Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Have A Funky New Year!

Have a Funky New Year everyone! And thanks very much for visiting my blog! See you next year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Junkie Business

Prompted by a notice in yesterday’s paper that on this December 29 Marianne Faithfull celebrated her sixty-second birthday, I began thinking about the records made under the influence of drugs—and the undeniably voyeuristic pleasures of listening to these records. I remembered a story British film director Stephen Weeks told me about the making of his movie GHOST STORY (1974), in which Marianne Faithfull had a supporting role. It was filmed in 1973, when, unbeknownst to Stephen, she was a full-blown junkie. He told me about shooting the scene in the film in which she approaches her brother (played by Leigh Lawson) across a ballroom dance floor. She was so loaded when she was being filmed for the scene that he had to have grips crouch down behind her, out of sight of the camera, and prop her up so she wouldn’t collapse on the floor. Happily she has kicked the habit and is now drug-free, but perhaps her greatest record, BROKEN ENGLISH (1979), was made while she was still struggling with addiction. While there are many songs warning of the dangers of drugs, none of them, unfortunately, approach the experience of listening to records in which the musicians were still gettin’ their kicks. I have assembled here ten instances of records made under the influence, although there are, of course, many others.

Chet Baker, Chet Baker Sings and Plays from the Film “Let’s Get Lost” (Novus)
Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor)
Marianne Faithfull, Broken English (Island)
New York Dolls, New York Dolls (Mercury)
Charlie Parker, The Legendary Dial Masters, Vols. 1 & 2 (Stash)
Art Pepper Quintet, Smack Up (Contemporary)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Capitol)
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones)
Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Sony)
Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night (Reprise)


In the dead of winter, you dream of warmer climes—such as the Caribbean. Jamaica, for instance. About the time Elvis was popularizing rock ‘n’ roll in 1956, a group of young black men in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica were transforming American rhythm and blues, that they picked up from radio stations located in Miami and New Orleans, into ska. The called themselves the Skatalites after the Jamaican English imitation of the music’s energetic rhythm, ska-aska-ska-aksa. While ska antedated both rocksteady and reggae (the latter a form of ska that incorporated Rastafarian-derived rhythms—or “ridims”), interest in late 50s and early 60s ska surged as a result of the 2 Tone movement in Britain in the mid to late 1970s, a form of music that developed as a result of British bands re-inventing the Jamaican music they heard growing up—bands such as The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat, Bad Manners, and The Bodysnatchers. While 2 Tone records were imported into the United States, those whose tastes inclined toward punk encountered the British form of ska through bands such as the Clash. The evidence for this can be found in the soundtracks of two films. Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (1976) appeared in Guy Ritchie’s LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998), a British film, while the Clash’s version (1977) was used in Wes Anderson’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), an American film.

Interviewed by Michael Jarrett in May 1995, Mick Jones, former lead guitarist with the Clash, explained how reggae and ska became forms of music embraced by punk rockers:

Reggae was punk’s other chosen music. There weren’t enough good punk records, and so DJs used to supplement them with what was happening on the reggae scene. One of the main DJs was Don Letts.... He used to turn everybody on to new records from Jamaica. Also, where we grew up [in Brixton], there was a big West Indian population. There was bluebeat and ska--before reggae. We grew up around that music as well. In the way that the Stones used to cover the latest r&b hits, when they started, the Clash did “Police and Thieves.” It was the latest hit of that summer [1976]. That’s how we ended up doing it. We weren’t trying to do reggae. We were trying to do our approximation--where we were coming from. It turned out differently. It wasn’t like the Police doing a “wet” reggae thing. (166-67)

Various, A Checkered Past: The 2 Tone Collection (Chrysalis)
Various, The Real Jamaica Ska (Sony)
Various, Roots of Reggae, Volume One: Ska (Rhino)
Various, Respect to Studio One: 33 Dancehall, Reggae and Ska Classics (Heartbeat)
Various, The Rough Guide to Ska (World Music Network)

“Police and Thieves”:
by Junior Murvin - This Is Reggae Music, Vol. 3 (Island)
by The Clash - The Clash (Sony)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pop Tones

I came across the following article, Music of a Generation: 19 Songs That Transformed America, at, the on-line version of American Profile, a magazine that is bundled once a week with our local newspaper. For those interested, I have reproduced the list of 19 songs below, and despite the fact that there are some very good songs on the list, the article accompanying the list, as well as the list itself, warrants some remarks. For one thing, as Donald Clarke observes in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), post-World War II popular music “was the era of the white pop singer,” and while this is undeniably true, many of the most successful white pop singers of the era are not represented in the American Profile list, conspicuous in their absence. As Clarke observes:

Between 1950-1955 inclusive, Sinatra had seven hit singles . . . Nat Cole twenty-one, Tony Bennett eleven, Perry Como twenty-five, Eddie Fisher thirty, Frankie Laine twenty, Johnnie Ray ten and Guy Mitchell nine. (306-07)

Remarkably, only one (Johnnie Ray) of these pop singers is represented on the list of “19 Songs That Transformed America.” About the post-war, early 1950s era, Clarke observes, “It is evident in retrospect that the new technology of the long-playing record had an effect on the pop chart and on radio broadcasting right from the beginning,” and of course he’s right (302). His point is that it is deceptive to look to the pop charts as a true index of post-war American musical tastes. While most of the 19 songs that putatively “transformed America” reached #1 on the charts, in the post-war era such charts hardly reflected the vast diversity of music in America, the data itself gathered from sources located for the most part only in the major cities, those radio stations with the largest demographic. What about jazz music (largely album-oriented)? Bebop? As Clarke claims,

As a measure of artistry, even in the heyday of the pop singer, the singles chart had ceased to matter as an indicator of quality as soon as grown-ups could buy albums. . . . If anything, there were even more girl singers making hits in the early 1950s, but a direct comparison with the males is difficult. To begin with, the list of hits for each female artist is shorter on average, suggesting that they received less promotion from their record companies and/or less attention from the DJs; or perhaps they simply made fewer records. On the whole, the women were more diffident about success, or less able to chase it for personal reasons: Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Joni James each retired from the music scene, for various reasons, while Peggy Lee seems to have left it and come back as she pleased. As in the case of the males, however, most had made their start during the Big Band Era. One of the best, and best loved, was Jo Stafford.... (307)

Jo Stafford (pictured), most certainly one of the most popular, if not most popular, female vocalists of the 1940s and early 50s, later excelled in the genre of musical parody, which I remarked upon briefly in my last blog. Sometime in the 1950s she, along with her husband Paul Weston, formed a comedy duo known as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, releasing an album in 1960 titled JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS, in which they parody a bad lounge act—many years before Bill Murray, in the late 1970s, did the same sort of thing on Saturday Night Live. Incidentally, JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS won a Grammy Award in 1961 for Best Comedy Album. And speaking of the late 70s, Jo Stafford came out of retirement to record a parody, in the Darlene Edwards style, of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” which is available on her page. Incidentally, she died about five months ago at the venerable age of 90.

In any case, here’s the list of the “19 Songs That Transformed America” as published in the American Profile article. It is, of course, provocative, but that is essentially the purpose of any list in the first place.

1946 “The Gypsy” – The Ink Spots
1947 “Near You” – Francis Craig and His Orchestra
1948 “Buttons and Bows” – Dinah Shore and Her Happy Valley Boys
1949 “Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” – Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra
1950 “The Tennessee Waltz” – Patti Page
1951 “Cry” – Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads
1952 “You Belong to Me” – Jo Stafford
1953 “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You)” – Les Paul and Mary Ford
1954 “Little Things Mean a Lot” – Kitty Kallen
1955 “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)” – Perez “Prez” Prado
1956 “Don’t Be Cruel” – Elvis Presley
1957 “All Shook Up” – Elvis Presley
1958 “At the Hop” – Danny & The Juniors
1959 “Mack the Knife” – Bobby Darin
1960 “The Theme From A Summer Place” – Percy Faith and His Orchestra
1961 “Tossin’ and Turnin’” – Bobby Lewis
1962 “I Can’t Stop Loving You” – Ray Charles
1963 “Sugar Shack” – Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – The Beatles

The Answer Song

An “answer song” is a recording made in response (“answer”) to a previously released recording. In literary theory, the answer song would be considered an example of intertextuality, a term used to describe the way any particular text depends upon prior texts for its meaning. Hence a parodic imitation of an earlier song may also be considered a form of answer song—for instance, John Zacherle’s “I’m the Ghoul From Wolverton Mountain” as a parody of Jo Ann Campbell’s “(I’m the Girl On) Wolverton Mountain,” which in turn was an answer song to Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain,” or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s many parodies, such as “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s Beat It.” The answer song is usually an attempt to exploit the popularity of an earlier song for economic motives, although the answer song can be motivated out of other reasons as well—to argue a different philosophical or ideological position, for instance. By way of analogy, think of the way the Darwin fish depended upon an individual’s knowledge of the Christian fish sign, but thoroughly subverted its meaning. A good example of this latter relationship is Kitty Wells’ indignant answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Usually the answer song is made by a different artist than recorded the original, but there are interesting exceptions to this rule, such as Sly Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” which is a response to his own earlier song, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” In the late 1950s and 60s many answer songs were often cast as female responses to a (hit) song by a male artist—Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House” was a female (domestic) response to Roger Miller’s carefree song of the road, “King of the Road,” for instance. And sometimes, the answer song can actually be used as a form of rhetorical response in a feud between antagonistic artists, such as the famous one between Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Some Examples Of Answer Songs:

Shake, Rattle and Roll (Bill Haley & His Comets) – Bark, Battle, And Brawl (The Platters)
The Wild Side of Life (Hank Thompson) – It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (Kitty Wells)
King of the Road (Roger Miller) – Queen of the House (Jody Miller)
It’s My Party (Lesley Gore) – Judy’s Turn to Cry (Leslie Gore)
Blue Navy (Diane Renay) – Kiss Me, Sailor (Diane Renay)
My Guy (Mary Wells) – My Girl (The Temptations)
Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire) – Dawn of Correction (The Spokesmen)
Universal Soldier (Donovan) – The Universal Coward (Jan & Dean)
Southern Man (Neil Young) – Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
White Christmas (Bing Crosby) – Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley)
Stand By Your Man (Tammy Wynette) – (I’m A) Stand By My Woman Man (Ronnie Milsap)
Norwegian Wood (The Beatles) – Fourth Time Around (Bob Dylan)
Street Fighting Man (The Rolling Stones) – Revolution (The Beatles)
Too Many People (Paul McCartney) – How Do You Sleep? (John Lennon)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Today's The Day

I apologize for not being the most diligent blogger of late, but I’ve been extremely busy working on my book proposal for consideration in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books on significant rock albums of the past forty years. Note that I avoided using the term “classic,” using “significant” instead, although many of the albums written about so far in the series I would consider classic rock albums. Many of the albums that have been the basis of books in the series, while not necessarily considered “classic” by the rock establishment, have shown a continuous market value and a stubbornly persistent public presence, and albums that have shown such resilience have been favored by the series editors as well.

I am happy to announce that I’m now finished with the proposal—three weeks later than I’d intended, however—and that it has now been officially submitted to the editors. I happen to consider the album I chose to write a proposal for a classic—Neil Young’s TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (1975). I noticed that neither Neil Young nor TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT was listed among the artists in the first hundred proposals received by series editor David Barker, although that isn’t the reason I chose to write a proposal on it; indeed, I’d already decided to write on the album some time ago, even before the latest call for proposals was announced in early November. Of course, just because Neil Young wasn’t among the musicians listed in the first hundred proposals doesn’t mean one hasn’t since been received on Young, nor does it mean in the weeks since the posting of that list that the editor hasn’t received a proposal (or two) on TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (A proposal for a book on the album was not submitted during the last call for proposals since the editors were then enforcing the one artist/one album rule.) In fact, I would be surprised if he hasn’t.

Why did I choose to write on TONIGHTS THE NIGHT? Not for the obvious reason that the album is acknowledged as a classic, but rather out of a desire to interrogate the very idea of what we mean by “classic” in the first place. While endorsed by the critical establishment—it is listed as #331 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, just above The Beatles’ HELP!—its total sales (this again according to Rolling Stone) are fewer than 500,000 in contrast to HARVEST’s 4.3 million copies sold. But the fact is, TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT speaks to me in a way that HARVEST does not, and as a sage old writer once remarked, you should write about what you know, so I chose to write about TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT.

What are my expectations? Hopeful . . . but realistic. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, odds for acceptance are about 1 in 25—not very good. But of course I assume I stand a chance or I wouldn’t have taken the time to submit a proposal. Please wish me luck! And if you’re that individual who submitted a book proposal on TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT and it is accepted rather than mine, then I can honestly say that I look forward to reading your book, because I'm very convinced the album merits such a focused discussion.