Song of the Week – Busload of Faith, Lou Reed

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Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor Michael Paquette.  It’s his third post this year!

This song seems even more relevant now than it did when it was released in 1989.  Lou Reed’s 15th studio release New York was highly critically acclaimed.  It even spawned a reunion of the Velvet Underground due to its popularity.  The Village Voice rated it the third best album of 1989 in its annual Pazz and Jop critics poll.

Lou Reed had a bit of a rocky period before being signed by Seymour Stein to his Sire label in 1989.  Sire records had earned a reputation for its progressive taste and having the ability to translate those tastes into mainstream media.  The label propelled the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Smiths, the Pretenders, the Cure, and Depeche Mode.  Notably, the label signed an underground dance artist from New York named Madonna and turned her into a superstar.  Lou Reed definitely fit the model.

New York is a stripped down, raw, and hard hitting album.  The band consisted of Lou Reed, guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Rob Wasserman, and drummer Fred Maher.  Lou reached out to Maher who had been playing in England with the band Scritti Politti, a new wave act.  Maher was behind the drums on Reed’s New Sensations release.  Lou asked Maher who might be a good producer and Maher, noting that Reed had had several tempestuous relationships with former producers responded with “how about me.”  Thus, Maher produced this release.  The album was done in six weeks and Maher said he found Lou easy to work with.

The raw, stripped down sound was not to everyone’s taste.  The singer songwriter James McMurty asked John Mellencamp what he thought of the work and Mellencamp replied that it sounded like it was produced by an eighth grader but I like it.  The AIDS epidemic was raging at the time of the release and these were people Lou Reed had long standing ties to, gays, IV drug users, and artists.  The song “Halloween Parade” pays homage to this era.

The song I chose from this breakthrough work is “Busload of Faith,” a song that is conceptually bold and simple. A stark reminder of where we are in this politically divided nation.  

The song opens side two and begins without apology.

You can’t depend on your family

You can’t depend on a beginning

You can’t depend on an end

You can’t depend on intelligence

You can’t depend on God

You can only depend on one thing

you need a busload of faith to get by

When the album was recorded Lou had given up drugs and alcohol.  With his life turned around he felt he had the stamina and concentration to produce a concept album.  The album was a great artistic success for him even though it was not a huge hit.  It remains my favorite album of this legendary artist.  It was voted the 19th best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine.  Lou performed all the songs on the album at the Theatre Saint-Denis in Montreal which was released as a DVD entitled The New York Album.

It was released as a box set in September of last year with a second CD of previously unreleased live performances of his 1989 tour and some alternate mixes.  Bob Seger covered “Busload of Faith” on his 2017 release dedicated to Eagles’ Glenn Frey called I Knew You When. This song continues to work as a political anthem.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the highway accident that took the life of Harry Chapin.  He was only 38 years old.  He was one of the good guys.

Chapin used his celebrity to do good.  He worked tirelessly to end world hunger through his work with Bill Ayers and as a member of the Carter Administration’s Presidential Commission on World Hunger.  His work in this regard was inspirational to the organizers of Live Aid, USA for Africa, and Hands Across America.

By the mid-’70s Chapin, half of all of Chapin’s performances were benefit concerts.  It has been said that he never rejected a request to perform at a fundraiser for just about any cause.  In 1977, he did a fundraiser for filmmaker Michael Moore to help Moore launch The Flint Voice, a Detroit area underground weekly newspaper that covered issues important to the progressive left.

Today’s SotW is Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

The “story song” that’s about a dad who regrets he never prioritized spending time with his son when the shoe is on the other foot and his grown son doesn’t have time for him.

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I can find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

“Cat’s in the Cradle” has more cultural references than just about any song ever written.  It has been namechecked in The Simpsons, The Office, and Modern Family.  Check out this link for a more comprehensive list of references.

On July 16, 1981, Chapin’s car was in a collision with a semi-trailer.  His car burst into flames.  Passersby were able to drag him out of the car but his body was without proper ID.  However, a pocket watch in his possession helped to identify him.  The watch was a gift from Michael Moore to Chapin for the help he provided back in ’77 with an inscription that was the key.  It read “From the Flint Voice. To a great American, Harry Chapin.”  Yes, indeed!

Enjoy… until next week.

The Veronicas, “Untouched”

Here’s the tune..

I’m not sure I’ll ever play it again. I’m pretty sure I never heard it before tonight.

It’s from 2008. It hit No. 17 on the US Billboard charts, but even though I had a nine year old in the house it didn’t make an impression on me. But what’s striking is the speed (fast), the strings (aggressive), and the guitars (really aggressive).

Couple it with some plain talking lyrics and an oddly effective chorus and I’m not sure why it didn’t make it to No. 3. Maybe because it’s from Australia.

In any case, this post isn’t a recommendation exactly, but a nod to the idea that the pieces of great songs and great ideas can also end up in pieces of commercial product that might actually have some personality to it.

I think I will listen again.

Song of the Week – Maggot Brain, Funkadelic

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Today’s SotW is different.  It is the title cut from Funkadelic’s album, Maggot Brain, first released 50 years ago this week!

What’s so different about it?  Well, it is essentially an extended, psychedelic guitar solo by the late, great Eddie Hazel.

The album was recorded while Funkadelic leader George Clinton was on acid, and it shows, especially on the title track.  As MOJO tells the story:

Rumour has it that Clinton had discovered his brother’s decomposed body lying in a Chicago apartment with a cracked skull – hence the Maggot Brain – and he locked guitarist Eddie Hazel alone in the studio with the brief to play “like your mother just died”.  Hazel did just that producing an anguished, fragile, nine-minute guitar solo that rivalled (sic) Hendrix…”

Though Clinton later disavowed the “maggot brain” part of the story, he did coax an amazing guitar performance from Hazel.  He told MOJO:

“When he started playing, I knew immediately that he understood what I meant.  I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web.  When we played the solo back, I knew that it was beyond good, not only a virtuosos display of musicianship but also an unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music.”

“Maggot Brain” came in at #60 on Rolling Stone’s 2008 list of 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.

Hazel died at the too-young age of 42 in 1992.  “Maggot Brain” was played at his funeral.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Future Shock, Hello People

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The ultimate evidence that mime acts should not be allowed to make records.  Especially if they don’t know enough to keep their mouths shut.

  • Dave Marsh

That snarky review is all that Marsh had to say about Hello People in The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979).  I agree that the mime thing was ridiculous.  Why combine mime – which is based on silence – with performing rock music with vocals?  But dismissing their music outright is a bit harsh.

Wikipedia has a great summary of how the band’s concept was conceived:

The idea for creating the group stemmed from Marcel Carné‘s 1945 film Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). Etienne Decroux, the father of French mime, plays the part of Bapties’s father in the film. During the sixties, Decroux taught painting to a group of musicians. Since these musicians learned to paint so quickly, Decroux reasoned that musicians could also learn mime and apply it in some new way to create a new form. The manager of the musicians Decroux taught, Lou Futterman, decided he would implement this new concept, and put together a new group of musicians who would perform in mime makeup and do mime routines between songs, never speaking a word to the audience.

Hello People had two distinct phases, albeit with (mostly) the same lineup.  The ‘60s version was more psychedelic and political.  By the mid ‘70s, the band was touring as Todd Rundgren’s backing band and making more pop-oriented, though eclectic, records.

Today’s SotW is “Future Shock” from The Hansome Devils (1974).

“Future Shock” was the band’s only single to chart, though it stalled at an unimpressive #71.

The Handsome Devils was produced by Rundgren, who also produced other gems like New York Dolls, Bat Out of Hell (Meatloaf), Felix Cavaliere, Straight Up (Badfinger), We’re an American Band (Grand Funk), Wave (Patti Smith), Remote Control (The Tubes), and Skylarking (XTC).

Though “Future Shock” was the single, I recommend giving the whole album a listen – especially if you enjoy albums that take you on a journey through different and diverse musical styles.  Don’t let Dave Marsh scare you away.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Lonesome Train, The Pirates

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In 1960, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates scored a #1 hit on the UK singles chart with their original version of “Shakin’ All Over.”  It’s an exceptional tune that you probably know from one of the many covers.  Perhaps The Guess Who’s version from 1965 that reached #1 in Canada, or The Who’s track from Live at Leeds (1970).

Kidd died in 1966, but his band lived on with many personnel changes.  But only one was given Kidd’s blessing to use the Pirates name and rcord under it.  That group consisted of guitarist Mick Green, vocalist and bass player Johnny Spence and drummer Frank Farley.  (This was not the band that recorded “Shakin’ All Over.”)

This final collection of bandmates were a powerful trio of rock and roll musicians.  Energy oozes from them like hot lava from a volcano.  After a 10 year hiatus, the band reformed in 1976 at the behest of fan and Dr. Feelgood guitarist, Wilco Johnson.

The released an album in 1977 called Out of Their Skulls.  It was half live from a concert at Nashville Lives in  London, and half in the studio.  I favor the live side because it captures their energy, and the audience reaction, so well.  Today’s SotW is ”Lonesome Train” from the live side.

“Lonesome Train” was originally recorded in 1956 by rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n Roll Trio – they of “Train Kept A’Rollin’” fame.  This version by The Pirates snarls with attitude and chugs along at a ferocious pace thet befits the song title.  Green’s guitar work is fantastic.  He’s credited for his ability to play rhythm and lead simultaneously.

Green’s reputation as a musician led to gigs with Bryan Ferry, Paul MCartney, Robert Plant, and Van Morrison.  Green died in 2010.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Laisse Tomber Les Filles & Les Sucettes, France Gall

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In the mid-’60s there was a genre of European (mostly French, mostly women) pop music called yé-yé (pronounced yey-yey) that derived from British rock songs like the Beatles “She Loves You” (Yeah Yeah Yeah).

One of the top yé-yé singers was France Gall, who had her first brush with stardom as a sixteen-year-old girl.  She exuded a “girl-next-door” virtue that complimented her pop hits like Laisse Tomber Les Filles (Let the Girls Fall).

The intro sounds like it could be an outtake of “The Munsters’ Theme.”  Quentin Tarantino, a master at digging up obscure songs to use on his soundtracks, used an English version of the song (“Chick Habit”) by April March in his film Death Proof (2007).  Tastemaker Jack White has recently reissued Gall’s first three albums on vinyl, on his Third Man imprint.

Later, Gall was still working with Serge Gainsbourg when he wrote her hit “Les Sucettes” (“Lollipops”).

This song took advantage of Gall’s innocent, yet implied sexuality.  Gainsbourg once called her The French Lolita.  Turns out, the song was a metaphor for… well, I don’t have to spell it out (whether she knew it or not).  Wikipedia explains further:

The very noun for lollypop in French, “sucette”, is the substantivised verb “sucer”, sucking – so that the title and the refrain (“Annie aime les sucettes”, Annie loves lollypops) are far more evocative in French than in the English translation. A possible translation to preserve the innuendo would be “Annie loves suckers”. The song also features a direct double entendre, stating that Annie has lollipops “pour quelques pennies” (for a few pennies), which can also be heard as “pour quelques pénis” (for a few penises).

And if that’s not enough to convince you, check out the 1966 video that accompanied the song’s release.  It’s about as subtle as a train going through a tunnel!

Many other yé-yé singers are worth checking out on the six-volume Ultra Chicks series – if you can find them.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Wizard, Uriah Heep

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Uriah Heep, named after a character in Dickens’ David Copperfield, released over 20 studio albums.  Only a few rose in the charts in the US.  The highest chart position and reached in the Billboard 200 was the #23 attained by their 1972 album, Demons and Wizards.

The lead track on that album is “The Wizard” which was also released as a single.

“The Wizard” starts with an acoustic guitar intro then builds into a power ballad.  David Byron’s lead vocal is in a style similar to Styx’s Dennis DeYoung.  The lyrics are typical of ‘70s enchanted, mystical, progressive rock songs like “Stairway to Heaven.”

He was the wizard of a thousand kings
And I chanced to meet him one night wandering
He told me tales and he drank my wine
Me and my magic mankind of feeling fine

The Lord of the Rings or the Carlos Castaneda books come to mind.

The music and lyrics of Demons and Wizards were complemented by the album cover artwork by Roger Dean, most famous for his covers for Yes albums like Fragile and Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Closer to Fine, Indigo Girls

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This being graduation season caused me to think about songs that refer to education.  I thought of these lines from “It’s Too Late” by Jim Carroll:

But it ain’t no contribution
To rely on an institution
To validate your chosen art
And to sanction your boredom
And let you play out your part

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against obtaining a formal education.  But I’m also in favor of seeking truth, challenging the status quo, and critical thinking.  That led me to today’s SotW – “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls.

It is a perfectly crafted song.  It has a nice melody, a solid chorus, beautifully constructed harmony vocals, and excellent lyrics that are about searching for answers to philosophical questions and not accepting the ones that come from a single, “all-knowing” source.  (“There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line.”)

My favorite lyrics are where writer Emily Saliers takes a swipe her college education:

And I went to see a doctor of philosophy

With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee

He never did marry or see a B-grade movie

He graded my performance, he said he could see through me

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind

Got my paper and I was free

The eponymously titled album that contained “Closer to Fine” won the 1989 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.  That year Indigo Girls were also nominated for Best New Artist but lost to – Milli Vanilli.  That’s a lesson for why we need to practice critical thinking!

Congratulations, graduates!  Now go get ‘em!

Enjoy… until next week.