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.

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.

Song of the Week – Rock Music in Concert Films

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The Rock Music in Films series continues this week.  Today I explore concert films, but I don’t think there will be any surprises.

The first great rock show that was released as a concert film was the T.A.M.I. Show (1964).  It was filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium over two nights in October 1964.  The integrated cast of performers included The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Jan and Dean, The Rolling Stones, and The Supremes.  The Wrecking Crew served as the house band!

The Rolling Stones had to follow that!  Keith Richards has been known to admit that choosing to follow Brown on the bill was the worst career decision of his life.

The June 1967 “summer of love” led the San Francisco flower-power set to descend on Monterey for the first Monterey Pop Festival.  The festival launched the careers of Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding.  And there is a concert film to document it!

While Redding was already popular with Black audiences, he had not yet crossed over to the pop (white) market.  But Monterey Pop changed that.  Just weeks after the festival, while still in the Bay area, he was staying in a houseboat in Sausalito and began to write his signature song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”  Just a few months later (December 1967) he died in a plane crash outside of Madison, Wisconsin.

But the granddaddy of all concert films at least in terms of box office success – is Woodstock.  The concert was in mid-August, 1969 and the film and soundtrack were released a year later.  The 3 disc album sold very well and super-charged the careers of several of the acts (Santana, Ten Years After).  Those that rejected offers to perform at Woodstock or refused to allow their performances to be in the film and on the soundtrack regretted that decision (Procol Harum, Sweetwater, Burt Sommer).

One of my favorite performances in the set was by Joe Cocker, covering The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

By the mid ‘70s, The Band was hanging it up and filmed their farewell performance on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland theater.  The star-studded event was directed by Martin Scorcese who also had an editing role in Woodstock.  The Band called their concert and film The Last Waltz and also released a 3-disc soundtrack.

Many of the guest performances with The Band as their “house band” were stellar, but I’m going to stick with a song by The Band themselves.  “The Shape I’m In” was originally on Stage Fright and has always been a favorite.

I just spent sixty days in the jailhouse
For the crime of having no dough, no, no
Now, here I am, back out on the street
For the crime of having nowhere to go

Almost a decade later, Talking Heads released Stop Making Sense, the concert film and soundtrack, shot over four nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, from their Speaking In Tongues tour.

Let’s take a listen to “Slippery People.”

It is a wonderful blend of David Byrne’s art rock blended with Funkadelic style funk.  He even had Bernie Worrell on keys to amp up the P-Funk aspect.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Superstition, Beck, Bogert & Appice

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Stevie Wonder has amassed a huge number of hits over his esteemed career, beginning with “Fingertips, Pt. 2” when he was just 13 years old.  One of his biggest hits was “Superstition” from the superb Talking Book.  It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973.

But did you know that Wonder stole “Superstition” from… himself?  Well, “stole” may be the wrong word but perhaps “Indian giver” is the more appropriate term.  You see, the song was meant to be a “gift” to guitarist Jeff Beck.

Here’s the story.  In 1972, Wonder was working on the recording of Talking Book.  By that time, Wonder was playing virtually all the instruments on his recordings but still preferred to use outside guitarists.  Wonder received word that Beck would like to work with him and a recording session was arranged.  The deal was that Wonder would write Beck a song in exchange for his guitar playing.

At one session Beck was playing drums.  The Annette Carson book Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers, quotes Beck as saying:

One day I was sitting at the drum kit, which I love to play when nobody’s around, doing this beat.  Stevie came kinda boogieing into the studio: ‘Don’t stop.’ ‘Ah, c’mon, Stevie,’ I can’t play the drums.’  Then the lick came out: ‘Superstition.’  That was my song, in return for Talking Book.  I thought, ‘He’s given me the riff of the century.’

It is ironic that “Superstition” was conceived with Beck drumming when Wonder’s version has one of the most distinctive drum intros in all of popular music.

Back to the story…  When Motown’s Berry Gordy heard the song, he knew it was a hit.  Ever the businessman, he rushed out          Wonder’s version before the one Beck had recorded with his latest group – Beck, Bogert & Appice – that was intended to be their single.  The rest is history.

This caused some bad feelings between Beck and Wonder that lasted quite a few years, but they eventually mended their friendship.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – My Maria, B.W. Stevenson

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In the early ‘70s, B.W. (Buck Wheat) Stevenson recorded a song written by his friend Daniel Moore that he was sure would be a hit.  The song was called “Shambala.”  His recording had yet to gain any traction when, two weeks later, Three Dog Night released a version that rapidly ran up the charts – all the way to #3.  Stevenson’s version stalled at #66.

So Stevenson got together with Moore and rewrote the song.  With different lyrics and a few other twists, it became “My Maria.”

Actually, I like “My Maria” better.  It’s a nice cut that straddles the space between Rock and Country music.  The musicianship on it is excellent, employing frequent Steely Dan session guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Jim Gordon (Pet Sounds, Layla, All Things Must Pass, Pretzel Logic, and more).  It reached #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

Unfortunately, Stevenson’s career was cut short with his untimely death in 1988 from complications after heart valve surgery.  He was only 38.

Enjoy… until next week.