute intermission.

Following are two tracks on the second set, which kicked off with a couple of tunes from A Momentary Lapse Of Reason from September 1987, Floyd’s first studio effort after Roger Waters had departed, followed by another section of songs from side 2 of The Wall. But since no Pink Floyd tribute show would be complete without music from Wish You Were, I’d like to highlight a track from that record. Floyd’s ninth studio album from September 1975 was my introduction to the band in the ’70s, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. Brit Floyd performed a fantastic rendition of Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) and the title track. I may be a music nut, but the thought of holding up my phone for 13-plus minutes proved to be too much of a deterrent, so I went with Wish You Were Here, co-written by Waters and Gilmour.😆

For the last tune in this post, I’d like to return to The Wall with my favorite track, which originally appeared on side 3 of the double LP: Comfortably Numb, one of only two songs on the album, showing a co-writing credit for Gilmour. By the time the band recorded The Wall, it pretty much had become a Roger Waters project. In fact, tensions between him and the other members were increasing and culminated in a showdown between Wright and Waters who fired him during the recording sessions. But Wright was kept as a salaried session musician and eventually left Pink Floyd in 1981, following the tour that supported The Wall. He returned during the post-Waters era, initially as a session player in 1987 for the recording of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. He became a full-time member again in 1994 for the studio sessions for The Division Bell. Comfortably Numb is probably best known for its guitar solo, which remains one of the most epic in rock. Darlington and Brit Floyd’s other guitarist Edo Scordo did a beautiful job with it. Check it out!

The second set was followed by an encore that spanned most of the tracks from side 4 of The Wall. Altogether the show lasted for a solid three hours including the above noted intermission. By now you’ve probably figured out that Brit Floyd is one hell of a tribute band. In fact, I would argue that if you’re a Pink Floyd fan, they are probably the next best act you can see nowadays. The good news is there are plenty of remaining opportunities this year.😎

Brit Floyd’s current North American leg, which kicked off in Pittsburgh, Pa. on March 22 on the heels of 15 shows in the U.K., includes 70 dates across the U.S. and some in Canada, extending all the way until the end of July. Some of these shows include New York (Apr 1), Toronto (Apr 5), Detroit (Apr 13), Milwaukee (Apr 20), Baltimore (May 2), Philadelphia (May 7), Denver (Jun 6), Phoenix (Jun 28), San Francisco (Jul 9), Salt Lake City (Jul 17) and the final U.S. show in Hampton, N.H. (Jul 31). This will be followed by 30 dates in Europe, starting late September and including Norway, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Brit Floyd website, YouTube

Paul McCartney, Accidental Bassist Extraordinaire

When it comes to Paul McCartney and his accomplishments, where do you even start? Co-founding member of The Beatles, which in my book was the greatest band of all time; a man who has written hundreds of songs, including timeless classics; multiple award-winning two-time inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and great musician who after more than five decades is sill hungry to perform live are some of the highlights that come to mind. This post focuses on something folks outside musician circles may not fully appreciate: McCartney’s significance in pop and rock music as a bassist.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I used to play bass guitar in my late teens and early twenties. As such, the topic should be right up my alley, so what the heck took me so long to write about it? Frankly, I don’t really have a good answer. I included McCartney in a previous post about some of my favorite bassists, and of course I’ve also covered him on other occasions. Still, as one of my all-time music heroes, Macca and his remarkable bass playing certainly deserve more attention.

The interesting thing one may sometimes forget is that McCartney not only started out as a guitarist but did not have any initial intention to become a bassist. A long interview with Macca, which Tony Bacon conducted in November 1994 as part of his research for a book about the bass, provides some great insights. It was published by online music gear and news website Reverb in January 2018. I’m relying on this interview for quotes throughout the remainder of the post.

The Beatles 1960 Lineup
The Beatles’ lineup in 1960 (from left): John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe

“The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back,” Macca told Bacon. [Note: This bassist was skinny, and while he has developed a little bit of the belly over the years, he’s far from fat. In fact, his dear wife still says he’s pretty handsome!😆] “In our minds it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be up front, singing, looking good. That was what we wanted, to pull the birds. There’s no other reason, basically.”

The above photo shows an early lineup of The Beatles. It must have been taken during the second half of 1960, after Pete Best had joined the band as a drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon from art school, had been added in January that year, after John and Paul had persuaded him to use prize money he had won for art to purchase a Hofner bass guitar. “So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could,” Macca said. Ouch…

“The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit,” Macca further pointed out. “He was a smallish guy. But it looked kind of heroic—he stood a certain way, he had shades, he looked the part—but he wasn’t that good a player. And that was the problem with me and Stu. It was always much reported that we didn’t get along. There were two reasons, really. One, I was very ambitious for the group, and I didn’t actually like anything that might hold us back. There’s enough stuff holding you back anyway, without someone in the group who’s not that good, you know?”

Stuart Sutcliffe with Hofner
Stuart Sutcliffe with his 1959 Hofner 500/5 semi-hollow bass

In July 1961, after The Beatles had returned from one of their engagements in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue painting. “So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me,” Macca recalled. “I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then. I don’t think you could have caught John doing it—I don’t think he would have done it. ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker.’ I didn’t have a guitar [at the time], see, so I couldn’t really say, ‘But I want to be a guitarist.’ They’d say, Well get a fucking guitar then—that might be a start! As I say, I’d been playing piano, which was on the stage, and that was quite good for me, gave me a lot of piano practice. I couldn’t really play but I learned. So I was quite glad to get back in the front line.”

Sutcliffe ended up lending McCartney his bass for a short time. “Eventually I saw a bass in the window of a shop in Hamburg, this violin-shaped bass, the Hofner. It was a good price, because my dad, as I say, had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never, but we were earning reasonable money.” And so McCartney essentially became the bassist of The Beatles by, well, accident. “That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there.” Well, he certainly did.

It’s fair to say that McCartney didn’t become a brilliant bassist overnight. He started out largely playing root notes, which probably wasn’t that much different from Sutcliffe. But McCartney liked to push himself forward by experimenting. “The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once,” he explained. “So, I’ll try a capo on a bass…I often used to tune ‘em down, too – tune the strings down a tone, so the E would become a D. You’d have to be careful how hard you hit them, but it was kind of interesting. I would just mess around with any experimental effects, just to try it.”

Macca with Bass and Capo
Paul McCartney on the cover of Beat Instrumental magazine, with his Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a capo, together with George Martin and George Harrison

After The Beatles had stopped touring, the studio became a major enabler for experimentation. Advances in technology also allowed the separate recording of instruments. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, Macca would oftentimes record the bass part as one of the last tracks. This allowed him to hear all other instrumental parts and take the bass beyond it’s traditional role of timekeeper to becoming an additional melody-driving instrument. And this is where Macca’s true magic as a bassist happened. From a strictly technical standpoint, his playing is nothing extraordinary, which he himself has stated in various interviews I’ve read over the years.

When after the breakup of The Beatles Macca formed Wings, many things changed, including his bass playing. Not only did he now consistently use his Rickenbacker 4001S he had been given by Mr. Rickenbacker himself as a freebie during The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour, but his playing became more traditional again. Asked about it, he said, “I think it was OK, but I think I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something.”

Macca Key Bass Guitars
Paul McCartney with his two signature bass guitars, a Hofner 500/1 violin bass and a Rickenbacker 4001S

“See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this,” he went on. “We didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache – that’s difficult. In The Beatles, I’d been free of all of that. We had a manager, we had three other great guys.” Macca also could have added that unlike The Beatles in their later stage, Wings was not set up as a studio band.

Asked about his influences for the bass, McCartney said, “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested. Actually he and Brian Wilson [from The Beach Boys] were my two biggest influences: James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”

I’d like to wrap up this post by highlighting some of McCartney’s great basslines during his time with The Beatles. I apologize to the non-musicians, who may find the following clips a bit geeky. I think the best way to hear Macca in action, especially on a computer or other non hi-fi device, is to listen to his isolated bass parts. First up: Rain, the B-side from the non-album single Paperback Writer, released in May 1966. The song was written by Lennon and, as usually, credited to Lennon-McCartney. This is quite a busy bassline that provides a nice complementary melody to the tune. Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip with the original isolated part, I’m relying on a chap called Norby Hofner, who does a pretty decent job.

With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an example of a melodic bassline where McCartney nicely varies between sparing and busy playing. The tune wasn’t only credited to Lennon-McCartney but was also written collaboratively.

Another great example of a busy Macca bassline is Hey Bulldog, a song off the Yellow Submarine album, primarily written by Lennon and again credited to Lennon-McCartney. I dig how the bass is pushing the tune forward.

The last bassline I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites by Macca: Something. Should I ever go back to playing the bass, this would be on top of my list to learn. This bass part represents such great melodic playing that one can easily enjoy listening to it all by itself. I also think that Something, which appeared on Abbey Road, is one of George Harrison’s best compositions.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reverb, YouTube

To Be Or Not To Beatles

Canadian trio Klaatu took some on magical mystery tour in 1976/77

Just before Christmas, I listened to a refreshing new album that sounded incredibly “Beatlish.” I checked the album, entitled Klaatu, for names or pictures of the musicians but there were none. All credits were given to Klaatu. Curious, I called Capitol Records and was told it was a “mystery group.” 

The above is the opening paragraph of a story written by Steve Smith and published on February 17, 1977 in the Providence Journal, a Rhode Island daily newspaper. I was reminded about the album, when it showed up as a listening recommendation in my streaming music service this morning. While I first covered it in May 2017, I felt it was worthwhile revisiting what I would call one of the more intriguing rumors in rock music in an updated post.

Providence Journal Klaatu Review

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Smith as a writer who seemingly was chasing what would have been a potentially career-defining scoop. British magazine New Music Express, now simply known as NME, was quick to dismiss the piece with a story titled Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatles Rumor. Rolling Stone subsequently called it the “hype of the year.”

I agree while sounding Beatlesque, if you listen closely, it is pretty clear the vocals weren’t performed by The Beatles. Still, Smith made some valid points in his story. For example, I agree with his observation that the tune Sub-Rosa Subway sounds like The Beatles from 1968/69. Plus, something that in my opinion got a bit lost is that Smith didn’t firmly conclude Klaatu were The Beatles. Instead, he identified four possibilities. To quote: 1. The Beatles. 2. A couple of The Beatles with other people. 3. A Beatle-backed band. 4. A completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.

Klaatu 2

Klaatu (from left): John Woloschuk, Terry Draper and Dee Long

Also, let’s not forget the other actors in this story. The obvious place to start here is Klaatu. Named after the extraterrestrial character in the motion picture The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Canadian trio included John Woloschuk (bass), Terry Draper (drums) and Dee Long (guitar).  During a 1980 interview with former Capitol Records editorial manager Stephen Peeples, which is posted on Klaatu’s website, Draper said, “I think we were flattered more than anything. Surprised, though, considering that it was totally regardless of us that it happened. We didn’t perpetrate it. It just sorta came to pass by an article written in Providence [Journal] by Steve Smith. We were surprised as everyone else.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t entirely buy the above. While Klaatu may not have planned the plot, they did not do anything while the rumors were unfolding. The band essentially attributed their silence to a desire to remain anonymous musicians, which is why they had not included their names, photos or any biographical information on the album cover. Did they think they would generate “Klaatumania” with fans running after them wherever they would go? I feel the following commentary Woloschuk made during the above interview is more insightful: “We got more hype out of that than you could have manufactured with 15 promo records directors. I mean, it backfired on us. While we were looking for anonymity, we got more exposure than we could have dreamed was possible.”

Klaatu 3

Then there was Frank Davies, president of Klaatu’s label Daffodil Records, which had a distribution deal with Capitol Records. When Smith called him, Davies reportedly told the writer everything “you’ve summarized is pretty accurately all around” and “everything that is there, can and will be identified even without, perhaps them, the people being seen.” Capitol Records certainly added to the rumor by calling Klaatu a “mystery band.” Meanwhile, they were likely laughing and watching sales of the album pick up.

Eventually, Dwight Douglas, program director at radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C., put the mystery to an end. He checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered the band members’ real names. As soon as Klaatu’s identity became known, the album’s sales started to tumble and started the band’s slow decline. Time for some music.

Here’s the opener of the album, which in Canada was titled 3:47 EST. When Capitol Records released it in the U.S., they decided to rename it Klaatu.  Co-written by Woloschuk and Draper, Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft is one of tunes that have a very strong Beatlesque vibe. While it’s fairly obvious to me that the voices aren’t The Beatles, the singing style definitely is reminiscent of The Fab Four. Even more so is the instrumentation. It’s actually a great song you could imagine on an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Magical Mystery Tour.

California Jam starts out with a George Harrison style electric guitar. The harmony singing is reminiscent of The Beatles and sometimes also sounds a bit like The Beach Boys. The song was co-written by Woloschuk and Dino Tome, a close friend.

Next up is the above mentioned Sub-Rosa Subway, also a Woloschuk-Tome co-write. It strikingly sounds like a Paul McCartney style composition, in particular the melody, the piano part and the bassline.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Doctor Marvello. It has a bit of a George Harrison  feel, both in terms of the singing and the sitar. In his story Smith compared the tune to Blue Jay Way, which I think is a fair comparison.

After 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Klaatu released four additional studio albums and eventually disbanded in August 1982. They had two brief reunions in 1988 and 2005. In March 2011, Klaatu announced the launch of their own label Klaatunes Records. They reissued a 2009 compilation titled Solology. In addition, Klaatu has released remastered editions of their first three albums 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Hope and Sir Army Suit.

What if anything did the former members of The Beatles have to say about the whole Klaatu saga? A December 2013 story published in music magazine Goldmine quoted Long who recalled an encounter with Paul McCartney in the late ’80s while working as an engineer at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. “Later, when I was working in Studio 5, there was a knock on the door, and in comes Paul,” Long said. “He introduced himself (like he needed any introduction) and said, ‘So you’re the chap from The Beatles clone band.’ He explained that he was on a TV talk show and the host played a bit of ‘Calling Occupants’ and asked Paul if that was him singing! Paul had never heard the song and said so…We talked for at least an hour, and I explained that we were never a clone band but just heavily influenced by The Beatles. We talked about music and life…He came back many times to hang out and jam and talk about writing songs. Again, he was just a wonderful person — easy to talk to, and full of positive energy. An experience I will always treasure.”

During another interview posted on Klaatu’s website, which was conducted by David Bradley in September 1997, Woloschuk was asked whether he would have done the Klaatu album again. ” Yeah, I think I would have done it again,” he answered. “When I was 17, I bought my first copy of “Sgt Pepper’s,” and I was blown away by it…And within 10 years, the whole world was claiming the group that I was in was the Beatles.  And that’s got to be looked at as an achievement, I think, one way or the other.”

I think Woloschuk is partially right. There’s no question that musicians who write music that could have been created by The Beatles are talented. The album is a lot of fun to listen to. But why conceal your identities? It was incredibly naive to think they could get away with it. Plus, including their names on the record would not have taken anything away from the great music. Yes, it’s safe to assume Klaatu wouldn’t have received the publicity they did. And while it helped the band in the short-term, unfortunately, it tainted them and eventually led to their demise.

Sources: Wikipedia; Could Klaatu be Beatles? Steve Smith. Providence Journal, Feb 17, 1977; Klaatu website; Goldmine, YouTube

When Bs Should Have Been As

While I suspect most folks can tell an anecdote where they feel a teacher or professor did them wrong, you probably figured this post isn’t about academic grades, though it is somewhat related to grading. I’m talking about the good old-fashioned single from the last Century. Yep, it’s hard to believe that in the age of online streaming and digital downloads there was once was a time when music artists would release singles on vinyl and people would actually buy them!

The most common format of the vinyl single was the 7-inch 45 rpm, which according to Wikipedia was introduced by RCA Victor in March 1949 as a more durable and higher-fidelity replacement for 78 rpm shellac discs. Historically, singles had an A-side and a B-side, and placing a song on the A-side implied it was better than the tune on the flip side. In December 1965, The Beatles disrupted this tradition when they released the first so-called double-A side: We Can Work It Out and Day Tripper. The 70s saw yet another type called double-B, where you had one song on the A-side and two tunes on the B-side. Also known as maxi singles, the initial format was 7 inches and, starting from the mid-70s, 12 inches.

Do singles even matter you might ask. At the end of the day, it’s all music, so who cares how it’s called. Well, I guess I’m a bit of a music nerd, so I get excited about it. That being said, I never got much into buying 45 rpms myself. In retrospect, that’s a good thing, since the handful I ended up were all pretty awful.  Three I can still remember include I Was Made For Loving You (Kiss), Heart of Glass (Blondie) and How Could This Go Wrong (Exile) – indeed, how could things have gone so wrong? Well, to my defense it was the disco era and, perhaps more significantly, I was like 12 or 13 years old and slightly less mature!:-)

Before I go any further with this post, I have to give credit where credit is due. The initial inspiration for the topic came from a story on Ultimate Classic Rock about B-sides that became big hits. Then I also remembered that fellow blogger Aphoristic Album Reviews has a recurring feature called Great B-sides. Both together made me curious to do some research and there you have it: a playlist of tunes that initially were released as B-sides, which in my opinion would have deserved an A-side placement or perhaps double-A side status. This doesn’t necessarily mean I feel the corresponding A-sides were inferior. With that being said, let’s get to it!

What better artist to kick off a rock playlist than with Mr. Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry. In September 1956, he released Brown Eyed Handsome Man, a single from his debut album After School Session. The B-side was Too Much Monkey Business, which I personally prefer over the A-side. Both tunes were written by Berry. Like many of his songs, Too Much Monkey Business was widely covered by others like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Yardbirds. Naming them all would be, well, too much monkey business!

Another 1950s artist I dig is Buddy Holly, a true rock & roll and guitar pioneer who during his short recording career released such amazing music. Here’s Not Fade Away, the B-side to Oh, Boy!, a single that appeared in October 1957 under the name of Holly’s band The Crickets. Not Fade Away was credited to Charles Hardin, Holly’s real name, and Norman Petty. In February 1964, The Rolling Stones released a great cover of the tune, their first U.S. single and one of their first hits.

In November 1964, Them fronted by 19-year-old Van Morrison released a cover of Baby, Please Don’t Go, a traditional that had first been popularized by delta blues artist Big Joe Williams in 1935. While Them’s take was a great rendition, it was the B-side, Morrison’s Gloria, which became the band’s first hit, peaking at no. 10 on the British singles charts. Following the song’s big success, apparently, Gloria was re-released as a single in 1965, with the garage rocker getting its well-deserved A-side placement. G.L.O.R.I.A., Gloria, G.L.O.R.I.A., Gloria – love this tune!

Another great B-side is I’ll Feel A Lot Better by The Byrds, which they put on the flip side of their second single All I Really Want To Do from June 1965. It was written by founding member Gene Clark, the band’s main writer of original songs between 1964 and early 1966. Like the Bob Dylan tune All I Really Want To Do, I’ll Feel A Lot Better appeared on The Byrds’ debut album Mr. Tambourine Man. I’m a huge fan of Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker jingle-jangle guitar sound. Another reason I’ve always liked The Byrds is because of their great harmony singing. It’s the kind of true music craftsmanship you hardly hear any longer these days.

My next selection won’t come as a shock to frequent readers of the blog: I’m The Walrus by The Beatles. Other than the fact that The Fab Four are my all-time favorite band, there’s another valid reason I included them in this playlist. You can file this one under ‘what were they thinking relegating the tune to the B-side and giving the A-side to Hello Goodbye.’ Hello? According to The Beatles Bible, not only was John Lennon’s push to make Walrus the A-side overturned by Paul McCartney and George Martin, who both felt Hello Goodbye would be more commercially successful, but it created real resentment from Lennon. And frankly who can blame him! After the band’s breakup, he complained “I got sick and tired of being Paul’s backup band.” Yes, Hello Goodbye ended up peaking at no. 1 but also as one of the worst Beatles singles!

Next up: Born On The Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the B-side to Proud Mary, a single released in January 1969. Unlike the previous case, I think this is a great example of two killer tunes that are each A-side material. Written by John Fogerty, both songs appeared on CCR’s second studio album Bayou Country that also came out in January 1969.

In October 1969, Led Zeppelin issued Led Zeppelin II, only nine months after their debut, and one of their best albums, in my opinion. The opening track Whole Lotta Love was released as a single in November that year. The B-side was Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman). It may not be quite on par with Whole Lotta Love, but it sure as heck is an excellent tune with a great riff. The song was co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

The Needle And The Damage Done is one of my favorite songs from one of my all-time favorite artists: Neil Young. It became the B-side to Old Man, which Young released as a single in April 1972 off Harvest, his excellent fourth studio album that had appeared in February that year.

Also in April 1972, David Bowie came out with Starman, the lead single from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, his fifth studio album and my favorite Bowie record. The B-side was Suffragette City, a kick-ass glam rocker. Like all tracks on Ziggy Stardust, it was written by Bowie.

Of course, this playlist wouldn’t be complete without featuring a tune from one of my other all-time favorite bands, The Rolling Stones. I decided to go with When The Whip Comes Down, the B-side to Beast Of Burden, which was released as a single in September 1978. As usually co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both tunes appeared on Some Girls, the Stones’ 14th British and 16th U.S. studio album from June that year. That’s according to Wikipedia – I didn’t count them myself!

Sources: Wikipedia, Ultimate Classic Rock, Radio X, Smooth Radio, Forgotten Hits, The Beatles Bible, YouTube