Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Creedence Clearwater Revival – "Fortunate Son" (1969)

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don't they help themselves?
But when the taxman comes to the door,
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale

[NOTE: I wrote about Creedence Clearwater Revival’s in-your-face, tear-you-a-new-one single, “Fortunate Son” – a 1969 hit that I simply had to include in the initial group of inductees into the  2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME – way back in 2010, shortly before I headed off to Joplin, Missouri, to attend my 40th high-school reunion.  What follows is an updated version of my original post.]

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"Fortunate Son" is near-perfect two-minute-and-twenty-second work of art.  The words, the music, the performance are all just right.  (Everyone and their brother has covered the song, but there's nothing like the original.)

Most importantly, the attitude of this song is just right.  John Fogerty is pissed off at the powers that be, and he's not afraid to let everyone know it.  That attitude makes it not only a quintessential rock-and-roll song, but also a very patriotic song – the Founding Fathers had some issues with the powers that were as well.

It's a song that I can't imagine ever being performed at a Super Bowl halftime show.  Of course, I couldn't imagine "Won't Get Fooled Again" ever being performed at a Super Bowl halftime show, but the Who fooled me.  (At least they weren't shameless enough to play "My Generation.")

I remember my mother expressing exactly the same sentiment expressed in the lines quoted above when I was a kid.  (People around here say "garage sale" or "yard sale," but my mother always said "rummage sale.")

It may have been possible to cheat on your taxes back in the day by hiding your more valuable possessions when the tax assessor made his yearly visit to check out your house, although I doubt that many people were able to get away with very much.  But my mother was convinced that the richer people in town were beating the system one way or the other. 

My parents grew up during the Depression, and both of their families had just enough to get by on.  Not surprisingly, they were somewhat resentful (envious?) of the "silver spoon" types.  

Also not surprising was their conservatism when it came to spending their hard-earned money.  We lived in a very modest house -- we had to share one bathroom, which is a horror I pray my children will never have to experience -- and ate out no more than once a week.  Our summer vacations were usually trips to Springfield or Tulsa for a few days in a motel with a swimming pool.

But somehow my father managed to save enough money to pay cash for the brand-new 1970 Olds Cutlass he gave me shortly after my 18th birthday.

A couple of years earlier, he had promised me a new car when I turned 18 if I fulfilled certain conditions -- I never forgot the promise, and to his credit, he lived up to his end of the bargain. (About 10 years ago, we bought a used Toyota Camry from my mother-in-law as a third car for my oldest son and daughters to drive to school. That used Camry cost less than my 1970 Cutlass had cost 30 years earlier – and I made a whole lot more money than my parents did.)

John Fogerty, the author of "Fortunate Son," said he wrote the song with President Richard Nixon's son-in-law, David Eisenhower, in mind.  Eisenhower was not only the son-in-law of a president but the grandson of another president.

I don't think this was really a Republican/Democrat issue for Fogerty.  If Lyndon Johnson had been reelected in 1968 instead of dropping out of the race, Fogerty could have written the same song about one of LBJ's sons-in-law.  The singer of the song "ain't no senator's son" and "ain't no millionaire's son" – and in this country, there are senators and millionaires in both political parties.  What mattered for the typical Vietnam draftee wasn't whether his father voted Republican or Democrat – it was that his father wasn't a high-ranking government official or a millionaire.

Ironically, neither President Nixon nor President Eisenhower grew up as "fortunate sons" – both of their fathers struggled to make a living.  The two men succeeded despite not having wealthy or politically influential relatives to pave the way for them.  While David Eisenhower was certainly a "fortunate son" and he did not have to serve in Vietnam, he was on active duty in the Navy for three years, which he mostly spent on a guided-missile cruiser in the Mediterranean.  

By the way, Fogerty never went to Vietnam either.  He managed to get into an Army Reserve unit before he was drafted, and spent only six months on active duty -- all of it in the United States.  Maybe he felt a little guilty about that.

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At least one of the key characters in the 2010 movie, "Winter's Bone," was a Vietnam vet whose father wasn't a senator or a millionaire either.  "Thump" Milton is a meth dealer who is the most feared man in the part of the Missouri Ozarks where the movie takes place – and his wife (who beats the snot out of Ree Dolly, the teenaged girl who is the protagonist of the film) is a close second.

"Winter's Bone" was filmed on location in the hills near Branson.  (One scene takes place at the Springfield stockyards.)  Take away the pickup trucks and satellite-TV dishes and things are much as they were 100 years ago – one memorable scene shows Ree (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, who was an unknown at the time) and her younger brother and sister hunting squirrel, and later skinning and gutting their catch before cooking them for dinner.

Click here to watch the trailer for "Winter's Bone."

In one scene, Ree and her younger siblings are looking at an old family photo album.  Some of the pictures indicate that the family had been more respectably middle-class a generation or two earlier.  Those days are long gone by the time the movie takes place, however – Ree and her family (like almost everyone else we meet in the movie) live in an isolated, broken-down house surrounded by junk and trash.  Her father supports them by cooking crystal meth and shooting the occasional deer, rabbit, or squirrel.

Based on the photos in the family album, you  would have expected his family to have ended up in a tidy little tract house in some tidy little town.  But somewhere along the way, the family's fortunes jumped the shark.

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One reason that I wanted to see "Winter's Bone" is that some of my ancestors settled in the area where the movie takes place shortly before the Civil War.

My great-great-great-grandfather, James Hailey – who was one of 14 children – settled in Douglas County, Missouri, in 1853, when he was 29.  Douglas County is one of the smallest counties in Missouri, with a population of just over 13,000.  The county seat is Ava (population 3000), which is the only incorporated city in the county.  Fewer than 10% of the county's adult residents have a college degree, and only 70% have graduated from high school.

James Hailey was kind of a big deal in Douglas County – which local residents used to refer to as "Booger County."  He and two other men were appointed to locate a new county seat a few years after the Civil War ended, and James is credited with naming the new city Ava after a city in ancient Mesopotamia that is mentioned in II Kings, chapter 17.  (According to one source, James picked Ava as the name because he "wanted to ensure that all could spell the new name."  According to another, he picked the name because it meant "overthrowing," a reference to the fact that he and his two comrades stole the county records and brought them to Ava to ensure that it would become the county seat instead of a rival town.)  James served as circuit clerk, county judge, probate judge, county treasurer, and postmaster, and also owned a hotel on the courthouse square for some 20 years.  (Click here for a more detailed biography of James Hailey.)

My great-great-grandfather, William Franklin Hailey, was the oldest of James's nine children.  He seems to have been relatively prosperous as well, and was very religious – he helped establish a Christian school and seminary in Ava, and named the oldest of his nine children Moses.  A daughter was named Clara Temperance Hailey, so I'm guessing he wasn't much of a drinker.

My great-grandfather, the aforementioned Moses Hailey – who had 11 children to support – moved around a lot (from Ava to North Dakota and back, and then on to Oregon).  That's sometimes a sign that things aren't going all that well, but things got even worse the next generation.

My grandfather Howard died at age 41, in 1934 – in the middle of the depression – leaving my grandmother with eight children to raise.  The oldest was only 18, and the youngest was a newborn.  I'm not sure how they survived.

But while it wouldn't have been all that surprising if some or all of them and their kids had ended up cooking or dealing meth to make a buck and eating deer stew and fried squirrel, none of them did.  My generation of Haileys is doing fine, and so far it appears that I don't have to worry about any of my kids ending up like the characters in "Winter's Bone."  (Knock on wood.)

Click here to listen to "Fortunate Son."

And click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, July 27, 2018

Marvin Gaye – "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968)

You could have told me yourself
That you loved some one else
Instead I heard it through the grapevine

[NOTE: Motown Records cast a giant shadow over pop music in the sixties and early seventies, and I think that I had to include at least one Motown classic in the initial group of inductees into the 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME.  Here's a somewhat revised version of my February 2011 post about what I believe is the greatest of all the Motown hit singles of the sixties.]

Motown Records was a remarkably successful manufacturer of hit records.

I don't know enough about organizational analysis in general or the particulars of Motown's operations to explain that success.  But what is clear from even a quick-and-dirty study of Motown is that the company paid attention to details – nothing was left to chance.

For example, Motown had an artist development program.  Motown sought out talented musicians, but many of those musicians had been raised in housing projects and were very young and inexperienced – they weren't ready for prime time, so to speak.

Motown's first headquarters
Motown's artist development program turned out performers who were well-groomed, well-dressed, and very, very polished both onstage and offstage.

Motown acts were just as popular with white audiences as with black audiences, and that may have been as much the result of the demeanor and appearance of Motown performers as it was about their music (although their music was as good as anyone's).  Motown artists like the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations called into question many of the old white stereotypes about African-Americans.

The Motown production process has been described as "factory-like," but you can't argue with the results.  The 1960s were a time when the best-selling pop music was also the best pop music, and Motown's records were best sellers and very good.  The "Motown Sound" was as distinctive and recognizable as a Cadillac's tailfins, and the best Motown records sound just as good today as they did 40 years ago.  

Berry Gordy
Motown's founder and CEO, Berry Gordy, held quality-control meetings every Friday morning during the label's heyday, and his word was law when it came to which records got released.  As hard as it is to believe now, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" didn't make the cut the first time it was presented at one of the Friday morning meetings.

"Grapevine" was written by Barrett Strong, who was the singer on Motown's first big hit, "Money (That's What I Want"), which was released in 1960.  (The song was actually released on Tamla, another of Gordy's labels.)

Strong never had another hit as a singer, and eventually joined the Motown songwriting staff, where he teamed up with Norman Whitfield, a Motown producer.

The duo is best known for the series of "psychedelic soul" hits they co-wrote for the Temptations -- including "Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion," and "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone."

Norman Whitfield (top) and Barrett Strong
But in 1966, Strong had no track record, and Berry Gordy was not impressed by the version of the song that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded in August of that year.  In fact, he said it was "horrible."

Whitfield had worked successfully with Marvin Gaye, and persuaded him to record "Grapevine" in April 1967.  Gaye's recording of the song featured not only the usual Motown session musicians and backup singers, but also members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  The singer and Whitfield clashed over how Gaye should sing the song, but Whitfield eventually prevailed.

Once again, Berry Gordy gave "Grapevine" a thumbs down.  A couple of months later, Gladys Knight & the Pips were given a crack at the song.

Gordy didn't think much of their recording either, and Motown didn't do much to support it.  But the single reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart in November of that year and remained at #1 for six weeks.  It almost made it to the top spot on the Pop chart as well, but peaked at #2 (behind only the Monkees' "Daydream Believer").

Give Norman Whitfield credit.  He still believed in the Marvin Gaye "Grapevine," and pushed Gordy to release it as well.  The song was added to a Gaye album that came out in September 1968, but was not released as a single until so many radio DJs started playing it that Gordy finally relented.

Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" outsold all previously released Motown singles.  It stayed at #1 on both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts for seven consecutive weeks in late 1968 and early 1969.  

I wonder if Berry Gordy ever said to  Norman Whitfield, "You were right and I was wrong."  Probably not.

The Gladys Knight version of the song was not a particularly convincing interpretation of the song.  Gaye's record, by contrast, is perfect.  Whitfield dug deep into his ball of producer's tricks, and he hit the ball way out of the park.

Click here to listen to the Marvin Gaye version of "Grapevine."  

Click the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Grass Roots – "Midnight Confessions" (1968)

There's a little gold ring
You wear on your hand
Makes me understand

According to Wikipedia, this song “appears to be a musical dramatization of the midnight confession of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's love for Hester Prynne in the classic 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, The Scarlet Letter.”

The Reverend Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne
Butter my butt and call me a biscuit – I had no idea!

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I’m embarrassed to admit that until about an hour ago, I thought that the title of this song was “Midnight Confession,” singular – not “Midnight Confessions,” plural.

This song was released fifty years ago, and I’ve heard it hundreds (thousands?) of times.  Better late than never!

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“Midnight Confessions” was the last song I chose to include in the inaugural class of the 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME.  But that doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy of that honor than the other nine selections.

It’s true that the Grass Roots don’t have the cachet of the other artists whose singles were inducted in my hall of fame this year – artists like the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and Marvin Gaye.

That may be because some view the Grass Roots as an ersatz group somewhat akin to the Monkees.

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The Grass Roots were the brainchild of the songwriting and producing team of P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri, who had recorded a demo of one of their songs they had written, “Where Were You When I Needed You,” with the help of a group of Los Angeles studio musicians.

P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri
Sloan and Barri’s demo was favorably received, so they went out to find a group willing to become the Grass Roots.  A San Francisco group called the Bedouins fit the bill.  They recorded a new version of “Where Were You When I Needed You,” and begin to perform using the Grass Roots moniker.

But the ex-Bedouins wanted to play more bluesy stuff, which got two thumbs down from Sloan and Barri.  So they recruited a Los Angeles band called The 13th Floor (not to be confused with the 13th Floor Elevators, the legendary Texas psychedelic group), who adopted the Grass Roots moniker and recorded the third version of “Where Were You When I Needed You” to be released under that name.

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The new incarnation of the Grass Roots cranked out over a dozen top-forty hits, the best of which are “I’d Wait a Million Years,” “Temptation Eyes,” and “Midnight Confessions.”  (My favorite Grass Roots song may be “Feelings,” but it failed to crack the Billboard “Hot 100,” so it is not eligible for the 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME – unless I decide to change the rules, of course)

“Midnight Confessions” was the group’s biggest hit, peaking at #5 on the Billboard charts.  It is absolutely mind-boggling that a song this good didn’t reach #1, but it didn’t.

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“Midnight Confessions” was written by Lou Josie, a Clevelander who had written and recorded several rockabilly singles in the fifties.  

A very young Lou Josie
Josie moved to Los Angeles 1961.  After a couple of years, he gave up recording and concentrated on songwriting.  “Midnight Confessions” was by far his most successful composition, and sounds like nothing else he wrote.  

Josie first gave the song to the Ever-Green Blues, a Los Angeles band that he mentored.  Their recording of the song is very similar to the Grass Roots’ recording – it has the same distinctive bass intro and very similar backing horn parts.  The only real difference between the two versions are the lead vocals – Manny Esparza of the Ever-Green Blues really cuts loose, while Rob Grill of the Grass Roots plays it relatively straight.

Click here to listen to the Ever-Green Blues recording of “Midnight Confessions.”

("Confessions," not "Confession" – it's
as plain as the nose on your face!)
Click here to listen to the Grass Roots recording, which fully deserves to have been named to the 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME.

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Steppenwolf – "Born to Be Wild" (1968)

Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space

When I was a young attorney at the Federal Trade Commission many years ago, my friends and I got together and played co-ed softball every Thursday night in the summer.

I’m as competitive as the next guy, but these games were strictly for fun.  We tried to divide the people who showed up so the teams were even.  You could play any position you wanted to play.  (I’m left-handed, but I insisted on playing an inning at shortstop each week.)

On occasion, someone who didn’t get what the game was all about would ask what the score was.  “IT’S TIED!” I would respond.

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We drank beer during the game, and when it got to dark to play, we would go to a local neighborhood bar and continue drinking beer.

I had no sense back in those days, and I didn’t know when to stop drinking.  The jukebox at the bar we went to had “Born to Be Wild” on it, and I would punch it upon around midnight, when I was about 99% out of mind.

I loved to accompany the record by drumming on the table, my thighs, or whatever was handy.  I especially loved pounding along with the drum fill that leads into the last verse.  (You can hear that just over two minutes into the song – at the end of the long instrumental break.)

On occasion, I would get a tad rambunctious while helping out Steppenwolf’s drummer, and the proprietor of the bar would ask me politely to SHUT THE F*CK UP OR LEAVE THE BAR.

I miss those softball games. :-(

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“Born to Be Wild” was written by Dennis Eugene McCrohan, who went by the name Dennis Edmonton . . . until he decided to go by the name – are you ready for this? – Mars Bonfire.

Dennis was a Canadian who was a founding member of a band called the Sparrows.  His brother Jerry  joined the band when the original drummer left, followed by singer/songwriter John Kay.   

The Sparrows eventually became Steppenwolf.  Dennis/Mars was never a member of Steppenwolf, but his “Born to Be Wild” – the song that introduced the phrase “heavy metal” to the rock ’n’ roll vernacular – was the band’s first and biggest hit single.  It made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart in August 1968, and stayed in that position for three consecutive weeks.

What was the record that kept “Born to Be Wild\” out of the #1 spot?  The Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free” was #1 for five straight weeks – including the three weeks that “Born to Be Wild” was #2.

“People Got to Be Free” is a very good song, but “Born to Be Wild” IS A STICK OF DYNAMITE!  In fact, “Born to Be Wild” is THE stick of dynamite when it comes to rock singles.

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Mars Bonfire wrote several other songs for Steppenwolf, and put out a couple of albums as a solo artist.  But “Born to Be Wild” overshadows everything he ever did musically.

In 2015, he was awarded the “Cultural Impact Award” by the Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada (“SOCAN”) for writing “Born to Be Wild.”  You best believe SOCAN got that right.

Mars Bonfire
More recently, Mars Bonfire became a prolific hiker and hike leader.  From Men's Journal:

Mars Bonfire launched his music career writing and performing the Steppenwolf hit, "Born to be Wild."  And since his retirement from the music business in 1995, he's actually been spending his time in the wild, devoting himself to hiking the Sierra Club's list of nearly 300 peaks surrounding Los Angeles.  This past November, Bonfire finished checking off every peak on the list — for the 25th time.  The list has varied year to year, but averaged 272 peaks during Bonfire's effort, meaning he hit 6,800 peaks. 

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 Click here to listen to “Born to Be Wild,” a worthy member of the inaugural class of the 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME. 

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Byrds – "Eight Miles High" (1966)

Eight miles high 
And when you touch down
You'll find that 
It's stranger than known
[NOTE: I first wrote about our next 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME song – written by Gene Clark, who left the Byrds shortly after it was released in part because he was afraid to fly – back in 2012.  Here's a slightly edited version of my original post.]

"Eight Miles High" may well be the most perfect classic rock/pop song ever recorded.  Feel free to name a better one if you can.  (If you think "Stairway to Heaven" or anything by Michael Jackson is better, you're banned from 2 or 3 lines FOREVER!  I mean it – go away!)

It's an odd coincidence that one of other songs that I think rivals the absolute perfection of "Eight Miles High" has the word "miles" in its title.  I'm speaking of the The Who's "I Can See For Miles," of course.

The Who wrote dozens of great songs, but "I Can See For Miles" is clearly their greatest accomplishment.  I don't have the same high opinion of the Byrds' overall body of work – they were certainly not one-hit wonders, but "Eight Miles High" is so much better than anything else they did that's it's almost shocking.

Before we go any further, click here to see a video of a Byrds' TV performance of "Eight Miles High."  (Videos of old TV performances by rock bands are great because they let you see what the band looked like in performance but use the original studio recording of the music – everyone lip-synched back then.)  

Here are the complete lyrics for the song.  (Note the absence of a chorus.  This song broke a lot of rules.)  

Eight miles high and when you touch down
You'll find that it's stranger than known
Signs in the street that say where you're going
Are somewhere just being their own
Nowhere is there warmth to be found
Among those afraid of losing their ground
Rain gray town known for its sound
In places small faces unbound
Round the squares huddled in storms
Some laughing, some just shapeless forms
Sidewalk scenes and black limousines
Some living, some standing alone

"Eight Miles High" is about the Byrds' airline flight to London in August 1965 and their subsequent UK concert tour.  Gene Clark started writing the lyrics while the Byrds were touring the U.S. with the Rolling Stones later that year.  

Clark later admitted the song was about drugs as well as the flight to London.  A radio trade journal article decrying the song's drug connotations caused many American radio stations to take it off their playlist, which is probably why it reached only #14 on the Billboard "Hot 100."  (It's astonishing to me that a song that was so radically experimental made it to #14.  AM radio music in the 1960s was really, really good.) 

Ironically, Clark left the Byrds shortly after "Eight Miles High" was released partly because of his fear of flying.  He also wasn't pleased that the group's record company had decided to make Roger McGuinn the Byrds' primary lead singer, relegating Clark to a secondary role.

After Clark's death in 1991 – after years of drug and alcohol abuse, he died of a heart attack at age 46 – McGuinn claimed that it was his idea to write a song about an airplane journey, and that he contributed lyrics to the song.  But McGuinn's claim seems to be viewed with skepticism by most.

Here's what Byrds bassist Chris Hillman had to say about Clark's lyrical gifts:
People don't give enough credit to Gene Clark.  He came up with the most incredible lyrics. . . . He was awesome!  He was heads above us!  Roger wrote some great songs then, but Gene was coming up with lyrics that were way beyond what he was.  He wasn't a well-read man in that sense, but he would come up with these beautiful phrases.  A very poetic man – very, very productive.
The two primary musical influences on "Eight Miles High" were Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar (who taught George Harrison how to play that instrument) and avant-garde jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.  According to Roger McGuinn, the only recorded music that the Byrds brought along on the 1965 American tour was a tape with Ravi Shankar ragas on one side and two Coltrane albums on the other.  "We played that damn thing 50 or 100 times through a Fender amplifier" that was plugged into the electrical system of the band's tour RV, McGuinn said.

McGuinn later explained that the Coltrane's "India" was the song that inspired the famous repeated four-note guitar riff that he plays on "Eight Miles High."  Click here to listen to "India" – the saxophone part starts about 35 seconds in.

The B-side of "Eight Miles High" – a song titled "Why" – was influenced more by Shankar's sitar music.  Some people thought that McGuinn was playing a sitar on that song, but he was actually playing his trusty 12-string Rickenbacker guitar through a homemade distortion booster.  Click here to listen to "Why."

"Eight Miles High" was first recorded on December 22, 1965, at RCA Studios in Hollywood.  But the Byrds' record label was Columbia, which insisted that the song be re-recorded at that company's record studio.

Click here to listen to the original version of the song.  It's very interesting, but sounds rough and unfinished in spots.  McGuinn's guitar sounds quite different.

Last but certainly not least, click here to listen to the version of "Eight Miles High" that we know today.

It begins with an ominous-sounding Chris Hillman bass line, includes McGuinn's Coltrane-style 12-string solos, and features "ghostly and uplifting" harmonies (to quote Richie Unterberger's history of folk-rock music, appropriately titled Eight Miles High).  The ending is evocative of an airplane hitting the tarmac and cruising to a stop – the perfect finale to a truly perfect song.

Everyone from Leo Kottke to Roxy Music to Hüsker Dü to Golden Earring has covered "Eight Miles High."  Some of the cover versions are very good, but let's not kid ourselves – you can't improve on perfection.

Here's a link you can use to order "Eight Miles High" from Amazon:

Friday, July 13, 2018

Beach Boys – "Good Vibrations" (1966)

I don’t know where
But she sends me there

The recording of Pet Sounds – the greatest pop album of all time – overlapped the recording of “Good Vibrations.”  But for some reason, “Good Vibrations” didn’t end up on the Pet Sounds album.  

“Good Vibrations” took longer and cost more to record than any other single of its era.  (It cost about as much to produce “Good Vibrations” as it cost to record the entire Pet Sounds album, which was one of the most expensive albums ever recorded.)

Brian Wilson in the recording studio
That’s in part because Brian Wilson didn’t seem to have a clear vision of what he wanted the song to be when he began to record it.

After more than a dozen recording sessions in several different studios, Wilson had 90 hours of tape.  He assembled the song by selecting six musical fragments from all that tape and splicing them together.  

Brian Wilson – who was 23 years old at the time – threw so much into “Good Vibrations” that it wouldn’t have been surprising if the final product had ended up being a big mess.

But there was method in Wilson’s madness.  “Good Vibrations” turned out to be the most sublime and mind-boggling three minutes of pop music ever recorded.

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“Good Vibrations” was the Beach Boys’ third #1 single, but their first to sell a million copies.

Recording the “Good Vibrations” vocals
While the public responded strongly to the record, some of Brian Wilson’s peers – including Phil Spector, Pete Townshend, and Paul McCartney – didn’t get it.  

McCartney said “Good Vibrations” was a great record, but went on to say that it didn't quite have the emotional thing that Pet Sounds had for me.”

Is “Good Vibrations” too cerebral?  Writing in Billboard on the 50th anniversary of the song’s release, Andrew Underberger argues that it’s not:

[W]riting off Wilson’s masterpiece of the mind as being fundamentally heartless is reductive and inaccurate.  The true brilliance of “Good Vibrations” comes in the juxtaposition of its architectural perfection with its absolute emotional incoherence.  Sonically, as orchestrated by Wilson, the thing is immaculate and considered enough that the term “pocket symphony” basically had to be invented for it.  Lyrically, as penned by Beach Boys lieutenant Mike Love, it’s almost total mush, with mumbled couplets you couldn't pick out of a lineup (“When I look in her eyes / She goes with me to a blossom world”) and notable overreliance on the is-that-really-even-a-word “excitations.” 

However, Wilson and Love do get head and heart to match up on one single occasion in “Good Vibrations,” and appropriately, it's saved for the clangorous mid-song climax: “I don't know where, but she sends me there.”  It's a simple line, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a much better one throughout pop's entire back catalog, at least when it comes to conveying how the emotional rush of young love exceeds the mental capacity for cognitive processing.  The Beach Boys don’t know what they’re feeling on “Good Vibrations,” but they certainly know that they’re feeling it . . . .

Bassist Carol Kaye and other members of the
 “Wrecking Crew” recording “Good Vibrations”
You could teach an entire college course on “Good Vibrations,” analyzing Wilson's many-sided jewel from a countless number of perspectives, but that one lyric is all you really need.  Some love songs try to write from the head, and some from the heart, but “Good Vibrations” is one of the only ones daring enough to do both simultaneously, attempting to reflect the human reality of never being able to totally turn off one or the other (or to cut off communication between the two).  That it does so successfully is the real reason we're still talking about it half a century later.

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There’s an almost infinite supply of articles and videos about “Good Vibration” on the Internet.

Click here to watch an excerpt from the 2014 movie, “Love & Mercy,” that shows Brian Wilson driving the other Beach Boys (especially Mike Love) and various studio musicians crazy during the recording of “Good Vibrations.”

Click here to watch an interesting video that breaks down the structure of “Good Vibrations.”

Click here to listen to “Good Vibrations.”

And click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Association – "Along Comes Mary" (1966)

And when the morning
Of the warning's passed 
The gassed and flaccid kids
Are flung across the stars
The psychodramas
And the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung
And hung upon the scars

[NOTE: I first wrote about our next 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME song – a work of genius that was written by Tandyn Almer, who suffered from bipolar disorder and lived in obscurity in Washington, D.C., for many years before he died in 2013 – back in 2010.  What follows is a slightly edited version of my original post.]

They don't write lyrics like that any more, do they?  I'm a little surprised this was a top 10 song – it's very complicated.
I'm looking at the KQYX "Pepsi Sing-a-Long Survey" for May 26, 1966 (the week I turned 14).  KQYX's frequency was 1560, so the survey features the "Top 15" and the "Plus 60," plus five "KQYX climbers" and a "Pick Hit of the Week" – altogether, 81 songs.

One of my nerdier hobbies as a kid was listening to faraway AM radio stations.  It's called "DX'ing" – "DX" is ham-radio talk for a distant station.  (I still remember most of the clear-channel AM stations that I could reliably pick up -- 700 was Cincinnati, 750 was Atlanta, 760 Detroit, 780 Chicago, 820 Dallas, etc., etc., etc.)

Some of the guys who were in the AM DX'ing club I joined for a few years also collected radio station "top 40"-type printed surveys and traded them, so I have dozens of surveys from large and small radio stations around the country.

I think it's amazing how many great songs – and what a diverse group of great songs – are on this KQYX survey.  (I've provided links to Youtube videos for some of these songs.)

"When a Man Loves a Woman" (Percy Sledge) was #1 that week -- not a personal favorite of mine, but a well-known classic.

The Supremes held on to the #2 spot with "Love Is (Like an Itching in My Heart") -- not one of their biggest hits, but classic Motown.

#3 was Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." ("Everybody must get stoned" -- I'm a little surprised that one got airplay in Joplin).

#4 was "Monday, Monday" by the Mamas and Papas – a wonderful song and a perfectly conceived and executed performance.

#5 was "Groovy Kind of Love," by the Mindbenders ("When I'm feelin' blue/All I have to do is /Take a look at you/Then I'm not so blue" – a classic "British Invasion" song).

#6 -- "It's a Man's World"/James Brown.

#9 -- "Green Grass"/Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

#11 -- "How Does That Grab Ya, Darlin' ?"/Nancy Sinatra.  (All of Nancy's songs were pretty much the same song – you smart-aleck tomcat, you!)

#12 -- "I Am a Rock"/Simon and Garfunkel.

#15 -- "Sweet Talkin' Guy"/Chiffons.

#17 -- "Sloop John B"/Beach Boys.

#18 -- "Paint It Black"/Rolling Stones.

#20 -- "Did You (Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind)"/Lovin' Spoonful.

#21 -- "Good Lovin' "/Young Rascals.  (I believe this was one of the songs the band I was in with Jack Davidson, Joe Davis, Bruce Hodson, and Jim Matthews played a year or so later at the South Junior High 9th-grade coronation.  I remember listening to this 45 over and over and over.)

#26 --"Eight Miles High"/Byrds.  (I was never a big Byrds fan, but this is an astonishingly original song – everything about it is distinctive and unique.  To me, one of the top 10 AM-radio songs of all time.)

#27 -- "Red Rubber Ball"/Cyrkle.  (Written by Paul Simon.)

#34 -- "Message to Michael"/Dionne Warwick (one of her many classic Burt Bacharach/Hal David-penned hits).

#35 -- "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"/Dusty Springfield.  (The greatest female top-40 voice ever?)

#36 -- "Kicks"/Paul Revere and the Raiders.  (We know all about them, don't we?)

#53 -- "Somebody Help Me"/Spencer Davis Group.  (Steve Winwood before there was Traffic.)

#54 -- "Road Runner"/Jr. Walker and the All-Stars.  (Classic Memphis soul – perhaps not as good as "Shotgun," but very solid.)

#58 -- "Hold On, I'm Comin' "/Sam and Dave.  (More classic Memphis soul.)

#70 -- "Louie Louie"/Kingsmen.  (Once of the most incompetent hit singles ever recorded – often imitated, but never exceeded.)

#72 -- "Cool Jerk"/Capitols. 

And last but not least, we come to today's song – one of the "climbers" that week, "Along Came Mary," the first successful single from the Association – not its biggest hit (they had two #1 singles and a #2 in 1966 and 1967), but its best song by far, IMHO.

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I wonder how many of the songs on the current Billboard pop chart will be remembered 44 years from today.  One thing no one can argue with, my friends, is that we had great music when we were growing up.  I'm sure May 26, 1966 was a pretty typical week – I bet I could pick any five weeks from 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, or 1970 at random and that the list of current hit songs from at least four out of the five would compare very favorably to this week's list. 

Take another look at the listing above – Supremes, Bob Dylan, Mamas and Papas,  Simon and Garfunkel, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Byrds, Yardbirds . . . and I left off the songs by Stevie Wonder, Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Roy Orbison, the Animals, The Four Tops, etc.

There are a few top-tier artists of that era who were missing from the list that week, however – most notably a band from Liverpool that wasn't bad.  

Why were the Beatles MIA the week of May 26, 1966?  The Beatles had a #1, #2, and #3 in 1966 – not exactly a bad year for them – but two of those had risen and then fallen off the charts by the time May 26 rolled around, and their best single of the year ("Yellow Submarine"/"Eleanor Rigby") wasn't released until August.)

But the rest of the list is so strong, you hardly miss them – that's saying something, isn't it?

Click here to see a video of the Association performing "Along Comes Mary" on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

And click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, July 6, 2018

Who – "I Can See for Miles" (1966)

I can see for miles, 
And miles, 
And miles, 
And miles, 
And miles! 

[NOTE: I first wrote about our next 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME song in January 2011.  What follows is a slightly edited version of my original post.]

James Wood is an English literary critic who now teaches at Harvard and writes for the New Yorker.  (He fancy, huh?)  He wrote an essay about The Who's original drummer, Keith Moon, for the November 29, 2010, issue of that magazine.

That essay is one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing I have ever read.  It is so good in so many different ways that I hardly know where to begin.

Keith Moon
Wood's essay is mostly about Keith Moon, but it is also about rock drumming technique generally, about the emotional essence of drumming, about adolescence, about what it means to be an artist or a performer, and a lot more -- all in roughly 2000 words.

I've always thought "I Can See For Miles" is one of the most original and interesting rock songs of all time.  I would put it in my all-time "top ten" list of rock songs, and it would be as good a choice for #1 on that list as any other. 

"I Can See For Miles" was the Who's biggest hit single in the U.S., and reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Pete Townshend called it "the ultimate Who record."  Paul McCartney wrote "Helter Skelter" in an attempt to top "I Can See For Miles."  (I don't think he succeeded, but both are great songs -- both sound like nothing else ever recorded.) 

The best thing about "I Can See For Miles" is Keith Moon's drumming.  Years ago, I had a realization that this song was the only one I had ever heard where the drums were really the lead instrument.  That may sound like an absurd statement -- but I stand by it.  

James Wood says that all other rock drummers -- even the best ones -- are essentially timekeepers.  They take advantage of the small interstices between a song's phrases to insert brief drum rolls or other "curlicues,"  but the beat is the most important thing for them.  Like the bass player, the drummer is a supporting player – not the star of the show. 

In Wood's words, "Keith Moon ripped all this up."  He believes that "[t]he first principle of Moon's drumming was that drummers do not exist to keep the beat.  He did keep the beat, and kept it very well, but he did it by every method except the traditional one."

Moon was not a supporting player, according to Wood.  Moon "saw himself as a soloist playing with an ensemble of other soloists."

Keith Moon's big-ass drum kit
Wood has hit the nail squarely on the head.  And calling Moon a soloist has nothing to do with drum solos – Moon didn't really do drum solos, which are almost always a waste of time. 

I was pleased to see that Wood managed to work "enjambment" into his essay.  In poetry, enjambment is when a thought doesn't stop when there's a metrical break at the end of a line, but carries over into the next line.  I wasn't really familiar with that concept until I was writing my post about Patricia Barber's "The New Year's Eve Song," which is built on enjambment. 

In "Behind Blue Eyes," Wood notes that Moon doesn't just insert a self-contained "fill" during the break that occurs between the end of one vocal line and the beginning of the next one, but rather "fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the [dividing] line and into the start of the next phrase.  Moon is the drummer of enjambment."  

Click here to listen to "Behind Blue Eyes" -- there are no drums until about 2:20 into the song.

Click here for an isolated track of just the drums.

Wood believes that one reason Keith Moon was so appealing was that he was a drummer "who was the drums."  That's "not because he was the most technically accomplished of drummers but because his joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming.  He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness."

Like Wood, I had a fairly extensive classical music education.  And like him, I really wanted to be a rock drummer.

I was a pretty good student pianist, but sometimes I played the piano like I was playing the drums.  I remember one performance of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" by our high school jazz band where I was incredibly frustrated by the fact that the horns and drums were drowning me out.

I kept pounding out chords louder and louder, but it was to no avail -- even though I was playing on a big-ass Baldwin grand.  (Maybe the audience heard me, but I couldn't hear myself over all the effing trumpets and trombones and saxophones.)

Finally I just started ripping off glissando after glissando, which really tore up my fingers because I was digging into the keyboard so deeply.  

Wood actually taught himself to play on a friend's drum kit, and he knows a lot more about the specifics of drumming techniques than I do.  One of the great things about his article is how he describes in detail exactly what more traditional rock drummers (like Ringo Starr and John Bonham) do, but does so in such a way that almost any rock music fan can understand and appreciate even the finer points he makes.

All I know is that whenever I'm in the right mood – and let's not kid ourselves: alcohol is one of the best ways to create that mood – I become a drummer when I'm listening to rock music.  My thighs are usually my surrogate drums, although a car steering wheel works pretty well, too.  I don't really do air guitar.  I do drums.

James Wood
As I said, Wood's essay covers a lot more than just Keith Moon and rock drumming.  He describes Moon's playing as being "like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do; a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.  Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape.  And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body surrenders its awful self-consciousness."

Wood also says that while playing classical music, or writing poetry, or painting may result in "trancelike moments and even stages of wildness and excess, the pressure of creating lasting forms demands discipline and silence."  But rock music – and especially rock drumming – "is noise, improvisation, collaboration, theatre, showing off, truancy, pantomine, aggression, bliss, tranced collectivity.  It is not concentration so much as fission."

Perhaps the most well-known line from any Who song is "Hope I die before I get old."  Keith Moon did exactly that.  He was only 32 when he died of a massive overdose of a sedative that had been prescribed to alleviate his alcohol withdrawal symptoms.  (He was trying to dry out on his own.)

I would never say that it was a good thing for someone to die at age 32.  But I'm glad I didn't see Keith Moon performing at age 63 with Pete and Roger at last year's SuperBowl.

Click here to read the James Wood article in its entirety.

If you think it's too much work to read, you can click here to listen to a New Yorker podcast that features Wood talking about Moon.

Finally, you can click here to watch a video of the Who lip-synching "I Can See For Miles" on television.  Note that Keith Moon and his famous double bass drum kit have been positioned in front of the rest of the band:

Click below to order the song from Amazon: