Tag Archives: On Music

Headed for home: R.I.P. Chuck Berry

By Dennis Hartley

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1926-2017

Neil Young sang: “Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die.” But damn, I think it just did. From today’s New York Times:

While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves. With songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” he gave his listeners more than they knew they were getting from jukebox entertainment.

“Master theorist”? “Conceptual genius”? Pretty heady declarations about a guy who strutted like a duck across the stage, played his guitar like ringin’ a bell, and and sang 4-chord songs about cars and girls.  After all, its only rock ‘n’ roll, and I like it, like it, yes I do…right?

Those declarations are not heady enough, actually.  He was a poet:

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man

“Arrested on charges of unemployment.” That is fucking genius. That’s from “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”. It gets even better:

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking across the sand
She been a-walkin’ thirty miles en route to Bombay.
To get a brown eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
Back every since the world began
There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear
For a brown eyed handsome man
That’s what the trouble was brown eyed handsome man

Beautiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
That’s what your daddy is a brown eyed handsome man

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To get brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man

Two, three count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounding third he was headed for home
It was a brown eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man

Keep in mind…that song was released in 1956, long before James Brown wrote “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Just sayin’.

As for those Chuck Berry riffs, they may sound simple…but they’re not. Just ask Keith Richards:

Granted, at 90, he was roundin’ third; but now he’s headed for home. And we’ll always have the music; most importantly, the poetry. R.I.P.

Acid daze: Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 4, 2017)

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Hard to believe that it was 50 years ago today (well, officially, as of June 1st) that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play around with vari-speeding, track bouncing and ambiophonics. Eh…wot?

Considering the relative limitations of recording technology at the time, the sonic wizardry and hardware MacGyvering that resulted in The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continues to amaze and fascinate musicians, studio engineers and music fans. For that matter, I bet any Beatle fan would happily buzz in through the bathroom window to have been a fly on the wall at any Beatles session, for any of their albums. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy.

That imagery aside, there is a “next best thing”, thanks to composer and musicologist Scott Freiman, who has created a series of multimedia and film presentations called Deconstructing the Beatles. His latest exploration focuses on the Sgt. Pepper song cycle. Some engagements are personal appearances; others limited-run film versions of the lecture. My review is based on the filmed version, which ran here in Seattle last weekend (you can find upcoming cities/dates here).

Freiman kicks off with deep background on the February 1967 release of the double ‘A’ sided 45 “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” (although he doesn’t deconstruct the recording sessions as he does for the Sgt. Pepper tracks). I think this is a perfect choice for a launching pad, as those two songs were not only crucial signifiers of the band’s continuing progression from the (seemingly) hard-to-top Revolver, but originally intended to be included as part of Sgt. Pepper.

The remaining three-quarters of the film is a track-by-track journey through the album (in original running order, of course). By playing snippets of isolated audio tracks and subtly stacking them until they transmogrify into their familiar finished form, as well as supplementing with archival photos and flow charts annotating how tracks were reduced and mixed down, Freiman is able to give the viewer a fairly good peek into the unique creative process that went into the Sgt. Pepper sessions. Freiman’s running commentary hits the sweet spot between scholarly and entertaining.

I was a little disappointed that he gives my two favorite cuts, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” short shrift; especially when compared to the amount of time he spends fixating on three cuts in particular: “She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You, Without You”, and “A Day in the Life”. Not that those aren’t all classics, but you can’t have everything. After all, art is subjective, right?

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Freiman doing one of his presentations in-person; I imagine it’s more dynamic and engaging than watching what is essentially a filmed lecture (think An Inconvenient Truth). If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Beatles Anthology, this may not be for you. Still, the Fab force is strong in this one, and he obviously holds a genuine affection for the music, which keeps the proceedings from sinking into an academic snooze fest.

Side 2: It was a very good year

While Sgt. Pepper certainly deserves the accolades it has received over the last 5 decades, 1967 was a watershed year for a lot of bands; there was definitely something in the air (or the punch).

Here are 10 more fabulous albums that are blowing out 50 candles this year (goddam, I’m old…).

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CreamDisraeli Gears…Clapton’s psych-blues zenith, Bruce and Baker’s dangerous rhythms, Pete Brown’s batshit crazy lyrics, lorded over by producer/future Mountain man Felix Pappalardi. Best cuts: “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Swlabr” (fuck you, Spellcheck), and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”.

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The DoorsThe Doors…“He took a face, from the ancient gallery. And he walked on down the hall.” And music would never be the same. Best cuts: All of them.

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Jefferson AirplaneSurrealistic Pillow…Luv ‘n’ Haight. Remember, I want you to toss the radio into the bathtub when “White Rabbit” peaks. Get it? Got it? Good! Best cuts: “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”.

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Jimi Hendrix ExperienceAre You Experienced?…Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful. There ain’t no life, nowhere. And you will never hear surf music, again. Best cuts: “Purple Haze”, “Love or Confusion”, “May This Be Love”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Third Stone From the Sun”, and “Are You Experienced?”.

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The KinksSomething Else by the Kinks…The genius of Ray Davies cannot be overstated. Every song is an immersive picture postcard of the traditional English life. Brilliant. Best cuts: “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lazy Old Sun”, “Death of a Clown”, “David Watts”, “Afternoon Tea”.

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The Moody BluesDays of Future Passed…Mellotrons R Us. Symphonic rock before anyone thought it was even possible. A thing of beauty. Best cuts: “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin”.

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Pink FloydThe Piper at the Gates of Dawn…Syd Barrett, before the drugs kicked in for keeps. He’s got a bike, you can ride it if you like. Space rock, ominous dirges and proto prog supreme. Best cuts: “Astronomy Domine”, “Flaming”, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and “Bike”.

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Procol HarumProcol Harum…Gary Brooker’s distinctive voice, Robin Trower’s peerless fretwork, Matthew Fisher’s signature organ riffs and Keith Reid’s wry and literate lyrics made for a heady, proggy brew that didn’t quite sound like anyone else at the time. Still doesn’t, actually. Best cuts: “Conquistador”, “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence”, and “Repent, Walpurgis”.

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The Velvet UndergroundThe Velvet Underground and Nico…In which Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Nico, and Moe Tucker invited the flower children to attend New York art school. However, no one enrolled until about 10 years later, when it came to be called punk rock. Best cuts: “I’m Waiting For the Man”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Heroin”, and “Femme Fatale”.

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The WhoThe Who Sell Out…A kind of warm-up for Tommy, The Who’s concept album was constructed to simulate a pirate radio station, with interstitial spoof ads and station jingles linking the cuts together. A very strong song cycle for Pete Townshend. Best cuts: “Armenia City in the Sky”, “Tattoo”, “I Can See For Miles”, “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Sunrise”.

BONUS TRACK!

There were also a lot of memorable hit singles on the pop charts that year. Here’s one of my favorites from the summer of 1967:

16th notes in heaven

By Dennis Hartley

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Larry Coryell 1943-2017

Tough as it was for the music world last year, I can’t blame it on 2016 anymore. For those “of a certain age”, I guess this is how it will be for us, going forward. The icons of an entire  generation are fading fast.

From Rolling Stone:

Larry Coryell, one of jazz fusion’s pioneering guitarists, died Sunday in his New York City hotel room of natural causes, according to his publicist. He had played gigs on Friday and Saturday night at the city’s Iridium club and had a spate of summer tour dates on the horizon with his group the Eleventh House. He was 73.

In the mid-to-late Sixties, Coryell broke down genre barriers with his eclectic, fluid playing and experiments with melding plodding rock rhythms with spacious jazz chords…

Damn.

As a guitar player myself, I have to say Coryell was one of the gods. Not that I am in any way shape or form equating my abilities with his; he was gifted  with supernatural talent (to re-coin a phrase, I’m not worthy). Whether playing blistering runs with his electric outfit The Eleventh House, or finger picking beautiful solo acoustic numbers, he displayed  flawless virtuosity on his instrument.

I had the pleasure of seeing Coryell perform at a club in L.A. in the mid-70s (either the Roxy or the Troubadour). It was a solo acoustic show; and I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by his chops. I also remember watching his fingers very closely (it didn’t take).

As Jimi Hendrix once said, play on, brother. Play on…

(h/t Kevin C.)

In Quaaludes and red wine: A New Year’s mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

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Sick of “Auld Lang Syne” ? Here are10 alternative New Year’s songs:

  1. “Time”David Bowie – From one of the greats that we lost in 2016. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

2. “1999″ – Prince – (sigh) Another musical icon that we lost in 2016.

3. “1921” – The Who – I always listen to this first thing when I wake up New Year’s Day. Somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather

4.  “Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

5.  “New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Great pick, Captain Obvious!” Fabulous live version, with The Edge pulling double duty on keys.

6.  “Celtic New Year” – Van Morrison – Speaking of Ireland: Van the Man! If I don’t see you through the week, see you through the window…

7. “Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart – Great Old Grey Whistle Test TV clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

8. “Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer arrangement.  That’s Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter trading licks.

9. “New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Great Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

10. “Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late artist.

Happy New Year!

Guilty feet have got no rhythm: R.I.P. George Michael

By Dennis Hartley

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1963-2016

Even in its final week, 2016 just won’t let up with the grim reaping:

On Christmas Day, no less.  I wasn’t a rabid fan, but I admired his chops as a pop craftsman (anyone who sells 100 million units is doing something right).  Fabulous voice; especially on this personal favorite:

53 years old. Much too young to go. This friggin’ year over yet?

The Top 10 Xmas songs for cynics

By Dennis Hartley

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I know. There’s one in every crowd. I guess I’m “it”. Enough with the forced smiles, the holiday “cheer”, and people fighting at the mall. Herewith is my mixtape for those who can’t wait ’til it’s over…

  1.  Blue Xmas – Bob Dorough w/ the Miles Davis Sextet

The hippest “Bah, humbug!” of all time. “Gimme gimme gimme…”

2. Green Christmas – Stan Freberg

Classic bit from an ace satirist. Yeah, he’s talking to you, Don Draper!

3. The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot – Nat King Cole

Most depressing Xmas tune ever? So much for chestnuts roasting…

4. 7 o’clock News/Silent Night – Simon & Garfunkel

Leave it to some commie lib’rul folk singers to ruin everyone’s Xmas.

5. A Christmas Song – Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson gets drunk with Santa; decries the commercialization.

6.  Even Santa Gets the Blues – Marty Stuart

Santa could probably use a shot of Wild Turkey with those cookies…

7.  Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer – Elmo & Patsy

We prefer not to talk about “the Christmas incident” in our family.

8.  I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas – Yogi Yorgesson

I’ve heard this song a million times…and it still puts me in hysterics.

9. Santa Stole My Lady – Fitz and the Tantrums

That fat, cuckolding elf bastard. Make it a double, barkeep…

10.  Fuck Christmas – Eric Idle

You thought I forgot this one! Make sure the kids are out of earshot.

Cheers!

 

About bloody time: Yes is in!

By Dennis Hartley

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Last year, when Yes was nominated for the umpteenth time for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,  I made my case:

Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, staring at Roger Dean’s art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gate-fold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent). Anyway, why this band hasn’t been inducted yet is beyond me. Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”)

Uh…what I said. At any rate, when it was announced today that Yes finally made the grade, I was overjoyed. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overreaction to something that is relatively inconsequential when contrasted with larger concerns going on in the world right now…but you know what? I’ve seen an inordinate number of my personal musical icons shuffled off to that great gig in the sky this year, so its nice to savor a little happy news about those who are still rockin’, eh?

And you know what else I’ve seen?

 

So he laid down…R.I.P. Greg Lake

By Dennis Hartley

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1947-2016

You know what, 2016? Fuck you. Seriously. This is really too much.

Bowie. Prince. Sir George Martin. Leonard Cohen. Leon Russell. Glenn Frey. Paul Kantner. Keith Emerson…now, Greg Lake.

This is the toughest one for me since Bowie at the beginning of this year. Greg Lake was not only one of the gods of prog-rock, but for my money, owned the greatest set of pipes in any musical genre.

That voice has captivated me from the first time I heard “In the Court of the Crimson King” wafting from my radio back in 1969. Even through a tinny 4″ speaker, that beautiful, cathedral voice shot directly through my medulla oblongata and took my breath away.     Instrumental accompaniment was always purely optional:

And speaking of “cathedral”…

The angels can retire now.

Iggy Popcorn: Gimme Danger *** & Danny Says **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2016)

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Well it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA

It’s another year for me and you

Another year with nuthin’ to do,

Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun

And now I’m gonna be 22

I say oh my, and a boo-hoo

-from “1969” by The Stooges

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch dutifully traces the history of Iggy and the Stooges, from Iggy’s initial foray as a drummer, to the Stooges’ 1967 debut (then billing themselves as “The Psychedelic Stooges”), to their signing with Elektra Records the following year (which yielded two seminal proto-punk albums before the label unceremoniously dropped them in 1971) to the association with David Bowie that gave birth to 1973’s Raw Power, up to the present.

While LP sales were less than stellar (and forget about radio exposure, outside of free-form and underground FM formats), the band’s legend was largely built on their gigs. From day one, Iggy was a live wire on stage; unpredictable, dangerous, possessed. Whether smearing peanut butter (or blood) on his chest while growling out songs, undulating his weirdly flexible body into gymnastic contortions, or impulsively flinging himself into the crowd (he invented the “stage dive”), Iggy Pop was anything but boring.

Keep in mind, this was a decade before Sid Vicious was to engage in similar stage antics. The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering in the air when the Stooges stormed onstage, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies. However, once they hitched their wagon to fellow Detroit music rebels/agitprop pioneers the MC5 (their manifesto: “Loud rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets!”) they began to build a solid fan base, which became rabid. Unfortunately, film footage from this period is scant; but Jarmusch manages to dig up enough clips to give us a rough idea of what the vibe was at the time.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor). While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

Many might assume, judging purely by the simple riffs, minimal lyrics and primal stage persona that there wouldn’t be much going on upstairs with the Ig…but that would be a highly inaccurate assumption. To the contrary, Iggy is much smarter than you think he is; a surprisingly erudite raconteur who is highly self-aware and actually quite thoughtful when it comes to his art. It might surprise you to learn that one of his earliest creative influences (aside from space-jazz maestro Sun Ra and, erm, Soupy Sales) was American avant-garde composer Harry Partch, who utilized instruments made out of found objects.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this truly influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. As for the rest of you, I say: Oh my, and a boo hoo!

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Interestingly, Iggy pops up in another new documentary. In fact, there is much cross-pollination between Gimme Danger and Danny Says (on PPV), Brendan Toller’s uneven yet quaffable portrait of NYC scenester/music publicist/DJ/fanzine editor Danny Fields.

Fields was the talent scout/A&R guy/whatever (his job title is never made 100% clear…more on that in a moment) who “discovered” The Stooges while on assignment from Elektra Records to scope out the Detroit music scene in 1968. While the record company was primarily interested in the MC5, Fields convinced the suits to tack the Stooges on as a “two-fer” signing deal: $20,000 for the MC5 + $5,000 for the Stooges (!)

That’s jumping a bit ahead in Fields’ involvement with the music biz, which appears (according to Toller’s film) to have been attributable to a series of happy accidents, which begins with him falling into a managing editor position with the teenybopper fanzine Datebook in 1966. Within months of landing the gig, Fields found himself at the center of the infamous John Lennon “bigger than Jesus” controversy, stemming from a highlighted quote in a Datebook interview (his editorial decision). The consequences? Death threats against the band, Beatle record bonfires in the Deep South, universal condemnation by church leaders…essentially putting the kibosh on touring for the Fabs.

Whoops. I think we all owe Yoko an apology.

Thanks to his music journalist cred, he soon gains entree with the Warhol Factory crowd, which leads to his association with The Velvet Underground and a long-time friendship with Lou Reed, Nico, et al. This essentially plants him perennially thereafter at the epicenter of the New York arts scene, where, like a rock ‘n’ roll Forrest Gump, he manages to pal around with everybody who’s anybody from the late 60s ‘til now. He did publicity for The Doors, “discovered” and co-managed The Ramones, did windows, etc.

So why haven’t most people on the planet heard of him? I like to think of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll geek, with an encyclopedic brain full of worthless music trivia…and even I was blissfully unaware of this person until I stumbled across the film on cable the other night. So I am going to have to take all of the gushing interviewees’ word for it that Fields was a “punk pioneer” and essentially the musical taste-maker of the last 5 decades.

Fields proves a raconteur of sorts (the one about a meeting he arranged between Jim Morrison and Nico is amusing) but many anecdotes lead nowhere. For someone allegedly at the vanguard of the music scene for 50 years, he offers little insight. Most of Fields’ reminiscences are variations on “Well, I thought these guys were kinda cute, and I liked their music, so I told so-and-so about them, then I introduced these guys to some other famous guys.” For the most part, it adds up to 104 minutes of glorified name-dropping.

Still, the film is perfectly serviceable as a loose historical chronicle of the NYC music scene during its richest period (via numerous snippets of archival footage), and nostalgic boomers will likely find cameos by the likes of Alice Cooper, Judy Collins, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Jonathan Richman, Iggy Pop, etc. to be enough to hold their interest (although again, more context and/or insight would have sweetened the pot).

The film reminded me of another rock documentary, George Hickenlooper’s The Mayor of Sunset Strip (my review), which profiled L.A. scenester/club manager/DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who, like Danny Fields, managed to stumble into the midst of every major music sea change from the 1960s onward, rubbing shoulders with any rock ‘n’ roll luminary you’d care to name. Which begs the same question regarding Fields that I posed of Bingenheimer: Is he a true music “impresario”, or merely a lottery-winning super fan?