Category Archives: On Music

My 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee picks

By Dennis Hartley

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 15 nominees for 2019, which  must be weeded down to 5 for the next induction.  Once again, I will dutifully fulfill my mission as an alleged pop culture critic and argue for my 5 picks (while hopefully not enraging fans of the remaining 10). Just remember kids…it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. Relax.

The Hall’s nominees are:  Def Leppard, Devo, Janet Jackson, John Prine, Kraftwerk, LL Cool J, MC5, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Roxy Music, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, The Cure, The Zombies (who I already endorsed last year) and Todd Rundgren. So here’s who I feel should be in the clique…and why:

Devo – Yes, that  retro-futurist band with two Bobs and two sets of brothers who made vaguely unsettling videos you could dance to…they must be inducted immediately. They emerged straight outta Akron in 1973, and they were…different.  It took them a spell to find an audience, as they initially leaned more toward arch performance art than conventional musicality. Yet they turned out to be quite musical; and with benefit of hindsight, unarguably visionary.

Best 3 albums:  Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978),  Freedom of Choice (1980), and New Traditionalists (1981).

Kraftwerk – In terms of innovation and lasting influence, this German “krautrock” outfit (founded 1970) holds the most import of my 5 selections. While not necessarily the first band to embrace electronica, they were among the first to seamlessly forge the technology with pop sensibilities. Eschewing  traditional guitar-bass-drum backup for synths, vocoders, and drum machines, Kraftwerk upped the ante with  self-consciously detached, metronomic vocals that caused many to snicker and dismiss the band as a novelty act.  They’re not laughing now, as Kraftwerk’s influences continue to flourish in rock, hip-hop and club music.

Best 3 albums:  Autobahn (1974), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and Computer World (1981).

MC5 – Granted, they may not be as musically innovative as others who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but if you consider “attitude” a key component of rock and roll,  these Detroit-based rockers had it in spades. Call it what you will, proto-punk, garage, psych…they were loud, fast, and aggressive long before it was fashionable. In fact, they scared the living shit out of the mellow peace love and dope crowd at the time. Perhaps most notably, they were boldly outspoken and overtly political (which got them into a lot of trouble during the Nixon years), paving the way for activist bands like The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, System of a Down, and Green Day. This is the fourth time they have been nominated…if there has ever been a time to kick out the jams, it’s NOW, motherfuckers!

Best 3 albums: Kick Out the Jams (1969), Back in the USA (1970), and High Time (1971).

Roxy Music – This English outfit (founded in 1970) had very strange optics for its time. They looked like a hastily assembled jam band comprised of space rockers, 50s greasers, hippie stoners, and goths, fronted by a stylishly continental 30s crooner. But the music they made together was magic. It also defied categorization and begged a question; do we file it under glam, prog, pop or art-rock? The answer is “yes”.  They were a huge influence on art punk and new wave, and even their earliest music still sounds freshly original. Let ’em in!

Best 3 albums: Roxy Music (1972), Siren (1975), and Avalon (1982).

Todd Rundgren – It’s shocking to me that the Hall has waited this long to nominate Rundgren, who’s been in the biz for over 50 years (and is still going strong).  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist,  and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer. Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing  pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Best 3 albums: Something/Anything? (1972), Todd (1974) and Faithful (1976).

When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2018)

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I don’t know if you’ve been following the story about the Central American caravan, but once they reached Tijuana last week, the media seemed to lose interest (it’s not as captivating as the new royal baby, I suppose). Well, media outside of Fox, where pundits continue to gin up the nativist hysteria that kicked off with Trump’s remarks claiming that the women within the relatively small group of asylum seekers “are [being] raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before”. He has also Tweeted he won’t let them through.

While there’s certainly nothing new about the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spouting nearly all his adult life (much less as “our” president), there’s been something particularly sickening to me about the racist dog-piling atop this group of people. Sure, we don’t know all their personal histories, but they are still human beings:

[from the San Diego Union-Tribune]

The final remnants of the Central American caravan began to disappear in Tijuana Friday after the last group of asylum seekers entered the United States.

Volunteers and migrants who plan to stay in Mexico slowly dismantled tents and canopies, picked up trash, folded blankets and swept dirt from the ground they slept on since arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday.

As the last members of the caravan entered the U.S. – about 70 of a total of 228 – some said goodbye to loved ones. Those staying behind include people who need more legal help before crossing into the U.S. and those who have already been deported and have slim changes of asylum.

Mario Mejia, 34, of El Salvador, said farewell to his wife. The couple planned to claim asylum together, but lawyers told Mejia his case for asylum is weak.

Mejia was deported from the U.S. five times between 2010 and 2013 after getting caught crossing the border illegally in the Arizona desert.

“The last time I was deported I spent a year and a half in prison,” he said. “The judge told me if I tried again I’d serve twice as much.”

Apart from his deportations from the U.S., Mejia has been deported from Mexico eight times. He’s applied for asylum in both countries but has been denied.

Mejia left El Salvador when he was 14 after members of MS-13 threatened to kill him if he didn’t join their gang.

“It’s a hard life,” he said. “I’ve never had a stable place to live in.”

As his wife walked toward the San Ysidro border crossing Friday, Mejia told her to keep moving forward and promised to call her brothers, who live in the U.S., to make sure they take care of her.

Later, as he packed his belongings into a backpack and helped clean up the caravan’s makeshift tent city, he pondered his future. He said he plans to stay in Tijuana and hopes to find a job in construction until he makes enough money for a bus ticket to Mexicali, where he has friends and better job opportunities.

From there? “I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s just one of the stories. It breaks your heart (if you have one). Here’s the thing-that’s not just Mario’s story. Outside of Native Americans, it is all our stories; all Americans. None of us are really “from” here; if you start tracing your family’s genealogy, I’ll bet you don’t have to go back too many generations to find ancestors who were born on foreign soil. Some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that fact.

That’s why I think it’s time for some music therapy. I’ve chosen 10 songs that speak to the immigrant experience and serve to remind us of America’s multicultural foundation.

“Across the Borderline” – Freddy Fender

This song (co-written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Dickinson) has been covered many times, but this heartfelt version by the late Freddy Fender is the best. Fender’s version was used as part of the soundtrack for Tony Richardson’s 1982 film The Border.

“America” – Neil Diamond

Diamond’s anthemic paean to America’s multicultural heritage first appeared in the soundtrack for Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (thankfully, Diamond’s stirring song has had a longer shelf life than the film, which left audiences and critics underwhelmed). Weirdly, it was included on a list of songs deemed as “lyrically questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for airplay in an internal memo issued by the brass at Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Go figure.

“America” (movie soundtrack version) – West Side Story

This classic number from the stage musical and film West Side Story (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) is both a celebration of Latin immigrant culture and a slyly subversive take down of nativist-driven ethnic stereotyping.

“Ave Que Emigra” – Gaby Morena

Speaking of exploding stereotypes-here’s a straightforward song explaining why cultural assimilation and cultural identity are not mutually exclusive. From a 2012 NPR review:

As a song that speaks of being an immigrant, [Gaby Moreno’s “Ave Que Emigra”] strikes the perfect emotional chords. So many songs on that topic are gaudy, one-dimensional woe-is-me tales. Moreno’s story of coming to America is filled with simple one-liners like “tired of running, during hunting season” (evocative of the grotesque reality Central Americans face today at home and in their journeys north). Her cheerful ranchera melody, with its sad undertone, paints a perfect portrait of the complex emotional state most of us immigrants inhabit: a deep sadness for having to leave mixed with the excitement of the adventure that lies ahead, plus the joy and relief of having “made it.”

No habla espanol? No problema! You can see the English translation of the lyrics here.

“Buffalo Soldier” – Bob Marley & the Wailers

Sadly, not all migrants arrived on America’s shores of their own volition; and such is the unfortunate legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As Malcolm X once bluntly put it, “[African Americans] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the Rock was landed on us.” Bob Marley entitled this song as reference to the nickname for the black U.S. Calvary regiments that fought in the post-Civil War Indian conflicts. Marley’s lyrics seem to mirror Malcom X’s pointed observation above:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

 I’m just a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Arlo Guthrie

Woody Guthrie originally penned this “ripped from the headlines” protest piece as a poem in the wake of a 1948 California plane crash (the music was composed some years later by Martin Hoffman, and first popularized as a song by Pete Seegar). Among the 32 passengers who died were 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. Guthrie noticed that most press and radio reports at the time identified the 4 crew members by name, while dehumanizing the workers by referring to them en masse as “deportees” (plus ca change…). His son Arlo’s version is very moving.

“The Immigrant”– Neil Sedaka

Reflecting  back on his 1975 song, Neil Sedaka shared this tidbit in a 2013 Facebook post:

I wrote [“The Immigrant”] for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, “Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful.”

I concur with John. It’s Sedaka’s most beautifully crafted tune, musically and lyrically.

“Immigration Blues” – Chris Rea

In 2005, prolific U.K. singer-songwriter Chris Rea released a massive 11-CD box set album with 137 tracks called Blue Guitars (I believe that sets some sort of record). The collection is literally a journey through blues history, with original songs “done in the style of…[insert your preferred blues sub-genre here]” from African origins to contemporary iterations. This track is from “Album 10: Latin Blues”. The title says it all.

“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash

After an unpleasant experience in the early 70s getting hassled by a U.S. Customs agent, U.K.-born Graham Nash (who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1978) didn’t get mad, he got even by immortalizing his tormentor in a song. The tune is one of the highlights of the 1972 studio album he recorded with David Crosby, simply titled Crosby and Nash. I love that line where he describes his immigration form as “big enough to keep me warm.”

“Thousands are Sailing”– The Pogues

An ode to the Irish migrant wave that came in the wake of the Great Famine of the mid-1800s.

’68 was ’68: 10 essential rock albums

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2018)

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For some reason, whenever someone refers to the 1960s as “a turbulent decade”, I always think of one year in particular. If I may co-opt the meteorological “F-Scale” as a metaphor, while most years of that decade were stormy, 1968 was the only one to hit F-5.

As Jon Meacham wrote in a Time article from January of this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

So obviously, I am not alone in this “F-5” assessment. In fact, you may have already had it up to “here” with the 50th anniversary retrospectives, and are rolling your eyes and considering bailing on this very piece (all I am saying, is-give my piece a chance…man).

No, I’ll leave historical perspective to the historians and humbly stay “in my place” as the (alleged) pop culture maven around these here parts. I’ll be keeping it real at 33 and a 3rd.

I’ll start at 45 RPM. If you were to use Billboard’s top 10 hits of 1968 as a barometer, you might not catch wind of that sociopolitical “turbulence”. Countin’ them down like Casey Kasem: #10 was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells, #9 “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, #8 “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly” theme by Hugo Montenegro, #7 “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert, #6 “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, #5 “People Got to Be Free” by The Rascals, #4 (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, #3 “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro, #2 “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat, and the #1 song of 1968 was (drum roll please) “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

So that is a fairly eclectic mix of soul, R&B, rock, easy listening and solid MOR on that list. With the exception of The Rascals’ plea for love ‘n’ peace and the droll social satire of “Mrs. Robinson”, nothing much deeper than I love you, I miss you, the sky is blue, so let’s tighten it up now. Then again, Top 40 radio has never been a gauge of who was bringing the message to the people…but rather who is taking the most money to the bank.

Meanwhile, in 1968 the genre broadly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds. You could say it was “splintering”. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock. And in the wake of the success of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (an album which notably yielded no singles) many artists were beginning to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a whole, with a unifying theme as its center.

This was moving too fast for AM radio, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3 minute songs to buffer myriad spot breaks (OK, “Hey Jude” was over 7 minutes-but The Beatles were the exception to many rules). Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in late 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by 1968, providing a perfect platform for “deep” album cuts.

But hey, (in the immortal words of Marty DiBirgi) enough of my yakkin’. Here are my picks for the top 10 rock albums of 1968 (listed alphabetically by LP title…not by rank).

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Astral Weeks – Van Morrison

From the late great Lester Bangs’ astounding 3700 word essay regarding this album:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

Erm, what Lester said about the dichotomy of good art. Indeed, gone was the Van who was “…making love in the green grass/behind the stadium” with his “Brown-Eyed Girl” a year earlier. In his second studio album, Van was evolving, eschewing pop formulas and dipping deep into that Celtic soul that would become his stock-in-trade on later LPs like Veedon Fleece. Choice cuts: “Astral Weeks”, “Cyprus Avenue”, and “Madame George”.

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The Beatles (White Album) – The Beatles

From its decidedly anti-commercial, minimalist cover art, to the sprawling, 30-song set within, the Fabs at once surpassed and deconstructed everything that had previously defined them musically with this double album. With the benefit of hindsight, you could say this was really 4 solo albums rolled into one, as many of the sessions were actually assembled sans a Beatle or two (or even three). There were even a few guest musicians brought in by individual band members to sweeten some of the tunes to their own liking.

The resultant juxtaposition of scattered eclecticism was almost scary. As groundbreaking as the previous year’s Sgt. Pepper may have been,  nothing prepared unsuspecting fans for the proto-thrash of “Helter Skelter”, the faux-country novelty of “Rocky Racoon”, the reggae/ska-flavor of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, the absurdist “Wild Honey Pie”, the bluegrass-flavored “Don’t Pass Me By”, or the avant-garde mindfuck of “Revolution 9.”

Still, there are many diamonds in the rough; from rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Glass Onion” and “Birthday”, to beautiful ballads like “Cry Baby Cry”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Blackbird”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, and “Long, Long, Long.” Other highlights include John’s “Dear Prudence” and George’s epic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

If you listen carefully, you can still glean direct influences from this album in modern rock. For example, I can hear future echoes of Kurt Cobain in Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Aside from the “loud soft loud” flux of the arrangement, note how John intones “Mother Superior jump the gun” until it almost becomes hypnotic; repeating a lyrical phrase was one of Cobain’s songwriting tics (“No I don’t have a gun…). Spooky!

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Beggar’s Banquet – The Rolling Stones

Released a month after the Beatles White Album hit record stores, this set demonstrated that the Stones’ half-hearted flirtation with psychedelia on the previous year’s Their Satanic Majesties Request had been just that…a flirtation (and frankly, a Sgt. Pepper knock-off).

However, any suspicions that the band had been floundering were quashed once the needle dropped on Side 1, Cut 1: “Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste…” With that meticulously constructed invocation known as “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Stones finally became “the Stones”. They had arrived, with a strong, distinctive set that includes the spunky, anthemic “Street Fighting Man”, hard rocking “Stray Cat Blues”, and a fair amount of rootsy, acoustic-based country blues like “Prodigal Son”, “No Expectations”, and “Salt of the Earth”. One of their finest efforts.

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Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel

Even Simon & Garfunkel took a cue from Sgt. Pepper, taking their stab at a “concept” album (a song cycle about birth/life/death) with this 1968 release. Clocking in at a breezy 30 minutes, this set contains some of Paul Simon’s most enduring compositions.

Interestingly, Simon was said to have been suffering from writer’s block at the time-but you wouldn’t know it, with the likes of “Save the Life of My Child”, “America” (his best road song), “Punky’s Dilemma”, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, “At the Zoo”, and of course the bonafide classic “Mrs. Robinson” (recorded in 1967 for The Graduate soundtrack).

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Electric Ladyland – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Double albums from rock bands were still considered a novelty in 1968; you could count all previous on one hand (namely, Freak Out! by The Mothers of Invention and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in 1966, and Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967), yet the year saw double-LP sets from two significant acts: The Beatles (see above) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was Jimi’s final studio album with the Experience; while it was his most commercially successful effort, it was also his most experimental.

It’s been said that Jimi drove band mates and studio engineers nuts with his perfectionism on this project, especially with endless lead vocal takes (he was famously insecure about his voice-and of course he needn’t have been, silly man!). A majority of the cuts could be classified as “psychedelic blues-rock”, yet there are interesting side trips along the course of its four sides.

“(Have You Ever Been) To Electric Ladyland” is a soulful, 2-minute Curtis Mayfield-style kick-off belying unexpected turns to follow, from the lead kazoo solo on “Crosstown Traffic”, a powerful 15-minute slow blues rendition of “Voodoo Chile”, the epic 13-minute psychedelic tone poem “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, the now-classic cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and of course, to the most scorching, heaviest “Hendrixian” song of them all, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.

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In Search of the Lost Chord – The Moody Blues

So how did the Moody Blues follow up their pioneering 1967 “symphonic rock” opus, Days of Future Passed? Well, they followed it up with an even more solid masterpiece. As the title implies, this is a concept album about quests; quests for knowledge, for meaning, for truth (you know-nothing too heavy). Just in case you don’t understand that you are embarking on a musical journey, the band opens the album with a song called (wait for it) “Departure”. And…you’re off (with or without chemical additives-your call). An outstanding LP, impeccably produced and sonically dynamic (headphones!). Choice cuts: “Ride My Seesaw”, “House of Four Doors”, “Legend of a Mind”, and “The Actor”.

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The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks

Ray Davies fully realized a perfect musical evocation of pure distilled “Englishness” with this album. It is a suite, of sorts, weaving a portrait of a sleepy English hamlet; replete with its local flavor, rendered chiefly via stories centering on its eccentric inhabitants. You can almost smell the tea and biscuits. Pete Townshend summed it up best when he said of this collection, “For me, Village Green Preservation Society was Ray’s masterwork. It’s his Sgt. Pepper, it’s what makes him the definitive pop poet laureate.” Amen. Choice cuts: “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Picture Book”, “Johnny Thunder”, “Village Green”, “Starstruck”, and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”.

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S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things

Contrary to popular belief, The Who’s Tommy was technically not the first “rock opera”, because the UK band The Pretty Things beat them by a year with this concept album. The band’s lead singer Phil May wrote a short story that eventually morphed into this project. Not unlike Howard the Duck, the angst-ridden protagonist here (a Sebastian F. Sorrow) is trapped in a world he never made. It’s actually a pretty gloomy tale (presaging Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but the music is excellent (the tunes stand on their own). Choice cuts: “S.F. Sorrow is Born”, “My Time”, “Private Sorrow”, “Trust”, and “Loneliest Person”.

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Waiting for the Sun – The Doors

After releasing a flawless debut (The Doors) and a more hit-and-miss sophomore effort (Strange Days) the previous year, the pressure was on for the Doors to prove they could deliver on that promise to “break on through to the other side”. And deliver they did. Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Kreiger and John Densmore stretched out a little more than previous on this release, which yielded a hit single (“Hello, I Love You”) gave birth to Morrison’s “lizard king” persona (“Not To Touch the Earth”) and put forth an ominous clarion call for revolution (“Five to One”). Other choice cuts: “Love Street”, “Summer’s Almost Gone”, “The Unknown Soldier”, “Spanish Caravan”, “Yes, the River Knows”.

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We’re only in it for the Money – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

Leave it to that sly musical provocateur Frank Zappa to gleefully mock the peace love and dope ethos of the “summer of love”, while his fans were essentially still in its thrall:

Walked past the wig store

Danced at the Fillmore

I’m completely stoned

I’m hippy and I’m trippy

I’m a gypsy on my own

I’ll stay a week and get the crabs

And take a bus back home

I’m really just a phony

But forgive me—‘cuz I’m stoned.

Importantly, that is what differentiates this album from the previous 9; while the lineage of nearly all can be traced in one way or the other back to Sgt. Pepper, Zappa is openly ridiculing the concept of Sgt. Pepper. This is a concept album expressly constructed to parody concept albums (while they were still in their infancy). I mean, who DOES that?!

Choice cuts: “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” (source of the excerpted lyrics), “Absolutely Free”, “Flower Punk”, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, and “The Idiot Bastard Son.”

Tell me why: A therapeutic mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2018)

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In a 2016 piece about the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, I wrote:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

Well, that didn’t take. Which reminds me-remember what happened a year ago this month? Here’s a quick refresher (from the Washington Times-February 15th, 2017):

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

In case you missed it, President Trump did, in fact, sign the bill into law. As expected.

So how did that work out for us? Remember Vegas? Watched any news…this week?

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Something else “they” say…music soothes the savage beast. Not that this 10-song playlist that I have assembled will necessarily assuage the grief, provide the answers that we seek, or shed any new light on the subject-but sometimes, when words fail, music speaks.

As the late great Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip I’ve included below: “Here’s a song that I could probably talk about for two weeks. But I’m not going to burden you, and hopefully the story and the words will tell it the way it should be.” What Harry said.

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen (Columbine survivors)

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

“I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Psycho Killer” – The Talking Heads

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

Blood at the root: An MLK Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2018)

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I came into this world on April 4, 1956. 12 years later, to the day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left it. My intention is not to attach any particular significance to that kismet, apart from the fact that I have since felt somewhat ambiguous about “celebrating” my birthdays (I could push the weird cosmic coincidence factor further by adding RFK was killed 2 months later on June 5th, my parents’ wedding anniversary…but I won’t go there).

There will be plenty of discussion and contemplation regarding that tragic day in a couple of months, especially as this will be the 50th anniversary, so I won’t dwell on that now. This holiday weekend is about celebrating his birthday. So tonight I wanted to share my top 10 picks for songs to honor the life and legacy of Rev. King. In alphabetical order…

“Abraham, Martin, & John” – Late 50s-early 60s teen idol Dion DiMucci reinvented himself as a socially-conscious folk singer in 1968 with this heartfelt performance of Dick Holler’s beautifully written tribute to JFK, RFK, and MLK. Seems they all die young…

“Barack Obama” – Yes, Cocoa Tea’s song is very much about MLK. Besides, you need to hear this right now. Remember, history is cyclical; one day, the sun will shine again.

“Blues for Martin Luther King” – In 1968, music was our social media. The great Otis Spann gives us the news and preaches the blues. Feel his pain, for it is ours as well.

“400 Years” – The struggle began long before Dr. King joined it; sadly, it continues to this day. A people’s history…written and sung by the late great Peter Tosh (with the Wailers).

“Happy Birthday” – A no-brainer for the list. Good to remember that Stevie Wonder was also a key advocate in the lobby to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Is it Because I’m Black?” – Syl Johnson’s question may sound rhetorical, but he pulls no punches.

“Pieces of a Man” – The late Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” – Including U2’s stirring anthem feels mandatory here.

“Strange Fruit” – “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Billie Holiday’s song was powerful then, powerful now, and will remain powerful forever.

“Why (The King of Love is Dead)” – Like the Otis Spann song on this list, Nina Simone’s musical eulogy (written and performed here just days after Dr. King’s death) is all the more remarkable for conveying a message at once so timely, and so timeless.

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Named-My Picks

Dennis Hartley

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While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread,  in regard to such circuses.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 19 nominees for induction in 2018: Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, The Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, The MC5, The Meters, Moody Blues, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray, and The Zombies. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):

Kate Bush – While I fear she has a snowball’s chance in hell to actually get selected (I’ve noticed the Hall tends to snub artists who defy genre), I’m one longtime fan who is happy to see she has at least been nominated. Depending on what day of the week it is, you could file Kate Bush under singer-songwriter, performance artist, progressive rock, experimental, folk, chamber-pop, electronica, et al. By the time she was 16, she already had demos of around 50 compositions, several of which caught the ear of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who shopped them to music execs, helping launch her recording career. Her music comes from a place of sharp intelligence and sublime aesthetic rarely matched (her 4-octave range doesn’t hurt). And she’s been doing this for 40 years…so I say, yes…let her in!

Best 3 albums: Never For Ever, The Dreaming, Hounds of Love

The Cars – It’s not the first Hall of Fame nomination for this iconic Boston band; odds are good that it will finally take.  Their classic 1978 debut album was a breath of fresh air at the time;  the perfect bridge between the stadium rock excess of the mid to late 70s and the burgeoning skinny-tie new-wave scene of the early 80s. They ingeniously mixed  warm, Beatle-y power pop sensibilities with the cool detachment of Kraftwerk-influenced  electronica-and it worked (as you can hear in the aptly-entitled “All Mixed Up” above). They have since built an impressive catalog, so I’d say they are due.

Best 3 albums: The Cars, Candy-O, Heartbeat City

Judas Priest – “Priest! Priest! Priest!” C’mon…let’s put the ROCK back into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering this U.K. outfit has been slashing power chords  since 1969,  and that their popularity has never waned, you can’t say they haven’t proven their mettle (metal?) by now.  Not to mention that they are responsible for one of the best hard rock albums ever made…Sad Wings of Destiny. Great catalog of songs (many of them bonafide rock anthems), ace dual guitarists, and Rob Halford’s otherworldly pipes…I rest my case.

Best 3 albums: Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Screaming for Vengeance

The Moody Blues – Every year, there is at least one nominee that makes me do a spit take (did I get any on you?). “Are you kidding me? You mean they are not already in the Hall of Fame? Seriously?!” if 50 years of consistently top-shelf symphonic rock and chart-topping singles doesn’t make them a shoo-in, I don’t know what does.  Jeez.

Best 3 albums: Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The Zombies – Another classic band whose time for induction is overdue. Founded by keyboardist Rod Argent in 1958 (!), they scored a string of hit singles in the U.K. and the U.S. in the early to mid-60s. Songs like “She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season” are imprinted in the neurons of those “of a certain age” (ahem).  Those hits are timeless, but the deep cuts have a lot of substance as well; informed by Argent’s unique jazz-rock chord shapes and Colin Blunstone’s  breathy vocals. Argent and Blunstone still do the odd gig; so let’s give them credit for hanging in there!

Best 3 albums: Begin Here, Odyssey and Oracle, Decca Stereo Anthology

I don’t feel tardy: A back-to-school mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 23, 2017)

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Pfft. Wow. That was a quick friggin’ summer.

As great poets have said…autumn is over the long leaves that love us, yesterday is dead (but not in my memory), and it’s late September and I really should be back at school.

Well, not literally (I’m a little old for home room)…but my school days of yesteryear are not necessarily dead in my memory. Some habits die hard. As I prefaced in a 2010 post:

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)-but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies.

So here’s a back-to-school playlist that doesn’t include “The Wall” or “School’s Out” (don’t worry, you’ll get over it). Pencils down, pass your papers forward, and listen up…

 

“Alma Mater” – Alice Cooper

“At 17” – Janis Ian

“Cinnamon Street” – Roxette

“ELO Kiddies” – Cheap Trick

“Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard” – Paul Simon

“My Old School” – Steely Dan

“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” – The Ramones

“School” – Roger Hodgson

“School Days” – Chuck Berry

“Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” – Brownsville Station

“Status Back Baby” – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

“Teacher Teacher” – Rockpile

“Thirteen” – Big Star

“To Sir, With Love” – Lulu

“Wind-up” – Jethro Tull

Celestial seasonings: A total eclipse mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 19, 2017)

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Depending on your worldview, Monday’s super-hyped solar eclipse may be interpreted as: a). A sign of the impending apocalypse, b). A sign that once in a blue moon, the moon blows in and obscures the sun, giving humanity the impression (for a few heart stopping moments) that the apocalypse has, in fact, arrived, or c). A dollar sign for event promoters, hoteliers, tow truck drivers, and people who sell cheap cardboard sunglasses.

I know. I’m a cynical bastard.

If the “Eclipse of the Century” forces people to tear themselves away from their 5 inch iPhone screen to gaze up at The Big Sky, and ponder the awesomeness and vastness of the cosmos (and most importantly, humankind’s relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things)…then I’m for it (I Googled “can you view the eclipse with a…” and right after “mirror”, “sunglasses” and “welding mask”, there it was- goddamn “iPhone”).

Do me a favor. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the horrendous traffic and wriggle through the madding crowd to snag a perfect observation point in one of the areas that will experience totality…don’t view it through a 5-inch screen…LOOK at it! Wear eye protection, of course, but experience the ACTUAL PHENOMENON! Thanks.

After all, as Carl Sagan observed:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

BTW, here’s evolutionary perspective on why we sophisticated, technically-advanced humanoids still get the tiniest little lizard brain-fueled twitch when Big Light Go Away:

With that in mind, please enjoy this special mixtape that I have assembled to accompany the solar system’s ultimate laserium show (don’t worry-I didn’t forget the Floyd, man!).

 

The Rolling Stones- “2000 Light Years from Home”

Paul Weller- “Andromeda”

The Orb- “Backside of the Moon”

Kate Bush- “The Big Sky”

Soundgarden- “Black Hole Sun”

Husker Du- “Books about UFOs”

Pink Floyd- “Brain Damage/Eclipse”

Crosby, Stills, & Nash- “Dark Star”

The Ian Gillian Band- “Five Moons”

Moxy- “Moon Rider”

King Crimson- “Moonchild”

Nick Drake- “Pink Moon”

Elton John- “Rocket Man”

David Bowie- “Space Oddity”

Liz Phair- “Stars and Planets”

Yes- “Starship Trooper”

Bonnie Hayes- “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The Church- “Under the Milky Way”

Paul McCartney & Wings- “Venus + Mars”

Gamma- “Voyager”

The Hot 25: A Summer Mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 15, 2017)

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Is it really mid-July already? For those of us who have a tendency to obsess over the inexorable decline of Western civilization, it’s easy to lose track of the “little things” sometimes like, you know, the time-space continuum. Take a breather, fergawdsake. Grab a little beach time, or a loll in the grass. Barbeque something, enjoy a cold drink. And don’t forget the tunes. Here are my picks for the 25 best summer songs. You’ve heard some of them a bazillion times; others, I’m guessing, not so much. Crank it on up!

First Class – “Beach Baby” – UK studio band First Class was the brainchild of singer-songwriter Tony Burrows, who also sang lead on other one-hit wonders, including “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” (The Edison Lighthouse), “My Baby Loves Lovin’” (White Plains), and “United We Stand” (The Brotherhood of Man). This pop confection was a Top 10 song in the U.S. in 1974.

Don Henley– “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley’s most durable post-Eagles hit also features his finest lyrics. I really like this stripped-down live rendition.

Jade Warrior– “Bride of Summer” – Here’s a summer tune you’ve never heard on the radio. This hard-to-categorize band has been around since the early 70s; progressive jazz-folk-rock-world beat is the best I can do. Sadly, original guitarist Tony Duhig passed away in 1990. His multi-tracked lead on this song is sublime.

Bananarama– “Cruel Summer” – A more melancholy take on the season from the Ronettes of New Wave. I seem to recall a rather heavy rotation of this video on MTV in the summer of ’84. The video is a great time capsule of 1980s NYC.

Pink Floyd– “Granchester Meadows” – This is from one of Pink Floyd’s more obscure albums, Ummagumma. Anyone who has ever sat under a shady tree on a summer’s day strumming a guitar will “get” this song, which is one of David Gilmour’s most beautiful compositions. I love how he incorporates nature sounds.

Joni Mitchell– “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” – The haunting title cut from Joni’s 1975 album, co-written by drummer John Guernin (who also plays moog). The song also features Victor Feldman on keyboards and James Taylor on guitar.

Sly & the Family Stone– “Hot Fun in the Summertime” – A quintessential summer song and an oldies radio staple. And don’t forget…I “cloud nine” when I want to.

Walter Egan– “Hot Summer Nights” – A memorable cut from Egan’s 1977 album Fundamental Roll, which was produced by Lindsay Buckingham. Buckingham contributes the guitar licks (and backing vocals, with Stevie Nicks).

Ray Charles– “In the Heat of the Night” – This sultry, swampy main title theme for the eponymous 1967 Best Picture winner (composed by Quincy Jones, with lyrics by Marlilyn and Alan Bergman) is a perfect marriage of music with a film.

Mungo Jerry– “In the Summertime” – It wouldn’t have worked without the jug.

The Dream Academy– “Indian Summer” – If there are five stages of summer, here’s acceptance: When August and September just become memories of songs/to be put away with the summer clothes/and packed up in the attic for another year.

Chris Rea– “Looking for the Summer” – Wallet, keys…summer? Couch cushion?

Marshall Crenshaw– “Starless Summer Sky” – In a just world, this power pop genius would have ruled the airwaves. Here’s one of many perfect examples why.

The Isley Brothers– “Summer Breeze” – Yes, I know Seals & Crofts did the original version, but the Isleys always had a knack for making covers their own.

The James Gang– “Summer Breezes” – Not to be confused with the previous tune, this is an original song written by the late, great Tommy Bolin, who replaced Joe Walsh in 1973. Catchy, melodic rock with great slide work by Bolin.

The Lovin’ Spoonful– “Summer in the City” – All around, people lookin’ half-dead/walkin’ on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head. Written by John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian and Steve Boone, this 1966 hit is a clever portmanteau of music, lyrics and effects that quite literally sounds like…summer in the city.

The Webb Brothers– “Summer People” – Christaan, Justin, and James Webb started out with a pretty good pedigree-they’re the sons of songwriter Jimmy Webb. This catchy, Who-ish number is taken from their 2000 album, Marooned.

Chad & Jeremy– “A Summer Song” – The biggest hit for this British pop duo (it made the Top 10 in 1964). I always thought it had a Simon & Garfunkel vibe to it.

XTC– “Summer’s Cauldron/Grass” – A mini-suite of sorts, all about summer romance, lazy days, and the uh, things we did on grass. Produced by Todd Rundgren.

Ella Fitzgerald– “Summertime” – This classic George Gershwin song (from his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess) has been covered by many artists (allegedly there are 25,000 recordings), but I feel that Lady Ella’s version is pretty damn close to definitive.

Blue Cheer– “Summertime Blues” – Eddie Cochran wrote and performed it originally, and the Who did a great cover on Live at Leeds, but for sheer attitude, I’ve got to go with this proto-punk (some have argued, proto-metal) classic from 1968.

The Kinks– “Sunny Afternoon” – This poor guy. Taxman’s taken all his dough, girlfriend’s run off with his car…but he’s not going to let that ruin his summer: Now I’m sittin here/ sippin’ at my ice-cooled beer/ lazin’ on a sunny afternoon…

The Drifters– “Under the Boardwalk” – Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick wrote this iconic 1964 Top 10 hit, and Johnny Moore sings the lead tenor vocal. The group has a very strained and byzantine history (over 60 members since 1953), but its legacy is assured by the likes of this tune, “On Broadway”, “Save the Last Dance for Me”, “This Magic Moment”, “Dance With Me”, “Up on the Roof”, and many others.

Central Line– “Walking into Sunshine” – This jazz-funk outfit hailed from the UK and produced three albums from 1978-1984. This 1981 tune was a U.S. club hit.

The Beach Boys– “The Warmth of the Sun” – This song (featuring one of Brian Wilson’s most gorgeous melodies), appeared on the 1964 album Shut Down Vol 2. Atypically introspective and melancholy for this era of the band, it had an unusual origin story. Wilson and Mike Love allegedly began work on the tune in the wee hours of the morning JFK was assassinated; news of the event changed the tenor of the lyrics, as well as having an effect on the emotion driving the vocal performance.