They Say It’s Your Birthday

At 80 years, Paul McCartney remains an artist full of energy who still gets a kick on stage

Two days ago, I saw Paul McCartney at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey where he wrapped up his North American Got Back Tour. It’s hard to believe today is Sir Paul’s 80th birthday. To celebrate the occasion, I’m republishing a post I did for Paul’s birthday last year. It has been slightly edited and the Spotify playlist at the end is an addition. The next installment of Best of What’s New, my weekly look at newly-released music, will run on Monday.

You say it’s your birthday

...Yes we’re going to a party party
Yes we’re going to a party party
Yes we’re going to a party party

Things We Said Today (1964)

A song from The Beatles era I’ve always loved, which appeared on the U.K. version of the A Hard Day’s Night album released in July 1964 but wasn’t part of the movie soundtrack. According to The Beatles Bible, McCartney wrote this tune on a yacht in the Virgin Islands in May 1964, where he vacationed with his girlfriend Jane Asher, as well as Ringo Starr and his future first wife Maureen Cox.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

The title track and a Macca tune from my favorite Beatles album on most days, which was released in May 1967. The idea of the song and the entire album of an alter-ego band that would perform before an audience came to McCartney in November 1966 on a flight from Nairobi back to England.

Maybe I’m Amazed (1970)

The highlight of McCartney’s debut solo album McCartney from April 1970. Written in 1969, the tune is about his first wife Linda McCartney (née Eastman). Linda who passed away from breast cancer in 1998 undoubtedly had an enormous impact on Paul. Instead of picking the studio track, I’m cheating a bit here and feature what I feel is a superior version that appeared on the great Wings Over America live album from December 1976.

Band on the Run (1973)

The title track from what I think is the Mount Rushmore of Macca’s solo period, released in December 1973. The tune was McCartney’s response to drug laws he believed unfairly criminalized him and his friends. Noting the latter included the Eagles and The Byrds, Songfacts quotes Macca as follows: “We’re not criminals… We just would rather do this than hit the booze – which had been a traditional way to do it. We felt that this was a better move.”

Letting Go (1975)

A nice rocker from Venus and Mars, McCartney’s fourth studio album with Wings, which came out in May 1975. Letting Go is another tune about Linda McCartney, a reflection on Paul’s relationship with her and that she deserved more freedom to pursue her own interests after she had given up her photography career. Linda received a co-credit for the song.

Here Today (1982)

A moving tribute to John Lennon Macca wrote wrote in the wake of Lennon’s senseless murder in December 1980. It appeared on McCartney’s third solo studio album Tug of War from April 1982, another gem from his solo catalog I previously covered here. This song can still make me well up!

Fine Line (2005)

Time to continue the party by jumping to the current century. Fine Line is the opener to Macca’s 13th solo album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard from October 2005. It’s a great piano-driven pop song that also showcases the multi-instrumental talents of Sir Paul. In addition to piano and vocals, he provided guitar, bass and drums – pretty much the track’s entire instrumentation, except for the strings that were played by London-based session players Millennia Ensemble.

I Don’t Know (2018)

A beautiful piano ballad from Egypt Station, McCartney’s 17th solo studio effort from September 2018 – a late career gem in his solo catalog, in my opinion! You can read more about it here. Yes, Paul’s voice is clearly showing some wear and tear, but I think it works very well for this and the other tracks on the album.

Lavatory Lil (2020)

A nice rocker from McCartney III, which is yet another intriguing late-career release in my book. I would also say it’s the charm of Macca’s three DIY home-made albums, as I previously wrote here. Check out the cool descending bass line of Lavatory Lil.

Birthday (1968)

A birthday celebration calls for a birthday song, so I’d like to wrap up this post with exactly that. Conveniently, Sir Paul also wrote the perfect tune for the occasion. It first appeared on The Beatles’ White Album from November 1968 as the opener to side three (speaking in vinyl terms here!). Instead of picking the original studio track, let’s up the fun with a live version captured during a performance at New York’s Grand Central Station in September 2018 to celebrate the release of the above-noted Egypt Station album. It’s just great to see how much fun Macca continues to have when performing in front of an audience.

I would like you to dance, birthday

Rock on, Paul, and here’s to good health and many more years to come!

Following is a Spotify playlist with the above and some other tunes:

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts; YouTube

Paul McCartney Got Back to Jersey’s MetLife Stadium

Final gig of North American tour features plenty of music, anecdotes and a surprise guest

Last night, I saw Paul McCartney for the third and possibly last time, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. It’s hard to believe six years had passed since my previous Macca concert in August 2016 at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa. Yesterday’s show marked the final gig of his 16-date North American Got Back Tour. And back he got, with more than two and a half hours of songs, anecdotes and a surprise guest.

Overall, I share the same sentiments of fellow blogger Jim from Music Enthusiast, who recently got to enjoy McCartney in Boston and posted a nice review here. Backed by his longtime touring band, McCartney delivered many great songs and had an amazing amount of energy. His voice definitely wasn’t what it used to be, but I had fully anticipated that, so it didn’t bother me. I was simply happy to get another opportunity to see one of my biggest heroes in music.

Paul McCartney got back. So did I, to see him for the third time.

There was a LOT of music – 40 songs, including a snippet of Jimi Hendrix’s Foxey Lady at the end of Let Me Roll It, and not counting the audience’s rendition of Happy Birthday to congratulate Sir Paul in advance of his imminent big occasion. Putting together a setlist that between The Beatles, Wings and Paul McCartney solo tunes reflects a massive catalog must be tricky and cannot make everybody entirely happy. Personally, I would have loved to see a few more early Beatles songs. And from Egypt Station, Paul’s 17th solo album from 2018, which I feel is among his better post-Beatles efforts, Come On to Me and Fuh You wouldn’t have been my picks, but enough with the silly complaining!

While based on Jim’s blog and other accounts I’ve read Macca’s song announcements and shared anecdotes didn’t vary from show to show, nevertheless, this didn’t feel like some routine gig to me. You could see from Macca’s facial expressions that the soon-to-be 80-year-old still enjoyed performing for his fans. I mean, ‘drink this all in,’ to borrow one of Paul’s expressions he used last night!

Waiting for Macca with cool psychedelic renderings of The Beatles

Usually, I don’t “coordinate” my posts with fellow bloggers. But since I believe Jim and I have a number of common followers and given his recent review, I decided to focus on music Jim didn’t highlight in his great post, so our fellow bloggers don’t end up watching the same clips twice. And, as previously hinted, there is a surprise guest. Curious? Read on! 🙂

Let’s kick things off with a Beatles tune from Revolver: Got to Get You Into My Life. Written by Macca and credited to him and John Lennon, the song is a nice homage to Motown. I’ve always dug it! The performance also prominently showcased Paul’s neat horn section.

The next song I’d like to highlight is from Band on the Run, Macca’s third studio release with Wings. The 1973 record remains my favorite McCartney album post-Beatles. Here’s the great piano-driven Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.

For this next tune, Macca went back, way back, to the very first song recorded in June 1958 as a demo by The Quarrymen, the group that eventually would evolve into The Beatles. In addition to Paul, John and George Harrison, the line-up featured John Lowe (piano) and Colin Hanton (drums). Sure, In Spite of All the Danger isn’t as good as I Saw Her Standing There, You Can’t Do That, She Loves You and other early Beatles tunes, but I still thought it was cool Paul decided to play it.

No Paul McCartney gig would be complete without some solo tunes on acoustic guitar. Here’s Blackbird, off The White Album, a song I loved from the get-go when I heard it many moons ago. In fact, my great guitar teacher showed me how to play it at the time. Unfortunately, these days, I can only partially remember it. But I suppose there’s always YouTube!

Next, I’d like to highlight a medley of You Never Give Me Your Money and She Came Into the Bathroom Window. During his announcement, Paul noted the North American tour marked the first time they performed this. It’s hard to believe they didn’t play these great tunes from Abbey Road during previous tours.

Did I mention there was a surprise? About two-thirds into the show, there was a sudden commotion in the audience. I heard people behind me speculate that Ringo Starr might be in the house. After all, Ringo had showed up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in July 2019 where Macca wrapped his Freshen Up Tour. Well, we didn’t get Ringo. Instead, Bruce Springsteen walked up on stage to a screaming audience. Here are two tunes he performed with McCartney: His own Glory Days, off the Born in the U.S.A. album, and The Beatles’ I Wanna Be Your Man. For a moment, the Boss stole the show, but Macca seemed to be cool with it!

I could go on and on, but all things must pass, to borrow from the wise George Harrison. The last tune I’d like to call out is from the encore: Helter Skelter, another track from The White Album. And an impressive illustration of Sir Paul’s admirable energy level two and a half hours into the gig. Any young cat musicians out there, check this out – just incredible!

I briefly mentioned Paul’s excellent band in the upfront. These guys are simply top-notch musicians and Macca rightfully called them out last night: Paul “Wix” Wickens (keyboards), Brian Ray (bass/guitar), Rusty Anderson (guitar) and Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums). He also noted the name of his amazing horn section, but unfortunately, I did not catch it.

Last but not least, here’s the setlist:
• Can’t Buy Me Love (The Beatles song)
• Junior’s Farm (Wings song)
• Letting Go (Wings song)
• Got to Get You Into My Life (The Beatles song)
• Come On to Me
• Let Me Roll It (Wings song) (with “Foxy Lady” outro jam)
• Getting Better (The Beatles song)
• Let ‘Em In (Wings song)
• My Valentine
• Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five (Wings song)
• Maybe I’m Amazed
• I’ve Just Seen a Face (The Beatles song)
• In Spite of All the Danger (The Quarrymen song)
• Love Me Do (The Beatles song)
• Dance Tonight
• Blackbird (The Beatles song)
• Here Today
• New
• Lady Madonna (The Beatles song)
• Fuh You
• Jet (Wings song)
• Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (The Beatles song)
• Something (The Beatles song)
• Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles song)
• You Never Give Me Your Money & She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (The Beatles songs)
• Get Back (The Beatles song)
• Band on the Run (Wings song)
• Glory Days (Bruce Springsteen cover with Bruce Springsteen)
• I Wanna Be Your Man (The Beatles song with Bruce Springsteen)
• Let It Be (The Beatles song)
• Live and Let Die (Wings song)
• Hey Jude (The Beatles song)

Encore:
• I’ve Got a Feeling (The Beatles song) (“virtual duet” w/video &… more )
• Happy Birthday to You (Mildred J. Hill & Patty Hill cover) (with Jon Bon Jovi)
• Birthday (The Beatles song)
• Helter Skelter (The Beatles song)
• Golden Slumbers (The Beatles song)
• Carry That Weight (The Beatles song)
• The End (The Beatles song with Bruce Springsteen)

Sources: Wikipedia; Setlist; YouTube

Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band Kick Off Long-Awaited North American Tour

15th All Starr Band features Steve Lukather, Colin Hay, Warren Ham, Hamish Stewart, Greg Bissonette and Edgar Winter

We’re on the road again/We’re on the road again/We’re on the road again/We’re gonna play some rock ‘n’ roll, that’s true/Now we’re heading down the highway to play for you...

The above excerpt from We’re On the Road Again, the opener of Ringo Starr’s 2017 studio album Give More Love, was my first thought when getting a recent email reminder for my scheduled upcoming gig by Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band at New York City’s storied Beacon Theatre. This prompted me to check on the status of their tour, which had been derailed twice in 2020 and then again in 2021 due to you know what! It’s now official. Ringo and his revolving cast of prominent bandmates are back on the road, the best news I’ve heard in a long time!

The tour kicked off on May 27 in Canada at Casino Rama in Rama, Ontario. An announcement on Ringo’s website notes the show marked the fifth time the band launched a tour at that venue after 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2014. The large casino, hotel and entertainment complex is located on the reserve land of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation.

Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band perform at Casino Rama on Friday, May 27, 2022. PHOTO BY DARREN EAGLES /PHOTO

“It’s loose,” Ringo told the Toronto Sun when describing the atmosphere at Casino Rama and explaining why the band chose the venue yet again to kick off another tour. “For a week we live here and we just go to the same stage. It’s good being in the same vicinity as where we’re rehearsing.”

Following are some clips taken by concert attendees of both the initial May 27 show and the second Rama date of May 28. First up: It Don’t Come Easy, which has always been one of my favorite Ringo tunes. The song, which he co-wrote with George Harrison who also produced it, first appeared as a non-album single in April 1971. It was Ringo’s second solo single. The tune may be titled “it don’t come easy”, but you don’t get the sense performing it posed any bigger challenge to Ringo who is turning 82 in July and seems to be in superb shape!

While Ringo undoubtedly is central to the All Starr Band, the idea behind the live “rock supergroup”, which he founded in 1989, has always been to go beyond Ringo’s songs and showcase tunes by the band’s members. Now in its 15th iteration, the group features longtime members Steve Lukather (of Toto), Colin Hay (formerly of Men At Work), Warren Ham, Hamish Stuart (formerly of Average White Band) and Gregg Bissonette, as well as alumni Edgar Winter whose first tenure was from 2006 to 2011. Speaking of Edgar, here’s Free Ride, a song written by Dan Hartman and originally recorded in 1972 by the Edgar Winter Group. Yeah, baby, this rocks!

How ’bout some Aussie music. Ask you shall receive. Here’s Colin Hay with Men at Work’s Down Under. One of the band’s best-known tunes, Down Under appeared on Business As Usual, the group’s debut album released in November 1981. Hay’s proposition of the vegemite sandwich still sounds pretty tasty.

Three clips in, you may wonder, and no Beatles? Agree, this borders on a crime. Here’s Octopus’s Garden, one of two songs Ringo not only sang but also wrote for the band. The second one was Don’t Pass Me By. He penned Octopus’s Garden during a boating trip with his family in Sardinia after he had walked out on The Beatles during The White Album sessions in 1968. Of course, we know the rest of the story. When Ringo returned, he found his drum kit covered with flowers, thanks to George, and Octopus’s Garden ended up on Abbey Road, the actual final Beatles album, even though it was released in September 1969, eight months prior to Let It Be.

Let’s do one more: With a Little Help From My Friends combined with a snippet of Give Peace a Chance, the show finale. With a Little Help From My Friends, off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was among the final songs John Lennon and Paul McCartney truly wrote together. Give Peace a Chance, recorded May 31, 1969 at a “bed-in” Lennon staged with Yoko Ono in a room at Queen Elizabeth’s Hotel in Montreal, was Lennon’s first solo hit.

Here’s the setlist from the May 27 show, as reported by the Toronto Sun:
• Matchbox
• It Don’t Come Easy
• What Goes On
• Free Ride
• Rosanna
• Pick Up the Pieces
• Down Under
• Boys
• I’m The Greatest
• Yellow Submarine
• Cut the Cake
• Overkill
• Africa
• Work to Do
• I Wanna Be Your Man
• Johnny B. Goode
• Who Can It Be Now
• Hold the Line
• Photograph
• Act Naturally
• With a Little Help From My Friends/Give Peace A Chance

“I can’t wait to get back out on the road and play,” Ringo said in the above statement that was issued in February. “This is the longest I’ve been off the road in years – up until 2020 I was touring every year with the All Starrs – and I’ve really missed it. Making music in the studio has been great, and it certainly saved me during the pandemic, but nothing beats playing live with great musicians in front of an audience. I love my fans and they love me and it’s going to be wonderful to be peace and loving and playing for them again.” That’s the spirit!

Tonight, Ringo and His All Starr Band are playing CMAC in Canandaigua, N.Y., before moving on to Boston’s Wang Theater on June 2 and Hanover Theater in Worcester, Mass. on June 3. The full tour schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ringo Starr website; Toronto Sun; Songfacts; YouTube

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Part I

A three-part mini series of songs related to the three transportation modes

The other day, the 1987 American comedy picture Planes, Trains and Automobiles randomly came to my mind. It’s about a marketing executive (Steve Martin) and a sweet but annoying traveling sales guy (John Candy) ending up together as they are trying to get from New York home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Their plane’s diversion to Wichita due to bad weather in Chicago starts a three-day odyssey and one misadventure after the other, while the two, seemingly incompatible men use different modes of transportation to get to their destination.

What does this movie have to do with music? Nothing, except it gave me the idea to put together lists of songs that are related to – you guessed it – planes, trains and automobiles. To be fully transparent, in mid-2017, I published tw0 posts with songs for the road and songs for the train. As such, the theme isn’t really new but, hey, it’s been almost four years. Plus, I feel it’s okay to repeat fun ideas every now and then.

In order to avoid creating what would be a rather lengthy post, I decided to make it a mini series and break things up in three parts, with each featuring five tracks listed in chronological order. Here’s part I: Songs related to planes, an entirely new idea! 🙂

Jefferson Airplane/Blues From an Airplane

Blues From an Airplane is the opener of Jefferson Airplane’s debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off from August 1966. The psychedelic rock tune was co-written by Marty Balin and Skip Spence, Airplane’s lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist and drummer, respectively. The tune also became the b-side of the band’s second single Come Up the Years, which was released ahead of the album in May 1966. Airplane’s actual was take-off, Surrealistic Pillow, was still six months away. The record only reached no. 128 on the Billboard 200, while the single failed to chart altogether.

The Beatles/Back in the U.S.S.R.

Why Back in the U.S.S.R., given the tune doesn’t have “plane” or a related word in the title? Since it’s my bloody list, and it cannot be without my favorite band of all time. Plus, there’s a sound of a jet engine in the beginning and at the very end of the tune, and the first verse prominently includes a rough flight. Written by Paul McCartney and credited to John Lennon and him as usual, is actually a parody to Back in the U.S.A. and California Girls by Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys, respectively, poking fun at their patriotic sentiments about the U.S. The song, included on The White Album from November 1968, was recorded without Ringo Starr who temporarily had left the group after McCartney had criticized his drumming. Instead John, Paul and George Harrison created a composite drum track from numerous takes.

Steve Miller Band/Jet Airliner

Jet Airliner was one of the first tunes that came to my mind when thinking about plane songs. The other two were Jet by Paul McCartney and Wings and John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane. Since I decided to include Back in the U.S.S.R., I skipped Jet. While Leaving on a Jet Plane is a lovely tune, it would have been another pick from the ’60s. Written by Paul Penna in 1973, Jet Airliner was popularized by Steve Miller Band when they released it in April 1977 as the lead single of their 10th studio album Book of Dreams that appeared the following month. It yielded their fourth and last ’70s top 10 hit on the U.S. mainstream chart.

Indigo Girls/Airplane

After three rockers I thought it was time to include something that’s a bit lighter, so I’m glad I found this lovely acoustic, folk-oriented tune by Indigo Girls. Written by Emily Saliers, who together with Amy Ray makes up the duo, Airplane is from their fourth studio album Rites of Passage that appeared in May 1992. I really dig the vocals and the harmony singing on this song.

The Black Keys/Aeroplane Blues

There they are again, The Black Keys. The rock duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney entered my radar screen recently when I included a tune from their new album Crawling Kingsnake in a Best of What’s New feature. Aeroplane Blues is another edgy blues rock tune, which shall wrap up this first installment. Written by Auerbach and Carney, it appeared on their third studio album Rubber Factory released in September 2004.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Sometimes Small Things Are the Best to Make Me Happy

A Beatles playlist of mostly deeper cuts, inspired by a visit to a local guitar store

Yesterday, I found myself at a local Guitar Center to get a set of electric guitar strings. Every time I walk into that place, I can’t help it but stare at all the temptations hanging on the walls. Like a small child in a toy store, I get mesmerized by all the Fender Stratocasters, the Telecasters and the Gibson Les Pauls. Sure, they also have copies by Epiphone, Squire, and other lower cost brands as well. I also spotted two SGs – amazing beauties with heritage cherry and black finishes!

I’ve never owned one of these really cool axes. When I was young, I had a Gibson copy by Ibanez. It was decent but obviously not the real deal! These days, I got a crappy Squire Stratocaster. From a distance, it looks like “Blackie,” but it’s safe to assume that’s where the commonalities with Eric Clapton’s famous guitar end. My Blackie doesn’t hold its tune very well. It’s also not a great guitar otherwise. Well, you get what you pay for!

But when you have a family, live the American dream, aka paying your friggin’ mortgage every month, and are the sole breadwinner in your household, spending money on music equipment becomes harder to justify. Every time I come to that conclusion, I further rationalize by reminding myself I’m not exactly playing like Slowhand, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Santana or any of my other electric guitar heroes, so doling out cash for a fancy guitar kind of would be a waste. I still would like to own one – maybe one of these days!

As I was refocusing on the actual purpose of my visit (getting guitar strings for that Blackie wannabe), I spotted the above set of Beatles-themed picks. Just a few weeks ago, I had gotten a set of picks online, so really didn’t need any. But since they were significantly more affordable than the above noted temptations on the walls, I grabbed them anyway. Now just looking at them makes me happy. Plus, I can use them to play the guitars I have and afterwards throw them in the imaginary audience. Sometimes my dog listens, though I doubt a guitar pick makes for a good bone substitute! 🙂

You may wonder what’s the point of sharing all of this. Well, the Guitar Center episode sparked the ingenious idea of doing a Beatles playlist with one tune from each of the albums represented by the above picks. This time, I kept the order random and the sole focus on the music without long explanations. For the most part, I also picked what you could call deeper cuts.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

The Hardware: The Mellotron

The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks

Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTube demo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂

I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.

Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…

Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.

U.S. picture sleeve of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, released as a double A-side single with “Penny Lane” in February 1967

I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!

Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.

The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Sound explains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.

Inside of a Mellotron M400. The tapes are underneath the brown-colored key extensions.

For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!

As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.

Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.

Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.

Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.

The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.

Bill Fransen with the first Mellotron off the production line, 1963. Photo credit: Sound on Sound

In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.

There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.

In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.

In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.

If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.

Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.

And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.

Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.

Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.

One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!

Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.

This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Sheila E. & Ringo Starr/Come Together-Revolution

Sheila E.’s version of Come Together – Revolution during Ringo Starr’s recent Big Birthday Party was one of the virtual event’s highlights, in my opinion. I think Sheila totally rocks as a percussionist/drummer and vocalist – her energy is just through the roof!

Sheila also included the mini-medley on her most recent studio album Iconic: Message 4 America, which was released in August 2017. The track, of course, combines two Beatles tunes that were mostly written by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney.

Come Together was the opener of the Abbey Road album from September 1969. Revolution became the B-side to the non-album single Hey Jude released in August 1968. There were also two other versions that were included on The White Album released in November of the same year.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

My Busy 2018 Music Journey Part 2: New Music & 2019 Preview

Part 1 of this 2-part series looked back on the concerts I was fortunate to catch this year. Another significant aspect of my 2018 journey was listening to music, both familiar and new. While most of the music that’s coming out these days isn’t my cup of tea, I still ended up reviewing 24 new releases this year. About half (13) are studio albums, while the remainder is a mix of reissues, vault type releases and live records. Even if you only consider the new studio releases, 13 albums over the course of one year, or an average of approximately one per month, isn’t so bad for somebody who almost entirely lives in the past when it comes to music.

From the above studio albums, I’d like to call out the following: John Mellencamp, Other People’s Stuff, Dec 7 (review); Greta Van Fleet, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, Oct 19 (review); Paul McCartney, Egypt Station, Sep 7 (review); Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive And Well, Jun 15 (review); Roger Daltrey, As Long As I Have You, June 1 (review); and Sting & Shaggy, 44/876, Apr 20 (review). Following are some clips.

Teardrops Will Fall, a ’60s tune co-written by Gerry Granaham and Marion Smith, was first recorded by John Mellencamp for his June 2003 album Trouble No More. But it actually sounds he could have taken the tune from his 1987 gem The Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp’s first record where he moved away from straight rock toward a more roots-oriented sound.

While Greta Van Fleet will probably need to find a more original style to ensure their longevity, selfishly, I can’t deny getting a kick out of their Led Zeppelin-style rock. The Cold Wind from their new album is a great example. I don’t know of any other band that sounds like the mighty early Zep. One thing is for sure: Robert Plant can no longer deliver vocals with this degree of intensity.

Egypt Station is Paul McCartney’s 17th solo study album. Here’s I Don’t Know, a classic McCartney piano-driven pop song. Yes, Macca’s voice has noticeably changed since New from October 2013, but I actually think it goes pretty well with his latest songs. Based on YouTube clips I’ve watched, I’m less sure about Beatles tunes. Many are in high keys and as such tough to sing, so Macca may have to make some adjustments.

Moving on to Buddy Guy, who at age 82 shows no signs of slowing down. One of the highlights of his latest record is Cognac, where he trades guitar licks with Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. If you’re a guitarist with basic blues skills, you just feel like grabbing your instrument and joining in!

As Long As I Have You is Roger Daltrey’s first solo album in close to 26 years. Here’s the excellent title track, a cover of a tune that initially was recorded by soul singer Garnet Mimms in 1964. The Who also played it in their early days.

Last but not least in the new studio album category is what at first sight may look like a somewhat odd pairing: Sting & Jamaican pop reggae fusion artist Shaggy. But they actually blend quite well, and here’s some pretty groovy evidence: Just One Lifetime.

This year also saw various great reissues and songs from the vault type albums. The two releases I’d like to highlight here are the reissue of The Beatles’ White Album (review) and Songs For Judy, an excellent Neil Young compilation of live solo performances from his November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse (review).

To me the true revelation of the Beatles’ reissue are the so-called Esher Demos, early and unplugged versions of most of the original album tracks, along with a few additional songs that didn’t make the White Album. They were all recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher located to the southwest of London. Here’s the Esher demo of Revolution.

The song I’d like to call out from Neil Young’s recent vault release is The Needle And The Damage Done. It remains one of my favorite tunes from Harvest, Young’s fourth studio album that came out in February 1972.

I also would like to acknowledge two Jimi Hendrix releases: The reissue of Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Both Sides Of The Sky, the third in a trilogy of posthumous albums after Valleys Of Neptune  (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013).

The last category of 2018 albums I’d like to touch on are live releases. I already noted Neil Young’s record. Three others that deserve to be called out are Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen On Broadway (review), Sheryl Crow’s Live At The Capitol Theatre (review) and Soulfire Live (review) by Little Steven and The Disciples of SoulSpringsteen On Broadway is one of the best new albums I’ve heard this year. While Bruce Springsteen as a great music performer wasn’t any news to me, I had not fully appreciated his compelling verbal story-telling capabilities. There’s a bit of that on the Live/1975-1985 box set where Springsteen talks about how he was drafted for Vietnam and that his dad was happy they didn’t take him. Springsteen on Broadway takes his story-telling to another level. In fact, Springsteen’s monologues that precede his songs are almost more compelling than the music performances. Here’s part 1 of the introduction to My Hometown.

Next up: Sheryl CrowIf It Makes You Happy is one of my favorite Crow tunes from her eponymous second studio album released in September 1996. On the new live album, she starts off with another unidentified song I don’t recognize, before launching into Happy.

On to Little Steven. Soulfire Live captures his 2017 tour with The Disciples of Soul in support of his excellent Soulfire album, one of my favorite new records from that year. Among the live album’s highlights is a terrific cover of the Etta James tune Blues Is My Business. In addition to Steven demonstrating that he can be more than just a side-kick,  The Disciples of Soul prove what a terrific backing band they are.

So what’s in store for my music journey next year? On the concert front the only thing I can say for sure is I’m thrilled I got a ticket for The Rolling Stones on June 13 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It will only be my second time to see the Stones. Three other artists who are currently on my radar screen are John Mellencamp, John Mayall  and Paul McCartney.

Mellencamp has a series of gigs in New Jersey and New York at the end of February. I’d definitely enjoy seeing him again! Mayall has started booking dates in Europe for February and March. I’ve never been to one of his shows and hope he’ll add a U.S. leg to the tour that includes at least one logistically feasible concert. As for McCartney, his current tour schedule shows U.S. gigs between late May and mid-June. Unfortunately, none of them are within reasonable reach, so hopefully there will be additional dates closer to my location.

To frequent visitors of the blog it won’t come as a shock that I have every intention to continue seeing tribute bands. In fact, I already have a ticket for Neil Young tribute Decade for January 11 in Asbury Park, N.J., where they are going to recreate Young’s MTV Unplugged concert from 1993 – should be pretty cool! On February 23, I’m hoping to see Good Stuff, a great new tribute to Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder. I’m planning to do more about these guys in the near future. Assuming the above British Invasion and Rock The Farm festivals will happen again in 2019, I certainly want to return to both events. Undoubtedly, there will also be plenty of other tribute opportunities.

2019 Outlook

Before finally wrapping up this post, I also would like to take the opportunity to reflect on the current status of the blog. I’m generally pretty happy where things stand at this time. Sticking with it wasn’t necessarily a given when I started out in late June 2016. While I’ve always emphasized I’m doing this because of my passion about the subject of music, not to become “famous,” I cannot deny that getting recognition in the form of comments, likes and followers is encouraging. I’m happy traffic has multiplied from 2017 and to date includes visitors from more than 70 countries.

I’d like to thank all readers, especially those who keep returning and leave comments. Apart from learning new stuff about music, feedback can also help me gain new perspectives. Whether you’re a fist-time visitor or one of the regulars, I’d like to wish you a great and peaceful Holiday season. And if you’re a fellow music blogger, to borrow creatively from Neil Young, keep on rockin’ in the blogosphere!

Christian

Rocking Bitmoji

Sources: Wikipedia, Christian’s Music Musings, YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Beatles/While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Third Version/Take 27)

I know I just posted about the 50th anniversary edition of the White Album. In the meantime, I’ve further explored the massive reissue and simply couldn’t resist to write more about it.

The above clip is a studio take of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, one of my favorite George Harrison songs. In addition to George (vocals, Hammond organ, acoustic guitar), it features John Lennon (electric guitar), Paul McCartney (vocals, piano, bass), Ringo Starr (drums, tambourine, castanets) and Eric Clapton (lead guitar).

Not only have I gained a new appreciation for the incredible variety of music The Beatles wrote for this album (just consider the differences between tracks like Blackbird, Helter Skelter and Revolution 9), but it’s also been an eye-opener how unlike Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they mostly recorded the White Album as a band playing live in the studio. Based on background chatter, it’s also obvious to me they had a good deal of fun.

You don’t sense any of the tension between them you always read about. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. After all it’s a fact that Ringo walked out at some point, since he couldn’t take it any longer. But it’s also true that John, Paul and George truly wanted him to come back and decorated the entire studio with flowers when he did.

So despite of all the conflict, The Beatles were still able to function as a band, as mind-boggling as that sounds! During a fascinating 90-minute panel discussion about the White Album, which you can still watch on YouTube here, Giles Martin attributed this in part to the fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo really appreciated each other as musicians. At some point, he also appears to doubt that the conflicts between The Beatles were as bad as is commonly thought.

Sources: YouTube