music

MUSIC, ARTICLE

Terrified By way of The Sapphire VXIII (Part Two)

As we discovered in Terrified By Way of the Sapphire (Part One), yours truly was introduced to (and spooked by) popular music via sounds emanating from the 3” speaker of the trusty Sapphire XVIII am radio in my mom’s 1975 VW Super Beetle. An active imagination and exposure to Scooby Doo Where Are You? had made me an easy scare. Part one covered the eerie references to a sinister, indulgent world in The Eagles 1975 “Hotel California,” which had me quaking in the midday sun as the pastoral landscapes of Minneapolis’ western reaches spooled before my eyes. A year later, a singer with a smooth, calming tenor voice raised the ante. 

One does not think of Cliff Richard as someone who sends chills down your spine (at least not in the classic sense). Being a veteran entertainer for a good twenty years at that point, he might’ve once been been thought by some as a punk threat to the British aristocracy with his involvement in early British Rock N Roll. But, that’s about it. Back then, he and his backing band, The Shadows, had a fantastic (if not relatively tame) rockabilly sound that pre-dated as well as greatly influenced the Mersey Sound/British Invasion some five years later.

But, as for so many other bands, success for Richard was fleeting. Richard was unable to drum up a real presence on the American charts until his mid-70’s comeback. That comeback was birthed from a simple three-and-a-half-minute ghost story set to a catchy little disco beat.

Though Terry Bitten would become one of the more successful songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s by penning a few monster hits for Tina Turner, he scored his first hit by co-writing Richard a song called “Devil Woman.” The song was placed smack in the middle of Richard’s I’m Nearly Famous LP (gotta love that self-deprecating title!) and chosen as the second single to be pulled from that record in April of 1976. The bigwigs at his label, EMI, obviously wanted to switch gears when the first single from that record, the yawn-inducing “Miss You Nights,” meandered into UK’s top twenty. “Devil Woman” crept into the top ten here in the U.S. and became his third highest-selling singleNot sure what it says about this country when a song about an evil, manipulative female becomes a guy’s first hit after nearly twenty years of making records. Was it the disco groove? Maybe Americans like a little danger with their party?

The charts were a mess of styles that month: obligatory disco (Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” Sylvers’s “Boogie Fever”); rock-solid rock (Aerosmith’s first single, “Dream On”), schmaltzy love songs (Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” Carpenter’s cover of “Kind Of A Hush”); and even danceable historical revisionism (the Four Seasons’s “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”). To hear Richard’s perfect tenor sail over those other styles was a shot to the ear, regardless of lyrical content. And, because America has been knee-deep in a Zombie fetish for the last ten years (TV shows, movies, kids shows, games, t-shirts, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, names of cocktails), it’s hard to appreciate that the spooky content of “Devil Woman” was quite the anomaly for a top-40 pop hit.

The song’s protagonist believes he’s been hexed since a mysterious black cat appeared at his door. He finds himself at the table of a fortune teller only to realize she might be that same cat “with evil in her eyes.” The song’s co-writer, Christine Holmes, recorded and released her own version that same year (under the name Kristine Sparkle), changing the perspective to a cautionary tale. The arrangement of Holmes’ version, however, is too busy and lacks the fantastically patient creepy-crawling feeling of Richard’s.

All the ridiculous nods to man/woman relationships were of course lost on my five year old mind, but the ominous notes, minimal instrumentation, and the tense, opening 4/4 drum pulse was a nail biter while my mom and I put-put-putted around. As a child, this spooky little jam blindsided me and put me on edge. The lyrical imagery was as powerful as it was clichéd. The word “evil” was thrown around a few times and, though I didn’t know the depth of its meaning, I was aware of its connotations and knew it stood for bad things. As the song slithered out of that three-inch speaker, my mind raced with images of black cats with evil eyes, crystal balls, mean-looking strangers, dark neighborhoods on moonlit nights. It was full-on Halloween time within these three and a half minutes. Plus, Richard upped the ante during a quiet moment following the second chorus by ad-libbing  a whispered “stay away” followed by “look out” (which perhaps further stressed me out). But – abracadabra! — such was the power of Top 40 Radio!  

Was I the only one affected by this song? Probably not. In fact, there’s a good chance “Devil Woman” was a seed planted in many would-be musician’s minds back then that bloomed into glorious dark flowers in the years to come. Of course, the song could’ve had another effect, as well. Beyond the haunted house imagery, some may have walked away from this one forever strapped with a lifelong distrust of women.

But, wait a minute. What if this wasn’t just a hackneyed relationship song with a demonic allegory wrapped in a minimal disco beat? What if Terry Bitten really did know a devil woman? Ever wonder about that? What if we’ve all been far too dismissive about this whole damn thing? Maybe this is a cry for help! Jeepers, has anyone even heard from Bitten lately?

Think about it.

MUSIC, ARTICLE

Fare Thee Well To The Grand Ridiculous

Over their storied career, the Grateful Dead have been many things to many people. Perhaps above all else, they were some of the greatest Absurdists in the history of Rock & Roll. To achieve such a prestigious title, the band had to step and stumble into amazing, strange situations and embark on odd, creative endeavors. Few other groups witnessed as much lunacy, especially at such an early stage of their career. 

As one of the best results from Ken Kesey’s early 60’s free-form no-holds-barred acid tests, the band’s creative foundation was built on absurdity. Only very few ideas were turned away for being too far-out. As time marched on, this worked for and against them. The list of good ideas gone weird, gone wrong, gone well, is long and makes for one of the most fascinating careers in popular music.

Luckily, there were more positive effects than negative from these far-out ideas and creative leaps of faith:

  1. Adding a second drummer to the line-up and, therefore, forcing their already complex time structures into previously unknown dimensions? Check!

  2. Deciding to make friend and Bay Area LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley their sound guy? Check!

  3. Countering their growing popularity by creating an in-house mail-order ticketing service? Check!

  4. Deciding to take their act to Egypt and playing in front of the pyramids amidst a total lunar eclipse only to have their first of three performances almost hijacked due to a sky full of bats? Checkity-check-check!

  5. Landing a top ten single twenty years into their career? Okay, that one wasn’t necessarily up to them, but it was absurd nonetheless.  

Perhaps the highpoint of their Absurdist existence, however, came in 1974, just shy of their tenth anniversary. They had already lost founding keyboard/harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan to liver disease the previous year and had absorbed the husband and wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux (piano and vocals, respectively). Also by this point the band found themselves running out of gas after years of constant road work, money/management problems and, of course, rampant drug use. These troubles ran deep-enough to inspire the band to retire from the road indefinitely at the end of the year -- a retirement that lasted maybe twelve months. In typical Absurdist fashion, however, they were also making incredibly complex and fresh music (while stumbling through some amazingly lackluster shows) and blazing trails by creating their own over-the-top sound system, the much ballyhooed “Wall Of Sound,” which looked something like this:

What you’re looking at is roughly 60 speakers, 50 amps, and about 27,000 watts of power. Remember earlier when I mentioned they made friend and local LSD chemist their sound guy? Yeah, well, the Wall Of Sound was his idea. Turns out, he knew a thing or two about electronics, as well.

When the band unveiled the Wall Of Sound for its first appearance in a live performance, every tweeter (the part of the speaker which produces higher-end frequencies) blew during the first song. It took another year of tinkering before they were able to take it on the road with them. (Actually, they had three Wall(s) of Sound(s): one  being used for the current show, one being torn down from the previous show, and one being set up for the next show: a practice now standardized in the giant world of music tours.)

The Wall Of Sound was a first on many levels (mostly technical), and while it provided the band with perfect stage sound and provided the audience with amazingly clear live sound, it also required an extra twenty crew members and four semi-truck trailers. It also inevitably sent the band’s finances into a wall of its own. Anyway, it was during this time touring around the country with all this stuff that the band decided to add another dash of the ridiculous into the mix. (Deciding to add another dash of ridiculousness into the mix? Check!)

Ned Lagin was studying molecular biology and humanities at MIT in the late 60’s as well as playing piano for the school’s jazz bands. After seeing the Grateful Dead in Boston in 1969, he helped organize a few shows on the east coast for the band. In return, Garcia invited him out to San Francisco where they were recording what would be their American Beauty LP. (Invite someone who you’ve never met into the studio with you? Check!) Once there, he contributed to the album and began strong friendships with Garcia and bassist/resident envelope-pusher, Phil Lesh. His involvement naturally extended to live performances and -- presto! -- Lagin became a quazi-member of the group. He played Hammond B3 organ, electric piano, and clavichord with the band on stage and in the studio for the next handful of years.

By 1974, they had set aside the middle of each show for Lagin to play electronic music with Lesh in the middle of each show with the former plodding around on an analog synthesizer and the latter indulging in coordinated feedback. The first few attempts at this collaboration resulted in awkward but fascinating chunks of experimental music punctuated by screeches of high-end feedback and bowel loosening tremors, all delivered to the audience, mind you, by the afore mentioned 27,000 watts of power. By the end of the band’s final shows that year in October at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena, much of the band would join them for what had evolved into amazing voyages of haunted, improvised electronic soundscape with Lagin using the Wall Of Sound as his larger instrument.

These Lagin/Lesh mini-sets were given the title “Seastones” and, while this may’ve been a rousing boost of creativity for a band feeling stifled and burning out in their current situation, one must consider the reactions of the audience who weren’t necessarily expecting this particular veering into deeper space. Okay, sure, it’d be a good bet 95% of the people attending these shows were well aware of the band’s talent for improvised music, but very few of those could tolerate such extended voyages (some up to thirty minutes) without an actual melody -- especially while under the influence of high-powered hallucinogens. General reactions varied from amusement and acceptance to impatience and rejection. During a short tour of Europe that autumn (deciding to taking along a 75 ton sound system overseas? Ch-ch-ch-check!), they had by then extended “Seastones” into a group composition. A rowdy London audience primed to hear the songs from a band who rarely played their shores were made to sit through a half hour of no-boundary experimentation. How wonderfully absurd!  

Is this a case of the group taking out their frustrations on the audience? Maybe. And, even if so, they wouldn’t be the first nor last to pull such a stunt. Were they just doing as they pleased no matter the consequences? Definitely. Which is precisely what makes their career so much more unique. A resistance to adapt or conform is not even close to being on the to-do list for group of people whose collective and creative mind was formed during the Acid Tests nine years previous.

Whether you like their music or not, one has to tip their hat to this band for their delightfully stubborn ways. Essentially, if it wasn’t weird enough, then it wasn’t fun enough … and if it wasn’t fun, then it simply wasn’t worth it. 

MUSIC, NONFICTION

Lewis - L'Amour

"I luh to theen. I'll suhkareeh. I'll gihluhfatreehnnnh," starts the recently-discovered 80's album "L'Amour" created by rich guy Randall Wylff, aka Lewis. Lots of people have written about how album digger Jon Murphy bought the album for one buck at a flea market before Light in the Attic reissued it in 2014. The album of the sensitive wealthy ghost driving a white fog porsche.

Listening to the album is  a blurry experience. Warbling, unintelligible lyrics sung too close to the wet microphone, plucking acoustic over wandering synthesizer. It's amateur and arresting and makes me lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling in a warm fuzz coma. He plays wrong notes on an acoustic guitar over soft piano. Wrong notes that accidentally work. Whole songs in minor key ending (mistakenly?) on a major chords. Nice-sounding, wistful, odd mistakes.

The album is the product of the whim of a sensitive rich dude who puts his soul out, but doesn’t want to talk about it. A vanity album / bedroom recording in the 80s, which wasn't a thing because pressing an album in the 80s required access to extra tens of thousands of dollars.  

Is he singing in French? Is it 50 degrees out, but he stays inside for reluctance to put on pants or a shirt?

Why is he singing with so much falsetto and vibrato? Why did he name his album Lewis L’Amour like the Western writer? Why was he still wearing all white when folks from the Light in the Attic found him in 2014? 

When they found Lewis in Canada in 2014, he wondered why they were looking for him, but he didn’t want his name published. He was happy that they saw his check for royalties, but didn’t want the money.

What does it mean to be an ultra rich 80's man who makes hidden, touchy, bedroom music?

What does it mean to be discovered 30 years too late when you don't want to be discovered?

"Wuhhaidoo, cahhn I do? Can't changhe myeye-oohhh. Whuh cahn I doooh?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUSIC

Courtney Barnett - Pedestrian at Best

Who doesn't love Courtney Barnett? After pumping her new album, I find myself yelling:

"Give me all your money and I'll make some origami, honey!"

Wouldn't that be the best thing to do with a bunch of someone's money? Sit around and make origami? I'm salivating just thinking about it. Buncha frogs, cranes, ninja stars. 

MUSIC, ARTICLE

I Have To Break Your Heart With This Song

The_Shangri-Las_1964 (1).jpg

In an era of gleaming Top 40 pedestrianism; among bland chart- topping ne’re-do-wells with forced smiles and fancy dresses; amidst clammy-handed, cigar-chomping behind-the-scenes record executives, shifty-eyed promo men and loud, obnoxious radio DJs with ridiculous voices and “you’re the next big things, baby!” come-ons; in spite of double-talking, chart-topping one hit wonder boys with grabby hands on dark late night tour busses filled with guitars and drums…among, amidst and in spite of stood The Shangri-Las: brilliant, different and dark.

 Yet they only have two recognizable hits to their name. Sure, that’s more than what a lot of groups are able to achieve, but considering the talent of both the vocalists and the team behind them, one would think their career should’ve been more storied. What their career lacked in longevity, it made up for with influence, leaving in their wake a dozen singles, a couple LP’s and a rock solid legacy which can be found in both obvious as well as more surprising sub-genres: Punk. Contemporary Vocal. Noise Rock. Pop. Bruce Springsteen. Nation Of Ulysses. Amy Winehouse. The Slits. Kathleen Hanna. The New York Dolls. Kim Gordon.The Ramones. Laura Nyro. Aerosmith.

The Shangri-Las sound and look has since become a personification of “the girl group image”.  Yet, at the same time, they defied that very cliché by releasing a string of melancholy singles which clashed with the genre’s more innocuous themes, challenged conventional gender roles of the day, redefined femininity and, last but not least, changed the notion of a pop song’s overall theme. So it only makes sense their greatest work, the one song which can encapsulate their career and worldview, was almost forgotten, buried on the flip side of an arbitrary single released during their most hectic year.

 Ah yes, the 45 rpm single: so much can be accomplished in three minutes. As with the punk movement a decade later, the groups of this genre were (and still are) best appreciated two songs at a time; full albums tended to be redundant, if not unnecessary.Sometimes all it takes is one small record to change a life; what may be one person’s trash is another’s favorite song.

The last vestiges of old world showbiz clung in the air during this time of popular culture. Performers were encouraged to play, look and act nice with the audience and the press; don’t rock to boat and all will go accordingly. The Girl Group Era (most commonly pinpointed between 1960 and 1966, though by no means the only time female led musical combos were popular) has been perceived as maybe the last innocent period in the history of Rock ‘N Roll, just before things became weird and serious and all big business-like, just before Rock ‘n Roll died and was reborn as the more vague Rock Music. So, those show biz sensibilities could still be seen in the charts as the Girl Group era took off. The subject matter tended to concentrate on optimistic themes and almost entirely on matters of the heart aimed straight at the ever growing teenage record buyer: The Supremes “Baby Love”; The Ad Libs “The Boy From New York City”; The Chiffons’ “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”’ and The Crystals “There’s No Other Baby Like My Baby”. Boy-Meets-Girl scenarios were running amok all over the charts and one couldn’t turn on a radio without being hit with“he’s the best boy in the world” idealisms or a “he did me wrong” sob-fest or the ever popular “I want him back” reconsiderations.

Much of this material was written by outside composers and matched with vocal groups based on sound more than personality; occasionally a song will be recorded by two different groups within a year giving it two different perspectives, sometimes the perspective didn't change at all. Though the female vocalist was often the protagonist of the songs, it didn’t necessarily equate a position of power. Instead,a good amount of the material has the singer as a mere by-stander in her own situation; oftentimes submissive but mostly eager-to-please. Look nice, act nice and all shall go accordingly. The proverbial boat shall not be rocked.

Of course, there were always exceptions to the rule; writers, singers and producers who couldn't help but do things their own individualistic way have always been around. Most notably, to this reporter at least, were The Tammys who combined their razor-sharp, daredevil harmonies with fantastical arrangements from the minds of Lou Christie and Twyla Herbert. Their third single was the culmination, the beautifully uncompromising masterpiece, “Egyptian Shumba”.

On the  other end of the spectrum were The Jaynettes who had created a haunting, lost-in-the-woods atmosphere for their single “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses” which found its way into the charts, resting at the number two slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart despite its baffling lyrics. (“…hope this place can’t hurt you / roses they can’t hurt you / Sally don’t you go, don’t you go downtown / Saddest thing in the whole wide world / Is see your baby with another girl…”)

Bessie Bank’s gorgeous 1964 hit ballad, “Go Now”, may’ve been similarly arranged as others of the time, but the narrator is a strong-willed female taking charge of an obvious irreversibly downed relationship; her voice may be covered in sorrow but she knows what she wants. ("I don't want you to tell me just what you intend to do now / Cause how many times do I have to tell you darlin' / I'm still in love with you now...") And gets it.

Then, of course,  there were The Ronettes, the ultimate Not-Sure-If-You-Can-Bring-Them-Home-To-Mother Girl Group. With their husky, come-hither voices, stunning African-American Indian-Irish genetic content, purposely half-lidded Cleopatric eyes, topped with perfect hair and wrapped with perfect clothes, they certainly appeared as though they were lot of fun. Something in the way they smiled into the audience, into cameras, though, something about their long run of wonderful singles, gave the impression the Ronettes’ idea of “fun” might be slightly dangerous or at least cause you some sort of mid-level distress.

The three Ronettes possessed a look and sound so unpretentious and all-encompassing it could (and continues to) absolutely shatter the false structural integrity of even the most hardened teenage ruffian. His macho standoffishness but a weak shell against their raspy vocal landslide and producer Phil Spector’s larger-than-life production techniques. The teenage hoodlum begins to question his past and future views on a woman’s place in the world, his idea femininity forever changed. The Ronettes music is so powerful and awe inspiring it brings him to honest tears as he cruises his sparkling new 1965 Ford Thunderbird down the strip, radio blasting “Do I Love You?”; tears flow from his eyes onto his lap onto the floor mats, the tears filling up, up, up and over the car’s windows, the salt audibly corroding the Thunderbird’s frame and drip-drop-dripping onto the roadbed leaving a trail behind him which evaporates into the air. Just like the music invisibly coiling from his radio. “Do I Love You?"

Even as main vocalist Veronica Bennett was slowly, painfully, turning into "Ronnie Spector,"getting pulled into a paranoid web of the most ridiculously misguided, double-standardized self-obsesesd male in their orbit, she was able to throw that smile into an audience and camera knowing full well it's curtains for any teenage boy bearing witness, knowing full well she inadvertently relegated herself to a gross ten year imprisonment in her soon-to-be-husband's LA mansion.  "Do I love you?" 

Here we go. November 29, 1965, the Moulin Rouge Club not too far from Spector’s mansion/jail. "The Big TnT Show". Stage bright with light, every seat filled with a screaming teenager. This could be the night. A dozen performers. Places everyone, places. Smack dab in the middle of the set, the announcer clutches the microphone, plugging one ear with a shaky index finger: “Give a great welcome to…The Ronettes!” Teenage exaltation and screams turn the air into a solid mass of joy, the three girls on stage soak it all in and smile. Only two songs for the cameras. Ready? Go.  Music starts, giant Hal Blaine drum intro --dum. dum-dum, BAP! dum dum-dum, BAP!-  and…Jesus, just look into their eyes as they shine through another performance of the wonderfully assertive “Be My Baby”. The screams are of an unknown level, new territory. How unusual for teenage girls to be losing all self-control over female performers. That’s power. They can hardly stay in their seats, their views on a woman’s place in the world, of femininity forever changed as the powerful music and the sight of those three up there in sleek modern pantsuits take control of their world. “Be My Baby”. Just look at those three up there casually singing brilliance, its so natural looking, are they kidding? The night we met I knew I needed you so…look at their eyes, their smiles, lightning arcs right off their every move - zzzzzzZAP! Right between the eyes. Teenage boys vaporized. Girls gone wild…and if I had the chance I’d never let you go…The three do a quick dance during the instrumental break, ka-ZAM! The very air between performer and audience congeals into a mutual agreement. This could be the night. Song ends. Deafening screams. An airplane taking off. The only ones in the vicinity under any kind of control are the Ronettes themselves. They just smile, they just know. Next song, the already standardized “Shout!”, always a crowd pleaser, works every time for even the lamest of groups. You know you make me wanna…more electricity, more arcs. The go-go dancers in the background normally there as decoration for the bands are useless now and so are erased. If this wasn't being captured on film for history, no one would remember them back there trying to keep up…-Shout!- The air breaks on the first downbeat – sscchLAM. Three Ronettes clapping in 4/4 time…say you will…hip shaking, wrist twirling full-on sensory attack. There are no survivors -Shout!-This could be the night. Say you will! The three synchronize their way off stage with smile as big as the screams are loud, -Shout!- Ronnie giving a delicate wave of the right hand, goodbye. That’s it, song’s over. Anything more might be slightly dangerous or at least cause some sort of mid-level distress. Teenage screams forever it seems and the three know they’ve just upped the jig with a mere two song, seven minute set preserved for all time on film and eventually slid into the Library Of Congress shelves. Male-dominated entertainment industry has been emasculated, burning embers under their feet if only for that sliver of time. Shout! Screams everywhere. There were no survivors. All barriers smashed, say you will…no matter the color, Shout!, no matter the creed, because rock ‘n roll is fun and racial inequality is a drag. Say you will...everyone shrieks -Shout!- with delight at the power of The Ronettes. Do I love you? Be My Baby.

But I digress.

Anyway…where was I?  Ah yes: while a more watered down group such as The Supremes were all forced smiles, glittering gowns and far too eager to win your acceptance, The Shangri-Las were downright glum by comparison. Our girls just stood at the lip of the stage and looked fairly serious; when they smiled it was one of confidence, defiance and being comfortable under the bright lights and nerve racking pressures. An invisible but palatable bond connected them giving off the impression they were just as much a gang as they were a vocal group.

 Being made up of two sets of sisters, Mary and Betty Weiss and Marge and Mary-Ann Ganser, they kind of were a gang. Having a grown-up in the rougher parts of Queens, New York (and, in the case of the Weiss sisters, a troubled upbringing with their father dying when they were young and a subsequent strained relationship with their mother), they came by this image honestly giving their music and persona a distinctive air but also served as protection. Any unwanted advances from wide-eyed male musicians or other industry types licking their chops at the sight of young, successful female flesh were met with a cool wave of indifference. It was well-known from early on: don’t mess with The Shangri-Las.

 Of course, there’s some differing of opinions on the true nature of these four, however. Motor-mouthed 1960’s radio DJ MurryThe K and singer Evie Sands have both weighed in about the girls rebelliousness but with differing opinions. The former was known for being a bit of a windbag and prone to unnecessary hyperbole; so, his version is typically apocryphal as he claimed the girls were arrested multiple times for various pranks and even has them kidnapping a male fan who eventually tries to escape from their hotel room by hanging a bed sheet out the window. “Those girls were crazy,” K would later gush, “I LOVED them!"

Sands, meanwhile, was just starting her career but not as easily charmed. Claiming to’ve been snubbed by the girls while sharing a car en route to a performance, her adverse reaction to their gang mentality was inevitable. “I was excited to meet them,” writer Mick Patrick quotes her as saying, “but they were the rudest girls I had ever met. Really crude and crass. I came from a very strict home, very respectable; [and had] never heard such language in my life, I didn't even know some of those curse words existed. They were absolutely disgusting.” 

On the other end of the spectrum were those who claimed the girls were anything but rabble-rousers. Writer John Grecco, dismisses the Shangri-Las bad girl legend and claims (completely unsubstantiated) they spent more time together in their hotel rooms while on tour as the other bands ran wild, chalking it all up to just harmless fun: “Over the years the girls jokes have taken on a life of their own with people wanting to make more out of them, blowing them out of proportion with interpretations leading to the sinister," Grecco insists in the liner notes to the best collection of the groups music Myrmidons of Melodrama, "but they were simply teenage pranks pulled by fun-loving teenage girls."

A more probable assertation can be found in the words of someone who was closer to them than any of the above. Songwriter Ellie Greenwich, composer of the group’s most effective lyrics, thought the girls were a little of both in an interview with writer Charlotte Grieg:

“Overall, the girl groups had very sweet images, except for the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, who had a tougher, harder attitude. By today's standards, they were as innocent as the day is long. Back then, they seemed to have a street toughness, but with a lot of vulnerability. Mary Weiss [had] the sweetest long straight hair, an angelic face, and then this nasal voice comes out, and this little attitude - the best of both worlds. Were they tougher than [say] the Dixie Cups? They were a little harder. They also knew they had a look, and they played into it. You'd say, "This is what you're gonna do," The most they'd ever say was, "Well, we're not gonna do it." Ten minutes later, they were doing it. That's as bad as they got, if you wanna consider that bad.”

We'll leave the final word of this aspect to Mary Weiss herself, speaking with Telegraph writer Iaian Aitch in 2007, she unapologetically shrugged it all off:  

“Our road manager was just a few years older than us, so there was no one to protect us. One time I was in my hotel room and there was a glass panel in the door and I saw a hand coming through it. We were in a state where it was legal to buy a gun, so I walked into a store, showed my ID and bought a Derringer. I was sixteen years old."

See how easy it is to get sidetracked by their mystique? Let’s get back on track. Their first singles, “Wishing Well”, “Simon Says” were good but overall benign; their voices were already in place but they hadn’t distanced themselves from the rest of their peers. That all changed after scoring two successive hits with “Remember (Walking In The Rain)” and “Leader Of The Pack”; it was with these two singles which established what would become their trademark style and subsequent legacy: melodramatic singles packed with soap opera story lines, heavy use of studio techniques and a dash of sound effects all packed into three minutes. The most standout element were the spoken interludes somewhere in the song, a fantastic way to draw the listen further into the narrative. Though first popularized and brought into the charts thirty years earlier by The Ink Spots, and used by some of their peers, it was a technique which would become The Shangri-Las calling card, one which would be copied and parodied in the following decades.

Whether by design or default,  "Remember" and "Leader of the Pack" fit the girl's natural tough exterior perfectly; their label, Red Bird Records, knew they had something special and quickly revamped their image to fit accordingly. As luck would have it, the BBC helped matters considerably by pulling the latter from airplay due to its violent content (Melody Maker January 16th, 1965, p. 20: “The Shangri-Las new single has been banned but shouldn’t fans have the right in what they can and cannot listen to on radio and television?”). The clean appearance initially adopted during the time of their earliest singles was ditched for something more alluring; the typical light colored skirts, heels and sensible shirt (the go-to attire for female performers at that time) was replaced by succession of sleek, eye-catching outfits, each one better than the previous: cat-suits of white boots, tight black curve-fitting leather pants topped with a white ruffled shirt under a leather vest. Sleeveless up-to-the-neck sweaters and matching tight polyester chinos. Dark pants, button-down oxfords with a necktie. Genders bended. Completely singular. 

This is not to suggest all of their material was based on rebellion or fused within complex parameter, (" The boy", "Simon Says", "what is Love" for example, are all void of drama) but it would turn out those which were ended up being their best and most memorable work. “I Can Never Go Home Again” is mostly spoken instead of sung and revolves around the story told by a girl who runs away from home to be with her boyfriend, only to discover her mother has died while she’s gone.

“She grew so lonely at the end / The angels picked her as a friend / And I can never go home again." The funeral march of “Dressed In Black,” “He walks along, a shadow in the night / each time he walks past my window / can’t hold the tears from my eyes / we’re still so much in love, why can’t they realize?” makes no bones about its intended mood. The superb “Out On The Streets” is a fantastically complex and haunting narrative about a girl who knows she has to break up with a boy as their relationship has taken the rebel out of him. He used to act bad, used to, but he quit it / It makes me so sad ‘cause I know he did it for me.” 

Heck, even the upbeat “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” isn’t spared from trouble  during the spoken exchange between the girls:

“What color are his eyes?”

“I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”

“Is he tall?”

“Well, I gotta look up.”

“Yeah? Well I hear he’s bad.”

“Umm, he’s good bad, but he’s not evil.” 

That last word comes and goes quickly, a mere fact more than a point of concern as the song continues on its bouncy way. A term such as “evil”, however, wasn't thrown around in pop songs too much back then, if at all, so with it comes questions. Since the term was used, we must presume the girl has had some experience with evil, or at least enough to compare and contrast it against typical strains of juvenile delinquency. What horrors has she seen? How many teenagers knew (or know) what constitutes a felony? Just that one four-letter word, used so casually, gives an insight to some dark, complex themes under the surface of these songs.

Interestingly, and much like the usage of sound effects, this doom and gloom recipe did have a tendency to backfire. The most obvious example being “Past, Present And Future”, anentirely spoken piece done with an emotionless tone while, underneath, is just a mournful piano and strings (based on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, no less). The simple narrative has a girl talking to a boy who is interested in her availability:

"Was I ever in love? I called it love, I mean, it felt like love. Will I go out with you? Why not? Do I like to dance? Of course. Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to, but don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me ‘cause that will never happen again. Shall we dance?"

At which point the strings and piano tornado up, pushing the song into ridiculousness. Words this powerfully stark can be interpreted differently and many have speculated its sub-text to be pertaining to the protagonist having been raped; others think it’s more about the rather common defense mechanism (especially in teenagers) which kicks in after getting spurned. A similar controversy arose in 1962 after The Crystals released “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss”; repelled program directors kept it off the airwaves as public debate swirled over its subject matter. The song’s writer, Carol King, later regretted having anything to do with it but never denied either it being about domestic violence or her own experience with such horrors (The song as a whole was inspired when King discovered Little Eva (singer of the hit "Locomotion") was in a physically abusive relationship). All of which is too bad since “He Hit Me…” is an amazing piece of work, its minimal arrangement (a Phil Spector production, ironically) makes it far more successful than the overdone “Past, Present And Future”. Morton’s hamfisted production all but compromises the girl’s vocal take here, thus voiding the lyrical power.

The amalgamation of these sights and sounds reached its zenith in the early months of 1965 for their appearance on ABC TV’s hit teen show, Shindig! while promoting the beautiful “Out In The Streets” (“Shindig’s pick of the week!”). They stand on three individual pedestals in an otherwise empty stage wearing close-fitting all black leather suits and boots, anything white in previous wardrobes is gone (as is Betty Weiss who had taken a leave of absence). The song begins, a haunting angelic chorus, the stage goes black, the only source of light being three spots shining down from above each girl dramatically highlighting their profound look. The Ganser’s bowled, black hair curling under their remarkably pronounced underbites; when one of ABC’s TK-41C cameras slowly meanders to stage right and zooms in on the twins’ profile, their seriousness envelops the entire screen. The bridge of their nose slopes perfectly south towards a mouth subtly miming the lyrics, eyes swallowed up by dark pools, heads slightly tilted back in defiance. More shadows than light.

 In direct contrast, Mary Weiss’ long blond hair is the brightest image in the TK-40’s Ektar 135 mm lens, her soft facial structure looks to be made of a haloed, luminous fog, it drifts into the camera’s lens, into focusing coils, deflection coils, into transmitters, oscilloscoping into electro-beams and then breathing –ssssSSSSHHHAAAAaaaaaa-- into cathode-ray tubes across the country, lifting off, drifting off nationwide television screens into homes, into the eyes and ears of good ‘ol American teenage Shindig! viewers. They hear the haunting ballad, see the three girls stand almost motionless on their pedestals, moving only their arms in slow, graceful movements. To the teenage viewer staring with awe into their flickering black and white television screen, those languid actions take on a fluttering magical strobe effect, blurring lines of objectivity; the Information-Action Ratio no longer traceable in living rooms across good ‘ol America. A sound mistaken for the delicate breaking of thin crystal threads -tink!- is actually the sound of hearts breaking in good ‘ol American teenage Shindig! viewer’s chests. (So won’t you hurry, come on, come see about them.)

These visuals combined with the chilling  elegance of “Out In The Streets”, makes for the perfect sensory elixir, coming at your in an entirely different way than, say, The Ronettes; where they tended to meet you head-on, The Shangri-Las crept up from behind. That this was all done for such a fleeting two and a half minute appearance lends itself to the importance the visual image was to their music and, ultimately, their success and legacy.

By this time the Shangri-Las had already been kicked into the fast lane which garnered them steady work; they filled 1965 with a handful of singles and a hectic public appearance schedule including tours, radio/TV appearances and commercial endorsements (“Won-der, won-der, get Revlon’s natural wonder! How pretty can you get?”). Their third release of that year, “Right Now And Not Later”, was a fantastic Motown-flavored mid-tempo number; Weiss’s voice was upfront and distinctive and the four blend perfectly and the melody was ridiculously catchy but, ultimately, it was neither here nor there. What was missing was their true essence. 

That essence wasn't really missing, it was just on the other side. “The Train From Kansas City”, the actual reason for this here dissertation, was a 180 degree turnabout and encapsulated everything so distinctive about The Shangri-Las: incredible harmonies and musical arrangement, depressive lyrics and sound effects making it one of most brilliantly sung and arranged records of the genre, right up there with “Egyptian Shumba” and “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses":

Baby, baby, please believe me

I would never, never 

Do anything to hurt you

Baby, baby please believe me

I would never, never

Do anything to you to make you blue 

 

But yesterday I got this letter

From a boy I loved

Before I ever knew you

Before I even knew you

 

And the train from Kansas City is comin into town

The train from Kansas City is a-comin

Nothing I can do can make it turn around

Baby, baby please don't worry

 

Nothing in this world could tear us apart

We'll never, never part

So wait right here and I will hurry 

I'll be back in time it takes to break a heart

I gotta break his heart

 

Yes the train from Kansas City is a comin'

The train from Kansas City is a-comin'

Nothing I can do can make it turn around

 

Well I never answered his letter

I just couldn't tell him that way 

No I never answered his letter

Cause I didn't know what to say

 

Now I'm going down to the station

He'll be there at ten after two

I'll show him the ring on my finger

I don't know what else I can do

 

Oh, the train from Kansas City is coming into town 

The train from Kansas City is a-comin'

Nothing I can do can make it turn around

 

Here comes the train

Here comes the train

Here comes the train

 

(Greenwich/Barry/Tender Tunes/Trio Music, 1965)

As with many of their greatest songs, the lyrics and arrangement were from the minds of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, one of the most talented songwriting teams out of the already successful Brill Building. These two had already crafted some of the best songs of the early and mid-60’s: “Be My Baby”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “The Kind Of Boy You Can’t Forget” as well as a handful of past and future Shangri-La sides (“Out In The Streets”, “Heaven Only Knows” and “What’s  A Girl Supposed To Do”). Depending who you believe they may or may not’ve helped write “Leader Of The Pack”, though, according to the song’s producer/writer, Shadow Morton, he gave them credit merely for “business purposes”, a claim Greenwich would later refute. Either way, if you were to take a look at the Billboard Hot 100 list covering the year 1964, the duo were responsible for seventeen; Greenwich, in particular, had a brilliance for writing strong, concise lyrics which carried more dramatic pull than any other song floating around the airwaves at the time. It should be pointed out the duo also contributed their fair amount to the ever growing mountain of saccharine pop singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron”) as well as nauseating girl-loves-boy anthems (“The Chapel Of Love) illustrating, if nothing else, the Greenwich/Barry team were just as capable of pandering to the more boring aspects of pop music. That they could write in both directions gave credence to their talent as well as a certain disinterest in playing by industry standards.

With Shadow Morton behind the board, this resulting team was far above the normal. To drive home the point of the lyrical narrative, they mixed in sound effects; not all the time, mind you, just when it really mattered. The most famous being the sound of a motorcycle in “Leader Of The Pack”, but there’s also seagulls in “Remember”, a crack of thunder in “Give Us Your Blessing” and ghostly train sounds which appear in “The Train From Kansas City”. Interestingly, these sound effects worked both ways for the group. As the years have ticked by, “Leader Of  The Pack” is now mostly known for the motorcycle sound and not the depth of the story or strength of the vocal arrangement. As such, it’s become a caricature, a cartoon version of this particular era, a case of kitsch eclipsing content. 

As it begins, “The Train From Kansas City” finds the protagonist (a female in the original with subsequent cover versions flipping gender roles) in mid-conversation as she in informs her fiancé about an old boyfriend coming into town looking for her; she hasn't had the heart to end their relationship in letters and, now that he’s soon arriving, knows she has to do it in person. “I’ll be back in time it takes to break a heart,” assures Weiss later in the song and then delivers one of the song’s more crushing lines: “I have to break his heart.” Crushing not because she wants to break his heart, but has to; it’s a part of the human condition this song so greatly mirrors. 

The crux of the matter here is this impending heartbreak, but just exactly whose is left uncertain as it doesn't happen by song’s end, there's no real conclusion and a sense of urgent dread hangs over the entire piece; from the opening piano charge to the closing harmonies, in Weiss’ voice and in the mournful train whistle. The enormity of the event isn't lost on her, there’s ache and sympathy in Weiss’ delivery; the news she has to deliver just might squelch anything else in her old boyfriend’s life; he’s doomed and she knows it. As does her fiancé. And now, so do we. Heartbreak is inevitable for all of us at some point and here it’s symbolized in the form of a train the story's antagonist (and yet another addition to the long list of songs using trains as a metaphor or subject in popular American music, not least of all Andrew & Jim Baxter's mournful "Kansas City Railroad Blues" originally recorded in 1927). As Greenwich so skillfully has her admit: “Nothing I can do can make it turn around.”

For anyone having been in a situation of rejection (and, I would suppose, that’s most, if not all of us), this song shoots right to the core of that particular fear; no one wants to be replaced, especially by someone for which they still hold feelings. In that light, “The Train From Kansas City” is a unintentionally vicious and brilliantly written break-up song in an era already steeped in such matters. How Greenwich, Barry, Morton and these four girls were able to crystallize this completely unique perspective on the pitfalls of relationships in three and a half minutes is simply astounding.

With all the layers in this song (the story, the voices, the instrumentation, the use of the studio) it requires multiple listenings. Weiss’ strong alto and the story she’s relating is difficult to hear past, but once you can latch onto Betty Weiss and the Ganser sister’s absolutely perfect backing harmonies, a whole new dimension opens up, they are the song’s (and quite possibly the group’s) secret weapon. Listen how they hang on to and stretch out the word “and” in the line: “so wait right here and I will hurry…”; their voices work counter against Mary Weiss’s troubled and determined tone. As the final section begins with “I never answered his letter”, Betty and the Ganser’s voices seal together attaining gospel proportions.

As with a lot of great songs from this time, certain aspects of instrumentation are added at just the right points to audibly expand its world. This is made clear as the very opening: a rolling piano and the sound of a train whistle begin simultaneously; Betty and the Gansers start the narrative with the first line off in the distance, a train whistle distance. Mary enters right on their heels for the second line strengthening the sound and bringing it all into focus. The instrumentation counterpoint (which has only been the piano, tambourine and percussion thus far) kicks into gear with guitar, bass and drums; this balancing act is accomplished in thirty seconds giving us little time to soak in the true essence of what exactly is going on here.

Other small ingredients can be picked out as well: the double-time tambourine during just the final measures of each chorus; the tack piano swelling under the entire performance. The most powerful trick, the one which breaks it all open, happens just as the final verse reaches its emotional peak. Everything drops out except for their voices (Betty and The Gansers’ voices…I mean, crimony, these are teenagers singing this?) and that constant tambourine’s whole notes...

“Well I never answered his letter…”

 Then, as all good arrangers know, tension builds with added instrumentation and the Barry/Morton team’s expertise coalesce with added guitar and handclaps…

“Now I’m going down to the station…”

If you’re listening close (I know, not everyone is and that’s okay, but you and me, we’re listening close and hanging on every syllable) you’ll notice it all comes to this: the reverb drenched snare drum. Entering begins; it kicks you in the guts, it’ll drive you nuts, its pulse heightening the agony of the line:

“I’m going to show him the ring on my finger…”

All of these elements are small but crucial in defining this as a major work and much of it due to the talents of Jeff Barry and Shadow Morton.

 That such a magnificent look into sorrow was relegated to the B-side of a single gives one pause. The reasoning for this seemingly giant oversight may to do with their label wanting to back off the dark stuff a bit; their two preceding releases of that year (both Barry/Greenwich compositions), the aforementioned “Out On The Street” and the ethereal “Give Us Your Blessing” (a young couple plead with their parents to accept their relationship and, when they don’t, the couple die a car accident while eloping) were indeed grim. So, the general consensus from the label must’ve revolved around not wanting to over-saturate the market with all things macabre as well as not wanting to pigeonhole the girls so quickly. 

Regardless, “The Train From Kansas City” has since been re-discovered and covered several times in the ensuing years and, with each one, furthering its stature. Two of the best latch onto different aspects. The now legendary inde rock band Superchunk from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, recorded one and fittingly tagged it onto the B-side of their debut single. Being a rock band, they naturally transfer the original version’s piano riff onto guitar and bass, zero in on the song’s unrecognized anger and frustration then play it into the ground. The result is wonderfully ramshackeled and a far more cathartic take; how they ended up with a less vague conclusion is refreshing as it is confounding.

For her 2004 live EP release, The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko Case was able to wring-out something amazingly close to the original. Possessing a wonderfully unique voice, (an alto which matches Weiss' perfectly) and accompanied by the Canadian band, The Sadies, Case is able to concentrate on the song’s vocal beauty and its accumulative pain. Kelly Hogan’s pristine harmonies add that last, helpful final touch, almost equaling the eloquent ache of Betty Weiss and the Ganser sisters some forty years previous. Where Superchunk tightly wound themselves around the song and try to strangle it, Case and The Sadies bore their way straight into its very fibers. And not a dry eye in the house.

The final line, “Here comes the train”, repeats three times building up the necessary tension and mystery, but no matter who is singing, those four words act as a perfect cliff-hanger leading us eavesdroppers to wonder what happens as the music and the girl’s last notes fades out and the sound of the train clamors in. But maybe we already know what happens. The kind of heartbreak detailed here is distinctive enough to be easily recognized by anyone who has experienced it, even when it’s not our own anguish. We’ve all been on the train, we’ve been at the station, we’ve all waited for someone to return. And therein lies the song’s power: it magnifies the most harrowing ingredients of emotional vulnerability and, smothering it in harmonies, reverb and mournful sound effects, allows us to empathize with not just the character’s situation, but our own as well.

Despite its surface appearance of renewal and an impending fresh start, “The Train From Kansas City” seems to be more about goodbyes, that horrible, sometimes life-altering kind which we all must face at one point or another. As listeners, we’re not so much concerned with the girl’s fiancé or their new life together; no, it’s the conclusion of her old romance which draws us into that world. Greenwich’s ability to pinpoint the tension of this singular narrative couldn’t have been pulled off by The Supremes or The Angels, not a goddamned chance. More than anyone else during the renowned Girl Group Era, the four tough, beautiful and exceedingly talented girls from the darker parts of Cambria Heights, Queens, were able to give this three minute drama a timeless essence. 

For the broken-hearted, for those left waiting, for those who’ve been replaced, for anyone scarred from a goodbye and left with that great aching void swirling inside their chests: fear not, The Shangri-Las understand, they have your back. “The Train From Kansas City” is proof positive, adding beauty to the sadness of life, sadness to the beauty of life.

 


ARTICLE, MUSIC

Some audible advice.

There's very little I despise more than the commercial FM radio scene. It’s gag-inducing, anger sparking. It’s all blah, blah, blah, repeat, repeat, repeat. You know the score. You also know one needs to really dig (or get really lucky) to find the sweet spot your music-loving heart desires. Every major city, heck, any mid-sized city has some pocket on the AM or FM dials which holds a fantastic radio station. Thanks to the Internet, those pockets have been easier to search as Internet Radio has kicked open the doors of availability. What was once an entertainment and educational source confined to your surrounding area is now only confined to how much time and interests you have to spare. While I could list off the number of hero stations out there which requires investigation (and there are plenty), I’m just going to highlight the best. 

It should come as no surprise it’s WFMU out of Jersey City. They have a lauded history which has been blabbed about in such fancy-pants rags such as The New York TimesThe New Yorker, (NYT’s persistent runt of a little brother) Rolling StoneThe Village Voice blah, blah, blah. There’s even a bunch of whoop-dee-do famous people who’ve gone on record and named the station as a fave. Yeah, WFMU is that good: even the Hollywood types enjoy it! So, what's all the fuss? Before they hit the web, WFMU was already amazing with their fierce independence and brilliant DJ’s; this has been going on since 1958, mind you. Not a bad track record. After they went live on the web, their stature climbed even further. One of the corner stones here is their free music archive which hosts roughly 45,000 songs available free as streaming or download and challenges those neer-do-wells over at Archive.org as best free music dumping ground. According to the station, it’s “a social music website built around a curated library of free, legal audio.”  In other words, you’re not going to get popped by the Feds for digging into their database.

But you’ll need to do that on your own time. What I want you to do right now is investigate one of their web satellite stations; they have three apparently (which, including their terrestrial stream, means they have four available stations, each different, each amazing in their own right…no, they’re not paying me to write this tripe…hell, the WFMU folks are so staunchly independent, they won’t take any underwriting); the one I want you to dial up and dive into is their “Rock ‘n Soul Ichiban” station. Why? Because it’s 24/7 obscure rockabilly, 60’s garage rock and soul. Not interesting enough? Well, hows about they toss in vintage commercials (movies, soft drinks, various concert adverts) and air checks from around the country. You can make believe it’s 1966 in your own living room or wherever the hell you’re hearing it. I mean, shucks, where else are you going to hear Johnny Ray Harris sing “Alligator Meat” or The Jay Jay’s pumpin' out “Shake It Some More” or the wonderful Nocturnals crying their pretty little eyes out in “Because You’re Gone”?

Mix it all together and you have a nice stream of gold flowing from the speakers straight into that membrane which separates your inner ear from your outer ear and which will slowly bleed for a good 36 hours if you accidentally jab it with a Q-tip or chopstick or twig or what have you.

So, there you go: one long-winded screed about a radio station which you may or may not enjoy. What with the Holidays approaching, you're gonna want some kinda distraction, something to do while avoiding your ex-spouse or friends or fruitcake-bearing neighbors at your windswept door who want to know if you'd like to hear a carol or two. Well, you don't. You want to listen to WFMU.




ARTICLE, MUSIC

Humble Pie - The Sad Bag Of Shakey Jake

 

On Christmas night in 1895 St. Louis, Lee Shelton (also known as "Stagger Lee") shot and murdered Billy Lyons after a dispute over Lee's hat. Sure, it was just another night it for that era, but this particular homicide quickly made the rounds via word-of-mouth; from local newspaper reports, to re-told eyewitness accounts in hushed tones and finally morphing into legend. Why this particular crime became so famous is anybody's guess, both men were black, both were part of various criminal elements. The story made its way into the imaginations of black laborers who identified with the inherent struggle and turned into a filed holler as a way to make their backbreaking work a bit more tolerable, if not more meaningful. Once a folk story is accepted by the African American community, there's no stopping it from becoming part of the fabric of the country and, in this particular case, "Stagger Lee" became one of the most famous American Folk Songs. As the years ticked by, more and more musicians became fascinated with the tale and made their own versions; up through generations it rose and, by some estimates, over two hundred musicians, bands and balladeers have since recorded versions of the song. This simple tale has become part of the American double-helix with the basic story never changing. As the Depression seeped in, actual, real-in-the-flesh, working-class anti-heroes became popular figures to the struggling citizens. Typically, each one had at least one song re-telling their respective take: Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger and Bonnie And Clyde and Shakey Jake. Wait, what?  

Fresh out of the popular English group, Small Faces, Steve Marriott was writing songs for his new project, a band destined for greatness called Humble Pie with drummer Jerry Shirley, bassist Greg Ridley and a young Peter Frampton sharing guitar and vocal duties. One of the very first songs he wrote was not too far away from "Stagger Lee" or any of the subsequent depression-era folk ballads. Even with Marriott's already proven track record of quality songwriting and his admiration of American country music taken into consideration, the song's depth still impresses and has the simplicity and directness which can be found in all great folk songs or tales. Without knowing the background of the song's author, one could be led to believe "Shakey Jake" is an actual legend dating back generations, told around campfires or in country-crossing automobiles between two people passing the time, exchanging stories. It's bar room talk, a legend passed down from Elder to Junior. 

Whether the legend of Stagger Lee was a direct influence on Steve Marriott has never really been proven or, for that matter, even questioned, but it does seem likely (his protagonist in this song bears no relation to the Ann Harbor, Michigan street musician of the same name nor the Chicago bluesman Shakey Jake Harris). Marriott was smart enough to not overwrite and kept it to a simple story of one man's mistake eventually leading him to a hopeful but undetermined ending. A shooting (accidental?) kills one man and puts another on the run. As all great folk legends, the protagonist here is pursued by some version of authority; in this case, "Texas Rangers", thus putting the action deep into America, deep into cowboy territory and, therefore, deep into that fantastical world so appealing to the imagination of  young kids; even a young boy growing up in London, far from the Texas plains. Marriott was smart enough keep his anti-hero simple and convincing. 

From what can be determined, "Shakey Jake" is one of the earliest songs the band wrote, showing up in their earliest set lists. The version here was recorded a year after its creation while the band was making an appearance on the popular German TV show, Beat Club. Undoubtedly the result of constant touring, the band has tightened -up the song, it's crunchier, leaner and has lost the vague sense of laziness of the original. With Marriott, Frampton and Ridley each taking vocal parts, the song's depth is increased; while the voice of the protagonist shifts with different voices and verse, the perspective remains the same. Add to that Marriott's tasty, Little Walter-styled harmonica part and you have yourself one amazingly compact song. These charming aspects were soon overrun by the band’s shift into a harder-hitting, arena filling Rock Machine sound which carried them for the next handful of years until their break-up. “The Sad Bag Of Shakey Jake" quickly became a memory of times since past, much like the song’s protagonist himself. 











MUSIC

Mew - Introducing Palace Players

Remember these guys? I'm not really sure why I dusted them off today, but behold! — a wicked guitar riff. Seems like trends move so quickly nowadays that the time is ripening for golden-age-of-buzz-bands nostalgia. Which is sort of the snake eating its own tail, if you think about it. Think about it long and hard. HARDER!

MUSIC

Master of the Runaround

If there’s any artist who doesn’t really need any press, it’s Bob Dylan. This guy hasn’t really needed to rely on any press in fifty years. Dylan, who recently turned 73, had a ridiculous amount of notoriety thrust upon him early in his career. In fact, the press courted him almost from the beginning. Everyone wanted to know what he had to say even about even the most innocuous of subjects — a fasciation that continues to this day. His mastery of words, his ever-evolving carousel of musical directions and that voice.  

In return for our thirst, Dylan has given us five decades of worthy material to over-analyze. As a performer, there are thousands of shows to his name (many that can easily be classified as historic)  two of which happened within a year of each other: Newport, July 25, 1965, and Manchester, May 17, 1966. However, some of his greatest performances haven’t been on a stage in front of thousands of people, but, rather, in small rooms (or on a bus or in a radio station or on the phone) in front of one or maybe two dozen people answering questions. A lot of questions. Everyone has something to ask the guy, but doesn’t often give straight answers. He plays the interview game as he plays the songwriting game: never drawing a straight line, hardly offering a dull moment. Dylan turns interviews into theater. 

The varying degrees of entertainment and oddity in these performances (interviews) depend on who’s asking the questions and who may be listening. For example, the grumpy, older reporter from Time (as seen in the documentary of his 1965 English tour Don’t Look Back) draws out a different Dylan than, say, the heavily lauded jazz critic Nat Hentoff. The former drew out a notorious and brilliant confrontation, while the latter brought a quaint chat session. Even in interviews, Dylan keeps everyone guessing and handles the situation as he sees fit. 

So, in celebration of Dylan’s 73rd year, we’ve chronicled a few of his greatest interviews/performances — and given descriptions of each. Pull up a seat, put on some headphones, and enjoy.

Interview 1 

Date: March 12, 1962

Location: WBAI radio, New York City

Interviewer: Cynthia Gooding, “Folksinger’s Choice” radio program

Stand-out Quote: “Actually, I wrote a song once ‘bout this lady I knew in the carnival…”

Synopsis: Only 20 years old here, baby-faced Dylan was already in good form, confident, and convincing as he told folksinger/activist interviewer Gooding about traveling with carnivals as a youth a fact that ended up being total fiction, but who was to know? Because he was so young in his career, there was nothing to really talk about besides influences, so maybe he figured: why not make it a little more interesting by spinning a few tall tales? Even at this young age, he was already a better talker than most of his peers and Gooding couldn’t get enough him.

 

Interview 2

Date: December 3, 1965

Location: KQED TV Studios, San Francisco

Interviewer: Various

Stand-out Quote: “Good God, I must leave right away.”

Synopsis: This was perhaps the beginning of Dylan’s uneasiness with the press (or simply with just answering questions) and was the debut of his patented “non-answers.” Even before the first question was asked (by a laser-eyed, intense, creepy fellow), Dylan mannerisms showed he was looking for a way out fidgety in his chair, shifty-eyed, hiding behind his hand, chain smoking, etc. 

At the time of this press conference, Dylan had already “gone electric” at that year’s Newport Folk Festival, and, in doing so, had isolated many early fans while earning more notoriety and public debates than even the best PR person could drum up. He was also in the midst of recording his first masterpiece (or was it his third?), Blonde on Blonde. He was sitting pretty and he knew it. When asked, jokingly, which commercial interests he’d consider selling out to, Dylan answered: “ladies garments,” to much laughter. Forty odd years later, he did just that by appearing in and donating his ghostly “Lovesick” to a Victoria Secret commercial. 

 

Interview 3

Date: January, 1966

Location: WBAI Radio, New York City 

Interviewer: Boss Fass / various callers, “Radio Unnameable” program

Stand-out quote: “Oh my God, man; hey no, he don’t understand. Hey, all these people hey, hey, listen, I don’t know who this is, I’m not even going to ask your name, that’s how much I think of you…”

Synopsis: Although 1966 found Dylan active as a performer for only six months (a July motorcycle took him out of the public eye for two years), some of his best interviews happened in that short space of time. Dylan and company stumbled into WBAI’s studios for Bob Faas’s free-form late-night radio show where he and Fass snickered, talked over and spared with callers, and generally didn’t answer questions. Recorded only a month after the San Francisco press conference embedded above, Dylan’s attitude in this interview was completely different. Seems that a few late nights in the studio put The Maestro in a blurry, surreal mood — a mood that the more adventurous callers dared to complain about. 

Interview 4

Date: mid-1986

Location: Dylan’s trailer on the set of the film Hearts Of Fire, Hamilton, Canada

Interviewer: Christopher Sykes

Stand-out Quote: “I’m nobody’s puppet and nobody pulls my strings.”

Synopsis: Although the 70’s were a fertile interview time Dylan, his interviews in the mid-80’s were more accessible. Here is the first of a four-part conversation made for the BBC’s acclaimed series, Omnibus. Sykes refused to be thrown off by Dylan’s verbal hiding and remained patient while keeping up the pace. For his part, Dylan sketched a portrait of the Sykes instead of using his typical forms of aversion. Still, he was in great spirits (confrontational as well as good humored) and gave some amazingly candid responses. Plus, he laughed a lot here and, let’s be honest: when Bob Dylan laughs, so does the world. (Be sure to watch part four of this series where is the best as he interacts and jokes around with the locals outside his trailer including a wrestler named “Grizzly.”) 

Interview 5

Date: May 24, 1986

Location: WBAI studios, NYC, on the phone from an undisclosed location

Interviewer: Bob Fass, Robert Knight, and some cheesy radio guy with a thick Brooklyn accent, “Radio Unnameable” program

Stand-out Quote: “I’m talkin’ on the radio here, but it’s just silence.”

Synopsis: Twenty years after their notorious interview, Dylan is back with Bob Fass. This time, however, it’s Fass and company who are on the receiving end of Dylan’s shut-down, non-answers. Try as they would to hold a discussion, they ended up with perhaps the most awkward conversation in Dylan’s interview history. It’s up for debate whether he just didn’t want to talk or was doing some professional mind-messing here as he allowed long pauses, talked over follow-up questions and interrupted at will. Adding to this hilarious train-wreck was Fass’s low-voiced, ass-kissing and downright pervy mannerisms, which sounded way too private for public broadcast. While everyone was virtually tripping over themselves to apply credit to Dylan, Fass came off as if trying for something more romantic. There were at least three times when it seemed the interview was wrapping up, but it kept going. Of all people, one would think the radio veteran Fass would know when to quit, but he continually stepped into the same verbal traps he helped set twenty years earlier. It’s an embarrassing but wildly entertaining half-hour.

Interview 6

Date: July, 2001

Location: A small room in Rome, Italy

Interviewer: Various Romans

Stand-out Quote: “You’ve been dancing all morning? I’m sorry about that.”

Synopsis: Two-thousand one found Dylan at the beginning of yet another surge of creativity. Here, he was doing press for his stunning Love And Theft LP, which was released two months later. The easy-going, jovial Dylan was in command of the situation and spoke with authority while still not really answering questions. The reporters remained on point throughout by mostly keeping clear of The Legacy. Not surprisingly, Dylan was far more interested in talking about the present than the past. When one tried to quote a lyric in order to back up his question, Dylan humorously challenged the reporter’s accuracy yet no one, not even the songwriter, knew which line was correct. In this enjoyable interview, he had them in the palm of his hand but didn’t crush ‘em. 

These are only a handful of Dylan's raucous interviews that probably make fans even more enamored with the Legend. So, if you just gotta have more, hop on over to Youtube for hours + of fascination. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUSIC

The Brogues - Don't Shoot Me Down

Was ever a garunge rock band so garungey? On compilation-classic "I Ain't No Miracle Worker," the fellas kicked your dog in the ribs, then translated its primal yawp to musical form. But wait, there's more! If you flip that hardened puddle of wax to the B-side, you'll find "Don't Shoot Me Down," a gunked-up explosion of fuzz and snot and spit.

MUSIC, WEIRD

Dawn Black - the snake and the rising of the stag

Dawn Black makes these evocative collage paintings. In this one, someone wearing one of those creepy red Spanish inquisition hoods holds what looks like a California king snake over the shoulders of a bejeweled soldier to whom a young man who looks like a slave from ancient Rome tips a stag head.

In medieval folklore/allegory, stags and snakes are enemies. Says the Medieval Bestiary, "When the stag discovers a snake, it spits water into the hole where the snake hides, draws the snake out with its breath, and tramples it to death. If the stag is ill or old, it draws the snake out of hiding and swallows it. The stag then finds water and drinks large amounts of it to overcome the poison, and is renewed. When the stag is renewed it sheds its horns. Some say that the stag cures its ills by eating crabs it finds in the water."

Allegorically, the stag is supposed to represent Christ who is renewed (and renews others) when he and they shed their horns (e.g. sins) after drinking water. And eating crabs. I hope that's what is going to happen here, but one cannot be too sure. Hm. many thoughts. much inquisition. wow. such snake. peligro gallows. so crabs.  

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MUSIC

The Astronauts / The Trashmen

Most surf bands were huge phonies (NOT DICK DALE, NEVER, EVER, SO SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH!), but land-locked groups like The Astronauts (Colorado) and The Trashmen (Minnesota) took it to a new level. Aww hell, who am I to tell these boys they can't have a surf party? Perhaps the TRUE surf party is in the mind of the partier—as long as the mind has cleared out all distractions, all music theory, and all non-party desires, surfness can take one over completely, an endless summer of lapping waves from womb-to-tomb / birth-to-earth / sperm-to-worm, etc.

ARTICLE, MUSIC

The Sound Of Boundaries Breaking

This past March, Sony/Legacy released Miles At The Fillmore, a four CD set of Miles Davis’s run of shows at the Fillmore East from June 17 – 20th, 1970 and three songs from a Fillmore West show on April 11th of that same year. In the blur of our hyper-reactionary, oversaturated musical culture, this release has been quickly passed over. That’s a shame. Let’s explore its significance.

The seeds of the performances on At the Fillmore (and their residual historical value) date back to Davis’s 1965 record, E.S.P., which started moving Davis’s music subtly into new territory until he really started raising eyebrows with the release of In A Silent Way (1969) that put electric instruments (guitar and piano) at the forefront of his music.  

Then came the watershed moment with Bitches Brew in April of 1970. With its long tracks (only six titles spread across two albums), multiple instrumentalists (two bassist, three drummers, a percussionist) and Davis’s own aggressive playing, Bitches Brew scared and angered the jazz cognoscenti who lambasted him in the press as a sellout. Worse still, they thought, Bitches Brew showed Davis was moving into the much maligned Free Jazz movement. None of this was true. However, for all the people the record isolated, it gained perhaps as many new coverts.

Anyone who knew about the trumpeter’s absolute contempt for being pigeonholed shouldn’t have been surprised at this shift in direction. Additionally, he had been playing some of this material live a good year before the record’s release. Yet, it’s often difficult for fans and critics of any genre to wrap their heads around a new direction. And, for some reason, jazz fans (be them purists or critics) have been known to be unusually reluctant to adapt.

At the same time Davis was moving his jazz further, the genre itself was quickly losing popularity to rock. No one was wiser to this than Davis. Through the mid 60’s, his “second great quintet” was part of the jazz vanguard mixing minimalism and modal concepts (instead of chord progressions). Though they were one of the greatest of the era, they played to ever-dwindling paying customers as the decade wore on.

So, of all the 20th Century jazz musicians, who better than Miles Davis to investigate rock instead of ignoring it—to shrewdly react with instead of against? Under the influence of his soon-to-be second wife, Betty Mabry (who would also release three fantastic funk LPs as Betty Davis), Miles turned his attention to rock and funk bands. He soaked up their ideas and fed these new influences into his own craft to create a completely new form of jazz, which is often referred to as Fusion or Jazz Rock. Bitches Brew was the result.

While a majority of the intelligentsia was thoroughly unimpressed, the kids loved it. His label, Columbia Records, quickly geared the marketing plan toward this new audience and took out advertisements for the LP in Rolling Stone as well as the jazz bible, Down Beat. Instead of playing clubs, Davis was to appear at festivals and venues normally frequented by rock bands.   

Which brings us to how Davis came to play the Fillmores. Bill Graham, proprietor of both Fillmores, liked to mix genre on his bills—give the kids some vegetables before dessert (in this case Davis shared the bill with Laura Nyro for the June Fillmore East dates and Grateful Dead and Stone the Crows for the April Fillmore West gigs). These shows were likely the bands’ fans first live exposure to Davis. Many in attendance thought Davis would serenade them with the cool jazz their parents listened to. Far from it. The combined effect of rock and funk along with Davis’s love for modern classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen created music far from that heard on, say, his seminal 1959 album, Kind Of Blue.

Davis’s band at this point was made up of Dave Holland playing bass, Steve Grossman handling horn duties, Jack DeJohnette drumming, and Airto Moreira fooling around with exotic percussion. Add to this mix two keyboardists: Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, both of whom were filling the gaps with amazingly adroit tapestries. Corea invented brilliant textures by using a ring modulator, which turned his notes into electronic noise. Each night these men played almost the same set without breaking between songs (each night sounding different from the other as per the usual non-structure of improvised music). The show was one giant blanket of sound falling over the dumbfounded heads of all those in attendance. It was the future.

Yes sir, them dirty, stinking hippies ate it up; a rapturous applause followed each show and, in the case of the Grateful Dead, headlining bands shit their pants (not literally) having been put in the amazingly unlikely position of following the legendary musician. As Dead bassist Phil Lesh would later remember:

“As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking: ‘What’s the use? How can we possibly play after this? We should go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.’ With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. Of all of us, only Jerry [Garcia] had the nerve to go back and meet Miles [who] was surprised and delighted to know we knew and loved his music; apparently other rockers he’d shared the stage with didn’t know or care.”

Originally, the tapes of these four shows were taken into the studio and heavily edited by Davis’s longtime producer, Teo Macero, and released as a single LP: At the Fillmore in December. Now, over forty years later, At the Fillmore gives another example of Davis’ already immense musical stature.

Because we have the luxury of hindsight, we can see that Davis quickly moved on even from these groundbreaking shows. In fact, they were fairly benign in comparison to what he had coming in down the pike. Yet, the importance of Miles At The Fillmore cannot be understated; this is a fantastic document of changing times, the sound of a line drawn in the sand.

For most musicians, iconoclastic creative achievements are a lucky ending point to a career. For Miles Davis, it was just another beginning in a career of many beginnings. During the next five years (until his brief retirement from 1976-1981), Miles pushed his music and challenged those willing to listen. He revolved musicians in and out of the band, looked for fresh talent, and experimented with different instrumentations (including drum machines by 1973). He stretched his music into ropes of experimental wonder until it was no longer jazz, but simply Miles Davis music. For those willing to follow him on this new journey, the sky was the limit.

Not all were willing. This crowd included an elderly gentleman who strolled by one afternoon while the trumpeter sat on the steps of his New York City apartment building on West 77th Street.

The elderly man stopped him: “Miles Davis, you’re my man!” he exclaimed. “But this new shit you’re into, I just can’t get with it.”

Miles Davis turned to him: “Should I wait for you, motherfucker?”

MUSIC

Jacqueline Taïeb | Le Cœur Au Bout Des Doigts

Here's a swingin' track from Jacqueline Taïeb, one of those yé-yé girls who finds a brief resurgence every now and then, most recently after Francoise Hardy appeared on the Moonrise Kingdom soundtrack. This one sounds more like Ocean's Eleven / Mark Ronson. I dig the delay on the horns, and the singing is smooth and confident. Am I in love, or is it tinnitus?

MUSIC

Betty Davis | Don't Call Her No Tramp

 
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Here's another kinky jam from the olden days. Phunk/phashion diva Betty Davis was briefly married to Miles, but apparently she was "too wild" for him. Larry Graham is all over her first album, and there's plenty of Sly-ed out rollin' and thumpin' on this track from They Say I'm Different, her second. Frantic clavinet courtesy of Tony Vaughn. Light In the Attic dusted these off a few years ago, just piling up more gems in their excellent catalogue. Righteous proto-Parliament-via-Bowie cover art on this one as well. Dig in, folks!

MUSIC

Cher | I Walk On Guilded Splinters

When you think "voodoo-funk diva," you probably don't think of Cher. And you probably shouldn't, with the one exception of this marvelous cover of The Gris-Gris Man himself, Dr. John. This song resides on "3614 Jackson Highway," where Cher was backed by the hot-n-sweaty Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Listen to this while making dark love, getting into trouble with some masked friends, or driving alone through a field of tall grass.