Song of the Week – Love Alive, Heart

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Ann and Nancy Wilson’s Heart formed in 1967!  They had huge commercial success from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s.  At the time I never gave them much consideration.  Their brand of Rock seemed a little too corporate for my tastes – not edgy enough.

But over time my opinion has changed.  Ann’s powerful vocals were never in doubt.  I undervalued Nancy’s guitar playing.  One of the “ah-ha” moments for me was when I saw Heart perform at the Bridge School benefit concert on October 27, 2013.  They played a beautiful version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song.”  It wowed me and led me to connect how much their music was influenced by Zep.  That may be obvious to all of you, but I was late to the realization.

The signs were there earlier.  Who could forget their amazing performance of “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center on December 2, 2012, complete with strings, horns, and a gospel choir?  Led Zeppelin was there to accept the honor and you can see the expressions of approval as they were as blown away as the rest of the audience.

Today’s SotW is a Heart original that captures the spirit of Led Zeppelin as well as any of their recordings.  It is “Love Alive” from Little Queen (1977).

It follows the same blueprint as “Stairway…”  It starts with an acoustic guitar and softly sung verses and grows into a full blown rock and roll rave.

Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18, 2013.  Their fans thought it was long overdue.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Music in Blaxpliotation Films

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In the early ‘70s, a film genre called Blaxploitation emerged.  Wikipedia explains:

The films produced in the 1970s were generally considered a form of exploitation because non-black producers, writers, and directors sought to tell Black stories, and to sell these potentially inauthentic stories to Black audiences. The films, while popular, suffered backlash for disproportionate numbers of stereotypical film characters showing bad or questionable motives, including most roles as criminals resisting arrest.

That’s not the whole story.  There was indeed some backlash from those that objected to the criminal stereotypes of many African Americans in the films.  In fact, BANG (Blacks Against Narcotic Genocide) picketed theaters that were screening the film Superfly, even though it was the first Blaxploitation film to be fully financed by black producers.

But many moviegoers from the African American community welcomed seeing black actors in roles that portrayed strong, assertive (male and female) characters like Shaft (Richard Roundtree) and Foxy Brown (Pam Grier).

But one thing that most of the Blaxploitation films had was excellent soundtracks!

The most popular was the Isaac Hayes “Theme from Shaft.”

“Theme from Shaft” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1971.  The next year the song took home the Oscar for Best Original Score – making Hayes the first African American to win the award.

Listeners are immediately drawn in by the drum intro of sixteenth notes played on the hi-hat, followed by that funky wah-wah guitar.  And who could forget the line:

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother (Shut your mouth)

Curtis Mayfield, no stranger to political message songs, put together a masterpiece for the soundtrack to Superfly in 1972.  The best song on the album is “Pusherman.”

“Pusherman” is interesting because the lyrics could be construed as glorifying the role of inner-city drug dealers.  But knowing Mayfield and his politics, he was more likely attempting to show how being a pusher may often be the only way out of poverty for blacks, who wanted to provide for their families, when living in the ghetto in the ‘70s.

I’m your mama, I’m your daddy

I’m that ni**er, in the alley

I’m your doctor when in need

Want some coke? Have some weed

The “Godfather of Soul” wouldn’t miss out on a chance to take part in this trend.  He contributed a great work – the soundtrack to Black Caesar (1973).  My choice from this soundtrack is the melodramatic ballad “Mama”s Dead.”

In the movie, this song plays as lead character Tommy Gibbs mourns the death of his mother.  Brown’s heartfelt vocal nails the emotional heft of the scene.

Mama’s dead, never again would she hold my hand

Never again to hear her call my name

But now she’s gone, her troubles are over, the pain is gone
I wish, I had made her proud to call me son

All of these soundtracks (and many others) deserve to be heard all the way through.  Give them a try!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Dr. Love, Tom Jones

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I’m of the age that makes me part of The Beatles generation of music lovers.  I was brought up on the music of the 60s and 70s.  In my perception at the time, the beat groups that wrote their own songs were authentic and were speaking to me directly.

An artist like Tom Jones was too middle of the road for me.  He seemed to appeal to “older” women – you know, the ones so attracted to his sex appeal that they threw their panties onto his stage.  How corny!!!

But you know what – that guy could really sing!  And while much of his repertoire was geared toward the over-thirty, Las Vegas crowd, he could belt out rock and soul with credibility.  A great example is today’s SotW, “Dr. Love.”

It is a big production with horns and female backup singers.  Jones’ powerful pipes ensure he doesn’t get buried under the wall of sound.

“Dr. Love” is a deep cut from the 1966 album A-Tom-Ic Jones.  That’s the one with the cover that was banned in the US over concern that it might be offensive to his American audience.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I Want You; Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis Costello

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Over the many years I’ve been writing, I occasionally cover a topic I call the Evolution Series.  Those posts either follow a song that has been covered in many forms/styles or demonstrates how a rhythm has been used differently in songs.  Today I’m stretching the concept a little further.  Today’s evolution traces three songs with the same title, by three different outstanding artists, that are not related in any direct way, except that they all depict a lover’s obsession.  The song title is “I Want You.”

First up is the Dylan classic from Blonde on Blonde.

The verses contain the vivid imagery that we all came to expect and enjoy from Dylan and the chorus switches to a very heartfelt, direct plea.

The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you

In 1970, John Lennon contributed a song to Abbey Road called “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

Everyone knows this one!  It has several cool surprises.  It opens with an arpeggiated guitar riff, quickly moves into the main theme, and switches into a Latin influenced reprise.  About 4:30 in John practices his primal scream vocal that reveals his excruciating pain — it makes Dylan’s “heartfelt, direct plea” seem charming – then returns to the arpeggio opening.  This continues for 3 minutes, getting heavier and heavier with each cycle – until it unexpectedly ends abruptly in a morass of static.  Brilliant!

Elvis Costello released one of his best albums, Blood & Chocolate, in 1986 and it too contained a song titled “I Want You.”

The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark
It scares you witless
But in time you see things clear and stark
I want you
Go on and hurt me then we’ll let it drop
I want you
I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop
I want you
I’m not ashamed to say I cried for you
I want you
I want to know the things you did that we do too
I want you
I want to hear he pleases you more than I do
I want you
I might as well be useless for all it means to you
I want you

The slow, sparse arrangement emphasizes the darkness of the lyrics.  Wikipedia quotes Rolling Stone aptly calling the track “an epic testament to jealousy over a former lover’s new partner.”

I wonder if any of these artists were influenced by the song(s) that preceded theirs.  Perhaps there is a more direct connection than initially seems to be the case.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Cooler Returns, Kiwi Jr.

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I recently heard a song called “Cooler Returns” by the Toronto based band, Kiwi Jr.  At first I thought it might have been an obscure Kinks song, but discovered it was a current release.

The song starts with a cool guitar riff played on Rickenbacker.  The riffage expands with each verse and chorus and by the song’s end, the band has created a furious frenzy of noise – and I like it!

I’m not sure about the lyrics but my intuition is that it may have something to do with COVID PTSD (from a Canadian POV).

Superbowl Sunday


I did not feel well

leaving the hotel

I am not American
But I feel the beat sometimes
When I run into the screen door
At the retreat trying to learn the new lines

And finally

I was never one for trying to win as a team

The Sub Pop press release for “Cooler Returns” describes singer/songwriter Jeremy Gaudet’s lyrics as “comedic surrealism.”

Cooler Returns is Kiiw Jr.’s sophomore effort.  I don’t know much about them but I plan to learn more.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Wild Trip, The Ventures

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The Ventures were a band out of Washington state that earned their fame with a slew of surf rock instrumentals.  Their biggest hit was “Walk Don’t Run” from 1960.  It reached #2 on the Billboard singles chart.  They entered the Top 10 again when their version of the theme song to the popular TV show Hawaii Five-O made it to #8 in 1969.

Along the way, somewhere around 1963, the band entered into a contract with the California guitar maker, Mosrite.  From that time, until the contract expired, the band used the “uniquely styled, futuristic-looking Mark 1 electric guitar model” exclusively.  It became their trademark.

Between 1960 and 1970 The Ventures released over 30 albums on the Dolton and Liberty labels.  (I must have about 25 of them!)  Most of them are listenable, but the one that I always go back to when I’m in the mood for that type of Rock is Wild Things!, from 1966.

Wild Things! is a theme album.  Its mix of originals and covers almost all have the word “wild” in their titles.  The best is one of the originals, “Wild Trip.”

“Wild Trip” rocks!  It’s so good that the Athens, Georgia punk/garage rock group, Flat Duo Jets, covered it in 1990 on their Go Go Harlem Baby album.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Rock Compilation Soundtracks

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I’m back! That is, I’m back with the next installment of my series on rock music in films.  You would be on solid ground if you assumed the series was completed since my last post on the subject was back in August.  That essay covered soundtracks written by Rock artists.  This one covers soundtracks that use a compilation of songs by Rock artists as the soundtrack.

The granddaddy of them all is the soundtrack to Easy Rider (1969).  It included cuts by a who’s who of counter-culture acts including Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and The Electric Prunes (yes, that was really the name of a band!).  The movie also used “The Weight” by The Band, but ABC/Dunhill couldn’t license their recording for the record, so a cover by Smith was used as a replacement.

I’m going with Hendrix – “If 6 Was 9.”

In 1973, George Lucas released the classic film, American Graffiti.  The movie starred Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, and a very young Harrison Ford.  Suzanne Somers also appears as “the blond in the T-Bird.”

The ‘50s nostalgia story had a soundtrack that was consistent with the era.  (It was also the inspiration for the TV sitcom “Happy Days”, also starring Howard.)  The “oldies” format used recordings mostly released between 1955 and 1962 and were heavy on the doo-wop.  It seems weird to me that this collection of songs was considered “oldies” when the oldest one was released only 18 years before the film’s debut.  (Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released almost 18 years ago, so I guess that’s an “oldie” now.)

One key difference of the American Graffiti soundtrack is that it was used as diegetic music – that’s music that the characters are presumed to be hearing themselves as part of the scenes.

One of my favorite songs in the movie is “Since I Don’t Have You” by The Skyliners (1959).

In his 1989 book The Heart of Rock and Soul – 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, music critic Dave Marsh slotted “SIDHY” at #36.  Guns N’ Roses brought the song into the ‘90s with an excellent cover version.

Two other important Rock soundtracks were released in 1983 — The Big Chill and Dazed and Confused.

The Big Chill takes place in the early ‘80s when a group of friends that attend the University of Michigan together reunites for the funeral of their friend.  Appropriately, the soundtrack skews towards ‘60s soul and Motown.  The song that I always enjoy hearing is the “deep cut” “Tell Him” by the Exciters (1963).

The soundtrack for Dazed and Confused is something entirely different.  This film about high school life is set in Texas, 1976.  The music leans toward the hard rock of the day, and every track is a winner.  I’m going with Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride.”

Another great Rock soundtrack was compiled for the movie Almost Famous (2000) and was rewarded with a Grammy award to prove it!  The Cameron Crowe film’s plot centers around a young (15-year-old) Rock journalist that goes on the road with a (fictional) band – Stillwater – to get a scoop for Rolling Stone.  One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when everyone on the tour bus spontaneously starts singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

Of course, there are many more great compilation soundtracks.  In the 2000s, soundtracks were often used to help launch the careers of obscure bands.  But that’s the subject for a later installment of Rock Music in Films.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Scarlet, The Rolling Stones

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In 2019, The Rolling Stones released a 50th Anniversary edition of their classic album Let It Bleed.  It came in a variety of multi-format packages but had no alternate versions or outtakes.  What the hell was the purpose of that?  As great as that album is, how many copies do we need?  That reeks to me of a money-grabbing rip off.

Fast forward a year to 2020 and the group released a “Super Deluxe” boxed set of Goats Head Soup (1973).  Now this one was done right.  It has a remixed version of the original album on one disc.  A second disc has rarities and alternative mixes including three previously unreleased tracks.  One of them, “Scarlet,” is today’s SotW.

Devoted Stones fans have always heard rumor that there was an unreleased track that features Jimmy Page.  Well, here it is!  Of “Scarlet,” MOJO magazine said: “A mesmerizing groove, propelled by three interlocking guitar riffs, this bafflingly-shelved gem points towards the crunching ‘80s Stones of Start Me Up.”

A third disc contains a previously unreleased, complete concert — The Brussels Affair recorded live at the Forest National Arena in October 1973.  Goats Head Soup has been underappreciated.  This set proves that it is worth reevaluation.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Nice Nice Very Nice, Ambrosia; Nice Very Nice, Dave Soldier & Kurt Vonnegut; High Society, Louis Armstrong

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Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor, Matthew Wells.  Matthew and I have been friends for over 40 years.  He was among the first guest contributors to the SotW, way back in 2009.

I came up with the idea of posting about a song inspired by a science fiction novel several years ago but didn’t feel qualified to write it.  I knew Matthew was my man!  In addition to being a successful playwright, he has a scifi novel in his top drawer that should be published.  Read on!

When you think about songs based on works of science-fiction books, there are obvious ones that come to mind, like “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine, which is based on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, and “1984” by David Bowie (he wanted to do a stage musical based on the book, but couldn’t get the rights from the Orwell estate).

And then there’s “Fifty-Third Calypso,” from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, otherwise known as “Nice, Nice, Very Nice:”

Oh, a sleeping drunkard

Up in Central Park,

And a lion-hunter

In the jungle dark,

And a Chinese dentist,

And a British queen—

All fit together

In the same machine.

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice—

So many different people

In the same device.

The Calypso is part of a religion, invented by a man called Bokonon and named after himself, whose believers accept that life is meaningless but still want some kind of hope to cling to, even if it’s a lie.

There are three musical versions of it that I could find.  The earliest is from the self-titled first album of the prog-rock group Ambrosia, in 1975.

In their version, the group added an additional stanza and a bridge:

Oh a whirling dervish
And a dancing bear
Or a Ginger Rogers and a Fred Astaire
Or a teenage rocker
Or the girls in France
Yes, we all are partners in this cosmic dance

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

I wanted all things to make sense
So we’d be happy instead of tense

The mix of organ, horns, and drums give this version a spacy, psychedelic feel, like the musical version of a trippy religious experience.  Kurt Vonnegut is credited as co-writer on the song, and from all accounts, he liked this version.  In a letter he wrote to the band in 1976, he says:

“I was at my daughter’s house last night, and the radio was on.  By God if the DJ didn’t play our song, and say it was number ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in general. You can imagine the pleasure that gave me.  Luck has played an enormous part in my life.  Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you.  And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be?  This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that’s really worth a damn.  I envy you guys.”

The song also shows up in “Ice-Nine Ballads,” a 1997 collaboration between Vonnegut and Dave Soldier in which Soldier’s arrangements for songs based on Cat’s Cradle are accompanied by Vonnegut’s voiceovers.

In this version, Vonnegut’s voiceover has the offhand cool of William S. Burroughs, and Soldier’s arrangement sounds like a Frank Zappa B-side. (Odd fact: Soldier is the musical persona of Columbia University neuroscientist David Sulzer.)

To me, these two versions of Vonnegut’s lyric are nice, nice, very nice enough, but neither of them meet the challenge of turning the song into an actual calypso, like something that could have been sung by Harry Belafonte.  Or Louis Armstrong.  Why Armstrong?  Because the tune in my head is pretty much the same as Cole Porter’s “High Society,” which Armstrong sings at the beginning of the 1956 movie.  To me, it has the right tempo, and the right tune:

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Shameika, Fiona Apple; Shameika Said, Shameika Stepney (feat. Fiona Apple)

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Today’s SotW was written by a special guest contributor – my daughter Abby.  Abby has a very wide-ranging, eclectic interest in music.  She also has a steel-trap memory for lyrics.  She originally gave me an idea for a SotW topic, but I persuaded her to write it herself.  Here it is!

In April 2020 Fiona Apple released her fifth studio album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

The album garnered a lot of buzz, as the moody, experimental album dropped during peak shelter-in-place and mirrored the confusion and frustration many of us were feeling at the time. The album secured a spot on many ‘Best of the Year’ lists, including the track “Ladies” as one of Rolling Stones’ top 10 songs of 2020.  But the track that really caught my attention was “Shameika,” one of today’s SotW. 

In the song, Apple remembers a moment from her elementary school days where she was bullied.  In an interview with Vulture, Apple recalled, “I was probably 11 or so… I just remember being in the cafeteria, a bunch of girls at one end of the table.  I came over to sit with them, and they started laughing at me.  So I sat one seat away but still tried to be close to them.  Shameika came up, and she was like, “Why are you trying to sit with those girls?  You have potential.”  This quote from Shameika is the chorus of the song: 

Shameika said I had potential (x4) 

In the Vulture article Apple confesses, “when I first wrote the song, I was not entirely convinced she existed.  Because I have this one memory and it’s a very big memory for me.  But maybe I created this person.” 

Back then I didn’t know what potential meant 

And Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend but 

She got through to me and I’ll never see her again 

She got through to me and I’ll never see her again 

As it turns out, they would see each other again.  Over the years, Apple had kept in touch with a teacher from her elementary school.  This teacher remembered and kept in touch with Shameika Stepney as well, and reached out to both of them after the song was released, hoping to link the two. 

Stepney and Apple reconnected, and in an interview with Pitchfork, Stepney admits “I’ve always been a protector of anyone else who’s smaller, who can’t defend themselves.”  Stepney is also a musician, and in November released her own song “Shameika Said,” which features vocals from Fiona Apple. This is today’s second SotW. 

Pitchfork interviewed Shameika on her life and her music career – read the full story here.

These songs and the story behind them are a true testament to the fact that our actions, big or small, can impact others in a life-changing way.  We should all try to remember this when we interact with others!

Enjoy… until next week.