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 (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”

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(Above: “(Just Like) Starting Over” announced John Lennon’s return to music in the fall of 1980. After his death, it occupied the No. 1 spot for five weeks.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Rock and roll is littered with artists who left too soon. None are mourned as deeply and fervently, though, as John Lennon. The former Beatle was gunned down outside his New York City home 30 years ago today.

Keith Elliot Greenberg’s new book, “December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died” marks the occasion. Much of the information contained in this brief volume has been presented before.  Even casual fans will be familiar with many of the details in Greenberg’s truncated telling of Lennon’s biography. While the Beatle’s story is well-known, Greenberg makes it worth visiting again.

“December 8, 1980” reads like a true crime television special, which makes sense given the author’s background as a producer for “America’s Most Wanted,” “48 Hours” and “MSNBC Investigates.” The unfolding day is interrupted by the histories of both Lennon and his assassin, Mark David Chapman.

Greenberg not only places the reader in both men’s minds heading to the fateful moment, but paints a vivid picture of Lennon’s home in the Dakota building and the state of New York City as a whole. First-hand stories from Lennon’s neighbors, autograph hounds who haunted the Dakota’s entry, musicians, fans and police officers. The details these auxiliary players provide peel back the years and familiarity and make the story seem fresh.

Although they were only tangentially related to the saga, Greenberg recounts the activities of Lennon’s fellow Beatles on that day, and their reactions to his death. One can feel the throngs pressing against Ringo as he visits Yoko Ono at the Dakota, and feel the energy of Bruce Springsteen’s unofficial tribute concerts in Philadelphia.

“December 8, 1980” concludes well after the titular date, covering Champan’s trial, the Beatles anthology reunion project, and the attempt on George Harrison’s life in 1999.

Beatles fans truly interested in the events of Dec. 8 and its main participants are advised to seek out any of the available solid Lennon biographies – Philip Norman’s “John Lennon: The Life” has received rave reviews – and Jack Jones’ 1992 Chapman biography “Let Me Take You Down.” Although it is essentially a distillation of those texts, Beatle fans looking for a light trot through that devastating day should be satisfied with Greenberg’s work.

 

Keep reading:

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (includes stories of Lennon’s concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh)

McCartney in Career Resurgence

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

 

 

 

 

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(Above: Pavement perform “Gold Soundz” live at the Uptown Theater on Sept. 11, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About 20 minutes into Pavement’s set, lead singer and guitarist Stephen Malkmus announced to a crowded Uptown Theater that this was the band’s first time playing in Kansas City, if you don’t count Lollapalooza.

The house roared its appreciation for the underground rock band’s belated return, not just because this was only the second K.C. show in the group’s 20-year history, but because they’d been inactive for half of that time.

Saturday’s show would have been memorable even if it wasn’t a fan’s first time seeing the band, or the first time in a long time, as it was for most. The fervent crowd would have devoured anything their heroes delivered, but were treated to many of the band’s best-loved tunes, including three-quarters of the cuts off Pavement’s new greatest-hits compilation.

Calling any of Pavement’s songs “hits” is a bit misleading. Aside from “Cut Your Hair,” which appropriately featured the only rock star moment of the evening when Malkmus soloed behind is back, the band never had any chart success. In fact, it seems they went out of their way to avoid anything conventional. Their songs are anti-anthems, prone to taking left turns or ending just when they start to get settled.

This doesn’t lend itself to the campfire glow of a great sing-along, but the devoted still found a way to chime in. Numbers with a boisterous chorus like “Stereo” provided a natural opportunity to join in – the response to the line “no big hair” in “Cut My Hair” was especially boisterous. Less traditional songs like “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Loretta’s Scars” still found plenty participating.

Malkmus was angled at stage right, with his fellow guitarist/foil/adversary Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg at the other extreme. Kannberg took the vocals for two numbers, “Date w/ IKEA” and “Kennel District,” which closed the main set. Untethered by a microphone, bass player Mark Ibold – on leave from his current gig with Sonic Youth – roamed the stage, while drummer Steve West and percussionist Bob Nastanovich were positioned slightly off center in the back.

Nastanovich was the band’s secret weapon. Most of the time he was relegated to shaking a tambourine or egg, but would suddenly burst to the front of the stage screaming into the microphone. His pent-up energy was a nice change of pace from Malkmus trademark indifferent, slacker delivery, especially when the two styles were set against each other, as on “Conduit for Sale!”

On the brief instrumental “Heckler Spray,” Nastanovich’ second drum kit added some nice muscle. That set up a run through heavy, riff-based numbers “In the Mouth of Desert” and “Unfair.” Just as they seemed to be building momentum, Malkmus dropped the band to a hush with “Spit on a Stranger,” the prettiest song in their canon and the night’s only offering from their 1999 swan song “Terror Twilight.”

The only visual effects were several strings of large indoor/outdoor lights hung around the stage and into the audience. When lit, the theater felt like an elaborate backyard party. They created an especially jubilant atmosphere during upbeat numbers like “Silence Kit.” At one point between songs, Malkmus tried to toss his guitar up into the lights.

A devout sports fan, Malkmus performed in a Jamal Charles/Chiefs jersey. During the encore, he lamented that Charles now played for the “stupidest coach in the NFL.” Nastanovich echoed this sentiment urging the Chiefs to “fire (head coach Todd) Haley and hire Malkmus.”

The 100-minute set ended with “Range Life,” a playful tune that gently mocks the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (which seemed a lot more relevant when it came out in 1994). No one wanted to quit, however, so Malkmus veered into the Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Finally the big sing-along moment arrived. It may have taken longer than expected, but it was well worth the wait.

Setlist: Gold Soundz; Rattled by the Rush; Starlings of the Slipstream; Shady Lane; Date W/ IKEA; Frontwards; Heckler Spray > In the Mouth a Desert; Unfair; Spit on a Stranger; Stereo; Loretta’s Scars; Conduit for Sale!; Shoot the Singer; Silence Kit; Trigger Cut; Grounded; Perfume V; Cut Your Hair; Stop Breathin’; Box Elder; Fight This Generation; Debris Slide; Kennel District. Encore: Here; Lions (Linden); We Dance; Range Life (including Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da).

Keep reading:

Review – The Black Keys

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band

Review – Arctic Monkeys

Hail Death Cab

Review: Yo La Tengo

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(Above: Zimmy and band roll and tumble.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most iconic songwriters of the 1960s visited Kansas City just two weeks apart. But while patrons packed the Sprint Center and doled out big money to see Paul McCartney, acres of more reasonably priced empty seats could be found at Bob Dylan’s concert at Starlight Theater on Saturday night.

Part of this can be attributed to frequency. McCartney has only played Kansas City three times since the Beatles called it quits. Dylan rolls through town about every 15 months. But delivery also plays a big role. McCartney performs his beloved numbers exactly (or close to the ways) how everyone remembers them; Dylan plays nothing straight.

Saturday’s performance ran just shy of two hours and felt pretty much the same as Dylan’s many previous stops in town, including the show he played at Starlight just over three years ago. After opening with two tracks from the ‘70s – including a stunning “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),”  Dylan and his four-piece band ping-ponged between his golden era in the ‘60s and material cut in the past decade.

The best moments were the ballads. The delicate “Just Like A Woman” opened with a lengthy instrumental section that highlighted the subtle interplay between acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars, and Dylan’s organ, his preferred instrument of the night. The instruments danced deftly until the signature descending guitar riff entered, heralding the first verse. “Workingman’s Blues No. 2” had a similar feel later in the set, and featured Dylan’s best harmonica solo of the night.

Dylan gave a nice treat when he paired two of the best numbers from his protest era. Almost a half a century after their debut, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” remain a potent commentary on poverty and race. Their impact was muted, however, by an arrangement of “Hattie Carroll” that rendered the number nearly unrecognizable.

The band mined the Chicago blues for two newer numbers, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The former was the only time Dylan strapped on an electric guitar. It should have been repeated. His prodding duel with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton seemed to invigorate the rest of the band.

A slump in the final third of the set ended with a spectacular “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The lone illumination from the footlights added an other-worldly atmosphere to the song as Dylan stepped away from his keyboard and sang into a microphone set just off center, in front of the drums.

Reliable encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” still pack a punch and hold pleasant surprises. Dylan intentionally dropped his vocals after the second chorus on “Like a Rolling Stone” to give the band some space to play and let Sexton take an extra solo. “Watchtower” came in a staccato fashion that resembled the far-off gallop of the riders’ horses, before they suddenly stormed the gates.

The Dough Rollers: Dylan’s attraction to this duo isn’t hard to spot. Their 35-minute opening set included covers of John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell and early gospel numbers. The pair sounds like they have just been pulled off an old field recording cut by Alan Lomax. Malcolm Ford sounds like he learned to sing by studying antique cylinder recordings. Jack Byrne’s bottleneck slide on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” was especially tasty. The set also included an interpretation of “Goin’ to Kansas City.” They would be a great show at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ or Knucklehead’s.

Dylan’s setlist: Watching the River Flow, Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), My Wife’s Home Town, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Just Like A Woman, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Cry A While, Workingman’s Blues No. 2, Highway 61 Revisited, I Feel A Change Comin’ On, Thunder on the Mountain, Ballad of a Thin Man. Encore: Like a Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along the Watchtower.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower (2004)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

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(Above: The Arctic Monkeys put their spin on Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Five years ago, the Arctic Monkeys arrived on the music scene riding a wave of hype. The influential British music publication the NME ranked the Arctic Monkey’s debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” ahead of the Beatles, Radiohead and the Clash on its list of top 100 British albums.

Monday night the English quintet came to Liberty Hall in Lawrence in support of its third album, “Humbug.” The transitional album didn’t command the propaganda and isn’t as flashy as their first two efforts, but that didn’t stop a nearly full house from rabidly devouring everything the band played.

Over the course of their 80-minute set, the Monkeys delivered more than half of “Humbug,” including a couple B-sides, and half of their second release, 2007’s “Favourite Worst Nightmare.” The contrasting material revealed two very different sides of the band. “Humbug”’s songs, for the most part, are more downbeat, while the cuts from “Nightmare” border on metal.

Opening number “Dance Little Liar” foreshadowed the juxtaposition with a drum cadence lifted from Metallica’s “One.” As the number died down, a bank of strobe lights behind the band kicked on and the group thrashed their way through “Brainstorm” with a performance that wouldn’t have been out of place at Ozzfest.

The band’s approach seemed to be to combine the angular approach of the Talking Heads and Gang of Four with the speed and intensity of Slayer. Slanted guitar lines, surf riffs and plenty of tremolo framed most of the songs. Even at their heaviest, the Monkey’s songs were infused with enough pop hooks to keep the crowd moving, although it was hard to tell if they were dancing or moshing.

Although the newer material was well received, the biggest cheers came for the three numbers from the band’s debut. The opening chords of “Still Take You Home” prompted a big response, and the crowd went nuts during the one-two of “The View from the Afternoon” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.”

Surprisingly those numbers arrived in the middle of the set. After lifting the crowd so high, there was nowhere to go but down, so Alex Turner strapped on an acoustic guitar for the country-tinged “Cornerstone.” Later, a deconstructed reading of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” rendered the already spooky song in a completely new light.

The Monkey’s performed on a minimalist stage, in front of a plain curtain and a bank of lights raised about 10 feet off the ground by a series of poles. When the lights were on, which was frequent, it created an artificial ceiling and made the mid-sized theater feel like a cramped, sweaty basement.

Bass player Nick O’Malley is the band’s secret weapon. Tucked in the back corner at stage right, he supplied the needed melody underpinning the abstract guitar lines. As Jamie Cook and Andy Nicholsonstrafed the songs from unprecedented angles on their guitars, Malley’s melodic bass lines and Matt Helders’ manic drumming held the performances together.

The set ended with the poppy “Fluorescent Adolescent,” which sounded like a mangled Mod single. The aggressive “Nettles” had the crowd clapping along and featured more false endings than a Beethoven symphony. When the number final ended, the instruments were abandoned buzzing, leaving feedback long after the band had departed.

On the way back to the car, I overheard two fans lamenting that more songs from the first album weren’t performed.

“I guess what we have to remember,” one fan said, trying to console himself, “is that what would be new to us, these guys have been carrying for five years.”

Sleepy Sun: While the Arctic Monkeys focus on delivering tightly crafted, manic singles, opening act Sleepy Sun was content to play spacey, long-form album tracks. The six-piece San Francisco band’s 45-minute set was filled with psychedelic, progressive rock that incorporated more than a hint of Black Sabbath and first-album-era Led Zeppelin. The co-ed lead singers brought a touch of folk to the arrangements, particularly when tambourine, harmonica or acoustic guitars were introduced. Fans of Death Star and the Seven Dwarfs, Black Moth Super Rainbow and the Flaming Lips might want to keep an eye open for their next trip through town.

Setlist: Dance Little Liar > Brainstorm; This House is a Circus; Still Take You Home; Potion Approaching; Joining the Dots; My Propeller; Crying Lightning; The View from the Afternoon; I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor; Cornerstone; Fire and the Thud; Do Me A Favour; Pretty Visitors; Red Right Hand (Nick Cave cover) > If You Were There, Beware; 505. Encore: Fluorescent Adolescent; Nettles.

Keep reading:

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout
Review: The Decemberists
Review: Megadeth
Review: Get Up Kids
Review: Modest Mouse

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(Above: Don’t read “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” expecting author Elijah Wald to bash the Fab Four.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Elijah Wald’s provocatively titled book slipped into the marketplace about the same time the much-ballyhooed Beatles remasters slammed retail shelves. But Wald isn’t trying to turn fans against their beloved Fab Four. He’s trying to reinforce their importance by approaching their arrival with a magical mystery tour that examines music from a populist perspective.

For the most part, Wald’s narrative manages to ignore critics and historians and answer the greater question of “Why did people like this?” Starting 100 years ago with ragtime, Wald walks through the growth, progression and trends that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.

Wald focuses on the Beatles because they were able to make artistically respectable music while staying true to their genre. Their foil is Paul Whiteman, who despite accomplishing the same feat, has been forgotten.

Whiteman was a Caucasian big band leader who crowned himself “King of Jazz.” Despite earning the endorsements from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and selling millions of records, Whiteman’s career has been largely dismissed by jazz historians because his arrangements were so genteel. Indeed, part of Whiteman’s mission was to sand the rough edges off of jazz and respectable, if unchallenging, middle-brow dance music.

By eschewing the conventional narrative based on critical favorites, Wald shows how mainstream performers and tastes shaped the progression of music. Traditional viewpoints and assumptions are confounded again and again as Wald shows how the popular persuades the acclaimed. For example, Wald tells how Guy Lombardo’s arrangements influenced Armstrong’s celebrated Hot Five and Hot Seven records.

He also builds interesting parallels between celebrated trendsetters and those who are slighted for their foresight. In one instance, romantic crooner Vaughn Monroe was savaged in the press when his stage shows were little more than reconstructions of his singles. Yet only a few years later, as recorded music replaced live interpretations on the radio, it became what audiences expected.

Wald covers a lot of territory in a hurry, but it rarely feels like any corners are cut. Although the history is told in a linear fashion, Wald is a master of connecting previously unseen dots. The lines he draws between the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Elvis Presley, or Parlimanent-Funkadelic and Benny Goodman are both ingenious and obvious in retrospect. While not all of Wald’s parallels or arguments work, they are worth pondering.

In a way, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” is the natural outgrowth of Wald’s previous book, “Escaping the Delta.” That volume examined the curious arrival of Robert Johnson as the figurehead of “authentic” pre-war blues. In looking at Johnson’s forgotten peers like Peetey Wheatstraw and Bumble Bee Slim, Wald not only places Johnson’s music in context, but draws attention to arguably more deserving performers.

Admittedly, Wald may be giving himself the upper hand by focusing on unheard and unheralded performers. But while Wald’s arguments are contrarian, they are also well-researched and measured. In fact, the only argument Wald fails to back up is his title. Not only does Wald leave the Fab Four’s legacy intact, he doesn’t address them directly until the final two chapters. Fans of the British Invasion and Boomers looking to relieve their adolescence are bound to be disappointed.

Armchair historians and musicologists are bound to be the most pleased with this text. Wald is not encouraging the reader to explore Whiteman’s catalog or discard his or her favorite performers, only look at them through a longer lens.

Keep reading:

A Conversation with Elijah Wald

Talking King Records with author Jon Hartley Fox

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with author Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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(Above: Although forgotten by both jazz and pop historians today, bandleader Paul Whiteman was a major figure in early 20th century music. A central figure in Elijah Wald’s latest book, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll,” here is the trailer for Whiteman’s 1930 film “King of Jazz.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Author Elijah Wald has dedicated his past two books to stripping away the legend and mythology surrounding two of music’s most iconic figures, and placing them in the context of their times. In “Escaping the Delta,” Wald demonstrates how Robert Johnson was very much a product of his time, and how his deification was established. Wald’s latest book expands that motif, and bears the inflammatory title “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll.”

Wald recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record about some of the themes in his new book and, of course, how the Beatles changed rock and roll.

In the book you talk about how “everything old becomes new again,” and use the Twist to illustrate your point. What are some of the other examples of cyclical trends you discovered?

To be fair, I don’t say everything old can always be recycled. When something new comes along, we tend to look back and find things that seem similar to us. But I think that may be less a recognition of real cycles than a way of making the present seem less strange.

Clearly, things come back, but when they do come back they are different. I’m not sure things are cyclical. It may just be they way we get comfortable with them. When the Twist came around, the way the entertainment industry handled it was to talk with Irene Castle and say “This is like what was happening in 1914, isn’t it?”

Why do you call “Rhapsody in Blue” the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of the ‘20s?

This is really the germ of the whole book. I was reading how people in the people in the 1920s wrote about “Rhapsody in Blue” and noticed how similar it was to what was said about “Sgt. Pepper’s” in the 1960s.

(In the 1920s) everyone was saying how until now jazz was a lot of noise and music for rowdies and kids, but now this had turned it into a mature art form. This is exactly what happened with “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Leonard Bernstein said he was excited about it and Lennon and McCartney were compared to Schubert. Just as “Rhapsody in Blue” created a respectable thing that could still be called “jazz,” “Sgt. Pepper’s” created something respectable that was still considered rock.

Author Elijah Wald.

Who was Paul Whiteman and what was his impact on music? Why has he largely been forgotten today?

I spend a whole chapter in the book on this, but in a nutshell, Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s. He was the man who transformed the perception of jazz from noisy, small groups into large orchestras who played not only fun dance music, but also at Carnegie Hall.

I think Whiteman is largely forgotten because he didn’t swing by and large and was resolutely white. We have understood the history of jazz to largely be a history of African-American music. Whiteman tried, for better or worse, to separate jazz from that heritage.

In many ways, the 1940s parallel today, in that there is fear new technology will usurp the traditional way artists got paid. Then it was a fear of jukeboxes and radio’s reliance on pre-recorded music and today, of course, the dominant issue is digital piracy. What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve observed between these two decades?

The huge difference is that all the things we talked about in the ‘40s did involve musicians getting paid, just different musicians. It was R&B and country musicians getting paid instead of big bands. A lot of people previously neglected became huge stars.

What’s happening now is really dangerous, in terms of musicians continuing to be able to make a living. It is exciting, in terms of everyone being able to make their music available to millions of listeners, but it is getting harder and harder to make a living in music. It’s more like a lottery – win and become a star or lose and go on to something else.

There are skills you develop as a professional musician that we’re seeing less and less of because people don’t perform as much. Everyone in my book went through an apprenticeship playing seven nights a week for four or five hours a night. Those opportunities no longer exist. There’s no way to build those kinds of skills today.

Explain the difference between hot and sweet combos. Why have the hot survived while the sweet are dismissed?

A lot of people will say this is a false dichotomy. Everyone played some sweet and some hot, but the best way to explain the difference to people of my generation is to go back to the British Invasion. In the U.S., we thought of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as belonging to the same genre. In England, however, the Beatles were called pop and the Rolling Stones were called R&B, and it’s easy to understand why.

The way we look at it today, hot bands played for boys who were into music as fans and listeners, while sweet bands were for sappy girls. That’s not the way I would phrase it, but it’s not necessarily wrong. Women have always been the determining pop buyers, because they like to dance, but men have always been the main critics. In any case, in the 1930s the two extremes were Guy Lombardo on the sweet end and Count Basie as hot, but most bands were in the middle.

One reason the hot bands live on is because by and large the only people listening today are jazz fans and they always liked the hot bands better. There’s also the racial component I mentioned earlier. I don’t disagree that what is exciting in American music was largely taken from African-American music—I would argue that it’s more complicated than that, because they are always interchanging, but as a listener I am certainly more excited by Basie than by Lombardo. As a historian, though, I am interested in both, and well aware that in their era Lombardo was far more popular.

What is the connection between swing and rock and roll?

It was the hot dance music, youthful, noisy dance music. We think of these worlds as separate, but a lot of the same musicians crossed over. The first house band for Alan Freed’s rock party was the Count Basie Orchestra. Bill Haley and the Comets all did their apprenticeships playing swing. Musically, there was a lot of overlap.

How did the success of the Beatles and other late-‘60s rock bands segregate the music industry? What are the lasting effects of that segregation?

Two things happened at once. One, the Beatles arrived when the industry was moving very heavily toward black music. The myth is the Beatles rescued us from Frankie Avalon, but they really rescued us from Motown and girl groups. If you look at the charts, black groups had so completely taken over, they actually stopped having separate charts.

The Beatles and British Invasion bands were exciting, but their rhythm sections were old fashioned. In a world of Motown and James Brown they played archaic styles. Black kids were not much interested in the British bands, because they weren’t as much fun to dance to—and it was not just black kids, but everyone who was dancing to Motown, which included a lot of white kids, especially white girls.

At the same time, the discotheque craze was hitting, so people didn’t have to have live bands. The lasting effect of that is that you no longer had to have one band who could play every style of music. Before you couldn’t have a band play only black or white music, because people wanted to dance to and hear the full range of current hits. In the ‘60s, though, you could have one band only play one kind of music, because when you wanted to hear a different kind you could just change the record.

In the epilogue you discuss how rock and dance music gradually began playing to divergent audiences. Do you think they will intersect again?

Today we don’t have bands that have to play anything, period. It’s a sad reality that if you listen to hit records – or even records that aren’t hits, by little-known, local performers – the number of records where the group on the album plays regularly is vanishingly small. The number of hits that can be recreated without recordings is virtually none.

Don’t get me wrong; hip hop couldn’t exist in a world where you had to play everything live and I think hip hop is exciting. Overall, however, the world of live music is becoming extinct. There are certainly plenty of people for whom live music is important, and I’m sure there always will be, but they are increasingly a minority.

Keep reading:

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll”

Talking King Records with author Jon Hartley Fox

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with author Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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