(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.”
(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)
By Joel Francis The Daily Record
The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”
But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”
“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.
It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.
“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”
Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.
The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.
Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.
The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.
Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.
Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.
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.
(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.
Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché. I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.
Two of the most iconic songwriters of the 1960s visited Kansas City just two weeks apart. But while patrons packed the Sprint Center and doled out big money to see Paul McCartney, acres of more reasonably priced empty seats could be found at Bob Dylan’s concert at Starlight Theater on Saturday night.
Part of this can be attributed to frequency. McCartney has only played Kansas City three times since the Beatles called it quits. Dylan rolls through town about every 15 months. But delivery also plays a big role. McCartney performs his beloved numbers exactly (or close to the ways) how everyone remembers them; Dylan plays nothing straight.
Saturday’s performance ran just shy of two hours and felt pretty much the same as Dylan’s many previous stops in town, including the show he played at Starlight just over three years ago. After opening with two tracks from the ‘70s – including a stunning “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” Dylan and his four-piece band ping-ponged between his golden era in the ‘60s and material cut in the past decade.
The best moments were the ballads. The delicate “Just Like A Woman” opened with a lengthy instrumental section that highlighted the subtle interplay between acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars, and Dylan’s organ, his preferred instrument of the night. The instruments danced deftly until the signature descending guitar riff entered, heralding the first verse. “Workingman’s Blues No. 2” had a similar feel later in the set, and featured Dylan’s best harmonica solo of the night.
Dylan gave a nice treat when he paired two of the best numbers from his protest era. Almost a half a century after their debut, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” remain a potent commentary on poverty and race. Their impact was muted, however, by an arrangement of “Hattie Carroll” that rendered the number nearly unrecognizable.
The band mined the Chicago blues for two newer numbers, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The former was the only time Dylan strapped on an electric guitar. It should have been repeated. His prodding duel with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton seemed to invigorate the rest of the band.
A slump in the final third of the set ended with a spectacular “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The lone illumination from the footlights added an other-worldly atmosphere to the song as Dylan stepped away from his keyboard and sang into a microphone set just off center, in front of the drums.
Reliable encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” still pack a punch and hold pleasant surprises. Dylan intentionally dropped his vocals after the second chorus on “Like a Rolling Stone” to give the band some space to play and let Sexton take an extra solo. “Watchtower” came in a staccato fashion that resembled the far-off gallop of the riders’ horses, before they suddenly stormed the gates.
The Dough Rollers: Dylan’s attraction to this duo isn’t hard to spot. Their 35-minute opening set included covers of John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell and early gospel numbers. The pair sounds like they have just been pulled off an old field recording cut by Alan Lomax. Malcolm Ford sounds like he learned to sing by studying antique cylinder recordings. Jack Byrne’s bottleneck slide on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” was especially tasty. The set also included an interpretation of “Goin’ to Kansas City.” They would be a great show at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ or Knucklehead’s.
Dylan’s setlist: Watching the River Flow, Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), My Wife’s Home Town, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Just Like A Woman, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Cry A While, Workingman’s Blues No. 2, Highway 61 Revisited, I Feel A Change Comin’ On, Thunder on the Mountain, Ballad of a Thin Man. Encore: Like a Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along the Watchtower.
(Above: “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is one of several new songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been regularly playing on their tour this summer.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
The sets Heart and Sarah McLachlan delivered back-to-back at last week’s Lilith Fair were studies in contrast. Sure their styles are wildly divergent, but each act presented three new songs during their one-hour sets.
Heart was proud of their songs, delivering them in succession. They may have gone one song too far, but the crowd responded positively. McLachlan, on the other hand, apologized for performing new songs. She sprinkled them throughout her hit-laden set and express regret before and after each one. She needn’t have bothered – the audience enjoyed them anyway.
Nostalgia is the single most lucrative element in the music industry today. Fans are wiling to shell out more than ever to see legendary artists in concert. Paradoxically, those fans are loathe to hear anything outside of the sacred catalog. This is a closed cannon. With a few exceptions, anything after two dozen hit singles or 10 successful albums is off limits. Some artists, like Billy Joel, are fine with this. Joel hasn’t written any new pop material in nearly two decades. Others, like Fleetwood Mac, shuttle most of their new music to individual projects (although the band did deliver a new album in 2003, their first in eight years).
Solo performers have fewer options. Paul McCartney and Elton John have bravely soldiered on, each releasing four albums in the past decade and highlighting his latest release in concert. James Taylor and Paul Simon have slowed their output to a trickle; both have only released one or two albums of original material in the new millennium, respectively.
Then there are the rare established artists whose fans salivate over new material. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” hit No. 1 on the album charts. Despite a Clear Channel missive not to play any of the new material on its stations, Springsteen performed the majority of the album on his sold-out tour. When “Working on a Dream” appeared just 18 months later, it featured heavily in setlists as well.
The Original Wailers face an even more daunting task. Their catalog is not only the most popular and indelible in reggae, but Bob Marley, their frontman and songwriter, has been dead for 30 years. When the band performed in Kansas City earlier this year they boldly mixed many original songs from their upcoming album in with Marley’s classics. Surprisingly, the new riddims didn’t stop the dancing for a moment.
Artists have three choices onstage: ignore performing new material, apologize and play a couple new songs, or deliver a block of new material. None of these are optimal. (Quick caveat: the songs in question should be worthwhile additions to the catalog, not a cheap excuse to trot out the same tired hits yet again.)
Overconfidence in new material may send fans fleeing for the bathroom and bar. I’m confused why any artist would ever apologize for the music they perform, especially if it is something they have written or hold dear. Ignoring new work reinforces the same message as apologizing: I’m not proud of this material. If they’re not proud of it, why should fans bother?
Despite their perceived authority and glamor, artists have little power over how their music will be marketed, sold and received. Going onstage is as close to complete control that they will ever have. Songwriters should own all of their material, especially the latest and least familiar. Don’t be afraid to surprise. Weaving new material in with the old not only freshens the setlist, but shakes some dust off the favorites by placing them in a new perspective and context. It tells the fan “if you liked this then, try this now.” Remember: Today’s new songs are tomorrow’s sing-alongs.
(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)
A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
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.
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.
(Above: Bettye LaVette owns The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. This performance helped inspire LaVette’s latest album, and is included as a bonus track.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow, albums based on the 1960s and ‘70s pop song book are a dime a dozen and usually worth even less. So while the concept behind Bettye LaVette’s latest album may not be novel, the delivery certainly is. LaVette has audaciously selected a baker’s dozen of the era’s biggest songs and steals every single performance.
Throughout “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” LaVette not only erases Paul McCartney and Elton John’s fingerprints from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” respectively. She scrubs off four decades of radio saturation, turning in performances that arrive sounding completely fresh.
LaVette accomplishes this feat by ignoring the original melody and phrasing and focusing entirely on the lyrics. She crawls inside the words, mining new depth and emotion and lets that frame the arrangement. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” aches with loneliness. LaVette sneaks a reference to HIV/AIDS in “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones free-love era tribute to the working class. In “Don’t Let the Sun,” LaVette pleads with a desperation that feels like her life is hanging in the balance between light and dark. Robert Plant liked her treatment of “All Of My Love” so much he gave her the opening slot on his summer tour.
While every song fulfills the title by hailing from the United Kingdom, LaVette slyly hedges her bets with two numbers that are also associated with one of her primary influences, Nina Simone. LaVette mirrors Simone’s epic treatment and sparse arrangement of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Earlier, LaVette reminds listeners that while the Animals may have had the bigger hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was originally a Simone single. LaVette happily returns the gift.
Five years into her comeback, LaVette sings like something to prove. At 64 she is a contemporary of most of the performers she covers on “Interpretations.” But while most of them are content to coast by on these very songs, LaVette still sings with a hunger fueled by the decades she unjustly lost in obscurity. The force and authority in her voice make LaVette one of the most vital and compelling artists today.
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.
(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.