My Playlist: BAP

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

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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

Aw, The ’80s (Part 2: 1985-1989)

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

Here is the second and final installment of my feature looking back at music and some related events in the ’80s. This part is focused on the second half of the decade. As noted in part 1, it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review but instead a selection of things I find noteworthy.

1985

To me the key music event during this year and perhaps the entire decade was Live Aid. I was watching it on TV from Germany while simultaneously taping it on music cassette from the radio. Organized by Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure as a fundraiser to fight starvation in Ethiopia, Africa, the benefit concert was conducted on July 13 simultaneously in the U.K. at London’s Wembley Stadium and the U.S. at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Among others, it featured Status Quo, Queen, U2, David Bowie, The Who and Paul McCartney at Wembley, while some of the performers in Philly included Joan Baez, Madonna, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in a less-than-stellar appearance, a reunited Led Zeppelin featuring Phil Collins on drums. The concerts were watched by an estimated global TV audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries and raised approximately 150 million British pounds.

Live Aid Wembley
The Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium was attended by 72,000 people

Other events that year included the official launch of VH-1 on cable TV in the U.S. (Jan 1); recording of the charity single for Africa We Are The World (Jan 28), co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by USA For Africa, who apart from Jackson and Ritchie featured Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and numerous other top artists; release of Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms, their best-selling record that among others became known for its exceptional sound quality due to its all-digital recording (May 13); Michael Jackson’s purchase of the publishing rights for most of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million, out-bidding former artistic collaborator McCartney whose success in music publishing had inspired Jackson to increase his activities in the business (Sep 6); and Roger Waters’ announced intention to leave Pink Floyd, which marked the start of a two-year legal battle over the rights to the band’s name and assets.

The biggest hit singles of 1985 were Shout (Tears For Fears), We Are The World (USA For Africa), Take On Me (a-ha), I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner) and Material Girl (Madonna). Following is Money For Nothing, the second single from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album, which they performed at Live Aid. Like on the studio recording, it featured Sting on backing vocals.

1986

On Jan 30, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony. The first batch of inductees included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. While over the years since, there has been much debate over who should be in the Rock Hall, the selection process, the award categories, etc., I think there is no doubt that the above artists all well-deserving inductees.

Rock Roll Hall of Fame 1986 Inductees
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 1986 inductees (left to right): upper row: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino; lower row: The Everly Brothers, Buddy Hollie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley

Other events: Bob Geldorf’s knighthood award to recognize his work for Live Aid and other charity concerts for Africa (Jun 10); release of Madonna’s True Blue album, the best-selling record of year (Jun 30); and disbanding of The Clash, Electric Light Orchestra (revived by Jeff Lynne in 2000) and Men At Work.

The top-performing hit singles included Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) – the first German-language song to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna), The Final Countdown (Europe), Take My Breath Away (Berlin) and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). The 1986 tune I’d like to highlight is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which was first released as a single in April. It also appeared on his fifth studio album So that came out the following month. Here’s the song’s official video, which won multiple accolades in 1987, including a record nine awards at the MTV Music Video Music Awards and “Best British Video” at the Brit Awards. It’s definitely one of the most memorable music videos of the decade.

1987

Some of the events in music during that year included the induction of Aretha Franklin as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 3); release of U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree (Mar 9), which topped the charts in 20-plus countries and became one of the world’s most commercially successful records, selling more than 25 million copies; Whitney Houston’s second studio album Whitney, the first record by a female artist to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Jun 27); launch of MTV Europe (Aug 1); and release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first studio album after the departure of and legal battle with Roger Waters (Sep 7). Waters finally wrapped up his legal separation from the band later that year.

The highest-charting hit singles were La Bamba (Los Lobos), Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley); I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me (Whitney Houston), It’s A Sin (Pet Shop Boys) and Who’s That Girl (Madonna) – I remember each of these songs like it was yesterday! Here’s Where The Streets Have No Name from my favorite U2 album The Joshua Tree. Credited to the band (music) and Bono (lyrics), the tune was released as the album’s third single in August 1987, five months after the record’s appearance.

1988

Some of the music events that year included the induction of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Drifters, Bob Dylan and The Supremes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 20); near-death experience for Alice Cooper on stage after one of the props, the Gallows, malfunctioned – yikes! (Apr 7); sale of legendary soul label Motown Records to MCA and financial firm Boston Ventures for $61 million (Jun 27); John Fogerty’s win of what sounds like a frivolous self-plagiarism lawsuit Fantasy Records had brought against him, claiming his 1985 comeback tune The Old Man Down The Road was too similar to Run Through The Jungle, which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 (Nov 7); and final concert by Roy Orbison in Akron, Ohio (Dec 4) prior to his death from a heart attack only two days thereafter.

Leading hit singles: A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins), Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys),  Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle) and Take Me To Your Heart (Rick Astley). One 1988 song I like in particular is Under The Milky Way Tonight by Australian outfit The Church. Co-written by Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson, it became the lead single to their excellent fifth studio album Starfish. Both were released in February that year. Here’s a clip.

1989

I can’t believe I made it to the last year of the decade! Some of the events I’d like to highlight are criticism of Madonna by religious groups worldwide over alleged blasphemous use of Christian imagery in her music video for Like A Prayer (Feb 23), which had premiered on MTV the day before; release of Bonnie Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time, one of my favorite records from her (Mar 21); release of Tom Petty’s excellent debut solo album Full Moon Fever (Apr 24); Ringo Starr’s formation of his All-Starr Band (Jul 23); opening of The Rolling Stones’ North American tour in Philadelphia to support their comeback album Steel Wheels (Aug 31), two days after the album had dropped; and release of Neil Young’s 17th studio album Freedom (Oct 2), best known for the epic Rockin’ In The Free World.

Key hit singles were Like A Prayer (Madonna), Eternal Flame (The Bangles), Another Day In Paradise (Phil Collins), The Look (Roxette) and Love Shack (The B-52s). The final ’80s tune I’d like to call out via clip is Down To London by Joe Jackson, an artist I’ve listened to for many years. He recorded the song for his 10th studio release Blaze Of Glory, which appeared in April 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Aw, The ’80s (Part 1: 1980-1984)

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

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

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

Prince_Purple Rain

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

1980

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

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

1981

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

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

1982

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

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

1983

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

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

1984

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

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

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

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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 & Roll History: August 5

1957: The music program American Bandstand debuted on U.S. national television. It was hosted by Dick Clark who had joined the show the previous year when it still had been known as Bandstand and aired on Philadelphia TV station WFIL-TV (now local ABC affiliate WPVI-TV). The program, which ran until 1989, featured many artists who lip-synced their latest hits. While as such it was chart-oriented, it coincided with time periods when great music was part of the mainstream. So it’s perhaps not a surprise to see which artists appeared on the show. According to Wikipedia, American Bandstand  helped introduce famous artists to Americans, such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Aerosmith. Some of the other acts who were on the program included The Animals, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Van Morrison, R.E.M., Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and even Pink Floyd. Here’s a clip of a 1966 appearance of Roy Orbison performing Oh, Pretty Woman, featuring one of the coolest ’60s guitar riffs that still sounds awesome to this day.

1966: The Beatles released their seventh studio album in the U.K., Revolver, which many fans consider the band’s best record. While it’s undoubtedly a great album, if I had to choose, I would go with the follow-on release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Revolver, apart from gems like Taxman, Eleanor Rigby and Got To Get You Into My Life, stands out for the introduction of various new recording techniques, including tape loops, backwards recordings, varispeeding and, most significantly, Artificial Double Tracking (ADT). George Martin’s string arrangement on Eleanor Rigby broke conventions by blending classical and pop music. George Harrison, who took on a bigger role in the album’s songwriting, introduced another Indian instrument to pop music after the sitar on predecessor Rubber Soul: the tambura. Here’s a clip of Eleanor Rigby.

1978: The Rolling Stones hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Miss You, their eighth and last no. 1 single in the U.S. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was written by Jagger while jamming with Billy Preston during rehearsals in 1977. It became the lead single for Some Girls, the band’s 14th and 16th British and American studio album, respectively. Apparently, there is some disagreement between Jagger and Ronnie Wood who maintain the track wasn’t supposed to be a disco song, while according to Richards, “Miss You’ was a damn good disco record; it was calculated to be one.” To me it’s obvious that Richards hates the tune. In my humble opinion, there’s no question the Stones have released much better songs.

1984: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band played the first of 10 gigs at Brendan Byrne Arena, now called Meadowlands Arena, in East Rutherford, N.J. during the Born In The U.S.A. Tour, Springsteen’s longest and most successful tour to date. The show included two sets and an encore, with a total of 28 tracks. As is typical for The Boss, he went far beyond the album that the tour supported and dug deep into his catalog. He also played a number of covers. Here’s a cool clip of a 21-minute medley captured during the same tour two weeks earlier in Toronto, Canada. The medley includes Devil With The Blue Dress, Good Golly Miss Molly, CC Rider, Jenny Jenny, I Hear A Train, Twist And Shout and Do You Love Me. The band is absolutely killing it – rock & roll simply doesn’t get better than this! The crazy thing is that Springsteen pretty performed with the same intensity 32 years later when I saw him last in August 2016 at MetLife Stadium, right across the highway from Meadowlands.

1992: Jeff Porcaro, best known as co-founder and drummer of Toto, passed away at the young age of 38 years. The circumstances of his death remain ambiguous. According to the band history on the official Toto website, Porcaro died from a heart attack that resulted from a severe allergic reaction to chemicals in pesticide he had sprayed in his garden earlier that day. But the Los Angeles Times reported the heart attack stemmed from atherosclerosis triggered by years of cocaine use. One thing is clear: Porcaro was an excellent, sought after session drummer, who apart from Toto worked with Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Boz Scaggs, among others. Here’s a clip of Rosanna from Toto IV, which I think features some of Porcaro’s finest drum work.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music.com; Billboard Hot 100 chart history; setlist.fm; Toto website; YouTube

If You Can’t See The One You Love, See The One You Can

According to my good music blogger friend Music Enthusiast, who only not writes a great blog but also seems to be a pretty good guitarist, I’m the King of the Tribute Band. As such, I thought I have to live up to the kind title and do a piece on tribute bands.

In 1970, Stephen Stills wrote the lyrics, And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Since this pretty much captures how I generally feel about tribute bands, I used a variation of Stills’ words as the headline for this post.

I know some folks are only mildly excited about the concept. While I acknowledge it’s hard to find tribute bands that sound exactly like the real artists, as long as they don’t sound terrible, I enjoy seeing them. Since I usually do some research before going to a show, I’ve yet to have a bad experience.

Here’s how I look at it. With today’s oftentimes outrageous ticket prices, I simply can’t afford to see everybody I like; and even if I could, many of my favorite artists or bands are no longer around. Some of the best tribute bands I’ve seen performed at free summer-concert-in-the-park type of events, or music festivals with very reasonable cover charges. So for little or no money I can listen to music I dig – not much of a downside here, in my opinion!

Following are some tribute bands I like and have seen over the past couple of years.

Who’s Next

Their name already pretty much says it all. Who’s Next is a tribute to The Who. Like The Who, I’ve seen them twice and thought they were dynamite. Their members include Bill Canell as Pete TownshendDave McDonald as Roger DaltreyMike Conte as John Entwistle and Rich Savarese as Keith Moon. Apart from nicely capturing the sound and energy of the British rockers, these four guys also look a bit like their heroes. All of this is pretty remarkable, given the band doesn’t appear to perform frequently. For more information, check out their website. Here’s The Real Me and 5:15 I captured earlier this year during a British Invasion festival in Atlantic City.

Britain’s Finest

As a huge fan of The Beatles, of course I need to include a tribute band in this post! There are many tribute acts to the Fab Four, and I must have seen at least half a dozen myself. One of the best if not the best is Britain’s Finest. Similar to Who’s Next, their show is about both recreating the sound and the looks – they even mimic The Beatles’ humor. According to their Facebook page, Britain’s Finest were founded in Los Angeles in September 2011. Their lineup features Ruben Amaya (John Lennon), Benjamin Chadwick (Paul McCartney), Robert F. Bielma (George Harrison) and Luis G. Renteria (Ringo Starr). Here’s a clip of She Loves You.

The Glimmer Twins

Adopting the nickname of the songwriting partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Glimmer Twins hail from Philadelphia. The band is led by Keith Call (vocals, harp) and Bernie Bollendorf (guitars, vocals), who bring to life the sound and looks of Jagger and Richards in the ’70s. While the band’s remaining musicians don’t resemble the other members of The Rolling Stones, they sound pretty awesome:  Michael Rubino (guitars), Bobby Corea (drums), Rob Ekstedt (Bass), Rocco Notte (keyboards), Valorie Steel (vocals), Bobby Michaels (saxophone, flute, organ) and Carl Crabtree (saxophone, organ, acoustic guitar). For more information, check out their website. Here’s their rendition of Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

STARMAN: The Bowie Tribute

Formed in 2014, STARMAN is a tribute band to David Bowie. While Bowie obviously was a very well-known artist, I was still intrigued when I learned about these guys recently. Unlike The Beatles, I don’t think there are many Bowie tributes out there, which was in part why I decided to catch one of their recent gigs. In addition to Bowie’s songs, this Jersey band captures the looks and stage shows during different times of his career. STARMAN are Johwie Bowie (lead vocals), David Citron (keyboards, vocals), Tom Coughlin (saxophone, guitar, vocals), Jody Lynn Lisa (vocals, percussion), Mark Christopher (lead guitar), Dan D’Elia (drums) and Phil Liebergall (bass, vocals). Additional information can be found on their website. Here’s a clip of Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City from the above mentioned show I attended.

TUSK

TUSK, another band from New Jersey, is an excellent tribute to Fleetwood Mac I’ve seen a couple of times. While their website and Facebook page don’t mention when they were founded, it’s clear their members are longtime artists. The band, which captures Fleetwood Mac during their most commercially successful phase, features Kathy Phillips (vocals) as Stevie NicksKim Williams (keyboards, vocals) as Christine McVieScott McDonald (guitars, vocals) as Lindsey BuckinghamRandy Atiglere (bass) as John McVie, and Tom Nelson (drums) as Mick Fleetwood. According to their website, TUSK has a packed schedule and tours nationally. What struck me the most about them was how well they capture Mac’s harmony vocals. Check out this clip of The Chain.

Hotel California

To recreate the music of the Eagles, especially the harmony vocals, is a formidable task. While I’ve seen a few Eagles tribute bands, Hotel California from Toronto, Canada has been the most compelling thus far. Undoubtedly, at least in part this must be the result of their longtime experience – the band was founded in 1986. The current lineup includes  Andy Lapointe  (bass, vocals), Mike Dimoulas (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards, double-neck guitar, Talk Box, vocals), Rick Spyder (electric guitar, vocals) and Kevin O’Donnell (drums, vocals). The band’s website reveals that they tour heavily throughout Canada and the U.S. Here’s a nice highlights reel. While it’s a few years old, this is how I recall they sounded when I saw them last September.

Get The Led Out

Get The Led Out, another band from Philadelphia, are an amazing Led Zeppelin tribute that got together in 2003. Rather than aiming to look like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham or sound like they did in concert, these guys are all about bringing Zeppelin’s studio sound live to the stage. And that takes more than four musicians – six to be precise: Paul Sinclair (lead vocals, harmonica), Paul Hammond  (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin), Jimmy Marchiano (electric and acoustic guitars), Phil D’Agostino (bass, vocals), Andrew Lipke (keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion) and Adam Ferraiolo (drums, percussion). In addition, Diana DeSantis serves as guest vocalist for The Battle Of Evermore. I saw GTLO last November, and boy did they kick ass! The band’s current national tour schedule is on their website. Here’s a clip of Whole Lotta Love.

Echoes

This Pink Floyd tribute band from Delaware was founded in 1991. I’ve had the fortune to experience the real Pink Floyd (minus Roger Waters) twice and was really impressed how well Echoes recreated their complex music when I saw them last September. The band includes John Cassidy (drums, vocals), Kyle Frederick (bass), Dan Long  (keyboards, sound effects, vocals), John Ratcliffe (vocals, guitar), William (Bill) Swezey  (guitar, vocals), David Fox (guitar, lap steel), Andrew Bedell (saxophone), Michelle Sumler Hover (backing vocals), Chris Tuminello Duncan (backing vocals, keyboards) and Kat Pigliacampi (backing vocals). Here’s a highlights reel from their website.

Yes, I’ve seen many tribute bands, and the king is ready to see more! One event I particularly look forward to in this context is Rock The Farm in Seaside Heights, N.J. at the end of September. This annual one-day music festival features an impressive amount of tribute bands. In addition to Decade and TUSK, the 2018 lineup includes tributes to AC/DC, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Aerosmith and Guns ‘N Roses, among others. Best of all, the CFC Loud N Clear Foundation, which puts on Rock The Farm, leverages the event to raise money for addiction recovery programs and other related services. For more information, visit https://rockthefarmnj.com/

Sources: Who’s Next website, Britain’s Finest Facebook page; The Glimmer Twins website; STARMAN website; TUSK website; Hotel California website; Get The Led Out website; Echoes website; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: July 28

Recently after a longer break, I decided to do a new installment of this recurring feature. Perhaps I got bitten by the rock & roll history bug, so here’s another one.

1957: Rock & roll pioneer and honky-tonk piano wizard Jerry Lee Lewis made his national TV appearance on the Steve Allen Show, a variety program that at the time aired on Sunday nights at 8:00 PM on NBC, directly competing with the mighty Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. Lewis’ performance of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On took sales of the tune from 30,000 to six million copies. He returned to the program twice, but I doubt he was able to repeat that kind of sales shake-up.

1964: The Beatles topped the Official Singles Chart with A Hard Day’s Night, scoring their fifth no. 1 single in the U.K. The title track of the band’s third studio album and soundtrack to their first feature film also became a chart topper in many countries elsewhere in Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia. Credited as usually to John Lennon and Paul Cartney, the song was mostly written by Lennon. It’s one of those magic tunes that’s instantly recognizable by its signature opening chord. According to The Beatles Bible, there have been multiple suggestions how to describe the chord, which was played by George Harrison on his Rickenbacker 360/12. For all the guitarists out there who’ve played this sucker but never knew what the heck it is, Harrison confirmed in February 2001 that it’s called an Fadd9. If anything, I thought it was some G chord – I suppose it depends on how high you tune your guitar!

1966: Chris Farlowe hit no. 1 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart with Out Of Time. Not only was the track a cover of a Rolling Stones tune, but it was also produced by Mick Jagger. Additionally, the song appeared on Farlowe’s third studio album The Art Of Chris Farlowe. Released in November that year, the record was solely credited to him, even though he was backed by his band The Thunderbirds. The album also featured covers of three other Stones songs: Paint It Black, I’m Free and Ride On, Baby. When the Stones had initially released Out Of Time as a single in April 1966, it hadn’t charted. It would take more than nine years until September 1975 to finally do so, with a two-week run that saw the song peak at no. 45.

1969: According to police reports from Moscow, thousands of public phone booths had been vandalized in the Russian capital when people were taking parts from phones to convert their acoustic to electric guitars. Apparently, a feature in a Russian youth magazine had described how to do it. This must have slipped the censorship by the Russian authorities. One wonders what happened to the editor of this publication, as well as the censors who had missed the article. While I don’t condone vandalism, admittedly, I had to smile when I learned about this story. Rock & roll scored a rare if short victory in a totalitarian state that suppressed it. Of course, censorship continues in Russia to this day and seems to be worse than ever. Meanwhile, the leader of the free world and his supporters have come up with the concepts of alternate facts and fake news if they don’t like media coverage.

Long Live Rock 'N Roll

1973: The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen was held at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway near Watkins Glen, N.Y. The outdoor music festival drew an estimated 600,000 rock fans to see The Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and The Band – what a line-up! The one-day event ended up in the Guinness Book Of Word Records for “largest audience at a pop festival.” While in some regards Watkins Glen was comparable to Woodstock (upstate New York location, terrible traffic, bad weather), the latter “only” attracted more than 400,000 people. Here’s a clip of Come And Go Blues by the Allman Brothers, which apparently was recorded at the festival.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Rock, This Day In Music.com, U.K. Official Singles Chart, The Beatles Bible, YouTube