On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 7

Once again I’ve decided to do another installment in my recurring and now more regular music history feature. This time it’s February 7, and it turns out I found a number of events that sufficiently intrigued me to highlight.

1959: New Orleans blues guitarist Guitar Slim passed away from pneumonia in New York at the untimely age of 32. Born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Miss. on Dec 10, 1926, he had a major impact on rock and roll and influenced guitarists like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, he experimented with distorted overtones 10 years before Hendrix did. Slim is best known for writing the blues standard The Things That I Used to Do, arranged and produced by a young Ray Charles. After the tune was released in the fall of 1953, it topped Billboard’s R&B chart for weeks and sold more than a million copies, becoming one of label Specialty Records’ biggest hits. Guitar Slim was a favorite of Hendrix who recorded an impromptu version of The Things That I Used to Do in 1969, featuring Johnny Winter on slide guitar. The tune, which is on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, was also covered by Pee Wee Crayton, Tina Turner, James Brown and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.

1963: Please Please Me, The Beatles’ first U.S. single and their second single overall was released by Vee-Jay Records. This followed rejections by Capitol Records, EMI’s U.S. label, and Atlantic. Chicago radio station WLS‘s Dick Biondi, a friend of Vee-Jay executive Ewart Abner, became the first DJ to play a Beatles record in the U.S. Initially, the tune, written by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney, was a moderate success, peaking at no. 35 on the WLS “Silver Dollar Survey.” It would take until the song’s re-release in January 1964 that Please Please Me became a major U.S. hit, reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-March 1964, trailing I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. Three weeks later, The Beatles held the top 5 spots on the U.S. chart, with Please Please Me at no. 5. Chart-topper Can’t Buy Me Love was followed by Twist and Shout, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand.

1970: Led Zeppelin topped the Official Albums Chart in the UK for the first time with their sophomore album Led Zeppelin II. The record also became a chart-topper in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany and The Netherlands, and reached no. 2 in Austria, Norway and Sweden.  Recording sessions for the album had taken place at several locations in both the UK and North America between January and August 1969. Zep guitarist Jimmy Page was credited as producer. Eddie Kramer, who by that time had already worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Small Faces, Traffic and Jimi Hendrix, served as engineer. Here’s the opener Whole Lotta Love, one of my favorite Zep rockers that also was released separately as a single. The tune was credited to all four members of the band and, following settlement of a lawsuit in 1985, to Willie Dixon. Once again, the group had borrowed from somebody else’s work without acknowledgment. It’s an unfortunate pattern by one of my all-time favorite rock bands!

1970: Meanwhile, in the U.S., Dutch rock band Shocking Blue topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Venus. Their biggest hit also reached no. 1 in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and France, no. 2 in Germany and Norway, and no. 3 in The Netherlands. According to Wikipedia, the song’s music is from the 1963 tune The Banjo Song by American folk trio The Big 3 with lyrics by Shocking Blue guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen. Officially, only van Leeuwen was credited – sounds a bit like the previous item! Shocking Blue who at the time of Venus also included Mariska Veres (lead vocals), Klaasje van der Wal (bass) and Cor van der Beek (drums), were active from 1967 until 1974 and had a few short-lived reunions thereafter. In 1986, British girl group Bananarama took Venus back to no. 1 in the U.S. and various other countries. While I appreciate they revived a great song, I much prefer the original.

1976: Paul Simon scored his first and only no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, one of my all-time favorites by the American singer-songwriter. Penned by Simon, the song was the third single off his fourth solo album Still Crazy After All These Years from October 1975. The distinct drum part, one of the coolest I can think of, was performed by highly regarded session drummer Steve Gadd. He also played drums on Steely Dan song Aja and has worked with numerous other renowned artists. Backing vocals on 50 Ways were performed by Patti Austin, Valerie Simpson and Phoebe Snow. According to Songfacts, In a 1975 interview published in Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews, Simon told the story of this song: “I woke up one morning in my apartment on Central Park and the opening words just popped into my mind: ‘The problem is all inside your head, she said to me…’ That was the first thing I thought of. So I just started building on that line. It was the last song I wrote for the album, and I wrote it with a Rhythm Ace, one of those electronic drum machines so maybe that’s how it got that sing-song ‘make a new plan Stan, don’t need to be coy Roy’ quality. It’s basically a nonsense song.”

1993: Neil Young recorded an installment of the MTV series Unplugged. Apparently, Young was not happy with the performances of many of his band members. It was his second attempt to capture a set he felt was suitable for airing and release. In spite of Young’s displeasure, the album still appeared in June that year. It was also published on VHS. Here’s Unknown Legend, a tune from his then-latest studio album Harvest Moon that had come out in November 1992. My ears can’t find anything wrong with how this sounds. Of course, it’s always possible certain kinks were fixed in the production process.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

Advertisement

Clips & Pix: Billy Idol/Rebel Yell (Unplugged)

Even you don’t like Billy Idol or don’t think Rebel Yell is a particularly compelling tune, if you’re into rock music, how can you not dig the above unplugged version?

The clip was captured during Idol’s performance on the VH1 Storytellers series in April 2001. Regardless of whether you play guitar or not, it’s not difficult to figure out that Idol’s longtime ace guitarist Steve Stevens is absolutely killing it with just an acoustic guitar. Frankly, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing – no drums, no bass and no keyboards needed, not mention a second guitar!

Co-written by Idol and Stevens, Rebel Yell is the title track of Idol’s November 1983 studio album, his second. The song also appeared separately as the record’s lead single in October that year. Upon its initial release, it was only moderately successful, reaching no. 62 on the UK Singles Chart, while peaking at no. 46 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. However, a 1985 re-issue made it all the way to no. 6 on the UK chart.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

When Less Is More

A list of some of my favorite unplugged performances

Do you remember when in the ’90s many music artists suddenly seemed to realize they could deliver more intimate performances by sitting down on stage with their bands and largely replacing electric with acoustic instruments? Unplugged albums quickly became en vogue. They also helped revive flagging careers of some artists, such as Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Undoubtedly, the television series MTV Unplugged fueled this trend.

To perform music that originally was written for electric instruments in a stripped down fashion required a good degree of craftsmanship. Gone were many of the sound effects behind which artists had been able to “hide.” While as is oftentimes the case with fashionable trends the unplugged wave may have been a bit overdone, the concept has generally appealed to me as a hobby guitarist. Following are five of my favorite unplugged performances.

I also would have loved to include the fantastic version of Hotel California by the Eagles from their great Hell Freezes Over album. But this band is very protective of their music, and even if you’re lucky enough to find a specific song you want on YouTube, oftentimes the clips are taken down, and before you know it, you have a dead link – not fun!

Billy Idol/White Wedding (VH-1 Storyteller, 2002)

Billy Idol may have been a fashion punk who became known for playing commercial music that didn’t have anything to do anything with punk. But in my opinion, he surely knew how to write tunes with catchy melodies that rocked. Undoubtedly, a major role in all of it played his guitarist Steve Stevens, who co-wrote various of Idol’s biggest hits, such as Rebel Yell, Eyes Without A Face and Flesh For Fantasy. Plus, Stevens is a hell of a guitarist, which this clip of White Wedding nice illustrates, one of the best unplugged performances I’ve seen. He continues to perform and tour with Idol to this day.

Eric Clapton/Layla (Unplugged, 1992)

To successfully strip down an iconic rock song like Layla, which in its original features fantastic guitar interplay by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, is a formidable task. Clapton didn’t only do that, but gave the tune an entirely new character on his 1992 Unplugged album. In my opinion, the result is one of the best rock cover versions, similar to Joe Cocker’s rendition of With A Little Help From Friends by The Beatles.

Rod Stewart/Maggie May (Unplugged…And Seated, 1993)

Sometimes one may forget that Rod Stewart in his early days was a top-notch rock artist. I’ve always loved Maggie Mae, which he co-wrote with British guitarist and composer Martin Quittenton. The tune was originally recorded for Stewart’s third solo album Every Picture Tells A Story, released in May 1971. At the time, Stewart was still with The Faces. In fact, all of the band’s members played on the album. Notably, Ronnie Wood was also part of Unplugged…And Seated, Stewart’s excellent unplugged album from 1993, from which this clip is taken.

Nirvana/The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged In New York, 1993)

Nirvana’s unplugged version of The Man Who Sold The World is one of the most haunting covers of the David Bowie song I know. It was part of the band’s MTV Unplugged In New York album, which was recorded on November 18, 1993 – about four and a half months prior to Curt Cobain’s death. His almost painful singing, along with guitars that sound are out of tune, give this performance a somewhat creepy feel. It shows an artist who at the time was in the brutal throes of drug addiction and depression.

Neil Young/Like A Hurricane (Unplugged, 1993)

Like A Hurricane is one of my favorite rock tunes by Neil Young. Naturally, I was curious how he would handle an unplugged version of a song that in its initial recording is dominated by heavily distorted grunge-like electric guitar. In my opinion, Young’s performance with just an organ and a harmonica takes it to another level. The church-like sound of the organ combined with Young’s signature quavering voice induces chills and literally blows me away. Check it out yourself.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube