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.

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.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 38

By Joel Francis

Watching the anti-quarantine protests and five o’clock follies, I am trying to take comfort in these words by Walt Whitman:

Meditating among liars, and retreating sternly into
myself, I see that there are really no liars or lies
after all,
And that nothing fails its perfect return—And that
what are called lies are perfect returns.
 
Let’s get into the music.

Talking Heads – Fear of Music (1979) The Talking Heads’ third album is very much a transitional piece. You can hear some glimpses of where they are headed, into the full-blown, Brian Eno-assisted soundscapes that populate their next album, Remain in Light, but for the most part Fear of Music is spare. The song titles are just as lean. Most are one or two words, reading like a cryptic poem on the sticker placed on the pack of the album: “Mind,” Paper,” “Cities.” “Air,” “Heaven,” “Animals.” After the surprise success of “Take Me To The River” on their previous album, the Heads are intentionally running as far away from mainstream success as possible, exploring African rhythms and Ddaist nonsense on “I Zimbra,” feral primitivism on “Animals” and cinematic isolation on “Drugs.” “Cities” races with frantic paranoia and “Air” is laced with sinister synthesizers and processed vocals. Even the songs with strong melodies serve as warnings. “No time for dancing/or lovey dovey,” singer David Byrne proclaims on “Life During Wartime.” Later, “Heaven” is merely a place where nothing ever happens. The Talking Heads were never this stark – or dark – again. Which is why Fear of Music is my favorite Talking Heads album.

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014) The Radiohead frontman’s second solo album is more likely to rattle around in your head after a deep listen than spring from your lips like a Broadway melody. The music is moody and cerebral. And as I found out when I saw Thom Yorke in concert in the fall of 2019, surprisingly danceable and energetic when dialed up to 11. My favorite moments are when Yorke stretches out and lets the tracks hypnotize. “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)” is a glitchy wonderland. “The Mother Lode” manages to combine ambient music with dubstep. I’m not enough of a cryptologist to pretend to know what these songs are about, nor versed enough in EDM to compare this to other, similar pieces. What I can say is that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a solid listen that helps place Radiohead’s The King of Limbs in context.

INXS – Kick (1987) Nearly 25 years after the death of lead singer Michael Hutchence, the music of INXS remains ubiquitous. The Australian band’s pop prowess is undeniable, but they always had trouble crafting great albums around those magnificent singles. Kick, their sixth album, is the one time everything clicked. OK, it helps that five of the dozen tracks here were big hits, but the other seven are no slouches. Opening track “Guns in the Sky” plays like a set of expectations the band will need met before delivering the hits. It sets the table nicely for the great run of “New Sensation,” “Devil Inside” and “Need you Tonight.” The first half concludes with “The Loved One,” the only cover on the album. The second side includes another amazing run of “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Mystify” and the title song. You’ve heard these songs so many times I don’t need to describe them. Kick was so big that even the songs that weren’t singles ended up being recognizable. Knowing the songs’ omnipresence you may question needing to own the album. The answer is yes, of course you do. Because even though you’ve heard them a million times, once you get done playing Kick, you’re going to want to flip it over and play it again.

Berwanger – Exorcism Rock (2016) Singer, songwriter and guitarist Josh Berwanger has been a fixture on the Kansas City music scene since The Anniversary broke through in the late ‘90s. Fans missing that great band might find the next best thing with Exorcism Rock. Former bandmate Adrianne deLanda contributes backing vocals on two tracks and former Anniversary producer Doug Boehm is back behind the boards. But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the infectious, hook-heavy songs. It’s impossible not to smile and sing along. The lyrics get catty sometimes – “Heard you on the radio/Song’s bad/I thought I’d just let you know,” goes the chorus on the title track – but the music is always sunny. Stir up Cheap Trick, Tom Petty and the Get Up Kids, another local favorite, and you’re getting close. I saw Berwanger last fall and the songs sound even better in person. I can’t wait to hear them again once all this blows over.

Paul McCartney – Tug of War (1982) Yes, this is the album with “Ebony and Ivory,” and yes that song is awful. But despite that transgression, Tug of War is a great album. First of all, there’s another, even better Stevie Wonder collaboration, the funky “What’s That You’re Doing.” Rockabilly legend Carl Perkins pops up for another duet on “Get It.” Jazz bassist Stanley Clarke also appears on two tracks. The most notable collaborator is producer George Martin, who wrote a great orchestral accompaniment for the title song and a very Beatle-esque horn line to “Take It Away.” Martin also added sublime strings to the affecting “Here Today,” McCartney’s tribute to John Lennon. Despite all this star power, McCartney is always in the driver’s seat. Side two kicks off with the upbeat “Ballroom Dancing.” Later, “Wanderlust” adds another composition to McCartney’s awesome ballad songbook. By the time you get to “Ebony and Ivory,” almost hidden away as the last song on the album, it starts to make a little more sense in the context of the album. Tug of War is easily found in the sale racks at a cheap price and should be an easy purchase next time you see it.

Peter Tosh – Legalize It (1976) Reggae guitarist Peter Tosh had a lot to prove on Legalize It, his solo debut. After coming up in the Wailers, Tosh was eager to establish himself as more than Bob Marley’s sidekick. Although the title song is a strident political statement (with supporting cover art), the rest of the album is surprisingly playful. “Ketchy Shuby” is a light-hearted look at love and “Whatcha Gonna Do” manages to stay perky despite a narrative about running afoul of the law. Think of it as the reggae equivalent of “Here Comes the Judge.” The most heartfelt moments arrive in the middle of the album. “Why Must I Cry” is an emotional breakup song written with Bob Marley. The next song is an excellent Rastafarian hymn, “Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised).” Legalize It successfully established Tosh as a star in his own right and ranks among his best work.

Review: Bettye LaVette

(Above: ‘Song stylist’ Bettye LaVette captivates a sold-out crowd at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo. with an a capella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bettye LaVette didn’t write any of the songs she performed for 90 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday at Knuckleheads, but she owned every single one of them. It’s hard to imagine the original songwriters — including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and Cee-Lo Green— investing more emotion than LaVette poured into her performance. Her voice ached and cracked with every syllable and her arms and legs writhed on every word.

Chatty and playful, LaVette told the audience the biggest reason why she covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was so her grandchildren would think she was hip. By stripping the song of its kinetic energy and slowing the tempo way down, LaVette turned the ubiquitous hit into a cathartic confession. It also illustrated why she’d rather be called a “song stylist” than a singer.

09.03.08_bettye_lavette253At any other concert LaVette’s mournful, pleading reading of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” would have been the showstopper. Saturday night it was only one of many powerful moments that earned pin-drop silence from the crowd. Other stand-out moments included “The Forecast” and the haunting country ballads “Choices” and “The More I Search (The More I Die).”

While many of the top performances were quiet, LaVette and her four-piece band did a great job of varying tempos and textures. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was bathed in a swampy funk. “I’m Tired” was wrapped in a twisted country-rock guitar riff. The band’s best moment came on “Your Turn to Cry” when it successfully re-reated the Muscle Shoals production from LaVette’s shelved, would-be 1972 recording.

LaVette discussed those disappointments frankly, sharing how much she wanted to be on American Bandstand and how crushed she was when the show’s producers found her debut 1962 single “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” too suggestive. She said that much of her life had been pretty good, except that she was continually denied her biggest joy, the opportunity to sing.

The happiness LaVette has found over the past 10 years when her career finally started taking off was evident in the night’s final songs, “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” and an a capella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”

Setlist: The Word; The Forecast; Take Me Like I Am; Choices; Joy; Your Turn to Cry; They Call It Love; Crazy; My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man; The More I Search (The More I Die); I’m Tired; Love Reign O’er Me; Close As I’ll Get to Heaven; I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Keep reading:

Bettye LaVette – “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”

Review: Buddy Guy and Bettye LaVette

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

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

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”

Review: “December 8, 1980”

(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”

 

 

 

 

Review: Girl Talk

(Above: A fan video for one of Girl Talk’s sonic creations.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Just because Gregg Gillis doesn’t play a musical instrument, doesn’t mean he can’t make you dance. For 80 minutes on Friday night, Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, had a packed Crossroads getting down in a downpour.

That set time may not look very long, but it was both exhausting and generous. Girl Talk specializes in creating ultimate mash-ups of literally hundreds of songs from nearly every genre and artists ranging from Boston, ODB, Radiohead, Simon and Garfunkel, Ben Folds and UGK. The shorter list would be the one encompassing all the artists Gills didn’t play. Suffice it to say, if it was a pop or club hit in the last 40 years, it was fair game for inclusion.

Girl Talk’s performance is more than matching beats per minute, however. He is the master of extracting the peak moment of a given song, pairing it with the pinnacle from another disparate track and creating a new climax higher than either cut could achieve alone.

The high-energy set was paced to jump from one high point to another, but a couple moments stand out. During Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” he teased out the verses, delaying the explosive chorus. When it finally hit a shockwave went through the crowd, amping the atmosphere even higher. He repeated the same trick drawing out the intro of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” before the glorious guitar riff detonated across the venue.

There’s a reason why most DJs are hidden in a booth at the back of a club: there’s usually not much visually going on. Gillis, though, took a cue from the Flaming Lips, flanked by a cast of dancing fans onstage and two assistants who were constantly streaming rolls of toilet paper and confetti into the crowd. They got an assist from Mother Nature, who provided an impressive lightning show in the sky above as the rain continued to pour throughout the night.

Although there was a video screen and basic light show, the most animated element of the night by far was Gillis himself. Taking the stage in a hoodie, it wasn’t long until he was shirtless and sweating profusely. His legs were never still, hopping back and forth between laptops on nearly every beat. Combine that with bouts of jumping on (and off) the table, arm waving and exuberant shout-outs and Gillis gave himself a heck of a cardio workout. The result was a performance far more entertaining than the typical person-behing-laptop/turntable.

Most of the set centered on recent hits, but Gillis mixed in two old tracks for the finale. The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” was virtually unaltered, save a hip hop beat underneath. The same trick that worked at the skating rink was just as effective on a larger scale with adults. The evening ended with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which crawled at a snail’s pace compared to the rest of the night’s fare. Of course by then the message had already been received.

Keep reading:

Flaming Lips deserve Super Bowl halftime show

Chris Cornell – “Scream”

Review: Lupe Fiasco

The attics of my mind

(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)

A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Lilith Fair

I’m looking forward to catching my first-ever Lilith Fair tomorrow night, but must admit I have several reservations. It’s never a good sign when Sarah McLachlan, the tour headliner and organizer, admits that ticket sales have been “soft.” Several dates were cancelled, and a quick glance at the temporarily unavailable TicketMaster instant seat locator showed that many of the remaining dates had vast sections of available seats. I don’t know how to fix the sour ticket industry (eliminating “convenience” fees and lowering prices spring to mind, but I’m sure it’s much more complicated), but I think Lilith hasn’t done itself any favors. Many of these problems could be fixed by paying more attention to the Lilith Fair Website.

Fans should be able to see where each artists performs without having to click on every date. Clicking an artist’s name brings up a highlighted list of her cities, but without dates. This is needlessly complex. Furthermore, the schedules for each city are missing. Eleven artists will play at Sandstone Amphitheater tomorrow night. Performances will start in the mid-afternoon. Approximate schedules should be posted weeks before each stop so fans will be able to make plans and adjust to be in place for their favorite performer. Each of these issues have easy solutions. Judging by the Website, it appears as if everyone threw in the towel long ago. These shows may be a loss, but fans still need to be cared for.

Lady Gaga and John Lennon

My little brother cracks me up. With very little coaching from me, he has become a huge Beatles fan. His Facebook posting the other day reminded me of something I would have written as his age. He was outraged that the “freak” Lady Gaga had covered “Imagine,” “the magnificent song by John Lennon.”

I can’t recall any Beatles covers drawing my ire, but for a brief period I grew very upset when rap producers (I’m looking at you, Diddy) were too reliant on the source material. “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Feel So Good” seemed like glorified karaoke to me. The kicker came when Jimmy Page and Tom Morello, two guitarists (read: “musicians”) I greatly respected helped Diddy rework Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for “Come With Me.”

I have mellowed over time. Now when I hear Gaga’s cover of “Imagine” I’m glad she has good taste and that someone is keeping Lennon’s music alive, however the performance rates.

Going Deep

In another lifetime, in another era I would have been a great producer at Rhino Records. I love scouring the catalogs of artists, unearthing gems from dismissed albums or periods. Much of this ends up in multi-volume anthologies, but these treasures also work as nice garnishing in a playlist.

The other day I was working with a friend who took great delight in all the solo Pete Townshend material I had sprinkled into a Who playlist (there were Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo offerings as well). He thought it was hilarious that I would venture beyond “You Better You Bet,” the band’s final classic single. I think he’s missing out. “Slit Skirts” and “Give Blood” may not be the second coming of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Substitute,” but they’re easily as good as anything that came after “Who By Numbers.”

This leads me to Ringo Starr. Obsessive that I am, I created anthologies for all the fallow periods in the solo Beatle catalogs – except Ringo. The Fab drummer’s 70th birthday last week caused me to reconsider this stance. So I dutifully investigated all of his albums. The critics weren’t wrong – there’s more bad than good. That said, there’s always at least one keeper on each album, and if I hadn’t been so dedicated I would have completely missed out on Ringo’s first two fantastic albums.

Ringo’s third solo album, 1973’s “Ringo” soaks up all the love but “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” are just as good, albeit for very different reasons. Both albums came out in 1970, and both clock in around 35 minutes. Both the brevity and timing work in Ringo’s favor. 1970 was both the best and worst year to be a Beatles fan. Sure the band broke up, but on the other hand fans got “Let It Be,” “McCartney,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Plastic Ono Band” and the aforementioned Ringo platters.

Although they hit shelves only six months apart, “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” couldn’t be more different. Both albums are genre exercises, but the big-band swing of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is both geographically and generationally separated from the country twang of “Loser’s Lounge.” Yet Ringo’s enthusiasm and personality shines through both project, making them an infectious and irresistible listen.

Neither album will replace “Abbey Road” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” but they easily trump “Red Rose Speedway,” “Extra Texture” or “Some Time in New York City.” Better yet, they can be found easily and cheaply on vinyl. Do yourself a favor and grab ‘em next time you haunt the bins.