Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: “Little Demon” (Okeh 4-7072, 1956)
A little Halloween mayhem for you on this October 31st.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, his band, and their engineer were all raging drunk when they recorded this, which was originally released as the b-side to his million-selling breakthrough “I Put A Spell On You.” They were drunk recording “Spell,” too. This was fortuitous, because Hawkins had been a pretty average blues singer up to that point, and these two weird songs they came out of the session with remade him in a completely new mold. He added “Screamin’” to his stage name, and the rest is, well, you know.
Screamin’ Jay went on to have a long, fruitful, and totally bizarre career, making records to varying degrees as wild as this one. He also went on to father a legendary, and still undetermined, number of children out wedlock. They even had a reunion in 2001.
The Miracles: “The Tracks Of My Tears” (Tamla T 54118, 1965)
I just heard this morning that Marv Tarplin, longtime guitarist for the Miracles, and later for Smokey Robinson during his solo career, passed away at the end of September. A memorial service was held in Detroit today.
Tarplin’s a guy that’s been overlooked through the years—sure, he sang and played guitar for a very popular group, but very few people know that he co-wrote a lot of those hits with Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracle Warren “Pete” Moore.
"The Tracks Of My Tears" is one of the ones he co-wrote. He was playing along with a recording of Harry Belafonte’s "The Banana Boat Song" one day—he had it playing at 33 1/3 rpm instead of 45—and as he fiddled around with it, the figure that you hear at the very beginning of the song came to him. Turn it up and listen to it—it’s a lovely bit of playing that a lot of people aren’t familiar with because of the way they’ve been exposed to this song, hearing it over public PAs, or faded out of something else on oldies radio. You notice it when it gets to the first chorus, not from the gentle guitar intro onward.
It’s a lovely bit of playing, and sets up the basic ingredients of the whole song in a few bars. Follow it through the song if you can; he’s doing a lot of nice filling in, and shadows the melody all the way through. It’s an interesting exercise to train yourself to listen to the guitar parts on Miracles records—we’re so used to focusing on the voices, and especially Smokey’s voice that it often doesn’t even register what the mix of instruments is back there.
Robinson has said in interviews that it took him days to come up with any lyrics for the melody Tarplin supplied him with, and even then all he came up with was, “take a good look at my face/look closer, it’s easy to trace,” but he didn’t figure out what was being traced until the following week.
Tarplin was happy standing in the shadows while Smokey got famous, and he stuck with his friend for literally decades, finally retiring from touring in 2008, when he was 67.
Peter Gabriel: “Solsbury Hill” (Peter Gabriel (car cover—1st solo LP), 1977)
Yesterday’s Cold Cassette, for your reference. Funny that both “Solsbury Hill” and the main title from The X-Files are on that tape. If you don’t get the connection, let me explain:
Back in the 90s, The X-Files was one of my favorite shows. I lost interest in those last few seasons when the conspiracy arcs took over everything and the actors started changing, but for its first few seasons, the show was one of the best on TV. It had just enough of the lurking conspiracy/aliens stuff to keep you on your toes, but it was centered around two very well-developed, compelling characters with a complex, nuanced relationship, and offered a lot of great chills for a Friday (later Sunday) night.
One of the show’s signatures was the cold open. You’d be treated to some sort of scene where something spooky, gross, tantalizing or just plain freaky happened, and it was always written tightly with a nice little stamp on it. Then, Mark Snow’s creepy theme with the sampled whistling and echoing piano would play, and the atmosphere of the episode was sealed. It was a great set-up.
Recently, I’ve found some old X-Files episodes online, and I’ve been watching them when I need mental health breaks. And I’ve found that it is virtually always hilarious to mute the X-Files theme and replace it with “Solsbury Hill” after the cold open. The disconnect in tone is absurd and always amusing.
There’s also a disconnect in tone between the song and the music Gabriel had just been making in Genesis, the band he’d sung for since the late 60s and only recently left. His last album with the group was The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, a dark, weird double concept LP that would have been hard to follow had he stayed in the band.
"Solsbury Hill" is a sharp turn away from the darkness and murk of Lamb. It’s ebullient, assured, celebratory. Gabriel has freed himself, creatively, and though he sounds a few notes of uncertainty, it’s clear there’s no looking back.
It didn’t represent a totally clean break from Genesis. The song is mostly in 7/4, and its b-side, “Moribund the Burgermeister” has much more the feel of Lamb, and the rest of his solo debut LP is more tangled and proggy. It was, however, the beginning of something new for Gabriel. This is the moment of his transformation into a pop star.
I’ve been offline today, but meaning to write a little tribute to Bert Jansch, who, together with Steve Jobs and Fred Shuttlesworth, made yesterday a hell of a day for loss.
Jansch was probably best known for his work in the band Pentangle, which was second only to Fairport Convention in the British progressive folk movement that also gave rise to Steeleye Span, Fresh Maggots, Agincourt, Mellow Candle, Strawbs (who went their own way), and Comus. In that band, he and guitarist Jon Renbourn did some amazing stuff together.
This is Jansch before Pentangle was a band, playing lead over Renbourn. “Henry Martin” is a pretty unassuming instrumental, but it does give us a good, long glimpse at what made Jansch a special guitarist. In my opinion, the most stunning single song on which to hear Jansch do his thing is Pentangle’s 18-minute version of “Jack Orion,” from the Cruel Sister LP, but that’s a little long to post here. Do seek it out, though.
From 1967 through 1972, Pink Floyd recorded a lot of songs that they never included in their live show. In fact, with the exception of a few interesting shows at the very beginning of 1970, their set list in 1970 and 1971 basically consisted of the same handful of songs: “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” “Embryo,” “Atom Heart Mother” “A Saucerful of Secrets,” “Interstellar Overdrive,” “Echoes,” “Cymbaline,” “Fat Old Sun,” “Set The Controls For The Heart Of the Sun,” blues jams in the encore, and (early on) occasional appearances of “Green Is the Colour.” Later, “One Of These Days” got worked in. They played “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” a few times, too.
Meddle is largely regarded, by both the band and observers, to be the album where the band got it together and pointed itself in the direction of masterworks like Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. I think their stabbing about in the dark prior to Meddle was fruitful and produced a lot of excellent music, but it really does seem to have more of a vision than, say, its predecessor, 1970’s Atom Heart Mother.
If there’s a definitive Pink Floyd song, it’s “Echoes,” and “One Of These Days” is one of the strangest things ever to worm its way into the classic rock pantheon, but the four songs in between the two are also interesting. “Seamus” is maybe a throwaway, but the jazz-pop of “San Tropez” and the gentle acoustic rock of “Fearless” are among the band’s best under-the-radar songs.
I think they both pale next to “A Pillow Of Winds,” though. There is something about this song that always drew me in. It was written as a direct reaction to “One Of these Days,” which is probably the most intense song the band ever did—they were looking for a cool-down track. David Gilmour layers a few guitars, including a beautiful slide part that plays behind his vocal.
The song has some unexpected harmonic shifts that I think make it more enveloping. In the middle, it switches form E Major to E Minor, and modulates back after Nick Mason starts keeping time on the hi-hat. It’s one of the only songs in Pink Floyd’s whole catalog that could reasonably be called a love song, though even it is not very direct about its subject matter, preferring more oblique language.
Really, I think what I love most about the song is that its shape never really solidifies. The bass and slide guitar never settle into patterns—it’s all this sort of gooey, slippery weirdness that’s also not particularly melodic. Rick Wright’s organ hangs in the back, adding nothing more than a bit of color.
I get why they never tried to play it on stage—it seems as though it would very difficult to adapt to a live setting, though loosely structured songs that could expand and contract as necessary were basically the band’s specialty for a few years. I’m actually happy to have “A Pillow Of Winds” isolated on side one of Meddle, providing a mirror image to “One Of These Days,” occupying a quiet and enigmatic place in the band’s catalog.
"A Pillow Of Winds" does in fact rise up out of the wind sound effects at the end of "One Of These Days," but the phrase actually refers to a possible Mahjong hand—Mason and Waters often played Mahjong with their wives.
Blue Öyster Cult: “Burnin’ For You” (Fire Of Unknown Origin, 1981)
Blue Öyster Cult (don’t forget the umlaut!) occupy a strange space in the classic rock pantheon. They were very popular, but only had a tiny handful of hits, the three biggest of which were all written or co-written and sung by guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. I have no idea what the creative dynamics were like in the band, but it almost makes you wonder why he wasn’t their principle singer and songwriter.
I think it has something to do with the way the band operated in general. the band wasn’t formed in the conventional way, with people meeting and deciding to play together. They were brought together by Sandy Pearlman, who became their manager, in 1967 under the name Soft White Underbelly. That name was dropped after a bad review.
The band was redubbed Blue Öyster Cult after a line in Pearlman’s poem “Imaginos”—the Blue Oyster Cult (no umlaut) in the poem is a group of superintelligent aliens who guide the course of humanity. Depending on who you ask, the superfluous umlaut was either the suggestion of keyboardist Allen Lanier or rock critic Richard Meltzer, the latter of whom would go on to write lyrics for several Blue Öyster Cult songs, including “Burnin’ For You.”
That work with outside songwriters was another thing that made Blue Öyster Cult odd—in the 70s, the idea of the self-contained band became very important. Bands were expected to write everything themselves in addition to performing it. Here was a pivotal American hard rock band that didn’t do all its own writing, was guided by an impresario and didn’t have a front man to focus on.
They made some great albums—it’s funny to think of Meltzer, one of the most well-known critics of his day, being so involved with the band, in part because all the references to aliens, literature, “psychic warfare,” astronomy, ghosts, and the power of rock and roll in the band’s music are exactly the kind of thing critics came to deride in the post-punk era.
Not that all that derision was necessarily warranted (and hell, they were a pretty big influence on a lot of punk bands as well as metal bands), but it is where the conversation went. 1981’s Fire Of Unknown Origin is stuffed with all that subject matter. The fire of the title appears to be a UFO that abducts the singer’s girlfriend, for instance.
"Burnin’ For You" is a much more conventional lust song, though. I have always loved the harmonized guitar part that opens the song, followed by that lead part and strange drum pattern. It’s sort of a power pop song with a heavy emphasis on the power. Roeser’s lead guitar throughout the song is great—I love the way it threads through the final verse.
I picked up a bunch of their albums recently, and while I wouldn’t say any of them are perfect, the band was worth a revisit for sure. They had a certain fun with hard rock that it seems like so few other bands ever did. I don’t exactly how aware they were of how over-the-top a lot of their work was, but I suspect they knew pretty well and decided to roll with it.