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Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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(Above: The original 1974 promotional film for “Ding Dong, Ding Dong.”)

By Joel Francis

It seems hard to believe in wake of the deification of St. John and the myth building of Sir Paul, but George Harrison was far and away the most successful of the solo Beatles after the implosion of the group.

The “Silent Beatle” racked up three No. 1 hits, a blockbuster triple-album, lured the reclusive Bob Dylan to appear at his all-star charity concert alongside Eric Clapton and fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, scored big with the subsequent Concert for Bangladesh soundtrack album.

Harrison rang in 1975 with “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” the second single from his third solo album and the opening cut on its second side. A gentle kiss-off to his former band and bright look ahead, Harrison’s laid-back, hopeful approach – “ring out the old, ring in the new; ring out the false, ring in the true” – supported his optimistic spirituality.

The catchy number is pretty simple, essentially four choruses and a bridge bolstered by a short, two-stanza verse. The arrangement hangs on Harrison’s slide guitar riff and is punctuated by a horn section. The galloping drums recall Phil Spector’s production on the previous two Harrison albums.

The presence of keyboard player Gary Wright, bassist Klaus Voorman and Starr suggest the basic track may have been laid down during 1973’s “Living in the Material World” sessions. The three musicians aren’t credited anywhere else on the “Dark Horse” album. Guitarists Ronnie Woods, Mick Jones, in pre-Foreigner guise, and Albert Lee also appear in Harrison’s Wall of Sound.

While the song’s roots stretch back, the vocals are unmistakably new. Harrison developed laryngitis while recording the album, and because of a pending U.S. tour – the first-ever American tour by a Beatle since the group’s final show in 1966 – he could not wait for his throat to heal. The resulting vocals were raspy and strained and Harrison’s voice was completely shot when the tour kicked off.

“Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was Harrison’s lowest-charting single to date, but it still cracked the Top 40. For some reason, Harrison didn’t perform it during the North American tour. The trek was one of the first major arena tours, and performers will still figuring out how to translate the nuances of their songwriting to large sports domes. Critics savaged Harrison’s hoarse voice and bombastic band arrangements and silenced Harrison’s ambition as a live act.

The failure of Harrison’s 1974 U.S. Tour ended his reign as Top Beatle. The following year McCartney launched a massively successful tour immortalized on the “Wings Over America” LP and Lennon grabbed headlines with his Lost Weekend escapades.

Harrison returned to his familiar post, turning out reliable, if largely unchallenging, albums and guesting on songs with friends. Once again, he was the most celebrated second fiddle in pop music. “Ring out the old, ring in the new” indeed.

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(Above: If you’ve been good, maybe Santa will bring the new R.E.M. album, “Live at the Olympia.”)

By Joel Francis

The holiday season is a notorious dumping ground for greatest hits, repackagings and other musical ephemera. Four established artists, however, transcend the fourth-quarter wasteland. New live albums by Paul McCartney, R.E.M., Tom Waits and Tom Petty are essential additions to any music fan’s library.

After dropping just one live album in the first half of his solo career, Paul McCartney opened the floodgates over the past two decades. Issuing six live albums since 1990, McCartney has faithfully documented nearly all of his tours and several special performances, but “Good Evening New York City” stands out. The two-CD, one-DVD set documents McCartney’s three-night inaugural performance at the Mets new home Citi Field last summer. Backed by his tight, longstanding quartet, Sir Paul unloads several surprises, like the forgotten “Mrs. Vandebilt,” a tribute to John Lennon with a medley of “A Day in the Life” and “Give Peace a Chance,” and the delightful segue way into Jimi Hendrix’ “Foxy Lady” at the end of “Let Me Roll It.”

Other delights are newer cuts “Only Mama Knows” and “See the Changes,” and the full-band arrangement of “Something” that echoes the performance at the Concert for George. Of course Beatle numbers are plentiful, but the obligatory “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be,” are countered with “Paperback Writer” and “Day Tripper.”

As with all McCartney live albums, the stage banter has been removed, giving the album a bit of a workman-like quality, as the band grinds through the songs with only brief pauses. This editing creates some curious results, such as Billy Joel’s unannounced duet on “I Saw Her Standing There,” or the accidentally buttressing of “Yesterday” and “Helter Skelter” (there was likely an encore break separating the two).

Although there are many places to hear Sir Paul shuffle through the world’s greatest jukebox, few are this energetic or diverse.

When R.E.M. released their last live album, “R.E.M. Live,” only two years ago the band seemed to be running on fumes. Following the disappointing “Beyond the Sun” album with a stop-gap, hits-in-concert set as generic as its title was a naked, holiday cash grab.

A lot has changed since then. Last year’s “Accelerate” brought the trio long-absent acclaim and reinvigorated both the band and its fans. Although “Live at the Olympia” was recorded only four months after “R.E.M. Live” the results couldn’t be more different. While “Live” hit all the obvious marks with little passion, “Olympia” digs deep into the catalog, offering early fan favorites “Driver 8” and obscurities like “Circus Envy.” “Olympia” boasts 17 more songs than “Live” and only two overlapping numbers, so both collections can coexist comfortably.

Fans excited by “Accelerate” will celebrate this 39-track collection. “Live at the Olympia” is the sound of a band being reborn.

Unlike McCartney and R.E.M., it has been nearly a generation since Tom Waits last issued a live album. “Glitter and Doom Live” does a good job spotlighting Waits’ sonic shifts over the last several years, leaning heavily on tracks from his decade on the Anti- label. Drawn from stops along his 2008 tour of the same name, “Glitter and Doom Live” is more a sampler than a complete performance.

Most of the stage banter has been excised, hilariously, to the second disc. “Tom’s Tales” is a 36-minute montage of Waits’ musings about vultures, jokes about Nazi pasta and adventures on eBay that could stand on its own as one of the year’s best comedy albums.

The songs that made the cut, though, are invigorating. “Orphans” cuts “Lucinda” and “Fanin Street” are more raw while “The Part You Throw Away” is delicate and tender. “Get Behind the Mule” sounds like a voodoo chant at a deep South juke joint, and early cuts like “Singapore” and “I’ll Shoot the Moon” are completely reworked. While hardcore fans may have been happier with a set that recreated Waits’ concert experience, few will be disappointed with the 16 songs delivered.

Tom Petty has issued more than a dozen albums during his hit-filled, three-decade career, but until now has only had one live album to his name. “Live Anthology” corrects that problem by offering 50 choice cuts spanning 30 years of gigs. The performances zig zag through the years, but the set flows, creating a dream concert spread across four discs (more if you buy the deluxe edition).

Although all the hits are here, the opening number, “Nightwatchman” shows how deep Petty is willing to delve. More than living up to its name, “Anthology” explores early performances of hits “Even the Losers” right up to full-band arrangements of “Square One” off Petty’s most recent solo album. A sing-along stroll through “A Thing About You” segues seamlessly into Bobby Womack’s soul ballad “I’m In Love.” Later, “Breakdown” slides into a few bars of “Hit the Road, Jack.”

There are no cuts from the Heartbreakers’ mid-‘80s stint as Bob Dylan’s backing band, but honestly, there are enough other incredible moments that they’re not missed. A sublime “Learning to Fly” with Stevie Nicks on backing vocals, an extended “Good to Be King” and unreleased originals like “Melinda” and “Driving Down to Georgia” and covers like “Good Good Loving” and “Goldfinger” (yes, that one) make the set an embarrassment of riches.

This collection not only cements the Heartbreakers’ legend as one of the tightest and most versatile bands of all time, but amplifies their love of rock and roll in all its forms. “Live Anthology” is both more consistent and comprehensive than Petty’s previous box set, the hits/album cuts/rarities collection “Playback.” It is the jewel of Petty’s catalog.

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By Joel Francis

The ultimate Stax tribute to the Beatles was Booker T and the MGs 1970 album “McLemore Avenue.”  None of those tracks appear on the 2007 compilation “Stax Does the Beatles,” but strong contributions from Isaac Hayes, the Bar Kays, Carla Thomas and four other MG tracks make collection as strong as it appears on paper.

Otis Redding opens the album with arguably the greatest Beatles cover of all time. His version of “Day Tripper” (presented here in an unreleased alternate take) may even top the Beatles. Redding’s “Day Tripper” may be second only to Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman’s “Hey Jude” in the pantheon of Beatle covers. Pickett’s reading is sadly missing on this album, but David Porter’s “Help!” continues Redding’s frenetic horn lines and double-time delivery to add an urgency only hinted in John Lennon’s originals vocals.

“Stax Does the Beatles” contains two very different versions of “Yesterday,” a funky, sassy spin on “And I Love Her” and a slight cheat with John Gary Williams’ 1973 cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Some readings work better than others, but all are stamped with the high quality that defined the Stax catalog.

The collection’s centerpiece is Isaac Hayes’ 12-minute cinematic, romantic rendition of “Something.” His arrangement features almost as many instruments as the Beatles “A Day in the Life,” including saxophone, wah guitar, full orchestra and a gorgeous piano line that holds the whole thing together. And that’s just the first 2 minutes.

Some might complain Hayes’ “Something” is overblown, over-produced and pretentious. They haven’t been paying attention to the deep longing in Hayes’ voice.

Although “Something” and “Day Tripper” come the closest, nothing on this collection will replace or make one forget the Beatles versions. The magic in their songs is that there are so many nooks and crannies it seems unlikely future generations will ever exhaust the possibilities of reinterpretation.

For Beatle fans that can play a song in their head by just thinking of the title or chorus, these R&B translations are for you. They are a fresh coat of paint on a favorite structure. For soul fans interested in the influence of soul in rock and vice versa, there is much to enjoy in “Stax Does the Beatles.” People who don’t like either Stax or the Beatles should find the nearest house of worship and repent. Then buy this on the way home.

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(Above: Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, 1974.
All photos by George Kalinsky, courtesy of www.georgekalinsky.com.)

By Joel Francis

In his 34 years as Madison Square Garden’s official photographer, George Kalinsky has forgotten more games, concerts and events than many people could see in several lifetimes.

Kalinsky, who estimates he has shot more than 8,000 events, can be forgiven for having no memory of Bob Marley’s next-to-last performances in 1978, because what he remembers more than makes up for any lapses.

“November 28, 1974. Don’t ask me how I remember that, but I do,” Kalinsky said with a laugh. “Elton John was playing the Garden, and he surprised everyone by having John Lennon join him onstage. Those three songs they did together turned out to be the last time John Lennon performed before he was shot. The moment I captured won’t be there again.”

Several of Kalinsky’s favorite moments are on display for a current exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “Live From Madison Square Garden: From the Lens of George Kalinsky” opened May 1 in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall and will run through January 2010.

“I’ve always tried to paint with light,” Kolinsky said. “Shooting against a plain black background is not the most creative, but it’s what you usually see. These performers spend millions on lighting and effects. I always try to capture that as part of the atmosphere of the performance.”

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The atmosphere for the Rolling Stones’ Garden concert in 1969 was a frenzy. The show was one of the first arena rock concerts and the pandemonium was captured and released on the Stones’ great live album “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.”

“That was the first time I saw a buzz, a reaction like that in the audience. Everyone wanted to be onstage and the crowd started gradually pushing forward,” Kalinsky said. “I went under the stage and went on in the back and got some amazing shots.”

Getting the audience’s reaction to the band was the key to recording the moment, Kalinsky said.

“I think a huge part of the story is the people and how they react,” he said. “There may not be too many pictures in this exhibit of the crowd, but I always try to include them. Every audience is different, just as a circus is different from a track meet and hockey is from basketball. The audience is a reflection of the performance.”

The crowd at a 1974 Bob Dylan performance played a key role in a shot Kalinsky called one of the top two or three photos he’s taken.

“Dylan is Dylan, the hair, the body language, all of it connecting and seeing the audience reach out to him is beautiful and telling,” Kalinsky said. “With him, the words are so important; when I look at Dylan I try to capture the aura of the man.

“I want to get a little closer to see what his face looks like,” Kalinsky continued, “and how it shows the years, not in terms of getting older, but the years of performing with the audience and how that bond grows stronger and stronger.”

fullscreen-capture-562009-35709-pmbmpDylan played a key role in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at the Garden. Shooting both of those shows not only taught Kalinsky that music was the true universal language, but showed him how far the Garden’s stage extended.

“I was in a cab recently and the driver was from Bangladesh,” Kalinsky said. “He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40 years old, but he said in the hearts of his family and friends in Bangladesh they would never forget Madison Square Garden. They weren’t there (at the Concert for Bangladesh), but they’d never forget because that’s where people learned to help his country and family.”

Events at the Garden, Kalinsky said, “become part of our culture and part of our world. It wasn’t long ago we had 9/11 and that concert. Even if you weren’t there, you were there because everybody in the world tuned in to the Concert for New York City.”

What stands out in Kalinsky’s mind from that show isn’t the defining performances from Paul McCartney, the Who and artists with ties to the Big Apple like Jay-Z and Bon Jovi, but a moment backstage with Billy Crystal before he was about to go on.

“I asked him how does he project his talent when the audience is in tears and police and firefighters are holding up pictures (of their missing loved ones)?” Kolinsky said. “He said the hardest thing to do was be funny in the face of an audience who had lost so much.”

Although Kalinsky’s relationships and reputation allowed him backstage that day, he acknowledged access has been almost completely shut down from the early days when he would take pictures of Elvis Presley in the dressing room before his first Garden concert or Sly Stone’s groomsmen getting ready before Stone’s onstage wedding in 1974.

And just as backstage has become more restrictive, the window for taking performance photos has been confined to the first three songs. That doesn’t bother Kalinsky, though, because digital technology and automatic lighting systems within the camera let him do as much with those three songs as he could in an entire show in the days of film.

“However, in terms of taking pictures it always comes down to the eye and the moment,” Kalinsky said. “You have to recognize the moment and snap the picture. This is the most important aspect, whether you are shooting a concert, sporting event or portrait setting. It’s what I’m always looking for.”

Kalinsky’s duties have also given him a window on the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, Knicks games, scores of the world’s top athletes and personalities. This diverse shooting background has provided enough photos to fill eight books and exhibits from the Museum of Modern Art to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.

“The Garden stage, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, the Pope or LeBron James, brings out the best in every performer,” Kalinsky said. “Every day I walk into the Garden I say what a privilege it is to be part of this arena and the best stage in the whole world.”

(Below: A recent portrait of the Red-Headed Stranger.)

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