Song of the Week – In My Head, Scott Fagan

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In 1968, an album called South Atlantic Blues was released on Atco Records by an artist named Scott Fagan.  Hardly anyone heard it, though it deserved a listen then as it still does today.

Fagan has the type of backstory that lends credence to the Mark Twain quote “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Born in the US, Fagan was taken to live in the Caribbean by his free-spirited mom – along with her other children, her twin sister, and her boyfriend.  But over time, things in their little “commune” turned bad.  The boyfriend and aunt left, and Fagan’s mom began to abuse alcohol and enter destructive relationships.  (She was married seven times, mostly to alcoholics.)

In 1964, Fagan left the Caribbean and moved to New York.  There he looked up one of his songwriting idols, Doc Pomus.  (Working with Mort Shuman, Pomus co-wrote several Elvis Presley hits including “Little Sister,” Viva Las Vegas,” “Suspicion” and others.)  Pomus was impressed that the young Fagan was able to find him in NY and was even more taken with his songwriting, voice, and good looks.  Pomus signed him and took him under his wing.  Pomus, Shuman, and Fagan started to work together and came up with “I’m Gonna Cry Til My Tears Run Dry” which was a hit for Irma Thomas, and later covered by Linda Ronstadt.  Fagan also played on the same bill at New York’s Cafe Au Go Go with Jimmy James (aka Jimi Hendrix).

So, what went wrong?  Well, pretty much everything.  First was the record deal.  He had a shot at being the first non-Beatles release on Apple Records but got beat out by James Taylor.  He was signed by Jerry Schoenbaum to make the album for Atco.  But soon after the signing, Schoenbaum quit the label, leaving Fagan without anyone to champion him there.

So the album sank without the benefit of promotion, which is really a shame because it contains some excellent music.  Take, for instance, “In My Head.”

On the blog Rockasteria, Ryan Prado writes of “In My Head”:

Fagan’s conscious vocals command attention, ruminating on the hazy inner dialogue of someone coming into his own not just as an artist, but as a man. Fagan sings, “The city street show cracks like a star so I wonder/why is it so strange to rearrange the clouds over and under myself?/and I have always seen the sea as secret lover/but does she want the sky instead?/Oh no; it’s something in my head.” String flourishes and tasteful guitars accentuate the propulsion of what sounds more Motown than sacred psych-folk (as this release is widely incorrectly ballyhooed as), which is one of the first indicators of the album’s otherness. Fagan’s powerful vocal takes are the next.

Another odd twist to this story occurred in 2000, when Stephin Merritt, of the Magnetic Fields, was being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and mentioned that his father was Scott Fagan.  One of Fagan’s ex-wives heard the interview and alerted him to Merritt’s claim.  Fagan tracked him down and it turned out to be true.  The men finally met for the first time in 2012.

This story does once again prove Twain to be correct!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Rock in 60’s Psychedelic Films

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This next installment of Rock in Films covers the late ‘60s psychedelic films.

By the late 60s, filmmakers began to incorporate rock music into their movies’ soundtracks and plots.  Director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) was one of the best and first to utilize rock effectively.  The story takes place in “Swinging London” where a photographer inadvertently captures a murder on film and uses his images to try to solve the crime.

The film’s soundtrack was scored by Herbie Hancock, but there is a club scene that features a live performance by The Yardbirds, with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitars, doing “Stroll On” (better known as “Train Kept A Rollin’”).

Riot on Sunset Strip (1067) is a cheesy film that attempts to convey the essence of the LA/Hollywood scene around the time of the ’66 LA riot.  It has all the clichés of the day, including a film portrayal of an LSD trip.  But it also has numerous club scenes that feature some of the best garage/psych bands of the time, including The Standells, Chocolate Watchband and The Enemies (a band that featured Cory Wells, later of Three Dog Night).

Psych-Out (1968) was a movie starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Susan Strasberg.  Susan’s character arrives in SF looking for her brother.  Although deaf, she is befriended by a hippie commune.  Again, there is film portrayal of an LSD trip.  The soundtrack includes music by The Seeds and Strawberry Alarm Clock.  There’s a ballroom scene where Nicholson’s band, Mumblin’ Jim, performs.  In reality, it is the Strawberry Alarm Clock with Nicholson pretending to be part of the group.

(Sorry Lawr!)

Nicholson wrote the screenplay for The Trip (1967), a film that portrays a television commercial director’s experience with – you guessed it – an LSD trip!  The movie stars Dern, Strasberg, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.  Of course, Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson would be back at it a couple of years later to film the much higher quality Easy Rider, but that’s a subject for another post.

The film’s music was provided by Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag, with only one on-screen performance that I don’t think was the Flag.  It may have been Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band (did they have a lefty guitarist?) who were originally tapped to provide the soundtrack before getting replaced by Bloomfield.  Here’s the psychedelic club scene of the band playing “Fine Jug Thing,” complete with strobe lights, and painted women.

The Monkees decided to upend their squeaky clean, pre-fab four TV image through a film vehicle called Head (1968).  Nicholson was involved in this project too, as co-writer and co-producer with Bob Rafelson.  Though the flick has an incomprehensible plot, it does have a few gems on the soundtrack including “The Porpoise Song,” and “Circle Sky” that was performed in a concert scene for Head.

More on Rock in films to come in future posts.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Holdin’ It Down, Frazey Ford

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Former member of the Be Good Tanyas, Frazey Ford is an artist to be reckoned with.  The Vancouver based, country soul artist released her third solo album earlier this year.  U kin B the Sun is another leap forward in her creative growth.  That’s a huge accomplishment after the giant step she took with her last album, Indian Ocean, when she incorporated Memphis soul into her sound by recoding with the Hi Rhythm Section that supported all of Al Green’s huge 70s hits.

Take a listen to “Holdin’ It Down.”

I held it all together, heavy on my mind
I held it all together but I left it all behind
I didn’t see you coming, coming down the line
Traffic in the atmosphere, salt inside your smile

Lessons I’m unlearning, back and forth in time
Coming up all rocky and opening in my mind

Chorus:

I have been holding down long as I can remember
You know the only thing I have depended upon has been me
Oh well, but I’d like to rest on the shore
Before I go back and do more
And I’m taking a plane and a car straight to your door

The sap it runs in springtime
The thaw begins at night
My hips are moving forward
I come from a mellow line

Reckless deep abandon
Streets that open wide
I thought I wasn’t ready
I was ready all the time

Chorus

Ford, quoted on her record label (Kill Beat Music) website describes the lyrics saying, “To me it’s about an embodied sense of female resilience and self-reliance through generations mixed with the urge to rest and trust in another.”

The instrumentation on this song follows the axiom that sometimes “less is more.”  I love the way the single root note is pounded in time through the chorus.  The sparse arrangement leaves plenty of room for Ford’s expressive vocal.

Check out the rest of Ford’s recordings on Spotify.  You won’t be disappointed!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – 13 Questions, Seatrain

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Seatrain is one of those relatively obscure bands that I really enjoy listening to.  Their first, eponymous album was called Sea Train (1969).  That band was formed by ex-members of the Blues Project, flutist/bassist/songwriter Andy Kulberg and drummer Roy Blumenfeld.  They were joined by fiddler Richard Greene who had played with Geoff and Maria Muldaur in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.

The second, eponymous album was titled Seatrain (1970).  That’s my favorite and was improved by the addition of Peter Rowan on guitar, but more importantly, lead vocals.  Seatrain was produced by George Martin.  It was the first rock act he produced after completing his run with the Beatles on Abbey Road.  (Seatrain recorded for Capitol Records, as did the Beatles in the US before they formed Apple.)

The country-rock on Seatrain makes some biblical references.  The song “Waiting for Elija” alludes to Elija’s second coming.  Another biblical story is told in “Book of Job.”

Today’s SotW was the band’s only “hit.”  “13 Questions” reached #49 on the Billboard charts.

“13 Questions” flips the typical alien invasion story.  This one is told from the perspective of the alien.

Deep in the darkest hour of a very heavy week,
Three Earthmen did confront me, and I could hardly speak.
They showed me 19 terrors, and each one struck my soul,
They threw me 13 questions, each one an endless hole.
Thirteen questions, each an endless hole.

If anyone is interested in digging deeper, check out Seatrain’s recording of Lowell George’s “Willin’” – there titled “I’m Willing.”  It has a creative arrangement and was on record before either of the two versions released by Little Feat on their first two albums.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week Revisited – Live, The Merry-Go-Round & Somebody Made for Me, Emitt Rhodes

I just learned that Emitt Rhodes died on July 19th. I’ve always enjoyed his music and featured him in SotW posts on March 26, 2016, and July 16, 2011. The 2011 essay is posted below.

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Back in 1970, two fine artists were recording pop masterpieces in their home studios.  In both cases the musician played all of the instruments himself, beginning a trend that others would soon attempt (e.g. Something/Anything by Todd Rundgren).  One was the solo debut by the famous ex-Beatle Paul McCartney that all of you have heard.  The other, by Emitt Rhodes, (sadly) languished in relative obscurity.

Rhodes had his first shot at fame when his band The Merry-Go-Round had a modest hit in 1967 with the song “Live.”  It only reached #63 nationally but made a bigger impression in So Cal.  That probably explains why most of us are more familiar with the song as covered by the LA based band, The Bangles, on their first album.

When The Merry-Go-Round failed to capitalize on their first break, Rhodes decided to retreat to his parents’ garage and pull the one man band trick.  The result is a fully realized production, not just a set of well recorded demos.  Here’s how the album is described in the book The MOJO Collection (The Greatest Albums of All Time):

“Rhodes took classic Beatles motifs and made them his own: Abbey Road guitar, McCartney upper register bass lines, and the familiar call and response harmonies of “Hello Goodbye”.”

So in addition to the previously mentioned “Live”, the other SotW is “Somebody Made for Me”, from Emitt Rhodes – the album MOJO calls “The best LP Paul McCartney never made.”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Angry Eyes, Loggins & Messina

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In high school, I was a big fan of Loggins & Messina.  If I could transport the current me back to the early ‘70s I might ridicule the young me’s taste.  But I still enjoy listening to a lot of their music when I hear it today.  I’ll admit they are a “guilty pleasure” and leave it at that.

That medley of “Lovin’ Me/To Make a Woman Feel Wanted/Peace of Mind” from their Sittin’ In debut still satisfies.  But one of my favorites is the final track on their 1972 second, eponymous album – “Angry Eyes.”

“Angry Eyes” was the template for the “long song” feature on each of their next few albums.  There was “Pathway to Glory” on Full Sail, and “Be Free” on Mother Lode.  All open with a traditional song melody and lyric but evolve into a progressive “jam.”  I use the term jam loosely because the structure is not improvisational – it is a well orchestrated composition.

“Angry Eyes” flows a lot like the Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – which is truly a jam – but is less bluesy and uses a wider variety of instrumentation.  Still, it creates emotional ebbs and flows that are very pleasing to the ear.

In concert, “Angry Eyes” was a Loggins and Messina staple.  I was fortunate to see them at Cornell University in March of ’73.  Jim Croce was their support act.  I was lucky to have the chance to see Croce too, as he died in a plane crash in Louisiana six months later in September ’73.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – British Invasion Music in Film

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This is the next installment of my series on Rock music in films; today covering the British Invasion.

The Beatles reached into the homes of millions of Americans via The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evening, February 9, 1964, launching Beatlemania.  A month later, the Beatles began filming their first movie – A Hard Day’s Night – that was released in the US the following August.

Like the Beatles’ music itself, A Hard Day’s Night set the bar for quality very high.  It’s not only a good Beatle movie or a good Rock music movie; it’s simply a good movie – a very good pun and quip filled movie.

The screenplay was written by Alun Owen and deftly directed by Richard Lester.  Both provide ample opportunities for each Beatle to reveal their personality.  The Beatles prove that they are more than lovable mop tops.  They are smart and funny young men.  The scene where George accidentally stumbles into a focus group meeting for a ‘60s version of a style influencer is hilarious.

The segment where the boys escape the TV studio and romp around the Thornbury Playing Fields in Isleworth, Middlesex, to “Can’t By Me Love” was shot using camera techniques that would be copied many times over, especially by The Monkees.

Other movies starring British Invasion groups include fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers in Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965), Herman’s Hermits’ Hold On (1966), and The Dave Clark Five in Having a Wild Weekend (1965).  They all seem to try to imitate A Hard Days Night to a greater or lesser degree.  But all fail.

Check out the DC5 mimicking the Can’t Buy Me Love, Thornbury scene at the end of this clip:

Having a Wild Weekend (originally Catch Us If You Can in England) is a decent film, the directorial debut by a young John Boorman who later achieved success with Deliverance (1972).  The plot involves a young model/actress Dinah (Barbara Ferris) who wants to escape the pressure of being the commercial image behind a meat industry campaign.  Stuntman Steve (Dave Clark) – who was a real-life stuntman before becoming a rock star — sympathizes with the craziness surrounding them and takes her away on an impromptu journey.

The film doesn’t take advantage of any “on-screen” performances by the group, a decision that limits its appeal.  But it does include several DC5 recordings – “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” “Move On,” “I Like It” and, of course, “Catch Us If You Can.”

So stay tuned.  There’s more to come in this exploration on the topic of Rock music in films.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – America, First Aid Kit

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I wanted to write something patriotic to honor our Independence Day.  There is so much turmoil today that we need something to bring us – all Americans – together.  After quite a bit of thought, I decided on Paul Simon’s “America”, originally on the Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends.

The song was used to great effect in one of the Muscarella family’s favorite movies, Almost Famous.  In the “America” scene, Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) is leaving home to become an airline stewardess.  Her mother (Frances McDormand) and little brother William (Michael Angarano) stand watching as the car is packed for the journey.  Before she takes off, Anita whispers to William… “One day you will be cool.  Go look under your bed.  It will set you free.”

Everyone needs a big sister like Anita!

“America” evokes Anita’s yearning for freedom and mobility.  It is a travelogue of a bus trip across the US.  True Americana.  References to real places (Pittsburgh, Saginaw), roads (NJ Turnpike), and the nostalgia of Mrs. Wagner’s Pies.

First Aid Kit recorded a beautiful version of “America” that is today’s SotW.

But what really grabs me today is the first two lines of the final verse.  That’s when the previously playful road trip (“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces”, “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy”, “I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera”) turns somber.

Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

These lines seem to capture the anxiety and isolation many of us are feeling in these times of COVID-19, racial tension, and economic insecurity.

First Aid Kit performed “America” live, at the Polar Music Prize (a Swedish music award), in front of Paul Simon in 2012.  Simon was so moved, he gave them a standing ovation and seemed to be close to tears.

If their performance was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.

Happy Independence Day!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Balloon Man, Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians

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“Balloon Man” was a 1988 “hit” for Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians.  (It reached #1 on Gavin Report’s Alternative Music chart.)

Hitchcock wrote the song about walking in NYC in the rain while eating a falafel.

He spattered me with tomatoes, hummus, chickpeas
And some strips of skin
So I made a right on 44th
And I washed my hands when I got in

And it rained like a slow divorce
And I wish I could ride a horse
And Balloon Man blew up in my hand

Besides the falafel hint, the whimsical lyrics are indecipherable.  But after watching the official video, I can’t help but think that it was at least partially inspired by the balloon character Rover from the ‘60s British television series, The Prisoner.  Hitchcock is of the age that he would have been very familiar with the show.

A bass line introduces the song and plays a key role throughout.  The guitars go full jangle in the chorus and then come back at about 2:40 to take us all the way home.

In a 2011 interview Hitchcock gave to Will Harris of the AV Club, he mentioned the song was originally written for The Bangles.

“Well, “Balloon Man” I wrote for The Bangles, if you remember them. I was in touch with a couple of them, and I sent them a quarter-inch, 7.5 IPS reel. I don’t know if they did anything with it.”

I wish The Bangles had recorded it because it perfectly suits their style of harmony-filled, jangle rock.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know, Blood Sweat & Tears

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“I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” is my favorite song from one of my favorite albums – Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears.  Child… is the first BS&T album from the time that Al Kooper led the band.  But he was one and done with the band he founded.

A blues in 6/8 time (I’ve never met a song in 6/8 that I didn’t love), ILYMTYEK packs an emotional punch – both lyrically and musically.

If I ever leave you… you can say I told you so
And if I ever hurt you, baby … you know I hurt myself as well

Is that any way for a man to carry on
Do you think he wants his little loved one gone
I love you
More than you’ll ever know

Steve Katz’s guitar tone in the opening riff is perfect!  And those horns!!!  The arrangement is beautiful, especially in the modulated bridge where they build to an emotional peak.  Then there’s that sax solo by Fred Lipsius.  Magnificent!

In his autobiography, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Kooper claimed that he was attempting to channel Otis Redding when he cut the vocal.  Not known as a great singer, he pulls off a gem on this one.  Although his voice is straining at the cut’s climax, it only adds to the sense of pain he’s struggling to convey.

The great Donny Hathaway laid down a wonderful cover version of ILYMTYEK that’s worth tracking down.

Enjoy… until next week.