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Any Major ABC: 1990s

April 1st, 2021 3 comments

In every decade there seems to be a cultural revival of eras that are 15-30 years in the past. I suppose these revivals are the natural consequence of people who grew up 15-30 years ago becoming the cultural decision-makers of the day, resuscitating their happy days of growing up, of being teenagers, of being consumers of music, movies and TV. And if those days weren’t always happy, these people always had music, TV and film to comfort them. So the culture of past generations is revived by middle-age decision-makers and consumed by both their peers and by young people, together and apart.

That generational nostalgia cycle really took hold in the 1970s, when the 1950s revival started with movies like American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show, and bands like Sha Na Na, and then TV shows like Happy Days (a title that signposts that nostalgia I mentioned above) and revival groups like Showaddywaddy in the UK. The death of Elvis gave it further momentum, and it culminated with the musical and movie Grease. Even in the mid-1980s the ’50s revival still had currency, with the Back To The Future film presenting a particular version of 1955.

By then, the 1960s revival was in full swing. In Britain, Mods were already in a Battle of Revivals with Teddy Boys in the late 1970s. Then the murder of John Lennon in 1980 drove ’60s nostalgia into overdrive, bringing us Dirty Dancing and, in the UK, Levi jeans commercials soundtracked by soul hits of that era. And in the 1990s and 2000s, nostalgia for the 1970s even brought bell bottoms back into fashion, their death certificates from the ’80s having been declared briefly invalid.

Now we are in the midst of a 1990s revival, which is unnerving for those of us who are still coming to terms with the advent of the third millennium AD. But suddenly 1990s sitcoms have become all the rage, and the Spice Girls have been artistically rehabilitated by many! Has Garth Brooks started touring again, flying above the cheering crowds?

The 15-30 year revival cycle suggests that the nostalgia for the 2000s should be in full swing now, which means baggy T-shirts must be in soon (or they already are; what would I know?). But the 2000s never really went away, and that is probably the key to nostalgia and the revivals it generates: the eras must have died before they can be revived.

The 1990s is in the grey area of nostalgism: some of it never went away, and yet some of it seems like a different country now.

This mix of music — one act representing each letter of the alphabet — will, I hope, make the 1990s present as an interesting decade. It’s a decade that had its own culture — grunge or Brit pop, for example — but also served as a bridge between a segmented past and the blur of slowly shifting culture in an age when the spirit of the past couple of decades is ever-present, through the Internet and Netflix.

Politically, it was the last summer of relative peace, before 9/11 and the devastation of personal rights that followed that event. It was still a decade of hope, with the fall of the Eastern Bloc, Germany reuniting, South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid, the appearance of economic stability (the price for which we paid after 2008, with the lie of austerity), and the optimism that the new-fangled World Wide Web would be a force only for good.

The writing was already on the wall, of course. In the US, there was rise of Republican obstructionism and ultra-partisanship in the 1994 midterms — which came to full bloom in the Tea Party and the social dystopia of Trumpism. The Columbine massacre in 1999 proved to be not an aberration but the starting salvo for a culture of mass shootings so frequent that they have lost the power to truly shock. And in South Africa, the liberators turned out to be just as corrupt as their racist predecessors. But it is not an act of nostalgia to observe the 1990s were better than the two awful decades that followed them.

But back to the music… These ABC mixes are a bit like nostalgia radio stations, though here the playlist compiler has better taste than many of those who decide which old song should play twice a day on the radio. Your kids (or gandchildren) might be pleased to hear something from the 1990s that’s not Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston or “What if God was one of us”.

The mix couldn’t be timed to fit on a CD-R, but I made home-shellsuited covers anyway, in case these come in handy. The text above is included as an illustrated PDF booklet.

1. Arrested Development – People Everyday (1992)
2. Barenaked Ladies – Brian Wilson (live) (1996)
3. Crowded House – Distant Sun (1993)
4. Duran Duran – Ordinary World (1993)
5. En Vogue – My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) (1992)
6. Fastball – Out Of My Head (1998)
7. George Michael – Spinning The Wheel (1996)
8. Harvey Danger – Flagpole Sitta (1997)
9. Indigo Girls – Galileo (1992)
10. James – Laid (1993)
11. Khadja Nin – Wale Watu (1996)
12. Lemonheads – It’s A Shame About Ray (1992)
13. Mango Groove – Hometalk (1990)
14. Nick Heyward – The Man You Used To Be (1998)
15. Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger (1995)
16. Primal Scream – Rocks (1994)
17. Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y. (1993)
18. R.E.M. – Man On The Moon (1992)
19. Shawn Mullins – Lullaby (1998)
20. Tasmin Archer – Sleeping Satellite (1992)
21. US3 – Cantaloop (1992)
22. Verve – Lucky Man (1997)
23. Weezer – Falling For You (1996)
24. Xzibit – Paparazzi (1996)
25. Youssou N’Dour feat. Neneh Cherry – 7 Seconds (1994)
26. Zhané – Groove Thang (1994)

GET IT! or HERE!

 

MORE ABC MIXES:

Any Major ABC of the 1950s
Any Major ABC of the 1960s
Any Major ABC of the 1970s
Any Major ABC of the 2000s
Any Major ABC of Soul
Any Major ABC of Country
Any Major ABC of Christmas

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PROTEST!

June 3rd, 2020 3 comments

At the beginning of the poisonous presidency of Donald Trump, I posted two mixes of soul tracks demanding racial justice. Given recent events, it is overdue that I should make a third one, which I will in due cause.

The need for the consciousness of social justice will not go away, and #BlackLivesMatter will remain an acute issue even when (if?) the racist president gets turfed out at the end of this awful year. George Floyd’s name will never be forgotten, but no doubt there will be more George Floyds. The struggle continues.

In the interim, the two previous mixes are up again.

Any Major Protest Soul Vol. 1
Any Major Protest Soul Vol. 2

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R.I.P. Hal Blaine 1929-2019

March 12th, 2019 4 comments

 

 

Yesterday we lost a giant in music history, one of the greatest drummers in pop, a hitmaker, a true legend – and most people don’t even know his name. Hal Blaine was the fulcrum of The Wrecking Crew, that great collective of LA-based session musicians that played on an incredible number of pop classics, backing anything from Pet Sounds to The Partridge Family.

Blaine’s death comes just four months after that of bassist Joe Osborne, which means that the trio of musical masterminds who helped Simon & Garfunkel create masterpieces like Bridge Over Troubled Water or The Boxer are now gone (keyboardist Larry Knechtel die in 2009).

I posted two mixes of songs on which Hal Blaine played, with some background on him, in 2014. It might be worth revisiting them:

 

The Hal Blaine Collection Vol. 1 

 

The Hal Blaine Collection Vol. 2

 

Other session musicians’ collection:
The Joe Osborn Collection
The Jim Gordon Collection Vol. 1
The Jim Gordon Collection Vol. 2
The Ricky Lawson Collection Vol. 1
The Ricky Lawson Collection Vol. 2
The Jim Keltner Collection Vol. 1
The Jim Keltner Collection Vol. 2
The Bernard Purdie Collection Vol. 1
The Bernard Purdie Collection Vol. 2
The Steve Gadd Collection Vol. 1
The Steve Gadd Collection Vol. 2
The Steve Gadd Collection Vol. 3
The Larry Carlton Collection
The Bobby Keys Collection
The Louis Johnson Collection
The Bobby Graham Collection
The Ringo Starr Collection

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Thriller vs Purple Rain

April 22nd, 2016 19 comments

Tonight I’ve had Thriller square up to Purple Rain, track vs track. The best-selling album of all time versus the most perfect pop album of the decade. It’s an unfair contest.

 

thriller

 

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ vs Let’s Go Crazy
Great opener by Michael is blown out of the water by a work of great innovation and energy. There are a couple of songs on Purple Rain which Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ might have beaten, but not Let’s Go Crazy. 0-1

 

purple rain

 

Baby Be Mine vs Take Me With U
MJ delivers a decent filler track that is competently produced. Prince wins this already in the intro with those great drums; and then those strings later in the song. No contest. 0-2

 

thriller-back

 

The Girl Is Mine vs The Beautiful Ones
Michael sings this like a nursery rhyme and climaxes with the “I’m a lover not a fighter” line while he “argues” with Macca. Prince goes falsetto on our asses and then climaxes with that explosion of emotion. Emphatically Prince’s point. 0-3

 

purple rain-back

 

Thriller vs Computer Blue
Jackson’s excellent title track meets Purple Rain‘s least strong track (still, Computer Blue’s guitars!). Point Jacko. 1-3

 

thriller-label

 

Beat It vs Darling Nikki
I love Darling Nikki (and how it sent Tipper Gore over the edge), but Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo… With a heavy heart, I give it to Beat It. 2-3

 

purple rain-label1

 

Billie Jean vs When Doves Cry
The heavyweight clash, and it’s a no brainer. Billie Jean gives us dancability; When Doves Cry gives us layers and layers of genius. 2-4

 

thriller-label2

 

Human Nature vs I Would Die 4 U
I love Human Nature dearly, but I Would Die 4 U is so utterly joyous. Plus, I have the mental image of Prince’s hand actions and that beatific smile when he performs the song in the film. 2-5

 

purple rain-label1

 

P.Y.T. vs Baby I’m A Star
Oh so easy. If Baby I’m A Star doesn’t get you moving, you might as well check yourself into a mortuary. 2-6

 

purple rain-inner sleeve

 

The Lady In My Life vs Purple Rain
It’s like Brazil against Germany in a World Cup semi-final. Almost fittingly, the final score is 2-7

In fairness, I expect Off The Wall would beat Dirty Mind or Controversy handily. But then, Sign ‘O The Times would utterly destroy Bad

And as we are thinking of Prince, may I direct you to the warmest tribute I’ve read, by the British music journalist Simon Price on The Quietus.

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Donald Fagen’s new book

December 16th, 2013 3 comments

When a member of Steely Dan writes a book, then I suppose a blog named after a Steely Dan song has to read it and write about it. But I”m not in a mood to write a traditional book review, which is probably quite appropriate, because Donald Fagen”s Eminent Hipsters (Viking, 2013) is not a conventional book.

eminent_hipstersIt really is two ideas for a book, and with both of them too brief to qualify for a full-length book, they were combined. The first section, 85 pages long, comprises previously published essays in which Fagen writes with insight and erudition about his jazz favourites and DJs (fans of The Nightfly cover art are perking up as we speak), and how they influenced him, and about growing up in the jazz clubs of New York. It”s good stuff which made me dig out the innovative oeuvre of the Boswell Sisters. I expect that this would please Fagen.

The second part, all of 73 pages, is the star of the show though: Fagen”s diary of his “Dukes of September Rhythm Revue” tour in 2012 with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald (about whom we hear little), a more “low-rent” exercise than a Steely Dan tour.

Fagen, now a sextegenarian, seems a pretty tetchy fellow at the best of times, but he”s also blessed with wit. So when he is really annoyed about something “” overcrowded hotel pools, irritating audiences, modern culture, hotel linen that smells of soy sauce, the tedium of travel “” he is deliciously sarcastic company; in print, that is. I bet Fagen is awful company when he is in a dark mood.

There are touching moments: Fagen discusses suicide, depression and an uncle who was on a tough streak in business. There are also moments when you want to high-five Donald, or even identify with him.

One such moment is when he narrates a visit to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Noting impressive exhibits, such as Rosa Park”s bus and the Lincoln in which Kennedy was shot, Fagen proceeds to write: “I was going to ask if they had a vintage copy of The International Jew: The World”s Foremost Problem, the first of Ford”s screeds blaming the Jews for all the world”s ills, but I chickened out.” Don”t we all know the feeling?

A favourite passage concerns the Ray Charles-despising audience at a gig in San Antonio, “maybe tourists from Arizona, I don”t know. Probably right-wingers, too, the victims of an epidemic of mental illness that a British study has proven to be the result of having an inordinately large amygdala, a part of the primitive brain that causes them to be fearful past the point of delusion, which explains why their philosophy, their syntax and their manner of thought don”t seem to be reality-based.” The pay-off line to that is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Fagen is at times very funny, sometimes insightful, occasionally annoying (the “TV Babies” riff!). Throughout the book, he is engaging. You don”t come away knowing Fagen, but you”ll know what he thinks on any number of issues.

Steely Dan fans will be pleased to read about the genesis of “Deacon Blue”, but there”s very little of that kind of thing in Eminent Hipster. Still, even if the book doesn”t tell us much about the Dan, it could be said to be much like the band”s music: detached yet accessible.

Usually I don”t pay much mind to a book”s cover, unless it is so bad as to cause me a Fagenesque cantankerous disposition. The cover of Eminent Hipsters is marvellous, though, by virtue of the white area bearing the book”s title and author”s name being embossed in bond paper on the high-gloss jacket, as is the back-cover blurb. It”s lovely and random, and makes the book nice to touch.

Ah well, so this did come out a bit like a book review.

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Step back to 1981 – Part 1

June 14th, 2012 7 comments

For me the first few months of 1981 was dominated by Beatles, John Lennon, more Beatles, more Lennon, more Beatles, a bit of other solo Beatles and more Lennon, and a touch of Bruce Springsteen. Of course, Lennon had just been murdered, and if I was a bit of a Beatles fan with quite a few albums before that, I now bought all the British and US releases, plus all Lennon solo albums, including the Wedding Album with all the paraphernalia. Many of them were Japanese pressings. Over the years my collection became decimated by theft. The Wedding Album and Two Virgins are gone, as are all US releases (except Something New), and the Magical Mystery Tour gatefold with booklet”¦

 

John Lennon – Watching The Wheels.mp3
The songs that dominated the airwaves were Woman and Imagine. The latter has become so ubiquitous that it now is timeless; the former was so overplayed, I am still sick of it. Watching The Wheels , on the other hand, still takes me back to early 1981. It was quite sad: John Lennon, the professional troubled soul, had finally found contentment ““ and then the revolting Mark Chapman murdered him. I think Watching The Wheels is a little underrated in the Lennon canon; perhaps it”s not a classic, but it”s a very good song, the kind that makes one wonder what sort of music Lennon might have churned out had he lived. My guess is that by 1988 everybody would have been thoroughly sick of him until his comeback, appearing on stage with Oasis at the Reading Festival, rehabilitated his reputation with cover features in Q and Rolling Stone, and a big appearance at the Grammys, duetting with Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt and Seal, followed by ““ oh, classic TV moment ““ a bluesy medley Beatles and Stones hits with Mick & Keef.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ties That Bind.mp3
I had been aware of Bruce Springsteen, of course, but I had not really listened to his music. In February 1981 I heard Hungry Heart on the radio, and on strength of that I bought The River, which had been released in October 1980. It helped that Springsteen looked very cool, much like Al Pacino, on the cover. I was hooked with the first song of the first side, The Ties That Bind. In fact, the first two sides of the double album, so upbeat and joyous, were enough for me. I almost never listened to the other two sides; in fact, even as I love Point Blank and Drive All Night, some of the songs remain unknown to me even now. And I cannot abide by Cadillac Ranch. Above all, the album reminds me of being half-blinded for several hours after the optician shone a bright light into my eyes, just after I had bought the record. Coming home, I had to unwrap the record and place it on the turntable mostly by touch.

The Look – I Am The Beat.mp3
I might have been on a massive Beatles and Springsteen trip, but I still loved the British post-punk stuff. I Am The Beat was one of the very few singles I bought in 1981 ““ indeed, I”m struggling to think of any non-Beatles related singles I bought that year, though I”m sure there must some. But by then I was very much an LP-buying teenager of 14-going-on-15. The singer of The Look, Johnny Whetstone, had a strange accent: “I”m in demond”! It was the band”s only hit, reaching #6 in the UK in February 1981, and by 1983 The Look broke up. Apparently they reformed a few years ago and released an album titled Pop Yowlin” which got some good reviews.

Kim Wilde – Kids in America.mp3
Half a year earlier I would have loved Kids In America. I would have bought the single, and put up a poster of the lovely Ms Wilde. But with my Beatles/Lennon and Springsteen obsession I had very limited time for anything else. I heard Kids In America on the radio and saw Kim Wilde perform it on TV, but against Revolver and the White Album, or indeed The River, it was aural wallpaper. The good news was that my classmate Stefan, who had been a great Beatles fan, became so obsessed with Kim Wilde and the burgeoning Neue Deutsche Welle genre that he offloaded his excellent collection of Beatles posters and newspaper cuttings to me. And for that I have to thank Ms Wilde and the next act.

Ideal – Blaue Augen.mp3
Before 1980, German popular music consisted of the Schlager genre, which was becoming increasingly novelty-based when it didn”t exceed previous levels of banality; the Liedermacher (singer-songwriter) genre of angry lefty-wingers and non-conformists; and a clutch of individualists such as anti-establishment rocker Udo Lindenberg, who had long hair and a cultivated impertinence, former actor Marius Müller-Westernhagen, who specialised in mostly sneering lyrics for beer drinkers in leather jackets, and a few punk outfits such the Zeltinger Band. All that changed in the early 1980s with the emergence of the Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, meaning New German Wave).

Until 1981 NDW was an underground phenomenon, led by groups like Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF) and Mittagspause. It was not  so much a musical genre as a label for post-punk and New Wave bands. In early 1981, NDW exploded into the mainstream, and Berlin-based band Ideal”s Blaue Augen, more post-punk than New Wave, was one of the pivots. Quite incredibly, Ideal had made their breakthrough as a support act at a Berlin open-air gig for prog-rockers Barclay James Harvest. Even more incredibly, and I hadn”t known this until I looked it up for this piece, it took until 1982 for Blaue Augen, first released on LP in November 1980 and as a single in early 1981, to become a hit.

Visage – Mind Of A Toy.mp3
At around the same time, the New Romantic thing was starting to get traction. It had been brewing for a while, with Gary Numan as a spearhead, but now the Bowie-influenced synth-based pop music was becoming quite ubiquitous, with Ultravox, the Human League and Duran Duran breaking through. Visage were heralds of the movement, first with their hit Fade To Grey, which was quickly followed up with Mind Of A Toy. The brilliant video for the latter was directed by Godley & Creme. Visage was fronted by eccentric nightclub owner Steve Strange, but the lead vocals on Mind Of A Toy are by Ultravox”s Midge Ure, with Ultravox”s Billy Currie on keyboards, and Rusty Egan on drums.

Yoko Ono – Walking On Thin Ice.mp3
Walking On Thin Ice was the song John Lennon and Yoko Ono were working on that 8 December, before Chapman shot Lennon dead outside the Dakota, apparently while John was holding the master tape of the song. It is easily Ono”s best song, a disco number with a new wave sensibility (or vice versa).  Lennon played the lead guitar on the song. I bought the single as an act of loyalty to Lennon, and quite liked it. Not everybody did, it seems. Despite widespread sympathy for Ono just a couple of months after the murder, the single stalled at #58 in the US and at #35 in Britain. Presumably Yoko”s monkey-like chants put off the average record buyer; in this context I quite like it (and, as I”ve stated before, I don”t bow to the musical genius of Yoko Ono).  Later remixes by the Pet Shop Boys and others managed to revive the song on the dancefloors.

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Step back to 1980 – Part 4

April 26th, 2012 5 comments

I have a few specific memories of the final quarter of 1980, but one stands out, as it probably does for most western teenagers growing up in 1980. On 9 December the radio alarm clock went off. I was just rising when the announcer said that John Lennon had been shot dead while we were sleeping. On my turntable was the second LP from The Beatles 1967-70 collection, which I had listened to, for the first time in a long while, just the previous evening, when Lennon was still alive. That bitterly cold morning at school my fellow Beatles fan Thorsten and I were greeted by our more cynical mates with “congratulations” on the death of John Lennon. For Thorsten and me, and probably millions others, the next few months were our generation”s version of Beatlemania. I quickly completed my collection of Beatles LPs, buying a few on a post-Christmas holiday in Greece, and the US releases on Japanese pressings.

 

Robert Palmer – Johnny & Mary.mp3
I had been a bit of a Robert Palmer fan, so I was quite excited by Johnny & Mary, a song that bought into the nascent New Wave Zeitgeist, with its liberal use of the synth and Palmer”s cool lyrics. Remember that Visage, Human League and Ultravox had not yet had their synth-based hits; these would come in 1981. So Johnny And Mary sounded quite exciting at the time. Moreover, the song has no chorus, which was rare in 1980 (and still is), and the vocals are delivered in a laconic monotone, which was also unusual in pop. On strength of Johnny & Mary, Palmers Clues album made it on to my Christmas wishlist of LPs. And when I opened my gifts at Christmas, it was among them. Listening to it I had the sinking feeling one gets when the lead single is the only really good track on an LP. Palmer totally lost me a few years later with his Addicted To Love, a song with an over-praised sexist video which I still despise.

Kate Bush ““ Army Dreamers.mp3
Kate Bush”s Never For Ever album was also in that bunch of Christmas present LPs. I loved lead single Babooshka, with its sound of breaking glass that was created by a synthesizer, but I had real affection for Army Dreamers, a song that didn”t get as much attention as Babooshka. Of course, I had recorded both off the radio. I was politically engaged, and naturally opposed to all things military (I didn”t even like war movies), so an anti-martial song appealed to me, especially one with an unusual waltz tempo. I didn”t know the promo video for the song yet, but it seems to have made quite an impact at the time. It is indeed striking. That thing she does with her eyes is particularly good. (HERE)    *

Bots ““ Sieben Tage Lang.mp3
Bots was a Dutch folk-rock group of the left-wing protest song variety. Their Sieben Tage Lang was a hit, of sorts, in West Germany in 1980, a cover of their Dutch original from 1976 which in turn was based on the traditional Breton drinking song Son ar Chistr which in 1971 was a minor hit for the harpist Alan Stivell. The drum beat is martial, and the lyrics offer a vision of socialist revolution.

The German lyrics were co-written by the investigative journalist Günter Wallraff, who by reputation is Germany”s equivalent of Michael Moore, but without the populist polemic. Wallraff made a name for himself in the 1970s by infiltrating the mass-circulation Bild daily newspaper, a reactionary rag that trades in sensation, gossip, tits and sports. It would not be unfair to say that Bild“s ethics, at least in the 1970s and “80s, were on the level of those now exposed in Rupert Murdoch”s media empire; perhaps even worse. The newspaper cheerfully destroyed lives with lies. It was widely called “das Lügenblatt” (the rag of lies). Wallraff exposed all that.

Co-writing the German lyrics with Wallraff was one Lerryn, the pseudonym of leftist songwriter and manager Dieter Dehm. After the reunification of Germany it was alleged that Dehm had reported to East Germany”s secret service, the Stasi, on the activities of another leftist songwriter, Wolf Biermann (stepfather of Nina Hagen), before the communist regime expelled Biermann from the GDR. Dehm denies having spied for the Stasi.

Paul Simon – Late In The Evening (YouTube live clip)
Paul Simon”s One Trick Pony LP was another Christmas present LP which I had wanted on strength of a great lead single and never really enjoyed. Which means that the album title is quite ironic itself “” it had only one trick. Ah, but what a trick. It has a casual drug reference, which didn”t get the song banned! The fantastic Latin horn part was arranged by Dave Grusin, who did the instrumental score for the soundtrack for The Graduate, which Simon & Garfunkel had significantly contributed to.  And check out the exquisite drumming by Steve Gadd. Then there are the masterful percussions of Ralph MacDonald, who died in December, and the guitar work of the late Eric Gale. And on backing vocals is Lani Groves, who sang the opening verse of Stevie Wonder”s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life with Jim Gilstrap. (The MP3 file was found and zapped before the post was even up. Hence the YouTube clip.)

Air Supply – All Out Of Love.mp3
I always stress that in this series, the songs are chosen because they have the power to transport me back to the time when they came out, not because I endorse them. This one can in an instance recreate in me that nagging teenage feeling in the stomach, the desire for romance, and the smell of my bedroom. I don”t really want to endorse the song; on the contrary, I want to hate it as the spineless power ballad it really is. And still ““ and I don”t know if it is the nostalgia for an unhappy youth or my advancing age ““ listening to it as I”m writing this, I rather enjoy it. So much so, that I”ll play it again. But then, I have previously publicly defended Chicago”s If You Leave Me Now, an act that has earned me some derision, so I might as well confess my (no longer) secret affection for wimpy power ballads.

Karat – Ãœber sieben Brücken mußt du gehn.mp3
On my family”s periodic visits to East Germany, I would try and satisfy my record-buying impulse by purchasing albums by local rock bands. It was also a good way of spending East German marks, which was quite challenge in a country which did not go in for quality consumer goods. You couldn”t even buy a replica Dynamo Dresden football shirt (just as you couldn”t buy a Dukla Prague away shirt in Czechoslovakia; though you could do so from western mail order companies). And that”s how I came to own LPs by the likes of City and the Puhdys. I never really listened to them. But the biggest East German band, Karat, had passed me by until they suddenly had a hit in West Germany with Ãœber sieben Brücken mußt du gehn (You”ll have to cross seven bridges). The rather lovely prog-rock ballad, originally released in East Germany in 1978, was covered by Peter Maffay, one of West Germany”s biggest stars who styled himself (and still does) as a bit of an outlaw. Maffay had the bigger hit with it, but in the slipstream of his version”s success, Karat”s original received much radio airplay (by East German law they were not allowed to appear on West German TV). I preferred the Karat version.

David Bowie – Up The Hill Backwards.mp3
Here”s another Christmas present album, which made my wishlist on strength of Ashes To Ashes and the even more fabulous Fashion. Unlike the LPs by Palmer and Simon, I liked the Scary Monsters LP a lot, and I particularly loved Up The Hill Backwards with its anthemic vocals, Robert Fripp”s crazy guitars and the staccato drumming. Bruce Springsteen”s piano man Roy Bittan did ivory tinkling duty here, as he did on Ashes To Ashes and Teenage Wildlife, and the album”s co-producer, Tony Visconti played the acoustic guitar. Up The Hill Backwards was released as the album”s fourth single in Britain. It stalled at #32, not entirely surprisingly, because it is not really commercial.

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Whitney Houston uncovered

February 12th, 2012 5 comments

It was in a place called The Video Café in London”s West End that I first became aware of Whitney Houston. In 1985 the concept of a restaurant playing video promos of pop music on big screens was still so novel as to present a special gastronomic experience. So I heard, and saw, Whitney singing How Will I Know there. She wouldn”t bother the British charts for another few months when she topped the charts with her cover of Marilyn McCoo”s Saving All My Love.

We know the trajectory her career took, from superstardom to megastardom to megadivadom to trainwreck who couldn”t buy a comeback for love or money. Following her passing yesterday, she”ll have that comeback. The timing of her death, on the eve of the Grammys, guarantees it. What a way for a diva to go out (even if that will be of scant consolation to her grieving mother Cissy, her daughter, her family or friends)! The tributes are flooding in, as they tend to when somebody as famous as Whitney Houston dies. People who should know better declare Whitney Houston the “Queen of Pop”, her lack of success or accomplishment over the past decade or so notwithstanding. And even in her pomp, Madonna and Mariah Carey had more solid claims to that crown.

Simon Cowell, who has done more than most to molest and maim popular music, has proclaimed Houston the most influential artist ever, or hyperbolic words to that effect. He might have a point: Houston was in the vanguard of singers who pushed the ostentatious soul wailings so overcooked by people like Patti LaBelle into the mainstream (she was joined there by the even greater offenders in that unwelcome development, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men), replicated to nauseating effect by many who tried for Cowell”s talent shows. And, of course, many singers say they were inspired by Whitney Houston, and we must take their word for it.

Of course, Houston will be remembered rightly as a singer with a truly great voice, a woman of great beauty (which even in her drug phase was evident beneath the addict exterior), and as an artist who was ready to encourage young talents. She will be remembered as a diva and as a hitmaker. She will be remembered by some with emotions that are less than fond for her ubiquity in 1992/93, when her love-it-or-hate-it version of I Will Always Love You was impossible to bypass. And she will be remembered as a cautionary tale about the very real perils of drugs and marrying men who are known to be major douchebags. Eventually it will be remembered that for all her talent, voice and poise, Whitney Houston”s output didn”t quite justify the acclaim it is getting now.

Her song-choices and much of the production often failed to do her voice justice; for a soul singer, there was a tendency of technique trumping emotion (her song So Emotional is a good example of that). And when the production really let her voice soar, as it did on I Will Always Love You, it annoyed many and turned them conclusively against Whitney. So she leaves us with six albums, a couple of soundtracks, a few singles (such as the 1988 Olympics anthem One Moment In Time), and her spine-chilling performance of the US national anthem that provided the soundtrack to George Bush Sr”s Gulf War.

Her eponymously titled debut album from 1985 remains the stand-out in Houston”s catalogue. The power ballads are already there, as are the pop numbers, like the deliriously catchy How Will I Know. But the LP has a soul feel, especially when Whitney duets with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass (their Hold Me is just beautiful) and on tracks like You Give Good Love.

The sophomore album, titled with a singular lack of imagination Whitney, dispensed with the soul and recycled How Will I Know as I Wanna Dance With Somebody (both co-written by George Merrill, Shannon Rubicam and Michael Narada Walden) and All At Once as Didn”t We Almost Have It All (both co-written by Michael Masser), just with bigger productions, bigger synths or bigger orchestras. It is an album that has not aged well.

The third album, I”m Your Baby Tonight (1990), traded the Masser productions for those by LA Reid and Babyface, with Walden, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross also chipping in. It was a patchy album, but Whitney regained some of the soul cred which she would promptly lose with The Bodyguard (1992), the soundtrack of the movie in which she acted poorly opposite Kevin Costner, the thespian version of Kenny G (who, predictably, features on the soundtrack). Houston contributed about half of the songs to the soundtrack, which is quite awful once her songs are done with. And even those are not great. Run To You is a sweet song and I Have Nothing is a showstopper type of affair which should go down well at drag clubs. But the horror was Whitney going rock on the dreadful Queen Of The Night, one of the very few songs on which she earned a writing credit.

A couple of other movies and associated soundtracks followed. Of those, The Preacher”s Wife (1997) is mediocre, but Houston”s three turns on the Babyface-produced soundtrack for Waiting To Exhale (1995), are good. A creditable fourth album in My Love Is Your Love (1998) followed ““ and nothing really worth recalling thereafter.

She had hits, and she even had some fine records, but this is not the strike rate of a legend. Her status as a legend is guaranteed by three other things: her voice, which touched and, yes, influenced many people; her poise, which never suggested, even in her drug-addled days, that she was anything less than a star (the Norma Desmond effect, if you will); and her death at a relatively young age, before her beauty went and before her voice disappeared entirely. She clearly was a troubled soul, far from the seemingly carefree young woman whom I saw in on the screen in The Video Café 27 years ago. May she rest in peace.

Over the next few days we will hear enough Whitney Houston material, and people singing Whitney Houston material in ways that may or may not be classifiable as tributes. So here are the originals of some of the songs Whitney Houston covered. The one non-original is All The Man That I Need, which Sister Sledge covered in 1982 from Linda Clifford”s 1981 original, with guest vocals by David Simmons, before Whitney recorded it in 1990. Their version is superior to Whitney”s. As are, in my view all the other originals, with the exception of Marilyn McCoo”s excellent Saving All My Love For You, which Whitney not only eclipsed but hit out of the park. Singing backing vocals on I’m Every Woman is a 15-year-old Whitney Houston…

Marilyn McCoo – Saving All My Love For You (1978).mp3
George Benson – The Greatest Love Of All (1977).mp3
Isley Brothers – For The Love Of You (1975).mp3
Sister Sledge – All The Man I Need (1982).mp3
Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You (1974).mp3
Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman (1978).mp3

 

Step back to 1980 – Part 3

January 25th, 2012 9 comments

There isn”t much I remember specifically about the late summer and autumn of 1980. We holidayed in Czechoslovakia and Austria, I despised school, my granny died, and I read English football magazines to brush up on my English skills. But I recall the vibe of that time, and these songs help conjure it.

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Kelly Marie – Feels Like I’m In Love.mp3
Here”s a great bit of trivia: Feels Like I”m In Love was written by Ray Dorset, the mutton-chopped frontman of Mungo Jerry, specifically for Elvis Presley. Alas, before Dorset could pitch the song to Elvis, the rhinestoned king died. But imagine Elvis singing Feels Like I”m In Love; with a different arrangement and perhaps slowed down a bit. Sounds like a hit to me. Of course, English disco starlet Kelly Marie also enjoyed a hit with it, a UK #1, and quite rightly so: it”s a very good song. I remember it being hugely popular at the funfair; when I hear it I smell candyfloss, sugar-roasted almonds and Bratwurst.

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Randy Newman – The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band.mp3
This is the bit where the threads of an American songwriter of wit and style and German football meet. Randy Newman was so much a fan of the Electric Light Orchestra that he penned a tribute to the band. The lyrics are, by Newman”s standards, fairly artless, but in his own way, Newman manages to recreate the ELO sound in an affectionate homage, while still sounding like Randy Newman.  Turn To Stone seems to Randy”s favourite ELO song, though he does recognise other worthy contenders. I was so taken by Newman”s tribute that I bought the LP, with its crap cover pic.

At the same time, my favourite football player ““ and when you”re 14, a favourite player is a semi-deity ““ was the diminutive but brilliant winger Pierre Littbarski, who played for my favourite club. Sporting exploits aside (and, at 20, he was not a star yet in 1980), there are three things I remember about Littbarski: he was a chocaholic, he supported the conservative CDU (boo!), and he was a huge ELO fan.

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Joan Armatrading – Me Myself I.mp3
Looking back, it seems that by now I was more into LPs than I was into singles. I bought Joan Armatrading”s  Me, Myself, I album on strength of its title track, with that abrasive guitar riff and Chris Spedding”s wonderful guitar solo , Cape Town-born Anton Fig”s thumping drums, the tempo changes and the catchy chorus. I still like the album a lot: All The Way From America, Feeling In My Heart (For You), and especially Turn Out The Lights remain great songs. At this point I had not yet become a Springsteen fan, though that was going to happen fairly soon. But the presence of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons on the album would have been an added bonus. It also featured Paul Shaffer, David Letterman”s annoying houseband leader, on keyboards. At one point, all of those who appeared on the song were members of the houseband, having met while recording with Joan Armatrading.

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Styx – Boat On The River.mp3
Yeah, I know it came out in 1979, but Boat On The River didn”t get much airplay on German radio until 1980. In fact, on our local station at least, this was bigger than the megahit from the same album, Babe. Perhaps it reminded the playlist compilers of those Slavic-sounding Schlager hits that were in vogue a decade earlier. I bought the Cornerstones LP, but I don”t think I ever listened to it in full, other than Boat On The River and Babe.

In past instalments of this series, I described how my grandmother bought me my first single (see HERE) and how she helped finance my fast-growing singles collection. The Styx and Armatrading albums were the final music acquisitions she funded. She had actually given me the money to buy new trainers. But instead of purchasing the medium range shoes my budget allowed for, I decided to go for a bargain (still cool: yellow Pumas with a black stripe), and use the difference to buy the two LPs. My mom was not impressed with me. My grandmother died a few weeks later at the age of 85.

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The Police – Driven To Tears.mp3
Liking The Police in the West Germany of 1980 was the mature and cool choice. Many of my friends loved AC/DC (good) and Kiss (meh). And a few sung the praises of Gerry Rafferty, even though his City To City album, released two years earlier, was quite ancient. But mention that you like The Police, and people would respect you, much like the neighbourhood respected the teenage Henry Hill in GoodFellas. Soon The Police became really massive and I had to abandon them, but when they released their Zenyatta Mondatta album in 1980, I played it to death.  I also played it to my stepfather when we were wallpapering my room, seeing as he had enjoyed the music of Bob Seger which I had introduced him to. He assured me that he liked the album. Looking back, I think he was lying.

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Diana Ross – My Old Piano.mp3
Upside Down had already been a hit, but it was this track that turned me on to Diana Ross, whom I had hitherto regarded, in my unformed ways, as part of the musical wallpaper, the sort of star who is a star because she is a star. Well, it wasn”t really Ms Ross whom I loved this song for, but the production. It”s a great, catchy number, with the sort of funky bass and cool strings you”d associate with a Nile Rogers and Bernie Edwards production. And then there was the fantastic piano and guitar solo; I presume Rogers did the guitar part, and I guess the piano solo was either by Raymond Jones or Andy Schwartz.

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Nick Mackenzie – Hello Good Morning.mp3
This is a terrible song. And when I think of 1980 it sticks in my head like the fumes from the gas released by a decomposing body that sticks on the clothes of your favourite CSI agent. Personally, I think they are all rubbish, none more so that sunglasses juggling fool from the Miami franchise, though I have a theory that David Caruso might play him with a bit of wink, creating a sardonic self-parody to offset the stink of the preposterous scripts; rather unlike Lieutenant Dan over in New York, who seems to play his equally preposterous role with a straight bat. But I digress. So, yeah, Nick Mackenzie was, as his name fails to suggest, from the Netherlands where apparently he was alternately known as Henk van Broekhoven and Nick van der Broeke, which might be a pun on his surname involving the Dutch word for trousers. And that is pretty much all you need to know as you decide whether Hello Good Morning is any good. Take his name or my word for it: it isn”t.

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More Stepping Back

Some are titans, some are tits

November 11th, 2011 14 comments

Last week the Internet magazine Nerve.com invited me, quite out of the blue, to contribute to their fortnightly feature “Five Albums You Should Listen To This Week”. It seems Nerve asks only “titans of the mediasphere” to write that column. So here we have confirmation what the loyal reader knew all along: that the halfhearteddude is indeed a titan (remember us!). So, here are Any Major Titan’s halfhearted recommendations.

I was asked to choose five albums from the country/bluegrass/folk genre.  To enforce some discipline on myself, I imposed a limit to include only 2011 releases. The five I picked are almost certain to feature in my year-end Top 20.

To offset all that good musicness, here are three of the worst records I have in my collection. Now, I wouldn’t say they are bad in the way a filler track on a Starship album or a Westlife hit or or that LP of Beatles songs being barked anything by Michael F. Bolton is bad. For those there is no redemption. These songs are bad and their creators probably know it. These are compellingly bad songs. I dare you to listen to Alan & Denise’s epic Rummenigge (a love letter to the German football player of limited likeability) and not be earwormed by it. Genius.

Alan & Denise – Rummenigge (1983).mp3
Susan Christie – I Love Onions (1966).mp3
Mrs Miller – Chim Chim Cher-ee (1966).mp3

 

 

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