Revisiting My Favorite German Rock Band: BAP

If you have followed my blog for some time, you may recall seeing the name BAP. The group around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken was founded in the West German city of Cologne in 1976. They entered my radar screen in 1981 after their national breakthrough with their third studio album Für Usszeschnigge! (translation: to cut out). BAP remain my favorite German rock band, which I realized once again the other day when listening to some of their music. This triggered my decision to do another post on them. And it may not by my last!

One of BAP’s defining features is that Niedecken performs their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. While I think they are on par with many English singing bands, undoubtedly this has largely limited their appeal to Germany, though they have ventured out to neighboring countries and even once to China. BAP have seen many line-up changes over the decades, and Niedecken remains the only original member. Since September 2014 after the departure of two longtime members, Niedecken announced that going forward the band would perform under the name Niedeckens BAP and no longer have a standing line-up.

BAP in 2016
Current members of BAP (from left): Wolfgang Niedecken (guitar, vocals), Werner Kopal (bass), Anne De Wolff (multi-instrumentalist), Ulrich Rode (lead guitar), Michael Nass (keyboards) and Sönke Reich (drums)

Niedecken has been BAP’s driving creative force. His key influences are Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The  Kinks and The Rolling Stones. Niedecken has a friendly relationship with Springsteen. In fact, I previously read that whenever the Boss performs in Germany and Niedecken is around, he likes to invite him on stage to play a song together – to me this sounds like something Springsteen would do. BAP have released 17 studio albums, eight live recordings and three compilations to date – more than enough fodder for another playlist, so let’s get to it. Unlike the first chronological playlist I published here, this time, I’m going randomly.

Let’s kick it off with a nice blues rocker called Diego Paz Wohr Nüngzehn (Diego Paz was 19). Co-written by then-guitarist Helmut Krumminga and Niedecken, the tune has a cool ZZ Top La Grange vibe. It appeared on BAP’s 15th studio album Radio Pandora from May 2008.

The next song takes us all the way back to 1980 and Affjetaut (defrosted), BAP’s sophomore release. Here’s the opener Ne schöne Jrooß (greetings) co-written by Niedecken and Klaus Heuser, who had joined the band as their lead guitarist prior to the recording sessions and would become Niedecken’s key musical partner until his departure in 1999. While perhaps not surprisingly the sound is a bit dated, I still dig that tune.

In August 1996, BAP released their 10th studio album Amerika (America), one of my favorites. Here’s the great opener Nix Wie Bessher (nothing like it used to be), another Niedecken-Heuser co-write. As you can hear, BAP’s sound had significantly matured by then.

Time Is Cash, Time Is Money, a humorous take on organized vacation travel, appeared on the band’s sixth studio record Ahl Männer, Aalglatt (old slick guys). The song was co-written by Niedecken and producer Reinhold Mack. Mack had produced, co-produced and sound-engineered for Queen, Billy Squier and E.L.O. According to Wikipedia, it was the first time BAP relied on a “professional” producer – I assume by this they mean somebody who had worked with international acts.

Next up: Do Kanns Zaubere (you can do magic), one of my favorite BAP ballads, and yet another co-write by Niedecken and Heuser. The tune is from their fourth studio album Vun Drinne Noh Drusse (from the inside to the outside) released in August 1982.

Over their long history, BAP have released a number of songs addressing social and political issues, including racism/hostility against foreigners and nationalism – sadly topics I never thought would remain as relevant as they are today in the 21st Century. Here’s Denn Mer Sinn Widder Wer (Coz we’re great again – sound fucking familiar?) The track appeared on BAP’s eighth studio album X Für ‘e U (an “x” for a “u”) released in October 1990 in the wake of Germany’s reunification. And, yes, in case you wondered, Niedecken and Heuser teamed up for this tune as well. The clip I found is not an official video but was put together by the guy who uploaded it YouTube.

How ’bout Shoeshine? Ask and you shall receive. This great song, written by Niedecken, is from BAP’s 13th studio album Aff Un Zo (every now and then) from June 2001. It was an important record for the band after the departure of longtime members Heuser and keyboarder Alexander Büchel. The only YouTube clip of the tune I could find is this version from the 2014 unplugged live album Das Märchen Vom Gezogenen SteckerLive (the tale of the pulled plug – live). While it’s a bit different from the studio recording, I think it’s actually pretty cool.

A BAP playlist without a tune from their aforementioned breakthrough album would be incomplete. Since I previously featured what is perhaps their best-known song Verdamp Lang Her (such a long time ago), I’m going with the road tune Frau, Ich Freu Mich (Can’t wait to see you, baby). Given this record appeared in 1981, guess who co-wrote the rocker? Yep, Niedecken and Heuser had done it again!

For the next tune, let’s jump all the way forward to BAP’s most recent studio release, Lebenslänglich (for a lifetime), which appeared in early 2016: Et Ess Lang Her (long ago). The song was co-written by Niedecken and keyboarder Michael Nass. I dig the beautiful acoustic roots sound, which reminds me a bit of John Mellencamp.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is from Halv Su Wild (not a big deal) another of my favorite BAP albums. It is from their 16th and the last studio record to date released under the name BAP. It also marked the final album with longtime drummer Jürgen Zöller (1987-2014) and Helmut Krumminga, who had been the band’s lead guitarist from 1999 until 2014. Here’s a live version of Et Levve Ess En Autobahn (life is a highway), which apparently was captured during an open-air gig in Germany in 2012. Written by Niedecken, it’s an autobiographic song about the band’s long history.

During an interview with Swiss newspaper Tagblatt, Niedecken confirmed BAP are working on a new studio album that will likely appear sometime this year, followed by a tour in 2021. Mentioning his most recent solo effort Das Familienalbum (the family album), which was recorded in New Orleans and came out in 2017, Niedecken also hinted the band’s next record is going to feature some of the same U.S. horn players. For a long-time BAP fan like myself, this does sound intriguing.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tagblatt; YouTube

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

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

My Playlist: BAP

For more than 40 years, BAP has been one of the most successful rock bands in Germany

While in the U.S. and other countries Rammstein, Scorpions and Kraftwerk may be the best known German bands, Germany has much more to offer. A great example is BAP, a band that has been popular there for 40-plus years but isn’t known much beyond Germany and some of its immediate neighbor countries. They also happen to be one of my long-time favorite German rock bands. BTW, I also like the Scorpions. Since unlike the English-singing German hard rockers BAP performs most of their songs in a German dialect, I’m under no illusion that winning over non-German speaking readers is likely going to be a long shot at best. Nevertheless, I decided to put together this post and playlist, if only to prove that German contemporary music is more than heavy rock and electronic music.

The origins of BAP go back to 1976, when singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken formed an acoustic trio with guitarist Hans Heres and percussionist Afro Bauermann, and they started playing in the West German city of Cologne. Prior to that, Niedecken already had gained some local prominence as a solo artist performing Bob Dylan songs and as a painter. Dylan is one of his key music influences, along with Bruce Springsteen, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones. In fact, Niedecken is friends with the Boss who occasionally has invited him on stage to play a song during Springsteen gigs in Germany.

BAP in 1980s
BAP in the early ’80s (from left): Wolfgang Boecker (drums), Manfred Boecker (percussion), Steve Borg (bass, cello), Wolfgang Niedecken (guitar, vocals), Klaus Heuser (guitar, vocals), Alexander Büchel (keyboards) and Hans Wollrath (sound engineer)

In November 1979, the band that by then had grown to a six-piece recorded their debut studio album Wolfgang Niedecken’s BAP rockt andere kölsche Leeder. In English this means something like “Wolfgang Niedecken’s BAP rocks other Kölsch songs.” The remainder of this post includes rough translations of song and album titles in parentheses. Kölsch is a German dialect spoken in the city of Cologne and surrounding areas. To this day, most BAP songs are performed in that dialect, with band leader and lead vocalist Niedecken remaining as the only original member. As somebody who grew up not far from Cologne, I can’t deny this dialect sounds charming to me and has a certain sentimental value.

Starting with their third studio album für usszeschnigge! (to cut out) from 1981, the band shortened their name from Wolfgang Niedecken’s BAP to just BAP. “Bap,” which is derived from the word “papa” (as in Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach) was the nickname for Niedecken, who used to call his father that way. The band, which went through various line-up changes over the decades, kept the name BAP until two long-time members Jürgen Zöller (drums) and Helmut Krumminga (lead guitar) left in September 2014. Following their departure, out what appears to be some frustration over yet another line-up change, Niedecken announced that going forward the band would perform under the name Niedeckens BAP and no longer have a standing line-up.

BAP in 2016
BAP in 2016 (from left): Wolfgang Niedecken (guitar, vocals), Werner Kopal (bass), Anne De Wolff (multi-instrumentalist), Ulrich Rode (lead guitar), Michael Nass (keyboards) and Sönke Reich (drums)

To date BAP have released 17 studio albums, seven live records and three compilations. With more than 5.9 million records sold and eleven no. 1 and 19 top 10 albums, BAP is one of the most successful German language rock bands. After their breakthrough album für usszeschnigge! from October 1981, BAP started touring throughout Germany. Eventually, they expanded to other European countries, including Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg. In October 1987, they even went to China, playing eight dates there. Niedecken who is politically active has also performed in Nicaragua and Mozambique. Yet BAP haven’t gained a footprint beyond the above European countries, which is likely due to the language barrier. Time for some music!

The first tune I’d like to highlight is Helfe Kann Dir Keiner (nobody can help you) from BAP’s second studio album Affjetaut (defrosted). Niedecken writes all of BAP’s lyrics. Sometimes, he has taken songs written by others, such as Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone or Death Of A Clown by The Kink’s Dave Davies and his brother Ray Davies, and translated/adapted them to Kölsch. The music is often written or co-written by other band members, in this case guitarist Klaus Heuser, who frequently assumed that role during his 19-year tenure with BAP.

Verdamp Lang Her (it’s been a long time) is one of BAP’s best known songs and remains a crowd pleaser during live shows to this day. Another Heuser/Niedecken co-write, the tune was first recorded by the band for their above mentioned studio release für usszeschnigge! The opening chord progression is the same as for Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Given Dylan’s influence on Niedecken, this may not be a coincidence, though I don’t know.

Next up: Alexandra, Nit Nur Do (Alexandra, you’re not the only one). Credited to Niedecken (lyrics) and BAP (music), the tune appeared on the band’s fifth studio album Zwesche Salzjebäck un Bier (between salt pretzels and beer), which appeared in May 1983.

In August 1989, BAP released their seventh studio record Da Capo. It was the first with Jürgen Zöller who replaced Pete King on drums, following his untimely death from cancer in 1987. Here is the great opener Stadt Im Niemandsland (city in no man’s land), which was co-written by Niedecken and Heuser. Check out the nice double lead guitar lines, which are bit reminiscent of Boston.

Amerika (America), another Niedecken/Heuser co-write, is the title track of BAP’s 10th studio release from August 1996. The song describes the impressions of a child witnessing the liberation of Nazi Germany by the Americans after the end of World War II. To give you a flavor, here’s a translated excerpt: So that’s how they look/check it out, there’s also a black guy among them/Look at the fellow on the tank, he’s eighteen at the most, and he liberated us/They warned us about them/Why did we believe all this crap?/These guys have been through so much/walking through mines from the [English] Channel all the way to here/It’s now nighttime where they are coming from/They are still sleeping there across the ocean/They have buildings higher than the dome [of Cologne]/ There’s jazz on the radio all day long…

The follow-on album to Amerika was Comics & Pin-Ups from January 1990. Here is the official video of Lena, a song co-written by Jens Streifling (horns, guitar) and Niedecken.

By the time BAP released their 13th studio album Aff Un Zo (every now and then) in June 2001, long-time members Klaus Heuser (guitar) and Alexander Büchel (keyboards) had left and been replaced by Helmut Krumminga and Michael Nass, respectively. Especially the departure of Heuser, who had been instrumental in writing the music for many of the band’s best known songs, marked the end of an era. But his successor, who like Heuser is a talented guitarist, quickly established himself and helped shape BAP’s sound for the next 15 years. In case you didn’t think Germans could play reggae, here’s the record’s title track.

In May 2008, Radio Pandora appeared. BAP’s 16th studio album was a major release featuring a plugged and an unplugged version. Eight of the 14 tracks on each record were different versions of the same songs, while the remaining six tunes were entirely different. Here’s a cool blues rocker from the plugged edition called Diego Paz Wohr Nüngzehn (Diego Paz was nineteen). It would make a good ZZ Top tune!

Another title track I’d like to highlight is Halv Su Wild (not a big deal). Co-written by Krumminga and Niedecken, the song appeared on BAP’s 17th studio album, the last featuring the guitarist and the band’s long-time ace drummer Jürgen Zöller. Here’s a nice clip of the catchy rock song.

The last tune I want to highlight is from the band’s most recent 18th studio album  Lebenslänglich, (sentenced to life), which came out in January 2016. Released as Niedeckens BAP, the record features Ulrich Rode as replacement for Krumminga.  Sönke Reich took over on drums for Zöller. As noted on BAP’s official website, the 35-year-old from the Northern German city of Hamburg is the only member who is younger than the band. Here’s a live clip of Dä Herrjott Meint Et Joot Met Mir (god has been good to me).

In March 2016, during a short trip to Germany, I had a chance to catch BAP in the Bavarian town of Neu-Ulm during their 40th anniversary tour. With the departure of Krumminga and Zöller, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a great show. BAP continues to rock on. Niedecken, who turned 67 in March, had a stroke in November 2011 from which he fully recovered. In addition to him, Rode and Reich, the band’s current line-up includes Werner Kopal (bass), Anne De Wolff (multi-instrumentalist) and Michael Nass (keyboards). The band is currently on a 2018 tour, which is mostly focused on Germany.

Sources: Wikipedia, BAP official website, YouTube

The Hardware: Vox Continental

Compact keyboard with characteristic sound became hit among touring bands in ’60s

When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.

For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

Thomas Walter Jennings
Jennings Organ Company founder Thomas Walter Jennings at his Dartford factory in Kent, England in 1964

Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries (JMI) in 1957, started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!

Vox Continental Electronics
The electronic inside of a Vox Continental

The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.

Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.

As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.

The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)

The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player. Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!

Because (The Dave Clark Five)

Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith playing the organ.

I’m A Believer (The Monkees)

I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees eventually learned how to play their instruments. Here’s a TV clip from 1966, which looks like the guys know how to play for real; if they’re faking, it’s certainly done well!

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)

After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.

Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)

Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post, is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case. It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube

On This Day In Rock History: February 18

1959: Ray Charles recorded What’d I Say at Atlantic Records in New York City. Written by Charles, the R&B classic evolved from an improvisation during a concert in December 1958. At the end of that show, Charles found himself with some time to fill and reportedly told his female backing vocalists The Raelettes, “Listen, I’m going to fool around and y’all just follow me.” Fooling around paid off nicely. Following its release in July that year, the tune became Charles’ first gold record. One of the challenges with the song was its original length of more than seven and a half minutes, far longer than the usual two-and-a-half-minute format for radio play. Recording engineer Tom Dowd came up with the idea to remove some parts and split up the song in two three-and-a-half-minute chunks: What’d I Say Part I and What’d I Say Part II. The division relied on a false ending after the orchestra had paused the music.

1965: Tired Of Waiting For You by The Kinks hit no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart. Written by Ray Davies, the tune was a single from the band’s second studio LP Kinda Kinks, which appeared in March that year. Notably, The Kinks only had two other chart-topping singles in the UK during their long career: You Really Got Me (1964) and Sunny Afternoon (1966). According to Songfacts, Davies wrote the tune while studying at Hornsey School of Art in London. Since by the time The Kinks went into the studio he couldn’t remember the lyrics, the band initially only recorded the backing track. Davies ended up writing the words on the train the following day while heading back to the studio.

1967: The Buckinghams topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Kind Of A Drag, the Chicago sunshine pop band’s only no. 1 hit. The tune was written by Jim Holway, who is  also best known for this accomplishment. The band, which had formed the previous year, became one of the top-selling acts in 1967, according to Wikipedia. But their chart success was short-lived and they disbanded in 1970, which I suppose is, well, kind of a drag! On a more cheerful note, they re-emerged in 1980 and apparently remain active to this day. Here’s a clip of the lovely tune.

1972: Neil Young’s fourth studio album Harvest was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), only less than three weeks after its release on February 1. It features some of Young’s best known songs, including Heart Of Gold, Old Man and The Needle And The Damage Done. James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash were among the impressive array of guest musicians. Harvest topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks and became the best-selling record of the year in the U.S. As of June 27, 1994, the album has 4x Multi-Platinum certification. Here’s a clip of The Needle And The Damage Done.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day in Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Kinks Live At Beat Club

A Facebook post I saw earlier today prompted me to look and find the above clip that captures The Kinks on German TV program Beat Club during the ’70s. The Facebook post included one of the tunes they played there, You Really Got Me. Somewhat annoyingly, it appeared to be cut off at the end, so I was curious to see whether it was part of something bigger and voila!

This appears to be a compilation from at least two appearances on the show during the ’70s. In addition to You Really Got Me, other songs are Lola, You’re Lookin’ Fine and All Day And All Of The Night. There are also various tunes from the band’s 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies, including Holiday, Alcohol and the title track.

The footage has both elements that are hilarious, such as the band members drinking beer during the performance of Alcohol, and weird moments like the camera focusing on keyboard player John Gosling during Ray Davies’ guitar solo in You Really Got Me.

I dig much of The Kinks’ music, and I’m planning to do more on them soon.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube