collage of Joe Strummer and Clash album covers

Social Distancing Spins: Clash-mas Eve edition

By Joel Francis

Joe Strummer, lyricist, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash died on December 22, 2002. By the time I found out it was late the next day. Every 24th of December since then, I have declared Clashmas Eve and dedicated to the memory of Strummer and the majesty of The Clash. This non-denominational holiday can – and should – be celebrated by all.

Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War – Permanent Record soundtrack (1988)

Joe Strummer only gets one side of this soundtrack, but he used it to re-establish himself as a solo artist and build anticipation for a proper, full album. In retrospect, I wonder if the Permanent Record didn’t work too well.

It’s true that none of the five songs here are going to replace “White Riot,” or even “Johnny Appleseed.” At the same time, there’s none of the sub-par material like “Ride Your Donkey” that mar Strummer’s eventual solo debut Earthquake Weather.

Most of the songs on Permanent Record are solid, straight-up rockers. Although “Trash City” stands out as the best track, “Baby the Trans” and “Nefertiti Rock” are also a lot of fun. “Theme from Permanent Record” is an instrumental with Strummer’s wordless vocals.

The biggest problem with both the Permanent Record material and Earthquake Weather is the weird ‘80s production that makes everything sound both flat and glossy at the same time. The energy of these performances really struggles to come through. I don’t know if the problem is in how the instruments were recorded or in the mix, but I would love someone to try clean up these remix them.

While I’m dreaming, there is another 10 minutes worth of outtakes from these sessions floating around on bootlegs. It would be nice to add them to this set and release everything as stand-alone EP.

In case you are wondering, the second side of this album finds the Stranglers covering the Kinks as well as original songs from Lou Reed, the Bo-Deans, J.D. Souther and the Godfathers. I bet I play the Strummer side of this album 10 times for every spin the flip side gets. Take the Lou Reed track off there and that number goes down even more.

The Clash – Live at Shea Stadium (2008)

On a road trip several years ago, I subjected a traveling companion to a recreation of the legendary Clash and Who concert at Shea Stadium in 1982. Thanks to archival releases by both bands, each set can be heard in its entirety.

The two groups were obviously in very different places and had very different jobs to do that night. The Who performed for nearly three times as long as the Clash (two hours and 20 minutes) and were nearing the end of their first farewell tour.

The Clash poured their souls into a breathless 50-minute set that maintains its intensity and energy throughout. The music videos for “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Career Opportunities” were shot at this gig and with good reason. The quartet is tight and ready to blow anyone off the stage. “Clampdown,” “I Fought the Law” and opening number “London Calling” are also impeccable. Legend has it that The Clash were treated poorly by Who fans at earlier concerts. In this set they aim to convert everyone in the ballpark. Although the band splintered the following year, none of those cracks are apparent in this set.

Coming on the heels of this set, the Who’s performance couldn’t help but be a disappointment. The band had to pace itself for a much longer set and couldn’t match the Clash’s energy. Although the Who open with several of their earliest hits, they sound like a group tired of each other and tired of the road, going through the motions. Although these performances are nearly 40 years old, the Who ended up having the last laugh. It is still possible to hear Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend play these songs. Sadly, our ability to hear the Clash in concert is limited to archival releases like this.

(Side note to the official Clash archivists and Columbia Records: How about a retrospective collection from The Clash’s shows at Bond’s Casino?)

The Pogues with Joe Strummer – Live in London (2014)

Joe Strummer was never the kind of performer who would plop down on a stool, acoustic guitar in hand and play his catalog. He needed to be in a band. Even when his name was out front, Strummer fed off the energy from the musicians around him. I think this is why Strummer struggled so much after the Clash ended. He didn’t have a group of mates to perform with and draw inspiration from.

When the Pogues asked Strummer to play guitar on a late ‘80s tour, Strummer had so much fun he stuck around to produce the Pogues fifth album. When the Pogues again asked Strummer to go on tour with them in 1991, he was no longer anonymously playing guitar, but positioned front and center, replacing Shane MacGowan.

Live in London is a fantastic snapshot from that tour. On one hand, it shows how uniquely suited MacGowan is for the Pogues. Strummer seems to have trouble keeping up with the band on the faster songs, such as the opening song “If I Should Fall with God” and “Turkish Song of Damned.” Conversely, the recording also shows how easily the Pogues are able to slip into Clash numbers “London Calling” and “Straight to Hell.”

The Pogues soldiered on for a couple more albums and tours after the ’91 tour eventually breaking up, then getting back together with MacGowan in 2001. They have toured sporadically since then, but released no new studio material. Strummer became involved with several film soundtracks throughout the ‘90s but didn’t release any new studio material until forming the Mescaleros at the end of the decade.

The Clash – London Calling (1979)

I have an excellent, 560-page book that breaks down each song on the Clash’s third album. Countless other think-pieces have been written about the album as well. Here are some stray thoughts.

I love that Rolling Stone named London Calling the best album of the ‘80s when it was released in 1979.

I love that artists across all genres have drawn inspiration from London Calling. The Black Crowes, Anne Lennox, Third Eye Blind and Manic Street Preachers all covered “Train in Vain.” I’m not sure those four acts have much in common beyond a love of this song.

I love that 32 years after its release, the song “London Calling” – a warning about an environmental apocalypse – was selected as the theme song for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

I love that Beto O’Rourke loves and relates to the Clash so deeply that he said Ted Cruz was working for the clampdown during a debate like this was an everyday reference. (Beto isn’t wrong, by the way.)

I love that the greatest punk album of all time went out of its way to also include ska on “Rudy Can’t Fail,” lounge music on “Lost in the Supermarket” and pop music on the aforementioned Top 40 hit “Train in Vain.” The song “The Cheat Card” even features a wall of sound, Phil Spector-esque arrangement that had guitarist Mick Jones on piano and trumpet solo.

Never Mind the Bollocks and the Clash’s first album may have burned hotter as succinct statements of raw punk rock, but London Calling sustained that passion across four sides of vinyl and transcended the genre in the process. If you like music, you love London Calling.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Live at Acton Town Hall (2012)

Joe Strummer’s time with the Mescaleros has gained heightened importance over the years. The Mescaleros were, of course, Strummer’s final band, but also the ensemble that galvanized him to record and tour regularly.

Even in that context, this show at Acton Town Hall is of historic importance. This recording captures Strummer in fine form a little more than a month before his death, doing a benefit show for striking firefighters. Even better, former Clash bandmate Mick Jones joins Strummer onstage during the encore for the pair’s first performance together since the US Festival in 1983.

Acton Town Hall wasn’t Strummer’s final show, but it sure seems like the stars aligned for one magical night.

The Clash – Sandinista! (1980)

At three LPs and 36 songs, most would say Sandinista is too much. I would argue there’s not enough. The Clash were ridiculously prolific, turning out five albums in five years, plus another album’s worth of non-album singles, but the time around Sandinista was bountiful even by those standards.

In addition to fitting studio time for Sandinista! around a hectic touring schedule, the Clash also recorded and released the “Bankrobber” single with two dub versions as b-sides. After recording on Sandinista wrapped, the Clash started working on Ellen Foley’s Spirit of St. Louis album. Foley was dating Clash guitarist Mick Jones at the time. The Clash not only serve as Foley’s band for the entire album, but Jones and Joe Strummer wrote six original songs for the album. (Clash collaborator Tymon Dogg, who worked with the band on Sandinista, also wrote three songs for Foley.)

Imagine a version of Sandinista! where “One More Dub” on side two is replaced with “Bankrobber.” Swap out “Broadway” with “Charlie Don’t Surf” and call the third record a bonus LP: The Clash in Dub. While we’re at it, let’s drop the children’s songs as well. I wonder how history would regard this much improved version of Sandinista! It wouldn’t eclipse London’s Calling, but I bet it would have a much better reputation and we’d see more Sandinista! tracks on tribute albums.

Since we can’t change the past, my dream version of Sandinista! would contain the original album, plus the “Bankrobber” single material and the demo or working versions of tracks Jones and Strummer wrote for Foley (in other words, the Clash versions, sans Foley). I shudder to think what studio scraps from the Sandinista! sessions might remain after listening to sides five and six of the original album, but if there are any other goodies left over, include them as well. That’s easily three compact discs worth of material and I’d buy it in a second. As with all of these suggestions, someone, please, come take my money.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37 (an in-depth look at Cut the Crap, the Clash’s final album)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer in the post-Clash ’80s)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer and reggae)

Social Distancing Spins – Day 45

By Joel Francis

Since this is day 45 of the social distancing spins project, I thought it was only fitting we celebrate by spinning, what else, 45s. Here are 10 from my collection.

Penny and the Quarters – You and Me/You Are Giving Me Some Other Love (2011) “You and Me” was neatly tucked near the end of the Numero soul compilation Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label. The scant liner notes provide more questions than answers. Then Ryan Gosling heard this great soul love song and used it in his 2010 movie Blue Valentine. The film developed a devoted following – it’s quite good – and peoples started wondering about the love theme that brought the main characters together. Numero turned on the bat-signal, hoping to learn more about the mysterious Penny – and deliver some royalties. Finally, the mystery was solved. Penny was none other than Nannie Sharpe of Columbus, Ohio. She performed the song with her brothers in a studio in 1969, not knowing if they were actually being recorded. The tune itself sounds like it could have come from the golden age of doo wop, or at least Sam Cooke’s pen. The b-side, “You Are Giving Me Some Love,” is cut from the same cloth and features a lengthy spoken-word introduction. The lo-fi quality of both recordings only adds to the charm. Lost jewels like this are what makes the Numero Group so essential. I dare you to listen to this and not smile.

Mission of Burma – Innermost/And Here It Comes (2009) These are two non-album tracks recorded at the same time as their third reunion album (and fifth overall) The Sound the Speed and the Light. The album is the weakest release of their reunion relative to the rest of their catalog, which is to say it is still very good. I don’t know the record well enough to tell you if “Innermost” and “And Here It Comes” were unfairly excluded, but they aren’t a departure from the band’s arty, cerebral, intense punk. Of the two tracks, I prefer “And Here It Comes” for the guitar solo and sonic experimentation in the middle.

Brandon Phillips and the Condition – People Talk/Angel Say No (2019) Brandon Phillips is a staple of the Kansas City, Mo., music scene. He started off in the Gadjits with his brothers, before the three of them started the Architects, an incredible punk band. Now the Phillips brothers are back with Brandon out front in the Condition, a sonic tribute to early Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. The pair of tunes here are so good it’s almost a cruel tease. I desperately want a full-length album to enjoy alongside Look Sharp! and Punch the Clock. Like the Phillips’ brothers other musical endeavors, the Condition have hooks and energy for miles, I hope they stick around long enough to give us more.

Ben Folds – Mister Peepers/A Million Years or So (2018) Piano man Ben Folds wrote this song about then-assistant attorney general Rod Rosenstein as part of a storytelling project for The Washington Post Magazine. I don’t think Folds has written another political song (please let me know in the comments if he has), but this track is a winner on several levels. First off, the lyrics, painting Rosenstein as a nerd getting picked on by the GOP jocks in the House of Representatives is perfect analogy. Folds also nails the hypocrisy baked-in to the bullying we’ve normalized from D.C. The lyric is worth quoting in full:

“You boys are Christians right? What would Jesus do? Would he bury crimes and carry water like a stooge? Or smear a family man in case he tells the truth/About the boss/Yeah what would Jesus do?”

Finally, the banjo and fiddle accompaniment is superb. I don’t think Folds has worked in this mode before either and I love the bluegrass tinge it provides. If we’re lucky, there might be a few more songs in this direction on Folds’ next album. Or he could cover Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg again. Could go either way.

The b-side is a Roger Miller cover that Folds turns into a tear-jerking love ballad.

Jawbox – Motorist/Jackpot Plus! (1992) The single version of “Motorist” is quite a bit different from the album version that appeared on For Your Own Special Sweetheart a couple years later. The single version opens with a drum machine and the verses rest on the bassline and drums, until the guitar kicks in and takes the song over the top on the chorus. The album version opens with the chorus, then drops back to the first verse. The version here is a more raw performance and my favorite of the two readings. The b-side, “Jackpot Plus!” is another song that also appears on For Your Own Special Sweetheart. This time the arrangement and emotion are pretty similar. The biggest difference is J. Robbins’ vocals have a filter on the album version. I love this kind of no-frills, visceral punk.

The Beatles – Baby It’s You/I’ll Follow the Sun/Devil in her Heart/Boys (1994) I believe this was my first vinyl purchase. I don’t know if the turntable at home was even working at the time I bought this, I just knew I was happy to buy a new Beatles single just like my parents (could) have at my age. “Baby It’s You” was pulled from the Live at the BBC compilation. The other three songs are also BBC recordings, two of which were included on the 2013 collection On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume Two. These early sessions are great because they remind you just how amazing the Beatles were as live performers. Before they were turning the recording studio inside-out, they were a heck of a live band. John Lennon’s tender vocals on “Baby It’s You” made it a stand-out cut on the first BBC anthology. The other songs aren’t as essential, but it’s always fun to hear the Fab Four let it all hang out on “Boys.”

Alice Cooper – Clones (We’re All)/Model Citizen (1980) “Clones” doesn’t sound anything like Alice Cooper’s anthems “School’s Out” or “Eighteen,” but then again at the time this was recorded Cooper didn’t sound much like himself, either. He dabbled in 1950s noir on Lace and Whiskey and got ultra-personal on From the Inside. It’s clear Cooper didn’t know what to do at the time, so he hooked up with Cars and Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker and swapped the guitars for synthesizers. I haven’t listened to the album Cooper and Baker made together, but “Clones” has everything I love about those early Cars singles – handclaps! great keyboard hooks! sharp rhythm guitars! – and early ‘80s new wave in general. “Model Citizen” is closer to Cooper’s expected sound but Baker’s production tricks can’t completely hide the inane lyrics that aren’t nearly as clever as they think.

James Brown – The Payback Part One/Part Two (1973) My all-time favorite James Brown jam. The only bad things I can say about “The Payback” is that I get annoyed by having to flip the single over halfway through the song and that I’m always disappointed it doesn’t go on for twice as long. This song has been sampled a million times, but no one has been able to improve on the original. An angry Brown put the godfather in his Godfather of Soul nickname with this tale of revenge. Brown lays out how he’s been wronged and what he’s going to do about it over some funky chicken-scratch guitar. The horns punch like fists and Brown’s emphatic screams punctuate the anger and boasting with a sharp blast of frustration and impatience. You can see Brown pacing his corner of the boxing ring, psyching himself up and waiting for the bell to ring as this song builds. By the time it’s over, I’m ready hit the streets and find some trouble myself. Maybe it’s for the best this song isn’t longer, before I get caught in something I can’t handle.

The Clash – Bankrobber/Rockers Galore ….UK Tour (1980) Between releasing a two-LP masterpiece and it’s three-record follow-up, the Clash managed to released this gem, which never appeared on any of their albums. Joe strummer rides a terrific reggae groove talking about income inequality disguised as the story of his dad, a bank robber who never hurt anyone and just “loved to steal your money.” Think of it as Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” by way of King Tubby and Kingston, Jamaica. Reggae producer Mikey Dread added great dub effects to “Bankrobber.” On the b-side, Dread takes over, taking the mic for some toasting over an even more dubbed-out version of the “Bankrobber” track. When Clash guitarist Mick Jones joined Joe Strummer onstage for the first time in decades at a benefit show for striking firefighters, the two jammed on this song for nearly 10 minutes.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window/The Burning of the Midnight Lamp (1998) If memory serves, this was a promotional give-away that came with the Hendrix Live at the BBC double-disc set. After the success of the Beatles BBC collection, all the heritage bands got in on the act. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is a song that never appeared on any of the Experience albums, a Hendrix cover of an obscure Bob Dylan song that was only released as a single. Got that? Hendrix covering Dylan has historically been a good thing and this version is a solid addition to the Hendrix catalog, even if it isn’t as incendiary as “Watchtower.” The BBC version of “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp” shows how proficient Hendrix was at transforming his psychedelic studio creations into compelling live performances. Pairing this song with the Dylan cover shows how much an influence the Hibbing, Minn., folk singer had on Hendrix’ lyric-writing. He drops a lot of little details into “Lamp” that sometimes get lost among the guitar heroics.

Powerful songs help move protest music back in mainstream

(Above: D’Angelo exposes “The Charade” in the opening hours of Black History Month on “Saturday Night Live.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two anthems of the civil rights movement were released within days of each other, in the dying weeks of 2014. John Legend and Common wrote “Glory” for the civil rights film “Selma.” As the third track on D’Angelo’s long-delayed third album, “The Charade” was released with less fanfare but greater anticipation.

More importantly, after being shunted to the underground for more than a decade, protest music has reemerged in the mainstream. Both “Glory” and “The Charade” were performed on national, network television in February.

Glory-From-the-Motion-Picture-_Selma_-SingleOn paper, “Glory” almost looks too obvious. John Legend recorded an entire album of R&B protest songs with The Roots in 2010 (with Common guesting on the lead single). Common’s history of uplifting poetry has earned him invitations to perform at the White House and guest spots from Maya Angelou and the Last Poets on his albums. “Glory” isn’t the first time Common has invoked Martin Luther King for a film. In 2006, he collaborated with Will.I.Am an end-credits anthem for the movie “The Freedom Writers” that sampled King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

It is clear from the opening gospel chords, that “Glory” is a celebration. It doesn’t challenge the listener like Common’s “Song for Asatta” or Legend’s version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” It something we can all feel good about while listening. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. The civil rights movement brought out the worst in our society, and anyone who weathered that storm, or had a loved one who did, deserves a moment to catch their breath, smile and feel proud.

(Above: Common and John Legend show “Glory” at the Grammys.)

While “Glory” namechecks Ferguson, “The Charade” captures the confusion, frustration and anger of the injustice there. “All we wanted was a chance to talk,” D’Angelo pleads in the chorus. “’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.”

Like most of the songs on “Black Messiah,” “The Charade” doesn’t announce its presence as much as slink into being. D’Angelo’s lyrics are tough to decipher on the first listen, demanding repeated listens and close attention. “Glory” has a gospel choir; “The Charade” has multi-tracked vocals.

The difference between the songs is even more stark in performance. On “Saturday Night Live” D’Angelo and his band dressed in all black, with a chalk outline behind the singer on the floor. Backing vocalists wore shirts stating “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter.” D’Angelo wore a hoodie, his face hidden in the shadows. The blistering delivery was a gauntlet – ignore this, America. Driving the point home, the ensemble raised fists in the air over the dying notes, summoning images of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

Less than two weeks later, Common and Legend were tapped to close the Grammys. Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, everyone wore suits and was clean-shaven. The production dovetailed with Beyonce’s stirring version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song. The performance was moving, but if “Glory” didn’t feel as powerful as “The Charade” on “SNL,” it might be because it felt more safe.

“Glory” points to how far we’ve come and “The Charade” shows how far we have to go, but both songs end up at the same hopeful place. “Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory,” Common concludes. “With the veil off our eyes, we’ll truly see/and we’ll march on,” D’Angelo affirms. “And it really won’t take too long.”

Keep reading:

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

Edwin Starr – “War”

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

007’s Greatest Hits – The Music of James Bond

(Above: Her Majesty gets an assist from 007 to open the London Olympics in July, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

James Bond, the most famous spy in the world, first graced the big screen in “Dr. No” 50 years ago. This weekend, 007 will appear on the big screen for the 25th time in “Skyfall.” To celebrate both events, The Daily Record presents a three-part retrospective examining and celebrating the often wonderful and sometimes puzzling world James Bond theme songs. This series originally appeared in 2008 in advance of “The Quantum of Solace.”

The Music of James Bond: Part One – The Classic Years

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies

The Music of James Bond: Part Three – The ’80s and Beyond

Review: Flaming Lips at Liberty Hall

(Above: The Flaming Lips get an assist from Deerhoof to cover King Crimson at the second show of their two-night stand at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kan. on June 22, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Standing in Liberty Hall during a sold-out Flaming Lips concert was like being inside a kaleidoscope. In fact, the overwhelming number of balloons, confetti and streamers made things a little claustrophobic.

The Oklahoma City rock band brought so much firepower to its two-night stand in Lawrence that the show opened with a disclaimer from frontman Wayne Coyne: Don’t stare at the strobe lights, and be cool when the space bubble rolls out.

The famous inflated see-through orb that Coyne inhabits and then rolls over the outstretched hands of the crowd came out during a cover of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run.” As Coyne rolled over the masses, it looked like he could have easily hopped into the balcony.

With a capacity of 1,200 people, the building seemed like a bandbox compared to the acres of festival grounds the Lips usually have to play in during summer festival seasons. A massive mirror ball hung so low over the stage it seemed like Coyne might be able to touch it. Late in the set he donned giant hands that shot lasers and pointed them at the ball, spraying light across the room.A giant LED screen filled the back of the stage and troupes of dancers dressed like Dorothy Gales buttressed the wings.

Fans got their chance to sing early. Favorites “Race for the Prize,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the slow campfire arrangement of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part One)” all came out in the first half of the set. The second half displayed newer, more experimental material. It wasn’t as bubbly, but fans ate it up just the same.

Deerhoof: The four-piece experimental band’s carefully planned cacophony was balanced by singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s manic pixie singing and dancing. Lips drummer and Lawrence resident Kliph Scurlock joined the openers for two numbers, and the two bands joined forces for two songs during the Lips’ encore. Their first collaboration was a curveball –- a cover of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.” For the second number they went full-prog with a thunderous cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

The show was part of the 100th annniversary party for Liberty Hall. Seventh Street was blocked off south of the venue, between Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets. Vendors sold everything from beer and BBQ to T-shirts and cake. Families lined up around the bounce castle while groups performed on the stage at the other end of the block. A screen at the back of the stage broadcast a live feed of Lips show.

Setlist: Race for the Prize, She Don’t Use Jelly, The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power), On the Run (Pink Floyd cover), Worm Mountain, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part One), Sea of Leaves, Drug Chant, The Ego’s Last Stand, What Is the Light?, The Observer. Encores: Going Up the Country, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Do You Realize?

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So)”

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas On Mars”

Happy Clash-mas Eve

 (Above: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros delight in performing Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record celebrates Strummer’s lifelong love of reggae music.

The Clash – “Pressure Drop”

Joe Strummer – “The Harder They Come”

Joe Strummer and Jimmy Cliff – “Over the Border”

In the early days of the London punk scene, DJ/filmmaker/musician Don Letts played reggae albums at the famed Roxy Club. At first the reggae was a necessity – the punk scene was still too young for any of the bands to record their own material. But even after the punk catalog exploded, the reggae remained.

“The punks were digging on the old anti-establishment chant down Babylon (attitude), heavy bass lines and they didn’t mind the weed,” Letts told Mojo magazine in 2008.

Not that this was many of the punks’ first exposure to the Jamaican genres.

“People like (Joe) Strummer, (John) Lydon and (Paul) Simonon didn’t need Don Letts to turn them on,” Letts said in the same interview.

Jimmy Cliff in "The Harder They Come."

Strummer, Simonon and the remaining members of the Clash likely stumbled upon Toots and the Maytalls’ “Pressure Drop” shortly after its 1972 release on the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come.” Both the film and the soundtrack had a profound influence on Strummer. In 1977 the band covered “Pressure Drop,” which was released in 1979 as the b-side to “English Civil War.” The title of their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” borrows the style of “The Harder They Come” by introducing a well-known phrase and letting the second half remain implied (i.e. “… and they’ll hang themselves”).

“Safe European Home,” one of the tracks on “Rope,” not only name checks “The Harder They Come,” but borrows the phrase “Rudie can’t fail” from another reggae song, foreshadowing the band’s biggest foray into the ska/Two-Tone sound. Finally, Strummer borrowed the film plot of “The Harder They Come” and adapted it to his British punk interpretation titled “Rude Boy.”

Two decades after the release of “Rude Boy,” Strummer recorded his own version of “The Harder They Come.” Teaming with the Long Beach Dub All-Stars and U.K. reggae singer Tippa Irie, his cover was released on the 2000 benefit album “Free the West Memphis Three.” Strummer’s interpretation doesn’t alter much from Jimmy Cliff’s original, but he’s clearly having a great time. Strummer thought enough of the song that another recording of the song was posthumously released the b-side to “Coma Girl.” Recorded live with the Strummer’s final band, the Mescaleros, this version is taken at a faster tempo and joyously ragged and raw.

At one of his final recording sessions, Strummer finally got to collaborate with Cliff. Upon learning where Cliff was recording his latest album, Strummer showed up with some unfinished lyrics in hand that he felt Cliff should sing. “Over the Border,” the song that grew out of this partnership appeared on Cliff’s 2004 album “Black Magic.”

Cliff described the session with Gibson.com shortly before his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

“The two of them (producer Dave Stewart and Strummer) began playing guitar, and I came up with the melody, and then Joe chipped in with some help on the melody as well,” Cliff said. “We recorded the song right away. That was a really special moment for me. You can imagine the shock I felt after hearing that Joe was not with us anymore.”

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2009)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2008)

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

 

Classic Christmas Carol: “A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So)”

(Above: Michael Ivins (far left) of the Flaming Lips wants to be the star on top of your Christmas tree.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Flaming Lips make every concert feel like a holiday, so it’s unsurprising several songs in their catalog have been inspired by Christmas – the biggest holiday of them all.

“A Change At Christmas (Say it Isn’t So)” isn’t the Oklahoma City-based alternative rock band’s first tribute to Christmas. They had already brought “Christmas at the Zoo” and would soon deliver “Christmas on Mars.” But “A Change At Christmas” stands out, because it displays the “one love” hippie ethos at the heart of many of the band’s songs.

In the song, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne wishes he could stop time so the whole world could permanently live in the goodwill of the season. A time, he says, “the world embraces peace and love and mercy/Instead of power and fear.” In the last verse he pleads “tell me I’m not just a dreamer,” echoing John Lennon, another Christmas idealist.

Above: Even Santa Claus gets down during a Flaming Lips concert.

The arrangement features many of the Lips trademarks, including a sunny wash of synthesizers and toy drum machine. Sleigh bells and chimes bring a Yuletide feel, while a simple piano line holds the melody.

“A Change At Christmas” is also notable for being one of the rare times Coyne abandons his signature falsetto to deliver his heartfelt words of hope in his natural range. The optimism of the track is cemented with Coyne’s final words. During the fade-out he declares “I think it’s all going to work out just fine.”

While the Lips’ other Christmas songs saw release on proper albums or seasonal singles, “A Change At Christmas” was tucked into the “Ego Tripping” EP released in 2003. At the time of its release, the Lips were riding the success of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” with a deluge of singles, EPs and other releases. “A Change At Christmas” has become buried in the back catalog, but it’s a rare Christmas song that plays well year-round. It’s especially worth digging out in December.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas On Mars”

 

 

 

Classic Christmas Carol: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

 (Above: It may have been the holiday season, but John Lennon wasn’t pulling any punches when he put this video together. This extended cut also includes edited interviews with Lennon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before it was a song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was a billboard. In 1969, two years before the song was written and recorded, John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed “War is Over! (If You Want It)” on signage in New York, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and several other major cities around the world. The signs were an outgrowth of Lennon and Ono’s bed-in for peace, but the phrase stuck in Lennon’s head.

When the couple relocated to New York City in 1971, Lennon quickly feel in the company of radical ‘60s activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon had already gone on record against the Vietnam War at a Beatles press conference in 1966. The conflict was also a frequent topic of conversation during the bed-in. Instead of giving peace a chance, though, the United States had become even more entrenched in combat.

Inspired by his social circle and frustrated by another holiday season marked by fighting, Lennon turned his billboard slogan into a song. Lennon wrote the song over two nights in a New York City hotel room and recorded it almost immediately. Despite being released less than three weeks before Christmas, the single still managed to reach the Top 40. The feat was replicated each time the single was re-released. In Lennon’s native England, the single did not appear until 1972, when it went in the Top 5.

After a whispered shout-out (whisper-out?) to the pair’s children, Phil Spector’s wall of sound kicks in. The opening line – “And so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” – is both a nostalgic look back and the previous year and question of accountability. Despite having hope for the upcoming year, Lennon admits “the world is so wrong.” A chorus of children from the Harlem Community Choir echoes the words that started it all: War is over/If you want it.”

The melody is based on the folk ballad “Stewball,” a song about a British race horse. The first versions of “Stewball” date to the 18th century, but Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly put their stamp on the song in the 1940s. During the folk revival of the early ‘60s, both Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez included the song in their repertoire.

Many artists, including skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, a big influence on Lennon and most British musicians of his generation, have cover “Stewball,” but their numbers pale in comparison to the roster of those who have recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” From Andy Williams and Celine Dion to Maroon 5 and American Idol David Cook to the Moody Blues and the Polyphonic Spree, the song has been covered by nearly every conceivable artist in nearly every conceivable genre.

Keep reading:

Review: “December 8, 1980″

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Who really got “You Really Got Me”

(Above: Metallica perform with Ray Davies at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in New York City.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every great song usually inspires about a dozen covers. Most of these are pedestrian and instantly forgotten. The few that transcend the original can be troublesome for the original artist. Should they mimic the new, more popular version or maintain the original vision? Bob Dylan has turned his nightly performances of “All Along the Watchtower” into a sort-of tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Trent Reznor, however, continues to perform “Hurt” as he originally intended, ignoring Johnny Cash’s transcendent interpretation.

Ray Davies wrote “You Really Got Me” in 1964 on an upright piano. The initial sketches suggest a loping bluesy number somewhere between Gerry Mulligan and Big Bill Broonzy, two of Davies’ biggest inspirations at the time.

Davies’ brother Dave had different ideas. Latching onto the riff, and drawing on “Wild Thing” and “Tequilla,” he drove the song through his distorted guitar. The song was born anew, and when Ray Davies heard the new arrangement he knew that’s how his number was supposed to be played.

Unfortunately, the Kinks had already taken the first arrangement into the studio. It was that version that Pye, their label, intended to release as the band’s third single. The Kinks and producer Shel Talmy successfully lobbied for another session to re-record the number with the newfound grit and rawness. The result was the band’s first No. 1 hit in their native England, thereby launching their career.

The Kinks’ next single was essentially a re-write of “You Really Got Me.” Despite the similar success of “All Day and All of the Night,” Ray Davies abandoned that style of writing for the most part for more lilting fare like “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Sunny Afternoon.”

Davies and the Kinks may have moved on, but the rest of the world was just catching up. “You Really Got Me” inspired the signature grimy riff of “Satisfaction,” the feel of “Wild Thing,” and all of “I Can’t Explain.” Heavily distorted guitars became a staple in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene and, a decade later, the backbone of punk.

In the heart of punk movement, Los Angeles party band Van Halen decided to release their version of “You Really Got Me” as their debut single. Although the song only rose to No. 36 on the U.S. charts, it was tremendously popular, becoming a concert staple throughout the band’s career (and numerous line-ups).

For the most part, Van Halen’s 1978 arrangement of “You Really Got Me” stayed true to the Kinks version. The biggest difference was Eddie Van Halen’s fretboard pyrotechnics. This transformed the song from a proto-punk jam into a guitar hero workout. Matching Van Halen’s instrumental energy was frontman David Lee Roth, whose grunting and moaning punctuated an already-strong come-on.

In 1980, “You Really Got Me” was one of the last cuts on the Kinks live album “One From the Road.” The song had already been released in live format before, on 1968’s “Live At Kelvin Hall,” but this was the band’s first recorded response to Van Halen.

Sadly, the Kinks responded by turning into a Van Halen cover band. An excellent guitarist in his own right, Dave Davies fell flat trying to imitate Eddie Van Halen (as many, many other axeslingers would also discover). Ray Davies’ pinched London voice could not match Roth’s West Coast bravado. Instead of playing to their strengths, the Kinks played to Van Halen’s strong points, thereby undermining themselves and relinquishing ownership of the original “You Really Got Me.”

I mention all this, because this month Ray Davies has elected to release another version of “You Really Got Me” on his new all-star duets album “See My Friends.” Since the Kinks have been on hiatus since 1996, Davies chose Metallica to back him on this track. Although they are working with the original songwriter, the grunts and asides spewing from Metallica singer James Hetfield make clear that his band is covering Van Halen, not the Kinks. Displaying a leaden stomp that makes Black Sabbath seem nimble, Metallica drain the life from the song as Davies stands helplessly by.

The Kinks original 1964 recording of “You Really Got Me” is a brilliant track. Van Halen’s cover some 14 years later also remains exhilarating (particularly when it is coupled with “Eruption,” the Eddie Van Halen instrumental that preceeds it on the album). Sadly, we have lost one version in the wake of the other.

Keep reading:

“Death Magnetic” is Metallica’s creative rebirth

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower

Lanois + Raffi = Eno

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “If I Were Your Woman”

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “If I Were Your Woman,” Pop #9, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Relationship fantasies were nothing new at Motown – Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You” was one of the label’s earliest singles. But Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1971 single “If I Were Your Woman” shows how much Hitsville had grown up during the ‘60s. The song removes the concept from the realm of schoolgirl crushes and infuses it with some serious grown-up desire.

When “If I Were Your Woman” came out the Pips were on a run of three consecutive Top 5 R&B hits, dating back to 1969’s No. 3 “The Nitty Gritty.” The group was determined to keep this streak intact and also bolster their album sales; none of their LPs had cracked the Top 10. They accomplished both. The single went all the way to the top of the R&B charts, and the album – given the same name – lodged at No. 4.

Knight’s smoky, smoldering voice played no small role in that achievement. Listeners who grew up with “Baby Love” no doubt enjoyed hearing love songs that matured with them. Knight sumptuously plays the role of a woman in love with a man trapped in a bad relationship. Knight knows she can make him the man he deserves to be, if only he could muster the strength to walk away … and she could find the courage to confront him face-to-face.

Knight sings with the passion of a woman pouring out her deepest desires to the darkness, a conviction rooted in the comfort of knowing these words will never face the harsh scrutiny of daylight. As the song fades, it is easy to imagine Knight drifting off to sleep as her would-be beau lies awake in bed next to his partner, wondering how he wound up in this predicament. The next time Knight and her man meet, their only exchanges will be furtive glances across the room and brief, awkward conversation punctuated by nervous laughter.

Written by Gloria Jones, Clay McMurray and Pam Sawyer and produced by McMurray, “If I Were Your Woman” inspired several covers. The Jean Terrell-fronted Supremes recorded a version the following year, in 1972. One year later, Jones – better known as the original singer of the song “Tainted Love,” later recorded by Soft Cell, and girlfriend of T. Rex glam rocker Marc Bolan – recorded her own version for her second solo album.

Bonnie Bramlett, formerly known as half of Delaney and Bonnie, followed suit in 1976. The unfairly ignored Bettye LaVette put her stamp on the song on her only Motown album, 1980s “Tell Me A Lie.” Eight years later Stephanie Mills put the song back on the charts, where it reached No. 19 on the Hot Black Singles chart (now known as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart). That same year found the only male interpretation of the number, when George Michael performed it at Nelson Mandella’s 70th birthday tribute. Somehow people were still shocked when he came out of the closet a decade later.

Most recently, Alicia Keys included the song as part of a medley on her sophomore album, and gave it the stand-alone treatment on her 2005 live album “MTV Unplugged.”