Monday, February 25, 2013

One Hit Wonders

Ever notice how some bands come out of nowhere, smack you in the face with something new you just can't get enough of, and then it's like they fell off the planet?  So many bands fizzle before they flame and are unable to build a fire with all that smoke.

I remember listening to albums thinking this was the band that was going to be the next big thing--not the next Beatles, Hendrix, or Rolling Stones--that never has and never will happen.  But so many bands take the music world by storm and before you know it their CD boxed set is one disc...

Some of those "one hit wonders" did leave their mark though, and despite that small taste of the big time many spent years toiling in the clubs, bars, and auditoriums of nameless cities and towns the world over. Some artists actually had strong loyal followings and successful careers.  Unfortunately cracking the "Top 40" in the United States is not as easy as it seems, does not always follow a logical pattern, and is no guarantee of a second taste.  It's like the old saying, "Never underestimate the intelligence of the American public."

Every decade has a laundry list of bands that made a quick splash and faded into the background.  For sanity and credibility reasons I will skip past the "hits" that landed on K-Tel records (that is a blog for another day) and talk about bands that seemed to have an edge when they came out but failed to catch on and stay...bands that are now the answer to trivia questions in living rooms and bars across America...

A quick short list would include Ides of March, Shocking Blue, Mountain, Sugarloaf, Missing Persons (despite having Terry Bozzio on drums), Argent (post Zombies), Quicksilver Messenger Service, and It's a Beautiful Day...remember them? Another band, one that strikes an ironic chord thanks to its name, is Flash in the Pan.  In 1979 the Knack were billed as the next big thing from Liverpool...huh?

Reminiscing over songs and bands that came and went, I always seem to come back to one group in particular...Golden Earring.  A band from Amsterdam, Golden Earring first started playing together in 1961 and are still touring and recording today.  As if that wasn't crazy enough...the original line-up is still together.  I do not believe I can find five people in the United States who can name the members of Golden Earring...and I do not believe I can find five people who have not heard the song "Radar Love."

If there is a band the defines the term "garage band" it is Golden Earring.  Half a century on a tour bus is not exactly the best way to go through life--and it sure as hell ain't the worst.  I remember getting mad when radio stations played the dreaded "edited" version  of the song and cut out most of the instrumental section.  In 1973 this was the song to rock-out eyes burn just thinking about it.

The beauty of the song was it appealed to both sides of a teen romance.  Guys could rock it loud while the girls could rest assured that no matter how long it took, no matter how far away, Romeo was coming back to rescue her...he just had a really cool car instead of a horse.

Golden Earring did manage to release another hit in the US, "Twilight Zone," which was released in 1982.  Nothing however, will ever come close to the success they had with "Radar Love."  I chose the version here because it is the original studio version and the photo is from the original "Moontan" album cover...which of course was not allowed in the United States at the time.  Good thing nobody told Blind Faith the USA was "prudish" when it came to album covers...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love Is In The Air

Ahhhh Valentine's Day...that heartwarming  day of romance planted right in the middle of the deadest part of winter...I have come to believe that Valentine's Day is in February because people need to be reminded of the good things in life--especially when it's cold and crappy outside.  Coming off the recent blizzard that hammered this section of the country, Valentine's Day and romance is a welcome respite from all that is cold and dreary....

Many an artist made a career of being a "romeo;" singing love songs and romantic ditties that melted a girl's hearty but did little to establish any music credibility.  Rick Springfield, Rick Astley, Nick Gilder, Eric Carmen...the list goes on.  However, few artists have been able to re-invent themselves as many times as Van Morrison.  Blues, jazz, R&B, pop, soul, even dabbling in the Christian genre, "Van the Man" has challenged the music industry to slap a label on him.

Walking away from and returning to an industry he felt betrayed him, Van has defied logic, the "experts," and even Father Time.  For my money Van has recorded some of the best love songs ever etched in vinyl.  "Brown Eyed Girl," "Crazy Love," "Moondance," "Gloria,"  and "Ball and Chain" are but a small sample of an amazing career spanning almost six decades.

Van has recorded with some of the greatest in the industry; John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, The Band, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Bobby Womack, Georgie Fame...again the list goes on...Van has even been blessed to be able to record with his daughter Shana.

Few songs, in this blogger's humble opinion, come as close to touching the actual pulse of the human heart as "Tupelo Honey."  Van was a recluse by nature, never known for being the life of the party, and often times was hard if not down right impossible to figure out.  To see him as a romantic almost seems impossible--until you hear him sing.  His wife at the time, Janet Planet, provided backing vocals on the song.

The beauty in the song lies in its simplicity...yet Van can drag vocals through rough sand and make 'em sound like angels singing better than any mere mortal could hope to.  His ability to bring a realness and vulnerability to every song he sings puts Van in a class alone...there is no peer that comes to mind.  He can meld horns, strings, and vocals into one sound so harmonious you are left wondering what the hell just happened to your ears....

I chose this version of "Tupelo Honey" for no other reason than I liked the video...the sound is awesome no matter what you pair it with.  Powerful vocals and a simple statement; "you are my world, and nothing matters without you."  I couldn't have said it better myself...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Bucket List

It seems like everybody today has a bucket list; in the words of my 14-year old daughter it is "so mainstream."  I haven't written an actual list per se, but there are several things I want to do and accomplish before I "kick the bucket."  Starting this blog was one item I have been able to cross off my list...of course seeing it bloom into a full-time paid writing gig is still written in imaginary ink...

One item that has been on my bucket list for a while is to attend a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm's Farm in Woodstock NY. I mention this today for two reasons.  First, I missed going while Levon was alive and playing...something that I truly regret.  Levon made it through alcohol and drug addiction and beat cancer once before succumbing in April 2012.  Second, tonight the Grammy Awards are on television and a planned tribute to Levon Helm is on the schedule.  I am extremely torn because as a rule I do not like award shows...watching the rich and famous pat each other on the back and talk about how talented everyone is can be boring and at times insulting to my intelligence.  But the Grammys were different; musicians being recognized for their work isn't quite the same as actors going through the same paces.  Not many bands or artists were looking to build brands or release a summer blockbuster aimed to cash in at just the right moment. 

When I was a kid most bands and musicians released an album a year and went on tour to promote it.  I remember spending $7.50 on my first concert ticket in 1977 and another $5 outside the Boston Garden for a T-shirt.  Today the tickets are closer to $75 each (and up) and the shirts, which come in several "designer styles," range from $25-$50 more...oh how times have changed. 

Suffice to say the Grammy Awards show, at least for me, has become a caricature of  itself.  The show started to believe its own hype and became disconnected from its roots.  Many "musicians" today don't know how to play instruments--they don't even sing without the help of Auto-Tune...and lip-synching a live performance is considered OK because it is "entertainment."  Yeah right; tell that to John Lee Hooker...

Once again I took a left turn and went down Tangent Avenue...time to get back on track.  I have been listening to a lot of music today by The Band as well as some solo work from Levon Helm.  One of my favorite tunes is "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and it is the song chosen for today's blog.  This song stirs me every time I listen to it.  One thing that stands out to me is Levon is not only the drummer, he sings lead as well.  I am qualified to do neither--but I know enough to know that is no easy feat.  I have listened to the original recording on The Band's second album as well as live recordings on two releases; "Before the Flood" and "Rock of Ages."  But the rawest, most emotion-filled version has to be from "The Last Waltz."

Levon is a native of Arkansas and worked with Robbie Robertson on the lyrics.  He went to great lengths   to make sure the South was well represented in the song.  Historical accuracy was important, and extensive research  was done by both men to capture the facts and the feelings of the end of the Civil War...mission accomplished.

Ironically the last time Levon performed "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was at the show recorded for "The Last Waltz."  He refused to perform the song at any of his Midnight Rambles...perhaps too many painful least we have the raw emotion captured on film as well as vinyl.  I chose the post below because it shows The Band pouring everything they have into the song, and you can see that night in May 1865 in Levon's face (does he ever open his eyes?).  I watch this movie whenever I feel the "realness" of music slipping away...I have been watching it a lot more lately. 

So tonight I will sit through the Grammy Awards waiting for the tribute to one of rock 'n' roll's greatest because it ain't like it used to about that bucket list...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rock 'n' Roll Heroes

February 9th, 1979: ABC airs a television special, "Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll."  Out of respect for rock 'n' roll I will not Google footage of the show, but I feel fairly certain a large segment of time was devoted to The Beatles and Elvis.  While I respect both artists and their respective accomplishments, it almost seems too easy to decide on rock 'n' roll heroes as a storyline and go with The Beatles and Elvis.  It would be like writing a piece on successful restaurant chains and (surprise!) the most ink goes to McDonald's...not a lot of research needed to discover the obvious.

So now the dilemma...who do I consider a "Hero of Rock 'n' Roll?" That list would be fairly long if I am honest, and organized into several categories to satisfy my anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive, Type-A personality.  If I limit myself to only artists/groups from 1979 and earlier (in keeping with the original timeline),  the list would still be several performers deep. 

Because I am attempting to think in the mode of my 18-year old self and I am eliminating The Beatles and Elvis, I need to remember what was going on at the time...Buddy Holly was gone 20 years along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper; an almost fatal blow to rock 'n' roll at the time.  Woodstock was ten years prior and many bands cut their teeth in upstate NY back in 1969.  The Last Waltz (still my favorite rock movie of all time) came out just one year ago, and punk/new wave was just beginning to catch on in the United States.  Yes it had been big in NYC and on underground radio, but the late '70s brought a lot of new talent to the forefront. 

For the sake of this post and in keeping with the theme I have to pick just thumbing through my vinyl I stumble across a Buddy Holly record...and I have to go today with the song "Not Fade Away."  I remember a "Kodak Moment" from my youth when my dad realized I was a Buddy fan...only to be spoiled when he also discovered I liked The Sex much for bridging the generation gap!

Buddy Holly is a hero of rock 'n' roll and "Not Fade Away" is a classic song for a few reasons.  First you have remember Buddy only recorded for about 18 months when the plane crash in Iowa took his life.  He has been called one of the greatest influences on rock 'n' roll and Don McLean wrote his tribute "The Day the Music Died" in 1973.  It is impossible to know what Buddy would have accomplished had he survived and lived a full life and pushed the boundaries of rock even further.

I love "Not Fade Away" because it rings true.  Classics don't fade away, and this song has been covered by (among others) The Rolling Stones, Stevie Nicks, Florence and the Machine, and countless local bands in countless bars and nightclubs across the country.  The song is timeless, pure, simple, and dead-on.   The attached video contains rare footage of Buddy in his personal life.   So listen and enjoy...'cuz I want you know just how I feel...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Better Late Than Never

It feels like forever since my first blog post--a week to be exact.  In blog time that is forever.  It seems though, that I broke one of the most basic of rules when starting a new project; avoid catching a major head cold that prevents you from breathing, eating, and talking like a normal person...and don't forget the constant ear-ringing and headaches...

But that is behind me now...just a minor sniffle to remind me how miserable I was just a mere 48 hours while I sit here and watch the "Storm of the Century" unleash her fury on the Northeast--we have 3" of snow down and counting--this seems like the perfect time to pick up where I left off.

With the weather as my guide today I search through my vinyl collection (with a nod to my friend Roger) and  stumble across an LP I have not played in way too long...Steppenwolf 7.  "Snow Blind Friend" is the second of two anti-drug tunes written by Hoyt Axton the band covered during their career; "The Pusher" being the first and more widely known.  Although the song has nothing at all to do with the weather and I have never had a drug problem (honest Your Honor), I thought it was somewhat spot-on for a wintry day such as this.

Funny how a band associated with the "Classic Rock" era that was the 60's and 70's...(remember "Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll?") would cover anti-drug songs during their run.  Steppenwolf was a band I always considered "way cool" when I was a kid.  John Kay still tours today with Steppenwolf although he is the only original member of the band to remain...but before I travel a tangent road I originally set out to avoid I must get back to the music.

"Snow Blind Friend" is a great song (to me) because it doesn't rock your face off nor does it drip with the phony emotion of a Top-40 song written to make the little girls cry.  It almost sounds like an unplugged classic 25 years before unplugged was cool...

Steppenwolf rocked like the best of 'em; "Born to Be Wild," "Sookie Sookie," "Magic Carpet Ride," and "Hey Lawdy Mama" could kick it...even thought they all were not chart toppers.    But "Snow Blind Friend," like "The Pusher", took the listener deeper into the dark underbelly of the drug scene that was so romanticized at the time.  Painting a different picture of the drug scene and its culture, the song simply lays it out for you to listen to, analyze, think about, and draw your own conclusion.  There is a definite "drugs are bad" feel to the song, but not so much as to make you feel you are being lectured--a sure sign that the song would be "Mom Approved" and therefore something to avoid.  Rather Kay and the band chose to play a heartfelt version of a song written to make you think deep about a topic that didn't get too much airplay.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy...and watch out for the Blizzard...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Writing on the Wall

I started thinking about blogging several years ago...and gave serious thought and not-so-much effort to it about two years ago.  Thanks to the support of my family and the constant "you gotta at least try it!" echoing in my ears I sit at the keyboard today writing my first post.

I chose music because it seemed safe. Like most people I have definite likes and dislikes; I understand (I think) that what makes something good is whether or not others like it--it really is as simple and complicated  as that.  While my taste in music has changed somewhat as I have "matured" it seems to consistently circle back to what I consider the basics; listening to musicians and bands that do what they do because it is a part of them.  I don't play guitar (although I have tried), drums, keyboards, or horns...with the exception of trumpet in the school band grades 3-5...but I do play the stereo.

Although I decided to blog about music, I am not blogging about upcoming concert dates, new album releases, what's hot and what's not, or things that require a calendar and datebook. I never considered myself a "groupie" but I do consider myself a fan.  Once I came to that realization the decision was easy.  I will simply write about the music and why it appeals to me or doesn't.

The subjectivity of music, like most things that try to appeal to a large audience, is what makes it special.  I have been part of endless discussions and arguments about who the better guitar player is or which band is the best of all-time.  Every December I can find many a radio station somewhere doing a countdown of the top 100 songs of all-time, the decade, or the year...and  the list is different on each station--the beauty of subjectivity!

I do believe there are some bands and musicians that stand above others within their genre; leaders and trail blazers unafraid to be the first one to travel in that direction or not afraid to alter their course.  If not for those who took what they heard and re-invented it, expanded it, tweaked it, or in some way made it different, the world would never have moved from the Von Trapp Family Singers to Frank Zappa and made all the stops in between...and the train is still traveling.

What matters, at least to me, is what the music says.  Not the lyrics per se but the message.  What is conveyed to the listener may not be what was intended by the artist.  Some songs strike a chord for different reasons.  There are songs I hear that take me back to my childhood in a good way and others that do so in a not-so-good way...but I will probably dig deeper into that as I trudge through this exercise. 

Some music I enjoy just for its being makes me tap my foot and sing along in the car/office/shower, and gets stuck in my head for hours or days.  Songs that annoy me by being stuck in my head are another thing entirely and something I am certain everyone can relate to.

While I don't  try to suggest or imply that I have a never-ending knowledge of music and a library to match, I do believe I have enough experience on the planet and have listened to enough vinyl and CD shaped plastic to have a little insight...and hopefully it will be interesting to someone besides myself.  Otherwise these voices in my head will start laughing at me...

For my opening attempt at anything remotely close to a critique I chose "Epitaph" by King may have noticed by the masthead I am a fan. Every time I hear the song I pick up something different; a meaning in a verse, an ominous sound, an echo...something that makes me realize there is a lot there and more. 

Understanding it was written and recorded in 1969 is a bit eerie if one listens closely to the lyrics.  To me the song says people need to think for themselves and stop expecting others to do for them--because the others cannot be trusted to do it right.  Power is King and those who have it exploit it for the benefit of themselves.  Allowing others to tell us what think/say/do is a dangerous hobby for it robs us of our self-worth and our soul.  Walk your own path and think for yourself, make your own mistakes and learn from them (or don't), but keep possession of your mind, body, and soul.  Don't expect others to place your best interests ahead of theirs and then get pissed when you find out the "man behind the curtain" was playing you the whole time.  Politicians today are no better than the prophets of ancient times...they just have a lot more technology to help get their message out.

So there it is..."Blog Post #1" hanging on a wall in space for (hopefully) many to read and some to understand...agree or disagree but just have the sense to understand why.  Otherwise I fear tomorrow I'll be crying...

I chose this particular post from You Tube to share because I liked the video that accompanied the audio.  It doesn't necessarily match the lyrics, bit does beat staring at a still picture of the album cover for 8:48...enjoy!