Social Distancing Spins – Day 61 (Fab Four edition)

By Joel Francis

Many Beatle fans have put together the ultimate final Beatles album, drawing from tracks on the Fab Four’s early solo albums. I remember a quote from one of the newly liberated Beatles saying the break-up was actually better for fans because instead of one Beatles album, fans would get one solo album from each mop top. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it’s with that idea I approached today’s spins. We’ll look at the solo albums each Beatle released in 1973. Why 1973? It started because I happen to own all the albums each member released this year, but took on greater significance as I got deeper in listening and researching. Let’s go through them in the order they were released.

Paul McCartney and Wings – Red Rose Speedway (April 30, 1973) The second album released by Wings, Red Rose Speedway was also Paul’s fourth release in the three years after the Beatles’ break-up. Although 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram are rightly revered today, at the time they were seen as lightweight albums that didn’t live up the expectations of a public that had grown up on “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” With Red Rose Speedway, Paul takes a few tentative steps in that direction.

The ballad “My Love” became Paul’s second No. 1 solo hit, after “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” The 11-minute medley that ends the album was certainly constructed with Abbey Road’s famous second-side mash-ups in mind. What does Paul give us with the remaining seven songs on the album? Nothing as substantial, unfortunately.

Opener “Big Barn Bed” is catchy, but feels like filler at the same time. “Single Pigeon” seems entirely constructed away the two words in the title play off each other. “When the Night” sounds like a rehearsal that should have been left on the cutting room floor. In fact, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” and the weird jam “Loup (First Indian on the Moon)” are the only other songs from Red Rose Speedway that I’d save in a fire. And Paul wanted this to be a double album at one point, too. Yeesh.

Of the albums released by the former Fabsters in 1973, Red Rose Speedway is easily the lightest of the bunch. Fortunately, Paul was far from done for the year. He’d release another album before Christmas and reunited with George Martin in the summer for the hit James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” Their song was far better than the film.

George Harrison – Living in the Material World (May 30, 1973) Despite the success of “Someday,” few fans would have picked George to be the most successful Beatle after the break-up, but in 1973 George was sitting on a mountain of good will from his concerts for Bangladesh (and resulting album) and just as many accolades for his triple-LP masterpiece All Things Must Pass. George’s follow up, Living in the Material World isn’t a major statement like his previous releases, but it does confirm that George’s songwriting skills ran deep.

The only single from the album, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” was a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and dealt with George’s struggle between stardom and spirituality. George’s existential grappling dominates the album, but it rarely feels heavy-handed or preachy. The may be because George varies the song structures and arrangements of songs dealing with these themes. For example, the title song and “Give Me Love” are very upbeat, while “Try Some, Buy Some” is slightly psychedelic. “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)” and “The Day the World Gets Round” are slower contemplative numbers.

Between all this seriousness, George pokes fun at Paul’s lawsuit against his fellow Beatles with “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (chorus: “Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine/Get together and we could have a bad time”). George would release another seven solo albums in his lifetime, but it wasn’t until the posthumous release of Brainwashed in 2002 that he again reached the same height achieved with Living in the Material World.

John Lennon – Mind Games (November 2, 1973)
Ringo Starr – Ringo (November 2, 1973)
Picture walking out of the record store in early November excitedly clutching the new John Lennon and Ringo Starr albums, only to discover hours later that Ringo’s album is the better of the two. Sure, Ringo gets by with the help of his friends, but he ropes in A-list guests here.

George chips in two songs and writes another – “Photograph” – with Ringo. John and Paul each write one song. In fact, Ringo has a co-write credit on three songs and wrote “Step Lightly” by himself. Musically, Marc Bolan from T-Rex, Harry Nilsson, Billy Preston and members of The Band all appear, as do the other Beatles (though, sadly not all on the same track). The cover depicts Ringo onstage, and indeed the album is paced like a live performance, complete with Ringo thanking all his guests and signing off at the end.

Ringo (the album) spawned two No. 1 hits in “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” The later is the only bum spot on the album. Johnny Burnette’s original 1960 hit was featured prominently in the film American Graffiti released earlier that summer, possibly inspiring Ringo to cover it. Regardless of the reason, post-adolescent men singing about teenage girls will never not be creepy. Despite this misstep, Ringo is a party, from start to finish. Ringo can usually be found at a cheap price in the used record bins. If you don’t have this album, there is absolutely no reason not to pick it up.

Meanwhile, John Lennon was struggling. The Nixon administration was playing political football with John’s work visa and his marriage to Yoko Ono was on the rocks. On top of that, John’s previous album, the uber-topical and political Some Time in New York City was a dud. Mind Games is a definite improvement, but it still sounds like a man who doesn’t know which way to go. The gorgeous, sweeping title song was a Top 20 hit, but not all of the remaining 10 songs work. “Tight A$” and “Meat City” sound like the same song and while both songs rock, neither go anywhere. The jokey political anthem “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is easily the best up-tempo song on the album. More than 40 years later, this song was used to great effect in the post-apocalyptic action film Children of Men (which is highly recommended).

Other stellar moments on Mind Games include the emotional ballad “Out of the Blue” (John’s best vocal performance on the album), the relationship-affirming “I Know (I Know)” (built around a guitar lick that sounds suspiciously like “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and the upbeat “Intuition,” which foreshadows the direction John would take on Double Fantasy. I also like the slow apology “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” which sounds like a sort of cousin to “Jealous Guy.”

Mind Games is a very different album than Ringo, but the inconsistencies on Mind Games puts Ringo in the pole position.

Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run (December 5, 1973) Somewhere between the spring release of Red Rose Speedway and the autumn recording of Band on the Run, Paul managed to lose nearly half of his band. Now down to a trio, Paul, his wife Linda and Denny Laine departed to Lagos, Nigeria, to hang out with Fela Kuti, lose the in-progress studio tapes in a mugging and create a defining rock masterpiece.

If Red Rose Speedway often felt slight, nearly every song on Band on the Run drives with a purpose. The opening one-two punches of the title song and “Jet” remain classic rock radio staples today (as does “Let Me Roll It,” which closes the first side). Tucked between those hits on the first side is the jaunty “Mrs. Vandebilt” with its infectious “ho hey ho” chorus, and the delicate “Bluebird.”

The second side doesn’t have any singles, but the material remains strong. The slide guitar and string arrangement on “No Words” makes it feel like a George song. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” incorporates reprise of some of the earlier melodies with a jolly drinking song. If there’s a weak song on the album it might be “Helen Wheels,” but even this track is better than all but a couple songs on Red Rose Speedway. After four solo albums that confounded and disappointed fans’ expectations, Paul finally delivered the mainstream post-Beatles triumph everyone was waiting for with Band on the Run.

Post script

After releasing two albums in 1973, Paul didn’t have another release until 1975’s Venus and Mars. That same year George and John – mired in his lost weekend – both released albums, but Ringo didn’t. In fact, the stars never aligned for all four Beatles to release solo albums in the same calendar year again. No one knew it at the time, but 1973 ended up being the end of another sort of era for the Beatles.

What are your favorite songs from Red Rose Speedway, Living in the Material World, Ringo, Mind Games and Band on the Run? Which of these five albums from 1973 do you like best? Did I overlook or mischaracterize your favorite tune? Leave a comment and let me know.

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: Skatalites

(Above: Reggae pioneers the Skatalites pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, and prove that it is possible to skank to jazz.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original run of the Skatalites lasted barely over a year. That brief window has proved to be more than enough time to build a legacy strong to survive nearly half a century later.

The music the seven-piece island band played for two hours at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club on Thursday night transformed the sound of Jamaican music, but has deep tentacles into many forms of American music, including jazz, doo wop, R&B, gospel and even country.

The band never tried to hide its influences. “Music is My Occupation” reappropriated the horn line from “Ring of Fire.” Next, on their version of the James Bond theme, the famous surf guitar was transferred to a punchy horn line. The arrangement inspired more dancing than danger. Think of it as the soundtrack to the scene after the big fight, when 007 waltzes away with the girl.

Three horns lined the front of the stage, proclaiming the band’s strength. Founding member Lester Sterling played an old saxophone that looked like it had been rescued from a shipwreck but never failed to summon a melody pure and true. The big rhythm section included keyboards and guitar. They players may have been hidden behind the brass, but never played second fiddle.

The band had no problem moving the tricky 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck’s signature “Take Five” to a ska beat. Originally recorded with Val Bennett as “The Russians are Coming,” the piece featured Sterling’s longest solo of the night and proved he could hang with the players in the Blue Room any night.

When Sterling wanted to show off ska’s versatility, he launched the band into a cover of “I Should Have Known Better.” The Beatles were contemporaries when the Skatalties first laid down their version. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – courtesy of drummer Trevor Thompson – and the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were the night’s only vocal moments.

The two-hour set was generous to a fault. While the room was packed for the first hour, there was plenty of elbow room when “The Guns of Navarone,” the band’s biggest song, finally emerged near the end. Most of the instrumentals employed a similar arrangement, allowing some sameness to eventually creep. The performances were always energetic, however, and kept a steady flow of dancing near the stage.

Purists can quibble over the lack of original members onstage and they’d have a point. Sterling is the only founding member, and almost half the band wasn’t born when the Skatalites were at their peak in Studio One. Blame Father Time for the attrition then ask if the music should be forced to pass along with its musicians.

Sterling put it another way between numbers: “When you’re good, you’re good.”

They’re good.

Keep reading:

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Review: Sly and Robbie

Police On My Back: Five Musicians Convicted of Murder

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

Above: Jack White and Alicia Keys do the latest James Bond song, “Another Way To Die.”

By Joel Francis

Duran Duran bass player John Taylor probably had the previous two James Bond themes in mind when he drunkenly approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked when they were going to get someone “decent” to do a Bond song.

It didn’t take long to learn the answer. Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill” was a No. 1 hit, re-establishing Paul McCartney’s precedent of letting successful pop acts write and perform title songs hit. While the big synthesizers and processed drums haven’t aged well – few pop songs from the ’80s have – the chorus of “dance into the fire” remains as catchy as ever. The song also marked the last time original Duran Duran’s lineup recorded together for 16 years.

Encouraged by Duran Duran’s success, the Bonds producers handed the reigns to another pop act for 1987’s “The Living Daylights.” After being rejected by the Pet Shop Boys, who wanted to score the entire film, a-ha, the band best known for its 1985 No. 1 hit “Take On Me,” agreed to take on Bond. Sporting similar dated production as Duran Duran’s hit, but weaker songwriting and overly sensitive singing, “The Living Daylights” became another Bond footnote.

The lush orchestration associated with early Bond numbers was back for Gladys Knight’s “License to Kill” in 1989. Composer Michael Kamen did a good job incorporating the “Goldfinger” horn line into the main melody, but the lyrics and melody are bland. It’s a shame that Knight, who has one of the strongest soul voices of all time, wasn’t given stronger material. Bond’s further musical malaise is marked by the presence of Patti LaBelle’s end credits theme, “If You Asked Me To,” which was later covered by Celine Dion. Dion’s appearance marks the nadir of any expedition.

After a six-year hiatus and casting change, Bond returned in 1995’s “Golden Eye.” Written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, “Golden Eye” found the duo continuing in the same vein as their summer hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” The arrangement wraps the duo’s discotheque infatuation around a haunting melody build on a horn line. Tina Turner masterfully teases Bono’s voyeuristic lyrics and was rewarded with a Top 10 hit in Europe. “Goldfinger” was the best Bond song in a generation and helped successfully jumpstart the franchise.

After the powerful, soulful voices of Knight and Tuner, Bond’s producers turned to another American female in 1997 for “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Sheryl Crow brought strong songwriting chops and chart-topping cache, but she lacked the voice to carry her melody. Her vocals fare well during the verses, but the chorus is too high for Crow’s register where her throat lacks the energy to carry the words and emotion. k.d. lang’s “Surrender,” written by the film’s composer David Arnold, fits firmly in the Bond mold of big strings and brassy horns and would have been a better opening number. Unfortunately, it was retitled and pushed to the closing credits once Crow signed on. Finally, pop-techno musician Moby was enlisted to remix Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.” The result was a rare update that successfully enhanced and modernized the original.

Arnold successfully married his large orchestration with light techno elements for “The World Is Not Enough.” Garbage singer Shirley Manson slithers through the lyrics with authority and the rest of the band maintains a tasteful balance between rock and orchestral while adding their stamp to the song.

Madonna was easily Bond’s biggest star pull since Paul McCartney when she signed up for “Die Another Day” in 2002. While the film may have been Bond-by-numbers, Madonna blew up the formula for her electronic theme song. Her manipulated vocals hide behind banks of synthesizers and strings and spout the memorable line “Sigmund Freud/analyze this.” Although the song spent 11 weeks at the top spot of the U.S. charts, it is unlike any other theme in the Bond cannon and, as a result, not without controversy. The Material Girl wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bond was rebooted once again in 2006 for “Casino Royale.” As the character became grittier, so did the music. Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” is easily the hardest number in the Bond cannon, cut from the same stone as Alice Cooper’s rejected “Man with the Golden Gun” that repulsed producers 30 years ago.

Confirming they were no longer afraid to rock out, White Stripes mastermind Jack White was enlisted to perform “Another Way To Die” for 2008’s “The Quantum of Solace.” Unsurprisingly, White’s song sounds like a heavily orchestrated White Stripes number given an urban twist courtesy of the piano and vocals of Alicia Keys. Stripped of the overproduction that plagues her solo releases, Keys shines under White’s watch. Her call and response with White’s dirty guitar licks halfway through the song channel “What I’d Say” through Jimmy Page’s amplifier. The number is the first Bond theme performed as a duet, but based on the openness Bond’s producers have shown in the past decade, it will likely not be the last.

Keep reading:

The Music of James Bond: Part 1 – The Classic Years

The Music of James Bond: Part 2 – The Seventies

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies


Above: Blondie’s superior, unused version of “For Your Eyes Only.”

By Joel Francis

When Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery as James Bond, the producers retooled the series to include the grittiness of the recent Dirty Harry movies and “The French Connection.” In “Live and Let Die” Bond chases a corrupt Caribbean politician who deals heroin and happens to be black. They also snagged one of the biggest stars on the planet to write and perform the latest Bond theme – ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.

McCartney’s theme song reunited him with Beatles producer George Martin, who scored the film. Martin was the first person other than John Barry to score a Bond film.

Not only was McCartney’s song the first rock Bond theme, but it was the first one to be written and performed by the same person. The film’s producers had wanted a soul singer, but Martin prevailed and McCartney was allowed to sing. The song starts with a soft melody and understanding lyrics, before bursting into a whirlwind of strings and horns. The change in tempo and texture underscores the protagonist’s philosophical change, from “live and let live” to “live and let die.” The song is a staple of McCartney’s live shows and was performed at his Super Bowl halftime concert in 2005. The less said about Guns N’ Roses 1991 cover, the better.

Barry was back in the scoring saddle for “The Man With the Golden Gun.” He teamed with lyricist Don Black on the title song and the results were predictable. British singer Lulu made her name with the No. 1 hit “To Sir With Love,” the title song to Sidney Poitier’s 1967 film, but she’s given little to distinguish herself with here. Deep in the mix, a guitar spews crazy licks underneath a battalion of churning trombones, but Lulu’s vocals stay safely in the Bassey mold.

Proto-shock rocker Alice Cooper claimed his song “The Man With the Golden Gun” was written for the film but rejected by its producers. The song is an aggressive slab of hard rock completely out of step with anything the producers had used before, so its unsurprising Cooper’s version didn’t appear until it was included on the tastefully titled “Muscle of Love” album.

In 1977, Carly Simon became the second American (after Nancy Sinatra) to sing a Bond theme. “Nobody Does It Better” was the first Bond theme without the same name as its movie, in this case “The Spy Who Loved Me,” although songwriters Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch did work the title into the lyrics.

The song revitalized Simon’s career which had been in a five-year gradual decline since her 1972 hit “You’re So Vain.” It was No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts for seven consecutive weeks and was nominated for two Grammys.

Despite its soft rock arrangement, “Nobody Does It Better” works well as a Bond theme. Writing about the character instead of the film is a refreshing change. Simon’s vocals are nearly devoid of the sex most female Bond singers infused in their delivery. Simon’s approach is more of devotion than lust, which not only supports the arrangement, but makes the song more honest.

Moonraker” paired Bassey and Barry for the final time. Bassey’s third turn on a Bond theme happened after Johnny Mathis declined the song at the last moment. Her delivery is much smoother than on “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Goldfinger,” but it compliments Barry’s lush orchestration. For the first time, Barry’s horns are pushed far to the background. His strings are suspended, weightless in space, and the arrangement is accentuated with a light touch of disco.

The formula of pairing the score composer with a lyricist and giving the song to a pop singer was very much intact as the Bond film franchise entered the ’80s (and its third decade) with “For Your Eyes Only.” Unfortunately, the results were not as memorable. Sheena Easton set a precedent when she became the first singer to perform the title song onscreen. The gauze of synthesizers and strings and forced melody have rightfully relegated the song to footnote status. The producers would have been better served accepting Blondie’s title submission, which appeared on their 1982 album, “The Hunter.”

For his 13th Bond film, Barry turned to Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s lyricist, for help. The result, “All Time High,” was sung by Rita Coolidge. Like Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” “All Time High” spent multiple weeks at No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart and does not share the its film’s title (in this case “Octopussy“). Unlike Simon’s song, though, “All Time High” hit the all-time low in Bond songs.

Keep reading:

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

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

Below: Alice Cooper’s alternate “The Man WIth the Golden Gun.”

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


Above: Johnny Cash’s alternate version of “Thunderball.”

By Joel Francis

After nearly 50 years of slugging spies and bedding beauties, the premier of a James Bond movie has become an cultural event. The opening credit sequences of these films are events among themselves. Even though some of the biggest names in rock have performed a Bond theme song, the producers have always treated the number as a throwback to the Broadway and pop numbers of the 1950s.

When Bond made his big screen debut in 1962’s “Dr. No,” Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” variants of “The Twist” and the Four Seasons topped the Billboard charts. The theme song for “Dr. No” was a bizarre calypso arrangement of “Three Blind Mice.” Thankfully, the nursery rhyme is preceded by Monty Norman’s immortal James Bond theme. Norman’s theme was reinterpreted in every Bond film thereafter. It’s still exciting to hear the surf guitar race into the explosion of horns. The song is over-the-top, suspenseful and dangerous, but the swinging drums winkingly confide in the viewer that everything is in good fun.

Bond was back the following year with “From Russia With Love.” This time, producers hired Broadway songsmith Lionel Bart, best known for his work on “Oliver!,” to write an original theme song. Bart’s lyrics, coupled with soundtrack composer John Barry’s music, are the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image. Singer Matt Monro made his name performing in the nightclubs, caberets and lounges Bond would have haunted offscreen. Their lounge music is the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image that reeks of wood paneling, shag carpeting, hi-fi stereos and rotating beds. In other words, it’s straight out of Bond’s world.

Three-time Bond songstress Shirley Bassey made her debut with “Goldfinger.” Although the film hit screens during the year of Beatlemania, there is no hint of rock and roll in the title song written by the musical theater team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Barry’s bombastic horns are matched only by Bassey’s brassy delivery. “Goldfinger” is not only one of the most memorable Bond songs of all time, but it’s also the first memorable Bond song.

Barry and Bricusse didn’t stray far from the template when they approached Tom Jones to sing “Thunderball.” Jones puts his pelvis in the delivery, but the arrangement is essentially “Goldfinger”-redux. While they may have been working with a formula, it’s a strong one – “Thunderball” works nearly as well as “Goldfinger.”

An alternate “Thunderball” song was given to Johnny Cash to perform, but rejeced by the film’s producers. It seems even at the peak of his pills phase, Cash was more man than Bond could handle.

Rock and roll finally appeared in the serpentine guitar lick that opens Nancy Sinatra’s performance of “You Only Live Twice.” Even with the guitar, Sinatra’s sexy vocals rest on a pillow of strings accentuated by a harp. The number was Barry and Bricusse’s third consecutive teaming, and constructed from fragments of 25 separate takes. Bassey must have felt left out, because she covered the song in 2007, following in the footsteps of Coldplay, Bjork and Robbie Williams (who sampled the original for “Millennium”).

 “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a misfit in the Bond cannon, musically and theatrically. The title sequence is a throwback to the orchestral opening of “Dr. No.” Barry’s instrumental theme is notable for its deep Moog synthesizer notes, chugging rock bass and the soaring trombone melody, later taken over on trumpet. Barry, who scored every Bond film to this point, composed a great alternate to Norman’s original Bond theme. During the mid-’90s electronic craze, the Propellerheads created a 10-minute remix of the song.

Barry teamed with Burt Bacharach’s lyricist Hal David to write the film’s love theme, “All The Time in the World.” Saturated by fingerpicked guitar and a saccharine string section, the song couldn’t be further from jazz, despite the vocals of Louis Armstrong. Satchmo is in full-on “What A Wonderful World” mode. Lesser singers would buckle under the weight of the arrangement, but Armstrong is able to emote the lyrics perfectly, even if someone else is playing the trumpet solo.

As the calendar flipped to the 1970s, Bassey was given her second stint on a Bond theme. “Diamonds Are Forever” is the sexiest Bond theme since Sinatra’s. Barry’s arrangement is full of the soft strings and horn punctuations that viewers had come to expect, but he tosses in an unexpected splash of funk at the halfway point. The wah wah guitar and subtle nod to Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft” could be what drew Kanye West to the song when he sampled it for his 2005 hit “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.”

Keep reading:

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies

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