Song of the Week – Undun, The Guess Who; Sunlight, The Youngbloods; Only a Fool Would Say That, Steely Dan

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I had this idea to write a post that featured a few of my favorite rock songs with a Latin flavor.  But not the obvious ones performed by Latin artists like Santana.  As I listened to them, I realized I didn’t have the technical expertise to properly describe them.  Were they Samba, Rhumba, Bossa Nova?  How do you tell the difference?

I strive for factual accuracy in these posts (though I’m sure I’ve made mistakes) so I gave a list of my selections to my high school friend, Dan D, who has a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) and teaches courses in trumpet, Chamber Music, Music Theory and The Beatles.  I asked Dan for help.  Here’s what he had to say:

So I gave a listen to these (songs) with your question in mind. The Samba, Rhumba, and Bossa Nova all share similar characteristics and each one of these works are not completely defined by the Latin genre – they are Latin-infused rock tunes. The genre not closely identified in any of them as rhumba. The conga sound is prevalent in any of them. For rhumba, the Beatle cover of “Mr. Moonlight” by Roy Lee Johnson fits that bill. Samba and Bossa Nova are closely allied. Often, the Bossa Nova is associated with jazz idioms. I could identify a jazz flavor in the Guess Who and Steely Dan tunes but it is not really that strong to differentiate. So with all that said, I am most apt to describe these tunes with a Samba flavor. Whew! A long, winding answer!

Thanks, Dan!  So here are a few tunes I like that are loosely tied together through “a Samba flavor.”

“Undun” was the B-side to The Guess Who’s “Laughing.”  Written by Randy Bachman, it reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.  (“Laughing” rose to #10.)  In an interview with Ear of the Newt, Bachman was quoted saying “I remember the joy of hearing that (“Undun”) on the radio, figuring ‘Wow, a song with more than three chords,’ you know, ‘with lyrics that don’t rhyme.’ “

He goes on to describe the inspiration for the song came when he learned about a woman who went into a coma after taking some bad acid at a party he attended in Vancouver.

“Sunlight” comes from one of my favorite Buried Treasure albums – Elephant Mountain (1969), by The Youngbloods.  Lester Bangs endorsed the album in his review for Rolling Stone.  Written by Jesse Colin Young, “Sunlight” is an ode for a special woman.

Have you seen the sunlight pouring through her hair
Felt her warm mouth on you in the summer’s air
Running in a field of brown
Laughing rolling on the ground
Smiling as she pulls you down
That’s the way she feels about you

Three Dog Night, who in their early days were masters at finding great songs to record, covered “Sunlight” on their 1970 album Naturally.

Steely Dan’s “Only a Fool Would Say That” (1972) has often been interpreted as a dig at John Lennon’s utopian worldview as professed in “Imagine.”  This position was recently described in an article in Far Out, by Sam Kemp.

I’m not sure I buy into Kemp’s thesis.  Steely Dan’s lyrics are always cryptic and subject to varied interpretations.  To me, it’s a cynical knock on hippy idealism more generally.

Wait until the very end of the song where you can hear laughter and someone utter the phrase “Jiji, solamente un tonto lo mencionara”, “Only a fool would say that” in Spanish!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Someday, Someway, Marshall Crenshaw

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The debut, eponymous album by Marshall Crenshaw was released 40 years ago this month.  It is a really fine album, filled with catchy songs that his fans love, but has flown under the radar for most people, even many music lovers.

Crenshaw received his first break in the music industry in the late ‘70s when he won a slot in the musical Beatlemania, in the role of John Lennon.  It was during his stint with the show that he wrote many of the songs on Marshall Crenshaw, including the popular “Someday, Someway.”

“Someday, Someway” sparkles with jangly power-pop hooks and harmonies, with a nod to ‘50s Rockabilly.  It’s impossible to hold back a smile when you hear it.

In a PBS program, On Canvas, that first aired in 2013, Crenshaw said that the lyrics for “Someday, Someway” were written to describe “the awkward beginnings of a marriage” when you suddenly realize you’re in something permanent.

I can’t stand to see you sad
I can’t bear to hear you cry
If you can’t tell me what you need
All I can do is wonder why

Someday, someway aww
Someday, someway, yeah now
Someday, someway
Maybe I’ll understand you

After all you’ve done for me
All I really want to do
Is take the love you brought my way
And give it all right back to you

The album was given a brighter sheen with the help of producer Richard Gotterher, who did the same for Blondie and The Go-Gos.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Sub-Rosa Subway, Klaatu; Boots, The Residents

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Back in 1976, a band called Klaatu released their first album.  For some reason they chose to package the album without any photos or credits.  This anonymity led to speculation as to who was behind this “mystery band.”

That speculation took flight when journalist Steven Smith, of the Providence Journal, published an article suggesting that Klaatu might really be The Beatles, reunited under a pseudonym.  This rumor seemed to be supported by the Beatlesque sound of some of the recordings and the coincidence that they were released on Capitol Records – the same as The Beatles’ early records in the US.

It was later revealed that Klaatu was a group of Canadian musicians.  “Sub-Rosa Subway” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” were minor hits (both reached #62 on the Billboard Hot 100).  “Interplanetary” was covered by The Carpenters who carried it to #32 in the US in 1977.

Around the same time, in the mid-’70s, another band chose to labor in obscurity – San Francisco’s Art Rock band, The Residents.

In a 2018 article for NPR Music, writer Jason Roth described The Residents’ approach to music:

The group’s musical canon – comprising over 60 albums that collectively are more of an ongoing act of cultural subversion than a traditional catalog of songs – includes a “four-part trilogy” of concept albums about a subterranean race of mole people, a record that contains exactly 40 one-minute-long commercials for itself and an album of Eskimo folk music consisting of what The Residents imagined Eskimo folk music might sound like. Which also, naturally, provided the group with its critical and commercial breakthrough.

The Residents’ debut album was titled Meet the Residents and had one of the best covers ever – a defaced parody of Meet the Beatles (released on April Fool’s Day, 1974).  This too, caused some rumors to circulate that The Beatles were behind the group.

The album opens with an anarchistic, deconstructed (unrecognizable) version of Nancy Sinatra’s “The Boots Are Made For Walking.”  Not everyone will be able to make it through the cut’s brief, less than 2 minutes, of chaos.

From 2010 to 2016, the band toured using the character names “Randy, Chuck, and Bob.”  But in 2017, Hardy Fox revealed himself as the primary composer for the band as well as “Chuck.”  Apparently he decided to finally expose his identity because he was sick and dying.

If you’re a fan or are interested in learning more about The Residents, check out the new book documenting their history from 1972 to 1983.

The Residents: A Sight for Sore Eyes, Vol. 1

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Traveling Alone, Jason Isbell

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About a month ago I went to see Jason Isbell with a few friends at the Warfield in San Francisco.  Shawn Colvin did a nice solo set to warm up the audience, then Isbell took the stage with his talented band – The 400 Unit — including his wife, Amanda Shires (singer, songwriter, fiddle), who only joins Isbell on occasion due to the commitments of her own successful career.

One of the highlights of the set was his signature song, “Traveling Alone.”

Isbell has recounted a story about meeting Bruce Springsteen where The Boss told him that he was introduced to “Traveling Alone” by his son – then proceeded to sing the chorus to Isbell.

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone

Tired of traveling alone

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone

Won’t you ride with me?

But the song is much more than that catchy chorus.  It is a semi-autobiographical story about how he needed Shires to help him through a rehab program to end the downward spiral his life was in due to alcoholism.

I quit talking to myself

Listening to the radio

Long, long time ago

Damn near strangled by my appetite

Ybor City on a Friday night

Couldn’t even stand up right

So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay

They said come see me on a better day

She just danced away

Isbell is known to include covers in his set.  He has recorded and/or performed Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and “Because the Night.”  On the night we saw him, he closed his set with a kick-ass version of early Fleetwood Mac standard “Oh Well.”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Too Many People, Paul McCartney; How Do You Sleep, John Lennon

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Last November, Disney+ relased The Beatles: Get Back.  The three episode documentary, directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, took 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio tape — from 22 days in January 1969 — and reconstructed it into an 8 hour, “fly on the wall” experience that seeks to revise the negative vibe and historical record of what actually occurred during the sessions that culminated in the original Let it Be movie from 1970.  At that, The Beatles: Get Back succeeds.

However, it can’t be denied that a mere 15 months later, on April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced that The Beatles had broken up through his ambiguous answers to the questions he was asked during an interview about his first solo album, McCartney.

I was browsing through the recent Paul McCartney book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present that my wife gave me for Christmas.  It has the lyrics to 156 McCartney compositions along with his commentary and loads of photos and memorabilia.

I was interested in his explanation of the lyrics to “Too Many People”, from 1971’s Ram.

He explains:

This song was written a year or so after The Beatles breakup, at a time when John was firing missiles at me with his songs, and one or two of them were quite cruel.  I don’t know what he hoped to gain, other than punching me in the face.  The whole thing really annoyed me.

The key lyrics blame John for the breakup and scold him for preaching and telling people how they ought to live.

That was your first mistake
You took your lucky break and broke it in two.

Now what can be done for you?
You broke it in two.

Too many people preaching practices
Don’t let ’em tell you what you wanna be
Too many people holding back
This is crazy, and baby, it’s not like me

What surprised me was that John’s most scathing song aimed at Paul, “How Do You Sleep”, was written as a response to “Too Many People.”  I had originally thought it was the other way around.  “How Do You Sleep” was on Lennon’s Imagine that was released about 4 months after Ram.

John’s basic personality had an acerbic, mean spirited side that was foreign to the genial McCartney.  So John’s swipes were direct stabs to the heart where  McCartney’s were more subtle.  John says:

So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise
You better see right through that mother’s eyes
Those freaks was right when they said you was dead
The one mistake you made was in your head

You live with straights who tell you, you was king
Jump when your momma tell you anything
The only thing you done was yesterday
And since you’ve gone you’re just another day

Those last lines are references to McCartney’s signature Beatles’ tune, “Yesterday”, and the soft rock of his solo song from Ram, “Another Day.”  Ouch!

I’d like to think that if John were still alive today, these past grievences would be forgiven and settled, and the Lennon/McCartney team would be friends again.

Enjoy… until next week.


Song of the Week – Sleep That Burns, Be-Bop Deluxe

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Have you ever heard of the ‘70s rock band, Be-Bop Deluxe?  Have you ever heard Be-Bop Deluxe?

The British band released five excellent studio albums of obscure progressive rock, helmed by songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist extraordinaire, Bill Nelson.

Many consider the third album, Sunburst Finish, to be their best album, I included.  (All of their first three albums make references to guitar terminology – Axe Victim, using the slang, axe, for a guitar; Futurama, a brand of mid-priced guitars popular in England in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s; and Sunburst Finish, a recognizable style of finish very popular on Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls.)  It also had a provocative cover with a silhouetted, naked woman.  I’m surprised it wasn’t banned like similar covers for records by Roxy Music and Golden Earring.

“Sleep That Burns”, from Sunburst, captures what Be-Bop Deluxe was all about.

The song opens with galloping hard rock, goes to a middle section with a Latin feel, then returns to climax with a screaming guitar solo.

Lyrically, the song describes an anxiety filled night of insomnia:

The night winds are howling…
Seducing the trees,
I wake in a cold sweat
With the sheets ‘round my knees

I lay in the darkness
With visionless eyes…
Exhausted and reeling…
All heartbeats and sighs…

But the sleep still burns,
Got a sleep that burns all night

Sunburst also marked the debut credit for the successful producer, John Leckie (XTX, Radiohead).

If you find Sunburst Finish to be of interest, you can dig deeper and watch the 45 minute documentary, The Making of Sunburst Finish, on YouTube.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Save the Last Dance for Me, The Drifters (Doc Pomus)

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Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor, Michael Paquette.  This is Michael’s sixth post since February 2020.

Doc Pomus was a blues singer in the 1940s who would later become one of the most prolific songwriters in American history.  He was crippled by polio as a child and spent most of his adult life confined to a wheelchair.  Doc Pomus was married to the Broadway actress and dancer Willi Burke.  On their wedding day she danced with friends and family while he wrote the lyrics to today’s SotW.  Here is the 1960 version of “Save The Last Dance for Me” by the Drifters with a classic vocal by Ben E. King. 

The song was released as a B-side but Dick Clark flipped it over and decided it was the stronger song. He was proven right when it became a number one hit on all the charts.  It was also released by The Searchers and later recorded by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and the European star Dalida, who, because she could sing songs in ten different languages, was the most Internationally famous French singer in history.

The song contains the refrain that captures the mood:  “But don’t forget who’s taking you home / and in whose arms you’re gonna be / so darling, save the last dance for me.”

Doc Pomus was born Jerome Felder and he liked to say that he was called Doc because his songs made you feel good.  This song, along with several other classic hits he wrote, including “This Magic Moment,” A Teenager In Love,” “Turn Me Loose,” “Suspicion,” and “Surrender”, certainly fit the bill.

Elvis recorded 20 songs written or co-written by Doc Pomus (mostly with Mort Shuman) including the classic “Little Sister.”  Doc Pomus never actually met Elvis.  He was in a press line waiting to meet him at the Hilton in NYC in 1974 but \ before he got the chance he was told that Elvis had left the building.  Three years later they arranged a meeting but Elvis died a week before it was to happen which spooked Doc.

Doc Pomus had a revival to his career in the late 1970s, writing songs for Dr. John and producing the debut albums for Roomful of Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds (unreleased).

He was the first white recipient of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

His songs were recorded by Mink DeVille, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Dr. John, Solomon Burke, John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin, Lou Reed, The Band, B. B. King, Roseanne Cash, Charlie Rich, Andy Williams, Ruth Brown, Marianne Faithful, Irma Thomas, Joe Cocker, ZZ Top, The New York Dolls, Los Lobos, Dion and hundreds of others.

Doc Pomus died on March 14, 1991, of lung cancer at the age of 65 at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan.  His legend and songs live on.  “Save The Last Dance for Me” is one of my favorites from his incredible library of work.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Live in the Dream & The Melting of the Sun, St. Vincent

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The LP (long playing) record album was introduced by Columbia Records in 1948.  At the time, shellac “78s” (records played at the speed of 78 RPM – revolutions per minute) were the standard.  “45s” (7 inch discs with one song per side, played at 45 RPM) were introduced by RCA in 1949.  For many years, the recorded music market was dominated by singles.

With the introduction of stereo LP and high fidelity reproduction equipment, the album slowly became the dominant format, reaching its heyday with ‘70s rock music.

Even though cassettes, then CDs, took over from the vinyl record format, the album was still the preferred way for fans to consume their music.  But with the evolution from physical records to digital devices that began 20 years ago with the iPod, today streaming services like Spotify are the dominant listening format.

The digital formats have had an unintended consequence; their convenience in selecting songs and building playlists has returned us to being singles consumers.  Most people, especially those under 40, rarely listed to full albums – sadly, me included.

But that’s not without exception.  There was one 2021 album release that I tend to listen to from start to finish – St. Vincent’s (aka Annie Clark) Daddy’s Home.  Yes, it’s that good!

The album title refers to the real life situation of her father being released from prison after being convicted in 2010 for his involvement in a stock manipulation fraud.

“Live in the Dream” is the fourth track on the album.  It starts as a dreamy dirge reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”, from their Dark Side of the Moon album, builds to a crescendo with a screaming Clark guitar solo, then drops back to its wistful beginning.

“The Melting of the Sun” follows.

“The Melting of the Sun” has a ‘70s soul/funk/R&B feel.  St. Vincent takes a little from Sly Stone and a bit from Stevie Wonder and makes it her own.  I dig the sounds of the clavinet and electric sitar.

The song opens with the line “So sorry, missed the party/Hello, on the dark side of the moon.”  I find it hard to believe this is a coincidence.

It has been reported that St. Vincent took inspiration for the writing of this album after rooting through her dad’s record collection.  If true, that would bring us full circle.

Listen to the whole album.  Then listen to it again.  You will be rewarded for the familiarity.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Music in Films as Vehicles for Rock Stars

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In May of 2020, I started a series of posts under the theme of Rock Music in Films.  I notched eight posts in the series through May 2021.  But the series isn’t complete.  I have a few more ideas and today I resume after nine months – this time featuring films as vehicles for rock stars.

This idea was “invented” by Elvis Presley.  The Beatles and other British Invasion groups took advantage of the medium to enhance their popularity.  But those were all covered in earlier installments of the series.

Take note – my idea of films as vehicles for rock stars doesn’t include movies that simply star rock musicians.  The film has to feature their music as a key component.  So, Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan and David Bowie’s Labyrinth are out.  Bob Dylan’s music was critical to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, but his acting role was too insignificant to qualify as a vehicle for him.  That one’s out.  Mick Jagger starred in Performance and sang the excellent “Memo From Turner” but that’s his only song on the soundtrack.  Out.

So, what films do meet my criteria?  One great example is The Harder They Come (1972), starring Jimmy Cliff.  I know, this film features Reggae music not rock.  But by my definition, Cliff is a rock star!

The title tune is terrific, but the best song on the soundtrack is “Many Rivers to Cross.”

“MRtC” has a gospel feel and an amazing vocal performance.  It is even more spectacular when you consider the legend that it was recorded in one take at the end of a session where the backing musicians had never heard the song before!  In Wikipedia, Cliff is quoted as saying “I started singing, the band came in, and that was it.  Once.  That was it.”

“MRtC” has been covered by many stars – from Harry Nilsson to Linda Ronstadt.  You can’t keep a great song down.

Another super film that was a vehicle for a rock star was Prince’s Purple Rain (1984). I know, this film features funk and R&B music, not rock.  But by my definition, Prince is a rock star!

The title tune is terrific, but the best song on the soundtrack is “When Doves Cry.”

“WDC” was written as a metaphor (doves being the bird of peace) for the dysfunction in relationships – in this case, the discord between his mother and father coming full circle in his own relationship.

How can you just leave me standing
Alone in a world that’s so cold? (So cold)
Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied (she’s never satisfied)
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry

“WDC” received a wonderful cover by Patti Smith.  You can’t keep a great song down.

The underappreciated One Trick Pony (1980), by Paul Simon, was also a film vehicle for a rock star.  I know, many of you don’t consider Paul Simon a rock musician.  But by my definition, he is a rock star!

The key song on the soundtrack is “Late in the Evening.”

Steve Gadd’s drum groove and the spicy Cuban horn charts (arranged by Dave Grusin) drive it.  No one would dare cover it!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Time Won’t Let Me, The Outsiders

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In 1966 a band from Cleveland, OH scored a top 5 hit with “Time Won’t Let Me.”  That band was The Outsiders.

The song was a simple R&B influenced rocker that sounds of its time, yet also still sounds fresh today.  It is enhanced by a horn section.  I love the screaming trumpet at the end, played by session musician John Madrid.

“TWLM” was written by the band’s guitarist, Tom King, and his brother-in-law Chet Kelley.  It was sung by Sonny Geraci who later hit again as the vocalist on “Precious and Few” by Climax (1972).

Drummer Jimmy Fox, who later played in the James Gang with Joe Walsh, hit the skins for all but two of the songs on their debut album – one was “Time Won’t Let Me.”

I always thought “TWLM” had a Beatlesy sound to it.  Maybe that was just because it was released on the same Capitol, yellow and orange swirl label that graced so many Beatles’ hit singles.

It was covered by The Plimsouls (Peter Case), Iggy Pop, and The Smithereens, among others.

Enjoy… until next week.